Towards the end of the 13th century Edward I launched a series of attacks intended to quell the rebellions of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, a tempestuous Welsh prince, and conquer Wales for the English crown. The wars, which littered Wales with hundreds of castles, cost the king around ten times his annual income. His huge debts probably stopped Edward from subjugating Scotland a decade later. Now the Scots are returning the favour they owe the Welsh.
In 2014 Scotland will decide whether to leave the United Kingdom. Whatever the outcome, the nation is charging towards greater independence from Westminster. Wales is caught in Scotland’s slipstream. On November 19th the first part of a review conducted by Paul Silk, a clerk of the House of Commons, recommended giving the Welsh government more power to raise taxes and borrow to pay for infrastructure projects. His commission is now investigating Wales’s constitutional position. In a year it will suggest more powers for the Welsh Assembly Government.
If Westminster adopts the proposals, as it seems minded to, Wales will get the sort of powers Scotland has had since 1998. That would be remarkable. Wales has little history as an independent state. It shares England’s legal system. Only around 10% of its 3m population consistently backs independence, far less than in Scotland. Welshness is more cultural than political: rugby and the Welsh language define it more than any institution.
Yet Wales is steadily diverging from England, albeit much less raucously than Scotland. In 1997 the Welsh narrowly voted to create an elected National Assembly. Since then the country has quietly pursued distinct policies. Tuition fees are heavily subsidised and doctors’ prescriptions are free. Wales has no academies or free schools—centrepieces of an educational revolution in England — nor even official school league tables. Most controversially, the Welsh have opted to cut the budget of the National Health Service instead of imposing deeper cuts on other bits of the state—something viewed as politically toxic in Westminster.
Last year, following another referendum, the Welsh Assembly gained the power to write its own laws in 20 devolved areas; previously, some Welsh decisions needed Westminster’s agreement. Control over taxation would make the Welsh government more accountable to its electorate and give its politicians a stake in improving the country’s economic fortunes. Added to the eventual outcome in Scotland — whether it is independence, as nationalists want, or more devolution, as unionists offer — it would be a big step towards a more federal United Kingdom.
Unlike Scotland, though, Wales is less than ready for this step. These days Scotland is evidently a different country. Economically, culturally and politically, Wales is still wedded to England. Scotland is forcing federalism on the United Kingdom, unsettling England’s western neighbour.
Carwyn Jones, Wales’s first minister, reckons he could use independent tax-setting powers to cut air-passenger duty, which would give Cardiff Airport a competitive advantage over its English competitor, Bristol. He hints at borrowing against revenues, perhaps from the tolls from the Severn Bridge, to do up the M4 motorway, which connects south Wales to London. But on the most radical of the Silk Commission’s suggestions, control over income tax, he fudges his answer.
Indeed, that proposal has led to much embarrassed foot-shuffling. In theory, the Welsh Labour and Conservative parties favour a referendum on whether Wales should get control over income tax. In practice, Labour, the dominant party in the Welsh Assembly, is not keen. Labour MPs fear that a taxing-and-spending Wales could make it even harder for the national party to regain a reputation for fiscal continence. And Roger Scully of the Wales Governance Centre points out that few would fight hard for tax-raising powers, which sound rather like tax raises to the untrained ear.
One reason for this hesitation is the Welsh government’s weak mandate. The rapid ascent of the Scottish National Party to a majority has made the Scottish Parliament impossible to ignore. By contrast, Plaid Cymru, Wales’s nationalist party, has just 11 out of 60 seats in the Welsh Assembly. Few in Wales follow the Assembly or care greatly about what it does. Rosemary Butler, its presiding officer, claims that the Welsh BBC spent more time analysing the fate of Shambo, a sacred cow infected with bovine tuberculosis, than the results of Assembly elections in 2007. Devolution requires more people to pay attention.
An even bigger obstacle to a stronger Welsh state is its weak economy. Wales depends heavily on English money. Some 26 per cent of the workforce is employed by the government, the highest level anywhere in Britain other than in Northern Ireland, where state spending has been used to buy peace. Mr Jones argues that Wales cannot afford to raise a large proportion of its own revenues. Others, such as Geraint Davies, the Labour MP for Swansea West, argue that the entire idea is a trap set by the coalition government in Westminster to cut Wales’s grant.
Tax devolution could curtail inward investment, the main source of what private-sector growth Wales has enjoyed. And Wales is not a natural economic unit, says Kevin Morgan, a development expert at Cardiff University. Its north is dependent on the economy of the English north-west; its south is linked to Bristol and London. Many people commute from one country to the other, and businesses worry about the consequences of separate tax regimes.
Even within south Wales, the contrasts are striking. Cardiff, the capital, has boomed since 1997, attracting lots of new investment. But other bits have stagnated. In Merthyr Tydfil, an old mining town, teenagers hang around fading shopping centres aimlessly, while pensioners spend their days drinking in battered old pubs. One bizarre by-product of industrial decline in Welsh mining towns is an epidemic of steroid abuse by young men.
Self-determination would mean taking responsibility for such problems. Wales has not asked for that, nor is it ready. But as Mr Jones points out, not only is Scotland pulling away from the rest of the United Kingdom, many in Westminster seem keen to profoundly redefine Britain’s relationship with the European Union—which is rather more popular in Wales and Scotland than in England. Britain’s constitutional make-up is changing dramatically. Whether it likes it or not, Wales will have to find its place.