Wales looks set to hold a referendum in the next to devolve substantially more powers from the Parliament in Westminster to the Welsh Assembly.
Wales voted to establish a devolved Assembly in a 1997 referendum, and the Assembly was created in 1999 at the same time as the Scottish Parliament. Although the Scottish Parliament was given wide powers to make law and vary taxes, the Welsh Assembly was much more limited in its powers, effectively only having the capacity to make secondary legislation and not set tax rates. Indeed, the UK government originally named the executive members of the Assembly as “secretaries” rather than “ministers” (although this related to the fact that “First Minister” has the same translation as “Prime Minister” in Welsh).
While the UK has seemingly moved towards a federal structure in the last decade, this has been a spotty and unequal process. The Scottish Parliament, Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly and Welsh Assembly were all granted different amounts of powers with different governmental structures. In addition, plans for elected assemblies in England have not been fulfilled outside of London, meaning that the UK Parliament has uneven powers in different parts of the Union and allows MPs from the three smaller countries to vote on solely English issues.
The Welsh Assembly has gathered more powers over the last few years, particularly since the 2007 election, when the Labour Party went into coalition with Plaid Cymru. The UK Parliament has now defined twenty areas where the Welsh Assembly has gradually gathered specific powers within those areas of legislation.
The “All Wales Convention”, set up following the last Welsh election, has just brought down a report recommending that a referendum be held before the next Welsh Assembly election in May 2011. Such a referendum would give the Assembly law-making powers in the twenty areas of primary responsibilities, substantially expanding its independent power.
The All Wales Convention has recommended that such a referendum could not be held within three months of another election, suggesting such an election would take place in late 2010 or very early in 2011. The Labour Party is currently going through a process to choose a new Welsh First Minister, and all three leadership contenders support a referendum, only after the UK general election, expected in the northern spring of 2010. Leaders of the opposition Liberal Democrats and Conservatives support a referendum, and it can be assumed Plaid Cymru likewise supports a referendum. The current Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, has previously dismissed the need for a referendum during the current Assembly term, although it’s unclear if he would block a referendum if supported by a Welsh Labour government. David Cameron has vowed to not block any referendum request if he becomes Prime Minister.
Recent polls have indicated support for more powers for the Welsh Assembly, although never by large margins. Most recently a YouGov poll in late October showed that 42% would vote ‘yes’ and 37% would vote ‘no’, although another question showed 63% support equivalent powers to the Scottish Parliament, which shows a lack of understanding of the current powers of the Assembly and the options on the table. A ‘yes’ vote in a referendum is no foregone conclusion, considering past Welsh referendums. In 1997, the ‘yes’ vote only passed by 6700 votes, with many local government areas voting ‘no’, while a similar referendum in 1979 saw almost 80% vote against devolution.