It is a truism that Wales and Scotland are different nations. But it can be argued that – despite their shared progressive civic nationalism – post-devolution Plaid Cymru and the SNP have become different parties. One illustration is comparing the SNPs spectacular 2015 intake of 56 MPs with Plaid’s performance (votes and MPs) at Westminster elections:
Their electoral divergence is also starkly illustrated by comparing 1999-2011 votes in their respective devolved legislatures:
The 2016 National Assembly elections will now be fought against the looming backdrop of a majority UK Conservative government. This has hitherto made it easy for Labour to retain its 60-year hegemony. Things can change, but the latest YouGov/ITV Wales poll prediction (4th-6th May) can be interpreted as Plaid static at 11 seats next year. This snapshot was taken before the shock Westminster result. So, what can Plaid do?
The most positive aspect of the party’s 2015 campaign was the unprecedented exposure of its Leader across UK media. That opportunity came on the back of the rise of UKIP and the SNP is besides the point. Leanne Wood was revealed in a positive light. It is her métier. She gave faultless broadcast, print and social media performances. She may have ‘got off lightly’ in interviews with less Wales-savvy or novelty-curious (“love the accent”) London journalists, but she also more than held her own with live audiences here. This success undoubtedly obviates the need for a leadership change. But the pause in the forward march raises questions about strategic changes of direction.
There’s a curious aspect to Leanne Wood’s success which runs contrary to existing Plaid strategy. Her media ‘worm’ and favourable Tweets spiked when she put down Farage, Smith, etc. with short, sharp one-liners. This effectiveness contrasts with the party’s two-year long ‘positivity programme’. It confirms the expanding academic research that negative campaigning is essential to win votes.
This is not just a political truism. If Independence is a sooner-than-later objective (“in my lifetime”), Plaid must criticise the UK state, per se.To win SNP-style, it clearly needs to detach majority Labour voters from their 90-year state and party comfort blanket. That requires both a huge deconstruction project and a visionary elaboration of Cymru Fydd.
Identity politics is the vogue. Central to the needed change is Plaid coming to grips with its own and other nationalisms. Instead of being hidden under a devolutionary bushel, progressive, civic Welsh nationalism must be re-invigorated and popularised. This is no exceptionalist whim. Its alterity – the increasing promotion of British nationalism in both soft (culture) and hard (military) forms – buttresses UK neo-liberalism. Not least, the re-emergence of British ethno-nationalism, latterly as BNP and now within UKIP, further threatens our national identity. Despite the warning delivered at the 2014 European parliamentary election, Plaid has yet to formulate a usable Welsh nationalist critique. The coming EU referendum presents a corrective opportunity.
Another challenge is the reformulation of the England & Wales sub-state, a modern version of “For Wales, See England”. Often disguised by its proponents as “UK” or “British”, it is an existentialist threat to Welsh nationhood. Although being deconstructed as a legal jurisdiction, it still exists and expands. It has e.g. significant consequences for water resources, Local Development Plan population and housing targets, the labour market and military recruitment. Its persistence requires Plaid to courageously tackle migration issues, including the forgotten curse of emigration. England & Wales also legitimises Wales both as a Region and joining its parts to English city regions.
The state-reforming devolutionary agenda blocked-off the development of pro-independence arguments. Having sidelined two of its own recent initiatives, influential figures doubted the wisdom of the SNP’s independence referendum. As that campaign gathered momentum, the party rapidly clambered on board – but without being fully equipped with policies. For example, apart from Elfyn Llwyd’s pioneering work on military welfare, Plaid is noticeably weak on defence and security and a fully-rounded international policy. Both these are essential for arguing independence.
In its productive pre-devolution era from 1926, the party developed trenchant new policies. These had the revolutionary purpose of constructing an holistic New Nationalism (state-building Independence, not state-reforming Home Rule) contra the UK state. Despite vastly increased resources, and in conformity with its doctrine of “defending the Assembly”, Plaid recalibrated its horizon to mostly devolved matters. Further, these were often cross-party and consensual. Most of its policy research remains unpublished – internally as well as externally – and is thus less influential. Even important and original “nationalist” research, e.g. energy policy and local government reform, is not in the public sphere. This has two causes: the party itself is its only political outlet and short-term fears of bad publicity from challenging the consensus. Other parties have their think tanks or political foundations to float and, if necessary, deny innovative thought. Plaid Cymru needs one.
The unique selling point of political Welsh nationalism is the creation of a better State than the one we’re in. Party pioneers made bold leaps to create an all-encompassing Welsh national interest. Although electoral success was gradual, Cymro-centric ideas were accepted throughout the public sphere. This was achieved without side-lining independence.
In his famous, but sadly untranslated, alternatives for a future Wales, Islwyn Ffowc Elis saw two visions. One was a country absorbed into England. The alternative was a free Cymru Cymraeg. The prospect of the former increases. Following the concrete examples of Catalunya and Scotland – and not forgetting prospects for a re-united Ireland in one form or another – Free Wales needs fresh articulation.
The background, status and reach of Leanne Wood makes her the ideal instrument to realise Plaid Cymru’s 90 year vision. The serendipity of the right person at the right time cannot be allowed to pass, surely?