Theo Davies-Lewis

Drakeford draws up his battle lines on the Union

Drakeford draws up his battle lines on the Union
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A little over two years ago, a relatively unknown First Minister of Wales unveiled his blueprint to repair intergovernmental relations across the UK. As he delivered the annual Keir Hardie lecture at Merthyr Tydfil College, Mark Drakeford said that he had been forced to ‘take up the baton where the UK government itself has dropped it.’ A reform of the constitution was deemed ‘both urgent and vital’ if the Union was to survive post-Brexit, while a ‘fairer, more equitable and more sustainable settlement’ should follow.

Such language peppered the most provocative constitutional speech by a modern Welsh politician. The trouble was that hardly anybody listened. Downing Street certainly had little interest in hearing from a First Minister who had been in the role for less than a year and had no personal electoral mandate to make such protestations. The Welsh government’s Reforming our Union document, which inspired the Merthyr speech and included calls for a ‘partnership of equals’ between the four nations, was dismissed as academic.

Well, that is, until now. Cardiff’s devolved administration has today published Reforming our Union 2.0. Few have waited with bated breath for the sequel but admittedly much has changed since autumn 2019. Most surprisingly, the First Minister has a commanding election victory to his name, winning a working majority in the Senedd at May’s election. More significantly, Mark Drakeford has built a reputation as the most senior elected British unionist prepared to attack the Prime Minister for ‘stealing money and stealing powers’ from the devolved administrations, as told to The Spectator this month.

The refreshed constitutional document is markedly more vicious in tone than before, a reflection of the widening constitutional gulf that is emerging between Cardiff and London. A ‘reset’ of relations is the rallying cry, driven by the ‘fragile’ nature of the Union. The blame? At the doorstep of the ‘aggressively unilateralist’ UK government, of course. Wales’ First Minister is an emboldened man.

Equally there is plenty of rhetoric we have heard before. Reaffirming devolution as a ‘permanent feature’ of the political settlement and calls for a four-nation constitutional convention are nothing new. Neither is urging Celtic nations to have a say in the UK’s approach to international relations and trade, nor is the insistence for UK-wide bodies to collaborate more seamlessly across governments.

Turning the House of Lords into effectively a backstop for devolution is certainly provocative: Drakeford demands that the upper house should be reformed to focus overarchingly on the constitution. An independent public body to ‘oversee how funding arrangements are made in the UK’ remains a controversial demand, while the First Minister’s insistence that justice and policing be devolved to the Senedd continues to pile pressure on the UK government.

Perhaps most radically, Drakeford wants devolved parliaments in Wales and Scotland to have the right to hold referendums on independence. That will make ministers in Whitehall more than suspicious. It’s no wonder that Simon Hart, Wales’ Secretary of State in the cabinet, recently told me that the First Minister’s unionism was ‘independence by another name.’ But believe it or not, he’s wrong. Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, say true separation from Westminster is the only way to restore Welsh prosperity. Wrong too, at least if you ask the public.

Reforming our Union 2.0 may be radical to the point of appearing careless – contrary to the aggressive Tory strategy to quash the rising nationalist tide and Plaid Cymru’s campaign to break-up the UK – but this is the sweet spot of the Welsh centre ground: consistent with Labour’s mantra of ‘standing up for Wales’ but valuing the economic and social partnership of the UK.

It is a dangerous tight rope for the First Minister to walk. But he and Welsh Labour have done so successfully throughout its 22-years in power at Cardiff’s parliament. If the polls are to be believed, the Welsh electorate support further devolution and have rejected devoscepticism at the ballot box. Greater autonomy for Wales has never been such a popular belief. And Mark Drakeford is the movement’s champion.

Once more, the style is just as important as the substance. Those close to the First Minister see a bullish politician hellbent on securing his legacy as he prepares to leave the political stage by his 70th birthday in 2024. Today’s announcement should be viewed in that context: pandering to the indy-curious members in the First Minister’s party but also reaching out to Welsh voters who recognise the value of partial self-government. The major stumbling block is that such reforms are almost to impossible to deliver with a Conservative government in power at Westminster.

But is that really a problem for Mark Drakeford? Acolytes of the First Minister will always rally with Glyndŵr-like spirit behind the ‘King of Fortress Wales’: a leader who has solidified Labour’s Cymric identity and delivered electoral fortunes. And even though Glyndŵr failed in his vision for unprecedented Welsh autonomy 600 years ago, he is a national hero for leading a short-lived, heroic rebellion against our larger neighbour. Welsh history has a canny knack of repeating itself.

Written byTheo Davies-Lewis

Theo Davies-Lewis is the National Wales's chief political commentator. He is a native Welsh speaker from Llanelli, west Wales.

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