The decision by Plaid’s new leader, Leanne Wood, not to attend the Jubilee service led to a fairly sustained correspondence in the letters pages of the Western Mail in the period since it was announced. Some of the letters have been from the usual suspects (does ‘Monarchy Wales’ actually have more than one member?), as one might expect. Supporters of the status quo talk about the ‘hard work’ and ‘service’ provided by the current monarch over many years, whilst others talk of ‘disrespect’ to a visitor to Wales (without, apparently, realising the irony of the description of 'our' monarch as a ‘visitor’).
That there are plenty in Wales who feel an attachment to both the institution and the current incumbent is surely no surprise to anyone. But one of the things that has struck me repeatedly every time the issue comes up is the conflation of republicanism and nationalism in the minds of many. It’s a connection which does not stand up to analysis.
Many members of the Labour Party are republicans (although a number prefer not to admit it), and, whisper it quietly, there are plenty of Tories who would struggle to convince anyone that they honestly believe that the head of state should be a hereditary position. I’m sure that there are some Lib Dems, too, who support the idea of a republic, although how many and which ones probably depends, like so many of their policies, on who’s listening and whether there’s an ‘r’ in the month.
The point is that nationalists in Wales certainly have no monopoly on republican thinking.
Views within Plaid and the wider national movement vary, as they do for the other parties. Leaving aside any whose deep and sincere convictions stem, like those of so many politicians in the UK parties, from the findings of the latest focus group, there are three main strands of opinion amongst Wales’ nationalists.
- There are a minority who actually support the continuation of the UK monarchy for Wales after independence - and not just for reasons of political convenience. The number is not large, but Oscar’s discovery of his undying love for the queen was never an entirely unique phenomenon.
- There’s another minority, probably even smaller, who believe that we should trace the descendants of Llywelyn Fawr and restore the House of Gwynedd to its Welsh throne.
- And then there’s the overwhelming majority who are natural and instinctive republicans, and who would still be so even if they were not nationalists.
That’s a personal assessment, of course; but it’s based on decades of involvement and knowledge of the national movement, and I’m convinced that it’s a fair assessment. So why all the fuss when Plaid’s new leader actually says what most of her party’s members believe?
The main point worth noting is that whilst the members might actually support the republican viewpoint, they don’t usually say so – and although there is a clear majority of republicans within Plaid, the party has never got around to formally adopting a republican policy.
For some that’s simply a way of avoiding debate on an issue which is not likely to be a vote-winner. But for most, it’s more about an assessment of political priorities. Gaining independence - or, in the interim, significant real powers for the National Assembly - is seen as a higher priority that trying to strip away the vestigial powers of the monarchy. If the monarchy’s influence is more symbolic than real, why pick a symbolic battle, when the real one needs to be fought?
This year, though, things changed. Plaid’s members overwhelmingly elected a leader who has, for many years, made her own republican viewpoint crystal clear. And whilst some might see the issue as a symbolic one which can be left for another time, Leanne does not; she sees it as a more immediate issue. No-one in Plaid can have been in any doubt about Leanne’s stance when they voted for her – and they should not expect her to change her stance now.
I’m no longer close enough to know for certain what goes on, but I can imagine the siren voices suggesting to Leanne that, as leader, she should tone down her comments, and modify her stance. Personally, I think that would be a mistake. If there’s one thing that Plaid should learn from recent experience it is that fudge and expediency end up looking like shiftiness and dishonesty.
Having nailed her colours so firmly to the mast over so many years, expecting her to change tack now is not only realistic, it would be a mistake on a grand scale. For any politician who strongly holds a principled view, being willing to express it forcibly and honestly, even in the teeth of disagreement, is invariably going to be more effective than trying to pretend to believe something else.
And who knows; having a mainstream politician expressing republican views may even make more people think about the issue – and maybe even change their views.