Andrew Potts, Conservative Party activist from Neath
For many of us, reaching the age of 21 signalled our graduation – the time when we were let loose into the world to apply the knowledge we have gained.
Devolution will be 21 years old this year. Since 1999, what have we learned about devolution in Wales? Or more importantly, what has Welsh Labour learned about governing?
I argue that the Labour-led Welsh Government has done nothing to improve Wales’ fortunes nor its standing, either within the country itself or the wider United Kingdom.
I have articulated elsewhere that the first two decades of Welsh devolution have been a misspent youth, with land sold off for a fraction of its value, millions of pounds squandered on the on-off M4 relief road, and nearly half a million pounds in the last year alone on a dozen limousines chauffeuring ministers (as well as 150 journeys just driving documents around).
If Welsh Labour wants to improve efficiency and reduce unemployment can I suggest they start by engaging a half-decent estate agent and recruiting a courier with a motorbike?
When nationalists talk about independence it is about Wales escaping what they view as the imperialist yoke of England (despite the fact that spend per head is higher and tax revenue is lower in Wales compared with England), but that it would be nice to remain members of the EU – ignoring the fact that the majority in Wales voted for Brexit.
Wales has indeed benefited from the UK being a member state, including receiving £4 billion of structural funding in the last two decades. These funds have covered a variety of areas including work, training and urban development projects. £40m went towards Swansea University’s Bay Campus. I wish they’d paid the architect a bit more to improve the aesthetics – but I digress.
But what is overlooked by Labour and Plaid Cymru alike is that to qualify for the EU funding in the first place, areas such as West Wales and the Valleys were considered amongst the poorest regions in Europe, with GDP less than 75% of the EU average.
The Welsh Government has stated that EU funds have supported more than 200,000 people to gain qualifications since 2007. Despite this additional funding for the devolved area of education, it is a shame that PISA tests show that Wales remains the lowest-performing nation within the UK for reading, maths and science.
It’s clear the being in the EU alone has not done much to improve Wales’ lot. Brexit is an opportunity to look at alternatives that could do so.
Other commentators have suggested that Covid-related deaths and the economic downturn are the fault of actions by Westminster, conveniently overlooking that health and social care are devolved functions (remember ambulances queueing outside hospitals; Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board in special measures for the last five years and who had difficulty counting how many of its patients died of coronavirus) and that the Welsh workforce has been a large beneficiary of HM Treasury’s furlough scheme.
Welsh Labour blames its deficiencies on not having sufficient powers, and will point a finger at Westminster. But the pandemic has provided a wakeup call for many in Wales at just how much power is already devolved to Cardiff Bay.
Both Labour and Plaid believe that more powers would lead to greater Welsh prosperity. I suggest that what has hitherto been lacking in Wales is the leadership to make a success of what is already devolved and build upon that.
It has been said that responsibility without power is the prerogative of the eunuch throughout the ages. I submit that Labour wants power without the responsibility. The pandemic has given the Welsh Government an unprecedented platform, but the ‘Clear Red Water’ is looking distinctly murky, filled with mixed messages and shambolic strategies.
What we need is a Welsh Government prepared to lead. But leadership is not about doing things differently to England or waiting to emulate whatever Nicola Sturgeon does in Scotland.
Leadership is about developing and implementing policies for the greater good, not hurrying out guidelines to leave councils, care homes and schools to sort things out for themselves.
I think the term ‘Cardiff Bay Bubble’ is overused but it has to be acknowledged that Wales continues to have its own north-south divide even – or especially – after 20 years of pseudo-socialism. The last general election showed that many in the north of Wales are tired of Labour, voting to be a part of Boris Johnson’s levelling up agenda.
Considerable sums have travelled down the M4 as part of the UK’s response to Covid. What is lacking in Cardiff is an ability to spend those monies with the speed and efficiency needed; a functioning government that can exercise power without exorcising responsibility.
The Welsh Conservatives have proposed the aptly-acronymed Office for Government Resilience and Efficiency to provide better oversight of devolved areas, promote best practice and eliminate waste.
Paul Davies has called for a devolution revolution in Wales. As a Conservative, I wouldn’t normally support revolution but it is clear that what Wales needs first and foremost is leadership. If that counts as revolution in Wales, sign me up.
After decades of stagnation it is time for a change in Wales, and at the Welsh Parliament elections next May the Welsh Conservatives should be given the mandate to Make Devolution Work.