Tweet I've spent some time over the last couple of days trying to explain the decision which the party took on student fees last Saturday. 'Manfully', said Glyn Davies, quite kindly (I think!); 'pathetic' was the rather less kind verdict of one of the pseudonymous comments on Politics Cymru. Trying to explain the party's decision whilst also recognising the difficult position in which our ministers find themselves isn’t the most straightforward of tasks, and there's a danger that it sounds like, to use Peter Black's regular phrase when he refers to Plaid, having our cake and eating it.
As a long-time opponent of tuition fees, I was neither surprised nor unhappy with the decision which the National Council took, and on that note, I think I've said enough about the specific issue of tuition fees - for the time being, at least.
There is a more general issue to emerge, however. One of the questions which I've been repeatedly asked over the past three days is how Plaid can stay in government when the government's policy on an issue is so different from the party's policy. That's actually quite an easy question for me to answer – but it's not the best question to be asking.
Since we know that no coalition government will ever agree with Plaid policies on everything, and since we are certainly not going to change party policy to match that of the government every time a Labour minister makes a statement, then it seems to me that it is inevitable that there will be occasions where party policy and government policy clash. In that sense I'm quite relaxed about the fact that there will be differences - since the alternative is never to do a coalition deal with anyone.
It's hard to explain in a country where coalition government is historically so unusual, but it's simply not as black and white an issue as some try to paint it. And, for what it's worth, this isn't just a problem for Plaid – although we're the party which is facing it at the moment. If coalition government is going to be the norm in Wales - and most of us believe that it is - then parties are going to repeatedly face this sort of issue.
So, the right question is not 'How can you stay in government when they do something contrary to your party's policies?', but more 'How do you decide which issues are important enough to threaten the agreement which you have reached?'.
Ideological purists (and of course, opposition parties desperate to bring about a split between Plaid and Labour) will see any disagreement as a reason for withdrawal; the most enthusiastic supporters of the coalition agreement will be the most reluctant. But most of us lie somewhere in the middle – accepting the possibility that some compromises will be a step too far, but accepting also that compromise is the nature of coalition, and that we have to give as well as take.
The current economic backdrop doesn't help – people facing major economic problems are unlikely to thank any party which brings down a government if a particular issue is perceived to be other than crucial to them, particularly if that government – like the One Wales government – is perceived to be doing quite well in its response to the economic crisis.
I honestly don't know exactly where the line should be drawn, but I think I have a feel for the sort of questions which any party faced with this sort of problem should be asking itself.
How different is the government's policy from that of the party?
How core is this area of policy to the party's principles and beliefs?
How easy would it be to reverse the policy if we were in government in enough strength to do so?
How far is the policy out of line with the coalition agreement signed at the start of the term of office?
How well is the coalition working in general in a whole host of other areas?
I do not intend at this stage to pass any judgement on where the issue of tuition fees sits against this sort of question; I'm just drawing attention to the fact that there is a more general question which needs to be faced.
That question is considerably more complicated and sophisticated than the simplistic way in which it has been posed to date – but I suppose a more complex argument doesn't quite make for the good confrontational arguments to which political discourse is so often reduced.
The third voice - We’re not due a traffic post this month, so we’ll just leave this here. (From a new Panelbase poll. More findings coming soon.) Among people who voted Yes ...
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