Adam Price’s Blog

The Blog of Adam Price AS/MP, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

Adam Price MP / AS - Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

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14th September 2009

Conference Speech

Conference, as we face a new decade in politics my mind turns to how, for me, this decade began. On a clear June morning in 2001 when a trusty band of foot-soldiers had gathered to accompany the new MP for Carmarthen East and Dynevor to London for the very first time. Like Gwynfor all those years ago, though we were going by bus not by train, and they didn’t name it after me. Some of them are in the hall today, others are watching at home, and I would like to say a personal thank you to Cynlais Evans, unable to be with us today because of illness, but who with his wife Sian has given decades of tireless work for the party. Diolch yn fawr.

We met at dawn in the village of Ferryside. A fitting choice, looking back, the home of Hugh Williams. That good country solicitor and chartist, some even say the instigator of what came to be known as the Rebecca Riots, but we know as the Rebecca Rising. In 1839, the year of that other rising in Newport , he published a volume of National songs which included these sterling words by the Tycroes poet Thomas Jenkins: “Sons of Cambria, come arise, and no longer be serfs and slaves. Burst your shackles and be free, sons of Cambria follow me”. The ‘me’ in the text is Liberty, the one thing this nation has lacked longest and needed most , the noblest of all human aspirations: the desire to be free. Free with yourselves, free to speak your language, to celebrate our culture. Free from poverty and disease. Free to live in peace. Free to shape our own future, to make our own mistakes and claim our own successes. Free from the shadow of Westminster, that was awaiting us that fine June day.

In the first few days I was in the House Of Commons, before I even gave my maiden speech, I remember Tom McAvoy , a gruff but affable Glaswegian, beckoning me over in the members lobby and taking me up to the booth in the Palace Of Westminster. And as he pointed, full of reverence to St Pauls and Lambeth Palace and the Treasury Building with Big Ben towering over us he said “This, Adam, is why I am a Unionist, proud to be British”. Now I’m sure all this was intended as an act of kindness to a new member, but for a moment I had flashbacks : half digested Sunday-school tales of the devil tempting Christ mixed in with the murder scene at the end of House Of Cards. I made my excuses and left. That the Labour Party should try and recruit me is a complement of sorts I suppose. They thought I was a prodigal son. Now I think they would be a little less charitable and probably question my legitimacy . Baroness Gale of Blaenrhondda, a name to conjure with if there ever was, has often over the years asked me in a voice a seductive as the sexy temptress Gossamer Beynon in Under Milk Wood, “when are you coming home to Labour?”. In my case I think she was mis-cast, mis-informed, and miss-downright-impertinent.

I do want to come home. I’m tired of beating my head and my hands against the dumb cold walls of Westminster. I will never feel that I belong in that Parliament, thought I have to breathe its dust-laden air. I want a Parliament that belongs to me and to us, a Parliament that we have built, in whose stones our horizons sing. The Palace Of Westminster is undeniably an imposing and impressive building. It’s an architectural metaphor for the British political system. Its symbol, after all, is a portcullis, the gate of a fortress designed to keep the people out and power in. And just the cathedral buildings of the middle-ages sought to make us feel small in the presence of Almighty God, Westminster’s subliminal message is that we as citizens are of no consequence when compared against the power and majesty of the state. As Aneurin Bevan once wrote, the House of Commons is like a church, the vaulted roofs and stained-glass windows, the rows of statues of great statesmen of the past, the echoing walls, the soft-footed attendants and the whispered conversations. He, the newly elected MP (and it usually is a he) is expected to worship, and in the most conservative of all religions, ancestor worship. Except they’re not even our ancestors. Who came blame the Welsh MP, from a working-class constituency, who feels a bit like a floundering fish out of water in Westminster. Cloisters for us in Wales are a rare Sunday afternoon treat on a coach trip to St Davids. To members of the British establishment they are a familiar architecture that has punctuated their very life-history: from prep-school, to Eton, to Oxbridge, the Inns Of Court, the Commons and finally the Lords. Before you know it you’ve changed your accent, your dress, and your values to fit in. JH Thomas, the former Union leader from Newport turned Labour MP tried so hard he took to wearing evening dress even at 11 in the morning. They made him Colonial Secretary not once, but twice. Nobody does imperialism quite as well as a self-denying member of a conquered people. And even though there are Welsh Labour MPs walking around in the corridors of power with a peculiar smile on their face of the permanently self-satisfied, unable to believe their luck in well, just being there. Kitted out in matching silk ties, silk hankies, and for all I know silk underwear as well. They are so effortlessly smooth, you wouldn’t know the conflict the lies just under the surface from constantly flipping their loyalty back and fore from Wales to London, like flipping a coin or flipping a home on expenses. Home is, after all, where the heart is.

Like many of the people in it, the building itself is a grand deception, designed to look centuries older than it is in order to confer upon it the gravitas of accumulated power. Everything about that building, everything it represents (and for sure the one thing is doesn’t represent is the ordinary Welsh voter) is a fraud from crenulated top to bottom. It is corrupt and corrupting. No building where an army of flunkies opens doors for the privileged few can be healthy. The sooner we get out of it the better it will be for all of us.

And while we are there, we must have people we can count on to fight our corner. In Elfyn Llwyd, we have a magnificent general, as strong as an oak and as wise as an owl. In Howell and myself he has two loyal lieutenants, but what he really needs is an army to defend Wales from injustice: to field our best questions, to marshal our best arguments. Not drive home our advantage, but to secure victory on the political battlefield for Wales. Of course battlefield is what the Welsh political landscape will become over the next few years and we will need every ounce of self belief to sustain us. After a decade of lost opportunity, we are now at the cusp of a new decade, of conflict, of cuts, and conservatism. In once sense a change of the guard at Westminster makes little difference to us. Wales has suffered under Labour and we’ve suffered under the Tories. The only way to stop suffering is to get out from under them, and believe me we will come 2011.

I suppose there is some subtle difference: while Labour governments never fail to disappoint you, Conservative governments confirm your worst nightmares. If Cameron wins, this will be the 67th Conservative government in history. Which considering they’ve never, in living memory, had a majority of Welsh MPs is a little bit troubling from the perspective of Welsh democracy. Tory governments in Wales have never come highly commended. If you go back long enough, they were a coalition of low-brow publicans and high-church Anglicans, the original unholy alliance. The Conservative and Unionist party in Wales has never really recovered from those rather inauspicious beginnings. They’ve been on the wrong side of every important argument in the last 300 years: the reform act, the welfare state, the NHS, apartheid, and now the NHS again. Name virtually any issue, any cause, that has taxed the minds and frequently the bodies too of the people of this country for the last three centuries and the Tories have always managed somehow to place themselves squarely on the side of privilege and prejudice and on the opposite side to the majority of the downtrodden Welsh. When Rebecca rode out in Carmarthenshire… and Peter Mandelson please note political cross-dressers are progressives in our tradition – I once called Dafydd Ellis Thomas the Pantomime Dame of Welsh politics and he thanked me for the complement. When Rebecca burned the hated toll-booths, where were the Tories? Not on the side of the farmers struggling to survive, but on the side of the men of property, the turnpike owners, the PFI merchants of their day, turning a quick profit at other people’s expense. The Tories are democracy’s late developers, opposed to the extension of the franchise at every juncture, if it had been up to them women and the working-classes would never have had the vote, which goes a long way to explain the attitude of Leanne Wood towards the Tories. Thank God for women with attitude! The Tories opposed the secret ballot and saw to it that those who didn’t vote the right way were evicted. They opposed the repeal of the Corn Laws at a time when the people were starving, not just in Ireland but also in Wales. They supported religious discrimination against non-conformists, but still demanded that they paid church taxes and attend Anglican schools but not Anglican universities from which they were banned. They opposed the disestablishment of the Church in Wales despite it being the clear settled will of the majority in our country at the time.

For them, opposing Welsh Democracy is written into the DNA of the Conservative Tradition. They’ve opposed every Welsh Devolution bill in history, a record with which not even the Labour party can compete. They opposed the redoubtable E.T Johns Government Of Wales bill on the brink of the First World War. They opposed mighty S.O. Davies’ bill in the 1950s. They opposed the Wales Act in 1978 and took great delight in removing it from the statue book as soon as they were elected. The made opposition to devolution the cornerstone of their 1997 election campaign in Wales and were wiped out as a consequence. And yet they still sought to frustrate the wishes of the Welsh people by voting against a bill in the new Parliament. And who can forget, Nicholas Vaughn beaming before Carmarthenshire’s votes were counted, thinking that Wales had collectively voted itself out of existence for the second time in our history and chosen the life of a vassal not a victor. I never want to see a smile like that again. No man who betrayed his country so enthusiastically could ever earn the right to lead it.

I suppose, to be fair, he was only reflecting the prevailing wisdom of a party that has always defined itself as being against the development of our Welsh democracy every step of our own Welsh way. The Conservative party’s campaign guide, for every general election between 1892 and 1914 contained the following words: “the laws, institutions of Wales are the laws, institutions and customs of England. The flag of Wales is the flag of England”. But worse was to come – for the next three decades their campaign guide didn’t even mention Wales at all. Switch to 2009, and the Tories now claim to be Wales’ new best friend. But isn’t this a little difficult to take when for so long they have been our own worst enemy. They fought the Welsh miners seeking to grind them, like the coal of the slagheaps, into dust: in ‘26, in ‘73 and ‘84. They privatised our steelworks, not once but twice, and threw thousands on the dole.

And then there was Tryweryn, a scar on the conscience of the Tories as deep and as powerful in its own way as Aberfan is for Labour: both of them symbols of human suffering at the hands of a distant an uncaring government. And above all remember that when the Liverpool Corporation Bill had its second reading, the Conservative so-called Minister For Welsh Affairs stubbornly sided with Liverpool over Wales, despite the fact that every Welsh MP bar one opposed it. So when the political epitaph of the Conservative Party in Wales comes to be written, oh speed the day, let it never be forgotten that they were responsible for the greatest act of colonial vandalism in our history, the only party ever to impose a three-line whip on the destruction of a living Welsh community. And if they want our forgiveness, let David Cameron apologise to the Welsh people for their mistake. He apologised, didn’t he, about apartheid? He apologised to the Gay community over Section 28, or at least to a £50 a-ticket invitation only Conservative –Supporting section of the gay community in London’s highest members club. I’d like to see you try say sorry to a room full of Valleys Drag queens – you know who you are. If Cameron is in the habit of apologising he can try apologising to the people of Capel Celyn, Meirionnydd and Wales for a village drowned and a democracy disregarded. And then promise to give us, like the Scottish, the English, the Irish and any other nation control over our own water in our own land. Or are we still to be treated as England’s first and final precious piece of Empire? That colonial attitude is alive and sickeningly well in a party the majority of whose Secretaries Of State, in theory at least, for Wales haven’t even represented Welsh constituencies. In John Redwood’s case the Conservatives made the most bizarre political appointment since Caligula made his horse a senator.

Of course, it is possible and a small-c conservative. What is cultural nationalism but an attempt to conserve and preserve for future generations the best in our own traditions? The problems with conservatism as a political philosophy is that it is defined by what it is against: change. And when you live in a country like ours calling out for change, who would want to slow change down, to be a break on progress? In three hundred years the Tories in Wales have only ever been anti-establishment once, when Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn harboured a certain affection for Bonny Prince Charlie but not so much as to much as to risk a martyr’s death at Culloden. Personally I am more jackobin (?) than Jacobite. But there is room in our party for the creative intelligence of a David Melding , one of nature’s conservatives, a man who once told Jocelyn Davies that he hadn’t got over the shock of the Reformation. Join us, the water’s warm. You’re living proof that it is possible to be Welsh and a small-c conservative, though it must be at times mentally exhausting.

One thing is for certain, trying to be both in capital letters of equal measure is as impossible as serving two masters. For the Tories real masters in London, time and time we’ve heard Wales will never be the priority. They’ve already said they will cancel the electrification, recently announced, of the Great Western mainline to West Wales, happy to acquiesce in the shameful fact that Wales is almost alone in the Western world in lacking a single mile of electrified railtrack. Though the City of London, I notice, will still get its coveted Crossrail. The Tories announced with a fanfare that they will deliver a high-speed rail line connecting London and the Continent with Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds, but Cardiff and Swansea must wait. Wales, under the Tories, will always have to wait.

And there will be no high-speed return for the embattled Welsh forces in Helmand, when those Welsh sons and daughters are placed again in harm’s way. The party that has supported every war in history, from the concentration camps of Pretoria, to the lies of Suez and Iraq will continue with the war in Afghanistan. And instead of a war on poverty, the Tories will declare war on the poor. They will cut the money Wales gets from the Lottery, scrapping the only Lottery fund that gives Wales money according to a needs-based formula, and give the money to those who don’t. They will cut public spending, hitting Wales hard, and continue to justify the unjust Barnett Formula. And they proudly promise they will slash the benefits of hundreds of thousands of Welsh claimants in the middle of the greatest economic crash since the 30s. Let’s repeat that. The party that gave us the means-test, plan to cull one and a half million people from Incapacity Benefit in 12 months, more than 10 times even New Labour has achieved. The long-term unemployed, single parents and the clinically depressed will be dragooned into community service like criminals or lose benefits and starve. Conference, this is the modern equivalent of the Workhouse, and the abolition of Outdoor Relief. It will hit us hard, and it will hit the hurt, the young and the very old hardest of all. The man the Tories have charged with implementing this policy of economic ‘Shock and Awe’ Lord Freud, up until February was an advisor on Welfare reform to New Labour – so obviously a man of principle – has the qualification of being one of the very same investment bankers that trashed our economy and slung so many people on the scrapheap. By his own admission, thousands of investors lost money in Eurotunnel because naively they believed what this silver-tongued ex-journalist (dubbed ‘Fraud-squad’ by his colleagues) had told them. And who was it that promised an end to the politics of spin and the economics of the casino?

So maybe it’s time to dust down one of Bevan’s other great works, written under the suitably patriotic pseudonym Celticus, “Why not to trust the Tories”. And if anyone doubts the contemporary relevance of a pamphlet written in 1944, then read the section where Bevan talks about the Tories tendency to smooth away the edge of a policy in the hope of making it more attractive to doubtful supporters. It’s almost as if he had read every Conservative policy commission over the last two years. David Cameron, by his own admission, is the heir to Blair. He represents, not change, but more of the same and worse. Except where Blair appointed a former Mirror Editor as his foul-mouthed mouthpiece, Cameron has appointed a disgraced former editor of the News Of The World.

This Labour government is a failed and dying government. Its sins are too many for it to die an honourable death, so let it die. The same is true of a so-called Mother of Parliament that failed to stop them. The only thing that can wash away its sins is new blood. Not the real blood of those brave souls in Afghanistan and Iraq that have paid dearly for politician’s errors, but the new blood of a new politics. There will be new MPs aplenty at this Parliament, so many that the maiden speeches will probably last for months. Will the politics change along with the personnel? For England’s sake I hope it is a new start, a maiden Parliament. Though somehow I doubt it, as powers’ old habits die hard. But for us in Wales, it must neither me maiden nor mother, but midwife to a Parliament of our own. There have been a thousand Welsh MPs from the Act Of Union onwards, and from a strictly Welsh perspective most of them have been practically useless. In that sense, the present crop are no better or worse than previous generations, although I cannot imagine Emlyn Hooson moonlighting for the Daily Sport.

The difference lies within Wales itself. A nation within the old order is dying, and the new struggling to be born. For that new birth we need a new breed of Welsh men and women in that temporary Parliament along the banks of the Thames, who will never go native in exile, and never play by other people’s rules. Members like the one true original member for Wales, who broke the conventions of the house. Who in his first act of defiance sat down in protest at the Treasury bench until the original language of these Islands was given due recognition in the only legislature that we then had. Who committed the cardinal sin of injecting a bit of passion and politics into his first address to the house. And maybe one or two like this one, who got slung out of Parliament for calling a liar a liar.

As Plaid MPs, we don’t go to London to scale the escalator of ambition. For every Welsh MP, a Parliament in a far away capital should seem like a prison, though they try and paint our chains in gold. Penri, Dylan, Myfanwy, Phil, here is the only reason you want to be there, which is the reason we hold dear: to bring democracy home where it belongs, in the hands of our people, in our Parliament, in our capital, in our country. In our dreams for now, but also in our destiny

2 Responses to “Conference Speech”

  1. Liam Llywarch Murphy says:
    September 14th, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Araith Wych Adam, Araith effeithiol o’r calon llawn ysbridoliaeth, Un o’r areithiau gwleidyddol gorau dwi byth wedi cael y pleser I wrando ar. Rydach yn dda iawn am ysbrydoli Cenedlaetholwyr Ifanc fel fi!

  2. ian says:
    September 14th, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Inspiring, inspirational and the best I have heard from a Plaid politician for many years.

    I’m very proud of you, mate.

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