The first minister of Wales has expressed concern that the UK may disintegrate unless it is rebuilt as a “solidarity union” that safeguards each citizen’s access to public services and financial stability.
The social and political ties that unite the various regions of the UK, according to Mark Drakeford, have been under “sustained assault” for the past 40 years by neoliberalism, a movement that was first popularized by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and then furthered following Brexit by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
“In order to persuade people in all parts of the United Kingdom that their futures lie together within a restructured United Kingdom, we have to recreate a solidarity union,” the Welsh Labour leader said in an interview with the Guardian,
He claimed that this included restoring the safety net for people who were ill or out of a job, along with fundamental rights to affordable public services, consumer, worker, and environmental protections.
“We have to rebuild the safety net, so you know that your membership of the United Kingdom entitles you to that collective security that it represents,” Drakeford said, implying that without it, Scotland and Northern Ireland could choose to leave the UK.
“If you move from Scotland to Wales, you know that you will take those fundamental rights with you as part of your citizenship. Those have all been eroded progressively by Tory governments, particularly since 1979.
“The long years of neoliberalism have been a sustained assault on the notion that citizenship means rights and the next Labour government needs to rebuild those rights, to do it explicitly and to say to people, this is what you get – that’s why it is worth belonging [to the UK].”
At a conference that Gordon Brown is hosting in Edinburgh on June 1 to discuss Labour’s plans for fundamental transformation of the UK, Drakeford is anticipated to elaborate on this position. Speaking at the event, which is sponsored by the former prime minister’s think tank Our Scottish Future, will be Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham.
Drakeford is one of Labour’s most prominent proponents of the UK’s total reform, contending that this is the most convincing response to the calls for Scottish independence and the reunification of Northern Ireland with Ireland.
Wales, where Labour and the nationalist party Plaid Cymru have a cooperation agreement, has seen a modest rise in pro-independence sentiment, but it still lags far below the close to 50% support it has in Scotland. However, there remains a steadfast demand for Wales to have further devolution.
The House of Lords should be abolished and replaced with an elected second chamber that would reflect the UK’s countries and regions, according to Brown’s ideas, which have the support of UK Labour leader Keir Starmer.
His commission suggests giving Scotland, Wales, and the English regions more political and financial authority as well as creating legally enforceable structures to ensure that Westminster cannot usurp the authority of the devolved parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Stormont.
Drakeford claimed that Anglocentric Conservatives in London had demonstrated a “fundamental disrespect” for the Welsh and Scottish parliaments after Brexit by enforcing internal trade regulations and by refusing to acknowledge Wales and Scotland’s autonomy over health policy during the Covid crisis.
Even if it has little immediate impact, Rishi Sunak has demonstrated greater respect for the UK’s devolved nations.
Drakeford is sure to disagree with the Brown commission’s assertion that Westminster will continue to have control over the legislatures in Belfast, Cardiff, and Edinburgh in his speech on Thursday. According to Drakeford, “sovereignty exists in four different places” in the modern world.
He added: “What we should do is think of a United Kingdom in which sovereignty rests in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and then we choose voluntarily to pool that sovereignty back for certain important key shared purposes.”
Because of this perspective, Drakeford was able to engage closely with Nicola Sturgeon, the former first minister of Scotland, throughout their conflicts with the UK government over Brexit and the Covid problem. Senior members of the Scottish National party hold Drakeford in high regard.
Drakeford claimed that the scandal involving privatized water firms in England that was “siphoning off” money while delivering abhorrent services showed how important it was for Labour to ensure that fundamental services were run in the public interest.
Until Thatcher’s privatisation spree, voters had a stake in public utilities and services. “I am not arguing at all for an old fashioned 1945 nationalisation programme [but] since the public invests huge amounts of money in bus services, train services and water services, it is entitled to a better return on that investment,” he said.
“We have to find new ways that suit the 21st century to make sure that when decisions are made, the voice of the public is at the table to assert those interests – and that you get that by being members of the United Kingdom.
“So my solidarity union is of building up a union based on those rights of citizenship.”