Gwynfor Evans

A new nation (part 2)

Protest

Ironically, the growth of Welsh institutions can be seen as coinciding with the erosion of the cultural distinctiveness of Wales. The vote against devolution in 1979 was interpreted as acculturation - that the cultural and social values of the English were taking possession of those of the Welsh.

The vote against devolution in 1979 was interpreted as acculturation - that the cultural and social values of the English were taking possession of those of the Welsh.

One factor in that acculturation was the extensive migration from England, particularly to rural areas and to the northern coastal resorts, a development which led to arson attacks upon second homes owned by non-Welsh people. Central to the concerns of many was the decrease in the proportion of the inhabitants of Wales able to speak Welsh, a proportion which declined from 29% in 1951 to 18% in 1991.

Such concerns led to the establishment in 1962 of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) which was prepared to break the law in order to secure official status for the Welsh language. Among the developments in which the society's activities played a part were the provision of Welsh official forms and road signs, the establishment of the Welsh Language Board and the recognition of Welsh as a core subject in the National Curriculum.

In the 1970s agitation by the Welsh language Society and others created a consensus in favour of a Welsh language television channel, but it took Gwynfor Evans's threat that he would go on hunger strike before the channel was launched in 1982. Curiously, Welsh-language militancy caused the language to be less rather than more of a political issue. It loomed large in the referendum of 1979 and hardly at all in that of 1997.

The establishment of the National Assembly for Wales

The referendum of 18 September 1997 was the result of the commitment of the Labour Party, which was elected to power on May Day 1997, to re-open the issue of devolution for Wales. That election was a triumph for Labour; it received a majority of 179 and won 34 of the 40 seats of Wales. Plaid Cymru won 4, the Liberal Democrats 2 and the Conservatives none.

The Assembly was endorsed by a mere 6,721 votes.

The campaign which led to the referendum of 1997 was very different from that of 1979. It was held at the beginning of a highly popular administration rather than at the tail end of an increasingly discredited one. The fact that Scotland would have a parliament was known a week before the voting in Wales, and thus a British status quo was not on offer. In 1997, the chief spokesman from the most populous part of Wales was Ron Davies, an ardent devolutionist, a marked contrast with the situation in 1979, when the chief spokesman had been the arch anti-devolutionist, Neil Kinnock. The increases in the affirmative vote in 1997 compared with 1979 were remarkable - Gwent, for example, +233%, and South Glamorgan +208%. Nevertheless, as the yes vote was 559,419 and the no vote 552,698, the Assembly was endorsed by a mere 6,721 votes.

The first Assembly election was held in 1999, under a partly proportional representation system. The Labour Party won 28 seats, Plaid Cymru 17, the Conservatives 9 and the Liberal Democrats 6. With no Conservative representatives from Wales at Westminster, the Assembly provided the Conservatives with their sole Welsh platform. Indeed, perhaps the most unexpected consequence of devolution was the way the Conservative Party warmed to Welsh themes and issues. More intriguing, in view of Wales's dismal record in electing female representatives, was the fact that 24 of the Assembly's 60 members were women.


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