David Cornock talks to the Welsh Secretary about his route from Pembrokeshire to Parliament, his view on the word ‘Principality’ and what the future may hold.
Stephen Crabb’s first political memory is a hazy but historic one: the 1979 general election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power. He insists he wasn’t a precocious political anorak but remembers his mother voting because she took her sons to visit Haverfordwest Castle that day.
Thirty-six years later, he finds himself sitting around David Cameron’s cabinet table after an apprenticeship served in the whips’ office in both opposition and government. We meet in his ministerial office, reached by several flights of stairs deep inside the Palace of Westminster. It is small but well located, next-door-but-one to Michael Gove’s. The shelves contain a mix of family and cabinet photographs, a model of a (Pembrokeshire’s) Mansel Davies & Son truck and his ITV Wales Politician of the Year award.
Crabb grew up in the 1980s; he is one of Thatcher’s children. His political awareness grew during his teenage years, not just because of the political drama of Kinnock versus Thatcher but because of what was happening in the street he lived in: the right-to-buy. “For the families living there, that was a big deal actually. I can remember lots of discussions going on amongst neighbours, informal gatherings at each other’s houses about what kind of discounts people were getting on their homes and the hurdles that people would have to clear to be able to buy their homes.
‘It just so happened that my mum wasn’t in a position [to take advantage of right-to-buy]. She was raising us on her own, me and my two brothers. She was never in a position to buy her home through that route but it made a huge impact on me. Visually the street I grew up in changed as soon as these purchases started getting made.’
Crabb is an enthusiast for welfare reform. But doesn’t his mother’s experience show the system works? ‘For me, looking back, what I remember is the welfare system for us was about providing a genuine safety net at a time of crisis and severe need for my mother and her family, but what it didn’t do was lock us as a family or a household into worklessness. I had a mother who, as we got older, moved progressively from a position of complete welfare dependency to being fully economically independent, working full-time. And that has to be the model of the way the welfare system should work.’
Crabb went to Bristol University and attained a First in Politics but his sole experience of student politics lasted just ten minutes. ‘I felt completely out of place if I’m honest with you.’ He only joined the party after graduation when he was living in the ‘unwinnable, no-hope’ seat of Southwark and North Bermondsey. The defeated Tory candidate in the 1997 Blair landslide, Grant Shapps (Tory chairman in the 2015 election), and Crabb have been ‘good mates ever since.’
By 2001, he was a candidate back home in Pembrokeshire, winning the seat from Labour in 2005. Two years later, long after the Assembly group had embraced devolution, Crabb wrote an article for the Conservative Home website in which he declared he was still a ‘devo-sceptic’ and warned about the ‘constitutional vandalism’ of a settlement leading to ‘socialism and separatism.’
I ask when he gave up being a devo-sceptic. ‘Good question,’ is the initial response. He admits he was ‘slower than some’ to recognise that devolution wasn’t going to go away. ‘I wouldn’t use that term [devo-sceptic] any more, no. And I wouldn’t subscribe to some of the sentiments in that article any more. I think the phrase “constitutional vandalism” [was not] right. I was crudely expressing concerns and risks as I felt it around devolution. But in terms of where the turning point came, certainly by 2007 I was recognising that devolution was here to stay.
‘I guess in terms of what’s warmed me up to it is… after the 2010 election I took a bit of time to go back and read a load of books about Welsh history which I’d never read when I was doing history at school.’ His ‘remedial work’ included John Davies’ History of Wales and Gerald of Wales, among others.
‘Waving your flag and beating your chest at Six Nations matches, wearing a daffodil on March 1st, is not strong enough. The reality of Welsh nationhood goes way back beyond the foundations of the United Kingdom, back before the English actually, which is why the future of the United Kingdom is too important to leave to the English.’
For all the talk of Welsh nationhood, he doesn’t object to the P-word. ‘I don’t have any qualms about calling it a principality and neither does our national rugby stadium. I was quite surprised when that controversy got raised. It is controversial in some quarters to use the word “principality” but we have a Prince of Wales so I don’t see any qualms if people want to call it a principality from time to time but that doesn’t detract in any way, shape or form from recognising the reality of welsh nationhood.’
He is keen on another P-word too: he wants the National Assembly to become a parliament and the next piece of Welsh legislation will allow it to do so. ‘This is what the Assembly is destined to become and it’s destined to become that because the people of Wales have willed it so. [In] the 2011 referendum they voted for the assembly to have full law-making powers.
‘What I think we were all surprised by was the margin of difference. I was slightly wrong-footed by this. I didn’t anticipate that people in Pembrokeshire were going to vote for full law-making powers for the Assembly in quite the way they did and what that says is there has been a major shift in Welsh public sentiment about devolution since that very first referendum.’
Crabb’s political wishlist for the coming year is topped by a desire to force Labour from power in Cardiff Bay. ‘I don’t think you’re going to see the spectacular collapse that we’ve seen in Scotland, but I think some of the same conditions are there… so I’m optimistic that change is possible. We are living in an age when the frequency of political earthquakes seems to be increasing: Scotland, Corbyn. In the absence of that major seismic event that will propel one party to a majority we need to be thinking about the C-word – coalition. I want the other parties in the Assembly to think in different ways about how to achieve a non-Labour alternative.’
Stephen Crabb is the eleventh Secretary of State for Wales during my 27 years in pursuit of Welsh angles at Westminster. He shares some characteristics with his predecessors: the pragmatism of David Hunt, the humble background and faith of Paul Murphy, the media-savvy of Peter Hain and the ambition of William Hague.
Crabb’s ambition has not gone unnoticed in Downing Street. Hosting a St David’s Day reception in 2015, David Cameron traced his own Welsh roots to a tinplate worker Llewelyn Llewelyn before joking: ‘This does not mean I want to be Welsh Secretary in your government, Stephen…’
So, Crabb for leader? ‘I don’t think I have an ambition to become leader, really. It doesn’t feel that long ago in my life that the thought of becoming an MP seemed outlandish and unrealistic, so to find myself a few years ahead sitting at the cabinet table doing a job for Wales, I just feel incredibly blessed with that really.
‘Of course there are other jobs in government that have UK-wide implications. Would I want a shot at doing something UK-wide? Sure I would, yeah, so long as I have the opportunity to bring my own values to bear and my own thinking, that’s what I love about the job of being Secretary of State for Wales.’
Friends say Transport or Work and Pensions would appeal. Not that Crabb says he spends much time plotting his next job. ‘The kind of people who do spent a lot of time thinking about their careers around here are the ones who sit on the backbenches, unfortunately.’ Mr Crabb has no plan to change his seating arrangements any time soon.