It was 20 years ago today: My recollection of the dramatic night Wales voted ‘Yes’

On September 18th 1997 Wales voted ‘Yes’ to devolution by less than 7,000 votes out of over a million cast.

As an enthusiastic Labour Cardiff Councillor I had set up and chaired the Cardiff cross-party ‘Yes For Wales’ campaign after Labour won our landslide in May of that year.

It was clear to me from the outset that the voters of Cardiff were at best lukewarm to the idea. Many traditional Labour voters couldn’t see why we needed a new body when they had just voted massively for a Labour UK Government.

Our campaign in Cardiff was energetic, imaginative and colourful. One of our keenest volunteers, Sally Davies, designed green and red ribbons which became ubiquitous across Wales during the campaign. The late Geoff Mungham, the Labour Councillor for Splott, even persuaded the proprietors of Splott Market to put up an enormous banner to persuade shoppers to vote ‘Yes’.

In the end our most effective argument on the doorstep and at our street stalls was that devolution was an insurance policy against a rebirth of Thatcherism affecting Wales, rather than appeals for national autonomy.

I knew that Cardiff would vote no, but I also knew that if we could run a vigorous campaign and maximise the losing Yes vote in Cardiff, it could help the overall Yes vote across the finishing line.

On the night the exit polls seemed to suggest my pessimism was misplaced, but then the early results pointed to a victory for the ‘No’ campaign. The atmosphere was subdued at the official count at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and tense at the ‘Yes’ campaign party at the Park Hotel.

I even gave an interview to my old acquaintance Michael Crick of the BBC where I all but conceded we had lost.

Then as the wee hours wore on news started to trickle down that they were deliberately holding back the result in Carmarthen because it was good enough to deliver a last gasp win by a short head for ‘Yes’.

When the result was officially announced there was a spontaneous explosion of joy in the Park Hotel which included a number of us climbing on a table that collapsed under the strain.

A special post referendum fundraiser was held a few weeks later in Ystradgynlais to help pay the bill for the broken table.

The heavens opened that night and I got thoroughly soaked as I walked the mile home to Canton at dawn but I didn’t care. We had done it, and even though Cardiff had voted no overall, our campaign had brought out enough yes voters in the Capital city to play our part in the narrowest of victories.