Is Welsh devo-scepticism beginning to unravel?

9 April 2021

10:36 PM

9 April 2021

10:36 PM

Calls to abolish the Welsh parliament are nothing new: Wales rejected devolution in 1979 and voted only by the smallest of margins for partial self-government almost 20 years later. In spite of this, the Welsh political establishment have embraced the potential of devolved politics over the last two decades.

And so the devo-sceptics have never had a way to deliver their mission. But they didn’t go away. Quite the opposite: abolitionists have been given a new lease of life throughout the last 12 months. They have latched on to the backward perception that the Welsh cannot govern themselves, and have attacked Mark Drakeford and Labour throughout the pandemic for making different Covid decisions to London ‘for the sake of it’. For them, it is devolution rather than a Downing Street hellbent on centralisation which has plagued UK governance. A decent minority of Welsh unionists agree.

There is no clearer evidence for this than a dramatic Welsh Political Barometer poll published last month. According to the poll, the Abolish the Welsh Assembly party are on course to win four seats in the Senedd they want to dismantle. Additionally the Welsh Conservatives, rather than vying to enter government in Cardiff Bay, are riding the devo-sceptic wave by selecting abolitionist candidates, resisting further powers for the Welsh Parliament as well as rejecting calls for any more politicians in Cardiff Bay, despite the institution being dreadfully understaffed.

Abolish have had a real impact on Welsh politics, probably just as much as the independence campaigners in YesCymru. Devo-sceptics like to see themselves therefore as savvy political operators, taking the fight to the Tafia that dominate the Welsh civil service, the BBC in Cardiff, and the wider public sector. In reality they are a mixed bag of former Tory and Ukip MPs, including former Welsh Brexit party leader Mark Reckless (remember him?) who were hopelessly lost after Brexit and went searching for another cause.

They have no policies for Wales – aside from robbing the nation of its parliament – although the party has successfully tapped into a feeling that Cardiff Bay feels just as remote as Westminster; an institution that serves the Welsh-speaking middle-classes of west Wales and nobody else. In that light being a one-issue party is a good strategy: four seats in the Senedd for an anti-devolution group sends a clear message to those who have taken the country for granted.

It was all going so well too. A campaign was launched earlier this month which forced BBC Wales to invite Abolish to attend its television election debates. Their appearance at the end of this month in people’s living rooms will be the first opportunity for much of the Welsh public to put a face to a party name. However instead of a party that looks ready for an election, events over the past week suggest the public can look forward to a chaotic performance.

On Wednesday it was announced that one of the party’s highest profile candidates, Gareth Bennett, would no longer be standing for Abolish. The former Ukip member of the Welsh Parliament, who joined the party last year, will run as an independent in May instead. No reason was given for his departure from the party.

In his previous outings for the Kippers, Bennett compared areas of Cardiff to Saudi Arabia and in 2017 stormed out of the Senedd chamber after refusing to withdraw remarks about transgender people. He also spent £10,000 of public money on an office that never opened. So much for that Senedd gravy train he and Abolish want to derail.

But it’s not just Bennett’s departure that marks a dishevelled start to the revolutionary devo-sceptic campaign. Abolish leader Richard Suchorzewski also revealed that on the whole ten candidates had dropped out of standing on May 6 before finalising their electoral line-up yesterday, citing ‘Welsh nationalist abuse and fear of reprisals.’ Perhaps what Mr. Suchorzewski means is that he doesn’t like the fact that inappropriate comments made by his supporters in the party’s private Facebook group have now been exposed to a wider audience. Or the scrutiny around a party activist who was reprimanded last week for posting a picture of Leanne Wood which described the former Plaid Cymru leader as the ‘ugly face of nationalism’. Charming, as you would expect.

The biggest problem for the devo-sceptics is that they are entirely out of step with the wider public mood on devolution in Wales: a Beaufort Research survey published this week for the Western Mail showed that there is support for maintaining the Senedd across adults of all age groups, genders, non-Welsh speakers, regions and social grades.

This may not concern Abolish, of course. Their strategy is based on collecting as many votes as possible from the 20 per cent in Wales who do want the Senedd to be scrapped. Yet that is a very low and hard ceiling, and will not lead to long-term success. Instead Abolish may have more luck continuing to infiltrate the Welsh Conservatives. As concerns over nationalism continue to swirl in Number 10, this could have the effect of shifting the Welsh Tories to embrace a more blatant abolitionist stance against what is likely to be a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition.

Devo-scepticism is not something to be complacent about if devolution is a cause you are committed to, like me. Abolish of course have every right to make their case for a Wales with no elected parliament on the campaign trail in the weeks ahead. But the question is whether their initial boost due to the breakdown of British governance will last all the way until May 6 and beyond.

Wales, after all, is not a unionist nor a nationalist country: it is overwhelmingly devolutionist. That isn’t likely to change ahead of next month’s election. In fact, if the trends over the last two decades are anything to go by it’s likely that support for devolution is only set to rise even further. It appears that devo-sceptics are set to find that out the hard way. It’s only a matter of time.

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