Six strategies for the anti-devolutionists

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.


  • Tomorrow: John Winterson Richards argues that any move towards greater autonomy for Wales will require policies to promote the private sector.


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.

John Winterson Richards was Conservative and Unionist Candidate in the Rhondda in the 1992 General Election. He left the Conservatives in 1999 and is now a political independent.

12 thoughts on “Six strategies for the anti-devolutionists

  1. Not quite sure what this moaning narrative is about. Labour Unionists, with the aid of Liberal Unionists, and some Tory Unionists, set up the Assembly as part of a UK regionalist strategy. In contrast to their British Nationalism, many, if not most, Welsh Nationalists opposed the Assembly in ’97, and still do, for the ‘smoke and mirrors’ institution that it is. Believers in freedom and Welsh political independence, in similar vein to the author’s “Unionists”, will just have to sit and play the long game before they see real change in our nation.

  2. One overriding theme of this article is unassuming arrogance, with all due respect. All the author has done is state how devolution has failed because we in Wales are incapable. In short, the Assembly has failed because we are a failed nation.
    1. ”There was nothing to support claims then being made that an Assembly would somehow attract a higher calibre of person into public life. Correct.”
    Why is that then? Because there is no one in Wales with the ability? Speak for yourself. And who are you to make judgements on others?
    2. ”If the ungrateful Celts want to float off on their own into the Atlantic and sink, good riddance”.
    Why would we sink? Because our English colonial masters are not there to guide us?

    If you believe in the Union, then I for one respect that point. But do no justify your views on the constitution with the ‘The Welsh are just to useless’ rhetoric. The Assembly has not been an all-out success that the Scottish model has been, but then they had more power from the outset. Rather than blaming the Welsh people, why don’t you blame the Labour administration that has rules without a break for what is now nearly 20 years?

  3. There’s an inherent contradiction within the article itself:

    “Many Welsh people see no contradiction between being proud to be British and proud to be Welsh” (Paragraph 1)

    “A slave cannot serve two masters” (Paragraph 13)

    As it happens, I agree with your second point. I don’t think anyone can – in all honesty or reason – be proud to be Welsh and proud to be ‘British’ (assuming we can agree on a definition of the second term). Being ‘proud to be Welsh’ in that context means being ‘proud’ of your nation being in a position of permanent subservience even within its own boundaries. I don’t think that that is a tenable position.

  4. People from Wales always use the term ‘British’ when travelling outside of the UK.

    My suspicion is that the Welsh are infinitely less proud of Wales when they are well away from the country. Quite the reverse of English people who, in an effort to avoid showing this undoubted pride, also resort to using the term British.

    It’s a fascinating subject isn’t it.

  5. The Irish & the Scots have a different perspective being Gaels, whereas the Cymry introduced the idea of Britishness under the Tudors. ‘Great Britain’ as we know it was an invention to tie the Gaels to the Anglo-Saxons, the Welsh have always had this dichotomy, this duel identity since the battle of Badon threw the English invaders back, some even to Germany giving we British a fifty years respite. There is ‘British’ (Welsh) and there is ‘British’ (English), never the twain to meet

  6. KP – oddly enough, when traveling abroad on business in the mid 1980s, people would relax when I said that I was Welsh rather than British. This was the time of football hooliganism, when Ing-er-lan’ meant mayhen (rather than Mae hen…) across Europe. Identity abroad can be a fungible concept.

  7. Kp, for what it is worth, I usually say ‘British’ when abroad simply because hardly anyone there knows where Wales is. However, when someone calls me ‘English’ I normally correct them and say ‘Welsh.’

    Ben, by all means criticise me for what I say if you disagree with it but not for what I do not say. Nothing in what I wrote implies ‘we in Wales are incapable’ or ‘we are a failed nation’ or ‘there is no one in Wales with the ability.’ If those are your opinions, they are certainly not mine. By now my third article should be posted, in which I make it clear that the problem is that our business leadership class is underdeveloped – a point made by Rhodri Morgan, among others – and that our political leadership class is unworthy of us.

    Mark, sorry about the ‘moaning’ but can anyone, on either side of the argument, be cheerful about the present situation of our country?

  8. John Winterson Richards – I have to stick up for Ben. You clearly imply that the members in the Assembly are a lower calibre than Westminster. Do you mean less able at fiddling expenses and other corrupt practices they do so well? You also say “This is a bit like a failed platoon leader …” which clearly implies the Assembly has failed ie. a “failed state”.

    Let’s look at your other 4 points you imply are fact:-

    1. Encourage moves towards independence – standing on the beach with a stop sign will not stop the tide coming in.

    2. Struggling to find a role – The Assembly has always been clear on its role. The problem is that it was created as a deliberately inferior body because the Labour Party see us that way. The English Labour Party refused to allow it to be like the Scottish Parliament (incidentally there’s nothing factually or implied that gives the term “Parliament” a superior status to “Assembly”. Parliament actually means “talking shop”!)

    4. Waste money on a fancy building – this was the Labour Party. However, let’s compare it with Westminster. Didn’t it build something with vast cost overruns with not expense spared. I think it’s called Portcullis House? Have you complained about that? Yes, government costs. Democracy costs. But not as much as neither.

    5. Not economy or improve public services relative to the rest of the UK – There’s little that the Welsh Government can do economically. Some 80% remains the fault of Westminster. As for public services, granted, there’s not a lot in it but overall I’d day that there are a lot of public services in England worse than Wales. I’d say that Health was a bit worse in England and their Education system’s performance is propped up by the private sector. Our poor performance is the result of a system imposed on us from England that has never really worked, and Labour and the Unions won’t admit it. But the old system is not a solution either.

    In fact, the performance of Westminster is worse. What a useless shower they are!

    If you want cheaper government get rid of Westminster and Whitehall and split it between Cardiff and Edinburgh. Then listen to the squeals of “sovereignty”. They’re making enough noise that a generation hasn’t been consulted on membership of the EU. WE have NEVER have been consulted on being ruled by England. Even now, in Scotland, Unionists think that Scotland should not have a say at all. What utter and complete ant-democratic and tyrannical hypocrisy!!

  9. Devolution is not a failure. Continuous Labour rule has been a failure. Indeed, the only time Wales’ economy outgrew the UK’s as a whole for two years running since 1995 was in 2009 and 2010, when Labour did not hold the economic development portfolio.

    In any other country, such catastrophic failures in government would have led to the electorate voting them out. In Wales, the Labour party are allowed to sit on their bums, twiddling their thumbs, spinning away any criticism while the electorate sit happily at home digesting the tripe coming out of labour leaflets: “keep the Tories out”, “vote Plaid, get Tory”, “the Tories this”, “Plaid that”.

    Labour are running Wales into the ground. We need an election and we need the electorate to wake up.

  10. Gwyn says: “The English Labour Party refused to allow it [the Assembly] to be like the Scottish Parliament”. Sadly many in Welsh Labour was complicit in this too

    kp says: “People from Wales always use the term ‘British’ when travelling outside of the UK.” What a breathtakingly ridiculous thing to say!

  11. Sounds like a Tory who knows they will never get to wreck havoc upon Welsh public services unless they abolish devolution. I think when people look at the damage the Conservative-Liberal Democrats are doing to public service in England, they are greatful for devolution

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