William Graham AM: Devolution in Wales
William Graham was elected to the National Assembly for Wales in 1999 for South Wales East. He is Chief Whip for the Conservative Group and speaks on Education policy in Wales.
So much has been written recently of the positive impact of David Cameron’s election as leader of the Conservative party that it is tempting to believe that success in future elections is something of a formality. No representative, member or supporter of the party would realistically subscribe to such a complacent view but the fact remains that Conservatives have good reason to feel optimistic going into the New Year.
The election of a leader with a clear agenda for change at a time in the electoral cycle where his proposals have an opportunity to be fleshed out and properly presented to the public is a special reason for hope among supporters in 2006. In few regions of the United Kingdom can the need for change be as evident as in Wales where the country’s economic and social problems remain obvious and often disgracefully neglected despite the existence of the Labour-led National Assembly for Wales and a Labour government at Westminster.
It is already clear that central to David Cameron’s leadership will be an attempt to re-invigorate intellectual debate within the party and an effort to better appreciate how we are perceived by the outside world. The need to move away from old labels such as Thatcherism is not out of embarrassment but owing to understanding that policies the party had advocated some years ago are no longer the remedy for the problems facing Britain in 2006. It is in this spirit of measured co-operation and the realisation that the electorate wishes to see sound constructive policies that the Conservative party under David Cameron has accepted the fact of devolution in Wales and is determined to make devolution work for the people of Wales.
Clearly devolution was never likely to be the panacea for the problems in Wales that its supporters had promoted it as being at the time of the referendum on its existence in 1998. Nonetheless the National Assembly for Wales has established itself on the political canvas of the United Kingdom and it is vital that we work to make devolution arrangements function better for everyone.
The shift in approach towards the National Assembly cannot extend to welcoming the proposals outlined in the Government of Wales Bill to fast track changes in its legislative powers without a further referendum. To deny the electorate a vote on so fundamental an issue and instead muddy the water of the devolution process appears to be a great opportunity lost, especially at a time when the Labour party insist upon changing the Assembly electoral arrangements supposedly on the grounds of making the voting process clearer. To increase the powers available to the National Assembly would not only raise major constitutional issues but would reward a Labour Assembly Government that seems curiously ill at ease with its responsibilities despite having held power since its inception.
Under Labour in Wales the NHS has fallen below the standards set in England; waiting lists have doubled, patients are denied choice in where and when they are treated and the NHS is bloated with bureaucracy. Furthermore, the Assembly Government shows little inclination to address either the increasingly grave situation facing Welsh farmers or the growing marginalisation of our rural communities.
Having accepted devolution it is vital that Conservatives in Wales embrace and contribute to the changes that the party is making nationally. I fully agree with David Cameron’s view that what the Conservative party can bring to the Assembly is even more genuine devolution, giving greater power to parents and patients.
The fact that we have a minority Labour Assembly government has meant that to some extent moves toward more co-operation and the brand of positive politics favoured by the new party leadership have already occurred in Wales. This may be evidenced by the recent necessity to engage all opposition party leaders in discussions on the Assembly budget and the success of the Conservative motion to prevent the introduction of top-up fees for Welsh students in Welsh universities- the first Conservative executive action since losing power in 1997!
The leadership has since removed its opposition to the introduction to top-up fees but David has accepted our wish to be different, recognising that different approaches are sometimes required to address the problems that exist in Britain’s more deprived areas (indeed the rejection of top-up fees in Wales could be argued to be one of the few examples of devolution actually working). The party’s new emphasis on appealing to people’s aspirations, sharing responsibility and a sincere desire to help the least advantaged in society is encouraging and has the potential to see Conservative gains even in areas where support has traditionally not been strong such as Wales.