Politics

What is Welsh devolution?

Welsh Devolution
The Welsh government sits at the Senedd, located in Cardiff Bay. Credit: Mustakim Hasnath
Devolution plays a huge role in the lives of us living in Wales. But, what is Welsh devolution and how did it come to be?

By Hallum Cowell | Deputy Editor

The political systems that governs the United Kingdom (UK) can often be confusing and shrouded in legal jargon. The UK is a political and economic union of four nations: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

While all of these nations are under the control of the government at Westminster, where the UK Parliament sits, each has its own individual governing body. 

Each devolved parliament has a varying amount of control over their devolved nation. No two nations within the UK are the same, and their political history has helped shape the powers they have today.


What does devolution mean?

Devolution is the process where political power is decentralised from the UK Government to the other nation states within the UK. 

Often this happens as the result of a referendum, where people in each country are asked if they would like their government to have more power to make their own independent decisions. 

This means that different parts of the UK can have different laws; for example, medical prescriptions are free in Wales, but you would have to pay for them in England. This is because health is a power that has been devolved to the Welsh Government rather than managed by Westminster. 


Slow and steady journey

Devolution in Wales has been a slow and steady journey. The first referendum on whether power should be devolved to Wales occurred in 1979. This referendum asked the people of Wales if they wanted their own devolved government, though the motion was voted down by nearly 80% of those who voted.  

It was not until 1997 that another referendum on Welsh devolution was held. In much the same way, the people of Wales were asked if they wanted a devolved Welsh government: a “National Assembly for Wales”.

This time, however, the motion was passed, with a yes vote of 50.30%. As such, in 1999 the Welsh Assembly was created as Wales’ first devolved government. 

A majority of Welsh voters do seem to be in favour of keeping the devolved powers. Recent political events such as the Brexit Party pledging to abolish the Senedd have resulted in major backlash, and the dismal vote share of the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party have shown that many in Wales are – at least – happy with the devolved government’s structure and powers. 


Which powers are devolved to Wales?

Over the past 20 years a number of referendums have been held on expanding the powers given to the Welsh Parliament. 

Welsh devolution
Credit: Ellie Hutchings

When the devolved government was established in 1999 it held relatively little power. It was not until the 2011 referendum that the – as it was called at the time – Welsh Assembly gained the power to pass “Acts of Assembly” on the 20 policy areas listed above. 

These new powers were devolved to the Welsh government, allowing them to pass their own laws within these areas. Recent events such as the cancellation of the M4 relief road and the domestic Welsh COVID-19 response are examples of the Welsh government exercising their powers. 


How the history of Wales shapes the political landscape

One reason there is less support for independence in Wales, in contrast to Scotland or Northern Ireland, could well be Welsh history. 

Wales was conquered by England in the late 13th century, making it the first of what we would know today as the four nations of the UK. This is in sharp contrast to Scotland, who were rivals to the English until the unification of the two nations in the early 18th century. 

After Wales was annexed, a number of laws were passed restricting Welsh culture and regional Celtic law. This reached a peak in the mid-16th century when Wales was fully annexed into England, with the aim of turning Wales into “Western England”. 

Now, of course, Wales has a parliament and  devolved government, but the effect of centuries of English rule has provided  less of a foundation for Welsh independence to build from. While Welsh independence has seen a resurgence in recent decades, Plaid Cymru was founded in 1925 and has seen a steady rise in support since. 

This is noticeable in comparison to Scotland, where independence is a defining issue of modern politics. Or even Ireland, who gained independence from Great Britain in 1922. Northern Ireland is still deeply divided between those wishing to remain part of the UK and those wanting to unify with the Republic of Ireland. 

In both these nations, independence is a hotly debated topic, and while support for independence does seem to be on the rise in Wales, it is far off from being the deeply defining issue it is in Scotland and Northern Ireland.  

But that’s not to say Wales does not have their own long history of independence on the British Isles. During a revolt against the English in the 15th century Owain Glyndwr established the first Welsh Parliament. Before the Conquest of Wales, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn became the first and only person to unite Wales in 1057. 

It would seem that the actions of the English law makers of the past has left a considerable impact on the modern political landscape of Wales. 


Is an independent Wales on the horizon?

While there is support in Wales for independence, its support remains firmly rooted in younger voters; according to YouGov polling 46% of 18-24 year olds support independence. 

Leaving the UK has however, has not proved especially popular with the wider electorate in recent polling, with 25% of participants supporting independence as opposed to 52% in favour of remaining in the UK. 

Despite a large amount of opposition,, it is worth noting that this is the highest support Welsh independence has ever received.

It is therefore possible that in the future we will see an increase in support for Welsh independence. 

Much as the Thatcher government’s controversial policies helped drive support for devolution in many other parts of the UK, future UK governments may decide to push agendas that drive Wales out of the UK. The recently announced Internal Market Bill, which would allow Westminster to bypass devolved government decisions and directly fund projects in the other nations of the UK, is one such point of friction.

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