Renewing from within
The Tudor Watkins Memorial Lecture, delivered to the Brecon Labour Party 1st October 2021
Thank you for the honour of giving the Tudor Watkins Memorial Lecture. Tudor not only remains in the memory of our movement as one of the generation of Labour MPs who made possible the creation of a welfare state and National Health Service after the Second World War, the ‘revolution without tears’, but he was also a significant figure in the history of devolution.
When he was first elected as the Member of Parliament for Brecon and Radnorshire in 1945 the dominant view in the Labour Party was that the problems faced by working people were best addressed by one strong central Government, a Labour Government. The workers of the world should unite, right? And anyway, as Nye Bevan famously asked in the first St Davids Day debate in the House of Commons in 1944, ‘what is the difference between a Welsh sheep and an English sheep?’
Having just lived through a terrible war based on the idea that there was a superior race many in the Labour movement had no truck with anything they considered representing Nationalism. Even the modest proposal for a Welsh Grand Committee of MPs was seen as suspect.
But there was a counter-view, a different tradition in the Labour movement which did not see central control of the economy as the sole way to deliver socialism. And it was to that tradition that Tudor Watkins belonged.
To the chargrain of the Welsh Regional Council of Labour (the WEC of the 50s) Tudor Watkins was among the few Labour MPs who carried the banner of the Parliament for Wales campaign in 1950. There were protests that it was ‘very bad form’ for Tudor to be sharing platforms with Lady Megan Lloyd George, still at that stage a Liberal. He was even threatened with disciplinary action from the Parliamentary Party. It didn’t stop him.
When the National Eisteddfod met in Ystradgynlais in August 1954 Tudor Watkins spoke from the stage at a mass rally of 800 people in favour of a Welsh Parliament. As his fellow campaigner, S.O Davies, the maverick Labour MP for Merthyr - famed for always wearing wing collared shirts - told the crowd, “I am an uncompromising socialist, but socialism can never materialise in Wales unless we can be free to apply its principles to our own way of life”.
As history attests, it was this argument that eventually won through, with the help of Tudor Watkins. It was neither a straightforward nor a swift path but during his time as Member of Parliament for Brecon and Radnorshire the office of Secretary of State for Wales was created, and his friend James Griffiths, the Member of Parliament for Llanelli, was the first to serve as Wales’ voice around the Cabinet table.
Jim himself was a pivotal figure in this fight but he acknowledged what he called ‘the contrary pulls of country and cause’. Practical politics often throws up dilemmas which sometimes force detours. When S.O Davies brought forward a Private Members Bill at the end of 1954 to legislate for the creation of a Welsh Parliament, Jim Griffiths knew it was not the right time. Though sympathetic, he found himself leading the opposition to the Bill. Tudor stuck to his guns, and supported the man in the winged collar.
Like Tudor Watkins Jim Griffiths was a collier. But his long ascent through the South Wales Miners Federation taught him a thing or two about gradual advances and bureaucratic politics. Tudor stuck his neck out, Jim knew when to rein it in.
That didn’t stop him fighting from within though. He tried, for example, to persuade his colleagues in the Attlee Government to create a single Welsh body for gas and electricity as they built a nationalised industry. He failed, sadly, and we got what became SWALEC and MANWEB, the consequences of which we are still living with today as we try and fashion a power grid that meets the demands of climate change. More on that later.
But Jim’s caution, and reputation as a ‘reconciler’, did put him in a key position to influence later events as a loyal deputy leader of the Labour Party to Hugh Gaitskell, where he used his position to get the commitment to create a Welsh Office and a Welsh Secretary into the Labour manifesto.
The story goes that Nye Bevan and Jim Griffiths took their argument to the corridor to settle. As always it came down to power politics in the end. Just as Neil Kinnock 30 years later decided not to waste his political capital in facing down the devolution lobby in the party, Nye too decided to hold back and fight what he considered were bigger battles in the Labour movement.
Tactical differences aside Jim, and Tudor Watkins, came from a similar tradition in the Labour movement. These colliers mined different veins of the coalfield to Bevan and Kinnock. Jim and Tudor anthracite miners, Nye and Neil from the seams that produced steam coal (which as my father reminded me from his own experience in the labs at Abernant colliery, was a far inferior product!).
Abercraf and Cwm Amman produced a different, richer, vein. The upbringing and lineage of Tudor Watkins and Jim Griffiths, on the western edge of the South Wales Coalfield, imbued in them an instinctive understanding of these different traditions: Christian socialism (chapel), Welsh-speaking, semi-rural. It wasn't just the anthracite beneath, they tapped into a confluence of subtly different cultural strata too. A fusion of languages, and familial connections, meant that for them the boundary between rural and industrial, English and Welsh speaking, religious denominations was less distinct. The Marxist class analysis only took them so far.
This remains a lively dialectic in the Labour movement. We don’t discuss it in these terms anymore but the schism is rarely far from the surface. Just last weekend Keir Starmer said in his 11,000 word essay wrote "Nationalism is just one arm of the rise of identity-based politics in the Western world that has done immense damage to the progressive cause”.
He went on to say, "By dividing people into smaller and smaller groups and diminishing the experiences of others, we atomise our society ever more and keep potential allies and friends at arm's length”.
Sir Keir, who made efforts to be photographed wearing an England football jersey at key moments through the summer, instead emphasises the importance of patriotism. Again he wrote “Nationalism represents an attempt to divide people from one another; patriotism is an attempt to unite people of different backgrounds. Nationalism is about the casting out of the other; patriotism is about finding common ground. Nationalism is the flag as a threat. Patriotism is the flag as a celebration”.
It's a difficult dance. And always has been.
I’m with Tudor Watkins and Jim Griffiths on this one. And Mark Drakeford. And Welsh Labour voters.
But these are complex, diffuse, and potent forces. And we must tread carefully.
The debate that Tudor Watkins was a part of was ‘should Welshness be expressed in political institutions?’. It proved a contentious question in the Labour movement for decades. It is now settled. We have a Senedd, a Welsh Parliament with law making and tax raising powers. The current debate is whether it needs to be bigger, and more powerful, and more plural in the way it chooses our representatives. And my answer to all those questions is Yes.
But there remains a wider question, and it was this one that Keir Starmer was trying to address: What is the future of the UK?
The Welsh voice has been a small one in this debate until now. I’m sure historians will judge it a mistake that former First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones was not listened to when he called for a Constitutional Convention to look at the way the UK was working a decade ago. It's not too late, but it does feel like we haven't got long.
Keir Stamer has committed a Labour Government to holding a Constitutional Convention, but the emphasis of his recent speeches and writing has been on giving people the power to change local services, like schools, not on creating a stable constitutional framework for the UK. Sadly, he doesn’t seem to be persuaded by our polite arguments yet. But there’s still time for that too.
I do not myself think it is inevitable that Scotland will vote to leave the UK. I did like the slogan, but that was about all, of the campaign to defeat the independence question in 2014. I think we are ‘Better Together’. I like the idea of co-operation between the nations, and that this shared endeavour should have an institutional expression. A recognition that we are more than the sum of our parts. But all parts deserve equal treatment and respect. And it doesn’t feel like that that at the moment.
This is not currently a happy union. In northern Ireland there’s the prospect of a fresh border poll within the foreseeable future, and in Scotland support for independence persists at around the 50% mark. There are also signs that the ‘English backlash’ Neil Kinnock warned of through the debates of the 1970s is a rising force. The recent book by Richard Wyn Jones and Ailsa Henderson sets out the evidence that a rising sense of Englishness is a potent force. They found that a sense of grievance about England's place within the United Kingdom, and a strong feeling that the state is no longer 'theirs', was a significant factor in the Brexit vote.
As Keir Starmer’s keenness for his football shirt signals, being seen to understand the concerns of England is key. And it’s important. It has been a neglected strand of political debate. Our party has struggled with it. Just as in Tudor Watkins’ time we struggled to find an expression of our feelings of Welsh national identity in our constitutional arrangements, we now find ourselves in the same pickle over Englishness.
We’ve found it easier to talk about regional answers to The English Question than we have to identify coherent and sustainable national, and mutli-national, responses.
It's easier for all us to put on a shirt than it is to confront the intellectual and political tensions that come with its consequences.
We do feel awfully embarrassed talking about national identity. Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the Welsh devolution referendum, and I was reflecting recently how little the role and rhetoric of patriotism or nationalism played in Labour’s debates and campaign around that. We talked about democratic reform, scrutiny, accountability, a strategic layer to accompany local government reform, but we talked little of Welshness. But we did dog-whistle it.
When it came to how we packaged our message for a tabloid audience we grabbed hold of Ryan Giggs. I don’t think the poor dab knew what the White Paper said, but the axis of Alistair Campbell and Sir Alec Ferguson saw him drafted into service. We did the same in the 2011 referendum on law making powers, with the help of WRU Chief Executive Roger Lewis, it was Shane Williams we turned to at that time to put on the front of our leaflets.
It seems we’re happy waving the flag on the field, but deeply uncomfortable doing it in the committee rooms.
But we can’t sidestep the growing force of nationalism. I don’t blame Keir Starmer for trying to reframe it as patriotism, but it doesn’t make the problem go away. We need to confront it, and offer a coherent way forward, or left unharnessed these forces will lead to the break-up of the UK and I don’t want that to happen. But if English nationalism is allowed to develop unchecked, and Scoland leaves the Union, Wales faces a very unhappy prospect.
Without Scottish MPs it’s hard to see us winning a majority at Westminster, so we’d be stuck in a centre-right dominated Union of England and Wales, forever outside the EU, with marginal influence on a Government in London - a Government intent on undermining devolution.
Jeremy Thorpe famously warned in the 70s that a Welsh Assembly could become a “sort of Glamorgan County Council on stilts”. I fear that in that kind of Little Britain it could become “a sort of Birmingham County Council on stilts”.
In that scenario I fear we may not be far behind the Scots, and that’s not what I want to see.
In Welsh Labour’s successful manifesto we promised to establish an independent, standing commission to consider the constitutional future of Wales.
I have long favoured a strong form of Federalism as a way of bringing some coherence, and consistency, to the UK as a way of balancing the forces of nationalism. I fully appreciate it is not a panacea, and unless England is interested it is a non-starter, but I’m struggling to see other ways of holding the union together in the face of a UK Government acting in ways which make it harder and harder to sustain the case. And what’s worse is they know that, and don’t seem to care.
They talk of ‘muscular unionism’, but it feels more like unionism on steroids - there’s the appearance of muscle, but as with the anabolic kind the side-effects are causing long-term damage to the rest of the body.
What worries me is that Welsh Labour seems to be the only part of the body politic that is sounding the alarm - we are the canary in the cage.
And we are sounding the alarm because we think a properly functioning Union is worth saving. I do care what happens to the child in poverty in Liverpool as much as I care about the child in poverty in Llanelli. We need a sharing, redistributive union to balance the risk and spread the reward, to fund decent public services in every part of the UK. But just as we took the European Union for granted until it was too late, there’s a danger we do the same with the UK.
Politicians in London didn’t listen to Carwyn, I hope they’ll listen to Mark.
Because Mark Drakeford has found a way of reconciling what you’ll remember Jim Griffiths described as ‘the contrary pulls of country and cause’.
I’ve been proud to be part of his Ministerial team as he’s navigated our way through the most difficult set of challenges in modern political history in a way which has shown that intelligent political leadership is possible in the digital age. In a way that hasn’t sought to over-simpify complex trade-offs, that hasn’t dumbed-down, or offered glib answers. And internally, within the Government, he has made space to debate and discuss, to test every decision - against evidence and political feeling. He’s not the Messiah, but I do think he has been a case-study in political leadership that will be studied for years to come.
His has been a leadership that has shown both sensitivity and courage. He has not been afraid to follow a different path. We have seen that these choices have proven popular, but we didn’t know that at the outset. We did what we thought was right. Consistent, measured, cautious, evidence-led policy, with an emphasis on compassion - all our choices were informed by careful discussions about the impacts on equality and social justice.
And that approach has earned him trust. I was asked less than 10 minutes after I’d received my own astonishing result in May what people on the doorstep had said about him. And I answered honestly, ‘he may not be flashy, but thank God for him’.
That integrity has strengthened devolution. It has illustrated what S.O Davies said on the Eisteddfod stage in Ystradgynlais in 1954, “I am an uncompromising socialist, but socialism can never materialise in Wales unless we can be free to apply its principles to our own way of life”.
Mark Drakeford is socialist to his core. And a Welshman too. Two sides of the same coin. Country and cause co-existing. And do you know what, it's popular.
The pat on the back is one thing but Kier Starmer and the Parliamentary Party would do well to study the approach.
As would Welsh Labour. And this brings me to the central topic of the lecture, how does Welsh Labour renew from within.
Next year marks the centenary of Labour being the dominant Party in Wales. In the General Election of November 1922 the Labour Party took a majority of seats in Wales for the first time. When we reach the centenary of that event, Labour will have been the dominant Party in Wales for 100 years. Not only a unique achievement in any functioning democracy, but in my view a moment of vulnerability too.
You can predict now what the commentators and the critics will say. I doubt opposition parties will reflect on their own failure to persuade people in Wales for a full Century that they offer a better path, they are far more likely to suggest our own achievement is in fact some kind of failure.
To give a strong rejoinder to that we need a lively debate within our party to show we still have the energy and ideas to earn the continued confidence of the Welsh people. Mark Drakeford has given us all fair warning that he’ll be standing down somewhere around the mid-point of the Senedd term. So there’s no excuse for when we reach that point to not have underway by then a flourishing debate about the future of socialism in Wales and our party’s role in delivering it.
The bit that doesn’t get quoted so much from my post-election TV interview is the bit where I said we need to renew from within ‘with gusto’. So let me offer some brief thoughts of my own to contribute to that wider debate we need to see.
As we approach the 25th anniversary of the 1997 devolution referendum we ought to reflect on the successes of the devolution project to date, but also ought to fairly recognise that it's only been 25 years. 100 years of economic decline was never going to be reversed in a quarter of that time with the powers available.
Campaigners over-promised in 1997 what devolution could deliver on the economy. After all, this remains a largely non-devolved area. But in the next 25 years there’s a suite of things we can do within our powers to make a meaningful difference to the prosperity of our communities.
The context of the next quarter of a century though is a very different one. The United Nations has issued a ‘Code Red for humanity’. A Climate and Nature emergency demands significant changes to the way we go about our business. And it demands them quickly if we are to avoid the tipping points which could see climate change becoming a runaway phenomenon.
But I’m worried people don’t take this seriously. The science is clear, and alarming. But there’s little sense of urgency.
The science around Covid has been was alarming too but that produced an instant response because it presented an immediate mass threat to life. So why does Climate change, which is already killing people in the developing world and on our doorstep, somehow feels less urgent?
I remember more than 10 years ago at the Hay Festival hearing Sir Anthony Giddens, one of the world’s leading sociologists, making the point that even though all the experts agree climate change is an urgent issue, for most people, and for most policy-makers, it tends to be a back-of-the-mind one - swamped by more immediate concerns. I recall him saying that he traveled the world interviewing leaders for his book The Politics of Climate Change and they’d all been keen to tell him what needed to be done by 2050, but none had talked about what they were going to do this year and next.
A month from today leaders will be gathering in Glasgow for the latest UN summit on Climate Change, COP26, with a brief to meet the challenge set by the scientific imperatives with political action - To get to the point where we only emit as much carbon as we can deal with - within the next 30 years. It is the challenge of our generation.
In the next 10 years we will have to cut our emissions by more than we have managed over the whole of the last 30 years.
And there are no soft targets, we’ve already done the obvious and easier stuff, like shutting coal-fired powered stations. We can’t do that again. So we now face having to go much further and much faster.
Ahead of COP the Welsh Government will be publishing our contribution, our plan to cut carbon over the next five years to get us on the right path to reach NetZero by 2050. We’ve got a plan to just about do it, but it won’t be easy and it gets harder beyond the next 5 years.
The UK Government so far have been unable, ideologically and temperamentally, to properly meet the scale of the challenge with meaningful and sincere action, so we, again, have to set our own course.
This is the backdrop to the debate we as a party face as we look to renew from within. The changes we face are not optional. The only option we have is do we let dramatic change happen to us, or do we take heed of the warnings and try to manage the change. As Raymond Williams, born a Century ago just north of Llanfihangel Crucorney said “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing”.
We are going to have to move mountains to meet the NetZero challenge. So let us design our response in a way that also brings prosperity to our communities, improves quality of life and tackles social injustice.
We face a crisis if we don’t act, but there are opportunities if we do.
Let me give a few examples.
The UK Climate Change Committee tells us that if we have any hope of meeting our NetZero targets we need to plant 86 million trees in Wales within the next 9 years. 86 million.
Last year, just 290 hectares of woodland was planted in Wales and we’ve not managed to plant more than 2,000 hectares a year in my whole lifetime. To meet the 2050 climate target we need to plant 5,000 hectres of woodland a year, every year – and that target goes up significantly for the next decade. So going from 290 to 5,000 hectres, and sustaining it, is a challenge we need to get our heads around.
But it brings an opportunity.
At the moment in the UK we import 80% of the timber we use for products - like windows, decking, building joists. And of the trees we do harvest in Wales just 4% are currently used to build Welsh homes; the rest we use for low value goods like pallets and fencing.
There’s a huge opportunity for us to swap out carbon intensive concrete in new houses and use Welsh wood, that not only absorbs carbon as it grows but opens up the opportunity of a whole supply chain. Our coal economy is gone, but a new wood economy is available to us if we mobilise an alliance for change.
Global demand for timber for house building is projected increase by 120%. So we need to change perceptions, instead of burning trees for energy or using them for garden benches, we need to be smarter. Properly done we can increase biodiversity, reduce carbon emissions and create a chain of green jobs and green skills that offer new opportunities for rural communities.
The trees we plant are essential not just for addressing the climate and nature emergencies, but they provide an economic opening too. Let’s not let London investment firms seize the opportunity, let's get our communities benefiting from this. Tudor Watkins warned of the dangers of large-scale conifer plantations owned by absentee landlords. Let's not make the same mistake again.
The Stump Up For Trees project at Bryn Arw, near Abergavenny, offers us a model - a farmer-led alliance, focusing on planting trees on unproductive land and capturing the wealth locally through the sale of carbon credits. It’s brilliant. What’s not to love?
I’m beginning work now on the Timber Industrial Strategy for Wales that we promised in our manifesto. I’m also looking at how we can unleash more renewable energy in a way that captures the benefits, and ownership, locally.
This needs to be our theme as we set about tackling climate change - cutting emissions whilst also nourishing the foundations of our local economies.
This is an idea I have championed since being elected in 2016 - the Foundational Economy. The everyday bits of economic activity that we all rely on. The food we eat, the homes we live in, the energy we use and the care we receive: those basic services which every citizen needs.
They are ‘wellbeing critical’ in Prof Kevin Morgan’s phase, because the interruption of their supply undermines safe and civilised life. As we’ve seen starkly over the last 18 months.
These aren’t small parts of our economy. They account for four in 10 jobs, and £1 in every three that we spend. Care, food, housing, energy, construction - the industries and firms that are there because people are there. Indeed, in some parts of Wales this basic “foundational economy” is the economy. And investing in it is smart because it's more resilient to external economic shocks. As we saw during Covid, as the penny finally dropped on the importance of these Key Workers.
I was privileged to get the opportunity from Mark Drakeford to be the Minister to lead on this agenda in Government. We created a £4.5 Million challenge fund to run 50 trials: supporting housing associations in Blaenau Gwent to look at what firms there are in the area and help them to benefit from spending on retrofit programmes - keeping the money in the local economy and helping with climate change; we supported schools and hospitals in Carmarthenshire to serve local food on local plates; and a scheme to boost the quality of social care in Flintshire whilst also improving the pay of carers.
I’m pleased that my colleague Vaughan Gething has now announced follow-on funding of £2.5 Million to spread and scale the good practice that emerged. And my colleague the Finance Minister Rebecca Evans has published a new procurement policy to emphasise not just cost but also social value.
The Welsh public sector spends close to £7 Billion each year buying goods and services, and we are determined to make strides to stop that money leaking from our local economies.
We need to focus on so-called anchor institutions: local colleges, Councils, hospitals, police. They exist in every part of Wales and they’re called anchor institutions because they’re not going anywhere. So let’s encourage them to use their buying power better so we can make sure more money goes into local pockets. The days of relying on Japanese car factories are over, we need to make more of what we’ve already got.
Perhaps our biggest anchor institution is the NHS. And during the pandemic we saw through the prism of PPE supplies the shortcomings of our dependence on cheap foreign supplies for vital supplies.
For masks, and gowns and gloves we’ve come to rely on low-cost goods from long international supply chains. And when the crisis hit, they fell apart. Thankfully Team Wales pulled together. Whereas the NHS in England was fragmented, the more co-operative systems in Wales across health and social care worked as one.
Not only did we not run out of PPE, we were able to offer help to the NHS in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. And as recent audit reports have shown, we not only avoided rip-off contracts but we spent massively less than they did, and without any whiff of scandal of orders given to political chums.
A key learning was the need for resilient local procurement. We saw from the appetite of Welsh firms willing to re-tool in the crisis that there is a capable band of SMEs who want to supply the public sector, and who are more than able to innovate.
So let's think bigger than PPE. The UK imports nearly £2.5 billion worth of orthopaedic parts every year, the vast majority not from low cost countries we struggle to complete with on price, but from higher cost countries like as USA and Germany. That’s just one example. There are plenty of opportunities where we are spending significant sums, from medical devices to artificial hips, to make more in Wales - giving a boost to manufacturing and building Welsh firms.
We’ve now launched a £500,000 ‘Foundational Economy Health Plan’ to make a start. We hope this will result in the NHS spending an extra £8.4m with local businesses, getting the public pound working for Wales.
This is another smart example of where we can help to tackle climate change - shortening international supply chains and cutting food miles - in a way that also boots local firms and benefits communities who have often felt left behind.
There’s lots of potential in this giant Climate Change portfolio to make a difference.
In transport we have a very ambitious target of a zero-emission bus fleet by the end of the decade. It will require hundreds of millions of investment. It’s a climate-must. It’s also an economic opportunity. Instead of buying the buses from China, as is starting to happen, let's do it here. If we can now build trains in Wales again, as we are under our new rail franchise, why can’t we build electric buses? We’re working on it.
We might have over-promised what devolution could deliver in terms of economic change in 1997. We don’t have many direct powers. But there’s plenty we can do through other areas where we have control - meeting the challenge of climate change also affords us an opportunity to rebuild the fabric for local economies across Wales.
These are some thoughts of mine of how we can embrace an agenda for reform. I feel strongly that we need to continually signal our appetite to remain in office and use power for a purpose, using all the levers we have to build prosperity and wellbeing in our towns and communities. This is my truth, Aneurin Bevan famously said, now tell me yours.
Let's hear it.
All of us - every branch and every member - need to put in the effort to generate ideas for what Welsh Labour should focus on next. We’re not managers, we’re agents of change.
Let us approach our Centenary year as the party of Wales not just with history in mind, but with a determination to show we are focused on what more there is to do. Let us renew from within, with gusto. There can be no better mantra than the manifesto which saw Tudor Watkins elected to Parliament in 1945, Let Us Face The Future