Welsh Secretary vows to create a competitive Wales

David Jones has promised to work with Labour in Cardiff Bay; Politics writer Luke Smith reports.

The Conservatives have never found it easy in Wales. Thatcherism and the closure of mines in the eighties left behind a legacy of unemployment, poverty and crime in the Welsh valleys. This decision also left a sense of deep mistrust towards Conservatives throughout South Wales. Labour’s decision to bring forward devolution, a strategy they opposed for many years, made life unbearable for Conservatives.

Now David Jones the new Welsh Secretary faces not only an economically challenged region but also a politically challenging one. He faces a defiant Labour-led Welsh assembly who have so far remained popular despite the harsh economic times. Their policies have often contradicted Tory policies and have sometimes led to embarrassment for the UK government. Decisions to cap tuition fees, maintain free prescriptions and to re-mark GCSE English papers have sometimes provoked an angry response from Westminster. However these strategies, unlike the UK government’s, have been popular amongst the voters.

The government has at times seemed out of touch with areas like Wales and Scotland. Their decision to make Cheryl Gillan Welsh Secretary, an MP whose seat isn’t even in Wales and had not lived in Wales for over twenty years highlights the Government’s detachment from Welsh issues.

However David Jones unlike Gillan, is a Welsh secretary in more than just name. Unlike Gillan his Parliamentary seat is in Wales, and he was previously a member of the Welsh Assembly. In fact his appointment makes him the first AM to become Welsh Secretary. David Cameron claims this influenced his decision to sack Gillan, who he insists did an “excellent job”. In an interview with the BBC, Cameron said he wants “to make sure that Wales has got a strong voice at the heart of government.” The appointment of a Welsh Secretary with a seat in Wales and a wealth of experience as an Assembly Member, a member of the Welsh affairs select committee, and having served as under-secretary for two years; marks a move in the right direction. It may also be worth noting that David Jones is a Welsh speaker.

Yet, Mr Jones faces a momentous task in bringing together the UK government and the Labour led assembly. Although Gillan was not a popular choice, she did oversee the deal to extend electrification of the train-lines to Swansea and the valleys, acting as an economic tonic for the area. Cameron himself commented on this achievement calling it “a very big breakthrough that previous governments have talked about but never delivered.”

Mr Jones will have to make similar decisions, being a member of a Government whose task is to bring about economic recovery to an area which has struggled for over a generation. Jones himself has argued that Wales is an area that over the last thirteen years has become “progressively poorer.” As Welsh Secretary he will be judged on whether or not he can remedy this. The Government’s strategy for Wales is one of competition. Jones has stated “We want Wales to be competitive with the rest of the world”. The Prime Minister supported this statement, explaining how the Foreign Office will also do all it can. “We’re helping sell Welsh goods around the world, we are taking into account all of Wales’ needs”.

Mr Jones has already revealed some of the initiatives he will support in order bring about economic growth. He will support a new Nuclear power station site on Anglesey, a decision that may bring about a backlash from environmental activists, but one that will bring jobs and money to the area. In addition to this he has pledged to upgrade infrastructure across Wales, including high-speed rail links throughout North Wales and improvements to the M4 and the A55. These improvements will hopefully benefit the Welsh economy. More broadly he’s spoken about his aims to unleash the economic potential of the Welsh ports Holyhead and Milford Haven but as of yet, has not revealed in great detail how he will do so. It is hoped that these initiatives will boost Welsh competitiveness in Europe.

But will this be possible? Perhaps, but only if Mr Jones receives support from the Welsh Assembly. He has urged for better co-operation between the Welsh Government and Westminster declaring: “I’m not competing with Welsh Government”. This didn’t stop him from criticising the record of Labour Governments that have been in power in Cardiff and Westminster over the last thirteen years. He’s also tactfully pointed out that “Economic development is the devolved responsibility of the Welsh government, which is of course a Labour government”. This may sound painfully familiar to many commentators; Another Conservative Welsh Secretary with great ideas and vision, scuppered by the red tape of the Welsh government. Jones says he wants a strong Wales, but the question many will be asking, is whether his voice is strong enough.

Luke Smith