Dewi Rees Heald
I have worked with UK-wide organisations and institutions often enough to know their pattern. It did not surprise me when a friend working in government described Brexit negotiations among the four parts of the UK along these familiar lines – the UK government believed that what was best for England would be best for everyone, the Scottish government refused to co-operate, the Northern Ireland delegation argued among themselves and only the Welsh thought that they ought to go along with negotiations in the hope of trying to make the best of things.
I have heard this portrayal of the UK’s constituent parts now so often that it has become something of a cliché. Even a B&B owner in Derry told me some years ago that he was proud of his politicians arguing with each other (“it’s what we do best” he said) and of Scotland’s drive for independence but no-one could figure out what Welsh people actually wanted from the UK. I suggested the ability to shoot lasers out of Merthyr Tydfil for want of anything more substantial to tell him.
However, amid all the devastation being wrought by COVID19 during 2020, perhaps one as yet unnoticed consequence may be that Wales abandons its low-key fatalism. While Charlie Evans wrote in Nation.Cymru this week that the Conservatives could win the 2021 Senedd elections by offering to ask Westminster for a better deal than Labour could get, there are signs that a global pandemic is forcing Welsh politicians to be more assertive about their differences with England.
Make no mistake that this has not gone unnoticed in Westminster political circles. The Welsh could usually be counted on to fall into line with most UK government initiatives or at least not dissent too loudly, but the very clear diversion of Welsh policy on Covid-19 from England has woken up the media over the border.
Not only did the Welsh First Minister have the temerity to insist that ‘Welsh law applies in Wales’, but the police were to be found in the days after the re-enforcement of the ‘Stay At Home’ message, stopping cars heading into Wales and turning English people around with the explanation that they were not allowed to travel into Wales, even if the rules on travel had changed in England.
Education Minister Kirsty Williams also took to correcting UK newspapers reporting on school re-openings in England as if they applied to all of the UK by adding corrections in red pen to their headlines.
We know that this annoyed the media in England because The Sun set out to manufacture a scandal about the Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething. Taking a photo of him out with his son, they alleged that he was ‘on a picnic’ in contravention of lockdown rules. The fact that The Sun had not had this concern for lockdown rules when Stanley Johnson visited his new grandson in England did not trouble them. Mr Gething was quick to alert people to the story and that he had been within the rules to be on a family walk and to get chips for his son, who was hungry. It was then raised by a Conservative member of the Senedd.
Rather than cow the Welsh Government, they seem to have been encouraged to diverge further from UK policy, with the announcement on 14th May that Wales will not give any COVID19 relief funding to companies that are based in tax havens. This policy has already been adopted by other countries such as Denmark and France but there is no sign that the UK government has any intention to follow suit, despite some social media campaigns.
On the day that the ‘Stay Home’ and ‘Stay Alert’ policies diverged, ITV Wales news reported on people in Manchester and Liverpool who could no longer go to their caravans in north Wales. One comment was that it was “like a new border had been put up”. Psychologically, it could be that COVID19 leaves a legacy in both Wales and England with a clearer divide between the two countries.
Do not expect the British press to be happy about this, especially if the Welsh approach to Covid-19 produces better results than the approach in England. However, it may just be that when the dust settles on the devastation caused by the global pandemic, Wales’s traditional political fatalism is one of its casualties.