Cymdeithas at 50: Making the campaign fit for the future

Huw Lewis says Cymdeithas faces questions about its organisation, methods and policy






Huw Lewis

Wales is a country that witnessed a range of far-reaching social changes during the second half of the 20th Century – some positive in nature and others negative. On the positive side, there was arguably no greater change than that which occurred in relation to the fortunes of the Welsh language. In linguistic terms, today’s Wales is very different from the Wales of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Fighting for the language

In a series of articles in the past week we have been celebrating the 50th anniversary of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg in 2012. All of thse articles appear in the current issue of the IWA’s journal Agenda.

While it would be a step too far to suggest that this linguistic transformation resulted solely from the efforts of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, it is certain that the movement’s active and persistent a campaigning was a key driving factor, and that a number of positive developments would not have occurred had it not been established back in 1962. Indeed, I believe that it is important that we acknowledge this fact as Cymdeithas approaches its fiftieth birthday.

However, despite the progress made over recent decades, it is generally agreed that questions still remain regarding the long-term sustainability of the Welsh language. Given this, it is important that Cymdeithas itself does not treat this significant milestone as solely an occasion to acknowledge past achievements. It should also use it as an opportunity to reflect critically on contemporary sociolinguistic and political trends and their implications for the manner in which it organises itself and its campaigns.

Many – including numerous members and supporters – would probably agree that such critical self-reflection has not always been one of the movement’s main strengths. Indeed, ironically, a group that has been extremely radical in terms of its political agenda has been characterised by significant internal conservatism.

I should hasten to add that Cymdeithas is not alone in this respect. Moreover, having spent a long period acting as a member of its senate, including two years as chair, I know better than most how difficult it can be to find time to stand back and engage in discussions of a more strategic nature in which traditional assumptions and ways of working are questioned. It is easy to get lost in the minutia of particular campaigns – how does one ensure that the next public meeting is a success or that the next publicity stunt receives press attention. This is particularly true when the movement is a relatively small one, which still depends largely on the efforts of volunteers.

Yet, the truth is that any movement that does not take the time to reflect critically on its own performance and to ask itself uncomfortable questions runs the risk of falling into a rut, which, in turn, can mean that important opportunities are missed. Given this, I wish to propose three key questions that I believe need to be considered carefully by Cymdeithas yr Iaith as it enters its sixth decade of campaigning:

1. Organization: How much emphasis should be placed on the task of developing a network of active local branches?

Over the years Cymdeithas has consistently seen the task of developing a network of active local branches as a priority. The importance assigned to this task is reflected in the fact that employment strategies have regularly emphasised the need for a number of full-time field workers who can facilitate activity among grass-roots members.

However, questions need to be raised regarding the extent to which this grass-roots work should still be prioritised. Firstly, despite significant efforts, and also despite the use of a significant amount of financial resources, attempts to develop an active and sustainable local network have, thus far, proved largely unsuccessful. Secondly, and more importantly, it could be argued that developing a stronger central structure, and in particular, employing a handful of individuals who can develop real expertise in relevant policy areas, would be a better use of resources and would allow for tangible gains in relation to the movement’s current campaigns.

In raising this issue, I am not suggesting that there is no need at all for a pool of local supporters. What I do ask, however, is whether the focus should always be on the local level when it comes to questions regarding how the movement is to be structured.

2. Methods: What role, if any, should direct action play in efforts to advance the movement’s campaigns?

There is no question that the willingness of Cymdeithas yr Iaith to make use direct action techniques has led, over the years, to a number of significant gains. And yet, despite this, it would be a mistake to treat the movement’s campaigning methods as an issue that is beyond any critical evaluation.

At the very least, the particular direct action techniques that are employed are surely due for revision. Over the years, these techniques have remained relatively consistent, mainly comprising painting slogans, occupying offices and, at times, breaking in to certain buildings. However, all this seems to have become rather stale. It might be time to take a leaf out of the book of a group such as Greenpeace, where the actions prioritised seem to be ones that have the potential for visual impact, rather than material damage.

It might even be time to go even further and ask whether direct action – in any form – still represents an effective means of promoting the movement’s goals. Back in the days when all we had was a Welsh Office run by a succession ‘Conservative Viceroys’, the opportunities for constructive discussion regarding the nature of language policy were extremely rare, and as a result, direct action served as a means of ensuring that the issue could not be pushed off the agenda completely.

However, the establishment of the National Assembly has led to new opportunities. It is now possible to engage on a regular basis, not only with Welsh Government Ministers and opposition AMs, but also with various civil servants, and by doing so, ensure that informed debate on language related matters takes place. Yet, it must be questioned whether such opportunities can be exploited fully if one is also engaging in direct action against the offices occupied by these same individuals. Put simply, while in the days of the Welsh Office direct action served as a means to force open doors that were tightly shut, today it possibly only serves to close doors that are already open.

3. Policy: What are the implications of recent changes in patterns of social interaction for traditional arguments regarding the importance of ‘Welsh-speaking communities’?

This final question is one that should not only concern members of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, but also those of the wider Welsh language movement. Over the years many have argued that when assessing the language’s prospects we need to look beyond national figures regarding the numbers of individuals across Wales who report that they are able to speak Welsh, and focus in more detail on the situation at the community level.

In particular, it has been emphasised that a proper assessment of the language’s health needs to include an analysis of the number of communities in which it is spoken by between 60 and 70 per cent of the population. Moreover, it is argued that any effort to ensure that the language can flourish into the future must include efforts to sustain such ‘Welsh-speaking communities’. This is deemed vital, as it is only in these areas where we can say that there is a sufficient density of Welsh speakers for the language to be used on a daily basis as the normal language of interaction.

It is striking that in recent years these claims regarding the centrality of community sustainability for the future of the Welsh language have been advanced without any serious consideration of the manner in which structural changes have transformed the manner in which people live their lives and interact with one another. By today, the idea of a defined territorial community – rural or urban – that acts as the main locus for the lives of individuals is one that does not hold the same significance as it did a decade or so ago. Without a doubt, this is an issue that has serious implications for the arguments traditionally advanced by members of the Welsh language movement, and as a result, it calls for much greater consideration than it has received thus far. Given recent changes, is the traditional local community (defined in most cases by either parish or council ward boundaries) still a meaningful unit on which to base the majority of our revitalization strategies? If not, how should we seek to ensure that the Welsh language possesses the kind of territorial base that will allow it to flourish?

Unfortunately, there is nowhere near enough space here to begin the process of considering appropriate answers to these questions. In many ways this is fortunate. At present I have nothing close to fully formed answers, particularly in relation to the third question. I am, nevertheless, certain that engaging with such questions should be seen as a priority by Cymdeithas yr Iaith if it wishes its contribution over the next fifty years to be as significant as it was during the preceding fifty.

Huw Lewis is a lecturer at Aberystwyth University's Department of International Politics. He is a former chair of Cymdeithas yr Iaith.