The contradictions of Welsh Conservatives

John Osmond asks whether a British federation is more than just a hypothetical possibility


In the latest instalment of his new book The Reformed Union: Britain as a Federation (available here) David Melding, Deputy Presiding Officer in the National Assembly, discusses the implications for the political parties of the evolving devolution process. In pressing the case for a British federation he says it is the unionist parties that will have to change most.

The Reformed Union: Britain as a Federation

This is the third chapter in the online serialisation (here) of the new book by the Deputy Presiding Officer in the National Assembly, David Melding AM. Entitled The Reformed Union: Britain as a Federation, the book is being serialised in eight chapters at regular intervals over the coming months, continuing with Chapter 3 today:

  1. The present is not an ordinary time
  2. Parliament, sovereignty and federalism
  3. Political institutions in a British federation
  4. Governing and legislating in a federation
  5. The economy, finance and taxation
  6. Civic institutions in a federation
  7. Unionism and nationalism
  8. The reformed union

Online serialisation of a book in this way is a first for ClickonWales and demonstrates the new directions that dissemination of serious thinking through the social media is taking. Responses to this third chapter are welcome and can be posted in the normal way. Once all the chapters are published David Melding intends to rework the material in light of any criticism it receives. We will then re-publish the revised edition as an e-book.

This online publication is a follow-up to David Melding’s earlier work Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020? published by the IWA in conventional book format in 2009, and available here.

He argues that the continuing unitary character of both the Labour and Conservative parties in Wales is now “organisationally and culturally dysfunctional”. In particular, he finds it odd to say the least that Welsh Conservatives still proudly proclaim their leader to be British Prime Minister David Cameron rather than Andrew R.T. Davies, their leader in the National Assembly.

But, for Melding, what is more important than the outward organisational manifestation, is the inner, more cultural conviction. Implicitly he asks, how Welsh are Welsh Conservatives? Making the contrast with Conservatives in Scotland, he claims that although they regard Cameron as their leader – and, indeed, the British Prime Minister, remains exceedingly popular with grassroots Welsh Conservatives, probably more so than in England – they are becoming more comfortable with their Welsh identity. As he puts it:

“The Scottish Conservative Party is an autonomous body with considerable operational independence. However, its culture has remained unitary, even ultra-unionist. Alternatively, the Welsh Conservative Party has largely retained an outmoded unitary structure but become more culturally adapted to the demands of national politics. This cultural sensitivity bore fruit in the 2011 National Assembly elections which saw the Welsh Conservatives replace Plaid Cymru as Labour’s main opponent.”

This is certainly true so far as most of the Conservative AMs within the National Assembly are concerned. Yet, whether it extends very far into the constituency organisations is a different matter. And the fact that at last year’s election Welsh Conservatives became the second largest party, in the process pushing Plaid Cymru into third place, had more to do with Labour’s successful strategy of presenting itself as the oppositional national force to the Conservative spending cuts emanating from London.

Be that as it may, in this latest instalment David Melding continues his elegant exposition in support of a federal solution to Britain’s constitutional predicaments. He builds a strong intellectual case against many of the arguments that can be marshalled against federalism in the British context, and in particular the relative size and exceptionalism of England.

However, at the end of the day, as Melding himself acknowledges, the matter is likely to come down to whether the people of Britain (and especially England) actually want to go to the trouble of creating federal institutions. As he says at the outset of this latest chapter, he is seeking to demonstrate that a British federation is feasible – “if there is the political will to create such a Union.” And he ends the chapter by declaring that, “a new, federal Union is available if we want one!”

These are pretty big ‘ifs’. I await with interest later instalments to help convince me that the hypothetical possibility of a British federation is more than just that.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.