Vote for the Welsh Assembly: Thursday, May 6, 1999

Current Events In Wales
~ The Welsh Assembly ~ Conquest and Union ~

Text of this article courtesy of BBC Online (C) 1999

The new Welsh Assembly will see the first measure of self rule return to Wales since the 13th century.

The English King Edward I defeated the last independent Welsh princedoms more than 700 years ago in 1283.

His military victory over the Welsh ended the gradual incursions into Welsh territory from the east since Norman times putting Wales firmly under English control.


But English rule was not accepted without bloodshed.

Following the chaos caused by Henry IV's seizure of the English crown from his cousin Richard II the Welsh nobleman Owain Glyndwr seriously challenged the rule of the new king.

Within a year of Henry's succession in 1400 a violent struggle for Welsh independence had broken out.

By 1404, with most of Wales under his control Glyndwr set up the first independent Welsh Parliament.

But by the end of the decade the king's son Prince Hal and his sizeable army of 4,000 soldiers turned the tides of war.

Glyndwr's skilful guerrilla campaign against the English failed. It was to be the last serious armed attempt at breaking English rule.


Wales was drawn into political union with England in the 1500s. Within a 150 years the English domination of Wales was formalised. Henry VIII passed two acts of Union in 1536 and 1543.

English laws and administrative systems phased out all things Welsh. The Welsh language also faced serious inroads from English.

Welsh nationalism was profoundly affected by these changes.

The destruction of native Welsh structures and institutions made a closer union between the two countries inevitable.

Home Rule and Disestablishment

Plaid Cymru won its first seat at Westminster in the 1960s

After years of dormancy, Welsh nationalism began to re-emerge in the nineteenth century.

Its aims were fairly modest. Equality within the union - not separation from England - was the goal.

Ironically Cymru Fydd - Young Wales - was born in England not Wales.

It was set up by a Welsh community in Liverpool and London in the mid-1880s.

[ image: Lloyd George (right) was an early advocate of home rule]
Lloyd George (right) was an early advocate of home rule
Cymru Fydd merged with the North Wales Liberal Federation in 1895. But the movement collapsed in 1896 despite having the backing of the Welsh Liberal and later prime minister, David Lloyd George.

After the First World War another and more successful political party emerged determined to bring greater independence to Wales.

Although it began life as little more than a pressure group, Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales, was set up in 1925. It took over 40 years for the party to win its first seat in Parliament.

During the period after the Second World War steady progress was made towards giving Welsh people a greater say in their own affairs.

In the 1950s the Conservative government brought in a minister for Welsh affairs. In 1964 Harold Wilson's Labour government set up the Welsh Office and gave the Secretary of State for Wales a place in the Cabinet.

Nationalism on the rise

Plaid won its first seat at Westminster in 1966.

By the 1970s Plaid was contesting every seat in Wales and returning MPs to Westminster at almost every election.

Welsh devolution was beginning to make its presence felt on the rest of UK politics.

Royal Commissions began looking into devolution in the 1960s as both Labour and the Tories became rattled by sensational electoral victories for nationalists in Scotland and the principality.

When the Tories were returned to power with Edward Heath at the helm in 1970 the case for devolution was given another unexpected push.

Wales, as ever, had returned a majority of Labour MPs, many now saw the government in London as having no mandate to rule in Wales.

Heath was eventually forced out of office in February 1974 by the electoral consequences of industrial unrest coupled with a failing economy.

Labour set up a minority administration and prepared to fight a second election in October. But the party's Westminster majority of three seats was wafer-thin.

With such a small mandate Labour had little choice but to rely not just the Liberals for help but also on Plaid Cymru's three MPs and the 11 returned by the Scottish nationalists.

For the Labour government, devolution had become a matter of survival.

Soon after coming to power in 1974 the new government published proposals for Welsh and Scottish assemblies, but Labour was far from united over the issue.

Leading critics of the policy including, the future party leader Neil Kinnock, would only back the measures if the government agreed to hold referendums on their proposals.

Four-to-one against

For the supporters of devolution the results were disastrous with only 20% of those turning out backing an assembly for Wales.

[ image: Jim Callaghan oversaw the 1979 referendum]
Jim Callaghan oversaw the 1979 referendum
The Scottish people narrowly voted for devolution in a similar referendum on the same day.

But the turnout was too low for the legislation to come into force.

After losing a vote of no confidence the government fell just weeks later.

Devolution had been killed off for a generation. Ironically, it was the series of successive Tory governments that followed Labour's 1979 election defeat that partly inspired devolution's eventual rebirth.

Wales and the Tories

Throughout the Thatcher and Major years Wales returned a majority of Labour MPs to Westminster.

The subsequent feeling that the Tories had no mandate to govern in the principality was heightened by successive English Welsh secretaries including David Hunt, Peter Walker and John Redwood.

The Conservative tendency to govern the country through non-elected quangos full of Tory appointees only made things worse.

By 1992 Labour was once more backing devolution in its election manifesto.

By contrast the Welsh dissolution with the Tories was apparent.

When, after 18 years, the Tories were removed from office at the 1997 General Election Wales failed to return a single Tory MP to Westminster.

Scotland, Wales' partner in devolution, followed suit for similar reasons.

The new prime minister, Tony Blair, was equipped with a Commons majority (well in excess of a 100 seats).

[ image: Ron Davies: Made Welsh secretary after the election]
Ron Davies: Made Welsh secretary after the election
A date for a devolution referendum was set for September and the new Welsh Secretary Ron Davies set about campaigning for a 'Yes' vote with vigour.

Despite the traditional support in Wales for Labour, turning round the 4-1 votes cast against devolution just 18 years earlier was to no easy task.

In a similar referendum held weeks earlier the Scottish people backed devolution by a wide margin but in Wales all the signs pointed to a extremely close run-off.

Yes - but only just

Finally on 18 September 1997 the people of Wales voted yes.

But their enthusiasm for devolution was not unqualified.

Just over half the electorate voted, a much smaller turnout than the general election.

The cross-party 'Yes' camp scrambled to victory taking 50.3% of the vote compared to the 49.7 for the 'No' campaign.

The slim victory was not without rancour.

Many in the 'No' campaign complained that the 'Yes' camp had received more publicity due to government's backing for devolution making the playing field unequal.

Their concerns were later given some backing by Lord Neill's report on elections and party funding.

But, however slim the margin of victory, devolution is now a reality.

The people of Wales, not the Welsh secretary, will now have a direct say in how the 7bn annual government budget for Wales is carved up, whether they want it or not.