Language in the Westminster Parliament

Hansard HC Deb 19 February 1901, 4th series, vol 89, cols 546. Celtic script as in Hansard original. Transliteration to Roman: “Mar Éireannach ó áit go labharthar Gaedhilge, fear ó náisiún go bhfuil teanga aici agus atá fós ag deunadh chum saoirse d’fhágail”. O’Donnell’s own translation in footnote (image below): “Mr. Speaker, as an Irishman from an Irish-speaking constituency, a member of a nation which still possesses a language of its own, and is still striving bravely for freedom”.
Continued. Transliteration: “Nach fíor-Ghaedhilge mo theanga — teanga mo shinsear, teanga, mo thíre”. MP’s translation in footnote (below). [Fourth word from end appears as shinseas, but I think that is an error]

Shared on account of its suddenly topical nature, a section from a long-unfinished draft article… (up to date as of about 2017). Edited to add scan of Hansard.

English has for many years been the language of debate in Parliament, although MPs and Lords are reminded that it was not always so when Royal Assent is received, announced with the Norman French formula ‘La Reine le veult’. The position in respect of the House of Commons is summarised in Erskine May as a requirement that ‘speeches must be made in English, but quotation in another language has been allowed on occasion, though a translation should be provided’.[1] The formulation is a little different in the House of Lords; ‘languages other than English should not be used in debate, except where necessary’.[2]

Responses to other languages have varied over time. The first wave came as a new generation of MPs entered the Commons in the late 19th and early 20th century. Welsh MP William Abraham (‘Mabon’), representing the Rhondda and elected with the support of miners, made a number of attempts, including reciting part of the Our Father in Welsh in his 1886 maiden speech on the established church,[3] and a further attempt in an 1892 debate on the ability of judges to speak Welsh.[4] Irish MP Thomas O’Donnell, a nationalist, went further and attempted to begin his maiden speech in Irish.[5, and photos above] He was ruled out of order by the Speaker; attempts by his colleagues to point to Mabon’s precedent were unsuccessful, as he had not made ‘a Welsh speech to the House’. Nonetheless, he tried again on at least one further occasion,[6] and garnered ‘considerable publicity’[7] for these attempts.

In the 20th century, a restrictive approach continued for some time. In 1957, the Assistant Postmaster General[8] attempted to speak in Welsh, while answering questions from Welsh MPs on the availability of Welsh-langauge postal services in Wales. Having got as far as saying ‘Fel mater o ffaith byddwn yn cymeryd’,[9] he was called to order, with the Speaker declaring that he could not ‘understand the honourable Gentleman’. The ensuing points of order (including further praying in aid of the Mabon precedent) saw the Speaker confirm that quotations in any other language were acceptable, but should be introduced as such so that the Speaker would know what has happening.[10]

In later years, more latitude was given, as long as the MPs in question repeated what they had said in English; both versions were then recorded in Hansard. In 1980, a Welsh-born MP representing an English constituency spoke briefly in Welsh on the topic of Welsh language policy,[11] without objection. MPs for the constituency of Na h-Eileanan an Iar (formerly known as the Western Isles constituency) have spoken in Gaelic in their maiden speeches: Calum Macdonald repeating in Gaelic a sentence (on the importance of Gaelic) he had already said in English in 1987,[12] and Angus MacNeil making more extensive remarks in 2005 (in Gaelic first, then in English).[13]

An exception now exists in respect of the use of Welsh in committee proceedings. Indeed, in making that exception, Parliament also reaffirmed the status of English. A resolution carried in 1996, implementing a report of the Procedure Committee[14] and described by its proponent as a ‘major change in practice on which the House ought to take a view’[15] was that ‘whilst English is and should remain the language of this House, the use of Welsh be permitted in parliamentary proceedings held in Wales’.[16] Of course, as only committees meet outside Westminster, this meant in practice, and as intended, that the new provision applied only to the Welsh Grand Committee and Welsh Affairs Select Committee (the latter had already taken some evidence in Welsh in Wales prior to 1996)[17]. When Welsh is used, simultaneous translation is in place, and witnesses can give evidence in Welsh.

The Procedure Committee was at the time concerned that a change could ‘lead eventually to similar demands from those speaking other minority languages, and for demands for Welsh to be permitted at Westminster’. Following further reports of the same Committee, the facility to speak in Welsh was indeed also extended to select committee sittings at Westminster in 2001, and to the Welsh Grand Committee sitting at Westminster in 2017.[18] Nonetheless, Parliament, and in particular the House of Commons in its plenary form, remains an overwhelmingly unilingual institution. The occasional burst of other languages can still be heard in the Commons chamber, as described above.

[1] Erskine May (24th edn, 2011) 429.

[2] Ibid 515.

[3] HC Deb 9 March 1886, 3rd series, vol 303, col 346 (“Ein tad yr hwn urft yn y Nefoedd, Sancteiddier dy enw-deled dy Deryn”; Abraham explained what he had said immediately afterwards).

[4] HC Deb 19 February 1892, 4th series, vol 1, col 855 (‘Mae’r Achos i’m erbyn yn hollol annheg Siaradwch Gymraeg — parablwch eich geirian — Bhowch i’m chwaren-teg’). The two occasions are sometimes conflated; see for instance Eric Wyn Evans, Mabon. William Abraham, 1842–1922 (University of Wales Press 1959) 40.

[5] HC Deb 19 February 1901, 4th series, vol 89, cols 546–8. The Hansard writers excelled themselves by recording, in Celtic script, O’Donnell’s remark, with a footnoted translation provided by O’Donnell. Sadly, this innovation did not survive the later digitization of Hansard (where both the words and the translation disappear), and can only be found in the printed edition. See photos above.

[6] HC Deb 21 May 1901, 4th series, vol 94, col 858. O’Donnell read from a letter he had received from a ‘reverend clergyman’. On this occasion, Hansard merely recorded it as ‘the honourable member then read in Irish the letter referred to’.

[7] Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge University Press 2009) 403.

[8] Kenneth Thompson, Conservative MP for Liverpool Walton.

[9] HC Deb 5 March 1958, vol 583 col 1146. The Welsh-language text is recorded and italicized in Hansard, but not translated into English; the text translates as ‘as a matter of fact we are taking…’.

[10] Prompted as to whether he would now speak in Gaelic, the (Scottish) Speaker drew upon Biblical authority; ‘It was St. Paul who said something to the effect that a man prophesy in a language not understanded of the people it were better that he should refrain from prophesying and hold his piece’.

[11] HC Deb 4 February 1980, vol 978 col 136 (Tristan Garel-Jones, MP for Watford).

[12] HC Deb 8 July 1987, 5th series, vol 119, col 400.

[13] HC Deb 15 May 2005, 6th series, vol 434 col 881.

[14] Procedure Committee, ‘Use of the Welsh Language in Parliamentary Proceedings in Wales’ (1995–6) HC 387.

[15] HC Deb, vol 78 col 668.

[16] Erskine May 429 and 887; Commons Journal (1995–6) 390.

[17] Welsh Affairs Committee, ‘Broadcasting in the Welsh language’ (1980–1) HC 448. The decision to take oral and written evidence in Welsh is recorded at [6].

[18] Commons Journal (2000–1) 176, HC 47 (00–01). In fact, the resolution is to permit Welsh ‘at Westminster in respect of Select Committees’, so would apply to any Select Committee, rather than just the (now) Welsh Affairs Committee. However, it did not apply to the Welsh Grand Committee until a further change recommended by the Procedure Committee in 2016 and implemented in 2017: Procedure Committee, ‘Use of the Welsh language in the Welsh Grand Committee at Westminster’ (2016–7) HC 816; HC Deb 1 March 2017, 6th series, vol 622 col 392.