The Outsider

John Osmond examines Adam Price’s role in Welsh politics

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

In a typically knockabout speech to Welsh Labour’s 2009 Spring conference Rhodri Morgan took a sideswipe at his coalition partner, Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones, by rounding on the person many see as Plaid Cymru’s leader in waiting, Adam Price.

Observing that the vulnerability of small nations had been cruelly exposed by the shock waves of the credit crunch, the First Minister reflected, “But never fear, the plan to make Wales the Iceland of the West came with the imprimateur of that leading Ammanford intellectual, Mr Adam Price MP, a sort of Eisteddfod Bardic shock jock, nay, Philosopher Royal at the Court of that well known organ of Welsh radicalism, the Western Mail.
“My main comfort is this. If I get fed up with reading daily doses of ‘What Adam Thought’, ‘What Adam is Thinking’, ‘What Adam Will be Thinking Next’, ‘What Adam Had for Breakfast’, ‘What Adam Thought Before He’d Even Had Breakfast’ – you’ve seen the stuff – then things could be worse.

“If I’ve had a guts full, and I’m the Labour Leader in Wales, then imagine how I’d feel if I was Ieuan Wyn Jones.”

A politician has really arrived when he gets this kind of treatment from his main opponent. What is it about Adam Price, who has just announced that he will not be contesting his Carmarthen East seat at next year’s general election, that so get’s up Labour’s nose? Is it because he’s stolen the socialist clothes that they’d like to wear?

Decades ago, in the course of an interview with Jim Griffiths, the first Secretary of State for Wales, he asked me my opinion about the late Phil Williams who a few years earlier, in 1968, had come within a whisker of unseating Labour in the sensational Caerphilly by-election. “Why isn’t such a good socialist in the Labour Party?” Griffiths asked mournfully.

In a chapter in the IWA’s Politics in the 21st Century Wales, published last Autumn, in which Rhodri Morgan gives as good an account of Welsh Labour as there is to be found, Adam Price addresses this very question. As he puts it, “The relationship between Labour and Plaid Cymru remains the central narrative in Welsh politics. Although no-one should doubt the ferocity of the electoral rivalry, it cannot be characterised solely as one of outright opposition because it has also involved a process of interpellation, a calling to account. In this way Plaid has influenced Labour, drawing it in a nationalist direction. Meanwhile Labour, through its unrivalled hegemony from the inter-war period on, pushed Plaid towards its formal adoption of socialism as a philosophy in 1981.”

The difference, of course, lies in what socialism means in practice. While Price praises Labour for its efforts to end, or at least ameliorate, extremes of inequality, exemplified in Wales by Rhodri Morgan’s ‘Clear Red Water’ philosophy, he says this is not enough. There is a larger, more embracing aim of empowering people, and collectively the wider Welsh community, to find and assert their independence.

As the devolution processes edges painfully forward through the coming electoral contests –at the Westminster vote within the year, and for the Assembly in 2011 – this will remain an underlying theme. To be sure, it won’t be debated in these terms on the doorstep, but it is the deal-breaker for the future of Welsh politics.

And in this discussion Adam Price is sure to have a starring role, even though he is essentially an outsider in Welsh politics, even to some extent within his own party. He will be absenting himself from Welsh politics over the coming year, pursuing some intellectual fortification in the United States with the aid of a Fulbright scholarship. However, he has announced his intention of returning in time to contest the next Assembly election, in May 2011.

There is no doubt that Price brings an intellectual intensity to political debate that ends up having an emotional force. He has the an uncanny knack of combining oppositionism with the insider’s pragmatic consensual touch. It makes him at the same time charismatic and infuriating to some of his colleagues, never mind his opponents. He’s in touch with the new media, Youtube, twitter and the rest. He represents a new generation in Welsh politics that the other parties envy.

His recent speech to Plaid Cymru’s conference was given a star billing. Here’s a flavour, the extract now given an extra resonance by his latest announcement:

“In the first few days I was in the House Of Commons, before I even gave my maiden speech, I remember Tom McAvoy, a gruff but affable Glaswegian, beckoning me over in the members lobby and taking me up to the booth in the Palace Of Westminster. And as he pointed, full of reverence to St Pauls and Lambeth Palace and the Treasury Building with Big Ben towering over us he said ‘This, Adam, is why I am a Unionist, proud to be British’. Now I’m sure all this was intended as an act of kindness to a new member, but for a moment I had flashbacks: half digested Sunday-school tales of the devil tempting Christ mixed in with the murder scene at the end of House Of Cards. I made my excuses and left.

“That the Labour Party should try and recruit me is a complement of sorts I suppose. They thought I was a prodigal son. Now I think they would be a little less charitable and probably question my legitimacy. Baroness Gale of Blaenrhondda, a name to conjure with if there ever was, has often over the years asked me in a voice a seductive as the sexy temptress Gossamer Beynon in Under Milk Wood, ‘when are you coming home to Labour?’. In my case I think she was mis-cast, mis-informed, and miss-downright-impertinent.

“I do want to come home. I’m tired of beating my head and my hands against the dumb cold walls of Westminster. I will never feel that I belong in that Parliament, though I have to breathe its dust-laden air. I want a Parliament that belongs to me and to us, a Parliament that we have built, in whose stones our horizons sing.”

Precisely how Price will ‘come home’ to the National Assembly, as he puts it, remains a tantalising question. There was a suggestion a while back that he might simply swap places with the Plaid Assembly Member for Carmarthen East. However, in a statement the incumbent Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM said there was no question of that being in play. Marginal Carmarthen West has been suggested, but Plaid’s Chairman John Dixon, who will be standing there in the forthcoming Parliamentary election, has made it clear that he intends to take his campaign through to the 2011 Assembly election.

This leaves Neath as Adam Price’s most promising prospect, assuming that the present candidate Alun Llewelyn, who stood in 2007 and is also standing as the party’s Parliamentary candidate next year, would be prepared to make way for him. It is also one of Plaid Cymru’s most promising prospects, if not the most promising, in the Assembly if it is to improve on its current 15 members. In 2007 Labour’s Gwenda Thomas held on to the seat with 43.4 per cent of the vote (a drop of 7.7 per cent on 2003). Alun Llewelyn was second with 35.7 per cent (an increase of 6.9 per cent on 2003).

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