Today the full truth is revealed on how the Iron Lady bent to the threat of the creation of a Welsh martyr.
I played a walk-on part in one of the most momentous decision in the history of Wales. For five years from 1974 to 1979 I was a member of the Broadcasting Council for Wales-the ruling body of the BBC in Wales The historian John Davies had access to minutes of the Council and published details that I thought would always remain confidential.
The demand for the new channel united the people of Wales. In February 1977 Davies records that I welcomed the publicity for a Cymdeithas yr Iaith demonstration at the BBC World Service Centre. I said that it would draw attention to the absurdity of the BBC broadcasting more radio programmes in many obscure foreign languages than it broadcast for the indigenous Welsh-speaking population.
In June that year Chairman Glyn Tegai Hughes, disappointed with government timidity, urged the council to consider a fall-back position. Future chairman Alwyn Roberts argued in favour of considering new approaches because a Welsh Channel Four seemed unlikely now. I remember my own anger at this apparent weakness and betrayal. My recollections are dim now but Davies reports that I argued that the Channel Four campaign was very much alive.
In September 1979, when I was acting chairman of the body, Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw announced that there would be no fourth channel for Wales. Could the long years of campaigning, the sacrifices and prison sentences endured by our brave young people be all in vain? All destroyed by a few sentences uttered by a man who knew little of Wales and nothing of Welsh broadcasting?
I rang the BBC Wales controller Owen Edwards and told him that I would make the only possible effective protest. My period as acting-chairman is almost certainly a record that will never be beaten. It lasted fifteen minutes. I announced my resignation in protest at Whitelaw’s decision. The Council expressed their sympathy but understood. The protest was heartfelt but was quickly brushed aside by Secretary of State for Wales, Nicholas Edwards. My resignation had an ephemeral and slight influence. But Plaid Cymru’s leader Gwynfor Evans’s threat to fast to death terrified Thatcher. She was then studying Irish history. Her fear was that Wales would have a similar martyr to those of the Easter Rising in Dublin.
My part in the campaign was long but minor. Victory was sweet. At last, Wales had won a significant battle. The reality of S4C’s spectacular later success was beyond the most extravagant dreams of those of us who planned it a decade earlier. S4C secured the future of Welsh as one of the world’s most thriving minority languages. There is modest satisfaction that I have played a small role as a Welshman in securing the future of Welsh as a living vibrant tongue.
To give the impression that she was not surrendering to blackmail, a stunt was set. Three wise men were invited to meet Thatcher and convince her of the value of a decision she had already made.
Today's news confirms that she capitulated to Gwynfor Evans' threat. According to the account all but one of the Welsh Conservative MPs favoured going back to the manifesto position of a promise to set up a fourth channel..
But it was the warning by Lord Gibson-Watt – who as an MP and opposition spokesman for Wales represented Tory leader Edward Heath during the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster – that was the “decisive moment” for the Welsh Secretary.
Lord Gibson-Watt warned he would find it “very difficult” to back the Government in the Lords. The Home Secretary was also convinced that a change of policy was vital.
The Cabinet ministers were aware that “if the Government were defeated in the Lords, they would be faced with trying to restore the position in the Commons after Mr Evans had begun his fast”.
The minutes state: “The Home Secretary said that he had now made up his mind that the policy must be changed. He could not recommend to colleagues the continuation of the present approach. “The Prime Minister commented that the last thing the Government needed was to inflame nationalism again.”
Mr Whitelaw proposed that the Welsh channel should be launched under a three-year trial scheme, despite there being no chance of it being scrapped. According to the minutes: “He proposed to accept this, even though he believed that this would be bogus as a trial. The die would be cast after three years.”
The politicians discussed how to handle the U-turn: “Mr Whitelaw said that all his political experience had taught him that, if one made a mistake, it was important to get out of it as quickly as possible. He accepted that the problem had been entirely his own responsibility.”
It goes on: “Mr Nicholas Edwards argued that it would be a great mistake for the Home Secretary to be allowed to present the change as the result of an Englishman’s mistake in handling Welsh affairs. It should be presented as the Government collectively bowing to the strength of public feeling on the issue.”
Today’s release of papers also features a letter sent by Plaid Cymru MP Dafydd Wigley in which he urges the Prime Minister to prevent the hunger strike and asks her to meet him and fellow Plaid MP Dafydd Elis-Thomas.
The papers also include an account of a private meeting between the Welsh Secretary and Mr Evans on July 21 at St Fagans.
It states Mr Edwards made clear he “admired Mr Evans as a person and he found it difficult to believe he would contemplate a destructive and violent act which would stir emotion and violence in Wales”. “Mr Evans said that this was the last fight that he could make and it was the government who were being perverse. It was they who had changed tack.
“His own fast was not intended to stir up violence. His movement had always opposed violence. If there were people who were bent on violence they would behave that way anyhow whether he fasted or not.”
Two days after the September 15 Downing Street meeting, Chancellor Geoffrey Howe – now Lord Howe of Aberavon – wrote to the Home Secretary suggesting that a channel might not prove popular during a trial period and that people might back a return to Welsh broadcasts on BBC and ITV.
He wrote: “My strong personal hunch is that most Welsh people will wish to revert.”
However, S4C was launched on November 1, 1982 and continues to broadcast. Mr Evans died in 2005.