Preserving the quirks of medieval England’s aristocracy is more important to Westminster than upholding Welsh rights
Allowing increased use of Welsh by MPs in Westminster could be a powerful sign to the people of the whole United Kingdom that their voices matter, regardless of their background.
In March of this year, I wished the House of Commons a Happy St Patrick’s Day in Welsh and Irish – unwittingly committing an act of dissent. I was reprimanded by the Speaker for breaking one of the rules of the House of Commons, namely that, “Subject to the exceptions below relating to the use of Welsh in committees, speeches in the chamber and in other proceedings must be made in English.”
The incident led to a lively debate about the status of minority languages in the United Kingdom. Welsh is spoken by over three-quarters of a million people. It officially has equal status with English in Welsh legislation and has become a standard, depoliticised feature of Welsh public life. Yet, in Westminster, it is treated as an aberration – a quirk that can only be tolerated under exceptional circumstances.
Westminster’s view of the Welsh language was aptly captured by Jacob Rees Mogg in the chamber, when he described it as a “foreign language” comparable with Latin – an ancient language spoken by no modern communities in the UK or elsewhere but nonetheless often used by the leader of the House in the chamber.
Similarly, Norman French – the language of the higher social elite in medieval England following the invasion of 1066 – continues to be used in Parliament, most notably when bills are given Royal Assent, during which process the phrase La Reyne le veult is uttered.
My aim is to build an independent nation that respects all languages
The Norman conquest changed the face of England, its society and political systems forever – it is apt for that history to be reflected in England’s parliament. But as a parliament that proclaims to represent the peoples of the whole of the United Kingdom, the use of living, breathing languages such as Welsh, Irish, Gaelic and Cornish must surely be given higher status.
Compare with the treatment of languages in another union – the European Union – where documents are translated into all official languages of member states, and interpretation is offered in the speaking chamber. If the United Kingdom was truly a union of equals, all the official languages of its constituent parts would be treated with due respect.
Language rights are human rights. It was therefore heartening in June of this year to see the British government agreeing to Sinn Féin’s request to legislate for an Acht Gaeilge (Irish Language Act) through Westminster to guarantee the rights of Irish speakers in Northern Ireland. The legislation will be brought forward in October, after which Irish may become a unifying force, more powerful than any leader or political party, much like the status of Welsh in Wales. Languages belong to everyone who utters them – as the means by which people communicate; they are beyond politics.
As parliamentary leader of Plaid Cymru, my aim is to build an independent nation that respects all languages, that guarantees full legal equality between our two national languages. But until that moment, Westminster has a duty to uphold the rights of Welsh speakers at all institutional levels. Allowing increased use of Welsh by MPs in Westminster could be a powerful sign to the people of the whole United Kingdom that their voices matter, regardless of their background.
A failure to do so will confirm that preserving the quirks of medieval England’s aristocracy is more important to the Westminster system than upholding the rights of the people of Wales today.
Liz Saville-Roberts is the Plaid Cymru MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and leader of Plaid Cymru in the House of Commons.
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