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.

17 thoughts on “Where’s Welsh in Welsh Citizenship? A Response to Simon Brooks

  1. I like the learned article and the above mentioned Aneurin Bevan quote … ‘a special attitude towards mental things’… It is this quality that should be encouraged and which differentiates us in our self identity and probably can’t be taught or enforced by some kind of pseudo citizenship. The implication is that this ‘attitude’ can only be fostered by learning the language. This may well be true but I suggest that ‘sense of place’ and heritage (cultural, historical and parentage) can also contribute to a Welsh thinking pattern especially in the non-Welsh speaking Diaspora and the young.
    On the other hand, the current insistence on doing matters economic or governmental ‘The Welsh Way’ smacks of re-inventing the wheel and lessons could be learned and adopted from other cultures and societies not so completely defined/proscribed by their language.

  2. A good first step in Cardiff would be to end the class-stratification of schooling permitted by so-called Welsh medium education. We need a unified equal opportunities school system. I support maintaining the language but it would be better to do it by having all schools teach key subjects in Welsh one and a half days a week from age 5 than by the current system of scholastic apartheid. Welsh medium is fine in the Bro; in Cardiff it is the Welsh answer to private schools.

  3. @R. Tredwyn. Whoever span you that old canard was seriously misinformed. Neither I, nor any other of the parents at my children’s various schools, could have afforded private education even had we wanted it. The equivalent in Cardiff of private schooling is private schooling – as often as not for people with an unlovely attitude towards Welsh.

  4. This article and the IWA Annual Eisteddfod lecture are interesting, mind stretching reflections on the situation in Wales. I live in a country that is officially bi-lingual. Do I speak French? – yes, because I learned it at school (in the UK). My government employers also considered a facility in French an advantage for discussions with counterparts in Quebec, and suggested that people with a basic knowledge of French take extra courses. Canada’s federal government went a step further and pulled staff out of the line for extended periods to attend immersion classes.

    Such were the political circumstances of the times in Canada, with English as the default language at major intergovernmental meetings with interpreters provided. Interpreters were not available for meetings on the sidelines, and we struggled as best we could, as sherpas are expected to do. At the time, my perspective on the situation was conditioned by the fact that I was originally from a country where the language was under threat, and a personal view that the preservation of the language and culture were a matters of cultural and political necessity. This mattered not to the people with whom I worked, and was never expressed to them, which would have been completely unprofessional on my part.

    In reflecting on those times, my experience at meetings would have been alien to Welsh and English speakers in Wales at the time: mutual respect and appreciation of cultural and linguistic differences to get the job done in the best way possible for all parties.

  5. Tim, Who are you trying to kid? I can’t and don’t impugn your motives. But many parents in Cardiff put their kids in Welsh medium schools knowing that most of the kids and their parents are from the educated middle classes. They expect a ‘better’ education and the cache that goes with it. Their kids are kept away from the lumpen proles and immigrant communities who speak only English. A poor man’s substitute for private schools is exactly what it is. Promotion of the language should not be caught up in this kind of social one-up-manship. My solution is better: one school system and teaching in Welsh at least one day a week. That will only work if you start young, from nursery on.

  6. @R.Tredwyn- Once again WM Education is being unduly criticized for the racial make up of its schools. It is currently possible to choose in Cardiff where your child goes to school; therefore if ethnic minorities do not send their offspring to WM schools, how is that the fault of WM schools? Why not market WM schools at the ethnic minority communities? It is totally absurd to say that WM Education is any thing like the cocky and arrogant private system, and I can only assume you have never actually been to a WM school.

  7. The greater irony perhaps is that children from English speaking homes underperform pupils from Welsh speaking homes within the same Welsh medium schools. This is particularly true in Welsh of course but it is true in other subjects as well.

    Generally there is a loss of 19% of WM pupils assessed in Welsh between Key stage 1 and key stage 3 as pupils and parents come to realise that WM schools do not cater well for pupils from English speaking homes.

    It occurs to me that the Welsh government has a “Duty of Care” to children and that includes warning parents that Welsh medium schools are the wrong choice for many.

  8. In my limited experience, the quality of atmosphere at WM schools is good and the results are a matter of record.

    However the issue of Welsh as a multi-cultural language is largely ignored. The mainstream culture of the WM education system is Cymreictod which is a white culture with its roots in the Fro. I have also had comments from parents who say they send their children to WM schools in order to avoid a multi-cultural education. This is what is meant by ‘white flight’. I’m happy to be corrected on this but I don’t see any evidence of anyone in the Welsh speaking education service tripping over themselves to correct this cultural anomaly. That means that, for now, Welsh will remain a monocultural white language.

  9. @R Tredwyn
    I don’t agree with your view of Welsh Medium schools but in any case you make a mistake in equating it with private education.
    “Their kids [in Welsh medium education] are kept away from the lumpen proles and immigrant communities who speak only English. A poor man’s substitute for private schools is exactly what it is.”

    Except that there is nothing, the requirement of wealth included, that is set up to prevent those you describe as “lumpen proles and immigrant communities” sending their children to Welsh Medium schools.

    Although the decades of avoiding meeting parental demand for WM education that generations of ruling councils in Cardiff have indulged in has ensured that many of said “lumpen proles and immigrant communities” do not have a Welsh Medium school near where they live.

  10. Why should a Welsh-resident kid’s right to be taught Welsh depend on indifferent parents anyway? Welsh teaching in many English medium schools is a sick joke. I know kids who ‘s Welsh vocabulary is fewer than 10 words after a decade of supposedly compulsory Welsh. Having separate Welsh medium education outside the Fro not only leads to class-based segregation but denies most Welsh kids real access to their birthright language. One school system, with some teaching through the medium of Welsh as a matter of course for everyone, is a better model.

  11. J Jones’ information regarding the performance of pupils makes interesting reading. The loss of 19%, nearly a fifth, is a high figure. On the positive side, there is an 81% retention which is an encouraging figure. However the important point here is that we expect our education system to provide a service for all of our children. The Welsh education system has the luxury of being able to send children back to the English education system if they are failed by their WM education. Whilst this is clearly to the benefit of the child, whose interests are paramount, it suggests a one-size-fits-all model that is failing a fifth of WM pupils. What is required as a minimum is an analysis of why these failures are occurring and in what way the education system could be adapted to meet their particular educational needs.

  12. @R Tredwyn
    If Welsh language teaching can be a “sick joke” in English Medium schools the blame lies with the education authorities responsible for those schools. It’s surely not fair to call for WM education to cease because of the failure of local authorities to allow other children their birthright.

    In addition it should be recognised that there is a significant, and growing number of parents who want more than “real access to their birthright language” for their children they want their children to be fully bilingual.
    At the moment the system that comes closest to delivering that is Welsh Medium education. I don’t think the idea of a Welsh day once a week would be an effective alternative.

  13. You do make an error that is often repeated by people in the South Rhobat; not ALL pupils can go back to EM schools. It is difficult in Ynys Mon (one dual stream school) and near impossible in Gwynedd. Possible in Aberystwyth but not in the rest of Ceredigion. Possible in the South of Carmarthenshire but increasingly less so. Recently there has been a drive by the department of education to increase retention of pupils in WM streams between the end of key stage 2 and key stage 3. This is being done by removing the English language streams from bi-lingual schools.

    But here’s an interesting question; how many “New” competent Welsh speakers are produced by the Welsh medium school system? By competent I mean A*-C at GCSE.

    I asked our Department of Education for the 2013 examination year:
    Of those entered for Welsh first langauge GCSE.
    2941 spoke Welsh at home. 2312 of them (78.6%) passed at A*-C
    2633 did not speak Welsh at home. 1785 (67.7%) passed at A*-C

    This is the sort of thing that no one tells you….parents are pushing their children into WM schools with the hope of making their future employment secure. Many just drop out of WM streams after primary (between 1300 and 900 approx) by KS 3 each year but even the rump, 2633 in 2013, are either failing to attain in Welsh or just scraping a “C”. That 2633 pupils is what is left from an intake of 6000-7000 year one pupils. The 2941 pupils whose parents spoke Welsh would have spoken Welsh anyway!

    But there’s worse; those same pupils who have been taught in Welsh when their comprehension of the language is poor also underperform in Maths and science in comparison with pupils who speak Welsh at home in the same WM schools.

    As long as the only information coming out of Government is that WM schools are all good news then parents will be fooled.

  14. @ J. Jones
    Your evidence could be used to demand that the education system Wales wide change in order to produce genuine bilingualism in all those who pass through it,
    Or the evidence could be used to demand marginalization and demotion of the Welsh language within the current education system.
    It’s not clear which is your preference.

  15. CapM: Don’t be funny. You know what J.Jones preference is. He wants Gwynedd to abandon its all-Welsh education policy. I have no sympathy. State schools in France teach in French. State schools in the only part of Wales left, and the only place in the world, where Welsh is the community language teach in Welsh. If you don’t like it, live somewhere else. Supporting an existing Welsh language community via education is different from allowing the language to be used as the vehicle for class-based educational apartheid in English-speaking areas. If one day’s Welsh isn’t enough, make it two. But treat all kids the same.

  16. Tredwyn, You seem to imply compulsion which is never satisfactory solution no matter what the ’cause is’.

    The problem with imposing Welsh language in Gwynedd and elsewhere in Wales is that the vast majority of kids simply have no interest in the language and never use it outside of the classroom (Gwynedd LEA knows this well and they have commissioned numerous studies through Bangor University to find out the best method to inspire kids to think WELSH and all initiatives have FAILED).

    In my view the only option is freedom of choice for parents to choose WM or EM education thus creating excellence in both streams – Outside Gwynedd kids are damaged by LEA’s imposing Welsh speaking teachers within EM schools and many of these teachers have only one priority – Impart Welsh into little buggers by any means and this can’t be right (This approach has damaged Welsh education as we have seen in PISA and elsewhere)!

  17. Well Ross you are right in a way; I do believe that Gwynedd should acknowledge that Welsh medium education is not in the best interests of pupils from English speaking homes (31% in 2012, 33% in 2013). If you are suggesting that I want all WM schools to change to EM schools you are wrong. If you are suggesting that I want all pupils from English speaking homes to go to EM schools you are also wrong but if pupils fail in WM schools because of poor Welsh teaching there must be a way out; a way to save their education.

    The problem is that Welsh first language is the worst taught ( poorest outcomes) of all the core subjects. Just how badly it fares is well disguised by the elite position of WM schools and pupils. In recent years Estyn has written thematic papers about poor performance in Welsh schools in Welsh second language, In English and in Maths. The subject performing at the bottom of the pile is ignored because it would be politically unacceptable to admit that pupils from English speaking homes do not reach their potential in WM schools.

    Look at Welsh in Gwynedd at KS2. In 2012 the percentage of pupils from English speaking homes who failed to reach the expected age appropriate level was 31%. Amongst pupils from Welsh speaking homes it was 9%.
    At the high achieving end, Level5+, the percentage of pupils from English speaking homes attaining was 12%. Amongst pupils from Welsh speaking homes it was 37%
    For Wales as a whole, English speakers 19% below level4 and 19% above 5+
    For Wales as a whole, Welsh speakers 9% below and 37% above 5+….in other words identical to the national average.

    Gwynedd is the very WORST place for English L1 kids to go to school and it’s the place where they cannot escape from this injustice.

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