Welsh Assembly building


In 1966, self government for Wales hit the headlines when Plaid Cymru won its first ever seat at the House of Commons.

Self government, or devolution, had first been raised by the Liberal party during the late 19th century, but the issue had gone into hibernation when Labour became the dominant party in Wales.

It resurfaced in the 1960s at the same time as the language campaign started under Cymdeithas Yr Iaith. Although strictly speaking devolution and the Welsh language were separate issues, a number of people were involved in both movements - a fact exploited by their opponents.

In the 1970s it became Labour policy to support devolution. This divided the party in Wales where many - particularly, though not exclusively, from the English speaking Valleys - opposed devolution as a matter of socialist principle.

In this fraught atmosphere the language, a contentious issue since the 1960s, became an extremely hot political potato. Certain figures, such as the young Neil Kinnock, exploited the fears of English speakers to campaign against devolution.

In the event, the referendum held on 1 March 1979 - St David's Day - resulted in a resounding four-to-one vote against devolution. It is a moot point whether the spectre of a Welsh-speaking minority lording it over a cowed majority of monoglot English speakers was the decisive factor. Even the language stronghold of Gwynedd, faced with this vision of supremacy, voted against the government proposals. Devolution appeared to be dead.

Except that questions of language and identity lived on. They became burning issues, quite literally, in the early 1980s when campaigners torched holiday homes as a protest against rising house prices. Responsibility was claimed by Meibion Glyndwr, the Sons of Glyndwr. At about the same time, other campaigners fought the long battle for a Welsh-language television channel.

These events were overshadowed by the miners' strike of 1984 and 1985. Some argue that it was the defeat of the miners and 12 years of Conservative rule which started a re-think on the question of devolution and identity among previously sceptical Labour voters.

From the late 1980s onwards, there appeared to be a growing cross-party consensus on the language. The national curriculum for Wales included the provision that all pupils would study Welsh from the age of 5 to 16. And in 1993, the 1967 Welsh Language Act was augmented by further legislation which put Welsh and English on an equal basis in public life in Wales.

Devolution also returned to the political agenda. Matters moved rapidly following the Labour victory in the 1997 general election, showing how much Welsh politics had changed since 1979. The Labour Party was fairly united and the consensus on the language was maintained.

The referendum held in September 1997 saw a narrow vote in favour of devolution. Two years later the National Assembly for Wales was officially opened by the Queen and Prince Charles.

The Assembly took over responsibility from the secretary of state for Wales for many areas of public life, including education and the arts, where language is an issue. Welsh is now a language of government in Wales.

Under the Government of Wales Act 1998, the National Assembly treats the Welsh and the English languages equally, so far as is practicable, in conducting all its business, and all subordinate legislation is bilingual.

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