Commons takes on Welsh lilt as Hague becomes star of the agricultural show

Devolution for Wales: Government faces first serious backbench rebellion as White Paper is unveiled
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Indy Politics
When Ron Davies, the Secretary of State for Wales, stood up in the Commons yesterday afternoon to unveil the Government's devolution plans, William Hague, the Tory party leader, was in tent at an agricultural show 150 miles away.

As the leader of the Opposition's only Cabinet experience was as Secretary of State for Wales in the Major government, the choice of his old stamping ground on such an historic occasion seemed appropriate.

For most of the day, he was swallowed up in the 40,000 crowd at the Royal Welsh Show at Builth Wells. Mr Hague said: "The White Paper is entitled A Voice For Wales, but it should be A Lost Voice For Wales."

Perspiring slightly in soaring temperatures, he signed an anti-devolution petition launched this week by the "Just Say No" campaign which is backed by Sir Julian Hodge, a millionaire resident in the tax haven of Jersey.

Asked whether people living outside Wales would be encouraged to sign up, Mr Hague replied: "Why not? It's a UK matter." Presumably Channel Island residents are welcome. Not to be outdone, his minder for the day, the former MP, Sebastian Coe, added his signature.

Earlier the Opposition leader toured the show, stopping to admire prize cattle and sampling Welsh wine. He wisely refrained from observing the Royal Welsh pole climbing competition, one of the many fringe events that enliven the show.

Many show-goers preferred to concentrate on the livestock and machinery spread over the showground's broad acres, but the devolution issue sparked some interest.

"The Tories have ruled Wales from London for so long that there is now a ground swell for an elected assembly," said Derek Hills, a retired assistant director of education from Hertfordshire now living in the heart of Wales.

Farmers, traditionally cautious and pragmatic, were weighing the issue as carefully as they weigh their livestock. John Williams, who runs 1,000 sheep at Dyffryn Ardudwy near Barmouth on the Cardigan Bay coast, is content. "I'm happy with the way things are. Cardiff, where the assembly would be, is too far away for us up in North Wales," he said.

A year ago, Eifion Morgan quit farming and today rents out his land and lets holiday accommodation to city dwellers escaping to the peace of the Usk Valley outside Brecon.

"An assembly's got to be good for everyone in Wales. Westminster is too far away to understand our problems and needs," he said. That sentiment was echoed by Meurig Voyle, one of the Welsh farming industry's most colourful characters. A retired Farmers' Union of Wales official, he tours agricultural shows with evangelical zeal.

"Of course, we need an assembly. Farmers can only benefit - I remember that often English farmers got their ministry cheques days and days before we got ours in Wales. An assembly will sort out that sort of thing," he said.

Before entering Parliament at a by-election in 1985, Richard Livsey, Liberal Democrat MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, was himself a farmer. He declared: "The Tories are burying their heads in the sand. They're simply recycling opinions that were roundly rejected in every part of Wales on 1 May."