Friday, 4 March 2011

Not just a yes vote, it's also a confident stamp of nationhood

607 years in the making

Harking back to my pre-referendum predictions, I think this qualifies as "pleasantly surprised".

Wales finally has a "proper" national parliament for the first time in more than 600 years, you could perhaps argue for the first time ever in its history. The yes vote might have only been a tiny step towards that anyway, but it's that significant symbolically. Of course we should've had this in 1997 or even 2006 but we got there in the end, with the backing of the Welsh people (well, those who could be bothered).

The turnout, at 35.2% nationally, was pretty much as I expected, if anything it's a bit better. The fact some local authorities had turnouts pushing or above 40% like Ceredigion, Gwynedd and Carmarthenshire on such a technical question is, in my mind, pretty good news.

The real standout figure was the swing from no to yes compared to the 1997 referendum. You can argue that it doesn't matter as the referenda were on separate issues but I don't think Wales has been so united, electorally or politically, since the no vote in 1979.

I don't need to do any detailed analysis of the figures. They speak for themselves.

This is a first positive declaration of a united nation. There's no "umming" and "ahhing" about it anymore. Wales as a separate political entity is here to stay. There can be no going back to pre-1997 now. UKIP and True Wales take note.

I bet even the most hardened yes campaigners would never have dreamt that places like Denbighshire, Powys, Pembrokeshire, Vale of Glamorgan, Flintshire and Newport would ever deliver a yes vote or even a moderate swing towards it. Monmouthshire voted no, and prevented a "clean sweep" but even going to a recount there is dramatic enough. I've never been more delighted to be proven wrong in this case.

What went right for the Yes campaign?

1. The electorate, largely, understood the question being asked. Nice and simple. I think both campaigns, and I, underestimated them. I predicted a lower yes vote on the basis that people would vote on the Welsh Government's record, local unrelated factors or thinking that there were tax-raising powers coming, or even independence, leading to a bigger no. This didn't happen.

2. The Coalition factor. Labour and Plaid got their vote out where it mattered, most of whom wouldn't mind poking the eyes of the Tory bwci-bo in Westminster, even if they in London are probably far more preoccupied with Barnsley than Blaenau Gwent at the moment.

3. It was a genuinely nationwide campaign. Yes campaigners have been far more prominent in and around Wales with some sort of activity pretty much anywhere. A wide network of street and door-to-door campaigners was a big advantage and it paid off. The fact it had the backing of all four main parties and their resources (presumably Labour and Plaid primarily) meant it was always going to be an uphill struggle for True Wales.

What went wrong for the No campaign?

1. They did everything but defend the LCO system. Smoke and mirrors and bringing up unrelated arguments didn't really help them. The only people who were ever going to turn out in big numbers in this referendum were those who actually cared about the Assembly one way or another. They were demolished in debates on the "scrutiny" argument by the simple fact that Westminster doesn't scrutinise Welsh laws. Some of the other arguments put forward were batted away far too easily as well.

2. It was an unofficial campaign.......and it showed. Did True Wales actually believe that turning down a free nationwide mail shot (and most likely a TV shot) was a good thing? I'm willing to bet if they hadn't done so my predictions might've been closer to the outcome. Dragging an inflatable pig, launching into bizarre, and occasionally insulting, rants in the media and playing "Chicken Little" in the debate was foolish. Rachel Banner, an eloquent and intelligent person, would've done better leading a one-woman no-campaign (or at the very least getting someone like Nigel Farage/UKIP on board much sooner) than surrounding herself with some of the "characters" in the rump of True Wales.

3. They offered no alternatives. If Wales had voted no, the Assembly would've merely been stuck with the current system. "True Devolution" is a philosophical and ideological commentary rather than a set of proposals that could be implemented, or "improve" the Assembly. For example, True Wales could've argued for making the WASC an official second chamber to the Assembly. They could've even proposed more AMs to provide the extra scrutiny they wanted. They didn't. I think the vast bulk of True Wales merely wanted a return to pre-2006 Act "administrative" devolution, but I'm sure some of them would like to see the Assembly abolished. Thanks to the yes vote I don't see that ever happening now.

What happens next?

Well there's an election in two months.............

I'm sure the policy wonks are busy shortlisting suggestions (conditional on a yes vote) for their manifestos as I type this.

The Welsh Government (whoever that is in May) can now make fundamental and radical changes in how Wales's devolved public services are structured and delivered, without needing to hold back in fear of MPs reaction. We will have to wait and see what sort of ideas come out of it but I imagine there will be far more emphasis on delivery than on process and micromanaging from now on, which is a good thing for Welsh politics and public interest in Welsh politics.

Some of the Measures that have come out of the Assembly thus far have been dealing with minutiae but now we will start to see Westminster and Scottish-style Bills and Acts (it feels great to finally be able to say that) covering wider ranging, even cross-department issues.

As for the no camp. I wouldn't at all be surprised if we see (future Dr) Rachel Banner again, perhaps I'm just being magnanimous in victory, but she would make a good AM and would probably stand a chance of being elected on a regional list seat as an Independent. Could we even be seeing the start of a True Wales Tea Party? They may have lost by a large margin, the pseudo-abolitionist stance rejected, but they will be worth keeping an eye on.

Make no mistake, the devolution journey certainly doesn't end here. But right now and for the next Assembly term at least, it's time for the AMs to repay the trust the electorate have placed in them.

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I'm delighted that Bridgend county returned a massive "yes" vote of 68%!



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