Cymdeithas at 50: How devolution is changing the campaign

Simon Brooks argues that today the language needs constitutional pressure group

Any organisation celebrating its anniversary should be self-critical. Cymdeithas yr Iaith has not saved the Welsh language – the continued decline of Welsh-speaking communities attests to this. Yet it remains the most energetic and historically important part of the language movement. Despite this, it faces enormous challenges.

Fighting for the language

In a series of articles through this week we have been celebrating the 50th anniversary of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg in 2012. Tomorrow, lookingto the future Huw Lewis says the society faces questions about its organisation, methods and policy.

Cymdeithas is synonymous in the public imagination with direct action. This has played a significant and honourable role in recent Welsh history. Men and women with a Cymdeithas yr Iaith track record are prominent in public life. They include a serving Minister in the Welsh Government, several AMs, former heads of BBC departments, senior civil servants and the Wales Director of Ofcom, jailed for conspiracy in 1978. To this might be added innumerable councillors, ministers of religion, academics, company directors, school teachers, journalists and literary figures. If, as Mao said, revolutionaries need to swim among the people as fish swim in the sea, then Cymdeithas yr Iaith fits the bill. It has been a revolutionary movement of and for the people.

Notwithstanding this, if not in crisis, the Welsh language movement is at least in need of an overhaul. The reason is clear. The language movement has fundamentally misread its founding text, Saunders Lewis’ seminal 1962 lecture, Tynged yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language). The lecture is best understood as a treatise on the nature of a future Welsh State. If any future Welsh polity were not to use Welsh in its civic core, wrote Saunders, it would not be worth having. This, by the way, gives the current debate on a bilingual Record of Proceedings its poignancy.

Consequently, Plaid Cymru was the real target of Lewis’ infamous appeal that the Welsh language was “the only political matter it is worthwhile for a Welshman to concern himself with today”. The belief that politics alone could make the Welsh State Welsh (and that Plaid Cymru might fail to deliver on this) is inherent in Tynged yr Iaith’s argument that “language is more important than self-government”. For a non-parliamentary pressure group like Cymdeithas yr Iaith, the dichotomy has little meaning, at least in any strategic sense.

In practical terms, however, the distinction between political party and pressure group was of marginal significance in late 20th Century Wales. There was no Welsh Parliament, nor much hope of one. Plaid Cymru was itself little more than a pressure group on the Westminster stage. Moreover, the dangers which Saunders Lewis saw of nationalists in Government failing to promote the Welsh language were not immediately apparent. Indeed, it was Plaid Cymru, following Gwynfor Evans’ threat to hunger strike, which delivered the language movement’s most unexpected success, the establishment of S4C.

However, devolution has made Welsh Government a reality, and turned Plaid Cymru into a party of Government, rather than a body seeking to lobby Government. On the other hand, Cymdeithas yr Iaith has remained at arm’s length from the Assembly, still capable early in 2011 of the distinctly non-parliamentary wrecking of Conservative Party offices in Whitchurch.

A litany of Welsh-speaking intellectuals, from Cynog Dafis to Richard Wyn Jones, have made something of a cliché of accusing Cymdeithas yr Iaith of failing to adapt to devolution. Whether right or not, the reality is that currently the Welsh language movement has no dedicated and effective constitutional wing. If, as Tynged yr Iaith states, it is “by revolutionary means alone” that the Welsh language can be saved, today this must mean direct engagement with the Welsh State. There can be no revolution on the streets in post-devolution Wales. Democracy has done for that. The argument that Cymdeithas yr Iaith should respond to devolution by metamorphosing into a constitutional pressure group is superficially attractive.

Yet it is doubtful whether Cymdeithas yr Iaith is capable of making this shift. It remains a leftist radical organisation with its roots in 1960s protest. There is an emphasis on the innate morality of civil disobedience, driven by Christian and pacifist convictions, which was not part of Saunders Lewis’ worldview, and which is peculiarly unsuited to the task of influencing Government. All this makes transformation into a constitutional ginger group extremely difficult. An ideological blood transfusion of this severity carries with it the very high risk that the patient will die on the operating table. Without direct action as its guiding moral compass, the Cymdeithas yr Iaith activist base may simply fade away. The drive for justice and ethics which defines the Cymdeithas vision is not best satisfied by the thought of wining and dining Tory backbenchers in Odettes restaurant in Primrose Hill, as good as the food may be.

Nevertheless, somebody has to do the guinea fowl circuit. Maybe a new group is required. It could exist in addition to, rather than instead of, Cymdeithas yr Iaith. Comparison with other equality campaigns is useful. There’s no need to dislike Peter Tatchell to believe that there is a place for Stonewall in the campaign for gay rights. Nor is it necessary to dismiss events like Slutwalk as street theatre to realise that establishment figures like Helen Mary Jones also contribute to Welsh feminism.

There will always be a role for civil disobedience within the counter-culture language movement: the sit-in, the vigil and the non-payment of the BBC licence fee. Protest like this is proportionate and just, especially within the context of non-devolved decision making (such as on broadcasting), where Welsh speakers form only 1 per cent of the electorate and Jeremy Hunt destroys television channels as Henry VIII dissolved monasteries. However, these are not the best ways to influence the Welsh Government, the Welsh civil service and Assembly Members.

We should wish Meri Huws well as the first Language Commissioner, but one individual can never be a replacement for civil society. The ill-conceived abolition of the Welsh Language Board raises the probability that language politics will now be polarised between the Welsh Government and its bureaucracy on the one hand, and a direct action group on the fringes of policy making on the other, and never the twain shall meet. Has Wales won self-government for this? With the ascent of Welsh democracy, the language movement must reinterpret the meaning of the word revolution. We need a constitutional group to put the language centre stage in the nascent Welsh State.

Simon Brooks is a Lecturer in the Department of Welsh at Cardiff University.

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