Why it could be Wales – not Scotland – that ends up as the UK’s unlikely destroyer
Who is the most powerful person in our country? The most obvious answer is our Prime Minister, or maybe the Queen (depending on your interpretation of our constitution). Mandarins in the civil service, as well as military and intelligence officials, also wield significant influence. Although it’s also worth noting that well-heeled businesspeople now seem to have more influence in the UK government than some of its own ministers.
After a year in power, it is clear who Boris Johnson sees as the biggest threat to his own position: Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. The Prime Minister’s dash north last week reflects the panic in government over this. Polling indicates that Scots increasingly back independence, with Panelbase studies over the last two months showing that 54 per cent of citizens now back a Yes vote.
Aside from his unpopular handling of the pandemic, Johnson’s ways of governing have also been received – to re-apply a phrase from the ever-eloquent Welsh Tory leader, Paul Davies – like a “dose of Dom” in the devolved nations.
Aside from the global pandemic, this Conservative Prime Minster now sees securing the future of the Union as his priority (sound familiar?). As Britain’s national newspapers printed pages of coverage on Scottish independence last week, Johnson reminded those pesky Scots that they should be grateful for the economic support they have received during coronavirus. The current crisis has “strengthened case for the union” he told us; it is a “fantastically strong institution” and the relationship between Scotland and England was also “very strong” too. Dishing out a dose of dom, indeed.
But it’s not all plain sailing for the SNP, either. Yes, the party will most likely enjoy a thumping victory in next year’s Holyrood elections, strengthening their mandate for a referendum. But this “once in a generation” question has already been settled according to cross-party Unionists in London. Even if Sturgeon returns with even greater authority to the office of First Minister in 2021, her campaign for a referendum will be difficult to deliver without causing a genuine constitutional crisis. Downing Street will not grant IndyRef2 – for the simple and logical reason that it would certainly lose.
So, what should we make of the future “fantastically strong institution” of the United Kingdom? A few months ago – minus Scotland’s long-running agitation for independence – its future would have been safely guaranteed.
But the pandemic has changed everything, here and elsewhere. The Welsh, for one, have come to realise that self-governance – or ‘assertive devolution’ as our First Minister would put it – is beneficial to them and their communities. For the first time since the turn of the century, it is Wales’ political system rather than its sporting success or artistic merits that has made its people feel distinct as a people.
This is significant for the future of the Union, although you won’t see it on the front page of the nationals in London. The Western Mail, however, captured the increasing divide in the Union with its front page on Saturday. “Wales and Westminster relations hit all-time low”, the headline read. The subject of the news report? The refusal from the UK Treasury to allow Cardiff greater budgetary flexibilities to meet its financial pressures associated with the pandemic. The Treasury did not agree with the Welsh Government’s request to access a greater share of the Welsh Reserve this year.
It is rather astonishing that the British government can tell Wales it cannot access its own savings pot which has the sole purpose of being used to boost its budget in emergencies. It’s the latest in a series of actions that will contribute to the discussions up and down the country about our nation and what it means today. Is it one that should be told how it can spend its money and when? Not everybody will agree.
With the surge in support for Welsh independence, however, it is evident that the feeling across Wales is changing. Our nation has waited well into the twenty-first century for a parliamentary debate on our own sovereignty, and that moment was clearly significant for our own ideas about nationhood and identity too. The motion in the Senedd itself was bound to be voted down; but self-governance in Wales is no longer seen as simply giving more powers to our parliament. Instead, it is seen as exploring a radically different constitutional settlement altogether.
The case for Welsh independence is far from clear in the minds of the public. The campaign is disjointed between Yes Cymru and Plaid Cymru for a start, but it is certainly clear that our Union can no longer rely on the centuries-old relationship between ‘England and Wales’. It is important for Unionists to remember that the Welsh have never been granted, or of course wanted, a referendum on the question of independence. But when one looks at the constitutional situation today, it is clear that calls for a Welsh independence referendum would be hard to turn down after Scotland had its own opportunity in 2014.
Although we are a few years away from having widespread support for independence, recent months have shown it is likely we will get there. In the next decade, it’s possible that Wales will have a better opportunity than Scotland to ask the question on its future and therefore decide the fate of the Union.
In that case, the Prime Minister may find himself in a tricky position: in peacetime, he faces a war for the Union on two fronts.