It’s hard to believe that 1997 is 25 years ago, but a chat last year reminded me that it was getting on for a quarter of a century since the Welsh devolution referendum on 18 September 1997, and that the Welsh Political Archive should do something to make this historic event.
A number of ideas were discussed, including holding a travelling exhibition, but in the end we decided that the best thing to do would be to digitise the parts of the Welsh Political Ephemera Collection which focussed on the two referendums held in 1979 and 1997 so that the campaign material would be permanently available all across Wales. Last week we prepared the files for digitisation.
Going through the material brought back a number of memories and seeing the various messages and arguments in favour and against the devolution proposals was really interesting. In 1979, some influential trades unions such as NALGO were urging a No vote – but not because they opposed devolution. They wanted devolution for England at the same time and an independent civil service for Wales. Another No campaign leaflet raised the spectre of violence saying “Bu gan Gogledd Iwerddol Gynulliad ers 1921. A ydych chi am weld hynny yn digwydd yma?” (Northern Ireland had an Assembly since 1921. Do you want to see that happen here?). At the same time leaflets produced by the Communists and Labour urged a Yes vote (although Labour was divided on the issue), while the Liberals resurrected David Lloyd George to play a part in their campaign in favour!
In 1997, many of the same arguments were seen, but Labour’s campaign, in which Prime Minister Tony Blair played a high profile role, was much more united. The campaign focussed on democracy, the Assembly saving public money and the opposition of the Conservatives. The No campaign went after the costs of devolution and portrayed it as the start of a slippery slope to independence.
I don’t remember the 1979 referendum – I was more interested in Duplo at the time – but the circumstances and feeling of the 1997 campaign was very different. In 1979, a weak government which was on the verge of losing a General Election called the referendum and the No result was clear. In 1997, with Tony Blair’s government still fresh, very popular in Wales and with a huge majority called the vote.
Even then, the result was very close but the Yes campaign won the day. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Welsh Political Archive
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