Time to release Plaid Cymru from the tentacles of Westminster and Whitehall

Wales could soon be free.

Kevin Meagher’s New Statesman article "Why doesn’t Labour face a UKIP of the left?" (26 February 2013) described Plaid Cymru as a social democratic party. Likewise, on the The Andrew Marr Show (BBC1, 3 March), the normally camera shy Nigel Farage labelled the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats as social democrats. So is Plaid Cymru the same as those three London-based parties? While it is fair to state that all four are, to greater or lesser extents, in favour of the mixed economy/welfare state dualism, Plaid Cymru’s ideology is far more complex, but discernible, than the functionalist and managerialist approaches that underpin the Westminster triumvirate.

Plaid Cymru was formed in 1925 to represent the Welsh nationalist voice in marked contrast to the British nationalism emanating from the three Westminster parties of government: Conservatives, Liberals and Labour. Replace the Liberals with the Liberal Democrats and 88 years later very little has changed. Plaid Cymru still staunchly opposes the UK centralist instincts of those three parties, and the "soft approach" British nationalism that they so adroitly present. The argument regarding the need for decolonisation remains as pertinent today – despite devolution and regionalist policies – as it was then. Progress may have occurred on some fronts, but UK state hegemony, and its associated strands, looms large.

Plaid Cymru’s present political philosophy developed back in the Thirties with the socialist input of the economist, D J Davies, and his wife, the educationalist, Noelle Davies. They wished to eschew existing economic conventions by promoting cooperativism, in order to, as DJ Davies explained, “undermine capitalism and transform it from within.” By the end of that decade, Plaid Cymru’s notion that Wales was a "family", and therefore could find internal strength to cope with the vicissitudes of life, was firmly established. Furthermore, the concept of "freedom", based on liberal understandings, was vitally important for Plaid Cymru from its inception. For Plaid Cymru, freedom equates to the maximum amount of autonomy possible in any given scenario. Freedom starts with the individual, flows through the family and community, and reaches its apogee in the nation. Thence, it takes a return journey.

What binds this freedom is the ideology of Decentralist Socialism: a "bottom up" theoretical and practical challenge to the"‘top down" state socialism that is so beloved by ‘big state’ advocates such as the Labour Party. It was this theory, allied to the party’s intellectual radicalism, which was based upon ‘community-ism’ (long before anybody ever mentioned ‘localism’), which attracted intellectuals to join Plaid Cymru. Thus, two subscribers, the novelist and New Left academic Raymond Williams, and the Gramscian historian Gwyn Alf Williams, saw Plaid Cymru as the vehicle to drive Wales to political independence. In the manner that Frantz Fanon envisaged liberationist nationalism unlocking the key for socialist flowering in Algeria, so, it was felt, Plaid Cymru’s advocacy of nationalism combined with socialism would, ultimately, refresh and invigorate the communities of a politically autonomous Wales.

To ensure that Wales could support itself economically, and to counter the worst excesses of unfettered capitalism, Plaid Cymru produced its Economic Plan for Wales in 1970. The major domains of productivity – to replenish the economy – would be hubs that would be established around existing towns and villages. This built upon the "small is beautiful" thesis, based upon the teachings of the jurist Leopold Kohr – a close friend of former leader, Gwynfor Evans, and an advisor to Plaid Cymru – and the progressive statistician E F Schumacher. In conjunction with green economic thinking and community interaction, Plaid Cymru began to construct alternative approaches that preceded the 1970’s turn to environmentalism.

By the Eighties, Plaid Cymru was campaigning against the incivility of Thatcherism. It was during the 1984/5 Pit Dispute that Plaid Cymru’s present leader, Leanne Wood, first cut her political teeth. A teenager at the time, Wood experienced the tumult of the dispute at close quarters as she was growing up in Rhondda Fawr, in the steam coal heart of the South Wales Coalfield. Seeing the effect of improvident Tory policies on her community, Wood embraced and refined her socialist, republican, feminist and nationalist leanings.
Leanne Wood was proclaimed leader of Plaid Cymru in March 2012. She was elected in the hope that she would offer a radical voice to the party; a critical edginess which many of its members felt had been diluted in the previous few years when Plaid Cymru had been in coalition with Labour in the National Assembly. Wood was supported, overwhelmingly, by grassroot activists who wished to see Plaid Cymru adopt a more vibrant, anti-imperialist stance.

With the emerging debates on identities, both within the UK and across the European mainland in general, Plaid Cymru must take a firm position to outline its intent for life after the Scotland 2014 Independence Referendum; be that the vote produces a Yes or No outcome. The UK state, and its component parts, is about to enter a decisive period in its existence. The pincers of national self-determination and positioning within Europe are the two spheres that require attention. Wales has always been more pro-European in its outlook than its neighbour to the east. Back in the Twenties Plaid Cymru’s President and first philosophical guru, Saunders Lewis, said that ”Wales is a European nation”. Like the SNP, Plaid Cymru accepts that Wales future as an independent nation can only truly flourish as a member state of the European Union. Its extensive links with mainland parties and organisations, in the likes of Flanders, Brittany and Galicia assist this. To this extent, Plaid Cymru mirrors the Europhile sentiments of the Liberal Democrats. In the end, however, it is release from the tentacles of Westminster and Whitehall that it desperately desires. With that at the forefront of her mind, Leanne Wood offers a form of community socialism that can reflect the hopes and aspirations of a (soon to be?) free Wales.

Dr Alan Sandry is the author of Plaid Cymru: An Ideological Analysis (Welsh Academic Press, 2011)
 

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Will Storm Doris affect turnout in the Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland by-elections?

The Met Office has warned of gale force winds on Thursday. 

Voters in Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland will turn out on Thursday 23 February to cast their vote in two hotly contested by-elections, where the incumbent Labour party is clinging on.

But they may feel less inclined to do so, if the Met Office is correct. It has predicted that Storm Doris will shake the UK on Thursday, with both Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland in the firing line

It's a commonly-held belief that adverse weather can affect the number of voters who make the effort to head to the polls. Ahead of the EU rerendum, the Telegraph ran a news article suggesting that thunder storms on the day could boost the Leave campaign, "which is most likely to benefit from a low turnout". Labour activists will be particularly nervous in Stoke-on-Trent Central, which has the distinction of being the sole constituency in 2015 where the majority of the electorate did not vote.

Even Anthony Howard once said that evening rain before the polls close "has always been a frightening prospect for Labour", as working-class voters would often go to the polls between tea and 10pm.

But does the weather actually have much of an impact? While evidence certainly suggests that it does in the US, a study published by Democratic Audit based on voter turnout in Sweden suggests that, as long as voting is convenient, weather does not affect turnout.

"Previous studies," the authors write, "focused on the United States, a country where the costs associated with voting are high in a comparative perspective". 

In Sweden, where voting is easier  registration is not required and election day is on a weekend – the results are different. "Even when using datasets covering almost 150,000 persons and very detailed rain data, we do not find any meaningful effects of weather conditions" the report says.

Using the same metric of difficulty, voting is "easier" in the UK than America, but more difficult than Sweden. So what happens in the UK?

According to Stephen Fisher, a politics researcher at Oxford University, there is little correlation between good weather and voting patterns. He told the BBC in 2002 that data from the last 15 general elections showed no link.

Even if there was some relation between the weather and turnout, Fisher points out, a higher proportion of people voting by postal ballot would diminish the effect.

There is one caveat, however. "If you had a January snowstorm", says John Curtice from the University of Strathclyde, "it would make a difference but for the most part the weather is mildly inclement at these times of year [when general elections are held]. So you might need to take a brolly with you or you might have sunshine but you won't have a howling gale or snow or serious travel disruption."

That last point is important. While rain might not put people off voting, difficulties getting to the polling station can. So a truly chaotic storm could affect a result.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland