As others (at the Economist) see us

Daniel Knowles, reporting for the right wing journal from Cardiff, reckons that these days Wales is a bit of a reluctant dragon

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.

Daniel Knowles is a reporter with the The Economist

17 thoughts on “As others (at the Economist) see us

  1. I get the feeling that Nationalism in Wales is more diverse in nature and therefore more difficult to define than is Scottish Nationalism. In Wales Plaid isn’t the only party that has a nationalist (with a small n) core. Labour is nationalist but less committed to culture and language nationalism than is Plaid. Voting with Plaid at elections is a conservative block who have given rise to a right wing, anti-immigration, party; Plaid Glyndwr. Inevitably this party will fail to gain traction because even the right wing of culture and language Nationalist followers know that Plaid Cymru is the only viable home for their votes.

    For Wales there appear to be more political stresses in society as a whole than there are in Scotland. The right wing nationalists are quite contemptuous of the quasi-socialist mainstream nationalists and the mainstream hate….not the Conservative and Unionist party, but the quasi-socialist quasi-nationalist Labour party…. the only party with whom they could share government. Geography plays a major part in the division of the country and industrial heritage is another major factor. Wales is not a cohesive unit… except on matchdays.

    One thing that Daniel Knowles is not wrong about; Wales does not consider the Senedd and its doings anything like enough.

  2. Generally a good, insightful piece but with some errors. Why do people still refer to Welsh Assembly Government and not Welsh Government? Also, why talk of “Plaid Cymru, Wales’s nationalist party”? Surely the Assembly hosts four nationalist parties; Plaid represent Welsh Nationalism, whilst the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat parties advocate British Nationalism. Overall, however, I think that Daniel Knowles raises many (uncomfortable) points in this article.

  3. ” …. while pensioners spend their days drinking in battered old pubs”

    Chance would be a fine thing.

  4. An excellent article which represents reality, rather than the one-eyed, and narrow vision of Wales that is peddled by the nationalists in PC, and the Welsh nationalist wing of LLAFUR which is currently in the ascendency in the party and has been since the coronation of King Rhodri 11. In the 1960’s a certain Chou Een Lai was asked his view of the impact of the French revolution on mankind, and stated “It’s too early to tell”, whilst our FM (plainly a much greater statesman than CoE) has stated that after 12 years that “Devolution is the settled will of the Welsh people”. Well we’ll see! The whole DEVO stuff was based on the Labour Party in Wales fearing that its main body would not get power again at Westminster, and fearing for jobs/riches (their own) they rescued it from the 1979 grave and the rest is history. As the article says we are retreating into a nationalist/socialist utopia, and all based upon somebody else paying for it, see S4C funding (now and for next 5 years), whilst the English are at least trying to move public services forward to a more individualistic basis, and direct accountability. We’ll have to see if it works, but if it does we’ll be another 20-30 years behind the people who live over the border! The whole idea of trying to run Wales on a unitary basis flies in the face of geography and economics, and quite frankly attitudes to such emotive matters as Welsh language, Welsh medium schools for the privileged, upper classes in totally anglicised areas. In the private sector NO national company manages its Welsh outlets as an entity, and even TESCO has three distribution depots for little Wales, i.e Chester/Birmingham/Chepstow but that doesn’t stop the pragmatic Welsh people from using the store. Having spent a week in London and met many of my daughter’s friends who are succesful people operating in good professional possitions they couldn’t care less about Scotland, and even less about Wales. The Nationalist 10% now run BBC CYMRU/S4C, and in print media (what’s left) and the drive to seperate us from England will seemingly continue apace, as we have a craven/useless opposition in the SENEDD (In bi-lingual Wales why does it have only a Welsh name) and we will drift off to total isolation/poverty, except for the “chosen few”!

  5. “Wales depends heavily on English money”

    The funds come from the UK Treasury.. there isn’t an ‘English’ one. The UK Treasury is heavily in debt and its borrowing is increasing. It has survived the economic and banking crisis by authorising the BoE to create vast quantities of money to purchase UK government debt. The cost has been the devaluing of our salaries, wages, pensions and savings, and significant levels of inflation, hitting the most vulnerable sections of society and parts of the UK, of which Wales is foremost, due to lack of investment in infrastructure and neglect of its economy by Westminster governments.

    The failures of successive UK governments have got Wales and the rest of the UK into a woeful mess where austerity is likely to continue post-2018, whilst the gap between rich and poor ever widens.

    The anti-Wales and anti-Welsh ranters are alive and well, but, HM, the opinion polls consistently show that a majority of the people of Wales want more devolution of power, not less – and it’s coming. Wales isn’t Scotland, but conquest, occupation, subjugation, and attempts at assimilation, over seven centuries have failed to obliterate Wales’ distinctiveness.

    The desire for political recognition has re-asserted itself post-1945, in both Scotland and Wales, as the Britishness of the inter-war years has faded, and the failure of the political system to address the huge divide between north and south. The tide of history is running against the British state. Its days are numbered, regardless of the outcome of the 2014 referendum, which I believe will be close.

  6. Howell Morgan’s losing struggle with the English language almost distracts attention from his exuberant indifference to the canons of evidence and his hostility to reasoned argument. Trist iawn feri sad, as they say in Bryncoch.

  7. A provoking article that raises some important points, but makes some innacurate assertions along the way. Still it would be good to see the British political weeklies start reporting a bit more on what is happening in Wales.

  8. “we will drift off to total isolation/poverty, except for the “chosen few”!”.
    The problem with this remark is that is was made about every country that ever sought freedom from England, and in every instance it turned out to be wrong. Unless Unionists can explain why Wales would be different from other countries the assertion is meaningless.

  9. I’m willing to take the article’s inaccuracies on the chin and say it’s good to see a right-wing paper covering Wales. Their central theme is inescapable really- we have a reluctant national leadership. If you consider today the Labour party in Wales, quite naturally, wants to keep GCSEs. The Welsh electorate supports GCSEs and hasn’t voted for change. But because the UK Government in England wants to do away with GCSEs, we have steady divergence taking place. I think establishing more accountability in Welsh politics, including through fiscal devolution, would raise the game and give the electorate more power. I also think, and perhaps this will reassure some of the commentators on this article, we’re not going to get a truly distinctive Welsh politics until the media catches up. For now, the differences in policy between Wales and England are steadily growing but are still quite subtle. There hasn’t been any divergence yet that the people of Wales haven’t supported, endorsed, or failed to actively oppose.

  10. A question for all those who keep on talking Wales down.

    If Wales is such a drain on the resources of the UK Treasury, why are the unionist parties so keen on keeping us in the union?

  11. Why does Click on Wales refer to The Economist in its byline as a ‘right wing’ journal? Yes, it’s certainly supports free market economics; but it also supports a whole load of liberal causes – gay marriage, mass immigration, European integration. Was the term ‘right wing’ journal one which Daniel Knowles himself uses to describe his magazine? Classical liberal would be a better description, surely.

  12. Tim, Perhaps I dont write as ‘proper’ as you, but you get ‘drift’ of my argument! It’s nice to know that there is such ‘perfection’ around, and I’ll visit Bryncoch asap.

    David Bullock, The UK has been an entity for centuries, and has been a model of how different people’s can ‘pool’ their talents/hard work for benefit for all, even though it has its imperfections! The ONLY peole who wish to see Wales being seperated from the UK (mainly England) is PC, and as I come from the Anglo/Welsh sector they are plainly my enemies as I would become a second class person overnight if they got into real power. The UK has many prosperous parts, and poorer parts and there is a system of transfer payments from the former to the latter through the UK Treasury. We are not alone in receiving more than we put in at present, however this probably only balances up our gigantic contributions over the years, however we cannot continue for ever being a ‘basket’ case, and whingeing either. The original article tries to put our position in some context, and I can only humbly endorse what DK has written, as it is my experience when travelling over the border, or meeting vets tennis players. In conclusion why do you and others accuse people who are sceptical about the Welsh Government and the drive to seperate us from the UK of ‘talking Wales down?’. What EVIDENCE is there that our public services in general/BBC Wales are better than their counterparts over the border, even though we receive much larger public expenditure per head of population?

  13. @HM
    “I would become a second class person overnight if they (PC) got into real power.”
    This sounds like bespoke-paranoia, but if you have some tangible & objective corroboration for that defamatory assertion, we’d like to read it. The closest analogy I can think of is that of the Anglo-Irish protestant ascendancy who resisted Irish freedom. They spread similar scare stories among each other (fenians eat protestant babies for breakfast) and in the end it was all untrue. The catholic majority had sound reasons to hate their former masters but stayed their hands. Today Irish protestants are entirely happy & integrated Irish citizens who wouldn’t want to be anything else. Why would Wales be any different?

  14. “Having spent a week in London and met many of my daughter’s friends who are succesful people operating in good professional possitions they couldn’t care less about Scotland, and even less about Wales.”

    Clearly Howell Morgan would prefer to be governed from London where attitudes towards the other constituent nations of his beloved United Kingdom are so enlightened.

    He protests that those who are ‘sceptical about the Welsh Government and the drive to separate us from the UK’ are accused of ‘talking Wales down’.

    I just think that he and his friend are guilty of ‘talking up’ a system of government that for many decades has consistently failed the people Wales and left it one of the poorest regions both within the UK and Europe.

    Some of us have moved forward from the nineteenth century and we want to see a vibrant, progressive Wales taking its proper place amongst the nations of the UK, Europe and the rest of world.

  15. @PR. The number of protestants has declined over years in EIRE, and particularly since seperation from UK and this has been due to various reasons. One was the discrimation in the job market against protestants, which led to migration, however matters have improved recently, but facts are facts. If PC did get power there would be acceleratating emphasis on ‘cultural’ Wales which would be to detriment of English-only speakers like myself, and I would become MORE of a ‘second class’ person. I’m not paranoid but I know the Welsh world is out to get me. (My Daughter in Law is from the republic and I get a totally different aspect of life there, and its recent history from her father/mother and it isn’t as rosy a picture as you present) in conclusion there is no debating with Welsh NATIONALISTS as they are trapped in 1282!

  16. Former editor, Bill Emmott, preferred to call it liberal but I’ve seen The Economist refer to itself as centre-right. It is certainly liberal on markets and some social issues. It has endorsed Barack Obama twice and battled heroically against Silvio Berlusconi. But it has also supported Tony Blair and backing our former neocon prime minister is maybe reason enough, some would say, to call it a right wing journal.

  17. Debates about the regional/national economies in the UK focus on tax transfers. The likely ebb and flow of private sector income and wealth is almost never considered. Neither is the quality of government spending.

    One huge private sector issue is the flow of pension payments to London. The Heath Government made pension payment compulsory. The result was a massive transfer of wealth from the regions of the UK to London and to a lesser extent Edinburgh. It is a one way transfer far in excess of any tax balancing. This coincided with the arrival of the oil curse/Dutch disease. Thus the pension money tended to be invested in the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Retail, Estate Agency) economy, which is centred on London and in overseas assets because ultimately, oil can only buy imports or overseas assets. Renewal of the UK private sector outside FIRE assets did not happen. It was the deliberate choice of governments more concerned with moderating inflation than building infrastructure to route the funds in this direction. An independent Welsh Government could do a lot to reclaim these pension flows.

    An example of the quality of Government spending is the question of national Government Offices. South Wales has some. Companies House, the Patent Office and the DVLA. As an aside, one huge question arises as to why South Wales has not thereby attracted data aggregation firms like Dun and Bradstreet which went to Oxford instead? Such government spending gives (should give) a higher quality result than supporting the gym junkies of Merthyr Tydfil in their steroid habits. London and the South East benefits inordinately from high quality central government spending. In an independent Wales some of this quality spending would be done locally.

    However, somewhere I recall reading that 25% of British people who identify as Welsh live in South East England and a third live in England as a whole. The Welsh born were said to be the largest immigrant group in England. Has the talent all gone?

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