Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

22 May 2014

Why I’m voting UKIP

I’ll be voting UKIP in the European-Parliament elections later today. This is despite the fact that I don’t like the party all that much. To me, UKIP seems to represent much that is least generous and large-minded in the English spirit: suspicion toward foreigners; a narrow-minded pragmatism and individualism, as opposed to idealistic engagement toward the European continent and the broader international community; neo-liberal economics; British nationalism; a failure to articulate a discrete English identity and politics; and a social conservatism that is inadequate in responding to the complexity and diversity of modern English society.

So why vote for them? Mainly because they are the only party with a chance of winning any seats that is opposed to the UK’s EU membership and can be trusted to deliver a straightforward in / out referendum.

Why do I support the UK’s withdrawal from the EU? Wouldn’t that precisely be an example of the sort of narrow-minded Englishness I have just decried? My answer would be that, while I oppose the EU, I am still very much in favour of an England that engages positively and constructively with the European continent of which it is a part. I just don’t believe the EU provides the means and the forum for achieving that. The EU is undemocratic, non-transparent, bureaucratic and corrupt; it is the vehicle for a political project for the creation of a federal European super-state; and – most critically for me – the EU does not recognise England as a nation and would absorb it into a set of anonymous British ‘regions’.

What about the argument that only the Conservatives can deliver an in / out referendum, if they’re elected in the general election in one year’s time? Well, that’s a potential reason for voting Conservative at the general election, not at the European election. For now, it seems to me more important to send a message to the establishment parties that their policies and behaviour in relation to the EU have been unacceptable, and that the only way forward is to let us have our referendum. In any case, it’s quite conceivable that there could be a Conservative / UKIP coalition after the general election. If that happened, the Conservatives couldn’t wriggle out of their commitment to hold a referendum, as they did previously after the Lisbon Treaty was signed.

Another important reason for voting UKIP is to send a message to the Westminster parties that they have failed England on the immigration issue. The level of net migration and overall population growth in England in recent years (in the order of several millions) is unsustainable, and this has had a massive, and I would say largely negative, impact on working-class English people’s prospects for employment and pay, on communities, and on housing, public services and schools. Withdrawal from the EU would enable the UK to control the flow of immigration from EU states; and we should also greatly reduce the numbers coming in from the rest of the world.

Of course, we must continue to be generous and open to those who seek refuge in England and the UK as a whole from political or religious persecution in other parts of the world; and we should welcome those who can make a significant contribution to areas such as scientific research, technology and advanced manufacturing. But ultimately, I believe the role of governments is to look to the needs of their own people first. If we can stem the flow of immigrants, we can concentrate on creating jobs, training, education, improved health and decent life prospects for the millions of underemployed, inadequately educated, poor and disadvantaged English people that have been let down and left behind by the UK’s laissez-faire neo-liberalism and reliance on cheap foreign labour.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a ‘racial’ or racist stance: by ‘English people’, I am not referring to the so-called ‘white-English’ but to all who live in England and genuinely consider themselves to be English – at least in part – of whatever ethnic background. I do not accept the view that opposition to unfettered immigration in itself makes one a racist, because it’s immigration from all countries and parts of the world that I would like to restrict. Nor do I accept that seeking to defend and celebrate one’s own national identity, culture and traditions – in my case, English – is racist in itself. Of course, racism is often associated with such concerns if, for instance, a person has a narrowly ethnic concept of their nation or believes that their culture is superior to others. Conversely, celebrating ‘Britain’’s ethnic diversity and the cultures of all who have come to live here, while denigrating Englishness and castigating English patriotism as racist, is itself a form of (inverted) racism.

So, whereas there are undoubtedly some racists in UKIP, the Anglo-British patriotism the party espouses and its opposition to uncontrolled immigration are by no means intrinsically racist. UKIP’s inflammatory rhetoric on immigration is one of the things I precisely don’t like about the party, and this does undoubtedly play on people’s more irrational fears toward the foreigner and the ‘other’, which are a basic characteristic of racism. But focusing on this or that debatably ‘racist’ utterance by UKIP spokespersons is a smokescreen by which the other parties have tried to avoid engaging with the immigration question. And this does need to be tackled.

So it’s UKIP for me on 22 May 2014: to demand an in / out referendum on the UK’s EU membership; to send out a strong message on immigration; and to back a party that’s not ashamed of England and Englishness, even if it largely fails to differentiate these from Britain and the UK.

There are two other elections today where I live: district and parish councils. Just to demonstrate that I am an issues-based voter rather than a party loyalist, I intend to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate for the district council. That’s because the Liberal Democrats are the strongest voice against a massive New Town that is proposed to be built right on the doorstep of the village where I live, and which is supported by the Conservative-controlled council. The Lib Dem has a realistic chance of defeating the Conservative candidate, as the Tories are divided: one of the previous Conservative incumbents is now standing as an independent, so the Tory vote will be split, and the Lib Dems finished a close second last time.

The parish council has seen intrigue, cliques and scandal worthy of Midsomer Murders – although we haven’t had our first murder yet (thank goodness). I’ll be voting for all of the candidates opposed to the current ruling Clique. This could be the most intriguing and unpredictable contest of the lot!

28 November 2013

Launch of the Blueprint for ‘Scotland’s Future’: A Red-Letter Day for England?

Cross-posted with thanks from English Commonwealth.

Yesterday saw the launch of ‘Scotland’s Future’: the Scottish Government’s white paper on Scottish independence, billed as the blueprint for the country’s future. English Commonwealth looks forward to the publication of the UK government’s blueprint for the future of the United Kingdom, and particularly England’s place within it.

We could be waiting for a very long time. The sad truth is that the British government appears to have no coherent long-term vision for the Union, for the relations between its constituent countries and for its systems of government – let alone any vision for England.

In the specific context of the Scottish-independence referendum, this presents the No campaign – Better Together – with something of a quandary: they have no positive vision for the future of the Union, and of Scotland within it, to set against the blueprint for an independent Scotland set out in the white paper. There simply is no such positive plan for the Union. Any alternative ideas they might come up with would be pure ‘fiction’, as the Better Together leader Alastair Darling described ‘Scotland’s Future’ yesterday.

Better Together can’t even outline a detailed set of proposals about how devolution might be extended in Scotland in the event of a No vote, for instance by giving the Scottish government control over most of the taxes raised in Scotland. They can’t do this because no commitment to ‘devo more’ or ‘devo max’ exists on the part of the Westminster government, let alone any overall policy framework setting out the maximum degree to which devolution could be rolled out to all of the constituent nations of the UK – including England – and the constitutional ramifications of so doing.

Better Together can’t even speak with any authority about what the stance of the UK government would be on a whole range of issues were it to find itself in the position of negotiating an independence settlement with Scotland following a Yes vote in the referendum. These issues include things like the currency; Scotland’s EU and NATO membership; the UK’s nuclear deterrent, currently based in the Scottish port of Faslane; and other security issues such as naval shipbuilding, dividing up the armed forces and border controls.

On the face of it, there appears to be no contingency planning for this eventuality on the part of the UK government, which is perhaps over-confident that the No’s will win. If there is any contingency planning, then it certainly hasn’t been revealed to the pro-Union campaigners, because free and fair election rules preclude the government from disclosing valuable inside information to only one side in the referendum, and because this information would in any case no doubt be classified as a state secret.

But over and above contingency planning, there appears to be no plan at all for what the constitutional and governance framework of the ‘rest of the UK’ (rUK) would look like if Scotland departs from or breaks up the Union. So Better Together simply cannot predict anything sensible or coherent about what the eventual Scottish-independence settlement would look like, because nobody in the UK government has articulated any ideas whatsoever about what rUK would look like: about which elements of the present UK it would insist on retaining and what it would be willing to share with Scotland in a continuing social and economic union. Following a Yes vote, we’d be in a completely different political and constitutional ball game, and no one has yet proposed let alone established what the rules of the game would be.

This leaves England potentially in a massive constitutional limbo. Let’s put it this way: there’s no plan for a continuing Union including Scotland, even less of a plan for rUK, and even less for the status and governance of England within rUK.

Never mind Scotland: England needs a plan B. That’s why, more than ever, we need a Constitutional Convention for England. If the government won’t direct its thoughts to the shape of a continuing UK with or without Scottish independence, and England’s place within it, then the people of England must do so in its place. English Commonwealth urges its readers to support our petition for just such a constitutional convention. So far, as I write, our petition has generated a mere 37 online signatures out of a target of 1 million.

Come on, men and women of England: don’t let England’s future and very existence be decided by default by the people of Scotland and by a UK government that couldn’t care less about our country. Let’s make the day the blueprint for Scotland’s future was published a red-letter day for England!

23 May 2013

Gay marriage: a very English muddle

I’m opposed to the Marriage (Same-Sex) Bill. I have no problems with gay – or, as the PC term is now, LGBT – equality as a general concept, i.e. that LGBT people should be treated equally to any other citizens and should not be discriminated against. However, I do take issue with some of the ways LGBT equality has been implemented in practice, such as the requirement under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 for adoption agencies to take on gay and lesbian couples on an equal basis to heterosexual couples. That has meant that many Christian adoption agencies – which were generally recognised as providing an excellent service – have had to close, as they took the view that it is in the best interests of the child to be adopted by opposite-sex, preferably married, couples. By holding out for this view and not taking on same-sex couples, they would have run the risk of breaking the law.

Gay, or same-sex, marriage had, and arguably still has, the potential to present similar crises of conscience. If marriage is construed, like adoption, as a service that religious organisations such as churches provide to the public, then once same-sex marriage enters the statute books, those churches could be held to be in breach of the law by not offering marriage to gay couples. Section 2 of the present Bill, which passed its reading at the report stage earlier this week, offers churches and other religions protection against that eventuality by requiring religious organisations to opt in to the right to conduct same-sex marriages. In other words, there is no obligation on such organisations to provide same-sex marriage services if they do not agree with them on grounds of conscience.

So, no problem then? Well, the peculiar problem in England is that the Church of England historically has always had the obligation to marry any persons that requested it to do so, so long as the marriage thus solemnised was legal, e.g. not bigamous or prohibited for some other reason. Hence, introducing gay marriage could have put the Church in the position whereby it uniquely, as the established Church, had to offer gay weddings if gay couples asked it to do so. This is why the Bill has resorted to the drastic measure of actually prohibiting the Church of England (and the Anglican Church in Wales) from celebrating same-sex marriages. If it had not done so, there would have been a serious possibility of a legal challenge from gay couples who had been refused marriage by the Church.

As part of this obligation of the Church to marry those who ask it to do so in good faith (if not always in actual Christian faith), there has hitherto been just a single legal definition of marriage in English Law, i.e. no distinction between civil and religious marriage as exists in many countries in the rest of Europe. The new Bill maintains this tradition of recognising only one form of marriage but extends it to gay couples. Thus a somewhat absurd situation has arisen whereby the Church of England is still obliged to marry opposite-sex couples in church, and a single legal form of marriage (straight and gay) that applies to both religious and civil ceremonies is maintained, but the Church is prohibited from providing that form of marriage to gay couples.

This contradiction is absolutely bound to lead to legal challenges. But the fact that the new law will ban the Church from conducting same-sex weddings is intended to deflect those challenges away from the Church (which will have no option but to refuse gay couples) on to the law itself. Hence, the challenges, when they come, will take the form of judicial reviews or appeals to the European Court of Human Rights.

This is a very English muddle; indeed, one might even characterise it as very Anglican. England’s Church, and indeed English society, is a broad church, tolerating a wide spectrum of faith, ethics and sexuality. In one sense, the big joke in all this is that gay relationships and couples, involving vicars and bishops in many cases, have been quietly tolerated in the Church of England for decades. The real problem, for the Church, is perhaps that the possibilities of being either obliged to celebrate, or prohibited from celebrating, such relationships forces a resolution of the Church’s ambiguities on the morality of homosexuality. It pushes the issue out of the closet and into . . . the church. Will the Church turn down the wish of its gay congregants to marry in their places of worship, or will it utter a collective ‘I do’?

Well, the answer may soon be taken out of its hands, if indeed there are successful legal challenges to the ban on Anglican same-sex marriage. Ironically, the Church of England is perhaps more vulnerable in this area than other churches and faiths, which historically have not had the obligation to offer marriage to allcomers, as has the C of E.

The problem, as I have indicated above, is the single legal definition of marriage in England and Wales, which will now encompass same-sex unions. Over and above the fact that this may ultimately bring about the disestablishment of the Church of England – if it refuses to provide same-sex marriages once the ban on its doing so is overturned by the High Court or the ECtHR – this is the reason why I oppose the Bill.

I wouldn’t have any objection to gay civil marriage if law and practice made a distinction between civil and religious marriage. Indeed, making a split between civil marriage (open to gay and straight couples) and religious marriage (open by default only to straight couples but, at the discretion of each religious organisation, capable of being extended to gay couples) could have been a way to resolve the parallel muddle that has arisen over civil partnerships: the current civil form of recognition of same-sex unions (‘gay marriage’ in all but official documentation), which the Bill in its present form is neither abolishing nor extending to heterosexual couples – hence creating another anomaly and inequality. Indeed, even if a church or other religious organisation did not choose to conduct gay religious marriages, it could be open to them to conduct gay civil marriages within their own premises: equivalent to celebrating civil partnerships now, as civil partnerships would be ‘upgraded’ to ‘civil marriages’, equivalent to straight civil marriages.

But as the law continues to be based on a single definition of marriage – civil and religious, and now gay and straight – this means that what is at issue is not merely LGBT equality in the matter of civil marriage but English society’s collective understanding and formal definition of marriage per se. By legalising gay marriage, the British parliament is declaring that the official meaning and purpose of marriage in England and Wales are no longer as understood by traditional Christianity, which holds that marriage is the life-long union of a man and a woman, and is the foundation of family life and strong communities. (I’ve written about this extensively in my previous post from the point of view of traditional Christian faith, so won’t go back over this ground here.)

This is what is ultimately at stake for England here: our understanding and beliefs about the meaning and value of human sexuality, and the importance of the traditional family based around the rock of an unshakable union between a husband and a wife committed to each other and their children for life.

Let’s not be under any illusions here. The most ardent and determined LGBT-equality campaigners won’t be content with mere equality under the law: they want society not only to hold and propagate the view that gay sex and marriage are equal to their straight counterparts, but that they are equivalent to them, morally, socially and spiritually. They want to marginalise and stigmatise anyone who stands up for the traditional understanding of marriage, and brand them as bigots and homophobes. Indeed, that’s what they’re already doing. You wait for the challenges against churches, and church and other religious schools and their teachers, to come in.

Now that it’s law, it’ll become mandatory PC speak to acknowledge the ‘equal value’ and importance of gay and straight marriages. And what will inevitably be next is demands for ‘reproductive equality’: the equal ‘right’ for gay couples, especially if they’re married, to access ‘fertility services’ enabling them to have children (which, after all, is what marriage is supposed to be all about, they might say). So fertility clinics will not be allowed to give preference to straight couples having difficulty becoming joint parents in the natural way over gay or lesbian couples requiring treatments such as artificial insemination or surrogacy enabling one of them to become a parent, even though neither could become a parent under any circumstances if left to nature alone. Equal adoption and marriage rights: equal fertility rights – watch this space.

Would it matter if the traditional family disappears under the impact of an increasingly secularised society’s obsession with enabling every individual – gay or straight – to pursue and fulfil the same goals in the name of equal rights? Well, I think it does matter. Society needs people who are prepared to place their commitments to other people – wives, husbands, children, families, communities – above their dedication to pursuing their personal life goals and sexual, or other, destinies. And, I would say, society needs faith: the belief in, and commitment to, some thing or some being higher than oneself. Is this need met by changing society’s understanding of marriage so that it is merely the affirmation of two people’s love and passion for each other, and of their pursuit of personal fulfilment, divorced from the broader social and familial context?

Well, I guess we’ll muddle through. I hope so anyway. Maybe those who want dogmatically to insist we all acknowledge the equal value of gay sex and unions will not in fact win their ultimate victory, and English society will continue to tolerate diversity, even if hypocritically in some contexts, such as the Church.

The fact that the Marriage (Same-Sex) Bill is such an unholy English muddle gives me a sort of desperate hope.

3 February 2013

Why I’m opposed to the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill

The British government’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales – the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill – received its first reading (a formality) in the House of Commons the week before last and is due to receive its second, more significant, reading this coming Tuesday. The bill is likely to be passed into law during the course of the year, as the great majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs are thought to support it, and enough Conservative MPs appear to be in favour. Indeed, one article identified only 118 Tory MPs that were on record as opposing the measure, one of whom has said he will abstain. Nonetheless, this is a sizeable Conservative backbench rebellion and may wipe out any temporary kudos Mr Cameron may have gained from his recent speech promising a referendum on the EU.

I’m opposed to the Bill on two main grounds. Firstly, I believe it’s morally and ontologically wrong: there is, and can never be, any such thing as true same-sex marriage. The basis for this belief in my case is Christian faith, which teaches us that marriage is by definition the lifelong union of a man and a woman, a union which both symbolises and enacts the union between God and humanity in Christ. One of the intrinsic purposes – but not the exclusive purpose – of this union is the raising of children. It’s something both sacred – transcendent – and natural, in the way that Christ himself is both divine and human, and that all humanity is called to share in the divine love in Christ.

Therefore, on this basis, marriage actually is something: it’s a real state or condition, ordained by God, and not a mere socio-cultural convention or legal contract that we are free to modify as society and its mores change. One could as it were no longer have same-sex marriage as two persons of the same sex could naturally procreate.

Well, why not then introduce a form of secular, civic gay marriage that is legally distinct from religious or Christian marriage? That would in theory be a way round the religious objections. But the trouble is that English Law, owing to the establishment of the Church of England, makes no distinction between civic and religious marriage. This is in contrast to other jurisdictions on the Continent, such as France, where the legal form of marriage is civic, and anyone requiring a religious marriage has to have a separate religious ceremony additional to the civic wedding.

The stupid thing is that we could have had effectively a form of civic same-sex marriage simply by making a modest tweak to the law on civil partnerships: by enabling them to be referred to as ‘same-sex marriages’ as an alternative name to ‘civil partnerships’ in official and legal documents and contexts. Indeed, this seems to have been the intention of the Conservative Party in its ‘Contract for Equalities’ published just before the 2010 election as an annex to its manifesto. This stated: “We will also consider the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage”.

The government’s somewhat preposterous ‘myth buster’ about same-sex marriage tries to make out that this equates to a ‘mandate’ to introduce same-sex marriage. But there is no such pledge in the Contract for Equalities. On the contrary, that particular document talks about supporting civil partnerships and recognising them in the tax system as the way in which a Conservative government would advance the equality of gay people. The plan was to ensure that civil partners had the same rights as married partners, and that civil partnerships could formally be called ‘marriages’ while remaining legally civil partnerships. By contrast, the present Bill extends the existing institution of heterosexual marriage to same-sex couples while preserving civil partnerships for gay people only. This is not the same as was stated in the Contract for Equalities, nor is it especially egalitarian! And besides, only the manifesto is generally taken as setting out the commitments for which a party considers it has a mandate if elected into power, not a subsidiary annex that receives hardly any publicity during the dying days of an election campaign.

Now, ironically, the government has just announced that it will not give married couples a special tax break during the forthcoming financial year. This was a manifesto pledge, as was the commitment to recognise civil partnerships in the tax system. The obvious inference is that the government is delaying or reneging on this commitment because it knows it will be legally, or at least politically, obliged to extend any married-couples tax allowance to gay married partners as soon as the same-sex marriage passes into law. A pledge that was initially intended as a means to reward married couples and parents who stick together in adversity, and who thereby help reduce the huge social and financial costs of family break-up, would then be diverted into providing what most Tory voters would probably see as a completely unmerited tax break to gay couples, the great majority of whom are without the responsibilities of children.

This gives the lie to claims, including in the afore-mentioned ‘myth-buster’, that “the principles of long-term commitment and responsibility which underpin [marriage,] bind society together and make it stronger” are exactly the same in the case of straight and gay marriage. The life-long commitments to family – to each other’s families and to raising a family of their own – that a husband and wife make as part of traditional marriage are in no way equivalent to the merely long-term mutual commitment of a gay couple to one another, however much in love they may be at the time.

And this brings me to the second main reason why I oppose the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill: it depreciates and further undermines traditional, straight marriage, whether you see this institution as predominantly a religious thing, or as a universal phenomenon of human civilisation and cultures. True marriage – involving a lifelong commitment of a man and a woman to one another – is about so much more than the mutual commitment of two persons of the same gender, however beautiful and loving this can be in its own way. Marriage speaks to the nature of human beings as male and female: the two sexes as complementary to one another, and as having differing as well as mutual responsibilities towards one another. It involves the whole mystery and beauty of procreation and parenthood, and is what encapsulates and channels the primordial reproductive instinct into a cohesive social structure – the family – and gives it meaningful, ritualised and standardised forms of cultural expression: making it and us human in the process. It is about the rich, cultural meanings that have built up around the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, and ‘father’ and ‘mother’, and which are bound up with what I have just described.

And it is family that marriage is above all about. Marriage is the cornerstone and foundation of family, and not just in the purely causal sense of children deriving from exercising the conjugal rights. Marriage is essentially the glue that seals the family together at each generational link in the chain: it is what turns us into members of a family, and by extension of the human family and of society, as opposed to being mere random assemblages of competing genes. But there is absolutely nothing in the present draft of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill about the family. Indeed, the word occurs only once in the whole document in a legalistic point regarding the parental rights of a married or civil partner over his/her own children or those of his/her partner.

Apart from the fact the complete absence of any discussion of family from a bill that seeks to extend marriage to gay couples completely destroys any confidence that the bill has anything to do with authentic marriage, what message is this sending out to existing or aspiring straight married couples and their families? If the government will not recognise in law the interdependence of marriage and the family – as it has just refused to recognise it in the tax system – how is this going to encourage the sort of responsible, sustainable relationships between mature men and women that are needed to produce cohesive, caring families and communities?

And don’t even get me on to the fact that the bill completely evades any question of what constitutes the consummation of a gay marriage, for the obvious reason that gay unions cannot conform to the traditional definition of consummation as genital-penetrative sexual intercourse open to the possibility of conception. So are we to assume that there is no consummation test for marriage per se now, even for straight couples? I don’t think this is the case, although this is open to interpretation, it seems to me. The reason I don’t think it’s the case is that adultery within a same-sex union is defined by the bill as involving sexual relations only with someone of the opposite sex, not someone of the same sex. In other words, if there is no same-sex adultery because there can be no same-sex consummation in the first place (nothing officially being defined as gay ‘intercourse’ for the purpose of the bill), the fact that there is still heterosexual adultery implies that there is still such a thing as consummation of a straight union.

But not only is this not equal, and not fair in different ways to either gay or straight married couples; but it also gives the lie to the claim that gay marriage can also be equivalent to – the same as – straight marriage, existentially and socio-culturally. Same-sex marriage will not have the same meanings or the same role in society; and it will not have the same forms of expression or the same impact on gay married partners as marriage has traditionally had on straight couples.

The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill is therefore wrong on a number of levels. Same-sex marriage is a contradiction in terms: inauthentic as well as incoherently and inconsistently defined, if indeed it is at all, in the bill. It also involves an impoverishment of our understanding of the core meaning and importance of marriage, reducing it merely to a mutual, loving commitment by two persons, rather than as the cornerstone of the family and by extension of society as a whole.

And there is one last reason why this Bill, if it becomes law, may need to continue being opposed. This is that it relates to England and Wales only; and yet it is the UK parliament as a whole, including the 77 MPs from Scotland and Northern Ireland, that will be voting on it. The Bill may end up being another instance whereby a law relating only to England, or in this case England and Wales, relies on the votes of MPs representing constituents not affected by the legislation to be passed. This is all the more likely in this instance, in that 52 out of Scotland’s 59 MPs represent either the Labour Party or the Lib Dems. And these MPs will mostly vote in favour of the Bill, despite the fact that it does not relate to Scotland, and that a draft bill to legalise same-sex marriage has separately been presented to the Scottish parliament. Indeed, I’m tempted to think that one of the main reasons this particular shoddy Bill is being rushed through Parliament is that David Cameron wants to ensure that the UK parliament gets gay marriage on the statute book first, ahead of Scotland, in part to demonstrate to the people of Scotland that the Union can embody the so-called progressive values that supporters of Scottish independence feel could best be realised in a stand-alone Scotland.

Whatever the reasons the prime minister does have for cutting off his backbenchers to save his liberal-unionist face, you can rest assured that if this misplaced and ill-devised Bill does become law through the votes of MPs representing countries not addressed by it, this writer will not remain silent.

9 January 2013

Coalition Mid-Term Review: Sidelining England in the British-national interest

The UK coalition government published its mid-term review on Monday of this week. It is not the intention of this article to carry out a detailed analysis: I am interested mainly in the way England is treated, or rather is not, in the document.

At first sight, for a document produced by the UK government, it is remarkable how many times the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ actually appear: 15 and six respectively. However, most of the references to ‘England’ are of two related types: 1) where it is necessary to spell out that certain facts or policy proposals relate to England only in order to avoid misunderstanding, and to prevent people living in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland from thinking they are affected by them; and 2) to make sure that credit can be claimed for England-specific achievements for which the coalition parties hope to be rewarded by English voters at the next election.

Examples of the first type of reference occur on page 26, where the document refers to a number of policy proposals in the area of personal care as being specific to England, such as rules regarding eligibility for care and the introduction of a Deferred Payment Scheme designed to prevent people from having to sell their homes in order to pay for care. Clearly, these are important statutory and financial matters, and it is necessary to make it clear to non-English readers that they affect only people living in England.

Examples of the second type of reference are:

  • “We have provided the resources to help local authorities in England freeze their council tax for three years in a row” (page 14): Tory policy – please vote for us, England. (What are these ‘resources’, though? I thought local-authority funding in England was being cut, and the council-tax freeze was just a statutory, central government-imposed diktat. Do they mean local-authority funding is being cut by less than it would otherwise have been if authorities had been allowed to increase council tax willy nilly?)
  • “We have brought in the Protection of Freedoms Act to limit the retention of DNA samples in England and Wales in line with practice in Scotland” (page 37): Lib Dem policy – look, we actually do care about you, England, at least in the lofty area of British civil liberties if nothing else.

The first type of reference to England described above has the character of a legal declaration of ‘territorial extent’, along the lines of when cereal packets make it clear that a competition is limited to Great Britain and does not include Northern Ireland. And indeed, the whole document is circumscribed by a legal disclaimer of this sort covering territorial extent, which appears right at the end:

“As a result of devolution, many decisions made by UK Ministers or in the Westminster Parliament now apply to England only. The Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government make their own policy on these devolved issues. This document therefore sets out the agreed priorities for the Coalition Government in Westminster.”

No clarification as to which policies “now apply to England only”, of course! Is the general public just supposed to know what they are, as the document certainly doesn’t make this clear to the reader as it goes through the different policy areas, apart from the few exceptions I have already mentioned? But throwing in a disclaimer like this means the government can essentially cop out of providing a detailed break-down and say: ‘look, we’ve acknowledged that some policies are England-only, and anyone interested in those particular policies will know whether they’re England-specific or not’.

This is simply not good enough, although it is par for the course. We’ve come to expect from Westminster politicians and the UK government that they will avoid referring explicitly to ‘England’ as much as they possibly can, and will do so only when it is necessary to avoid factual misunderstanding and harmful political consequences, in the ways outlined above. But their unwillingness to acknowledge a country called ‘England’ to which so many of their policies relate means that Westminster politicians cannot and do not hold themselves properly accountable to the ‘nation’ and people affected by those policies.

This fact is evident in the evasive manner in which many of the policy ‘achievements’ and remaining objectives of the coalition are described; and in many instances, the evasiveness relates directly to the suppression of references to ‘England’. For example, the document never makes it explicitly clear that when it discusses ‘the NHS’, it means only the NHS in England. This helps it gloss over the fact that the coalition has legislated for a massive reform to the NHS that will alter it – in England only – quite radically from the institution created by the post-war Labour government. And yet, the government still has the gall to refer to it as “one of our great national institutions”, as if the NHS it presides over is still fundamentally the same old British NHS, which it no longer is (at least not in England).

So suppression of the England-specific nature of the NHS reforms goes hand in hand with evasiveness about the scope and nature of those reforms. For example, the document says: “We have improved the NHS by . . . starting to devolve commissioning of most health services to GP-led clinical commissioning groups”. But what it doesn’t say is that these changes are limited to England and that the said commissioning groups are statutorily obliged to consider bids from private health-care providers even if the services they provide are initially more expensive than those of existing, public-sector NHS providers.

A more honest account of the government’s measures would be explicit about both their England-specific character and their ultimate guiding principles, and would be expressed something like this: “We have reformed the NHS in England in such a way as to create a competitive health-care market in which private companies will increasingly take over the provision of publicly funded services”. This is actually intended to be an ideologically neutral statement of what the government has done: it has marketised the health-care sector in England, whether you believe that’s the most effective way to deliver health care or not. So why should a Tory-led government not trumpet that achievement? Well, because it suspects, probably correctly, that if English people knew what had been done to ‘their NHS’ (but not to the NHS’s in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), involving changes that were not set out in any manifesto or in the Coalition Agreement, they’d probably violently object. So instead, the coalition pretends that ‘the NHS’ remains fundamentally the same – a primarily public-sector and ‘British’ institution – neither of which is true any more: in England, that is.

The same analysis could be made of many, many other parts of the document that discuss England-specific policies and legislation while avoiding clarifying either that they relate to England only or that they are driven by an ideological bias in favour of private enterprise and markets at the expense of the public sector and, arguably, the public interest – in England. Another brief example – one among many – is where the document says: “We have introduced a presumption of sustainable development in the National Planning Policy Framework, which includes protection of the Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest”. How disingenuous can they be? What this really means is: “We have prepared legislation to make it easier to obtain planning permission for major developments in England’s countryside, with only Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest retaining the previous level of protection”. So England’s green and pleasant land can be concreted over under the pretext of driving economic growth, in the British national interest, regardless of the very passionate interest the English public has in protecting its countryside and natural heritage.

The identity of the ‘nation’ on which this concept of the ‘national interest’ is predicated is quite nebulous in the Mid-Term Review, as indeed it was in the original Coalition Agreement. This is quite simply because, in so many instances, the nation concerned is in reality England, but the government will not and cannot acknowledge this fact. This is rather damaging, as the very raison d’être of the coalition, then as now, is to govern in the ‘national interest’, as the title of the Mid-Term Review makes clear: “The Coalition: together in the national interest”. But whereas the phrase ‘national interest’ is adduced as justification for the coalition’s existence or for certain key decisions on five occasions in the document, the word ‘nation’ is used only once: “In 2012, the nation came together to celebrate the success of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Diamond Jubilee”.

Three of the references to ‘national interest’ relate to the formation and continuance of the coalition, based on pulling the UK round from a dangerous financial and economic crisis; one to supporting the work of the Airports Commission, which could lead to controversial approval for, say, a new terminal at Heathrow or a new runway at Stansted (i.e. more environmental degradation in England “in the national interest”); and the other reference deals with the decision to opt out of, or in to, various EU police and criminal-justice measures. In other words, ‘national interest’ is very narrowly defined in terms of a small number of strategically important reserved policy areas – the economy, air transport, foreign policy and security – whereas large parts of the document deal with devolved policy areas, i.e. with those affecting England only or mainly.

Are these English measures also being introduced in the ‘national interest’? It’s hard to believe they are given the unwillingness of the government to connect the phrase ‘national interest’ with the specific nation, England, concerned? And if they’re not being carried out in the English-national interest, in whose interest are they being done? The interest of the government’s ideological, commercial and financial bedfellows (its corporate sponsors and partners, and its financial creditors)? The interests of the UK state and establishment, and their preservation from an economic meltdown that could have accelerated the centrifugal, nationalist forces challenging their  continuing existence? Or the interests of the coalition parties themselves, who want to come out of the five-year relationship claiming they have fought their corner and followed through on their manifesto pledges – irrespective of the fact that many of the measures they’ve introduced were never outlined in detail and in some instances were flatly contradicted by their manifestos and by the Coalition Agreement, such as the [English] NHS reforms or the Higher Education policies (especially the massive hike in tuition fees for English students)?

But these questions, as indeed the English Question itself, are completely sidelined by the Mid-Term Review. After all, the Coalition can hardly be expected to hold itself accountable to an entity such as ‘the English people’, can it, if its remit is to govern in the British national interest?

6 January 2013

Inconsistent, dangerous and irrelevant: Proposed changes to the rules of succession

Further to my previous post, on the 2011 Census and gay marriage, it is noteworthy that, during December, another draft bill was published that relates to the issues of marriage equality and of England’s Christian establishment and history. This is the Succession to the Crown Bill 2012.

The Bill, which is expected to be rushed through ahead of the birth of the Duchess of Cambridge’s baby, makes two main provisions:

  1. Abolition of primogeniture: the rule that specifies that it is the first-born male who inherits the crown, even if one or more female children have been born to the existing monarch or their heir before the arrival of a male child. Now it will simply be the first-born child of the monarch or heir who will succeed to the throne, whether that child is male or female
  2. Right for the monarch or heir to marry a Roman Catholic: since the Bill of Rights of 1689, the monarch or heir has been barred from marrying a Roman Catholic, to help ensure the Protestant succession (more on this below).

The rationale that is given for these changes is that they do away with two instances of discrimination – against women and against Roman Catholics – that no longer appear justifiable in these equality-minded times of ours. But the fact that this Bill was published in the same month as the government’s proposals on gay marriage shows how absurdly inconsistent this rationale actually is. For example, if the basis for making the changes is equality, then why not allow the monarch or heir to marry someone of the same gender like the rest of the population? The Bill refers to the abolition of primogeniture as ensuring that “succession to the Crown [is] not to depend on gender”. Well, why not then “remove the disqualification” to the Crown – as the bill might put it – from marrying someone of the same gender?

And if we really want to apply the principle of equality consistently, then why not allow the monarch or heir to actually be a Roman Catholic as well as merely being allowed to marry one? And come to think of it, why should it be automatically the first-born child that inherits the Crown? Isn’t that discrimination against the later children? The first-born might be intellectually challenged or have flaws of character making her or him entirely unsuited to the Crown: a fact that has been sadly illustrated on numerous occasions in the history of England’s kings and queens! And ultimately, the real problem, from the point of view of equality, is the principle of a hereditary monarchy itself: why should anyone inherit the role of UK head of state nowadays? My point is that it’s completely ludicrous to defend these changes as being carried out for the sake of equality, as the whole institution of the monarchy is based on radical inequality!

Returning to my rhetorical question of why a monarch or heir should not be allowed to marry someone of the same gender once gay marriage becomes law: in actual fact, the various parliamentary Acts that deal with the rules of succession, including the present Bill, do not specify gay marriage as a factor barring someone from the throne. However, this is still excluded by virtue of the fact that the present or prospective monarch, as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, has to be married in an Anglican ceremony. And as the Church of England will be prohibited from conducting gay weddings under the gay-marriage legislation, this cannot happen, at least not without further changes to the law.

In an attempt to shore up the exclusion of gay monarchical marriage, the Succession to the Crown Bill 2012 retains the requirement for the six persons next in line to the throne to seek the consent of the current monarch if they wish to get married. If they marry without that consent, then they are barred from the throne. As Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the monarch is hardly likely to consent to their heir marrying someone of the same gender – i.e. in a non-Anglican rite – as this would be a direct challenge to the very established character of the Church of England, which it is the monarch’s role to defend.

In addition to these religio-political considerations, allowing the heir to the throne to marry someone of the same gender also counteracts one of the central purposes of a royal marriage, which is, precisely, to ensure the succession: to produce children who will form the line of succession to the throne – albeit that a first-born female will now automatically be at the head of the queue. In this sense, royal marriage retains one of the primary characteristics of traditional Christian marriage that will be lost from English Law’s definition of marriage once gay marriage comes into effect: that it is intended for the raising of children.

All of this perhaps seems somewhat academic and theoretical. But it is in fact not beyond the bounds of possibility that a future first- to sixth-in-line to the throne might wish to marry someone of the same gender and could find themselves prohibited from doing so by the queen or king. Imagine the uproar that would ensue! It would result in all manner of legal challenges, which would be added to the list of challenges that would already have been brought against the prohibition of gay marriage in the Anglican churches of England and Wales. And before we knew it, the monarch or heir could be free to marry whoever (s)he liked in whatever sort of ceremony, and freed of her / his obligation to head up the Church of England, which itself would be ‘free’ to conduct gay weddings, or not, by virtue of no longer being the established Church.

So the Succession to the Crown Bill 2012 in general is grossly inconsistent in its application of equality principles, and it is also dangerous, in that it chips away at the foundation stones of a hereditary Protestant-Christian monarchy it ostensibly sets out merely to reform. The specific provision allowing the monarch or heir to marry a Roman Catholic (but not one of the same gender or to be one) is similarly inconsistent and dangerous, although perhaps also irrelevant. For a start, the fact that the present or future monarch is allowed to marry an RC doesn’t make it likely they would do. As the law presently stands, the monarch is allowed in theory to be married to a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or member of any non-Anglican-Christian religion or of no religion. But it hasn’t happened. The reason for this is that the consort effectively needs to be Anglican even if they do not have to be, for the reasons given above: the royal marriage marks a necessary formal step towards ensuring the Anglican succession via the procreation and raising of an heir who will eventually be Supreme Governor of the Church. It was for this reason that the Duke of Edinburgh converted from Greek Orthodoxy to Anglicanism prior to marrying our present queen.

Any prospective Roman Catholic consort would most likely be prevailed upon to similarly convert to Anglicanism before marrying the monarch or heir. If, however, their devotion to the Catholic Church was so great that it overrode any sense that supporting their prospective spouse in her or his role as Defender of the Faith could also be considered a sacred, Christian calling of equivalent merit to their Catholic faith, then the marriage would almost certainly be called off. This would be a) because the unwillingness of the future prince or queen consort to switch denominations would be a cause of relationship break-down, or b) because this refusal would trigger a denial of consent for the couple to marry on the part of the reigning monarch, on similar grounds that consent would be denied if the heir wished to marry someone of the same gender: that it was an unsuitable match for a would-be British monarch and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and guarantor of the Protestant succession.

If, however, the couple still wished to get married, and had obtained the consent of the queen or king to do so, there is still no guarantee that the marriage could go ahead. This is because, in order for an Anglican wedding where one of the participants is Catholic to be considered valid by the Roman Catholic Church, it needs to be approved by the local Roman Catholic bishop; and the couple needs to give an undertaking to raise their children as Catholics. In other words, the Catholic Church would once again be in a position to approve or deny a wedding involving the British monarch or her / his heir! Isn’t that what all the trouble between Henry VIII and the Holy See was all about in the first place? Of course, it was; and that’s precisely what the prohibition of the monarch from marrying a Roman Catholic is intended to prevent!

Clearly, such a situation would be completely unacceptable to the UK government, the monarchy and most British people. Any monarch insisting on marrying a Roman Catholic (thereby undertaking to raise their children as Catholics) would almost certainly be forced to abdicate, just as Edward VIII was obliged to do when he insisted on marrying a divorcee (i.e. in a non-Anglican ceremony). And any heir demanding to marry a Roman Catholic would almost certainly be denied permission to do so by the reigning monarch, or else be removed from the succession. That’s unless the Church of England were disestablished and the monarch were relieved of her / his role as Supreme Governor – in which case, they could do pretty much whatever they wished.

In other words, the changes to the rules of succession put forward in the Succession to the Crown Bill 2012 are inconsistent, dangerous and irrelevant. They are predicated on principles of equality they cannot consistently fulfil, because to do so would mean the end of the Protestant-Christian succession itself. In addition, it is unlikely that the provision allowing the monarch to be married to a Roman Catholic will ever be acted on by any queen or king, unless disestablishment has taken place. But by applying equality principles to a hereditary monarchy – however inconsistently – the Bill creates grounds for further legal and political challenges to the present establishment.

This is no bad thing, perhaps – other than the fact that a wholesale demolition of the present establishment could result in the abolition of England as a Christian nation and, indeed, as any type of civic nation, as I argued in my previous article. Clearly, England’s demise would be a tragedy under any circumstances. But to happen as a result of the constitutional illiteracy and woolly-minded egalitarianism of the present omnishambles that passes for a British government would be worse than a tragedy: it would be a theatre of the absurd!

27 December 2012

Census and gay marriage: England remains a Christian nation – for now

Earlier this month, two interesting events took place in the same week. First, the results of the 2011 Census of England and Wales were published. Among many interesting findings, this reported that the proportion of the population of England and Wales stating that their religion was Christianity had fallen to 59.3%, from 71.7% in 2001: a drop of 12.4%. There was an almost exactly opposite rise in the number of those claiming they had no religion, from 14.8% to 25.1%: up 11.3%.

The proportion of those identifying as Christian in England alone – 59.4% – was pretty much identical to that for England and Wales combined. However, the proportion of those indicating they had no religious affiliation at all was significantly higher in Wales than in England: 32.1% versus 24.7% respectively. The main reason for this divergence is that there is a much higher share of non-Christian religions in England than in Wales, reflecting the greater extent of immigration to England. In particular, the Muslim share of the population in England was 5%, compared with only 1.5% in Wales. Across England and Wales as a whole, the Census reported that the proportion of the population claiming affiliation to Islam had risen from 3.0% in 2001 to 4.8% in 2011.

On this measure at least, England is still a Christian country. Indeed, the greatest threat to Christianity in England comes from secularisation not ‘Islamisation’, with the English Muslim population still being only 8% of the size of the Christian community. It seems to me that this is one of the paradoxes of anti-Muslim organisations such as the EDL or the BNP: that while they ostensibly seek to defend England’s / Britain’s Christian heritage against a perceived Islamic threat, many of their adherents are far from Christian in their own beliefs and lifestyles. It is really the broad Christian heritage and culture of England / Britain that they see themselves as defending. But the truth of the matter is, as the Census shows, that many people who previously categorised themselves as nominally Christian now no longer do call themselves Christian. That does not necessarily mean they do not believe in God, or even that they do not consider their beliefs and values are compatible with Christian faith. But the fact that they no longer feel they can definitely describe themselves as Christian nevertheless marks a profound culture shift.

Another profound culture shift that has taken place over the past ten to 15 years is in attitudes towards gay sex and relationships. I’m not sure if this is a generational thing, but until very recently, it used to be regarded as something noteworthy, unusual and even a bit distasteful for many heterosexuals if someone you knew was openly gay or in a gay relationship. But nowadays, it’s just regarded as part of normality: more ‘oh yes, and he’s gay’, rather than ‘he’s gay, you know’ – nudge nudge, wink wink.

Take these two trends together, and it’s not surprising that a moral consensus has grown up in favour of legalising gay marriage in England and Wales; and that a nation whose Christianity is increasingly vague and non-doctrinal seems to think that this is compatible with Christian values, and hence that there might be plenty of churches out there that will be happy to embrace their new ‘freedom’ to marry gays. This is the other event that took place earlier this month: the government’s announcement that it would proceed with legislation to introduce gay marriage in England and Wales.

Of course, in reality, gay marriage is far from compatible with mainstream Christian belief. While some have drawn parallels with the issue of women bishops, gay marriage is not at all in the same category. Most churches do not even have bishops or regard them as essential, let alone women bishops. This is simply not a point of common Christian belief across the denominations. By contrast, virtually all Christian churches regard gay marriage as a contradiction in terms, as marriage is by definition regarded as a union between a man and a woman. Indeed, most denominations still view gay sex itself as sinful: a belief that is at the origin of society’s repudiation of homosexuality until recent times.

As society generally no longer regards gay sex, or at least loving gay relationships, as morally wrong, so it seems to have assumed there can be no reasonable objection to gay couples choosing to affirm their relationships through marriage. But marriage isn’t just about de-culpabilising a sexual relationship: a mutual commitment – gay or straight – somehow being less complete, and therefore potentially more selfish and morally imperfect, outside of marriage. It isn’t in fact just about the commitment, which is of course to be welcomed in any relationship: it’s about the union constituted by marriage. In traditional Christian belief, marriage creates something new: marriage is a real – spiritual and bodily – union between a man and a woman, which reflects, restores and re-enacts the original unity of male and female in God: of male and female as created in the image of God. By definition, then, it has to be a coming together of a man and a woman. And the fact that the marital union embodies the union between God and humanity in Christ also means that the purpose of marriage reflects the nature and action of God in the world: as creator and redeemer. Hence, marriage is also intrinsically about creating new life – through procreation – and about dedication to guiding those new lives to faith, and ultimately to the eternal life of salvation.

This view of marriage is, however, very far removed from society’s increasingly secularised understanding of it as primarily a mutual commitment between a man and woman, and – if mutual commitment is what it’s all about – why not also between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman? Nevertheless, the government’s legislative proposals stopped short of imposing an obligation for churches to conduct gay weddings if they were requested by gay couples to do so. And in the case of the Church of England and its Welsh counterpart, the Church in Wales, the government proposes to actually prohibit those churches from carrying out gay marriage ceremonies, even if they, or individual parish churches, wish to do so.

The fact that the proposed legislation compels the Anglican churches of England and Wales not to marry gay couples, whereas other churches and religions in those countries can choose whether or not to do so, is linked to the Church of England’s established status. This means that Canon Law – the Church’s own internal legislation – is part of the law of the land. You cannot therefore have a situation in which statute – parliamentary legislation – and Canon Law are in conflict. This would have been the case if Parliament had allowed the Church of England to conduct gay weddings, whereas Canon Law forbids it. Of course, Parliament could have chosen to engineer such a conflict with the Church, in order to persuade or coerce it into bringing Canon Law into line with statute, rather than the other way round. However, if there had been resistance to this change within the Church – which there certainly would have been – this could have risked triggering the disestablishment of the Church. And this is a risk which, it seems, Parliament was not prepared to take at this stage.

It is indeed ironic that it is the very established status of the Church of England that exempts it from a measure that Parliament regards as fair and even as consistent with Christian values. And this is to say nothing of the anomalous situation that the Church in Wales finds itself in. Unlike the Church of England, the Welsh Church is not established; and yet it finds itself subject to the same prohibition of gay marriage as its English counterpart. This appears to have happened with very little if any consultation with the Church in Wales. It seems to have been the case that, as the gay marriage Bill applies to both England and Wales, it would have been even more anomalous and potentially unsustainable to completely ban the Anglican church in England from marrying gay couples while allowing the Anglican church in Wales to do so if it wished.

In the end, though, the inconsistencies surrounding the Bill are effectively no more than a manifestation of the contradiction involved in thinking that gay marriage is consistent with mainstream Christian faith, which it is not. Parliament is effectively wanting to have its secular-liberal cake and eat its established-religion cake, too: a secularisation of values, yes, but not a secularisation of the state – at least not yet.

So the Westminster politicians have shied away from pushing the liberal gay-marriage agenda to the point where disestablishment of the Church of England could have ensued. Were they motivated by a dim awareness that – as the Census showed – England remains a broadly Christian country, and that there was insufficient popular support for a confrontation with the Church on this matter, let alone for disestablishment? Or were they terrified at the prospect of disestablishment and of all the unforeseen consequences this might have, and reluctant to be the Parliament that overthrew more than 450 years of constitutional history?

I maintain that one of the consequences of disestablishing the Church of England is effectively the abolition of England as a civic nation. The Church of England is arguably the only English-national institution remaining at the heart of the British establishment: a body that confers a specific responsibility towards England and the English people on those at the heart of power, including the monarch and the Parliament that governs in the name of the monarch. Really, in some respects, the Church of England represents the spiritual heart and conscience of the English nation: its own doctrinal vagaries reflecting the increasingly loose and ill-defined ‘Christianity’ of the English nation at large.

So in this formal sense, too, England remains a Christian nation; and the continuation of the Church of England as not just the national-English church but the UK-state church has ensured in this instance that the laws of England, made by the UK parliament, remain true to England’s Christian tradition and faith. But if Christian faith in England erodes to the same extent as it has done since 2001, who knows for how much longer there will even be a Church of England? And with the removal of the Church of England from the British establishment, will England cease not just to be a Christian nation, but a nation in any sense?

13 August 2012

Great Britain is merely an Olympic nation

It is often said of England that it is just a football nation. By that, it is meant that England comes together as a nation, and has national institutions of its own, only when it comes to football competitions and to other sports where England has its own team or league, such as rugby union or cricket. There is some justification for this, in that England clearly is not a civic nation – either a sovereign state or a self-governing part of a larger state – but nonetheless has the footballing status of one. Indeed, it has superior status to other nation states’ football associations, in that the FA still has a veto on any rule changes to the beautiful game. England is a football nation, then, in part because it is the home of football.

The same could be said of Great Britain and the Olympics. The Olympics are now arguably the only occasion when ‘Great Britain’ unites as a nation. For a little while, albeit imperfectly, we forget that we are in fact three nations (or four, or five, if you include Northern Ireland and / or Cornwall – but that’s a different story) and get together behind ‘Team GB’, with the mandatory Union Flags being draped around the shoulders of our Olympic heroes (whether they want it or not – and how could they refuse?): all differences cloaked in the colours of a rediscovered British patriotism.

And just like England, Great Britain is not a civic nation. The civic nation, the sovereign state, is the United Kingdom (informally known as ‘Britain’, rather than Great Britain). But we choose to compete as Great Britain. Why? In part, this is so that Northern Irish athletes have the freedom to choose whether to represent Britain or the Republic of Ireland. In part, also, this is because ‘Great Britain’ can arguably claim to have originated the present Olympic movement, in that the first modern Olympic Games of any sort were held in England (in the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock from 1850 onwards), while Great Britain was an inaugural participant in the first international Games in 1896, and has taken part – as Great Britain – in every summer and winter Olympics since. The IOC president Jacques Rogge paid tribute to Great Britain’s Olympic heritage in his speech at the 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony, when he referred to the fact that Great Britain had in effect originated modern sport as such by codifying its rules: just as England is the home of football, the Olympics were in effect coming home by taking place in Great Britain in 2012.

So football and the Olympics are two global sporting institutions with which our nationhood – whether as England or Great Britain – is bound up as originator and ‘owner’. It’s almost as if those particular games – football and Olympic – are not just an incidental part of our national heritage and of our contribution to global culture, but are an integral part of what constitutes us as nations: we are not so much nations that rediscover our sense of nationhood through international sports competitions, but are nations who experience ourselves truly as nations only when playing the games that properly speaking are ours to begin with, and which we have given to the world. Temporarily, the existential void that exists where a secure sense of nationhood should be is filled with the passion of the game and the excitement of ‘representing’ the nation under the colours of the flag – be they red and white, or red, white and blue.

But who in fact are the ‘we’ who lack the grounded experience of nationhood that comes from national civic institutions, and from sovereign, national self-rule? Who are the ‘we’ who so lack ‘internal’ recognition as a nation, and the ability to feel pride about ourselves as a nation, that we feel validated only when we are able to stand as the first among equals amid the international community of nations which, in a sense, we have brought into existence in the particular form in which that community has come together, e.g. through football or the Olympics? Our fragile national egos stand poised perilously between non-existence – non-particularity – and internationality: perfectly reflected in the international world that England or Great Britain can claim to have created, insofar as our very internationality is said by some commentators to be the quintessence of our ‘British nationhood’ and of the new, confident Britishness that Team GB’s successes is helping to cement. Hence, ‘we’ see ourselves as a nation – and see ourselves only when – perfectly mirrored and validated by the admiring international community of nations: as being a ‘nation of nations’ – effectively, an international community of nations ourselves; Great Britain.

The ‘we’ who escape in this way from our everyday nationless state to the ludic, spectacular, imaginary and international nationhood of the Games that seem to define us as a nation are the English people. Whether the sporting team concerned is England or Great Britain, it is we the English people that lose ourselves in the short-lived high of imagining ourselves as a great nation, once more, on the international stage – reasserting our ownership of and identification with the global community by beating them at, literally, our own game, so that the international community has no choice other than to recognise us as truly a unique nation in their midst.

Looking only at the surface of things, it would be easy to conclude that the English patriotic fervour that accompanied the nation’s football team’s progress through international competitions, up until its dismal performance in the 2010 World Cup, was a radically different phenomenon from the outbreak of British patriotic fervour that has accompanied Team GB’s glittering successes at London 2012. But they are fundamentally the same: they are expressions of English people’s need to have a proud sense of nationhood, which is ‘fulfilled’ temporarily through sport. This is the case, not only because those sports ‘belong to us’ but because those feelings are denied in day-to-day life, where we live in a nationless state in the other sense: a state – the UK – that is not a nation and denies nationhood to the English. The blossoming of the Union Flag, sprouting in bunting and branding over shops, pubs and homes across England, is a continuation not a break from the similar sprouting of the Cross of St. George that has accompanied football tournaments in the past. The England team has let us down and dashed our pride; but now Team GB seems to be restoring it. Great Britain is an Olympic nation just as England is a football nation; and fundamentally, this is because the nation, the people, who identify with and rave about those countries’ respective sporting feats are in both cases the English.

Of course, on another level, England and Great Britain are completely different entities. But they are also non-entities – non-civic nations – and so are ironically perfect, interchangeable channels for our unfulfilled desire for replete nationhood. ‘Team UK’ or ‘Team Britain’ wouldn’t do the job, a) because they’re names for the state, not ‘the nation’, and b) because they are too difficult for English people to identify with – too neutral and un-English. ‘Great Britain’ can function as ‘the nation’ only because English people identify with it as their nation: as effectively a proxy for, and a more grandiose way of saying, ‘England’. This may seem counter-intuitive, because the outbreak of unionflagitis across England would tend to suggest the opposite: that English people are espousing a British-not-English identity. But in fact, it’s a British-because-English identity, and ordinary people across the land are, once again, failing to make the kind of categorical distinction between Britishness and Englishness that the promoters of those two brands might wish they did.

Take the woman in my local corner shop, who said “the whole of England” would have been cheering on Mo Farah to win the 5000m race on Saturday night; or my partner – a university-educated woman who’s just turned 50 – who persists unself-consciously in referring to ‘Team GB’ as ‘England’, to the extent that I’ve given up correcting her. This sort of attitude, and habit of thought and speech, is replicated up and down the land: Team GB is simply viewed as an ‘English’ team, and all distinction between England and Britain is swept away in a tide of Union Flags.

This is the opposite effect from that which the political and media establishment, along with the liberal promoters of a self-sufficient Britishness, believe has been achieved. For them, saying ‘Great Britain’ is a way to avoid saying ‘England’ and invoking English nationhood; but for the English people, supporting Team GB is just another way of being patriotically English. This has been obvious from the extent to which the BBC, in its Olympics coverage, has been desperate to prevent any mention of Team GB athletes’ English identity, and to correct them whenever they referred to ‘England’ or ‘English’ competitors. Ironically, of course, the sheer fact of imposing an exclusively British identity on English sportsmen and -women only – while allowing ‘non-English’ British athletes to celebrate a dual identity (Scottish and British, or Somali and British) – reinforces the very Englishness of Britishness: the fact that Britishness, and the British patriotism of the Games, is at root just an expression of Englishness. English athletes who carelessly let the word ‘England’ slip from their mouths are in effect giving the Game away, in both senses: the Olympic Games being by definition an opportunity to celebrate a supposedly inclusive Britishness.

Liberal commentators have played along with this establishment game, observing how Team GB’s supposedly multicultural (by which is really meant multi-ethnic) composition, and the support the Team received across the social spectrum, illustrate and consolidate a new inclusive, civic Britishness. It achieves this, however, only if all reference to England and Englishness is systematically eliminated. Britishness is an inclusive identity only on the basis of England’s exclusion. The inclusive, civic Britishness is predicated on the idea that no nationality has any claim to being a pre-eminent or core element of British identity or culture. England is that core, and so it must be eradicated; and English people are only allowed to be British – or, as I said above, only English people must be British-only.

And this illustrates what the Olympic nation that is Great Britain – Team GB – actually is at root: it’s a flight from English nationhood, mostly by English people themselves, into the idealised, international nationhood that is ‘Britain’. But it needs to tap into English patriotism to gain the loyalty and support of the masses. So rather than succeeding in cancelling out English nationality, ‘Great Britain’ is nothing without it.

Great Britain, in other words, is merely an Olympic nation; but the real nation that underlies it, and will outlive the four-yearly enthusiasm for Team GB, is England.

29 July 2012

Further thoughts on the Olympics opening ceremony: a new British nationalism

At two days’ remove from the London Olympics opening ceremony, I’ve been able to form a clearer idea of what its underlying narrative was and why it appeals so strongly to lovers of all things British. In short, the ceremony enacted a journey from a pre-industrial, rural, geopolitically undefined Britain made up of the four historic nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland to a unified, modern, post-industrial, technological and urban British nation formed from the fusion of the historic nations together with the cultures and peoples that have immigrated to Britain in the post-war era.

Hence, although it was to some extent gratifying that the show began with the singing of the national anthems, or would-be national anthems, of the four historic nations, this places those nations firmly in the pre-modern past; whereas those same four nations were not represented as having any place or voice in the multi-ethnic Britain of today. [And at this point, I'll just observe that Cornwall had no recognition whatsoever.] In other words, the ceremony dramatised the narrative of the new British nationalism, which sees ‘Britain’ as a civic nation to which all can belong on equal terms – those of an immigrant background alongside ‘native Britons’ – and which subsumes and traverses the supposedly more ethnic identities of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The face of the nation that the ceremony presented to the world was that of multi-ethnic, mono-national Britain, in contradistinction to a historically mono-ethnic (i.e. white) but multi-national Britain.

But is this multi-ethnic face merely skin-deep? Why, for instance, did Boyle not have the courage of his Briticist convictions, and make the girl and boy that hook up via a Facebook-type social network towards the end of the narrative section of the ceremony a white-black couple, instead of having the female part played by a black-white mixed-race girl and the male role taken by a black boy? Would it have been too shocking and unacceptable to the great British public, even today, to make a white girl getting together with a black boy the focal point of the whole multi-ethnic narrative? Or why not have a white man getting it on with a black girl – or is that too suggestive of the history of colonialism and slavery the ceremony refused to touch upon? How truly multi-ethnic is this brave new Britain if such a black and white beast with two backs is unpalatable to the viewing public?

This particular point touches upon the whole vacuity of the ceremony’s representation of modern Britain, with the multi-ethnic youth dancing in harmony to the fusion beats of grime music and the like. Merely one year ago, the multi-ethnic youth of areas such as Hackney – just down the road from the Olympic stadium – were rocking to a different beat as they smashed shop windows and burnt buildings to the ground. Which is the more authentic vision of contemporary Britain? Possibly both, or neither; or perhaps, one is the hope and the other is the experience. And the experience of many young English urbanites is a lack of meaningful opportunities and hope for work, education, or a better future for themselves and their families. The children may play – in the Olympics or in the disinhibited freedom of the riot – but how will they live? What are their prospects in an England denied recognition by the British state, and as citizens on the ethnic and economic margins of a marketised British society? Will the glittering spectacle of the Olympics, to which they are denied access, make them feel even more alienated from the opportunities and successes that seem reserved for a social elite: bankers, corporations, Olympians?

The opening ceremony identified Britain firmly with the Olympic ideal of nations fusing together as the Olympic rings emerged from the mills that made modern Britain. But is this ideal, in Britain’s case, a mere forgery: a fake, counterfeit image whose underlying reality is far more disunited, chaotic and ugly?

28 July 2012

Isles of Wonder, or a world left wondering?

So what are we to make of last night’s Olympics opening ceremony? Firstly, I would have to say that it was indeed spectacular and impressive, and many moments stood out that will doubtless linger on in the memory, such as the factory funnels emerging from [England's] green and pleasant land; the Olympic rings being forged in the steel mills; and the magnificent solution they come up with for lighting the Olympic cauldron.

Now for the criticism. It would be easy to be churlish and run off a list of all the many aspects of British and English history that were glossed over or left out altogether. The ones that stuck out in my mind were the history of Empire and slavery, and the darker moments of our industrial past; although the ‘Satanic mills’ segment of last night’s show did allude to those in a gentle way. You could also mention Magna Carta; the long story of Christianity as a central pillar of the UK nations’ society and culture; the role of sports not included in the Olympics, such as rugby and cricket (or those which, from an English point of view, should not be represented by a British team, such as football); and the history of violence in English society, for which we are infamous throughout the world, as typified by football hooliganism and last summer’s riots.

Similarly, I thought that some of the history in the performance was a bit garbled and skewed, such as when there was a brief moment of remembrance for the victims of World Wars I and II, and the narrative then returned to 19th-century industrial scenes. How about remembering the victims of all wars Great Britain, and then the UK, has been involved in, including the American War of Independence, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Crimean and Boer Wars? Perhaps just a tad sensitive vis-à-vis our US, French, Russian and African guests – so the ceremony shied away from those out of political correctness.

Politically correct does really sum it up, although this was not always compatible with factually correct. I’m thinking, for example, of the celebration of the NHS, which pretended that there is still a ‘UK NHS’, true to its founding principles. The truth, as we know, is that there are now four NHS’s – one for each of the UK’s nations – and that the English one has just recently been opened up to private market forces. Of course, I suppose the creator of last night’s spectacular, Danny Boyle, could have been making another political point by making ‘the NHS’ such a centrepiece; although, if he was, this was again very subtle and indirect, and glossed over the fact that the NHS – the British one – is no more. Perhaps, rather, we should interpret the NHS bit as a celebration of ‘British times past’, of bygone Britain, like most of the rest of the show.

This was in fact a highly backward- and inward-looking, nostalgic and retro view of Britain, and will probably confirm to people of many other countries just how self-important, arrogant and insular ‘the British’ are. ‘Oh’, they might say, ‘so Britain invented the industrial revolution, unionism, women’s rights and suffrage, modern sport, popular music and the World Wide Web, did they?’ Apart from the fact that this is not strictly true, it’s all historical. What is its relevance to the present, and what sort of vision of its future does ‘Great Britain’ have today? And what is its relevance to the many other participating nations that are going through similar convulsions in the present? Has Britain learned something from its past that can help it to guide those other countries and help prepare a sustainable future for the community of nations going forward? What about a vision for a sustainable planet – post-industrial for countries like Britain but still very industrial for many developing nations – to present to all the nations gathered symbolically in the Olympic stadium and watching via the medium, TV, that was invented and first used in live broadcasts in Britain? And what were they to make of all of the ‘in’ cultural references that only British, and sometimes only English, people could really relate to? ‘God, these people are so damn introverted and up their own proverbials!’

The truth of the matter is that ‘Great Britain’ doesn’t actually have a vision of its future nor of its place in a rapidly evolving world. In no small measure, that’s because Great Britain is indeed a historical relic in itself: neither ever a proper, unified nation in its past; nor, certainly, a nation or polity in the present that is capable of expressing and mediating the hopes, aspirations, national sentiment or desire for deeper democracy on the part of its respective constituent nations.

So last night’s event was perhaps after all a fitting celebration of what it means to be British: a multifarious community with a strong sense of its past but no vision for the future. Isles of Wonder and historical reverie, indeed; but one that would have left the rest of the world wondering.

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