How Wales can assert itself in the UK and beyond

After Brexit, Wales must seize the opportunity to recast its constitutional role within the UK and redefine itself internationally, says Laura McAllister.

The World Today Published 2 December 2022 Updated 27 February 2023 3 minute READ

Laura McAllister CBE, FLSW

Professor of Public Policy and the Governance of Wales, Cardiff University

Wales, much like anywhere else in the world, is not immune to the impact of global events. As a nation we are just as affected by the pressures of external political change, as we are to pressure for change within our own country. The combined effect can feel like sailing a constant ‘sea of change’. 

Many feel that the state of Britain and Northern Ireland faces an existential threat, with growing recognition that significant reform to the union is needed. And movements for radical change, such as Welsh independence, are gaining traction, with latest polling from YouGov in June 2022 suggesting 25 per cent of people in Wales would vote for independence. 

When it comes to constitutional matters, historically Wales has watched from the sidelines and scrambled to react to events often beyond its control. But with change also comes opportunity. Wales is grasping its own political destiny to ensure that we are writing the next chapters of our own story. 

Given the task of leading this exercise is the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales set up in late 2021 and which I co-chair with Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. The commission comprises 11 individuals with a broad spectrum of political views, experiences and priorities. 

Our two main objectives are far-reaching, exploring a plethora of options for constitutional reform. The first objective is to develop options to reform the constitutional structures of the United Kingdom, in which Wales remains an integral part. The second is to develop progressive principal options to strengthen Welsh democracy.

A more assertive Wales 

International trade has been integral to Wales’s history and has accelerated in recent years. From 2015-2019 the value of Welsh exports grew at a faster rate than the UK as a whole. In 2019, it reached £17.8 billion. Of course, with the magnitude of the Brexit schism and a Covid pandemic that followed, it is no surprise that these impressive levels of trade fell. Despite this, Wales’ international trade recovery has been strong and steady. 

The process of industrialization and globalization has brought with it a level of visibility that means a relatively small country such as Wales can now be more assertive. A central state should no longer have sole control of global relations. 

With this comes a necessary level of accountability to citizens as well. Sovereignty, depending on your definition, is now more widely shared and dispersed. In Scotland, an International Framework has been developed since the independence referendum in 2014, including establishing the ‘Arctic cooperation’ with states on several continents. In Wales, our government has opened 21 international offices in 12 different countries.
In recent decades, this increasingly internationalized way of life has led to a wider range of choices. Wales can choose either to leave itself at the mercy of the changing currents of international politics and economic markets, or chart its own course. The recommendations put forward by the commission seek to ensure that Wales is best placed to weather any storms.

Unless each nation feels it is heard, discussions on the UK’s future won’t reach a sustainable solution

For relations within the UK, Wales needs to establish a relationship where it can speak firmly on its own behalf. Any discussions on the UK’s future won’t reach a sustainable solution unless each nation feels it is heard. 

A second independence referendum in Scotland is not the only issue threatening the UK’s future. There are a number of questions being asked. The failure of the Northern Ireland Protocol and growing calls for the reunification of Ireland has put the idea of Brexit under greater scrutiny across the UK. 

Britain itself has faced turmoil across its financial markets and is still reeling from being forced to appoint two prime ministers in as many months, exacerbating an already febrile national mood.

The ‘jagged edge’ of devolution 

In Wales, we have had three referendums since 1979, and we have seen some real self-governance for the first time in five centuries. Our circumstances are constantly changing. But if we don’t keep asking ourselves the right questions, we won’t be primed to answer the challenges we face in future.

Welsh devolution has been plagued with issues such as low awareness and poor voter turnout

Devolution for Wales has been far from plain sailing, plagued since its inception with issues such as low awareness, apathy and poor voter turnout. A lack of public knowledge of its processes and responsibilities stemmed from the UK-wide disjointed nature of the delegation of power as well as a sense of detachment from a material benefit to the lives of its citizens. 

There is a ‘jagged edge’ in devolution, where the boundaries of devolved powers do not fully allow either the Welsh government or Westminster to address challenges such as economic development. The settlement is also inherently unstable, and can be amended or even rolled back in parliament without any engagement from Welsh citizens or the Senedd under the current devolution arrangements.

Wales needs to be on the front foot. As a commission, we are now a year into our work with a mission to listen to the ideas of the Welsh people and develop a comprehensive analysis with clear recommendations for those in power to take forward. 

A values-based approach to constitutional reform 

We know this isn’t a straightforward process, but by adopting a values-based approach we hope to deliver constitutional options that will improve the lives of our citizens. The questions we are asking are: will it make government more accountable to their citizens? Will citizens have more agency to influence decisions that affect them? Will this option make government more inclusive and promote equality? 

The answer to these questions will give us a future in which the Welsh people can have agency to improve their lives and can meaningfully engage with the work of their government. It should start from the principle that governance structures are not abstract, they affect how citizens can influence decisions made on their behalf and hold elected representatives to account. As a commission, we will be considering a range of different governance models, through the prism of these values. 

Wales has a unique opportunity to steer its own constitutional course. We want every citizen to engage with the commission and to give them an opportunity for their voices to be heard. If that happens, we will produce a report that cannot be ignored and with conclusions that can build a consensus among the people that matter, the people of Wales.