Lucius Winslow is an MA Politics student at Queen’s University Belfast. He also takes an interest in history, and has written several novels.
In 1994, responding to the devolutionary thinking in the Labour Party, then Prime Minister John Major blasted the proposals for a Welsh Assembly (among other constitutional reforms) as one of the ‘most dangerous propositions’ the Opposition had put forth. That there was widespread hostility to devolution in the Conservative and Unionist Party was unsurprising; 1886 and all that…
Yet what was less noticed was the ambiguity of the Labour Party towards devolution. In particular large segments of the Welsh Labour Party were appalled by the idea, fearing it would compromise their grip on the Welsh political process.
These fears were not misplaced. The Labour Party has a fairly spectacular ability to shoot itself in the foot: pledging to increase taxes in 1992; the long flirtation with the Militant Tendency and, indeed, Foot. So it should come as no surprise that the Blair Ministry selected a complicated system of proportional representation for the Welsh Assembly, rather than single member plurality. And so instead of dominating the Assembly as they might have, they have had to scrape by with minority and coalition governments. Needless to say this has exasperated much of the Labour establishment in Wales.
The Assembly also serves as a much-needed forum for the winsomely pathetic Plaid Cymru, the SNP’s ungainly relatives. They have little to say, and aren’t terribly good at saying it. Yet nevertheless Plaid have been able to play about with their toy parliament, even though they have slumped horribly – in stark contrast to their Scottish counterparts.
Amongst the once-centralist Tories, there has been something of a reconciliation to devolution. Apart from anything else the conservative mind fears and laments change, until that change becomes the new status quo. There (usually) follows pragmatism to the change, and then acceptance towards it. The result is that now devolution has arrived, and is here in all probability forever, the Conservatives must learn to live with it, if not love it.
This acceptance, made easier by a long period in Opposition across the United Kingdom, has allowed for some innovation. In contrast to Thatcher, who felt the need to slay local government forces addicted to wasteful spending, the party under Cameron has championed ‘localism’ as a way of increasing competition, and thus reducing the scope of the state.
The Labour Party has started to become aware of the dangers of this divide-and-conquer strategy. And with Labour back in sole power in Cardiff (albeit with only half of the Assembly seats) a further shift seems to be occurring, picked up on, among others, by The Economist in its ‘Reluctant Dragon’ article of November last year. This is the fear amongst London Labour that the Welsh branch will, if given the chance, implement unreconstructed social democracy, which will act as the perfect election material for the Tories in England, which can point to the Westminster alternative.
The divergence between the education policies of London and Cardiff is a case in point, and few should doubt that Labour is on the politically-embarrassing and electorally unproductive side of it.
And so should the Silk commission’s recommendation for the devolution of income tax to Wales come to the fore it seems likely Labour will quietly try to wreck it, whilst the Tories push it forward, not least because of their desire to increase tax competition. In other words, in Wales the Conservative Party have become the federalists, and the Labour Party the centralists. When Major made that denunciation in 1994, who would have predicted that?Share on Facebook