Brett John reflects on the perception of Devolution in its 20th anniversary and the challenges ahead.
“It does look like ‘no’.
Those were the shattering words of a BBC journalist covering the 1997 referendum. For this snapshot in time, the course of Wales seemed guaranteed to be a monotonous and tedious path along a road already tread many times before. Several minutes went by and the opposite began to come true. The opposite being the very meaning of unpredictability and excitement for something new and different: something called Devolution.
Though the devolution referendum was won in 1997, it is clear that was not the start of Wales’ journey to partial autonomy, nor could it be regarded as our destination en route to a settlement whereby consensus intertwines with practicality.
The pendulum of public opinion has gradually swung in the direction of affirming support for devolution. From a staunch rejection in 1979 to a perceived vote of confidence in 2011, the people of Wales have become more and more willing to accept the notion.
I was born shortly before the millennium, in 1999, so should be in no way regarded as an expert in the matter, but it is undoubtedly clear that the tumultuous clash of visions has not been remedied. Very few people view the current setup of devolution as one that would span generations, avoiding major overhauls.
On the week where we celebrate, or rather note, the 20th birthday of devolution, one striking pin could potentially burst the non-existent balloons: Welsh devolution has not reached its potential.
At the IWA’s ‘Wales Said Yes’ event held in Cardiff Bay on this special anniversary of devolution’s inception, First Minister Carwyn Jones proudly exclaimed the achievements of the Welsh Government over the last 18 years. In many areas, Wales has been unapologetic in thinking and legislating boldly; from the plastic bag charge to organ donation. In the same week of this anniversary, I moved to Cardiff University where I have proudly articulated to students from elsewhere the significant and appreciated financial help offered to Welsh students involving tuition fees. That wafer-thin majority in a referendum two years prior to my birth helped accomplish that; showing how tangible changes could be made through a degree of autonomy that would help living and future generations.
While that may be, it would be difficult for the ‘devophiles’ to not feel let down by what has, or rather what hasn’t, happened over the last 20 years. A glance back in time to news reports after the result had been broadcast shows the glee, pride and immense enthusiasm that this referendum had both triggered and amplified. Then BBC reporter, Michael Crick, professionally persevered through continuous chants of “Wales”, the Welsh dragon being flown in front of his face and the claps of the overjoyed at the Park Hotel, where many ‘Yes’ campaigners convened. He described the feeling in the room as mirroring that of winning a Cup Final with the final kick after losing for the entire game. If those politicians and canvassers, shrouded in euphoria, could see into the future, that aforementioned pin may have burst their fervour.
However, the promise that was made by leading figures on the ‘Yes’ side of that referendum has been fulfilled. That promise was not to be radical, impressive or awe-inspiring. The pledge made by the ‘framers’ of Welsh devolution formed the foundations and basis of what its concept was all about; that decisions affecting the Welsh people would be made by the people of Wales. Pondering whether those decisions have been better as a result of having a Welsh Assembly is contextually irrelevant while giving an assessment of devolution in its entirety. Indeed, the reality that the Assembly has not been revolutionary may have persuaded voters that were reluctant to see major policy diversions or change in 1997.
As Presiding Officer Elin Jones AM stated at the ‘Wales Said Yes’ event, on this birthday there are no balloons. No fireworks. No cake. Only business as usual.
Whether “business as usual” brings jubilation or sobering disappointment is another question.
If this is not a time for celebration or confetti, it must be an opportunity for both reflection on the people & decisions that got us this far and planning to make the system more effective to guarantee it’s place in a modern and ever-adapting Wales.
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