Accelerating Welsh history

John Osmond examines the impact of the 1979, 1997 and 2011 referendums on Welsh politics

Referendums are often regarded as conservative devices designed to frustrate progressive initiatives, especially where constitutional change is concerned. In the case of Wales, however, the three referendums of 1979, 1997 and 2011 had the opposite effect. The experience of living through them had a galvanising impact on the Welsh people. It changed their view of themselves and their country. It made them more Welsh in outlook and identity and more willing to contemplate radical constitutional options. In short, the referendums accelerated Welsh progress towards autonomy.

Of course, the 1979 referendum was instigated by those opposed to devolution, and it resulted in a heavy four-to-one defeat for the Welsh Assembly proposed at that time. Yet the overall outcome was to precipitate events and unleash forces that radically changed Welsh society. In the decade following 1979 these events and political and economic forces came together to underpin the emergence of a Welsh political nation. In turn, and within less than two decades this provided the basis for a constitutional advance.

Again, the 1997 referendum in Wales was certainly not sought by those advocating constitutional change. Instead, it was a by-product of a decision made in 1996 by Labour’s Opposition leader Tony Blair in response to a problem he had in Scotland. The promise of a referendum was needed there to remove from the agenda of the forthcoming British general election the tax varying powers being proposed for the Scottish Parliament. And if a referendum was necessary for Scottish devolution, it followed that one had to be held in Wales as well.

This is an extract from a new IWA paper Accelerating History – the 1979, 1997 and 2011 referendums in Wales, published today and available here.

Although the referendum was not sought in Wales, its impact in September 1997 was profound. It ensured, for instance, that when the National Assembly for Wales was established in 1999 it was elected using a partial form of proportional representation, sufficient to prevent overweening Labour dominance and to ensure a new fluidity in Welsh politics.

More immediately, the narrowness of the result – with its tiny 6,721 vote majority, out of a million votes cast – made the affair into something of a melodrama. This had the effect of concentrating the minds of the people of Wales. There is no doubt that their attitudes to possible constitutional futures for their country underwent profound changes as a direct result of living through the 1997 referendum.

By the time the 2011 referendum approached it was the pro-devolution forces that were seeking it, in order to secure a further powers for the National Assembly. A referendum was the central feature of the One Wales coalition agreement negotiated between Labour and Plaid Cymru in the wake of the 2007 Assembly election. The prospect of a referendum was contained in the 2006 Wales Act. This stated that one would be needed to give the National Assembly direct legislative powers over the functions for which it was responsible, from education and health to economic development, the environment and rural affairs.

The 2006 Act was Labour’s response to the recommendations of the cross-party Richard Commission which, in the Spring of 2004 had recommended a fully legislative Assembly, with 80 members elected by the STV system of proportional representation. Labour, or at least most of the Welsh Labour MPs at Westminster, balked at these recommendations, which the Commission had insisted were interconnected and should be implemented as a whole, and especially the STV proportional system. Instead, the 2006 Act accepted that the Assembly could become a fully-fledged legislature, but only following a referendum. Further, the referendum could only be put into effect following a two-thirds majority vote by Assembly Members and subsequent approval by the Westminster Parliament.

These hurdles were obstacles placed in the path of the Assembly’s development to mollify Welsh MPs hostile to the devolution process. In the event they had the opposite effect. Once again, the experience of a constitutional referendum proved an accelerator in Welsh political history. The holding of the referendum, and the experience of the campaign in the early months of 2011, only served to whet the electorate’s appetite for even more powers.

This was demonstrated by 75 per cent of those who voted Yes in March 2011 wanted to go further. Polling for the Welsh Governance Centre at Cardiff University and the Institute of Welsh Politics at Aberystwyth University showed that 65 per cent would have opted for more powers and 15 per cent independence if they had been presented with the choice.

The clear and emphatic nature of the result, together with the National Assembly becoming a fully-fledged legislative body, will have far reaching consequences for the development of Welsh institutions, for the future of Welsh politics, and for the wider constitutional development of the UK. An immediate consequence has been to add new weight to the arguments for a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction, to mirror those already existing in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Constitutional referendums represent a convulsion in a political system. If politics more generally represent ‘jaw jaw’ in preference to ‘war war’, then constitutional referendums represent a civil war conducted by other, more civilised means. Whatever their results, their impact is to speed up the political process.

Their announcement, usually about a year before the event, immediately launches the political system into a new gear, with the creation of new formations, often with a cross-party character needed to fight the campaigns, bringing a heightened engagement in politics.

Cross-party campaigns also send a message that the parties involved are setting aside their own particular priorities in the interests of the nation as a whole. This was most clearly seen in the 2011 referendum in Wales when first, the Assembly voted unanimously for a referendum, and then the leaders of all four parties joined together in campaigning for a Yes vote

Living through the referendums of the past thirty years has certainly hastened the maturing of politics in Wales. They have resulted in an historical acceleration in the development of the country’s constitution. During referendum campaigns the political system is pulled backwards and forwards in polarising debates. In the Welsh experience referendums can be likened to an athlete preparing to throw a discus, leaping from one foot to another, gathering momentum to hurl the object as far as possible.

Where will the devolution journey take us? There can be no definitive answer to that question. In the debate on the 1998 Wales Act in the House of Commons, in July 1997, Don, now Lord Anderson, the former Labour MP for Swansea East and a late convert to devolution, described it as a mystery tour:

I recall the fine story of a bus tour from Cwmrhydyceirw in my constituency. There was a sweep about where the tour would end, and it is said the driver won. The people of Wales are driving this mystery tour. They will decide the pace and direction.

Although the destination of Welsh devolution remains uncertain, more than a decade into the experiment two things are clear. The pace is accelerating and the direction is in favour of more powers.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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