Politics of Wales

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Politics in Wales forms a distinctive polity in the wider politics of the United Kingdom, with Wales as one of the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom (UK).

Constitutionally, the United Kingdom is de jure a unitary state with one sovereign parliament and government. However, under a system of devolution (or home rule) adopted in the late 1990s three of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, voted for limited self-government, subject to the ability of the UK Parliament in Westminster, nominally at will, to amend, change, broaden or abolish the national governmental systems. As such the National Assembly for Wales (Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru) is not de jure sovereign.

Executive power in the United Kingdom is vested in the Queen-in-Council, while legislative power is vested in the Queen-in-Parliament (the Crown and the Parliament of the United Kingdom at Westminster in London). The Government of Wales Act 1998 established devolution in Wales, and certain executive and legislative powers have been constitutionally delegated to the National Assembly for Wales. The scope of these powers was further widened by the Government of Wales Act 2006.


The government of Wales, since 1998, composed of the Welsh National Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government (styled Welsh Government).

But judicially it remains within part of the jurisdiction of England and Wales, although the Welsh National Assembly was given the rights to enact Wales-specific Measures, and, with the Welsh devolution referendum, 2011, the Welsh National Assembly will be given the power to enact Acts.

Wales, together with Cheshire, used to have Court of Grand Session, and therefore not within the English circuit court system. Yet it has never been its own jurisdiction.

Before 1998, there was no separate government in Wales. Executive authority rested in the hands of the HM Government, with substantial authority within the Welsh Office since 1965. Legislative power rested within the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Judicial power has always been with the Courts of England and Wales, and the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom (or its predecessor the Law Lords).

The emergence of a Welsh politics

After the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542, Wales was treated in legal terms as part of England. The Wales and Berwick Act 1746 stated that all laws applying to England would also be applicable to Wales, unless the body of the law explicitly stated otherwise. However, during the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century the notion of a distinctive Welsh polity gained credence. In 1881 the Welsh Sunday Closing Act was passed, the first such legislation exclusively concerned with Wales. The Central Welsh Board was established in 1896 to inspect the grammar schools set up under the Welsh Intermediate Education Act 1889, and a separate Welsh Department of the Board of Education was formed in 1907. The Agricultural Council for Wales was set up in 1912, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries had its own Welsh Office from 1919.[1]

Despite the failure of popular political movements such as Cymru Fydd, a number of institutions, such as the National Eisteddfod (1861), the University of Wales (Prifysgol Cymru) (1893), the National Library of Wales (Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru) (1911) and the Welsh Guards (Gwarchodlu Cymreig) (1915) were created. The campaign for disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales, achieved by the passage of the Welsh Church Act 1914 (effective from 1920), was also significant in the development of Welsh political consciousness. Without a popular base, the issue of home rule did not feature as an issue in subsequent General Elections and was quickly eclipsed by the depression. By August 1925 unemployment in Wales rose to 28.5%, in contrast to the economic boom in the early 1920s, rendering constitutional debate an exotic subject.[2] In the same year Plaid Cymru was formed with the goal of securing a Welsh-speaking Wales.[3]

Following the Second World War the Labour Government of Clement Attlee established the Council for Wales and Monmouthshire, an unelected assembly of 27 with the brief of advising the UK government on matters of Welsh interest.[4] By that time, most UK government departments had set up their own offices in Wales.[1] The Labour Party had also partly reappraised its view to devolution, establishing in 1947 the Welsh Regional Council of Labour from the constituent parts of the party in Wales and as part of a move to plan the economy on an all-Wales basis. However, resistance from other elements of the party meant that the machinery of government was not similarly reformed until much later.

The post of Minister of Welsh Affairs was first established in 1951, but was at first held by the UK Home Secretary. Further incremental changes also took place, including the establishment of a Digest of Welsh Statistics in 1954, and the designation of Cardiff (Caerdydd) as Wales’s capital city in 1955. However, further reforms were catalysed partly as a result of the controversy surrounding the flooding of Capel Celyn in 1956. Despite almost unanimous Welsh political opposition the scheme had been approved, a fact that seemed to underline Plaid Cymru's argument that the Welsh national community was powerless.[5] Welsh nationalism experienced a modest increase in support, with Plaid Cymru’s share of the vote increasing from 0.3% in 1951 to 5.2% by 1959 throughout Wales.

In 1964 the incoming Labour Government of Harold Wilson created the Welsh Office under a Secretary of State for Wales, with its powers augmented to include health, agriculture and education in 1968, 1969 and 1970 respectively. The creation of administration devolution effectively defined the territorial governance of modern Wales.[6]

Labour's incremental embrace of a distinctive Welsh polity was arguably catalysed in 1966 when Plaid Cymru president Gwynfor Evans won the Carmarthen by-election (although in fact Labour had endorsed plans for an elected council for Wales weeks before the by-election). However, by 1967 Labour retreated from endorsing home rule mainly because of the open hostility expressed by other Welsh Labour MPs to anything "which could be interpreted as a concession to nationalism" and because of opposition by the Secretary of State for Scotland, who was responding to a growth of Scottish nationalism.[7]

In response to the emergence of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party (SNP) Harold Wilson's Labour Government set up the Royal Commission on the Constitution (the Kilbrandon Commission) to investigate the UK’s constitutional arrangements in 1969.[8] Its eventual recommendations formed the basis of the 1974 White Paper Democracy and Devolution: proposals for Scotland and Wales.,[8] which proposed the creation of a Welsh Assembly. However, voters rejected the proposals by a majority of four to one in a referendum held in 1979.[8][9]

The election of a Labour Government in 1997 brought devolution back to the political agenda. In July 1997, the government published a White Paper, A Voice for Wales, which outlined its proposals for devolution, and in September 1997 an elected Assembly with competence over the Welsh Office’s powers was narrowly approved in a referendum. The National Assembly for Wales (Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru) was created in 1999, with further authority devolved in 2007, with the creation of a Welsh legal system to adjudicate on specific cases of Welsh law. Following devolution, the role of the Secretary of State for Wales greatly reduced. Most of the powers of the Welsh Office were handed over to the National Assembly; the Wales Office was established in 1999 to supersede the Welsh Office and support the Secretary of State.[1]

Contemporary Welsh politics

The National Assembly for Wales

The National Assembly for Wales (NAW or NAfW) (Welsh: Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru [CCC]') is a devolved assembly with power to make legislation in Wales. The assembly building is known as the Senedd. Both English and Welsh languages are treated on a basis of equality in the conduct of business in the Assembly.

The Assembly was formed under the Government of Wales Act 1998, by the Labour government, following a referendum in 1997. The campaign for a 'yes' vote in the referendum was supported by Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and much of Welsh civic society, such as church groups and the trade union movement.[11] The Conservative Party was the only major political party in Wales to oppose devolution.[12]

The election in 2003 produced an assembly in which half of the assembly seats were held by women. This is thought to be the first time elections to a legislature have produced equal representation for women.[13]

The National Assembly consists of 60 elected members. They use the title Assembly Member (AM) or Aelod y Cynulliad (AC).[14] The Assembly's presiding officer is Welsh Labour member Rosemary Butler.

The Welsh Government is led by First Minister Carwyn Jones of Welsh Labour.[15]

The executive and civil servants are based in Cardiff's Cathays Park while the Assembly Members, the Assembly Parliamentary Service and Ministerial support staff are based in Cardiff Bay where a new £67 million Assembly Building, known as the Senedd, has recently been built.[16][17][18]

Until May 2007 one important feature of the Assembly was that there was no legal or constitutional separation of the legislative and executive functions, since it was a single corporate entity. Even compared with other parliamentary systems, and other UK devolved countries, this was highly unusual. In reality however there was day to day separation, and the terms "Assembly Government" and "Assembly Parliamentary Service" were used to distinguish between the two arms. The Government of Wales Act 2006 regularised the separation once it comes into effect following the 2007 Assembly Election.

Senedd, home to the National Assembly for Wales.

Although the Assembly is a legislature, it has limited legislative power.

Whilst in theory the Assembly has no tax varying powers, the Assembly in reality has some very limited power over taxes.[citation needed] For example, in Wales, as in England, the rate of Council Tax is set by local authorities.

In terms of charges for government services it also has some discretion. Notable examples where this discretion has been used and varies significantly to other areas in the UK include:-

  1. Charges for NHS prescriptions in Wales - these have been abolished, while patients are still charged in England. Northern Ireland abolished charges in 2010, with Scotland following suit in 2011.[19][20]
  2. Charges for University Tuition - are different for Welsh resident students studying at Welsh Universities, compared with students from or studying elsewhere in the UK.[21]
  3. Charging for Residential Care - In Wales there is a flat rate of contribution towards the cost of nursing care, (roughly comparable to the highest level of English Contribution) for those who require residential care.[22]

This means in reality there is a wider definition of "nursing care" than in England and therefore less dependence on means testing in Wales than in England, meaning that more people are entitled to higher levels of state assistance. These variations in the levels of charges, may be viewed as de facto tax varying powers.

This model of more limited legislative powers is partly because Wales had a more similar legal system to England from 1536, when it was annexed and legally became an integral part of the Kingdom of England (although Wales retained its own judicial system, the Great Sessions until 1830 [23]). Ireland and Scotland were incorporated into the United Kingdom through negotiations between the respective Kingdoms' Parliaments, and so retained some more differences in their legal systems. The Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly have wider powers.

The Assembly inherited the powers and budget of the Secretary of State for Wales and most of the functions of the Welsh Office. Since May 2007 the National Assembly for Wales has had more extensive powers to legislate, in addition to the function of varying laws passed by Westminster using secondary legislation conferred under the original Government of Wales Act 1998. The post of Secretary of State for Wales, currently David Jones, retains a residual role.

Welsh Government

The Welsh Government (Welsh: Llywodraeth Cymru, is the executive body of the National Assembly for Wales, consisting of the First Minister and his Cabinet.

Following the National Assembly for Wales election, 2011, a minority Welsh Labour-Welsh Liberal Democrats coalition Government was formed in May 2016. The current cabinet members of the 5th Welsh Government are:

First Minister

Welsh Cabinet Secretaries[15]

'Welsh Ministers[24][25]

  • Julie James AM,Minister for Skills and Science (Labour)
  • Alun Davies AM, Minister for Lifelong Learning and Welsh Language (Labour)
  • Rebecca Evans AM, Minister for Social Services and Public Health (Labour)

The Welsh Government had no independent executive powers in law - unlike for instance, the Scottish Ministers and Ministers in the UK government. The Assembly was established as a "body corporate" by the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the executive, as a committee of the Assembly, only had those powers that the Assembly as a whole votes to vest in ministers. The Government of Wales Act 2006 has now formally separated the Assembly and the Welsh Government giving Welsh Ministers independent executive authority.

Political parties

Throughout much of the 19th century, Wales was a bastion of the Liberal Party. From the early 20th century, the Labour Party has emerged as the most popular political party in Wales, before 2009 having won the largest share of the vote at every UK General Election, National Assembly for Wales election and European Parliament election since 1922.[26] The Wales Labour Party has traditionally been most successful in the industrial south Wales valleys, north east Wales and urban coastal areas, such as Cardiff, Newport and Swansea.

The Welsh Conservative Party has historically been the second political party of Wales, having obtained the second largest share of the vote in Wales in a majority of UK general elections since 1885.[27] In three General Elections (1906, 1997 and 2001) no Conservative MPs were returned to Westminster, while on only two occasions in the 20th century (1979 and 1983) have more than a quarter of Welsh constituencies been represented by Conservatives. However, in the 2009 European Parliament elections the Conservatives polled higher than the Labour party in Wales.[28]

Plaid Cymru is the principal Welsh nationalist political party in Wales. The Party was formed in 1925, but did not contest a majority of Welsh seats in any UK general election until 1959. In 1966 the first Plaid Cymru MP was returned to Parliament. Plaid Cymru's share of the vote since has averaged 10%, with the highest share ever - 14.3% - gained in the 2001 general election.[29] Plaid Cymru is strongest in rural Welsh-speaking areas of north and west Wales.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats are part of the federal Liberal Democrats, and were formed by the merger of the Social Democratic Party (the SDP) and the Liberal Party in 1988. Since then they have gained an average vote share of 14% with the highest share - 18% - gained at the 2005 general election. The Welsh Liberal Democrats have the strongest support in rural mid and west Wales. The party performs relatively strongly in local government elections.

Current party representation

Party MEPs MPs AMs Local Authority overall control
Labour 1 of 4 25 of 40 30 of 60 10 of 22
Conservative 1 of 4 11 of 40 14 of 60 0 of 22
Plaid Cymru 1 of 4 3 of 40 11 of 60 0 of 22
Liberal Democrat 0 of 4 1 of 40 5 of 60 0 of 22
UKIP 1 of 4 0 of 40 0 of 60 0 of 22

Welsh politics since devolution

Between 1999 and 2007 there were three elections for the National Assembly. Labour won the largest share of votes and seats in each election and has always been in government in Wales, either as a minority administration or in coalition, first with the Liberal Democrats and more recently with Plaid Cymru.[30] The predominance of coalitions is a result of the Additional Member System used for Assembly elections, which has worked to the benefit of Labour (it won a higher share of seats than votes in the 1999, 2003 and 2007 elections) but not given it the same advantage the party has enjoyed in first-past-the-post elections to Welsh seats in the House of Commons.[30]

Policy divergence between Wales and England has arisen largely because Welsh governments have not followed the market-based English public service reforms introduced during the premiership of Tony Blair. In 2002, First Minister Rhodri Morgan said that a key theme of the first four years of the Assembly was the creation of a new set of citizenship rights that are free at the point of use, universal and unconditional. He accepted the Blairite mantra of equality of opportunity and equality of access, but emphasised what he called "the fundamentally socialist aim of equality of outcome" - in stark contrast to the approach of Blair, who said that the true meaning of equality is specifically "not equality of outcome".[31]

Marking ten years of devolution in a 2009 speech, Morgan highlighted free prescriptions, primary school breakfasts and free swimming as ‘Made in Wales’ initiatives that had made "a real difference to people’s everyday lives" since the National Assembly came into being.[32] However, some authors have argued that the approach to public services in England has been more effective than that in Wales, with health and education "cost(ing) less and delivering more".[30] Unfavourable comparisons between National Health Service waiting lists in England and Wales were a contentious issue in the first and second Assemblies.[33]

Nevertheless, a 'progressive consensus' based on faith in the power of government, universal rather than means-tested services, co-operation rather than competition in public services, a rejection of individual choice as a guide to policy and a focus on equality of outcome continued to underpin the One Wales coalition government in the Third Assembly.[34] The commitment to universalism may be tested by increasing budgetary constraints; in April 2009 a senior Plaid Cymru adviser warned of impending health and education cuts.[35]

Local politics

Clock tower of Cardiff City Hall

For the purposes of local government, Wales was divided into 22 council areas in 1996. These unitary authorities are responsible for the provision of all local government services, including education, social work, environment and roads services. The lowest tier of local government in Wales is the community council, which is analogous to a civil parish in England.

The Queen appoints a Lord Lieutenant to represent her in the eight Preserved counties of Wales, which are combinations of council areas.

Contemporary Welsh law

Since the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542, Wales was annexed into England and has since shared a single legal system. England and Wales are considered a single unit for the conflict of laws. This is because the unit is the constitutional successor to the former Kingdom of England. If considered as a subdivision of the United Kingdom, England & Wales would have a population of 53,390,300 and an area of 151,174 km².

Scotland, Northern Ireland, and dependencies such as the Isle of Man and the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey, are also separate units for this purpose (although they are not separate states under public international law), each with their own legal system (see the more complete explanation in English law).

Wales was brought under a common monarch with England through conquest with the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 and annexed to England for legal purposes by the Laws in Wales Acts 1535-1542. However, references in legislation for 'England' were still taken as excluding Wales. The Wales and Berwick Act 1746 meant that in all future laws, 'England' would by default include Wales (and Berwick-upon-Tweed). This was later repealed in 1967 and current laws use "England and Wales" as a single entity. Cardiff was proclaimed as the Welsh capital in 1955.

Welsh representation in the UK Parliament and Government

In the UK Parliament

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Wales elects 40 representatives to the 646-member House of Commons in the Parliament of the United Kingdom in London. In the 2010 General Election, the Labour Party lost approximately 12% of the vote across Wales, with losses varying by region. However, Labour managed to mitigate their losses by winning 26 seats. The Conservatives returned the three MP's elected in the 2005 general election as well as adding 5 more. The Liberal Democrats have 3 seats. Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, also have 3 seats after gaining a seat from Labour.

In the UK Government

The Wales Office (Swyddfa Cymru) is a United Kingdom government department. It is a replacement for the old Welsh Office (Swyddfa Gymreig), which had extensive responsibility for governing Wales prior to Welsh devolution in 1999. Its current incarnation is significantly less powerful: it is primarily responsible for carrying out the few functions remaining to the Secretary of State for Wales that have not been transferred already to National Assembly for Wales and securing funds for Wales as part of the annual budget settlement.

The Secretary of State for Wales has overall responsibility for the office but it is located administratively within the Department for Constitutional Affairs. This was carried out as part of the changes announced on 12 June 2003 that were part of a package intended toward replacing the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Ministers of the Wales Office as of 10 October 2013:

Welsh representation in the European Union

The Wales constituency of the European Parliament is coterminous with the country itself, shown here within the United Kingdom

The entire country of Wales is a constituency of the European Parliament. It elects four Members of the European Parliament using the d'Hondt method of party-list proportional representation, representation having been reduced from five seats in 2004.

Members of the European Parliament for Wales[36]

Intergovernmental relations within the EU

The Concordat on Co-ordination of European Union Policy Issues between the UK Government and the devolved administrations notes that "as all foreign policy issues are non-devolved, relations with the European Union are the responsibility of the Parliament and Government of the United Kingdom, as Member State".[37] However, Welsh Government civil servants participate in the United Kingdom Permanent Representation to the EU (UKRep),[38] and Wales is represented on the EU's Committee of the Regions and Economic and Social Committee.[39]

Political media outlets


  • Andrews, Leighton (1999). Wales says yes: the inside story of the yes for Wales referendum campaign. Bridgend: Seren.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Butt-Phillip, A. (1975). The Welsh Question. University of Wales Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Davies, John (1994). A History of Wales. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-014581-8.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Morgan, Kenneth O. (1981). Rebirth of a Nation. Oxford University Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Williams, Gwyn Alf (1985). When Was Wales?. Black Raven Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 National Archives: Records created or inherited by the Welsh Office and the Wales Office: Administrative / biographical background
  2. Morgan 1981
  3. Butt-Phillip 1975
  4. Davies 1994, p. 622
  5. Davies 1994
  6. The road to the Welsh Assembly from BBC Wales History website. Retrieved 23 August 2006. Archived 21 April 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  7. Davies 1994, p. 667
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Devolution in the UK: Department for Constitutional Affairs. UK State website. Retrieved 9 July 2005.
  9. The 1979 Referendums: BBC website. Retrieved 9 July 2006.
  10. BBC NEWS | Wales | Wales politics | First Welsh law's royal approval
  11. Andrews 1999
  12. The Politics of Devolution - Party policy: Politics '97 pages, BBC. Retrieved 8 September 2006.
  13. Women win half Welsh seats: By Nicholas Watt, The Guardian, 3 May 2003. Retrieved 7 July 2006.
  14. The National Assembly for Wales, Civil rights - In Wales, Advice guide, Citizens Advice Bureau. Retrieved 2006-07-13. Archived 10 March 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  15. 15.0 15.1 "Cabinet Members". Welsh Government. 20 March 2013. Retrieved 1 April 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. National Assembly for Wales and Welsh Assembly Government in Guide to government: Devolved and local government, Directgov, UK state website. Retrieved 2006-07-13. Archived 14 February 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  17. Assembly Building: Welsh government website. Retrieved 2006-07-13. Archived 8 January 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  18. New assembly building opens doors: BBC News, 1 March 2006. Retrieved 2006-07-13.
  19. Q and A: Welsh prescription prices: BBC News, 1 October 2004. Retrieved 2006-07-31.
  20. NHS Wales - NHS prescription charges Archived 7 August 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  21. Q&A: Welsh top-up fees: BBC News, 22 June 2005. Retrieved 2006-07-31.
  22. "NHS Continuing Care - Commons Health Select Committee", News and Views - NHFA. Retrieved 2006-11-10. Archived 25 September 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  23. Williams 1985, p. 150
  24. "Deputy Ministers". Welsh Government. 19 March 2013. Retrieved 1 April 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "Janice Gregory". National Assembly for Wales. Retrieved 1 April 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Jones, B, Welsh Elections 1885 - 1997 (1999), Lolfa. See also UK 2001 General Election results by region, UK 2005 General Election results by region, 1999 Welsh Assembly election results, 2003 Welsh Assembly election results and 2004 European Parliament election results in Wales (BBC) Archived 2 July 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  27. Jones, B, Welsh Elections 1885 - 1997(1999), Lolfa
  28. "Cameron hails 'historic' victory". BBC News. 8 June 2009. Retrieved 22 May 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. Jones, B, Welsh Elections 1885 - 1997 (1999), Lolfa. See also UK 2001 General Election results by region, UK 2005 General Election results by region Archived 2 July 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 McLean, I. "The National Question" in Seldon, A., ed. (2007) Blair's Britain 1997-2007. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  31. Across the clear red water, by Steve Davies. Public Finance 23-05-2003 Archived 16 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  32. Welsh Assembly Government | Wales “a better country because of devolution” – First Minister
  33. BBC NEWS | Wales | "Drop in hospital waiting times" Wednesday, 26 January, 2005
  34. Osmond, J. (2008) Cardiff Bay Papers No. 1: Unpacking the Progressive Consensus. Institute of Welsh Affairs
  35. BB NEWS | Wales | "Axe fear for free prescriptions", 30 April 2009
  36. "European Election 2009: Wales". BBC News. 8 June 2006. Retrieved 10 June 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  37. Welsh Assembly Government | Concordat on Co-ordination of European Union Policy Issues Archived 24 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  38. Welsh Assembly Government | United Kingdom Permanent Representation to the EU (UKRep) Archived 24 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  39. Welsh Assembly Government | EU Advisory Committees Archived 24 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine

See also