Boris Johnson is right, devolution has been a ‘disaster’ – for him

Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture by Chatham House (CC BY 2.0)

Ellis Hughes

I never expected to find myself in agreement with Boris Johnson, but his recent comments concerning the devolved nations are accurate. Devolution has indeed “been a disaster”… for Johnson and his pals.

The Conservative and Unionist Party (to give them their full title), have long denied that they intend to roll back devolution. Similar to the seeping privatisation of the NHS, their official stance has been to publicly deny such allegations whilst the cogs of destruction keep grinding in the background.

The Tories are fully aware of how damning and unpopular an outright admittance of a power-grab would be with the devolved nations, which makes the Prime Minister’s leaked comments from Monday’s Zoom call all the more calamitous.

The devolved governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have been largely ignored by the British media for the past two decades. This has both benefitted and hindered the nations. In one sense, it has given the devolved governments the ability to manage their own nations’ affairs relatively peacefully. On the other hand, and especially here in Wales due to the lack of our own media, it has led to an overwhelming ignorance of where certain powers lie.

Unfortunately for Boris Johnson, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has shed new light on the powers held by devolved governments. When travel restrictions into Wales were imposed by Mark Drakeford and the Welsh Government, devolution was thrust into the spotlight.

And the juxtaposition between how the devolved nations have handled the pandemic and how the UK Government have done so has not been a flattering one for Boris Johnson.

 

Injustice

During the early months of lockdown restrictions, there was a disparity between the outlooks of those who lived within the devolved nations, and those who did not. In Wales, as with Sturgeon in Scotland, Drakeford was seen as a fairly reliable safety net. A second line of defence against the virus (the first being a Tory government whose priority appeared to be economic recovery, rather than public health).

Drakeford’s decisions, such as travel restrictions from England and the 5-mile “Stay Local” requirement, contrasted with the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme rolled out by the UK Government.

In England however, the unrelenting narrative being pushed was that the devolved governments were manipulative, attention-seeking jobsworths that did everything they could to undermine the Prime Minister.

But the argument that it would be better for Wales, Scotland and Norther Ireland to follow the same guidelines as England in order to “avoid confusion” completely overlooked the outlook held by the majority of people living within the devolved nations, which is that the UK Government’s guidelines simply did not have our best interests at heart.

In a YouGov poll held between 29th of May to the 1st of June on behalf of ITV Cymru and Cardiff University, 62% of those questioned thought that the Welsh Government were handling the pandemic well, up from 29% on the 20th of March. In contrast, the figure for the UK Government was at 34%, down from a peak of 59% on the 7th of April.

These statistics show exactly why devolution has been “a disaster” for Boris Johnson. Not only are the populations of the devolved nations waking up to their own powers, but for the first time England itself is taking notice of the additional safety nets that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have fashioned for themselves.

And if Andy Burnham’s Mancunian revolt proves anything, it is that the injustices of Westminster affects English regions too, which has led to a rising interest in the Northern Independence Party.

Target

Here in Wales, we now need to be careful. Now that it is clear what the British Prime Minister truly thinks of devolution, we must ensure that he is not given the opportunity to take it away from us. Do not be fooled into thinking that Scotland’s push towards independence will drag Wales along with it. If anything, the opposite is far more likely.

David Cameron opened a Pandora’s Box when he greenlighted the Scottish Indyref of 2014. He expected it to be a landslide victory for the Union, which is the only reason the referendum was given the go ahead in the first place. Secretly, Johnson has resigned himself to the notion that Scotland will leave the Union; his only objective is to stall it until he is no longer the Prime Minister.

Wales is a different story. It is not too late to crush the rising tide of independence in Wales. The Abolish the Assembly Party, while clearly not enjoying the kind of grassroots support of Yes Cymru, are nevertheless well-funded and are pumping ads through Facebook and people’s letterboxes and should not be laughed off. If Brexit and Trumpism have taught us anything, it is to beware of populist movements, no matter how ridiculous they seem at first glance.

The threat to the Senedd is real, and with the leader of the Welsh Conservatives Paul Davies publicly calling for a “dose of Dom” in Welsh politics, it raises fears that Wales could become a major target for intervention. In the case of Scotland leaving the Union and England losing its oil, it cannot afford to lose its water and electricity as well.

The only way to secure our powers and to keep us on the road towards independence is to make the most of the Senedd election of 2021. This election will be a key indicator – is devolution something valued by the people of Wales, or a “disaster” waiting to be fixed?

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