Plaid Cymru’s Image 2: Welsh-speakers inhabit a networked community

Cynog Dafis addresses the dilemmas in Plaid’s wish to represent all the people of Wales






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The cri de cour of my old friend and valued comrade Ken Jones gives unequivocal voice to a concern widely felt within Plaid Cymru and beyond. That is the belief that the party’s identification with the Welsh language and Welsh speakers is a grave obstacle to its becoming ‘the natural government of Wales’. He argues that the party’s failure to recruit sufficiently among non-Welsh speakers (of course, all Welsh speakers are now also English-speakers) is down to the fact that the use of Welsh is so normal within the party that “any member who speaks only English cannot help but feeling a second class member”.

Ken’s perception is, of course, coloured by his experience of the party in Ceredigion. I doubt whether, say, Lindsay Whittle AM for South Wales Central, or Jocelyn Davies AM for South Wales East, or indeed Leanne Wood AM for South Wales Central and our newly elected leader, find themselves similarly marginalized within their local parties.

I have to say also that my recollection of linguistic dynamics during the memorable but brief Plaid-Green alliance in Ceredigion differs somewhat from Ken’s. He himself chaired the Joint Campaign Committee set up after the 1992 election, which operated almost entirely in English. It was, and is, ever thus: Welsh-speakers habitually accommodate to the needs of English-speakers, bilinguals to those of monolinguals. Lingua franca, not to mention high-prestige language, rules ok!

However there is no denying the issue (I naturally shrink from saying  ‘problem’) that Ken identifies. More times than I could conceivably count I have been met on doorsteps with the words “But I don’t speak Welsh” in response to an invitation to vote Plaid. And it is a perception which the party’s opponents have encouraged to sometimes great effect, in Ceredigion and throughout Wales.

There is no mystery about the close identification of Plaid Cymru and the Welsh language. The party, and to a great extent the home-rule movement which has through devolution given us the ‘civic national identity’ which both Ken and I celebrate, sprang almost exclusively from a Welsh-speaking community acutely aware of its vulnerability amid the rapid change of 20th Century Wales. Saunders Lewis argued in his Principles of Nationalism at the very first Summer School in 1925, that Plaid should not “ask for independence for Wales” but for the freedom, which he equated with responsibility, to “build a Welsh civilization”. In this the Welsh language would be an essential component. It was he who, many years later, famously said that “the language is more important than self-government”.

Gwynfor Evans led a determined push over many years to convince English-speakers that Plaid was just as much their party as Welsh-speakers’. As a deliberate strategy, the literature used in the 1967 Carmarthen by-election electoral breakthrough was in English only. Large numbers of English-speakers flocked to join in the wake of that and subsequent by-elections. But it was to his core Welsh-speaking supporters that Gwynfor turned for support in the campaign for a Welsh-medium television channel when Plaid and Welsh nationalism found themselves in crisis following the 1979 debacle.

Whether the home-rule movement, much less Plaid Cymru, would in fact ever have emerged without that Welsh-speaking community is worth a passing thought.

Be that as it may, Plaid now stands at a threshold, with a leader who has made a start at learning Welsh but whom no-one can accuse of being identified with the language. Independently of Leanne Wood’s election, there is a growing determination, referred to in the Eurfyl ap Gwilym report, to cast off the image of a party dominated by Welsh-speakers, committed above all to the advancement of the language. This may happen in a number of ways, but one already in evidence is for fluent Welsh-speakers among the Plaid leadership, particularly in public settings, and as a political statement, to opt for the use of English, whether or not instantaneous translation is available. I anticipate more of the same and that Ken and those whom he wishes (as indeed do I) to attract into the party’s ranks will feel increasingly at home in Plaid

So far so good, from the Plaid-is-for-all-the-people of Wales and electoral credibility perspective, which is unquestionably important. From the perspective of those who are serious about advancing the fortunes of the Welsh language, the effects could be baleful.

Here may not be the place to go into sociolinguistics, language shift, domain theory and so on, crucial as these are to understanding what tends to happen to lesser languages in a bilingual setting. Suffice it to say that Plaid Cymru, its branches, constituency committees, National Council and Conference, has over many decades provided one of the few domains, alongside nonconformity, and the eisteddfodic culture in which the Welsh language has enjoyed a high degree of primacy. Here, well-nigh uniquely, was to be found a political discourse in which policy, economics, business, public administration, law and order, international affairs and the like could be conducted in Welsh as effortlessly as theology and literature. Plaid Cymru control of local authorities such as Gwynedd extended this pattern further.

Need it be said that to lose ground in this domain (and once the trend is set in train it will tend to pick up speed) would be a grievous blow to the language? Less usage would lead to reduced competence, leading to reduced usage, and so on in an accelerating spiral of decline, culminating in total marginalisation. One observes this very process with depressing regularity in the wider public domain, in local government, civil society, and not least as far as I can see in the National Assembly itself, with its disproportionately high numbers of Welsh-speakers and its comprehensive provision to facilitate the use of the Welsh language.

Unless this trend is reversed (and, to use sociolinguistic jargon, what we need is reversal of, not arrested, language shift), and notwithstanding an expanding Welsh-medium education sector, bilingual documentation and all the official status in the world, our historic national language is, as a living spoken tongue, on its way out.

Unless the trend is reversed I say. How then to do so?

Much has been made in the debate about the language over recent weeks of the need to protect ‘Welsh-speaking communities’, by which is meant territories where the language is spoken by say 70 per cent of the population. The comparison is often made with environmental Special Protection Areas. There is no doubt that for a language to, as it were, possess territories where it is the dominant spoken tongue is a crucial advantage for its survival. Let everything possible be done to consolidate such geographical communities.

But there are grave dangers in basing the hopes for the growth of the Welsh language on such a strategy.

One is the real and present threat to the integrity of such communities in the face of social, economic and demographic change. One can trade slogans about ‘Tai a Gwaith i Gadw’r Iaith’ (Homes and Jobs to Maintain the Language) to one’s heart’s content. Implementing a strategy whereby economic, planning, educational, cultural and employment policies are integrated so as to give the vision substance is another matter altogether.

Another, more important consideration, is that it conveniently shifts the onus for action onto somebody else, somewhere else. The Welsh-speaking community is out there somewhere in the west and north, over the rainbow, in the Bryniau Bro Afallon of Dafydd Iwan’s lightly ironic song. The reality, as geographers Carter and Aitchinson have clearly demonstrated, is the progressive fragmentation and erosion of the Fro Gymraeg (Welsh-speaking region) over many years.

Increasingly, therefore, Welsh-speakers inhabit a networked rather than geographically-based community. The sooner this reality and its far-reaching implications are accepted, the sooner we can escape from an angst-ridden fortress mentality into a new confident, expansive, period of growth in the continuing story of the Welsh language. And that growth has to be everywhere, in every nook and cranny of the emerging civic nation, so rightly celebrated by John Osmond and Ken Jones.

Needless to say, this growth, with its underpinning networks and new self-confident assertiveness, needs to be organised, and by non-governmental, grass-roots based, voluntary movements, as well as officially sponsored initiatives and policies. One way to get going would be the formation of a cadre of enthusiasts who would make known their intention to use the Welsh language, primarily or exclusively, in all circumstances where it is realistically possible to do so. It sounds minimal, elementary, but taken seriously its effect could be far-reaching. The most radical action you can take on behalf of the language is to use it.

There is some talk at the moment of establishing a new pressure-group to promote the language. My view is that a key component in its strategy should be the kind of approach that I have very briefly outlined above.

Many of those drawn to any such movement will inevitably be members and supporters of Plaid Cymru. Is it too much to hope that there are in the ranks of the other parties, too, enthusiasts who could over time normalise the use of Welsh within those parties’ structures and activities? That would give a new, positive meaning to the old cliché about taking the language out of party politics.

Cynog Dafis is former Plaid Cymru AM and MP for Ceredigion