On 18 September 1997, the Welsh electorate narrowly voted ‘Yes’ on the question: “Do you agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly as proposed by the Government?” The turnout was 50.1%. The Yes majority was 6,721.
At the time, I was a student in Cardiff and very excited by the prospect of devolution. It was a chance to recognise Welsh nationality and form a different kind of democracy after 18 years of Conservative government. Like the election of Tony Blair earlier in the year, it seemed to offer a new beginning and I took the opportunity to speak to as many people as possible about it.
My overriding memory of the time, however, is the indifference of most people I knew. Some were clearly in the Yes camp, especially if they spoke Welsh and/or supported Plaid Cymru. My friends who had voted Labour a few months before were far less enthusiastic. Indeed, many of those who were English seemed to regard the issue as nothing really to do with them. Some actually stated it should be a decision for those who were Welsh rather than living in Wales.
Even amongst those who were Welsh, there was sometimes a sense that somehow this was a vote on whether Wales’s future should be in the UK. One friend from a Valleys town was distrustful of my arguments because she said I was too “into the Welsh thing”. Others seemed to feel it was too soon after the election of a new government to make such a decision. The Tories had been in power nearly all our lives and some people seemed to want to see how government by New Labour would pan out first. Few such people probably voted ‘No’ but not many voted ‘Yes’ either.
There may have been little enthusiasm but there was also little active hostility. Only one person told me he was voting No because he wanted less government, not more.
Looking back, I can’t remember why I did not get involved in the Yes campaign. Perhaps I did not know how at a time when the internet was in its infancy. I did get a Yes poster from somewhere and put it up in the window. It was the only poster on our street.
Despite my numerous conversations, it never occurred to me that the Yes campaign might not win. Just as during the EU referendum, I was assuming that common sense would win out, despite the conversations I was having with people who thought otherwise. As results night progressed, and it looked like No would win, I got depressed, as much with my own misreading of the situation as with the situation itself.
When Carmarthen, the last county to declare, swung the result, I was ecstatic. I felt I should go onto the streets to celebrate this momentous occasion of national importance. But I knew no one else would be there. I did open the door but it was raining.
Instead, I watched television pictures of a party somewhere. In the background, I noticed the woman who lived next door. I had never spoken to her and felt a moment of guilt about the lack of community on our street. I wondered why she had not put up a poster in her window.
The next day, no one seemed that excited. A friend who I had persuaded to vote Yes told me she had meant to but the rain had deterred her. I’d like to think the margin would have been better had the sun been out but that would another delusion. 1997 changed Wales forever but it did so on the back of little widespread enthusiasm.