The referendum to give the Welsh Assembly more powers (bringing it more in line with the Scottish Parliament) will take place on 3rd March. However, No campaigners have played a sneaky trick by declining to register their campaign with the electoral commission. Their decision denies both sides the opportunity to use £70,000 of public money to publicise the vote, and put their case to the voters. In addition to the money, lead campaigns would have been entitled to free mail-shots and TV and radio broadcasts; but that will not now happen.
The NO campaign are hoping that denying publicity to the poll will lead to a low turnout, and that they can then undermine the legitimacy of the result.
As Alan Trench observes in Public Finance magazine:
There’s been an organisation advancing [the no] position for some time, in the form of True Wales. The problem has been just how well organised and credible it is. While its statements are regularly quoted in the Western Mail and by the BBC, it’s not clear how much interest has been drawn from the public. It may not have succeeded in going around the country stirring up apathy, but as Cardiff University’s Richard Wyn Jones observed privately a little while ago the No campaign’s main audience seem to have been Yes campaigners.
The No campaign have two huge problems, and it’s no surprise that they’re in difficulties as a result. The first is that they can’t argue the case they’d like to, for abolition of the National Assembly and Welsh Assembly Government. The only option in the referendum is the primary legislative powers set out in Part 4 of and Schedule 7 to the 2006 Act, versus the status quo. They have to argue in favour of something they don’t like very much, to oppose something they like even less. That’s very tricky to do, especially with all the problems that clearly attend the working of the present system.
The second problem is that this is, in a constitutional sense, an unnecessary referendum. It is being held because the Government of Wales Act 2006 requires it. If the introduction of something like Part 4 were now being contemplated afresh, a referendum would serve very little purpose, as it’s so abundantly clear that, when the people of Wales engage with the issue, they support it.
This latter point refers to the fact that the referendum is a requirement of the devolution act of 2006, but apart from the most die-hard anti-devolutionists there is no real dissent from the proposition that Cardiff should have more powers. So this is simply the wrong referendum because it doesn’t address a genuine public controversy.
The YouGov Wales panel surveys have shown strong support for greater powers since they started in October 2009 (results of the most recent one are here), as have the various surveys about constitutional preferences from the Institute of Welsh Politics at Aberystwyth, latterly with the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. In the public’s view (and bearing in mind the limited interest many people have in constitutional matters) , the debate has simply moved on.”
The real agenda of NO campaigners is to reverse devolution altogether, but because that is not an option on the ballot paper, they are simply seeking to demobilise participation in the referendum. Their slogan is non-sensical “Vote NO for better devolution / Pleidleisiwch NA am Ddatganoliad Gwell”.
Nevertheless, the No campaign can tap into a populist discontent with what they disparagingly describe as a Cardiff Bay political class. The leader of the NO camp, Rachel Banner, a teacher and Labour Party member, disingenuously says that she wants “a better, more forward-looking form of devolution”.
Ms Banner says that politicians should hand power over to people, instead of “centralising” power in Cardiff Bay and turning the assembly into a “pale copy of Westminster”.
This is a meaningless argument, because the choice actually on the table is about whether or not to decentralise powers held at Westminster to Cardiff. If the proposals are defeated, the powers will not be devolved to local communities, they will be retained in London.
Currently the Welsh Assembly has to approach Westminster on a case by case basis for legislatory power, which has caused confusion, extra expense and delay.
Now, so divided is the Health Service in the UK, that cross-border relations are breaking down… because of a shortfall of money from Wales. So we no longer have a universal health service in the UK. Aneurin Bevan must be turning in his grave.”
But health is already a devolved service; and has a number of advantages over the NHS in England: no private finance, free prescriptions, and free car parking. Is she proposing that health should be handed back to Westminster, or that devolution should be reversed altogether?
It may also have escaped Rachel’s attention, but Westminster has a Tory government, and Andrew Lansley the health minister is proposing to fundamentally restructure the NHS in England, to open the door to further privatisation.
Currently Wales is defended from that NHS reform by the One Wales coalition between Plaid and Labour. As Daran Hill on Wales Home points out:
From the case examples cited by True Wales, they seem uncomfortable with any form of policy divergence between England and Wales. So why not scrap the Secretary of State for Wales too and take the administration and governance of the country back over half a century?
The NO campaign claims that a YES vote will be a slippery slope to independence. Des that really make sense? The Yes position is supported by the Conservative Party, and the Labour Party, both of whom are completely opposed to Welsh independence.
What is realy at stake in this referendum is explained well by Cymru Yfory:
The majority of voters want to see devolution succeed, but the No campaigners want to hobble our Assembly.
They present a No vote in the referendum as a risk-free venture. Defeat the elites, says Oxford-educated Rachel Banner, and let Assembly Members carry on as they are. But staying as we are is not an option. If Wales votes no to the proposals for modest reform, the Assembly’s ability to stand up for Wales will begin to unravel.
We already know that London officials need little excuse to sideline Welsh affairs. If there is a no vote the slow and complicated system of law-making will get even worse. The holes in the devolution settlement will be systematically exploited as Whitehall mandarins feel they have a green light to frustrate the Assembly’s requests.
So the status quo is not an option. Forward or back, that’s the option. And let’s not pretend otherwise.”