If Mark Drakeford is “king of Fortress Wales”, as I anointed him in The Spectator, perhaps Simon Hart is our governor-general.

Appointed by the prime minister in December 2019, he has been the most prominent Secretary of State in recent years, largely because of his plans to be more active than ever in making spending decisions across Wales post-Brexit and after Covid-19. It has infuriated the Welsh Government and led to a destabilising constitutional jostle.

The Welsh Secretary greets me in his office at Gwydyr House, a Grade II-listed mansion a stone’s throw from Downing Street. He is flanked by three aides. (My reputation as a troublemaker can’t be that bad, I think.)

And, after all, it’s an honour to be here: the Wales Office easily eclipses the grandeur of Cathays Park or Ty Hywel. When you ascend the building’s staircase, portraits of office holders grace the wall, including patriots like Cledwyn Hughes, and, erm, John Redwood.

Before I ask any questions, I present a customary gift: D. Ben Rees’s biography of Jim Griffiths, the greatest of Hart’s predecessors, who fought tirelessly to give our nation a seat around the cabinet table. As he flicks through the book, I wonder what both men have in common aside from the job title.

What did Hart envisage his role being when he was appointed? Pursuing the levelling-up agenda and strengthening the union are two key points.

The post-pandemic economy is going to be a different one, he says, and when it comes to the union “very important lessons” have been learnt.

“There has been too much emphasis in public debate on the union being just an argument about money. And I think it’s very easy to misinterpret that,” Hart says. “It’s very easy… to create a narrative which almost looks like it’s an uneven partnership, whereas in reality the union is much more of an emotive argument. It’s much more of a cultural argument and cultural discussion.”

He is right. As he is when he says that the union should not be presented “as a political choice or a political party. Or a requirement to put a Union Jack… outside your house”. But this is much more moderate than he, or certainly his flag-waving colleagues, have been over recent months.

The Welsh Secretary goes on to say that we should move away from the binary of categorising people as ‘unionists’ or ‘patriots’, and that the union should be seen “on balance” as a good thing. It’s a big ambition which would avoid Wales being “dragged slowly towards separatism”, he adds.

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Sceptics (like me) view such rhetoric in stark contrast to the Welsh Secretary’s public statements, which included telling Welsh Government ministers to “stop fretting about their own little status” in February.

It’s no surprise that those same ministers see the UK Government fanning the flames of nationalism, not quashing the dream of Cymru Rydd.

Nevertheless, Hart proclaims that we’re “going to see a much more active UK Government in Wales than you’ve ever seen before… I believe that not only to be the case but also to be right”.

Does he understand why the Welsh Government is frustrated? “I can see precisely why they’re making the argument. I think they’re wrong.”

I interrupt. One key issue is that regional aid was previously channelled to Cardiff when we were part of the EU. Westminster politicians are taking responsibility post-Brexit, with initiatives such as the Shared Prosperity Fund bypassing Welsh Government.

“Hang on, I’ll come back to that... I think they’re wrong on a number of counts,” the secretary of state insists.

I have never met a politician so absolute that his position is the correct one (well, aside from Mark Drakeford).

Hart reiterates in an extensive monologue that he is bringing decision making much closer to home by distributing funding at local authority or city-region level.

“It’s actually more akin to devolution than anything that’s happened before. So, I don’t buy this argument [that] somehow, some great constitutional offence has been committed… All we’ve done is to make sure that people who live in Wales, voted in by voters in Wales, representing areas of Wales, are going to be involved in decision making, who haven’t been involved before. That is a good thing.”

The accusation that the UK Government is undermining the Senedd is dismissed emphatically.

“I would be much more concerned if those accusations were that we were undermining Wales. We’re not. We’re getting more money into Wales, I would argue, than there’s ever been the case before. We are taking our levelling-up commitments extremely seriously. And I think what Welsh Government are worried about isn’t investment and jobs: it’s about power. It’s a really profound difference between, in a sense, us and them. Which I clearly would argue is a mistake on their part.”

“Us and them” is a peculiar phrase. I ask more about “them”: what does he make of Drakeford’s comments that Downing Street is “stealing powers and stealing money”?

“I think he’s profoundly wrong. I don’t quite know why he’s saying that.”

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Hart comes back to the “phenomenal” amount of money invested by the UK Government across Wales throughout the pandemic and the success of the vaccine rollout, adding that the latter was delivered “free of charge”.

Should I say thank you? “No, no. I’m not asking for thanks... Nobody’s saying: ‘You owe us one!’ Nobody’s saying that, absolutely not. But I think it’s a really good example of how the union works well together. You quite rightly challenge me… But equally Mark Drakeford should not be using language like ‘stealing’... That is not accurate, or helpful.”

I am struck by how the Secretary of State and the First Minister have such polarising views on how to make the union work.

I remind Hart that Drakeford is a committed unionist, but he isn’t so convinced, questioning why Cardiff demands further powers and challenges the UK Government.

The First Minister’s “definition of unionism is for everything to go through Welsh Government,” I am told.

“And for him and his colleagues to have the ultimate say on pretty well every single spending decision in Wales. I think that’s independence by another name.”

It’s a bit more complicated than that. Drakeford’s unionism is wholly consistent with Welsh Labour ideology – recognising the distinctiveness of Wales within a British economic and social partnership – not to mention the fact that two referendums have demonstrated public support for Welsh devolution.

The First Minister’s call for home rule also follows a longstanding political tradition: a quasi or fully federal model for Wales has been, and still is, a dream of nationalists, liberals and some Tories too.

“The mistake they’re making, I repeat it, is assuming that home rule means Mark Drakeford’s rule,” Hart emphasises. “I don’t totally disagree with the devolution concept.” That’s reassuring.

“If you look up the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘devolution’ will tell you that it’s decision making at the nearest point to those who it affects. For us, that’s local authorities. It’s quite interesting. ‘This is devolution on my terms,’ Mark Drakeford would say. And: ‘I want to be a unionist but on my terms’. I’m saying: nuh-uh.”

Hasn’t he just told me what unionism and devolution is, but on his terms? “No... I’m not being possessive about these powers.”

The Welsh Secretary remains an elusive figure. I don’t feel like I know much about him, certainly compared to his predecessors. I’m interested in his ‘Welshness’: the key components of his identity.

I gently suggest Hart may have a different answer to the Welsh-speaking miner and trade unionist Jim Griffiths.

Born in Wolverhampton – because of a “medical emergency” – Hart grew up in the Cotswolds and went to Eton’s rival public school, Radley College, and has a background in hunting.

“I do wonder if you level that accusation, you know. I wonder what’s behind the question...”

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It’s not to paint him in an unfavourable light, just to understand his background and what influenced his ideas about nationhood and identity.

I try to explain the question again. He tells me he understands, with a mischievous chuckle. (I think he is teasing, and none of the three aides have thrown me out yet.)

So, what does ‘Welshness’ mean to him? First, he tells me not to forget that a third of voters in Wales were born in England. He is proud of his mother’s Swansea roots and the diversity of the nation too.

“I’ve lived and worked in west Wales for 32 years. And in all of that time, I’ve seen very different communities with very different ambitions, very different historical stories to tell. But, I’ve also seen people who are fiercely loyal and patriotic to their flag, culture, and history. But also very metropolitan and very, very outward looking. [They’re] very aware of Wales and the UK’s place in the world.”

Hart wants to promote an inclusive country: a Wales which can “strike that balance between [being a] proud, patriotic, successful, small ‘i’ independent, spirited nation, in a bigger world”.

A small ‘i’ independent nation is an interesting characterisation. As are his frequent references to ‘separatists’. Not many people use that term anymore, I point out.

He cuts across me: “Well, I do. Because I think it’s more realistic. When we talk about independence I think it’s more important people know what that means.”

The ambition to take Wales out of the UK is about “separating nations”, he asserts. Plaid Cymru’s version of independence “is shutting up shop and leaving the UK. And all of the horrors that would entail”.

Is he arguing Wales is too poor to be independent? “No, no, no. Absolutely not,” the Welsh Secretary states.

“I think I made that mistake once in the chamber of the House of Commons, intimating: ‘So who’s going to pay for this?’ And I didn’t mean it like that. It probably wasn’t the best way of putting it. What I meant was: of course, Wales could stand on its own two feet. My question was: but at what cost?”

Hart adds that he already considers Wales a “very” independent nation. “In thought, word and deed, in every possible way, but it recognises the value of the union and hence why we are where we are. But I think there is a big difference between being independent in spirit or potentially risking all of your very valuable means by which we interlink with the rest of the world.”

It is a provocative view. Typical, in fact, of Simon Hart. The interview comes to an end, and I am gently ushered out.

Soon I am passing the portraits of secretaries of state again. I lament that most are forgotten in the political archives, dismissed as ministers who oversaw a powerless office.

Jim Griffiths’ hope that Wales would have some clout in SW1 probably hasn’t come true either, and there are longstanding calls for his department to be disbanded.

Equally, there has never been a time when the Secretary of State for Wales has been so relevant. Whether the first

minister likes it or not, he is not the only one who has a stake in shaping the future of the country.

There are significant powers in Drakeford’s grasp, health and education being the most prominent, but the UK Government is claiming what it sees as its own fair share: most controversially, post-Brexit investment responsibilities.

Who will get the credit? Will collaboration be at all possible? Does Wales have a place in this more centralised union?

We will have to wait for answers. On the way out, I recall one of Griffiths’ famous phrases: “after the storm, the sun comes.” It sticks with me. The constitutional thunder we see shows no sign of relenting – today, this week, or next year.

As long as Drakeford and Hart are up against each other, battling so viciously over the function and future of devolution and the union, who knows how long it could last, and where we’ll end up.

I step outside and take one final look at Gwydyr House. I think to myself: who really runs Wales? “Us” or “them”?

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