Last week I attended an international meeting of the United World Colleges in Cardiff. It’s a movement which started in Wales 50 years ago, and which I was lucky enough to be given the chance to benefit from as a 16-year-old – to attend a school which plucked kids from 100 different countries, and from completely diverse economic, religious and ethnic backgrounds, to study and live together for two years.
I had never been on a plane before I went, or out of western Europe. But young people who are lucky enough to attend swiftly become part of a new globally equipped elite, even while retaining deep roots to their homes.
Whatever their humble beginnings – like the student Mario I met, who grew up in a refugee camp in South Sudan – the students often now speak multiple languages, are entirely comfortable in diverse cultural environments, and have a deep grasp of challenges like sustainability, conflict, and the need to reform our economic and financial systems – globally and in their own countries.
As I drove past a group of 15- and 16-year-olds standing on the street corner in Tremorfa in my constituency later that weekend, I wondered whether they would be getting the same opportunities and inspirations in the Wales of today, tomorrow and over the next generation?
Will one of them be able to learn Mandarin; or work with a Chinese company to develop the next drugs to fight cancer; or lead a Welsh company exporting an advanced fuel cell to power the cars of India?
There is absolutely no reason why not.
But we have to ask ourselves important and searching questions if we are to support them to do that.
Who will inspire them? Will our education system equip them? And will they have an industrial, engineering and scientific base here in Wales where they could work, and use those skills in our future economy, and to tackle the huge challenges facing humanity.
These are key challenges for any progressive thinking about the future of Wales and its people.
Pessimists sometimes describe us as ‘managing industrial decline’ in Wales. They focus on how we are hampered by the historical developments in our economy in the 20th century or the legacy of industrial disease, point to the high levels of benefit claimants, standards in our schools, or over-reliance on the public sector.
Despite our challenges, I remain an optimist. That is because we are not (and never must allow ourselves to become) a party which merely does its best to manage decline, or accepts mediocrity.
I am proud we have an optimistic and interventionist Labour government in Wales.
With a first minister who is building Wales’ own links with the new opportunities offered from working with China, as seen on his recent visit to Chongqing.
A finance minister who has chosen to work with the rest of the cabinet to invest in jobs and training through Jobs Growth Wales – to equip and inspire our young people, rather than leave them to struggle in triple-drip Britain.
An education minister who is taking tough but necessary action to directly intervene to improve our schools after worrying findings from international surveys – whether in my own constituency or in other local authorities – and is rightly not willing to accept poor standards or failing schools.
We need to continue to develop a radical and ambitious agenda for education at all levels in Wales, with schools and universities fit for purpose – delivering the education the kids of Tremorfa need for our changing world – and letting them reach the heights of their dreams and the possibilities that exist.
Sadly this is not matched by an equally optimistic, visionary or ambitious government in Westminster.
As Michael Leahy from Community said just this week, we urgently need a comprehensive and active industrial policy, and to do what Peter Mandelson argued for in the Purple Book – ‘pump prime certain investment and contribute selectively to the heavy lifting of early stage technology or product development’.
There is no practical reason why Wales, for example, could not become a world-beating site for future low-carbon technology industries where our young people can work. But it requires vision, and an activist and empowering UK government, in contrast to one that is manifestly failing on investing in industry or infrastructure.
And we need an internationalist, outward-looking government in Westminster to match the one in Cardiff Bay – not one that has put Welsh businesses or potential investors in Wales into deep uncertainty by offering up a referendum on EU membership five years down the line not in the national interest – but rather to satiate little Englanders on the Tory benches.
We need to continue to set out an uncompromisingly bold, internationalist, ambitious and optimistic vision for Wales and Britain.
It’s the right thing to do for those kids in Tremorfa, it’s the right way back to government in Westminster, and it’s the right way to secure government in Wales.
Stephen Doughty is MP for Cardiff South and Penarth. He tweets @SDoughtyMP
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