‘I know because I was there!’ Personal reflections on the Welsh devolution referendum of 1997 | Prof Russell Deacon
‘I know because I was there!’ Personal reflections on the Welsh devolution referendum of 1997
Prof Russell Deacon – Administrative Director – Gorwel
The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, where the referendum count was announced, has changed substantially – like much of Welsh politics – since that night in September 1997. That event, like the outputs of the college itself, was in many ways a piece of dramatic theatre. One which is probably the most significant production that will ever be held there. Under the dry delivery of Professor Eric Sunderland each count was declared in turn with the ‘No’ vote being on top for the first 21 of these, until the very last declaration from Carmarthen put the ‘Yes’ vote ahead. It was only then, with this narrow victory ( 6,721 votes), that the substantial Yes campaign presence there could breath a huge collective sigh of relief. The evening itself had been the very epitome of cliff edge drama’, with Carmarthen’s declaration acting as the cavalry riding to the rescue at the very last moment. To add to the sense dramatic change that night encapsulated we had entered the College in the late evening with a clear star light night and exited in the morning to heavy rain, with most of us not having foresight of bringing a coat or umbrella. Reminding us that there were some things even the new Assembly could not change in Wales.
Those of us, and there were many, who had been campaigning across the previous six months had never believed the vote would be so close. The polls, the few that there were, had indicated a substantial Yes lead. I had become involved the previous year as the principal designer of the Welsh Liberal Democrats own devolution proposals (Senedd) – which involved establishing a full law making-tax-raising parliament – similar to that in offered to Scotland. With the exception of law and order and elections by STV this is the model we now have in Wales today. This, however, was not on offer and we were constantly reminded ‘that half a loaf is better than one’ and that this was just the start not the end of devolution. With this in mind, the Welsh Liberal Democrats had called constantly for a constitutional convention, similar to that which was occurring in Scotland. Labour in Wales, however, also constantly refused this model and made it clear that any Welsh devolution would be on their designs alone.
Initially, there wasn’t even going to be a referendum until Labour leader Tony Blair suddenly decided that if the Assembly was to avoid being scrapped by an incoming Conservative government it needed entrenching by a referendum. Welsh Labour did a full 180 degrees turn and the very evening after announcing that a referendum was not necessary, Shadow Welsh Secretary Ron Davies announced that it now was essential. The game was now on and in order to win it there had to be a wider, cross-party consensus. This mainly fell under the umbrella of the Yes for Wales Campaign steered mainly by Leighton Andrews, Prof Kevin Morgan and Daran Hill with other political figures from all of the main political parties in Wales, including even some Conservatives joining in. But once again Welsh Labour did not commit itself to fully endorsing this campaign and working with the other political parties. This meant therefore that a number of parallel campaigns occurred. Nevertheless, across many parts of Wales politicians who had spent their whole lives campaigning against each other were on the same side for the first time under the Yes for Wales campaign umbrella. This act of partnership also ensured that many of these same politicians were later able to know that they could work together for a common course during the periods of Welsh Assembly coalition government.
My main referendum activity, besides being on the Yes for Wales steering committee, was working on the campaign in Merthyr Tydfil, with Cllr Steve Belzak. Here the local Labour Party, which dominated local politics, did not engage actively for or against the campaign but stayed on the side lines. Local campaigning therefore was mainly through the non-Labour parties and independents. The central issue seemed to be a lack of information for voters on what an actual Assembly was and why it was needed. I recall a woman coming up to me when we were campaigning in the centre of Merthyr Tydfil saying: ‘I know we should vote for the Assembly because the Tories are against it but I don’t know what it is?”. I dutifully explained, but I’m sure that much of the Yes voting in Merthyr Tydfil was more down to the legacy of that May’s general election, rather than solely due to any campaigning on the ground we did. These factors being the momentum of the Labour landslide that still hung in the air that September along with the removal of all Conservative MPs in Wales. This ensured that there was no substantial Welsh No campaign parliamentarian for the anti-Assembly campaign to rally around,
For those of us that campaigned in the referendum election, the year 1997 was a hard political slog. Most of us had been dedicating unpaid evenings, weekends and leave to political campaigning since the spring, leading up to the 1st May general election and then almost straight away we were back on the campaign trail for the referendum. It would be held also after the Scottish one, on the theory that if they vote Yes, Wales would follow. Importantly, it would also be before the magic of the new Blair government had faded too much and the Conservatives had managed to heal their wounds enough to gather their campaigning strength to prevent devolution.
As a Welsh Liberal Democrat campaigning in Merthyr Tydfil the referendum campaign represented the first time I had been on the winning side in the South Wales valleys. In the referendum in Merthyr, just under half of the electors had voted and of those nearly 60 per cent had voted ‘yes’. When the vote came in for Merthyr Tydfil I felt particularly gratified for having given up my Summer. But as I had also found myself doing the electoral coverage for Channel Four news for that night with Jon Snow I was only able to give an inner smile, as I was meant to be an impartial commentator.
When I look back now, do I think it was all worthwhile? Yes, I don’t regret any of the time I spent getting Wales an Assembly that summer. Of course, Welsh devolution isn’t perfect. It certainly remains very much a work in progress, but devolution has enabled Wales, one of the world’s oldest nations, to also have one of the world’s youngest democratic institutions. For the last two decades it has meant that Wales can take a central role in its own national development rather than having to take a ‘chance to fortune’ on the electoral fortunes of Westminster.
In the famous words of Max Boyce, therefore, when it comes to what happened on the night of the referendum in Wales I can say “I know because I was there!” and in the words stated by Ron Davies the following morning, I believe still “It was a very good night!”.
Professor Russell Deacon
Professor Russell Deacon is the Administrative Director of Gorwel, a visiting Professor at the University of South Wales and a lecturer at Coleg Gwent. He was one of the two Welsh Liberal Democrats appointed to the national Yes for Wales Steering Group by Lord Carlile – the other being Lord German. As a historian Prof Deacon was privileged to see first-hand how one of the most important political events in Welsh history developed and has been recording the Welsh Assembly’s development ever since.