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Mind your language

As Marine Le Pen calls on French citizens to renounce dual citizenship in France’s presidential election campaign, bilingual school education is the site of another battle for diversity in Wales.

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lead Screengrab taken from Senedd.tv of UKIP's Neil Hamilton at the Welsh Assembly at the Senedd in Cardiff Bay, Wales, May,2016. Senedd.tv Press Association. All rights reserved. It is not a good time to be a minority in the UK, and it is sometimes forgotten that this includes indigenous language groups. In Wales, the Welsh Labour Government has backed a bold target of achieving 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050, nearly twice the current number. Whilst the majority of its members, and the majority of the Welsh public are broadly supportive of the aim, there are longstanding institutional and cultural obstacles to its achievement. These tensions are currently being played out in Llangennech, where Labour members have been accused of working with Neil Hamilton, leader of UKIP in Wales, to campaign against a Welsh medium school in the village. This article provides a personal account of another long-running campaign for a Welsh medium school, which uncovers some of the underlying issues. 

Where should one begin an essay on the Welsh language and the Labour Party in Wales? It is all too tempting to begin with a quote from the single most important and evocative figure in Welsh Labour’s history. The person Owen Smith so readily invoked during the Labour leadership contest in order to present himself as a radical man of the people. I refer of course to Aneurin Bevan.

Aneurin Bevan.

These were his words on the Welsh language in 1947:

“People from other parts of the country are surprised when they visit Wales to find how many Welsh people still speak Welsh, and how strong and even passionate is the love of the Welsh for their country, their culture and their unique institutions. In all this there is nothing to deplore. On the contrary, it is very much to the good that distinctive cultures, values, and institutions should flourish so as to counteract the appalling tendency of the times towards standardization, regimentation and universal greyness.”

And in 1953:

“Although those of us who have been brought up in Monmouthshire and in Glamorganshire are not Welsh-speaking, Welsh-writing, Welshmen, nevertheless we are all aware of the fact that there exists in Wales, and especially in the rural areas and in North 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.”

These quotes provide food for thought  – particularly for those more partisan Welsh nationalists who might be tempted to paint Bevan as some sort of Uber-Brit. A man who would be comfortable sharing a platform with Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall on issues of Britishness. They are even more significant for those who inhabit the Labour Party and have little time for some substantive elements of Welsh identity, and for whom a disregard or open dislike of the language is a legitimate part of Labour politics. I suspect many who embrace this view would no doubt be happy to celebrate Bevan as the embodiment of this tradition. 

Before recounting my own experiences in struggling against these attitudes, it is worth noting another significant aspect of the Bevan quotes, which is the underlying philosophy of language they suggest. In describing Welsh as embodying a quality of mind, a special attitude and a force for countering universal greyness, Bevan displays an appreciation of language that contrasts with the now discredited ‘designative’ view of language – which regards it simply as a tool for signifying objects and ideas in the world. Languages don’t describe the world, they create worlds. 

Rather, he finds himself on the side of those, such as Charles Taylor in his recent volume The Language Animal who regard language as ‘constitutive’ – in essence a communal, creative act of imagination derived from people creating shared meanings for things in the world, which will necessarily be particular to their experience and environment.  Languages are life-worlds, carrying with them different ideas, perspectives and understandings of our external environment – not simply a collection of words designating an already constituted world. In short, languages don’t describe the world, they create worlds. 

Killing with words

Bevan therefore regarded the flourishing of a language as the flourishing of something that is far more than instrumental in worth – in fact he seems to prefigure another Welsh socialist, Raymond Williams, in his appreciation of Welsh as a ‘resource of hope’ against the ills of capitalism.  By implication, this applies to the 7000 different languages that remain in this world, up to 90% of which are under different levels of threat. 

The figure suggests that those who describe Welsh as a ‘dying language’ are not only dismissive, they are also ill-informed, and have no conception that the struggle faced in Wales constitutes the thin end of the wedge, when one considers the situation of minority languages elsewhere.  Along with the destruction of our environment and innumerable animal species, we are potentially killing off thousands of lifeworlds that take with them priceless and unique ideas and ways of seeing the world. 

At a very basic level these deaths are driven by the same set of ideologies and beliefs that threaten our natural environment – largely those of white men. And the extent of their hold can be best identified in excavating the beliefs not of ruthless realists, right wing conservatives or libertarians, but sadly enough, of those celebrated as progressives – where one might hope to find some solace. 

One cannot understand the situation of the Welsh language – or many other minority languages – without considering these underlying ideas and beliefs, ones that led to the expulsion of Welsh from the education system and the self-abnegation of generations of Welsh speakers who chose to speak English to their children. A famous passage from the work of John Stuart Mill, that most celebrated of British liberals and one of our greatest progressive philosophers, will suffice to make the point:

“Experience proves that it is possible for one nationality to merge and be absorbed in another: and when it was originally an inferior and more backward portion of the human race the absorption is greatly to its advantage. Nobody can suppose that it is not more beneficial to a Breton, or a Basque of French Navarre, to be brought into the current of the ideas and feelings of a highly civilized and cultivated people — to be a member of the French nationality, admitted on equal terms to all the privileges of French citizenship, sharing the advantages of French protection, and the dignity and prestige of French power — than to sulk on his own rocks, the half-savage relic of past times, revolving in his own little mental orbit, without participation or interest in the general movement of the world. The same remark applies to the Welshman or the Scottish Highlander as members of the British nation.”

Mill published these words in 1861, a little over a decade after the treason of the Blue Books – a government report on the state of education in Wales that claimed “the evil of the Welsh language” was at the root of the supposed immorality, laziness and ignorance of Welsh society. The passage is replete with the racist, civilizationalist rhetoric of the period and it is no exaggeration to say that 150 years on, their echoes can be heard in current debates around the Welsh language. 

Scratch the surface of the usual diatribe against the language, and you’ll discover remnants of these attitudes: the importance of grasping opportunities, of moving beyond parochialism, of unencumbering Welsh children of the disadvantages of Welsh, or somewhat more explicitly, ridding ourselves of an ‘appalling, moribund monkey language’, in the famous (and frequently echoed) words of one Daily Mail article. They reflect the ingrained self-loathing of the colonized subject.

They reflect not only the still-virulent colonial attitude of some English immigrants (a small minority, thankfully) but – less explicitly yet more tragically –  the ingrained self-loathing of the colonized subject (assumedly, many of those who will be passing comments on this article will fail to recognise the voices of the colonial era in their own words). All of these attacks are still carried out in the name of progress, even if the notion of limiting and actively debilitating our potential lifeworlds seems rather outdated, especially in view of the evidence in favour of bilingualism & multilingualism. In this respect, there is room to reflect more widely on our attitudes towards learning languages as a whole in the UK.  

The Blue Books of 1847 warning against the evils of the Welsh language.National Library of Wales/Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

A million speakers

So much for context. The particular episode to be relayed here is presented as an illustration of how age old misconceived ideas about language align to produce obstacles to the realization of ambitious policies.  In this context the problem could not be more stark; Welsh Labour recently committed itself to the goal of a million Welsh speakers by 2050 – an aim to be welcomed, one that is not beyond all possibility and should at least encourage progress at a far greater rate than more recent efforts.

This story takes place in South Cardiff, in Grangetown, the most multiethnic ward in Wales and next door in Butetown, the second most multiethnic ward, on the doorstep of the National Assembly. It is in many ways a world away from the small village I was brought up in, near Aberystwyth. I was brought up as a ‘hereditary’ member of the Labour Party, before my official confirmation, as it were, at the age of 18. My upbringing in the rural north of Ceredigion also ensured I learnt Welsh as a small child at the local school. 

For as long as I have been politically engaged, many people have made it their business to draw attention to an assumed (if not manifest) tension between these allegiances. However, the tension seemed to lessen with the evolution of Welsh Labour, with the public voices of those who attacked the language increasingly demoted to background noise, and indeed documents such as their Welsh Education Strategy framed in 2010 providing a form of written ‘evidence’ that this supposed conflict was a straw man. Of particular importance as a resident of Grangetown, was the clause that stated:

‘Welsh-medium education should reflect the composition of the Welsh population as a whole, and should be available to, and accessed by, all communities, including those characterized by disadvantage and ethnic diversity. We will expect our partners, providers and stakeholders to recognize this principle and take steps to make it a reality.’ 

This commitment was met with a financial investment by the Labour government in 2011, under the auspices of the twenty-first century schools programme, to build a Welsh primary medium school in this most diverse of wards. However, by the summer of 2013 it had become evident that the very same party at council level wished to undermine the aims of its national government, by trying to divert the funds to a school in a neighbouring ward. And so it was with a sense of duty both to the language and to the party that I became involved in a campaign to realize this commitment for our community and neighbouring Butetown.

After three draining and miserable years of campaigning, we now have a school (although not yet a new building). As a result, I personally have a fairly intricate knowledge of all of the failings of the system – and, it has to be said, the prejudices of elements of the Labour Party – that I feel obliged to draw attention to.  For if the Labour party are serious about their strategy, and the commitment to a million Welsh speakers, these failings must be addressed.

Welsh language “planning”

The policies for expanding Welsh medium education are riddled with design faults (I will use the term ‘bilingual education’ from here on, because the official term is misleading as it does not reflect the reality that children in the schools are taught in both English and Welsh). The percentage of children being educated in such schools actually dipped under the last Labour Government, despite the usual robust rhetoric and targets for growth.

The Welsh Education Strategic Plans in which Councils set out their commitments are meant to make the creation of schools statutory duty – but provide no leverage for ensuring these plans are fulfilled, or for ministerial intervention. Perhaps ministers like it this way – but for those campaigning for schools it embodies a dereliction of duty. Such difficult questions to be asked of ministers have arisen once more in recent days; how credible is it for the government to put in place national policy (and claim responsibility for any success) when they are ready to lay the blame for policy failure at the door of councils?

Meanwhile, the Welsh Language Forums that are supposed to act as watchdogs in the councils may bark all they want, but they have no bite.  And propping up the façade is the foundation stone that can bear no weight. This is the principle of ‘informed demand’, which dictates that councils should plan bilingual education on the basis of the interest expressed by parents.  After three draining and miserable years of campaigning, we now have a school.

It would come as no surprise if this concept was dreamt up as the sort of political compromise that is required when there is vehement opposition to some policy or other – as it mitigates in various ways against the creation of new bilingual schools. Are there any guidelines for what constitutes the requisite demand? Even if this is the case, how are we to define whether parents are properly ‘informed’?

Experience tells us that the principle can result in undermining provision through measuring demand with piecemeal questionnaires and surveys that are unaccompanied by any attempt to ensure proper information. Anyone who is familiar with public consultations of this nature would recognize the limits of what they can achieve in terms of assessing public opinion, and the extent to which they will provide only a partial picture, not only in terms of present demand, but also planning strategically and adequately for future demand and the next generation of parents.

More fundamentally, the concept of informed demand degrades bilingual education and undermines its expansion by presenting it as a consumer good, available to those who have the time, energy and social capital to demand the benefits of such education, and then spend their days campaigning for it. This state of affairs also neatly works to buttress the prejudices of many in the urban south who view it is a singularly middle class affair – a prejudice that speaks to the wider ignorance of those who know little about the popularity of bilingual education in the diverse wards of Cardiff, or the nature of Welsh language communities in other parts of their own country. 

The structural bias is most problematic in a place like Cardiff where it is said ‘informed demand’ for bilingual schools is required for new housing developments – from residents who don’t yet exist. In practice this means planning and establishing English medium schools, with residents presumably having to overturn these decisions through demonstrating demand, with more miserable and acrimonious campaigns. As one mother from Caerau – in the west of Cardiff – said at a public meeting, you can assume the demand.  She would know, as scores of children are rejected by her local bilingual school on an annual basis because of a lack of places.

Principle and practice are here clearly at odds.  If you commit to an increase of over 500,000 speakers of a language, you are obviously implying that you regard that language to be a public good that as many people as possible should have access to learning.  For this to be accompanied by a school planning strategy that works on the fragile and inconsistent basis of informed demand places a fundamental question next to that commitment, from the outset.

The campaign

As I have implied, on the basis of bitter experience, it appears that well-meaning but flawed policy is further undermined by a tendency to pander to minority elements in the Labour Party, who harbour regressive views about the language, and if events in Llangennech are anything to go by, are happy to be represented by Neil Hamilton. These are the types of attitudes we faced in Grangetown and are no doubt vociferous elsewhere – forces that can make life for Welsh-speaking Labour members distinctly uncomfortable. 

In attending locally I discovered a Grangetown branch that did not want a Welsh school, at least in part because they feared the accretion of a Welsh speaking population that would presumably vote Plaid – and which did a pretty miserable job of hiding their prejudices (this is another symptom of a collective myopia that ignores the fact that Welsh-speaking communities in other parts of Wales have a strong tradition of voting for both the Labour and Liberal parties).

Their cause was aided and abetted by their local MP and AM, as well as the fact that Grangetown Labour Councillors were at that time part of the Council Cabinet. The local MP did nothing more than wash his hands of the issue as soon as he could, pleading the case that this was a devolved matter (I still have the headed letter from the Mother of Parliaments – like a letter of rejection from a love interest, nicely scented with perfume).

The rest of the story reads like a warped Carry On film – you might call it Carry On Cymraeg.

Suffice to say it was no coincidence that ‘despite’ two of our local councillors being in the Council Cabinet, the best proposal it managed to come up with was adjoining the proposed school to the local leisure centre. Mysteriously, a site that was mooted as the preferred option in our Labour Branch meeting, and where the school is now being built, was actually removed by the cabinet from the initial engagement exercise.  The councillors were personally responsible for setting people against each other.

Leaving the leisure centre redevelopment as the only viable option not only presented a threat to services, it would also encroach on a play area, where lo and behold, there was already a campaign in full flow fighting proposed cuts by the selfsame cabinet. How could they be foolish enough to put two local campaigns at loggerheads in such a way, one wonders...? As a relative newcomer to local politics, being exposed to its lurid underbelly has been a chastening experience, not least in coming to realize the potential for certain individuals to drive a wedge between groups in the community in order to undermine those projects they have reason to object to.

The campaign.Eventually the councillors in question were ousted from Cabinet as a result of the election of a new Labour leader, without whom the school would never have been established (the fact that the enactment of national policy must rely on the will of a council leader about sums up where we are).  At this point one local councillor in particular went into overdrive, using the engagement process for the proposed school to sow division and lambast a proposal she herself had helped put in place. 

These activities are neatly chronicled in leaflets printed in her name, scaremongering about the consequences for leisure services, the most infamous line stating: ‘There is great pressure from Welsh speaker (sic) to have play in Welsh and would therefore be concerned that the facility, if built, would not always be available to the whole community.’  

There are several issues with this statement but the intent is clear: alleging that one language group would be domineering (and stupid enough) to try and prevent others from using a community facility. The public meetings held during the engagement process and subsequent statutory consultation period were not for the faint-hearted and the councillors were personally responsible for setting people against each other.

Attempting to hold them to account for their behaviour was almost as frustrating as the campaign itself; the Public Services Ombudsman blithely palmed off a request for an intervention, whilst an attempt to bring a motion of censure against said councillor in a branch meeting was scuppered by the Chair. Frankly, in my moments of deepest despair, my own experience as a Labour member had me wondering whether I should contact the Chakrabarti Commission to request that Welsh speakers might put forward evidence as a minority. 

Anti-Welsh Labour?

Out of all of the individuals who created obstacles, fobbed us off, or turned a blind eye, it was our local Labour AM who was the biggest disappointment.  Vaughan Gething – a Cabinet Secretary and leading light of Welsh Labour’s younger generation – spoke on the matter through his actions, or lack thereof.

In December 2014 he made sure it was he who delivered the good news that a new school would be opened by September 2015. However, when the plans for the Hamadryad site were wrecked by Cardiff Cabinet, rather than fight our corner, take a stand over his party’s national policy (for which he also bore collective responsibility as a member of the cabinet), and lobby for a capital and educational investment in his seat, he drifted into the shadows.  Illustrative of this was his failure to respond to the engagement exercise, despite his personal assurances that he would support the arguments of the campaign. 

He could have used his undoubted talents to show leadership on this issue, promote the cause of the school in a time of desperate shortage of school places in Grangetown and move to heal the rifts caused by others. Instead he left us bereft and stood by – at that time as deputy minister for tackling poverty – whilst a significant long-term investment in the children of one of his most deprived and multiethnic wards was put in jeopardy. I spoke to him personally more than once, and tried to persuade him of the world of opportunities Welsh medium education could open up for some of the children of his ward. To no avail.

Grangetown.Perhaps he had the odd run-in with the occasional obdurate Welsh-speaker during his time as a student in Aberystwyth (let’s not deny for a moment that there are some who do not always help the cause). Whatever the case, a politician who has been mooted as a future leader of the Welsh Labour Party needs to reconsider the issue – not only for his own good but for the future of his party’s policy and unity.    

And this is where the deeper issues lie. Putting in place policies and mechanisms to meet targets for increasing Welsh education is relatively easy.  It is the deep-seated prejudices and habits of mind where the real obstacles lie.

I realise the Welsh language is a world apart for many, and that they value and cherish their own communities, their own way of life and (probably without recognizing it) their own language. To assume that Welsh medium education will take that away, however, in a world where English dominates, is entirely misconstrued. 

Those lifeworlds will persist and will easily maintain themselves side by side with any others, insofar as they are appreciated, lived-in and reinvigorated. Most Welsh speakers in fact embody both. For those in the eye of the storm, as it were, some excuses may be made, but this empathy cannot extend to those in positions of power who are paid to represent their people and to bring them together.      

Their actions represent a dead weight around the more lofty ambitions of the majority of the Labour Party with regard to the Welsh language. For every naysayer, there are a clutch of members who acknowledge the benefits of bilingualism in Wales and are supportive of the policy – and as a campaign we benefited immensely from the support of certain individuals who cannot be thanked enough. 

Indeed recent polls suggest the majority of Labour supporters believe in the ideal of Welsh medium education for all our children. No doubt some members will think this a storm in a teacup, a sideshow to the real business of politics. However, a future Wales where the majority of children are fluent in both English and Welsh by the time they are 11 (for this, as I know only too well from my personal experience, is what happens in bilingual schools) would be a Wales where a tiresome divide would no longer cut across our civil society, allowing all our energies to be directed positively towards building a thriving, united Wales.

At this point there will be utterances about this being nothing to do with the Labour tradition here in Wales. It is about internationalism, egalitarianism and fighting the egregious harms of capitalism – as if taking pride in one’s language and promoting it, defending a culture that has given meaning to our shared history, is somehow at odds with these principles. So let me end by reminding you of the views of the man who should be a touchstone for all true Labourites in Wales.

A resource of hope

Bevan understood the significance of language, not as a means of communication but a unique way of seeing the world, a wealth of ideas, symbols and heritage that has inherent value worth conserving – not least in the fight against the dangerous universalization of capitalist culture. It was in Raymond Williams’ words a resource of hope, and in the contemporary era where Welsh medium schools have been opening all over the largely Anglicized south of the country, it is high time that two of its most multicultural and economically deprived wards should have one of their own; the fact that it has taken so many years for the people of South Cardiff to even have such a choice raises some further uncomfortable questions for a party that supposedly prides itself on social equity.    

With respect to the Welsh language, too many current members of the Labour Party are happy to cleave to a narrative of prejudice and ignorance mired in the mores of the nineteenth century. It creates a culture where benign neglect is the modus vivendi. On a more instrumental point, they ignore the damage it does to their own party and the hope of ever regaining sufficient seats ‘the other side of the Loughor’ (in so-called ‘Welsh-speaking Wales) to ensure a working majority in the Senedd.  It appears to be a measure of their myopia that they are blind even to this political reality.

Speaking personally, I regard myself as standing with Bevan, on both the points of principle and pragmatism – and that will do fine for me.

About the author

Huw L Williams is an academic and occasional campaigner.  His latest book is a co-authored volume entitled Global Justice: The Basics, and you can follow him on twitter @huwl1oyd

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