Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Losing a sense of direction

To say that I don’t always agree with what Simon Brooks has to say would be unsurprising, but on this occasion, I think he makes a very valid point.  It’s not entirely dissimilar to points made on this blog in the past.  It is easy enough for someone looking out from within Plaid simply to dismiss what he has said, of course.  Not so many years ago, I would almost certainly have done the same.  Being part of that which is being critiqued makes it far too easy to fall into the comfort zone of groupthink and simply reject the criticism.  But the perspective from outside can often look very different, and not always be easy for those inside to comprehend.
His core point, it seems to me, is that in the recent election, Plaid sounded more like the Welsh arm of a British campaign than like a specifically Welsh campaign.  I agree.  He’s a bit dismissive about the ‘group hugs’ at the end of debates, but I thought it a welcome change, demonstrating that a different approach to politics is possible.  And there’s nothing at all wrong, in my view, with parties making alliances where appropriate.  The question, though, is whether a convenient alliance around a few core points should supplement or supplant the member parties’ individual narratives.  In Scotland, I thought it clearly supplemented – and therefore strengthened - the SNP’s message; in Wales it looked more like a case of supplanting – and therefore weakening – Plaid’s narrative.
Now, as always needs to be said, Wales isn’t Scotland; we are at very different stages of development.  So we shouldn’t expect a direct replication in Wales of what is happening at a given point in time; we might instead need to look backwards to the Scotland of a decade or two ago for a comparison with today’s Wales.  But, even if we do that, we see one point with absolute clarity – at no point in the path which has led Scotland to where it is today were the SNP ever afraid of arguing for their core policy of Scottish independence. 
Many factors have led Scotland to where it is today, and not all of those could be replicated in Wales even if the political will were there.  But one of those factors must surely be the consistency with which the case has been put.  And that is a key difference between Scotland and Wales, and is one which, unlike many of the other factors, is entirely in our own hands.
I’m not convinced, though, that Simon has identified the right reason for the lack of a distinctive Welsh dimension.  He seems to think that it’s down to an obsessive desire to win the admiration and approval of the British (i.e. English, in this context) ‘left’.  Whilst I wouldn’t deny that there are some who seem to suffer from that, and others who rationalise their position by appealing to the idea that they are the heirs of Lloyd George or Bevan, I think it’s too simplistic an analysis.  The problem isn’t about the direction from which approval is sought; it’s the underlying psychological need for approval in the first place.
That need stems, it seems to me, from a lack of confidence which is one of the less attractive characteristics of the Welsh in general, and our political leadership in particular.  There is a lack of confidence in the arguments for independence and a lack of confidence in the ability to express and defend those arguments.  And often, even a lack of confidence and certainty about whether it’s what they really want.
But whether Simon or I is right or wrong in the analysis is secondary to the outcome which we saw, which was that Plaid ended up fighting the election on a very ‘British’ platform which failed to present a clear alternative future for Wales, and of which one of the main planks seemed to be “vote for us to keep Labour honest”. 
And looking forward, one of the biggest problems with that line is that even if people could be convinced that a party with 3 – 6 seats could really keep a Labour party with 300 in check (an argument which only made any sense at all because of the rise of the SNP), they may well take a different view if a Corbyn-led Labour* no longer seems to need to be “kept honest” and is saying essentially the same thing as Plaid on all the pan-British issues.  Why not just vote for the real thing, in order to try and ensure a Labour victory rather than risk a failure?  It's a dangerous place to be.
(*No, I’m not really arguing that Corbyn is actually that different to the rest of Labour, but for their own reasons, various interests have effectively conspired together to create a strong perception that he is, and it is perception which drives voting, not fact.)


Gav said...

Mind, it could be argued that a Corbyn-led Labour, if successful in shifting the "Overton window" you referred to in another post, will serve to keep Plaid honest. Could be good for Wales, if not for the Labour Party.

Karen said...

The problem Plaid has, indeed the problem every nationalist in Wales has is to formulate a narrative of Wales as a distinct entity/country.

Adam Price gets this unlike so many others in his party. The language was supposed to help frame the debate but can now be seen doing precisely the reverse and that's why Labour and the Conservatives are so keen to introduce more WM schools. As for all the PC AM's insisting on using Welsh in the Assembly, well it's just feeding fuel to the other parties. Can't blame some of them but folk like Rhun ap Iorwerth should have worked this out long ago.

Serious problems and the more we attempt to cover them up the more serious they get.