The National Assembly of Wales was the first elected government body to meet in Wales since Owain Glyndŵr called his Parliament at Machynlleth in 1404. As such, its creation was, and remains, a major moment in Welsh history.
For a long time the British government had no interest in allowing Wales to develop its own identity. Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government dismissed the appeal for a Secretary of State for Wales and although in 1951 the new Conservative government created the position of Minister for Welsh Affairs, it was added to the duties of the Home Secretary.
In July 1966 Gwynfor Evans, leader of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalist party, was elected as MP for Carmarthen. This brought home the realisation that Wales was a country with an identity of its own and could no longer be conveniently ignored. So in 1969 the Kilbrandon Commission was set up to look at the possibility of devolution for both Wales and Scotland, and its recommendations formed the basis for the 1974 White Paper 'Democracy and Devolution'.
Devolution – No
The Wales Act was placed on the statute book in 1978 and a site was chosen for the new Assembly. However, in a referendum held on St David's Day 1979, the Welsh public voted against the concept of devolution by the huge majority of four to one. It was a setback for the supporters of nationalism and the idea of devolution disappeared from the Welsh political scene for over ten years.
The idea did not go away, however. In the 1990s it resurfaced, to some extent due to concerns felt about all-powerful quangos like the Welsh Development Agency which were controlling vast amounts of Welsh Office spending. Then Ron Davies became the new Secretary of State for Wales, someone who actually represented a Welsh constituency, and he pushed for a second referendum, which was held on September 18, 1997.
Devolution - Yes
The referendum was supported by Labour, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats and by many church groups and trade unions but was opposed by the Conservative party. At the end of an emotional night, and by a tiny majority of 6721, with just 50.3% of the votes cast, Labour's proposals for devolution were accepted by the Welsh electorate. The Assembly was duly formed under the Government of Wales Act 1998.
The new Assembly was located in Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, and consisted of 60 members, led by a First Minister. 40 of the AMs (Assembly Members) are directly elected to geographical constituencies, the remaining 20 are selected by proportional representation to five electoral regions. Currently the Welsh Labour Party hold exactly half of the seats, coming one seat short of a majority, so although it forms the government, it needs a little cooperation from other parties to push through its legislation.
Elections to the Assembly are held every five years and the vote of 2003 saw the formation of a body where half of the seats were held by women, probably the first time that open, democratic elections have ever produced equal representation for women. Following a by-election at Blaenau Gwent in 2003, women members actually became the majority.
Originally it had no primary law-making powers, but gradually it has been given more and more power. Following a Yes vote in the referendum on 3 March 2011, it became possible for it to legislate without having to consult the UK parliament or the Secretary of State for Wales in the 20 areas that are devolved. It has chosen to make some major differences from the British government in some areas, for instance abolishing prescription charges and paying some of the university fees of Welsh students.
The Senedd – Welsh for Parliament – building was finally finished eight years after it was first announced, a landmark building that is located on the waterfront of the old Cardiff docks. Queen Elizabeth II formally opened the building on March 1, St David's Day, 2006.
[Adapted from Highlights of Welsh History by Phil Carradice]