Labour’s attack on Adam Price’s ‘colonialism’ comment is a preview of the 2021 campaign
Ifan Morgan Jones
One of the most notable but least commented-upon features of this General Election campaign in Wales has been the invisibility of Welsh Labour.
In 2017 it was very different. Fearing that the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn would drag them down with him, First Minister Carwyn Jones – who was still very well-known and popular at the time – conducted what was almost an independent campaign. A moat of clear red water was hastily dug between Welsh and UK Labour.
This time, of course, we have a rather less well-known and pro-Corbyn Mark Drakeford as First Minister, and apart from a campaign launch on 6 November and a few visits here and there the Welsh Labour brand has been mostly invisible.
Yesterday however Welsh Labour stirred to life and we got something of a preview – a kind of teaser trailer – of the Wales-focused battle that awaits us at the 2021 Senedd elections.
Adam Price was accused of “deliberately offensive terminology” in comparing the experience of Wales with colonialism.
Assembly Member Vaughan Gething said: “To try to say that the experience of Wales as a country and as a people is analogous to colonialism, is analogous to slavery, that is just outrageous.”
Of course, a few different things can be true here at once:
1.) Adam Price needs to be careful about what he says
Vaughan’s comments are a little bit of a straw man. Nowhere in his comments does Adam Price say that Wales’ experience was analogous to slavery.
Read as a whole, it was clear that he was discussing the extraction of Wales’ material wealth.
However, Adam Price does need to be careful about the words he uses to describe Wales’ historical experience. The word ‘reparations’ in particular is one that is usually only used in connection with compensation for the descendants of those that suffered as a result of the Atlantic slave trade.
I can understand why many would find that word offensive, and he should stop using it.
The use of the word ‘colony’ can be argued about, and has for many years since the publication in 1977 of Michael Hechter’s book Internal Colonialism.
The academic debate continues to rage about whether Wales was a colony but there is very little doubt that it was considered in those terms during the 19th century.
As the Times wrote in 1866: “It is true [that Wales] possesses valuable minerals, but these have been chiefly developed by English energy and for the supply of English wants. A rare existence on the most primitive food of a mountainous race is all that the Welsh could enjoy if left to themselves…”
We tend to put a lot of emphasis on the effects of the Blue Books and Welsh Not on Welsh psychology during the 19th century but tend to forget that they were reading this kind of material which essentially told them they were sub-human and inferior in the press throughout the century.
You can argue about whether Wales was an economic colony or not – in my opinion, it’s very difficult to compare an economy fully integrated into England with a nation thousands of miles away.
However, I don’t think there’s much doubt that Wales was often made to think of itself as a colony and still suffers as a result of that.
However, if Adam Price does mention colonialism in Wales he sould also condemn the fact that the Welsh were enthusiastic partners in the British Empire which colonised much of the world.
Wales and colonialism is complicated, and perhaps this entire tricky discussion could be avoided if Adam Price were to drop what is to most people an extraneous subject altogether. Adam Price is a politician, and by using the word ‘colony’ he does leave himself open to political attack.
Voters care about the here and now, not the 19th century.
2.) The timing of Labour’s attack is all about the General Election
Vaughan Gething described himself as ‘staggered’ by Adam Price’s comments. So staggered that he waited until the second day of an election campaign to make his views on the matter heard.
Adam Price’s book Wales: The First and Final Colony has been out for over a year and even that was a collection of far earlier articles.
The Plaid Cymru leader has been saying that Wales is a colony for decades. So it is hard not to be cynical about the timing of this attack.
It is clear that Welsh Labour have done a bit of ‘oppo research’ which they will be releasing in chunks as we approach the 2021 Senedd election.
3.) It won’t make any difference to the campaign
Plaid Cymru’s big problem at UK General Elections is that they are largely ignored by the press and therefore have no means of getting their message across.
Welsh Labour meanwhile know that their own message will reach voters via the wider Corbyn-led campaign.
It’s a strange decision therefore to shout ‘look at what Adam Price is saying’ in the middle of a General Election. Labour’s best tactic might be just to ignore him completely and frame the race as being between them and the Conservatives.
I’m not convinced either than a rather intellectual argument over Wales’ history will really have much traction among voters.
Again, voters have enough to worry about with Brexit, health, education and other subjects without worrying about whether a 1860s ironmaster in Merthyr Tydfil was Welsh or English.
However, Plaid Cymru and Adam Price more specifically need to be careful about this kind of thing in future.
They need to learn the lesson of Mike Parker, who probably lost the election in Ceredigion in 2015 because something he had written in the past was deliberately taken out of context.
Writing all the way back in 2001 about the rise of the far-right in Wales, his words were splashed as ‘incomers are Nazis’ in the Cambrian news.
In hindsight, I don’t think anyone would be able to claim that Mike Parker wasn’t right to raise concerns about the rise of right-wing politics in Wales, but his political opponents presented it as an attack on English incomers.
Plaid Cymru are likely to campaign in 2021 on highlighting the juxtaposition in leadership styles between Adam Price and Mark Drakeford.
Labour meanwhile will want to paint him as an extremist who is culturally out of touch with the bulk of Welsh voters.
You can bet your bottom dollar on the fact that Adam Price’s political opponents will be scouring everything he has written since the 90s for the opportunity of an incriminating quote.
Plaid Cymru meanwhile seem altogether too nice for any such ‘oppo research’ and seem perpetually surprised when their political opponents attack them in this way.
For instance, I’m still trying to figure out why Plaid Cymru have never pointed out Mark Drakeford’s offensive comments about Welsh language communities.
In 2012, while already an Assembly Member, he wrote “Plaid’s heartlands remain Welsh-speaking and Poujadist”.
Pierre Poujade’s movement was far-right, populist, xenophobic and anti-intellectual. Drakeford wasn’t saying this about Plaid Cymru, he was saying this about the Welsh-speaking communities themselves, a large chunk of the country for which he is now First Minister.
I wonder how the Remain-voting Arfon, Dwyfor Meirionnydd and Ceredigion feel about being labelled xenophobic and populist, particularly as research has found a strong correlation between speaking Welsh and pro-EU sentiment?
Plaid Cymru, of course, perpetually want to avoid personal matters and talk about the issues, but I’m not sure how much electoral good it does them to allow their political opponents to keep jabbing at them and never take a swing back.
In conclusion, although this attack is likely to have little impact, Plaid Cymru should treat it as a teaser for what is to come in the 2021 campaign and plan accordingly.
Between now and then someone in Ty Gwynfor should busy themselves reading everything Adam Price has written since 1990 and draw up an action plan for when different subjects do come up.
Adam Price meanwhile should remember that while it’s safe for us academics to witter on about whether Wales was a colony that a) voters probably don’t care, and b) he should avoid using potentially offensive terminology that could land him in hot water.