Urgent change is needed to prevent a ‘fragile’ United Kingdom from breaking up, Wales' First Minister has said.
It comes as Mark Drakeford publishes a 20-point plan on "strengthening" relationships within the UK arguing “too often we see the UK Government act in an aggressively unilateralist way.”
Mark Drakeford said, "The need for change is urgent – the Union has never been this fragile. If matters continue in their current vein the case for the break-up of the UK will only increase."
But the UK Government has dismissed his call, saying that “Choosing to prioritise constitutional issues in the middle of a pandemic is an irresponsible and unwanted distraction."
Questions about the way the UK is governed have moved to the centre of politics since Britain left the European Union, driven by the push for a second independence referendum in Scotland.The plan - Reforming Our Union - recommends transferring responsibility for policing to Wales, changing the House of Lords to reflect the make-up of the UK and taking big funding decisions out of the hands of ministers in London.Ministers in London have taken an increasingly assertive approach, setting up a series of funds, including one to replace EU aid, decisions on which will ultimately be taken in Westminster.
The UK Government argues that it governs for the whole of the UK and will work alongside devolved administrations where possible.For instance, the UK Government has insisted that it will develop a free port in Wales even if the Welsh Government continues to oppose the specific proposals.
In that case, the powers largely belong to the UK Government and so the views of ministers in Cardiff could be overridden, even if that is seen as politically insensitive.In the case of plans for an M4 relief road, the approach is much more combative. The responsibility for building any such road clearly lies with the Welsh Government which has firmly rejected the plans.But from the Prime Minister down, UK Government ministers have insisted that the project is not dead. Recently, the Welsh Secretary Simon Hart told MPs that “we have to keep chipping away at these things. It may take years to persuade our colleagues to revisit these things... I'm not going to rest until we get a yes on this one."
What else is in the document?
The Welsh Government document, “Reforming our Union” is an updated version of a plan first published by the Welsh Government in October 2019 as part of its post-Brexit proposals.
Among the ideas it sets out are:
The UK parliament should not make law that affects things which are the responsibility of devolved parliaments without “express consent.”
There should be a new centralised funding source to pay for the Senedd, Scottish parliament, Northern Ireland Assembly and UK Parliament.
As well as representation in the House of Commons, the House of Lords should be “reformed to reflect the make-up of the United Kingdom and be given the job of protecting the constitution and devolution.
The UK Government should not fund other governments’ responsibilities without their consent.
Ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should have a say in the UK’s international relations and international trade.
A fair funding system based on need should be set up and should be overseen by a new independent public body accountable to all four institutions.
“Justice and policing should be devolved to Wales as it is already is to Scotland and Northern Ireland.”
The Supreme court membership should reflect the different nations of the UK.
A constitutional convention should be set up to consider future changes to the way the UK is governed.
The First Minister said change was urgently needed.
He said, “Too often we see the UK Government act in an aggressively unilateral way, claiming to act on behalf of the whole UK, but without regard for the status of the nations and the democratic mandates of their government.“We see muscular unionism, instead of working towards a genuinely constructive and collaborative relationship between the governments of the UK.“It’s time for relationships to be reset. The principles and ways of working we have outlined would lead to the strong and durable Union – a Union which we believe would deliver the best outcomes for the people of Wales and the wider United Kingdom.”
The UK Government has defended its position and criticised the First Minister for making his call.
A spokesperson said, "People in Wales want to see the UK Government and the devolved Welsh Government working together to defeat the pandemic and focus on our shared recovery.
“Choosing to prioritise constitutional issues in the middle of a pandemic is an irresponsible and unwanted distraction.
“We are strongest when we work together as one United Kingdom, and our full focus must remain on recovering from the challenges the pandemic has created - protecting jobs with furlough payments, ensuring our children can catch up on their missed education and finding jobs for our young people.”
That was echoed by the Senedd Opposition leader, Andrew RT Davies,
“There might well be a time and place for such discussions, but this is not it. Welsh Conservatives make no apology for standing up for those families, workers and businesses who’ll be rightly angry that the newly-elected administration is focusing its energy on the intricacies of devolution rather than saving people’s livelihoods.
“The sole priority for Labour ministers should be Wales' economic future – not never-ending debates on devolution – and this is an unwelcome and unnecessary sideshow at such a delicate period in our recovery.”
But Plaid Cymru’s Deputy Leader, Rhun ap Iorwerth, said the Welsh Government’s plans for Wales are too timid.
“Past experience shows us clearly that UK Government, be it red or blue, will never put Wales first. Labour have been talking about setting up a constitutional convention for almost a decade, with then First Minister Carwyn Jones promising this as long ago as 2012. But nothing happens. Labour’s thinking on the union, appears to be stuck in the past.
“The UK is more than fragile – it is failing utterly to deliver economic and social justice for the people of Wales. The only way of achieving this is by putting Wales’s future in Wales’s hands, free from Westminster’s chaos and incompetence. It’s why support for independence is at an all-time high, and growing. It’s time for Labour in Wales to stop defending the indefensible.”