Devolution at Twenty: What Do the People of Wales Think?9 May 2019
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
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%
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?
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.
Non-partisan thoughts on elections, voting and political representation from Roger Awan-Scully of Cardiff University.