20 Years Since Wales Said “Yes”

(Title Image: BBC Wales)

In the early hours of 19th September 1997, Wales voted by just over 6,700 votes to establish a devolved National Assembly – famously clinched, at the last minute, by voters in Carmarthenshire.

I don’t remember it to be completely honest, mainly because news around that time was dominated by the death of Princess Diana and, as a 13-year old, I didn’t really care about the referendum either.

Fortunately, the whole five and a half hour drama has been recorded for posterity on Youtube (c/o David Boothroyd).

The referendum was already shadowed by the stench of defeat. In 1979, nearly 80% of the Welsh electorate voted against devolution, helped by a cabal of cap-doffing Labour patriarchs representing the south Wales coalfields.

The 1997 proposal was very similar, if not identical, to what Wales was offered in 1979: the embodiment of the powers of the Welsh Secretary in a directly-elected Assembly with the ability to pass secondary legislation (regulations, rules etc.).

The only major differences were that the 1979 Assembly would’ve had 72 members instead of 60, all elected by first-past-the-post. There also wouldn’t have been a “Welsh Government”, but a number of executive committees very similar to how county councils were run between 1974-1996.

Despite some concessions by the UK Government (such as the introduction of a semi-proportional electoral system), there was a risk that effectively re-running the 1979 referendum might produce the same result. Those backing devolution must’ve hoped that 18 years of London-centric Conservative rule – which had seen large parts of Wales lose the bulk of its heavy industries and trade union-based communal solidarity – might be enough to swing a “Yes”. It was an open goal, surely?

It didn’t quite turn out like that because if it’s one thing you can count on in Wales, it’s that when we’re given an opportunity for self-advancement or self-empowerment we’ll do our utmost to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

There are clear parallels with the 2016 Brexit referendum.

The “Yes” campaign (Yes for Wales) was very much an “establishment campaign” (analogous to the Remainers). It was made up of the ascendant Labour aristocracy (many of whom would soon come to dominate Welsh politics), nationalists and leading academic/civic society figures like Prof. Kevin Morgan.

Thankfully, Yes for Wales avoided some of the mistakes made by the Remain campaign in 2016. For a start, they were much better organised on the ground, had a clear, unified message and – as many of the people involved had lived through an unsuccessful referendum – they didn’t become complacent about their predicted victory and had enough passion to see it through.

As for the “No” campaign (Just say No), they faced an uphill battle from the start. They could only count on the full backing of one party with no MPs in Wales (the Conservatives, similar to UKIP in 2016) and a collection of contrarians from other parties, such as Labour’s “Dr No” (Dr Tim Williams), Carys Pugh and Betty Bowen all underwritten by the eccentric financier, Julian Hodge.

Just say No ran what could now be called an anti-politics populist campaign, opposing further layers of government and “more politicians”. The difference is that while Brexiteers pulled off a narrow victory in 2016, the “No” vote narrowly missed out in 1997. That’s probably because Just say No couldn’t argue on touchstone issues like immigration, while they were effectively campaigning to deny a nation some measure of sovereignty – “leave control where it is” as opposed to “take back control”. All things considered, to get as close to winning as they did was a great achievement.

There’ll be arguments back and forth for generations to come, but the strong “Yes” vote in the former coalfield, guaranteed backing from Welsh-speaking rural Wales, low turnout (barely over 50%) and near Messianic positivity towards Tony Blair all swung it for “Yes”.

The close result could also have been down to the event I mentioned earlier. In the fortnight or so before the referendum, TV screens and newspapers were sandblasting us with images of the late “Princess of Wales” and union flags, culmanating with the undignified loss of the supposedly famed British “stiff upper lip”.

The campaign was suspended, and it’s easy to argue that persistent coverage of the “Princess of Wales” alongside the full pomp of the British state, days before the referendum, would’ve have had an indirect psychological conditioning effect.

Scotland has always been somewhat immune to it because Scotland’s taken more seriously in a royal/constitutional context.

We’ve always seemed a bit soft-headed in Wales, a bit more susceptible to being star struck and a bit quicker to doff a cap to someone wearing an imaginary crown – despite how Welsh republicans would like to have it.

Could this, and the fact voters went to the polls earlier in the year, have put people off voting? Could it have swung wavering voters towards “No”, or even some people with anti-establishment sympathies more towards “Yes”?

The legacy the referendum left us is obvious. It’s there in steel, slate, wood and glass in gentrified Cardiff Bay. Some of the wider legacies are best left explored with devolution’s 20th anniversary in 2019 but what did the referendum itself leave us?

It marks Wales being a little bit more self-confident about its place in the world – yet still risk-averse and not entirely sure of its future direction.

It marks the beginning of the end of the anomaly of EnglandandWales by ending one of the last vestiges of annexation, if not necessarily meaning the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom.

It also marks the creation of a political Wales out of a mostly cultural Wales that exists in books and on sports fields, but is still yet to fully find its voice.

The only other question left is, “What would’ve happened if Wales voted ‘No’?”

One scenario is that Tony Blair doesn’t accept the result, meaning the proposal is modified. We end up with some version of devolution pushed through by huge Labour majorities at Westminster. For example, Wales could’ve been turned into a regional authority similar to Greater London. We might’ve had a directly-elected “First Secretary” to act as a Mayor and represent Wales in the UK Cabinet alongside a small deliberative body to hold them to account. In essence, Wales becomes England’s largest county.

Another, more likely, scenario is the idea is simply dropped. Wales under Alun Michael (assuming Ron Davies resigned) will have implemented many New Labour reforms – we would’ve likely seen academy schools, foundation hospitals and eventually free schools. We would never have seen policies like free prescriptions, opt-out organ donation or a broad rejection of PFI. It’s highly likely the Welsh Development Agency would still exist and be a dominating influence on the economy before being brought down by a major scandal. From 2010 onwards, we would’ve had policies from a government that none of us voted for forced upon us (we still do, but it’s not as bad as it could’ve been).

While a referendum defeat wouldn’t have completely finished off Welsh nationalism, it would’ve dealt a critical blow, as future UK governments would be reluctant to hold another referendum and Plaid Cymru’s administrative architecture would look very different without the Assembly. It’s likely the party would become very much a cultural nationalist party defending Welsh-speakers rights (which would be in a perilous position) and abandoned all pretence of seeking autonomy for Wales.

However, any structural problems facing Wales on health, the economy etc. would be entirely blamed on Westminster (….OK, that’s not too different to how Labour and Plaid do things now). We might’ve seen Welsh nationalism radicalise, though perhaps not to the extent of terrorism – more non-violent direct action. Think Cymuned and Cymdeithas yr Iaith on steroids.

It’s quite possible that voices calling for independence might’ve eventually become stronger, making devolution look like a moderate compromise to Unionists. Maybe by now, we would’ve seen the establishment of some form of devolved administration, but it would be much weaker with a questionable mandate.

In the end, while the referendum transformed Wales and we might’ve come to accept the Senedd, it’s a reasonable conclusion that the Welsh haven’t come to fully embrace it or necessarily like it.

That in itself might be a mature response.