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Exclusive: Tory antipathy to devolution is crippling the Covid response

In the first of a two-part series, David Nicholson talks to First Minister of Wales MARK DRAKEFORD about coronavirus, the threat to the devolution settlement and the incompetence of Boris Johnson’s government

THE First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, is in a combative and positive mood as we discuss how the only Labour-run government in Britain is dealing with the coronavirus crisis and its economic aftermath, and Labour’s working relationship with the Conservative government in Westminster.

During our last interview on May Day 2020 the First Minister had just written to Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove to try to get the Conservative government to regularise Covid-19 meetings with the devolved governments.

I ask Drakeford how that had progressed and am astonished that not only are the meetings still sporadic, but that the Westminster government had ignored a request from the devolved governments this week to discuss the worsening coronavirus crisis as local lockdown announcements were made for areas of England, Scotland and Wales.

“It is baffling to me that in this week where there have been major announcements about difficulties in England and where in Wales we have had to impose lockdown restrictions in Rhondda Cynon Taf, the UK government has not been prepared to meet,” Drakeford says.

“There was a very specific request made on Monday for a meeting and there has been nothing.”

The First Minister expressed his frustration that when meetings do happen the conversations are worthwhile, but the Westminster government just does not organise regular meetings.

“It would surely have been simple to organise a weekly meeting in our diaries on the same day each week so we could share experiences and learning, but that seems to be beyond the capacity of the UK government to put in place,” he says.

I ask Drakeford why he thought that simple measure to protect UK citizens was not being taken. 

His brutal assessment is that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is struggling to cope with the demands the pandemic has placed on it.

He goes further and condemns some ministers for their ignorance about the devolution settlement.

“In some parts of the UK government offence has been taken at devolution. I think some ministers are discovering for the first time that devolution exists and when they find that Wales has the authority and capacity to make decisions for ourselves they just don’t like it.

“Some parts of Whitehall who have almost not needed to know about us and Scotland for the past 21 years are surprised to find that we are mature parliaments with proven and democratic authorities of our own. They think it is all a terrible mistake.”

The Tory antipathy towards devolved government in Britain and Northern Ireland will not come as a surprise to Star readers, but to hear the reality of its everyday impact on dealing with the medical and economic emergency created by the Covid-19 pandemic is shocking.

In Wales, opinion polls have charted a rising number of voters considering independence for the first time, and I ask the First Minister about the impact on this “indie curiosity” that the Internal Market Bill the Tories are pushing through the Westminster Parliament might have.

The Bill, if enacted as drafted, will take powers away from the devolved governments and allow Westminster to fund spending in devolved areas like health, housing, economic development and education, as well as adding state aid to the list of reserved powers for Westminster.

I ask Drakeford how his government would fight this Bill.

He explains that, unlike Scotland where the Scottish National Party can counter measures it does not like by threatening independence, and in Northern Ireland its violent past means that UK governments have to step carefully, Wales has little beyond the power of persuasion.

“Despite the lack of a mandate in Wales, they intend to use their parliamentary majority to impose a set of arrangements on everybody else without our consent and involvement. That will simply add to the pressures there are in the UK. 

“They could have gone about this in a way that would have helped to bind the UK. They could have got everybody round a table to discuss how Brexit is achieved and everybody would have had to compromise. 

“We would have come out of that with a strengthened UK operating as a voluntary association of four nations agreeing common ways forward that work for us all.

“Instead they have adopted the opposite course which will be fundamentally damaging to those of us who want us to argue for a social-solidarity UK.”

The independence debate is something Drakeford sees as an opportunity to advance a positive view of what devolution can achieve and uses the coronavirus crisis as a good example of this.

“I hear some people take the experience of Covid-19 to strengthen the case for Wales to be on our own. I do not think that is the right lesson to learn from it.

“By acting together on Covid-19 we have been able to deal with the worst impact. Wales by itself would never have been able to mobilise the expenditure of billions of pounds that is supporting the Welsh economy.

“Our border is entirely porous with people along it. If we were trying to run Wales independently our ability to deal with the crisis would have been diminished. It is co-operation and collaboration that has been our strength, not separation.

“What we need is a UK government that recognises that the way to strengthen the union is to invent new ways to reach common conclusions and the governments can reliably contact each other. Not by using an ‘iron fist’ or the Tory majority to bully the rest of us.”

Drakeford is keen to make a positive case for the UK and for Wales to draw on the strength of being part of a successful union.

“Working people in Wales have the same class and economic interests as working people in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

“Making common cause strengthens the ability of people in Wales to get economic, social and environmental justice of the sort we stand for in the Labour Party in Wales.”

Surprisingly, when I mention the difficulty of achieving this nirvana given the electoral hegemony the Conservative Party has enjoyed, with brief interludes of Labour government, Drakeford advanced the case for electoral reform.

“We have to grapple with Tory rule. I believe there is a progressive majority to be shaped across the UK.

“The most compelling case is that election after election we have imposed on us a Conservative government elected on a minority of the votes across the UK.”

I ask Drakeford if he was suggesting a one-off electoral alliance to achieve electoral reform where the parties stood down to give the best chance of defeating the Tory candidate and he quickly says no, but does say a debate has to be had.

“It’s a debate we have to grasp because we hope that at the next general election the cards will break in our favour but, of course, they do not.”

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