Yes campaign finds its spark

John Osmond meets Welsh Rugby Union chief executive Roger Lewis to talk about his new role

Yesterday’s announcement that Welsh Rugby Union chief executive Roger Lewis will spearhead the movement for Yes in the 3 March referendum on more powers for the National Assembly gave the campaign its first emotional impetus.

Speaking after a press conference at Barry’s YMCA Hub Centre, the media savvy charismatic figure who links the worlds of Welsh sport, arts and business, said he had accepted the position as chair of the campaign out of a belief in public service. He said he had been approached to take on the role by First Minister Carwyn Jones and Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones in early November.

But he hastened to add that Yes for Wales would be an all-party campaign. Last night he was meeting with all four party leaders at the National Assembly, after winning the backing of Welsh Conservative leader Nick Bourne earlier in the day. “Our message is that a stronger Assembly will give us the confidence we need,” he declared. “If we don’t step up to the plate no one else will. That’s my clarion call.

“This is not a technical matter. Yes for Wales gives us a louder voice in the world. The National Assembly gives us the opportunity to engage with the world beyond Wales. It allows us to grow and to bring huge benefits to the quality of our lives.”

He said it was common sense to give the Assembly the powers it needed to carry out its functions effectively within its areas of competence, but saw it as his role to clarify a simple message that would resonate with the people of Wales. “I’ve spent the whole of my career keeping things simple,” he said. “You have to tell a  story that people can understand.”

Over the past ten years he said the National Assembly and Welsh Government had demonstrated it could deliver for Wales. For example, he described the recent decision not to follow England in raising student loans as “a remarkable piece of creative thinking by the Welsh Government.” At the same time he said that a yes vote in March would raise the bar of responsibility for the National Assembly. “When we give it greater powers we will need to ensure that we put it under greater scrutiny.”

It is clear that Roger Lewis is going to be a leading figure in the campaign, with the politicians taking a back seat by comparison. He said he was hoping to get to every corner of Wales during the next two months leading up to the vote. Asked if he had cleared his role with the Board of the Welsh Rugby Union he said he had informed them at a meeting at the end of last week and they had passed a resolution giving him and the campaign their blessing.

It has not escaped notice that the referendum will take place just as the Six Nations championship will be getting underway in earnest.  The hope must be that a bit of patriotism will allow both campaigns to feed off each other.

Roger Lewis conceded that his new role was in his mind when he penned what has become a famous article for the Western Mail two weeks ago. In it he sounded off against the BBC’s decision to continue showing a tennis match that lasted longer than expected instead of showing the start of the Wales-New Zealand rugby international:

“This judgement call is symptomatic of an increasing marginalisation of Wales by decision makers in London. The voice of Wales, our voice, must be heard. It must be heard in Wales and in the corridors of the decision-makers and opinion formers in London as well as in Cardiff. If we want Wales to win not just in rugby but beyond the field, we will all have to take responsibility. And that means convincing the powers that be, wherever they are, to have confidence in us and our abilities to make the right decisions. To do that, we must have the confidence in ourselves. All of us in Wales, in whatever walk of life, must be prepared to take control of our own destiny.”

Before yesterday’s press conference Roger Lewis visited pupils at Barry junior school which was last year voted one of the leading schools for IT in the country. “This is a great example of what we can achieve,” he said. “Barry voted No in the 1997 referendum but I’m sure we will turn that round this time.”

The Yes Campaign, which will be officially launched on 4 January, received a boost from a Beaufort research poll, published by the Western Mail last Saturday. This showed 60 per cent support for a Yes vote with 28 per cent against. However, the lead was extended signifiantly amongst the 39 per cent who said they were “certain to vote”. Amongst this group 73 per cent said they would Yes, against 23 per cent No and 4 per cent didn’t know.

Asked if this meant the Yes side were looking for a low turn-out in the poll Roger Lewis said emphatically not. “We need as high a turn-out as possible to increase the legitimacy of the result,” he said. “We need to hear both sides of the argument and I am sure the media will play their part in this.”

After a successful career in record publishing and the media in London, where he ended up running Classic FM, Roger Lewis returned to Wales six years ago to become Managing Director of ITV Wales.  He became chief executive of the WRU in 2006.  In the 1980s he worked as a producer at Capital Radio and then became head of Music at Radio 1.

He went on to join EMI records as managing director and then the PolyGram group where he became worldwide president of the Decca record Company. “Through all these years I was determined that eventually I would find my way back to Wales,” Roger Lewis, who was brought up in Cefn Cribwr near Bridgend, said yesterday.

Told that leaders of the True Wales No Campaign had accused him of being symptomatic of the Welsh wealthy celebrity class who were campaigning for a Yes vote and out of touch with ordinary people Roger Lewis laughed. “The people of Cefn Cribwr would regard my celebrity status, such as it is, as a badge of honour,” he said.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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