Next Wednesday marks the fifty-fifth anniversary of a by-election which changed Welsh history.  Two generations on – it’s seen as the catalyst to constitutional change in Wales.

Young people today may not appreciate the significance of the Carmarthen byelection on 14th July, 1966. For my generation it remains alive in our minds as if it happened yesterday.

Let me set the context. In March, 1966, Labour secured a landslide Westminster victory, winning thirty two of Wales’ thirty six seats. There were three Tory MPs; and one Liberal. Former Plaid Cymru prodigee, the late Elystan Morgan (who sadly died this week) won Ceredigion for Labour.

Having created the Welsh Office in 1964, with James Griffiths MP as Wales’ first Secretary of State, Labour was riding high in Wales.

Plaid was in the doldrums. During the Tryweryn debacle, Plaid Cymru had run an energetic campaigns but leader Gwynfor Evans had failed in 1959, to win Meirionnydd. In the 1964 election, Plaid slipped back and made little headway in March 1966.

Gwynfor Evans fought Carmarthen in 1964 and 1966, trebling the party’s vote but still coming a modest third.

Labour was generous in re-adopting Megan Lloyd George as candidate  despite knowing that she was seriously ill.  She died six weeks after the 1966 election.

The byelection caught the imagination of hundreds of young people throughout Wales.  They campaigned as never before. Their enthusiasm caught the public imagination.


As I canvassed Carmarthen the Saturday before the poll I felt a mood-change. Later, Plaid organiser Elwyn Roberts whispered to me – almost fearfully  – “I think we might win!” 

On 16th July, 1966, Gwynfor Evans was elected Plaid Cymru’s first MP, ironically defeating Gwilym Prys Davies, one of the most committed devolutionists in Labour’s ranks.

Gwynfor’s victory reverberated in Scotland, where Winnifred Ewing (SNP) won Hamilton in 1967. Other byelections  -Rhondda West, Pollock and Caerffili-  created a momentum which led to Harold Wilson establishing the Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1968.

That Commission, in its 1973 Report, advocated legislative  parliaments for Wales and Scotland. Its timing was fortuitous - three months before the 1974 election, when Labour returned to office.

By October 1974, with eleven SNP and three Plaid Cymru MPs  in Parliament, devolution was firmly on the agenda. Despite the 1979 referendum setback, the genie was out of the bottle. There was no going back.

The 1997 and 2011 referenda led to today’s Senedd, with independent legislative competence in limited fields. But “power devolved is power retained”. Our Senedd struggles against Westminster’s power to reign in its freedom.

Some historians argue that the process of devolution had started before Carmarthen, with the establishment of the Welsh Office in 1964. And the momentum to give Welsh “official status” was triggered by Saunders Lewis’  1962 radio lecture, leading to the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith and its passionate campaigns.

Historically, this is correct. But sometimes there needs to be a spark to start the engine of political change. Gwynfor Evans’ 1966 by-election triumph provided that spark. It was an epoch-making event which warrants its place in the annals of Welsh history.

If you value The National's journalism and the opinions we share, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.