Chapter 30

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The Referendum of 1997

Before voting day, in many areas, it was apparent that things hadn't changed all that much since 1979. There was still tension between north and south Wales, between the thousands of English immigrants and the hard line, mostly Welsh-speaking nationalists. There was also tension between the Labour heart lands of the southeastern valleys, and those in other districts who feared the imposition of a costly, Labour-dominated "talking shop" instead of a real assembly free from the clutches of a Westminster controlled collection of puppets. Other fears included that of domination by Cardiff, or the loss of funds from London.

Many Welsh people stated they had enough of English M.P.'s and ministers telling them what was best for them. In addition, of the 2.25 million eligible to vote, over half a million had been born outside Wales, and felt no particular affection for their adopted country (even less for its culture and language). They showed not a flicker of interest in devolution. Of the rest, most people had not made up their minds, except to express the opinion that the proposed Assembly would simply mean "jobs for the boys," or another way for the Labour "Taffia" (Welsh Mafia) to fill their pockets.

Thus, many of the factors that had led to the defeat of the 1979 referendum were still present. After all, it surely would take generations to erase what can only be considered as anti-Welsh prejudice, so prevalent in the anglicized areas -- yet subtle changes had been taking place that helped swing the vote ever so slightly in favor of an elected Assembly.

Many of these changes were brought about by the sheer arrogance of the Conservative Party in its dealings with the people of Wales. This arrogance had led to the complete defeat of all its candidates in Wales (and Scotland, where the same conditions had also swung public opinion) during the General Election held earlier in the year, in which the issue of devolution figured heavily in the campaigns.

It was heartening that two of the most influential newspapers read in Wales, the Liverpool Daily Post (read mainly in the north) and the Western Mail (read mainly in the south) advocated a "yes" vote. Disgust with the way affairs were handled in Westminster surely meant that there would be heary support for the proposed changes expressed by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Prescott proposed that Wales must be in the vanguard of a constitutional reform package that would include Lords reform, electoral reform, and a referendum for an elected body. Another change from 1979 was that in the later proposals, only a simple majority would be needed to pass the Referendum Bill, whereas in the former, a majority of the electorate had been required for passage.

In order to clarify just what it was the people of Wales would be voting for, it might be worthwhile to list some of the main points of the Labour Government's White Paper. It was published in July 1997 to establish a directly elected Assembly to have responsibility for policies and public services in Wales.

The points included:
  • Sixty members (40 to be elected; 20 to be chosen by proportional representation.
  • The responsibilities of the Welsh Office to be transferred to the Assembly, with the Secretary of State for Wales acting as a link with Westminster.
  • A budget of 7 billion pounds to be managed by the Assembly, to meet in Cardiff.
  • Elections for the Assembly to take place every four years.
  • An Executive Committee to be appointed to act as a Cabinet
  • The work of the Assembly to be carried out by 2,000 civil servants.
  • The Assembly to be granted secondary legislative powers; non-government agencies to be democratized, and the granting of equal status with English to the Welsh language.

    All these seemed simple and straightforward enough. But were they? There were many questions raised by the Welsh people, many of whom were completely puzzled as to the immediate effects this elected Assembly would have on their lives. Plaid Cymru, in its attempts to secure a place for Wales in Europe as an independent nation and not just as a western region of the United Kingdom, had some questions of its own. Especially concerning the increased powers given to Scotland's Assembly; the future of education and health, and many others.

    Chapter 30 Continued
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