FEW people in Wales went to bed early on the night of September 18, 1997. A week before, in Scotland, Tony Blair's Labour government had held a referendum asking voters if they were for or against a Scottish Parliament -- in effect, asking the Scots whether they would prefer to govern themselves for a change. More than 70 percent of them had said yes. But in Wales the referendum vote on devolution -- the movement to decentralize political power within the United Kingdom -- was expected to be a squeaker. Unlike the Scots, who gained a Parliament with legislative powers, the Welsh were being asked to approve a weaker, albeit democratically elected, Assembly that would receive a block grant to administer the principality.
At 3:30 A.M. on September 19, with nineteen of the twenty-two Welsh counties reporting results, the BBC forecast a victory for the campaign against an Assembly, and the first big defeat for New Labour. Then, around 4:00 A.M., the count was received from Carmarthenshire, which had voted heavily in favor of devolution. The final tally came to 559,419 for the Assembly, and 552,698 against, with just over 50 percent of the electorate having bothered to vote. The Welsh had chosen the path toward effective participatory democracy by 6,721 votes.
An old joke about God and the first Welshmen has God saying, "I've got good news and bad news. I'm going to give you soaring mountains with thick green flanks, perfect for grazing sheep; I'll give you beaches and coves and gorse-grown headlands above a plentiful sea; I'll give you rolling hills and valleys beneath which you'll find rich minerals. Your land will be one of the most beautiful on earth."