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Culture Vulture

Betsan Powys | 22:14 UK time, Monday, 4 August 2008

Where to you go to spot a trio of Culture Ministers in one day?

To the National Eisteddfod, where Alun Ffred Jones was getting on with a job his predecessors, Rhodri Glyn Thomas and Alun Pugh, found rather hard to make a go of. I'm moonlighting for a week as ... well, as a bit of everything. The day-job bits I'll tell you about; the singing and reciting I'll spare you.

A morning in the studio debating the roots and aspirations of two organisations who, along the years, would have welcomed visiting Ministers to their stands - the Welsh Language Board and the voluntary organisation that provides nursery education, Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin.

The latter was formed to "turn out little Welsh speaking children" as one of its supporters in the early days put it, to turn the tide on the decline of the language, to campaign for dedicated Welsh medium schools. This was not about childcare. It was part of the 'language movement'.

The former was used to taking the flak in the late eighties and early nineties as Welsh Language Society protesters descended to daub, to chant and paste posters. Eisteddfod week back then was character building, a week of taking it on the chin said Professor Elan Closs Stephens, a member of the original non-statutory Board who recalled the vitriolic letters she received when her membership was announced in 1988.

She still seemed taken aback, twenty years later, that people she met on the streets of her home-town of Aberystwyth, people she knew, people who knew she'd just lost her husband, were prepared to put their names to such vitriol. "There were some dark times".

That was then. This is now and the present Culture Minister, Plaid Cymru's Alun Ffred Jones, was spotted in the crowd outside the Welsh Language Society stand at the launch of a book examining the way forward for Welsh language legislation. No jostling, no haranguing of the Minister, not a megaphone in sight but then neither at the moment is there an LCO on the Welsh Language in sight. Perhaps when there is and it turns out to provide the private sector with more wriggle room than those standing along side the Minister today will accept, things may be different next year.

More comment on the Welsh Language LCO, this time from the man who is:

a. still seen as the First Minister's likely successor
b. Welsh-speaking
c. fully aware by now that loose talk about the language can get you into serious trouble with some in the Labour party.

Given 'a' he's in no hurry to foul of 'c' again. So today, one presumes, he chose his words carefully. Listen to this :

"The agenda for the language tends to be dominated by a small group of confident and very fluent Welsh speakers who are untypical of the body of speakers as a whole. Their views are important, but we must also ensure that we listen to those at the heart of the community, those who use the language every day on the street".

He pointed to the Aman Valley from where his parents come, an area where Welsh was dominant but that can no longer, in his view, be considered a stronghold.

Two of his theories are these: that the role of the language as a factor in Welshness has declined since the advent of devolution ("Look at Ireland. Independence there did nothing for the vitality of the Irish language") and that while Welsh medium schools have added to the numbers of Welsh speakers and are needed in areas where the language is weak, they're counter-productive in areas where the language is strong. (Does he include the Aman Valley in that?) In other words in an area where English is increasingly seen as the language of the people, a dedicated Welsh medium school = posh.

And there was a "but" worth noticing too.

"I'm not suggesting that the present thrust of Government policy (on the language) is wrong, far from it. But we need to look more deeply at the situation of the language in the working class communities of Wales ... Those communities would see little benefit from the LCO, because most people wouldn't use a service in Welsh. They have little use for a daily newspaper in Welsh because most of them won't read it".

Not a megaphone maybe but a bit of a tank on the Eisteddfod lawn?


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