Perhaps more than most parties of the centre-left in Britain, Plaid Cymru can trace its political origins in nineteenth-century liberalism. Back then, of course, the self-proclaimed “Party of Wales” really was the Liberal Party and members both idolised William Gladstone and wished he’d have hurried up with home rule all-round. Although founded and initially dominated by those with more difficult political tendencies, being polite about it, from the Second World War until about the late-1970s, Plaid Cymru was a modern-day alternative Liberal Party. In places where the Liberals had all-but disappeared Plaid did well amongst that cohort of the electorate, and in places where the Liberals remained relatively strong, the nationalists struggled to find a definable purpose. The difference is easily explained by reference to two neighbours: Merthyr Tydfil, on the one hand, which had Wales’s first majority Plaid Cymru council between 1976 and 1979; and Pontypridd, on the other, which has rarely been politically bothered by the nationalists. Or, to put it in more direct terms, Gwynfor Evans’s victory in Carmarthen in 1966 was not so much the nationalist dawn as the southern heir to the Lloyd George political mantle seizing it. Gwynfor Evans was what Gwilym Lloyd George might have been if he wasn’t quite so Tory. But then he became Home Secretary – a job which also involved being Minister for Welsh Affairs – and neither Megan Lloyd George nor her ideological (and actual) successor Gwynfor Evans got much further than the backbenches of the Palace of Westminster.
This strong relationship between the Liberals (subsequently the Liberal Democrats) and Plaid Cymru is commonly regarded and has been a function of local government politics for many years. In the early 1990s, Taff Ely Borough Council was run by a Liberal Democrat-Plaid Cymru coalition; a similar coalition governed Cardiff between 2008 and 2012. As Parker reflects, ‘were you to compare the Plaid and LibDem manifestoes over the past few decades, you’d find greater cross-over between them than probably any other two parties’ (p. 241). The curious thing about Ceredigion, however, the only place in the country where this can be said, is just how sharp the contest between Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats is. It is tribal, akin to the fierce struggles between the Labour Party and the Communist Party in, say, the Rhondda Fach in the 1930s. One party sees itself as the grand old man, the other the plucky upstart with modern ideas aplenty. There are few stranger places to be than on the fault line between two very similar political forces, the differences end up amplified out of all proportion out of perceived necessity. All of this is, of course, a means of introducing Mike Parker’s illuminating diary of the 2015 General Election, when he had the fortune to be Plaid Cymru’s candidate on that fault line.
This is a rich book that sheds significant light on the nature of Plaid Cymru as a political force in the second decade of the twenty-first century, together with some Caradoc Evans-esque asides about the quirks of Ceredigion life, and more fundamentally about the functions of bilingualism. Given what happened in the 2015 election campaign, there is also a considerable amount of space devoted to the quality of print and broadcast media. For me, there are also a few ironic contradictions in the book too, which perhaps reflect the curious portrait that Welsh politics offers upon being painted. The first concerns language, which I’ve already mentioned as a theme, the second the politics of disappointment and let down (that is, of the Labour Party). If, at times, Parker is a little too willing to repeat the shrill (and, to be honest, lazy) anti-Labour rhetoric that Plaid has honed for decades, it is equally clear that he is no mere parrot of that particular nationalist parlour game. His real antipathy – at least as demonstrated on these pages – is not to Labour per se (he was, after all, a Labour activist in the late-eighties and early nineties) but to the suits and ties dishonesty of the machine and the anti-democratic consequences of a machine that wipes out its opponents and fails to live up to its purpose. New Labour on the one hand; Welsh Labour (and, if I read between the lines correctly, possibly the SNP) on the other.
Parker’s antagonism to that way of politicking ends up directed squarely at Huw Thomas, the Labour candidate in Ceredigion in 2015. He does so because Thomas, in the portrait offered, represents New Labour Cymru: a willing adoptee of the suit, the slogans, and the ambition. I’ll leave aside the dig at leaving Wales to study at Oxford University which is slotted in as well since…erm…Oriel College, 2004-2007 yma – we were contemporaries there. This frustration with the New Labour machine is often expressed by those who had lived through the 1980s in continual expectation that a Labour government would bring about truly radical change only to have it collapse into banal Blairism, and it is entirely understandable. Which is why I suggest that, to some degree, perhaps given his earlier allegiances, Parker does rise above the generic Plaid hatred of Labour. Because, assuredly, Plaid does hate Labour. The old Communist Party, a largely left-nationalist force in Wales in the 1960s and 1970s, used to argue that the eradication of Labour was Plaid’s only real goal. It’s an assessment that I have quite a lot of sympathy with, needless to say. Nevertheless, the harshness of Parker’s portrait of the Labour Party is ironic in a book which was prompted by the viciousness of Liberal Democrat electoral activity. The hardest punches are aimed at the red bag, not the yellow one. For all this, the book still ends with a jocular nod to New Labour, Tony Blair’s words spoken on 2 May 1997 providing consolation to one of the few candidates to lose to a Liberal Democrat in May 2015.
Parker has more difficulty on the question of language relations. In the county that saw the first direct action campaigns by Cymdeithas yr Iaith in the 1960s and which has often had to absorb monoglot in-migration, the language question remains absolutely, and understandably, a fraught issue. Parker is clearly an advocate. He is a migrant from the English Midlands who has learned to speak Welsh; he conducted hustings and press engagements in the language; and like many learners admits to his own sense of frustration when the ail iaith lends itself to less rhetorical strength than his native English. But he is nuanced, too, and recognises the need for pragmatism. Enforced bilingualism, as he notes, grates and leads to the unhappy situation of lazy apathy on the one hand and over-saturation of the same information on the other. Always pressed by those who want more and more and more Welsh, something which impacts on Leanne Wood as well, as Parker demonstrates, at times in the diary he snaps and takes a leap from pragmatism to a harsher perspective – that the language is all too readily allowed to mask far more fundamental issues like the rise of food banks and the crippling effects of small-town and rural poverty on Ceredigion. The real enemy is not the thin tongue but the material consequences of capitalism.
It’s just a bit of a shame that the relationship between this facet of Ceredigion was never connected up to (what otherwise is a throw-away comment) ‘Labour wastelands’. Clearly this is not the right book to ponder these competing forces in any great depth, but it does show just how weak political economy is in Wales. They are the same forces that underpin those ‘wastelands’, where antipathy to Thatcher, nostalgic reference to the miners’ strike, and so on, fuels a politics of distorted priorities. Labour talks up the nation, and blames Westminster, but never willingly or meaningfully discusses material inequalities; Plaid Cymru, likewise, talks up the language but never gets to grips with its material antagonist. It was not always this way. During the miners’ strike itself, the Welsh Language movement picked up an old slogan attributed to Goronwy Roberts, the Labour MP for Caernarfon, and ran with it: heb gwaith dim iaith. Without work, there is no language. But back then, the party was led by Dafydd Elis Thomas, whose activism earned him the moniker MP for the Miners, and whose Marxist tendencies in the 1970s and early 1980s were well regarded by whole swathes of the Welsh Left. I’m sure many hoped – and perhaps believe – that Leanne Wood’s election as leader of Plaid Cymru would engender something of a return to this kind of politics. It hasn’t happened, though.
Plaid’s failure to really grasp the opportunity to revitalise a post-Marxian mode of politics is clearly something that frustrates Parker. There’s the overwhelming emphasis in the party on the local – used consistently in Ynys Mon, Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire, Llanelli, Montgomeryshire, and the Rhondda (of course!) – which runs up against Parker’s selection as candidate. ‘Well that’s not going to work for my campaign’, he observes, a comment which is clearly ignored by Elin Jones, the Plaid Cymru AM for Ceredigion. If there is anyone who comes off badly in this book, it is clearly Jones. I must confess to finding it very difficult to warm to her in any case, so perhaps this is a consequence of my own ill ease, but there is something quite off putting at the individual who emerges from the pages of The Greasy Poll. And it chimes very much with the Elin Jones I’ve seen upfront at a trade union rally in Aberystwyth and the one that emerges from Assembly proceedings. Certainly one effect of reading The Greasy Poll is to amplify my dislike! Jones revels, seemingly, in the local and makes much of it. To some extent it’s almost Mafioso. But she’s also a willing embracer of machine politics, the discomfort that’s evident when on her determination a newsletter splashes about local health matters (a devolved issue) not something related to parliamentary politics is palpable. It’s never as bad as New Labour Cymru, but the early warning alarm is clearly being raised here.
There are warnings, too, about dancing the reels. That is, following too closely the model of politics laid out by the Scottish National Party, which Parker sees as being somewhat akin to Plaid’s habit in the 1980s (and it’s still prevalent in certain circles) of tacking a bit too closely to the Irish model. He doesn’t say this, but it’s worth adding, that heaving to the Irish model of nationalism is something that has afflicted Wales since the Home Rule debates of the nineteenth century. It’s a Liberal hangover. But back to Parker, whose wise words on Scotland are these:
Plenty to be inspired by, for sure, but plenty to be quizzical about too – the readiness of supposedly green politicians to stake their all on fossil fuels, for starters; or the pungent stench of the SNP cosying up to Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch (p. 146)
Not, I don’t suppose, music to the ears of those at the top of the party who have made it their aim to find the essence of SNP success, distil it, and ship it back to Cardiff Bay by the bucket load. Compare all of this mimicry and cyclostyling with the real titans of nationalist politics in Wales, all of whom appear in The Greasy Poll, and all stressed a uniquely Welsh model of political activism in their different ways: Dafydd Wigley, Dafydd Elis Thomas, and Cynog Dafis.
Modern Welsh politics is certainly not helped by the flimsy nature of modern Welsh journalism, the vacuum is very badly filled by social media, and there is no more obvious example of that than the events which dominate the final couple of chapters of this book. Back in 2001, Mike Parker published an article in the journal Planet discussing in-migration into rural Wales and the reasons why people moved. Like many who scratch beneath the surface, it didn’t take him long to learn one of the more acidic answers – to escape the multicultural environment of the large English cities, and especially Birmingham. Former colleagues of mine have expressed these sentiments to me, it was evident in the experiences of those campaign for a Yes vote in the recent EU referendum (locals in favour, in-migrants generally not), and it is hardly a recent phenomenon. Much has been made of the Brexit vote in the South Wales Valleys, but it is a bit too convenient to disregard the existence of similar sentiments in mid and North-West Wales. It is also to ignore why the 2015 general election was so controversial in Ceredigion in the first place. At its core was not Parker’s article but the blatant manner in which the Cambrian News treated its contents. Those who know the history of the newspaper know it has no pretence to objectivity – it was, and remains, a Liberal mouthpiece – but what it did was especially shocking. This intervention may not have completely altered the election, but it certainly was less narrow a LibDem victory than it ought to have been.
Before closing I want to reflect on one quite subtle theme that runs through The Greasy Poll: homophobia. Reading and re-reading the book, I’m struck by an alternative title – One Ring. I refer, of course, to Parker’s ill-fated ear-ring which gets banished after a few too many ‘you know the only thing is…’. In especially vulnerable moments, it’s clear that this simple piece of jewellery is used in a similar way to winks and nods and ‘one of them’ jibes. Only in the latter stages of the book does the homophobia become overt. ‘I have heard’, he writes on page 224, ‘a few toe-curling things fed back from canvassers, of some people saying that they’d never vote for a bloody queer’. Politics is (always) personal. Welsh politics is increasingly cleaved between nation and union (albeit far less so than Scotland or Northern Ireland) and as a consequence a whole spectrum of other issues are pushed out of public discourse. Sexuality, gender, race, and above all class, are squeezed out in a political system that has built its foundations on blame: blame Westminster, blame the Tories, blame the thin tongue or the other one, blame immigrants. In short, blame everything and do little about the root material causes of inequality.
The Greasy Poll is, then, a book that prompts curiosity and which successfully lays down a challenge to Welsh politicians of all colours and convictions, to the media, to engaged sections of the electorate, and to commentators. This is not a book that should make anyone feel comfortable – except possibly Daniel Thompson, the similarly English-born Green Party candidate in Ceredigion for whom Parker has warm regard. If there are moments where I would raise serious objections, such as the throwaway about ‘Labour wastelands’ and the overly harsh portrait of Labour (relative to the LibDems who surely deserve it here?), or wish that connections had been made that are evidently there, and need to be made going forward (oops, there’s that phrase), there are plenty more where I nod away in complete agreement. And in the end The Greasy Poll asks us all to think more about the nature of the debates we have on language, on inequality, on poverty and social injustice, on the very purpose of politics itself. It asks us to look beyond the machine, to try and find that the things that, in the darkness of austerity, can bind us all together in unity. Things can only get better.