The silly season story with serious implications

Lee Waters considers voter alienation in the current political climate and how that might impact on support for the Welsh Assembly.


“Posing questions over our legitimacy is a dangerous place to go” Plaid Cymru AM Bethan Jenkins tweeted over the weekend; “Our Nation is stronger for having the @AssemblyWales”.

She was responding to an essay in the name of Welsh Conservative Leader Andrew RT Davies, in which he argued that Carwyn Jones has misread the lessons of the European referendum, and if there was a fresh vote on the future of the Assembly it would be lost

It has generated some excitement – as, indeed, it was meant to: the Tory Leader’s press office has form in generating eye-catching stories during the recess period; most disappear without trace. The message has been reinforced by a paid-for advertising campaign by the Welsh Conservatives on Twitter and supportive messages from Tory MPs – Vale of Clwyd MP (and English GP) James Davies tweeted ‘No political institution is popular, but constituents keep telling me they have no faith in the Welsh Assembly’.

RT’s argument in itself is something of a non sequitur, and is primarily concerned with Brexit, not devolution. As the News at 10 anchor Huw Edwards tweeted – in a rare foray into the political debate – “Logic fail: 2016 #Brexit referendum must be honoured, but 1997 #Wales referendum result can still be ‘questioned’.”

It is undoubtedly the product of a new political strategy to appeal to UKIP voters – and to try and peel off UKIP AMs to leave their chaotic group in the Assembly and cross the floor to augment the Tory group, and in doing so give it enough members to make it the official opposition in the Senedd.

It’s an unhelpful intervention because it diverts attention away from a matter of substance (which I’ll come to in a moment). But just as even a broken clock is right twice a day, Andrew RT Davies does have a point when he warns that in this mood of voter alienation no institution is safe.

It was a point made with force in the piece by the former Labour Police & Crime Commissioner candidate for North Wales , David Taylor, which set the line of argument in the first instance.There is no such thing as the ‘settled will of the people’”, he wrote; “The argument about where power should lie is never settled, and never won”.

In a follow-up piece to Taylor’s original article my colleague Jeremy Miles and I tried to develop the argument on the BBC Wales politics website.  We have to be on our guard, the Neath AM rightly pointed out. The Brexit vote was won by tapping into a disillusionment that is likely to become more intense as the vision of what Britain outside the EU looks like shapes into a different form to that which people thought they’d get. It’s the mirror argument of Andrew RT’s in a way – the Tory leader is saying that unless the Welsh Government get on board with implementing Brexit with gusto the public will turn on the Assembly, whereas Jeremy Miles is arguing that it is disillusionment resulting from the reality of the policies which flow from Brexit that we need to be most concerned about. And if the Assembly isn’t careful, that could contaminate people’s views of devolution.

Bad Generals, famously, fight the last war – so we must be careful concluding too much about the future of Welsh devolution from the rejection of the EU by the majority of people in Wales. There is no evidence that the feelings of alienation towards the European project cross-over to feelings about the devolution project. Indeed, in his only response to Andrew RT Davies First Minister Carwyn Jones tweeted “Hostility on the doorstep directed to Whitehall more than NAW. No complacency though”.

But there are parallels between the two issues. Devolution, like the EU, has primarily been an idea bought into by the elites, with public opinion lagging behind. For generations ‘thought leaders’ on both issues were content with the fact that those ‘in the know’ understood the benefits and the rest would follow, but June’s referendum showed the folly of that approach.

Public support for devolution has grown steadily since the Assembly was established in 1997, and a second referendum in 2011 confirmed that most people in Wales are behind it. Only 13% of people currently support its abolition. But the populist backlash towards everything resembling the establishment that has been unleashed by austerity is an unpredictable force. To date the Assembly has been seen to be on the right side of public opinion, but complacency could change that.

“If Wales rejected the collective establishment view on Brexit and took the seismic leap to support leaving an EU that brought in so much cash, rejecting devolution would be an effortless hop” David Taylor wrote. “Wales’s Assembly too often seems preoccupied with augmenting its own power and prestige at the expense of focusing on the serious structural problems in public services, and addressing long-term economic decline. A change of focus is required. If political leaders fail to grasp this, they should not be surprised if voters one day decide that their institution has become redundant”.

I agree with that.

The case for the Assembly was initially made on the back of devolution’s ability to transform the Welsh economy. On that test it has so far failed to fulfil its potential.  Despite continued efforts our basic economic state is the same now as it was then – weak compared to the rest of the UK. And the British economy outside of the EU could well shrink further. The head of the respected Institute of Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson, has recently written that we face “a seriously rocky period’ with a ‘significantly smaller’ economy in 15 years time as a result of Brexit (his piece is sobering, and worth reading in full).

It may well be that the economic storm won’t impact on people’s view of the continued need for the Assembly, indeed support may grow in troubled times. But the reverse is equally plausible, and I wouldn’t risk it. We need to fight like the future of devolution depends upon it, and come together – cross-party – to agree an economic plan that can silence the doubters and deliver on devolution’s promise.

Far from it being dangerous to point out the risk to the Assembly’s legitimacy, as Bethan Jenkins charged in her tweet, I think it is dangerous to ignore it.

Lee Waters is the Assembly Member for Llanelli.

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