Cult of personality will hurt Welsh nationalism too
The rise, rise and sudden fall of Nicola Sturgeon is why politics intrigues the human mind. While she has failed in her bid to hold another referendum – let alone win independence – the leader of the SNP mattered, both to the DNA of modern Scotland and the future of Britain.
Her hastily convened press conference, in the inimitable surroundings of Bute House, and its days of global coverage was a testament to Sturgeon’s unprecedented stature as First Minister.
This is why Shakespeare is often invoked in political commentary. The playwright is shorthand for the fact that “events, dear boy” are dramatic. Take the question put by the New York Times after Sturgeon’s resignation, “What’s Next for Scotland?”.
The answer, a subjective one, is itself theatrical. Nobody truly knows whether Scottish nationalists’ mission of independence has been made easier with the chance of fresh leadership or knocked sideways by the departure of the greatest asset the campaign has ever had.
What is obvious, I think, is the astute judgement of the First Minister. Her “heart and mind” was right to acknowledge that it was the right time to go. The visceral fallout from a gender self-identification law turned a policy debate into a constitutional battle and showed no signs of going away.
The threat levels to Sturgeon may not have been existential, in line with her experience of other ‘crises’ over recent years (see: ferries fiasco, the fallout with Alex Salmond, a calamitous NHS). But, perhaps most important among a plethora of reasons for Sturgeon stepping down was that the path to a second plebiscite on the national question looked impossible.
And her strategy of using the next election as leverage for a mandate was the best that could be conjured up, an idea that had a frosty reception even across her own party.
Welsh nationalists have lamented the political passing of this great almost-achiever. Plaid Cymru, alongside the grassroots YesCymru, has been second tier nationalism compared to the electoral dominance overseen by Nicola Sturgeon and the campaign skill of YesScot.
If the First Minister’s resignation has re-focused one view in British politics it is that there are three national(ist) parties that dominate: the SNP in Scotland, the Conservatives in England and Labour in Wales, of which the latter is the most successful in electoral terms this century.
This is not a column to exhume age-old criticism of Plaid Cymru, which I have made plenty of in these pages. I expect the party to dissect and despair in equal measure during their Spring Conference in Llanelli next month, particularly if the new ‘political strategy’ which was leaked to the Western Mail is to be believed.
The central tenet seems to be to take the party to the left of Welsh Labour while supporting it as the minor partner in a coalition after the next election. Old habits die hard.
Another key point, if we follow the Western Mail report, is that Plaid Cymru will seek to convert the Welsh Government from proposing the continuation of the Union to being ‘neutral’ on the issue, before finally advocating independence. Readers of Nation.Cymru will, like me, have to wait to judge “Cymru for All” according to its own words.
But taken in isolation some of the ideas appear to be for the birds, highly dependent on growing support for independence in Scotland. An organic burst of Welsh nationalism seems unlikely during Mark Drakeford’s remaining tenure, after all.
More relevant for Plaid Cymru to consider is the danger for all nationalisms: the cult of personality. The SNP relied on one person, a seminal leader but now equally divisive politician, to deliver its core mission over the last eight years.
True, the double act was originally Salmond and Sturgeon, but now both are gone with no obvious generational shift taking hold in the SNP. There is no clear successor, so much so that a recent Panelbase poll showed that ‘Don’t Know’ was the runaway candidate to be the next First Minister of Scotland with 69 per cent of votes.
Adam Price is almost as closely aligned to Plaid Cymru’s brand as Sturgeon is to the SNP. This is no bad thing inherently, but there are risks around tying one person to the party’s success. Price has long-lived with the self-produced pressure of being the saviour of Welsh nationalism, experiencing an over-hyped leadership coronation that lasted over a decade.
More recently, in the context of criticism of the complaints process within Plaid Cymru, there have also been concerns that Price surrounds himself with a “clique” of associates as divisions emerge within the party.
This is not as much of an issue for others. For example, there are plenty of candidates (good ones and less so) to succeed Mark Drakeford. Welsh Conservatives have a wide pool of selection, too, though the party remains tormented by whether to participate seriously in political life.
Plaid Cymru’s challenges are more existential since it lingers behind even the Tories, competing hopelessly with Welsh Labour for votes. There have been many other factors to explain electoral challenges, but has the strategy of focusing entirely on its leader (Leanne Wood from 2012-2018, and Price thereafter) paid off?
Sturgeon’s fall should be a warning that storm clouds are never too far away. The leader gets all the credit, until something goes seriously wrong. And then what? Welsh nationalists have some thinking to do.
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