Living in the early days of a better nation

John Osmond explores the underlying meaning and significance of today’s referendum

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation,” was how the Scottish writer Alasdair Gray advised his fellow citizens in his 2000 volume The Book of Prefaces, a famous quotation now engraved in the Canongate Wall of the Scottish Parliament building. It is an apt quotation for us in Wales as we go to the polls in today’s referendum. For the outcome will tell us something important about the future of our country. Do we also wish to live in the early days of a better nation?

What exactly is this vote about? At one level it is about a relatively small, even technical, constitutional adjustment – moving from Part 3 to Part 4 of the 2006 Wales Act. That is to say, a Yes vote will allow the National Assembly to make laws in the 20 areas of its competence directly, without having to go to Westminster for permission each time.

But at another, deeper level the referendum is about much more than that. The answer to the question we face on the ballot paper today will tell us how far we have moved along the road to creating a civic Wales, in which we understand our identity in terms of institutions and citizenship as well as culture and language.

All the polls in the run-up to the vote have been encouraging, with the three that have appeared this week suggesting a two-to-one majority in favour. Of course, the turn-out will be important. Most observers are predicting somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent. This will be enough, not least because the absence of official campaigns, due to the No side’s refusal to register with the Electoral Commission, has hamstrung the campaign’s prospects of engagement.

What will be equally important as a clear Yes majority will be the evenness of its spread across the country. Again, this week’s polls have been encouraging. For instance S4C’s Yougov poll published on Monday was remarkably consistent in its results across all the Assembly’s five electoral regions for List members, as the table below shows.

S4C YouGov Poll: percentage referendum Yes and No

Wales South Wales Central South Wales West South Wales East Mid and West Wales North Wales
Yes

67

68

68

67

66

66

No

33

32

32

33

34

34

All political campaigns comprise two main dimensions, what might be termed in military parlance the air war and the ground war. The air war comprises the national messages relayed by the leadership, mediated by the press and media. The ground war is just that, in general elections what goes on in the constituencies where local issues can have an effect. In referendums the air war is more important since there is relatively little local campaigning, especially since there are no candidates around whom local issues can be mobilised.

In this campaign the air war has been completely distorted by BBC Wales. In its obsessive concern with ‘balance’ it has artificially inflated the No campaigners, constantly giving them equal presence and airtime, even to the extent of supplying them with their own arguments. This was embarrassingly the case in the final so-called BBC Wales debate programme, beamed from Blackwood on Monday evening, with about as unrepresentative an audience of grumpy mainly elderly males as could be imagined. On the panel First Minister Carwyn Jones and Roger Lewis, chair of the Yes for Wales campaign, were given equal billing with Rachel Banner, who has emerged as the main spokesperson for True Wales, and Nathan Gill, membership secretary with UKIP Wales who, I confess I had never come across before. His website tells us that he joined UKIP in 2005 and “cut his political teeth” campaigning for his mother in Ynys Mon in the general election of that year. He adds, “This was my introduction to high expectations and dashed dreams often associated with UKIP.”

On Monday evening he had very little to say. Indeed, presenter Betsan Powys had to articulate an alleged No argument for him. She suggested that many people around Wales were concerned about the prospect of there being more AMs in Cardiff Bay who would demand more pay – a concept with which obviously they agreed. Of course, like so much else that has been tossed into the campaign mix over recent weeks this unlikely prospect has nothing to do with today’s referendum.

What has become clear from the most of the proponents on the No side is that they would prefer the referendum to be about abolishing the Assembly altogether. On this score the S4C Yougov poll must have made discouraging reading for them. From very nearly half the vote in the 1997 referendum those now wishing for there to be no devolution at all has fallen to 17 per cent. The highest figure, 35 per cent went to those who wished the Assembly to have the primary law-making powers it will acquire in the event of a Yes vote today; 19 per cent were don’t knows; 13 per cent favoured an Assembly with its current powers; 11 per cent wanted a Parliament with tax raising and law making powers within the UK; while the remaining 6 per cent opted for independence.

These broad preferences have been remarkably stable in all the polling that has been done on the Assembly over the past decade. It suggests a settled will in relation to how we want to be governed. But most encouragingly of all, and surely this will be confirmed today, it reflects a strengthening desire for the responsibilities of democratic citizenship to be at the core of our Welsh identity. This is why, rather than hoping for the prospect – as I have done for most of my life – I now believe we are actually living “in the early days of a better nation.”

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