AM Adam Price delivers a key note speech to Plaid Cymru's Spring Conference this weekend.
A full generation has passed since this nation of ours decided to place its future in its own hands.
This was not just a decision to replace one group of men and women with another. This was a decision to create a New Wales, a Wales in which poverty of ambition and circumstance were abolished and a new era of leadership, purposeful, answerable, inspirational and transformational, was placed at the very heart of our constitution and the public life of our nation.
We wanted for our country, so long a land of wasted potential, to be instead a land of opportunity. Our hopes, our demands for our country, were by no means radical. By all prevailing standards they were modest.
That our children could grow up free from poverty.
That the education of our young and our care for our elderly was on a par with our nearest neighbours.
That we gave the best chances we could at the start of life and the best care possible at life’s end.
1997 was to use that phrase much uttered of late, sometime on the most curious of lips – a vote for change.
Not change for change’s sake, but change for a purpose, the founding purpose of any democracy, to lift up the people by the people’s own hand.
It wasn’t a new state we wanted to build so much as a new society, distinguished by social justice, by economic dynamism and cultural achievement and, yes, its tolerance, kindness and love.
1997 ended eighteen years of Conservative rule – and that was undoubtedly a liberation.
But much more than that it ended the studied disdain of distance, social and geographic, that flowed from five hundred years of being ruled not by our peers, not by our people, but the gilded mansions of another nation.
Self-Government has never for us been an end in itself. It was the means to self-advancement, self-improvement, of self-determination to prise ourselves, not individually but collectively, out of the rut of poverty, ignorance and disease into which accident of birth had consigned us generation after generation.
Government by our own people meant for us government for the people above all else.
A New Wales, a new chance.
I echo hear the sentiments of another young man who fought for his country’s freedom though never enjoyed its fruits.
He, more than any, would have savoured that headline from yesterday. Unionists lose majority for the first time in the northern Ireland Assembly. If they can do it then so can we.
I was surprised to see Guto Bebb naming him as his political hero the other day, with some half-baked analogy between the Irish Free State Treaty and the Wales Bill. I guess they both sparked a Civil War, though in the latter’s case it was confined to the Labour Party.
One thing Michael Collins would never have done is join the Conservative Party.
A short while before he was killed he gave one last speech on Building Up Ireland, setting out his vision for the future of his country and such is its enduring power I think it deserves to be quoted at length.
“The growing wealth of Ireland will, we hope, be diffused through all our people, all sharing in the growing prosperity, each receiving according to what each contributes in the making of that prosperity, so that the wealth of all is assured.
How are we to increase the wealth of Ireland and ensure that all producing it shall share in it? That is the question which . . . will engage the attention of the new Government.
What we must aim at is the building up of a sound economic life in which great discrepancies cannot occur. We must not have the destitution of poverty at one end, and at the other an excess of riches in the possession of a few individuals, beyond what they can spend with satisfaction and justification.”
That was Ireland on the cusp of freedom over ninety years ago. Today we are more connected through technology than ever before, but we have, as Age Cymru said yesterday, an epidemic of loneliness. We have a wealth of opportunity – this single hand-held device has more computing power than the Apollo spacecraft used fifty years ago used to escape from the gravity of this earth and return safely from the Moon.
And yet we are confronted continually by evidence of our failure to solve the most basic problems of our everyday lives.
We have the highest proportion of children living in poverty of any nation in the UK. One in three. Two hundred thousand lives blighted right at their beginning.
We have had since 2010 a statutory commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020. While poverty has fallen in Scotland and the north East of England, here it’s increased compared to ten years ago, and set to increase further.
And what’s the Welsh Government’s policy response: to end our biggest anti-poverty programme, Communities First, and put nothing in its place.
Twenty five years ago I wrote this report for a major conference on the future of the Valleys – Rebuilding Our Communities – with Professor Kevin Morgan, who went on, of course, to lead the 1997 Yes Campaign. The depressing fact is that on re-reading the report now it has retained its underlying relevance.
Kevin was then a member of the Labour Party, which he has subsequently left.
We quoted David Marquand, who was then a member of the Labour Party, and has subsequently left to join us, and was here with us yesterday.
All three of us are I suspect natural co-operators, progressive pluralists by inclination, striving to find the common ground which can often be our best chance for change.
We ended our report with these words:
“if the unpretentious claims of the Valleys – for decent jobs, for better public services and for a clean environment – are to be met, we simply must come to terms with the fact that what we have in common is far more enduring, than what divides us here in south Wales.”
It’s that characteristically Welsh motivation – the disposition to co-operate for the common good of our nation – that brought us together under one banner in 1997 in Yes for Wales and ten years later in One Wales. It’s why we work where we can even now in Opposition – on the Welsh Brexit Common White Paper for example – to embody the politics of the united front not that of a broken nation.
But the problem, and I say this in regret as much as in reproach, the problem in all this is glaringly obvious, and that is the Labour Party.
This is a party born from the struggle for social change, which now propagates, in our country, at least, the mind-set of social inertia.
The First Minister, by temperament and belief, is about as far as it is possible to be from embodying the radical urgency of now. There was a time, when stung by my criticism of bad political posture, he started standing up straight at that lectern in First Minister’s Questions. But now he’s slouched back into the slow and easy complacency of unchallengeable supremacy. A session at FMQs is like being enrolled at a really poor quality university, being lectured at but learning nothing. A few weeks ago he proudly told us, arm resting on his rostrum, how he’d first come up with the idea for the Metro at Bedwas Rugby Club. Sometimes if I close my eyes I can hear him saying to strangers at the bar in the rugby clubs of his retirement: I used to run a country once.
Labour in Wales is failing and it will fall. The only question is who will be there to pick up the pieces.
For the future of our nation, at this time, there can only be one answer to that question.
It has to be us. Not us in the narrow sense of this party, but us in the collective sense represented by this party, of our taking responsibility for our own problems, the solutions to which, as we hold up a mirror to the state of our nation, are quite literally staring us in the face.
That task of moving from complainants to controllers of our own fate, authors of our destiny, shapers of our future, begins with the local elections in May.
Wales will not be liberated by a mass march in Cardiff, or even a match in Cardiff, it is those small steps you take, down a farmyard lane, up and down a Valleys terrace, the time you take to listen, that will liberate Wales. Brick by brick the new Wales will be built from the blessed ground up.
Governing locally is how we demonstrate to people nationally that there is a better way. That we don’t have to accept the inevitability of poverty, disadvantage and decline. That another Wales is not just possible but the urgent imperative of the times in which we live.
We have under-invested for generations in the skills of our young and the care of our elderly. The new tax powers give us new possibilities and we as a nation must now decide on our priorities. So we as a party will ask the people of Wales over the Summer how these new powers should be utilised. Should we raise a penny for a purpose – dedicated to transforming our beleaguered NHS? Two hundred million for our schools and colleges could close the gaping chasm of funding per student between Wales and our neighbours. We could if we chose to, build a health and education system that was equal to the best. We could become the test bed nation for solving the societal challenges of the next generation.
And in that spirit of innovation I’m pleased to announce we are, as a Group in the National Assembly, about to create an ideas lab focusing on new ideas for our economic transformation, which given our guiding inspiration is that new Wales for which we have a restless desire to build, we will call Nova Cambria.
Nova Cambria, for the Welsh historians, among you, was the first attempt to create a new Welsh homeland in south America, some fifteen years before Y Wladfa, in Brazil, led by the visionary Thomas Benbow Phillips from Tregaron. The community failed when many of its members, some of whom were colliers from this old county of Gwent, decided to work in nearby mines owned by others rather than attempt to grow their own cotton. There is a something of a metaphor there for the Welsh predicament.
We have long planted the seeds of our hope in distant shores and distant cities.
But the hard truth inscribed in the bitter arc of our own history is this: we can only ever build the future of which we dream, here in our own land, with our own hands.
We don’t believe in self-government for self-government’s sake, or Opposition for Opposition’s sake.
We’re not here to tear down. We’re here to build.
So this May let’s begin to build that New Wales.
Here. Now. Together.