Would Wales Really Reject Devolution?

Some interest was generated this weekend by an article in the Sunday Times, in which Conservative Assembly leader Andrew RT Davies appeared to cast doubt over whether Wales would vote for devolution today if given the choice. I responded on Twitter at the time that this statement did not appear to be in line with what the best available evidence suggests.

The key phrase in Andrew’s article was the following: “I suspect that among the 559,419 people whose votes in 1997’s Welsh devolution referendum set in motion the assembly’s creation, many would decide differently today”.

Leaving aside the fact that many of those who voted in the 1997 referendum are now dead, while many members of the current electorate were not then eligible to vote (indeed, some current voters were not even born in September 1997), let’s focus on what I think is the pertinent question: would Wales vote in favour of devolution now, if given the choice?

Such a question asks about a hypothetical scenario, relating to a parallel world where devolution was not established in the late-1990s and people are being asked now. It’s impossible to answer such a question definitively, but we can try to get close to an answer, using the best available evidence.

Getting that evidence means trying to talk to representative samples of the public, asking them sensible and relevant questions, and seeking reasonable interpretations of their responses. That might sound simple, but in practice all elements of that are very difficult. However, the Institute of Welsh Politics at Aberystwyth University (where I used to work), and the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University (my current employer) have conducted detailed work on public attitudes to devolution in Wales over the last two decades. This work has included numerous major academic surveys of representative samples of the Welsh public; focus groups; and, in recent years, regular opinion polling, where the Welsh Political Barometer polls (as well as the more occasional polls conducted by ICM for the BBC) have periodically asked questions about public attitudes in Wales to devolution.

As I have discussed at various points on the blog (see, for instance, here and here), there is no self-evidently ‘right’ way to ask about devolution and related matters. So surveys and polls have generally asked a variety of questions. These include:

-       Multi-option questions where people are asked to choose their most preferred option for how Wales is governed from several possibilities – usually ranging from no devolution at one end of the spectrum to independence at the other.

-       Other questions where people are asked to indicate which of several levels of government should have the most influence in running Wales; how far advanced along a spectrum they would like Welsh self-government to be; or which of various specific policy issues they think should be devolved.

-       More specific questions in which people are asked about particular scenarios – such as whether or not Wales should be independent, or whether or not the Assembly should be abolished.

 

Evidence from the multi-option questions has been broadly consistent since about 2001. Only a minority (usually below 20%) of respondents favour the no devolution option; an even smaller minority (usually below 10%) favour independence. The clear majority endorse devolution – either roughly at the current level or with somewhat greater autonomy. This pattern of responses has persisted despite the substantial changes in the powers of the National Assembly since the early years of this century.

 

Evidence from various other question formats in surveys and polls, as well as focus group work, has tended to point in the same direction. It has not suggested that Wales has turned against devolution, and that a majority would like to abolish the Assembly.

 

This evidence comes mostly from general questions about devolution. Last September, to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the 1997 referendum, the Welsh Political Barometer poll included a specific question very closely related to the issue raised by Andrew RT Davies at the weekend. We asked the following:

 

“In 1997, there was a referendum that led to the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales. Please imagine that this referendum hadn't happened and the National Assembly didn’t exist. In this scenario, if there was a referendum held tomorrow on the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales, how would you vote?”

 

The responses that we received were:

 

I would vote in favour of establishing the National Assembly     47%

I would vote against establishing the National Assembly            27%

I would not vote                                                                                8%

Don’t Know                                                                                        18%

Of course, we should interpret this evidence with some caution. This is just one poll, asking a question which does require people to make a substantial leap of the imagination. Whether people would really behave like that in the scenario sketched out is something that we cannot know for sure. But the evidence from this specific question points in very much the same direction as that we can derive from broader questions. The best available evidence does not support the notion that the people of Wales would reject devolution if asked to vote on it today.

To say this is not, of course, to say that everything in the devolved garden is lovely. To the contrary, there are some obvious problems – some of which I have discussed on this blog previously. Among those are the following:

-       There is (despite the very best efforts of some seriously talented journalists) a paucity of serious media scrutiny of devolved politics and government in Wales; relatedly, there is a substantial lack of public awareness and interest in the Assembly and Welsh Government;

-       Andrew RT Davies’ article criticised the Welsh Government’s record on major policy areas. That is what one would expect an opposition politician to do, and I am not here going to comment on the validity or otherwise of his criticisms. But as I have commented on here in the past, in general public evaluations of the policy record of devolved government in Wales are not very positive. (See, for example, here and here).

-      One very obvious problem with devolved government in Wales has been the lack of alteration of governing parties. All devolved governments in Wales have been Labour led. That is not a very healthy situation in a democracy, which ought to provide for the realistic possibility of changes in the governing party or parties. But one can hardly blame the Labour party for consistently winning elections. If anyone is to blame for this situation it is surely Labour’s opponents, who have for so long been unable to persuade sufficient numbers of Welsh voters to support them. Doubtless this is something that Andrew RT Davies and his Welsh Conservative colleagues are seeking to do something about.

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