Welsh use civil disobedience to gain their own TV channel

Britain's largest campaign of civil disobedience in recent years has just achieved in Wales a wholesale U-turn by the British government. The specific cause of trouble in this case was Welsh television. At issue was the government's election pledge to establish a Welsh-language television service on the new commercial television channel to be opened in 1982.

Britain's Home Secretary William Whitelaw (even in Wales he is now known as "Willie the Welsher") overturned that promise a year ago. He argued instead that the programs should be spread over several channels.

"It was a terrible kick in the teeth," Gwynfor Evans told this correspondent in the book-lined study of his farmhouse in this rural village. The white-haired, soft-spoken president of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, planned to begin a "fast unto death" on Oct. 6, -- "as something to crystallize the situation," he said.

Crystallize it he did. Mr. Whitelaw relented, announcing Sept. 17 that the fourth channel would, as originally planned, offer 20 to 22 hours of Welsh-language programs each week for an experimental period.

Calling off his hunger strike, a delighted Mr. Evans said, "This is the biggest victory we have ever won for the Welsh language. It will go far to secure the future for the language."

It is the preservation of this language -- spoken by some 500,000 people in this principality of 2.5 million -- which Welsh nationalists see as crucial to the continuation of Welsh culture. They believe it is being eroded by English-language television.

Mr. Evans has been accused of blackmail by starvation, of being crazy enough to "die for the telly," and of harboring (as the Economist magazine put it) "delusions of Gandhi."

But his decision, he says, while modeled on Gandhi's hunger strikes against British rule in India, was intended to head off more violent action -- like the recent spate of arson attacks on vacant English-owned holiday homes in Wales. And although it was the most visible, it was by no means the only act of civil disobedience in the principality:

* On a desolate Welsh hillside in Pencarreg last October, three university faculty members broke into a BBC transmitting station and shut off the power at peak viewing time. They then stood, crowbar in hand, chatting about the Renaissance, while they waited for the police to come and arrest them. Their trial, at Carmarthen Crown Court in July, provided a forum for explaining why sober and established members of society felt they must defy the law.

"It slowly dawned on me," wrote Ned Thomas, a senior lecturer in English at University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, in his defense, "that a nation which would accept the treatment we had received over the fourth channel would accept anything that was done to it."

* Shortly after the Pencarreg break-in, 20 students, businessmen, and academicians in Aberystwyth occupied a television station. They were fined only Monitor, compared to the $:900 ($2,160) in fines and costs he paid.

* More than 2,000 people in Wales have withheld payment of their annual television license fees pending a satisfactory solution to the fourth-channel controversy. Several Welsh magistrates, facing widespread unpopularity for fining and jailing them, simply adjourned proceedings until later in the fall.One magistrate resigned rather than impose sentences.

Following Mr. Whitelaw's Sept. 17 announcement, the Secretary of State for Wales, Nicholas Edwards, admitted that the government had backed down because "we have failed to persuade middle-ground opinion and the media in Wales that our judgment was right."

That judgment stemmed from discussions about how best to serve Welsh culture. At the last general election, all the political parties agreed with varius committee recommendations to concentrate Welsh broadcasting on a single channel.

Where does the long-simmering Welsh nationalist issue go from here? A referendum in early 1979 calling for a separate Welsh assembly was roundly defeated. But unemployment is rising, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government is distinctly unpopular in Wales.

These are prime conditions, many feel, for an upsurge of nationalistic fervor led by Mr. Evans, whose success in dealing with the British government has made him more popular than ever with the Welsh people.

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