Get ready to put your hands deep into your pockets for the boyos and girlos of the Welsh Valleys. Adam Price, the leader of Plaid Cymru, called last week for the UK to pay “reparations” to Wales for the crime of reducing the country to poverty. For centuries, Wales has (apparently) been stripped of its natural resources and “deprived of its inheritance”.
Price’s demands are almost beyond parody. But they could become a frightening reality if a coalition government led by Jeremy Corbyn and various nationalist and green parties wins the next election.
The then-Labour leader of the Welsh Assembly, Carwyn Jones, set the new tone of Welsh whingeing the day after the Brexit vote in 2016. “Wales,” he declared, “must not lose a penny of subsidy”. Wales, of course, had voted Leave.
There, in a sentence, was the economic policy of the Welsh government: hold out the begging bowl.
Wales is the poorest of the economic regions of the UK. Household income per head in 2017 – the latest date for which figures are available – was only £15,754, compared to the UK average of £19,514. The gap with the wealthiest regions is massive – the south east has an income per head 43 per cent higher, and London is no less than 77 per cent ahead.
It has not always been like this. In the early decades of the Industrial Revolution, the valley towns were probably the richest in the world.
Merthyr Tydfil, now a byword for poverty even by the standards of Wales, led the way. It was the first genuinely industrialised town in the history of humanity. In 1831, 96 per cent of its labour force worked in manufacturing and mining.
Many forces are at work in the story of Wales’ decline, but in modern times, it has often not exactly helped itself. The key to a successful economy is a skilled labour force, but in 2001, the Welsh government scrapped the publication of league tables for the performance of schools. This both deprived parents of information, and reduced the incentive for poor schools to improve.
The outcome was predictable. A Bristol University study estimated that it led to a fall of 1.92 GCSE grades per pupil. In 2015, the Welsh Assembly reversed the decision, but a lot of damage had been done to the human capital of Wales. For over a decade, students were less well educated than they could have been.
This lack of a skilled talent base inevitably holds back enterprise. This, along with other counter-productive decisions, may be why Wales is increasingly dependent on public sector jobs. Overall, Wales raises £14bn a year less in taxes than it spends on public services.
Might Wales be able to turn its fortunes around if it were forced to consider its economic decisions more carefully? After all, the policy of subsidising underperforming regions has been tried for decades. It has made no difference.
So instead of paying reparations, perhaps we should consider withdrawing subsides, as New Zealand did with great effect. By removing the handouts which are distorting Welsh decision-making and causing a vicious cycle of subsidy demands, we can give Wales the chance to restore the enterprise which used to flourish in the nation.