Why the Welsh independence movement is worth millions to Wales’ economy
Ifan Morgan Jones
When the UK Government announced yesterday that £160m would be spent to develop wind farms off the coasts of Wales and Scotland the official reason given was that both countries had “deep waters”.
This didn’t really stack up as a good reason for singling out Wales and Scotland for investment – there are deep waters all around the coast of England, too.
The real reason was briefed to the Telegraph in this morning’s newspaper who revealed that the aim was to “help to strengthen the Union”, with waters off Wales and Scotland “pinpointed” for that reason.
In other words – the squeaky wheel gets the most oil. And Wales’ growing independence movement has made Wales’ wheel squeaks louder than ever before.
Wales’ independence movement has become a very effective tool for crowbarring tens of millions from the Treasury’s coffers.
This is likely to be an unpopular truth with both sides of the debate – Unionists because they don’t want to recognise that having an independence movement is an effective political tactic, and independence supporters because they are loath to recognise any UK Government largesse.
But the UK Government now have a clear tactic when it comes to saving the Union. Spend big, showy dollops of cash in Wales and Scotland and slap a Union Jack on the finished projects.
In the aftermath of the first independence referendum in Scotland, Wales’ former First Minister Rhodri Morgan called for Wales to be rewarded because “the country didn’t put the whole of the UK through the mincer via referendum or civil war” as Scotland had.
But politics doesn’t work that way. Docile Wales didn’t get anything. It was Scotland, the disobedient member of the UK, that was subsequently showered with attention.
Wales has now learnt that lesson. Threaten to leave and you will get better treatment. Top tip to Yorkshire which has just had its leg of HS2 cancelled – get yourself a separatist movement.
Lumps of cash
However, the UK Government’s new preparedness to splash some cash on Wales does not of course mean that the tactic will work as a means of saving the Union.
The best comparator here would be the EU, which spent some £800m on Wales in the last decade of membership but was ultimately rejected at the ballot box.
EU flags adorned buildings and bypasses up and down Wales and yet people seemed mostly oblivious to where the money came from – or didn’t care.
Hundreds of millions spent by the UK Government on new floating offshore wind farms for Wales are unlikely to have any impact, either. And not only just because the average voter won’t even know they are there.
The levelling up fund announcement as part of the Budget during the week was another good example of this. £121m of funding will go to 10 specific schemes in Wales as part of that fund.
The UK Government had ignited a huge political row with the Welsh Government just so that they could be seen to be the ones to bestow this money on Wales.
And for what? An aqueduct restored here, a new path dug there, some work on a canal. Big numbers in a press release but it will have a very small measurable impact on the lives of very few people.
The reality is that people would rather be given the opportunity to generate their own economic worth rather than simply being handed big, individual cheques and asked to be grateful.
Real levelling up will involve investing in the fundamentals holding back the Welsh economy, including terrible transport infrastructure – such as rail, where Wales has been underfunded over 10 years to the tune of £500m.
Announcing big multi-million pound projects won’t amount to much unless Westminster fixes the fundamental economic inequality between different parts of the UK.
The irony may be that despite triumphing in an independence referendum of their own over the EU, the Brexiteers may never have understood why the EU failed to connect with the people of the UK.
If throwing hundreds of millions at individual projects was enough, Wales would never have voted out.