Earlier this week the leader of Plaid Cymru Leanne Wood, was beside herself at the subservience of the Welsh Labour Government and its leadership to Tory Westminster, “Our leverage gone, leadership lost, parliament weakened. When he sells this parliament and my country’s democracy to Westminster, he can excuse my lack of conciliatory tone.”
Being an officially registered delegate at a Plaid Cymru conference is not a position I would necessarily have expected to find myself in. Equally, my younger self would not have expected to be so much in agreement with what I was to hear there. Of course, our political views may develop over time but perhaps I can truthfully say the roots were always there. I should admit that my mother’s maiden name was Jones, a surname so common in Wales that some other form of identification is often necessary. As far as I know one of my early nineteenth century forbears crossed the river Severn and worked as a tailor in the Bristol area. However tenuous the connection, it meant a number of my childhood holidays, during the mid and late sixties, were spent in Wales.
This was an interesting moment in the development of nationalist sentiment. My mother made sure that we appreciated the sadness and unacceptable nature of the actions of some of our contemporary English politicians in relation to the creation of reservoirs to supply water to Liverpool and surrounds. I remember as a child being truly frightened by the idea of a ‘drowned village’. I was not quite sure what we would see as we drove by what is now known as Llyn Celyn but was previously the village of Capel Celyn, at the time one of the last remaining Welsh only speaking communities. Drowning a village community seemed an unimaginable act. Indeed an act that many credit with having spurred the growth of the nationalist cause.
Equally alarming as drowned villages to a visiting English holiday-maker were the incidents of arson attacks on holiday or second homes. Over a period of years some 200 plus properties were targeted and the subconscious narrative for many across the border was that nationalism or the empowerment of people could be violent and unpleasant and at least could upset the status quo. That narrative still persists. We only have to see the lacklustre response by the Westminster Government to events in Catalonia for evidence of that.
Some of these teenage experiences were in my mind in travelling to Llangollen to attend this year’s Plaid Cymru Spring Conference under the flag of the European Free Alliance. It was an interesting experience. It started at the door. ‘Have you come far?’, the lady at the reception asked, probably anticipating some exotic continental city. ‘Hull’, we said, ‘we’re from the Yorkshire Party’. It’s a conversation stopper, most people sort of giggle first – they are still not sure if it might be a joke – then there is a look, a realisation; yes these guys are serious, and with reason and for exactly the same reasons that drive Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and Cornish: centralised London government does not work for us and we have our own sense of differentiated identity.
Listening and chatting to others at the conference we were reassured to find just how much we share, although it maybe that we haven’t got quite angry enough in Yorkshire yet. Not that there hasn’t been reason, you only have think Orgreave, Hillsborough, HS2, fracking or the Rotherham abuse case. However, the injustice is more mainstream as well and it does not have to be backed by the obvious criteria of a different language and history. I take a few key points from Leanne Wood.
A different kind of politics for a start. For twenty years, Wales has been a one party Labour state. Ditto west and south Yorkshire. Cross Wales train links from Cardiff to Swansea, cancelled by Westminster. Ditto improvements to east-west trans-Yorkshire links. Old industries gone in Wales and no serious attempt to replace them: ditto in Yorkshire. Affordable housing a problem for young people, even if they have a job and homelessness increasing; ditto in Yorkshire. I could go on but you will get the picture. Centralised London and South East dominated politics ignores the economic and social dynamics of Yorkshire no less than Wales.
Of course, Wales already has an Assembly, but still Plaid wants to devolve further to engage communities and renew individual political engagement. This all sounds very familiar. The phrases used: democratic renewal, unleashing potential, no nostalgia but forward-looking to an empowered future. This is the same as Yorkshire.
However, on one burning issue of the day, there is a stark difference. The SNP and Plaid had managed together to engineer a position where both nations challenged the thinly veiled power grab that the Westminster government is attempting via Brexit. So much so that, in the last days, the government’s lawyers have announced a legal action in the Supreme Court to overturn these legislative attempts to block a bad Brexit for Scotland and Wales. Yorkshire can merely watch from the sidelines with estimates from our region’s TUC that one in ten jobs in our region are EU related and thus at risk. Sadly as mentioned above Wales has now been let down by Welsh Labour. The Westminster clans stick together.
It was interesting also to witness the undercurrents at the conference. Undercurrents common to all political parties but especially those on political positioning. Historically fairly far to the left on old style spectrums, Plaid now seems to be courting the centre ground. That is certainly where the Yorkshire Party sits and that has been our on-going strength in attracting new membership from across the traditional parties.
So there was reassurance being amongst like minded people but perhaps just that tiny sense that definitely without becoming extreme we could do with a bit more anger, more of an edge about our treatment from London. Watch this space but still be sure there will always be a blunt Yorkshire welcome for outsiders and a cup of Yorkshire tea. However be in no doubt we are serious!
Reservoirs by R S Thomas appeared in “Not That He Brought Flowers”, published in 1968. It was written soon after the opening of Llyn Celyn and Llyn Clywedog.
There are places in Wales I don’t go:
Reservoirs that are the subconscious
Of a people, troubled far down
With gravestones, chapels, villages even;
The serenity of their expression
Revolts me, it is a pose
For strangers, a watercolour’s appeal
To the mass, instead of the poem’s
Harsher conditions. There are the hills,
Too; gardens gone under the scum
Of the forests; and the smashed faces
Of the farms with the stone trickle
Of their tears down the hills’ side.
Where can I go, then, from the smell
Of decay, from the putrefying of a dead
Nation? I have walked the shore
For an hour and seen the English
Scavenging among the remains
Of our culture, covering the sand
Like the tide and, with the roughness
Of the tide, elbowing our language
Into the grave that we have dug for it.