Assembly issue divides wales
By KEVIN CULLEN, c.1997 The Boston Globe, CARDIFF, Wales

A visit to the Welsh Club, a watering hole frequented by nationalists, illustrates how divided this country remains on self-rule -- even though it voted two days ago to establish its first local government in 600 years.

"We don't deserve to be the capital of Wales," said Michael Llewellyn, who was wearing a rugby shirt with the name of the local ale, Brains, emblazoned on the front. As a TV in the pub showed several hundred locals throwing beer bottles and otherwise reacting angrily to election results from Cardiff, Llewellyn added: "We drink Brains, but we don't use them."

By a margin of less than 1 percent, the Welsh approved the establishment of a local assembly, but residents of this capital city voted overwhelmingly against the initiative, infuriating supporters like Llewellyn.

Unlike Scotland, where voters last week overwhelmingly approved a referendum creating a parliament with the power to modify taxes, the Welsh were ambivalent about the devolution of power from London being pushed by Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Only a little more than half of the eligible voters turned out to approve setting up a 60-member assembly that will control an $11 billion budget and oversee local education, health, and transportation services. Unlike Scotland, Wales will still depend on the British exchequer to set its budget.

The vote here was expected to be close, but not this close. With more than 1 million ballots cast, the "yes" campaign for a Welsh assembly won by only 6,721 votes.

The anti-assembly lobby -- comprising mostly Conservative Party supporters, but also a sizable chunk of Labor activists who want links with Great Britain to remain strong, pointed out that only slightly more than one in four eligible voters endorsed the assembly.

But supporters, led by Welsh Secretary Ron Davies, a Labor member of Parliament, stressed that attitudes had clearly changed since 1979, when the last referendum on home rule fell by 4 to 1.

Still, compared with the outcome in Scotland, the Welsh victory was decidedly underwhelming. Indeed, Blair went to Scotland last week to lead the celebration, but he didn't show up here.

Instead, pro-assembly campaigners got Davies, Blair's point man in Wales, to join them in spirited renditions of the Welsh national anthem, "Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau," as they waved the Red Dragon national flag.

Here in the Welsh capital, where the assembly is to sit, the celebration was dampened as the city rejected home rule by a vote of 59,589 to 47,527. Pro-assembly campaigners chalk the results up to Cardiff's having attracted many non-Welsh residents over the last decade, especially natives of England. In interviews over the last two days, many English newcomers said they feared that giving Wales an assembly would embolden nationalists to step up their campaign for independence or to try to mandate wider use of the Welsh language.

Support was much stronger for the assembly in the rural west and north, where the nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, is influential. The party leader, Dafydd Wigley, was beaming as the final result was read at the counting headquarters, the Welsh College of Music and Drama.

But apathy seemed as much in evidence as passions on either side. At The Vaults, a famous pub in the capital, a Welsh barmaid sheepishly admitted she didn't vote. When asked how to spell the national anthem, she said she couldn't.

Tim Williams, an anti-assembly campaigner, said Blair should not take the vote as a mandate, and urged the government to "go slow" as it introduces legislation to create the assembly.

Speaking Friday in London, Blair promised his government would spend the next year trying to allay the fears of those who oppose the assembly. Opponents say it will be a costly "talking shop," redundant since Parliament will still write the laws and dole out the money. They also fear it is the first step toward the dissolution of the United Kingdom.

Proponents counter that the assembly allows local people to make decisions that affect their lives, with greater accountability than the Welsh Office, which now runs the principality without accountability to an electorate.




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