In an exclusive interview with The Gower Street Journal, the former Brexit Party candidate for Newport West, Cameron Edwards, claimed that Cardiff Bay’s “gravy train” could place Wales on the calamitous path of “sleepwalking to independence”.
While conceding that it was not Tony Blair’s intention to risk the future of the Union, Edwards did accuse the former Prime Minister of a “power grab” for “ramming through” devolution referendums. He added that the crusade to crush Wales’ devolved parliament was the only way to ensure that the Union stayed alive.
Edwards, however, followed this by saying: “We are not just doing this because we are Unionists, we are doing this to prevent the suffering that would happen in an independent Wales”. He went on to dispel the argument perpetuated by separatists that Wales could secede the Union like the Republic of Ireland, as Ireland implemented radical capitalist policies to stay afloat, something that Plaid Cymru vociferously oppose.
The Centre for Welsh Studies appears to agree with the narrative of the party. Little over a week ago, they released a video claiming that the direction of travel is “unremittingly towards complete devolution and essentially independence”. The video added: “as this process has been so protracted the public at large are still yet to notice what is underway and would likely be horrified if they did”.
Edwards defected from the Brexit Party to the Abolish The Welsh Assembly Party late in June alongside his former Brexit Party colleague, Richard Taylor, who received 20.4 per cent of the vote in the seat of Blaenau Gwent last December, and the former UKIP politician, Gareth Bennett who gave the party its first form of representation in the Senedd.
Across all corners of the United Kingdom, including in England, support for independence has surged. In Wales, support for independence has more than doubled from 12 per cent in 2014 to 25 per cent this June.
Nevertheless, polls also show that support for abolishing the Welsh Assembly has increased markedly since the Brexit vote. Now, with just 265-days to go until the Welsh people go to the polls, surveys suggest that one-in-four voters, an equal amount to those in favour of independence, would vote to scrap the assembly.
In February, The Abolish The Welsh Assembly Party’s press officer, Simon Rees, told the BBC that “if there was a referendum tomorrow, we’d lose”. It is hard to dispute these figures. Even when discounting all of those, who answered “don’t know” or “would not vote”, support for the status quo stands at almost 65 per cent to just 35 per cent.
In previous referendums on Welsh devolution, in 1997 and 2011, voter turnout varied from between one-third and half of the electorate. These low figures, which mirror low turnout in Senedd elections, do suggest that there is fertile ground for apathy towards the assembly to become opposition.
The party may even take some hope from the 2004 north-east referendum. The then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, proposed introducing a devolved assembly to “liberate the potential of our regions”. Initially, many in the region were warmly receptive to the idea and Ipsos Mori placed support at only marginally less than levels of opposition. However, a vigorous referendum campaign saw opposition to a devolved assembly grow glaringly. On polling day, 77 per cent of those in the north east voted ‘No’ to an assembly.
The Abolish party, led by former UKIP leadership hopeful, Richard Suchorzewski, was founded in the summer of 2015. In less than a year, the party finished sixth in the 2016 Senedd elections. The party received 4.4 per cent of the vote and won 15,000 more votes than the Green Party.
This is despite, as Edwards stated, an amateur campaign strategy of principally leafleting. In some of the regional contests, including north Wales, the party polled higher than the Liberal Democrats. Today, the party utilises social media outlets, including Facebook and their presence has grown exponentially with a reach of over four million.
Edwards described the new strategy as one of “moral obligation to show how bad Welsh devolution is”. He added that: “We’ve been exposing the Welsh Government for all of their flaws – but this is only stuff we know – God only knows what happens behind closed doors.”
The campaign strategy shares some resemblances to the 2004 campaign against the creation of an assembly in the northeast. The narrative of a costly assembly wasting taxpayers’ money, inefficiency in national projects including the M4 relief road, and ways in which this money could be better spent on national services like education mimic those that Dominic Cummings and his team used almost 16 years ago.
There are some concerns that the people of Wales do not understand the real power of the assembly. On Twitter many levied the blame for the 42 per cent of Welsh grades lowered on Westminster, however, that decision, along with many other devolved matters, were made in Cardiff Bay. Discontent with the devolved administration in Wales may increase with their mishandling of Covid-19 and consistent failures to deal with issues in health and education may play nicely into the party’s hands.
In Scotland, the power of Holyrood also is not fully realised. In a recent opinion poll for The Times, the paper found that Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party were receiving plaudits from the electorate for measures, like the “eat out to help out” scheme, that were introduced by the Treasury in Whitehall. In response, The Telegraph has reported that all projects funded by the British government north of Berwick will be blazoned with the Union Jack.
Cardiff University’s politics professor, Roger Awan-Scully, stated that the party might even return a regional assembly member next May. If the Abolish party manages an electoral breakthrough next year, then they would be operating at a slightly faster pace than the Eurosceptic movement of the 1990s. It took UKIP six years to return an elected official to a significant institution in British politics.
By J Walters