Friday, 12 October 2012

Where's the ball gone?

If there’s one issue above all others on which it seems self-evident that legislative power should reside in Wales rather than in London, it is surely the future of the Welsh language.  It is a uniquely Welsh issue in a way that many other things discussed by the Assembly are not.  It surprised even a cynic like me that the Wales Office is challenging the legality of the Assembly’s Language Act.

At first sight, it seemed to be a pretty pathetic objection as well – almost as if the mere mention of a subject which is not devolved (i.e. the English language) is enough to rule a law inadmissible.  At a practical level, it changes nothing about the status of English in Wales – it neither takes away nor adds to the rights and duties of those who choose to use English.  But on reflection, they may actually have a point - in legalistic terms at least.
If a language currently enjoys sole official status in a territory, is that status reduced by granting equal status to another language?  It doesn’t affect anyone’s rights at a practical level, but in a sense which lawyers might love to argue about, I can see that that might be seen as a reduction in the status of English, and therefore grounds for challenge.
When the first bill, on by-laws, was challenged, my view was that the UK Government was probably right in legal terms, but utterly wrong at a practical and political level.  The same applies here.  But having seen some of the line of questioning adopted by the Supreme Court, I’m now much more optimistic that they’ll take a realistic and common-sense view of the situation rather than an overly-legalistic one.  And if they do it once, any challenge to the Language Act will probably receive even shorter shrift.
That leaves the politics of it all however.  What on earth are the Tories and their allies the Lib Dems playing at?  (I’ve yet to see how the usual apologists for the Lib Dems will demonstrate conclusively that this is another example of the Lib Dems keeping the Tories in check and that it would be much worse if they weren’t there to moderate the Tories.  They’ll probably try, though.)
It’s easy to see this as simply an anti-devolution centre looking for any and every opportunity to undermine the work of the ‘subordinate’ legislature.  Perhaps it really is as simple as that.  But then I wondered what would have happened if the unholy alliance proposed by some had come into existence in Wales whilst Labour had stayed in power in London.  How different would things have been?
I can fully imagine that, faced with exactly the same laws coming from a non-Labour government in Cardiff, a Labour Secretary of State would have taken exactly the same course of action.  If that’s true, then what it would tell us is that this isn’t really about being for or against devolution, or about where power should lie, or even about the content of the laws themselves.  It’s about oppositionalist politics.  Party A must and will at all times do anything and everything it can to make Party B look ineffective and incompetent (even if Party A's B Team have associated themselves with Party B on the issue in question).
In this game, they’ve not only lost sight of the ball, they don’t even need one on the pitch.


Siônnyn said...

As I understand it, English is not in fact the official language by statute (only by practice), but Welsh is, so if they were to remove references to the English language in the act, that would mean that Welsh would become the only official language in Wales, which is not, I am sure, what David Jones had in mind.

Penarth a'r Byd said...

This post might be of interest:

Anonymous said...

In legal discourse, the council appointed by the Attorney General to test in the Supreme Court would need to decide whether the mention of the word "English" debases it's status, by means of giving equal status to the Welsh language. This would be awkward. His argument would have to put forward the concept that the status of the English language was being materially effected. I see no effect in this bill. Alternatively, to hold that use of the word 'English' as improper, he would also need to argue that Section 20 of the 1535 Act of Union using "English" as a term of exclusivity was the will of that Act. Should he wish to exhume the mind of Henry VIII, it is located, not too distant from the Supreme Court, at Windsor. The Wales Office is just being mischievous and vexatious. It should not take till the end of October for the Attorney General to see through such folly.