Tory peer sees bright future in federal Britain

Geraint Talfan Davies reports on a speech at Cardiff Business Club last night, delivered by Lord Griffiths, once a top advisor to Margaret Thatcher

It was one of those moments that made you blink. Here was the Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs, a Conservative peer and one of Margaret Thatcher’s most influential advisers telling an audience of politically sceptical Cardiff businessmen that the National Assembly for Wales should not only be given more powers but that it should have tax raising powers as well. Not only that, he said a more federal Britain would give us all a brighter future.

It happened at Cardiff Business Club last night when Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach addressed the current state of Wales (full lecture here).  Perhaps the audience were expecting a talk on the financial crisis. If so, Lord Griffiths took them by surprise, and judging by the warm reaction, seemed to have got under their guard, despite the fact that the Wales CBI is decidedly unenthusiastic about further Assembly powers.

Lord Griffiths – who still spends about a third of his time in Wales – walked his audience through a downbeat assessment of the Welsh economy, with an all too familiar litany of league tables at whose bottom end Wales languishes. His line of attack on the economy would have been familiar to his audience, and in line with his standing as a powerful market evangelist.

He though that the absorption of the WDA into the civil service was a mistake, that EU Convergence funds had been squandered on short term job creation rather than long term infrastructure, and that the Welsh Government had made a mistake by refusing to bring the private sector into public service delivery. While praising British civil servants for those things that they are good at, he questioned whether they would ever be suited to generating an entrepreneurial economy.

“The civil service may be able to make the trains run on time, but they will never be good at ordering new rolling stock, or developing new trains, lines and stations,” he said.

Lord Griffiths has long been a supporter of devolution, and set out his views some years ago in an IWA booklet Building Self Reliance: why Welsh Conservatives should support the Richard Commission’s case for legislative powers for the National Assembly. Last night he revealed that he had come to that view during a private discussion at No 10 with Margaret Thatcher and Wyn (now Lord) Roberts, then a Welsh Office Minister. They had been discussing the teaching of the Welsh language and Welsh history in the national curriculum. “I suddenly realised that there must be dozens of people in Wales who knew far more about these things than the three of us,” he said.

Last night he praised the devolution project for creating a sense of political identity in Wales, for strengthening the position of the Welsh language, for prompting a revival in the creative arts, and for raising the quality of debate on Welsh issues. He also praised the Welsh government for its swift response to the recession with the ProAct scheme. Welcoming the resurgence in the arts in Wales, he said “the arts challenge the values that hold us together and by which we live our lives.” Despite bemoaning the fact that the Assembly had made a mistake by espousing the European social model, he laid stress on the need to “rediscover values” and to deepen the sense of community.

On devolution he wanted to go much further. The Barnett formula, he said, was a disgrace and should be scrapped. He agreed with estimates that Wales was losing out to the extent of at least £300m a year. But in place of Barnett, he thought Wales could not avoid taking on proper fiscal powers, so that it would have to think about raising money not simply spending it. He saw nothing wrong in a more federal Britain, and thought such a development would allow all parts of the country to shine more brightly.

In this view, he joins his party colleague, David Melding, the Assembly Member, who recently espoused the notion of a federal Britain in a book published by the IWA, Will Britain survive beyond 2020? Two swallows?

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chairman of the IWA.

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