King of Fortress Wales: an interview with Mark Drakeford

19 June 2021

3:23 PM

19 June 2021

3:23 PM

Mark Drakeford sits opposite me in a small conference room on the third floor of Cathays Park, the nucleus of Welsh government operations during Covid-19. The First Minister of Wales is in bullish mood. Last month, he almost single-handedly delivered a thumping election victory for Labour in Wales – securing 30 seats in the Senedd and extending Labour’s 22-year-grip over the devolved parliament. The party in Wales enjoys starkly different electoral fortunes to its comrades across the border, with Drakeford now Labour’s only leader with experience winning national elections across the UK.

I meet him a few hours after the first devolved Covid summit, where he and other devolved leaders spoke with the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and Michael Gove. The First Minister tells me he circulated his government’s 2019 constitutional paper to attendees beforehand, which has a 20-point plan for transforming the relationship between the four nations. ‘I went on to say that I want the United Kingdom to succeed’, he says.

I believe him. But many won’t, of course. Only this week, the First Minister launched his ‘Programme for Government’, which included a commitment to a ‘national civic conversation’ about Wales’s constitutional future. The Welsh government has also been dogged in criticising the UK government over the last year, with Cardiff even launching a High Court legal challenge over the Internal Market Act in April. The problem, according to Drakeford, is the ‘muscular unionism’ of the Prime Minister, which has ‘far, far too often tipped into a sort-of aggressive unilateralism.’ He is infuriated in particular by Robert Jenrick, who during the summit was in Wales to promote his department’s Shared Prosperity Fund, which the Welsh government says allows Westminster to take control of spending on devolved areas. Jenrick ‘has no responsibilities for anything in Wales, but came to tell us how he will be making the decisions about money that should be ours, using powers that should be used in the Senedd,’ the First Minister tells me. ‘I’m happy to imagine that in a large and complex organisation like the UK government, that wasn’t deliberate and provocative. But nevertheless, even if it wasn’t done deliberately, it’s neglectful, isn’t it?’ Drakeford also told the Prime Minister that the strategy of ‘stealing powers and stealing money’ from devolved parliaments would only make fissures grow across the UK.

The First Minister says he doesn’t doubt the Prime Minister’s commitment to preserving the UK, but his recipe for doing so is ‘fundamentally flawed and counterproductive.’ Specifically, Drakeford rallies against the aggressive, ‘Union Jack planting’ unionism championed by Downing Street, arguing that this strategy could have been cooked up after reading columns in The Spectator.

On the bright side, he reveals that he has constructive, ‘respectful’ weekly meetings with Michael Gove. It is telling that he singles out Gove for praise. As Minister for the Cabinet Office, Gove is working on repairing the relationship between Downing Street and the Celtic nations, and is said to favour a more conciliatory tone with Cardiff and Edinburgh. I remind Drakeford, by comparison, that he called the Prime Minister ‘really awful’ during a fly-on-the-wall documentary that aired this year. ‘That is because in the meeting that just concluded he was pretty awful.’

Drakeford has his own ideas for preserving the union: ‘radical’ federalism. Imagining an autonomous Wales in a quasi or fully federal Britain is not a new idea; in fact, it is a Welsh political tradition that can be traced back to David Lloyd George in the late nineteenth century. But Drakeford believes that now is the perfect time to give Wales more power – arguing that responsibilities for policing and criminal justice should be with his government – and he has a provocative view of parliamentary sovereignty.

‘Sovereignty in the United Kingdom is now dispersed to four parliaments, each of which is elected’, I am told. ‘When you go back to 1999, the facts on the ground were that there was a sovereign UK parliament, and it was handing things out to newly constituted devolved institutions. 25 years later, I think the facts on the ground are different… It’s no longer a reflection of reality to go on pretending that there is one sovereign parliament, and everything else is somehow subsidiary to it.’

Practicalities aside, I ask how he would win over Westminster to the idea of allowing Wales to run its own affairs almost entirely. Scotland may be able to play the ‘pretty big card’ of a referendum, Drakeford says, but Wales has always made its case through the ‘quality of the argument’. That’s not much, I point out. ‘Well it ought to be, oughtn’t it?’

Drakeford’s warning that more people in the UK government must ‘wake up to the genuine threat’ to the union moves us on to whether the SNP have the right to a referendum. ‘I’ve always believed that if a government is elected with that as part of its manifesto and has the votes on the floor of their parliament… Then they do have a mandate.’ He goes on to say that if Scotland seceded, ‘the geometry of the United Kingdom would have altered fundamentally and Wales would have to think through the relationship that she would want to have with the component parts that remain.’

A United Kingdom of England and Wales might lead to a terrifying nightmare for Welsh patriots. ‘It is not a comfortable thing to think about’, the First Minister admits. However, he concedes that Wales could exist in a union with England. ‘I don’t think it’s impossible to design a relationship that will be to Wales’s advantage.’ Above all else, Drakeford’s hope is that a British union will persist. Even on the question of a referendum on Welsh independence, he argues it must not be a choice between the status quo and leaving; a reformed United Kingdom should be on the ballot paper too.

I mention that he also probably believes these problems would go away with a Labour government in London. He acknowledges that opinion polls show Keir Starmer is unlikely to win a general election held tomorrow, but points to 2017, when his friend Jeremy Corbyn defied the polls to come ‘within a whisker of being the largest party in the House of Commons.’ I ask whether the Labour leader should emulate his predecessor. ‘Keir Starmer can’t be somebody else’, he says, before saying Corbyn did have ‘a very attractive policy offer.’

Drakeford, a socialist of the Welsh stripe like his late mentor, former First Minister Rhodri Morgan, was proud of the 2017 manifesto. It struck a chord with voters too, apparently. ‘I felt that people understood that it was a Labour party, who weren’t saying: “Please vote for us, we’re not quite as bad as the other lot”. We were a Labour party saying: “Vote for us because we can do things differently. This can be a different and better country with a Labour government.”’

There is no doubt that Starmer desperately needs compelling and authentic ideas. ‘And then you’ve got to have credibility’, Drakeford emphasises. ‘People don’t just like the ideas, but believe that in government you would be capable, competent, to translate those ideas into a programme that would make that difference.’ But when I ask whether Starmer has any of these qualities, tellingly, Drakeford dodges the question entirely: ‘Well, the Labour party… I think… Keir Starmer has the hardest job in politics, and he’s had to try to do it during a pandemic.’ The Labour leader is ‘well seized’ of the challenges facing him, he adds.

For the final few minutes, we turn back home. Wales is, after all, Labour country. The party’s electoral success is extraordinary, not only compared to other parties across Britain, but in a European context too: next year will mark a century of Labour dominance, a party that has won the most seats at every general election since 1922 in Wales, in addition to holding power for over two decades in the Welsh parliament. The First Minister agrees with commentators that say Labour’s success in Wales is largely down to its distinctively Welsh identity. However, he points to other relevant factors, including the role of incumbency, a ruthless electoral machine (the party made contact with 100,000 people door-knocking in just over two weeks), authentic policies, and credibility in government to explain his recent triumph.

But it is comments on identity that are most intriguing. ‘We never wanted to be in a position in which to demonstrate that if you were Welsh you had to vote for a nationalist party in Wales’, the First Minister states. ‘I think in Scotland, somehow that became what people felt: if you wanted to show you were Scottish you had to vote for the SNP. And the Labour party paid a big price for that, whereas we’ve always tried to be in a position where to be Welsh and to be Labour were two forms of identity that people felt very comfortable being together.’ He points to how Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan have positioned Labour similarly in Manchester and London.

We conclude by discussing the challenges ahead. Combatting coronavirus and climate change are two key priorities referenced. But Drakeford only has a couple of years left before retiring ahead of his 70th birthday. What will the First Minister of Wales’s legacy be, beyond building a substantial media profile during a global pandemic? ‘I want Wales to be a place where young people feel they can make their futures here’, he says. ‘That if they want a future they don’t have to leave Wales… I don’t mean that I want a “fortress Wales” where young people never want to leave. But I want them to feel that Wales is a place that they can plan their lives.’

It’s an ironic phrase, ‘fortress Wales’, since that is exactly what Mark Drakeford has started to build like no other Welsh politician before him. He has done so through his pandemic policy – banning travel from virus hotspots across Offa’s Dyke last year – and politically, by reaffirming the Welsh identity of his triumphant Labour party. This once reluctant leader has rallied against Downing Street on the union, and gone further than his own British party bosses on the constitutional question in the process. There has been willingness to experiment with left-wing policy – a UBI pilot, for instance – that would hardly be considered in Westminster.

The national motto, Cymru am byth ‘Wales forever’, seems an appropriate way to explain Mark Drakeford’s priorities. After all, no other figure will have a greater influence over Wales in the coming years.

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