Just another typically unusual Welsh election
he Vale of Glamorgan, as visitors are constantly reminded, is a very untypical Welsh constituency. It contains not a single coal mine; 95 per cent of its population speak no Welsh; and it has not returned a Labour Member of Parliament since 1950. The farm land on the coastal plain west of Cardiff has just the look and feel of its counterpart on the Somerset side of the Bristol Channel; and one will search in vain here for those brooding, slate-clad, coal-smoke-shrouded, chapel-invigilated Welsh villages of the imagination.
This semi-industrial town, which con- tains half the constituency's population, mainly resembles the dowdier stretches of Weston-super-Mare. Indeed, the pleasure- beach and funfair of Barry Island is a sort of time capsule in which the Butlins-style popular taste of 30 years ago has been perfectly preserved. In the window of one shop (wonderfully misnamed 'Novelties') there were rows of faded plastic toys (a Taiwanese aeroplane powered by a rubber band, and so on) of a kind that I had not seen since my early childhood. Alongside them, subliminally, I half expected to see a photograph of Peter Walker, or a bundle of plans for a Regional Development Agency, their edges curling slightly despite the protective barrier of yellow cellophane. The sense of stepping back into the past can be quite overpowering sometimes.
The Vale of Glamorgan may be untypic- al, as everyone tells you; but what exactly is it untypical of? Those who talk of it in this way tend to imply that there is some homogeneous Welsh entity out there beyond the constituency borders. They may also imply that the Vale's Tory voting record is an anomaly which cannot be sustained much longer against the domi- nant trend. But the plain truth is that there is no Welsh trend, no homogeneous Welsh identity, and certainly no single Welsh economy. The only thing that guarantees — constitutes, even — the existence of Wales as an entity outside the history books is the existence of a thing called the Welsh Office and a post called the Secret- aryship of State for Wales. If (as is some- times tempting) we ceased to believe for a moment in the existence of Mr Peter Walker, the whole tenuous edifice would come crashing down to the ground.
Nothing would more quickly demons- trate the heterogeneity of the Welsh than a Welsh assembly — which is why they voted so heavily against it in 1979. The Welsh Office, on the other hand, weaves the web of administrative responsibilities which sustain the fiction of Welsh identity (the Welsh Development Agency, the Develop- ment Board for Rural Wales, Housing for Wales, the Wales Tourist Board). Those who imagine that Wales is innately socialist tend also to imagine that the reason why Mr Walker is popular in Wales is that his policies there have been some way to the Left of Mrs Thatcher's policies in England. But the essence of his policies has been the same: he has increased public spending. The difference is that he has been able to surround his policies with a special rhetoric of 'programmes'; this looks distinctive to the English eye because it uses a more old-fashioned, corporatist or even pater- nalist political vocabulary, and it looks distinctive to the Welsh eye because it keeps using the adjective, 'Welsh'.
What this all means for the Vale of Glamorgan is that the contest in that constituency is really a very typical by- election. The voters there, like voters in all parts of the United Kingdom, are con- cerned with their standard of living, with the quantity of public expenditure and the quality of public services. They may clothe these concerns in Welsh costume, not just because that is how they have been taught to think about public services but also because that is how they have been en- abled to think about Wales. But the issues, underneath, are the familiar ones; and the Government suffers, therefore, from the familiar problems which always afflict gov- ernments in mid-term by-elections.
On Monday afternoon I followed the Conservative candidate, Rod Richards, on his canvassing tour of Cardiff Airport (which is doing a booming trade, now at a record level of more than 600,000 passen- gers a year). When one guardedly hostile canvassee asked him why she should vote Tory, he countered with a question of his own: 'Do you feel happy with your life now, and with the way things have gone over the last ten years?' The answer was 'Cheque card limit 1250, balance £249, result, misery.' 'yes', but she still did not think she would vote Conservative. Contentment does not usually win elections, and gratitude cer- tainly never won a by-election.
The Labour candidate, John Smith, has an easier time of it. His election address contains glossy photographs of eight ordin- ary citizens, each with a little text to state their reasons for voting Labour. The reasons in every case are the same: they want more public spending. There is a pensioner who wants more spending on pensions, a mother who wants more spend- ing on child care, a student and two lecturers who want more spending on education, a social worker who wants more facilities and an NHS worker who wants fewer 'cuts'. There is also a self-employed builder, which sounds like an exception to the rule, until you read his transparently honest statement: 'We've got to build the hospitals, schools, houses and factories we need. That's why I'm voting Labour.'
Everyone has some reason for wanting more spending, and a reason for wanting more spending is usually a reason for forgetting the spending that has already been done. Of the public expenditure which can be broken down geographically, Wales received £2,370 per head last year: this is £200 more than the United Kingdom average and £500 more than the figure for inhabitants of England. Anyone who bothers to read the Welsh Office's recently published 200-page report, Public Expend- iture in Wales, will quickly gain the im- pression that it is difficult now for anything to move within the principality without being first of all identified as Welsh and then bombarded with money. But the voters of the Vale of Glamorgan will not read it, of course. (Nor, judging by the half-hour I spent in Cardiff trying to persuade the Welsh Office's information desk of the existence of this report, will anyone else.) They will read, instead, the Labour election leaflet which prints on its front page a lengthy summary of 'a recent article in the Spectator weekly magazine by author A. N. Wilson, which raised eye- brows among thinking Conservatives'. On 4 May, faced with the purely theoretical choice between Labour spending and Con- servative spending, they will vote Labour. And in two or three years' time, faced with the practical choice between a Labour government and a Conservative govern- ment, they will vote Conservative again.