On trips abroad, you can quickly measure the political mood by the question you get asked the most. On last year’s St David’s Day mission to the US, the question on everyone’s lips was “What do you think of the new President?” Closely followed by a nervous “What do people think of America now?”
It was a febrile time in Washington, and in many ways those tensions are still bubbling away – most especially after the tragedy of the Florida shooting. Even the most traditional Republicans will quietly, and for now only privately, concede that things must change when it comes to America’s relationship with guns.
When I met with Hillary Clinton in New York, she recounted the tough time she had at the hands of the gun lobby and offered a hope that as young people were now mounting their own grassroots campaign, things might actually improve. We can only hope.
But, it wasn’t their own domestic turmoils that got people talking this year, but a rather more unexpected poser on Brexit – “Do you think there will be another referendum?” It was asked again and again. And more than once the question was posed with a hopeful intonation.
As it happens, I’ve been consistent in my view that we shouldn’t have a second referendum – that the priority needs to be securing the best deal possible for the people of Wales and the UK, and respecting the result of the original vote.
It should be a chilling warning to the UK government however, that the process so far has been viewed with such horror and confusion by politicians and businesses abroad, that they are questioning our country’s ability or will to go through with it.
So, it was that when I addressed the British American Business Association in Washington, people didn’t ask about the UK government’s position on Brexit, they asked would it be following Labour’s lead. And when it came to Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement on the customs union, I was able to give a strong statement of support. After all, this is a move from the party at a UK level decisively towards the position the Welsh Labour Government established through our white paper 18 months ago.
American and Canadian companies with large footprints already established in Wales are holding out for sense to prevail and offer their support to our position. Any moves away from regulatory alignment with the European Union will cause them problems, and already some bets are being hedged with new operations being opened in Ireland.
Although we hear nothing but good reports about the support these companies have been given and the skilled workforce available to them in Wales, the growing uncertainty is a concern. It’s increasingly clear that’s what is being billed in the UK media as a parliamentary showdown on Brexit is actually something much bigger: it’s about waving some economic smelling salts under some nationalist nostrils. It’s time to wake the country up from a defeatist and miserablist torpor and put people’s livelihoods back at the top of the agenda.
That was the message I relayed to the Prime Minister when I spoke with her from Montreal after her “Road to Brexit” speech. I, like many others who choose realism over nationalism, welcome that the Prime Minister has finally accepted her government must face up to some hard facts and realise compromise will be needed to reach a good Brexit deal. But, there is still a long way to go and I will keep pushing to retain full and unfettered access to the single market and customs union membership. The Welsh and UK economy depend on it.
Certainly, fighting for jobs and investment was top of my agenda in North America, and I was delighted that following on from a meeting with Valero in Washington, the company was able to announce a £127m investment in their Pembrokeshire operation citing Welsh government support. In a totally different but vitally important sector, the fintech company Backbase announced 50 new jobs in Cardiff, just as I was hosting a New York roundtable with tech leaders talking about how we can help each other in the future. A lot of it comes down to the continuing and changing “war for talent”- which is what we heard once again at the Montreal HQ of CGI – a world leading technology company with a major presence in Wales.
Although the focus of these visits is always economic, no St David’s Day mission would be complete without discussion about ideas and values – St David is our patron saint and not a sales rep after all.
It was therefore a great honour to speak at the United Nations in New York about the gender equality work being taken forward by the Welsh government, most particularly our ground-breaking legislation on Violence Against Women & Domestic Abuse. Alongside our newly announced collaboration with Hillary Clinton and Swansea University to establish new scholarships for the study of children’s rights, this showed that my Welsh Labour government is passionate about selling Wales as a country of compassion as well as commerce. As the Welsh Labour leader, as well as First Minister, that’s a combination I’m fiercely proud to advocate as a model of good government in these uncertain times.
Carwyn Jones is the First Minister of Wales.