Ymlaen Comrades!

Crispin John

Such was the call from Darren Millar, Tory Whip and Shadow Minister for External Affairs and International Relations, during Plaid’s debate on Independence, which came on the last day of the Senedd’s Summer Term. Darren Millar was pointing out the electoral performance of Plaid Cymru in the last UK General Election and surmised that there wasn’t much popular support beyond the Party of Wales’ own ranks. Indeed – Plaid’s motion on holding a vote on an Indy Wales failed to gain any support from Members of the Senedd beyond their own benches.

It wasn’t surprising, but Ymlaen Comrades – for forward we have come. For Unionists and Nationalists alike, there is a noisome smell abounding in the corridors of Ty Hywel on the Independence question. Whether or not this odour – or perfume, depending on your point of view – permeates to the electorate across Wales, is another question. The debate, however, has moved beyond Yes Cymru’s lamppost stickers and the Tweets of those who’d rather see the Senedd turned into some sort of democratic mausoleum. It’s easy for websites such as this to be accused of being obsessed with the conundrum. The fact is, it’s becoming mainstream.

Before the Recess, the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party poached its first MS in the form of Gareth Bennett. Other recruits included Richard Taylor, previously of the Brexit Party, and Clare Mills, a Conservative County Councillor. They’ve upped their game on social media, adding snazzy graphics and reaching out to new followers. They say that Wales is “sleepwalking into Independence”. That said, they don’t seem to have explained how they would replace the Senedd, nor what it would cost. Their answer is to simply abolish it. They haven’t really differentiated their message between the perceived failings of 20 years of Labour administration in Government and the legislature – for the two are very different beasts.

Does it matter? Well, they will need to come up with answers to these key questions before the next Senedd elections, but let’s remember that their name alone – without any real campaigning – got them almost 5% last time around. With UKIP and the Brexit Party changing their own policies on devolution, it’s starting to become a crowded field. I’ve previously argued that these parties risk splitting the anti-devo vote. And yet, in the last few days, others have come out to sound the alarm bell.

On Twitter this week, South Wales Central MS David Melding has said that he feels the Union will end in the 2020s. He appears to be arguing for some sort of “federal” UK, an idea that may not resonate with many traditional Conservatives. David Melding has perhaps become increasingly outspoken in this regard in the last year or so. After all, he has announced that he won’t stand again next May. He has taken views on electoral and Senedd reform that could be best described as being ‘divergent’ from the Conservative line.

Melding is not the not the only Welsh Politician, however, who has sounded the claxon. In Carwyn Jones’s biography, he says “I think there is another way, a kind of federation, where you’ve got four equal nations who opt into that federation.” He claims there is great appetite within the Labour Party for constitutional change. I must admit I haven’t sensed that from speaking to colleagues on that side of the political fence, but it is abundantly clear that – whilst the political classes may not be sleepwalking into the Independence debate – they are at least consciously coupling themselves to it.

The voices of Nationalist and Anti-devolution protagonists are getting louder on social media. Each claim some sort of ownership over the argument which, to their mind, inherently makes their cause just. The problem remains, however, that the majority of the People of Wales still don’t turn out for Senedd elections, and their voice remains silent.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, there will rightly be a spotlight on how Governments – devolved or central – have performed. That is one thing. Whether or not it is right for devo-sceptics or pro- Nationalists to use that to advance their own causes remains a moot point. Labour and the Conservatives will need to think carefully about how they approach this question, and whether there is some middle ground which they can exploit. By appealing to those whose views on Devolution and/or Independence are clearly one way or the other, the other parties are potentially heading for an own goal, which sees them frozen out of the conversation that the rest of the electorate – the middle ground – want and deserve.

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