How to damage public confidence in the Assembly

Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully reject the Silk Commission’s arguments for a referendum on devolving taxes

In our recent book Wales says Yes: Devolution and the 2011 Welsh Referendum (University of Wales Press, 2012), we demonstrated that the vote last March was a prime example of an unnecessary referendum. Devolutionists of a certain generation – those scarred by the 1979 experience – may have revelled in the result. But a more sober analysis surely leads to the conclusion that the exercise came very close to dragging the whole democratic process into disrepute.

As the issue ostensibly at stake in the referendum was so narrow and technical – a choice between two systems of primary law making – the efforts of campaigners and commentators to explain the choice failed to cut through to most people, who remained disengaged and apathetic. This alone does much to explain why the turnout was so low.

Silk Commission Special 2

Tomorrow, we report on the recommendations from the Silk Commission published today.

A week today, on Monday 26 November, a major conference on the Silk Commission’s recommendations Taxation and Borrowing Powers for Wales is being organised by the Changing Union project, a partnership between the IWA, the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University and Cymru Yfory/Tomorrow’s Wales. Keynote speakers include: Paul Silk, Chair of the Commission on Devolution in Wales; Jane Hutt, Finance Minister, Welsh Government; Baroness Randerson, Under-Secretary of State at the Wales Office; and Gerald Holtham, Chair of the Holtham Commission. Full details of the conference and how to attend are here

But the weakness of the campaigns was another major factor. True, the Yes side were stymied by the inadequacies of the legal framework under which referendums in the UK are now conducted. But that does not explain why Yes for Wales was so slow to get off the ground. This was a national campaign that did not even have a bank account until four months before voting day.

Yet compared to their opponents, the Yes campaign was positively Obama-esque in competence and efficiency. Has there ever been a political campaign quite as shambolic and inadequate as that of True Wales? Despite enjoying sustained attention due to the requirement media balance – or, perhaps, because of that attention – True Wales failed to mobilise more than a handful of supporters for its so-called grassroots campaign. It failed to raise more than £4,500 across the whole of Wales; and failed to maintain unity even within its own tiny ranks.

As we demonstrate in our book, pretty much the only positive aspect of the entire 2011 referendum experience was that the final result did reflect the broad views of the Welsh electorate on how they wish to be governed. This is cause for cheer, given that referendums are often high-jacked by factors other than those ostensibly on the ballot paper. But the fact that Wales got, in this sense, the ‘right’ result in 2011 had very little to do with how the referendum was conducted. Instead, it had much more to do with the fact that devolution has been discussed for so long that most people in Wales have been able to develop, in very general terms at least, a settled view on the matter.

After such a patently unsatisfactory experience as March 2011, one might have thought that politicians, and the Welsh political class more generally, would have learned enough to avoid future unnecessary referendums on devolution. Indeed, one might have hoped that we might have developed some clear and well thought out ideas about the circumstances in which referendums are appropriate democratic devices to use, and when they are less appropriate. But it appears that this is not so.

Rather, as the Silk Commission approaches completion of the first part of its mandate – reporting on the financing of devolved government – it seems that a referendum on tax-varying powers is likely. This is, to put it mildly, unfortunate. We can already predict with a very high degree of confidence that any such referendum will witness very low levels of public interest; a lack of vibrant public debate; pitifully lacklustre campaigns; and low voter turnout. It will, in short, almost certainly be a deeply inadequate referendum that will be far more likely to damage public confidence in devolution and the political process than to enhance it. It would also be an unnecessary referendum – as shown by the weakness of the arguments advanced in support of the idea. Three main arguments have emerged: these may be summarised as precedent, principle, and popular expectation.

In September 1997, two questions were put before the Scottish electorate: one on the principle of establishing a Scottish Parliament, the second on whether or not any such Parliament should have powers to vary the basic rate of income tax by 3p in the pound. Some apparently believe that this precedent means that any move to devolve tax-varying powers to Wales could only legitimately take place following a referendum.

Those schooled in British constitutional history will tend to be immediately suspicious of any such argument from precedent. Precedents exist for doing almost anything. All manner of constitutional changes – major and minor – have occurred without recourse to referendums. But the flourishing of the 1997 Scottish precedent is particularly curious, as it wilfully ignores a more recent, and arguably more pertinent, precedent from the same country.

The two Yes votes in Scotland’s 1997 referendum created a Parliament with the option to vary the basic rate of income tax. This taxation power was never used. Indeed, many experts believe that the power was in practice more-or-less unusable. Contrast this with the 2012 Scotland Act, which compels the Scottish Parliament to exercise substantial powers over taxation. The latter provides for a far more fundamental shift in responsibility over tax, and it has taken place without a referendum. It is far from clear to us why the 1997 Scottish precedent should be privileged above the 2012 precedent.

In 2010, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution recommended that referendums are most appropriately used for deciding ‘fundamental constitutional issues’. And it gave abolition of the monarchy, independence for part of the state, and the abolition of one of the houses of the UK parliament as pertinent examples of such issues. Would the granting of tax-varying powers to the National Assembly constitute another such fundamental issue? Would it, as some suggest, change the nature of the relationship between the citizen and the devolved level of government?

Part of the problem with this argument is the manner in which it has been advanced. Thus, transferring income tax powers would, it is suggested, require a referendum but transferring powers over ‘minor taxes’ would not. But if there is a principle at stake about the relationship between citizen and devolved institutions, why it should matter that a tax is ‘major’ or ‘minor’? Should not a referendum be required whatever the perceived status of a tax? In any case, the Welsh Government already has (indirect but substantial) influence over council tax levels. So what principle would really be invoked by any transfer of further tax powers to the Assembly?

A more relevant point of principle is surely the inconsistency now threatened between Scotland and Wales. The 2012 Scotland Act, supported by each of the three main unionist parties there, was grounded in a fundamental premise outlined by the preceding Calman Commission report, that the devolved Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament can only be truly accountable if made fiscally responsible (that is, forced to wield substantial powers over taxation). If this argument is accepted – as it has been by all three major UK parties – for the elected, law-making devolved institutions in Scotland, it is difficult to see why it should not be for the elected, law-making devolved institutions of Wales. Given this, why should powers over taxation in Wales – and thereby true accountability – be regarded as an ‘optional extra’, subject to the outcome of a referendum. Does anyone seriously wish to argue that the Welsh Government and National Assembly for Wales should be less accountable than their Scottish equivalents?

Would the Welsh electorate expect to be consulted in a referendum before tax powers were transferred to Cardiff? In general, when people are asked if they wish to have a say on something, they tend to reply ‘Yes’ – even if they often fail subsequently to take the opportunity to do so. But is there any specific evidence in this case.

The Silk Commission has conducted research into public attitudes, including – somewhat crudely – attitudes towards referendums. The most detailed research into this issue was undertaken in April 2012 by YouGov and the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. We explored whether people differentiate between fundamental and relatively trivial issues in terms of whether decisions should be taken via referendums. Respondents were asked to consider a range of subjects, ranging from a 5 pence charge on carrier bags at one end of the spectrum, to independence and abolition of the monarchy at the other, and asked whether the decision should be left to elected politicians or put to a referendum.

Attitudes towards referendums in Wales

Preamble“Some people think that it is a good idea to give people the chance to decide important political issues themselves by a vote in a referendum.Other people think that it is the job of the politicians we elect to decide major political issues.Holding a referendum takes more time and costs more money. But those in favour of referendums believe that it is important for people to have a direct say.If decisions had to be made about each of the following issues, please indicate whether you think that those decisions should be made by elected politicians, or by the people in a referendum”

Whether or not…


  • The Welsh Government should be given the power to borrow money to spend on capital projects such as building roads and hospitals.
  • Shops should be required to charge 5p for carrier bags.
  • The Welsh Government should be given the power to change levels of landfill tax and air passenger duty in Wales.
  • The Welsh Government should be given the power to raise or lower the basic rate of income tax in Wales by up to 3p in the £.
  • Whether or not the Welsh Government should be given complete control over all taxes paid in Wales.
  • Whether or not Wales should become an independent country.
  • Whether or not the Monarchy should be abolished.


Decide by referendum Politicans decide Net decide by referendum
Borrowing powers 37 48 -11
5p carrier bag charge 31 56 -25
Landfill Tax/APD 27 56 -29
Vary basic rate of income tax by 3p 41 44 -3
Complete tax devolution 53 32 +21
Independence for Wales 80 8 +72
Abolish monarchy 70 12 +58

Number of respondents = 1,039

Three things stand out from the results in the table. First, a substantial proportion of the electorate – around a third – seem to favour referendums for pretty much everything. If they had their way, Welsh life would be an endless series of visits to the polling booth. But beyond this group – and this is the second key point – we find that most voters do indeed differentiate between fundamental and relatively trivial matters, believing that while the former should be the subject of referendums the latter can be left to the ordinary political process.

Finally, and most germane to our present discussion, when voters are probed about the policy that was the subject of Scotland’s second referendum question in 1997 – that is that the devolved level in Wales should have the power to vary the basic rate of income tax by 3 pence – a small plurality believe that the decision can be left to elected politicians. One must, of course, avoid over-interpreting the findings of one survey. But, at a minimum, our findings do undermine any claim that there is a clear public expectation of a referendum on tax powers.

The arguments from precedent, principle or popular expectation that a referendum must be held on the Silk taxation recommendations do not withstand critical scrutiny. Indeed, all three can quite easily be reframed into better arguments for not holding any such referendum. Having a taxation referendum would mean spending several million pounds to conduct an event whose most likely main accomplishment would be to make the 35.6 percent turnout achieved in March 2011 appear relatively high. And given the lack of years of preceding public debate, we cannot even expect the eccentric minority who would vote to do so on the basis of a considered view as to whether or not the National Assembly should have powers in the area of taxation.

Surely we’re not really going to do this, are we?

Professor Richard Wyn Jones is Director and Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University. This article was first pubished in the Summer 2012 issue of the IWA’s journal the welsh agenda

9 thoughts on “How to damage public confidence in the Assembly

  1. The referendum is in there because Carwyn said it should be. Carwyn said it should be because he doesn’t want the power and assumes the people of Wales will vote against.

  2. Messrs Jones and Scully want to have their cake and eat it. On the one hand they argue for democracy and on the other (they must be lawyers) they argue that the political classes are the only fit judges to make decisions. Further they argue that democracy is at risk.
    They know that if only 29% of the electorate voted for the Asembly in 1979 and a slender majority carried the vote only 14.9% of the electorate were pro-assembly.
    Since then the Assembly has achieved much, but surely we must all recognise that democracy is not working very well with an astonishly apathetic and indeed poorly informed electorate.
    Reluctantly then, we must concede what the political classes most desire, a cadre of elite who will guide/lead the apathetic majority. This encapsulates the biggest enigma in the democratic argument, it looks as if apathy wins by a street.

  3. I disagree with the central thrust of the article: I think Scotland creates a precedent which is neither random nor selective. It is so compelling it cannot be overlooked.

    Anthony comments:
    “They know that if only 29% of the electorate voted for the Asembly in 1979 and a slender majority carried the vote only 14.9% of the electorate were pro-assembly.”
    This is quite the most ridiculous set of figures and dates I have ever seen entered into the public domain on this issue. I am struggling to make any sense of them…

  4. It’s a general truth that the more referenda you have the poorer their support – indeed antipathy can set in throwing up egregious results. Any referendum must go a long way. We’ve had 2 pro dev outcomes so it’s fair to say, with hindsight, that Wales should have had the same level of devolution as Scotland in the first place, though all parties can be forgiven for not knowing that at the time. Let’s not have a ref’m at every milestone on our way to this point. We don’t need another ref’m until we face the question of full independence.

  5. Let me see if I understand this: We shouldn’t have a referendum because it doesn’t look like many people would turn out to vote… we should leave the decision to politicians, each of whom is elected by a minority of the constituents in their respective areas. They therefore have a superior mandate to a referendum on a single issue….even though none of the said politicians stood for election on a platform of bringing in tax raising powers without a referendum.

    But there is also a little re-writing of history going on here. We only have devolution in Wales because the electorate WASN’T asked to vote on tax raising powers. Not even the most starry eyed Nationalist could believe that the wafer thin majority for devolution in ’97 wouldn’t have disappeared had taxation been on the menu. So we are not Scotland. To maintain a semblance of integrity politicians in Wales have to bear in mind that we are devolved by the skin of our collective teeth.
    And what happened in 2011? How many times did I hear that the issue was a narrow one…a simple tidying up of an obscure and cumbersome way of making laws…certainly not another step towards tax varying powers……not, above all, another slither towards Independence. I seem to remember that Carwyn has said repeatedly that the ability to vary Income Tax could only be legitimate in Wales if the people of Wales were asked to endorse it in a referendum. Is this position not, then, written in stone?

    I hate to put forward another revolutionary idea…….compulsory voting. Let us in Wales show just how different we can be (not unique I admit).
    Oh! I see the problem, only long headed political wonks can be trusted to make “informed” (ie the same as me) choices at the ballot box. Here’s a thought though, maybe HAVING to vote will stimulate more people to think about voting…….. let’s make a party out of it..Charge £2 to vote and use £1 to cover election costs and the rest goes into a jack pot won by a lucky voter. Camelot can run it and enthusiasm for democracy will increase overnight!

  6. While I have some sympathy for the argument of Messrs Wyn Jones and Scully, they have had the ground cut from under them by the statements of Welsh politicians at the last referendum. The ‘yes’ campaign could have fronted up and said: never mind what’s on the ballot paper; this is about whether the National Assembly is going to get all the powers necessary to be a proper accountable governing body. They didn’t do that. On the contrary, they assured the electorate that the referendum was just about restricted powers of legislation and they explicitly denied that it had any relevance for tax-raising powers. That was a mistake based on a misreading of public opinion. They thought the referendum would be close and it was not. The polls showed the public were in favour of the Assembly having tax powers but the politicians did not trust the polls. Still, what’s done is done. How can they say before the last referendum that taxation powers would require another referendum then not hold one? It would look like hypocrisy. Yes, the Welsh path to a reasonable measure of home rule has been tortuous and slightly silly, reflecting our deep lack of self-confidence as a people but that’s what we’re like. What’s said is said and now we have to go through the mill.

  7. The real question that should be asked is why the authors of this article and so many in the Welsh political class don’t want another referendum? What are they frightened of? Anyone who believes in political accountability cannot be happy with the present ‘representation without taxation’ scenario. It leads to lazy politics for a start with the default position of far too many Welsh politicians to any issue that it is all the fault of whoever is in power in London. Tax raising power has the real potential to be the game changer in Welsh politics where we might have a real debate about the role of the state. Who knows we might even start to get some radical thinking about the problems that many will face in a 21st century where low economic growth in the western world might become the norm. Once voters start receiving tax demands from the Assembly it will also hopefully increase interest in politics and perhaps this is what is worrying some who are quite happy with the low turn out in elections as long as they are returned to the lucrative position of a full time politician.

  8. This must put Welsh Conservatives into a dilemma. As unionists they are instinctively hostile to anything that smacks of progress to independence. But most voters tend to think of Tories as being more fiscally prudent than any parties of the left. If Wales pays tax to the WG then Welsh Conservatives can offer to be the party which keep those tax bills down. If Labour is the party of spend and if the WG simply spends its “allowance” from London, then an important Tory-appeal is lost as W.Cons are unable to offer what they (claim to) do best.

  9. Yes Jeff Jones, I was thinking much the same thing myself; are our politicians quite comfortable with low turnout? Maybe Leanne Wood pushing the boat out in the Rhondda might change things but what I see at the moment is complacency. Not just Labour either, I think that both Plaid and Conservatives are used to the pecking order…….is it worth any extra effort?….After all it could be worse.

    Maybe the last thing our politicians want is more voters; who knows where that might lead?

    And accountability? With accountability comes BLAME and we don’t want that!!

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