Wales side-lined by Scottish referendum debate

John Osmond argues that Wales has been left behind in the Scottish debate on independence.

Conflicted views in Wales about the Scottish referendum were perfectly encapsulated by First Minister Carwyn Jones’ response to George Osborne’s belated promise of Devo Max if there is a No vote next Thursday. “Whatever further devolution is offered to Scotland must also be offered to Wales and Northern Ireland,” he announced on twitter.

However, he immediately followed that up with the qualification that full control of income tax – something the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats want to give the Scottish Parliament if there is a No vote – would definitely not be in Wales’ interests.

George Osborne’s intervention was, of course, in response to the first poll of the campaign suggesting a narrow lead for the Yes camp, something which would be Labour’s worst nightmare, particularly in Wales.

For the brutal fact confronting all Welsh politicians, of whatever colour, is that under current funding arrangements Wales, unlike Scotland, is heavily subsidised by England. In broad terms total public expenditure in Wales, whether by Whitehall or the Welsh Government in Cardiff Bay, is of the order of £30 billion, of which only about £18 billion is raised within Wales. The balance, around £12 billion, comes in a subsidy – what the economists deftly call a fiscal transfer – from the rest of the UK (mainly England) to Wales.

This is why independence is not on the Welsh agenda in remotely the same way as it is in Scotland. It is also why Carwyn Jones felt obliged to provide the following nuanced qualification to his initially bold stance in demanding for Wales whatever was being offered to No voting Scots:

“We must be wary of taking new powers that carry a significant cost without a transfer of resources. The method and structure of devolution should be the same across the UK, even if the devolved powers may be different. We need to assess carefully what is in Wales’ best interest. Devolution of welfare and full income tax devolution would not be.”

But for Wales, just as for England and Northern Ireland, the even remote possibility that Scotland might vote Yes has changed the political dynamic. For the moment at least constitutional change is on the agenda in a way it hasn’t been since the referendum that established the National Assembly seventeen years ago, in September 1997. Wall to wall coverage in the press and on television has forced it on a reluctant Welsh consciousness.

Playing catchup the Welsh population, who normally pay little if any attention to politics in Cardiff Bay, are scratching their heads and wondering, often out loud around the dinner table, what all this might mean for us.

The main conclusion of a seminar held on the topic by the Institute of Welsh Affairs in Cardiff Bay last Thursday was that the leadership in the National Assembly has failed to articulate a strong enough view of what it wants from the next stage of devolution. Certainly it is failing to utter loud enough to be heard in the present debate, let alone to be taken seriously.

One of the problems was that, given the lack of coherence amongst the Conservative, Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrat opposition parties, the minority Welsh Labour Government was not being held to account. Professor Laura McAllister, of Liverpool University, said, “We need a more mature political scene. In Scotland the SNP reinvented itself to become a realistic party of government. In Wales we don’t have serious competition. Our politics are infantile.”

Gerry Holtham, until recently an economics adviser to the Welsh Government and formerly chair of the acclaimed Commission on Funding and Finance Commission for Wales which pointed out the extent to which Whitehall treats Wales unfairly compared with Scotland, concurred. “We’re a non story,” he said. “We’ve nothing interesting to say. All we have to say is ‘Give us more money’. My advice is tend the garden. Improve policy outcomes with the instruments we’ve got. Then we would be more persuasive. We have to raise our game.”

There was a general assumption that despite the apparent movement towards the Yes campaign in Scotland there would still be a narrow No vote. This was accompanied by a view that this would be followed by a minority Labour or Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster at the general election next May.

In these circumstances the extent to which any Devo Max proposals were kept on the agenda would depend on the SNPs success at the 2015 Westminster election and even more at the Holyrood election in 2016. If an SNP government were returned in 2016, as was thought likely, this would be seen as a mandate for a re-run of an independence referendum before 2020.

The main challenge for Wales would be ensuring that Welsh interests were included and embraced in whatever changes were made to the devolution settlement in Scotland in the meantime. There was much discussion, for example, of how Wales might take advantage of any Constitutional Convention that might emerge following a No vote. What pressure could be brought to ensure that this applied to the whole of the UK and not just Scotland?

All this was the comfort zone preoccupations of what has become known as the Cardiff Bay bubble. Little attention was given to the consequences for Wales of a Yes vote next week. If this happens real thinking will begin the morning after.

John Osmond is former Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs and is now a freelance writer and journalist. This article first appeared on Our Kingdom (

8 thoughts on “Wales side-lined by Scottish referendum debate

  1. “For the brutal fact confronting all Welsh politicians, of whatever colour, is that under current funding arrangements Wales, unlike Scotland, is heavily subsidised by England…”

    Does that change under a scenario where Wales has full control over water and electricity supplied to England?

  2. I was at an economics seminar in London yesterday with Westminster politicians, policy makers and business leaders in attendance. The talk throughout the day was all about England’s future in the event of either a Yes or No vote. Whenever I raised the question of Wales the general opinion was “let Wales do its own thing, England is our concern now”. One contributor even said that “Wales has had its chance. It has been been spoon fed for years”. Whilst taken aback by the openness of these comments, I was hardly surprised. From Friday onwards England will inevitably look at itself in a new light. The peripheries, whether including Scotland or not, will be paid little attention. I traveled back last night more convinced than ever that unless the people of Wales wake up and realise this, and demand action, we’ll be on a very rocky road in the years ahead.

  3. Richard, I fear not. I made a detailed analysis here a while ago on how much water goes from Wales and what value you could give it. Cases can be made for £50-150 million per annum but after this other sources of water (desalination and so on) may be cheaper, not matter how odd that may appear to be.

  4. The one good thing about the Scottish referendum is that it has got everyone talking seriously about the future of their country – not only in Scotland but also in England and in Wales. Indeed Welsh people seem to be talking more about the Scottish referendum that they ever did about our own in 2011. This is only right: what happens in Scotland may have a bigger impact on the future of Wales than any decision taken in Cardiff Bay.

    Put simply, if Scotland votes ‘Yes,’ then the unity of the United Kingdom is gone, and the odds are that it would be only a matter of time before Wales follows – or is perhaps effectively kicked out of the nest by England. It really is frustrating to be forced to sit helplessly at a distance while the voters of Scotland determine our destiny for us.

  5. Jack Rawls. What you stated comes a no surprise as the English people I meet are fed up with the ‘celtic fringe’ who are perpetual gripers and never grateful for the funding that ‘comes from over the border’.We have a dreadfully poor political class,and media that is totally on-side with a)devolution and b)greater powers but with huge subsidies from ‘over the border’. How can we ‘demand action’??.What do you propose as it seems we have very few weapons to hand. I have thought for years that devolution was actually an HM Treasury plan to control public expenditure in the very long term. By a ‘federalised’ system it will be easy to calculate tax revenue’s and then re’allocate them to each region/country,less cental costs asthe notion of a UK will be dead in the water. The welsh NATS ,with their allies in BBC Wales might get us separated from England quicker than they thought!!. I was recently speaking to English barrister who is more English than Ray Gravell/Dafydd Iwan were/are Welsh and he stated that in the circles he moves,i.e retired professional middle classes they were totally disinterested in whatever we ‘over the border’ do politically,but we aint getting their money!!

  6. Once their parliament was restored, the Scots were able to use this, initially quite limited advance, like a foot-in-the-door salesman to gradually leverage increased autonomy, while all the time building the respect and confidence of the electorate in the Holyrood government. We saw the SNP go from opposition to coalition to minority government to majority government. It has used what powers it has to protect the country from the inappropriate actions of Westminster, but can go no further under the present arrangements. And so we have reached the threshold of tomorrow’s life-changing choice.

    Why I wonder have the Welsh not similarly taken advantage of the devolution grudgingly granted them to press for more? The Scots were always characterised as being “Too Wee, Too Poor and Too Stupid” to manage their own affairs. Which of these apply to the Welsh? Or what other factors are responsible? Why do you stoutly maintain that you’re a nation yet make no real progress in claiming the sovereign right of every nation, namely self-rule?

  7. Welsh politicians are of ‘dreadfully’ poor quality? This is unfair and wrong. They are no worse and mostly better than their English or Scottish counterparts. Historically, Welsh politicians have had proportionately more than their share of influence and leaders in the British Parliament. Where I think we fall down badly is in the support team and organisational aspects. By this I mean that the constituency offices and organisations seem to be run by jobs worthies, ex-public sector , ex-council , ex-union officials and well-meaning but unskilled volunteers. All this is extremely badly funded and lurching along on a frayed shoe string.
    Politics is an expensive business that requires money, intelligent, influential and well connected support staff with backgrounds and skills in Media, business, the professions and academia. Grass roots passion and commitment is not enough. The politicians themselves are the spear tip, useless if the shaft has rotted away or is made of grass.

  8. Cymru does not receive a penny of ‘English’ money but is awarded less than she should be whilst Scotland has disproportionately received more. One might consider reminding the wingers East of the Welsh border that Cymru has continually been exploited by a mainly English governing oligarchy who through industrial business and commerce have stripped Cymru of her resources, and fed little back into the Welsh economy. The gripping of the Celts betrays a complete lack of perception of the history of this island from a Scottish or Welsh perspective common in England.

    Even the most illiterate must know that the Scots have never sat comfortably with full union but none may realise that Cymru was an occupied land whose native peoples never ceased to resist the overwhelming power of their Eastward neighbour who sought to incorporate them in an Empire that was growing since before Henry VIII. Incorporation failed at every attempt until education, in more recent decades, was used as a tool for the planned and total eradication of the Welsh language alongside a concerted effort to minimalise the importance of Welsh culture and community.

    Wales was not successfully invaded, conquered and controlled, despite the common myth taught in English and, sadly, Welsh schools, until this new and effective attack on the identity of the nation in order to thoroughly assimilate the people and their territory into a ‘Greater England’. There is so much evidence to support this that I am surprised that it has not become more profoundly understood. But, then, in whose interests would the truth be? Only now are the new generations of Welsh gaining the confidence to challenge the status- quo and the version of history fed to their forefathers in a regaining of national confidence which will, in time, ensure a much stronger Welsh reaction to Westminster and its debilitating social engineering in Wales which saw, in my grandparents day, children humiliated and punished at school for daring to speak the language of home in public.

    Throughout the history of the relationship between the peoples of Cymru from the small principalities like Deheubarth, Bryncheiniog, Morgannwg, Powys and Gwynedd and the rest the policy of King and Parliament has been the eventual and total pacification and absorption of the Welsh. The same policies were never applied to the larger Celtic nations of Scotland and Ireland but let us be clear this small nation was never conquered by force of arms but gradually contained by education and administration. Yma O Hyd. It is testimony to the strength of the Welsh spirit that for hundreds of years out culture and our language have remained and but for a few wrong turns may have been stronger. Nonetheless, lets not judge Welsh politics through Scottish or any other eyes: we have been on a very different journey from Scotland whose leaders volunteered into the Union with England. The illegal Acts of Union were forced on Cymru. Nonetheless, our political resistance to the continuation of the present arrangements of governance are growing stronger and will, in the not too distant future, bear fruit.

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