Carwyn Jones’s announcement on Saturday that he was standing down has taken time to sink in, and only now are people beginning to weigh up the immense contribution he made as First Minister. I believe that he will be regarded as a historically significant First Minister and I am glad that he had the opportunity to announce his departure amongst friends and family at Welsh Labour conference in Llandudno.
Where Rhodri Morgan consolidated a devolution project that was very fragile when he became Welsh Labour leader, as I said on the Radio 4 Today programme this morning, Carwyn’s role has been to develop the role of the National Assembly and the Welsh Government. We now have a law-making Assembly with tax-raising powers. It was Carwyn’s bold decision to take forward the referendum in 2011, with the support of coalition partners Plaid Cymru, despite the foot-dragging of the Conservative-led coalition government at Westminster, and it was he who articulated the new name of Welsh Government for the executive body after the 2011 election.
Carwyn pioneered the tax-raising role of the institution with his personal support for a levy on plastic bags that was a pioneering policy now adopted by other parts of the UK. He did that despite scepticism, and some hostility, in the business community.
It is also often forgotten that Carwyn was the first First Minister who was home-grown: in other words, he had grown into political life within the National Assembly, not having served at Westminster like his predecessors. That gave him a healthy distance from what can be a stultifying obsession with Westminster parliamentary sovereignty and an openness to new constitutional developments.
His personal commitment to education, firmly articulated in his 2009 leadership campaign, paved the way for further investment and a substantial programme of school improvement, as well as underpinning the decision to protect Welsh students against £9000 tuition fees.
He has been capable of bold decisions with clear vision, such as the purchase of Cardiff Airport, now expanding with new routes across the world, and new and innovative legislation in areas such as organ donation, introduced despite controversy and articulated clearly by Carwyn himself.
He gave space for a new approach for public service reform, which Carl Sargeant developed and carried through in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, that means public service bodies in Wales have to come to the table to work through their public service delivery on a cross-boundary basis. The Violence against Women legislation, which Carl championed, Lesley Griffiths introduced, and I took through the National Assembly, will be seen as another significant achievement.
In the first decade of devolution the taps of public sector investment were turned on: but five months after Carwyn’s election as First Minister a Conservative-led coalition was in office implementing austerity policies which forced difficult choices on all of us in government. Carwyn provided leadership, not least on the economic front, where programmes like Jobs Growth Wales delivered more successfully than Westminster-based work programmes. Where the Conservative-led coalition scrapped the Remploy factories, the Welsh Government introduced a scheme to support employers who took on Remploy workers.
When the steel crisis hit in 2016, and the UK government proved dilatory and unable to act, Carwyn ensured a strong Welsh response which protected Welsh jobs at Tata. That response in 2016 helped turn around Welsh Labour fortunes in seats in Wales which had seemed in the early months of 2016 to be under threat from the Tories.
In electoral terms, Carwyn’s successes in 2011 and 2016 outdid, albeit in very different circumstances, those of his predecessors: and he made a significant personal contribution to the 2017 UK Labour campaign which led to the recapturing of Cardiff North, Gower and Vale of Clwyd.
In respect of Brexit, he identified earlier than most the pivotal importance of the Irish border issue, based on his family connections through Lisa and his own study of the subject.
In his conference speech, he expressed the view that the last few months have been the darkest of times. Bluntly, the last five and a half months have been miserable, indeed hateful. They have of course been darkest of all for the family and close friends of Carl Sargeant, but there has never been any question that they have taken a huge toll on Carwyn and his family. He will know above all the need in Welsh Labour for the healing to commence, and that his decision to stand down will now enable people to come together, as Jack Sargeant has passionately and bravely articulated, in pursuit of a kinder politics.