Welsh Government needs more national passion

Tim Williams argues for raw radicalism in the face of economic and cultural decay






Countries in a good shape have little to fear from a national Census usually undertaken every five or ten years. Infamously both the Soviet Union and China deferred their Census’ after catastrophic policies resulted in the deaths of millions from famine and purges. Wales must be wishing that the results of the 2011 Census could have been buried somewhere. This is because they speak of a nation facing an existential crisis.

I am not here referring to the economy, though the poverty of that surely lies behind the crisis for the Welsh nation made manifest in the 2011 Census details released at the end of last year. Two facts speak eloquently of the crisis.

Tomorrow: Census should ignite fight for Welsh

Chelsea Fraley says the most important factor in the survival of the language is whether people are willing to speak it.

One is that less than 20 per cent of the Welsh now claim to be able to speak Welsh, a decline of over one per cent from 2001 which – though I argued against this interpretation at the time – had been widely depicted as a positive turning point in the recovery of the language. The Welsh Government’s official target was to oversee a rise in the proportion of Welsh speakers of five per cent since 2001. Think again. Of 22 council areas in Wales, only three have over 50 per cent of their population able to speak Welsh.

Fewer than six per cent of Wales’s children come from homes where both parents speak Welsh. Bilingualism may be the official Welsh objective but as of now it looks like Wales will have a monolingual future. Arguably, it is returning to the natural state of national communities which is to speak one language. It’s just that instead of Welsh, the language of my grandfather’s near monoglot community in west Wales, that language will be English.

The second fact is almost as big. Only two-thirds of the Welsh describe themselves as Welsh which is not surprising given that almost a third of Wales’s current inhabitants were born outside Wales, mostly England. In some districts in ‘Welsh speaking Wales’ English born migrants make up 40 per cent of the community. In Powys today a bare majority are Welsh born. If we go back further and dig a bit deeper, we may find that perhaps 40 per cent of today’s total Welsh population were either born in England or have one parent born in England.

Funnily enough, the highest proportion of those claiming to be Welsh can be found in the monolingually English Valleys of south Wales where I come from. A century ago they were the great magnet of migrants from the West of England. In my own street in a mining village 80 per cent of the surnames are English. No-one speaks Welsh apart from a minority of kids whose parents sent them to the Welsh-medium school – and they tend to forget it after they leave either because they live their lives entirely in English or because they leave for England. Some 50,000 Welsh people leave every year for university or jobs in Englan, to be ‘replaced’ by usually (much) older English people seeking a better lifestyle or, indeed, retirement in Wales.

By the way, of those Welsh born graduates who stay in Wales half get jobs in the public sector. Without a bloated, English funded public sector, Wales wouldn’t have the economy to retain even those few talented youngsters it does retain. This all explains why the population of Wales has slowly moved from 2.5 to 3 million in the last 100 years, while the population of England has doubled.

Welsh speakers are amongst those leaving Wales for education and work. But they also leave the Welsh speaking areas for education and work in Wales itself, usually to the southern coastal towns. There seems to have been an assumption in Welsh Government and education circles that by some magic a mixture of official bilingualism, S4C and the provision of Welsh-medium education would do two things at once: maintain Welsh in the traditional heartlands for the language, and strengthen it in the towns and cities to which Welsh speakers were moving, supplemented by new recruits to the language from kids from English speaking homes going to the Welsh-medium schools. Neither of these two things has happened in any significant way.

I derive no satisfaction from the twin facts that the Welsh language is bleeding to death along with the absence of any real force behind Welsh nationhood – apart from a devolution settlement a bare majority voted for. I am reminded that Saunders Lewis, the founder of the Welsh Nationalist Party, was opposed to bilingualism as the objective of a Welsh Government. He knew there were no examples of a nation anywhere which spoke two languages other than as a path to the triumph of one over the other. He also warned that if self-government was attained before a future for Welsh was secured then it wouldn’t have one. He was right on both counts.

Where next? First a personal observation: I want the Welsh language to flourish and the Welsh nation to have more than 65 per cent of its inhabitants claim they belong to it. I also want the population of Wales to take off and grow to perhaps 4.5 million by the end of the 21st Century rather than stagnate and age as it has done. While all these things will be difficult to achieve, let alone balance, I’m not sure what a Welsh Government worth of the name thinks it’s doing if it doesn’t go for and attain these goals. However, as I write this I’m reminded that for whatever reason Wales has become less Welsh and less wealthy under a Welsh Government of its own than it had when under the Saxon heel.

Going back is not an option. I resisted devolution in the 1990s and fought against the delusions of those who thought the battle for the language could be won in the Welsh-medium schools of English speaking Wales. My Ph.D thesis was about the anglicisation of Pontypridd. I am also a qualified teacher so my concerns about the educational use and abuse of Welsh for the purposes of futile language preservation (rather than educational objectives) were founded on some understanding of linguistic history and pedagogy. Those who attacked me (sometimes physically by the way) have been refuted by subsequent history.

I repeat. It is not with delight I say this. I knew that lying to ourselves and foisting an educationally unjustifiable learning environment on English-speaking kids in Welsh-medium schools – a re-run of the Welsh Not with just a different national adjective in front – was not going to work and was wrong in principle.

Two things might have made a difference, though ‘might’ is right – since saving a minority language is a rarely achieved objective in any circumstances. Both have been missing from post devolution Wales.

One is national passion around the future of Welsh. I guess partly because Wales acquired devolution by a slim majority in a relatively low turnout, rather than fought a battle for national liberation, there wasn’t any real drive to ‘nationalise’ Wales through things like the language. I had expected there would be and feared actually that this cultural force would swamp the identity of my Wales of the English speaking former industrial heartland. I was wrong. Nothing dramatic or radical happened on the cultural front.

But then not a lot happened on any front – oh, except outcomes have eroded in comparison with England in areas such as health, education and wealth. Nothing serious then except that Wales has grown poorer, less healthy and less well educated comparatively since we went our own way.

There has been a geography to this process with unceasing out-migration from the Valleys, west and north Wales by younger aspirational people seeking a better future. These areas, where either the Welsh language or a Welsh identity have been historically at their strongest, have become economically and demographically enfeebled. And this has been all on the watch of a Welsh Government.

I am not sure the decline of these communities was avoidable. I am sure that no serious attempt to avoid this decline has been made. No concerted interventionist policy of either an economic or a cultural form has been attempted. The Welsh Government has shown itself to be timid in its use of the state and unimaginative in its use of its resources. Despite the blather about a Welsh Labour government establishing ‘clear red water’ between itself and Westminster, we have seen only a statism of consumption and welfare rather than of production.

The Welsh Government has distributed funds from the UK rather than used public investment to produce a new economy or revive embattled communities. It seems that a total of £6 billion in combined Euro, UK and Welsh Government funding has gone into the Objective 1 area of the Valleys and West Wales since 2001, but you’d be hard pressed to spot it on the ground or in the numbers.

This brings me to the second thing which might have made a difference. The continued decline in the language is in part attributable to complete absence of an economic policy in Wales since devolution. There has been a passive acceptance of UK policy and no innovation at the Welsh level. That policy has been the one which saw the south-east of England and London take off and the rest of the UK get left behind with a residual economy and few globally competitive sectors. In England this is the policy which left mass unemployment on the edge of town council estates in the North and Midlands and city centres, with shopping malls, night-clubs and empty flats. In Wales the same process has sapped the vitality of the language and those very communities whose sense of Welsh nationhood is strongest.

In responding to this twin crisis the Welsh Government should take the state by the scruff of the neck. This starts with a determination to transform Wales, a rigorous process of identifying the interventions required and a relentless drive to implement change. Our whole mindset needs to change. We are in an urgent situation and the Welsh Government needs to understand and act like it. Outside of the education department of the Welsh Government which is led pretty dynamically by Leighton Andrews who is a real reformer and patriot – I’ve worked for him, I know this and it’s obvious anyway – I see little energy or purpose. He has broken free of the suffocating consensus and complacency on education which had dragged Wales down from the peaks of the post-war period to the troughs of the noughties. We need more like him. Where are they?

Finally a word on us. I include me in us though I am now a Cymro Oddicartref, an exile. Where has the Welsh Language Society gone when it is needed most? Disappeared with the last of the native speakers into the BBC and the state bureaucracy probably. I used to have a badge with the word ‘Eithafwr’ on it, derived from when the Language Society was denounced as ‘extremist’. We need some of that disruptive, dissatisfied and bold spirit today.

Where is the trade union movement? Where is the Labour Party? Where is Welsh civil society? Broken, passive, lost with a governing class and bureaucracy out of touch, deluding itself, and irrelevant to the formidable challenges facing Wales. And I haven’t even mentioned youth unemployment – or worse, youth ‘invalidity’ – now reaching higher levels than the ‘Thatcherite’ era in Valley communities. Cry, the beloved country.

Tim Williams who blogs here, is director of the Publicani consultancy and is currently working on projects in Australia, where he now lives, and the UK. He is a former special advisor to the Blair government and the Welsh Government. Prior to moving to Australia in December 2010 he was managing director of Navigant Consulting.