Plaid Cymru’s annual conference came to an end yesterday with the party declaring that it would focus on achieving a “Green New Deal” for Wales. Whatever the merits of such a goal, one thing remains clear: Wales is not performing well economically and is overly dependent upon the public sector; it requires new productive investment to provide jobs and wealth, but is Plaid the party to deliver this? Being a self-declared Welsh nationalist party, it would not be unnatural to think that it should seek to pursue the best policies on behalf of the Welsh people, but does it? It has certainly been losing support, as illustrated by the National Assembly for Wales election results last year where it slipped from second to third place behind the Conservatives.
Welsh devolution: lacking legitimacy?
The devolutionary settlement imposed by Labour and maintained by the Cameron administration has added an additional tier of bureaucracy to Welsh government and the delivery of public services. Devolution itself was passed by a hair’s breadth, with 50.3% of those participating in the 1997 referendum voting “Yes”, and 49.7% “No”. Turnout was low at 50.1%, so the new constitutional arrangement was actively endorsed by only one quarter of the Welsh electorate. This can hardly be adjudged to have provided a clear democratic mandate, given the significant implications of the vote. In 2011 another referendum took place, this time upon the question of whether the National Assembly for Wales should possess direct law-making powers which superficially delivered a clearer result than in 1997: 63.5% voted “Yes”, and 36.5% “No”. However, the turnout in 2011 was a meagre 35.4%, representing 22.5% of the Welsh electorate, an even lower proportion than in the 1997 referendum. Taking this into account, both devolution and the strengthening of the National Assembly’s law-making powers lack a clear democratic mandate, and the results of the second vote could be said to have been significantly influenced by the desire of Welsh voters to wrest power from Westminster during a period of Conservative dominated government, given that in 2010 26 of Wales’s 40 MPs were Labour.
Devolution and Language Policy: Cultural and Economic Aspects
That many in Wales wish to preserve the Welsh language as a facet of their identity is understandable, and what happened historically, when Welsh schoolchildren were often punished for speaking Welsh in the playground, was clearly wrong. As one of the Celtic languages which were once widespread across much of Europe but are now confined to some of its western fringes, Welsh is a part of the European linguistic heritage worthy of preservation. That said, the manner in which some advocates of Welsh have in recent years sought to revive the fortunes of their flagging tongue cannot be viewed in such a positive light: compulsory Welsh-language medium teaching in a number of schools (particularly in Gwynedd) and legislation stipulating Welsh language proficiency for job applicants in the public sector and the “fully bilingual” provision of public services are heavy-handed measures that possess significant drawbacks. There is a difference between preserving and promoting Welsh, and imposing it. These measures impose Welsh, irrespective of whether or not this imposition is desired by the majority of Welsh residents.
There exists a clear linguistic divide in Wales between the predominantly English-speaking south and east and the Welsh-speaking north and west, and it is in Gwynedd that support for the promotion of the Welsh language is at its strongest. The 2001 census showed that 69% of Gwynedd’s population spoke Welsh, with this figure rising to 88.6% amongst the 3-15 age group, the latter higher percentage presumably being the outcome of the imposition of Welsh-medium language schooling in the local authority. In 2004, only 21.7% of the population of Wales claimed to be “fairly fluent” in Welsh, with only 57% of these (12.4% of the population) claiming to be “fluent”. Given the modest levels of Welsh language competence in the country, the legislation connected to the promotion and imposition of Welsh does not appear to be in proportion to the demand, and in South Wales these measures elicit a considerable degree of popular apathy or outright opposition owing to their unnecessary nature.
Welsh has been accorded the status of an “officially recognised language”, and in 2011 the Welsh Language Measure came into force which stated that Welsh must be treated on an equal footing with English. Further legislation is being prepared with respect to its implementation in 2013 which stipulates the provision of “fully bilingual services” with onerous obligations being imposed upon not only public services, but also private sector businesses in receipt of more than £400,000 in public funds. The BBC reported that this legislation “means a Welsh speaker could expect to receive correspondence and phone calls in Welsh, along with accessing Welsh-speaking doctors and carers” and that non-compliant firms “would be fined” up to £5,000. In effect, this new language legislation will mean that the majority of Welsh residents will be disqualified from applying for a wide range of jobs in their own country because of discriminatory language legislation which will debar them from the public sector and many roles in the private sector. Moreover, this will impose considerable unnecessary costs to both public services and private business at a time of economic hardship. These measures are neither good for the Welsh economy nor the Welsh people; their application outside of majority Welsh-speaking areas is particularly inappropriate, and they should be abandoned.
Although Welsh should be offered as a subject in schools, it should not be the medium of instruction, for pupils would be better off using English which opens up greater opportunities for them across the country as a whole, rather than restricting their horizons only to Wales. Moreover, the situation in North Wales is such that many families attached to the armed forces have had to take the extraordinary measure of sending their children to private schools because the state sector provides only Welsh-medium teaching. Across Wales, approximately one quarter of pupils attend Welsh-medium schools.
Welsh language policy could also act as a brake upon inward investment to Wales, with companies unwilling to incur the additional costs that it imposes. Plaid Cymru therefore, by pushing this largely undesired linguistic policy, is harming the economic interests of Wales as a whole, and the individual job prospects of the majority of Welsh people by excluding them from particular posts which are being reserved for Welsh speakers. This is the true face of discrimination in Wales today, which is being justified through reference to the fictitious ‘needs’ of non-existent Welsh-speaking monoglots. Nonetheless, the South Wales Police Authority is pressing ahead with a ‘Welsh Language Scheme’, so funds that could have been put to use in support of policing are in effect being diverted into an unnecessary aspect of cultural policy, for South Wales is not a Welsh-speaking region.
Perhaps one reason why there has been a reluctance for political parties to challenge Welsh language policy, is the fear of potential violent opposition to such a stance occasioned by the example of the terrorist campaign waged by a small band of militants calling themselves the Sons of Glendower (Meibion Glyndŵr), who in the 12 years following 1979 were responsible for 228 arson attacks. Although that campaign was specifically directed at English second-home owners and estate agents, presumably, such people could be sufficiently motivated to engage in acts of violence to preserve policies favouring the promotion of the Welsh language.
Plaid Cymru does not offer the people of Wales what they require. Welsh voters are currently in the unfortunate position of finding themselves without a viable political choice, with there being no party that will offer to repeal the discriminatory and economically damaging Welsh language measures that are being imposed. Moreover, they are not being offered the opportunity to vote for the dissolution of the National Assembly for Wales, and thereby benefiting from the considerable savings that this would entail. However, it is the intention to make such a political choice available in the near future, and if you would like to become involved, your are more than welcome to do so.
Property destroyed by Meibion Glyndŵr