Volume 3 Number 8
To Save the Heart of Wales
01 August 1990

The rulers of Wales were speaking Welsh when French-speakers ruled England. But today most Welsh speak only English. Paul Williams meets life-long Welsh nationalist Gwynfor Evans.

At 78, veteran Welsh nationalist Gwynfor Evans finds this an exciting time to be alive. `It is the most hopeful period of my lifetime,' he told me.

This optimistic tone stems from the reduction of tensions and the rebirth of nationalism in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. Unlike the earlier aggressive nationalisms of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, these nationalist revolutions are, he says, benign, democratic and above all peaceful. It is this last point that particularly fires the enthusiasm of this `apostle of nonviolent nationalism', as historian Kenneth 0 Morgan called Dr Evans. He senses that in such a Europe - a Europe of nations and historic regions - Wales can be at home.

Wales is a nation of 2.75 million people within the United Kingdom. In his singlevolume, Welsh-language history of Wales, Aros Mae, Evans dates the beginning of Welsh history at 383 when Magnus Maximus left Britain to claim the Roman Emperor's throne. He says, `In the two centuries that followed, the Welsh were the only people in the Roman Empire who succeeded in defending their people from Teutonic attack... the story of the Welsh defence in the 1,000 years that followed is a great story.'

Welsh is one of the oldest living languages in Europe, and sixth-century poems can be read by today's Welsh-speakers. Gwynfor Evans once reminded the British House of Commons that `Welsh was the language of law and government in Wales in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the language of law and government in England was largely French.'

For Wales, he says, the language represents more than just a means of communication. `It is the vehicle of the national culture. Through the language the nation's values and way of life are transmitted to the next generation.' Even though the majority in Wales cannot speak Welsh, it therefore continues to be the main element providing Wales with its particular identity and outlook.

Today, with only one fifth of those living in Wales able to speak Welsh and an increasing number of English coming to live there, the language is fighting for its survival.

Gwynfor Evans first studied Welsh because he couldn't stand the French teacher in the sixth form of his school in the South Wales port of Barry. He was the only one in his year to take the subject and he pinpoints this as his first `turning to Wales'. As the rich literature of Wales began to work on him, he began to develop a deep love for Welsh culture.

As a law student in Aberystwyth, Evans's principal interest was in international affairs. While still at school he had won a League of Nations scholarship to see the League at work in Geneva. Now he became Secretary and then Chairman of the thriving university International Relations Club. He was a dedicated internationalist before he became a nationalist.

His other great interest at Aberystwyth and later at Oxford was the Student Christian Movement (SCM). His pacifism, like his nationalism, sprang directly from his Christian convictions. `My faith has been basic to all my thought and action,' he told me. Through it he grasped the fundamental importance of the human person and that the way to express love to other people was through service. `I don't think love can be expressed in society as such without politics. Christianity for me is a very political religion and the Bible is a very political book.'

How did this lead him to nationalism? `It's not just a matter of love for Wales, but of trying to create a society in which every person can live his or her life to the fullest extent. We are a very old nation. People can best live their lives to the full when Wales as a nation lives her life to the full. And she can't do that unless she controls her life. That in turn means political action to ensure national freedom.'

Adulation and hatred
Now Honorary President of Plaid Cymru literally the Party of Wales - Gwynfor has never stated his aim for Wales as independence. He agrees with the founder of the party, Saunders Lewis, who declared in 1926, `It is not a fight for Wales's independence but for Wales's civilization.' He prefers to speak of national freedom, sufficient freedom to enable Wales to be herself. `We want to fashion our own environment in neighbourhood and nation. We are tired of having things done for us and to us from Whitehall.' An assembly or senedd for Wales would certainly be a welcome first step.

In his long crusade to awaken Wales to a sense of her national identity, Gwynfor Evans has known both triumphs and bitter disappointments. He has given a lifetime's work (and was prepared to give his life) for his vision of Wales. It has earned him intense adulation and vindictive hatred.

When Evans took over the Presidency of Plaid Cymru in 1945 he faced a daunting task. The party was still extremely small. His pacifism (he was Secretary of the Welsh Peace Pledge Union throughout the war) had not been popular. Nationalists were thought of as odd and their cause hopeless. Even his parents were doubters. `Why can't you be like other people, Gwynfor?' his mother asked. `Why can't you be a Liberal?'

Standing at elections and by-elections, where at first they did so badly that they regularly lost their deposits, standing for local councils, speaking at innumerable meetings up and down Wales, Evans and a dedicated band gradually built up support. The breakthrough came at the Carmarthen by-election of July 1966. In what at that time was seen as a sensational result, widely reported around the world, Gwynfor Evans was elected as Plaid Cymru's first ever MP.

By October 1974 there were three nationalist MPs, but great disappointment was to follow. On St David's day - Wales's national day - 1979, the Welsh people overwhelmingly rejected the Labour government's plans for `devolving' certain powers to a Welsh Assembly. It was a huge shock and Evans and his fellow nationalists felt humiliated in the eyes of the world. Wales, it seemed, was not ready to be a nation.

While his party was still reeling from this setback Evans helped to win one of the Welsh language's most significant victories. Both the Labour government that fell in 1979 and the incoming Conservative government had promised to establish a single television channel, controlled in Wales, for all the Welsh language programmes. Suddenly the government backtracked and announced that Welsh programmes would be divided among the existing channels.

There was uproar in Welsh language circles and a vigorous campaign was launched to get the government to change its mind. Gwynfor Evans made the dramatic announcement that he would begin a fast unto death in October 1980, unless the government backed down. He was fully prepared to go through with it. Three weeks before his deadline, and amidst mounting turmoil in Wales, the government yielded.

Evans and his wife Rhiannon have raised seven children and have 13 grandchildren. Before retirement he earned his living as a market gardener at Llangadog in the green rolling hills of the old Carmarthenshire. Now living in nearby Pencarreg, he says one of his greatest honours was being chosen as lay President of the Union of Welsh Independents (the Congregationalist Church in Wales).

He says that every nationalism is different: `There are as many nationalisms as there are nations.' He is inclusive when he refers to the Welsh nation, which he sees as a community. `I don't confine it to Welsh-born people. I would include anyone who comes to live here and who identifies himself or herself with our national community.' He dismisses any difference between the concepts of patriotism and nationalism. `It's a matter of terminology,' he says. `What they call patriotism in England we call nationalism in Wales.'

Nationalism, he asserts, does not inherently produce violence, but violent people do - in the name of a number of causes, ranging from religion to support for a soccer team. As early as 1938 he successfully proposed a motion binding Plaid Cymru to nonviolent methods. It has never been challenged. `I wonder if any other national party has held fast to a similar decision?' he muses. `We would like to be an example to Europe of that kind of living. No member of Plaid Cymru has raised a finger against anybody in pursuit of our goals. As a party we have never been anti-English.'

There has been criticism of this stance from more extreme elements. John Jenkins, the leader of the tiny `Free Wales Army' in the late Sixties, accused Plaid Cymru of being `prepared to sacrifice their people and their heritage on the shrine of respectability and pacifism'. But such voices were, and are, peripheral.

Last year Evans embarked on another campaign. He founded a movement aimed at reconciling and enlisting some of the newcomers flooding into Wales. It is called Pont which means `Bridge'. It was an imaginative response to what many see as a major threat to the Welsh language. `I saw that unless we could win the support of a substantial proportion of those who come to live among us, getting them to identify themselves with Wales and helping us to ensure the survival of our culture and language, then the culture and language would have no future.' Now branches of Pont are springing up in different parts of Wales, bringing incomers and Welsh-speakers together with a common aim.

Fellow Celts
Evans has always held that only the presence of a strong national movement in Wales has won advances for her. And in the last 30 years there have been many. He starts to list them - a Secretary of State for Wales in the Westminster Cabinet, the Welsh Office, the Welsh Development Agency, the Welsh Books Council, Radio Cymru and Radio Wales broadcasting 12 hours in Welsh and 12 in English respectively every day, the Welsh TV channel...

He has always wanted Wales to play her part in Europe and the wider world. He continues to maintain close contacts, not only with fellow Celts in Scotland, Ireland and Brittany, but with many of the representatives of the other minority languages spoken by nearly 50 million in the European Community.

Above all he sees Welsh language and literature as part of the wider European heritage. `The glory of Europe is her civilization, which inheres only in the national cultures and nowhere apart from them,' he says. `There are scores of them, and Europe is the richer for the contribution each of them, from its own beating heart as a separate community, makes to the whole.'

`There is,' said a Times profile on Gwynfor Evans in the Seventies, `a certain saintly quality about him that profoundly irritates his opponents.' There have been battles where the steel has shown through the velvet, but he is unfailingly kind and courteous to all, ally and opponent alike. Saintly is not a word that sits easily on a seasoned politician. Perhaps a happier image would be that of Arthurian chivalry, which he claims was one of Wales's earliest and greatest gifts to European civilization.

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