MEIC BIRTWISTLE reports from the National Eisteddfod on the political discussions and goings on at this year’s festival
ONCE again the Marxist historian Gwyn Alf Williams’s description of the National Eisteddfod as Wales’s wandering parliament is proved correct.
Though the country is now graced with a hard-won devolved Assembly in Cardiff, Wales’ Eisteddfod — though technically a cultural festival — is the national centre of political debate this summer as usual.
Tuesday saw the Welsh Labour Party unite to pay tribute to former first minister of Wales Rhodri Morgan in a moving event in the Societies’ Tent chaired by Assembly Member Eluned Morgan.
Labour minister Mark Drakeford and independent nationalist Dafydd Elis-Thomas spoke of Morgan’s political career and acheivements as a “father of the nation.”
Historian Prys Morgan explained the radical roots that shaped his brother’s political vision — inherited from forebears who led the Rebecca Riots and Land Reform movements — as well as their parents’ with dark experiences of the depression.
Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, saw internal doubts and divisions express themselves in an off-the-cuff response to media questioning by local nationalist politician Rhun ap Iorwerth as to his preparedness to stand as leader of the party if the position fell vacant.
The current left-wing leader of Plaid Leanne Wood has faced criticism for the recent general election results which gave the nationalists a very fragile increase in MPs which, however, disguised a serious weakening in their vote.
With Corbynist socialism and Carwyn Jones’s calls for a federal constitution and Labour Party structure on offer, Plaid’s vote was squeezed.
Calls for a change of leadership and political direction back to the party’s more nationalistic roots have been expressed publicly and anonymously in the Eisteddfod and elsewhere.
Leanne Wood however emphatically assures the Star’s readership that there is no vacancy for leader of her party.
The Welsh Language Society (Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg) had a busy week of it with rallies and meetings planned on Ynys Mon.
Devolution of broadcasting, post-Brexit agricultural policy and housing strategy were to be debated.
However, an unexpected linguistic storm has seized the media and public’s attention.
Controversy-prone retailers Sports Direct captured the headlines when a document from their Bangor store was leaked on social media banning the staff from speaking in any language other than English.
Rather than linguistic discrimination, as suggested by local Plaid Cymru AM Sian Gwenllian, the company is emphatic that this decision is for “health and safety reasons.”
Ms Gwenllian however was of a different opinion: “The Sports Direct notice was aimed at workers who speak minority languages — not just Welsh.
“The company’s workers are often on zero-hours contracts and are very vulnerable with nowhere to turn when rights are violated. We need new legislation to protect workers rights, including linguistic rights.”
Cymdeithas has referred the matter to the government’s Welsh language commissioner who is investigating.
Ironically, the Welsh Language Commissioner’s post is itself under the media spotlight.
Even as the Sports Direct issue blew up this week, the Labour minister Alun Davies launched a new government white paper on the Welsh language, which controversially proposes the abolition of the position of Commissioner for Welsh, currently held by Meri Huws.
Davies argues that a new, positive and inclusive approach is required with a “powerhouse” body needed to win over the hearts and minds of the majority of society in Wales who are not Welsh speaking. At a time of economic crisis he is wary of placing too much pressure to recognise Welsh on business.
Cymdeithas chair Heledd Gwyndaf argues, however, that these plans would potentially remove the teeth of any commission and let big business off the hook as regards to their linguistic responsibilities. This debate will run and run before a measure is brought ultimately to the Senedd building in Cardiff Bay.
“Two cousins arguing between themselves. That was what started the war. And all those innocent lads had to die as a consequence,” that was how Gerald Williams, the surviving nephew of Wales’s shepherd-poet Hedd Wyn, summed up the underlying stupidity of the imperialist first world war.
Hedd Wyn — whose real name was Ellis Humphrey Evans — died on the first day of the Passchendaele offensive a century ago but was made immortal in Welsh history as the posthumous winner of the chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod in Birkenhead.
In an incredible session in the Literature Tent Williams spoke to the contemporary poet Mererid Hopwood about his relatives’ story and his tragic death at the hands of capitalism. “It’s the money people, the people who make ammunition, it is they who push for war.”
In the Peace Tent can be found four organisations: CND, Wales For Peace, the Fellowship for Reconciliation and the People Against Wylfa- B (PAWB) sharing a stand and offering musical lunchtime fare with a pacifistic, anti-nuclear stance to drum up the punters.
Their meeting asked the challenging question: “What had Wales done for peace in the last century?”
In answering as to the validity of the concept of a defensive war Guto ap Gwynfor — using a Celtic example — pointed out that “when Julius Caesar invaded Britain, he gave as his excuse that he was defending Gaul.” ’Twas ever thus.
An ever-present question here on Anglesey is whether the proposed Wylfa -B nuclear power station will be built by energy company Horizon — owned, currently, by Hitachi Ltd.
The high degree of Horizon’s presence in the festival, in terms of sponsorship, advertising and staff, has been a controversial issue as it seeks approval for its new Japanese reactor, promising low-carbon nuclear energy.
In response PAWB is running an exhibition about the ongoing trauma of the people of Fukushima at nearby Newborough.
In the Art Tent one striking exhibit has been a film exploring the “disturbing appeal” of the AK-47 of which 75 million have been produced to date and which cause a quarter of a million deaths each year. Gethin Wyn Jones’s lingering, close-up portrayal of the iconic weapon is a particularly simple but shocking study.
Nearby in the same pavilion, Peter Finnemore, again using film as his medium, explored history and inheritance by interweaving images from his family’s schoolbooks across the ages with photos of industrial Wales.
Official idealised perceptions of culture as presented to children as part of their imposed imperial identity in educational textbooks are then juxtaposed and challenged through starkly realistic pictures of their lives such as of coal-strike graffiti on miners’ bus stops.
Finally, the colourful Stonewall stand has a particularly international feel this year.
The emphasis is on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans rights around the world, stressing the need for solidarity with brothers and sisters across the globe facing particularly difficult struggles against reactionary regimes under the slogan “Wrth dy ochr” (By your side).
The lists of oppressive measures faced by minorities in other countries makes stark reading, but the positive imagery of banners and pictures created by children visiting the tent is massively heartwarming.
There is still time to visit the the National Eisteddfod. Don’t miss out.