Nationalist hope rests on turning of political tide

Election Countdown: Plaid Cymru intensifies its focus on devolution for Wales as it launches its campaign for 40 seats
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Plaid Cymru's focus on devolution was intensified yesterday with a vitriolic attack on Labour when the nationalist party launched its campaign at Cardiff Castle.

The party leader, Dafydd Wigley, who sits on a majority of 14,476 in Caernarfon, Gwynedd, was soon on the offensive: "There is a tide of anger running against Labour's devolution proposals. We're not looking to an assembly as an institution just to make us feel better. It must have real power."

Barring the Conservatives, all parties are committed in some degree to the desirability of shifting power from London to Cardiff. But Labour's proposed referendum - and its wording - is crucial to nationalist aspirations.

Mr Wigley wants a four-part referendum - covering the status quo, Labour's plan, an assembly with law-making powers and full self-government within five years. "A 'yes' or 'no' referendum would be a waste of time. When we see what's on offer we will call a special conference to decide our stance," he said. Opponents point out that a four-option ballot paper could lead to an indecisive result.

The party has yet to recruit a force strong enough to break out from its fastness in rural Welsh-speaking Wales. Attempts to make headway in the heavily populated south have failed. The low point of the 1991 Monmouth by-election when Screaming Lord Sutch won 314 votes to Plaid's 277 is unlikely to be repeated, but the outlook is cloudy.

The nationalists won four seats in 1992 against Labour's twenty-seven, the Conservatives' six and the Liberal Democrats' one. A recent survey by National Opinion Polls and HTV put Labour support at 60 per cent, with the Tories on 19 per cent, Plaid on 12 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 7 per cent and others on 2 per cent. Plaid can take some consolation from Wales's 22 council chambers where it has 113 representatives to the Conservatives' 41 - and Labour's 731.

Tory support in Wales seems to be going into free fall. Early evidence of nationalist pick up came at the 1994 Euro elections when the party polled 162, 478 votes to the Tories 138,323. But however good that news was for Plaid, the bad news for the party was that Labour triumphed in all five Euro seats with 530,749 votes.

Mr Wigley remains optimistic: "We are poised to become the main opposition to Labour," he predicted as his troops filed from the castle. But the uneven spread of support remains a stumbling block. Last time round in the eight most urban seats - four in Cardiff and two each in Newport and Swansea - only 8,251 voted for Plaid Cymru. In all, 20 deposits were lost.

Two Plaid seats look safe - Caernarfon and Meirionnydd Nant Conwy. In Ynys Mon, the Conservative candidate was just over 1,000 votes adrift in 1992 and the Liberal Democrats are anxious to retake Ceredigion and Pembroke North which went to Plaid five years ago.

Not everyone in Wales gives devolution the highest priority. The National Health Service, education and the economic plight of the old south Wales mining valleys are high on the agenda. A bitter row over proposals to close hospitals in rural mid-Wales, the continuing unease over the power of quangos which control around pounds 2bn of Wales's annual spend, and the state of cash-starved schools are grabbing headlines west of Offa's Dyke. One of Wales's leading political analysts, Denis Balsom, confirms this. "Devolution is important but I can't help pointing out that the emphasis has something to do with the anti-government feeling," he said.

The nationalists are pledged to fight all 40 Welsh seats - boundary changes have added 2 to the 38 contested in 1992. The party makes its top priority Carmarthen East and Dyenfwr, where boundary revisions will test its mettle.

A Plaid Cymru candidate at Wales' 1995 council elections was yesterday jailed for two months at Merthyr Tydfil Crown Court for falsifying proxy voting applications.

Dilys Lewis, 37, who stood for the nationalists in the Penrhiwceiber ward of the Rhondda Cynon Taff borough council admitted eight charges of making a false instrument and eight charges of using a false instrument.

Passing sentence Judge Gareth Davies said he had decided that Lewis's motives were to improve her chances of success in the election. "You interfered with the electoral process. It is of paramount importance that the process is conducted so that everyone can have confidence in the result," he said. Ms Lewis's attempt to win the seat failed. She collected fewer votes than the other three candidates in a poll which was topped by Labour's Terry Dower who collected 1,114 votes to Lewis's 792.

Lewis's jailing came at an unfortunate time for her party _ Plaid Cymru was yesterday (Tues) launching its general election campaign.

History of Welsh nationalism

Plaid Cymru is firmly rooted in the Welsh language and culture. Today, the ancient tongue is spoken by 500,000 of Wales's 2.6 million people. The party was founded in 1925 largely to challenge the idea of British nationality and to reverse the assimilation of wales by England. Wales briefly sniffed freedom when Owen Glendower held a parliament at Machynlleth in 1404. Plaid hopes for a permanent repeat sometime in the next century.

Nationalism gained notoriety in 1936 when the then Plaid leader, Saunders Lewis, and two colleagues set fire to a Royal Air Force camp on the Lleyn Peninsular in protest at the threat to the Welsh language.

Gwynfor Evans became the first Plaid MP when he won a spectacular by- election at Carmarthen on 14 July 1966.

The party has four MPs - Dafydd Wigley, party president, who holds Caernarfon with a 14,476 majority; Ieuan Wyn Jones; Ynys Mon, with 1,106; Elfyn Llwyd, Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, 4,613 majority; Cynog Dafis, Ceredigion and Pembroke North, 3,193.

Nationalist life peer Lord Elis-Thomas (formerly Dafydd Elis Thomas, MP), a one-time Marxist, sits on the Lords cross-bench and chairs the Welsh Language Board, known as "the quango for the lingo". The party has an ambivalent relationship with the Welsh Language Society to which several leading members belong.

The nationalist cause was not helped by the activities of the clandestine arsonists Meibion Glyndwr (Welsh for Sons of Glendower) in the Eighties when more than 200 holiday homes in Wales were set alight; Plaid explicitly condemns these fire-raisers. Plaid Cymru firmly supports nuclear disarmament.