I can understand the anger and disappointment with which members of any party react to a defection by one of their elected members. In the case of Dafydd Elis Thomas, those feelings will no doubt be heightened by the fact that (and not for the first time) his actions seem timed to occur with maximum impact just before a conference or election. There is a danger, though, that in over-personalising the question, the substance of the underlying issues gets lost or ignored. He has, over the years, said much with which I agree and much with which I disagree. I’m not going to dwell on the more personal aspects of his decision. There is one thing he said this week, however, which has largely been ignored, but on which I have considerable sympathy with his diagnosis, even if not with his proposed cure.
It’s not the first time that he’s expressed his view that Plaid has not adapted well to the new political situation post-devolution; and it’s not the first time that I’ve agreed with him on that question. It seems to me that there are two potential roles for a nationalist party post-devolution, but neither is without its problems. Part of Plaid’s problem is that it has never clearly opted for either.
The first is to concentrate on becoming a party of government, seeking to use the limited powers of the devolved legislature for nation-building, doing what it can to improve the lives of the people of Wales in the short term, and seeking further devolution of power on a gradualist and opportunistic basis. The major problem with that approach is that Wales already has one (and arguably up to three) parties trying to do much the same thing. Differentiation from the Labour Party becomes difficult to say the least; and it might even be that the most effective way to pursue the goal would be through membership of the Labour Party and seeking to change it from within rather than playing the role of an opposition to it. That underlying similarity is part of the reason why Plaid can’t seem to make its mind up from one day to the next whether the Labour Party is a progressive force with which Plaid should ally itself, or a bunch of pink Tories who must be opposed at every level.
The second is to harden the party’s stance on the national question; to accept that devolution has a logic of its own by now and that the role of a national party is always to be arguing for more, and sooner; to be putting the case for the end goal of independence for Wales. The problem with that approach is that, unless and until the case is made and a substantial number of people come to support that aim, it’s unlikely to be an electorally successful strategy. For those who judge success in short term electoral considerations, it’s an unattractive option.
There are a number of reasons for Plaid’s failure to adopt either of these paths, including the fact that for ten of the post-devolution years its leader actually didn’t ever appear to agree with the party’s formal aims. But it was never down to one individual – there have long been others (Dafydd Elis Thomas amongst them) in prominent positions who would never accept a decision to go for one or the other of these options if it wasn’t the one that they wanted. And I'm not without a certain amount of personal experience in trying to maintain a balance between the two very different perspectives.
But am I positing a false choice? Can the two be combined? The case of the SNP shows, surely, that they can. It is perfectly possible to go to the electorate and argue that a party has a clear vision for where it wants the country to be and will continue to strive for that, but that it is also willing and ready to serve the best interests of the country by offering itself as an alternative government in the interim. It’s worked extremely well in Scotland. For years, I believed that such a strategy was not only possible, but desirable. However, it’s never really been tried here in Wales. That’s partly down to electoral timidity, but also partly down to a lack of self-conviction within Plaid about the possibility of realising the aim.
There is another way of combining the two, however, and this is the option which Plaid seems to have chosen – albeit by default, rather than through a rigorous process. That approach is to say different things to different audiences. The internal audience is encouraged to continue working with the long term goal in mind, whilst the external audience is encouraged to believe that it’s such a long term aim that they needn’t worry their heads about it. But the audiences cannot be kept as separate as that, and there is inevitable message leakage. The result is a party which at best sounds uncertain about what it wants, and at worst sounds positively shifty and dishonest about what it aims to achieve for Wales.
It also has the effect of making it difficult for any new or different party to fill the space and argue for Welsh independence because Plaid continues to try and occupy that space without really doing very much to promote the aim, in an attempt to build further electoral support without losing what it already has. It’s not quite the worst of all worlds, but it’s not far short of that for those who want to see faster progress towards an independent Wales.Dafydd’s proposed ‘cure’ of giving more support to Labour, under this analysis, is effectively equivalent to selecting the first option of those outlined above. In fairness to Dafydd, whilst I might disagree with him, I think that’s an entirely honourable position to take. It would almost certainly mean splitting Plaid between the two approaches – but that might not be an entirely bad thing for Wales in the long term. The party has achieved a lot over the past few decades – more than many people give it credit for. But perhaps it really has reached the limits of what can be achieved by trying to ride both horses.