National Assembly for Wales land

22: A new nation

The road to the Welsh Assembly: the first half of the 20th century

The 20th century ended with the opening of the National Assembly of Wales in Cardiff Bay. It was in many ways an unexpected and unlikely happening. Admittedly, in the first decades of the century, when there were enthusiastic home rulers among the Liberals, and when the Labour Party adopted 'Home Rule All Round' as its official policy, the issue had received some attention. In the 1920s, however, the Liberals' enthusiasm waned as it became apparent that if there were a Welsh Parliament, they would not control it.

Saunders Lewis
Saunders Lewis

In the face of depression, the Labour Party came to believe that effective planning from the centre was the answer to economic problems. It argued that devolution would undermine the unity of the British working class. The granting of full self government to the greater part of Ireland in 1922 meant the devolution issue lost the urgency it previously had.

The establishment of Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru in 1925 meant that home rulers who might otherwise have been active in the traditional parties found themselves isolated in a new party which had very little influence. Furthermore, the traditionalist views of its leader, Saunders Lewis, were out of tune with the mood of Wales.

The party did, however, win much publicity and some support as a result of the attack by its leaders on the Bombing School at Penyberth in the Llŷn peninsula in 1936. The Second World War, like the First, strengthened the awareness of the British people striving and suffering together.

The Labour government elected in 1945 was rigorously centralist, with its most charismatic figure, Aneurin Bevan, contemptuous of any concession to Welsh nationalism.

The road to the Welsh Assembly: the second half of the twentieth century

In the 1950s there was some shift in opinion. The abandonment of Empire removed a central feature of Britishness; there was a realisation that prosperity in Wales lagged behind that of south-eastern England and further behind some of the smaller states of Europe.

The successive victories of the Conservative Party suggested that only by winning self-government could Wales be ruled by those who shared the views of the majority of the Welsh electorate. The drowning of the Tryweryn Valley, unsupported by the vote of a single Welsh MP, indicated that as a national community the Welsh were powerless.

These were among the factors which allowed Plaid Cymru to gain a respectable vote in the general election of 1959, in which the party contested 55% of the country's constituencies, compared with the 7% of the Scottish constituencies contested by the SNP.

Partly in order to stave off the nationalist challenge, the 1964 Labour government established the Welsh Office and appointed a Secretary of State for Wales, thus creating a new context for discussion of the government of Wales.

Plaid Cymru made a crucial breakthrough in 1966 when the party's president Gwynfor Evans was victorious in the Carmarthen by-election. There were further advances from 1974 onwards, and by 1992 Plaid Cymru held 4 of the 40 constituencies of Wales.

Equally significant was the fact that, in 1972, Britain joined the European Common Market, thus creating the need to reconsider the nature of all levels of government. The success of Germany's devolved system and the growing wealth of Ireland indicated that having a populous, highly centralised state was not necessarily the road to stability and prosperity.

The excessive concentration of wealth and power in London became an issue in England as well as in Wales and Scotland. These considerations, together with the need to thwart the rise of nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland, caused the Labour government of 1974-79 to devote much of its energies to devolution. However the assembly it offered to Wales was rejected in the referendum of 1979 by 956,330 votes to 243,048.

In the years immediately after the referendum, devolution seemed a dead issue. But years of Thatcherite right-wing policies reminded the Welsh they had to live with political ideas that were unacceptable to most of them.

The appointment of non-Welsh politicians - John Redwood in particular - as Welsh secretaries kept the issue alive. Extra powers were transferred to the Welsh Office, thus creating a new tier of government; as a result, the argument that devolution would create a new tier was undermined, for that tier already existed. Furthermore, in 1996, the Conservative administration removed one layer of government by replacing the 8 counties and 37 districts established in 1974 with 22 counties.


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