24 years after the last referendum, the Welsh will go for the third time in history to the polls to decide about the future of Wales. The referendum, which will be held on the next 3rd of March, will seek to cede further law-making powers to the Assembly.
Almost 3 million Welsh are called to the polls in what is meant to be another milestone in the Devolution process in Wales. The population will be asked to decide whether they want the National Assembly to be able to make laws on all matters in the 20 subject areas where it has attributions.
Currently, the Assembly can only decide on certain matters, but needs the permission of Westminster to be able to make new laws. If the changes are approved by the citizenship, the Assembly will be able to legislate independently from Westminster.
Wales is the region within the United Kingdom with less devolved powers. Currently, the Assembly has powers to make laws in only 20 subject areas, such as agriculture, culture, economic development, health or transport. Still, it needs the UK Parliament’s agreement to legislate in every area, something the main Welsh parties find unfair, compared to other Devolved regions like Scotland and Northern Ireland, which don’t need the Westminster’s permit to legislate.
However, major subjects such as defence, tax or welfare benefits will remain bonded to the UK Parliament’s whatever the result of the referendum.
The issue of a new referendum about the cession of powers to the Assembly has aroused ignited discussions among Welsh citizens. Wales is currently the poorest region of the whole United Kingdom, with an average per capita income of less half of London’s. Indeed, large areas of Wales have a GDP of 67% of the British average. Moreover, the unemployment rate is bigger in Wales (8.4%) than in the rest of the country (average of 7.9%). The whole region was declared Objective 1 by the European Union, which brought in over a billion pounds worth of European aid in the last years. However this funding has failed to achieve the expected economic regeneration.
On the other hand Wales faces a difficult economic situation due to the recent cuts on the public spending. Despite the spending review hasn’t been massive in the devolved regions, it still implies that Welsh will lose a 7.5% of their budget between 2010-2011 and 2024-2015. Indeed the cuts in Wales will be higher than in the other devolved regions. Scotland will lose a 6.8% of its public budget and Northern Ireland a 6.9%. Precisely one of the historic demands of the National Assembly is to have greater tax powers, which will allow Wales to spend a 15% more of what it spends.
Background for Devolution in Wales
The referendum of the 3rd of March will be the next step in the road to self-government in Wales. Previously, the Welsh voted in two referendums linked to the cession of powers, the first time the region had the opportunity of getting some self-government powers since the Union Act was passed by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1542, uniting Wales and England. Until 1967, any law passed by Parliament which referred to England had to be automatically applied also in Wales. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that Wales was given a separate identity with the creation of the Welsh Secretary of Education and the Minister of State.
The Devolution process was opened in Wales in the late 70s, and in 1979 the Welsh had the opportunity to vote on the first referendum ever on the cession of powers. The voters were asked whether they wanted the provisions of the Wales act of 1978 to be put into effect. The results, however, showed that a vast majority of the population (79.7%) rejected this first attempt on the creation of a Welsh Assembly and the cession of certain powers from Westminster to it.
Twenty years later, in 1997, a second referendum on the matter was held both in Scotland and Wales. In this case, Welsh were asked whether they supported the creation of an assembly for Wales with devolved powers that, unlike in Scotland, wouldn’t include any tax-varying powers. This second referendum was approved with only a 50.3%, a difference of barely 7.000 votes. The National Assembly for Wales was finally set up in 1999.
Source: The Economist
Yes and no campaigns
During January two campaigns have been launched to inform the voters about the referendum options. All the four parties in Wales (Plaid Cymru, Welsh Labour, Welsh Conservatives and Welsh Liberal Democrats) back the Yes option. The Yes campaign defends the cession of more powers to the Assembly as an important step for Wales, given that “time and money are being wasted” as the Assembly needs Westminster’s permission to legislate.
Aled Edwards, ex member of the All Wales Convention and speaking on behalf of the “Yes to Wales” campaign said that “it is not healthy for any democracy to have to wait years to legislate. It takes many months to get the permission from Westminster”. Edwards also added that the fear of some people to the Devolution process is unjustified. “There are no good arguments to vote no. This referendum won’t lead to the independence of Wales, those who say that are mistaken”, said.
Edwards also warned about the future scenario if the Welsh decide to vote no. “Devolution has made Wales a more equal place. If we vote no, the current process will be stopped, we will have to wait. It would be disastrous. It is not only a matter of legislation. By voting yes we are telling Westminster that we want to legislate on our own, that we are able to do it”, explained Edwards.
On the other hand, the opposing No campaign, launched by the independent pressure group “True Wales”, argue that the Assembly has failed to achieve what was promised in 1997. Nigel Bull, spokesperson of “True Wales”, stated that “when we voted for an Assembly we were expecting something different. We didn’t vote for this. We want a complete reform of the Assembly and the way it is managed”.
According to Bull, the Assembly has been unable to manage the achieved powers in a proper way. “We wasted hundreds of millions of pounds. Hundreds of companies got £ 1-million grants for nothing”, said.
However, Bull argues that “True Wales” is not against Devolution. “We are strong believers in Devolution, but not like this. We didn’t vote for what we have right now. I voted yes in the referendum in 1997, and I still believe in Devolution, but enough is enough”, stated.
Source: Lonely Planet
The road to independence?
The demands of independence for Wales are currently backed only by a small percentage of the citizenship, and even though the Devolution process has given a new prospect to the Welsh identity, it is unlikely that Wales will become an independent state in the next years.
One of the main reasons why is improbable that Wales achieve independence, traditionally has been said, is the size and state of the economy. Wales has a small economy based mainly in the first sector that won’t be able to compete as an independent state.
However, the referendum of the 3rd of March is seen by some people as a chance to get closer to the idea of a fully self-governed state.
The polls are addressed to British citizens, qualifying Commonwealth citizens, Irish and EU citizens, and the voters will be able to vote by person on the very same day of the referendum, by post or by proxy.