Plaid Cymru's hopes raised by Labour doubts

Blair's `English' agenda seen as asset to nationalists. James Cusick reports
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Indy Politics
At the turn of the century, the Encyclopaedia Britannica was candid on Wales. It read "Wales: see England." At the opening of Plaid Cymru's annual conference today, the nationalists believe growing disillusionment with Westminster will cast "see England" to the history books.

While a hefty dose of political realism has recently cooled the "independence now" demands of Plaid Cymru, party members' spirits were raised last week with the grade one gaffe by Labour's devolution spokesman Dr Kim Howells. The Pontypridd MP bared his soul to a Scottish newspaper to reveal his worries over the "Balkanisation of Great Britain".

Dr Howells also equated nationalism with fascism; doubted whether his party's keenness for constitutional change would survive if it won the next election by a landslide; and maintained that devolution was largely the "property of the chattering classes rather than ordinary voters".

Labour's propaganda gifts continued to shower on both Plaid Cymru and their Scottish counterparts, the SNP, when Tony Blair allowed Dr Howells to remain at his post. Plaid Cymru is delighted. Its traditional October conference slot was this year hurriedly brought forward to coincide with the SNP's gathering. There is hope that the dual nationalists' agenda will receive media attention beyond their own boundaries.

The nationalists' leader, Dafydd Wigley, one of four Plaid MPs, believes Labour's "south-east England agenda" can only increase the "momentum and preparedness that we gain from this week's conference".

"In Wales," said Mr Wigley, "there is anger because for the fourth time in a row we have a government where the Welsh Secretary of State is not even a Welsh MP." John Redwood's tenancy was seen as the main factor when opinion polls showed that almost three-quarters were in favour of an elected Welsh assembly. Plaid will discuss what the party has already dubbed "Labour's talking shop".

Mr Wigley said Labour's assembly would "make no laws, it will have no powers of finance, it will be a waste of time." But convincing Welsh voters that Plaid has a realistic alternative will not be easy. Britain's two nationalist parties have in the past been guilty of promising more than they deliver. The SNP, despite opinion polls to the contrary, still believes that independence and power is around the corner.

However, this year Plaid is adopting a pre-conference strategy of talking everything down rather than up. Despite launching a strategy for Welsh independence by 2003, Mr Wigley will tell conference delegates that self governance cannot be achieved overnight.

"We need two steps: one stage where a Welsh parliament will take over the work of the Welsh Office and other quango powers. Defence and international affairs will still remain with Westminster. After five years, a referendum on full self-government would be held," he said.

While conference debates and seminars will doubtless discuss Wales's position in an enlarged Europe and the level of taxes needed to sustain current levels of wealth in a socialist regime, Tony Blair's New Labour will be the focus of how this all could come about.

According to Mr Wigley's analysis, the Welsh Labour Party "are Old Labour with a vengeance. Some of them must be worrying that he is compromising so far in favour of south-east England. But if a Labour government doesn't deliver and sits back on all its old principles, then we will take them to the cleaners".