Sarah Atherton MP: Russia’s Ukraine war. We must review our army cuts, reconsider fracking – and park Net Zero

14 Mar

Sarah Atherton is a member of the Defence Select Committee and is MP for Wrexham.

The invasion of Ukraine is a dreadful, shameless crime, perpetrated by a corrupt leader entertaining a fantasy of rebuilding the old Soviet Union. In the same way that the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc were brought to an end by the brave people that lived there, we can only hope that Russia’s own people and the heroic people of Ukraine will defeat him. The occupation and destruction of a peaceful European nation in the twenty-first century is truly horrifying.

Events have also shown that the West and our shared defence aims have been left lacking: whilst Russia and China have built formidable military forces, used misinformation tactics to exert pressure and resorted to domestic genocide and international war crimes, one might say that the West has been too focused on woke minority issues.

There have also been signs of what was to come: the illegal annexation of Crimea, the Salisbury poisonings, and widespread allegations of election interference. But what did NATO do – as a defence organisation and military alliance – to counter these events?

Yes, there were stern words of condemnation and the expulsion of Russian diplomats, but the West’s responses to these events look now to have been lacking. If NATO is to prevent future aggressions, we must all have ‘big sticks’ to back up our words of diplomacy and our democracy.

Francis Fukuyama famously declared the post-Cold War era to be the ‘end of history’. There was an assumption that the threat of a European land war was over, and we have allowed ourselves to forget the hard-fought lessons of European history. We have sleepwalked into these current events, believing that the collapse of the Berlin Wall meant that we could take our eye off the defence of our nation. The ‘end of history’, the so-called ‘peace dividend’ of Thatcher and George H.W. Bush, has proved to be a false dawn.

Whilst I welcomed the recent Integrated Review and continue to believe it proposes a solid plan for the future, looking towards the Indo-Pacific whilst recognising the changing nature of warfare, we must fundamentally rethink our national and global aims in light of what has happened in Ukraine. The belief is that defence spending should be linked to the threat that the UK faces, and this is why I believe we should increase spending to at least three per cent of GDP. The Foreign Secretary said this recently, and I agree with her.

To start, we must reconsider the cuts to personnel – particularly to the infantry and our armoured capability.

But defence – and our nation’s safety – should also look at our reliance on foreign energy sources and supplies. To ensure that we are no longer reliant upon Russia, directly or indirectly, this Government has been right to rethink how we supply energy to our nation. Recent announcements are welcome but the Government must come up with more – and fast.

We must roll out a new generation of nuclear reactors, and quickly, and we should be re-assessing fracking and tidal enhancement. Radical new energy policies will take time to take effect, but the longer-term implications for energy security will be welcomed.

As part of this, we should also park, for the time being, the Net Zero endeavour. Of course, it can and should remain a long-term aim but ensuring that we can, as a nation, generate the energy we need without a reliance on overseas sources should come first.

In my constituency of Wrexham, we have a large and hardworking Polish community – the largest outside of London and a history dating back to World War Two. We should be engaging a similar welcoming spirit this time around by welcoming into our town, and nation, those displaced from Ukraine who are true European refugees and victims of Europe’s latest war. It is right that the Government are engaging and re-evaluating support for refugees as this crisis evolves.

The appalling invasion of a democratic and sovereign European nation in the twenty first century will change our lives forever. It has already caused a seismic shift in global politics. Just look at Germany, where Olaf Scholz’s has executed an about-turn on German domestic and international policy. Scholz’s decision to increase defence spending and cancel Nordstream 2 goes in the face of German political orthodoxy under Angela Merkel.

The Government is rightly considering how to act in the face of this new reality – because some of the decisions of 2021 are now up for debate.

Adrian Mason: Wales needs real devolution. Not Cardiff Bay giving orders.

27 May

Adrian Mason is a lawyer and a former Deputy Chair Political of the North Wales Conservatives.

Congratulations to the Conservative candidates in Wales who have secured the most seats ever for the party in the Welsh Senedd – and an all-time high in the number of votes cast since devolution began in 1999.

However, the very real possibility is that these very respectable results may turn out to be the high-water mark for the Conservatives in Wales.

So, the plain question has to be asked: where has it got us?

Despite the immense hard work put into the Conservative election campaign, Wales is still trapped in a socialist orbit. Nothing has changed, and we now face another five years of Labour government. That is the way it has been since devolution was implemented 22 years ago, and unless something extraordinary happens, it is likely to be the position forever. That is the reality we face.

The Welsh Labour Party has its power base in the South Wales valleys. There are 25 constituencies confined within a small geographical area in south east Wales, broadly contained in the boundaries of the old county of Glamorgan. They are former mining and steel communities. No crumbling ‘red wall’ there, and any chance that they can be turned blue in our lifetimes is for the birds. All a party needs to achieve a majority in the Senedd is 31 seats, a mountain as high as Snowdon for the Conservatives to climb. So far, we are halfway up – but the path may have run out!

This leaves the whole of Wales subject to a socialist government that has little interest in anything other than in bolstering its own position with its core voters.

‘Devolution’ is defined by Oxford Languages as:

‘”The transfer or delegation of power to a lower level, especially by central government to a local or regional administration.”

Whilst power has been ceded by Westminster to Cardiff Bay in specific areas under the Government of Wales Act 2006, that is where devolution stops. For it to be true and effective devolution, powers should be further delegated to local authority level, allowing local decision-making in much the same way as is developing in England.

We have seven Conservative Members of the Westminster Parliament in North Wales, but their influence compared to English colleagues is diminished in such important areas as health, education, and social care, where they have no vote. Our elected Members in the Senedd, though increased in number, are still in a significant minority, and with the best will in the world, their voices will remain mute for all practical purposes.

As a member of Boris Johnson’s leadership election team in Wales, I organised an event for the now Prime Minister to address the faithful here in the North. He was left in no doubt about the strength of feeling by local people that devolution is not working for us. The people who attended that meeting will be watching carefully, expecting their voices to have been heard. In that regards, there are some positive signs.

The decision of the UK Government to facilitate the direct funding of new infrastructure developments within the devolved nations and regions is commendable. It means that, for the first time since devolution started, local authorities will receive money directly from Westminster in the form of the Levelling Up Fund, to invest £4.8 billion in high-value local infrastructure.

This money is available to all areas of the UK and its prospectus states that it is:

“Designed to help local areas select genuine local priorities for investment by putting local stakeholder support, including the local MP where they want to be involved, at the heart of its mission.”

As a consequence, Sarah Atherton, the Conservative MP for Wrexham, has been working on bids with Wrexham County Borough Council with its ‘Wrexham Gateway Project’. She is also engaging with a number of community groups to apply for the Community Ownership Fund. Former Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones of Clwyd West, is also actively involved with his local authorities formulating bids. The story is the same with all our Conservative Members across the region.

By facilitating direct bids to the Treasury, the scheme allows local people headed by our Conservative MPs to prioritise money for local issues. That is real devolution. It is great news for North Wales.

In another positive development, Westminster will be able to fund projects under the Shared Prosperity Fund to be launched in 2022. This source of funding has been designed to replace the EU Structural Fund.

There are, however, important differences. Firstly, taxpayers will receive all the funding, not having it ‘top-sliced’ by the EU and, crucially, it will be available directly from Westminster. Again, this is excellent news for local interests here in North Wales. It will allow local authorities to select their own priorities without having it blocked for political reasons by the Welsh Labour Government.

Although the political outlook in Wales remains discouraging for Conservatives, notwithstanding the good results last week, initiatives such as the Levelling Up Fund and Shared Prosperity Fund gives those of us in the North some independence from Cardiff Bay and allow our elected MPs to influence the direction of travel.

Despite the howls of objections raised by Labour politicians in Cardiff, funding by Westminster is not a threat to devolution; it actually enhances it through the principle of local decision-making. Opposition by the Welsh Government to direct funding by Westminster is more to do with politics than economics. If they really believed in disseminating powers to local level, rather than hoarding them for themselves, then they would be supporting and encouraging of these initiatives. Alas, this is not their modus operandi – as the last 22 years has aptly demonstrated.

Andrew RT Davies: Wales. Here’s how we can extinguish the dangerous flame of separatism.

24 Feb

Andrew RT Davies is the leader of the Welsh Conservatives and Assembly Member for South Wales Central.

One of the many unfortunate, if unintended, consequences of the Blair devo-revolution has been to undermine the Union’s sense of “permanence” – both from an ideological and an institutional perspective.

Designed to see off the nationalist threat, devolution has merely shifted the political narrative into an endless cycle of debates around further powers, with little correlation emerging between the performance of devolved governments and the level of support for independence.

It’s scarcely been more fashionable among constitutional experts (and BBC journalists) to view separatism as inevitable, but I certainly don’t share the view that it’s a foregone conclusion. Far from it.

The patriotic fightback has started and, as the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, these are some of the steps I want to see us take to extinguish the dangerous flame of separatism.

Put ‘Project Fear’ on ice and champion the pride of Britain

As Unionists we can often be guilty of basing arguments in process or economics. All very valid, and all incredibly important, but we need to own the emotive, patriotic argument – remembering and learning the valuable lessons from the victorious Brexit campaign many of us were part of.

We need to put “Project Fear” on ice and champion the pride of Britain.

I’m a proud Welshman. Proud of a Wales that consistently punches above its weight on the sporting and cultural scene, and has been to the fore on the pandemic frontline in delivering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine through Wrexham-based firm, Wockhardt.

But I’m also a proud Brit. Incredibly proud of our world-leading armed forces, our pharmaceutical industry, our rule of law and our enviable creative industries.

It’s the very best of our country and a symbol of the greatest union the world has ever seen – socially, culturally and economically. Why would we want to undermine and banish that great unity for division and separation?

But we shouldn’t rest on our laurels and the British state can do more. Why don’t our great institutions such as the Imperial War Museum, National Gallery, British Library project themselves into Wales? That footprint can and should be easily corrected. Let’s do it.

And yes, where appropriate let’s champion the economic benefits too. In Wales, we’ve benefited enormously through the various support schemes delivered during the pandemic by the Government, which have saved hundreds of thousands of Welsh jobs during the recent crisis, and are now saving thousands of lives with Britain’s hugely successful vaccination programme.

I’m a proud Welshman and proud Brit and make no apology for it, and that’s the turf I want to see us fight on. Let’s dictate the terms of engagement, and redouble our efforts to make the positive and patriotic case for Wales, Britain and the Union.

Minister of the Union and inter-governmental relations

There’s no greater champion of the UK than the Prime Minister, and he’s taken the duty head-on with responsibility as Minister for the Union, working alongside the three excellent secretaries of state.

One of the PM’s greatest strengths is on the campaign trail and while it was brilliant to welcome him to Wales last week, it’s a shame current restrictions prevent him from engaging more widely with the public on his agenda to level up all parts of the UK, which will be the cornerstone of securing the Union’s long-term future.

It’s been well briefed in the press that Lord Dunlop’s (as yet unpublished) report recommends the creation of a new cabinet position for the Union, and suggests that it should be elevated in line with the other great offices of state to help keep the UK intact.

Whether this is necessary is a call for the PM, and the PM alone, but one area I have long felt needs attention is inter-governmental relations within the UK.

It’s my personal view the Joint Ministerial Committee requires urgent reform/reprioritisation to improve collaboration and decision-making, particularly with Brexit and the significance of UK-wide frameworks.

The devolved leaders are mischievous at the best of times and their aims are not always aligned to ours, particularly Holyrood’s EU-flag-waver-in-chief.

But an overhaul is required to shower them with attention and keep them in check, particularly when they pretend they have responsibility for areas they do not.

Unleash the opportunities of Brexit

While it may seem counter-intuitive, particularly given the strength of feeling in Scotland on the issue, Brexit provides us with an opportunity to reaffirm the benefits of our Union, and to shift the focus onto a positive discussion around the country itself.

The UK’s new found agility has allowed us to save lives thanks to a dynamic procurement strategy and rapid rollout of Coronavirus vaccinations, in comparison to the European Union’s overly bureaucratic and beleaguered jabs programme. Team GB at its best!

But there are other tangible benefits to Brexit, with the automatic repatriation of a vast array of new powers to these shores, including the devolved nations.

We need to ensure the new Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) delivers for our poorest communities – levelling up our country – and reaching people who were for so long ignored.

This is an exciting opportunity for the Conservative government to transform all four corners of our country, and a game-changing regeneration scheme would be a powerful cocktail to the politics of division, separation and hate.

Devolution should never have been about power-fanatics in Cardiff Bay, Holyrood or Stormont – it’s about local communities

The biggest failure of Welsh devolution has been the hoarding of power in Cardiff Bay with people in north Wales feeling as disconnected with the Senedd as they ever did with the EU.

Devolution was meant to bring power and decision-making closer to communities, and it’s not too late to ensure that’s the case, albeit the UK government will have to be the driving force.

It’s important UK government spending is effectively targeted and given the PM’s ambition for large-scale projects, I’d like to see the designation of “Union Highways” that would unblock Wales’s arterial routes on the M4, A40 and A55 and boost important cross-border growth.

Where devolved government fails, let’s help local authorities and the communities they serve.

No more referendums, no new constitutional chaos, but a sole focus on recovery

People in all corners of the country want to see politicians across the UK working in partnership to focus on defeating Coronavirus and the other challenges we face.

And whatever happens post-May, the UK government should stay strong. The Scottish referendum of 2014 was a once-in-a-generation vote, one which the separatists lost. End of.

The energy and resources of governments at Westminster, Cardiff Bay, Holyrood or Stormont should be focused on our post-pandemic recovery. Anything else would be unforgivable.

And as we emerge from this crisis, Conservative energies must be focused on improving everyday lives and rebuilding our economy, which will be the best antidote to the constitutional fanatics.

So let’s back Wales, back Britain and get on with the patriotic job of building back our country better than ever.