Liberals have always supported autonomy for Wales – they are the alternative to Plaid and Labour people are looking for

Kirsty Williams AM. Picture by Welsh Lib Dems (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ioan Phillips

In the early hours of June 9th, as Mark Williams surrendered his seat to Plaid Cymru’s Ben Lake in Ceredigion, the party of David Lloyd George lost its final Welsh MP.

The party has just one Liberal Democrat AM, the Education Secretary Kirsty Williams. Not since 1859 has political liberalism in Wales faced such challenging circumstances.

It’s hard to appreciate now that between the 1860s’ and 1920s liberalism was the dominant force in Welsh politics, developing a stranglehold similar to that enjoyed by the Labour party today.

But from the 1920s onwards Welsh politics reflected the UK-wide battle between Conservative and Labour, and liberalism was slowly squeezed out.

The nineties and early noughties brought a modest revival. Thereafter is a story of diminishment and decimation.

It’s easy to forget that liberalism played an important part in the formation of Wales’ development as a modern nation.

The fight for disestablishment and land reform in the late 19th century saw Wales treated as a separate entity to England for the first time in centuries.

The liberals campaigned to set up the University of Wales, National Museum and National Library, and Liberals such as Lloyd George were behind the original Cymry Fydd movement.

During the 1980s, the SDP-Liberal Alliance was a persistent advocate of Welsh devolution.

This was eventually delivered in 1997 after a tight referendum in which its successor party, the Liberal Democrats, played a prominent role.

The Liberal Democrats can also justifiably lay claim to rescuing devolution. Agreeing to enter a coalition with a hitherto weak and scandal-plagued Labour minority administration provided stability at a time when public faith in the process was wavering.

Even during fallow periods when lacking significant legislative representative, liberalism has managed to exert on influence on the Welsh political milieu.

Liberalism has been central to ensuring further autonomy for Wales in the past, and could do so again in the future.

Support

Today, Kirsty Williams is the only representative of Welsh liberalism. As Education Secretary, she has striven to live up to the Liberal Democrats’ maxim of ‘Opportunity for all in a Fair Society’.

She is committed to continuing the the Welsh Government’s policy of part-funding Welsh students’ fees, and is currently leading a courageous campaign to highlight the inequity of the interest rates attached to student loans.

Already on the social democratic wing of her party, it is sometimes hard to ascertain where Williams’ beliefs diverge from those of Labour moderates.

Taking Williams’ decision to participate in a Labour-led administration as evidence liberalism in Wales has somehow been ‘subsumed’, and is therefore no longer needed would be foolish.

This is particularly prescient insofar as the goal of self-government is concerned, where in recent years an uninspiring consensus has emerged between Labour and the Conservatives.

Even Plaid – once a vibrant cauldron teaming with radical competing visions for autonomy – has become an intellectual husk.

To be crude, its current platform amounts is basically the cry of ‘more money’, eschewing deeper thought about the cultural-institutional relationships necessary to foster a national political culture that rejects the discourse of servitude.

The Liberal Democrats, however, support a Welsh parliament. This would possess full tax-raising powers, as well as jurisdiction over energy, transport, justice and policing policy – all areas Westminster currently controls.

The liberal promise of autonomy is a welcome break from the stagnation in imagination that has dogged Welsh political discourse post-1997.

The Liberal Democrats are the alternative to the Plaid-Labour socialist axis that many in Wales have been asking for.

Federal

The underlying question here, of course, is whether there is a future for Welsh liberalism.

In the 2015 and 2015 general elections, the Welsh Liberal Democrats passively accepted the pitch that liberalism meant nothing beyond acting as a UK-wide counter-weight to the Conservatives and the Labour parties.

Adhering to this characterisation of liberalism in a Welsh setting throws up two key issues:

  • Firstly, it allows the Welsh Liberal Democrats to be slighted as a mere branch office. Few outside the Liberal Democrats know of its federal nature, which provides the constitutional mechanism for policy-making tailored to Welsh preferences.
  • Secondly, vague middle-of-the-road centrism is not an attractive pitch to Welsh citizens, who – as the electoral success of Rhodri Morgan and latterly, Brexit prove, react to campaigns pitched with hwyl alongside clearly enunciated principles.

The underlying principles of liberalism – fairness and opportunity – are sound ones that should resonate. That they have not derives from the twin problems of image and message.

There are clear avenues of argument for liberals in Wales to pursue.

Whether they do so will determine how premature the obituaries served on June 9th for Welsh liberalism were.

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Martin
Guest
Martin

The real story of the Welsh Lib Dems is the eradication of their once mighty local government base. Prior to their coalition with the Tories at Westminster they were running all of the Welsh cities.

They have definitely failed to own the Welsh parliament agenda. A Parliament of that name is now likely to be delivered by a Plaid Cymru Presiding Officer.

Gareth
Guest
Gareth

Sorry to be padantic but there isn’t a Plaid Cymru Presiding Officer.

The PO is neutral.

The PO also can’t turn the Assembly into a Parliament – that would involve the work of AMs of all parties be it a superficial name change or changing the way AMs are elected and work.

Martin
Guest
Martin

That’s not pedantic at all sir. Point well made. I didn’t know it was neutral.

Gwynoro Jones
Guest
Gwynoro Jones

‘Already on the social democratic wing of her party, it is sometimes hard to ascertain where Williams’ beliefs diverge from those of Labour moderates.’
If it is now the case ‘social democratic ‘ wing – I welcome it. Must say never heard her utter the words!

The Bellwether
Guest
The Bellwether

It’s not ‘events’, dear boy – it, the elephant, is semantics. There is much to admire about the LibDems, the people and their policies. But (there’s always a but) it’s the wrong name with the wrong connotations. Liberal Democrats is a misnomer. Liberal is a term of abuse and denigration in US politics across the political spectrum. People are ‘opinionated’ and never particularly ‘liberal’ in their heart of hearts and Welsh voters in particular have a very ‘conservative’ streak in their mindset (which is why Plaid don’t do well). We may be ‘accepting’ of ahem…liberal tendencies and new social mores… Read more »

Capitalist and Welshnash
Guest
Capitalist and Welshnash

The Liberals would do well to see that devolution is not an event, but a process. One of two ends is inevitable: Wales will be swallowed by England and dissappear or it will emerge as a sovreign nation.

Wales needs a centrist, or even conservative, party which is pro-Wales. The Welsh Liberals could become that if they abandoned British Nationalism, and show Plaid that conservatves and liberals will be part of our country after independence. Where is a centrist/centre-right Welsh nationalist voice?

CambroUiDunlainge
Guest
CambroUiDunlainge

Unionist party will always be a Unionist party. If they had to choose between London and Wales… they would choose London. Pretending they have our interests at heart would be a grievous mistake – they have their interests at heart. Once we had the Council of Wales… established by Edward IV and abolished as a result of the Glorious Revolution… who supported that again? Wasn’t it the Whigs/Liberals? Council of Wales was completely devolved and would have surely evolved into a forum which allowed us autonomy to govern ourselves. Lets not forget the Liberal media hates us as well –… Read more »

Bryn-daf
Guest
Bryn-daf

Federalism = continued domination by London…and resource and skill drain by UK.

Confederalism with self rule for all in Britain and Ireland – while strongly helping each other….IS THE BETTER PROGRESSIVE OPTION

Ben screen
Guest
Ben screen

Whilst I’m literate in the history of my country enough to understand and appreciate the Liberal tradition, their antics in Ceredigion are absolutely indefensible. This is significant because its one of their few strongholds. There’s enough material to write a book (cf. The Greasy Poll by 2015 Plaid Cymru candidate Mike Parker). The way the Liberal Democrats there used and abused Welsh and the tensions between the two communities shows how they are in fact no friend to Welsh nationalists. Liars and fake Progressives who are more interested in anything that isn’t Welsh.

Dafydd ap Gwilym
Guest

I just think Kirsty is a little confused and cannot break away from the status quo and who needs to come over to the light side! Why, for our nation’s sake, do we even want to consider yet another failed British political party when we have our own? Needs adjusting as we all know and some are trying to tweak it a little more. We also have new groups with a broader message of Indepepndence rising from the streets. We do not need any more political careerists jumping on any band wagon, get off and push like the rest of… Read more »

sianiblewog
Guest
sianiblewog

Rhyddfrydwyr/liberals: i might have voted for ’em in the past. Now impossible. They supported the uk fascists to deprive people with an income under £20,000 of the fundamental human right to marry: we cannot marry non-uk citizens. How ‘liberal’ is that!
And the fascist universal credit – supported by our oh so un-liberal littel friend Nick Legg

We need a new party in Cymru unpolluted by middle class tossers

Tame Frontiersman
Guest
Tame Frontiersman

Things worry me about the root cause of the demise of the LDs: 1. It may be symptomatic of a return to 2 party politics and elections in the UK which will be more like American presidential elections squeezing out other parties and increasingly the outcome of local elections are determined by politics at Westminster not local issues. 2. Is it victim of the increased use of the word “liberal” as a term of abuse used by left and right across the anglosphere? If liberalism has a future it may be this: In seeking equitable and practical solutions to problems… Read more »

Aaron Casa
Guest
Aaron Casa

This article is literally nothing more than pro-Liberal propaganda. Fortunately, as with anything related to the Lib Dems, it’s ineffective, inoffensive and bland.

Gareth
Guest
Gareth

As opposed to most things on this site which are blatantly pro-Plaid of course

Marv
Guest
Marv

As a student and left winger I struggle to see what the Lib Dems can offer me or people like me.

The betrayal of Clegg is still a fresh wound, and voting for a british party that is unlikely to hold any clout in near future seems pointless. Some say Plaid is a wasted vote but for me they will represent Wales, as a ‘Welsh’ party. The lib dems have never appeared as anything but a ‘British’ (i.e. English) party to me. What’s one more British party MP in a sea of them?

Gareth
Guest
Gareth

The betrayal of Clegg

Given the fact you’re a student, you’re probably too young to remember when Plaid voted with Labour in 2009-10 to triple tuition fees in Wales, to bring them level to the then top-up fees in England.

Jonathan Edwards
Guest
Jonathan Edwards

Er, sorry but what is this article trying to say? 1. That Liberalism contributed a lot in the past? True – but what follows? 2. That Plaid is an “intellectual husk”? True – but what follows? 3. That Kirsty W occupies a strange position? True, but I’m still struggling to see where this is leading. 4. “The Liberal Democrats, however, support a Welsh PARLIAMENT”. This tells me nothing. The Assembly is going to get the name, which lacks a precise definition anyway. 5. The author and the Liberals favour “full tax-raising powers, as well as jurisdiction over energy, transport, justice… Read more »

Neil McEvoy
Guest
Neil McEvoy

Kirsty Williams has sold herself in a similar way that Clegg did. I was looking forward to her demonstrating a separate agenda, but she seems more Labour than Labour now. I can’t imagine that her constituents haven’t seen this, so I don’t see her being re-elected. I respect many Lib Dem councillors in Cardiff, but their leadership has sold them out. A Welsh Parliament must be sovereign. Nothing else will do.

Parry
Guest
Parry

Get it done Neil