Brexit and devolution in Wales

Guest post by Roger Awan-Scully, Head of Politics and International Relations at Cardiff University. This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI) and Political Studies Association (PSA).

The Welsh voted for Brexit. Though the vast majority of Wales’ political class – and broader social and cultural elites – opposed leaving the European Union, it has lots of ‘left behind’ people and communities, and those in Wales voted in very similar ways as in England.

Faced with this highly unwanted problem, since June 2016 the devolved Welsh Government has struggled to influence events. The Welsh economy is highly vulnerable to Brexit – and to the consequences of a hard Brexit in particular. Pre-referendum research by Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre showed Wales (contra the UK as a whole) being a net beneficiary of the EU budget. Welsh farmers stand to lose substantial CAP support and their largest export markets; many of the poorer communities that voted Leave could be left even worse off by the withdrawal of EU Structural Fund support; while there have deeply concerning recent omens from major manufacturers – like Airbus and Ford – that have a huge presence in the Welsh private economy. Meanwhile, a Brexit that imposes new barriers between the Irish Republic and the UK could devastate the three Welsh ports (Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke) through which the majority of Ireland’s physical trade with Europe currently transits.

The Welsh Government has lacked either a public mandate to oppose Brexit or any obvious political leverage to ensure that its concerns are respected by London. These concerns have been economic and also constitutional in nature. Devolution – for Wales, as for the other non-English nations of the kingdom – was developed and has thus far always existed in a context of British membership of the EU. Removing that context may not pose problems for Wales as stark as it those facing Northern Ireland, but it has hardly proven easy.

Some of the major areas of devolved responsibility – agriculture, fisheries and the environment – have thus far always existed in a deeply Europeanised policy framework. The prospect of removing that EU framework has revealed weaknesses in the UK as a devolved state. Disputes between the UK government and the devolved administrations have often been handled so ineptly by Whitehall that the unionist Welsh Labour government have found themselves siding with the pro-independence SNP Scottish government against London. The UK government have taken the approach that policy areas where EU frameworks are removed means bringing powers back to the UK and that it is ultimately the responsibility of London to ensure that things like UK-wide animal transportation markets work smoothly. The devolved government see this as unwarranted interference in what are clearly devolved matters.

Beneath these specific arguments lie deeper problems. Brexit has imposed a real-time stress test on the UK’s machinery for inter-governmental relations – and shown those structures to be inadequate. Some of those inadequacies reflect the complacency that neglected the establishment of more robust structures during the rather easier early days of devolved governance. But there are also fundamentally conflicting mindsets about the nature of the UK as a state, and the role of devolved governments within that. Some in London still appear to see the relationship as essentially hierarchical: that the devolved parliaments and governments are fundamentally subordinate to those in London. Obviously, the SNP see things very differently. But so also these days does much of the Labour party in Wales. Welsh Labour remains a unionist party, but increasingly of a ‘devolutionist unionist’ tinge – willing to contemplate the fundamental re-casting of the United Kingdom. Yet with Brexit currently occupying pretty much all attention at Westminster, and the entire bandwidth of Whitehall, there again seems little chance of Welsh concerns being heeded.

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Professor Roger Awan-Scully is Professor of Political Science and Head of Politics and International Relations at the School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University. His research and teaching focuses on political representation in the European Union and devolution in the UK. He tweets at @roger_scully.

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