So UKIP have finally shown their cards on Welsh devolution with Mark Reckless claiming that the Brexit vote will result in a decrease of support for the National Assembly in the future, followed quickly by the Conservative leader in Wales, Andrew R. T. Davies, who has claimed that the people of Wales would reject devolution if there was a new referendum “tomorrow”.
The argument is a logical absurdity of course; a popular protest against a ‘big’, ‘distant’, ‘unresponsive’, and ‘unaccountable’ polity (if you believe the anti-EU mantra) would more likely lead to a consequential disillusionment with the next ‘distant/unresponsive’ polity, namely ‘London’, rather than the ‘nearer’ and ‘more responsive’ Cardiff; at least initially. But of course in the minds of the British national right, the Brexit vote was a vote in favour of Westminster over and above all other forms and layers of sovereignty in the UK. It was the ‘silent majority’ reaffirming their oath of allegiance to the Queen (of England) and Country (Anglo-Britain) over pernicious Eurocrats and the traitorous nationalist crachach (of the soft and hard variety).
I’ve not seen any empirical evidence to back up that sort of behavioural profiling, and anecdotally I can confirm that (regrettably, in my opinion) many Plaid and Labour, pro-Welsh, supporters voted ‘leave’ in Ynys Môn, apparently as sceptical of the European political project as their pro-British bedfellows. No doubt ‘anti-devolutionism’ was a factor for the UKIP hard-core in Wales (perhaps 10% of the electorate?), but it is quite a leap of faith to suggest that it was a factor for the other 43% of ‘leave’ voters. Indeed, as Ifan Morgan Jones has pointed out in his blog, the latest empirical evidence suggests, as it has done for many years, that committed anti-devolution sentiment in Wales is extremely rare nowadays.
But UKIP and the Tories haven’t kicked-off this line of argument, or, to look at it in a slightly different way, ‘deposited’ this combination of rhetorical statements in the pool of Welsh public discourse, because they genuinely believe in its accuracy. No, not in the slightest. What they are actually doing is launching a new discursive ‘front’ in the longer-term pro-Britain/anti-Wales constitutional debate.
You see, discourse works like that. In order to effect political change it matters not a jot what people ‘think’ (people largely think what they are told to think by the state apparatus and its agencies), it matters which lines of discursive argument are in the ascendancy at a moment of political ‘crystalisation’ (an election, a referendum, a vote in Parliament, etc.), or which ‘positions’ are hegemonic at any given time. In order for there to be a successful campaign (and perhaps a vote) to reduce, curtail or even end the Welsh political dimension in the future, there needs to be a preceding (and eventually dominant) discourse of dysfunction, irrelevance and discontentment. That discourse of a devolutionary ‘problem’ is mostly marginal at the moment in Wales, but UKIP and the Conservatives have clearly decided to promote it, and as it gains apparent ‘authority’ in the public domain, so too will their ‘solutions’ such ‘reform’, retrenchment or abolition. Be in no doubt, discourse proceeds ‘opinion’, and discourse can be designed and manufactured.
One thing I certainly agree with Mark Reckless and Andrew R. T. Davies about is that there is huge potential for this discourse to grow and to prevail. I don’t say this because I believe in the inherent ineptitude of Welsh Labour ministers or some inherent Welsh scepticism of Welsh institutions as some would argue, but because the range of agencies available to the British nationalist right to initiate and sustain such a discursive shift is enormous, the range of agencies available to the progressive pro-Welsh coalition to counter such an assault so small, and the ‘neutral’ gate-keepers of discursive confrontations so pitifully incompetent and disinterested.
Freed from their thirty-year war of attrition against the European Union, it can’t be long now before the British nationalist faction in Whitehall, Fleet Street and Sky Towers unleash their fighting dogs on the Scottish and Welsh institutions. They are clever, determined and patient, and they are many in number. Reckless and Davies have much to be optimistic about therefore. Whether there is fight in the old Welsh dog remains to be seen. Forewarned is forearmed however...