Welsh-language community needs a Senedd

Simon Brooks asks why the language has not flourished in devolved Wales






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Every society is defined by what can and cannot be said. Wales is defined by words such as devolved, civic, bilingual, equitable and equal – but also neoliberal, social democratic, markets and Left. It is the result of our hybrid, dual polity, with its inherent tensions between Westminster and Cardiff Bay.

This is a Wales obsessed with ‘rights’, an attempt to defend individuals from the economic effects of neo-liberalism, but which, paradoxically, also stems from it. These are rights which can only be held by the individual and which therefore affirm our identities as atomised, apart in society. And so minorities in Wales, superficially at least, are blessed. Wales is friendly towards minorities, not because the Welsh are more ‘tolerant’ than others, but because Civic Wales demands that this is so. However, these minorities come to the nation as individuals, not as groups.

Yet there is one minority which has not flourished in devolved Wales, the Welsh-speaking minority. Why is this? It is because members of linguistic minorities require the presence of other minority members in order to interact. Individual rights are no good to them. Furthermore, linguistic minorities need lots of speakers in very high and close density in order for their language to be seen as normal, and for it to flourish. The Welsh language is in essence a communitarian creature. This has proved a challenge for post-devolution, Civic Wales for whom the idea of a community within a community is difficult to concede.

Of course, individual Welsh-speakers of a certain background have made it good – we have yet to have a non-Welsh-speaking First Minister! But the Welsh-speaking community, as a ‘social group’, is on the way out. The Welsh language will never face the same fate as all those Amerindian and aboriginal languages which are fading away. It will never die. But Welsh-speaking society is disintegrating, breaking up.

Historically this process has been driven by market forces and migration, as well as by the ideology of ‘Britishness’. But there is now a third force at work, the values and assumptions inherent to Civic Wales. Civic Welsh identities claim to be unsullied by ‘identity politics’, but in doing so favour the default language, namely English.

This could lead one to am extremely radical analysis of devolution from a Welsh-language perspective, namely to reject it completely. Might it be better for Welsh-speakers to regard themselves as a linguistic minority within Britain, rather than as part of a Welsh majority in Wales, some of whose members happen to speak a minority language? In Pa beth yr aethoch allan i’w achub? (‘What did you go out to save?’), published today, Richard Glyn Roberts argues that Welsh-speaking communities should define themselves in opposition to Welsh civic nationalism. Although this is not a view I share, it is not irrational.

My own opinion is that all societies are made of nationalisms, and while Welsh civic nationalism has not been particularly friendly to Welsh, British ‘one nation’ nationalism has not been in the bar handing out free drinks either. I remain a supporter of devolution.
However, we need to ask some fundamental questions about how ‘Welsh-speakers’ can be imagined as a discrete social group once again. As the Census figures show, language groups which do not also identify as social groups are apt to disappear.

Firstly, and most controversially, the Welsh-speaking community needs a proper name. In Welsh until the early 20th Century, ‘Welsh-speakers’ have only ever been called Cymry (the term was linguistic, and as such included those of non-Welsh as well as Welsh ethnic backgrounds). Subsequently, the term mutated to become Cymry Cymraeg, to acknowledge the existence of Cymry without Cymraeg. Unfortunately this presumes that all Cymry are Welsh (which they are not). Hardly the stuff of inclusive, 21st Century Wales.

The answer in official discourse has been for Cymry Cymraeg to become siaradwyr Cymraeg, speakers of Welsh. This, however, is a weak identity. Nor has it been developed, organically, from within the Welsh-language community itself. Speaking Welsh has become a consumer choice, akin to deciding whether to eat in McDonalds or KFC (not that readers of ClickonWales eat in either!). Welsh is therefore expendable. The change is subtle, but far-reaching. The very nomenclature of devolution has been melting away the Welsh-language community. What the Welsh-speaking community needs is a term similar to Gael.

Then there is the question of bilingualism. It is the sacred cow before which all of us kneel. But what does it mean in real, everyday life? Even the National Assembly, the very heart of Civic Wales, is unprepared to keep all its Records in bilingual fashion. Languages may be equal in Civic Wales, but some are more equal than others.

Bilingualism has become a dead end for the Welsh-language community. It promotes parity between languages, but forgets that language groups are inherently unequal. It paints the thinnest of Welsh glosses over life in much of Wales. Yet its ideology allows the English language to penetrate all parts of the country, and all activities, including those preserved for the minority language. And so it is debated whether the Eisteddfod, Radio Cymru and S4C might be more bilingual in order to be ‘inclusive’. Meanwhile, the Hay Festival, Radio Wales and English-language television carry on in English, unperturbed.

Bilingualism permits in-migrants to Welsh-speaking Wales to refuse to learn Welsh (“It is a bilingual society, we have the right to speak English!”), but migrants to English-speaking parts of Wales have to learn and use English, of necessity.

Finally, there is the small matter of Welsh democracy. In the volume’s closing essay, Ned Thomas attempts to square the circle between linguistic and civic versions of Welshness. He argues that the Welsh-speaking community is a social group, with an identifiable past as a national group, and as such deserves a representative institution – for want of a better word, a Senedd. No longer would the community be spoken for by placemen appointed by Government Ministers, themselves elected by a largely non-Welsh-speaking electorate. No longer could activists presume that their particular pressure group is the Voice of the People. The Welsh-speaking community could finally speak for itself.

It is an intriguing idea. Similar bodies exist for some other small linguistic groups, such as the Folketing, a consultative parliament for the Swedish-speaking community in Finland. This perhaps could be devolution within devolution. Cardiff Bay would remain sovereign, and be the proper parliament of all Welsh people, whether Welsh-speaking or not. But those individuals chosen to be the voice of Welsh-speakers on matters pertaining to the Welsh language would be elected by the Welsh-language community itself. What Welsh democrat, believing in representation of the people by the people, could possibly disagree?

Simon Brooks is an academic and journalist. With Richard Glyn Roberts he has edited Pa beth yr aethoch allan i’w achub? (‘What did you go out to save?’) which is published today by Gwasg Carreg Gwalch.