John Osmond reports on a movement’s frustration with their ‘David and Goliath’ struggle
The one emotion that connects all the campaigners on the No side in the referendum on further powers for the National Assembly is anger. The No campaigners are very cross indeed. What are they cross about?
The short answer is a great deal. The longer answer is that they are cross about a lot of relatively superficial things but also about one big thing.
The first thing they are cross about is the way the referendum is being organised. A poster on the door of the bar of the Scala Arts Centre in Prestatyn, where the north Wales No Campaign was launched on Friday evening, declared that in a “true democracy”:
“…a referendum would be called immediately and not just when one side thinks it can win.
“The question would be fair to both sides of the debate.”
No campaigners accuse the Yes side of secretly looking for a low turn-out which, the polls say, would favour a Yes result. They are extremely frustrated. “People don’t have a clue what’s going on,” said one member of the audience at Friday’s meeting. Another said, “A lot of people aren’t even aware that a referendum is happening.” The implication was that if they were properly informed they would see sense and support the No side.
But there was frustration, too, that the Yes side seems to have the best arguments. Another contributor to the discussion on Friday said, “How can you counter the argument they put that people in Wales should have the right to decide the laws that are made for Wales? Put that way it sounds like common sense.”
The No campaigners are very angry about politics and politicians. “Stop the gravy train now” urges their leaflet which says that a Yes vote would result in
- More WAG power
- More costly politicians
- More trappings of government
The No campaigners are angry that no politician in Cardiff Bay is prepared to support their cause. They ask, “Can you imagine any other democratically elected institution where 100 per cent of its membership are in favour of just one side in an argument?” The answer they make is that there is some kind of conspiracy amongst the political élite in the ‘Cardiff Bay bubble’ to undermine democracy.
Conservative party No campaigners are especially angry that their members in the Assembly are not representing their views. A few weeks ago, at the south Wales launch of the campaign in Newbridge Rugby club, I asked one prominent west Wales Conservative Henry Lloyd Davies why this was so. He answered bitterly, “Because they’re on the gravy train. They’ve got their noses in the trough.”
At the north Wales meeting John Broughton, the Conservative Agent in Clwyd South declared, “The audiences at the Yes Campaign’s events are on the Assembly payroll. The Yes campaign are mobilising the payroll vote.”
The No campaigners are cross because they feel they’re not getting a fair shout in the press and media. “This is a David and Goliath battle,” said one contributor to Friday’s discussion. “The Yes side have all the party machines behind them and the press is on their side. The campaign is completely one-sided. Our biggest problem is the local press. Is there any way to counter this bias?”
This last question was underlined by the fact that at their north Wales launch in Prestatyn, apart from myself and a BBC television crew that was making a documentary for transmission after the referendum vote, no media was present. The absence of the Daily Post was especially disappointing for the No campaigners.
Another speaker, Matt Wright, the Conservative’s Assembly candidate in Delyn, constantly referred to a Cardiff political élite that was determined to ensure that in any argument or decision “north Wales gets the bad side of the deal”.
And he added, “Our natural position in north Wales is to work in a sub-regional way with the neighbouring country. The Assembly is drifting us away from that.”
That comment gave the clue to the big and real underlying reason why the No campaigners are so cross. They see the Assembly and all its works as a threat to their identity. The coming of the Assembly has undoubtedly strengthened the way Welsh people feel about Wales and their relationship with it. Put simply, these days most people in Wales feel more Welsh and rather like the feeling. That’s why they’re so relaxed about the present debate and why if many are unlikely to cast a vote in the referendum they certainly wouldn’t vote No.
But the No campaigners see the Assembly and all its works as a threat to who they think they are and the way they would like to see Britain organised. They blame the politicians for every conceivable ill. On Friday one leading True Wales supporter even blamed the Assembly for the pot holes that are littering Welsh roads in the wake of the pre-Christmas cold snap.
A fascinating dimension about the Welsh identity debate that is at the core of the present campaign is that it is taking place almost entirely within the ranks of the Conservative Party. Despite the presence of Labour’s Rachel Banner as a leading spokesperson for True Wales she is an isolated figure in party terms. In the meetings I’ve been to she’s been flanked by Conservatives. This identity debate has been held and largely resolved within Labour’s ranks. The crucial decision was to enter into a coalition with Plaid Cymru. In Wales Labour is now Welsh Labour.
One consequence of the present referendum debate is that at the end of it Conservatives in Wales will become more emphatically Welsh Conservatives. No doubt this outcome will make the No campaigners even more cross. They’re welcome to vent their anger in the comment section below.