Yes for Wales or no to Thatcherism?
- 9 April 2013
- From the section Wales politics
Ron Davies is not about to give up his title.
I'm talking about the former Welsh Secretary, about his unofficial title as 'the architect of devolution' and a suggestion that it could be bestowed on another - on Margaret Thatcher.
She wasn't, as Dr Martin Johnes points out, always unpopular, nor was she by any means universally unpopular in Wales. Yet by the end of her days as Prime Minister, he argues there was such "antipathy towards Thatcher was strong enough that some started questioning the whole political system".
"They began to wonder why Wales had to endure a prime minister that only a minority of its people had voted for. Enough people were perplexed by this that the resounding No vote in the 1979 referendum on devolution was turned into a narrow Yes in 1997. That makes Thatcher one of the architects of devolution".
Ron Davies doesn't buy it. Yes, he remembers driving through the village of Nelson on the morning after the 1987 election and spotting graffiti scrawled on the bridge, large letters that said "We voted Labour, we got Thatcher." Yes, he remembers being struck that a sense of unease in Wales about being governed from Westminster was growing and there to be harnessed by those who believed in devolution.
But he'll go so far and no further. What really delivered that narrow yes vote in 1997, he argues, wasn't Margaret Thatcher. It was the strong history in Wales of people wanting to reflect their own cultural identity. It would have happened with or without her. Margaret Thatcher may have helped the process along - helped with what he called 'a little light canvassing' - but certainly wasn't the cause of it.
Light canvassing? Gerroff, is the response of one key Yes for Wales campaigner. He and his team went all out to "chime with the time" says Daran Hill and that meant using the antipathy towards Mrs Thatcher and the most Thatcherite minister campaigners could (metaphorically) lay their hands on - John Redwood - for all it was worth to squeeze that narrowest of victories.
"Who did they least like in politics? Margaret Thatcher. Who did they most like? Tony Blair. So we put an aeroplane in the sky pulling a banner saying "Vote Yes"! Vote Blair!"
It worked - just. You can then, says Mr Hill, argue Margaret Thatcher contributed significantly to the shape of devolution.
Or simplistic says Conservative AM David Melding, the party's former policy director and a man who was, over the years, instrumental in turning much of his party in Wales from the anti-Assembly camp to supporters of it. Invoking her legacy may have been a (legitimate) campaigning tool - "an idea sold effectively by the likes of Peter Hain and Ron Davies" - but
"... positive factors have to explain big political moves in my view. Negative ones are present but I don't think they are the key to motivation ... You can't go from four to one against to a yes, albeit a narrow one, unless that happens".
Incidentally he argues that had she been around in politics now, Mrs Thatcher would have "accommodated devolution". The woman who set out to change the system, he imagines, would have recognised the change from what we knew, a centralised unitary state to a devolved, increasingly federal way of governing, as a means of maintaining her belief in Britain.
Would she recognise her role in delivering devolution - whether potent player or campaigning tool? i'm not sure.
Would she recognise the irony that those who most vilified her policies had something to thank her for come the referendum? Almost certainly.