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Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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6 Nationalism and the Welsh language

Charlotte Aull Davies

In the late 1960s and 1970s, an upsurge of organised ethnic activity in the developed countries of the West came as a complete surprise to most social commentators, whether from the academic world, journalism or politics. This activity appeared in different guises, depending in large measure on the nature of the state in which it occurred. In the United States, white ethnic groups increasingly sought greater recognition for their distinctive cultural identities in a conscious rejection of the ideology of the ‘melting pot’. Elsewhere, French speakers in Quebec and New Brunswick made use of the federal structure of the Canadian state to build movements that campaigned for official support for the French language by means of increased political autonomy.

Most long-established European states, including France, Spain and Great Britain, contain culturally distinct regions, which were absorbed by these states via conquest or other means between the late middle ages and the eighteenth century. Often called stateless nations today, these regions gave rise to movements for cultural and political recognition that waxed and waned from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards. During the 1970s, most of these ethnic nationalist movements – so called because they based their appeal for political autonomy on their cultural distinctiveness – among them the Welsh nationalist movement, also experienced a significant resurgence.

This resurgence is what first brought me – an anthropologist interested in the study of ethnic nationalism, with its intertwining of politics and culture – to Wales, and so began my intellectual and personal involvement with Welsh culture, identity and politics that has now spanned over three decades. When I first arrived in Wales in 1976, both cultural and political aspects of the nationalist movement were at a high ebb. The campaign for official recognition of the Welsh language, spearheaded by Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, had begun to have an effect with bilingual road signs increasingly to be seen and official forms beginning to be made available in Welsh. Plaid Cymru, the political party with Welsh self-government as its central aim, had three members of parliament elected in 1974, out of 36 Welsh MPs, and had made important advances in local government.

However, by the end of the decade, political nationalism was in a steep decline following a decisive ‘No’ vote in the 1979 referendum for devolution of political powers to Wales and Scotland, a decline from which it only began to recover toward the end of the 1980s. The Welsh language movement did not follow quite the same trajectory and achieved some important successes in the 1980s and 1990s, in particular the establishment in 1982 of S4C, the Welsh-language television service, and the passage of the 1993 Welsh Language Act.

The Welsh nationalist movement has been transformed because of the remarkable turnaround that produced a ‘Yes’ vote in the 1997 referenda to establish an elected assembly in Wales and a parliament in Scotland. Plaid Cymru, which continues to provide the main political expression of nationalist ideals, received a much higher percentage of the vote in the first National Assembly election in 1999 than it had ever done before in UK-wide elections and became the second largest party after Labour. As a consequence of the 2007 election results, Plaid Cymru became a party of government in coalition with the Labour Party until the 2011 election in a period when the powers of the National Assembly for Wales (NAW) were being extended.

But you will begin not with politics in the conventional sense but with culture and especially language. You will look first at the relationship between language, identity and nationalism and then at the role the Welsh language has played in Welsh national identity and in the nationalist movement.