Westminster owes Wales reparations: It’s not charity we seek but justice
Adam Price, Plaid Cymru leader
Last month marked 99 years since the birth of the great Welsh poet, Harri Webb.
An iconoclast seldom rivalled in his wit, Webb wrote mostly in English, but perhaps his most famous work – “Colli iaith” (Losing a Language) was written in Welsh.
Few works succeed in summarising so well that feeling of loss and longing which so often plagues the Welsh psyche. If non-Welsh speakers know one word of one of Europe’s oldest languages then it is often “hiraeth” – that inexplicable, untranslatable sense of yearning for a Wales that’s disappeared over the crimson-edged horizon.
Through the long lens of our nation’s history we see a once resource-rich country ground down into crippling poverty.
From Swansea’s Copperopolis to King Coal’s vast realm, Wales was anvil and furnace for the workshop of the world. It was quite literally the locomotive of the industrial revolution, where Trevithick’s engine puffed its way on those very first railway tracks.
At the Coal Exchange in 1907, a stone’s throw from our Senedd, the first million pound deal was signed and delivered, but for Wales the ensuing years have been more plunder than profit.
Today it’s not charity we seek but justice.
British rule in Wales has left deep scars. No, it may not have been so bloody but the human cost in blighted lives is to be measured in the millions. The sun at one time never set on the British Empire – but in the underground of the coalfield it never even dawned. Deprived of our inheritance we were left without the tools –the levers and pulleys – with which to prise ourselves out of the rut of poverty.
We’re not the only ones to have been short-changed, of course.
The Wales Office – that colonial outpost of a Westminster Government – stands in Whitehall in the building that once housed the Slavery Compensation Commission which infamously paid out to the slave owners after abolition rather than the newly liberated slaves. The argument that the British Empire owes reparations to the people of its former colonies is powerfully well-made by the Indian politician Shashi Tharoor. But England’s first colony should be added to that long list of creditors.
Cofiwch Dryweryn – Remember Tryweryn – a mural that has moved a nation should be engraved on the walls of Whitehall too – a permanent memorial to injustice to the villages drowned to serve not our own but another nation’s needs. And it’s not just Tryweryn that is a gaping wound in our memory – but Epynt, Clywedog, Aberfan. And perhaps the most telling monument of all to the negligence of our rulers: the third of our children living today in poverty.
We can’t rebuild the village of Capel Celyn, but we can rebuild our country. We need a new sense of hope and a National Reconstruction Fund to finance it.
Wales is at a watershed moment, with the world turning like a gyre on its axis. All the focus now is on a No Deal Brexit. But Wales has had No Deal, No Plan, No Policy for the last hundred years – since forcing Germans to produce coal for free left Wales overnight without a market.
Consider this – Wales is the fifth largest exporter of electricity in the world – placed above energy-rich Norway and its $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund built on surpluses for its energy policy. And yet there are factories in Wales with full order books that cannot expand simply because they cannot afford to connect to the National Grid whose patchy footprint means in Wales its very name is something of a fiction. We are a 21st century nation with 19th century problems.
We need something on the scale of the Marshall Plan after World War Two, or the Solidarity Fund in post-reunification Germany. Such is the size of the wealth gap in this so-called United Kingdom. Unionists say they value this Union. Well, now is the time to prove it.
An independent Wales, in the near future I hope, will have other options. We could issue our own long-term bonds, even at negative interest rates – as is the case for 50% of Government bonds across Europe currently – with bondholders paying Governments for the privilege of lending them money.
Except at this unique moment, where the cost of borrowing is at an all-time low, Westminster limits the Welsh Government’s borrowing as Thatcher used to rate-cap councils.
This is the opportunity cost of being – to use a much-liked phrase – a vassal nation.
A multi-billion pound programme could catapult Wales from laggard to leader in half a generation. Past weakness could even become a future strength – thanks to years of under-investment Wales is akin to a blank piece of paper. We could become an Innovation Nation, a test-bed for the leading edge, where the Wales of 2030 – carbon-free, super-automated and hyper-digital – is the world of 2050 in prototype.
So let’s turn Harri Webb’s melancholy into positive motivation and harness our hiraeth into a vision of change.
Now is the time for Westminster to settle up so we can knuckle down to do the work. This is not the politics of grievance, but the economics of generosity, a redress for a bitter past and a down-payment for a better future.
No one has put this case better than the great Phil Bennet who fired up the national team ahead of 1977 Grand Slam decider against England;
“They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel… What have they given us? Absolutely nothing.”
Wales does not need anyone’s charity. But our future was stolen. And it’s time we had it back.