Tory voters in Wales back a law-making parliament

Guy Aitchison
28 May 2008

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): There has been an extraordinary transformation in Tory attitudes to devolution in Wales. Around 40% of Welsh Tory voters now want the country to have a Parliament with law-making powers. Support for the status quo among Tory voters is at 26% and 27% want no devolution at all. The surprising figures are revealed in data from the Welsh Election Survey 2007 presented by Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully in today’s Western Mail. The popularity of this constitutional option amongst Tory voters mirrors the position of a majority of the party’s Assembly Members, including their leader Nicholas Bourne.

It’s worth reflecting on what a remarkable change of attitudes this has been, illustrating that devolution is, as Ron Davies used to say, “path dependent”- once devolved institutions are created there’s no going back and the dynamics at work support demands for ever-more powers. Back in 1997 when the referendum was held on a Welsh Assembly, Tory voters opposed devolution by a massive margin of 9:1. As recently as 2005 the party’s manifesto for the UK general election was promising Welsh voters a referendum on the abolition of the Assembly. Now, it seems, not only have Welsh Tories come to accept Wales’s new democratic institutions - they want them to have more power.

Unsurprisingly, the principal opposition within the party comes from the three Welsh Tory MPs at Westminster, with Stephen Crabb invoking the familiar Tory refrain of “save the Union”. The positioning here is not unlike that in Scotland, with Labour MPs much less enthusiastic about giving the Parliament more powers than their Holyrood counterparts. This could have important consequences if/when the Tories take power in Westminster. Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully note that:

"The increasing likelihood of a Conservative government at the UK level after 2010 will surely mean that the party’s internal divisions on this issue become the subject of more sustained scrutiny in coming months... With the party’s devo-sceptics forced to concede that there is no turning back the clock to the pre-devolution era, and the devolutionists unable to persuade their party of the merits of primary powers, Welsh Tories are left by default with the status quo – about which none are enthusiastic."

With the Tories in power, could David Cameron come under pressure from his own party at Westminster to prevent a referendum on law-making powers supported by all the main parties in the Assembly? There are no doubt a number of old Tory Unionists who’d be happy to see Westminster put its foot down in this way but I can’t imagine it happening myself. The Assembly has come to be accepted by a majority of the Welsh electorate, including the Tories, as representing the distinctive will of the Welsh people. Cameron would not want to challenge this and risk constitutional meltdown.

In the shorter-term there is the possibility that the hard-core rump of anti-devolutionists within the Labour party could convince Plaid Cymru that their interests are best served by resurrecting the “rainbow coalition” with the Tories and Lib Dems. The Wales Election Survey data released today would not convince them otherwise.

Update: Former Tory AM Glyn Davies is not at all surprised by these figures. He believes that giving law-making powers to the Assembly is the best way to save the Union and restore constitutional stability and explains why in his blog. 

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