Sneering attacks on devolution in the British press just gives Drakeford a free pass from more constructive criticism
Ifan Morgan Jones
The last few days since Boris Johnson announced that England will not be introducing any new Covid restrictions has seen a torrent of vitriol aimed at the Welsh Government through the press.
Some of the criticism is no doubt justified. There is much to query and criticise about the restrictions introduced by the First Minister last week. In particular, why the focus on outdoor sporting events when the science seems clear that transmission in such settings is negligible?
Even when there may be good underlying reasons for the restrictions, at this late point in the pandemic, after two long years, they need to appear to be logical as well. And allowing people to congregate freely indoors while restricting the numbers outdoors just doesn’t add up for many.
But it’s not logical criticism of the Welsh Government’s choice of restrictions that’s the issue but the way those criticisms have been articulated. I.e. in the most sneering, disparaging way possible, which undermines the very cause the critics want to champion.
In particular, the criticism has been aimed not just at the Welsh Government (fair enough) but at attacking the idea of any measure of Welsh autonomy itself.
Just in the past few days, Telegraph Columnist Madeline Grant has written that Welsh devolution was “inherently biased towards failure and authoritarian politics”.
The Times and Daily Mail wrongly claimed that a ‘bonkers’ Welsh Government were forcing civil servants to sign up to ‘woke’ values, a story that so fitted their pre-conceived impressions that they didn’t realise the UK Government style guide gave the same advice.
Henry Hill, the news editor of Conservative Home condemned the First Minister for claiming that sovereignty was shared between Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland – a case of “straightforwardly misrepresenting the UK to their voters,” he said.
But the most revealing moment came today when MP Michael Fabricant said that he was justified in criticising devolution because “I subsidise Wales and all this nonsense as all English people do.”
These attacks and criticisms go further than disagreeing with the Welsh Government and suggests a fundamental dislike of the idea that the people of Wales should be able to run their own affairs at all.
They don’t just dislike those the people the Welsh voted in, they also don’t rate the ability of the Welsh to ever vote in anyone to represent them who could do a decent job.
This disconnect between the British commentariat and the people of Wales would hardly matter if Wales had its own fully-developed public sphere. But unfortunately, it does matter because the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times and others are the dominant media in Wales.
And the people of Wales deserve better than an analysis that is so fundamentally disconnected from their own views.
At the Senedd election in May the Abolish the Assembly party were given a platform on par with the other main parties in the BBC debate, underperformed their polling and failed to pick up a single seat. Meanwhile, support for doing away with the Senedd hovers around only 17% of the population of Wales.
In contrast, the latest polling on Covid restrictions – carried out before Omicron and the Christmas party scandal – showed that people trusted the Welsh Government much more on restrictions than the UK Government.
While devo-scepticism seems to be the dominant perspective in the British press, it’s very far from being at all representative of the views of the people in Wales.
And criticising devolution rather than the actions of the Welsh Government serves the Welsh public poorly. It allows the First Minister and his ministers to play the ‘look what the anti-Welsh Westminster establishment are saying now’ card and get people who may otherwise engage in constructive criticism to play defence instead.
The pro-Brexit commentariat in particular seems to think that because they successfully mobilised popular support against the EU they’ll be able to do the same against the Senedd and Welsh Government.
But what they need to remember is that Brexit was not just a vote against the EU but against Westminster as well – represented at that time by the pro-Remain Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron.
Boris Johnson subsequently managed to portray himself as the anti-Westminster establishment Prime Minister. But that façade has now also collapsed – and his poll ratings with it – in the wake of the lobbying and Christmas party scandal.
Welsh devolution is popular in Wales for the same reason – because it’s seen as being outside that same Westminster establishment. That is why Mark Drakeford and his ministers are quite happy to take potshots at the UK Government in their press conferences, and why the First Minister was ‘accidentally’ heard calling Boris Johnson “awful” in an S4C documentary.
They know exactly how opposition to the UK Government is perceived in Wales, which is that people like it – and, as the Senedd election showed us, it was exactly the areas that voted for Brexit that happily voted for Mark Drakeford’s government too.
As a result, it is those attacking Welsh devolution in the London-based press that come over as the sneering Remainers that just can’t hide their true feelings towards those they consider beneath them.
If they really want to damage Mark Drakeford, they should focus on constructive scrutiny of his restrictions, not on mocking attacks against the idea of Welsh semi-autonomy.
The latter will get people’s hackles up, and will be used by the Welsh Government to increase their own popularity – the former might hit home, and be genuinely helpful to the people of Wales, too.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.