It is good to find myself, and anticipate finding myself, in agreement with quite a few Members in the Chamber, which is probably quite pleasant.
I speak with a special personal interest in that Wales and matters Welsh have been absolutely my focus as an MP, my overriding interest, and almost at times, I think, my obsession since being elected in 2010, as they have been throughout my 40 years in public life before that. Other hon. Members will have their own perspectives, which will inevitably sometimes be different from my own. The first half of my comments will be about the history of the Welsh language and where it has touched on my own life, before I share thoughts about attitudes and investment for the future.
I was born in Montgomeryshire, or Sir Drefaldwyn in Welsh. I have always lived there, and I have no ancestors who were born anywhere except in Sir Drefaldwyn—at least that I know of. More unusual is that I think every single ancestor spoke Welsh as their first language. Again, that is as far as I know, but I have gone to a lot of trouble to try to find out.
There were two main reasons why my five sisters and I were the first generation not to be bilingual—we were Davieses, Lloyds and Evanses, and everyone was bilingual until my generation. First, my parents moved from the Welsh-language villages of Llanerfyl and Pontrobert to the predominantly English-language villages of Castle Caereinion and Berriew. The second reason was more significant and pertinent to this debate. At that time, and for some time before, Welsh was seen as the language of failure. It was simply not encouraged. It was the age of the Welsh not. I do not remember hearing my parents, both first-language Welsh speakers, ever speak Welsh in front of the children. That is not in any way a criticism; it was not at all unusual at the time. That had an impact on all of us.
I left education aged 16, to join my father on the family farm, during a long period of his illness. However, I fancied myself as a writer, and in the early 1960s I wrote an essay for an eisteddfod competition, “The Future of the Welsh Language”. We could write in either English or Welsh, it was 20,000 words—quite significant—and it involved weeks of research. My reward was to win the chair and to be crowned bard, but the key point that I want to make is that my essay predicted the end of Welsh as a spoken language—not at all an uncommon belief at the time. Many academics would have taken the same view. But time has proven my conclusion to be too pessimistic. The future, as it so often does, decided to take a rather different course.
Throughout the period of my youth, the inevitable reaction was a strong pro-Welsh language protest movement, in response to the long-term decline. There were marches and protests, and even properties burnt down. There were Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine, Gwynfor Evans and others well known in the history of Wales. There was also the early development of the political voice of Wales, and of Plaid Cymru. In fact, as I have admitted in this Chamber before, the first time that I voted it was for Plaid Cymru, as it happens—[Interruption.] I have told my own party, so it will not come as a shock.
Crucially, from the mid-20th century, there was a change of political attitude. I have no desire to make any partisan or political points, except to record my pride that my party played a significant and proactive part in that change. Mrs Thatcher’s Government established S4C with what I shall call encouragement from the great Gwynfor Evans, who went on hunger strike to support the cause. The biggest advance, in my view and that of many others, was the Welsh Language Act 1993, when Lord Wyn Roberts was such a key player.
Today, we have reached the stage in the recovery of the Welsh language at which the Welsh Government have formally adopted the aim of there being 1 million Welsh speakers in Wales. That is beyond the imagination of any of us 20 years ago. I do not know how realistic that aim is, but 20 years ago it would have been laughed out of court. We can now have that sort of serious prediction, which is unbelievable for those of us who care so much about the language.
Today, yr iaith Gymraeg is in a far better place than anyone could have predicted in the middle of the last century, but those who want to see the Welsh language succeed cannot be complacent. Across the world, there is always ongoing pressure on all minority languages. Survival depends on continuing support, battling against political and economic pressures.