Christopher Harries is Chairman of Cardiff Central Conservative Association.
Last week witnessed the transformation of the Welsh Assembly into the Welsh Parliament, a presentational change that will not improve the lives of the people of Wales.
It is more than twenty years since the onset of devolution here with the creation of the National Assembly for Wales. Despite a narrow margin of victory (a mere 6,721 votes) in the original referendum, Tony Blair did not hesitate to implement the result and, in his own words, steamrolled devolution through.
After two decades it is time for unionists to accept the reality of devolution. Far from being a measure to preserve the United Kingdom by allowing a degree of national expression, it is a nation-building project, committed to an expansion of power which ultimately leads ever closer to independence.
Every new power gained is merely an encouragement to seek more, with us now seeing calls for justice, policing, welfare, and broadcasting to be devolved.
The assumptions of devolution, especially that it would abate calls for independence, have been shown as false. It has instead has provided a platform for Plaid Cymru, a launchpad from which their leader, Adam Price, aims to hold an independence referendum by 2030. While in Scotland, devolution created the conditions for the SNP to hold their own plebiscite in 2014.
Likewise the assumption that devolution would bring power closer to the people of Wales. In fact, it remains as remote as ever, centralised in Cardiff Bay. Communities across the country have been failed by the Assembly, but nowhere is this starker than in North Wales, whose failing health board has been in special measures for the last five years.
Welsh Labour’s support of further devolution is hardly surprising. They have lead the Welsh Government in one form or another since its genesis, and with each extra power accrued have enhanced their own importance.
But the Welsh Conservatives, who one might expect to be champions of the Union, have also been on a journey. Their official stance on devolution has evolved from opposition to acquiescence to facilitation. At the last referendum on powers in 2011, the party as a whole adopted a stance of neutrality, while its elected figures in Cardiff Bay supported the campaign to increase their powers.
This has to change. Whilst there is not yet public appetite for rolling back devolution, as the reality of it becomes clear, the Welsh Conservatives must become an electoral bulwark against further erosion of our Union.
Such an approach going forward should galvanise our support as the next election draws closer. The Tories are particularly badly affected by voter apathy towards the Assembly (turnout for a devolved election has yet to exceed 50 per cent!), with large numbers of our Westminster voters staying at home. With a new challenge to our unionist flank from Abolish the Assembly, the old ‘more powers’ tune will not be enough to build a winning Conservative coalition.
By adopting a critical approach to demands for more powers – which always entail laying blame at Westminster’s door – the Tories can help shift the spotlight back onto Labour’s disastrous exercise of the powers already vested in Cardiff Bay and show our sceptical voters that we’re not just devocrats of a different shade.