The other referendum that nobody but politicians cares about

by Dave Collins

2am, Friday 14th January 2011. Dog-tired, dishevelled and slightly drunk, I am sitting in the back of a pub near with a handful of comrades in similar states of exhaustion. It has been a long day. Half-full glasses and damp winter clothing abound. We await Debbie Abrahams and her retinue. The young woman across from me, trying to sustain flagging conversation, asks “So what exactly are you folk in Wales voting on”?  I stare into my beer and consider how to reply… Some oaf knocks a drink over. Once the debris has been sorted, reparations offered and accepted, the conversation moves on…

This is what I should have said:

The v2.0 government of Wales act (2006), was a political compromise, but it was also an innovative attempt to build a partnership approach into Welsh lawmaking. Parliament would assent in principle to the assembly having the right to legislate in defined matters within the devolved fields, but then the precise formulation and effect of the law was left to the assembly to determine. It might have been a neat halfway house system, which addressed the West Lothian question in a novel way, had the political will existed to make it work. But the ink was barely dry before the formation in June 2007 of a Labour/Plaid Cymru assembly government, centrally committed to triggering the fallback provision, also in the act, of dispensing with the Parliamentary approval requirement for laws within the devolved fields via a further referendum. Essentially this was a move to v2.1.

As a general principle, in a Parliamentary democracy, national and territorial referendums should be rare and concerned with simple issues of major importance. Parliament should not pass the buck by calling for a plebiscite except in situations where there is benefit in a decision being settled with lesser likelihood of being tampered with than a normal act of Parliament.

Thursday’s question ”Do you want the assembly now to be able to make laws in the 20 subject areas it has powers for, without needing the UK Parliament’s agreement?” is neither simple nor of first order constitutional import. A bit like AV in fact. Unlike AV, though, the Welsh “Yes” camp covers every Welsh party with representation in the assembly or Commons, not to mention the churches and trade unions. No serious politician is campaigning against it. In short, there is no good reason that the change could not have been made by Parliament simply amending the statute at the assembly’s unanimous request.

Although all main parties are signed up to a “Yes”, the ground campaign has been dominated by Plaid activists. With the assembly election itself in May, the rest of us left them to get on with it. They may be able to mount a turnout operation in Carmarthen, but I don’t see much sign that they are capable of it in Cardiff (beside Pontcanna) or the other centres of population.

Still, the Yes campaign is properly organised and well funded. Stuffed with ex SPADs and lobbyists who make a tidy living out of devolution, plugged into the crachach, chaired by the chief exec of the Wales rugby union and with a string of celebrities in support it is like a BMW parked next to the curious tandem of largely Gwent based Old Labour and Tories, who make the “No” case. Lacking a Declan Garney or James Goldsmith billionaire sugardaddy, despite being fairly ably fronted by an articulate woman primary schoolteacher  – who could teach most AMs a thing or two about communication – the No effort has no ground campaign whatever and has been unable to win media coverage beyond the obligatory “balance” requirements.

With popular awareness of the assembly limited, knowledge of the referendum tiny, and caring about the result more miniscule still, this referendum should at least help establish the absolute bedrock of turnout. How many people there are out there who will find out about and vote in literally anything they are eligible to vote in?

Although the change is technical and fairly minor of itself, if it passes, as the polling and betting suggests it probably will, the vote will raise the popular legitimacy of devolution in Wales. The 1997 referendum “yes” was won only by a whisker (50.3% v 49.7%) on a 50 percent turnout. In 1979 the margin was almost four to one against.

Whereas a “no” victory would park the bus for a decade, a “yes” will lead to increasingly voluble Welsh protests about the Barnett formula and pressure to widen the devolution settlement to encompass areas such as broadcasting (S4C), policing, some bits of the benefits system (e.g. housing benefit or attendance allowance) and possibly public service pay bargaining arrangements. By 2015 some of this will likely find its way into Labour policy. As Ron Davies admitted in 1997, devolution is ”a process, not an event”. How it will evolve over the course of decades is anyone’s guess. That it will is beyond doubt. Our legislation will gradually diverge from England’s over time, but only anoraks will really notice.

Wales will not be independent until a majority desire it (so not in our lifetimes), but it seems likely to keep evolving into a more distinctive national polity and a less dependent relationship with Westminster. Power devolved is also, however, power retained. What Parliament grants, Parliament can after all revoke.

Dave Collins lives in Cardiff. He has worked for the Party and in the Welsh Assembly.

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2 Responses to “The other referendum that nobody but politicians cares about”

  1. Tacitus says:

    It is a travesty that Scotland and Northern Ireland can determine much of their own affairs whilst poor old Wales has to bow before an English government. Owain Glyndwr must be turning in his grave.

    Labour should be fighting alongside our comrade in Plaid Cymru to push Wales to greater independence and freedom from the shackles of Westminster.

  2. Henrik says:

    Great idea, Tacitus. Once Scotland and Wales are independent, that’s the end of Labour – and England will still be the 6th or 7th largest economy in the world.

    Devolution must inevitably lead to the end of the Union – which is arguably going to be pretty good news if you’re English (especially in the South), but probably considerably less so if you’re Welsh or Scottish.

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