John Winterson Richards considers the options open to unloved and unrepresented unionists in Wales
Many Welsh people see no contradiction between being proud to be British and proud to be Welsh. Yet with Scots being forced to choose in a referendum between their British and Scottish identities, it seems likely that Wales will be faced with a similar choice before too long.
On the Right of Welsh Welsh Politics
In this three-part series a former activist provides an insider’s account of the fortunes of Conservatism in Wales.
Unionists believe that though they may have lost the vote in 1997, still they won the argument. Practically everything they said then has since been vindicated:
- Establishing an Assembly would encourage further moves towards greater independence rather than provide the inoculation against Nationalism promoted by Labour. Correct.
- There was no real administrative need for an all-Wales body in local government terms and the Assembly would struggle to find a role. Correct.
- There was nothing to support claims then being made that an Assembly would somehow attract a higher calibre of person into public life. Correct.
- It would waste money on a fancy building for itself, and generous pay, conditions, and support staffs for its members. Correct.
- The Assembly would not strengthen economic development or improve public services relative to the rest of the United Kingdom. Correct.
Indeed, even some of the Assembly’s strongest supporters admit their disappointment, arguing it will do better if only it is given more powers. This is a bit like a failed platoon leader saying he would have done better if only he was promoted to Field Marshal. It is surely an obvious principle of management that greater authority should only be given to those who have proved themselves by excelling with lesser responsibilities. Can anyone really believe the Assembly has ‘excelled’?
No matter. The fact remains that the Unionists lost in 1997, the National Assembly is here, and here to stay – at least until it becomes a Parliament.
Commentators with little or no doorstep experience may not appreciate how much politics comes down to organisation and money. The 2011 Referendum was not a wholehearted popular endorsement of the Assembly but a proof of the inequality of political firepower in Wales. A small band of Ealing-esque amateurs faced the combined weight of three and a bit of the four main political parties, dozens of paid professional politicians and their paid professional staffs, the trades unions, the Welsh media, pro-devolution academia, and, of course, the Assembly itself, with its network of patronage and the biggest public relations machine in Wales. The result was a foregone conclusion.
In accordance with a basic law of political dynamics, the Assembly seeks to expand its own power. It seems almost certain that before long it will request and obtain a status similar to that of the present legislature in Scotland. There, of course, it took only fifteen years from the establishment of a new Parliament to a referendum on independence. Even if the Scots vote against independence this time – indeed, even if the very concept of full independence seems an increasingly meaningless concept in the global economy – the drift towards ever greater autonomy for both Wales and Scotland that began in 1997 looks irreversible.
Certainly, there seems to be little ardour among the London political class and media to oppose it very actively. The prevailing mood there seems to be “If the ungrateful Celts want to float off on their own into the Atlantic and sink, good riddance”.
So what of those Celts who are against such a fate? Unionists in Wales comprise hundreds of thousands of people, isolated, frustrated, excluded from the main political current, unrepresented, and unloved both by Westminster and Cardiff Bay. What are they to do? Participation in an endless series of doomed rearguard actions is an unappetising prospect. Six alternatives suggest themselves.
The most popular seems to be the Ostrich Strategy, burying heads in the sand, going to sleep, and hoping to wake up back in 1997, possibly with Bobby Ewing coming out of the shower to say the last sixteen years were just a bad dream.
A more Leninist Strategy is to accept things must get worse before they get better. According to this narrative, if Cameron is the new Heath, then the new Thatcher – who will magically put everything right – is only a few years away. However, even if – a big if – one accepts all the necessary assumptions, reliance on them still underestimates the Conservative talent, demonstrated perfectly in 2010, for fumbling the ball when offered a clear run to the line.
The Machiavellian Strategy is to take the EU-approved principle of ‘subsidiarity,’ sometimes quoted by proponents of devolution, to its logical extreme. Power should be delegated to the lowest possible level, not just from Westminster to the Assembly, but down to local authorities, communities, and, as much as possible, households and individuals. Although the Assembly would continue to exist, to mollify nationalist sentiment, it would be increasingly bypassed in practical terms and effectively wither on the vine. The problem with this option is that it demands a degree of political sophistication that has long been absent from this country.
The Ultra-Machiavellian Strategy is to do the opposite, to give the Assembly enough rope to hang itself in the form of powers over areas where its incompetence is likely to cause public outrage, so that a well-timed snap referendum might endorse abolition. Few like this idea but many think it might happen.
The Unhappy-Compromise Strategy is federalism – the worst of both worlds. A slave cannot serve two masters.
So we come to the truly radical strategy. Cut to the chase. End the needlessly prolonged uncertainties and insincerities of the ‘process of devolution’. Instead, ask frankly:
“How long halt ye between two opinions? A house divided against itself cannot stand. Choose once and for all if we want to remain part of the Union or to continue following the road to ever greater independence, however far it goes.”
Then if, after an open, honest, fully informed debate, and a fair referendum on the real question – Britain or Wales – the vote still goes clearly against them, let unionists cease to be unionists in that moment. From then on they should dedicate all their energies and their best counsels to preparing for an independent Wales, to correcting the inadequacies of the prevailing nationalist and socialist models of what that might look like, and develop their own. The result might be that they might turn Welsh independence into a success, despite their current fears.