Today marks 20 years since the Government of Wales Act 1998 received Royal Assent. It was the first of three devolution statutes to do so (the Scotland and Northern Ireland Acts followed in November), and together they transformed the United Kingdom’s territorial constitution, establishing devolved legislatures and executives in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast.

In advance of the Welsh devolution referendum of September 1997, which narrowly endorsed Labour’s plans for a Welsh Assembly, the then Secretary of State for Wales Ron Davies memorably referred to devolution being “a process, not an event”. Although now rather hackneyed, his comment has endured because it turned out to be true (in Scotland, the quote is often misattributed to Donald Dewar, who probably wouldn’t have disagreed).

Davies in many ways spoke for the devolution settlements in Northern Ireland and Scotland as well as that in Wales, for all have evolved over the past 20 years, at different speeds and in different ways, but all unmistakably part of an ongoing ‘process’ rather than a one-off ‘event’.

Wales: Current constitutional position

On 1 April this year, what might be called the fifth phase of devolution in Wales came into effect, that of legislative devolution under a ‘reserved powers’ model. In other words, instead of the National Assembly for Wales only having the power to make law on matters specified in the Government of Wales Act 2006 (a ’conferred powers‘ model), it can now legislate on any matter that is not expressly ‘reserved’ to the UK Parliament at Westminster, such as defence or foreign affairs.

The “process” of devolution in Wales

Wales – like Scotland – had a long history of what was known as ’administrative devolution’ (the first phase), under which administrative decision-making was gradually transferred from Whitehall to Cardiff. This initially focused on education policy, while in 1964 the office of Secretary of State for Wales was created with a seat in the UK Cabinet. A department, the Welsh Office, followed in 1965.

Thereafter, calls to give this administrative devolution legislative oversight increased. In 1973 the Royal Commission on the Constitution recommended an elected Welsh Assembly, while in 1979 voters in Wales were asked to endorse or reject a proposal from the then Labour government to establish it in Cardiff. Four in five of those voting said “no”, and so the second phase of devolution had to wait another 20 years.

As Ron Davies later wrote in his account of that period, the Labour Party in Wales was split between devolutionists and anti-devolutionists. Thus, the devolution proposals that took shape before and after Labour’s 1997 general election victory were a compromise: while there would be a devolved ’Assembly for Wales’ in Cardiff, it would take executive form with secondary law-making powers.

Full law-making powers

Although in its early years, the National Assembly for Wales made creative use of its ability to alter secondary legislation, criticisms quickly surfaced, not least the lack separation between government and legislature. In 2004, the Richard Commission recommended enhanced legislative powers, which took effect following the Government of Wales Act 2006. This enabled the Assembly to legislate in certain areas via Legislative Competency Orders, subject to approval from the Secretary of State for Wales and both Houses of Parliament at Westminster (the third phase of devolution).

Another recommendation from Lord Richard was a referendum on granting the Assembly full law-making powers, something which, by early 2011, was supported by every political party in Cardiff Bay. A majority of voters agreed, and the fourth phase of devolution – a ‘conferred powers’ model of legislative devolution – took effect following the 2011 Assembly elections.

Still the process of devolution in Wales continued. A further review of the devolution settlement, the Silk Commission, recommended tax-varying powers (as in Scotland) and moving to a ’reserved powers‘ model, which was given effect by the Wales Acts of 2014 and 2017.

Constitutional debates

It seems unlikely, however, that the Wales Act 2017 has produced an enduring devolution settlement. Schedule 7A, which sets out which areas remain reserved to Westminster, has been criticised by academics and Assembly Members for being too long, too detailed and potentially adding to confusion over where responsibility lies.

Brexit, meanwhile, has increased calls for Welsh independence (Plaid Cymru), British federalism (Carwyn Jones, the outgoing First Minister) and control over policing and justice (various Assembly Members) which, unlike in Scotland and Northern Ireland, remains a Westminster preserve.

The outcome of the next Assembly elections due in 2021 could, therefore, lead to a sixth phase of devolution in Wales. As Ron Davies shrewdly observed more than 20 years ago, it’s very much a process, not an event.

Further reading:

David Torrance, “A process, not an event”: Devolution in Wales, 1998-2018, House of Commons Library CBP 08318, 11 July 2018.

Paul Bowers, Wales Bill 2016-17, House of Commons Library CBP 07617, 13 June 2016.

Russell Deacon, Alison Denton and Robert Southall, The Government and Politics of Wales, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018.

Rhodri Morgan, Rhodri: A Political Life in Wales and Westminster, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2017.

Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully, Wales Says Yes: Devolution and the 2011 Welsh Referendum, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012.

Martin Shipton, Poor Man’s Parliament: Ten Years of the Welsh Assembly, Bridgend: Seren, 2011.

Ron Davies, Devolution: A Process Not an Event, Cardiff: Institute of Welsh Affairs, 1999.

David Torrance is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in devolution and the constitution.