One of the difficulties faced by the authors of the Government Expenditure and Revenues Wales study (GERW) was that information on many items of expenditure and revenue was not available separately for Wales, so they had to make estimates. And any estimate will always be based on one or more assumptions. There’s nothing at all wrong with that; it’s the only way of producing even an outline idea of Wales’ position. The problem arises in deciding which assumptions to make; different people would make different assumptions – and I suspect that the same people might make different assumptions as well, if the context were different.
That question of context is one of the reasons why a study aimed at analysing Wales’ position in the past (2014/2015) within the UK will never produce the same answers as a study aimed at considering Wales’ position in the future as an independent nation. GERW was clearly aimed at doing the former not the latter, and it seems to me that the assumptions made are reasonable in that context, and that the document therefore helps a great deal to aid understanding in that context.
If we were to attempt to look to the future rather than the past, even within the context of the continuation of the union, we would need to make a range of additional assumptions about future policies and their impact on revenues and expenditures, and we would also need to change some of the existing assumptions on apportionment of revenue and expenditure. I won’t cover all of those, but it’s worth considering a few just to give a flavour of the differences which would emerge.
Firstly, what would be the position in relation to the national debt? What would Wales’ share be? At the time of the Scottish referendum, the UK Treasury indicated at one stage that it would continue to be responsible for the whole of the debt, even if Scotland became independent. That was more about reassuring the lenders than about establishing a start position for negotiation; and the SNP’s response (that Scotland would take a share) was similarly about establishing and maintaining international credibility.
But on what basis should we estimate Wales’ share of the debt? GERW uses a per capita basis, but there are other approaches. Part of the reason for the debt is current expenditure, so if Wales receives more in benefits should we take a larger share? But part of it is also about funding infrastructure projects, where Wales receives less money than our fair share, so should our share of the debt be less than on a per capita basis? And even after establishing a base line (difficult enough in itself) at the point of independence, if we want to project forward we need to make assumptions about future budget deficits or surpluses, borrowing patterns and rates of interest. None of these factors is entirely straightforward or uncontroversial.
Or take defence spending. GERW uses a per capita basis – entirely reasonable to estimate Wales’ share of current spending. But the UK spends around 2% of GDP on defence – other countries spend less (Germany, for instance, spends around 1.1%). What would an independent Wales spend on defence? And GERW draws a clear distinction between spending for Wales and spending in Wales; much of the current spending on defence goes outside Wales, which means that we pick up the cost in the GERW figures, but don’t get the whole GVA benefit, or the multiplier effect. In an independent Wales, whatever we spend on defence would be in Wales as well as for Wales.
Or take pensions. How do we assign the costs of pensions? Wales has a higher proportion of pensioners than the rest of the UK taken as a whole. Part of the reason for that is that people choose to retire to Wales. Who should pay their pensions? In a unitary UK, the question doesn’t arise, but in the scenario of an independent Wales, it most certainly does. When citizens of the UK retire to France or Spain for example, their pensions are paid by the state in which they contributed when they were working, i.e. the UK. France and Spain do not pay those pensions. So, in an independent Wales, would Wales be expected to bear the cost, or would the arrangements be the same as they are for any other member country of the EU? The latter seems likely, but even then there is a further complication – does that apply to existing retirees or only to new ones? The latter would seem to me to be easier to implement and manage, but the historical commitment might well be a factor which those negotiating a share of the national debt would wish to take into account.My purpose in all the above is in no way to disparage the work of those who have produced GERW; indeed, we should be grateful to them. It is, rather, to give a flavour (there are many more points which could be made) of why a study of Wales’ current position cannot simply be extrapolated without significant change to a conclusion about the position of an independent Wales at some future date. And that's a project which will require a lot more work.