Labour doesn't understand Welsh

It's been quite amazing to see the reaction to Martin Shipton's story in the Western Mail today. I thought I'd wait until I'd actually seen the programme before commenting, although what John Dixon said this morning turned out to be just right.


The first and most obvious thing to note is that this was all sparked by what Betty Williams said. She is currently the Labour MP for Conwy ... although she will step down at the next election, to coincide with the boundary changes that will put the western half of the constituency into Arfon. She said that speaking Welsh was the reason why she was supporting Carwyn Jones.

That seems a fairly insignificant reason for supporting him rather than one of the other two candidates. I would have thought that his policy ideas and his ability to deliver them, his ability as leader of the party, and his appeal to the people of Wales at the next election should all have ranked more highly than whether or not he could speak both Welsh and English.

But Betty Williams obviously doesn't. Perhaps she thinks (and this is the kindest interpretation I can put on it) that Labour needs to do more to connect with their lost voters in the western half of Wales, and that this is what will do it. But if so, I believe she has very much misjudged the way people think. On that basis, people might just as well vote for a Tory—or even someone from the BNP—just because he or she can speak Welsh! To me, that speaks volumes about how disconnected Labour have become from what really matters to people. What matters is policy and how well you are able to deliver what you promise ... not the language in which you make those promises.


But that said, Edwina Hart rose to the bait in a completely disproportionate way. This is all the more surprising because any fool could have told her that sooner or later someone would question her about the fact that Carwyn Jones could speak Welsh, but that neither she nor Huw Lewis could.

As Mercher said on the WalesOnline forum:

To come out it smelling of daffodils rather than leeks she might, rather than dismiss any importance the ability to speak Welsh has to the job, have said:

1. She didn't get the opportunity to learn when she was young but thankfully things are different for children today.

2. That she has tried but with work commitments it is very difficult as many other people in Wales will know from personal experience.

3. Confirm that Welsh is an asset to the job but that her commitment to bilingualism is actually more important than her ability.

But instead, her reaction can only cast even greater uncertainty about what her rather strange manifesto statement about Welsh-medium education actually means. She prides herself on being straight-talking, but straight talk is about saying what you mean in a simple, straightforward way. It is not about taking umbrage at the question and snapping some sort of angry answer. She is normally very good at being direct: her one word "No" to an enquiry about the allegation that £1bn of the NHS budget was being misspent is a good example of it, and her decision over the location of neurosurgery in both Cardiff and Swansea is another. So why does it all fly out of the pram when it comes to Welsh?


Perhaps it can all be best understood in the context of the audience she is playing to. This is an internal Labour leadership election, and she is therefore saying only what she thinks will go down well with those whose votes she needs to win it. But that brings us right back to Betty Williams, though from the other direction. One of them thinks that being bilingual is what Labour needs to win votes ... the other thinks that pointedly justifying not being bilingual is what will win her and her party votes.


Both attitudes are wrong. What matters to people who speak Welsh is that they have the right to use it—and receive the same level of service as is available in English—when dealing with the types of organization that provide the services we all must use. What matters to those who want to see Welsh flourish (and that is the vast majority of people in Wales, by a margin of 81% to 7%) is that their children and grandchildren are fully bilingual by the time they leave school.

These are the lessons about Welsh that Labour clearly still needs to learn, irrespective of which of the three candidates gets to be their leader. If Labour continues to be half-hearted—or to send out ambiguous messages—on these two issues, then it won't actually matter one bit whether their new leader can speak Welsh or not. It isn't as easy for "old dogs" to learn new tricks, so it will be perfectly understandable if Hart or Lewis don't manage it. But it will be impossible for voters to understand or tolerate a party that fails to ensure that our "young dogs" learn these skills while they are at an age to ...


... soak it up!

Update - 18:00 Tuesday

I thought it would be a good idea to show the programme itself. There aren't any subtitles, but two of the interviews are in English.


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A Roberts said...

Wonderfully written piece. You have hit the nail on the head. Both, Williams and Hart are wrong with what they have said. Edwina Hart's peevish and ill-thought out answer shows to me that she does not have the gravitas needed to become First Minister.

Adam Higgitt said...

"this is the kindest interpretation I can put on it..."

Allow me to put another: BW (in admittedly a rather cack-handed way) was effectively offering the ability to speak Welsh as a tie-breaker.

Anonymous said...

Edwina Hart's reaction is typical,I have seen her snap like this several times when being questioned in a conference or a seminar, usually whe she feels threatened . Its straight from the hip reaction - not a good trait
And yet I have also seen her totally different, standing out side Cardiff prison ,or on a picket line,in a personal capacity supporting the rights of asylum seekers and workers.
She is a complex woman ,but I would say in a lot of ways naive

Anonymous said...

I don't think Betty Williams's reason's are wrong. Like a lot of Welsh speakers (usually the less 'political' and more 'ordinary') the ability to speak Welsh isn't the over riding factor in a vote. But what you'll see, when all things are equal, many will go for a Welsh-speaker because they believe that person will be able to communicate to them in Welsh and have an understanding and affinity with the culture of which they're a part.

What is regularly under reported about the Labour psyche is that it is very much defined by ideas of ethnicity. Speaking Welsh by many Labour people is seen as an ethnic thing - hence all the talk about 'Welsh speakers'. Many Labour people can't get their heads round that speaking Welsh, like English, is a skill which can be aquired. The result of this is the feeling that 'Welsh speakers' are getting 'favours' rather than (as Welsh naitonalists see it) the 'Welsh language'.

MOst Welsh nationalists I know are quite well desposed towards Edwina. They don't hold the ability not to speak Welsh against her because they recognise the cultural context in which she was brought up. It wasn't her 'fault' is was the states. They understand that living in Swansea, being her age etc doesn't make it easy for her to learn Welsh. The three points Mercher made are spot on in this respect.

As a Welsh-speaker I'd have no problem with Edwina not speaking Welsh ... although, it may seem a little odd for the leader of that country not to have acquired that skill. But it still wouldn't be a hindrance for me to vote for her.

I think in a generation's time (those under 25 today) it would be a problem if they didn't speak Welsh as the opportunities and situation has changed so much (which wasn't the case when Edwina was young). The ability not to speak Welsh then would be seen as some kind of deliberate negligence and lack of interest on their behalf in the language and the culture of a good section of the population you wish to represent.


MH said...

Thanks for your comments.

Adam and Macsen, you've both suggested that the ability to speak Welsh is something that merely "tipped the balance". Unfortunately that isn't quite what was actually said. Betty Williams said that it was important for a FM to be able to speak Welsh in order to communicate, in the same way as it has been for Rhodri Morgan.


As I'm not a Labour member, I want to try and stay out of any debate about which one would be the best Labour leader. I was talking about Labour's attitudes towards Welsh, to try and make the point that it was the party that was tying itself in knots on the issue. The accepted wisdom is that Carwyn Jones needs to "play down" his ability to speak Welsh so as not to put off those that are more anti-Welsh. Edwina Hart, by contrast, seems to want to play up to that same gallery so that not speaking Welsh becomes a plus point in her campaign.

To that extent Macsen is spot on. Labour seem to be playing an "us" and "them" game, as if the ability to speak Welsh was determined at birth. But it is a skill that is easily learnt ... as any kid with English speaking parents in a predominantly English speaking part of Wales, but who has gone to a Welsh-medium school, will demonstrate.


To A Roberts and VM, I would only say that although I thought Edwina Hart's response was unfortunate, it must be put in the context of her being quite capable of making strong decisions in the areas for which she has been responsible, and that is a very positive thing, which I have said I admire her for, and want to repeat. I don't think her touchiness on this issue disqualifies her from her ambition to lead her party.

It is not just her attitude to Welsh that is off-key, Carwyn has said some equally ambiguous things about Welsh-medium education which he has declined to clarify. Rhodri Morgan has also played the "ethnic polarization" card, in an attempt to tone down those in Labour who had called it "ethnic cleansing". Welsh is a collective blind-spot for the Labour party.

Anonymous said...

as long as strong doesnt equal misinformed or may be not listening to advice to be informed
ask her ex civil servants

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