Accelerating History: the 1979, 1997 and 2011 referendums in Wales

Referendums are often regarded as conservative devices designed to frustrate progressive initiatives, especially where constitutional change is concerned. In the case of Wales, however, this essay argues that the three referendums of 1979, 1997 and 2011 had the opposite effect. The experience of living through them has had a galvanising impact on the Welsh people. It changed their view of themselves and their country. It made them more Welsh in outlook and identity and more willing to contemplate radical constitutional options. The referendums have accelerated Welsh progress towards autonomy. For example, the tiny 6,721 vote majority in the 1997 referendum had the effect of concentrating the minds of the people of Wales. There is no doubt that their attitudes to possible constitutional futures for their country underwent profound changes as a direct result of living through the 1997 referendum.

Less than a decade later the 2006 Wales Act accepted that the National Assembly could become a fully-fledged legislature, but only following a referendum. Further, the referendum could only be put into effect following a two-thirds majority vote by Assembly Members and subsequent approval by the Westminster Parliament. These hurdles were obstacles placed in the path of the Assembly’s development to mollify Welsh MPs hostile to the devolution process. In the event they had the opposite effect. The holding of the referendum, and the experience of the campaign in the early months of 2011, only served to whet the electorate’s appetite for even more powers. Once again, the experience of a constitutional referendum proved an accelerator in Welsh political history.

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