The chaotic last 48 hours has exploded the myth that Westminster can run Wales better than we can ourselves
Ifan Morgan Jones
Just last week, the now-former Welsh Secretary Simon Hart was sitting in the Senedd making the case that the UK Government should be able to interfere in areas devolved to Wales, such as education.
Just last week, the UK Government was clawing back funds from devolved areas to pay for commitments in areas already paid for by Welsh taxes.
And just last week the UK Government stated its intention to scrap Welsh law – without even telling the Welsh Government.
A week later this ‘Westminster knows best’ attitude seems faintly ridiculous after what has probably been one of the most chaotic 24 hours in the institution’s 800 year history.
The Wales Office, Levelling Up and Intergovernmental Relations offices, who wanted to snatch back control over Welsh powers, have been left leaderless and rudderless by political infighting.
The best argument against devolution – and the argument still made against independence – was that Westminster knows better how to run our affairs than we do.
That there is a level of competence and expertise in that square mile of London forged over centuries that is beyond anything that Wales can muster.
Wales and Scotland had over the last 20 years already begun to chip away at this perception, thanks to stable devolved governments in both countries.
Even voters in England rated the Welsh Government’s handling of the Covid pandemic above that of Boris Johnson’s No 10.
And with the chaotic last 48 hours, culminating in Boris Johnson’s announcement that he will belatedly resign, the final veneer of that idea that Westminster is uniquely ‘strong and stable’ has been stripped away.
There is now no reason to think that Wales, or Scotland, can’t do as good a job – or better – of running a country than Westminster can.
Off the rails
It may be tempting therefore to think that Welsh devolution has been saved by the bell, and that we can all take a breath of relief.
Just as the UK Government was finally set to start tearing chunks out of devolution, it collapsed for completely unrelated reasons.
But it’s worth remembering that the Westminster elite’s belief in its own superiority has always been ideological, rather than based on fact.
Whatever UK Government rises out of the ashes of Boris Johnson’s reign is likely to be imbued with that same instinct towards the recentralisation of powers.
The sad reality for Wales however is that the future of devolution now probably rests, not on the will of the people of Wales, but on the internal machinations of the Conservative party.
We may end up with a Conservative Prime Minister who wants to forge a better, more constructive relationship with Wales’ political institutions.
But we may just as well end up with another one that treats us with more contempt than Boris Johnson had.
The point is that it won’t be our choice.
Despite the fact that Wales has voted twice to extend devolution and hasn’t voted for a Conservative government since all men were given the vote, public opinion can be overruled at the whim of a minister that knows next to nothing about our country.
While devolution can be given and taken away at Westminster’s whim, it is built on sand and decades of progress could collapse at any moment.
Some will say that this is a good argument for independence, but even if most people don’t support that option, the majority in Wales do support devolution and want to extend it.
We will have to wait and see what happens now – and we may yet face months more of a Boris Johnson government before he makes way for a new leader.
In the meantime it’s time to think about how we can set Welsh autonomy in stone, to protect what the people of Wales want but also to protect ourselves from the chronic instability of governments at Westminster.
It can’t be right that Wales suffers just because a Westminster government we didn’t vote for goes off the rails – leaving us with no choice, no power, and no democratic means to put things right.
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