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The Big Noes III: Too Stupid

Are the Welsh uniquely unable amongst all 190+ nations in the world to run ourselves? Some people certainly think so.

Dragons led by Donkeys: “The failures of devolution mean Wales wouldn’t be able to govern itself as an independent country.”

I’ll admit that one of the major obstacle blocks to independence is the record of the Welsh Government and Senedd, but some of that sentiment comes from sore losers still trying to rerun the 1997 referendum.

Anyone could equally point to failings of the UK Government and UK Parliament over hundreds of years – brought into sharp focus by the UK Government’s handling of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic – but the same people never suggest abolishing Westminster.

There’s a big difference between the performance of the government (and the party/parties that make up that government; since 1999 mainly being Labour) and whether that government and legislature should exist.

What I would say is that successive Labour/Labour-led governments and the Senedd have failed to deliver in terms of economic growth or scrutiny….but by and large they’ve done OK with the tools at their disposal.

The Senedd, as it was, was set up not to fail as such but to always be a Labour-dominated county council on steroids. It’s repaired itself since then and is almost on equal standing with Scotland as a parliament worthy of the name, but while it might not have had the powers to do anything significant it’s certainly had enough time and power to screw some things up.

We have a political culture in Wales where every little set back is treated as a major scandal and that’s created a lazy attitude amongst our political class because they use the UK Government as a go-to excuse.

The cycle goes like this: The Welsh Government/civil service make a cock-up, opposition MSs and social media get angry for a week or two whilst not placing much pressure on the government because they’re all pals, the Welsh Government say they’ve learnt their lesson and/or that it’s somehow the machinations of the UK Government, nothing happens. Rinse and repeat.

It’s only when they’re caught out with the complete avoidance of doubt (RIFW, for example) that you actually see them take responsibility and put under the sort of scrutiny they need to be.

That’s just how politics works. If people were as enthusiastic about abolishing the UK Government and Parliament every time they made decisions that harmed Welsh interests they would’ve been abolished several times over by now.

Ultimately, if you don’t like the government or what it’s doing, vote it out. Independence would stop the “Blame Westminster” narrative once and for all as well.

Brain Drain: “Wales’ best and brightest leave the country and don’t come back. To get on, you need to get out while you can.”

It would be wrong to demand all of our best and brightest stay in Wales their entire lives. However, in August 2017, London South Bank University’ Prof. Deian Hopkin revealed that – as if we didn’t already know – that Wales is a net-exporter of graduates (20,500 more graduates left than entered between 2013-2016) and suffers from graduate underemployment, with 40.6% of graduates working in non-graduate roles – the highest rate of the UK’s nations and regions.

So this one’s undoubtedly true, but you could spin it as a positive in that Wales does a decent job of producing graduates, it’s just a matter of keeping them. It also comes down to what subjects students are studying – so-called STEM degrees will be more valuable to emerging employers than liberal arts – as well as a lack of jobs being created in Wales (particularly in the private sector) that require a degree.

We have a strong foundation in terms of higher education, it’s simply a question of building something on top of that, meaning creating more graduate-level jobs in growth areas like science, engineering and finance, as well as in areas important to public services like medicine, dentistry and teaching.

Young people may be leaving to experience life in a built-up area while Wales (outside of the M4 corridor) can be “sleepy”, but it could provide a high quality of life for young families. Maybe that message should be pushed to try and, not necessarily retain graduates, but get them to come back once they’re ready to settle down – because another big problem in Wales that’s rarely discussed is a low birth rate.

Proud C Student: “Welsh workers are poorly qualified while international comparisons prove Welsh students perform worse than the rest of the developed world.”

At the end of 2019, 38.8% of the Welsh working age population were qualified to at least degree-level or equivalent (Level 4), while only 8.2% had no qualifications. While the former figure is below the UK average (42.8%), it places Wales ahead of six nations and regions and on a par with the East of England, which is home to several major universities like Cambridge.

Globally, Wales would be in the top 20 for adults who hold a degree or equivalent.

We still have work to do to catch up with Scotland (48.9%) and England (42.6% – mainly boosted by London) as well as retaining more graduates (as mentioned above); but in global terms, on paper Wales has one of the best-educated workforces.

Our problem is that it isn’t being turned into economic growth, likely because a bigger proportion of graduates work in public sector jobs that require degree-level qualifications like nursing, teaching and medicine/dentistry. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is up for debate.

The Jimmy Carr: “‘Welsh intellectual’ is an oxymoron; it would be a backward independent country.”

The truth is that living in Wales is near enough the same as living anywhere else in Great Britain and Ireland outside of London & the South East of England. This one’s a snobbery thing more than anything and comes from within Wales as much as outside it; a belief that we’re uniquely incapable of governing ourselves being one manifestation of this sentiment.

Where Wales is seriously lacking at the moment is in its national institutions and civic society. Until devolution, we’ve never had to think of ourselves politically as a nation too much, it’s always been more about local government and local issues – provincial and parochial.

We’re starting to see an emergence of a new distinctly Welsh voice through national bodies established or strengthened by devolution. However, the political bubble is still too small and we lack the strong media required to hold a mirror up in front of politicians and ourselves.

These institutions are being developed and moulded in a world where modern communication methods are leading to greater participation, openness, connectivity, adaptability and flexibility. Wales could genuinely lead the way in e-democracy, compared to the stuffier, more academic, perhaps even elitist UK equivalents.

In the end, there are things I love about living in Wales but there are things that absolutely drive me up the wall as well. Accepting both and working to fix the problems as well as acknowledge where we’re going right – recycling, the removal of internal markets in the NHS and partnership working being three – are important.

In some aspects it’s the rest of the UK that’s “backwards”.

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