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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