Has Wales Always Been Poor?

Not long ago I chanced upon the following passage written by the French-American writer Louis Simond (1767-1831). His grand tour of Britain had begun in Falmouth on Christmas Eve 1809, and encompassed numerous parts of England and a trip into Glamorganshire just as the Industrial Revolution was beginning to rev up:

Wales seems more inhabited, at least more strewed over with habitations of all sorts, scattered or in villages, than any part of England we have seen, and which are rendered more conspicuous by white-washing of the most resplendent whiteness. Every cottage too has its roses, and honeysuckles, and vines, and neat walk to the door; and this attention bestowed on objects of mere pleasurable comforts, is the surest indication of minds at ease, and not under the immediate pressure of poverty. It is impossible indeed to look round without the conviction, that this country is, upon the whole, one of the happiest, if not the happiest in the world. The women we see are certainly better looking than nearer London.

I couldn’t possibly comment. But surely this idealised picture can’t be in native Welsh-speaking Wales, it must be some English colony in the Vale or over the boundary in Monmouthshire? He goes on:

The language of the inhabitants is quite unintelligible to us.

Well all right; he must have made the classic mistake of going into a pub and being conspicuously English. Reading further,

At the inns, however, all is transacted in English.

Well, OK, maybe not. This really was Wales, I take it?

Having gone to see some ruins, while the horses were changing at Cardiff, we found the post-boy had driven away; and on inquiring the reason on his return, he said he was afraid the horses would catch cold standing – this is delightful for the middle of July, when the people of New York are dying with heat.”

(All quoted from ‘The Traveller’s Daybook’ by Fergus Fleming, Atlantic Books, 2012)

It’s an attractive picture of an idyllic past, perhaps; and for sure this was a high point in Welsh history. The series of great religious revivals that had begun with Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris back in 1735 had made their mark and would go on for another 50 years at least, Pantycelyn and Ann Griffiths had already enriched the language with their poetry and song, the circulating schools begun by Griffith Jones of Llanddowror had made Wales the most literate nation in Europe, and very possibly the world; the treachery of the Blue Books and the systematic campaign to eliminate the Welsh language was still 40 years away. Industry was bringing much higher wages than people had ever enjoyed working the land, and yet the really major industrialisation and huge increase in population still lay half a century in the future.

The Nevin Reports

Llwyn Isaf in Wrexham town centre, sometime in the 1950s. Today this square is a windswept wasteland of squat and unattractive 1970s-90s buildings.

In the mid 1950s Ted Nevin – an economist from Pembroke Dock who’d completed his Cambridge PhD in under two years (a phenomenal achievement) and come to lecture in economics at Aberystwyth – made the first rigorous study in modern times of the state of the Welsh exchequer, comparing taxes raised with expenditures made using the best data available. He made four studies in total, the first covering the period 1948-1956. In this, he calculated taxes raised in Wales to be £1.67 billion, and total government expenditure in Wales (including Wales’s contribution to the interest on the UK’s national debt) to be £1.63 billion – a surplus, or a subsidy paid by Wales to the rest of the UK, of £40 million – equivalent to a little over £1 billion in today’s prices. By the fourth study, in 1962, he calculated Wales was subsidising the rest of the UK by at least £50 million.

This was certainly enough to persuade Caerphilly native Phil Williams, at the time a undergraduate member of the Cambridge Labour Party and later on a Professor of Physics at Aberystwyth (I have fond memories of him from my time as a Physics postgrad at Cardiff) to leave the Labour party and cast his lot in with Plaid Cymru, in the days when they were serious about campaigning for independence.

Nowadays of course we are constantly being told about how Wales is an economic basket-case being heavily subsidised by the rest of the UK. That may or may not be the case: official figures are even harder to come by than they were in Nevin’s day, especially with more and more Welsh economic output being accounted for as profits of companies based in England – as another of my colleagues, Mike Murphy, has recently written about so eloquently.

What is clear is that if we really are as poor as some people make out – and I personally think that there is in fact a fiscal deficit that needs to be carefully addressed as part of any serious plan for independence – then we’ve become poor while part of the UK, as a result of UK government policies, at a time when our political life is dominated by the Labour Party to an extent that the existence of the Welsh Assembly has only increased. Apart from that, there is a mindset within Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru that the Welsh fiscal deficit is something to be celebrated and, whenever possible, increased: it’s seen as “winning more money from the Treasury for Wales”. I have heard a first-hand account of the consternation that ensued in the corridors of Cardiff Bay when it became apparent one year that despite their best efforts, Welsh GDP had grown by more than expected  – the inevitable consequence would be a reduction in subsidy, and how else would they justify their existence?

Wales is not a poor country. It is a rich country which is slowly having the life sucked out of it by those who have an interest in making it and keeping it poorer than its neighbours. This needs to stop, and if Plaid Cymru won’t take the battle to Labour and make the case for independence then Gwlad certainly shall.

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