Oh for the enthusiasm of a Liberal Democrat. The quote that comes to mind when sitting through their conference is that of Mr Micawber ‘Welcome poverty!..Welcome misery, welcome houselessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary! Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end!’
Well they certainly have ’˜mutual confidence’ by the bucket load. And perhaps the fact that they’re in government for the first time since the days of Lloyd George it does give them a feeling of confidence.
This was evident from the outset in their Autumn conference.The first debate of the conference under the catchy title ‘a radical manifesto in an age of austerity’ speaker after speaker after the ritual blaming of Labour for the mess the country finds itself in , intone a mantra that all is being done for the national interest. And with glazed eyes have a messianic belief that all will be right in the end.
Now with over four years until the likely date of the next general election it is possible that something will turn up but by next May! – scarcely believe.
In a different age and a different country you could almost imagine them waving little red books and willing you to vote for them. Alas, if the polls are right whatever the colour of the book it looks as if it will all end in tears at the Assembly elections.
Roger Williams MP as deputy leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats did his level best to raise spirits. He had a vision of the proud nations joining together on the basis of common goals and values. Like in the days of Lloyd George he clamed that”this government takes forward Welsh Home Rule to give Wales more freedom and power than ever before, it is right that we review the arrangements [of MPs in Westminser]. So less MPs can be blamed on Lloyd George, Nice one Roger. Mmm Yes Peter Hain was once a Liberal but taking credit for the Government of Wales Act is pushing it a bit.
He finished by urging delegates ‘to step up to the plate again and get the message across.’ Well, they may or may not step to the plate but they failed to get on their feet to give him the ritual standing ovation that leaders usually get. Although there was one delegate who stood up looked around and promptly sat down. Clearly, his oratory not up to Lloyd George’s standards.
Kirsty Williams their leader said she was going to stand up for Wales.”The people of Wales have had thirteen years of a Labour government in Cardiff that wouldn’t say boo to the Labour government in Westminster. They don’t want a nodding dog. They want to elect a leader who will speak up for Wales”
Show me a leader that will not. But the people of Wales would understand the need for the cuts. She intends going round Wales pushing the line that Labour did not help in their thirteen years of office.
Her most audacious line though was that “every cut that comes our way is a Labour cut and we shall not let the country forget it”. If she can pull that one off she’s a better magician than Tommy Cooper.
Now their fortunes as a party depend on the Welsh voter understanding the argument and being a forgiving lot. As Lembit Opik found to his cost the milk of human kindness doesn’t often flow through the veins of the typical Welsh voter.
The Bourne Doctrine – this is a newly unveiled doctrine that is now to enter the political lexicon. Not surprising it was unveiled by the Welsh Conservative leader Nick Bourne.
But what is it, you may ask? It is the yardstick that the Conservative group in the Assembly will use to decide whether or not they will oppose the policies of the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat government.
And by what criteria do they decides whether to give a policy the thumbs up or down. Well, its whether or not Wales is been treated unfairly in comparison to the other countries of the United Kingdom.
The Bourne doctrine in practice is seen by the stand the Welsh Tories are taking in relationship to the threatened closure of the passport office in Newport. They oppose the closure, because none of the other countries are losing their office.
Again the doctrine comes into play in defence of S4C because they too are been threatened with cuts that only apply to Wales. So accordingly, the doctrine declares this to be unfair and directs that the Tory Group to oppose Jeremy Hunt’s, the UK Culture Secretary, intended cuts.
Put simply, as long as all countries that form the United Kingdom are punished equally then the Tory group in Wales will not squawk. But oh, if only the world was that simple, but alas it is not.
All would be fine if the countries of the United Kingdom were the same, but they are not. England is a great deal richer and more prosperous than Wales.
Wales has a large number of jobs that are dependent on the public purse, England has a larger private sector than Wales. So a policy applied equally to all countries in these islands can have very unequal outcomes in the different countries.
The Bourne doctrine should be re-interpreted to read that the Welsh Conservative group will oppose all the unpopular decisions of the UK government this side of the Assembly elections. Its a bit like ’1066 and all that’, whatever we decide to do will be ‘a good thing’.
It’s the small print that matters in agreements. Likewise it is often those passages in speeches that don’t make the headlines that contain much the most interesting passages.
All the headlines of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s speech was on child benefit being withdrawn from households paying tax at the higher rate. The Tory press went overboard on the matter. ‘This was hitting the middle classes. It was unfair on stay at home mothers etc ‘
But George Osborne, in the very same speech,also announced a new £500 a week cap on welfare benefits. In his words it was ‘designed to ensure that work less households no longer receive thousands of pounds in benefits more than the average working family receives in pay.’
Now because it has been a popular sport for some time to demonise those on benefits very little attention was paid to this aspect of his speech.
The changes mean that household benefit payments will be capped at around £500 per week by the time of implementation in 2013.
This cap will apply to the combined income derived from benefits including Job seekers Allowance, Income Support, Employment Support Allowance, housing and council tax benefits, Child Benefit, and Carers Allowance.
Now a cap of £500 may on the face of it seem quite high. But when one considers that often in some of our large cities, rents and therefore housing benefit payments alone may take the recipient above the £500 level. In such cases it will put many families into real difficulty and make it virtually impossible for them to stay in our biggest towns and cities.
So where will they go? At a guess they will be forced to look for areas with relatively cheap housing costs.
In the eighties these were places like the North Wales coast and other parts of rural Wales were renting houses were comparatively cheap.
At the time many Welsh politicians were angry at what they saw as the negative effect of these incomers. Often these politicians would be pressing for only local people to be housed. Such campaigns had limited success and went against the obligation of authorities to house those in greatest housing need.
It looks as if the Westminster coalition are about to repeat past mistakes. What was said in the speech would be better if it was not acted upon.