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Opinion

Welsh Labour demand power but dodge scrutiny. They can’t have it both ways with devolution

10 Oct 2022 5 minute read
First minister of Wales Mark Drakeford during the Labour Party Conference at the ACC Liverpool. Picture by Peter Byrne / PA

Theo Davies-Lewis

Don’t be fooled by Mark Drakeford. An eminently polite and humble exterior masks a political animal far removed from his academic stereotype. But his comments last week in the Senedd exposed how even the most skilful and considerate leaders can miscalculate (and possibly, misspeak) on the issue of the day. The First Minister insisted the world, including a campaign run by bereaved families, had “moved on” from a Wales-specific inquiry into Covid.

And then – in an instant – came the visceral fallout. The Covid Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru (CBFJC) took to social media: it was “not true”, the group said, that they were no longer seeking a country-specific inquiry and questioned whether Drakeford had officially supported their request to obtain core participant status in the UK-wide probe (which was eventually secured.)

Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats said that comments made on the floor of Y Siambr “misrepresented” the group. Welsh Conservatives say the record should be corrected or the First Minister’s comments clarified.

Families, businesses and communities will reel from the pandemic for years to come. They are rightly aghast as Welsh Labour dodge scrutiny of their decisions during a period which defined people’s lives. Yet this column is not about Covid exclusively. Instead, it frames the paradoxical principles that Welsh Labour espouses: one moment they “stand up” for the Welsh public; the next they are abrasive (alarmed maybe?) when the lens shifts from Westminster to Wales.

Answers

But first a word on inquiries. Whichever – British or Welsh – would be better placed to tackle the complexity of policy and emotion is ultimately subjective, at least in political terms. Members of CBFJC are however right to highlight concerns about the degree to which Welsh voices will be heard, and how in-depth issues in this country will be investigated, through the UK-wide probe which has opened.

And if the case for a four-nation investigation is so strong, why has the Scottish government set up its own independent inquiry? Proponents of a UK-only approach cite the interconnected nature of scientific advice and associated decision-making throughout the pandemic. Which is a fair point. But remember we were essentially told for two years by the government that “Wales is not England” in terms of public health policy and economic support.

It’s ultimately about principle, as summed up by the CBFJC: “We believe that decisions made in Wales should be scrutinised in Wales.” So do vast swathes of the public, I imagine, and indeed many members of the Senedd across the political spectrum. Some opposition politicians will support an inquiry in the hope of inflicting damage on the Welsh government, even the framework of devolution itself.

The majority, by contrast, share the simple principle of families that have lost loved ones during the pandemic: the quest for learning and answers. The Welsh government was tested to its limits. Why wouldn’t we want to understand what happened in our own context? Wales is an old nation that has recently become a new democracy. Do we not want to act like it?

Growing up

Deep down, many Labour politicians must feel awkward. Their party accrued unprecedented political capital and electoral success differentiating themselves from Johnson’s haphazard, obfuscating government. After national and local election triumphs, they are steadfast in their call for an expanded Welsh parliament with more politicians that will apparently lead to… better scrutiny of decision-making. Further powers (justice, the Crown estate, you name it) should also be moved from London to Cardiff, the First Minister says, while measures such as the Internal Market Act promoted by the UK government have been challenged aggressively in the courts.

Welsh Labour aren’t necessarily wrong on these issues, though their sheepishness on the Covid inquiry is a sore anomaly in an otherwise dominant two years.

Politicians cannot have it both ways. A worried and dismissive approach to scrutiny is unbefitting of a party that relishes in its natural seat of government. A seat, one could argue, which was only secured for the next five years because of the pandemic’s influence on the political landscape and in particular public opinion of Drakeford.

For months we have been told that politics is different in Wales, particularly in the wake of the co-operation agreement between the government and Plaid Cymru. But the last week has only fed into the work of campaigners who resent devolution, desperate to paint Cardiff Bay as a ‘bubble’ with a government that misunderstands the daily Welsh experience.

In this instance, they would be right. The pros and cons of a Wales inquiry are fine to debate but the principle – “decisions made in Wales should be scrutinised in Wales” – is hard to rebuke in any circumstance. Insensitivity is also not a good look for leaders, nor is appearing shifty.

Commentators, and most importantly members of the public, thought Welsh governance had finally come of age during Covid. Clearly it still has some growing up to do.


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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

The Prif Athro is not a Saint, he is a Politician. The leader of a party that is ultimately controlled from London. While his Ministers behave like Wales is their own little fiefdom, regardless of whether they are doing a good job or not, and the jury is still very much out on delivering a verdict on that…. That ‘decisions made in Wales must be scrutinised in Wales’ is undeniable. There is no sensible opposition in Wales, Andrew R.T. Davies and his party support the London government come what may and therefor are not a proper opposition. Adam Price is… Read more »

The Original Mark
The Original Mark
1 month ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

where is RT, he keeps disappearing?

Kerry Davies
Kerry Davies
1 month ago

A Wales only inquiry that did not take into account the murderous incompetence of the Westminster government would be meaningless. Once the UK wide investigation was reported on, only then could we effectively look at what Wales did.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago
Reply to  Kerry Davies

Many witnesses and elderly survivors will have died, retired or emigrated before that is completed, only someone with years ahead of them would say that. It needs to be ASAP and there is no reason why the crimes of Fat Shanks and Handcock etc cannot be fed into the process…

Kerry Davies
Kerry Davies
1 month ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

My reluctance to spend taxpayer money on duplication is possibly based on the resentment of the tens of billions stolen by the Conservative party and their sponsors being investigated using yet more taxpayer money.
We learned nothing from Exercise Cygnus, why should we learn anything from multiple inquiries?

Chris
Chris
1 month ago
Reply to  Kerry Davies

The response to Covid in Wales was entirely managed in Wales by the Welsh Government. “Murderous” decisions such as allowing untested care home residents to return to care homes from hospitals were Welsh decisions taken in Cardiff. Welsh Government decisions, for the most part, echoed those taken in England because it was politically expedient to blame Westminster for Welsh Government failings such as the care home fiasco. They COULD have chosen to adopt a different approach, but they didn’t. It is entirely appropriate to have a Welsh Covid inquiry that can of course also look at decisions taken in Westminster… Read more »

Hywel
Hywel
1 month ago

Same with the NHS in Wales. You’ll see Welsh Labour politicians on protests against closing down hospitals or a protesting against cuts etc… when they themselves are in government and are responsible for said issue!

Whenever this is brought to light, cue an awkward silence, perhaps a tugging of the neck collar and a whistle before the news cycle moves on and a small sign of relief is heard coming from Cardiff Bay… Journalists Cymru, hold these people to account, don’t give them a pass because they’re ‘our boys’. Thanks.

arthur owen
1 month ago

Where are the myriad posters who routinely condemn Mr Davies-Lewis of being some sort of quisling today?

Cat
Cat
1 month ago

Is this the Theo Davies-Lewis who writes for the Spectator and has recently written on how the new Prince of Wales can win over the Welsh?

Y Tywysog Lloegr a Moscow
Y Tywysog Lloegr a Moscow
1 month ago
Reply to  Cat

The very same.
Still. This page is not the Telegraph. We should hear many voices. Even though the Royalist, Unionist, tory kow-towing is obvious in this article

Richard
Richard
1 month ago

Quite right ! TDL writes very well but has an eye on his career pathway….as many in Wales have done over the years. These pages need to be open to the widest degree of view reflecting those within our nation.

arthur owen
1 month ago

I spoke too soon,they are more than ready with their catch-all accusations.

Dark Mrakeford
Dark Mrakeford
1 month ago

To borrow a phrase from the man himself: “let me be clear – ” he’s been effective for Labour during Covid to point out the flaws in the Tory government but sweep the Labour ineptitudes under the rug. He’s playing the middle-ground between Welsh interests and the UK Labour Party interests well enough, but that’s only good enough for his government and not for Wales. I feel like we have a “take what we can get” attitude in Wales and we certainly should demand better, perhaps that’s not the way to win the political game that Drakeford is playing but… Read more »

notimejeff
notimejeff
1 month ago

You wonder just how long Labour’s ambiguous commitment to devolution would last if there were a Labour govt in London..

Arwyn
Arwyn
1 month ago

The author is quite right. And it is not sufficient to hide behind Westminster’s failings on this. There were many and their influence here in Wales should form part of a Wales wide covid enquiry. However, the Welsh Government itself made some dubious decisions and scrutiny should be brought to bear. The principle the author espouses is correct. After all, it’s what each of us wish to realise in full isn’t it? We the people of Wales choosing the Government of our own State in democratic elections. That’s some level of scrutiny there.

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
1 month ago
Reply to  Arwyn

Yes, you are right. Mark Drakeford can’t point fingers at Whitehall for decisions made by the Welsh Government, and equally the English Tories cannot continually blame the war in Ukraine , the European Union or UK Labour seeing the economy nearly crash because of their mini- budget fiscal fiasco. But as said, what’s wanting more powers to do with scrutany if those powers denied could benefit Wales. See, the more powers we get means no more can our First Minister & Welsh Government blame Westminster when we are responsible. Today we had the SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon rightly highlight… Read more »

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
1 month ago

Why does this article allude that further devolution is dependent on whether our First Minister is sufficiently scrutanised? I suggest the writer of this piece use their hypothesis towards past & present Westminster prime ministers who with a plethora of powers at their disposal have run amok with impunity. Perhaps they should have powers taken away and Wales given more with their record in office? And less we forget. PM Boris Johnson in office avoided scrutiny like the plague opting to mumble & joke his way through PMQs & interviews. And more recently Liz Truss nearly crashed the UK economy… Read more »

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