Welsh devolution referendum, 1979

Welsh devolution referendum, 1979

In a referendum on St David's Day (March 1) 1979, the people of Wales voted against proposals by the Labour government of the United Kingdom to establish a Welsh Assembly.

Only 12% of the Welsh electorate voted to set up a directly elected forum which would have been based in Cardiff's Coal Exchange. The Assembly would have had the powers and budget of the Secretary of State for Wales.

The plans were defeated by a majority of 4:1 (956,330 against, 243,048 for).

Proposals for a more powerful Assembly in Scotland attracted the support of a small majority of those who voted (1,230,937 for, 1,153,502 against) (see Scotland referendum, 1979), but it amounted to just 32.5% of the total electorate. Both the Scotland Act and the Wales Act contained a requirement that at least 40% of all voters back the plan. It had been passed as a wrecking amendment by Islington South MP George Cunningham with the backing of Bedwellty MP Neil Kinnock.

Kinnock, the future leader of the Labour Party, called himself a 'unionist'. He held extreme views on Wales, saying that "between the mid-sixteenth century and the mid-eighteenth century Wales had practically no history at all, and even before that it was the history of rural brigands who have been ennobled by being called princes".cite book|last=Evans|first=Gwynfor|title=The Fight for Welsh Freedom|publisher=YLolfa Cyf|year=2000|location=Talybont|isbn=0-86243-515-3|pages=7] He was one of six south Wales Labour MPs who opposed their own Government's plans, along with Leo Abse (Pontypool), Donald Anderson (Swansea East), Ioan Rees (Aberdare), Fred Evans (Caerphilly), and Ifor Davies (Gower).

The government of Jim Callaghan didn't have an overall majority in the House of Commons, and was therefore vulnerable to opposition from within its own ranks. The Labour party was split on home rule for Wales with a vocal minority opposed. They considered devolution as a danger to the unity of the UK and a concession to Welsh nationalism in the wake of by-election victories by Plaid Cymru.

The Labour Party committed itself to devolution after coming to power in the 1974 general election. It followed the findings of a Royal Commission on the Constitution under Lord Kilbrandon. Set up in 1969 in the wake of pressure to address growing support for independence in Scotland and Wales it delivered a split report in 1973. The Royal Commission recommended legislative and executive devolution to Scotland and Wales, with a minority supporting advisory Regional Councils for England. This plan was rejected as too bureaucratic and ill-advised in economic terms. New plans were brought forward by Harold Wilson's government in 1975 and 1976 which confined devolution to Scotland and Wales.

The Scotland and Wales Bill had a difficult passage through Parliament and the government, lacking a majority to pass the plan, withdrew the legislation and introduced separate Bills for Scotland and Wales. Hostile Labour MPs from the north of England, Wales and Scotland combined to insist that Assemblies could only be passed if directly endorsed by voters in a post-legislative referendum.

When they came, the referendums coincided with a period of unpopularity for the Government in the wake of the winter of discontent.

The result sealed the fate of the minority Labour government, and as a direct result of the defeat of the referendums in Wales and Scotland the Scottish National Party (SNP) withdrew its support for the government.

In the House of Commons on 28 March 1979, the Labour government was defeated on a motion of confidence by one vote, only the second time in the 20th century that a government was brought down in this way. Labour's defeat in the 1979 General Election to Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party precipitated a civil war within its own ranks, and the party was to be out of office for eighteen years.




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