UK government ‘a recruiting sergeant’ for Welsh and Scottish nationalism
Welsh first minister criticises aggressive unilateralism of London government
Mark Drakeford, Welsh first minister: “When people see this sort of aggressive unilateralism on the part of the UK government it undoubtedly leads some people to ask themselves if we would be better off without them.” Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images
The Welsh first minister has described the UK government as “aggressively unilateral”, “hostile to devolution” and “a recruiting sergeant” for Welsh and Scottish independence.
Mark Drakeford claimed the current London administration was trying to reshape the UK into what it was 50 years ago by reasserting London’s dominance.
He added that its plan for saving the union involved reversing devolution “while singing ever louder choruses of Rule Britannia”.
He also claimed the constitutional architecture of the UK was ad hoc and “made up as we go along” and would need to be reformed along more federalist lines for the union to survive.
In an interview with The Irish Times to mark the recent signing of a joint declaration by the Irish and Welsh governments aimed at forging deeper economic ties, Mr Drakeford launched a blistering attack on Boris Johnson’s government.
“For the first time in 20 years we have a government in London, parts of which are straight forwardly hostile to devolution,” he said.
Downing Street’s recent decision to unilaterally administer the UK’s £4.8 billion levelling up fund, bypassing local administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the process, was an example of London’s anti-devolutionary stance, Mr Drakeford said.
“When people see this sort of aggressive unilateralism on the part of the UK government it undoubtedly leads some people to ask themselves if we would be better off without them.”
Mr Drakeford, who heads the Labour-led administration in Wales, advocates greater devolution as the solution to the UK’s brewing constitutional crisis.
However, he admitted that Brexit and the pandemic had polarised opinion in Wales – in favour of independence on one side and deeper integration on the other – while the unilateralist stance of London made it harder to argue in favour of the UK.
Recent opinion polls suggest support for Scottish independence is now higher than support for staying in the UK. In Wales, independence is still a minority view, but a campaign aimed at making it a reality has gained momentum.
Mr Drakeford said UK’s constitutional architecture had failed to keep up with what has happened since devolution, the process by which devolved administrations were set up in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the late 1990s, noting the UK’s Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) – the forum in which UK ministers meet their devolved counterparts – had not met once since Mr Johnson took up office.
Brexit and pandemic have brought “a number of these issues starkly to the surface,” he said, adding that the break-up of the UK was possible if politicians only offered a “tweaking of the status quo”.
“I’m in favour of the UK. I think the UK is better off for having Wales in it and I think Wales is better off by being in the UK, but we need a government in Westminster that is dedicated to rolling the clock forward,” he said.
This means finding a more reliable, regularised mechanism under which the various administrations can engage, which would be supported by an independent secretariat, he said, noting the state-level arrangements in Canada and Australia might serve as a model.
On the recent pact between Dublin and Cardiff to forge greater political and economic ties in the wake of Brexit, Mr Drakeford said it recommitted both sides to deepen co-operation between the two countries.
Traffic through Holyhead port – the UK’s second largest – is down by over 50 per cent since since the UK officially left the EU on December 31st. However, it is impossible to disentangle the Brexit effect from the pandemic effect at this stage.
“We are increasingly worried that this is not a temporary phenomenon,” Mr Drakeford said, citing fears that because of the new Brexit trade complexities, hauliers are avoiding the Welsh ports and either going directly to the continent or going to Britain via Northern Ireland.
On relaxing the current Covid restrictions and reviving the hard-hit tourism industry, Mr Drakeford said the plan was to open up on a phased basis, starting with self-contained accommodation, potentially after Easter.
He said the vaccine roll-out, which is significantly more advanced in the UK than in Ireland, was not a one-way street back to normality.
“Our chief medical officer tells us there is a very high risk that we will see a fourth wave of coronavirus later this year given the circulation of new variants and the proportion of the population that will not be vaccinated,” he said.