As I have written on the national question in Wales and the recent elections to the Welsh Assembly, I thought it proper to follow up on recent events. Alright, I’ll be honest. I couldn’t think of anything else to blog about and the whole sorry saga has an appeal to me – unlike in the Ukraine or Palestine there is no prospect of a civil war. It’s all rather quaint in comparison.
Listen carefully, I will say this only once…
The elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly at the start of May led to the first nationalist-led administration in Scotland as the SNP formed a minority government with the Greens. Labour had been dealt a serious blow. For a while it appeared that Labour would lose Wales to a nationalist-led coalition – another first.
Critics of devolution bemoaned the break-up of Britain set in motion by New Labour in its first term. It was only a matter of time before the devolved bodies demanded more powers, only a matter of time before the nationalists won power because of the unpopularity of a British administration.
But last week, it looked as if the mooted alliance of Plaid, the Tories, and the Liberal Democrats was off. Plaid’s leadership was up for it and the Welsh Conservatives were keen. But the Liberals got cold feet and ended negotiations for a coalition government: in Wales, at least, Labour was clinging to power.
The on-off ‘rainbow coalition’ is now back on again – despite Rhodri Morgan becoming First Minister of a minority Labour government. The Liberals have voted to resume talks with the other parties to oust Labour, a U-turn that has been welcomed by the party’s leader, Mike German, and the leadership of Plaid.
And as if the situation was not complicated enough, there’s more…
Love Tory – yuck!
It’s not as if Plaid weren’t willing to enter a coalition with Labour, if conditions were met – negotiations to this end were ongoing for a time – and it must be said that there’s more commonality between Plaid and Welsh Labour than between Plaid and the other parties.
Plaid have experienced something of a backbench revolt at the prospect of a deal with the Tories: Nerys Evans, Bethan Jenkins, Helen Mary Jones, and Leanne Wood, four of the fifteen Plaid Assembly Members, declared that a rainbow coalition unwise. The Tories would undermine Plaid’s electoral platform: there is a “clash of values and principles” between the two parties.
This is a welcome turn of events. They made their feelings apparent in a completely transparent way. This level of openness is rarely seen in British politics and even if it is entirely motivated by electoral considerations, it is agreeable that there was a public declaration of discontent.
Consider the clash: Plaid Cymru is avowedly socialist (the formal adoption of “community socialism” as one of Plaid’s aims came in 1981) the Tories are patently anti-socialist and reviled by many who remember what was done to Wales by the Thatcher government in the eighties. This is about more than tribal rivalry: Wales did not elect the Tories in the eighties. Had the country been independent, Labour would have been in power and would not have deviated from welfare capitalism.
If the rainbow coalition occurs, Plaid will be leading it and they won’t just be dealing with the Tories. It might be unpalatable, but it is not inedible. If the Tories win the next general election, Plaid will be put in a tricky position. It won’t look good, but in any case the threat of the Tories leading and possessing powers over Wales that the Assembly does not, could boost support for full independence. Certainly, there will be greater support for a full parliament, rather than the pathetic-sounding assembly. (To me, the word conjures up memories of having to listen to a droning headmaster address dozens of bored kids in a draughty school hall.)
Rebellion does not suck
The Liberal Democrats have voted to revive the alliance, but it came from the base. Liberal parliamentarians have generally been stubborn in their unwillingness to take power this year – in Scotland, for example, the Liberals could have easily snuggled up to the SNP.
If the rainbow does come out, then might get a mixed reception publicly. The bourgeois media might play it as an undemocratic turn: a coup by the losing parties against the minority government. This depends, I suspect, on the content of the coalition.
Plaid’s green tinge and commitment to supply-side democracy in the form of citizen-initiated referenda might allow for work with the shiny-happy “new” Conservatives: David Cameron has made great play of his commitment to saving the planet and devolving power. But on the other hand, the Tories are British nationalists: could they swallow sharing power with the dreaded separatists?
One assumes that the Welsh Conservatives will make their own minds up rather than have Bertie Wooster do it for them. If it was up to Cameron, I suspect he wouldn’t want the Tories as a junior partner in Wales before he wins the next general election.
Not Counting Cymru – or England
The talk of Scottish independence and the Union during the elections in Scotland neglected to mention Wales. From the way people were talking, you would be led to believe that the UK is England and Scotland. And there has been a lot less coverage of the post election wrangling in Wales, compared to what happened in Scotland. Is the uncontested Labour leadership campaign a bigger story?
In Scotland, First Minister Alex Salmond has sought to put relations between Edinburgh and London on a formal footing. But so far he has yet to be congratulated for his victory by either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. This is a snub by the Prime Ministers, rather than it being due to their hectic schedules. Brown has demonstrated his commitment to democracy by intimating that he would not work with an SNP-led Scottish administration. He has since congratulated Salmond – to interviewers rather than the First Minister.
I wonder what Brown’s attitude would be to a Plaid-led Welsh Assembly? A similar disinterest would be likely, if not for the problems that it would cause Brown. Bad enough for the Scottish PM to be fighting with a Scottish government! If Plaid lead in Wales, it will look as if the centralised British state is seriously under threat.
Papering over the cracks
There is something of a lack of preparedness for the event that the Union might end. And this is natural – as Blair has told us over and over, Britain is a small country. The break-up of Britain would further erode its status as a world power – it wouldn’t exist.
The national question in England (which is hardly pressing) has gained some prominence in recent years. There have been suggestions that as Prime Minister, Brown would seek to neutralise the support for an English parliament by democratising the regional assemblies. These bodies are unelected and discuss regional development and are comprised of representatives from local government and voluntary groups.
The original plan to have elected regional assemblies was wrecked in 2004 when a referendum held in the North East of England and resulted in an overwhelming defeat for the proposal. The idea of another layer of politicians in yet another talking shop was not popular, and the government gave up on holding referenda in other regions. The regional assemblies remain, however – and the idea of regional assemblies instead of an English parliament has not caught on.