The establishment of the National Assembly for Wales

The establishment of the National Assembly for Wales


A referendum held on 18 September 1997 led to the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales.

Image: the Pierhead and Senedd buildings in Cardiff Bay (BBC)

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More information about: The establishment of the National Assembly for Wales

The 1997 referendum 1997 was the result of the commitment of the Labour Party, which was elected to power on May Day 1997, to re-open the issue of devolution in Wales.

The 1997 election was a triumph for Labour in Wales; it received a majority of 179, and won 34 of the 40 seats of Wales. Plaid Cymru won four, the Liberal Democrats two and the Conservatives none.

The campaign which led to the Welsh referendum of 1997 was very different from that of 1979. It was held at the beginning of a highly popular administration rather than at the tail end of an increasingly discredited one. The fact that Scotland would have a parliament was known a week before the voting in Wales, thus a British status quo was not on offer.

In 1997, the chief spokesman from the most populous region of Wales was Ron Davies, an ardent devolutionist, a marked contrast with the situation in 1979, when the chief spokesman had been the arch anti-devolutionist, Neil Kinnock. The increases in the affirmative vote in 1997 compared with 1979 were remarkable - Gwent, for example, +233% and South Glamorgan +208%. Nevertheless, as the yes vote was 559,419 and the no vote 552,698, the assembly was endorsed by a mere 6,721 votes.

The first assembly election was held in 1999 under a partly proportional representation system. The Labour Party won 28 seats, Plaid Cymru 17,the Conservatives nine and the Liberal Democrats six. With no Conservative representatives from Wales at Westminster, the assembly provided the Conservatives with their sole Welsh platform.

Indeed, perhaps the most unexpected consequence of devolution was the way the Conservative Party warmed to Welsh themes and issues. More intriguingly, in view of Wales's dismal record in electing female representatives, was the fact that 24 of the assembly's 60 members were women.

The early history of the National Assembly for Wales

The first term of the assembly was not without its troubles. Before its establishment, Ron Davies, its main architect, resigned from the leadership of the Labour Party in Wales. Its location in Cardiff caused much bitterness, especially in Swansea.

The election of Alun Michael as the First Secretary was perceived by many as being an exercise in control by the Labour Party in Millbank and was widely resented. He resigned in February 2000, when Rhodri Morgan's third attempt to be leader of the Labour Party in Wales was successful. He adopted the title First Minister, which in Wales translates as Prif Weinidog, or Prime Minister.

A major figure in the early history of the assembly was y llywydd (the speaker), Dafydd Elis Thomas, who, in particular, sought to lay down the boundaries between the role of the assembly and that of the Welsh Assembly Government - mischievously given the acronym WAG. In October 2000, the Labour administration formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, an arrangement which lasted until 2003, when the second assembly election was held.

In 2003, 30 men and 30 women were elected to the assembly, making it the first such body in the world to consist of equal numbers of men and women. Rhodri Morgan's Labour cabinet was also unprecedented, consisting as it did of a majority of women. In 2004, the Richard Commission's Report called for the assembly to acquire legislative powers, a process which the commissioners believed could be completed by 2011, if the change were endorsed by a referendum.

The Government of Wales Act 2006 was seen as a step towards turning the assembly into a legislature, for it provided a mechanism to delegate powers from Westminster to the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff.

In the election of 2007, the number of Labour members declined from 30 to 26, giving rise to the notion that the 34 opposition members should form a 'rainbow' coalition under the leadership of Plaid Cymru, which had won 15 seats compared with the Conservatives' 12 and the Liberal Democrats' six (Blaenau Gwent was represented by an Independent). That notion failed to gain sufficient support, and the surprising outcome was a coalition between the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru.

In December 2009, Rhodri Morgan was replaced as first minister by Carwyn Jones. The most dramatic development in the history of devolution during the administration of 2007-11 was the referendum in March 2011 allowing the Welsh electorate to approve or reject the granting to the assembly of the authority to make laws in all the areas in which it has power. The proposition was endorsed by 63.49% of those who voted, with yes majorities in 21 of the 22 unitary authorities of Wales.

The Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition came to an end following the assembly election of 2 May 2011 when Labour won 30 seats, the Conservatives 14, Plaid Cymru 11 and the Liberal Democrats five. Labour chose to rule as a single party, and, as Labour was not in power at Westminster, in Scotland nor in Northern Ireland, Carwyn Jones was the most influential Labour politician in the United Kingdom.

The Conservative government elected in the British election of May 2010 had little sympathy for Jones' policies, and conflict between the devolved Welsh government and the government in London was widely expected. An even greater complication was the situation in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party had, in the Scottish election of May 2011, won 69 of the Scottish Parliament's 129 seats, and was determined to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. The possibility that the Welsh might have to decide whether to be inside or outside a truncated United Kingdom became an issue of increasingly heated debate.

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