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Why Did The Devolution Referendums Fail In Wales History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The devolutionary debates that have occurred across Wales and Scotland have been the single most important factor linking Welsh political distinctiveness throughout the last three centuries. Similarly to the 1997 referendum, the results of 1979’s polls have inevitably generated various questions and debates regarding the nature of contemporary Welsh society and politics within its period. Its failure has thus attracted ample debate amongst historians, in addition to its focus on a much broader picture of Welsh society during 1979, for example the importance of national identity, cultural pride, political independence, and the steady growth of a ‘Welsh political system’. With hindsight therefore, one could argue that the failure of 1979 was inevitable, predictable, a pragmatic rebel against a ‘last resort institution.’ This essay will therefore focus on the factors which contributed to the unpopularity of the proposed political system of 1979 that ultimately resulted in the profound failure of the referendums in Scotland and in Wales.

One factor noted by John Morris for the scale of defeat regarding the 1979 devolution, was the political and economic circumstances of the period. One must note that the 1979 referendums were held at the end of the government’s term in office, thus creating a foundation for national unpopularity and the hardship of attaining popular support for the regime. Harold Wilson thus had a strenuous start – having to rule the country without a majority of votes in the Commons after the general election of February 1974. As a result, the Labour Party was highly reliant on the support of the Liberal Democrats and of the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists to ensure that its political programme was adopted by the Commons. This therefore, clearly highlights Labour’s unstable political climate that resulted in an inevitable high number of opposition, unpopularity and criticism. Labour, therefore, were in no suitable position for political security in order to encourage the ‘lift-off’ for devolution in 1979.

Moreover, on the economic front, the Labour government was confronted with high rates of inflation and increasing unemployment. The poor economic conditions therefore quickened the forthcoming of the ‘Winter of Discontent,’ where strikes stemmed from the private sector in 1978, soon to spread to the public sector in 1979. The poor ‘Yes’ campaign, the weak nature of the proposals, the split in Labour ranks and lack of manoeuvre due to Labour’s minority in government therefore highlights the party’s struggle to secure popular support and to inform the public of the system proposed. The economic conditions thus stressed the general political climate and the unpopularity of government during the ‘winter of discontent.’

In Scotland the debate was also focused upon the potential difficulties in implementing the 40 per cent rule. Although designed by its proposers as an objective hurdle to assure strong popular support for constitutional change, the 1979 devolution campaign presented civil servants and electoral registration officials with great problems of operation. As the size of the electorate involved, rather than the number of votes cast, was to be the deciding factor, the accuracy of the register became crucial. Until very late in the actual referendum campaign, the likelihood of devolution not succeeding seemed very remote, especially in Scotland. However, as the results showed, it was decisively rejected in Wales and only narrowly endorsed in Scotland. Clearly, either the political elites seriously misinterpreted the popular will or popular opinion rapidly changed. Moreover, survey evidence suggests the latter and significant shifts in public opinion appear to have occurred, particularly during the last weeks of the campaign, thus citizen confusion, uncertainty and fear of change greatly added to the defeat of devolution in 1979.

National uncertainty is thus a key factor resulting in the defeat of 1979’s devolution in Scotland and in Wales. In both Scotland and Wales, the ‘Yes’ campaign was divided and poorly organised, while the ‘No’ campaign, dominated by the Conservative Party, was both well-funded, well organised and contained powerful and appealing arguments. One must therefore note that during the 1979 referendum campaigns, the failure of the party in government to speak with one voice undoubtedly contributed to creating a sense of confusion amongst Labour supporters, not to mention the Scottish and Welsh population at large. In addition to the lack of information produced by the Labour government, some devolutionists themselves, such as Sir Alec Douglas-Home, preached in 1979 that voting ‘No’ in the referendum did not necessarily mean that one was opposed to devolution in principle, but in addition to the flawed proposals of the Labour Government. One must also consider that the ‘No’ campaign was launched before the ‘Yes’ campaign, thus resulting in a developed knowledge of the negative aspects of the proposals and dominating argument against devolution as a whole.

Another factor contributing to the failure of 1979’s referendums was the on-going strength of the opposition movements which succeeded in portraying devolution as an unnecessary, costly layer of government. The devolution campaign was handicapped by severe wintry weather and by much greater concern with industrial disputes by public service workers. In addition to an all-party ‘YesTo The Assembly’ campaign, the Labour Party and the Welsh TUC launched their own crusade in order to persuade Welsh opinion of the merits of the devolution proposals. However, having said this, it was in fact the opponents of the assembly who dominated the debate throughout. Much criticism regarding the cost of creating another tier of government on top of the county and district councils existed. For example, Leo Abse hinted darkly of the prospects of further corruption that might occur following devolution. Another theme that emerged amongst the Welsh was the fear that a new assembly and its civil service might be run by a Welsh-speaking elite from the rural areas of Wales. The force of this was far from clear since any assembly would be overwhelmingly dominated by the anglicised urban population of the south. Nevertheless, strong social and cultural divisions, similarly to that of the Cymru Fydd crisis, loomed up again during the devolution campaign of 1979.

Furthermore, Duncan Tanner and Andrew Evans argue that the opposition may have contained elements of ‘fear, prejudices, British patriotism, or even left-wing belief in class unity against ethnic sentimentality.’ However, they also stress that ‘close behind was a more reasoned case, based on the economic benefits of the existing system, the weakness of the counter proposals, and a preference for other forms of decentralisation.’ Tanner and Edwards also argue that rather than opposing the principle of devolution, many people, including nationalists, opposed the type of Assembly proposed in 1979. As a result of these factors therefore, the increasing unpopularity of the government after the winter of industrial discontent and the increasing majorities amongst the Welsh electors against the assembly clearly shown in the opinion polls was not at all surprising.

The notion of national identity is therefore another factor that contributed to the failure of the devolution referendums in 1979. Martin Johnes has suggested that one cannot fully understand the scale of the defeat without consideration to the fears and divisions that characterised Welsh citizens. The idea of national identity coincides with the defeat of the devolution campaign greatly, and it had become increasingly influential amongst those who spoke the Welsh language, or those who simply identified themselves as Welsh within this period. Welsh speaking citizens thus opposed devolution in 1979 in addition to their regional fears. Already feeling slightly detached from the growing industrial capital, Welsh speakers who lived in rural areas feared a ‘north and south divide’ – a divide between Welsh and English speaking Wales and the destruction of the sense of Welshness. The gradual politicization of people’s sense of Welshness therefore, did not translate into support for nationalism or for devolution. Furthermore, Merfyn Jones suggests that the deep and dangerous fears stemmed not from different political philosophies, but instead from different ideas of identity. However, others view the defeat as a denial of Welshness itself and as a defeat for Welshness, as a declaration that the notion of Welsh nationality was unacceptable to the majority of people in Wales. Having said this, John Osmond argues that the identity of Wales was not a contributing factor to the failure of the 1979 referendums as 57% of the Welsh electorate considered themselves to be Welsh, 34% British and 8% English. However, only a minority of Welsh identifiers voted ‘Yes’ to the regime.

Alternatively, Tanner and Edwards’s work on opinion polls, Welsh identity and devolution as a whole, suggest that ‘polls were used to create an idea that there was a single and strong sense of national identity in the 1960s.’ Tanner and Edward simply propose that those who opposed devolution in 1979 were able to ‘construct the terms of debate, to exploit divisions between people, many of whom who saw themselves as ‘Welsh’, or to draw a line between ‘Welshness’ and ‘devolution’. It is therefore clear that the significance of the relative nationalist upsurge in Wales after 1960 is peculiarly hard for the historian to assess. In many ways, it was greatly ephemeral, the product of the temporary and purely local discontents at by-elections which tended to subside when the government of Britain generally was at issue. The idea of a separation from England seemed as remote as ever amongst the Welsh electorate, and thus the shatteringly conclusive referendum on devolution was a foreseeable situation.

It is therefore clear that much of the nationalism of post 1960 seemed in any case peculiarly inbred. The devolution campaign thus attracted boredom or open hostility from the general mass of the Welsh and Scottish population, especially those in urban and industrial communities in south-east Wales. It has been noted that the devolution of 1979 was thus only appealing to those of strong Welsh roots, Welsh speakers and the ‘Welsh extremist.’ As Vernon Bogdanor suggests – the 1997 devolution won through an alliance of Welsh speaking Wales, the heartland of the north-west, and the industrial Wales of the valleys -‘It seemed, by comparison with the 1979 result, to show that Welsh identity was becoming less divisive and that a sense of Welshness was growing irrespective of language, a sense of Welshness which may be more deep-seated than analysis have noticed.’ Similarly to this, Neal Ascherson states that although the weakness of the parties and politicians were an underlying reason for the failure of the devolution in Scotland, he believes the explanation lies with the ‘St Andrews Fault’. With assessment of opinion polls, the Scott’s, like the Welsh, were committed to an independent state. However, he also suggests that party and class loyalty was far stronger than feelings of self-government – for example, in 1979 thousands of men and women voted ‘No’ or did not vote at all in order to ‘dish the SNP’, although in fact they wanted a devolved or even an independent Scotland. Scotland therefore, simply desired to run its own affairs – ‘For most people, devolution and independence are little more than different uniforms which can be buttoned over the single reality of self-government.’ Following this therefore, pragmatism, national identity, cultural stubbornness and the fear of divisions within Wales and in Scotland were primarily responsible for the defeat of devolution in 1979.


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