Watching Wales

Welsh devolution is a messy compromise between those who do not want it at all and those who want more. Unlike the Scots, the Welsh are not prepared for change
August 19, 1997

Have pity on Ron Davies, leader but also prisoner of the Labour party in Wales. The spectre which must haunt him is the 1979 referendum, when the Welsh Labour party split and the people of Wales rejected by four to one the Labour government's proposals for a Welsh assembly. In the month when the new government publishes its White Papers on devolution to Scotland and Wales, is history about to repeat itself?

In one respect, yes: the devolution debate and referendum in Scotland will overshadow the referendum in Wales and receive much more media attention. But the referendum in Wales is the one to watch, because the result is too close to call. Once again the Labour party is split. Not as seriously as in 1979, when Neil Kinnock and Leo Abse led the "gang of six" Labour MPs who campaigned against the government's proposals; but Llew Smith MP has come out against, and half a dozen other Welsh Labour MPs are thought to have strong reservations.

But Llew Smith is no Neil Kinnock; the doubters have no real leader. They could still, however, upset the current compromise, which continues to be the halfway house of executive devolution only, offered in 1979. This represents a carefully constructed deal between the doubters, who want no form of devolution; and the enthusiasts, who want the Welsh assembly to have the same legislative and tax-raising powers as the Scottish parliament.

The Welsh assembly will only have the power to adapt laws made in Westminster to the needs of Wales. Most experts doubt whether this can be made to work. A well intentioned Westminster parliament-such as the present one- might confer broad delegated powers; but a different parliament (perhaps controlled by a different party) might leave no room for local discretion at all.

If the assembly is to develop (or preserve) separate policies for Wales in areas such as local government, education or the NHS, it will need legislative powers. Otherwise it will be dependent on the legislation prepared by Whitehall and passed at Westminster, where the government will have a different agenda and other priorities. New Labour in London may in practice find little legislative time for old Labour in Wales; the Conservatives presumably even less so.

Opinion polls in Wales have consistently shown that those in favour of an assembly want it to have limited law-making and tax-raising powers. This is the model favoured by the Liberal Democrats and by Plaid Cymru, and it is how Ron Davies sees the assembly evolving in due course; but it will not be the model on offer in the White Paper. Pro-devolutionists can summon up little enthusiasm for Labour's proposals; they may not be willing to campaign for them or help get out the vote. If there is a low turn-out the referendum could conceivably be lost-not necessarily because of hostility to devolution in Wales, but simply because of lack of enthusiasm for the watered-down version the government has put on offer.

The contrast with Scotland is remarkable. There the "yes" campaign is well organised; it can draw on supporters from all the pro-devolution parties to help get out the vote. It is building on the achievements of the Scottish constitutional convention, which provided a vehicle in Scotland for Labour and Liberal Democrats to sit down together with others and make joint plans for a Scottish parliament. In Wales, Labour's compromise policy was too fragile to expose to cross-party discussion in this way. Wales has no tradition of cross-party working; and there has been little public debate outside the narrow confines of the Labour party. This lack of a wider debate shows up in the opinion polls, where in Wales the "don't knows" still hold the balance, ranging from 20 to 25 per cent; while in Scotland the proportion of "don't knows" has shrunk to between 2 and 5 per cent.

The referendum should help to generate a public debate, but with both referendums planned for September there will not be much opportunity for a separate debate in Wales. National media coverage (which is all that most Welsh households ever receive) will focus overwhelmingly on Scotland. Holding the Welsh referendum a week or two behind Scotland's will help a little, and may encourage the Welsh to follow the Scottish lead; but it is far too short a period for a national discussion of the kind the Scots have been holding over the last eight years.

Devolution presents the Welsh with a challenge for which they are ill-prepared. Suspicions and divisions remain strong: between the north and south of the principality; between the English and Welsh-speaking communities; between Labour and the minority parties. Many fear the assembly will be dominated by one or other of these interests-in particular by the Labour party in south Wales. If the referendum is to be carried, Labour will have to reach out beyond its traditional supporters and develop a bolder vision for the assembly which the other parties can more wholeheartedly support. Ron Davies certainly understands the need for an inclusive assembly. Will his party allow him to deliver?