Ifan Morgan Jones
The UK Government’s decision to rename the Second Severn Crossing the ‘Prince of Wales’ bridge with no consultation was a deliberately provocative act.
The ‘royal’ name is by the by. What riled people was that the decision was taken with no consultation, and not even a suggestion that it would happen before the change was announced.
Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns probably expected a howl of protest, and then the debate would quickly move on.
However, the angry response went far beyond the usual suspects.
Almost 40,000 people have signed a petition – the largest petition in Welsh politics that I can remember.
And yesterday a YouGov opinion poll, commisioned by Nation.Cymru, showed that only 17% of people in Wales supported the change.
Of those, only 7% counted themselves as ‘strong supporters’ – a further 10% tended to support.
The question and polling method were completely above board, as world-leading psephologist Prof. Roger Scully says here.
And I must say that even I was surprised by the overwhelming lack of support for the idea.
Some have argued that the discussion doesn’t matter – it’s just a bridge, and people are unlikely to use the new name anyway.
But there’s a fundamental principle at stake here. Does the UK Government care what the people of Wales think?
Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns had claimed that despite 37,000 signing a petition against the change, there was a ‘silent majority’ for it.
That argument is now dead in the water and exposed for what it is – an attempt to impose an opinion on Wales.
If the UK Government isn’t willing to change course on this, it will send a powerful message. That, ultimately, the opinion of the people of Wales simply doesn’t matter to them.
This is important because the Welsh Government has just handed powers in devolved areas to the UK Government on the understanding that a) they won’t use them without consent, and b) they will give them back in seven years.
That’s why this matters. Because trusting that they care what Wales thinks is now fundamental to the relationship between Wales and Westminster.
If the UK government’s default position is simply to ignore Wales’ opinion, how on earth can we expect them to respect the devolved powers deal?
But the Welsh Government has to carry a lot of the blame for this debacle as well. If they act like a welcome mat they can’t complain when the UK Government walks all over them.
After initially supporting the bridge name change, their response to the opinion poll yesterday was a meek “it’s not our decision”.
But it is, to a large extent. The UK Government’s primary argument against the protests was that the Welsh Government had consented to all this.
We are standing on the threshold of a new period in devolved Welsh politics, but our own political leaders don’t seem to realise it.
If we’re being charitable, there seems to be a lot of naiveness within the Welsh Government about what the UK Government is attempting to achieve.
The UK Government do not want a Labour fortress in Wales and, due to the SNP’s success in Scotland, have woken up to the existential danger of devolution to the UK as a whole.
And they have already made it clear that they intend to interpret Brexit as a golden opportunity to re-centralise power at Westminster.
This does not mean just give-and-take, jovial discussions with Mark Drakeford around a table in Whitehall.
They are going to attempt to undermine the public’s support for the devolved legislatures in Wales and Scotland. I.e. doing what they did to the EU – but making much shorter work of it.
Scotland will be a tough nut to crack, but undermining Welsh devolution will be almost comically easy.
With the people of Wales almost entirely dependent on London media, devolution’s adherents will have almost no platform from which to defend the institution.
The Welsh Government, and the Labour Party in Wales more broadly, seem to be lowering the drawbridge on command rather than manning the barricades.
This is in sharp contrast to the Labour Party in Scotland that seems to have spotted the danger and are standing shoulder to shoulder with the SNP on the devolution ‘power grab’.
Labour must understand that if they fail to act now to protect Welsh devolution from what’s coming, it is the Labour Party that will ultimately lose its last fortress in the UK.
Now that we know that public opinion is against the bridge name-change, the Welsh Government should rescind its support for the idea.
It will enforce an important principle. That the people of Wales should have a say, and that the Welsh Government is their voice, and that Westminster should listen to it.