Welsh Assembly could be swept away by anti-establishment tide

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.

Andrew RT Davies is the Leader of the Welsh Conservatives.

19 thoughts on “Welsh Assembly could be swept away by anti-establishment tide

  1. Mr.R.T.Davies may well be right about this but is too hypothetical. There are no tools or mechanisms that I can think of to actually get rid, as it were. I can’t see that another referendum (of any kind) would be ‘allowed’ in the short term after the trauma of the EU vote, and the AMs are unlikely to vote for their own extinction. There is no article 50 in the devolution package between Westminster and Cardiff. Also the public are not that interested or engaged.
    What does get people’s goat and causes real anger is closer to home – the local county councils and the eye-wateringly immense salaries and pensions paid to public sector execs out of hard earned business rates and council tax revenues. If RTD wants to do some real campaigning on real issues then this would be a fruitful area to gain votes.

  2. There’s no evidence to support this claim. Only 13% want to abolish the Assembly, far fewer than want further powers http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/electionsinwales/wp-content/uploads/sites/100/2013/07/BBCICM-ST-Davids-Day2016.pdf

    This is less about what the people of Wales want and more about what the Tories want. Now that they’re likely to be in gov in Westminster in the long term, it makes sense for them to erode one of the last bastions of Labour’s power in Wales. This isn’t a warning, it’s a hint at their future strategy.

  3. We had a referendum on the EU because Tory MPs were fearful of losing their seats as their supporters switched to UKIP. Basically a group of MPs in their own interests voted to risk the involvement of the UK in another parliament but whatever the result their collective involvement in the parliament at Westminster would have continued.
    For the equivalent thing to happen in Wales it would need a majority of AMs supporting the abolishment of the Assembly to be elected or for the government at Westminster to abolish the assembly unilaterally.
    I wouldn’t say either are likely .

    To me this looks like RH Davies’ s Brexit excuse for Wales. Presumably he hasn’t made a similarly dire warning for the UK as a whole as he believes the UK’s Tory government will be making Brexit a success. So at least no sadness at the thought of the proposition that the Westminster Parliament be abolished. Then on the other hand it means there’s no Brexit excuse either.

  4. Make no doubt about it, the vote to leave the European Union (I’ve had a gutsful of ‘Brexit’) was an anti-establishment vote by people who feel they have no control. The EU has been used a scape goat. It was also a British nationalist vote. These two factors could prove fatal if the anti-Welsh Assembly factions are allowed to develop a discourse around what they see as remote government. That’s if they are allowed to however, because it must be borne in mind in the light of Andrew’s comments that an ICM poll shortly after the EU referendum found that support for Welsh independence was at 17% (35% if it meant Wales could re-join the EU). Considering how little have previously supported independence, it is not naive to suggest that more also support the less ‘extreme’ option of retaining devolution. It should also be remembered how the same poll found that Wales would actually vote Remain given a 2nd referendum. The situation is not as simple as the Conservative and Unionist politician would like us to believe. The vote must be respected however, that is essential.

  5. ¨Anti-establishment feeling¨ you say, but the central question is ¨which establishment?¨ I think.

    In Scotland the Parliament has become a focus of anti-Westminster feeling, and acted as a bulwark against some of the worst excesses of Tory austerity etc. Naturally in such circumstances it can only go from strength to strength.

    Somehow, the Welsh Assembly seems to have placed itself on the wrong side of the argument. At least to many of the public it is in the same boat of Westminster, a bunch of politicians looking out for themselves, not for the people; at least not beyond the ¨Cardiff bubble¨. No surprisingly, folk ask, ¨what´s it for?¨

    But then if you´re not going to elect AM´s who stick up for Wales and raise its profile as a nation, then indeed what is the point of having and paying for an Assembly? The EU result, on the face of it, has placed Wales squarely alongside England, and apart from Scotland and Northern Ireland. Many will take that as a green light for Wales´ final assimilation by England. Abolishing or weakening the Assembly would just be the first step.

    Honestly it beats me trying to understand why you haven´t effectively used the tools you´ve been given, limited thought they are?

  6. Where does article lead? Is the next thing from the Conservative party another referendum on the Welsh Assembly led by Andrew RT Davies who prior to the Brexit vote promised no less money for Wales, a stance that Alun Cairns is wriggling and wriggling gloriously out of? Please no. Wales needs a good press that everyone reads so that Wales gets a chance to hear about the issues that affect us all: northerners, southerners, speakers and non-speakers, English and Welsh.
    Welsh issues are invisible in London. Let’s never lose sight of that.

  7. Er why is this ‘debate’ even occuring? What has prompted these sudden warnings about the very existence of welsh devolution? It’s not as if there’s been a groundswell of support among people in Wales to get rid of the senedd. A party which stood on a platform of abolition polled less than 5 percent in May’s elections, while poll after poll has consistently shown negligible figures for abolition. And of course in the last real test of welsh opinion on devolution 5 years ago the electorate voted by a margin of two to one to increase the senedd’s powers.

    Yes ive no doubt some of those behind the brexit campaign would like to see wales returned to direct rule from westminister – you only have to look at some of the comments on some online forums to see that. But even Ukip – the chief proponents of brexit – no longer advocates abolition, and there is simply no evidence the tens of thousands of people across wales who voted for brexit are anti welsh devolution.

    Furthermore if this alleged anti political mood is so strong how come there arent a rash of sudden warnings from people like Andrew RT Davies about the existence of the westminister parliament being in danger from this ‘prevailing mood’? Or are the instutions of the british state – bastions of the ‘establishment’ like westminister and the house of windsor – somehow immune from this supposed popular revolt?

    I dont see any evidence of any ‘popular revolt’ in wales against devolution at all – but i do see mischief making by politicians who frankly should know better.

  8. Both Jeremy Miles and Lee Waters of Labour have publicly stated their concern about the vulnerability of devolution so Mr Davies is simply jumping on the bandwagon. He describes himself as a passionate pragmatist; in other words unprincipled. When he saw the way the wind was blowing when devolution was established, he jumped on the bandwagon. Now that he hears talk in the media of the Assembly’s vulnerability in the wake of the Brexit vote, he’s preparing to jump off it.

    The political point of substance however is well made by Miles and Waters. In the first referendum that established the Assembly, the turnout was 50.22%. In the second referendum that gave the Assembly legislative powers, the turnout was 35.63%. In the five elections we’ve had since the Assembly’s establishment, the turnouts have been 46.3%, 38.2%, 43.7%, 42.2% and 45.3%. This represents substantial support but not the ringing endorsement that say a 55% or 60% would represent.

    However there is a danger of taking one snapshot and projecting that forward as a future trend. Professor Scully has indicated that there is no evidence to indicate such a backlash towards the Assembly. That doesn’t mean that it won’t emerge but it’s important to note that we have yet to reach that point.

    What can the Assembly do then to engage with the Welsh public more effectively? One practical suggestion made by Mr Davies some time ago was the re-establishment of 4-yearly electoral terms for the Assembly. I wrote to him personally to endorse this idea even though I am not and never will be a Tory. It is not a silver bullet but it would go some way to showing that accountability is of greater importance than the administrative convenience that a 5-year term gives a government.

    My personal gripe is that the Assembly, after 17 years, has failed to make any progress on the issue of prosperity for Welsh citizens. This is not to say that the Government has not been working hard to attract investment and with some success. But it has been a case of running fast to stand still. This was not what was promised and people will find it easier to make the case against the Assembly if if does not deliver on its promises. As an aside, it would be more useful to hear from the Welsh Conservatives what they intend to do pragmatically to rectify the damage being done to the Welsh economy by the Brexit vote.

    There are two points of caution that I would add to the above assertion. The EU was not short on delivering tangible resources to Wales which can be seen the length and breadth of our country in terms of projects of economic and local significance. It did not prevent the people of Wales voting to leave the EU together with the English.

    Secondly, there is no guarantee that, if the Assembly did make a dent in Wales’ economic under-performance, it would get the credit. The tactic of the Conservatives in Westminster, of taking credit for good economic news for Wales and blaming Labour in Cardiff Bay when the news is negative, is a familiar one.

    However It would be wrong to conspire in the view that everything is going Brexit’s way since the referendum result. I was talking with a work colleague who had voted Leave in the referendum. He expressed the view however that now he had a better idea of the consequences of leaving the EU, he was beginning to regret his decision. The phenomenon of Bregretters has been well reported in the press and other media. The situation therefore is far from settled despite the protestations of the Brexiteers. It is certainly currently too unstable to see how things are going to pan out until both Westminster and Cardiff Bay return to begin the new political term in the autumn.

  9. I see the situation differently, perhaps with the eyes of an outsider. The way the Brexit vote rolled out was a shock, which placed the party in power in an interesting position in the first 100 days following the election. The challenge: to place the governance of Wales for the next five years on a sure footing in the wake of a vote that undermined a key element in future governance – the legal, regulatory and financial influence beyond Westminister provided by the EU.

    The Welsh Assembly passed an impressive array of laws during the past five years the administration of which will take several years to put in place. That does not happen overnight, which is something that legislators and public servants have not appreciated. Perhaps the proposed reform of local government rattled too many chains.

    The outcome of Brexit is a long game. Play it that way from a strong base.

  10. This seems to be more a statement of intent by the Tories to abolish the WAG and return Wales to direct Mess-Minster misrule whatever the cost to Wales and the Welsh. Unionist (English) nationalists are on a roll they and the English (sorry British media lol) will use the same black propaganda against the WAG

  11. This is a significant article. For the first time, a leading Welsh politician has grasped that the basic rules are changing.

    The People of Wales and of the United Kingdom have shown that we are quite capable of voting away an entire level of government – and that means we are quite capable of doing it again

    …which is why it is highly unlikely that we will be offered the opportunity to do so. Indeed, all the signs are that the Establishment will now be very wary of referenda for some time to come.

    However, that only makes it all the more urgent for the main parties to reconnect with their respective bases if there is not to be a crisis of democracy in this country as there is in the United States and several European countries. In the case of the Welsh Conservatives, that means admitting they are out of position with the majority of their supporters on devolution as they were on Europe. Why should the Tory-inclined vote for a party whose Welsh policy is to give more powers – including tax powers – to an Assembly that will be controlled by socialists?

    The patience of the People is not inexhaustible.

  12. “Indeed, all the signs are that the Establishment will now be very wary of referenda for some time to come” writes John Winterson Richrds – er i thought it was people like yourself and nigel farage who are opposed to a ‘second referendum’ on the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU?

    As for your question “Why should the Tory-inclined vote for a party whose Welsh policy is to give more powers – including tax powers – to an Assembly that will be controlled by socialists?” well if the Assembly is controlled by socialists isnt that because of the failure of conservative ideas to ‘connect’ with people in Wales?

    You seem to have forgotten the fact that Andrew RT Davies himself fought the recent senedd election on a commitment to cut the rate of income tax in wales, using the new tax varying powers Wales is soon set to gain. Seems to me that it’s the democratic decision making of the welsh electorate youre afraid of? So because they wont vote in sufficient numbers for a income tax slashing party you want to deny the Senedd having such powers at all. If that’s not ‘elitist’ i dont know what is!

  13. JWR Yet the Welsh Labour government shows scant support for Mr Corbyn, who is a socialist. They seem to favour a paler shade of pink. International experience anyway is that devolution of taxes tends to flatten tax schedules or even reduce taxes – the result of tax competition – so perhaps the Conservatives know what they are about. They have certainly been promising to cut devolved taxes. I don’t know about the patience of the people but it can’t be shorter than their perspicacity about economics. They will swallow any old rubbish as they keep demonstrating.

  14. At last someone has woken up. For thirty years from a business and community level i have been engaged on behalf of ordinary citizens with all levels of welsh government and uk govrnment. My views are clear and strong based on those experiences. Scrap not just the assembly but all the local authorities. They represent cabals of power centered mainly aroundthe now toxic labour party in my opinion the worst of all the parties. Full of hypocrites and self seekers.
    If wales is to grow strong as nation in union with its fellows countrymen and women in england scotland and ireland. These cabals need to go. Uniform busines rates and council tax are tearing whole communities and business apart. Planning consent for anyone with money can be easily bought against the wishes of the communities. Draconian waste manegement practices based upon lies and myths ( cardiff for example states proudly that it has a superb recycling achievement, all based upon lies. Including incinerator ash as part of its bogus figures unlike any other authority). Threatening its citizens with wast and taffic fines is just tip of a very rotten monolith illegally parading around in the stolen clothes of democracy to give itself respectability. We need more power to ordinary citizens our structurs are sick and should go.

  15. Mr Tredwyn, what you say about tax levels is right in theory – in theory but not in Wales! You make a good comment on a subsequent post about the need for a radical economic plan and the lack of one. While you are right that Welsh Labour have a ruthless practical streak that saves them from the wilder fantasies of Jeremy’s Islington chums, they are still too socialist to contemplate tax cutting in order to build the economic base, the keystone of such a radical plan.

    What the Conservatives might propose the Assembly does is, of course, irrelevant because is it practically impossible to construct a scenario in which they ever win power there. That is the whole point.

  16. How was Brexit anti-establishment again? It seemed to have loads of establishment members of the Tory party supporting it. It had big business backers, even big stockbrokers and members of the Lords. They even claimed to have the support of the Queen.

    Yes the Queen. That major anti-establishment figure the Queen. Miss anti-establishment herself.

    What is really interesting about all this ‘establishment’ discussion is how the ‘establishment’ has managed to take-over and run the ‘anti-establishment movement and, through Brexit, has ensured that more power goes back to that ‘establishment’.

    Remarkable how easily people fall for it. But we’re not able to criticise the electorate for falling for it of course.

  17. “Remarkable how easily people fall for it” – alas it certainly is Alex 🙁 What was it someone once said about “the bigger the lie the more people will believe it”. The recent brexit campaign seemed to adopt this infamous boast as one of its key tactics.

  18. Leigh, it is somewhat disconcerting to be told one’s own opinions by someone whom one has, as far as one can recall, never met! It is equally surprising to discover, from the same source, that one is an associate of Nigel Farage. Well, one lives and learns…

    On your more serious point, devolution has not been accompanied by a parallel development of civic culture. So long as Wales remains dominated by tribalism, poor education, and uncritical media, political awareness will remain stunted.

  19. What has the Assembly done for us? I suppose it has placed power in the hands of welsh people for the first time in British history. Its existence has created several hundreds of thousands of comments on social media, discussions within work places and homes, and allowed the people of Wales to have a good old moan at and about their elected representatives.
    So whether Mr A.R.T. Davies is correct, and the assembly is close to being abolished. His view as well as all counter views will be thought about, discussed and decided upon by the people of Wales, when the people of Wales determine the time is right to have that debate and vote. And that time is not now.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy