Adam Somerset casts a critical eye over Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully’s definitive analysis of the 2011 Welsh devolution referendum: Wales Says Yes.
The subtitle to Wales Says Yes is ‘Devolution and the 2011 Welsh Referendum.’ The authors are professors of politics at Cardiff and Aberystwyth universities. It comes from an academic press and has the quality and attention to detail to be expected from a publisher in the genre. The notes run to thirty pages, the index is full, the bibliography cites one hundred and sixty-four works of reference.
A grant from the Economic and Social Research Council has allowed YouGov to conduct original survey data. The book contains thirty-two tables. These go from the broad brush results to the referendum turnout percentages in every Welsh local authority. The swing by local authority between 1997 and 2011 is headed by Flintshire at twenty-four per cent. The tables include ones with multivariate analysis in full detail. N is given along with robust standard errors and statement, where appropriate, of cell entries being unstandardised OLS regression coefficients. Wales Says Yes might look on a first skim to be a book for political specialists. However, it has much of interest for the general reader.
From the opening line Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully opt for a prose that goes beyond the requirements of scholarly accuracy. It has a literary life and pungency to it. ‘The referendum that took place in Wales on 3 March 2011,’ runs the preface’s first line, ‘was a curious event.’ In a sentence of nice balance the paragraph closes, ‘Yet, underwhelming as it was in many respects, the referendum was also an event of single importance to Wales.’
This finely balanced prose continues. ‘This rather bizarre vote…encapsulates so much about characteristic pathologies of Welsh political life.’ The question later is described as ‘not the most bizarre choice ever put before people in a referendum. But it would at least be a little way along a spectrum of peculiarity.’ On the political players, ‘Having made this remarkably unhelpful contribution, Labour’s Welsh leader then departed on a post-election break.’ ‘The full story of this turn-around [Labour’s commitment to the Richard Commission] remains to be told and is likely to remain elusive.
Scholarly writing has a tendency to prefer Latinate words over more direct Germanic-based equivalents. Not so Scully and Wyn Jones: ‘By seeking to undermine the terms of the One Wales agreement in such a crude manner, the signatories of Labour’s joint statement overplayed their hand.’ Of a government’s record they write drily ‘Most observers were reminded of…the lassitude of the 2003-2007 Assembly.’ They even indulge in a little irony. ‘True Wales constitutes an interesting case of a self-proclaimed grass-roots movement that largely failed to establish any substantial roots.’
Outcomes in public policy are a blend of process, party and personality. The daily high-velocity creation of news only captures it in pieces. It takes a slow, costly, deep study after the event to pick out its true and full complexity. Wyn Jones and Scully focus early on Wales’ one-party domination. ‘Constitution-making in Wales has been a process determined almost exclusively within one party.’ All the key debates on the nature of government took place within the Labour Party. It was the 2007 result and the necessity for coalition that obliged Labour’s pledge to support the enactment of the referendum provision of the 2006 Government of Wales Act.
A referendum may be determined by public verdict but that is only a chapter in the plot as a whole. Wyn Jones and Scully unpick much detail, including some of the individual actions, and ironies, that underlay the eventual referendum. In 1969 it is George Thomas who gets the notion of executive devolution accepted by the national party. ‘A triumph’ they write, that is ‘highly paradoxical, even pyrrhic.’ Of the next generation of politicians they write ‘In contrast with his predecessor Carwyn Jones he certainly appeared less worried about the sensitivities of his Westminster colleagues.’
The 1997 referendum is fuelled by co-operation between Ron Davies and Dafydd Wigley which ‘proved vital’. But it comes attached to a curious piece of history; ‘the extent to which the Yes campaign depended on Blair’s popularity can hardly be exaggerated.’ In Westminster Peter Hain enters battle in Cabinet, ‘a bit of a kind of power struggle’ against ‘one particular senior member of the government.’ The authors reveal his opponent as Leader of the House Geoff Hoon. Eventually Rhodri Morgan addresses the Prime Minister directly to make parliamentary space for the 2006 Government of Wales Act.
The authors declare the Richard Commission ‘almost revolutionary in its clarity.’ But then the All-Wales Commission is assigned a role that is ‘notably vague’. However, when it reports under its leadership of Sir Emyr Jones Parry ‘there was none of the fence-sitting of diplomatic cliché here.’
The authors make no direct comment on Wales’ media but it emerges with small glory in this most crucial of political events. A third of those polled view the Welsh media coverage as making the issue more difficult to understand. Less than a quarter consider they have enough information ‘to make an informed choice.’ Two-fifths view the ‘Yes’ campaign as ‘completely invisible.’ Over sixty per cent say the same of the ‘No’ campaign.
The referendum is a modern innovation in British constitutional life. As it threatens to lurch centre stage again the authors make some comments on their general nature. The reducing of a complex issue to a binary choice gives unaccountable power to the framers. On the hazard of a referendum question attracting a response on other grounds the authors are complimentary on the portion of the Welsh electorate that turned out. The vote was not directed as a vote of favour or disfavour on governments in Cardiff Bay or Westminster. ‘Nor did they use the referendum to express a ‘tribal’ loyalty within a deeply divided society.’
Wales Says Yes is deserving of a substantial critical ‘Yes’ vote.