“We’ve got some seriously confused flowers here in the capital,” the local taxi driver tells us. Happily, this isn’t the latest snowflake-style pejorative for progressives in America, but a simple reference to the early appearance of Washington’s famous cherry blossom – a result of a weirdly balmy winter.
As we watched the warm rain bounce off Independence Avenue ahead of President Trump’s first address to Congress, it was fitting to consider how even Mother Nature herself seemed to be suffering a state of deep confusion in the nation’s capital. Uncertainty and doubt were evident everywhere we went on our now-traditional St David’s Day trade mission to the States. When I was here in October, everyone wanted to know about Brexit – they still do – but more pressing still is the question about their own political earthquake: “What do you people think about what’s happening here?”
People look to America for stability and security, I tell them. And right now, that’s missing. It is a complete switch-around from what would-be investors were saying to me about Brexit Britain when I was last here.
In the US, though, there are some signs that things are shifting. President Trump’s Congressional address made headlines because of its marked change in tone, and an appeal for bipartisan solutions to seemingly intractable problems, such as the cost of prescription drugs. Republicans across the Hill are quietly shifting from the high octane rhetoric on the perceived horrors of Obamacare to the even more horrifying prospect of how to replace it. There are signs, albeit small ones, that people are trying to get on with things.
This isn’t helped by an administration that in large part still doesn’t exist. Confirmation hearings are progressing slowly. The continued lack of an Agriculture Secretary, for example, meant that while we received a sympathetic hearing in our attempts to reintroduce Welsh lamb to the US market, it will join a long to-do list when somebody new finally takes up the post. In contrast to days gone by, however, we will have people lined up at the door to make the case, long after my delegation heads home.
The growing interest and support for Wales on the Hill was evidenced by a packed St David’s Day reception hosted by the Welsh caucus. Now in its fourth year, we are playing catch-up with our Irish cousins, but our small diaspora is starting to flex its muscles in Washington and across the rest of America.
Even before Brexit made the need to reach out all the more acute, I took the decision to expand the Welsh government’s reach around the world, with offices in Washington, New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and Chicago. On this trip I announced that we are going to commit additional resources to North America, and establish a presence in Canada. This proactive approach, opposed by a limited and unambitious Tory opposition in Wales, will be central to how we respond to Brexit. Our record inward investment figures are testament to the success of that approach.
On this trip alone we were able to announce that we had secured hundreds of high-skilled jobs at GE Aviation in the village of Nantgarw. A £20m investment means that the world’s largest jet engine, the GE9X, will be repaired and maintained at the site, proving its claim that it has become a global centre of excellence.
The trip was a good opportunity to meet with businesses already investing in Wales – such as Airbus, a major north Wales employer and anchor tenant at our forthcoming Advanced Manufacturing & Research Institution; and Raytheon, a growing company bringing highly-skilled jobs to Wales and exporting its defence systems across the globe.
In New York, I met with global leader Wheelabrator which is developing a pioneering energy facility in Deeside, as well as the founders of Bipsync, a tech company started in Silicon Valley and rapidly growing in Cardiff. I also hot-footed it over to IQE’s Pennsylvania plant to visit a company, born in Wales, that is leading the way in innovation and developing the technology that will power the products of tomorrow.
As the only head of government to ring the opening and closing bells at the New York Stock Exchange, it was a further thrill for me to ring the closing bell at Nasdaq this week, going live across US networks to deliver the Welsh inward investment message right at the heart of where it really matters.
Of course these positive developments were tempered by the speculation on the future of the Ford plant in Bridgend. We’ve worked closely with Ford for a number of years, and we are committed to working with the company and its employees to secure the long-term future of these vital manufacturing jobs. As an executive from another company told me in the US, the only job security is a full order book – and that’s the long-term challenge for Ford in Wales.
There are things the UK Government needs to do immediately to help. It must offer this business the same assurances given to Nissan, and Theresa May must commit to a Brexit that does not impose tariffs on the engines produced in Bridgend – every single one of which is exported to the European market.
For our part, we have offered every assistance to the company and we’ve also offered to broker discussions on a joint working group between management and the workforce at the plant. The potential job losses discussed this week were the worst case scenario projection – and we must do all in our power to stop it coming to pass.
The uncertainty in Bridgend merely reinforces the necessity of these trade trips, however. We cannot afford to settle for what we already have, or rely on the technology of today. We have to relentlessly pursue new opportunities and sell Wales hard to the rest of the world.
The welcome we received over this week has demonstrated once again the strength of that approach, and I have every expectation that Wales will continue to punch above our weight in attracting international investment, even in the teeth of political and economic turmoil.
Carwyn Jones is the First Minister of Wales