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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Setting a date

Yesterday's announcement by David Cameron in the House of Commons that a referendum will not be held in Wales on more powers for the Welsh Assembly took us all by surprise.

The one criticism I have of the Prime Minister is that he made this announcement without first ensuring that there had been full discussion with the Welsh Government. That was naive and a sign of inexperience in the job. I hope that he is a bit more sure-footed in future dealings with Wales.

I have already written here that in many ways the date of the referendum does not matter, provided that it has taken place before the Assembly elections in May 2011. That is because we will not be in a position to properly use these new powers until the fourth Assembly takes its seats. Nevertheless, my preference and that of the Welsh Liberal Democrats is for an autumn referendum, if that is possible.

And that is the $64,000 question. It seems that so little preparatory work was done by the previous government that it will take a superhuman effort and some cutting of corners to achieve that date. Is that desirable or wise? I do not know.

On Radio Wales this morning Plaid Cymru's Deputy Leader argued that the staging of an autumn plebiscite should be an absolute priority for the Secretary of State for Wales. That is a fairly blinkered view of the job. After all should she not also be concerned with rising unemployment levels here, the growing poverty gap and the need to press for an early Calman-style Commission for Wales? There is a real danger that the Welsh Government, in their desire to score political points are failing to see the woods for the trees.
My biggest concern is turnout. I remember in 1997 people saying that whilst Scotland endorsed devolution with open arms (YES 75% on a 62% turnout), Wales expressed a more "Well, okay then, if you insist" reaction (YES 50% on a 50% turnout) which was reflected in the first election's turnout of 46%. If the plan is to have a referendum in 2011, that will mean having a referendum on devolution, a referendum on AV, the Assembly Elections, the local council elections and the elections to an elected House of Lords all in the space of 24 months and as we know from experience multiple elections in a small timescale leads to increasingly lower turnouts. The best way would be: Referendum Autumn 2010 Assembly 2011 AV Referendum 2012 New Lords Election 2013 General and Euros 2014 (and then continue the cycle with Assembly 2015, Locals 2016 and so on)
"After all should she not also be concerned with rising unemployment levels here, the growing poverty gap and the need to press for an early Calman-style Commission for Wales?"

Surely the first two of those issues are devolved - therfore they are, for better or worse, the responsibility of the Welsh government not (primarily) the Secretary of State.

The Calman-style commission for Wales would need to be a joint effort - although seeing as both the former Labour UK govt and the current Tory/Lib Dem govt have refused to act on the Holtham commission which has already reported, I can't see much point.
No, the first two items are not devolved. There is joint responsibility with the UK Govt retaining control over benefits and macro economic policy.
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