Plaid Cymru’s Image 1: Can the national party embrace all the people of Wales?

Ken Jones argues that English-speaking members of Plaid invariably end up as second class citizens

Plaid Cymru has an image problem which will need to be resolved if it is ever to become the natural government of Wales. At its heart is the fact that the party membership is overwhelmingly Welsh speaking – in a country where only one in  five citizens can speak the language. It is a party in which – quite unintentionally – any member who speaks only English cannot help but feeling a second class member. The currently  evolving shift  towards a civic national identity will require  a comparable shift in the mind set of many of our members.


Welsh-speakers inhabit a networked community

Cynog Dafis addresses the dilemmas in Plaid’s wish to represent all the people of Wales.

John Osmond, Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs,  has argued as follows  about the historic significance  of 2011 referendum vote (Guardian, 21 October 2011):

“The coming of the Assembly made it possible for the first time for Welsh people to think of themselves as genuine citizens of Wales. This is not to deny that Welsh people have always felt intensely about their Welshness. However, until this generation they have always felt it in ways that inhibited a sense of unity around the idea of Wales. For example, in the past Welshness was something very often felt and debated in terms of language. Yet that had the effect of dividing the people of Wales, because their outlook was largely determined by whether they spoke the language or not….  On the other hand, a civic identity is something that people share equally. That’s what the Scots have always had, whereas the Welsh have never had it – until now. Devolution has provided an arena in which the Welsh people are developing a new Welsh consciousness.”

As last year’s referendum vote  demonstrated, that consciousness is spread equally across Wales, and by language, age, social class, and so on, and the Welsh  appear to be acquiring an appetite for further devolution. It is an appetite that feeds on itself and drives a process leading inexorably in the direction of independence.

It is therefore ironic that, whereas Plaid has played a significant part in the above development, its historic image is now likely to be counter-productive. As a non-Welsh speaker with a Liverpool accent, I recall the incredulity of many  electors at finding me knocking on their doors canvassing for Plaid Cymru. It demonstrates the extent to which Plaid remains strongly and exclusively identified with the language. Yet, as Osmond remarks, this is one of one of the historic obstacles to the development of the new sense of national unity in a common civic identity. For Plaid Cymru read Cymry Cymraeg.

Plaid’s spokespeople and publicity repeatedly plug the message that our  party welcomes all Welsh citizens, both at the ballot box and as party members. But the messages never seems to get across. Notwithstanding the part we played in getting the 2011 referendum on the table, I don’t feel the country, in its new found sense of national unity and appetite for greater political powers, to be rallying  behind Plaid

The identity and image of the party is most authentically and intimately represented to the wider world by the range of people it attracts into its membership. Furthermore, as the recent recruiting campaign testifies, it urgently needs to increase its numbership. Attendance at the leadership  hustings in  Aberystwyth was a hundred or more. Of these, only three of four  requested the translation phones. At other bilingual gatherings in the town there is always quite a demand for the phones. Whatever other interests Plaid represents in this very diverse community it is almost exclusively  the political party for Welsh speakers. Non-Welsh speakers cannot but feel they have ended up in some sort of exclusive club.

In the 1990s, as an Aberystrwyth Wales Green Party member, I played a leading role in forging the alliance with Plaid Cymru which, against all the odds, returned Cynog Dafis to Parliament. I recall an emotional rally at the Hen Coleg when several of us, with tears in our eyes (yes, indeed!), rejoiced at what was an historic coming  together of  the ‘Welsh’ and ‘English’ communities, as well as the formal alliance of ‘greens’ and ‘nationalists’.

I became very much involved in working with Plaid members, both in committee and on the knocker and have many happy memories of those times together. However, despite good will all round, we did have the usual difficulties of bilingual working which remain today. For large gatherings, the cost of translation equipment and  experienced translators was (and is) a problem, and it never pays to try to cut corners on either. At committee level, I had to rely on Cynog or some other friend whispering in my ear; for after all, Plaid were the senior partners, and they were accustomed to speaking together in ‘their own language’.

As to social gatherings, the Welsh speakers were (and are) invariably courteous in trying not to leave the monolinguals feel left out of the conversation. However, often in a minority of one, it feels unfair to expect one’s  comrades to all speak in English, rather than enjoying to the full, an opportunity to speak  together in their native tongue (or for learners who might be present not to have the opportunity of trying to). So I’m in the habit of simply avoiding all such gatherings, which, of course, in a political party, reduces one to a second class membership. And all this is magnified at an event like a party conference.

Nearly twenty years later, I have actually joined Plaid, though now only as  a  foot soldier, and because of an affectionate interest in better keeping up with what’s going on in the party. In the recent recruiting campaign I have convinced at least one fellow unilingual Welshman to join up; I don’t know how long he’ll last. Because I didn’t tell him he’ll need to have conversational Welsh, as well as a member’s card, in order to function  as other than a second class member.

This seems an almost intractable problem. Years ago we discussed founding an English language branch in Aberystwyth, and maybe that would be a way forward in some constituencies. But it would require some strong minded pioneers to swim against the tide. Calling the party whenever it’s mentioned in an English context (as in the media in English) the Welsh National Party would at least be a helpful gesture.

I have a deep affection for the language and for its importance as a unique thread in the new national tapestry now being woven by all the people of Wales. But within the great renewal on which we are currently engaged in the Welsh National Party, the issues I have raised must somehow be resolved if we are to play the leading political role in  the development of the new Welsh civic society. Plaid must change no less radically, seeking an altogether new centre of gravity.

Ken Jones played a leading part in the ‘Green Welsh Alliance’ (Ceredigion Plaid Cymru and Green Party) which swept Cynog Dafis to victory in the 1992 against all the odds as 'Britain's first Green MP', on a joint policy ticket. In subsequent years he became involved elsewhere. In 2011, with Nigel Jenkins and Lynne Rees, he edited Another Country: Haiku Poetry from Wales (Gomer), a modest, new, addition to the national identity. With last year's devolved powers referendum he sensed something altogether new in the Welsh political wind, enjoyed being out on the knocker again with old Plaid friends, and so at last joined the party.

3 thoughts on “Plaid Cymru’s Image 1: Can the national party embrace all the people of Wales?

  1. Ken Jones is labouring (pardon the pun) under a common misapprehension; namely that “civic” national identity means English-medium national identity, while Welsh-language events are something else – he believes that English-medium events are somehow linguistically neutral, while Welsh-medium events are, presumably, not.

    If Ken Jones wants social intercourse to be in English because, after twenty five years or so, he has not learnt Welsh, he should be honest and say so. Nor is it unreasonable for translation equipment to be provided in some events, and why not parallel structures; i.e. some party branches operating in Welsh and others in English?

    However he should not dress up these requests with big words like “civic” which, when used in this context, are grossly offensive. There is nothing remotely “civic” in not allowing people to socialise through their language of choice. Civic means little more than structures of government, and there is nothing about creating devolved government which requires a common language (i.e. English) to be adopted.

  2. A minority of people in Wales want independence, largely to preserve a distinctive culture, which they cherish. The majority of people in Wales don’t have a culture particularly different from the rest of Britain, know little of Welsh-language culture and don’t see the point of independence. There are a few monolingual English-speaking Welsh nationalists but they are a tiny minority of a minority. If everyone is to get what they want the only answer is partition. That didn’t work very well in Ireland but circumstances are different now in Wales. The Czechs and Slovaks did it and they have more in common than the English-speaking and Welsh-speaking Welsh. All that’s needed is an independence plebiscite by local authority and a scheme to facilitate the transfer of population for the linguistic minority in each area who want to move.
    Welsh Wales would be poor but pure and English speaking Wales would derive its sense of identity from the rugby team – what Lloyd George called ‘morbid footballism’. But then he spoke Welsh.

  3. Simon Brooks has expressed most clearly my reactions on reading this piece. It’s a shame Ken developed the habit of avoiding Welsh speaking meetings, even when translation equipment is available. Do you really see advancing the linguistic shift as work for “pioneeers” “swimming against the tide”, Ken? Doesn’t your “deep affection” for the language extend to a commitment to learning it? That’s what I did, anyway.

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