St. David’s Day: Parliament and the Welsh Language (Part Two)

Continuing from yesterday’s blog ‘St. David’s Day: Parliament and the Welsh Language (Part One)’, today Dr Stephen Roberts, the History of Parliament’s Director and editor of the Commons 1640-1660 Section, explains the educational reforms that affected the use of Welsh language in educational and legal structures in Wales in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the relationship between Parliament and the Welsh language in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries…

It was a Welshman who sat in the Commons for Coventry who was responsible in Parliament for instigating what in the nineteenth century became in Wales the most notorious official assault on the Welsh language. The resulting Reports of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales (1847) exposed the extent to which educational and legal structures in the country, all based on the use of English, dramatically diverged from the language and culture of the people. The Reports, though based on diligent enquiry, reflected the prejudices and assumptions of the ruling class of the day, and depicted the condition of schooling in Wales as dismal and made worse than it might have been by the persistence of the Welsh language. However, there was by this time such a thing as a Welsh public opinion, articulated through the press and the pulpit, and the ‘treachery of the Blue Books’ of the Reports quickly became a by-word for uncomprehending English prejudice, and formed a cornerstone of populist elements of the nonconformist and Liberal culture of Victorian Wales.

The later history of the relationship between the Welsh language and Parliament illustrates the essential truth that Parliament exists in a complex multi-directional relationship with the society it serves. Welsh language cultural institutions flourished in the high noon of Victorian and Edwardian Liberal Wales, but successive censuses after 1891 provided statistical proof of a decline in numbers speaking Welsh. In the twentieth century a seemingly inexorable decline gave a cutting edge to efforts to save the language. From the 1890s public educational provision in Wales, shaped by educational progressives and visionaries, had begun not only to acknowledge the validity of the Welsh language but had gone much further, to develop the teaching of not only the Welsh language but also Welsh literature in primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions. By the 1960s, and after some well-publicised acts of civil disobedience, a social movement determined to halt the decline of the language emerged, mostly as an aspect of Welsh nationalist politics. Public sector broadcasting created a new medium by which the topic could be aired, implicitly in Welsh language programming and explicitly in radio and TV discussion. Preachers and teachers began to give way to broadcasting executives and producers as among the most influential of the language’s advocates.

The determination of elements of the professional class and the sometimes courageous campaigns of direct activists engendered a climate of irresistible pressure for a legislative response. During the period of the Labour government of 1964-70, which could call upon the party allegiance of most Welsh MPs, a new ministry for Welsh affairs, the Welsh Office, was established, and the Welsh Language Act of 1967 went a long way to ‘extirpe’, as the Tudor legislators had put it, the notorious ‘language clause’ of the 1536 Act. Welsh was now given equal validity with English in the courts, but public bodies were still not obliged to promote the equality principle. In 1993, under a Conservative government, the ‘basis of equality’ replaced ‘equality of validity’ in the Welsh Language Act of that year. The 1993 Act established a Welsh Language Board, with the brief of promoting the Welsh language as a language of equal validity with English. This may well prove to have been the last statute of a Westminster Parliament on the subject of the language: in 2012 the Board was abolished and its powers transferred to a Welsh Language Commissioner, accountable to the devolved Welsh Government and assembly in Cardiff.

The long relationship between Parliament and the Welsh language has been a chequered and often a less than glorious one, revealing both the power and reach of statute as well as the ways in which legislators’ intentions can be thwarted. The acts of 1536 and 1993, each in their way, embodied much of the spirit of the age in which they were created, enshrining in the one case Tudor state ambition, and in the other, a late twentieth century principle of equality in legislature. Ultimately, for better or worse, Parliament can claim a role, however tortuous and ambivalent, in helping secure the future of the Welsh language, the very survival of which as a vibrant medium of speech and literature is no less than a miracle of European culture.


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