Where’s Welsh in Welsh Citizenship? A Response to Simon Brooks

Huw Williams responds to Simon Brook’s Eisteddfod lecture.

Simon Brooks is typically astute in his assessment that we are in genuine need of a sustained, public discussion on Welsh citizenship.  One would be hard pressed to find someone to disagree with his claim.  It is less obvious that the majority would take the argument in the particular direction he chooses.  However, although he views the issue through the lens of the plight of Welsh speaking communities, there is no doubt his conclusions are fundamentally important to Wales as a whole.

Today on Click on Wales

 Today on Click on Wales Huw Williams responds to the IWA Annual Eisteddfod lecture by author and academic, Simon Brooks.

You can read a transcript of the lecture on the IWA website in English or Welsh


To the extent that there has been some treatment of Welsh citizenship, the tendency, Brooks notes, has been to seal the language in the box labelled ethnic nationalism – associated with a type of citizenship that flows from the notions of German philosophers such as Herder, who conceive of the nation on the basis of cultural identity. This has disqualified the language from being considered part of a Welsh “civic” nationalism, in which citizenship is bound in the first instance to the institutions that constitute the polity.  We are faithful citizens not because of ties of identity to the nation, but because of the freedoms and rights it secures us (a perspective most famously and eloquently put forward by the Welsh philosopher Richard Price in his Discourse on the Love of our Country).

Such a tendency in the Welsh case leaves English as the default language, because in the British context language is considered an element of civic identity (which, as an aside, exemplifies the fact that a division between civic and ethnic nationalism is at best blurred, or as many would argue, an impossibility). This imbalance in status is in turn a situation that Brooks identifies as creating such problems for those trying to protect the language in its traditional heartlands.

As he argues, there is no obvious reason why this should be the case, and why the Welsh language should not be part of our concept of citizenship as is the case with regard to British citizenship.  Conceptually this seems entirely rational and consistent, but practically speaking, of course, the problem is where such a notion of Welsh citizenship leaves the majority of non-Welsh speakers. To put the question in its crudest form, does this mean my father and my brothers as Welsh speakers are to be full Welsh citizens, whilst my English speaking mother, aunt and uncle are not?

An idea of citizenship that entails speaking the Welsh language, of course, is not what Brooks has in mind.  Rather he is imagining, as I understand it, a concept that gives the language suitable “civic” significance so that it can help to encourage non-Welsh speakers, most particularly in Welsh-speaking communities, to recognise its importance. However, I would suggest there is some groundwork to be done to work through the idea of the language as a constitutive element of Welsh citizenship, which applies easily to everyone, regardless of their relationship to it.

This is especially important in negotiating the nation-wide relationship between those who speak the language and those who don’t. To this end we might turn to a figure that Brooks himself is conversant with (see his poignant and challenging essay on bilingualism in the volume Pe Beth yr Aethoch Allan i’w Achub?).  I refer to JR Jones, head of the philosophy department in Swansea during its heyday in the 60s, and author of many thoughtful and thought provoking essays on the language.

Amongst his work is an essay asking “Must the language divide us?”  Here he speaks of the need to bridge the divide, but not by focusing initially on increasing the use of Welsh in the public sphere – that is on the functional, everyday plane.  Rather, we need to focus on the formative plane.  It is crucial to try and endow everyone in Wales with an understanding of the language as a formative part of the nation, and the Welsh as people. In basic terms, so the argument goes, Wales would not have come into existence as it is without the language.

Grounding the relationship people have with the language in an understanding of its formative importance opens up the possibility that people need not speak the language to have a deep respect for it, an emotional tie to it, and the will to see it persist over time. Although their broader politics are very different, Jones’ ideal with regard to non-Welsh speakers’ attitudes towards the language is in fact echoed in the words of Aneurin Bevan:  “We are all aware of the fact that there exists in Wales… a culture which is unique in the world.  It is a special quality of mind, a special attitude towards mental things which one does not find anywhere else. We are not prepared to see it die.”

On a practical level, a model Welsh citizenship – that includes the language as a substantive constituent – might help to instantiate these abstract concepts in a way that is relevant to all.  In the heartlands it could, as a first step to practical engagement with the language, help communities to ensure an understanding and appreciation of the language for immigrants.  In other areas of Wales the demands may not be as immediately compelling, but it would support the purported goal of making Wales a bilingual nation by fostering a positive attitude that could, for example, see increasing numbers of parents follow the trend of seeing a particular worth in Welsh Medium education for their children. Ultimately, negotiating a concept of Welsh Citizenship that embraces the language positively in this way could be the basis for overcoming a divide that has dogged us for too long.

A possible response is that this type of argument is a retrograde step tied to a narrow vision of what a sub-state polity should be, grounded in an excessively communitarian political philosophy.  Brooks circumvents such objections by enlisting the arguments of Will Kymlicka, one of the foremost liberal political philosophers of our time.  Politicians who support the language should take note – they should not fear taking on these arguments publically and having the debate, because from a moral and philosophical perspective they hold all the aces. Right and reason are on their side, and failing to engage with naysayers, or make bold policy recommendations and decisions because of a fear of rebuke, is an unnecessary and ultimately harmful form of political quietism.

One need look no further than our capital city to find an example of a politician who acknowledges the language on both a formative and functional level and as an element of Welsh Civic Citizenship.  Council leader Phil Bale has recognised its formative significance for the Welsh polity with a highly symbolic move to put the language literally at the heart of the city, with a Welsh language centre accessible to all.  On the functional plane his leadership is working towards the extension of Welsh medium education to the most multicultural parts of the city.  Such actions come from an individual who is not Welsh-speaking, yet has the moral and political will to operate in the spirit of Bevan’s word.  If the language can fit comfortably into our Capital’s civic identity in this way, so it can do in the rest of our country.

Dr Huw Williams is a lecturer in Philosophy at Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol and Cardiff University.

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