Monday, 28 March 2011

Building the nation

Interesting report from John Osmond of the IWA on a panel discussion with representatives of the four main parties.  His conclusion “Meanwhile, on the evidence of last week’s conference, the difficulty is going to be distinguishing the parties one from another” touches directly on an issue which I’ve raised before, and which is relevant to this post last week. 
I expect a lot of similarity between Labour, Conservative, and Lib Dem parties; that’s become normal; but with Plaid joining the consensus as a post-nationalist party – what is the distinguishing feature?  Shorn of Obama-esque rhetoric about hope and change, the leader’s speech to Plaid's Spring Conference as reported in the media seemed to be based primarily on the simple assertion that Plaid would manage things better.
It’s a bold assertion, but leaving aside any (entirely reasonable) questions about whether it is a supportable statement or not, I remain as unconvinced as I was the first time I heard it that it is a plausible distinguishing feature from the point of view of the electorate at large, let alone a sufficiently radical message.
One of the two coherent responses I’ve had to the question of whether Plaid still has a USP in the new context of Welsh politics has been to talk about the need for ‘nation-building’; creating and building the institutions and consciousness of Wales as a nation.  It’s a long term project, which can keep the party busy for decades, to paraphrase what one of Plaid’s members said to me.
I don’t disagree with the suggestion that there’s a job to be done on nation building, nor with the idea that Plaid has a role to play in doing that job.  But I do question whether that role is either ambitious enough, or unique enough, for a nationalist, or even post-nationalist, party.
One rather less-than-fully-gruntled Plaid member once described ‘nation-building’ to me as being little more than an excuse for some of Plaid’s elected members to join the establishment, claim their generous salaries and expenses, challenge nothing, yet claim that they are still advancing the national cause.  It’s a parody, and it’s unfair to some members, but like all the best parodies there’s enough of a hint of truth in there somewhere to give it bite.
To take the first of my questions, I certainly don’t see ‘nation-building’ as being a sufficiently ambitious aim for a nationalist party.  It represents a huge step backwards from the ambitions of the past, however unrealistic the timescales suggested may have been (such as Gwynfor’s ‘self-government within 15 years’, for instance).  It reduces an argument for radical and fundamental change in the way Wales is governed to an electoral appeal based largely on the idea that Plaid can manage things better than the rest (which is clearly the direction being set at present).
And that brings me to the second point (the lack of uniqueness), which is of even greater concern.  All four parties in the Assembly – to a greater or lesser extent – have effectively committed themselves (admittedly, in the case of the Tories, it’s been done against the better judgement of most party members) to strengthening Welsh institutions.  Much, and perhaps all, of the detail of policy coming under the broad heading of ‘nation-building’ could be said or advocated by any of the four parties.  It’s no accident that they are sounding increasingly similar.
But does Wales really need four parties all saying much the same thing?  History and tribalism prevent the Conservatives-in-Wales and the Labour Party from recognising the extent to which their policies are similar, and it seems unlikely that they could ever work together.  But one of the things which started to make me think seriously about where Plaid was going and why was the period immediately after the 2007 election, when it became clear that any other combination was a real possibility.
It was Lenin who talked about the concept of an ‘objective alliance’, and if a radical and different party has a clear objective in mind in entering into an alliance, and is visionary enough to maintain a focus on longer term issues, then it is possible to justify doing do.  But if the objective is, in effect, little more than becoming a ‘party of government’, and involves abandoning – or deferring more-or-less indefinitely as they would probably prefer to put it – any wider aspirations, then the ultimate gainer from the ‘objective alliance’ is the establishment, not the radical alternative.
And actually, if ‘nation-building’ really is the main objective from now on, then the best way to achieve that might be for nationalists to join the Welsh wings of the unionist parties and reinforce the Welsh identity of those parties.  It’s not an objective which requires a separate party to achieve – indeed, I think I could make a reasonable argument that trying to claim that aim as the territory of one party might actually make it harder to achieve.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

good post John. In this respect Sion Jobbins's book: 'How many aircraft carriers would an independent Wales have?'

http://www.carreg-gwalch.com/product/phenomenon_of_welshness_the/

addresses the ambition-free zone which you seem to describe!

Jac o' the North said...

What the hell is this "nation-building" anyway? The nation has always been there; without it we would not even have devolution.

If what is being referred to is creating or developing the institutions and structures of an increasingly distinct Wales then the term should be 'state-building'.

My fear is that neither term really applies. We are simply being suckered into a consensus on more - but specifically Welsh - bureaucracy, which will serve none but bureaucrats and politicians.

This being far easier to achieve now that we have four parties melding into a confusing and unattractive agglomerate.

Peter Freeman said...

As an avid reader of your blog I appreciate the insights you give into Welsh politics. This and some of your previous posts make for hard reading.
The very notion of Plaid as a "post-nationalist" party is surely a contradiction in terms. The party of "Free Wales, Welsh Wales" is becoming a unionist party with a Welsh perspective? Is Plaid going the way of Cymry Fydd? You seem to be implying as much but if it is the case there needs to be a complete overhaul of the people responsible for it.
Some things are somewhat inevitable; Plaid was originally solely composed of nationalists who had chosen politics as a means to the goal of independence. As Plaid has gained electoral success it has attracted politicians who see Plaid as a way of furthering their careers. When such careerists dilute the unique aims of Plaid there comes a far more serious question than "Why vote Plaid?" The question becomes, "Why go out and campaign for Plaid?" if the grass roots activists are deprived of the dream of freedom then who will get out the vote?
That is what will destroy the party.
If the present Plaid leadership is leading the party away from it's historic mission, it's time to throw the rascals out.

Cibwr said...

I am not surprised John, in your view what should Plaid do, reaffirm its commitment to independence? How can it distinguish between short term, medium term and long term goals?

Peter D Cox said...

I think this dilemma is exactly demonstrated in Cardiff where the coalition with the Liberals by Plaid has been a disaster: 'we can govern' approach (in this case very badly) has just been a fig-leaf for some power hungry political time-servers to use Plaid as a stepping stone. The recent bye election lost to Labour after one of Plaid's brightest politicians left (for personal reasons) showed what will happen next year. And since some of those same people are standing as Assembly candidates they'll loose Plaid votes there too.
Politicians have to have: USP (I'm with you there JD), values and integrity.
Plaid are in serious danger of losing not just their USP, but their political integrity too. That's a huge disappointment to many of us.

Anonymous said...

John
The problem we seem to have is that the referendum Yes proceess and vote has led us to believe that the four political parties
have blended into a chamelion like consensus. I supect it is more realistic in that none of these Parties could survive in a devolved environment had they come out as clearly supporting a no vote.
Just as we seem to have accepted coalitions of two maybe we need to accept coalitions of three or four

I note that the role of Secretary of State for Wales seems to be coming to well deserved end
but also there seems to be a void in how Westminster can control devoved administrations in the future

I think the post nationalist phrase is meaningless
So for that matter is the concept that Plaid can do things better no political party in history has ever achieved that goal
i was drawn back to the slippery slope idea but if we are all in it together then perhaps the words controlled descent is more appropriate
At least for Wales a slippery slope could end in disaster but a controlled descent holds out the prospect of a safe landing

Anonymous said...

What is disappointing about this blog comment, is that you have chosen to leave the party and have a dig from the outside rather than stay inside and try to change it. Would it be fair to say that you did not want to go into coalition with Labour and would have instead, preferred the comfort of permanent oppositon?

As far as I can see, post-nationalist is after self-government, so I do not recognise either your description or your point. It is very sad to see such a capable individual join the crowd who prefer the comfort of a party of one than a party of many.

John Dixon said...

Anon 01:08,

"preferred the comfort of permanent opposition"

No-one would prefer permanent opposition; but it's true to say that I believe that the way in which the choice was being presented - replicated by yourself - of joining the government or being in permanent opposition is overly simplistic. It was/is presented in that way in order to make the 'right' choice an obvious one; but it also succeeds in avoiding a wholly proper debate about objectives.

"prefer the comfort of a party of one than a party of many"

The point is a valid one - up to a point. For anyone who has a thought-through view of the world as it is and as (s)he wants it to be, joining any political party is fundamentally an act of compromise between 'ideological purity' and the ability to achieve change by working collectively with others. In 1971, when I joined Plaid, I chose to make that compromise, consciously and deliberately.

But that balance is not a static one. People change, parties change, and the context changes. Specifically, in my case, whilst my own views have changed little, the context - the establishment of a legislative parliament in Cardiff (albeit with limited powers still) - has changed dramatically. Plaid has also changed - it is now very clearly more focussed on gaining and exercising power within the institution than with pushing for further fundamental change. It's a valid decision to make, as I've said before; but no-one should assume that such a change will carry everyone with it.

The balance between remaining true to what one believes and working collectively with others for a more limited range of objectives inevitably changes from time to time. When the gap becomes too great, it's time to move on. And the point at which that happens will obviously be a personal one for each individual.

It's interesting that some of those who argue that one should always stay and work for change from within are the same people who ask in amazement how some Labour Party members can remain in that party despite the changes to it.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your blog and sort of understand what you're saying John but not quite.

I'm in Plaid, felt to some extent detached from it - I'm not a pacifist, I don't think all people in the public sector are 'hard working families', I can be persuaded either way on nuclear energy etc. So, I'm not there writing any manifest.

But, I'm not sure, with Plaid going into election, what you'd actually propose Plaid do differently?

Post nationalist ... what do you actually mean? They're going into an election in May, would you say Plaid should campaign for a referendum on independence? I'd say that getting rid of the SSW would be quite a bold move. I can't see Plaid asking for a new Welsh language act as we've just got one. Control over broadcasting is probably there. So, what exactly do you mean?

Is discussions, like those in Sion Jobbins's book about the feasibility of an independent Welsh armed forces and Welsh embassies? Fair enough but it's hardly a policy for the Assembly election and will generate a lot of hot wind on something which can't become policy.

Maybe what you want - I'm guessing here - is for the leadership to be more ambitious for Wales and to sometimes say something a little risque? I was struck by a piece in the current Prospect magazine on the monarchy. They ask various people in British life about their view on the future of the monarchy. Obviously, Alex Salmond was there for the SNP. And Plaid? Bethan Jenkins. That's not a dig at Bethan but you'd expect the Plaid leader to be there. Unfortunately, Ieuan has deliberatly kept his head down and failed to use the position of DFM to promote himself, his party and Welsh nationalism.

As DFM he would have the status and read-publicity to promote and say some things which promote Welsh nationalism and challenge British 'banal nationalism'. Unfortunately, he's decided not to.

Is this what you're getting at? Or is it a failure to go for the easy vote - against war in Iraq on quazi-pacifist grounds, instead of saying, 'if Wales was independent we wouldn't be sending troops here'. Or, if Wales was independent, like Denmark and Norway, we would be sending fighter pilots to Libya?

John Dixon said...

Anon,

There are a lot of questions there, and I can't really do justice to them all in a comment here, so forgive me for giving a short response. I've been doing my best to develop some of the points on the blog over a period, and am planning to continue doing so.

Firstly, what do I mean by 'post-nationalism'? Plaid's constitution is clear that once self-government is achieved, the party will continue in existence with the aim of forming a government and implementing the policies it has developed over the years. But it seems to me as though the party is moving to that position without having achieved the pre-condition. And that, far from seeking to implement the (often radical) policies which the party has developed over the years, it is actually proposing a more managerial approach which largely accepts the limitations of the context.

If placed in the context of wider, longer term aspirations, that is common sense pragmatism; but if deplacing the wider longer term aspirations, then it is something else entirely, and loses the distinctiveness.

When I read statements or hear interviews, it is increasingly the case that I wouldn't know which party was making the comment unless the newspaper/ broadcaster told me. Much of what Plaid is saying at the moment could be said by any of the four parties. What I want to see in Welsh politics is more differentiation on policy and principle, not a reduction in that differentiation to the extent that all four parties are simply fighting for the middle ground.

A vision of a different future, not just a promise to reorganise a few services and then manage things better.

Peter D Cox said...

John| your last comment is spot on. I fear some of us unaligned voters won't get that clarity before we face the ballot. Plaid will inevitably lose out - possibly big-time

Anonymous said...

"it is now very clearly more focussed on gaining and exercising power within the institution than with pushing for further fundamental change."

I don't agree with this at all. And as an avid reader of yours, i'm really disappointed. I'm no expert just a blogger but all my reading says getting Welsh laws, or language rights, or Wales having its own taxation powers, is fundamental change. Opening up the doors for the clauses in Plaid's constitution to be furthered.

It disappoints me that people can't handle 4 years of junior coalition government without having an existential crisis. We are a European country- coalitions are the norm, and radical parties are not immune either- Die Linke have exactly these kind of 'debates' about how far you compromise in coalition (in the German states) but nobody is suggesting they are yet a post-socialist party.

They are talking about natural resources being controlled by Wales. I don't see the other parties converging on that ground. But if they did, it would be a sign of success.

There is an alternative case to be made, that Plaid has actually retained much of its radicalism despite being in government.

Leanne Wood seems able to reconcile radicalism with being in government.

There are advantages and disadvantages with being in government, being able to understand and digest them without leaving the party should be possible.

Is this more about functionality and issues of management rather than politics and ideology?

There is nothing post-nationalist about now fighting for the next step on the agenda. We still do not have the same powers as Scotland.

Anonymous said...

I sense that you are not all that happy that Plaid went into coalition with Labour. From what I can see, their current political challenge has been created largely by their success in delivering some core policies - by being in Government.

They are indeed at a crossroads as particularly the Labour party have cwtched up to Plaid, in order to squeeze an overall majority out of supporters who could vote for either party.

Yet, Wales has moved on towards greater self determination because of Plaid and in fact, has taken huge strides in recent years directly because of their decision to go into Government. There appears to be a danger that Wales will fall in love federalism rather than independence, but Plaid's opportunity to challenge that convention will surely be the next Welsh election and not this one.

I know of many radicals within Plaid who are excited by the prospect of where Wales is going, which makes me question your true reason for leaving now. There is clearly huge respect within Plaid for you, not only for your views but also your work over the decades. To make an analogy of you staying in Plaid and say a socialist staying in New Labour is in my view not credible. If Plaid had given up on independence, called for a week off for the Royal wedding and dropped Welsh at their conference then fair enough.

You are a radical thinker with strong and passionate views about Wales. I can only assume that you believe you can influence the direction of Wales outside party politics rather than inside, as I cannot believe that such an able individual has given up on affecting the future of his nation. Despite what others may think, you are far too young for that!

Anonymous said...

Ty Gwynfor is full of federalists, war-hawks and people with "Common Purpose". And not a few careerists....

John Dixon said...

Anon 14:23,

That's a highly unfair comment about a dedicated team of staff. It's not their role to set the rôle or direction of a political party; it'd be better, and more approriate, if you directed any views at the elected officers and candidates than at the staff.

Anon 13:35,

Thank you - I think.

I have not at any time argued that there have not been achievements as a result of Plaid being in government; the Welsh language measure and the referendum stand out, but there are others. But neither do I fall in with the uncritical assessment that everything that Plaid has done is wonderful. That's not my style, nor do I think that such spin is as helpful as those who indulge in it seem to think. There is perhaps room for an attempt at an objective critique of what has been done, to include the good, the bad - and the downright ugly; but that place isn't here.

However, in this piece, I'm looking forward, not back. The past is not always a good guide to the future (although an understanding of it helps). We have come a long way, and that's good. The question, though, is where are we going next?

My age, and the generation to which I belong, might not be as irrelevant as you suggest. I'm reminded of Merlin's Prophecy 1969, by Harri Webb, which says:

"One day, when Wales is free and prosperous
And dull, they’ll all be wishing they were us."


We're neither free nor prosperous yet; but we may be becoming duller than we need be.

Anonymous said...

John.
You are many things but irrelevant is not one of them and I did not accuse you of that.

However, I do believe that you will be less effective in changing Wales for the better by being outside Plaid rather than being inside. This I think is a huge waste and I hope that one day you will consider a return; something that I am sure would be very much welcomed by most if not all activists.

Anonymous said...

John.

This is sad news

I actually joined Plaid last year. After reading your blog (as well as a few others) I was persuaded that there were still plenty of radicals within the party. It is a shame that there is one less now, but I wish you all the best with whatever your plans are for the future.

Anonymous said...

Very sorry to hear your decision John.

Personally, I think a lack of direction (as opposed to "wrong direction") is a problem not only in Plaid Cymru but in other parties too - especially Labour.

Despite being a member of Plaid Cymru for 11 years I have felt disassociated recently by the whole political thing. However, I do believe that my place is still has a Plaid Cymru member.

I am a firm believer in Welsh Independence but it would be the deathknell of the party to purely develop policies dependent on post independence. We have to improve Wales now to facilitate the path to independence.

My personal criticism (and despite not being a member anymore I'll include you I'm afraid) though is we're not confident enough as a party. We have the ability, but we need to believe we have the ability, and not be afraid of the Unionists. Confidence for the party has to come from the entire membership though. The high profile ones (including yourself in the past) need to do more to engage with the low level members like myself as well as general supporters.

As a good man, I hope you re-look at your choices as I'm confident you do have a role to play in the party. We may not always sing all the same hymns from the party hymn sheet but that's the sign of a strong party not a weak one.

Siôn

Gwilym ap Llew said...

You would make an ideal Welsh Labour candidate - I've said so before. You should have joined Labour months ago. There's a remarkably strong and united Labour team standing this year. It really is a pity you are not among them. Perhaps in the future?

By the way, I should make it clear that Plaid is a competent opposition party, and should, after May, remain as the party of protest.

John Dixon said...

Gwilym,

Thanks for the invite, but no thanks.

Spirit of BME said...

Mr Dixon,
Your Blog is pure music to my ears. What a journey you have travelled.
I am in Plaid Cymru because I want to be there when the rats leave the ship.

Anonymous said...

"I'm in Plaid, felt to some extent detached from it - I'm not a pacifist"

Plaid isn't a pacifist party. It's positions have tended to be closer to anti-imperialism, although on Libya they're more liberal.

glynbeddau said...

As someone who became disillusioned with Plaid some years ago but still see them as the best-worst choice and don't see any chance of a new Left leaning Welsh Party. And I always felt that the libertarian ideology that expressed itself in the Left of Plaid is non-existant in Labour.

I can easily sympathise with your position then as there seems no where to go. but you will serve Wales and progressive politics if you continue with your blog pointing out the failure of all the Parties in Wales including Plaid's current direction and it's lack of ideas beyond wanting to run the Assembly better.

DaiTwp said...

If Plaid is no longer the natural home for radicals who believe in a fully independant, bi-lingual Wales, what paths are open to them?

Anonymous said...

"If Plaid is no longer the natural home for radicals who believe in a fully independant, bi-lingual Wales, what paths are open to them?"

Join one of the British parties or quit party politics, apparently.