Where Welsh Left could meet Welsh Right

David Melding asks whether unionism and nationalism can come together to provide a strong narrative for a federal Britain

It is time to examine the compatibility of Unionism and Nationalism and ask whether they can combine to provide a strong narrative for a federal Britain. Such an ambitious objective might at first sight appear fanciful, but one thing these theories of identity certainly have in common is a desire to shape the horizontal plane of politics on which socio-economic ideologies strike vertically. Consequently, there are left and right wing Unionists and Nationalists.

There are intimations in both Unionism and Nationalism that suggest the possibility of compromise and unexpected coalition. Both Unionism and Nationalism are crucial forces in Britain because much Britishness lingers in Celtic Nationalism while Unionism requires a heavy dose of national sentiment in order to lift it above a mere civic identity.

The Reformed Union: Britain as a Federation

This is an introduction to the fifth chapter in the online serialisation (here) of a new book by the Deputy Presiding Officer in the National Assembly, David Melding AM. Entitled The Reformed Union: Britain as a Federation, the book is being serialised in six chapters at regular intervals during 2012-13, continuing with Chapter 5 today:

  1. The present is not an ordinary time
  2. Parliament, sovereignty and federalism
  3. Political institutions in a British federation
  4. The political economy of a British federation
  5. Unionism and Nationalism
  6. The Reformed Union

Online serialisation of a book in this way is a first for ClickonWales and demonstrates the new directions that dissemination of serious thinking through the social media is taking. Responses to this fourth chapter are welcome and can be posted in the normal way. Once all the chapters are published David Melding intends to rework the material in light of any criticism it receives. We will then re-publish the revised edition.

This online publication is a follow-up to David Melding’s earlier work Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020? published by the IWA in 2009, and available here.

Celtic Nationalism has regularly sought to embrace aspects of Britishness as can be readily seen today in the SNP’s belief that a social union would replace the constitutional union after Scottish independence. And Unionism has never merely been a constitutional concept but rather one that has sought to accommodate, even sublimate, Nationalism, in order to produce a sense of dual identity. However, a hint of cultural paramountcy is present in Unionism.

Unionists face a big constitutional moment because a Union based on the superiority of British national identity cannot survive. However, one that represents a partnership, where Britishness is the common but not dominant identity might prosper. More: it ought to prosper. In retaining its integrity as a multi-national state, the UK would demonstrate that the constructive forces within identity politics can be accommodated by wider political associations. We would not face a world made fractious by the principle that states and nations must be necessarily co-terminous.

Britain is stumbling towards common ground that could accommodate the most constructive elements of Unionist and Nationalist thought. That common ground might be a federation that would allow the British state to meet the aspirations of the Home Nations. Or, should that attempt ultimately fail, it would allow for the British state in time to evolve into a looser confederation. It would be a productive compromise allowing for the development of the British state and the two most vital forces that now seek to shape it. Speaking of compromise is appropriate because federalism is best understood as a treaty relationship in which the interests of the different spheres of government are constantly being modified and negotiated. It creates a lot of space for constitutional development and allows states to adapt to challenges that cannot be easily anticipated.

At first glance, federalism appears a difficult option for Unionists. There is always a danger that Unionism will over compensate in its desire for unity and become insular in outlook rather than expansive and open to change. Today, some strands of Unionism are dominated by a Euro-sceptic vision that yearns for a more classically independent British state. Here the need for international co-operation is still acknowledged but believed to be achievable by bilateral agreements between states. But it is doubtful that the traditional character of Britain can be easily preserved in such a confined context.

Britain was the first global state with an expansive mission first in Empire and then in Europe and the various international organisations that were set up after the Second World War (many of which Britain was instrumental in founding). Narrow Euro-sceptism is now one of the principle threats to the emergence of a reformed, neo-Unionism. Such Euro-sceptism threatens to fuse with a rather brittle English Nationalism that resents outside interference and finds more inspiration in contemporary Switzerland than in the historic achievements that created the English speaking world. This ‘stay at home’ Britain looks a meagre version of the state that defeated the Nazi menace and established many of the international pillars of democratic government, human rights, and free trade. Britain would surely not survive by becoming the last place in the British Empire.

The dilemma facing Celtic Nationalism is something of a reversal of that confronting Unionism. While Welsh and Scottish Nationalists have largely accommodated the concept of European unity, opinion within the EU is turning against secession (although it was to a degree accepted in the 1990s when Eastern Europe emerged out of the shadow of communism). Nationalists in Britain, Belgium and Catalonia face a stern examination from those who see the greater use of federal mechanisms as a way to sustain the constitutional integrity of multi-national states.

The EU could expand alarmingly in terms of constituent members if secession becomes an increasingly ordinary political process. When the EEC was formed in the 1950s most political observers would have thought an independent Scotland as likely as an independent Bavaria or Burgundy. Yugoslavia stands as a grim warning of what can happen when multi-national states dissolve suddenly, although the Czechoslovakian experience amounted to a ‘velvet’ divorce that perhaps indicates a more likely pattern.

Much ideological common ground exists between Unionism and Nationalism. The shared faith in parliamentary institutions is striking. What is often called the Westminster model of government has been the template for Welsh and Scottish political institutions. Many parliamentary states are federal and there appear few arguments in principle against Britain adopting a federal constitution (there is a big argument in practice, the dominant size of England, which I discuss in Chapter 3 of The Reformed Union).

Many political-cultural values are also shared. Most Nationalists in Wales and Scotland agree that some form of British connection would survive independence. The SNP has called for what amounts to a confederation of considerable depth with a single market and currency, a shared head of state and joint armed forces. Even when this is described as a social union it still looks like a treaty relationship not a million miles away from federalism. Indeed, one can take this further and argue that the presence of Britishness is being acknowledged in such proposals. Britishness is ancient unlike the British state and it seems fanciful to expect Scots in an independent Scotland to start relating to the English as fellow Europeans rather than fellow Brits! Dual identities are clearly at play here, otherwise why call for a social union at all?

Finally, and most surprisingly, Unionism and Nationalism in Britain accepts the legitimacy of secession. This embeds the principle that sovereignty ultimately resides with the peoples of the Home Nations separately and not in the people of Britain collectively. If the peoples of the Home Nations are sovereign and want a federal Union, both Unionism and Nationalism will have to accommodate such a desire if they are to practice liberal and constructive statecraft. The agreement on the conduct of the Scottish referendum signed by David Cameron and Alex Salmond on 15th October 2012 in effect convened Britain’s constitutional convention. It remains to be seen whether a politician of the first rank has the imagination to combine the most positive attributes of Unionism and Nationalism in a Federal Union.

David Melding AM for South Wales Central is Deputy Presiding Officer in the National Assembly.

21 thoughts on “Where Welsh Left could meet Welsh Right

  1. David Melding is really confused. He talks of Unionism AND Nationalism. Unionism is Nationalism. It is a constructed British Nationalism, whose political, sociological and philosophical centre is London. “No” campaigners in 1979, 1997 and 2011 used this British Nationalism as the core of their Unionist rhetoric. Unless Melding and others address the various forms of nationalism in our country – i.e. the Welsh and British variants – then the debate creates a vacuum. Trouble is, for some unexplained reason, British Nationalists deny or downplay their Nationalism on a daily basis. Unless, naturally, the topic is “Europe”, whereupon their latent xenophobia comes to the fore.

  2. The title, if not the article, confuses the Left/Right dualism with the the Unionist/Nationalist dualism. There are both left and right wing Unionists just as there are both right and left wing nationalists.

  3. Mark Jones makes a valid point regarding British Nationalism – a predominantly English creation, often referred to as Unionism.

    David Melding’s problem is that he belongs to a party which is a million miles away from his train of thought. Even if he could overcome his party’s strong desire to maintain the political and constitutional status quo, and achieve a federal union with an entrenched written constitution, having truly democratic credentials with an elected head of state, proportionately elected legislatures etc, how could such a lop-sided federation survive the tensions over issues such as nuclear deterrence and immoral neo-imperial conflicts, with their associated human and financial implications? Surely, the federation’s defence and foreign policy would be driven by the English component, and if not, would England tolerate a veto on these issues by the other members?

    I’m afraid that either the Union persists, much as it is, with its current devolution settlement devised on the back of a fag packet to serve the interests of the Labour Party, or it disintegrates. The latter, I believe will eventually happen, though in the case of Wales, it may well be after I’ve left this earthly scene of time. Scotland will exit sooner, if not in 2014, then within a decade, and Northern Ireland in the next couple of decades because of demographic trends. Poor old Wales will end up as its sad neighbour’s last colonial outpost, the Falkland Islands having been negotiated away to Argentina, and Gibraltar to Spain, long since.

    However, having said all that, I wish David Melding all the best with his endeavours to achieve a better status for Wales. Britain would be a better place politically if, like him, more politicians were open to new ideas.

  4. David writes that “nationalists in Britain, Belgium and Catalonia face a stern examination from those who see the greater use of federal mechanisms as a way to sustain the constitutional integrity of multi-national states.” Federalism, while perhaps a desirable middle ground in theory, seems utopian in reality: The last thing the Anglo-British Westminster/ Whitehall elite want is the type thoroughgoing constitutional overhaul of the type referred to in the piece. How else is the No campaign’s total refusal to articulate a positive alternative to the status quo to be explained? Should the No campaign’s fearmongering and negativity fail, the establishment would indeed probably prefer Scotland to leave and preserve the basic UK state apparatus intact.

    The example of Catalonia is instructive: mainstream Catalan nationalism has historically sought precisely the kind of federalist accommodation within a reformed, explicitly multinational and federal Spain (independentism traditionally being a minority current within Catalanism). The new drive for Catalan independence is in large part being driven by the Spanish state’s desire to not only stem any further change, but to actually reverse that which has taken place already (for example, the attempt to undermine and marginalize the position of Catalan in the education system). What is to say that this will not happen here should hardline Unionism not scent blood in the event of a No vote in Scotland in 2014 and wish to prevent such a situation from ever occurring again?

  5. Federalism is a non-starter. We the people of Wales must have control through our elected government of all aspects of government including foreign affairs. No foreign government in London or any other place can be allowed to involve Wales in foreign wars and invasions against the wishes of her people ever again.

  6. Melding’s writing reflects how federalism has become the settled will in Wales, and possibly in Scotland if they vote “no”. However I don’t think his views align with how federalism is not the settled will in the corridors of power in London, even if you look amongst MPs from Wales in the Conservative and Labour parties. In fact I’m quite sure members of David Melding’s own Assembly group were this week disagreeing with the devolution of policing and justice to Wales. It’s going to be a very strange kind of federation where Wales doesn’t even have a justice system of her own or a legal jurisdiction. Beyond this, many of Melding’s points are interesting and there is merit in the idea that Welsh nationalism and Welsh unionism could meet. In some practical ways they already have, but I don’t yet see this being accepted at the central British level.

  7. I agree with the two previous responses.

    In the hope that Mr. Melding might read this I would point out that if you get your starting facts wrong your conclusion will be daft.

    First, the “Britishness” to which he refers was invented after 1914. The English ruling classes were embarrassed to have a war against their fellow Germans. So they stole our ancient Celtic identity and started calling themselves “British” meaning English. Mr. Melding gets it the wrong way around. It’s England that has “sought to embarrass Britishness” because they used to call us and our language British. Certain of them even changed their names to complete the fiction; Von Battenberg to Mountbatten and Saxcoburg Gotha to Windsor (their first language was even German).

    The Conservatives keep telling us that Federalism is Centralism. I’m glad that he confirms it is the opposite. Yes, we need a new relationship with the Countries of Britain but it has to be based on equality, justice and co-operation. You can only get that if both Wales and Scotland are free of English rule. England and Mr. Melding may see England as being superior to anyone else – being able to dispense human rights as they see fit – but it is actually up to the Celts to assert their rights and tell England where to get off. The only purpose of a “Federal” UK is to preserve the position of the English ruling classes.

    There is very little common ground between the Unionism and what Mr. Melding calls Nationalism. All politics is Nationalism the difference between the SNP/Plaid and Unionism is that the latter is a philosophy of the very far right. It believes that might is right and subjugation of other nations is good and just (except when someone tries to do it to them!) while the former is to stand against those values.

    He’s also very wooly on the Left and Right. It’s only a distinction that was drawn on the basis of who sat where on a bench in France. Using the same terms in today’s politics you can’t say that Labour is Left-wing. It loved the Soviet Union and Joe Stalin was as Fascist as Adolf Hitler and Mussolini, who were also Socialists. When Labour are in power they are just like the Conservatives; who then move to the “Left” themselves. Conservatives take power and Labour move “Left”.

    He thinks that a “Parliament” is the pinnacle of aspiration in a democratic system. However, the word is derived from the French “parler” – to speak. So Parliament can be translated as “talking shop” which is why the French have an “Assemblé National”.

  8. The above blogs show people read what they expect to see not what was actually written. David accuses David Melding of confusion and then repeats exactly the point David Melding was making! The weakness of the complaints of English oppression is that England is currently providing a net subsidy to Wales – all factors considered – of about £18 billion a year. We are in the economic mire and it is our own fault. It is pathetic to blame anyone else and doing so is a symptom of what’s wrong. Whatever the constitutional dispensation, we the Welsh have to stop feeling sorry for ourselves, stop blaming the poor old English and show the elementary self-respect, self confidence and energy to get off our fat backsides and sort things out.

  9. R.Tredwyn wrote:

    “..England is currently providing a net subsidy to Wales – all factors considered – of about £18 billion a year.”

    Baloney. Please provide evidence for such ridiculous assertions. Most commentators claim that Wales’ net contribution to the UK Treasury (NOT England’s), through taxes etc, is somewhere around £6bn short of what it receives. However, the facts are difficult to ascertain.

    Take VAT for example. People in Wales pay VAT on goods and services, but many companies, such as TESCO, Asda and M&S, for instance, have their Head Offices in London or elsewhere in England, and the tax is paid from there. It has also been estimated that Wales recieves far less than its fair share of defence expenditure than the rest of the UK, yet it contributes towards the nuclear deterrence and RN dockyards which are based in England and Scotland.

    Wales could benefit to the tune of £1.2bn by opting out of such extravagant offensive capabilities, if it had its own defence force costing around £300m. There are numerous other examples by which Wales could close that relatively small gap in its finances if it were independent. The last decade has witnessed huge wasteage by Westminster through incompetence. It spent £7bn on an NHS computer system which had to be scrapped.

    What you are really saying is that Wales is in a deficit situation, but that is true of the entire UK, which is currently running one of the highest deficits in the world, and which is growing, hence the recent cut in its rating by Moody’s. So here we are, with the fourth highest military budget in the world, from which Wales benefits hardly at all.

  10. Dave, the latest estimate I’ve seen puts the Welsh fiscal deficit at £12bn p.a., 25% of Welsh GDP and double the relative UK deficit. This comes from Gerry Holtham himself, as interviewed by the Western Mail here…


    Unlike the Holtham Report, this higher figure takes account of Wales’ share of general UK Government spending on defence, embassies, aid and debt servicing. Maybe an independent Wales could economise on its military, overseas aid and diplomatic presence, but it’s still an extremely formidable figure.

  11. David,

    You seek feedback as part of the revising process for a future edition of your book… Just some basic thoughts that come to mind having read your piece:

    The comment made above by another contributor that the real underlying ideological difference is between British nationalism and Welsh/Scottish/Irish nationalism is valid. The ‘Celtic nationalism vs. British “unionism”‘ narrative and attendant lexicon may be appealing to a partisan audience, but it doesn’t really help you get to the underlying drivers and motivators. ‘Unionism’ is a euphemism for British nationalism, and dealing in euphemisms will not take the debate on to where I think you want to take it. Please note, however, I make no value judgement on the relative virtues of British vs. ‘Celtic’ nationalism. That debate is academic, though fascinating, and one for another day…

    However, I think you are right in one of the main premises of your piece; that there is currently a sort of emerging compromise in the policy and rhetoric of ‘Celtic nationalism’ in the sorts of areas you mention (policy on currency, head of state, defence co-operation, etc.), and the ultimate degree of separation between the countries that is expected/desired: the post-Celtic independent British Isles currently being ‘visioned’ by mainstream nationalists is not one of 1920s and 1930s post-Versailles nation states, but something much closer to old-style ‘Commonwealth-plus’, a sort of de facto social and commercial community of de jure independent states, possibly under the same crown. It’s not important why this vision is emerging (though a fascinating subject in itself), but I agree with you that it is. A slightly more devious British nationalist than yourself may choose to ignore this or downplay it in a tried-and-tested policy of characterising his opponent’s position in its most extreme manifestation, but those who are genuinely interested in finding a ‘third way’, may indeed find fertile material there.

    Similar to someone else’s post above however, my main concern with your piece is its charming optimism that the people and political establishment of England have even the remotest interest in changing the constitutional framework of their country. East of Offa’s Dyke and south of Hadrian’s Wall, there is NOTHING to discuss: there is nothing wrong with the English constitution, nothing that can’t be sorted out on Question Time, Newsnight and at a general election every few years anyway. I know this sounds flippant and fails to answer the West Lothian question, etc., etc. but all that I’m trying to say is that there is no significant crisis of faith in the political system in England that can’t be sorted out with a few tweaks, and the fundamental imbalance between 3m Welsh, 5m Scots and 50m English must surely mean that there will be no grand, architecturally elegant, over-arching federal system put in place to co-ordinate the activities and interests of an elephant, a rabbit and a mouse, if you’ll pardon the clumsy metaphor.

    To that extent, I can sympathise with the views of the contributor who said it’s basically all or nothing, one or the other. The only exception that I can see to this is if individual, incremental arrangements ‘evolve’ between England and Wales and England and Scotland that enable greater independence on the one hand whilst preserving common interests where appropriate on the other; a sort of inelegant, intergovernmental, semi-feudal tribute and vassalage. After all, that’s the ‘British’ way, that’s the price for Jersey and the Isle of Man’s ‘independence’ for example.

    The only other comment I have is that any reference to the ex-Yugoslavia and its conflicts (or that awful phrase ‘Balkanisation’) in respect of British regionalism, devolution, Welsh/Scottish nationalism/home rule (call it what you will) is questionably appropriate for the Sun’s sports pages, but should have no place in any thinking person’s vocabulary. I know that I do not need to explain that to you and assume that it was an honest mistake, the type of which we all commit when looking to bring a degree of lyricism to otherwise stale subjects.

  12. Moneyman:

    I forgot to mention the £44bn spent (so far) on a futile war in Afghanistan, £25bn on an illegal war in Iraq, and a £38bn MoD overspend, not to mention Libya and Mali.

    Holtham’s figures on Scotland do not accord with those of the Scottish Government which claims that Scotland’s net contribution the Treasury is more than it receives. See also Professor Andrew Hughes Hallett (http://scotlandunspun.blogspot.co.uk/).

    How much credence can thus be put on Gerry Holtham’s figures? His Unionist bias runs clearly throughout the press report. It’s true that Wales’ deficit is increasing, but so is that of the UK. As for embassies etc, and Wales paying a share for the UK’s extravagance and strutting on the world stage, it wouldn’t need anything like such representation if it were a sovereign state.

    I admit that we’re in a Catch 22 situation. Being part of the UK has impoverished Wales, and it is a process that is continuing and getting worse. There are no prospects of improvement ever whilst the constitutional make-up of the UK remains as it. Therefore what Holtham says, to quote Dante, is : “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”. Notice that he doesn’t put forward any serious proposals as to how Wales can escape the impasse. In effect he says, “Give up, it’s hopeless, just accept your worsening state of dependency – you’re too small, too weak and too poor”.

    I observe that the Western Mail and Mr Shipton seem always ready to pass on the gloomy news about Wales’ prospects. However, not as gloomy as the WM’s prospects when one considers its rapidly declining circulation, which now sells considerably fewer copies than even the Evening Post. Trinity Mirror, as far as I can recall, has never been a friend of our nation.

  13. Moneyman is right but even the figure he cites from Holtham is a pre-recession figure I believe, Things are one hell of a lot worse now than they were in 2010. If you assume the Welsh tax take has gone down proportionately with the UK tax take since the recession started you get to bigger deficit numbers than £12b. I can’t prove £18b, but that is nearer to it than £12b and then we’re talking about not 25 per cent of Welsh GDP but 40 per cent. Come back from dreamland guys. The Welsh economy is a basket case. The question now is not who do we blame but what are we going to do about it?

  14. Dave, I don’t see the logic of your argument that Wales’ constitutional arrangements have impoverished it – what’s the cause-and-effect?

    I think a bit of history would be helpful here. Look at this research paper published for the Silk Commission – specifically, para 1.2.5. As you’ll see, in the 1890s Wales had a higher GDP per head than most English regions outside London. Today, we’re at the bottom of the regional ‘league table’. Back in the 1890s we didn’t even have a Welsh Office; now the Welsh Government has control of many key economic levers including education, transport and planning policy. I think that’s strong evidence that constitutional factors are an independent variable when it comes to economic performance.


  15. Moneyman is right again. The Welsh government already has substantial powers to make a difference and has not used them boldly or effectively. Before we claim we can do nothing without independence, why don’t we do something with what we’ve got? Dave’s anti-English stance is just escapism. Blame someone else and cry for the moon rather than buckle down and tackle the intractable problems we have.

    By the way, I don’t think there is any conflict over the numbers for Scotland. They are near to balance with the rest of the UK; they can be in small surplus or moderate deficit – it all depends on the oil price at the time. No doubt both Hughes, Hallett and Holtham were right at the time they wrote. I don’t know whether Holtham has a unionist bias but the Welsh situation is surely worse now than any of the figures he cited. But unfortunately it is typical of Welsh culture that the response to bad news is either to deny it (like Dave) or to suggest that recognising it means abandoning hope. A healthier response would be to regard it as a call to arms and a spur to action.

  16. Moneyman: “what’s the cause-and-effect?”

    In a nutshell, exploitation. Wales has been bled dry of its natural resources. It’s no coincidence that you chose 1890 as your benchmark, which was close to the high-water mark of coal production in Wales (even then its GDP was below the average). The Rhondda Valleys had been opened up and were producing vast quantities of steam coal – which sustained the British Empire, which built up the wealth of the City of London – which it did by exploiting its colonies worldwide. Welsh steam coal powered the Navy so that it could protect that Imperial trade. With few exceptions, the wealth did not come to Wales.

    There was massive immigration into Wales because of the consequent employment opportunities, though the wages paid were a very poor reflection of the economic value which the miners were producing. After the peak of coal production in 1913, Wales has declined rapidly, its heavy industries decimated. There has been little or no investment in its infrastructure since. Even today, Wales has no control over its natural resources. The GoWA 2006 specifically excludes water from the Assembly’s remit. The Welsh Government has no tax raising powers whatsoever, even less than community councils. The economic levers of which you speak are paltry in comparison to those retained at Westminster and Whitehall. To make matters worse, the Barnett Formula, conceived as a temporary expedient in the late 70s ensures that Wales’ budget is gradually being squeezed, even though the nation’s needs are increasing in terms of an ageing population and increasing health problems. Labour and Tory governments have refused to reform it.

    The 1997 constitutional settlement was deeply flawed, as far as Wales was concerned. It provided for no legislative or tax-raising powers. If anything the 2006 Act made matters worse, as it showed just how powerless the Assembly was – it couldn’t legislate at all without a time-consuming and frustrating negotiation with Westminster. Even after the referendum of 2011, things are not much better as a consequence of a clear distinction between what is devolved and what is not.

    The idea of turning Wales’ economy around in a decade in those circumstances, after nearly a century of continuous decline, is laughable. Even if the Welsh Government had extensive fiscal and monetary powers from the word go it is unlikely it could have achieved it in that timsecale.

    The UK government itself, with all the powers to hand, has failed to reverse the decline of the UK, which is accelerating fast. Apart from Scotland, the only success story has been London and its environs, which is bloated at the expense of the rest of the country. The sad thing is that there is no prospect whatsoever of improvement. The constitutional set up of the UK, with its (unique) parliamentary sovereignty, keeps the same incompetent, even corrupt elite in power from one generation to the other. Our votes count for little or nothing, especially in Wales, which has something like a six percent representation in the Commons, and virtually nothing in the unelected Lords.

    If anything, the Commission’s Report highlights everything I’ve been saying.

  17. Dave – wow, lots to take issue with in your last post.

    I think your historical analysis is a bit tendentious to say the least. No-one would argue that a Rhondda collier circa 1900 was relatively poorly paid, but are you really trying to imply that the Welsh working class was somehow more uniquely exploited than their contemporaries in Rochdale or the Ruhr? And in your enthusiasm to blame “English exploitation” for every ill, aren’t you conveniently forgetting the role of Welsh businessmen such as David Davies and Thomas Powell in the development of the coalfield?

    You’re also painting a picture which is far too bleak. Living standards actually did rise after 1890 and today they are about six times higher than they were back then. Average lifespans are decades longer and working hours are shorter too. Martin Johnes’ recent book on the postwar history of Wales gives a good account of how Welsh lifestyles have improved. Even today, despite the well-known economic problems affecting Wales and the UK as a whole, you and many other average Welsh people obviously own a computer, perhaps a smartphone and flatscreen TV, and surely a number of kitchen appliances… let’s remember that these are all luxuries which would be beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population.

    If you think that an independent Wales might have been able to develop a better infrastructure in the 20th century, you might like to reflect on the Irish experience. The first stretch of motorway in the Republic of Ireland only opened in 1983, and the Irish Government only started to build a high-speed road network in earnest in the 1990s.

    As for the “continuous decline of the UK” line of argument, well I think you’re just plain wrong about that one. You might like to read Nicholas Crafts’ interesting paper on Britain’s relative economic decline after 1870. He argues that some of it was inevitable (other countries were obviously going to catch up sooner or later) and some of it was due to poor policy decisions, particularly after WW2. However, Crafts thinks that reforms pursued from the 80s onwards helped to arrest the decline – certainly in relation to other European countries. A recent report from a number of other economists at the LSE shares this view.


    Finally, don’t overlook the UK’s many strengths. It is a historically stable state, it is generally agreed to have a good framework of competition and employment law, and boasts some truly world-class universities.

  18. Moneyman:

    Clearly, I didn’t say that other parts of the UK weren’t exploited, they were, but we are after all discussing Wales here.

    No-one will deny that living standards have risen in Wales, and elsewhere in the UK, but we are looking at it in relative terms, and in that respect Wales has fared badly, whereas London and the south east of England have fared much better. Living standards in other European countries have risen far more than in Wales – it’s one of Europe’s poorest regions, qualifying twice for Objective One funding. One might deduce, somewhat simplistically, I agree, that the structure of the UK has something to do with that region’s relative success. I can’t see that the problem can be addressed without fundamental changes to that structure, constitutionally and politically.

    Perhaps the UK’s relative decline post 1980 has slowed, but what has happened during that period is the decimation of the country’s manufacturing and industrial base, and a corresponding growth of and an over-reliance on the banking and financial services of the City, which has led us to the deep crisis in which the UK is presently floundering. Let’s face it, the UK’s economy is out of balance. The UK’s relative decline may have also slowed during that period because of the exploitation of the oil and gas fields in the North Sea, which are now in decline. (This is a prime example of Scotland’s resources having been exploited and squandered by successive UK governments).

    As for a good framework of competition and employment law, why is it that Cameron and the Eurosceptics in his party want to opt-out of the EU’s social and working time directives, which would result in a worsening of people’s working conditions in the UK as compared to those in the rest of Europe?

    That the UK has strengths isn’t in doubt – although listing them is problematic, as I can’t readily think of one. Perhaps you could name something that works really well here… the NHS, railways, roads, Parliament, the Home Office? It is not in doubt that the UK has worked well for sectional interests. You mention world-class universities, Cardiff comes in at 37 in the Russell Group rankings, and 201-225 in the world. How many Welsh students can and do afford to get to Oxbridge? (Trinity College Dublin comes in at 104)

    It is significant that the gap between rich and poor has steadily widened over the last century or so, and is widening still, regardless of the political party or parties in power. It has not worked in Wales’ interests. I put that down to the UK’s constitutional, political and electoral system. It is changing, but all too slowly.

    The article makes clear the Welsh Labour government’s pathetically poor ambition for Wales, the Party itself being responsible for the cock-eyed devolution settlement of 1997 and the Act of 2006. It’s a party which has put its own interests, and those of its MPs, ahead of those of the people of Wales.

    If I believed that the UK had been good for Wales I would support it, but I’m afraid that it’s record has been abysmally poor. It has made our country into a dependency, and we are continually being told that we are living on handouts. I don’t want to live in such a country. Wales is as capable as any other of standing on its own two feet. Too many people are condescending – you’re too small, too weak, too poor – accept your dependency status and be grateful. It’s Oliver Twist in the workhouse, writ large.

    You mention Ireland. Ask any Irish person, and you won’t find one who will want a return to their former colonial status. Last time I visited the Republic and drove to NI five or six years ago, there was a motorway from Dublin to the border, and a single carriageway 1950s type road from there to Belfast (It has been upgraded very recently). Funnily enough a shopkeeper in Newry, just over the border in the North, hearing I was visiting from Wales, asked, “What in the name of God are you doing in a place like this?”.

  19. Dave,

    The UK is ‘good’ for Wales at the very least in the sense that it provides fiscal transfers from richer regions that maintain the Welsh standard of living. That’s why household income in Wales is a lot closer to the UK average than our economic output (para 1.2.8 in the Silk ‘historical context’ document that I linked to).

    This ‘dependency’ may be ‘humiliating’ to you and others, but I doubt that many voters would opt for self-reliance if it meant being substantially poorer.

    Of course, an independent Wales would have a wider range of policy options, in particular the possibility of pursuing a ‘beggar my neighbour’ tax policy, i.e. seeking to attract business investment at the expense of neighbouring regions of England. But – leaving aside the consequences of foregoing existing UK fiscal transfers – a lower Welsh corporation tax would come at the price of worse public services or higher personal taxes. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. And as Holtham’s report showed, even a modest migration response to higher personal taxes would cancel out any additional revenue that they might generate.

    The basic issues for Wales as compared to Scotland are that it is significantly poorer and substantially more integrated with England. Beyond industrial south Wales the population is sparse; even in the days of the drovers the key economic arteries were east-west rather than north-south; and most Welsh people live within 20 or 30 miles of the border and can easily cross it to live, work, shop, fill up with petrol etc etc.. This poses challenges that do not exist in Scotland, where the mass of population (in the central belt) is relatively self-contained.

  20. Moneyman:

    You’re strong on Wales’ weaknesses, but weak on the solutions. I’m afraid the dependency is increasing, and the status quo unnaceptable – perhaps not just in Wales, perhaps in may parts of England too, especially if and when Scotland exits. Wales’ budget is already suffering a relative cut (Barnett convergence), on top of the austerity cuts taking place, and slated to take place over the next several years, and that is assuming that the UK’s debt mountain doesn’t increase. So far the ConDem coalition have managed to cut the deficit, but has only succeeded in slowing down, somewhat, the rate of increase of the country’s debt. The UK itself is in deep trouble and something has to give, sooner or later. All the major parties want to bring ‘accountability’ to the Welsh Government, through taxation powers. The implication of that is a further relative cut in Wales’ budget. Moreover, both major parties have been making noises about regional pay, with the logical accompaniment (afterwards) of regional benefits, perhaps including state pensions as well as welfare. The result will be a further impoverishment of Wales, and making it less dependent on Treasury subsidies. There then won’t be much reason to being governed from London, because one of the very few benefits of the Union is that very subsidy, as you so readily point out.

    Even Carwyn Jones has realised that the consitution of the UK is changing, and has to change, to meet the aspirations of the majority of Scots. He sees that the future for Wales will be bleak indeed if Scotland exits, or achieves virtual Home Rule. I suspect that there will be many conversions to ‘nationalism’ overnight within Welsh Labour as Wales gets left further behind, and at the mercy of perpetual right-wing administrations at Westminster.

    My prediction is that Wales will have to follow Scotland sooner or later, whatever happens in 2014. We will have to accept a significant fall in living standards here, one way or another. It is inevitable, and there will be profound political and constitutional repercussions for Wales. The irony is that it will be external circumstances which will drive the changes in the first instance, and certainly not pressure from the current nationalistic minority.

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