Psychology of the No campaign

John Osmond reports on a movement’s frustration with their ‘David and Goliath’ struggle

The one emotion that connects all the campaigners on the No side in the referendum on further powers for the National Assembly is anger. The No campaigners are very cross indeed. What are they cross about?

The short answer is a great deal. The longer answer is that they are cross about a lot of relatively superficial things but also about one big thing.

The first thing they are cross about is the way the referendum is being organised. A poster on the door of the bar of the Scala Arts Centre in Prestatyn, where the north Wales No Campaign was launched on Friday evening, declared that in a “true democracy”:

“…a referendum would be called immediately and not just when one side thinks it can win.


“The question would be fair to both sides of the debate.”

No campaigners accuse the Yes side of secretly looking for a low turn-out which, the polls say, would favour a Yes result.  They are extremely frustrated. “People don’t have a clue what’s going on,” said one member of the audience at Friday’s meeting. Another said, “A lot of people aren’t even aware that a referendum is happening.” The implication was that if they were properly informed they would see sense and support the No side.

But there was frustration, too, that the Yes side seems to have the best arguments. Another contributor to the discussion on Friday said, “How can you counter the argument they put that people in Wales should have the right to decide the laws that are made for Wales? Put that way it sounds like common sense.”

The No campaigners are very angry about politics and politicians. “Stop the gravy train now” urges their leaflet which says that a Yes vote would result in

  • More WAG power
  • More costly politicians
  • More trappings of government

The No campaigners are angry that no politician in Cardiff Bay is prepared to support their cause. They ask, “Can you imagine any other democratically elected institution where 100 per cent of its membership are in favour of just one side in an argument?” The answer they make is that there is some kind of conspiracy amongst the political élite in the ‘Cardiff Bay bubble’ to undermine democracy.

Conservative party No campaigners are especially angry that their members in the Assembly are not representing their views. A few weeks ago, at the south Wales launch of the campaign in Newbridge Rugby club, I asked one prominent west Wales Conservative Henry Lloyd Davies why this was so. He answered bitterly, “Because they’re on the gravy train. They’ve got their noses in the trough.”

At the north Wales meeting John Broughton, the Conservative Agent in Clwyd South declared, “The audiences at the Yes Campaign’s events are on the Assembly payroll. The Yes campaign are mobilising the payroll vote.”

The No campaigners are cross because they feel they’re not getting a fair shout in the press and media. “This is a David and Goliath battle,” said one contributor to Friday’s discussion. “The Yes side have all the party machines behind them and the press is on their side.  The campaign is completely one-sided.  Our biggest problem is the local press. Is there any way to counter this bias?”

This last question was underlined by the fact that at their north Wales launch in Prestatyn, apart from myself and a BBC television crew that was making a documentary for transmission after the referendum vote, no media was present. The absence of the Daily Post was especially disappointing for the No campaigners.

Another speaker, Matt Wright, the Conservative’s Assembly candidate in Delyn, constantly referred to a Cardiff political élite that was determined to ensure that in any argument or decision “north Wales gets the bad side of the deal”.

And he added, “Our natural position in north Wales is to work in a sub-regional way with the neighbouring country. The Assembly is drifting us away from that.”

That comment gave the clue to the big and real underlying reason why the No campaigners are so cross. They see the Assembly and all its works as a threat to their identity. The coming of the Assembly has undoubtedly strengthened the way Welsh people feel about Wales and their relationship with it. Put simply, these days most people in Wales feel more Welsh and rather like the feeling. That’s why they’re so relaxed about the present debate and why if many are unlikely to cast a vote in the referendum they certainly wouldn’t vote No.

But the No campaigners see the Assembly and all its works as a threat to who they think they are and the way they would like to see Britain organised.  They blame the politicians for every conceivable ill. On Friday one leading True Wales supporter even blamed the Assembly for the pot holes that are littering Welsh roads in the wake of the pre-Christmas cold snap.

A fascinating dimension about the Welsh identity debate that is at the core of the present campaign is that it is taking place almost entirely within the ranks of the Conservative Party. Despite the presence of Labour’s Rachel Banner as a leading spokesperson for True Wales she is an isolated figure in party terms. In the meetings I’ve been to she’s been flanked by Conservatives. This identity debate has been held and largely resolved within Labour’s ranks. The crucial decision was to enter into a coalition with Plaid Cymru. In Wales Labour is now Welsh Labour.

One consequence of the present referendum debate is that at the end of it Conservatives in Wales will become more emphatically Welsh Conservatives. No doubt this outcome will make the No campaigners even more cross. They’re welcome to vent their anger in the comment section below.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

17 thoughts on “Psychology of the No campaign

  1. I would be more worried that Plaid today announced a new literacy strategy which was supported by the UK Tories in a document published in 2007. Where are the new ideas ?

  2. An admirable attempt, John, to bring some much needed perspective to this embarrassingly unrepresentative and undemocratic exercise in coercion. The misrepresentation of the issues by both campaigns, with insinuation substituting for reasonable debate, is an appalling indictment of the state of Welsh civic society. There’d be a law against it if politicians didn’t make the laws.

  3. Prompts me to say “and the beat goes on”
    The arguements are within a self made bubble by the No group.
    If they were interested in democracy and informing the people of Wales about both sides of the vote, why not do it in a grown up way, and engage as constituted group?
    The bottom line is – is Wales capable of running our own affairs?

  4. It’s the insinuations that concern me. Lots of angles can be put on why people hold certain views and in any gathering there will be a number of different reasons for those views. My concern is very straightforward and genuine. I think the present trend is inherently Cardiff focused and that North Wales stands to lose out again and again. It is not about perceived identity, it is about much more practical realities. Everyday realities about jobs, health and education and the need to have coherent arrangements with neighbouring landlocked areas with which we trade and relate. The nature of the debate and the vote does not address what needs to be addressed. I believe in devolution, real devolution ie the passing of power to communities. The reverse is happening and we are seeing ever more centralisation in Cardiff.

  5. “Another contributor to the discussion on Friday said, “How can you counter the argument they put that people in Wales should have the right to decide the laws that are made for Wales? Put that way it sounds like common sense.”

    Good question – how are they going to counter it?

  6. Less than 1% of the people of Wales are members of political parties. From those small, unrepresentative interest groups, a tiny fraction will ingratiate themselves sufficiently within their party to be selected as candidates. Of those elected to the Assembly in a meaningless beauty contest dependent more upon what’s happening in Westminster than in Wales, only a handful from the winning party, or parties, will become ministers because of their value to their leader, despite never having run anything more than an election campaign or perhaps a trades union press office.

    The bottom line is – what are the chances of those people being capable of running our affairs for us?

    Of course the paradox is that our problems will only be solved in Wales, not in Westminster. But the Assembly was never designed as a law-making body. It was intended (by whom I wonder?) that the Welsh Affairs Select Committee at Westminster would act as its second chamber to provide checks and balances and foster its laws. Only a Secretary of State intent on permanently exercising control of his personal fiefdom could conceive of such an impractical structure.

    It surely wouldn’t sensible of us to allow people with no experience of running anything to make laws in a unicameral structure not designed for the purpose, now would it?

    But if we don’t give the politicians, the lobbyists running their campaign, the government consultants and professional propagandists and everyone else with a professional interest what they want then we’re being unpatriotic and defeatist. After all, what other choice is there?

    We are most certainly capable of running our own affairs in Wales. But we need to pool all our human and economic resources to do it. The present political and economic system will keep Wales in perpetual poverty unless we do something radical to break the cycle.

    This referendum will make no difference to most people’s lives. They know it already so they won’t turn out to vote. I feel desperately sorry for them and ashamed that there is no alternative being offered. We need an entirely different kind of Assembly in which everyone in Wales has an equal opportunity to serve: an Assembly without professional politicians, lobbyists, consultants and propagandists. Then we’ll have a chance of taking our place in the world as a thriving, confident nation.

  7. This is a very interesting article. It helps me understand the motivation behind the campaigners opposing granting fuller legislative powers to the National Assembly. The rational arguments over the referendum question are all in favour of clearer, simpler legislative powers, hence the near unanimity among those who have experience of the current system in favour of fuller legislative powers. I was at a loss to understand what was going on the minds of those opposed to clearer powers.

    So there are hidden agendas behind True Wales. If only they spoke what they really think the debate would be a lot clearer.

  8. There is no doubt that the main motivation of many of the No campaigners, at least those who come under the ‘True Wales’ banner is what they regard as a creeping nationalist dynamic to the Assembly’s progress. For example, in her presentation to the north Wales launch in Prestatyn Rachel Banner said that the tipping point for her had been the One Wales agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru. As she put it, “The Labour / Plaid coalition introduced a nationalist dynamic into the Assembly”.

    She then quoted Ron Davies that “devolution is a process not an event” and added, “But they’re not telling us what the journey is about or its destination.”

    But how can they? Who can say where this journey will end or indeed, whether it is a journey that has a certain destination. What is certain is that it is the people of Wales and not the politicians who are in the driving seat. This is because the precedent has been set that that at every significant stage post on the journey there will be a people’s veto in the form of a referendum. So, for instance, it will be undoubtedly the case that if at some future stage tax varying powers are proposed for the Assembly, doubtless following Scotland, to bring greater accountability to decision-making in Cardiff Bay, there will have to be a referendum . And put quite simply , that’s democracy . It ‘s just not the case, as Rachel Banner also suggested last Friday evening, that these further issues in the devolution process – she listed taxing and borrowing, devolution of policing powers, devolution of broadcasting, and the creation of legal jurisdiction for Wales – are being discussed behind closed doors in Cardiff Bay. How could they be when they will be subject to election manifestos, elections, and in the case of the more far reaching proposals, such as taxation, further referendums?

  9. John, my concern is none of those things. My concern is that we have not had devolution. Devolution means devolving power to people and to communities. If I saw that the referendum was giving those things rather than just centralising more powers in Cardiff, I would vote Yes. For me because we are stuck with the debate and question as is set, I have opted to vote No as the only way I can flag up there is something wrong in the arrangement for North Wales.

  10. J.O.
    You are being disingenuous in your comments.
    There is no doubt whatsoever that Plaid see this as a process. There can be only one end of the process.
    The yes campaign is one of blatant nationalism rather than argument and logic.
    The facts remain that since the inception of the Assembly Wales has plummeted in educational, economic and health performance when compared with England. Why would any sentient being allow the Cardiff elite more areas to damage?

  11. Matt, You’re trying to make and win an argument by changing the definition of the terms of the debate. But ‘devolution’ can’t simply mean what you want it to mean. You’re in favour of devolution you say, just so long as it means “devolving power to people and communities”. This is what Mrs Thatcher used to say in the 1980s. Devolution, she said was about empowering individuals and giving them choice – for instance, between different performing schools or hospitals. According to a mid-20th Century edition of the encyclopaedia Halsbury’s ‘Laws of England’: “Devolution is the passing of property from a person dying to a person living.” In a speech to Labour’s Welsh conference in 1976 Michael Foot said “Devolution means a real measure of Home Rule for Wales and for Scotland combined with a determination to keep the United Kingdom united.”
    In the modern era devolution has come to mean the creation of a civic institution – in our case the National Assembly – in which the wishes of the people of Wales can be collectively and democratically expressed. This, it seems to me, is precisely what you don’t like.
    John B assumes a direct correlation between the existence of the the National Assembly and Welsh Government and Wales’ relative performance compared with England in areas like the economy, education, and health. There is no evidence to assert this. You might just as easily argue that Welsh performance could have been worse under the old Welsh Office regime.
    The reality, of course, is that the referendum is not about the performance of the Executive. It is about whether the Legislature should be allowed a clearer-cut competence in the devolved areas for which it is responsible.
    At the end of the day what this debate reveals, again, is that the real underlying difference between the Yes and No campaigns is that Yes people support the National Assembly and want to see the devolution process improved, while the No people would prefer to get rid of the National Assembly altogether and revert to direct rule from Westminster. Whichever way you go you’ll still have politicians running things!

  12. John Osmond is not being disingenuous at all.

    Some people in Plaid Cymru may see clarifying the Assembly’s legislative powers as a small step down a very long and winding road to Wales becoming independent, but virtually NOBODY in the Labour Party, the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats see devolution leading that way. Neither do most civic bodies. The Assembly has nothing whatsoever to do with independence or nationalism. It is about good government for Wales within the United Kingdom.

    It is true that the gap in economic performance, and some aspects of educational attainment, between Wales and England has widened over the past decade. But these gaps have widened for most of the past century. It is possible to find some criticism of the policies of the Welsh Assembly Government in these fields. But the issues are political, not constitutional. The solution lies on the elections of May 5th, not the referendum of March 3rd. Mixing the two issues is a confusion of the constitutional and political.

  13. There could be a surprise result as there was in John Prescott’s North East referendum.

    The people have a peculiar habit of not wanting to pay more for useless layers of bureaucracy. And lawyers.

  14. John, No one should be surprised at the way the limited debate on March 3rd has been conducted given that devolution in th UK has always been framed in the context of nationalism. No one, for example, is talking about giving the London Assembly full lawmaking powers. Londoners might in fact ask why not if it is good enough for Wales. There would have been no discussion about devolution in the last century without the Labour Party’s over reaction to the perceived success of nationalist parties at the ballot box. Devolution is not seen in the context of the UK but in the context of what to do with Scotland and Wales. The main intellectual argument for lawmaking powers is based on the idea that Wales and by implication those who live in Wales is somehow different from the rest of the UK. You talk of Welsh Labour, for example, when no political party of that name exists. It has nothing to do with good governance except perhaps to improve GOWA 2006 one of the worst pieces of leagislation passed by the last Labour government. The problem with the present referendum is that the principle of Wales being different was conceded once the Welsh Office was established in the 1960s and lawmaking became a reality with GOWA 2006. Unfortunately those changes were not approved by voters in a referendum. All the possible consequences of the decision as part of the One Wales to go for a referendum in 2011 have never really been thought through in my opinion. A Yes vote on a low turn out or a No vote rather than strengthening the body politik could in fact leave Wales in a sort of political limboland. A UK region with technically the power to change laws in 20 policy areas but still reliant in areas such finance, benefits and the economy on policies from another legislature in which it has very little influence.

  15. I am a bit confused about the angst regarding the lack of ‘No’ AMs. People are perfectly welcome to vote for them and indeed some rather recherche parties exist to cater for their tastes.

    As far as the ‘slippery slope to Independence’ argument goes, it has one tiny shortcoming. I think it is most unlikely that independence (and indeed further significant advances in self-governance) would take place without a referendum. To date public support for outright independence has not been overwhelming.

    Why are the Naysayers so frightened of the public. Last time it was ‘Viscounts Against Devolution’ this time it is the ‘Knights that say No!’ and meanwhile the people at large will get on and vote, not matter how hard the No non-campaign seeks to undermine the process.

  16. John, nice article, got it wrong.
    Have a think about how you would conduct a ‘no’ campaign.
    I think you said ‘clever’ when TW announced it wasn’t registering.
    There’s more.

  17. I have just viewed Sharpe End on ITV Wales. Please forward this comment on to to Rachel Banner.

    Under Carwyn Jones, Wales is becoming a Communist State. There is no democracy & no discussion. Just view the debates from the Cynulliad. A WI tea party is more exciting.
    I live in the Conwy Valley in CCBC. We are governed by quangos, eg the RDP which although unelected has its finger in every local government processes. It is becoming more difficult to find out who does what in Wales – my repeated request for the Welsh government to publish a register of Who Does What has been ridiculed & refused. A lack of transparency is a return to the old tradition of Welsh corruption. There are also growing & secret links with Ireland which need to be made public.

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