As Andrew RT Davies and Nick Ramsay contest the leadership of the Welsh Conservatives, the time is long overdue for a critical look at that rare, exotic and hitherto unexamined beast, the Lesser Pin-Striped Welsh Tory.
These creatures, a sub-species of the British Tory, have all the characteristics of their overlords in England, plus a few quirks of their own. In other words they are callous, venal, cruel, selfish, self-centred, penny-pinching, sleazy, arrogant, reactionary, authoritarian, bigoted, racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, profoundly stupid, incapable of empathy or compassion, grovellers to the powerful, bullies of the weak and, above all else, chronically addicted to materialism and money. This much you would expect; they are, after all, just Tories.
In power at Westminster for 92 of the last 160 years (Liberals 35 years, Labour 33 years), the Conservative Party have more or less made the UK as we currently know it. Yes, it is they who are to blame. But it’s important to differentiate between the old Etonians, Hooray Henrys, multi-millionaires and moonlighting corporate gluttons who make up the Conservative leadership and the dim, deluded saps who comprise their voting fodder. In Wales, where the Tory brand has been toxic since the dawn of universal suffrage, only 25% or so ever vote for them. In lean times that falls as low as 15% and they are regularly wiped out winning not a single seat; in more fruitful periods (ie when memories of Labour in power in London are fresh) that can climb to 30%, and after the Blair/Brown years they are around that highwater mark now. As the Coalition’s criminal attempts to dismantle public services proceed (a long-held Tory dream – more lovely money in their pockets, see), you can expect the Tory vote in Wales to slump back to its usual levels. With its bone-marrow egalitarianism, instinctive collectivism and formative role in the development of socialism, trade unionism and the cooperative movement, Wales has the proud record of being the one and only European country never to have given a majority to the right-wing party in a parliamentary election, and there is no prospect of that changing. But that is not to diminish the importance and influence in every sphere of Welsh life of that stubborn 25%. Who, then, are these Tory Taffs?
Essentially they are the sickening petit-bourgeoisie, those hyper-individualised betrayers of the common good fixated on cars, holidays, personal grooming products and money and characterised by “nice” public personas cloaking not-in-front-of-the-neighbours hypocrisy and look-after-number-one calculation. Their speciality is the brazen double standard: in favour of unending growth and rapacious global capitalism, so long as their leafy suburban arcadia is exempt; happy for the working class to be ruled by sink-or-swim market forces, but jealous protectors of the many middle class perks, cartels, closed shops and ring-fenced unearned advantages; unforgiving and vengeful about poor peoples’ infractions, but soppy liberals when it comes to their own tax fiddles and cash-in-hand cons; moralistic judges of other people, while always ready to make an exception for their own deceitful adulteries and secret liaisons; insistent on their right to keep on accumulating and consuming, but militantly opposed to others doing it if means a traffic jam at the retail park; proud, patriotic Brits, yet strangely averse to mixing with any British people who are not exactly like themselves while barricaded from their beloved country behind electronic gates and security cameras; unbending traditionalists longing for a mythical past, unless there’s money to be made in which case the past is swept away without a qualm; and hostile to the very concept of Wales, but able to find it within themselves to snatch the well-paid jobs, stuff the quangos and commandeer the high offices that only exist due to there being a Wales.
It is that disastrous relationship with Wales that the Welsh Conservatives under Nick Bourne tried to alter post-devolution by replacing the time-worn outright contempt with emollient platitudes. But Bourne lost his regional list Assembly seat in the May election and neither Davies (unwilling) nor Ramsay (unable) will continue his strategy. Particularly if Davies wins, as seems probable, it will be back to business-as-usual after the Bourne blip.
This bullish blusterer operates according to a routine Tory folly: the notion that wealth itself signifies worth. The fact that his was inherited thanks to the family farm in the Vale of Glamorgan, requiring nothing more of Davies than to be born, is not the point. Even if he’d worked his way up from the gutter to gain his farm, he would be no more worthy of admiration, and perhaps far less, than a minimum-wage farm hand. But to a Tory like Davies having lots of money is enough to signify superiority and Hyacinth Bucket “respectability”, while the flip side of this way of thinking couples poverty with inferiority and disrepute. The result is the classic Tory urge to punish the poor rather than tackle poverty itself, a class war policy enacted in thousands of different ways over generations and currently reaching new depths of despicable sadism with the Cameron government’s attacks on the most vulnerable and deprived people in the UK. Davies will be cheering the Con-Dems on from Cardiff Bay and, in his hectoring Golf Club-bore manner, will use his platform as leader of the opposition to do nothing more than harangue Carwyn Jones’ government for any tiny divergence from the unhinged privatisation schemes of his masters in Conservative Central Office.
But, deep down, for an old school Welsh Tory such as Davies the key issue is not about economic or social policy. It is about nationalism. To be precise: British nationalism. It is revealing that, given the choice that faces all Welsh farmers over whether to be a member of the FUW (Farmers Union of Wales) or the NFU (National Farmers Union – the ‘British’ body, in Wales there must always be an opt-out for those who can’t stomach Welshness), he of course chose the NFU. He is a modern version of an old tradition: the Welshman who subsumes his identity for the perceived advantages of Britishness. The root of this is the crux of all right-wing politics: Might is Right. Since Wales ‘lost’ the War of Independence and England ‘won’ the new territory, then Britain must be ‘good’ and Wales ‘bad’. Having hitched themselves neck and crop to this historical determinism for the best part of 400 years, Welsh Tories find it impossible to backtrack – the fragile architecture of their incongruent identity wouldn’t survive the upheaval (not that they would know this – Tories don’t do self-awareness). That’s why they’ve tried to scupper every single expression of Welsh distinctiveness for the last century. The very first innocuous decentralisation of power from London to Cardiff, the setting up of the Welsh Board of Education in 1907, was fought against by Tories to the last ditch. The disestablishment of the Church in Wales was delayed until 1920 thanks to half a century of fierce resistance and blocking tactics by Tories. The setting up of the Welsh Office and creation of the post of Secretary of State for Wales in 1964 was going to cause the heavens to fall in according to the Tories of the time. And naturally it was the Tories and their agents who paid for and led the ‘No’ campaigns in the 1979, 1997 and 2011 devolution referendums. This irrational fear of any actualisation of Welshness (other than as a regiment in the British Army) is the very real pathology known as Cymruphobia (a word I like to think I coined in a football article back in the early 1990s – prove me wrong). It can reach pathetic levels, as in the long Tory campaign against the building of the Senedd (it would be Wales made manifest in slate, stone and mortar – can’t have that). And only last week Andrew RT Davies was throwing his considerable weight behind the idea of a GB football team for the Olympics, not despite but because of the fact that it menaces Wales’ international status in football. This goes down well with the only people he’s got to court to beat Ramsay: the ghastly backwoodsmen, martinets, blazered little Englanders, white-flight separatists and Last Days of The Raj geriatrics who make up the Tory membership in Wales.
In Cardiff, their habitat is an outer suburb like Lisvane, far from the, sniff, hoi-polloi, who they only have to glimpse when the bins are being emptied or when the illegal-entry Filipino cleaner comes to mop up their spillages. In such a place (Lisvane is the wealthiest ward in Wales) you get all the minuses of ‘rural’ life (suspicion, snobbery, crippling conventionality) without any of the pluses (peace, sociability, creativity). Grumpy old men in trilby hats barge through the lanes in giant 4×4 vehicles bearing ‘No To Inheritance Tax!’ stickers. Curtains twitch, burglar alarms pulse and blinding security lights burst into life whenever a pedestrian dares to wander around. The car is King – 5% of households have more than four of them, 10% more than three – and woe betide any stranger who has the nerve to take one of the public parking spaces at the small shopping centre: belligerent staff from an estate agents rushed out and claimed the space was reserved when I recently attempted it (I ignored them, went for a 10 minute walk round the churchyard, and came back to find my rust-bucket Astra deliberately blocked in by a bull-barred Range Rover). And in True-Blue Lisvane the old stereotype of the Welsh language activist painting out English language road signs is turned on its head. Here the language ‘militants’ are Anglophiliacs impatient to hurry along the obliteration of even token Welsh, and it’s the Welsh version that is painted out (eg: the defaced Welsh of the pub name, Y Griffwn Du/The Black Griffin). The resolutely monolingual sign that greets you on entry to this Tory heartland should really have the words “clear orf oiks” added, to assist the casual visitor.
In Lisvane there truly is No Such Thing As Society, just privatised people carefully monitoring their property values and piling up money. Thatcherite mission accomplished. This is the nightmare the likes of Andrew RT Davies wish to inflict upon all of Wales. Let’s hope his red-meat Thatcherism defeats the Bourneite burblings of Ramsay – that way Wales will be Tory-free again even sooner.
Interesting how the penny suddenly dropped with the Tories in Wales when they realised that the Regional seats – elected on a top-up basis – would make it possible for Tories to be elected to the Senedd despite not having a majority of the votes. Since that moment some Welsh Tories have shown a degree of enthusiasm for (token) devolved government … perhaps not shared elsewhere in their party…