After 20 Years of Devolution, Is Wales Ready to Leave the United Kingdom?

After twenty years of devolution, it is believed the ‘tide is now turning‘ for the possibility of an independent Wales. Whilst traditionally the prospects of such has been viewed as lagging behind Scotland, today the possibility is becoming more mainstream.

In recent weeks such has been met with concern by some. In her Union speech in Stirling last week, Theresa May referred to the electoral success of nationalist parties in Wales as evidence that the Union is “more imperilled now than it has ever been.” Such echos recent warnings from former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who remarked that UK unity is at risk from “hijacking patriotism.” And on Monday, Wales’ First Minister, Mark Drakeford, offered little reassurance for those concerned in stating “support for the Union is not unconditional,” and that the Welsh Government would consider supporting Welsh independence, if Scotland were to leave the UK. 

The constitutional shift in power that will follow Brexit, alongside the real prospects of a divided UK, has seen momentum grow for a referendum in Wales to decide its own future.

But after twenty years of devolution, what has Wales achieved, what challenges does it face, and is Wales really ready to leave the UK? 

what has wales achieved?

Since its creation in 1999, the National Assembly for Wales has introduced reforms for the benefit of the people of Wales (albeit in a piecemeal fashion of limited legislative competence over time, in a restricted number of areas).

The most frequently cited successes of the Assembly are those in the fields of health and education. The abolition of prescription charges, as well as the introduction of generous tuition fee grants for Welsh domiciled university students are perhaps the most often referenced examples of the benefits of Welsh devolution. 

The Assembly has also led the way in social and environmental reform. The Social Services and Wellbeing Act 2014, changed how peoples’ needs are assessed and how social wellbeing services are delivered. Wales was also amongst the first UK nation to introduce free bus travel for OAPs; charges for plastic bags; and the smoking ban in 2007– followed by further bans in school playgrounds and outside hospitals in 2019.

But perhaps the most overlooked success is the Senedd itself, now with full law-making powers, producing Welsh law, as an achievement in its own right. In 1979 Wales voted four to one against creating an Assembly. In 1997, the winning margin for its establishment was just 50.3%. Whilst some criticise its record today, overcoming such initial opposition is no mean feat. 

the challenges ahead for wales

Such is not to suggest that Wales’ devolution settlement is not without its challenges. Perhaps the biggest of these are issues with the infrastructure surrounding the Welsh Assembly. At a time when the Senedd can be more easily reached by London than its own Northern counties, what happens in Cardiff can feel distant from the reality for those living in Angelsey, Gwynedd and Clwyd. 

Coupled with this is the need to raise awareness of what happens within the Senedd and Welsh Government amongst its own citizens. Wales’ regional newspapers do not enjoy the same circulation success as their equivalent in Scotland. The consequence is that more Welsh domicile citizens rely on UK wide papers to access news, and will read more about Matt Hancock MP’s UK Health policies (that affect only England), than Vaughan Gethin AM’s actions in Wales (for example). 

Renaming the Assembly is believed to be one step towards ‘rebranding’ the identity of ‘Wales’ Parliament.’ But greater awareness of its activities will require more than this. 

The Senedd Building in Cardiff Bay (image taken by Stephen Clear)

However, the ‘elephant in the room’ continues to be that of the state of the UK under the next Prime Minister. Whilst the two candidates have reiterated that the “Union comes first“, the current ideological values of Welsh nationalism against union conservatism are difficult to reconcile. It is difficult to not envisage intermediate compromise on both sides, with at least more incremental devolution likely.  

could wales standalone?

Long term, calls for an even looser Union cannot be ignored. The revival of Yes Cymru, and their efforts to debunk myths surrounding Welsh independence have reignited debate. 

Last week, Theresa May appeared to acknowledged the need to address these movements by sanctioning the Dunlop review. Its remit is to address “how we can secure our Union for the future”, by exploring the interactions between Whitehall and the devolved nations. Whilst the current PM stated that such is not a review of devolution, the Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader has branded such a farce and attempt to undermine devolution following Brexit. 

The next Prime Minister’s attitude cannot be to arbitrarily enforce the Union at all costs. The question of whether Wales is ready to standalone partly rests on the outcome of this review, how its recommendations are sanctioned, and attitudes towards Wales. If successive UK Governments take the Union for granted without more meaningful consideration to the cumulative effects on the people that reside within the regions, calls for independence will only become louder. 

Got a question about this blog post? email s.clear@bangor.ac.uk. The images on this post are taken from Pexels (who offer licence free photos, for use without accreditation, for further information see: http://www.pexels.com).

Published on the 9th July 2019

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