What will the state of the union be after Covid-19? – Laura McAllister

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I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember a time when Welsh politics has been in the news more.

From the bizarre and pathetic “Chipgate” featuring Health Minister Vaughan Gething to the arrogant dismissal of Welsh law by BBC correspondents who, quite frankly, should know better – at least the reality of devolution has had a proper airing these past few weeks.

My “takeaway” from a week and a half of (mainly network) media interviews is that everyone is getting a bit carried away searching for political – and often party political – explanations for deviation in policy and advice over lockdown relaxation.

I appreciate there’s an argument to be made that the constitutional lens over-dominates when looking out from and into Wales and, even more so, Scotland. Neither am I suggesting that the decisions of the Welsh Government over Covid-19 have been, or will be seen to be, faultless or even better than elsewhere.

But my point is that the decisions are quite simply those of a government on matters of devolved policy competence. One can sense in Westminster some shock that the Coronavirus Act 2020, designed mainly to enable localised quarantine, has been used so much more expansively by the devolved governments. But, if that’s political opportunism or posturing, then governments everywhere are posturing every single day.

Twenty-one years of devolution have, let’s just say, had a light touch in the UK media. No wonder that unfortunate soul from over the border stopped by police on an ill-advised jaunt to the Brecon Beacons was captured on ITV news spouting, “Wales? Don’t we control that too?” – it’s not entirely his fault, to be fair.

The very real importance of the Welsh Government and our scrutinising Senedd is not that well-known within Wales. Until recently, nearly half of us didn’t even know that health was devolved. Among other causes, the visibility of our distinctive politics has been obscured by the fact that, aside from the Welsh language, we’re seen to lack the cultural space and economic distance from England to sustain an independent, Wales-focused public sphere.

Devolved elections have never managed to convince more than half the population to vote in them. They’ve tended to be “second-order” contests, regarded as of lower importance than UK-level elections. There’s nothing unusual about that in international terms if compared to multinational or federal states like Spain or Germany.

Still, no-one could sensibly argue that Wales has taken devolution to its collective heart. Maybe Covid-19 will change that. Whether you like it or not, the multinational nature of the contemporary UK can no longer be ignored when it’s Mark Drakeford or Nicola Sturgeon, not Boris Johnson, who has the final say on how often we may leave the house, when our children return to school and when we can go back to work (and the pub!).

Our First Minister described the national variation in lockdown exits strategies as “the more vivid end of differences between us”. But are they really? “Co-ordination” doesn’t mean “the same” and constitutional realities here surely render it legitimate to take different approaches and actions, in line with countries like Spain, Germany and the USA.

But there’s the nub – these are countries where systems of decentralised governance are codified, protected, well-established, respected – or all of the above.

Two decades after having our own government and parliament, the creature “England-and-Wales” is still a thing. Covid has meant that, for the first time in modern history, the border between Wales and our big, powerful neighbour feels properly tangible. People living to the west of it have different rights and restrictions to those on the other side, and it’s all we hear about right now.

Incidentally, reality and necessity have overtaken the reluctant obstructions of many Conservative and Labour politicians with regard to devolving policing. With the Coronavirus Act – and the much older Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act, 1984 – offering the Welsh Government significant powers over lockdown, Wales’ police forces are now busy implementing distinctive Welsh regulations. At the end of this, we might even find ourselves saying that the pandemic did more to accelerate the implementation of the Lord Thomas Commission’s recommendations on devolving justice than any politician has done.

All of this raises the question – what next for the union of the UK?

I’ve always believed that unionists would destroy the union ahead of Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP, Adam Price of Plaid Cymru or Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Fein.

Raymond Williams said, “What breaks capitalism, all that will ever break capitalism, is capitalists. The faster they run, the more strain on their heart”. We could say the same for unionists and the union.

So, what are the biggest existential threats to the union? I’m going to respectfully offer two suggestions here – first, the Labour Party in Wales and, second, the arrogance and intransigence of elements of the UK/English state.

For all its complaints over the past few weeks, I’m afraid the Welsh Labour Party is far from blame-free in how Wales is regarded and treated. Welsh Labour has mostly been timid and compliant, assured in its power base and under no real pressure to speak for or speak out for Wales.

That’s not entirely its fault, of course. Pluralism is the friend of competition and challenge and it’s become too easy for Labour to win elections here. But you reap what you sow. As a unionist party in government for all 21 years of devolution and winning elections in Wales for far longer (only the Institutional Revolutionary party in Mexico during the 20th century has dominated for longer), Labour has understandably wanted to have its cake and eat it.

Sure, at times it’s a delicate balancing act to challenge Westminster and Whitehall while Labour has been in charge there too (especially as Welsh and Scottish seats were traditionally seen as prerequisites to it triumphing in UK general elections). However, both Carwyn Jones and Mark Drakeford have served as First Minister during periods of cohabitation with their ideological bête noirs in London.

That’s partly why I was perplexed by Mark Drakeford’s interview with the BBC’s Nick Robinson when he “called out” nationalism (whatever that means, as there are as many different understandings as influences on nationalism) as an “inherently right-wing creed”, one completely at odds with socialism. It was an oddly-timed intervention for someone as normally thoughtful and measured as the First Minister.

Neither is it set against serious academic research and evidence. My colleague and friend Professor Richard Wyn Jones has written on the orchestrated attempts to label Plaid a fascist party which go back to the 1930s. It’s fair to say that “flag-flying nats” may be a more long-standing insult than “racist Leave-voting gammons”, but both conceptualisations are largely pejorative nonsense and do Welsh and British politics a disservice.

In any case, at a time of national crisis, surely a Conservative Government ignoring the elected politicians of Wales and confusing public safety messages should be more of a target than Plaid Cymru and independence?

But Labour finds itself in a conundrum partly of its own making. As Dr Huw Williams (himself a Labour supporter) has said, “It has always been Welsh Labour’s way to try to strike a balance between soft nationalism that allows them to assert their Welsh identity and claim to being the party of Wales, while at the same time being free to accuse Plaid Cymru of narrow nationalism”.

Simultaneously stimulated and enervated by Plaid, a party that, in reality, is incredibly close to its own values and beliefs, Welsh Labour has become timid and emaciated in its own identity and has, at least partially, bought into a top-down, grace-and-favour remodelling of the UK’s constitution.

This was captured in the Brexit negotiations when muscle-flexing was eschewed for a policy with failure stamped all over it – trying to be both a good European and a good unionist party. And before anyone says Labour’s hands were tied by the Welsh vote to Leave, that, in itself, was a consequence of the problems outlined above.

Which brings me to my second point – the political relationships, or lack of them, between the governments of these islands, technically known as intergovernmental relations.

The fact is that, in a quasi-federal system like ours, there is little by way of official or codified relationships between the national governments and parliaments. Generally speaking, effective political relationships depend as much on mindset as machinery, on mutual respect rather than regulations. But, against both of these measurements, successive UK governments have been found wanting.

The machinery is not great – limited formal and informal consultation and co-ordination, plus moribund joint ministerial committees which are treated as an irrelevant nuisance by the centre, have caused widespread disenchantment in the other nations.

As in all forms of collaboration, attitude and empathy are key. The lack of leadership from the UK Government in this crisis in terms of driving respectful and collaborative engagement with the other first ministers and governments strikes me as extraordinarily irresponsible and reckless. Particularly so as, in this crisis, the UK Government (and therefore the Prime Minister) is wearing two different hats, for the UK and for England.

But there’s been a troubling lack of clarity as to when it’s acting as, or speaking for, one or the other. I can only conclude that this comes from a combination of arrogance and discomfort with its newish “English-only” role in policy areas that have been starkly illuminated by Covid. Is uttering the word “England” seen as a diminution of power, a reduction in the PM’s authority, a threat to the precious union?

Territorial clarity in communication and some synchronising of messaging and policy does not require sameness. After Boris Johnson’s masterclass in confused comms a week last Sunday, we’re told that 700,000 people viewed the excellent BBC Wales analysis programme that digested the relevance of his messages to us in Wales. One television programme won’t change the media landscape, but imagine if that level of clarity by our media and understanding by us all became the norm?

Covid-19 has brought the creaky constitution of the UK into sharp focus. It’ll be interesting to see the condition in which the machinery of the state emerges from this. At the very least, the existence of the Welsh Government and the Senedd, and public awareness of what they do, seem to have been strengthened during the pandemic.

Even with ongoing uncertainty over responsibilities and underlying strains, on the whole, the normality of devolution has been accepted. Early polling suggests that the Scottish and Welsh governments are seen as having done a decent job so far and there’s not been a backlash caused by divergence. That’s not to say that this won’t change at any moment.

Everyone has their own level of attachment to the union, if at all. But what can we say about its future after coronavirus?

With a few honourable exceptions such as Lord Salisbury, many of those closest to Whitehall and Westminster have shown themselves to be stubbornly resistant to change. The causes of this are multiple and historically deep-rooted but, if they persist, Boris Johnson might go down in history as the PM who provided the biggest single acceleration to the break-up of the UK.



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