Former First Minister Rhodri Morgan is getting increasingly crabby in his twilight years. In his Wasting Mule column following the Scottish independence referendum he suggested that Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, failed the Richard Nixon ‘Would you buy a second-hand car off this guy?‘ test. A strange way of trying to put down a man widely respected across the political spectrum, both inside Scotland and without. A man regarded as a politician of intellect, ability and commitment to his cause. But then, reading what I’ve just written, and thinking back to the lazy and superficial Rhodri Morgan, a man renowned for soundbites and little else, it was probably just jealousy.
Last Saturday Mr Lightweight was at it again, this time laying into Saunders Lewis, president of Plaid Cymru from 1926, a year after the party’s creation, until 1938. His specific point was that Saunders Lewis made a big mistake in supporting Franco in the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) because had he supported the Republican side – which backed Basque and Catalan self-government – that stance would have resonated better with Welsh people and resulted in increased support for Plaid Cymru, and of course he’s right . . . if one adopts a simplistic interpretation of events coupled with a deliberate mis-reading of history and the benefit of looking back from 2014.
Despite receiving aid and military support from both Mussolini and Hitler Franco was never a fascist himself. He certainly didn’t involve Spain in World War Two. (Although Falangist volunteers did fight on the Eastern Front.) I’ve always viewed Franco as a political animal of a variety we’re unfamiliar with in northern or Protestant Europe, by which I mean an authoritarian, Catholic reactionary. For while the Spanish Civil War may have been an ideological struggle to idealists of Right and Left in other countries, within Spain – certainly from the Nationalist side – the struggle was to maintain Catholic Spain from internal enemies. Due to it having been so ‘politicised’ we tend to forget that this was a war in which religion and the role of the church played a big part. When churches were being torched, nuns raped and priests butchered, it should have surprised no one then – or now – that a convert to Catholicism like Saunders Lewis supported Franco and followed the Vatican line.
As for why ‘Plaid Cymru’ didn’t challenge Saunders Lewis on his position vis-a-vis the Spanish Civil war, as Morgan asks, well the answer seems to have come in a reader’s letter in today’s Wasting Mule. In it, Hywel Davies of Morriston in Swansea says, “As to the claim of the tacit support of Plaid membership for Lewis, Saunders Lewis himself stressed that it was exactly the lack of such support that impelled his resignation as party president in 1938”.
It’s really scraping the barrel for a senior Labour figure to try to smear a political party and a wider movement as fascistic (despite protesting that he’s not doing that) just because of Saunders Lewis’ religious beliefs. Equally deplorable is Morgan reminding us that Lewis once said something favourable about Hitler. Wow! Just about everybody said something favourable about Hitler and Mussolini at some time in the 1930s; whether it was complimenting Hitler for getting Germans back to work or praising Mussolini for making the trains run on time. Far more sinister and self-deluding were those from Morgan’s own political background who travelled to the Soviet Union and came back believing that Stalin was the saviour of mankind, at the very time of show trials and engineered famine!
Though Rhodri Morgan’s spiteful little diatribe did serve to make me think about Plaid Cymru, and Saunders Lewis, whose real failing was that he was out of touch with twentieth century Wales. For his ‘Wales’ was restricted to the rural, Welsh-speaking west and the north that my great-grandparents had left a generation or two earlier. Which makes me suspect that someone else he admired – another devout Catholic and dweller in Never-Never land – was Eamon de Valera, who also dreamed of a bucolic Celtic paradise unsullied by anything English . . . such as cities, and industry . . .
And yet, this paradise to which Lewis wanted us all to return was overwhelmingly Protestant, and not just Protestant in the easy-going way of the Anglican church (a body known to my paternal grandmother as ‘them English Catholics’), but a forbidding realm of disputatious sects for whom stained glass windows came close to idolatry and enjoyment of almost any sort could be highly suspect. (A world where, as Gwyn Thomas put it, ‘The only concession to gaiety was a striped shroud’.) Yet to these severe and self-denying country-folk Saunders Lewis, the English-born former army officer and academic who had converted to the smells and bells of Catholicism, was offering himself as the Messiah! There was more chance of Joe Stalin being invited for a few friendly beers down a Nazi bierkeller!
Which is why Rhodri Morgan was wrong to suggest that the political map of Wales would look entirely different today if Saunders Lewis had backed the other side in the Spanish Civil War. Plaid Cymru’s fortunes as a political party, and the refusal of most Welsh to accept the party, go well beyond the position of one man on a short war in a foreign country a long time ago. I say that because I believe Lewis had nothing to offer the urban and industrial areas with their anglophone majorities, and his aloofness and Catholicism meant that few heeded him even in the areas he hoped to speak for. Yet this is typical of Plaid Cymru, for the party has always been out of step with, if not alien to, the majority of Welsh people, due to its refusal to accept the reality of the Wales in which it found itself. Apart, that is, from a few, brief moments, when the party seemed to ‘connect’ . . . before hurriedly and fearfully ‘disconnecting’ again.
I joined Plaid Cymru in the mid-1960s, an exciting and turbulent time in Wales; bombs were going off, there were regular protests on the language and other issues with many being imprisoned, we had the tragedy of Aberfan and provocations such as Tryweryn and the Investiture, all of which combined to excite passions and lead many of us to believe that our country was being exploited and our people neglected. Plaid Cymru inevitably benefitted from this bitterness; first, with Gwynfor Evans’ by-election victory in Carmarthen in 1966, and then running Labour close in the by-elections at Rhondda West in 1967 and Caerphilly in 1968.
One strong memory I have of that period is how people could comfortably belong to a number of different organisations; a situation that allowed a card-carrying member of Plaid Cymru to don a combat jacket and forage cap on Friday night and head for the hills with the Free Wales Army. Obviously Gwynfor Evans and most of the party’s hierarchy disapproved of violence (which Gwynfor regularly attributed to MI5), but at a lower level there was a more ambivalent attitude. In this kaleidoscope, Plaid Cymru was merely the political wing of a much wider movement, a genuinely national movement. I suppose a comparison could be made with the Labour Movement of the time, where many Labour Party members, and certainly trade union officials, also belonged to the Communist Party, and other extreme Left wing groups.
Plaid Cymru’s 1960s momentum was maintained in the General Election of 1970 that saw the party, for the first time, field candidates in all seats and win 11.5% of the vote, though Carmarthen was lost. In the February election of 1974 Plaid won two seats – Caernarfon and Meirionnydd – then held those two and re-gained Carmarthen in the October election of the same year. Other seats – Ynys Môn and Ceredigion – were won in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but the share of the vote slipped, as Plaid retreated into its rural strongholds. Carmarthen was lost again in the 1979 general election but perhaps worse was the shattering defeat for devolution in the referendum of that year. A defeat ensured by a Labour Party campaigning against its own initiative and giving us a first good view of the odious Neil Kinnock and his venomous spouse.
The late 1970s and 1980s also saw Plaid Cymru change, in a number of ways. The party moved perceptibly to the Left. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it also started ‘reaching out’ to minority groups (no, no, not the Welsh) such as Gays, hippies, ban the bomb types and others. I remember one Plaid conference at which Dafydd Elis Thomas, then party leader, became quite emotional over his new best friend, Brig Oubridge, and whoever or whatever he represented. So who was Brig Oubridge? Well, he was an English hippy who, like so many others, had invited himself into Wales, squatted on some land near Llandeilo – ‘Tipi Valley’ – and then demanded to be given legal rights! Read about him here. These are the sort of people Plaid Cymru’s leadership wanted to co-operate with. It’s not a lot different today.
Despite this ‘reaching out’ to the non-Welsh Plaid Cymru still managed to be dismissed as ‘the language party’, and this perception – carefully promoted by opponents – has lost the party votes among the anglophone Welsh. But Plaid’s concern for the language is often little more than arguing over legislative minutiae, as if such nit-picking will save the language. It won’t, and Plaid Cymru knows that.
Making the situation in Plaid’s ‘stronghold’ areas today bizarre. On the one hand the indigenous, Welsh-speaking population can see its linguistic and cultural heritage being destroyed by tourism, colonisation, discrimination in employment and other areas . . . so they vote Plaid Cymru as a means of showing they’re still here – ‘Yma o hyd’ – and in the desperate hope that Plaid Cymru will do something to protect what remains of the Fro Gymraeg (the Welsh-speaking areas). But Plaid Cymru has its head so far up the arse of the English Left, the Third Sector, and the Green Men that it won’t do anything to save the Fro. This is a situation that cannot endure. The destruction of the Fro can only result in the collapse of the Plaid vote, and this might come about quite suddenly if enough Plaid voters realise how they’ve been betrayed, or if a genuinely Welsh party was to appear.
But even while Plaid’s heartland areas endure, to be taken seriously as a national party Plaid Cymru needs the ‘breakthrough in the south’. (God! I’ve been hearing that for 50 years.) But of course it’s never happened. Yes, Plaid might have come close in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it was still a nationalist party, but as I’ve explained, it was carefully steered away towards ‘rainbow alliances’, socialism, and a betrayal of the Welsh people. The only other time Plaid came close to the ‘breakthrough’ was in the first Assembly elections of 1999, and what happened then? – there was a coup against the most charismatic, most popular, and most successful leader the party ever had. On both occasions when Plaid might have pushed on to seriously challenge Labour’s hegemony in Wales it chose instead to make itself less electable. Yet people still wonder why I believe Plaid Cymru was compromised at the very highest levels in the late 1970s or the early 1980s!
To achieve this ‘breakthrough in the south’ Plaid’s leadership believed the party had to be socialist, more socialist than the Labour Party. Which tells me that Plaid Cymru is either deliberately sabotaging its own electoral chances, or that Plaid’s leadership fails to grasp a fundamental truth, which is, the great majority of Welsh who vote Labour do so out of nothing more than habit or self-interest, sometimes both. They do it because parents / grandparents voted Labour, or because they believe that Labour in power in London will ‘look after them’ better than the Tories. But the important thing to understand here is that socialism has nothing to do with it. Which makes any attempt to be more socialist than Labour an exercise in futility.
Plaid Cymru seems unable to accept that there are very few socialists left in Wales, very few indeed among the indigenous working class. In fact, your average working class, Labour-voting, tabloid-reader is very often a conservative and even a racist. Not a violent, Hitler-worshipping nutter, but a person who undemonstratively shares almost all the prejudices of the far Right. The identikit Ukip voter (as the May Euro-elections showed). We all know them. We work with them, we talk with them down the pub.
We live in interesting times. Never in my lifetime have ‘London’ parties and Westminster politics been held in such contempt. Scotland is on the brink of independence. A new party is on the rise. Welsh people are beginning to realise that Britain is one of the most corrupt and unequal countries in the western world. This state of flux should provide the perfect opportunity for a radical Welsh party, untainted by corruption, ineptitude and the ‘sameness’ of professional politicians, to make massive inroads into Labour’s Welsh vote . . . but instead, it looks as if the beneficiary will be Ukip, an English nationalist party! What a verdict on 90 years of Plaid Cymru!
A party that started out as a movement to defend Welsh language and culture, and to restore the language to the whole of Wales, has totally failed in that ambition. Within a generation what remains of the Fro Gymraeg will be but a memory. Then came the socialist phase, standing shoulder to shoulder with ‘oppressed minorities’ and seeking to tap into the great socialist tradition of Wales . . . which has achieved absolutely nothing. How can a Welsh political party be in existence for ninety years without realising that its greatest – perhaps its only – selling point is its Welshness? Blame England! – play on Welsh grievances! – stir the passions! – reap the rewards! Better to do that and fail than be a bunch of mealy-mouthed compromisers satisfied with crumbs.
The Scottish National Party enjoys its position of strength, not because it ‘reached out’ to colonising Greens (Scotland has its own pro-independence Green Party), not because it indulged itself in sixth form ‘socialism’, not because it snuggled up to Labour and certainly not because it tried to out-Labour Labour; no, the SNP’s strength is the result of confronting the Labour Party and the British system head-on with a message of hope for the Scottish people. This is why Glasgow voted Yes last month. All Plaid Cymru does is agonise over the nuts and bolts of devolution and whine about the Barnett Formula, (basically, just asking for a bigger begging bowl). Plaid Cymru is a defeatist party; it is a collaborationist party.
The 2016 Assembly elections must be Plaid Cymru’s last chance to make the oft-heralded ‘breakthrough’. It deserves no more chances; ninety years is long enough. As things stand, Plaid Cymru’s greatest ‘achievement’ is taking up the space that should be filled by a genuine nationalist party. If Plaid Cymru fails again in 2016, but tries to carry on as if nothing has happened, then it will only strengthen my belief that the party has been compromised. If that happens, then a new party, a nationalist party, must be created. Wales can’t afford any more ‘blocking’. Time is short.