Leading Article: Yes or no, Wales is ready for the great debate

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Speak up the noes. The Welsh no vote campaign, launched yesterday, has yet to put forward its substantive arguments, and it may well be that we will find them wanting. But the no campaigners are doing a service for democracy in the Principality merely by existing; and, potentially, they will be enlightening the rest of us, especially those ignorant Englishmen and women who glibly elide Scotland and Wales as a "Celtic fringe" as if geographical peripherality imparted a uniform political consciousness.

Democracy is a process not a result. It works best on the back of disputation and (polite) disagreement. Labour has come to power offering the inhabitants of Wales a chance to decide something fundamental about how they are governed; anything that enhances their understanding and stimulates their appetites for the decision must be good. The participation of the late Sir James Goldsmith in the general election improved that contest by offering voters both the Referendum Party arguments and the chance to vote for its motley candidates (in the event, voters got the chance to see how threadbare the ultras' clothes really were). Likewise the bankrolling of the no campaign in Wales by a wealthy expatriate - Sir Julian Hodge lives in the Channel Islands - is no disability. The idea that, however much is spent, anti- devolution propaganda could, within the next couple of months, sway the people of Wales one way or another is risible when they have had generations, not to mention the 20 years since the last referendum, to form their attitudes.

So what if the noes are being aided and abetted by the Conservatives - this contest will be a stern test for William Hague, whose position, at latest inspection, starts with opposition to the referendum itself, which for a party purportedly in the throes of democratic self-renewal is no position at all. Since one of the devolutionists' strongest cards is the state of Welsh governance after 18 Tory years, the Conservatives have got a lot of explaining to do.

But this is really not a left-right issue, and there is every reason for Labour to strike the shackles off its members in Wales who want a good scrap. A month ago, Labour gave every sign that it wanted to strangle debate - the altercation between devolution dissident Llew Smith and Welsh Secretary Ron Davies was no advertisement for a party of thinking people. Since then, however, there have been signs that Labour has relaxed a little. Clearly it will take courage for Labour backbenchers, let alone junior ministers, to raise their profile. Yet the emollient expression of the official line by Tony Blair on his visit to Wales on Friday conveyed what is surely the essence of Labour's approach: it has constructed the referendum precisely to allow Welsh people an opportunity to deliberate and decide. He has taken to wearing his British unionist beliefs on his sleeve, so who is to say the ultimate Blairite position is not a Welsh no vote?

Now that the no campaign is under way and the Government's White Paper on electoral methods forthcoming, what ought the people of Wales to be debating? The principal question has to be whether there is a deficit in the system of Welsh government, an oppression visited upon the Welsh because they lack a lever of political control. Much has been made of the growth of Wales-wide appointed bodies under highly indirect political control - the talk is of putting these quangos "under" the Assembly. But there is also a good deal of pride in Wales at the performance of the Welsh Development Agency: it has been an investment-getter of a kind people might dearly like to have on Tyneside, in Plymouth and Manchester. The Permanent Secretary of the Welsh Office has, by all accounts, refused glittering job offers in London in order to remain mistress of her Cardiff ship: is that because civil servants there are less or, indeed, more accountable? Lord Tonypandy may be past it, but yesterday there was widespread assent to his proposition that the existing system of Welsh government - Welsh Office and unitary local authorities - works well, is trusted by the populace, and so there is no mechanical reason for change. A no vote could easily be interpreted as an endorsement of Labour domination of the Principality's principal instruments of self-government, the local authorities, even though the councils themselves seem to want an assembly (as long, presumably, as it does not encroach on their own sphere of influence).

But the referendum is going to be as much an exercise in sentiment as a cold appraisal of accountability. Perhaps this boils down to the question of what 18 years of Tory rule have done to Welsh identity and aspiration. There is little doubt that the Tory era appreciably deepened Scottish self-identification and whetted the appetite for political and institutional change there. Welsh experience has been different, despite the Conservatives' failure to find successive secretaries of state who had actually been born in Wales. But why should this surprise us? Welsh national feeling may find satisfactory expression in culture, and national pride requited by official recognition; it is hard to describe official arrangements for Welsh language use, including television, as anything other than generous.

A no campaigner complained yesterday that on the Government's referendum timetable the Scots will get to vote first, and so the Welsh will vote yes on a "me too" basis. But here is another example of the Celtic fringe fallacy; are the Welsh really so weak-minded? No campaigners owe their fellow countrypeople better debate than that. From Abertawe to Wrecsam, the next eight or so weeks ought to be a summer festival of the democratic politics of identity.