Understanding devolution in Wales
Understanding devolution in Wales

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Understanding devolution in Wales

1 Interview with Roger Awan-Scully

Professor Roger Awan-Scully is Professor of Political Science at Cardiff University and Chair of the Political Studies Association. His work focuses on devolution, elections and voting.

He joins course author Valerie Livingston to discuss some major trends in Welsh voting.

Activity 1 Interview

Listen to this interview and make notes on what you think the key points are.

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Transcript: Audio 1 Interview with Roger Awan-Scully

VALERIE LIVINGSTON
Hello and welcome to the third and final part of this Open University OpenLearn course, Understanding devolution in Wales. I'm Valerie Livingston, course author, and today I'm joined by Professor Roger Awan-Scully. Roger is Professor of Political Science at Cardiff University and Chair of the Political Studies Association. His work focuses on devolution, elections and voting, and in this part of the course we're considering just that: voters in Wales. So Roger, thank you very much for joining us.
ROGER AWAN-SCULLY
Glad to do so.
VALERIE LIVINGSTON
So can I just kick off by asking: are voters in Wales impressed by what has been achieved under devolution?
ROGER AWAN-SCULLY
I think for the most part, if you look at the detailed evidence that's been gathered in various academic studies and other polls, the answer is for the most part, not very impressed. Certainly if you look at voters' evaluations of the performance of the Welsh Government in major policy areas like the economy, health and education, most studies that have asked questions along those lines find that the most popular answer amongst voters is that they don't think devolution's really made any substantial difference. Some people certainly think that devolution's improved things. Some people, normally slightly fewer, think that it's made things worse. But I think when you're thinking about the policy achievements of devolution, we also have to think of the alternative – do people think that things would have been better off without devolution, still under the control of Westminster? – and for the most part the majority of people don't seem to believe that.
VALERIE LIVINGSTON
So is it fair to say that politicians in Cardiff are more trusted than those in London to be focused on Welsh issues?
ROGER AWAN-SCULLY
Yes they are, I mean a number of studies have explored this. In fact, one or two have found at least some tentative evidence that politicians in Cardiff Bay are more trusted than those in London in general, you know slightly more trusted, for instance, to behave with integrity and probity, which may reflect some continuing legacy of scandals like the parliamentary expenses scandal about a decade ago. But I think what is particularly a strength of the devolved institutions in terms of public attitudes towards them, is the broad sense amongst many people in Wales, [inaudible] the majority of people in Wales, that these politicians, they may be more or less good or whatever, but they are at least Welsh politicians in a Welsh institution focused on Welsh problems, which for the most part, people in Wales don't see Westminster as being like that.
VALERIE LIVINGSTON
So with that in mind, are there further powers which voters in Wales would like to see devolved to the Welsh Parliament?
ROGER AWAN-SCULLY
Well, when we ask various forms of questions about attitudes to devolution, we commonly find a large proportion of people in Wales, often a majority, say that they want more powers for the devolved Senedd. When we start to look at which specific powers, though, I think things often get significantly more vague. I think many voters are far from entirely clear, perhaps understandably, about what powers exactly are devolved now. And following from that, fairly logically, is that they may well also be a little bit vague as to what additional powers that they might want to be devolved, so there's a broad sense amongst what a lot of people in Wales, and a majority in some polls, that they'd like further devolution. But exactly what further devolution tends to be much more vague.
Some studies have asked people about specific policy areas, so you know: should this area be controlled by the Senedd and the Welsh government, or Westminster and the UK Government. We've tended to find that – and this has been a consistent finding for a decade and more – the majority of people in the main devolved areas of education and health still want those to be devolved. The majority of people in, I suppose, classic statewide government responsibilities like defense and foreign affairs still want those to stay with the UK level. What you tend to see a rather more interesting picture on is things like policing and criminal justice, which of course are devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but are not devolved in Wales. And those studies have tended to stress a narrow but clear margin of people actually favouring those becoming devolved responsibilities, those powers being shifted from Westminster to the Senedd.
VALERIE LIVINGSTON
So, should Welsh political parties want to see further powers devolved, then that's really incumbent on them to communicate what the current devolution settlement is, and then make the case for those further powers?
ROGER AWAN-SCULLY
Well, I think many voters are, very understandably, quite vague about the shape of the current Welsh devolution settlement. Because in some senses, you know, the term ‘settlement’ is really a misnomer. I mean, the one thing that Welsh devolution hasn't really been since '99 is settled. We've had an evolving series of different dispensations, and the powers that the Senedd and the Welsh government discharges now are very different from what they were two decades ago, so I think you could be very forgiving of voters for being pretty vague as to what is devolved and what isn't. Because I think, you know, it was a common problem, certainly in the first Senedd, that many of the politicians didn't really know what it was that they could do with the powers they had, and what powers were those. So if the politicians didn't know, I think the ordinary people could certainly be forgiven for not having more than the vaguest idea of what devolution actually allowed politicians in Cardiff Bay to do.
VALERIE LIVINGSTON
Indeed, and that process of review and reform and further legislation from the Westminster government is something we considered in some depth in the first part of this course, and perhaps the unsettled nature of the settlement links back to my first question about how impressed voters are by what they've seen under devolution. Moving on to a slightly different topic: is there an observable link between Welsh identity and voting intention?
ROGER AWAN-SCULLY
Yes there is. You can see very clearly that those with a stronger Welsh identity are more likely to vote Plaid Cymru than those without. Similarly you see those in Wales with a strong British identity are significantly more likely to vote Conservative than those without. Possibly the most interesting party in terms of identity is the Labour Party, which has been largely successful for many decades in sort of straddling the identity divide, and being able to be relatively appealing both to those with a predominantly British sense of identity – well, those with a predominately Welsh sense of identity – as well as those for whom strong Welsh and strong British identity are fully compatible, and I think that's a big part of Labour's long-term dominance in Welsh politics, its ability to appeal right across the spectrum of identities. But overall, I mean, there is clearly a significant and quite substantial link between Welsh identity, and those with a strong Welsh identity are substantially less likely in particular to vote Conservative, much more likely to be voters for either the Welsh Labour Party or for Plaid Cymru.
VALERIE LIVINGSTON
And has that shifted at all? Has the creation of Welsh institutions, a parliament and a government over the last 20 years created or maybe contributed to a sense of Welshness?
ROGER AWAN-SCULLY
Well, if you just ask basic questions about what sort of identity do people feel, then the answer that question is no. I think one of the things that many people thought would happen is, you create a Welsh level of government, Welsh institutions, and that leads to a big surge in senses of Welsh identity. And in fact, that is really not observable in the data, I mean, to the extent that we can go back on the very limited data available. In fact, Welsh identity was every bit as strong in the 1970s, when Wales overwhelmingly voted against devolution, as it was say in 2011, when Wales voted to give more powers to the devolved institution, or as it is today, so there's been no really observable overall rise in Welsh identity. What I think has changed is the implications that people, many people feel for their identity, and so I think way back in the 1970s, for instance, most people in Wales who had a Welsh identity did not necessarily see any need for that identity to be reflected in a distinctive level of government or distinctive political institutions. In just the same way, perhaps as many people say, with a Yorkshire identity might not feel the need for that to be embodied in a Yorkshire parliament in Yorkshire government. What started to change I think in the late 1980s, continued to change afterwards, and has changed even further in the years after the Assembly – as it was – was created, has been, far more of those people with a Welsh identity have come to believe that that identity should be reflected in a distinctive autonomous level of Welsh governments, and a representative Welsh Parliament.
VALERIE LIVINGSTON
And have changing demographics in Wales had any impact on this? For example, the increasing numbers of young people in Welsh medium education.
ROGER AWAN-SCULLY
Well, I think one demographic that we certainly do see as having an impact, of course, is the large number of people – of whom I'm one – who come from elsewhere in the United Kingdom and make Wales their home. Some of them, of course ‘go native’ as it were, you know, maybe learn a bit of Welsh, take on some degree of Welsh identity, but those members of the Welsh population who are born elsewhere in the UK, particularly the large proportion of those who are born in England, tend to be particularly likely to be those who don't have a sense of Welsh identity, who often indeed don't particularly engage with Welsh level news, are less likely to turn out to vote in Senedd elections. And overall, among the least likely to really engage with Welsh level politics, with Welsh institutions, and maybe even more broadly, with Welsh culture and language more generally.
VALERIE LIVINGSTON
So at the time of recording of this interview in early 2021, we saw that support for Welsh independence was increasing. What are the reasons for this?
ROGER AWAN-SCULLY
Yeah, we certainly have seen something of an increase in support for Welsh independence, broadly speaking, over the last three years. Now, I think some people have overstated the degree of that rise. Depending on how you ask the question, though, support for Welsh independence has gone up for instance, on a simple ‘would you vote for it in a referendum?’ from about 15, 16% a few years ago, up to the low to mid 20s, and once you take out the ‘don't know’s, it's up to around 30, 33%, which is actually not very far from where support for independence was in Scotland around the time of the start of the campaign for what was the 2014 referendum. Of course, that ended up much closer.
Now why has this happened? I think probably the biggest single reason, frankly, is Brexit. If we think back to the Scottish independence referendum, the strongest, most persuasive arguments that the Better Together campaign against independence had in the final weeks of the referendum were that the UK represented strength and stability and security. But I think in the wake of the Brexit referendum of June 2016, the UK government, indeed the UK political system more generally, spent several years looking anything but strong and stable and secure, and I think effectively undermined some of the best arguments for continued membership of the UK from the non-English nations. And I think that has been the biggest impetus to many people, particularly former Remain voters, supporting or at least becoming interested in the possibility of independence.
I think the Covid epidemic has possibly pushed that a little bit further. We see very clearly in polls for nearly all of the last year, people in Wales much preferring the handling of the pandemic by the Welsh government to that of the UK government, and I think again, as with Brexit, this may have persuaded at least some people in Wales that actually, you know, the UK isn't so great at running things, and maybe we could do a better job of running ourselves.
VALERIE LIVINGSTON
But then, at the same time, are we not also seeing an increase in devo-scepticism? In the run up to the 2021 Welsh Parliament elections, Abolish the Assembly looks set to be the 4th party.
ROGER AWAN-SCULLY
Well, it is possible that Abolish the Assembly may win some seats, and we have seen a very small rise in support for getting rid of devolution altogether in the public opinion polls. Possibly more interesting and maybe more consequential, we've seen something of a resurgence of this attitude within the Welsh Conservative Party. The Welsh Conservatives of course opposed evolution in the '97 referendum, were fairly openly devo-sceptical in the first Assembly election in 1999, but then there was a noticeable change over several years towards being a much more sort of devo-positive party particularly under the leadership of Nick Bourne. But I think the Conservatives, they see that in 2016 they lost quite a lot of votes on the devo-sceptic, euro-sceptic populist right, they lost quite a lot of votes to UKIP, and I think they are very concerned about that being repeated in this year's Senedd election. I think it's also the case that many of the Welsh Conservative grassroots frankly were never that enthusiastic about the evolution, at best came to accept it reluctantly. And I think in the wake of the success of them achieving Brexit, some of them are now looking at possibly the Senedd as, you might say, the next political target or the political objective for them. And so I think we've seen an increase within the Welsh Conservative Party of people quite openly being devo-sceptic, or even devo-hostile, and that may be one of the most important developments in recent Welsh politics.
VALERIE LIVINGSTON
So as you remarked, the devolution settlement in Wales is far from settled. Professor Awan-Scully, thank you so much for your time today. Diolch yn fawr.
ROGER AWAN-SCULLY
Diolch.
End transcript: Audio 1 Interview with Roger Awan-Scully
Audio 1 Interview with Roger Awan-Scully
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Discussion

Key points from the interview:

  • Most data suggests Welsh voters do not feel that devolution has made a substantial difference to life in Wales, but the majority believe it to be better than the alternative of no devolution.
  • Welsh politicians are generally more trusted than their counterparts in England.
  • There is an appetite for further devolution but a lack of clarity over what powers should be devolved – likely due to ongoing confusion as to which powers are devolved now following major changes to the devolution settlement over its first two decades.
  • We can observe a link between Welsh identity and voting intention, with those who describe themselves most strongly as Welsh favouring Plaid Cymru, while those with a predominantly British identity are likely to back the Conservatives.
  • Labour in Wales have successfully straddled both British and Welsh identities – something Professor Awan-Scully attributes their long-lasting political dominance to, in part.
  • The movement of people born elsewhere in the UK into Wales has had an impact on Welsh identity as, while some of these people adopt a degree of Welsh identity, many others eschew it and avoid engagement with the devolved political institutions.
  • The creation of Welsh political institutions has not created a greater sense of Welshness per se, but it has led to different expectations of how this identity is expressed, for example, in distinct political institutions.
  • There has been an uplift in support for Welsh independence in the very early 2020s, which can be attributed to the concurrent period of instability in the UK Government from the Brexit fallout and the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • At the same time, there has been a slight increase in devo-scepticism, with the rise of political parties advocating the abolition of devolution in Wales, and the resurgence of hostility towards devolution within the Welsh Conservatives.
  • Professor Awan-Scully suggests that voters are ‘largely unimpressed’ by devolution but would like to see more powers devolved to Wales. Can you reconcile these statements?

  • This may be explained in part by another statement made in this interview, that the devolution settlement has shifted extensively over time, perhaps leaving people in Wales confused as to what the institutions can achieve. Another possible answer is alluded to when Professor Awan-Scully references the devolution of policing in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It may well be that voters in Wales feel they should have equal powers.

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