Saturday, 17 December 2011

To lead or to follow

MH at Syniadau attracted a lot of attention with his recent blog post on the issue of prominent Plaid members apparently distancing themselves from the party’s aims.  I don’t often disagree with him, but I’m not convinced that attempting to address the issue through the party’s internal disciplinary procedures was the best way to go about it.  Firstly, it was never likely to succeed, and secondly, it focuses attention on the individuals concerned rather than on the views expressed.  And it is the views expressed which are the more important issue; and they go much wider than the individuals named.
Plaid has long struggled and agonised over the use of the I-word.  At different times, it has tended to formulate its view of the ‘right’ status for Wales in the vernacular of the age (Dominion status, anyone?).  But the party – or most of it, anyway – eventually came round to the acceptance that it was the word in common use which most accurately reflected its objective.
It is entirely honest, and intellectually reasonable, to challenge whether ‘independence’ is a wholly accurate description of the status of member states of the EU.  Opting out of the UK to join the EU is a case of leaving one union for another.  In either case, there are restrictions on the right of the Welsh Government to act independently.  So I can understand why some people are still reluctant to use the word.  It’s an honest and intellectually consistent position to take – but it’s an utterly irrelevant one.
The point is that ‘independence’ has an accepted meaning in common use.  Like other words, it has changed its meaning over time.  Independence is the word which EU states would use to describe their status.  In effect, the modern definition of the word, in the context of the EU, is “that degree of sovereignty enjoyed by EU member states, and required of any applying member”.  And as a definition, that is the status to which I aspire for Wales.
But the extent to which some Plaid members continue to distance themselves even from that definition underlines the fact that this is not a debate about mere semantics.  There are some who seem to be arguing that they’re in favour of that status as a long term objective, but that it isn’t really relevant to the immediate issues of the day, whilst there are others who seem to be rejecting it even as a long term objective.  In the latter case, it’s hard to disagree with the view of some Plaid members, such as MH, that such people may be in the wrong party.
The ‘softer’ distancing from the aim, however, is a position which needs to be engaged with.  It’s not always clear to me whether those who take that view really believe that achieving the degree of sovereignty which goes with EU membership is irrelevant in the short term, or whether there are other drivers behind that position.  I suspect the latter, and that there are two main drivers, one of them entirely honourable and the other considerably less so.
The first is a desire to ‘normalise’ Welsh politics, by framing the debate around and within the institutions which exist.  It’s what one would expect of any national movement once a sufficient degree of sovereignty has been achieved.  My only disagreement with it is that I consider it premature; that sufficient degree of sovereignty has not yet been achieved. 
Without it, the limited powers available, even after March’s referendum, mean that the context in which that normalisation takes place is a narrow one, which gives little opportunity for the expression of a wide enough range of political opinion.  That leads to the situation which we saw last May, with four parties saying much the same thing, and any changes to policy as a result of changing government will be limited in the extreme.  If such minor changes are really the limit of one’s aspirations for Wales, then the best and most logical place to be to argue for them is inside the Labour Party.
The second, and rather less honorable, driver is about electability.  Some people are unwilling to put the case for independence because it will not be popular with the electors.  Their assessment of the popularity of the idea is entirely correct, of course – all the polls tell us that only a small minority support the idea.  But that actually goes to the very heart of the issue which Plaid has been fudging since the establishment of the Assembly in 1999 and the subsequent change of leader in 2000. 
Is the party a party with a mission seeking to win the support of the people of Wales for its aims, or is it primarily an electoral force seeking to gain power to make much smaller changes?  Is it a party which seeks to lead public opinion, or is it a party which seeks merely to follow public opinion?
For decades, it was the former, and much of the progress which we have seen in Wales results from having a party which was willing and able to perform that role.  Its influence was always greater than its numbers, and it has helped to shape the Welsh agenda.  But a party which merely follows public opinion will look little different from any other party.  More importantly, the absence of a party actively seeking to change public opinion will inevitably slow any further progress.
That debate is a lot more substantial than the question of a few mavericks expressing discordant views, and in that context, MH is right to be concerned about the direction being taken by some Plaid members.

9 comments:

Siônnyn said...

John, you and I engaged in a debate about this a couple years ago when I first started reading your blog, and I, for electoral reasons, preferred softer descriptions of what we were after, like 'self determination'. You persuaded me that I was wrong, and since then I have been proud to advance independence as our aim. In the conference, this was made official.

Of course, the astounding situation in Scotland has made that a lot easier. No longer is the word independence a shameful aberration, it is now a mainstream concept for Scotland, and by proxy, Wales!

I was a signatory to MH's complaint, which was well drafted and not vindictive. DET, by ruling out further constitutional change, was less radical than David Melding - a Tory!

A small section of Plaid have swallowed that poisoned pill that Labour swallowed when they elected Blair - 'Power at any price'!

That is not a party I want to belong to. Plaid succeeded in shifting the centre of gravity of Welsh politics in our direction, even when we had no power. We still do - by force of argument, not by possession of a ministerial limousine.

The leadership race is going to be interesting. Plaid has to decide whether it wants to look backwards at the comfortable past, or to look forwards to a new exciting future. That is why I am going to vote fore Leanne Wood.

Anonymous said...

'A small section' - just the leader and half the AMs then?

Spirit of BME said...

I think the position you take on MH call for disciplinary action is very logical, but “very JD”, however there are other reasons to apply the rules without fear or favour, as the foot soldiers (PBI) of the party are increasingly getting hacked off that those elected or employed by the Party, who consider themselves “above the Law”.
I would ask MH to publish, who sat on this panel, so that they can be individually challenged.
To me it is very simple and always has been throughout my membership life ( which is nearly equal to my actual life) – the Party is a servant to our Great Cause ,but alas, is now a servant to the “fat cats and running dogs of the Monarchist system”- as the (old) Left would put it.!!

Siônnyn said...

John - when are you going to come out and endorse Leann Wood? C'mon - you know you want to!

Boncath said...

John
Sionnyn has a very valid point.
like him I am commited to independence in the true sense of the word for Wales and because of that I have supported Plaid over the years. Yes there have been good times and some not so good but that commitment has remained
The only point I would make is that Wales and Plaid function better as a team and however the election pans out Plaid needs you back as part of the team

John Dixon said...

Siônnyn,

1. I'm not convinced about this 'endorsement' business. I've never understood why the endorsement of some influential figure (or in this case, some non-entity) has any relevance in the business of deciding for whom to vote.

2. In so far as it has any effect at all, it can also have a negative effect; some endorsements are more likely to be the kiss of death. (Lembit understands that one!)

3. Direction is more important than personality; I really think that Plaid should decide what it's for before electing a leader who may find him or herself at odds with that direction.

Siônnyn said...

John - I think that you are too modest about what your support for a candidate could do.

I understand that you left Plaid because it had lost its radical edge, and was too coy about independence. If anyone but Leanne wins, that will continue, and the party will continue to decline as the middle-managers take over.

Eurfyl ap Gwilym's report will be published early in the new year, I understand, and I do not think that Leanne would have declared her candidacy had she not had some indication that its findings would accord, at least acceptably, with her vision for Wales and the party. It was certainly my impression at the meeting at Swansea that there was a hunger for a more radical approach than we are used to.

I hope when Leanne wins, and sets about steering a course that will see us breaking through in the valleys, that you will feel able to re-join us and play a vvaluable part in the national movement, as you once did with such distinction in the past.

PS Whose endorsement knobled Lembit?

John Dixon said...

It was more that Lembit's endorsement nobbled anyone he endorsed...

Siônnyn said...

- Now that I can understand!