NWR Issue 37

The referendum on a Welsh Assembly

The people of Wales will be invited in a referendum in September to decide whether or not they want a Welsh national assembly. The proposal before them will be a relatively modest constitutional innovation - a 60-member body, partly elected by proportional representation, which will decide the Welsh Office's £7bn. a year spending priorities rather than leaving it to one person, the Secretary of State for Wales, and a plethora of nominated quangos.

Unlike the smallest town or community (parish) council in Wales, the assembly will not have the power to raise its own revenue. Nor, like many regional assemblies the world over and the proposed parliament for Scotland, will it have the power to legislate in its areas of responsibility - education, health, economic development, transport, the environment etc.

Prime government responsibilities such as macro-economic policy, foreign policy, social security and pensions, law and justice will remain very much the perogative of the Westminster parliament, giving the Secretary of State and Wales's 40 MPs at Westminster an important continuing role. Why then should the outcome of the referendum, sanctioning such a modest advance in democracy in Wales be in doubt?

A fundamental reason is the peculiar nature of the unitary UK state. Britain's 300-year-old unwritten constitution, built around the mysticisms of the crown-in-parliament, is not very adept at adjusting to modern political realities, which include the need to cede political power to the European and regional levels (two sides of the same coin) to make democratic government more responsive. As the recent general election campaign again demonstrated, proposals for constitutional reform prompt, not reasoned argument about the level at which political power is best exercised, but rather anguished, chauvinist appeals about loss of Westminster sovereignty and the end of 1,000 years of British history. The emotive terms of the debate and the fact that referenda more often than not tend to back the status quo mean that a positive outcome cannot be taken for granted.

A second reason why Wales may not vote 'yes' is its very different history from that of Scotland. Wales's perception of London as the centre of political power and influence pre-dates even its conquest by the English in 1282. And whereas Scotland carried the trappings of its former statehood into its (much more recent) union with England, Wales's nationhood has been given modern constitutional expression only within the past 40 years. It was really only after Cardiff's designation as capital in 1955 and the creation of the Welsh Office in 1964 that it came to be treated regularly as a single political unit.

This is a short time in which to overcome those divisions arising from Wales's geography, history and cultures which were all too apparent in the resounding 'no' vote delivered in 1979 devolution referendum. Add in the fact that the London press has so far largely ignored the Welsh dimension of the devolution debate - even though it dominates newspaper readership in Wales - and it doesn't take a genius to recognise that voters may be confused and again question the need to have elected representatives in Cardiff as well as London.

That said, unlike in 1979, the new Labour Government, and particularly Ron Davies, the new Welsh Secretary and his Welsh Office Ministerial team, show every sign of building on their general election landslide and giving a
strong lead in the campaign for a 'yes' vote.

There is ample scope for debate over the detail of the Government's proposals. But the impending referendum is about the principle of decentralising power to give Wales a stronger political voice. A 'no' vote would be immensely damaging to Wales's interests in all sorts of ways. A 'yes' vote, on the other hand, will not only equip the country with a democratic forum for a new century and provide new impetus towards tackling Wales's economic and social problems, it will also give a significant boost to Welsh dignity and self-esteem. It is an opportunity not to be missed.


previous editorial: Multiculturalism and national loyalties
next editorial: Welsh versus English


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