Devolution: What it Means for Wales & Welsh Politics
Much of contemporary Wales is the formation of many years of cultural and social change. From Cardiff to Caernarfon, national identity has shifted further towards supporting devolution since the initial implementation of the idea in 1997, causing the creation of the Welsh Parliament (locally known as the Senedd).
While making up a quarter of British politics, with a population of just over 3 million people, Wales is often given the least attention on the national stage and has become the forgotten sibling of Great Britain.
However, in shifting the focus towards this region and its people, we can delve deeper into the external corridors of modern British politics and understand how Welsh legislation has developed through devolution, mirroring possible feelings of nationalism elsewhere in the country, and feasibly taking root in the near future.
What does devolution mean for the Senedd? What will it mean for the United Kingdom as a whole, in addition to possible Scottish and Irish independence?
Let’s find out.
What are the political groups in Wales?
To understand politics in Wales, we must first discuss the parties that tend to take a majority in local and national government.
Given historical crises and industrial background, Welsh Labour typically wins most elections and they have controlled every Welsh administration since devolution. They have won nearly all of Wales' elections over the last century. Another relevant party is Plaid Cymru, a central left party whose main aim is total Welsh independence. With almost 29% of the Welsh vote in 1999, lowering to around 20% in 2021, they often fall behind Welsh Labour.
Some of the other remaining parties - Welsh Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and UKIP, as well as the independents - make up the rest of the vote.
What is devolution?
Devolution is the process of decentralising governmental authority. This authority has been given to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and Greater London.
In Wales, Welsh Labour contributed to the conception of the administrative and executive devolution process, following social and political pressure around the turn of the century. This was alongside Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in Westminster. Labour leader John Smith suggested the idea of a 20-point devolution system for Wales which was eventually taken on by Tony Blair, his successor and soon-to-be Prime Minister.
The main points of control include:
Health and social care
Eventually passed for a referendum, the vote was held on 18 September 1997. By a narrow margin of 0.3% in support, with only a 50% turnout, the decision to properly begin political devolution in Wales was passed. Externally, around a similar time, the turnout for a Scottish election was 60%, which gained a 74% majority.
Looking at the two growing independence movements, it may seem as though the Welsh do not care that much about independence from Westminster, in comparison to the greater electoral support for independence in Scotland. Is this a valid argument?
To examine views on independence, we should take a look at how devolution has worked in practice.
How was devolution formed, and how does it work?
The Welsh government was set up fairly quickly. Something known as ‘A Voice for Wales’ set out the functions of the 60-member Assembly, a job previously carried by the Secretary of State for Wales in the House of Commons. This assembly would be led by an executive committee composed of smaller subject committees.
Later, the Government of Wales Bill 1998 was passed, putting forward the National Assembly (elected through proportional representation known as the D’Hondt method) and its powers of secondary legislation. Any primary laws would be made in Westminster and funding for this new institution would be provided by the national government in the form of a 'block grant'.
Although there have been almost five assemblies since this initial formation in Wales, many of the changes to Welsh politics have been gradual processes. As much of the power in the previous government had been watered down, given that time had to be requested with Westminster to get anything passed, and voter turnout for following elections in the 2000s had fallen, it seemed like devolution was losing its momentum.
What is Welsh identity?
Welsh history and culture has given rise to a strong sense of national identity. Amid the dragons and daffodils, much of the identity in Wales is about resilience, given the historical attempts to get rid of both the language and culture by England - the Welsh Not is an example of an effort to remove the Welsh language. Despite this, with a recent spike in support of songs like ‘Yma o Hyd’ in football, the message is clear that Welsh identity is still alive and well.
‘Welsh’ was given as an option for the first time in the 2011 census. What was observed was that more than 65% identified as Welsh, according to the Office for National Statistics, and only around 20% of them identified as both Welsh and British.
What does this mean? Does identifying yourself as Welsh instead of British make a difference in whether you support devolution?
The answer may be yes. In several sources, many of those who stated ‘Welsh’ on their census supported either Welsh Labour or Plaid Cymru - traditional devolution supporters. Whereas, those who stuck to ‘British’ as their identity tended to vote for Welsh Conservatives, who are supporters of the union.
Do Welsh people support devolution?
The fallback of participation in elections - less than half of all Welsh voters took to the polls in the most recent election - has led to the suggestion of Welsh political apathy. Many argue that the Senedd does not have enough influence to make important decisions, and therefore question whether there is any reason to vote.
Nevertheless, feelings of isolation and lack of control are major reasons that many Welsh people have grown in supporting the political handover in recent years, alongside political changes like Brexit. Although feelings of irritation still exist against the Senedd, it is valid to say many Welsh citizens feel the need for further jurisdiction over their country, linking back to Welsh identity.
Is there a future for Welsh devolution, and will there be increased support for Welsh independence?
For anyone that walks Welsh streets, the sight of red circles on lampposts and cars are becoming all the more common - YesCymru. Symbols such as “cofiwch dryweryn” (English translation: “remember Tryweryn”) can also be seen across Wales and are now often used as emblems of Welsh independence, particularly for the younger generation.
More than rugby and coal mining, Welsh identity is one of the factors fuelling the rise in support for further devolution and independence. The Welsh government has plans to increase the 600,000 individuals that already speak Welsh to around 1 million in 2050.
The Welsh language also plays an important role in Welsh politics. With the majority of Welsh Labour being native speakers, and the language often linked to national identity in Plaid Cymru’s policies, a rise in usage will surely impact the feelings of national identity throughout the country.
As devolution has given the native tongue more opportunities to be used in a political setting, what can be said for the future of Wales? Does this mean that, with a deeper-rooted national identity, Welsh people will back independence with more attention?
Perhaps only time will tell.
Edited by Amy Watts