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14 January 2019

In comparing Brexit to Welsh devolution, Theresa May was wrong on two counts

Not only did the Prime Minister lie, but the winners of the Welsh Assembly referendum worked hard to build a “loser’s consent”.

By Leighton Andrews

I teach a postgraduate module at Cardiff University on the life of government ministers, from appointment to losing office. One of the seminars is on ministerial speechwriting. Next year’s version is clearly going to have Theresa May’s Stoke speech as a central focus.

In the circulated draft, the Prime Minister’s speech said:

When the people of Wales voted by a margin of 0.3 per cent, on a turnout of just over 50 per cent, to endorse the creation of the Welsh Assembly, that result was accepted by both sides and the popular legitimacy of that institution has never seriously been questioned.

There are two main problems with this sentence. First, it is a lie. Second, the behaviour of Labour ministers immediately following the 1997 Welsh referendum was a model of how to build consensus after a divisive vote, in stark contrast to May’s abandonment of bridge-building with Remainers after the Brexit referendum.

First, the lie. After the Government of Wales Act passed into legislation and the Assembly started work in 1999, many Welsh Conservatives did give the institution their whole-hearted support and their endorsement made the Assembly stronger than it would otherwise have been.

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However, May and many other senior Conservatives still serving in parliament voted against the creation of the National Assembly when the Government of Wales Act went through parliament (the history student Joe Oliver has a useful link here). Additionally, the anti-Assembly current in the Welsh Conservatives carried on their agitation against the Assembly right up to and including the 2005 General Election, when, as the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush has pointed out, Michael Howard’s manifesto included a pledge to offer a further referendum, with one of the options being the abolition of the Assembly.

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So May is absolutely wrong to say that the result was accepted by both sides and the popular legitimacy of the Assembly has never been questioned. She didn’t accept it from 1997-98 and she stood on a manifesto in 2005 that offered the option of abolition.

Second, the consensus building. After the narrowness of the referendum victory in 1997, Labour Welsh Office ministers Ron Davies, Peter Hain and Win Griffiths embarked on a period of inclusive engagement with critics of the Assembly. As a result of this, the Government of Wales Bill was amended as it went through its parliamentary stages, for example to allow for a cabinet system rather than the local government model originally envisaged.

Other steps were taken to bring in voices other than Labour politicians as the operating model and subsequently the standing orders for the National Assembly were worked through. My Cardiff University colleague, Professor Richard Wyn Jones, has called this a process of “trying to generate ‘loser’s consent’ for the result”. Realising that the referendum mandate for the Assembly was fragile, the ministers sought to “reach out to and address the concerns of their opponents”.

Contrast this with May. Had she tried to build “loser’s consent” after the 2016 referendum, instead of veering sharply towards a hard Brexit, she could have built a national consensus, probably around membership of the customs union and single market, which would have convinced many who voted Remain to come on board with her project. There would have been no unseemly rush to trigger Article 50 without knowing the endgame. There would have been stability in respect of Northern Ireland. She could have worked more closely with the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland. She could have turned the debate on the UK’s future relationship with Europe into one of partnership rather than bluster. She would have avoided a general election that cost her a Commons majority. Above all, she would not now be facing a mega Commons defeat on her own proposal.

Unfortunately for her, she lacked the necessary leadership skills, political breadth and human empathy to do those things. Instead, she sought a much narrower goal: re-uniting Ukip voters with the Conservative Party rather than re-uniting the United Kingdom.

There is another hidden dimension to the Welsh experience. The 1997 Labour manifesto proposal for an Assembly was far from perfect. The 1998 Government of Wales Act improved the original proposal, but in operation it became clear very rapidly that the settlement was unstable and required further amendment. This included an effective legal separation of the legislature and executive and the slow shift to stronger law-making powers, endorsed in the 2011 referendum with the active support this time of Welsh Conservative leaders.

In the Brexit case, the debate on the current deal is just the beginning of the process. Stand by for a decade or more of negotiations on the legal details of our actual relationship. Building “loser’s consent” could have meant that those details could have been agreed in outline before triggering Article 50.

Theresa May can try to rewrite history all she wants. But the facts, and the documentary record, are against her.

Leighton Andrews is professor of practice in public service leadership at Cardiff Business School. A former Labour Welsh government minister, he was one of the founders of the 1997 Yes for Wales referendum campaign and chaired the Steering Committee for the Yes for Wales campaign in the 2011 Welsh referendum.