Thursday, 28 May 2020

Turning a tanker in a Cardiff Bay might be easier than doing so in the Thames.

I recently posed some questions for those who see the future of Wales as an independent nation. Today, I would like to turn my attention to those, largely on the political right, who would like to see the Welsh Parliament abolished. 

There has always been a significant devosceptic strand among the Welsh Conservative Party, but mutterings of dissatisfaction with "the Assembly" have tended to be low key and among friends. Emboldened by the relatively impressive performance of the Abolish the Assembly Party in 2016 and with renewed confidence in their ability to remake the political order after Brexit, now Conservative members are more outspoken on the matter. The Tories want to maintain a voter coalition which includes both supporters and opponents of devolution by avoiding saying too much about such constitutional matters. For the most part this is a successful strategy but when the pot-stirring ambitions of Shropshire MPs take the headlines it forces the Welsh Conservative leadership to take sides and back devolution. An unwelcome invitation to get off the fence when the most recent figures was riding high in the polls ahead of the next Senedd elections. At the last contest to be the leader of the Welsh Conservatives it was inconceivable that the role would go to an opponent of Welsh devolution. One wonders how far the pendulum has swung on the issue with Tory members now. Could the next leadership contest see an abolitionist elected? Meanwhile, ex-'kippers and some in the Brexit Party appear to be flirting with the idea of scrapping the Parliament.

There is some momentum for both nationalists and Welsh Parliament abolitionists, but perhaps in polarised times it should not be such a surprise. The pandemic has sharpened the arguments, and I can see some logic in what both sides say, though feel that there is a lot we don't really know yet about how the devolution settlement has fared during the pandemic.

I noted above that the majority of the abolitionists come from the political right. It is not a surprise that they are dissatisfied with a Welsh Parliament which has exclusively been run from the left of centre. However, their objection extends beyond the institution itself to the broader political culture in Wales. They see left of centre soft-nationalism running through think tanks, the public sector and the third sector. I would not disagree. There is a group-think problem within the Welsh political sphere. Though, I would add that it is sometimes exasperated by an unwillingness from those who feel excluded from actually trying to get involved. Having had some involvement with groups in which I may well have been alone in regarding my views as centre-right, I have to say that the barriers to entry are not as high as some of the critics would suggest.

A business-as-usual culture seeps into many a government organisation or the bodies that engage with government. I've had experience of working with both Welsh and UK Government departments. It would be inappropriate for me to go into details of those discussions, but I do see advantages in the smaller more accessible Welsh model to the monoliths of Whitehall. Furthermore, devolution as a principle is all about exercising power and responsibility nearer the people. As one would expect, the understanding of the circumstances in Wales is typically better in Cardiff than in London. I long ago made the point that the form of devolution we have is not my preference, I prefer the pragmatism of city regions to political borders based on national identity. However, what we have in Wales has the potential to be transformative.

I cannot see how simply dispensing with devolution would be of benefit to Wales. If UK Government Ministers are conflating policy for England with policy for the UK today, it is unlikely that they would suddenly pay additional attention to Wales in a non-devolved future. Our devolution settlement is untidy and confusing, but any changes to it should be designed to benefit Wales not to make the communication strategy more straightforward for UK Ministers and a London-centric media. I would also caution against over-stating the role of the pandemic response in making the case against devolution. Certainly, there will be a lot to learn and changes to be made, but let us not forget that the decentralisation of Germany has been identified as an asset in their tackling of the outbreak.

I suspect those of us who would like to see transformative reform have a better chance of delivering it in Wales than in Whitehall. Group-think and business-as-usual should be challenged. I just suspect that turning the tanker might more achievable in the Bay.