The first constitutional tug of war in the new Senedd term ended in a stalemate, but with each party continuing its election campaign rhetoric around Wales' future in the UK and drawing clear battle lines for the next five years.

Labour's election victory could perhaps be taken as an endorsement of Mark Drakeford's view that it is time for the relationship between the United Kingdom's four nations to be reassessed and modernised, with more powers handed down from Westminster to the devolved administrations but with Wales remaining a part of the UK.

But if yesterday's impassioned to-and-fro in the Senedd is anything to go by, the future direction of Wales is far from settled, with both Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives refusing to let their respective pro-independence and pro-unionist war cries die down.

Plaid's Rhys ab Owen, leading his first-ever debate in the chamber, set the tone by introducing a motion that the new Senedd "has a mandate for the devolution of significant further powers from Westminster to Wales".

Anti-devolution parties had been "roundly rejected by voters" but the Conservatives and the UK government "continue to undermine our very existence," he told MSs, before arguing for justice to be devolved because "we have a legislature but we can't enact our laws".


Picking up on the first minister's campaign-trial comments supporting 'home rule' for Wales, ab Owen said: "Now is the time to turn the rhetoric of home rule into reality and deliver the stronger Wales and the stronger Senedd that the people of Wales are crying out for."

Plaid MS Sioned Williams said the Welsh Government continued to "drag its feet on devolving powers that will make Wales better off," alleging inequalities like the nation's child poverty rates were "a damning reflection of the impact of Conservative austerity and 20 years of the failure of Labour in Wales to do little more than manage poverty".

If welfare were devolved to Wales "it would have a real impact on the future of the most needy in our country," Williams said.

Delyth Jewell and Heledd Fychan – both Plaid – also spoke in support of the motion.

Citing UK plans to cut the number of Welsh MPs, Jewell said Welsh democracy would "regress" to nineteenth-century levels without further devolution.

"In 1832, they had to deal with rotten boroughs; today, we have to deal with rotten Boris," she told the Senedd.

Fychan called for broadcasting to be devolved "not only for the sake of our democracy, but also, as the pandemic has shown, for the sake of our public health, that the people of Wales receive information that's relevant to their lives here".

But the Welsh Conservatives argued against both the spirit and the letter of the Plaid motion, choosing instead to focus on collaboration and cooperation with Westminster. Darren Millar said Plaid "went backwards" in the election, showing "there is no mandate whatsoever for the further devolution of significant powers".

"We only need to look at the past 18 months during the pandemic to see how Wales benefits from the current devolution settlement," he said, citing the vaccine programme, distribution of PPE, and Westminster-led support schemes for workers and businesses.

Millar said "nothing could be further from the truth" in response to allegations Johnson's government was a "threat to devolution".

Fellow Conservative James Evans said other parties had an "obsession with more powers".

He said voter turnout (47 per cent) had been "poor" at the election, and the "top priority" of the Senedd should be to increase public engagement rather than "playing constitutional games".

"Why would the people of Wales want us to have any control over any more powers, when the Welsh Labour government aren't effectively running Wales with the powers they currently have?" he asked MSs.

Sam Rowlands, also Conservative, said "the future of Wales is best served as part of a strong United Kingdom" and asked why the justice system should be devolved when it would "cost around £100 million a year".

But constitution minister Mick Antoniw said the case for devolving justice had been "compellingly made".

He told the Senedd that "those who say that these constitutional issues are not important are fundamentally wrong, because they go to the heart of our democracy –they define what we can and cannot do".

Antoniw said Labour had called for a 'constitutional convention' on devolution for a decade and "the need to discuss and debate these issues is now greater than ever," with ministers wanting to "find a consensus among citizens and civic society about the way forward for devolution and the constitution".

Huw Irranca-Davies, also Labour, said the UK's constitution was "outmoded and inappropriate for today," and incompatible with both devolution and the emergence of powerful mayor-led regions in England.

"The union is not working in its current shape and form, but it could work with radical urgent reform," he told the Senedd, while his party colleague Mike Hedges said there needed to be a "defined position on devolution to Wales" that took in the finer details on taxation, the distribution of central government funds, and the role of councils in decision-making.

At voting time, the results were – unsurprisingly – split firmly down party lines. Plaid members were the only ones to support their original motion, while a Tory amendment painting a more favourable picture of the Wales-UK political bond did not win any support outside the Conservative bloc.

A Labour amendment, highlighting the government's "continuing work" to devolve policing and justice, was passed, also noting ministers' plans to publish an updated version of the 2019 Reforming our Union report.

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