One of the most over-used words of the age seems to be 'rights'. One element of this is the result of a tabloid press which seems to blame the Human Rights Act for everything which is wrong with the penal system – and attack those rights in the process. But another is where people claim certain ‘rights’ for themselves or for the group or community of which they are a part. Clearly, we all have ‘rights’ of some sort, but how do we judge what is a ‘right’ and what is not?
At its simplest, some of our rights are enshrined in law. Once a ‘right’ has been thus enshrined, we empower others, such as the police and the judiciary, to protect those rights, and to take action against those who infringe them. Legal rights are defined through legislation passed by those who we elect to represent us – and can either be extended or reduced by further acts of legislation. It follows that anyone is surely entitled to campaign either for the extension of rights or for the restriction of rights, and if they can persuade a majority of legislators, then the 'rights' we enjoy can be changed.
But are there rights beyond the law? Is it enough to say that unless something is agreed by a majority and passed into law, then it is not a right? There appears to be a general concept of a ‘moral’ right; but to agree on what such a right is in practice firstly requires agreement on the moral basis for it, something which is not easy to achieve. Majority rule, at least superficially, appears to be an attractive way of defining rights.
However, someone far more erudite than I once said that there must surely be more to democracy than two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for dinner. A little corny perhaps; but it does crystallise the idea that minorities may have rights too, and that an oversimplistic interpretation of majority rule is an inadequate way of running a society. (And I’m tempted to add that Hitler was, after a fashion at least, elected to power; another example suggesting that the majority view is not always the beginning and end of any question).
One area where the question of ‘rights’ has been raised, in comments on this blog and others, is the question of the Welsh language. Welsh-speakers have certain rights which are now protected by law, but they fall far short of what many would want.
If I understand my pusillanimous pal, Mr Foreigner correctly, even he accepts that people who want to speak Welsh should have the right to do so if they wish, as long as he isn’t forced to speak it himself. That sounds pretty reasonable to me – I’m not actually aware of anyone who actually wants to force others to use the language. I can certainly live quite happily without anyone being forced to learn or speak Welsh against their will.
The question, of course, is whether the same protection should be extended to Welsh-speakers – do they have the right not to be forced to use English in certain circumstances? That’s what is really at the heart of the debate about further language rights. If we want to create a truly bilingual society in Wales, then it follows that they should have the same, or broadly similar, rights to services in their own language – after all, no-one can argue that it’s a foreign language here in Wales. I suspect that the real reason people are falling out about the extent of legislative protection for Welsh is that we haven't really got to grips with that question - do we believe in a bilingual Wales or not? Without a degree of consensus on that, what is the basis for meaningful discussion over individual proposals?
But there is one argument that worries me greatly. When I hear people saying “but they can all speak English anyway”, it does sound to me a little bit like one of those wolves talking.