Rhys Evans,
Gwynfor Evans: A Portrait of a Patriot
(Y Lolfa, 2008)

This biography of one of Wales's greatest heroes of the 20th century reads well. It's a comprehensive political history of the 35-year leadership of Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party of Wales, by Gwynfor Evans.

Gwynfor, as he's known throughhout the book and throughout Wales, is the key figure in the politics of that country between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the mid-1980s. His accomplishments were mighty. In the face of some hefty odds, Gwynfor helped put Wales -- literally -- back on the map.

As a nation that enjoyed no official existence for hundreds of years, Wales -- or Cymru, as it is known in its native language -- now has limited self-government and is rebuilding its identity. While the national language is by no means secure, it is stable. Much of this is, arguably, due to Gwynfor and his tireless work.

Rhys Evans (not a relative of the subject) provides a thorough account of how this happened. There were certainly bumps on the road. Mistakes were made. But Wales did, finally, gain its own national assembly in 1999, the culmination of almost seven decades of work by Gwnfor and many others.

While Gwynfor is well written and thorough, Evans does often assume some knowledge of British and Welsh politics, which makes the book confusing to follow at times. A few things are not explained properly for outsiders. Yet that doesn't overly burden the book. What does somewhat make the book drag is the author's negativity. While he obviously sees Gwynfor's key place in Welsh history, he's quick to criticize him for decisions great and small.

This book doesn't deal much with the personal -- it's a political biography. And it certainly does not make Gwynfor out to be a perfect leader. Like many other politicians, he made some good and some bad decisions. He was lucky at times, unlucky at others.

During his long tenure, Plaid Cymru had mixed success. What made Gwynfor's reputation was, first, his election as the first nationalist MP in 1966, and, second, his hunger-strike pledge that forced British leader Margaret Thatcher to fund a Welsh-language TV channel.

Rhys Evans criticizes Gwynfor for not knowing when to quit. Arguably, others might have stepped up to the challenge. But longevity sometimes accomplishes what other methods can't.

Above all, Gwynfor Evans made Wales conscious of itself. He worked for decades, tirelessly, to give the lie to the notion that Wales was somehow inferior, less of a nation than the Estonias, or the Slovenias; or that the Welsh people would be better off ruled from London.

For those wanting to find out more about this remarkable leader, this book is a useful resource.

review by
David Cox

9 January 2010

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