Carwyn’s ‘One Wales’ philosophy spikes Plaid’s guns

Michael Sullivan argues we are witnessing the rebirth of social democracy as a result of Labour’s co-option of Welsh nationalism

The ideological architecture for post-war UK social democracy was put in place by the 1945-51 Labour governments. The chief architect was the late Tony Crosland. His arguments were made most cogently in The Future of Socialism (1956) and The Conservative Enemy (1952). The creation of a post-war welfare state and a planned economy had civilised UK capitalism. A system that required social and economic inequality had been transformed into one where the achievement of greater equality and social justice were both desirable and possible.

If Crosland was the architect of post-war social democracy, the foundations were laid by T. H. Marshall’s theory of citizenship. He believed the welfare state could mitigate the insecurity and economic inequalities caused by unregulated markets. Like the civil and political rights that preceded them, the welfare state’s social rights were part of citizenship entitlement. The right to welfare is connected with full membership of the community.

This article is a condensation of a much longer conference paper which achnowledges and quotes extensively from an article by David S. Moon Welsh Labour in power: ‘One Wales’ vs. ‘One Nation’?, published by the online journal of social democracy Renewal in May 2013 here. Part of this article was also published on ClickonWales here 

However, the creation of New Labour and Tony Blair’s election victory in 1997 signalled a shift away from this approach. The notion of a Third Way promulgated by social democratic theorist Anthony Giddens, now became the guiding hand of contemporary Labour politics. One of its central arguments was a redefinition of social democracy, emphasising responsibility rather than rights, and work rather than welfare in order to meet the social and economic challenges of new times.

One of the consequences of devolution was to create a space for a different interpretation of social democracy in Wales and Scotland where Labour continued to adhere to the older definition. Labour-led administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh retained Old Labour’s commitment to the welfare state as an engine of equality, social justice and social inclusion based on the political values of universality and social solidarity.

For the Welsh Government this definition of social democracy distanced its administration from some of the principles and many of the policy actions of the New Labour project at Westminster. Its ‘clear red water’ philosophy, enunciated by Rhodri Morgan in a speech at Swansea University in December 2002, distinguished Welsh social policy from elsewhere in the UK.

The method of making policy as well as the substance of policy diverged from the ‘English model’. Welsh policymaking was rooted in co-operation, rather than competition, on ‘voice’ rather than ‘choice’ as the best way of strengthening the influence of citizens (rather than consumers). In developing diverse and responsive services, it aimed for a greater equality of outcome, rather than simply of opportunity and so on. The devolution dividend included an increasing differentiation in the tone – and maybe the voice – emerging from Labour in Cardiff and London.

This policy differentiation continued into a third Assembly term but was accompanied by an even more substantial change, the ‘One Wales’ coalition between Labour and Plaid Cymru. Meanwhile, in the face of economic crisis, the Labour Government in London replaced social democracy with a sort of social liberalism.

For both Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru social policy has played a part in nation building. Prior to devolution Labour could present devolutionary ambitions as an opportunity to craft Welsh solutions to Welsh problems. It was also an answer to the legitimacy of the Conservative writ being imposed in Wales. No more than a handful of Conservative MPs had been elected in four general elections. So devolution and the left of centre social policies that resulted were expressions of both general political values and of national identity.

The Welsh Government has used the new powers it gained in 2006 and 2011 to introduce a raft of legislation on social care, environmental issues, school transport, the use of the Welsh language and children’s rights. The red-green’ Labour Plaid coalition that emerged from the 2007 election put constitutional change at the top of its programme for government, including:

  • A commitment, without qualification, to a referendum on further powers for the Assembly at or before the 2011 Welsh election.
  • A Convention looking at the case for further powers leading up to the referendum.
  • An independent Commission to review the Barnett formula through which Wales was allocated funding;
  • A commitment to consider devolving powers to Wales over criminal justice, and a new Welsh Language Act.

Of course, there have been those in both parties who argue against the meshing of social democratic and nationalist concerns. It’s also probably true to say that if nationalism in Wales was of a political variety (as it is in Scotland), rather than cultural and linguistic (as it actually is), fewer within the Labour movement would have feared its influence.

Yet, to a large extent such concerns have been groundless. Even fears at the ‘Cymricisation’ of Wales’ civic space linked to an increasing emphasis on the promotion of and spending on the Welsh language has raised less than the odd yelp. This remains the case even as the Welsh Government debates enforcing new legal standards over the use of Cymraeg by public and private bodies.

The proposition embedded in ‘One Wales’ – of Labour formally breaking bread with the supposedly hated nationalists – was the first and so far the only truly seismic post-devolution shift. What it ultimately signified was a general recognition of Welsh Labour’s evolution since 1998 into a particular type of soft-nationalist party, espousing what might be called a ‘One Wales’ identity politics. In doing so it has operated within a post-devolution consensus in Cardiff Bay to which all the major parties, even to an extent the Tory Group, adhere.

Inside the ‘One Wales’ cultural milieu, Welsh Labour’s rhetoric has trumpeted the particularity of a ‘small nation’ and people with ‘Welsh values’ and ‘Welsh attitudes’ declared to be very different to ‘the English way’. In turn they make ‘Made in Wales’ policy solutions necessary to match. Every element in ‘One Wales’ which caused critics to denounce it as a nationalist Trojan horse – the focus on Barnett, more powers and promoting Cymraeg – are now owned by Welsh Labour. They are basic points of Carwyn Jones’ political philosophy. The result is a broadly soft-nationalist consensus.

Arguably it has spiked Plaid’s guns. Where critics within Welsh Labour saw ‘One Wales’ as a vehicle to take the nationalists to the ‘gates of independence’, the actual legacy has been Plaid’s decline to third party status. After all, if there are two social democratic, soft-nationalist parties in Wales, doesn’t one become surplus to requirements?

Two last words from contemporary Plaid Cymru politicians. Dafydd Elis-Thomas talks of nationalism “growing out of the bowels of Welsh social democracy”. Adam Price argues that Plaid will save social democracy in Wales while the latter implodes in England as a result of the election of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government in 2010. Exactly how all this plays out is dependent – in large part – on Plaid keeping its implicit promise to ensure Welsh Labour is honest, nationalist and social democratic.


Professor Michael Sullivan is Vice-President (Strategic Partnerships) and Professor of Policy Analysis at Swansea University. This article, which appears in the current issue of the IWA’s the welsh agenda is a summary of a paper he gave to a seminar on Welsh nationalism at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona in November: