The non-issue of Gaelic in the indyref debate
It has long been a commonplace observation that linguistic distinctiveness plays only a minor role in Scottish national identity and national movements. This claim has been abundantly supported by the public debate leading up to the 2014 independence referendum, most obviously in relation to what we can call the unofficial campaign, the grass-roots initiatives mounted by the likes of National Collective, Radical Independence, Women for Independence and so on. Following this campaign closely, I have been struck by the near-total absence of language issues from what we might call statements of vision. Scores and scores of articles, blog postings and so on, many of them eloquent and passionate, set out the writer’s personal reasons for supporting independence, Journeys to Yes, and through all these thousands and thousands of words. I have seen almost nothing at all that speaks about linguistic diversity and the importance of promoting and developing Scotland’s languages, particularly Gaelic.
We are told by YES campaigners of various stripes that an independent Scotland would be a fairer and more socially just place, that there would be less child poverty, better job training, more local democracy, a more humane immigration policy, more sustainable energy, no nuclear weapons. The more neoliberal elements tell us there would be more business start-ups and more job creation. But even when long lists of reasons are given almost no one includes in the catalogue that they support independence in order to secure the future of Gaelic, or of Scots, or to ensure that better policies are put in place to promote linguistic diversity in Scotland.
The hashtag #YesBecause was trending on Twitter across the UK recently. Thousands of tweets set out a myriad of reasons for voting Yes but predictably almost none mentioned Gaelic or the importance of linguistic diversity in an independent Scotland.
On the few occasions when language issues have arisen, it seems clear that many of those deeply engaged with the independence question, people who have grappled long and hard with what they see as core social and economic issues, have given minimal attention to matters of language and when they are called upon to address them do so crudely and naively, in a manner that suggests a lack of intellectual and emotional engagement.
The same criticisms certainly apply to the No side, but as has been widely noted there is very little positive articulation of the No argument. Even so, the No campaign’s “parades of horribles” do not include Gaelic: while we hear about currency problems, oil running out, and Scotland losing influence in the world, we do not hear that independence would somehow jeopardise the position of Gaelic or make Scotland a linguistically less diverse place.
There are some specific or technical reasons for this pattern of neglect but also some deeper underlying political issues.
A threshold problem is that language policy is a very difficult topic to get a handle on. Language policy is everywhere, it inhabits almost every aspect of social life, but is very often tacit. When one language is dominant, as is the case with English in the UK, and indeed Scotland, it is typically assumed without discussion that the dominant language will be used in a particular context, and no other. Thus it is sometimes mistakenly thought that Gaelic, or indeed Welsh, is a devolved matter, but this is not the case and could not be the case. Which language are House of Commons debates held in? Are UK income tax returns available in Gaelic? What languages do British consular staff use in their work?
The key problem for the Scottish Government, the SNP and the Yes campaign is that almost all the important things that could be done to strengthen provision for Gaelic could be done now, under devolution, and there is little additional that could be done with the new powers that would accrue to an independent state. In structural terms, it is not obvious how Scotland gaining control over those policy fields that are currently reserved could significantly strengthen the social position of Gaelic in Scotland. Certainly, the various arms of the Westminster government could be transformed into new Scottish departments and required to adopt Gaelic language plans, just as Scottish public bodies are, but it is difficult for Gaelic language advocates to get excited at this prospect, given the weakness of the plans adopted so far by Scottish public bodies (under the Gaelic Language Act, passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament in 2005) and the very limited impact of such plans on language maintenance and use.
In terms of its implications for language policy, broadcasting is the most important field that would be affected by independence, but it would be difficult to argue that Westminster has plainly failed to make reasonable provision for Gaelic broadcasting. Be that as it may, very few voices in the Yes campaign can be heard arguing that an independent Scotland would significantly expand and improve Gaelic broadcasting, let alone offering convincing reasons why this should necessarily be a consequence of independence.
If we look at the ‘official’ Yes campaign as manifested by the Scottish Government’s White Paper, campaigners for Gaelic, and indeed Scots, can only be disappointed. Here, instead of any transformative improvement, the Scottish Government says again and again that existing forms of support would be continued and maintained. In effect, nothing new is on offer. Similarly, the Government’s consultation paper on an interim constitution says that a future constitutional convention could consider the constitutional status of Scotland’s languages, including Gaelic, but makes no commitments in this respect. This is the better approach, as it would defeat the purpose of the constitutional convention to announce core provisions in advance – yet we saw recently that the First Minister was willing to commit to the inclusion of a constitutional right to free health care. Why not such a commitment in relation to Gaelic?
The White Paper does include the fairly bold statement that ‘in an independent Scotland, Gaelic will have a central place in Scottish public life’, but gives no indication as to how this might come about, given that no significant new measures are proposed and the language very obviously does not hold such a central place at the moment. There is an echo here of an important lecture Alex Salmond gave back in 2007, in which he said that ‘we must recognise that a vibrant Gaelic language and culture are central to what it means to be Scottish in the modern world’. It would be very difficult to find much evidence from the referendum campaign to back up this claim.
The most important area of policy in relation to Gaelic is that of education, yet this is already fully devolved. What is happening with Gaelic education policy? The Scottish Government is currently conducting a public consultation on a Gaelic Medium Education bill, with a closing date of 10 September. This is the most important new measure the SNP government has taken in relation to Gaelic since coming to power in 2007, but it was announced with a minimum of publicity and has attracted very little attention from those involved in the independence campaign. The government’s proposals are very modest and the document shows signs of having been weakened and watered down due to internal opposition. Crucially, the government is not proposing to establish a legal right to receive Gaelic-medium education, such as applies with French in Canada. This has been a key demand of Gaelic campaigners going all the way back to the 1990s but once again it seems to have been taken off the table. It is significant that the SNP introduced a parliamentary amendment to establish such a right back in 2000 when they were in opposition, but they have taken no action in this respect since coming to power in 2007.
In other words, at the very point when the independence debate is coming to a head, the SNP Government is pushing weak and ineffective plans for Gaelic in a very important policy area over which it already has full control. Why should a voter concerned with the situation of Gaelic have great hopes and expectations if this government were to acquire some additional powers in less important areas of policy?
However, the most worrisome step on the part of the SNP Government was its refusal to provide a bilingual Gaelic-English ballot paper for the referendum. The Scottish Government’s handling of this issue was clumsy and insensitive and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s first response to demands for a bilingual ballot paper showed very little awareness of the sociolinguistic context of Gaelic or of current government policy to promote the language. In effect, the Deputy First Minister said that the English ballot paper had been tested with Gaelic speakers and all of them understood it perfectly well, so there was no need for a Gaelic version. This principle goes against thirty years of policy to promote the rights of Gaelic speakers, taking us back to the idea of forcing Gaelic speakers to use English when dealing with the public authorities. A subsequent petition to parliament was ignored and a proposed amendment to the referendum bill was taken off the table, perhaps under political pressure. Outside Gaelic circles, I heard no complaints about all this from campaigners on either side of the independence debate.
The SNP Government’s approach to the bilingual ballot issue can be understood in the wider context of its cautious, ‘don’t frighten the horses’ approach to independence, its emphasis on continuity and the ongoing connection to existing UK institutions. Having a bilingual ballot paper might have sent the wrong signals to some voters, not only that Gaelic might have a more prominent and visible place in an independent Scotland, but that a dreary, inward-looking Scottish culture would be forced down their throats, to use the preferred tabloid idiom.
Just as issues of Gaelic policy have been almost invisible in the independence debate, so too has there been very little discussion and debate conducted through the medium of Gaelic. As one illustration of this, the Yes Scotland Twitter account has 68,000 followers and the Gaelic counterpart Yes Alba has 548. The Scotsman’s Gaelic column has run a dozen or so articles of different kinds dealing with the referendum, and a handful of Gaelic contributions have appeared on Bella Caledonia and on the Gaelic e-zine Dàna. But that is more or less all. Almost all of the blog postings, all those ‘Journeys to Yes’ style essays have been in English, and almost all the public meetings and debates happening up and down the country are being conducted in English. In June the University of Edinburgh organised a debate which appears to have been the only public meeting conducted through the medium of Gaelic in all of 2014. The representatives of the two sides, Alasdair Allan, current MSP for the Western Isles, and Alasdair Morrison, former Labour MSP for the islands, have held a number of debates up and down the Western Isles but all of these have been held in English. This is understandable in a sense, as nowadays only a little more than half the residents of the Western Isles can understand Gaelic. But the conclusion from all this is that Gaelic is simply not functioning as a language of political discussion in the context of the indyref except to the most minimal extent.
In a sense this should not be surprising: in this hard-fought campaign everyone wants to communicate as effectively as they can, getting the message across as clearly as possible to as many people as possible. Scarcely 1% of Scotland’s population understands Gaelic, and almost everyone who is entitled to vote can understand English.
Nevertheless, a key principle in ensuring that minority languages have space to develop and thrive is that of active offer, ensuring supply in order to stimulate demand rather than insisting on demand before making any supply at all. BBC ALBA, with its excellent coverage of the referendum on radio and television, and its high-quality documentary series Rathad an Referendum, shows the valuable role that minority language media can play even in a linguistic environment where the language is little used in the wider society. But the various political parties and the official Yes and No campaigns have done little in this regard. For example, a recent small but successful crowdfunding appeal by Yes Alba has belatedly produced a range of Gaelic campaigning materials, but it is telling that the official Yes campaign could not find the time or money to produce them from its much greater human and financial resources.
Provision for Scots has been even worse than for Gaelic; most recently, at the beginning of August the Scottish Government produced its 12-page booklet Scotland’s Future: What Independence Means for You in no fewer than 15 languages, including Gaelic but not including Scots. So too the Electoral Commission’s guidance on voting in the referendum is available in several languages, again including Gaelic but not Scots. As with Gaelic, there has been very little substantive use of Scots to debate the referendum; have Bella Caledonia or National Collective ever published a substantial article in Scots?
Of course, the symbolic function of language is often as important as its communicative function and it is clear that a large proportion of people in Scotland understand Gaelic in largely symbolic terms. For the small minority of people who use Gaelic as a means of daily, ordinary communication, Gaelic is often unmarked and banal; it may be very important in their personal relationships and to their sense of identity but it is by no means romantic or mysterious. But for many others who do not know the language or know people who use it routinely, Gaelic is above all symbolic, and the symbolism in question may be attractive or unattractive. Recent data from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey suggests, probably unsurprisingly, that people who are in favour of independence are a little more likely to have supportive attitudes towards Gaelic. But perhaps the key finding in that survey was how many supporters of independence did not even express minimal support for Gaelic. One of the questions in the survey asked people whether in fifty years’ time they would like to see more Gaelic speakers in Scotland, fewer Gaelic speakers, or about the same number of Gaelic speakers. Of those who supported independence, only 53% said that they would like to see more Gaelic speakers half a century from now. Considering that the number of Gaelic speakers has declined by almost three-quarters in the last century and that Gaelic is almost extinct as a traditional community language, it may seem astonishing that any fair-minded person could not wish to see an increased number of speakers, but such is the survey finding. If that is indeed an accurate reflection of public opinion, it is hardly surprising that the SNP and other elements of the Yes campaign might not wish to over-promote Gaelic in the mainstream of its campaign. Of course, it is entirely possible that many pro-independence voters do not actually realise how bad the position of Gaelic is. But if that is the case, it seems that they do not feel any imperative to inform themselves or to engage with the real policy issues affecting Gaelic as part of their commitment to an independent Scotland.
Is it surprising that Gaelic has played so small a role in the independence debate? In some respects, obviously not. As noted at the beginning, it is a commonplace that language issues are not important in movements for Scottish autonomy. Gaelic is only spoken by a tiny minority of the population and is thus ineffective as a language of mass communication (and persuasion). On the other hand, there has been a policy commitment from all governing parties for the last thirty years to build a sustainable future for Gaelic and this policy has been supported by a small but sometimes vigorous grass-roots movement, especially in relation to the provision of education. Gaelic is an issue that involves complex and difficult questions of historical justice and of minority rights. It is often said that societies should be judged by how they treat the vulnerable groups within them, including their cultural minorities. Gaelic deserves more attention and future generations may wonder why it was so overlooked in a campaign that ranged so widely, probed so deeply and engaged so many people.