2011 ends in a way that no one could have predicted at the start of the year. It began for us in Wales with a sense of optimism about the referendum on law making powers. The overwhelming YES vote in March exceeded all our expectations, and showed that confidence in our ability to do more things for ourselves was at an all time high.
For Plaid the election in May was disappointing, although with a few hundred votes here and there, it could have been entirely different. The swings which saw us home in some seats in 2007 gave way to roundabouts in 2011. However, the party is in remarkably good shape as it enters a new chapter in its history. I will have completed twelve years at the helm next year, and a new leader will be in place in March.
I look back at my time as one of significant progress for Plaid Cymru. We have matured into a modern, forward looking professional political party capable of leading Wales to the next stage of our journey as a nation.
The four years in government between 2007 and 2011 has surely taught us one thing above all else. We should never shirk the responsibility of governing our nation. That does not necessarily mean being in government now. Every party needs a period to reinvigorate itself. But Plaid must always put the interests of Wales first. When the call comes however, and the time is right, we must be ready to answer that call.
The next few years will prove difficult for any party in government whatever its political complexion or hue. The heady optimism which characterised the opening months of 2011 gave way to a deep mood of pessimism from September onwards as the economic crisis which engulfed the Eurozone took a form grip. No government is safe. We’ve seen the leaders of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Ireland either thrown out by the electorate or replaced.
The Welsh Labour Government’s response to the crisis has been lamentable. They claim that since they lack macro economic and fiscal levers there’s not much they can do. That is taking complacency to an entirely new level.
They must be both innovative and creative, by seeking to raise capital outside the Welsh block grant. We in Plaid would have set up a Build4Wales company able to raise finance from pension funds to build major infrastructure projects. As Gerry Hotham has rightly said, spending the odd £100 million here or there won’t make much difference. We must be much more ambitious and think in terms of billions rather than millions.
I have called on the Welsh Government to provide a much needed boost to business by helping up to 80 per cent of Welsh businesses with rate relief, and giving employers incentives to take on 16-24 year olds.
I believe that 2012 will be a big test for the Welsh Government. They have to take every opportunity to support business and protect jobs. Attacking The Tories and Lib Dems in London won’t be enough. They must do whatever they can to protect vulnerable communities in Wales.
Whilst the economy will take centre stage in 2012, some major challenges face our public services and none more so than the NHS. Ever since the advent of devolution, NHS Trusts and Boards have been bailed out year after year as they overshot their budgets. Now the Government’s reserves are almost empty, and if we face a major crisis, such as a flu epidemic this winter, no extra help will be available.
The Government also seems determined to reconfigure services, with some District General Hospitals likely to lose their consultant led A&E services, while other services may be centralised in some hospitals leading to curtailments elsewhere. These will be difficult changes at a time when budgets are under pressure.
There is also a degree of restlessness on the Government back benches which could mean trouble ahead for Ministers as they try to drive unpopular health changes through. To do so with a big majority and a growing budget is difficult enough. To do so with no majority or money is a very tall order.
As I take my leave of the top tier of politics next spring, I can look back on a period of significant developments in the life of Wales. We now have a full law making Parliament. But who would have thought that we could be taking another significant step on our national journey so soon. The Silk Commission will be undertaking the bulk of its work on what fiscal responsibilities should be transferred to Wales during 2012. Again it is time to be bold and ambitious.
We have to acknowledge that the real driver for further constitutional change in the UK has been the remarkable success of the SNP in Scotland. However, we must always look for the best interests of Wales in our quest for greater autonomy. The needs of Wales must always be our guiding principle, whatever the direction of events elsewhere.