In the line of fire: The MP who likes to say `No'

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It's just as well that Llew Smith, Labour MP for Blaenau Gwent, and arch opponent of Welsh devolution, is inured to criticism. He needs to be.

"I was called a Trot, a member of Militant, a Tory and a traitor to Wales," he said stoically, after the "Yes" and "No" contingents clashed during a public meeting at the Pontypridd Historical and Cultural Centre.

One of a series organised by the Cardiff-based South Wales Echo newspaper, it was intended to enlighten. But more heat than light was generated as Mr Smith and barrister Tim Williams confronted Professor Hywel Francis, convenor of the "Yes" campaign, and Mike German, the Liberal Democrats' devolution supremo in Wales.

"No" baseball caps and T-shirts were much in evidence among the 100- strong audience, but Mr Smith quickly got into his stride. "Anyone who opposes an assembly is labelled a Tory stooge," he averred, drawing shouts of "stop moaning" and "get on with it" from the floor. He pressed on regardless. People were being asked to vote blind in the 18 September referendum, the MP claimed.

"Even Peter Mandelson doesn't know what will be in the assembly Bill. The referendum should be held after it is published and given time for a proper debate", he said.

This proved too much for Tony Carter, a retired official with the public services union Unison, and a Plaid Cymru member. Stabbing the air with his finger, he roared; " You're a Militant and a Trot". Inevitably, there was uproar.

Mel Cook, the Echo's deputy editor, who was gamely chairing the meeting, succeeded in restoring order, and Mr Smith continued. "The assembly is not about regionalism. It's about nationalism. And if you want to get rid of the quangos, you don't need an assembly - all you need is to pass legislation in parliament."

Tim Williams who in the 1980's was Plaid Cymru parliamentary aide wound up half the audience with his warning that a " yes" vote would lead to self government. "The only way to stop this is to vote `No'," he recommended.

Although South Wales is now as green as a Richard Llewellyn valley, its radical past refuses to lie down. Professor Francis's father, Dai Francis, was general secretary of the South Wales National Union of Mineworkers from 1963 to 1976, when miners wielded real power in the land.

"The cost of saying `No' just isn't acceptable. This is not about dividing Wales or about nationalism whatever that may be. It's about giving Wales a fresh democratic mandate," he said.

The question of cost exercised many minds. "How much? Just 10p per person per week for everyone in Wales," said Mike German, who described himself as a "unilateral political disarmer".

Peter Law, a Blaenau Gwent councillor, reminded Mr Smith that his constituency Labour Party and local authority both backed the proposed assembly.

Carys Pugh, a veteran Labour activist from the Rhondda, induced one particularly talkative speaker to desist with a stentorian "shut-up". Momentarily you could have heard the rustle of a ballot paper.

As the meeting dispersed, a woman in a yellow dress, who declined to give her name, declared angrily: "That Rhondda rabble!" Where do you live, she was asked. "I live in Ponty," Peeved of Pontypridd snapped. A few miles can become the Grand Canyon when passions are inflamed.

Near the hall, an 18th-century bridge spanning the River Taff is covered in scaffolding. Repairs are underway. But more structural work may have to be put out to tender soon, to heal the divisions which the devolution debate seems to have created.

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