Nation building is Plaid Cymru’s project

Alan Sandry says the party of Wales should articulate a 2020 vision of internal enlargement of the European Union by the end of the year

Is Plaid Cymru a nationalist party? A fairly straightforward question with a simple answer, you may think. It has to be ‘yes’. But I would contend that it is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. How can this equivocal answer be correct? In my recently published study Plaid Cymru: An Ideological Analysis I make a detailed study of the political philosophies at play within the party.

Like other observers of the Welsh political scene, I had always bought into the old adage that ‘Plaid Cymru is a nationalist party’, the dreaded ‘nats’, as their opponents take pleasure in pejoratively labelling them. But, just as there is some evidence of socialism within the Labour Party, though it can hardly be described as ‘a socialist party’, so my research revealed that the nationalist label – with nationalism as a thin ideology – is inadequate to describe the depth and breadth of political philosophies, ideologies, and political concepts at work in ‘the Party of Wales’.

Using the ideological model enunciated by the Oxford don, Professor Michael Freeden, the book attempts to uncover the ‘core’, ‘peripheral’, and ‘adjacent’ concepts that are conspicuous in the party’s historical and contemporary modes. Whilst nationalism features from 1925 onwards, it is socialism, and, in particular, associated and derivative socialist concepts such as ‘decentralist socialism’, ‘communityism’, and ‘co-operativism’ that shine through. Thus, the book argues that if labels are required, and we all tend to use them in an attempt to provide some clarity to our thought-processes, and to define political positions, then it is the term ‘socialist’, rather than the term ‘nationalist’, that should be applied to the ‘sets of ideas’ on display within Plaid Cymru.

Ultimately, people – and especially the majority who do not masochistically immerse themselves in ideological study or historical enquiry – will rightly ask how all of this terminology and classification applies to the party as we see it today, one that is seemingly traumatised following the recent Assembly election. In the concluding chapter of the book, I attempted to construct a new ideological model for the party. Whilst such models assist in our understanding of own position, and whether or not we adhere to the political aims and ambitions of a political party or organisation, it is applying these ideas, and formulating new ideological concepts and practices, that is of prime importance. So what should Plaid Cymru do now?

Plaid Cymru has to declare its attachment with, and commitment to, the nation of Wales. Language is of primary importance, as Raymond Williams, the great Plaid Cymru writer and intellectual, always informed us. Get an expression wrong and you can do incalculable damage. Hence, a term such as ‘nation’ has to become decontested. Plaid Cymru supporters – and arguably Welsh people of whatever political persuasion – must be conscious of the fact that Wales has all of the attributes to proclaim its nationhood. Therefore, any belittling of this status, by referral, for example, to ‘the Welsh region’, so beloved by John Redwood and comparable fleeting travellers, has to be challenged. A region is a section of a nation. The Midlands are a region of the English nation. But Wales is not a region of anything. Wales is a nation. This is recognition of the tangible unit – political, social, cultural, and geographical – that is Wales. Consequently, should one wish to proclaim their ‘internationalism’, they must first recognise, and celebrate, their ‘nationalism’. How very uncomfortable that thought must be for those who congregate on the ‘soft’ British Left.

Whilst this will strike many as pedantic, pointless, over exuberant Welsh-centrism (heaven forbid that we Welsh deem to put Wales at the centre of our thinking?), it is merely an elementary concept, akin to 2 + 2 = 4. If we hear a toddler say 2 + 2 = 5 we gently correct them. The same has to be undertaken with our terminology and our concepts. In this instance, Plaid Cymru has to become that admonishing adult.

‘Decentralist socialism’ also requires some further thought. Plaid Cymru has to explain that its socialism is based on ‘actually existing societies’. That is to say, it is based on ‘real people in real places’, as opposed to some semi-Utopian blueprint for state-induced socialist procedures. Plaid Cymru has always recognised communities, and has striven for expressions of individual and collective freedom within those communities.

From Saunders Lewis and DJ Davies, through Gwynfor Evans, Leopold Kohr, Phil Williams and, more recently, Jill Evans and Adam Price, a sense of community as a generator and empowerer, but certainly not a restrictor, is noticeable. In 2011, and for decades to come, Plaid Cymru has to acknowledge that imposing from above will never produce the enthusiasm, and sense of ownership, that self-management can. Solidarity is organic. Any Plaid theoreticians or activists who build upon this theme will create a place for themselves in the party’s ideological pantheon. But, more importantly, they will also be positioning their communities and, symbiotically, Wales in a far stronger position to cope with the extraneous pressures that will invariably be encountered.

The trigger to achieve this flowering of Wales, and its people, is ‘self-government’. This remains as true today as in the 1960s, a period in which anti-colonialists such as Frantz Fanon identified that societal enhancement and betterment cannot be realised without the unshackling of historically imposed bondage. In Fanon’s Algeria hegemony was more visceral and obtrusive than the subtle, almost cosy, power relations that exist within contemporary Wales. But exist they do: be it in the BBC’s ‘England and Wales’ / ‘England Wales’ obsessions, or in the demeaning and parodying of ‘all matters Welsh’ as inappropriate or third-rate. We laugh, we cry, we shrug our shoulders. But cultural (and political) hegemony remains. Plaid Cymru’s task, therefore, is to identify, challenge and surmount these representations, as and when they occur. If Plaid Cymru fails to do this, then they put up the white flag. Of course, it should be their mission – indeed, their raison d’être – to replace that emblem with the red one containing the dragon.

Regrettably, this supine attitude is never more perceptible than when the English Royal family come a-calling. Every four years the media deliberate on whether Leanne Wood and a few other dissenters should, or should not, meet and greet the Sovereign of the British State. Republicanism is an idea that contends that the people en masse are sovereign, not just one embellished individual. Moreover, republicanism encapsulates radical, reformist expectations that power structures can be opposed and defeated. It is, therefore, highly relevant to the Welsh experience.

If you support Plaid Cymru, with its stated aim of building a politically autonomous Welsh ‘nation-state’, then inevitably you have to reject the embodiment of British statism. As pleasant and amiable as the Queen may be, her political persona is the antithesis of what Plaid Cymru stands for, or at least what it should stand for. Meeting the Queen, her family, or representatives of her entourage at an event such as the official opening of the National Assembly is, without the slightest doubt, an acceptance of that domination and hegemony. Any Plaid Cymru member who is serious about disengaging Wales from that system should never countenance such a meeting. If they are not serious about that disengagement, then what are they doing in that particular party?

Politics, within democracies, is about choice. But, even more pertinently, it is about a confidence in, and commitment to, ideas and causes that one perceives to be correct. Michael Freeden notes that ideologies are fluidic. Who we are and what we believe changes over time. Political parties are no different to individuals. They can change, and do so. Today Plaid Cymru should look back and scan the past, and then use that knowledge to re-assess the future. Plaid Cymru should articulate its ‘2020 vision’ by the end of this year. With Scotland gone, or all but gone, from the UK edifice, Plaid Cymru should assertively state the following:

  1. Total commitment to the peoples of Wales, Scotland, England, Catalunya, the Basque Country, Brittany and so forth, as they seek ‘internal enlargement’ within the European Union. Allied to this, Plaid Cymru should use its links with other small (and larger) nations in Europe, and beyond, to foster co-operation based upon respect for the mutual transactions and interactions of peoples and nations.
  2. Declaration to assist and facilitate ‘decentralist socialist’ objectives, in conjunction with the communities and associations of Wales.
  3. Active support and encouragement for ‘co-operativist’ ventures.
  4. Rejection of hierarchical, imbalanced structures and imperialist impositions.
  5. Assist in the creation of a flourishing bilingual society (Welsh and English), with provision in place to support other languages and cultures. Endorse the evolving multilingualism of modern societies.

Naturally, these are five ideological aspirations which will delight some and infuriate others. But, if Plaid Cymru’s ideology is lucid and decontested then the ideas that the party puts forward will require the rumination of the Welsh electorate. Nationalism or not, that, ultimately, is what Plaid Cymru is for.

Alan Sandry is a writer and lecturer in political theory and co-founder with Syd Morgan of the Welsh Nationalism Foundation research group. His book Plaid Cymru: An Ideological Analysis is published by the Welsh Academic Press at £48.

3 thoughts on “Nation building is Plaid Cymru’s project

  1. There is much in this with which I agree; but a few things with which I do not.

    There is a danger when analysing the underlying ideology and philosophy of a party that we assume that the ideology which drives the members is the same as the ideology which would be ‘put into practice’ by that party after electoral success. But the extent to which that is true surely depends not on the ideas which party members hold and debate, but on those which the leader expresses at election times and which elected members are then whipped into supporting.

    In that sense, coming to a conclusion on Plaid’s underlying ideology without considering to what extent that ideology is supported, let alone promoted, by the party’s leadership is like coming to a conclusion on the Labour Party based on the statements of Tony Benn and pretending that Tony Blair never existed. An ideological underpinning which remains largely unexpressed when it matters is ultimately more a device for keeping activists active than for building a new society.

    I also take issue with the statement that “Politics … is about a confidence in, and commitment to, ideas and causes that one perceives to be correct”. It should be, and I wish it were. But I really don’t think that the statement bears much connection to the reality of modern-day electoral politics. If it were to be so, then we would not have had such a bland, uniform approach to this year’s election. But if we could get back to that state…

  2. All very interesting; but I think it actually defines Plaid’s dilemma more than it helps to solve it.

    Take your five numbered points, and then hypothetically ask the other three principal parties of the Assembly whether they assent to each of the five points, wholely or with whatever qualifications.
    I suspect there would not be a great deal of dissent; and what clear dissent there might be (the Tories / 2 & 4 ?) would throw an interestingly light on some of the speculations there have been in recent years about Plaid’s ‘way forward’. In other words, don’t the five points sit too close to a wider consensus to help Plaid establish a unique identity?

  3. I do think that Ian Graham’s point, while welcome, is off the mark. I agree that there is a Cardiff Bay consensus on many or most devolved issues but as a Plaid Cymru member I don’t welcome those Anglo-centric compromises and as a democrat find it dangerous. However, the other three National Assembly parties are British nationalist whose primary loyally is to the UK state or even ‘England & Wales’. In their mind set, we are still a province or region; some would argue, a colony. The same is true of the civil service. The Welsh Nationalist Party was formed to confront and overturn that world-view. Presently, it is an open question whether it still wants to do that or in the words of The Right Honourable The Lord Robertson of Port Ellen KT GCMG FRSA FRSE PC, “devolution will kill nationalism stone dead” (here, of course, not there).

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