Tensions are simmering in the Celtic fringe. First there was the speech by Nicola Sturgeon announcing a new “consultative” independence referendum for Scotland in October next year; then Mark Drakeford’s pledge to “resist” the repeal of Welsh trade union law.

Similar agitation by the Scottish and Welsh finance ministers followed after the Treasury pressured both governments to hand over money reserved for devolved areas to boost military aid to Ukraine. And then the news came that the UK government was funding an education programme in Wales, a clear movement into the devolved policy framework.

Wales and Scotland can resist and protest but rarely have the right to refuse. Far from achieving independence or a parity of relations through ‘radical federalism’, devolution itself is in a state of decline in Britain – and there is little that can be done to reverse it.

This week saw moments in politics which we acknowledge traditionally as turning points. They feel big and significant for our institutions and Britain’s future. It’s not just a constitutional brouhaha.

READ MORE: This week's tensions between the UK Government and devolved nations

A formal announcement of referendum plans and the daylight burglary of Welsh law were both events of that magnitude, albeit not for the reasons the First Ministers would hope.

A plebiscite has long been mooted by the SNP in the last year, after all, and Welsh Labour has developed a reputation for challenging the UK government in the courts over measures such as the Internal Markets Act.

Despite aligned Welsh and Scottish aspirations, this week demonstrated how and why they are curtailed time and again.

The UK has many advantages – a redistributive economy, collective institutions and the romantic allure of history – but an English nationalist party with a dislike for devolution is a benign influence on its future.

No more powers. Law scrapped. Illegal referendum. Money gone. Devolution undermined.

And still, throughout the flurry of events we wait for what the First Minister of Wales is going to do about that big story: how to stop the repeal of the Trade Union Wales Act, enshrined into Welsh law in 2017 to protect the rights of workers in devolved areas such as health and education.

“A strongly worded letter from the Welsh government is not going to work,” Adam Price barked. The truth is in legal and constitutional terms there is nothing that the Welsh government can do.


The same story goes for the Scottish referendum. Just as Drakeford is boxed in on devolution, Sturgeon is on the ropes when it comes to independence.

She is running out of options and a legal referendum is only possible if granted by Westminster. There is no possibility of this happening and she must know it. Equally so, the First Minister must recognise her Plan B to fight the next general election campaign on the sole ticket of independence is risky and frankly pointless, if either a Labour or Conservative party rules Britain.

Instead of a receptive and sympathetic audience in London, unionist parties will block her move for a referendum for the foreseeable future, no matter her electoral mandate.

At least you know what you’re getting with the SNP. Independence will never fail to arouse and inspire, with the party’s mission to outmanoeuvre Labour and Conservative parties rather than work with them.

For Welsh Labour, their vague and flexible approach on devolution has been so skilfully crafted, playing to different demographics when it suits them.

But there is a crunch point on October 19, 2023 to consider. If some sort of vote is held and the answer is ‘Yes’, will the First Minister of Wales still have his hopes on an Anglo-Welsh, pining for a Labour government in Westminster devolving power? It seems far-fetched but not impossible.

And for as nimble as Welsh Labour’s approach to the constitution is, it leaves Wales exposed to a gradual chipping away of the political settlement that the Welsh people have voted for in referendums and reflected in their ballot papers during Senedd elections.

The Williams-McAllister constitutional commission, a clever idea at the time from Cardiff Bay to rival Gordon Brown’s investigation into the Union’s future, now seems like it would be nothing more than a well-written wonkish policy book on the Welsh government website rather than a framework for enacting change.

It's little surprise that the esteemed Professor Richard Wyn Jones recently said that there was “an air of unreality” to the debate around Wales’ future.

For all the talk of a bigger Senedd and a Welsh governing party buoyed by its opposition to an unpopular UK government, real power is concentrated elsewhere.

Scotland may try to go its own way, yet legal terms likely prohibits her from doing so.

The Welsh government may talk a tough game in stating it will “resist” any advance into its democratic territory but a simple follow up question is asked: how will they do it?

When colleagues at The National asked the Welsh government to answer this question they did not comment. That is the reality of Welsh politics today.

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