Rowan Williams is no stranger to politics. As Archbishop of Canterbury he was as comfortable criticising Tony Blair over Iraq as passing stern judgment on David Cameron’s austerity measures. Even in these pages, at the height of the global crisis in 2008, Williams was arguing that Marx could teach us a thing or two about financial markets. Still, in recent weeks it just might be that he has embarked one of his most controversial projects yet: a commission to help define Wales’ constitutional future in the UK. As the spectre of Scottish independence haunts Westminster and Welsh nationalism gains momentum, it is a timely mission.
In October, Williams was unveiled as head of a Welsh government independent commission on the constitution, set up by Mark Drakeford. The commission, which is to publish its full findings and recommendations by the end of 2023, will have free-reign to consider and develop options to strengthen Welsh democracy. As if inviting controversy, the commission has said that means keeping all options on the table – including Welsh independence.
I visited Williams last week in a crowded Cardiff arts centre to discuss his new venture. The energetic and ever-rugged ex-Archbishop sits opposite me along with Laura McAllister, the co-chair of the commission: a well-respected Cardiff University politics professor, former Plaid Cymru candidate and captain of the Welsh women’s football team in the 90s.
Both Williams and McAllister were appointed by Drakeford, and at first glance make an odd couple: a combination of God, football, politics and academia charting a course for Wales’ future inside (or outside) the UK. Williams was born in Swansea and is a fluent speaker of Cymraeg, but he has been relatively silent on Welsh affairs over the last decade. McAllister, by contrast, has been appointed to a string of Welsh government commissions in the past.
The pair will have a range of commissioners working with them on their task, made up of representatives from all four major Welsh parties.