Plaid Cymru are about to make a grave error that will put Welsh-speaking communities at risk

The coastal village of Aberdyfi, Gwynedd. Picture by Llywelyn2000 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Simon Brooks

Gwynedd is unique among Welsh counties. It is the only county where Welsh is the default language of society.

It is the only county where Welsh is the internal language of all local government, all schools (bar a handful in Bangor), and most civic life.

To borrow a phrase from Quebec, Welsh is the ‘common public language’ of Gwynedd.

In recognition of this, from the 1980s onwards the county council established a number of language centres to teach Welsh to the children of migrants who moved to Gwynedd.

The reasoning is similar to the argument for teaching English to children who move to Britain.

Just as you need English to integrate in Doncaster or Crewe, you need Welsh to integrate in Penygroes or Penrhyndeudraeth. It is the language of the community.

Having lost a small grant from Welsh Government, and facing a rise in pension costs, Gwynedd is currently consulting on swingeing cuts to these language centres of between 15% and 30%.

The cuts are disproportionate. Gwynedd’s cut in its core funding for the coming financial year is less than 1%. It also has a larger-than-expected £2.9 million bonus in its kitty after imposing additional tax on holiday homes.

These cuts will be realised either by closing one language centre, or by sacking teachers and replacing them by teaching assistants.

The soon-to-be-sacked teachers are specialists in the teaching of Welsh as a second language. Their work is praised in international journals as a flag-ship model of best practice in language planning.

They have skills which are irreplaceable.

Unsurprisingly, the consultation has led to a barrage of protest and criticism. The idea of a Plaid Cymru administration scuttling round Gwynedd doling out P45s to Welsh teachers of ethnic minorities is not an edifying one.

Town and community councils the length and breadth of the county, teachers, experts in language and education, and members of the public, have made their anger known.

Rather than add to this public anger, I want to take a step back and argue why this case goes to the heart of the national movement. This is because it has an explicit relationship with two of the key issues of contemporary society – migration and integration.

Integration

Like all parts of rural Wales, Gwynedd has seen massive levels of in-migration. In my ward of Borth-y-Gest for example, over half the population was born outside Wales.

I am proud to represent them as a Plaid Councillor on Porthmadog Town Council, and to represent them all, and of course I was born in England myself. I’m proud of that too.

Nevertheless, in-migration has had an effect on Welsh as a living language in all parts of rural Wales, and nearly all Welsh-speaking communities have either undergone or are undergoing language shift to English.

Demographic change on this scale has made in-migration to rural Wales a difficult and emotional subject.

Thankfully, the ensuing debate has not been the preserve of xenophobes. Liberal political philosophers like Will Kymlicka have written on the subject of in-migration into minority-language communities.

He concludes that it is just to control both the volume of migration into minority communities, as well too as the terms of integration.

A United Kingdom without internal borders in which freedom of movement is assured means that migration will continue.

The debate then is about the terms of integration. Gwynedd’s language centres represent the national movement’s most successful response to this quandary.

They put into practice the deepest founding principles of Welsh nationalism, going right back to the party’s founding text, Saunders Lewis’ 1926 publication, “Principles of Nationalism”.

In “Principles of Nationalism”, Saunders Lewis explains that Plaid Cymru will seek to make migrants Welsh citizens.

It will do so by teaching migrants the Welsh language. In doing so, Saunders rejected the racism and fascism of the Far Right which scapegoated migrants even when integrated.

Risk

Gwynedd’s language centres answer the problem of migration by ensuring that every child becomes bilingual in both Welsh and English. Newcomers in the county spend a term in a dedicated language centre.

For that term, they study the Welsh language and it alone. At the end of the term, they are fluent in Welsh and can take up their place as integrated citizens of their new community, of Gwynedd and of Wales.

The end result is the creation of bilingual Welsh citizens, and the protection of Welsh as a community language.

This vision of a welcoming, multi-ethnic Welsh-speaking Gwynedd is a beacon of tolerance in a hostile world.

It would be a grave error, incomparable in the recent history of the Welsh national movement, for a Plaid Cymru-led administration to put this at risk.

The matter will be decided by Gwynedd’s Cabinet later this month. I urge them to reconsider. Please do not proceed with these damaging proposals.


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