Thursday, 9 December 2010

Follies and victims

Jeff Jones had an article on WalesHome on Monday, in which he argued that Labour was committing “an unpardonable folly” in taking the line that the Coalition Government in London was ‘anti-Welsh’.  I’m always happy, of course, for the Labour Party to commit whatever follies it wishes, but on the substance of the argument – whether the UK Government is or is not anti-Welsh, I have to agree with Jeff, and it has worried me that so many in Plaid have followed the same line of argument as the Labour Party.
My perspective on this isn’t the same as others, clearly.  Perhaps it’s at least partly about background – my late father was a Geordie, and that helps me to understand that many of the economic problems faced by Wales are shared with the North East of England.  A lot of their industrial history looks similar too.
The underlying problem is that the UK economy is hugely unbalanced, and the death of manufacturing and ‘heavy’ industry has served only to make it more so.  Wealth is increasingly concentrated in the south east corner, and left to the free market that is a tendency which will tend to increase.
From a very hard-nosed centralist perspective, it is perfectly possible to argue that increasing the total GDP of the UK also increases the average GDP per head; so continuing disproportionate growth in the South East benefits everyone eventually, particularly if there is a mechanism for redistributing that wealth across the UK.  Any such mechanism can only come from government, and will therefore inevitably stress public sector activity.  It should be no surprise, therefore, to find that the poorest areas are most dependent on the public sector.
Devolution hasn’t changed any of this; it has merely made the fund transfer (slightly) more transparent and obvious.  The election of a different government in London hasn’t changed it dramatically either, although a government with a reduced commitment to both the public sector and to the organised redistribution of wealth is likely to exacerbate the problem.  That doesn’t make them ‘anti-Welsh’ though.
And lest anyone think this to be purely a UK issue, it is replicated in Wales as well.  The South-East of Wales is wealthier than the rest of the country, and the ERP states clearly (P6 for those who want to check) that one of the key opportunities for the Welsh economy is to build on the projected rapid population growth of Cardiff.  That sounds to me like a similar argument to that of the UK Government – growing the total GDP will increase the average GDP, even if the growth is uneven.  It doesn’t make the Welsh Government ‘anti-Dyfed’ or ‘anti-Gwynedd’ though.
I think we need to understand that the problem – whether at a Welsh level or at a UK level – is the approach to economic management, and the dependency on large centralised businesses.  At both levels, we need to be aiming for a more localised economy, with smaller, more dispersed businesses serving a more local customer base.  It’s harder – much, much harder – which is why governments have tended to concentrate on a smaller number of larger businesses.  But in the long run, it will be fairer, more sustainable, and more rewarding.
We would be better employed debating how we make that happen than by assuming that governments which don’t make it happen are just picking on us because of who we are or where we live.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good post John.

Jeff is partly right but many of these anti-Welsh policies which Labour are complaining about are the very same policies Jeff's party delivered (or failed to deliver) whilst they were in government.

The Yes vote should be a positive vote not an anti-Tory one. It's a vote to assert that Wales is a nation and can make it's own decisions in those areas which the Assembly has powers. Leave the anti-Tory Labour jingosim at the door.


Macsen

John Dixon said...

Macsen,

"It's a vote to assert that Wales is a nation and can make its own decisions in those areas which the Assembly has powers."

I'm not convinced about that; I think a lot of those who are inclined to vote yes wouldn't see it in those terms either.

Siônnyn said...

Labour certainly are cheeky, adopting this ploy, given the 'F***ing Welsh!' attitude of their leader while in power, and the total disdain Peter Hain showed towards us when drafting the 2006 bill, and his total inactivity in the righting of past wrongs (like the Barnett Formula)!

It gives Plaid a chance to seem moderate for once!

Jeff Jones said...

Thanks for the comment John. The problem we have with all the former heavy industry areas in the UK is that no one has bothered to debate or work out a future once the heavy industry declined. In Wales we had the false dawn of the screw driver investment in the 1970s and 1980s culminating in the fiasco of LGA. It really is a tragedy for the people involved that so many areas in the former pre 1914 industrial heartlands which put the Great into Great Britain are top of the league when it comes to unemployment statistics. The blame culture in the world of the BRICs does nothing to answer the fundamental problems facing many areas in the former coalfields. It might play to the tribalist core vote but in the long run it is the politics of despair. We need an honest and open debate about what has gone wrong and what policies should be developed for the future. The reaction to the awful PISA figures this week was a classic. Again everyone tried to blame everyone else except themselves instead of actually deciding to look at the reasons why countries such as Finland and New Zealand and perhaps more importantly in the long run China are so much better than us. We have to in Wales in particular get out of the defensive habit of reacting as if every criticism of any policy of the Assembly,for example, is somehow anti Welsh or a betrayal of a political party. We need politicians who are prepared to take on the vested interests on behalf of the people who don't have a a voice . I had hoped that the Assembly would take on the cracach and I'm sad to say that those who warned me that I was living in a fantasy world have been proved right. We are not getting things right and there is a distinct lack of both a vision and leadership from the Political class. Politics should be a bit more about principle and ideas even if they are unpopular in the short term than just working out how to stay in power. After all the politician who more than anyone transformed health in Finland lost the next election.

John Dixon said...

Jeff,

I agree with a lot of what you say here, especially this part: "Politics should be a bit more about principle and ideas even if they are unpopular in the short term than just working out how to stay in power."

It's part of what I try to do on this blog, even if I don't always succeed.

Politics and elections need to be about more than just a change of personnel; they need to be offering real alternative visions. Those who see politics as a career choice struggle with that concept.

Photon said...

Very interesting. Of course, what this really tells us is that politicians go after what is most likely to given them kudos and an impression that they are of any real use for the money they take outof our pockets.

Im afraid that north, south and mid Wales are very different places with different needs. I see scant evidence that the needs of a rural, perceived as remote population are at all being addressed in the way a 'One Nation' assembly should be addressing them.

Rydd said...

John's advice is sagely made but the unbalanced nature of the UK economy has been allowed to continue despite the obvious evidence that this punishes the parts of the UK outside of the south-east. Someone commented on a separate blog that this is the biggest gap in Europe but I don't know whether that is true. Though passive, that unbalanced UK economy is an anti-Welsh arrangement just as it is an anti-northern or anti-Merseyside arrangement (or whatever). Suggesting is is vindictive or deliberately punitive is unfair, but neglectful, sure. This is probably a separate debate to the issue of Labour deploying the term, seeing as they've humorously only just come round to doing so. It'd be a mistake to say Labour and Plaid's voice is the same on this. Plaid has done a good line lately in going on the attack against the coalition in London but also putting out hopeful, positive messages. But it's as John says, the voters probably won't be thankful for it, i'm afraid. They're more likely, if opinion polls mean anything, to go with the gut and the grudge and that's Labour.

John Dixon said...

Photon,

I don't disagree fundamentally; indeed, I think that was the point that I made. We need to spread economic activity across Wales, not just raise the total.

Rydd,

I'd entirely accept that the UK has a centralised economy (as it has a centralised political system) which means that decisions taken at the centre are not always obviously in the best interests of the periphery. I wouldn't take that as far, though, as arguing that the policies are therefore 'anti-periphery' (including anti-Wales); for me that implies a degree of deliberateness which is absent. Indeed, from a centralist perspective, it might well be that they honestly believe that the best way to help the periphery is by increasing total GVA for the whole. I think they'd be wrong on that, but that's a disagreement about the best way to achieve an end, not about the end.

What we need, and are not currently getting, is a vision of a different type of economy and a plan to bring it about. Complaining about what's wrong with the current approach, and claiming that we're being picked on, is not at all the same thing as putting forward a coherent alternative. And that, ultimately, is what I think is wrong with the 'anti-Welsh' narrative.