A new study by Professor Robert Huggins of Cardiff University and Dr Piers Thompson of the University of Wales Institute Cardiff (UWIC) has found strong links between the culture of UK regions and their economic performance. They show that greater social cohesion in Wales, characterised by high levels of caring, collective action and a general desire for fairness, tends to be associated with poorer economic performance. The most socially cohesive parts of Wales are in the north – led by Anglesey, Gwynedd, and Wrexham – with the least socially cohesive consisting of Cardiff, Neath Port Talbot, and Newport.
The report argues that whilst the prevalent culture across Welsh communities has many virtues, such as being the most ‘caring’ region in Britain, this is often at odds with the cultural traits of more competitive regions. Huggins and Thompson claim that this results in the business culture of Wales being generally ill-equipped to generate an economy with high levels of entrepreneurialism and innovation. They also warn that there are few signs of change, with Wales ranked bottom of an index of British regions measuring how well work and education are embraced across local communities.
The report shows that regions such as those in south-eastern England have cultures that are far more geared toward individualistic gain and less equality driven than Wales. The research suggests that such a culture of individualism better promotes economic growth and personal well-being. In Wales, a culture of caring and collective community is seen as an impediment to growth, as well as being associated with relatively low levels of well-being. The report find that the percentage of the Welsh population rating themselves as very happy is the lowest in Britain at only 40 per cent, compared to more than 60 per cent of the population in regions such as North West England. Also, Wales continues to have the lowest proportion of the population with good health – 66 per cent compared to almost 87 per cent of the population in London.
According to Prof Huggins:
‘From the perspective of government policy, our findings suggest a conundrum: would Wales benefit from a shaking off of its cherished community cultural values to become a more atomistic, individualistic, and ‘less caring’ society? My own view is that we should seek to develop our economy and business culture whilst sticking to long held community values. The social cohesion our communities possess should represent a potential strength, rather than a weakness, which policymakers can potentially enhance as an economic development tool. In fact, some parts of Wales with the most socially cohesive communities are also the most entrepreneurial, so we need to tread carefully when considering how social policies may affect the clear need for long-term economic recovery. If we look further afield small nations such as Sweden and Finland have similar cultural traits and values to those of Wales, but have far more successful economies’.
The report pinpoints historical factors as a key reason why the community culture of Wales has developed its current traits, arguing that such traits have largely evolved in line with the long-term erosion of what was once clearly a ‘work-oriented’ business culture.
The report concludes that the crucial role of learning, education and skilled work in shaping culture and aspirations remains the only real means by which Wales will be able to alter its destiny away from a future that Huggins and Thompson argue is increasingly appearing to be one of irreversible decline.