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 [email protected]Syniadau, with whom I usually tend to agree, that really isn’t simply a problem with Rhun.