Tuesday, February 09, 2010

A 'Yes' for Wales

Some important news from Wales which you almost certainly won't have seen on our glorious British 'national' news. This evening, the Senedd passed a motion which triggers the process for a referendum to be held on transferring legislative powers to the institution from Westminster. The motion, which required the support of at least 40 AMs, succeeded in garnering the support of 53 in the end, with no abstentions or votes against.

And so begins a process which will see First Minister Carwyn Jones write to Secretary of State, Peter Hain, informing him of the result. The Secretary of State then has 120 days in which to consider the request, and lay a draft order for the referendum, or to respond in the negative explaining why a vote can't go ahead.

A rejection seems highly unlikely. Hain has already said this evening that he looks forward to “beginning the preparatory work”. His Conservative shadow, Cheryl Gillan, has also made it clear that the Tories, should they win the general election in the meantime, will not stand in the way of a referendum. Plaid Cymru, as you would expect, are in favour, while for the Lib Dems, Kirsty Williams has argued that the present settlement is “unsustainable”.

There's no doubting the progress that the self-government argument has made in Wales since the knife edge referendum result in 1997. I stayed up to watch the results coming in that evening, and went to bed in the wee small hours, despondent that the 'No' campaign looked to have won the day. In the event, it took the final declaration from Carmarthenshire to swing it. Seldom has a student hangover disappeared quite so quickly!

The argument for the transfer of legislative powers ought to be unanswerable. The current system whereby Legislative Competence Motions have to be passed in order to give the Senedd powers to legislate on particular matters, is clunky and cumbersome. However, the challenge, at a time of cynicism about politics and politicians, is to set this in a context and narrative which resonates with people. Done properly, and with the cross party support already in evidence, it can give the Senedd, and indeed the whole idea of self-government for Wales, the emphatic legitimising endorsement that so many loud voices have always sought to deny the institution.

While I wish my many Welsh friends and colleagues likely to be involved in the 'Yes' campaign all the best, it's hard not to draw a parallel with Scotland. Here, we're told by our regional franchises of Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems that a referendum on the constitution is no-go. Thanks to this evening's vote in the Commons on electoral reform, that's two referendums which now have the go-ahead to take place during an economic downturn, when people's minds are focused on [insert own self-serving excuse here].

It really shouldn't need to be pointed out, but the legitimacy of our political processes and their ability to respond to people's concerns has arguably never been more important. It's not just about who governs or how they govern, but also the ability we have to influence how we ourselves are governed. Here's to a successful referendum in Wales, and to a similarly successful vote on Independence in the not too distant future.

Update: Hamish Macdonell adds his slant in the Caledonian Mercury.


alanindyfed said...


Another "YES" for you!

Richard Thomson said...


Malc said...

The argument for transfer of powers might BE unanswerable, but that doesn't mean that the people of Wales will vote for it. The All-Wales Convention report suggested that, while they thought a yes vote in a referendum was attainable, it could not be guaranteed.

Given I'm studying it just now, I'd say the same. Especially given 1997 - while it was a narrow victory for YES then (50.1% to 49.9%) the turnout was only 50.1%, meaning that only one in four people cast their vote in favour.

Now you can argue (and, probably will!) that the settlement on offer in 1997 wasn't enough to get people excited about devolution, and that is probably true. But some of the response to the AWC would suggest that some of those who were opposed in 1997 (particularly farmers) are still convinced that devolution is any good to them.

I suspect - at this moment at least - that a referendum in Wales might not be in the best interests of taking forward devolution there. I hope I'm wrong.

Richard Thomson said...

Hi Malc,

"The argument for transfer of powers might BE unanswerable, but that doesn't mean that the people of Wales will vote for it."

True. Apart from death and taxes, though, what is certain? However, I think it would be a big mistake to try and forecast the result of the next referendum through the prism of the last one, for the following reasons:

* The Senedd has been in situ for 10 years. People have seen how it operates, for better and no doubt on occasions for worse, and can make up their own minds free from the same type of scaremongering they were subjected to at the time by the likes of Dr Tim Williams et al.

* None of the arguments ranged against the assembly at the time have come to pass - it is now an accepted part of the Welsh civic landscape, with a level of institutional support which was absent in 1997.

* All four main parties are now agreed that primary legislative powers should be transferred. Therefore, the 'No' camp is likely to resemble a bit of a rag-bag, struggling for funding and political coherence.

In any case, the referendum likely isn't going to be held until next year. That gives the 'Yes' campaign plenty of time to get itself established and get its arguments out there.

You might find these articles quite interesting, from two of the likely leading lights in any 'Yes' campaign:





Malc said...

Thanks Richard.

Whatever was the result goes, it will be an important argument in my thesis!

The points you make in response are valid. I wasn't really looking through the 1997 - just pointing out the level of difficulty all the parties will have in convincing voters of the case for enhanced devolution.

The no campaign might not be a "professional" one, but if - as I mentioned - those who were cynical of devolution in AWC consultations get their act together, this referendum campaign probably won't be as easy a ride as you make it out to be!

For what its worth, I think Welsh devolution NEEDS the extra powers delivered in one go - and not the trickle that is happening at the moment. Independently of that (though it does require it) it also needs a yes vote to legitimise the process in the eyes of the Welsh population. Otherwise, its just another tenet of Westminster governance foisted upon people who didn't really want it in the first place.

Richard Thomson said...

I wouldn't presume to say it will be easy, but it is still a fantastic opportunity in my view, and one which can't be shirked or flinched from.

Judging by the arguments of 'True Wales', they are doing their damndest to recusitate all the old arguments that devolution would be all about higher taxes, jobs for the boys in Cardiff and the slippery slope to seperatism, all wrapped up in the sort of tedious, fraudulent anti-politician rhetoric you get from a Kilroy-Silk or an Archie Stirling.

No doubt there's a solid, if narrow, constituency for these views. However, with the unprecedented cross-party unity in favour of legislative powers, there's a great opportunity to fight a positive, upbeat campaign about bringing power closer to the people and about voters being in charge of the process, which can put the emerging 'No' campaign to the sword - a bit like the 'Yes, Yes' campaign in Scotland put the arguments of Donald Findlay, Brian Monteith and all the other abominable 'no' men of Scottish devolution out of commission.

As you say, it's all about winning legitimacy. This is an opportunity for the Assembly to show that it has indeed won its spurs in the eyes of the electorate :-)

Welsh Ramblings said...

Good blog. Though we're a different country to Scotland and at a different (lesser) stage in our national development, i'm sure comrades in Scotland will be very familiar with the kind of arguments we're going to be up against. It will be a brilliant struggle and it's one we can win.

Richard Thomson said...

Cheers, WR. I'm sure that Scots of all persuasions will be looking on with great interest in the months ahead!


Anonymous said...

Great result; wonderful start.

Awesome blog too.... so well written. The clearly argued points in your articles make me ashamed of my own much more humble efforts, but you have got a regular reader now in me. :-)

Richard Thomson said...

Thank you, Tris. The blog is due a bit of housekeeping, so I'll reciprocate your link in due course. Feel free to give me a nudge if it doesn't happen in the next week or so!