Whither Plaid Cymru: Independence is back in fashion

David Melding finds that nationalism trumps socialism in Plaid’s thinking

In his recent book Plaid Cymru: An Ideological Analysis Alan Sandry has given new voice to the interesting question: what is Plaid Cymru for? Sandry utilises the concepts of the political theorist Michael Freeden to examine Plaid Cymru’s core, peripheral and adjacent beliefs. This leads Sandry to conclude that Welsh nationalism is a thin ideology which, to be politically effective, has been fattened up with policies from the more comprehensive menus of socialism and environmentalism.

The Party of Wales

This is the first of a week-long series. Tomorrow John Osmond asks whether Plaid wishes to be a party of government. On Wednesday Craig McAngus provides a view from Scotland.

So far so good. Few would disagree that the core concept of nationalism (that nations and states should be coterminous) leaves a lot of space for other potentially core beliefs. Nationalist parties in Europe have in the past absorbed hard right wing beliefs (Eastern Europe in the 1920s), or religious practices (Eire until the 1950s). However, since the 1960s and the emergence of liberal nationalism it is socialism that has been most prominent in nationalist parties.

Plaid Cymru’s intellectual history itself illustrates this eclecticism, starting with Saunders Lewis’ interest in the ideas of key European and often Catholic nationalists and moving on after the War to Gwynfor Evans’ more stolid advocacy of decentralised socialism. Sandry is fair and tactful in examining these trends, particularly the question of the authoritarian nationalism that prevailed in many European states between the Wars that inevitably influenced some nationalist thought in Wales.

So has Plaid Cymru gorged or just nibbled on the ideology of socialism? Sandry believes that Plaid’s socialist repast has been so complete that it makes more sense to refer to Plaid first and foremost as a socialist party. This is not to say that no eclecticism remains. There are more centralist and even right wing elements in Plaid Cymru, but they are marginal. Sandry makes a bold assertion when he says we can describe “Plaid Cymru’s ideology as being akin to socialist ideology”. While it does not convince me, he should be thanked for providing such a provocative conclusion.

Classifying nationalism as a ‘thin’ ideology in need of greater policy substance runs the risk of portraying modern liberal politics as an aggressive contest where little common ground naturally exists. Surely one of the reasons that nationalism is enjoying a resurgence around the world is because key concepts such as democracy and welfarism are accepted. This has allowed the age of ‘small worlds’ to develop according to the Canadian thinkers David Elkins and Richard Simeon.  Here the very size of political communities is seen to have a direct impact on the success of public policy in a largely democratic but post ideological world. Many core beliefs in politics are now shared by socialists, liberals, nationalists and even conservatives. It would seem that most political ideologies have slimmed down from the fat and intolerant days of the 1930s.

Even if we accept that a fierce ideological battle continues to rage in modern democracies, why would socialists have wanted to join Plaid Cymru when, for much of its history, it was very distant from power? It seems more plausible to argue that, while socialists have undoubtedly joined Plaid Cymru, they have been more powerfully motivated by the prior idea of nationalism.

The difficulties with Sandry’s central thesis are clearly seen in the political character of Plaid Cymru’s leaders. Only Dafydd Elis Thomas could be viewed without contortion as a socialist. And, of course, Dafydd Elis Thomas often made himself unpopular with activists by advocating a very nationalist lite but pro-socialist agenda.

Plaid’s members seem gripped by the national question above all else. In recent years the neo-nationalism of Dafydd Elis Thomas and Cynog Dafis (which has hinted at a federal option for Britain and an autonomous but not independent Wales) has been repudiated by a new generation of Plaid thinkers. Independence is back in fashion and past attempts to theorise it away find little favour. Does anyone remember ‘free association’?

Sandry does not fully address two important developments that surely impinge heavily on Plaid’s identity. First, to what extent has Plaid adopted socialist rhetoric principally to compete with Labour? If Plaid has responded to the Welsh political climate in this fashion, and I think it has to some degree, it remains more eclectic than socialist in motivation and is still, at its core, still a nationalist party. Of course we cannot run a random trial where Plaid would also have to compete in a Wales dominated by a centre-right political culture. However, one has only to look at Ireland to see how nationalist parties respond in more conservative environments. Sandry has not provided enough evidence to convince me that Plaid Cymru is essentially a socialist party.

Secondly, this interesting study devotes too little time to the Rainbow coalition that so nearly appeared in 2007. True, those on the left of Plaid were horrified by the prospect of sitting in government with ‘the Tories’! Yet Plaid’s leadership was ready to do a deal. A party that was dedicated above all else to socialism would surely not have entertained the prospect of working with Conservatives with equanimity.

In the end, this work raises some important questions without quite providing answers of equal substance. However it is a welcome addition to the literature and may inspire others to tackle the question, ‘what is Plaid Cymru really for?’

David Melding is Conservative AM for South Wales Central and Deputy Presiding Officer. This article appears in the current issue of the IWA’s journal Agenda. Alan Sandry’s Plaid Cymru: An Ideological Analysis is published by the Welsh Academic Press at £48.

5 thoughts on “Whither Plaid Cymru: Independence is back in fashion

  1. The assumption that socialism lies at the core of Plaid is a fascinating one. Ceredigion for example is not exactly a socialist county, albeit one with a ‘radical’ heritage. I would imagine that few of the other Plaid members I know in the area would describe themselves as socialists. In reality, Plaid is something of a broad church, with areas of considerable unanimity such as environmental policy.

  2. Despite some common assumptions, Plaid Cymru has been a left-of-centre party since the time of DJ Davies in the 1930’s. Alan Sandry’s bold and impressive book notes this, and shows how that thread of socialism has continued up to the present day, with people like Adam Price and Leanne Wood. David Melding fails to note that Michael Freeden’s work always takes account of how complex ideologies are, and how it is incredibly difficult to label more than one person with a specific ideological position. Hence, there are a countless number of nationalisms rather than one all-encompassing nationalism. Indeed, Melding is a nationalist of the Conservative British variety, but his views are just one of many positions within that particular perspective. How many of his Conservative British Nationalist friends would agree with his Federalist opinions, for example? The real strength of Alan Sandry’s book is that it attempts to apply Freeden’s model to a political party. This is not an easy task but the book shows how Plaid Cymru’s identity (like Welsh identity) is multi-layered. As David Lloyd Owen notes, Plaid Cymru, like other political parties is a broad church. This is a fact and Sandry states this on many occasions. Plaid Cymru’s ideological core, however, reflects and represents decentralist socialism, or community socialism, as some call it, and the overall conclusions of the book are therefore sound. It would be good to see a similar book, using Freeden’s writings, look at the Tories, Labour and Liberals. How fascinating are the internal ideological battles within those broad churches?

  3. I think David Melding’s comments are fundamentally correct. Plaid Cymru has adopted a social democratic stance as a result of being in a country that is strongly social-democratic in its political leanings; nationalism however remains the core principle of the party and the number of its members and supporters who are in fact more centrist/right-wing than the party’s official policies only goes to prove this point.

  4. There is no doubt that Plaid has some politicians and some members who are committed socialists. That alone does not mean that Plaid is a Socialist party. Where I live Plaid voters are ultra-conservative “Culture and Language” Nationalists with the viewpoints normally associated with the “Baby Eating” wing of the Tory party and the isolationist opinions of UKIP or the BNP. Plaid long ago decided that left of centre politics was the only way forward in Wales but it cannot drag its heartland support with it on that platform. There is only one area of common ground amongst its followers. Independence. The wish to leave the UK has sometimes been played down by Plaid but now they feel the time has come to hitch themselves to the tail of the Salmond/SNP bandwagon. The irony may be that there is less support in Wales for Independence than there is in England to see Wales cut adrift.

  5. Jon Jones makes an interesting observation here. While I generally take the view that where Scotland and the SNP goes, Wales and Plaid tend to follow (note the caveats in my phrasing!), independence is not exactly a hot topic amongst the Welsh electorate right now. If English opinion was to drive this, that could have intriguing implications.

    Pondering this, if England was to vote on secession from Scotland or Wales, presumably that would be independence for England and ejection for Scotland or Wales. This deserves further consideration.

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