Monday, 27 May 2013

Twinning the Nation - What nations are like Wales?

Which nations around the world are similar to Wales?
What can we learn from them?
In two parts, I'll try to address both.
(Pic :

I'll hopefully look at a Welsh foreign policy, diplomacy and international relations in more detail - a la defence & local government - next year. I suppose the next two posts could be considered a prelude.

In two parts, I want to play the role of "matchmaker" and determine which nations around the world are similar to Wales – our international "twins" - and in particular what we can learn from them when/if we decide to become independent ourselves in the future (Part II).

First of all, it's worth deciding what factors you need to consider.

Would like to meet....

Dominated by liberal/left politics – The largest political party/parties should be centre-left, and the government/executive branch will have been centre-left for a considerable time. This has limits. Wales has few things in common with South American and Caribbean "socialist" states other than an "extractive" economic history.

This isn't Wales. I'll resist this "vision" for
Wales to my last ounce of strength.
(Pic : USA Today)

Temperate climate
– Generally speaking, neither too hot nor too cold. This would rule out desert, polar and tropical nations. Twins of Wales should be "damp and warm" for most of the year, preferably with a maritime-influenced climate.

Export-oriented market economy – Twins should ideally be net-exporters of goods, as Wales is, although that's taken a hit recently. They should also be market economies. You still shop at Tesco, listen and watch commercial TV and radio stations and buy into trends, don't you? Wales isn't East Germany despite claims to the contrary.

A large public sector – By that I mean "large" by regional or international averages. This is neither a good nor bad thing.

Low population density, but with a highly centralised "core region(s)" – Twins should be rather sparsely populated on the whole, ideally with a population in the region of 1 to 5 million. However, this should be balanced with an equivalent of the M4 corridor or Wrexham/Deeside.

An agrarian culture – Historically, the people should've "lived off the land", or been largely agrarian or traditional industrial in terms of culture, diet and outlook. That could mean a "hearty cuisine", a small-c conservatism, a level of stoicism in the face of adversity as well as a slight "introverted/insular" bent.

This isn't comparable to Wales either,
nor should it ever be.
(Pic :

Protestant and/or irreligious – Wales might not be protestant in an Anglican sense, and becoming increasingly secularised. However, it has an effect in terms of culture between parts of the world, and subsequently, public policy and ideology.

Historically part of an empire - Either as a colony, or a bit part in a larger player. I think this means Welsh nationalists naturally have an affiliation with other "stateless peoples" under the yoke of a larger nation state. Personally though, that doesn't extend to the Palestinian government or militant Irish republicans, both of whom Wales has very little in common with.

Bilingualism/Biculturalism – Wales' twins should have at least two officially-recognised languages – national or regional - or at least two distinct cultures within the territory, in the same way as Welsh and English language culture are different but loosely similar.

Who are Wales's twins?

Finland's sparsity, economic make-up and linguistic
history have strong parallels with Wales.
(Pic : Wikipedia)
Climate wise – OK, it's not exactly similar. Finland has hotter summers and colder winters than we do, but maybe not to the extent you would expect for a nation that far north. It's also covered in coniferous forests, which are definitely a similar feature to Wales.

Historically, Finland has been a fully annexed part of the Swedish and Russian empires, before forcefully declaring their independence from the latter, and part-repelling the Soviet Union (twice) in the 1930s and 1940s. This could, in part, have led to them being seen as a somewhat insular people.

In terms of bi-culturalism, Finland actually has three – the Sami people, Finnish itself and the Swedish-speaking Åland Islands. The Sami have a measure of self-government, while all three languages are officially recognised. The Finnish for Finland – "Suomi" ("land"/"nation") – is almost exactly the same as "Cymru" in Welsh. Finland is predominantly Lutheran Protestant, and it's said modern Finnish literature didn't start until Mikael Agricola's translation of the Bible – perhaps similar to William Morgan's Welsh Bible translation, which occurred around the same time.

The Finnish language has also faced a similar crisis as Welsh - deciding what role Finnish should play in society, and whether they should keep the "global language" of Swedish, which was enforced on them when they were part of the Swedish Empire.

In terms of politics, Finland's semi-executive presidency has been held consistently by liberal progressives and social democrats. It only changed hands to the right in 2012, along with the Finnish parliament in 2011. Historically, however, the Finnish Parliament has been dominated by several left-leaning green and liberal parties. The largest is the Social Democratic Party, who have have always had some influence on the government, but are on the wane.

In economic terms, Finland is a major exporter of goods, but not a net-exporter overall, which is similar to Wales. Chemicals and manufacturing are their major sectors – like Wales. Their public service sector is actually a bit larger than ours at around 32% in 2008 (Wales ~ 28%). Unemployment is similar to us too – (8-9%).

When you think of Finland, you probably think "Nokia", when you think of Wales, you probably won't come up with anything, but "Admiral" would probably be the next best guess. So we have that in common too, in having only a handful of really "big name" indigenous companies. Finland also has it's own equivalent of the M4 corridor – the Helsinki to Turku and Helsinki to Tampere motorways.

New Zealand

The mountains might be taller, but there's an awful lot
more than sheep and rugby that Wales has in common with New Zealand.
(Pic :

The first two obvious similarities would be an affinity for rugby union and lots of sheep, so I'll get those out of the way now.

Climate wise, New Zealand and Wales are almost identical – maritime influence, rather wet, similar seasonal temperatures. One big difference would be that New Zealand is geologically active with volcanoes and earthquakes, while our volcanoes are extinct. You can definitely say that New Zealanders share the same sense of stoicism and soft-insularity that the Welsh do due to all these dangers in a rather lonely part of the world.

Culturally, you can point to the Maori minority, who make up roughly the same percentage of the New Zealand population as Welsh-speakers in Wales. However, the Maori language – which has official status - is only spoken by around 4% of the total population, much less than the 19-20% of people in Wales who speak Welsh.

In economic terms, productivity in New Zealand is similar to Wales, with NZ edging Wales by around $2,500 (~£2,000) per capita per annum, which isn't much in global terms. Is New Zealand "too poor to be independent"? Nope. New Zealand is a net-exporter, though most of their exports are natural goods. So agriculture is a much more important part of the New Zealand economy compared to Wales. Also, there's a difference in terms of the public sector. The New Zealand health care system, for example, is roughly "four parts public, one part private".

They also have a few major centres, focused around the Auckland area, Wellington and Christchurch, with a lot of space in between.

Politically, New Zealand has a unicameral legislature, though it's twice the size of the Senedd. The Labour Party have traditionally hoovered up lots of votes since the 1940s with a few blips, including 2011, but it's hard to say they have dominance. New Zealand overall has a two-party system when you include the centre-right National Party. Tories v Labour, then? Obviously, being a Commonwealth nation and former part of the British Empire, New Zealand and Wales also share a head of state and similarities in things like the legal system.


Maybe a contentious choice, but as Montenegro tries to
find its feet as an independent country, there are certainly
similarities in the challenges Wales would need to overcome too.
(Pic : BBC)

A bit of an "out there" choice, admittedly. What makes Montenegro stand out compared to the others, and maybe the main reason I've included them, is that they have a large minority of people from their largest neighbour – Serbia - living within their borders (vis-a-vis the English in Wales).

Montenegro has been part of the Ottoman Empire, with a brief period of independence between 1852-1918, until it was absorbed into Serbia, then Fascist Italy, and subsequently Yugoslavia. Achieving independence in 2006 – making Montenegro (discounting Kosovo as they haven't been universally recognised yet) "Europe's youngest country" – their ~625,000 inhabitants are a hodge-podge of different ethno-linguistic groups typical of the Balkans. Although Montenegrin is the only official language, there are four other recognised languages.

Montenegro largely escaped the worst of the Yugoslav Wars, whilst supporting the Serbs. However, in 1996-1997 the Montenegrin government severed internal ties with Yugoslavia for a whole host of complicated reasons, remaining in the loose confederation of Serbia and Montenegro. They became more pro-EU in focus, liberalised their economy and governments slowly pushed for independence.

The climate of Montenegro is more humid than Wales, being on the Adriatic, but they boast an impressive biodiversity and a mountainous terrain that puts Wales to shame. In economic terms, they're trying to take advantage of this by building up their tourist industry. Though overall, the Montenegrin economy lags way behind Wales - GVA per capita is less than half ours – a symptom of the transition to a market economy. What's also perhaps familiar to us is historically poor infrastructure, though there are moves to improve it.

Politically, the largest party is the pro-EU Democratic Party of Socialists, who are joined by other centre-left parties in the Montenegrin Parliament. The DPS have effectively won every parliamentary and presidential election since independence.

The Basque Country (Euskadi)

The Basque Country - as a devolved nation - offers Wales so
many lessons   in so many areas it's impossible to leave them out.
(Pic : Federal Union)
You would've expected me to include more stateless nations in this list, but I think the Basque Country fits the bill more than others.

The climate, along the coastal area at least, is almost identical to Wales – wet and Atlantic influenced for most of the year. They also have a very similar topography, with "valleys" being an important part of Basque geography. The area around Bilbao could be compared to the Taff Valley/Greater Cardiff area in Wales, and Donostia perhaps to Swansea, existing as two "poles" along the coast.

One of the big differences between Wales and Euskadi are attitudes to autonomy and the economy. The Basques aren't strongly seeking political independence for the moment, yet have a level of autonomy that effectively puts it on the brink of all-out independence. I think this has helped its economy, which is the strongest of the devolved nations of Spain – another thing we don't really have in common with them then. Euskadi is home to many significant "Spanish" companies, including BBVA bank (along with several other banks), the Mondragon Co-operative and major manufacturers like CAF (trains) and Gamesa (renewable energy). Basque GVA significantly outstrips Wales.

There are roughly around the same number of Basque speakers as there are Welsh speakers - between 700-750,000. However, Basque speakers make up a greater percentage of the Basque population (~27%) compared to Welsh in Wales. The Basque language also has a "separateness" that makes it unique from languages spoken around it, perhaps in the same way Welsh is (as the only widely-spoken Brythonic Celtic language with official status) compared to English, Irish and Scottish Gaelic. The other Brythonic languages being Cornish and Breton, of course, both of which are recognised, spoken and being revived but currently lack official status.

One thing that we also share in common is the impact of civic nationalism on domestic politics (much more comprehensive coverage of Basque politics from Syniadau). However, Wales doesn't share a violent nationalist past – we had no equivalent of ETA. Basque politics is also more mixed than Wales – the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ) are centrist/conservative - but there's a presence of a big centre-left group, including left-nationalists – Bildu - who are perhaps more in keeping with Plaid Cymru. The influence of unionist parties is weaker than in Wales, with the Basque equivalent of Welsh Labour currently only having 16 seats in their (75 seat) parliament.

Close, but not quite

Wallonia – Probably the closest to making it onto the list. Historically, the region was rich in coal and iron, and built its economy off heavy industries like steel-making, until those industries collapsed. Sound familiar? Wallonia has also been historically dominated by the Parti Socialiste, while neighbouring Flanders has been more right-leaning and effectively subsidies them. Sound familiar?

Is Wallonia too similar to Wales to be able to
learn anything from them?
(Pic :
Wallonia even has the same Germanic root – "Wahl" ("Foreigner") - as Wales and a very similar climate. I think the main reason I haven't included them is that we can't really learn much from the Walloons as they're in the same boat as us on a whole series of matters!

Slovenia – Slovenia only has a single official language (Slovene). Slovenia was also one of the wealthier parts of the former Yugoslavia, which isn't a good starting point when comparing it to Wales. What is similar to Wales though, is that they generally have a mountainous terrain, and Slovene politics is dominated by social democratic and liberal parties. They're also a net-producer of energy and have a significant manufacturing base.

Republic of Ireland – Ireland ticks many boxes, but there are crucial differences. Firstly, Ireland is a majority Catholic country, and this historically meant the main political parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) are too conservative by Welsh standards for there to be a direct comparison.

Another obvious one left out, but not
without good reason.
(Pic : New York Daily News)

Ireland is also more monetarist/economically liberal, or given the impression of being so, especially during the "Celtic Tiger" years.Their health system, for example, isn't universally free at the point of use, which would probably be intolerable to a Welsh electorate. There's certainly a lot Wales can learn from Ireland though.

Scotland – Similar to Ireland really, but mainly for economic and cultural, not political reasons. Scotland's economic productivity significantly outstrips Wales, but their indigenous culture is perhaps nowhere near as strong as Welsh language culture is. Scotland has also had much more clout internationally in their own right before, and after, the Union. Perhaps – pound-for-pound – they're up there towards the top in terms of historic global influence and recognition.

Part II will look at what Wales might be able to learn from these nations.


  1. Emilia Romagna (Italy) is worth a comparison (not sure how close it'd be) as they've had the same first minister and governing party since 1999, with a few junior coalition parties.

    Great post! Although the next one will put some meat on the bones.

  2. Why didn't you include Scotland and England?

    We are much more similar to these two nations than any others.

    Educated is our weak spot. Everyone knows it.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Anon 17:45 - That's an interesting one. I don't think they're quite comparible to Wales as they appear to be one of Italy's more prosperous regions, plus there's all the other factors.They might be a bit moremore comparable to Scotland come to think of it.

    Anon 11:15 - It's a legitimate question.

    One of the first things I took into consideration was being a self-governing or devolved nation with a population of 1 to 5million (give or take) - because that's what Wales is. England (and Cornwall) falls at that hurdle. England's also not officiall bilingual, is an importer of goods and isn't dominated by centre-left politics, nor do they have a particularly large public sector compared to most averages. Plus there's the issue of having 18 times the population of Wales.

    Comparing Wales to England would be like comparing Wales to France, Germany or the United States - utterly pointless. Chalk and cheese.

    I accept there are clear similarities between Wales and England, but they are mostly "familial" and cultural - things like cuisine - which other parts of the world share too, in particular New Zealand and Australia. I did include Scotland, despite some key differences, and I'll be coming back to them in the next post tomorrow.

  4. Why would Wales want to learn anything from other countries around the world? Our sole raison d'être is to be 'different', different from our much larger neighbour England.

    Genetically, culturally, linguistically and historically we are identical to the English. But, over the last half century we have been educated and, in turn, we have educated our children, to be 'different'. A different version of history, a different language, a different view upon the world and so on.

    If there is one thing I would change in Wales it is our education system. We are not different, we are all the same.

  5. Our largest nearest neighbour is Germany, not England. We speak the same language as Australians, most Canadians and Americans. We watch US TV shows, drink other European beers and food, some of us use Finnish mobile phones, buy "stuff" made in China and drive Japanese and South Korean cars. We use Spanish, Anglo-Scottish and American banks.

    The only way people are identical is under the skin, and even then there are differences. Some people might be good at maths, others at sports. Some might be musical, others might prefer writing. That applies to whole nations as much as individuals and families.

    Different world views lead to different ideas and different ways for people to make their lives better (or indeed worse). That's the whole point of human existence. The key shouldn't be to make everyone a homogenous blob, stuck with one way of thinking and doing things forever, but to make sure everyone has the equal opportunity to work to their strengths and be able to be "different". Again, that applies to nations and peoples as much as individuals.

    "Different" is good, but it has to work. There's a whole world out there to learn from, and if we want to improve the education system, for example, we could learn more from the Finnish - who are towards the top of the class in terms of education perfomances - than we could from England.

  6. "Genetically, culturally, linguistically and historically we are identical to the English."

    I'm guessing that you're trolling because not one of those points are true.

  7. What about Denmark? Next door to a big, aggressive neighbour. Of course the Danes got an opt-out of the Lisbon Treaty (Protocol 32) which prevents the sale of second-homes to non-Danisg citizens. One of the advantages of having your own government.

    Finland is a good match, as would be some of the Baltic states. Pesonally I'd stuff the left wing politics - it's done Wales no good whatsoever. Public sector- far too big, not enough native entrepreneurship, we need to learn from small countries which are successful rather than those like the Latin Americans and Irish who are always playing the victim card - Singapore perhaps.

  8. I love Finland.

    The history of the Fennomans Movement is really interesting. Welsh was in a stronger position than Finnish in the early 19th century but look at us now! :(

  9. Thanks for the extra comments.

    Denmark's a good call, and I did consider it. Denmark is certainly a country Wales can look at emulating in many ways. I think the main reasons I left them out were a lack of official bilingualism and Denmark was very much an imperial power rather than a bit player or colony. Scotland would probably be a lot like Denmark or Norway now had they not joined the Union.

    As for Singapore, the place is no doubt successful, but it gives me the creeps. It's like something out of Blade Runner, or a UKIPer's special night time fantasy. I like their public housing policies though.

    I think Finland's probably a better half-way house to aim for, really. Though, as I said, I'd resist any attempt to create some throwback Socialist "People's" Republic of Wales, modeled on Latin America, to the death.

    If the Fennomans Movement proves anything, Anon 11:50, it's that things can be turned around. We'll probably have to look to the Basques for inspiration in the 21st Century though.

  10. The thing about "ditching the left stuff" because "it's failed Wales" is a dead end. It is inherently part of Wales as a nation, or what Wales has become. It has a left leaning character although it isn't always that radical.

    Wales doesn't have a big public sector because of socialism. We haven't had socialism. We have stagnated economically having largely been governed by Conservatives from London and also Labour failed to correct it.

    The challenge is to embrace everything that Wales is, including softly-left politics, and turn it into something positive. Not to wish a different kind of Wales existed- "like Singapore"! Singapore is an authoritarian city state. It's as remote from Wales as you can get.

    Countries like Finland, to an extent Catalonia and others, are much more similar to us. I would say Scotland as well, although there is a different dynamic there and wider political choice.

    I think in Wales we have quite a good range of choice on the left but not so much on the right, where a moderate Welsh party has never emerged (and probably wouldn't have the support base to be competitive). Our nationalist history is also as specific to Wales as Catalan nationalism is to Catalonia. It's all pretty complicated.

  11. Thanks, Anon 10:13.

    I largely agree with that. I wouldn't mind having Singapore's economic performance, but everything else is very "out there". There's a reason Singaporeans are emigrating en masse. It's a Thatcherite Disneyland minus the right to buy.

    I'm not sure about there being more choice on the left in Wales. Labour or Plaid, that's about it, and most opt for Labour. The Lib Dems have effectively destroyed any credibility they might have had as the "protest party of the left" for a generation, the Greens are ineffective and the various socialist sects lack credibility.

    I would say - and I have before - that the "centre ground" in Welsh politics is perhaps to the left of the UK as a whole, perhaps more in line with the Nordic countries.

  12. Apart from all of this theorising, which I do find very interesting as you can tell, is the cold hard fact that we're Wales. Warts and all. All we can do is work with the country we've got. And possibly build a new one on the foundations of what we've got at present. What we can't do is magic a new Wales out of thin air or rewrite history so that things change to suit whatever we believe in as individuals. Both nationalist and unionist, and left and right, do this constantly (maybe I'm doing it right now!).

    Wales has come about by now as a political entity that nearly faded out of existence. I would say even now it's quite tenuous but worth constantly reforging and renewing.

    The understanding of this doesn't come through complaining about Wales being left-wing. It is what it is. We could "be left wing" and still have a much better every other social democratically-oriented country (there are loads of them)!

    All of what has happened so far, has made Wales. The labour stuff is absolutely vital. The language and culture is also completely essential. My call is to accept all of this, embrace it, and work with it to make something attractive for the future of Wales. It will be whatever we decide to make of it.

  13. Sorry for the late response, Anon 19:34. Well said!

    I don't think there's harm in comparing ourselves to other countries and, to use the policy wonk expression, "adopt best practice". It only harmful when you get too much into that and end up developing an inferiority complex. Wales has always done that with regard England, when there are more apt places to compare ourselves with out there.

    One thing that does annoy me though, is Welsh celebritities/politicians/sportsstars/artists etc. being described as "The Welsh X", with "X" varying. It's easy to do, and I've done it a few times, but it almost implies they're ripping someone off, or a Chinese bootleg copy instead of someone with talent in their own right.