Thursday, September 1, 2016

Why all this fuss about Welsh? (1980)

From the November 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

So Gwynfor Evans did not need to fast after all. Wales will have its all-Welsh TV channel. The Tories, after saying they would break their election promise, are now going to keep it. Nicholas Edwards, Secretary' of State for Wales, after first insisting that his party would not be deflected by threats of violence, justified its second U-turn by saying that it “could not withstand the threat of violence”. “We misjudged our ability to convert opinion”, he added.

In fact, the issue of the fourth channel figured no more than tiny in the preoccupations of the majority of people in the highly populated parts of Wales. A certain number of them would, if asked, have probably declared themselves in favour of a Welsh-only service on Channel 4. But this would only have been because they wished to get rid of the Welsh programmes at present on the other channels. Hunger strike or no hunger strike there was never any question of people getting seriously worked up about TV in Welsh, and still less of their giving support to a campaign of violence in favour of it. A visit to Westminster by the Archbishop of Wales and other assorted dignitaries was enough to convince the Tory leadership that the population of Wales was up in arms and ready to fight to have Welsh on telly. But the powers-that-be got it wrong again, just as they did over devolution.

Ironically it is the Tories’ second change of mind, more than their first, which may do them the most harm among the electorate in Wales. For they will not be thanked by the non-Welsh speaking majority when it fully sinks in, as it has not yet done, that the fourth channel will be seen everywhere in Britain but that only in Wales will it be transmitted in Welsh. And even Welsh speaking viewers will probably be disappointed with a service which is almost certain to be of low quality owing to lack of funds from advertising.

But why all this fuss about Welsh? What is actually happening to the language? Well, from being the majority language in the last century and that of half the population (929,000) in 1901, Welsh is now known, according to the 1971 census figures, by only 20.9 per cent (less than 600,000) of the population of Wales.* And even this figure is probably an overestimate based on false information given by nationalist sympathisers on their census forms. What makes the future for Welsh look even dimmer is the census figure of 13.6 per cent for children aged 3 to 10 knowing the language. This decline is due to the development of British capitalism which in the 19th and early 20th century brought to Wales large numbers of industrial workers from England and Ireland (their descendants now probably form the majority of people living in Wales), which in the inter-war years caused many native Welsh speakers to emigrate to England in search of work, and which all along has exerted tremendous direct pressure on the Welsh language by its preponderant use of English in business, administration, education, technology and communications generally. It has forced Welsh speakers to get to know and use English for reasons of social and economic survival, and the incentive to know, use and transmit Welsh has been reduced accordingly. Now, less than 1 per cent of people in Wales are Welsh- only speakers and between 1961 and, 1971 alone Welsh lost speakers at the rate of about 200 per week.

To arrest this decline in the language and encourage its wider use is one of the stated aims of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalist Party, and was the reason given for its leader’s proposed fast. In recent years its efforts on behalf of the language seem to have had a certain degree of success with government agreement to bilingualism on road signs, notices and official forms and an expansion in Welsh-medium schools. But it is doubtful whether any of this or indeed any of its activities at all have actually led to more people knowing Welsh or using it regularly. On the contrary the evidence points to a continued decline in the use of Welsh accompanied by a decrease in sympathy for the language among non-Welsh speakers due to the nationalists’ policy of trying to impose Welsh on those who neither understand it nor want to learn it.

This is a process which will almost certainly be accelerated by the coming all-Welsh TV channel. English-only viewers will resent having to miss programmes available to people elsewhere and this will make them less likely to sympathise with efforts to keep Welsh alive. In addition the lower quality of programme on the Welsh channel will make Welsh speakers more likely to tune in to English programmes instead and so miss what is at present the only contact some of them have with the native language. So by their action Plaid Cymru may well have done the language more harm than good.

Plaid Cymru were successful however in finding the issue they so badly needed to rally support. In last year’s general election only 8.1 per cent of all people in Wales voted for them. Their stock had gone down dramatically after the March 1979 devolution referendum. Here they had hoped for a massive vote in favour of a Welsh assembly, which they saw as a half-way house to independence. The 4 to 1 majority against what in reality would have been no more than a modest administrative reform left them shattered. Their argument that nationalism is the only solution to the problems of a backward Wales where wages are lower and unemployment higher than the national average was emphatically rejected by the people of Wales. After that groups of militants tried direct action tactics (bomb attacks on holiday homes) to attract attention to their cause, but it was the TV issue that gave the nationalists a chance to get back into the limelight “respectably”. It is worth noting however that Gwynfor Evans’s threatened fast, although in itself a peaceful form of protest, carried with it a deliberate menace of violence. “The responsibility for any acts of violence that may occur as a result of my hunger strike lies on the doorstep of our government”, said Evans in a newspaper interview (South Wales Evening Post, 1 September 1980) and this underlined the dictatorial nature of nationalist attempts to impose their will on the non-nationalist majority.

But even if the nationalists managed to win the support of the people of Wales and to bring into being an independent state would the evils they now see as being inflicted on Wales by rule from London be eradicated? For the answer one need only look across the Irish Sea where almost 60 years of independence has left Eire with the same combination of unemployment, inflation, industrial conflict and bad housing as Wales and has left the Irish language virtually dead. A faction within the Welsh Language Society, the direct action wing of the nationalist movement, has apparently learned this lesson and sees the Welsh language and culture as more likely to survive by struggle within the present arrangements than by the winning of formal political independence from the rest of Britain. They recognise that an independent Wales would continue, for all practical purposes, to be totally dependent on its bigger more powerful neighbour and that the pressure on the language would continue and probably intensify due to its supporters sitting back on their victory.

So the nationalists may be cock-a-hoop over the Tory surrender and convinced they have won a famous victory for the language. But, as they will realise later, that victory is illusory, short-term and in reality part of a longer-term process of defeat. In the history of capitalism their action will be seen as a hard fought exercise in futility. For—let there be no mistake about it—as long as capitalism continues to live, the Welsh language will continue to die. 
Howard Moss

* Statistics are taken from: Report on the Welsh Language, H.MSO, 1963; Census 1971: Report on the Welsh Language in Wales, HMSO. 1973; and D. Halsom and M. Burch, A Political and Electoral Handbook for Wales, Gower Publishing Co, Farnborough, 1980.

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