In Wales: Little England holds the key

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The Independent Online
Although the handle "Little England beyond Wales" still lives on in Pembrokeshire, opposition to devolution may just be on the wane. Even long-standing opponents detect faint signs of change.

For the dream of a Welsh Assembly to become reality, the people of Pembrokeshire will have to turn out in numbers on 18 September and vote "Yes" in the referendum.

In 1979, the rejection by the people of Pembrokeshire was decisive when Wales opposed devolution by 4 to 1. The explanation for that decision lies partly in geography. Pembrokeshire is to Wales as Cornwall is to England: a peninsula which is physically and psychologically semi-detached and somewhat independent-minded.

Ian Bell, chairman of the Pembrokeshire Hotels and Restaurants Association is no lover of the Government's proposals. However, he concedes that views have changed since 1979's four-to-one defeat of devolution proposals: "I reckon today it's 60-40 against an assembly."

His hotel stands on a bluff overlooking Saundersfoot, a tidy resort which received a share of the 70,000 tons of oil which spewed from the stricken Sea Empress at Milford Haven 18 months ago.

Today the beaches have recovered from the disaster which pushed Pembrokeshire into the news and up the political agenda.

Michael Williams, who represents Tenby, the area's premier resort, on Pembrokeshire County Council, believes that bodies like the Milford Haven Port Authority which faces prosecution by the Environment Agency over the accident, could be reined in by an elected body.

"Wales has become a quango-state and there's a growing desire for non- elected bodies being made more accountable."

Nick Ainger, MP for Pembrokeshire South and Carmarthen West, senses the devolution tide rising: "A lot has changed in 18 years. The election campaign down here revealed that many who voted `No' in 1979, are on the move."

"The Callaghan government was exhausted in 1979 after five years in office," Jackie Lawrence, MP for Prescelli Pembroke points out. "Today there is an air of confidence following Labour's victory on 1 May."

She said that there must be a change in the current situation which sees Wales' 1,273 elected councillors being outnumbered by 1,400 quango appointees who are responsible for nearly a third of the annual pounds 7bn Welsh Office budget.

There is still a lot to play for in a county where, thanks to a heavily fretted coastline and tidal rivers, salt water is never more than 10 miles away.

Pembrokeshire County Council is holding fire until next month when it will meet to decide its stance. But earlier this week, acting in a personal capacity, council chair, Peter Stock, launched the Pembrokeshire "No" campaign.

At the launch, two thousand balloons were released over Haverfordwest, each one representing the cost of 10 hip replacements which the anti- devolutionists claim could be paid for with the pounds 117m they say the assembly will cost over a four-year period. Mr Stock said: "We fought hard and successfully for the return of our unitary authority only to be faced now with a proposal for an additional tier of government."

That is a point of view strenuously opposed by his colleague, Thomas Tudor who chairs the county's "Yes" campaign.

The Prime Minister, who concentrated on the industrial south when he visited Wales last month, is expected to cross the Severn Bridge again before 18 September. His Englishness could give the "Yes" campaign a boost in "Little England beyond Wales".