The History of Welsh Devolution
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 State for 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.
Devolution Referendum: 1979
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 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.
Devolution Referendum: 1997
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.
the first elections to the Assembly were held on 6 May 1999.
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 in specified areas, including agriculture, fisheries, education, housing and highways. Such powers were broadly equivalent to those previously held by the Secretary of State for Wales.
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.
Commission on the Powers and Electoral Arrangements of the National Assembly for Wales and the Government of Wales Act 2006
The Commission on the Powers and Electoral Arrangements of the National Assembly for Wales (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, the 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 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.
2011 Referendum Onwards
Following a referendum in 2011, the Assembly gained primary lawmaking powers in relation to specific subjects without involvement from Westminster or Whitehall. The UK Government established the Silk Commission to consider the future of the devolution settlement in Wales.
In 2012, the Silk Commission published Part I of its report, making recommendations on the financial powers of the Assembly.
Silk Commission published Part II of its report in 2014, making recommendations on the Assembly’s future legislative powers and arrangements.
The UK Government published Powers for a Purpose in 2015, providing the basis for the development of a reserved powers model of devolution for Wales.
The Assembly passed the Tax Collection and Management (Wales) Act 2016, in preparation for exercising the taxation and borrowing powers devolved by the Wales Act 2014. This saw the start of Assembly’s role in overseeing the UK’s negotiations for leaving the EU, scrutinising relevant legislation, and defining Wales’s place in a post-Brexit UK.
2018 saw the commencement of reserved powers model of devolution under the Wales Act 2017. The first Welsh taxes came on stream.
In 2019, income tax-varying powers will come on stream, as provided by the Wales Act 2014.
A change of name and increasing the electoral franchise
In July 2016, Assembly Members agreed unanimously that the name of the Assembly should reflect its constitutional status as a national parliament. In December 2017, the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform recommended lowering the voting age for Assembly elections to 16.
In February, the Llywydd introduced the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill on behalf of the Assembly Commission. The Bill proposed to lower the voting age for Assembly elections to 16 and change the name of the Assembly. After the Assembly agreed the Bill in November 2019, the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020 received royal assent in February 2020 and became law.
On 6 May 2020, the Assembly formally changed its name to Senedd Cymru or Welsh Parliament, commonly known as the Senedd.
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
2014 The Wales Act 2014 is passed, giving the National Assembly further law-making powers
2017 The Wales Act 2017 is passed, recognising the permanencer of the National Assembly for Wales and Welsh Government and changing the model of devolution to a Reserved Powers Model.
2020 The Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020 becomes law and the Assembly changes its name to Senedd Cymru or Welsh Parliament, commonly known as the Senedd.
See the links on the left for more information about devolution in Wales