Wrong-footed by the Welsh question

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The Independent Online
"Those opposing devolution are living in a politicalJurassic Park." The words of some wild-eyed nationalist? Left from the script of a Welsh version of Michael Dobbs' The Final Cut? Not a bit of it. The put-down came from Tory peer Viscount St Davids when devolution enthusiasts met earlier this month in Llandrindod Wells to launch the campaign for a "yes" vote in September's referendum for a Welsh assembly.

In Tory-free Wales it takes a bit of courage to stand up in front of an audience of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru supporters even if you're about to break ranks with the party you once whipped for in the House of Lords. But there was nothing synthetic about the standing ovation that rang round the mid-Wales town's Metropol Hotel, owned somewhat ironically by a leading Tory family.

More importantly perhaps, political nous comes into Lord St Davids' conversion. Thoughtful Tories are waking up to the fact that should the assembly come into being their opposition could for ever leave them on the sidelines of politics west of Offa's Dike. The party has no Welsh MPs and only 42 local councillors to Labour's 730. Opposition to devolution could empty the water from a bath already baby-free.

And unless the Tories achieve some representation in a Welsh assembly their long Celtic goodbye will be complete.

But first there's the referendum which is to be held on 18 September - two months after next Tuesday's White Paper comes out.

The line-up is beginning to look a trifle one-sided as opinion polls edge up in favour of a "yes" vote. All political parties except the Tories pushed for devolution in some shape or form in their election manifestos. Ron Davies, the Welsh Secretary, says: "Labour won a huge majority and we have a clear mandate to bring in devolution in the form we pledged." That involves a 60-member body, 40 - one for each Westminster constituency - elected on the first-past-the-post system and 20 by proportional representation with four drawn from party lists in each of Wales's five Euro-constituencies.

If as seems likely Wales votes "yes" it would be inconceivable for the Tories to stand aside in assembly elections. After all, their candidates collected just under 20 per cent of the poll at the general election against Plaid Cymru's 10 per cent. Yet they were wiped out while the nationalists won four seats. A compelling case for PR? That policy is not on William Hague's agenda but the statistics are causing heads to be scratched.

An umbrella "yes" campaign has signed up a cross-section of Welsh society ranging from the Archbishop of Wales, Alwyn Rice Jones and the Archdruid of Wales, Dafydd Rowlands, to the actor Philip Madoc and Tyrone O'Sullivan who led the successful workers' buy-out of Tower colliery, Wales's last deep coal mine. David Jenkins, secretary of the Wales TUC, a clutch of academics and dozens of local councillors are also on board. The pro-devolutionary political parties will also run their own campaigns. Tony Blair has promised to go on the stump in Wales as well as in Scotland.

The Tory party fights for a "no" vote. William Hague has pledged to participate, presumably in company with his party's strongest Welsh card - his bride- to-be Ffion Jenkins, a daughter of the Welsh establishment.

From his tax haven in Jersey the nonagenarian Sir Julian Hodge promises to spend some of his pounds 60m to thwart devolution. He describes himself as a socialist but not a member of the Labour Party. Lord Tonypandy (formerly Mr Speaker George Thomas) is in opposition along with Llew Smith, the left-wing Labour MP for Blaenau Gwent. After his spat with the Welsh Secretary, Smith has been granted the freedom to state his objections. A handful of Old Labour MPs, notably Allan Rogers (Rhondda), Alan Williams (Swansea West) and Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) are less than enthusiastic chiefly because of the PR element.

Opponents point to the debacle of 1979 when Wales rejected devolution by 4-1. Neil Kinnock, who played a prominent part in the "no" campaign 18 years ago, is today a convinced supporter of an assembly which inter alia would bring under its control the quangos responsible for overseeing the expenditure of some pounds 2bn of public money. Back in 1979 the Callaghan government was out on its feet. The gloom swirling around Britain hung heavy over Wales, political smog that on 3 May 18 years ago saw Mrs Thatcher sweep to power. The Tories won 11 Welsh seats and the long devolution rethink began.

Today the situation is markedly different. The Government's honeymoon persists and Tony Blair basks in the sunshine of a huge majority. Wales observes the success of regional government in the European Union. Cardiff would love to be another Barcelona or Stuttgart, a capital city fit for the millennium, although there may a little way to go before it catches up with these examples.

Will an another tier of government be heaped on an already overburdened people? Perhaps not. Last year Wales lost a tier when its eight county councils and 37 district authorities were abolished, and a mere 22 all- purpose bodies arose from the ashes. Twenty-two plus one is less than half of 45.

And how much would an assembly cost? Officially we await the White Paper. But Michael Ancram, the Tories' constitutional affairs chief, who visited Wales earlier this week, put the annual running cost at pounds 15m. The Conservative Jonathan Evans, who lost his Brecon and Radnor seat in May, swiftly corrected him: "No. pounds 30m." It seems you take your choice over the money.

Opinion polls put support for an assembly at 39 per cent with 27 per cent against and 34 per cent undecided. Can the "don't knows" be herded into Jurassic Park? Lord St Davids believes that would be disastrous: "If we do not take this opportunity to govern ourselves we lose the moral right to be considered a nation." If even Tory peers see it this way, can there be much doubt that Wales will be voting yes this year?