There was an interesting article last week by a Cardiff academic arguing that, in political terms, Wales is becoming more similar to the ‘British mainstream’. The piece by Daniel Evans of Cardiff University was followed the following day by a rebuttal from Martin Shipton in the Western Mail. All my innate prejudices and history mean that I’d prefer to agree with Martin Shipton on this occasion, but having read both, I sadly concluded that I felt that Daniel Evans made the better case.
It is, of course, true, as Martin Shipton says, that referring to the ‘British mainstream’ is meaningless in a context where Scotland and Northern Ireland are clearly so very different, politically, from the rest of the UK. It would be much more correct to refer to the ‘English mainstream’ in this context, but after making that change to the wording, I cannot but agree that Wales and England are becoming more, not less, similar in voting patterns.
This is about more than the rise in support for UKIP, which has supplanted Plaid as the third party in terms of votes, despite winning no seats in Wales yet. It is also evidenced by polling on the question of membership of the EU, where Welsh opinion seems increasingly similar to English opinion; the contrast with the situation in Scotland is stark.
It is still true, of course, that comparing Wales as a whole with England as a whole, there remains a clear difference in overall voting habits; Wales has a clear Labour majority whilst England has a clear Tory majority. But there is a danger that using overall averages in this way means that other significant similarities are lost. If we treat Wales, for analysis purposes, as a region of EnglandandWales, and compare it with other regions of the same entity, that particular difference looks more like part of a natural geographical variation within the overall pattern than a stark difference between two different entities.
It’s also true that England doesn’t have a Plaid vote of around 10-15%. I’m not convinced though that that is enough to declare that Welsh politics is significantly different from English politics as a whole. Some regions of EnglandandWales have much higher support for the Lib Dems than other regions – looked at from an overall perspective, having a party in one region of EnglandandWales which polls strongly there but not in some other regions isn’t a sufficient unique defining characteristic either.
Martin Shipton argues that the devolution of income tax powers will be a game-changer, since it allows parties to put forward “rival, and potentially radically different, tax and spending plans”. I’m not at all convinced about that one either. If a whole range of taxes were to be devolved, allowing the Welsh Government to ‘mix and match’ as it wished, I can see the possibility of alternative proposals being put forward. As it is, all we are likely to see is a party which knows it has no chance of having to deliver on its promises (the Tories) putting forward wild promises to cut taxes with no indication of how they will make up the deficit. There is a good reason why the income tax powers already devolved to Scotland have never been used, and I see the same happening in Wales.I really want to believe that politics in Wales is, and should be, different; but we need to make it different. Trying to see differences where there are none, or trying to exaggerate the importance of such differences as do exist looks like clinging to a romantic notion of yesteryear. If we want Welsh politics to be different, we have to make it so; and above all, that means that politics in Wales has to be focussed on a debate about what the future direction of Wales should be, not merely on which bunch of politicians should be steering that future. As long as all we’re offered is bland managerialism – “we can run things better than any of the others” – such differences as do exist between Wales and England will continue to erode.