“You look even more handsome in person,” an elderly woman quips, gesturing in my direction.

Typical, I think, for another dedicated reader to notice me in public while I am trying to interview somebody. Naturally, I am embarrassed, and smile back; but then it dawns on me that her gaze is fixed toward the man next to me on a park bench in Llandaf Fields. Adam Price chuckles to himself, mumbling thanks to her. Fair enough, even I can’t help but laugh. I promise that the episode makes it into the final copy. Here we are.

The National Wales: Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price. Photo: Huw Evans Picture AgencyPlaid Cymru leader, Adam Price. Photo: Huw Evans Picture Agency

Well, after all, it’s the least I can do: the leader of Plaid Cymru has long needed a confidence boost. Though proclaimed by many as the saviour of Welsh nationalism, with intellectual rigour and Glyndŵr-like energy, Price has largely failed to live up to expectations.

The recent Senedd election was a low-point – a “disappointing” result, as he has kept saying this week – as nationalists, of a Welsh (and British) blend, were outshone by Mark Drakeford. Plaid Cymru slumped into third place, after overpromising and under delivering, losing former leader Leanne Wood’s coveted seat in the Rhondda and making scant inroads outside of Welsh-speaking areas, Y Fro Gymraeg.

“Politics is always a roller coaster, isn’t it?” Price shrugs, after I suggest he has had quite an eventful year. A looming press assistant paces behind us as the Cardiff winter breeze bites hard.

Early on, he is in little mood to reflect on the last six months, even though questions are bound to be asked during Plaid Cymru’s (virtual) conference this weekend. Though there was happy news in the summer with the birth of his daughter and second child, any talk of the Senedd election brings a pained expression to his face.

Fatherhood and political setbacks seem to have taken their toll; he is still smartly dressed, albeit with whitening, thinning hair and a trimmer physique. This is a more seasoned Adam Price than the junior firebrand MP who frequently stood up to accost Tony Blair in the House of Commons during the first decade of the century.

And like not-too-distant Westminster politics, over recent days Price has had his own ‘Rose Garden’ moment with Mark Drakeford, announcing a co-operation agreement with Welsh Labour across 46 policy areas on the steps of the Senedd. Eye-catching pledges include support for a bigger Welsh Parliament, free schools meals for all primary school children, ending homelessness, establishing a national construction company, reforming building safety regulations, and capping the number of second homes. It has been billed, rightly, as a sign of Wales’ progressive politics – illustrating yet again the nation’s distinctiveness compared to the rest of the UK.

The National Wales: 'The Rose Garden moment' - Mark Drakeford and Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price announcing the partnership between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru Senedd Group. Photo: Huw Evans Picture Agency'The Rose Garden moment' - Mark Drakeford and Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price announcing the partnership between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru Senedd Group. Photo: Huw Evans Picture Agency

More about the deal shortly, I reassure Price. I have to start with the past, specifically his reflections on the outcome of May 7 (as much as he would clearly like me not to.) Plaid Cymru had a “very ambitious programme”, I am told. “Some people said it was too ambitious. But, I think we've been proven right by our level of ambition, because we were told many of these things weren't possible, or they weren't feasible. Actually, they're about to become government policy.” That’s true. But, again, I try to dig a bit deeper; what went wrong during that campaign if the policies were so great?

“There's always a whole range of factors, isn’t there?” Price bounds with usual west Walian rhetoric. The Trystan Review, an investigation into the election performance by the party’s former chair, apparently points to “technical, practical issues” identified in Plaid Cymru’s election machine. There are also “the more strategic questions about the political landscape as a whole.” Price tries to tame the conversation, finding solace in how there is a “huge reservoir of goodwill” toward Plaid Cymru. For many, a “second favourite political party”, a line he is repeating to the media as if it is something to be proud of. Right on cue, he notes that with the co-operation agreement, the party is now in a “fantastic” position. “We’ve got to look forward,” he pivots, firmly.

I promise we will, just not yet. One of Price’s predecessors as leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, told me last week that it was a “mistake” for his party to pledge an independence referendum in the first term of a nationalist government in Cardiff Bay. Price “respectfully disagrees” with the former deputy first minister. And I am quite surprised how adamant he is about the decisions taken. “That was the right approach. Going back over 30-40 years of membership of the party, I joined because we believed in independence,” Price says, growing more animated. “I've always felt that we should promote that policy. And now more than ever, of course, when independence is the single most important question at the heart of Welsh politics.”

Hmm. Others would disagree. As they would when Price says the referendum pledge did not “damage” the party; instead, he adds (with some merit) that the election result was down “largely [to] the incumbency advantage that was very, very difficult for any political party to have overturned significantly.” And he reminds me that although many have associated Plaid Cymru with Welsh language activism historically, its central purpose has always been to ensure some form of self-government for Wales. “If anyone doubted what Plaid Cymru was about before the election, now they're very, very clear,” he says.

READ MORE: Housing, care and climate at centre of government deal

Really? We venture into the co-operation agreement signed, a radical programme which contains radical policies. Many of them, like creating a publicly owned energy company, Ynni Cymru, are nationalist ideas. It shows, therefore, that Plaid Cymru is an effective changemaker in Wales – not through its own decisions, though, instead by pushing Welsh Labour in the right direction. I put to Price the ‘pressure group hypothesis’: that his party merely persuade other people to do things for Wales. “I disagree,” he grumbles.

Saying that, the Plaid Cymru leader understands the reasoning behind the question. He references the work of Norwegian political scientist, Kaare Strøm, who suggested that political parties could have emphasis on different goals – either seeking public policy change, winning votes, and/or gaining office. “Plaid Cymru is absolutely a policy seeking political party,” Price asserts. “Because the most important policy of all, for us, is independence. We will always put that, and Wales’ broader national interest and the interests of the people, first beyond office.” The agreement, Price tells me, supports this view: he is not interested in the “ministerial cars and the trappings of office.” Being “equal” partners with the Welsh Government is more significant.

His steely blue eyes fix my gaze; he is convincing when he himself is convinced by something. Not everyone is on side, of course. Welsh Conservatives, rather predictably, have said that Price is a sort-of poodle for Mark Drakeford, voting through policies for Welsh Labour yet again. He is not interested in even humouring such a label, whatsoever. “I'll send them the cutting from The Daily Telegraph saying this is a nationalist stitch-up, too!”

Let’s take a step back and remind ourselves there are two parties in this agreement. And, arguably, how the change that has happened within Welsh Labour since the One Wales government between 2007-11 has been the most remarkable. Price has seen Labour in Wales move Left in tone and ideas since then, but not always with action to follow. “We've had the language of radicalism and progressive politics,” he says. “But, actually, the reality of policy has been extremely disappointing, hasn’t it?”

READ MORE: The time has come to finally address Wales' housing crisis

For as much as Price rallies against the “managerialism” and “technocratic” approach of Labour in Wales before, the agreement does show there is little difference between his group in the Senedd and the one led by Mark Drakeford. Why don’t you call it quits, I half-jokingly suggest, and merge as one big party? “Well, clearly independence is a bit of a nonstarter!” he blurts out. “I think that there are actually deeper differences than that… There’s more than one Labour Party.” He is right to reference its various factions, ranging from Blairites to Corbynites, but also Welsh, Scottish and English Labour. “We should be non-sectarian and non-tribal in politics,” Price says. “So, we should work with progressives and patriots and socialists in all progressive parties and movements.”

Despite all the collaboration that may happen, it is crystal clear that Price’s end goal remains independence. The Welsh government’s Constitutional Commission, chaired by Rowan Williams and Laura McAllister, is “a positive opportunity to present our policy and our vision of independence.” Right that may be, but when, and by what process, will an independent Wales arrive?

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It is surely only if Scotland leaves, and Northern Ireland unites with the Republic, that Wales goes its own way. “There is every possibility that Scotland will vote ‘yes’ in the next few years. And, there's every possibility that Northern Ireland will do so. Obviously, if those things happen, then they will have major consequences in terms of changing the political context for Wales. I think they could happen very, very quickly.” There is a “strong possibility”, therefore, of an independent Wales by 2030.

Quite surprisingly, he doesn’t seem that sure. Is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘maybe’ to independence by the end of the decade? “I think there's a strong possibility that could happen,” he repeats. “I believe Wales will become an independent country, within the next 10 to 15 years. I would like us to get there sooner. I think there's a strong possibility that we should, that we can, and that we could. So, yes… I think that… Tight timelines can compress very, very quickly. I think anything is possible in the end… I would be surprised if the United Kingdom existed in 15 years’ time, to be honest with you. I would be even more surprised if Wales was somehow a rump part of ‘England and Wales.’”

READ MORE: Corruption at Westminster is Welsh nationalists’ golden ticket

The reluctance to give timelines is understandable. Price still insists, however, that the wind is “within [the] sails” of the nationalist movement. The question over who leads the independence charge, however, is still an interesting debate. Wild rumours were even circulating over the summer that Price may stand down on his return from parental leave, which seem completely unfathomable now. I speculate about his future, and he looks uncomfortable. Will he lead Plaid Cymru into the next election?

Price insists he is “not going anywhere”. He continues: “I'm incredibly passionate about what we've been able to achieve with this agreement and I'm very keen now to move on to the next phase… [Wales is] going to look a very different country to the one next door to our east.” And the way in which you start to win the case for independence, according to Price, is “when people can see the benefit in their actual lives of a country that's beginning to make decisions for ourselves, and become the decent country where we want to be: with decent public services and turning our values into policy. That's what democracy is all about.”

It's no accident, he adds, that Wales is developing some ideas about how to do politics from Scandinavian countries – in terms of creating the “level of high quality public services that many of those social democratic Scandinavian countries have been able to achieve.” So, Wales is not England. Maybe we are more like Denmark, Norway or Sweden, I ponder. “I don't think that's a bad ambition for any country to have.”

The National Wales: Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price now seems more comfortable with getting party policy through the Senedd chamber via the nation’s natural party of government. Photo: Huw Evans Picture AgencyPlaid Cymru leader Adam Price now seems more comfortable with getting party policy through the Senedd chamber via the nation’s natural party of government. Photo: Huw Evans Picture Agency

Indeed. Whether you agree or not with Price’s politics, he has had a remarkable change in fortune over six months. Unlike a pressurised election campaign, where he had to keep insisting unrealistically that he would be the next first minister, the Plaid Cymru leader now seems more comfortable with getting party policy through the Senedd chamber via the nation’s natural party of government. He has helped shape a radical agenda that differentiates Wales and Westminster. It is also quite conceivable to view it as a policy-driven steppingstone to independence.

And, if Price has immense good fortune on his side, the deal puts Plaid Cymru in a good stalking position – when, not if, the constitutional debate ramps up in Scotland. Free from government, with its progressive and distinct policies delivered by Welsh Labour, nationalists would then be able to exert maximum influence on the constitutional debate here. None of this, of course, is certain. But Adam Price now looks better positioned than he did before, with a spring in his step.

READ MORE: How democracy can evolve in a Welsh context

Walking with him, I’m reminded by how I was once told when you ended a conversation with Price, however interesting, things always felt inconclusive. Not entirely this time. It is the measure of the man, and his great – still probably untapped – potential that he has been able to bounce back. It is a rare quality among politicians. One former British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, was notoriously described as being “terrible on the rebound.” At the very least, Adam Price has shown he can overcome setbacks. Where he and his followers will go next is worth keeping an eye on.

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