Welsh Language and Nationalism in the 1960s and 70s

When I looked at the Irish language recently, it reminded me of the research I had done on the connections between the Welsh language and the nationalist revival of the 1960s and 70s.  One story that has stood out in my memory over time was Gwynfor Evans, the first Plaid Cymru Member of Parliament, writing that when his daughter was arrested for participating in a Cymdeithas y Iaith Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society) protest, he visited her in jail and wasn’t allowed to speak in Welsh to her.  They had never spoken English to each other before, and he felt like they were completely different people than when conversing normally in Welsh.


Wales from the International Space Station – photo credit: NASA/Cmdr Hadfield (Wikimedia Commons)

More than any other historical or cultural factor of Welsh identity, Evans used language as a way to legitimize the Welsh nationalist cause.  Lacking the institutions of nationhood (that had, for example, been maintained in Scotland even after the 1707 Union) and without well-known victorious national heroes to celebrate, language was the key element for Evans’ view of Welsh nationality.  After he was sworn in at the House of Commons, Evans asked to be allowed to repeat the Oath in Welsh.  When the Speaker refused because of the precedent of only allowing English to be spoken in Parliament, Evans replied, “May I say that this Parliament is the only Parliament that Wales has, that Wales is a nation with a national language that has been spoken there for nearly 2,000 years and that the people of Wales will regard it as an affront if that language cannot be spoken now in this House at least to take the Oath?”

Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, was primary outlet for Welsh nationalism in the twentieth century.  The party formed in 1925 with the aim of reviving Welsh language and culture.  Self-government was not part of its platform until 1931.  Primarily led by Saunders Lewis, Plaid Cymru acted as a pressure group for Welsh interests rather than as a political party.  Gwynfor Evans was elected President of the party in 1945, and held the position for the next thirty-six years.

Plaid Cymru gained a place on the national stage when Evans was elected the party’s first Member of Parliament in 1966.  The victory brought confidence to Plaid Cymru and was a major force in justifying the party’s message and policies to the electorate.  Evans served in Parliament from 1966 to 1970, and again from 1974 to 1979, when he was joined by two additional Plaid Cymru MPs.  Evans’s parliamentary career ended with the devolution referendum of 1979, which, despite increased electoral support for Plaid Cymru in the preceding years, was defeated by an enormous majority.  Evans wrote, “That day, 1st March 1979, went down as the blackest day in Welsh history.”

In his maiden speech in Parliament, Evans proclaimed, “Since Wales was incorporated in England, in 1536, it has been the policy of successive Governments, pursued fitfully, it is true, to assimilate the Welsh people and so destroy the Welsh nation.  The attitude to language is an example of this.  In the middle of the last century virtually the whole of Wales was Welsh speaking.”   He also underlined that the Welsh language was the only language that had ever been used in Wales to conduct the business of government.  “The language which was the language of laws and government in Wales, of kings and princes, scholars and artists has been made a pariah language in this country…. It is the English order which robbed them of their heritage.”

Evans essentially treated language as a historical character that had managed to survive hundreds of years of oppression by the English.  Though the Welsh language was in severe decline in usage by the 1960s and 1970s, the memory of the majority of Wales being Welsh-speaking was relatively recent and the language could be considered victorious for having survived so long.  The 1891 census revealed that 54.4 percent of the Welsh population spoke Welsh, and in 1801, it was 80 percent.  To me, it is even more remarkable that in 1801, 70% of the Welsh population were monoglots!

As he did with his characterization of the Welsh nation itself, Evans emphasized the durability and permanence of the Welsh language, which he believed would be able to endure for years to come:

If Welsh people only had freedom, they would be found to do more than justify their existence.  After all, we have been there a long time, and there is a growing movement throughout the country now, mainly among the younger generation, which is determined that this ‘ancient nation proud in arms,’ as Milton called her, will be there for a long time to come and that the language, so greatly enriched by the Romans when they lived among us – there are over 1,000 Latin words in the Welsh language from those distant days – will again be spoken through the length and breadth of our land.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of language to Evans as a way to legitimize the cause of national freedom was that, while national heroes like Llywelyn ap Gryffudd and Owain Glyndŵr were relegated to history and could not be brought back, there was still hope that the language would be revived and would continue to play a defining role in Welsh national identity.

In his first term in Parliament, Evans received negative reactions from several of his fellow MPs.  One accused him of spouting “folklore” instead of focusing on important economic issues.  Joined by two other Plaid Cymru MPs in his second term, Evans gained greater freedom to concentrate on constituency issues.  Responses to Evans from other parties became more positive.  The one issue which consistently garnered respect from his fellow MPs was the Welsh language, with MPs referring to the language as “vital” and “beautiful.”

Within Wales itself, however, the language was controversial.  By the 1960s and 1970s, less than a quarter of the population spoke Welsh.  Gwyn A. Williams wrote that by the beginning of the 1980s, English-speaking Welsh people felt that they were increasingly being denied membership of the Welsh nation precisely by the linguistic nationalism of Plaid Cymru: “Such people constitute four-fifths of the Welsh population and over two-thirds of those who could be considered biologically Welsh.  What sort of Welsh nation or Welsh people is going to survive this?”  How could Evans reconcile the realities of the situation with his belief in the prominence of language?

Evans insisted that Welsh identity was inclusive, open to anybody regardless of descent, blood, or language.  However, Welsh-speakers were the traditional basis of support for Plaid Cymru.  By 1979, Welsh speakers were five times more likely to vote for Plaid Cymru than non-Welsh speakers.  Plaid Cymru faced the difficulty of endeavoring to be the party of Wales while being perceived to exclude four-fifths of the population.  However, if Evans had imagined Welsh nationalism as separate from the Welsh language, what would have been the fate of the language itself?

After 1979, Evans continued to be an important force for Welsh nationalism and language.  Largely due to his threatened hunger strike in 1980, Conservatives followed through with establishing a Welsh-language television channel.  Evans was the only non-Labour politician whom Alun Michaels, the initial First Secretary of the National Assembly, cited as having contributed to the establishment of devolution.  Evans imagined a Welsh identity which was an incomplete picture of the Welsh situation, but which had important lasting effects in helping to lead to devolution and in helping to protect the Welsh language.

Suggested Reading:

Evans, Gwynfor. For the Sake of Wales: The memoirs of Gwynfor Evans. Trans. Meic Stephens.  Caernarfon: Welsh Academic Press, 1996.

Evans, Gwynfor. Land of my Fathers: 2000 Years of Welsh History. Swansea: John Penry Press, 1974.

Parliamentary Debates, Fifth Series.

Balsom, Denis. “No Going Back,” in Birth of Welsh Democracy: The first term of the National Assembly for Wales. Ed. John Osmond and J. Barry Jones. Cardiff: Institute of Welsh Affairs, 2003.

Butt Philip, Alan. The Welsh Question: Nationalism in Welsh politics, 1945-1970. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1975.

Davies, John. Plaid Cymru since 1960. Aberystwyth: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, 1997.

McAllister, Laura. Plaid Cymru: The Emergence of a Political Party. Bridgend: Seren, 2001.

Williams, Gwyn A. When Was Wales?: A History of the Welsh. London: Black Raven, 1985.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s