Apathy in the valleys

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The Independent Online
It Is hard to believe the referendum campaign in Wales has only four days to run. There have been no scandals, hardly any rows, and precious little activity on the streets. Devolution and a Welsh Assembly are not what people are talking about in the pubs and clubs of the valleys.

Wales, which resoundingly rejected the prospect of devolution two decades ago, is in the grip of an overwhelming apathy. "There is no evidence of a campaign. A lot of people are hardly aware of the date. There is an extraordinary lack of interest, knowledge and enthusiasm in Wales," says Lord Crickhowell, who as Nicholas Edwards was the last Tory Secretary of State with the legitimacy of a Welsh constituency.

Of course, the Assembly on offer in Wales on Thursday is a much watered- down version of the Scottish parliament, with no tax-raising powers, but there are many other reasons why large numbers of "don't knows" have been figuring in opinion polls. "These 'don't knows' partly reflect the confusion of identity in Wales, which is probably more divided than Scotland because of the language, the north- south split, and the industrial-rural split," says Clive Ponting, now a senior lecturer in politics at University of Wales, Swansea.

The Welsh language is no longer a pressing issue, while in the last referendum, it was widely believed to have been important. "Flagging the language issue in 1979 was a huge problem because people in south Wales feared that a Welsh Assembly would become the bastion of a Welsh-language mafia, and they voted against it. This time, the Labour Party has said nothing about the language," says Dr Jonathan Bradbury, lecturer in politics at the University of Wales.

The language is no longer an issue largely because of the enhanced legitimacy given it by the Welsh Language Act, the Welsh Language Board and the inclusion of Welsh in the national curriculum. But the so-called Cardiff crachach - the great and the good who run the institutions in Wales - are still a source of constant suspicion among those living outside the capital. The prospect of more power to the crachach may be spur for some "No" votes.

And there are the incomers, most of whom are English. A quarter of the population - 550,000 people - were born in England. "It will not be the Welsh who defeat devolution, but the English," says John Humphries, former editor of the Western Mail and a strident campaigner for a "Yes" vote.

A poll for HTV, due tomorrow, will show whether the "don't know" figure has changed over the last seven days. "My suspicion is that it will show a big 'don't know' and a low turnout, " says Lord Crickhowell who will be voting "No" himself. "I think the campaign is terribly hard to read. All my instincts tell me that, because of New Labour, Blair, Scotland and so on, the result will probably be a 'Yes', but there are quite a lot of shrewd observers who think it will be 'No'. I suspect it will be a very low poll. I wouldn't be surprised if it was below 50 per cent. In that kind of situation, with one third of the electorate as 'don't knows', anything is possible."

Clive Ponting, who will be voting "Yes", says: "The tangible benefits will be less than in Scotland, but an Assembly is better than the present system. My guess is that there will be a small majority in favour."

The task facing both camps over the next four days is to interest the "don't knows" - who appear to make up one-third of the population. With the Scottish vote over and a "Yes, Yes" vote in the bag, the pro-devolution campaign will become more focussed on Wales. But the campaigners not only have to get at the "don't knows", they also have to persuade the "don't cares". And they come in large numbers too.