John Winterson Richards says Cameron’s response to Silk means he can no longer be bothered to defend the UK as a unitary state
There is no satisfaction in being proved right if you happen to be a pessimist. Just check out Aeschylus and look at what actually happened to Cassandra.
Early in 2010, just before the last General Election, an article in the Institute’s Agenda predicted that the impetus for increased autonomy for Wales might come from a Conservative-led government in London. So David Cameron’s announcement granting the Welsh Assembly tax and borrowing powers – subject to a referendum which will be a rubber stamp in the absence of a properly organised and financed opposition – comes as no great surprise. Nor is it a shock that the likes of Lord Bourne, former leader of the Conservatives in the National Assembly, say they welcome the move.
Responding to Silk
This is the second of a series of articles this week on the UK Government’s response last week to the Silk Commission’s recommendations on tax and borrowing powers for the National Assembly.
Tomorrow: Peter Jones says the granting of tax powers to Wales could alter the course of the Scottish referendum.
It is still a very significant moment for Wales, for the Union, and for the Conservative party. It means in effect that the most Unionist of the main political parties can no longer be bothered to defend the United Kingdom as a unitary state. The London media, far from protesting, barely covered the story.
Only the politically naive will buy the line that this will attract ‘moderate devolutionist’ voters in Wales to the Conservatives. If a substantial body of such voters exists – which is itself questionable – it is mainly among Labour supporters, and therefore beyond the reach of the Conservatives whatever they do. In any case, there are already three more sincerely pro-devolution parties on the ground to which the Conservative leadership is trying to move.
No, this has nothing to do with improving the position of the Welsh Conservatives. It is, on the contrary, another confirmation that they no longer matter. Someone in London has made the brutal calculation that the loss of a handful of Welsh and Scottish Conservative MPs is a price worth paying for getting dozens of leftists from Wales and Scotland out of Westminster – at least in the longer term when the West Lothian Question is finally answered.
In the short-term, however, the mathematics may work against the Conservatives. This is because, while their newfound support for the Assembly is unlikely to win them any new friends, it is likely to add to the dissatisfaction of existing supporters with the current direction of the party.
Welsh Unionists are effectively being abandoned by the last party that even pretended to represent them. Of course, it must be stressed that the words ‘Unionist’ and ‘Conservative’ are far from synonymous. There are a surprising number of people with generally Tory values who nevertheless feel the emotional appeal of the idea of an independent Wales. Some are Plaid supporters, but others are regular Conservative voters, even party members. Equally, there are still at least some old-school centralising leftists who believe devolution a mistake but who would never even consider voting Conservative. That said, in general there has always been a strong correlation between Unionists and Conservatives. Both sides in the devolution debate make the assumption that an autonomous or independent Wales is more likely to adopt left-wing policies, which is precisely why many on the left are in favour, and why anti-socialists tend to be against it.
So it made sense for the Conservatives to view Welsh Unionists as their own niche market. After all, no one else has been competing for that target segment, and there are more potential Unionists than Conservatives. The potential Conservative vote in Wales is probably in the region of 20-35 per cent. On the other hand, the potential Unionist vote, depending on precise definition, is between 30-50 per cent, perhaps more, if it was ever properly organised and financed.
If Conservatives benefitted from Unionists, the opposite has also been true. After a chaotic start, the ‘No’ campaign in the 1997 referendum was discreetly taken over by the Conservatives, and nearly pulled off a spectacular victory against the odds. However, in 2011 the Conservatives and the ‘No’ campaign kept their distance from each other, with predictable results. The marriage now seems to be over – or at least Mr Cameron has left the marital home.
Although some have tried hard to create one, there is no unifying ideology or dogma of ‘Conservatism’. The Conservative party is no more than a pragmatic alliance of diverse ideologies and interests united only by their opposition to socialist collectivism. Elements of that alliance – including the small business community, libertarians, and religious traditionalists – are very disappointed by the Cameron administration. Unionists may now be added to that list.
David Cameron’s advisers seem to think that so long as the economy improves – and the latest reports are encouraging – the fear of a Labour government alone will be enough to keep these disappointed supporters voting Conservative.
They are badly mistaken.
The Prime Minister surrounds himself with people like himself, with little or no grassroots political experience. They rely on polls, not doorsteps. They lack that instinct for understanding how non-politicians think – and why they vote – which comes only from practical experience. They are making the same errors that cost them the 2010 election. They do not sense the ‘plague on all their houses’ mood that hangs heavy in the air.
Support for any political party is a moral compromise. Vopters are unlikely to support the party’s whole programme, but they support it because, (i) it shares more of their values than any other party; and, (ii) because a mainstream party is in a stronger position to advance those values than any individual.
The Welsh Conservatives, apparently now bereft of distinctive values, and marginalised both in Wales and within their own party, meet neither of those criteria – so why should anyone bother voting for them?
All is not yet lost. As recent polling in Scotland has confirmed, target voters tend to like David Cameron as a man, or rather they do not actively dislike him. He does not provoke the extremes of emotion – devotion or hatred – that Margaret Thatcher did, or the undeserved derision that haunted poor John Major. That his opponents are reduced to juvenile and dated class-war attacks on his background and education shows that it is hard to find anything more substantial against him. There is a lot of sense in his line that there is such a thing as society but it should not be equated with the state. His ‘Big Society’ is a bad name for what could be a good idea. His real position on Europe seems to be one of sceptically-inclined pragmatism, which may be more in tune with the British people than UKIP’s unyielding Europhobia or the Europhilia now embraced by the parties of the left, some more sincerely than others.
The challenge for him and his party in Wales is to come up with a positive reason – beyond fear of a likely Labour government that actually looks little different from their own – why even the Tory-inclined should make that journey to the polling station to support them on election day.
If not defence of the Union, then what?