During a day in which a host of Plaid politicians took to the airwaves to condemn the latest remarks by Peter Hain, David Cornock asked the simple question – what is so surprising about a politician expressing a consistent viewpoint? It’s a fair question, and deserves an answer.
I think that there were two aspects of Hain’s latest remarks which provoked the ire of Plaid on this occasion.
The first was the timing. Hain’s previous statements were mostly made before or around the time of the discussions on One Wales, and could have been dismissed as the views of an individual being input to the debate. This weekend’s comments were made within days of the joint announcements by Rhodri Morgan and Ieuan Wyn Jones that a Chair had been appointed to the Convention, that the referendum would be held on or before the date of the next Assembly elections and that there was, as Morgan put it, "no reason to depart from that commitment". Seen in that context, Hain’s comments looked like a deliberate attempt to sabotage or undermine the decision of the Assembly Government.
The second was the implicit threat that Westminster would use its veto to block a referendum, regardless of any decision in Cardiff. The provision in the Government of Wales Act that there needed to be a two-thirds majority in the Assembly before a referendum could be triggered was always intended to make it difficult for the Assembly to act; and impossible without the backing of Labour. The requirement for a vote in Westminster was a backstop, but not really expected to be necessary, since it would inevitably involve over-riding the views of the Assembly. Paradoxically, when it is now clear that there is easily a two-thirds majority – with probably 50 plus of the 60 AM's voting for, and only Tories (most of them anyway) voting against – in the Assembly for taking this step, it makes it much more serious for Westminster to resist the will of Cardiff on this issue. Yet that seemed to be exactly what Hain was saying he would do.
Normal Mouth is always thoughtful in his analysis, and I frequently find myself in agreement with him, but on this occasion, by referring to Plaid synthesising a ‘toxic level of anger’, I think he’s got it wrong. In signing up to One Wales after a special conference of the Labour Party agreed by 4:1, and a special meeting of Plaid’s National Council agreed by 9:1, I think that Plaid thought that they had an agreement between the two parties, not just between the AM’s of both parties. They always knew that it didn’t apply to reserved matters, or local government matters, but they expected that it would apply to the key elements of One Wales.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the agreement to hold a referendum in getting Plaid’s support for One Wales, and in that context, a statement from someone as prominent as Hain in the Labour Party implying that Labour would use its majority in London to block the proposal by the One Wales government is inevitably raising concern within Plaid as to whether Labour are serious about the commitment which they gave.
Plaid will have two concerns at this point. The first is that they could be duped into supporting the One Wales government for four years on the basis of a false prospectus. If Labour aren't serious about their commitment, Plaid will want to know that now, rather than later. The second is that Plaid's membership may start to become restless about the deal. In this context, I found it significant that Plaid's Chair was amongst those deployed yesterday. They usually only wheel Dixon out to talk about internal party issues; I suspect that this signifies that at least some in Plaid's high command are concerned about a possible internal challenge to the agreement - and indeed Adam Price seemed to be saying as much yesterday.
Of course, Hain and some of those who jumped to his support have genuine concerns. If those concerns are about the winnability of any referendum rather than about patching over the cracks in the Labour Party, they are valid even within the context of the One Wales agreement. Those concerns should properly be considered and discussed through the Convention - on that at least I agree with Normal Mouth.
But by engaging in megaphone discussions, and threatening to use the gunboat to get his own way, Hain went a step too far. Certainly, Plaid need to show a little more understanding of the difficulties within the Labour Party, and not necessarily try and exploit them on each and every occasion (although if Labour really do present them with open goals…); but Labour also need to understand the importance and significance of this issue for Plaid’s support. This is not just a policy issue within One Wales where changed circumstances might need a degree of flexibility; this is a fundamental pillar of the agreement, and it appeared that Hain was proposing that it could be over-ridden.
I suspect that Plaid don’t really need a formal and public humiliation of Hain by Rhodri Morgan, whatever they may say. But they do need much more confidence that the Labour Party, not just Labour AM’s, feel some ownership of One Wales and the commitments therein. Labour will be making a serious mistake if they don’t respond to that.