Interview: Rowan Williams on Wales, independence and the King Lear of Westminster

12 December 2021

7:00 PM

12 December 2021

7:00 PM

Rowan Williams is no stranger to politics. As Archbishop of Canterbury he was as comfortable criticising Tony Blair over Iraq as passing stern judgment on David Cameron’s austerity measures. Even in these pages, at the height of the global crisis in 2008, Williams was arguing that Marx could teach us a thing or two about financial markets. Still, in recent weeks it just might be that he has embarked one of his most controversial projects yet: a commission to help define Wales’ constitutional future in the UK. As the spectre of Scottish independence haunts Westminster and Welsh nationalism gains momentum, it is a timely mission.

In October, Williams was unveiled as head of a Welsh government independent commission on the constitution, set up by Mark Drakeford. The commission, which is to publish its full findings and recommendations by the end of 2023, will have free-reign to consider and develop options to strengthen Welsh democracy. As if inviting controversy, the commission has said that means keeping all options on the table – including Welsh independence.

I visited Williams last week in a crowded Cardiff arts centre to discuss his new venture. The energetic and ever-rugged ex-Archbishop sits opposite me along with Laura McAllister, the co-chair of the commission: a well-respected Cardiff University politics professor, former Plaid Cymru candidate and captain of the Welsh women’s football team in the 90s.

Both Williams and McAllister were appointed by Drakeford, and at first glance make an odd couple: a combination of God, football, politics and academia charting a course for Wales’ future inside (or outside) the UK. Williams was born in Swansea and is a fluent speaker of Cymraeg, but he has been relatively silent on Welsh affairs over the last decade. McAllister, by contrast, has been appointed to a string of Welsh government commissions in the past.

The pair will have a range of commissioners working with them on their task, made up of representatives from all four major Welsh parties. This includes former Plaid Cymru and Welsh Liberal Democrat leaders and experts in policy and governance, such as Philip Rycroft, a former permanent secretary of the Brexit department. In spite of that, Welsh Conservatives have blasted the commission as a waste of time; a cover for ‘talking up independence’ headed up by those from the left.

The criticism is hard to overlook. McAllister stood for Plaid Cymru as a candidate twice (she left the party in 1992). And even Williams attended Welsh nationalist weekend schools in his youth. But both emphasise they will be ‘brokers’ for a national debate. ‘I don’t lose any sleep over criticism over my political record,’ Williams says. ‘I confess that I did go to Plaid Cymru events as a teenager, but actually I was a teenager quite a while ago.’

The former Archbishop is adamant, nonetheless, that there is a ‘sense of the fragility of the Union’ at the moment and the strategy to save the UK must be more creative.

‘If you want to make the case for the Union, I don’t think you could do it just by saying: “Everything in the garden is lovely, we don’t need to worry at all.” You can’t make the case for the Union by saying we ought to go back to pre-devolution models. And if you’re not doing either of those, then actually the conversation we’re trying to get going in the commission is exactly a conversation that has to be had.’

Williams has form on constitutional debates. Brexit, he wrote earlier this year, was ‘a solution in search of a problem.’ During the Scottish referendum, he was ambivalent on independence but suggested that further devolution of powers could bring people together. Now, seven years later, he senses that national sentiment is pushing Scots towards another ‘round of consideration of independence.’

‘Scotland, we all know about that… The relationship with Ireland is complicated, which has been made more complicated by Brexit,’ he says, clearly searching for the most diplomatic turn of phrase. ‘The question of the future of Ireland as an island is on the table in a way which it hasn’t been for quite a while. And really, the question then is: is a union between Wales and England, with nothing changing, where anybody really wants to be, were the rest of the Union to change radically or dissolve?’

Support for an independent Wales is also at about the same levels as where Scotland was a decade ago, McAllister points out. Williams, however, insists it is not a binary choice between staying in the UK and leaving.Independence is a convenient flag to wave but actually reflects a spectrum of constitutional possibilities,’ he asserts.

‘If you talk about the right level of self-determination for Wales as a nation, that’s the issue for me. I don’t think independence has to mean that within three years we suddenly become Iceland… Nor is all of this just a cover for maintaining Westminster-centred politics at all costs, perish the thought.’

I wonder whether Williams’ views of sovereignty, autonomy and specifically independence have changed since his adolescence in the company of nationalists. He was drawn to Plaid Cymru for cultural as well as political concerns, I am told. ‘Was this a community, a history, a nation whose identity was taken seriously by its own people and by the UK more generally?’ he ponders. ‘That kind of emotive question is still with me… I come to this, I hope, with a genuinely open mind. I want to see what works best for Wales as a self-conscious, self-respecting political reality.’ Wales has not had that self-respect before, I emphasise. ‘It comes and goes, doesn’t it?’, Williams smiles. ‘It goes more than it comes,’ McAllister chirps.

Fortune may be in the commission’s favour. A recent cooperation agreement signed by Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru, covering 46 policy areas such as taxes on second homes and the expansion of the Senedd, arguably shows that Wales is becoming more distinct from England. And, perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates politics is done quite differently in Cardiff Bay than at Westminster.

Does Williams see a difference between politicians in both places? ‘I do, a bit,’ he says. ‘I worry about the fact that Westminster-based politics has become incredibly polarised, very inflexible in some ways. It reflects the kind of culture we’re in – a polarised, short-termist, sloganeering kind of culture. I’ve been impressed by the fact that Welsh politics hasn’t been completely swallowed up by that.’ The ‘theatricality’ of Westminster is equally worrying, Williams says. I suggest a man of the Church wouldn’t necessarily mind that as much. ‘Well, there’s good and bad theatre, isn’t there? There’s King Lear and Cinderella Christmas,’ he chuckles. ‘What I’m saying about theatricality is not about PMQs, it’s much more to do with the pressure to produce quick solutions to problems perceived through media outlets, rather than scrolling back to asking basic questions.’

For the final few minutes of our conversation, Westminster continues to be the punchbag. There is little interest with ‘governing effectively’ from either Labour or the Conservatives, according to McAllister. (Williams interjects, saying it’s the ‘cosmetic’ element of our politics.)

So, I ask how they are going to reach new audiences in their consultation and transform the political discourse. Citizens’ assemblies, surveys in schools, a Wales-wide tour? ‘We haven’t nailed it yet, and don’t intend to until January. The reality is it has to be a deliberative process,’ McAllister states. Williams says that a range of options are on their ‘radar’ but stresses that there is no rush: the danger is being ‘trapped’ in ‘producing solutions’ without knowing ‘what the question is.’

One such issue might be reform of the House of Lords. Recently, Mark Drakeford has suggested making the institution’s specific job to protect the constitution and devolution with representatives from the four nations. Williams was a member of the upper house until his retirement last year. He says one of the problems with Lords reform was there wasn’t a ‘great clarity about what particular problems needed resolving. People hadn’t thought through: what do you want a second chamber for?’ Suggestions for its reform have, again, been ‘cosmetic.’

I try to finish with hypotheticals about the UK’s future. ‘As a good academic you always shy away from hypotheticals,’ McAllister chuckles. I go back to that notion of a union solely between Wales and England, which Williams realises would be difficult to imagine. ‘You can rationalise a four-nation system. A very small nation and a much larger one… That just concentrates the mind.’ The co-chairs are adamant that the integrity of their timetable will not be impacted by any possible referendum in Scotland, too. And they emphasise the importance of engagement from Westminster. Williams repeats an earlier line, which sounds like a warning to Downing Street. ‘If indeed you are committed to the Union and want it to work, you can’t assume it will work by doing nothing.’

McAllister leaves with me a football analogy. Europeans now think of Wales as an ‘independent football nation’ because of the team’s success at championships. That’s important, apparently. ‘It shows when we take charge of our own destiny and our own structures what we can do on a bigger stage,’ she adds. Without ‘strategic’ reform to the UK, the professor insists the relationship between the four nations will change in a ‘pretty erratic way.’ Without constitutional reform soon, Williams also sees ‘risky’ consequences. ‘That’s why strategically thought-out change is always preferable to drift. And drift, if nothing changes, will produce that level of disaffection of non-ownership in the component nations.’

They are both right. And their commission, despite its vagueness on process and delivery, is the only constructive constitutional debate taking place across the UK – bringing together nationalists, unionists, and everyone in-between. It should focus minds in Westminster, as McAllister and Williams say, but it may also be a moment when Wales as a nation steps out of the shadow of its English and Scottish neighbours. ‘It’s to do with people’s self-image of Wales,’ Williams observes. ‘What do they think we are? What do we think we are? Where do we want to be?’ The Welsh people will soon let them know.

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