The Drakeford years have been a wild ride, haven’t they?
Amazing scenes in Cardiff Bay this morning as Generalissimo Mark Drakeford was dragged from the Senedd by masked insurgents brandishing ‘30MPH or Death!’ placards.
Under a symbolic blanket, the fallen despot was bundled into a 1983 Escort XR3i, which roared away to the Vale of Glamorgan, where he will face a revolutionary court tomorrow morning.
Upon entering Drakeford’s private office, the triumphant ‘Gilets Bleus’ discovered a temperature-controlled safe containing plundered cheese and a Christmas card from Greta Thunberg. Their leader, Andrew ‘Real Ting’ Davies, emerged into Roald Dahl Plass to receive adulation from the crowd.
‘The tyranny is over!’ he announced, pausing for Janet Finch-Saunders MS to dab brown sauce from the corner of his mouth with a serviette. ‘Top Gear fans of Wales unite! You have nothing to lose but your electric bicycles!’
The Drakeford years have been a wild ride, haven’t they? Well, no, they haven’t. If there’s one thing The Drakester doesn’t do, it’s wild, and that’s been problematic in itself.
When elected, the UK press immediately categorised our boy as being of the Corbynite left. In 2018, at the height of The Great Socialism Scare, we were warned that Wales was poised to become a rainy Venezuela on the fringe of civilisation.
The idea of maverick, radical politicians comes laden with centuries of stereotyping here in Wales. From Keir Hardie to Lloyd George via Nye Bevan, Michael Foot, Rhodri Morgan and even the early incarnation of Lord Kinnock, an outspoken, passionate reformer is something the wider world expects from Welsh politics. It’s an archetype that simultaneously sits well within a genuine political tradition, whilst also serving the assumptions of our neighbours to the east.
Well, Drakeford ain’t that. It’s hard to know who was more disappointed with his presentational style, the Welsh left or the English right.
Old-style socialists here feel entitled to some rhetorical flash as compensation for sitting through the procedural heat-death of Labour branch meetings in their spare time. The English press have a whole lexicon of ‘Welsh windbag’ tropes to roll out whenever one of our politicians steps into the limelight. Drakeford had nothing for any of them.
So, after settling into office, he looked set to be ignored outside of Wales just as his predecessor Carwyn Jones had been. Then the pandemic happened.
One of the insults levelled at the Senedd, by those who wish to abolish it, is that it’s nothing more than a council chamber with delusions of grandeur. That all stopped when it became clear that Wales could set its own regulations for the Covid lockdowns. Anti-devolutionists both here and in England reacted with furious disbelief that the Welsh Government could exercise real democratic power without reference to Westminster.
As Drakeford had failed to be the froth-mouthed idealogue of Fleet Street’s imagination, the tabloid hacks were forced to find new ways of traducing him. He was a ‘Stalinist’, an ‘authoritarian’ who sought to micro-manage every aspect of Welsh life.
The trouble for them was that his tone during those dreadful times was pitched perfectly. As Johnson and his merry band of pyromaniacs sought to defeat the virus with distilled jingoism, and recklessness, Drakeford warned sternly, reassured sensibly, and, crucially, embodied his rules by following them at great personal inconvenience to himself.
Increasingly, his views were sought by the UK press and the perception of Welsh politics began to shift in its more thoughtful quarters. Instead of the romantic, firebrand nation of cliché, Wales emerged as a sensible, measured voice that inspired envy in many UK voters who despaired at the chaos they were enduring.
Mistakes were made in Wales during the pandemic, for sure, but they were in step with the scientific advice available, not in defiance of it and I suspect most in Wales felt their collective interests lay at the heart of decision-making. That certainly isn’t clear from testimony at the UK Covid inquiry. At least they are having one, mind.
Drakeford’s quiet assurance seemed best suited to a crisis. After the pandemic, his stock was high, and progressives perhaps hoped that he would capitalise on this more than he has. Occasionally, he would issue aspirational thoughts concerning constitutional reform. In concrete terms, however, we have lacked the urgent demand that the UK either devolve more powers, look seriously at federalising, or fund Wales more equitably.
There have been real achievements: homelessness has been addressed with a rigour unseen in the wider UK, moving to a model that offers permanent solutions rather than emergency relief. The cancellation of road projects required political grit on behalf of the environment but, again, we lacked a strident call for the rail infrastructure we so desperately need.
Some widely publicised projects, the Universal Basic Income trial, for instance, had the air of university studies without a hope of wider implementation. On the other hand, the 20mph roll-out arrived in the real world without the kind of Blairite explanation that might have won it more supporters.
No politician leaves office to universal acclaim. I feel that Drakeford’s progressive ambitions will seem prescient in the years to come, as politicians are finally forced to reckon with the economic and environment realities that threaten stability from every angle.
His successor will find a more receptive ear in the UK press, thanks to the credibility Drakeford brought to his role. It is to be hoped that whoever takes over will exert more of Wales’ will on an incoming Labour UK government than Drakeford felt able to when they were in opposition.
In the final measure, Wales has been governed with a seriousness and decency that nowhere else in the UK has enjoyed over the last five years. Mark Drakeford has pointed vaguely towards how things should be, it’s difficult to see a successor who will drive those ideas into reality.
Without such a leader, Labour in Wales faces a shift to the right and radicalism will, drip by drip, be decanted into the ever-younger vessel of the independence movement.
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