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Mark Drakeford: "The UK is a great insurance policy"

First Minister Mark Drakeford in the Welsh government building in Cardiff | Photography by Polly Thomas

7 min read

Mark Drakeford is no fan of flag-waving unionism. Instead, Wales’ First Minister tells Georgina Bailey how the United Kingdom can thrive – not in spite of devolution but because of it.

"We’re very much in the parlour room,” Mark Drakeford says, laughing as he takes a seat in the art deco-style office he rarely uses in Cathays Park, the Welsh government building in Cardiff. It was the secretary of state for Wales’ office before devolution, but the Welsh First Minister prefers a simpler office elsewhere in the building. The UK government has recently completed work on a new building for itself in the centre of the city, with plans for an eight-storey union flag on the outside.

While Drakeford comes across as mild-mannered, he has clear frustrations with the UK government’s “flag waving and muscular unionism”. Michael Gove, who is responsible for the UK government's union work, gets the union, he says. Boris Johnson, self-styled, “minister for the union”, does not. 

“He [Johnson] has a view of what that means. I think it’s deeply mistaken and, sadly, very likely to be counterproductive,” Drakeford says. It is not the only point of difference between the two men – Drakeford, a former teacher, social worker and professor of social policy, once said the only thing they had in common was they both spoke Latin. Having grown up Carmarthen in west Wales, Drakeford is also a fluent Welsh speaker.

During Johnson’s two years as Prime Minister, the two men have met face-to-face only once, and Drakeford, who has been First Minister since December 2018, says he can count their Zoom meetings on one hand. His reviews of those encounters are mixed. 

In March, an S4C documentary showed Drakeford saying Boris Johnson “really, really is awful” following a Cobra meeting in December 2020.

Drakeford hasn’t apologised to the Prime Minister since. “The reason I said it is because he was awful in that meeting.” He laughs again, almost in disbelief. “He couldn’t remember people’s names. He seemed fairly loosely attached to the agenda. And you got to the end of the meeting and thought, this was not the opportunity it ought to have been.”

When [Johnson] told Conservative backbenchers that devolution was Tony Blair’s greatest mistake, we would be sensible to listen attentively to that

The Joint Ministerial Committee – the formal structure for central co-ordination between the governments of the UK and the devolved nations, chaired by the Prime Minister, has never met in full during Johnson’s premiership. Drakeford isn’t holding his breath for that to change soon. 

“You can’t sustain the United Kingdom on the basis of one-off sporadic encounters,” Drakeford says. “The problems are too deep-seated, the fissures are too great, the risks of the future are too real not to have a much more systematic way of conducting relationships that doesn’t rely on individuals.”

While accepting that Johnson does want the union to succeed, and there are other parts of government which work well with the devolved nations, he says: “When [Johnson] told Conservative backbenchers that devolution was Tony Blair’s greatest mistake, we would be sensible to listen attentively to that, not to regard it as an off-the-cuff remark; it probably tells us something quite serious about the way the Prime Minister thinks.

“[The government] thinks the problem with devolution is that the UK has insufficiently asserted itself in the lives of people across the UK, therefore the way to sustain the union is to bang the drum more loudly, to have more flags waving, to have more choruses of a British song being sung, and for the UK government to spend money in Wales on things for which it has no responsibility. All of that has exactly the opposite effect.”

In March 2021, a poll carried out by Savanta ComRes for ITV put support for Welsh independence at an all-time high of 39 per cent. Drakeford has come in for criticism for being too relaxed on the union, previously saying his support was not “unconditional” (for example, if Scotland left). In May’s senedd elections, nearly half of pro-independence voters backed Welsh Labour.

The experience of coronavirus has shown people in Wales ... the breadth of independent decision making we already have

Drakeford says those criticisms are disingenuous – he is a committed unionist, and more often “gets into trouble” with those who support Welsh independence. “The experience of coronavirus has shown people in Wales ... the breadth of independent decision making we already have. For some people that has led them to ask the question, would we be better off if we had more of that? But when it came to an election rather than an opinion poll, where this was absolutely explicitly in front of them, the result was very clear. The proportion of people in Wales who voted for a party that wanted separation went down, not up.” 

While he will not commit to a 20-year prediction, he says he doesn’t see “any prospect” of a Welsh independence referendum in the next five years. Earlier this year, the Welsh government put out its ‘Reforming our Union’ document, and it will be launching a commission on the topic imminently.

Drakeford’s preferred option is one of “radical federalism”, recognising the union is now a voluntary association of four nations. 

He says: “In fact, if not in law, nearly a quarter of a century into devolution, sovereignty in the United Kingdom is now dispersed. It is not held uniquely in Westminster, decisions are made separately and independently in the four nations. We choose to pool our sovereignty for common purposes that we discharge better when we do them together.

“For me, the case for the United Kingdom has always been that it is a great insurance policy: we all pay in, and we’re all able to draw out of it when needs arise. When you have a UK government that sees itself in this way, it is also a great instrument and engine of redistribution. It makes sure that opportunities and investments are shared properly around the United Kingdom.”

As one of the principal architects of Welsh Labour’s ‘clear red water’ policy which differentiated former First Minister Rhodri Morgan’s government in Cardiff to Tony Blair’s in Westminster in the early days of devolution (Drakeford advised Morgan before taking over his Cardiff West Senedd seat in 2011), Drakeford knows the differences between Welsh Labour and the national party.

“Wales is a Labour country,” he says. “Next year, it will be 100 years since Labour took a majority of seats in Wales in the 1922 general election, and we’ve done that [ever] since. That is a remarkable record.”

In May, Drakeford set a record of his own, securing 30 Labour seats out of the 60 in the Senedd – including six where the Westminster equivalent had gone Tory in 2019. While he says it is not his place to give Keir Starmer advice on how to regain some of the similar “red wall” areas in England, he has spoken to him about the Welsh Labour mantra of earning every vote. 

While Drakeford might provide a model for future Labour successes, he won’t be overseeing them in Wales: he has pledged to stand down as First Minister mid-way through this Senedd term. 

“I’ll be 70 years old before the end of this term,” he says. “I know that doesn’t seem old in some parts of the world, but one of the things I really like about our Senedd is that if you look over the balcony, it genuinely looks like a slice of Welsh life … There comes a point when it is the right thing that people who will have a future horizon of what Wales will be like beyond five years or so are there to take up those challenges.”

Sitting in his not-really office, the mild-mannered First Minister seems well up for the debate in the meantime. 

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