Thursday, 21 September 2017

Nothing 'Modern' or 'Progressive' about the Collapse of the Welsh Language

Welsh-Speaking areas in 1931
Welsh-speaking areas: 1961 vs 2001.

I was once travelling from Tregaron to Aberystwyth, when a fellow passenger, herself from outside the British Isles, described the death of the Welsh Language as 'inevitable' and 'natural' because the world was more 'modern' and getting 'better connected.' I've heard other people, often but not always from outside Wales, describe the Language as an outdated mode of communication to be replaced by English just as letters have been replaced by emails.  To some, an Anglicised Wales is inherently more 'modern' and 'progressive' than a Welsh-speaking one.

My response to this? Rubbish.  Absolute Rubbish (although I didn't say it at the time).  Is an Estonian-speaking Estonia less modern than what a Russian-speaking Estonia would be like? No, since Estonia, the country that invented Skype, is much richer and more techno-savy than Russia is now.  Estonia, Slovenia and Iceland, to name three examples of other small countries,  speak their own languages, and yet are, in my opinion, more modern.  Their respective GDP's per Capita are higher, and their Education and Transport systems are in a better state - they are, ironically, to use that lady's phrase, 'better connected.'

But maybe you think, that because Wales is not an independent country, its language is therefore only a 'local' language, and not a national one, and that therefore, its demise is inevitable.  You may well point to the fact that language minorities within other countries have been assimilated, and therefore claim that in Wales's case, it is inevitable and 'natural'.  Well, it's not.  The Hungarian-speaking areas of Romania and Slovakia, the Catalan-speaking areas of Spain, and the Swedish-speaking areas of Finland, have not been disappearing in the way that Welsh-speaking areas in Wales have been since the 1960s.  If those minorities don't have to put up with their communities being assimilated, then why should the Welsh?
Finland. 'Middle-shade-Blue' Areas on the Mainland are majority Swedish-speaking, while Cyan areas have significant minorities speaking Swedish.  The dark blue Aland islands are monolingual Swedish-speaking.  These areas are not under threat like Welsh-speaking areas in Wales are.
On the contrary, the destruction of Welsh-speaking areas since the 1960s is something fundamentally old-fashioned and pre-modern.  When you have a situation where the locals are the ones being  assimilated (culturally and linguistically) by the newcomers, and not the other way round, it is not only outrageous, but, dare I say it, colonial. And because it is neo-colonial, it has no place in a democratic and post-imperialist twenty-first century. I say that as an Englishman myself who has lived in Ceredigion.

Therefore, it is the destruction of Welsh-speaking areas, and not the Welsh Language language itself, that is old-fashioned and out of date.  And put it this way, are areas that are still Welsh-speaking like Caernarfon and Llangefni any less 'modern' than anglicised areas like Barmouth and Betws-Y-Coed?

Monday, 18 September 2017

20 years of Devolution is Great but plenty still 'wrong' with Wales's situation

In spite of Devolution, Wales remains one of the poorest regions in Western Europe
It is now 20 years since Wales narrowly voted in favour of having having its own autonomy.  Now is certainly a time to celebrate but it is also high time that we discuss where expectations have fallen short, and where, I hope, the next 20 years will prove more promising than the last.

Sure Wales may have had its own political institutions for 20 years, but it could have done a lot better at developing its own political culture and popular political engagement.

One only needs to look at turnout of the five Assembly Elections to date to see what I am talking about.  For those five Welsh Assembly elections, turnout has never been above 46%, and has fallen as low as 36%.  In Westminster Elections during the same period the turnout (for the whole UK) has largely been between 65% and 70%.  In Scotland, it hasn't been so bad, with four out of five Scottish Parliament elections having turnouts above 50%, while in Northern Ireland, all five devolved Assembly elections since 1998 have had turnouts above 50%, with 4/5 being above 60%.  

This is bad, and shows that Wales ought to be doing a lot better.  When, in my first year at Aberystwyth University, back in 2015, I asked my South Walian flatmates if they had heard of someone called Carwyn Jones, none of them had a clue.  And no, it was not because they had no general knowledge - they all knew who David Cameron was, and all voted in the UK General Election of 2015, yet they also had no clue that there even was a Welsh Assembly despite growing up so near to it.  Unfortunately, their ignorance of devolved Welsh politics appeared to be more of a rule than an exception whenever I met a lot of other Welsh students.   

I have to say that I nearly fainted when I had that conversation - I seriously doubt that there is another country in this world where the average citizen can't name his or her own leaders AND doesn't know that those leaders even exist. It needs to be asked why this all is, since the current situation is nothing less than a huge insult to Wales, and an indictment of its very state of existence.

Added to those low levels of political engagement with Wales's own national politics is the fact that Wales has effectively been a one-party state ever since the first Assembly Election in 1999.  This is not normal or good for any democracy in the world and nor is it matched within the UK - Scotland's parliament saw a transfer of power in 2007 when Labour was replaced by the SNP.  

I do not think that these two anomalies - the low levels of participation, and the 'one-party-state syndrome' are a coincidence.  If a government is not being watched by its own people or the press, then the people are hardly going to choose vote it out of office based on an informed judgement of their record like they would in a 'normal' situation.  I highly suspect that when Welsh Labour voters walk into a polling booth during Assembly Elections, they are not voting for Carwyn Jones himself, but in favour whoever is the leader of the Labour Party in Westminster.  Assembly Elections in Wales, like local council elections in England, are more a referendum on the politicians in Westminster than an informed vote for or against politicians at devolved level.  That is something which needs to change, and please, in the next ten years if possible, not twenty.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Some People just Want a Wales Without The Welsh

Yesterday, I read the article in the Daily Post about the anti-Welsh graffitti on the beach in Tudweiliog on the Llyn Peninsular.  I'm sorry, but who the hell do these people think they are, going into someone else's country and being racist about the locals?

Unfortunately this not the first time that I have seen or heard about this kind out attitude towards the Welsh within Wales.  When I was moving house within Aberystwyth, in the summer of 2016, the removal van driver, who was from Birmingham, kept saying 'those fucking Welsh' and blamed them for any inconvenience that we had on the road.  The first thought that entered my head was 'Well if you don't like Welsh people, why on Earth did you decide to move there?'  As you can imagine though, I didn't say that to him.

That was clearly not the point.  He clearly liked Wales, he liked the scenery and he liked the coast line, but he preferred to have it without the local people.  As a history student, I couldn't help but be reminded of Hitler.  Hitler went into Poland, not because he liked Polish people but because he wanted their land, and he preferred to have it without the Poles still there afterwards.  The white Americans invaded Native American lands for much the same reason, as did the British in Australia.  A thief will approach a victim not because he likes the victim but because he wants his property, and preferably without having to see the victim ever again.  To help justify the wholesale theft of entire countries, Hitler portrayed the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe as inferior, as Untermenschen, and unfortunately this graffiti in Tudweiliog is not the first time that I have heard or encountered people in Wales who think that the Welsh are inferior.

I personally see it as no coincidence that this unspeakable act of graffiti took place in the Llyn Peninsular of all places.  The Llyn is one of, if not, the most Welsh-speaking and least anglicised area of Wales.  Indeed, in the primary school in Tudweiliog itself, 80% of children come from Welsh-speaking homes as of 2017 and, I can tell you that there aren't so many areas more Welsh-speaking than that anymore.  My guess is that whoever spray painted on those rocks didn't like the fact that the locals there had refused to be anglicised, and did not like the fact that not everyone on this island of Britain is Anglo-Saxon.

So how should the Welsh respond? I say that they should respond by being who they are; they should respond by continuing to be Welsh.  They should respond by being defiant, by refusing to give up their language and their identity, and by refusing to be assimilated.  That way, whoever spray painted those rocks on Tudweiliog beach, will have reason to be angrier than ever.  That way, we can be satisfied that whoever wants a Wales without the Welsh will not get it.    

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Will there still be a Fro Gymraeg?

A question that has been asked a lot is whether or not the Welsh Assembly Government will be able to meet its target of having one million Welsh speakers by 2050.  For me, a more burning question is whether or not there will still be any Welsh-speaking areas by then.  What I wanted to see, therefore, was whether or not Welsh was continuing the survive in its remaining heartland, and what the future might have in store.  To do this, I looked at school census data from 2013, 2016 and 2017 for primary schools across Anglesey, Gwynedd and neighbouring Conwy, seeing what percentages of pupils spoke Welsh at home, and also compared those results with contextual information produced by school Estyn reports dating back more than 10 years. 

Those of you who have read my blog about Welsh in Gwynedd will know that even there, there are areas where Welsh-at-Home (WAH) children are now in the minority – mainly Bangor, most of coastal and southern Meirionydd, along with enclaves elsewhere such as Abersoch and Beddgelert.  Similarly on Anglesey, most of the coastal areas are no longer Welsh-speaking, with WAH children being the majority mainly in the interior of the island.  WAH children are also the majority in significant rural areas of Conwy.  So how are these remaining Welsh-speaking areas doing?

The good news is that many areas do appear to be holding out, for now at least, and these areas include the notable Welsh-speaking towns of Blaenau Ffestiniog, Caernarfon and Llangefni.  However, there is not much to celebrate.  In Criccieth, 64% of the town’s primary school children spoke Welsh at home in 2004.  Thirteen years later only 42% do.  In Beddgelert, it’s fallen from around 50% in 2005 to under 10% now but that is nothing compared to Dolbenmaen, where it has fallen from 77.5% to 52.3%, just since 2013.  The town of Bala has seen the percentage of children speaking Welsh at home fall from 60% to 49% just in those last four years.  Up in Arfon, the English-speaking enclave of Bangor has stopped being an enclave; Rhiwlas and Tregarth at the head of the Ogwen valley have already fallen; in the latter, the WAH in its primary school has fallen from around 50% to 26.8% in less than 10 years. Worse still, the trend appears to have spread further up the valley; the figure for Ysgol Abercaseg (Babanod), the infants school in Bethesda, fell from 70.6% to 55.7% between 2013 and 2017.   In Llanberis, the base of Snowdon, 69% of children in 2013 spoke Welsh at home but in four years it’s fallen to 51%.   Yes, you read that right, playground Welsh appears to be dying a sudden death in areas where it was the norm as little as four years ago.  And then there are places which are being anglicised, albeit more slowly in comparison, such as in the town of Pwllheli, where 61% of primary pupils spoke Welsh at home this January but where, at the current rate, could become a minority as soon as 10 years from now.

And here is the thing, the national census that everyone focuses on is so incredibly useless at revealing such disasters when they happen, or giving any correct impression on the state of Welsh as the home language in any given community.  Who would have thought that only 32% of primary school children in Dolgellau speak Welsh at Home (2017), when the 2011 Census said that 64% of the town’s population could speak Welsh? Who would have guessed that less than 10% of children speak Welsh at Home in Holyhead when the 2011 Census said that 42% of its population could speak Welsh? The truth is that the general census, in only asking you if you can speak Welsh, can be positively misleading.  It needs to be changed so that we can stop misleading ourselves. 

Why does it matter?
The mind-blowing speed at which what's left of the Fro Gymraeg is being destroyed is, as far as I know, unparalleled in 21st century Europe; other minority language communities in Europe, such as the Finland Swedes, the Hungarians in Romania and Slovakia and the German speakers of South Tyrol, Italy, are not seeing their remaining language-territory being eroded like Welsh-speaking areas still are in 2017.  It's important that we know that what's unfolding in Gwynedd is not the 21st European norm, so that we don't feel that we have to accept it as being an inevitable part of globalisation and modernity.

I’ve heard some people say, however, that it doesn’t matter if the Fro Gymraeg disappears, and that as long as more people in Cardiff learn Welsh as their second language, that's enough to compensate. I would show them the table on the right.  What it shows is that there is an indisputably strong correlation between the percentage of children speaking Welsh at Home, and it being used in the playground.  In other words, in order for Welsh to be heard in school playgrounds and in skate parks, you need to have children who speak Welsh at home, and they need to be surrounded by other children who speak Welsh at home;  otherwise they will just speak English, regardless of the language the actual lessons are in.  For that reason, there needs to be communities of native Welsh-speakers, not just individual Welsh-speakers scattered around the place, as is increasingly the case.  Therefore, for it to truly be a living language, it needs to have a territory. 

For that reason, the survival of the Fro Gymraeg is the difference between Welsh being a fact of life, and it merely being a school subject.  And readers, ask yourselves this, if a language reaches a stage where there are no school playgrounds left where it can be heard, can it still be considered a living language; even if it does have a million (mostly second language) speakers by 2050?

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Debunking Jacques Protic: 'Bangor has never been a Welsh speaking town.'

Jacques Protic, an English incomer to Anglesey who runs an anti-Welsh language website called 'Glasnost UK', has just made another shocking truth-dodging assertion - that Bangor, Gwynedd, 'has never been a Welsh speaking town.'  First of all, there should be a hyphen between 'Welsh' and 'Speaking' and secondly, Bangor is officially a city, and not a mere town.   But the main thing wrong with that sentence is that actually, the city of Bangor, was in fact majority Welsh speaking until relatively recently, and I have just decided to start writing this blog to show that his assertion is a tad historically inaccurate.

First of all, it is worth saying that a lot of what comes out Glasnost UK should be taken with a very large pinch of salt.  As Jac O the North once remarked on his blog, Mr Protic's views appear to be that the Welsh language is to blame for everything in Wales, such as its poverty and poor pisa rankings.  My instant reply to that would be that, as shown in the last blog, countries like Finland, Switzerland and Ireland have more than one official language, including compulsory language lessons as part of the school curriculum, yet Ireland and Finland both have the best education systems in Europe, and all three countries are very rich.  Anyway, I digress.

Welsh in Bangor
As is obvious, Bangor is not a very Welsh-speaking city today.  In the 2011 Census, only 36.4% of the city's population claimed to be able to speak Welsh, although this does include students at the university. However the percentage of primary school children who actually speak it at home is significantly lower; it is more like 20-25%.  Thus Bangor can be considered to be an enclave of English surrounded by areas that are still mainly Welsh-speaking; in the nearby town of Caernarfon 78% of primary school children speak Welsh at home and the percentage of the overall population able to speak Welsh in 2011 was 85%, for example.

So how far back do you have to go to find a Welsh-speaking Bangor?  The city still had a majority of being its population speaking Welsh into the 1970s; the 1971 census recorded that 53.4% of the population said that they could speak Welsh.  But how far do you have to go for a majority of children in the city to speak Welsh at home?  Unfortunately, the reports from the censuses of 1931, 1951, 1961 and 1971 don't provide an age breakdown for percentages of Welsh speakers at a district level except for districts with a population of over 20,000 at the time.  However,  in 1921, 68.4% of 3-4 year old children could speak Welsh, with 75.8% of the overall population doing so.  In 1931, 76.1% of the city's inhabitants could speak Welsh, and it is highly unlikely that the figure for 3-4 year olds would have fallen below 50% until the Second World War or after.

So, Mr Protic, it turns out that your assertion is completely false, Bangor has indeed been a Welsh-speaking city.  I don't know where exactly you got that assertion from, but I enjoyed debunking it on this Friday afternoon.  Although I was shocked when you made that assertion, I really shouldn't have been surprised; most Welsh language naysayers that I've come across seem to have got into the habbit of re-writing history and claiming that certain areas of Wales 'never' spoke Welsh, even though the grandfather of Welsh was what was spoken throughout the whole of England and Wales before we Anglo-Saxons arrived.

So, I hope that I have cleared up any doubt.  But even if you are 100% convinced, click here for a video of Bangor in 1960s and you will notice that nearly everybody interviewed could speak Welsh.

Monday, 7 August 2017

There is no reason why Wales has to be so poor.

As you can see on the right, Wales is the only place in Western Europe aside from southern Spain, Italy and Portugal where the GDP per capita is under €20,000.  In fact, even when you compare Wales to many countries further east in Europe, it is obvious that Wales has currently got a rotten deal; Wales's GDP per capita is €19,876, that of Slovenia is over €28,000 and that of Estonia is over €26,000.  Both of these nations, are, like Wales, small countries but don't forget that they have the added disadvantage of having suffered under communism until less than thirty years ago; their economies had to grow from a low base after they gained their independence in 1991.

It is even starker when you compare Wales to her nearer neighbours.  Take the Republic of Ireland, for example; their GDP per capita is some €61,490; more than three times that of Wales.  Ireland, like Estonia and Slovenia, used to be much poorer; only thirty years ago it was as poor as Greece.  

Something has clearly not worked for Wales.  At a time when small nations across Europe have got a lot richer, Wales clearly has not.  It's not that Wales is too remote, since Ireland and Iceland are much further from continental Europe and yet they are very rich.  It's not that Wales is too mountainous, since other countries like Switzerland and Austria, also have high mountains.  It's also (Welsh-language naysayers take note), got nothing to do with Wales having two languages; countries like Ireland, Finland, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg each have more than one official language yet, as you can see, they are not as poor; quite the opposite.  We should also not blame everything on the fact that Thatcher closed the coal mines - other post-industrial places in Europe aren't so poor, and as you can see, North and Mid Wales (with the exception of Powys), are also mostly red, despite heavy industry having not been as widespread in mid and north Wales. What must it be?

Should I be surprised?
When Theresa May's government announced that it was going to plough ahead with HS2, an insanely expensive high speed line to link the already well connected cities in England, and at the same time cancel the much cheaper electrification of the South Wales Mainline west of Cardiff, it was one of those moments when I was again reminded of the answer.  Successive governments in London have neglected Wales, and not given it the right tools and infrastructure that nations from one end of Europe to the other take for granted.  To use that one example again, the last time I checked, the only country in Europe, which like Wales had none of its railways electrified was Albania.   What is the difference between Wales and all these other small nations in Europe?  All those other countries rule themselves and decide what to prioritise within their own countries.  Wales on the other hand, has found itself on the periphery of someone else's country, and the government of that someone else's country has its own centre as its priority.  You don't have to only look at investment to see what I mean, you can also see how Welsh villages have been flooded to provide English cities with water, and how Wales has been used as a dumping ground for nuclear power stations, among other things. Ireland, when it was on the periphery of the United Kingdom, was very poor, now 100 years later as an independent country, it is the 6th richest country in the world.

Capitalism or Socialism?
Most Welsh nationalists that I know appear to be socialists by default.  This is entirely understandable, given that Welsh nationalism is by-definition, anti-establishment and anti-Westminster elite, that it is opposed to Anglo-British Nationalism which is inherently right of centre, and given that Wales has, for over a century, been a left-leaning country in which first the Liberals, and then the Labour Party were the most popular parties.  It must be understood, however, that, what has made all these other small European nations rich, is not socialism.  On the contrary, it was after nations such as Slovenia and Estonia got rid of communism that their economies boomed.  Likewise, the Celtic tiger happened in Ireland precisely because Ireland embraced capitalism and low corporate tax rates.  And put it this way, having Labour in power in the Welsh Assembly has hardly made Wales's situation much better.

What Wales needs is the right kind of capitalism - the kind of capitalism that would enrich its valleys like it has enriched the valleys of the Alps and the Pyrenees (without I must add, destroying their different languages); and not the kind of capitalism that treats North and Mid Wales as peripheral hinterlands of Liverpool, Chester and Shrewsbury to be anglicised and yet kept poor at the same time.  Its time that people in Wales start looking at other small nations in Europe; Wales's situation shouldn't just be accepted as it is.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

'Welsh is a useless language.' No it bloody isn't.

How many of you readers have encountered someone who has said "Why are people in Wales trying to speak Welsh, when everyone else in the world is trying to learn English?" I certainly have, to which my immediate thought was "they just don't get it."  Yes there are hundreds of millions of people worldwide who have learnt English as a second language, but that doesn't mean that they have to speak only English.  Most people in Sweden speak fluent English, but that doesn't mean that they have to stop speaking Swedish.

The reality is that the Welsh language is very necessary.  Three years ago, I was woofing with a host family in France to improve my French, and one day, we travelled to the beach and there we met another foreigner who turned out to be Irish.  After talking to this lady, the host family kept referring to her as l'anglaise - the English woman.  I explained that no, she wasn't English, and that she was in fact Irish, to which their reply was that the English and the Irish were the same.  This way of viewing the British Isles seemed to be very commonplace whilst I was there.  And if you think about it, it's quite strange isn't it?  After all, Ireland has been independent from the United Kingdom for nearly 100 years, and there are many countries which have only gained independence much more recently than that.  Countries like Estonia and Kazakhstan were part of the USSR until 1991 yet nobody ever confuses them with Russia.  So why is that? One word: Language.  In Ireland they now speak English whereas in Estonia they still speak Estonian, not Russian.

Thus the Welsh language is beyond important when it comes to preserving Welsh identity and distinctiveness.  As the writer Martyn Ford said in the book, For Wales See England, Wales has non-conformist chapels and it has rugby and socialism, but those are not unique to Wales, whereas the language is.  Whenever I've met people in Wales who are opposed to the Welsh Language they always seem to be the very same people who are opposed to Devolution, and who, dare I say it, would not object to an Iron ring being put up at Mold Castle.  Chances are that if you against one thing that is Welsh, you are against all things Welsh.  As the blogger Jac O the North once remarked, anti-welsh views tend to come in a boxed set.  The problem that the naysayers seem to have towards the Welsh language is that it is too Welsh.

Yes there may be a minority of Welsh language naysayers who are not against all things Welsh.  I once had a conversation with semi-native Welsh speaker from Southern Gwynedd who remarked that it would have been so much more useful if her Welsh Granfather had spoken Mandarin to her and not Welsh, to which the first thought to enter my mind was that people in Iceland don't groan about the fact that they speak Icelandic and how useless Icelandic is abroad.

But surely the fact that English, the International language, is now Wales's majority mother tongue must do wonders for Wales's economy? Well, no, it seems.  As you can see on the right, Wales is the only place in Western Europe apart from Southern Italy and Southern Spain to have an annual GDP per capita of less than 20,000.  And put it this way, anyone who is a Welsh speaker in today's Britain, can also speak English (unless they're of pre-school age), whereas most English speakers will be monoglots.  So if you're going to speak perfect English either way, what is the benefit of not speaking Welsh? The truth is, there is none.