1In the spring of 2011 a number of electoral events were held in the United Kingdom. On 5 May 2011 there were parliamentary or assembly elections in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and local elections in England and Northern Ireland while all of the British electorate was consulted in a state-wide referendum on the UK parliamentary voting system. In the weeks preceding these votes, the national discussion was dominated by these different levels of politics. The people in Wales had already been to the polls on 3rd March to vote in a referendum on extending (or rather, strengthening) the law-making powers of the National Assembly. The referendum and then the Assembly elections therefore meant that the issue of politics in Wales was kept in the public foreground for a couple of months.
2The world of politics is necessarily evolving and in Wales in 2011 it seemed that the proximity in time of the two votes and the significance of the “Yes” response to the referendum revealed perhaps more clearly than before that agents other than professional politicians were being more and more active in their contribution to the shaping of modern Wales. In this paper we propose to examine briefly the growing role undertaken by agents of civil society not only in light of the two Welsh votes but also in the more general development of Wales politically, socially and economically.
- 1 Often attributed to Ron Davies, Secretary of State for Wales from May 1997 to October 1998. (...)
3The constitutional changes that devolution has brought to the United Kingdom since 1997 are turning out to be more innovative in Wales than might have been expected. The setting up of the Welsh Assembly in 1998 was a historic event in that Wales had never in its history had a nationwide governing body with powers to run its geographically defined territory. Yet, as has often been said, “devolution is a process, not an event”,1 for that first Assembly (1997-2003) has since evolved into a different, more powerful institution. The Assembly Members who took their seats in the Senedd in Cardiff Bay after the May 2011 elections were aware that this fourth assembly would mark a milestone in the Welsh devolution journey. This was because Wales’s third referendum on devolution was held on 3rd March 2011. This was a consultation on direct law-making powers for the Assembly. A clear “Yes” vote was made in response to the question : “Do you want the Assembly now to be able to make laws on all matters in the 20 subject areas it has powers for ?” Although the average turnout across Wales was only 38.2 %, the “Yes” vote was 63.5 % and those who voted against numbered 36.5 %. All areas of Wales pronounced in favour of the enlarged legislative powers, except for Monmouthshire (50.64 % voted “No”), the highest approval rates being in the north, the west and the Valleys in the south. It is interesting to note that the strongest numbers of “Yes” votes were recorded in those areas that are identified as Welsh-speaking with a tradition of support for Plaid Cymru as well as those with strong traditions of supporting Labour. However Monmouth, on the south-east border, is possibly one of the most anglicized areas of Wales, incorporated into Wales for administrative purposes only in 1972.
- 2 The expression is used by Laura McAllister. See, for example : “The Road to Cardiff Bay : T (...)
4Thus, on 29th March 2011, Part 4 of the 2006 Government of Wales Act was activated, post referendum, and this meant that from the fourth Assembly (2011-2015) onwards the Assembly’s powers are “deepened”2 so that it can pass primary legislation in twenty devolved areas.
5Then, on 5th May 2011, there were a number of simultaneous elections held throughout the UK and Welsh voters were called to elect a new, more powerful Assembly. Besides elections to the Welsh Assembly, there were parliamentary elections in Scotland, assembly elections in Northern Ireland, local elections in England and Northern Ireland as well as a state-wide referendum on the UK parliamentary voting system. These various elections gave a variety of results. Firstly, in the state-wide context of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, the Alternative Vote proposal was turned down in the referendum by 67.9 %3 of British voters (turnout 41 %) who preferred to remain with the traditional “first-past-the-post” system of electing MPs to Westminster. This result thus favoured the two major British parties, the Conservatives (in coalition government) and Labour (in opposition). In the Scottish Parliament elections, however, the Scottish National Party beat the British parties, winning a working majority at Holyrood with 69 of the 129 seats. In Wales the results were different again because Labour strengthened its position in the Assembly winning 4 seats to obtain 30 in all. As this is half of the Assembly Members (AMs) the party then went on to form the Welsh government under First Minister Carwyn Jones. The Conservatives gained 2 seats, winning 14 altogether while Plaid Cymru, suffered a string of disappointments losing 4 seats and dropping to 11 AMs. The Liberal Democrats took only 5 seats, losing 1. Thus, the reinforced powers of the Assembly did not seem to attract voters to the nationalist cause as might have been supposed from the Scottish example, where legislative powers have conferred a better “profile” on the Parliament and where the SNP has seen its support increase over the years.
- 4 Jonathan Freedland, “Elections and AV referendum produce a moment of clarity”, The Guardian(...)
6It was generally agreed that these regional and local elections were very much influenced by politics at Westminster and by personalities that dominated the media and news reports rather than being shaped by more local or regional issues. The Liberal Democrats lost votes everywhere because of what were seen as broken pledges, for example on not raising university fees, while in Scotland, the SNP and Alex Salmond were perceived as delivering the best deal for Scotland.4 The newly elected Labour leader, Ed Miliband, faced his first nationwide electoral test and his party enjoyed mixed fortunes in all these elections.
- 5 Martin Shipton, “The Tory ‘shopping list from hell’ to hit S4C and our elderly”, Western (...)
- 6 Matt Withers, “Elis-Thomas attacks ‘mindless’ Plaid election strategy”, Western Mai (...)
7Humiliation for Mr Miliband’s party in Scotland was balanced by the gain of over 800 seats in the English council elections, and, as said before, the party secured a workable majority in the Welsh Assembly. Labour has been part of the four Welsh governments since 1999, twice in coalition, with the Liberal Democrats (1999-2003), and then more recently with Plaid Cymru (2007-2011). In the 2011 Assembly election in Wales, the so-called “Westminster effect” worked in Labour’s favour as the voters seemed to give a verdict on the coalition government in London. With the March referendum having settled the fact that the Assembly would be granted stronger legislative powers, Labour’s campaign was centred around traditional fears of what the Tories might do to Wales if they won more Assembly seats, possibly driving Wales into further decline.5 Some commentators attributed Plaid’s big losses to the fact that the party did not focus enough either on Welsh matters or on their achievements while in the governing coalition (2007-2011). Attacking Labour, their erstwhile partners in coalition, was not a winning strategy when seeking to win Labour votes.6 Wales has always been distinctive in UK politics for its high level of support for the Labour Party and this has endured, but during the Assembly elections in 2011, the Labour campaign followed the lead set by the party leadership at the British level. The party campaigned on issues that concerned the United Kingdom as well as Wales.
- 7 “Scottish independence : Alex Salmond announces autumn 2014 referendum”, The Scotsm (...)
- 8 For further information on the LCO mechanism, see <http://www.assemblywales.org/bus-home/bu (...)
- 9 Quoted in Tom Bodden, “A nation ‘comes of age’ as Wales votes Yes in referendum”, Daily Pos (...)
8Also, as now seems to be quite usual, the London-based media focussed on events in England and Scotland. This was partly because the council and regional elections were seen as the first electoral yardstick by which to measure the performance of the Conservative-led coalition in government since May 2010 and also partly because events in Scotland are seen as more exciting than those in Wales. The SNP’s domination of the Scottish Parliament means that the long-talked-about possibility of a referendum on Scottish independence might well become a reality in the not too distant future.7 Yet Wales still seems to be somewhat invisible on the British political map despite the truly innovative constitutional changes which the referendum prepared, i.e. conferring primary law-making powers on the Welsh Assembly government. The state-wide media for example do not devote as many column inches or broadcast hours to the examination of politics in Wales as they do to Scottish politics. Nevertheless, the referendum of March 2011 did mean that the London-based press did take some notice of events and meant that the context of Welsh politics moved from being something fuzzy to a state of affairs that is now rather more clearly defined. It was the first move away from the previously ambiguously styled Welsh Assembly Government and the awkward Legislative Competence Orders (LCOs).8 These required Assembly measures, decided in Cardiff, to be shuttled off up to London for approval before being made law in and for Wales. The Welsh Government (thus known since May 2011) with its forthcoming extended legislative authority is thus taking the restyled democracy in Wales to a new level, but in order for this to flourish there is a need for the cooperation and input of those vital partners who are to be found in Welsh civil society. As Carwyn Jones, the Labour leader, said after the referendum, when he acknowledged that political progress was being made in Wales : “[…] our country is united in a way that perhaps it wasn’t in 1997. […] Today an old nation came of age.”9
- 10 John Osmond (ed.), Growing Wales’ Civil Society, Cardiff : IWA, 2010, 3.
9This component of public life has recently been defined thus : “Civil society occupies the space between the state and the market.”10 To put it more precisely :
- 11 Gerard Clarke, “Mapping Civil Society in the Philippines”, University of Wales, Swansea, re (...)
The importance of civil society lies in the way it complements the state and the private sector and in a democracy it underpins the constitutional order. Vibrant civil societies enable people from different backgrounds to organise and to promote their interests in association with others, to provide public goods and services otherwise unavailable and to hold governments to account.11
10In Wales however, the issue of civil society is different from that in Scotland. In Wales, civil society has been less the driver of nationhood. In Scotland, if we take as an example the years between the devolution referendums of 1979 and 1997, these were marked by the mobilisation of actors from civil society who acted to raise consciousness about Scottish politics and were instrumental in the setting up of the Scottish Constitutional Convention (1988) and in the publication of documents such as Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right (1995). Also, as an example, in Wales the relation to England and the United Kingdom is not perceived in as stark a manner as it is north of the border. In Wales, the absence of any previous unifying political arrangement and governmental institution and eight hundred years of political and legislative assimilation, along with other economic and social factors, have created a different society to that in Scotland. In order to appreciate this better it is first necessary to understand why and how the third referendum was organised.
- 12 . See David Foulkes, J. Barry Jones & Rick A. Wilford, The Welsh Veto : The Wales Act 1978 (...)
- 13 Referendums in Wales. 1979 : Yes : 20.3 % (only 11.8 % electorate) ; No : 79.7 %. 1997 : Ye (...)
- 14 “Constitutional preferences in Wales 1997-2007”, ESRC funded survey carried out by the Inst (...)
11The referendum of March 2011 was the third to be held in Wales. In 1979, Welsh voters refused the proposals for devolution by four to one, for probably a wide variety of reasons. Some of the factors for failure included the fact that the UK had just come through the turmoil of the “winter of discontent” of 1978-79. Some feared another level of bureaucracy, others feared domination by Labour or else by the nationalists, others imputed the defeat to the lack of popular demand, while the fact that the proposals were for a feeble and powerless assembly also seems to have been a factor.12 Eighteen years later, in September 1997, the “Yes” vote carried the day by a very small margin13 and the fragility of this legitimacy has coloured politics in Wales since then. However, the very existence of the Assembly and its presence and actions over the past decade and a half have led to a growing, confidence in the Assembly itself and in the distinctive identity of Wales within the United Kingdom.14
- 15 See “Plaid Cymru ‘insistence’ behind poll date, says Hain”, BBC News, 3 February 2011.
12The third referendum in 2011 was provided for in part 4 (section 103) of the Government of Wales Act 2006. However, under the terms of the One Wales coalition between Labour and Plaid Cymru, an agreement hammered out in June 2007, the referendum was finally planned, at Plaid’s insistence. It was feared that any future Conservative government in Westminster would not be favourable for Wales and that the latter needed to hold the referendum to mark a point about Welsh distinctiveness. The referendum was seen as giving not only more visibility to the Welsh Government’s future legislative power but it would also provide a more solid grounding for such an innovative constitutional arrangement.15
- 16 Matt Withers, “Voters ‘stuck to the issue’ in referendum on Assembly powers”, Western Mail, (...)
13Research carried out by Professor Roger Scully, Director of the Institute of Welsh Politics (IWP) at the University of Aberystwyth, and Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Director of the Wales Governance Centre (WGC) at the University of Cardiff, has shown that, unlike in previous referendums, people voted on the issue on the ballot paper rather than other factors, such as what they thought of the Westminster Government, for example.16 Their 2011 Welsh Referendum Study was conducted by the IWP and the WGC with YouGov, the polling and research company. The referendum results were as follows : 517,132 people voted “Yes” (63.5 %) and 297,380 voted “No” (35.4 %).
14So, despite predictions and contrary to the elections that followed in May, the referendum did not become a vote on the popularity of the UK Government and the vote on the Assembly’s increased powers was won because people wanted what was on offer, and it was not hijacked by outside forces. This means that it did not seem to have been treated as a “second order” topic, where voters expressed views on matters other than the question on the ballot paper :
- 17 Roger Scully & Richard Wyn Jones, “Why Wales said Yes”, 21 June 2011 : <http://www (...)
[…] the strongest factor shaping how people voted in the referendum seems to have been their basic attitudes to how Wales should be governed. Referendums often seem to be hijacked, and become votes on things that have nothing much to do with what is on the ballot paper. That didn’t happen in Wales this year. In that sense, the referendum worked.17
15The result thus suggests a more unified Wales which is more confident politically, but the referendum campaign was rather peculiar in the way in which it was organised. It was a very low-key campaign altogether because the “Yes” and “No” camps were both made up of so-called “umbrella campaigns”, that is alliances made up from different groups and parties. However, the whole issue of campaigning was undone when “True Wales”, the group that advocated a “No” vote in the referendum, did not apply for “lead campaign” status.18 This would have meant that the group could have obtained official funding but the latter is only available if there is a lead campaign on both sides. The “True Wales” group was founded in 2008 in response to the All Wales Convention so as to oppose further devolution. Led by Rachel Banner, a teacher and member of the Labour Party, the group decided not to accept public funds but to make the case for a “No” vote as a “registered” campaign. This decision meant that the “Yes for Wales” group could not be designated a lead campaign organisation either. Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and according to Electoral Commission rules, neither side would be entitled to a £70,000 public subsidy or to a free delivery of leaflets across Wales, nor could they benefit from TV and radio broadcasts. So the campaigns went ahead in a very muted kind of way, reliant on “free” coverage in TV bulletins and media interviews. The “No” campaign was based on hostility to politicians and to the wasting of public money. Arguing that the Assembly’s track record since 1997 had been one of failure, the campaign was run and organised by – and also aimed at – ordinary people. It was managed with no hierarchy by people with no public profile and very little experience of politics or public life, and was launched on 19 January, sometime after the “Yes for Wales” campaign, which had begun on 4 January 2011. “Vote ‘No’ for a Better Devolution” was the group’s slogan and it featured prominently on The True Wales website. This site was the only platform that the group campaigned on, apart from some meetings and organising an on-line petition.
16The “Yes” campaign (Yes for Wales) was headed by Roger Lewis, chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union and a successful businessman, and it had the support of the four main political parties in the Assembly (although, officially the Conservative Party remained neutral). Just as crucial was the backing for the “Yes” campaign of an umbrella organisation called Tomorrow’s Wales/Cymru Yfory. This group was founded in July 2004 by Barry Morgan, the Archbishop of Wales, specifically to agitate for greater democracy in Wales and for the country to have a more stable, more accountable and more efficient government. The Executive Committee is :
made up of individuals who are serving in a personal capacity, but drawn from sectors such as academia, business, trades unions, the voluntary sector, the legal profession, popular culture, faith communities and all of Wales’ political parties.19
[…] It is a cross-party, cross-sector, multi-faith body bringing together a wide range of Welsh civil society actors.20
17This group, with its connections all over Wales and in every sector of society worked successfully to support the “Yes” campaign precisely because it could bring together many actors from different strands of civil society. They were able to produce information documents and to share resources because of the pre-existing civil networks that could be mobilized for the vote.
- 21 Speaking at a conference on “the Dynamics of Devolution” at the University of Toulon, Franc (...)
- 22 Lindsay Paterson & Richard Wyn Jones, “Does civil society drive constitutional chan (...)
18The term “civil society” is not a phrase that was much used to talk about life and activity in Wales until comparatively recently. According to Richard Wyn Jones : “The term ‘civil society’ is a relative recent addition to the Welsh political vocabulary.”21 It was identified around the time of the first referendum in 1997 and began to emerge as a concept and an identified phenomenon a little later. In 1999, Richard Wyn Jones and Lindsay Patterson argued that, unlike in Scotland, civil society in Wales had played almost no role in the making of devolution. However they speculated that devolution might very well be the making of a Welsh civil society.22
19The Welsh Assembly Government played a key role in encouraging the development of this civil society by supporting and financing different institutions and associations. In turn these institutions exploited the new constitutional arrangements in Wales to promote and develop areas of policy falling within the remit of the Assembly but also at state and European level. Indeed the key actors in these fields do not confine their activities to Wales alone as of course their reputation, their experience and their knowledge have been gained and exercised in a wide forum and their contribution to life in Wales is the fruit of this.
- 23 See Martin Johnes, A History of Sport in Wales, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, (...)
20As mentioned above, Roger Lewis was appointed as the chair of the “Yes” campaign and he brought his well-known name and face to the political fight. A not uncontroversial head of Welsh rugby, he had also had many years working in business and the media. He put his efficiency and his excellent connections with the worlds of business, media, sport and politics at the service of Welsh democracy. Similarly, another actor connected to sport and politics is Laura McAllister, professor of governance at the University of Liverpool and Chair of SportsWales. As a vital link with the 2012 Olympics committee, she is well placed as a bridge between civil and political societies. She plays a prominent role in promoting sport in Wales but also in identifying and seizing sports opportunities for Welsh children in particular at a Welsh level but also at British and international level. Welsh sporting stars such as Gareth Thomas and Tanni Grey-Thompson have been active socially as their fame and prowess have been mobilized in raising awareness respectively about gay rights and the place of disabled people in society. It is interesting to note that actors from the world of sport should have been so prominent in the campaign because sport has long been recognised as a factor helping to bind communities together.23
21The referendum campaigns served to shed light on the fact that, apart from the world of sport, other sectors of civil society in Wales are gaining higher profiles for their activities and thus for a raised sense of civic belonging in Wales. For example, among representatives of Welsh media and culture we can identify the Tinopolis Group, based in Llanelli, which is the UK’s largest regional independent media producer and distributor. Angharad Mair, who is the group’s head of broadcasting in Wales, also plays an important role as a public face of Welsh broadcasting and as a well-informed cultural and political commentator.
22Similarly, we can name Geraint Talfan Davies who comes from an earlier media generation but who is still prominent and active in the civil life of Wales. A former journalist and broadcaster, he is currently chair of the Welsh National Opera and former chair of the Arts Council of Wales and head of BBC Wales. We can note in particular that he was a founder member of the Institute for Welsh Affairs (IWA) in 1987, a think tank devoted to all sorts of issues for concern in Wales with a view to developing proposals in order to influence public policy. John Osmond, current director of the IWA and also a nationalist political writer, should also be included on the list of actors from civil society who influence the public agenda and who contribute to raising awareness about issues that affect Wales. As a journalist and political campaigner, he has spent over three decades publishing and speaking on Wales and the state of Welsh politics and Welsh society and has tirelessly campaigned for greater autonomy and political maturity for Wales. Playing on a larger stage but nevertheless rooted in Wales, Hywel Ceri Jones must be added to the names already mentioned.
23After a quarter of a century at the heart of the European Commission in Brussels, heading the Department for Education and Youth Policies in the 1970s or the Directorate-General for Employment, Industrial Relations and Social Affairs in the 1990s, and setting up innovative projects such as the Erasmus mobility programme, he has been engaged in putting together proposals for EU funding for West Wales and the Valleys and more recently in fund raising for the Tomorrow’s Wales campaign.
- 24 Nor, for reasons of space and focus, can we consider here the integration of Welsh people (...)
24This list of “movers and shakers”, of actors in Wales’s civil society goes on and it is not the aim of the present paper to attempt an exhaustive list of these people.24 Nor have we included umbrella organisations such as the Welsh Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) which does a tremendous job in organising the voluntary sector affecting all strands of society. However the few names that have been highlighted are worthy of interest not only because they represent those parts of Welsh society which are striving to move forward and to create a modern Wales, but also because they are all outward looking, to the UK, Europe and beyond. This particular list has not included campaigners for the protection of the language nor those who work for the promotion of cultural festivals, etc. It’s not that these campaigners are no longer active nor that their efforts and energies are lost or misdirected but it is rather more because political maturity and civil maturity are advancing together as increasing political responsibility confers greater confidence and assuredness in Wales. Language and culture activists still have challenges to face. Their struggles have often been focussed on battling the pervasive influence of English. However, more recently, the expansion of the European Union has led to an influx of new immigrants to Wales who do not speak Welsh or English. This is quite a challenge for Welsh language promotion programmes because this raises questions concerning the integration of immigrants into the UK state (immigration policy is not a devolved matter).
25The fate of Welsh civil society and Welsh politics are intertwined because, as the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government assume more power and responsibility, then Welsh institutions will appear to be more relevant to life in Wales. This does not mean that all will be plain sailing in the future. A major problem that affects Welsh civil society actors is that of resources, either in financial terms or in terms of competent personnel. Also, when government and civil society work together, one of two results most often arises. Consultation exercises, where civil society is requested to provide help and information to government policy makers, often turn out to be lengthy and costly and eventually nothing comes of them (such as the Tan8 consultation on windfarms in 2004).25 Or else, on the other hand, there will be strong input by one part of civil society that is pursuing its own agenda, and government policy is formed to the advantage of this group (the debate on the electrification of railways in south Wales).26
- 27 Gareth Evans, “Education Minister Leighton Andrews accused of ‘gambling’ with Wales’ (...)
26Finally, there are a couple of key areas which have evolved slowly since devolution. Higher education has been unaffected for the most part, despite the contributions of outstanding academics in Welsh universities to the debate on Welsh politics, economy and identity. Universities are underfunded in Wales and this problem is compounded as time goes by.27 The only major policy event recently has been the proposed capping of tuition fees for Welsh students in Welsh universities. Welsh-domiciled students will not have to find the money for higher fees charged at higher education institutions – in Wales or elsewhere in the UK. Instead, additional costs will be picked up by the Welsh Assembly Government. Also, the Welsh media have not evolved as might have been desired or expected. A bid to create an all Wales Welsh language newspaper failed. In February 2008 the launch of Y Byd was abandoned partly because the subsidy provided by the Welsh Government was not substantial enough. This project was cancelled despite a Welsh Language Board Report (January 2008) which recommended that it go ahead. Welsh media – TV, radio and newspapers – are controlled for the most part by London-based groups, although there is some scheduling of Welsh current affairs programmes. On the whole, there is a lack of forums for public debate and discussion of public policy. So Wales’s forward journey towards greater autonomy and responsibility is not and cannot be matched by lively, public expressions and debates on what is happening in civil society. The weakness of this debate is a subject of concern, for civil society needs to be recognised and heard as a vital player in a modern democracy.
27A paper such as this can only offer some brief, and to a certain extent superficial, analyses of a situation that is necessarily evolving. Although an attempt has been made to examine the interface between Welsh and British society, it is beyond the scope of this paper to examine, on a wider scale, the integration of Welsh actors in British civil society, nor can we extend this brief survey to take into account the complexities of the questions of class. Likewise the language question deserves more space and consideration. Nevertheless, Wales is making its own distinctive way in 21st century UK politics. Comparisons with Scotland are interesting but the two countries have not followed and cannot follow the same path.