Welsh build their political nation

John Osmond says there are at least two ways of looking at the devolution story in Wales

Seen from outside it seems as though Wales is the poor relation in the devolution story, forever playing catch-up with Scotland. “And to a lesser extent in Wales,” has been a persistent refrain during the first decade in the life of the National Assembly.

While Scots are today being presented with bold constitutional options, such as full fiscal autonomy or even independence within the European Union, the Welsh seem content to debate whether car parking should be free in NHS hospitals, or whether to allow shop-keepers to nominate a charity to donate your 5p if you use a plastic or paper shopping bag, unless they contain loose fruit or vegetables.

For some it goes back to the uncertainty with which the Welsh greeted their Assembly in the referendum in 1997, with a wafer thin 6,271 majority out of more than a million votes cast. On the other hand the Scots voted by a two to one majority and were rewarded with a fully-fledged Parliament. Meanwhile the Welsh had to be content with an Assembly that at first looked more like a local government body than a national institution.

Yet there is another way of looking at the devolution story. In 1997 the Welsh Yes vote represented a remarkable 30 per cent increase in votes compared with the four-to-one referendum defeat back in 1979. This was a 15 per cent swing, which was larger than the 11.5 per cent swing to the Yes side in Scotland.

Moreover, it was young people who voted Yes. A large-scale analysis found that age was the most critical factor in determining which way people voted in 1997. If you were 45 and under you voted by a three-to-two margin in favour of the Assembly. If you were older than 45 you voted by a three-to-two margin against. The reason it was so close was that the young tend not to vote.

In 1997 there were 600,000 people who in 1979 had been too young to vote. This new generation was no less Welsh than their forbears, but they regarded their Welshness in a different light. They were less British – for them the Second World War was history – and as far as they were concerned disputes over the Welsh language were a thing of the past.

It was striking, too, that in the immediate wake of the 1997 referendum polls found that people wanted to go much further. A large majority thought that the Welsh constitutional settlement should be equivalent to the one the Scots enjoyed. Much of the history of the first ten years of Welsh devolution was the slow creation of a Welsh parliamentary institution out of the local government shell that was provided by the 1998 Wales Act. This was confirmed in the referendum in March this year, when there was now a two-to-one majority in favour of full legislative powers.

There was a good deal of adverse commentary about the low 36 per cent turnout in the referendum. Nonetheless, extensive surveys after the event found that if the turnout had been higher the result would have been the same, if not more so. It also found that of those who voted Yes, 65 per cent really wanted more powers, and 15 per cent independence.

Arguably, the devolution process is having more far reaching effects in Wales than in Scotland. For it is building a political nation for the first time. When the Scottish Parliament was “re-convened” in 1999, it was as though a keystone was being placed in an already existing arch of state institutions, ranging from distinctive legal and education systems, to the Kirk, financial bodies, a highly developed press, and a mature government administration. On the other hand, from the start in Wales the role of the National Assembly has been to build the arch of a civil society structure into which it can fit.

One reason why Wales’ First Minister Carwyn Jones is so well regarded is because, first and foremost, he is an ardent fan of Welsh rugby rather than just a politician. This week his mind will be more on the chances of Wales reaching the finals of the World Cup in New Zealand than his governmental duties. But if, as the whole nation is willing, the team reaches the finals, then the focus for their homecoming will be the Senedd in Cardiff Bay. That is the measure of the extraordinary transformation in Welsh life that has occurred over the past decade.

John Osmond is Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs. This post originally appeared on the Comment is Free section of the Guardian.

11 thoughts on “Welsh build their political nation

  1. ‘One reason why Wales’s first Minister is so well regarded is because, first and foremost, he is an ardent fan of Welsh rugby rather than just a poltician’ Thanks for the laugh. It’s sentences such as this which really don’t help Wales in the 21s century. Just imagine if someone in 1945 had written ‘One reason why the UK’s Mr. Attlee is so well regarded is because, first and foremost, he is an ardent fan of English cricket rather than just a poltician’. Personally I prefer polticians to have the attitude of Keir Hardie who saw that organised sport often distracted ordinary people from the really important issues in life. The Western World might be facing the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s but who cares if Wales manages to best France – or should that be South West France – and then New Zealand, a country with just over 4 million people. Rugby is an interesting and sometimes exciting sport for big men but it isn’t the be all and end all of life.

  2. I like the article, up until the last paragraph, which I thought was a little flippant.

    I understand where Jeff is coming from but I do believe organised sport – and success – is a way of galvanising national identity. However, it should not distract from tackling the very serious issues. Rather it should be used as a boost to deal with them.

    On a personal note, I am a little disappointed (to say the least) with the rather tame legislative programme proposed by the Welsh Government. Is there nothing they can do to tackle growth and education?

  3. You are a real bundle of laughs Jeff and illustrate clearly why so many people out there are turned off the political agenda. Did you miss the 1995 Rugby World cup? The iconic picture of Nelson Mandela in a South African rugby shirt. Given the Tory imitating state of the Labour party I wouldn’t mind betting Keir Hardie would opt for following the rugby rather than a bunch of corrupt self-serving politicians. I would love to see more people in Wales energised politically by the Arab Spring and become more politicised. Get out on the streets and campaign against the way our politicians are becoming more and more like their American counterparts i.e nothing more than mouth-pieces for big business and vested interests.

    What the article above clearly illustrates is that the people of Wales and in particular the young are at last beginning to take themselves seriously. They are at last beginning to realise that if they want things to improve they have to grasp the nettle. The way forward is for Welsh people to demand the power to create a society reflective of their hopes dreams and aspirations. I just wish my generation had had more courage than to just slavishly follow the big Tory and Labour lie!

  4. The reference to Welsh rugby in this momentous week is far from flippant. Rugby is Wales’ leading brand world-wide, and also, of course, within the UK. What other Welsh-originated activity would prompt BBC’s Radio 2 this morning to theme its broadcast around our small country?

    The important point is the one I make at the end, that our new national institution, the Senedd in Cardiff Bay will be a focal point for the the celebratory events that will take place when our incredible team returns home from New Zealand. Why do I use that word ‘incredible’? Because in the way it has behaved, on and off the field in the world cup, the team has represented a new seriousness and determination about its endeavour. It has displayed not only courage, and flair but a complete professionalism which is sending the strongest possible message about what our country stands for, not just to the world, but most critically, to our young people at home. It’s a pride about Wales grounded in real achievement and real standards. It is linked as well to this era in which we’re all fortunate to be living through in which at last we’re beginning to take political responsibility for our own affairs.

    So it’s far from flippant. It’s deadly serious.

  5. John, I agree with your longer comments (above), especially regarding identity and a new drive – a shame that the Senedd legislative programme doesn’t reflect it and focuses on third order issues.

    I just really didn’t like the opening sentence of that final paragraph. It really comes across as flippant (to me at least) and I’ll agree to disagree! Deal?

  6. I don’t disagree that Nationalists will milk the success of the world Cup for what it is worth. It will used to show the benefits of independence in much the same way as sport was used before 1989 in Eastern Europe to extol the benefits of Communism. No one should be surprised how the success of 15 very fit young men will be exploited by some politicians to somehow show that Wales is unique. Not surprising really given that if the Victorians had not invented organised sport and the working class in the valleys of South Wales hadn’t been attracted to the rugby union variant it would be very difficult for most people to construct an answer to Gwyn Alf Williams’s question of ‘When Was Wales?’. Equating success on the sporting field with changes in society is likely to be greeted with same derision as claiming that speaking Welsh is the key entry qualification to enter the Happy Hunting Ground.

  7. This is what Carwyn Jones says, writing in today’s Western Mail:

    “First and foremost I am a Welsh rugby fan, but let me say something as First Minister. This isn’t just about sport. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Wales on an international stage. It’s giving us attention around the world that money just couldn’t buy. Although it’s difficult to make direct links between international profile and investment into Wales, it’s only common sense that the more people around the world who take note of Wales the easier it is for us to sell ourselves in a competitive environment. As a result of reaching the semi-final and of how we’ve played, media opinion formers and lovers of sport all around the globe are talking enthusiastically and positively about Wales. This can only help our wider marketing efforts and makes it easier to push at open doors.”

  8. John in the real world capitalists will always go where they can maximise their profits. If sport makes a difference to inward investment perhaps you could give an example. The real world is where Nokia in 2008 spends nearly £100 million opening a factory in Cluj in Romania which then employs over 2000 people. A few weeks ago they announced that the factory would be closing and the work moved to the Far East which is the only area where the market for feature phones which Cluj produced still exists. The average monthly wage in Cluj is about £140. If Romania had won the Rugby World Cup, the Soccer World Cup or Nastase had a made a comeback to win the all the Grand Slam tournements it would not have made any difference to the decision made by Nokia’s senior management. The bottom line for any company in a capitalist society is profit. Occasionally Slovakia produces ice hockey teams which perform above and beyond the call of duty in the Ice Hockey World Cup. I very much doubt if the success of the Slovakian ice hockey team played any part in the decison of Peugeot, VW or Kia to start manufacturing cars in the country. The key influences were the skills of the workforce, low wages, weak Labour laws and location. As for the quote I assume it was written by the same person who a fortnight ago argued that Wales should follow the economic policies of the New Zealand to ride out the economic storm. What they forgot to say was that New Zealand supplies a third of the world’s dairy exports and benefits from the demand in Commmunist China for dried milk. If New Zealand doesn’t win the World Cup then I’m sure sure that the opposition New Zealand Labour Party in its campaign to defeat the Kiwi Tories will highlight the huge losses that the Cup has occurred in New Zealand. You can’t blame any sporting organisation arguing that sport brings wider economic benefits when they ask for subsidies from the taxpayer but most of the economic evidence seems to refute this. How many US companies have invested in Wales because of the Ryder Cup? Answers on a postage stamp.

  9. I’m old enough to remember that PC used the truly great Welsh rugby team (over 12 years) as an example of what Wales could “achieve” on its own and it’s just as well we didn’t listen as Welsh rugby has moved from relative “boom” to bust in the intervening years. For our First Minister to get involved in the “bigging up” of Wales on the back of a few matches in the World Cup is pathetic and demeans his position. The reality is that currently the management of team at top level comprises of NZ coach and English assistant who outside of Wales has got them fit and done very well. On the same “tack” didn’t Rhodri Morgan use the Ryder Cup (funded by a Billionair who made his cash in US/Canada) as a similar indicator of Welsh business prowess and we can see the result. The nationalists rarely mention the fact that the Millenium Stadium was funded by Welsh people/rugby but mainly by grants from the lottery, which as we know is mainly supported by “poor” people, and the vast majority live “over the border” as beloved by BBC Cymru. The mixing of sport and politics (other than naturally wanting your team/individual to win) is totally unhealthy as was shown by a Mr. Hitler in Berlin in 1936 who was most “upset” that Jesse Owen was the greatest athlete in the games. I would have thought that the First Minister and commentators should have been more worried upon the reputation of Wales/devolution following the appaling waste of European funding under the rule of Rhodri Morgan and his cohorts. As a true amateur sportsman it is of its “essence” an imprecise science, as nobody can win all the time, whereas the fundamentals of economic life are fixed and permanent, and unfortunately as short in supply in this part of UK. In conclusion the fact that England won the World Cup in soccer in 1996 didn’t seem to affect the appaling economic condition of the UK at that time and the same will apply if Wales wins the (part of the World Cup) in 2011.

  10. “Not surprising really given that if the Victorians had not invented organised sport and the working class in the valleys of South Wales hadn’t been attracted to the rugby union variant it would be very difficult for most people to construct an answer to Gwyn Alf Williams’s question of ‘When Was Wales?’”

    But they did Jeff. If we didn’t have those what’s to say that football, baseball or native sport like bando wouldn’t have taken hold? If we weren’t so fond of protestant nonconformity perhaps we wouldn’t have such a strong choir tradition but then traditional folk music might’ve been stronger without it. We weren’t that far away from getting Home Rule in the late 19th century. What if Lloyd George had won over those ‘Newport Englishmen’ in 1896?

  11. Regarding JO’s point about rugby projecting Wales upon the world, it is wholly valid in a world where sport has become something that extends far beyond the boundary. As to this being a good thing, that is another debate. Devolution as a process can learn some lessons from the last few weeks; [1] momentum is a wonderful thing, as is belief, [2] self-doubt can be overcome by getting a team to work for each other and [3] can we bounce back from a heroic defeat?

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy