Monday, 29 March 2021

The solitude of the status quo

While addressing members at his party's virtual conference, Welsh Conservative Leader, Andrew RT Davies declared "no more powers, no more politicians, no more taxes" and "no more constitutional chaos". It is an understandable campaign position and the message may well resonate. There will be plenty of voters with greater concerns than constitutional rejigging.

However, one of the reasons why this Senedd election is different to those that have gone before is that proposals for constitutional change are prominent.

Plaid Cymru has become emboldened in its focus on independence. It is easy to forget that in the early elections of devolved Wales, Plaid Cymru deliberately played down their calls for separatism as they feared it may be viewed as too extreme a position by the voters they hoped to peel away from Labour. Now, Plaid Cymru talk about an independence referendum within a decade. The Welsh Green Party has also embraced Welsh nationalism, though this should be taken with a pinch of sustainably harvested salt because the Welsh Green Party did not even manage to achieve independence from the England and Wales Green Party. Neil McEvoy's post-Plaid project Propel and right of centre nationalists Gwlad are also advocating Welsh independence.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Abolish the Assembly Party are offering a vision of a Wales without a Welsh Parliament. They reject claims that this is tantamount to abolishing Wales. That charge might be too strong, but Wales without an Parliament while there were such institutions in Scotland and Northern Ireland would find its status undermined. Some talk about the Senedd being replaced by greater devolution to local government. A reasonable alternative if decentralisation was starting from scratch, but it is fanciful think that the UK Government would offer any form of alternative devolution to Wales in the immediate aftermath of scrapping of the existing devolved settlement. The abolition stance is also the position of UKIP after their brief flirtation with devolution upon realising it was electorally advantageous.

The Liberal Democrats have long advocated a federal structure with models of home rule for each nation. It is interesting to note that the Labour First Minister also referenced the prospect of home rule recently. Mark Drakeford is not alone in musing on the future constitutional settlement. His predecessor, Carwyn Jones has been openly discussing future options and Labour colleague Mick Antoniw MS is promoting what he describes as 'radical federalism'. This latter idea suffers from confusing a political ideology, what its advocates identify as a radical left-wing approach, with the more structural matters of the constitution.

Thus we find that the Welsh Conservatives stand alone as the only party actually backing the constitutional status quo. And yet, their pitch is hardly an endorsement of the 2021 version of devolution. Instead, they are simply arguing that voters don't want perpetual structural flux.

There are a lot of issues which will be more prominent in the minds of voters than the constitution. However, when no party is supporting the status quo with conviction it is reasonable to think that the current settlement cannot hold in the medium term.