Blair wins the barest of victories
By KEVIN CULLEN, c.1997 The Boston Globe, CARDIFF, Wales

When the Welsh voted Thursday by the narrowest of margins to set up their own assembly, Prime Minister Tony Blair's devolution juggernaut slowed down, if only temporarily.

Blair is determined to let the various regions of the United Kingdom decide whether they want to govern themselves. Blair believes decentralizing government is more democratic and will ease Britain's full integration into a united Europe.

Not surprisingly, the Scottish overwhelmingly agreed to home rule on Sept. 11. The Scottish have their own legal and education systems in place and are far more independent-minded than the Welsh. The referendum here, in which the pro-assembly forces won by less than 1 percent of the vote, showed that the desire for regional government is, in fact, very regional. The turnout, at just 50 percent, also showed a striking degree of apathy. Only about 1 in 4 eligible Welsh voters approved the assembly.

But, as the English like to say, that's the Welsh for you.

Still, the lukewarm endorsement of devolution here has chastened the government, and could make it more difficult to pass the legislation that sets up a Welsh assembly. Besides continuing the momentum that began in Scotland, a resounding mandate from Wales would probably embolden Britain to seek to become among the first of nations to introduce a single European currency in 1999. Instead, sobered by the results here, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook acknowledged that it was now highly unlikely that the government would seek to be part of the first wave of euro spenders.

But Blair aides insist the narrow win here is still a win, and a good one given that in 1979, the last time the Welsh voted on home rule, 80 percent of the voters said no. Blair's aides vow to press ahead. Next year, London will vote on whether to create a mayoralty similar to those that run big American cities. Opinion polls show there is strong support for a mayor in London.

Other regions in England, which have shown varying degrees of support for local rule, eventually will get the chance to vote for their own governments. And in Northern Ireland, where negotiations on the future are just beginning, it is envisaged that some form of devolution will be put to the voters sometime next year.

The Blair government outlined its vision in a policy statement last July: "The aim is to make government more accessible, open, and accountable. It includes devolution to Scotland and Wales; greater regional government for England and a strategic authority and elected mayor for London (subject to referendums); reforms to both Houses of Parliament; the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law; and a Freedom of Information Act." If all that is implemented, it would fundamentally alter one of the world's most centralized democracies. It would follow the examples set in Spain and France, where the central governments have given up some of their authority so the regions can govern themselves.

Most European countries divide their power between a central government and regional assemblies, much as the United States has a federal government and individual state governments. Such arrangements make it easier for the European Union to build a united region of European states. But the British have resisted this arrangement more than any European nation, being culturally opposed to the idea of divided sovereignty.

The traditional British resistance to devolution remains the battle cry of the Conservatives who were crushed by Blair's Labor Party in May. Conservatives and other Euro-skeptics claim devolution will ultimately lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom. Blair dismisses that logic.

"It's about decentralizing power, not dissolving the UK," Blair said Friday.

Blair can afford to be so adventurous in seeking constitutional change because in May he was handed the largest parliamentary majority in almost two centuries. But the vastly different reactions in Scotland and Wales to the devolution movement show that the appetite for such change varies from region to region. According to Martin Dickson, a political scientist at the University of Strathclyde, consciousness of a regional identity does not translate into a demand for regional government.

As recent polls have suggested, the English region of Tyneside is as enthusiastic about establishing local government as Scotland is, while those living in the English midlands are as ambivalent as the Welsh.

In a 1995 study, Dickson found the desire for local government is not based on the lofty democratic principles articulated by Blair as much as experiences with government and politicians that are peculiar to individual regions.

In effect, Blair is trying to legislate the late House speaker Tip O'Neill's old axiom that "all politics is local." And that is how devolution is being sold to the regions. The government's strategy in both Scotland and Wales was to remind those living there how they were treated less generously than England when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. Many political observers believe the 75 percent majority that voted in favor of a Scottish parliament was boosted by Thatcher's 11th-hour campaigning in Scotland, where she remains a hated figure for cutting budgets. Conservatives appeared to learn their lesson. Thatcher did not show up in Wales last week.

Devolution opponents here considered their best argument against the assembly its annual cost: more than $150 million. The pro-assembly forces quickly pointed out that John Redwood, Thatcher's secretary in Wales, one year returned about the same amount of money to the British exchequer, claiming that Wales didn't need it, at the same time money for schools and hospitals was being slashed.

On Thursday, John Belcher, 21, stood here on Queen Street, handing out pro-devolution fliers bearing the photos of Thatcher, Redwood, and William Hague, the new Conservative leader and one-time successor to Redwood, and the words "Three good reasons to vote yes."

"If not for 18 years of Tories, we wouldn't have a chance," said Belcher.

The Conservatives will continue to protest as John Major did during his doomed campaign against Blair, that Britain is surrendering power to Europe. And, so far, Britons have not shown, nor have they been asked, whether they are prepared to devolve power to Europe.

But as Britons showed in their extraordinary reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Britain has changed utterly and is less beholden to the traditions that have so long defined it.

Among those debating the Welsh referendum was Colin Viner, 50, who has voted Labor his whole life, as have most Welsh, given their dependency on a since-collapsed coal industry. But Viner bitterly opposes devolution. He is in favor of centralized government only because it means fewer politicians, a breed he considers inherently corrupt and vain.

"It should all be done from London," he said. "An assembly here? It's just jobs for the boys."

Such cynicism is common here. And as Tony Blair seeks to steer Britain deeper into a united Europe, it is that cynicism, more than cries about the breakup of the United Kingdom, that may prove his biggest obstacle.

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