Carwyn’s ‘One Wales’ philosophy spikes Plaid’s guns

Michael Sullivan argues we are witnessing the rebirth of social democracy as a result of Labour’s co-option of Welsh nationalism

The ideological architecture for post-war UK social democracy was put in place by the 1945-51 Labour governments. The chief architect was the late Tony Crosland. His arguments were made most cogently in The Future of Socialism (1956) and The Conservative Enemy (1952). The creation of a post-war welfare state and a planned economy had civilised UK capitalism. A system that required social and economic inequality had been transformed into one where the achievement of greater equality and social justice were both desirable and possible.

If Crosland was the architect of post-war social democracy, the foundations were laid by T. H. Marshall’s theory of citizenship. He believed the welfare state could mitigate the insecurity and economic inequalities caused by unregulated markets. Like the civil and political rights that preceded them, the welfare state’s social rights were part of citizenship entitlement. The right to welfare is connected with full membership of the community.

This article is a condensation of a much longer conference paper which achnowledges and quotes extensively from an article by David S. Moon Welsh Labour in power: ‘One Wales’ vs. ‘One Nation’?, published by the online journal of social democracy Renewal in May 2013 here. Part of this article was also published on ClickonWales here 

However, the creation of New Labour and Tony Blair’s election victory in 1997 signalled a shift away from this approach. The notion of a Third Way promulgated by social democratic theorist Anthony Giddens, now became the guiding hand of contemporary Labour politics. One of its central arguments was a redefinition of social democracy, emphasising responsibility rather than rights, and work rather than welfare in order to meet the social and economic challenges of new times.

One of the consequences of devolution was to create a space for a different interpretation of social democracy in Wales and Scotland where Labour continued to adhere to the older definition. Labour-led administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh retained Old Labour’s commitment to the welfare state as an engine of equality, social justice and social inclusion based on the political values of universality and social solidarity.

For the Welsh Government this definition of social democracy distanced its administration from some of the principles and many of the policy actions of the New Labour project at Westminster. Its ‘clear red water’ philosophy, enunciated by Rhodri Morgan in a speech at Swansea University in December 2002, distinguished Welsh social policy from elsewhere in the UK.

The method of making policy as well as the substance of policy diverged from the ‘English model’. Welsh policymaking was rooted in co-operation, rather than competition, on ‘voice’ rather than ‘choice’ as the best way of strengthening the influence of citizens (rather than consumers). In developing diverse and responsive services, it aimed for a greater equality of outcome, rather than simply of opportunity and so on. The devolution dividend included an increasing differentiation in the tone – and maybe the voice – emerging from Labour in Cardiff and London.

This policy differentiation continued into a third Assembly term but was accompanied by an even more substantial change, the ‘One Wales’ coalition between Labour and Plaid Cymru. Meanwhile, in the face of economic crisis, the Labour Government in London replaced social democracy with a sort of social liberalism.

For both Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru social policy has played a part in nation building. Prior to devolution Labour could present devolutionary ambitions as an opportunity to craft Welsh solutions to Welsh problems. It was also an answer to the legitimacy of the Conservative writ being imposed in Wales. No more than a handful of Conservative MPs had been elected in four general elections. So devolution and the left of centre social policies that resulted were expressions of both general political values and of national identity.

The Welsh Government has used the new powers it gained in 2006 and 2011 to introduce a raft of legislation on social care, environmental issues, school transport, the use of the Welsh language and children’s rights. The red-green’ Labour Plaid coalition that emerged from the 2007 election put constitutional change at the top of its programme for government, including:

  • A commitment, without qualification, to a referendum on further powers for the Assembly at or before the 2011 Welsh election.
  • A Convention looking at the case for further powers leading up to the referendum.
  • An independent Commission to review the Barnett formula through which Wales was allocated funding;
  • A commitment to consider devolving powers to Wales over criminal justice, and a new Welsh Language Act.

Of course, there have been those in both parties who argue against the meshing of social democratic and nationalist concerns. It’s also probably true to say that if nationalism in Wales was of a political variety (as it is in Scotland), rather than cultural and linguistic (as it actually is), fewer within the Labour movement would have feared its influence.

Yet, to a large extent such concerns have been groundless. Even fears at the ‘Cymricisation’ of Wales’ civic space linked to an increasing emphasis on the promotion of and spending on the Welsh language has raised less than the odd yelp. This remains the case even as the Welsh Government debates enforcing new legal standards over the use of Cymraeg by public and private bodies.

The proposition embedded in ‘One Wales’ – of Labour formally breaking bread with the supposedly hated nationalists – was the first and so far the only truly seismic post-devolution shift. What it ultimately signified was a general recognition of Welsh Labour’s evolution since 1998 into a particular type of soft-nationalist party, espousing what might be called a ‘One Wales’ identity politics. In doing so it has operated within a post-devolution consensus in Cardiff Bay to which all the major parties, even to an extent the Tory Group, adhere.

Inside the ‘One Wales’ cultural milieu, Welsh Labour’s rhetoric has trumpeted the particularity of a ‘small nation’ and people with ‘Welsh values’ and ‘Welsh attitudes’ declared to be very different to ‘the English way’. In turn they make ‘Made in Wales’ policy solutions necessary to match. Every element in ‘One Wales’ which caused critics to denounce it as a nationalist Trojan horse – the focus on Barnett, more powers and promoting Cymraeg – are now owned by Welsh Labour. They are basic points of Carwyn Jones’ political philosophy. The result is a broadly soft-nationalist consensus.

Arguably it has spiked Plaid’s guns. Where critics within Welsh Labour saw ‘One Wales’ as a vehicle to take the nationalists to the ‘gates of independence’, the actual legacy has been Plaid’s decline to third party status. After all, if there are two social democratic, soft-nationalist parties in Wales, doesn’t one become surplus to requirements?

Two last words from contemporary Plaid Cymru politicians. Dafydd Elis-Thomas talks of nationalism “growing out of the bowels of Welsh social democracy”. Adam Price argues that Plaid will save social democracy in Wales while the latter implodes in England as a result of the election of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government in 2010. Exactly how all this plays out is dependent – in large part – on Plaid keeping its implicit promise to ensure Welsh Labour is honest, nationalist and social democratic.


Professor Michael Sullivan is Vice-President (Strategic Partnerships) and Professor of Policy Analysis at Swansea University. This article, which appears in the current issue of the IWA’s the welsh agenda is a summary of a paper he gave to a seminar on Welsh nationalism at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona in November:

19 thoughts on “Carwyn’s ‘One Wales’ philosophy spikes Plaid’s guns

  1. Great article. When you read the the details of George Osborne’s Budget you realise that there is an ideological battle across the UK between Social Democracy and Christian Democracy, with Osborne favouring the latter. Wales is a social democratic society, but it needs a new coalition – One Wales 2 – to ensure that continues. Let us hope that Plaid Cymru agree and start to seriously negotiate with Labour to develop a broad left-of-centre position; therefore ruling out right wing Christian Democracy for our nation.

  2. Mark is right that the main ideological battle in the UK is effectively between a form of Social Democracy and a form of Christian Democracy, albeit one without much actual Christianity.

    It is, however, an exaggeration to call Wales “a social democratic society.” Wales is a region in which a majority of voters habitually favour reactionary socialist parties, largely out of tribal loyalty – a different thing altogether.

    On one thing we can all agree: it is a safe bet that the Labour Party will not be holding up a ‘Welsh model’ as a good example of what it wants to do in the UK as a whole in next year’s General Election.

  3. Another coalition with Labour will spell the death of Plaid Cymru. Labour’s ‘soft’ nationalism is a cloak for doing little or nothing. It’s largely cosmetic, as Wales continues its relentless slide into penury, the poor man of Europe, overtaken even by former Soviet satellite states.

    Plaid’s ‘gains’ during ‘One Wales’ were largely illusory, moving from one flawed legislative system to another. Three (or is it more?) commissions have recommended significantly more power be devolved plus the enlargement of the Assembly, yet little or nothing has happened. The rationale for Plaid’s existence was weakened.

    Trying to be more ‘socialist’ than Labour hasn’t worked, it’s simply made the party into a clone of the three unionist parties. Plaid must be honest and talk more about its fundamental aim of independence, as the only way which Wales will ever be prosperous and build a more equal, fairer society. It must distance itself from Labour, the party which has failed Wales really badly, at Westminster, in the Assembly and in local government.

    The one thing which Labour can’t and won’t offer the people of Wales is self-determination, a status enjoyed by most of the world’s peoples. It can only offer more of the same failed Anglo-centric policies. If Malta with a population of 450k, and virtually no resources, can succeed, Wales surely can. Slovakia has overtaken Wales in the prosperity stakes in just twenty years. Plaid can be the party of hope for a people who have got used to failure. Get on with the job, or at least start talking about it.

  4. Professor Sullivan has written an excellent article. As he points out, Labour has indeed spiked Plaid’s guns. This is because Plaid has become completely obsessed with devolution and forgotten about its true purpose – achieving independence. Labour and Plaid will inevitably go into a ‘leftist’ coalition in the near future (some argue that, over time, a merger is on the cards). When this occurs, Leanne Wood will feel that her job of denying the Tories any power in the Assembly will be done. However, in reality, this will be the end of Plaid, and Labour’s Unionism will have won the day.

  5. “Inside the ‘One Wales’ cultural milieu, Welsh Labour’s rhetoric has trumpeted the particularity of a ‘small nation’ and people with ‘Welsh values’ and ‘Welsh attitudes’ declared to be very different to ‘the English way’.”

    It is worth cross-referencing some of the ideas contained in this article with some of the arguments put forward in JWR’s article on Welshness ( and the comments some of us made in response, particularly in highlighting the wider appropriation of (and claim to know/reflect) ‘Welsh values’ than a simple ‘Plaid versus the rest’ model implies.

  6. But as a specific response to this article, I suppose I would say that I agree with Prof. Sullivan’s reading of historical events and current situation – Carwyn Jones’s ideological and rhetorical centre of gravity is undoubtedly ‘soft nationalist’. Indeed, I argued with someone the other day that Carwyn Jones’s constitutional politics is probably more nationalist than the Home Rule ideas of the original members of Cymru Fydd in 1892, and this has inevitably ‘spiked’ PC’s guns to a certain extent.

    But I suppose the interesting question is to what extent it is a) reflected in the wider Labour Assembly group; b) The Labour Parliamentary Party; and c) the Labour membership. There are some big tests of ‘nationalist’ mettle coming up soon and I do wonder whether the ‘Welsh’ Labour construct can withstand the pressure or whether centrist Smithite ‘regionalism’ will prevail in due course.

  7. I don’t think that Labour has really moved that much to the Plaid position in any more than a cosmetic sense. However, I think Plaid did poorly at the last election simply because it did come to resemble the other parties far too much – a party that wants to manage Wales rather than transform it.

    Like many posters above, I also think that any future coalition with Labour will essentially kill Plaid Cymru as a serious political force, although they managed to achieve some things in One Wales. In reality though, people tend to vote Plaid Cymru because they want to see an end to Labour hegemony in Wales – supporting a future Labour government in a coalition would disenchant a lot of its traditional voters.

    Plaid Cymru have ruled out any coalition with the Tories. They should also rule out joining a Labour-led coalition. Otherwise there actually isn’t any point to Plaid Cymru.

  8. There are two elements missing from this analysis and the commentary on it. One, Plaid cannot focus on independence because Wales does not currently have the economy to support it. I think it was Prof Holtham who pointed out In a recent post that the Welsh budget deficit is 30 per cent of our GDP. The austerity the UK government is currently practising was to reduce a deficit of 11 per cent of GDP.

    An independent Wales would have to cut spending or raise taxes by a third. Plaid will never get people to vote for that and they know it. To get into power and try to improve that situation they have to have convincing policies to operate under the present constitutional dispensation. So far they are not making much of a job of finding or publicising them.

    Their only hope is the ineffectuality of the Labour government which is failing to get a grip on our public services, as the data clearly show. Co-operation is a fine principle but in Wales it is a cloak for failing to confront public sector unions who refuse accountability for their members. Generally Labour is failing to manage. Even the tribal Labour vote will get the message eventually and stay home. Who knows what political force will emerge as turn-out falls at elections. We believers in devolution never assumed it would be plain sailing. Our democracy will mature in time and with it our government – gobeithio.

  9. I wonder to what extent the fact that Labour is fighting on two fronts – as the Welsh Government and as the Westminster Opposition – explains the difference between Carwyn Jones and Owen Smith.

    Carwyn Jones holds the hegemonic reins in Wales and understands the popularity of taking up a social democratic position. In contrast, the Labour Party in Westminster is trying to stay in touch with a liberal free market direction of travel. It is interesting to reflect that the recent attacks launched by David Cameron against the Labour Government in Cardiff Bay could also be seen as an attack on the emerging social democratic hegemony emerging here (and I include David Melding in this). For the Tories, this was something they left behind in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher and, despite early attempts by David Cameron, is something they have continued with as a core policy.

  10. Where is this Welsh Labour Party? Does it exist? Who leads it? Or is Welsh Labour a name used by the British Labour Party in Wales to give some credibility to their activities whilst they are still controlled by London?
    How is it that the new leader of the Labour Group on Cardiff City Council who was elected the council in May 2012 an take over the party when before 2012 he was an anti- Labour independent in Peckham?
    How come the previous challenger to Heather Joyce,the retiring leader, was another person only elected in May 2012? This person previously stood for Labour in the Scottish Highlands and was deputy leader of Colchester Council. He lost the vote against Joyce by one vote.
    There is a pattern here, the New Labour High Command in a bunker in Westminster are sending out these people to control councils in Wales. The same pattern can be seen in Swansea.
    The shambolic activities of the Labour Party in Scotland, their awful leader, their cack handed “No” campaign show that that the same control freaks in a London bunker operate there as in Wales. Nothing has changed since Blair forced Alan Micheal on Wales as First Minister fifteen years ago.
    I am afraid Micheal Sulivan is deluding him self if he thinks there is a Welsh Nationalistic Labour Party.
    There is a propaganda front for British Labour in Wales. But the reality is Welsh Labour is an empty shell. Carwyn Jones Government is a puppet controlled from London.

  11. There is at least one glaring practical obstacle to the clear red water policy agenda. Whatever its short term political advantages Wales cannot unilaterally develop big state solutions to its social and economic problems. Professor Sullivan may prefer a welsh view of welfare but he should realise that much of the welfare budget is paid by English Taxpayers. The Westminster Government is currently shrinking the size of the State and the next government is very likely to continue that process. We will not be well served by an Assembly Government that pretends that it has discovered a money tree plantation.

  12. 3 things on this discussion –

    I think the author has underestimated the reach of UK political discourse into Wales when judging Plaid’s decline to third party status. As in all times of national crisis, and as tends to happen under right-leaning governments as we have presently in London, the media has gone into overdrive with discussion of social issues with a right-wing tinge to them. I can’t remember the last time I read a newspaper and didn’t come across a mention of migration or welfare, and this constant barrage of political discourse, whether it comes from England or Wales, is likely to push people to the right even in a self-proclaimed social democratic society. Until we have a national media that stands on its own two feet, we can’t really claim to have too distinct a political culture and Plaid will find it harder to carve out that niche that they are seeking.

    Secondly, I think it’s a little lazy of some commenters, maybe even a little condescending, to describe Labour’s support as ‘tribal’. When people are willing to overlook the boys’ club backslapping, ineffectuality, cynical electioneering and downright laziness that has arisen from a few Labour quarters, this is the result of past achievements as much as it is tribalism. People remember the Beveridge era, comprehensive schooling, the minimum wage and are grateful. Similarly, they remember Margaret Thatcher. I’m not saying that these analyses are objectively correct but politics, for most people, is about trust. If other parties or ideological movements have failed to win the people’s trust, is seems a bit sloppy to blame that on their ‘tribal’ nature.

    Thirdly, the most successful and era-defining political movements are those which offer a vision of the future. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Westminster-based parties are struggling to win people over with their messages of, as Jason Morgan puts it above, managing rather than transforming. Plaid has a real opportunity to buck that trend, but their vision cannot be independence (it just isn’t popular enough or, sadly, feasible), it has to be something more tangible. Maybe that incorporates federacy, or being pro-European, or small businesses or the redevelopment of manufacturing, all of which would be a welcome break from the negative politics that has us terrified of Brussels, Islam, Romanians and the poor.

  13. Bit taken aback by Jacks’ suggestion that Plaid should become more “pro-European”. I always thought they were the most Euro-enthusaistic of our parties. Also feel that this line that “Wales cannot be independent because it is too small, too poor, too uneducated, too ill equipped”, etc., misses the point that independence is an ideological position about govermnace – i.e. who should hold the political reins, and to what degree and extent, in which geo-political territory? If Plaid, or anyone else, feels that independence is the preferred option for Wales, then they have to argue for it in clear ideological terms. Similarly, opponents should not discriminate against Welsh independence unless they can provide lucid objections to any, or all, form(s) of independence – thus, the independence of San Marino has the same (theoretical political / ethical) value as the independence of the USA. This is the argument that the British Nationalists are having trouble with in the Scottish referendum debate – e.g. they vituperatively denounce Scotland’s independence but salivate over the stautus quo of UK independence.

  14. Jack

    If independence is ‘feasible’ for 192 nations, many smaller than Wales, with fewer resources (I mentioned two) then why not Wales? It’s the ‘we’re too small, too weak, too poor, and yes, too stupid’ argument, instilled into us by centuries of being told that we are just those things.

    One thing that is never going to happen is a federation. The unionist parties have too firm a grip on Westminster sovereignty to let it go. It’s taken over a century, an unelected second chamber still exists there, and an electoral system which maintains the status quo. A federal UK would require a written constitution, entailing the abolition of Westminster’s sovereignty and an end to the two party gravy train that has existed for generations, to the detriment of most of the UK’s inhabitants.

    Independence isn’t popular because the people of Wales aren’t informed enough about it, and the possibilities it offers. The more the Scottish electorate learns about its benefits, the more they opt for it, despite the endless barrage of attacks from the unionist dominated media.

    People vote Labour, regardless of repeated monumental failures in London and Cardiff, simply because of habit and because it’s not the Tory party. The SNP has finally managed to break that tradition in Scotland. Hopefully the wider YES campaign will succeed in breaking the Union and create a more prosperous and fairer country north of the border, as an example for Wales to follow.

  15. @ Dave

    Wales’ essential problem is its poverty compared with the rest of the UK and Europe. We have had a National Assembly for 15 years now and we’re economically no better off. What the vast majority of Welsh voters want to see is an improvement in their living standards. If the Welsh Government could deliver on that, then the credibility of further powers would be greatly enhanced.

  16. Mark O’Shea – yes you are right in that they are the most pro European. Maybe I made that statement mindful of the potential for that status to wobble a little in light of recent events within the party. The threat that UKIP presents to established parties could see many of them taking reactionary steps on Europe, but my strong hope is that Plaid can resist this.

    As for my statement regarding independence, I would like to clarify a little. Firstly I am a proud Welsh person with an unfailing belief in the people of Wales to achieve any number of things. There is certainly no ‘colonised mind’ behind my belief that independence is, at present, unfeasible. The argument is based on the lack of economic independence, the consistent flow of revenue out of Wales to the head offices of the foreign companies whose products we consume, and the lack of an adequate tax base as a result.

    The only way we could build a small nation facing the pressures of competition that an independent Wales would face would be if the people were completely committed to the idea of that nation, and at present they are not. I fear that an economically poor independent Wales would just accelerate the brain drain, so to my mind political independence should follow the natural path of asserting economic independence rather than from constitutional wrangling. Maybe I will be proved wrong.

    Dave – I think you have fallen into the trap I described in my second point; people do not vote Labour just because of habit, they do so because at certain times Labour have delivered. If you want those people’s support, you’re going to have to win it by delivering something for them as well.

  17. Jack

    Labour hasn’t ‘delivered’ anything since Attlee. It’s been back-pedalling ever since. Every time Labour has been in government since 1951, it’s left a mess behind, the worst being in 2010. They couldn’t beat the Tories, so Blair and Brown joined them, by creating New Labour, leaving us with a choice of different coloured tories, blue, red, or yellow. They jumped on the neo-liberal bandwagon in a big way, and are still on it.

    I’m not an apologist for Plaid Cymru either. Its unique selling point is independence, rather than being a socialist alternative to Labour’s brigade in the Bay. If Plaid doesn’t tell the people of Wales of a positive alternative to perpetual Westminster government, it can never be realised.

    Twenty years ago the level of support for independence in Scotland wasn’t much higher than it is in Wales today. The ground has to be prepared. Trying to clone Labour is doomed to failure, as another coalition will demonstrate if it ever happens. It’s addled thinking. The party has to be consistent and clear about its fundamental objective, and keep telling us of the benefits that can stem from it.

    The Scots can help by paving the way, shaking Westminster’s foundations, and sending a seismic shock to Labour in Cardiff Bay, who will wake up to the fact that they face near perpetual Tory government. My guess is that there will suddenly be a lot more Labour ‘nationalists’ who would prefer self-government here to the alternative.

    Interesting times ~ I hope I live long enough to see how it all works out.

  18. Countries poorer than Wales are independent – yes. But they didn’t take a cut of one third in their standard of living to become independent. Wales currently has public services much better than its own economy could support because they’d are one third paid for by the rest of the UK. If you can persuade the Welsh electorate to vote for that cut I shall admire you and them for their indifference to material things – but I wouldn’t bet on it. And Dave I’m afraid the Welsh electorate has a former grasp on reality than you do. They understand the fact of Welsh dependency. Now you can argue that given independence after an initial period of hardship Wales could move to greater prosperity but given the way Labour is running Welsh public services you can forgive the people some scepticism and disinclination to take an immediate hit and the risk it won’t improve.

  19. RT

    What you say is largely correct, however, you’re assuming that things will continue as they are. You also assume that I’m naïve. Standards of living are falling in Wales, by the day, and there are huge further cuts in the offing. If Scotland leaves, and I think the chances of that happening are increasing, Cardiff will have little option but to demand more powers, or suffer the changes that are taking place in England, such as the dismantling of the NHS, which will surely come as the cuts bite and Barnett follows expenditure across the border.

    More devolution and continued funding for Wales will not be palatable to the electorate in England, which already irritated with Scotland. That irritation will likely turn on Wales, the scapegoat. Independence could well be forced on us in such circumstances. Added to that, the Treasury won’t have Scotland’s oil to lubricate its coffers. Things are going to be a lot tougher, not just in Wales, but in large areas of England. Funding a devolved Wales with significantly more powers will not be popular there. The West Lothian Question will be renamed the Carmarthen West Question.

    The auspices are not good for the continuation of whatever the rUK will end up being called. (I suspect that they’ll retain the highly cherished ‘UK’ plus the Union Flag and pretend that Scotland hasn’t left). The people of Wales need to be prepared for the eventuality of independence. At the moment it falls to Plaid Cymru to undertake that task, since the unionists here, for the most part, have their heads buried in the sand, with the exception of a handful such as David Melding, who senses that change is in the air. Even Carwyn Jones has realised that things can’t continue as they are, especially if Scotland leaves. It’s going to be hard for us in Wales. Sometimes it’s best to jump before being pushed.

    I don’t think that conditions in an independent Wales would be that bad in terms of standards of living. It would force governments here to run things much more efficiently, such as slimming down the ridiculous local government bureaucracy of 22 local authorities. Wales would spend a fraction on defence, when at present very little of it’s UK share is spent here. After all, Slovakia managed it, with fewer resources. Dependency is a curse, it saps dignity and self-respect in both the individual and the nation. It has to end sometime, better sooner than later.

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