Unique and priceless and part of the patrimony of humankind

As more or less the final part of its grindingly slow progress through Westminster, the Welsh Language LCO was debated in the House of Lords Grand Committee yesterday.

The debate itself was slow too, not least because of the ages of some of the participants, but for me the contribution by Lord Elystan-Morgan stood head and shoulders above the rest. It is worth repeating:

My Lords, like all other noble Lords, I welcome the draft order. I wholeheartedly agreed with the Minister when he said that if ever there was a devolvable responsibility—that is not how he put it, but that was the thrust of it—that should be transferred as generously as possible to Cardiff, this is it.

Indeed, I doubt whether there can be any challenge to that fundamental reality. There are 20 headings in Schedule 5 to the 2006 Act. Many of those, you might say, are almost exclusively Welsh, but in all those cases, there will be some cross-border effects, some knock-on effects that will not be totally confined to the land and nation of Wales. This is the exception. This is the 20th and this is exclusively a Welsh matter.

I want to disabuse anybody who subscribes to the idea that commitment to the Welsh language is in some way a sentimental or emotional matter. It may very well engender sentiment and emotion, but I would say that it is much more than that: it is a matter of truth and principle. The way that I would put the case would be this: I would say that every language is unique and priceless and part of the patrimony of humankind. That strange scholar, Dr Johnson, said that he was always saddened to hear of the death of any living language. When one thinks of it, every language in the world is a work of genius. Its nuances reflect the hopes, aspirations, fears, attitudes, mores and standards of those people who have spoken it and espoused it. It is as much a work of human genius as the best that has ever come from the hand of the artist, the sculptor or the architect.

It is in that light, I respectfully say, that one has to look at the responsibility of humankind in general for the Welsh language, as it has for every other language, and for the people of Britain in general, let alone the people of Wales. The generality of status is at the basis of our attitude to the language. The Welsh language is one of the oldest spoken languages in Europe. It has existed for about 1,500 years, and has a history that goes back, some say, to an origin as far back as the Himalayas. It is of Indo-European origin. It is a living language, spoken by 500,000 people. As the Minister rightly said, that is only one-fifth of the Welsh people; 80 per cent of them—2.5 million—do not speak it. In my case, it was a pure accident of birth and geography that I speak Welsh, as is indeed the case with one or two other Members of the Committee. I only hope that I would have had the courage and assiduity to learn it otherwise, but it was a fortuitous accident. It is still my main language when I am at home. It is the language in which I live practically the whole of my life when I am at home in Cardiganshire.

Nothing gives me a greater thrill than to hear people who are not Welsh-speaking, but who are members of the Welsh nation, refer to the Welsh language as "our language". That is the attitude that will gives the Welsh language a possibility of remaining a vibrant, living thing in British life. The language has enjoyed a renaissance over the past 20 to 30 years, but its life is far from safe. The pressures on it are very considerable and only our best efforts will safeguard it. So if one lays down any conditions that stultify that possibility, one is doing the language a great disservice. There is a school of thought that says, "Well, you can make all the pious declarations you like in relation to the Welsh language. You can weep oceans of sentimental tears, but you shall not spend a penny of public money and you shall not place a single imposition on anyone. You shall not impose any burden that makes life even marginally more difficult for businessmen". Saying that effectively writes "finis" to the life of the Welsh language. I am not suggesting that such a case has been deployed in the Committee today, but it is essential to remember that if we want a priceless treasure of humankind to remain, we have to pay for it. One appreciates how difficult it is to preach a sermon like this in the strained financial circumstances that exist at the moment, but it is right to remember the central reality of the situation.

On the content of this legislative competence order, I appreciate that it is very much the product of a compromise, but so many things in politics and in life are. For myself, I would probably have wished for a somewhat more adventurous approach than this, but we have to achieve the fine balance referred to by the Minister and the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Roberts. It is very much a matter of balance. However, if on the one hand there is stodgy, unimaginative passivity, you will achieve nothing. You might as well say right now that we will let the Welsh language go. On the other hand, an overly aggressive and adventurous approach may create a wholly counter-productive situation.

No Act of Parliament or piece of delegated legislation can of itself save a language. All that statutory provision can do is create the conditions that make it possible for a language to thrive better than it would have done had one not resorted to the provision. It is on that basis that this matter takes the situation forward a little from the 1993 Act, which I regard as a very important milestone in the journey of the Welsh language through life. I appreciate that it gives quite substantial powers to the Assembly, which I am sure it will use sparingly and reasonably, bearing in mind all the time that goodwill will be the oxygen of life for Welsh in the years to come.

The one matter I would contend with is this. Nothing that we are doing today creates any legislation at all. If this order passes through the House of Lords without challenge, as I hope it will, all we will have done is peg out an area. It is for the Welsh Assembly to build a legislative edifice upon it. If the Assembly has no plans to start on that edifice soon, then this exercise will have been useless. However, I am sure that that is not the case and that the Assembly has plans that one trusts will be brought to fruition in the near future.

Hansard : Column GC100 - 9 December 2009

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