It’s forty years since the 1979 referendum on devolution, one of the defining moments in modern Welsh history. This account is taken from my book Wales since 1939 (2012), where it is preceded by a discussion of earlier calls for devolution. The references have been removed but can be found in the book.
When devolution became a serious political proposition after 1974, many of the arguments against it focused on its economic impact. Neil Kinnock was one of six Labour MPs in Wales who campaigned against devolution and his arguments centred on a belief that it would harm the interests of his working-class constituents. Kinnock told Parliament in 1976 that the £12 million annual running cost would pay for four hospitals, ten comprehensive schools, ten miles of motorway or two Welsh-language television channels. He argued, ‘We do not need an Assembly to prove our nationality or our pride. This is a matter of hearts and minds, not bricks, committees and bureaucrats.’ He maintained that his opposition came not from being anti-Welsh but ‘fundamentally because we are Welsh’ and want to protect Welsh interests.
But such arguments did not stop the reappearance of the old divisions over what being Welsh actually meant. As the devolution bill passed through Parliament, Kinnock claimed (wrongly) that children in Anglesey were being prevented from going to the toilet unless they asked in Welsh. Leo Abse argued that an Assembly would represent ‘xenophobia and nineteenth century nationalism’. He spoke of ‘a packed gravy train’ steaming out of Cardiff, with the ‘first-class coaches marked “For Welsh speakers only”’.
Others used more mundane arguments. Tom Hooson, the prospective Tory candidate for Brecon and Radnor, announced in the press that an Assembly would not only take power further from the people but lead to more dangerous rural roads in the winter. Aware that defeat was a real possibility, the government chose St David’s Day 1979 for the referendum, which Nicholas Edwards MP (Conservative, Pembroke) suggested was intended ‘to build up an Arms Park atmosphere and to smother fact and argument in a simple appeal to Welsh loyalty’. In response, opponents played on British patriotism. ‘Keep Wales united with Britain’, declared a full-page advert from the ‘no’ campaign in most of the Welsh papers on the day of the vote.
Political and cultural nationalists were uncertain what to do. The Welsh-language press was supportive of the measure but Dafydd Wigley MP (Plaid Cymru, Caernarfon) thought there was a lack of leadership on the issue, claiming ‘At the dawn of one of the most important milestones in Welsh history, the nationalist movement is unsure of itself, is afraid and nervous. It is like a child preparing for an important exam, but refusing to acknowledge its importance in case he fails it.’ Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg decided not to campaign for a ‘yes’ vote, noting the absence of any provision for the use of Welsh in the Assembly. Indeed, Angharad Tomos, one of its prominent members, thought the scheme ‘a Labour conspiracy’ to tame nationalists. Saunders Lewis did weigh in with a letter to the Western Mail that argued the question was really whether Wales was a nation or not. He pointed out, perceptively as it turned out, that if the answer was ‘no’ a general election would follow and the government would try to tackle inflation. This mattered because ‘In Wales there are coal mines that work at a loss; there are steelworks what are judged superfluous, there are still valleys convenient for submersion. And there will be no Welsh defence.’
Amid all the arguments there appeared to be widespread apathy and some confusion. Once the details of the exact form of devolution being proposed were known, opinion polls never showed support for an Assembly at higher than 34 per cent. Things were perhaps not helped by the fact that, unlike Scotland, Wales was being offered an assembly with no legislative powers. There was no rationale for this differentiation beyond the need to placate the nationalists and the tradition of administrative devolution both being stronger in Scotland. In Abergele the Daily Post found ‘a tidal wave of indifference’. A bricklayer from Ely (Cardiff) told a writer, ‘I don’t know what it’s all about. I’m not really interested. It’ll make no bloody difference to me one way or the other. I hear some of them talking Welsh in the other bar and it means nothing to me. They’re foreigners to me.’ Not a single elector attended one devolution meeting in Merthyr during the campaign. The hostile South Wales Echo noted on the day before the vote: ‘There are many people in Wales who are thoroughly sick of being bombarded with the views and counter-views. After all, it was an issue that the Welsh did not want in the first place.’
Apart from lukewarm support from the Western Mail, which saw devolution as an issue of democracy and accountability rather than cost, language and separation, ‘yes’ campaigners found little support from the press in Wales. The South Wales Echo played the fear card throughout the campaign, with editorials claiming that a majority of people would vote ‘no’ because ‘they are afraid of being hived off from the rest of the country. They are right to be afraid.’ The Daily Post, meanwhile, played on north–south tensions, claiming in its referendum-day editorial that Wales ‘deserves better than this half-baked folly … a pretentious little super council, housed in a Cardiff backwater, trifling endlessly with minor governmental issues and failing to achieve anything of primary importance’.
The most widely read papers, however, were based in London (the Sun and the Daily Mirror alone accounted for over 40 per cent of all English-language newspapers sold in Wales) and they paid scant attention to the vote, thus contributing directly to the confusion and apathy. Television was not much more helpful considering perhaps 35 per cent of people tuned to English rather than Welsh transmitters and both the BBC and ITV refused to broadcast the Welsh devolution programming on those English transmitters.
At the end of a decade when Welsh rugby had suggested a confident, even aggressive national identity, only 11.8 per cent of the electorate voted in favour of the creation of a Welsh Assembly
Results of the 1 March 1979 referendum on Welsh devolution
||Percentage of electorate voting ‘yes’ (percentage of turnout)
||Percentage of electorate voting ‘no’ (percentage of turnout)
‘Yes’ votes: 243,048 (20.3 per cent of turnout; 11.8 per cent of electorate).
‘No’ votes: 956,330 (79.7 per cent of turnout; 46.5 per cent of electorate).
Turnout: 58.3 per cent.
It was an emphatic result or, as John Morris, the secretary of state, put it: ‘When you see an elephant on your doorstep, you know it is there.’
Whereas just under 12 per cent of the electorate actually voted ‘yes’, from 1975 to 1978 opinion polls had consistently showed at least 27 per cent of people said they would vote that way. By the time of the actual referendum, political circumstances had swung firmly against a ‘yes’ vote. Devolution was being proposed by a struggling Labour government that seemed to have lost control of the unions and the country. It came at the end of a ‘winter of discontent’, when strikes seemed to have crippled the nation. In the background were lingering doubts about the quality of Labour politicians likely to dominate an Assembly and continued fears about levels of public spending in an inflation-ridden economy. Moreover, the government seemed unenthusiastic and it had not produced its own campaign literature. One poll a couple of weeks before the vote even suggested that 12 per cent of Plaid Cymru voters were going to vote ‘no’.
Although the result was a comment on the political circumstances of the day, it was also unavoidably about nationality. In an opinion poll the week before the vote, 61 per cent of ‘no’ voters said they were motivated by the Assembly’s cost, 43 per cent by the fear of another level of bureaucracy and 40 per cent by wanting to preserve the union. The ‘no’ campaign’s arguments that devolution would mean the southern English-speaking majority being ruled by a Welsh-speaking clique from the north and that it would ultimately lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom hit home. One writer of a letter to the press feared, ‘It’s another case of jobs for the boys, with higher rates and taxes when England pulls out.’ After the result, a cartoon on the front page of the South Wales Echo showed a lady sitting down with a map of Britain on her wall, saying, ‘There’s lovely – still in one piece’. Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg’s magazine concluded that the referendum had ‘shown clearly that this last decade has not resulted in any loosening of the British knot in Wales’.
Thus, despite the specific political issues of the day, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the 1979 referendum also marked the majority of Wales asserting its satisfaction with remaining within the UK, even among those whose sense of Welshness overrode any feeling of being British. In the 1979 Welsh Election Survey, 59 per cent of respondents said they were Welsh rather than British or English but only 22 per cent of this group voted ‘yes’, while 42 per cent voted ‘no’. Those with a higher involvement in Welsh culture – be it through language, chapel, schooling or using the Welsh media – were most likely to have voted ‘yes’. This explained why the ‘yes’ vote was highest in rural areas but everywhere in Wales, despite, and perhaps because of, the mess that Britain seemed to be in, there was little widespread appetite for leaving it.