Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Don’t Welsh institutions love to celebrate their being. This week it’s the turn of S4C to celebrate 30 years since its establishment. So just to get in on the act the Welsh media have devoted a fair amount of time looking at the campaign that led to the channel’s establishment.
Inevitably, the attention is devoted to the role of one man. The man, elevated to a saintly status in the eyes of many, Gwynfor Evans.
Many remember him more for his role in the creation of S4C than for being the first Plaid Cymru Member of the United Kingdom Parliament.
The reason that he’s achieved iconic status amongst nationalists at least, is because the ex-Carmarthenshire MP said he would starve himself to death if the Thatcher government did not provide the country with a Welsh language television channel.
His declaration skewed the argument immediately. At the time there were two schools of thought about Welsh language television. The Gwynfor Evans camp wanted the shortly to be established fourth channel to be a welsh language one.
The other camp wanted BBC1 and ITV to continue to broadcast programmes in the Welsh language. Their worry was that an all-welsh channel would become a ghetto channel for Welsh speakers and non-welsh speakers would have little contact with the language in future.
This latter argument tended to be undermined by many a viewer simply turning their backs on Welsh output by turning their aerials to face the English transmitters.
However, It seemed that the one channel solution had won the day. Both Labour and the Conservatives fought the 1979 general election with a manifesto promise to establish a Welsh language channel.
But such is the way of politicians, no sooner had Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives gained power that they reneged on their manifesto commitment. Willie Whitelaw the new Home Secretary decided against a Welsh forth channel. His solution split Welsh-language programmes between HTV and BBC Wales.
Understandably, those that wanted an exclusive Welsh language were up in arms and that’s when Gwynfor Evans intervened with his death threat. There’s some evidence to suggest that as leader of Plaid Cymru, Gwynfor Evans saw this more as an opportunity of raising the profile of his party after the real disappointment of losing the referendum, than on the narrow issue of broadcasting.
To some Gwynfor Evans’s intervention was pivotal. Whitelaw recommended to cabinet that they ditch the plans and go to their manifesto plans. So S4C was to be given the go-ahead without Evans missing a single meal.
Was it the threat of a fast until death that did it? Indirectly, yes.
At the time another of the Welsh political greats, Cledwyn Hughes saw what Evans’s game was and was determined not to give him the political advantage.
He persuaded the Principal of Aberystwyth University, Sir Goronwy Daniel, and the Archbishop of Wales, Gwilym Williams to lead a delegation to see Whitelaw. It did the trick, Whitelaw went into reverse.
It happened so quickly that Gwynfor Evans himself was disappointed that his cunning little plan of winning the hearts and minds of the Welsh had to wait for another day and another issue.
And as they say the rest is history.
So for better or for worse, 30 years on, S4C celebrate.
Mr Evans is a national hero, and the shrewd and affable Cledwyn Hughes simply a footnote in S4C’s history.