Wednesday 25 March 2009

Ghosts of the past

Like many others, I really don't understand how a 13% lead for the 'yes' camp in any referendum on enhancing the powers of the National Assembly has been covered as though it were a major problem. It's a very healthy lead – the sort that any government would be very happy with if it were about to call an election.

I do understand, though, why some are still so cautious. For those who got their fingers burnt in 1979 - and very nearly so again in 1997 - there is a real fear of failure. The danger, though, is that seeing only the echoes of the past, seeing only the similarities with what happened before, may blind us to the very real differences. Historical experience is a useful input to the present, but fear of a repeat of the past should not be allowed to determine our responses to such an extent that we wait for unanimity.

There are two key differences between the next referendum, whenever it happens, and the two previous referenda, and those differences need to be considered as carefully as the similarities. And then we need to make a measured judgement about the risks.

The first is that the Assembly now exists, and people have had ten years' experience of the new situation. The sky didn't fall in, and in a growing number of areas, the Assembly has started to make a real difference to people's lives. In some areas, there have been disappointments, of course, and it would be dishonest to deny that. But its influence on our daily lives is growing, and all the polls indicate that people understand that - and broadly welcome it.

The second key difference is that this is not an 'all or nothing' referendum, as were the two in 1979 and 1997. Even if the referendum were to be lost (and I don't believe that it would be), the Assembly would still be there, it would still be gaining powers and influence, just at a much slower pace. In short, there is less to lose.

That is not to say that a lost referendum wouldn't be a setback for Wales; it would. But the scale of the setback would be a great deal less that than which occurred in 1979 – and which so nearly happened again in 1997.

Some have argued that the opinion poll lead must be at least x% - put whatever number you like instead of the x – but I simply don't accept the validity of such a mechanistic approach. Setting an arbitrary threshold is no substitute for making a proper judgement of the situation at the time, and coming to a decision based on that judgement.

There is a danger that we see only the views of those with whom we concur, and rush into a judgement based on that. I attended the meeting of the Convention in Carmarthen a couple of weeks ago, and if the feeling of those who spoke at that meeting is typical of the views of the population as a whole, then the Carmarthen jury declared pretty clearly that the biggest problem with the proposed referendum is that it does not go far enough. I know, though, that other conclusions would probably be drawn from meetings elsewhere in Wales.

There are those who are starting to doubt the commitment of the One Wales government to holding the promised referendum. I do not share those doubts. For me, there were always two windows in which the One Wales government could have called a referendum. The first was immediately after taking office, in 2007; but the agreement of the partners to set up the Convention effectively ruled that one out. The second is after the Westminster election but before the 2011 Assembly elections.

That second window has been narrowed by the fact that Gordon Brown is now likely to hang on until the bitter end before calling the election, but it has not been closed by a long shot. Any referendum campaign is likely to be as painful for the Labour Party as it will be for the Conservatives, since both parties are hopelessly divided on the issue. Expecting Labour to expose and emphasise those internal disagreements in the period immediately before an election is just not realistic. And, whether we like it or not, the commitment of Labour to any campaign is a key element in ensuring success.


Sweet and Tender Hooligan said...


Thoughtfully argued as always.

As someone in the firm ‘devolutionist’ camp within Welsh Labour, I think we both recognise that external factors will be a key driver in this process. It is over simplistic to sketch a scenario that a Cameron government will focus the minds of the whole of Welsh Labour towards the Assembly’s future, particularly regarding gaining more powers?

On the point regarding the ‘lead’ issue. I am encouraged there is a lead, but my understanding was that all but the dogmatists in Plaid accepted a clear and sustained evidence of a winning margin was going to be the trigger.?

It’s also interesting you don’t highlight the One Wales’ wording regarding the All Wales Conventions findings. My understanding was that the commitment hinged on the recommendations of the AWC, after it had carried out sufficient anecdotal and statistical evidence on whether there was the requisite support. Of course, we are not at the ‘reporting stage’ yet, but you must accept that if it seems nigh on impossible that the AWC would report to the WAG that the referendum was eminently winnable at this stage?

Anonymous said...

S&TH makes a valid point.

Though I believe that support or opposition to enhanced devolution crosses across party lines for the three unionist parties, I would guess that a significant section of the Labour party in Wales would be more inclined to vote Yes were the Conservatives to win Westminster. I would therefore add a few pecentage points to any survey held today.

Likewise, voting Yes wouldn't be seen so much as a kick against the government as Cameron, one assumes, will not have been in power for much more than a year and would not be identified as part of the Devolution yes vote. The 'give the government a kicking' vote will therefore either be split, stay at home or direct it possibly to the Yes side.


John Dixon said...


I think a Cameron government would help focus some people's minds on the issue, especially if, as seems inevitable, Wales still has a significant majority of non-Tory MPs. But there are some who are so dead-set against progress, that I really think they would prefer to have Wales run by a Tory Secretary of State than by the Assembly.

"my understanding was that all but the dogmatists in Plaid accepted a clear and sustained evidence of a winning margin was going to be the trigger"

That isn't what One Wales says. And my reading of One Wales doesn't actually require a positive recommendation from the Convention either - that is merely one of the factors to take into account. The Commission was not just supposed to be about assessing opinion - it was also supposed to be explaining the current set-up to people, and I'm not sure that it's actually fulfilling that part of its remit at present.

What One Wales actually says on the matter is:

Assembly Powers

There will be a joint commitment to use the Government of Wales Act 2006 provisions to the full under Part III and to proceed to a successful outcome of a referendum for full law-making powers under Part IV as soon as practicable, at or before the end of the Assembly term.

Both parties agree in good faith to campaign for a successful outcome to such a referendum. The preparations for securing such a successful outcome will begin immediately. We will set up an all-Wales Convention within six months and a group of MPs and AMs from both parties will be commissioned to set the terms of reference and membership of the Convention based on wide representation from civic society. Both parties will then take account of the success of the bedding down of the use of the new legislative powers already available and, by monitoring the state of public opinion, will need to assess the levels of support for full law-making powers necessary to trigger the referendum.

I'm not arguing for a reckless 'must have a referendum, come what may' approach; but I think that the commitment made by the two parties was somewhat firmer than implied in your comment. Most importantly, the decision boils down to an informed judgement rather than amy mechanistic criteria.

John Dixon said...


It's hard to second-guess what the effect of a Cameron government would be on this issue (other than potentially making it harder to get the agreement of the UK Parliament to holding a referendum at all!), but I suspect it's more likely to be positive than negative, especially if, as I anticipate, Wales fails to embrace the Conservative Party in the election.

But my main point is that the decision has to be a judgement made at the time, not pre-determined by what has gone before. The Convention is likely to have taken the best part of two years to come to any sort of conclusion, and during that period, opinions could (and probably will) have moved (in either direction). Whatever it reports, that report can and must be only one factor in coming to a decision, just as opinion polls can only be a factor.

Sweet and Tender Hooligan said...


Thanks for the reply.

I also took the time to read the exact wording, and I agree there is room for manoeuvre (which depending on your political stripe can mean whatever you want it to be I guess). It is not the be all and end all, but it’s hardly likely that if the AWC’s own figures and research show that the referendum is not eminently winnable, the WAG will proceed regardless. What is your view on that?

Ultimately though, the AWC’s own research is still within the realms of it tightening the nerves of even the most fervent pro-devolutionists (of which I am).

Consider the presiding officer’s mechanistic assessment of the barometer in terms of there being sufficient support? Do you diverge from his opinion that the figures must reach a certain point before proceeding?

I think we would both agree that poll figures are a pretty arbitrary way of measuring the suitability of the referendum, I do feel however that some within your party are of the view that 2011 is do or die, and would rest their commitment to One Wales upon that issue. I cannot help but feel that any delay beyond 2011 will be seen at the last betrayal for many plaid members…

Equally as arbitrary (we are where we are I guess) is the 2011 cut off point in my view.

John Dixon said...


"but it’s hardly likely that if the AWC’s own figures and research show that the referendum is not eminently winnable, the WAG will proceed regardless. What is your view on that?"

I'd be wary about being so black and white, and wouldn't really want to say either yes or no to that. It's back to waht I said previously, I think we have to take a measured judgement, and the report of the Convention is only one element of that. Some of their evidence will inevitably be dated by the time that they report, and if there's better, more recent evidence, we shouldn't just ignore it.

"Do you diverge from his opinion that the figures must reach a certain point before proceeding?"

Disagree with his lordship? Moi? Yes, actually. Setting a specific criteria is not making a judgement; and it has to come down to judgement in the end.

"I cannot help but feel that any delay beyond 2011 will be seen at the last betrayal for many plaid members"

If the reason for delay appears to be an excuse based on 'advice' received rather than on a rational judgement of all the evidence, then yes, indeed. We in Plaid need to accept that there can be no absolute certainty at this stage; but our concern is when Labour figures appear to be interpreting that lack of absolute certainty as meaning that there was never any real commitment.

For the time being, both Rhodri and Ieuan have made it clear that they expect to be holding the referendum within the agreed timescale; I have no reason to doubt the commitment of either.