Brexit could cause a seismic shift in Labour’s thinking on devolution

Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford, who has been attending Brexit discussions with Scottish and UK Government ministers. Picture by NHS Confederation (CC BY 2.0)

Sophie Williams

Brexit continues to dominate headlines; in recent weeks, we have seen speeches by key UK Government ministers (including analogies to dystopian fiction and promises of great architectural achievements), slow policy shifts from Corbyn and demands from influential pro-Brexit groups from within the UK Conservative Party.

As is usually the case, Scottish and particularly Welsh voices are ignored in mainstream debate, yet developments in these arenas pose central challenges to any future Brexit agreement.

Up to now, the Welsh and Scottish governments have presented a fairly united front, aligned with colleagues in Stormont. All sides are concerned by the potential impact of Brexit on devolution, prompting strange bedfellows to put aside their differences in the interests of maintaining current national sovereignty.

Devolved administrations seem to be gaining momentum; both the Welsh and Scottish governments are seeking to introduce Continuity Bills into their respective chambers, with the Welsh Bill passing in the Assembly by a large majority.

These bills are prompted by seemingly increasing concern that there will be a ‘power-grab’ on the part of the UK Government. Devolved ministers worry that in March 2019, powers currently held at EU level will be ‘repatriated’ back to Westminster, including those that cover remits which are now devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Relationships between the UK Government and its devolved counterparts have not always run smoothly (see for example the Agricultural Sector [Wales] Bill); devolved administrations are arguably correct to be concerned that they will lose out in this process, as powers for which they are constitutionally responsible will be once again in the hands of ministers and civil servants in London.

Labour and devolution

Brexit has thrown into sharp relief the ways in which Wales, and particularly Welsh Labour, have developed in their attitudes towards devolution and the concept of what is and what is not best decided at a Welsh level.

Keen historians will undoubtedly be aware of the multifaceted relationship between Wales and self-government; never an easy road, it looked as if the question was settled following the decisive ‘No’ vote in the 1979 referendum only for that to be turned on its head with an admittedly indecisive  ‘Yes’ vote in 1997.

Welsh Labour, too, have undergone a similarly dramatic transformation; gone are the days of Labour being openly divided over devolution, we are now in a place where many of the political parties, including even the Welsh Conservatives, support increasing powers for Wales.

It is in this new place that the ways in which Welsh Labour’s attitudes towards devolution are highly apparent.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there have traditionally been two wings to Welsh Labour: the Labour heartlands of the South Wales Valleys and the North East, where class is the defining issue, and a cultural, often Welsh-speaking, West Walian wing that felt a stronger sense of purpose around Wales having its own political identity.

It is this latter wing that appears to be in the ascendancy; all Welsh Labour politicians now proudly claim that Labour is the party of devolution and is the only party that can safeguard Welsh interests in the face of continued Conservative government at Westminster.

The dominance of this school of thought has seen a continued evolution and strengthening of support for devolution of further powers to Cardiff Bay; the 2004 Richard Commission paved the way for primary law-making capabilities while last year’s Wales Act (2017) allows the National Assembly for Wales to raise some of its own taxes, as part of a ‘reserved powers’ model as is the case for Scotland.

Welsh Labour is already making progressive use of these new powers particularly in relation to land transaction tax and landfill disposal taxes, while a consultation is underway around Welsh electoral reform, following a report by an expert panel that argued for an increase in the number of Assembly Members and for a change in the voting system.

Many Welsh Labour AMs have argued that the Wales Act (2017) does not go far enough and serious reservations were expressed about the Bill prior to it passing the Assembly.


However, none of this is to suggest that mainstream Welsh Labour positioning is moving any nearer to favouring outright independence for Wales.

It could be argued that Welsh Labour’s views represent in part a reaction to outside pressures; the party makes no secret of its desire to prevent Plaid Cymru from growing in support (although some Welsh Labour politicians are more antagonistic towards Plaid Cymru than others), while at the same time, the party is in the unique position of being the only Labour government in the UK, giving it a strengthened profile and ability to shape the views of Welsh voters.

Further, the future of the UK Labour leadership will also play a decisive role; it is debatable to what extent Welsh Labour’s success in last year’s General Election can be divorced from the wider concept of a revolutionised UK Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership.

So, what is the prospect of further devolution, potentially leading to greater autonomy and even independence, under Welsh Labour?

The most recent polling has support for independence at 7%, with 44% arguing for more powers for the Assembly.

If we imagine that amongst Labour voters these figures are likely different, with potentially less support for independence, the rationale behind Welsh Labour’s constitutional positioning is clear; the majority view favours greater powers but not independence.

To remain electorally dominant, the party should align with the majority view, and while the Conservatives continue to hold government in Westminster, Welsh Labour is easily able to present itself as pro-further devolution, given the general opposition to Conservative policies from Welsh voters (as was clear from last year’s general election results, where Welsh Labour won nearly 50% of the overall vote share).

An uncertain future

Were these circumstances to change, however, the situation could look very different; the prospect of a Labour government in Westminster were undoubtedly strengthened by the 2017 General Election result and current polling figures.

Meanwhile, Brexit and conflicts over the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic could mean increased pressure from both Northern Ireland and Scotland towards divorce from the UK.

There is also matter of the Welsh Labour leadership; although he has no current plans to stand down, Carwyn Jones is widely expected to resign as First Minister sooner rather than later.

The attitude of his successor to devolution is critical; someone in that position has the capacity to help mould public opinion, and whether Wales moves closer to or further from greater autonomy.

Current internal Welsh Labour battles highlight the sense of anticipation; how the party leadership is elected, when a vacancy arises, will have a significant impact on Wales’ constitutional future.

There are, then, a great many uncertainties. The current situation in Catalonia, for one, should give us serious pause for thought; in the context support for ‘stateless nations’ does not seem to be high on the EU agenda.

What seems clear, however, is the potential for Brexit to cause a seismic shift in thinking on what may be in Wales’ best interests constitutionally.

As the negotiations progress there is the potential for opposition from backbench Conservative MPs, who could reject whatever final deal is put to the House of Commons.

The strongly pro-EU Welsh Labour may need to rethink its strategy further, with evident consequences for its relationship with the UK as a whole.

Articles via Email

Get instant updates to your inbox


  1. Can anyone point out any activity of the Labour party in Cymru that, with the application of Occam’s razor, can’t be explained by the Labour party in Cymru acting in the interests of the Labour party.

  2. Benjiman L. Angwin

    Cafodd Llafur ei chyfle. 100 mlynedd.

    Y canlyniad wedi 100 mlynedd?

    Tlodi’r Cymoedd.
    Cymdeithas ranedig sy’n bwrw erledigaeth ar gyflafwyr.
    Cyrff awdurdodol fel NRW.
    Mae diffig hanes Cymru mewn ysgolion yn hanes Llafur.
    Crebachdod cyson broydd y Gymraeg.
    Does dim Bro Gymraeg swyddogol.
    Biwrocratiaeth wrth-fusnes.
    Rhyfel ar fasnachwyr annibynnol.
    Cludiant cyhoeddus sy’n embaras.
    Parhad rhyfel dosbarth ar draul cymunedau, pobl ifanc a swyddi.
    Mudo ymennydd fesul cenhedlaeth.

    We dont need a Labour shift we need a Labour shunning. We need the Valleys to have the courage to say 100 years of Labour ideas has been a failure, and to choose a new political direction for themselves, whichever one they choose

    • Capitalist and Welshnash

      Thanks to Labour I have to pay thousands of pounds in red-tape costs and fees just to expand business and give people jobs.

      • @ Captalist and Welshnash – My heart bleeds for you, truly, it does.

        • Capitalist and Welshnash

          Don’t cry for me cry for those who have to be let go by their employers because anti-business policies and old-fashioned ideological hatreds based in some union-driven 20th century past drive people out of business.

          The eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.

    • Y Ferch Ddarogan

      What rubbish you vommit! If you want to spout your War on the Poor, why don’t you go to Surrey and join your kind? They don’t care if you speak CYMraeg, they just care about money! This is a SOCIALIST country! Socialist! We don’t starve our children and enslave the workers. SOCIALIST! A Labour shunning? What rubbish! The socialist martyrs we will never forget, and we will defeat your Evil nepotism and war upon the workers. Because this is a socialist countryy. SOCIALIST! When Corbyn is Prime Minister, we will give all equally to the People, and take from the FEW. For the MANY, not the FEWtrils of the Capitalist regime.

      • Is this Leanne on speed?

        • JR Humphreys

          Great fun, though?

        • Capitalist and Welshnash

          Drugs are a symptom of the capitalist regime, what they want you to take to numb the pain of serving the stock market ariSTOCKracy.

          Any seismic shift by Labour should break up the corporations and offshore private accounts which deprive us of our Resources. They collude behind Austerity, but it is the system. If we are true to Keir Hardies, and actual SOCIALISM we will get rid our drug addict problems. Where is the shift Labour? I hope for Corbyn but he is a British Nationalist which will make Wales poorer. Periphery socialism, colonialist capitalism, so much in common.

          • Capitalist and Welshnash

            See, I can do it too.

            You cannot be serious.

          • JR Humphreys

            A good idea to bring back the local asylums? As we are now using a wall of drugs insted of a concrete wall, so to speak? Peter Hitchens has banged on about this for years
            so I looked it up and it seems 36 of the 37 major shootings in the US had a pharma connection, and quite a few UK attacks also.

      • Michael Matthews

        Even a Socialist country has to make money to provide the necessities of it’s people.

        • Our country in our hands

          The problem has always been the fact that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in Europe, most of the wealth is concentrated and generated in the South East of England. The inequality created is one of the reasons poorer areas such as the Valleys and North Eastern England voted heavily to leave, believing the EU to be part of the problem – its not.
          A new constitution is needed and if that means Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland going their own way, so be it !
          There is no reason why we can not have an economically cooperative archipelago of independent nations. Wealth generated within each country will enable prosperity to be distributed more evenly- so everyone benefits not just a small corner.

          • Graham John Hathaway

            So the ‘trickle down effect’ has well and truly dried up. Stopped in the s East of England. Never thought it would trickle far but fill the largess of the damn without spillage. I have a great idea. Create an HS 2, sell it of economic benefit to areas up to North England, but really in good part, it’s moving key workers into London from greater distances more quickly. Always London, eyes to the right !
            A travesty, to the concept of a United Kingdom.

  3. Graham John Hathaway

    Pro EU or anti, seems old thinking. Or less relevant. Has the sand already run through its hour glass. Have we crossed over the divide. And what does the turf feel like. It feels like rear mirror driving. The post is relevant. The strands outlined are like gentle winds of change. Political themes of a dominant single party state in Wales with side shows of resistance that fluctuate in numbers around the Maypole. There’s no two party politics here, just the same gentle stir of the waters, and occasional change of faces, normally through retirement. And an electorate steadfastly routed to its genetic past, and faded memories and proud history.

    I’m not sure that Brexit will provide the seismic changes in constitution. It should, if as likely, we as a Nation grow into greater despair, and weaken further. I always think Wales is a reflection of our 4 seasons, we just let the climate dictate and wish for better weather by some kind of osmosis. Come rain or shine we turn out and quack, and waddle back.

    I don’t have great confidence in the dynamics of change affecting Welsh politics. Only that it will fragment further by indecision in what is in the best interests for Wales . And this will be decided by others with a greater gift and appetite for change. But don’t expect the London press and Westminster will ceede ground on what’s best for Wales. It will as always take Wales for granted and ignore. And let the politics rumble on as failed state dependent on handouts. Not until the Welsh Labour Party eventually change fundamentally to protect Wales, and this will be through the ballot box of a much more enlightened electorate.

  4. In general, the second largest party in the Senedd should see it as their duty to provide responsible opposition. And responsible opposition does not mean presenting to the electorate the proposition that, if Welsh Labour falls short of a Senedd majority, the second party will prop them up. Rather, it means that the second party will provide robust opposition and a commitment to try to provide the electorate with an alternative government — if necessary as a minority administration …

    However, the present circumstances are exceptional. The attempted Westminster power grab should transcend party politics, and all those in all parties who support the principle of government in and for Wales should offer Carwyn Jones fulsome backing for the Continuity Bills and for the Welsh and Scottish Governments maintaining absolute unity in the face of the present threat from Westminster to the devolution settlement. Westminster committed to the principle of “permanence” for the devolution settlement in section 1 of the Wales Act 2017. Less than a year later, Westminster is attempting to rob our Senedd of powers / legislative authority. This is a constitutional outrage, and must not be allowed to succeed.

    • Graham John Hathaway

      Well said. And a mirror of how deviceive politics can be. A protection of yourself , your Unionist meme, and retention of political power, at all costs. All rather ugly, and unseemly.

    • Michael Matthews

      Under it’s current leadership the second largest party leader in the Senedd, who claims to be an Internationalist, spend too much time on supporting non-welsh interests such as Catalonia the Moslem world.

  5. Once Labour are back in government in Westminster they will revert back to their unionist ways. English MP’s or English & Welsh MP’s now have a veto on England/E&W only matters, and Welsh Labour MPs will not want to lose their veto rights, nor would a UK Labour government want to empower an English only Grand Committee especially if the Tories have a majority in this committee.
    The reduction of Welsh MP’s from 40 to 29 needs to happen.

    • Y Ferch Ddarogan

      Hysterical blob! ‘Their unionist ways’?

      Unions are the only way! No crimes against the people.

      • No, he means pro-UK Union, not pro-trade union. Nothing to do with trade unions. Corbyn has a BritNat mindset, and will subsume Welsh interests in a wider EnglandandWales framework.

  6. Our country in our hands

    Undoubtedly, Brexit will have major repercussions in Wales. With over 60% of our exports currently going to the EU likely to have some sort of tariff attached to them and all EU funding in Wales stopped, the country will only get poorer. poverty will see our young seek independence – it will be our best and probably only option. Independence within the Single Market. Ultimately, the more power is devolved to the Assembly the more that power will drive individuals for more power and eventual independence.

  7. Anarchist and Welsh Nash

    As someone who supported Brexit because it would lead to seismic changes in these isles, I think that things are boiling up nicely.

    There is every possibility that the Welsh Senedd and Scottish Parliament will join forces to defeat the Great Repeal Bill when it is presented to Cardiff and Edinburgh: because of the clawing back of powers to Westminster.

    That will cause a constitutional crisis of the likes that’s not been seen for centuries. Theresa May would have to resign, and in all probability a new election called to seek a new mandate for Brexit.

    I foresee a bigger majority for Brexit in England in this election, as it will be seen as England’s revenge over the pesky Celts for bringing down a government, and stopping Brexit.. Scotland will likely go the other way and it will facilitate a parting of the ways.

    As to how Wales itself will actually vote this time I have no idea, but creative chaos is always a good thing in my mind.

    • “As someone who supported Brexit because it would lead to seismic changes in these isles, I think that things are boiling up nicely.”

      Surely those seismic changes would have been even greater if the vote in Cymru had been Remain and so only the Leave majority in England was taking the UK out of the EU. Or alternatively the Celtic minority were keeping England in.
      Strategically for those for whom a Cymru outside the UK is THE priority voting remain was the only option regardless of any opinion of the EU.

    • Red Dragon Jim

      I think that’s a terrible argument! A Wales Remain vote would have surely caused more of a headache? I don’t think May would resign over the Celts, and Scottish independence is more difficult if you have to create a manned border with England.

      It has created chaos though so I don’t disagree with you there.

  8. JR Humphreys

    Apart from the jingoism currently rocking HP sauce house, we have the western part of the EU thoroughly fed with jolly old Albion. There is that to be considered in the chaos theory.

Leave a Reply