‘I don’t want a Welsh army’: Mark Drakeford on his love for devolution and republicanism, but not independence

The outgoing Welsh leader on Labour, the Tories and why the UK should not have a king

It is a beautiful, crisp day in Swansea, Wales’s second city, which has a modest, unconventional charm. The sun shines brightly in a cloudless sky. There is a flinty nip in the air, and also a menace: delinquent seagulls. The Swansea variety swoop at head height around Castle Square, squawking and squabbling, bothering anyone brave enough to carry food.

Across the street lie the ruins of Swansea Castle. In the 1930s its courtyard housed the offices and printing press of the South Wales Daily Post. There, a young Dylan Thomas, the Swansea poet, worked as a reporter.

Thomas urged people not to “go gentle into that good night” when their time comes to slip away. Rather, they should “rage, rage against the dying of the light”. In other words, fight until and against the end; go out in a blaze of glory.

I put it to Mark Drakeford, the outgoing first minister of Wales, that, politically, he appears to be spurning Thomas’s advice. Drakeford last month announced he will quit in March after five years as the head of Wales’s devolved government, prematurely ending his term.


Although he had signalled he might go in 2024, his position was not under threat from rivals. There is no assembly election due for two years. Instead of clinging to office, Drakeford has chosen to go gentle into the political night. The first minister chuckles at the Thomas-defying suggestion. Raging would not be the former academic’s calm, thoughtful style.

“I’m leaving at the right time for me and for Wales,” Drakeford says. “There are two years to the next [Welsh] election. A new leader needs time to bed in.”

Last year was difficult for Drakeford for many reasons. His political popularity, built upon his steady stewardship of Wales during the pandemic, began to wane. He shipped vituperative criticism for bringing in a default 20mph speed limit. The nation also faces a tricky slash-and-burn budget challenge.

All of that pales against his personal tribulations. A year ago this week, Drakeford, aged 69, lost his beloved wife, Clare, who was 71. Her death was sudden. By all accounts, it has affected him deeply. Their life of 45 years together, snatched away.

Drakeford has rarely spoken in public about her death or the “intolerable burden” of his grief; he does not mention it at all in Swansea. He does not need to.

After he quits as first minister, Drakeford will remain for two years as a member of the devolved assembly, or Senedd. It will allow him to ease himself out of frontline politics.

“After five years in a role that, if you let it, would eat up every minute of your time, I didn’t want to leave the job to go and do nothing at all. I’ll still be busy, just not as busy as now,” Drakeford says.

He is in Swansea for the opening of Cwtch Mawr, a “multibank” warehouse operation that links charities serving people in need with donations of goods from online retailers. Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown was instrumental in developing the model in Scotland while Drakeford, also a former social worker, has championed it in Wales.

Brown is, Drakeford says, a “fantastic ally” on the project. They are from different wings of the Labour Party – Drakeford was once a Jeremy Corbyn supporter and is proudly on the left, while Brown was chancellor in Tony Blair’s centrist government.

Yet they have much still to discuss. Brown was commissioned in recent years by Labour to draft a new constitutional plan for the UK, in which he recommends formally buttressing devolution, the system that decentralises power from Westminster to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It is music to the ears of Drakeford, who has been a proponent of maximum devolution – but never independence – for Wales ever since the Blair government first brought it in 1997.

Yet since Boris Johnson’s 2019 election and subsequent UK leadership turns, Drakeford says the Tories have tried to undermine devolution and the Senedd. The UK government has repeatedly ignored the Sewel Convention, the non-legal framework that says Westminster normally should not legislate on devolved matters without consent.

“I want devolution that can’t be rolled back by the whims of a rogue government and where we have maximum control of our own affairs. [But] I don’t want a Welsh army or a Welsh navy, or Welsh embassies in capitals around the world. I’m happy that we discharge those responsibilities on a UK footprint,” Drakeford says.

Why not independence? Would that not be a sure-fire way of stopping Tories meddling in the powers of the devolved Welsh government, which Labour has run for 25 years?

“I have a deep emotional attachment to being Welsh, the history, language, the distinctive nature. That’s right inside of me. But I don’t want to express it as a nationalism. I’m against barriers. I don’t want another boundary with the rest of the UK,” Drakeford says.

While the Tories in recent years have occasionally expressed disdain for Labour-run Wales, they have shown outright hostility to Scotland’s devolved government, run by the separatist Scottish National Party. Drakeford says any nation that wants to leave the UK should be allowed.

“The UK I want is one where people want to belong to it. Not a UK where people feel they are being coerced to belong, or where they’re not being offered a way to leave if they want; that somehow you’re captured by the UK. That’s not a future for us,” he says.

The unease that has crept into relationships between the devolved governments and Westminster is, Drakeford believes, a response to the Scottish nationalist push and also the strains of Brexit.

Drakeford was a remainer. Wales is politically different from England, and the European Union also invested heavily in Welsh infrastructure. Yet, while the Scots voted to remain, the Welsh plumped for Brexit by almost 53 per cent, for what was essentially a project of English nationalism. Why?

Drakeford says the 2016 vote came soon after a Senedd election and Welsh parties found it difficult to unite under the remain banner, having battered each other weeks before. He also says the same dynamics that saw working class, immigration-sceptical areas vote for leave in England were present in Wales too.

He recalls a political meme in Wales that pictured four of the party’s grandees telling a man that the EU had paid for the motorways. “But you can’t eat a road,” replied the man.

Then there was the Tory factor: “Wales is a Labour country. If I had a pound for every door I knocked on in this country where people said ‘If [UK Conservative former prime minister] David Cameron is telling me to vote for it, then I’m going to vote against it.’”

But what if Corbyn, a Eurosceptic his entire career who campaigned weakly in the referendum, had asked more people to vote remain? Drakeford acknowledges he probably could have.

“Remain to reform,” Drakeford says. “If you want to change the rules of a club you have to stay a member. I think that was Jeremy’s message, but sometimes the reform word was said a bit louder than the remain word.”

Drakeford is an avowed socialist, a believer in the power of government to help shape people’s lives. Wales has, for example, nationalised its railways and Drakeford believes that the rest of the UK should do so too.

He recalls how, before he entered politics, he was a probation officer. He dealt with a boy whose family were in a damp council flat. He successfully lobbied officials to move them. Months later, he helped another family move from the same damp flat. Then another family was moved in.

“That was enough for me,” he says. “I realised that you had to change the system and politics was the vehicle to do it.”

Current UK Labour leader, Keir Starmer, appears on course for Downing Street on a platform much closer to the Blairite political centre. That moves it away from the leftist politics favoured by Drakeford, who coined the term “clear red water” during the Blair years to distinguish how Welsh policies should stay conspicuously left of the UK party.

There were murmurs in Westminster of recent tension between Drakeford and Starmer, as the Tories repeatedly highlighted social problems in Wales as evidence of the risks of a Labour-run government.

It was feared by Labour that the attack line would continue into this year’s UK general election, and that Starmer preferred Drakeford to go now. Two more centrist ministers – Vaughan Gething and Jeremy Miles – are vying to replace him.

If there is discord between Drakeford and Starmer, the Welsh first minister is good at hiding it. He says Starmer will make a “good prime minister, good at detail ... his strengths will come to the fore”. He also appears to acknowledge the sense in Starmer adopting a more centrist platform than Drakeford’s preferred socialism.

“Keir Starmer has to form a government by appealing to people in the whole of UK. That includes people whose political centre of gravity is not what it is here in Wales, which is more to the left of the rest of the UK.”

Drakeford is a republican, although he shifts in his seat a little when the topic is dumped on his lap. He says he has nothing against King Charles, who was prince of Wales before taking the throne. The king was “committed” to Wales, he believes.

“But in a rational, mature democracy people should get to choose the head of state, and not get someone because they have this entire accident of birth,” says Drakeford.

“I’m in a minority there – there is no doubt about that. Although maybe not quite as small a minority as it would have been when I was growing up.”

For his remaining weeks in office, Drakeford is focused on passing a hair shirt budget – the minority Labour administration needs nationalist Plaid Cymru help to get it through. There are deep cuts planned across many areas, to protect spending on core services such as health – Welsh NHS waiting lists are long.

While we meet in Swansea, news filters through that Tata Steel will axe up to 3,000 jobs in Port Talbot.

Then Drakeford will return to the backbenches, and in time, to private life.

Is he happy with what he achieved in politics?

“You can’t leave a job that you’ve done, and been inside government for so long, without sudden regrets and thinking you’ve missed things. Because of course you’ve missed things,” he says.

“Am I satisfied? Of course not. Every day I wish there was more that we could have done about all sorts of things. But I go away from it even more convinced that politics is the vehicle through which we craft collective solutions to common problems. I believe that now more than ever.”

In his own quiet, determined way, Drakeford rages – albeit deftly – against the dying of the political light.

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