Why scrapping the name ‘Welsh Parliament’ and sticking to just ‘Senedd’ is a bad idea
Ifan Morgan Jones
I’m a huge supporter of the Welsh language. I speak it at every opportunity- with my children, in my community and at work.
I’ve written five books in the Welsh language and written and edited hundreds of articles for Golwg, Golwg 360, Barn, BBC Cymru Fyw and other websites and periodicals.
I say this not to blow my own trumpet but so that everyone understands that the following does not come from any opposition to the language’s success or its use in any and all contexts.
And as a supporter of the Welsh language, I naturally have a lot of sympathy for the arguments for changing the name of the Welsh Assembly to the Welsh-only ‘Senedd’.
But, and it pains me to say it, but having thought long and hard about it, I’m now convinced that it is a bad idea.
It should instead adopt a bilingual name, ‘Senedd’ and ‘Welsh Parliament’, as originally intended.
The original reasoning behind changing the name, as I understood it, was to achieve two things:
- Make it easier for people to understand what the institution does
- Give the institution a status in accordance with its new law making powers
The beauty of ‘Welsh Parliament’ is that, for the 80% of the population who do not speak Welsh, it achieves both these goals.
That is because ‘Welsh Parliament’ isn’t just a given name – it’s a description. A description of what the institution is and does.
People in the UK understand what a Parliament does. It makes laws. And they will understand what a Welsh Parliament does. It makes laws for Wales.
It can be easily distinguished from the Welsh Government, which is the executive.
Most people in Wales will not have the same immediate understanding of what the word ‘Senedd’ means.
Some may figure it out, but to many, through no fault of their own, it will have to be explained to them. That’s not being patronising, it’s just a fact.
And explaining what it is and what it does is something the Welsh Assembly has singularly failed to do over its almost 20 years in existence.
Even as recently as four years ago a poll by BBC and ICM showed that half the population didn’t know that the Welsh Assembly was responsible for the Welsh NHS.
That is the most basic information about devolution and in almost 20 years it hasn’t been adequately communicated to half the people of Wales.
This isn’t the fault of the people of Wales or necessarily the fault of the Welsh Assembly, either.
We know that most people in Wales get their news from British sources that barely mention Wales, and Welsh news provision is comparatively poor.
Of course, calling the institution ‘Welsh Parliament’ will not magically solve this problem on its own.
But it will help people understand what the institution does and, to be frank, public understanding of Welsh devolution needs all the help it can get.
There are some who will ask, why waste time discussing the name of the institution when there are much bigger fish to fry? The coming challenges of Brexit, for one thing.
Perhaps the timing isn’t great. But now that a bill to change the name has been published it’s a question that needs to be tackled.
But it’s also a very timely question because the period after Brexit will be a very difficult one for Welsh politics.
Welsh devolution has felt safe so far because the British nationalists who feel passionately opposed to Welsh self-government have been fighting against the EU.
Once they have completed the work of ‘taking back control’ from Brussels the British right are likely to turn their attention to the devolved institutions.
Welsh devolution will come under sustained attack, by the far-right (whether they call themselves UKIP or something else) and some in the Conservative party.
The Westminster Government have already taken back some devolved powers in the Brexit ‘power grab’ and it is now UKIP’s official policy to abolish the Welsh Assembly.
This war is coming whether we like it or not. For the next decade or so, the Welsh Assembly is going to be fighting for its political future.
The British right will no doubt attempt to portray the institution as out of touch with the lives of the people of Wales, and argue that it has achieved nothing in 20 years despite all the money spent on it.
There will surely be an anti-Welsh language element to their attack as well: ‘It’s just there to create jobs for Welsh speakers.’
If they get the British tabloids on board, winning a referendum against Welsh devolution would likely be a formality for them.
Due to the lack of a comparable Welsh media, supporters of devolution simply wouldn’t have any kind of platform to respond.
In order to survive, the Welsh Assembly needs to put public understanding and appreciation of its role front and centre. That is why its name is important.
‘Welsh Parliament’ would cut through in a way neither ‘Welsh Assembly’ or ‘Senedd’ – on its own – never will.
There are two main arguments put forth by those who would rather see a Welsh-only name.
The first is that the use of a Welsh-only name will, supporters claim, boost the Welsh language by normalising its use.
They will frequently cite the example of the Dáil and Seanad in the Republic of Ireland. It has an Irish only name and that has caused no problems at all to anyone.
However, the problems of the lack of public understanding of Welsh devolution are unique to Wales. They can’t be compared to Ireland, where the Dáil and Seanad combined are the only legislature.
But citing the Dáil also undermines their own argument. Because there is no evidence that the Dáil and Seanad being so named in 1919 has done anything to help the Irish language.
Only 2% now use Irish as the main language of home, work and community – a monumental collapse over the last hundred years.
Using Welsh as a symbolic language, to be brought out on official occasions like a tray of fine china cups, won’t do anything to preserve it as a living language.
Only promoting its use in social settings and taking steps to protect it as a community language will do that.
The name change could also, ironically, undermine the Welsh language by undermining the principle of bilingualism in Wales’ public institutions.
One AM has already argued that it is hypocritical for Welsh-language campaigners to call for a Welsh-language only name after arguing for so long that bilingualism is the way forward.
This is an argument that would be wheeled out time and time again to attack the Welsh language if the Assembly changes its name to the Welsh-only Senedd.
The second argument put forth by those who support a Welsh-only name is that avoiding the name ‘Parliament’ would allow the institution to step out of Westminster’s shadow and forge its own path.
I sympathise with this argument. However, while the name is important for the public’s understanding of what the legislature is, it has no bearing on what it does.
If it comes up with radical, successful laws that lead to a divergence between Wales and the rest of the UK, then the institution will have proven its uniqueness.
The Scottish Parliament has proven this by blazing a trail while the Welsh Assembly’s own progress, despite not being called a parliament, has been characterised by caution.
You could name the Welsh Assembly after one of Roald Dahl’s scrumdiddlyumptious snozzwangers but unless the politicians there are motivated to change things it won’t make the legislature any more innovative.
The way to motivate politicians is to bring public scrutiny to bear on them, and the way to do that is to promote public understanding of the institution.
Calling it, in English, the Welsh Parliament will help with that.
As I said, I have a lot of sympathy with the idea of a Welsh-language only name for the Senedd / Welsh Parliament. Under other circumstances, I would support it.
But it’s time to think wisely and pragmatically about what, in the long term, is best for the institution.
There is no point winning symbolic victories if we then lose the war against those who would rather abolish the institution completely.
A campaign to abolish the Assembly is coming within the next ten years. And if it wins, it would kill off the idea of Wales as a nation, perhaps forever.
Wales would again be at the mercy of British nationalist right-wing Westminster governments that care little about its health or prosperity.
That’s the challenge facing us and we should do everything in our power to ensure it doesn’t happen.