The more that Plaid Ministers Ieuan Wyn Jones and Rhodri Glyn Thomas adapt to their new roles, the more I find my mind drifting to the closing words of Animal Farm. The talk is of ‘making a difference’, but the actions seem increasingly indistinguishable from those of their Labour colleagues - or those of the previous government.
Perhaps there is a degree of inevitability about this. The Establishment hugs them close, wraps them in layers of protection from the cruel world outside, and ensures that they get as high a proportion as possible of their information and feedback from those whose whole instinct is continuity rather than change. There is also a good dose of sycophancy thrown in for good measure.
There is definitely a sense of a ‘village’ around any elected institution – whether it be the House of Commons, the National Assembly, or any other body. Within that village people get very excited about things that pass most of the rest of us by; they become exercised about the remotest suggestion of a slight, whether real or imagined, and worst of all, they start to believe that their world is the 'real' one, and that their actions and words have considerably more influence and impact than is actually the case. If that's true for all the elected members, it’s even truer in the case of those elevated to ministerial positions.
It was in this context that I read the words of Ieuan Wyn Jones in yesterday’s Western Mail. One should always be cautious in interpreting the words of politicians, of course. That is especially so in the case of Jones, who has shown an ability in the past to lead people to think that he's said something that he hasn't. But when he says:
"Oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them. What people will judge us on is delivery.",
I think he actually means what he is saying. His strategy is to show that Plaid can deliver in government, and expect that people will then support the party as a result. Leaving aside the question as to whether he really wants the ‘government’ (rather than his party) to win the next election, I believe he’s got it wrong, for two main reasons.
Firstly, where is the evidence that people will vote for a party which shows it can deliver? People vote for all sorts of different reasons, many of which are absolutely nothing to do with how well or badly the government has performed. And most of the factors are outside the control of any government. The words of Macmillan spring to mind – “Events, dear boy. Events”.
Secondly, even if it were true, then what people would be voting on is not an objective assessment of how well the government has performed, but on their perception of the government’s performance. Jones clearly believes that he can demonstrate a level of competence in government which will create that perception; but most of the electorate start from the belief that ‘competent politician’ is an oxymoron. That’s a lot of cynicism to overcome.
All governments and politicians believe that they are doing a good job and they all believe that they are making a difference. The difference that they actually make is always less than they think it is – it comes back to my earlier point that they believe their words and actions are of greater import than is really the case.
Immediately after the Assembly elections, Jones and his party did their best to propel the Tories into power in Wales. There is a serious danger that a strategy which depends primarily or entirely on convincing people that the government has performed well will finish the job.