Is there hope for the reinvention of the Liberals in Wales?
Gwern Gwynfil, YesCymru CEO
In a busy news week it’s likely that the vast majority have missed the momentous occasion which is the Welsh Liberal Democrat conference.
Held in Wrexham over the weekend it would be generous to say that it was well attended, sparsely populated a better description.
With one Member of the Senedd and no Welsh MPs it is fair to say that the Liberal Democrats in Wales are a very pale shadow of what they once were. For those who don’t know their history, in 1906 every single MP returned for Wales, bar one, was a Liberal. Just over a century later and they seem destined for oblivion in the very same country.
But is there yet hope for reinvention for the Liberals in Wales?
After long, arid months, with little to no media coverage whatsoever, the conference was surely an opportunity for some exposure? Indeed there was some Lib Dem noise in the media, both here on Nation Cymru and over on Bylines Cymru.
None of this was conference-led however. The party conference seems to have made no impression whatsoever outside the small number of delegates in attendance. Were there any representatives of the press at the conference?
The noise that was made was universally to challenge the aimlessness and lack of purpose of Liberalism in Wales. Simon Hobson, an approved parliamentary candidate for the Lib Dems, laid out his formula for rescuing, reinventing and revitalising the Welsh Lib Dems here.
His is a plan for a radical root and branch review and shake up of the party, tapping into the growing discomfort across Wales, and especially amongst the younger generation, with the Union and its failures.
It is hard to disagree with some of the conclusions, solutions or the prediction of extinction for the Lib Dems in Wales if they do nothing. You’ve also got to love the LEGO analogy!
In direct response to this article, a Lib Dem member wrote an even bolder and stronger piece for Bylines Cymru – read it here.
This prescribes seizing upon the cause of Welsh independence, refashioning it as a truly Liberal project and driving the party and the nation forwards with this Liberal agenda for Welsh sovereignty. It is a powerful idea, with a strong Liberal history and tradition in Wales, dating all the way back to the Liberalism of the 19th century. Home Rule for Wales was a long running Liberal theme before the wars of the 20th century derailed the natural evolution of the relationship between the four nations of the United Kingdom.
From the Lib Dem party perspective here in Wales, it is the energy and enthusiasm which inspires members to engage in this way that must be seized upon and channelled. The fusty, near empty rooms and corridors of their conference this year should be incentive enough. The Lib Dems in Wales would be wise to engage with those who have fresh ideas and energy – if ever there was a political party in need of a shot in the arm…
To round off this much more interesting debate and discussion, outside the somnolence of conference, a former Lib Dem policy wonk (for Jane Dodds, their current leader), added a measured and thoughtful discussion of the Liberal case for independence here.
Although prefaced with the rather disappointing conclusion that ‘most Liberal Democrats in Wales subjugate the idea of independence to the impractical dream of federalism’, the article certainly inspired a vigorous and entertaining discussion in the comments section.
In all of this, perhaps here we find the rub. Liberalism in Wales needs some vigour, which is noticeably absent at present. Opening up the party to an official separation from the UK Lib Dems (as the Greens are separating themselves into national political entities) frees the party in Wales to make the question of independence an open one, to reinvigorate its discussions, to focus its policies and attention on how to address Welsh challenges and Welsh priorities. In time, perhaps this will free the English Lib Dems to be champions of English independence too.
As an objective observer these are the alternatives, embrace change and openness, embrace ‘Liberalism’ or die as a political party with influence.
My popcorn is ready and I am watching with some eagerness. The Wales constitutional commission report in January will surely raise questions for all political parties and politicians in Wales – how they react will be telling, where they land may well be existential for some.
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