Friday 9 December 2016

A rose by any other name

The word ‘parliament’ derives from the French, ‘parler’; so there is a sense in which ‘talking shop’ is a reasonable alternative description.  For reasons which escape me, there seems to be a general belief that an Assembly of the people is somehow a less important establishment, or has less status, than a talking shop.  But the idea that it isn’t a proper legislature unless it’s called a parliament strikes me as being a strange one, placing rather more emphasis on the name than on the function or activity.
‘Assemblée Nationale’ is good enough for France, for example, and worldwide, the title ‘Assembly’, in one form or another, seems to be more prevalent than the use of the term ‘parliament’, as this list indicates.  It’s true that many former possessions of the British empire do still use the term ’parliament’, but being a former possession of a specific empire doesn’t seem to me a particularly good reason for choosing one word over another. 
There is also, I think, a degree of correlation between the source of sovereignty in a country and the name of its legislature; monarchies, where power stems from god through the monarch, tend to prefer the talking shop word, whilst republics, in which power (in theory at least) stems from the people, tend to prefer the concept of an assembly of the people.
So, given a choice between calling our legislature an Assembly or a Parliament, I have a preference for retaining the former rather than aping Westminster.  Sadly, aping Westminster is what our politicians seem to prefer in most things.
Having said that, it’s not an issue of great importance to me – what matters more is what it does.  And in that context, the critique by Daran Hill earlier this week seems relevant.  We have a legislative body which isn’t actually doing very much by way of legislating.  Now, I’m not a fan of passing laws for the sake of it, but in this case I agree with Daran that there does seem to be a lack of ambition for Wales, when there is so much to be done.
And that brings me to my real criticism of the consultation announced yesterday on changing the name of the Assembly.  Whether the AMs spend a lot of time debating this, or whether they spend very little time debating it, as the Presiding Officer suggests, the very fact of launching a consultation on a change of name succeeds in giving the impression that this issue is important to them – and more important, at that, than all the potential legislation that they’re not considering. 
Whether that impression is fair or not isn’t the point; it’s the conclusion that many will inevitably draw.  If the difference was one of great import, it might be worth taking a considered decision to risk a negative response from the public at large, but it really is just a name.  I find it hard to think of a better way of highlighting the disconnect between the real world and our elected representatives than getting involved in this sort of diversionary activity.


Democritus said...

Etymology isn't my specialism, but as I understand it ( ) the word derives from Latin via Norman French and the Anglo-Latin parliamentum is attested from early 13c. Specific sense "representative assembly of England or Ireland" emerged by mid-14c. from general meaning "a conference of the secular and/or ecclesiastical aristocracy summoned by a monarch."
Latin has a loose relationship to English, but none at all to Welsh. Moreover the term still carries the implication of subordination to a monarch - as attested by the countries that continue to employ it and those republics that quite deliberately do not (e.g. France, Ireland, the USA). Unlike Scotland Wales has no tradition from down the centuries of a national legislative institution bearing the name. In my estimation the use of Parliament interchangably to refer to both the legislature in Cardiff and that in London is only likely to increase confusion among the public as to which is which or what the differences are.
This debate, like so many others, was pursued interminably pre-devolution and it seems to me that Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru / National Assembly for Wales (much debate about "for vis a vis "of") was a sound choice. The decision to name the building Y Senedd provides a handy shorthand, which again can't really be confused with anywhere else.

John Dixon said...

"the term still carries the implication of subordination to a monarch" I agree, and I can understand why devolutionists would not be in the least concerned about that. I can't understand why some self-styled nationalists are so keen on the idea though.

"much debate about "for" vis a vis "of"" Indeed. But of course, most nations don't feel any need to add the name of their country to their title; it only becomes necessary in the case of subordinate legislatures. But then, subordinate is what they seem generally to be happy with.

I agree with you that there are plenty of good arguments for leaving things as they are - if or when Wales becomes an independent state (whatever independence means at that point in time), and writes itself a proper constitution, then perhaps is the time to begin to think about what we call it. In the meantime, I just think there are so many things which are more important, and that it's sad that our elected representatives should feel it appropriate to give any time at all to considering this.

Anonymous said...

The American state 'parliament' are called Legislatures and the Federal 'parliament'is called Congress (which roughly means Assembly). No one would suggest renaming them parliaments

Anonymous said...

Good blog, when you add this farce to the other scandal in the Assembly this week where certain groups of Welsh people are excluded from stating their identify on Welsh Assembly's application equal opportunity forms and you can easily see how the Assembly wont survive Brexit.

Whatever us welsh nationalists think, the harsh truth is Wales has been a region of England for centuries and the majority of the Welsh population are happy with that, all that's changed is the final and total assimilation is taking place as we meekly acquiesce to our democratically chosen fete.