Monday, 26 November 2007

Defence of the Realm

Hopefully, the dust has settled enough by now to take a rather more objective view of the Plaid position paper on defence which was ‘leaked’ to the media before the party even had a chance to discuss it. The response by some was a little hysterical to say the least; one might almost think that challenging the basis on which defence policy should be built is another taboo subject.

As far as I can see there was nothing particularly new or radical in the paper; most of it seemed to be just repeating what Plaid had said over many years. In that context, my favourite response has to be that of Alun Davies AM - calling Jill Evans a 'nutter' for continuing to espouse a policy stance on which, as I recall, Davies himself fought elections in the past. Does that make him a lapsed nutter?

Anyway, I digress. There were really two aspects to what Evans wrote; the first was a restatement of the principles underpinning Plaid’s defence policy, and the second was a discussion of the Defence Training establishment at St Athans.

Plaid has a serious problem on the whole issue of defence, because they have to try and frame two different policies - one to deal with the way they would like to see an independent Wales behaving, and the other for the (what they would presumably see as interim) period until that point. Clashes and contradictions between these two policies are inevitable.

The soft option would be to frame only a very short term policy, and state that anything else is too far in the future to be worth even considering at this stage. It would avoid many of the contradictions, and enable the party to argue, perfectly naturally for a nationalist party, that Wales should have its fair share of military expenditure and jobs.

But that soft option would be a complete cop-out, and it is surely to the credit of Evans that she has been honest and open on the issue, and has stuck to her principles - something which so few politicians seem to be willing to do these days - rather than simply looking for a more populist position.

It is interesting that the responses all seemed to be attempting to ridicule Evans and her party rather than engage in serious debate. Neither Ireland nor Sweden, for instance (although both members of the EU) are part of NATO, and their miltary policies are geared largely to defence rather than offence – a position quite similar to what I understand that Evans was advocating. Anyone want to go to either of those countries and tell them that their defence policy is so utterly ludicrous that it doesn’t even merit serious debate? For a small independent country, it's a sensible position - surely there can be no great surprise that Plaid would come to similar conclusions.

But an independent Wales, if there is ever to be one, is far in the future; of more immediate significance, perhaps, is the issue of the Defence Training Academy at St Athans. Here we have a direct clash between the economic driver of getting more jobs and investment into the Welsh economy, and the deeply-held views of some people who oppose militarism. It was presented as a problem for Plaid. It certainly is; but it is also a problem for Labour. Perhaps Plaid's anti-militarist wing is more obvious, and stronger within that party, but the strength of similar feelings amongst many long-standing members of the Labour Party should not be underestimated either.

It is a mistake to turn this into a purely party political issue, with the different parties merely trying to score points. There are some serious questions to be answered about the extent to which we want jobs at any price. There are questions about the involvement of companies that are involved in the arms trade, and there are certainly questions to be asked about the training of soldiers for countries whose regimes use their military forces for internal oppression.

Evans and Plaid have raised legitimate concerns; they deserve to be debated, not dismissed. The suggestions, which some appeared to be making, that we cannot afford to even discuss these issues for fear of losing the jobs, or that to even ask such questions is somehow undermining ‘our boys’ is little more than an unworthy attempt to suppress an important debate.


Valleys Mam said...

hear hear - we need to know firstly, what jobs are coming and what are being transfered , how many have disappeared since the MoD has decided not to transfer elements of training to Sr Athan.Also the cost per job to us the tax payers. This location is not an unemployment blackspot is it ?
There are also questions of capital build and housing to be looked at.
Wales and our stance on the military is another area for debate.
May be one of the think tanks,IWA or Bevan could organise some events around this topic.
I have also been told that it is only a issue in the Vale of Glamorgan. Is this true? How much money was spent making the case for the project to go to St Athan ; Cosford spent an arm and leg making thier case.
You are right Ceredig, open informed debate would be a bonus on this one.

Normal Mouth said...

I wouldn't be detained by anything Alun Davies says - about anything. His op-ed on the convention had to be one of the most vacuous thought pieces I've read for a long time.

Jill Evans is, as you hint, articulating a position of pacifism as old as Plaid itself. What is perhaps most notable therefore is not the Pavlovian replies of the party's opponents but how swiftly the party itself knocked back the paper. The pragmatism that has brought Plaid this far is beginning to change the party. Government will change it still further.

Of course it would be feasible for an independent Wales to adopt the same sort of defence policy as Ireland. But she could also just as easily join NATO, contribute to UN peace-keeping operations and play a full role in global security. That is not a daft outcome, either.

It may be that some in PC recognise this, and see that path as a way to reconcile the difficulty you identify. And, as a rather big bonus, they get to keep on supporting St Athan.

Deeply held commitments are great things to have, but several thousand jobs and a coherent policy may be better. Wasn't it Mario Cuomo who declared "we campaign in poetry but govern in prose"?

Ceredig said...


Yes, there are certainly questions to be answered. I haven't a clue how many of the jobs are available to people in the area, and how many come with incumbents, and as you say, we should know that.

There are plenty of people - in more than one party - who have deep religious or other convictions against militarisation, and it is a viewpoint which deserves to be heard not ridiculed.


Your comment on Mr Davies looks more than a little prescient in the light of this morning's little outburst from him - inside knowledge?

I agree with you, of course, that it would be equally feasible for an independent Wales to join NATO. Either viewpoint is perfectly sustainable - but more importantly, neither can be simply dismissed as risible in the way some have attempted to do.

Even more significantly, the debate about NATO, nuclear weapons etc. isn't necessarily connected with the debate about the constitutional status of Wales at all. The anti-NATO pro-CND viewpoint may be significantly more prevalent within Plaid than within Labour, but it isn't unique to Plaid. And it is perfectly possible to take a pacifist stance and still oppose independence or even devolution.

It wasn't my interpretation, by the way, that Plaid 'knocked back the paper'; and I don't think that there is any likelihood at this stage of Plaid changing its stance on defence issues in general. As long as Defence remains an undevolved issue (i.e. for the foreseeable future!), Plaid's presence in a devolved government will not lead to change in that area. Which means that issues like St Athan will continue to be challenging for them.

Normal Mouth said...

inside knowledge?

Past form.

I wasn't clear about the whole Plaid in government thing. I don't say that their participation in a devolved government obliges them to take a new position on a reserved matter. The change is more subtle and cultural. Plaid are changing from a radical, oppositionalist protest group into a pragmatic, mainstream party of government. a dilution of their pacifism would merey be another sign of that transformation.


Ceredig said...


"Plaid are changing ... into a pragmatic mainstream party of government".

So it would seem. It looks to me though that this is something which is being imposed by the leadership with no real discussion amongst the membership. So far, the leadership have got away with it, which I have to admit has been something of a surprise to me. How long that will last, especially as more and more 'difficult' issues, such as St Athan and the budget settlement, crop up remains to be seen.

Labour have lived with an internal Socialist rump for years, which has managed to rationalise its toleration of the leadership's jettisoning of a number of policy positions which are dear to them. Will Plaid evolve in the same way, or will there be a breakaway at some point? I don't think that the answer is at all clear yet, but I think that there are more tensions bubbling away than are immediately obvious.

hafod said...

Alun Davies probably doesn't realise that calling Jill Evans a nutter is libel (the spoken word on radio is the equivalent of the printed word). I doubt that knowledge will rein him in as he plays his role as Labour's Fottweiler but maybe a writ will.

NM - I think you're mistaken to say that Plaid's NC knocked back the paper. They amended it. The BBC report was wrong.

Normal Mouth said...

They amended it. The BBC report was wrong.

So what was the outcome?

Ceredig said...

I agree with Hafod - I also heard that the paper was not 'knocked back'. But I don't have a copy of what was actually agreed - can Hafod (or anyone else) oblige?