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.
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