Whatever the Result, a Poor Turnout Will Be Harmful; Leading Welsh Historian Martin Johnes Looks Back at the History of Referendums in Wales and Fears That a Low Turnout on Thursday Will Damage Devolution

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), February 28, 2011 | Go to article overview

Whatever the Result, a Poor Turnout Will Be Harmful; Leading Welsh Historian Martin Johnes Looks Back at the History of Referendums in Wales and Fears That a Low Turnout on Thursday Will Damage Devolution


Byline: Martin Johnes

REFERENDUMS are important in Welsh history. We may not have had anything like the 450-plus that have taken place in Switzerland but the few we have had have had important symbolic and legislative significance. Referendums are normally used when governments face an issue too important to be sidelined, but controversial enough that it is easier to pass the responsibility directly to the public. Local authorities recognised this first: referendums were held on the Sunday opening of cinemas in Swansea and Cardiff in 1950 and 1952. This allowed public opinion on a controversial matter to hold sway - protecting councils from the wrath of religious bodies. The first national referendum in Wales was in 1961. Again, it was on the question of Sunday opening - this time of the pubs. The Conservative government may have wanted to pass responsibility to the people but recognised that there was a regional pattern to opinion on the matter. Influenced by the backlash over the flooding of the Tryweryn valley, the government sought to protect rural interests from being swamped by urban progressiveness.

It decided that the referendum results be enacted on a county-by-county basis. The result was a divided Wales. Majorities in the rural counties in West, Mid and North Wales all voted to keep pubs shut on Sundays but the southern counties chose to open them. The result, however, was about far more than drinking. It became a stark symbol of the decline of a traditional chapel-based Welshness outside the West and North. Everyone knew that was happening but the referendum gave it a practical consequence. The speed of that retreat was exposed when the most Anglicised parts of rural Wales - Pembrokeshire, Montgomeryshire and Denbighshire - all voted to go wet in a second referendum on the issue in 1968. But the results obscured just how much traditional Welshness was clinging on in areas that voted for change. Referendums which just require a simple majority hide how divided opinion often is. Sunday opening was a Welsh issue but the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should remain part of the Common Market remains, until May 5, the only UK-wide referendum.

It was clearly important but the contradictory arguments on whether Europe was good or bad for jobs confused people. On referendum day, a cartoon in the Western Mail showed a voter flipping a coin. The economic arguments for staying in proved more persuasive and 65% of the Welsh turnout voted yes. By the mid-1970s demands for devolution were also growing louder and a referendum again offered a solution that could avoid a divide within the Labour Party by passing the decision to the electorate. Thus on St David's Day 1979, a date chosen to boost the patriotic Yes vote, a referendum was held to give Wales a degree of democratic self-government for the first time in history. It was a historic moment but the electorate was less enthusiastic and even rather confused. This was not surprising. The debates seemed little to do with devolution itself and more about north-south rivalries, the role of the Welsh language, the unity of the UK and the performance of the government. The turnout was just 58%. Of those, just a fifth voted yes.

This comprehensive defeat was devastating for nationalists, and 1979, also the year Thatcher gained power, became a byword for national decline. It began a feeling that both Welsh-speaking and industrial Wales were on the brink of extinction. …

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