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

Wales could soon be free.

Photograph: Getty Images

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)