Wales looks forward to more autonomy, Sunak says now not the time

Rishi Sunak.
Rishi Sunak. Author: Office of the UK Prime Minister @ Flickr
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has ruled out the transfer of new powers to Wales and Scotland parliaments, contradicting the preferences expressed in both autonomous territories of the United Kingdom. Sunak believes that priority should be given to the fight against the high cost of living, economic growth, job creation, and the crisis in the health system. In Wales, however, an independent commission states that governance will not be sustainable without more autonomy.

Sunak, prime minister since 25 October 2022, has so far shown no signs of wanting to talk about more devolution to the two stateless nations. But Sunak chose the Scottish and Welsh conferences of the Conservative Party to make his position clear.

In Scotland, Sunak has used arguments already seen elsewhere to claim that the Scottish Parliament “is the most powerful devolved assembly anywhere in the world.” This statement is wrong: there are other autonomous territories, such as Greenland, with powers beyond Scotland’s. In any case, Sunak distances himself from the British Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, who has promised to make “the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people,” including to the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish assemblies.

In Wales —a territory with less autonomy than Scotland—, Sunak could not make the speech of the most powerful assembly in the world go away. However, he used another cliché: “Now is not the time.” Sunak also fired shots at Labour, whom he accused of wanting to turn the people of Wales into Labour’s “Guinea pigs”.

Strengthen devolution, embrace federalism, or seek independence

The UK’s primer minister and leader of the Conservative Party has made these statements four months after the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales —appointed by the Welsh government in 2021— issued an interim report in which its authors state that “there are three viable future constitutional options for Wales: entrenched devolution, federal structures and independence.”

This commission is continuing its work during 2023 to gather popular preferences and define the obstacles and solutions to each of the three scenarios. Regarding entrenched devolution, the Commission wonders whether this scenario is plausible if the United Kingdom does not adopt a written constitution or if Wales’ powers are not extended. As for federalism, the authors of the report question how the support of the English people could be won for such a model, bearing in mind, moreover, that England has not expressed much appetite for a devolution similar to that of Scotland or Wales. Finally, with regard to independence, the Commission considers that there are many questions to be answered about the economic position of the would-be Welsh state and its relations with neighbouring countries.

On 20 May, Yes Cymru will be organising another pro-independence demonstration, after several thousand people gathered in previous years to call for a Welsh sovereign state. Polls conducted in 2023 show that rejection of independence doubles or triples support for it, although over the last decade the number of those in favour of seceding from the UK has grown. Popular preferences are more evenly matched when it comes to increased self-government. Meanwhile, the status quo parties are in a minority in the Welsh Parliament, or Senedd.

Drakeford calls again for trains, rails, and money

Days after Sunak ruled out further devolution, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has again insisted that Wales needs “full” devolved powers over the railways. Wales has faced long-standing issues with its railways, as the lines were designed to connect different parts of Wales with England, but not to link Wales internally. Furthermore, many rail users consider services to be poor.

In 2019, the Welsh government requested the transfer of all powers over railways, including infrastructure, provided it was accompanied by the necessary financial resources.

However, the UK authorities argue that the way the network is designed —with high integration between Wales and England— indeed makes it impractical to separate them into two different administrations.