Although not a Plaid member, I’m a reliable Plaid voter at every election. I’m in that rock-solid 15% below which Plaid rarely fall and upon which future growth must be built. I would vote Plaid if the candidate were a chimpanzee, for the simple reason that they are the only Welsh party on the ballot paper – the alternatives being Welsh sub-branches of British parties. To me Plaid Cymru is a vehicle, its sole purpose to carry Wales to independence. When Wales achieves that independence (note confident “when” not ambivalent “if”) we will develop the full spectrum of political parties found in all nation states – and, I like to think, a few idiosyncratic Welsh variations too. That will be the time to debate and fine-tune policies and positions on all the issues. Plaid Cymru has long been a left-of-centre party, going with the grain of Wales’ ancient traditions of egalitarianism, cooperation and solidarity, which makes voting Plaid a lot easier than if they were the type of right-wing ‘nationalist’ party that commonly evolved in the Soviet-bloc nations, for example. But, frankly, Plaid’s ideas about, say, elderly care are neither here nor there; their primary task is to actualise the idea of Wales. With that in mind, here’s my critique of the four candidates who have declared their intention to stand in the March leadership election.*
DAFYDD ELIS-THOMAS If anything could stretch even my Plaid loyalty close to snapping point it would be the election of Dafydd Elis-Thomas as leader. Surely nobody could possibly contemplate voting for him? He’s already been Plaid leader between 1984 and 1991, so to reinstall him would be as ridiculous as Labour putting Neil Kinnock back in charge. I can’t think why the veteran Dwyfor Meirionnydd AM is standing – unless it’s because he’s so used to the limelight after 12 years as the Assembly’s first Presiding Officer that a future sorting out parking problems in Porthmadog doesn’t appeal. Looking at the well-upholstered arch-establishment figure he has become, it’s easy to forget his salad days as a lean and hungry radical on the left of the party when first elected as Meirionnydd MP in 1974. At that juncture he, and Dafydd Wigley elected at Caernarfon at the same time, were Plaid’s first MPs after Gwynfor Evans (1912-2005). It should not be forgotten that Gwynfor’s historic win in the 1966 Carmarthen by-election (he was Carmarthen MP 1966-1970 and 1974-1979) happened a full 16 months before the SNP made their first breakthrough in Scotland at the 1967 Hamilton by-election. When one compares the trajectories of Plaid and the SNP in the 45 years since, one gets a stark picture of the failure of the Elis-Thomas generation in Wales: Scotland is on the brink of independence; Wales is hoping London might allow it to run landfill sites (decision expected by 2013). The pivotal moment was the 1979 devolution referendum, in which a devastating 80% voted ‘no’. From then on Plaid’s leadership lost its bottle, settling for softly-softly, don’t-frighten-the-horses, devolution-by-stealth – a misreading of the 1979 vote, which was more about rejecting anything cooked up by the rotten Labour government of James Callaghan (1912-2005). Through the pre-devolution years the Elis-Thomas/Wigley strategy of treading water in the hope somebody turned up with a life-raft eventually paid off with the narrow victory in the 1997 referendum – but only because the misery heaped on Wales by the Thatcher government clinched the case for devolution within the Welsh Labour and LibDem parties, not due to anything inspiring, progressive or passionate from Plaid. Daf-El’s credibility had been blown out of the water anyhow in 1992 when he accepted a life peerage, becoming Lord Elis-Thomas of Nant Conwy, the first Plaid Cymru politician to be co-opted by the baubles and flummery of England’s unelected second chamber until Dafydd Wigley joined him in 2011 as Baron Wigley of Caernarfon. His rightward drift into the orbit of the British ruling class, a well-travelled route for a certain type of Welshman ever since the 16th century, was a textbook example of the fine art of the sell-out, with Plaid’s raison d’être, an independent Wales, progressively diluted into meaningless weasel-words about “home rule”. Written off as yesterday’s man, he then resurrected his fortunes and, to a degree, rehabilitated his reputation as the smoothly efficient grandee Presiding Officer from the Asembly’s inception in 1999 – bringing gravitas and dignity (if that’s your thing) to the fledgling institution in its tricky early years, for which Wales in time will I’m sure be duly grateful. During this period Ieuan Wyn Jones’ drably cautious leadership delivered the coalition with Labour that led to the 2011 referendum victory, inching Wales another step forward. But none of this added up to any electoral progress for Plaid. Cowering before the Unionist agenda set by the media, the party was intimidated into never playing the one and only Ace in its hand – the very ‘nationalist’ label its enemies always sought to pin on it. My literary hero Jean Genet (1910-1986) sums it up best: “Be what you are accused of.” All around me in south Cardiff, territory where Plaid Cymru’s pitiful vote hasn’t risen in 40 years, back gardens are a-flutter with the Draig Goch and unapologetic Welsh patriotism is routine – but the Plaid of Elis-Thomas was too lofty, bureaucratic and navel-gazing to tap into this version of Welshness. That must change; and now that Plaid has reasserted its commitment to independence there must be someone whole-heartedly wedded to that principle at the helm – self-evidently not Dafydd Elis-Thomas. Diolch yn fawr iawn, fy Arglwydd – a nos da.
ELIN JONES Ceredigion AM since 1999, and still only 45, Health spokesperson Elin Jones has impeccable credentials as an articulate advocate of Welsh autonomy. She’s warm and bright, the sort of person you’d happily invite round for a slice of caraway seed cake and a pale sherry, and she would certainly broaden Plaid’s appeal to voters. As Minister for Rural Affairs in the Labour/Plaid ‘One Wales’ coalition of 2007-2011 the farmer’s daughter was a big hit with the influential Welsh farming lobby, giving them virtually everything they asked for – including an irrational and cruel badger cull (currently on hold pending a review). And it is this readiness to slaughter sentient mammals en masse at the behest of vested interests that puts me right off Elin Jones. The Welsh word for badger, “broch”, is one of the few that has crossed over into English as “brock”, the folk name for this intelligent, retiring beast. Mister Brock was making his snug homes and complex societies in the Welsh earth long before the industrial farming of cattle, and with it bovine TB, was imposed on the land. Any person so willing to reject coexistence with wild nature is not fit to lead Plaid towards the only future that makes any sense and for which Wales is uniquely suited: a Deep Green future.
SIMON THOMAS Thomas is another strong candidate, illustrating how Plaid has far more talent than all the other parties combined. He’s an assured, experienced political operator, Ceredigion MP from 2000 to 2005 and AM for the Mid & West Wales region since 2011, who knows the Senedd’s corridors like the back of his hand after spending his years out of office as a Plaid special adviser in the coalition period. I notice he no longer sports the rakish earring of yore, symbolic perhaps of a shift into bland, identikit, jargon-soaked vacuity as per the British political model. He is all in favour of independence for Wales, he says, but “it is not the answer to today’s immediate problems and voters’ daily difficulties.” Such a statement differs little from what opponents of devolution always said. It seems not to have occurred to Simon that those “problems” and “difficulties” might have something to do with being run from London for 500 years. We don’t need another back-sliding, technocratic insider.
LEANNE WOOD The South Wales Central AM is working class (from Penygraig where she still lives) with a lovely valleys accent, socialist, republican, green, down-to-earth, intelligent, hard-working, energetic, and, oh yes, she’s a woman. What’s not to like? Leanne would take Plaid into unexplored territory as the party’s first female leader, first non-Welsh speaking leader (she’s a learner), first proletarian leader and first unequivocally left-wing leader: in other words, she would connect the party in one way or another to the experiences of the vast majority of the Welsh people, nail the lies that Plaid is just for the crachach, or for rural dwellers, or for Welsh speakers, and draw attention to the vast differences, usually glossed over, between Wales’ socialist bone-marrow and England’s hierarchical mind-set. She is the candidate the other parties dread winning because she has the potential to double Plaid’s vote by the time of the next Assembly election – and as Scotland proceeds towards inevitable eventual independence it is becoming ever more urgent for Plaid to quickly reach tipping-point levels of support, lest we be abandoned by our fellow Celts to the horrendous prospect of a future as England’s disenfranchised spare part in an ‘Englandandwales’ that would be 95% ‘England’. Variations on the legend of the sleeping warrior are common in Welsh folklore; the dream of a Welsh saviour, slumbering somewhere in a mountain cave to one day wake and lead Wales to freedom, a lucid metaphor of hope for a conquered people. Those legends, passed through word-of-mouth story-telling down the many generations, never anticipated a beautiful woman from the Rhondda rousing the Welsh nation. It’s time to make new legends for the Welsh yet to come. It’s time for Leanne Wood.
*Non-members who join before January 25th are entitled to vote in the leadership election. See www.plaidcymru.org