Truss premiership is a crisis and opportunity for progressives in Wales
And so, the people have spoken. Or, more precisely, Tory party members have. Liz Truss is the fifty-sixth British Prime Minister.
She will no doubt promise a new, serious and incorruptible government in her speech outside 10 Downing Street, but like Johnson her authority is little beyond the party faithful. And as with her predecessor, she may struggle to suppress nationalist struggles for independence but there is little to indicate she will halt the roll back devolution in Scotland and Wales.
Grand solutions to ‘save’ the Union have featured endlessly during summer hustings. “An excellent question,” Rishi Sunak chuckled as a party member asked how he would “suppress” Nicola Sturgeon last week. The First Minister of Scotland is an “attention seeker” who must be ignored, Truss had said earlier in August, while brandishing Mark Drakeford a “low-energy Jeremy Corbyn.”
Crude insults expose personal disrespect and a carelessness around tensions over the future of the United Kingdom. But they too mask a deeper belief: that sovereignty lies in Westminster, not shared with Edinburgh and Cardiff governments, which is absolute and the basis of a unitary state.
According to Truss, the way to restore stability as the Scottish First Minister campaigns for her right to hold another independence referendum, is to “hold Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP to account.” Imagine the reaction in the pages of The Telegraph or the Daily Mail if Sturgeon or Drakeford had said the same.
Devolved leaders have been dignified in their response; both watching with disbelief as the Conservatives, so creative with their narrative that they are a ‘natural’ party of government, destroy its reputation and 12-year record. Truss and Sunak’s barbs had the desired effect on party members in criticising the SNP and Welsh Labour failures across NHS performance, education standards and economic strategy. But people in Scotland and Wales – those people Truss will face in the next election if she lasts in office – will only likely take it personally from them, no matter if it is true.
With change, then, comes opportunity. Scottish nationalists have struggled in recent months as the wider economic climate, the war in Ukraine and legal obstacles to a referendum dimmed the spotlight on their independence campaign. A Prime Minister more tone deaf to demands of nationhood in the North, steeped in a country’s institutions, media and public as they are in Scotland, can however shift the momentum in this contest for the hearts and minds of the public. If Truss does not act quickly and deliver policies that ease the cost-of-living, her honeymoon in England could be even shorter alongside deeper discontent elsewhere.
But change – or stasis – sometimes breeds complacency. Welsh nationalists have a centuries-long habit of self-destruction at crucial political moments: Cymru Rydd’s capitulation to the rise and sudden fall of YesCymru. Emptiness in the current grassroots campaign and internal conflict in Plaid Cymru has destabilised the wider movement. Adam Price is only fortunate that he operates so closely to Welsh Labour that there is a united left-of-centre front, at least publicly, acting in unison under the elusive but intoxicating guise of ‘standing up for Wales’.
Nationalists should remember: marches and coalitions are not enough to make independence the dominant issue of the day. More successful in recent years has been highlighting the failures in Westminster peppered with calls to expand responsibilities for the Senedd.
A Truss premiership is predicted, however, to put support for independence close to a third in Wales. A long way to go, but still not so far off pre-referendum levels in Scotland. There are reports that the new Prime Minister favours expanding the threshold of support needed for a second Scottish referendum. How will the Welsh movement capitalise on destructive efforts such as this that manifest “muscular unionism”? Your guess is as good as mine.
More urgent will be reacting to the assault on devolution, started under Johnson but left unfinished. British intergovernmental relations are crucial at times of crisis but they are beyond repair when it comes to the principle of governance in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales respectively. Challenges launched by the Welsh government in the courts in response to measures such as the Internal Market Acts have achieved little. And during the next few weeks, it will be decisions in London not Cardiff Bay that have the potential to shift the dial. Where do devolved leaders fit into the art of governing on these most consequential issues for voters, namely energy prices and cost-of-living support?
But there are other unknowns we have yet to confront with this new Prime Minister. How can the Senedd retain its powers and withstand any further roll-back to London? Can Welsh nationalists seize the moment as debates in Scotland accelerate?
Make no mistake, the new Prime Minister will not let up in asserting the centralised government’s will over devolved nations. And, subsequently, it will raise calls for greater autonomy for Wales, better off on its own than the lot in Westminster, according to growing numbers.
Maybe they are right. But it was a coalition of nationalists, devolutionists and (pragmatic) unionists during the pandemic that called for greater powers for Wales, one step at a time, to assert the Welsh government’s position and advance the cause of the right level of self-determination.
What these calls truly meant for the practicalities of our governance has been difficult to assess beyond ad-hoc measures of sentiment. But we surely need a similar, reinvigorated movement in Wales at this most dramatic moment in British politics.
Predicting where we will be without it is like tackling the rest of our politics today: terrifying.
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