Thursday, 12 October 2017

Plans to Create a Second Welsh Nationalist Party: My Thoughts

Yesterday, Royston Jones, a maverick Welsh nationalist who describes himself as 'right of centre', announced, on his blog, Jac O' the north, his intention to create a new right of centre nationalist party for Wales.  He has booked a meeting in an Aberystwyth hotel for early november, although he stated that he planned no role for himself as a politician within any new political party.  

As many of you will know, I am a Welsh-nationalist sympathiser who happens to be English.  The purpose of this blog article is not to say whether or not I consider myself right or left of centre, or whether I will continue to support Plaid Cymru or not.  The purpose of this article is to speculate on what I may think may happen and whether having two Welsh Nationalist parties is a good idea or not.  

So, the first question to ask, I think, is 'Will this party go anywhere?' Can there be two seat-winning Welsh nationalist parties at the same time? The past, if it's anything to go by, is not exactly promising; there is a trail of former 'non-Plaid' Welsh nationalist parties - Cymru Goch, Cymru Annibynnol, Forward Wales, Plaid Glyndŵr to not even name all of them.  What do these parties all have in common? They're parties you've never heard of.   Arguably the most successful non-Plaid Welsh nationalist party was Llais Gwynedd, whose crowning glory was winning 13 council seats in Gwynedd at the 2012 election, a year after gaining 15% of the constituency vote in Dwyfor-Meirionydd in the Assembly Election of 2011.  The truth is, there aren't any good precedents for a second Welsh nationalist party.  

Even if a new Welsh-nationalist party is to emerge this November, it is just under 4 years until the next Welsh Assembly election, and nearly five until the both the General Election and local Welsh Council Elections happen again.  That is a long time for a small party, and plenty long enough for them to be forgotten about.  However, what could change things for them, of course, would be, if, say, elected AMs and MPs from other parties decide to defect and join them early on, à la Douglas Carswell.  Certain politicians do spring to mind; Guto Bebb, the former Plaid Cymru branch leader in Caernarfon, who is now the Tory MP for Aberconwy, and Neil McEvoy, the Plaid Cymru AM who has fallen out with his party.  Would they be willing to up-root and call their own by-elections? I'm not so sure, although it remains to be seen.  

What is certain, however, is that if this party is to become anything of a success, it will have to consider where it is going to run for election, and where not, so as to not split the Welsh-nationalist vote.  My advice would be that the party should not contest Westminster seats where they are at risk of splitting the nationalist vote so that a Unionist party wins the seat.  However, that risk is much less with Assembly Elections since a) the system is one of Mixed Member Proportional Representation, and, b) Plaid Cymru's constituency seats for the Welsh Assembly are much safer than Plaid's Westminster seats.  

Only time will tell if Royston Jones's aims come to fruition, but at least at the moment, I don't think Plaid Cymru should be too scared. 

Friday, 6 October 2017

The Collapse of Welsh in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire

As you can imagine, this is not a blog that I ever wanted to have to write but I feel that it is something that needs to be talked about.  Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire are two traditionally Welsh-speaking counties where, as of the 2011 Census, a majority of the population can no longer speak Welsh.  Worse still, the percentage of primary school children speaking Welsh at Home (WAH) in these two counties is significantly lower, as the table above shows.  Compared to their neighbouring Welsh heartlands further north, Welsh in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire has done particularly badly - in Gwynedd and Anglesey, the percentages of children speaking Welsh at home in 2013 were significantly higher - at 56% and 37%, respectively. This blog therefore tries to trace the decline of Welsh as a community language in the two through the decades.

The 1953 report entitled 'The Place of Welsh and English in the Schools of Wales' shows that, mid-century, the percentages of primary school children speaking Welsh at Home in the two counties were 71% for Ceredigion (then called Cardiganshire), and 56% for Carmarthenshire.  Back then, Ceredigion, at least, was very much in the same league as its neighbours to the north; Meirionydd and Caernarfonshire (ie what's now Gwynedd and the western half of Conwy) were at 77% and 67%, respectively, while Anglesey was at 74%.  In other words, in those days, the Fro Gymraeg was genuinely Gymraeg.  

The percentage of PS children fluent in Welsh in 1975.
Darkest Shade: 75-100%                                              
Second Darkest Shade: 50-75%                                   
Within barely two decades, however, things had changed utterly.  By 1974, the figures for Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire had fallen to 45% and 33%, respectively, as the 1977 Report entitled Welsh in the Primary Schools of  Gwynedd, Powys  and Dyfed  shows.  The report, which I only stumbled across this week, has greatly changed my understanding of the collapse of Welsh in Ceredigion, since I previously assumed that WAH children there had still been in the majority into the 1980s, as that are what the Census figures had suggested.  This again shows just how misleading the Census can be.  (!!) 

Thus, as you can see on the right, by the mid-70s, Welsh was already loosing ground rapidly in Dyfed and was doing so much faster than in Gwynedd or Anglesey, or in the Welsh speaking areas of Clwyd for that matter.  

Before the 1950s: The Lead-Up to Disaster
Although both counties in the '50s were majority Welsh in vernacular, cracks had already begun to show by then and anglicised enclaves had already existed for at least twenty years prior to that:

In 1921, according the Census of that year, there were already three towns where the percentage of 3-4 year old residents speaking Welsh was below 50%; Llandovery at 49.2%, Carmarthen at 48.3% and Aberystwyth at 43.9%.  Ten years later, the industrial town of Llanelli joined them, with the figure there falling from 61.3% in 1921 to 45.9% in 1931.  What was different about interwar Carmarthenshire compared to the other counties of the Fro Gymraeg, was that while the anglicised enclaves of the other counties appear to have all been seaside resorts, in Carmarthenshire, this was clearly not the case. 

Since the 1970s: An Escalating Catastrophe
 Despite the unprecedented disaster of the previous 20 years, there were still significant areas in Dyfed where a majority of Primary School children did still speak Welsh at Home.  In Ceredigion, the figures were above 50% in the following Secondary school catchment areas: Aberaeron (59%), Llandysul (61%), Lampeter (58%) and Tregaron (61%), but below 50%.  in the two Cardigan (39% and 44%) and Aberystywth (32%) areas.  

In Carmarthenshire, the catchment areas above 50% were Gwendraeth (61%), Newcastle Emlyn (65%) , and the Carmarthenshire half of the Lampeter area (69%) while the other six areas ranged from 49% in the Ammanford area to 13% in and around Llanelli.  In the Preseli catchment area of neighbouring Pembrokeshire, the figure stood at 59%, and ranged between 1% and 24% everywhere else.  In Gwynedd and Anglesey, catchment areas above 70% still exist in 2017, although, of course, their future is now uncertain.  

The forty years since the 1970s have of course, only seen the continued disappearance of Welsh-speaking communities in the two counties.  Sure, primary schools in the two counties where a majority of children speak Welsh at Home do still exist but they are most definitely in a minority, are seldom above 60%, and are not concentrated in particular stronghold areas.  The future of Welsh in the Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, it seems, is mainly as a second language, although please prove me wrong if you can.  I just hope though, that lessons will be learned from what has happened, and that it may further people's understanding of language shift. 

Why Catalonia Matters to Us All.

Although the month of October, 2017 is only six days old, one could argue that more has changed since it began than in many previous months for many a long while.  On the first day, the Catalan Independence referendum took place, which the central government in Madrid claimed was illegal, and video footage of Madrid-controlled policemen assaulting Catalan voters as they tried to stop them from confiscating the ballot boxes went viral internationally.  This is without doubt, a very non-Western-European-style event to have taken place in Western Europe.  I myself know many Welsh nationalists who themselves travelled to Catalonia to show solidarity with the Catalan people during the referendum. 

As you may have guessed, my sympathies are with Catalonia and not with the government in Madrid.  Sure, the Spanish Constitution says that Spain is 'One and Indivisible' but surely the whole purpose of having a constitution is to safeguard Democracy? Constitutions do indeed exist for the purpose of protecting the rights, and the democratic will, of the people, and not the other way round, and so when the two are at logger-heads, we need to ask ourselves just what that constitution is there for.  As it so happens, I do believe that written constitutions are necessary, and I believe that the UK jolly well ought to have one, but the Catalan crisis has certainly showed me that they can cause bad too.  

Assuming that the government of Catalonia will indeed declare independence unilaterally next week, I sincerely hope that the other countries of the world will recognise it, which I fear they will not.  And when different voices say that Spain's territorial integrity cannot be violated, or that an existing status quo cannot be changed unilaterally, I will raise the same argument - that existing sovereignty and territorial integrity rights along with international law, are like constitutions; they don't exist for their own sake but instead to serve the people.  When the people of Catalonia want to be independent, no amount of international or Spanish law should stand in their way ; Democracy and Self-determination should come first and international law and sovereignty rights should be built for the very purpose of serving those two ends.

I sincerely hope that the world learns all this from this crisis since there are already cases elsewhere in the world where international law and existing sovereignty rights are indeed at logger-heads with what the local people actually want.  By this I am referring to the numerous self-declared states in the world which are not recognised by the UN, or by at least one other country - Examples include Kosovo, the Republic of Artsakh and many others.  If they say that they are independent, then by the principles of  Democracy and Self-Determination who is anyone else to say that they're not.  

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, a lot 'better connected' than Wales.

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 nations 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?