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Welsh Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:21 pm on 27th February 2020.

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Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business and Industry) 2:21 pm, 27th February 2020

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, or diolch; it is a great pleasure to be called to speak in the debate and to have the opportunity to wish everyone, on behalf of my group in this place, a very happy St David’s Day when it comes. I also want to pass on my best wishes for the rugby on 14 March—not too many, although I do not think Wales will need much luck on that score.

My perspective in this debate is one of looking from afar, from the north-east of Scotland. If the House will permit me, I want to share some personal recollections. One of the first major political campaigns I got involved in was the devolution referendum of 1997, campaigning for a yes-yes vote in Scotland. I well remember the delight that my colleagues and I experienced that evening and the sense of the bright future that was beckoning, whatever it held. The following week, there was the vote in Wales. I remember a considerably more youthful looking Huw Edwards—I am sure he would not mind my saying that—anchoring the results programme. I went to bed that night quite despondent at the way the result appeared to be panning out, then woke up to find that the final result in Carmarthen had delivered a sufficient margin to ensure that it was a yes all round.

In Scotland, we had a significant task after that, because it was very difficult to live up to some of the unrealistic expectations that had built up around the institution. To those of us watching from Edinburgh, it seemed in those early years that Wales was doing devolution rather better than we were. Scotland’s First Minister at the time, Jack McConnell, had a much mocked ambition of trying to do less, better. It often seemed to us—in those early years, at least—that Wales was doing considerably better with less than we were.

If we fast-forward to the referendum on legislative powers in 2011, the contrast between the result then and the result in 1997 was striking. The vote to transfer legislative powers was supported the length and breadth of Wales by a margin of two to one. That seemed to be not only a vote to transfer legislative powers but a vote of confidence in that institution—here was an institution that was now firmly embedded in the democratic and political landscape of Welsh life.

I well recall the then Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones, describing the period to follow as

“the decade to deliver for Wales.”

Others in this place will have strong views, and they are perhaps better qualified than I am to decide whether that was in fact lived up to. Looking from afar, I remember the Government led by Carwyn Jones commendably being prepared to speak out on what he thought were the shortcomings of the UK Government—he certainly put many of his Scottish colleagues to shame in his willingness to do so—but the perspective is one of drift rather than delivery. Post Brexit, the UK Government are in their pomp at the moment—I hope they do not think me unkind for saying that—about getting Brexit done and the need to level up. We will measure over time how the rhetoric matches up with the reality, but there is no doubt for me that considerable levelling up is required in Wales.

HS2 has been mentioned by several Members. My constituency, in the north-east of Scotland, is forecast to lose out as a result of HS2 being constructed, as parts of England become more competitive at our expense. I have to ask: where is the equivalent benefit for Wales out of this, other than the crumbs that will come from the table? I understand the argument about being able to bid into the supply chain and that process, but where are the transformative projects to balance that out and do some of the levelling up? For example, why will electrification of the Great Western line stop at Cardiff, instead of going on to Swansea? What about the full electrification of the valleys lines? We all know we have a climate change crisis that we need to tackle, and this is just one of a number of transformative projects that could benefit everyone in Wales and help to level up.

In that vein, where is the investment in the A470? When we look at a map of Wales, it is clear that considerable priority has been placed on east-west links, but where is the corresponding investment in north-south links? Where is the investment in digital connectivity? Since the UK Government retain regulatory responsibility for that, where are the coverage guarantees for 5G, so that it does not just hit the main population centres, and the main lines of communication and, crucially, rural areas are able to enjoy the same level of connectivity as their urban counterparts? It is clear that there is a need for that sustained investment in physical and social infrastructure in order to deliver the sustainable growth that Wales needs and the productivity increases that will allow all parts of Wales and all the people of Wales to reach their fullest potential.

In hopefully drawing my remarks to a controlled and orderly stop, as I tap the dashboard I would like to make one further observation on politics in Wales. If we can measure the democratic health of a country by the state of its Opposition, Wales seems to be in a rather better condition at this point in time than Scotland. Several years and a few jobs ago, I had the great pleasure of working here as the head of research for the Scottish National party group, although it was a considerably smaller group then. During that time, I had the great pleasure of seeing the former Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Adam Price, at work. I have to say that I am also very impressed with the current Member for that seat.

I well remember the contributions that Mr Price made in this Chamber and the way he used to light it up with his ideas, his eloquence and his clear passion to make Wales a much better place. I am delighted that he has made it back into active politics and to see him in his place in the Senedd. The people of Wales are incredibly fortunate to be in a position where they can choose him to be their next First Minister; they would be incredibly well served if they did so.

Finally, a point often made is that for all that Wales now has the significant legislative powers that came in in 2011, it lacks some of the institutional architecture that might help to make sense of those laws and allow them to be used to their fullest extent, particularly when we compare Wales with some of the institutions and the institutional architecture in Scotland, which are able to implement and monitor different policy choices. I urge people not to be frightened of or to feel inhibited by that, but rather to press ahead because self-government, if it means anything, absolutely means not just having the opportunity but having the right and indeed the obligation to make the best choices they can for the communities that have elected them to sit in whichever democratic institution they are elected to.

Looking from afar, as I say, it seems very clear that Wales is on something of a journey, and that journey goes on in terms of resolving its relationship within the United Kingdom and looking outwards to the rest of the world. Whether or not the end point of that journey is full national status, it is pretty clear that the people of Wales should be constrained only by the limits of their own talents, the limits of their own resources, the limits of their own imagination—and by the limits of nobody else.