By slim margin, Wales endorses separate assembly
By MAUREEN JOHNSON, Associated Press Writer, CARDIFF, Wales (AP)

Welsh voters narrowly endorsed Prime Minister Tony Blair's proposal for a separate regional assembly, with results from a western Welsh-speaking district providing the winning edge today.

The referendum to create Wales' first separate assembly in 600 years salvaged Blair's program for constitutional upheaval of Britain.

The strongly nationalist district of Carmarthenshire was the last of 22 districts to send in its tally from Thursday vote, tipping the "yes" campaign to victory by a margin of fewer than 7,000 votes.

At a Cardiff convention hall, opponents of the proposal stood silent in stunned disbelief as the final results were announced.

Supporters of the "yes" campaign -- who had braced for defeat as results rolled in through the counting process -- shrieked with relief when votes from Carmarthenshire were announced.

They waved Wales' flags, creating a sea of white and green with flashes of the banner's red dragon.

Blair declared himself pleased.

"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," he said in a statement from his Downing Street office in London.

Last week, Scots voted to establish a separate parliament, with nearly 75 percent of voters in favor. Their enthusiasm contrasted with the vote in Wales, which is more closely tied to England: Only half of Wales' 2.2 million eligible voters cast ballots on Thursday.

The opposition Conservative Party, the only major political party opposing the Scottish and Welsh assemblies, said the government should think again, noting that only one-fourth of the electorate had actually voted "yes."

"It is no endorsement whatsoever for major constitutional change," Conservative spokesman Nigel Evans said.

The vote reflected divisions between the north, where the 20 percent of the population that speaks Welsh is concentrated, and the populous south, including Cardiff. In the south, few speak Welsh although it has equal legal status with English.

Districts along the eastern border with England voted heavily "no," and Cardiff, the capital where the new 60-member assembly will open in 2000, also rejected the plan by a majority of 53.7 percent to 46.3 percent.

The government, backed by the thinly supported independence-seeking Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, was saved by endorsements from the Welsh valleys, and much of predominantly Welsh-speaking north Wales.

The final result was 559,419 votes in favor and 552,698 against, or 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent.

The Cardiff assembly, tailored to the limit of separation that the government felt the Welsh would accept, will have far fewer powers than the Scottish Parliament, which will be able to raise taxes and make laws.

The Welsh Assembly will be restricted to administering the annual grants from the Treasury in London for health, education, transport and the arts. Defeat in Wales would have been Blair's first major setback since he ousted the Conservative government in a landslide election victory May 1. It also would have thrown into disarray his "modernization" program for Britain. This includes the Scottish and Welsh assemblies, an elected mayor for London, possible regional assemblies for other parts of England, stripping hereditary peers of voting rights in the unelected upper House of Lords, and a law to guarantee free access to public information.

Despite traditional loyalty to Labor, the Welsh -- integrated with England since 16th century Acts of Union and accepting the authority of the English monarch since a 1404 rebellion -- have deep reservations about change.

Blair had staked his personal authority on getting a "yes" vote, warning the Welsh it could be their last chance to win greater control of their own affairs. In 1979, the Welsh voted 4-1 against a separate assembly. The Scots also rejected the offer then, but more narrowly.

The Conservatives say Blair is risking the breakup of the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and troubled Northern Ireland.

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