Following last week’s thoughts on the prospect of UKIP arriving in the Senedd, Huw Williams reflects on their role in an eventful first week after the election.
by Huw Williams
Given the unravelling of last week’s extraordinary events at the Senedd, it seems appropriate to turn to Niccolò Machiavelli for a little context – that master of political machinations and trusted confidant of would-be rulers. Despite being much-maligned, old Niccolò was not entirely amoral in his outlook. He had a sense of the good and the bad – but an equally strong sense of when it pays to be either one or the other.
The Prince, he writes ‘must be prepared to vary his conduct as the winds of fortune and changing circumstances constrain him and … not deviate from right conduct if possible, but be capable of entering upon the path of wrongdoing when this becomes necessary.’
He also appreciated the overriding importance of ‘spin’ and the crucial importance of appearances: ‘A leader must avoid contempt as if it were a reef. He should contrive that his actions should display grandeur, courage, seriousness and strength.’ And despite admiring the force of the Lion, it is the cunning of the fox that he valued most.
A good deal of the fallout from last week has to do with appearances. The mixed messages from Plaid Cymru did not suggest seriousness or strength. First came the line that they were simply putting forward as First Minister their leader, Leanne Wood, and that the decision of the other parties to back them was not their responsibility; then came admissions that conversations had taken place, even if there were no formal negotiations with the Tories and UKIP, and so emerged the sense there had been a deliberate ploy at play.
The former smacks of a lack of foresight and planning; surely Plaid could anticipate how cavalier it would appear, and how a possible tied vote on the back of Tory and UKIP support would be exploited by Labour? The latter suggests evidence for those who fear Plaid’s left-wing credentials are only skin deep.
Some are convinced that Plaid were genuinely hoping to win the vote and govern with their minority and help, presumably, from the right wingers. This thought makes the mind boggle; especially so given we are talking about a party that failed to embrace a coalition in 2007 with the Tories and Liberals, because of the perceived damage to their left-wing brand.
More grandeur and courage would have been conveyed by a single, unified claim by the party that Plaid’s actions had been a grand strategy, a deliberate ploy to put Labour in their place through cold calculation: straightforward maths and a combination of the fox’s cunning and the lion’s strength.
Leanne Wood made a decent fist of providing a unified narrative, but not before the Labour Party were given a chance to convey Plaid as being untrustworthy and fickle in their political principles. Indeed, for those who gave their second vote to Plaid in order to keep UKIP out, it would have been irksome to find Plaid putting them centre stage within a matter of days.
Not that the Labour Party are innocent in all of this. Given the jibe about a ‘cheap date’ and sensitivities all around, not engaging with their opposition prior to the First Minister vote was asking for trouble – hardly destined to avoid the kind of hatred and contempt Machiavelli advises the new Prince against.
Even more grating was the lack of a clear, unrepentant denial of the story that emerged the next day: that Labour in turn could be canvassing members of UKIP for support. This reticence suggested there was either some truth in it, or that they somehow thought threatening Plaid with this scenario was an effective tactic – despite spending the previous day lambasting them for dancing with the devil.
And here’s the thing; more than anything else, the events of last Thursday suggest that politicians in Wales are in danger of losing their moral compass altogether. For their main success has been to place a political abomination – headed up by Neil Hamilton – at the centre of our democracy, giving it legitimacy and recognition that it has done nothing to deserve.
I have already emphasised the implications of UKIP’s poisonous politics, and the fact they have no moral right to be in the Senedd. They should have been treated as pariahs from the outset; for the other parties to embark on this path of wrongdoing (Tories included) seems unnecessary when the courting ritual could have been played out through any number of other ploys and pranks.
By dragging UKIP into the whole affair the other parties have only succeeded in dragging Welsh politics through the mud.
And lest we solely blame only our politicians, it is worth noting that many in the media seem to presume that the function of the press in a democracy is to maintain neutrality at all costs – forgetting that figures such as Richard Price rallied for the freedom of expression to defend our values and fight oppressive forces in all their forms. One prominent analyst even considered it appropriate to dole out advice to UKIP, as with the rest of the parties. As if we might be inclined to see them hang around.
‘Neutral men are the devil’s allies,’ so a preacher once said.
No doubt the response will be that there’s no place for all of this sanctimonious guff in the real world of politics. Well, for those who are even more ‘realist’ than old Niccolò, it might be worth reflecting on the course of the immediate- and long-term future. We have already seen the hand of UKIP strengthened as they campaign for a Brexit that both Plaid and Labour wish to avoid. The Labour Party, despite the headline story of maintaining 29 seats, is shelling votes everywhere, and stemming the tide to UKIP by delegitimising the party has to be one of the major priorities. Meanwhile, with the appearance of right-wing support, the Party of Wales may have damaged their image in the eyes of the people – those who Niccolò recognises as the most important of all.
What do they say about dancing with the devil? It doesn’t change him, it changes you. Something has changed for the parties of Wales, and it has not been a change for the good.
Huw Williams is an academic and author, with research interests in egalitarian political philosophy and the history of ideas in Wales. His volume, Creodau'r Cymry, will be published by UWP in July, and he is also a co-author of the upcoming publication Global Justice: The Basics, with Routledge.
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