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Interview: Leanne Wood - Wales and the spreading of the Scottish rebellion

As Scotland takes a stand against the British State, it's time for the rest of the UK to join in. Is Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, the person to lead them?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay Leanne Wood
12 September 2014
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Leanne Wood - Plaid Cymru

After the Scottish referendum, it's vital that the rest of the UK continues the rebellion against a broken Westminster system. If anyone's going to lead that charge, it's Leanne Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru. With this in mind, I went to see her in her office, through the back of Richard Rogers' magnificent Welsh Assembly building.

When I met her, Leanne had just been to Glasgow to speak to the Radical Independence Campaign. “I was very encouraged about the way in which the grassroots campaign has really managed to engage with people and so I was quite keen to strike up conversations with people like taxi drivers, people working in bars, and so on... it was staggering really, the level of knowledge, the level of the debate that so far has happened. It was like nothing I've ever witnessed really.” Her genuine thrill was something I've barely ever witnessed in a politician.

“When I was talking to people in the Yes campaign about the expected turnout being in excess of 80%, I found that quite staggering... and really exciting because everywhere else in the UK, people are disengaging from politics, yet the other side of Hadrian's Wall, people are genuinely getting engaged and thinking about the kind of future they want to have and I think that's great.”

At times, the SNP has been accused of not being radical enough in the campaign – promising to keep the pound, the Queen, and NATO. Leanne has, in the past, been thrown out of the Welsh Assembly for calling Mrs Windsor by her name rather than her title, and has (along with Caroline Lucas), blockaded Faslane nuclear weapons base. What does she make, I ask, of her sister party's support for the monarch, a nuclear alliance, and for currency union?

“I fully understand why the SNP has taken the positions that it has.” If it was in Wales, she says, “I would be quite keen to separate the issues out... Once you achieve independence, you can then have a further referendum to decide if you want to be a republic or not. I think that's a very sensible way to approach the question.”

On NATO, though, she's is more willing to diverge “Plaid Cymru takes a different position, we would not be part of NATO, our party policy is not to be part of that alliance”. On the pound “if in Wales, we were in the same situation... then it's highly likely we would arrive at the same conclusion as the SNP.” These are, though, “periphery issues really” she says.

Leanne Wood & Caroline Lucas (& a Dutch MP) blockading Faslane Nuclear Weapons Base

Are others in Wales following the referendum closely? “Few people raise it... it's either raised in “if they can do it, why can't we?”. Or it's “oh, if they go, what's going to happen to the rest of us?”... I'm sure this is true. But, by chance, as I was writing up this interview in a flat in Edinburgh, the buzzer went. It was a leafleter for the Yes campaign, wanting into the stairwell. She turned out to have come up from South West Wales to campaign – it's not just Leanne who's enthused.

“What I noticed very strongly in my trip to Scotland... was how much everyone seems to be talking about the referendum, and the aftermath of the referendum and how all politics seems to be driven by that, and, outside of Scotland, that isn't happening at all. And so the levels of debate are very different. And the issues they're talking about in Scotland are very different to the issues talked about outside of Scotland as well, so, for example, in the media outside of Scotland, all the talk seems to be about the pound and about whether or not Scotland would be allowed to join the EU. No one I spoke to raised those issues at all. It was more about things like the bedroom tax, issues of social protection, the way that the welfare state was going. Would we in Scotland be able to preserve some of those precious things we've built up and fought for?

“The ship-yard workers speaking in the meeting I addressed with the Radical Independence Campaign... were talking about workers' rights and the right to a living wage and full employment and those kinds of questions. When you've been involved in Westminster scene politics, those issues haven't been talked about for many, many years. And so, to be able to be in a space where a different kind of politics is possible was very encouraging and very exciting indeed, even for somebody who's not actually a part of that country, I can see the possibilities for the rest of us who are outside of it.

And is she worried that Wales will be abandoned with a much bigger, Tory England?

“Well, things are moving in that direction anyway, if you look at the results of the European elections, there was a swing to the right, and the politics of austerity coming out of Westminster regardless of who is in control there is going to carry on. So, for us really, we are lucky to be in a position where we do have an alternative choice, just as they have an alternative choice in Scotland. And I think, if they vote yes in Scotland, people in Wales will look and see the possibilities and the opportunities that have arisen from Scotland becoming an independent country, and I think the support for more powers we are already able to evidence in the polls will increase, and people will begin to want to see us take control of our own affairs in Wales.

“And we've had an ongoing debate for quite some time about wanting to take control of energy powers and some taxation powers and the criminal justice system, and there have been two reports produced by the cross party Silk Commission to propose those powers and more and more people want those powers here in Wales. And if Scotland becomes independent, then people will be able to see how we'll be able to go beyond the powers offered by Silk. So, I see great opportunities from this, and, to be honest with you, the alternative is a downward trajectory for Wales really, I can't see how we can benefit from it.”

In a speech at University College London, Leanne explained that she wanted an independent Wales to be a member of a much more active British Isles Council – in effect, a confederation of the countries of these islands. I asked her what powers the council should have – on which areas (apart from currency) does she think the nations of these isles should collaborate?

“That's up for debate really” she shrugs “this is a debate that I'm keen for people in Wales to get to grips with and get engaged in... It should be the people who are sovereign in this.. Going through the process of having that debate, and going through the process of trying to create a constitution... if it's similar to what's going on in Scotland, should be something that is part of people's growing citizenship as well. And I'm keen to see people develop a much more solid citizens.”

In the same speech, she'd made the point that the Good Friday Agreement gives Northern Ireland's people sovereignty. The Edinburgh Agreement sets a similar president for Scotland. There's no such recognition for the rest of the UK. Is it really this sovereignty she's seeking for Wales?

“What I've advocated is for Wales now to move on from a system of devolution. Devolution's run it's course now, the system we have is not fit for purpose. So rather than tinkering with the edges, it's time to move from a system of devolution to a system of self government. In the 2016 Assembly elections, Plaid Cyrmu will be asking the people of Wales to give us a mandate to, through an auditing council in the same way as the Edinburgh Agreement was arrived at, to get that self governing position where the people can then decide what we want to share and what we want to decide for ourselves.”

This all seems much more gradualist than Scotland – the referendum north of the Tweed is happening because the SNP sought not a discussion about what powers should be where, but a referendum on independence. Is independence for Wales possible if Scotland votes no?

“Yes, I'd say it is possible. Our two countries are different countries and we're on two different stages of our journey, but I think that the direction of travel is clear. We're both going in the same direction, but I don't think the destiny of Wales is dependent on Scotland and I don't think Scotland's destiny is dependent on Wales. The people in each country will decide what they want to do. But I think it may well be that we arrive at our independence in a different way”.

One potential path to a significant increase in powers for Wales relies on Leanne's main political opponent. After the 18th, if it's a no vote, Carwyn Jones, the Labour First Minister of Wales, has said he wants to secure a UK constitution which includes a maximum level of devolution. If Ed Miliband's elected at Westminster, he'd be looking for friends in the Labour party. Carwyn Jones is currently the most powerful man in the Labour party, in terms of hard power. There's a picture you can paint of Jones securing from Miliband a codification of the powers of the various parliaments on these islands, including significantly more power. Is it plausible?

“I don't know, I don't know. We'll have to wait and see. I would prefer for us in Wales to develop our own written constitution to meet our needs, and I've put a proposal forwards that that should be driven by the people. I think we need to take these matters away from politicians actually, and put as much power as we can in the hands of the people, because that would then address the other issue, which is increasing apathy. And if you can encourage and create scenarios where people have a direct influence and voice in the way that politics is done, then I think you've got a greater chance of reducing political apathy really.”

This conversation is broader than Wales though, and I can't help but think that politics all across these islands could do with more leaders like Leanne Wood – or even more leadership from Leanne Wood. After the Scottish referendum there's going to have to be a major movement for serious constitutional change across all of the current UK, whatever the result. Plaid Cymru is, by electoral representation, the biggest radical party in Britain. Is she willing, I ask, to play a broader role?

“I've always been keen to ensure that channels of communication are open between progressives, the left, in England, and in Scotland as well, but also we work quite closely with the Greens in the European Parliament and Westminster... those conversations are already happening to some extent. I tend to think, generally, that people are best placed where they are to be the best deciders of their own destiny. So in terms of going over to England and telling people what I think they should do, that's not the way I tend to do politics. People should be empowered to arrive at their own conclusions and make politics happen for themselves.

“But of course, I will work with and support any progressive groups that see the world in the same way that Plaid Cymru sees it. There are many good reasons to work cross borders with other people who are of like mind with us. And it may well be... that in the event of a yes vote in Scotland, those relationships will actually improve because we'll be able to have a country that is developing a politics that is very different. Those metrics have already started to grow and develop and it could be that we'd be looking to our friends in Scotland for support with our politics at some point. But again, that would be in a spirit of co-operation as opposed to anybody telling anyone else what to do. People have to be empowered to self-determine.”

I'm not quite satisfied. Isn't there a question about leadership here? If we're looking for someone in the UK who is going to be able to lead that process, isn't Leanne the obvious person? I don't see why Wales shouldn't be at the centre of UK radical politics, and I don't see why Plaid Cymru couldn't be leading it.

“The danger” replies Leanne “has been that Wales has been a spectator nation. We've just been watching as Scotland's been doing its thing, and we need to be all in there, working on the basis of being a partner of equals with the others. And that's why the speech I gave in London was around trying to work out a way of ensuring, after September 18 that there was a forum for working out our shared goals and differences, because as 5% of the UK population, we are having our voices drowned out. And we need to be in a position, after September 18, to make sure that our voices are not lost.”

One particular concern she has is an in/out referendum on the EU. What if the UK (with or without Scotland) votes to leave, but Wales votes to stay in? I reply, weakly, that there are three bits of Denmark: the mainland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and only one of them's in the EU. Why shouldn't England leave and the rest stay? But it's a serious worry.

Moving on, I try to get deeper into her analysis of what's wrong at the moment: “what is the problem” I ask “the UK, or the British State?” - in other words, the country itself, or the way it's governance is arranged? It would have been easy for her to say both – after all, her party exists to end the UK. But she doesn't: “it's the British State isn't it? The British State is the problem.”

“And I think that the fact that power and wealth is concentrated in one very small part of that state where that wealth happens to be headquartered is the problem, because the decisions that are made tend to be in the interests of that one very small part of the state, the centre of the state. That's why decision making needs to be decentralised, and that's one of the reasons Plaid Cymru exists is to make that happen.

“I think that there's a danger in Wales and in Scotland of replicating the same problem and having all wealth and power concentrated in one city, whichever the country, is a bad idea. You have to make some serious concerted steps to ensure the redistribution of that wealth geographically and throughout the nation... Otherwise it will naturally tend to be sucked into the centre, unless you take steps to try and make it do something else...

“The principal of subsidiarity is to have decision making at the lowest level, and I would say Plaid Cymru would support that principle. In some cases that means having much stronger local authorities in some cases it would mean breaking down to below local authorities. We're very keen to see, for example, a very strong network of community based councils where there's maximum participation through street level organisation.... we're having the debate now about local government reorganisation and I'm certainly going to to ensure that the Plaid Cymru contribution to that debate is the small is beautiful mantra. And stronger community councils is something I'm going to be contributing to that, yes.”

Of course, the Scottish referendum isn't the only event coming up in UK politics. There's also the small matter of the UK general election. How many MPs should we expect Plaid to win? Her answer is cautious - “We have three at the moment”. Though she talks vaguely about potential gains, she is clearly trying not to hype it up. I push back a little. Plaid had a very good Assembly by-election up in Ynys Môn recently. She won't be facing Welsh Labour, who are pretty good at appealing to Welsh voters. She'll be up against Ed Miliband, who's more concerned about middle England than Mid-Wales. Does she relish facing him? Her response isn't particularly positive “I'd want to face them. The problem is that the broadcasters don't want us all to be on a platform together.”

Faced with these difficulties, what prospects are there for broader electoral collaboration? A year or two ago Wood gave a speech where she talked about progressives across the UK working together. She's the leader of the largest, by representation, radical party in Britain. What's she doing to make that sort of collaboration happen? “there would need to be a serious debate and a recognition of the right in Wales and Scotland to self-determination if something like a broad alliance in the terms that you're talking about could really work. Because I've just had experience over many many years of the British Left not being progressive on these questions to be frank with you.

“I've been really encouraged by some of the things that Billy Bragg has been saying recently I hope that his interventions can break the thinking of some sections who've been hostile towards the question of independence for Scotland and hostile to questions of devolution to Wales as well, but that situation is as it is. But unless that's resolved, I can't really see how I, or Plaid Cymru, or anyone else could hope to lead the kind of charge that you're talking about.

“What I really would like to happen is see those progressive forces come from England itself, and then we could work together on the basis of equals as opposed to any one country or people from one country dominating any other. We should be able to approach politics in a partnership of equality...

“I'm calling it the British Left deliberately, because it exists outside England, but there is definitely an attitude towards Scottish and Welsh devolution and self determination which in my view is problematic.

In the 1990s, Plaid Cymru collaborated with the Green Party – to the extent that the first Green MP was arguably not Caroline Lucas but Cynog Dafis, a joint candidate with Plaid. What prospects are there for the relationship being rekindled?

“I see a lot of sense in collaborating closely with the Green Party... I've had a number of conversations with the leader of the Greens in Wales around collaboration and I'm hoping we will be able to talk more and arrive at some sort of understanding for future elections, but it just seems, with a few minor differences, the platforms of the two parties are very similar, and it seems that the risk is that the vote will be split and the right will be victorious if we don't work more closely together.”

The Scottish referendum has opened a hole in the usually closely guarded political discourse of the UK and all manner of wonderful things have poured out. After September 18, the powerful will be desperate to close it up again. If we're going to stop them, people like Leanne Wood will become vital figures, and the British Left she was talking about is going to have to look at itself long and hard and asks if it wants to continue to squeeze her and her kind out, or if it would prefer to become irrelevant.

You can get Adam Ramsay's e-book "42 Reasons to Support Scottish Independence" here.

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