The unthinkable alliance with Plaid

Despite the spectre of nationalists holding power in both Wales and Scotland we should not recoil fr

A week ago, after much debate, Labour Party members in Wales voted to go into coalition in the National Assembly with Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalists. So, how did this previously unthinkable alliance come about, and what does it mean for Wales’ place in the United Kingdom?

The situation the Assembly Members found themselves in was produced by the Assembly’s unusual electoral system. Despite winning by far the largest number of votes and seats, Labour were left four seats short of a majority, with the three opposition parties threatening to band together in a coalition of the unprincipled.

While Rhodri Morgan faced an undeniable mathematical dilemma, I disagreed with the proposal to share power with the Nationalists. For me, the conflict of ideology with Plaid - our vastly differing ambitions for Wales - meant that I did not favour the coalition.

Labour should always prioritise the public services that people care about, and the fight for social justice that changes lives. I felt that an alliance with Plaid Cymru, with their fixation about constitutional issues, endangered that. However, now that the Party has spoken, Rhodri has my support in what is bound to be an interesting few years.

One issue that came up on the fringes of this debate, and will need to be addressed in the future, is the role of Welsh MPs in this new context. Some people questioned the right of Members of Parliament to contribute to the debate on the coalition. ‘MPs should keep their attentions on Westminster and stay off the thorny areas of internal Welsh politics’, they said. But, even leaving aside the fact that many issues in the ‘One Wales’ document directly involve MPs, this position is both wrong and counter-productive for Wales.

Welsh Labour has, and always should, make the argument that Wales works best with AMs and MPs co-operating, working in partnership. A fellow Welsh MP, Chris Bryant, recently made the suggestion that practical steps should be taken to strengthen this relationship and help give us a better understanding of the situations and pressures each other face. Labour AMs and MPs should meet jointly more often, for example, especially when specific issues can be better addressed through working together. This is something I endorse; not because of any wish to direct operations from Westminster, but because a stronger partnership would be beneficial for Wales.

During the wider media debate, I was also puzzled to hear mentions of a ‘unionist wing’ of Welsh Labour. The Labour Party, in Wales as in the rest of the United Kingdom, is a ‘unionist’ party. We believe that, through being part of the Union, Wales benefits greatly – as the Union benefits from the presence of Wales. On the contrary, Plaid Cymru is the party that truly has a division between ‘unionists’ who want to stay part of the UK, and those who will publicly admit to their obsession with independence.

What’s more, polls consistently show that a huge majority of Welsh people don’t want independence. Not because they ‘lack self-confidence’, but because they can see the logic and good sense of working together within the U.K. for the benefit of Wales. They are proud to be Welsh and British and reject the attempts of nationalism to drive a wedge between the two. That’s why I welcome Gordon Brown’s proposal to fly the Union Flag from public buildings – we should be proud to fly both the British and Welsh flags, and show confidence and pride in our dual identity.

In 1997, we argued that devolution would strengthen, not weaken, the Union. Despite the spectre of nationalists holding power in both Wales and Scotland, we should not recoil from that argument now.

Show Hide image

An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State