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The idealist whose influence transformed Wales

07/09/2022

Gwynfor  Evans and Dafydd Wigley together at a Plaid Coference

Were it not for Gwynfor Evans, the centenary of whose birth occurred last Sunday, Wales would be a very different place today.

Gwynfor was identified with Welsh-speaking non-conformist rural Wales - but was born in industrial Barry, a shopkeeper’s son. He gained law degrees in Aberystwyth and Oxford, only learning Welsh fluently as an adult.

He was a committed Christian and pacifist; Welsh Nationalism was his third priority. Yet it is the Nationalist politician who is remembered.

As Plaid Cymru President from 1945 until 1981, Gwynfor led many campaigns – against military appropriation of farm-land; the Parliament for Wales Petition; for Welsh radio and television; against drowning Tryweryn; for a Development Authority; against railway closures; and to secure official status for Welsh.

These threads formed his platform as Plaid Cymru candidate – in Meirionnydd (1945-59) and Carmarthen (1964 -83).

I first heard Gwynfor Evans speak in 1960. He wasn’t a tub-thumping orator – but had a magic which touched everyone who heard him. Until 1966, his impact on Welsh politics was modest. A Welsh Parliament was then as remote as in 1945.

Gwynfor’s commitment to non-violent campaigns failed to save Tryweryn. Limited recognition of Welsh followed Language Society law-breaking rather than political pressure.

Plaid Cymru’s profile changed dramatically in 1966. In the March Election, Carmarthen’s Labour MP, Megan Lloyd-George, was re-elected with a huge majority. But electors didn’t know she was dying of cancer. Gwynfor was a modest third.

Lady Megan’s subsequent death triggered a July by-election. Everyone assumed Labour would hold the seat easily. Then something inexplicable happened. Thousands who had never voted Plaid Cymru, surged to Gwynfor‘s cause.

Gwynfor’s victory gave Plaid Cymru its first MP . The old argument– that Plaid could never win a seat - evaporated. Gwynfor was the “Member for Wales”; support for Plaid Cymru soared.

In Rhondda West’s 1967 by-election, Plaid secured 39% of the vote, higher than Gwynfor achieved in Carmarthen.

That year, SNP ‘s Winnie Ewing won Hamilton, which she partly attributed to Gwynfor’s success. The 1968 Caerffili by-election saw Plaid’s Phil Williams almost unseat Labour with over 40% backing.

Harold Wilson hastily established a Royal Commission. In 1973 it recommended law-making Parliaments for Wales and Scotland.

By then Gwynfor and Winnie had lost their seats but the SNP’s by-election victory in Govan maintained the momentum. When Ted Heath called a General Election in February 1974, the SNP secured seven MPs. Plaid won Meirionnydd and Caernarfon. Gwynfor regained Carmarthen that October.

The 1979 Referendum failed badly in Wales. Those opposing devolution soon realized they had opened the door for Thatcher’s right- wing programme. When Wales and Scotland next had referenda in 1997, they both endorsed devolved governments.

What if Gwynfor hadn’t won the Carmarthen by-election? Eventually Labour might have delivered devolution – although in seven Elections between 1945 and 1966, Labour had no such commitment.

Gwynfor Evans ensured that Wales became a political reality. He also marginalized those who advocated violence to secure Welsh autonomy.

Gwynfor lived to see the Assembly and S4C established, and bilingual policies adopted. His electoral breakthrough created history.

 


This article appears in the Daily Post of  Thursday 6 September, 2012. It is reproduced  by  kind permission of the Daily Post. Dafydd Wigley has a weekly article in the Daily Post,  published every Thursday.