Is the Secretary of State for Wales Becoming Relevant Again?

Theo Davies-Lewis looks at the history of the Wales Office and foresees its significance increasing in the future.

Wales was the last nation of these four isles to be granted its own secretaryship at the Cabinet table.

The Irish and the Scots have had different forms of representation at a UK government level for centuries, and played a greater role in the politics of the United Kingdom as a result. So when Jim Griffiths walked into the newly-created Welsh Office at Cathays Park in 1964, the occasion seemed well overdue. 

The coming of a Welsh Secretary, with offices in Cardiff and London, marked the elevation of the politics of our nation and gave Wales greater political clout in the corridors of power. It had been a long, hard and frustrating campaign.

For close to three decades, MPs had lobbied successive Prime Ministers – starting with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 – for a Welsh Office with administrative powers. Time and time again they were turned away. 

Much of the blame could be placed at the door of the Labour party. The socialist movement had been too slow to act on providing concessions for Welsh nationhood; especially in the inter-war years, MPs failed to articulate a vision for Wales equal to their eloquence on economic and social affairs.

Even Clement Attlee’s reforming and progressive post-War government cared little for devolution in the Scottish or Welsh context. 

Jim Griffiths was the leading light for those who believed that the politics and democracy of Wales could be improved. His appointment as the Secretary of State came as no great surprise to his Labour colleagues or the Welsh public.

“After years of irrelevance and obscurity, the Wales Office may indeed be making a comeback.”

For years he had championed the cause and, most helpfully, presided over the policy-making committee that in 1959 pledged to create a secretaryship if Labour was elected. Though Jim would have to wait another five years for that. 

While the original Welsh Office was given a good range of powers – over housing and local government, road transport and aspects of local planning – its influence grew over time.

Lord Morris of Aberavon recently recalled that in his day as Secretary of State he had three thousand staff in Whitehall and Wales. The late Lord Crickhowell, meanwhile, used the Office to transform the Welsh economy in the 1980s. Other holders, such as Ron Davies, used their place in the Cabinet to push for further devolution.

Perhaps it is no surprise that with further powers being transferred to Wales there have been calls to abolish what is now known as the Wales Office and its secretaryship. It is an argument that has been well-rehearsed, especially by politicians who have held the post previously.

Lord Morris, who served in the role under both Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, has been the most vocal with a landmark speech in 2013. He called for the end of what he termed as the “fifth wheel on the parliamentary coach”.

It is a strong case: why do we need a Cabinet minister whose existence is perceived to be merely symbolic and costs taxpayers money? To promote the “best interests of Wales within a stronger United Kingdom” has always been its objectives – in the original spirit of Jim Griffiths’ unionism – but at least then (and in subsequent years) the Secretary of State wielded some degree of influence and power over economic, social and cultural policy.

Some have argued that the current crisis demonstrates the value of a Welsh voice at the Cabinet table. Most significantly, the UK government’s furlough scheme has supported 400,000 Welsh jobs and has even been welcomed by the assertive devolved administration in Cardiff Bay.

Brexit and coronavirus may, however, be the catalyst for what gives the Wales Office newfound prominence in shaping the future of our nation.”

Although has Simon Hart’s presence really made a difference to the decisions made by the Prime Minister and Chancellor to save Welsh jobs over the summer? The answer is most likely no.

Yet after years of irrelevance and obscurity, the Wales Office may indeed be making a comeback. We don’t have it as easy as Lord Morris in 2013, who had the perfect ammunition to argue for the end of the Office which he once held and championed.

Britain is now in political turmoil and struggling during a global pandemic. Wales is gradually warming to an idea of self-governance and Scotland is on the brink of constitutional crisis. So there may be room for a conduit between our nations’ governments.

The newfound relevance of the Secretary of State for Wales was obvious with the furore surrounding the Conservative government’s Internal Market Bill. The legislation is a blatant attack on our devolved system of government; in particular, Section 46 of the bill gives authority to London to spend money in areas that are devolved, enabling direct funding of infrastructure, education, cultural and sporting activities that British ministers assess to “directly or indirectly benefit the United Kingdom”.

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This method of governing undoubtedly undermines the democratic accountability of Wales, but also means that increasingly important decisions across the UK will not be decided in devolved parliaments, but in the British Cabinet.

Although such a disregard for the people of Wales was exactly what figures such as Jim Griffiths wanted to avoid by creating the Welsh Office, its relevance may now be to support our nation’s economic and social recovery in the years to come. In a matter of months, the responsibilities of the Secretary of State seem to have materially changed once again.

Reminiscing about his time as Secretary of State, Jim Griffiths noted that to serve the people of Wales in the Cabinet was his last political ambition. Jim campaigned passionately to fulfil his central aims that Wales would be an integral part of the United Kingdom, and would therefore be represented at the highest level in the Cabinet. 

Both have not come to fruition: we have for some time exercised our role as an obedient and accepting peoples while the secretaryship has been a non-position for years. Brexit and coronavirus may, however, be the catalyst for what gives the Wales Office newfound prominence in shaping the future of our nation.

But it is important for us to remember that the way the Secretary of State has come to acquire that influence is certainly not in the spirit of the post’s establishment. 

Theo Davies-Lewis’ audio biography of Wales’ first secretary of state, Jim Griffiths, is available here.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Theo Davies-Lewis is an associate at Finsbury, the leading global strategic communications firm.

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