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.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy