The creation of the Welsh Office…

It’s 50 years since the Welsh Office was created. Here’s an extract from my book Wales since 1939 that outlines the background behind its creation and the growth of Welsh administrative devolution.

Fears about the economic future in the late 1940s and early 1950s had also created demands within the Labour Party for some official recognition of distinct Welsh needs and a distinct Welsh identity.  In an acknowledgement that Wales did at least exist as an economic, administrative and cultural unit, a Council for Wales and Monmouthshire had been set up in 1949 as a non-elected advisory body to the government.  It came under the chairmanship of Huw T. Edwards, a Caernarfonshire trade unionist whose profile through the 1950s saw him dubbed the ‘unofficial prime minister of Wales’.  Looking back in 1958, a civil servant argued that the council had probably be intended as ‘relatively meaningless sop’ but Edwards’ personality had seen it gain a good deal of importance.  Through the 1950s the Council did keep up the pressure on the government to create a Welsh Office and Secretary of State, framing its demands more in terms of effective government than national recognition.  The Council was taken seriously by government but Edwards resigned in 1958 after it became apparent that it was not going introduce a Secretary of State. The government interpreted the Council’s demands as a desire for parity with Scotland but feared that should that be granted then Scotland might demand further devolution.  Given that Wales was operating under the same legal system, it foresaw that any Secretary of State would have to follow different policies to England in order not to make the position superfluous.  This, it feared, would be difficult to explain and would lead to inequalities that would be especially manifest in the Marches where social and economic ties crossed the border.  It also worried about the costs and administrative complexity of forming yet another department and feared controversy over the position of Monmouthshire, which it regarded as an English county but one that by tradition would have to be included in Welsh administration.

There was some popular support for devolving some powers from London.  In 1956 the Parliament for Wales campaign presented a petition with 240,652 signatures, representing some fourteen percent of the Welsh electorate.  Gwynfor Evans estimated that 80 percent of the people asked had signed it.  This was the culmination of a six-year campaign that had included leading figures from Labour, the Liberals and Plaid Cymru.  But it won no sympathy with the government or most of the press.  The Cardiff Labour MP George Thomas thought the Welsh people needed saving from themselves, while David Llewellyn, a Tory MP in the same city, even drew parallels between the campaign and Mein Kampf.  The lack of specificity in the campaign’s claims probably made it easier to collect signatures but the internal disagreements within the campaign over what Wales’ problems actually were and how a parliament would solve them undermined its political influence.  At the end of 1956, one of the leading figures in the campaign reflected ‘All the petition’s papers are now in cardboard boxes, one on top of each other, rotting through dampness’. The campaign did help raise the profile of Plaid Cymru and was another step towards the gradual construction of a proto-Welsh state but ultimately its failure marked a widespread satisfaction with the status quo.  This was clear when the South Wales area of the NUM voted against the campaign, fearing it would undermine the UK bargaining position of the union.

The Tryweryn revolt, the reports of the Council for Wales and the Parliament for Wales campaign may not have secured their immediate objectives but cumulatively they encouraged government to take specifically Welsh interests seriously.  In 1958, civil servants anticipated that Plaid Cymru could grow if Welsh feelings were ‘handled tactlessly’ and if there was a fusion between the party and elements within Labour that were ‘more Welsh than Socialist’.  The key to avoiding this, they felt, lay in persuading Wales that the government was taking its economic welfare seriously and dispelling the ‘widespread notion that people in England neither know nor care whether the Welsh and Welsh culture fare well or ill’.  Seven months earlier the Prime Minister had told his cabinet, “There is a general feeling among Welsh people that their particular interests are not receiving the attention which they should and we shall need to be specially careful and sympathetic in our handling of Welsh affairs at the present time if we are to prevent the Welsh Nationalist movement from gaining ground.”

In response to pressure from Welsh MPs for a Secretary for State for Wales, the Conservatives had already introduced a Minister of Welsh Affairs in 1951, a post held by an existing Cabinet member with a different portfolio.  Although the minister did not have a government department, the position did ensure someone within the Cabinet with a specific remit to look after and act on Welsh interests.  The first holder was the Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, a Scottish lawyer, who tried to defuse criticism that he was not Welsh by claiming that that one of his ancestors had led an army from Scotland which tried to join Owain Glyndwr.  He proved the worth of the post by shelving unpopular forestry and military plans for Welsh land. Although there were still the occasional controversy – such as the government’s 1960 appointment of a non-Welsh speaker as National Governor of the BBC in Wales – there were significant signs of increased sensitivity to Wales.  In 1958, a Festival of Wales was held under the government’s auspices. It culminated in the holding of the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff and the announcement by the Queen that Charles would be made Prince of Wales.  The introduction of county rather than national referenda on Sunday opening in 1961 was a concession for rural Wales, as was the main Mid Wales railway line’s survival of the Beeching cut. The government began giving financial support for the publishing of Welsh-language school books in 1954, and the 1959 Eisteddfod Act allowed local authorities to support financially the National Eisteddfod.  In 1958, a new steel development went to Llanwern rather than Scotland after anger in Wales that the Forth Bridge had been given priority over the Severn Bridge, despite the Minister for Welsh Affairs arguing the Severn’s case to combat the ‘wide and deep distrust of the Government’s attitude towards Wales’. Cardiff was made the official capital of Wales in 1955 and four years later government pressure on Buckingham Palace led to the Red Dragon being declared the official national flag.  These Conservative concessions were the result of external pressure on the party but they also show how the existence of a minister for Wales and then sensitivity over Tryweryn increased the influence of Welsh interests in government.

In contrast, internal pressure from Labour MPs, not least James Griffiths, led that party to finally commit itself to creating a Secretary of State for Wales, a promise which it honoured when it returned to power in 1964.  Not everyone in government was enamoured.  In his diary, Richard Crossman called the Welsh Office an ‘idiotic creation’ and ‘completely artificial’.  There was also some concern in the north that Wales’s voice in Cabinet would actually diminish because the post meant Welsh affairs would be treated separately after England had been looked at.  The Secretary of State would be ‘a lone voice, and one can only hope for the best’ one paper surmised.  But one immediate benefit was felt.  The new department took the importance of expanding the M4 far more seriously than the Ministry of Transport and plans were quickly put in place for a series of new sections that would open through the 1970s.

The full and referenced version of this text can be found in Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012), available in paperback, hardback and on Kindle.

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What next? Some back of the envelope thinking

It was nowhere near as close as many hoped or feared but 1.6m UK citizens still said they wanted out. The prime minister has reaffirmed his commitment to the vague devo-max promises made late in the day.  Fearing the rise of UKIP, his backbenchers insist that the ‘English question’ needs sorting too. Despite the uncertainties, constitutional change is coming.

Scotland will sort itself out I’m sure. The backlash would be too great if they did not get something acceptable to the Scottish government.  The Tory  backbenchers would no doubt like to see public spending in Scotland brought into line with England but the PM seems to have committed to the Barnett formula that allows higher Scottish spending, while oil revenues offer him a justification to defend that.

The problem with committing to Barnett is that it hurts Wales. Unlike Scotland, Wales gets more from the public purse than it pays in (maybe £12billion a year) but  if its block grant was funded on the same basis as Scotland it would get another £300m a year.  (I’m simplifying but that’s basically the case).

The UK government could of course just change the Barnett formula so Wales and Scotland were treated equitably. However, a greater ‘hand out’ to Wales will not go down well with the backbenchers or the English nationalist party that masquerades as UKIP. It might also mean less cash for Scotland. A future Labour UK government does appear to have promised some sort of Barnett reform  but the details are vague and, anyway, they’re not in power.

Cameron has to face up to solving the Barnett issue because without doing that he can’t deliver “English votes for English issues”. At the moment, the level of public spending in England helps determine the size of the Welsh and Scottish block grants. Thus any vote on, say, English education that involves a change to spending levels is not an England-only issue because it affects the Welsh and Scottish budgets.  Welsh and Scottish MPs will continue to be justified in voting on English issues for as long as Barnett continues.

Thus any constitutional reform of England has to first address how Wales and Scotland are funded.  But it is surely not impossible to come up with a new formula that calculates the Welsh and Scottish block grants based on an equitable assessment of their needs (i.e. the extent of deprivation there and the cost of delivering services).

Once you have a new formula there is nothing to stop a federal parliamentary system for the UK, the ‘home rule for all’ option. Here the Commons becomes the English Parliament and the parliaments of all four nations have fiscal and domestic responsibilities. The Lords, meanwhile, is replaced with a UK-wide new elected chamber that deals with defence and other UK-wide issues. England has a first minister. The UK has a prime minister. They might belong to different parties.

There might need to be some policy alignments between the nations or a retention of some UK-wide domestic issues.  For example, significantly different levels of unemployment benefit and state pensions could lead to some awkward population movements.  But you could leave welfare payments (except housing benefit which is ultimately a local issue) at a UK level.

Most importantly, a federal UK could only work if there was some form of wealth redistribution between the nations. This happens within the EU and would be the cost of retaining some form of political unity and collective safety. In essence what would happen is that Wales and Northern Ireland, using whatever replaced Barnett, would get a subsidy from England, plugging the hole in their finances. If they wanted to spend beyond that they would have to use their tax and borrowing powers.

UKIP would moan but surely would not be in an electoral position to do much about it now the England question is solved.  (The EU issue would still be there but I have enough faith in the English electorate to vote to stay in any European referendum .) Labour would lose some influence in England but not in the UK. They won’t like that but democracy means it is unfair for them to govern England unless they can get a majority there. The Tories would be happy because they  had saved the union, increased their influence in England and hurt UKIP.  National identity in the four nations would be recognized.

The biggest question mark would be whether the English electorate would accept the subsidy of Wales and Northern Ireland.  But that already exists and polls say they want to keep the union and believe in social justice. This is the cost.

I’m sure the devil is in the detail but I’ve put the same level of thought into this as the back of the envelope vows made by the UK parties just before the referendum.