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Gwynfor Evans and Welsh Politics

Volume 612: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the commemoration of the contribution of Gwynfor Evans to Welsh politics.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Stringer. It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and to introduce this debate in honour of the late, great Gwynfor Evans. Before I start in earnest, I thank Lord Dafydd Wigley for sharing his 2012 lecture on the life and work of Gwynfor. I am also indebted to Gwynfor’s former chief of staff, Peter Hughes Griffiths, for his invaluable input. As one of his parliamentary successors, it is an enormous honour for me to pay tribute to him in this House for his achievements and contribution.

Gwynfor was the greatest Welshman of the 20th century. I never had the privilege of meeting him, which is one of the greatest regrets of my life. I travelled to his funeral in Aberystwyth with my predecessor, Adam Price, a matter of days before the 2005 Westminster election. We do not do state funerals in Wales yet, but that day was most certainly an unofficial one. The town ground to a standstill as people travelled from all parts of our country and beyond to pay their respects.

In his lecture, Dafydd Wigley answered his own question on why Gwynfor was so important to Wales and our nation. At the funeral, he said in his tribute:

“If Gwynfor had not believed with such passion, exhibited such an unwavering commitment, such an incredible perseverance, then Wales would not be what it is today. It was he who created the aspiration within us”.

That is why Gwynfor is seen as the father of modern Wales. Without him, we would not have our own Senedd, our own Government, or a clear demand among our fellow citizens for greater autonomy. It is a fitting tribute that the latest YouGov poll last night put Welsh support for independence within the EU at 35%.

Without Gwynfor, we would not have our own dedicated Welsh language channel. Perhaps more importantly, we would not have our clear sense of Welsh nationhood—that common bond displayed so wonderfully over recent weeks at the Euro 2016 championship in France. Without him, we would not be discussing yet another Wales Bill later today. Of course, his influence goes far beyond our country. Arguably, without him Scotland would not be on the verge of independence—an inevitability hastened by the events of 23 June.

The brilliant Wales football manager Chris Coleman said after the famous 3-1 victory over Belgium in the quarter final of the Euro 2016 championship last Friday:

“Don’t be afraid to have dreams. Don’t be afraid to fail”.

He was not referring to Gwynfor when he said those words, but they sum up the impact that the great man had on the thinking of the generations of Welsh nationalists who followed him.

The stimulus for this debate was, of course, Gwynfor’s incredible victory in the Carmarthen parliamentary by-election in 1966, exactly 50 years ago. Perhaps one of the most iconic photographs in Welsh political history is the one of Gwynfor, perched on the balcony of the guildhall in Carmarthen, addressing the thousands upon thousands of people who had converged on the town that summer evening on 14 July 1966.

At the time of the by-election, Plaid Cymru was in a very bad position. We had contested 23 Welsh constituencies in the 1966 general election and lost deposits in every seat but two. There were real divisions within the national movement about the way forward following the election, and about the despair felt at the powerlessness of the people of Wales to stop the drowning of our valleys for English exploitation once Tryweryn had been opened.

The party, in a Brexit state of financial despair, was only able to fight the by-election following the generosity of that other great political leader of Carmarthenshire, D. J. Williams, who sold his family home, Penrhiw in Rhydcymerau. In a result that changed history, Gwynfor won 39% of the vote and secured a majority of 2,000. It was an earthquake that shook Welsh and UK politics to its core. It blew apart the myth that Plaid Cymru could never win a parliamentary election. It inspired generations to fight for the cause of Wales and, thankfully, secured the principle that the national movement could achieve its political objectives via constitutional means.

I join in the tribute to Gwynfor, who I met once when he was campaigning for S4C. The Carmarthen by-election laid the ground for the fantastic by-election in Hamilton the following year, when Winnie Ewing won for the Scottish National party and started the rise of our party. We pay great tribute to Gwynfor and to the history of both our parties.

I am grateful for that intervention, which shows the very close links between Plaid Cymru and the SNP. I shall be referring to the Hamilton by-election shortly.

Gwynfor’s victory was no fluke. In March 1967, Vic Davies won 39.9% of the vote in the Rhondda and cut the Labour majority to just 2,000. In 1968, the polymath Professor Phil Williams won more than 40% of the vote in Caerphilly, losing by only 1,800 votes, with a swing of 29%. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was in a state of panic about the national upsurge in Wales and Scotland, where the SNP’s Winnie Ewing had won the Hamilton by-election in November 1967, so he set up a royal commission. The resulting report by the Kilbrandon commission was published in 1973 and recommended legislative Parliaments for Scotland and Wales.

For Plaid Cymru, Gwynfor’s victory led to representation in this House over the past 50 years by politicians of incredible calibre. Gwynfor was followed by Dafydd Wigley and Dafydd Elis-Thomas in 1974; Ieuan Wyn Jones in 1987; Cynog Dafis and Elfyn Llwyd in 1992; Simon Thomas in a by-election in 2000; and my direct predecessor, Adam Price, and Plaid Cymru’s current parliamentary leader, my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), in 2001. I was elected in 2010, and my talented hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) was elected in 2015. I genuinely stand on the shoulders of giants—politicians whose names will be celebrated in Welsh history for eternity. Without Gwynfor, though, it is highly unlikely that any of the aforementioned individuals would have graced this place and made their own vital contributions in developing our nation.

In this House, Gwynfor made his mark on a plethora of political subjects. His deep commitment on issues such as nuclear disarmament, industrial democracy, social co-operation and international concord allowed him to make a significant impact on Westminster politics. Men of conviction often face ridicule from their detractors. As they say, “First they ignore you, then they fight you, then they agree with you”. That was certainly the case for Gwynfor, who faced personal hostility unworthy of this House. However, much like other great political leaders across the world, from Ghandi to Mandela, at the time of his death there was a general recognition across the political spectrum that his contribution transcended partisan lines.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a credit to Gwynfor Evans’ vision of nation building that the poll to which he referred earlier shows that Plaid Cymru’s support is at its highest ever level?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I definitely believe that we would not be where we are without Gwynfor’s contribution. Even if they did not agree with him, everybody accepted that he based his politics on principle, and that everything he did was aimed at creating a better Wales.

Gwynfor was born in 1912 in the Barry. He was brought up in a deeply Christian family, and his religious non-conformism was very important to him. Despite the huge political pressures on him, Gwynfor continued to teach Sunday school at his local chapel in Llangadog after moving to Carmarthenshire. While I was doing research for this speech, I learned of Gwynfor’s great love of cricket. He represented the Welsh schools team during the 1930 season. Since being elected, I have campaigned for a Welsh national side. Considering the fact that in the past decade our great nation has reached a rugby world cup semi-final and won three grand slams, and that tomorrow our football team will play for a place in the Euro 2016 final—I am wearing a Welsh national football tie in their honour—it is about time we had a national cricket team.

Gwynfor awakened to the cause of Wales while at Aberystwyth University. It must be contagious, as both myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd were fortunate enough to study there, as was the Under-Secretary of State for Wales—I am delighted to see him in his place and that he will be responding to the debate. I am informed that the piece of literature that sealed the proverbial deal was the masterpiece “The Economics of Welsh Self-Government”, by my political hero D. J. Davies. D. J. had written his booklet in 1931, and by 1934 Gwynfor was a fully paid up member of Plaid Cymru. As Gwynfor’s biographer, the BBC journalist Rhys Evans, said, that changed Welsh history:

“It was Gwynfor who created the national movement…Gwynfor was also the founder of the Parliament for Wales campaign…There is now a lasting memorial to that organisation in Cardiff Bay—it is the Assembly, the unmistakable symbol, for better or worse, of the desire of the people of Wales to live as a democratic nation.”

In 1937, Gwynfor became a member of the party’s national executive committee and by 1943 he was vice-president. Then, at the Llangollen conference of 1945, just five days before the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, he was elected as president of Plaid Cymru, aged just 32. He would remain the party’s leading political figure for the next 36 years.

Despite his burning nationalism, it is important to remember that Gwynfor was a great internationalist. He was also a committed pacifist, so I am sure that he would have been proud that I am probably the only living person on Earth who has entered the Pentagon and proclaimed, in a meeting with the top military brass, that I am a member of an anti-war party. I am sure Gwynfor would have enjoyed my mischievous intentions.

For Gwynfor, his pacifism was arguably even more important than his nationalism, and he campaigned vigorously against the Vietnam war. His economics strongly supported economic units that are larger than nations, which I suppose is a lesson for Brexiters. He believed that a free market is a device that safeguards the individuality of nations. He strongly supported a British single market and I suspect that if he were alive today he would be doing everything he could to secure tariff-free access to the European single market.

It is not called “the national struggle” for nothing, and Gwynfor’s career is living proof of that. He had to overcome several bitter electoral losses. In his darkest moments, he would walk from his home in Talar Wen, near Llangadog, and climb the slopes of the Garn Goch. Like many of my fellow citizens, I find that our beautiful landscape is a source of endless inspiration and therapy. The love for our land and our people is the basis of our politics. It is fitting, therefore, that Gwynfor’s memorial is suitably located on that barren mountain, which overlooks the beautiful Tywi valley.

However, there is no doubt that for Gwynfor the biggest political blow was the devastating loss of the 1979 referendum. With a Government majority of only three, Plaid Cymru and Scottish National party MPs skilfully forced the concession of national referendums in their respective countries. While Scotland voted yes, only to be denied their own parliament by a clause that required a threshold of 40% of the electorate voting for change, Wales voted overwhelmingly against even a meagre form of self-government.

Dafydd Wigley wrote that Gwynfor wanted to accept that the Labour Government were sincere in their promise that they supported devolution, despite the proposed model being far weaker than the model recommended by the Kilbrandon Commission, as it had no legislative or taxation functions. However, Labour allowed its MPs based in Wales to campaign for a no vote. In the end, 79.74% of people voted against self-government, and there is no doubt that Gwynfor took the loss personally. He felt completely betrayed by Labour, which had allowed its MPs to work with the Tories against their own party. Soon after, the Labour Government lost a vote of no confidence and a general election was held, which the Tories, under Margaret Thatcher, won by a landslide. Gwynfor, after the morale-sapping defeat of the referendum, lost Carmarthen. He would never hold elected office again and there were genuine concerns about his health.

Gwynfor was offered a peerage, but he turned it down flatly, telling the party’s new Westminster Leader, Dafydd Wigley, that there was only one Lord and that he did not abide in a palace on the banks of the Thames. A lesser man would have been crushed mentally and physically by the twin political blows of 1979. However, Gwynfor was about to embark on arguably his most famous battle.

The new Conservative Government had pledged during the election in 1979 to create a new Welsh language television channel. Gwynfor viewed such a channel as a vital step to help secure Welsh as a living language in the modern world. In his epic autobiography, “For the Sake of Wales – The Memoirs of Gwynfor Evans”, he recounts the battle for S4C in great detail. On 12 September 1979 in Cambridge, the new Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, announced in a surprise statement that the new Government would not honour their pledge to set up a new Welsh language channel.

Gwynfor suspected that the decision of the Home Secretary was a case of the Westminster establishment taking advantage of the desperation in the national movement. The response in Wales to the decision was uproar. Getting both main Westminster parties to agree to a Welsh TV channel had been one of the great successes of the Welsh national movement in the 1970s, which was won only after heavy terms of imprisonment had been imposed on many patriots. For the language campaigners of Cymdeithas Yr aith, the TV channel was a priority if Welsh had any hope of surviving as a living language.

Gwynfor saw the decision as a direct attempt to break the spirit of the Welsh people once and for all. In his memoirs, he quotes the bard T Gwynn Jones:

“Ysbryd Gwlad! Os badog lu

Cas Iwyth fu’n ceisio’i lethu

Iddo trwy hyn ni ddaw tranc

Heb ddiwedd y bydd ieuanc.”

That roughly translates as:

“A country’s spirit! If treacherous and vicious throng ‘have tried to quench it, it will never be overcome by this, but will remain endlessly young.”

Gwynfor therefore viewed the decision as a direct challenge to the existence of the Welsh nation. Considering the crushing personal blows that he had just received, it says everything about the stature of the man that he had the clarity of thought to motivate himself once more. With patriots across the country—including some of the greats of the nation, such as Cynog Dafis, Meredyth Evans, Ned Thomas and Pennar Davies—up in arms and even taking direct action against TV transmitters, Gwynfor committed himself to one last action for his country.

Dafydd Wigley has recounted how he and Gwynfor were returning in a car from a St David’s day dinner in Llanberis in 1980 when Gwynfor said, out of the blue, that he would not be with Dafydd the following year as it was his intention to fast until death over the betrayal of the new Government. Gwynfor did not expect the Thatcher Government to back down; he expected to die. However, it was a sacrifice he was willing to make, because his primary aim was to motivate the Welsh nation to believe once again in their country and face down the challenge of the British establishment.

Gwynfor decided that he would make his statement in May and, following the advice of his son-in-law, the great language campaigner Ffred Ffransis, he decided to give the Government five months’ warning before beginning the hunger strike in his study in Talar Wen. He would begin his fast to death on 5 October 1980, but before then he embarked on a national tour. The response of the Welsh establishment was hostile to say the least, but Gwynfor galvanised the national movement.

Media coverage extended far beyond the borders of Wales; The Sunday Times even carried a sympathetic article in the language of heaven itself. TV crews from Canada and Germany turned up at Talar Wen. Articles appeared in the main newspaper of Catalonia, in Scandinavia and in The New York Times. The campaign gained momentum, leading many people to plead with Gwynfor that he could achieve far more if he called off his threat to fast. However, his mind was set; he felt that he could achieve far more for Wales by dying than by living, and that that was the appropriate action to take.

Peter Hughes Griffiths and the party’s chief executive, Dafydd Williams, helped Gwynfor to arrange 22 meetings between 6 September and the beginning of the fast. About 2,000 people turned up to the launch of the series of talks at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff, the home of Welsh cricket. The following night, Gwynfor was in Glasgow, where over a thousand people attended the meeting at the McLellan Galleries. At the same time, the great and the good of Wales, including the Archbishop of Wales, Gwilym O Williams, Sir Goronwy Daniel, Michael Foot and Cledwyn Hughes, held meetings with Government Ministers and implored them to reconsider. However, Gwynfor received feedback that the Government had no intention of making a U-turn.

The speaking tour continued and, as Gwynfor wrote in his memoirs, there were signs that Welsh nationalism was on the verge of becoming an overwhelming force. He wrote that it is a simple truism that that is the only thing that Westminster fears in Wales, and it fears it greatly. I personally live for the day when the people of Wales grasp this simple reality, as the people of Scotland have.

On Wednesday 17 September, the Government yielded and Margaret Thatcher would perform her first and possibly her only U-turn as Prime Minister. However, Gwynfor’s first reaction was disappointment, not elation. He thought that a few more weeks of campaigning would have shifted the tectonic plates in Wales for ever.

The meeting that night was scheduled for Crymych, and when Gwynfor announced his intention to withdraw his threat of going on hunger strike, the 800-strong crowd erupted in emotion. It was his greatest political victory and to make the point somebody mischievously painted on the banks of the Embankment, opposite this House, “Gwynfor 1 - Thatcher 0”. We will settle for that score tomorrow night, Mr Stringer.

A half-hour debate of this nature could never do justice to the contribution of Gwynfor Evans. If I had a full day of debate, I could talk about Gwynfor the Christian, Gwynfor the internationalist, Gwynfor the pacifist, Gwynfor and Europe, and Gwynfor the historian. He was also a prolific writer, publishing well over a million words. If the opportunity to speak about Gwynfor arises again in future, I am confident that I would comfortably beat the record four-hour speech that William Gladstone made in this House when he delivered his 1853 Budget.

Following the events of the last few weeks, I have given some thought in preparing this speech to how Gwynfor would have reacted if he was alive today. It would not be right of me to presume to know the thinking of a far superior intellect than mine, but based on his writings I think we can safely assume that he would now be advancing the need for our country to position ourselves economically within a tariff-free single market as an imperative; that politically Wales must have the freedom to choose its own future; and that when the UK ceases to exist following Scottish independence, as I foresee, that will be a material change in condition, and our nation will again need to have a debate and a vote about where our future lies.

Gwynfor’s place in history is secure. He was chosen by readers of Wales on Sunday and the weekly Welsh-language publication Y Cymro as a millennium icon, ahead of Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan, and even ahead of Owain Glyndwr. Glyndwr was ranked the seventh most prominent global figure of the past millennia by The Sunday Times, which gives an indication of the esteem in which Gwynfor is held within Wales, and across the world.

Gwynfor Evans died at his home in Pencarreg on the morning of Thursday 21 April 2005, at the age of 92. His biographer, Rhys Evans, says:

“Gwynfor wanted to return to Garn Goch, to the soil, the land of Wales where his politics had taken root. Nevertheless, as his ashes blow in the wind, his legacy survives.”

As I said earlier, my great friend Dafydd Wigley offered incredible help in composing this speech. When I asked him to summarise Gwynfor’s political contribution to our country—and I will finish with this as I could not put it better myself—he replied:

“Gwynfor Evans was Wales’ greatest 20th century patriot. Without his dedication and unswerving determination, Wales wouldn’t today have the degree of national autonomy we enjoy and neither would the Welsh language have secured its official status. Future generations will look back to the 1966 by-election as a turning point in our history and salute the good people of Carmarthenshire for making it happen.”

Diolch yn fawr iawn.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on his speech, which was very passionate, as I would have expected. It was slightly OTT at times, not in relation to Gwynfor Evans but in his comments about the way in which politics is moving in Wales. It is early days to measure the impact of the EU referendum on Wales, but I certainly join in with the mood of the Chamber in highlighting Gwynfor Evans’s contribution of to the life of Wales over the past century and his continuing influence on the way in which Welsh life and politics are developing. It is a sad reflection on that contribution that Carmarthen voted to leave the European Union, which must have been a great disappointment to the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr—it certainly was to me.

In our sampling, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr voted conclusively for remain. It was Llanelli that let us down, so it is the Labour party’s fault.

I am more than happy to accept that straw poll evidence, but it is important to say that Gwynfor was associated with Carmarthenshire and with Wales, and there is no denying that in both contexts the result was a disappointment.

This is a great opportunity to join in the tributes to the life of Gwynfor Evans, 50 years after the political earthquake of the 1966 by-election. As the hon. Gentleman clearly stated, the party of which Gwynfor Evans became the first MP was not performing particularly well in the 1960s; there was a question mark over its future, so the 1966 result was transformational. Indeed, it contributed to the development of the Scottish National party, with the 1967 Hamilton by-election. Subsequently, even though the 1970 general election saw Gwynfor Evans lose his seat, before regaining it in 1974, there was an SNP victory in Western Isles. As a result, there has been SNP or Plaid Cymru representation in this place since 1966, which, I would argue, has contributed to the gaiety of the Chamber.

As has been mentioned, it is fair to say that Gwynfor Evans was a great writer, although whether he was a great historian remains to be seen. My grandfather was considered to be a historian and he knew Gwynfor Evans very well. I am glad that, unlike the hon. Gentleman, I met Gwynfor Evans on more than one occasion. I was at a victorious rally in Porthmadog back in 1980 when Gwynfor Evans was carrying on with his tour in relation to the S4C issue, obviously after the U-turn. I think Gwynfor took a leaf out of my grandfather’s book regarding history. My grandfather used to say that history was about saying good things about good people and I think that Gwynfor Evans’s view of history was to say good things about Wales, regardless of the evidence, but that is no bad thing. The purpose of his writing was to inform but also to persuade, and that is something we can forgive in an activist historian. I would argue that there is a place for such a historian.

If ever there was a political career that tried to replicate that of Robert the Bruce, Gwynfor’s was it. Time and again he failed, and time and again he carried on regardless. He stood unsuccessfully in Meirionnydd on at least two occasions, if not three, but there was never a situation in which he acknowledged defeat. The way in which Gwynfor took on adversity and carried on campaigning for what he believed in is a lesson for anyone involved in politics, and it clearly shows that political success is not necessarily measured in election success. I think I am right in saying that Gwynfor won only two elections in his entire career, but his contribution is much greater than that of many other Welsh MPs who won many more.

It is important to highlight Gwynfor’s political career, but the influence of that career relates not to the fact that he was elected to this place but to the way in which he fought for the Welsh language and culture, and the way in which he put those issues on the agenda. Early in his career, Gwynfor argued for the need for official recognition of the Welsh language. That came to pass. We had the Welsh Language Act 1967, which was rather weak but a step in the right direction, and I am proud to be a member of the party that delivered the Welsh Language Act 1993. I would go as far as to say that perhaps that Act was more carefully considered than the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, which was passed by the Welsh Assembly, but that would be a controversial statement at this point in time, and would go against the nature of the debate.

It is fairly clear that without the victory that Gwynfor Evans secured in 1966, the 1967 Act and the 1993 Act would not have been passed. The contribution of the two Acts was to normalise the concept of the Welsh language as part and parcel of everyone’s daily life. It is important to realise that before the Acts were passed, it was perfectly conceivable for children to be raised speaking Welsh at home and knowing that they lived in Aberteifi, yet to see a sign saying “Cardigan” when they were driven in and out of the town. The difference that 50 years has made is that everyone in Wales is now aware, when they drive into Wales, that Wales is a bilingual country. Back in 1966, when Gwynfor won that by-election that was certainly not the case, and we should acknowledge his contribution to the Welsh language. Clearly, there is still work to be done, but there is no doubt that the work that was started with such passion by Gwynfor Evans should be continued.

It should also be highlighted that Gwynfor Evans’s commitment was not just to the Welsh language as a stand-alone issue but to Welsh culture as well. I think I am right in saying that he chaired more national Eisteddfod days than any other politician and probably more than any other figure in the 20th century. His commitment was total: he was a Welshman through and through and he lived and breathed the language. We should also acknowledge the contribution that his family have subsequently made. Gwynfor was not someone who spoke in public about the need for the Welsh language and Welsh culture and then did nothing at home; he also delivered, ensuring that his family followed in his footsteps.

A few other issues are worth touching upon. S4C was undoubtedly the pinnacle of Gwynfor Evans’ career. S4C has been a political hot potato since I came into this place in 2010, and I hope I have contributed to protecting the funding of the fourth channel. It is genuinely superb to have been able to follow the Welsh football team all the way to the semi-finals of the European championship, and to do that with Welsh commentators. I pay tribute to players such as Aaron Ramsey who have been happy to tweet in Welsh during the tournament. The fact that we have Welsh coverage and Welsh pundits, such as Malcolm Allen—a credit to Wales, who could challenge the Icelandic commentator—is entirely due to the contribution made by Gwynfor Evans. It is crucial, therefore, that we maintain the support for and the funding of S4C because of its contribution not just to the culture of Wales but to its economy.

I am pleased to have been able to respond to the debate in the manner that I think would have been expected. The debate is a tribute to an important parliamentarian, but also to a politician who made much more of an impact outside the Chambers of this place than within them. I was not aware of the comment Gwynfor Evans made when he was offered a peerage—that there was only one Lord and that he did not reside on the bank of the Thames—and I leave hon. Members with this controversial comment: it is interesting that two of Gwynfor’s successors as party leader did not share that view.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.