[The Labour-Plaid agreement is assessed in relation to an ideological victory against privatisation, Gramsci’s influence on Adam Price is revealed and his view of Plaid’s “war of position” is quoted, the slow death of British identity gets a look in and devolution is compared to municipal socialism in the eighties, the unanimity of the Westminster elite is evidenced, and I ponder the political consequences of severe flooding in England and the lack of a coherent response from the government.]
Reformism without market reforms
An interesting political development, overshadowed by the departure of Tony Blair as Prime Minister and Member of Parliament and the entrance of Gordon Brown to Number Ten, was the historic agreement between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru to form a coalition government in the National Assembly for Wales. It was a significant because of the historic enmity between the two parties, in particular the clash between the British nationalism of Labour and the Welsh nationalism of Plaid.
By shaking hands with First Minister Rhodri Morgan, Ieuan Wyn Jones has signalled his desire to become Morgan’s deputy, but the content of the power-sharing document “One Wales” suggests that Welsh Labour have been pulled leftwards by Plaid. Both parties are to hold special conferences on July 6 and 7 to seek approval for the coalition; whilst Plaid members are expected to back their AMs, the prospects of sharing power with the nationalists has angered many within Labour.
If the coalition goes ahead, both parties will be committed to securing a “yes” vote in a referendum on transforming the National Assembly for Wales into a Welsh Parliament with full legislative powers, a significant blow to Welsh Labour’s Unionist wing. There’s also a blow to the creeping privatisation of the health service:
“We firmly reject the privatisation of NHS services or the organisation of such services on market models. We will guarantee public ownership, public funding and public control of this vital public service.”
There is no firm commitment to introducing citizen-initiated referenda, but a promise of greater public involvement in political decision-making:
We will explore and implement new ways of engaging citizens through participative and deliberative methods.
Somewhere over the rainbow
Plaid has opted for a deal with Welsh Labour rather than ousting them seemingly because they are both parties of the left. A Plaid-led rainbow coalition of the Tories and the Liberal Democrats would set the scene for Wales becoming politically independent. As Adam Price, Plaid MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr writes in a post entitled “A short history of Wales in the last twenty five years as seen through the eyes of Antonio Gramsci”:
“[T]he creation a of a centre/centre-right political hegemony in Wales would remove one of the arguments for independence – the distinctiveness of the Welsh radical tradition, our ‘common sense’ that society should be organised in the interests of the least well-off and not the wealthiest. If we lost sight of that, we lose sight of who we are and where we’ve come from. And the new Wales we create may be harsher than the one we’ve left behind.”
There are those in Plaid, however, who would argue that Labour is no longer left-wing and is more committed to defending British imperialism than effectively destroying it by establishing an independent socialist state in Wales. There is some truth in that Labour has never been an anti-imperialist party, and the socialist current within the party has been weak for a long time, but on the other hand Plaid may be able to push Welsh Labour away from its Unionist position and it looks as if the ploy is paying off.
Since New Labour would be weakened by the fall from power of Welsh Labour in the Assembly as it would compound the defeat to the Nationalists in Scotland, Plaid are in a strong position even though they will be junior partners. Price suggests that the strategy has a basis in determining the future of Welsh self-determination, describing the approach taken by Plaid with the help of dear Antonio:
“In seeking to challenge a dominant hegemony there are basically two choices, Gramsci said, either a “war of movement” – a rapid, frontal assault on the citadels of power or a ”war of position” – a slower, broader and less dramatic attempt to appropriate the ruling hegemony for one’s own political purposes. A quarter of a century ago Plaid Cymru opted for the latter strategy, positioning itself as a ‘socialist’ party within the dominant discourse of Welsh politics but seeking at the same time to ‘burrow into the contradictions’ thrown up by the Labour Party’s undying support for the unitary British state. The strategy has been electorally and politically successful, gaining Plaid Cymru seats and dragging Labour, however, unwillingly in a nationalist direction.
“The historic Plaid-Lab agreement which is being finalised this week is the latest step in this twenty-five years strategy. But it is not its final act. Hegemony is always and in all places inherently dynamic. The final chapter is yet to be written – we will write it ourselves – but it could involve the emergence of Plaid, as in Scotland, as the largest party of the left and inheritor of the Left’s hegemony, or the creation of a genuinely autonomous Labour Party which has finally broken its umbilical ties with the British State. Either outcome would accelerate our progress on the path to political independence.”
No mania for Ukania
It remains to be seen if the laundry list of pleasant sounding reforms in the “Our Wales” document will be implemented. But who could frown upon support for affordable and social housing, support for pensioners and students, dealing with climate change, and so on?
Welsh Labour could be moving to implement reforms with Plaid that are in the interest of working people in Wales just as British Labour, under Gordon Brown, will be struggling against any move in this direction for the UK as a whole. On Friday, Prime Minister Brown faces his first challenge from organised labour in the form of the first national postal strike in a decade. In the autumn, several public sector strikes against wage restraint – the below-inflation pay increases that are, in real terms, a cut in income – and there are demands being made by rank and file trade unionists for a co-ordinated campaign.
At the same time as Welsh Labour is embracing Plaid, Brown is seeking to reinforce the fading British national identity, which is fracturing into its historical component parts with the growth of civic nationalism in England, Scotland, and Wales. Fewer people in England self-identify as British or believe that Northern Ireland should remain in the Union.
The devolved Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales could act as the Labour-controlled councils in Liverpool and Sheffield did in the 1980s, acting as a counter-hegemonic force. But whereas the GLC could be shut down, the British State cannot close the Scottish Parliament – this is not just resistance to central government, it is rather the development of national government within a multinational centralised state. Still, the similarities with the “municipal socialism” of the eighties bear greater consideration.
It is highly unlikely that the fracturing of the United Kingdom will be anything other than peaceful. Unlike the struggle for decolonisation that characterised the demise of Britain’s international empire, the solution of the national question within the UK will not involve armed struggle; Britain itself will be broken up by the ballot rather than the bullet.
A driving force will be the attempt by the ruling class to yet again shift the burden of the latest crisis of capitalism onto the backs of working people. In the eighties, the strategy of “municipal socialism” could not work: you can have socialism within one country, but you can’t have it within one county! The resistance to dismantling the health service and the gradual abolition of the welfare state now comes from institutions within the British state.
To prepare for the battle ahead, Brown has convened a council of capitalists – called the “Business Council for Britain” or the “Business Leader Council”, depending on which newspaper you believe – who will meet regularly to ensure that government policy meets the needs of the ruling class. It will include such figures as private equity pirate Damon Buffini of Permira, Sir Alan Sugar of Amstrad and TV’s The Apprentice, and Sir Terry Leahy of the retail monopoly Tesco.
Brown has been attempting, thus far unsuccessfully, to draw establishment figures into his administration, though a Tory MP, Quentin Davies, has already crossed the floor of the House of Commons to join Labour. Brown realises that the upcoming crisis will require unity to prevent any countervailing power drawing in sections of the political elite.
Cameron’s cynical attempts to capitalise on the protests against health service cuts and closures has been rumbled by many and denounced by the largest public sector union, but there is a danger for the ruling class that the need to win popularity might lead politicians to espouse oppositional positions to government policy, and thus encourage the development of a generalised opposition towards capitalism and imperialism.
Brown’s bid to form a “government of all the talents”, a government of national unity by stealth, should not have been that difficult. The standing ovation given to the war criminal Tony Blair at his final Prime Minister’s Questions – and last Parliamentary appearance – was a sign that the political elite are interchangeable and that ideological differences are of trivial rather than considerable. The leader of the opposition, David Cameron, warmly thanked Blair for his ten years in office and wished him well for the future – and Liberal leader Menzies Campbell applauded him for his courtesy!
After the deluge
Since Cameron is so keen to be the heir to Blair, why doesn’t he just join Brown’s Newer Labour? At Westminster at least, it is only for the sake of appearances that the Conservatives and Labour are two parties rather than one. In fact it would be more efficient if the three main parties merged: Campbell wants Britain out of Iraq and more into Afghanistan and Cameron’s up for war with Iran.
At a time when the country is facing severe flooding, displacing thousands, and destroying homes and businesses, the armed forces have only a token presence. Service personnel are keen to help out, strengthening flood defences and rescuing people by helicopter, but most are thousands of miles from home, carrying out imperialist wars in the Middle East.
In Afghanistan, opium production is soaring despite the presence of the multinational forces, who seem unable to do anything more than inspire nostalgia for the Taliban by dropping bombs on civilians. The news that three soldiers have been killed while on patrol in Basra shows that the Iraqi resistance is growing in strength and tenacity, and unless the troops are brought home more will be killed or injured by the anti-occupation forces: already over a hundred and fifty have died and many thousands have been left physically injured and mentally scarred by the conflicts.
The ruling class must fear that if there is a disaster comparable to Hurricane Katrina, it will be the entire political class at Westminster that shoulders the blame for the loss of life. This is the problem climate change poses for the capitalists: people expect that “their” armed forces will intervene to help them, and service personnel expect this too. But that would mean bringing forces back from Iraq or Afghanistan, and if that happens, redeployment will prove almost impossible.
And all this says nothing of the economic implications of continued flooding, coupled with growing inflation and rising rates, and the possibility of a recession in the US…