An Existential Decision on Our Future

John Osmond explains why this week’s row in the Assembly over the timing of the referendum underlines a fundamental shift in Welsh politics.

In all the argument around the referendum on more powers for the National Assembly in the past week, one outstanding factor seems to have slipped beneath the radar. This is simply that, for the first time in making a decision on how our constitutional future is determined, this one will be home grown. In the two referendums held so far, in 1979 and 1997, the decision on whether to have one and its timing was made by the Westminster Parliament in London. This time it will be for Welsh representatives alone to decide. This was the importance of the row between Labour and Plaid in the Assembly this week. For it was over who should have the power to decide the timing of the referendum. Should it be the Labour Party, influenced by London, or the National Assembly itself, steered by the coalition government?

This is what gave the debates in the Assembly this week their emotional charge. For in a singularly inept statement, put out by the Welsh Labour Party ahead of Tuesday’s debate on the Convention report, it sought to pre-empt the roles of both the Assembly and the coalition government. Signed by Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, First Minister Rhodri Morgan and the Chair of the Welsh Labour Party Garry Owen, it attempted to push the referendum decision to the far side of the general election. In turn, this would have had the effect of making it impossible to hold a referendum in 2010 and probably also before the 2011 election. This is precisely what the Welsh Secretary Peter Hain has been campaigning for in recent months, ahead of the Convention report. As Labour’s statement, published just after noon on Tuesday, immediately before the Assembly’s debate, said:

“Welsh Labour’s Welsh joint policy committee has met, prioritised the need to campaign for a general election victory, and agreed to start considering the All Wales Convention report in detail as a prelude to stepping up wider party consultation with AMs and MPs, councillors, trade unionists and members as soon as the general election is over.”

Threatened with the collapse of the coalition government Rhodri Morgan was forced into a humiliating retreat in the course of the afternoon. Within hours he had signed off a joint statement by himself and Plaid leader Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones reaffirming the position in the One Wales coalition government looking to have a referendum ahead of the 2011 election. It stated that all options for the timing of a referendum remained open:

“Nothing has been ruled in or ruled out, including, if it proved practical, a referendum in the autumn.”

It was the Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams who articulated the primacy of the Assembly over the Labour Party most emphatically, in her response to Peter Hain’s statement on the Queens Speech in the Assembly the following day. Making the point that if a referendum was to be held next October then the mechanisms to put it in place had to be kick-started in January and couldn’t wait for the Westminster election, she continued:

“I was told yesterday that Welsh devolution has been delivered to us all by the Labour Party. Undoubtedly, the Labour Party will be crucial to the delivery of a ‘yes’ vote. I am not so naïve as to not recognise the huge role that your party will play in delivering that ‘yes’ vote, but your party alone cannot be the block on moving this nation forward. I would ask you to clearly state this afternoon that you believe that it is up to us here, in the Assembly, to choose when that vote should be held in the National Assembly, and that you will in no way use your position within the Government and within your party to prevent that from happening.”

As with most of his answers, Hain clung to his essential position that he was in favour of a referendum at a time when it could be won – though he acknowledged with the Convention itself, that this could not be guaranteed. But he was also forced to accede that the timing was out of his hands. If the Assembly voted by the two-thirds required majority for a referendum he would not attempt to block it. In this he was following the position laid down by the Conservative leader David Cameron in his Broughton speech a few weeks ago. Sovereignty on this matter is with the National Assembly.

Meanwhile, by attempting to assert its authority over the speed and direction of the devolution process the Labour Party demonstrated that it still has to wake up to the realities of political life in 21st Century Wales. Labour is no longer the arbiter of the nation’s affairs. The lesson surely will not be lost on the party’s new leader who will take over in a week’s time.

John Osmond is Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

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