Election Special 11: Independence elephant in the coalition room

Syd Morgan and Alan Sandry speculate on the political implications of a Rainbow coalition

As tomorrow’s election inexorably approaches media speculation is mounting about the prospects for a ‘rainbow coalition’ comprising Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats. This scenario could arise should Labour fail to secure a majority in the Assembly.

Whilst it would be tempting for Plaid Cymru to accept a ‘rainbow’ package, in order to stay in ministerial power and to advance its claim to be an established party of government, difficulties would inevitably occur should they wish to jump from their current cohabitation with Labour. Though all three protagonists could, and all certainly would, claim to be acting ‘at all times, in the interests of Wales and the Welsh people’, there would nevertheless be topics and themes around which the triumvirate would encounter problems. Some of these are areas in which Labour and Plaid Cymru have, over the past four years, reached an accord.

The Welsh General Election

This is the eleventh in a series of articles we are publishing in the run-up to tomorrow’s National Assembly election. Later today Geraint Talfan Davies discovers a convergence of cultural policy amongst the parties.

Of primary concern to any ‘rainbow coalition’ would be the question of political philosophy. While the managerial role of governance is fluidic, and moderately non-political, the ideological commitments and attachments of the aforementioned political parties are assumed to be axiomatic. To take the two ‘rainbow’ parties which represent the most conspicuous of varying approaches, Plaid Cymru is a left-of-centre political movement whilst the Tories are rooted in right-of-centre political positioning. It is this fundamental difference that causes anxiety amongst those within Plaid Cymru’s ranks who feel unsettled by talk of a coalition link with the Conservatives.

Whatever the realities of day-to-day working in the Bay, and the evolving consensus that is emerging within the Welsh political establishment – which appears to be aping the lobbyist tendencies of Westminster politicking – the reality remains that Plaid Cymru’s grassroots opinion is still formed by anti-imperialist and anti-Unionist campaigns. These range from the struggles over Tryweryn, the preservation of the Welsh language, the ‘colonial’ exploitation of our natural resources, to the threats to communities from unfettered market forces. At first glance, many of these may appear to be a ‘politics of memory’. Yet for many Plaid supporters, battling in 2011 against school closures, the cultural and linguistic threats to community, and the current (imposed) fashion for recognising a one-size-fits-all ‘Britishness’, they are real, and not imagined or historical, bones of contention.

If a ‘rainbow coalition’ is formed, and Plaid Cymru accepts the Tory silver, in the shape of promises of a bilingual future, more constitutional change within the UK, and Ieuan Wyn Jones’ enthronement as First Minister, then a new era will inevitably open up in Welsh politics. While some will heartily welcome the start of a new non-Labour centred epoch, people will have to rapidly assess what this could mean in practice.

First off, and this will provide the ammunition for generations of Labour activists, especially in the trades unions, Plaid Cymru will be vilified as being little more than ‘Tory puppets’, ‘Nick’s nationalists’, ‘Cameron’s Cymry’ and so on. Plaid Cymru’s stance may be that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”, but the electorate’s identification of Plaid Cymru with the Conservatives, and to a lesser extent the Liberal Democrats, may prove to be less forgiving. In today’s multi-media environment, political perception can be as important as good governance. Whilst Nick Bourne’s astute leadership has undoubtedly transformed the image of the Conservatives in Wales, and lessened the identification with the more unnerving elements of ‘Little Englander’ Conservatism, there remains a high degree of suspicion by many within Plaid Cymru and outside, with regard to the aims and intentions of the Party.

If Ieuan Wyn Jones stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Nick Bourne in the Senedd then the repercussions for Plaid Cymru, in terms of its place within the Welsh political spectrum and psyche, may be vast. Already, Labour is making electoral use of this mere possibility in places like Caerphilly and Llanelli. If their tactic works, it would be an uncanny echo of Plaid Cymru losing its ‘advanced’ Assembly seats in Islwyn and Rhondda during 2003.

Independence, or ‘self-government within Europe’, to give it its official Plaid Cymru title, is the elephant in the room. Most, but not all, within Plaid Cymru see this as the party’s raison d’être. Very few, if any, within the Liberal Democrats would ever countenance this teleology, while it would take a foolhardy Braveheart within the Unionist-supporting Conservative Party to voice such a view.

What would Plaid Cymru’s absorption into a ‘rainbow coalition’ mean for the Independence argument over the next five years, and the decades ahead? In all probability, it would mean that planning for Independence would have to be shelved – on the frontline at least. This is because it would be extremely difficult for senior Plaid politicians to talk of the party’s aims and ambitions without some reference to the accruing of greater autonomous powers, and the parallel responsibility over governance and economic matters.

Paradoxically, Independence would have to be dropped from the vernacular of Plaid Cymru’s politics and ideational process at the very time it is gaining ground within the EU around the concept of internal enlargement. This was the subject of a seminal but largely unreported conference organised by Jill Evans MEP in the European Parliament last Autumn. On the mainland, the process is already seen by lawyers as realistically mapping the way towards member-state status for nations like Catalunya and Flanders.

Dropping Independence may be acceptable – indeed it may be what some prominent Plaid members want – but it will essentially airbrush the foremost political driver for many within the party. Meanwhile, the evolution of devolution and decentralisation will not stagnate. In ten years time – when we could realistically still see the Plaid Cymru – Conservative – Liberal Democrat  Coalition in office at the Senedd – there is every possibility that the constitutional politics of the UK will be vastly different to those we currently witness.

Scotland could well have had its long-discussed independence referendum, with all that a possible Yes vote would imply. At the same time England will either be approaching, or will have established, some nascent form of devolved government. If implemented, this will undoubtedly be a potent product, and one that would be far in advance of what the National Assembly’s remit currently allows.

Finally, the prospect of federalism for the UK will almost certainly be a topic of conversation for devolutionists and anti-devolutionists alike. Devolutionists will see it as a ‘natural development’, whilst anti-devolutionists, including the more perspicacious Conservatives, could look upon federalism as ‘a final settlement’ which, whilst hardly perfect, would at least stymie the denouement of the UK.

Realists, at least, are aware that the introduction of UK devolution has been paralleled by a much more vibrant and pervasive promotion of Britishness in all its forms – political, historical and cultural – and not least on the back of current expeditionary wars. Who can doubt that this product will be part and package of any continuing UK devolutionary process? In today’s world, power can be retained outside formal state structures. This is especially true here with our own media fractured and decreasing while multi-channel Sky tethers us to London.

Adam Price, Plaid Cymru’s conscience-in-exile, has also raised the flag of independence, and praised the economic vitality of small nationhood. in the weeks ahead, whether the party takes up his rhetoric and puts it into practice, or whether it seeks short-term electoral gain at the feet of entrenched unionists, will be the key question, and ultimate policy direction, for Plaid’s leadership and members to consider.

Dr Alan Sandry is a university lecturer in social and political theory at UWIC. Syd Morgan is a former university lecturer and political practitioner. Together they have formed The Welsh Nationalism Foundation, affiliated to the Centre Maurits Coppieters (cmc-foundation.eu/programme.php), a political foundation researching into civic nationalism that has been recognised by the European Parliament since 2007.

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