Wednesday 31 July 2013

The problem isn't one person

It was entirely inevitable that holding a by-election in Ynys Môn would reopen Plaid’s self-inflicted wounds over energy policy.  However much party managers might wish that the debate could be postponed until after the by-election, it is the fact of the calling of the election which has reopened the question now.  And in the sense that Plaid, or rather its ex-leader, took the decision to force a snap election now, the date of that election is also self-inflicted.  One Welsh blog in particular has devoted some attention to the question over the last week or two, attracting the attention of the Western Mail’s fearless reporters as a result, who made another attempt to keep the story running this morning.
It is by now no great surprise to see Plaid’s "senior sources" turning their anonymous briefings on the member who supports the party’s policy rather than those who would undermine it for perceived electoral advantage, even if the supporter concerned made his comments more than a tad more personal than was entirely necessary to making the point.  But concentrating on what one candidate, whether current or past, thinks on one aspect of energy policy seems to me to be missing the deeper and more relevant points – firstly what is Plaid for, and secondly what is its energy policy?
Some have argued (Cai makes the point here) that whether or not a new nuclear power station is built is not a core nationalist issue, and it therefore doesn’t matter if some of Plaid’s members take a different view. If Plaid were to present itself as solely – or even primarily – a movement for the achievement of Welsh independence, then I’d agree that an awful lot of policy differences could be simply glossed over.  In that context it doesn’t really matter how we generate electricity, does it?
Well, actually, yes it does.
Perhaps the question of how we generate our electricity is not per se a core nationalist issue, but the economic consequences of such decisions are – or should be – very much nationalist issues.  What assets and liabilities Wales inherits at the point of independence is a vitally important question, and responsibility for decommissioning a nuclear power station, and for managing and disposing of nuclear waste, are two massive potential liabilities on the balance sheet.
The argument for independence may never have been primarily an economic one; but the argument against is very much so.  In that context, supporting Wylfa B – without even considering any of the other arguments for and against – gives a massive boost to the Unionist arguments about the alleged unaffordability of Independence.  Insofar as Wylfa B makes any sense at all, it does so only in the context of a continued union between Wales and England.  Nuclear energy makes more sense for large countries than for small ones.
But in any event, Plaid has long since stopped presenting itself as solely – or even primarily – a movement for the achievement of independence; it also seeks to present itself as a party of government.  And whilst I might not agree with those who have tried to push independence almost entirely off the agenda because they lack the imagination or the ability to do both of those things, I agree with the core assumption that a serious nationalist party which sees independence as a gradual process must be prepared to take responsibility in the short term.
Taking responsibility in the short term, however, requires a coherent and consistent policy platform on a range of issues, and as a minimum that has to include the key issues facing Wales and the world in general.  If we think that man-made climate change is one of those issues – and I do, and I’ve heard plenty of Plaid people saying that they do as well – then energy policy is a key element of any response.  And on that issue, Plaid has a serious problem of which the very public disagreement over Wylfa B is little more than a symptom.
If we imagine that a political earthquake were to take place at the next Assembly election and a majority Plaid government were to be elected, what would be that government’s energy policy?  In truth, we don’t know – it would depend entirely on which Plaid members were elected, not on how many of them.  Even if the party had a majority in the Assembly there can be no guarantee of unity over energy policy.  And as the period between 2007 and 2011 demonstrated, even what the manifesto says cannot necessarily be relied upon.
·         On nuclear energy, whether the party is for or against depends on who you speak to;
·         On wind energy whether the party is for or against depends on who you speak to;
·         On the construction of new gas-fired fired power stations, whether the party is for or against depends on who you speak to;
·         And it recently emerged that on the question of the Severn barrage, whether the party is for or against depends on who you speak to as well.
In the light of that disarray, the only way that a Plaid government could deliver any energy policy at all would be if a majority within the Plaid group could secure the support of members of one or other of the opposition parties for their position.  That hardly gives voters for whom climate change is one of their top issues a sound basis for selecting Plaid as a party of government.
During the recent spat, Plaid members have proudly claimed that in their party, members can at least debate the issues freely.  That’s true, and it’s a great strength of the party.  But it is matched by a corresponding weakness in that nobody ever accepts the result of that debate.  The debate never comes to any conclusion, because those who find themselves on the 'losing' side continue to put their case - usually in a very public fashion.  And one of the results of that has been that although in theory the party’s members control policy, in practice the policy is set by those members who are elected politicians and who decide for themselves what stance to take on these issues.  It’s one of the explanations for the shift in real power over policy from the membership to the elected elite.
Clearly the lack of unity over Wylfa B is a problem for Plaid, but in focusing the debate around the views of one candidate the wider point is being missed.  This is an institutionalised problem of a party with an inability to decide on and promote a single consistent policy on one of the most important issues facing humanity.  With all due respect to MH@Syniadau, with whom I usually tend to agree, that really isn’t simply a problem with Rhun.


BoiCymraeg said...

Cytuno 100%.

I'm broadly pro-nuclear but am generally with MH on this subject - and it frustrates me to see how many members don't seem to understand the basis for his objections, making fatuous claims like "this is realpolitik" and that calls for honesty and transparency are "student politics". As if these problems are somehow an asset for Plaid Cymru!

Whether MH's personal comments about Rhun are going too far, or whether he shouldn't be bringing this to light during a by-election, are different matters, but perhaps at any other time nobody would listen.

Anonymous said...

Is it worth Rhun losing Ynys Mon for the sake of a nuclear plant which may be upgraded and may not be?

The consequence of not supporting, or at least not being antiWylfa is a Labour AM winning the seat. This Labour AM will give Labour a majority in Cardiff to run the country even further into the ground and put the skids on Wales's only nationalist party. His policies will be to further marginalise the Welsh language, create another housing boom which will be used to settle people from London, worse health services, no imaginagion in transport except build more roads, not use a potential Stamp Duty on holiday homes, mismanage education etc etc. Is it really worth seeing all that for a nuclear reactor which may or may not be built? My hunch is that there never will be a Wylfa B for the very reasons you outline John.

My biggest concern is the total lack of any nationalist narrative in the campaign. Not even 'Wales needs more power'. It's all down to 'standing up to North Wales against nasty South Wales'.

It's all down to 'local boy'. That's ok, and there's no great debate on nationalism at the moment, but Plaid isn't developing nor promoting a nationalist narrative at all. There's no reason we're not developing any new nationalists in Wales.

Anonymous said...

The joke in Plaid was, it wanted to ban nuclear power stations on the mainland!

John Dixon said...

Anon 16:36,

You seem to be making two rather large assumptions there, neither of which, as far as I am aware, is supported by any hard evidence.

The first is that opinion on Ynys Môn is so overwhelmingly pro-Wylfa that an anti-Wylfa candidate is unelectable. From what little polling evidence exists, I believe that opinion is much more evenly divided than that.

And the second is that the advantage gained by being pro-Wylfa on Ynys Môn outweighs the downside of not being trusted on nuclear policy anywhere else in Wales. I doubt that very much.

If you're correct in your assertion that the campaign was all about 'standing up for North Wales against nasty South Wales' - and I'm not close enough to know - then I'd say it's a very odd narrative for any 'nationalist' party to be pushing.

Dylan said...

"If you're correct in your assertion that the campaign was all about 'standing up for North Wales against nasty South Wales' - and I'm not close enough to know - then I'd say it's a very odd narrative for any 'nationalist' party to be pushing."

Thankfully, the assertion is pure fiction.

Anyway, I'm pro-nuclear but I broadly sympathise with MH's complaint that Plaid Cymru politicians ought to be more honest about the party's official policy on the matter. A majority of the party's members voted to oppose nuclear power, and that is a fact that needs to be acknowledged. The tortuous bullshitting about only opposing new stations on completely new sites is indeed embarrassing. The policy is what it is, and it should be changed in the proper way.

Perhaps this problem is an indication that the way the party decides policy (ie members voting at conference) isn't sustainable in the long term. The current set-up is a nice idea, but I'm wondering whether it's viable in practice. Differences between the views of party members as a whole and those of the elected politicians are certain to emerge at times, particularly when the party enters government.

So MH's protest is fair enough in a way, but only up to a point. Certainly, for a party member to actively wish for a party candidate to lose an election is simply not sane. Additionally, I don't accept that party rules were waived in order to allow Rhun to stand. The mechanism existed with such exceptional circumstances in mind, and while it is true that local members could have done with more time to assess his stance on various topics, that was a factor for them to bear in mind while they made their decision. They considered it, and they still chose him.

Max Wallis said...

In his post-election Radio-4 interview, Rhun was clear - he wants a nuclear Wylfa B and he wants to change Plaid's general anti-nuclear policy.

Anonymous said...

I was actually there on the ground and we didn't push a "north Wales vs nasty south Wales" line whatsoever! It was actually about representing the island IN the Assembly and being pro-Assembly.

While all of these online debates were going on, actual Plaid members were flooding the island to campaign for Rhun, and the local membership was absolutely buzzing and probably still is.

People online are trying to be "fair" to MH and understand his objections, because he is usually such a respected blogger. But on the ground none of this mattered and there was and is massive enthusiasm about having Rhun as an AM. Leanne Wood was also heavily involved and worked well with Rhun.

Some people want to see a problem in everything, and had we lost or not won as handsomely, those people would still criticise from the side lines. So be it.