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23 December 2011

The referendum in March

On 3 March, Wales goes to the polls in a referendum to decide if the Welsh Assembly should get more powers.

This will be the third referendum on Welsh devolution matters since 1979 but this one, in many respects, is the least important. The other two, in 1979 and 1997, were on whether or not Wales wanted devolved government: this one is on whether or not Wales wants full law-making powers.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee published a report in April this year on "Referendums in the UK". One of their concluding comments was that referendums "are most appropriately used in relation to fundamental constitutional principles". This is of interest regarding the March 3rd referendum because, whereas 1979 and 1997 were clearly issues that fell within "fundamental constitutional principles", the issue of law-making powers does not.

The Government of Wales Act 2006 provided provisions for a referendum to be held to enable the Welsh Assembly Government to receive these greater powers in designated areas at once, rather than having them transferred gradually over time.

In the "One Wales" document that was crafted by Labour and Plaid Cymru upon forming their coalition government in 1997, the two parties committed themselves to holding a referendum at or before the end of the current Assembly (which ends in May), and for both parties to campaign for a successful outcome.

This insertion of this section in "One Wales" was more of a tactical move by Plaid rather than one of constitutional principle. Nevertheless, all AMs have unanimously voted for the referendum on March 3rd and all of the main parties in Wales are either pro-devolution or have pro-devolution elements.

How have Christians in general responded to matters of devolution?

Firstly, it's important to realise that devolution is a process rather than an event and yet we don't know exactly where that journey will take us.

In the Alliance's 'Faith and Nation' report in 2006, it stated, with reference to Wales and Scotland, "[we] believe Christians should generally be supportive of the devolution arrangements that have been made"

Catholic Bishops and the Presbyterian Church of Wales were two faith groups that gave evidence in 2007-9 to the All Wales Convention, established to canvass opinion from the people of Wales as to their desire for law-making powers. Both were in favour, citing the need to strengthen local government and the importance of devolved government to Welsh identity and culture.

Other figureheads from Wales' Christian communities have been strong advocates of devolution over the years as well.

It was also telling that in a recent "Cross Party Group on Faith" meeting in the National Assembly on devolution, there was not one dissenting voice from among those present.

Pundits are predicting a victory for the "Yes" campaign coupled with a low turnout