The Silk Commission has published new evidence on public attitudes to devolution in Wales. For the most part, this evidence tells us little that is actually new. Nonetheless, I think it is important in two respects. It reinforces previous findings. And it adds some further details to the broad picture.
On the first point: the Silk research, conducted by Beaufort, offers a very similar picture of public attitudes to devolution to that produced by other studies over the last decade and more conducted by GfKNOP, ICM, NatCen and YouGov. These various studies have used different survey methods (face-to-face, telephone and internet), differing questions, and been conducted for a variety of clients. Yet they all point to essentially similar conclusions. Though none of these studies is perfect, their sheer consistency is impressive.
What picture do these studies, as a whole, reveal? They show that opposition to devolution in 1997 was substantial, while support was quite limited. (Hence the close referendum result.) Attitudes then changed quite quickly in the years to 2003: opposition to devolution fell substantially, while support for devolution – but not independence – grew. Since 2003, attitudes have moved more slowly, but further in a pro-devolution direction. These findings are robust across multiple different surveys, survey methods and survey questions.
Also striking is the lack of impact that differences in government in London have made to attitudes to devolution. The most rapid growth in support for devolution occurred during those years when there was a generally popular Labour government in London. Support has continued to grow, though more slowly, both when the Labour government in London was less popular and under the Conservative-led coalition that has fairly limited support in Wales. It would probably be unhealthy were Welsh devolution to be supported simply because of hostility to a particular government in London. But that is not the case. The findings of the Silk research, and much research before it, are not primarily about Welsh dislike of the Tories.
The main question used in the Silk research on broad attitudes to devolution is a multi-option one where respondents are asked to choose how Wales should be governed from several alternatives. The findings are:
|Wales should become independent from the UK||
|The National Assembly for Wales should have more powers than it currently has||
|The powers it currently has are sufficient and it should remain as it is now||
|The National Assembly for Wales should have fewer powers than it currently has||
|The National Assembly for Wales should be abolished||
Several answer options here are subtly different from those used in a similar question deployed in a number of surveys since 2009. While slightly annoying – it prevents direct comparisons with previous findings – this also re-assures us that previous results didn’t depend wholly on one particular wording. The results strongly reinforce previous research in showing that devolution is now the ‘settled will’ of the Welsh people. Support for independence remains limited, while support for the ‘No Devolution’ option, at 9%, is even lower than the c.15% found by most surveys in recent years. There is overwhelming (86%) public support for the National Assembly to enjoy at least its current level of powers, with the centre of gravity of public opinion being firmly located in the ‘more powers’ option.
Several other questions in the Silk survey also demonstrate broadly positive public attitudes to devolution. The Assembly and the Welsh Government are shown to be substantially more trusted than Westminster and the UK Government; they also score higher in terms of public satisfaction with their performance. And two-thirds of respondents endorse the idea that the Assembly has given Wales ‘a stronger voice in the United Kingdom’. Once again, these findings are very much in line with those of previous research.
The Silk research also probes knowledge and attitudes about the devolution of specific policy areas. Their questions about whether or not specific policy areas are devolved constitutes the most detailed such exploration of which I’m aware. It is re-assuring that in all but 2 of 12 areas asked about the majority chose the ‘correct’ answer when asked whether a policy was controlled by the Assembly or by Westminster. (Although it should perhaps be noted that, given that respondents were given only two options, the majority should get the right answer about half the time simply by random guessing).
With regard to whether policy areas should be devolved, the Silk research again uses somewhat different question wordings from previous research. But it again reinforces what previous studies, like the 2011 Welsh Referendum and Election Studies, have found. There is strong majority support for health and education to be devolved. (The interpretation placed on the findings by BBC’s Wales Today last night was bizarre, in implying a fairly even split of attitudes. Devolution of health is supported by well over a 2-1 majority; devolution of education is supported by an almost 4-1 majority). Even greater majorities support the continued devolution of powers over agriculture, roads, housing and tourism (in the case of tourism, devolution is supported by a more than 15-1 majority!). And clear majorities also support the devolution of several policy areas currently not devolved:
- Policing (by 63% – 35%)
- Renewable energy, including large wind farms (70% – 25%)
- Broadcasting and media regulation (58% – 39%)
There is also a narrow majority in favour of the devolution of the ‘welfare and benefit system’ (51% – 46%). However, support for devolution is not across the board. The devolution of ‘Courts and the Criminal Justice system’ is opposed by a roughly two-to-one margin (63% – 35%); devolution of ‘defence and foreign affairs’ is also overwhelmingly rejected (by 82% – 15%).
Overall, the Silk Commission’s research reinforces what we have known for some time. People in Wales are not regularly taking to the streets en masse to demand a reserved powers model of devolution, or the devolution of policing and broadcasting regulation powers. But if political leaders decided to substantially strengthen Welsh devolution, they would have a broadly supportive public behind them.To borrow a term formerly used in studies of the EU, there is a ‘permissive consensus’ behind substantial Welsh devolution. For advocates of substantial Welsh governmental autonomy, the main problem is no longer one of convincing a reluctant public. The problems, and the people to be convinced, lie elsewhere.