Welsh devolution is now facing death by a thousand cuts
Ifan Morgan Jones
There was an interesting article on the website Conservative Home back in February of this year which articulated quite clearly a strategy for doing away with Welsh devolution.
What the UK Government should do, the site’s deputy editor Henry Hill said, was simply roll back devolution little by little in a way the public wouldn’t notice.
If the public saw a “head on assault on devolution” that might “actually spur a wave of sympathy for”, he said.
The trick, Henry Hill said, was to roll back devolution very gradually “without the public perceiving” what the UK Government was doing.
While I don’t share any of Henry Hill’s self-professed ‘muscular unionism’ he was entirely correct – if you wanted to get rid of devolution, this would be the exact way to go about it.
The Welsh public clearly favours devolution. We’ve had two referenda and every poll shows that voters actually favour more powers for Wales, rather than fewer.
The Covid pandemic also showed, in poll after poll, that they preferred the way the Welsh Government was handling things to the way the UK Government did so.
However, the evidence also shows us that the Welsh public aren’t particularly informed about the day-to-day workings of Welsh politics.
They may know who Mark Drakeford is, thanks to the Covid pandemic, but for 75% (or more) of the population, many of the details beyond that are quite sketchy.
It hasn’t helped that the Welsh Government and Senedd have been particularly slow to get to grips with the problem that the Welsh public don’t really understand what they do.
This could now potentially change somewhat thanks to the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru co-operation agreement which had promised to tackle the “current fragility in the media and attacks on its independence”.
But in the meantime, after almost a quarter of a century of devolution, the Welsh Government and Senedd still struggle to effectively communicate what they’re doing to the public.
This puts them in an extraordinarily perilous position because if the UK Government’s intention is to get rid of devolution “without the public perceiving” then that will be extremely easy.
In fact, the UK Government has made two forays in this direction just this week.
First, they said that they would scrap a law passed by the Senedd so that striking trade unionists can be replaced by agency workers.
Mark Drakeford said that this had caught him completely by surprise, which I in turn found quite surprising as Nation.Cymru had reported it a week before.
And then, yesterday, the UK Government announced that they would be taking funds from the Welsh Government to pay for £1bn in aid to Ukraine.
They only took £30m from the Welsh Government, which is change down the back of the sofa for the UK Government. They didn’t need to take it at all.
But that was exactly the point – they didn’t need to take it but they did, and made a point of taking it.
I don’t think the Welsh Government would begrudge spending money on helping Ukraine. But this wasn’t money from the Welsh Government’s defence budget, because it doesn’t have one.
Wales’ defence budget is the UK’s defence budget, because defence isn’t a devolved matter.
This money was taken from the Welsh Government’s budget for things that are devolved, from which its share is decided by how much has been spent in England.
So this £30m was taken out of a pot to be spent on Wales’ health, education and other devolved subjects.
The UK Government didn’t need to take this money, and chose to take the money on Ukraine because they knew that if the Welsh Government complained, they would look bad.
And of course, the Welsh Government simply doesn’t have the platform to win a war of words with the UK Government, such is the state the Welsh media is in after 25 years of devolution.
So what can the Welsh Government do about this, exactly?
I wrote Monday that the First Minister needed a more robust response to the scrapping of the Trade Union law than simply to rail against the UK Government and call them disrespectful.
The response was to, well, rail against the “disrespectful agenda” of the UK Government.
But the UK Government don’t care what he has to say. If they did, they wouldn’t be steamrolling devolution in the first place.
The UK Government are in a position where they can now overturn devolution at will, and do so without anyone beyond Welsh political Twitter really noticing that they’re doing it.
They don’t need to rush. They don’t need to, as Henry Hill said, launch a “head on assault” on devolution. They just need to keep chipping away, in a way that is imperceptible to the vast majority of voters.
The Welsh Government needs to find some way of alerting and mobilising the pro-devolution Welsh public into, firstly, being aware of what is going on.
And, then, energising them to act on it at the ballot box, in protest, or in whatever way can be found to make it more trouble for the UK Government to scrap devolution than it is politically worth to them.
Otherwise, devolution simply faces a slow death by a thousand cuts.
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