Welsh devolution referendum, 1997
The Welsh devolution referendum of 1997 was a pre-legislative referendum held in Wales on 18 September 1997 over whether there was support for the creation of an assembly for Wales with devolved powers. The referendum was a Labour manifesto commitment and was held in their first term after the 1997 election. Unlike the referendum in Scotland a week earlier, there was no proposal for the assembly to have tax-varying powers. This was the second referendum held in Wales over the question of devolution, the first was held in 1979 and was defeated by a large majority.
A referendum was held in 1979 (with a parallel referendum in Scotland) proposing the creation of a Welsh Assembly, under James Callaghan's "Lib-Lab pact" coalition government. The referendum stipulated that a Welsh Assembly would be created if supported by 50% of votes cast and 40% of the total electorate. The Scottish referendum achieved the first condition but not the second, while the Welsh referendum was defeated by almost a 4:1 majority. Indeed, although the Labour Party had committed itself to devolution in 1974 (following the advice of the Royal Commission on the Constitution) several Welsh Labour MPs (including Neil Kinnock) were very much opposed.
The 1979 referendum had been such a resounding defeat that it killed off any prospects of devolution in Wales for a generation. The almost wholly anti-devolution Conservative Party won the 1979 general election (though they only won 11 out of 36 seats in Wales) and remained in power until 1997. Over this time, the Conservative government became increasingly unpopular in Wales. The Conservatives mostly appointed English-born MPs representing English constituencies to the post of Secretary of State for Wales, including William Hague and John Redwood (who famously attempted to mime the words to the Welsh national anthem at the 1993 Welsh Conservative Party conference).
A commitment to the creation of a Welsh Assembly with executive powers was again put into the Labour Party's manifesto for the 1992 general election. The Labour party shaped its policy of a Welsh Assembly under the guidance of Shadow Welsh Secretary Ron Davies and Welsh Office spokesmen Win Griffiths and Rhodri Morgan. In March 1996, Ron Davies signed an agreement with Alex Carlile, the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, which committed both parties to support a Yes vote in a Welsh devolution referendum in the event of a Labour victory in the 1997 general election. The agreement was made in the context of a potential Lib-Lab pact should Labour not win an overall majority.
There was no inter-party Constitutional Convention in Wales to define devolution as there had been in Scotland. Labour's initial proposal to elect a Welsh Assembly using the traditional first-past-the-post system was reversed in late 1996 in favour of the Additional Member System. This change was vital in order to gain the support of Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats in the event of a referendum.
The official Yes campaign, Yes for Wales, was supported by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, though they also ran their own individual campaigns. Labour anti-devolutionary MPs (including Llew Smith, among others) were subject to a tight parliamentary whip to ensure that the Labour Party was seen to be publicly behind the campaign. Yes for Wales placed a large emphasis on grassroots involvement in the campaign, with sectoral groups such as "Pensioners say Yes", and local branches throughout Wales.
Prominent campaigners for a Yes vote included Labour politicians Leighton Andrews, Ron Davies, Alun Michael, Rhodri Morgan, Andrew Davies, Peter Hain, Hywel Francis, Edwina Hart and Val Feld; Liberal Democrat politicians Michael German, Jenny Randerson, Kirsty Williams and Peter Black; Plaid Cymru politicians Dafydd Wigley, Cynog Dafis and Leanne Wood; and academic Russell Deacon.
The official No campaign, Just Say NO, was chaired by Nick Bourne, then the Conservatives' "Chief Spokesman in Wales". The No campaign lacked the structure and finance of the Yes campaign, and suffered from the fact that the Conservative defeat in the 1997 election meant there were no Conservative MPs (and therefore no MPs supporting the No campaign) in Wales. Additionally, the No campaign in 1997 did not have the support of local authorities; the fact that the Conservatives had reduced layers of local government from two to one in 1994 meant that this was not an issue as it had been in 1979.
The referendum asked voters:
- I agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly.
- I do not agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly.
The overall result was declared in the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. The proceeding officer was Professor Eric Sunderland. The results of all 22 local authority areas were announced individually, and the result was close enough that everything in fact hung on the announcement from Carmarthenshire, which carried the 'Yes' vote.
Turnout (%): 50.1
|Unitary authority||Yes vote (%)||No vote (%)|
|Neath Port Talbot||66.5%||33.5%|
|Rhondda Cynon Taff||58.5%||41.5%|
|Vale of Glamorgan||35.5%||64.5%|
- Referendums in the United Kingdom
- Scottish devolution referendum, 1997
- Welsh devolution referendum, 2011
- Yes for Wales
- "UK Election statistics 1945-2003" (PDF).
- "John Redwood mimes the Welsh National Anthem".
- "Labour Party 1992 election manifesto".
- "BBC 1997 election coverage - Parties".
- "1997 BBC election coverage - Dissent in the Labour Party".
- "1997 BBC referendum coverage".