Leading Article: Wales needs a leader to transcend old tribal loyalties

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The Independent Culture
THE POLITICS of a devolved Scotland have not turned out as anyone expected, but no one can deny the vigour of the campaign for elections to the first parliament to sit north of the border since 1707. It is vigorous both in the sense that it is energetic and that it is healthy. Labour has its many faults in Scotland, but it is also committed to working with the Liberal Democrats and with the "social partners" in a way which inhibits its tendency to machine politics. It also faces formidable opposition from the Scottish National Party, which keeps it honest.

In Scotland, then, devolution is already a success. All the parties accept it - even the Scottish Conservatives, who yesterday apologised for their past ultra-unionism - and the argument has moved on to what to do with it.

Wales is different. Devolution was always going to be asymmetrical, but Wales has not yet even accepted the concept. The referendum there was won by a whisker. Many of the Noes, especially those who think of themselves as English, did not bother to turn out for an issue they thought had nothing to do with them. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have taken up arms against devolution and are positioning themselves as the English party. The paradox of Wales is that, despite a separate language, its nationalism is weaker and its national culture more divided. Thus the Tories have performed a U-turn on their policy in Government, which was to promote the teaching of Welsh, while Plaid Cymru, in an effort to clamber out of the Welsh-speaking ghetto which has long put a cap on its aspirations, has renamed itself Plaid Cymru the Party of Wales.

The sum of these manoeuvres is that Labour faces a weak opposition, split three ways, while the electoral system means that Labour is likely to win an overall majority on the Cardiff assembly even if its vote is around 45 per cent. That will be bad for Wales, because Labour's internal culture there is still Leninist, in that the party sees its role as to interpret the popular will rather than serve it. In the recent leadership election, out came the trade union block votes, justified by bosses from the Cretaceous Era intoning that they "know what our members think".

Ron Davies, the former Welsh Secretary making a miraculous recovery from his "moment of madness", was well-versed in the inbred boss-politics of Wales Labour, but at least he forced a reformed electoral system on a reluctant party. Recently, in the preface to a scholarly analysis of two of these islands' nationalisms, Scotland and Wales: Nations Again?, he accused Tony Blair of not taking devolution seriously and of failing to nurture pluralism in Wales. It is a fair criticism - as well as an intriguing sign of the degree to which Mr Davies thinks the post of first minister for Wales is still open to competition.

Another of the multiple ironies of the list system is that the Prime Minister's favourite, Alun Michael, needs Labour to poll relatively poorly in order to guarantee his top-up seat in the Cardiff assembly. Which means Mr Davies may find himself up against Rhodri Morgan, the people's choice and the Labour machine's nightmare, in the fight to lead a devolved Wales.

The final irony is that the candidate Wales really needs is the one who will be most like Mr Blair himself - someone capable of reaching out, especially from a position of strength, beyond the tribal loyalties of the Labour Party and building a popular coalition. As in any one-party state, the question of who Labour chooses as its leader is more important than the precise shares of the parties' votes on election day. Until Wales gets a little of its own Blairite inclusiveness, uniting the nation in a modern identity which does not depend on the language, there is little prospect of the Welsh assembly being anything more than a division of English local government.