‘I believe in the United Kingdom and in a successful United Kingdom’. For a committed unionist, Labour’s first minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, has done more than most to fan the flames of nationalism during Covid-19. In taking a markedly more cautious and communitarian approach to the pandemic compared to Downing Street, Drakeford has managed to both improve his approval ratings and inadvertently led the resurgence of our long-forgotten independence movement. Wales is definitely not the same place it was six months ago.
The Welsh government’s latest divergence from Westminster is its most dramatic yet: it has announced a travel ban from Covid hotspots across the UK into Wales.
There is genuine anxiety in many parts of rural Wales about the spread of coronavirus from the North West of England, as large cities continue to be put under severe restrictions. By stopping short of making travel from lockdown areas illegal, the prime minister has left many Welsh towns and villages at the mercy of the British public’s common sense. Research published by Public Health Wales and Cardiff University appears to validate the concerns of the Welsh: waste water monitoring found ‘significant’ similarities in virus strains in north Wales and Liverpool, meaning that the importation of the virus (predominantly from England) is likely. The paper has not yet been peer-reviewed.
But there are serious concerns over whether a travel ban is the solution, and whether the Welsh government can implement the policy. The Police Federation of England and Wales have deemed it ‘unenforceable’. They have a point. There is no physical border between the two nations, and any attempts to penalise rule breakers will most likely be ineffective (half of coronavirus fines have so far been unpaid in England and Wales). The first minister will crack on with his regulations regardless, and has encouraged local residents to play their part by informing on visitors from lockdown areas.
Unsurprisingly, this Wales-first policy was welcome with unbridled joy by nationalists. ‘At last!’, proclaimed Adam Price, the leader of Plaid Cymru. The party has been lobbying the first minister to make this decision for weeks, and are now calling for the Welsh government to go further with a circuit-breaker lockdown. For Welsh unionists – an increasingly rare species, admittedly – this was Labour playing politics again. Alun Cairns, former secretary of state for Wales, slammed the travel ban as ‘anti-English’ rather than ‘anti-Covid’. There is no doubt that the Welsh government has introduced the most divisive policy since the crisis began in March.
Mark Drakeford insists that he hasn’t undermined the Union by creating his own Welsh Wall. Rather, the blame lies with Boris Johnson. Drakeford says that despite sending two letters to the prime minister calling on him to make internal travel from hotpots illegal, there was no response. Relations between the two governments have hit a low point.
Although the pro-union Welsh Labour government insist the ban is for the public’s protection only, most nationalists and unionists will choose to see it through the prism of Wales’ relationship with England. This is in spite of the fact that most of Wales is under local restrictions already, and that the restrictions apply not only to those who live in tier 2 and 3 areas in England, but also the whole of Northern Ireland and some parts of Scotland.
The first minister has opened a Pandora’s box. Not only does the ban have the unintended potential to stoke up anger against the ‘other’ (in this case, the English) but it will also likely reaffirm in the minds of the public that decisions made in Wales are better for Wales. The Welsh people have, after all, supported the Welsh government’s restrictions throughout the pandemic. To Drakeford, this is his philosophy of ‘assertive devolution’. For others, it is a sign that Wales is being pulled away from the UK (on the tails of Scotland), largely because it is using the powers it finally has at its disposal.
But it didn’t have to be this way. Take Mark Drakeford at his word: he wants to see a successful United Kingdom and Wales to play its part in it. He pleaded with the British prime minister to act. Boris Johnson refused. The prime minister showed his contempt not only for the Welsh government but his recklessness over the future of the union he is so committed to preserve. With protests from Nicola Sturgeon, Andy Burnham and his own backbenchers, Johnson is becoming encircled by leaders in different parts of Britain.
There are important questions looming over the practicalities and usefulness of a travel ban in Wales, but there is no doubt that this a historic moment. Cardiff has defied London, with a policy largely designed to protect Wales from the spread of coronavirus from English counties. For centuries, Wales has defined itself against its larger neighbour – it is now charting its own course. The consequences for relations across the UK are profound. Never has Wales’ place in Britain looked so fragile.