Leanne Wood AM has been the leader of Plaid Cymru since 2012. She took the time to speak to Bella about the state of the Welsh independence movement, the importance of Scotland beyond its borders and her concerns as an internationalist. Interview by J Simon Jones.
What brings you to Scotland?
I’ve come to Scotland to be part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth games, on the invite of the FM, and I’m also doing a public meeting tonight with the Radical Independence Campaign as part of the wider Yes campaign. I’ve come to Scotland a number of times and Nicola Sturgeon has come to Wales as well-I’m going to do whatever I can to support the campaign!
There’s a crossover, with people in Scotland and Wales becoming interested in each other’s movements-what’s the state of the movement in Wales?
I think the fact that there’s going to be a referendum on September the 18th opens up politics throughout the United Kingdom. I’m not going to tell people what to do but rather to consider the implications of a Yes vote for Wales. I see an opportunity for the centre of gravity of politics-which has been in London for such a long time-to move outside of London. The argument we’ve heard, for the last 30 years, the neoliberal consensus in London, has pushed that there is no alternative to that consensus. What the Independence debate in Scotland is showing me is that there very much is an alternative, and if there’s a Yes vote here then that alternative is something that could be available throughout the UK.
You mention neoliberalism-one of the interesting things about Plaid is that it’s much more overtly left wing than the SNP, do you think the antidote to neoliberalism is a socialist country?
It could be. I think what’s interesting about events here is that they’re opening up the alternative to the consensus which has said that privatisation is good. In Scotland we can see that the health service, like in Wales, has remained in public hands. In England it’s moving more towards privatisation. If we look at tuition fees-students in England pay £9,000, students in Scotland study for free and students in Wales make a contribution to their fees but they don’t pay the full whack. We’ve already seen in devolution that there’s been a divergence in policy between Scotland and Wales and England. In Scotland and Wales policy has been to the left of that in England. There’s already a difference of opinion within the different countries and I see that difference growing over time.
Do you imagine that the next step for Wales could be full independence?
I’ve argued that the next stage for Wales must be self government. We’ve reached the point where devolution in Wales has run its course-the settlement we have in Wales is not fit for purpose and there’s general consensus about that. The next step now, and the position Plaid will be putting forward in the 2016 election, is for us to have a mandate to move towards a system of self government whereby people in Wales decide what powers to hold and what powers to share with the other countries which make up the United Kingdom.
We have to build our economy-we have a problem in the Welsh economy in that we’re part of an economic system which doesn’t act in the interests of people in Wales. Getting more power over the economic levers-taxation in particular and powers over energy, is the next step for us. As I see it if we can build our economy and get strength in our economy there will be more support for greater autonomy in Wales, too.
One of the things to have come out of the campaign here is disenchantment with the Labour party. How do you find the political climate in Wales? Could there be sympathy ‘across the aisle’?
Certainly in Wales, and especially the part of Wales that I’m from, the valleys-the former coal field-the general consensus is that we don’t want to live under Conservative rule. At the end of the day if people want to live under Conservative rule and to live under a government that they haven’t actually voted for – the only alternative is to be an independent country. The longer this politics of austerity goes on, and the longer there are cuts to the benefits system, the longer we’re talking about Trident replacement the more people will want to develop a politics which isn’t that.
No campaigners have said of the Yes campaign up here that it’s insular-you’re the first leader of Plaid not to be a native speaker of Welsh, is insularism something you’ve encountered?
No, you’re right-I’m a Welsh learner. I think people are very encouraged and see it demonstrates my support for the Welsh language. Welsh speakers make up around 20% of the Welsh population, so there is a very large number of people who, for one reason or another, don’t have the Welsh language.
We have to speak to people of all communities in Wales-I’ve been involved in a Leaders’ Tour, doing a series of public meetings across the country and I’ve seen lots of support for the kind of politics we’re putting forward. We have grown members in parts of the country which haven’t traditionally voted Plaid before-I’m confident that as time goes on Plaid Cymru will be putting down roots in parts of the country which we haven’t done to date.
What do you say to people who say “I’m an internationalist-I don’t see the sense in voting for a nationalist enterprise”?
I would consider myself to be an internationalist as well and I don’t see any contradiction between being concerned and caring and looking with compassion at the situation people face in other countries, and wanting to better your own. I think the two go hand in hand.
There are parts of the campaign here which have been focussed on women, is that something you’ve been involved in yourself?
I’m going to an event with Nicola Sturgeon-a women’s networking event. Speaking to women, not only about nationalist politics but about politics in general is something that all parties need to be think seriously about. Generally more women need to be involved in active politics-in being prepared to stand in elections-and I think political parties and campaign groups need to do a lot more to speak to women on their own terms. Anything I can do in Scotland to help on that agenda I’ll be more than happy to do-democratic politics has to involve everyone in it.
The SNP have suggested they would be interested in keeping the Queen as a head of state, what are your thoughts on the future of the monarchy in an independent Wales?
Well I’m a republican, but I’m also quite concerned to ensure the two issues are separate. If you’re going to focus on an independence campaign with a referendum you have to be really clear that that’s what it’s about-I understand why the SNP have taken the approach they have. If they’re successful there could be referendum on this issue in the future. I could see Wales going the same way and in that event I know which side I’d be on.
If there is a Yes vote how do you see that impacting on Wales?
I think it has the opportunity to open things out; economically, politically and socially. The fact that politics in Scotland is looking towards the Scandinavian countries to see how they operate their welfare state policies is very interesting. The opportunity for alternative politics, which isn’t the London-centric neo-liberal politics we’ve been subjected to for 30 years, is something that’s really exciting for those of us outside of Scotland. The economic opportunities for Scotland to be a new trading partner with Wales, that’s exciting too. The alternative is just to carry on with austerity politics-far too many people in Wales are losing out under that. To be able to point to some other part of what’s currently the UK, doing things differently, will greatly help Wales in that respect.
What would a No vote mean? Would these movements dissipate?
I don’t know, but from what I can see from the outside it looks to me as if this campaign has opened up something new, fresh and exciting. The genie’s out of the bottle-even in the event of a No vote that can’t be put back. People have already had a taste of discussing the kind of society they want to live in-they’re not going to stop having that debate after September the 18th.
Welsh independence is sometimes put down as a pipe dream-do you think Welsh independence can be realised?
Yes I do! My response to that is that there was a point in time, not so long ago, when many people would have thought the same about Scotland. Things can change very quickly!