As a journalist, I remember saying in 1999 that perhaps the most important measure of success of devolution would be the impact it had on the economy. 19 years on, we certainly cannot say that devolution was a magic bullet.
However, we now more accurately point to Welsh Government, rather than devolution itself, as the problem. Even with the limited powers we have, I believe a new, concerted effort by ministers could transform the Welsh economy.
I stick to that original view about the importance of developing the Welsh economy. In fact, it’s more important than ever. Not only is Wales not better off than at the advent of devolution, but our comparative GDP has fallen further behind UK and European averages.
As a Plaid Cymru leadership candidate, I don’t need to spell out my view that I want Wales to take full control of moulding its own economic destiny. But this is not an end in itself. The reason I want Wales to strengthen economically is to lift children out of poverty, to reward aspiration, to allow more of a helping hand to be given to those who need it, to help businesses see Wales as a place to succeed, to make this a land of real opportunity. It’s about seeing national confidence and social fairness growing hand in hand with economic prosperity, for the good of all people in Wales.
It’s about bringing better jobs and tackling underemployment. Better jobs come through better skills. That means transforming education and ensuring skills match the needs of businesses. Better jobs mean better wages. Better wages means a higher tax take and firmer fiscal foundations.
To reach this point we need to be relentlessly radical in how we address Wales’ economic needs and aspirations. Managing isn’t good enough. Too much of recent Welsh economic history has seemed to be about managing decline, but even bringing some success through steady management isn’t good enough. We need real growth, a real expansion of economic horizons, and we must be relentless in our pursuit of this and in our ambition to succeed.
During my time as Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Economy Minister in the 4th Assembly, there were a number of issues I highlighted that I still consider very relevant today: the need for an infrastructure commission, with a much wider remit than the commission now set up by Welsh Government, to lead multi-billion-pound investment in our nation’s building blocks – from transport links uniting the nation to digital infrastructure; my determination to increase the proportion of Welsh procurement spend kept within the Welsh economy to around 75% of the total, creating perhaps 40000 jobs; establishing a new development agency looking outwards to new export markets for our indigenous companies and seeking new sustainable investment; expanding business rate relief and the expansion of support and for business through an ever more ambitious and far-reaching public Welsh Bank that can raise loan and equity capital for businesses in Wales.
In addition, there is the fundamental need to place our education system on a firmer footing, at all levels. From improving standards across primary and secondary sectors through encouraging and rewarding teaching excellence, to strengthening our FE sector’s ability to be at the very core of skills development for Welsh business and industry, and strengthening R&D innovation across higher education and industr, vital in a world increasingly moving towards a knowledge economy. Clearly a situation where Government and research council spend on R&D is ten times greater per capita in the South East of England than in Wales is leaving us at a huge disadvantage.
Innovation is the golden thread. To emulate the kind of sustained economic growth that revived the Basque economy, for example, Wales has to become a real innovator in all areas of economic planning. We must seek new export options and be confident about where Wales fits best within international markets; we must effectively identify and specialize in key sectors; we must develop an energy/industrial strategy built on maximising the yield of our plentiful natural resources and seeking ways to add value to it through exporting skills/technologies (we need to develop a Wales-led lagoons programme!); and we must encourage entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial success rates (figures show Wales have more budding entrepreneurs than the UK average, but fewer making it through to business success).
We need to celebrate Welsh business success, and encourage individual enterprise alongside the collective – I am an enthusiastic supporter of cooperative and social enterprise. From providing social care in our communities to injecting new life into our high streets I believe we should seek new opportunities to incentivise cooperatives. Mutuals provide another model to be encouraged, too – member-owned, with profits and benefits shared.
We face the most challenging of times. The failure of Welsh Government to keep up with competing nations and regions in key areas means we have no option but to aim high. Very high. Couple that with the uncertainties of Brexit and the potential chaos of a no deal Brexit, and we need a Government that is unrelenting in its economic ambition. As First Minister this would be a key priority, leading a Plaid Cymru Government that I know can deliver, a Government that combines dynamism and real integrity. We have exciting policy and economic thinkers in the party. We need a leader that can implement those ideas and build trust in what we’re trying to achieve for our nation.
Of course, the real opportunities will come through being in control of all levers ourselves and having the added incentive of seeking economic prosperity as an independent nation. All of us can unite now in the pursuit of laying down firmer economic foundations for Wales. Would could oppose that?! But I’ve always made it my mission to persuade others to take national ambition to the next level, and as Plaid leader that will always be a core driver. Break down barriers, address fears, build confidence.. and persuading people of the potential of the Welsh economy is at the very core of that enterprise.