Nicholas Webb joined the Conservative Party in 1998 and has served as a Parish Councillor. Most recently he was a founder member of South Gloucestershire Conservative Future.
Prior to the last general election I commented to friends that the outcome would decide if Welsh devolution was here for the long-term. In Scotland, the Parliament had been well established and the National Assembly for Wales was heading in the same direction. At that election the Conservative policy for Wales was the so-called ‘preferrendum’. This was muted to contain options ranging from scrapping the Assembly to independence. It led to some disagreement with Assembly Conservative leader Nick Bourne supporting the status quo while, then Shadow Secretary of State, Bill Wiggin made clear his preference for abolishing the institution. In the end neither view mattered, Labour won the general election and questions over the long-term status of Welsh devolution were answered – it is here to stay.
In the year following the election two developments further cemented its permanence. The impressive, but expensive, ‘Senedd’ debating chamber was opened. The other change came in Conservative policy as David Cameron and new Secretary of State Cheryl Gillan moved on from the ‘preferrendum’ and announced their support for the current devolution settlement. However, the party maintained its opposition to further powers being devolved.
This last point is a rather problematic policy position. During the devolution referendum Conservatives and others in the ‘just say no’ campaign argued that the Assembly would just be an expensive ‘talking shop’. Nearly a decade on the policy seems to want maintain it as just a talking shop.
David Cameron is now talking of English votes for English only matters; implicitly this will also take account of the complex variations between Westminster and Cardiff Bay. However, there needs to be a more explicit plan to improve the devolution settlement. During the recent smoking ban debate the folly of the current system was highlighted. Assembly Members decided to support a ban along the lines of that in Ireland but had to wait while the debate over an English smoking ban took place and a decision was made in Westminster before the ban could be implemented.
There is reasonable confidence that in 2007 the Conservatives will become the official opposition in the National Assembly, at present Plaid Cymru are just one seat ahead. The Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru are fighting to be more socialist than Labour and the route is clear for a pragmatic centre-right Conservative Party to establish themselves as a strong opposition. At least that would be the case if one purely looked at the figures. The Conservatives were right to support the view of their members and oppose devolution in 1997. However, the continued failure to embrace Welsh devolution in anymore than its current format have made it very difficult for the Welsh Conservative Party to establish themselves in the eyes of voters who see a weak Welsh wing of an English party. It would be wrong to support more powers purely as a party political PR tool, but I think there is a benefit for both Wales and the Conservative Party.
In conclusion, David Cameron is right to tackle the mis-match of the devolution . However, I feel that to merely support the current devolution settlement for Wales is unsatisfactory. Instead there needs to be a more progressive approach to look at which further powers will make the Assembly a more efficient institution.
Related link: William Graham AM on ‘Devolution in Wales‘