Writing by Ruth Stainer. Illustration by Berenika Murray.
Devolution, defined as ‘the process of transferring power from the centre to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom’, has been hotly debated within the UK following its formal establishment in 1998. Scottish independence has received great attention, with the 2014 independence referendum receiving a huge electoral turnout of 84.6%. Despite this, Welsh independence appears to have been almost entirely neglected until now.
However, the extent of rising support for further Welsh devolution and (by a smaller minority) full independence is not to be underestimated in its significance. A recent survey conducted by ITV News Tonight found a record-breaking 40% of Welsh citizens to be in favour of separating from the UK, representing the highest levels of support for Welsh independence ever recorded. Similarly, a 2020 YouGov poll found a significant 59% of respondents in support of a ‘devo-max’ for Wales in a referendum, under which greater powers would be transferred from Westminster to the Welsh Parliament in a move just short of independence.
The appearance of these stark statistics during the current pandemic is no coincidence. As Laura McAllister, professor of public policy at the Wales Governance Centre maintains, the pandemic has had a huge role to play. Not only has the pandemic shed light on the practicality of devolution in and of itself, but, crucially, the recent decisions under Senedd Cymru have had all-encompassing effects on Welsh individuals’ lives. As the stakes of their decisions regarding education, health policy and the economy have been much higher and far more continuous, people are doubtlessly more aware of its abilities. As Richard Wyn Jones has proclaimed, devolution has subsequently become ‘so much more tangible’.
Consequently, Mark Drakeford, elected as the First Minister of Wales in 2018, has undoubtedly risen in prominence on the national political stage. Drakeford himself acknowledged that ‘the job as First Minister has obviously and undeniably changed’. In the last 18 months, the First Minister’s interviews and announcements have now been eagerly anticipated and watched by millions across the country, compared to the start of 2020 where barely anybody in Wales even knew his name. Demonstrating this surge in popularity, recent polls have shown that Drakeford now has a higher public profile than the UK’s Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer in Wales and he is also Wales’ most popular politician.
Drakeford has continued to take an approach differing almost entirely from the UK Government, with his forensic attention to detail starkly contrasting Boris Johnson’s showmanship. Wales, at many points in the pandemic, appears to have eased more on the side of caution regarding COVID-19 restrictions, implementing the first firebreak lockdown among the other UK nations (though this was two weeks shorter than the equivalent lockdown in England). Further, mask-wearing is still mandatory in shops (while England has abandoned this law entirely). Though there have of course been flaws in the Welsh approach - namely the failure of the Welsh TTP system and the initial slowness in distributing the Coronavirus vaccine - there is still an unwavering degree of support for the Welsh approach. A recent YouGov poll found that 62% of the Welsh public think that the UK government has handled the pandemic badly and half of Welsh adults (53%) favour Drakeford’s approach towards tackling the virus.
So, is this ideological shift in attitude towards the Welsh Government and devolved powers a permanent change, and what does it mean for the future? Unfortunately, the May Welsh Senedd election results suggest that Wales still has a long way to go before further devolution, let alone full-blown independence, can harbour even a fraction of the support seen in Scotland. This can be partly explained by factors such as the degree of economic and political insecurity that is feared following Welsh independence, a less prominent public feeling of Welsh nationalism and, significantly, the extent to which Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales, has failed to truly captivate the Welsh electorate in the same way the SNP has for Scots.
Ultimately, discussions of Welsh independence are still in their early stages, despite their unexpected acceleration produced by the pandemic. Would Wales become a freer nation if it were to experience independence? This question lacks a simple answer. While in theory independence would grant the Welsh government further political and economic control along with the necessary ability to make more localised and appropriate decisions for the Welsh public, it is vital that we acknowledge the reality of what this so-called ‘emancipation’ could truly mean for Wales. To consider, let alone implement, such significant devolution laws during a temporary and continually shifting political climate would be both nonsensical and politically unjust.
It is likely, as recent electoral results have shown, that post-pandemic calls for Welsh independence may be somewhat abandoned by the less radical in favour of the normalcy and familiarity that comes with a unionised nation. Nevertheless, the pandemic has undoubtedly shifted internal relations within the UK, providing the Welsh population with an experience of devolved powers like never before. Consequently, the likelihood of Westminster’s governance being forcibly rejected by the Welsh people in their masses is no longer inconceivable.
To ensure that Wales can still harbour the benefits of Westminster’s powers while simultaneously gaining greater decision-making abilities and a degree of individualism, an expansion of Wales’ devolved powers, rather than complete independence, should be made. This should, however, undoubtedly take place post-pandemic. This would allow both the Welsh public and politicians the necessary time to consider the realities of further devolution within ‘normal’ times, rather than strictly under the overwhelming and unprecedented conditions of our current crisis.
‘Introduction to devolution in the UK’. David Torrance, House of Commons Library, 19th June 2019. https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8599/
‘Scottish Independence Referendum – Report on the referendum held on 18 September 2014’. The Electoral Commission, December 2014. https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/sites/default/files/pdf_file/Scottish-independence-referendum-report.pdf
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‘Coronavirus ups the stakes in Wales’ election’. Esther Webber, Politico, May 4th 2021. https://www.politico.eu/article/wales-election-2021-coronavirus-stakes/