John Dixon argues that the March referendum changed the dynamics of Welsh politics and wrong footed Plaid Cymru
In the devolution years between 1997 and 2011 a major dynamic of Welsh politics was the question of the relationship between Wales and the rest of the UK. However, since the successful 3 March referendum that dynamic has changed.
It was always inevitable that once Wales had achieved a ‘sufficient’ degree of self-government the dynamic in Welsh politics would change from being about Wales’ relationships with the rest of the UK to a more conventional left versus right debate (leaving aside, for the moment at least, the issues of what we mean by left and right, and how much difference there actually is between them in conventional UK politics). The question was always one of defining the word ‘sufficient’.
I alluded to this in an article in the IWA’s journal Agenda last year, when I asked ‘Are we there yet?’ Personally, I don’t think that we are – I would have preferred to have achieved at least parity with Scotland before decreeing that we had got to that point. However, it isn’t my choice to make – ultimately, it’s for the electors to decide.
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Three factors have combined to lead me to suggest that we might, in fact, have arrived at that point sooner than expected, and that it is now time to start looking much more closely at how we build a new internal dynamic to Welsh politics rather than a dynamic based on our relationship with others.
The first has been the election of a UK government of a different colour, or, more precisely, the implications of that for the parties fighting the recent Welsh general election. It created a situation in which both Labour and Conservative parties could revert to a field of battle where they are at their most comfortable – attacking each other, and turning the election into a traditional UK style Labour-Tory fight. And the result suggests that the electorate were happy to see it that way as well.
That made it, at one level, a very British election. It would be a mistake, though, to ignore one key factor here. For the very first time ever, we had a very British election fought on the basis of two very Welsh manifestos. The two most British of parties both produced distinctive Welsh manifestos which contained proposals which would never have made it into UK manifestos of the past.
The second factor is the ‘English question’, and I’m going to lump the sweeping victory for the SNP into this heading as well. The UK Government is facing a situation where it now has no choice but to think about how it redefines the UK constitution, in order to deal with the question of England-only decisions, and to respond to the forthcoming Independence referendum in Scotland.
Looked at from an English perspective, there are now four different legislative configurations which affect England – whole UK decisions; England, Wales, and Northern Ireland decisions; England and Wales decisions; and England-only decisions. Currently all are made in a single parliament containing representatives from the whole of the UK.
From a purely unionist perspective – forgetting completely the national question – it seems to me inevitable that any rational UK response to this situation must include movement towards a more symmetrical settlement. We are likely to get Scottish-style powers, whether we ask for them or not. After that, who knows?
And the third factor was the way that the leadership of Plaid Cymru decided to fight the election on a platform which implicitly presupposed that we had reached the point where the dynamic had to change, but without spelling that out clearly, publicly or even internally. And, partly as a result of that failure to spell out that presupposition, it drifted into the most timid default selection of Plaid’s role in that new scenario, without really considering the other options.
There is little doubt that Plaid was the big loser from this change in dynamic. The party was inadequately prepared for the shift. Actually, the strategy might have worked better electorally had it been spelled out more clearly. In the event the party ended up with many members trying to pretend it was one thing when in reality it was behaving as though it were something quite different. Boldness and honesty are usually better than caution and subterfuge.
If I’m right about the shift in dynamic, from here on in the question which parties need to be addressing is how and where to position themselves for those future Welsh elections. Another is how many parties are really viable in that new era, particularly if they’re all competing on the same ideological territory. I really do not see a future for four parties all competing on the same ground for the same swing voters. At least one is likely to find that it quickly becomes an irrelevance.
The new situation – a more conventional UK style of politics but at a Welsh level – poses no major problems for three of the parties. They can carry on as they always have, but focussing at a different level. It is, though, much more of a challenge for Plaid and its members.
I think Plaid has three options (well, four, if we were to count disbandment):
- To recapture its old mission, and seek to move the dynamic of Welsh politics back to one about the position of Wales.
- To become a mainstream party of government which is slightly more Welsh, slightly more devolutionist, slightly more imaginative than the other parties.
- To create a new mission for the party, based on turning Wales into a very different sort of country, based on principles such as sustainability and equality.
By default, the party seems to have opted for the second of those. Indeed, under its current leadership, only the second of those options is imaginable. This is why I believe that the party needs to decide where it is going before it rushes into simply changing its leader. The first will no doubt be attractive to many of those who joined the party first and foremost to achieve independence for Wales.
But the third is potentially the most exciting. Taking the constitutional argument as having been won as its starting point, it is about developing a route map to truly transform Wales into a very different kind of country, not just the same country under new management.
None of the three options will carry all members and supporters with them. One of the biggest mistakes of the current approach has been to assume that one of them could and would do so. But Plaid has been calling for a realignment in Welsh politics for decades. The opportunity is with us now. No-one should make the mistaken assumption of the past that such a realignment benefits only one party – or has consequences for only one party.