Mark Drakeford AM: Welsh First Minister discusses his Career, Oxbridge, and Brexit

Labour Assembly Member Mark Drakeford is known for his unassuming style of leadership. I was, I confess, taken aback slightly by Drakeford’s candour: particularly gutsy was his open indifference towards Oxbridge (especially as the Welsh Government has put improving access firmly on the agenda, through programmes like the Seren Network). My overall impression, however, was of a man – a self-described ‘old-fashioned Socialist’ – who cares deeply about Wales and the Welsh working class.

First Minister – you became an AM in 2011, but your first elected role was in 1985: did you have a political ‘calling’? 

I wouldn’t describe myself as having a political calling. I was interested in politics from a very young age, and knew from my early teens that my political sympathies belonged on the left of the political spectrum. I thought that politics was the best vehicle to defend and promote the interests of those who had the least to start with in society, and the Labour Party was the best way to give a practical expression.

I knocked doors for the Labour Party as long ago as 1974, but I never thought that I would end up as an elected politician. Not because of any ‘calling’, but because when I came to Cardiff and worked as a probation officer, on the Ely estate here I came across a series of things in the housing particularly that I thought needed to be changed. I suppose I was an accidental politician, rather than a politician by design. And you could say that has continued up to my current position.

How would you describe your approach to being First Minister?

Well I’ve said all along that if I was First Minister, I would want to lead a collective government. I think it’s part of the maturing of devolution, really, that for the first couple of decades of devolution it was very important that there were individual people in Wales who identified with the Assembly. But as we move into the third decade of devolution, I believe it is more important than before for people in Wales to know that it’s a team of people. We now have cabinet meetings on alternate weeks which are about discussing, often with people from outside the government, some of those major challenges in making Wales a more equal society; in addressing climate change; and shaping a public transport system for the future, and so on. Finding that little bit of breathing space and thinking time that is so hard to get in government.

Back home in Blaenau Gwent, I notice that negative stereotypes and misconceptions about Oxbridge are prevalent. How do you think we can encourage more Welsh students to apply to top universities?

I doubt that I would start on the same position as the question. I am very keen that young people in Wales that want to go into Higher Education are able to go into it. I’m every bit as pleased that a person gets a place at Cardiff Metropolitan University as I would for a person who got a place as Merton College, Oxford: I wouldn’t regard the one as being superior, or preferable, to the other. What I’m interested in is young people in Wales receiving the right opportunities for them. I want young people to know about all the choices they have available to them, butthen I want them to make the choice that is right for them, rather than living up to some sort of (as it seems to me) old-fashioned ways of thinking that certain sorts of Universities are inevitably better.

Many young people are concerned for any number of reasons about Brexit. I think that there’s concern for our communities across the Valleys and rural Wales, which have benefited from EU money, but it’s also a stressful time for those of us who want to study or live in the EU. Do you have any words of reassurance?

Well, I think I have words of reassurance in this way: that if the opportunity ever came for us to look at that decision again, the Welsh Government would be there campaigning with others to persuade people in Wales that our future is better off inside the European Union. Because that was our view back in 2016, and it is even more emphatically our view today. So, you know, we share the concerns of the impact there will be on rural Wales, and West Wales, and the Valleys. And we absolutely share that sense that many people in Wales have a step back from Europe is somehow a step back from being an open, welcoming, generous place in which we are engaged with the world.

So even if we’re not part of the European Union, Wales is not turning its back on our relationships with Brittany, with the Basque country, with parts of Holland, where we’ve got deep and significant relationships. We know that we will have to work harder to get that message over and working with young people will absolutely be part of the way we will do that.

Why do you think Wales voted the way it did in the 2016 referendum?

I know there are competing explanations for why Wales voted the way it did. I’m an old-fashioned Socialist in this sense: I think that explanation lies essentially in social class. So if you look at places like Cardiff – across the border, cities like Norwich, or Exeter, or Oxford, people in those places vote by very significant margins to stay in the European Union. Other places in Wales, that look like places in England. are places that have felt held back back a decade of austerity. Where they felt that a vote to remain in the referendum was a vote for the status quo, which did not look good to them. If you are a Socialist, in the end, it’s people economic opportunities in the end that shape their lives, and it’s what shaped the vote.

If it were up to you, what are the topics you’d like to see more on the agenda?

Mr Drakeford chuckles a little at the question.

Personally, I’m keen to find ways of talking about what we can do to address poverty, and especially ways to address poverty amongst children. It is surprisingly, in some ways, difficult still to persuade people who live relatively comfortable lives that thereare people in a city like Cardiff not half a mile from where they live who face that every single day in their lives. Where children’s chances in life are held back because of basic poverty: not enough food, not enough clothes, can’t heat the house. All those sort of things.

We have to talk about climate change. It’s the most profound challenge that we face, and Wales is a nation where, on the surface, things still look lovely but underneath we know, the threats from [atmospheric] carbon and so on are real. I’d like to talk more with people about our economic future, and how that ought to be rooted in renewable energy. We have rain, we have wind, we have waves. We have the things we need to shape an environmental approach to our economy. I want housing to be higher on the political agenda: Mrs Thatcher abandoned housing as a topic of genuine social policy. It matters more to more people in Wales than anything else. There’s a list there that I could probably triple. There’s four as a downpayment.

Thank you, First Minister.

Thank you very much.