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Can Plaid Cymru learn from the SNP and put Welsh independence on the agenda?

Plaid leader Leanne Wood tells The Staggers that the SNP’s success represents a golden opportunity for Welsh nationalism.

Plaid leader Leanne Wood tells The Staggers.
Leanne Wood, who was elected as Plaid Cymru leader in March 2012.

2007 was a good year for nationalist parties in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. In addition to the SNP winning control of the Scottish Parliament for the first time, Sinn Fein entered into a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont and Plaid Cymru formed a coalition administration with Labour in the Welsh Senedd.

Since then, the SNP has secured the right to stage a referendum on independence, while Sinn Fein has consolidated its support north of the Irish border and enjoyed a surge of popularity south of it. By contrast, Plaid Cymru’s progress has all but reversed.

At the 2011 devolved elections, Plaid lost votes on both the constituency and regional ballots, reducing its tally of Assembly seats from 15 to 11 in a chamber of 60. The reassertion of Labour’s dominance over the Welsh political landscape, coupled with an unexpected Conservative revival, pushed Plaid into third place - its worst result in the devolved era.

The defeat led to the resignation of long-term leader Ieuan Wyn Jones and his replacement by Leanne Wood, a 40-year old former probation officer with pronounced socialist and republican sympathies. Wood has sought to breathe new life into her beleaguered party, but there’s no disguising the extent of the challenge it faces: surveys consistently suggest fewer than 15 per cent of Welsh people back a formal split from the UK.

Nonetheless, Wood believes the SNP’s success represents a golden opportunity for Welsh nationalism. Speaking to me recently from her Cardiff office, she said: "We’ve called for a constitutional convention to be held after the referendum. It should be as open as possible. It shouldn’t rule out any options. But whatever happens next year, things will change fundamentally."

Wood pays close attention to SNP campaigning techniques, so much so, in fact, that she has even hired Claire Howell, a political psychologist employed by Alex Salmond in recent years, to help deliver an SNP-style turnaround in her party’s performance.

The decision to bring Howell on board reflects Wood’s conviction that where Scotland leads, constitutionally speaking, Wales will eventually follow: "There’s an appetite in Wales for a stronger devolution settlement. People are looking to Scotland and seeing that things are developing quickly there. My feeling is that, in time, we’ll want the same sort of progress".

Ultimately, though, Wood’s approach is pragmatic. Even if Scotland does vote to leave the UK (and that remains a remote prospect at this stage), she acknowledges it will take at least a generation to persuade Welsh voters of the merits of independence - a position which suits Plaid’s underlying gradualism. Central to Wood’s long-term strategy is strengthening the Welsh economy, which has been chronically weak since the 1980s.

"Our economic situation is the reason support for an independent Wales is not as widespread as it is for an independent Scotland. We’ve been in decline for three decades now. The task is to get to the point where nobody can say 'you can’t afford it'".

The economics of independence haven’t been explored as thoroughly in Wales as they have in Scotland, but debate in the two countries follows a similar pattern. For instance, one argument commonly advanced by Welsh unionists is that Wales receives substantially more in public spending from Westminster than it generates in tax, although - as the nationalists are quick to point out - there is no Welsh equivalent of Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland, which makes it difficult to establish an accurate picture of the national balance sheet.

Yet doubts over the economic viability of an independent Wales have done little to dampen the Welsh public’s enthusiasm for greater autonomy within the Union. In 2011, Wales voted in favour of giving the Senedd primary law making powers, freeing Cardiff from the requirement to apply for a Legislative Competence Order from Westminster before it can enact legislation.

In this respect, Wales’s experience of home rule has mirrored that of Scotland’s, albeit on a smaller scale. Devolution may not have radically altered attitudes towards independence, but it has laid the groundwork for more devolution. As in Scotland, the real battle has been over which side - nationalist or unionist - controls the devolutionary agenda. So far, Welsh unionists have found it easier to maintain control than their Scottish counterparts.

Laura McAllister, Professor of Governance at Liverpool University and the author of various books about Welsh politics, attributes this in part to Plaid’s initial confusion over its role in the new Assembly.

"To be fair to Plaid, the SNP had a much better terrain in that the [Scottish devolved] model was much more expansive", she told me. "But that doesn’t excuse the fact that Plaid equivocated over what it was meant to be doing. Even the decision to enter government in 2007 was subject to a lot of internal party strife."

Like Wood, McAllister sees Wales’s lack of economic confidence as a major obstacle to Plaid’s electoral development: "In Scotland you’ve got a major natural resource, [but we] need to develop the Welsh economy after years of structural and industrial disadvantage. I’m not suggesting it’s all about oil, but it’s pretty fundamental."

The decisive factor, however, has been Welsh Labour’s willingness to differentiate itself from the Labour Party in London. In 2000, Alun Michael, a Tony Blair appointee, was deposed as first minister (or secretary, as it was called then) in exchange for Rhodri Morgan, the preferred candidate of the party’s grassroots. Morgan went on to deliver a speech attacking Blair’s programme of public service modernisation and pledging to put "clear red water" between his administration and the London government.

The perception that Welsh Labour was more than merely a satellite of British Labour chimed with an increasingly assertive sense of Welsh national identity, which in turn worked to limit the appeal of Plaid Cymru at a time of growing popular discontent with the New Labour project.

Conversely, Scottish Labour’s revolt against Blairism was short-lived. When Henry McLeish attracted media criticism over an expenses scandal in 2001, he found himself isolated within the Labour MSPs group at Holyrood. One reason his colleagues failed to back him was that he had recently defied Blair over the issue of free personal care. Following McLeish’s departure, the post of first minister was handed to a more compliant substitute, Jack McConnell. A few years later, a resurgent SNP was able to capitalise on the perception that McConnell hadn’t lived up to Scots’ aspirations for their new parliament.

Conscious of Labour’s experience in Scotland, Carwyn Jones - Morgan’s successor - has been eager to stay abreast of Welsh aspirations. Jones has joined Wood in calling for a constitutional convention to examine ways of making the British political system more responsive to the needs of the Celtic fringes. One of his proposals is for the House of Commons "to be balanced by a new upper house with equal representation from England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland".

Jones adopted this idea from Conservative AM David Melding, the deputy presiding officer of the Welsh Assembly and a leading advocate of federalism: "A federal approach would apportion sovereignty between the home nations at one level and the UK state at another, so the same rules would apply to all parts of the country", he explained when I spoke to himlast month. "You couldn’t then argue that Scotland and Wales were second-class members of the UK."

Without far-reaching reform of this sort, Melding fears Scotland’s departure from the UK will be hastened, leaving Wales facing what he calls an "immediate existential challenge": "It would be a very, very junior partner in any continuing union. It would be difficult to see how Britishness could be projected. Independence would become a more feasible proposition to some [Welsh] people".

The fact that Melding is a Conservative is significant. In Wales, the Tories have managed to avoid theslow motioncollapse they’ve suffered in Scotland over recent decades toremain a substantial political force. Having seen their vote increase in the 2010 UK general election, they went on to become the official opposition in the Senedd the following year.

While the decline of Tory unionism in Scotland has worked to loosen Scottish ties to the Union, the resilience of Welsh Conservative support has helped cement Wales’s place in the UK. Yet, paradoxically, feelings of Britishness have weakened in Wales as they have in Scotland, with more than 60 per cent of Welsh people now defining themselves as Welsh first and British second (if at all).

That support for a separate Welsh state hasn’t grown in line with a strengthening Welsh identity casts doubt on Melding’s belief that Scottish independence could trigger a separatist domino effect across the UK. Nationalist movements, it seems, operate according to their own specific, local dynamics, even when they exist in close proximity to one another. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the contrasting fortunes of Plaid Cymru and the SNP over the last five or six years.