Welsh Devolution and Party Political Change

By the 1990s cross-political party support for devolution in Scotland and in Wales had clearly progressed. In 1992 the Labour Party, under the leadership of John Smith, had introduced devolution as official party policy. In the context of John Major’s 1992 so-called defend-the-Union speech, the Conservative Party lost significant support in both nations. Just a few months after Labour’s landslide victory, referenda on devolution were held in September 1997, and the people of Wales voted in favour of electing their own devolved government—the National Assembly for Wales (NAfW). Although this still meant staying firmly attached within the British state and having fewer powers than the concurrent Parliament established in Scotland, it represents one of the most significant developments in Welsh politics since Wales’ institutional incorporation into the English legal system during the sixteenth century. At the same time an extremely marginal referendum vote, and the objections raised regarding its alleged inferior status and powers, it had no legislative and tax varying powers beyond the drafting of secondary legislation, were seen to point to a continuing uncertainty in Wales regarding its status as a political nation.

With an overall vote of just 50.3 % in favour, the referendum was passed with an actual majority of less than 6000. Moreover, only 50.1 % of Wales’ 2.2 million voters chose to vote. Regional disparities were also apparent. The border constituencies in the East and North East tended to vote No, while the constituencies of the predominantly Welsh-speaking West and North West tended to vote Yes. The southern Welsh valleys, traditionally heartlands of the Labour Party in Wales, also, on the whole, voted Yes. According to one survey conducted in conjunction with the referendum itself, only 18 % of English-born people living in Wales supported the establishment of a devolved government (Wyn Jones and Trystan). Analysis by Denver et al. (2000) found that voting in the referendum was associated with class identity. Thus, whereas a narrow majority of 52 % of working-class identifiers in Wales voted Yes, only 41 % of middle class identifiers did so. As described earlier, non-Welsh-born individuals are over-represented within middle-class occupations in Wales.

Moreover, it appears that around two-thirds of Labour Party identifiers voted Yes (Denver et al. 2000).

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