The Welsh Government are powerless to resist being steamrolled on the lockdown
Ifan Morgan Jones
I think I’ve mentioned before that my favourite quote about politics comes from George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series: ‘Power resides where men believe it resides.’
The UK isn’t quite Westeros but the principle remains the same. And this quote is particularly relevant when discussing devolution in Wales. You can devolve as much power to the Welsh Government as you like, but unless people realise and recognise that the power is devolved, is it devolved at all?
The coronavirus crisis has been a good test case for this. Legally, the Welsh Government have the power to control the lockdown in Wales. In practice, however, unless people know they have that power they are going to listen to the UK Government.
This may well be why the UK Government may have felt free to complete steamroll the devolved administrations tonight on the matter of ending the lockdown.
According to the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror’s front pages tomorrow morning, the lockdown rules will begin to be eased from Monday, with the ‘stay at home’ order scrapped and the public free to go where they choose.
The kicker from Wales and Scotland’s perspective is in the small print of the article: The UK Government *will* contact the devolved administrations about this, to agree a UK-wide approach.
In other words, the UK Government is telling the public that the lockdown is going to come to an end, via the front pages of tomorrow’s newspapers, before even agreeing to it with the Welsh Government.
One Welsh Government Deputy Minister responded to the front page on Twitter by grumbling about a “respect agenda”.
But the reality is that respect comes from having power, and after 20 years of not taking fundamental steps to ensure that the public is informed about the basics of what they can and can’t do, Wales’ devolved institutions find themselves in a powerless position.
Yesterday Professor Judith Hall, a Cardiff-based consultant anaesthetist, said that the circumstances in Wales were sufficiently unique to need to require a different lockdown timetable to England.
“We’ve a different population, we’re older and more rural in general, so I think we should make our own decisions,” she said.
But while Mark Drakeford has wavered on whether Wales will lift the lockdown at a different time to England, he probably realises full well that the main block to doing so is that it would in practice be almost impossible for the government to get that message across.
This crisis has shown that a national media isn’t some nice to have nation-building project – it’s a public health imperative. If devolution is to function, if power is to reside where our plebiscite has deemed it should, then the ability to communicate effectively with the public is one the government must have.
So in practice, what we’re likely to have over the next few weeks is something of a mess as the Welsh Government keeps control over that which it can – such as education and workplaces – while being completely at the whim of the UK Government about others such as freedom to travel.
We could, for instance, soon be in a situation where Wales’ towns are packed with tourists from urban areas while children in those same communities aren’t allowed to return to school. A shambles.