The impact of civic Wales

John Osmond reads between the lines of a book about last year’s Assembly referendum that was launched yesterday

The authors of Wales Says Yes argue that the referendum a year ago should not have been held because no major issue of principle was at stake. The referendum was not about whether there should be a National Assembly, independence, taxation, or even primary law-making powers since those had been conceded in the 2006 Wales Act.

Instead, the choice facing the electorate was whether to continue with a system in which primary powers could be transferred in a tightly controlled, piecemeal fashion, or handed over in their entirety in 20 defined policy areas. As Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully, respectively Directors of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University and the Institute of Welsh Politics at Aberystwyth University, remark, “This is not the most bizarre choice ever put before the people in a referendum. But it would be at least a little way along the spectrum of peculiarity.”

They argue, further, that the relative insignificance of this choice, plus the inherent difficulty campaigners had in explaining what the choice was about, must go some way to explain the low turn-out – 35.6 per cent – in the referendum held almost exactly a year ago on 3 March 2011.

So why was the referendum held about such a detailed matter which, in itself, contained no constitutional issue of principle? The answer lies in the fact that over the past 50 years the whole debate and decision-making about the constitutional future of our country has largely been conducted within the confines of the Labour Party. In their opening chapter The road to the referendum the authors relate how this has taken place from the 1960s onwards. In a detailed but concise fashion they describe the painfully contorted process through which competing factions have struggled to find an internal compromise on Welsh self-government which they can present to the outside world.

Through most of this period the balance of forces within Welsh Labour, led by MPs at Westminster, were overwhelmingly hostile to the whole project. Concessions were made, inch by inch, in part to a small internal band of enthusiasts, but in the main to outside pressure from Plaid Cymru, events in Scotland, and the dictates of party managers in London. It was only at the very end of the fifty years – actually in November 2010 – did the pro-devolution wing of the party, now led from within the National Assembly – finally assert itself in a definitive way.

A great virtue of this book is that the authors take the opportunity of presenting last year’s referendum within this broader context. In doing so they provide an account which is far more than a description of one political event in the life of Wales, but in effect an introductory primer for Welsh politics itself.

They also argue that, while the issue around which the referendum was fought was relatively insignificant, the result – the emphatic two to one Yes vote – has had profound consequences, not just for Wales but the whole of the United Kingdom. This is because, now that Wales has primary law making powers, it has to be taken into account alongside Scotland in the review that is underway of the West Lothian Question – the anomaly whereby Welsh and Scottish MPs can vote on English domestic matters, but English MPs cannot reciprocate in relation to Wales or Scotland. As Jones and Scully, put it, the West Lothian Question now applies fully to Wales which, they argue, is the most profound, though apparently unnoticed, consequence of last year’s referendum:

“Since the so-called Acts of Union of the sixteenth century, Wales has been an integral part of the English core of what was eventually to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. While that position may have begun to change with the establishment of the Welsh Office in 1964, and while the establishment of the National Assembly heralded an even more momentous change, it is the creation of a Welsh legislative parliament that signals the definitive rupture.”

Evidence of the accuracy of this judgement has been provided in the first few months of 2012 by the response of First Minister Carwyn Jones to the very real prospect that has suddenly come into view of Scottish independence. If this were to happen what would be the consequences for Wales, left as part of a rump UK with England on one side and Northern Ireland on the other? Carwyn Jones’ answer is that in these circumstances there would have to be a constitutional convention – indeed he wants one now – in which Wales’s relationship with England, settled in 1536, would have to be re-negotiated. Carwyn Jones’ suggestion is for the rest of the UK (perhaps we should call it RUK) to become in effect a federal country, with the entities having equal representation in a reconstituted House of Lords.

It’s obvious, isn’t it, that when Welsh Labour MPs reluctantly submitted to the persuasive powers of Peter Hain, and signed up to the 2006 Wales Act – which as a compromise and potentially blocking measure, contained the provision for last year’s referendum – they certainly weren’t signing up for a federal rest of the UK. Indeed, part of the reason they signed up to the 2006 Act was that they were given a behind the hand assurance from Peter Hain that, if the referendum was held at all, it wouldn’t be before 2014 or 2015 at the earliest.

The reason the referendum was held last year was because monopoly control of the Welsh devolution process was wrested from the hands of Welsh Labour by the results of the 2007 Assembly election. The outcome required a coalition which took the form of the One Wales agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru, which put at its centre the holding of a referendum at or before last year’s Assembly election in May.

So all this has been driven by the democratic will of the people of Wales, first in Assembly elections and then, most emphatically in last year’s referendum itself. Jones and Scully have overseen a major Welsh Referendum Study, a survey of a large representative sample of voters both before and after the vote, which they report on in great detail in their book. This provides a fascinating array of information about people’s attitudes, what motivated those who went out to vote, and why they voted in the way they did. One useful, indisputable finding, is that if the turn-out had been more representative than the 35.6 per cent that participated – say 50 or 60 per cent – the result would have been the same, if not more so.

So why did the Welsh people vote Yes by such a large majority? The findings from the survey provides a disarming answer. They were persuaded by the logic of the case that the National Assembly should have primary legislative powers. As Jones and Scully say:

“Referendums can often be dubious democratic tools. They frequently appear to produce results for reasons that have very little to do with what is ostensibly at stake. But in Wales in March 2011, that was not what occurred. The most important factor shaping voting choices was the issue on the ballot.”

Of course, the two-to-one majority in the referendum was a major shift from the vote in 1997 when the referendum on the principle of whether to have an Assembly was won on the slenderest of majorities, just 6721 votes out of a million cast. Why is it that, in such a short space of time, the Welsh became so much more convinced about constitutional change? Amid all the statistics in Jones and Scully’s book you will search in vain for a clear answer to that.

My own explanation is that the coming of the Assembly has made it possible for the first time for Welsh people to think of themselves as genuine citizens of Wales. This is not to deny that Welsh people have always felt intensely about their Welshness. However, until this generation they have felt it in ways that inhibited a sense of unity around the idea of Wales. For example, in the past Welshness was something very often felt and debated in terms of language. Yet that had the effect of dividing the people of Wales, because their outlook was largely determined by whether they spoke the language or not. Welshness has also been strongly related to a sense of place – but that didn’t mean Wales, it meant specifically where you’re from, which again was divisive.

On the other hand a civic identity is something people share equally. That’s what the Scots have always had, whereas the Welsh have never had it – until now. Devolution has provided an arena in which the people of Wales are developing a new Welsh consciousness. Moreover, as last year’s referendum demonstrated, it is one that not only they approve of, but to which they are increasingly attached. There are two clues in Jones and Scully’s book to support this view. One is simply the extent to which, as their exhaustive surveys demonstrate, approval of devolution is now spread across the country, not only geographically, but regardless of such markers as age, class, education, occupation, income and home ownership. There is, after all, unity in a common sense of citizenship. And this is a substantial shift from the position in 1997 when the referendum of that year pointed up very sharp divisions on these questions.

The other clue is more elliptical. It comes in the authors’ analysis of the motivations of those who led the No campaign in the referendum, and particularly Rachel Banner, main spokesperson for the organisation ‘True Wales’. In an interview with them she cited her experience of returning to post-devolution Wales following a period as a teacher in Italy as prompting her to get involved:

“She relates her sense that something had changed after she had been away. This was a change of which she did not approve and subsequently sought to counter. We would suggest that it is not entirely fanciful to widen the point. To attend the launch of True Wales’ No campaign on 19 January 2011 was to encounter  a group of, in the main, rather angry elderly men raging, if not exactly at the dying of the light, then at the changing face of Wales and Britain. There was a palpable sense of resentment at the way a familiar order had been overturned. But as it transpired, the majority of people in Wales were entirely unconcerned about or even supportive of this development.”

John Osmond is Director of the IWA. Wales Says Yes – Devolution and the 2011 Welsh Referendum is published by the University of Wales Press at £19.99.

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