Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Autonomy won't solve Tory problems

On Saturday, David Melding put forward an interesting suggestion for the Conservative Party in Wales, namely that it could become an autonomous party.  The idea’s been around before, in Scotland, where one Tory leadership contender proposed a similar approach.  The idea seems to have disappeared with his failed attempt at leadership.
A similar arrangement actually existed for some decades in the six counties; whilst the Labour and Conservative parties neither recruited nor organised there, both had what could be seen as sister parties in the province, which could – most of the time at least – be relied upon in Westminster votes.
Perhaps the most obvious contemporary example of sister parties co-operating in a unitary state with a large measure of devolution is in Germany.  The CDU and CSU are almost indistinguishable as a group in the federal parliament, but have drawn a line around Bavaria which neither party crosses; each leaving the other a ‘monopoly’ in its defined areas.  It’s an arrangement which can and does work for them.  Could it work here? 
I’m not entirely convinced – to say the least – that a specifically Welsh Conservative party, even with a new name, would somehow kill the antipathy in Wales towards the Conservatives and all their works.  I don’t think the electorate are quite as gullible as that.
An even bigger problem than the electorate’s lack of gullibility is probably the party’s own internal issues.  Whilst some of the Tories elected to the Assembly since it was established have looked and sounded rather more Welsh than their party’s previous spokespersons in Wales, they aren’t really representative of the party’s membership.  The members are drawn overwhelmingly from the most English and Anglicised elements of the Welsh population; they still have a visceral objection to devolution per se.  Pushing them out of the English party and into a Welsh one might end up doing more to help UKIP than the Tories, after they’ve finished spluttering over their cornflakes.
The reason for the idea coming to the fore here last week was, of course, the row amongst the Tories about who sets taxation policy.  At first sight, the proposal might resolve that sort of dispute.  If the Welsh Conservatives really were an entirely autonomous party, then it would be clear where policy is made, instead of the present situation where members can choose between following their Welsh leader or the English one.
I’m not sure that it’s as easy as that, however.  If the Welsh party and the English party were to act as sister parties at Westminster, then the ‘Welsh’ party’s representatives at Westminster would still face the same problem when it came to voting on devolution of taxation.  As long as the split of powers between Cardiff and London remains a vague and shifting arrangement, “Welsh” policy and “UK” policy will always have an inherent scope for conflict. 

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