Plaid Cymru: a call for independence or clever tactics?

Last week Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, spoke at the Unit about the constitutional future of Wales. Christine Stuart reports.

Many headlines this year have been devoted to Alex Salmond, the SNP, and the impending Scottish independence referendum. But Scotland is not the only part of the UK with ambitions for greater self-rule. Speaking on Wednesday at UCL as part of the Constitution Unit’s seminar series, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood acknowledged that Wales has long been overshadowed in the debate on the constitutional future of the UK, but that the time is now ripe for the future of Wales to move into the spotlight.

Wood took the opportunity to call for the current system of Welsh devolution to give way to a system of self-government. She proposed a model where sovereignty is held by the people of Wales, calling for an arrangement in which the Welsh people themselves ‘determine what powers to share or cede with other nations and parliaments’. Making reference to the Edinburgh agreement, Wood announced that a Plaid Cymru government in 2016 would seek a similar agreement between the Welsh and UK governments, granting the people of Wales responsibility for their own constitution and the right to hold binding referendums. This would include the right to seek a referendum on independence.

In recent times Plaid Cymru have been somewhat reserved on the issue of independence, with a sense that it was a long-term goal for the distant future. This speech signals a new direction for the party, with Wood stating:

‘For too long, independence in the Welsh context has been treated as a pipe-dream as an aspiration so distant it has been seen as unrealistic and unworkable.

But this evening, I want to elevate the debate and I can reveal that Plaid Cymru will shortly be publishing plans to begin the debate on Wales’ future.’

In a sense, it may appear to be an ideal time for Plaid Cymru to distribute their message and reach out to potential supporters. Independence is undoubtedly a hot topic, with little over three months to go until the Scottish referendum, and everybody seeming to have an opinion on the matter. But will the magnitude of the Scottish debate drown out any noise from Wales? The prospect of Scottish independence is a real and credible threat to the break-up of the union. The Scottish National Party command a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, having achieved 45% of constituency votes at the 2011 election and having forced the once dominant Labour party into opposition in the last two Scottish elections. Since the onset of devolution, and indeed long before any manifesto commitments for an independence referendum, the SNP consistently gained more than 20% of the popular vote in Scotland. Across the same time period, numerous polls have found support for independence fluctuating between 25% and 40%.

If we compare the Scottish example with the climate in Wales, we see quite a different story. Plaid Cymru is currently the third party in the Welsh Assembly. They hold only 11 of the 60 seats, trailing behind the Conservative’s 14, and a long way off Labour’s 30 seats. The people of Wales have yet to give a mandate to their nationalist party, perhaps unsurprisingly when taking into consideration popular support for Welsh independence. A BBC poll from earlier this year found only 5% of people wanted to see an independent Wales.

With lack of evidence of any strong demand for independence emanating from the people of Wales, there is a risk that Leanne Wood’s call for a shake-up of power arrangements may go unheeded. But she may be playing a longer game. If Scotland votes Yes, independence suddenly seems more credible. If Scotland votes No, the unionist parties have all promised that more devolution will be on offer: Devolution Plus or Devolution Max. In Wales the Silk Commission has proposed further legislative powers and taxation powers for the Welsh Assembly. But both the Labour government in Cardiff and the Conservative-led government in London seem ambivalent about implementing the Silk proposals. In politics it can be clever tactics, when negotiations are stalled, to raise the stakes. Plaid Cymru’s demand for independence does just that.

The full text of Leanne Wood’s seminar can be found here.

View her speech in full:

About Christine Stuart
Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit, Department of Political Science, University College London

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