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The 1997 devolution referendums in Scotland and Wales

Les référendums sur la dévolution en Écosse et au pays de Galles
Nathalie Duclos
p. 151-264

Résumés

Le présent article a pour objectif de mettre en évidence les différences entre la dévolution des pouvoirs à l’Écosse et au pays de Galles à travers l’exemple des référendums de 1997. Bien que ces derniers aient tous deux eu lieu en septembre 1997 et été des victoires pour le camp du « Oui », les projets soumis au vote étaient différents, de sorte que les campagnes référendaires, et même les questions posées, furent elles aussi différentes. Ceci à son tour donna lieu à des résultats nettement distincts : une énorme majorité de « Oui » en Écosse, et une majorité extrêmement étroite au pays de Galles.

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Texte intégral

1Until recently, in Britain, referendums were seen as undermining the key constitutional principle of Parliament’s supremacy and undivided sovereignty. The first referendum held on British soil was only organised in 1973 and the first and only British-wide referendum was held in 1975. While referendums are no longer considered as alien to the British system of government, they remain exceptional and are almost always concerned with changes in the status of the British nations and regions, as table 1 shows. Why are such constitutional changes now ratified by referendum? It seems that to British governments (or rather British Labour governments, as only the first referendum was organised by a Conservative government), the referendum is not so much a constitutional device as a political expedient. In the British Parliament, a Bill concerning proposals for one of the nations or regions which make up the UK is very likely to be rejected by MPs from the rest of the country wanting to safeguard their own interests and careful not to shift the balance of powers unfavourably. Referendums are therefore a way of legitimising and of strengthening governments’ proposals, even in a context when the majority of the UK disagrees. This was one of the reasons given by the first Blair government for organising two referendums, a few months after Labour was elected in 1997, as promised in the party’s electoral manifesto. The first was held in Scotland on 11 September 1997 and the second in Wales on 18 September 1997.

  • 1 Two articles on the 1997 Scottish referendum, as well as two articles on the 1997 Welsh referendum, (...)
  • 2 The main exception is the following book: Bridget TAYLOR & Katarina THOMSON (eds.), Scotland and Wa (...)

2The existing literature on the 1997 Scottish and Welsh referendums has largely focused on each referendum separately,1 but has more rarely sought to compare the two,2 although they are obviously linked. This article seeks to compare the projects on offer, the referendum campaigns and the referendum results in Scotland and Wales.

The referendum announcement: the spectre of 1979

3The 1997 referendums concerned Labour’s devolution projects in Scotland and Wales, and as such, they echoed the failed 1979 devolution referendums, also organised under a Labour government. That is why the announcement on 27 June 1996 that there would be new devolution referendums caused such furore in these nations, especially in Scotland where, most unusually, not one but two questions were to be put to the electorate: one on the establishment of a Parliament and the other on the Parliament’s fiscal powers. Labour had previously said that an election victory would be enough to set up a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, these policies being mentioned in their 1997 manifesto. Pro-devolutionists therefore suspected that the need for referendums was a Labour ploy to ensure the failure of the devolution projects. Many of them were also livid at not having been consulted and felt that the decision had been imposed on them by Tony Blair. In Scotland, two leading autonomists, namely Harry Ewing, the former co-chairman of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, and John McAllion, the shadow minister in charge of devolution, even resigned from their positions in protest. Ron Davies, the Welsh Secretary of State, was particularly embarrassed because he had explicitly ruled out the possibility of a referendum in the Western Mail, a Welsh morning paper, a few days before the annoucement. There was talk that it was in fact George Robertson, the Shadow Scottish Secretary, who convinced Tony Blair of the need for a referendum in Scotland, for reasons that will be expounded later, and that if Scotland was to have a referendum, then Wales would have to have one too. What is likely is that the decision was made irrespective of the Welsh situation and without the knowledge of the Welsh Secretary and the Wales Labour Party.

Table 1: Referendums in the UK

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    Notes

    1 Two articles on the 1997 Scottish referendum, as well as two articles on the 1997 Welsh referendum, are mentioned in the bibliography at the end of this article.

    2 The main exception is the following book: Bridget TAYLOR & Katarina THOMSON (eds.), Scotland and Wales: Nations Again?, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999.

    3 Scottish Constitutional Convention, Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right, Edinburgh: Scottish Constitutional Convention, 1995, p. 9.

    4 GREAT BRITAIN WELSH OFFICE, A Voice for Wales, Cm.3718, London: H.M.S.O., 1997, p. 24.

    5 Peter JONES, ‘A Start to a New Song: the 1997 Devolution Referendum Campaign’, Scottish Affairs, vol. 21, 1997, p. 9.

    6 Quoted in Lindsay PATERSON, A Diverse Assembly. The Debate on a Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 1998, p. 227.

    7 The Scotsman, 22 August 1997, mentioned in Peter JONES, op.cit., p. 11.

    8 Peter JONES, op. cit., p. 2.

    9 LABOUR PARTY, Because Britain Deserves Better, London: Labour Party, 1997, p. 33.

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    Nathalie Duclos, « The 1997 devolution referendums in Scotland and Wales », Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique, XIV-1 | 2006, 151-264.

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    Nathalie Duclos, « The 1997 devolution referendums in Scotland and Wales », Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique [En ligne], XIV-1 | 2006, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2016, consulté le 16 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/rfcb/1187 ; DOI : 10.4000/rfcb.1187

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    Universit&eact">; de Tlulnuse-Le-Mirail

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    Date

    Area

    Question

    ‘Yes’ Votes %

    Turnout %

    8 March 1973

    Northern Ireland

    (i) Do you want NI to remain part of the UK? or

    (ii) Do you want NI to be joined with the Republic of Ireland, outside of the UK?

    98.9

    58.7

    5 June 1975

    UK

    Do you think that the UK should stay in the European Community (The Common Market)?

    67.2

    64.5

    1 March 1979

    Scotland

    Do you want the provisions of the Scotland Act to be put into effect?

    51.6

    63.6

    1 March 1979

    Wales

    Do you want the provisions of the Wales Act 1978 to be put into effect?

    20.9

    58.8

    11 Sept. 1997

    Scotland

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    11 Sept. 199T

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