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.

21 thoughts on “Welsh Government needs more national passion

  1. Well thanks for that Tim. What is missing is an analysis of how far the drive for bilingualism is the cause of the economic downfall of Wales. Ridiculous? Well maybe not, how do we achieve a population of 4.5 million, the kind of population growth that drives economies upward, when the Welsh media and forums are so viciously anti-immigration… because it will “harm the language”? How do you grow communities when every house building strategy is dragged back by TAN 20 considerations? How do you run a country that thinks that every aspect of policy must have consideration for Language impact? How do Gwynedd, Ynys Mon and Ceredigion actually attract inward migration by manufacturing companies when they steadfastly refuse to allow any English Medium schools to cater for the children of these manufacturers? How do you attract the best teachers from that huge reserve in England, the USA, Canada and Australia not to mention the language teachers from Europe when you demand that those teachers speak “incidental Welsh.”? How do you attract the Doctors needed in the NHS when the Wales Deanery recently gave evidence to the Welsh Government that the perception that Welsh speaking was essential is preventing Doctors from coming to Wales?

    So this is what we do in Wales; our exported youth is more highly educated than those who remain. In the Fro Cymraeg the highest percentage of young people leaving the area for England were non-Welsh speakers… I know, I’ll say it for you, “good riddance”. But think on; the educated Welsh speakers are going to Cardiff, so where are the dynamic home grown young who will help the Fro to develop?

    So this is what Wales is happy with, falling standards everywhere… as long as we save the language.

  2. Wow!

    What an article. Well done Tim, lots of home truths. Basic message, since devolution, the almost overwhelmingly Labour Welsh government have done very little at all but moan about Westminster and allowed things to worsen. The very idea of Wales is at threat, but all that’s important to Welsh Labour is the Labour party.

    In other words, buck up or watch Wales and Welsh die. West Anglia anyone?

  3. Interesting article but it could be shortened to one sentence: Labour in Wales is pretty much useless bar one or two exceptions. Tell me something I didn’t know.

  4. A very interesting article, however, and I hope this adds comfort, I spent a long time working in Israel. There the Hebrew language, that had been preserved as a liturgical language among the Jewish diaspora, has been successfully reintroduced after almost 2000 years and is now the main medium for communication and everyday life for the majority of the population. Many of Israel’s people speak other languages as their first language (e.g. Russian, English, Arabic, French etc.) but Hebrew is the common language and the one that most Israelis choose and use. I think this would be a great model for Wales to follow.

  5. As David comments above the article basically lamblasts a Welsh (Labour) govt. for it’s lack of ambition. I am left somewhat confused though by some seemingly major contradictions in the article. Such as where the author seems to be advocating more national passion and a drive by the Welsh Govt to nationalise Wales through things such as the language and yet in the very same paragraph reveals that it was this very fear that a Welsh Govt would do this that led him to campaign against devolution back in ’97.

  6. Jon Jones,

    I wonder what you think about countries like Finland who have their own language but also have strong economies and education systems?

  7. “How do you grow communities when every house building strategy is dragged back by TAN 20 considerations?”

    TAN20 has barely been used at all, in fact in a tiny minuscule amount of housing developments, and in most counties NEVER. It certainly hasn’t stopped the quadrupling of a village on the A55 in the north, nor the concreting over of vast tracts of land around Wrexham and Flintshire, in order to accommodate Cheshire and Liverpool’s overspill, to the point where house builders and agents even advertise these areas as being in ‘the north west’ or in Cheshire, hilariously. It won’t prove a barrier in expanding Cardiff, nor in building along the coastal belt in Monmouthshire for people to work in Bristol, whilst pretending that they don’t live in Wales. So the language has not proved a barrier at all to overdevelopment and unnecessary housing not intended for local markets, using spurious population projections and “think of a number and treble it” type figures.

  8. As Lionel and others rightly say, the language requirement hasn’t been used to block planning. However, if I understand correctly, the suggestion by all the various language advocates in response to the census results is that it should be used in future in order to promote the language.

  9. A most stimulating article, especially for being so blunt.

    Of course, as anybody living in Scandinavia, Switzerland of the Netherlands knows, prosperity and genuine bilingualism are more than compatible, if operated within the appropriate framework. Welsh is not the problem and indeed, in a way it is part of the answer to the problem. Judging from those from Wales I knew at Oxford thirty years ago, those who could come back did and those who could not are doing pretty well in London. They are united by their love for the language and the benefits they accrued from our education system.

    But without an economic base, where are the career opportunities they know that they need to thrive? Almost all of the social and creative entrepreneurs in west Wales I know came here because they wanted their children to speak Welsh and to be a part of this part of Wales.

    For this to change from exceptions made by exceptional people we need a complete rethink of how the economy is meant to thrive. The statist, top down approach we have been addicted to for decades simply redirects whatever grant money is going to wherever they regard as the place of the moment. For starters, may I politely suggest some expeditions to the wilds of London Welshry to ask what would make them be able work in Wales, if they so desired. We won’t get pretty answers but we might get some pretty useful ones.

  10. I beg to differ. Perhaps many of you live in areas where there are only a small percentage of Welsh speakers and therefore you are not familiar with TAN 20. Where I live and work (Ynys Mon and Gwynedd) TAN 20 is routinely applied to housing developments but Langauge Impact assessments are also used with developments such as Marinas. For instance the Pwllheli Marina development some years ago was downgraded because of a language impact assessment. It is routine in Ynys Mon for housing estates to be designated “For locals only” in planning and this again is very much a language preservation measure. You may have noticed recently that the first response from Cymdeithas Yr Iaith was a call for more widespread use of TAN 20.

  11. Jon Jones,
    You still refuse to answer my question about Finland? There are many more of course.

  12. Jon Jones

    You say that you want a prosperous Wales, but that giving rights to local people is holding us back. So who do you want this prosperous Wales for? And if the language is the only issue holding the economies of Welsh-speaking Wales back, how come the Valleys, with their dense populations who are largely monoglot English speakers, aren’t racing ahead in the prosperity league?

  13. “Refuse to answer?”……..”what do I think about Finland?”?? I’m not conscious of thinking about Finland much at all although I’m well aware of their high quality education system based, I believe, on a very rigorous and high quality teaching fraternity. Teaching in Finland has much the same status as the medical profession in Britain, only 10% of those applying are accepted to teaching training colleges. Those teachers are committed, they do not “Blame the parents” but take full responsibility for education outcomes. They do not set “Homework” that requires educated parents to help with…thus disadvantaging children with poorly educated parents. I am a very keen advocate of Wales learning from them. What else am I supposed to “Think”?

    Like most Scandinavian countries they have English as a common second language apart from their native language. Everyone speaks Finnish, a small native population speaks Sami, a small localised population speaks Swedish but political moves recently are aimed at removing Swedish from the national curriculum.

    That’s about it from memory Dave. I suppose that you want me to draw some parallel between the minority language of the indigenous natives…Sami and the minority language of the indigenous natives in Wales…Cymraeg. OK, Finland doesn’t make the Sami language compulsory and now, belatedly, provides schools which teach through this language.
    I don’t think I can help you any more without further research and time.

  14. I would suggest that there is a major difference with regard to Switzerland, Finland and the Scandinavian countries in that you are not trying to revive and reinstate a minority language.

  15. Jon,
    Your anti-Welsh [language] argument is usually based on the fact that Welsh isn’t an international language….just like Finnish. A nation’s economy can be strong without that nation speaking an international language as it’s first language. Thanks for agreeing.

  16. Iestyn, that’s easy….anyone who lives in Wales….wherever they come from. How simplistic to look at the south Wales valleys and see only monoglot English speakers! David, but why on earth would any country that speaks the most ubiquitous language on the planet choose to insist that its population learn to speak one of the least known and most local languages on the planet? But you shouldn’t misrepresent what I’m saying; the perception of Wales as an inward looking language-obsessed backwater does damage. The WG’s obsession with bringing in and enforcing more and more “Language measures” to no discernable effect does even more damage.

  17. In would like to add a brief anecdote regarding the Finnish experience if I may. Just over a decade ago myself and a Welsh based academic colleague interviewed the top official in its Education Ministry as part of a research exercise. One of the things that impressed us was his openess. He spoke eloquently about the way the Government had applied the education system to help the economy adapt to structural change, especially in moving away from primary industries. Since this was part of our brief we specifically asked about attitudes to ICT. We were informed that all teachers, at infants, junior and secondary levels, were IT literate to a level way beyond general familiarity with Microsoft Office. He added that 10% of the teaching workforce had learned object-oriented coding skills, the most demanding of the lot. This had been achieved by an intensive national training programme, which reflected a national consensus about economic priorities. Teachers spent up to 6 months out of the classroom learning these skills. We questioned teacher’s attitudes and got the telling response the profession unflinchingly participated because it was good for the nation. And in any case any teacher that failed to participate knew they would be sacked!

    I don’t know whether this approach would work elsewhere but you cannot doubt that judged by measures of educational attainment http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Why-Are-Finlands-Schools-Successful.html it works for social democratic Finland.

  18. Colin Miles states that Wales differs from Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries, in that in those countries there is no minority language to support or, as he says, to reinstate and revive. This is incorrect. Switzerland has four official languages; I list them in the order of the number of people who speak them: German, French, Italian and Romansch. The latter, Romansch, has speakers numbering only in the tens of thousands and is spoken in Switzerland alone and it is recognised and is supported by the State.
    Across the northern regions of Finland, Sweden and Norway live the Sami people (known to us also as the Lapps) who speak their own languages; there are 10 of them (Sami languages) according to the website of ‘Galdu’, The Resource Centre For The Rights Of Indigenous Peoples . The Sami are a minority of the population in each of these countries, yet the Sami languages are supported by legislation to varying degrees in both Norway and Finland although sadly not yet in Sweden.

  19. @David and @Crwytyn Cemais – I am not sure what point you are trying to make with the Finnish examples. I don’t think there is any doubt that a nation which uses a minority (in global terms of numbers) or unusual language can be successful at a global level. The difference between Wales and Finland is that the overwhelming majorty of Finns are fluent in Finnish. The same is not true of Welsh people in Wales – the overwhelming majority of Welsh people are fluent in English with less than 20% having anything like fluency in Welsh.

    I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Welsh language but I think we have to be practical. Is there any realistic prospect of making the majority of Welsh fluent in Welsh?

  20. Thank you very much for your post Researcher. And thanks for the link. The kind of attitudes and approaches that are demonstrated in Finland are the attitudes that I dream of seeing in Wales. The “Blame the parents” and “the child’s a hopeless case” attitude of our schools and teachers is a national disgrace. Even class ridden England gets superior outcomes from its deprived children.

  21. I’m with Dai Williams. What does Tim Williams want? He condemns the politicians now for not doing what he fiercely opposed before. Welsh democracy has been terribly slow to mature and address the issues we face but such criticism is odd from someone who didn’t want a Welsh government in the first place.

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