J. Graham Jones praises an account of physical-force Welsh nationalism
Published to mark the 50th anniversary of the first bombing campaign in Wales, Wyn Thomas’s Hands Off Wales offers a definitive overview of the rise of Welsh nationalist militancy in the 1960s and establishes the importance of the protests to the nation’s history and to its cultural and political advance. The theme of this meticulously researched and well-crafted, pioneering study is the unprecedented militant campaigns in Wales at the time of the flooding of Tryweryn in Meirionnydd to provide a water supply for the people of Liverpool in 1963, and the protests against the Investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle on 1 July 1969.
The two militant groups which emerged in Wales during these years were the Free Wales Army and Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru, the Movement for the Defence of Wales. However, as the author is at pains to point up, the links between them were not anywhere near as close as some analysts would have us believe.
It is the author’s firmly held conviction that neither group would have been formed had Plaid Cymru reacted more vigorously when the proposal to flood Cwm Tryweryn was first announced in 1955. He accuses the nationalist party of lapsing into “little more than sentimental loquaciousness” at this crucial juncture in its post-war development. And he is critical of long-serving party president Gwynfor Evans for not taking a more proactive role at this crisis point in his party’s evolution.
Concerned that both the nation’s cultural life and environment faced a grievous threat, other activists were consequently prepared to fight to defend them, whatever the cost. Wyn Thomas deals with themes and groups well-nigh ignored by most 20th Century, perhaps more respectable historians. There was a marked reluctance in academia to give the subject of Welsh militant nationalism in the 1960s its due attention and respect.
Both Tryweryn and the Investiture led to bomb explosions. As the author is anxious to point out, the explosions which occurred at the Tryweryn Reservoir site in February 1963 were “the first sustained use of explosives as a means of political protest which the nation had ever witnessed”. Too young himself to remember the events which he chronicles, Wyn Thomas has earned his living in the care industry for more than two decades. This authoritative volume is an adaptation of his doctoral thesis presented in Swansea University in 2011.
The authority and originality of the study derives mainly from the long, and exhaustive series of interviews the author conducted between 2000 and 2012 with almost all those involved, face-to-face and via correspondence and e-mail. Indeed, many were interviewed on more than one occasions – John Jenkins of Wrexham six times, Emyr Llewelyn Jones of Ffostrasol seven, and Owain Williams of Llanllyfni six. The author’s determination to leave no stone unturned and to check the accuracy and veracity of his material is impressive.
The voices of officialdom are heard as well. They include Lord Snowdon, Sir Tasker Watkins, Sir John Mortimer, and the representatives of the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence. The information is further buttressed by archival research at Aberystwyth and Kew, intense newspaper research, and a thorough review of the (now steadily growing) secondary literature in the field.
Throughout the absorbing text the material is placed firmly in its historical and geographical context. Among the background episodes to the emergence of militancy in the 1960s the following are highlighted:
- The piecemeal concessions to Welsh nationhood grudgingly granted by the centralist Attlee government after the war;
- The ultimately abortive, although still influential Parliament for Wales agitation of the period 1950-56 which culminated in the presentation of a monster petition to parliament.
- The lengthy, tenacious campaign of the Beasley family of Llanelli to receive a bilingual rate demand.
The author also provides a wide political backdrop. When setting the scene for the downfall of the Free Wales Army during 1968, we are told of the events of that incredible year in Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Spain, and the United States. As Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru stepped up its campaign of direct action, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were cruelly assassinated in the USA, Northern Ireland seemed set to erupt into unprecedented outbreaks of violence, and Enoch Powell delivered his inflammatory ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in Birmingham.
Wyn Thomas strives to be fair and to tell both sides of the story. Although highly critical of Gwynfor Evans, he readily points out that he certainly had his avid apologists and defenders, among them Elystan Morgan, whom Evans considered his heir-apparent to the Plaid Cymru presidency upon his eventual retirement.
The author is scrupulously fair to Julian Cayo Evans, the self-styled leader of the Free Wales Army. While quoting police reports that Evans possessed “an underdeveloped personality” and “a mental age of about 12 years”, he readily acknowledges the opinion of a retired police inspector that throughout their tortuous dealings Cayo Evans remained “approachable and not without charm and warmth”. Journalist Lyn Ebenezer appreciated Evans’s close friendship, commenting that there was “no one nicer and no one kinder”.
The book is both rigorous and respectful in its treatment of Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru. We are told that its Secretary General, John Jenkins, organised a clandestine movement of which any anti-imperialist movement in the world would be proud. Certainly, the reader cannot be left in any doubt about his integrity.