Launching Yes for Wales

Leighton Andrews looks back to the start of the Yes for Wales campaign twenty years ago today.

If it feels like a long time ago, that’s because it is. Twenty years ago today, 10 February 1997, we launched the Yes for Wales campaign in Cardiff City Hall.

Some felt it was a risk launching before the General Election. The Wales Labour Party, as it was called then, wasn’t overly happy with our choice of timing. The other pro-devolution parties, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats, were understandably twitchy about Labour’s specific proposals. The long-standing Parliament for Wales Campaign, which had carried the banner for devolution from the late eighties onwards, was a little sniffy about our emergence, publicly saying it wasn’t committed to campaigning for a yes vote in any referendum that might take place.

Meanwhile, for the Conservatives, a junior Welsh Office Minister was wheeled out to denounce us as a collection of ‘has-beens and never-weres’. I’ve forgotten his name. By the end of the week, John Major, attacking Tony Blair at the Welsh Conservative Party’s annual conference, warned that ‘a thousand days of Labour Government could ditch a thousand years of British history.’

Some of us had been discussing the need for a cross-party campaign since the previous summer. By now, we had raised initial funds, with backing from the Rowntree Trust, and our organizer, Daran Hill, was in post. We had developed some initial campaign materials and a logo. We had prepared the ground with the press over the previous weeks, launching a pro-devolution business grouping led by TV executives Ron Jones and the late Geraint Stanley Jones, and David Waterstone, former chief executive of the WDA. Our launch was pre-figured by an article setting out our aims in the name of Cardiff University’s Professor Kevin Morgan. Our message, clearly and firmly spelt out, was that ‘devolution is too important to be left to the politicians.’ Our focus was the principle of Wales having a democratically-elected Assembly. The detail was for others to negotiate.

Kevin fronted the launch with Eluned Morgan, then an MEP, and the broadcaster Mavis Nicholson. Daran and others had rung round to gather celebrity names, who included, by the time we launched, sports personalities like the late Ray Gravell, theatrical stars like Sian Phillips, and the rock-band Catatonia, whose first album Way Beyond Blue, was playing in the background as we welcomed journalists to the launch. Eluned Morgan later recalled that Cerys Matthews had been particularly enthusiastic to be associated with the campaign.

In 1997, we were really campaigning in analogue. In fact, the Yes for Wales campaign was arguably the last political campaign before the digital age. There was no social media when we launched the campaign. We were ten years away from the smartphone and Facebook and Twitter were almost a decade away also. There were no blogs and little online media. Our web-site, launched in mid-March as part of our communication and fundraising effort, felt as modern as it got. We had a mailing list of 1500 and around 2000 other people were reached through third sector organisations.  We had a steering committee of individuals with connections into campaigning organisations, Mari James, David Jenkins from the Wales TUC, the late Val Feld, briefly to be an AM, from the women’s movement, a Plaid member in Eleri Carrog, Russell Deacon from the Liberal Democrats,  Professor Hywel Francis, the Rev. Aled Edwards and his merry band of Yes Ministers.

But almost as soon as we had launched, we needed to submerge. The General Election campaign was upon us, and as a cross-party campaign, we needed to keep out of party politics. Instead, a lot of planning went on behind the scenes. We sprang back to life after the May election, and put in place our planning for the campaign that was to come, with Kevin Morgan taking the public role of chair of the campaign. By mid-May the Referendum Bill was launched and our first local group was up and running. July saw the publication of the White Paper, and a Yes for Wales national conference. The date was set for the referendum, a week after Scotland’s vote. August, unusually, was to be a campaigning month.

The pro-devolution parties campaigned and local Yes for Wales groups were out and about taking the message across Wales. While a No campaign was now up and running, featuring many Conservatives like Nick Bourne, David Melding, David Davies and Alun Cairns, who subsequently all went on to serve in the Assembly, things felt good. The private polling was surprisingly strong: Peter Hain and others campaigning across Wales reported back that things seemed to be moving well ahead. Then we had the terrible tragedy of the death of Princess Diana in Paris and all campaigning was suspended. Leading campaigners felt that had an impact on the campaign which went beyond a more loss of momentum. ‘It was like cloaking you in a uniform, we were all in the British army under Diana, as it were,’ Rhodri Morgan subsequently said to me. Dafydd Elis-Thomas recalled ‘I think it froze the whole debate, the opportunity of taking the debate on’. A Guardian opinion poll subsequently shook us all – then Scotland voted yes, overwhelmingly.

The final week of campaigning left us with great expectations. Then, on the night, as the votes slowly came in, optimism turned to pessimism, pessimism to misery, then misery to astonishment – and astonishment, eventually, to exuberance, as Carmarthen finally declared. Eluned Morgan remembered ‘The whole atmosphere changed within seconds. It was a moment of going from absolute loss to absolute joy.’ I was hosting the Yes for Wales campaign party at the Park Hotel in Cardiff through the night: others were across the city at the official count. We united as dawn broke for the only 6 a.m. press conference I have ever held in my career, with Ron Davies, then Secretary of State for Wales, sipping a pint at the back of the room. About that time, copies of the Western Mail, with the headline Wales Says Yes, started to arrive.

When you win a national campaign by less than seven thousand votes it makes every last leaflet, every last foot-step, every last door knocked, worthwhile. With that size of majority, you can genuinely believe that a campaign has made a difference.

In May, our National Assembly and our Welsh Government will reach the age of majority. Their twenty-year anniversaries will be celebrated in 2019. This year, in September, let us celebrate the vote for their foundation: after all, the National Assembly for Wales is the only political institution the people of Wales have ever voted to create. 

Former Welsh Government Minister Leighton Andrews is the author of Wales Says Yes and a Professor at Cardiff Business School. He is planning a conference to mark the twentieth anniversary of the referendum vote in September this year.

21 thoughts on “Launching Yes for Wales

  1. I remember it well I gave up my seat on the committee to Val Feld. I suggested we have ribbons and they went a bomb. I so remember the first meeting at your office, the party at the park and when gloom turned into almost hysteria. It was so close to the bone. Was it that long ago, I still have a lot of the bumph we generated and lots of newspaper articles.Kevin was great as chair and so fair to everyone.
    The NO bus traveling the Valleys the women who fronted that were vitriolic about the Yes. They were exciting times; sadly the Assembly has not been as effective and dynamic as I hoped.

    no bus

  2. Truly, history is written by the winners…

    In fact the 1997 Referendum was the political equivalent of a penalty right under the posts – and ‘Yes’ nearly missed it.

    Everything was set up for an easy win. Although some people are embarrassed to remember it these days, ‘Call Me Tony’ and ‘New Labour’ were still wildly popular in the immediate aftermath of their overwhelming victory in May. Three of the four main parties were actively devolutionist and the fourth, the Conservative Party, was still about as popular as rabies. Indeed, leading Welsh Conservatives were asked politely to stay away from the ‘No’ campaign lest they taint it by association. That did not stop Little Gwynedd turning to the official Conservative spokesman whenever they wanted an opposition face: the Earl of Ancram performed well but the picture of a non-Welshman with a Scottish peerage and an English seat in the Commons arguing against three Welsh politicians was worth a thousand words – and probably a hundred thousand votes for ‘Yes.’

    The media, academia, trades unions, and much of the voluntary sector – dominated by leftists in their day jobs and intolerant of dissent – were unsurprisingly and uncritically devolutionist. The ‘Sws’ crowd, the London and LA based ‘celebrities’ who would not have to live under the Assembly, were vocal in their support. The business community was suspicious but frightened of retaliation, so the only serious money to fund a ‘No’ campaign came from offshore – which proved a double-edged sword.

    The official ‘No’ campaign itself was amateurish and disorganised. In the end it had to be taken over, discreetly, by the Conservatives. It turned out to be their best campaign in years and, ironically, the beginning of their recovery.

    Finally, the despair-to-joy narrative of the night is undermined by the recollection that the exact figure of the decisive majority in Carmarthen was actually well known long before it was announced, something that has never been explained properly.

    Someone should record these things somewhere – except that no one in Wales would publish them.

  3. Fond memories of an amazing national campaign. I would suggest without taking anything away from Leighton & co that this was very much a Cardiff office perspective. Each part of Wales had a very different experience. It would be a good idea for the IWA to get different perspectives from across the nation and political spectrum.

  4. The referendum was an important victory. Entirely positive about democratic ownership and responsibility. Our reservations at its lack of sparkle come, in part, from the overly complicated initial setup that we have been busily trying to put right ever since. The need for that initial fudge has melted away like the last snows of spring, and at the age of majority, we now urgently need to consider how to best adjust its sails as they barley hold up to the political gales we face – now and for the foreseeable future.

    As do many others, I feel there is an overly supine attitude to Westminster, who will, as we have seen in the last few days, feel no compunction over ignoring the Senedd and our legitimate concerns. And as long as we let them, they’ll keep on doing it. We won two referenda on how we govern ourselves – that situation is a good deal more legitimate than a certain other more recent plebiscite. Thank you to those who put in the spadework in the first place.

    Today, of course, the contemporary “yes” campaign addresses these more current issues. #indycurious yet?

  5. That slogan – Don’t Let Wales Get Left Behind – looks a bit lame now after nearly 20 years of getting left behind in nearly every policy area the WG controls! The simple truth is that Wales would have been better off if so-called devolution had never happened and this self-congratulation puff-piece is the political equivalent of being nose-blind!

  6. I was, for a short while, Treasurer and then Secretary of the Campaign for a Welsh Parliament and I had to think hard about Leighton Andrews’ statement that:

    “The long-standing Parliament for Wales Campaign, which had carried the banner for devolution from the late eighties onwards, was a little sniffy about our emergence, publicly saying it wasn’t committed to campaigning for a yes vote in any referendum that might take place.”

    I cannot speak for every member of that Campaign but I distinctly remember not holding the attitude that Leighton Andrews refers to and I do not remember any such comments at that time by other members of the campaign. I will not regale you with my memoirs but there are a couple of points that help put his remarks in context. The CWP was a cross-party campaign. It included Labour, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats, a few Conservatives and Communists. It grew up in the political vacuum caused by Wales being governed by Tory policies that it did not vote for. Labour had the votes, but it did not have the power. The organising principle that brought everyone together was the lack of democracy in the governance of Wales and all were agreed that the establishment of a democratic institution was the solution, though there were differences as to what exact form that would take.

    However the obstacle to realising this objective was the Welsh Labour Party. In 1979, they showed vehement opposition to the establishment of a Welsh Assembly and succeeded in defeating the proposal by 80% to 20%, a crushing victory. The question was how was that established majority going to be turned around. I remember receiving an invitation from a Labour Party branch in the west of Cardiff to address the meeting. At the end of the meeting, one of the members asked if we needed their affiliation to the CWP. I remember replying that it would be far more effective if they campaigned within their own party to change the official position of the Labour Party to one of supporting devolution. This was not a unique insight. It was clear that the Labour Party did not want to appear as being influenced from the outside. I was also informed by a recently elected AM that it was important at the time that the Labour Party was in control of the process. Faced with this, the only possible solution was change from within; and that is what happened.

    The central purpose of the Yes campaign, though not its sole one, was to persuade Labour voters to vote Yes. Its claim to be a cross-party campaign can only be supported at a superficial level. It was enjoyable to read Leighton’s reminiscences at what was an exciting time for him and no doubt, for those involved in the Yes campaign. But is a very partial view.

    It will be interesting to see what form the conference takes, how inclusive it is and how representative of the country its participants are. On the other hand, it could turn out to be an attempt by the Labour party to claim ownership of devolution and try to re-write history.

    By way of a footnote to John Winterson Richards, I heard an anecdote many years ago now that the result of the referendum was known before all the results were published and that it was known that the Carmarthen result would push the Yes vote over the top. The story goes that that result was held back until the end so that it would provide a dramatic end to the referendum that everyone would remember. Whether it’s a true anecdote or a political myth that grew up around such a significant event in Welsh history, I have no way of telling.

  7. I remember the night/morning very well and the ‘sinking’ feeling after the Carmarthen vote declared,particularly the triumphalist views of Ron Davies and his supporters. There can be no doubt that some people have benefited greatly from the devolution of limited powers,i.e a)local politicians,b)media,c)welsh language proponents,d)medical profession,however in its totality how has wales benefitted from the 1997 constitution changes?. By any ‘objective’ analysis the educational/health service/general economy/general tidiness have,after early increases in public expenditure not improved,rather the reverse in last 7 years after proper control over public money has taken place..The ‘additional’ powers over income tax have yet to be tested on public attitudes,however if Scotland is any example then great care is taken not to upset the tax paying voters. The growth in funding of favoured organizations has continued apace and producing nothing that matters,whilst cuts to LA’s have resulted in less facilities that ordinary people actually want/need. Finally the condition of NHS has generated a now massive/expensive private health system,both within and without the NHS which used to be criticised by politicians of left/nationalist persuasion,however now not a mention by BBC Wales/CYMRU.Its funny old world!!

  8. “In fact the 1997 Referendum was the political equivalent of a penalty right under the posts”
    Was it given for illegal or foul play by the opposition.

    Perhaps some Brexiteers should follow their own advice.
    “Devolution is Devolution”

  9. John,
    The main problem with the YES campaign was that the media insisted on giving equivalent coverage, even when there was almost no ‘NO’ campaign in many areas. This meant that if there was a big YES event, it got no coverage if the NO campaign were nowhere to be seen. John is correct though in pointing to the resurgence of the Tories through devolution, with genuine pro-Wales Tories like Nick Bourne and David Melding coming to the fore. Worryingly, the current crowd appear more intent on grabbing powers back as we step out of the EU.

  10. CapM, since you mention the subject, it is interesting to compare the reaction of the losing side in 1997 with that of the losing sife in 2016. Although we were deeply unhappy with the result, and nearly all of our arguments have since been proved to be right, none of us active on the ‘No’ side questioned the legitimacy of the result or tried to pretend that devolution was not happening or attempted to obstruct it with vexatious litigation and the like. It was the wrong decision but it was still the decision that was made by the voters and it has always been respected as such.

    Of course, whether, after 18 years in which the Assembly has been given every opportunity to live up to the claims of its supporters, it might not be time to revisit that decision is another matter…

    RBJ, the Carmarthen anecdote is a direct recollection of the night itself.

  11. The righteous march to the sunlit uplands. By way of Candide. I seem to remember that Kevin Morgan, together with Geoff Mungham, produced a far more critical, less “dappled” account. “Redesigning Democracy”, Seren 2000.

    Devolution now seems like a tarpaulin drapped over the ever self serving (and rotten) party skeleton of Welsh politics and its aspirational skinners. The arms legs and skulls jerking through.

    Perhaps Prof Morgan should now update at this heroic anniversary.

  12. @ John Winterson Richards
    “vexatious litigation” what are you referring to?

    “Of course, whether, after 18 years in which the Assembly has been given every opportunity to live up to the claims of its supporters, it might not be time to revisit that decision is another matter…”
    So Devolution doesn’t mean Devolution in the same way as Brexit means Brexit unless Brexit means
    Brexit actually means, as you suggest for devolution, if it doesn’t live up to the claims of its supporters…..

  13. CapM, you appear to have ignored the whole first paragraph of the previous comment.

    The point is that the Sovereignty of Parliament means nothing is irreversible – joining the EU was not irreversible, leaving it is not irreversible, and devolution is not irreversible – but a decision, once made, ought to be be implemented. Later, if it proves a failure, it can and should be reversed. That is the attitude of Unionists to devolution. Hard core ‘Remainers’ by contrast are trying to avoid implementation rather than seeking to reverse later.

    Miller v Secretary of State was vexatious litigation because it sought to force Parliament to decide what Parliament thought it had decided already.

  14. In claiming that “it is interesting to compare the reaction of the losing side in 1997 with that of the losing side in 2016. Although we were deeply unhappy with the result… none of us active on the ‘No’ side questioned the legitimacy of the result or tried to pretend that devolution was not happening”, John compares referendums that were fundamentally different in nature and provides a history that does not stand up to scrutiny.

    The big difference between 1997 and last year’s vote was that in 1997, it was made clear to voters exactly what type of devolution Wales was voting for, while last year’s vote provided nothing in respect of what type of Brexit the UK was voting for. Indeed, last year’s poll was merely a vote to leave the EU or not. I think it would be fair to say that there has been little in the way of a demand for a second in/out EU referendum. However, along with many leavers John appears to want to create a narrative, that deliberately misconstrues a desire by Remainers to have their democratic say in the form of Brexit we pursue, as a demand that Brexit should not happen.

    The assertion that no one on the No side questioned the legitimacy of the 1997 result is undermined by the fact that the Conservative manifesto of 2005 promised a referendum in Wales, which would have included the choice to abolish the Welsh Assembly, and UKIP until 2010 had manifestos that called for the abolition of the Welsh Assembly.

    As for John’s statement that “after 18 years…it might not be time to revisit that decision” of 1997, I would remind him of the Welsh devolution referendum of 6 years ago, in which the Welsh voters provided overwhelming backing for greater powers for the Welsh Assembly. The inconvenient referendum result that appears to be conveniently forgotten by those with John’s outlook, but one of clear democratic significance to the devolution debate.

  15. Richards uses the phrase “vexatious legislation” to describe Miller v Secretary of State. Let us take one definition as our starting point:

    “Vexatious litigation is legal action which is brought, regardless of its merits, solely to harass or subdue an adversary. It may take the form of a primary frivolous lawsuit or may be the repetitive, burdensome, and unwarranted filing of meritless motions in a matter which is otherwise a meritorious cause of action.”

    So was the purpose of Miller to harass or subdue the Secretary of State? The answer is clearly not since the case had merit. Had it not, their Lordships and Ladyship would not have agreed to hear the action. Richards states that the action, “sought to force Parliament to decide what Parliament thought it had decided already.” This is erroneous since it does not distinguish between Parliament and the Government, both of which are essential features of the UK constitution. The action was brought against a Secretary of the Government. The basis of the action was that the Government could not use the result of the referendum to trigger Article 50 since this was a Parliamentary prerogative not an executive one. The Government tried to argue for the right to decide on the basis of royal prerogative but the Supreme Court ruled against this, based on the principles of the UK constitution.

    So the description of Miller v Secretary of State is erroneous and has no basis. Richards is entitled to his opinion but it has no authority and is wrong in law.

  16. Llyn, you might recall that there was a well publicised petition to hold a second referendum last year. There has also been extensive lobbying of MPs and Peers to block the implementation of the result, and of course several major court cases.

    Now, in strict fairness, many, perhaps most, of the 48% are now prepared to accept the result, even if they to not like it, but there remains a significant and well-connected body opinion, fronted by the Liberals and the SNP, openly committed to prevent implementation by hook or by crook.

    You are quite right about it being unfair to confuse these attempts to prevent implementation with the perfectly legitimate, and indeed necessary, debate about the precise nature of our future relationship with the EU – but, given recent history, you will understand why many of us feel we need to be on guard against the latter being used as a Trojan horse for the former.

    It was entirely legitimate for the Conservatives to propose a second referendum six years after the implementation of the first. It would, however, have been wrong of them to try to prevent that implementation in the immediate aftermath of the 1997 vote. In the same way, a future Parliament has the right to go cap in hand to the EU begging for readmission if that is then what the people want – even if such a scenario seems very unlikely – but for this Parliament, having called the Referendum, to fail to implement it would bring the whole process into disrepute.

    The only things proved by the 2011 Referendum are the obvious truths that the side with all the power and money will steamroller the side without it, and the dominant feeling of the Welsh people about the Assembly is apathy.

  17. @ John Winterson Richards
    “Miller v Secretary of State was vexatious litigation because it sought to force Parliament to decide what Parliament thought it had decided already.”
    As it turned out Parliament/Government thought wrong. Such was the decision made by judges in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and not in some foreign place the other side of the English Channel.

    Regarding the first paragraph of that previous comment. Devolution would be reversible if Westminster decreed it and might be if the relevant electorates in the devolved nations voted for it. Presumably Westminster would have to get a sympathetic -Come on back we’ve missed you – result from a referendum in England before reversing something that affects voters there as well.

    You omitted to say if rejoining the EU after Brexit fell under Westminster’s amazing powers of reversibility or not. I would have thought not as the UK wouldn’t be in a position to unilaterally decide that it’s going to become a member of the EU again. The sovereignty of the European Parliament and it’s powers of reversibility and whatever the opposite of reversibility is being greater in such a case.

  18. CapM, this may shock you but judges do not always get it right!

    In particular, since Mr Blair saddled us with a new American-style Supreme Court that we never needed, judges have been acting more like their politicised American colleagues and making law up as they go along. Quite apart from any political prejudice on the subject, the detail of the reasoning in ‘ex parte Miller’ is, in purely legal terms, embarrassing, and the nearest thing the Court has to a constitutional specialist was among the dissenters. The fact that is being brushed aside by a two paragraph declaratory Act is proof of its lack of substance.

    There was no referendum on devolution in England in 1997 – something which many English people resent – so there should be no need for one there if devolution was ever reversed. You are quite right to suggest, however, that, if such a referendum were held, the English might not want us back!

    Talking of which, it is now abundantly clear that the EU does not want us back. The words and actions of its officials before, during, and since the campaign suggest they never really wanted us to stay. This might be another reason why some ‘Remainers’ are finding it so difficult to cope. Mentally they are in the same place as those WWII Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender after being disowned by the Emperor.

    Your last paragraph is therefore entirely correct. As the President of Europe put it so helpfully during the campaign, ‘deserters’ will not be let back in.

  19. @John Winterson Richards
    “CapM, this may shock you but judges do not always get it right!”
    Perhaps these matters could be resolved by a group of people who comment on political blogs.

    “The words and actions of its officials[EU] before, during, and since the campaign suggest they never really wanted us to stay.”
    This looks like an attempt to re write history and get an excuse in – they didn’t like us anyway . Brexit is and will cause significant issues for EU members. EU members did not want the UK to vote to leave.

    I speak with quite a number of Brexiters and they invariably come across as sore winners perhaps because deep down they know that what they have won is the booby prize.

  20. @ JWR

    What do you mean when you say that judges do not always get it right?

    I’m not going to reply directly to the assertions made by JWR regarding the bias of the English legal system since they are ill-informed.

    The emergence of the Supreme Court was due to the deficiencies of the previous system, namely the House of Lords. It is a universally accepted principle of democracies that one of the essential pillars of the system is an independent judiciary. The difficulty with the House of Lords being the supreme judicial authority was that it was also the second house of the legislature. This laid the English legal system open to the accusation of political influence over legal judgments. In order to rectify this confusion, it was a commonly held view that the highest court in the land should be seen to be independent of any legislative function. Thus the Supreme Court came into being.

    Another view that is expressed is that judges make up laws as they go along. This is true. It is called the common law. This exists because the law requires interpretation when applied to particular cases. It is also the aim of the common law to ensure that the law is applied consistently (commonly) throughout the jurisdiction. I am not surprised that certain commentators have only recently noticed this feature of English law since it is a comparatively recent innovation; it emerged as a legal concept in the 1150s.

  21. CapM, another option might be a separate court of constitutional specialists, which is, ironically, what they have in several European states. There is no reason why this court should be restricted to practising lawyers, so your suggestion that commentators, or at least those who have actually read Theodore Plucknett, be included, or at least consulted, is not a bad one.

    Talking of Theodore Plucknett…

    RBJ, the problem here is, as do often, not with the ill-informed but with the half-informed. Your statement about the common law is partly right but far from the whole story. It is correct to say that the common law expanded as the Royal Courts used legal fictions to widen the scope of existing writs for political and commercial reasons – not the least of which was the increase in Court fees. However, this was in the Middle Ages, before the doctrine of the Parliamentary Sovereignty developed from the Tudors and Stuarts onwards, before Locke, before our Bill of Rights, before the gradual codification of the common law by statute, and before the expansion of the franchise and the establishment of the primacy of democracy. An appeal to Medieval precedent on a major constitutional point is therefore neither necessary nor acceptable under our present system of Parliamentary democracy.

    The independence of the judiciary is precisely what is at risk when judges act politically. Although the pre-Blair system was untidy in terms of the ‘separation of the powers’ – never a formal doctrine under the British constitution – it did at least give the Law Lords the opportunity to vent their political spleen in the House of Lords and some understanding of the process of legislation, the absence of which was notably lacking in the majority decision in ‘ex parte Miller.’ It is unlikely that judges with those advantages would have decided the case as they did.

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