where next?

Wales: where next?

Published: 19 February 2020

Jac Larner and Dan Wincott, Cardiff University, examine the outcome of the 2019 General Election its impact on representation and constitutional politics in Wales. 

Wales has a distinctive position in UK territorial politics.  Based on the narrowest of margins in the 1997 referendum (50.3% Yes, 49.7% No), devolution is now well entrenched in Wales.  Labour has provided every First Minister since the creation of the National Assembly. Although initially divided on the issue, Welsh Labour is now clearly committed to devolution. Equally, Labour has positioned itself as a ‘good unionist’ government - pursuing constitutional change, but generally reluctant to rock the boat in its dealings with Westminster.

After Johnson’s Westminster election victory in December 2019 and the UK’s exit from the EU at the end of January 2020, a key question for Welsh politics now is: has this approach reaped significant rewards? In January, First Minister Mark Drakeford and leader of Plaid Cymru Adam Price each made major speeches setting out their respective positions for the next phase of the Brexit process.

Price foresaw Wales being seen from Westminster as nothing more than an adjunct to a ‘Great Western’ region.  Northern Ireland, he said, will have its special status. The possibility of independence means Scotland is never forgotten. And the north of England now has leverage with the UK Government to ‘level up’ its position with the south. Setting aside a disposition of resignation, Price argues that to overturn Wales’ weak economic performance (relative to the UK average), to address high levels of child poverty and improve the performance of the education system, Welsh politicians needed to act as if they were leading an independent country, an apparent call for more ‘bold’ in their policymaking.

Drakeford chose to set out a vision of Welsh history.  He emphasized the historical depth of Wales’ connections with mainland Europe and to Ireland. Like Price, Drakeford emphasised the experiences and outlooks Wales shares with other Celtic nations.  His account of Wales’ historic links with other European nations often associated them with resisting domination from England.

Does Drakeford’s speech mark a shift of tone from the Welsh Government? The Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) meeting held in Cardiff a few days before the speech had, it seems, been testy.  While noting ‘some progress’ at that meeting, Drakeford emphasized that the UK government would need to do work before the Committee could meet again.  When Boris Johnson made his HS2 investment announcement, Drakeford took a robust line.  While the public debate over HS2 has focused on its potential benefits set against spiraling costs, he focused on the net economic costs of the new high-speed rail service for Wales. Its wider economic impact would cost Wales £150 million a year, Drakeford said.  In fact, that net cost disguises an annual economic bonus of £50 million for northeast Wales, with south Wales losing out to the tune of £200 million per annum. In contrast to the HS2 largesse, Drakeford spoke of the UK government having ‘starved Wales’ railways of investment’ - calling it the ‘Great Welsh Train Robbery’.

Brexit and the General Election in Wales

Both Labour and Plaid have sought to find a new position on Brexit since the 2019 UK General Election.  Plaid formed part of the most clearly organised electoral ‘remain alliance’ in Britain, with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to campaign for a second referendum. Drakeford distinguished Welsh Labour’s position from that of UK Labour, articulating distinctive support for a second referendum, in which he promised to campaign for ‘remain’. 

Since the election, both have accepted Brexit, while guarding against encroachment on devolution by Westminster as the UK leaves. Together, Labour and Plaid withheld the Senedd’s consent for Westminster’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill - but on grounds of its implications for devolution, not to ‘derail Brexit’. 

Welsh politicians face a further challenge as they seek to guide the nation through Brexit.  Elsewhere in the UK, the 2019 election seemed to signal a new direction, or consolidate ongoing changes. The SNP reaffirmed an already dominant position in Westminster elections.  Northern Irish electors punished Sinn Fein and the DUP, which contributed to the re-establishment of Stormont. The crumbling of Labour support in English (and north east Wales) ‘Red Wall’ constituencies was key to consolidating the Conservative government’s Brexit strategy. But in Wales, the election proved unsettlingly inconclusive. 

Welsh Labour’s distinctive Brexit message failed to cut through. By default the party’s campaign was directed from England and there were numerous instances of Labour MPs revealing their confusion about the scope of Welsh devolution.  Even so, Welsh Labour sustained its near century-long dominance at the ballot box.  The Party gained a larger vote share than in 2010 or 2015 – and comfortably outperformed Labour in England.  However, Labour lost most votes in Leave majority areas – especially its southern ‘Valleys’ heartlands.

The Conservatives won their highest vote share in Wales for over a century. Conservative gains came mostly at the western end of Labour’s ‘red wall’. At the same time, they lost votes in seven of eleven Welsh Remain constituencies. Their vote did not rise much in the Valleys, where some Liberal Democrat and Brexit Party gains accompanied large Labour losses. Plaid Cymru defended their four seats. Overall, it is hard to identify a clear victor in Wales from the election.

The constitutional future of Wales

Ultimately, the election result has raised sharp questions about Wales’ identity, the nation’s future role in the union and how Wales’ leaders can steer a path through Brexit. Wales remains electorally distinctive: Labour continues to do better than in Scotland and England. Yet Labour entered 2020 in a much weaker position than it had enjoyed in 2019. The party may have added a constitutional dilemma to its Brexit conundrum as there appears to be growing ‘indy-curiosity’ among its Welsh-speaking and Wales-born university graduate supporters. Plaid Cymru is still a significant (if small) player in Westminster politics.

Are Plaid and Labour converging on a ‘progressive national’ position?  Will Drakeford sustain a robust line with the UK government - and if so what will become of Welsh Labour’s position as a pro-devolution and ‘good unionist’ party?  If he does, will it make a difference? Recent history shows that even - perhaps especially - when UK territorial politics takes a contentious turn, Wales can be neglected.  Will a more robust line from Labour and the Welsh Government make it harder for Westminster to ignore Wales?

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