What sort of Wales do we want?

A version of this article also appeared Nation Cymru in March 2020

I have also written another related blog (Jan 2021) that covers Tax, Climate Change and Wales’ ability to sustain a viable economy as an independent nation

in July 2021, I followed up with, “What sort of Britain do we want?”

What sort of Wales do we want?

I have given myself a couple of months before putting pen to paper following the UK General Election in December 2019, but now I have committed a stream of consciousness to paper.  In doing so I guarantee all readers will find something to disagree with or point out omissions…. nonetheless I wanted to begin to get the issues, question and opportunities re:Wales future, on the table.

And sorry, yes, this is probably too long and I should have spent more time editing it; however, its a blog not an academic paper and I reserve the right to continually edit.

The question I pose is I think more complex than it first appears, as it impacts how all of us behave and think, and what we are prepared to consider in relation to Wales, now and in future….and if, in fact, a coherent single Wales has actually existed or has a future!

First some basics assertions to underpin (or undermine) my position.

The enlightenment helped us as a species, learn that a rational, systematic and scientific approach to addressing complex questions is often better than relying on a subjective, individual & emotional response. Politics has been caught ever since trying to reconcile the tension.

So, yes, politics is hard, democracy is imperfect and stuff in our increasingly interconnected and technology driven world is complex.     Politicians are generally good and well meaning, they get blamed for nearly everything and thanked for almost nothing and have to work with a civil service bureaucracy they often don’t understand, and which has evolved with an in-built inertia to protect us from authoritarian despots.

Having said all that, we all need to be aware that populist, black and white easy answer rhetoric is what the snake oil salesman sells. In most cases it is undeliverable. Ideological purity may win votes but it doesn’t help solve complex problems.

We also have some big issues, not least Climate Change, even before we get to AI, rampant global consumerism, water & food security and the political socio-economic implications of post-industrial decline in large parts of the “developed” world; and now the risk of global pandemic (I wrote this blog in Feb 2020!).  Its tough out there.

No matter how flawed the UKs electoral system, how dysfunctional its constitution, or how utterly open to disinformation and deception we have been as an electorate, we can now also be certain of the following:

  • The UK Prime Minister has an unassailable majority to drive though whatever form of Brexit he eventually settles on (no it wasn’t done on the 31st Jan 2020 and won’t be on 31st December 2020) or more likely what he can negotiate.  Wales has little or no influence on this process.

  • The UKs employment, environmental and social policies will be far more likely to veer to the right; again Wales will have little or no influence on this process

  • The UK is now in a weaker negotiating position with nearly every other “major” country

  • Any UK manufacturers wishing to retain sales of goods to EU will still have to follow EU standards and regulations, which we will no longer be able to influence; yes, they can diverge but that will squeeze margins.  So why bother?

  • There will be economic consequences of Brexit; in fact according to Bloomberg[i] Brexit has already cost the UK economy £130Bn!  Today, nearly four years after the referendum, I am still yet to hear one persuasive argument setting out the benefits of Brexit.  There are wider impacts as well – I personally know academics who have left or are planning to leave the UK, mainly because of Brexit. The long term damage to the UK’s research base and reputation could be much more significant than the immediate economic contraction.

  • Wales is and has been for decades, the poorest nation or region of the UK.  I suspect the existence of the WG has mitigated some of the consequences of this chronic condition which pre-dates devolution and goes back to the 1920s. (worth a look at South Wales Needs a Plan[ii])

  • It is clear to me that in recent years it has been the EU that has engaged more and tried to help address some of these challenges, far less so the UK Government. 

  • I really dont think we can or should look to Whitehall or Westminster for salvation; the truth is Wales only ever gets halfway up page 2 on a list of priorities for Whitehall officials. We are too small, we have no leverage, and a hard-pressed and a busy Whitehall official does not really have the head space to deal with Wales.

  • I think the issue of whether we get to see rugby free to air in Wales is in part due to this, given this is a non-devolved matter.

  • On the assumption that Scotland will go, and Ireland will unify (ok still assumptions but with significant democratic forces propelling us to the breakup of the UK), there is, I suspect, very little prospect of a Westminster left of centre led government in the next 20 years.

Ok some broad brush assertions and assumption.  But I will start from there.

Also, I think it’s worth us all doing this rather simple test. Take the flags of St Andrew and St Patrick out of the Union Jack what do you have.  That’s right, the flag of St George. I have never really felt any strong association with the Union Jack given Wales’ omission. Now the last fires of a UK and Union Jack I could support, as presented by Danny Boyle in 2012, have been extinguished by the populist heals of the reactionary political forces now at liberty in the UK.

So my first albeit symbolic act of dissent, is to no longer acknowledge the Union Jack. It’s really not my flag (you wave it you want), in reality it never has been and not sure how it can in future, especially given how it was waved around in jingoistic fashion by some MEPs on their last day in Europe.   But that is only a gesture, a symbolic fit of pique; Wales has some more serious questions. I could apply a similar thought process to determine whether we actually use Wales or Cymru to describe our country?

Wales needs to “grow up quickly “and decide what it wants to be, if anything at all.  Living in the shadow of a declining post imperial state is no future. Worth having a look at David Olusoga’s article[v] in the Observer last year about misplaced British exceptionalism underpinning the Brexit phenomenon.

In his recent article Nicholas Boyle, Emeritus Schröder Professor of German, University of Cambridge, being “described Brexit[vi]  as the result of an English delusion, a crisis of identity resulting from a failure to come to terms with the loss of empire and the end of its own exceptionalism”.  This is something I touched on in my Brexit and climate change blog last April[vii].

More starkly he accurately described Wales current unsustainable position…

Wales, much earlier and more completely subjugated by England, and never a kingdom in its own right, has always ultimately been willing to accept the role of the afterthought that follows the conjunction in ‘England-and-Wales”

I am not sure we can avoid dealing with the questions of Wales anymore.

So What?

Johnson’s victory means Brexit (again whatever that ends up looking like) will happen, eventually; no matter how flawed the process, democracy or Westminster.

For me, Westminster has been found out…no written constitution, an ill-defined and economically damaging proposition has been passed to be implemented by a cabal that seem to have little grasp of detail.  

I don’t like Brexit and am convinced it’s a step back…. but it’s going to happen (in some form to be determined!). So we have to deal with the world we face…. not the one we would like.  In doing so ideological purity has no place when ingenuity in policy and pragmatism in delivery are the order of the day.

The question for Wales is serious but presents an opportunity.  I think we need a conversation. What do we want to be? I would argue that there is no single sense of Wales. We have a number of Wales’;  for example:  historical picture book Wales, principality Wales, cultural Wales in both languages, linguistic Wales, rural Wales, rugby Wales, football Wales, industrial valleys Wales, Cardiff Wales.  It seems to me, that these have existed in different forms and at different times, but never really underpinning a Wales that is greater than the sum of these parts.   This resonates with the views presented by Calvin Jones in a recent speech[viii] (I did come to this view independently I would add).

I would note that I have not undertaken extensive historical or economic research and probably need to; not least Martin Johnes book “Wales: England’s Colony”. This is just a gut feel. I did watch “The Dragon has Two Tongues” though!

I think now we have to ask; do we want to create a Wales that can encompass all of the above (and more) or not.  If it’s the latter, then maybe our future is more like Cornwall?!   With Scotland leaving and Ireland unifying the question is becoming much more pressing.

Let’s look as some of the questions and received wisdom which we may need to challenge…

The Economic & Size Question

I’d welcome some review/challenge on this section…

In respect of independence, the old saying of, “Wales is too poor, or too small to be independent”, is often trotted out.  But simply put, this is clearly not true. If it were, Wales would be unique globally, of being the only place where an independent country of 3M people could not exist.  Yes, we have problems and challenges. But there is nothing intrinsic in our current condition that makes independence in whatever form an impossibility. The question is really, can our economy and wellbeing be best served by Westminster/Whitehall, our current arrangements or by something more radical and actually more common across the world.  And to note, Wales has been, in UK terms, at the bottom of the economic pile for decades…I am not sure it could be much worse?  The old adage of “if you want the same results keep doing the same thing,” may apply.

Around the world and even in Europe, there are numerous countries with smaller economies and smaller populations than Wales, that are independent; some even share land borders with much larger countries, with, yes cross-border infrastructure and mobility.  Yes, the England/Wales border is not the only land border in the world shared by two adjacent countries with some common interests and economic ties.

Post script: Aachen, Maastricht and Liege are all less than 30Km apart, three cities in three countries with a combined metro population well over 1M and with close economic interdependencies and cross border infrastructure and services….. they seem to manage!

We also can’t let ourselves be dissuaded by economic figures that are based on UK management accounting and analysis; of how UK Government spending Vs Government tax receipts and GDP are calculated and allocated by the UK treasury (for an analysis see Government Expenditure and Revenue in Wales – GERW)[ix]. This is an imperfect exercise in management accounting and as you will see the subsidiary operations often have to carry unnecessary corporate overheads and are constrained in their activities by HQ corporate accounting rules and operational standards!

The lop sided devolution settlement has never really got to grips with how the UK could work, perhaps more federally, with equity in financial arrangements, decision making and dealing with shared matters and liabilities.  In most cases the old Whitehall structures at Whitehall still hold sway and the WG Civil service has in the main, adopted a culture of a subsidiary and subordinate organisation.

We also know GERW is not 100% accurate; it is also true that some of the value created in Wales is not counted in Wales.  For example, how much of the energy produced in Wales is actually reflected in Welsh GDP figures.  I dont actually know (and would welcome a challenge here from any economist) …. more likely in my view that the some of the corporation tax generated from such activities is reflected in the HQ figures outside of Wales.

As a result, in my view, Welsh Government policy and spending is more “managerial”.  Under current arrangement Wales has little control over that and is allocated “costs” that as an independent nation you wouldn’t.  In that case, devolution is the enablement of management operations in Wales under strict corporate control.  I think our politics and machinery of government reflect this, especially the development and implementation of economic and regeneration policy.  A more “independent” Wales and its economic viability would be based on its own tax and spending priorities.  The question seems to me to be, “what constitutional arrangement can facilitate this outcome”.

So, in making these points, I am not trying to understate Wales’ economic challenges…just that the received wisdom, which maintains the status quo, needs to be challenged.  It seems to me this is about “taking control”!

Post scripts:

Almost as if planned, The Wales Governance Centre has just (6 March 2020) published a very good analysis and assessment of the current fiscal challenges facing Wales now, and in a potential independent future

I also acknowledge the work of Gerry Holtham and others who were part of the 2010 The Independent Commission on Funding and Finance for Wales, (The Holtham Commission) that clearly set out some of the serious fiscal challenges Wales faces, given its low tax base and limited scope for marginal increases.

I also need to look up the work of John Ball… for januaryexample in this article for the IWA and the robust challenges from the likes of Gerald Holtham

I have also penned another blog in January 2021 on tax, the economy and Wales which further develops some of these ideas.

As an illustration…

Wales is more like a subsidiary operation in a larger corporate, with its accounts managed based on the accounting standards, governance and procedures of the corporate HQ.  It has limits on investment capacity (for example limits on borrowing) and is subject to controls on what it can and cannot do (Wales can do economic development, but can’t really change fiscal regime, welfare, etc); it is also subject to supressed corporate transfer pricing for some its own products (eg Water & Energy) used in other parts of the corporation (which also negatively impacts its own operations) and needs to store excess stock relocated from other subsidiary operations at its own cost (for example, an influx of people and pensioners in the North from North West England).

HQ has also directed much needed investment to other parts of the corporation leaving it to operate at a competitive disadvantage using old depreciated equipment (for example and especially Wales’ rail infrastructure). It also has to carry corporate overheads no matter whether they are relevant or appropriate to its own operation (for example Trident, HS2, etc) It also has to suppress wages for its staff and reduce the scope of its own operations to fit within the budgeted expenditure envelope it has been allocated by HQ. 

This subsidiary does not look very dynamic or efficient and struggles for profitability; crude corporate management accounts help re-enforce this image.

Sometimes in the corporate world the management accounts understate the “value” of an operation for such reason; sometimes local managers instigate a Management buyout because they know they can manage the operation more efficiently and effectively and would not be constrained by the corporate in growing and developing the business.  To do so needs a culture of leadership.

I know it’s a simple argument, but I think in regard to Wales, it is a good analogy.  Given that, you have to take one of two positions.

  • First, Wales is a globally unique in that it could never exist and develop on its own and is intrinsically too poor to be independent and using the above illustration, is dependent on the corporate HQ for survival.  That’s a pretty stark analysis, and is I think misguided with a little Stockholm syndrome playing out.

  • OR, just like every other small country, Wales just needs to define its own tax and spending policies determined by its own economic and wellbeing priorities.  This suggests a management buyout is needed; despite my use of the word “independence” in this article, I am not prejudging what form that should take.

My work on the analysis of UK rail investment is one example of the issues Wales faces.  Arguing about whether North Wales gets any benefit from HS2 is irrelevant when there are higher priority issues for Wales rail network that have been overlooked for years.  With powers and funding WG would be looking to progress many other far more important projects than HS2 (which I think does work for England).

So, the economic argument, too often based on Westminster management accounts, is not a good basis to argue against independence!  It really isn’t.

Seems to me the fundamental issues are the kind of economy we want to create, and what and how we tax…. too much corporate activity in Wales has resulted in tax receipts of UK Gov that don’t reflect activity in Wales.  We are an operational outpost not a HQ. Wales has a branch office economy …this distorts how we determine what and where “value” is created. 

Given the Climate Change emergency we also need to allocate external environmental costs more directly to those activities that cause the most damage (so long supply chains, built in obsolescence, carbon etc); we also have to look at land and wealth. 

None of this is really possible under the current devolution settlement.

The Way Ahead?

There are likely many potential ways forward. Many ideas and ideologies have been proffered; some I support and some I don’t.  The primary challenge is to craft enough of a common view to make progress. 

So, can I offer some under construction and incomplete, observations and challenges. I know many won’t agree with these, but that we need to debate.  And I accept that some of these may look, on the surface, as being contradictory.  However, given the complexities of the world we live in, that is inevitable.  No one can be 100% consistent in all their views and opinions and actions (if you claim you can, I assert you are lying, deluded or have very bad memory).

It is also true that on occasion, even those you vehemently disagree with will say something, or offer a view on a subject, that you do agree with (but which you often won’t admit to!). 

I find myself supporting views and opinions on specific matters from across the political spectrum, but view myself as being more centre left on average.  Yes, I used the word centrist; I find the evangelical certainty found on either political wing of our politics dishonest, lacking pragmatism and sometimes dangerous.  Any forward facing ideology that can secure majority support will have to build from near the middle…it may take some content from either edge, but the middle is where you secure democratic legitimacy.  Yes, I assert this, and please don’t quote me pages of political, economic or sociological mantra that maintain ideological purity over political pragmatism.  In an imperfect democracy you first need to secure a democratic mandate before you can actually do anything!

So here are a few matters for discussion (and this is clearly incomplete!)…that a future independent Wales (and I am still not sure what that might look like) will need to grapple with; We must start the debate now if we are to build toward a different future.

Climate Change

Yes we had more CO2 in the atmosphere in the geological past, the climate has changed in the past; but in recent human history (esp. the last 10,000 years since the end of the last glacial maximum), until the last 100 years or so, the climate has been pretty stable.  However, in the last 100 year there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to the highest levels in human history.  We are doing this and dramatically changing the climate, ecosystems and environments on which we and many of our fellow creatures depend on for life.

In the long term, the planet will recover; whether we have a place on it is another matter.   So we need to change; what we want, what we buy, from whom, when; how we travel, where, when, etc.  I did a rant on this last year for those that are interested[x].  I don’t think we yet know what economic ecosystem will work to support sustainable growth, or even if that is possible or desirable (despite the claims).  All I know is that we have to act and doing less, moving less and wanting less stuff, less often is a good place to start.

A key issue for me is the need to provide more viable alternatives to car use, which still secures 80% of commuter journey across Wales, apportioning more fairly the full costs of car use (to reduce the subsidy) to drivers and to invest in much more public transport. Any responsible government must get to grips with this.

Cardiff, Agglomeration and The Welsh Economy

Complexity and economic development have led us from a life of agricultural hardship to cities.  In fact, more people around the world now live in cities.   For me that’s ok, more of us need live more densely as it’s better for the environment.  And yes, I get Calvin Jones point about the resources needed to support cities[xi]…and where they are sourced.   However, rather than turn back 5000 years of human history (I know Calvin did not suggest that) I think we need better fiscal measure to address the issues and questions Calvin raises.   Climate Change and AI are also forces which have to a lead to fundamental changes to our fiscal systems (which were designed around 19thC and early 20thC methods of labour intensive production); locally, nationally and globally.

Listening to Calvin Jones speech I get the many different Wales; however, I dont get the Cardiff analysis; Cardiff does not “get everything”.   I am a little weary of some voices “beating on Cardiff”; without Cardiff, Wales would be even further away from greater autonomy…and let’s face it, its pretty far away today.

The population and its dispersion across Wales, is a reality.  50% of the population of Wales are living within 25 miles of Cardiff, which is approaching 370k in a wider region of 1.5M  (although I note recent downgrade of all population projections across Wales). Some voices talk as if you could engage in a Khmer Rouge like Agrarian relocation programme leading to a Marxist citadel in mid Wales supported by free public transport.   I think we should focus our efforts on more useful discussions.   

On the basic numbers, Cardiff now (based on a new data set it appears, which separates it out from earlier Cardiff & Vale figures– perhaps an economist can comment?)  has a GDP/capita of 112% of the UK average[xii];  but on Household Income the figure for Cardiff and the Vale is only 84% of the UK Average[xiii]. Weekly wages also shows that Cardiff is not the highest in Wales[xiv] and Cardiff has more Lower Super Output Areas (LSOA)[xv] in the top 10% of the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation (WIMD) than any other local authority in Wales[xvi]. Cardiff has 39, the next nearest is RCT on 27 with Blaenau Gwent on 6.  I don’t want to underplay the economic issues across Wales, but the reality is that the challenges facing some communities in the valleys are not that different from places like Tremorfa or Ely. 

But yes Cardiff has nearly 370k people that are much more densely packed than anywhere else in Wales, and more density can be more environmentally friendly.  The GDP/ capita is higher because there are more jobs in places like Cardiff City Centre, the Bay, Heath which pull in 100k commuters a day from outside the city, as well as 160k commuters from within the city itself. But to note, even though Cardiff supports 260k jobs there are still nearly 450k elsewhere in the region[xvii].  As Prof Jones has said, looking at GDP/capita or GVA/capita only really has meaning when you look at travel to work areas or city regions; I am not sure it’s very helpful at local authority level.

So I would argue, there is no “wealth extraction” …it is just that those locations in Cardiff that support regional employment do so because of demographics and being the most accessible location for the most people in SE Wales. In fact, compared to other UK city regions, commuting into the “centre” is lower in SE Wales than many other places[xviii].  Cardiff has a lot going for it, but it’s not the Emerald City!

Furthermore, Cardiff has received very little Welsh Government (WG) capital investment in infrastructure in the last 20 years. Just look at some recent and planned road schemes in Wales[xix]: £740Bn to complete the Heads of The Valleys Rd, Caernarfon by-pass £135M, Newtown By-pass £100M, the A494/A55 between the River Dee and Northop Interchange £250M, etc.  There is well over £1Bn of road schemes on the blocks in Wales – very little in Cardiff apart from the £50M for a section of the PDR in 2016.  Even the current £740M phase of the South Wales Metro is much more focused on RCT, Caerphilly and Merthyr which are likely to secure some agglomeration benefits. These could be enhanced with more cross valley connectivity if the region could get its head around the need to better connect Blackwood, Bargoed and Pontllanfraith with Pontypridd![xx].

Yes the BBC and HMRC Tax Offices have been re-located to the city centre, but these were mainly jobs (about 4000 out total of 700,000 across SE Wales[xxi])  that were already in Cardiff which are now better located in the city centre and so accessible to more people  across the region, now with the option of using public transport (Llandaf and Llanishen were predominantly car based locations).  Nor do I take seriously the suggestion that the BBC or the HMRC could have effectively been based in Ebbw Vale of Machynlleth.  Some functions are suited to those locations…. but not these.  Some will point to the ”infrastructure spend” associated with for example, the Wales Millennium Centre or the Senedd. I would make a similar argument and note the Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum did relocate to Swansea.  Much (yes not all) of the activity in Cardiff is private sector led in locations, generally, with better and improving accessibility.

I have also read some of the work of Fothergill and Beaty[xxii] re agglomeration.  Much to support in that work and whilst I agree there may not be much difference in individual efficiency across the UK, it is clear to me the wider benefits of agglomeration based on density and accessibility are still real and should not be dismissed lightly.  Of course if you adjust for the factors (eg occupation and industry mix, commuting, etc) that relate to agglomeration benefits then the phenomena diminishes.  I still look to Rice and Venables[xxiii] and their assessment of agglomeration benefits associated with density. 

Post script. I would also argue that causation is not correlation. Those pointing at the apparent “success” of Cardiff as “suggested” by its GDP/head (which as stated above is not a useful measure at scales smaller then city regions) and then correlating the in-commuting to Cardiff and “agglomeration” to the economic issues facing the whole region are not properly assessing all the contributory factors.

For me, after the collapse of local & employment intensive heavy industry, the biggest negative influence on many of our city and town high streets has been the huge relocation of office, retail, public services, etc to car based “out of town” locations in the last 50 years. South East Wales is covered in them….Trago Mills, Cardiff Gate, Imperial Park, Spytty Park, Navigation Park, Royal Glamorgan Hospital, etc. When you combine that with mass volume car based supermarket retail, the demise of local shops and food retail, and now the perversity of drive through coffee shops, the primary cause of the sickness afflicting our high streets becomes clear. It is not, 30,000 or 40,000 more people commuting to Cardiff City Centre out of regional working population of over 700,000…. its car based out of town development. We need to relocate all our stuff back to town and city centres and reduce our car dependency – Transit Oriented Development

I would add, this, for me is not an exact science, and I am not an expert in this space and can like many, fall prey to the temptation of selectively sourcing papers and articles that support a particular view.  The key thing for me is not to over rely on say GVA as a measure (or any single measure for that matter) to make major policy decision. 

Having said all that, if your Wales is defined by stopping Cardiff being Cardiff…then I am not with you. This may sound harsh, but I am disappointed in the limited supply of well grounded ideas, and suggestions that are often naive and lacking awareness of the underlying data.  Much better to admit what we don’t know and focus on what we can do across Wales, what will work in each part of Wales and stop defining what each place might need in terms of what Cardiff should give up.

In doing so, we do need to look at different types of economic development and more sophisticated regeneration interventions right across Wales.  Yes, more effort to support the foundational economy with a focus on supporting local supply chains where that is appropriate. In particular, I think the food economy is an area that could have a significant impact. I have written a couple of blogs with some ideas re: “hand-made” products[xxiv] and bread[xxv]!  However, it also means buildings and development of the more traditional kind, subject to a climate change re-alignment in places like Cardiff City Centre and now Pontypridd. I think the role of Welfare and a potential for UBI needs a serious look….I still don’t know enough to be clear on what might work. 

Post Script. I also think Wales needs powers to begin to radically change its fiscal systems. As I have set out in other blogs, we are tied to a fiscal regime designed at the outset to raise money for war, then modified as the industrial revolution and mass employment took hold in the 19thC. However, with climate change, AI, etc we need to rethink. In particular we have to develop a mechanism to capture more of the external costs of global capitalism, costs which have been a major contributor to our climate emergency. Our freedoms and choices to buy all sorts of products with long supply chains and/or built in obsolescence or to use cars without paying the full cost (eg New cars every 2/3 years, New Zealand Lamb, plastic wrapped exotic fruit or soon to be Chlorinated chicken from the US) have costs – environmental, carbon, animal welfare, societal, etc that no-one is paying ….but there is a bill to pay!

I have also written another related blog (Jan 2021) that covers Tax, Climate Change and Wales’ ability to sustain a viable economy as an independent nation

Developing an economic policy that covers the entirety of this spectrum is the challenge; I penned a few words on this as well[xxvi].  However, there is a need for a lot more thinking in this space by those far more qualified than me.

Despite my views on Cardiff, I do think we could support more public sector relocations (and yes some away from Cardiff) to places with sufficient population density and employment catchment to support them; and these have to be locations located at public transport hubs.  For example, Bridgend, Newport, Pontypridd, Swansea, Neath, Wrexham, Bangor, Aberystwyth etc.

A big dividend could be secured by relocating many “out of town” car-based offices to city and town centre locations.  WG have a number of such carbon hungry offices, to which I would add the ONS and DVLA; there are more.  Relocating much of the car-based office and retail estate back to city and town centres would be a good start to help regeneration and make public transport more attractive and affordable by reducing the subsidy burden on government given the increased patronage. The move toward more widespread Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is a must.

So, we also need a major investment programme in public transport, rail and bus, and active travel right across Wales, not so much on roads in my view.  The Climate Change Emergency and our current very high levels of car use require, in my view, a quadrupling of public transport capacity. Apart from some tactical measures I do not see the need for major new road schemes;  I would even look to scale back the current WG road pipeline and re-direct to public transport and active travel.  Cardiff’s Transport White Paper[xxvii] sets out the kind of thinking we need.  There are now emerging proposals in Swansea and North East Wales. It also means a little honesty on schemes that really struggle to make sense in economic and financial terms. The reopening of Carmarthen to Aberystwyth rail line is one such scheme – there may be better and more innovative opportunities[xxviii] .  We can’t ignore the demographic reality of Wales Figure 1 and choices have to be made.

Figure 1 Population & Activity density in Wales based on 2011 Census (ref Duncan Smith, Luminocity, UCL)

One area I do agree with Calvin is a need for perhaps a radically different governance in Wales, perhaps based around “regions” (or cantons) with some powers passed down from the Senedd.  I was also in favour of more statutory Combined Authority approach in SE Wales. However, I am now leaning to perhaps toward two or three in SE Wales, with Cardiff retaining its focus and the valleys its own – they can choose to work together where interests align, for example on developing the Strategic Development Plan.  So perhaps Cardiff and VoG to merge (S Glamorgan!) Newport, Monmouthshire, Torfaen & Blaenau Gwent (Gwent!), then the remaining authorities combine (Mid Glamorgan)!  Stands back to allow the howls.

I also think we need to embed PR in all our elections to more fairly represents voting intentions; the UK today has a government driving through radical policies that only a party that has secured support from a majority of voters should be able to implement.

A crazy idea…

So, having said all that…here’s an idea.  We do perhaps need to recast the spatial geography of Wales…at least a little.   Maybe we do need another “centre” in Wales to counterbalance Cardiff and the South East.  But only one, and we need to give it critical mass, in terms of functions and activities, and ensure that it is, or can be, better connected to the rest of Wales – especially Cardiff and the SE.

So, how about Aberystwyth?  It’s the most geographically central and with better transport could be within 1-2 hours travel of nearly everywhere else in Wales.  It houses Wales oldest University, The National Library and is a place where the Welsh Language is more prevalent in everyday life than many other places. 

We could over time relocate more WG administrative function to Aberystwyth, we could even consider operating the Senedd there for some of the year. I note this will come with costs…but still small when compared to overall government expenditure, but perhaps strategically very important in terms of what it says about the Wales we are trying to create.

With the more proactive and imaginative use of IT infrastructure this should be perfectly possible.   In transport terms, rather than a focus on Carmarthen-Aberystwyth for example, I would be asking how we better connect with Public Transport (rail and bus) Cardiff and Aberystwyth,  Bangor and Aberystwyth  Wrexham and Aberystwyth Swansea and Aberystwyth.

This radical approach would be much more effective in my view. Better than trying to spread too little jam, too thinly…resulting in incremental homogeneous mediocrity!

Like I said just an idea…

Borders & The EU

Again there are those more expert than me who may wish to correct some of my assertions.

Let be clear, I am not a fan of borders, I preferred being in the EU (even with its imperfections) and the UK (as it was). I am also clear that I don’t want any barriers with England or Scotland either.  Like above, we have to take a look around the world, there are plenty of countries that surprisingly have external land borders with other countries.  They seem to be able to function…even where there are close economic and social interactions.   Yes, there will be challenges and issues, but again there is not an overwhelming argument that says Wales could not be independent of England based on the existence of a shared land border and cross border economic activities.

On this, SE Wales is next to SW England; our economies are already intertwined.  I have no problem within working and collaborating with our neighbours in SW of England and places like Bristol.  000s of people commute back and forth every day.   Again it seems to me that too many seem to want to put the wall up. As above most countries share land borders and have cross border economies; does Wales want to be unique in not working with its neighbours?  To do so would show a lack of confidence.

I have also heard some now say that independence would mean a trade barrier between Wales and England.  I do not want that and as I understand it, Welsh companies are going to have to operate in whatever regulatory and trade world the UK government eventually agrees with the EU.  This will likely mean two regulatory environments, one EU and UK.  So this has now already happened, Welsh independence won’t change that.

The Language

I think this is both a unifying and divisive force.  I never had any Welsh lessons at school, they just were not available. Today, many, most people, do not come into contact with any Welsh. I come across a little and am now trying to learn – having failed in all my previous attempts to learn any other language. So, “Dw I wedi bod yn dysgu cymraeg am biti mis ond Mae eisiau fi ymarfer mwy”!  I think we can do better to position and sell the language to those that don’t speak it….and better understand why some still fear it to help it grow.    

I recall a conversation on a Cardiff Bus on the way to school in 1979…just before the referendum… “I won’t be voting yes, all those Welshies will make us speak Welsh” I still think that sense of “misplaced” fear still exists and needs to be dealt with.

We need to nurture and protect the language and deal head on with misplaced fears and prejudice and in doing so avoid trying to “force it”.  Wales is bi-lingual, but many people, the majority most likely, will remain monoglot English speakers (as I have been all my life).  Any independence movement must rise above any potential divisive politics and appeal to all.

Personal Freedoms

There seems to be lots of very heated ideological debate about the rights and freedoms of different groups in society at the moment.  I work on a simple principle that we should all share the same rights and freedoms to do, to be, and to say what we like,  but only  to the point at which in discharging those rights and freedoms we begin to restrict the rights and freedoms  of another group or individual to do the same, or risk potential harm to others.  Most of the time this is pretty uncontentious; however, sometimes at these boundaries, we have issues….and I hear too much asserted dogma getting in the way of a reasoned debate.

I think religion and gender/sex politics both have current debates and issues that fall into this grey area. These are difficult debates made more challenging by our ever more complex world!  We need a little more space for a reasoned discussion.

To help set out why this stuff is so difficult, we have to recognise that humans are often predictable emotional and sometime irrational creatures, that for most of our evolutionary history had to deal with a simpler (but often harsher) world.  Things were more black and white; the sun comes up, you plant in spring, harvest in Autumn, don’t eat the poisoned berries, women have babies, we grow old, we die.

However, especially in the last 150 years, science has presented us a more complex world that we are not evolved to deal with.  Quantum Physics is way beyond a classical intuitive human understanding – so we created mathematical models to represent it (which are very accurate by the way); the universe is larger and older than is comprehensible in human terms.  Did you know that the number of stars in the visible universe is equivalent to a million stars for every second since the big bang about 13.5Bn years ago!  About 10^22 stars!  Now biology, molecular biology, DNA, endocrinology, etc is adding layers of complexity on top of what it means to be male or female, etc in the face of a much simpler cultural and learnt experience. 

No wonder we can’t agree. This stuff is hard.  However, in coming to a view I would though always follow the science, data and evidence, but balance its application Vs the nature of human cultural experience.  I’ll say again we are not great are dealing with this stuff…and dogmatic and often evangelical certainty is not going to persuade me or anyone.  In some heated discussion, I have also observed some people adding layers of interpretation and meaning to what someone else may have said and using it to denigrate that person.  We can do better than that.

Back to my principle – in making the case for your rights be careful not to be diminishing someone else’s at the same time.

I also think more of us (me included) also need to focus a little more on our responsibilities.

So What for Wales?

I am all for a debate about Wales and the UK, about a 21st Century independence which is more about cooperation, collaboration and shared values and not the imperialist 19th Century independence which has, in my view, shaped Brexit.  

It’s about  the kind of Wales that could be created, a positive open relationship with England, Scotland, Ireland and the EU; a forward looking Wales – not constrained by history, geography or ideology; welcoming to all people from all places, with shared values that do not diminish the rights of  anyone.

My experience of growing up in Grangetown and going to school there and in Ely, was of many different nationalities with different histories and perspectives. I’d also like to point out that 10,000 years ago no one lived in Wales – or in the UK for that matter, as it was covered in a mile high ice sheet.!  We need to face down the misguided and dark forces of racial and/or geographic purity, of ugly right wing nationalism which also exist within Wales. 

We also need a Wales couched in the realities of money, affordability and deliverability; about the need for a functioning economy and yes one that can be developed within the constraints of the climate emergency. I think the discussion and debate is much closer to the beginning than to the end …or even the middle! 

So in considering what kind of Wales we want, let’s talk, debate, tub thump, argue and yes disagree, but hopefully with civility and with enough room in our hearts and minds to accommodate a change of view where appropriate!

If we dont start this conversion I fear Wales will be managed into obscurity.  Now is the time for leadership …from all of us!

[i]      https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-01-10/-170-billion-and-counting-the-cost-of-brexit-for-the-u-k

[ii]     South Wales Needs a Plan, Prof H Marquand, Cardiff University 1936

[iii]    The Rail Network in Wales – The Case for Investment, M Barry, 2018 

Welsh Rail Infrastructure Investment – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)

[iv]    HS2 and Wales, M Barry, Jan 2018, https://swalesmetroprof.blog/2020/01/07/wales-and-hs2/

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/02/britain-cant-be-reborn-while-while-were-still-lost-fantasies-about-past

[vi]    https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/the-problem-with-the-english-england-doesn-t-want-to-be-just-another-member-of-a-team-1-4851882

[vii]    https://swalesmetroprof.blog/2019/05/01/climate-change-brexit-and-the-economy/

[viii]   https://nation.cymru/news/audio-devolution-creating-a-mini-uk-in-wales-says-economist/

[ix]     Government   Expenditure and Revenue (GERW) Wales, 2019,  Ifan, Sion & Poole, Wales Governance Centre

[x]     https://swalesmetroprof.blog/2019/05/01/climate-change-brexit-and-the-economy/

[xi]     Prof Calvin Jones, podcast 2020, https://nation.cymru/news/audio-devolution-creating-a-mini-uk-in-wales-says-economist/

[xii]    https://statswales.gov.wales/Catalogue/Business-Economy-and-Labour-Market/Regional-Accounts/Gross-Value-Added-GDP/gvaindices-by-area-year

[xiii]   https://statswales.gov.wales/Catalogue/Business-Economy-and-Labour-Market/Regional-Accounts/Household-Income/householdincome-uk-100-by-area-year

[xiv]   https://statswales.gov.wales/Catalogue/Business-Economy-and-Labour-Market/People-and-Work/Earnings/medianweeklyearnings-by-welshlocalareas-year

[xv]   Lower Super Output Area (LSOA), is a statistical unit of same population size (About 1500 people); there are about 240 in Cardiff

[xvi]   https://statswales.gov.wales/Catalogue/Community-Safety-and-Social-Inclusion/Welsh-Index-of-Multiple-Deprivation/WIMD-2019/localauthorityanalysis

[xvii]   https://statswales.gov.wales/Catalogue/Business-Economy-and-Labour-Market/People-and-Work/Employment/Commuting/commutingpatterns-by-welshlocalauthority-measure

[xviii] Metro Impact Study, 2013, See P25   https://gov.wales/south-wales-metro-impact-study

[xix]   https://gov.wales/roads-driving

[xx]    Making metro work for valleys, https://swalesmetroprof.blog/2018/06/04/making-metro-work-for-valleyscardiff/

[xxi]   https://statswales.gov.wales/Catalogue/Business-Economy-and-Labour-Market/People-and-Work/Employment/Commuting/commutingpatterns-by-welshlocalauthority-measure

[xxii] Local productivity: The real differences across UK cities and regions, Beaty and Fothergill, Sheffield University 2019

[xxiii] Rice and Venable, 2004, Spatial Determinants of Productivity: Analysis for the Regions of Great Britain 

[xxiv] https://swalesmetroprof.blog/2017/06/28/hand-made-in-ebbw-vale/

[xxv]   https://swalesmetroprof.blog/2019/06/15/welsh-paradors-and-sourdough-bread/

[xxvi] https://swalesmetroprof.blog/2018/04/30/economic-impacts-of-the-south-wales-metro/

[xxvii] https://swalesmetroprof.blog/2020/01/15/cardiff-transport-white-paper/

[xxviii] https://swalesmetroprof.blog/2019/07/26/a-metro-in-north-west-wales/

13 thoughts on “What sort of Wales do we want?

  1. Lots of words, Mark but little to no substance. I’m sure it’ll be a pointless exercise of listing many fallacies including any counter-arguments.

    Perhaps you should consider the following that happens to be a reality in Wales, where most of us (80%+) are the second class citizens:

    1. https://www.glasnost.org.uk/2020/05/expendable-children-welsh-education/
    2. https://www.glasnost.org.uk/2020/04/cymraeg-2050-policy-panacea-or-a-disaster-for-welsh-education-and-children-of-wales/
    3. https://www.glasnost.org.uk/2020/04/the-cry-of-the-children-the-untold-plight-of-school-children-in-wales/


    1. I don’t know who you are…but clearly we may find common ground difficult to find. Firstly, your opening straw man assertions are without basis and just empty words. I did set out out that my article was in effect an exercise is committing rhetoric to paper with a intent to shape questions, encourage discussion rather than offer specific answers.. The overwhelmingly positive response I have received suggests I have been successful.

      In respect of Welsh education, both my wife and I have written, in the 20 years since leaving London, about failings in Welsh education (many of which I feel have or are being addressed). These included: inertia in the teaching pool, poor treatment of NQTS and supply teachers, huge variability in standards, lack of focus on basic literacy in primary, etc. We have also highlighted earlier failings at Estyn. However, none of our criticism included the teaching of Welsh! The vast majority of the international evidence suggests that those children who master learning two languages at an early age find learning a third much easier.

      I was born and went to school in Cardiff and I am annoyed that I never had a single lesson of Welsh…that is the biggest educational failing in my view. I am now 57 and learning; its a challenge and a joy. To learn the historic language of one’s own country, what a terrible thing! I find the many ill-informed assertions in your blogs typical of a narrow exclusive mindset. You come across to me as pathologically anti-Welsh language! Imagine being anti a language; or being anti algebra, or antic iambic pentameter. It’s strange view to hold. Your othering and divisive opinion, is, my view, one that is causing so much damage in many places. So thank you for your comment….I will leave it there.

      Note I will acknowledge that there are some challenges for pupils from non Welsh speaking homes , who are attending 100% Welsh Medium schools and who have specific learning difficulties.


  2. Thank you for your response Prof Barry, and will keep my reply as simple as poss. On your Q, ‘Who am I’ – Just a parent living on Anglesey with the first-hand experience of the rotten and damaging impact of compulsory WME on children with no Welsh at home.

    Most kids are ending up illiterate & innumerate in two languages. It’s not just me who has observed this as we have a large RAF presence on the Island and all service personnel educate their children in private/independent EM schools paid for by the MOD (the same applies to most medical and other professionals living on the island or in Gwynedd, but who fund education out of their income – The prime reason for the local Health Board not being able to recruit or maintain critical care staff).

    I guess you ignored significant references I cross-linked in my essays, either referring to the Welsh Gov data obtained under the FOI provisions, the take from UNICEF, Save the Children Foundation, the British Council, Academia ++ all clearly and unambiguously stating that children need to be taught through their home language to achieve their full potential.

    If we are honest Wales is not a ‘bilingual nation’ as Welsh is nothing other than a tribal language of a minority, imposed by the devolved governance for the benefit of the Welsh-speaking minority. Children in NWW, who are forced to learn Welsh, drop it as soon as they leave school: https://www.academia.edu/21511550/Minority_language_abandonment_in_Welsh-medium_educated_L2_male_adolescents_classroom_not_chatroom?email_work_card=view-paper

    It’s absurd for you to support the imposition of Welsh in XXI c Wales simply because you ended up with a chip on your shoulder that the learning Welsh was denied to you in your childhood. For the record, I have nothing against WME for those parents who wish to use it for their kids and my stance is based on parental freedom of choice WM or EM and not upon the state diktat.

    Even the Welsh Government admits it, in a rather convoluted way that WME is not suitable for most of the kids with no Welsh at home “Learners who do not speak Welsh at home are generally less likely on average to achieve the expected level if taught through the medium of Welsh than if not taught through the medium of Welsh at the Foundation Phase” (https://gov.wales/exploratory-analysis-learner-performance-including-welsh-language-characteristics-2011-2018).

    I’ll finish this note by sharing with you the viewpoints by a Cardiffian journalist (born & bred): https://marcussteaduk.wordpress.com/2019/02/26/wales-a-country-divided/


  3. Dear Professor Barry,

    Although you claim that your long discourse on all things Welsh was that you were just encouraging discussion, it seems you were strongly nudging us in a certain direction throughout. That direction seemed to be towards Mark Drakeford’s world view and the Welsh political establishment in general. Having been commissioned by the Welsh Government to produce Studies and White papers I wonder if this close relationship might colour your views.

    Working in an inner city school for some years my views are affected by my close relationship to those pupils in such schools. Living in Llandaff I pass the Cathedral School each day and the chasm of the quality of education between the former and the latter is huge. This chasm has now been created in state education where the best schools are reserved for the affluent middle class and the local political elite. The rest have been largely scarred by the lack of opportunity for white working class children, often products of dysfunctional families, many ruined by the effects of drink, drugs and the burgeoning underclass over the decades.

    You state that you went to school in Grangetown and Ely where there were many different nationalities. Although I’m ten years older than you my recollections of both areas are of them being predominately white, as is Ely today. Because of Blair’s open door policy, the last 23 years has seen a huge influx of immigrants and latterly asylum seekers. Of course they settled in the poorest areas resulting in Grangetwon becoming a Muslim enclave, and Adamsdown, Roath, and a large area of Splott housing the poorest multi-ethnic communities.

    Muslim pupils, particularly from Somali backgrounds, almost exclusively attend two schools in Cardiff, making the city less integrated than the southern states of America in the 60s.

    The huge demographic changes in these areas have put an enormous strain on the already underprivileged schools with a large minority of pupils displaying poor or non-existent English.

    Many parents avoid such schools with high free school meals intakes, often sending their kids to Faith or Welsh Language schools. The Welsh Government’s response to such depravation was to siphon millions of pounds from the impoverished schools to open up scores of Welsh Language schools to “promote” the Welsh language. Despite this massive investment the use of the Welsh Language declined. To further “promote” it they made Welsh a compulsory GCSE which has resulted in appalling results with those pupils who actually turned taking the useless short paper. The youth of Wales are not interested.

    The number of students sitting Welsh Language “A” level from 2008 – 2018 has more than halved which is the result of free choice in education. Where is the Welsh Language Society’s political wing in government going find Welsh teachers? Will they make “A” Welsh language compulsory too? First they will compel teachers such as Mrs. Murphy born in Birmingham and Mr. George from Bristol to undergo intense Welsh courses to impart on their unsuspecting charges from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq along with Czech Romas.

    There are benefits of course because if they speak Welsh they will be able to apply for jobs in the Welsh public sector which is increasingly debarring English language monoglots, no matter their superior qualifications. So I’m hoping that your comment “We need to nurture and protect the language and deal head on with misplaced fears and prejudice and in doing so avoid trying to “force it”, will be heeded. Academics with influence and connections to the Welsh leadership, like you, should be more active in steering a language divided Wales from its current dystopian future. Sending a primary school pupil, in particular, from an English speaking home to a Welsh only school, is akin to child abuse.


    Dennis Coughlin


    1. Dennis, quickly…

      I try and maintain objectivity….your rather shallow opening accusation to the contrary is without substance.

      You point out some deficiencies in the delivery of education in Wales….some are valid, good, so I have in the past. I would add though you have strayed into rather dark area that has little do with education and perhaps reflects some of your prejudices. I went to a school Mostyn in Ely, which drew pupils off many nationalities and races from Grangetown, The Docks, Canton and Ely. It wasn’t perfect but it worked, just!. Your “hatred” of the Welsh language is pretty weird…..issues in delivery of education (including funding) are valid, but making it about a particular language lacks any substance. If you focussed on making the case for more investment in, and better, education, then we’d be agreeing…but then you darken even further with your accusations of child abuse suggesting you are a little unhinged.

      I dont really want to get into a futile debate so I’ll leave it there as I sense we are not going to find that much common ground. Thank you.

      And to note, I use my blog to share thoughts and ideas…not really to force a debate. People can take or leave content as they see fit.


      1. Thank you for the reply professor, however critical, it’s better than being ignored. I was surprised that a man of your standing stooped to describing me as a Welsh language “hater” which is normally used by the Nationalist storm-troopers, although you resisted the temptation to add “bigot”. I have no hatred of the Welsh Language just its undemocratic dictatorial imposition. I’ve been belting out Calon Lan and Cwm Rhondda for over 50years at the Arms Park.

        A sobering thought for you is that if you were starting out on a career with your esteemed academic attainment you wouldn’t get an interview for a job as an attendant at the Museum of Wales. No Welsh see.


  4. Noticed my response (via Glasnost UK) to your ‘indignation’ seems to be censored? Also, heard from other people who made an effort to provide an alternative viewpoint are also censored. Any explanation?


  5. Very interesting as an attempt to throw out ideas and see who/what comes back. But the implicit attempt to suggest your ideas are ‘non-ideological’ fails for me. Particularly with respect that these ideas/thoughts come from “the middle”. The British (yes!) seem to be obsessed with this upper crust hegemonic category, long linked to other concepts such as ‘common sense’ (Einstein said ‘common sense’ was a set of prejudices aquired by the age of 17);’pragmatic’ (the favourite tool of managers threatened by creativity in their lives); and ‘balance’ (what ARE we balancing?). You seem to fall into this thought trap with ‘middle’. What is the ‘middle’ of British capitalism? Is the threadbare UK Welfare State the ‘middle’? Are the levels of poverty in the UK/Wales the ‘middle’?Are EU Remainiacs in the ‘middle’? If you are a liberal, say so. Valid approach but I would suggest it was tried during the Blair years. And as someone said recently, the disasterous current UK response to Covid 19 lies in the liberal Blair move to the ‘middle’ with a hollowed out state; a decimated Civil Service; monopoly media;PFI public debt; et etc. Hence the only response turned to now is to SERCO and Deloittes to ‘solve’ the pandemic! The ‘middle’ is in crisis and its answers are already dead from the neck up, as the Labour recent turn to the ‘middle’ will prove.
    I agree with you that “If we dont start this conversion I fear Wales will be managed into obscurity. Now is the time for leadership …from all of us!” But a re-run of The Third Way is not the way forward.


  6. I very much enjoyed the articulate, eloquent, intelligent and humble way you expressed your ideas on possible future avenues for us, the Welsh, to follow. Diolch yn fawr iawn. Ga i hefyd dymuno pob lwc i chi yn eich ymdrechion i ddysgu ein hiaith ni.


  7. Wouldn’t reopening Carmarthen-Aberystwyth make possible Swansea-Aberystwyth and Cardiff-Aberystwyth direct rail journeys? And also reopening Pwllhelli/Afon Wen-Bangor then make possible Cardiff-Bangor (and Holyhead?) by rail via Mid Wales rather than England?


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