Nuclear argument exposes Plaid dilemma

John Dixon says the party’s disagreement over Wylfa B is a symptom of a deeper problem on policy

It was entirely inevitable that holding a by-election in Ynys Môn would reopen Plaid’s self-inflicted wounds over energy policy. However much party managers might wish that the debate could have been postponed until after the by-election, it was the fact of the calling of the election that reopened the question.

One Welsh blog in particular has devoted some attention to the question over the last week or two, attracting the attention of the Western Mail’s fearless reporters as a result. It was no great surprise to see Plaid’s “senior sources” turning their anonymous briefings on the member who supports the party’s policy rather than those who would undermine it for perceived electoral advantage, even if the supporter concerned made his comments more than a tad more personal than was entirely necessary to making the point.

However, concentrating on what one candidate thought on one aspect of energy policy seems to me to be missing the deeper and more relevant points – firstly what is Plaid for, and secondly what is its energy policy?

Some have argued (Cai makes the point here) that whether or not a new nuclear power station is built is not a core nationalist issue, and it therefore doesn’t matter if some of Plaid’s members take a different view. If Plaid were to present itself as solely – or even primarily – a movement for the achievement of Welsh independence, then I’d agree that an awful lot of policy differences could be simply glossed over.  In that context it doesn’t really matter how we generate electricity, does it?

Well, actually, yes it does.

Perhaps the question of how we generate our electricity is not per se a core nationalist issue, but the economic consequences of such decisions are – or should be – very much nationalist issues.  What assets and liabilities Wales inherits at the point of independence is a vitally important question, and responsibility for decommissioning a nuclear power station, and for managing and disposing of nuclear waste, are two massive potential liabilities on the balance sheet.

The argument for independence may never have been primarily an economic one; but the argument against is very much so. In that context, supporting Wylfa B – without even considering any of the other arguments for and against – gives a massive boost to the Unionist arguments about the alleged unaffordability of Independence. Insofar as Wylfa B makes any sense at all, it does so only in the context of a continued union between Wales and England.  Nuclear energy makes more sense for large countries than for small ones.

But in any event, Plaid has long since stopped presenting itself as solely – or even primarily – a movement for the achievement of independence; it also seeks to present itself as a party of government.  And whilst I might not agree with those who have tried to push independence almost entirely off the agenda because they lack the imagination or the ability to do both of those things, I agree with the core assumption that a serious nationalist party which sees independence as a gradual process must be prepared to take responsibility in the short term.

Taking responsibility in the short term, however, requires a coherent and consistent policy platform on a range of issues, and as a minimum that has to include the key issues facing Wales and the world in general. If we think that man-made climate change is one of those issues – and I do, and I’ve heard plenty of Plaid people saying that they do as well – then energy policy is a key element of any response. And on that issue, Plaid has a serious problem of which the very public disagreement over Wylfa B is little more than a symptom.

If we imagine that a political earthquake were to take place at the next Assembly election and a majority Plaid government were to be elected, what would be that government’s energy policy?  In truth, we don’t know – it would depend entirely on which Plaid members were elected, not on how many of them.  Even if the party had a majority in the Assembly there can be no guarantee of unity over energy policy. And as the period between 2007 and 2011 demonstrated, even what the manifesto says cannot necessarily be relied upon.

  • On nuclear energy, whether the party is for or against depends on who you speak to.
  • On wind energy whether the party is for or against depends on who you speak to.
  • On the construction of new gas-fired fired power stations, whether the party is for or against depends on who you speak to.
  • And it recently emerged that on the question of the Severn barrage, whether the party is for or against depends on who you speak to as well.

In the light of that disarray, the only way that a Plaid government could deliver any energy policy at all would be if a majority within the Plaid group could secure the support of members of one or other of the opposition parties for their position. That hardly gives voters for whom climate change is one of their top issues a sound basis for selecting Plaid as a party of government.

During the recent spat, Plaid members have proudly claimed that in their party, members can at least debate the issues freely. That’s true, and it’s a great strength of the party. But it is matched by a corresponding weakness in that nobody ever accepts the result of that debate. The debate never comes to any conclusion, because those who find themselves on the ‘losing’ side continue to put their case – usually in a very public fashion.  And one of the results of that has been that although in theory the party’s members control policy, in practice the policy is set by those members who are elected politicians and who decide for themselves what stance to take on these issues. It’s one of the explanations for the shift in real power over policy from the membership to the elected élite.

Clearly the lack of unity over Wylfa B is a problem for Plaid, but in focusing the debate around the views of one candidate the wider point is being missed. This is an institutionalised problem of a party with an inability to decide on and promote a single consistent policy on one of the most important issues facing humanity. With all due respect to MH@Syniadau, with whom I usually tend to agree, that really isn’t simply a problem with Rhun.

John Dixon was Chairman of Plaid Cymru between 2002 and 2010. He blogs at the Borthlas site here.

6 thoughts on “Nuclear argument exposes Plaid dilemma

  1. To be fair to Michael Haggett, he mentioned John’s article in his latest post yesterday and said this about John’s final point:

    “John Dixon is wrong about only one thing: I have not singled-out Rhun for criticism. I have treated Rhun in exactly the same way as I have treated others who have tried to mislead the public about Plaid’s nuclear policy. When Elfyn Llwyd did it on Question Time in June 2011, I criticized him for it here. When Bob Parry, leader of the Plaid Cymru group on Ynys Môn, did it in Golwg in October 2011, I criticized him for it here. When Dafydd Elis-Thomas did it in the campaign to be leader of Plaid Cymru on Sharp End in February last year, I criticized him for it here. They were telling barefaced lies, and I was not afraid to tell anyone who reads Syniadau that this is what they were doing.”

    I don’t know how to do the links, but the post itself and three “heres” are:


    So John and Michael look to be in full agreement.

  2. So Plaid is opposed to nuclear policy though its leading politicians are not. I can only assume that this is a case of party policy being used as a guide for the party leaders which they are free to interpret as circumstances permit. They must have calculated that the public does not care whether a party is consistent in its policies since the public knows very little about party policies and tends to decide who to vote for based on other factors, public profile, party image and the suchlike.

    However if a ‘different kind of politics’ is meant to mean remedyng the distrust that the Welsh public has in its politicians, then an explanation from a party spokesman concerning the difference between what is said in public and what is written in manifestos would be a start. Rhun’s view as expressed in television interviews is that this is a debate that will continue within the party after the by-election is over. The lesson is however that, if you wish to win an election, you are not bound by your party’s policies and we cannot, as the voters, expect them to be so.

  3. “because those who find themselves on the ‘losing’ side continue to put their case – usually in a very public fashion.”
    I see nothing wrong with continuing to put a case against a policy with which you disagree. Some people seem to think that policy is carved in stone and handed down from the mountain top. I have heard someone, a member of the steering committee, argue against putting a motion to conference because it “disagreed with Party policy”.
    Also, if policy is decided by the mass of the membership, I would have thought that you have to voice your disagreement in a “very public fashion” How else will the membership get to consider your opinion?

  4. It is a problem for voters if they don’t know what a Party proposes to do if it reaches office. It is a bigger problem still for the Party if it cannot reach decision when it has to have a policy.

    Welsh independence is a red herring in this context. There is no reason why Wales should not export energy to the UK grid independent or not – France does. The costs of decommissioning are met by the consumers of the electricity if the price is right and adequate provision is made rather than over-paying shareholders.. Wylfa B will not be built unless the British government guarantees a price for its electricity that covers its costs. The UK and Welsh governments should ensure Hitachi then creates a depreciation fund for decommissioning. Since Anglesey is not sitting on the fault line between tectonic plates – unlike Japan – Plaid can then change its policy and some people on Ynys Mon can keep their jobs.

  5. Thanks, Gwyn, for quoting what I said. I agree that there isn’t much difference between what John and I think, not just on this, but on many issues.

    Glyndo is right to say that those who disagree with what we decide as party policy should not be silenced forever when a decision on something they feel strongly about has gone against them … although obviously it might be wise to let a matter rest for a decent interval (whatever that might be) before raising it again.

    On the issue of nuclear power, I said (in the same post that Gwyn linked to) that people needed to be firmly reminded about these three things:

    “First, that the majority of people in Plaid Cymru are totally opposed to building any new nuclear power stations in Wales, including Wylfa B.

    Second, that even though there is a minority in the party who support Wylfa B, most of them are mature enough to acknowledge that our anti-nuclear policy has been put together in a democratic way, and accept it for that reason. Only a small core of recalcitrants have resorted to telling lies about it and misrepresenting it, but as a result of them doing it others have unwittingly repeated those lies.

    Third, that anyone in the party who is pro-nuclear is free to try and change party policy, providing they realize that the only way to change the decision is to bring the matter before conference again and make their case there. If their arguments convince a majority, our policy will change. But until or unless that happens, party policy is going to remain firmly anti-nuclear.”

    One of the lies that Rhun told in this campaign was on Sunday Supplement when he said:

    “You know that there’s been a policy in Plaid Cymru going back 40 years where we’ve said, ‘Develop nuclear power stations on the sites where there are nuclear power stations in the past.'”

    He repeated this in Welsh on Pawb a’i Farn the next day. In doing so, he said pretty much the same as Elfyn, Bob and Dafydd, who are not only deliberately misrepresenting what we have decided as a party, but seem do be doing this in the hope that repeating the same lie over and over again will bludgeon others (both inside and outside the party) into thinking our policy is different. As a result, it is hardly surprising that there is confusion over what our policy on nuclear is, for others will have unwittingly repeated what they have said without realizing it to be untrue.

    This systematic attempt at deception by senior figures who refuse to accept the democratic decision of the party, but resort to deceit rather than use democratic means to try and change our decision, is what undermines the party and brings it into disrepute.

  6. There needs to be a total review of energy policy if we are serious about tackling climate change. At present there seems to be a problem with whatever is proposed be it nuclear at Wylfa, wind energy in Powys or Severn barrage. Seems to me if we are stating that fossil fuels are not the way forward, if we want to avoid importing gas from questionable states, want to avoid fracking and that wind alone cannot be the answer then we will have to end up with a mix which may well have to include nuclear. At present it seems that far too many people want clean energy but are never happy with any proposals that may form an answer

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