An assembly for Wales? It's the 'Whys' that have it on Why

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THE MOST revealing statistic floating about Wales lately is that around 35 per cent of us are "Don't knows". Don't know what? you ask.

Well, I'm not really sure because the figure seemed to be made up partly of people who are uncertain about how to vote in the devolution debate and partly of people who didn't even know that a vote was pending until the publicity began to penetrate over the last few days.

While a proportion of the principality is shuffling, with various degrees of hesitancy, into the "yes" or "no" lobbies, the great rump of this small but passionate populace is still wrestling with the fact that we must make a momentous decision in 19 days' time on whether or not we should have a Welsh Assembly.

As the reality of this break-neck timetable sinks in, the predominant reaction is not "yes" or "no"; it is "why?" For now, the whys? have it.

This must not be taken as an indication that the Welsh are complacent about matters concerning their future as a country with a strong political identity. But you have to remember that, as a subject for debate, devolution for Wales has rested dormant since it was defeated in the referendum of 1979. Its promotion as the hottest issue in the land has been sudden; bewilderingly so for many.

A referendum is usually held in answer to public clamour for a voice on a topic of long-burning importance such as hanging, or entry into Europe or opening the pubs on Sunday (the Welsh got stuck into that one with deep-rooted feeling on both sides). The question of a Welsh Assembly is undoubtedly important but it is not a question that has dwelt long on the lips recently.

Where are the banners, the sit-ins, the marches, the petitions, the protesters chained to the Welsh Office railings? Normally, it takes years of overwhelming manifestations of popular opinion to prod politicians into action. On this occasion, the politicians are doing the prodding, and very aggressively so.

Five months ago, an Assembly wasn't on the agenda and now it is the most vital aspect of our lives. It is true that an attempt to create a measure of devolution for Scotland and Wales was promised in Labour's election manifesto but so were many other matters that could be regarded as far more urgent but which have yet to take any legislative shape. Besides, devolution was to be subject to the wishes of the populations concerned and it's not quite like that.

The Government was given a mandate to ask, not to demand, and it is using the referenda to impose its policy rather than impartially seek the will of the majority. Our leaders have the right to put forward their own views as a guide but the first intimation that the Government was not exactly embarked on a voyage of discovery came when the Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, was accused of uttering dark threats against Llew Smith, one of his fellow Welsh Labour MPs, and an outspoken devolution dissenter.

The incident provoked a debate that was more concerned with the merits of bullying than assembling; and the heavy hand has been unashamedly to the fore since. Inevitably, Peter Mandelson appeared in south Wales to authenticate the menace and was pictured at a fairground holding a "yes" poster while negotiating the helter-skelter. It was a fitting symbol; a venture completed in alarming haste with the danger of an uncomfortable bump at the end.

Apart from the fact that the Government has been attempting to familiarise the nation with the devolution debate during high summer when communication is at its most difficult, it wasn't until Thursday that a leaflet summarising the Government's proposals for a Welsh assembly in layman's language dropped through the first letter box. That was precisely three weeks before the vote is taken - on 18 September. The last of the 1.2 million leaflets won't be delivered until later this week.

Entitled "A Voice for Wales" - we thought Bryn Terfel had been providing that well enough - the bilingual publication has the same title in Welsh, "Llais dros Gymru", on the reverse. That's two voices for a start, but don't let's get involved with the language issue. My point is not to argue for or against devolution but to stress that any outcome obtained under this coercion will not be the result of careful and unhurried consideration. I live near Cardiff and have just returned from two weeks' holiday in west Wales. I've made a point of seeking the views of everyone I meet. Most haven't begun to think about the decision.

Wales is a Labour stronghold so there will be few upset to see an end to being ruled by an English Secretary of State from the ranks of high Tories, particularly one using the place as a stepping stone. We won't be unhappy, either, at the end of the Conservative-dominated quangos. But it would be far quicker and less costly for Labour to kick out the Tory placemen and put in their own. What might be really progressive would be to pick the best men and women, regardless of their politics. Some chance of that.

The candidates for the 60 Assembly seats would be selected by party caucuses before they are presented for election, so what will this be rather than a glorified quango? Furthermore, such a gathering could highlight our differences instead of settling them. We might find we've got more divisions simmering under the surface than old Yugoslavia

Indeed, the most pressing problem faced by Wales is to become one nation, and a more tangible contribution to that aim would be to improve road links between north and south. The A470 that snakes from Cardiff's City Hall to the promenade at Llandudno is a lovely thoroughfare for a gentle meander but useless as a main artery capable of pumping life in both directions.

There are those who suggest that the only reason we are being railroaded into this decision is that Scottish devolution is the real target but that they could hardly leave out Wales. The fact that the Welsh Assembly will be a pale and toothless imitation of the tartan version is taken as proof of this. Others see it as just another stage in England's historic crusade against Wales. King Offa's Dyke failed to pen us in as did King Edward's chain of mighty castles. King Henry VIII's Act of Union damaged but did not destroy. Now they are luring us into the trap of talking ourselves to death.

It is a poor reward for driving out every Tory MP from Wales on the promise of a fairer deal that before a nurse can plump up the pillows on one new hospital bed in Wales, we're getting ready to upholster 60 new leather chairs to support yet another elected layer of talking bottoms.

The only answer is to vote "no" merely to buy time. If we hold back we might get more meaningful independence in any subsequent package they try to tempt us with. And they may take more care with the propaganda next time, particularly when they try to bring sport into the argument. The Welsh probably derive a bigger sense of identity from sport than they do from anything else. But it may not be an identity we always welcome, and those who cite our sporting differences as a reason for separating ourselves further might care to reflect that by far the most successful of all our teams this year were the British Lions, to which all the British Isles contributed, and which cheered us all in equal measure.