The word historic is often over used in politics. However the referendum result on 3 March will go down in the history of our nation as the first time our people united behind the concept of a distinct Welsh political identity. If 1997 was too close to call, the result of this year’s poll was never in doubt once the first two counties to declare, Blaenau Gwent and Denbighshire, overwhelmingly voted yes.
Despite the consistency of the polls, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine such a conclusive result – 63.6 per cent voting yes. Carmarthenshire once again played its part. It scored the highest turn-out in Wales with over 44 per cent voting and over 71 per cent supporting law making powers for our Parliament. I shed a partisan tear looking at the boxes of my home communities in the Amman and Gwendraeth valleys recording emphatic Yes votes – some as high as 90 per cent according to our samples.
The Welsh General Election
This is the third in a series of articles we are publishing in the run-up to the National Assembly election on 5 May. Tomorrow Jenny Randerson, former Liberal Democrat AM for Cardiff Central and now in the House of Lords, says the referendum result has allowed Wales to take control of its own destiny.
To say that the referendum is a game changer in Welsh politics is an understatement. During the week following the referendum the House of Commons was a very interesting place, indeed, to judge by the long faces and shell-shocked figures of Welsh Tory and Labour MPs.
Such is the categorical nature of the result, it will force the unionist parties in Wales to adopt a more federal approach, in which the historic nations of the UK are treated equally. Of course, parity with our Celtic cousins was the battering ram of the Yes campaign. But let us reflect that despite the referendum result, Wales will continue to have far fewer fields of responsibility than Northern Ireland and Scotland. Set against this reality, political parties that continue to treat Wales as a second class nation will find themselves increasingly marginalised.
Labour faces particular difficulties as it is split in two between a unionist and nationalist tradition. Let us remember that the No campaign was led by Labour party activists. For Labour, the party at the end of the day is more important than any other consideration. This is why their immediate response to the result was to rebuild unity by talking down any future devolution of power. It is a very dangerous game indeed for Labour. They will be strategically exposed if they stand as a roadblock to further change, in a situation where the people of Wales have found an appetite for greater freedom.
The Tories also find themselves in the middle of a bitter civil war between their AMs and MPs on the future direction of travel. No other party has such a profound spilt between their National Assembly and Westminster politicians. Anything the Tory AMs promise that would need to be delivered by their MPs is completely worthless. I was very interested to see the recent Welsh Tory Economic Commission join Plaid in calling for lower corporation tax rates for Wales to stimulate the economy. Whenever I have called for this in Westminster, Ministers dismiss the idea.
As a federal party the Liberal Democrats should be in a good position to benefit from the result. However, despite being a party that has historically supported a proper Welsh Parliament since the days of Cymru Fydd, a large proportion of their voters are anti devolutionists. The closeness of the result in their Powys stronghold speaks volumes. The Lib Dems will be punished in the May Assembly election based on events in Westminster. Being a junior party in a Coalition is never easy, but the key to success is a watertight programme with some clear red lines. Apart from AV I don’t really see a Lib Dem signature in the UK Coalition deal. This leaves them carrying the flack for the consequences of the overt fiscal consolidation policies of the Tories – a policy they warned against in the run up to the Westminster Election.
On the other hand, the One Wales coalition deal in the Assembly was littered with clear constitutional, cultural and social justice objectives for Plaid. The referendum was the tip of an iceberg which included dismantling the NHS internal market, stopping the NHS centralisation proposals of the previous Labour administration, the scrapping of right to buy, and the language measure to name but a few clear policy gains. As a result Plaid’s poll ratings remained remarkably solid during the four years of the One Wales government. This is no mean feat, as I like to remind colleagues.
For Plaid, winning the referendum more than justifies the decision to create the One Wales Government involving a partnership with Labour over the last four years. In opting for One Wales, Plaid turned down the possibility to lead our own country. The reason was to secure the referendum and to ensure we had the best chance of winning a Yes result. The poll on 3 March means that our major short term strategic objective has been achieved. Whilst the other parties will have to fundamentally re-adjust their positioning, Plaid will be able to concentrate on the forthcoming elections with a clear programme for creating a better Wales. The focus will be the economy, health and education.
In terms of where Wales goes from here, there is little doubt that the next debate will centre around reforms of the funding of the Welsh Block Grant. A Calman-like process has already been promised for Wales. I welcome the drive towards greater fiscal autonomy, but these reforms cannot take place before the Barnett formula is revised.
Labour, which has enjoyed a bounce in the polls since last May, are preoccupied with a wider game of undermining the Tory Lib Dem UK Government. Their core narrative is that the only way to protect Wales from the reckless policies of the UK Government is to change Administrations. I think there is an opportunity here for my party. Plaid’s core vision has always been that the best way to defend Wales from UK Governments of whatever colour is to develop our own democracy and sovereignty. It’s a far more coherent message considering the damage of the last Labour UK Government. The clear nature of last month’s referendum indicates that the people of Wales are increasingly coming to the same conclusion.