Devolutionaries cannot expect to gain Welsh independence with British cash
Wales is often the forgotten frontier when it comes to the fight for the Union, eclipsed by more dramatic events in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
But Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, seems determined to change that. This week his Labour administration came out for ‘home rule’, and Drakeford personally attacked the Government for its “aggressively unilateral” approach to running the United Kingdom.
By this, he’s referring to measures such as the UK Internal Market Act, which has empowered Westminster to spend additional funds in devolved policy areas. This means extra money for Welsh and Scottish voters and there is precious little evidence they object to it — but it’s a threat to the importance of devocrats like Drakeford, and they know it.
If you want to see what their preferred model for a ‘new form of Union’ would be like, then Ken Skates, the Welsh Government’s transport minister gives us an idea. In a recent appearance before the Welsh Affairs Committee, he said that the “perfect solution” would be devolved responsibility for spending and investment.
But as Robin Millar, a Tory MP and leading figure in the new Union Resources Unit, pointed out, there was no mention of responsibility for raising revenue. When it came to the cash, at least, Skates is a strong believer in the United Kingdom.
It’s important that commentators outside Wales grasp that the current Welsh Government is not simply a unionist one whose attacks on the British Government should be taken in good faith. Its ministers deny British nationhood and accuse their UK counterparts of ‘colonial attitudes’ for commenting on Welsh affairs. Labour is even running pro-independence candidates for the Senedd.
Nor should we neglect the important context that if recent polls are right, Drakeford will need to strike a deal with Plaid Cymru to hold onto his job after the upcoming elections. If the Liberal Democrats get wiped out, it could divide the Welsh Parliament into a red/green ‘nationalist bloc’ and a Tory/Abolish ‘unionist bloc’ — a development which will likely further polarise the two mainstream parties on the constitutional issue.
Federalism of the Drakeford school is simply the nationalism of the numerate. It wants to replace British institutions with intra-Home Nations horse trading and does not subscribe to the idea that ‘the British’ are a legitimate political community. But it simultaneously demands the continued existence of a ‘British taxpayer’, prepared to stump up for regional transfers to people who do not wish to be considered their compatriots.
It’s an unworthy and unworkable vision for our country. Even if endlessly handing over more power to the devocrats ‘worked’ when it came to keeping the UK together — and it obviously hasn’t — unionists have legitimate questions to ask about what sort of country they’re actually fighting for.
The future of the UK hinges on the existence of legitimate British institutions that deliver for every part of the country, and that impose reasonable restrictions on the devolved governments to maintain political consent for fiscal transfers.
Devolutionaries like to talk about ‘the best of both worlds’. But they need to realise that this cannot mean ‘Welsh independence with British cash’.