Imagine if Wales had voted No to devolution in 1997

Lee Waters argues that devolution has acted as a barrier against some of the most radical UK Government policies.

Three weeks after the General Election and the implications of a five-year term for a radical Conservative majority Government are beginning to sink in.

The left are dejected; Labour in particular is discombobulated. Of course this has happened before. Conservative victories through the 1980s provoked the question to be asked after 1992, ‘can Labour win?’  It is being asked again, but this time there’s a big difference – devolution.

Even though there’s a considerable feeling that devolution has not achieved its promise on the economy and public services, few people mention that it has achieved its primary political objective: it has made Offa’s Dyke the line between right and left.

To prove my point, consider what would have happened over the last decade and a half had 6,721 people voted differently in the 1997 referendum.  Radical Conservative policies on health, education and a raft of other domestic issues would have been implemented, even though the Tories won just 27% of the vote in the most recent vote in Wales.  An NHS shake-up introducing competition and GP Commissioning of services; the spread of Free Schools and Academies, outside local authority supervision, free to hire unqualified teachers and rip up the curriculum; and the abolition of GCSEs, would all have been rolled out across Wales.

Policies that had been endorsed by voters in England, but had been opposed in Wales by parties that won the majority of votes, would nonetheless have been applied here too. The fact they haven’t been is perhaps one of the most unremarked upon features of Welsh politics since the establishment of the National Assembly.

This isn’t a partisan point, you may well think Welsh public services would have been better off introducing these reforms – indeed had the 1997 referendum been lost it is likely that some of these reforms would have been implemented in Wales by new Labour; the point is they would have been imposed against the grain of Welsh political consensus, and opponents would have been powerless to stop it.  Whereas now power over many domestic policies has been passed down, many of the most contentious policies in the manifesto of the winning party at Westminster won’t apply to Wales.

It may not be the best time to make this point – at a time when devolution is being criticised for failing to improve public services – but the 2015 General Election result marks the achievement of a Key Performance Indicator for Welsh devolution.

The reason I say this is because the principal political driver behind the establishment of the Assembly was as much a desire to stop changes being applied to Wales, as it was to implement a pre-designed alternative.

Support for devolution began to build after the 1987 General Election. Rhodri Morgan, one the intake of new Members of Parliament in 1987, felt that Welsh MPs were powerless to protect Wales from “the ravages of a Tory Government which, although totally rejected by the people of Wales, was completely rampant”, as he put it to me: “You had this huge, massive, rush of hard-line Conservative legislation – the Poll Tax, Electricity privatisation, Water privatisation …the fury of legislation which was put through in the first two years of that Government really was pretty astonishing and we could do absolutely nothing to stop it”.

Throughout the 80s and 90s Labour always performed better in Wales than it did in the UK as a whole, but remained in Opposition.  After the party’s fourth successive defeat in 1992 (and, critically, the removal of Neil Kinnock as Party leader), the left began to think that despite their strength Conservative majorities at Westminster risked rendering them powerless to prevent right-wing policies being implemented in Wales. “To put it very crudely” Kim Howells told me,  “in a lot of people’s minds they said ‘look, if we can never ever win Britain then we have got to change the rules’”.

The reason I bring up this history lesson is to note that the dejection of the left in Wales after this month’s General Election has echoes in the recent past. But the difference now is that devolution affords some protection from “the ravages of a Tory Government” – to use Rhodri Morgan’s phrase.  Had Wales voted No in 1997 left-of-centre parties in Wales would now be railing about David Cameron’s plans to extend the Right To Buy to Housing Association tenants, or to ‘turn every failing and coasting school into an academy, and deliver free schools if parents…want them’. But because of devolution those policies won’t apply in Wales.

Some may see this ability to defy a radical Westminster Government on at least some domestic fronts as the chief achievement of devolution – and it does provide a marked contrast to situation Wales faced in the 80s & 90s. But the real advantage devolution offers is the platform it provides to fashion an alternative political narrative. And that’s an advantage that has yet to be fully explored.

None of what I’ve argued lets the Welsh Government off the hook for its performance on policies and their implementation. But it does remind us that the devolution project was primarily about where power lies. The challenge now facing devolutionists is that unless the way those powers are used is sharpened up there is a risk that support for giving some powers back to Westminster may grow.

Lee Waters is IWA Director.

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