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Wales says ‘yes’ – 20 years since the Welsh devolution referendum

The First Minister's speech to the Institute of Welsh Affairs.
Monday 18 September 2017

1997 wasn’t the start of my political career but it did play a defining role.

I had previously been elected as a councillor in Bridgend and when Labour won in 1997 and I became Secretary of the Bridgend and Ogmore Say Yes campaign. It was during this period that I met many of the people who would go on to play a defining role during the early years of devolution, including Leighton Andrews.

Bridgend did say yes - just as Wales did – but both only by the narrowest of margins. Just as many of you will, I remember crawling into bed that night in despair. Yet somehow I couldn’t turn off the television. And then, finally, the Carmarthen result – the Carmarthen result!

Huw Edwards’ voice still rings in my ears: “We understand that Carmarthen has said ‘YES’.” It had been a difficult campaign and so the closeness of the result wasn’t really a surprise to any of us.

There were huge challenges in trying to explain to people what an Assembly was and what it would do. I distinctly remember one doorstep conversation when somebody asked me ‘is it like a School Assembly, but in Welsh?’. As we know, it wasn’t just a challenge explaining to people on the doors that we knocked. There is no doubt that many in my own party were also deeply sceptical.

Tony Blair said last week that he had steamrollered the Labour Party, and Wales into devolution. It is undoubtedly true that the Blair bounce and the political confidence of that time helped, but the scale of the Labour win a few months earlier also gave rise to some scepticism – ‘we’ve got Labour in power in Westminster, why do we need devolution?’.

Partly that was an understandable sentiment. Many in the Labour Party had come round to the idea of devolution since the No vote in 1979 because of Thatcher and because of the devastation inflicted upon Welsh communities during the 1980s.

The John Redwood factor played a massive part. In fact, there’s an idea, maybe there should be a statue of John Redwood in the Senedd.

Much has been said about the fact that the deal that was on offer in 1997 was all that Wales and the Welsh Labour Party was ready for. As someone who always had confidence in the idea of devolution, an idea that I always felt was utterly consistent with Labour values and tradition, I didn’t share that feeling. I was impatient for change and frustrated at the limited deal we were offering.

But there was one person whose quiet determination and belief pervaded throughout the first decade of devolution – Rhodri Morgan. My predecessor’s sudden and untimely death in May of this year has given rise to much reflection and it would be remiss of me not to touch upon the impact that his time as First Minister had on the 20 years since the 1997 referendum. Rhodri found a voice for our fledgling democracy. His positive brand of ‘Welshness’ and rejection of hard-edged nationalism helped solidify Labour as the party of devolution and allowed ‘Welsh Labour’ to develop and mature. He took us on the journey from the tiny majority in 1997 to the resounding affirmation of Welsh devolution that the 2011 referendum gave us. It says something quite wonderful about Wales that Rhodri Morgan, all wild hair and radical tradition, actually represented the centre-ground of our nation’s politics for so long.

Thankfully, any analysis of what would have happened if that majority of 6721 had not been secured is no longer part of public discussion. That isn’t to say that there aren’t some people, even some in the UK government, who don’t still dream of a day when there is no longer a solid pro-devolution majority in Wales but regular polling now shows a consistent level of support, recognition and trust for the Assembly.

But where would we be? It is easy to forget the days of one Secretary of State and 2 junior ministers sitting in the Welsh Office. They were not answerable to the people of Wales but instead were bit players in the inevitable games played around the UK Cabinet table. This is such a contrast to today where we have a flourishing young democracy with all the lobbying and scrutiny that that entails. It means that the people in Wales have much more of a say in the services they receive and Wales is richer for that.

In 1997, in very many ways, the old adage ‘for Wales, see England’ was still a reality. That attitude would have taken deep roots in the event of a No vote, with Scotland and Northern Ireland – and even the English regions deciding their own futures. But, now our profile across the world has gone from strength to strength. And we can reflect on our shared successes:

  • The first country in the UK to introduce deemed consent for organ donation.
  • Free prescriptions for all.
  • Free breakfasts for primary school children.
  • Unemployment rate half what it was 20 years ago.
  • The attraction of record levels of inward investment.
  • Developed Cardiff Airport into one of the fastest growing in the UK.
  • Supported Wales through a global recession through bold actions such as Proact, React and Jobs Growth Wales which has helped create over 17,000 jobs for young people.
  • Embarked on the biggest schools and college building programme since the 1960s – £1.4bn since 2014 alone.
  • Introduced the Foundation Phase for 3 to 7 year olds.
  • Spending on health and social care services in Wales higher than it is in England, accounting for nearly half our total budget.
  • Introduced over 50 pieces of primary legislation and 32 Acts including;
    • The ground breaking 2014 Housing Act to help those homeless – or at risk of becoming homeless – and which has already helped 8,800 households in Wales.
    • Next year will see introduction of the first Welsh tax in almost 800 years.
    • Made Welsh our official language and strengthened the rights of speakers across the country.
    • We now recycle, reuse or compost 64% of our waste compared to around 4% in 1997 – from the worst to the 3rd best in the world.
    • Introduced a maximum weekly charge for social care.
    • And become the first country in the world to have a dedicated footpath along its entire coastline – 870 miles – generating £85m for the Welsh economy and supporting over 1,000 jobs.

Successes that show that devolution has worked on behalf of - and delivered for - everyone. In all parts of Wales. And as our presence on the global stage grows and grows, the eyes of the world are on Wales, again and again. And again and again, we show that we can deliver.

Major sporting events such as the Ryder Cup and the Champions League Final are now possible. The only thing that has done more for Wales’ international profile in the past 20 years is Gareth Bale.

The strong and confident country we have become is a product of devolution. It is the reality of a devolved Wales and this success has shown that it was never about being independent. We have all witnessed and played our part in the latest chapter of Wales’ history of democracy and internationalism. The next chapter is still unwritten but it is undoubtedly about Brexit.

There is little doubt that the Withdrawal Bill currently going through Parliament is the biggest threat to devolution since its inception. There are even some lawyers and academics arguing that it is the biggest threat to the constitution for many hundreds of years.

The referendum in 1997 may not have been the unequivocal endorsement of devolution that I and others campaigned for but the referendum in 2011 certainly was. It is a nonsense to say that devolution should be undone because of Brexit but that is exactly the threat that we face.

One outcome of the Withdrawal Bill is that the UK government proposes to take powers for and to itself in relation to devolved policy areas in Wales - and in Scotland and Northern Ireland for that matter. It proposes to alter, permanently, the fundamental principle that has existed in the Scottish and the Northern Irish contexts for nearly 20 years but has only been conceded to Wales this year – the principle that says what is not reserved, is devolved. This is not acceptable.

I met Nicola Sturgeon over the summer recess in Edinburgh and we agreed to work together to oppose the pernicious effects of this bill. We have now reached agreement on some proposed joint amendments and we will be publishing them tomorrow. Our politics may be very different, but we are committed to partnership with the Scottish Government to defend not only the institutions in which we respectively operate but also the democratic principles that the people of Wales and Scotland resoundingly support.

The Conservative government has consistently shown a lack of willingness to engage and a fundamental lack of trust. This must change. We must, together, for the sake of the whole United Kingdom, make inter-governmental arrangements better. People rightly expect that.

Maybe at this point, I dare use the ‘F’ word. Federalism. The UK government, faced with the challenges that Brexit has drawn to the fore, must engage with us to find a solution fit for the 21st century. The pre-1972 solution will not work.

In a paper we published earlier this summer, Brexit and Devolution, we set out some proposals for what such a solution might look like, centred on a UK Council of Ministers based on a parity of esteem between the UK government and the devolved administrations. This was an attempt to start a debate, not conclude it, and we accept that change is likely to be incremental.

In the shorter term, we have made clear that we are prepared to put in place common frameworks where necessary to ensure that, freed from the constraints of EU law, the devolution settlements do not allow individual administrations to undermine the integrity of the UK market, for example, by competitive deregulation of environmental standards or by a free for all in terms of tax breaks or subsidies to inward investors.

But such frameworks must be agreed, not imposed. And it is that which the UK government seems to find so difficult to accept, interpreting the mantra of ‘taking back control’ as meaning an unparalleled concentration of power in the hands of UK ministers.

The Brexit vote was about a lot of things, for a lot of people, but I don’t think anyone was voting for the outcome the UK government now have in mind. For Wales to continue to play its part in a conversation about the constitution, we must turn back to the internal conversations about how devolution works in a Welsh context.

Brexit was one of the articulated reasons that we reluctantly voted to give consent to the Wales Act 2017 at the beginning of this year. It was a really difficult and finely balanced decision. But I will not concede that the 2017 Act has somehow provided the long-term sustainable devolution settlement that Wales has been ready for since the 2011 referendum.

The Silk Commission made a decent stab at drawing cross-party consensus on a long-term solution. Then, for some reason the UK government (I do not want to say Tory party because that would be to tar them all with the same brush) failed to put Wales on a par with Scotland when the draft Wales Bill was published in 2015.

In a move of unwitting genius, that draft bill did do 2 positive things:

  1. it articulated the argument better than anything or anyone had previously been able to do about why we need to grapple the issues around a Welsh jurisdiction
  2. it pushed us in the Welsh Government to think about what clarity, stability and sustainability for Welsh devolution would look like and that resulted in the Alternative Wales Bill that we published in March 2016.

Our Alternative Bill got overtaken by events, the Assembly elections and then, most notably, the EU referendum in June last year. But it still has relevance and provides an answer as to how a stable Welsh devolution settlement could operate in a more federal UK. I was proud to see it incorporated as official UK Labour policy through this year’s election manifesto.

And so I want to finish by tackling what I see as a major piece of this unfinished devolution jigsaw. We tried, without success to pursue matters relating to justice, covering youth justice, the courts, probation and prisons – matters that were addressed by Silk but overlooked by the UK government – in the context of our amendments to the Wales Bill last year.

It has been clear that these matters were some I felt we needed to return to and it has become increasingly clear to me, as I have set out today, that this nettle must now be grasped. There are a whole set of overlapping issues, in relation to both the jurisdiction and the delivery of justice, where I believe the current arrangements can and must be improved.

Today I am delighted to announce that Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd has agreed to Chair a Commission on Justice in Wales when he steps down next month from his responsibilities as Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. I will provide further details of the commission’s Membership and Terms and Reference later on this year with a view to it beginning its work early in 2018. This work will play an important part of exploring the next steps for devolution in Wales as we enter the next Chapter.

20 years on from devolution, we are a nation transformed. Not just in terms of our new democracy, but more in terms of our new found confidence. I see every day a generation of young people who are fearless, who are educated and grounded in Wales and firmly believe that the future belongs to them, and that the world is out there to conquer.

The contrast with the past is huge, it has been hard won, and it must be built upon. That narrow win in 1997 has now blossomed into a broad consensus – our Assembly is now the most trusted layer of government in the land. People feel more and more connected to the work we do, and have a very real sense of ownership of their legislature and executive, and of their politicians – and that is just how it should be.

In many ways, a nation that was once only imagined has now been made real. But, none of that can be taken for granted. The acid test for devolution was always, and will always be the ways in which we can improve the lives of people in communities up and down the country. That remains my ambition and the ambition of this Welsh Government.

Tomorrow the Assembly’s official plenary sessions restart after the summer break. For 45 minutes I’ll take questions on everything from creative industries to local bus routes. We’ll present our paper on Brexit and immigration. We’ll set out new long-term ambitions for our nation as we launch a new strategy for government. We’ll debate the long-term future of the NHS in Wales. We’ll debate, we’ll argue – we may even agree on some things – but at the end of the day we’ll also decide. We’ll make our own decisions about the future of Wales.

That is what devolution has given us. A voice, confidence and control of our destiny. The next 20 years are shaping up to be more eventful than the last. I’m confident that together we will rise to each challenge and continue to build the fair, open, prosperous nation that we all want Wales to become.

Thank you.



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