Welsh narrowly approve assembly; government spared defeat
By MAUREEN JOHNSON, Associated Press Writer, CARDIFF, Wales (AP)

Supporters of Prime Minister Tony Blair's proposal for a Welsh assembly snatched victory Friday morning in a tightly contested referendum, giving Wales a form of self-government for the first time in six centuries of English domination.

The proposed assembly trailed in the vote tally until Carmarthenshire, the last of 22 districts to report, returned a resounding "yes" vote. The proposal squeaked through with 50.3 percent of the vote, but the result was clouded by a turnout of only about 50 percent.

"I am very pleased that the people of Wales have said yes," Blair said.

The outcome follows a similar ballot in Scotland last week, where voters opted for creating an independent parliament and embarking on a path of home rule that will stretch their 290-year-old ties to neighboring England.

"We were elected on a pledge to modernize our constitution and, thanks to the people of Wales and Scotland, we have taken two big steps along that road," Blair said.

A "no" vote in Wales would have been the first big setback for Blair since he ousted the Conservative Party government in a landslide election victory May 1 and began a promised constitutional shake-up of Britain.

The Conservative Party, battered in the general election, took heart from the vote.

"It is not an endorsement whatsoever of that major constitutional change. They should think very carefully indeed," said lawmaker Nigel Evans, the Conservatives' spokesman on Wales.

A week earlier, Scottish voters gave Blair a big victory by producing big majorities for a separate parliament with far greater powers than were offered to Wales.

The 60-member Welsh Assembly, to open in 2000 in Cardiff, would be limited to handling annual grants from the Treasury in London for health, education and transport. Unlike the Scottish Parliament, it would have no law-making or tax-raising powers.

Blair's government hoped that a combination of Scotland's decisive vote and traditional Welsh loyalty to the governing Labor Party would swing doubters. The lesser powers on offer was partially a reflection of the fact that ever since a 1404 rebellion crumbled along with the last Parliament, the Welsh have recognized the English crown. Acts of Union in the 16th century integrated the legal and educational systems, unlike the Scots who kept their own. Tensions over the Welsh language also encouraged ambivalence.

At a glance, Wales looks like a bilingual country, with everything in both languages, from rural road signs to "Croeso" or "Welcome" billboards for tourists. But only 20 percent of the population can speak Welsh, and most are in north Wales, 100 miles or more from the populous south, which includes the capital, Cardiff. Each region is suspicious of the other.

"I voted no because I don't like the Welsh language," retired Cardiff builder Jack Thomas, 65, said Thursday.

"Look at that, hardly anyone can read it," he added, pointing to "Gorsaf Bleidleisio," above the words "Polling Station" in English.

However, newspapers, academics, and all the major political parties, except the Conservatives, urged a yes vote.

Blair warned Wales that this was its "last chance" for a generation.

He sees separate Scots and Welsh assemblies, a promised elected mayor for London, and possible regional assemblies in other parts of England, as making Britain modern by decentralizing power.

The program also helped blunt votes at the May election for independence-seeking nationalists, Labor's main political rival in Scotland.

Like the Scots nationalists, Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, supported the Cardiff assembly in the hope it would lead to eventual independence. In a 1979 referendum, the Welsh voted against a regional assembly by a 4-1 margin. Scotland voted yes but it fell short of a minimum target set for that vote.

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