Whilst a student in Manchester in the 1980s, studying the Philosophy of Science (as part of my Physics degree) I read, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”; a book by Robert Pirsig that some say is one of the most important philosophical contributions to 20th Century thinking. I’ll probably summarise this very poorly, but in his book, Pirsig explored, via a hazily recollected version of the narrator himself called Phaedrus, the concept of quality and whether it can be defined subjectively or objectively. In doing so he set out two world views which he manifests in his characters. One world view is the Romantic, the other the Classical. The latter is engaged and seeks to understand the components, processes and workings of the world, the former is more concerned with the lived experience and less rational insights and knowledge. However, Pirsig ultimately embraced the middle ground and explored the need to transcend and embrace both a classical and romantic view of the world; one that combines and embraces details and rational analysis with the romantic freedom of being and living in the moment and seeking inspiration and the spontaneity to change the world. The development of a Welsh independence narrative perhaps needs to find similar middle ground…
So, to Wales…
I have noted many romantic assertions in response to the “re-emergence” of YesCymru along the lines, “Welsh Government is incompetent, Wales can’t afford independence, etc”. I thought a few more classical bullet points might help to counter that naïve narrative.
Firstly, we live in a world where all governments are fallible and get things wrong, yes Welsh Government (WG) and the Senedd….but also and perhaps even more so, Whitehall and Westminster. These random examples may help (and happy to correct any errors or misrepresentations) persuade those who want to compare Wales to a utopian perfectly efficient non-existent government bureaucracy.
- In 2013 the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) concluded that NHS England had wasted over £6Bn on a failed IT system, they described it as “the worst and most expensive contracting fiascos” in public sector history. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-24130684
- In 2020 the Shrewsbury and Telford Health Board were under investigation in respect of its maternity care with about 1,500 cases of death or harm, most between 1998 and 2017. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-shropshire-50501888 ; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-shropshire-53361850 ; The March 2022 report into the failings shows at least 200 avoidable deaths; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-shropshire-60925959
- In 2020 the UK Government proposals to replace UK membership of the successful EU Galileo programme was mired in controversy with a commitment to invest £400M in a failed US company with “questionable capability” https://amp.theguardian.com/science/2020/jun/26/satellite-experts-oneweb-investment-uk-galileo-brexit
- May 2020, the UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee says the Ministry of Defence has left the taxpayer to shoulder huge cost increases due to the MoD’s poor contract design and management.
The MoD said it “immensely regretted” the huge waste of taxpayers’ money, which was caused by poor management of three nuclear infrastructure projects, resulting in a combined cost increase of £1.35 billion and with delays of between 1.7 and 6.3 years
- A Taxpayers Alliance report in 2019 found over £17Bn of cost overruns on major UK Government projects https://www.taxpayersalliance.com/cost_overruns_of_major_government_projects
- In 2020 the NYT published data demonstrating the inefficiency and waste of the UKs Covid procurement responses (PEP, equipment, testing, etc) which was also tainted with nepotism https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/12/17/world/europe/britain-covid-contracts.html
- From a Welsh perspective the now £96Bn for the Integrated Rail Plan (with a now cut back HS2) – which overwhelming benefits England – is hard to take given it is deemed by the UK Gov as an England and Wales project, whilst at the same time Wales rail network has for decades, and continues to suffer, depreciation by UK Gov https://swalesmetroprof.blog/2021/02/15/welsh-rail-infrastructure-investment/
- Earlier in 2021 the Home Office confirmed that it “lost” 150,000 records from police databases; then add the sensitive MOD documents found at a bus stop in Kent! https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-57624942
- We know the costs to refurbish The Palace of Westminster could be £14Bn https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/westminster-repairs-could-last-20-years-and-cost-14bn-r35pm50h5
- Brexit is having a huge negative impact on the UKs economy (yes, it is) given we have now irreparably dislocated many sensitive “just in time” supply chains and prevented many EU workers from performing vital functions in support of those supply chains (look up Cabotage and Turkey Farming). The additional costs of bureaucracy in dealing with EU sales has also resulted in many SMEs (especially food) no longer selling to Europe or worse closing shop. In 2021 the UK Gov’s Office for Budget Responsibility estimated that the UK Economy is suffering a permanent reduction in output of 4%, vs the impact from Covid which is estimated at 2% https://obr.uk/forecasts-in-depth/the-economy-forecast/brexit-analysis/#assumptions
- In Oct 2021 the second report into the UK Gov’s “Test and Trace” by the Westminster Public Accounts Committee (PAC) concluded that the £37bn allocated over two years had muddled outcomes and a number of its professed aims had been overstated or not achieved. In its first report it had found that despite having access to “unimaginable resources”, Test and Trace could not produce “clear evidence” it had reduced the spread of the virus. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5802/cmselect/cmpubacc/182/summary.html
- The degree of favours and nepotism at Westminster is stark – for example, in late 2021 Conservative party donor Malcom Offord became a Life Peer and a Minister in the Scottish Office! And let’s not forget Russia’s Lebedev shoehorned into the Lords by Boris Johnson. It has also become much clearer that Russian ££ has been flowing through the Conservative Party (and probably trickled into others as well) and some of the media for over a decade…and who funded the Leave campaigns? Can we see the “Russia Report” now? UK security services should be all over this. Carol Cadwalladr is the go-to journalist on all this; not forgetting ex MP Ian Lucas
- The issues exposed by Martin Bell in 1997 (remember “cash for questions” ) have re-emerged in 2021 for all to see in respect of MPs behaviours, standards, etc. and “cash for questions” is now “cash for potentially treasonous influence over Government policy and public opinion”!
- This list goes on and on….and let’s not forget the Work Parties at No 10 (any chance of that Sue Gray report being published?).
I could equally have referenced a whole number of WG “mistakes” and “failings”, but that is not the point. If your argument against more powers for WG is because of its failings and/or inefficiencies, please look at Westminster & Whitehall first. There is no perfect utopian efficient government anywhere.
So, I don’t pretend we in Wales can achieve perfectly efficient government that gets everything right all the time – that just isn’t possible. Democracy is imperfect and at its core is an imperfect elected representative (that often gets thanked for nothing and blamed for everything) at the heart of an inefficient bureaucracy; to damage it because it fails to fulfil some utopian ideal is dangerous and can lead to authoritarianism, we have seen this before. An overtly classical view or expectation is not perhaps helpful in this case.
What we can aim for in Wales, is one where its officials and elected representatives have Wales as their top priority and act in good faith with integrity and honesty and hold to more romantic ideals and aspirations of Wales future as well as dealing with the classical realities and challenges we face – especially the climate emergency and the economy. The Senedd can strive to achieve that whereas at Whitehall/Westminster, Wales barely makes it halfway up page 2 on a list of priorities for busy Whitehall officials and is a place that does not offer any romantic vision of Wales at all.
The recent scandals at Westminster re Russian money, appointments to the House of Lords and a clear embrace of disinformation are stark. I now see Westminster as borderline dysfunctional and certainly democratically compromised and am rather doubtful of Westminster’s ability to undertake the radical constitutional reform required across all this island and its nations, as I describe here: What sort of Britain do we want? – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog).
It is clear that Wales is not a poor country!
Lets start with some classical data re economics, to head of the Wales is too poor deceit. Wales GDP/capita in 2019 was approximately £24,500 ($33,000) about 75% of the UK. In comparison from GDP per capita (current US$) | Data (worldbank.org), Italy was $32,000, Poland $33,000 Portugal $22,000, Slovakia $19,000 and the world average about $17,000. More starkly Ireland is now $85,000 whereas UK as a whole is only $41,000. It is also instructive to compare GDP/tax ratios for different countries 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 of the “richer” countries is generated from activities (especially consumerism) that have many unaccounted negative externalities, then the number should look very different. These externalities include environmental degradation and carbon emission. On that basis, it is generally the countries with the highest GDP/capita that are doing most damage to our planet. (Note some figures are presented on carbon emission which deliberately ignore the fact that in effect many richer countries have “off-shored” their carbon emissions to countries more focussed on manufacturing ).
Before we can fix our economies and our environment, we do need a better means of counting, accounting and recording what’s important. The current focus on GDP and especially the way it is calculated is a global problem we have to address.
If damaging external costs were properly allocated and flowed through to the price of consumer products and services, then I suspect we would have different looking economies and very different GDPs.
All this then gets us back to question of what sustainable economic growth is, and what does a sustainable economy look like. The work of the likes of Kate Raworth and her book “Doughnut Economics” is an essential read. I tried to cover the same ground, much less effectively, here: The Environment, Tax and Wales – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)
Finally, the notional HM Treasury fiscal deficit Wales has with Westminster, whilst material, is also not 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 (GERW) analysis[indicates, that using UK Treasury data of tax and expenditure, that Wales generates tax revenue of £27BN (approx. 36% of GDP ) and has expenditure of £40.1Bn, leaving an implied deficit of £13.7BN).
As I set out in the latter blog, the “fiscal deficit” is likely to be materially smaller given, as an independent nation, all relevant tax would be recorded in Wales and costs currently allocated to Wales like HS2 would not, and matters such as Crown Estates and the revenue it generates would be for Wales to manage. I am not underplaying the challenge…but we do need some classical honesty about that challenge, rather than some romantic hand waving gestures and rhetoric insisting that such challenges are some how uniquely insurmountable in Wales!
One also needs to remember that the UK Government, like most independent nations, has its own central bank, and so can “print” money (via the Bank of England) and/or borrow (eg via bonds) and run a large budget deficit. Wales has none of those powers in its current constrained constitutional condition.
For example, over the pandemic the UK Gov (as most nations did) borrowed an estimated £500Bn and public sector net debt , the amount borrowed over the years, was £2.3tn at the end of November 2021, or 96.1% of GDP. That was the highest debt-to-GDP ratio since March 1963, when it was 98.3%. I tried to cover some of that here .
The simple fact is Wales is not too poor to be independent. In fact, it appears more capable of developing a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable economy and one in balance with nature than many others, if only it had the powers to do so!
Back to Pirsig, we do need to address some of the detailed classical question, 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 is the latter that can be the most persuasive.
I tried to cover some of that here : What sort of Wales do we want? – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)