Parties take their partners for a Welsh quadrille

Rhys David reports on an IWA conference on the issues and dilemmas arising from Wales’s four main parties having a share in governing the country

Turning point or milestone? The metaphors do not really matter. However, in the view of Professor David Marquand, politics academic, author, former Labour MP and Social Democratic Party member, and scion of a former Cardiff ship owning family, a highly significant moment in UK political life has been reached with the election of a new Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government.

The first and rather surprising change, he told the IWA’s conference on Co-habitation between the Taff and the Thames at Cardiff University last week, was “the Europeanisation of British politics”. Since taking over on 7 May Conservative ministers, including the Prime Minister and the previously Europhobe Foreign Secretary, William Hague, had demonstrated a willingness to enjoy a constructive relationship with the EU. For the first time since Edward Heath’s days in the 1970s, all three main parties accepted membership of the European Union, and in Professor Marquand’s view other changes would follow.

One of these could affect the Liberal Democrats in a way that has not been foreseen. “The arguments for the Coalition’s tough budget [in June] run counter to the traditions of British Social Liberalism,” he said. “The Government has broken with the Keynesian tradition more dramatically even than Margaret Thatcher, and this has implications for social liberalism trying to find a middle way between capitalism and socialism.” There was a danger the Liberals – or at least a section of the party – would come to hold views similar to the German Free Democrats – in favour of freedom of the individual but also fiercely pro free market.

This, he argued, was the direction in which the Coalition was pushing the Liberal Democrats, a direction it was hard to see senior figures in the party such as Charles Kennedy or Shirley Williams being willing to follow. Arguments within the Coalition between the Keynesians and the monetarists would soon arise, particularly if the Budget did not work. “There will soon be tears,” he predicted.

Another strain within the Coalition would arise as a result of the referendum on the alternative voting system (AV). David Cameron had indicated his opposition to the system and although he could decide that as Prime Minister he should stay out of the debate, this was unlikely. Instead he and the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, would line up on different sides. If the vote went against AV, the Liberal Democrats would have secured very little from their participation in Government and the pressures to leave would be very strong.

Meanwhile Labour, despite promising a referendum in its manifesto for the recent general election, could decide that a No campaign would help to split the coalition, especially as some senior figures, such as the recently ennobled Lord Prescott, was noticeably cool to the idea. It would be all too easy for Labour to sink back into merely attacking the Coalition. The challenge was to identify what it stood for and perhaps to seek to recover some of the “anarchist blood” that the party thinker and former Cabinet Minister under Harold Wilson, Anthony Crosland, had said was part of its tradition.

Tony Blair had  “eviscerated” the party in much the same way as Margaret Thatcher before him had eviscerated her own party, leading to a civil war, which in the case of the Conservatives had ended only when David Cameron had assumed the leadership. There was little sign, however, of the Labour party’s democratic republican heritage emerging in the present hustings for the party leadership, with all the candidates sharing an Identikit think-party image. As Marquand put it:

“There is a crisis of social democracy. At the moment when social democracy has proven [unrestricted] capitalism does not work, it plunges into the abyss.”

Another speaker, Alan Trench, one of Britain’s leading experts on devolution and a Fellow of the Constitution Unit, at University College, London, addressed the specific issue of how the administrations in Wales and Westminster would react in the unusual multiparty environment now prevailing, in which all four parties now had a role in governing Wales – the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on the Thames, and Labour and Plaid Cymru on the Taff.

He identified a second directional change in British politics, as important in its way as the Europeanisation of the parties observed by Professor Marquand, Starting from a point of hostility to devolution, over the past ten years the Conservatives had reluctantly engaged with the process, seeing in the proportional representation systems in Cardiff and Edinburgh a way of re-entering electoral politics in these two nations after a period of minimal representation. In Wales (though not in Scotland) the Conservatives had also been able to re-invent themselves as a party of the area. This was despite the devolution process being accepted with ill grace by the Conservatives at Westminster.

Before becoming Prime Minister, in a speech in Edinburgh in 2007 David Cameron had offered a new rationale for the party’s position on the Union, which embraced devolution. In this the Union secured Britain’s place in the wider world. If it was weakened (as a result of Scottish independence), Britain/England would not be such a strong participant in international affairs, and less able to justify its seat at the United Nations. As such, an accommodation with Scottish (and by implication Welsh) aspirations was worth pursuing. Hence, the Conservatives had decided that in Wales they would not oppose a referendum on greater powers for the Welsh Assembly.

The approach had informed Conservative strategy for the 2010 elections, with the aim being to secure a stronger Conservative presence across the UK. In practice, however, greater attention had been paid to Scotland (where no progress had been made in terms of seats) than in Wales where a minimum of eight seats was required for the party to be on course of an overall majority, but where the eventual total was only five.

Dr Trench outlined four possible territorial strategies the Conservatives might follow in Government in their dealings with the devolved nations. An all-UK approach could see the party rely largely on party linkages to ensure policy co-ordination, avoiding the need to involve the devolved administrations. Alternatively, an inter-Parliamentary strategy would emphasise the role of the elected legislatures and links between them at the expense of the governments in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast.

This would have the advantage (from the Conservative viewpoint) of marginalising the Scottish National Party, though it could create gridlock. Under this approach ministers from the Assembly could be required to appear before committees at Westminster and UK ministers could respond to questioning at the Assembly.

However, one of two other strategies was more likely in practice to be adopted. The first would involve maintaining a distance between the devolved administrations and Westminster, favouring a high degree of autonomy and minimising spill-overs and possible contention. Finally, the emphasis could be put on intergovernmental relationships, with all sides adopting a pragmatic approach to securing agreement.

A final issue to be resolved was whether to try to create a degree of convergence in the way devolved matters were dealt with in the different nations or deal with these differently on a bilateral basis. Interestingly, the Government had promised a White Paper and a Bill to implement the findings of the Calman Commission on financing Scotland. The Holtham Commission had shown there were similar issues in Wales. This could as a result lead to pressure for the same approach all-round to be adopted.

A presentation to the conference Making the red water really clear, delivered by IWA Director John Osmond is available here

Rhys David is former Financial Times journalist and now writes on economic and business issues. He is a trustee of the IWA where he was Development Director from 2002-2008.

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