Welsh assembly a matter of pride and money
By LOUIS J. SALOME, c.1997 Cox News Service, CAERNARFON, Wales

Twenty-eight years ago, the ancient castle in this medieval town quivered with the pageantry of yesteryear when Queen Elizabeth II presented her son, Prince Charles, as the new prince of Wales.

The Welsh couldn’t vote about whether they wanted that ritual, which dates to their conquest by the English in the 14th century. On Thursday (eds: Sept. 18), however, the 2.9 million Welsh will be given the chance to have a greater say in their own affairs when they are asked to decide whether they want to create a 60-member national assembly.

Residents of this heavily nationalistic area in north Wales are expected to throw their weight behind the idea to shift local power from London to Cardiff. They unabashedly express pride in being Welsh. “I think Wales should make its own decisions. It’s Wales, not England,” said Claire Lewis, 20, of Caernarfon, which lies on the northwestern Welsh coast.

Unlike their Scottish brethren, who on Thursday approved a similar referendum to create their own parliament, the Welsh have been more hesitant about this move toward greater autonomy. There is no certainty the Welsh will follow suit and go along with Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plans to introduce a greater degree of decentralized power in Britain. Even supporters of the assembly expect a close overall vote because the more populous south of Wales, which northerners call “Little England,” fear it could be a costly first step toward Welsh independence.

“I think we’re better off as we are. I don’t see that we have much to gain by an assembly,” said Helen Andrews, 48, an appliance store clerk in the southern Welsh city of Swansea. “I think the country’s much stronger as one.”

Wales has long wrestled with maintaining its own separate identity from England, its larger and more powerful neighbor.

Wales and Welsh-English relations have changed dramatically since the defeat of a 1979 referendum that would have created a Welsh assembly.

Welsh nationalism is rising, although the Welsh have been satisfied until now to tout their language and culture without demanding a strong political voice.

“What are the problems between England and Wales? How long have you got?” said a laughing Harry Jones, 60, of Caernarfon. “The English don’t really care. Only tradition and history keep England and Wales together,” the former merchant marine captain said. “I feel certain the votes will go for an assembly. As to whether we’re doing the right thing, I don’t think so. It would be a shame if it broke up the United Kingdom.”

Eighteen years of rule by Britain’s Conservatives, a distinctly minority party in Wales, produced an elaborate web of unelected executive agencies that now dominate Wales. The heavy fisted approach rekindled demands for an elected Welsh assembly.

The Labor Party, which swept back into power nationally in May and holds 34 of Wales’ 40 seats in parliament, is riding a wave of popularity after its overwhelming victory four months ago. Blair promised to decentralize power to Wales, along with Scotland.

Backers of an assembly say a Welsh political voice would counteract England’s economic dominance. An assembly would also attend to neglected aspects of Welsh society and culture, its supporters say.

“Wales is different from England, but we get the same treatment. We need different policies that a Welsh parliament could give us,” said Ceri Roderick, 19, a pharmacy clerk in Dolgellau, 45 miles southeast of Caernarfon.

An assembly would assume education, housing, health, economic development, transportation and other powers now held by the secretary of state for Wales, a minister in the British government. It also would control the $11.5 billion annual budget that goes with those duties.

The engine that really drives those supporting a separate assembly, however, is the urge to elevate Welsh spirit and pride. “A country which is unable or unwilling to assume more control over its own affairs sends out all the wrong signals -- a lack of self-confidence, a lack of ideas and a lack of vision as to where it wants to go in the world,” says the “Yes for Wales” campaign headed Kevin Morgan, a professor at the University of Wales in Cardiff.

Morgan and Phil Cooke, a colleague at the university, say that to vote against an assembly “reinforces the debilitating cultural stereotype of the Welsh, namely that we are incapable of innovation, enterprise, flair and creativity.”

Opponents, lodged in the catchall “Just Say No” campaign that is heavily backed by business interests, argue that an assembly would be too costly and “will lead inevitably to the breakup of the United Kingdom.”

They even warn of a conflict between north and south Wales.

Welsh-English animosities, muted most of the time, occasionally erupt when Welsh nationalists burn down vacation houses owned by the English. The steady migration from England rankles Welsh-speakers in the north but pleases people in the south because they feel an economic boost.

“We would be worse off with our own assembly. We would probably lose money,” said Rhian Moseley, 21, of Caernarfon. “It might help Welsh speakers, but the English come here with industry and they help with jobs.”

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