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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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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