If there is any hope of success for the indy movement in Wales, there is a real need to ensure a sense of unity amongst those who contribute. In this regard we might as well begin with one potential sticking point – the language.
Too often, it can be seen to be a factor that causes an element of tension between people, individuals and communities that face their own particular difficulties. Many of us may also know some within the radical community in Wales who feel that Welsh is a bit of ‘distraction’ from more important topics – some of us may have encountered characters that are ardent in their support of other minority causes but who do not see the same arguments extending to Welsh.
There is therefore a challenge, in trying to push the cause forward, not only that everyone who contributes must examine some of these attitudes, but that the case is made to everyone who is willing to listen that the Welsh language is something we have to stand up for as a fundamental part of a radical politics in Wales, regardless of our relationship with it.
That is, the Welsh language should not be a side issue; rather, support for it is as integral to the radical cause as a commitment to, say, minority rights or protecting the environment and other ‘progressive’ cause.
In that regard we need to consider the language through the same prism as other issues that challenge us in today’s Wales. It is not an entity that is somehow detached from other social phenomena, facing problems due to a unique set of circumstances; rather the challenges facing the language are symptomatic of problems that are the cause of decline and frustration in other spheres. The issues facing the Welsh language are a direct result of a lack of positive, radical political action, as exemplified by:
- the case of local development plans, which also have broader implications than the sustainability of the language;
- the gap between policy on the one hand and action on the other, with targets and objectives that are so far removed from the reality of local and national government’s actual achievements;
- the challenge of persuading people to value or appreciate that which goes beyond the material and the capitalist, a problem which is seen in the devaluation of the language and the permanent quest for financial value, in the same way that schools and universities are colonised by utilitarian views that emphasise only transferable skills and employment.
The challenges faced by the language are in this regard challenges that extend across the entirety of our society. In this sense, the decline of the language in any given context is going to be a symptom of the structural problems and trends of the society we live in.
Central to this is the recognition, therefore, that the decline in the traditional Welsh language communities is in no small part a result of the weaknesses and wickedness of neo-liberalism – in the same way that the challenges across areas such as health, employment, and education in other regions emerge because of the same trends. Here we have an economic ideology that has transformed into a way of life – a culture – or even a “moral” perspective that puts the market and its requirements above everything else.
The result in areas of Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire is a dearth of affordable housing, local economies that are dependent on seasonal industries and a weak public sector, and the accumulation of wealth in civic centres (mainly Cardiff) that pulls the younger generation in from the periphery – whilst there is a lack of vision or commitment to challenging these trends, as people seem to be afraid of being accused of heresy.
It is tremendously important that we recognise that the exact same underlying factors are at work when considering the fate of our post-industrial communities. Unemployment, lack of opportunities and poverty in these areas have penetrated deeply due to this same ideology, beginning with the destruction of the major industries due to their ‘inefficiency’ (although many other industries, especially the financial sector, have received endless help despite their inefficiencies).
Then, following on from this process, a structured, far-reaching attempt to transform the fate of these communities was conspicious by its absence – only vacuous, temporary solutions have been sought, such as attracting businesses that are already looking for cheaper areas to exploit before their factories and offices are even erected.
Yes, the symptoms are different – the loss of language, young people, and communities is the fate facing our more rural areas – whilst suffering, poverty and depression seem to be the fate of our post-industrial areas – but we must see ourselves as partaking in the same struggle.
The traditional socialist would be held to say that there is no difference between the worker in Wales, the North of Engand or Scotland, yet it is as if we were happy to accept the idea that there is something fundamentally different between the worker from Blaenau Ffestiniog and Bedwas.
These communities are separated from each other both psychologically and in a practical sense by poor policy that isolates one part of Wales from another, and by the vicious process of ‘othering’ one from the other through the use of the language.
We are encouraged to believe in the idea of an international Wales where we are enlightened enough to be part of the world’s big community, but in reality we cannot even manage to sustain a community within our nation’s boundaries. We must object to the way in which the language is weaponised in this way by those who have no ambition for our people and our country.
This tendency is, of course, exacerbated by an education policy that has come nowhere near realising the growth needed to respond to the demand for Welsh medium education or to ensure the greater equality required on the linguistic plane. The animosity towards the language in areas outside the heartlands (and increasingly within these communities as well) is often a function of the fact that people feel the injustice of not speaking the language, while seeing the benefits accrued by Welsh speakers. Only a genuine commitment and the will to take on the agenda of the million speakers can tackle this.
What is to be done?
In this regard, we may ask ourselves what we can do. And from the perspective of Welsh speakers we need to acknowledge in the first instance the privilege we have in speaking the language. A privilege in terms of accessing a our heritage, in terms of accruing the general benefits of bilingualism, and in terms of the opportunities afforded. Without recognising this, it will be difficult to foster the sympathy that is needed from those who are not fluent – and experience or are aware of some of these barriers.
Equally important, of course, is the need to do a better job of expressing the contradictory nature of this ‘privilege’: to highlight why Welsh-speakers often feel under siege or in many ways underprivileged. In some areas it is difficult to see the Welsh speaking community as one that suffers discrimination, when large parts of that community live relatively prosperous lives.
Again this relates to artificial distances created between us – and this is not just a matter of North and South. Despite the links between the eastern and western valleys it seems often conveniently overlooked that South Wales includes – or did until comparatively recently anyway – Welsh speaking working class communities (as an aside, one irony of the structural factors we are discussing here is that many of those leaving their communities in north and west Wales are ultimately precipitating similar processes in areas of Cardiff, raising house prices that then force people to leave their own communities).
With regard to non-Welsh speakers, what is it reasonable to ask with respect to the language? They might be asked to ‘claim Welsh’ for themselves to some extent, but this does not require the acquisition of the language. It needs to be recognized, and most do so, that trying to speak the language is not a must and we should not begrudge people for not ‘owning’ the language in that way – for one thing it is a massive challenge to learn a language as an adult that is very difficult to be immersed in, and there are any number of people who have neither the time or the ability to do so, given certain constraints.
And we must be honest that for some people there is simply no attraction. That being said, we can hope and expect that non-Welsh speakers may be just as ready to take a stand for the Welsh language and the relevant communities when they are under siege, in the same way that they are willing to take a stand for other causes. To this end there is work to be done in order to increase awareness of the language, its historical role in shaping the Welsh nation, and of course the historical injustices against it.
This can hopefully be part of a wider attempt to encourage empathy between the peoples of Wales – whilst it is imperative to show that campaigning for the language can be a key example of the radical agenda that we need in Wales to stand up for community, equality and justice. And these are ultimately themes and causes, of course, that are global, and should serve to connect us with other peoples across the world.