Wales’ powers can be taken away at Westminster’s whim – what is Labour going to do about it?

Dominic Cummings. Picture by Radical Larry (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Ifan Morgan Jones

Why attempt to abolish the Welsh Government and Parliament when you can just chip away at its powers through primary legislation?

And that is exactly what the UK Government is doing with the Internal Market Bill, which will give them the power to ignore the Welsh Government and Welsh Parliament’s wishes on issues such as transport infrastructure and food standards.

For Dominic Cummings (above), devolution is just another inefficiency in the workings of government that needs to be smoothed out, like a troublesome crease on one of his work t-shirts.

And it’s likely to work out very well for him, and the UK Government – much more of a success than taking on devolution head-on.

The Welsh public would no doubt be roused from political apathy by any attempt to do away with Wales’ political institutions. Polls show that a majority in Wales either support more powers for the Senedd or outright independence.

But few are likely to take an interest in changes to the small print of a bill or understand what impact it will have of Welsh autonomy.

 

Overruled

Some will be keen to downplay the significance of this. In many ways, of course, Westminster’s threat to take control of the ability to spend more on infrastructure in Wales is a bit of a joke.

According to Professor Mark Barry of Cardiff University, Wales’ rail network has been underfunded by £3Bn in the period 2001-2029.

If the last few centuries of London neglect are any indication we are not about to see huge billion-pound projects built across Wales.

However, there is a real political threat to Welsh autonomy here, which is that Westminster could force through projects unpopular in Wales despite public and political opposition.

The UK Government will say it wouldn’t mean overriding the wishes of people in Wales, because it would still need the support of Welsh MPs and local government.

But that’s nonsense, as their wishes could easily be overruled by more legislation in that chamber – the House of Commons – where Welsh MPs make up 6% of the total.

Once Westminster stops caring what the Welsh Government and Welsh Parliament think, we are essentially back in Tryweryn territory.

Under devolution, all power that is given to Wales is essentially borrowed to us. It can be taken off of us whenever Westminster want to.

Westminster has indicated that it now wants to do just that – so where does that leave Wales?

Action

What’s frustrating is that Wales’ political institutions have done nothing over 20 years to put themselves in a position to be able to resist this kind of attack.

In particular, having allowed Wales’ commercial media to stagnate, the Welsh Government has left itself with no means to shape the media narrative around these sorts of changes.

Unlike Nicola Sturgeon, they have no means of raising the bat signal and rallying public support to their side. In fact, I’d be surprised if most of the Welsh public even know what is going on, and if they do all they will hear the UK Government’s side of the story through the British media.

Brexit Minister Jeremy Miles yesterday railed against the fact that the “bill is an attack on democracy and an affront to the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who have voted in favour of devolution on numerous occasions”.

He also said that the “U.K. Government plans to sacrifice the future of the union by stealing powers from the devolved administrations”.

These are strong words – but who will hear them?

Plaid Cymru will, of course, argue that the only way to solve this problem is to push for Welsh independence.

But the real litmus test here is for the Labour party in Wales.

Their last electoral fortress in the UK is under siege. They are being hung upside down and what few powers they had shaken out of them, like lunch money on the schoolyard.

They can complain to Miss until they’re blue in the face, but unless their aim is to change the devolution settlement in some way so that Wales’ powers cannot be taken away at Westminster’s whim, it won’t really make any difference.

Labour’s guiding philosophy is that Westminster is essentially benign and always has Wales’ best interests at heart. Wales’ place is in a caring, sharing union, even if it is run most of the time by a political party they claim to find repellant.

Are they going to challenge that narrative now? What are they going to do? Just words, or action?

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