No pomp as Welsh Assembly opens

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THE GUESTS wore civvies, not ermine. The monarch was addressed as "Queenie". And no one walked backwards. The restoration of self-government to Wales after nearly 600 years was a determinedly unstuffy affair, as planned.

The Queen formally inaugurated the National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff yesterday in a ceremony designed without any of the pomp of the state opening of its big-sister parliament in Westminster.

The first assembly since the 1405 parliaments of Owain Glyndwr was ushered in with speeches in English and Welsh as its First Secretary, Alun Michael, heralded the beginning of an historic era for the principality.

Of course, asking the Queen to be informal is a bit like asking William Hague to acquire charisma. She always manages to appear as comfortable as a vicar at a disco. When a group of schoolchildren, either through mischief or sheer enthusiasm, began chanting "Queen-ie, Queen-ie, Queen- ie", Her Majesty produced a gritted-teeth smile and looked for all the world as if she had swallowed a fly.

Even if she had not swapped her crown robes for day dress, the Queen would have found it difficult to inject an element of pageantry to her visit to the assembly's temporary home in Cardiff Bay. Possessing all the architectural finesse of an underground car park, Crickhowell House was the backdrop for the Queen's inauguration speech to the 60-member assembly. The new devolved body would act as "a bridge into the future" and represented "a notable moment in our nation's long history", she declared.

The Prince of Wales won polite applause for his stab at an address in Welsh. "To you, the 60 members of this Assembly, falls the honour of being pioneers," he said.

It was left to Alun Michael, the First Secretary, to point out the gap between the grand ambitions of the assembly and the distinct lack of enthusiasm of some of his compatriots. He acknowledged that only 46 per cent of the two million voters took part in the assembly elections and said the low turn-out was a challenge to all its members. "The real test will be whether [the assembly] improves the quality of life for the people of Wales. That is how we should be judged. That should be our motivation," he said.

The day's events began with a thanksgiving service at Llandaff Cathedral. Unlike the assembly, the service was avowedly multi-cultural. More than 300 guests then attended an all-Welsh lunch at the National Museum. .

Large crowds greeted the royal party as it wound through Cardiff's streets in an open-top horse-drawn carriage. As the procession made its way to the revitalised Cardiff Bay area, the Duke of Edinburgh glanced quizzically at one of Cardiff's many advertisements for its local beer. "It's Brains You Want", the sign declared.

Such a republican flourish would have warmed the cockles of the Manic Street Preachers, the Welsh rock band who refused to perform at last night's royal concert at Cardiff Bay. Without the Manics, Catatonia or Stereophonics - groups that represent the recent rebirth of the Welsh arts scene - it was hard to see how the concert could represent the new Wales that yesterday was meant to herald. In what appeared to be more a Seventies/Eighties throwback rather than Mr Michael's "bridge to the millennium", up to 20,000 people were expected to hear Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Shakin' Stevens and Bonnie Tyler belt out their greatest hits.

Undeterred, or perhaps spurred by such a gathering of "the best of Welsh talent", Tony Blair was hoping to make it to the gig following Prime Minister's Question Time in the Commons. He was not expected to take his guitar.

Jan Morris,

Review, page 5