Nation-making

It is hard to imagine even the most zealous horde of young Labour, Plaid, Conservative and Lib Dem activists clambering into a minibus with cases of dynamite and the goal of carving images of their party leaders across a Welsh rockface.

But just a decade ago, it would have been almost as difficult to conceive of a situation in which each of the Assembly leaders would stand side by side and urge the people of Wales to vote Yes in a referendum on more powers for the Assembly.

While this potential transfer of law-making freedoms is not the subject of many conversations you can overhear in Wales’s Starbucks and bowling alleys, the word “referendum” sends shivers and tingles through the nervous systems of every Welsh politico.

The 1979 referendum to create an elected assembly was a spectacular blow for people who longed for self-government in Wales. Only one in five of the people who made it to the polls voted Yes.

This was an emphatic rejection of devolution, but the troops who gathered on that constitutional battlefield did not evaporate in a Celtic mist.

Many went on to have children who would join them on the doorsteps again in 1997 for the referendum in which Wales voted Yes by a majority of just 6,721.

The next referendum will be held on March 3 and the most recent YouGov poll showed only one in four people plan to vote No.

Even though the Welsh people may not be consumed by a burning excitement about devolution, it appears as if a quiet revolution has occurred. Somehow, the polls suggest, the instinctive position for many people is now to vote Yes.

For those who believed in devolution when it was only the aspiration of a minority faith, this is a cause for celebration, and may explain why a referendum to transfer limited powers in strictly defined areas has kindled such excitement among activists.

An emphatic Yes vote would be empirical proof that a “people group” – many of whom would have raised an eyebrow in 1979 if you had described them as part of a Welsh “nation” – finally gave the Assembly the benefit of the doubt and now see it as the natural birthplace of the laws which will govern their lives.

This is unlikely to be the last time we go the polls. Expect future referendums on tax varying powers and perhaps the transfer of responsibility for the police and the creation of a distinct Welsh legal jurisdiction.

There is no certainty that all four party leaders will join together to support these goals. This is a unique moment, which some may well look back on as the time when Welsh politics came of age.

A Thursday column