Cymdeithas at 50: Attaining psychological freedom

Menna Machreth explains how non-violent direct action can become a way of life

In its most conservative sense non-violent direct action means withdrawing from using violence in any form and also taking full responsibility for one’s actions. All members of Cymdeithas yr Iaith know they must adhere to this principle if they wish to take part in any activity on behalf of the society. As a strategy it has proved the best way to yield concessions from the authorities since the 1960s. It has been very successful in drawing people together, and should be praised for ensuring that the only valid forms of activity for the Welsh language organisation were peaceful ones. It succeeded in preventing violent strategies from gaining credence.

Fighting for the language

In a series of articles through this week we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg in 2012. Tomorrow Simon Brooks argues that the language needs a constitutional pressure group to respond to devolution.

Non-violent direct action is usually associated with peaceful civil disobedience  – sit-ins, painting road signs and so on. However, Cymdeithas also considers the other 99 per cent of its work – lobbying, petitioning, writing letters and policies, organizing gigs – as non-violent direct action. I view it not only as a method of campaigning, but more importantly as an attitude of life. In its more open sense it is making a stand for justice in every situation. Sometimes, that means deciding to take part in a sit-in as part of a strategic campaign. Most of the time, however, it means doing the little things, working together for change.

The hypocrisy of governments and big business has wrecked communities throughout Wales and has tied people to the system. People of all ages and backgrounds have joined Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg over the years because it encourages questioning the system around us. Cymdeithas offers an alternative viewpoint based on freeing oneself psychologically from fear and selfishness.

I learned this lesson when I realised that campaigning was not something I could be self-righteous about. Why campaign in the first place? The answer, simply, is love. As clichéd as it sounds, longstanding active members of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, like Siân Howys and Ffred Ffransis and many more, have exemplified that their campaigning is driven by a love to see justice and freedom in this world – by equipping each other with active peace. Their integrity is powerful. Dwi wedi penderfynu bod yn rhydd (I’ve decided to be free), as the song says, is a state of mind, an alternative to the violence exemplified by the powers of this world, and an attitude which can be adopted now to bring change to society.

Whether I’m writing e-mails to AMs or holding a sit-in at a phone shop, non-violent direct action is a way of life. Organising gigs and raising money are also important contributions from people who aren’t able to campaign publicly. After devolution, Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg has gradually gained more access to politicians, enabling us to convey our view on matters concerning the Welsh language and communities. Naturally, having our own government means there has been a substantial decrease in civil disobedience. Even so, the last year has seen Cymdeithas return to these methods as Westminster and the BBC in London took decisions on S4C’s future undemocratically.

Since the 1970s, we have produced a great deal detailed policy papers as part of our campaign. These days I can present a new policy proposal we’ve developed as part of a campaign directly into the hands of a Welsh Government minister, which is a very different experience to previous leaders of Cymdeithas. The campaign for the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol was a good example of how we, as a group of students within Cymdeithas, made a difference to public policy in Wales. It was a joy to see all our campaigning come to fruition and seeing some of our suggestions being adopted. Without campaigning by many groups in Wales, there would be no institution dedicated to securing Welsh medium higher education in the country.

Some people may think that the only future for Cymdeithas is inside the establishment. I believe Cymdeithas has an important role in setting expectations for the place of the Welsh language within Wales, but we need to be in a position where we can constantly re-evaluate the campaigns and call for a radical vision. Cymdeithas needs to increase its work on policy and lobbying, but it also needs to be in a position to make radical calls for change. Civil disobedience must be an option for a campaign. If it is deployed it is a sign of the severity of the situation.

Although there is a new context following the creation of the National Assembly in 1999, members of Cymdeithas yr Iaith do not see devolution as an end in itself. The struggle for the language and our communities since 1997 has only confirmed this. It has become clear that we are still striving for freedom, mainly to free the new Wales from the old British bureaucratic way of thinking. We have devolution on paper, in constitutional terms, but not in the mind-set of the people of Wales. If we are to fully realise devolution we need to release our nation from forever mimicking Westminster.

Our main campaign from now on is to encourage communities to free themselves from being controlled and shaped by the desires of the market. In north Wales we are re-visiting an old slogan Tai, Gwaith, Iaith (Housing, Work, Language) to try and envisage how sustainable communities can be realised and stop the building of thousands of unwanted houses. In order to re-think Wales and free ourselves from hypocrisy, non-violent direct action as a way of life is as relevant as ever to get to grips with the task in front of us.

Menna Machreth is Chair of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg in north Wales.

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