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(Re)Mapping the centres Membership and State

Trevor Harris

Devolution: A Project for a New Welsh National and Cultural Identity

Alyce Von Rothkirch

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1. What is devolution?

1Devolution involves a division and a sharing out of a certain amount of power from a higher to a lower political organisation. The prominent devolutionary projects in the UK are:

  • a Parliament in Scotland
  • a National Assembly in Wales
  • an Assembly in Northern Ireland
  • a Mayor and an Assembly for London.
  • the possibility for English regions to gain representation following referendums

2By adopting devolution, the British Government seems to be taking cautious steps towards federalism. But devolution is not meant to change the fundamental law of the supremacy of Parliament. A true federalism based on the equality of all its parts does not seem to be the goal of devolution in Britain.

2. What is unique about devolution in Wales?

3In contrast to Scotland, which has gained a Parliament with law-making and tax-varying powers, the Welsh National Assembly can only create secondary legislation. In effect, legislative and executive powers have been split, with Parliament retaining the legislative powers and the Assembly gaining the executive powers. Vernon Bogdanor (1999, 255-56) calls this "executive devolution." This has far-reaching consequences for the working relationship between Parliament and the National Assembly because the centrality of the one and the marginality of the other is not really challenged. The government in Whitehall, should it at one time oppose devolution, is able to legislate very tightly and therefore give the Assembly, which cannot change primary legislation, very little room for manoeuvre.

  • 1 Posters of the "Yes for Wales"-campaign featured the slogan "Time to take over the remote control" (...)
  • 2 Including its mechanics: PR in elections, gender balance, a round chamber whose architecture stres (...)

4This does not mean that the Assembly is powerless. First of all, the shift of Welsh politics from London to Wales is largely symbolic. Welsh politics will gain visibility and transparency and, perhaps most importantly, it will take place in Wales itself: there will be no more politics via "remote control"1 from London. Secondly, a "democratic deficit" (Davies, 1999, 5) will be amended: the Assembly members will be more directly accountable to the people of Wales than the MPs in Parliament if only for reasons of location. More importantly, the Assembly is set to replace nonelected governmental bodies (quangos) that have hitherto held a lot of executive powers but were only accountable to the Welsh Office. Thirdly, the reverberations of the introduction of the Assembly2 will affect the constitutional make-up of Britain to a degree that the centre has probably not yet anticipated. It will be impossible for the centre to remain the same while the margins are devolved.

3. Why did devolution not come to Wales in 1979?

  • 3 For a detailed analysis see Osmond, 1999.

5In the first referendum for devolution in Wales the Labour government's proposition for an Assembly suffered a crushing defeat (four to one against). People in Wales voted "No". Most embarrassingly of all, the most vocal supporters of the "No"-campaign came from Labour's own ranks, among them Neil Kinnock. What were the reasons for Wales's refusal of devolution in 1979?3

6Twenty years ago a very different generation of voters went to the polls than in 1997. It was a generation that shared in collective British experiences and visions, a generation whom a traditional support for "Old" Labour socialism had taught that power was not to be found in small nations but only in a strong central government with a centralised economy. For this generation devolution smacked of separatism and of militant cultural nationalism.

7The Welsh have always had a dual identity, British and Welsh. In 1979 the British identity was more in focus than the Welsh identity because it was less controversial. A British identity was still a positive identity for the Welsh to have. It associated Wales with a strong, important group of nations under the name of Great Britain. British institutions shaped Welsh life: Parliament, the National Health Service, a centralised economy (British Gas, British Steel, British Petroleum, the Post Office, British Rail, etc.), the British legal system, the British education system etc. Conversely, a Welsh identity could not be based on institutions-especially since traditional Welsh institutions and experiences, such as a Non-Conformist church, Liberalism in politics, the Temperance movement and a strong community culture based on all three, had rapidly lost ground since the turn of the century. Other cultural identity markers, especially the language, proved to be divisive. For these voters, devolution simply did not make sense in 1979.

8"The 1979 referendum was fought in extremely unfavourable political circumstances for those arguing for change" (Osmond, 1999, 3). The government was unpopular and already struggling with the industrial action of the "Winter of Discontent". There was a strong anti-government mood and the proposition of another tier of democratic governance did not meet with approval. The supporters of the "Yes"-campaign were divided. The Labour party "was badly split, with its most articulate and charismatic leaders in Wales leading the No Campaign" (ibid.). Devolution was mainly identified with the Nationalists. "In turn this reinforced the claims of those who said devolution was the first step on a 'slippery road to separatism'" (ibid.).

9Since there is no civic Welsh national identity, the absence of a unifying sense of Welshness proved to be especially divisive. For example, the issue of the Welsh language was politicised and clearly divided the Welsh people. Denis Balsom, following his analysis of the voting pattern of the 1979 referendum, was able to conclude that Wales was split into 3 factions (the "3-Wales-model"): Y Fro Gymraeg, the Welsh-speaking, Welsh-identifying population of Wales; Welsh Wales, the English-speaking but Welsh-identifying population of Wales and British Wales ·, the English-speaking population who tended to identify with Britain or even England. British Wales and to an extent Welsh Wales feared a possible domination of Welsh speakers in the Assembly. Welsh Wales thus sided with British Wales on the devolution issue and devolution was defeated.

10"Compared with Scotland, Wales has an under-developed national press" (Osmond, 1999, 4). Most of the printed press comes from London-Welsh newspapers tend to be local papers. The Western Mail, Wales's only national newspaper, hardly circulates in north Wales. The broadcasting media such as BBC Wales cover more households. But, especially in the regions along the border, a lot of households tune in to the English channels. S4C, the Welsh-language channel, did not exist in 1979. It can be argued that some voters voted "No" or did not tum out to vote because of a lack of information about the plans proposed by the Government.

4. Why did the people of Wales change their mind about devolution in 1997?

11A very similar devolution proposition was again laid before the Welsh people in 1997. This time it was accepted, albeit with a tiny majority: out of the 1,212,117 votes cast, there was an overall majority of just 6,721 (Osmond, 1999, 17). Nevertheless, the swing towards the "Yes"-vote was more marked than in Scotland. Why was devolution acceptable in 1997, and not in 1979?

  • 4 Ron Davies remembers a graffito painted on a bridge in his constituency after the Conservative ele (...)
  • 5 The popularity of Tony Blair was used extensively by the "Yes for Wales-Campaign". One of their me (...)

12From 1979 to 1997 a marked shift in generations has taken place, with an astonishing result: "Those under 45 were more likely to vote Yes by a margin of 3:2, while those over 45 voted No by a similar margin" (Osmond, 1999, 17). Thus the dominant generation in 1997 was far more likely to vote "Yes" than their counterparts in 1979. This generation did not have the shared experiences that tied the older generation to a British identity. And, disappointed by 18 years of Conservative rule which the majority of the Welsh had not voted for4, there was a widespread loss of faith in the central government. It was time for a change, and Labour's landslide victory in 1997 in many ways prepared for the referendum result in Wales.5

  • 6 Not only the Welsh lost faith in "Britain" as John Smith points out. He quotes a report which stat (...)

13The British identity which was such a defining factor for the lives of the older generation did not affect the younger generation in this way. British institutions were disbanded (e.g. by the Conservatives' privatising campaign), shared British experiences did not define the British present any more (the Second World War, the British Empire).6 The centre was increasingly perceived as remote. Of course, some British institutions (e.g. the NHS) and traditional values retained their appeal. "But all these things were mutating back to what it means to be Welsh more than British-a Welshness, moreover, that now felt increasingly comfortable within a European embrace" (Osmond, 1999, 18).

14This last point, the European dimension of Welshness, points to another change in perceptions. Europe is steadily growing together, from a cluster of European nations to a "Europe of the Regions". Regional identity is in all probability going to be more important than allegiances to the nation-state-especially for Wales which stands to gain enormously by European funding since approximately half of Wales (mostly Y Fro Gymraeg and Welsh Wales) is eligible for Objective 1 funding. As John Osmond remarked (personal interview), since they have always had a dual identity, it is relatively easy for the Welsh to retain their Welsh identity and simply substitute an outdated British identity for a new European identity. The vote for devolution to some extent echoes this new position. The question is whether a Welsh national identity can survive in this "Europe of the Regions".

15Paradoxically, the Conservative government had prepared the ground for devolution. Not only by their fairly insensitive implementation of Thatcherite policies and their consequent alienation of the Welsh people, but also by actually strengthening the Welsh bureaucratic machine, especially through quangos, by diminishing local government which removed the argument of "too much government" of 1979, by strengthening the Welsh language (especially through establishing S4C in 1982 and through the Welsh Language Act of 1993 which recognised Welsh as an official language in Wales) and by modernising the Welsh economy which now began to look not only for inward investment but to the world. In all these ways the Conservatives, perhaps unwittingly, contributed to the removal of obstacles for devolution in the 1990s.

16Perhaps the most divisive issue in 1979 lost its impetus: the Welsh language was largely de-politicised. As seen above, the Conservative government managed to strengthen the Welsh language, perhaps, as Alys Thomas suggests, "as a means of making the Conservative government appear receptive to the cultural aspirations of the Welsh without making concessions in key policy areas" (1998, 47). Following the work of the Welsh Language Board the language was seen less as an obstacle and more as an asset. Consequently, a fear of possible domination of Welsh speakers in the Assembly, was greatly lessened. This is perhaps also due to the cooperation of Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party in the referendum campaign.

  • 7 For the full story of the "Yes for Wales-Campaign" see Andrews, 1999.

17This co-operation between Plaid Cymru and Labour reflected another change in devolution politics. The "Yes-campaign" was no longer split and confused. This time it was well organised by a group which was aligned to most of the political parties, but dependent on none. The campaigners also made sure that they involved a number of celebrities like the pop singer Cerys Matthews of Catatonia and to ensure grass roots-level support through separate groups like "Women Say Yes", "Teachers Say Yes", etc. Thus they were able to claim both higher media coverage and a greater level of popularity than 20 years before. To their advantage, the "No-Campaign" was not as well organised.7

18The "3-Wales-Model" has to be readjusted in the light of the referendum result and especially taking into consideration the results of the first Assembly election (see below). The results show that

"the biggest shift in favour of devolution between 1979 and 1997 took place in Welsh Wales and Y Fro Gymraeg, though there was a general swing to the "Yes" side across Wales. When all the calculations are taken into account it can be argued that the borders of the "Three Wales" defined in 1979 may have shifted over the years.... Wales is becoming a more complicated place politically". (Osmond, 1999, 15)

5. What are some of the implications of devolution in Wales?

19After the first elections to the Welsh National Assembly in May 1999 the process of devolution has cleared its first hurdle. How is the process going to continue? How does a devolved Wales define its allegiance to the centre? How does the centre define its allegiance to Wales? What are the implications for a new Welsh identity?

20Practical political life will change in the whole of Britain. Especially the three main parties will have to get used to the idea that they may pursue different policies in the devolved margins than in the centre. For example, Labour in Wales may stand for different policies and attract a different group of voters than Labour in the rest of Britain. Thus a certain flexibility and even "devolution" in the political parties will be unavoidable. Voting patterns will change accordingly, with people voting for different parties in the Assembly elections than in the general elections. In fact, this has already happened in the first Assembly elections (see Trystan and Jones, 1999, 26). Established voting patterns were overturned: Plaid Cymru achieved their highest mandate to date and the PR-system gave especially the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party additional seats. Dafydd Wigley (Plaid Cymru) fittingly described these elections in terms of a "daeargryn tawel" (a quiet earthquake). The Assembly is, indeed, a very independent representation of the aspirations and hopes of a Welsh electorate (at least of those who voted) which has nothing to do with Parliament in Westminster. A further example of this independence is illustrated by Labour's most humiliating defeat in the elections. Alun Michael, the controversial Secretary of State for Wales, suffered a crashing defeat and thus the designated First Minister was only able to get into the Assembly via a list seat. Rhodri Morgan, his erstwhile contender for the post of Secretary of State, on the other hand, managed to gain one of the largest Labour majorities, closely followed (in terms of votes cast) by Ron Davies. It is said that the choice of Alun Michael as Secretary of State, which was interpreted as unwarranted interference and which was much resented in Wales, had cost Labour many votes.

21"Let no-one think that now the devolution genie is out of his bottle he can be forced back in or that he won't want to stretch his muscles" (Davies, 1999, 9). Ron Davies's barely veiled warning hints at the new relationship between Wales and the centre. A newly confident Wales will not be dominated by the centre as far as Welsh matters are concerned. And, doubtlessly, it is interested in expanding the limited powers it has. The Assembly as it is now is certainly not at the end of the process of devolution-it is merely the beginning of a change that will affect the whole constitutional make-up of Britain as a whole. Taking into account even the relative powerlessness of the Assembly with regard to Parliament, it still, by its very existence, has the power to disrupt and change British politics forever, and, by extension, issues of the nation and national identity. Even if the centre were opposed to devolution, it cannot (short of dismantling the Assembly altogether) avoid its influence. The presence of the Assembly forces the centre to take Welsh politics into account, be it in positive or negative ways. The Assembly will supplement primary legislation and make it adaptable to Welsh circumstances: the centre, if it wants to create a general national policy, will have to take this power into account and legislate accordingly.

22The centre, despite John Osmond's observation (1998, 353), that it does not intend to change very much except implementing minor adjustments, will need to create new structures to deal with the devolved margins. A Joint Ministerial Committee, which allows the leaders of the Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament to meet with the central government, is already planned. Thus the centre will experience more far-reaching changes than it probably has bargained for. Even federalist structures may yet emerge: "Structures are being put in place at the centre of the United Kingdom polity which will enable, perhaps hasten, the whole creaking structure to move in a federal or quasi-federal direction" (Osmond, 1998, 356).

23As devolution changes the relationship between centre and margin, a new British politics develops. This will have its reverberations as far as national identities are concerned. John Osmond argues for strengthened regional identities which represent the European regions. "Britain", more than ever, is seen as a collective term, not one that conveys a unifying national identity.

24A Wales in Europe also means a Wales which is aware of the hybridity and diversity of the European regions and, consequently, its own. There is a danger of a rise of nationalism, perhaps brought about by the years of struggle against (mainly) English political and cultural domination, which is anathema to a modern multicultural nation. For example, Plaid Cymru, who go to great lengths to stress their tolerant attitude to all people of Wales, whether Welsh-speaking or Englishspeaking, neglect to mention the other languages that a Welsh person might speak. A new Wales must be careful to tum away from restrictive nationalism and must take care to embrace all its people.


Works Cited

Andrews, Leighton, 1999. Wales Says Yes: The Inside Story of the Yes for Wales Referendum Campaign. Bridgend: Seren.

Bhabha, Homi K., ed., 1990. "DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation." Nation and Narration. London and New York: Routledge.

Bogdanor, Vernon, 1999. Devolution in the United Kingdom. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Davies, Ron, 1999. Devolution: A Process Not an Event. The Gregynog Papers. Institute of Welsh Affairs.

Edwards, Huw. "Now the Accent is On Ourselves." Agenda Summer 1999. Institute of Welsh Affairs. 6-7.

Morgan, Kenneth O., 1982. Rebirth of a Nation: A History of Modern Wales. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Osmond, John. "The Joint Ministerial and the British-Irish Council", The National Assembly Agenda: A Handbook for the First Four Years. Ed. By John Osmond. Cardiff: Institute of Welsh Affairs, 1998.353-361.

Osmond, John. Welsh Politics in the New Millennium. IWA Discussion Paper No. 11. Institute of Welsh Affairs. August 1999.

Plaid Cymru: The Party of Wales. "The Best for Wales." Internet:

Smith, Dai, 1999. Wales: A Question for History. Bridgend: Seren.

Smith, John, 1998. The Welsh Image. Gregynog Papers Institute of Welsh Affairs. 1.4.

Thomas, Alys. "De-politicising the Language." Agenda Summer 1998. Institute of Welsh Affairs. 46-47.

Trystan, Dafydd and Richard Wyn Jones. "A Quiet Electoral Earthquake". Agenda Summer 1999. Institute of Welsh Affairs. 26-28.

Welsh Language Board, "Welsh Language Board: The Welsh Language." Internet:

Williams, Gwyn Α., 1985. When Was Wales? The History, People and Culture of an Ancient Country. Harmondsworth Penguin.


1 Posters of the "Yes for Wales"-campaign featured the slogan "Time to take over the remote control" or "Amser i ni reoli'r newid". See Andrews, 1999, 96-97.

2 Including its mechanics: PR in elections, gender balance, a round chamber whose architecture stresses co-operation rather than confrontation, etc.

3 For a detailed analysis see Osmond, 1999.

4 Ron Davies remembers a graffito painted on a bridge in his constituency after the Conservative election victory in 1987 which stated "we voted Labour, we got Thatcher". The Conservative Party regularly won elections without much support from the electorate in Wales. The discontent about this "democratic deficit" (Davies, 1999,4-5) made a lot of people think again about devolution.

5 The popularity of Tony Blair was used extensively by the "Yes for Wales-Campaign". One of their messages read: "Vote Yes, Support Blair" (Andrews, 1999, 96-97).

6 Not only the Welsh lost faith in "Britain" as John Smith points out. He quotes a report which states that within Britain "only 50 per cent regard Britishness as an important part of their identity" and that "faith in British institutions has plummeted: barely 30 per cent think Britain will have a monarchy in 50 years time; only 10 per cent have confidence in Parliament, 25 per cent in the Church, and 26 per cent in the legal system." (Smith, 1998, 3).

7 For the full story of the "Yes for Wales-Campaign" see Andrews, 1999.


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