Independence may be a viable option, but it would not be a desirable one, the First Minister said as he responded to a commission on Wales’ constitutional future.
Mark Drakeford gave a statement to the Senedd about the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales.
The commission’s final report, which was published on 18 January, made 10 recommendations to strengthen democracy and protect devolution.
Chaired by Prof Laura McAllister and Dr Rowan Williams, the commission identified three viable options for the future: enhanced devolution, a federal UK and Welsh independence.
Mark Drakeford said: “The report does indeed say that independence is a viable option but in some ways that's not the real question, is it?
“It's not whether it's viable, it's whether it's desirable. And I am very clear, the reason I don't believe in independence is because I don't think it's desirable for Wales.
“I don't believe in building new barriers.
“I don't believe in creating new borders when borders don't exist.”
Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies raised comments from Jo Stevens, Labour’s shadow Welsh secretary, who dismissed a key recommendation on devolution of policing and justice.
He said: “This is a major tenet of this piece of work that has been undertaken by the commission on behalf of the Welsh Government in looking at further powers of devolution.”
Rhun ap Iorwerth said the report has been a game changer in terms of redefining the constitutional debate, giving it more urgency and impetus.
The Plaid Cymru leader told MSs the commission has established a new evidence base showing that independence is a viable and achievable option for Wales.
Warning that the status quo is untenable, he pointed out that all three options carry risks as he argued that membership of the UK has delivered entrenched poverty for Wales.
He said: “Without access to all the levers we need to change our economic fortunes, our story is likely to continue to be one of stagnation and managed decline, and with the full range of powers that only independence ultimately can deliver, we can change the story.”
Mr Iorwerth accused Jeremy Miles and Vaughan Gething, the two candidates to become the next first minister, of “total radio silence” on the commission’s findings.
Alun Davies, who represents Blaenau Gwent, raised the need to persuade Labour colleagues of the urgency of the constitutional debate if the party wins the next election.
Prof Drakeford said: “There's always a danger that ... people will believe that because the Conservatives have been defeated, somehow the constitutional job is done.”
Tom Giffard, the Conservative MS for South Wales West, raised concerns that the report has cost a total of £1.5m so far, “becoming the most expensive dust gatherer of all time”.
Mr Giffard urged the first minister to rule out establishing a permanent constitutional commission as suggested by Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Prof Drakeford said it is important that the conversation continues but he stopped short of committing to a standing commission during the statement on January 30.
Calling for democratic innovation, Adam Price, the former Plaid Cymru leader, said: “Wales is a land of commissions, as the commission says.
“But it does suggest the need for something more durable, more permanent than a series of commissions over the years if we are to continuously improve our democratic health.”
Prof Drakeford agreed about the need to revitalise democracy, which “only flourishes if you tend the garden in which it is sown”, saying that is what the report was intended to do.
Darren Millar, the Conservatives’ shadow constitution minister, raised the commission’s focus on poor relationships between the Welsh and UK Governments.
Prof Drakeford acknowledged the tone of intergovernmental relationships has improved since Rishi Sunak became prime minister.
The first minister told MSs: “He does have a greater willingness to recognise that the UK is made up of different component parts and deserve respect. But it has to be more than that.”
He said a council of ministers, which took five years to agree after being commissioned by Theresa May, did not meet once in 2023 despite the cost of living and other crises.