Governments aren’t often good at very much. But when it comes to losing all sense of proportion in spending other people’s money they are generally utterly unbeatable. Clear winners. Look to Scotland’s Gaelic policy and you will see what I mean.
Well under 2% of the residents of Scotland speak Gaelic (the highest number I have seen is 1.7%). As far as I can see all of those 57,000-58,000 are bilingual – they all speak English as well as Gaelic. That’s been the case for some time now: even as far back as 1900 there were under 30,000 monolingual Gaelic speakers (go back to 1755 and still only 23% of Scotland was made up of monolingual Gaelic speakers). So the vast majority of people in Scotland have English as their first language and almost no one has Gaelic as either their first or their second language (Polish is the second most widely spoken language at home in Scotland by school pupils).
Given that, you would think that there would be no need to provide government services in Gaelic. No need at all – particularly given that the government is clearly short of cash and that translation of languages everyone speaks into languages almost no one speaks is expensive stuff. That’s not what the Scottish government thinks. They have a National Plan for Gaelic. You can read all about it here.
The key point is that the government wants more people to speak Gaelic, and, many millions of pounds’ worth of public spending on, it wants all services to be provided in Gaelic. This manifests itself in all sorts of odd ways.
Police Scotland (which is very strapped for cash) has said that it is to be “bilingual” by 2020 and is in the process of looking for a Gaelic development assistant to be paid £18,000 to travel around Scotland to “promote and support the development of Gaelic language culture and heritage in communities served by Police Scotland”. No matter that most of these communities have no Gaelic heritage. And no matter that Police Scotland is looking to make £1bn worth of cuts elsewhere.
There is also trouble in Glasgow, where the council has statutory obligations to provide Gaelic teachers. Problem: when very few people speak a language it’s very hard to find very many people to teach other people to speak that language. Result? Glasgow City Council says it has had £900,000 held back by the Scottish government for failing to reach its Gaelic teacher targets, something that isn’t going to help it much in its not-particularly-successful efforts to teach children maths and the like.
These costs are the beginning of a very long list. Aberdeenshire Council reckons the Gaelic Plan will cost them £300,000, and Edinburgh Council has spent millions on Gaelic education (despite the fact that this area of Scotland really doesn’t have Gaelic heritage).
One of the things the Scottish government is often accused of is inward-looking nationalism. And this seems to be a classic example of that – Gaelic is surely more of a hobby to be encouraged in areas where it has genuine heritage (as with knitting in Shetland) than something we should all have to be bothered with/pay for. Better perhaps to put money into teaching Scottish students useful languages (Spanish is pretty widely spoken globally…). To look out, not in.
Still, on the plus side all this suggests a possible career option for young Scots wondering what to do with themselves now the oil industry is on the slide and the financial services industry is worrying about income tax rises more than corporate expansion.
If you want to be highly paid, it works to have a skill that is relatively rare but much in demand from the price insensitive. The Scottish government is clearly (if inexplicably) price insensitive. And Gaelic speakers are clearly rare.
What are you waiting for? You can pick up a basic Gaelic dictionary here for a fiver.