Simon Thomas seems to have ignited something of a hostile reaction within Plaid yesterday, when he declined to rule out an arrangement with the Tories which falls short of a coalition. I suspect that, in semantic terms, he was correct to argue that what Plaid’s leader had said only rules out one particular type of arrangement, namely a formal coalition. But I think most people had interpreted what Leanne said – and were intended to interpret it – as ruling out any arrangement which would put the Tories in power in Wales.
But on the principle, I agree with Simon, and have posted on that before. It’s not that I particularly want to see the Tories in power in Wales, or see Plaid supporting such a government. And when the issue was under discussion in 2007, when there was a possibility of including the Tories in the so-called ‘rainbow alliance’, I was even more opposed to a coalition with the Tories than with Labour. But I was happy to talk to both, because that was the only way of ascertaining what, if any, real progress could be made. I had two main reasons for not being quite so definitive in ruling out some arrangements in advance.
The first is largely pragmatic, and is to do with negotiating leverage. In the context of the current voting system for the National Assembly, where coalitions or less formal arrangements are more likely than not, any party claiming to be putting the interests of Wales first needs to get the best deal that it possibly can. And telling everyone in advance that there’s only one party with which you’re prepared to do any sort of deal doesn’t actually incentivise that party to give a lot of ground. Quite the reverse – it actually strengthens the Labour Party’s hand in any discussions.
The second is more about the aims and objectives of a party. I find it extremely difficult to believe that the Tories in Wales would offer more concessions to the nationalist position than the Labour Party, but I don’t find it totally inconceivable that it could happen. Events are inherently unpredictable. Ruling out, absolutely, any such possibility in advance looks like the action of a party more concerned with its own short-term advantage than with the constitutional progress of Wales.
Of course, the reason given for that would be that the long term future of Wales depends on the strength of the nationalist party, and that any deal with the Tories would weaken that party. But is that reasoned argument, or merely rationalisation of pre-existing prejudice? I’m convinced that any deal with the Labour Party is equally likely to weaken Plaid – that certainly seems to be the experience of One Wales. But if the main aim is making progress towards independence, then bringing about change, and then entrenching that change, is surely more important than the results of one or two elections.
I accept that this is largely hypothetical – any discussion before the election can only ever be speculative. I entirely understand why all parties would sooner concentrate at this stage on fighting and winning the election than on speculating about what might happen afterwards. Perhaps there really will be a political earthquake which propels either Plaid or the Tories into a position where they have enough AMs to be in a position to lead a government, however unlikely that may look at present. But in a context where all the polls show how unlikely it is that any party will win the majority about which they are all so keen to talk, speculation will inevitably continue to be part of the narrative of the campaign. That’s entirely natural, and in many other countries in Europe, people and politicians would be struggling to understand why there is such a reluctance in Wales to accept the fact, and debate the possibilities more openly.Talking about arrangements and compromises is an inevitable part of what it takes to create a different type of politics in Wales, and break away from the UK’s obsession with absolute majorities. It’s about building a more European style of multi-party coalitions and arrangements. There’s something very ‘British’ about simply wanting to avoid the question.