The outgoing Mark Drakeford is no friend of the Union
It’s all change on the Home Nations beat. After Nicola Sturgeon stepped down as Scottish First Minister in February, Mark Drakeford, who has led the Welsh Government since 2018, has just announced that he is to quit the Senedd at the next election, due by 2026.
Drakeford, though, leaves his party in much better health than his longtime Scottish counterpart. Nearly 70, and still struggling with the loss of his wife, there is little mystery as to why the First Minister might choose to step back from public life.
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His record poses an interesting challenge to Labour. Politically, it has been a success: he has maintained its position as Wales’s hegemonic party, co-opting both Plaid Cymru and the residual Liberal Democrat (yes, singular) into propping up his government.
Yet on policy, Drakeford failed — or, rather, showed no interest in trying — to break out of the rut carved by his predecessors since the advent of the Welsh Assembly in 1999, which saw Welsh Labour use devolution to indulge its worst instincts.
Education results have tumbled, with Labour ministers reduced to accusing Michael Gove of “colonial attitudes” when he pointed this out. It’s a similar story with health, which saw David Cameron brand Offa’s Dyke the line “between life and death” in 2014; the Betsi Cadwaladr NHS Trust was in special measures for five years from 2015 to 2020, a state to which it returned in February. Whoever succeeds Drakeford will have to decide if all that is good enough — so long as (south) Wales keeps dutifully trooping out to re-elect Labour — or whether the Principality deserves something bolder.
Then there’s the broader constitutional question. Credulous critics of the Government’s occasional flirtations with so-called “muscular unionism” often held up the outgoing First Minister as a model unionist; that even Mark Drakeford was criticising a policy was taken as proof that it was beyond the pale.
Yet his is a decidedly anaemic sort of unionism, long on demands for fiscal transfers but decidedly short on any enthusiasm for Britain or British governance. Under Drakeford’s leadership, Labour has run pro-independence candidates; its most recent election manifesto falsely described the United Kingdom as a sort of voluntary confederation, in the European Union mould, rather than the actual state that it is.
Drakeford’s defenders say this is all in aid of holding off the Welsh nationalists, who have indeed failed to make the sort of breakthrough achieved by the SNP. But Welsh Labour’s steady nationalist evolution poses dangers of its own.
Too many see what they want to see: the good, reasonable, pro-Union politician, the last holdout of the old more-powers, fewer-strings New Labour consensus. Gordon Brown counts Drakeford an ally of his proposals to entrench devolution and gut the British state.
Should Sir Keir Starmer become Prime Minister next year, will a Labour government properly scrutinise the failures of its friends in the west? I fear instead they will invite Drakeford, and whoever succeeds him, into their innermost counsels — and make them a problem for all of us.