Devolution and Language Governance in Wales

Article excerpt

WITH THE WELSH LANGUAGE ACT 1993, WELSH WAS GIVEN OFFICIAL status in Wales. This status was further strengthened with the Government of Wales Act 1998, which confirmed that the language is an integral part of Welsh identity. With devolution and the establishment in 1999 of the National Assembly for Wales, a new framework for promotion of the language has come into existence. Welsh has passed from being a cultural to a public language enjoying official support. But its success as a public language is in no way guaranteed. Fortunately, the Assembly is committed to an ambitious program of revitalization, unprecedented in the history of Celtic languages in the United Kingdom.

Analogies between the situation of Welsh in Wales and that of French outside Quebec make the Welsh experience relevant to Canada. According to the 2001 census, 582,400 people in Wales, or 20.8 per cent of the Welsh population of almost 3 million, claim knowledge of Welsh. There are roughly the same number of francophones--or, more precisely, individuals who declare French as their mother-tongue--in Ontario. Institutionally, the situation of Wales most resembles that of New Brunswick. However, while New Brunswick is home to two identifiable linguistic communities, in Wales English and Welsh are two languages of one people.

The context: Devolution

Welsh devolution responded to demands for better representation of Welsh interests in the Union after years of neglect, particularly under Margaret Thatcher. The Labour Party advocated devolution as a way of resolving the issue, and acted promptly once elected.

Devolution of powers to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales was not the first time that the U.K. had reassessed the relationship among its constituent national communities. In the 19th century, Irish demands for self-determination were the major threat to the unity of the U.K., but there were also other forces attempting to redefine constitutional arrangements. In Wales, from 1886 to 1896, the Cymru Fydd (Wales of the Future) movement was an important advocate of a redefined status between Wales and England. In 1966, Plaid Cymru-The Party of Wales, as it is officially known, tried to put Home Rule onto the political agenda. Devolution is the latest response to these demands. It has, so far, been a success, but the degree of autonomy continues to be much debated, in Wales as in Scotland.

Technically U.K. devolution is not federalism because it is the product of legislation enacted by Westminster and, constitutionally, can be revoked, however remote such a scenario is in the case of Wales and Scotland. (The situation in Northern Ireland, where the devolved institutions have been suspended since October 2002, is another matter.) Robert Harell, Director of the Constitution Unit at University College London, believes that devolution is here to stay. In his opinion, it has introduced a new form of civic engagement, more responsive and participatory, alongside traditional forms of politics. Only four years into the devolution process, Welsh citizens have more trust in their own Assembly, which they see as more accountable, than in Westminster. Devolution has also contributed to strengthening Welsh identity and to consolidating the multinational character of the U.K. state (see tables 1 and 2).

Trust in the Assembly and identification with Wales do not necessarily translate into strong civic participation. During the last Welsh election (May 2003), for example, less than 40 per cent of the population went to the polls. To some extent, this low turnout may be an expression of dissatisfaction with the limited devolution granted to Wales as compared to Scotland. In contrast to Scotland, the Welsh Assembly does not have primary legislative powers. This is one of the issues currently being examined by the Richard Commission, established in July 2002. It is expected to recommend the establishment of a Welsh Parliament with powers as extensive as those devolved to the Scottish Parliament. …