Bringing power closer to the people of Wales has been one of the key success points of Liberal Democrats in Government, Welsh Liberal Democrat MP Mark Williams has said tonight.
Mark delivered a wide-ranging speech. You can find the full text below.
"The 5th anniversary of the Coalition Government is fast approaching, and it’s time we start reflecting on the mechanics of government, particularly as the junior Party in a coalition. Regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming election, there are a number of lessons which must be learnt from the experience of the last five years.
"As a Liberal Democrat candidate in 2010, I knew the Party has the mechanisms in place to form a coalition. We had a form of ‘triple-lock’, similar to the triple lock on pensions, whereby three main organs of the Party had to be positively engaged in order for any Coalition to be agreed upon. These were the Parliamentary Liberal Democrat Party composed of MPs and Peers; the Federal Executive, effectively the Board of the Party and Chaired by our Party President; and a Special Conference of Party Members, called a week after the election.
"Parliamentary Colleagues assembled at Local Government House in Smith Square hours after the result of the election was known, and the ensuing days were characterised with the immediate frustration, on my party certainly, of not being able to celebrate my rather significant win in Ceredigion. Instead this was tempered by the reality and seriousness of the situation that we were about to enter Government, and the implications of what that meant both for the Party and for Liberal Democracy in Britain.
"It was not without considerable risk, it must be said, doing a deal with our traditional opposition, the Conservative Party. Some might have likened it to ‘supping with the Devil’. I couldn’t possibly comment. That risk has been borne out by a collapse in the polls, and the destruction of our once proud record of being the somewhat unlikely winners in by-elections.
"I along with a number of other colleagues pressed for the coalition negotiators to enter into talks with the Labour Party in order to attempt to broker a deal with them. Unfortunately the maths, and the attitude of Labour for that matter, conspired against us, but we owed it to those of the left of our Party to at least try. I wasn’t privy to the details of those discussions, but in any event David Laws and Andrew Adonis have already articulated the details of those discussions from opposing viewpoints.
"Looking back as a Liberal Democrat Backbencher representing a Welsh constituency, I remember distinctly being preoccupied with ensuring the case for Devolution was made in the Coalition Document: settling the issue of a Referendum, setting up the Silk Commission, bringing forward a Wales Bill to provide more fiscal responsibility to the Welsh Assembly. I believe it was a mistake, in hindsight, to accept the narrow constraint of having to abstain on such controversial issues as Tuition Fees, although on that occasion I and many other colleagues voted against the Government, and Nuclear Power. By implication that decision by the Party leadership entailed giving up on the fight, and enabling the Tories to achieve their own objectives.
"Kirsty Williams as Leader and us three Welsh MPs in Westminster were fully included in the process, but not unreasonably when looking at the weighty document itself, we might have been a little lost on the details, such was the speed of events at the time.
"The first months of the Coalition government were characterised by the Rose Garden. There was an emphasis on the fact it was a Coalition Government. Contrast that with the last 6 months, of a marriage certainly gone sour, if not even anticipating solicitors’ letters! With hindsight, the need to push for clarity and a distinctly Liberal Democrat identity should have started much earlier on. Cameron talks freely and without inhibition about Liberal Democrat policies on tax thresholds as if they were his own. We have allowed that to happen.
"I don’t have a solution, but as Plaid Cymru found out in the One Wales Agreement with Labour, it’s often difficult for junior partners in coalitions to retain ownership of policies.
"My colleague Sir Nick Harvey has talked and written extensively on Liberal Democrat Ministers in Government – he has looked at the situation as an insider while I have watched on from the backbenches. He has concluded that should a coalition be formed again after the next election, then a minimum of 30 ministers across Government would be required. In fact he suggested to me that post-May 7th any shortfall could be made up with the now significant number of Liberal Democrat Peers.
"To me as an observer, this is a key point: there are a range of Government departments which, at one time or another, did not have any Liberal Democrat presence at all. There was also no machinery in place in those early days of the Coalition in the House of Commons for us to preserve our identity as a Party. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were simply morphed into Coalition, with no thought as to how exactly that would work with sometimes vastly opposing viewpoints at work.
"The solution drawn up was a system of Backbench Liberal Democrat Committees designed to promote the Party’s views in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords, chaired by two co-chairs; one from each House. The committees were also meant to liaise with Liberal Democrat Ministers and with those Departments with no Liberal Democrat Ministers.
"I have served on two such committees in this Parliament. First of all I chaired our backbench committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, where I must admit I felt a complete outsider – not unreasonably when the lead Government spokesman on political and constitutional reform was the Leader of my Party and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg.
"There was scope for friction, however, not least given the fact he was advancing coalition policy on the Alternative Voting system for example. The Committee and I on the other hand took the line which was more representative of the Party’s position as a whole, as did many of my Parliamentary colleagues, in supporting the Single Transferrable Voting system. Indeed such was the potential for friction that I was glad to leave that post in 2012. I was not a member of the Government, but saw my role instead as someone who fought to preserve a distinctive Liberal Democrat identity on those issues which had been sacrificed for the sake of forming the Coalition Government. Therefore on the Lobbying Bill, for example, I made the decision not to support the Government in the voting lobbies.
"Since 2012 I have chaired the Welsh Backbench Team meetings. This came as a critical time for Welsh Affairs, as when I began there was no Liberal Democrat minister in the Wales Office, which at the time was occupied by Mrs Gillan and Mr Jones. It was rather different then to the current tenure of Messrs Crabb and Cairns, and Baroness Jenny Randerson. A protocol was designed by Nick Clegg’s former Chief of Staff, Norman Lamb, to ensure that Liberal Democrat Backbench Committee chairmen would have access to Ministers and would be invited to Ministerial meetings. I was in fact invited to sit in on meetings in the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, but the train service from Aberystwyth prevented me from doing so. We were also meant to be privy to Ministerial Statements before they were announced.
"In short, Liberal Democrat Chairmen were meant to be part of the furniture at Gwydyr House. That memorandum, were the Tories aware of it, was never enacted. Coalition Secretaries of State have become more accessible and more approachable as time has gone by, but in the early days the then Backbench Chair of the Lib Dem Welsh Team, my colleague Roger Williams MP, had no more access to the Secretary of State than anyone else.
"Within the Party there has been much debate and discussion surrounding the reasons why we didn’t have opportunities to have Ministers across all Government Departments. With only 57 Members of Parliament, it was inevitable that not all would be included, but in a true coalition it would be imperative to at least have an overview of all Government Departments. Where there are or have been Liberal Democrat Ministers, I know some have found it particularly challenging to have a complete overview of the whole Department’s work, as the sole Lib Dem in a team of perhaps 4 or 5 Ministers.
"And yet this is so important for a Junior Party in a Coalition Government. Our limited number of MPs has meant that, during the second half of the Parliament, we have effectively been left without a voice in the Ministry of defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as Ministers there have been removed to be replaced by Ministers in other Government Departments. This, at a critical time when the country is debating our membership of the European Union, although mercifully two Ministers have served in the Department for International Development. The balance does need to be got right.
"Opinion polling from before the election in 2010 clearly revealed a mass of support for the concept of a Coalition Government, but I do wonder how the electorate will judge it now having had 5 years of Coalition. My hunch is that the experience of a coalition of Chalk and Cheese, of a Centre-Left Party and the Conservatives, has sapped support for the idea of Coalition Government. The perception is that policies on which I and others were elected have been reduced to an unprincipled mish-mash of ideas. That I cannot accept, and in the months ahead I will be making my more partisan case to debunk that myth.
"But if Coalition is to work then we must get the institutions right, and parties need to be well-prepared. It should be the most natural of resolutions to a hung Parliament situation – parties coming together for the common good – but over the last 5 years, not unreasonably, Lib Dem voters and ex-Lib Dem voters (ditto for the Tories) have looked for Lib Dem Policies delivered by Lib Dem Ministers. They have no always been forthcoming, and even if they have they have not always been widely publicised.
"We need people to be educated in the principles of Coalition Government. Certainly if polling evidence is to be believed, this becomes more of a necessity, as the country may even have to grapple with the possibility of a 3 or even a 4-party coalition after the next election.
"My most proactive involvement in the coalition narrative has been in the Leaders Summits convened by the Secretary of State for Wales, which concluded with the St David’s Day agreement. This think approach did epitomise the new inclusive style of the Secretary of State for Wales which I do very much commend. I as chair of a Liberal Backbench Welsh Affairs team, was in no sense a leader. I made it very clear from the outset that I would be talking to, and behalf of my Leader, the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats Kirsty Williams. Whilst the devolution of further responsibilities would inevitably and necessarily be enacted, I did feel it strange that Westminster politicians were determining the remit of our National Assembly. I like to think that that guttural instinct comes from a real devolutionist, an ideological devolutionist as well as a practical one. I am not sure the same can be said for all the party leaders. The Secretary of State throughout the process talked to Assembly leaders, but we only the met, the 8 of us, on two occasions. In those two meetings, at least two parties, were able to talk with two voices. I am not sure had minutes been taken whether the same could be said across the board. Competing mandates, the last vestiges of anti-devolutionary sentiments, I don’t know which. But all four parties, with their respective representatives or leaders at either end of the M4 were not likely to agree on everything. So for my party for instance it was with deep regret that Police and Criminal Justice and Youth Justice were not devolved as per the St David’s Day agreement. But as a Liberal Democrat party fighting the next election, endorsing Silk 2, it remains an election pledge.
"The St David’s Day process does represent a genuine attempt to achieve a consensus on Silk 2. Silk ended his Part 2 work urging a debate on the recommendations at the General Election. That will be had. At the very least, the Secretary of State’s initiative will focus more debate on those areas where consensus could not be reached. But even at its inception, its remit was not transparently clear. Little detailed time was spent on the next step of devolution, namely the Smith Commissions work, though similar provision on devolving electoral arrangements and the capacity to change the name were part of the Welsh Agreement too.
"Little time was spent on the critical ‘Fair Funding’ argument. I very much welcome the Government’s late in the day conversion to the case for a funding floor. But we await the details.
"The question of an assessment of the funding gap between England and Wales, and what I believe should be the Commissioning of Gerry Holtham, so greatly respected in London and Cardiff, would be an important step – indeed an essential step, before progress can be achieved.
"So how much further are we along the road to devolution post March 1st?
"Devolution is moving forward, and this is happening under the Tory stewardship of the Wales Office; but it is real Coalition policy. The role of Kirsty Williams as Leader, and Jenny Randerson as Wales Office Minister - and Jenny has a unique understanding of devolution having had a foot in each camp - should not be understated. Of all the constitutional commitments made in the Coalition Agreement, and quite frankly the many disappointing constitutional let downs of the past 5 years, devolution to Wales has been one of the success stories, with all three commitments made in the Coalition agreement delivered.
"Would we be so far along in the road towards Home Rule had it not been for the referendum in Scotland? Manifestly not. Our referendum would have been won, the Silk Commission would have deliberated, and the Wales Bill would have been enacted. But what the Scottish debate did do was ensure that most of the nonsenses of the Wales Bill such as ‘the Lockstep’ or indeed the Assembly’s capacity to issue bonds, be removed and Silk 2 and not gather dust in Gwydyr House."