Dr Andrew Potts is a Conservative Party activist from Neath. He works in local government, specialising in developing social care policy and strategy.
It is more than twenty years since Ron Davies declared that it was a very good morning in Wales, which must count as the longest false dawn in history.
The result came out of Tony Blair’s manifesto commitment to holding a referendum on the creation of a Welsh Assembly. It claims that:
“Devolution is about harnessing the power of community – the diverse community that is the United Kingdom, and the national communities that through devolution can take their futures in their own hands.”
The point here was to build a better future for Wales and, by extension, the United Kingdom. But power has been shackled in Cardiff Bay rather than harnessed by it. Rhodri Morgan’s ‘Clear Red Water’ speech in 2002 showed that Wales would remain ‘old’ Labour under his leadership.
This has been the major flaw in devolution ever since. The Welsh Labour administration simply opposes whichever party leads the British Government. It will never see eye to eye with the Conservatives, but if it distanced itself from Blair there is no reason to believe it wouldn’t do the same with any government led by Sir Keir Starmer – after all, he will be viewed as the man who deposed Jeremy Corbyn.
Principles can be admired even when you disagree with them, but dogma cannot. Until there is a change in the governing party in Wales the country will remain consigned to Dante’s eighth circle of hell, with heads twisted around to face backwards – looking at what was, not at what could be.
The pandemic has highlighted for the first time for many in Wales just how much of what we take for granted is devolved. Health and social care come in for constant criticism, yet the finger of blame is routinely pointed at Westminster not Cardiff (“it’s all down to austerity”).
But the whole UK had to tighten its collective belt. Wales was not singled out and public spending per person is higher in Wales and the other devolved nations, while tax revenue per person is higher in England. The focus should not be on what is spent but how it is spent.
Millions of pounds have been lost by selling land at a fraction of its value, raising £1.9m as farmland compared with around £39m if it had been sold for housing development, which of course is what the buyer did. Over £100m was spent on work on the M4 relief road before the scheme was abandoned.
A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that more than £450,000 was spent last year employing 12 ministerial drivers to drive 12 cars – a whopping 40 per cent increase on the figure for 2016-17 for the same number of cars and drivers. Last year also included 151 trips to transport official documents, without a minister even being in the car. Chauffeured socialism is one thing, but pampered paperwork at taxpayers’ expense beggars belief.
In the meantime Wales remains the lowest-performing nation in the UK for reading, maths, and science according to PISA tests. Lengthening hospital waiting lists, missed A&E targets (before Covid), and a lack of integrated IT systems across NHS Wales are just some of the better known areas where the Welsh Labour Government has failed.
The latest Welsh Political Barometer Poll shows that support for independence is at its highest, standing at around 25 per cent. However, the same poll suggests that a similar proportion would vote to abolish the Senedd. The former figure must please Plaid Cymru, whose raison d’être is an independent Wales, but the latter should give pause for thought. Plaid wants Wales to be independent of England but remain in the EU, despite the majority of the Welsh electorate voting to leave. Who does it claim to represent?
The pro-independence YesCymru campaign admits that Wales remains the poorest of the UK nations whilst arguing that independence would give Wales full control over economic policy, including taxation and borrowing, plus the ability to hold our own politicians to account and “force them to be more ambitious” for Wales’ future.
Politicians are already accountable, and ambition (and aptitude) should not be tied directly to finances. Moreover, the ability to raise taxes on an already poor nation does not promise growth. A strong economy could eventually lead to independence, but not vice versa.
Besides, can we expect Welsh Labour to do anything other than continue to squander public finances and misuse its existing powers? Is it too much to expect children to read, write, and add up at the same level as those living across the border?
What is needed first and foremost is a functioning government that effectively manages those areas over which it already has powers. If it is currently viewed as purely the means of distributing money received via Westminster, then it should at least demonstrate that it is capable of doing so effectively. Now in its early twenties, it is time that Welsh devolution matured.
Since its inception, the Senedd and its previous incarnations has seen overall voter turnout average around 43 per cent, compared with 53 per cent for the Scottish Parliament and 65 per cent for UK elections over a similar period. If Wales indeed has strong feelings about how it is run, then why the apparent apathy? Wales is not ready for independence – it is waiting to be governed.
The Welsh Conservatives proposal for an Office for Government Resilience and Efficiency (OGRE) is a step towards better oversight of devolved areas and would seek to eliminate waste and promote best practice. If a policy has been shown to work elsewhere it should not automatically be ignored because it wasn’t thought up in Cardiff Bay first.
Paul Davies has called for a devolution revolution in Wales. Boris Johnson is intent on levelling up the nations of the UK. Welsh Labour would prefer to shrug its collective shoulders.
Wales needs momentum not inertia – to be outward looking and show true ambition. The Welsh Conservatives should be given the mandate to Make Devolution Work.