The pandemic has thrust devolution to the forefront of decision-making, producing both "positive examples of inter-governmental working" and "disappointing" disputes between the Welsh and UK governments, according to Mark Drakeford.

The first minister addressed the Senedd today after publishing his intergovernmental review, covering not just the Covid-19 public health crisis but also the Brexit transition period.

Drakeford said he was "doing [his] best to err on the side of generosity" in his report, which reflected on the extent of the collaboration between Westminster and Cardiff Bay throughout the pandemic. 

That period also shone a new spotlight on how devolution operates in Wales – perhaps more than any other time – as Drakeford's government exercised its responsibilities for responding to the pandemic, sometimes passing laws and regulations that differed from the UK government's English policies and sometimes coming into political conflict.

From the early decision to close Welsh schools, to the 'fire break' lockdown last autumn, Drakeford and his cabinet have consistently stamped their own authority on the response to coronavirus, branding their "careful and cautious approach" as being in the best interests for people here. That policy has at times proved controversial – not least among the Welsh Conservatives, who have frequently campaigned for one UK-wide set of rules.

But today, addressing the Senedd, the first minister defended his decision to take Wales down its own path.

"The pandemic has highlighted the way in which devolved and reserved responsibilities are interconnected," he said. "As a Welsh Government and as a Senedd we have had to make decisions, and we continue to do so, in what we believe to be the best interests of Wales."

Relations with Westminster have varied during the pandemic, he said, and while it produced joint decision based on "shared scientific, economic and social links" the results had been beneficial for Wales and the UK.

"This year, we have had regular meetings between devolved governments and the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, covering COVID-19 and other business," Drakeford said. "I look forward to this continuing following the recent reshuffle, where Michael Gove retains, as I understand it, responsibility for inter-governmental relations.

"The vaccination programme is a further example of how things can be done well, with agreement on central procurement, shared on a population basis across the UK, but with delivery managed by each nation

But "when it falters, the results are inevitably disappointing", he added, before delivering a less favourable assessment of Westminster's approach to Brexit and the future of the union.

"Our bilateral relations with the UK Government are too often poor and difficult," Drakeford said. "Their muscular unionism, their hostility to devolution, and their aggressive unilateralism is entirely counter-productive and at odds with sentiment here in Wales. It is very difficult to reconcile the positive overtures made some of the time, by some UK ministers, with the aggressive incursions they make into devolved areas, for example through their legislative programme and their spending plans, holding back money that should come to Wales, and taking back responsibilities that are clearly devolved."

Darren Millar, the Welsh Conservative MS for Clwyd West, said "it should come to no-one's surprise" that political differences and tensions would arise between the two seats of power.

"That's understandable in a democracy that throws up governments of different colours in Wales and at a UK level," he added.

Millar noted the first minister's report "highlighted lots of positive engagement" with Westminster, from vaccines to talks on trade deals.

He suggested the Welsh Government had "soured" relations with Boris Johnson's government by "trying to prevent the UK’s departure from the European Union".

"It was divisive, and I think at times very unnecessary, given that everybody had to get on and deliver on the outcome of that referendum," he added, before suggesting that "Welsh Government ministers need to have a bit of a thicker skin when it comes to the occasional disagreement, which is entirely predictable because of the fact that there are political differences between the two political parties".

Unlike Millar, Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price said Drakeford had been "too generous" in his assessment of relations with Westminster.

"Don't think for a moment that they believe in the potential of some equal partnership with us here in Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland," Price told the first minister. "They see us as servile, and that's their attitude. They believe in the sovereignty of Westminster and Westminster alone."

The Plaid leader called for "more transparency" in the relationship between Wales and Westminster, and in the meantime to improve collaboration with other Celtic nations.

"In this sense, we are united; we oppose this conservatism from Westminster that denies our right here in Wales and in the other nations to plough our own furrow," he said.

The first minister said he would be eager to build more connections with the rest of the British Isles.

"When you work with Scotland and Northern Ireland, you work with people from very different political backgrounds, and that's a great thing, isn't it, because you learn things and you find ways of collaborating with people from those different backgrounds, and to do that alongside the people who live in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, that's something I'm eager to strengthen over the coming year," he said.

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