Thank you for your letter. I took an interest in your reasoned points, to which I would like to respond.
Your fundamental question was why the Conservative Party aspires to a bilingual Wales. From this standpoint you wondered how policies to create a bilingual Wales might be compatible with a commitment to the Union. You also argued that funds spent on the Welsh language could be better used elsewhere.
I can say at the outset that the Assembly group is committed to a bilingual Wales. This is more than merely an attempt to shed an old reputation. We value the heritage of Wales. The ability to speak more than one language, especially at an early age, can excite the mind and open one to different cultures and people and to new experiences. English and Welsh are languages of our country and each language gives Wales strength. Welsh is one of the oldest living languages in Europe and makes Wales distinct, and therefore attractive to visitors. English is a world language, and the ability to speak it fluently gives Welsh people a competitive advantage in the world.
There is an issue of fairness also. A great proportion of the people in Wales would like the choice to speak Welsh in every day life. A recent report by Consumer Focus Wales found that 80 per cent of the people it surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that services should be available in Welsh. These services will not generally be as well used as services in English. Simple mathematics guarantees this. But I believe Welsh services should be available. It is a Conservative principle to give greater freedom and choice.
I do not agree that spending on the Welsh language is necessarily ‘nationalist baggage’, as you said. The growth in bilingual and Welsh medium schools in recent history has been driven by parental demand – by individual parents and guardians - and not by remote policymakers. Only recently in Cardiff, we have seen that parental pressure has driven the creation of a new Welsh medium school in Canton.
However, none of this dilutes the commitment of the Welsh Conservative Assembly Group to the Union. We value our British institutions, the British commitment to fair play and democracy, and the languages of Wales and Britain. But the constituent parts of the Union are united, not merged, and there is room for difference. In fact, I believe the strength of Great Britain over the years has been the ability to accommodate tradition with change.
The existence of the Assembly has not altered the Conservative Party’s position on Welsh. The Party has been a great friend of the Welsh language. (Lord) Wyn Roberts, a Minister in the Thatcher Government, described the Welsh Language Act of 1993 as his ‘proudest achievement’. The Party was also responsible for the creation of the Welsh fourth channel, S4C. The Welsh Conservative commitment to bilingualism continues this tradition.
In my article, which you quoted, I discussed in some detail some of the reforms Welsh Conservatives are trying to enact. The group in the Assembly is concerned with fundamental issues: our economy, the education system, our health service and achieving true devolution of power back to the public. These are all Conservative priorities. And I trust this letter has adequately described why Welsh Conservatives count achieving a bilingual Wales as a worthy aim.
Nicholas Bourne AM
Leader of the Opposition
National Assembly for Wales
The only major point from my original letter not addressed was the impact and fairness of making Welsh compulsory in education, but other than that this presents pretty clearly the principle behind our support for Welsh and also explicitly states support for the Union (O'Neill pointed out that the original article that prompted my letter contained not one reference to it). I'd like to publicly thank Mr Bourne for taking the time to respond to my letter.