Let’s talk about Wales


Scottish commentator Iain Mcwhirter reflects on First Minister Carwyn Jones’s intervention in the referendum debate this week

We don’t talk nearly enough about what is happening in Wales, and most Scots are probably unaware that it’s been promised another referendum, their fourth since 1979. The Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones argued in a speech on Thursday night in Edinburgh (here) that Wales has initiated a process that will change Britain out of all recognition no matter how Scotland votes next year. He also served notice that, if Scots do vote Yes, Wales will, under his watch, vehemently oppose Scotland keeping the Pound.

Certainly, Wales has undergone remarkable changes since it was dragged reluctantly into the devolution age by Scotland nearly 20 years ago. In 1979, when Scotland voted narrowly in favour of a Scottish assembly (but didn’t get it because of the 40% rule), Wales voted massively against, by a margin of four-to-one. Even in 1997, they only just managed to endorse a devolved assembly. But in 2011 they voted two-to-one to give it primary law-making powers, and now they’re expected to vote in favour of tax-raising powers. Though the date has yet to be set.

Assuming Wales votes Yes, this represents an even more dramatic constitutional evolution than Scotland’s, if only because it started from such a much lower base. Welsh politics used to be almost entirely about the Welsh language. Many English-speaking voters feared devolution might mean they had to learn Welsh, while many nationalists feared the Welsh Assembly might be dominated by the English. But that’s all changed. Preoccupation with culture has been replaced by economics, and concern that, with the relentless concentration of wealth and power in the south-east of England, constitutional reform is increasingly a matter of economic survival.

We ignore Wales partly because of our own constitutional navel-gazing – which led this week to neurotic speculation about Scottish population statistics in 50 years following the report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. (How anyone, unionist or nationalist, could have the faintest idea about Scottish demography in half a century defeats me). Meanwhile, Wales has been using the threat of Scottish independence to leverage its position in the here and now. Labour First Minister Jones had refused to come to Scotland to argue the case for the UK if Wales didn’t get a promise from David Cameron of a referendum on tax powers, as proposed by the Silk Commission. He got it.

And last night Mr Jones duly came north to call on Scotland to vote No, so that Wales can vote Yes. Not to independence, but to a deeper form of devolution – a Welsh version of Devolution Max, or perhaps that should be Devolution Bach. Wales has been offered similar tax-raising powers to those being introduced in Scotland following the Calman Commission. Wales is also in line to get a Welsh treasury, an increase in the number of elected members to the Welsh parliament and a shiny new Menai Bridge, like our second Forth Road Bridge, financed by new borrowing powers.

Less fraternally, Carwyn has also demanded the scrapping of the Barnett Formula, which he believes benefits Scotland over Wales. The Scottish Government doesn’t agree, which is another reason the Welsh First Minister is not getting the Bute House treatment. It is confirmation, if still needed, that Scotland is likely to lose the Barnett Formula whatever the result of our 2014 referendum.

Economic determinists might argue that what is happening in Wales and in Scotland is an inevitable response to globalisation, the triumph of neoliberal economics and the decline of the state. The days when the men in Whitehall genuinely cared about what happened in the “regions” are long gone. In its place is emerging a kind of constitutional free market in which countries like Scotland and Wales have to fight their corner or risk going out of business, like the nationalised industries of old.

And whisper it, but devolution and independence are increasingly about tax-cutting rather than tax-raising. The SNP may appear be the party of “socialist giveaways” but its actions speak a different language: freezing council tax, cutting business taxes and seeking to reduce corporation tax. And the same is true in Wales. In the forthcoming Welsh referendum, the Conservatives are calling for a Yes to tax powers because they expect them to be cut. In 1990s Scotland, the Tories opposed devolution because they thought the “Tartan Tax”, as the former Tory Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth used to call it, could only ever go up.

This is counter-intuitive. The language of devolution – and independence – appears to be about state paternalism, social democracy and public spending, but it is really about responding to the collapse of these things. Again, the answer to this week’s question about public spending in Scotland – will it be higher or lower under independence – is that it will almost certainly be lower whatever happens. But for their own reasons, neither side can admit this.

The dismantling of the old UK state is leading to a fragmentary and piecemeal federalism, which optimists believe could lead to an entirely new United Kingdom by stealth. If there is Yes in Wales, and something like the proposals for Devolution Plus are accepted in Scotland – devolving all income tax and energy taxes to Holyrood – we could start to see genuine fiscal autonomy that allows devolved parliaments to claw back some of the economic power lost to London. However it’s a big ‘if’.

There is no historic necessity about the new federalism. Westminster has shown no interest in promoting it. Everything is reversible, and it is quite possible that a No in Scotland could bring the process to a dramatic halt in Wales as well as in Scotland. Lord Home’s shadow hangs heavy over 2014. A UK government may conclude that there is no longer any need to placate the Scots or the Welsh once nationalism has been put back in its box.

Optimists, like Ben Thomson of the Reform Scotland think tank, believe that sufficient movement has been generated across the UK to keep the devolution project on the rails whatever happens in the Scottish independence referendum. He believes that Devolution Plus is pretty much a done deal and that the opposition parties in Scotland will eventually buy into it. That even after a No vote, Westminster will give Scotland radical new tax powers. Perhaps he is right.

But I wouldn’t underestimate Westminster’s capacity for taking powers back. A No vote will be interpreted as a reassertion of sovereignty by Westminster. And after the “bayoneting of the wounded” there may not be much enthusiasm for handing more powers to Holyrood. Unlike in Wales, Scots will not have had the option of voting for devolution max, so there will be no reason for Westminster to go to the trouble of legislating for it.

The Barnett Formula will be scrapped, certainly, but I wouldn’t bet on Scotland getting petroleum revenue tax in exchange, as the nations and regions squabble over a declining pot of public cash. And Wales overtakes Scotland as the leading edge of devolutionary change.

Iain Macwhirter is a columnist with the Herald where this article first appeared.

9 thoughts on “Let’s talk about Wales

  1. McWhirter says “as the nations and regions squabble over a declining pot of public cash.” Arrogant, condescending and trying to sound confident. Inferiority complex exemplified.
    I take it he are talking about the mighty nations of Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland squabbling with fragments of the remainder over what he obviously considers the carcass of a once great England that has fed them for so long. People like him actually talk and think that the piddling three are going to make the decision. They never have and never will. As G. K. Chesterton, a much greater intellect than McWhirter, so succinctly put it “Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget; For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.”
    It took us a thousand years fighting capable enemies to be in a position to feed not only ourselves but ungrateful neighbours and it will take more than pubescent aspirants to quell us.

  2. The English are never asked because we would vote “yes” for our own independence. We would certainly vote yes to an English parliament.

    It is very insulting to the English to be told by Welsh and Scots that they would prefer to leave the Union, but only when the money is right. Until the money is right Welsh and Scots will sullenly stay with the English provided the English have no say in Welsh and Scottish affairs, while simultaneously Welsh and Scottish MPs fiddle in English matters.

  3. Carwyn Jones’ stated position is either staggeringly naïve or simply dishonest.

    In the event of a ‘No’ vote in Scotland, Whitehall and Westminster will consider any further devolution to either nation a ‘dead letter’. Indeed, as Mr McWhirter suggests, all the evidence is that the UK state will seek to remove powers from Edinburgh and Cardiff rather than grant more. A ‘Yes’ vote might at least concentrate the minds even of the centralist obsessives in London on what they would need to do in order to stop us at some future point from going the same way.

    Where Mr McWhirter’s analysis breaks down is in the assumption that Wales is now being offered some sort of ‘Devo-Max’ option. We are not; the tax-varying powers will be of little use because of the imposition of the completely artificial ‘lockstep’ provision, meaning that cuts in income tax for lower earners must be matched by an identical percentage cut for the highest earners (1% of £70000 is a far larger gift to the individual than 1% of £17000).

    Not only is this not ‘Devo-Max’, it isn’t even ‘Devo-Max-Boyce‘.

    Oh, and could Fred and Mr Gash turn down that recording of Ron Goodwin And His Orchestra playing The Dambusters March, please? It’s rattling the ornaments on my mantelpiece. Ta.

  4. As another Scotsman once wrote, ‘O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us.’ We might smile at Mr Macwhirter’s ignorance when he claims that Wales was dragged into devolution by Scotland, and that Welsh politics used to be entirely about the language, but both sweeping generalisations contain a grain of truth. There is no doubt that Welsh national pride is the main driving force behind devolution and, although some of us would argue that true national pride does not require a nation-state, those who define their patriotism in terms of a nation-state do not want to be seen to be lagging behind Scotland in that regard. As for the debate about the language, for most of us it is not the obsession that he imagines, but it is nevertheless the only thing that makes Wales as a polity visibly different from the rest of the UK.

    Fred and Stephen do well to remind us that we also need to play closer attention to the English perception of our debates about devolution. As a nation we tend to be rather inward-looking and self absorbed, so we ignore the real danger, that, while we are arguing among ourselves about whether we want to separate ourselves from England, the English will get fed up with us and effectively make the decision for us. It is significant that the Cameron administration’s granting tax powers to Wales provoked hardly any opposition, or indeed interest, in England.

  5. @Fred your rants are profoundly ignorant in the fact that Wales never asked to annexed to England so don’t peddle this fantasy that Wales’ reliance on others is somehow our fault!

  6. Mr Gash, who do you want England to be independent from? Who are these British people who are oppressing you? The House of Commons has 650 MPs. 533 are English. That’s 82 per cent so England can pass any law it likes and the combined votes of the other countries cannot stop it. The Prime Minister is English, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is English, nearly all top civil servants are English…England runs Britain. Now English government is too centralised, I grant you, but that’s the choice of English central government to gut English local government. And the English have shown they don’t want regional government. Only about two of them want an English Parliament, and they both seem to write to this blog. Perhaps the rest of the English have noticed they’ve got one already – at Westminster.

  7. The reason Scotland is having a referendum on independence at all, is because the Lib Dem vote
    reduced in the devolved Scotland election and transferred to the SNP because of the Lib Dem’s UK coalition with the Conservatives. People in Scotland and Wales still get english-dominated Uk news on Tv
    and national radio meaning English political matters and devolved ones are sometimes confused.
    If England had devolution at the moment, if it was proportional representation like Scotland and Wales, according to the way England voted at the General Election, there would be a Conservative coalition government with the Lib Dems anyway.

  8. Carwyn’s intervention in Scotland probably added a few more to the Yes vote.

    His mentality is stuck in the English Industrial Class war of the 19th Century.

    Does he really think England ever invaded any country to make it richer? They invaded others to make England, and only a small part of that, richer.

    A BBC programme on statistics (regularly on IPlayer) shows quite clearly that the vast majority of nations, that have become independent during the 20th Century, have seen a massive surge in wealth and longevity that brought them up to be on a par with their former rulers.

    Being ruled by the English made India poorer. Being free of English rule is making her richer.

    Accordingly Scotland and Wales are 80%- 90% likely to be better off in the 20 yrs or so following Independence.

    As for the pound, it may have escaped Carwyn’s sharp eye but the Scots already have the pound and were one of the creators of it. They even have their own notes.

    The idea that he’ll have any say in stopping the Scots having the pound is pure fantasy. Indeed the arrangements that come out of it could very well be to all our benefit. Currently the English Financial Sector is not only the most inefficient Industrial Sector in the UK it’s probably the most dishonest too.

    If the Scots do vote no I don’t think it’ll be long before they realise they made a big mistake.

  9. Gwyn, I don’t think it helps your argument to claim that class issues are “English” or alien to Wales and Scotland, or even that Carwyn Jones is paricularly motivated by them. Even though I completely agree with you that this is not the ‘end game’ and that the issue will return at a later date and be met by a “Yes” vote. In terms of “class” issues Jones’ defence of the union is not motivated by class solidarity but by fear of the political culture of the UK minus Scotland. He has no confidence in the ability of his own party to create a social democratic political culture in the UK. His posture is therefore extremely defensive and not driven by confidence. Whereas, a “Yes” vote in Scotland is according to Tom Nairn the most likely way to achieve a progressive and more social democratic Scotland. This will become increasingly obvious in the coming years, particularly if some parts of the UK try and drag the rest of us out of the EU (a departure that will take place on right-leaning grounds including complaining about EU human rights protections and the social Europe). That is why despite your initial mistake you are right to say that the issue will come back at some point in the future. You could also add that a non-independent Scotland will also increasingly become divergent from the UK, which will fuel this process.

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