Twenty years ago, on 18 September 1997, a referendum was held in Wales on whether there was support for the creation of an assembly for Wales with devolved powers. Here we take a look at that day and the journey it began with twenty quotes…
“Devolution is about harnessing the power of community – the diverse community that is the United Kingdom, and the national communities that through devolution can take their futures in their own hands.”
A quote from Tony Blair who in 1997 led Labour back to power for the first time since 1979 in a landslide victory. The Labour manifesto included a commitment to holding a referendum on the creation of a Welsh Assembly.
“There are some variations across social groups in Wales. Women clearly support a Welsh Assembly – by 37 to 29 – while men oppose one by 43 to 38.
There is strong majority support for devolution among those aged 18 to 34, while a majority of those voters aged over 65 oppose an assembly.”
An extract from the results of a Guardian/ICM poll taken a week before the referendum vote.
“Good morning, and it is a very good morning in Wales.”
This how Ron Davies, Secretary of State for Wales in 1997 and leader of the Yes campaign started his speech when the result was announced. Watch footage of his speech here. Ron Davies also famously described Welsh devolution as a “process not an event.”
“When you win a national campaign by less than seven thousand votes it makes every last leaflet, every last foot-step, every last door knocked, worthwhile.”
Leighton Andrews, former Assembly Member and Welsh Government Minister, reflects on the Yes Campaign in a recent blog for the IWA. 50.3 per cent of those who voted in the referendum supported devolution – a narrow majority in favour of 6,721 votes.
Following the referendum, the UK Parliament passed the Government of Wales Act 1998. The Act established the National Assembly as a corporate body – with the executive (the Government) and the legislature (the Assembly) operating as one. The first Assembly elections were then held on 6 May, 1999.
“The people of Anglesey in the slate quarries of Caernarfonshire used to be known as Pobol y Medra, because their answer to the question, ‘Can you do this?’ was ‘Medra’—‘I can. That must be our message throughout Wales. Let the whole of Wales become Pobol y Medra.”
Alun Michael, having just become the First Secretary of Wales on 12 May 1999. Read the full Plenary transcript where he made this speech.
“It is now the only legislature in the world that is perfectly balanced between men and women. We should note that. It is a message that should ring around the world.”
Rhodri Morgan, then First Secretary, following the 2003 Assembly elections when a world record was set by the Assembly through becoming the first legislative body with equal numbers of men and women.
“We popped in to admire the architecture and have a look around but were pleased to find that we could enter the public gallery and watch a live debate taking place. It was really interesting and enhanced our understanding of the place and the people working there. Definitely worth a visit.”
A review of the Senedd on TripAdvisor. The Senedd became the home of the National Assembly for Wales in 2006 and since then has welcomed more than one million visitors.
“We are moving into a new era, with new powers, and we have a wonderful opportunity to attempt to take the constitution of Wales forward in a new stage of devolution.”
Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM, then Presiding Officer, speaking in 2007 following the legal separation of the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government as the Government of Wales Act (2006) came into force.
The 2006 Act also gave a way for the National Assembly to gain powers to make laws without the need for the UK Parliament’s approval, through a yes vote in a referendum.
“The rest of the world can now sit up and take notice of the fact that our small nation, here on the western edge of the continent of Europe, has demonstrated pride in who we are, and what we all stand for.”
Ieuan Wyn Jones, then Deputy First Minister and leader of Plaid Cymru, following the 2011 referendum where the Welsh electorate voted in favour of further powers to the National Assembly.
“Just fifteen years ago, it would have been unthinkable for politicians, elected by Welsh voters, to draft such legislation and put it on the statute books within such a short space of time.”
Dame Rosemary Butler, then Presiding Officer, comments on the first Assembly act to become law following the new powers granted by the 2011 referendum. The law, introduced by the National Assembly’s Commission, officially recognised both the Welsh and English languages as the official languages of Assembly proceedings.
“Good laws need to be formed through contributions and opinions from the people of Wales if they are to be truly democratic, transparent and accountable.”
David Melding AM, then Deputy Presiding Officer and Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee. You can read their ‘Making Laws in Wales’ report in full here. Just like Select Committees in Westminster, Assembly Committees are an integral aspect of how the Assembly holds the Welsh Government to account, find out more about their work.
“An impressive feature of this Chamber has always been your commitment to accountability and transparency through electronic communication and the broadcasting of your proceedings. I know that the way you have addressed this commitment has stimulated interest in other and older parliaments.”
HM The Queen Elizabeth II commenting on the technology of the Siambr during one of the five official opening ceremonies. The Siambr is a fully electronic debating chamber. Every Member has an individual computer terminal, to enable them to research subjects for debate and to undertake work when not being called to speak. They also have access to headphones to amplify the sound in the Siambr or to use the simultaneous interpretation services provided.
“It’s modern democracy. There aren’t traditions, we’re not bound by anything that’s gone before but we’re trying to create the right processes that suit a modern democracy – getting the business done, making things happen.”
Dame Claire Clancy, who has the Clerk and Chief Executive of the Assembly from 2007 to 2017.
“It is vitally important that people with autism are able to participate fully in civic life and in their communities. Training and awareness can make a huge difference and I hope that the Assembly’s example inspires more public buildings and other organisations in Wales to work with us to become more autism friendly.”
Mark Lever, Chief Executive for the National Autistic Society, on the Assembly’s work to make its work and buildings autism-friendly.
“We’ve got to be world class and we mustn’t settle for anything else.”
Peter Hain, a Welsh Officer Minister at the time of the 1997 referendum, comments on the progress of Welsh devolution in 2014.
“You don’t come out the one time, you have to do it over and over again because there is still that assumption you are straight. Like somebody once said about devolution, coming out is more of a process than an event.”
As an employer, the Assembly has been included in the top five of Stonewall’s UK-wide LGBT Workplace Equality Index for the last three years.
“Now is the time for Wales to unite and to think clearly about our future. Even before yesterday’s vote I said that no one party had the monopoly on good ideas, and now more than ever, we must rely on the abilities of all.”
Carwyn Jones AM, the current First Minister, following the result of the Brexit referendum in June 2016.
“I think young people should be involved in democracy, it will make so much difference to our country. We need to be progressive in our society, we need to make changes for the better – we can’t stay stuck in the past.”
Tooba Naqvi talking about why she believes there should be a Youth Parliament for Wales that works alongside the National Assembly.
Youth engagement has been a priority for the Assembly with 30,000 young people reached through school visits, outreach programmes and other activities.
“We are entering a period when fundamental changes will be made to the constitutional arrangements of the UK, the place of the devolved nations within it, and the ability of the Assembly to deliver for the people of Wales. As that process unfolds, I am determined to demonstrate and secure the Assembly’s role as a strong, effective Parliament for Wales.”
let ‘difficult’ become simple,
and ‘challenging’ become fun;
and let us each day repeat the maxim:
that ‘two men will come together
sooner than two mountains.
An extract from ‘Y tŷ hwn’ (‘This House’) a poem by Ifor Ap Glyn commissioned by the National Assembly for Wales for the Official Opening of the Fifth Assembly.