Matt Smith Conservative campaigner and former Welsh Tory Assembly candidate wrote the following article for ConservativeHome:
Wales’ illustrious past was that of a world industrial power. Wales is now, once again, going out in to the world, reaching outwards as part of global Britain.
While the opportunities that exist for global Wales are jeopardised by Welsh Labour’s hostility to reform, Conservatives in government are working to ensure Wales is match-fit for Brexit, thereby securing the future life-outcomes of its working people.
St Fagan’s Museum of Welsh Life illustrates the centrality of working life in Welsh social history. The Museum of Wales calls it ‘the first industrial nation of the world’, reflecting the nation’s nineteenth-century pre-eminence in the global coal and iron trade.
Cardiff Docks sent millions of tonnes of ‘black gold’ out to the rest of the world. The world’s first £1 million cheque was signed at the Coal Exchange in Butetown in 1904. The boom-town of late Victorian Britain became the coal and shipping metropolis of the world.
The world looked to Welsh industry for its expertise. On St David’s Day in a message from Ukraine, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson pointed out that the city of Donetsk was established by John Hughes, a Welsh businessman and engineer, in 1869. Originally from Merthyr Tydfil, Hughes built a steel plant and several coalmines. Donetsk was initially called Hughesovka or Yuzovka in his honour.
True to its heritage as a great manufacturing nation, Wales today is a major exporter in the aerospace, defence, automotive, telecommunications, and pharmaceutical sectors.
But Cambria’s renascent economic successes are put at risk by Labour’s control of the National Assembly, through which it has channeled its ideological hostility to reform throughout the eighteen years it has held power in Cardiff Bay.
The Labour Welsh Assembly Government has not offered a “Lead to the rest of the UK – and to Europe”, as Tony Blair promised back in 1997. After nearly two decades, Welsh Labour looks, in the words of Stephen Crabb, “Very tired, like the ageing Politburo that created glasnost.”
A generation of Labour policy in Cardiff Bay has not delivered for working families. In a nation with a mighty industrial past, workers have the lowest take-home pay in the UK and around one out of five people live in low-income households.
Yet it is in education, crucial to success in the global race, that Welsh Labour has left its clearest mark.
Wales was the nation that produced educational pioneers Griffiths Jones and Bridget Bevan’s Circulating Welsh Charity Free Schools System, whose village-by-village evangelism helped ensure by the end of the Eighteenth Century, Wales had one of the highest literacy rates in Europe.
The Parc and Dare Hall, a miners’ institute in the Rhondda built in 1892 to house a working men’s library, reflects an improving Victorian culture of self-help and the importance placed on education by the communities of the valley coalfields.
Despite Wales being the home of some of the world’s most inspiring teachers and ambitious pupils, Labour’s control of education policy is characterized by a poverty of aspiration.
In 2001, a Labour-Lib Dem Welsh Assembly Government scrapped school league tables. Subsequently in 2004, the Welsh Assembly Government discontinued national tests for eleven and fourteen-year-olds, a decision that the then Labour Education Minister Leighton Andrews later said amounted to having taken its “Eye off the ball” on schools standards.
These decisions were not without consequence. Professor Simon Burgess of Bristol University’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation argued that scrapping league tables cost the average pupil two grades in GCSE exams, with the poorest and lowest ability schools falling behind the most.
Welsh Labour also opted out of academisation, a policy that has greatly improved many state schools in England. There are no Free Schools and the ‘classroom revolution’ in England has bypassed Wales. David Reynolds, Professor in Education at the University of Southampton, called this reform aversion “Producerism’s last hurrah”.
The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment results for 2016 show Welsh 15-year-olds behind those of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland in reading, Maths and Science.
Wales’ results in Science are in line with Spain’s Balearic Islands. In reading they compare to Argentina and in Maths, results compare to those of Lithuania.
These disastrous results hit those with the most to gain from a good state school education, and are leading to what Welsh Conservative Leader Andrew RT Davies has called a “Lost generation of students – left to struggle in the UK’s worst-performing education system.”
Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Lib Dems, both sometime coalitionists with Welsh Labour, are co-owners of this legacy.
With Welsh Labour elsewhere having cut the Welsh NHS budget and ended Right-to-Buy for social housing tenants, Conservatives are now the party of working people across Wales.
Alongside the home nations, Wales is competing to in the global race for trade, jobs, investment and prosperity, upon which the life-outcomes of its working people depend. Conservatives in government are ensuring Wales is match-fit for the world economy by restoring incentives, promoting skills, investing in infrastructure, implementing a modern industrial policy, promoting export growth, and supporting an enterprise culture.
Tackling welfare dependency is paying a social dividend. A record number of people in Wales are now in work and employment growth is now faster in Wales than anywhere else in Britain. Since 2010, 126,000 more private sector jobs have been created in Wales, which has also been the fastest economic growth area per head outside London.
Apprenticeships are at the heart of the Conservative mission to give young people the chance to get their first foot on the ladder of opportunity. General Electric Aviation Wales is an outstanding example of an apprenticeship provider, which providing engineering apprentices, graduate placements, and interns.
Wales is benefiting from major UK Government infrastructure investment including the Cardiff Capital Region and Swansea City Deals. Electrification of the South Wales mainline and the Valley lines network will better link people to social and economic opportunities. Severn Crossing tolls are to be halved, signaling that Wales is open for business.
The UK Government’s Industrial Strategy is working for Wales, building on strengths in fields including as aerospace, technology, and life sciences to make Wales one of the most competitive areas in Britain to start and grow a business, and the Swansea Steel Innovation Centre underscores the place of Welsh steel at the heart of UK Industrial Strategy. Theresa May has said she wants export growth to create “More jobs in Wales, more exports of Welsh products and more growth for the Welsh economy.”
Brexit is a beacon of opportunity for Wales. The Wales Office, the Department for International Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are working to ensure Wales is match-fit for the ‘valleys of opportunity’ open to it as we prepare to exit the EU.
Welsh Conservatives want a low-tax, high-wage, low-welfare Wales. The Small Business Charter calls for abolition of business rates for small businesses with a ratable value of less than £12,000, and of tapered relief. Nationally the personal allowance will increase to £12,500 by 2020-21, reducing income tax for 1.4 million people in Wales by 2018. Devolution of fiscal policy would be used to make Wales the low tax capital of the Union.
On St David’s Day 2017 the Prime Minister said that it was her intention to “Ensure that Wales is in the strongest position to benefit as we work to spread wealth and prosperity to every part of the UK.”
Conservatives are fighting to ensure the Celtic dragon takes flight again as we prepare to Brexit the EU, for the benefit of working people across Wales.
*Hwyl: noun (in Welsh use) A stirring feeling of emotional motivation and energy
Matt Smith is a Welsh Tory who has stood as a Conservative candidate for Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. He was a Policy Analyst at Vote Leave. He writes for ConservativeHome and BrexitCentral. You can read more about Welsh politics at www.mattsmith.org.uk/news.