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The phrase ‘Laboratory of Democracy’ was first coined by US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to convey the role played by individual states in developing and testing new policy ideas.

The Senedd Cymru in Cardiff has offered one such ‘laboratory’ since its first elections 25 years ago, where from the outset the then Welsh First Minster, Rhodri Morgan, talked of ‘clear red water’ between Cardiff and Westminster.

The ‘red’ refers to the desire for a more progressive form of Government in Wales, a perhaps unsurprising instinct in a nation where Labour have governed continuously since devolution.

In practice, this approach has led to numerous ambitious environmental policies including a ban on new waste incinerators, the freezing of new road building projects, and most recently the development of a Deposit Return Scheme covering more materials than anywhere else in the UK.

Now, Huw Irranca-Davies, an experienced environmentalist, is seeking to build on this legacy as he takes on the role of Cabinet Secretary for climate change and rural affairs. However, with Welsh Ministers facing challenges from a centralised Westminster Government and a public backlash on key reforms, the question is whether Wales represents a leading light or a cautionary tale?

Challenge of a centralised UK Government and post-Brexit rules

Prior to the Welsh devolution referendum in 1997, the then Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, referred to devolution as “a process, not an event”.

There can be no doubt that this, often messy, process continues in the present day. Most recently, post-Brexit legislation intended to prevent trade barriers between the UK nations (the Internal Market Act - IMA) has, according to one commentator, left the aspirations of ‘greener’ governments in the devolved nations “mired in the mud”.

Indeed, just last month Irranca-Davies claimed the Welsh were being ‘threatened’ by the UK Government’s use of the IMA to “impose a watered-down DRS on Wales”. Irranca-Davies, who hopes that drinks containers of all materials can be included in a DRS, echoes the view of many who believe that Westminster is currently using the IMA to tie others “to the lowest common denominator”.

This is a challenge that is far from being resolved. Ultimately, the question over where exactly devolved powers lie may be decided in the courts.

For organisations looking to engage with Welsh policymakers, it will be vital to understand these constitutional constraints, particularly as the devolved/national dynamic evolves following a UK General Election.

How a potential Labour-led Government in Westminster deals with devolution and the IMA remains to be seen. However, with the party’s Shadow Environment Secretary Steve Reed committing to learn from Wales on recycling, it seems unlikely that Labour Ministers in Westminster would block Welsh initiatives. Indeed, under these circumstances, Westminster could even adopt cross-UK, ‘highest common denominator’ policies from Wales.

In this case, Wales may find itself free of the ‘mire’ and able to lead ambitiously on the environment.

Challenge of opposition from sections of the Welsh public

In recent months, the Welsh Government has witnessed a backlash over the introduction of their Sustainable Farming Scheme and their policy to lower the default speed limit in all urban areas from 30 to 20mph. The former policy has led to large protests, the latter has been opposed in a petition including nearly half a million signatures.

However, it’s worth noting that supporters of the Welsh Government point to the difficulty of dealing with external politicised opposition. For example, Wales Online discovered that a Conservative councillor from Sunderland with no apparent links to Wales was running numerous anti-20mph Facebook groups. Further, a leading farming protest group, ‘No Farmers, No Food’, has been coordinated by an English commentator and alleged conspiracy theorist.

So, learning the lessons from the difficult implementation of these policies, organisations looking to engage with Welsh policymaking should ensure that they can demonstrate genuine Welsh public demand for environmental ambition.

If based in Wales, it will be important to demonstrate that members, supporters or local businesses are backing your proposals. If based elsewhere, this may involve partnering with Welsh-based organisations who share the same goals.


The question remains whether Wales has proved to be a laboratory of democracy, or, conversely, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told assembled farmers last month, the Welsh are being “treated as Labour’s laboratory”.

One thing is for certain, given persistent concerns over low levels of engagement with the Senedd and Welsh Government (voter turnout at the last Senedd Elections was just 47%), it’s now clear that what happens in Cardiff really is seen to matter to people’s lives across Wales.

by Matthew Dawson, Account Manager

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