The stirring of libertarianism in Wales

Nicolas Webb analyses emerging forces in Welsh politics.

Back in 2016, a political age ago, I wrote that there was a need for opposition backbenchers to increase diversity of opinion on the political right. Within the Senedd this point still stands, but there is a stirring of what at first glance appears to be grassroots libertarianism which is beginning to increase pressure on elected members. Three distinct organisations – which today total less than 2,000 social media followers between them – are starting the make some noise. And because this is coming from an angle which has not really been a factor in devolved Welsh politics, it is a phenomenon worthy of closer inspection.

In February, the Centre for Welsh Studies was launched, promising to be “the only Welsh think tank ready to cater for the seismic political realignment already underway” and stating, “it’s time to empower the individual”. There followed an event on the work of economist F A Hayek by Prof. Patrick Minford, which was attended by three current or former UKIP AMs, but no elected Conservatives. The think tank publicises its work as including a series of nine topics associated with centre-right politics. However, for the most part it has focused on advocating a pro-Brexit outlook with occasional criticism of taxation levels. It remains to be seen if the broader range of topics linked to empowering the individual will become higher profile. There are currently no further events listed.

In mid-October, a new campaigning organisation emerged on social media called Forge. The imprecise nature of the organisation perhaps makes it the most interesting of the three to consider. Speaking to a co-director of Forge, I was informed the group consisted of classical liberals, libertarians and conservatives. This included card-carrying members of the Conservative and Lib Dem Parties. Early engagement efforts from Forge focused on inviting answers to questions over immigration, and politician recall powers, but it moved into more opinion-led content. It championed David Davies MP over his criticism of constraints on free speech on university campus and criticised Cardiff City Council over bus station delays. By mid-November Forge had markedly stepped up its ambitions and 10,000 glossy leaflets were being handed out, calling for the First Minister to resign.

This presents a challenge to the group. Should they be pitching ideas which, as the co-director suggested, would “make a clear break with the political consensus in Wales” and move towards “responsible governance, small government and personal liberty”? Or will they instead seek an angle to take on the news story of the day? Apparently, the activism of Forge is not entirely welcomed by the Welsh Conservative Party who note the outspoken nature of some of its members. It is, of course, far too early to suggest the impact would be anywhere near the same, but there is a parallel between Momentum feeling that a social democratic Labour Party is not ideologically pure enough and a group which feels the Conservative Party has joined what the co-director referred to as a “cosy consensus”, and challenges from the political right.

While the Conservatives might be spooked by this, it might also jolt them into productive action. In a recent discussion with some English Tory MPs, it was striking how many had a strong analysis of the challenges the party faces, and good ideas to improve fortunes. But the conversations are all taking place among existing supporters while the rest of the electorate is going about its normal day and paying no attention. In Wales, thoughtful policy makers are drowned out by the tsunami of outrage from their more outspoken culture-warrior colleagues. Indeed, both the language of the Centre for Welsh Studies and Forge bears a passing resemblance to the rhetoric of the Leave campaign. When your correspondent somewhat mischievously put the charge to Forge that they might be seen as the Welsh alt-right the response came back “alt-right is the spoilt child tantrum rejection of the new politics of identity”.

In addition to these two politically focused groups, a new academic society has been established which, according to its President, aims to “give the ideas of freedom a voice on campus and ensure that Cardiff University remains an institution that upholds freedom of speech in times when university campuses are overwhelmed by a politically correct movement.”

Cardiff Students For Liberty did speak with the National Assembly’s outreach officer to argue against the proposed Bill for a minimum alcohol price, but is not seeking to be an actor in day-to-day Welsh politics. It has members who are also active with the Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and the UK Libertarian Party. Aside from suggesting that there may be a gap in the market for a niche libertarian Welsh nationalist campaign, this does portray a far broader outlook on the role of liberty within Welsh politics. Indeed, while your correspondent was not surprised to hear Ron Paul and Daniel Hannan held up as inspiration, the inclusion of Labour stalwart Paul Flynn MP for his support for legalising cannabis did come as more of a surprise.

Future discussions for the society will consider bitcoin and crypto-currencies. The society sees its long term aim as encouraging people to “start looking at the political divide as libertarianism vs. authoritarianism, instead of left wing vs. right wing”. In turn they feel that the “politicians and the National Assembly would follow.”

After initially pitching the idea of writing this article, its nature has changed a few times as I spoke to those involved. The outlooks of the organisations have similarities, but their objectives differ. The principled mission statements for each suggest a constructive role in widening debate, but the tone, which at times harks back to the more confrontational aspects of the EU Referendum campaign, is causing concern for some. Perhaps the key challenge will fall to the organisations’ lead figures to set a narrative for members which can widen debate and influence rather than hector politicians. The gradual breakdown of tribal party loyalty could well result in more organisations seeking to influence the political trajectory of Wales. Those in the political centre-ground must make a decision as to how engaged they are with such campaigns. To embrace might not be appropriate, but to ignore could only fuel the divisions cited between the current political class and the new challenge brought by ideal-driven political movements.

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Nicolas Webb is a public relations consultant and former Parliamentary candidate. He is on the board of the Welsh Refugee Council and the Gorwel think tank. He can be found on Twitter @ndwebb.

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