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@roger_scully

My two recent blog posts about the latest BBC/YouGov poll looked at evidence from that poll regarding attitudes to the devolved institutions and other levels of government, including views on which level of government should be responsible for a number of different policy areas.

After posting the second of these pieces on the blog, I realised that I had not previously posted here about some other fairly recent, and potentially relevant, evidence on some of these matters.

Shortly after June 2017 election, Cardiff University funded a fairly lengthy academic survey in Wales (with the fieldwork conducted, like that of the recent BBC poll, by YouGov). Much of this survey was concerned with attitudes towards Brexit. But it also explored voting and campaigning in that year’s general election. And, in addition, the survey asked some broader questions about political attitudes.

These latter questions included the following one about the appropriate level of government to hold responsibility over various policies:

“For each of the following issues, please indicate which level of government you think ought to make most of the important decisions for Wales�.

This question was asked about the following policy areas:

  • The National Health Service
  • Schools
  • Police
  • The level of income tax
  • Defence and Foreign Affairs
  • Courts and the Criminal Justice System

In short, this question had a rather similar concern as that in the recent BBC/YouGov poll, about which level of government should be responsible for what. But the list of policy areas that was asked about was different – or, in some cases, phrased rather differently.

The response options for this question were also slightly different from those used in the recent BBC/YouGov poll; they mirrored the question and answer options that had been used in some previous studies, and were the following:

  • The Welsh Government
  • The UK Government at Westminster
  • Local councils in Wales
  • The European Union
  • Don’t Know

The following table shows the pattern of responses given. (As with my previous blog post, I have put in bold where there is a clear majority in favour of responsibilities being held at one level of government or the other).

Policy Area Welsh Govt UK Govt Local Councils EU Don’t Know
NHS 47% 36% 3% 1% 14%
Schools 54% 23% 9% 1% 13%
Police 45% 34% 6% 1% 14%
Income tax 29% 53% 3% 1% 15%
Defence & Foreign Affairs 11% 71% 1% 2% 14%
Courts and Criminal Justice 27% 55% 2% 2% 15%

Some previous surveys in Wales had looked at public views on where responsibility should lie for the ‘Police’, or for ‘Law and Order’. This 2017 survey was the first one of which I am aware to separate out policing explicitly from the courts and criminal justice system. (Whether in practice it might make sense to divide responsibilities like this, and maybe devolve one but not the other, is a matter for others to ponder).

As can readily be seen, in most instances at least a plurality of respondents support responsibility for policies being held where it in fact currently is. So an absolute majority appear to endorse schools being a devolved responsibility in Wales, and close to a majority feel the same about the NHS. Clear majorities endorse the UK government being the main decision maker over income taxes (which it will remain even after the partial devolution of income tax powers provided for in the 2017 Wales Act has been completed), defence and foreign affairs, and also the courts and criminal justice.

The one exception to this favourability towards the status quo concerns the Police. Here, a plurality of respondents – though well short of a majority – favoured the Welsh Government being the principal decision-maker. This finding is in line with those from some previous studies, which had produced rather similar findings. Although there currently appears no mood in Westminster to so devolve policing to Wales – it is, we might recall, a devolved responsibility in both Scotland and Northern Ireland – the whole area has been the subject of some political debate in Wales, as was mentioned in my last blog post. Were the political mood on this at Westminster to change, it appears as if the public would be broadly favourable.

Overall, the findings of both this 2017 survey, and the more recent BBC/YouGov one, point I think to rather similar conclusions about devolution and the governance of Wales. When we ask people in representative surveys and polls general questions about devolution, or how Wales should be governed, the clear majority of people in Wales favour devolution. That has been a consistent finding for more than a decade-and-a-half now: no matter how the question is asked, there is quite limited support for independence for Wales, while support for abolishing devolution is not much greater. Most people wish for Wales to be significantly self-governing, but firmly within the UK. And this general finding translates over into attitudes on specific policies. Most people seem to want some matters to be run largely in Wales, but others to be decided at the UK level.

Those of us who study public opinion, in Wales or elsewhere, can often be either frustrated or infuriated at what we find. Public understanding of politics is often significantly flawed, while people’s views on individual matters can often appear highly inconsistent, if not downright contradictory. On devolution in Wales, one can certainly find many instances of a less-than-flawless public understanding. But regarding attitudes the main characteristics I would point to are stability and (at least broad) consistency. The basic public position on how Wales should be governed has not changed since the early years of the Assembly: devolution within the UK appears to have become the ‘settled will of the Welsh people’. And that general attitude translates fairly logically into how people respond when we ask them who should govern what. Few think that all powers should lie in London, or that they should lie in Cardiff.