Looking for the centre in Welsh politics

John Osmond reflects on the launch of the new ‘centre right’ think tank Gorwel that was launched last week

Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, has remarked more than once that in at least one respect our political culture is unique. Why? Because, compared with the other territories of the United Kingdom, members of all parties in Wales are willing from time to time to sit across the table from one another and collaborate in joint projects. Such is the sectarian divide between the parties in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, he says, that such harmonious co-operation is impossible to imagine there.

This thought crossed my mind at the launch of Gorwel (Horizon), a new centre right think, at the end of last week. Members of all parties and none were present, though in different numbers. It is true that most of the 70 or so who turned up to listen to a lecture by the Scottish writer David Torrance, author of Against the Odds, a biography of Alex Salmond, were prominent Welsh Conservatives. But there were also a handful of Labour and Plaid members, though, on my reckoning (and I stand to be corrected) only two Liberal Democrats made an appearance.

There was a decided effort at the meeting to be ecumenical. As one of Gorwel’s prime movers, the deputy Presiding Officer in the National Assembly, David Melding, Conservative AM for South Wales Central, put it, “If we are seen as a front for the Conservative Party we will deserve to fail.”

So, in the jargon, what will be Gorwel’s unique selling point? Philosophically it appears to be looking to establish a new relationship between the individual, the community and the state in a Wales where, currently, Liberal Democrats emphasise the individual, Plaid Cymru the community, and Labour the state. In terms of specific policy arenas two questions were highlighted:

  • How can we develop a stronger indigenous manufacturing sector that can find sustainable markets?
  • What will Wales look like if we become a truly bilingual society?

As David Melding explained when he announced the launch of Gorwel on ClickonWales a few weeks ago (here), the new think tank will seek to avoid the constitutional question. Questioned about this at last week’s event he added, “We’re neutral on the constitutional question because we want members of all parties to get together to discuss issues.”

I suspect, however, that being ‘neutral’ on the constitution has more to do with divisions within the Welsh Conservative Party. Melding himself is an exponent of a federal solution to the United Kingdom’s constitutional dilemmas, as can be seen from the serialisation of his latest book that we are currently publishing on ClickonWales here. This is hardly a mainstream position within his party. It is true that most members of the Conservative Group in the Assembly are now reconciled to devolution. However, many more outside would undoubtedly prefer a return to the unitary state.

At the launch a number of contributors from the floor welcomed the formation of Gorwel as representing a new maturity and greater diversity in Welsh politics. As the political commentator Daran Hill, a leading figure in the pro-devolution referendum campaigns in both 1997 and 2010, said, “I want to see an end to political cosiness in Wales.” Professor Laura McAllister, another commentator on Welsh affairs, made a similar point, but added, “The centre right has an image problem – where are the women on the platform?”

Despite the ecumenical tendencies in Welsh politics that I emphasised at the start, it seems to me doubtful that Gorwel will attract a very broad participation from across the political spectrum. This is because, for historical and cultural reasons, there remains a binary divide in Welsh politics between what you might call the parties of the Chapel – Labour, Plaid and Liberal Democrats – and the party of the Church, the Welsh Conservatives.

This underlines another, perhaps even more fundamental question for Gorwel that was raised by Plaid’s Cynog Dafis at the meeting. Where or what is the centre in Welsh politics? “How do you define it?” he queried. “Is it different in England and Wales?”

As well as grappling with the difficulties of constitutional questions, which remain so central to Welsh political life, Gorwel will also have to address the location of the centre right in Wales if it wants to become a broad church.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

10 thoughts on “Looking for the centre in Welsh politics

  1. Good luck to David Melding’s initiative. Though, it has to be asked, why is there a need for consensus and ecumenicalism? Surely different parties have different ideological approaches, and those are often very much at odds with other parties. John Osmond’s article mentions the binary divide in Wales as being religion-based. But isn’t the real binary divide here that of Welsh nationalism versus British nationalism: Plaid Cymru versus the rest. The political cosiness that Daran Hill wishes to do away with emanates from an all-embracing ‘consensus of governance’ based on “British” – essentially English – political principles and customs. Though why a lobbyist like Daran would want to crack this appears inexplicable.

  2. My first suggestion as to where the centre-right is located in Wales would be that it places enterprise at the heart of the political economy of Wales. It appreciates that Wales needs to be a place where entrepreneurs can flourish. It also appreciates Wales’ historical narrative and seeks to engage with this in addressing the need to re-energise our economy.

    My second suggestion is that it explicitly appreciates that Wales is a multi-racial and multi-lingual entity. This is already evident from those who attended the event.

  3. Certainly an interesting article but it appears to lack a realistic assessment of Welsh situation as seen and experienced by most people of Wales in the post devolution period and instead dwells upon well tried and tested principles in Wales that politicians here know what’s best for its people and the case in point being the Road To Bilingual Wales.

    JO is right that Horizon should look at the question of bilingual Wales but not in the context he puts it as pondering what Wales would be like if it becomes a truly bilingual society is unreal and unrealistic.

    We had 10 years of relentless imposition of Welsh language in education and public employment and the evidence available in the public domain suggests that Wales will never be a bilingual nation and instead Horizon and others should concentrate on examining the true cost of an experiment that is crumbling, dividing Wales, damaging Wales economically and failing its young people.

    To many ‘social thinkers’ the Bilingual Wales concept and the manner of its introduction and application is a form of Social Engineering on an unprecedented scale and perhaps illegal but ‘we are where we are’ for now. But it should not be forgotten that we have never seen any proper debate or a meaningful consultation on this subject or even an uttering of the word ‘REFERENDUM’ which would have been the obvious and fair method to resolve this ‘sensitive issue’.

    In any democracy there must not be any ‘Sacred Cows’ or ‘Untouchable Subjects’ and the Road to Bilingual Wales must be examined in detail openly within the public domain and all apparent or real restriction by BBC Wales and other Welsh media be removed.

    Questions must be asked and answered what is this about, for whose benefit and above all do Welsh people really want it?

  4. David Lloyd Owen’s comments make sense in terms of defining a mainstream centre-right in Wales. However I would question whether those definitions are any different from the centre-left which also talks about enterprise, particularly in terms of small businesses. The defining line would be attitudes towards the role of the private sector in public services, i.e privatisation, and whether the Welsh centre-right can generate any ideas on the economy that are genuinely new. I’m prepared to give them time on that, but there is alot of ground to be made up because the Welsh centre-right has simply been nowhere since the advent of devolution. The Conservatives in Wales have never been in a position to enunciate that strand of thought eloquently and properly, and you can see why David Melding wanted to develop an autonomous centre-right party in Wales. For the Welsh centre-right there is a big problem with being part of the stifling UK Tory mentality. Another obstacle to them is that centre-right voices in the Labour party have been marginalised over the years by a Plaid-lite consensus, that the Welsh Lib Dems are also clearly centre-left, and that there is no centre-right equivalent to Plaid Cymru, unlike in Catalonia, the Basque Country and most other stateless nations. All of these factors have hamstrung the Welsh centre-right but it will be interesting to see if this think tank can begin to change things.

  5. I would like to echo many of Martin Jones’ comments. I attended the launch and asked David what he thought the Welsh centre right had to offer by way of economic solutions beyond a re-framing of the failed ‘Washington Consensus’. To the great credit of the two Davids (Melding and Torrance) they admitted they were not familiar with the term, as it seemed were many other attendees, so it was impossible to offer any direct opinions on the question. But as far as popular consciousness is concerned Martin summarises the key aspects of it correctly as support for pro-market liberalisation policies.

    Either way good luck to David Melding. A chap who is not afraid to stick his neck over the parapet.

  6. The idea that any centre-right grouping could have significant impact in socialised Wales is surely a joke, as the whole point of devolution by socialists/nationalists was to get us out of what was seen as total right wing domination in England of a)politics, b)media, c)economy etc etc. We in Wales are now left with governments that can only come from the socialist/nationalist side of politics as that’s what the majority of Welsh people want, even though we don’t have the economy to generate the wealth needed to fund a lifestyle that we have gotten used to. In my very humble opinion I think there are major differences in the views of the Welsh Government between the middle classes who can see the reality of creating a third class political elite to run their lives, and people who rely totally on public sector for benefits/services as they believe the Welsh Government can protect them from the real world. The result of devolution has been like a comfort blanket, and blaming anybody and everybody for problems, rather than creating dynamic services based on devolving power to individuals, rather than what we have in Wales, which is a tired 1945 model. If the revolution going on in England regarding NHS/schools is a success then I wonder how long will it be before the attuned middle classes demand similar re-structuring this side of the border, but it cannot happen due to internal structures of old labour/unions etc etc. In conclusion Mr. Melding and others are wasting their time, and should be concentrating on total exposure of the activities of the Welsh Government and where the money is going, particularly on the funding of Welsh language enforcement where it’s neither wanted nor needed.

  7. I will know whether there is any hope for Wales when someone starts a debate on any subject and it is not hi-jacked into a discussion about the language. For the record, only one of the Cabinet can speak Welsh, most of the top civil servants in Wales can’t speak Welsh because they are not Welsh anyway; they are mostly English. People running health services, local authorities and universities are overwhelmingly not Welsh speaking even in the Welsh-speaking parts of Wales. There is no real requirement to speak Welsh for any job outside Gwynedd except S4C news reader. Yet the paranoia that Wales is run by a Welsh-speaking elite is widespread. The money spent on the language is pitiful, the time devoted to learning Welsh in English language schools is negligible. The country is obviously full of people with a massive inferiority complex about not speaking Welsh which shows itself in irrational hostility to the language. Lighten up guys. No-one cares that you don’t speak Welsh; it doesn’t disadvantage you in any way unless you want to join Merched y Wawr. Educational levels in Wales are terrible, the economy is a basket case, we have real problems to discuss and tackle. And the language has got nothing to do with any of it. The problems are bigger in Blaenau Gwent where no-one speaks it than in Meirionydd where they do. Rather than scapegoating an irrelevancy, focus on the real problems.

  8. R. Tredwyn, I agree entirely.
    On the topic of a new moderate think tank I can not but welcome it. The more ‘thinking’ that goes on in Wales and search for understanding and solutions the better.

  9. The point about using the role of private companies in the running of public services is pertinent. In the past three decades, both the robust-right and centre-left have sometimes adopted the private sector as an end in itself rather than where it works best – as an option that may be considered when it really offers value to tax payers and improved public services. From my professional experience, Glas Cymru worked in this respect (declaration of interest – I was a ‘Member’ of Glas Cymru Cyf from 2001 to 2011) and has shown that a distinctive approach here has delivered service and value which the nine other ‘Water Plcs’ in England have not been able to match.

    R.Tredwyn – I wholly agree. It is so disappointing to see this unhealthy obsession on a single and unrelated issue clog up the discussions here. I would like to see some ground rules against this intolerance. It is high time informed forums were freed from the escalating distractions from Internet Trolls. Surely this is a place for contributing to an informed and engaged debate rather than for the endless repetition of exhausted cliches.

  10. R Tredwyn,
    Public sector organisations are trying to fill posts with Welsh speakers as often as possible in order to meet the requrements of the Welsh Language Measure. All of them have well paid, highly skilled translators, to translate documents because Meri says they have to. The Welsh Language Society are already gunning for Rhondda Cynon Taff because of the lack of adherence to their Welsh Language Scheme, which again is a requirement. Don’t forget the Welsh Language Board demanded that the new Vice Chancellor at Bangor Uni should be compelled to learn Welsh if they didn’t do so already. I worked in a pulic sector organisation and there was very much a sub-text to any major appointments and that was to meet the requirements of the Welsh Language Scheme and to please the inspection.

    Take that name Gorwel and take it to north-eastern Wales which has a Conservative target seat, you have already lost the target audience. It says to the audience: “this only applies to you if you are a Welsh speaker.”

    It says to the WLS: “Look! That’s equality!” But it isn’t, because only 25% of people have the foggiest what it means.

    As long as people are made to feel alienated they will continue to bicker from both sides of this argument and that’s where the centre ground lies.

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