PERTH, United Kingdom
Here in Perth, the SNP is basking in the glory of its referendum defeat.
Where its opponents expected the Nationalists to sink into in-fighting and bitter recriminations, the party has never been in better shape. A membership boost of 65,000 has made it the third largest party in the UK and the polls put it far in the lead for the 2015 and 2016 elections. With a popular, charismatic new leader and the Scottish Labour party in crisis, there has never been a better time to be a Scottish Nationalist.
Four hundred miles south in Cardiff, the picture is very different for the Welsh nationalist movement.
Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales, holds just three out of 40 Commons seats and 11 of 60 in the National Assembly, where it has been relegated to the second party of opposition after the Tories. In recent months, they have been polling behind the Tories and even Ukip for the general election.
Support for independence is miniscule; Plaid would bite your hand off for 44.7%. A poll conducted after the Scottish referendum found only three per cent of Welsh voters backing a breakaway. (Though support for expanding Wales’ modest devolution settlement has increased over the years and around half of voters now want to see the Assembly get more powers.)
But Plaid Cymru has something going for it in the form of its leader, Leanne Wood. The probation officer turned university lecturer turned Assembly Member was elected leader of the party in 2012 by standing on a platform of equal commitment to independence and social justice.
Back in 2012, plucking for a republican socialist (Wood was once ejected from the Assembly for calling Queen Elizabeth II “Mrs Windsor”) looked like a radical, or even ill-judged move. In 2014, however, fringe parties and radical beliefs are storming the mainstream, with the SNP dominating Scottish politics and Ukip and the Greens in the ascendancy south of the border.
While Plaid Cymru is still awaiting its breakthrough, it has a confident and fluent leader whose facility for speaking movingly and convincingly about fairness, equality, and democracy, however obvious the comparison may sound, cannot help but recall Nicola Sturgeon.
SNP members seem to make this connection too and display real affection for Wood, as demonstrated by the sustained standing ovation she received when she took to the stage at the SNP conference on Saturday.
Wood, who visited Scotland several times to campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum, congratulated the delegates on inspiring what she called a “democratic revolution”, telling them: “Not only have you inspired thousands of previously disillusioned people in Scotland, your grassroots movement and its enthusiasm has reverberated far beyond your country.”
Turning to next May’s general election, she said the nationalist parties were “the alternatives to the four shades of Westminster grey” and called for them to be included in the TV debates.
She said: “From the tremendous momentum that has followed the referendum, no one can be in any doubt that this isn’t the end of Scotland’s journey, in fact it is just the beginning. Both Plaid Cymru and the SNP face a UK election is a matter of a few short months and already attempts are being made to lock out the alternatives to the four shades of Westminster grey.
“I reiterate today, it is undemocratic and unacceptable for broadcasters to deny the public the opportunity to scrutinise all major party leaders, from all the nations of Britain. And I actually think it’s important for viewers in England to know what our priorities will be when the SNP and Plaid Cymru hold the balance of power at Westminster after the next election.”
She repeated a theme that ran through the SNP conference: that Westminster, as a political system and a model of government, has failed even if politicians at Westminster have yet to realise that.
In remarks that were cheered enthusiastically by delegates, she said: “As members of both Plaid Cymru and the SNP we know, and we have known for years that Westminster is broken. It’s why we want to bring government home to the nations because power held by the people is how the best decisions are reached.
“And this is where the Westminster parties are still yet to grasp the irreversible change that has occurred in these islands: It is the peoples of the nations of the UK who are sovereign, not Westminster.”
She proposed a twin solution to this democratic deficit: Devolution of more powers to Holyrood and the Senedd and a new consensual model of government that would see the UK Government work cooperatively with the devolved administrations on reserved matters.
She told delegates: “It is fair and democratic that any decisions made about the purchase and location of weapons of mass destruction require universal support among the governments of the UK.
“I want a reformed UK ministerial council – consisting of the governments of the UK – to include a provision whereby the wishes of our people are not just heard but adhered to.
“Reserved powers should mean shared powers and let me make clear that a Plaid Cymru government from 2016 will insist on a major decisions at a UK level requiring consensus between the governments – or at the very least an option of an opt-out.”
In a particularly striking and effective turn of phrase, she remarked: “The imbalance experiment is over and it has failed.”
Wood laid out her platform for a “new industrial revolution” for Wales that would bring new powers but also allow the Assembly to create opportunities and prosperity for the benefit of all parts of the country.
Welsh public opinion may be set against independence at this juncture but Leanne Wood’s course of campaigning for enhanced devolution to forge an egalitarian society, one that can be held out as a model of further bounties that could come with independence, could pay off in the way a similar strategy brought the SNP to the brink of a Yes vote two months ago.
“It is the moral factor which decides the fate of nations,” wrote Gwynfor Evans, icon of an older, more confrontational Welsh nationalism. “Man’s spirit can prove greater than the power of leviathan.” Wood has understood that an appeal to patriotism and national spirit is not enough and that for an independence movement to succeed the moral factor must be social justice.
The Welsh national movement has a long way to go to replicate the success of the SNP but it has a leader with the skill, determination, and insight to take the cause forward.