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The history of Welsh devolution

Pierhead clock 

The roots of political devolution in Wales can be traced to the end of the nineteenth century. In 1886, Cymru Fydd (‘Young Wales’) was established to promote the objectives of the Liberal Party in Wales and to campaign in favour of Welsh ‘home rule’. Although Cymru Fydd’s success was short lived, its activities coincided with other political developments relating to Wales, notably the passing of specifically Welsh Acts for the first time in the UK Parliament. It also coincided with the beginning of administrative devolution in Wales through the creation of the Welsh Board for Education in 1907.

After the Second World War, a series of developments started the process of shifting powers from Westminster to Wales.

Petitions to create a Secretary of Wales were turned down by the Labour Government of 1945-50, which, as a substitute, created a Council for Wales and Monmouthshire in 1948. This was an unelected body that advised the government on Welsh affairs.

In 1951, a new junior government post of Minister of State for Welsh Affairs was created by the UK Conservative Government, initially as a junior minister in the Home Office and from 1957 as a post held jointly with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

The Labour Party committed itself to create a Secretary of State for Wales in its 1959 election manifesto, but it had to wait until its victory in the 1964 UK general election to formally create the role and to establish the Welsh Office. At first, the Secretary of State only had responsibility for housing, local government and roads. Other areas including education and training, health, trade and industry, and the environment and agriculture were gradually added over the years.

The first vote on devolution in Wales took place on 1 March 1979. This followed a Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1973, chaired by Lord Crowther and subsequently by Lord Kilbrandon. It recommended the creation of elected bodies for both Scotland and Wales. The proposal for the creation of a Welsh Assembly in 1979 was resoundingly rejected by the Welsh public, who voted four to one against the UK Labour Government’s proposals.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1979 referendum, devolution became somewhat of a dormant political issue in Wales. However, the policies of the UK Conservative Government during the difficult economic conditions of the 1980s, coupled with the Conservative Party’s relatively low levels of electoral support in Wales (in contrast with the UK as a whole), led to renewed calls for Wales to have its own democratic institution.

In May 1997, when Labour came back to power for the first time since 1979, the Labour manifesto included a commitment to holding a referendum on the creation of a Welsh Assembly. A White Paper, A Voice for Wales, was published in July 1997. It outlined the UK Government’s proposals and, on September 18, a referendum was held.

As the results were announced, constituency by constituency, Wales had to wait for the very last declaration before knowing the final result. Of those who voted, 50.3 per cent supported devolution – a narrow majority in favour of 6,721 votes.

The Secretary of State for Wales at the time, Ron Davies, described Welsh devolution of the day as “a process not an event”. The story of the National Assembly’s development since 1999 has proven this point.

Welsh devolution – “a process not an event”

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 itself) operating as one.

In contrast to the primary law-making powers given to the Scottish Parliament, the Act limited the National Assembly to the making of secondary legislation only when authorised by the UK Parliament. Such powers were broadly equivalent to those previously held by the Secretary of State for Wales.

The first elections to the new institution were held on 6 May, 1999.

The first decade, and a changing structure

While there were many positives about the newly formed Assembly in terms of public access and a more inclusive and consensual style of politics, the single corporate body structure proved to be problematic. The difficulties experienced by the minority Labour administration in securing consistent agreement from other parties in the Assembly, and the replacement of the First Secretary in February 2000, highlighted the need for constitutional change and stability.

In response to increased calls for change, the Assembly agreed a resolution in 2002 to separate both roles as much as possible within the framework of the 1998 Act. This was achieved by introducing the term Welsh Assembly Government to describe the policies and actions of the Cabinet as distinct from the work of the National Assembly, which had greater independence to provide advice, research and support to individual Members and committees of the Assembly.

The Richard Commission, established by the Welsh Government in 2002 to examine the powers and electoral arrangements of the Assembly, subsequently recommended the legal separation of the executive and legislature as individual legal entities. This was formally achieved following the 2007 Assembly elections and the coming into force of the Government of Wales Act 2006.

Through separation, the 2006 Act clarified the roles of each institution. The Welsh Government ( the First Minister, Welsh Ministers, Deputy Ministers and the Counsel General) became responsible for making and implementing decisions, policies and subordinate legislation. the First Minister, Welsh Ministers, Deputy Ministers and the Counsel General) became responsible for making and implementing decisions, policies and subordinate legislation.

The Welsh Government’s decisions and actions are kept in check by the National Assembly (the body of 60 elected Members) which holds its ministers to account. The National Assembly also makes laws and represents the interests of the people of Wales.

The 2006 Act also provided that the property, staff and services required by the National Assembly would be provided by the Assembly Commission.

Increased powers

In its 2004 report, the Richard Commission found that the Assembly’s ability to achieve its legislative requirements since 1999 had been hampered by practical difficulties. It also stated that such problems could be overcome by enhancing the National Assembly’s legislative powers along the lines of the Scottish Parliament.

These recommendations influenced the content of the UK Labour Government’s White Paper, Better Governance for Wales, published in June 2005, which in turn became the backbone of the Government of Wales Act 2006.

The 2006 Act gave the National Assembly powers to make laws for Wales in defined areas. This allowed the National Assembly to gain further powers in devolved areas gradually and on an individual basis. This was done in practice either through Legislative Competence Orders approved by the National Assembly and both houses of the UK Parliament, or through framework powers conferred directly on the National Assembly through sections included in Acts of the UK Parliament.

The 2006 Act also provided means for the National Assembly to gain all of the powers in the devolved areas outlined straight away, without the need for the UK Parliament’s approval, through a Yes vote in a referendum.

Following the 2007 Assembly election, Labour and Plaid Cymru entered into a formal coalition entitled ‘One Wales’. A key element of that agreement was to proceed to a successful outcome of a referendum for full law-making powers, the preparations for which would include the setting up of an All Wales Convention.

On 3 March 2011, the Welsh electorate voted in favour of further powers to the National Assembly by a margin of two to one, with all but one of the 22 local authority areas voting Yes. These powers came into effect following the Assembly election on 5 May 2011.


Welsh devolution – the long view

c. 940 Welsh laws are brought together as one code under Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good)

1282 The Edwardian conquest of Wales and the end of government by native Welsh princes

1400 Owain Glyndwr’s revolt starts and for a short time establishes an embryonic Welsh state. Parliaments are held at Harlech and Machynlleth

1536 The Acts of Union, making Wales a part of England but providing for parliamentary seats for MPs from Wales

1881 The passing of the Sunday Closing Act 1881 – the first specific law for Wales

1907 Welsh department of the Board of Education created

1920 The Church in Wales becomes an independent body, separate from the state

1951 Post of Minister of State for Wales created

1964 Welsh Office established along with a cabinet post of Secretary of State for Wales

1979 First proposals for a Welsh Assembly turned down in a referendum

1997 Wales votes in favour of creating a National Assembly for Wales in a referendum

1999 First elections held; the National Assembly starts work; Government of Wales Act 1998 comes into force

2007 Government of Wales Act 2006 comes into force; the National Assembly and Welsh Government are formally separated and the National Assembly gains powers to make laws for Wales in defined areas

2011 Wales votes in favour of giving the National Assembly further law making powers


See the links on the left for more information about devolution in Wales


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