Chapter 30


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The Referendum of 1997

The man and woman in the street also had questions: would the setting up of the Assembly lead to the break up of the U.K.? Would the Assembly force everyone living in Wales to learn the Welsh language? Would the Assembly be yet another gang of politicians to feed at the public trough? Would it be dominated by the Anglicized, eastward-gazing professional politicians from Cardiff, and so on. Such questions reflected not only the very basic fears of those who primarily wished not bothered by the political machinations of those in Westminster, but also the enormous propaganda campaign waged by those who preferred the status quo. Indeed by those who wished for an even tighter grip over the affairs of the Welsh people.

It was sad to experience so much fear on the one hand, and indifference, on the other. It was especially sad to see such a lack of political knowledge among the voting population at large. For many Americans, who have much more input into what goes on in the seats of power at the state level, the apathy of much of the Welsh constituted a source of genuine amazement as well as a serious concern at what generations of whitewashing can accomplish in an otherwise worldly, intelligent people.

Not enough Welsh people, it seemed, were aware of the basic aims of Plaid Cymru, to wit:
To secure self-government for Wales and a democratic Welsh state, based on socialist principles. To safeguard the culture, language, traditions, environment and economic life of Wales through decentralist socialist policies. To secure for Wales the right to become a member of the United Nations Organization.
Perhaps the word "socialist" scared away many that would otherwise agree with most of these aims. Even the Labour Party's overwhelming victory in the 1997 General Election had come about because of it move the center and its abandonment of so many of the old socialist platitudes and worn-out slogans about the need to nationalize industry, etc.

Thus, it was all the more heartening that the trade unions in Wales united in urging their members to vote for the proposed Assembly. They blamed the results of 1979 vote on the fall of the Labour government and the seizing of power by the Tories, with the resulting loss of "hundreds of thousands of Welsh jobs." Also affected, stated George Wright, Wales Regional Secretary of the Transport Union, had been public services, especially the National Health Service, which had become semi-privatized, its staff overworked and demoralized as a result of job lost and cutbacks in funding.

Wright stated that a "yes" vote in 1979 would have avoided the trauma of the dreaded poll tax and Wales would not have suffered being governed by a party [Tory} with no majority or support within its own boundaries, which remained remote, and displayed an arrogant disregard for the damage caused by its decisions. Devolution, he argued, offers ordinary people some control and influence over decisions affecting their lives and communities. It is about democratic accountability, where those who take the decisions and spend the money are required to face the people in elections. Devolution, he went on, would give a proper sense of identity to Wales; it would, above all, create a proper sense of Welsh nationhood.

Despite such stirring rhetoric, the majority of the Welsh people failed to stir themselves out of their lethargy. Their struggles had gone on too long: it was as if they were exhausted. They needed a movie such as "Braveheart" that appeared just at the right time in Scotland, and which had done much to remind the Scots of their glorious history and independent spirit. In contrast to Scottish patriot William Wallace, Welsh leader Owain Glyndwr remained a relatively unknown figure, even in Wales.

Undeterred by English propaganda, Scottish voters marked the 700th anniversary of Wallace's famous victory at Stirling Bridge by opting for an historic return of their Parliament to Edinburgh that had been lost in the 1707 union with England. Votes were 74.3 for and 15.7 against (of perhaps more significance, over 63 percent voted in favor of the parliament having taxation powers). The proposed Scottish Assembly was supported by all 32 of Scotland's voting regions.

Wales had to manage without the glamour of a Hollywood movie. Its heroes were the common folk, the men and women whose sense of history and of the value of timeless Welsh traditions finally tipped the scales in favor of the Assembly. A look at the map of the results confirms that the majority of the "yes" votes came from the western, Welsh-speaking areas and from the Welsh-thinking former industrial valleys of the south. The turn out was just over 50 percent, reflecting the general apathy of so many of the eligible voters; thus the plan for the Assembly was approved by only 25 percent of the Welsh electorate.

It was a touch and go affair, and lots of nail biting took place all through the night of the 19th of September until the final result was announced in the wee hours of the morning. A quintessential English newspaper, the Guardian, stated that "the final 'yes' vote was delivered by Carmarthen, the birthplace of Lloyd George." All Welshmen know that the World War I Prime Minister was born in Manchester, of Welsh parents, a long way from Carmarthen. He was raised in Llanystumdwy in Gwynedd, not too far from Caernarfon, and it was typical of the English paper to mix up the two towns. The ignorance of Wales and Welsh history shown by such an influential newspaper should be a cause of shame and embarrassment.

Returning to the role played by Carmarthen to ensure that Wales would have its first ever democratically-elected national body, it was surely just that the county that turned the tide of victory had been the one that had elected Gwynfor Evans as Plaid Cymru's first M.P. in 1966. Gwynfor was now 85 years old; the event, in his own words, was one of the happiest in his life. "In a sense," he stated, "the wheel has come full circle for me. Here in Carmarthenshire there is a tradition of supporting a measure of self-rule."

The old politician, whose threat to embark on a hunger strike had been influential in ensuring the government's decision to support S4C, the Welsh television channel, went on to state: "but it would be wrong to forget the contribution of people elsewhere, like the more than 10,000 in Monmouthshire [Gwent] who voted Yes...this is the difference between the last referendum and now." Gwynfor also pointed out that the vast majority of the Labour Party had been against devolution.

The Welsh Assembly, apart from the opportunity it will give to improve education, health, and so on, the most important consequence will be to give the Welsh people more confidence in themselves. Gwynfor believed that this confidence had been lost for Wales as a people "since we were incorporated with England in the 16th century and have suffered from a sort of inferiority complex." He added, agreeing with Baron Richard of Ammanford, that the Assembly would bring Wales closer to the European Union and would enable [Welsh] people to see themselves as part of an order that is not just nationalist, but internationalist."

Chapter 31: Welsh in the New World
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