The arithmetic of populism

Some months ago Angharad Dafis wrote about the closure of Ysgol Felindre.  Here she reflects on subsequent events, and how the story of a village school in Wales exposes the chimera of a caring, communitarian Wales, illustrating how deeply enmeshed we are in the fraudulent neoliberal practices of the British state.

I never really relished arithmetic, despite being presented with a notebook at the age of five, as a prize ‘for being so good at sums’ in the words of my teacher Miss Tomos Bonton at Llanybydder County Primary School. This was appropriate in a way, since I would later much rather play around with the words of my mother tongue, Cymraeg. The shift towards words reflected an ever so mild rebellion against two parents who were in their element adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing and accomplishing all kinds of wondrous mathematical feats. Whilst one or two of my contemporaries at secondary school would metamorphose into punk-rockers and safety-pin their skins through the medium of  the Sex Pistols’ iaith fain (English, lit. ‘slender tongue’), my innocent way of ploughing my own furrow was to reject the path that my parents had followed. This was the path that brought them together in the first place, as Mam left school at seventeen years old having been offered a job at the bank in Cardigan on the eve of the second world war, when my father in his early twenties had to abruptly bid farewell to the same workplace, to volunteer to serve in the fight against fascism.

A career in the bank was not an intentional choice for either of them: it was in fact the depression of the thirties that had led my father to what was, at the time at any rate, a safe job. In my mother’s case it was the need for a new workforce when war broke out. My father did not feel he could afford to go and study at a university when jobs were scarce and people were starving, despite being fascinated by history and having a great ability to repeat a whole page of historical text having read it once. The war opened up a career path for my mother, and it also shut it down entirely in due course. Who knows what paths they would have followed were it not for the depression on the one hand and the war on the other?

Who knows either whether it was their sacrifice that afforded me the luxury of being able to daydream during the Maths lessons at school, something which I would later regret given the need to know the subject inside out in order to be able to answer exam questions. I did succeed in getting a decent grade at O level thanks to the help of a Maths teacher, bless him, who was a family friend, but not without having to endure being shamed in front of the whole class by the subject teacher at Lampeter for managing to achieve almost full marks in an old exam paper that my unofficial teacher had given me as homework.

The (official) teacher asked me whether I had already seen the paper. With the whole class staring at me, I denied the allegation in order to protect myself. The same teacher would at a later date complain to the headmaster that we as sixth formers had somehow managed to insult her nationality by sitting down during the English National Anthem on a visit to the opera in the New Theatre in Cardiff. Yet the feeling of disquiet at having lied to her still bothers me. On the other hand she had no such qualms in regurgitating an old official exam paper as a mock exam. Instead she projected the shame onto her unexpectedly bright pupil and the fact that I did so well in the exam paper was neither here nor there. The manner in which she conducted the situation was a master class on how not to relate to pupils.

Having one-to-one Maths lessons in Cymraeg in an informal friendly atmosphere suited me far better than half listening at best to a steadfast Englishwoman on a subject from which I was becoming more and more alienated in class. The Maths lessons happened through my second language – a language that I considered to be the language of my oppression beyond the sanctuary of home. This oppression was not an empty abstraction – suffering name-calling for being linguistically and politically aware as a child and teenager was a daily reality since primary school. And the formal education system provided no protection against such relentless attacks.

Embracing Cymraeg was therefore also the perfect protest against an alien education system which refused us children – in an area where the vast majority were Welsh-speaking – the right to receive our education through the medium of our mother tongue. It was also a protest against the one-sided education offered by the headmaster of the primary school, specifically the never-ending emphasis on English and Maths during the last two years before leaving for Lampeter comprehensive school. I remember asking the head “Please sir can we have a History or a Geography lesson today?” His response would invariably be negative to the extent that I was sick and tired of primary school and itching to leave, well before the end of my time there. I quite enjoyed the change offered by the alternative lessons in Lampeter, despite the fact they were in English: studying the great lakes of North America, and the compelling features of India and Pakistan – countries and continents that I have never had the privilege of visiting – even if that meant having to grapple with the tedious history of the kings and queens of England, to the detriment of Welsh history.

Above all, the ambivalence towards two specific subjects – English and Maths – lingered on throughout my educational career. The fact that the whole education was presented through the medium of English no doubt threw a shadow over my time at Lampeter. And getting to grips with a third language (French) through the medium of a second language from a teacher who openly despised and ridiculed Cymraeg to our faces was a particularly challenging mountain to climb. Despite choosing to translate the O level Geography course into Cymraeg at home, thanks to my father’s assistance – a man who had never had any formal education in Cymraeg – only Cymraeg as a subject offered a respite from the constant Englishness of academic studies. I therefore had no other choice but to study Cymraeg.

My distancing from sums on the one hand and embracing of words on the other has remained to this day. During those times in my life when I was responsible for counting money, the process caused me a fair amount of stress. Having to face up to arithmetic I was uneasy and uncomfortable, especially since it involved handling money that did not belong to me. I took the responsibility seriously and despite managing to address the challenge I would then feel drained. I was, after all, the daughter of a bank manager and a mother who worked in the bank for ten years, before having to give it up as husbands and wives weren’t at that time allowed to work together in the bank.

I remember how my parents would count every penny when they were organising nosweithiau llawen and fundraising events in Llanybydder. If there was a halfpenny missing, they would start again and recount. They wouldn’t go to bed until the last halfpenny had been accounted for. This inheritance weighed heavily on my conscience when taking on any financial responsibilities. Letting go of such responsibilities would always be a great relief especially when I could immerse myself in editing, in words. I felt that I was in the company of friendly and joyful equals rather than sitting a perpetual exam for which my preparation would always prove inadequate. And the satisfaction of jostling with words, with syntax, was far more pleasurable than the dire responsibility of poring over uninspiring numbers and sums that were nonetheless laden with far-reaching consequences.

I am however aware of the constant need for balance in life. Distancing ourselves from a specific subject does not mean that we should turn our backs on it entirely even if it is outside our usual comfort zone. That includes eschewing a semi-phobia of numbers. Similarly the fact that the political world isn’t a world to which many of us are attracted is not a reason for entrusting our governance entirely to politicians, as is well illustrated in the dreadful events of these dire days. We should not dismiss our responsibility to scrutinise what is happening around us. The fact that numeracy in its purest form is an exact science does not prevent scoundrels and swindlers from forever playing about with figures, with numbers, with financial sums in order to gain the upper hand. If we choose to renounce our responsibility to observe what others are doing, be it leading or back-bench politicians, those who are in public office or crooks who set about to intentionally con us by playing about with numbers and equations as well as words, we are also choosing to give up on our basic rights.

In public life, it is as if the figures, the numbers have become putty in the hands of politicians and prime ministers, with the truth concealed behind misleading words. In the case of Covid-19, whilst the governments of Wales and England have been publishing goals of achieving a certain number of tests by a certain date, the numbers somehow became goals in themselves and the only enduring truth has been that whatever the number that was set, it would hardly ever be achieved. Such magic numbers weren’t exactly relevant anyway, since plucking figures from thin air is totally meaningless without linking any given number to a portion or proportion of the population.

Despite welcoming the government of Wales’ decision at last to tentatively test the testing, the emphasis on numbers across the countries of Britain has been largely a device to distract attention from fundamentally more important considerations. Until comparatively recently, as many as three sets of numbers of deaths in the countries of Britain were also published in the media (by the Westminster government, by the Office of National Statistics and by the Financial Times newspaper) with a huge range between them, as if we could pick whatever truth we chose to embrace.

Throughout the pandemic, the Westminster government has always alleged that it is guided by the science, but the scientists who advise the government have stated that it is the politicians who decide what is going to happen. In this constantly evolving situation many experts have underlined how useless it is to concentrate entirely on the so called R number to the detriment of testing and tracing and isolating and shielding those who carry and spread the virus either unwittingly or otherwise. The Westminster government however has used the R number in of itself as a justification for releasing some of the confines on population movement the other side of Offa’s Dyke, despite the fact that doing so is in fact reckless without in the first place carrying out a thorough testing, tracing and isolating regime – a regime introduced extremely successfully in Ceredigion because the local authority there acted promptly and proactively.

When the focus is placed entirely on numbers, no matter how misleading or rickety, they are elevated above every other issue and thus appear to be more important than words. And so it is that numbers, whether or not they are complete and utter balderdash, become a more powerful weapon than reasoning in the ideological war between rival viewpoints.

In the midst of that ideological war the opposing opinion to those who wield power is swept aside. Right wing populism gains ground and reasoning and fair play are unceremoniously pushed to the margins. This became apparent during the misleading Brexit campaign, a campaign which elevated lie-telling to a fine art.  There was constant reference to ‘the will of the people’ as if everyone was united in their opinion, despite the fact that it was a split vote. Before the lockdown, the same instinct manifested itself when Paul Davies, the leader of the Conservatives in the Senedd, alleged that it was the will of ‘the people of Wales’ that the number of ministers in Cardiff Bay was cut. Such a tactic is the Brexit bully’s tactic. If Paul Davies’ wish were to become reality, our rights would be further eroded and the value of our Senedd undermined.

* * *

It was at that very Senedd that Eluned Morgan, the Minister for the Welsh Language, proclaimed that she ‘thought people understood’ why Ysgol Gynradd Felindre outside Swansea was shut last summer. It was, she stated, to do with numbers. Eluned Morgan was jumping on the populist bandwagon – and referred to that one day of Welshness show – Dydd Miwsig Cymru – as if it were enough to absolve her of any other responsibility as Minister for the Welsh language. In the same way, repeating the mantra “A Million Welsh speakers” becomes a self-sufficient act. In the case of Felindre, Eluned Morgan swallowed the City and County of Swansea’s convoluted spin in one big gulp.

Talking about numbers as a reason for shutting Ysgol Felindre (Swansea’s last surviving Welsh-medium rural school serving that part of the county which remains the most strongly Welsh-speaking) is not only untruthful but also oversimplifies the despicable decades-long treatment of the school. Beyond the bald obsession with the total number of pupils, there lies a long history of neglect on the part of the education authority. This began with failing to respond positively to the calls made by parents, governors and teachers throughout the last quarter of a century for the catchment area to be extended; it continued with the appointment of an acting head rather than a permanent one (which had proved successful in the past), and it culminated in publishing a flawed consultation on the school’s future on the basis of a professed concern about the standard of education, without scrutinising the standard of education in any way, contrary to Estyn guidelines. In fact, the local authority explicitly denied at the time that the consultation was happening on the basis of numbers. Yet throughout, by means of a nudge and a wink, a fake correlation was created between the standard of schooling and number of pupils at Felindre.

Even after the school doors were shut by the local authority, the curiosity about  exactly how many pupils were present to listen to the sound of the last bell has lingered amongst supporters and enemies of the language alike. I was asked the same tiresome question during a Saint David’s day dinner this year, providing the impetus for this essay. If we have to talk about numbers in the context of the closure of Felindre, what about looking at the way in which the numbers were distorted and abused by the Council consultation? The fact that only three or four of the respondents were in favour of closure was not highlighted – whilst almost 700 objected. Although 124 signed an open letter objecting to the closure, the Council somehow managed to distil that grand total to one. It was one, according to the Council, who complained about the lack of respect afforded the Welsh language by the education authority, although it is known that more than one complained.

One person complained to the Welsh Language Commissioner for Council failings.  The complaint should therefore not be allowed said a member of the public on WalesOnline. But one of the strengths of being able to present a complaint to the Commissioner is that you don’t need a crowd. Or so I thought. Targeting and othering the minority within the minority is the constant objective of the enemies of Cymraeg and alas some of its supporters too.

* * *

Othering on the one hand and exceptionalism on the other are both ugly phenomena within contemporary society. Both became apparent in the countries of Britain at the beginning of the world-wide pandemic. They can be regarded as two sides of the same coin. The former manifested itself when reporting on the longstanding health problems and age of those forced to pay the ultimate price for Covid-19 because of the dreadful failures of the governments in Cardiff and Westminster to get to grips with the crisis promptly. The narrative was that Covid was somebody else’s problem (the old, the sick) not ours and this despicable mind-set has prevailed as a disproportionate amount of the deaths (forgive that hateful concept too) are happening to people who are not white-skinned, as if this were an inevitable and unavoidable outcome.

It is the British exceptionalist mind-set that has led to the fact that the countries of Britain, namely 1% of the world’s population, had accounted for 15% of deaths from the disease before the end of May according to one account. And it is such shameful statistics that serve best perhaps to show the true extent of the invincible British Empire’s ability to survive and conquer every other problem post-Brexit.

* * *

Swansea Council sought to move the problem far away enough from the always-been-Cymraeg village of Felindre by selling the school building at auction in London.  It is doubtful whether the Council’s cunning plan succeeded in achieving a better price for it. First and foremost was the perception that selling at the capitalist heart of the empire was in essence going to be more profitable. The building apparently achieved £150,000, which amounts to £1056.60 to Council coffers for every year of the place’s existence as a public educational establishment. The Council has refused to reveal who has bought the building as they have refused also to answer my simple question whether they considered the effect on the Welsh language and consulted with the Welsh-language community before selling a building located at the heart of the community, despite being duty bound to do both.

The Welsh Language Commissioner announced earlier this year his intention to carry out another inquiry into the further failure to consider the effect of the sale of the building on the Welsh community. And that was good news indeed, as was the original verdict against the County Council in the Welsh Language Commissioner’s report on the closure of the school a few weeks earlier. What happened next, however, was incredible. Hardly two weeks after writing at the end of March to say that the second inquiry was going ahead without hindrance, the Commissioner decided to do a U-turn and delay the whole process enigmatically under the guise of Covid-19. As complainant, I was not consulted at all before the decision to halt the inquiry was made, contrary to the requirements of the Welsh Language Measure.

I have heard from several sources that this is not the only inquiry which the Commissioner has abruptly delayed under the guise of Covid-19. I asked the Commissioner to reconsider and to explain how exactly Covid-19 was deemed relevant to the continuation and future of this inquiry. The issue is after all not very complex – the Council either did or did not consider and consult upon the effect on the Welsh language of its decision to sell the property. I was also eager to know what other local authorities in Wales decided to halt inquiries. Despite having written twice, my questions weren’t answered and the rationale for halting wasn’t expressed clearly at all in the initial reply letter sent by the Commissioner’s office. If the time table had been heeded, the second inquiry would no doubt be over by now.

Some of the stalwarts of the local community have expressed their surprise that the school remains closed and remains sold despite the fact that the Welsh Language Commissioner ruled against the County Council for failing to consult on the effect on the Welsh language before setting about closing the school. In their opinion natural justice would result in Felindre being reopened.

A number of journalists have questioned whether the rôle of the Welsh Language Commissioner is fit for purpose and has ventured to query his lack of power. In justifying the closing-of-the-stable-door-after-the-horse-has-bolted element which is such an integral part of the flawed system we are compelled to work with, the Commissioner stated on Newyddion 9 on S4C that the original verdict against Swansea Council would serve as a warning to other local authorities throughout Wales to be mindful of considering the effect on the Welsh language before acting in a way that would be detrimental to the language. In a word, that they would think twice in future. But when the Commissioner was uttering those words, Swansea Council had once again already operated in a way that broke the language standards and was detrimental to the language. That is exactly what they did by setting about selling the school building so suddenly after closing the school itself, before the Commissioner could publish his verdict on the closure, in full knowledge of the fact that his verdict would not be in their favour. To date, however, they have not had to pay any kind of price for carrying out the second wrongdoing so swiftly after the first.

In the meantime the number of items with the stamp ‘translation required’ on the Council website is increasing daily. If and when the Commissioner proceeds with the inquiry into selling the school building, and even if a sanction is placed this time by the Commissioner on the Council, five thousand pounds is the maximum he can place in this particular game of Monopoly, and once more not even a halfpenny for the community.

To cap it all the Council has still not fulfilled its duty under the Commissioner’s original verdict and under statute that it publicises on its website its failure to conform with the Welsh Language Measure when closing the school, despite being required to do so by mid May. I had been promised by the Commissioner’s office that this would definitely happen and that the Commissioner would hold them to account. But I am still waiting. In these more-under-siege-than-ever-Covid-19-days is there any sign of a sanction being placed on Swansea Council? If the Commissioner decided not to use what limited powers he has available to him in this case, a clear message would be sent to every other local authority in Wales to ignore any Welsh language requirements if they so wished.

When Sian Williams, a former pupil and former member of the parents association, and I visited the school for the last time before the sale, there was a man from Northampton taking charge there on behalf of the auctioneers Allsopp. He didn’t budge much from his car – it being so cold to loiter in the child-less, heat-less building. “But there weren’t any children were there?” he declared as he ushered us former-people away. The lie was complete. The work done. I wonder? Despite informing him that it was us the Parents Association at the time, who had raised the money for the building in which we were standing, and despite his firm faith in his mission being ever so slightly rattled by that fact, I often wonder whether raising a voice has ultimately been a totally futile exercise?

* * *

Whilst the Commissioner is apparently extremely wary of wasting the council’s current scant resources under the cloud of Covid-19, there does not appear to be any human or financial shortage as the Council presses ahead single-mindedly with building concrete towers worth £135 million in the city centre. When he spoke with the media at the beginning of June this year, Rob Stuart (the Council Leader) had great faith in the bright future that was opening up like the Red Sea at his feet. In contrast to the rest of the world, but quite consistent with the British exceptionalist mind-set, the council leader couldn’t see any clouds gathering on the fantastically beautiful blue sky above central Swansea. Rob Stuart declared, despite the new world order of social distancing, that thousands would throng to live in the newly revamped centre of Swansea – to frequent the cinema – and the virtual students would bounce off the screen to fill the newfangled skyscrapers near the station not far from Dyfaty flats. As the total capitalism of the concrete towers nods a hello to the polluting gases above and around them, wouldn’t it be better if the Council were to concentrate on the current flesh and blood citizens of the county and city of Swansea rather than the virtual intangible ones inhabiting the fool’s paradise of councillors and council officials’ imagination? At least there is hope for some half decent shelter for the homeless.

What small proportion of this castle in the sky would the meagre proceeds from the sale of the small school in the hills finance? What does it matter? It was prejudice not arithmetic that led to the closure of Felindre – and despite the question that every Tom, Dic, Sion and Dafydd insists on asking, I refuse to engage in this constant Thatcherite obsession about numbers when discussing the shameful history of how the school was treated. In view of the way in which almost 700 of us were shrunk to 363 – to be once again less than ourselves – discussing numbers is totally meaningless. And yet the missionaries of the hegemony of numbers vis-à-vis Welsh education joined forces with a gang intent on upholding the ghastly anti-Welsh civic tradition of Swansea in order to ensure the closure of the school.

The Council of the City and Council of Swansea, in its determination to shut Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Felindre and sell the building, is no different in kind from Boris Johnson and his proverbial lie on the side of a bus regarding the money which the NHS would gain if the European Union was rejected. This is particularly striking now considering that the money and time spent after the referendum enabling Brexit, combined with years of austerity, contributed substantially to the fact that said national health service went into crisis at the beginning of Covid-19 and that newly established charities like Tarian Cymru had to come to the fore in an attempt to avoid a worse calamity. The coverage of the disease in the press and media has centred on numbers from the outset. All kinds of truths and lies have as a consequence swept ashore like driftwood so that it is almost impossible to differentiate between the two.

Along the length and breadth of the countries of the world affected by the deadly virus, the truth has been buried beneath the increasingly menacing mountain of the arithmetic of populism. Similarly, quoting bare misleading numbers could not come close to conveying the story of Ysgol Felindre.

* * *

When the children were in their teens, they would sometimes express their concern that they didn’t fit in. I was saddened that they felt the same kind of awkwardness as I had felt as an individual growing up, notwithstanding the fact that they, unlike myself, had been blessed with Cymraeg-medium education from the cradle. In Felindre they had a childhood. That childhood wasn’t without its trials but it did mean they had opportunities to play in the open air in the same language as the language of the classroom, to learn their times-tables in Cymraeg, to develop as individuals through mingling with the colourful characters of the village, to have the freedom of not feeling too self-conscious or having to comb their hair too often, and to stand in front of an audience whether it be the thanksgiving service, the annual eisteddfod, or the Saint David’s Day concert in the way that generations of children from the Parsel Mawr had done.

Our family and many other families chose the closeness and close-knittedness of Felindre and the most Cymraeg village in Swansea welcomed us. Yet the strangeness of stepping from the comparable innocence of the village school to the vision of urban populous civilisation that awaited at Penlan and Gowerton was more challenging for them, than it was for me moving from the primary school in Llanybydder to Lampeter comprehensive school (though the jungle is, in truth, omnipresent in every school). I would tell them that they should not feel pressured to conform and that they should, in being themselves, acknowledge that everyone is unique, and to take pride in being slightly different in a world that appears increasingly uniform. I know that as individuals in the wide, rough seas of secondary school they enjoyed sharing a language and nationality with contemporaries who became lifelong friends.

As people who speak a minority language, being different is our day to day reality despite the fact that what we do when living in Cymraeg in our own country – a country inhabited by generations before us – is to be loyal to what is natural to us, to be loyal to our background. Whatever the language of the hearth, whatever the compulsion, we should all have the right to live and exist and have primary education in communities of our own choice so that children can be children without suffering name-calling on the basis of their nationality. To live near our place so that the different – yes, even in the experience of children from Cymraeg families – becomes the normal, every day, not the other which is under a constant dual threat.

As the everyday normal is turned upside down in the current state of crisis, and the emphasis moves from socialising to retreat, will there be a revolution in the way in which we look at the world? Will the local become more and more central in our lives and will there be, once more, renewed respect for smaller units as a result of the disastrous consequences of Covid-19? Will people in power wake up in cold sweat at night when they realise that shutting Cymraeg rural schools was a false step?  If humanity manages to conquer this silent enemy which has devastated people across the world, will the mindset of future generations be fundamentally different to the short-termism that has guided society over recent decades? And will humanity be more worldly-wise next time it comes face to face with the empty arithmetic of populism? In the next decades as the objective of a million speakers hurtles towards us and flashes past without hardly anyone noticing the dreadful failure to reach that particular objective, how many naturally Cymraeg communities will remain? Will there be anyone left to care?

Picture by Esyllt Lewis from the cover of the pamphlet ‘Mawr a Cherddi Eraill’ by Dyfan Lewis

The post The arithmetic of populism appeared first on undod.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://undod.cymru/en/2020/07/05/rhifyddeg-poblyddiaeth/