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1974-1997 AD

For the first time in the long history of Parliament, Welsh MP's were allowed to take their oaths of allegiance to the British Crown in the Welsh language as well as in English. That there were Members available to do this four hundred years after the Acts of Union is a stirring testimonial to the continued survival of the language against all possible odds.

The first of these broadcasts in Welsh; the second in English. Both came very late on the scene; both represent the increasing demands of Welsh people to be treated as equal partners with other Britons in a modern age.

When James Griffiths was succeeded as Secretary of State for Wales by Cledwyn Hughes, the new man was also in favor or an elected assembly for his country. In the face of hostility, most of it from members of his own party, Hughes tried hard to achieve some measures in that direction. His successor, however, was of a far different mind. George Thomas, a die-hard socialist of the old school, coming from a background in the pits, somehow saw the Welsh language as a threat to his own livelihood. His stubbornness and pride in his Anglo-Welsh heritage remained a stumbling block for years to any aspirations of the Welsh nationalists to gain any concessions from Parliament.

In Parliament, however, Elystan Morgan, M.P. of Cardigan, aided by a select few, did not abandon his hopes for a more equitable administrative system for his country and kept toiling in the vineyard. His efforts, and those of a few determined colleagues, led to a Royal Commission in 1968 to investigate the topic of devolution for Wales (and Scotland). When Britain became a member of the European Economic Community in 1972, new hopes arose for an elected assembly for Wales, one of Europe's oldest and smallest language communities. The Royal Commission recommended sweeping administrative changes. It presented the Scotland and Wales Bill of 1976. The government plans for a Welsh assembly, however, gave it no legislative powers (unlike that for Scotland).

Predictably, many Labour MP's remained solidly opposed to any kind of assembly for Wales, with or without legislative powers; they recommended a referendum, which they felt sure would be defeated. The Welsh Act of 1978 was introduced with the provision that the creation of an assembly would require 40 percent of the electorate to vote in favor. These MP's (who deserved the appellation of Dic Sion Dafydd) then worked diligently to influence their constituents to vote in the negative by appealing to their worst fears.

The voting took place on St. David's Day 1979 at a time when Britain was suffering some of the worst industrial unrest in its long history. Conditions ensured that there was very little enthusiasm expressed by any Cabinet members; the Bill was roundly attacked from all sides, but especially from Labour members such as Welshman Neil Kinnock, the future leader of the party.

The hopes for a Welsh Assembly went down to a resounding defeat, only one in four voting in favor. The list of reasons for the failure to seize their one big chance at some sense of political independence is endless. In retrospect, however, it is fair to say that it wasn't the idea of an assembly that was defeated as much as the way in which that assembly was to govern. After all, it would have been virtually powerless, unable to legislate, without any revenue-raising capability. In addition, the newly-formed counties were just finding their feet and were reluctant to go through the trauma of any more reorganization. All the negative campaigning, too, had created a climate of unnecessary fear. As at so many times in their history, the people of Wales had allowed themselves to be divided against each other.

BBC Wales was producing a meagre six hours a week of Welsh language programs in 1962. It was not enough. Hadyn Williams, the dynamic Director of Education in Flintshire, established a company to broadcast to many areas out of reach of the English transmitters into the Welsh-speaking communities in North Wales. Its activities were taken over by TWW and then by Harlech Television. Demands quickly followed for all-Welsh programs, but the Government (which owned BBC) refused to honor a commitment to the proposed new channel. A vigorous protest movement ensued, but it wasn't until Gwynfor Evans, the highly respected leader of Plaid Cymru vowed to fast to death should the people of Wales once more be denied a basic right, that the Government capitulated. The new Channel S4C (Sianel Pedwar C) began broadcasting on 2 November, 1982.

When the Conservative government decided to strengthen private capitalism and restrict the role of the state, one of its first moves was to announce the closing of many of Britain's coal mines. In Wales, the coal industry was practically dead, but many Welsh miners backed National Union of Mine Workers' president Arthur Cargill's call to strike against the closing of the pits. The bitter strike lasted almost one year and despite great solidarity among the workers of Wales, including remarkable support from their womenfolk, the effort was doomed to fail. Indeed, it only served to hasten the inevitable: King Coal no longer ruled in South Wales.

In the weeks leading up to the 1997 Referendum it was not surprising to find most of the inhabitants of Flintshire completely indifferent to their fate. They followed the news from English newspapers, English radio stations and English television. In Scotland 90 percent of morning readers looked at newspapers published in their own country; in Wales, the figure was less than 10 percent In addition, almost one third of television viewers in Wales could not get Welsh television programs.

In North Wales, the majority supported the soccer teams of Everton, Liverpool, and Manchester United. Welsh rugby teams were far away somewhere in South Wales and thus of not much interest; the Welsh language seemed an ancient relic, spoken only in chapels on Sundays by the pious minority. Welsh-language secondary schools were too few and far between and too new to have any real impact on people's sense of history and the ancient traditions of what was for many, their adopted country. For hundreds of thousands in North Wales, England was their homeland; their songs were "Rule Britannia" and "God Save the Queen"; the Beatles and the Spice Girls were far better-known than Ar Log, Hin Deg, Dafydd Iwan or any of the other Welsh musical groups.

Maybe it was too late. Whatever the reasons, the result of the referendum was a bitter blow to the aspirations of Plaid Cymru and to all the others who had been in favor. In 1997, it was apparent that things hadn't changed all that much during the last twenty years.

There was still tension between North and South Wales, between the thousands of English immigrants to Wales and the hard-line, mostly Welsh speaking Welsh nationalists, between the Labour Heartlands and those who feared the imposition of a costly, Labour-dominated "talking shop." Other fears included that of domination by Cardiff, or the loss of Whitehall funds. Many Welsh stated that they'd had enough of English MP's and ministers telling them what was best for them; in addition, of the 2.25 million eligible to vote, over half a million had been born outside Wales, a huge majority being English. They showed not a flicker of interest in devolution. In Clwyd a few days before the referendum, the author saw not a single poster or leaflet advocating a Yes vote. Most people had not made up their minds, except to express the opinion that the proposed Assembly would simply mean "jobs for the boys," or another way for the "Labour Taffia" to fill their pockets.

Thus many of the factors that led to the defeat of the 1979 referendum were still present, after all, it may take many generations to erase what can only be considered anti-Welsh prejudice so prevalent in the anglicized areas, yet subtle changes had been taking place that helped swing the vote ever-so slightly in favor of an elected Assembly. Many of these changes had been brought about by the arrogance of the Conservative Party in its dealings with the people of Wales, an arrogance that led to the complete defeat of all its candidates in Wales (and Scotland) in the General Election held earlier in the year (in which the issue of Devolution had figured heavily in the campaigns).

It was heartening that two of the most influential newspapers read in Wales, the Liverpool"Daily Post" and the Cardiff "Western Mail" advocated a Yes vote. Disgust with the way things were handled in Westminster surely meant that there would be hearty support for the proposed changes expressed by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott that Wales must be in the vanguard of a constitutional reform package that would include Lords reform, electoral reform, and a referendum for a London-wide elected body. Another change from 1979 was that in the later referendum only a simple majority was needed to pass the Referendum Bill, whereas in the former a majority of the electorate itself was required.

It was a touch and go affair, and lots of nail biting took place on the night of the 19th of September until the final result was announced in the wee small hours of the morning. A quintessential English newspaper, the "Guardian" stated that the final Yes vote was delivered by Carmarthen, "the birthplace of David Lloyd George." All Welshmen know that the World War One Prime Minister was born in Manchester of Welsh parents, but was raised in Llanystumdwy, near Pwllheli, in Caernarfonshire. It is typical of an English newspaper to confuse Carmarthen with Caernarfon; the ignorance of Wales and Welsh history shown by such an influential source of information should be a cause of shame and embarrassment. It is also sad that most Welsh readers get all their news from English newspapers, very few of which give any coverage to Wales or to Welsh affairs.

Returning to the key role played by Carmarthen in the final victory to ensure that Wales would have its first ever democratically elected national body, it is significant that the Western county had chosen Gwynfor Evans as Plaid Cymru's first MP in 1966. In 1997, Gwynfor was 85 years old; the event, in his own words, was one of the happiest in his life. "In a sense," he stated, "the wheel has come full circle for me. Here in Carmarthenshire there is a tradition of supporting a measure of self-rule." The old politician, whose threat to embark on a hunger strike had done much to ensure the Government's support for SC4, the Welsh television channel, went on to state: " But it would be wrong to forget the contribution of people elsewhere, like the more than 10,000 in Monmouthshire [Gwent] who voted Yes . . . this is the difference between the last referendum and now." Gwynfor also noted that in the earlier referendum, the vast majority of the Labour Party had been against devolution.

According to Gwynfor, and to those who voted in favor of the Assembly, "apart from the opportunity to improve education, health and so on, the most important consequence of the Yes vote will be to give Welsh people more confidence in themselves." This is a confidence, went on Gwynfor, that has been lost for Wales as a people "since we were incorporated with England in the 16th century and have suffered from a sort of collective inferiority complex." He added, agreeing with Baron Richard of Ammanford, whom we mentioned earlier, that the Assembly would bring Wales closer to the European Union and would "enable [Welsh] people to see themselves as part of an order that is not just nationalist, but internationalist."

For the people of Wales, the decision to approve the Labour Government's plans for a Welsh Assembly may prove to be one of the most important decisions in its long history. The common sense of its people, combined with a love of their traditions and unique culture, should ensure a sound future for Wales proud to hold its head up as a nation in full partnership with its European counterparts. Let the final word come from Ron Davies, Welsh Secretary of State, "The Welsh Assembly will be established 12 months before the Scottish Parliament and before regional development agencies in the English regions. It will give Wales a clearer political identity and really put us on the map."

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