Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Protecting us from ourselves?

I suppose it was inevitable that some people would get themselves very worked up about the publication of the long-awaited LCO on the Welsh language. But it really does seem to me to be premature. We do need a proper debate about what any legislation should say, and I'm confident that there'll be adequate opportunity for people to have their say at that point.

But at this stage, all that's actually being proposed is that the power to make certain laws concerning the Welsh language (not all laws, only some of them) should be transferred from London to Cardiff. The time to debate the detail will be when Measures are tabled in the Assembly.

Of course, there are those (such as most of the Conservative Party, and a not inconsiderable proportion of the Labour Party) who oppose any transfer of power to the National Assembly. I suspect most of them are still opposed to its existence. For them, the sub-text of the debate has little to do with the actual content of the LCO, and everything to do with an attempt to turn back the clock. Nothing anyone says will win them over to support of the LCO.

But surely if there is one issue, one single subject, which is of primary concern to Wales and only to Wales, it is the Welsh language. A body elected by and answerable to the people of Wales is the logical place to deal with all issues concerning the native language of Wales. Why on earth should we have to go to a legislature elsewhere to ask them to make such laws?

To listen to some of the opponents, one might almost believe that we need to be protected from ourselves – that the only way to ensure that legislation is appropriate is to ask English MPs to make the decision for us. Surely the 60 members of the National Assembly have a better grasp of the situation here, and of what will or will not be acceptable?

Some of the rather rabid responses in some of the English media serve only to show how little understanding there is in that country of the linguistic situation in Wales. And I've seen some of that from personal experience. I once spent a couple of years working in Birmingham, and I remember a discussion I had with an otherwise intelligent and educated senior manager of a large company (all names deleted to protect the guilty) about the position of Welsh in Wales.

He genuinely believed that the status of Welsh was akin to the status of Latin - a dead language, spoken by no-one, but trotted out for show on ceremonial occasions such as eisteddfodau. (When you come across that sort of attitude, it's easy to see how people can believe the urban myth about the people in the pub who switch to Welsh when an Englishman pauses outside the door). The idea that people actually spoke the language to each other on a day to day basis – let alone raised their children to speak it as a first language – was an absolute revelation to him.

Some of the responses from politicians and the media in England suggest to me that there are many people still living in such a blissful state of unawareness. Sometimes, I think that nationalists should do more to understand why they believe what they believe, rather than simply condemning them – and that means understanding what it is to be a monoglot in a monoglot culture which uses the most dominant language in the world. Understanding that viewpoint in English people will help us also to understand the same viewpoint when we hear elements of it from some of our own fellow-citizens here in Wales.

Having grown up in an English-speaking household in an English-speaking part of Wales, I like to think that I can understand at least some of the roots of that attitude. Until I was in my teens, Welsh was a subject I learned in school, and I knew no-one who could speak it other than a few teachers. Then I discovered that the next-door neighbour could, and the lady up the street, and a whole host of other people in the same village. It was like finding a whole different world - on my doorstep. It's less of a secret language these days, and much more obvious; but for many of my generation, our attitudes were formed in a different age, and changing deeply-ingrained attitudes is not an easy thing to do.

So, promotion of the language isn't simply a matter of passing legislation to establish rights, important though that is. It's also about persuading people to use the language, and persuading those who see it as a threat that they are wrong. When the Assembly Government gets the powers it is seeking, and starts to draw up legislation, I very much hope that they will take on board the need to persuade as well as to safeguard rights.

Does the LCO go far enough? Well, as someone who believes that decisions on all aspects of the language as well as on a whole series of other issues should be made here in Wales, then of course, I'd have liked to see it having the widest possible scope. (That doesn't mean that any Measures should use the whole scope, any more than any Act of Parliament in Westminster ever uses the whole scope of what they could legislate for. We need a better understanding of the difference between a Measure and an LCO - or better still, transfer all the powers and get rid of the almost unworkable LCO system). But in terms of practical politics, I think the Assembly Government have pitched this at about the right point for now.

I hope that the MPs in Westminster will recognise that point and make a speedy decision so that the Assembly can get on with the important part of the discussion.


Anonymous said...

very sensible post John ... though, as a Welshman I'd obviously like to know in which village you grew up in (has that been concealed to 'protect the guilty'?).

I'm still gob-smacked that Murphy has the gall to question the measure on the issue of 'costs to business' when his government have got us into an almighty Depression! The BNW site is spot on:

John Dixon said...


No, it's no secret that I was born in Cardiff, and spent my childhood years - and a large part of my adult life as well - in Dinas Powys, one of the most anglicised parts of Wales. That much is published for the world to see on my static website.

Progressive Comment said...

The increased costs on business argument doesn't hold up, when the utilities all use Welsh anyway, and should arguably be brought closer to the public sector.