Why the Prime Minister just delivered a speech for YesCymru
Ifan Morgan Jones
No one seemed to have noticed – who listens to these things apart from a few political journalists anyway? – but yesterday the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom stood up and made quite a remarkable speech.
The speech was planned in order to launch Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda for the United Kingdom, but as he rambled through he ended up accidentally making a very strong case for Welsh independence.
If the Chair of YesCymru had stood up and delivered these words at a All Under One Banner March I don’t think anyone would have blinked an eye:
“We need to say from the beginning that even before the pandemic began the UK had and has a more unbalanced economy than almost all our immediate biggest competitors in Europe and more unbalanced than pretty much every major developed country.
“And when I say unbalanced I mean that for too many people geography turns out to be destiny.
“Take simple life expectancy – even before covid hit, it is an outrage that a man in Glasgow or Blackpool has an average of ten years less on this planet than someone growing up in Hart in Hampshire or in Rutland. There’s a glaring imbalance.
“Or take university entrance – if you are a child on free school meals in London, you now have more than double the chance of going to university than a child on free school meals growing up outside London.
“It is an astonishing fact that 31 years after German unification, the per capita GDP of the North East of our country, Yorkshire, the East Midlands, Wales and Northern Ireland is now lower than in what was formerly East Germany – and I remember going to former East Germany in 1990, just after the wall had gone down.”
He added: “No one believes, I don’t believe, you don’t believe, that there is any basic difference in the potential of babies born across this country. Everyone knows that talent and energy and enthusiasm and flair are evenly spread across the UK, evenly spread.
“It is opportunity that is not.”
What has gone wrong? Why is the UK so economicallly imbalanced? Boris Johnson goes on to explain that the UK Government has played a central role in this:
“An unspoken assumption by policy makers [has been] that investment should always follow success – so that to use a football metaphor the approach has always been to hang around the goal mouth rather than being the playmaker.
“So you end up investing in areas where house prices are already sky-high and where transport is already congested and by turbo charging those areas, especially in London and the south east – you drive prices even higher and you force more and more people to move to the same expensive area.”
Now, it’s very telling that despite all this talk of Wales and Yorkshire, most of the national headlines about Johnson’s speech focused on fears that the south east of England could miss out if everyone else is ‘levelled up’.
The media is just as geographically concentrated in London as wealth and political power.
But if you read past the headlines and listen – or read – the speech itself, the above passage includes the most astonishing admission I’ve ever heard from a sitting Prime Minister.
The first is that the UK as presently constituted is fundamentally unfair, and that this unfairness runs across geographic lines.
There is a rich centre of the UK economy and there is also a geographical periphery, and there is a huge wealth divide between them, with the latter – as the Prime Minister said – lagging East Germany.
The second is that this huge imbalance is the UK Government’s fault. Rather than spread investment equally they have continued to feed the goose that lays the golden egg in London and the south east of England, to the detriment of the rest of the country.
It can’t be emphasised enough that this is YesCymru’s central thesis. The Welsh independence movement’s core argument is that political and economic power is over-centralised in the UK, to Wales’ detriment.
And that, because the UK Government – by Boris Johnson’s own admission here – won’t do anything about this problem, and is indeed making it worse, that independence is required.
Had the first half of Boris Johnson’s speech been delivered at a YesCymru rally, at this point the speaker would have explained how only independence could solve this political and economic imbalance in Wales’ favour.
But Boris Johnson is, of course, a Conservative and a Unionist, so he did no such thing. So what solutions did he offer to solve this problem?
Well, unfortunately, he didn’t offer any. Admitting that he was just offering the “skeleton” of plans to level up the UK, he asked anyone who had any ideas to “please send me an email”.
In fact, despite name-checking Wales in the first part of his speech, his solution was all about England, and indeed “a more flexible approach to devolution in England”.
Wales was mentioned only once more in the speech, in the form of a reference to investment in the M4 – a scheme that the Welsh Government rejected back in 2019.
Following the speech, the PM’s former aide Dominic Cummings called the speech “a joke”, and said that ‘levelling up’ was a “vacuous slogan” Boris Johnson had come up with during the 2019 election.
Labour described Mr Johnson’s speech as “gibberish nonsense”.
They obviously have a bone to pick with the Prime Minister, but having watched and read the whole thing it’s hard to disagree.
This was half a speech. As a university lecturer I recognise an essay crisis when I see it – the first half, the data collection, is sound but then the analysis – what does it all mean? – falls flat.
If you were a Unionist Prime Minister when the constitutional tectonic plates of your nation-state were separating beneath your feet you may think it unwise to build the case for independence and then not offer a strong Unionist solution to that same problem.
Boris Johnson set out the problem, in stark terms, but not the solution. And until Unionists come up with one, independence movements across the UK will continue to make hay.