A Welsh malaise

A lack of self confidence and Labour hegemony has been detrimental for Wales, says Andrew RT Davies.

The respected columnist and former MP, Matthew Parris, recently penned a bleak analysis of Wales’ fortunes in the devolved era.

Neglected by its low-calibre Labour politicians, he said. Out-shouted by Scotland, and overlooked by Westminster; his conclusion, that Wales is not an emergency, it’s worse than that.

The reaction of the Welsh public was revealing.

Ann Robinson made an enemy of the Welsh for life when she nominated us for inclusion in Room 101, and AA Gill fared even worse after describing us as ‘pugnacious trolls’, yet the measured tone of Parris’ argument prompted reflective debate and possibly told us a few home truths.

Why, for example, does Wales remain the poorest nation in western Europe; the most reliant on EU structural funds?

Perhaps there is also some truth, we wondered, in Parris’ assertion that this corner of the UK isn’t big enough or loud enough to make its voice heard?

It’s certainly true that parts of Wales remain extremely poor, with pockets of social deprivation where unemployment, across all generations, sits uncomfortably above the national average.

Yet, in spite of his overwhelmingly downbeat assessment of our country’s fortunes, I do sense that the answer is more straightforward than it may first appear.

After all, Wales is a proud country, with an industrious and successful past – and there is little or no evidence to suggest that we cannot enjoy an optimistic future.

Wales was the first industrial nation: powered by a boom in coal, for years dominating the iron and metal mining and smelting industries.

And it is also a nation of shopkeepers, and entrepreneurs.

In an era of globalized e-commerce – of eBay, Etsy, and Amazon – it’s worth remembering that the mail order revolution was started here, by Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones in a small town in mid Wales.

But you could be forgiven for forgetting the industrious, entrepreneurial nature of the Welsh people; stymied and stifled as we have been by 17 successive years of Labour rule.

All of which leads me to conclude that at least part of Wales’ problem is presentation and perception. And first impressions last.

It’s not just about shouting loudly enough to be heard, though. We must be conscious of the manner in which we sell ourselves to the rest of the world.

Anyone who visited the capital over the years would have witnessed the aesthetic horrorshow that was Cardiff Central Station, and the immediate area around it. Thankfully it’s now undergoing a comprehensive makeover.

Cardiff is a beautiful city, with more green space per capita than any other city in the UK, but for many first-time visitors an impression has long been cast of a tired, scruffy and downbeat capital city.

The same lackadaisical approach is all too often evident in the way the Welsh Government presents us to the world – backward looking, short on confidence, and pitching to the lobby at home, not the external markets of the future.

Just last month the First Minister went to the US – ostensibly on a trade mission – to “sell Wales to the world like never before”. But instead of painting a picture of a Wales that’s open for business, Carwyn Jones used his keynote pitch to US businesses to send a political message back home across the Atlantic – warning that Brexit could precipitate the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Anyone with a working knowledge of Dragon’s Den knows that you don’t rubbish your own product during the sales pitch, and it’s hard to see how the First Minister’s alarming rhetoric would have bolstered investor confidence. But if there’s one thing more dangerous than incompetence, it’s incompetence masquerading as righteousness – which is the emerging challenge for Wales.

Matthew Parris was right to identify low calibre Labour leaders and a lack of self-confidence as the cause of the Welsh malaise.

After seventeen years in government, Labour’s public services are blighted by systemic problems and have long suffered from a lack of bold ideas or investment. But we cannot allow the First Minister to use our impending exit from the European Union to justify his failure to improve things, or allow him to distract us from the fact that his government is bereft of solutions.

Carwyn Jones’ righteous indignation at the result of the EU referendum is one thing, but crying ‘Brexit’ at the first sign of difficulty is quickly becoming his default position. Incompetence, once again, masquerading as righteousness.

Labour will be held to account for their record in the first seventeen years of devolution, but Brexit must not be allowed to become the smokescreen that perpetuates another generation of Labour failure in Wales. That’s the real emergency.

Andrew RT Davies is the Leader of the Welsh Conservatives.

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