Why independence will release Wales’ economic potential and give us the tools to eradicate poverty
David Buttress, co-founder of Just Eat
This is a lightly edited transcript of David Buttress’ address at the Yes Cymru Talks event in in Theatr Soar, Merthyr Tudful on 25 January 2020.
I wanted to talk you through where my conviction comes from around Welsh independence. Three things I’d like to talk about are the economic and business case, the culture, and lastly, I’d like to talk about why.
So, if I start with my background. I grew up in Cwmbran in the late 70s and early 80s in a single-parent family and went to a great local school Croesyceiliog and went to university in London. Then I had a normal career until I started a business at 28 called Just Eat with a friend of mine.
And then I went on an entrepreneurial journey for 12 to 13 years, and without boring you with that, Just Eat ended up being a public company so I became a public CEO at 36 and ended up as a FTSE 100 CEO at 39.
And after three years of that I decided that actually there were other things to life, so I stepped back, not least because I have three small children. But one of the things I was very interested in and passionate about was where I’m from, which in my case is Gwent, which is why I got involved with the Newport Gwent Dragons.
So one of the reasons I became Chairman of the Dragons was that I like building things. And I think you guys are doing a fabulous job of building this movement.
It’s about building momentum whether it’s a business or a rugby team or a political movement. When you have momentum, it becomes an unstoppable force! And I saw the comments by the First Minister recently, which to me at least he felt like he was King Canute denying that this movement had momentum. As if it was some kind of a small minority of people.
In reality, I think it’s a silent majority of us now and there’s a growing band of us actually that are indy convinced. So, let’s get to why that is, from a business perspective.
I built a business in Ireland along the way and it always struck me that our capital city felt poorer than Dublin in the late 2000s and early 2011-12. And I got to thinking about why that would be.
And when you look at the data it’s an embarrassment, I think, to the British people and the British government that you can go to Cardiff which is just a few hundred miles from Dublin, with all the challenges Ireland has faced over the last hundred years, and Dublin is roughly twice as wealthy in terms of GDP per capita than our capital city.
Twice. Think about that for a second. Twice. It’s embarrassing.
So, the GDP of county Dublin’s area is 73 billion euros and the GDP of Wales is roughly 70 billion pounds. And yet county Dublin has half the population. There are 1.4 million people in that area.
And if I think about that as a business person or somebody who likes building things and I think, well, why has that happened?
That can only happen for two reason – one is that we are really, really bad at what we do. And history would tell you otherwise given the birth of the Industrial Revolution in Wales.
Think about the NHS and the people we’ve produced, and the natural resources we have.
The other option is that the people responsible for our growth and development frankly either don’t care or are incompetent – it could be both. But either way, it’s unacceptable.
So that was a stark thing that made me curious probably eight or nine years ago now, and the more I looked into it the more it became obvious.
And it makes even less sense when you think Cardiff is two hours from Heathrow. Why would Amazon, Facebook, and Google locate themselves in Dublin? It’s a bloody pain in the backside to get to Dublin from Heathrow when they come from Silicon Valley.
And yet they do, and they do, as we all know, for tax reasons of course.
But why on earth – if a British government really cared about sharing the wealth of the British economy and ensuring it grows in all the different corners of the UK – why the hell wouldn’t they make it an incentive to build tech companies in the south of Wales or in northern parts of England, for example?
Because you look at London and London’s GDP per capita is roughly £43,000 pounds, and what’s the poorest part of the UK? It’s Wales with just around under £30,000. That puts us somewhere alongside countries like Bulgaria or Romania.
Jumping back to my story, I left Wales at 18 to go to university and build a business in London and then from a professional perspective never came back. And the reason why I did that was that growing up in 80s post-miners Wales in a single-parent family, my mum said to me “go to University in London, go for opportunity, there’s nothing for you right here”.
I remember my mom saying that to me multiple times. And that’s not good enough. I think about my kids and I think about other people’s kids, and that’s a bloody disgrace.
My mum was not a fault – she wanted what was best for me, work hard at school, get to University and go to London to get a job.
And I wonder – well I don’t have to wonder because I’ve looked at the data – how many kids were on the same journey?
And all of a sudden Jut Eat was a British company. A London tech company. And Just Eat isn’t a British company, it’s not a London tech company, it was built by a Welsh person. But you will never see that anywhere.
And that happens because talent slips away. And when talent slips away you end up with a kind of economic disparity that we now see in the UK, where you have a GDP in the south-east almost double that of here in Wales which is just a couple of hours away.
So that kind of frustrates me as a business person, because that really is a lost opportunity. A lost opportunity, and if you like building things you don’t like wasting opportunity.
So independence for me is such an obvious thing because if you have a responsibility to build things in Cardiff or wherever in a Welsh government they’ll care a little bit more and if they don’t care then we have the right to vote them out and get people who do care.
And at the moment we don’t have that right here. We have the Westminster Parliament with just over 650 MPs, of which forty are Welsh MPs.
What that says from a statistics perspective is that we have no influence because if you’re in a democracy in a parliament of 650 people and you have 40 representatives you’re barely 7-8%. You don’t have any voice. You’re not important.
And I think some of our MPs do a great job speaking up for independence. But the truth is they don’t have any influence over a parliament of 650.
And the Labour party should hang their heads in shame. I grew up in a Labour family we’ve had a Labour Government in the Senedd for I don’t know how long? What the hell have they done? Sorry, but what have they done?
What’s different for a Welsh child growing up in poverty in the 80s to now as a result of devolution? I see a marginal difference if any at all.
So that’s why I’ve gone to indy-convinced, not just indy-curious. Because we need a parliament where we can hold those MPs to account who are wholly responsible for the growth and development of Wales and if they don’t deliver then we get a different set of politicians because that’s democracy.
But I’d rather live with people that are responsible to us for us that we can change, than live with a parliament currently in Westminster, that we can barely influence, where we don’t have any mathematical reality of ever having any influence.
And frankly, if you look at all the history of what that Parliament’s done for us we’re half as poor as Dublin if not more, we’re growing slower than any other part of the UK, we have the highest poverty levels than pretty much everywhere else in the UK and London is more than two times as wealthy and growing quicker.
So all the data tells you that while I would love to think there was a future for us at Westminster there simply isn’t, and anyone who thinks there is, is deluding themselves.
Lastly, I want to come to culture, because culture does matter. And if I think about community and culture and the place I grew up in Gwent. There was a very strong sense, a very strong sense of togetherness and a very strong sense of social responsibility, a very strong sense of public service.
And I do wonder if I look at the culture of Westminster and the governments we’ve had if they’re in tune with the culture of the kind of society Wales could become.
As a business person, you know of course that making money matters to me. But the truth is actually that what also matters is the communities and the society in which you grow up and I’d look at the policies of the Westminster government over decades and I would say they’re not in tune with the culture of Wales and the kind of society I think Wales would like to be.
I don’t want to be a businessman in a country with a nice car where a third of children live in poverty. That’s the reality of Wales – one in three children live in poverty.
90,000 children live in extreme poverty. I find that just appalling. It’s just abhorrent to me that children growing up in 2019 in Wales one in three are in poverty and yet we’re sleepwalking into the reality of being governed by a Westminster Parliament.
I don’t see them talking passionately about a solution for that. We should be talking passionately about a solution for that because those children have the same ability, capability, and should have the same opportunity as my child now has or a child brought up in London.
But it’s appalling that they don’t and our politicians should really, really hang their heads in shame at the lack of activity around that.
The reason I’m indy-convinced is that for me feels like the answer. If we can lift those children out of poverty, if we as citizens of Wales are willing to support that and design a government that will have policies that lift them out, then I suspect that over the next 10, 20, 30 years what we’ll see is lots of new Go Compares and Just Eats because those children are just as capable if not more than I was.
And yet at the moment, they’re handcuffed and they’re limited by that glass ceiling of poverty. Their parents are probably more worried about whether they can feed them at tea time than what sort of education they’re going to come out of school with.
And that is economic deprivation and why it limits opportunity and I don’t see Westminster caring enough. I barely see them caring at all because all they care about is power.
So I think well I would say in closing to you is this Welsh independence for me is no longer something that I can feel is a nice-to-have.
I think it’s a need to have, and I think Welsh people need to wake up the fact that Westminster doesn’t care. And I don’t use that language carelessly.
And I think Wales needs to accept actually that actually being an independent country is a great thing, a great thing.
If you read the history of countries that were once part of a union of countries, there’s not one that becomes independent that has then said: ‘I’d like to become part of that old Union I was part of’.
There’s a reason for that – it’s because it’s actually better to be independent and have your own policies and politicians and accountability for your own country.
Time is up for Westminster. Let them have the kind of Parliament and government that they want. Let them fill it with Boris Johnsons and right-wing extremists but that’s not the Wales I know.
It’s not a government I can recognise. And that’s not going to change with a change of government in five years because a parliament dominated by English MPs is never going to be a parliament that’s going to be representative of the kind of culture and society I think Wales would want to be.
So another reason and the final reason for me is about the future of our children. So I brought my son today, because I want him to see that actually Wales doesn’t have to be the Wales I grew up in the late 70s and 80s when my mum said to me to go to London get a job.
I want my son to know that you can be in Wales and stay in Wales and always be in Wales and there’s no reason to go anywhere else. Thank you.