The Welsh first minister has launched a fierce attack on the UK government’s attitude to the devolved nations, accusing it of favouring “flag flying” over constructive thinking and acting in an “aggressively unilateral way”.
Mark Drakeford argued that it was time for relations between Westminster and the devolved governments to be reset to protect the “fragile” union, and called for Wales to be allowed to take control of its own legal system and policing.
In his strongest attack yet on the approach of Boris Johnson’s government to the union, Drakeford said: “Wales’ future is best served by having strong devolution – so decisions about Wales are made in Wales – and by being an equal partner is a strong and revitalised United Kingdom.”
But he said reform was needed quickly. “The way the union works must change. And the need for change is urgent, the union has never been this fragile. If matters continue in their current vein, the case for the breakup of the UK will only increase.
“Too often we see the UK government act in an aggressively unilateral way, claiming to act on behalf of the whole UK, but without regard for the status of the nations and the democratic mandates of their government.”
Drakeford claimed this approach created “anger and alienation”, adding: “It’s time for relationships to be reset.”
He was speaking before the publication of a plan called Reforming Our Union that the Welsh government argues will make the UK stronger and work for everyone.
A similar plan was published in 2019, which has been updated following the Welsh and Scottish parliament elections and in the light of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act, which critics believes centralises power in Westminster at the expense of the devolved nations.
Changes outlined in the Welsh government’s plan range from creating an independent public body to oversee how the devolved nations are funded, and the devolution of justice and policing to Wales – as it already is to Scotland and Northern Ireland. It also calls for ministers of the devolved nations to be closely involved in UK negotiations over trade and international relations.
Laura McAllister, a professor at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, said Drakeford appeared to be “emboldened” by Labour’s victory in the Welsh parliament elections last month. She said: “A serious constitutional conversation initiated in Wales was always part of Labour’s post-election plans. This constitutional conversation has gained pace and will have greater force following Welsh Labour’s success in May’s Senedd elections. Drakeford has been emboldened by this.”
The Welsh Conservative Senedd leader, Andrew RT Davies, said people would be “scratching their heads” at the timing of the report, which he called an “unwelcome and unnecessary sideshow”.
Separately, the Welsh government has announced a package of measures that it says will help make Wales the most LGBTQ+-friendly nation in Europe.
The measures include establishing a new Wales-wide fund to support Pride grassroots events across the country, and securing the devolution of as many aspects as possible of the Gender Recognition Act. It is also commissioning legal advice on all available powers to ban conversion practices in Wales.
A UK government spokesperson said: “Choosing to prioritise constitutional issues in the middle of a pandemic is an irresponsible and unwanted distraction.
“We are strongest when we work together as one United Kingdom, and our full focus must remain on recovering from the challenges the pandemic has created.”