The Rise of Nationalist Politics

The 1966 Carmarthen by-election witnessed a surge in electoral support for Plaid Cymru, a year prior to the SNP’s equivalent success. The 1970 general election saw its share of the vote in Wales increase to 11.5 %, which included significant support from working-class people in urbanised areas in South Wales. The party maintained over 10 % of the Welsh vote in the 1974 elections, before experiencing a decline in support to less than 8 % in the 1980s. Through these decades the party was able to rely on its core support from Welsh speakers in the rural and less populated parts of Wales, but it was the significant support gained from a section of the non-Welsh-speaking working class in industrial and urban parts of South Wales that underpins the increases during the 1970s (Adamson 1991).

Welsh nationalism emerged as a form of political activism in the early 1960s, some years before Plaid’s electoral success. Initially this activism focused on concerns in rural Wales over the decline of the Welsh language, coupled with a perceived threat to Welsh culture from English immigration and English language mass media. A BBC radio lecture in 1962 by the former Plaid Cymru founding member Saunders Lewis had raised awareness over the declining numbers of Welsh speakers. Lewis was responding to the 1961 census, which had shown a decline in the percentage of Welsh speakers from 36 % in 1931 to 26 % in 1961. At this time the core activists and members within Plaid were mainly Welsh-speaking middle-class professionals—teachers, ministers and lecturers—and the Welsh language was central to both their personal and professional lives (Rawkins 1979) . Rawkins (1979) describes these as ‘fortress nationalists’ made up of religious and older members within the rural heartland of Welsh-speaking Wales, inspired by a ‘resentment at incursions of the state and the forces of modernity’ and associated with a ‘petit-bourgeois movement’ whose local dominance had been increasingly displaced by the growth of state agencies and mass media. Alongside this traditional group were younger, highly educated Welsh speakers influenced by radical politics. This period also witnessed the emergence of several interrelated Welsh language pressure groups; by far the most important of these was Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society), founded in 1962, which from the late 1960s onwards had embarked on a sustained campaign of non-violent direct action over bilingual road signs, Welsh medium schools and official forms being made available in Welsh. These organisations shared many of the characteristics of other radical social movements of the time like Campaign for Nuclear Dismarmament (CND) and environmental and feminist groups, and a significant portion of Welsh language activists within Plaid Cymru were also involved in these related activities (Davies 1999; Phillips 1998). Participants within this form of Welsh nationalist activity were also generally from the rural middle class and frequently the sons and daughters of the more traditional conservative orientated nationalists. As a form of social movement activity centred on language protest, these young activists were significant. But they do not by themselves provide the basis for an electorally successful nationalist political party which is able to gain votes from the more populated and industrialised parts of Wales.

Certainly up until the 1970s the party was almost entirely Welshspeaking in its internal organisation and membership (Davies 1989: 179-86). But by the early 1970s, no longer able to ignore the broader economic problems within Welsh society, Plaid introduced a number of new policies for self-government and economic development, including An Economic Plan for Wales (1970). Rawkins (1979) thus describes an emerging progressive group within Plaid who were left-wing activists and socialists disillusioned with the Labour Party in some way, who had entered the party ranks since 1960s and 1970s and who emphasised the future of the party within industrial and urban Wales. For Adamson (1991) Plaid’s electoral success, and the broader appeal of Welsh nationalism, stemmed from new English-speaking middle-class party activists in industrial parts of Wales who inflected the party with a programme of left-wing and social democratic policies and who on this basis were able to make direct appeals to sections of an English-speaking Welsh working class. At the same time, the party kept hold of its support and membership amongst traditional Welsh nationalists, and this gave the party a basis of support in both rural and industrial Wales. However, this also meant that the party retained a connection to individuals and groups whose concern was principally the protection of Welsh language and culture in rural Wales and who ‘had a distaste for class politics’ (Rawkins 1979). At various points in time, the Plaid has publicly distanced itself from the potentially exclusionary beliefs and actions of some Welsh nationalist individuals and groups. Examples include Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (Movement for the Defence of Wales) and Byddin Rhyddid Cymru (Free Wales Army), who employed violent direct action between the 1960s and 1980s. In the late 1970s, the organisation Meibion Glyndwr (Sons of Glyndwr) gained notoriety for carrying out arson attacks against English holiday homes. These campaigns did not translate into added support for Welsh self-government, and the idea of a separate Wales remained very against the tide of majority Welsh public opinion.

These divisions were undoubtedly part of the reason why the Welsh public voted in 1979 overwhelmingly against the establishment of a Welsh assembly, with only 11.8 % of the total electorate in favour of the idea. In the lead-up to the referendum, several Welsh Labour MPs expressed opposition to the devolution proposals, suggesting that an assembly would be dominated by the Welsh-speaking elite within which Welsh identity would be defined by the ability to speak Welsh. As Leo Abse, a leading Labour opponent of devolution, stated in 1978,

‘The English speaking majority would be condemned to be strangers in their own land. The nationalists, by insisting on Welsh being spoken in the assembly, will impose a false homogeneity upon Wales (cited in Thomas


Analyses of Welsh political identities indicated that the perception of Plaid as promoting the interests of Welsh speakers inhibited the party’s success amongst English-speaking Welsh identifiers (Balsom et al. 1983). In the period after 1979, however, we see a more fundamental shift in the approach of political parties towards devolution and the beginning of a political convergence between Labour and Plaid on Welsh identity.

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