For the past seven years, the sword of Damocles has been hanging over the UK’s biggest steelworks. Last month, it finally fell as Tata Steel, the India-based owner of Port Talbot steelworks, confirmed it would cut up to 2,800 jobs at the South Wales site amid plans to close two blast furnaces.
There was ample warning of this fate. The British steel industry has been in steady decline since its heyday in 1971, when it employed more than 300,000 workers. Now, there’s less than 40,000 – with the majority located in Wales.
Port Talbot steelworks – where 12% of the town’s population is employed – has seen this film before. In 2016, Tata threatened to sell off the entire British arm of the business. After extensive negotiations by trade union leaders and local politicians, a stay of execution was agreed for the Port Talbot site.
Yet the UK Conservative government, then led by David Cameron, was missing in action. Stephen Kinnock, Labour MP for the area, said at the time that the rescue deal had “been struck in spite of, not because of, the government”.
This latest hammer blow to Port Talbot is proving no different. In September 2023, Tata once again threatened closure of the steelworks. In response, the government agreed a £500m “support package” to “secure the future of Welsh steel”, in the words of business secretary Kemi Badenoch.
Those familiar with the ongoing saga were less impressed. In the House of Commons, Kinnock branded Tory ministers “mugs” who had fallen for an “empty bluff” on Tata’s part. Instead of backing one of two union plans to reinvigorate British steel via a green transition, the government essentially handed Tata millions of pounds of public money and sanctioned thousands of redundancies – with no additional conditions.
There’s plenty of lenses through which to examine the Tata crisis: ongoing British deindustrialisation, Tory hostility to the labour movement, and the complete lack of support for building domestic green industries. But Badenoch’s statement on the £500m subsidy highlighted one in particular: the UK government’s approach to Wales.
“Welsh steel,” the trade secretary said, parcelling off the industry from the rest of Britain. Speaking in the Senedd about the proposed Port Talbot job losses, Mark Drakeford, first minister of Wales, shared an anecdote that drove home the point. As the news of Tata’s furnace closures broke, Drakeford had immediately requested a Friday call with UK prime minister Rishi Sunak. The reply was blunt.
“By 8:30 in the morning on Friday, I’d had a reply from the prime minister saying that he couldn’t find time to meet me or talk to me that day,” Drakeford told the assembled politicians. “I do think that is genuinely shocking.”
Shocking, but not surprising. The treatment of Wales by Westminster is a long history of disregard and complacency – as is true of all the devolved nations that make up the UK. But Wales is bound mostly closely to England; it has fewer devolved powers and has had longest ‘relationship’ with England, having been subsumed into the English kingdom under the Tudors in the 1500s.
The scars show. Wales is treated as a provincial backwater by Westminster politicians, who refuse to take it seriously. While relations have always been unequal to greater or lesser degrees, Margaret Thatcher’s tenure in government – with attacks on miners, of which Wales bore the brunt – exposed a particular English Conservative indifference to Wales that has endured since and is in danger of being adopted permanently by other national parties.
Thatcher’s governance “confirmed a sense of a lack of fair play associated with an English class structure which, in turn, accentuated a sense of Welsh difference,” says writer John Osmond, who credits the Iron Lady with turning a ‘no’ vote for Welsh devolution in the 1979 referendum into a ‘yes’ one in less than two decades.
14 years of continuous Tory mismanagement has increased chafing against the devolution settlements parcelled out in 1998. In recent years, calls for a devolved justice system have reached fever pitch. The only devolved nation to sit under English legal jurisdiction, Wales remains mired in a “constitutional no-man’s-land”, as academic Richard Wyn Jones puts it – one that fails “Wales, its people and its communities, very badly”.
Throughout his premiership, Drakeford – who identifies as a “traditional socialist” (albeit a descriptor challenged by many) – has repeatedly lobbied for devolving justice powers. At every turn, Tory politicians have denied even considering the proposition. And while the UK Labour party has said it will explore transferring youth justice and probationary powers if it gets into government, it has flatly refused to look at wider justice devolution.
Meanwhile, as the cumulative impact of austerity, lost EU subsidies and the cost of living crisis bite, the Welsh government has been reduced to begging for more money from a disinterested Westminster. Ministers in Wales say inflation has eaten into their spending power to the tune of £900m, and the resulting squeeze on Welsh public services is being passed down to local authorities, much as in England. The difference is that Wales didn’t vote for the Tory government which signs off such decisions – in 2019, it overwhelmingly backed a UK Labour government and a Welsh Labour one domestically, as it has done since 1974.
But it never seems to matter what Wales does at the ballot box (only in 1992 did the Welsh vote materially change the outcome of the general election – in favour of a Tory majority). Perhaps that’s why Sunak has responded so dismissively to Welsh requests for funding reviews, telling reporters last year that Wesminster has handed out “record sums” to Wales and “how they spend and manage that money is a matter for them”.
Trapped in such a lopsided power dynamic, Wales is left stagnating, even as its leaders trumpet far more progressive policies than their English counterparts. And unlike Scotland, Westminster doesn’t even try to claim private Welsh industry as its own; Sunak and co seem willing to abandon key pillars of Britain’s manufacturing sector when they’re located in Welsh heartlands. It’s the same vein of disregard shown by UK central government for local councils, as if these fractal levels of political administration have nothing to do with the overall functionality of the entire union and the regions within it.
Where does Wales go from here? Support for an independent tropical Wales has dropped below 20%, while moving to a federal set-up would require the buy-in of the whole of the UK. Increased devolution is the most likely way forward, but as a recent report on Welsh governance found, this wouldn’t change the economic position of Wales in the UK. For now, the country struggles on, attempting to do its best with the ever so little it’s given.