Cardiff Bay’s ‘Welshminster’ consensus

David Moon explains how Welsh Labour has managed to spike Plaid Cymru’s guns and dominate Welsh politics

If nationalism in Wales was of a civic variety – as it is in Scotland – rather than cultural and linguistic, as it actually is, undoubtedly fewer within the Welsh Labour movement would fear its influence. Yet, to a large extent such concerns have abated with devolution. The accrual of further powers for the National Assembly has passed by with only minimal grumbling within Welsh Labour around questions of ‘Welshness’.

Even fears at the ‘Cymricisation’ of Wales’ civic space linked to an increasing emphasis on the promotion of and spending on the Welsh language – which the latest census shows is nevertheless in decline – has raised less than the odd yelp, even now as the Welsh Government debates enforcing new legal standards over the use of Cymraeg by public and private bodies. The abject failure of True Wales, the leading body arguing against further devolution of powers, to gain any traction – despite being in many regards a classic ‘old Labour’ Unionist grouping – albeit with Tory backing – is emblematic of this.

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The proposition embedded in the 2007 ‘One Wales’ coalition agreement – of formally breaking bread with the hated nationalists – was the first and so far last truly seismic eruption of Welsh Labour’s internal ideological rift post-devolution. What it ultimately signified was a general recognition of Welsh Labour’s evolution since 1998 into a particular type of soft-nationalist party  – within the Assembly Group, at least.

Welsh Labour went to war internally over ‘One Wales’, but following the cathartic moment offered by the special conference in September 2007, and subsequent ‘Yes’ vote, the conflict deflated once again. A pro-devolution Welsh Labour victor, long since dominant, was confirmed. Even before the titular coalition document, Welsh Labour was espousing what might be called a ‘One Wales’ identity politics. In so doing it was functioning within a post-devolution ‘Welshminster Consensus’ around Cardiff Bay – largely forged by itself – within which the major parties, even to an extent the Tory Group, operate. This Welshminster Consensus embodies:

  1. Soft-nationalist cultural politics and political rhetoric.
  2. Devo-maximising constitutional reform.
  3. A social democratic policy agenda.

Amongst other things this consensus is the outcome of day-to-day working in a political community which is small and close. With only 60 AMs in Cardiff Bay – compared to 650 MPs at Westminster – the atmosphere is familiar and relaxed. First names are used in the Senedd chamber. Cross-party socialising is the norm amongst AMs, their staff, media, academics, lobbyists and civil servants in the Bay’s local pubs. This more ‘intimate’ setting has been helped by an electoral system which makes coalition government and minority deals the rule. The Assembly was designed from the start to foster a politics which broke from the adversarial ‘Westminster model’.

That a Welsh nationalist viewpoint would exert a stronger influence upon the Labour Assembly Group than the Welsh Parliamentary Labour Party was thus in a sense to be an inevitable corollary of devolution. After all, in Westminster the handful of nationalists are easily dismissed and ignored as ‘kooks and crazies’ by ‘big three’ parliamentarians. On the other hand, until 2011 Plaid Cymru AMs constituted the second largest group in the Assembly and from 2007 to 2011 were Labour’s coalition partners there.

From within this cultural milieu, and recognising a general growth in Welsh identity amongst the population, Welsh Labour’s rhetoric has trumpeted the national particularity of a ‘small nation’ and people with ‘Welsh values’ and ‘Welsh attitudes’ which are very different to ‘the English way’ and thus make necessary specific ‘Made in Wales’ policy solutions to match.

Its tanks placed firmly on the political ground its ‘One Wales’ coalition partner once controlled, Welsh Labour has sedimented its position as the ideological hegemony of post-devolution politics. Every element in ‘One Wales’ which caused critics to denounce it as a nationalist Trojan horse – the focus on Barnett, powers and promoting Cymraeg – are now owned by Welsh Labour. They they are the basic points of Carwyn Jones’ political philosophy. The result, as Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood described, is a broadly soft-nationalist consensus. As she put it, in an interview in the Western Mail in September last year:

“The Welsh nationalist agenda has progressed quite significantly since the setting up of devolution. What we’ve seen happening in Wales is that the British parties, the unionist parties, have taken on a lot of the policies that we’ve been advocating. We advocated the reform of the Barnett formula, measures to defend the Welsh language, for example, and the parties have come on board, on to our territory. There’s no difference between the parties on those issues. And the same goes for extending devolution, in terms of the referendum that we won last year. All parties are united around progressing that agenda.”

This is the Welshminster Consensus within which a ‘One Wales’ Labour Party operates but also controls. Against Wood’s claims, it has arguably spiked Plaid’s guns. All of this is the legacy of one-party dominance in Wales – or ‘Labourland’ as it has been called in the past.

Where critics within Welsh Labour saw ‘One Wales’ as a route to Plaid’s advancement, the actual legacy has been Plaid’s decline to third party status – overtaken by the Conservatives. It demonstrates the increasing relevance of the titular question of Syd Morgan and Alan Sandry’s insightful article in 2011: ‘What is Plaid Cymru for?’ (here) What Morgan and Sandry fear is that, just as Labour have become more culturally nationalist, so Plaid have been “gradually slipping into a UK devolutionary, Cardiff Bay, but Labour-led consensus”.

After all, if there are two social democratic, soft-nationalist parties in Wales, doesn’t one become surplus to requirements? Looking from across the border, what Ed Miliband might see in Wales is an example of a party that has managed to articulate an electorally successful social democratic politics via appeals to national solidarity and culture. In the current search for a ‘One Nation Labour’ politics, the appeal is clear.

David Moon is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Liverpool. This is an edited extract from his article Welsh Labour in Power: ‘One Wales versus ‘One Nation’, published by the journal Renewal and available here.

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