We have grown so used to reading despondent pieces about the collapse in support for the Conservative party in Scotland and the cities of northern England that we forget about Wales. For Wales does not fit this pattern of decline. It has seen a Conservative revival.
David Jones, Secretary of State for Wales, began by making an elementary point which is often overlooked: “Wales is so different from Scotland. A lot of people conflate Wales and Scotland, but quite wrongly. Wales for example has got 50 per cent of its population living within 25 miles of the border, whereas within Scotland I think only about four per cent of the population live within 25 miles of the border. So Wales and England are far more mutually dependent than England and Scotland are.”
In the Labour landslide of 1997, the Tories were wiped out in Wales, and at the next general election, in 2001, they failed to regain so much as a single one of its 40 seats.
But in 2005 the Welsh Conservatives won three seats, in 2010 they increased that to eight and in 2015 they hope to make further gains. And they have done this in part by remaining socially conservative, expressing the views of Conservative party members and of the wider public rather than of the Cameroon hierarchy.
Jones was one of only two Cabinet ministers – the other was Owen Paterson – to vote against the same-sex marriage bill. All eight Welsh Conservatives voted against it.
Not that Jones sounds in the slightest bit rebellious. His manner is polite, self-effacing, ready to be amused, but firm in defence of what he believes to be right. His biography on the Conservatives’ website says he is “well-known in North Wales and Cheshire as a public speaker”. He speaks Welsh, and does not believe Wales is natural Labour territory: “There is a huge amount of self-reliance as part of the Welsh character. People in Wales are not natural socialists.”
When asked about the Conservatives’ difficulty about being seen as a party of the rich, he replied: “It is not the case in Wales. Wales is not a rich part of the world. The Conservative party in the part of the world I come from is largely a party of small business people, people who understand the importance of standing on their own feet, people who value education, people who have a strong belief in family and community, and certainly the characterisation of the Conservative party as the party of the rich is not one I think is valid anywhere, but certainly not in Wales.”
The Tory cause in Wales is helped by the appalling mess Labour has made since 1999 of running the devolved government in Cardiff – a point on which Peter Hoskin, of ConHome, and Toby Young have recently commented in the national press. I asked Jones why things in Wales have become so bad relative to England in both health and education.
Jones replied: “The pat answer is because they’re still unreconstructed socialists. Wales deserves better than an unambitious, backward-looking Welsh government that is rooted in the 1970s. In terms of health they’ve adopted a monolithic top-down model.”
He pointed out that the recent PISA figures on educational attainment have shown Wales “very much at the bottom of the pile, and well below the rest of the UK, again because you’ve got a top-down model – you haven’t got the Gove reforms.
“And what worries me is that there is an increasing trend in Wales to be exceptionalist, to do something the Welsh way because we need – and this is always the mantra – we need Welsh solutions to Welsh problems, even though the problems are usually indistinguishable from English problems. So in education you’ve got the proposed introduction of different qualifications, and the big worry among Welsh educationalists is that you will end up with people leaving school with qualifications which will not be readily portable.”
Labour has betrayed the Welsh tradition of high-quality education: “Bear in mind that Wales has always been poorer than England, but education was always regarded as the way the bright young Welsh girl or boy could escape, and that’s why in Wales great teachers and the teaching profession have always been highly regarded.” Jones, born to Welsh-speaking parents in 1952, was educated at Ruabon grammar school, after which he read law at University College London, after which he returned to North Wales, qualified as a solicitor and set up his own legal practice in Llandudno.
Education does not end the catalogue of Labour failure. Jones observed that devolution, which should have been used “to give Wales a competitive advantage”, has done the opposite: “Sadly they’ve used devolution to impose more regulations on Wales, so economically they’ve done their best to deter people from relocating in Wales, which is a huge pity, because traditionally Wales used to do much better than other parts of the UK for inward investment. It had the Welsh Development Agency, which was very enterprising. It was staffed by business people who understood Welsh business and it just got on with it.
“They’ve got a law which requires all new properties to be fitted with sprinkler systems. It is ridiculous. It is actually putting people off developing. For example, Persimmon Homes recently announced they were pulling out of a whole area of south Wales because the regulation was such it no longer made it economical to build there. And we had some figures recently from Knight Frank which showed that a 1,000 square foot house in Wales would cost £13,000 more to build than one in England, as a consequence of regulation.” The number of home starts in England is rising, while in Wales it is falling.
It could all be different. The Silk Commission has proposed that the Welsh Assembly should be allowed, subject to a referendum, to vary the rate of income tax. As Jones says: “I’ve urged the Welsh Assembly and Government to be bold and to go for an early referendum and in campaigning for a yes vote to indicate that they would go for a reduced rate of tax in Wales.”
All this leaves the Conservatives, who have historically been the second party in Wales, with the opportunity to win more seats there. Jones himself stood in Conwy in 1997 and Chester (almost a Welsh seat) in 2001, before winning Clwyd West in 2005.
One reason for the deplorable English ignorance of Welsh politics is that many of us have never quite got to grips with names such as Clwyd, a county formed in 1972 by merging Flintshire with most of Denbighshire. The great columnist Alan Watkins, who was of Welsh upbringing, felt able to point out that many people did not know where these new places were.
In A Conservative Coup, his account of the overthrow of Margaret Thatcher by her own MPs, he wrote of Sir Anthony Meyer, who was the first Tory to stand against her:
He was a rich, vague, handsome baronet whose manner was at once diffident and self-assured. He sat for Clwyd in North Wales, which used to be Flintshire West until the Welsh-language-crazed boundary commissioners managed to lay their hands on it. He had previously sat for Eton and Slough. When he was offered Clwyd he thought it was in Scotland.”
In his maiden speech in 2005, Jones referred unfavourably to the “Hampstead thinkers” who banned fox hunting without showing the slightest respect for people in the rural parts of Clwyd. The then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was at this time stressing the importance of respect.
Clwyd also includes a more heavily developed coastal strip, where at a council meeting later today, the fate of the pier at Colwyn Bay will be determined. Jones fears the pier will be lost, but as a pragmatic Conservative, refuses to demand that it be kept at all costs:
“I just think it’s awful. I think the council very probably will decide to demolish the pier. It would cost about £15 million to restore. But there are some important paintings there by an artist called Eric Ravilious. His only two known murals are behind wallpaper on the pier. So whatever happens they’ve got to rescue those. The sea front in Colwyn Bay is very beautiful and we’ve now got this thing in the middle which looks like Brazilian favela on stilts. We can’t have it continuing to disfigure the sea front.”
Is British politics now confronted by a Clwyd West question, along the lines of the as yet unanswered West Lothian question? The latter conundrum refers to the unfairness of Scottish MPs being able to vote on various matters in England which English MPs cannot vote on in Scotland.
Jones replied in a calm tone: “We need to look at McKay as a starting point. We need to develop McKay as the basis of a debate on resolving this issue.”
The McKay Commission has proposed that legislation affecting only England should require the support of a majority of English MPs.
Jones agreed that his Anglican faith informs his politics: “I think everybody’s religious belief should inform his politics, you can’t really separate it from what you are.” But this made his next remark more surprising. On being asked whether he is a fan of Quentin Tarantino (I had heard an implausible rumour to this effect), he replied with evident enthusiasm:
“Huge. Extraordinarily enough, I am actually in the process of re-viewing Pulp Fiction on my iPad. I ration myself to 15 minutes of it every evening before I go to sleep. I think Tarantino’s a great director.”