The forward march of devolution halted? Wales after the lockdown.
(This was published in the Institute of Welsh Affairs magazine Agenda in May)
COVID-19 doesn’t respect borders. And nor does UK Government messaging. On 10 April, the ‘UK Government in Wales’ tweeted that the first drive-in testing centre in Wales had been opened, at the Cardiff City stadium. We had known this was happening for some time, of course, as it had featured in Welsh Government press briefings, and it was obvious to anyone cycling past. But for those of us who thought that health was devolved, this was a signal that we are in new territory: a UK government stepping on the Welsh Government’s toes.
I was told subsequently that Deloitte’s had landed a contract across the UK for 50 drive-in test centres, though Public Health Wales is now operating the one at Cardiff City and it was the Welsh Government which was blamed when the centre was shut on Easter Monday. It makes sense of course for the Welsh Government to join in on UK-wide procurements, not least to avoid price-gouging as has been seen in respect of PPE. But the subsequent propaganda from the department formerly known as the Wales Office suggests a deeper agenda. The COVID-19 crisis is intensifying a process already visible in the period following the December UK General Election: a post-Brexit activist unionism, intended to redraw the evolving constitutional settlement of the previous 20 years.
May 2020 marks the point at which Wales has been living with what the French call cohabitation for a decade: one party in power in Cardiff Bay, another at Westminster. The next period is likely to test the resilience of devolution. We could be heading towards what I call ‘Devolution In Name Only’ – or DINO for short. And the DINO-saurs have a strategy.
This strategy is based on proposals that the think-tank Policy Exchange has been developing for a radical constitutional re-ordering: re-branding the Supreme Court as an Upper Court of Appeal, essentially nullifying its role as a constitutional court, strengthening ministerial oversight of judicial appointments and limiting judicial review, the re-establishment of Parliamentary sovereignty but with the executive’s powers reinforced, limits on the Human Rights Act and on the application of the European Convention on Human Rights. Welsh appointments to bodies under the control of the UK government have already been politicised.
The agenda isn’t limited to constitutional matters: there is an emphasis on UK government investment, particularly in infrastructure. Central government funded initiatives such as the City Deal have been used to build stronger relationships directly between the UK Government and Welsh institutions including local authorities. A ‘Western powerhouse’ model, bringing together Cardiff, Newport and Bristol, was launched to undermine Welsh Government economic plans.
In the General Election, the Conservatives promised to deliver the M4 Relief Road, without the power to do so. The stage is set for a new War on Wales, but perhaps through a more subtle approach than the Cameron years. Michael Gove recently penned an article in the Western Mail stressing what he said was the UK Government’s additional £2 billion investment in Wales to help address the COVID-19 threat, the role played by the army in coordination, cooperation between the UK and Welsh governments, and reiterating the five UK Government tests rather than the seven questions outlined by the First Minister, Mark Drakeford.
This is an activist infrastructure-driven and clientelism-based Unionism designed to undermine and minimise the role of the devolved governments. COVID-19 offers further opportunities effectively to dilute the already inadequate inter-governmental arrangements. The devolved administrations may attend COBR meetings but are observers only on SAGE, while the PM’s chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, is a participant. England’s chief medical officer has, apparently, the role of chief medical adviser to the UK government.
This agenda is aided of course by Wales’s fragmented public sphere. Paradoxically, Welsh journalists have been doing a better job of holding the Welsh Government to account than UK journalists have been doing with the UK Government. The dominant UK narrative has become neither the excess and preventable deaths nor the failures in planning and logistics but the Boris Johnson personal soap opera. It is possible to be pleased that the Prime Minister recovered from a dangerous virus and has a new-born son without succumbing to journalistic sycophancy. Meanwhile far more people in Wales read the Daily Mail than the Western Mail, and the Daily Mail’s own gung-ho story of flying in PPE to aid the NHS sets the ‘we can beat this’ tone.
The wider UK narrative – first Brexit, now COVID-19 – has drowned our national public sphere in Wales for the last four years. Welsh Government initiatives will get UK media attention when they differ from or are seen to pre-empt decisions of the UK government, such as announcements on closing schools, ruling out an early exit from the lockdown, or setting out the key questions governing the decision on whether the lock-down should be eased. Occasionally stories will surface on programmes like You and Yours about how Wales is being more generous in investing in support for homeless people than is England. But the narrative of difference cuts both ways: so if England is testing more care-home residents or staff, then that becomes a stick to beat the Welsh Government, whatever its efficacy.
The lockdown has seen the emergence of popular responses such as the weekly ‘clap for the carers’, originally for NHS workers but intended now to capture all those in caring roles. It has become very clear that when people speak of ‘the NHS’ they are applauding the efforts of the NHS across the UK, no matter that academics write these days about four NHSs with different operating structures. This ‘natural patriotism’ is a UK phenomenon, an expression of solidarity. In the period of Brexit I once wondered if Unionism was capable of producing an emotional response in its support. We have seen that emotional response in the backing for the NHS as a symbol of the best of us – and that doesn’t stop at the Welsh border. Though emotion for the BBC may be a long time coming, its necessity as a public service has become ever more evident, with record television audiences for the Prime Minister and the Queen. The attacks on it from the Tory right, have largely been confined to occasional outbursts focused on specific programmes like the Panorama exposé on PPE.
The UK narrative has of course dominated our news coverage of the COVID-19 crisis, with the statements from the UK Government press conferences, however inane many of those have been, providing the broadcast news lead. Facilitated by a centralised media, bolstered by a slavishly loyal tabloid press, this renewed activist unionism and its possible endurance after the lockdown should not be underestimated. Unless, of course, the inevitable public inquiry, potentially so different with evidence from the devolved administrations certain to be heard, actually cuts through with direct and sharp criticisms of the failures in planning and delivery and the U.K.’s excess death exceptionalism.