Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Twinning the Nation II - What can Wales learn?

Following on from the first post, it's time to look at what things Wales can learn from our "international twins".


Treasure your "Small Nation Stars"The Flotilla Effect noted one advantage smaller countries hold (combined with openness to trade) is enough concentrated effort to develop world-beating specialisms, dubbed "Small Nation Stars". Finland's Nokia is perhaps the pre-eminent example, so too the likes of Skype in neighbouring Estonia. Both are now allied to or owned by Microsoft. The closest Wales has to a Small Nation Star, as I've said in Part I, is probably Admiral Group and maybe Iceland. We've lost several in the form of Anglesey Aluminium, Hyder and others that perhaps could've been the next one.

Despite recent problems, Nokia has shown signs of a recovery due to its emphasis on quick decision making and flexibility - called "The Nokia Way". But it's also something that can be applied to small independent nations as a whole too, due to the "low centre of gravity" in terms of political and economic structures. It's an inherent advantage, but only if used correctly.

Educate for life, not just for tests – In terms of education performances, Finland is towards the top of many world rankings. Wales has adopted some Finnish practises, like Foundation Phase (learning through play for younger children). Further up the academic ladder, however, Wales continues to have a very top-down, target-driven culture.

No uniforms. Hardly any homework. Lots of play and extra-curricular
activities. World-leading in education performance measures.
(Pic : The Guardian)

Finland has almost the complete opposite. Individuality is important for both pupils and teachers. School environments are very informal, homework is kept to a minimum and there's an emphasis on extra-curricular activity. There's still a national curriculum, but teachers are given greater freedom in applying it in practice. There are no school inspections, and hardly any formal examinations or tests until the final years of school.

University education is free for everyone – including foreign students. Finnish universities are also more heavily focused on research, while they still maintain polytechnics for practical application of subjects. Outside this, there's also a comprehensive network of adult education centres, including specialist training centres for sports participants at all ability levels.

You can be small, yet maintain an effective defence policy
– When you take Finnish history into account, you can understand why they have a relatively large and effective military. Some aspects of this could be used in developing a Welsh military policy – which I've covered before – in particular the concept of "Total Defence". That means every part of government and society is involved in planning for defence, without any separate agency for emergency responses. This would be relevant in today's Wales with regard responses to civil emergencies, which the Welsh Government were criticised for recently.

New Zealand

Quoted from Part I : "One big difference would be that New Zealand is geologically active with volcanoes and earthquakes...." He he he. Great timing, eh?

Two different cultures can co-exist peacefully, even after historical wrongs – It's right to say that relations between the Maori and European settlers haven't always been cordial. However, compared to other colonised peoples – especially the neighbouring First Australians – the Maori got off relatively lightly. The Treaty of Waitangi, between the British Empire and the Maori, could be considered similar to the Laws in Wales Acts by granting the Maori "British subject" status in the same way the Welsh became Anglicised.

Following protests since the 70s, many historical claims under the treaty are slowly being redressed by the New Zealand Government. That could be compared, in part, to Welsh language activism over the same period.

Despite all this, New Zealand has never suffered the same levels of ethno-linguistic tensions that other former colonies have. Parts of Maori culture have become as much a part of New Zealander identity to non-Maori, as the Welsh language and Welsh identity have to non Welsh-speakers and immigrants. It's not so much learning from that, just making sure we continue it too – on both sides of the language debate.

You can evolve to become independent – New Zealand never became independent in a "big bang", like a referendum or a unilateral declaration. It was a very slow evolution to de facto independence over the course of several decades. It's very hard to pin down an exact date when modern New Zealand became independent.

It's hard to say when New Zealand became
independent from the UK. Is that an form of
"Devo Max Extreme"? Could it be how Wales
will become independent?
(Pic : via Zimbio)

It could be the (1926) Balfour Declaration – where the "Dominions" were given equal status under the crown. It could be New Zealand becoming a founder member of the UN. It could be the moment New Zealander became a "nationality" under New Zealand law, rather than retaining "British". It could even be when the UK joined the European Union in 1973, which changed the trade relationship with New Zealand.

Even until recently, there were a few constitutional "cheesy pizza strings" tying New Zealand to the UK – via the Privy Council being a last avenue for judicial appeals. If it can happen in New Zealand, it can happen in Wales. In fact, I think it's highly likely, it's just I doubt we can wait until the 2100s for it to happen.

A structure for nurturing and developing sports stars – Domestic sport is much bigger in New Zealand than Wales, perhaps for obvious reasons – not many neighbours to play against. I've mentioned developing a Welsh equivalent of the ITM Cup before, but it goes deeper. They have a much more joined up approach towards developing coaches, for example. They also make a distinction between participating in sport for its own sake and "high performance".

I think we in Wales are too focused on creating successful individual sports stars, instead of organising successful domestic competitions and developing the sports themselves. It always seems like a choice between rugby union or football (or netball and hockey for the girls). However, New Zealand - like most parts of the industrialised world - still has high obesity rates.


Nations are never "too small to be independent" – Montenegro's population is not much more than that of the old Gwent, yet there they are with their UN seat, future EU membership, own military (likely to join NATO in 2014 or 2015) etc. They've become a big target for foreign direct investment, and are keen to become an "elite" tourist destination in the future, though both bring problems of their own. What you also have to note is that, for their size, Montenegro punches significantly above their weight in international sport – especially their national football team at the moment.

Attitudes to independence change, sometimes dramatically and unexpectedly – It took Montenegro just ten years to go from union with Serbia, to a loose confederation then full independence. Also, just four years prior to the Montenegrins cutting internal ties with Serbia, 96% voted to remain part of a federation with them. That's quite a dramatic shift in such a short space of time, and it's not entirely unprecedented either.

Since independence, Montenegro has attracted significant
foreign investment and is trying to boost its tourist industry.
Ten years earlier, it would've all been largely unthinkable.
(Pic :

Although the independence referendum in 2006 was a very close "yes" – barely passing the required threshold set down by foreign observers - nobody, apart from perhaps ethnic Serbs, are clamouring to return to Serbia and Montenegro or Yugoslavia.

Very similar arguments were made by "Unionists" then, that are being used in Scotland and will inevitably be used in Wales one day : Serbian family members would become foreigners, the Montenegrin health system would collapse, people wouldn't be able to get jobs because of an elite, social union etc. It didn't work, and you can only play those cards so many times until people see through them - especially if the "union" is being poorly run.

Small can be ugly too – One of the major issues in Montenegro is organised crime and corruption. Montenegro is now one of the main entry routes for human trafficking into the EU, and the Montenegrin government has been criticised for non-compliance with various international standards for clamping down on trafficking – though there've been some improvements. In fact, the Montenegrin government officially denies it even has a significant problem. The Montenegrin Mafia operates in several nations in the Balkans and diaspora, and have been involved in some very ugly activities, going to the very top of government.

Although we don't have problems like that on the same scale in Wales, we should ask questions about how some parts of the "Welsh state" are run. Montenegro serves as an example of what happens if you allow straight-up corruption, cronyism and nepotism to run riot. If people get away with the small things – your small-fry AWEMA scandals, for example – they'll eventually get away with the big things, and it'll be much easier too. You won't find any of this in The Flotilla Effect.

The Basque Country

Co-operative economics works – Mondragon Corporation, blah, blah, blah. We know that mutuals and co-ops are the in-thing amongst the Welsh political class at the moment. It's not just the Basques, but they're the pre-eminent model for this. I think what we should take from Mondragon is the diversity of the companies under its umbrella – companies in sectors Wales significantly falls behind in, resulting in Welsh consumer spending leaching out of the country. I think retail and banking services in particular. But Mondragon is also involved in education, including its own university. We might be able to go further and take co-operatives into public services.

Template for continued revival of the Welsh language - The Basques have had much greater success in maintaining the Basque language's growth, while Welsh continues to flounder. That could be because the Basques have "crossed a threshold" in terms of the number of Basque speakers to cause a self-sustaining increase (for arguments sake, 25% of the population). It could be that they've managed to make the Basque language much more generalised in use, rather than making it a "special case" or a "hobby horse" for activists.

The Basque language has been "mainstreamed"
in a way Welsh is struggling to do so, both in
education and the media. Is Cymraeg stuck in an activist's ghetto?
(Pic :
There's also education. There are four categories of school. In three categories, Basque is taught as a subject and in two, Basque is taught as a first language. ~75% of schoolchildren attend the latter two, and at least half are taught entirely in Basque, with Castilian a compulsory subject. It's also worth pointing the strength and plurality of Basque language media, demonstrated on Syniadau earlier this month.

Template for a Welsh media – This isn't related to the language issue, more the media in general. The media of the nations and regions within Spain is highly decentralised. The Basque Country has devolved powers over broadcasting, something that could be on the cards for Wales in the future. The Basque public broadcaster – EITB – has five (in future, six) TV channels and five radio stations, broadcasting in a mix of Castilian and Basque. This is in addition to the various pan-Spain commercial and public broadcasters. So it's wholly viable to have a separate broadcasting service for a devolved nation, whilst retaining pan-union channels and services.

And the others?

Republic of Ireland

You don't need political union to be a good neighbour – They might well have left the Union on less than amicable terms, but most (certainly not all) of the darker recent history of British-Irish relations stemmed politically and (para)militarily from "our" own back garden in the north, not the Republic.

Prior to, and after, the Good Friday agreement, there's been co-operation between the Irish, devolved and British governments via the likes of the British-Irish Council, shared citizenship rights via the Common Travel Area, as well as co-operation in other area of mutual interest like energy. None of that impedes the Republic of Ireland's status as a fully-independent sovereign nation-state. I think that's probably what will happen with the post-UK nations too – the so-called "Social Union".

Make better use of European funds – The Irish have made fantastic use of EU funds over the last 30 years or so, in part because they have full access to all the instruments available as they're a full member state, not a "region". They took a much more strategic, national approach via various National Development Plans, which set out investment running into tens of billions of euros.
The Irish have made much better strategic use of European
and domestic funds to boost infrastructure - attracting greater
foreign investment.
(Pic :

Although they still use funds for "social projects", they also spent it on lots of hard infrastructure - in particular developing their motorway network. That helped to attract foreign investment to the land that opened up, improving the economy to provide more funds. Ireland has since become - and still is - a major European exporter of big box "blue chip" products like pharmaceuticals. It should've been Wales.

One thing I will point out though, is the Irish rail network (except around Greater Dublin) is archaic and in dire need of significant upgrades.

Never place blind faith in a single party
Fianna Fáil have historically been the broad-base party that bent in the wind when it came to policy, adopting heavy populism as opposed to a single ideological stance. They coasted for decades, and hoovered up ~40-50% of the Irish vote since the 1930s.

Their only real opposition is Fine Gael, but Fine Gael's successes were fleeting. Without that  opposition, they engendered seemingly corrupt and increasingly incompetent administrations - perhaps because they "knew" they could be there "forever". Their position became so entrenched, that it took the collapse of the Irish economy for them to be finally, and convincingly, booted out of office. They trashed what they were supposed to care most about. Sound familiar?

Avoid creating property bubbles – The Irish experience provides a warning about smaller nations building up excessive and unsustainable property portfolios. The "Celtic Tiger" – at the time – was a resounding success, leading to excessive optimism about sustained high levels of prosperity, and subsequently some truly wild residential developments to try and cash in on that.

This wasn't helped by lax planning regulations, and a failure by politicians to properly acknowledge that the bubble had burst. That over-exposure to bad property debt, eventually filtered through into Ireland's disproportionately massive financial services sector – not helped by the 2007-08 crisis in America - and we know the rest. We in Wales need to learn lessons from that and decide what we want housing to be – an investment, or a home first and foremost.


How to provide "safe and sustainable" health services
– Scotland spends near enough the same, proportionally, as Wales does on health. Scotland also has a similar number of general hospitals serving a vastly more sparse population than Wales. NHS Scotland is even organised similarly to the Welsh NHS. So why are some aspects of the Scottish NHS - like waiting times, bed availability and staffing ratios - outperforming Wales? I think it's too complicated to answer, but one thing I will say is that Scotland has kept smaller community hospitals largely as they are, while Wales is about to close or significantly downgrade ours. Maybe we should look further north instead of simply trying to compare pencils with England.

Sparsity isn't a barrier to prosperity – It's fair to say that oil and gas plays a big role in Scotland having higher productivity than Wales. But it doesn't end there. Scotland exports more than Wales, has a much larger financial service sector, is much more successful of keeping the Scottish pound in Scotland and attracts many more tourists.

Highlands & Islands - €4,200 per capita more productive than
West Wales & The Valleys (in 2010). Why?
(Pic : tripadvisor .com)
It's said that sparsity and "smallness" drags back the Welsh economy, but you look at the sparsity in parts of Scotland, and you can see that economic success doesn't come down to cities alone.

Scotland's only Objective One area (Highlands and Islands) is being phased out due to economic success, while West Wales & The Valleys remains in the doldrums. We're clearly doing something wrong in Wales – something the Scots, and even the Cornish are getting right – and it doesn't just come down to oil, gas and financial services.

Make good use of your natural assets – Scotland's seen big investment in renewables – especially offshore wind – and is clearly taking advantage of its position. That's probably because they have the power and will to do so. The Scots could easily be self-sufficient in renewable energy alone, with plenty to spare, within a generation. We neither have the power or will in Wales, just talk of "sustainability" and protests. We can learn a lot from the Scots here.


  1. Interesting stuff. But four pressing matters spring to mind. Matters that you don't really deal with in your piece.

    1. Defence. Small countries are only allowed to stay small if their independence is guaranteed by a bigger neighbour or partner. Who will be our protector?

    2. Money. What currency are we planning to use?

    3. Europe. What is our status within Europe?

    4. Migration. How will we stop our population moving en mass to more prosperous countries/territories?

  2. Thank you, Anon.

    1. Defence. Small countries are only allowed to stay small if their independence is guaranteed by a bigger neighbour or partner. Who will be our protector?

    Before deciding what alliances we need, you'll need to answer "protection from what/whom?" I've covered this before, and might come back to it another time.

    The EU has pretty much ended any chance of military aggression between its member states, NATO offers the American's defence umbrella. The closest "hostile" states are Russia (who aren't entirely hostile) and parts of the Middle East. Wales is effectively protected from both via the Atlantic Ocean and by being so far west.

    If you mean internal threats like terrorism, then that comes down to good policing and intelligence sharing. Even if you have them - and a good military - it doesn't guarantee protection, as we saw in Woolwich last week.

    Any "neutral" country seems to do fine by itself, notably Ireland, Switzerland and Sweden.

    2. Money. What currency are we planning to use?

    Under international law, we would be able to adopt any currency we want without any formal agreement.

    But realistically there are five options : keep sterling as part of a currency union, a Welsh currency pegged to sterling (like the old Irish punt), a Welsh currency (like the Danish Krone), join the euro, or come up with some "alternative currency" like time credits or some negative interest "cashless" currency. This is on the "to do list" so I'll come back to it in more detail another time.

    3. Europe. What is our status within Europe?

    I'm not sure I understand the question, but I'll try and provide an answer anyway.

    At the moment, Wales is a region of a member state (UK). Our relationship with Europe is managed proportionally on our behalf by the UK Government and UK representatives, apart from some "regional" initiatives. Currently, Wales gets back more than the UK puts into the EU proportionally on our behalf (here).

    If the UK votes to leave the EU in any 2017 referendum, then Wales leaves the EU too. If Wales were independent, and decided/negotiated to join the EU (here), then we would have our own relationship with Europe as a full member state, not a region.

    4. Migration. How will we stop our population moving en mass to more prosperous countries/territories?

    Nothing. Why would we? It happens now. The only way to stop it is by making the economy more prosperous. That's a vested interest that comes with sovereign responsibilities.

  3. We could learn a lot from Finland

    Mind ew, Dai Ling Ping does do us proud like.

  4. Ta.

    What I want to learn is what Finland puts in its licorice? Acid?

    And Dai Ling Ping is indeed a proud ambassador for Wales.