I’ve noted many romantic assertions in response to the resurgence of YesCymru. These run along the lines that the Welsh Government (WG) is incompetent, and Wales can’t afford independence. One disgraced Welsh MP is even calling for the Senedd’s abolition. There are many classical points available to counter such narratives.
As a student in 1980s Manchester, I read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He manifested two world views in his characters: the Romantic and the Classical. The latter seeks to understand and engage with the components, processes, and workings of the world. The former is more concerned with lived experience than rational knowledge. Pirsig came to embrace a middle ground: the need to dialectically transcend and embrace both views. The Welsh independence narrative needs to achieve a similar balance.
Welsh Government competence
All governments are fallible and get things wrong, the WG and the Senedd too. But also, and even more so, Whitehall and Westminster. These random examples are for those who would compare a ‘failing’ Wales to a utopian, perfectly efficient, government bureaucracy.
- 2013: the Public Accounts Committee concluded that NHS England wasted over £6bn on a failed IT system, describing it as one of “the worst and most expensive contracting fiascos” in public sector history.
- 2020: the UK Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the Ministry of Defence left the taxpayer to shoulder huge cost increases due to its poor contract design and management.
- 2020: the UK Government’s Covid procurement (PPE, equipment, testing) was tainted by cronyism, ineffectiveness, and waste.
- 2022: the PAC found that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) purchased over £12bn of PPE in 2020–21. Much was substandard and bought at inflated prices. Financial loss of £9bn included £4bn of unusable PPE to be disposed of.
- 2023: £96bn for the Integrated Rail Plan, with a now-cut back HS2, overwhelmingly benefits England but is deemed by the UK government to be an England and Wales project. The Wales rail network has for decades suffered, and continues to suffer, depreciation by Westminster.
- 2023: Brexit has a hugely negative impact on the UK economy. We’ve irreparably dislocated sensitive ‘just in time’ supply chains and prevented EU workers from performing vital functions supporting them. Additional costs of EU sales bureaucracy resulted in many SMEs no longer selling to Europe, or closing down. We suffer a permanent reduction in our GDP due to Brexit.
- 2023: Westminster is awash in Conservative party donor scandals, Russian money issues, cronyism, and conflicts of interest, with seemingly no end or consequences; no longer even any shame. Some involve the Prime Minister.
- 2023: fraud in government expenditure rose from £5.5bn in 2018–20 to £21bn in the following two years. £7.3bn relates to temporary Covid-19 schemes. This is an understatement because figures exclude small amounts, and no estimate was made of fraud in the DHSC Covid spend. This is in addition to an estimated £10bn of tax revenue lost to evasion and crime every year.
- 2023: most money fraudulently claimed during the Covid won’t be clawed back. Only 2% of a £22bn programme funding businesses was returned to the Treasury in the last three years.
We know this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of financial loss caused by UK Government incompetence and corruption, especially in recent years. There is a fuller list of bullet points on my blog here, and it could be updated daily had I the time.
I could equally have referenced a number of WG mistakes and failings, but that isn’t the point. If your argument against more powers for WG is because of failings and/or inefficiencies, look at Westminster and Whitehall first. There’s no utopian government anywhere.
So I don’t pretend we in Wales can achieve a perfectly efficient government that gets everything right. Democracy is imperfect, and at its core are imperfect elected representatives (who are often thanked for nothing and blamed for everything). To damage it because it fails to fulfil some utopian ideal is dangerous and can lead to authoritarianism; we’ve seen this before.
What we can aim for in Wales is a government in which officials and elected representatives have Wales as their top priority. Who act in good faith, with integrity and honesty. Who hold to more romantic ideals and aspirations for Wales’ future as well as dealing with classical realities and challenges, especially the climate emergency and the economy.
The Senedd can strive to achieve that. Whereas, in London, Wales barely makes it halfway up the second page of a list of priorities for busy Whitehall officials. They don’t offer any romantic vision of Wales. It’s just not thought about there.
Recent scandals regarding Russian money, appalling appointments to the House of Lords, and a clear embrace of disinformation and racism are stark. I see Westminster as dysfunctional and democratically compromised. I’m doubtful of its ability to undertake the radical constitutional reform required across these nations.
So could we go it alone? Some say we couldn’t afford it. But it’s clear that Wales is not a poor country!
We can’t afford it
Let’s start with classical economics. The GDP per capita of Wales in 2020/21 was approximately £24,500, or $33,000. By comparison, Italy was $34,000, Poland $18,000, Portugal $24,000, Slovakia $19,000, and the world average about $17,000; whereas the UK was only $41,000.
It’s also instructive to compare GDP/tax ratios and how relatively low the UK is when compared to, for example, France and Sweden. When one adds the reality that the majority of GDP in most ‘richer’ countries is generated from activities (especially consumerism) with many unaccounted negative externalities, the number should look very different. These include environmental degradation and carbon emissions.
It’s generally countries with the highest GDP that are doing most damage to our planet. Before we can fix our economies and environment, we need a better means of accounting for what’s important. The current focus on GDP, especially the way it’s calculated, is a global problem. This gets us to the question of what a sustainable economy looks like. Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics is an essential read. (I tried to cover the same ground here). Wales is in a good position to build one; Westminster won’t even try.
The notional HM Treasury fiscal deficit Wales has with Westminster, while material, isn’t a true reflection of what Wales as an independent nation with its own tax and spend policies would sustain. The 2019 Government Expenditure Review Wales analysis indicated that Wales generated tax revenue of £27bn (approximately 36% of GDP) with expenditure of £40.1bn, leaving an implied deficit of £13.7bn.
As I set out here, a fiscal deficit would likely be materially smaller as an independent nation. All tax would be recorded in Wales, costs currently allocated to Wales like HS2 would not, and matters such as Crown Estates revenue would be for Wales to manage. I don’t underplay the challenges. But we need classical honesty about them, rather than romantic gestures and rhetoric insisting challenges are uniquely insurmountable in Wales.
The UK government, like most independent nations, has a central bank so can ‘print’ money, and/or borrow via bonds and so on. It can run a large budget deficit. (Over the pandemic, the UK borrowed an estimated £500bn. Public sector net debt was £2.3tn at the end of November 2021, 96.1% of GDP; the highest debt-to-GDP ratio since 1963). Wales has none of those powers in its currently constrained constitutional condition.
The simple fact is: Wales isn’t too poor to be independent. In fact, it appears more capable of developing an inclusive, equitable, and sustainable economy – and one in balance with nature – than many others, if only it had the powers to do so. It’s not independence we can’t afford.
As in Pirsig’s book, we do need to address some classical questions. But not to the detriment of developing and communicating the romantic case for Wales as an independent nation, and the creativity, innovation, and inspiration it can foster. Looking at history, it seems to me that it’s the latter that is most persuasive.