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Introduction to law in Wales
Introduction to law in Wales

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2.2 Votes on devolution

The Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1973 recommended the creation of elected bodies for both Wales and Scotland. The Wales Act was passed in 1978 but would only become law if voted for by a majority of voters in Wales. A referendum was held in Wales in 1979, but devolution was rejected by a substantial majority (79.7 per cent of those who voted).

Despite the resounding no vote in the 1979 referendum, changes again began to be called for in the 1980s and 1990s as the pattern of political support in Wales differed greatly from England. These calls were recognised in the Labour Party manifesto for the 1997 elections, which contained a commitment to hold a referendum on devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Labour government published a White Paper A Voice for Wales in July of the same year. The White Paper outlined proposals for a devolved Assembly in Wales, and a referendum was held on 18 September.

Turnout for the referendum was 50.1 per cent. A small majority (50.3 per cent of those who voted) supported devolution. Because no thresholds had been stipulated, a simple majority vote was all that was required to give a mandate for devolution. The process of devolution began with the Government of Wales Act 1998.

Activity 2: Opposition to devolution

Timing: Timing: 10 minutes

Can you think of any reasons why so many people in Wales opposed devolution?


There may have been many reasons why devolution was regarded with little enthusiasm by many Welsh voters. For example, many people believe that there are already too many layers of government, and too many politicians. Creating additional layers may be seen as an unnecessary expense, or as a distraction from more fundamental economic or social problems.

In addition, there may be some people who were concerned that taking the path to devolution might be the first step towards eventual independence, or that it might lead to a reduction in attention for Welsh issues in the Westminster Parliament. Other voters may have voted against devolution because it did not go far enough in granting real power to the Welsh Assembly. The extent of the powers granted will be considered in the next section.

Before the powers of the Welsh Assembly are considered it is worth noting here that devolution in Wales has been referred to as ‘a process and not an event’ (Ron Davies, Secretary of State for Wales, 1997). There have been two Acts relating to devolution in Wales since the referendum in 1997: the first, the Government of Wales Act 1998, established the National Assembly for Wales with secondary legislative powers; the second, the Government of Wales Act 2006, expanded these powers, giving the Assembly potential for future legislative powers and formal separation of the executive and Assembly. Section 3 looks at these developments and the growing expansion of the powers of the Welsh Assembly.