To me, Boris Johnson in this pandemic has been the ‘bringer of doom’. That’s how I found myself explaining the role he played in my life through the first months of lockdown. It’s not a comment on his policies, his demeanour or his oratory – even though it could easily be – it’s just the best way to explain the impact he had on my life throughout those early months.
Like many students, I left university quickly in the week beginning 16th March – the week where the penny really dropped at quite how deep and for quite how long this crisis would hit. I returned home from Cambridge to Wales, though I later returned in July when restrictions started to be seriously lifted.
As we sat down on the fateful evening of Monday 23rd March, we did so – to use that phrase – as ‘one United Kingdom’. Boris Johnson told us all to Stay At Home, in whichever UK nation we lived. He was, of course, announcing a decision that had been collectively agreed by all the governments of the UK, but unless they dived into the small print of the news, nobody was any the wiser.
If you didn’t have a good working knowledge of the devolution settlement, you likely wouldn’t have known that the Welsh Government was responsible for lockdown measures in Wales.
It didn’t take that long for that impression to change. It was in a routine Welsh Government daily briefing barely a fortnight later that the local government minister Julie James – not a familiar face to most people in Wales, never mind beyond – announced that lockdown would be extended beyond the initial three weeks. I remember journalists and citizens trying to work out whether she was speaking for just the UK or for Wales alone. The latter, it soon became clear.
It then became clear that there was little to be gained from following the Westminster press conferences, and no reason to do so besides general interest in affairs over the border. And not having to listen to Boris Johnson or Matt Hancock of an evening in case they announced something that would meaningfully affect my life was something to very much be welcomed. My impression, however, was that I was very much in a politically aware (some would even say politically obsessed!) bubble, and most people in Wales were opting for the higher-profile Westminster evening briefings than the more muted lunchtime ones from Cardiff.
So when, at the beginning of May, the UK government decided to reduce some restrictions for England quite significantly, while Wales tinkered only slightly, this system was put to the test. The fact that this was done via Boris Johnson’s now-infamous second televised address was a further challenge. BBC One Wales took the address still, but had to run a special news programme afterwards to explain that effectively nothing in it applied to Wales.
A second challenge was posed at the end of May when Wales introduced a Stay Local rule, with people not to travel beyond their local area without good reason. This was only lifted in early July. England had continued to relax its rules so as to restart the tourism industry, and there was a great deal of fear about the effect of the very different rules either side of the border.
There were, inevitably, some misunderstandings, often on the part of people living outside Wales who were less aware of the differences. Some even became very telling manifestations of certain groups’ attitude towards the governance of Wales. But my impression among people who actually lived in Wales was one of general understanding of what was and wasn’t allowed, and that the rules were different to England.
First Minister Mark Drakeford took on a greater salience in a lot of people’s lives. In our house, he started to be referred to just as ‘Mark’ – an aspect of his tenure that I didn’t expect to so easily follow Rhodri and Carwyn – and on Friday lunchtimes we sat down to hear what Mark had to say, especially every third week when announcements on rule changes were made. Mark’s Friday briefings became as much of a feature of lockdown life as the Virtual Pub Quiz on a Thursday night.
Now our household is probably not entirely representative of Wales as a whole. But there are real data that show that a lot more people in Wales know who the first minister is now, and are able to express an opinion on him: in February, 56 per cent of people were not able to do that, whereas that proportion had fallen to only 23 per cent by September, a level of ‘don’t knows’ almost identical to the figure for Keir Starmer.
And those who do form an opinion tend to form a positive one. Mark Drakeford’s average rating in the September Welsh Political Barometer poll was a heady 5.3 out of 10, up from 3.9 in February. The Welsh Government has a 67 percentage-point leadon the UK government in voters’ perceptions of its performance (The Welsh Government scoring +47 and the UK government −20). The data back up my anecdotal evidence – voters are listening to the Welsh Government and they like what they hear.
I and my fellow Plaid Cymru supporters find ourselves in a slightly odd position. We clearly want the Welsh public to trust the Welsh Government and the devolution settlement, and to do so more than Westminster. But we also want to remove the first minister from office next May, and it’s him that so many Welsh people trust.
But given the bad news around the Internal Market Bill, something’s come from this pandemic to raise a cheer for all those who want the Senedd and the Welsh Government to work, whether that’s through devolution, federalism or independence.
People in England are coming to understand and even accept that Wales is a different nation that sometimes has different laws, and people in Wales are identifying those laws, which have cut through the noise, as those they need to obey.
People are starting to ‘think Welsh’ when they think about government – and they’re liking it.