Covid-19 and Brexit have engendered a precarious and rather fragile territorial politics, and 'the tumultuous nature of current politics in Wales means that what was inconceivable is now conceivable' according to Laura McAllister, Cardiff University. Taken from UK in a Changing Europe's 'Brexit and Beyond' report, Laura discusses the past, present and future of Welsh territorial politics.
Where we have come from?
Devolution in Wales has been roundly ignored internally and externally for most of the two decades since it was enacted. Yet, nowhere in the UK has displayed such fluidity in the process for transferring power away from the centre. Despite initial lukewarm enthusiasm for devolution, the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) has cemented its place in the nation’s consciousness and now enjoys popular support. The politics of Wales since devolution has been solidly Labour-dominated, albeit with the party mostly sustaining its position in government through coalitions or support-party deals. The Covid-19 pandemic has shone the light on devolution and especially its capacity for differentiation. In doing so, it has given a remarkable platform to the First Minister, Mark Drakeford.
Where are we now?
The First Minister and his Government are now clearly visible, and their policy decisions felt by the whole population. This is significant in a nation where, as recently as three years ago, 40% didn’t know health was devolved. Distinctive responses to the pandemic have starkly exposed devolution’s intrinsic potential for policy difference, especially around public health interventions and lockdown timings and detail. The Wales Covid-19 narrative has been distinctive too — it’s been about personal responsibility and community, public safety and health. That’s not popular with everyone of course, but so far between 50-60% regard the First Minister as having handled the crisis well, consistently higher than the ratings they give the UK Prime Minister.
There has been greater political challenge and bolder confrontation too. That’s not typical for the Welsh Government as it has mostly acted as a good unionist. Before Covid-19, it would have been hard to imagine a Labour First Minister calmly but firmly pointing out the fundamentally unjust nature of the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or that the famously porous border between Wales and England would become a real, tangible political frontier.
It isn’t just Covid-19 behind this of course. The vote to leave the European Union has impacted on politics in Wales. EU membership had acted as the adhesive keeping the four nations relatively happily bound together, in that it allowed the Union to muddle along without a strong, dedicated domestic framework.
There are other behaviours which have made relations more fractious. Johnson’s proposal to override the Welsh Government by funding the mothballed M4 relief road is provocative and impractical. Without going much further to undermine devolution, the UK Government simply lacks the powers to plan or implement this project. The decision to force through the Internal Market Bill without devolved consent is at least as challenging. Consent has been one of the anchors of the UK’s delicate constitutional fabric, and its witholding has led to a more acerbic tone from senior Welsh politicians.
Where are we heading?
So, Brexit and Covid-19 have combined to engender a precarious and rather fragile territorial politics where nation and place are up for grabs. No one is claiming independence is a top priority for most and, when the question is asked, support for staying in the UK is for now pretty overwhelming. But many in Wales are at least ‘indy-curious’ by now, with recent polling showed nearly a quarter of people prepared to say “Yes Cymru,” with the figure rising under different contexts.
Not only is that figure the biggest it has ever been, support for independence also has some palpable momentum, appealing as it does to two highly significant groups — young people and Labour supporters.
Welsh Labour is unionist and devolutionist and has sustained that balance through a soft nationalism that has often been undistinguishable from Plaid Cymru’s. But the union in its current form appears less sustainable. A future Starmer Government might offer constitutional reform and a more logical suite of powers for the Senedd, including justice, the legal system and policing, or further powers over taxation and welfare. But pinning hopes on proper federalisation or ‘devo max, max’ seems like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted given the prospect of a SNP victory next May.
As for the Conservatives, many Westminster MPs who embrace unionism have a more assertively assimilationist disposition. Perhaps it will be they who end up destroying the union?
Evidently, Brexit chiselled deep into some long-standing fissures within that union, but Covid-19 has gouged these open wounds. The tumultuous nature of current politics in Wales means that what was inconceivable is now conceivable; a future that was unimaginable is now perfectly imaginable. 2020 has exposed the distinctiveness of what can be done in Wales in response to a public health crisis and, in so doing, created a heightened sense of territory, of borders and of alternative constitutional futures, including independence.
At one level, Welsh politics has come of age in the past 12 months. But much like the run up to devolution in 1999, the debate still feels simplistically polarised, with the independence movement on one side set against a transfer of personnel (and some energy) from UKIP’s elected members to the populist Abolish the Assembly party. This means that the constitutional future of Wales is subject to the push-pull of (currently) minority interests on both sides with little mature middle ground.
It is easier than ever before, then, to imagine a radically different constitutional future for Wales. But there is a fear that this might be reached by default, shaped largely by what happens elsewhere politically. The choice between being either part of a cut and shut ‘England-and-Wales’ after possible Scottish independence or an independent country should be properly debated and owned by the Welsh people. 2020 has helped mature Welsh politics, whilst also contributing to the political education of citizens. This might provide the space, at last, in which to have a proper conversation about Wales’s constitutional and political future.
Laura McAllister is Professor of Public Policy and the Governance of Wales at the Wales Governance Centre, based at Cardiff University.
This was originally posted in 'Brexit and Beyond', a report by UK in Changing Europe examining the opportunities and challenges that have resulted from the UK's decision to leave the European Union.