A Conversation on Wales’ Future

On 18th September 2020 we, along with our colleagues at WISERD (Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data), hosted a webinar in which Carwyn Jones MS (former First Minister of Wales), Auriol Miller (Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs), and Rachel Minto (Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University) analysed the trajectories and priorities that will characterise Welsh politics and policy over the next decade. Over 300 participants from across (and maybe beyond) Wales joined us to hear the analysis and, through the chair Dr Matthew Wall of Swansea University, to put questions to the panel.

The idea for the webinar came about after the coronavirus pandemic forced us to postpone a conference which we had hoped to hold this year – which in turn was intended to build on the success of the first joint WCPP/WISERD Welsh politics and policy conference in May 2019. The title of that conference was ‘Wales in unprecedented times’ and nearly 18 months later the least we can say is that if we thought the times were unprecedented then, they’re really unprecedented now! We knew then that Brexit was going to raise fundamental questions about devolution, intergovernmental relations, and the shape and even viability of the Union, as the geography and distribution of power within the UK changed with the removal of overarching EU frameworks. We knew that climate change continued to be perhaps the single greatest global challenge we faced. But we didn’t, of course, foresee a global pandemic with its far-reaching consequences not only for health but for the economy and social and political relations on every scale.

It’s probably no surprise then that these three themes – the continuing challenges of Brexit and climate change, and the pandemic, ran, directly or indirectly, though most of the discussion. And while any one of them on its own raises vital questions, we saw how they interact to present challenges for Wales in the coming decade.

For example, the rise in support for Welsh independence can partly be connected to the pandemic. Because many of the responses to Covid-19- notably health but also education, local government- are devolved, differences between Wales and England, in particular, have become much more widely noticed. This not only applies to legal and substantive differences like the number of people you can meet and where, but, crucially, to perceptions of the competence and trustworthiness of the UK and Welsh governments. The Welsh Government is widely seen as having done better than its UK counterparts and for some people this has strengthened the case for independence- ‘if we can do this, we can do more’. For others, it has shown the value of combining devolved decision-making with access to the ‘financial firepower’ of the UK state.

At the same time, the Internal Market Bill, currently going through the Westminster Parliament as part of the Brexit transition process, is seen by many observers- including our panellists- as a threatening devolution by allowing the UK Government to extend its activity in Wales. Again, some people are concluding that this means that Wales should not continue to be part of the UK. But arguments for the abolition of the devolved institutions, and the return of their functions to Westminster, have also gained a louder voice. In part this may have been focussing on the ‘confusing’ differences between Wales and England’s response to the pandemic; in part it may be connected to attachment to a UK Government that claims to be ‘getting Brexit done’.  In between these positions, many supporters of devolution believe that there will have to be reforms- for example, in the direction of a formal federal constitution for the UK. And as our panel pointed out, these concerns are not merely debating points for constitutional ‘anoraks’: the distribution of powers is the essential context which shapes the ability of whoever governs Wales to deliver public services and address questions of sustainability, citizenship, and equality.

Conversations like this, then, need to be had, and the fact that this webinar attracted so many participants for over 90 minutes of incisive commentary and discussion shows that there is an audience for them. And although we may still hold another face-to-face conference, we saw the value of a virtual event:  far more people were able to attend and nobody to give up a day to travel to get there.

However, we must not be complacent, and need to think about how to build on this experience. For example, we had an outstanding panel, but the smaller scale of an event like this – a single conversation with three panellists- means that there is a limit to the kind of diversity, in every respect, that can be achieved among panellists on a single occasion: so we need to think about how we can at least achieve diversity across the range of events which we hold. And given the changes in political awareness that we are seeing in Wales, and the emphasis placed by all our participants on the need for a wide, inclusive- and informed- conversation and debate, we need to ask how can we involve people who are newly (or once again?) interested in these issues .