Audio: Devolution creating a ‘mini UK’ in Wales, says economist

Calvin Jones. Picture by Mark Mansfield

Devolution has created a ‘minature UK’ inside of Wales that isn’t fairly distributing wealth around the country, a meeting on Welsh independence heard this week.

Professor Calvin Jones, Professor of Economics at the Cardiff Business School, was reflecting on issues of economy, value and identity at a Labour for an Independent Wales’ event in Cardiff.

The full discussion can be heard in the audio recording above.

“The problem that we have is, what we’ve done in Wales is that we’ve taken devolution and used it create the United Kingdom in miniature,” he said.

“So we’ve got an exploitative economy in the UK that takes a lot of value and shoves it into assets in London by building HS2, and doing the Olympics, and building another Heathrow runway.

“They’ve done this with public money, while denuding the rest of the UK of infrastructure and value.

“And what we’ve done is exactly the same in Cardiff. So we’ve swapped a big city in the south east of England for a big city in the south east of Wales.

“So the Welsh Assembly hasn’t really taken us further down a path in terms of what a more robust, sustainable Wales looks like, because we’ve just shrunk the UK state down for our own purposes.”


He said that Wales had for hundreds of years been at the periphery of a centralised economy that made it difficult to keep its national resources, such as energy and people, in the country.

“We have a very strong core in London, and then the South East and South West providing some high-value services, and the resource peripheries are Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland,” he said.

“These are exchanges of value that have been in place for centuries and that are very entrenched.

“The question is, how can you build prosperity if you are continually sending over the best of your young people, the best of your natural resources, in ways that very often can’t be replicated?”

After 700 years of “effective colonialization” there were some “uncomfortable parallels” between Wales’ economy and third world countries, he said.

“A lot of what I teach about the global south is not a million miles away from the feeling of studying the Welsh economy,” he said.

“Wales’ economy is post-developed – rather than under-developed – but is dysfunctional in some of those similar ways.”

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  1. Gwynoro Jones.

    Agree. Been saying similar myself about successive Welsh governments last 10-15 years. But you mean south east not South West.

  2. Isabel Adonis

    “And what we’ve done is exactly the same in Cardiff. So we’ve swapped a big city in the south east of England for a big city in the south east of Wales.” He’s spot on. In the move towards independence, in the move to preserve the Welsh culture,Wales has identified with their colonial oppressors, thus becoming the new colonialists. The preservation of the mother tongue comes out of the colonial mind set, the queen’s English replaced by the pure tradition of Welsh…

    • It goes beyond Stockholm Syndrome; most Welsh people don’t even realise that they’re in a colonial situation. This is partly owing to mass media and mass popular culture which are displacing the country’s own culture (hence the identification with English cultural features), and partly because the exploitation of Wales is now less naked, and more subtle, than it was 100 years ago, and less so, also, than it was in the pre-independent Third World.

      Devolution has hopefully promoted the safeguarding and re-establishment of what it is to be Welsh, but has done nothing to challenge Wales’ situation as a colony. On the contrary, in many ways it has facilitated it.

  3. Professor Calvin Jones correctly diagnoses the problem but the claim that the institution of the Assembly rather than the party in power is to blame is inexplicable. Devolution is not leading to more geographical inequality in Wales – it’s the policies of the Labour government that are to blame. Blaming ‘the Assembly’ rather than Labour absolves them from being held to account for the consequences of their actions and exasperates the problem. The headline suggests that abolishing the Assembly rather than getting rid of Labour would solve the problem – the opposite is true. If Plaid Cymru was in power the party would pass a Regional Renewal Bill that would prioritise deprived areas for investment and guarantee fair funding to all parts of Wales. It’s policies like this that are really needed to improve the Welsh economy, voting Labour in time after time means the economic benefits of devolution are not being felt across the vast majority of the nation.

    • Professor Jones is 100% correct. This is the same message that myself and so many others having been espousing for years. And you, Math, are correct also. It’s not the fault of the institution, it’s the fault of the people running the institution, a blindingly obvious state of fact.

      As regards why Labour carry on with their policies, it’s actually understandable because the Welsh people keep voting them in. And that’s the perfect argument for them to use to say we’re doing a good job. Why voters believe they are doing a good job baffles me. I can only think that they vote Labour because they think the other parties would be worse. That’s the only answer that makes any sense.

      Well, soon there’ll be another option on the ballot form. And it can’t come soon enough.

      • The question of why people keep voting Labour when it’s clear they’re not delivering is an interesting one. Unlike most people, I don’t think Wales has seen an adaption of voting patterns for the purposes of devolved elections on a large scale, except for a certain % of people who vote Labour in Westminster and Plaid in Assembly as a matter of course. People still seem to vote for the party they like most on a UK-wide level when it comes to the crunch. We saw evidence of this in the council elections. There were wards I campaigned in that looked like they were in Plaid’s reach, but once Theresa May called the snap general election, this immediately changed, and people were thinking in terms of Corbyn or May, even though it was a local election. The same holds true for Assembly elections. When Labour are popular on a UK-wide level or the Tories are in power in Westminster, it’s very difficult for any other party to compete with them, the 1999 election being a possible exception due to the exceptional difficulties Labour in Wales were facing at that time and the excitement surrounding the first Welsh election.

        Wales is always compared to Scotland with the assumption that politics here is most similar to how it works over there. I don’t think this is true. Voting patters suggests to me we’re more like northern Ireland, where people as a rule are born into a tribe or join one at some point, then stick with them through thick and thin. There is more potential for change over here, since the sectarian divide doesn’t exist (although the linguistic divide does unfortunately), but you try persuading someone who’s father and grandfather voted Labour all their lives to change parties! Some are willing to do so, but most will not countenance leaving what they consider to be their political tribe. I’ve had Labour supporters tell me they would never do this whatever the circumstances because it would be like leaving their family. Which would be fine were political parties in actuality families, but they not,and the effect of this is therefore and undermining of the whole concept of a parliamentary democracy in practice. People don’t tend to vote for ideas or manifestos or leaders, they vote for their tribe.

        The absence of a Wales-wide press (which this website is trying is valiantly trying to make up for and is succeeding to a digital degree) is also a problem, people simply aren’t aware that it’s decisions made by the government in Wales, run by Labour since 1999, that are responsible for the political problems that make them unhappy, and it’s not their fault the media landscape is as it is. Some are aware, as I’m sure Professor Jones is, but still insist on blaming “the Assembly” rather than the government for reasons I can’t comprehend. Labour are very good at exploiting the media gap by getting their propaganda across – everything is the Tories’ fault, even decisions taken by the Labour-run Welsh government! They’ve got into the habit recently of opposing their own government, a classic feature of a one-party democratic state, for example their representatives supported campaigns against Labour-run Cardiff Council’s mistreatment of live music venues and the decision to cut down trees in Roath Brook Gardens, and some are campaigning against the Labour-run Welsh Government’s plans for the M4 Black Route (even though they all actually voted against giving themselves a vote on whether the final plans go ahead even after calling for one – classic Welsh Labour hypocrisy).

        • Red Dragon Jim

          This comment could have been an article in itself!

          You’re completely right to say that Wales does not vote in similar way to Scotland. Wales is structured in a different way to Scotland and the role of cultural nationalism here is entirely different. Thankfully I’ve noticed far fewer articles comparing Wales to Scotland. The Brexit vote underlined how different our two nations are, sadly in my opinion.

          The reason people vote for Labour despite poor performance is multiple but far from illogical. Labour has a strong cultural resonance, and not enough people want Welsh nationalism or British conservatism to replace it.

          In Welsh-speaking areas this is not true, but it is in much of our country.

          There are too few “swing seats” in Wales for government performance to sway a devolved election. Most people will in fact not bother voting in a devolved election.

    • CambroUiDunlainge

      Completely agree with this. All we’ve got to do is see how well its doing in Scotland. But the issue a lot of us are identifying is the “If” that proceeds Plaid. Most people who see Labour for what it is just want a nationalist majority in the Senedd.

      We don’t lack good ideas. Plaid has never lacked good idea. But there’s still that brick wall that Welsh nationalism and all the ideas being thought up are stuck behind. Thats what we need to talk about. Thats what Plaid needs to talk about.

      • Your concept of a brick wall is interesting. What do you think the brick wall consists of? I think I’ve expressed my view on this in my reply to John (see above). And how would you go about breaking down this wall?

        • CambroUiDunlainge

          Well I think we’re coming at everything all wrong. Welsh was dying out because of the mindset of our own people – lets call it the Anglo-Welsh mindset. This is the mindset where people felt they needed to learn English to advance. This is a mindset which works in a gradient… with the most extreme feeling there’s no point to the Welsh language (the self loathing types). This mindset is part of us all – its comes at us through education and media. The wall is that mindset. The ability for people to speak Welsh does not mean they do not have that mindset to some degree – its literally impossible not too.

          How do we tackle that mindset? Well I think the parroted Welsh lessons in schools are not enough. I think it may actually drive people away if they’re not educated to understand why they are learning it and why they don’t speak it (which is touching on the history thing ;)) – we rebuild Welsh identity. We create a new mindset through the education system. Language and the call for more pro-Welsh media like N.C will follow.

          I wouldn’t be who I am today without certain events of my life – and the same goes for nations. If we don’t fight that Anglo-Welsh mindset then it is essentially game over. Our language may survive… like Latin. But we as a people will not. There’s also a few more triggers involved – emphasising Owain Glyndwr’s parliament as an important day as well as the ivy leaves for Llywelyn. Give people a reason to be Welsh outside the 80/90 minutes.

  4. Cytuno, “”

    “Pa fath o Gymru yr ydym am ei chreu. Cymru fel cymuned o gymunedau neu Gymru gyda gwladwriaeth sy’n gwasanaethu cyfalaf preifat ac yn canoli yn hytrach na datganoli grym. Gwladwriaeth Gymreig i’n rheoli neu wladwriaeth sy’n rhyddhau a gwasanaethu ein cymunedau a’n pobl?”

    “What kind of Wales do we want to create. Wales as a community of communities or a Wales where the state priorities private capitalism and centralizing power as apposed to devolving power. A Welsh state that rules or a state that serves and frees our communities and it’s people”

  5. Millions spent refurbishing the BBC offices in Cardiff – the BBC offices in Bangor meanwhile are to close.
    BBC Wales Sport spending all of its budget on some minoity sport played in a couple of Welsh valleys in the South whereas the Welsh Premier League isn’t even given a mention
    Massive road improvements along the M4 corridor whereas planned improvements on the road to the North – the A470 – are rejected.
    Major upgrade to the rail and “metro” network in Cardiff whereas to travel by train from the North to the capital you are obliged to pass by another country because they “can’t find the money” to reinstate the Afon Wen and MMR
    Even the FAW insisted a couple of years ago that a Cup Final between two North Wales club be played south of the M4 because the Committee couldn’t find enough native bearers to carry the drinks cabinet north
    Heard it all before
    Nothing will ever change.

  6. Russell Todd

    Excellent point to finish on by Calvin: what will independent *Waleses* look like? Imposing an homogenous vision for Welsh communities that draws solely on myths and princes, or language and cultural motifs, or technocratic arguments about sovereignty, or the labour movement, or metropolitan urbanism, and which ignores that 1 in 3 here are born elsewhere….will fail.

  7. Well, Cardiff is over-developed only in comparison to the under-funded parts of Wales. It’s unfair to compare it to London which is over-developed almost in absolute terms. The development of Cardiff is simply taking it to a status of a normal capital. It is of course unfortunate that this development is not spreading to the rest of Wales, but investment in Cardiff is really not extravagant.

  8. Benjiman L. Angwin

    Surely by this point one of the best reasons for independence is so that we can liberate this country from Labourite ideologies and beliefs?

    To have a Labour government ruling Wales after independence too, with no change of government through the process, I cannot think of anything that would do more damage this country.

    • Red Dragon Jim

      This, sadly, does mean your dream will never happen.

      I am not being the bad guy here but the only significant support for Welsh independence so far comes from Plaid and Labour voters. Yes Cymru research showed that a fraction of Labour voters move towards independence in a Tory UK majority scenario. This is why Labour for Independence is a critical development holding potential.

      Personally I think ousting Labour is important than independence at this point- as long as UKIP is not part of doing so. Labour voters would not agree, but they would always have the option of utilising the Lib Dems and maybe Plaid to avoid that. Independence will become more important later after we acquire similar devolved powers to Scotland, or if they leave the UK.

      • Graham John Hathaway

        Not entirely sure that only Plaid and Labour supporters vote, or might vote Indy. Wasn’t more self rule and support for devolution a cradle idea of Liberals. Or was it Kier Hardy at the beginning of the Labour movement. Further it seems to rule out what seems like 30 or more % who never bother to vote for reasons personal. I do know when a such a critical vote as in a referendum ie EU and Scottish Indy, that your model of voting isn’t de facto right.

        • Red Dragon Jim

          I mean voters. In the recent research by Yes Cymru it seemed that after Plaid, Labour voters were the next most supportive of independence. Possibly the same ‘coalition’ that created Yes votes in 1997 and 2011.

  9. I live in Cardiff and find it laughable that anyone takes it seriously as some kind of metropolis. It’s a knackered port down only just getting basic infrastructure investment. Every country needs a decent capital and Cardiff is poorer than most big UK cities and needs a lot of work. If you want people to take Wales seriously, you need a decent city as your shop window.

    • Russell Todd

      To an extent I agree, and there has been a conscious effort to develop Cardiff as a capital city for many decades (though people will have a view as to how successful or otherwise that has been). However the notion that Blaenau Ffestiniog or Caergybi/Holyhead or Wrecsam is a reliant on Cardiff as their shop window is simplistic and overlooks the diversity of Welsh communities.

      Calvin Jones is right to emphasise subsidiarity. If Wales can prioritise this and build up from and by the communities themselves that articulates their vision and priorities then Wales can develop a future that is different to its past and which eschews bland, unimaginative, imported models of economic development and wealth creation.

  10. Graham John Hathaway

    After 700 years of “effective colonisation” there were some uncomfortable parallels between Wales’ economy and third world countries”. Not sure that less than 20 years of the Welsh Assembly can be held to account as post developed rather than under -developed economy . It doesn’t make sense. Other than being mindful of the make up of the audience or its listening public.
    But a very good portrayal of the current parlours state of the Welsh economy, and task ahead. Post Brexit.
    But let’s not have any more shouty things from contributors about the Welsh culture, language, myths and Princes. There’s enough myths and regal issues in London to keep you busy. It’s Wales we are talking about and not petty hang ups from living here.

    • CambroUiDunlainge

      Economical and ideological approaches towards Independence are too easily batted away. WM can sooth our economic situation if we start making noises and ideologically we can easily become entangled in the British establishment. Both angles are akin to building the cause on sand. If we build it on identity its far harder to tackle… because their approach is to ignore and suppress that identity (through the education system and media) its not a hard thing to see… thats why we need pro-Wales media and a pro-Wales education system which teaches people to think as Welsh people and not British people. Those myths, our language are history are all part of who we are. Positively and negatively they have led us to this point making Wales… Wales.

  11. Geraint Talfan Davies

    C’mon Calvin, I know you like mischief. But really. On this one I am with the sensible comments by Radek Piskorski and JD. You have left scale out of account. Likening Cardiff to London is like comparing a peanut with a pumpkin. Wales would be struggling even more if it did not have one city that was reasonably competitive within the UK and at European level. Without it we would be more of colony, not less of a colony. Cardiff is about the size of Nottingham. To put all the problems of the rest of Wales, and they are many, down to the development of Cardiff is also to ignore the impact of UK policies, e.g. on rail investment. It was not the Welsh Government that cancelled electrification to Swansea etc etc. You are simply a hoary old prejudice.

    • “Wales would be struggling even more if it did not have one city that was reasonably competitive within the UK and at European level.” This is the argument used by Russell Goodway and others who don’t give a toss about the rest of Wales – ‘How does Cardiff compare with Bristol, Leeds, Barcelona . . . ?’ Surely the question should be, ‘How does Cardiff compare with the rest of Wales?’

      This selfishness is then justified by Geraint Talfan Davies with “If you want people to take Wales seriously, you need a decent city as your shop window”. Really? What’s the ‘shop window’ for a small country like Switzerland? Is it Geneva, Zurich, Lausanne, or the capital Bern? For Italy, is it the capital, Rome, or the metropolis of Milan? Though I suppose more visitors see Venice, or Florence.

      The surest and cheapest way of re-balancing the Welsh economy and our national life is to move the Assembly somewhere more central. Do that and countless organisations will follow, bringing jobs and investment. Public investment will be limited to improving communications, in other words, linking up the different parts of this small country, something that should be done anyway, but will never be done as long as the capital is in Cardiff.

      • Second para should read ‘justified by JD’.

      • Graham John Hathaway

        There’s a clear analogy with where best to fight your battle and deployment of troops. I’m a big fan of the strategy in the film depicting the Battle of Waterloo. Those who hold the ‘cottage’ will win the war! It’s all strategy. But it was the reinforcements that eventually beat Napoleon. Um. The chronology and history of Cardiff has will always be the gift and developments it received from sweat of the Valleys.

        If you deploy all your resources to hold the cottage, you will need more than due diligence to succeed.
        Look at London. It survives by those who live beyond its inner self. Critical is its transport infrastructure. And its attractiveness as a green city and pleasant city.
        Cardiff will expand into its own misfortune. Crime and deprivation will go hand in hand. Public services will collapse and the city will become divided. Those with and those without. And the struggling middle who will be saddled with an enormous mortgage to live in a side street.

        I dearly regret the location of the Senedd in Cardiff and not either Swansea, it was the guildhall if I remember correctly, or Aberystwyth. RCT also offered its buildings in Abercynon. I hear a giggle. But what is , after all the people’s asset. I heard the same argument then for Cardiff as I do now. Cardiff will be turned into a cement mixer if not careful.

        For those of the Cardiff centric mindset, you will need to invest beyond Cardiff. I suggest a metro rail system to feed your expansion or wither as a National icon. You have been warned.

  12. Geraint Talfan Davies

    I hasten to add that I don’t think you are ‘a hoary old prejudice’, but that you are stoking one. My slip.

  13. Graham John Hathaway

    When Wales is facing the biggest crisis of its recent history, and the enormous deficit it faces with continual under funding and lack of structural investment, that we ponder the lesser or bigger issues facing Cardiff.
    For goodness sake this Cardiff centric mind set will always endure. It’s endemic even in the Assembly.
    Now all of a sudden Cardiff residents get the wind up.
    I witnessed the discussion there yesterday over the Plaid Cymru proposal led by Adam Price to seek a Govt vote on either the blue or black route for the M4 Newport by pass after the latest investigation on these proposals. Leaving the executive there to decide alone. Even this was met with silence. The case was made for a lifting of heads to the greater sum of territory, including the re opening of the Aberystwyth to Carmarthen railway.

    There are crucial infrastructure issues all over Wales. Not least the Metro rain link.

    Let’s start to see what the real issues are. A totally underperforming Nation and creeping paralysis over most of Wales and no immediate solutions. Third world beckons. Great. Let’s talk about Cardiff or the M4.
    Yours very disillusioned.

  14. Commentators who listened to the audio will know that Wales’ 700 years of colonisation as a driver of dysfunction, as opposed to 20 years of the Assembly, is not lost on me. But my key point is that the Cardiff peanut is the economic, political and cultural centre of Wales in a similar fashion to London to the detriment of the country. And the way that Labour, the civil service and the institution are structured add to this imbalance. Some think a visible shop window capital is a prerequisite for development, and here is where I disagree with my learned (if typologically challenged) friend Geraint. There is little actual evidence for this in the literature. So the judgement on whether moving the Beeb to Central Square rather than, say, Ebbw Vale or Caernarfon is a good and necessary thing remains a value judgement.

    • Would it really be a good idea to have the Wales branch office of the EBC, sorry I mean BBC in Caernarfon? It would surely be a great force for anglicizing the town.

    • Graham John Hathaway

      I hope this contribution is widely read. It sounds like a pantomime or a fairy story where Cardiff is the Cinderella saved from the three ugly sisters. Or bears!

  15. cymrufwyaf – you are absolutely spot on!

  16. There is a broader issue here. The Welsh Government must stop confining itself to UK / England / Scotland / NI metrics and models. Better solutions to many of the challenges and opportunities faced by Wales in the Nordic and Baltic countries, in Ireland, and elsewhere. Time to free up mindsets, and recognize the relative failure of most UK solutions — particularly in Wales.

    • Not likely to happen with the thick set of heads we’ve got down the Bay at present. They spend most of their time seeking ways of pleasing some sort of peer group that is no way related to the real challenges of Wales in its entirity. Never likely to get above the “begging bowl ” standard of a subsidiary entity. Indeed to very idea of aiming for independence, or some being at some point along that path – a bit more standing on our own two feet – causes acute discomfort. Jones and Wood’s favoured default position is one with little or no responsibility whining about what those tories in London are doing to us. Well stop whining and start planning seriously with intent. Communicate some real goals and objectives and lay out plans for their attainment and consult with people about the priorities underpinning those plans. Through such discussion and debate plans get refined to enable a modicum of consensus to move forward.

  17. Tame Frontiersman

    If this article is asking why is there disproportionate investment in cities / city regions, it is because there has been considerable consensus among economist that during the 19th and 20th century European and North American cities have been engines of economic growth. So it seems like a sure fire bet to politicians. Or maybe it’s just a case of: if money gets spent in one place and not others, the place where the money is spent is going to the better off -well duh!

    If you live in a nice neighbourhood, got a des-res and disposable income, life in the city may be pretty sweet. It’s not the story for everyone of course. The big winners are those involved in property and transport infrastructure, along with rats and feral pigeons.

    Arguments frequently attached to the city region paradigm are:

    1.“Mass” (size). A natural if not inevitable development (and indeed one that has been mooted) might therefore be to integrate Swansea, Cardiff, Newport and Bristol into a Severnside super-city region -the “Western Powerhouse”.

    2 “Effective governance” – it is seen essential that there is a unitary authority to co-ordinate planning and investment.

    Where would these developments leave Welsh devolution or independence?

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