David Cameron’s statement in Broughton in northeast Wales today that if a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly demand a referendum on law-making powers he will not block it, only faces up to reality. As the Conservative AM David Melding put it in an Assembly debate back in July, “I do not think that it is in the realm of practical politics for the Secretary of State for Wales to veto a two-thirds majority vote by the Assembly to move to a referendum. That would be the equivalent of saying that the people of Wales cannot determine this question. I do not think that that is possible, certainly not from a centre-right party.”
What Melding did not disclose, however, is that at that very moment he and his Conservative colleagues in the Assembly were engaged in a fierce struggle on the issue with their Shadow Secretary of State in Westminster, Cheryl Gillan. The idea they were confronting was that the Conservative’s UK Manifesto for next year’s general election should contain a pledge that no referendum on moving to greater powers for Wales would be held in the next Parliamentary term.
This was opposed by the Group precisely because it would inevitably place them in a position of being in bitter opposition to their own Conservative Government in London. If such a clause were put in the Manifesto and if a Conservative Government was elected next Spring, then there would certainly be a two-thirds majority in the Assembly that would call for a referendum. Indeed, it would be probably be greater than that since most if not all of the Conservative AMs would also support it.
The matter was not easily settled. At one point the Assembly Conservative Leader Nick Bourne came up with a compromise that the Manifesto might contain a commitment that a referendum would be blocked for only the first two years of the next Westminster term. However, that was also voted down by the Conservative Group in the Assembly.
The reality that Westminster Conservatives have had to face was underlined in the National Assembly plenary debate on 7 July from which the Melding quotation is taken. It went entirely unreported at the time, perhaps because it began with an innocuous motion from the Plaid leader Ieuan Wyn Jones who moved that the “the National Assembly for Wales notes the development of devolution over the past ten years and looks forward to its further strengthening in future.”
However, this was subjected to a cunning amendment by the Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams, which looked forward “to a referendum on moving to the powers in Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 before the Assembly elections in 2011.”
This was merely reiterating the commitment in the One Wales coalition agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru. However, the highly significant outcome of the debate was that the Assembly, including all the Conservatives, voted unanimously for the amendment. This signals that not only will there be a two-thirds majority for a referendum following the appearance of Sir Emyr Jones-Parry’s Convention report on 18 November, but a unanimous vote at that.
Given the moment, when he was locked in an internal party dispute, Nick Bourne’s contribution to the debate was remarkably robust. “We believe that there should be a campaign for full powers for the Assembly … I have no doubt that full powers will be forthcoming before long, whether under a Conservative Government – and they would be delivered under a Conservative Government, if needs be, as every step forward is – or any other.”
With the benefit of hindsight, it looks as though Bourne was using a public platform to influence the internal debate underway inside his party. Just a shame it wasn’t reported at the time, though I’ve no doubt that the Assembly’s Record of proceedings for 7 July were passed under Cheryl Gillan’s nose, and probably that of David Cameron as well.