Wales and the Devolution Debate

Wales and the Devolution Debate

This week, Andrew Harrison (UK National Archives) looks at how a changing political landscape in Wales saw devolution become a reality just 20 years after it appeared the debate was dead.

On 2 March, 1979 the devolution debate in Wales was presumed dead. The St David’s Day referendum on creating a new tier of government received a resounding “No” – the Yes campaign also failed to secure devolved power for Scotland. Yet within 20 years Wales had an elected Assembly with responsibilities for education, health, agriculture, industry and housing although no legislative powers or right to levy taxes. So why did so many more people in Wales back the idea of devolution when asked in 1997?

The 1997 result was hardly a ringing endorsement for devolution with only 50.1 per cent of the electorate visiting the polls, of which a narrow 50.3 per cent voted “Yes”. However, this was a huge increase on the 1979 Yes vote, manifesting itself as a swing of 30 per cent; more than the 23 per cent swing seen in Scotland over the same period.

In the cruel grip of the “Winter of Discontent”, constitutional reform had failed to ignite voter passions in Wales. The devolution debate appeared highly irrelevant to most in the penultimate years of the 1970s. Struggling public services and unemployment touching six million was of more pressing concern. Sections of the Labour Party – perturbed at the political rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties – were leading the call for devolution rather than the popular majority. The Kilbrandon (initially Crowther) Royal Commission set up by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1968 reported in favour in October 1973.

However, devolution and staunch socialist elements within the Labour Party were not natural bedfellows. Even to proud Welshmen like Aneurin Bevan, devolution was not as important as the unity of the working classes in the fight against political nationalism. In the run up to the 1979 referendum rebel Labour South Wales MPs spoke strongly against their party’s proposals, arguing a “mere change of address of Parliament” would not solve the nation’s woes.[1] The nationalist party Plaid Cymru were also divided with supporters in the north unenthusiastic about any prospect of being ruled by “socialist” Cardiff.[2]

Without the support of the popular press, hostility from prominent MPs in the more populated south and the dire economic state of the nation, the Yes campaign was trounced on polling day. The “Winter of Discontent” would not give way to the spring of Welsh devolution. Instead, the 1979 General Election saw the Conservative Party sweep to power in Westminster and their best result in Wales since the 1870s; winning 11 out of 36 seats. Margaret Thatcher’s subsequent governments changed Britain’s political, social and economic landscape forever.

In terms of devolution, perhaps the most important change by 1997 was that influential leaders of the Labour-controlled county councils in their industrial south stronghold were now sympathetic to the idea. It has been argued the defeat of the 1984 Miners’ Strike signalled the dawn of a new Wales, as Gwynedd quarrymen in the north and Ceredigion farmers in mid-Wales supported the South Wales miners in their struggle.[3] Opposition to the government’s community charge – the so-called poll tax – was also a unifying force in a Wales that was growing its own political identity, something which arguably had not existed before.

The Conservative’s Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 had created 22 unitary authorities to replace the old county and district system. An all-Wales body overarching the new local authorities now seemed logical and less of a leap than in 1979. It could no longer be argued devolution would create a new layer of bureaucracy as had been the case earlier. That layer was now clearly in existence.

Of course, “Welshness” did exist in cultural, educational and sporting spheres. The University of Wales was established in 1893 and the Wales rugby team had always drawn support from both Welsh and English speaking communities, for example. Scotland, however, had its own banking and legal systems which helped foster a clearer political identity. A widespread political nationalism was lacking in Wales in 1979. But policies in Westminster between 1979 and 1997 led to claims of a democratic deficit.

By 1993 the coalmining and steelmaking industries in Wales were a shadow of their former selves. Investment from new industries, with Asian firms such as electronics giant LG moving to Wales, helped but a boom of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations, or quangos, set up to regulate the new private companies was seized upon by pro-devolution campaigners. Conservative electoral support had been cut to six out of 38 seats at the 1992 General Election and in the following year there were 80 official quangos employing 57,311 people; compared with fewer than 20,000 in the dismantled steel industry.[4] Pro-devolution campaigners pointed to a perceived “jobs for the boys” culture. Frustration was also aimed towards Welsh Secretary John Redwood as an estimated £112m of Welsh Office grant money was returned to the Treasury.

The 1997 General Election saw the Conservatives lose every seat in Wales with Tony Blair’s New Labour surging to power with a 179 majority. Labour had formally readopted devolution as official policy for the 1992 General Election and Blair’s predecessor as Labour leader, John Smith, had been a long-time advocate. The Scotsman’s appointment of enthusiastic devolutionist and South Wales MP Ron Davies as Shadow Welsh Secretary proved important to the continuation of devolutionary policies following his untimely death in 1994.

The 1979 vote came at the end of a discredited and exhausted Labour government. In September 1997 it came at the start of a fresh, optimistic and triumphant Labour government promising change. Crucially, the fact Scotland voted in favour of a devolved parliament a week earlier inevitably boosted the Yes campaign in Wales. The option of remaining part of a centralised British state was no longer on offer. Labour anti-devolutionists stayed relatively quiet, concerned at becoming too closely associated with the Conservatives who were divided and in disarray after electoral defeat.

In the wider world, the EEC’s new Committee of the Regions, which included Welsh representation, was seen to offer protection for smaller countries in the west. In the east, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 had led to the emergence of more nations standing alone. Devolutionists asked why shouldn’t Wales also have more control over its destiny.

The independence referendum in Scotland last year was scrutinised closely in Wales which today has its own devolved administration sitting at the Senedd in Cardiff Bay. But unlike in 1979 there is no presumption that the devolution debate is dead. Indeed, the Scots’ rejection of independence has led to increased discussion on the way forward for the four nations of the United Kingdom.

[1] Robert Harris, The Making of Neil Kinnock, (London, 1984), pp.101-102.

[2] Gwyn A. Williams, When Was Wales? (London, 1985), p294.

[3] John Davies, A History of Wales, (London, 2007), p660.

[4] Ibid., p668.

Andrew Harrison has an MA in Modern History from King’s College London and completed his undergraduate studies at Cardiff University focusing predominantly on post-war Britain. He was a journalist in South Wales for seven years and now works at The National Archives, in Kew, Surrey.


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