Daran Hill offers his analysis of the speech made by the Secretary of State for Wales today in Cardiff.
The group of people gathered to hear new Welsh Secretary Stephen Crabb MP address the Institute of Welsh Affairs this morning were certainly known to each other. Many of us have spent over a decade in rooms like that discussing ideas like Barnett Reform, increasing the size of the Assembly, or a reserved powers model. Even those of us with proper day jobs are getting a bit bored of being in such gatherings.
Today on ClickonWales
This morning Secretary of State for Wales, Stephen Crabb MP, made a significant speech at an IWA event in Cardiff. The speech set out his long term vision for devolution in Wales.
To listen to IWA Director, Lee Waters’ analysis you can visit our audioboom page or click the link below.
So when Crabb said he wanted to stabilise devolution and end the preoccupation of the commentariat with process then you might have expected a sharp intake of breath from some, or a loss of personal rationale for their own existence from others. Far from it. Because in seeking to stabilise devolution and try to draw an end to the debates on process, the Secretary of State actually articulated what most of the Bay Bubble had been thinking for far too long: that a better and more stable constitutional settlement is both possible and long overdue.
In his podcast on the lecture, IWA director Lee Waters pointed to three elements of the Crabb speech which merit attention. I will confine my observations to the same three strands.
Firstly, and firmly, Crabb set out a new tone and approach to Welsh politics from his party. His four months in post have been more realistic, articulate and progressive than the four years which preceded it and, in that, struck a real chord. Reading the speech you see a pragmatic thread shine through. The use of language is careful and meaningful, as are the examples of settling issues which he cites.
In accepting the reserved powers model as a natural way forward he thereby completely rejected the unblinking dogmatism of his predecessor David Jones. Those of us who sat through Jones’ speech to the Wales Governance Centre as Secretary of State for Wales eighteen months ago, where he rejected a reserved powers model on the flimsiest of grounds ever before Silk had completed its work on the matter, noted the contrast.
Because, as Lee said in examining the content of the speech, the second stand out feature was that it marked a firm and radical direction for the Welsh Conservatives. He analysed that it was all part of a new detoxification of the brand and that “you can tell there is now a political project going on”. He was right to point back to the Nick Bourne days as being the start of this process. But there is more to it than that. Bourne undertook a revolution within his Assembly group that only partially cut through to Westminster MPs. Crabb has led the change from the front at the London and, arguably for the first time, ensured the whole party is now at all levels of representation is united in a new consensus. That consensus is not just that the Assembly is here to stay but that the Assembly’s powers should actually grow.
Indeed, consensus was the keyword in Crabb’s approach, and Lee is also right in singling out the third essential aspect of the speech as the bold attempt to forge a cross party consensus over which powers should now be devolved. It was, notwithstanding an ambitious timetable which peaks at March 1st 2015, an attempt to create what the Secretary of State himself saw as a “clear, robust and lasting devolution settlement for Wales.”
The fact that it is a Conservative Secretary of State that is seeking this consensus, leading his own party forward, and framing it in the most progressive terms is spectacularly noteworthy. The first fifteen years of devolution have been characterised as Labour’s fixes to the constitutional bandwagon.
Under Stephen Crabb we see for the first time a non-Labour figure at Westminster who is able, willing and ready not just to articulate where the end of the journey should be but who is prepared to drive speedily and purposefully but carefully to get there.
It was the change of colours of the driver of the devolution process that was perhaps the most significant thing that happened in a room of people who perhaps left today feeling a lot less tired, jaded and cynical than when they arrived.