Devolution in retrospect

Extract from Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012).

An extract from the ending of my book, written in early 2011. It’s a bit optimistic in terms of whether arguments over what Wales is have really disappeared but in today’s social media world small things are amplified giving a false impression of their frequency and significance. The basic argument still holds good I think. Devolution is a product and signal of a change in Welsh identity.

In such an outward-looking context, the National Assembly for Wales (NAW) was always going to struggle to engage and involve the Welsh people, a majority of whom chose to not even vote in its elections.  Much of Welsh politics thus resembled a private game, carried on in corridors and on websites inhabited and read by a few, overlooked even by the mass of Wales’ own media.  Post-devolution, most people’s lives in Wales simply carried on much as before.  The NAW existed on the peripheries of their vision, coming into focus only at certain times, such as when their son or daughter went off to university or when an election leaflet dropped through their letterbox, although even then it might go straight in the bin.

Before the advent of devolution, Ron Davies, its key architect, had argued that it would ‘only succeed if it can deliver a better quality of life and higher standards of living’. He was wrong.  For all the limited impacts of its policies and the general apathy that surrounded its workings, with astonishing speed devolution became an accepted part of Wales and a symbol of Welsh nationhood, one that stepped into void left by the disappearance of older symbols like coal and religion.

Moreover, the popular legitimacy that the NAW gained was remarkable when set in the context of post-war history.  Gone were the old arguments over what Wales meant or whether the language mattered or even whether Wales could enjoy a modicum of self-government and still survive.  Some of this may have been at the expense of Wales’s cultural uniqueness but it was to the benefit of Wales’s nationhood and more of the Welsh people felt Welsher than ever before.

But that did not mean the nation meant the same thing to everyone.  It was still a very personalized identity, based on individual experiences and outlooks, but it was much easier to feel part of a nation that was not too closely defined or indeed defined at all.  The Welsh nation was still part of a wider British and global civic and cultural space, but it was a nation in its own right too.

In the twenty-first century that might seem a rather odd thing to say but set against the previous seventy years of history Wales’s survival could not always be taken for granted.  Moreover, Wales now had a political function and a political meaning as the creation of the NAW gave everyone in Wales a democratic citizenship.  They might not have noticed or have even cared but it happened all the same.

 

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Memories of Wales says Yes 1997

On 18 September 1997, the Welsh electorate narrowly voted ‘Yes’ on the question: “Do you agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly as proposed by the Government?” The turnout was 50.1%. The Yes majority was 6,721.

At the time, I was a student in Cardiff and very excited by the prospect of devolution.  It was a chance to recognise Welsh nationality and form a different kind of democracy after 18 years of Conservative government.  Like the election of Tony Blair earlier in the year, it seemed to offer a new beginning and I took the opportunity to speak to as many people as possible about it.

My overriding memory of the time, however, is the indifference of most people I knew. Some were clearly in the Yes camp, especially if they spoke Welsh and/or supported Plaid Cymru.  My friends who had voted Labour a few months before were far less enthusiastic. Indeed, many of those who were English seemed to regard the issue as nothing really to do with them.  Some actually stated it should be a decision for those who were Welsh rather than living in Wales.

Even amongst those who were Welsh, there was sometimes a sense that somehow this was a vote on whether Wales’s future should be in the UK. One friend from a Valleys town was distrustful of my arguments because she said I was too “into the Welsh thing”. Others seemed to feel it was too soon after the election of a new government to make such a decision. The Tories had been in power nearly all our lives and some people seemed to want to see how government by New Labour would pan out first.  Few such people probably voted ‘No’ but not many voted ‘Yes’ either.

There may have been little enthusiasm but there was also little active hostility. Only one person told me he was voting No because he wanted less government, not more.

Looking back, I can’t remember why I did not get involved in the Yes campaign. Perhaps I did not know how at a time when the internet was in its infancy. I did get a Yes poster from somewhere and put it up in the window. It was the only poster on our street.

Despite my numerous conversations, it never occurred to me that the Yes campaign might not win.  Just as during the EU referendum, I was assuming that common sense would win out, despite the conversations I was having with people who thought otherwise.  As results night progressed, and it looked like No would win, I got depressed, as much with my own misreading of the situation as with the situation itself.

When Carmarthen, the last county to declare, swung the result, I was ecstatic. I felt I should go onto the streets to celebrate this momentous occasion of national importance.  But I knew no one else would be there. I did open the door but it was raining.

Instead, I watched television pictures of a party somewhere. In the background, I noticed the woman who lived next door. I had never spoken to her and felt a moment of guilt about the lack of community on our street. I wondered why she had not put up a poster in her window.

The next day, no one seemed that excited. A friend who I had persuaded to vote Yes told me she had meant to but the rain had deterred her. I’d like to think the margin would have been better had the sun been out but that would another delusion.  1997 changed Wales forever but it did so on the back of little widespread enthusiasm.