Welsh politics stands at a crossroads – the question now is who wants it more
Ifan Morgan Jones
This weekend we stand at perhaps the most unstable time in UK politics in most people’s memories.
By the end of the week, we have no idea who the UK’s Prime Minister will be, and whether we will be crashing out of the EU, staying in indefinitely, or still trying to thread the needle somewhere in between.
Wales too stands at a crossroads, although it will take perhaps a little longer to decide our fate.
The consensus within Welsh politics a decade or so ago has shattered completely. We now have a party in the Senedd, Plaid Cymru, strongly advocating independence. As the SNP did in Scotland, they hope to turn the independence debate into the key one at the heart of our politics.
UKIP meanwhile have shown their true colours as the Anti-Wales Party. They have stated their intention to abolish the Assembly altogether and turn us into a lesser-county of England, behind even Manchester and Liverpool in terms of the power to control our own affairs.
Labour and the Conservatives stand somewhere in between, advocating more or fewer powers.
As on Brexit, youth also favours one side. The BBC’s recent St David’s day poll showed that 63% of 18-34-year-olds wanted either independence or more powers, compared to a measly 7% who wanted to abolish the Welsh Parliament.
As Huw Williams pointed out in a recent article, the young seem much more at ease with Welsh identity while the Westminster Government has so far given them the Iraq War, a financial recession, austerity and Brexit.
However, one gets the sense that the next ten years will be dangerous ones for Wales. A post-Brexit government will, after bringing powers back from the EU to Westminster, inevitably try to re-centralise powers from Wales and Scotland too.
If Brexit doesn’t happen it will likely inflame the far-right throughout the UK, and their representation in the Senedd could increase.
At the same time, there are some socio-economic and political trends that could easily blow Wales out of the water over the next decade or so.
The economic doldrums could drive a faster ‘brain drain’ out of Wales, and the destruction of cultural & linguistic communities could speed up.
By 2040, Wales could be independent or have ceased to exist as a political and cultural entity. Neither eventuality would be especially surprising.
Standing at this crossroads, it is clear that Plaid Cymru, who have just finished their spring conference at Bangor University’s Pontio centre, see the danger – but also an opportunity. It could be argued that they have never been better placed to present themselves as a party of government in waiting in Wales.
At the UK level, both Labour and the Conservatives are unpopular, with objectively terrible leaders that half their own parties seem to want to do away with. Westminster politics has truly reached its nadir.
But Plaid Cymru will also see an opportunity at the Senedd as well, where the good ship Welsh Labour, after 20 impregnable years sailing the seas of government, finally look like they have a few holes in their hull.
What has struck me from talking to people in Wales who do not take a great interest in Welsh politics, and catch a glimpse of the Senedd every now and then on TV, is that the new Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford has not made a great first impression.
Mark Drakeford is certainly an impressive thinker. No one can doubt his academic credentials. What he seems to lack is the people-focused charisma that both Carwyn Jones and Rhodri Morgan had. He fails the ‘is this a guy I would want to sit down in a pub and have a beer with?’ test.
His recent homily on Brexit, delivered out of what one Twitter cad described as a portacabin, was a new low.
He also seems to lacks authority. The ‘clear red water’ between Welsh and UK Labour may have always been more of a matter of branding rather than policy but Drakeford’s insistence on sticking to the party line on Brexit seems to have opened up some blue and yellow water between himself and members of his own cabinet. The fissure that runs through the party in Westminster has opened up in Wales.
Contrast that with Plaid Cymru. In Adam Price they have probably the most impressive politician in Wales. But they also have great strength in depth – Leanne Wood and Liz Saville-Roberts could easily step in and offer leadership above most of what Westminster politics has to offer.
Like Wales’ back-row forwards, Plaid Cymru have suddenly unearthed an embarrassment of riches from somewhere.
But it is not just Adam Price’s charisma that has impressed but his determination to take on Plaid Cymru’s creaky internal infrastructure and turn it into an election-winning machine.
Despite some notable successes, such as in the Rhondda at the last Assembly election, Plaid have long given the impression that they are not the most effective election-fighting force.
There hasn’t always been the best communication between key elected officials, and the Senedd and Westminster groups, and PCCs. They don’t always either seem to have shown a willingness to campaign on those issues that polling suggests most care about.
It will take a while to solve these problems but they already seem to have turned a corner. The decision to put health at the centre of their next campaign suggests that they’re finally homing in on those issues the public have in mind when they vote.
In his Spring conference speech on Friday, Adam Price compared Plaid Cymru with Warren Gatland and Alun-Wyn Jones’ Grand Slam winning team, saying that: ‘If you want something badly enough and really believe it can happen, it often does.’
‘Who wants it more’ might well be a key element of democracy that hasn’t had enough attention over the past few years.
Just look at the EU referendum. More may have voted to Leave, but you get the feeling that the Remainers now want to Remain more than the Leavers want to Leave.
5 million have signed a petition to stay in, and 2 million attended a rally in London yesterday. Compare that with Nigel Farage’s feeble ‘March for Brexit’.
The Remainers’ belated desire to win has put the brakes on Brexit just as much as the Westminster Government’s incompetence has.
So far Plaid Cymru has influenced politics in Wales mainly by exerting a kind of political gravity on the Labour party and dragging it towards a small ‘n’ nationalist, pro-devolution position.
Previous leaders seem to have generally been happy with this role as a kind of little angel on Labour’s shoulder (or devil, depending on your political pov), whispering in its ear.
What is striking about Adam Price’s leadership however is how much he wants Plaid Cymru to take the reigns in the Senedd. There is an Alun Wyn Jones-esque desire there to get it done.
This does not strike me as a man who would be happy propping up a Labour government, which has so far been the pinnacle of Plaid Cymru’s ambitions.
The question for Welsh Labour now is how much they still want it. After 20 years of Government, do they have the fight to keep Plaid Cymru’s newly-energised campaigners at bay?
Do they have the will to resist splitting up over Brexit for the greater electoral good of the party? Will their Corbyn-supporting grassroots have the same passion for a Welsh Assembly election campaign in Cardiff West?
It’s an exciting time for Welsh politics. It’s a dangerous time for Welsh politics. But the sense of stoic inevitability that has permeated 20 years of devolution is gone.
It’s all to play for.
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