Have the Welsh Conservatives become an anti-Senedd party?
This article was originally published here.
There has been much comment on the open way in which growing-in-profile Welsh Conservatives have spoken of their desire to abolish the Welsh Parliament. I understand why this is capturing attention, but I feel that there are dynamics which are being missed in the coverage.
I do not intend to use this article to assess the merits of the arguments around the future of the Senedd. I shall simply say that in my view the Welsh Parliament is in need of reform and more competitive elections.
But that it would be a big mistake to abolish the institution and it is fanciful to imagine that a non-devolved Wales would feature with any greater prominence in the policy deliberations of UK Government.
So, to what extent is anti-Senedd sentiment taking over the Welsh Tories?
The narrative around this focuses heavily on the selection of candidates on the South Wales Central list, where we are led to believe that three of the four top candidates indicated their opposition to the continuation of devolution.
The equivalent list rankings in South Wales West or South Wales East did not mirror this focus on the issue. I do not know enough about the candidates on the Mid and West or North Wales lists to comment. So, while it is newsworthy that a party which had in recent elections been clearly pro-devolution now has some candidates that are opposed to the Senedd – it is by no means a majority viewpoint among candidates.
Indeed, unless the Conservatives gain a second list seat in South Wales Central it could well be that none of those who declared a preference to abolish the Welsh Parliament will be elected.
With Angela Burns, Suzy Davies and David Melding leaving the Senedd at the next election, the Conservatives will lose three members who can each pitch thoughtful policy with a moderate voice. Such a change would have an impact on any group in Cardiff Bay, but this is not a situation which is as neat as a simple explanation of moderates leaving and hardliners arriving.
I do think there might be a shift towards to the right overall, but this would only mirror what we have already seen in the post-Cameron UK Conservative Party.
What of the membership?
Among the membership, there has long been a hostility to devolution in principle, but it had manifested itself in grumbling within party circles. It was a passive opposition. In some quarters this has been harnessed by a new generation of activists.
One of the most interesting aspects is their age. Virtually all the vocal opponents of devolution in, or close to, the Conservative Party are of an age in which they will not have been politically aware of pre-devolution Wales. I was a teenager in the 1990s and while I wouldn’t pretend that I followed politics much until I was about 17, I was aware of what appeared to be quite a divide in Wales between those who had a cultural Welsh heritage and those of us who were more Anglicised.
I think the bridging of that divide so that we all feel ownership of Welsh culture is one of the intangible benefits that devolution has brought. I suspect, to those who feel frustrated with the performance of our Welsh democracy but do not recall the time prior to it, such factors can be easily over-looked.
With the party hierarchy opposed to reopening the issue, the activists have successfully turned the membership’s passive resistance to devolution into a live debate within the party. The odds have always been against them, but they showed resilience and strategy to take their argument forward. I disagree with them, but I do respect how they have built their case within their party.
I have previously written about how the Abolish Party could play a similar role to that which UKIP did to drive the Conservative Party towards a referendum or outright opposition to the Senedd. In the long-run, I think this remains a risk and that it is plausible that devo-scepticism will be an essential credential for any hopeful in a future Welsh Conservative leadership contest.
Yet, short-term I think this threat can be overstated and the return of Andrew RT Davies to the Welsh Tory helm will give members tempted to stray to Abolish reason to rally around their leader who has always been popular with the membership. Indeed, the big losers from the return of RT could well be the Abolish Party.
It is also worth considering that Andrew’s last spell as the leader was persistently undermined from within the Conservative Party and most of those responsible have now slipped from positions of authority within Welsh Toryism. The returning Andrew RT Davies is in a far more powerful position than he was when first leader of the Senedd Conservative Group.
What of the role of Brexit?
The Conservative Party has long been the home of pragmatic gradual achievable improvement. Since the EU Referendum, ideology has taken a peculiar hold. It is in this context that the desire to upturn another institution was seeded.
Also similar to Brexit, there seems to be little planning for what would follow the abolition of the Senedd. Would Wales simply be a region served by the Westminster-based government? Brexit made the unthinkable achievable – that is a powerful high and some have sought to turn their focus on scrapping the Senedd as their next project.
The risk for unionism
I see no realistic prospect of the Senedd being abolished. While opposition to devolution might outpoll support for independence the latter is the more likely outcome. It is possible this could occur via a referendum but perhaps the more likely outcome is that the union simply unravels following a vote for Scottish separatism.
If there is a battle ahead between the forces of nationalism and unionism in Wales, then it is going to be essential for the union side to be a big tent campaign. My fear would be that hostility to the Senedd could become seen as the predominant form of unionism and there is no prospect of such a stance gaining widespread support.
If the anti-devolution activists of the Conservative Party pitch themselves in opposition to the federal Conservatism of David Melding MS, then what hope would they ever have of bringing Labour supporters on board in a campaign against Welsh independence?