Tuesday 24 July 2012

A perennial unanswered question

Some questions never really go away, although they can be framed in different terms as the context changes.  The statement by Cynog Dafis this week draws attention to a case in point.
I cannot remember a time when there was not an ongoing debate within Plaid about whether the party existed primarily to bring about change by gaining support, and ultimately power, itself, or whether its main purpose was to act as an effective lobby, and a sufficiently strong political threat, so that others would implement the constitutional change it sought.  (And there was also, of course, a complementary debate about the best way of achieving whichever of those aims was the most appropriate.)
In practice, up until 1999 at least, lack of electoral success meant that it was only actually capable of following the second of those two paths.  Whether it did so successfully is a moot point.  I believe that it was successful; the existence of a small and intermittently well-organised party, which had the intellectual clout and political courage to make the arguments consistently over a lengthy period was, in my view, a key factor in the journey Wales took up to the 1997 referendum.
Others might argue that Labour would have taken the same path anyway, or that having to deal with a nationalist challenge actually strengthened the hand of the anti-devolutionists within Labour, or even that Labour might have got there more quickly had Plaid disbanded itself and encouraged its members to join the Labour Party and fight from within. 
Regardless of what Marx said, we only get to live history once; we don’t have the luxury of trying it again in two different ways to see which worked best.  All of us will bring our own perspective and judgement to our interpretation of what happened and why.  But I'm convinced that it was a successful approach.
Whatever, the establishment of a national legislature in 1999, even if it didn’t look like a legislature at the time, had to be a turning point.  The context, and the way the question was framed, inevitably changed. 
Gaining power in London was never an option for Plaid; the best that could be hoped for was to gain all, or at least a majority, of the Welsh seats in the UK Parliament, in the way that Irish Nationalists had done decades earlier.  But gaining power in the National Assembly was, at least theoretically, a possibility, and the stunning and, to be honest, unexpected electoral success in the first Assembly elections in 1999 made it look a realistic possibility within the foreseeable future.
But still the party never really answered the question about what it was for.  Indeed, at one level, the possibility of forming a government within the new institution even made the question harder for the party.  A party of government needs a consistent policy platform; it needs to decide what sort of ideology it espouses, and although Plaid had adopted a broadly ‘left’ policy platform over many years, it still retained a number of members who were naturally averse to adopting any detailed policies beyond the simple demand for independence.
The deposing of one leader and the election of a new one in 2000 complicated the question further.  The members elected a leader who was clearly, shall we say, ‘uncomfortable’ with the aim of independence, whilst still themselves clinging to the notion that independence was the party’s main goal.  The only possible outcome from that was to fudge the question.
In the sense of keeping the party united, fudging worked, after a fashion, until the next turning point in 2007.  (It clearly didn’t work electorally, however.  It left people – including at times many of the party’s own members – confused as to what the party was for, and encouraged the criticism that the party was being dishonest about its own aims, or even hiding them from the public.)
Part of the problem with the decision to enter government in 2007 was the failure to discuss, let alone answer, that perennial question about what the party was for.  The members supported going into coalition on a wave of optimism (and would have done exactly the same for the so-called ‘rainbow’ had it not been for the fortunate and timely incompetence of the Lib Dems.)
I suspected at the time, however, that the fact that the party had so enthusiastically agreed to it would be interpreted by some as being an answer, of sorts, to the question.  And who can blame them?  The party had overwhelmingly decided to become a ‘party of government’ after all, even if the implications of that decision were neither spelled out nor discussed.  The managerial agenda for 2011 can be seen as almost inevitable from that perspective.
In 2007, the framing of the question had effectively been changed again, so much so that I’m not sure that it was even recognised by all as being the same question.  Supporters of coalition turned the question into “do you want to be in government or do you want to be in opposition?”.  Posed like that, which politician would not choose government?  It’s a no brainer; one can always achieve more within the term of an Assembly by being part of the government than by being part of the opposition.
It was, and is, however, an over-simplification of the question.  ‘Choosing opposition’ is not the same thing as ‘choosing not to join this government at this point in time’, and it was misleading to paint it as such, which is what proponents of both coalition options did.  And ‘within the term of an Assembly’ is a massive constraint on political horizons.  But having managed to frame the question in a way which helped to get the answer that they wanted, I repeat, who can blame them for assuming that they’d been given a rather more general answer?
Those who see Plaid as a natural coalition partner for Labour are merely following the logic of that apparent decision in 2007 to its conclusion, and are being entirely consistent in so doing.  But that leads in turn to another reframing of the question.  If Plaid’s main purpose is to influence the Labour Party on the detail of policy in the short to medium term, then isn’t the best way to do that from within the Labour Party itself?


Anonymous said...

I share your view of Plaid's relative success in advancing the national cause as a separate body. Plaid has a Unique Selling Point (to use the awful jargon) of promoting independence for Wales. We have dragged the other parties along with us to support greater powers over the years.
If Plaid was to disband tomorrow and the majority of its members were to join Labour, we would be like a bunch of Paul Flynns... able to get the odd barb in, able to pass the odd motion in the meaningless Welsh Labour conference but totally sidelined. Labour fears Plaid - that's why they spend so much time attacking us and apeing our policies. They know Plaid is the challenge from the left they can't deal with, which is why they constantly try the vote Plaid, get Tory smear.

maen_tramgwydd said...

We've had this discussion previously.

The fudging of the issue of Plaid's fundamental aim, a pressure group pushing for more powers, or a political party seeking independence, has led to it being in a weakened position to do either thing.

If independence is the aim, Labour has to be defeated electorally in Wales. Labour will only seek further powers which will suit its political aims (which is to stay in power, and do as little as possible in government). Cosying up to Labour is inconsistent with the party's fundamental aim.

Plaid has to devise a strategy to defeat Labour at the ballot box. It won't be easy. The Labour poodles within the party and the one who wants ministerial power for his own ends, seem hell-bent on frustrating the party's ambitions.

Anonymous said...

I do feel let down by Plaid. I could never envisage voting for another party, as I support independence for Wales, but I do blame the party for not pushing the independence agenda forward and making it a mainstream issue.

It is up to the party to put this case forward and to date, this has not been done. Plaid need to take the blame for the majority of the voting public not supporting independence. At the end of the day, why should they when the case has not been put forward?

I feel there's a change under the leadership of Leanne Wood. She talks about independence, and is actually looking at the practicalities of this. Something which is long overdue. Partly because of personalities? Or the fact that the Party spend so much of its time and energy being a coalition partner? Which brings me back to your initial point; we have been a lobbying group (basically within the Labour party) when, in fact, Plaid should have been acting like a political party with the aim if independence. What is the point of Plaid without the ultimate aim of making Wales a better country through independence? I blame the party for putting the case for independence back over a decade, and I just hope it gets its act together now.

Efrogwr said...

Couldn't agree more, Anon 15:34 and it goes back way beyond the Cymru'n Un coalition. I remember the reluctance to discuss independence among members in Aberystwyth in the mid/late 1990s, Wigley in the 1999 campaing saying that the party had never stood for independence and Cynog's contortions over "full national status". Plaid has in the past held demonstrations outside the Labour stand on the Eisteddfod field, behaving like a pressure group seeking to influence Labour, rather than a serious force aiming to replace it.

Anonymous said...

What I don't understand is the idea that "Plaid need to take the blame for the majority of the voting public not supporting independence. At the end of the day, why should they when the case has not been put forward?"

I personally don't see what the "case" is. As far as i'm concerned, my nation is Wales. Britain is the union state we happen to belong to but my identity is Welsh. I believe in self-determination for all nations, so we should completely have the right to independence.

However I don't see why intellectuals would expect the people of Wales to support independence. Why would it be in their interests to lose the fiscal transfers (even at the current unfair rate) we currently receive? Isn't the argument that in fact we don't receive enough money from the Treasury? And that our education system and transport infrastructure needs more money not less?

If i'm unconvinced, and i'm a loyal Borthlas reader, what about the ordinary public who are seeing their incomes stagnate and job prospects disappear? Labour seems to offer much more stability than any notion of independence, particularly if that independence results in moving closer to the EU than we currently are, what with the EU currently relatively unpopular and focussed on austerity.

Anonymous said...

Anon, 16.17.

You illustrated my point that the case or independence needs to be made. It's nothing about intellectuals or whatever, its about the practicalities of independence and how this can benefit Wales and its people. Plaid has not done this, hence the questions you ask. Maybe if Plaid had done its job, you would be convinced by the idea.

Anonymous said...

Cynog Dafis has spouted this stuff for years. I dont really understand why he is in Plaid Cymru.He would be happier in the Greens.
The only point of Plaid Cymru is to fight for independence, the only way to do that is to defeat and destroy the Labour Party.The lesson from Scotland is to have nothing to do with the unionist parties and to develop and set the agenda for politics in Wales.
Scotland is not different to Wales.That independence is at the top of the political agenda there is because the S N P have campaigned on the issue.We must do the same relentlessly and dump neclear Submarine Jones in the dustbin of Welsh history where he belongs.

Anonymous said...

The idea that the "only point of Plaid Cymru is to fight for independence" is misguided. This has never ever been the case in the party's history. It has a range of goals including a bilingual society, decentralist socialism etc. It is important to address people's day to day concerns and improve their lives.

Anonymous said...

Anon 16.41,

Fair points but what I've argued is that the case in Wales is so flimsy because of the lack of oil, that making the case more often over the years would lead to further reductions in support. Plaid's high point was in the late 90s when there was a Labour balls up admittedly, but also when Wigley played down independence. He was and is still a nationalist. But the case just isn't existent yet. Time and time again I see the argument boiled down to things like selling water or selling energy, as of these are state-owned commodities. Emotionally as well, because of the ties between Wales and England it will always feel safer and more conservative (with a small ''c') to stay with England in a state. People don't like change and disruption and don't feel at all that Wales isn't "free" already.