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Darren Millar AM: What Conservatives in Scotland need to learn from Wales

Darren-millar Darren Millar AM represents Clwyd West in the National Assembly for Wales and is Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government.

The announcement of a review into the future direction of the Conservative Party north of the border cannot have come a moment too soon. The fortunes of the party in Scotland have failed to recover from the crushing defeat in the general election of 1997 when it failed to return a single MP to Westminster. Although there may now at least be one blue patch on the political map of Scotland, the fact that the party's share of the vote was even lower last month, at 16.7%, than it was 13 years ago, is a cause for deep concern.

While our colleagues in Scotland have gone from one poor election result to the next, faced with a similar situation in 1997 the Welsh Conservatives have made significant progress, bouncing back to increase our share of the vote at each general election since and increasing our representation, taking 8 seats this year - two more than than in John Major's surprise election victory in 1992.

So what's the secret of our success in Wales, and what can our counterparts in Scotland learn from us?

The first thing to recognise is that 1997 was not the lowest point for the Conservatives in either Scotland or Wales. In May 1999 the party sank even further polling just 15.6% and 15.8% of the vote in the elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly respectively. They were disastrous results by any stretch of the imagination and were pretty predictable given the attitude of the party UK-wide to both devolution and the establishment on the new institutions. The message from the electorate was pretty clear - if you want our vote, you will have to change. It's a message that the Welsh Conservatives heard loud and clear.

Change is never easy, either personally or corporately, but if the following two lessons are applied in Scotland then I am confident of an improvement in the fortunes of our cousins north of the border:

Lesson Number 1 - Embrace devolution

For a party that believes in localism, it is rather extraordinary that so many of us have such a hard time swallowing devolution.  Devolution of powers from Westminster to Edinburgh, Cardiff Bay and Belfast - and then from there to councils, communities and individuals, is what we Conservatives should be about. Instead, many have spent the past decade making inconsistent arguments for localism, yet against devolution! It is double-mindedness that doesn't make sense. If we really believe in localism, then we must embrace devolution.

In Wales, many prominent Conservatives formed part of the campaign against the establishment of the National Assembly in the 1997 referendum. It was tough to acknowledge defeat and they basically fought the 1999 elections for the Assembly on the same platform as the 'No' campaign in the 1997 referendum with disastrous electoral consequences. Many saw us as anti-Welsh and mistrusting of the democratic thumbs up, albeit by a narrow margin, given for the creation of the Assembly. It took time to shake that unfair label off, but supporting devolution, and wanting to see it strengthened, helped us to do just that. This pro-devolution stance has attracted support from outside of our core voter base, and along with our steadfast support for the promotion of the Welsh language, has ensured that we are no longer seen as the Conservative Party in Wales, but rather as the Welsh Conservatives.

We may not always like some of the consequences of devolution in Scotland and Wales - i.e. non-Conservative governments - but it is our task to persuade the voters that there is a better alternative and then trust them to make the right decision - that's localism, that's devolution, in it's purest form.

Lesson Number 2 - It's OK to be different!

Devolution will always throw up differences in approach to policy in different areas. Conservatives are united by our political philosophy yet we are individuals with our own minds - put 10 of us in different rooms with different problems and you are bound to get 10 different answers.  Take a look at Conservative run councils, many have differing approaches to recycling, housing and service delivery - yet all are Conservative and will instinctively seek to keep costs down and be prepared to work with the private sector because that's part of our DNA as Conservatives.

While there will be many areas of agreement, what's right for England isn't always right for Wales, or Scotland. For example, agriculture is a larger part of the economy in Wales than in England, certain diseases are more prevalent here and our demographics are older, it's therefore perfectly sensible that we will have different policy priorities than in England. Rather than differences being a potential for conflict, they should be seen as part of the natural, and positive, consequences of devolution, which help to reinforce the distinctive identity of the Conservatives in Wales and Scotland.

Learning these lessons in Wales has not always been easy and there has been, and continues to be resistance, from some, but they are part and parcel of the reason for the resurgence of Conservative support here in Wales and have helped to broaden our support. I commend them to the Scottish Conservatives.


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