On 18 September 1997, the Welsh people just about voted to create a National Assembly. This narrowest of endorsements was delivered despite some highly favourable political winds for devolution. It had support from the highly popular new Prime Minister Tony Blair, while the correspondingly unpopular Conservatives opposed it. Even so, only 50.3 per cent of those voting, on a 50.1 percent turnout, said Yes. This was no tidal wave of Welsh national sentiment.
Two decades on, the National Assembly is an established part of Welsh life. There have been five sets of elections to the chamber, which now enjoys a (rather fine) home in Cardiff Bay. The proportion of people in Wales who cannot remember life without devolution grows by the day.
Part of the reason that the Assembly has become more established is that attitudes changed after September 1997. Opposition to devolution fell away surprisingly quickly, both among the public and the political elites. First the Conservatives, and then Ukip, dropped their anti-devolution stance – although a tiny Abolish the Assembly party won 4.4 percent of the list vote in last year’s Assembly election, demonstrating that there remains a constituency of support for such a position. Nonetheless, repeated studies since 2001 have shown consistent and clear majority support for devolution in Wales. New survey evidence published today suggests that were the 1997 referendum being held now, the Welsh would vote by around two-to-one in favour of establishing the Assembly.
Indeed, significant public sentiment behind extending devolution has helped underpin substantial changes in the status of the National Assembly since it was first elected, and first convened, in 1999. There is now a formal division between a Welsh government (headed by Labour First Minister Carwyn Jones) and an Assembly that is a primary law-making parliament. The Assembly is developing taxation and borrowing powers. And an inquiry currently under way may even help the body expand in size from its current, and absurdly under-powered, 60 members.
Yet weaknesses persist. An argument frequently heard in 1997 was that greater support would follow from the success of devolution in delivering tangible improvements in people’s lives. That has not been born out. Wales’s economic record during the past two decades, plus its delivery of key devolved public services like schooling and the NHS, has not obviously been better than England’s – and the public have noticed. The one respect in which politicians in Cardiff Bay are unambiguously favoured by the Welsh public over those in Westminster is in being trusted to care about Wales’ problems. But they are no more likely to be seen as competent in delivering answers to those problems. “It’s crap, but it’s our crap” seems a fair assessment of the attitudes of many in Wales to their devolved institutions.
There also remains substantial public confusion about the scope of devolved government in Wales. In truth, the public have some fairly legitimate excuses for this. The powers of the Assembly have been under almost continual revision for the last two decades: the devolution settlement has most definitely not been settled. The weakness of the severely under-resourced Welsh media is another contributory factor to public ignorance, while the political parties have played their part as well. In this year’s general election, Carwyn Jones (who was not actually a candidate) fronted a Welsh Labour campaign that focussed heavily on the NHS – which, as a devolved issue should have been irrelevant to a Westminster election in Wales. No wonder people are often confused.
A third weakness is diversity. The Assembly was established amidst lots of talk about a “new politics” that would do things differently from Westminster. In some respects there has been progress. Wales’s representation at Westminster was long very heavily male dominated, but the Assembly has been much closer to gender balance (although, if anything, things have slipped backwards in recent elections). Yet only two black, Asian, or minority ethnic AMs have ever been elected – both of them men. As for partisan diversity: well into the fifth Assembly term we are no closer than at any point to a non-Labour government. The entire menu of governmental options for the Welsh people thus far has been Labour on its own or a Labour-led coalition.
On 18 September 1997, Wales had its Sliding Doors constitutional moment. Had the vote gone against devolution then, this would have been the second time that the Welsh people had rejected an Assembly. The idea would surely have been killed off permanently, and it would have been quite understandable for Whitehall to interpret such a verdict as indicating that the Welsh really didn’t want a governmental manifestation of their national identity and thus look to wind up much of the limited apparatus of administrative devolution that then existed. As it is, Wales has its Assembly and it is not going away. Devolution is now the settled will of the Welsh people to an extent that was difficult to imagine 20 year ago. But the national mood is more indifferent than celebratory – which is perhaps as it should be.