If it feels like a long time ago, that’s because it is. Twenty years ago today, 10 February 1997, we launched the Yes for Wales campaign in Cardiff City Hall.
Some felt it was a risk launching before the General Election. The Wales Labour Party, as it was called then, wasn’t overly happy with our choice of timing. The other pro-devolution parties, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats, were understandably twitchy about Labour’s specific proposals. The long-standing Parliament for Wales Campaign, which had carried the banner for devolution from the late eighties onwards, was a little sniffy about our emergence, publicly saying it wasn’t committed to campaigning for a yes vote in any referendum that might take place.
Meanwhile, for the Conservatives, a junior Welsh Office Minister was wheeled out to denounce us as a collection of ‘has-beens and never-weres’. I’ve forgotten his name. By the end of the week, John Major, attacking Tony Blair at the Welsh Conservative Party’s annual conference, warned that ‘a thousand days of Labour Government could ditch a thousand years of British history.’
Some of us had been discussing the need for a cross-party campaign since the previous summer. By now, we had raised initial funds, with backing from the Rowntree Trust, and our organizer, Daran Hill, was in post. We had developed some initial campaign materials and a logo. We had prepared the ground with the press over the previous weeks, launching a pro-devolution business grouping led by TV executives Ron Jones and the late Geraint Stanley Jones, and David Waterstone, former chief executive of the WDA. Our launch was pre-figured by an article setting out our aims in the name of Cardiff University’s Professor Kevin Morgan. Our message, clearly and firmly spelt out, was that ‘devolution is too important to be left to the politicians.’ Our focus was the principle of Wales having a democratically-elected Assembly. The detail was for others to negotiate.
Kevin fronted the launch with Eluned Morgan, then an MEP, and the broadcaster Mavis Nicholson. Daran and others had rung round to gather celebrity names, who included, by the time we launched, sports personalities like the late Ray Gravell, theatrical stars like Sian Phillips, and the rock-band Catatonia, whose first album Way Beyond Blue, was playing in the background as we welcomed journalists to the launch. Eluned Morgan later recalled that Cerys Matthews had been particularly enthusiastic to be associated with the campaign.
In 1997, we were really campaigning in analogue. In fact, the Yes for Wales campaign was arguably the last political campaign before the digital age. There was no social media when we launched the campaign. We were ten years away from the smartphone and Facebook and Twitter were almost a decade away also. There were no blogs and little online media. Our web-site, launched in mid-March as part of our communication and fundraising effort, felt as modern as it got. We had a mailing list of 1500 and around 2000 other people were reached through third sector organisations. We had a steering committee of individuals with connections into campaigning organisations, Mari James, David Jenkins from the Wales TUC, the late Val Feld, briefly to be an AM, from the women’s movement, a Plaid member in Eleri Carrog, Russell Deacon from the Liberal Democrats, Professor Hywel Francis, the Rev. Aled Edwards and his merry band of Yes Ministers.
But almost as soon as we had launched, we needed to submerge. The General Election campaign was upon us, and as a cross-party campaign, we needed to keep out of party politics. Instead, a lot of planning went on behind the scenes. We sprang back to life after the May election, and put in place our planning for the campaign that was to come, with Kevin Morgan taking the public role of chair of the campaign. By mid-May the Referendum Bill was launched and our first local group was up and running. July saw the publication of the White Paper, and a Yes for Wales national conference. The date was set for the referendum, a week after Scotland’s vote. August, unusually, was to be a campaigning month.
The pro-devolution parties campaigned and local Yes for Wales groups were out and about taking the message across Wales. While a No campaign was now up and running, featuring many Conservatives like Nick Bourne, David Melding, David Davies and Alun Cairns, who subsequently all went on to serve in the Assembly, things felt good. The private polling was surprisingly strong: Peter Hain and others campaigning across Wales reported back that things seemed to be moving well ahead. Then we had the terrible tragedy of the death of Princess Diana in Paris and all campaigning was suspended. Leading campaigners felt that had an impact on the campaign which went beyond a more loss of momentum. ‘It was like cloaking you in a uniform, we were all in the British army under Diana, as it were,’ Rhodri Morgan subsequently said to me. Dafydd Elis-Thomas recalled ‘I think it froze the whole debate, the opportunity of taking the debate on’. A Guardian opinion poll subsequently shook us all – then Scotland voted yes, overwhelmingly.
The final week of campaigning left us with great expectations. Then, on the night, as the votes slowly came in, optimism turned to pessimism, pessimism to misery, then misery to astonishment – and astonishment, eventually, to exuberance, as Carmarthen finally declared. Eluned Morgan remembered ‘The whole atmosphere changed within seconds. It was a moment of going from absolute loss to absolute joy.’ I was hosting the Yes for Wales campaign party at the Park Hotel in Cardiff through the night: others were across the city at the official count. We united as dawn broke for the only 6 a.m. press conference I have ever held in my career, with Ron Davies, then Secretary of State for Wales, sipping a pint at the back of the room. About that time, copies of the Western Mail, with the headline Wales Says Yes, started to arrive.
When you win a national campaign by less than seven thousand votes it makes every last leaflet, every last foot-step, every last door knocked, worthwhile. With that size of majority, you can genuinely believe that a campaign has made a difference.
In May, our National Assembly and our Welsh Government will reach the age of majority. Their twenty-year anniversaries will be celebrated in 2019. This year, in September, let us celebrate the vote for their foundation: after all, the National Assembly for Wales is the only political institution the people of Wales have ever voted to create.