Plaid was tested in government and was not found wanting


As he prepares to stand down as party leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones reflects his time at the forefront of Welsh politics as he writes for today's Western Mail

The resounding Yes vote in the referendum on the 4th March 2011 was without doubt the pinnacle of my career in public life. Even though some have argued that the referendum was on a narrow question, the scale of the result showed that Wales was a more confident nation than in 1997 when the referendum was secured on the narrowest of margins.

Two months after that famous March day, Plaid lost four seats in the Assembly election. Some have attempted to spin the result as a catastrophe for us as a party. That verdict for me is wide of the mark. History shows that the smaller party in a coalition can be all but wiped out following their venture into government: we certainly avoided that fate.

However you choose to weigh-up the levels of success and failure at the election, I believe that Plaid Cymru is much stronger having had the experience of being in government.

For me, the real test of us as a political party was whether we would be ready to take the responsibility of governing our nation. Some in the party had argued, with great sincerity and passion that Plaid’s mission in life was to act as a lightning conductor for other parties, primarily Labour to transfer power from London to Cardiff.

But devolution changed all that, and Plaid had to become a real political party or die.

When I became party leader in 2000, the party needed to face immense challenges. I readily admit that I made some early mistakes as the party moved from being a party of opposition to a position that we could be part of a Welsh Government.

Labour’s decision to govern on their own between 2003 and 2007 was, in retrospect, a lifeline for us. It forced us to become a responsible opposition and a party that could be trusted to take key decisions in the interests of Wales. This was a step the party needed to take to persuade the voters that Plaid was ready to govern if called upon.

Despite the fact that some people saw us as a party dedicated only to the constitutional advancement of Wales, we had detailed policies on bread and butter issues in health, education, the environment, the economy, transport and so on. This was our chance to put that into practice, and to prove to people that we had more than one string to our bow.

When the coalition with Labour was formed in July 2007, I was immensely privileged to be the first Plaid politician in history to be a Minister in a Welsh Government. But the kudos of reaching that position didn’t really register at the time. We were too preoccupied with what was to come. Being in government is one thing, making it work is quite another!

I think I can safely say that most people regarded the One Wales government as a great success. My colleagues as Plaid Ministers achieved a great deal, supported by a united party. Plaid was tested in government and was not found wanting.

I knew that the 2006 plans to give us law making powers with the consent of Westminster were going to be highly problematic. I insisted that a referendum on law making powers had to be one of the cornerstones of the agreement that formed the One Wales government.

I can now say that the wording of the commitment to the referendum in One Wales went through many iterations and the drafting process became quite tortuous and arduous. Nevertheless, agreement was reached.

Despite occasional noises off in Westminster and apparent attempts by Labour there to derail the whole idea, we refused to let it go! The referendum would not have happened without the presence of Plaid in government. We can rightly claim the credit for that.

Since May, Labour has adopted a minimalist approach to everything, including the issue of fair funding and the need to transfer more responsibilities to Wales, such as over the police, energy and broadcasting.

Labour has also failed to set out a clear programme on most key policy areas and despite health accounting for over 40% of the Welsh budget, we have no idea how the new Welsh Government intends to tackle the big issues including improving access to health care and the lengthening waiting lists. Were it not for the many announcements of the Education Minister, the government’s policy programme would be totally bare.

Plaid will remain focussed, as we were during our term in government, not to let Labour sit back and ignore the challenges Wales faces. After all, the reason we exist as a party is to make life better for the people of our nation.

In my view the current period in Welsh politics will also provide an opportunity for Plaid to renew and reinvigorate itself. This needs to be a done now, as I am confident that Plaid will be needed to provide the progressive drive for a future coalition whenever called upon to do.

I will be stepping down as party leader in the next few months, confident in the knowledge that there is no turning back for Plaid Cymru. Under a new leader, we will continue to grow as a political force for good, and take Wales forward.