Why Rees-Mogg’s attitude towards the Welsh language sums up how Westminster treats Wales
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
Welsh is a British language, but you wouldn’t know that from how it is treated at Westminster.
At best it is treated with a casual disregard, and at worst it is treated with sheer contempt. It was recently described as a ‘foreign language’ in the House of Commons by none other than that buffoonish parody of a posh person, Jacob Rees-Mogg. He then went on to compare speaking it to making quips in Latin.
While Welsh alive and kicking, it is often described as a dead language by those who are hostile to it. Yet Latin which has long since kicked the linguistic bucket, appears to be accorded far more respect by the Westminster elite. Despite its general lack of utility, it is associated with high status.
The likes of the Etonian Rees-Mogg were taught it at school. It would have been of far more use for him to learn a bit of Welsh instead. Perhaps then he would understand a tad more about the country in which he lives and claims to revere. He could even use it to, god forbid, have a conversation with someone.
If he learned it, perhaps he would have a greater appreciation of the linguistic heritage of these isles, its modern incarnation, and avoid the kind of mind-numbing and nauseating faux pas he made on the floor the House of Commons.
As Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts said: “Jacob Rees-Mogg may not be aware, but Welsh is not a ‘foreign language’. It had been spoken in Britain for hundreds of years before English even existed.”
She had been told off the day before by the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, for speaking what was deemed to be ‘too much Welsh’. She had the temerity to wish her fellow parliamentarians a happy St Patrick’s Day in both Welsh and Irish before asking her question. Terrible, I know.
You see, according to the parliamentary rule book, Erskine May, Welsh can be tolerated a little under certain circumstances, but only so much. Welsh speakers should still know their place, and that place is at the periphery.
In Westminster, there are exceptions where the Welsh language can be used. But as a general rule, speeches in committees and in the Chamber must be made in English.
This contrasts markedly with our own national parliament in Wales, where the language has real status, backed up by statute. It is not an exception. Like English, it is a rule. You don’t have to ask the permission of the Llywydd to speak it. It is a right. It not merely tolerated within tightly defined parameters.
Full speeches can be, and are, made in Welsh, frequently. There are simultaneous translations available for those who require them. Legislation is published in both Welsh and English. In the Senedd, the Welsh language is not at the periphery. It is a pervasive presence. There, we are not told that we should be content to remain at the margins.
That does not mean that all is hunky dory, of course. It does not mean there is not more to do with regards to securing its future and enhancing its status. But here the language is still embraced in a way that it simply is not in the supposedly hallowed halls of Westminster. There irony is of course that they should embrace it there too.
In Westminster there is an obsession with heritage and tradition. But it is an obsession with the heritage and tradition of a certain group of people. It is with that of the establishment, or at least what it perceives it to be.
This means it still uses Norman French in certain parts of the parliamentary process, including Royal Assent, which is necessary for a Bill to become law. The reason for that is that it used to be the official language way back in the day, so they decided to keep it, essentially as some sort of a legislative ornament.
Yet the Welsh language, which has been used for donkey’s years before the Normans arrived on the scene, is treated as if it is somehow alien. It is othered.
This othering goes back a long way. The word Welsh is derived from the old Germanic word walha. It is a variation on a common word used hundreds of years ago by Saxons to mean foreigners or outsiders. More specifically, it meant a foreigner from a Romanised Celtic tribe. You know what they say about old habits being like John McClane at the Nakatomi Plaza. They die hard.
How the Welsh language is treated is an extension of how Wales is treated as a whole. This is not a union in which we are accepted as we are. It is a union where we are told to conform to what the establishment thinks we should be. You can even get into trouble for the high crime of tweeting a Welsh flag.
Why on earth should we put with it, and more to the point, why on earth do we?
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