Politics

Interview with Welsh Assembly Brexit Party Leader Mark Reckless AM

by Lowri Pitcher

Mark Reckless initially entered politics as an MP for Rochester and Strood in the 2010 general election. In 2014 he left the Conservative Party and sought a by-election which he won as a UKIP candidate. He lost this seat in the 2015 general election. In 2016 he was elected to the Welsh Assembly and has since been appointed leader of the Brexit Party in the Welsh Assembly.

What do you think of the Welsh Government’s position on Brexit?
I think that they should stick to their knitting and that Brexit is generally not a devolved issue and is a topic that Westminster takes the lead on. Yes, there are some interactions with devolved institutions and it’s proper for them to plan for that, particularly if we are leaving without an overarching agreement.

However, that’s not the same thing as to let it become the dominating focus and driver of the Assembly. It is good to see that last Tuesday was the first time in several weeks that we didn’t discuss Brexit. But more than anything else, for Mr Drakeford, rather than discussing their preparation, the Welsh Government talks about trying to block Brexit which in our view is denying democracy after they promised to respect the referendum in 2016.

What can you do, if anything, to change the Welsh Government’s position?
I don’t really expect to change their Brexit position. In terms of the Assembly and the future for our devolved administration, their action in a way opens up quite a lot of opportunity because for 20 years we’ve had a devolved institution and a Welsh Government being led by Labour.

We want devolution to work in the Brexit Party, we’re not campaigning for the abolition of the Assembly; but we look at health, education and the economy and it seems as if we have gone backwards under devolution from where we were or compared to what’s happened in England. What we don’t know is if that’s a structural problem with devolution or the fact it’s had a Labour-led government.

When we see Labour abandoning many of their natural supporters, many of whom voted to leave and as we see a lot of their supporters in the Welsh valleys becoming more and more distant from their party – that opens up an opportunity of there being political change in Wales instead of being a Labour-led one-party state.

In the event of an early general election or possibly even the next assembly elections, do you think that the Brexit Party is in a position to contend for seats which in South Wales, for example, are Labour heartlands?
I think it’s possible. I think that the trajectory of the Brexit Party will depend a lot on what happens to Brexit and the extent that other parties sell out the referendum result or somehow succeed in blocking Brexit or delivering a Brexit in name only. I think that would increase the political appeal of the Brexit Party. Otherwise, if we see the Conservative Government genuinely take us out of the EU possibly with a clean break then many of our supporters will support that. This Party was created to ensure the referendum result was delivered and that politicians were held to their words. That’s the thing we understand and accept but we’ll be putting forward other proposals in other areas as well.

What is a clean Brexit?
I think a clean break is having no overarching deal. People talk about no deal but that’s a bit misleading because a whole series of mini deals will be done. They may be unilateral measures, but in reality, they will interrelate with other countries.

At least at an official level, there’s likely to be discussions about how that works. A lot of the no-deal planning that we’ve been doing and the EU has been doing has put in place a whole series of mini deals. If we were to leave without an overarching deal, what I call a clean break, I think the policies and interests of Ireland will become very very different. Ireland is our most natural and closest partner and you’d expect to be our strongest supporter in arguing for good, close workable trade relations. The problem is the issue of the backstop that has been used to set them against the UK. I think that would be reversed as soon as we left without an overarching agreement and they’d be looking to patch things up as quickly as possible.

What would those arrangements be?
What I would like to see is a free trade agreement with the EU. I would like to see free trade with the whole world. One reason the Brexit Party wants to leave the EU is so that we can set our own tariffs and I think in many areas we’d like to see lower or no tariffs where the EU protects the things and industries that we don’t even make in this industry.

Why is it that every time a woman buys a bra should she have to pay a pound in tax and tariffs to the EU when we don’t really make bras in this country and imports generally come from China. In these areas, particularly in clothing and food, it is the poorest that pay the highest proportion of their income and these are the areas where tariffs are some of the highest. I think we can have our own system which will give farmers a degree of protection and would make the cost of living much cheaper.

In your proposed series of mini deals do you have any idea what you’d like to see happen with the Erasmus scheme?
I spoke with Colin, the Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University sometime shortly after the referendum and he said to me that he’s willing for me to speak about it. He thought that we should be able to do something much better than Erasmus because the level of demand from the European countries to come to the UK particularly to study in leading tended to be higher than it was the other way around.

Hence, he thought it should be possible to get something which would be more beneficial to Cardiff University whilst still giving students an opportunity to go elsewhere where they want a range of universities. I hope it should be possible to do that because of the extent that people want to come to high-quality UK institutions and learn in English. While I encourage students to go to European universities and get that diverse experience I’m not sure Erasmus has the balance quite right.

So many people say that a no-deal Brexit or any Brexit at all would be catastrophic for Wales, why do you think they’re saying this?
We had that argument in the referendum and they lost. I think the Labour Party has become distant from those it proports to represent and they have taken the side of the EU against the side of the people in Wales who voted to leave. Simply, with Plaid Cymru they claim to be a party of Wales yet they want to turn against the decision of the Welsh people to leave the EU.

First and foremost in the Brexit Party we are democrats. We had a referendum and we promised to implement the result and until we implement the decision of that referendum it would be completely wrong to seek to reverse it. Unfortunately, that’s what [Labour and Plaid Cymru] have become about and that’s why the Brexit Party has come to represent people who want to deliver on Brexit.

Is the Brexit Party a one-issue party? If not, what else would be in your election manifesto?
We’re still developing our policy ideas and it’s 18 months until the Welsh Assembly manifesto launch, which would be my focus. What I would say is that we want to leave the European Union not because we have any problems with the Europeans, the issue is how it’s governed and we think it is better to have a more democratic for power being exercised closest to the people it affects.

We don’t want to leave just to get power back to London or Cardiff, we want it to be put to a more local level, be it at a local government level or down to individuals. We think that’s a more responsive democratic system where people take more decisions and power for themselves and where there’s an element of direct democracy through signings of referendums or recalls of politicians who don’t do what they say. The ultimate aim is to try and make the government more accountable to the people it’s meant to serve.

We’d like to see further devolution to local governments and individuals where not everything is decided at the Westminster or Cardiff level.

What do you think about the proposals of a bilingual name for the Senedd?
We think the Welsh language should be treated equally. We’re meant to be a bilingual institution and as such it’s important that equal prominence and value is given to both the English and Welsh.

We should support Senedd in Welsh and Welsh Parliament in English and it’s quite wrong the bill has been brought to the Welsh Assembly privileging the Welsh at the expense of the English. Hence, I’ll be putting forward amendments to make it genuinely bilingual and I hope they’ll succeed.

Other than fighting to deliver Brexit, what else is your party doing in the Welsh Assembly?
One area we feel very strongly about is health services. We have Caroline Jones as our health spokesperson. She has been speaking strongly about the response to the health board in her region which has had very serious problems particularly with maternity services where there’s no proof of those things being dealt with.

We would like to ensure that local health boards are genuinely responsible for the services they deliver in their area and give people a chance for people to have their voice heard. One area we’re looking at is how to make health boards more democratically accountable; possibly through election of a board or an individual to oversee them. This could establish clearer lines of responsibility and help improve health services in Wales.

What are your predictions as to what will happen next with Brexit?
I think the most likely scenario is that the negotiations with the EU such as they are will breakdown and that the Conservative Party will try to go into an election at least saying it’s willing to leave without an overarching agreement. What I don’t know is whether people can trust them and if they were to get a majority, would they do that or would they go back to a Theresa May type of deal? Also, will they be allowed an election?

There’s an extension with the EU that is meant to be for something and potentially it could be for an election. Would Labour MPs and other parties vote for an election when they are so far behind in the polls? My greatest fear is that Boris Johnson is left in Downing Street not able to do anything, being sort of a zombie government which is kept in a state of suspended animation. We do not want to be a part of the UE while there are people in Westminster blocking an election because they don’t want to lose their seats.

And finally, asking as a student newspaper, what is your favourite pub meal?
Fish and chips with a good tartare sauce.

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