Independence Index

Your in-depth guide to Welsh independence.

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The latest news, debates and reports from the Senedd. (Fourth Assembly stories are under 'Archive').

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The major local political stories and developments from Bridgend county.

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We gave AMs law-making powers; this is what's being done with them.

Committee Inquiries

Detailed scrutiny of how Wales is being run. (Fourth Assembly inquiries are under 'Archive').

Vice Nation: Sex

How could an independent Wales deal with issues surrounding sex?

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Is it time to scrap exam grades?

GCSE and A-Level results have been pounced on as
usual. Is it time to scrap traditional grading altogether, before
everyone loses confidence in the exam system?
(Pic : The Guardian)
(Owen : I've been on a break by my standards, but rest assured normal service will be resumed next week – big time.)

Over the last fortnight, students up and down Wales will have received their grades for GCSEs, A/S Levels, vocational courses and A-Levels. I always remember it as slightly nerve-wracking, because I had high expectations of myself and where I wanted to go academically. There were hits and misses along the way.

I think people forget their own experiences of that. Even when I got my GCSEs more than 10 years ago, there was a sense that all the work for those two years was being undermined by a concerted effort to, well, make us look thicker than we actually were. These qualifications matter a whole lot more now than they did back in the days of O-Levels.

No employer of worth nowadays takes a job application seriously unless you have a serious number of qualifications (regardless of where they come from) as well as/or a significant amount of work experience (sometimes unpaid). At the higher-end of the scale, you're now expected to possesses a good degree from a good university, sometimes backed up by postgraduate or job-specific/professional qualifications.

So every time GCSEs, A-Levels - and increasingly, degrees - are written off in the press, the job prospects for school and university leavers get eroded further and further, even during the halcyon "good years".

One noted area of concern in the last week or so, has been the marking of GCSE English papers. Apparently, the boundary for a C grade was shunted upwards suddenly. Therefore, many students who would've got a C-grade ended up with Ds - which is in all effect and purposes a "fail" (A*-C grades are the only ones that count in practical terms). That would deny them access to many further and higher education courses, unless they resit the GCSE.

The Welsh Government launched its own investigation into the marking scandal, and Education Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), has suggested that UK Education Secretary Michael Gove "pressured" exam boards to mark more harshly. That accusation could have some legs, but it'll be hard to prove I'd imagine.

First things first, why is Leighton concerned with what Michael Gove thinks/does in the first place? Education is supposed to be devolved, isn't it? The buck is supposed to stop in Cardiff Bay. If Leighton and the teachers are dissatisfied with the current system of exams, then shouldn't they use the powers available to change things here, instead of sticking with an out-dated and increasingly discredited system?

Perhaps Wales should/could adopt the Scottish system of Standards and Highers, or come up with something better on our own.

That's not a criticism, I'd back Leighton's stance on this, personally. It's just an observation. More on this at Plaid Wrecsam in two parts here and here.

It's politically advantageous for there to be a few sharp year on year drops in pass rates. Once Michael Gove has instituted his O-Level "reforms", and the exam boards "lower their grade boundaries to reflect the toughness of the new exam system....yadda,yadda,yadda", then I predict "O-Level" pass rates will suddenly go up, and pupils will be "leaving school/starting FE & HE courses, with the robust qualifications necessary for the modern workplace....blah,blah,blah."

Then we can start the process all over again in 15-20 years time once pass rates reach an unacceptably high level/can't be stretched further. Cynical? Moi?

Maybe there's another way around it – stop issuing grades altogether. Only give the percentage score, therefore employers, universities etc. will know precisely whom is better than whom down to the mark. Anyone who gets below a certain percentage (depending on level of the paper i.e. 40% for a higher-level paper, 60% for a foundation level paper) flunks it completely, so no "E grade passes" anymore (and I say that as someone who's been in that position on rare occasions).

Now, the spin would probably continue. We'll get headlines how the average percentage mark in GCSE Geography has dropped from 60.4% to 60.1%, but at least it'll be much harder for people to get jumpy about it. It'll be dull, technical and the only people concerned should be those opening envelopes – as results day should be.

A 9 year old getting an B in A-Level maths is a headline. A 9 year old averaging 59% across two A-Level maths exam papers is barely newsworthy.

It might make things more complicated for various institutions, but at least it'll go some way to giving peace of mind to everyone – politicians, students and teachers.

Hopefully, we can then drop the obsession with grade inflation and concentrate on the real issue – why are children from poorer backgrounds, and boys, still underachieving?

Saturday, 25 August 2012

On rape....

If only attitudes to rape were as clear cut
as this public information campaign.
(Pic : West Mercia Police)

When men get involved in any debate on rape, they sometimes come across as patronising one-eyed dinosaurs. There've been many examples in the last week or so. I hope that won't be the case now, but it's time I kicked the hornet's nest.

There were 2,463 recorded sexual offences in Wales in 2009-10 (p178), and 38% of these were detected (solved/cleared up by police) compared to an EnglandandWales average of 30% (p189). Not all of these will have been rapes, though rape convictions in Wales had risen to just under 60% in 2009-10.

In something that should shock everyone in Wales, former Plaid Cymru AM Nerys Evans found that back in 2008,  three of our AMs have been victims of rape – and that's from just eight responses to her questionnaire. That's the equivalent of 33 MPs. Actually think about that for a second then extrapolate it into the general population.

Criminal justice isn't a devolved matter, obviously. If/when it does become one, the first criminal justice bill I'd like to see would be a Sexual Offences Bill - following on from Scotland's example set in 2009/2010. It clearly defines what rape and other sexual crimes are, as well as the penalties.

I think the definition of rape has become complicated by years of legislation (probably including my suggestion above) and changing social attitudes (marital rape was exempted in EnglandandWales until 1991-92).

My own definition would be, and it's not particularly nice to think about I admit, but : "Penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth, by a body part or object, for sexual gratification, whereby one of the participants did not/could not give informed consent."

It's gender neutral (male rapes make up around 8%-10% of recorded cases) and it covers all forms of "penetration" – I needn't go further there.

There are several problems with rape and attitudes towards it. Firstly, it's one of the ultimate cases of "one person's word against another" when there isn't enough evidence, or when the crime isn't investigated thoroughly. This leads to the unhelpful belief that there are "varying degrees of rape" - making a distinction between premeditation and "getting carried away", "victim impairment" or "bad sexual etiquette".

As far as I'm concerned, the stereotypical violent rapist dragging someone off into the bushes with a knife held to their throat, is committing the same crime as someone who has sex with someone while they are sleeping, passed out or drugged.

Next there's the culture of "victim blaming". All of us who have been victims of crime will no doubt go over all the things we should or shouldn't have done to avoid it – that's a natural reaction. However, you rarely hear robbery victims, or victims of serious assaults, being blamed or harassed as openly and publicly as many rape victims are.

It's common sense that people are aware of their surroundings and the company they keep. But there is absolutely nothing – whether it's wearing the "wrong" clothes, sending the "wrong" body language cues, being "too drunk" etc – that gives another person the right to force themselves on someone. It's also worth remembering that many rape victims know their attacker – as high as 75% according to some statistics – this could be a reason why many rapes go unreported.

One thing that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is that we have a concept of "self-ownership" in the first place. Denying someone control and ownership over their own body in such a personal way – controlling what goes in and out and on what terms - is a violation of everything that makes us civilised. It should be deplored resolutely, not brushed aside as if it's hijinks, or attached to unrelated conspiracy theories.
As far as I'm concerned, rape is up there with murder, child abuse and violent crimes against the person like armed robbery. Each takes away something that is incalculable : control over your own body, a life, a childhood/innocence and a sense of security. It should be a big deal.

Having said that, I do believe that victims and the accused deserve the right to anonymity until either a court appearance, or they go on the run/breach bail conditions. Sometimes that isn't possible or practical with the most serious crimes. I also firmly belief in "innocent until proven guilty", but the courts need the chance to do their job. Anything else looks like an admission of guilt.
I'm talking in general terms now, not specific cases. I don't really care if they're a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a world-famous artist, footballer or are working on a cure for cancer. They can hide abroad, they can go on the run from the police, they can hide behind religious symbols, various legal and diplomatic loop-holes or general bureaucracy.

The crime they are accused of is serious enough for them have to their day in court – whether it's to face the music, or have their name cleared.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Bridgend LDP submitted for inspection

Within the last few weeks, the plan outlining land use in Bridgend County until 2021 was submitted to the Planning Inspectorate and National Assembly for inspection and approval. The details of the inspection are here, and all the documents relating to it are here.

I outlined the major proposals in the deposit LDP last year. It's worth summarising once again:

  • Approximately 8,000 new homes – Most of these will be built in the Bridgend (3,000), Porthcawl (1,500) and "Valleys Gateway" (1,200) areas. Around 1,300 will be "affordable". Many of them will have already been built since 2006.
  • Expansion of Bridgend southwards and north-eastwards – A major regeneration of the Brackla Industrial Estate, the Parc Derwen development of around 1,500 homes near Coity (currently under construction), Parc Afon Ewenni (Waterton Cross) and the Island Farm sports village.
  • A new masterplan for Bridgend town centre – Which aims to expand retail choice, maintain the existing core and regenerate parts of the town centre, in particular the Brackla Street area.
  • Regeneration of Porthcawl – The plans here have hit a significant buffer in recent weeks, and have proven controversial in the local community. Plans include a new marina, retail developments, upgrades to the promenade and new housing.
  • Regeneration of Maesteg – The Ewenny Road factory site (mixed-use development), ongoing town centre developments (new market) and the Maesteg Washery site (housing).
  • Regeneration of Pencoed - A new "town square", improved community & youth facilities and public realm/environmental improvements.
  • Renewal plans for major social housing areas – Caerau, Tudor Estate (Maesteg), Wildmill and Marlas (North Cornelly)
  • New transport links – Brackla railway station (due around 2015), Bridgend railway station bus interchange (currently postponed due to Network Rail land issues), dualling of the A48 south of Bridgend, expansion of walking and cycling routes (Bridgend-Pencoed, Bridgend-Maesteg for example)
  • Protecting "buffer zones" between major and minor settlements, land for minerals development and public open spaces.

It brings together all the major strategies in transport, housing, energy, the environment, waste management and general land use in one document. Other local authorities - in particular Cardiff - have had difficulties is setting out their own LDPs. Bridgend Council have managed to negotiate the process rather smoothly and efficiently by comparison – but not without its own, more moderate, delays.

The Inspector's Report is expected sometime early in 2013 (I'll cover that, of course), and full adoption of the LDP will follow soon after that.

Then in about 6 or 7 years time we start the process all over again....

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Could Wales host a Commonwealth Games?

Dai Green won gold for Wales in Delhi 2010.
Could Wales be preparing a bid for the Commonwealth Games in 2026?
(Pic : BBC)
Continuing the sporting theme this week....

In the last few days it's been (re)announced that the Welsh Government and Cardiff Council are considering a bid for the Commonwealth Games at some point in the future – probably off the back of the London Olympics and forthcoming Paralympics. So today, I've decided to have a look at any possible bid in a little more detail, and try and answer/brainstorm some of the more fundamental questions surrounding a bid.

The Welsh Government has its own ten-year Major Events Strategy, which was launched back in 2010. The strategy outlines what's considered a "major event", the sorts of events Wales could bid to host, as well as how major events fit in with various strategies.

What are the Commonwealth Games?

Forgive me if I'm patronising you here.

The Commonwealth Games is a multi-sport event hosted every four years – like the Olympics, but with fewer events and participating nations. In 2014 the 20th Commonwealth Games will be hosted in Glasgow, Scotland.

Disabled and abled athletes compete in one competition, in separate streams. It's also the only event of its kind where Wales competes as a separate nation – that's probably one of the reasons why I've always enjoyed the Commonwealth Games a little bit more than the Olympics. Whether Wales would become a Commonwealth member upon (any eventual) independence is a matter for another day.

What's required to host?

The Commonwealth Games sports are (for 2014) :
  • Aquatics : Swimming, Diving
  • Athletics : Track & Field, Triathlon
  • Combat Sports : Boxing, Judo, Wrestling
  • Cycling : Road, Track, Mountain
  • Gymnastics : Artistic, Rhythmic
  • Lawn Bowls
  • Shooting
  • Raquet Sports : Badminton, Squash, Table Tennis
  • Team Sports : Field Hockey, Netball, Rugby Sevens
  • Weightlifting

Other sports that are recognised, could realistically appear, or have previously appeared include : Archery, Billiards, Cricket (50 over or T20) Darts, Football, Golf, Life saving, Rowing, Sailing, Snooker, Wheelchair Rugby, Volleyball and Tennis.

Earlier this week, I made a suggestion that Welsh/British baseball could be included as an "exhibition sport" (an unofficial competition to promote the sport).

Where could Wales host it?

There are three options really : Cardiff, Swansea & Newport

It's been suggested that should Wales bid, the events could be spread across the south Wales cities.
It's not impossible, but not ideal either. There would be significant logistical challenges to overcome. Ultimately, it's single cities bidding to host these events, with a few events taken out further for practical reasons (mountain biking needs mountains, for example).

On those criteria, realistically only Cardiff could host it alone (perhaps Swansea at a push, but with more venues needing construction). However, for this exercise, a "three-way" bid between the south Wales cities is used.

The issue now, is precisely where events could be hosted.

Athletics


The Millennium Stadium would need to be modified to host athletics competitions, or at the very least host the opening and closing ceremonies.

Raising the level of the playing surface to fit in an athletics track should be relatively straightforward. They're doing this at Hampden Park for the Glasgow games, and the cost is around £20million. However, there are different field dimensions at Hampden Park, and it would be harder to do something similar at the Millennium Stadium. It would mean a reduced capacity, but the roof is a big, big bonus considering our typical summer climate.

It would almost certainly put the Millennium Stadium out of action for several months, perhaps longer. Whether the WRU would be happy with that begs the question.

If it were the case that a new athletics stadium had to be built, the obvious choice would to be the existing Leckwith stadium. It would likely be a temporary stadium for around 40-50,000 spectators - reduced post-Games to something a lot smaller, but capable of hosting Diamond League events for example.

Events like the Triathlon might need to be moved elsewhere. Parc Bryn Bach, near Tredegar in Blaenau Gwent, has been mooted.

Aquatics

Aquatics events could be hosted by an upgraded National Pool in Swansea, or an upgrade to the International Pool in Cardiff. The latter would be more likely I'd expect, but the National Pool was built with international standards in mind, and would probably be the easier to upgrade.

Cycling

The Newport Velodrome would likely need a modest
upgrade to host Commonwealth track cycling events.
(Pic: Fatnick.com)

The Newport Velodrome would need to be upgraded to host cycling, but that's another obvious choice. A temporary velodrome could be constructed somewhere in Cardiff – possibly the Maendy pool site - but that would seem like a duplication/waste of time & money.

There would be several candidates for Mountain Biking : Afan Argoed, Brechfa Forest, Margam Park, perhaps more.

The Cycling road race could be a straight north-south A470 route, with laps added where required, finishing in Cardiff Bay.


Outdoor Team Sports/Other Outdoor events

  • Rugby Sevens could be easily hosted at Cardiff City Stadium, or the Liberty Stadium in Swansea.
  • Hockey could be hosted at UWIC or the University of Glamorgan in Treforest.
  • Lawn Bowls could be hosted at the Bowls Club in Sophia Gardens.
  • Shooting might be particularly difficult to find a venue for, perhaps Cardiff Castle grounds, Vale of Glamorgan Hotel or Margam Park.

Indoor Events

Could the abortive Havannah Quay scheme in
Cardiff be kick started by becoming an athletes village?
(Pic : The Penny Post.co.uk)
The National Institute for Sport, Motorpoint Arena, Talybont Sports Centre, the proposed new Cardiff Devil's stadium in Cardiff Bay and the Newport Centre could all host various indoor events (Gymnastics, Weightlifting, Boxing, Raquet Sports), probably requiring moderate upgrades to do so.

If other sports were introduced, venues would also need to be found for them too. Many of these venues would likely be temporary - like the Beach Volleyball venue at Horseguards Parade recently.

Then there's the other issues :
  • Where would the athletes village go?
  • Would transport cope with a sudden influx of visitors?
  • Are there enough high-quality hotel rooms for visitors/media/officials?
  • Will Cardiff Airport even be open then?
  • If the bid is spread over several cities, how would athletes and officials get to venues?

I would've thought the obvious place for an athletes village would have been the Ely Mill site, but that's up for redevelopment now. Any athletes village (for up to 6,000 competitors) will need to be as close to the venues as possible. Using existing student accommodation might be enough, but that's a stop-gap solution as well as scattered all over the place. Another candidate could be Havannah Quay on the banks of the Taff.

Timescales and Rivals

The 2018 Games will be hosted by Gold Coast, Australia, so that's one date unavailable. There wouldn't have been "back to back" British Isle bids anyway.

To date, the games have never been hosted in Africa. I'm going to guess that Abuja, Nigeria (who failed in their 2014 bid) or somewhere in South Africa (Durban is mooted) would win a 2022 bid. It would almost certainly go back to Canada at some point in the next few cycles too.

Realistically, 2026 or 2030 is the earliest Wales could host it.

There could be competition from the likes of Birmingham, Canadian cities and possibly African cities too (if they don't host the 2022 games). Some of these cities could host a Commonwealth Games with minimal fuss - unlike Cardiff. There's also the outside possibility that London might bid at some point, perhaps to celebrate some sort of Commonwealth anniversary, to make use of Olympic venues.

Costs and Benefits

The Glasgow Games in 2014 will boost the Scottish economy by as much as £81million,
but the costs of staging the games themselves have ballooned - as most big events do.
(Pic : Insidethegames.biz)
The estimated price tag for the Commonwealth Games is around £530million. It's significantly cheaper to host than an Olympic Games, but doesn't come with the same international exposure or prestige. Despite that, short of co-hosting a UEFA European Championships, it's the biggest single event Wales could ever hope to host.

Funding would come from corporate sponsorship, National Lottery funding, host local authorities and the Welsh Government. It's unlikely that the Welsh Government would be bearing the costs alone, though they would have to make a significant contribution. The Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council have underwritten at least 80% of the £523million cost of the Glasgow games (a cost that has risen over the years).

The economic benefits from the Glasgow games are estimated to be £26million for the host city itself, and up to £81million for Scotland as a whole, with a projected 4% increase in tourist visitor numbers. However, this doesn't include the boost from construction of venues. If Wales hosted a successful games, it might lead to a boost in "national pride", possibly resulting in a boost (short-term at least) in economic productivity.

There are, of course, other benefits. Like the Olympics hope to leave a legacy, a Commonwealth Games might boost participation in sport, which would have a positive impact on the Welsh NHS, general quality of life/well being and the environment. There's also the legacy of improved international-class sporting facilities left behind.

But....this is Wales. The Welsh are amongst the most cynical, browbeaten and pig-headed people in the Western World and that's saying something. Any Commonwealth Games bid would be met with a chorus of negativity. It, coincidentally, has already started today in fact.

First it'll be those opposed to the Welsh Government spending money on anything/existing. Then it'll be those suddenly concerned that we aren't topping up the £6billion+ NHS budget. Then, once the venues are announced, it'll be people from X complaining that "Insert venue location here" is getting too much money while there's dog mess down the park blah, blah blah.

This is why we can't have nice things, and why I think a Commonwealth Games bid would be – to a certain degree - a complete waste of time and effort.

Conclusion


It's certainly feasible for Wales to host a Commonwealth Games based wholly, or entirely, in the Cardiff area. A bid at some point in the future would no doubt be welcomed, but it should also be tempered.

We should warn against overstating the potential benefits "major events" bring to the economy. What they've become are massive adverts really. A giant PR exercise to project a nation on the rest of the world. A rather expensive one too. What sort of Wales would we be projecting in 2026 though? That's the question.

We simply don't know what state Wales is going to be in around 2026. Based on current projections, we could be looking at a public spending to GVA per capita ratio of 70%+, an even older, even sicker population and an Offa's Gap that's an insurmountable Grand Canyon. And we'll still be trundling along, sucking our thumbs, dribbling down our fronts, waiting for miracles and heroes that will never come.

Who would want to host a games celebrating youth, vitality and human physical accomplishment in a nation that stands equivalent to a hospice?

A Commonwealth Games bid in that sort of climate might be nothing more than a welcome distraction.

Maybe the moaners gearing up to inevitably bash this will be right – for once.


Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Whatever happened to Welsh baseball?

                       

A few weeks ago, I posted on Basketball Wales' rejection of a merger with British Basketball on a permanent basis. Although unrelated, an interesting discussion took place in the comments section on Welsh/British baseball, and I thought it was worthy enough to look again separately.

Historian Dr Martin Johnes from Swansea University wrote on the subject back in 2000 in a paper entitled "Poor Man's Cricket". It's available here, and it's what I'm basing some of the following off. It's well worth a read.

What is Welsh/British baseball?

There are major differences between Welsh/British baseball and the "American/Major League" game:
  • The Welsh/British baseball bat is more like a "paddle" than the American long and thin bat.
  • Bases are poles rather than mats/bags on the round
  • Balls are bowled underarm instead of "pitched"
  • Welsh/British baseball has 11 players (MLB – 9 outfield) and uses a lot of cricket terminology (crease, bowling, extras, no-balls)
  • The playing kit is very similar to football or rugby (shirt and shorts) with no protection (i.e. helmets)
  • There are just two "innings" compared to American baseball's nine
  • A run is given for every base reached after hitting the ball, rather than a complete circle of all the bases

The Welsh/British game developed as an improvement of the traditional "rounders" game. Although there were national (UK) competitions at the end of the 19th century, attempts were made by American sides to promote their own version via tours. Baseball didn't catch on, and became isolated in two main pockets – south Wales and Merseyside.

By 1921 there were "60 clubs and 1,400 players registered by the Welsh Baseball Union", but the sport never spread outside Cardiff and Newport. It was very much a working-class game, heavily associated with the inner-city communities of Cardiff, while rugby and football players would play baseball during the off-season. These were people who simply couldn't afford to play, or weren't interested in, cricket.

Baseball became "established as the predominant summer sport" within Cardiff and Newport, though the rules weren't fully standardised until 1927. Internationals took place between representative sides of England and Wales and still continue until this day. As late as the 1980s, the annual "internationals" even had highlights on the BBC, as exemplified here. You wouldn't picture BBC Wales or S4C doing that now, would you?

How come it never took off?

There are several reasons cited by Dr. Johnes' paper and elsewhere.

Firstly, there's the issue of land. Although baseball didn't require as much room as cricket, in other working-class areas where you would expect the sport to spread to – The Valleys for instance – there weren't the large tracts of flat land available to play on. In Cardiff, baseball clubs were reliant on public space and "applications from baseball clubs to use (public parks) were turned down."

Then there's the issue of money. It might've been cheaper to play than cricket, but the fees and rules applied to baseball clubs that didn't have their own private land were extraordinary. For example the traditional collections, to raise funds for the clubs, couldn't be carried out in public parks. As a result, the baseball clubs "couldn't operate independently from those in power (City of Cardiff Corporation)."

This entrenched the sport's reputation as a "poor man's cricket". Baseball simply couldn't attract the sort of middle-class patronage that cricket, football and rugby enjoyed, and it remained confined within certain communities. The association with Irish Catholics, also led to marginalisation of the sport, at a time when there was a bubbling sectarianism in some Cardiff communities.

Welsh baseball today

The sport in Wales is still governed by the original Welsh Baseball Union established at the end of the 19th century.

Although there's been some considerable decline in Merseyside (there are, apparently, only four clubs left), the Cardiff and Newport area still has its own local amateur baseball league (with at least two divisions), and even has very active youth and women's competitions.

Grange Albion are probably the most famous and successful Welsh baseball club - winning the championship 33 times since 1921, including this year. Some of the other sides are associated with religious societies or existing sports clubs – like St Peter's and Rumney rugby clubs. Both Newport-based St Michael's and Grange Albion are over 100 years old. Paul Flynn MP (Lab, Newport West) is a noted supporter of the sport.

The internationals between Wales and England national sides (The Gladstone Rose Bowl) are still contested annually as mentioned earlier. Wales also have a considerable lead over England in terms of championships won.

That's not to say the sport is entirely confined to the Cardiff area. I certainly remember playing this during PE lessons during the summer term. There is a campaign, I believe, to reintroduce the sport properly in other schools, presumably starting in its "heartland".

A future for Welsh baseball?
If it's one thing Welsh baseball needs, it's a publicity boost.
With the push for more active children and adults in the wake
of the London Olympics, now is as good a time as any.
(Pic : The Telegraph)

All this leaves you wondering what might've happened had the sport taken off in The Valleys, or if it crossed the River Dee from Merseyside into the Flintshire and Wrexham area. Would Wales now be playing this version of baseball in the summer instead of cricket?

Seeing as the likes of cnapan fell away a long time ago (or simply evolved into our affinity for rugby union), Welsh baseball is probably - bando aside - our equivalent of a "Gaelic sport". By that I mean a largely/uniquely Welsh "folk sport", not any reference to the rules.

Baseball might not enjoy the popularity it once used to, but it's still chugging along. In the face of competition from the likes of cricket, the fact the sport is still going is a magnificent achievement and tells a story in itself about how baseball has been taken to the heart of these communities.

It might not mean much in the grand scheme of things. However, if we lose things like our own version of baseball - harking back to the original post on Welsh basketball - we lose a little bit of ourselves with it – as well as the means to properly support the infrastructure of these sports : coaching, leagues, clubs and school activities.

If baseball is to have a future, it need to continue to attract new players. Getting it back in schools during the summer months is an absolute must – preferably with organised inter-school competitions. It would probably be cheaper and easier for many schools to play than cricket. Seeing as everyone is now clamouring to get kids playing sport off the back of the London Olympics, we in Wales should keep every option on the table.

Exposure is another big problem. Even in Cardiff, although the local media cover it, it's not as well presented or promoted as perhaps it should be. S4C usually fill empty air space with live events, I doubt it would be that big a stretch to cover a game or two. Seeing as everybody is obsessed with celebrities nowadays, perhaps one way to raise awareness is to host some sort of fund raising  game in the SWALEC stadium to raise money for the clubs and leagues.

Should there be a bid for a Commonwealth Games by Wales in the future, perhaps Welsh/British baseball could be included as an exhibition sport.

More on that at the weekend....

Sunday, 12 August 2012

A spunky Welsh Public Policy Institute

Hat tip to A Change of Personnel.

The First Minister launched his government's proposed Public Policy Institute earlier this week. He's initiated a "pre-tendering process" to encourage the "brightest minds" to apply – from academia, presumably parts of the public sector, existing think-tanks and private sector too.

I was pleased when Carwyn Jones first announced a "new deal" with the civil service, of which this forms a part, as it was in the fallout from that Green Investment Bank bid. Anything that would've given the civil service a boost at the time would've been welcomed by me personally with open arms. I thought, "At last! Someone's finally got it!"

What I envisioned, was a Public Policy Institute that would:
  • Be a significant non-partisan body. Most "Public Policy Institutes" are completely/mostly independent (even if they are sometimes partisan) – for example, the Institute for Public Policy Research, Institute of Economic Affairs and Institute for Fiscal Studies.
  • Focus its attentions on debating public policy decisions in Wales (or UK/EU policies affecting Wales) and help come up with creative new ones.
  • Have enough clout (academic/reputation) to give the Welsh Government a clip around the ear every now and again.
  • Be the first step in the creation of some sort of "Civil Service Academy"

We need all that if we're ever going to hold Welsh Governments (of all colours) to account effectively, and see a significant shift in public service performance. That would qualify, from a political anorak perspective, as an "exciting development."

Then you look at the detail in this pre-tender.

What the Institute of Public Policy will be expected to do:
  • Respond rapidly to the needs of the Welsh Government, including providing short turn-around advice to Ministers, but not commission any research of its own.
  • Support the cabinet in highlighting "cross-cutting issues" (screw-ups?)
  • Help interpret research for Ministers, and draw lines to dots for them ("make connections between insights and evidence") as well as double check Welsh Government research, looking for gaps.
  • Maximise impact with "less emphasis on written reports", and more on "communicating" and "getting the right people together." (Some sort of government PA/gofer?)
  • Developing cross-discipline delivery (for example, social justice and health)
  • Build partnerships with international think-tanks and universities.
  • Working through a "network of authoritative and independent individuals, contributing to the work of the Welsh Government's Knowledge and Analytical Service and (the) Departments' research commissioning, at Ministers request."

All of this is subject to "refinement at the pre-tender stage", so it's not set it stone. It doesn't deserve to be written off before it's even come into being.

I think the role of this body can be simplified even further.

Back in school, there was probably a kid/kids whom lazier classmates used to go to get answers from during difficult lessons? That's what (it looks like) this proposed Institute of Public Policy is going to be – someone to help the Welsh Government and civil service with their homework. Maybe that's not an entirely bad thing thinking about it.

Although this has all the hallmarks of a think-tank (it was described as such when initially launched back in February), it can't "commission any research of its own". It's a think-tank that can't think.

So it's just a "tank" then. Tommy tank.

Then you look at selection criteria : Full grasp of key issues facing Wales, understand practical challenges of policy implementation, build effective relationships with Ministers, civil servants academics....

I'm willing to bet Prof. Brian Morgan's name just popped into your head. Victoria Winckler? Perhaps a former Welsh Government Minister like Andrew Davies? That's not to say they haven't made considerable contributions, but I wouldn't at all be surprised if it's a familiar face(s) coming, probably bringing ideas with them that will be all too familiar as well.

That's not a public policy institute really, but a panel of experts outsourced from the civil service. It also seems to be obliged to respond to requests from Ministers - that's more "footsie under the table" than "arms length from government".

There are crumbs of comfort . Shortlisted candidates will be expected to "focus on delivery." You can't accuse the First Minister of not meaning business there. He deserves credit for trying at least. Developing greater "cross-discipline delivery" and "links with international think-tanks and universities" is also pretty sensible.

The new institute will be transparent too, with its work "published as a matter of routine" – good. But then you notice it says, "unless there are compelling arguments against" (what I presume means "compelling arguments against publishing analyses produced by the institute").

Hmm....if the analysis would be too inconvenient? Who would decide what does or doesn't get released?

The First Minister has been commendably prudent. The contract is only for three years, and its envisaged up to a maximum of £450,000 will be spent on it per annum.

Alas, it'll inevitably disappear in amongst all those initiatives and departments that, perceivably, only exist as lines on the Assembly's annual budget spreadsheets.

There's not much to see here - unfortunately.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The case for Cornwall

A national flag, or a "regional" one?
(Pic : Via Flickr)
We've often heard that Wales is England's biggest county. It certainly feels like it's treated like that sometimes, but I don't think that quip holds much water anymore other than as a wind-up, especially since devolution – however weak a settlement it is.

There are campaigns for some form of English devolution - and there will have to be movement there at some point in the future. As arguments over the future of the British constitution "rage" (or become totally bonkers in the case of this guy), there are two broad parts of the islands left out of the debate : the Crown Dependencies (which are enjoying what most of us would call "Devo-Max") and the fifth Home Nation – Cornwall.

Wales & Cornwall : Points of divergence

Could this simple act - the creation of a disestablished church - have
changed  Wales' future vis-a-vis Cornwall?
(Pic : Wikipedia)
Wales and Cornwall had a similar relationship with Old England. Both (you could probably expand this to include Devon) were recognised as holding some sort of "separateness" from England proper – both containing the Germanic "wahl" (foreigner) in their adopted names - but being nothing more than vassals to be divided amongst the Norman aristocracy. Subsequent interbreeding with the "natives" created Cambro-Norman and Corno-Norman ruling elites.

Then the Welshman, Owain ap Tudur, managed to play way out of his league. Many years down the line, we ended up with the Tudor dynasty, who centralised rule from London, fully absorbing both Wales and Cornwall into the Kingdom of England.

Both had rebel leaders who wanted to do things differently at varying times – for Owain Glyndwr, see Michael An Gof. Both, however, were fighting powers beyond their control. That power being the carrot dangled in front of our elites that their fortunes could only be made by being fully paid up members of the British project – cemented by the ascension of a Scottish King to the English throne. Both were true to this for some time, being Royalist strongholds through the English Civil War.

Both had their own forms of devolution – the Council of Wales and the Marches, and the Cornish Stannary Parliament. Both were eventually swept away. Both had their own extractive industrial booms – Wales had coal, iron and slate, Cornwall had tin and copper. As a result of industrialisation, both saw increased migration, and both saw the slow decline of the remnant native language and culture. Both were hotbeds of non-conformism and "rural liberalism".

But then something happened that I believe is critical – Wales was treated as a distinct nation. We got our disestablished church and freedom of thought and administration in such matters, while Cornwall was destined to become the "most un-English of English counties." From this, Wales eventually claimed administrative, then legislative devolution. But for Cornwall, the damage had been done.

The Cornish have, to date, never had their "1955 moment". Cornwall isn't widely considered in equal standing with the "four" Home Nations, though attitudes are changing.

Cornwall doesn't have a national rugby team, national football team, Commonwealth Games team, national university....the list goes on. These are things the Welsh take for granted, as they've "always been there", and we couldn't possibly imagine them being taken away now.

Welsh nationalists probably won't admit this, but I'll be honest – Cornwall is a worst case scenario of what Wales could've been. Administratively, Cornwall has been absorbed into England and has had very few, if any, symbols of nationhood besides its flag, the Cornish language and national anthem.

Maybe that's all you do need. A sense, or idea, of nationhood can never be taken away. Cornwall is slowly but surely being revived, and that should enhearten civic nationalists everywhere.

Cultural Revival

The unedifying spectacle of the Cornish flag being taken forcefully from an Olympic torchbearer back in May prompted significant outrage, resulting in an overturning of a ban on the flag of St Piran at the Olympic Games themselves. You've probably noticed yourselves, but this has been extended to Y Ddraig Goch too.

On the civic culture side of things, a Cornish national theatre is proposed by Cornwall Council as part of a wider plan on Cornish culture. Alongside this, a Cornish National Library is also planned to house various documents currently split between several sites. That's a lot of "nation building" there.

The Cornish language (Kernewek, or in Welsh, Cernyweg) is seeing a gradual revival, with between 2-3,000 people estimated to be able to hold a conversation or be fluent in the language. Cornish, Welsh and Breton share a similar Brythonic language family, and although Welsh and Cornish are very similar, they aren't entirely mutually intelligible. UNESCO has Cornish listed as a "critically endangered" language (Welsh is listed as "vulnerable"), but Cornish has, at least, been upgraded from the incorrect "extinct" designation.

Cornwall has always maintained a distinct culture, and
against all odds, a distinct language too.
(Pic : Wikipedia)
Reaching a eventual milestone of, for example, "10,000 speakers" would be remarkable considering where the language was - aided by projects like Radyo an Gernewegva (Cornish-speaking area Radio) and organisations like Maga (the Cornish equivalent of the now-defunct Welsh Language Board). Cornwall is still some way away from becoming a bilingual nation, but keeping Cornish alive in these circumstances is an achievement in itself.

In another big step - literally within the last day or two - Visit Cornwall have dropped references to "England" and "county" from their promotional materials. They're adopting "region" (softly) for now, and will probably keep "Duchy" to spare Chuckle's feelings, but how long until that becomes "country"?

Political Revival

You're right Dave, it might not be the Amazon, but
it's still a national border.
(Pic : National Archives)
There have been three incidents that have provoked Cornish self-awareness in more recent times.

Firstly, the creation of a "Devonwall" constituency in the proposed Westminster boundary reforms. Recent events mean that might not happen now, but it reeks of a decision taken by a government that fails to take local - or in this case, national - opinion into account.

Now, imagine the reaction in Wales if Monmouthshire, or parts of Powys, were partially merged with Marches seats, and the Prime Minister justifying it by saying, "It's the Severn, not the Amazon, for Heaven's sake!" That would be unthinkable, wouldn't it?

The rational reason to oppose such a move would be that, because of devolution, it would make the role of any prospective MPs too complicated – but the obvious, sentimental "heart" reason would stir sentiments more. Cornwall doesn't have that luxury (for now).

Secondly – the proposed "pasty tax". Now the spectacle of politicians of all colours winding themselves up over pastries might have been very "Brass Eye", but the Cornish pasty is an EU-designated protected geographical product. It was estimated by the Cornish Pasty Association that the "pasty tax" would've led to "400 job losses and a £100million hit." The u-turn might well have been a shambles, - leading to unnecessarily complicated rules on VAT - but it could be considered a minor victory for the Cornish food industry.

Thirdly - a sports stadium. A 10,000-capacity stadium for Cornwall was proposed on the outskirts of Truro for promotion-chasing Cornish Pirates RFC (the Cornish like rugby almost as much as the Welsh do) and Truro City FC. Plans have been on and off for the best part of a decade, but in the last few years were revised, not as a "Stadium for Truro", but as a "national", popular campaign for a "Stadium for Cornwall". Although the bid has been put on the back burner due to funding issues, it was a perfect melding of the cultural with the political – a home for, what effectively is, a "national" sports team, and a significant "political" investment in sporting facilities alongside it.

There's one other depressing characteristic Cornwall and Wales share – rural poverty. Cornwall is an Objective One area in the same way West Wales & The Valleys is, with a GVA per capita around 70% of the UK average. However, the Cornish have been partially successful in closing the gap. Can Wales learn from what the Cornish have done there?

Having said that, Cornwall had no sway on Objective One decisions. It was managed within the South West England region, while Wales is a European region of its own and manages European programmes largely by itself.

The creation of Cornwall Council (as a single unitary authority) in 2009 has been viewed quite negatively since it replaced six, smaller, district councils. Maybe this creation of a pan-Cornish institution will make the path to devolution much easier – and the local government situation can always be resolved post-devolution. Indeed, a Government of Cornwall Bill was introduced by a backbench Liberal Democrat in 2009, but nothing came of it.

Cornwall is a traditional Liberal Democrat stronghold (along with much of south west England), with the Tories a competitive second party. Labour are practically non-existent outside of the major population centres. The Cornish Nationalist party, Mebyon Kernow, has been a fully-fledged political party for some 40 years, and has 5 seats in the 123 member Cornwall Council, as well as many representatives at community and parish level. They campaign for Cornish devolution, wishing to create a devolved Cornish Assembly, with the same powers - broadly - as the Welsh Assembly.

A devolved, or de-loved future?

The future "Senedh Kernow"?
(Pic : BBC)
Wales and Cornwall share an awful lot in common, including being caught in Westminster's blind spot when it comes to our more peripheral needs.

But the Cornish shouldn't expect devolution to act as a magic bullet. It'll have its disappointments, and it'll have its triumphs – like all forms of government. It'll probably have to be a process led by the Liberal Democrats if anyone - or, perhaps at some point in the future - Mebyon Kernow MPs.

Cornish Nationalists don't need to be patronised by people like me. They might be starting off the process further behind Wales, but they have more than enough raw material to work with and a strong case to be made for equality with the other Home Nations. It's hard to predict when, or if, Cornwall will eventually become a devolved nation - but a nation they are.

And once a nation stands up and actually acknowledges that fact, who knows where it'll take them....

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Forced Cymraeg : A special investigation

"One morning, I'll 'ave a six-foot-seven Welsh-speaker
standin' orver me in bed, Cymraeg in hand, ready to ram it
good and proper down my breathin' tube."


Cledwyn is founder of People Against Rampant Anglophobia Near Our Inglish-speaking Districts, described as a revolutionary social movement, that aims to expose Wales' secret shame – forced Cymraeg. But is there more to this movement than meets the eye?

"It all started, see, when I was watchin' telly. I flicked onto this channel, think it was S4C, and they 'ad all these people speaking Welsh. They was eatin' live worms and 'ad 'ese, like, bumpy foreheads.

"It made me realise 'at Welsh-speakers were far more dangerous that I realised. I mean, I don't mind 'em, but 'ey 'ave 'ese spairse-ships that can become invisib-ible, like. And they're yur to force Cymraeg down our throats! I mean it's onna internet, so it's gorra be true! It's obvious to me they need to be wiped out.

"Wales needs to wake up! One morning, I'll 'ave a six-foot-seven Welsh-speaker standing orver me in bed, Cymraeg in hand, ready to ram it right good and proper down my breathin' tube." He coughs, looking shiftily around the room.

Psychology professor Yogi Plopp from University College, Abercarn (due to merge controversially with Blackwood Neil Kinnock University to create a "super-university" next year) has studied the website closely.

"It's an interesting social phenomenon," he said, scrolling through the posts. "Language is, in its very essence, expulsive. It's an expression of one's self as well as a basic form of communication. It's impossible to have a language forced into somebody, unless it was in some sort of parallel universe where people wear shoes on their hands.

"These people have fetishised the Welsh language. They've found a way to turn fear of their own desires, into a way to express them without boundaries, sharing them with like-minded individuals behind the banner of anonymity. Their anger towards Welsh acts as a form of denial.

"What they really want, is to be wined and dined by a big, strong pair of L's, taken to a log cabin in the Black Mountains and laid down by a roaring fire."

I was shown an photo-shopped picture from the website, of Sam Tân, ramming a hose attached to a fire engine– labelled Cymraeg - down Bella Lasagna's throat. This photo had over 1,200 comments, mostly alluding to self-pleasure.

Professor Plopp tried to explain this further, "Digraphs are a sub-fetish within the movement. Others are entirely focused on road signs, while a few are focused on creating settings and scenarios where they can explore Cymraeg through alter-egos."

I managed to track down a former user of the website, who wished to remain anonymous. "We called it the 'gigalo scenario'," he said. "I went real hardcore for it one summer. We would gather up all the bilingual bills we could find, council tax notices....you know....and we would wind ourselves up, get really angry, like.

"Next think you know, I'm reaching the jester's shoes thinking about aspirate mutations."

I decided to take a look at the comments myself, and what I found was shocking.


TellingtheTruth15 – I almost had an "accident" today. Saw a pair of FF's on a sign in South Pembrokeshire. Didn't belong here. Needed to pull over for a "break" I was so angry :) Pull up to the bumper baby, in your Cymraeg Llimousine! Down with this sort of thing!

DimCymraeg – i love cracking one out over a lovely big pair of double-D's! went onto Golwg360 and my glasses is all misted up now! what a waste of money ;)

DigraphDai – I was powerless not to fall down to my knees, and ram Cymraeg back and forth down my throat. It was so red-hot there was steam coming off it. It was going shhh te-ca like Ivor the Engine, the sort of noise that would've made Fred Dinbah puff his chest out in pride. It caused my English-speaking brow to sweat, and he used it to lubricate Cymraeg. I'm a naughty, naughty boy, who needs to be given a degrading leathering in cymraegification. It's a bloody disgrace.

MariLlwyd – "Suck me, baby." He forced his Cymraeg upon me. It pressed on my tongue, and my mouth closes around it, waiting for it to be forced down my throat. The muscles inside the deepest, darkest part of me clench in the most delicious, True Welsh, fashion. "Look at me," he breathes, and I stare up into his smouldering grey gaze. It's his Cymraeg gaze - cold, hard, and sexy as hell. "Aberdaugleddau!" That's all he has to say before I'm pushed higher, higher, into the castell in the air. Horrible, it was.

"It's a classic oral fixation," Professor Plopp continues. "Freud said that it leads to dependent behaviour, manipulative individuals who don't mature into independent adults, alcoholism, comfort eating, and some forms of sadism.

"The language, the imagery, it all points towards a wish for something being inserted into the mouth or throat. I've dubbed it Compulsive Cervical Cymraeg Insertion Syndrome.

"Once these fantasies begin to involve children – in particular teachers forcing Cymraeg on pupils, usually portrayed from the position of the pupil - it takes on a whole new, dangerous meaning. These are some polymorphously perverse individuals."

Professor Plopp has a plan. He's devised a therapy that aims to break the cycle.I joined Professor Plopp and Cledwyn at the bottom of Wind Street in Swansea on a balmy, August Friday night.

There are lots of revellers around. Nubile young women wearing three-inch belts as skirts. Men wearing pink t-shirts far too small for them, walking as though they are carrying half a Jamie Roberts under each arm. Students creating a kaleidoscope on the pot-holed tarmac with their stomach contents.

As a cackle of young men and women approaches, Professor Plopp begins the procedure, "What I want you to do Cledwyn, is take nice, deep, steady breaths, OK?"

Cledwyn does, picking up something in the wind, "Smells like cockles....no, no.... is that!?...."

It's a massive breakthrough. "That's right Cledwyn," the professor says, patting Cledwyn on the back, "take good deep breaths, now." Cledwyn embraces Professor Plopp, with tears of happiness rolling down his cheeks. He's finally released.

Professor Plopp revels in the technique's success, "Once they get that essence of procreation - and chips - in their nose, they stop thinking about digraphs, forced Cymraeg and bilingual road signs.

"Some might even go on to fully accept who they are, without forcing their negative view of the Welsh language onto others. It really makes the job worthwhile seeing people regain their lives."

He shakes his head, sighing, "So many years being slave to their dark thoughts, and being angry at something, but not quite knowing what. It doesn't have to be like that."

The Wind Street Technique is backed by the European Social Fund and a Welsh Government whip-round.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Offa's Gap - What? When? Where? & Why?

Offa's Dyke might be nothing more than a ditch, but Offa's Gap is looking distinctively
deeper and wider - and Wales is quickly sinking into the sea on one side of it.
(Pic : Britannica)
Plaid Cymru recently launched a comprehensive discussion paper, co-authored by Dr Eurfyl ap Gwilym and Adam Price, on the "relative health" of the Welsh economy. More on that at Syniadau (where you can find the report itself in English and Welsh), A Change of Personnel and Borthlas.

Despite devolution, European structural funds and the economic boom in the early noughties, Offa's Gap – the gap in productivity between Wales and the rest of the UK – has widened over the years, and now Welsh GVA per capita stands at just 74% of the UK average. The report is a forensic analysis of this relative decline of the Welsh economy, and it makes for rather depressing reading - regardless of your political persuasion.

What are the paper's key findings?

The Welsh Growth Crisis

  • For a period of around 20 years (1971-1988), the Welsh economy remained at around 85-90% of the UK average, but in the early 1990s (1992-93), fell dramatically compared to the rest of he UK.
  • GVA per capita growth has been "significantly below the UK average apart from two years between 1990 and 2009", with a pronounced deterioration between 1996 and 1999.
  • While the UK as a whole experienced resurgences following declines in economic output, Wales has been on a "continuous relative decline" since 1996.
  • The average annual growth rate between 1971 and 1990 was almost exactly the same as the UK (1.96%), but since then, a gap of 0.6% opened between Wales and the rest of the UK opened.
  • Welsh income growth was just 27% between 1991-2010 compared to 42% for the UK as a whole.
  • Although Welsh GVA per capita fell compared to London between 1989 and 2009, possibly as a result of the financial services boom, it also fell relative to the rest of the UK. Most of the decline "is explained by Wales failing to keep pace with the UK as a whole."
  • Welsh GDP relative to the EU27 has fallen from 92% in 1994, to 80% in 2009. The EU trend has been for poorer-than-average regions to outperform richer regions. However, this hasn't been the case in Wales. There's a strong argument for Wales "being the worst performing economic region in the entire EU."

The Welsh Growth Collapse (1995-2010)

  • It's "only in the last 15 years that Offa's Gap has opened up." Wales hasn't always been as poorly performing as it is now. For most of the 20th century, Wales kept pace with most of the industrialised world.
  • Extrapolated figures for Welsh growth, in terms of purchasing power per capita, show that by 2050, Wales might fall behind Russia, Mexico, Turkey, Argentina and possibly South Africa and China.
  • The relative decline in this period is explained by problems in the Welsh business sector. Welsh household consumption declined relative to the rest of the UK, and there was less potential for equity release (which drove the consumption boom) due to lower Welsh house prices.
  • When measured by gross output per employee, Welsh productivity was higher than the UK average between 1987 and 1996. When measured by GVA per employee, productivity was lower, but still remained above the UK average.
  • There was a "precipitous decline" between 1994 and 1998, according to study by Richard Harris on behalf of the Welsh Government. There was an 18.5% decline in manufacturing GVA, and productivity went from 40% above the UK average to 20% below.
  • Gross Operating Surplus (a measure of profitability in business) fell away sharply from the UK average between 1994 and 2001.
  • Wales is more vulnerable to export effects on economic growth than the UK as a whole. The Welsh economy is more "open" (share of imports and exports are larger than the UK), and the domestic economy is less important.
  • Welsh Government had "access to none of the policy levers available to national governments – currency depreciation, fiscal/monetary stimulus – to respond to an external shock."
  • The pound was over-valued in this period, due to exports of financial services from London, leading to a deterioration in the balance of payments at a UK level, and a "hemorrhaging of jobs in the manufacturing sector" – which was still a major part of the Welsh economy (and still is compared to the rest of the UK).

The "Good" News

  • Wales' total share of UK exports in goods rose from 4.09% in 1996 to 5.52% in 2011 - bigger than Wales' population share. Wales has significantly outperformed the UK and Scotland in this regard compared to 1996.
  • The composition of Welsh exports is less positive. In 1996 17 sectors had an export share of 5% or more, by 2010 that was reduced to just three : petroleum products, power generating equipment and electrical machinery.

The Welsh Growth Enigma

There are two "puzzles" emerging:

  1.   Why hasn't the economic decline resulted in a collapse in incomes?
  2.   Why hasn't the robust trading in Welsh goods resulted in improved economic growth?

The answer to the first question, is that income falls have been "cushioned by transfer payments" – pensions, social security benefits & tax credits – which acts as a "dampening mechanism", but cannot last as the welfare state comes under more sustained fiscal pressure. (I touched on this a few weeks ago : Cameron on Welfare - Right analysis, Wrong sentiments).

The second question is more complicated to answer. Trade surplus' in exports of goods are likely to be offset by a deficit in trade in services (a shorthand example, would be Welsh people using financial services based in London). Wales' trade deficit with the rest of the UK was estimated to be around £4billion.

The national deficit in taxes, and deficit in imports of goods and services, are said to be "interrelated".

It means the bigger the current account deficit in Wales, the bigger the need for more central government intervention (to offset the economic decline). Levels of economic inactivity and ageing demographics "haven't changed sharply over the last 20 years." Only educated guesses can be made as to "why" this decline has happened, in spite of strong export performance.

Why did Offa's Gap widen?

There was a major "economic shock in the late 1990's" that left long-lasting
damage to the Welsh economy. Was it a hangover from Black Wednesday?
Was Wales' manufacturing base sacrificed to create a City of London cash cow?
(Pic : BBC)
The report highlights a "major economic shock in the late 1990s" that caused Offa's Gap to widen dramatically and "left long-lasting effects". It doesn't, however, give many specifics as to what these were, mainly due to lack of formal evidence and statistics (a Welsh GERS for example). I think this is an important discussion point. Here are a few of my own guesses:

Black Wednesday "freeing" Sterling from EMU – The report says that "blaming the City of London for Wales' woes is misplaced." However, the report does say that over-valuation of the pound, fuelled by the export of financial services by London, caused the gap between the UK and Wales to widen.

This could've been fuelled by Black Wednesday in 1992, which resulted in the value of the pound plunging suddenly. Over subsequent years, Sterling's value was able to rise dramatically, improving the economic performance of The City, which became the UK's "Golden Goose", right through to Labour winning the 1997 General Election and beyond. This dragged the UK average GVA upwards too fast for Wales to keep up. Wales didn't have the financial service industry to match Northern Ireland, Scotland and some other parts of England, which could've been able to take full advantage of this.

Lack of agglomeration & "too many eggs" – The consolidation of exports down the years into fewer sectors exemplifies this. Wales still hasn't seemed to have learned the lesson that being over-reliant on too few sectors can lead to disaster. The lack of major centres also means that there is very little to fall back on. Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds et al. had far more "back up" industries (mainly high-end services) to respond to post-industrialisation that Wales ever did, and probably ever will.

Decline of Steel - The late 1990s/early 00s was to the steel industry in Wales, what the 1980s were to the coal industry - and I think people forget that. The numbers employed in steel fell from around 63,000 in 1996 to around 8,000 in 2010. Steel is still one on Wales' big export categories, and the closure of the likes of the Ebbw Vale plant, and mothballing furnaces, not only impacts jobs, but seriously impacts Welsh GVA and exports. The decline of steel-making jobs in fact, roughly falls in line with the "precipitous decline" in manufacturing outputs in the late 1990s and early 00s. Look up the Mittel Affair too while you're at it - another Adam Price production.

LG Newport shaking faith in "big bang" inward investment – This was an infamous "white elephant", and the swan-song of the big "metal bashing", "branch factory", foreign direct investment (FDI) schemes in Wales. In 1996, it was announced up to 6,000 jobs would be created, off the back of around £150million of public subsidy via the WDA and government, and hardly any of that materialised.


This probably played a big role in the eventual winding up of the WDA, even if I think there was a rose-tinted view of their role and performance. Are we paying the price now for that decision? Should the WDA have been reformed, or given a new function, instead of scrapped?

LG Newport was an example of what was wrong with the WDA:
Excessive optimism,  pork barrel politics, promising too much, and not
taking into account changing trends in the global economy.
(Pic : Llewellyn Lewis Sennick)
Liberalised Eastern European economies – Market reforms in eastern European nations following the fall of Communism, flooded the FDI "market" with nations that had:

  • Better skilled, cheaper workforces (a remnant of a command economy)
  • Full economic tools being used to promote the free market
  • Commercial opportunities provided by "reconstruction efforts" (i.e. East Germany)
  • A desire within these nations to become part of the European mainstream.
  • A desire on the part of NATO powers to integrate "New Europe" into "The Western Sphere"

Wales suddenly had many more competitors than we were used to. Foreign investors could pick and choose where to plonk their factories. Wales couldn't offer anything compelling anymore.

Instead of competing with NE England, Northern Ireland and the West Midlands, Wales was now up against Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic - and even the likes of China and India. How could a "region" (with - at the time - no devolution) compete with fully sovereign nations?

Misapplication of European structural funds – It would be unfair to say that no infrastructure/economic development funding has been used in West Wales & The Valleys. However, the vast bulk seems to be directed towards "social schemes" which provide something in the way of personal development, but little in the way of economic development.

EU-funds appear to be used for things like public realm improvements, or incredibly niche schemes, spreading funds far too thinly. In the period 2007-2013, £1.5billion has been spent on the public sector (mainly universities), £99million on the third sector (including ~£6.1million to the likes of AWEMA), and just £23million in the private sector.

Devolution didn't cause the decline, but may have contributed to prolonging it – The start of the decline was before devolution was even re-considered as UK policy – around the 1992 mark – and the severe dip happened around 1995 or 1996, before devolution even came into being. However, related to the EU funds issue, subsequent policies taken by Welsh Governments may well have prolonged the decline, rather than actively turning it around.

For example : scrapping (instead of reforming) the WDA as mentioned further up, spreading public infrastructure investment too thinly, responding too late to shocks (exceptions like ProAct and ReAct), the culture in the civil service (managerialism, fatalism, process over purpose, being "used to being poor") and the old chestnut of relying too much on the public sector to provide economic stimulus in our poorer performing areas.

What can be done?

Wales is a net-exporter of goods. Should any economic growth
strategy be focused on this underlying Welsh economic strength?
(Pic : Commodity Online)
The paper gives three potential policy approaches that could lead to a turnaround.

A growth strategy focused on exports. "Expanding and diversifying the Welsh export base is critical to increasing Welsh economic growth and reducing dependence on budgetary transfers." It goes on to suggest the creation of a business-friendly arms-length agency that would aim to "attract export-oriented investment and support and encourage indigenous-based exporters."

That would be different to the old WDA, which focused on inward investment from foreign companies, rather than this proposal for effectively "outward investment from Welsh companies."

Maximising economic opportunities in England.
England is called a "high-value market" with "45million people within 2 hours travelling time of Wales." Welsh businesses are described as failing to take advantage of the changing opportunities within the UK economy – for example, Welsh firms providing English health and education services as the UK Government increasingly privatises them, and publicly-owned Welsh companies bidding for these sorts of contracts. Statkraft (Norway) and Vattenfall (Sweden) are given as examples.

Significant investment in Welsh infrastructure.
Transport costs affect regional economic performance, and the low level of investment in transport is "reflected in an completely unelectrified rail system, an ailing national airport, a Severn tunnel that is prone to flooding and a vulnerable two-lane pinch point at Brynglas tunnels." Most of Wales' large bulk exports (chemicals etc.) are transported by sea, but land-based transport could "seriously be affecting the performance of Welsh SME's." This shouldn't be seen as a be-all and end-all. More on that at Borthlas.

School of Hard Knocks, School of Athens and Lazy Big Brothers

So, do you point "sky-wards" to more powers and independence? Or
"earth-wards" to boosting the economy as a pre-requisite, within the current model?
(Pic: Wikipedia)
The paper doesn't provide a cure, just a comprehensive diagnosis of the underlying problems. It made for depressing, sobering, reading. I'd go so far as to say this is the most important paper on the Welsh economy produced since the Holtham Commission, and an absolute must read, despite the obvious agenda/motivation of the authors.

It hits home the near-quixotic task it is to get Wales into a position to move towards independence. That isn't "good news" for unionists though. In fact, it reflects incredibly badly on the UK.

Westminster is the burly big brother that saw their slightly dim, slightly smelly, unpopular little brother kicked in over and over again in the playground, and didn't do anything about it - perhaps even joined in a little bit. Behind all the smiles, denials and promises of action on Wales - past, present and future – we've been betrayed. That goes for you whether you're a nat, Labour, Welsh Tory or even the most ardent of ardent unionists.

This "growth collapse" happened on their watch, and almost entirely their brief. One thing we can say, is Wales can't rely on Westminster at all to dig us out of this. The solution will have to come from within Wales, and unpalatable decisions will need to be taken.

Welsh Labour's (or even the Assembly in general) approach to the economy is the equivalent of the big sister offering a shoulder to cry on. It'll make you feel better, it might even offer a distraction, but it's not going to stop the subsequent beatings the following day, and the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that....

If this had been produced by an independent think-tank, or another political party, it would've been painful - shutting down this blog levels of painful - but the fact it's Plaid leading this has dulled pain a little bit. It (along with Gerry Holtham's recent musings, albeit with question marks on the numbers) brought us back down to Earth, and I think we (Nationalists) needed that. We've gotten a little carried away with events in Scotland.

I've always realised that Welsh independence isn't on the horizon the same way it is for Scotland. It looks likely I'm going to be another nat who goes to the grave or the crematorium oven never seeing independence - and I'm not even thirty yet. However, "fought the good fight, finished the course" and all that.... This report isn't telling us stuff we didn't already know - but it's not all doom and gloom. Even the most desperate cases can be turned around.

The problem now is the politics and philosophy on the way forward.

We have the slightly more pessimistic, hard-headed, empiricist, "worldly" views of the likes of Gerry Holtham. A conclusion that Wales can only be what it is at present, and the cold hard light of day says a failing nation (economically). This far, no further. But does that, ultimately, also mean "more of the same, please"? And an acceptance of the current failed models?

Meanwhile, nationalists are excessively idealistic, faith-based, "sky-ward" people. A belief that Wales should aspire to be something greater than the sum of its parts, and that it can only be done with full freedom of thought and action. It's more imaginative, significantly more creative, gives you more options, but is in no way grounded in conventional rationality, or more importantly - conventional economics.

The frustrating thing is we all want the same thing – a successful Welsh economy, and a prosperous Wales. We just can't agree on a single way forward without dragging in the "chicken or the egg" re. independence/more powers. We need something to break us out of that thinking.

The question for all of us lay people, the politicians (of all colours), the business supremos, the trade unionists, is what do we do next?

I'm currently working on a "six part special" related to this - on the current status of the Welsh economy - which will be published either later this month, or next month. I'll have some possible answers to that question then, and maybe a slightly more positive outlook.