Welsh waver before the gamble: breaking 600 years of history
By MAUREEN JOHNSON, Associated Press Writer, MACHYNLLETH, Wales

Six centuries ago, a Welsh prince convened Parliament here in an ill-fated rebellion against England. Little has changed since then in this medieval town: Wednesday is still market day, Welsh is still spoken and Wales has never since had a parliament.

It's a long history that many who went to market this Wednesday, the eve of a referendum on whether to have a separate Welsh assembly responsible for some domestic affairs, are chary about changing.

"There'll be no turning back," said hotelier Stephen Isaac. "It's too big a gamble. If it doesn't work, I can't see the English parliament saying scrap it." Beside the gray Methodist chapel in the main street of Machynlleth (pronounced Mak-en-klith), Enid Wynne-Jones has a stall plastered with red-and-green bilingual stickers, "Say Yes For Wales."

Mrs. Wynne-Jones, 57, says the Welsh will go for the assembly, boosted by Scotland's overwhelming vote last week for a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh that will be far more powerful than any Welsh body.

Either way, the Welsh referendum on Thursday, the next key step in Prime Minister Tony Blair's program shaking up the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, appears to be close.

Opinion polls have suggested a narrow endorsement, but indicate perhaps as many as a third of voters remain undecided. Unlike Scotland, independence is not a significant issue here.

Owain Glyndwr's rebellion failed within a few years. His title, Prince of Wales, is still held by the eldest son of the British monarch, reflecting centuries of close ties with England, cemented with two formal Acts of Union in the 16th century.

Even Wales' independence-seeking nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, implicitly acknowledges that a 60-member Welsh Assembly, with no power to make laws or raise taxes, is about the limit of separation the 2.2 million Welsh voters might accept right now.

"I don't think Wales can live on its own, we're so connected to England," said Tegwyn Griffiths, curator of the Owain Glyndwr cultural center located in Parliament House, the low, medieval building near where the prince's parliament briefly met.

Griffiths, 67, wears a "Yes" sticker with reservations. "I'd like a trial run," he says.

Around the market stalls in this small northern town set among the green hills of the Dovey Valley, people are quick to point out the assembly would be in Cardiff, 150 miles south of Machynlleth.

That's a lot further away than the English border is from most of Wales, which juts out from western England. Machynlleth is just 30 miles from the border. In a 1979 referendum, the Welsh voted 4-1 against having an assembly.

Isaac fears sentiment has changed greatly since. "In the pub most of the talk seems to be about voting yes," he said.

His antipathy is colored by having lived in Canada. "I saw what happened with the French Canadians, when Quebec went separatist, Americans and Canadians stopped coming. The same will happen here, we'll lose investment."

Muriel Jones, a farmer's wife from the village of Commins Coch, nine miles away, is still trying to figure out why the Labor Party government in London wants to give Wales an assembly.

"Then I thought, why not, it's time Wales had a say," Mrs. Jones said.

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