Few appreciate how mischievous Welsh devolutionists are when it comes to embedding themselves in the national consciousness. Take the Welsh translation for ‘first minister’, prif weinidog, which means ‘prime minister’. What was once a linguistic trick has now become an informal touch point in Wales. Regardless of his title, Mark Drakeford behaves, looks and sounds like a powerful national leader rather than a devolved minister.
Few politicians exude such confidence but it should be no surprise: in the last year, Drakeford guided Welsh Labour to two triumphant victories in national and, more recently, local elections. He lectures the British Prime Minister on the future of the Union and then calls for him to resign. A YouGov poll even had him as the most popular politician across the UK last year. That is not down to luck but a reflection of Wales’s growing distinctiveness from its neighbours which was emphasised during the pandemic when Drakeford’s popularity soared after Wales adopted different Covid rules to England. The crisis played to the strengths of Drakeford, a politician with an academic background rather than a past writing columns.
Drakeford’s government, supported by an extraordinary cooperation agreement with Plaid Cymru, has adopted a blend of radical left-wing and nationalist policies including skyrocketing taxes on second homes and the rollout of free meals to primary schools. Alongside the Plaid leader Adam Price, the de-facto deputy prif weinidog, the first minister this week unveiled his most audacious plan yet: expanding the Welsh parliament from 60 to 96 members.
The move would cost at least £12 million, uproot the first-past-the-post electoral system and ensure that Welsh parliament lists have mandatory gender quotas. Not all of these changes are an easy sell to the electorate in different parts of Wales.
Welsh Labour claim that changing the voting system to a closed list system, similar to how European elections worked before Brexit, will make sure the Senedd reflects a wider community. Though Labour knows it will be them, Plaid and the Welsh Conservatives who will inevitably reap the rewards from this system – which is based not on individual candidates but party lists – unless entrenched voting patterns change. Jobs for the boys in Cardiff Bay? Some things never change.
The proposals come at a symbolic time when the constitutional future of the UK looks uncertain. If Wales adopts a bigger parliament in Cardiff it will be an added complication for the future of the UK while Sinn Féin holds the keys to Stormont and the SNP fights for another independence referendum. Just as significant is the upcoming anniversary of Labour’s political domination of Wales, which began 100 years ago when the party won the majority of Welsh seats in the 1922 general election, overtaking Lloyd George’s once dominant Liberals. The anniversary is an irresistible temptation for Welsh Labour to go full throttle on nation-building in Wales.
Contrary to conservative thinking, though, the First Minister is not a nationalist. Instead, his proposal for 30 more politicians in the Senedd will have been driven by constitutional experts, who believe that the Welsh parliament has structurally failed to keep up with the power and responsibilities it has been given since 1999. The Scottish Parliament has 127 MSPs and Stormont 90 after all, despite Wales having almost twice the population of Northern Ireland. For too long Wales has had a poor man’s parliament compared to the other devolved nations.
But the First Minister also knows his history. Barely a day had passed after the plans were announced before he took the opportunity to tell an audience gathered in Cardiff Bay that today’s members of the Senedd were descendants of a progressive political tradition embodied by Welsh Labour heroes like Jim Griffiths, the first Secretary of State for Wales, who is regarded as the spiritual father of the assembly-cum-parliament. His bust now overlooks the Senedd’s hall.
Drakeford clearly sees himself as the heir to a Welsh tradition that Griffiths and others such as David Lloyd George championed. The cause was greater powers for Wales: the right to self-determination and governance, and stepping out of the overmighty English shadow to advance Wales economically, culturally and politically. Griffiths fought tirelessly in the Labour party against the likes of Nye Bevan, who was suspicious of the Welsh language and of the need for a Welsh secretary of state.
In Wales devolution has always been a process, not an event. Jim Griffiths’s school of thought – formalised by Drakeford’s mentor, the late Rhodri Morgan, in the first decade of the Welsh assembly – took decades to become mainstream. But now the Labour party is led by a first minister who funnels money into Welsh language schemes, promotes universal access to healthcare and is demanding a flurry of greater powers by the week.
For this he has been rewarded with 23 years of unbroken rule during devolution. A party has not been this popular since Lloyd George’s magical rule with the Liberals or Bevan’s hypnotic hold over the political arena.
Some in Whitehall may view the plans to expand the Senedd as knee-jerk opportunism but there is a wider context. Just as the Conservatives feel like the natural party of England and the SNP, Scotland, Wales feels comfortable being led by Welsh Labour. It is more than just a party. It is a political movement that has sought to emphasise Welshness as the core emblem of its identity and political direction over the last half century, helped by the lurking threat of Welsh nationalism. Welsh Labour has dominated the centre-ground in Wales, shutting the Conservatives out of an election victory since the mid-nineteenth century.
As part of this, the First Minister believes there is not one, but four sovereign parliaments in the UK. His expansion of the Senedd now is all about putting this theory into practice. It puts Drakeford firmly on the continuum of radical Welsh politics that has been in play since Lloyd George campaigned for Home Rule in the 1890s. Almost a century later, Jim Griffiths talked of the importance of guarding the ‘inheritance’ of this cause: the advancement of Wales and her people.
Mark Drakeford now sees it as his mission to safeguard what Wales was given through the ages. Ironically, it is this understated, so-called unionist Labour first minister that will make Wales more independent than any other Welsh leader since the days of Owain Glyndŵr. And just like that popular uprising, Drakeford’s mission commands the popular support and emotional appeal of the nation behind him. The difference is that Drakeford may succeed where Glyndŵr failed in the quest of a sovereign Wales.