One Wales

I’m still curious to know exactly why there has been this uplift in support for the Tories. I think it’s because the Tories foster a fear of the other, diminishing the idea that we should help people who are not like ourselves, whom we don’t understand, that we are not all in it together.

In any society we often look to other social groupings. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as being curious helps maintain an open mind and exposes us to new ideas. Sometimes Wales is described as having four distinct groups of people: Y fro Cymraeg (Welsh speakers), The Welsh Welsh (South Wales urban communities), the Welsh British (the English speaking rural areas) and the non-British Welsh (everyone else). We may disagree with this classification, but there is I think an element of truth to it.

In political terms these divisions can be used negatively. For example you will often hear such things as ‘Cardiff getting everything again’, that one grouping gets preferential treatment from one political party or another. However we should celebrate diversity and not allow these forces of division to grow resentment as doing so stops us looking for solutions that work for all.

An narrative of this election is why Plaid Cymru are not capitalising on weak performances from both the Tories, Labour and even the Lib Dems. Part of the story may be Brexit, Plaid Cymru were never keen on Brexit, for them it’s an issue way down the agenda, so it is difficult to find a way of clearly describing a nuanced position. It’s much easier to trot out meaningless catchphrases such as ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

I still think the big issue is the social divisions of Wales. Plaid Cymru are still perceived as being the party for Welsh speakers and as such are not for people like us who are not first language speakers. It is easy to forget how powerful a force this is, it suits some politicians to maintain these divisions to maintain positions of power for themselves, rather than seek workable solutions to our economic problems. However when you are an outsider and transcend social divisions you begin to notice that society is not as divided as it is made out to be. Personally, I grew up in Powys and hence am in the ‘Welsh British’ grouping. However I am learning Welsh and have briefly lived in the south Wales. I have experienced living in all four of these artificial divisions of Welsh society. People and the cultures of all four communities are not all that different. When starting to learn Welsh, one of the first obstacles is whether to learn the Northern or Southern dialect, it’s seems a huge decision. However as you progress you end up learning both dialects and quickly realise that the differences are not at all important.

There is simply too much unnecessary division. My political outlook closely matches the outlook of Plaid Cymru, it’s so clear and makes so much sense: Decisions affecting Wales should be made in Wales by the people of Wales for the people of Wales. The reason being that you have to live in Wales to truly know the issues facing Wales and it’s people. From this point we then look outward to forming relationships and working together for mutual benefit with our friends across the border in England and the wider world.

Plaid Cymru, traditionally have support from a considerable part of the Welsh speaking community. Partly because it is clear that not everyone supports the Welsh language and it becomes clear that it is better to work together than seek division. Plaid Cymru are also slowly gathering support from the Valleys, left behind communities that can really appreciate the importance of working together to build things. There is also support from the non-British Welsh, as they often share the experience of discrimination.

This leaves the final grouping, the one I come from, the Welsh British, one from which very few people support Plaid Cymru. However I went on the journey, I was curious to see what things were like in other communities and I liked what I found. This path is open and welcoming for any person in Wales to explore. Wales can be a strong united country. When we go to watch the national team play rugby, football or indeed roller derby, we share that sense of Welshness and togetherness. Yet somehow it seems that when it comes to politics we forget.

I am an advocate of Welsh independence, not because of a slavish nationalism, but out of pragmatism, it would work a lot better than the current UK system. There are alternatives, such as forming a confederal UK and these should continue to be explored, however such considerations are out of our hands, they would require agreement with the people of England and there is virtually no effort towards such aims at the moment. So independence is the main way forward.

Seeking self-government for Wales is for all of us who live in Wales, whether you speak Welsh or not, whether you were born here or not, whether you have a Welsh family or not, whether you are a town or a country person, whether you lean right, left or sideways, whatever division you may wish to lock yourself within, you can transcend and just say I am Welsh, this is where I am, let’s make where I live a better place.

I’ll be supporting Plaid Cymru at this election, purely and simply because there is no other political party that solely puts the needs of all the people of Wales first. Plaid Cymru are the alternative to a failed political system. Other parties place attention to matters not directly impacting Wales. One size fits all policies which do not work for the majority and we in Wales know that we are not in the centre or the majority of anything, so such solutions are very unlikely to fit those of us in Wales. However I believe that if we take the aim of doing the best for all of one Wales, we one of us will benefit.

Wales

The Rivers of Wales

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Being British

I survived and indeed thrived in a week doing everything in the Welsh language. Dw i’n wedi blino iawn ac mae fy ymynedd wedi toddi [I am really tired and my brain melted]. The most amazing thing was I now know that it is possible to live in another language, which is incredible for someone who was monolingual for so long. More on this nes ymlaen [later on]. Sorry I’m still thinking of saying things in Welsh before the English! It was also lovely to spend a week away from the UK general election and finally get around to visiting some of Edward I’s castles in North Wales.

Disturbingly, the first thing I noted was an opinion poll putting the Tories on 40%. Huh? . This just makes me feel so sad after a week in a really positive community. Have people really forgot what being Welsh and/or British is?

You don’t really know your connection to your country until you live away from it for some time. Long enough to pine for the things you love about your home. Most of the time it is just the native sweets and chocolate that aren’t available worldwide, but it’s also other things like: church bells, proper chips, cask ale and cider, the incredible naffness of the screech of the wheels of a Pacer train going around a corner, Indian restaurants, the National Health Service, the 2p games at the seaside, afternoon tea, BBC Radio,  the bizarre but lovable traditions that have been maintained and the general sense of what somehow holds British communities together.

Yet, all these cool things about Britain are under threat, not by immigration, not by the EU, but by this continued obsession with right wing corporatist government, placing the interests of a wealthy minority above everyone and everything else. I do think that the vote for Brexit was simply an expression of the frustration of losing the things we love and a sense of helplessness about it which found expression with Brexit. But why oh why oh why are people turning to the Tories, the very people who caused the losses and the people who continue to perpetuate them?

Wales is different to the rest of Great Britain, which is made up of so many diverse communities, but we have so much in common. I am Welsh and Wales has it’s own history and peculiarities, yet so does England and Scotland. We should not get bogged down by what is different, but simply celebrate our diversity and enjoy living amongst so many communities in such a rich and varied island. We should never accept a single definition of beimg British.that there is only one way of being, one economy to prioritise or only one language we should use.

It is time for the people of Wales and the rest of Britian to just wake up and look around at what is happening to our society, to be Indy Curious and seriously think about autonomy for Wales, to be open to new possibilities. Why stick with the Tories? You don’t keep taking things out of communities to give to those already wealthy and put nothing back into the communities that generated the wealth: closing schools, closing hospitals and community groups struggling for resources are signs of failure, not signs of success. To use a farming analogy, you don’t keep growing crops out of a field and put nothing back into the soil and then wonder why your yields get worse every year, you nurture the soil, you put fertilisers back into the soil, you put back into the soil what it needs to enable it to produce food. It’s exactly the same thing with communities, you plough back in investment, you improve services for the future, to enable those communities and their economies to thrive. This is what Wales badly needs as do communities all across Wales, Britain and indeed the whole world.

Yet, Theresa May rabbits on how much she says she cares about unity and the United Kingdom, when in reality her policies will continue to cause harm to the things she claims to care about and then has the gall to attack those groups who are fighting for their communities.

To advocate an independent Wales is not about seeking separation or  being somehow anti-English. I seek autonomy for Wales because what Wales needs is simply not being provided by UK government and there is nothing to suggest that this will change anytime soon. I love Wales and I love Britain. I want Wales to be able to look after itself to survive and thrive, just as I want other communities in Britain to thrive. With autonomy Wales would be empowered to work together with communities across Britain, to share ideas and re-build British communities. Seeking Welsh independence is the most pro-British thing that there is. I want every community to succeed and to achieve that means helping your own community first. Supporting the Conservative party is about division, taking away power from communities and giving it to the rich multinationals. There is nothing wrong with large corporations, but they just have an unfair advantage at the moment. A large supermarket chain can force out local butchers and other local businesses, whom are often more efficient than the big corporations.

So, lets wake up Wales and the rest of Britain, let’s take on the spirit of Owain Glyndwr, who rose up against the oppression British communities by the English establishment. It’s time to really take back control and stop voting for this lot of corrupt Tories. It’s time to work together to preserve the traditions of Britain and embrace the future with open hearts.

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The Flag of Glyndwr

Coal not Dole

Sometimes you just want to scream. In Britain the media is awash with various talk of competing Nationalisms, stoked by the issues of Brexit and Scottish independence. Public figures make announcements that we should be more or less European, more or less British or more or less Welsh. This is further complicated by each of these nationalisms can be either of two things, civic nationalism and imperialist nationalism. More often than not, the debate centres around distorting what each of these things is, to confuse and blur the issue, to distract from working out what will actually make things better. Perhaps the truth is that is is simply wrong to try and change your identity or who you are, there is no sense in it and there are never purely binary things and we are all different soups of various identities anyway.  Lets get on with something more useful.

Brexit, Scottish, or indeed Welsh independence represent choices. In recent times such choices have been subject to referenda. The problem I have with all the argument and political horse play is that the supposed public discourse has centred around national identity. Really such discourse is not about identity at all, such choices should be made on a rational weighing up of complex economics to choose which is the best option.

If Brexit is the better option than remaining in the EU, great,  I do hope that it is as this seems to be what is happening, the result will be that things get better rather than the worse. However I am not assured at all by what has happened since the vote, because hardly anyone is talking about how it will makes things better. It’s the same with Scottish independence, if it makes things better, then great, do it, if maintaining the UK is the better option then we should do that and make it better.

Then there is the two nationalisms thing. This has really complicated many of the farcical debates we see in our media. Actually I think this is just a manifestation of the old left right divide, the two political wings view patriotism is radically different ways.

On the left is Civic Nationalism, where a nation is defined as all the people who live in a society, with all their various diversity. Civic nationalism argues for equality to give everyone in that society an equal chance and to make things better for everyone.

On the right is Imperialist Nationalism. Here there is a predominant sub-culture with the society and everyone should have an equal opportunity to join that sub-culture, which then expands and thrives at the expense of those who refuse or are unable to join. The pre-dominant sub-culture declares that it’s view of the world is patriotic and if you don’t subscribe to those views you are a traitor.

Hence the left always argue for more support for those that do less well than the majority. If that group thus supported  does as well as any other then no increased support is required. Whereas the right argue that they these minority groups should just join the dominant group and should have no special favours for being different.

coalnotdole

So, why the title, ‘Coal not Dole’. I was up in Ebbw Vale this morning and decided that as I was nearby, to finally get around to visiting the Big-Pit museum. It is a really good museum. The museum is a preserved working deep-pit coal mine, such mines were very common in the South Wales Valleys when I was growing up, so I was keen to have a look inside. The highlight of the visit is a trip down the mine in the company of a former miner to the coalface. The guides both explain how the mines worked and give an insight into what working down the mines was like with great humour and wit. If you visit Wales, I highly recommend a visit and it is in a crazily beautiful part of Wales, well apart from the modern open cast coal mines near by!

Being down in the pit, in the dark, seeing the cramped conditions where people used to spend all day working in dusty conditions, makes you realise what a horrible job working down the pits was. However it also makes clear how mining communities, really were communities, fostering really strong companionships between the miners and their families. My family traditionally were farmers and the farming community, pales into comparison as farming is often a lonely job  and traditionally the only time for socialising was on market day. Farming requires dependence on yourself as you are often miles from the nearest person, whereas mining requires reliance on others for your safety. This is a large part of the reason why farmers tend to be conservatives and miners socialists.

My point is we have national identities as part of our individual identity make-up and identities are stronger where there is a sense of comradeship, solidarity and working together for a common cause.  The mining communities built fantastic civic structures, such as libraries, male voice choirs, brass bands and chapels. Hence the mining communities had a very strong sense of their identity as miners, being a miner was their primary identity.

In the 1980s, the UK government decided to close down the mines. To the miners, this was an attack on their primary identity, so of course they were incredibly angry about it. A massive series of strikes were held, under the banner of the National Union of Mineworkers, which produced the ‘Coal not Dole’ badges; or it is better to work, even deep down in a coal mine than be looked after by the welfare state, which was the effect of the government policy. Today, Blaenau Gwent has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, the effect of that decision is still felt over thirty years later. The miners knew about mining so they should have been listened to, rather than those in their Ivory towers in London.

I can understand how people do feel passionate when their identities are attacked. However with Brexit and Independence, identities are not actually under threat in the same way. I know some people do feel that their British identity is threatened by Scottish independence, or their European identity by Brexit, but I feel that they do not quite understand what exactly identity is. These identities are not being threatened and they are not going to disappear. People in Britain will not be less European after Brexit, nor will Scotland no longer be part of Britain after independence. Britain will still be a set of islands off the North West coast of the European continent and Scotland will still be a part of the British Isles and they will still form part of our identities if they are parts of our identity now.

This is why I don’t get this whole binary argument that you must be for one identity over another. It’s a huge distraction from the difficult task of predicting the future and trying to work out how to make things better. The way to make things better is to make the political institutions better, the Welsh assembly, the UK government or the European Union. All of these institutions could be vastly improved and we need to ensure they do make things better, by being accountable to the communities their decisions affect, rather than winning some pointless argument about identity.

Time for Wales!

Yesterday when the Scottish first minister announced that Scotland would be holding a second referendum on independence for Scotland, there was this irrepressible thought of why doesn’t Wales grasp the mettle and go for independence too. What exactly are we waiting for?

For me the argument is simple:

Decisions that affect the people of Wales should be made in Wales by the people of Wales.

This does raise a couple of questions: Why Wales and why now?

Often the advocate of self-government for Wales faces two reductive arguments: Why not each postcode and why not the UK. Basically I believe that there is an optimum size for a country. Too small and the community misses out on the advantages and efficiencies of scale, too large and a single common set of rules starts to leave some areas with don’t work well for that community. So, the ubiquitous ‘Area the size of Wales’ is I feel somewhere near the right compromise and in any case a coherent sense of being a country,  enough commonality in culture to work and it happens to be my home.

Now, Wales is one of the poorest countries in Northern Europe. The important question is to ask why this is. There is nothing better or worse about the people who live in Wales than anywhere else. To believe the reverse is somewhat perverse and suggests some people are somehow better than others.

To understand why people are making this argument you need to understand a merest smidgen of history and economics.

Wales rail

Take a look at the above rail map of Wales. Two thing that stands out is that there is no North-South mainline, well no North-South line at all in fact. Then you can appreciate that the railways were built to remove resources out of Wales, notably coal and steel out of South Wales to head east. The story of this coal is the modern history of Wales, lots of wealth created but only a small percentage of that invested back into Wales. Wales has never benefitted from the structural funding to provide the basis of a modern nation.

Instead and in consequence of this is that today Wales languishes near the bottom of the economic league table, seen by some as a burden to be propped up by hand-outs, which are never sufficient to truly build the Welsh economy or indeed other impoverished areas of the UK. Wales is left neglected and distracted by the machinations of the UK, such as Brexit, ever slipping further and further behind. The UK has had more than enough of a chance to do what was required for Wales to be prosperous. Not doing so was not out of any sense of malice, it’s just how politics and economics works. Surely now is the time to say we should do something about it. With independence Wales can build a better more prosperous economy for itself. Why do we in Wales always seem to sit back and wait for things to improve amd suggest the challenges to being a normal country are somehow too insurmountable for the people who put a red dragon on our flag? I don’t believe things will improve unless we all start working to improve Wales.

Arguing for Welsh independence is simply wanting the area you live or call home to improve. I think people from all over the world share this view, localism makes sense. This sentiment is not about hating anyone or blaming anyone. Wales’ neglect was never intentional, it simply happened in consequence of decisions taken elsewhere. Hence it would be better to make decisions in Wales! The question isn’t whether Wales should be an independent country but rather why isn’t an independent country.v It’s about positivity, not about why we can’t do something, but exploring how we can.

I’m Welsh and I hold a particular affection for all of  the British Isles. It’s not about separation from or abandoning England. The Republic of Ireland is already a separate state, but does not feel like a foreign country to those of us who grew up in Wales, it’s a mere ferry ride away. Wales wants England to thrive and when the time comes that all of Britain is ready for mutually beneficial cooperation as equals, Wales would be ready to take part in that. It’s not as if Scotland and England would suddenly become alien countries. The argument for Wales is simply to build a better country for the people of Wales, because no-one is going to do that for us and there is no reason why we can’t do it ourselves. But we really really need to start talking about it and not getting distracted by irrelevant arguments.

#Llangennech School

I did say I was going to write about why supporting Welsh independence wasn’t  nationalism. However I’ve constantly seen this issue flare up on my media feeds over the last few weeks. Really it’s merely a storm in a tea cup. Yet the whole furore is kind of a case study of how discussion of events becomes ugly very quickly these days, with many wild accusations flying around, even arguments about motives for appealing for calm! Both sides of the argument accuse the other side of being nationalists, whether ‘Welsh nationalist’ or ‘British nationalist’

IActually there is an interesting discussion to be had about this topic. The difficulty is that a reasoned argument is buried quite deeply beneath the froth of opinionated voices.

Briefly the situation as I see it is that there is a Welsh government policy to increase provision of education in the Welsh language and have bilingual schools as this has educational benefits. There is also the option to be educated solely in the English language in Wales too. The school on Llangennech is currently dual stream, there are two cohorts of pupils, one being educated bilingually and one in English. The local council have decided to phase out the English stream and make the school a full Welsh medium school, when the current English cohort have progressed to high school.

The complaint seems to be that those families wishing to educate their child in English will have to apply to schools a few miles outside the village and these schools may have to expand. Of course it is usual in any community to resist change that makes life more inconvenient for people in those situations. This is just local news. However it has kind of erupted into mainstream mass media.

If only we lived in a perfect world. Having education in two languages does present challenges, particularly in rural areas. The problem is that small schools are being closed due to budget cuts, with children having to travel further and further to get to school anyway. In reality the educational problems in rural areas are far greater than those faced in the more populous Llanelli area. So, when primary schools are split by medium of education depending on parental choice these distances can further increase, which is detrimental to education.

From my perspective having gone to school in Mid Wales, these Llangennech families are lucky in that they have a school on their doorstep and have the choice of alternative schools within a few miles if they want an alternative. Such things get forgotten in the heat of these arguments.

Because of the rural nature of much of Wales, sometimes dual stream high schools is the only sensible option as the next school may be 30 miles or more away. However there is an argument that dual stream schools are detrimental at a primary level (5 to 11 years old). Detrimental, because one cohort are being taught in Welsh and for children from English speaking homes language immersion is important for the children to develop skills and confidence in the Welsh language, especially where there is little or no Welsh spoken in their homes. It is also detrimental to the English cohort who will be surrounded by a language they are not being taught the skills to be  able to use that language. So, from an educational perspective ending dual stream primary schools makes sense.

The educational matter doesn’t get discussed, the process of finding solutions to challenges. Instead we have a media frenzy where one side gets accused of being anti-English and the other side accused of being anti-Welsh. Whereby people are allegedly forced to speak Welsh or forced to speak English. No-one is forcing anyone to do anything, can we not all just get along with each other and find solutions that work for everybody? It would seem not.

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What incensed me was an article in this weeks Western Mail (the supposed ‘national’ newspaper of Wales). The article reported that someone had slashed  a cars tyres in Llangennech, perhaps as a consequence of the heated discussions. However the article featured a picture of two ladies holding a Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh  Language Society) banner in support of the councils decision. The point is simply having Cymdeithas yr Iaith associated with tyre slashing, suggests that they are responsible for the tyre slashing without a shred of evidence. This false connections just inflame the debate, rather than report what is going on. The newspaper have since apologised, but the damage is already done. The ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ that the modern mass media thrive on. We live in the world where if you repeat the same lie often enough, large numbers of people who don’t dig any deeper begin to accept it as fact.  We see this sort of thing going on the mass media and in social media, all the time, its just sickening. We are living in a post-truth world.

It just seems a part of all these division the mass media seem to relish stirring up. We have the Brexit divisions, everything seems us and them, so when you are somewhere in the middle and just want a practical workable solution, your voice is discounted,  it is unsettling and just seems quite quite mad. I am neither  for or against EU membership, I am not a fluent Welsh speaker (yet), nor am I completely disconnected from the Welsh language. If you’re not binary, you somehow don’t count. Well, we all count!

It’s this debates never truly end thing. There is a tendency to make things binary by going back to first principles, whether it’s the re-awake the language debate or the EU debate. Hence so much energy is spent re-hashing old arguments that there seems very little space left for: Ok, there is a broad consensus, how do we make it work and where do we go from here? This applies both to education and Brexit.

There is evidence to suggest that children in Welsh medium education, from non-Welsh speaking homes do have a tendency to struggle. Such children should be identified and given extra support and by and large they are but some do fall through the cracks, which is where the wider community can and should help. This is what pressure should be put on, not on attacking the existence of the supposed ‘other side’. These children can be supported by the Welsh speaking community and as part of that the English speaking community can help the Welsh speaking community.

Sometimes in some circumstances, like when a child from an English speaking home doesn’t receive the support for schooling in Welsh, the best option for that child is an English medium education and that option should be available just as readily as a bilingual education. Generally in most of Wales, the nearest school is an English medium school. What is desired is the option of bilingual or English medium schooling to be accessible wherever the child lives in Wales.

It is entirely possible for everyone to work together for mutual benefit. It’s called society, where we all have the time and space to develop new ideas, increase efficiency and grow our economy. We do not have to go through deciding which side we are on and then struggle to fit in because hardly anyone   actually fits in with a rigid interpretation of that sides philosophy. What is important is the children’s education, giving them the skills to succeed in the world, not to be pawns in someone else’s pointless battle.

This is Wales, some of us speak Welsh, if you don’t like it, get over it, no-ones forcing you to stay, yet of course you are welcome to stay if you wish to!

Ignorance of Welsh

Anwybodaeth – Ignorance

Well, here’s a new word for the day, always an exciting moment for the language learner. We can see ‘gwybod- to know’ hiding away inside anwybodaeth, which in itself is a rather wonderful concept.

As a Welshman, I often have to tolerate ignorance of the language, not just knowledge of the language itself, but ignorance towards it.

I grew up as a non-Welsh speaker, in a part of Wales where speakers of the language were few and far between. The only Welsh speaker I knew personally was my great-uncle and he lived in Surrey, England. At school, we made jokes about the Welsh teachers and this funny little language they tried unsuccessfully to teach us. At high school we even had classmates whose parents took them out of Welsh classes as it was a ‘dead language’. Yet, growing up in Wales most of us held a sense of being supportive and respectful of the language, despite the jokes we made about it.

As we grew older, we slowly began to realise how odd, how unusual it is to be in a country with a minority language, where it is one of many other minority languages such as Hindi, Arabic, Polish, Mandarin or Spanish, but where that minority language is the native language of the country, a language much older than the concept of the nation of Wales. The non-Welsh speaking Welsh, as I once was, have this strange relationship with the language. We put up with the hassle of bilingual information as we feel a sense of guilt about not speaking Welsh, or a sense of anger perhaps that our family lost use of the language in only recent generations, or that our English ancestors played a hand in trying to suppress it. Whilst feeling supportive of the language, we are always aware that the Welsh-Welsh, as we called them, who seemed were much more passionate about the language than we were, I used to often hear ‘oh she’s very Welsh she is’ this being in Wales! Also, we felt a little bit scared of learning the language, for fear we would turn into some rabid nationalist, ever cursing the oppression of the English.

I believe everyone in Wales knows that learning Cymraeg,  the language of Wales is a political act. Really, if it wasn’t such a political act I feel fewer people would be put off learning it. Yet, we all boisterously sing the national anthem ‘Mae hen wlad fy nhadau’ and in particular ‘O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau – Long may the old language continue’

And then I decided to learn Welsh and things changed. The change being that instead of supporting this facet of Welsh life, I became part of it. There is this strange moment in learning a language, where it ceases to be simply an academic exercise and you accept the language fully into you. Even though I am far from fluent and attempting to write this essay in Welsh would require huge amounts of effort and result in hundreds more mistakes, I now feel as though I am a member of the Welsh speaking community. It’s not that I feel any more or less ‘Welsh’, rather that I simply have an extra dimension of Welshness, a new language to be Welsh, or English (which is lots of fun), or indeed anything else  in.

As I am a Welsh speaker, it is obvious to me that it is a living breathing language, that I always now have a choice, to use Welsh or English, or even any other language I become passably proficient in. It’s this choice, that seems to be the root cause of all the language politics. Welsh is still a minority language, and us Welsh people, being a generally polite bunch, don’t like speaking when there are people present who can’t understand what we are saying. I lived in a town with numerous Welsh speakers, and they never uttered a word of Welsh to me, until that is I started speaking to them in Welsh. However, people have come to realise that if we only speak Welsh with other Welsh speakers, then the language will die, it will cease to be a living language. Is it really fair that Welsh should die, just because it has lived peacefully alongside what became the worlds lingua-franca (English) for it’s entire life? where is English’s respect for it’s elders? Really what is so difficult about saying:

‘Mae’n ddrwg gen i, dw i ddim yn siarad cymraeg’ well you might struggle with that, but probably not if you went to school in Wales,  so how about:  ‘Sorry, I don’t speak Welsh’. No-one will bite your ears off for saying this, even at the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol, whenever someone starts a conversation in Welsh with you.

No, it isn’t the most wonderful experience to be somewhere surrounded by people speaking another language, we’ve all been there at some point. Usually we just go ‘well I am in the middle of Africa, i shouldn’t really expect everyone to speak English’, so why don’t people think this in deepest darkest Wales? You do have theluxury of still being able to communicate in English, which isn’t always the case in Africa and you can always learn the language if you want to join in the fun. It’s optional, no-one is actually forcing anyone to speak this language, but it is a living language, so the option to speak,  read signs or whatever in Welsh should always be there for those that do speak.

I can almost hear the usual critiques wailing ‘but why should children be ‘forced’ to learn Welsh at school’, yet these people generally have no problem with teaching children to read, do sums, learn about science, or history, or Finnish literature,well that’s usually only an option, unless you happen to be in Finland. This is the point, no-one in Finland says ‘why should my child have to learn about Finnish literature, they can read in English! So, really, why should it be any different in Wales?

And then people go on about the money it costs to produce material in two languages. It doesn’t cost that much and I’ll wager there are at least a hundred things the government waste much more money on than supporting a native language. Welsh is valuable anyway, it is not until you can speak more than one language that you realise how restrictive, how bias any individual language is.

This is the thing, you more you learn about Welsh, or really any other subject, the more you encounter ignorant views about it. Why isn’t there more awareness about ignorance. Why do we now seem to live in a world where a view is equally valid from someone with no knowledge of the subject? I rarely hear news about life in say, Laos. If I hear some news from Laos, I may well have an opinion about it, but I wouldn’t dream of thinking that my ill informed view is as important as the opinion of a Laotian about it. Yet why do some people seem to think opinions about Welsh are valid without an understanding of Welsh. Yes, outside opinion is often useful, but decisions should be made with the best available evidence and that surely has to involve the Welsh speaking community.

The thing is, now that Welsh is a part of me, I am now more protective about the language. Any attack on the language feels like an attack on me and all the other Welsh speakers. It is so easy to forget that in becoming a member of something, you can forget , or become ignorant of what it like to be ignorant of it. Nothing is wrong about someone in England making jokes about Welsh, to them it is just this funny little language they may have heard on a summer holiday in Wales. After all that is what is was to me when I was young and ignorant of the language.

We should respect and tolerate ignorance, no-one can know everything but no-one should try and ascribe equal value to views based on ignorance.

My first day on the Maes

Having spent six months or so learning to speak Welsh, I was keen to go to this years National Eisteddfod. The Eisteddfod is essentially a celebration of the Welsh language and culture. It’s primary purpose is for artists to perform in competition in front of a panel of judges. In many ways it is much like any other outdoor festival, there are various stages and venues hosting a wide variety of events: music, literature and Welsh culture. So, the usual lots of fun in a muddy field, portable toilets, food and drink stalls and other commercial stands promoting their wares.

It was an amazing day out and is just very Welsh. Welsh celebrities are everywhere and are approachable and happy to talk to people. Indeed the main point of the festival, like any other festival is to chat to people and enjoy yourself. Having learnt just about enough Welsh to be able to converse in Welsh, it was even more fun to be part of this language theme park.

I enjoyed a political discussion, listened to a storyteller, listened to bands perform, bumped into so many people I know and seen more harps in a day than I have ever seen in my life and went to a harp playing competition. As the Welsh language predominates, Welsh speakers are a culture of around 500,000 people + learners, so has a vibe of inclusivity and friendliness that I haven’t experienced at any other festival, you just feel welcomed by the huge ‘Croeso’ [Welcome] in large red friendly letters. I love the harp, I think it’s an astounding musical instrument and the performer who won the competition I sat through was simply overflowing with talent and musicality.

Anyway, I’ll keep this blog entry short, as I’m going back again tomorrow to meet up with a group of fellow Welsh learners. I’m on a positive vibe, away from the all the politics and Brexit nonsense for a change!

British Identity Roots

There seems to have been a major shift in how people define themselves. in recent times we have heard some people see Scottish independence as a threat to their identity and the recent Brexit vote as a threat to people’s European identity. I had thought the idea of associating identity with a state, rather than with people was bizarre. When I read in the news that ‘The British have decided…’, I cringe as it is not the British people but the British state that has decided something. However if people do associate themselves with states, then they are allowing states to effect their identity, which is surely strange, though this is how I believe it once was. There does seem to have been a shift in focus from some people post-Brexit. If identity is grounded in the machinations of the state, then essentially people are rootless and subject to political whims. Really, our sense of identity should not be political, but perhaps inevitably it is. It seems that how we root ourselves as people has changed.

Roots are important, they help provide security for us as individuals, they allow us to recognise what defines us as people and how we are different to that norm, to know who we are. Discovering our roots is essentially realising who we are, the roots were there but we were not aware of them. We particularly notice our roots when we are uprooted to somewhere else, the roots effectively become exposed. An actual examination of roots is something fairly new for many people.

Traditionally, people were rooted to the land, with one big carrot like root, placing someone firmly in a locality and a community. Thus this community defined who they were, how they thought, how they viewed the world. It is only in the last couple of generations that we have moved away from this model. Genetically, the vast majority of people in an area were descended from countless generations before them, when people settle, they don’t move around much, living in that same area. When people travelled and met new people, two questions were often asked: 1/ What do you do for a living? 2/ Where are you from?

The answers to these two questions used to reveal a lot, if not almost everything about a person. For recent generations, these two questions are less revealing, because we are increasingly not defined by our work and are less geographically rooted. Instead of that big fat carrot root, we have multiple, thinner roots that range far and wide. Instead of defining ourselves from our localities and local communities, we root in much bigger networks. This then impacts on local communities as then those living in that community, rooting more traditionally, find many people around them with different roots. so, we can perhaps explain the rise in xenophobia as the expression of fear about roots. Living in a community with people who are rooted in different ways is perhaps perceived as disturbing.

For example a homosexual, growing up in a community with few fellow homosexuals, may find it difficult to root their sexuality, so they will look further afield to root themselves in a wider community and may decide to move to a city where there are more homosexuals. In Wales, such a phenomena has occurred more widely.

I grew up in a rural area and my generation were told and strongly encouraged to move away to go to university or develop a career and then come back to raise a family as there were few employment opportunities in the area. This has happened for communities across Wales. The sense of Welshness is such that the ‘hiraeth’ or pull back to home when you are able is strong. However this does leave communities with low proportions of people in their 20s, denying communities of people with the time and energy to contribute and build things for that community, that is much harder for people to do once they have children to support. I have witnessed this is my own community, there are even less opportunities now than when I was young. However, I have friends from similar areas in Northern England and they have no such desire to return home to economically deprived communities, yet they retain the identity and define themselves as proud Yorkshirefolk or Scousers. The thing is that people continue to root themselves into their 20s, so quite wide ranging roots are formed, often based on your preferences, you find communities of people based on those preferences.

I think because rooting is based on preferences, there is a perception of choice involved. for example that the homosexual I mentioned earlier has ‘chosen’ to be homosexual, rather than simply realised that they always were homosexual.

What is interesting is that the Brexit vote was strongest in deprived communities, left behind communities, communities that haven’t had to develop wide ranging roots adn those communities that have lost their young people; these areas  defined the vote. Whereas the cosmopolitan, wider rooted younger communities of the cities were strongest for the European Union, for the Union of Europe was perceived to have just at least as many problems as the Union of the UK. The advocates of Brexit did not focus on the economic arguments, but on immigration instead, with winning the vote, they celebrated by waving the Union flag. This suggests that the vote was all about identity and not economics. We have a UK Prime Minister including in her first speech a stress upon the importance of the Union [of the United Kingdom].

So, what is the Union, beyond the political union holding together the nations of the UK? The answer is perhaps Britishness, a sense of identity and belonging to the nations of Britain. However the social union of Britain has been in decline for decades. The world wars of the last century, the end of the British Empire period, forged a new one nation Britain, with a new sense of identity and a strong sense of unity, of everyone pulling together to re-build the state after the wars. The new economic policies  of Thatcher and Reagan and an ongoing ‘neoliberal’ consensus of rampant individualism, begun in the 1980s tore apart the sense of a British community. Areas, such as Wales, Scotland and Northern England were sacrificed to fuel a burgeoning Southern England, it was like the family had been abandoned to buy a flashy new car. The sense of the family of Britain, was broken. The sense of Britishness has declined and the notion of Englishness was perhaps newly born (arguably Englishness was entirely entwined with the idea of Britishness). It is perhaps painful for older people to have woken up recently to discover that part of their identity has gone and they perhaps perceive ‘winning’ the Brexit vote as a chance for a return to Britishness. This aspiration seems doomed to fail, as the party in control of the UK and it’s new ideology, is the very one that has ripped the Union apart for all their fine words.

This whole sense of defining yourself, of rooting yourself in a nation, just seems like an idea of the past now. I am of course a proud Welshman, but that is only a part of my identity. I feel rooted, I don’t have a sense of wondering who I am. It is perhaps being an outsider, of being a Welshman living and moving frequently in England in my 20s, allowed me the opportunity to define myself widely, to root myself well, while not becoming a full member of those communities, those areas have also become part of my identity. However, there may be people who feel mainstream, who haven’t travelled widely, for whom this change in how we root ourselves may be much harder to achieve.

 

 

 

Taking Back Control- Brexit for Wales

One of the most galling phrases used by the Leave campaign in the UK EU referendum was ‘Take Back Control’. It’s a great sentiment, but in reality it’s just the UK political and economic establishment taking back control for themselves, not the people of Britain. Instead of the promised greater democracy, it seems that the Tory government will implement a Brexit on it’s own terms and ignore the expressed views of the electorate, leaving Wales to continue to suffer under the foot of powerful elites.

Last night, some interesting opinion poll data was released by ITV Wales. The poll suggests that post-Brexit vote, with all the craziness of the last week or so, that Wales had switched to favouring remaining in the EU. The poll also announced a growing consideration of Welsh independence within the EU, of 35% (up from the 5-10% it has been since the no vote in the last Scottish independence referendum). So can Wales ‘take back control’?

The problem Wales has it that it is currently one of the poorest regions in Northern Europe. Arguably our economy has not had the conditions to adapt to the move from heavy industry at the end of the 1970s to a globalised economy, where job creation has only really occurred in connected services hubs, like London and other major cities. However the argument for an independent Wales has been that freed from governance from London that favours service hubs to the detriment of the wider economy, Wales would be able to grow and thrive as one-nation. Whatever the Tories post-Brexit plan for the UK, with an increased focus on service hubs, deregulation and removal of social infrastructure, it looks like Wales will suffer, with no guarantees of continued regional funding. Perhaps it is really time for Wales to go it’s own way.

A self-governing Wales would be free to enter into it’s own arrangements with the EU. One option is to join the EFTA (European Free Trade Association) along with other smaller nations or full membership of the EU. The EFTA was originally set up by the UK to create a free market area outside the EU before the UK joined the common market in the 1970s. Membership of the EFTA offers tariff free access to the EEA (European Economic Area), easing tariff free trade with other European countries. The advantage of EFTA membership, as opposed to EU membership, is the possibility of certain opt-outs, retaining the benefits of devolution and not overly ceding to centralised decision making.

The UK EU referendum highlighted a number of issues that people are concerned about: housing, immigration putting pressure on jobs and stifling small businesses at the expense of multi-nationals. I think housing is the big significant one, especially for Wales.

I found out recently that Denmark, has it’s own opt-out from the EU housing market. In Denmark only citizens and residents can own residential housing. Wales could also have this opt-out. Wales could establish a constitutional right of Welsh citizens and residents to own their own home and establish rights for renters for security of tenure. Wales can have strong building regulations and build good quality, sustainable social housing, that residents of have  ownership rights. Restrictions on second home and foreign owned residential housing would prevent Welsh housing being an asset market and instead simply be about providing homes for people to live in. One way to do this is to place high taxes on second and foreign ownership and furthermore restrict such ownership in every district to say 25% of the housing stock in each local district. Tourism is important for Wales, people like to stay in holiday lets rather than hotels, these policies would allow these industries to thrive, whilst supporting sustainable communities.

The advantages of taking control of housing are that allowing housing to be an asset market imposes restraints on the wider economy. Until the early 1980s, a full time worker would be able to buy a reasonable home for themselves for three times their wage, support a partner and raise children. The failure of abiding to the social contract of successive UK governments has left housing over-priced, maladaptive to changing requirements and of poor quality.

Taking control of housing has potentially enormous benefits, the main advantage being lowering housing costs, if you halve housing costs back to their long term average, this increases the disposable income of those in employment. Instead of being in housing debt, incomes would then significantly exceed living costs for ordinary people. Then, this luxury income can be saved and invested in the wider real economy, people can be more responsible for their own retirement and welfare. People will be more productive as they will be better rested and less worried. People would be able to move house quickly, easily and without penalty to exploit a flexible labour market. With secure housing, people can take bigger risks, they can set up their own businesses, without fear of homelessness. Reducing the cost of living, so significantly, will lower the living wage, whilst increasing disposable incomes, enabling the Welsh workforce to be competitive in a globalised world.

Their are many other advantages for Welsh independence and other means of reducing living costs. Control over energy policy will enable Wales to make use of it’s natural resources to become more than self-sufficient in renewable energy and less vulnerable to fluctuations in global energy prices. Agricultural policy can be set for the specific needs of the Welsh farming industry and it’s consumers. Wales can opt-out of damaging trade deals like CETA and TTIP and instead create new genuine free trade deals across Europe and the world. In short Wales can democratically control it’s own destiny, grow it’s economy and not be a poor powerless appendage to a wider world that seeks to exploit it. Wales can become a small but integrated hub of a globalised world. Wales can be open to the world, seeking out mutually advantageous relationships with our neighbours and partners overseas.

The transition may be tough, but we are in tough times already. We can create a socially democratic society of strong communities and robust efficient public institutions that actively support a growing culture of enterprise rather than capital that seeks to weaken it. A Wales where it’s young people want to stay and build, rather than go away with the aim of coming back. Self-government for Wales is the change Wales needs and offers hope for the future, we can once again be proud to be British.

 

 

 

 

 

A very British crisis

What a crazy, heartbreaking few days it has been. Slowly it has dawned on the world that the UK voted to leave the EU. Most people did not expect this outcome, including the UK government which asked for the referendum to enable it to win the last election.This has been more political change, more history in a matter of days than we usually get in years. The big subsequent revelations are that David Cameron has resigned as Prime Minister and made clear that nothing concrete will happen until at least September. The upshot of this is that it revealed that the government had no plan whatsoever for this eventuality. As I write the British civil service is frantically  working on all the possible options to put to the UK leadership, when the UK eventually has one. Somehow the government will have to bumble through the next few months or even years in a very British way until some sort of solution is found. Remembering the leave campaign, there were many conflicting ideas about what a Brexit could mean, but no coherent plan, only a list of possibilities.

This extended period is a crisis and potentially tragic: Firstly for plunging the economy into an extended crisis, because financial markets hate uncertainty. Secondly because immigration was a focus of the debate, without the issue being properly addressed, in consequence it has inflamed racism in the UK. The media has been full over the last weekend of attacks on both European citizens and those who are not purely of white Caucasian descent.  With both the two major political parties, the Conservatives and the Labour party, deciding to enter into the internal squabbling of leadership elections, it leaves most of the UK without effective leadership and no clear answers to many questions.

On top of all this is the constitutional crisis’. Scotland voted to remain in the EU and retain the option of holding a referendum to remain in the EU, adding to the complexity of any change in arrangements with the EU. This is further complicated by the issue of timing. The easiest option may be for Scotland to vote and if the vote is yes negotiate leaving the union of the UK, before the issue of the EU is dealt with, then separate talks can be conducted between the EU and Scotland and between the EU and the remaining parts of the UK. However, there have been suggestions of a new deal with the EU, which Scotland may be happy with and remain in the UK, in which case the EU would have to be prepared to negotiate everything before Article 50 is invoked, then either a fresh referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal or a UK general election to everything some sort of legitimacy. There have been many suggestions, and much U-turning from various EU authorities over if and when any negotiations can take place, I have never known so many politicians U-turn in such a short space of time. Furthermore the issue of getting Brexit through the UK parliament isn’t clear with a majority of MPs, the peoples representatives, in favour of remaining in the EU by around 500 to 150. It is entirely possible that after all the chaos, it may be decided that it is simply easier and less traumatic to stay as a full member of the EU after all, the vote wasn’t actually about Europe as such and more an expression of dissatisfaction with the political establishment (see my previous post), to shrug and proclaim that “We’re British, you did know that we are all quite quite mad didn’t you?” . Or possibly put Brexit on hold whilst the UK deals with it’s own internal issues first, which may take years. Meanwhile the people of Britain have somehow got to get on with our daily lives through a possibly extended period of uncertainty.

Then there is Northern Ireland which  voted for Remaining in the EU too, even the Unionist communities were not completely behind Brexit. Basically, it’s an issue for Northern Ireland for various reasons: One, the border to the Republic of Ireland is open [no border controls], many roads criss-cross the border, erecting an official international border would be a nightmare. Two, citizens of Northern Ireland hold dual citizenship rights of the UK and the Republic of Ireland (which is in the EU), effectively meaning Northern Irish citizens would retain full EU citizenship, even though they may live in a country outside the EU. Three, any change in the status of Northern Ireland risks re-igniting the long and bloody conflicts of the troubles of Northern Ireland, the peace between the two sides in which has been after a very long struggle, agreement between the two sides is still fragile, this is a huge huge risk.

Then there is Wales, which has kind of been forgotten about amidst these huge difficulties Wales voted for Brexit, but again, whether this is the true desire of a majority in Wales isn’t clear. Wales is waking up to the fact that it could be left as the even poorer relation of England, run by a rUK (remainder of the UK) government not in the interests of Wales. Wales receives large amounts of regional funding from the EU, largely because the UK government neglects investing in the regions, as most other states do. We are waking up to some potentially very dire drops in our economic condition. Wales could be the big loser from all of this.

However there is always hope. For a devolutionist like me, our hour may have perhaps come. A solution may be full federalisation of the UK. By which each country of the UK achieves full statehood, whilst retaining membership of the United Kingdom (kind of like a mini EU) on equal terms.  England could even have it’s own regional parliaments to sort out it’s own regional funding issues. a constitutional quirk of the UK is that England does not have it’s own parliament, using the UK parliament for solely English matters. It can be imagined that the the Houses of Parliament could retain two chambers, an all England parliamant and an all UK parliament.

The advantages of a federal UK could be the solution to this crises and deserve consideration. The issue of borders would not apply, borders would remain open, each state could impose whatever restrictions they wanted to on non-nationals owning property and working in the country, whilst allowing people and goods to pass through unimpeded. Each region would be free to make it’s own relationship with the EU. For example, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland could, if they wished, remain full EU member states, whilst England could have a separate relationship, doing whatever it wants such as restricting inward migration and being free of EU regulations etc. Each state could even ‘dual currency’ having their own currency and a common UK currency. Of course the rest of the EU would need time to accept a federal UK as a very special region, but I think it could be a workable solution, that could keep all parties reasonably happy. There is a precedent in the position of Greenland, Greenland is part of Denmark but not in the EU, whilst Denmark itself is in the EU.

I have long been an advocate of federalisation of the UK, it may just be an idea whose time has come and a way of resolving the various continuing crisis of the UK.