2010 looks set to be a historic year for Wales, and the wider UK as a whole. We could well see the most important general election result for 13 years, and if we do have a change of UK Government, the biggest challenge for devolution and Wales' still young democracy in its history.
How should we respond to this change? Even Wales looks as if it may (in many parts) seek to end its long love affair with radical and liberal politics, tempted by the lure of David Cameron's 'compassionate' Conservatism. It is an affair that may prove short lived. But it is a long held myth that Wales never wanted Margaret Thatcher and her form of radical Conservatism. Many Welsh men and women believed (32.2% to be more exact), as they may well do now, that she was exactly what the country needed. A strong leader who would hack at all those weeds in our society that were stifling all the things that we actually wanted to grow. The only problem was, as it always is, that one man's weed is another man's flower.
The medicine the Tories prescribed tasted rather foul in many mouths, and we in Wales as a national community were helpless to stop it. Maybe we needed it? We had no real chance to choose. Just before the onset of 18 years of conservative rule, Wales had comprehensively rejected its first opportunity to take on a small amount of self rule. As Saunders Lewis put it in the Western mail 4 days before the 1979 devolution vote on the probable consequences of a No vote, “There will follow a general election. There may be a change of government. The first task of the Westminster Parliament will be to reduce and master inflation. In Wales, there are coal mines that work at a loss; there are steelworks that are judged to be superfluous; there are valleys convenient for submersion. And there will be no Welsh defence”. Wales would be a very different place 18 years later.
But this statement may have an air of familiarity about it, substitute 'reduce and master inflation', for 'cut the deficit', and we are on our way. The cuts will be applied differently this time though, the defence wont be of coal mines or steelworks, but of services. Valleys wont be submerged, but the will of the Welsh people might be, and this is where the Welsh defence comes in.
Where once Wales' 40 MPs held limited sway amongst the 646 Members of Parliament, and MPs with different idea's could pursue their cause without worry of a relatively small and divided Welsh voting block, that can no longer be the case. They face a rival legislature (albeit a weak one), and everything that brings. Which brings us on to the question of what now looks like a fairly certain autumn (possibly October) referendum on further powers for Wales.
We in Plaid Cymru have always had a pretty good appetite for a bit more autonomy for Wales, believing that greater self government will be an important part in creating a better society. The Liberal Democrats are also fully signed up to this next step in devolution. But what of Labour and the Conservatives. Firstly we must realise that the Welsh branches of both parties are not the same as the UK parties, whatever it might suit some people to think. After all we need all parties possible on side in the coming referendum if we hope to win it, and exploiting differences where there is none is to no-ones advantage, and so it must be with the Welsh Government. The Labour Party in London, will be busy analysing what its next moves should be if the outcome of the General election leaves them in opposition. They will be left in a situation where Wales is the only nation in the UK where Labour is still in power, an interesting scenario. The Welsh Labour party is still not an autonomous section of the UK Labour party, unlike its Scottish counterparts north of the border, who are registered as a separate party with the electoral commission. This may change rather quickly. The worst scenario for Wales and the UK would be if Labour exploited this to fight a proxy war in Wales to attack the Conservatives on a UK level.
What would this do for a yes vote in the referendum? It may seem quite appealing to some, to stir up trouble in Wales for the conservatives, in order to gain the Yes vote. But we would be forgetting that much of Wales had gone blue (if the last European elections are anything to go by), that a halo still hung loosely around David Cameron's head for many people, as normally always follows a change of government and lasts for several months. And that there are many prominent conservatives here in Wales on side, as a read of David Melding AM's book “Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020” grapples with, and Glyn Davies's (possible future MP for Montgomeryshire?) blog regularly suggests, not to mention their leader Nick Bourne who has had something of a conversion. To alienate such people, and play the “lets protect Wales from the Tories” card will I think unfortunately play into the hands of the No camp.
Instead we should campaign on why this move from Part 3 to Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 will benefit Wales because it gives us the power to make choices on things that are devolved to us, like any other democratic country on earth. That in many ways it is a tidying up of the system of creating legislation, to make it more democratic, clear and effective. After all, after 2 referenda on the issue, the National Assembly will still not have as much power as the Scottish Parliament. So where we agree with other parties we agree, and where we disagree we disagree.
When we talk about the Welsh defence, as encapsulated in the rather dry sounding Part 4, we are talking about a defence of our ideas, our ways of doing things and the protection of a community which considers itself a nation, from UK wide majority rule. Any truly democratic state should recognise the rights of its constituent parts to autonomy.
2010 could be a defining year for devolution throughout the UK, as in Scotland the SNP Government look to hold a referendum on the issue of independence. Another factor we must consider will be the impact of either a Yes or a No in that referendum. We must be clear that what we are voting on in Wales is a very different proposition, a relative tinkering of the constitution compared to the Scottish question.
People naturally tend to prefer the status quo, and the job of the Yes campaign will be to argue that a change is good and necessary. It should be the easier argument to make, as the defence of the status quo in this situation seems to me (as well as the Richard Commission and The All Wales Convention), to be a defence of the ineffective and undemocratic.
This year appears to be beginning with a relatively optimistic feel for a change, as we finally come out of recession and the chance to have our say on the UK Governments performance nears. As the political pendulum takes its next swing, we cant afford to let that optimism blind us to the hard work ahead for this party and all those of us who hope to end the year with the endorsement of the Welsh people for a National Assembly with Primary Legislative powers.