Monday, 21 March 2011

Bringing together a few straws from the wind

In the wake of the Assembly powers referendum, the line being taken by some in the Labour Party is that Wales now has a legislative parliament, so “What is the point of Plaid Cymru?”. 
In some ways, it’s not that different from the question which I posed myself in an article published in Agenda last December (and which I’ve raised in varying ways over a longer period), which questioned whether and when Plaid should decide that the constitutional battle has effectively been won and either disband itself or else simply become a main-stream party of government within the Assembly. 
I wasn’t asking it as simply an academic question; it seems to me that the party is increasingly behaving as though it has already decided to become a post-nationalist party.  Personally, I feel that the decision is premature.  In any event, it leaves a question as to what remains which distinguishes Plaid from other parties.
In a recent article on WalesHome, Jeff Jones suggested that what Wales actually needs now might be “the creation of a new regional political party which would be committed to staying in the UK but whose main aim would be to get the best deal for Wales. Its model would be parties such as the moderate Catalan parties. The aim would be to win control of the Assembly and a majority of the UK Parliamentary seats. Its tactics would be to exploit any situation where any of the major UK parties failed to win a majority in the UK Parliament. It would judge policies from those parties on how they would benefit Wales even if in ideological terms it was closer to some parties than others”.
In a recent post on the referendum, I argued that part of the problem with the devolution journey was that the end-point was not clear, and I suggested that the Labour Party was mostly responsible for that.  One response (which came from a long-time Plaid member) was that Plaid’s position doesn’t look that clear these days either. 
I’m not sure that I agree with that – I think Plaid’s new purpose is becoming increasingly clear.  To all intents and purposes, Plaid is becoming precisely the sort of ‘post-nationalist’ party which Jeff described – i.e. a party whose main aim in practice (whatever it may say in its own constitution) is to gain and exercise power within existing institutions (and, in the case of Plaid, to do so as a junior partner to Labour).
Saturday’s story in the Western Mail speculating about the composition of the next government seemed to me to be underlining the difficulty which such a party has in establishing a role.  Suggesting that Plaid is the best junior partner for a Labour-led coalition is a long way short of the ambitions of the past.
A pseudonymous comment on a recent post on this blog asked me whether I was suggesting that Plaid had reached a new philosophical conclusion along the lines of “full independence is a chimera in today’s globalised, interconnected times. All we really want is for Wales to be recognised as a distinct geo/political entity within the EU, NATO, Eurozone (delete to taste) and for the principle of subsidiarity to be applied wherever possible.  Consequently, with all the other major parties now apparently firmly signed up to this idea themselves, Plaid's purpose has been largely served”.
I don’t believe that it’s been thought through clearly enough to be described as a ‘philosophical conclusion’; it’s more about some of those involved in the daily grind of electoral politics falling into a very limited institutional vision of what politics is about.  But, however and whyever it’s happened, I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Plaid is – by its actions, if not always by the words of some members – adopting precisely the sort of role which Jeff outlined, and which would justify the above quoted comment.
Adopting that sort of role is a valid decision for the party to take; but it’s the equivalent of opening Schrödinger’s box.  The consequences may not be entirely predictable. 
Over recent months, I’ve been questioning on what basis a post-nationalist party can then distinguish itself from other parties.  I’ve had two answers suggesting possible options, and I’ll cover those in future posts.


Jac o' the North, said...

Whatever the leadership might occasionally say to placate the party's nationalist wing, Plaid has given up on independence and, possibly, further serious devolution.

For as things stand Plaid, and to some degree the Assembly, has the best of both worlds. Able to blame London when things go wrong and take the credit for measures popular with the public. The more powers that are gained the less easy it becomes to blame London.

The only things that now differentiate Plaid from the other parties is that it is Welsh-based and has a Welsh cultural dimension lacking in the other parties. But ideologically it differs little from Labour.

Which means that if Labour in Wales was to further distance itself from London (and its more embarrassing MPs), and in the process, regain the 'Welshness' it could once project through Cledwyn Hughes, Jim Griffiths et al, then Plaid could become redundant. It's only options would then be ideological re-alignment or making independence the party's main message. Both highly unlikely.

Looking at the left-of-centre logjam in Welsh politics and a Tory party that, despite its public utterances, has to rely for votes on people who could easily switch to Ukip, what is really needed to revitalise Welsh politics and complete the spectrum is a right-of-centre nationalist party.

Without such a party Welsh politics is unbalanced and denies many thousands of voters - such as myself - the chance to vote for a party they genuinely support.

Plaid Whitegate said...

Dare I say you provide an answer in your own blog. Plaid should be "unrepentantly radical, believingstrongly that we can reshape economics to serve humanity rather than adapt humanity to serve economics"

Given the tweedle dee, tweedle dum and tweedle dummer nature of the big 3 London parties - all cosying up to the City, keen on privatisation and warmongering - there is a clear need for a radical party in an honourable Welsh tradition.

It's also important that we don't lose sight of Plaid's USP - we haven't achieved it yet!

The need for greater democracy in Wales - i.e. the ability to decide on all issues that affect us - is still as great now as it was pre-referendum. Plaid is the only party that will push that agenda as Labour, the Fib Dems and Tories are opposed to more devolution.

Anonymous said...

There is always a danger for a party like Plaid, when the unionist opposition catch up so quickly that the difference is blurred, if only for a while.

However, I do not see the argument within Plaid for a 'post-nationalist' party. The young activists are almost entirely hardline on this issue and I see and hear nothing from the likely future leadership to suggest otherwise.

I think that this election will be a learning curve for all parties and am very much looking forward to a good policy debate, in the hope that Labour do occasionally break away from the usual anti-ConDem line.

Glyndo said...

I agree with anonymous, the young are pretty hard line on the subject of independence. The trouble is that those are the “hard yards”.
So in practice it will probably be that PC will continue to chip away at different areas until Wales is all but independent. Then it’s up to the population. The sky falling in will always be the main obstacle I fear.

John Dixon said...

There is always a danger that we see what we want to see rather than what actually is (and I won't get into the philosophy of reality here). There are people in the Labour Party who don't understand how far their party has moved, and who genuinely believe that their party is a radical socialist movement which just needs a change of leadership to get back on track. There are parallels.


The lack of clear differentiation between Plaid and the unionist parties is something that I've commented on a number of times previously; in particular, the line being taken by some on "Con-Dem cuts" is indistinguishable from Labour. And it inevitably raises the question (which I suspect is at least part of the reason for recent opinion poll results) as to why not simply vote for the real thing rather than the copy.

I'm not sure that the answer is a centre-right nationalist party though. I think we have enough 'centre-right' parties already; what's needed is a genuine alternative to the Labour-Tory consensus, rather than simply joining it from a Welsh perspective. I do think Wales still needs a nationalist party of some sort, but an unwillingess to say anything that people don't want to hear is not a basis for building such a party.

On the other hand, if the political debate in Wales for the future is to be focussed increasingly on what happens within the institutions rather than on the national question, then there's no reason why the party posited by Jeff Jones, to which I referred in the original post, cannot be on the centre-right, or indeed could not be a plurality of parties occupying different points on the Welsh spectrum.

Plaid Whitegate,

I don't disagree that Wales needs an unrepentantly radical party, but that isn't the direction of travel. There's no point in claiming that a party has a USP if people are afraid to mention it.


"when the unionist opposition catch up so quickly"

There are two ways in which people can catch up - the first is if they run faster, and the second is if you run slower. I don't think that only one of those has happened.

Spirit of BME said...

I think the question as to the purpose of Plaid Cymru is based on a total misunderstanding of looking at Plaid as a bog standard political party operating within the English regime .State TV and media back this view up by again commenting on the knock about politics of the village pump.
Plaid Cymru is first and foremost a Nationalist and Liberation Movement and that is what gave it life, and early on it decided to project this issue of Human Rights and (now) the Rights of the UN Charter in elections to the English Parliament.
Yes, there are representatives in Blaid that are totally interchangeable with Labour and as we have seen with the Tory Party, but every party picks up interlopers and carpet baggers, who are more interested in their pension funds.
Plaid Cymru not only fights for our freedom but also our values and those that accept that we have no purpose are clearly accepting that the English regime can protect our rights and values better that the Welsh people – I think Hell will freeze over first.