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Devolution at Twenty: What Do the People of Wales Think?

Last month’s Welsh Political Barometer poll included several questions about public attitudes in Wales towards devolution. Publication of these questions was held back by ITV Wales for use in programmes around this week’s twentieth anniversary of the first sitting of the National Assembly; however, the results have now all been released, and so can be discussed.

The first of these questions was a standard question – one used in many previous studies – asking how respondents would like to see Wales being governed. People were offered several options from which to choose their most preferred one. Such questions normally provide respondents an Independence option, an option equating to no devolution, and a few intermediate options. In this case, the full list of responses offered to people completing the poll were the following:

There should be no devolved government

The National Assembly for Wales should have fewer powers

We should leave things as they are now

The National Assembly for Wales should have more powers

Wales should become independent, separate from the United Kingdom

Don’t know

No such question will be perfect, and any particular formulation can be criticised for the number of options offered, or the particular wording of some of them. I have previously discussed some of the complications with trying to ask such questions in various places, including here. One clear pattern which has emerged from past studies is that questions which offer respondents multiple options report significantly lower levels of support for either independence or the abolition of devolution than do questions that give people a simple yes/no choice for either of these propositions. As ever, people with strong views tend to choose the results that are most favourable to what they support.

Anyway, what responses did this question prompt in the latest Barometer poll? The table below shows the pattern of answers across our overall sample:

No Devolution                   15%

Fewer Powers                   4%

Leave as now                     25%

More powers                    27%

Independent                     12%

Don’t Know                        17%

Compared with an identical question asked by Sky Data in their Welsh poll in December, these new results show a slightly lower level of support for abolition of the Assembly; substantially lower levels of support for more powers for the Assembly; rather support for independence; and a much greater proportion of people responding Don’t Know. Why these differences? It could be in part due to differences in YouGov and Sky’s sampling methods; it could be because of genuine changes over time; it could be random fluctuation, or this poll producing some ‘outlier’ findings. The level of Don’t Know responses to this question here is strikingly high – higher than I ever recall seeing in such a question. Perhaps this is just a ‘rogue’ finding; or perhaps the recent political chaos in the UK has left many people confused or uncertain about lots of things. The higher than usual level of support for independence in this poll may also simply be a one-off, or it could be indicative of a genuine rise in support – further polls asking this question will tell us.

The Barometer poll also asked about the impact of devolution on the key public policy areas of health and education: specifically whether having a National Assembly had led to improvements or declines in these areas. A pair of questions (previously used in Welsh Election Study academic surveys) were used. There has been criticism online of these questions: pointing out that it is the Welsh Government that has executive responsibility for these policies, not the Assembly. But creating the Assembly was the precondition for there being a Welsh Government, so to me this seems like a reasonable question format.

Anyway, what did we find?

  NHS Education
Improvement 23 21
Decline 29 20
No difference 27 33
Don’t Know 22 27

In short, there is no public consensus. There is certainly no evidence of a great body of public sentiment that devolution had produced huge improvements in these areas. But nor is devolution associated by most people with things getting worse. For both questions, more than half of the sample said either ‘no difference’ or Don’t Know. These findings are consistent with previous academic work on public attitudes in Wales, which has also shown substantial support for devolution in general, and majorities in favour of these specific policy areas being devolved – but not because people think devolution has led to particular great policy achievements.

Finally, the Barometer poll gave people a series of pointed statements, and asked whether they agreed or disagreed with each. As is normal in such surveys, a balance of statements were included representing different points of view. The statements used were as follows:

The National Assembly should have the same level of powers as the Scottish Parliament

Having a National Assembly has improved the way Wales is governed

Having a National Assembly has improved the way the UK is governed

The National Assembly has been too dominated by the Labour Party

The National Assembly has paid too much attention to Cardiff

Having a National Assembly has simply meant more jobs for politicians

The National Assembly has cost too much to set up and run

The National Assembly has been too dominated by Welsh speakers

It is often difficult to work out which level of government is responsible for what

The table below shows the overall pattern of results:

Statement % Agree % Disagree % Neither %Don’t Know
Same powers as Scottish Parliament 51 19 17 13
Improved way Wales is governed 34 24 26 15
Improved way UK is governed 16 29 36 19
Too dominated by Labour Party 43 14 26 18
Too much attention to Cardiff 53 11 22 15
More jobs for politicians 48 13 23 16
Cost too much 44 16 21 20
Too dominated by Welsh speakers 19 31 33 18
Which Govt responsible for what 61 7 19 13

What picture overall can we draw from these results? There is plenty of support for Welsh political autonomy, despite there not being a huge body of sentiment that it has thus far led to tangible improvements. There is also some discontent with Cardiff-centricity, Labour dominance, and a fair amount of anti-politics/populist sentiment. There is, though, rather less evidence of resentment at domination by a Welsh-speaking crachach. Finally, and quite understandably, there is plenty of confusion.

Overall, the results from the Welsh Political Barometer poll suggest that, after two decades of a National Assembly for Wales, public attitudes are mixed. As has been the case for at least three-quarters of that period, most people in Wales are broadly supportive of there being a National Assembly, and Wales enjoying at least some political autonomy. That does not, though, mean that they are wildly impressed with what devolution has actually achieved thus far.

Comments

  • Trevor Payne

    I have always thought that if Wales is a genuine nation it must have its own government and certainly at the moment it seems to be functioning more effectively than Westminster…

    In an important assertion of Welsh ‘independence’ from England, led by the Welsh Government, the nature of the curriculum in Welsh schools is about to be significantly changed following the Donaldson report. It will be interesting to see if these changes lead to the progress in educational achievement they are intended to achieve. It would be a major plus for the Welsh Government if the initiative is successful.

  • Jacques Protic

    The problem of dissecting/interpreting any data obtained from the sheeple that represents the Welsh electorate is down to a simple fact that most participants are making/stating opinions based on ignorance!

    Why? Take a long and a hard look at the Welsh ‘media’, who controls them and what’s their agenda. With no exception, all are fully subscribed to the Y Fro Gymraeg concept, Welsh language and the Welsh nation building (Devo max as in Scotland or even the independence).

    You are a prime example of this Roger, how many times you and your colleagues (McAllister ++) under the guise of ‘Experts’ from ‘independent’ academia often peddle the nationalist agenda via TV and the other platforms, right or RIGHT, Roger?

    In other words, Wales and its devolved governance never had any scrutiny and if anyone dared to expose it, they end up censored.

    Essential reading: https://marcussteaduk.wordpress.com/2019/02/26/wales-a-country-divided/

  • Trevor Payne

    Wales is a nation and nations always have their own governments; it’s part of what a nation is. How effectively that government functions is a completely different question. Would you say the UK as a whole shouldn’t have a government, because it is held in such low esteem by its electorate? If you don’t think Wales is a nation then your argument has substance ….

  • Jacques Protic

    Would have prefered to get Roger’s response as I have made some serious allegations about the state of the media/academia in Wales. No idea where you got the ‘nation’ element in the context of my response or the original article? Irrespective if we are talking about a nation, a province, a region or a principality basing its existence on a falsehood is no good for democracy and IMO is unsustainable.

  • Hywel Rogers

    Jacques is an anti-Welsh troll, and on the evidence of this article he is part of an ever declining minority.

    64% of Q1 respondents show either a pro-devolution or pro-independence view. Similar to the 63.4% who voted Yes in the 2011 referendum.

    There is now a 60%+ majority in Wales for governing ourselves, and rejecting Westminster’s short attention span to Wales.

    Jaques’ argument is that the electorate are too stupid. Nobody has ever won an election on that message, and it only goes to show what disdain he holds for Wales and its people.

  • John R Walker

    It is often difficult to work out which level of government is responsible for what

    With the vast majority finding it often difficult (61%) or not really knowing whether it is or not (32%), probably because they actually find it difficult since they haven’t stated that they don’t (7%), then it makes a total mockery of the oft-stated claims that an extra unnecessary layer of snouts in the trough in Cardiff Bay is good for democracy. Democracy only works if people understand how the system works and they know how to access it, otherwise their votes are effectively made in ignorance and some of their taxes are paid without effective representation. An ignorant and uninformed electorate with unnecessarily confusing access to public services, and to the appropriate elected representatives to engage with when they fail, is also ideal for the emergence of a totalitarian state dressed up as a democracy. Like the EU was always proposed to be by its founders.

    It is clear the WG take little or no notice of public opinion from their faux consultations (e.g. education, smacking ban, etc) so this confusion is working against the people and enabling a failed layer of governance to micro-manage our lives to our detriment without effective representation. We have, in effect, the emergence of a totalitarian state dressed up as a democracy in Wales and I can’t think of a single thing which works better now than it did when Wales was run from Westminster through the local authorities and the health boards. Even the old Welsh Office served no obvious purpose.

    When it comes to governance – less is usually more!

  • Jacques Protic

    Don’t usually respond to people who rely on ad hominems to make their case, but on this occasion will indulge Hywel Roberts by pointing out in the simplest terms possible that the Welsh devolution is not working for 80%+ of Welsh people.

    A note for Roger and a suggestion, are you up for a hard talk on the state of the devolution/state of the Welsh media and the state of our education on any English language media platform?

    PS – For the less informed, the Welsh ‘media’ often ‘debates’ difficult issues on S4C platform (Both ITV and BBC Wales use them for that very purpose), wonder why?

  • Trevor Payne

    Reading through the information provided by Professor Scully, it’s clear he is bending over backwards to present a balanced and unbiased analysis of the data concerned. He is certainly not peddling a nationalist agenda.

    As for the allegation that devolution is not working for 80% of the population, the last public test with real votes, of this statement, was in the 2011 referendum, where 63% of voters approved the WG having increased devolved powers. Most people who bother to vote seem to like their government and devolution.

    Of course Welsh people do moan about their government. All people moan about their governments. In a paradoxical way, public complaints about their governments are almost a validation of their existence.

    As for people using ‘ad hominens’ to make their case; isn’t calling the Assembly a ‘sheeple’ a very good example of doing just that?

  • John Ellis

    I was an Englishman living in Wales from the mid-60s to the mid-80s, when I was in my 20s and 30s. Now, as a ‘crumblie’ in my early seventies, for the last three years I’ve been back living in Wales again. Neither forty or fifty years ago nor now have I ever detected any particular widespread enthusiasm for the notion of Welsh independence, beyond a small minority of generally young ultra-nationalists of the sort that I first encountered at university and the tiny number of gurus who were their inspiration. It’s always seemed to me that most ordinary Welsh voters never give independence any serious thought. Nonetheless back in my younger days I gradually realized that that the absence of any apparent passion for independence didn’t at all signify a general contentment with the political status quo.

    Which is why, back then, I usually voted Plaid Cymru. It seemed to me that Wales was indeed a backwater, politically speaking; and far more so than the north-west of England where I grew up. Despite all our traditional whingeing about ‘the north-south divide’, we were less taken for granted than Wales was. For many decades Labour over most of Wales had weighed its votes rather than counted them come election time; and that had bred not just an appalling complacency and arrogance, but a tendency to corruption and cronyism. While the Tories, knowing that they hadn’t a hope in hell of winning seats outside the rural Anglicized districts of the borderlands, the far south-west and the northern coast where elderly English retirees tended to dominate, consequently took little enough interest in Wales. And back then, of course, there were a couple of rural central Wales seats which still routinely returned a Liberal just as they had done a century before. So my vote went to Plaid Cymru because they, at least, focused on Wales’s specific needs and circumstances.

    But of course when I was first in Wales there was no devolution, and now there is. It’s been a tender plant and has aroused relatively little voter enthusiasm; but nonetheless it’s happened, it makes a difference, and various polls have suggested that most Welsh electors are still ready to give it a go and even back giving the Welsh government additional powers. It seems to me that given the prevailing mood in Wales, it’s better for the partisans of independence to focus on fulfilling the responsibilities which the Welsh government already has, and seeking to expand them, rather than pushing the cause of independence now – or, at least, soon. If ordinary Welsh voters are going to be swayed towards support for independence, it’ll surely happen because they start to be impressed by the way their government has delivered in terms of the powers and responsibilities which it already has. After all, we’re hardly in an era in which politicians as a class are held in high esteem!

    Though one thing that the Welsh parliament will need in that event is more members. No one likes paying for more politicians, and a reluctance to do so isn’t only understandable, it’s sensible as well. But the powers of the Welsh government have increased considerably over the last two decades, and yet the number of members has remained the same. A healthy parliament needs enough members who aren’t on the government payroll to scrutinize that government’s operations. If the Welsh government’s powers are to increase, inevitably more ‘MWPs’ are going to end up exercising some sort of ministerial function. And more ‘MWPs’ will be needed in consequence.

    The argument for economy remains strong, however. Maybe with more powers and responsibilities devolved to Cardiff Bay, in Wales we’d need fewer Westminster MPs in yet larger constituencies. After all, in theory at least, they’d have less to do!

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