The Education Minister in the Welsh Assembly, Leighton Andrews, my fellow student-leader from 1975-1980, has recently published a writ which was served on ‘persons unknown’ occupying the Maths Tower of the then University College of North Wales, Bangor, in November 1976. Although I was personally ‘in occupation’ throughout the four or five nights and days from 25th, this is the first time, on Leighton’s website, that I’ve had the chance to read this document properly, since it was served to the iron fire escape near the top of the tower on a typically blustery day, and was almost immediately blown off as the College authorities, including the Assistant Registrar, descended. The last I saw of it was with him in hot pursuit, and I had no idea that it had been retrieved until recently, when Leighton produced it for a talk at the National Eisteddfod. Perhaps it was retrieved and reposted, or delivered to the Student Union building nearby, but no-one inside the occupation accepted it by hand, as to do so, we were all briefed, would be to accept its terms and leave us open to identification and prosecution if we didn’t vacate immediately. We were there because the College had already expelled four officers of the Cymric Society named on its membership card. As long as we remained ‘persons unknown’, they advised us, it would be difficult to enforce the writ, except through forced entry and repossession. We therefore ignored it and there was no contact, physical or otherwise with those serving the writ, or with the document itself.
I have kept a diary from that year and papers from the following two years (speeches and statements). As an historian myself, I think it’s high time I keep my promise and publish what I can recall from these sources and my memory of these events, from a much ‘safer’ distance in time and space. Like Leighton, I was a student at UCNW from 1975-78, moving south to Cardiff to pursue my research interests in the coalfield valleys thereafter, while Leighton stayed on as a sabbatical officer and then researcher in Bangor. Although having no Welsh family connections myself, I had grown up among Welsh miners and teachers in Coventry and Birmingham, many of whom attended my father’s Baptist Chapel and were often ‘surrogate’ parents to me and my siblings as part of its broad community. Indeed, the presence of the Welsh in these cities was so strong in the sixties and seventies, that my pastor-father organised what were called ‘eisteddfodau’ for the chapels in the West Midlands, and in which I competed ( in English, of course). It therefore seemed a natural choice to study History and Biblical Studies at Bangor, and I immediately felt at home among the Welsh Nonconformists, both Welsh and English-speaking. I quickly came into contact with a wide variety of them through my involvement in the Christian Union, many of them theological students living in ‘Bala-Bangor’, their college in Upper Bangor. Some spoke very little English in their everyday lives. Others were from south Wales and, like me, attended Penrallt English Baptist Church, where Rev Roy Jenkins, now a regular contributor to Thought for Today on BBC Radio Four, was then the young pastor.
I also understood the history of the Nonconformists in the Liberal and Labour politics of Britain since, in an ideological sense, my father did indeed know Lloyd George! So it was not by accident that Leighton and I got to know each other through membership of the Young Liberals, then led by Peter Hain, in our first year, becoming active in the students’ union, he as a Council member and I, in my second term, as Undergraduate Representative for the Arts Faculty. Before arriving in Bangor, I had made contact with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Christian Pacifist organisation, and in the late summer of 1976 became closely involved with Welsh Baptist Pacifists and Quakers, helping to establish the Welsh section of the F.o.R. that autumn, following a week-long Conference on Devolution, Nationalism and Pacifism in Iona, with delegates from Scotland and other parts of Wales. My diary also shows that I attended anti-Fascist meetings in Birmingham and was increasingly involved in non-violent direct action campaigns, inspired by the writings of Gandhi, Martin Luther-King jnr. and John Ferguson. It was in this spirit that, on returning for my second year in Bangor, I resolved to learn both the Welsh language and, at the same time, more about the culture and politics associated with it. After some weeks spent in a village on Anglesey, I moved into Neuadd John Morris-Jones, the Welsh-speaking Hall of Residence in Upper Bangor in October, and quickly developed a network of friends among the Welsh learners and student-teachers there, many of whom hailed from south and west Wales. At the same time, I became acutely aware of the linguistic and cultural ‘apartheid’ which existed between English and Welsh-speaking students in Bangor, the latter making up only 10% of the student population in a town which was 60% bilingual and a surrounding area which was up to 90% first-language Welsh. I could also detect that there were deep divisions between those from this ‘Fro Cymraeg’ (Welsh-speaking heartland) and Welsh-speakers from other parts of Wales, who, though speaking the language from birth, were often not literate enough to study in it as a medium, unless they had attended bilingual schools in these areas. ‘Cymraeg Byw’ (Living Welsh) was their Welsh, and this is what I learnt, in the main. Seven years later, although fairly fluent, I had to find my first post in England, since I, too, was not literate enough to use it as a medium of education. These were often referred to, somewhat condescendingly, as ‘Myfyrwyr Cymreig’, Welsh in culture but not in academic language, being slightly above the lower tier of ‘Cymru-di-Cymraeg’, the anglicised and monoglot English-speakers. It was largely from these ‘second and third class’ Welsh-speakers that the teachers of ‘Cymraeg Byw’ were drawn, many of them having learnt it themselves. Naturally, this group of committed Welsh Learners and Language Activists, although committed to direct action in defacing property, mostly English-only official signs, were also keen, through the students’ union, to teach the language to anyone, for any purpose, and were therefore more willing to elicit a more sympathetic view of Welsh culture among the English and international student population. Elen Rhys-Tyler was typical of this group, and was the Chair, or ‘Cadeirydd’ of the Welsh Learners’ Society. It was also about this time that I first met Ann Beynon, a first-language Welsh-speaker, who had been the Student Union President in 1974-75, the year before I arrived in Bangor. By the time I met her, she was a postgraduate student in the Department of Welsh Language and Literature. She told me that two years earlier, in November 1973, students in both Aberystwyth and Bangor had gone on strike over the seemingly uncontrolled expansion of both University Colleges. In spite of this, and the Student Union’s opposition to its plans, the Bangor College planned to grow to from to 3,500 places by 1980/81, to include 150 places resulting from the amalgamation with the teacher-training college, St. Mary’s, on the opposite hillside of the town, representing an increase of at least 10%. Most of these new students were to be added in departments which traditionally drew their intake from ‘over the border’ and further afield, thus adding to the anglicising influence of the College on the town and surrounding area. This was exacerbated by the College authorities’ continuing refusal to implement a full bilingual policy for documents and signs throughout its administration and buildings, a policy which had already fully implemented by the Student Union under Anne Beynon’s leadership. The parallel campaign for Welsh language rights had already led to the setting up of an autonomous union of Welsh-speaking students in Aberystwyth, within an ‘Urdd’ or ‘Guild’ of students.
By the autumn of 1976, however, the Welsh-speaking students in Bangor had become alienated by the College’s intransigence over the bilingual policy and through the growth of a hard-line element of nationalists in a group called ‘Adfer’ (‘Reinstate’) which had broken away from the Welsh Nationalist Party’s support for an independent, bilingual Wales, and were advocating language and immigration controls for Gwynedd (the three ‘shires’ of Caernarfon, Anglesey & Merioneth). This group, led mainly by Theology students from ‘Bala-Bangor’, were becoming increasingly influential in the ‘Cymric Society’, which although operating with a grant from the Student Union, was becoming increasingly separated in practice, based on the Welsh Halls of Residence. Following an initial declaration of intent, the Society launched a campaign of direct action against the College, without reference to the Student Union, and despite the urging of restraint and patience by members of the Welsh Learners’ Society. In a coordinated night-time action, slogans were daubed throughout the College’s buildings, including a large slogan proclaiming ‘Justice for the Language’ on the long wall of the main upper college, overlooking the town. Monolingual English signs and notices were torn down. The following day the College authorities met in a secret, emergency session, and immediately expelled the four members of the Cymric Society named on its membership card, including its minute’s secretary and entertainment secretary, the latter of whom had had no involvement or prior knowledge of the action. The injustice of this victimisation was obvious, and the Student Union’s bilingual solicitor in Menai Bridge was immediately called into action to write to the Principal, Sir Charles Evans, following a lengthy briefing with the four students. I remember well the sombre mood which attended that meeting in his office, even though I could understand only a little of the content of the discussion. However, the predicted backlash in the student body as a whole to the precipitative action, meant that, when the General Meeting was held on 18th November, there was an understandable mood of antagonism against the Cymric which defeated a motion calling for concerted action to secure the reinstatement of the four officers. The Society again took matters into their own hands by announcing a strike, which was swiftly followed by an occupation of the main lecture theatre. There seemed little alternative for the Welsh learners but to support this unofficial action, and I well remember the defiantly spontaneous, harmonised singing of Welsh hymns by the whole of the Cymric gathered there. For someone brought up in a Nonconformist household and church, this was a very moving experience, evoking a deep sense both of shared values and of the injury and injustice over the treatment of the language which these students felt so keenly, but were enduring so stoically and endeavouring to overcome.
When a second motion proposing direct action against the College by the whole student body was narrowly defeated a week later, with only a small number of Welsh ‘delegates’ present and refusing to vote, the substantial minority of English-speaking students who had supported it decamped to Neuadd John Morris-Jones, where an impromtu meeting was held in its main hall, declaring its support for the Cymric and the setting up of an autonomous, ‘sister’ Welsh-speaking Union such as existed at Aberystwyth. Only then, we agreed, could the Welsh-speakers have the official voice necessary to deliver the bilingual policy without further victimisation from the College authorities and having their protests continually voted down by an English student majority with little sympathy for their cause. Speaking in response, the provisional Cymric leadership called upon the Welsh learners and their supporters to show their support by occupying the Maths Tower. A set of keys was produced and a small, advanced party gained unforced entry, followed by larger numbers, so that control was swiftly established. After a small group of cleaners were allowed access in the early morning, the stairwell was well-barricaded, and the Tower remained closed for lectures the next day and into the next week, despite the writ being granted. The permanent occupiers were led by Elen Rhys-Tyler, while Vaughan Roderick, Leighton Andrews and myself acted as go-betweens for the Welsh learners, the Cymric and the Student Union. A further Student Union Emergency General Meeting was called for the middle of the following week, as the term was coming rapidly to an end, there was a need to ensure that any threat of action would not be seen as idle and could result in the reinstatement of the four students for the beginning of the next term (I had joined the student strike as Undergraduate Representative, since my main concern was for the academic progress of the four). We left the tower reluctantly, but of our own free will, a day or so after the writ was issued. This was at the request of the Cymric, who had also begun the unofficial supportive action through the Welsh Learners’ Society. We had been invited to take action as its members, not as officials and members of the Student Union, since the Union had rejected such action. We therefore had no mandate for the action on behalf of the student body as a whole. The Cymric Society also ended the occupation because of a small, but disruptive, group of ultra-left activists in the occupation, who had no real interest in the campaign for a bilingual policy and were advocating a more violent campaign solely on the issue of College victimisation. In reality, we feared that they simply wanted to foment disorder and destruction of property. Since ‘the Cymric’ were committed, in the long-standing tradition of the Welsh Language Society, to pacifism and non-violent direct action, they considered that this was too much of a risk to take both with the College’s property and with the future of a campaign that was already in its fourth year and set to run for some time. As Welsh learners, we also felt responsible for the backlash the action had already provoked among both students and staff, as well as for the tutorial work we had abandoned. In addition, we needed time to win support from the wider community in Bangor and the surrounding villages, since the College, as a major employer, was already manipulating the media to claim that important employee and student records had been trashed in the original actions taken by the Cymric Society a fortnight earlier. We therefore agreed to resume both our academic studies and constitutional/ diplomatic campaigning activities through the Student Union. In this, we gained the support for a second Emergency General Meeting from its officers, especially its Deputy-President and Leighton Andrews, to be held in Neuadd Pritchard-Jones later that week.
The Welsh learners withdrew from the Maths Tower following the release of hundreds of balloons declaring ongoing support for ‘the Four’ and the bilingual policy all across the town. They then put bilingual flyers under every door in every Hall of Residence, so that Neuadd Pritchard-Jones, the main Assembly Hall in the old ‘Top’ College, was filled to its 2,000 capacity, despite the non-attendance of all but a handful of Cymric members, since their occupation was continuing in the lecture theatre nearby. A simple but vaguely-worded motion calling for ‘all peaceful actions’ to reinstate the four expelled students was proposed by the Union’s Palestinian Deputy-President, Mohammed Abu-Koash. It was supported, with reservations clearly aired, by an overwhelming majority of those present, which meant that, had the votes of the otherwise ‘occupied’ Cymric been taken into account, two-thirds of the College’s students were unmistakably behind some form of concerted and coordinated non-violent direct action. A few days later, on receipt of written assurances of ‘good behaviour’ from the four, the College backed down, commuting their punishment to a suspension until after the Christmas holidays. All four stood together in accepting responsibility, including two brothers who were talented musicians and members of a soon-to-be internationally-acclaimed Welsh folk group. Everyone in the College, except (it seemed) Sir Charles Evans, knew or accepted that at least one of them had taken no part in the action which led to their expulsion, but this brother, to his lasting credit, had steadfastly refused to deny responsibility while the other brother and the two other students stood likewise accused. Many lecturers, regardless of their views on the language issues, had been deeply concerned both for these obviously talented students and for the precedent that their continued expulsion would set.
The College gradually implemented a bilingual policy over the next two years, and the focus of campaigning shifted to the linguistic and cultural effects of its continued expansion. Although the Welsh learners urged the Cymric to work in tandem with the Student Union to achieve this, its leadership was heavily influenced by the separatist ‘Adfer’ group into setting up a ‘culturally-pure’ Welsh Student Union, ‘Undeb Myfyrwyr Colegau Bangor’, operating out of its ‘Caffi Deiniol’ in Upper Bangor, and drawing membership from the Bala-Bangor Theological College and the Teacher-training college, Coleg y Normal. They rejected the overtures for a con-federal union structure, similar to the Guild of Students in Aberystwyth, with autonomy on Welsh language issues and campaigns and sole use of the third floor of the Student Union building, together with the Welsh Learners’ Society. Jim Bloice-Smith, a prominent English ‘home counties’ student member of the Christian Union, an independent College society, offered to chair negotiations, but even this approach from a respected member of the overall student community was dismissed, albeit politely. There followed a variety of rather sinister attempts to spy on and ‘purge’ members of the Welsh Learners’ Society in Neuadd ‘JMJ’. The Society continued to operate within the official Student Union and was instrumental in persuading it to make the offer of a new constitution to the break-away union, a ‘covenant’ which was written simultaneously in Welsh and English, reflecting the different cultures as well as languages which would need to agree to develop a genuinely bilingual student body, rather than one which simply provided token translations. However, it became increasingly apparent that UMCB was set on a course of linguistic apartheid. In response to continued threats and intimidation, including the use of ‘kangaroo courts’, the Welsh learners within the Plaid Cymru student branch came out ‘fighting’, finding a platform for their moderate stance and almost succeeding in getting a full ‘slate’ elected to its executive in the spring of 1977. This was evidence that the ultra-nationalist position of UMCB was not as widely supported among the ordinary Welsh-speaking students of Neuadd John Morris-Jones as it claimed, even those from the Welsh ‘heartlands’ of Gwynedd. The Welsh learners also became active in UCMC (NUS Wales), which had been established some four or five years earlier, and elected Mick Antoniw, a Cardiff Law student of Ukranian descent, as its Chairman, at a Conference held in Bangor that Easter. It established a ‘Welsh Language Action Group’, coordinating activity across the constituent colleges of the University and the teacher-training colleges. UCMC also provided a forum for research about the wider educational context of Welsh-medium education throughout Wales. However, the opportunities for democratic debate and discussion in Welsh in Bangor were effectively stifled by the leadership of the UMCB, and the increasingly oppressive atmosphere which the Warden of ‘JMJ’ Hall strove to ameliorate led to the leadership of the Welsh Learners’ Society decamping to set up their own private residence in Upper Bangor. This proved something of a thorn in the side of the ‘Adferwyr’ who targeted the house for attack on at least one occasion that I can remember well.
It was during this, my final year, in Bangor, that I wrote the following speech as a Student representative on the College Court of Governers, meeting on 1st February 1978, on the proposals put forward for the College’s future. The Court was split three ways on this. The College hierarchy wanted to continue the policy of expansion by at least 10%, while UMCB, through its sympathising lecturers, wanted a cut in student numbers by more than 15%. The Student Union’s position remained one of opposition to both cuts and further expansion:
In opposition to the motion (supporting a cut in student numbers), the Students’ Union…would not wish to deny that the imbalance of student numbers in favour of those from outside of Wales has had an anglicising effect on the College and local communities. However, we disagree with the supposed ‘solution’ put forward by the breakaway union….and supported here by Mr Griffith and Mr Orwig, for two main reasons:
1.) As we’ve said in our own motion, cutting the intake of students to 500 undergraduates would inevitably mean that many local people, many of them Welsh-speaking, will lose their jobs. About two thousand people are directly employed by the College. That is the reality which the proposers of this motion have to face. Since there is little alternative means of employment in and around Bangor, these people will be forced to move elsewhere to look for work. One of the reasons why the Welsh language is in such a weak position is…because Welsh-speakers have continually been forced out of the Welsh-speaking areas in order to find security and a decent standard of living…What this proposal does is to look at the language question in splendid isolation from the social and economic conditions in which the language exists. It looks at it from the lofty position of an intellectual élite who refuse to descend from their pedestal to ask the ordinary people in the College, the ‘werin’, what they want. The Students’ Union, however, holds regular meetings with representatives of the campus trade unions and we know what their attitudes are to this sort of policy. Mr Griffiths and Mr Orwig agree with the leaders of the ‘Undeb Cymraeg’ , who recently stated on TV that they believe that it is only this intellectual élite of university students and other literary figures which can save the Welsh language.
2.) Cutting the student intake to 500 will not make the College any more relevant to the local community. It will probably result in the closure of the College in the same way that Lampeter is threatened with closure.
Our motion restates Student Union policy going back over a period of five years…We’ve decided to bring this issue up again at this Court meeting not so much as a response to the ‘Undeb Cymraeg Education Policy’ (we didn’t know that Mr Griffith and Mr Orwig had agreed to act as their mouthpieces until we received the papers from the Registrar two weeks ago) but because, despite the consistent opposition shown by the students and local people, the College has continued to expand. Although the expansion rate has slowed, the College is still proposing to increase to nearly 3,500 by 1980/81. Only 150 of these new places result from the amalgamation with St Mary’s (Teacher-training College). The Principal himself admits that ‘even modest growth of the College presents us with problems’. In our view, this is something of an understatement, because it seems to fail to recognise that we have enormous problems already. Why is expansion not in the interests of staff and students?
1.) It would increase the sizes of already overcrowded classes;
2.) It would produce an added strain upon staff and essential resources, e.g. the Library, because the College will attempt to keep further employment to an absolute minimum.
We are opposed to any further expansion, but I must emphasise that we do not see stopping expansion as an end in itself. We want to freeze the number of students coming to Bangor so that then, as lecturers and students and local people, we can attempt to change the College into a more progressive institution more oriented towards the needs of the local community. ‘Undeb Cenedlaethol Myfyrwyr Cymru’ (NUS Wales), has been at the forefront of the campaign to obtain a more comprehensive system of further education in Wales and, as a step towards this, the devolution of the University of Wales to the Welsh Assembly. The only way, ultimately, to make the Colleges of Wales more Welsh is to encourage Welsh students to stay in Wales for their higher education, and that is why we advocate the setting up of a federated Coleg Cymraeg to coordinate teaching through the medium of Welsh throughout the University, and, ultimately, on a comprehensive basis, throughout Wales. Our policy of ‘no expansion’ is thus a means to these ends, the destruction of a binary system and of University élitism and an end to an education system dependent on ‘paper qualifications’. We must ensure that access to a decent standard of education is open to all who wish to benefit from it.
We agree that the College is at present far too large, but the way to counter this is not to cut its size…but to broaden its functions and change its nature, into a College whose prime commitment is to meet the needs of the local community. That doesn’t mean that we want a College which is parochial and inward-looking which is what you’d get if you replaced a College full of English academic students like me with a College full of Welsh academic students. However, in the short-term we can prevent the College from losing altogether its Welsh character by adopting a realistic policy of ‘no further expansion’, while rejecting the recipe for disaster which (some) would have us follow. However, by doing so, we will only be carrying out a cosmetic operation. The place of the Welsh language in higher and further education in Wales can only be found in terms of a more comprehensive system. That is why we ask you to reject motion 13, because it fails to identify the real problem. It fails to see the need for a more fundamental reorganisation in the structure of education in Wales. It also proposes to seriously damage any progressive movements by throwing out of work the very people whose support we need. I ask you to accept motion 14 as a policy around which we can unite and carry the campaign for the Welsh language forward.
The motion calling for the cut in undergraduate intake was defeated, but just over a week later, on February 9th, a group of 50-70 members of UMCB, the breakaway ‘Undeb Cymraeg’, occupied various parts of the old building in ‘Top College’. Their action was taken in protest against the now democratic decision of the College Court not to recognise the new union and to refuse the policy of limiting the number of non-Welsh-speaking students coming to the College for the next session. The campaign began on 6th February with the jamming of keyholes in Top College by means of glue. The following morning the UMCB members barricaded themselves in the Principal’s office and the Registrar’s office. When the barricades were breached they then moved into the nearby hall, Neuadd Powys. However, realising that their occupation was having little effect, they decided to end it by the early afternoon. Although it was thought that this was the preliminary action in a long campaign against the College authorities, it was also noted that the ‘Cymric’ campaign of 1976 had ‘received the support of many non-Welsh-speaking students and staff for its aim of an equitable language policy’, support which was ‘not forthcoming for this new campaign’.
Later that Spring, the Welsh Learners’ Society helped to get Barry Owen, a mature student from Flintshire, elected as the Students’ Union’s new President, the first Welsh-speaker to occupy the role since Ann Beynon. Leighton Andrews also became a sabbatical officer. I was elected Vice-Chairman for the University Sector of UCMC, succeeding Mick Antoniw as Chairman in 1979, shortly after the Devolution debácle and the success of the Federation of Conservative Students in taking control of the Student Union in Bangor and the Guild of Students in Aberystwyth, prior to Mrs Thatcher’s election. UCMC succeeded in continuing to offer a platform for progressive nationalists and Welsh language activists. Most importantly, it managed to contain the widening cracks on university expansion, bilingualism and Welsh-medium education in Bangor from spreading along a fault-line to Aberystwyth and Carmarthen. Our voice was respectfully heard on this, in Welsh, at a debate at the National Eisteddfod in Caernarfon in August 1979. An accompanying major policy gain was the establishment of a federal Welsh-medium teaching board to develop courses throughout the constituent colleges of the University. In the autumn of 1979, UCMC also published its manifesto, Addysg yng Ngymru (Education in Wales) which elicited an editorial in The Western Mail and a great deal of more positive support from academics and administrators alike in the Welsh education system. The debate on Welsh-medium education had moved on from being simply the preserve of an intellectual élite, to its central role in developing a more comprehensive system of further and higher education throughout Wales, across the binary divide. Unfortunately, until the Welsh Assembly was finally established, this policy could not be implemented outside the somewhat narrow confines of the marble halls of increasingly competitive university colleges and through the Welsh Joint Education Council (WJEC). Successive Tory and Labour governments at ‘St Stephen’s’, Westminster, simply allowed further, unbridled expansion of the university sector and the transformation of respected local specialist Colleges of Higher Education into universities, without examining the relevance of the courses offered to local needs. Leighton Andrews has written about this legacy elsewhere.
Copyright, Andrew J Chandler