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Wednesday, April 14, 1999 Published at 20:03 GMT 21:03 UK


Two referendums

The 'Yes' camp celebrates victory in the 1997 referendum

Soon after coming to power in 1974 the new government published proposals for Welsh and Scottish assemblies, but Labour was far from united over the issue.

Leading critics of the policy including, the future party leader Neil Kinnock, would only back the measures if the government agreed to hold referendums on their proposals.

Four-to-one against

For the supporters of devolution the results were disastrous with only 20% of those turning out backing an assembly for Wales.


[ image: Jim Callaghan oversaw the 1979 referendum]
Jim Callaghan oversaw the 1979 referendum
The Scottish people narrowly voted for devolution in a similar referendum on the same day.

But the turnout was too low for the legislation to come into force.

After losing a vote of no confidence the government fell just weeks later.

Devolution had been killed off for a generation. Ironically, it was the series of successive Tory governments that followed Labour's 1979 election defeat that partly inspired devolution's eventual rebirth.

Wales and the Tories

Throughout the Thatcher and Major years Wales returned a majority of Labour MPs to Westminster.

The subsequent feeling that the Tories had no mandate to govern in the principality was heightened by successive English Welsh secretaries including David Hunt, Peter Walker and John Redwood.

The Conservative tendency to govern the country through non-elected quangos full of Tory appointees only made things worse.

By 1992 Labour was once more backing devolution in its election manifesto.

By contrast the Welsh dissolution with the Tories was apparent.

When, after 18 years, the Tories were removed from office at the 1997 General Election Wales failed to return a single Tory MP to Westminster.

Scotland, Wales' partner in devolution, followed suit for similar reasons.

The new prime minister, Tony Blair, was equipped with a Commons majority (well in excess of a 100 seats).


[ image: Ron Davies: Made Welsh secretary after the election]
Ron Davies: Made Welsh secretary after the election
A date for a devolution referendum was set for September and the new Welsh Secretary Ron Davies set about campaigning for a 'Yes' vote with vigour.

Despite the traditional support in Wales for Labour, turning round the 4-1 votes cast against devolution just 18 years earlier was to no easy task.

In a similar referendum held weeks earlier the Scottish people backed devolution by a wide margin but in Wales all the signs pointed to a extremely close run-off.

Yes - but only just

Finally on 18 September 1997 the people of Wales voted yes.

But their enthusiasm for devolution was not unqualified.

Just over half the electorate voted, a much smaller turnout than the general election.

The cross-party 'Yes' camp scrambled to victory taking 50.3% of the vote compared to the 49.7 for the 'No' campaign.

The slim victory was not without rancour.

Many in the 'No' campaign complained that the 'Yes' camp had received more publicity due to government's backing for devolution making the playing field unequal.

Their concerns were later given some backing by Lord Neill's report on elections and party funding.

But, however slim the margin of victory, devolution is now a reality.

The people of Wales, not the Welsh secretary, will now have a direct say in how the 7bn annual government budget for Wales is carved up, whether they want it or not.



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