This book is the first detailed examination of the Conservative Party beyond the centre after devolution. The Scottish and Welsh Conservative Parties both started out in 1999 with no MPs and a difficult inheritance. They had also both stridently campaigned against devolution. However, since then, the smaller and less autonomous Welsh Conservative Party appears to have staged a recovery, whilst its Scottish counterpart has continued to struggle. This book traces the processes of party change in both parties and explains why the Welsh Conservatives unexpectedly embraced devolution while the Scottish Conservatives took much longer to accept that Westminster was no longer the priority. In considering the drivers of party change at the sub-state level, this book finds that electoral defeat and organisational autonomy mattered less here than we might expect. Although the Welsh Conservatives had less power and money, they also entered the Welsh Assembly with less baggage than the Scottish Conservatives. Renewing unionism was more difficult in Scotland because the Scottish Conservatives could see no route to holding power.
This chapter introduces the argument and structure of the book. It explains the similar inheritance of the Scottish and Welsh Conservative Parties at the beginning of devolution and the challenges they faced in adapting to new circumstances. It outlines the importance of studying political parties as multi-level organisations and describes the mechanics and anomalies of the UK’s devolution arrangements. It also examines the electoral performance of the Scottish and Welsh Conservative Parties since devolution.
This chapter considers the statewide context for changes at the sub-state level. The Conservatives found it extremely difficult to break out of the inheritance of Thatcherism and to accept that the political strategy of the previous 18 years would not necessarily lead them back to power. However, conclusions about party change at the UK level have to be qualified by consideration of the extent to which the party has repackaged and refocused rather than repudiated or replaced policies and attitudes from the past. This chapter analyses how the leaders of the Conservative Party after 1997 (Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard and Cameron) dealt with devolution.
Having established the wider UK context in which it operated, this chapter now turns to examine the post-devolution Scottish Conservative Party. It finds that while the Scottish Conservatives did adapt organisationally to the external shock of devolution and the Scottish Parliament, they spent the following decade trying to repeat the same pre-1997 political strategy. Contrary to some assumptions in the literature about sub-state party demands for autonomy, the Scottish party in fact had more autonomy than it wanted or needed. This chapter finds overall that the potential for party change beyond constitutions and management charts was for the Conservatives in the gift of a leadership (Goldie and McLetchie) that chose not to attempt radical change. Faced with a significant section of the party which remained hostile to devolution, the party leadership instead concentrated on more ‘banal’ issues of everyday parliamentary business, policy-making and campaigning, giving the impression of progress without much internal struggle.
This chapter applies the analytical framework outlined in chapter three to the Welsh Conservative Party. It finds that the Welsh Conservatives faced similar challenges to the Scottish Conservatives in adapting to devolution. It is arguable that initially the Scottish Conservatives adapted much better to the transition from the referendum to the new institutions. However, the election of Nick Bourne as leader of the party became a key driver for party change at the elite level in the Welsh Conservatives. In particular, he encouraged a new attitude towards the party’s policies and image which was much more supportive of Welsh aspirations. This did not represent a wholesale conversion of the party to devolution (particularly at the level of the party membership), but it did ensure that at the elite level the party was able to manoeuvre itself into a position where it was on the cusp of coalition government in 2007 with Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats.
Having examined party change in the cases of the Scottish and Welsh Conservative Parties in detail, this chapter outlines a more focused comparison, drawing together the literature on sub-state parties and party change. The central conclusion is that the more substantial changes in the Welsh Conservative Party are explained broadly by the vision of the people in charge. People mattered a great deal more than party structures. Much like the UK Conservative Party, the Welsh and Scottish Conservative parties were vehicles that could be led.
The Welsh and Scottish Conservative Parties both faced similar challenges in different contexts in 1997. The Welsh Conservatives were able, despite their lack of formal autonomy, to more successfully manage four central post-devolution challenges: being a statewide party in a sub-state context; finding a party goal or new sense of purpose; making sense of the Thatcher legacy and the Conservative Governments (1979-1990); and dealing with devolution. This study has identified three central factors that eased the Welsh Conservatives’ transition, but which were not present to the same extent in Scotland: the almost universal dissatisfaction with the workings of Welsh devolution; the nature of the Welsh party system and the need for the Welsh Conservatives to be a part of any government that did not involve Labour; and the weaker institutionalisation of the Welsh Conservatives.