Andrew RT Davies questions the public’s support for devolution in Wales in the current political climate.
The result of the EU referendum has thrown the Welsh political establishment into a tailspin. Not since 1997, when the National Assembly was established on a low turnout, by a margin of just 6700 votes, has this place felt so vulnerable – and with good reason.
In June, voters across Wales gave the entire establishment a kicking. They were resentful of ‘project fear’ and dismissed the idea that they should be grateful to a distant and remote institution for which they felt no warmth, and from which tangible benefits were difficult to discern.
It’s no coincidence that anti-EU feeling was at its most profound and concentrated in precisely the areas said to ‘benefit’ most from EU funding.
Yet the political establishment – and, in particular, the Welsh Labour Government and the Welsh nationalists – seems to be in a dangerous state of denial; neither appearing to accept the result, nor understand the impact it could have on the Welsh Assembly.
Last week a fellow farmer asked me if I thought a referendum on devolution could be won in the new post-Brexit landscape, or if the contagion would spread beyond Brussels and engulf Cardiff Bay if voters were asked to have their say on the Assembly again.
The fact of the matter is that I don’t think that such a campaign could be won today. The result was tight in 1997, but if the question were put to the people tomorrow I believe that they would vote to abolish the National Assembly.
I say that with no pleasure. In fact, the proposition saddens me.
But it’s reflective of the failure of successive Welsh Governments that, in spite of a general desire for important decisions to be taken here in Wales, the National Assembly has been unable to establish itself in people’s minds as a cherished home of Welsh democracy.
Having initially opposed devolution, I have become a passionate but pragmatic advocate. I take huge pride in the role I have been elected to serve, even if I don’t believe that the Welsh Government has made the best use of the tools at its disposal to deliver for Welsh communities.
That’s why the reaction of the Welsh Government to the referendum has been so frustrating. There is a vein of anti-establishment feeling coursing through society, and it’s naiive and reckless to think that devolution would be immune to that.
Sadly, instead of seeking to reflect the will of the people they represent, the Welsh Government is now seeking to subvert the result of the referendum. Taking up a position of constant obstruction, and refusing to engage with people who campaigned for the ‘other side’.
Willing Brexit to fail for political reasons would be disastrous for Wales, and disastrous for devolution.
The backlash from voters, if it comes, will be intense. Having misjudged the mood of his own constituents, who voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU, the First Minister is in danger of compounding a problem of his own making.
In five Assembly elections, turnout has never exceeded 50%, and whilst the public may support the principal of local decision-making there is very little evidence to suggest any great affection for the Assembly itself.
We need to respond collectively and as an institution to the challenges posed by the result of the referendum, and address a growing sense of antagonism towards the political class.
We also need to ensure that communities across Wales feel that the National Assembly is representative, not distant and remote.
Frankly, if an institution as embedded as the European Union can be swept aside by the prevailing wind of public opinion, then it’s crazy to think that the Welsh Assembly would withstand it.