Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
Wales is not a nation that is typically picked up on Westminster’s radar scanners.
We are not particularly high on the agenda, if indeed, we feature on the agenda at all. But there are signs that this is starting to change at least somewhat. The latest cover of the right-wing magazine, The Spectator, may just be an illustration of that.
The magazine, first published in July 1828 and circulated in the coffee shops of London, is the oldest weekly magazine in the world. It is about as Westminster establishment as it gets. And something out of the ordinary happened of late, because the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, features on it.
It should not be remarkable for the elected leader of Wales to feature on the front page of The Spectator, or indeed any other UK national publication. Yet it is. The fact that it is remarkable tells you something about the nature of the relationship Wales has with the Westminster establishment, and the media that is so intertwined with it. It is not a relationship in which we are held in particularly high esteem.
Drakeford features alongside the Frist Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and the Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson.
The relative size of each of these politicians tells us something about the perceived pecking order. It is an illustration of the perverse power imbalance that characterises the Westminster system. Boris Johnson towers above everybody else, radiating smugness and entitlement. He is donning the gear of a king, a crown, ermine, a sceptre and an orb.
Sturgeon, much smaller that Johnson, and is stood behind a wall with a very thou shalt not pass vibe, is also sporting a crown, but is wearing no ermine, and has no sceptre, or orb. It is noteworthy that neither she nor Drakeford has these symbols of sovereign power.
Drakeford is also rocking a crown and has his fist up that almost suggests “come and ave a go if ya think ya ‘ard enough”. He also has a trusty dragon by his side, just to confirm that, yes, he represents Wales – another indication of his invisibility in the British media so far.
Burnham is depicted as smaller than Drakeford and Sturgeon, has no crown, and seems to be using the Angel of the North (actually over 100 miles from Manchester) as either a weapon or a shield. He is not the leader of a country and is portrayed as something akin to a lord as opposed to a king.
The perceived pecking order is pretty clear – this is the UK through the London establishment’s eyes.
There is an interesting comparison to be made with this how a leader of a country that is of a similar size to Wales and Scotland has been depicted on the cover of The Spectator. The former Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, Leo Varadkar was portrayed as a similar size to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, despite their being much larger countries with regards to population.
Nevertheless, The Spectator put Varadkar on the same level as Merkel and Macron. That’s what being the leader of a sovereign nation does. It gives you status. Not being a sovereign deprives a nation of it.
Because of devolution, and the greater awareness of it brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, Wales has more status than it had. Drakeford makes an appearance on the Spectator cover at all because Wales has been doing things differently and is kicking up more of a fuss. It still isn’t doing things differently enough or kicking up enough of a fuss, but these are tentative steps in the right direction.
And doing so isn’t simply for the sake of it as some would like to argue. It has saved and is saving lives.
One of the primary reasons we’re not doing things differently enough is that we simply haven’t got the power to do so under the highly centralised Westminster system. A lack of status and more importantly the power that goes with it, has material consequences. Devolution means Wales went from having both hands tied behind our back from having only one.
With its Internal Market Bill, which is a flagrant attack on Welsh democracy and a subversion of our national parliament, the Westminster establishment is trying its best to tie back up the one hand we had managed to wrestle free. It’s no wonder more and more people are starting to see independence as the only way to safeguard Welsh democracy.
In the article alongside the cover cartoon, well-connected Spectator journalist, James Forsyth, says: “One other area of tension is the Welsh government’s desire to refuse entry to people from Covid hotspots such as Manchester or Liverpool. Johnson has rejected the idea, but if the Welsh continue pushing, the UK government might feel obliged to let them have their way.
“One of those involved in government discussions on the matter tells me that there is concern about what continuing to reject this request might mean. I’m told that in Whitehall there’s ‘real fear about what such a move would do to the nationalist movement in Wales and Scotland’. So, the UK is pulled all directions.”
What is clear here is that the spectre of independence is helpful to Drakeford, even though he is an avowed unionist. He has been handed a sword that he didn’t really want, yet it seems he may have just used it to cut his opponents. One does not have to look too hard to find a pleasing irony in this.
The surging independence movement, which has seen its support hit records levels, is putting the frighteners on the Westminster establishment, and this gives us something we didn’t have before – leverage. It is forcing them to sit up and listen, for once. We cannot just be casually dismissed as we were before.
Drakeford has played some part in bringing about this change. But his words and deeds carry far more weight when there is an angry fire-breathing dragon behind him. This is a positive thing whether you support independence or not.
The lesson here should be patently obvious. The more support for Welsh independence rises, the more spooked the Westminster establishment will become.
The cover of The Spectator, and the accompanying article, suggests that Westminster is starting to sit up and take notice of Wales, but we should not be content to merely be noticed. The stature of Wales has increased, but it is still diminutive compared to what it should be.