Monday, September 22, 2008

It's all about the context

In a previous life, I taught language and communications undergraduates about critical reading, explaining to them that, in deciphering the author's intentions and purpose, you don't just read what they write, or even how they write it, but pay attention to the unwritten assumptions that underpin their text and underscore their ideology.

That came back to mind this weekend as I read three different pamphlets/reports, set in three different contexts: Wales, Britain and Wales in Europe.

Huw Lewis is considered the face of Labour's Brit-Nat wing in the Assembly, but his newly co-authored 'Changing the way Wales works' (along with Vaughan Gething of Wales TUC) belies that reputation. Across its 30 pages, there are just 3 references to the UK government, of which just one relates to policy innovations at Westminster. Comparisons are drawn with Ireland, Germany and Austria - other countries, not just devolved administrations. Whether a deliberate play for Plaid support for his supposed Labour leadership bid, Huw frames his debate in almost unconditional and exclusively nationalist terms.

That is as opposed to the recently published pamphlet 'A More United Kingdom' from Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne. In contrast to to the Huw Lewis pamphlet, Byrne's work is almost inedible from a Welsh perspective.

The aim is to discuss means in which immigrants can be better integrated into British society, but Byrne gives the impression that, under the surface, exists a homogenous society with which migrants can integrate. His perspective is exclusively anglocentric, insultingly quoting Vron Ware that 'British is easier [than English] – it’s clearly a bit more plural as it includes the Celtic fringe: Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. It seems to accommodate the regional difference'.

Thank you for describing my culture as a 'regional difference'.

From there, Byrne goes on to suggest a British day of celebration, drawing upon his heavily anglicised focus/discussion groups to suggest events and occasions that resonate through English history but which would only sharpen the distinctions with Wales and Scotland.

He then makes a political clarion call 'in favour of the Union' - that our great imperial history would never have been achieved as individual units, that 'we' would not have such a place on the world stage if we were separate and that given the integration of our different ethnic groups, independence could not possibly work.

Aside from the weakness of all of these arguments (I have yet to hear, for example, Byrne claiming that Estonia should re-merge with Russia because of the Russian population there!), it's clear that his defence of the Union is aimed solely at Scotland, Wales barely deserving a mention.

One of Byrne's most regularly repeated arguments is the need to 'learn the language' in order to integrate. That's English, for those of you not following, or who steadfastly refuse to recognise that there is more than one language on these isles of ours. I'm not demeaning the argument that learning English is a huge advantage, if not near necessity, for migrants looking to work in many sectors, but a token recognition that this situation differs in different parts of his United Kingdom would go a long way.

All this, of course, about migration, integration and citizenship whilst ignoring the reality that many migrants are transitory economic migrants from the EU (I've worked in other parts of the EU myself!) for whom these are not issues at all.

In short, Byrne's context is one in which a quarter of the world is still pink and they hum 'Rule Britannia' as they drop anchor, grateful to reach our hallowed shores.

Again, this is in contrast to the Bevan Foundation's research on 'Flexicurity' (again more on the contents elsewhere), which looks at the former Objective One areas in Wales against the background of the European Union, contextualising the Welsh economic position into the wider European sphere that seems largely ignored, or at least sidelined, by both Lewis and Gething and by Byrne. By clearly delineating a 'Wales in Europe' context, the report has greater 'body' - the purpose and aims are clearly set out, as are the circumstances into which the report is borne. In plain terms, it just makes more sense to show how wider influences impact on Wales.

The unwritten assumptions and context of a report give a huge clue as to the aims of an author - left-wing or right-wing, unionist or nationalist, libertarian or authoritarian. In the case of these three reports/pieces of research, their focus and references are key to understanding the messages being conveyed, whether you agree with them or not.

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