Plaid Cymru leader: we can only prosper if we do things for ourselves
The United Kingdom is facing forces that are trying to tear it apart. The Scottish nationalists grab most of the attention, but Wales has its own nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, and earlier this year Leanne Wood, a 40-year-old former probation officer, became its first female leader. I interviewed her at the end of last week and these are the highlights.
• Wood said Wales was not ready for independence because it was not self-sufficient economically. Although Plaid Cymru is committed to independence as a long-term goal, Wood said “it could not happen tomorrow” because the Welsh economy was too weak and that it would take “a lot of work” to get to the stage where an independent Wales would be financially viable. (One recent report said that because public spending per head is higher in Wales, and tax receipts per head are lower, Wales has a fiscal deficit of £5,783 per head, compared with £2,000 per head in England.) Wood said Wales had to make up for the fact that its economy had been in decline compared with the rest of the UK for the last 20 years and that giving more economic powers to the Welsh assembly would put the country on the road to recovery.
• She accused Iain Duncan Smith of perpetuating “negative stereotypes” about the Welsh. Referring to his comment about people in Merthyr being unwilling to travel to Cardiff to find work, she said: “When was the last time he went there and spoke to people from Merthyr?” She also said that the Welsh in general were still sometimes subject to ridicule because of their nationality and she singled out MTV’s show The Valleys as a particularly “awful” example of anti-Welsh stereotyping.
• Wood said she could imagine Plaid Cymru being led at some point in the future by someone who did not speak Welsh. “I rarely use the Welsh language myself in my day-to-day work, so in some senses you could argue that they already have [a non Welsh-speaking leader],” said Wood, who is the first person not fluent in Welsh to lead the party.
• She said Wales would benefit if it could become a multilingual nation. “We could do an awful lot in Wales if we were eventually a multilingual nation,” she said. “There are a number of studies now that suggest that if people have more than one language, their minds are open to learning a third and a fourth and even more languages.”
We met in Wood’s office at the Welsh assembly in Cardiff Bay. For me, it’s a good place to contemplate long-term change because I started my career on the South Wales Echo in the early 1990s when Cardiff Bay was mostly derelict wasteland next to mudflats. Now there’s a barrage, an attractive waterfront, a world-class concert hall and, of course, a mini parliament. Scotland and Wales both voted for devolution 15 years ago this month but nationalism in the two countries is very different. In Cardiff it’s slow, and gradualist. Wood is not anticipating, or even demanding, full independence any time soon. But she thinks it will happen eventually. Here’s what she had to say. You can decide for yourself whether you think she’s right.
Q: Why are you a nationalist?
A: I see Wales very much as a country which is not at the moment reaching its full potential. Wales has its own history, its own unique language and is a distinct geographic entitity; to me, it makes sense for it to be a political unit.
Scottish nationalism and Welsh nationalism
Q: Since devolution, Scottish nationalism has done very well, while Welsh nationalism hasn’t done so well. What’s your explanation for that?
A: If you are talking about the success of the national parties, you’ve got a point. But the Welsh nationalist agenda has progressed quite significantly since the setting up of devolution. What we’ve seen happening in Wales is that the British parties, the unionist parties, have taken on a lot of the policies that we’ve been advocating. We advocated the reform of the Barnett formula, measures to defend the Welsh language, for example, and the parties have come on board, on to our territory. There’s no difference between the parties on those issues. And the same goes for extending devolution, in terms of the referendum that we won last year. All parties are united around progressing that agenda.
Q: But in terms of the party, what went wrong for Plaid over the last few years?
A: What’s been successful in Scotland was extending a very good settlement that they had to start with. We started from a very different position in Wales; we’re obviously a different country. We started with a different devolution settlement. So there was a job of work to do to establish the principle of devolution in Wales, which did not have to happen in Scotland. But if we look at where we are now, we are in a very different place from where we were when devolution was first set up. And certainly now, since the economic crash in 2008, people’s problems are very different to the ones that they were back then and, in terms of Wales’s economic position, the situation is getting worse. So now we have an opportunity within this current context.
Q: One explanation for why nationalists have done better in Scotland might be that the SNP have got this mega-personality, Alex Salmond, and Plaid have not been able to put up a leader with that sort of charisma. Do you think that has been a factor?
A: I tend to think generally that things are mostly about politics and not personalities, to be honest with you, and what we’ve got to do here in Wales is get to the point where the SNP are in Scotland. And that means we’ve got to become the biggest party, we have got to be in a position to put these arguments, and then a referendum, to the people of Wales.
Scottish independence referendum
Q: If Scotland were to vote for independence, what impact would that have on electoral politics in Wales and Plaid’s position?
A: That would have a big impact. It would send shockwaves, really, through the entire system because the United Kingdom as it currently exists would be no more. Then it would be a matter for Wales to decide what role we wanted to have in a newly shaped United Kingdom. And I’ve advocated a system which looks much more like a partnership of equals so that there is a strong voice for Wales within that. We share an island. There is going to be much common ground between the counties that currently make up the United Kingdom after that eventuality. On what basis will we be working together? That’s the kind of conversation I would like people in Wales to have alongside the developments in Scotland.
Q: And if Scotland votes no, is that setback for your party and Welsh independence?
A: I don’t think it has to be necessarily.
Q: Why not?
A: I would prefer a yes vote to happen in Scotland. But I think there’s still a debate to be had about how we govern ourselves and how we look after our own affairs. There is public support in Wales, for example, for more independence in our health service. I would argue, with the economic problems that we’ve got, more independence is needed in terms of looking at our fiscal levers and what we can do in terms of making changes to the economy that we need to turn it into a successful economy, not a declining one.
Q: What model of independence are you looking at? Or, to put it another way, how independent would you like Wales to be?
A: As far as people in Wales want to go. I am of the view that everything comes back to the economy, that we can’t really get to grips with the root problems of our economy unless we have more autonomy and ability to control the levers that affect these things. We have made representations to the Silk Commission that is looking at the new financial powers that will come to Wales as a result of the various changes that are happening in other parts of the UK and we have advocated more independence in terms of our fiscal levers so that we can make those changes that we need to help.
Q: But it’s sometimes been unclear, at least to me, whether Plaid are going for what they call in Scotland “devo max”, or whether you want Wales to be a fully independent separate state, with a seat at the UN and passports and everything.
A: I’ve been clear that independence means full membership of the United Nations and everything that goes with that. But we are not in the same place as they are in Scotland and we are not as near to it as they are there. And the reason for that is that we have a declining economy. That has got to be the issue that is addressed first and foremost.
I mentioned earlier on that since the economic crisis there is a new layer of problems facing people in Wales. There are a whole host of statistics that show that people in Wales are facing cuts that are worse [than elsewhere in the UK] because the public sector here is greater, and the number of people claiming benefits here is greater. And our unemployment rates are higher, which means that there is more demand on the public purse.
Q: Doesn’t that then become a drag on the case for independence?
A: That’s why we have to turn it round. We have to turn that situation around.
Q: But if you get independence before you’ve got a self-financing economy, you’re in trouble, aren’t you? Before you became leader, who wrote an article saying, “Most of us who want independence for Wales accept the weak state of the Welsh economy means we would struggle to afford the current Welsh welfare bill.” So, if you go the independence model that you want, where would the money come from? In Scotland they’ve got oil.
A: This is why I’ve been clear that it could not happen tomorrow. We have to do a lot of work before we get to the point where we are in a position to do that. But ultimately we can go up to a point so far and then we will be constrained in how successful we will be able to become economically because we won’t have the control over the levers that will be able to take us all the way there. All of our effort now has to go into job creation, so we get to a situation where we get more people contributing into the tax pot than there is money going out. That’s the basis of any other country in the world. Any independent nation raises what it spends and it is not unreasonable to suggest that Wales could not be any different to any other country in the world, I would contend.
Q: So is that a prerequisite for independence? Does the Welsh economy have to get to that state before independence becomes sensible?
A: I would not say that’s a prerequisite in any way, because ultimately what will decide when and how far we go will be the people of Wales.
Q: But the people of Wales are not going to vote for it if does not work economically.
A: At the moment there are low numbers of people who support the general idea of independence for Wales because of our economic situation. People understand the importance of prioritising the economy. We have to put that at the front of our agenda. And unless we can answer people’s concerns about the Welsh economy then I don’t think we are going to win the independence argument.
Q: You have said that independence is not something that you would want tomorrow because of these economic problems. So what kind of timescale are we talking about? Are you thinking of decades? It takes decades, or generations, to turn around an economy.
A: A report that was published by our newly set-up economy commission, a report called Offa’s Gap, has shown that the Welsh economy has been in decline relative to the UK economy for the last 20 years. So we have got 20 years’ worth of decline to turn around just to get back to where we were in around 1994, 1995.
Q: But even then, which was roughly the time I was writing for the Western Mail, Wales was a net dependent, not a net contributor to the UK exchequer. From what you are saying, you seem to suggest it could take 20 years or more to get the economy to a stage where independence becomes viable.
A: I would hope that as we gain powers and more control over the economic levers, we would be able to see success faster than we have seen decline. The effort, then, has to go into job creation. We favour new models of companies, for example, so that there would be a big push to support co-operatives and social enterprises. Those sort of companies that we’ll set up will employ local people and not then up sticks and move to other parts of the world where labour is cheaper. We’ve got to think about ways of restructuring our economy so that jobs remain, wealth remains locked into local areas, in a way that has not happened before. So much of the wealth generated in Wales has left in the past. If we learn anything from history, we have to make sure that in the future, when we go back to making things again, that we lock that wealth into Wales and into the pockets of people in Wales.
Q: How certain are you that Welsh independence will happen? Are you 100%, bet-your-house-on-it certain that it will happen in your lifetime? Or is it more likely than not?
A: I think, to be honest, eventually it’s inevitable. People will arrive at the conclusion that we can only really prosper if we do things for ourselves.
Q: And are you talking about full-blown independence?
A: It’s the ability to control our economic destiny that’s the key thing for me. People will realise that we can try to work within this system, we can devolve some aspects and make some changes, but ultimately we won’t be able to make the leap that we need to make unless we fully control our own economic destiny.
Q: In Scotland, Alex Salmond has suggested that one reason he would like control over taxes is that he can do an Ireland, lower corporation tax and bring investment into the country that way. Would a Plaid Wales be a country with lower rates than England or the rest of the UK?
A: We would look at taxation in the round. The debates that are going on within the Silk commission, some tax-raising powers look as though they will be coming to Wales. As I understand it, corporation tax is one of those that is more difficult. This economy commission that I have set up will be coming out with a raft of proposals in terms of taxation policy, so the specifics will have to wait, I’m afraid.
Plaid and the pound
Q: In an independent Wales, would Plaid keep the pound?
A: That’s a matter for discussion in the runup to the debate on independence. I know that they have got to come down with a view on that in Scotland. We are not in the same place. We don’t know where the euro is going, for example, and we don’t know what is going to happen to all forms of currency in the future. So I would say let’s not put things in tablets of stone in terms of what currency we’d be using.
Q: What about defence? Would an independent Wales have its own armed forces?
A: I would like to see a serious reduction in the amount of money we spend on defence in general. I would obviously like to see Wales’s share of defence expenditure reduced and spent on useful things. I have said in the past that the amount of money spent subsidising the arms industry is unsustainable and unacceptable as well and that I think huge savings could be made to put into the public services.
Q: Would an independent Wales still have the BBC?
A: Again, these are matters for people to look at further down the line.
Q: And the monarchy. What’s the party’s position? Would an independent Wales keep the monarchy?
A: Our policy is that, after independence, we would put the matter as a question in a referendum to people.
Relations with England after independence
Q: You have talked about the need, in a post-independence settlement, for a relationship with England and Scotland and the idea of a “neighbourhood of nations”. What do you envisage? Are you just talking about meetings a couple of time a year? Or would the post-UK nations need to set up some kind of supra-national structure to coordinate on immigration and the environment and all the rest of it?
A: Yes. I think it would make sense for some kind of body to co-ordinate those big macro issues, and things around the sea, for example, as well. But it would have to be very much on a different basis from the current set up, where, within the Westminster parliament, the needs of England dominate. We would advocate that partnership being much more on the basis of equals.
What happens in Scotland will determine where all of this goes. Whatever happens, there is going to be a referendum. Whether the outcome is yes or no, I would argue that there would need to be a conversation about what happens post that referendum.
Q: Alex Salmond in his Hugo Young lecture this year described himself as a “staunch anglophile”. Are you an anglophile?
A: I would not say I’m not an anglophile, specifically. I’m a francophile, I like Spain, I like Scotland.
Q: But are you a francophile but not an anglophile?
A: I don’t have to choose as far as I see it.
Q: No, but if you are happy to describe yourself as a francophile are you happy to describe yourself as an anglophile?
A: I would like to see myself as somebody who looks to nations all over the world. England would be one of those. But it would not be over and above any others particularly for me.
Q: Do you think it is sensible to talk about national identity? Is there such a thing as an English national identity and a Scottish national identity and a Welsh national identity?
A: I do think there is such a thing. My approach to politics is very much as a civil nationalist. So for me Wales is about who lives here now and what contribution they want to make to building up our communities and our civic body politics, if you like. In a world that is becoming more Coca-Cola or Pepsi or McDonald’s or Big Mac, people are going to want to find ways that mark their identity out as a bit different, find aspects of culture that are unusual and quirky, because I think that everything being the same is a bit boring and bland.
Q: Ed Miliband gave a speech earlier this year on Englishness and he identified “quiet determination in the face of adversity” as a particular English trait, or the essence of Englishness. What’s the essence of Welshness?
A: In terms of what’s at the essence of Welsh politics, I would say that there is a public service ethos, that there is a want for politics to be done on a more co-operative basis and for the reduction of inequalities to be centred as part of our politics. The centre of gravity of Welsh politics is much nearer to those values than it is in the UK as a whole.
Discrimination against the Welsh
Q: In one of the articles you wrote during your leadership campaign you talked about the Welsh still being victims of discrimination and how it was acceptable to ridicule the Welsh? Can you give me some examples of that?
A: Jeremy Clarkson. Anne Robinson. Various snipes and jibes about the Welsh language that happen on a fairly regular basis. Then, when people complain about them, they are told that they are being over-sensitive. Those kinds of things really. I don’t want to particularly dwell on those aspects because we get accused of whingeing about irrelevant things. But I do get a sense sometimes that there are some nationalities in the world, some groups of people, where it is still acceptable to ridicule on the basis that they are of a particular nationality. And, thankfully, in many other areas of life that has become unacceptable. But there is still a hangover of some being left. I think we need to move on from that.
Q: How do you feel about the way the way the Welsh are portrayed on TV? There was a Valleys comedy, Stella, on recently. Or Gavin and Stacey? Do you have a problem with those?
A: No. There’s a bit of humour there. We can all laugh and enjoy programmes like that. I would be more critical of the latest MTV attempt to show the Valleys.
Q: I haven’t seen that.
A: Don’t go there. It’s awful. But they tried to pluck young people out of the sleepy hamlet of the Valleys and put them in the big bright lights of Cardiff.
Q: That’s one of these reality programmes.
A: It’s that sort of programme. There have been lots of sheep in the publicity shots, so I can guess where that’s going.
There have been a lot of negative stereotypes out there. A lot of them have been pushed by the Conservative party, like Iain Duncan Smith when he went to Merthyr and said people don’t want to travel from Merthyr to Cardiff, really stereotyping. When was the last time he went there and spoke to people from Merthyr? There are plenty of people I know who would travel, and do travel, an awful long way to find work but there isn’t work out there for them. But I don’t particularly want to contribute to further accusations of us just whingeing and not being able to take a joke.
Plaid and the Welsh language
Q: I posted a blog inviting people to suggest questions to ask you and there were quite a few comments from people [like showmaster and Temulkar and yahyah] saying they were put off Plaid by the sense that it was a party only for Welsh speakers. Do you accept that’s a problem for the party?
A: I would argue that nobody is excluded from Plaid Cymru and we seek to defend the rights of Welsh-language speakers in the same context as we seek to defend the rights of other minorities who experience discrimination. So for us it’s an equalities issue and an issue about rights. But the idea that people would feel excluded from being part of Plaid Cymru would concern me, to be honest. It is never something that I’ve felt. I’ve learnt Welsh and I am still in the process of learning Welsh. I can’t call myself fluent in it unfortunately yet. But certainly I have never felt any discrimination on the grounds of not being a fluent Welsh speaker.
Q: But this is what one woman said: “It put me off joining Plaid, which I seriously considered, when it was made clear that although they will try and accommodate English speakers, they prefer to communicate in Welsh at my local meetings.” She also said: “The feeling among a lot of people I’ve spoken to here is that Plaid have some good policies, but despite the nice words about inclusivity in the Plaid manifesto, on the ground there tends to be a narrow-minded, insular, corrupt anti-incomer mindset.” Other people said similar things. Why is that perception out there?
A: In some communities there are tensions where people are perceived to have lots of money, they move in and buy up inflated-priced properties. It could be a reflection of some of those tensions within communities. But generally I would encourage people like that to contact me directly so I can have a private conversation about where these problems are arising because I am really keen to ensure that Plaid Cymru is a party open to everybody, whichever part of Wales they are in.
Q: Can you ever imagine Plaid being led by somebody who did not speak Welsh?
A: Well, yes I can. I rarely use the Welsh language myself in my day to day work, so in some senses you could argue that they already have. I’m trying to learn and one of the reasons is political. I would say for many people in Plaid Cymru who are not first language Welsh speakers, we want to learn. But, equally, there are plenty of people who are members who are not learning. And that is fine. I would say there’s no pressure to learn the language.
Q: One person raised education as an issue in the context of this. He or she said: “I am a welsh speaker but you must realise that statements from you, that all children in Wales will be taught partly through the medium of Welsh, are disastrous and instantly destroy support in non-Welsh speaking Wales.” What do you say to that?
A: I’m not convinced that this would put people off. I come at this from an education perspective, in that I think we could do an awful lot in Wales if we were eventually a multilingual nation. There are a number of studies now that suggest that if people have more than one language, their minds are open to learning a third and a fourth and even more languages. And that minds are open to other subjects as well. So, in terms of a new approach in schools to look at becoming multilingual eventually, then to start with the two that we’ve got here, and then introducing a third and maybe a fourth later on within the school curriculum, we should be able to create a multilingual population which would give us an economic advantage in the future.
Q: You’ve talked about language as a discrimination issue. Are there any circumstances where people who do not speak Welsh are facing discrimination in Wales because they apply for jobs where Welsh is a requirement?
A: I have not seen any evidence of that. The accusation is often mentioned, but I have not seen any evidence of people being barred from getting jobs. If you think of language as another skill, for some jobs you have to have a certain skill set to apply for those jobs. You would not apply for a job as a data entry clerk if you could not use computers.
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