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Understanding devolution in Wales
Understanding devolution in Wales

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2.3 1997 referendum

Although the result was decisive, the idea of devolution did not go away.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, politics in Wales and Scotland were misaligned with both countries electing mostly Labour MPs while a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher was in power at Westminster.

Responding to this, the Labour Party in opposition undertook a further exploration of the possibilities of devolution. It was pursued initially by Labour leader John Smith and taken on by his successor and Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Blair subsequently acknowledged that he was not a passionate devolutionist but it would have been politically difficult to reverse this position. He addresses this point in an interview with the Institute of Government, marking 20 years of devolution:

The purpose of devolution was to bring about a new settlement between the constituent parts of the UK so that decision making was brought closer to the people who felt a strong sense of identity. And politically, also, to ward off the bigger threat of secession… it was the established Labour Party position [when Blair became Labour leader] but, essentially, I took the view that it was right in principle and necessary politically. And before I became Labour leader it was clear that was the pretty established and settled position of the Labour Party. So frankly, it would have been hard to change it even if I had wanted to, but I had become convinced myself that it was basically the right thing to do and that the previous 100 years had been a series of failed attempts to do devolution. And it was important that we succeeded otherwise I could see a situation, particularly in Scotland, where the support for independence would be unstoppable. And I still think it was basically necessary to prevent that even though it’s a continuing debate as to whether Scotland goes for full independence or not.

(Institute for Government, 2019)

The Labour Party took forward proposals for devolution in two policy documents: Shaping the Vision in 1995 and Preparing for a New Wales in 1996. Progress was rapid. Following Tony Blair’s landslide Labour victory on 2 May 1997, the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on 15 May 1997. Proposals for an Assembly for Wales were published on 22 July 1997 in the A Voice for Wales white paper.

A Voice for Wales envisaged an elected body with 60 members elected under the Additional Member System. It was put to a vote across Wales less than two months later.

Activity 2 Referendum (1997)

The referendum was held on 18 September 1997. Take a look at these campaign materials for both sides.

This is an article written in both English and Welsh, titled 'Wales deserves a voice / Mae Cymru'n haeddu cael llais'. There is a photograph of Prime Minister Tony Blair in the centre, with a letter from him underneath. The letter is headed ‘Wales has the chance to vote for a new future’ and reads as follows: ‘On May 1 Labour gained its best ever result in a general election, including seven Labour gains in Wales. Millions of people were attracted to Labour by our promise to transform Britain. In just a few months we have changed the direction, feel and pace of government – new legislation on schools, hospitals and law and order – showing that Britain can be better. And now we are giving the people of Wales the chance to vote in the referendum for a Welsh Assembly. I want you to vote yes for a strong voice for Wales in a modern constitution. Say 'yes' to a new Wales. Wales deserves it.’ It is then signed from Tony Blair. The article is written with the English text on the left, and the Welsh on the right. The English text reads as follows: ‘A Welsh Assembly is part of new Labour's vision for a modern Britain. It will give Wales the recognition it deserves. Labour's new Assembly will give Wales: A better health service – by ensuring that scarce resources are spent on nurses not bureaucrats and red tape. Better schools – by setting tough new standards for literacy, numeracy and overall achievement.. Better job opportunities – by providing a voice in Europe and around the world, to attract investment and back Welsh companies. Better democracy – by ensuring that decisions about local schools and hospitals are made by people elected in Wales not behind closed doors in London. Better value for money – by bringing Welsh quangos to public account and scrutinising spending decisions.’ The Welsh text reads as follows: ‘Rhan o weledigaeth Llafur newydd i gael Prydain fodern yw Cynulliad Cymreig. Bydd yn rhoi i Gymru y gydnabyddiaeth y mae'n ei haeddu. Bydd Cynulliad newydd Llafur yn rhoi'r rhain i Gymru: Gwell gwasanaeth iechyd – drwy sicrhau y caiff adnoddau prin eu gwario ar nyrsys ac nid ar fiwrocratiaid a biwrocratiaeth. Gwell ysgolion – drwy bennu safonau newydd a llym ar gyfer llythrennedd, rhifedd a chyrhaeddiad yn gyffredinol. Gwell cyfle i gael gwaith – drwy ddarparu llais yn Ewrop ac o amgylch y byd, i ddenu buddsoddiadau a chefnogi cwmnïau Cymreig. Gwell democratiaeth – drwy sicrhau mai pobl a etholwyd yng Nghymru, ac nid pobl y tu ôl i ddrysau caeëdig yn Llundain, sy'n gwneud y penderfyniadau ynghylch ysgolion ac ysbytai lleol. Gwell gwerth am yr arian – drwy sicrhau bod cwangos Cymru'n atebol i'r cyhoedd, ac archwilio'r penderfyniadau ar wario.’
Figure 4 ‘Wales deserves a voice’
This is a poster that reads 'just say no' in very large green and red letters. The 'just say' runs vertically up the side of the 'no' so it doesn't take up much space. The 'no' then takes up approximately 80% of the poster.
Figure 5 ‘Just say no’

How would you vote this time? Make your decision, then reveal the discussion below to find out the results.

This image recreates a referendum ballot, written in both English and Welsh, which reads as follows: Parliament has decided to consult people in Wales on the Government's proposals for a Welsh Assembly. / Mae'r Senedd wedi penderfynu ymgynghori pobl yng Nghymru ar gynigion y Llywodraeth ar gyfer Cynulliad i Gymru. Put a cross (X) in the appropriate box. / Rhowch groes (X) yn y blwch priodol. I AGREE THAT THERE SHOULD BE A WELSH ASSEMBLY / YR WYF YN CYTUNO Y DYLID CAEL CYNULLIAD I GYMRU. OR / NEU. I DO NOT AGREE THAT THERE SHOULD BE A WELSH ASSEMBLY / NID WYF YN CYTUNO Y DYLID CAEL CYNULLIAD I GYMRU.
Figure 6 Referendum ballot


Do you agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly as proposed by the Government?
I agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly559,41950.30%
I do not agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly552,69849.70%