Don’t panic: Welsh Labour needs to stop denying and start embracing the debate over Welsh independence

Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford. Picture by the Welsh Government

Theo Davies-Lewis

Not for the first time during this pandemic, Mark Drakeford this week found himself ruffling more feathers in political circles in Cardiff and London. The First Minister’s interview with Sky News on the state of the Union – which captures his newfound status as the most prominent Welsh politician this decade – upset both his Labour colleagues and a growing number of fellow compatriots.

It’s time to reach for the “tin hat” his old boss Rhodri Morgan used to grab before entering the battlefield of First Minister’s Questions.

British Prime Ministers (including Labour ones) should not block referenda, whether in Scotland or Wales, according to the First Minister. On the contrary, it is for the people of Wales and the people of Scotland to make that decision.

That’s a headache for Sir Keir; after all, he’s already trying to deal with Richard Leonard, the disastrous Scottish Labour Leader, and now has the Welsh guy going off message. But hey, Drakeford reminded viewers there’s no need to worry about events in Wales: there is no rising tide for independence here. Really?

For a First Minister whose own political opponents regard as a man of detail and intellect, it was a revealing dismissal. Especially since a poll this week showed that a majority of Labour voters would back Welsh independence if a referendum were to be held tomorrow. The polling also showed that the majority of Welsh people believed the power to call such a referendum should lie with the Senedd rather than Westminster. Nothing to see here?

 

Problems

Drakeford hasn’t always been afraid to ignore developments in the campaign for self-government for Wales, arguing earlier this year that nationalism was not compatible with socialism and at its core was a right-wing phenomenon. The First Minister also remains confident that the pandemic has demonstrated that assertive devolution is the answer for Wales, not independence.

So, how do we explain such short-sighted ignorance this time around?

It’s more than likely – and with good reason – that Mark Drakeford is starting to worry. For a party that has cruised through twenty-one years of devolved government, it is a sad indictment of Labour’s record in Cardiff that nationalism has emerged as a credible answer to Wales’ problems.

The behaviour of the UK government exacerbates the problem our ruling party is facing. How can assertive devolution be the answer when Jeremy Miles has to ask for “urgent clarification” from ministers in Westminster that they are not preparing to take over some of its spending powers?

To their credit, some Labour politicians in Wales realise the political environment is changing. Carwyn Jones, for instance, has been one of the most vocal proponents of a reformed Union based on equal partnership across the four nations; a precarious solution that I doubt has reached the drawing boards of the Union unit in 10 Downing Street. Other Labour members, including Mick Antoniw and Mike Hedges, have for years called out the problems with the UK settlement for different reasons.

Dominos

So, just as Wales is experiencing a national reawakening during the coronavirus crisis, the nation’s Labour party (as well as its members) are starting to see how gallant little Wales is changing. Plaid Cymru may continue to tail them in the polls, yet the national hunger for increased difference with Westminster shows no signs of waning.

Welsh Labour’s biggest electoral challenge does not, therefore, come from political opposition, but embracing ever-popular ideas that are incompatible with their political doctrine. In other words, to win over its own members and the wider public in next year’s election, Welsh Labour may have to embrace facilitating an independence referendum.

The alternative? They let Wales sleepwalk into the inevitable: once the SNP wins its majority next year, the nations of the UK could fall like dominos.

Committing to holding a Welsh referendum is likely a gamble too risky for such a steady hand as Mark Drakeford. But it would possibly attract more support for the party, likely taking votes from Plaid Cymru in the Senedd.

What’s certainly clear is that the party needs a plan for how it will govern a country that has been its political home since 1922; the big difference between now and then is that Wales has very different ideas about its nationhood and place in the world.

More than any time in our history, this is no time for panic or worry, or simply ignoring macro-political changes. After all, as events in Scotland have shown this decade, the nationalist question can snowball very quickly.

It’s time that Welsh Labour gets a grip of what’s happening and be honest about the challenges the party and the nation as a whole faces.

Embracing the debate over Welsh autonomy may be a step in the right direction, even if colleagues in London and Edinburgh recoil at the thought. Grab your tin hat, First Minister.

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