THE case for a secretary of state for Wales is growing difficult to make. The office that has bred outstanding leaders since the 1960s, of Labour and Conservative parties, now props up Simon Hart to tour media studios.

He is not there as a statesman but a sycophant like his Cabinet colleagues. The defender of deeply troubling asylum policies, law-breaking parties and a leader lacking in moral authority and political capital.

Hart’s predecessors, as James Callaghan noted of Cledwyn Hughes, were more concerned with Welsh life: its political and economic advancement, its culture, the language.

For some time I have been in the minority of political observers arguing that there is some coherent rationale and emotive principle for a Secretary of State for Wales. Fellow champions of the first holder of the office, Jim Griffiths, sniggered at the suggestion.

Although the case for the Wales Office was always better made before the devolution of powers to Cardiff, its relevance could still be seen: post-Brexit, it had potential to serve as a useful conduit between parliaments in Wales and Westminster with more powers coming from Brussels.

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And if leaving the European Union was to bring such great advantages – ensuring that Welsh farmers, tech start-ups and infrastructure projects could be supported and decision-making would be brought into the hands of local people – someone should be making the case for them in Downing Street.

This was wishful thinking. Hart has instead spent the last few days conducting car crash interviews, from justifying a cruel and uneconomic migrant policy as well as trying (and failing) to articulate why a prime minister should not resign when he breaks his own laws.

A stark contrast is how Wales promotes itself as a Nation of Sanctuary and is led by a first minister, whatever detractors may say, is immensely popular not for his policies but in large part his personality; the way he shoulders the responsibilities of political office.

A worse offence is that, in the same week, the secretary of state for Wales has been flogging a shabby economic aid deal for his constituents.

The Welsh government is right when it says that the Shared Prosperity Fund is not as good a deal as was given by the EU, and that poorer regions won’t get a fair distribution of cash compared to more affluent areas.

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Their estimates are that Wales is set to lose out to the tune of £1bn over the next three years compared to what we would have in the EU’s scheme.

The devil is in the detail, as parts of England and Northern Ireland have similarly found out. But raucous intergovernmental relations skip over this.

Mud-slinging, on proportions not seen during the devolved era, locks the Welsh and UK governments in never-ending conflict.

Jim Griffiths would have recoiled at pitting Wales against Westminster, out of principle and because he was such a skilful negotiator with different wings of the Labour party to find common ground.

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Few subjects back then were as visceral as the question of devolution, but at least there was room for debate to be had.

Hart is not an aberration but a product of the weak cabinet that has been formed around Johnson, where ministers’ sole duty is to defend the prime minister. The quality and depth of debate between Nye Bevan and Jim Griffiths over the future of Wales has been replaced by petty squabbles over money and control.

The first minister gets too easy a ride on many policy areas but he is often more right than wrong when he speaks for Wales on questions of national significance.

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By contrast, Hart has struggled to re-imagine the secretary of state role beyond a spokesman of the UK government in Wales and presiding over disintegrating relations with Cardiff Bay. But, then again, these purposes suit the short-term tactics of the government Hart is part of well.

After all, the Wales Office may have once been the nation’s sole great office of state but its secretary of state is now reduced to doing a junior minister’s job of defending the Prime Minister in the media round.

It is a sad decline that represents, in the long arc of Welsh democracy, how the Wales Office has diminished in responsibility and respect over successive years. It is not just a failure of the current incumbent but various office holders to re-invent the role for the devolved era.

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Patriots, even those who support an independent Welsh state, should mourn the collapse of the Wales Office’s standing, with its recent track record showing it will disrupt the steady delivery of Welsh devolution, economic investment and intergovernmental relations. There was once a vision for a secretary of state to facilitate all three, and much more, as effectively as possible for the people of Wales.

Two portraits which hang on the wall of my study remind me of this vision: one of David Lloyd George, the other of a young Jim Griffiths. Both sought to position Wales as a valued partner of the British state: the former as a patriotic prime minister, the latter as a Labour devolutionist and cabinet minister.

Jim’s enduring message was to ‘Guard our Inheritance’ – the betterment of Wales, the preservation of its language, and the culture associated with it.

It is a tragedy that it is now almost impossible to see how Jim’s greatest creation makes a useful contribution to any of these areas. The age of statesmen like him has passed. And, alas, it is finally time to consider whether the office he worked so tirelessly to create must also be confined to the annals of Welsh history. 

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