Monday, 14 March 2011

FEATURE: Strengthening the Welsh dragon

Over 500.000 Welsh voted Yes in the third referendum in the history of Wales, giving the National Assembly further powers in the 20 subject areas in which it can legislate. From now on the Assembly won't need the permission of Westminster to legislate in any of these areas.

The Yes option has been backed by almost a 64% of the voters, in front of a 36% who voted no. The results show an increasing self-confidence in the Welsh citizens: in 1979 a vast majority of the voters said "no", whereas in 1997 the question held in the referendum was approved by a narrow margin. 14 years ago, only 50,3% of those called to the polls voted yes, whereas a 47,7% voted no.

The victory of the Yes campaign in the 2011 referendum shows that Welsh were longing for some changes in the legal and politic governance in the country. However, a major complaint of the citizenship was that there wasn't enough information available about the consequences of the referendum.

The turnout, which was as low as only 35% of those who were called to the polls, show that the questions raised by the referendum were not backed by the majority of the population.

font: BBC

Wales Office to disappear?

But the results of the referendum are already having direct implications. Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones said this week that after achieving direct law-making powers, the so-called Wales Office's role is difficult to establish.

Jones explained that now it is "difficult to justify" the existence of three different offices for the devolved regions -Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland-, and proposed to create a new UK government department which would merge the three offices.

The Wales Office is a remnant of the past. It was established as a bridge between the British Government and Wales, and it was created by the UK Government to deal with all the Welsh matters.

According to Jones, this office has a diminished role after the last referendum. In the last years it was devoted to handle the National Assembly's requests for more powers, something that has been already granted after the Welsh voted 'yes' in the last referendum, which asked whether the citizenship wanted the National Assembly to be able to have further powers.

The road to devolution

The third referendum in the history of Wales is a milestone for the Devolution, the process whereby Westminster cedes powers to other devolved regions such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Wales has been legally part of the United Kingdom since the Union acts of 1535, whereby every law passed in England would be applied automatically in Wales also. In the late 19th century some acts concerning Wales were passed, such as the Welsh Intemediate Education Act, and a Department of the Board of Education was established in 1907 to deal with education matters in the region. Some years later, in 1919, the Welsh Board of Health was set up in Wales, and in 1949 the Council for Wales and Monmouthshire was established. Its main objetive was to oversee the effects of Government policy.

The origins of the referendum underlie on the so-called "Welsh Office", a sort of delegation that the Government of United Kingdom decided to open in 1965 in Wales to deal with Welsh matters. This office was established with the objective of executing the Government policy in Wales.

Although the Welsh Office gained more powers in the next years, it became clear that Wales was still regarded as an appendix of England, rather than a nation within a country of nations.

A few years later, in 1979, the Welsh citizens faced the first referendum in the history of Wales. They would vote if they wanted to create an assembly with the same functions as the Secretary of State for Wales, that is, the application of UK Government's policy on the region.

The majority of the Welsh who decided to participate in the polls decided to vote no. Over 950.000 rejected the plans exposed in the referendum, whereas only 243.000 approved them. At that time, almost all the main political parties in the region saw Devolution as a threat to the United Kingdom and a concession to the Welsh nationalism, hence campaigned for the no-vote.

Exactly twenty years later, in 1997, the Welsh had another opportunity to vote on a referendum about the autonomy of Wales and the Devolution process. In this new referendum, Welsh were asked whether they accepted the creation of a Welsh National Assembly which would have certain devolved powers, and which would not only apply the UK Government´s policy on certain matters, but would have the power of legislating, albeit the Assembly would be forced to ask the permission of Westminster.

The referendum was approved by a slight majority of only 50.3% of the voters, in front of a 49.7% that rejected the creation of an Assembly. After the polls, the UK Government approved the Government of Wales Act of 1998, whereby the National Assembly for Wales was established, with powers in twenty subject areas.

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