Dylan Moore reports from Hay Festival, where the First Minister was in conversation with Guto Harri
The First Minister took to Hay Festival’s Starlight Stage as ‘the most senior star of the Labour Party in the whole of the UK’ and, despite the misgivings of one audience member – a particularly vociferous elderly lady from Goodwick – about the line of questioning taken by Guto Harri, Carwyn Jones was given an astonishingly easy ride. It was enough to make a repeated joke about Wales being a one-party state a little less than funny.
Of course, the event had to start with an admission of what went wrong in the General Election and Jones carefully negotiated a noncommittal path through questions about ‘the wrong Miliband’ and ‘the other Miliband’ before fielding enquiries about his own future. While it was not surprising to hear the First Minister express a lack of interest in the House of Commons or the fact that he values his ‘normal family life’ in Bridgend, and important for the devolution settlement to hear him state clearly that ‘the Assembly is not a stepping stone to Westminster’, it was perhaps ‘astonishing’ – and that was the word Guto Harri used – to learn that Carwyn does not know any of the UK Labour leadership candidates very well: ‘I’ve not met any of them for any great length of time,’ he admitted, as part of further noncommittal talk about the leadership contest.
Another surprise to some perhaps was Carwyn’s willingness to talk about his own long-term future as FM. Prompted slightly mischievously by his interviewer, in the light of David Cameron’s one-more-term admission before the General Election, Jones was willing to commit that he ‘would not be doing it at 60’. If we were in any doubt as to the statement or the extent to which the ministerial tongue might be nestled in its cheek, it was Carwyn himself who did the onstage maths. ‘That’s twelve more years,’ he added, perhaps a little too quickly. Three more terms.
Jones was gracious and realistic enough to emphasise that there is an election to win next year to ensure even the first of these, and added that ‘there’s pressure on us to refresh ourselves… if you’re not doing something particularly radical, you deserve to lose.’ Given the opportunity to expound on a vision of Wales after three more terms of Labour administration, the First Minister relied primarily on key words. ‘The pitch’ next year will be on ‘hope and aspiration’ and the theory that Jones has apparently always held that public and private is a ‘virtuous circle’ rather than a battleground, an early indication that Welsh Labour believe the electoral threat comes from the resurgent right rather than progressive Plaid. In 2027, Jones’ ideal retirement date, Wales’ first quarter-century of devolution would be marked by ‘confidence’: Welsh entrepreneurial flair would have overcome a ‘cultural hurdle’, although the FM was again noncommittal on the idea of a target being set to have more than the current total of one Welsh company listed on the FTSE 100.
Carwyn was far more comfortable talking about day-to-day specifics than grand ambitious visions (perhaps this will be a key contrast in the battle he faces with the newly higher-profile Leanne Wood in 2016). New jobs will come from aeronautics, automotive and ‘creative industries’ but the real revolution will be in digital and a priority is providing high speed broadband to support businesses in rural Wales. The Commonwealth Games is a desirable but currently cost-prohibitive prospect. Infrastructure spending remains a priority, including the Metro and rail electrification as well as the M4 relief road. Labour in London didn’t defend the Welsh Government’s record on the NHS well enough. Jones’ administration intends to step up the strategy of mobilising the global Welsh diaspora, particularly in the United States.
The biggest beast in the room does not remain elephantine for long. Barnett is indefensible, but Jones can’t see it changing under the new Conservative administration, despite the precarious state in which the UK finds itself. The FM goes as far as to say that ‘if the UK is worth something, it is worth the economic solidarity that it creates… the ability to move the money where it’s needed.’ He expresses his frustration that the Conservatives’ electoral strategy played on Scot-phobia and calls for a constitution fit for the 21st century rather than the 19th. Jones believes Barnett will not be touched until Devo Max is offered to Scotland and ‘until Whitehall understands we have the biggest constitutional crisis since 1920’.
The First Minister finishes with an anecdote about his daughter’s positive reception on arrival in America with her Irish passport compared to the taciturn response he received with his United Kingdom documents. Pressed on whether at some stage the Welsh dragon might feature on a passport, he smiles and says ‘That’s a debate for another time’. Given the precarious state of the United Kingdom, it will be fascinating to see whether the longest-serving leader of a constituent nation of mainland Britain will be able to extend his tenure into the unknowable future, and what that might mean for all of us.