Fear of Welsh

A lot of people are afraid of the Welsh language. I think that there are a lot of complex reasons for this rather odd fear.

I have just done a whole week in the Welsh language, doing everything in the language, living in a house with fellow Welsh learners under the guidance of our tutor. I remember feeling somewhat scared about the prospect of only speaking in Welsh for a whole week as we sat around the dining room table preparing not to use English.  I was nervous of losing the comfort blanket of my first language for a whole week.

Yet, it was an enormous amount of fun. Perhaps the most important aspect of the no other languages rule for the week was not being able to ask: “What is the word for X in Welsh/ Beth ydy’r gair am X yn Cymraeg?”, not being able to use a dictionary and having to rely on finding ways to describe things with my limited Welsh vocabulary or simply using gestures. This also meant not being able to use the internet for a whole week.

The result of this single rule was to live in the Welsh language, to think in the Welsh language, to enter an entirely different world really. Instead of simply looking for the equivalent English word or expression, I  lived in Welsh, enabling a close personal relationship with the language. It was a very special and unique experience. Indeed it is one most Welsh speakers never experience, as Welsh speakers always encounter someone who can’t speak Welsh in any given week, or simply use an English word for somethign they don’t know how to express in Welsh.

It was very very mentally tiring not being able to use the vast amount of understanding of the English language I have acquired. English almost became a ‘foreign’ language, which meant that sometimes when walking in the street and overhear someone speaking English, it would sound odd and garbled as I was indeed thinking and being in Welsh.

There were a couple of occasions during the week when I would encounter fear of Welsh from English speakers. The first time was when as a group we were laughing and joking  about a Welsh sign. A man approached and asked ‘Are you lost?’ As we couldn;t speak English someone said ‘Dan ni’n iawn diolch [We’re fine thanks]’ and smiled. A smile is almost universal and I’m sure he understood that we needed no help, however he persisted ‘I don’t speak Welsh’. I made an apologetic face ‘Dan ni’n iawn, diolch, rhaid i ni siarad yn Gymraeg yn unig [We have to only speak in Welsh]’. Suddenly he raised his voice ‘ I said that I don’t speak Welsh, you are being very rude’. At which point our tutor, who was allowed to speak English, intervened to try and explain this unique circumstance and an argument proceeded. The thing is this is a fairly unique aspect of Wales and the Welsh language , in that almost every Welsh speaker can speak English too and many monoglot English speakers are troubled by the Welsh language as this man obviously was, he felt threatened by it, that he has encountered a rare situation where he was unable to communicate. The thing is in most of the rest of the world this doesn’t happen, you cannot assume a knowledge of English you encounter people who don’t speak English and you do communicate with gesture and tone of voice and broad feelings are communicated. Having said that there are Welsh speakers who don’t speak English, in Patagonia in South America, a bilingual Welsh-Spanish speaking community and indeed a few Welsh learners from non-English speaking countries. The man had an negative attitude to the Welsh language and was hostile towards it.

I experienced this again after the language immersion experience. For the first day after, i stayed predominantly in Welsh. I visited a local castle and asked for my ticket in Welsh, quite naturally, The lady at the counter responded ‘I don’t speak Welsh’ at which point i reverted to using English and asked politely for a ticket in English, however she shied back from the counter and another lady took over my transaction. Another encounter with fear of the language.

Of course as a learner of Welsh I regularly experience language fear when talking to strangers, particularly first language Welsh speakers, especially when you don’t know their attitude to a Welsh learner. It’s partly a fear of being judged on your ability and risk of appearing to be a simpleton, which in effect you are at the time, and this is coupled with all the incessant language politics we suffer on a daily basis in Wales. My week in Welsh, has helped me grow my confidence in Welsh so much, being in Welsh I don’t have the cloying memories of anxiety I experience in English. It’s like I have a different version of my personality in the Welsh language.

As English speakers, we are just incredibly lucky to be able to travel in so much of the world in our first language, so many British people, never learn another language, never placing themselves in a situation where they have to learn to use another language to communicate. I think that some of these people simply find it threatening when people use non-English languages in Britain, the phrase ‘Why don’t they speak English’ is often heard in the certain circles in English society, lobbied at the Welsh speaking community and other language communities. However, an I have learnt that being able to exist in another language is a truly wonderful experience. As a Welsh speaker, sometimes I want to experience the world in Welsh and sometimes in English. Hiding within only one language and being hostile or fearful of other languages is just a very odd desire, to want everyone else to be as similar to you as possible. As learners we now our fearful feelings are somethign to get over to leave behind, non language learners ar perhaps not ready to take a risk in a new situation and wish to remain fearful?

 

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

Awakenings

Waking up to a new day, a new start, a whole day of possibilities is a very wonderful thing. However, it often doesn’t feel like it, often we are worried about all sorts of things or just feel like we can’t face it this morning. So, when we go to bed there is a sense of not knowing what things will be like in the morning. For those who suffer from anxiety or depression this sense of the unknown is not a neutral thing, it grinds us down with excessive worrying.

Waking up in a broader figurative sense, with a full realisation that much of your own worries are unnecessary, turns those rare happy bouncy days into somethign more regular, more likely. When there is a bad day, there is a real reason for it, such as bad news. This is what waking up from or recovering from anxiety is like, the troubles come from the world rather than from inside ourselves.

Perhaps the greatest thing about not being anxious anymore is being able to feel with other people, to be on the same track as other people some of the time, to share success together or even endure bad times together on the same emotional wavelength. This enables a real sense of connection with other people, enabling you to be open with people and it not to be terribly inappropriate and enabling you to empathise with what others are communicating to you.

To be anxious is to be living with a big shield around you, it’s stops people getting in and stops you getting out. It’s a pointless shield, cutting yourself off from your own emotions and those of people you care about. Of course you need to protect yourself from chaos, but some trust in the world and other people is necessary, you have to go an journey and trust that it will be all-right, that there aren’t monsters lurking around the corner. I think that in the modern world to increase trust in the world at the very time the world is becoming less trustworthy as our sense of community is under attack

This is what recovery from anxiety gives you. The first flush of super positivity and energy from getting there is amazing. Once you get used to it you realise some quite important things.

Firstly that modern society has got it so wrong, we are all increasingly living in our own worlds, we are not communities that bond together and share the ups and downs, we are on our own rides, much like the person suffering anxiety or depression.

Secondly, a sense that we post-anxiety people are always going to be on this different ride, simply because all those years we have suffered anxiety and cut ourselves off from the world we have learned social skills in a much different way to other people. We have learnt social rules in an academic way, through trial and error, to find ways of getting by and causing the least damage to ourselves and to other people. Whereas the non-anxious learn more ‘naturally’ with their feelings bouncing off others feelings and finding what works well, rather than what limits damage.

The difficulty with getting older is that we have more responsibilities and less time to play, less time to learn, so there is a sense of knowing that we will never really catch up with these abilities, the shadow of anxiety will always remain with us. This is compounded by the fact that other people do find it odd that as a more mature person you are acting like someone much younger and you just have to blot that out to keep learning and not drift back to anxiety.

It’s unlike learning a second language, where you can put the time and effort in to catch up on the language skills. Yet, second language learners know they will never quite gain that true fluency that comes from learning a first language. It’s like second language speakers miss out on being a child in that second language. Even though we can play like a child in the language we will never be children in the language. I think it’s a different thing with learning Welsh and being Welsh because many of us are learning a language that we wish we had been brought up in, rather than learning a foreign language to better explore a different culture somewhere else in the world. There is a sense of it being bizarre to learn a ‘native’ language later in life. Yet it isn’t!

It isn’t because it’s the same thing as overcoming anxiety, it’s learning a set of skills that we should have learnt when we were much younger. But, you can’t be young again, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still learn and make your own life better.

Anyway, I’m off to live in a closed community for a week, an immersion week of Welsh only, no English, no other languages, just Welsh, kind of trying to experience growing up in Welsh! I’m really looking forward to it, it’s such a rare thing outside of families and when grown up and so very special.

Oh, and the UK is suddenly having a General Election. I have so much to say about that. It seems to be about a battle for Britain and those of us who feel a part of Britain, whether Welsh, Scots, Cornish, Northumbrian or even just English, of those for Britain and those against. Those who seek to divide and those who seek unity. Those against Britain are miles ahead in the polls, it’s very disturbing, so I feel that I should do whatever I can for the dear people of these isles. Anyway, but that’ll be for when I’m back here at this keyboard and knocking on people’s doors. If you are in the UK and thinking about voting Tory or UKIP, please please please please think very hard about whether that choice is really the best for Britain.

Hwyl fawr tan tro nesaf / Goodbye until next time

Binary School

Some people get the whole being smart and wearing a shirt and a tie thing and some people don’t. I am one of those who don’t. The best answer I was ever given was that on relevant occasions you should wear a collar and tie for the people who do get it and think it’s important and these people were family, so I learnt the times when it was expected, when you had to.

The other night I was listening to a radio discussion about the old chestnut of school uniforms. What was interesting was that instead of an advocate of no school uniform against  an advocate of school uniform, one of the protagonists argued for a balanced position, the other for strict uniform.

There is very much a middle position on this, a sensible compromise, so i was very much on the side of the gentlemen who argued for the  middle way. The most practical argument for school uniform is that it is cheap for parents to kit out their children in a school uniform. However there are educational arguments too. On the one hand it teaches that there are occasions when you represent an organisation other than yourself that you are required to dress in a particular way. On the other hand it helps children develop style, by which the child can make decisions on how to wear the uniform, which usually involves some rakish way of wearing the tie.

The gentlemen arguing for strict school uniform argued for no adornment, no jewelry, which seems overly harsh. When I was at school you were allowed one earring per ear, one neck adornment and one bracelet per wrist. Many children at my school wanted to wear more than this, but that there was a compromise, enabled compromise. It allows experimentation with style without the onus to take things to an extreme position.

I very rarely wear a suit, but I do see men who do wear suits stylishly. These gentlemen have a tendency to be Italian, it is indeed rare for me to see people in this country pull off a suit well, yet people seem to persist. I always imagined that this suit wearing thing was just old-fashioned and by the time my generation had grown up, the practice would have fallen by the wayside, but it hasn’t. Enough people still expect people to dress a certain way. Really it takes some effort to get away from these stereotypes. For example I have a bright yellow high-vis coat. Whenever I wear it, I can almost disappear in a crowd, I become unnoticed, I’m assumed to be working. rather than being myself.

Yet there continues to be a dark side to all of this. Particularly women for whom the rules are so much more complex, especially if they are in a public facing role. There have been cases of women being asked to go out and buy high heels for roles that involve traipsing up and down stairs. I have been in a situation where a female host was escorting me in high heels, which is daft and I just felt really uncomfortable.

I get the idea that when you are working you are not supposed to be stylish or express yourself. You are there to be the organisation you are working with, so you wear the uniform to blend into the background, so your personality doesn’t distract from what you are doing. However does this really have any meaning in most modern organisations, as surely we are usually trying to attract peoples interest, to be novel rather than bland?

The middle way is interesting, as those with a developed sense of style seem to have a lot of fun, like children with school uniform of doing just enough to blend in and just enough to stand out. These are the skills that a moderate school uniform helps develop. I at least get school uniform now. I am coming around to the idea that style in clothing and fashion in general is about this finding a reaction to recent past styles, to conform to where things are whilst expressing a difference in a new direction. After all being able to express yourself is important for your own well-being. The difficulty with style is that there are those few who are naturally really thoughtful about it and have a well developed sense of style , whilst people like me blunder around shops wondering how on earth to replace my tatty old garments. You have to wear clothes, it’s too cold most of the time, so having some sort of style is unavoidable and people will make judgements about how you look. So, it is really important that as a society we do what we can to help young people explore this and school uniform does seem the best way of doing it.

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.

The Art of Language

The study of language has always been lumped together with the arts as an academic discipline. However it is only today that I have really connected how language, specifically learning a second language is really what art is all about.

We don’t learn a second language in order to communicate or to get by in another language; though sometimes this is why people learn a language as adults. We learn a second language to discover new ways of communicating. We learn how to express thoughts and ideas in a different way and when we receive thoughts and ideas through another language those ideas are quite different.

Essentially these new avenues of expression are the function of art, to express things in ways that are outside of our everyday language, so we can see and hear things in new interesting and enjoyable ways.

Probably the closest art form to language learning is poetry. Most languages have rich poetic traditions, because everyday words are combined in new ways to express different thoughts. This is exactly what we do when using a second language. It’s like we have instant access to art by trying to express the same thought in a second language, we instantly have a subtly different version of the initial thought that can be in itself thought provoking by making us view that thought in a different way.

Everything is somehow a different world in a second language and there is of course new realms of art of writing and music to explore in that language as a speaker of that language. Strangely this art argument for learning new languages seems to be seldom used to promote language learning. It is reason enough to learn  as a bonus to being able to understand more people in their native tongue.

The differences between language learning and the other arts is that use of the second language is not usually done with the intent of producing or appreciating art. There are no great works of language learning, the process is too messy to ever be considered great art. However for the individual learner this process is very much like the mental processes involved in absorbing ideas from great pieces of art.

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.

The Perils of Populism

I may have been a little unfair when i laid blame at the feet of Liberals. The true curse is populism. We seem to be a world of peak populism, with votes for Brexit and Trump. Bizarrely both of these campaigns focused their attacks on the establishment, which in itself is a populist construction. so, really the argument runs that the solution to the problem of populism is er… even more populism. The facetious populist claim of the ‘will of the people’ is really the will of populism.

As an outsider I generally do not value popularity. Some popular people i know are popular, through sheer luck, rather than from a desire to be popular. Perhaps it is the desire to be popular that is what is wrong with populism. Where there is popular [majority] support, that is not populism, that is consensus.

Anyone who spends a significant amount of time musing over politics, eventually runs into the thorny problem of populism. Allow me to describe the individual’s political progress:

Politics is essentially a subject. A subject that concerns theories of how society and the economy work with a view to exploring ways to make things better. After some time exploring politics in this academic way most people coalesce around a political position or political philosophy. What fascinated me, and I believe most people who think about politics is that everybody reaches their own consensus about the best way to improve things, but we all end up in different places, but share many things in common. you then start to notice subtle differences in how other people think which leads them to different political places. Whilst we may vehemently disagree with someone we nonetheless enjoy the rigorous debate and often friendships are formed. These friendships unite around the shared disdain for populists.

Of course, having done all this fevered thinking and finally reaching reasonably robust conclusions, we would like to actually put it into practice and make our economies better. For many politically minded this involves becoming active in political parties. Often democracy is seen as a sensible way of finding consensus and solutions that work reasonably well for most of a population. At this point the politically minded discover that they themselves are a minority, that most people do not concern themselves with politics, that democracy doesn’t really work terribly well. Because most people haven’t taken an interest in politics and flit from one position to another as the superficial ends of arguments that agitate around the general public sphere.

For example,  immigration, the issue which dominated the Brexit and Trump campaigns. High levels of net immigration are not good for an economy. They are a symptom of a poorly functioning economy. The populists focus all the attention on immigration rather than the root causes of the problems and by doing so create the impression that the immigrants are the problem , rather than innocent pawns of a bad system. There are two main reasons why immigration is a problem. Firstly lack of resources, in a bad economy resources become more difficult to obtain and these resources are essentially to a well functioning economy. The immigrants merely highlight the problem of a lack of housing, education or healthcare, as they need to use these scant resources too. The immigrants appear to make a bad situation even worse. Secondly this lack of resources means that the native population lack the ability to perform economically crucial roles, hence immigrants move into that society to plug the gaps instead of the real issues being tackled. Hence the political person will be aware of the real causes, whilst the populist will focus on the symptoms.

The trouble is often that the populists win, they win elections, they get to hold office. However we hold them is disdain because they are inconsistent, they have no solid political framework or political creed that links all their positions, they are charlatans. We become particularly intense when they claim to be ‘one of us’, from our political neck of the woods, so we seethe with frustration, that they are not truly one of us and more importantly that they besmirch the name of our political philosophy. For example, Tony Blair was regarded as a Social Democrat, so his governments record is often attacked as exemplifying why ‘Social Democracy is wrong’. The issue being that Blair wasn’t a Social Democrat at all, he just disguised himself in the clothes. The same is true of Conservatives who disdain those who wear the clothes of the right and Socialists disdain those who wear their clothes.

The thing is that in the UK, the populists have been in charge. The thing is the political class have long realised that in order to win an election that they must wear the populists clothes. Instead of advertising how they would improve things the focus is on being seen to be on the side of the populist argument, even when the populist argument is merely treating a symptom, which then allows the real problem to surface elsewhere in the economy. This lust to win power then takes over policy. Traditionally populism was merely for the campaign trail and the sensible thought through evidence based consensus policies would be implemented in government. However in modern times, populism has infected policy, so policy no longer tackles the underlying issues. Party politics has become a game about winning power, rather than using power to makes things better. And then come Brexit, where the UK government seek to satisfy the perceived popular will, for somethign they didn’t even have a poorly thought through policy for in the first place and merely ride the populist tide, forming positions retrospectively.

Something has to give, the populist bubble has to burst or we end up with even more extremes of populism than Trump or Brexit or bust.

For me the solution is bottom up democracy and proportional voting systems where democracy actually functions as it should, rather than society following the whims of the populist swirl and those who can best manipulate them for their own ends. As i’ve said before for me, from my long political journey, from root causes the answer is autonomy for regions like Wales and not the frippery of a symptomatic nationalism, that divides us from ourselves.

 

#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!

The problem with Liberals

On these pages I have often described myself as a Social Democrat and not a Liberal. These two political doctrines to the outsider appear quite close, yet I feel there is fundamental difference between the two. This difference is why I have a problem with liberalism.

Social democracy and Liberalism share some common world views. Perhaps most importantly that society should work for everyone, it is worth repeating, everyone; black or white, rich or poor, man or woman. However the two doctrines differ in how this society is to be realised. Social Democracy advocates working out what the centrist position is from first principles, whereas Liberalism finds the centrist position more relatively, based on prevailing public opinion. This relativistic stance is to me the weakness of Liberalism.

However, as human beings we are relativistic creatures, how we think, how we behave and what we value is determined socially. This social determination is guided by our families, our social peers and the communities we grow up in. The views of the world we hear around us, shape us. There is natural desire to compromise with prevailing views in a society, to ‘fit in’ and find our own space. To be able to compromise, you have to be able to understand and be prepared to be persuaded by arguments if you test them and find them convincing.

In many ways Social Democracy is the tougher discipline as it prescribes picking apart all this social fabric to get to the fundamental issue. Social Democracy is thus a cold discipline, relying on logic and reason,  can seem devoid of feeling. Yet it isn’t cold as the aim is to provide something for everyone. This criticism also applies to Liberalism, whilst the Liberal will listen, they may lack empathy as they are trying to work out where the centre is, rather than understand each individual.

Both the Liberal and the Social Democrat are a little jealous of those away from the centre on the left and right wings, the Socialists and Conservatives. Jealous, because the wings don’t have to think so much. To the wings political positions come easily, certain arguments just fit naturally with how they think and the opposite arguments seem alien and incomprehensible. Centrists often run into this problem that they don’t always get a reasoned argument for something. So often an argument will rest on an appeal to a common sense that runs true with how they think. The problem with such rhetoric is that is doesn’t extend beyond like minded people, to the centre or the ‘other’ wing. There seems to be this rise in division and the recent development of Nationalism in Europe and North America that raises serious concerns. I blame the Liberals.

Partly it is because the Liberals have moved from the centre, where us Social Democrats still are, towards the right as it has appeared that society has moved to the right. Electoral success has been the reward of this drift. Tony Blair, was essentially a Liberal, as were Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Here in the UK, the Liberal Democrats found themselves in a coalition government with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015, for the good reason of providing stable government. However, the Liberal Democrats failed to do their job as a coalition partner and went native with the Conservatives, to the horror of Social Democrats and Socialists, the ‘Liberals’ had let us down, again. It was not unexpected, Liberals, with their mode of drifting to the centre ground, working everyday with predominantly right wing Conservatives would lead you to shift your perception of the centre quite far rightwards, which is what happened.

Liberalism may he partly the cause of the recent rise of Nationalism, of Brexit and Donald Trump. Once you start drifting in a certain direction currents often speed you on in that direction, because nationalism is very good at subverting human nature.

<Slight tangent in case anyone is getting confused, I am supporter of Welsh independence, or “Welsh Nationalism” as some like to call it. We are not “Nationalists”, it’s just not the same thing, ok? (maybe I’ll expand on this next time!)>

The problem with Nationalism is that the worldviews and opinions of the people who surround in our lives, in our communities, our desire to fit in and to work to make things better are essentially positive. For social animals everyone doing their thing and working with the people around us to improve society is simply a good thing.

However, the sly fox of Nationalism achieves it’s end of replacing the ‘good of the community’ with the ‘good of the nation’. So instead of being inspired to improve our communities, we are inspired to work to improve our nation. This is not the same thing. Nations are somewhat artificial constructs and do not seek to help people, they have a life of their own and play around with our notions of self and community. Nationalism when it arises, often has a scapegoat, a group to blame for the nation not being as mighty as it could be, be it the Jew in 1930s Germany, the Socialist, the immigrant or the Muslim in recent times. This right wing nationalism, relishes competition, which is actually bullying as it slowly works it way through society, the narrative subtly changes until you find yourself in a totalitarian state, like in George Orwell’s ‘1984’. The Liberal just adapts in this environment, the Liberal remains in the social centre, even though this social centre is now way off balance. For the Conservatives, they don’t notice the true horror as to them at last society  is  chiming with their own worldview, they feel as though they have won something and even the Socialist may be happy as it appears that society is at last demonstrably ‘improving’. But, to those able to be Social Democrats and to those on the outside, it is a nightmare.

Whether we are truly caught in the  Nationalism trap in the UK and USA, is perhaps too early to say, but all the very worrying signs are there: There is stoking of fear of ‘foreigners’, the scapegoating of  minorities in particular Muslims, There have been elections won by populist extremists and possibly more to come in France and the Netherlands. and when we are told that these people win, so we now must conform to whatever they want to do, to be good “patriots”…

It just seems like that many people have forgotten the warning from history about Nationalism, that Orwell wrote about in ‘1984’. Even in Germany, the country that most painfully learnt the lessons of the perils of Nationalism, some 80 years ago, is seeing the rise of Nationalism. Remember ‘Ignorance is Strength’ & ‘We are at war with Eastasia, we have always been at war with Eastasia’.