Plaid Cymru is becoming an anti-establishment party again

Plaid Cymru campaigning in Rhondda. Picture: RhonddaPlaid Twitter feed

Ifan Morgan Jones

You’ve probably heard someone say ‘in a few years we’ll all look back at this and laugh’.

Well, we may not laugh, but I think that in a decade or so we’ll look back at the current convulsions within Plaid Cymru and realise that they were inevitable.

Plaid Cymru is becoming an anti-establishment party again.

They’ve always been an anti-establishment party at Westminster, of course, but they have had to be an establishment party at the Welsh Assembly.

Devolution was very fragile in its first decade. It was won by just 50.3%, and was so politically weak that many questions whether it was just a talking shop.

Under the circumstances, the main objective for Plaid Cymru was to steady the ship. That meant doing what was best for the institution rather than what was best for the party.

An example of that was when they voted to bring down the unpopular Alun Michael’s premiership within the first year of the Assembly and replace him with the much more popular Rhodri Morgan.

Rhodri Morgan’s own autobiography notes that a (now former) Plaid Cymru AM told him that ‘You’re the one the people of Wales wanted in the first place anyway’.

Now, political parties don’t usually help each other out when they have unpopular leaders!

But Plaid Cymru could see that public opinion was turning against the Assembly and that they needed someone in the post that would win support.

And throughout the 17 years of devolution so far they have been happy to work together with Labour – including in coalition between 2007 and 2011.

This wasn’t just to get what they wanted but also to maintain a sense of stability in government.

Secure

Most crucially, because of this need to defend the institution, they’ve never made the argument that devolution just hasn’t worked out for Wales so far.

And as a result, they haven’t been able to successfully make the argument that the Labour Government haven’t been working out for Wales, either.

Things have been very different in Scotland. The mandate for Scottish devolution was so apparent from the very beginning that the SNP were even able to oppose even the process of setting up the institution.

By burnishing their anti-establishment credentials from the very beginning they emerged as the natural opposition to Labour and seized power in 2007.

What Plaid Cymru are beginning now is a process of becoming an anti-establishment party once again. After 18 years, there are many who now feel devolution is secure enough – it’s safe to do so.

Not everyone agrees, of course. There are still plenty of members within Plaid Cymru who feel that the Welsh Assembly is still an institution under threat.

Westminster’s attempt to claw back devolved powers as part of the EU Withdrawal Bill could be pointed to as proof of that.

But one gets a sense that the party membership now feels that it’s time to move on. Many have dim memories of the campaign to win devolution in the first place.

For many, like myself, devolution seems to have always been there. I don’t remember a world without it.

Shift

There is currently a growing split within Plaid Cymru between the more consensual style of politics favoured so far, and growing calls for a more hard-bitten opposition to Labour.

Perhaps the fiercely anti-establishment Neil McEvoy is the first symptom of that shift, although many would argue that he’s an imperfect vehicle for it.

Opinion is divided as to whether he’s the next leader of Plaid Cymru or deserves to be thrown out of the party altogether. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle.

Yes, Neil McEvoy’s enemies are out to get him. Of course they are – that’s politics.

But he also needs to make it harder for them to get at him by not behaving in a way he calls forceful, but others call bullying.

But whoever ends up at the helm, the shift from establishment to anti-establishment Plaid Cymru now seems inevitable.

How long that shift takes probably now depends more on the membership rather than the leadership.

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