Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Differences between Wales and England - The Higgitt Question

Over on Wales Home last week, an interesting debate broke out in the comments section of an article by Adam Jones of Blog Banw. Adam Higgitt asked an unrelated, if interesting, question.
What are the differences between Wales and England and why do they warrant a separate constitutional settlement?

Believe it or not, this is actually the short version..........get the coffee.


1. Wales is a centre-left nation. England isn't "right wing" by default, just a greater predisposition to vote Conservative and more marginal seats.

Yeah, it's a lazy one. The assumption is that Wales is dominated by centre-left politics, for good or for bad. Labour effectively run a one-party dominant system over large swathes of Wales. Next you have Plaid Cymru who are ideologically to the left of Labour. Even our Conservative and Lib Dem parties are a bit closer to the centre on policy than their UK counterparts.

England swings by a larger margin towards or away from ruling parties and there are far more floating voters. Wales's elections are far more predictable and by and large, we'll vote in a centre-left majority.

Why should Wales be beholden to policies from parties we don't vote for? Devolution has answered this one to a large extent, though, of course, nationalists will argue that it should extend to every single policy area.

2. Welsh (and Scottish) nationalism is less eurosceptic than English and British nationalism.

Plaid Cymru's long-term constitutional aim is "independence within the European Union" - similarly the SNP. Far from being cave-dwelling 19th century romantics, Welsh civic nationalism embraces cooperation at European level. There are certain to be English nationalists who share this also, of course, but there doesn't seem to be any outlet for them - except perhaps the Greens or to an extent the Liberal Democrats.

Does English Democrat, BNP or UKIP policy on international cooperation end at the English Channel? The loudest opponents of the EU seem to come from east of Offa's Dyke. Though that doesn't mean euroscepticism doesn't have a role in Welsh politics, it doesn't seem to have made much of an impact bar a single MEP and some disappointing Assembly results.

Does Wales have a different outlook on foreign policy and what our international role should be compared to the rest of the UK? The answer -if we compare it to other policy areas - is a likely yes, but we don't have avenues to express it because foreign policy isn't devolved.

3. Welsh public policy is based around equal access to public services, England's is based on choice and competition as a means to promote excellence.

This is where policy between Wales and England is diverging most, and certainly warrants a separate constitutional settlement. In a sparsely populated country like Wales, there's very little "choice" in what school or hospital you use for topographical reasons. Policies like foundation hospitals and academies would've been largely fruitless. In Wales, the onus is on providing a sustainable level of public service for everyone.

You can argue from performance data that this has led to mediocrity and complacency compared to the English system of choice, flexibility and competition. Of course, in a nation of 50million+ with large metropolitan areas (and many sparsely ones too it must be said), such policies can be made to work and can be popular. Which approach is the right one is a matter for debate.

Will the English, via the UK Government, be happy to continue subvention towards increasingly different systems from their own? The answer is probably no. This isn't in itself a case for independence or further devolution, but once more raises questions about how Wales would approach non-devolved issues based on a distinctly Welsh public policy.

Political incompatibility that has no avenue for resolution leads to escalated tension.


1. "Middle Wales" less upwardly-mobile and more public-sector oriented while "Middle England" (and the UK as a whole) is private-sector oriented and shape, rather than make, public policy.

In Wales (and some parts of England) the only stable, highly paid work has traditionally been in public sector roles such as teaching, civil service, nursing, medicine, dentistry etc. As a result, the Welsh middle class are more likely to be unionised and at the forefront of public policy at all levels.

Wales also has a "working class mythos" that's hard coded into our national story, and acts as a social leveller. In Wales, the head of government could be seen pushing a pram down Adare Street. That just doesn't happen at the UK level.

There is a distinctively Welsh "social" egalitarianism - it could even be described as a matriarchy - that doesn't exist elsewhere in the UK. There's far more consultation and far less grandstanding, which means that big projects sometimes move at depressingly slow rates compared to England.

Does this happen in England? Of course. However, the English middle class are far more likely to have jobs in the private sector, far more likely to travel in general for business and leisure and will read different newspapers, have marginally more disposable income and support different cultural events. The howls of outrage from the London cultural elite when Zaha Hadid's Opera House in Cardiff was dropped for the "parochial" Millennium Centre is an example of this difference.

They are treated more as a massive focus group rather than a group that is at the heart of policy delivery.

The bigger question is can Wales, and it's needs, ever be taken seriously at the UK's top tables when we have broadly different ideas about what sort of people should be sitting there?

Here's a question for Unionists; will someone representing a Welsh constituency ever hold one of the UK "Great Offices of State" ever again?

If the answer is no, then is the UK truly a "union" in the proper sense of the word? Is there an emerging Malay-style privilege in favour of the English or is it just a natural reaction to devolution?

If it's the latter then England will need its own constitutional settlement separate from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland if the union is to survive in the long term.

2. The Welsh economy is based on exports and low-level manufacturing like other smaller European nations. England by itself is a global economic power with foundations built on global financial services. It's a complete mismatch and a one-size-fits-all macroeconomic policy can hurt Wales.

Wales lacks high value added jobs in business, finance and the quaternary sector. These kind of "megajobs" rarely base themselves outside of "global cities". England has several : London , Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham. Scotland has one, Edinburgh. Belfast probably sneaks in as one too.

Cardiff doesn't come close. Swansea can forget it. Absolutely anyone can set up a small business making car parts - Wales does well at this kind of thing. We're even pretty decent at energy generation, supply line processing, some specialised areas of high-technology (such as optronics, some aspects of IT and aerospace) and we are finally building a more solid financial and legal services base.

Being in a unitary state where one nation's wealth generation vastly outstrips that of the others, disproportionately makes Wales look bad for investment and as an economy - even if that's not the case on the ground. It's an unfortunate but crippling side effect. Wales will always be aiming for an economic target completely beyond our reach.

Does the UK's macroeconomic policy help the Welsh economy? Or will it always maximise tax-revenues and growth in the most productive parts (London and SE England)? Does Wales need its own macroeconomic policy - that works to our economic strengths -which are clearly different from England and by extension the UK?

3. Wales has a romanticism about a "cradle-to-grave" government role. England as a whole is much more flexible and open towards public sector reform and the rule of law is more important than "being ruled".

Wales has never been weaned off the role of big government (economically or psychologically) and the Welsh turn to government because - for some reason, perhaps born out of industrial hardships - government (whether UK, Welsh or Local) is seen as part of a grander "safety net" that protects the Welsh people from adversity (part of the working class mythos). The NHS for example, is seen as Wales' baby. Private interests in public services are met with some suspicion in Wales. It could be a legacy of past poor labour v capital relations that's integrated into Welsh history in a way not seen in England as a whole.

In England, in times of adversity the people are more likely to turn to the rule of law. The police and courts are held in higher regard than government generally. Organised labour and big capital are equally mistrusted and that means reforms to government and public services are much easier to sell to the English public than the Welsh. England doesn't have a romanticism about the government's role because they - as a nation - have never needed government as a crutch.

If there's a big problem in England, they look to the courts, inquiries etc. If there's a same problem in Wales, they'll turn to the local council, form a committee, go to an MP/AM or the relative public body.

If the view of the role of government is fundamentally different, then isn't there a need for different governments? Why create needless tensions for the sake of keeping one "symbolic" sovereign parliament?


1. Cymraeg
Despite loan words from English, or English words that have been "Welshified", Welsh is completely different from English in almost every single way. Different alphabet, different syntax, different linguistic evolutions.

We should be proud that it's lasted thousands of years against the odds, and I believe the majority of Welsh people support the language even if they don't speak it - including myself. It's a massive part of what defines us as a nation and our shared history.

Likewise, England should be proud of English - its greatest export. It's produced some of the world's greatest literature and poetry, and provides a means of communication for billions globally.

Wales is the only officially bilingual part of the UK. That makes us very different indeed from England. Wales has two avenues of expression in addition to all the other minority languages of various immigrants down the years. That's absolutely priceless in an increasingly homogeneous US-dominated media and entertainment industry.

As Cymraeg is inherently Welsh, shouldn't Wales have the ultimate custodianship of it at all levels?

2. Wales and England have different attitudes towards high culture and sport. There are also distinctly different attitudes towards pursuing them.

Wales and rugby union. England and football. It's not as clear cut as that but there are underlying differing attitudes towards sport and culture.

Wales takes performing arts quite seriously, but less formally, compared to England. It's that old "land of song" stereotype but Wales does produce more than it's fair per-capita share of singers, actors etc. Katherine Jenkins is something of a national icon in Wales. If she were English she would probably just be another opera singer confined to Times and Guardian reviews. Performing arts in Wales are at a level playing field as long as you have the talent.

In England it does seem to be something for the middle classes and a skill that to be honed to the highest level. It goes back to the differences between attitudes to public services : equal access v competition and excellence. England doesn't really have an equivalent of the Urdd or the Eisteddfod for example, though Scotland has the Mod. England's high culture, however, if far more avant garde and cutting edge/innovative while Wales is more traditional and grounded - although that's changing.

When it comes to sport in Wales, it's about participation at the expense of elite performance. We have tons of sports clubs, spreading talent thinly - but as long as every village can put out a team, we're happy. Wales also has an enviable record of producing world-class disabled athletes.

In England, it's about excellence on an globally fair playing field. If the English football team were ranked 112th in the World it would be a national scandal, in Wales, we tut and moan but don't do anything about it, we even accept it. It might be a different case with the rugby team of course!

Culture and sport are about projecting all that's good about England (and using England as a vehicle for the UK or Great Britain) to the World. In Wales it's about entrenching identity and belonging, maintaining a semblance of cultural difference in a top-heavy union. Wales protects. England projects. Introversion vs Extroversion. Night and day.

One thing Wales, England and the rest of the UK share is a sense of "fair play". This doesn't mean that how we approach things like culture, broadcasting and the media are the same across the UK. Seeing as Welsh culture is a more important stamp of national identity, should Wales set the political policies and priorities as a distinct nation with a distinct culture?

3. Welsh Nonconformism v Church of England

This difference in thought on one of the most basic matters – religion, probably did more to re-establish Wales as a separate nation within the UK until the creation of the Welsh Office. The Welsh Revivals also brought the Welsh language back to the heart of Welsh cultural life, shoring it up despite repeated attempts to snuff it out.

The (at the time controversial) disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales was one of the the first times since the Laws in Wales Acts and the Wales and Berwick Act that a separate "Welsh way of doing things", like the Sunday Closing Act, was formally acknowledged by the UK government, long after Scotland and Ireland.

Would this have even been considered had there not been a nonconformist Welsh Prime Minister at the time? Or would it have been "too controversial" to pass? Why should it have been when there was a clear difference between Wales and England?

Legal & Geographic

1. Wales is developing a distinct body of Welsh law.

A separate legal jurisdiction from England is unavoidable if these laws are to be enforced effectively. Wales' border will be locked in permanently, and any changes to the delivery of services will have to take place within Wales's borders, not on an "England and Wales" basis or technocratic cross-border super-regions.

2. Wales and England need different approaches to climate change and the environment based on geography, climate, their relative economies and topography.

One of the areas devolution in Wales can point to some significant success is the environment.

In Wales, there isn't an immediate threat from rising sea levels or coastal flooding (with a few very obvious exceptions). Likewise, Wales' more maritime and upland climate makes drought a much lesser concern than some parts of England. You can even argue - as Rhodri Morgan once did rather ham-fistedly - that climate change could, to a certain degree, benefit Wales in terms of agriculture and tourism. Personally I'd rather not live in that world.

In Wales the environmental policy emphasis should be (and largely is) on better management and stewardship - for example : reducing carbon emissions from industry, reducing waste, public responsibility and more renewable energy. Being a net-exporter of electricity, Wales can help England go some way to meeting its own targets, but only if Wales has control over it and aims to meet the Welsh Government's own ambitions. Similarly for other natural resources.

England has several more deeper and fundamental issues that don't get anywhere near the attention they deserve : overcrowding in the south east, drought and pressure on resources (again largely in the south east). Also along the east coast of England in particular, issues such as coastal erosion and coastal flooding on a scale far beyond that of Wales. In addition, being an energy importer brings into question the security of those supplies.

Flooding and extreme weather in general is another big environmental concern that affects Wales and England equally, but Wales has a landscape and geography far better equipped to deal with significant rainfall changes than England on the surface of it.

There's a chance for mutually beneficial cooperation on the environment in a post-devolution (or post-independence) world, but it will have to be on a government to government, equal-to-equal basis.

3. Wales has an east-west divide, England has a north-south divide.

Based largely on topography and a "extractive" transport network, Wales is divided along east-west axis rather than north-south. The eastern half of Wales (Powys, Deeside, coastal Gwent, Cardiff and the M4 corridor) are the wealthier areas containing the economic "powerhouses" while the west contains the sparsely populated parts of Wales and the de-industrialised Valleys. It mirrors perfectly the EU's NUTS2 area for Wales.

England's situation is far more complicated. There are northern areas that are major regional centres - such as Manchester and Leeds - likewise there are areas in the south that are economically deprived - like some inner-city London boroughs and coastal towns like Hastings.

There's a clear and growing gap between the north and south in England, with no real attempt to close it, leading to the overheating of the south east and London. The regions of England are on their own by and large and this has led to a few successes but nothing to close the gap in any real terms.

In Wales however, there have been decades-long attempts to bridge the "east-west" gap - from EU funding through to social programmes and transport projects. It comes down once again to Welsh equal access v English competition and excellence. It's seen as a failure in Wales if a region - for example Ceredigion - cannot access the same services or economic opportunities as Cardiff, however unsustainable that might be. In England it's more about spreading prosperity out from successful areas - for example enterprise zones and high-speed rail. Clearly different approaches to a similar problem.


  1. Owen

    I've just tried to reply to your excellent post, but my response is very long and it seems to be denying me. Have you an email address at which I can contact you?


  2. Actually, maybe I'll attempt it in several parts. Here goes:



    I’m sorry I’ve only just got around to seeing this, as a reply now seems somewhat tardy. However, since I’ve never before had a question named after me (and probably won’t again) I feel it’s in order.

    I’m really pleased that you’ve given this answer, but I should add at the start of my reply (because, I’m sorry to say, this is a very long reply) that it wasn’t really the question I posed. What I was really seeking illumination on was: what is different about the Welsh as a people such that their own separate state is the optimum moral or practical solution? It is a subtle difference, but to my mind an important one. It strikes me that to be a nationalist one has to have some sort of conception of particularity or specialness of the people who comprise the nation in question: after all, if one didn’t believe that something that defined their group, it could not surely be a group?


  3. It seems to me that this “root” question – what is special/different about the Welsh as a people – has to be addressed before any others. If not, you fall into the same circular trap that your response does at times (i.e Wales is different, therefore we should be treated differently). The problem with such circular argument is that it is incapable of deducing cause from correlation, and hence can’t get to the nub.

    Your first “exhibit” – voting patterns - is a case in point. Wales’s more left-wing leanings are surely a function, not a cause, of an idea of Welsh peculiarity. Merely saying “Wales is a [more] centre-left nation” is a statement of bald psephological fact – it doesn’t address why this is so. There is another serious grievance with this in that, by only looking at nation-level voting patterns, you come up with the answer you want. The north east of England, for example, is an even more Labour-leaning part of the UK than Wales. So is the north west. Does this mean that both have a case to become separate states? What about Yorkshire and the Humber, which was more Labour-leaning until recently? What happens if Wales continues along the pattern of the last couple of elections (don’t forget that the Conservatives topped the poll in Wales in 2009) and exhibits a greater proclivity to vote Tory? Conversely, what about those parts of Wales, like the north east and south east coastal strips, that behave very much like (your notion of) England? Why should they be lumped in with the valleys and urban areas that vote Labour much the same as former coalfield areas and cities in England do? Welsh voting patterns, if you break it down, are a function of very conventionally British socio-economic factors, albeit operating counter-cyclically to the "mother" polity at times.


  4. You say that Welsh and Scottish nationalism are less Eurosceptic than English and British nationalism. Perhaps so, but given all of those, with the exception of Scottish nationalism, are (presently) marginal electoral forces, I’m not sure what this helps to establish. The Welsh as a people appear to be only slightly less Eurosceptic than the English, and the embrace of Scottish and Welsh nationalism of Europe was, as we know, a tactical move, designed (in the sentiment of Dafydd Wigley) to remove the taint of separatism. It nonetheless raises an important question about a movement that wants independence from the British union but is outwardly enthusiastic about ceding a very large amount of independence to the European Union. But that’s probably for another discussion.

    On public services, I think you have half a point. But this is difference born or Welsh relative rurality or sparsity of population. Any modern and intelligent constitutional settlement ought to be capable of adjusting policy to reflect such physical differences. Moreover, it’s only true in some parts of Wales. In others, there is the concentration of population much like urban areas of England. Surely what we need is not a choice between an all-UK approach or an all-Wales approach, but something that reflects the local reality? We need a more localist approach than either a centralised British or Welsh state can offer.

    You then go onto suggest that “middle-Wales” is less upwardly-mobile and public-sector facing. Even if this is so, most agree that Wales needs a larger and more dynamic private sector, so the aspiration here is to be more like England, not less. Your point about prams and Adare street is a good one, but I don’t think this is to do with social leveling – it is merely a product of the fact that Wales is a country of 3 million rather than 60 million. Besides, didn’t I see pictures of David Cameron pushing a pram down his local high street recently?


  5. As for Welsh social egalitarianism, I suspect this is more a working-class and less a national thing. Again, I’d suggest a comparison with England’s ex-coalfield areas, as well as her upland farming areas might be illuminating. I don’t believe the Welsh have a different idea about the type of people who ought to sit at the top table - in fact, what is striking about devolved politics is how often it seems to mimic British politics.

    You are right that the composition of the Welsh economy is different from that of England’s. Actually, to be more accurate, it is different from London’s in the way you describe (England, by the way, doesn’t have several global cities, it has one; even Greater Manchester’s population is a mere one-quarter that of London’s, Leeds is one-tenth the size and Birmingham, while larger, is just another provincial European city. Belfast, for the record, is smaller than Cardiff and only slightly larger than Swansea). The economy of the north east of England shares a lot of similarities with Wales, The economy of the West Midlands is different from both London and Wales/NE England. The south west of England is different again. One size doesn’t fit all these different areas, but that doesn’t in itself mean they each need to be separate states, or that a UK-wide macroeconomic policy is incapable of meeting all those different needs, any more than an all-Wales macroeconomic policy ought to be flexible enough to cater for the prosperous south east and north east of Wales, and still take care of the Valleys and west Wales.

    I can’t comment on your observations about matriarchy vs rule of law because I don’t know of any evidence to support them. But they are, at least, an attempt to identify something qualitatively different in the values, customs and sentiments of the Welsh as a people.


  6. You are right about the Welsh language. Along with its associated culture, it is one of the very few things that is unambiguously distinctively Welsh. Of course, as you note, Wales is also very extensively English-speaking, and the English language is very much part of Welsh culture. Should Wales have “ultimate custodianship” of the Welsh language? I believe so. Does this require a separate state? I doubt that, and the existence of numerous bilingual and multilingual states suggests that it is not necessary.

    As for sport, no it certainly isn’t as clear-cut as your opening sentences imply. I’m afraid that your following observations on culture and sport don’t strike me as especially valid or grounded in evidence. And they certainly don’t pass the “we therefore need a separate state” test. As for religion, I very much hope we have definitively moved beyond the era when peoples and states are divided according to religion.

    Your comments on laws fall into the “ought” rather than the “is” category: it is something you hope to see as opposed to something that is in place and differentiates the Welsh.

    On climate change, I find this analysis rather odd. Yes, Wales has certain natural assets that can be brought to bear in pursuit of a more sustainable mix of energy production, and devolution (with amendments) should be more than flexible enough to tailor policy accordingly. But on the broader picture, Wales, England, the rest of the British Isles and indeed most of Europe are in exactly the same position. What is needed here is greater co-ordination to reduce emissions. England’s additional need for climate change mitigation is a miniscule issue by comparison, and certainly doesn’t mean that Wales and England are incompatible as joint members of a political union.

    On sub-national divisions, again I fail to see the point you are trying to make. Yes, attempts have been made to address the relative underperformance of west Wales and the Valleys, just as (in many cases exactly the same) attempts have been made to address similarly identified malaise in Merseyside, Cornwall and several other English regions. And I’m sorry to tell you that the gap between east and west Wales is also widening.


    Please don’t get me wrong: there are important areas in which Wales as a whole is different from England as a whole. It is, by and large more rural and sparsely populated. It is more mountainous. It has commensurately poorer communications links. It has a greater proportion of relatively depressed post-industrial areas. And it has a unique and historic language and associated culture. But none of these, individually or collectively make the case for a separate Welsh state (as opposed to, say, a modern federal state) and none do justice to the real issue, namely the need for form of government that recognises the substantial differences that exist within Wales and within England and the commonalities that exist between parts of these two countries. A lot of problems you have described are functions of a historically over-centralised British state. I fail to see how these will be fixed by supplanting it with an over-centralised Welsh state.