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The tectonic plates of politics are shifting – where will Plaid Cymru stand?

31 Mar 2018 4 minute read
Thomas Piketty. Picture by Fronteiras do Pensamento. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ifan Morgan Jones

According to economist Thomas Piketty, the tectonic plates of western politics are shifting.

His new essay, Brahmin Left vs. Merchant Right, looks at electoral trends in the UK, France, and the United States since the 1940s.

He suggests that we may be moving back towards the old left v right system, which used to be a battle between low and high-education/income voters.

The last few decades, he argued, gave rise to what he calls a “multiple-elite” party system. It has been a battle between the intellectual elite on the left and the business elite on the right.

That of course meant that – while there were some disagreements between them – whichever way you voted you got the same kind of thing. An internationalist consensus that supported globalisation and the basic tenets of neoliberalism.

This system tended to favour the growth of inequality (free trade makes it more difficult to redistribute wealth, as the rich could just relocate themselves – or their money – abroad if tax was raised).

The last few years, Piketty says, has seen the beginning of the switch from the “multiple-elite” party system to one where the elite are on one side and the ‘left behind’ on the other.

In the 2016 Presidential election, the business elite increasingly voted democratic alongside the intellectual elite, while swatches of poorer, previously Democratic voters, sided with Trump.

According to Piketty, the electoral battles of the future will be between globalists (high-education, high-income) and nativists (low-education, low-income).

We shouldn’t just characterise the nativists as Trump or UKIP voters, of course. As this realignment continues, they’re likely to include what we would now term Sanders democrats and Corbynites.

I.e. those who believe that globalism has led to a rise in income inequality, and that the 1% are hoovering up wealth that never trickles down to the other 99%.

Since this time last year, I’ve been trying to make sense of what is going on within Plaid Cymru, and I think that Piketty has confirmed my suspicions.

As I wrote back in February 2017, Plaid Cymru is in many ways a ‘front row’ party – i.e. on the intellectual left.

The trouble with that, as I wrote in this follow-up article, is that Wales is a very ‘back row’ country of low-income, low-education voters – i.e. what Piketty would call nativists.

While the political divide has, for the last few decades, been between the intellectual elite and the merchant elite, this hasn’t been a particularly big problem for Plaid Cymru.

They haven’t made much electoral headway – for a myriad of reasons – but there hasn’t been any danger of the party sundering.

The intellectual elite were happy to share the same political space as left-leaning low-income and low-education voters.

Now, however, things are getting trickier. Low-income, low-education voters are becoming fed up with the status quo and want a change.

There are tensions between the internationalist, EU-supporting, socially progressive leadership of the party, and some of its members.

Like Labour, which has ruptured between its anti-EU left, which have taken control of the party, and a ‘centrist’, intellectual, globalist wing that are now toying with the idea of starting a new party, the party is  standing on a fault-line.

The most obvious manifestation of these tensions within Plaid Cymru is Neil McEvoy’s new anti-establishment ‘party within a party’, which aims to take on the “corrupt” elite on both left and right.

So, what are the options for Plaid Cymru? The best course of action might be to try and opt out of the nativist/globalist bifurcation and cast itself as a big-tent party that includes all Welsh nationalists.

McEvoy’s expulsion suggests that there’s little sign of that happening at the moment. It would take an awful lot of compromise.

Can the pro-EU, internationalist intellectuals in the party really work with the populist ‘nativists’, whose views they find – as Hillary Clinton put it – deplorable?

And can the ‘nativists’ put up with what they see as the intellectuals’ idealistic ‘virtue-signalling’, cosmopolitanism, and desire to shut down offensive ‘free speech’?

It’s a very big ask.

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