Wednesday 8 June 2011

Fanfares and vol-au-vents

I attended my first ever Plaid Cymru annual conference in 1971, at Porthcawl.  The event was exciting, if more than a little disorganised.  I met many people who have influenced my politics for the first time at the event, including Dr Phil - who needed to borrow my comb as he rushed past on the way from the street to the podium where he was due to speak.  That was in the days when he had hair – not that any comb ever made any difference to the appearance of his hair!
One of the others whom I met for the first time was Harri Webb.  Nationalist, socialist, republican – and, of course, poet.  I was not the only nationalist in the class of ’71 who found him an inspiring figure, even if much of what he said was not exactly to the taste of the party establishment of the day.
He was one of those characters who were larger than life.  Indeed, he was large in more ways than one – ferrying him home to Aberpennar after a ‘Poems and Pints’ evening in Dinas Powys a few years later was when I discovered that the seat belts on an Austin 1100 had never been designed with the not insubstantial girth of someone like Harri in mind.
He wasn’t what anyone would ever have called a ‘moderate’ by any means; his talk, like that of others in that era, was of revolution rather than evolution.  He was one of those who provided a hard edge to nationalist thinking, but he was never destined to play much of a practical part in building a movement.
Some of the excitement died in 1979 – indeed, many of the class of ’71 departed in the lean years which followed. Those of us who did not sought instead to build an effective, organised party which could engage more positively with electoral politics.  Much time and energy within Plaid over the years was expended on that task in one way or another, and the result of the efforts of many people over many years has been to create a much more effective political arm for the national movement than ever existed previously.
The aim, though, was never to lose that passion which Harri displayed, albeit sometimes to excess.  It was, rather, to combine idealism with pragmatism in order to be able to better present the message, not change it.  We wanted to be effective, yet remain a democratic party, owned and controlled by the members; to complement rather than replace what had gone before.  In seeking to professionalise that party’s activities, it was never any part of my objectives to use ‘professional’ in its tighter meaning, and to put the control of party largely into the hands of the ‘professional’ politicians.
Yet somehow that is largely what has happened.  Yesterday’s opening of the Assembly stirred more than a few memories, and there are some interesting comparisons which struck me.
The class of ’71 regularly railed at the way in which the Government could afford military bands but could not afford to meet more down-to-earth needs.  The class of ’11 watches the military bands performing outside the Senedd.
The class of ’71 campaigned against low-flying jets disrupting the peace of Wales.  The class of ’11 admires them flying past the Senedd.
The class of ’71 ridiculed and scorned the ruritanian anachronisms of heraldry, fanfares and pomp.  The class of ’11 watches in awe as the Herald of Wales leads the monarch out of the Senedd, and listens to a new fanfare especially commissioned for the event.
I could go on.  Harri wrote a poem called “Merlin’s Prophecy 1969”, which reads:
One day, when Wales is free and prosperous
And dull, they’ll all be wishing they were us.
We’re a long way off prosperity (other than in the relative sense so clumsily referred to by Peter Hain a few years ago); and we’re not exactly free yet; but nationalist politics has become a great deal duller since then.  It’s not quite as it was foreseen.  But then, somehow, I don’t think that many in the class of ’71 ever expected that the road to independence would be paved with fanfares and vol-au-vents either.  Unless, of course, we’ve somehow taken a wrong turning somewhere along the way.


Anonymous said...

great post John, very informative.

Robert said...

My short stay in the Plaid started voting 2005 ended voting after Mary Helen lost. She was angry rightly that the idea of Plaid doing a deal to go into coalition with the Tories upset people in my area, Llanelli is not a place the Tories are accepted to well.

I know why Plaid did it, but I think it was a mistake an error.

I was looking to day at TV question time when Cameron had a go at Labour in Wales with rising waiting times,(NHS) the response was rubbish. My grandson has been waiting to see a specialist now for fifteen months, they keep phoning up to ask if he still wants the appointment we keep saying yes of course, my GP keeps asking has he seen the consultant yet, it's like a merry go round.

Boy has the world changed since Blair and Brown, I'm waiting to go in for my much awaited ESA medical, seems Paraplgia means little these days.

Unknown said...

You could also have added:

The class of '71 didn't have a Senedd to stand outside.

Chad said...

"The class of ’71 campaigned against low-flying jets disrupting the peace of Wales. The class of ’11 admires them flying past the Senedd."

Disingenous I think. And a little insulting.

Radical Wales said...

Excellent post John. Sums up how much idealists lose in the name of 'respectability'.

Dan said...

Yawn. Another of the daily John Dixon plaid are bad blogs. Starting to sound bitter John which is a shame. You didn't get the mid Wales nomination so you left. leave it at that

Anonymous said...

a very enjoyable, thought provoking and wistful post john - nevertheless we are far far further down the road to a self governing wales than we were 40 years ago!

Indeed if you had had said to the shattered remnants of welsh nationalists in 1979 that within a little over 3 decades we would be able to make our own laws in wales in our own senedd - following the democratic mandate of the welsh people - you would have been thought mad!

So i wouldnt swap where we are in 2011 for where Wales was in 1971 - tho the music was admittedly much much better then.....and maybe even the fashions too lol!

Leigh Richards

John Dixon said...


I'm sure you're not the only person who doesn't know me very well who will choose to put that interpretation on events. Life's too short to let it worry me.

But if the blog is sending you to sleep, please bear in mind that reading it is not obligatory.

Peter Freeman said...

I want you to know, I read your blog almost every day for two reasons; You are part of my "News of Wales" reading and generally your analysis is very close to mine. Secondly; You bring back such memories.
1971 was the first conference I ever attended. I seconded the motion on Bi-lingual road signs. As I recall my speech was televised. I paraphrased Patrick Pearse with "Nid rhydd yn unig ond Cymreig hefyd a nid Cymreig yn unig ond rhydd hefyd." You are right. Those were heady days and there is a great deal of nostalgia for the times when we would sit in the pub and "Talk treason" unfortunately for most of Wales that brought us a similar amount of votes as Screaming Lord Sutch. Yes Plaid had to modernize but did we lose our soul along the way?

You mean there's more??? said...

I was too young for politics but started supporting plaid in 1968 when i started at secondary school. I stuck a few John Dixon posters round the vale and ended up standing for the council a couple of times myself. I met Harri several times and still read his poetry the bits I don't know off by heart!!

There was also of course Cliff Bere who died the night of the great referendum when his beloved Carmarthenshire delivered the begining of true devolution for Wales - very appropriate when you think it was Carmarthen in 1966 that marked the blaids arrival as a proper party.

I nearly left the party though the day I went to Dinky Poos and saw the kind of company Chris Franks was keeping and the views they held.

All this talk of Plaid teaming up with the tories though is classic labour smear.

My membership has long lapsed, I left to the sound of Cliff spinning in his grave as the party lurched to the right but I still know which way to vote.....

John Dixon said...

You mean there's more?,

Firstly, a belated thanks for putting up the posters all those years ago!

"I nearly left the party though the day I went to Dinky Poos and saw the kind of company Chris Franks was keeping and the views they held."

Might be a little unfair, although having kept the same company, I suppose I would say that. Plaid has long been a marriage, sometimes an uneasy one, of those who want an 'ideology-free' independence and those who see independence in the context of building a different type of society. And that tension is part of today's problems as well.

Cliff was a real character and another strong republican - but perhaps more on that another day.

John Dixon said...


Thanks for the feedback.

I agree completely that the party had to modernise its techniques, processes, and presentation. Indeed, I put a lot of effort personally into doing just that, and I'm proud of what the team achieved in that respect. 'Talking treason' was never going to lead to independence, albeit that we had a lot of enjoyable evenings doing it.

But you're spot on - there was no need to lose the soul, or water down the vision, in the process, and the national movement - which has always been wider than a political party - needs to recapture something of that spirit.

Glyndo said...

Dan said...
You didn't get the mid Wales nomination so you left. leave it at that

John Dixon said...
I'm sure you're not the only person who doesn't know me very well who will choose to put that interpretation on events. Life's too short to let it worry me.

I seem to remember pointing out the possibility of that particular interpretation on this blog some time back John. Your response at the time was that you would explain your reasons once the list was finalised.
The list was finalised some time back, did I miss the explanation?

John Dixon said...


As I recall, the question that you asked was a much narrower one about the regional list, and I don't think that I actually said that I would add to what I'd said, merely that I would not do so at that time. I'm not sure who'd gain anything from my doing so now either; and if not saying more means that people will choose to draw their own conclusions based on their own perspective, then I can live with that. I doubt that anything I said would change that anyway.