Yes lobby battles to win Welsh sceptics

September 12, 1997

OUTSIDE the principality itself, there is a distinct danger that next week's Welsh referendum will be seen merely as a tailpiece to yesterday's Scottish poll.

That order of precedence and perception is supported by the tone of the white papers issued in support of the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, suggests Jonathan Bradbury, a politics lecturer at the University of Wales, Swansea and author of the book, British Regionalism and Devolution, published this month.

"There is a sharp contrast between the self-confidence of the Scottish document and the rather wary tone of the Welsh one. The Scottish document shows no need to labour the point of what is being offered or to reassert the case for devolution. It assumes that people understand the issue and itemises what is on offer.

"The Welsh one goes into great detail, assumes that voters will be sceptical about the potential benefits, and explains them in a rather utilitarian manner. There is a complete absence of any sense of the politics of identity," he says.

There are good reasons for this wariness, not least the resounding rejection of devolution by the Welsh electorate in 1979. Dr Bradbury points out: "Identity issues were very important then. Voters in the North feared domination by the South, while those in the South were afraid that the assembly would become a vehicle for Welsh-speaking nationalists."

And this week's poll showing the two sides neck and neck suggests that this year's plans might also fall before the electorate, again postponing what Ken Morgan - former vice chancellor of the University of Wales and arguably the most distinguished historian of modern Wales - points to as a significant moment in national history.

"For the first time in our history, there will be an elected body devoted to Wales as a whole."

So how will that body function? The silencing of sceptics among the Welsh Labour MPs - in marked contrast to 1979 when Neil Kinnock helped torpedo the Callaghan government's plans - and the subsequent flatness of a debate in which Welsh Secretary Ron Davies appears to have been left to fend for himself by Cabinet colleagues, has shown how dominant Labour is in Welsh, particularly southern Welsh, politics.

The fear that the assembly might rapidly resemble one of the single-party councils particularly characteristic of the former coalfields - "Glamorgan County Council on stilts" in Jeremy Thorpe's memorable term - is one that the "Yes" campaigners are having to still among the sceptics.

Kevin Morgan, professor of European regional development at the University of Wales, Cardiff, and chairman of the "Yes" campaign, believes that fear of research priorities being dictated by valleys councillors was one reason for the partial exemption of higher education from assembly control.

The experience of other political systems with federal layers suggests that ambitious councillors are likely to see a seat in Cardiff as a step up from the borough council, possibly on the way to Westminster. But the electoral system, mixing first past the post for 40 members with 20 "additional" members elected proportionately from party lists, should prevent a Labour monopoly.

An ICM poll commissioned by the constitutional reform pressure group Democratic Audit predicted there would be some splitting of votes, with electors choosing one party in their constituency and another from the list system, and pointed to a final line-up of Labour 35, Conservative ten, Plaid Cymru eight, Liberal Democrat seven.

These figures, it should be remembered, were based on polling this summer, with Labour's fortunes at a historic peak. It is far from certain that they will be as popular by May 1999, when the first assembly elections are scheduled.

Kevin Morgan finds it hard to imagine any party other than Labour being the largest "unless you are talking in geological rather than political time".

But he adds: "If they are being imaginative, and taking the idea of inclusiveness seriously, it is possible to imagine the assembly choosing a Liberal Democrat or Plaid leader from time to time."

He is not expecting such an outcome, but points to Welsh precedents for such an arrangement - most frequently in those much-maligned valleys boroughs.

The ICM pollsters predict that assembly and Westminster voting patterns will diverge, with Plaid gaining ground at the expense of the Conservatives.

"For most of this century the Conservative party understood unionism very well - rather better than Labour did - and realised that there had to be some concessions to national identity and special provision for Wales and Scotland. Thatcherism lost the plot and tried to impose its will from the centre. One consequence of that is that they have no MPs and very few councillors in Wales. If they can find a way back to that older approach, the assembly might help them re-establish a worthwhile presence in Wales."

Will Wales think it all worth it ? Kevin Morgan believes that the decisive factor will be the calibre of the people attracted into membership. He says the Nolan principles on openness and accountability, including the treatment of serious breaches as a criminal offence, have been enshrined in the assembly's procedures.

Dr Bradbury notes that the absence of tax-raising and primary legislative powers limits the potential for controversy around the assembly. "The key elements will be administrative." Further and higher education will have a role, but he suspects that economic development will be the key.

"The Welsh Development Agency has had serious problems, including scandals, but its record in matters like encouraging inward investment hasn't been bad. The new super-WDA incorporating rural development will have to show, not least to the rural areas which will regard it with distrust, that it can bring about faster indigenous economic growth."

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