There is a “sense of unreality” to the debate on Wales’s future, a leading Welsh academic has said.

In the second part of our interview with Richard Wyn Jones, director of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, we talked about Wales and the United Kingdom - our relationship with Westminster, and the debate on our future in the union.

Professor Wyn Jones said that there is “no evidence” either the current UK government or any future Labour administration under Keir Starmer would support further devolution, warning that some leaders and campaigners have not caught up to the political reality we face today.

Front and centre during our near-two years of shifting Covid lockdowns and restrictions, Wales’ most urgent political questions largely rest on our current and future place in the UK, and the constitutional powers held by our government in Cardiff.

A number of crucial policies the Welsh Government says it supports - becoming a “nation of sanctuary” for refugees, developing a justice system based on prevention and rehabilitation, reforming the gender recognition process for trans people in Wales - all require it to secure further devolved powers from Westminster, and present a challenge to the positions of the UK Government.

At the same time, the UK government has been accused of “clawing back” powers that the Welsh Government already has, repeatedly legislating in devolved areas.

“These are big, existential questions, and there are no easy answers,” Professor Wyn Jones said.

“But there’s a certain air of unreality to the debate in Wales at the moment.

“We talk about what we want, but somehow we miss out the ‘what if England wants something completely different’ dimension.

“We’re five percent of the UK population - and we share the state with England, which is 85 percent of the UK.

“There is a very strong consensus in Wales in favour of more devolution, and adapting the UK in order to make devolution work.

“But in the same way that I don’t think the UK will adapt in order to accommodate the demands of Scotland - which is seven percent of the UK population, and has more bargaining power than us - I don’t think it will adapt for Wales.”

In the Welsh independence debate, Welsh Labour has tended to lean towards a compromise position - “radical federalism”.

This new model for the UK would be a “voluntary association” between the four nations, sharing resources and responsibilities where beneficial, but keeping decision-making powers as local as possible.


Prof. Wyn Jones said: “You get people talking about confederalism, federalism - but there’s lots of evidence to suggest that this would not be supported in England.

“The idea that somehow, it’s going to happen anyway, just because we want it to…

“We have three different parties now dominant in each of the three nations of Britain, and they’re all actually national parties - the Conservatives have strong support from people who identify strongly as English, the SNP amongst people who feel very Scottish, and Welsh Labour among people who feel very Welsh.

“We don’t seem to be recognising where we’re at.

“This isn’t just about the Welsh Government, per se - obviously they've got a role - but it's also about the Welsh Labour Party, which is deeply divided on these issues.

“The Conservative Party in Wales, I think, is now realising that it's got itself into a real corner. 

“But you know, I think probably that their kind of British nationalism will trump their own electoral self interest.

“Plaid Cymru just seems slightly becalmed.”

With another general election looming on the horizon, could supporters of “radical federalism” put their faith in a potential Keir Starmer government to deliver? 

Last year, the UK Labour party put together its own constitutional commission, led by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown - who campaigned against Scottish independence in 2014 - tasked with settling “the future of the union”, but there have been few clues as to where the exercise will lead.

Professor Wyn Jones says that the debate on Wales's future lacks Labour's position on devolution under Keir Starmer is not yet clear. (Picture: PA Wire)

“The first thing to consider is that Labour has won the most General Election votes in England only seven times in its history,” Prof. Wyn Jones said.

“Even now, under Boris Johnson, the Conservatives are in a very strong position - you can easily envisage the Tories running a version of their 2015 election campaign, where they mobilised fears of Labour being reliant on SNP support. 

“They mobilised that very successfully in England, so I think that's still very much in play. 

“Even if you get a Labour victory, does a Starmer Labour administration actually do what the Welsh Labour government would want it to do?

“There’s going to be a big change, anyway, in the size of the Welsh Parliamentary Labour Party, because there’s going to be a reduction in Welsh MPs.

READ MORE: 'Wales' sense of Britishness will set it free from the UK'

“It’s far from guaranteed that a Starmer administration would actually do what the Welsh Government would hope they would do - in fact, I think it’s highly unlikely.”

So, what options are available to us? Should the Welsh Government accept Westminster encroaching onto devolved matters, and risk conceding itself into an ever-smaller corner? 

“It's not about conceding,” Prof Wyn Jones said. 

“The Welsh Government doesn't have the constitutional power to resist - that's the nature of devolution.

“As Enoch Powell said, ‘power devolved is power retained’ - in the setup of the UK, if the UK government wants to grab powers back and it has a majority in Westminster, it can do it.

“If the UK Government wants to drive a horse and coaches through devolution, then it can do it -  and then it's not clear to me where you go.

“There's no democratic route to abolishing devolution - there would be massive resistance to getting rid of the Senedd.

“But there's a continuum here, of taking away powers, and there's not much that the Welsh Government can do in that context - well, there's nothing it can do in constitutional terms.

“I think it's impossible to imagine the current Supreme Court ruling against the UK government in a case brought by one of the devolved governments -  I think they’ve bought into this post-Brexit notion of unfettered parliamentary sovereignty, where basically the UK Government gets to do what it wants to do. 

“That's where we're at at the moment - and I just want to urge some realism about that.”

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