Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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Contemporary Wales

6.2.1 Welsh language activism

Beginning in the late 1940s, the Welsh Nationalist Party undertook a gradual transformation from acting primarily as a cultural movement to behaving like a conventional political party. Under the leadership of Gwynfor Evans, Plaid Cymru (as it was known from the 1950s) devoted itself to contesting elections for the Westminster parliament and for local government, with the goal of eventually winning self-government by constitutional means. However, progress was slow and by the early 1960s many members were disillusioned by their lack of success.

Then in February 1962, Saunders Lewis, one of the party’s founders and its president from 1926 to 1939, gave a radio address, ‘Tynged yr Iaith’, that was to have a profound effect on the nationalist movement. In his lecture, he reversed his earlier position that achieving self-government was the first priority and called for direct action and civil disobedience to win official recognition for the Welsh language in Wales.

This speech was an attempt to move Plaid Cymru away from what seemed at the time to be its completely futile electioneering. However, the effect was not to sway the party but rather to inspire a group of younger members to establish a new campaigning organisation, Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society). The Society’s first campaign was to establish the right to court summonses in Welsh, and they began their activities in February 1963 with a sit-down demonstration blocking Trefechan Bridge leading into Aberystwyth. The intent was to elicit summonses that could be refused for being in English. However, none were forthcoming, and it was not until 1966 that a member was arrested for refusing to display an English-only motor vehicle tax disc.

The Society’s major campaign in the late 1960s and 1970s was for bilingual road signs. This campaign, in which Cymdeithas members first painted out English-only signs, then later began to remove them entirely, attracted a great deal of negative publicity and also produced a large number of arrests over many years. Even so, as you will see, if judged by either government response or by its impact on Welsh society, it was a very successful campaign.

Prior to the appearance of this form of language activism – non-violent direct action against property – there had been no response by government to decades of more conventional political activism.

The only significant legislation on the language had been the Welsh Courts Act 1942, which had allowed Welsh speakers to give evidence in Welsh if they considered they were at a disadvantage using English. However, shortly after the Trefechan bridge demonstration, the government appointed the Hughes Parry Committee to enquire into the language’s legal status. The committee’s report resulted in the passage of the 1967 Welsh Language Act, which provided ‘equal validity’ for the Welsh language, basically that things done in Welsh in Wales had the same legal status as things done in English.

While it was an important step forward in terms of official recognition of the Welsh language, the Act was limited in its applicability and had no mechanism to compel adherence to the principle of equal validity. Nevertheless, the Bowen Committee, which was set up early in the 1970s to consider the issue of bilingual road signs, cited equal validity as the primary reason for recommending bilingual road signs (with Welsh given priority) throughout Wales. The subsequent appearance of Welsh/English road signs, albeit gradual and often disputed, gave official recognition, publicly displayed, not only to the Welsh language but also to the existence of a distinctive Welsh identity.

Many non-Welsh speakers also regarded this public display of the Welsh language as an affirmation of their Welsh identity. Recent research into changes in family life in Swansea between the 1960s and the start of the twenty-first century found many instances of a greater self-confidence in assertions of Welsh identity, and two interviewees made explicit references to Welsh road signs (Davies et al., 2006, p. 46). One said: ‘When I come over the Severn Bridge and I see the signs in Welsh, I’m happy.’ And another told us:

I’m Welsh and I’m proud that I’m Welsh. When I go over to England, because I mean I do travel around the country, when I go across to England, I say uh, that’s England, but as soon as I come to it, I say yes I’m home. As soon as you see that Welsh sign you’re home. Yeah. Very important that I’m Welsh. I mean I don’t speak Welsh.

The focus of Cymdeithas yr Iaith campaigns changed as different issues gained prominence. In the 1970s they concentrated on acquiring a Welsh-language television service using techniques such as climbing television masts to prevent broadcasting. This campaign was the only one in which they were joined officially by Plaid Cymru, which orchestrated a campaign of civil disobedience in 1980 when nearly two thousand people refused to pay their television license fee and Gwynfor Evans announced his intention to fast to the death unless the fourth channel, which was being set up at that time, was made a Welsh language channel in Wales.

During the 1980s and into the 1990s, Cymdeithas yr Iaith concentrated on two areas: (i) the perceived threat to Welsh-speaking communities from the conversion of housing stock to holiday homes and second homes; and (ii) the need for a new Welsh Language Act. We will return to the first of these a bit later.

For the quarter of a century following the passage of the 1967 Welsh Language Act campaigners worked to realise the promise of equal validity in a variety of contexts, such as provision of bilingual road-signs and official forms in Welsh and recognition of the right of individuals to correspond with public bodies in Welsh. As the Act’s shortcomings became all too apparent, demands for a new Act increased. The Act that was eventually forthcoming, the 1993 Welsh Language Act, provided that Welsh and English should be treated ‘on a basis of equality’ in the judicial system and in public administration, although the meaning of this ‘basis of equality’ was not fully clarified and was subject to considerations of practicality. The Act did not declare Welsh to be an official language in Wales despite the support for such a measure. But it did establish a mechanism to ensure that its provisions were carried out: the advisory Welsh Language Board became a statutory body with powers to oversee the development by public bodies of required Welsh language schemes to treat Welsh and English on a basis of equality. The Welsh Language Board was abolished in 2012 and its duties divided between the Welsh Language Commissioner and the Welsh Government.

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