What should be the Conservative Response to the Wales Bill and Devolution?
I only suggested today's fringe meeting to TRG, the Tory Reform Group, for two reasons, one of them rather selfish. Firstly I believe the Wales Act passed in 2017, is a very significant milestone in the history of Welsh governance. It’s easy to under-rate the significance of a Wales Act, because there have been so many, in a relatively short time. But I do think the Wales Act that has most recently made it onto the Statute Book changes the devolution landscape.
The move to a 'reserved powers' model, and the financial accountability which will come from devolution of responsibility for levying 50% of income tax are transformative. And of course it was a Conservative Secretary of State who took this Wales Act through the parliamentary process without any opposition amendments - both unusual and unexpected. We as a Conservative Party need to build on this achievement.
The rather selfish reason I thought I'd like to make a speech linked to our Spring Conference, is that it helps me develop my own thinking on 'What should be the Conservative response to the Wales Act and devolution. Luckily, I'm sharing a platform with David Melding and Daran Hill, two of the most thoughtful and respected political analysts’ active in Welsh politics.
I do think it’s important for the Conservative Party to look beyond the short-term pressures which impact on any party in Government, and for the Welsh Conservative Party to reflect on how we develop a strategy to win future elections in Wales, challenging and defeating the notion that Wales is a permanent Labour stronghold.
Unusually for me, I have written a speech, again for two reasons. Firstly, I feared that 8.00 on a Saturday morning might fail to attract much of an audience. I needed a speech I could circulate afterwards to stimulate discussion amongst some of those who are just about stirring from beds. And secondly, a written speech allows for amendment and development of my ideas.
Firstly, I think we need to create a structure within our party which develops Welsh Conservative policy, allowing us to look beyond the short-term pressures of Government, and plan how we can move forward to win power in Wales. We need a strategy to end the assumption that too many hold, that Wales will always be run by Labour.
Inevitably there will be differences of emphasis - driven by political realities. But I do think we need a formal mechanism, meeting regularly, including AMs and MPs, plus a representative from the our Party's Welsh Board and the House of Lords to develop policy and set targets based on what we need to do to become the largest party in Wales.
My speech is divided into brief comments on three aspects of what I think the Welsh Conservative Party should do to take power in Wales, one of which is about party structure, and two of which are about policy.
My view it that the Labour Party in Wales is there for the taking, and it's the Welsh Conservative Party that's best placed to take it. We need to develop a narrative that the people of Wales relate to as Welsh Conservative policy. We should not have an Assembly Group policy or a Westminster based policy. As far as possible, we should have Welsh Conservative policy.
While there may well be differences of emphasis, our aim should be to develop a distinctive narrative amongst voters about what our party in Wales stands for. We need to think about what we want to come to voter's minds when they think Welsh Conservative. Not everyone will agree with this. In practice, I'm suggesting a new body, acting on behalf of the Welsh Conservative Party Board, charged with developing policy.
The other two, perhaps more significant aspects of my speech are about policy I believe should underpin our drive to become the largest party in Wales, seeking to change the perception that many, far too many Welsh voters have of what being a Welsh Conservative stands for. We need the people of Wales to see the Welsh Conservatives as unmistakably Welsh, committed to the interest of Wales, and the unique language and culture of Wales.
It was the Conservative Party under Mrs Thatcher which established S4C, with hugely generous funding. It was a Conservative Party which passed the Education Act in the early 1990s which transformed prospects for the Welsh Language. And it's the same today.
It's a Conservative Govt which has just agreed to change the practices of the House of Commons to allow the Welsh Language to be used in Welsh Grand Committee debates - an important statement of our continuing commitment to Welshness. I'm looking forward to delivering my first speech in Welsh in Parliament next month.
If we are to become the largest party in Wales we need those natural Tory voters in rural Wales, who vote for Plaid Cymru to see us as their natural home. Across the world, the parties that are strong in rural areas are usually right-of-centre parties. Our aim must be to offer them the 'Welshness' they relate to.
And secondly, we should emphasise our history as the green policy deliverers in Wales. Nothing is more Conservative than looking after our environment. Our declared mission is to hand on to the next generation a country with a cleaner environment that we have inherited.
There was no greater advocate of this principle than Mrs Thatcher. I'm not talking about 'reform' but about a 'return' to Mrs Thatcher's enthusiasm for supporting environmental principles. And I don't mean shouting about an impractical policy position that some green lobby groups tend to do.
I think is worth repeating a couple of quotes from Mrs Thatcher's speeches. In 1990 she told the Royal Society.
"We must enable all our economies to grow and develop because without growth you cannot generate the wealth to pay for protection of the environment."
Britain's first White Paper on the environment, Our Common Inheritance, was published by the Thatcher Govt. We were the party that pushed for and secured the Climate Change Act. We have pledged to create a Blue Belt of marine reserves around our Overseas Territories - 4 million square kilometres. We are committed to phasing out energy generation from coal by the mid-2020s.
We know from Welsh Govt stats that the energy and environment sector is the biggest employer in Wales, followed by financial services and tourism (which also benefits from environment protection). Any political party serious about power in Wales must be committed to protection of our environment and landscapes.
In 1989 she said in a keynote speech "As well as the science, we need to get the economics right. That means first we must have economic growth to generate the wealth to pay for the protection of the environment. But it must be growth which does not plunder the planet and leave our children with the consequences tomorrow"
I want us to be accepted as, and seen as the party that delivers for 'Welshness' and delivers for the Environment. I believe fervently that the Welsh Conservative Party should be perceived to be "Conservative, to be Welsh and to be Green" - policy areas where we have delivered, but not sought credit for.
It's time we stated shouting from the rooftops about our commitment to the environment.
With a Welsh Conservative commitment to and focus on our 'Welshness' and 'Environmentalism, we can become the biggest political force in Wales.