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Good riddance to Mark Drakeford

The outgoing Welsh first minister is an authoritarian zealot.

Austin Williams

Topics Politics UK

Mark Drakeford, first minister of Wales, has announced that he will be stepping down at the next election. Don’t crack open the champagne just yet, as he has ominously added that ‘no firm date is set’. Still, it is good to know that his woeful premiership is finally coming to a close.

Drakeford began his political career in local politics, becoming the Labour Party member for Cardiff West in the Welsh parliament (Senedd) in 2011. Even though Wales voted 52-48 to leave the EU, he continued to support the Remain camp as a staunch backer of the Corbynite Momentum faction, which was firmly pro-EU. Drakeford even served as Wales’ ‘minister for Brexit’ from 2017 to 2018. He then won the leadership for Welsh Labour, becoming first minister in 2018.

The UK’s General Election landslide of 2019 returned Conservative Boris Johnson to power in Westminster. Labour’s Red Wall crumbled in many northern strongholds across England. But while the Tories made significant inroads into Leave-voting Wales, it wasn’t enough to rattle Drakeford’s position. Welsh Conservatives said the result had ‘confined Labour to being a party of the Valleys’. But this kind of contempt could well have helped Drakeford. The Brexit vote was fuelled by the alienation, frustration and marginalisation of working-class communities, and Drakeford was keen to point the finger at the ‘English parliament’, rather than the EU, as the problem.

Drakeford is an oddly dated figure to have achieved contemporary political success. He studied Latin at university. He speaks Welsh (and English) with a thick Carmarthenshire accent. He is a paid-up member of both the Unite and Unison unions. And he professes a peculiarly intense love of cheese. He is clearly not your typical political leader by contemporary standards.

Drakeford’s socialist-inspired atheism belies the fact that he often comes across as a Welsh Presbyterian vicar. This came to the fore during Covid, when he quickly became a lockdown fanatic. There was no Partygate scandal for him, largely because it is hard to imagine Drakeford actually enjoying himself. He doesn’t drink, but rather than keep his own mortification of the flesh to himself, he chose to impose abstemiousness on the nation during Covid, even banning the sale of alcohol in pubs and insisting they close by 6pm.

It was his management of the Covid-19 lockdowns that earned him the sobriquet, Kim Jong-Drakeford. He became something of a double act with then Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon. They competed with each other to outdo Boris Johnson’s ever more draconian measures. This culminated with the official announcement that Drakeford had actually moved out of his family home, leaving his wife in residence, while he slept in his garden shed to avoid potentially spreading the virus.

These quirkier moments shouldn’t disguise the zealotry of Drakeford. During the pandemic, he issued guidance banning people from talking on mobile phones, reading newspapers or eating food on public transport. He mandated that passengers travel in ‘relative silence’ – lest, presumably, the virus spread on the sound waves. His remit even extended to ordering passengers ‘not to run for the bus or run in railway stations’.

He saved much of his despotic mischief-making for drivers. His lockdown rules included banning people from driving somewhere to take their exercise. Having got away with that, after the pandemic he proceeded to cancel all major road-building schemes at a stroke and introduce 20mph speed limits on all urban and residential streets throughout the country. Perhaps the re-introduction of horse-drawn carriages will be next on the agenda for the Senedd.

Then there is Drakeford’s record on education and healthcare. Wales has consistently ranked lowest in the UK in reading, mathematics and science – performing significantly worse than English children and well below the OECD average. In the health sector, emergency-response rates have trended downwards across all of Wales. Doctors now warn of a possible collapse in GP surgeries, while dental services have already collapsed.

Mark Drakeford has been careful to oppose Welsh independence, while using the threat of it to argue for greater powers for Wales. Still, his own record as first minister is hardly a shining endorsement of devolution. He has overseen the continued collapse of medical services, and his authoritarian interventions during Covid and since should never be forgotten. Let’s hope that he is leaving politics to spend more time in the shed.

Austin Williams is director of the Future Cities Project.

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Topics Politics UK

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