Welsh devolution referendum, 1997
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The Welsh devolution referendum of 1997 was a pre-legislative referendum held throughout Wales on 18 September 1997 to determine whether there was support for the creation of an assembly for Wales with devolved powers. Unlike the referendum in Scotland, there was no proposal for the assembly to have tax-varying powers. The referendum was a Labour manifesto commitment and was held in their first term after the 1997 election.
One of the factors that made the referendum controversial was that Wales has a much greater immigrant and transient population than Scotland. A previous referendum on devolution held in 1979 had resulted in a majority against, whereas in Scotland the vote had been in favour. In this referendum, the majority of votes cast were for the yes option which resulted in the formation of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999.
The 1979 referendum had been such a resounding defeat that it killed off any prospects of devolution for Wales for a generation. Although the Welsh Liberal Party and Plaid Cymru became committed to a Welsh parliament (with full law making and tax raising powers) by 1983 it was not until 1992 that a Welsh Assembly with executive powers was put into the Labour Party's manifesto. The Conservative Party in Wales remained almost wholly pro-unionist and anti-devolution. As the Conservative government in Wales became more unpopular the Labour party in Wales 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.
The consultation process was undertaken solely within the Labour Party and its affiliated trade unions. There was no Constitutional Convention between the political parties to define devolution as there had been in Scotland. There was, however, a joint pact signed in March 1996 between Ron Davies and the Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Alex Carlile which committed both parties to support a Yes vote in the event of a Labour victory at the forthcoming general election. Labour's initial proposals to elect the Welsh Assembly only be a system of first-past-the-post constituency elections was reversed in late 1996 to allow the Additional Member System to be introduced as well. This change was vital in order to bring Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats on board for any referendum.
In 1996 the Labour leader Tony Blair instructed the Welsh Labour party to include the need for a referendum in order to implement the legislation needed for the introduction of a Welsh Assembly. The rationale behind this was to 'entrench' the Welsh Assembly so that an incoming Conservative government would not abolish it without a further referendum.
Factors that helped the Yes Campaign
Unlike in 1979, the Yes Campaign was helped by a number of factors that made the 1997 referendum different. These included:
A well planned and organised central Yes Campaign. The Yes for Wales campaign, chaired by Professor Kevin Morgan and organised by Leighton Andrews and Daran Hill. It included representatives from the political parties and non political bodies that were in favour of devolution. 'Yes for Wales' operated a strategy or regional and sectional 'Yes' groups across Wales, which were then co-ordinated for the Yes campaign. The Labour Party in Wales, however, would not formally endorse the Yes Campaign and operate within it and instead set up their own separate campaign. Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats subsequently did the same.
The unpopularity of the outgoing Conservative government. Just as an unpopular Labour government had helped the Conservatives and the No campaign in 1979, an unpopular recently defeated Conservative government helped boost the Yes Campaign in Wales. The series of English based Conservative MPs that had been Welsh Secretaries since 1987 became more unpopular. They were seen to have no political mandate in Wales. John Redwood's tenure as Welsh Secretary and his miming of the Welsh National Anthem at the Welsh Conservative Party conference only reinforced the view that the Welsh Office had become a symbol of quasi colonial government in Wales. The thought of a return to this form of government encouraged people to vote for a Welsh Assembly.
The relative lack of finance and organisation of the No campaign. Chaired by Professor Nick Bourne, the campaign lacked the structure and finance of the Yes campaign. This meant that it was unable to match the larger resources of the Yes Campaign. The fact that there had been a Conservative political wipe out at the 1997 general election in Wales also left no Parliamentarians to lead the No campaign.
The introduction of unitary authorities in Wales by the Conservatives had removed one of the central problems of the 1979 referendum. The existence of too many layers of government. There would have been three tiers - Welsh Assembly - county councils-borough/city/district councils. The proposed abolition of either county or district councils in 1979 had alienated the councils from supporting the Yes campaign. With this process already completed the new unitary authorities and their councillors no longer felt such a strong reason to oppose the introduction of a new Assembly.
The endorsement of a still popular Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the tight parliamentary whipping of Labour anti-devolutionary MPs ensured that the Labour Party was seen to be publicly behind the campaign. This enabled the Labour Party to transfer their considerable support behind the Yes vote.
The referendum was held on 18 September 1997, a week after the referendum in Scotland. The referendum asked voters the question:
- I agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly.
- I do not agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly.
The overall count was declared in the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. The proceeding officer was Professor Eric Sunderland. In the end the result was extremely close and everything hung on the result 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%|
Aftermath and those involved
In response to a majority voting for the establishment of a Welsh Assembly, the government passed the Government of Wales Act 1998, creating the National Assembly of Wales. This led the establishment of a unicameral legislative chamber consisting of 60 elected Assembly Members (AMs) based in Cardiff Bay, Cardiff. The first elections for this were held in May 1999.
Those active in the campaign
Many of those who were most active in the Yes and No campaigns went on to become central figures in Welsh political life after result. These included: Leighton Andrews, Alun Michael, Ron Davies, Rhodri Morgan, Peter Hain, Hywel Francis, Edwina Hart, Val Feld, Michael German, Jenny Randerson, Kirsty Williams, Peter Black, Dafydd Wigley, Cynog Dafis, Leanne Wood, Andrew Davies, Rob Humphreys, Professor Nick Bourne, Professor Phil Williams, Professor David Egan, Professor Kevin Morgan, Professor Russell Deacon, and Professor Michael Woods.
- Referendums in the United Kingdom
- Scottish devolution referendum, 1997
- Welsh devolution referendum, 2011
- Yes for Wales
- Russell Deacon (2006) Devolution in Britain today, Manchester University Press
- Russell Deacon and Alan Sandry (2007) Devolution in the United Kingdom, Edinburgh University Press