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Wales believes more in self-government as part of pandemic response

This is the third part in a series of FT asking if the UK is heading for the break-up. Follow UK politics and politics with myFT be alerted when new parts are released.

Lleucu Haf Wiliam receives a special birthday present this year: his first vote.

On May 6, her 16th birthday, she will use it to support Welsh independence. The schoolgirl will vote in the Welsh parliamentary elections for Plaid Cymru, the party calling for Wales to leave the UK.

Wiliam, who lives in Barry, a seaside resort in south Wales, said the UK was “London-centric”, with policies designed to help the capital. “By being able to manage our own finances and resources, we can manage things more efficiently and fairly,” she added. “Other countries are doing it. “

Opinion polls show young people expressing support for Wales’ independence, as polls also suggest Plaid Cymru could secure a power-sharing role alongside Labor in the country’s government after the election next month. Such a result in Cardiff would increase pressure on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is preparing for the Scottish National Independence Party to win the general elections in Scotland on May 6.

Support for Wales’ independence currently stands at 24%, according to the Financial Times poll tracker. A Savanta ComRes poll released last month found a record 35% in favor of Wales leaving the UK.

Lleucu Haf Wiliam, 16, will vote for Plaid Cymru © Charlie Bibby / FT

Although support for Wales’ independence is far from the majority, the coronavirus crisis appears to have given Wales a much greater belief in the virtues of self-government.

Mark Drakeford, Premier of Wales and leader of the Welsh Labor Party, has been praised for much of his work overseeing the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is reflected in the way Drakeford approval ratings in the polls are much higher than Johnson’s.

This is in stark contrast to Wales’ past attitude to self-government. In a 1979 referendum, the Welsh voted four to one against creating their own legislature. In 1997, they narrowly voted for such a parliament.

The pandemic has highlighted the sheer relevance of the decentralized administration led by Drakeford to people’s lives: it set the terms of the coronavirus restrictions, as well as provided financial support to businesses.

And at the same time as the Welsh government has imposed itself in the pandemic, London has imposed itself in Cardiff after the UK’s total exit from the EU late last year.

For example, the UK government withdrew from the EU’s Erasmus program allowing UK students to study at universities in the bloc without consulting Cardiff, even though education is a devolved issue. The Welsh government responded by creating its own program.

As Wales voted 53% to 47% to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, Johnson’s hard Brexit prompted young voters to consider their country’s independence, said Lord Peter Hain, who was instrumental in establishing the Cardiff Parliament as a member of the government of former Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair in the late 1990s.

“Boris Johnson is acting as Prime Minister of England, not of the UK,” he added.

Graphic showing support for Wales' independence as of March 19, 2021

Until recently, support for the independence of Welsh was concentrated among Welsh speakers in rural West Wales.

But the cause is becoming a young urban phenomenon. A ComRes poll last month found 45% of 16-24 year olds were in favor of independence, while a YouGov poll found support in the M4 corridor around Cardiff and Newport.

Yes Cymru, a multi-party campaign for independence created in 2014 and which now boasts more than 18,000 members, has given new impetus to the cause.

Mark Hooper, the organizer of Yes Cymru in Cardiff, said Wales’ union with England has failed to tackle poverty and deep inequalities in his country. The gross domestic product per person in Wales is around 75 percent of the UK average.

He said Wales, by having its own central bank, its own currency and its trade deal with England, could “make sure the economy works for everyone”.

Labor is hoping to counter increased support for independence by putting pressure on Johnson to give the Welsh parliament more power, while highlighting the UK’s advantages for Wales.

Drakeford told the Financial Times that Wales could never have obtained so many Covid-19 vaccines as a small independent nation, and also wondered how the country could have its own currency, given that the border 160 miles with England was crossed by hundreds of thousands of people every day.

Welsh Prime Minister Mark Drakeford
Prime Minister Mark Drakeford has been praised for much of his work overseeing Wales’ response to the pandemic © Charlie Bibby / FT

Then there is Wales’ weak fiscal position: in 2018-19, the country had a deficit of £ 13.5 billion, according to the Office for National Statistics. Wales collected £ 2,147 per capita less in taxes than the UK average and spent £ 863 more.

Drakeford accused Johnson of ignoring the Welsh government and complained about the UK Prime Minister’s hoarding of powers repatriated from Brussels after Brexit. “He’s the best recruiting sergeant for independence they have,” Drakeford said.

Labor has dominated Welsh politics for a century and has been in government in Cardiff continuously since the creation of the decentralized parliament in 1999. But polls suggest it could lose eight of its 29 seats out of the 60 members of parliament on May 6, which would be his lowest total on record.

Drakeford, who has been criticized for some of his decisions during the pandemic, admitted it would be a “tough election.” “The workforce.. Had to make extraordinary decisions which had a profound impact on people’s lives,” he said.

Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Tories could both win election seats, although Labor is expected to remain the biggest party.

Given that Drakeford has ruled out working with the Tories in the Welsh parliament, the most likely outcome after May 6 is a coalition with Plaid Cymru, as happened once before, after the 2007 election.

Drakeford said the previous coalition with Plaid Cymru had worked well. “The bottom line is whether there is a political platform on which we can agree,” he added.

Cymru leader Adam Price throw
Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price does not plebiscite the price of a power-sharing deal with Labor © Charlie Bibby / FT

Plaid Cymru pledges to hold an independence referendum if he wins the election, but party leader Adam Price did not applaud the price of a power-sharing deal with Labor.

“You do not conduct negotiations before negotiations,” he told FT. He would only join a government that would put Wales “on a very different path,” Price said.

Plaid Cymru promises free school meals for all primary school children, a £ 6bn green infrastructure program including railroad electrification and financial support focused on local start-ups rather than big ones foreign investors.

Is the UK heading for shattering?

Ahead of the Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections on May 6, the FT is examining whether the four nations of the UK are likely to stay together.

Part 1: What is the economic cost of Scottish independence and can the country afford it?

Part 2: Does Boris Johnson have a plan to save the UK from shattering?

Part 3: What is the future form of government in Wales as interest in independence grows?

Part 4: Is Northern Ireland on the inexorable road to a united Ireland?

Andrew Davies, leader of the Welsh Tories, hopes to build on the Tories’ gains made in the 2019 UK general election, especially in the Brexit voting areas.

“Wales does not need five years to discuss constitutional change,” he said. “He needs a government focused on the economy, transport and education.

Richard Wyn Jones, director of the Welsh Governance Center at Cardiff University, said more decentralization rather than independence was ‘the sweet spot for the Welsh electorate’.

He added that Labor was stuck in a polarized era, caught between a vibrant independence movement and a ‘recentralizing’ Conservative government in Westminster.

But Jones said the cause for Wales’ independence would be greatly strengthened if Scotland chose to leave the UK.

“Young people [in Wales] look at the conservative government [at Westminster] and don’t identify with him, ”he added. “It doesn’t reflect the kind of country they want to live in.”

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Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera