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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

A political risk-taker

The Western Mail continues its love affair with Assembly Presiding Officer, Dafydd Elis-Thomas, this morning with this report of an article written by his biographer, former Plaid Cymru Candidate Laura McAllister. The piece is guaranteed to set Ieuan Wyn Jones' teeth on edge, particularly as it identifies two aspects of Lord Elis-Thomas' political form that are lacking in the leadership of the Party of Wales and which could account for its decline - a vision and the ability to take risks.

"Few other politicians of his generation are as intellectually interesting and politically challenging. Indeed, few of his contemporaries arouse as much emotion, at least within the political community. [He] has long sparked strong emotions, mainly because he pushes at the boundaries of our overwhelmingly conventional politics in Wales. In doing so, he often articulates what many of us are thinking.

"The truth is that his recent career has been a marvellous exemplification of saying aloud what many privately think. So, the Assembly is guilty of 'horrendous time-wasting', it has so far failed to 'capture the hearts and minds of the Welsh people', the old Assembly chamber was so poor that it was no surprise 'that the quality of debate sometimes gets a bit soporific', and plans to change the electoral system to ban dual candidatures were 'unnecessary and undemocratic, and quite possibly an infringement of candidates' human rights'.

"Many of us will nod in agreement and thank the lord for saying what we ourselves are thinking."

Ms McAllister gives six reasons why Dafydd Elis Thomas has been such a success in the role of Presiding Officer:

First, and fundamentally, he is relatively unusual in contemporary Welsh politics: intelligent, well read, tactical, experienced, personable, self-assured and charismatic, and most important of all, a political risk-taker, something that has proved especially crucial over the past seven years.

He understands the importance of strategies that involve both individuals and institutions.

He has shown something that is in short supply in Wales: a basic self-confidence. Our mostly docile acceptance of half-baked political schemes and flimsy promises comes from a certain submissiveness, a historically formed lack of self-belief and a persistently defeatist psyche.

Notwithstanding a few outbursts, he has been remarkably restrained since devolution, and especially by his own standards.

More controversially, he has bought into traditions, ceremonies and established protocols as a way of entrenching the Assembly's profile and status. The official opening of the Senedd in March 2006 was a perfect example. While it is tempting to criticise the extent of both royal and military involvement in the St Davids Day celebrations, it is hard to dispute that the establishment only really recognises and acknowledges as its own that which resembles itself in some way.

Despite his protestations, some will say that the Lord enjoyed it all a little too much for their liking, something that rightly grated with many. But perhaps a kind of expedient, "grin-and-bear-it" strategy is necessary at this point in our political development. That is to say, we should accept some necessary but uncomfortable compromises in order to have our embryonic state structure properly recognised.

He has mainly eschewed the idea of single political philosophy, strategy or approach. Instead, he has chosen different and seemingly contradictory tactics at different times as suits circumstances. Those searching for an overarching philosophy with inherent logic and links will be disappointed.

There is no doubt that many in Plaid Cymru would disagree with this analysis. However, even they must acknowledge that together with Rhodri Morgan, Dafydd Elis-Thomas has done more than anybody turn a fledgling democracy into the National Assembly we now have and to prepare it for the challenges that lie ahead after next May's elections.
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