Whilst at particular times and in particular circumstances Plaid has come close to “breaking through” in parts of English-speaking Wales, taken as a whole over the long term the party’s strength remains heavily concentrated in the Welsh speaking constituencies in Gwynedd and Dyfed. The three parliamentary constituencies currently held are the first, second and third most Welsh-speaking constituencies in Wales; the other two which have been held at one time or another occupy the fourth and fifth slots in the same table, and the perennial source of hope, Llanelli, comes in at number six (source: Table 21 page 27). The degree of correlation is inescapable. And it’s a long term and well-established phenomenon.
Historically, Plaid Cymru in particular – and Welsh nationalism more generally – owe a huge debt of gratitude to the language and those who speak it for keeping the flame alive. It’s not only the party’s votes which have come disproportionately from Welsh-speakers; so, traditionally at least, have its funds (and I speak as a former treasurer of the party). At times when others have despaired of the national cause, the cause has been kept alive, to a disproportionate extent, by nationalists in the most Welsh-speaking parts of Wales.
That’s the upside. The downside is twofold.
Firstly, a nationalism based on, or springing from, language doesn’t necessarily translate into a keen desire for independence. It has at times seemed as though there are nationalists in this camp who would be satisfied with an arrangement a long way short of an independent Wales. And at times, I’ve wondered whether there isn’t a fear, lurking in the recesses of the consciousness of some, that the language would follow the path of Gaelic in Ireland were Wales to gain a full political voice. The harder edged constitutional nationalism has often come from the more anglicized parts of Wales, where it is frequently, but not always, fused with republican and socialist tendencies.
Secondly, there is a problem of perception. When it comes to perceptions, no-one who’s ever done any serious canvassing for Plaid can honestly say that they have not met with a variation on the response that “I can’t vote Plaid because I don’t speak Welsh” – even when the canvasser him or herself is a third or fourth generation non Welsh-speaker from the same background and community as the person being canvassed. Political nationalism is perceived as being the occupation – or perhaps even the pre-occupation – only of those who speak Welsh. I had expected that, within the context of a devolved parliament with all four parties signing up, to a greater or lesser degree, to promotion of the Welsh language, the perception that the language was the ‘property’ of one of those parties would fade. Not only has that not happened, the perception might even, perversely, have strengthened, not least since it’s overwhelmingly the members of one party who choose to use Welsh in debate in the chamber.
I have, of course, simplified and generalised above; reality is rather more complicated than suggested. But I do so because I want to get to a key point here. The two strands that I refer to within Plaid have coexisted well – remarkably so in some ways. The unity of the mainstream political voice of Welsh nationalism has been maintained despite occasional tensions and differences of emphasis. And there’s no doubt at all that that unity has served Plaid well for many years, even if it has never led to the oft dreamed-of breakthrough.
But I ask the question: has it served the national cause as a whole as well as it has served that party? Or, in the current context, is maintaining that unity of political expression actually now working against the achievement of the political objectives, and holding back the sort of political nationalism which has had so much success in Scotland?
Lest anyone misinterpret what I say here, I am not suggesting in any way that nationalists in the generic sense should abandon the Welsh language. But I do wonder whether it’s time for a very clear separation between that issue and the cause of independence.
For historical and sentimental reasons, I doubt whether such a separation is possible, or even conceivable, within the constraints of existing political forces. But continuing to do what has been done in the past is a recipe for continuing to get the same results. Having multiple political expressions of nationalism might be an approach more likely to succeed, and is, after all, much more normal in other countries. Is it only the electoral system and the fear of a split nationalist vote which prevents that in Wales or is it also an innate small-c conservatism?