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Why we should celebrate the contribution of Dafydd Elis-Thomas, a great Welsh radical

12 Apr 2020 4 minute read
Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM at the at the Celebration of the Mace official opening of the Senedd. Picture by the National Assembly (CC BY 2.0).

Simon Brooks

There will be mixed feelings within the national movement about Dafydd Elis-Thomas’s announcement today that he intends to stand down as an Assembly Member in 2021.

The past few years have been difficult ones in the relationship between Plaid Cymru and one of its most brilliant, if latterly wayward, sons. But these mixed emotions should not blind us to an appreciation of the enormous contribution that Dafydd has made to the Welsh national cause for half-a-century.

Dafydd Elis-Thomas was elected as MP for Merioneth in 1974 representing the seat at Westminster until 1992. He was Plaid Cymru leader for much of the 1980s.

For those of us who came of age during the long years of Thatcherism, Dafydd Elis-Thomas was an inspiration. He re-made Welsh nationalism, building on its bedrock of Welsh-language community support to make common cause with other minority groups in 1980s Britain. Branded the ‘Merioneth Marxist’ , he was very much both instigator and leader of a Welsh wing of the European ‘New Left’.

He played an important role in Irish affairs, for example moving the writ for the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election won in 1981 by the Irish republican hunger striker, Bobby Sands. This paved the way for the rise of Sinn Fein as a constitutional force in Ireland.

He strongly supported the Miners’ Strike, identifying the link between the radical traditions of Welsh-speaking rural Wales and the Welsh socialist tradition of the coalfield.

He was supportive of many causes of the Left: CND, campaigns for ethnic minorities, feminism and for the LGBT community. He was at the heart of broad alliances in Wales at the time like those between the ginger group, the ‘National Left’, the magazine Radical Wales, the historian Gwyn Alf Williams, campaigners like Adam Price and Alun Davies within the Plaid Cymru Youth Movement, and many others on the Welsh Left in general.

In many ways, he laid the intellectual base for the Welsh Left in nationalism, and for the politics which saw Leanne Wood elected as Plaid leader and which still have tremendous resonance within the party today.


Defender of the constitution

Dafydd Elis-Thomas stood down as an MP in 1992. Following a period heading up the Welsh Language Board, he was elected as AM for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Dwyfor Meirionnydd after boundary changes) in 1999. He was elected first Presiding Officer of the Assembly, and remained in post for 12 years.

We await a full constitutional history of the Assembly’s initial, formative period. But it is absolutely clear that Dafydd played a central and absolutely crucial role in the development of Welsh democracy. He was tasked with the job of distinguishing between the legislature and the executive – a distinction not always clear in the Welsh public’s mind – and he did this with some aplomb.

In terms too of normalising the use of the Welsh language, his contribution was crucial and in many years he was consistently the Member who made the greatest use of the Welsh language in the Chamber.

Sometimes precocious and perhaps petulant even, in media interviews his stream of consciousness style, and sometimes off-the-cuff remarks, might give the impression that he was a maverick. In reality however, he was both consistent and serious. He regarded his role as one which would facilitate the construction of a Welsh polity, and he went about this with great dedication.

Like Rhodri Morgan, we should regard Dafydd Elis-Thomas as a father of the nation.

Prodigal son

Dafydd Elis-Thomas is best understood within the milieu in which he was raised. As a politician, he stands within the great tradition of Welsh radical liberalism with its roots in nonconformist patriotism. He is himself a son of the manse from the north-west. Parts of his constituency, Dwyfor Meirionnydd, have been represented by T. E. Ellis, leader of Cymru Fydd, David Lloyd George, the Liberal Prime Minister, and O. M. Edwards, doyen of Welsh cultural liberalism. Dafydd is a worthy servant of that tradition, as indeed is his successor, Mabon ap Gwynfor, who will without doubt serve the seat well.

This is the Welsh-speaking tradition of rural north-west Wales to which Dafydd belongs: radical and liberal, rooted yet also cosmopolitan, committed to home rule, and above all deeply respectful of individual conscience and view.

Sometimes within families there are arguments. But there is also the parable of the prodigal son. Today, I suggest we think of the parable. I and others will always regard Dafydd as a member of our national movement, that we hold in common, one with another.

Today there can only be one word. Diolch.

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vicky moller
vicky moller
4 years ago

In the late 60’s I met Dafydd El at university, he sat us doctrinaire lefties down to a meeting and tried with his whole being to teach us about Wales and its need for a nationalist left. The lefties argued with intellectual aridity. I never forgot his heart felt message. To me he is a fellow rebel and a cultural inspiration.

Cymro Cymraeg
Cymro Cymraeg
4 years ago

Teyrnged caboledig i waith a chyfraniad Dafydd i fywyd Cymru ers y 70au cynnar. Cytuno gyda’r erthygl yn llwyr – 100%. Mae’n debyg y bydd ei waith yn parhau trwy sawl cyfrwng arall. Diolch iddo am ei lafur a’i fwriad – er bod ambell i safbwynt wedi bod yn dadleuol!

Gwyn Meredith
Gwyn Meredith
4 years ago

His actions at the time of the hunger strikes almost certainly had no effect on moving Sinn Fein towards constitutional politics. They were widely perceived as support for the IRA and cost his party support.

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards
4 years ago

Yes Dafydd El is “deeply respectful of individual conscience and view”. To me this is the most important quality the Leader of a nationalist movement can have. To unite left and the rest of Wales. He had this quality, which is why I thought he’d be a better leader of Plaid than Leanne Wood, and supported him in his attempt. His other great strength was his breadth of experience, as Llywydd etc etc. Its a great pity Plaid did not vote for Dafydd El at the time. It could have remained left but tolerated non-left, me and many others ie… Read more »

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