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.

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. 

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

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.