The interplay of Wales’ social democratic traditions

Russell Elliott says UK Labour can learn from Plaid’s brand of community and identity based politics

Since she became leader of Plaid Cymru last year, Leanne Wood has prioritised improving the economy. Last week she launched the party’s Plan C.

The seven-point Plan includes initiatives to share income tax powers between the Welsh and UK governments, a procurement campaign to make the most of the public sector’s £4.3 billion spend, and more support for co-operatives, social enterprises and credit unions.

There are new ideas to support business, such as establishing a Welsh business bank, able to make the most of local knowledge to support small businesses, crucial to the Welsh economy, but struggling to access credit. There’s a proposal for an innovative infrastructure financing vehicle, Build 4 Wales, that would be able to borrow money on the capital markets. This would be a not for dividend company, recycling its profits into further investment.  It’s also suggested that effective monopolies, such as rail services, are run by a not for profit company, along the same lines as Welsh Water.

From its title it could be thought that Plaid’s Plan C is merely a sequel to the Compass think tank’s Plan B – see here. True, some of the ideas, such as learning from the German model of regional banks, are in Plan B, but they also appeared years earlier in the Plaid’s 2009 response to the crash. So rather than seeing Plan C as Plaid jumping on the bandwagon, it would be more correct to see it as bringing together ideas the party has been putting forward since the crash.

The Party of Wales has been stereotyped as only being interested in constitutional and cultural issues as if it is above consideration of the economic life of the country. However, this grounding in Wales’ cultural life and appreciation of the need to decentralise the UK state, has given Plaid Cymru a strong and distinctive take on the economy from the start. This tradition is worthy of consideration by others on the centre left looking for alternatives beyond both clumsy, big state command and control models and neo liberal idolatry of the hidden hand of the market.

In a recent book, Gramsci, Space, Nature, Politics, Gramsci’s distinctive outlook, which stands out from the centralising politics of his contemporaries, has been attributed to him coming from ‘the west’s most remote periphery’, Sardinia. Moving to northern, industrial Turin he was very aware of the uneven development of the economy and how this was influenced by the particular history and culture of different places.  He wrote dismissively of the limitations of the ‘cosmopolitan’ view which missed important local details and treated Italy as if it were one homogenous nation, not properly considering regional or global influences on development.

Raymond Williams’ journey from working class south Wales to academic life in Cambridge gave him a similar perspective and appreciation of the importance of grounding political economy in geography. A Plaid member, in the 1970s he saw the renewal of politics emerging from the periphery of Europe, not from its cosmopolitan centres. This new politics would come out of an appreciation of place and he thought Plaid offered a valuable alternative to Labour’s tradition of ‘metropolitan centralism’.

Challenging the hegemony of the UK state, he wanted Wales to gain ‘real independence’, based not around the illusion of national political sovereignty but on more local economic control.  In 1981 Plaid formally enshrined these ideas by adopting ‘community socialism’ as a constitutional aim.

Williams was not the first to take such an approach. From the start Plaid had seen the importance of a decentralist approach to the economy, rooted in consideration of real places with their very different issues. D.J. Davies, one of Plaid’s founders, sought ideas from other small countries on the edge of Europe, and looked at Irish and Scandinavian economic policy. He emphasised the power of community to create an alternative, co-operative economy for Wales, which he thought could “undermine capitalism and transform it from within.”

This tradition continued with Plaid championing the ideas of economists like Leopold Kohr, who opposed what he called the “cult of bigness” in social organisation, and Ernst Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful.  Using this thinking, Plaid set out its Economic Plan for Wales in 1970, based on a decentralised network of hubs across Wales, very much in tune with grassroots, green thinking.

So in contrast to Labour’s traditional top down, big state socialism, Plaid has long advocated a greater role for co-operatives, mutuals and credit unions.  In place of a One Nation, one size fits all model, Plaid’s decentralised socialism has emphasised the importance of diversity and autonomy for nations, individuals and families. While the Compass Plan B outlines the concept of the social investment state, as a more pared down, smaller state model of social democracy, it can be argued that Plaid have been pushing for this community centred model of social democracy since the 1930s.

Welsh Labour have understood the importance of setting politics in terms of place and have successfully taken on Plaid Cymru’s key policy issues, in what has been dubbed a ‘Welshminster consensus’. This means the Party of Wales has suffered electorally, with Labour ministers asking, “What is the point of Plaid?”  The answer to this question is surely that having two social democratic parties in Wales allows a richer politics to emerge from this dialogue between different traditions, a politics which fits real places.

At the UK level, some in Labour are considering how to escape the bland cosmopolitan outlook of the mainstream British parties, exploring ‘Blue Labour’ ideas to try to reconnect with real people and real places.  There’s a lot that could be learnt from parties like Plaid, if space can be found in One Nation Labour for a variety of approaches, tailored to fit the different nations, regions and geographies of the UK. A consideration of political economy around ‘place’ would emphasise the diversity of measures needed to fit different parts of the UK.  It could also provide the focus for the formation of grassroots alliances, bringing together a range of interests in an area, which Raymond Williams saw as being so crucial to renewing politics and avoiding the fragility of coalitions formed only by party leaderships.

Russell Elliott is Convenor of Cynullydd Compass Cymru and Tweets here

4 thoughts on “The interplay of Wales’ social democratic traditions

  1. Lots of “ifs” in this article. Whilst parties can learn from each other from time to time, it must be remembered that there are palpable existential differences between Plaid Cymru and Labour. Plaid desire political independence for Wales as a nation within the European Union, whilst Labour represents a form of British nationalism, with varying degrees of Euroscepticism, that is representative of an Ancien Regime big state mentality.

    ‘One Nation’ Labour is a busted flush. It sidelines the traditional nations of the UK in favour of an English social policy programme, that attempts to boost welfarism and social justice. Its only focus on identity is to seek inclusivity through multiculturalism, but it conspicuously ignores a multi-nationality approach or constitutional pluri-nationalism.

    Raymond Williams supported Plaid Cymru because he was a Welsh nationalist who believed in internationalism. Nation was central to Williams’ political philosophy because within his nation an innovative ‘decentralist socialist’ society could be constructed. All of this is abhorrent to Labour supporters – who have criticised, and sneered at, Raymond Williams over the years – as they root themselves in a London-centred statist framework.

    Gramsci, as the article notes, was the primary theorist of hegemonic authority. Plaid Cymru’s attempts to decentralise power will always be opposed by Labour’s controlling tendencies, which it organises through its cabalist networks. Under devolution, Labour and Plaid Cymru have forged cosy relationships, often through Labour’s appropriation of people like Raymond Williams. Plaid, sadly, has been taken in by this flattery. To the outside observer, nevertheless, the nationalisms of both parties are poles apart. If Plaid desire political autonomy and freedom, they have to eschew Labour’s ‘Brit’ agenda, and start to cultivate a vibrant Welsh nationalism, based on ideas of community socialism that were enunciated by Raymond Williams, D.J. Davies, Leopold Kohr, etc. If they don’t, they will become little more than a second-rate British regionalist organisation.

  2. I do like a lot of Leanne Wood’s thinking. It’s a pity really that she belongs to a party that is least likely to be able to rally behind that thinking, in fact I wonder if Leanne understands her Plaid constituency at all. The problem lies in the dislocation between “Local” (OUR COMMUNITIES) and National politics and policies.

    The appeal to localism is very effective and there is hardly a passing bandwagon in any part of Wales that Plaid is unwilling to jump upon. Mostly this involves negativism……if the local people don’t want it, Plaid doesn’t want it!

    There lies the problem. Wales needs economic growth…jobs for voters. Therefore it needs commercial links to its nearest wealthy neighbour and the infrastructure to go with it. So Plaid’s policy is? Build North South links (Nation unification) rather than East West (Wealth creation). We need the best brains and the best innovators and educators…from wherever they are available. So Plaids policy is? A unique Welsh Language dominated School system which will prevent outsiders re-locating with their families to the Fro Cymraeg and an emphasis on how DIFFERENT Wales is to England, so much so that much needed foreign doctors think that Welsh is essential and that we have a different currency in Wales to that in England.
    In various areas of Wales where construction could boost the local economy Plaid opposes house building schemes on the grounds that such schemes bring in English people and the language is “diluted”. See, Wrexham/Flint/ Denbighshire and now Ammanford. All opposed on the grounds that “Outsiders” might come to live there.

    Plaid, as the political Wing of Cymdeithas Yr Iaith, strongly supports the introduction of an even more restrictive TAN 20 to protect the language. They are for low carbon emmitting power generation but, at will, against Wylfa B (or for Wylfa B) and against Wind turbines (or for Wind turbines) against tidal power in the Severn Estuary (or for it).

    This is the great fallacy behind local populism and local economics….. it is an anti National stance; it doesn’t serve the greater good and is inconsistent with wider government. How can Plaid reconcile Localism with Nationalism without laying bare their inherent hypocrisy?

  3. Plaid, though it has weaknesses, is the only vehicle capable of addressing the fundamental issues facing Wales today. It is the only party which can claim to exclusively stand up for Wales and its people. Wales is peripheral as far as the unionist parties are concerned.

    @Jon Jones

    I suspect your preference for Wales is continued Labour government, but one only has to look at the state of the country after thirteen years of Labour governance at Westminster and in Cardiff. It’s truly an appalling record. It consists of an unprecedented financial crisis resulting in a decade of increasing austerity and instability, illegal and immoral wars, and a relatively greater decline in Wales’ already poorly performing economy. Wales ranks with Romania and Bulgaria, having been overtaken by other eastern European former Soviet satellite states. To that could be added the increases in NHS waiting times and worsening educational attainment, the failure to arrest child poverty and investment in infrastructure – by 2010 Wales, like Albania, was the only European country to have no electrified railways.

    All parties are broad churches, Plaid is no exception. One will find a range of views within it on most issues, just as there are Euro sceptics in the Labour party, or those opposed to same sex marriage.

    Indeed I would expect to find a greater divergence of views within Plaid because of its primary policy of achieving independence – which is capable of attracting people right across the political spectrum, even though the party is broadly left of centre. Lack of homogeneity does not amount to hypocrisy. For instance, I happen to be sceptical of the party’s advocacy of onshore wind farms, but that does not amount to hypocrisy on the part of Plaid. It is a democratic party where differing views are debated and policies formed on that basis.

    I see no inherent conflict between localism, or community, and the nation, which I view as a ‘community of communities’. Our communities in Wales have much in common, but they also have their distinctiveness. To be fair, I think most of the parties try to balance the two, but the tendency for centralisation in a large nation state is far stronger. The UK is a primary example of that, being perhaps the most centralised state in Europe. I find Plaid’s approach refreshing having the potential to benefit communities right across Wales.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy