English street signs torn down in protest

Civil disobedience

Since the founding of Plaid Cymru in 1925, groups have used civil disobedience to campaign for the Welsh language.

After World War One, the decline of Welsh continued as the country entered the economic doldrums. The Labour party began its political ascendancy over the Liberals and, as the Welsh language was not high on the list of socialist priorities, the future appeared bleak.

These circumstances led in 1925 to the founding of Plaid Cymru, a political party seeking self government and the preservation of the language and culture of Wales.

Initially this new party had little impact. Then three of its leading members, Saunders Lewis, DJ Williams and Lewis Valentine, carried out an outrageous arson attack on the RAF bombing school in Penyberth, North West Wales. It was a turning point in Welsh language politics and the first time since the Glyndwr revolt that violence was committed in the name of Wales.

The justification for the arson was the detrimental effect the school would have in a predominantly Welsh speaking area. After the three gave themselves up to local police, they were taken to trial in Caernarfon where their request to testify in Welsh was refused by the judge. In the end the court offered no verdict. At their second trial at the Old Bailey, the men were each convicted and sentenced to nine months in prison.

Saunders Lewis lost his job as a lecturer at Swansea University. He resigned the presidency of Plaid Cymru and left public life to become a full time writer. Yet in 1962 he hit the headlines again with the BBC radio lecture Tynged Yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language), declaring that the language would die unless revolutionary methods were used to defend it. He hoped to persuade Plaid Cymru to adopt these tactics, but the suggestion was robustly resisted by the party leader, Gwynfor Evans.

Instead a number of young people were spurred to form the pressure group Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society) which campaigned for reforms such as bilingual road signs and cheaper local housing.

Throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s hundreds of its members were imprisoned for breaking the law with non-violent direct action. The recent growth of bilingualism in Wales is thanks largely to the efforts and sacrifices of these people.

A limited Welsh Language Act was passed in 1967, but probably the biggest concession wrought from the British government was a Welsh language television channel.

A long campaign by Cymdeithas came to a head in 1980, when Gwynfor Evans announced that he would go on hunger strike until the newly elected Conservative government honoured its manifesto commitment to provide a separate Welsh language TV channel. In 1982, S4C was launched.

Following the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999, language campaigners have moved away from the old tactics of direct action to concentrate on political lobbying.

However, new language groups such as Cymuned have indicated that civil disobedience is a tactic that could be resumed should they perceive the assembly to be adopting policies hostile to the well-being of the language.


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