Regionalist populism in Britain’s “Celtic” peripheries: a longitudinal analysis of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party

Emanuele Massetti


Populism is not an exclusive feature of state-wide and/or majority nationalist parties. Regionalist (or minority nationalist) parties1 can also develop a populist discourse either as a stable and defining characteristic or at specific times and under particular conditions. However, reflecting a marked tendency by the European scholarship on political parties to focus on right-wing (or radical- right) populism (e.g. Betz 1994; Betz and Immerfall 1998; Rydgren 2005; Mudde 2007), scholars have overwhelmingly identified cases of right-wing regionalist populism (Mazzoleni 2005; Albertazzi 2006; Jagers and Walgrave 2007; McDonnell and Vanrpa 2016). In contrast, with very few exceptions,2 cases of neither-left-nor-right or left-wing regionalist populism have been largely overlooked. This chapter addresses this lacuna by presenting a longitudinal analysis of two regionalist (or minority nationalist) parties acting in the “Celtic” peripheries of Britain: Plaid Cymru - The Party of Wales (Plaid) and the Scottish National Party (SNP).

To be clear, this article does not claim that populism is a stable and core feature within Plaid and the SNP’s ideology and discourse. Indeed, references to these two parties as being populist are extremely rare.3 However, this chapter shows that these two parties have developed an extremely similar ideological trajectory which also featured the adoption of two different types of populist discourses in two different periods of their history: the long-formative phase which runs from the time of party formation in the late 1920s to the time in which these parties passed the threshold of representation in the 1960s (Elias 2011; Lynch 2011); and the most recent phase, characterized by the unfolding of the Great Recession and the return of the Conservative party in office at Westminster (since 2010). The longitudinal analysis allows to point out why and how the two “Celtic” parties have combined their regionalist ideology with populist discourses in different ways in the two periods. The empirical evidence shows that both parties adopted a neither-left-nor-right populist ideology in the 1920s— 1960s period; while, in recent years, and particularly between the 2010 and the 2015 general elections, both have become typical examples of left-wing, antiausterity populist parties, covering the role that in other Western European countries has been played by state-wide parties such as Syriza in Greece, Pode- mos in Spain, the Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal; La France Insoumise in France, Die Linke in Germany and, in a more ambiguous form, the Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy (March and Mudde 2005; Stavrakakis and Katsambekis 2014; Lisi 2015; Kioupkiolis 2016; Ramiro and Gomez 2017; Segatti and Capuzzi 2016; Ivaldi et al. 2017).

Plaid Cymru and the SNP have tried, with very different levels of success, to play the same role in the UK, as representatives of primarily Welsh and Scottish interests. Incidentally, the implicit binary comparison allows to explain why the adoption of extremely similar strategies, ideologies and discourses by the two parties has led to remarkably different levels of electoral success, particularly in the recent years, with Plaid remaining a very peripheral force in British politics, while the SNP has become the third party in Westminster after the 2015 (and 2017) general election(s).

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