Gwynfor Evans

President for 36 years of Plaid Cymru and Britain's first Welsh nationalist MP

Gwynfor Evans was the Welsh nationalist who, in 1980, forced Margaret Thatcher's government to make its first U-turn. The issue was the establishment of a fourth television channel for Wales, to which the Conservatives had first given, and then withdrawn, their commitment. The former MP's declaration that he would fast to death unless the Government honoured its pledge caused apprehension in London and the mounting tension in Wales was defused only when Nicholas Edwards, the Secretary of State for Wales, eventually announced that the channel, to be known as S4C, would after all be set up.

Richard Gwynfor Evans, politician: born Barry, Glamorgan 1 September 1912; Vice-President, Plaid Cymru 1943-45, President 1945-81, Honorary President 1982-2005; MP (Plaid Cymru) for Carmarthen 1966-70, 1974-79; married 1940 Rhiannon Prys Thomas (four sons, three daughters); died Pencarreg, Carmarthenshire 21 April 2005.

Gwynfor Evans was the Welsh nationalist who, in 1980, forced Margaret Thatcher's government to make its first U-turn. The issue was the establishment of a fourth television channel for Wales, to which the Conservatives had first given, and then withdrawn, their commitment. The former MP's declaration that he would fast to death unless the Government honoured its pledge caused apprehension in London and the mounting tension in Wales was defused only when Nicholas Edwards, the Secretary of State for Wales, eventually announced that the channel, to be known as S4C, would after all be set up.

The steely resolution with which Gwynfor Evans challenged and defeated the Government over its policy for broadcasting in Wales was typical of the man who, from 1945, had been President of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party. Evans was generally regarded as having been responsible for its growth from a small group of intellectuals, writers, teachers and ministers of religion into the political party which, although confined in its electoral strength to the north and west of Wales, has come to play a key role in the affairs of the country, notably in the National Assembly where, with 12 of the 60 seats, it is the largest group after Labour.

The Government could no longer ignore the party's views and, because there was no doubt that Gwynfor Evans intended carrying out his fast, his stand as its revered leader had to be taken into consideration. The day after the Government's about-turn the words "Gwynfor 1: Thatcher 0" were painted in bold letters on the Thames embankment opposite Westminster. S4C, which came into existence two years later and is now an integral part of the Government's broadcasting arrangements in Wales, is regarded by many as a monument to one man's vision and courage.

Gwynfor Evans was born in the port of Barry, in the old county of Glamorgan, in 1912. His father, Dan Evans, was a prominent independent councillor and shopkeeper in the town, and he was brought up in a comfortable, English-speaking, chapel-going home where a portrait of Lloyd George was the family's only concession to party politics. Exasperated by her son's early interest in what she considered the hopeless cause of Welsh nationalism, his mother once exclaimed: "Oh, Gwynfor, why can't you be like everyone else and become a Liberal?"

It was his reading of Welsh literature while in the sixth form at Barry Grammar School that made a patriot of Gwynfor Evans, but he was more concerned with international affairs, particularly world peace, at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, where he read Law, and did not join Plaid Cymru until he was about to go up to St John's College, Oxford, in 1937. After serving his articles in Cardiff, he qualified as a solicitor, but was never to practise, preferring instead to enter a market-garden business which his father had set up at Llangadog in Carmarthenshire, an occupation which would allow him the better to pursue his political interests, virtually on a full-time basis. With the staunch support of his brother Alcwyn, he grew tomatoes there until the severe winter of 1982 put paid to the enterprise.

Christian pacifism was an essential part of Gwynfor Evans's nationalism. Given an unconditional discharge as a conscientious objector to war, he served from 1939 to 1945 as Secretary of Heddychwyr Cymru, the Welsh pacifist movement which was the equivalent in Wales of the Peace Pledge Union, and during this time came under the influence of George M.Ll. Davies, who worked for the League of Nations. It was this pacifism, passionately upheld by its president after 1945, which ensured that Plaid Cymru - unusually for a nationalist movement - would set its face against the use of violence as a means of achieving its political goal, which was self-government for Wales.

This stance caused some tension in its ranks during the 1960s, when acts of sabotage were committed by more extreme individuals in protest against the building of English reservoirs in Wales, but it has never been abandoned.

Gwynfor Evans spent the first half of his 36-year presidency at the head of a political party which, despite its brilliant tactics, failed in most of its campaigns to win concessions for the land, language and culture of Wales, and made only small electoral progress. Among those campaigns were an attempt to prevent the War Department expropriating more agricultural land on the Epynt mountain in Breconshire and at Trawsfynydd in Merioneth for use by the British army.

The party also pressed for the official recognition of Monmouthshire as one of the counties of Wales and organised a petition for the granting of legal status to the Welsh language. Perhaps its most serious failure was its unsuccessful attempt to stop Liverpool Corporation building a reservoir in the Tryweryn Valley, although its campaign had the effect of bringing many young people into its ranks in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Gwynfor Evans was always in the vanguard of these campaigns, in which his charismatic personality was a vital factor in attracting others to the cause.

Elected to Carmarthenshire County Council in 1949, he remained a member for the next 25 years, often having to face - as Plaid Cymru's only representative - the brutish opposition of the ruling Labour Party. During these years, however, Evans's personal influence grew steadily and he was able, notably as a member of the Court of the University of Wales from 1946 to 1971, to help bring about a number of improvements in such areas as broadcasting and education. He was a member of the Welsh Broadcasting Council from 1957 to 1960 and of the British Council's Welsh Advisory Committee from 1947 to 1991. Always arguing in favour of Wales as a national entity, he was among the group of eminent Welshmen who, in 1962, were responsible for setting up Teledu Cymru, the first but short-lived television service broadcasting in Welsh.

Evans first stood as a parliamentary candidate in Merioneth in 1945 but transferred his candidature at the general election of 1964 to Carmarthen, the constituency held by Megan Lloyd George for Labour. His winning of the Carmarthen seat, at a by-election caused by her death and held on 14 July 1966, was a watershed in the fortunes of Plaid Cymru and heralded a new phase in Welsh politics.

Amidst euphoria in Wales, Gwynfor Evans took his seat in the House of Commons as its sole nationalist member until he was joined by Winnie Ewing of the SNP in the following year. But his first term at Westminster was by no means happy. He was reviled by most Welsh MPs, especially George Thomas (Secretary of State for Wales but not yet Speaker of the House of Commons), and barred from any position of influence. Nor did he relish the rough-and-tumble of Westminster politics, suffering acute stomach pains (on his own testimony) whenever he had to address the House.

Yet, although not a professional politician in the usual sense, Gwynfor Evans was an effective speaker and a dogged propagandist on behalf of the Welsh nationalist cause. He lost his seat to Labour in February 1970 by just three votes but regained it in October of the same year with a majority of 3,640, only to lose it again five years later.

There was a more private, scholarly side to his character of which those unfamiliar with life in Wales may not be aware. A staunch Congregationalist, Evans was devoted to his chapel and the affairs of the Union of Welsh Independents, which he served as president in 1954. He was also a prolific writer, publishing some 50 pamphlets, as well as 16 books. Among his more substantial works on political subjects are Rhagom i Ryddid ("Forward to Freedom", 1964), Celtic Nationalism (with Hugh MacDiarmid, Dudley Owen Edwards and Ioan Bowen Rees, 1968), A National Future for Wales (1975), Diwedd Prydeindod ("The End of Britishness", 1981) and Fighting for Wales (1991).

His characteristic emphasis on tradition, communal values, the culture of ordinary people and the value of the individual, particularly in the small, rural, Welsh-speaking areas, which were at the heart of his nationalism, is at its most eloquent in his popular history of Wales which appeared in English translation as Land of My Fathers in 1974.

It is too soon to attempt a comprehensive assessment of Gwynfor Evans as the leader of Plaid Cymru and his huge contribution to public life must await the historian of post-war Wales who is familiar with all the fields in which he was active. Part of that process will have to take into account the courtesy and immense goodwill he habitually showed even towards his political opponents. I had experience of his eirenic spirit when, in 1995, I was engaged in the translation of his memoirs, which appeared in English as For the Sake of Wales the following year. As I sent him each chapter for his approval, he would delete unflattering references to individuals or else find something kinder, more generous, to say about them; he even chose to make out the sunnier side of his old adversary George Thomas.

A reserved man, not much given to the homelier mores of working-class Wales, but one who delighted in the company of his large family and many friends, Gwynfor Evans was pitched into politics not by self-interest (so often a cardinal sin in politicians) but out of a profound concern for the national community of Wales and a vision of the role it might yet play as an independent, non-belligerent member of the family of nations. In 2004, the Welsh public voted him the greatest living politician and fourth in a list of all-time Welsh heroes with Aneurin Bevan and Owain Glyndwr. He was a great patriot and one of the most distinguished Welshmen of our times.

Meic Stephens

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