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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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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