You can’t simply wish for a million Welsh speakers. You need to legislate for it as well….

The Welsh Government has today announced that it is withdrawing the Welsh Language Bill. This was a reforming piece of legislation which was designed to breathe life into our manifesto commitment to create a million Welsh speakers by 2050. I launched it with a consultation in the National Eisteddfod in 2017. And despite the noisy opposition from a few in the Welsh Language Society, its broad vision was welcomed and it began a serious debate about the future of Welsh language policy.

My initial reaction on appointment was to scrap the standards and legal minefield that they had created. But I was persuaded that the standards were working in creating new statutory rights for those of us who speak and use the language. The proposals were designed to provide a solid basis for the development of policy and planning for the future of the language.

I greatly regret the Government’s decision today to withdraw the Welsh Language Bill. This was a radical proposal to not only overhaul the bureaucracy that has turned Welsh language support into a quagmire of regulation and red tape. But it also underpinned the vision of creating a million speakers.

Without a firm statutory basis for the delivery of this vision I fear now that the government is not only shooting itself in the foot but is preferring the easy route of no change and no ambition.

The legislation was designed to create a Welsh language powerhouse. A powerhouse that would promote and encourage and normalise the use of Welsh. It was to become an international example of minority language planning. We certainly now cannot move beyond the limited ambition of the 2011 Measure and will not be able to legislate for language use in the private sector.

This is letting down all the thousands of people for whom the million speakers vision was creating a momentum for fundamental change not only in policy but how the Welsh Government operates. The legislation had the support of a broad consensus across the Welsh language community. That community will be left wondering what the policy is and what is the ambition for our language?

The Welsh Government had an opportunity to realise a radical vision that would have transformed the future of our country and secured the future of our national language. Radicalism and reform in government is difficult. I know. I have always pursued a route of reform. And we must not retreat from a reforming agenda.

I am grateful to the minister for discussing this with me prior to the publication of her decision. I hope that she will reflect on this decision. I fear that this will be seen as the point where the seriousness of the government on this policy was brought into question. And I fear that it will also be seen as the point where those voices for whom this policy and this vision were never a priority will feel emboldened to dismiss language policy and pour scorn on the objective we set ourselves in our manifesto.

The humbug of Halloween


Without wishing to appear unduly grumpy I can’t be alone in thinking that the Americanisation of our culture seems to approach its zenith or nadir (depending on how you look at it) at this time of year with trick or treating. And reflecting on this last weekend I’m inclined to think that surely we can do better than this?

And without being overly dramatic this is not simply a shame. It’s a tragedy. Halloween has a long and colourful history. It has been celebrated in Wales since pre-Roman times and like many of our modern festivals has been both a pagan and Christian festival rooted in the changing seasons and onset of winter. Today the the Welsh Nos Galon Gaeaf still reminds us of these early traditions.

My childhood memories of Halloween are mainly of ducking apples and the pain of trying to carve a face out of a turnip. I knew no-one who had a pumpkin in those days. Today Halloween now seems to last a month and is dominated by a dreadful commercialisation, trick or treating and a variety of outlandish costumes. I remain unconvinced that “sexy corn-on-the-cob” is an appropriate dress for anyone at any time of the year.
And the growth of Halloween has also seen the decline of Bonfire Night as a national event in our public culture and consciousness. I spent many weeks dragging a guy around the streets of Tredegar, hoping that my father would not recognise the trousers that had been stuffed with newspaper but can’t remember the last time I saw a child with a guy asking for a “penny for the guy”. Again I recognise that not everyone approves of some of this imagery but it is a part of our shared history in these islands.

Now I am usually someone who welcomes American cultural influences and certainly have never been convinced by those who would seek to create a false choice between an American or European future. I’ve never felt it necessary to choose. I like parts of both. Our politics has a lot to learn from America in terms of openness and accountability. Our wider public culture can learn a lot about citizenship and equality. But the suffocation of our history and the importation of a commercialisation that reduces a 2,000 year tradition to a cut and paste, takeaway and throwaway evening is for me probably a step too far. Here we have more to learn from our friends on the European mainland of the importance of creating and protecting a space for our traditional culture and customs.

Instead of this ready-made superficiality of Halloween I would prefer my children to enjoy learning of a festival which teaches us about our history and our own rich Welsh and Celtic traditions. Samhain, the Celtic New Year, is probably the best-known of our early traditions dating back to pre-Roman times. It was from this festival that our Jack O’lanterns are derived as is the tradition of dressing up, wearing masks and other disguises to avoid being recognised by the ghosts that may be thought to be present. It was Samhain that gave us much of the richness of Halloween and the associations with witches, hobgoblins, fairies, and various other demons. It was also a time when the souls of those who had died were believed to return to visit their homes, leading to people lighting bonfires to frighten away evil spirits.

Today’s Nos Galan Gaeaf echoes these traditions and memories. A night when spirits walk the earth and where the ghosts of the dead will appear at midnight. In some parts of Wales, the ghost was often the Ladi wen (white lady), elsewhere it could have been the more frightening Hwch ddu gwta (tail-less black sow) that appeared. Again huge bonfires would be lit on the hillsides to offer protection. Today’s traditions of ducking apples also have these ancient roots with apples and potatoes used to celebrate the event.

I also fully recognise that my hated trick or treat also has its roots in this history and there are certainly well-documented traditions of groups of youths dressing up in women’s clothes with the girls in men’s clothing, wandering from house to house after dark, chanting verses and soliciting gifts of fruit or nuts. In other areas young men would dress up in sheepskins and old ragged clothes and disguise or blacken their faces. After chanting some rhymes, they would be given gifts of apples or nuts or if they were lucky some beer. These groups, the gwrachod (witches), again speak of the associations of visiting spirits and the dead. Not surprisingly the visits of these groups were taken seriously as indicators of good tidings for the forthcoming year and the expulsion of the bad spirits from the household. Again our customs speaks of an ancient oral historical tradition where these stories are passed down the generations as a community culture and not one supported by governments and the state.

So I would prefer to not allow our history to be packed up and resold as someone else’s modern tradition. My fear is that unless we are clear and determined that we wish to create a Wales that is not only prosperous in economic terms but also prosperous in social and cultural terms then this culture will become simply the stuff of history text-books and we will all be the poorer.

But rejecting these particular cultural imports of our American friends is not by itself sufficient. I remember Gwyn Alf Williams speaking of the importance for today of a country that knows and understands its own history and cultural inheritance. In Wales we can trace this inheritance further into history in a way that few modern nations are able to do. And remembering our past and reinventing our traditions for the present and the future is something that in Wales we have done for nearly two millennia. The key today is to not simply hold onto these traditions and customs but to reinvent them for a new age.