Wales, along with Scotland and Northern Ireland, was promised a devolved assembly by the Labour Party in the lead up to the 1997 election. Devolution promised to be a key issue in Wales but the turnout at the post-election referendum in 1997 for whether Wales should have a devolved assembly seemed to indicate that enthusiasm for devolution was lukewarm. However, democracy prevailed in the sense that a majority did vote to have an election for a devolved assembly – but not an overwhelming majority.
Wales was formally brought into the Union by two acts passed in 1536 and 1542. Henry VIII essentially made himself king of Wales.
These acts forbade the use of the Welsh language in the administration of the country. Young men from the wealthier Welsh families went to London to seek their fame and fortune at the royal courts – and stopped speaking Welsh. There was an attempt to remove from Wales its whole element of Welsh identity.
In 1746 a law was passed by Parliament that stated that any law passed by Parliament that referred to England automatically included Wales. This law lasted until 1967.
In the C20th, Wales was given more of a separate identity. In 1907, a Welsh Secretary of Education was created; in 1957, Wales got its own Minister of State who was given a cabinet position in 1964.
Wales and Devolution
Wales turned towards the issue of devolution during the era of Thatcher and Major – the Tory years of 1979 to 1997. In this time, the industrial heartland of South Wales (and a traditional Labour stronghold) had been decimated. The coal and steel mines in South Wales all but disappeared and the traditional forms of employment went. Unemployment, and the social ills surrounding it, were common in the valleys of South Wales. In North Wales, Plaid Cymru had taken root. Therefore, any natural alliance to the Tories all but disappeared.
Also the majority of government positions in Wales had gone to English Tories. This in itself did little to pacify those in Wales who wanted change especially as many of these politicians could not speak Welsh and their natural alliance to Wales was suspect at best. Many in Wales saw these appointments as a means of rewarding those who had done well in London and were set to advance up the Cabinet ladder; not necessarily those who had the best interests of Wales at heart.
In 1997, a poll of people in Wales found the following:
Those who considered themselves Welsh – 17% Those who considered themselves more Welsh than British – 25% Those who considered themselves more British than Welsh – 10% Those who considered themselves British – 12% No thoughts on the issue – 4%
Therefore less than a majority in Wales considered themselves ‘Welsh’ when this poll was done – 42%. This is very different from the result found in Scotland.
Election results for the 1999 Welsh Assembly
The above figures indicate that the Labour Party could only operate successfully if they governed as a coalition. Added together, the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Plaid Cymru could muster 32 Assembly members; enough to block Labour even if the Welsh Labour Assembly members all voted as a complete unit of 28.
Therefore, the Welsh Labour Party would have to engage in sufficient horse-trading from other Welsh Assembly members to support its bills or the bills could get voted out if all the other parties mustered their votes as one unit in opposition – a potential, if unlikely, scenario.
One result of this, is that the bills that do become acts are likely to have the support of more than one party. For this reason, the acts will gain greater political ‘strength’ if this is the case – cross-party support makes it more likely that there is more of a national acceptance of an introduced act rather than it appearing that the act has been forced on to the people of Wales by what could be deemed a minority government in terms of its percentage representation in the Welsh Assembly.