I recently celebrated two anniversaries, my wedding anniversary and a day later 20 years since the second Welsh devolution referendum. I was an activist, a committed pro-devolutionist. Indeed, I campaigned for devolution in 1979. To me, devolution is about decentralising power and politics closer to people. I worked with others from across the parties and none, to set up an Assembly for Wales – it was exciting! Within Labour, I made the case against an over centralised British State and the sense of pride in our nations, regions and communities.
In 1979 Wales overwhelmingly rejected the setting up of an Assembly. It took almost two decades of an unpopular, over centralising Tory Government for Wales to reflect. It also took a growing section of Labour Party, under the Leadership of John Smith to adopt devolution as party politics. John Smith is one of my political mentors, his sense of true social justice included greater democracy and bringing governance closer to the people.
A Tight Vote – Anglesey & Wales
Another one of my political mentors was Cledwyn Hughes. Ever since he became MP for Anglesey in 1951, he was an active campaigner for a parliament for Wales. He was the second Secretary of State for Wales; following the great Jim Griffiths. In the 1960’s the Wilson Government had set up the department and cabinet post, reflecting the need for a distinct Welsh voice in the UK Government. I had numerous conversations with Cledwyn on the issue of devolution, the reflection in 79; why not the same powers as Scotland? Cledwyn was a wise man and I recall him saying – you have to bring the people with us; he was right. While I pay tribute to Ron Davies and his Welsh Labour team, Richard Livsey and the Lib Dems, Dafydd Wigley for their position in the run up to the 1997 referendum. It was Cledwyn and his generation along with John Smith that were the real ‘architects of devolution’. Indeed I recall visiting Cledwyn with Rhodri Morgan at Cledwyn’s home, as we left, Rhodri said we wouldn’t have an Assembly if it wasn’t for the likes of Cledwyn. Wise words indeed.
The result of the 1997 referendum was close, very close! As I went around the doors and events in 1997, I knew it would be. Anglesey, like Wales itself, was split. At the Anglesey count, I had mixed emotions; we had a Yes vote, just 50.9% to 49.1%, a majority of just over 500 - This almost mirrored the Welsh result of 50.3% for Yes to 49.7% No. As we left the count on the radio, it was predicting a No. Carmarthen changed the outcome, Neath and Port Talbot had the biggest Yes vote, yet Cardiff voted No as did many counties in the North of Wales. Turnout was low. However, it was remarkable that in 20 years when the plans for an Assembly were rejected by 4 to 1.
In 1997, the UK had a new Labour Government with a popular Prime Minister and it honoured its pledge to hold a referendum in Wales, Scotland and for a London Assembly. A true legacy to John Smith. I add London because people forget that they too were given a democratic voice via an Assembly to oversee people after that voice was abolished by the Tory Government with the scrapping of the GLC.
I think that the UK Labour Government put the proposals for regional assemblies early in its first term we would have a more balanced, more democratic UK. I say this as a federalist, a democrat and a communitarian.
A New Assembly - the first 18 years.
The Yes vote in 1997 however close, was a new dawn for governance in Wales. My assessment of the first 20 years of devolution and 18 years of an elected Welsh Assembly is favourable. From a standing start the Assembly has grown, it is now set in the fabric of Welsh Governance. This is a big achievement for an institution less than a quarter of a century old. It has pioneered many social policies, from free prescriptions, organ transplants and free travel on buses for many. It does have challenges on education and health although it is spending a high proportion on health and it has cut less to local authorities than England during the extended period of austerity.
It has had popular leaders including the current First Minister Carwyn Jones who has adapted Welsh Labour and been successful at elections as did his predecessor Rhodri Morgan. Rhodri’s ‘clear red water’ remark was more than just a soundbite, it was a statement of intent and is in tune with the Welsh nation. Other parties have struggled, the Tories, just opposed devolution now fully embrace the concept, Plaid Cymru have had its ups but mostly downs since the first Assembly election in 1999. While it is supportive, it does not really want devolution to succeed too much as its whole reason for being; independence would be lost. The Lib Dems have suffered from its UK position and in 2016 UKIP polled high and secured the anti-establishment bounce and won seats. In 2011, another referendum gave the Assembly greater powers. It was a reflection of trust in the institution.
A lot done – more to do!
Twenty years ago, the concerns of the electorate about Welsh devolution have not completely gone away. In the North, the perception of it been to South Wales and Cardiff centric still exists. As I go around my Ynys Môn constituency, I still hear this and the fact that North West Wales AM’s have embraced the institution of the Assembly, and are seen as too Cardiff centric. This may be unfair, but it needs addressing. The North-South argument is not new, but it is real. I lobbied Rhodri Morgan for a greater presence of the Assembly in the North and while I welcome the Llandudno Junction office, an air link bringing Cardiff to just an hour from Anglesey. More has to be done to win over more hearts and minds. I advocate a session of the Assembly in the North and across Wales as it would give a sense of real presence across Wales. I say this as a genuine devolutionist and hold the position I did 20 years ago when I said devolution has to be more than transferring power from London down the M4 to Cardiff but from Cardiff Bay to Colwyn Bay, Cemaes Bay and Cardigan Bay, that to me is real devolution. This I believe would increase turnout in Assembly elections, which is low for a new institution of course our capital city should be central to our nation’s politics – but not exclusive to it.
Welsh Devolution and the Assembly has been a success; but it must do more, it is a process not an event. A process that started well before 1979 as the pioneers of Cymru Fydd and a Parliament for Wales are to be applauded.
1997 was an epoch in Welsh democracy, in building a more inclusive Wales. I do celebrate the land mark and look forward to further development as an optimist who remembers how pre-devolution looked. We must now look ahead to greater delivery and take the people with us. I am proud to have campaigned for a Yes vote, I will work as an MP to make it even better for the people of Wales. A partnership between local, Welsh and the UK Government is possible, it’s what people want.