Ron Davies’ destiny still to be fulfilled

Ron Davies might occupy a leadership vacuum in Plaid Cymru within a few years

August, they say, is a wicked month for political speculation so let me throw in a sideways thought about the future of Plaid Cymru. In the last few weeks successive announcements from leaders or potential leaders at the top of the party have underlined a sense of drift at a time when it should be sharpening its act ahead of next year’s Assembly election.

First came the news that Honorary President Dafydd Wigley would not be seeking nomination on the party’s North Wales List next May. Instead, he has opted to renew his quest for a seat in the House of Lords. Then came the resignation of party chairman John Dixon after eight years in post. Announcing the decision he said elliptically, “There are a number of ways in which I feel that the party has moved, or is moving, in a direction which I cannot support, but being a national office-holder has fettered my freedom to say so”.

Finally, last week came former Plaid Carmarthen East MP Adam Price’s reversal of his intention to fight a seat at next year’s election. As he told the Western Mail last week, speaking from Harvard University where he is studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the Centre for Public Leadership, “I don’t feel ready to go into the Assembly and govern. I need some time for reflection, and also to acquire more experience outside politics.”

This is an understandable, and probably from a personal point of view correct decision. However, it presents Plaid with a quandary. Politics is as much about personalities as it is about power and policy. Indeed, all three are interlinked. For some time Adam Price has been thought of as the leader who will take Plaid on to its next big step, of leading a coalition in the Assembly, not after next year’s election to be sure but potentially after 2015.

There is, of course, the prospect of his returning at the 2015 election but not in the position of having led the party to the kind of step-change it needs from a position as an Assembly Member. Over the coming four to five years Plaid will surely miss the mixture of dash, charisma and vision that he would have added to its appeal. His absence will leave a vacuum.

Of course, nature abhors a vacuum, in politics as anything else. So step forward an unlikely figure, you might think, none other than the former Secretary of State for Wales and Labour leader Ron Davies. After a dalliance with a number of alternatives – including the now defunct Forward Wales Party and standing (successfully) as an independent councillor in Caerphilly – Ron Davies joined Plaid last year. Now he has been selected unopposed to fight the constituency for the party in next year’s Assembly election.

In the 2007 Assembly election Davies stood as an Independent in Caerphilly and came third, behind Labour and Plaid, with an impressive 22 per cent of the vote. If you add his votes to those of Plaid’s Lindsay Whittle, who is standing aside to make way for him this time, together they add up to 12,444 – comfortably ahead of the incumbent Labour AM Jeff Cuthbert’s 9,026.

Of course, nothing is ever certain in politics. But there is every chance that Ron Davies might make it back to the Assembly next year. If he does he will immediately be a commanding presence in a not terribly competitive field, especially as some major figures will have departed. These will include Labour’s Rhodri Morgan, Jane Davidson, Jane Hutt, Andrew Davies, and the Liberal Democrat’s Mike German, already departed to the House of Lords.

There are some good people lining up to replace these and, no doubt, others, but none will have the acumen, experience, public recognition, nor the clarity about the purpose and direction of the devolution process as Ron Davies. His ready embrace by Plaid Cymru which has already given him star billing on a number of platforms – and no doubt will do so again at next month’s conference in Aberystwyth – demonstrates the status he effortlessly occupies there.

For Ron Davies the purpose of devolution and the Assembly is simply and straightforwardly to build the political nation. He has been clear about this from the start, from the early 1990s when he first became Shadow Secretary of State with the task of bringing Labour around to the idea of embracing the project. This was how he put it, interviewed in about 2004, looking back at the Commission Welsh Labour established in 1992 to put its devolution policy back on track:

“I started working with the Commission and it became clear that what I had in mind about devolution was not what the Labour Party had in mind… I had two issues: trying to win public support, and how to manage the Party. We talked to people on the industrial side, and in the quangos, and there was no conceptualising; there was no nation building; there was no desire to enter the debate at all. It was all: what’s in it for us? How can we protect our position?

“So what do I do? It was really about trying to do some nation building, identifying the strengths of Wales, building up its own identity and that meant dealing with issues like the language, for example, like the culture, like having the strength to say that we wanted to develop our own tourism, our own industry, that we would have to look at issues about the environment, and we would have to look at it from a Welsh perspective. That was all for me part of nation building ….” (Stephen Prosser, ‘Making it Happen’ in Public Service: Devolution in Wales as a Case Study, Imprint Academic, 2006).

This clarity of purpose, together with his unsurpassed political experience, will make Ron Davies a leading and perhaps commanding figure in the National Assembly as a whole, let alone Plaid Cymru, if he is successful in Caerphilly next May.

As I say, nature abhors a vacuum, and it is looking increasingly likely that Ron Davies is poised to fill one that is likely to occur in Welsh politics in the coming few years. It would indeed, be an extraordinary come-back, perhaps the most extraordinary in the history of Welsh politics. If so, you read about it here first.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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