People of Wales get the message

John Osmond says it has taken 32 years for it to sink in that political institutions can be handy for fighting our corner

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

Wales heeded the advice of Saunders Lewis, the prickly and controversial founder of Plaid Cymru, in this week’s referendum. On 26 February 1979, four days before the first Assembly referendum vote 32 years ago, the Western Mail published a letter from the 86-year-old playwright. In his last cryptic intervention in Welsh politics Saunders Lewis wrote:

“May I point out the probable consequence of a No majority. There will follow a general election. There may be a change of government. The first task of the Westminster Parliament will be to reduce and master inflation. In Wales there are coalmines that work at a loss; there are steelworks that are judged to be superfluous; there are valleys convenient for submersion. And there will be no Welsh defence.”

In his magisterial History of Wales, first published in 1990 with an updated edition appearing in 2007, John Davies remarks, “The implications of that letter would be the chief theme of the history of Wales over the following two decades.”

Well, on Thursday the people of Wales registered that they had finally got the message. For 1979’s inflation read today’s spending cuts. We would not have had such a decisive Yes majority in this week’s referendum if there had been no Tory-led government in Westminster wielding an axe to our public services. Neither would we have had the majority if the present Welsh Government had not begun to demonstrate that it was willing to oppose them.

I think the turning point came last December when Wales refused to go along with the London government’s determination to shift the funding of English universities from the taxpayer to the student. The Welsh Government said, “No, thank-you very much. As far as we can we’ll limit the rise in student fees.”

On Thursday a woman on her way to a polling booth in Cardiff’s Riverside ward said with young children she was thinking about higher university tuition fees – and Welsh domiciled students had been told last year they wouldn’t have to pay the top up fee. “I’ve got a family going to university,” she said. “In Wales the students won’t have to pay the increased fees – that’s reason enough.”

As importantly, Wales’ stand registered with Labour’s leadership in London. Ed Miliband seized on it as evidence that there was an alternative, social democratic way of dealing with the crisis in university funding. “Look at what a Labour-led government is doing in Wales,” he taunted David Cameron over the dispatch box in the House of Commons.

I think at that moment Miliband was determined there should be a Yes vote in the referendum to shore up the one part of the UK where Labour was still in power, albeit in coalition. The message was sent down the line and an extraordinary discipline was exercised amongst most of the ranks of the Labour movement across Wales.

There was only one serious glitch and that was when Peter Hain, the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, complained that the referendum had been forced on Labour by Plaid Cymru. This was a blatant attempt to create a fall-back explanation for Labour to deploy in case of a No vote. It could have opened a fatal split in the Yes campaign, but fortunately the story failed to gain traction.

Moreover, in that BBC interview on 3 February, Hain went on to add that, although he had previously advocated consideration of a referendum “in the next Assembly term” (that is, after next May’s election) he had now reached a “turning point” on the issue because of the effect of UK government cuts on Wales. He argued that S4C’s budget had been cut, the Newport passport office closed, the St Athan Defence Training College axed, and the Severn Barrage abandoned, all without consultation in Wales. And he continued:

“I think that’s created a backlash in which people, who previously would have been reluctant to vote Yes, are saying ‘Hang on, I think we need a bit more power in Wales to be able to resist right-wing attacks from Westminster’.”

The referendum partly closes a nine year chapter in Welsh history that began with the work of the Richard Commission in 2002. That began the heavy lifting that has now turned the Assembly into a legislative Parliament.

But what about the rest of the Richard Commission’s recommendations, which it said were interlinked and vital. These were increasing the Assembly’s membership to 80 – necessary to ensure effective scrutiny of the new Welsh-determined laws – and electing them by the Single Transferable vote proportional electoral system?

I think that will now have to wait until after the 2015 Assembly election, or whenever it is held so as not clash with the Westminster election also likely to be held in that year. The next Westminster election will be fought on new constituency boundaries in Wales, to take account of the reduction of Welsh MPs, down 25 per cent from 40 to 30.

However, the existing constituency boundaries for the 40 first-past-the-post AMs will be retained for the next Assembly election after this May’s poll. But after that they will be past their sell-by-date in terms of population changes and will need to be revisited. A problem is that there is no legislation to enable that to happen. The present legislation that has gone through Parliament for the AV referendum and reducing the number of MPs in the House of Commons from 650 to 600, doesn’t mention the current Welsh boundaries except to say that they will continue for Assembly elections.

So there will need to be new legislation, now to be undertaken by the National Assembly, to revisit the Welsh constituencies after 2015. That, it seems to me, is the time when we will likely to be considering the rest of the Richard Commission’s agenda, the number of AMs and how they are elected. Will that require another referendum? I hardly think so. Surely these changes will be regarded as even more of a tidying up exercise than moving from Part 3 to Part 4 of the 2006 Wales Act, which was what Thursday’s referendum was about.

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