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.

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