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Bourne: Welsh Conservatism - A Chance to Shine

Speech to the Welsh Governance Centre at Cardiff University

"Ladies and Gentlemen, annwyl Gyfeillion,

It is a great pleasure to speak to you this evening to give the St David's Lecture.

Few can have escaped noticing that an election is looming. Certainly, the political parties have been setting out their stalls for some time.

And, with a bit of luck, Peter Snow will shortly be leaping around his map showing great swathes of Wales turning blue.

Before I lose those of you who vote for Labour, Plaid Cymru or the Liberal Democrats, let me turn to the task in hand.

The historical reality of modern Welsh politics is that Conservatives presently poll around 20% of the vote.

Welsh Conservatives have made significant strides in the past few years and, I believe, are set to win key seats in the forthcoming election.

It is worth remembering that in the mid-1980s we polled 31% of the vote in Wales and won 14 Welsh seats. We increased our share of the vote and number of seats at the last Assembly election, but a Conservative Assembly government is unlikely in the immediate future.

This evening, I want to focus on three main issues. First, I want to indulge a little on the important steps Welsh Conservatives have already taken to achieve prominence in a devolved Wales.

Second, a year on from Richard, I want to talk about the powers of the Assembly and the way ahead. Third, and finally, I want to talk about the need for a change of government and the possibility at some stage of coalition government, long-term prospect though that may be.

There are several reasons why the public remains sceptical about the Assembly. One of these reasons is that, despite the poor performance of the government, there exists the perception that there is no real prospect of change.

This may in part explain the almost universal identification of the Welsh Assembly Government with the institution itself, the National Assembly for Wales.

It is not, perhaps, an issue that exercises the minds of the public on a daily basis, but I do believe there is a latent feeling of despondency eating away at the legitimacy of the Assembly. An apparent one-party state is unhealthy for Welsh democracy.

My address this evening, of course, is essentially about devolved politics. The state of the Welsh Conservative Party is certainly of relevance to the United Kingdom and the question of powers for the Assembly clearly impacts on Westminster.

However, the issue of parties working together is more appropriate to the Assembly where we have four party presence than in Westminster. In Wales, there is generally little prospect of any one party having a majority position alone and yet there is still little alternative to Labour hegemony. At Westminster the position is different.

Despite, in recent times, large parliamentary majorities - twice under Margaret Thatcher and twice under Tony Blair - we still have basically a two party system at Westminster with the prospect of a change of government.

So, what is the way forward for Welsh Conservatives in the Assembly?

Despite our pride in Welsh culture and heritage, and our unionist credentials, Welsh Conservatives have been hindered by the notion that we are in some way an 'English party'. The idea that Conservatism is something imposed on Wales, not truly Welsh, has lingered for sometime.

In 1997, Labour took great pleasure in announcing that Conservatism was a dead force in Wales. However, the Assembly has provided a platform from which a Welsh Conservative voice can be heard. It is a voice that can be heard loud and clear.

I believe our success in Wales is closely linked to our ability to connect with the electorate as a Welsh and as a unionist party. The natural instinct of a Conservative is to take pride in his or her history and culture.

To this end, we have made significant steps to define our Welsh identity within a broader United Kingdom party. In addition to Welsh headquarters and a Welsh director, Matthew Lane, we have a Welsh Board, headed by Carole Hyde, and Welsh representation on the UK Board in London.

Vitally, the general election manifesto on devolved issues such as health and education has been made in Wales and with Welsh input into the manifesto in all areas. We have a Welsh Conference, Welsh policy formulation, candidates fighting under the Welsh Conservative banner, our own status and symbolically our own emblem, the Welsh dragon.

The Welsh language has, quite rightly, been given greater prominence. As a party, we have already made important contributions to the survival and growth of the Welsh language, with the establishment of S4C, the Welsh Language Board and the development of Welsh medium education.

We now have policies in place that will build on these achievements. I am also proud of the fact that non-Welsh speaking Conservative AMs have taken up Welsh lessons enthusiastically, and I am proud to be among that number.

Dw i hefyd yn falch iawn bod aelodau di-gymraeg y Blaid Geidwadol wedi penderfynnu dysgu Cymraeg, a finnau yn eu plith.

The Welsh electorate has responded positively to our commitment to make the Assembly work. Disillusioned with Labour, they are increasingly turning to us to provide policies and ideas for the future.

Welsh Conservatives have a responsibility to grapple with the important issues facing Wales today and one of those key issues is that of Assembly powers.

Of course, vital issues such as health, education, the economy and culture occupy most of our time, but it would be remiss of me to avoid the constitutional questions - these too are crucial.

Before I turn to the vital issue of legislative powers, I think it appropriate to say a word about Assembly functions.

The transfer of functions is not a new phenomenon. Since the establishment of the Welsh Office in 1964, successive governments transferred functions to the office of the Secretary of State for Wales. For example, health was transferred in 1968, education in 1970 and agriculture in 1978.

With devolution, there has continued to be some discussion over whether certain functions should lie in Westminster or Cardiff. Welsh Conservatives have been in favour of the transfer of certain functions, where there is a clear need.

The foot-and-mouth crisis demonstrated the need for the Assembly to control animal welfare matters. Farmers required an efficient response that fully understood the Welsh dimension.

Similarly, it makes sense to transfer power over large energy projects, in order, for example, that the Assembly can influence the impact of large wind-farms on the Welsh landscape and have a decisive say on a matter that clearly impinges on Wales.

The transfer of energy projects over 50MW has already dragged on for some time and the Economic Development Minister is still unable to provide assurances over if and when it may happen. Consideration is also being given to the possible transfers of broadcasting and hunting. I am in favour of transferring power over hunting to the Assembly and persuadable on the issue of broadcasting. Other candidate areas may be added to this list of possible transfers.

It is now almost a year since Lord Richard published his report on Assembly powers. It is a weighty tome in both a physical and constitutional sense.

The Welsh Conservative Party spent the summer months consulting with members on the way forward. Opinions varied. Like much of the Welsh population, and indeed the other political parties, our members hold a variety of views.

The most sensible road ahead is for the people of Wales to decide on this important issue in a referendum - or 'preferendum'.

A Conservative government will ask the electorate to indicate their preference from a series of options, including abolition, the status quo and a primary law-making Parliament.

My own preference is for a legislative Parliament, although not necessarily within the time-scale suggested by Lord Richard. The Latin caution 'festina lente' (hasten slowly) is appropriate here.

Allowing the Assembly time to bed in has always seemed to me to be the wisest course of action. I think that it is desirable that there are at least three Assembly terms before such a change is brought about.

It is difficult to talk about further powers when the public is hardly enamoured with the present system. However, as I have already mentioned, criticism is often levelled at the institution, when the real frustration lies with government decisions. Here is the need for a true alternative to Labour.

I believe that the current settlement is ultimately untenable and it would be difficult to argue for the status quo in the long term. But I also believe there is little thirst for going back to the old system.

Opinion polls have demonstrated that the electorate is generally supportive of powers on subject areas like health, education, rural affairs and culture, residing in Cardiff rather than Westminster. Welsh political topography has changed and I do not believe that it would assist the Welsh Conservative Party to maintain that the world is flat when clearly it is not.

It is worth noting that an enormous amount of time, money and effort have been invested in the Assembly, not just within the narrow confines of the Assembly buildings in Cathays Park and Cardiff Bay, but also by industry, charities and throughout public life - for example, in our universities, schools and hospitals.

Nor can I ignore that Welsh Conservatives have fared well in a devolved Wales. I do not base my views on enlightened self-interest but I would be foolish in the extreme to ignore this dimension.

There is a real need for a clear-cut settlement. Legislative time at Westminster is restricted for Welsh-only Bills and the Assembly government has enjoyed only limited success in bids for Welsh legislation. The wide discretion via Henry VIII type clauses, giving room for manoeuvre to the Assembly, is very much dependent on the good will of the government or the Minister.

If I may borrow a legal comparison, it is often stated that the equitable system of jurisprudence is as variable as the size of the Lord Chancellor's foot. So it seems to me that the room for manoeuvre on secondary legislation will be variable and dependent on what the Whitehall Minister or the Prime Minister has had for breakfast. This does not make for sound or stable government.

For a number of reasons, there has been Scottish and Welsh over-representation at Westminster for some years. There are currently 72 MPs representing Scottish constituencies in the House of Commons with 129 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. The government has agreed to a reduction in the number of Westminster seats in Scotland to 59, which will bring it into line with average populations in English constituencies.

Although Wales has also been historically over-represented, there is no formal provision for a reduction in the number of Welsh MPs, partly because Westminster retains responsibility for primary legislation affecting Wales. If full legislative powers were to be devolved to the Assembly, this imbalance would have to be addressed.

Quite simply, there would be fewer demands placed on Welsh MPs and there would be an imperative for equity of treatment with England.

In his St David's Lecture three years ago, Paul Murphy, the then Secretary of State for Wales, said "the greatest protection the Assembly will ever have will be its reputation". I agree.

Three years later and the Assembly's reputation is still very much in question but it is Labour who is pushing the self-destruct button. It is Labour's record I believe that is damaging the Assembly's reputation both on substantive policy issues like the health service and also on matters of process like committee scrutiny. Labour is not measuring up.

Openness and accountability are key selling points for devolution. Indeed, in 1998, Rhodri Morgan said, "The Assembly belongs to the people, not the Welsh establishment". Despite the stated good intentions of the Assembly government, democracy has not been well served by an increasingly complacent ruling party.

Particularly since Labour has won a working majority (albeit slim), they have demonstrated considerable arrogance in their handling of Assembly business. They have reduced the frequency of committee meetings and tended to stifle debate in plenary.

What is often seen as Labour's reluctance to work positively with other parties is undoubtedly fed by the assurance that they can go it alone.

On the policy front, it often seems that devolution has failed to make substantial differences. This has not been helped by a reliance on headline grabbing gimmicks. They may work for an election but they do not bring about real long-term benefits.

To give two typical examples - on education, it has emerged that the 'free' breakfast initiative for 'every' primary school pupil was only ever intended for one child in every ten and the costs have soared.

On health, the promise of 'free' prescriptions is still little more than a pledge. Meanwhile, the weighty issues of school and university funding, hospital waiting lists and the level of council tax remain major concerns.

Serious political will is required to make a positive impact on these important issues. I realise I speak from a position of opposition but these are widely held views. Knock on any door in Wales and the devolved issues likely to be raised are health, council tax and the state of education.

Rhodri Morgan argues that our Welshness means we should shun choice in public services - he maintains that choice does not fit with the Welsh character. For the Assembly government, this means foundation hospitals and specialist schools are not an option, despite the actions of their colleagues in Westminster. I do not believe that the people of Wales are pre-occupied with ideology, rather they want high-quality and efficient public services.

It is not characteristically Welsh to be the sick man of Europe, or, indeed, the poor man of the United Kingdom. That is, however, the situation we are in. There is a real need for an alternative agenda.

CBI Wales makes a powerful argument when they say that in choosing collaboration over choice, the Assembly government is 'making its job much harder'. Developing partnerships is important to benefit public service delivery but standards will also be most effectively driven up by giving the Welsh people greater choice. These approaches are not mutually exclusive.

Our priority as politicians should be what is best for Wales and our task to develop an alternative agenda to Labour. If that means exploring policies that work well over the border then so be it, we cannot afford to become obsessed with doing things differently.

Do not misunderstand me, I do not want parity with England; I want Wales to lead the United Kingdom. We need to do things better. The First Minister's policies have put 'clear red water' ahead of public service delivery. That is a historic, monumental mistake.

Nor must we neglect issues that are not the doorstep bread and butter issues of our nation. There are many issues that are distinctly Welsh that I believe need addressing. To name but three, the need for a St David's Day national holiday, the need for a dedicated Art Gallery for Wales, and a Welsh Honours system, are, I believe, issues that should be looked at by political parties intent on offering a difference to the people of Wales rather than a second rate version of what is happening in England.

The possibility of coalition stems essentially from Labour's failures to make devolution a success and bring about the changes needed for the people of Wales.

Labour dominance is now being challenged at Westminster and at local authority level. Indeed, the Local Government elections of 2004 may well be a portent for the future.

In the 2003 Assembly elections, Labour polled around 38% of the vote. There still persists the psyche, however, not only among Labour members, that there is no viable alternative in the Assembly. No other party singly is currently able to take on the strength of the Labour machine in Wales and govern on its own. But there is a need for competitive politics.

Voter apathy is a major problem in Western democracies. Turnout in the last Assembly elections was only 38%, a fall of 8% since 1999. Entrenched Labour government and perpetual opposition for the other parties creates stale and uninviting politics. It is little wonder there is no clamour for more powers for the Assembly among the Welsh people.

Competitive politics would raise standards in all political parties. Labour's monopoly is unhealthy, undesirable and does not serve the cause of devolution.

There is undoubtedly a need for the prospect of a change in government in Wales.

Sadly, the only question seems to be whether Labour can rule alone or with the help of the Liberal Democrats. Is the idea of a government in the Assembly without Labour inconceivable?

What of the opposition parties and the prospects for working together?

The presence of an Assembly has not created an enthusiasm to vote nationalist. Support for Plaid Cymru dwindled at the 2003 Assembly election and the party does not pose a major threat to Labour power.

The Liberal Democrats have flatlined and have the smallest representation in the Assembly, if John Marek will forgive me.

I strongly believe Welsh Conservatives will continue to build on the success of the past few years and gain seats in the next general election and the Assembly elections of 2007.

I am the first to boast about the strides we have made as a party, but it is unrealistic to expect us to be able to form a government alone in the near future. Complicated mathematical formulae create many different permutations; few, however, throw up the likelihood of sole Conservative governance in Wales (not yet anyway), or indeed sole Plaid Cymru or Liberal Democrat governance.

This means we should examine the merits of working together. This may well be a long term project, but if people can see politicians putting issues ahead of narrow party interests then I believe the Welsh public will respond enthusiastically.

They will be keen to support both our policies and, importantly, the Assembly as an institution. There are many areas where we can work together with other opposition parties, including health, education, housing, rural affairs and the Welsh language.

It is easy for us all to seek refuge in ideological purity, to refer endlessly to the past and not the future, but that will not move Wales forward. Political parties after all encompass many opinions as any politician can testify. For the Welsh Conservatives, working together would present an opportunity to implement some of our cherished Conservative ideals. As a responsible party leader, I believe I have a duty to pursue this possibility.

This will be a difficult prospect - perhaps a long-term prospect - and it can only start by greater co-operation. This has begun to good effect.

In the debating chamber, opposition parties often work together and have exploited rare opportunities to defeat Labour, on the Business Statement and the First Minister's Annual Report for example.

Labour hegemony must be tested and one way to do this is to entertain the idea of opposition collaboration.

Welsh Conservatives have come a long way since the advent of devolution, as the hardest working group and the Assembly Government's sternest critics. The Welsh Conservative Party will continue to develop and evolve under our devolved settlement.

We await the views of the people of Wales before any decisions are taken on the future powers of the Assembly.

Nonetheless, I believe the Welsh electorate will be more likely to follow the argument presented by the Richard Commission if they could engage more readily with the Assembly and were presented with the prospect of an alternative government in Wales."

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