Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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?

26 November 2011

The meaning of the English riots and the meaninglessness of ‘England’

The riots that erupted in several English cities in August of this year seem to have become very much yesterday’s news, particularly as all eyes are now focused on the unfolding nightmare of the euro meltdown. Every now and then, the riots make it back on to the headlines as reports come out, such as when it was revealed a couple of weeks ago that shopkeepers who’d put in requests for the promised financial assistance from the state to make good the damage caused by looters had hardly received a penny – indicative of how the whole thing has slipped into oblivion.

If you do a Google search on ‘English riots’, you might be surprised how little variety and quantity of articles come up: quite a lot concentrated around the actual time of the riots, towards the beginning of August; but then, after that, you get little more than the occasional opinion article attempting to single out the ultimate cause or meaning of the riots – e.g. the pope linking them to ‘moral relativism’ in September; the Campaign for Social Justice deliberating in October on what ‘sparked off’ the riots; or the ‘Scottish violence reduction unit co-director’, no less, linking them to greed rather than anger in the pages of the Guardian this month.

You get a greater range of results if you search instead under ‘UK riots’ or ‘British riots': more on the implications for policy, the courts and the law, the economy and business, and Britain’s international reputation and the Olympics. This in itself would tend to suggest that the political and media establishment is more concerned about the riots as a potential challenge to the effective management of the British state, to law and order, and to business as usual than as a symptom of serious problems within English society that the state has a duty to engage with. There is a disconnect between the terms of reference and spheres of activity of the UK state and those sections of English society that did erupt into violence in August. And perhaps one of the main reasons for that explosion was the existence of that disconnect in the first place.

This week, David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, where the riots started and were probably more violent than anywhere else, has been publicising his new book: ‘Out Of the Ashes: Britain After the Riots’. This seeks to analyse the causes of the riots and propose some policy changes that might help address them. As the name suggests, Mr Lammy shares the Labour Party’s reluctance to say the word ‘England': substituting ‘Britain’ for England, even though the riots were restricted to England and so should properly be regarded as an English issue. I’ve just been listening to Mr Lammy on BBC Radio 4’s ‘This Week’ programme, and he again erroneously referred to the riots as having taken place in cities across ‘Britain’.

Mr Lammy also believes that there is a limit to what the state can do to directly address the sorts of social problem that manifested themselves in the rioting. The MP points to the ineffectiveness of the Blair governments’ obsession with trying to legislate social problems out of existence; and he points to how Gordon Brown’s response to the break-down of inner city communities was his Tax Credits scheme, which would have looked like irrelevant “madness” to many of his constituencies. Mr Lammy’s view is that the ‘root causes’ of the riots are greed and selfishness. These result from economic and social liberalism and individualism, the latter developing from the 1980s onwards, the former going back to the social and moral revolution of the 60s. One major issue, for Lammy, is fatherless families, with many young men from all ethnic backgrounds lacking the moral example and personal discipline that the presence of a caring and responsible father can provide. So Lammy proposes remedies such as personal mentors to try to give such rootless youngsters more direction and self-belief.

I in fact agree with much of what David Lammy says. But does it go far enough? Can radical change towards a greater policy focus on family, community values and personal responsibility really take effect without political will, and without a wholesale realignment of the British state’s engagement – or lack of it – in English social policy? The break-down in families, communities and morality in many parts of English society may not be something that the state is best equipped to deal with, but it is a matter for the nation: specifically, the English nation. The problem is that the British state is unwilling and unable to take up its responsibilities as a government for the English nation, and confines itself to ‘British’ policy areas for which it has a more genuine democratic remit: law and order, economics, social security and international affairs.

By contrast, the British state has become increasingly both uninterested and disinterested in – disengaged from – social policy areas where its responsibilities are limited to England: education, health care, social services, families and communities, housing, economic development, and even policing. However, these are precisely the areas where an integrated policy response – co-ordinated with UK-level policy areas such as employment and benefits – is required to address the problems that manifested themselves in the riots: the poor educational experiences and employment prospects of many of those involved; the social and personal break-down that Lammy is focused on; the absence of decent, affordable housing, resulting in sink estates where youngsters are exposed to drug abuse, gangs and petty crime; and policing being often more about victimising and containing certain social groups rather than working as part of an integrated approach to taking youngsters away from crime and back into sustainable education, employment and communities.

Instead of regarding and responding to the riots as a national [English] phenomenon that requires a concerted and co-ordinated national policy response, the British state is in fact intent on transferring all of these policy areas and the social problems that pertain to them to the private realm: increasingly privatised, individualised, personalised and localised management, focus and provision of education, health care, social and community services, housing and policing; no national-level co-ordination around minimum-acceptable standards for shared, national public services and amenities based around a vision for what kind of country we want [England] to be. The attempt to isolate the locus and causes of the English riots, and of their possible solution, down to the individual and community level is another symptom of this inability and unwillingness to embrace a broader, national vision: it’s left to individuals in isolation and ‘society’ in the abstract to heal themselves of the ills of selfish individualism and materialistic greed, rather than the nation as a whole trying to work together to create a better society where young people have something to offer and a stake in a future.

So the English riots arose in large measure from a vacuum: the absence of a nation – England – which English youngsters believe will offer them a future, an identity and a purpose in life. And any attempt to pinpoint the causes of the riot will itself be vacuous if they do not acknowledge, and thereby perpetuate, this absence of a meaningful England. Instead, all such prescriptions will embody the same vacuity of policy vision, understanding and discourse whereby the state transfers English social problems to a private realm beyond its direct sphere of action.

Sure, the riots reveal deep social, psychological, moral and indeed spiritual disorder and chaos within English society. They show that, for many English people – most of them young – life has little meaning, beauty or value. But we won’t get close to understanding the meaning of that meaninglessness until we retrieve its specifically English character from the meaninglessness and intractability to which we have confined it by expelling ‘England’ from the realm of British politics, discourse and collective responsibility.

Many of our English youngsters experience their lives as meaningless. Giving them faith in their own country – England – is a critical part of the meaning we must help them find.

English parliament

10 October 2011

Don’t treat England differently! The Health and Social Care Bill, and the denial of England

It’s a fitting irony that we’re relying on the unelected second chamber of the Union parliament – the House of Lords – to radically revise or throw out the government’s [English] Health and Social Care Bill this week. England has no democratically elected parliament of its own, so it’s up to a non-democratic part of the Union parliament to reject an English bill for which there is no democratic mandate.

In this sense, the Bill neatly symbolises England’s invidious constitutional position. England is ‘treated differently’ from the UK’s other nations, both politically (by not having a national parliament or assembly to stand up for its people and its rights), and – as a consequence of its disempowerment – medically, because the government can get away with a health-care bill that English people have not voted for.

It’s this basic connection between the political limbo status of England and the Union government’s radical privatisation of health-care delivery in England that the UK Uncut group that blocked Westminster Bridge yesterday afternoon simply don’t, or won’t, get. In my previous post, I discussed my futile efforts to get UK Uncut to acknowledge the England-specific nature of the Health and Social Care Bill, and to refer to ‘England’ in their campaign material; so I won’t go over that ground in detail again. But ‘Don’t treat England differently!’ would have been an excellent slogan for the demonstrators to use yesterday, as it sums up the link between the political and health-care discrimination against England.

Another good slogan would have been: ‘Don’t let the British government RIP off the English NHS!’ In fact, I suggested some England-focused slogans to UK Uncut on Twitter but, unsurprisingly, got no response: not a dicky bird. In fact, I got no response of any sort – not even offensive – to my countless tweets and email pointing out their ignoring / ignorance of the England-specific dimension of the Bill and the fact that this considerably lessens the political impact of their campaign.

But perhaps ‘Don’t treat England differently!’ does in fact sum up another aspect of UK Uncut’s position that blunts their effectiveness, so to speak: they resolutely refuse to treat England differently from the UK / Britain in media and communications terms. In other words, like the Union establishment itself, UK Uncut resolutely refuses to separate English matters out from UK matters, and to differentiate between England and Britain. But if you don’t treat England differently, in this sense, you affirm the legitimacy of the British state and parliament to legislate for England in the way it does: with scant regard for public and professional opinion about the health service, and absolutely no regard for the / an English nation as such whose health service it might actually be.

So by refusing to ‘treat England differently’ from the UK, UK Uncut validates the right of the Union parliament to ride rough-shod over genuine democracy for England and the English public interest. And what a respectable, restrained, middle-class and, indeed, establishment protest it was in the end! Merely 3,000-maximum protesters blocking the bridge in front of Parliament for three hours on a Sunday afternoon, when the potential to cause any serious disruption to the life of the capital city was virtually at its lowest! Almost a Sunday afternoon walk in the park. In fact, it feels more like an act of homage and prostration before the all-powerful British parliament. Indeed, the protesters did prostrate themselves at the start of the demo, by lying down and acting dead – symbolically conceding defeat before they’d even started.

To be honest, although I don’t in any way endorse their methods, I feel the English rioters in August made more of a point politically, and a more powerful comment on the state of English society, than did UK Uncut yesterday. I’m not suggesting the Undivided-Unionites (UK Uncutters) should have rioted, but they could have done something more dramatic and forceful, even if not actually violent. How about setting up a tent hospital on Parliament Green, like the protest tent community in Madrid, and making the point that this is what basic English health care would be like if the Union government got its way? But UK Uncut clearly wanted to minimise the risk of confrontation with the police, and of other less peaceful-minded groups getting involved and causing damage. After all, they didn’t want to be associated in the public’s mind with those squalid rioters from the English underclass, now did they? The UK may be uncut (not divided by devolution) in their aspirations, but they certainly don’t feel they have anything in common with those common people from the sink estates –whom, incidentally, the NHS is there to serve.

But just as yesterday’s UK Uncut protest is today’s fish and chip paper, even the English riots have now been forgotten, and the chasm between the British governing class and the English underclass, and working class, has been papered over – for a time. But one thing’s for sure: the UK Uncutters share more in common with that governing class than with the common people of England. The riots were a manifestation of the fact that England does not have a political voice: that the British political class is interested only in the British economy, and in pursuing their own ideological agenda and business interests, not in those who get left behind. And UK Uncut, which speaks only in the name of the UK, not England, stands solidly – or should that be limply? – among those who deny England that voice.

English parliament

8 September 2011

If they won’t say ‘England’, we shouldn’t say ‘Britain’

It’s a familiar gripe: most England-based politicians, journalists, bloggers, etc. simply refuse to say ‘England’ even when it is English facts they’re talking about. If they speak the name of any country at all – rather than simply saying ‘our country’, or even just ‘our’ and ‘we’ – it’ll invariably be ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’.

I was struck by another example of the phenomenon last week when I listened to an otherwise perceptive and thought-provoking talk on BBC Radio Four’s ‘Four Thought‘ programme given by Ed Howker, co-author of the book ‘Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth’. Perhaps the clue was in the name, or perhaps it was because the speaker was recorded at the Edinburgh Festival, but I heard the word ‘England’ only once in Ed Howker’s talk, whereas the rest of his presentation was peppered with references to ‘Britain’, including – if not mainly – in contexts that were exclusively English: particularly last month’s riots.

Why this persistent, obdurate will not to name English social phenomena, facts and policies as English but refer to them indiscriminately as ‘British’ – even on the part of someone who clearly has some insights and is genuinely concerned about the viewpoint and experiences of the young English people involved in the riots? Clearly, part of the problem is that some of the issues discussed were genuinely UK-wide, such as the blight of youth unemployment, social attitudes towards young people and cuts to benefits that many young people depend on. But this was interspersed with discussion of topics that were undeniably England-specific.

On one level, Howker was merely trying to be inclusive for his Edinburgh audience by generalising to ‘Britain’ matters that mainly related to England: a device that ‘English’ Britishers employ all the time. But saying ‘Britain’ when talking about England is inclusive in a more general sense: one where it is necessary to speak to Britain as well as of Britain if you wish to be included within public life and take part in the national conversation that defines Britain itself. That is to say, ‘Britain’ increasingly manifests and articulates itself, and asserts its claim to power and authority, primarily through discourse itself.

One definition of ‘Britain’ is that it is the name for the sovereign power and authority – the established order – that holds sway over the geographical territory also known loosely as ‘Britain’ (i.e. the United Kingdom and its crown dependencies). In this sense, Britain is the ‘nation’ as defined in terms of its system of (self-)government: the nation as polity – sovereign parliament and people, rulers and ruled, as one. Prior to devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, that sovereign power used to be co-terminous – or was more readily imagined as co-terminous – with the whole territory of the UK / Britain and with all its peoples: there was no distinction made between Britain the great power (that rules the waves and the empire beyond), Britain the territory (the realm) and Britain the nation (that never shall be slaves because it rules itself). As a consequence of devolution, however, there has been a profound tearing asunder of Britain the polity from Britain as territory and as people: the first Britain’s writ no longer holds over the whole of the second Britain – the territory and its peoples. (Technically, its writ does still apply across the UK, as Britain retains full sovereignty over the devolved nations and can take back the devolved powers at any time – but in practice, or at least in popular imagination, those powers and that sovereignty have been transferred and not merely delegated.)

So when people such as myself rail against the fact that politicians refer to English matters as ‘British’, or as simply pertaining to ‘this country’ without any reference to the country’s name, we are pointing to this split whereby ‘British’ governance now in practice applies in many matters only to the geographical territory of England rather than the whole territory of the UK: the Britain of government no longer literally and metaphorically ‘maps on to’ the territory of Britain, but often extends to England alone. For this reason, these should more properly be called English matters, rather than British. Yet, on another level, these remain British matters and are ‘appropriately’ described as such, insofar as they remain matters of ‘British’ governance: pertaining to Britain as the name of the sovereign power. In this sense, even England itself is correctly designated as ‘Britain’ on the basis that it is a British territory, which falls under the sovereign power that is Britain – indeed, it is now the only territory that remains wholly within the British orbit.

The point I’m trying to make is that when people ‘talk Britain’, and apply the name of Britain to England, what they are primarily doing is asserting the sovereign authority of Britain over England rather than mis-describing England as ‘Britain’. Asserting that sovereignty involves assimilating England to Britain. A failure to impose this assimilation would mean that Britain would no longer be itself – a nation defined in its very self-government – but would be seen increasingly as a sort of arbitrary imposition of extraneous, undemocratic, oppressive control denying England the self-government that it – Britain – claims as its own prerogative. This is indeed how those who assert England’s right to self-government see Britain, and I’ll return to the implications of this below.

But before I do this, I’d like to comment on the fact that this use of ‘Britain’ as the name for the nation is something perpetrated not only by establishment figures such as politicians but also by those who challenge government’s policies in quite fundamental ways – without challenging the British system of government itself through which those policies have been implemented. This observation would apply to Ed Howker above and, in general, to the various movements and social analyses that have sprung up in this era of government cuts to challenge the assumptions behind the cuts and demand a change of course, such as the UK Uncut protest movement or the ‘Fight Back’ account of the (mostly English) student protests at the end of last year. These analyses all uncritically refer to the nation as ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’ despite the fact that many of the cuts and public-sector reforms that are being protested about apply to England only. And that’s because the rhetoric of ‘Britain’ is the discourse through which power articulates itself. This means that if you want to be heard by the powers that be – if you want your analysis to be not only insightful and accurate but effective in instigating political change – you have to formulate your arguments in the terms that the British establishment imposes and dictates: through the language of ‘Britain’, which is the language of the established polity.

By contrast, if you decide to air your grievances as ‘English’ and frame your social analysis as applying to a country called ‘England’, you can be virtually guaranteed that your arguments will be dismissed out of hand and not even listened to, or else misrepresented and wilfully misunderstood as being merely narrowly nationalistic, chippy or even racist. To be included in the national debate, you must say ‘Britain’ because ‘Britain’ is as much the name and discourse in and through which that debate is conducted as it is the name of the ‘nation’ being debated. But if you try to articulate a different sense of identity, nationhood and political focus – an English one – you can be sure that you and your opinions will be excluded from any conversation of influence or power. To speak to and of ‘Britain’ is therefore a means to be inclusive, not only because it opens out English issues to all UK citizens (whether accurately or inaccurately), but because to be or feel included in any position to wield political, social or economic power, that power play must be directed to, and be articulated in terms of, ‘Britain’.

But there’s a problem for the Britologists: the propagandists for Britain who would propagate Britain through discourse itself. While saying ‘England’ is absolutely excluded from any discourse of power, the Britishers are aware that they can no longer get away with referring to the nation as ‘Britain’ in contexts where it is completely obvious that only England is really being talked about. In the Howker talk I mentioned above, for instance, it did become necessary at one point for the speaker to be geographically specific and refer to ‘England’ – if I remember correctly, referring to the fact that the devastation caused by the riots took place in English cities only.

Similarly, British politicians can no longer really get away with talking about policies as applying to ‘Britain’ in cases where people have become aware that they apply to England alone. Paradoxically, to describe them in this way would involve particularising Britain: making the term ‘Britain’ apply only to a limited geographical part of Britain (England), rather than to the whole of the territory and to the sovereign power of government in general. This is what Gordon Brown effectively did, setting up a bizarre UK comprising Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Britain, with Britain meaning both the UK and England: the two Britains I discussed above – the British polity and the territory over which it has retained full sovereignty, which has been reduced to England only.

So instead of acknowledging the shrinking of Britain down to England, the present tactic of the establishment is generally to avoid using any specific name for ‘this country’, and thereby avoid both the odd and confusing use of ‘Britain’ where ‘England’ is obviously meant, and the ‘inappropriate’ acknowledgement of England by name where British sovereign governance is being asserted and exercised. Above all, you mustn’t create the impression that government policies are British policies for England, which would invoke that post-devolution separation between Britain and its constituent parts, and would lead people to think that maybe we would be better off with English policies for England, with English-national politicians acting in the English-national interest, rather than British politicians governing England in the British interest, including in the interest of perpetuating the very system of power and governance that Britain itself is.

By using the expression ‘this country’ – and still more by personalising it as ‘our country’, and even just as ‘we’ and ‘our’ – the establishment tries to re-invoke that pre-devolution sense that we are just ‘one nation': government and people united in shared self-government, mutual acknowledgement and respect, and common Britishness. Ironically, then, the unity and cohesion of Britain – and the adhesion of England to Britain – can be assured only by acknowledging ‘this country’ neither as Britain nor as England wherever facts and policies are being referred to in their exclusivity to England.

Using the language of ‘this country’, and of ‘society’ in general, helps to de-particularise the matters being discussed: it abstracts them from their particularity to England and naturalises them. That is, it’s a strategy that makes ‘this country’ seem a self-evident, natural, absolute concept whose meaning ‘we’ understand when we use it. Clearly, it’s a way of saying Britain, evoking Britain, without actually saying the word ‘Britain': it’s a way of implying that there is still a shared national-British conversation and polity – one that in fact defines ‘us’ as a nation – that is as timeless and unchanging as the geology of the British Isles. This is not just the immutable order of British society but the order of things, the way things are; and it’s what makes ‘us’ British.

But this is a fabrication and a chimera: not so much a lie as a self-justifying, rationalising fiction. Britain isn’t the natural order of things and an immovable edifice solid in its immemorial foundations, but a political construct and project: it’s a system of sovereign government that the citizens of the UK used to identify with and think of as their own; but now that unity between the polity, the territory and the people of Britain has broken. This is the true meaning of ‘broken Britain': don’t ascribe this concept to dysfunctional English communities and rioting English youth. It’s the politicians that have broken Britain, and no amount of endless invocations of ‘our country’ will bring it back.

In short, the breaking up of Britain into its component territories and nations means that the British government increasingly appears more like a Union government than a national government: it’s a government that seeks to hold together a union of multiple nations, and indeed whose continued existence as a system of governance depends on its ability to do so. As English nationalists who by definition support the idea of England as a self-governing nation (rather than a province of a self-styled British nation), we must do everything in our power to oppose the British establishment’s attempts to suppress the idea of England as a nation in its own right and with its own rights, including those of self-government. And that also means opposing and subverting the rhetorical tricks through which ‘Britain’ seeks to impose itself on our minds and hearts as the, and indeed ‘our’, nation.

What I’m suggesting is that, just as the defenders of the British order refuse to say ‘England’, we in turn should refuse to say ‘Britain’ or ‘this country’. Instead, when we’re referring to Britain as the sovereign power and established order in the land, we should wherever possible call it ‘the Union'; ‘the Union government’ instead of ‘British government'; ‘the Union’ instead of ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK'; ‘Unionists’ for anyone who identifies as British, and supports the present disenfranchisement and suppression of England. Doing this helps to objectify and politicise ‘Britain’, making it clear that we view it as a political system and construct (a Union of nations) rather than as a self-evident, self-governing ‘country’ that we are all supposed to identify with and accept as our own, despite the realities on the ground and in our own sense of distinct English nationhood. And suppressing ‘Britain’ from our language also replicates and pays back the humiliating and insulting suppression of ‘England’ from the discourse through which ‘Britain’ imposes its power and identity over England.

I’m not saying that we should refuse to say ‘Britain’ altogether. We should retain the word in its two other common meanings: the geographical land mass, and principally the island of Britain itself; and ‘British’ in the cultural sense, referring to the shared history and traditions of people throughout the nations of Britain. This is Britain as a historic national identity whose days are numbered in terms of the politically enforced unity of the Union state, but which we can continue to celebrate as a historic achievement and as an expression of solidarity between the British peoples, who share so much in common. But we should refuse to say ‘Britain’ as the name of the ‘nation’-as-polity: the sovereign political power. This is to deny ‘Britain’ the power that it would assert over England, not just physically in terms of laws we must obey but psychologically by imposing Britain as ‘our country’. Our country is England, not Britain; and Britain is a Union state that seeks to run England for its own benefit, not that of England’s people. And we must express this fact in our language.

And of course, it doesn’t go without saying that we should always call ‘our country’ ‘England’ wherever it is really England we are talking about. Let’s not worry about being inclusive to non-English Britons by pretending we’re talking about the whole Union when we’re really discussing English matters. And above all, let’s not try to be inclusive in the broader sense: replicating a discourse of ‘Britain’ by which the Union seeks to impose itself as the power in the land and the power over our minds, and whose linguistic norms we must conform to if we are to feel included in the national conversation and life of the ‘nation’. We seek in fact to establish a new English nation, and it must first exist in the truth of our language if it is to truly challenge the terms and realities of Union rule.

15 August 2011

Cameron and Miliband speak of England’s riots without saying “England”

I suppose this sort of thing should come as no surprise any more. ‘England’ is, after all, the absolute taboo word for the leaders of the main UK parties. Therefore, it’s par for the course that neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband could bring themselves to say “England” in their speeches today on the English riots and their proposed response to them. To be fair to Miliband, his speech did include the following phrase quite early on: “no major English city seemed safe or immune from what was happening”. But that was it: no further reference to the nation scarred by the riots last week in an article incredibly and insultingly entitled ‘The National Conversation’. What the ****! (I apologise to my readers, but I’m increasingly using the ‘F’ word these days, almost in inverse proportion to politicians’ non-use of the ‘E’ word.)

I’m not proposing to conduct a detailed analysis of these two speeches here. (Sigh of relief from some of you out there, no doubt.) I just can’t bring myself to do it, to be honest. Besides which, it would be pretty pointless: no one who really needs to hear the anger of a nation ignored and anonymised, even at a moment of national crisis, is likely to take note of anything I say. I mean, for C*****’s sake, large parts of our major cities were smashed up, ransacked and burnt down, and they STILL can’t bring themselves to address the nation by name! What is it actually going to take?

But it’s not just about hearing the anger of a nation spurned, but about the possibility of meaningful dialogue: you can’t have a meaningful ‘national conversation’ if one side of the discussion isn’t listened to, acknowledged and named by the other side. But as I suggested in my previous post, the British-establishment discourse and world view, which is now reasserting itself, is simply not willing or able to engage with the English narrative of futility, envy, rage and humiliation that was expressed in such a self-defeating manner last week because those resorting to such pointless violence lack the political language and civic skills to protest and challenge the powers that be more constructively.

How can I put it succinctly? It’s not just that the English violence that erupted last week stokes and confirms the establishment’s irrational fear of a nameless, formless, anarchic English mob that threatens to overthrow the whole British order, so that the establishment then reacts by castigating the moral disorder of certain nameless ‘parts of society’, and proposes stern measures to reassert the rule of law and impose proper discipline on the youth. It’s that the British frame of reference and set of values – the British narrative – that are imposed on the situation represent and reaffirm the very structure of repression that led to the violence erupting in the way it did in the first place. This is because the British narrative of ‘individual moral responsibility’ to which everything is now being reduced – however important this concept is – is effectively being used to deny the English young people concerned their own voice and their own stories. If heard, these would no doubt include many tales of chaos, violence, and spiritual and moral emptiness that their lives have thus far been filled with, and which erupted onto the streets last week.

The British establishment doesn’t want to hear that very English tale of what life is like for so many young people in our cities: it doesn’t want to hear it now, after the event, and it didn’t want to before the event. And it was because it wasn’t listening that the violence erupted; and as it’s listening even less now, the violence is all too likely to recur.

One of the things these young people need – certainly more than they need distant politicians they don’t know and respect even less preaching moral responsibility at them – is a country to feel proud of. The patriotic sentiment is important to young people, young men in particular. They need to feel they can be self-respecting, grown-up men, contributing to the prosperity and good of their country as well as bettering themselves. But that country, England, has been systematically belittled, fractured and marginalised by the politicians over the last 30 years or so, and particularly since 1997. The politicians have nothing to say to and of that country, despite the fact that both Cameron and Miliband peppered their speeches today with references to ‘our country’ and ‘the country’. The parties have no commitment to England and to any sort of vision of a better English nation, where it would be politicians and not just rioters who would hang their heads in shame at last week’s destruction, because it reveals how they have failed England and not delivered on their social contract to provide decent living spaces, education, employment and prospects to England’s youth.

It’s not only the youth of England that has failed but the British politicians that have failed English youth. They have nothing to say to that England, and they certainly aren’t listening. And that’s why ‘England’ will continue to be suppressed and ignored, not just in British political language, but in British policies that will not address English problems if they cannot address England by name.

13 August 2011

England: A Tale Of Two Countries

What is the greatest division in England today? Is it the famous North-South Divide? Is it the gap between the haves and the have-nots? How about England’s world-famous class system? Or the division between rioters and non-rioters?

My answer is that it’s none of those things and, at the same time, all of them. But the biggest division in England today, and one which subsumes the others, is that between England and Britain, and between the English and the British.

Who are the English? Well, the rioting English – and let’s not pretend, as the British establishment has tried to, that these were UK riots – live mostly in what we shall call the ‘inner shitties': shit, gang-infested areas and housing estates; attending shit schools that leave them ignorant and under-equipped for the modern work market; often in shit jobs on the minimum wage, if they’ve got work at all; and living in crappy social and physical environments where survival, and getting what you can get whenever and however you can get it, is just the norm.

Not all of the English live in the inner shitties, of course. Let’s not forget about the ‘country-shite’, where most of the low-paid, unskilled work is now carried out by Eastern European migrants; where housing costs are so prohibitive that families working in the country can no longer afford to live there; and where the situation has become so desperate for many farmers that they have the highest suicide rate of any section of the English population. But the riots were urban and weren’t about the country(side) – although they were about the country (England).

Where do the British live? Well, they were on their expensive foreign holidays when the trouble broke out. The English go on foreign trips, too, of course, though less now than they used to a few years ago, the Spanish Costa being the destination of choice. The British, by contrast, are a bit more selective and cosmopolitan in their holiday destinations: France and Tuscany, rather than Spain; and if you must do the Med, then at least make it somewhere a bit more exclusive than the major Spanish and Greek resorts – I don’t know, like Corfu, for instance, favoured by our wealthy chancellor.

When back in Britain, the British tend to live in the better areas that generally were not directly affected by the riots, with the exception of Ealing – though that’s near to the ganglands of Hanwell: Kensington and Chelsea, for instance; or Muswell Hill, where the TV producers and executives congregate, rather than neighbouring, ransacked Wood Green and Tottenham. From their comfortable islands of prosperity, it’s easy for the British to project the riots as a symptom of others’ failed morality, as these are depths of behaviour to which they’d like to think they’d never stoop and will probably never have to. From a safe distance, the British can generously characterise the violence and criminality as the expression of ‘sick’ parts of ‘our society’, for which they’ll set about prescribing remedies, including more ‘robust’ policing, and law and order measures that will keep the rioting English away from their doorsteps: a sort of ‘kettling’ and ghettoising on a grand scale.

In an excoriating attack yesterday on the hypocrisy of the British establishment in relation to the riots, the columnist Peter Oborne recounted the story of a posh dinner party he’d attended in West London, where the guests were talking of the ‘north-south divide’. He took them to mean the divisions between the north and south of England but eventually realised they were flippantly referring to the areas north and south of Kensington High Street. For him, this was an example of how the wealthy economic and political elite of Britain increasingly live in their own bubble, detached from the poverty and deprivation in many parts of England and their own cities, and feeling little sense of real ‘responsibility’ (Cameron’s favourite word) either for causing England’s social problems or for doing anything meaningful about them.

In fact, if there’s one thing the riots appeared to demonstrate, it was that there is much less of a north-south divide than is often acknowledged – in England, that is, as opposed to the divide between Britain and England. The riots, as a popular, on-the-ground phenomenon, spread like wildfire from the south of England to the north but did not spread across England’s northern and western borders: clearly, an England-wide and English-national phenomenon, with young English people throughout the country expressing solidarity with each other, of however crazed and destructive a kind, and wreaking mayhem for the same reasons.

And what were those reasons? Can ‘mindless’ violence, as the British termed it, have a rational cause; or can senseless destruction have a meaning? It’s too easy to jump to conclusions and provide ready-made explanations that often tell us more about the person offering the analysis than the events they’re trying to explain away. Isn’t the point, precisely, that actions that appear meaningless, to the British at least, express the fact that, for many English people, their lives themselves are without meaning?

Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, rather than being devoid of meaning, the lives of many urban English people have come to be seen – by themselves as much as by the British – as stripped of any intrinsic value. The only things that have any value for them are valuable things: merchandise that can be bought and sold for a high price. And if the rioters’ humanity has been debased by a life of humiliating relative poverty and feeling personally under-valued, then it is not so surprising that they in turn strip out the shops in their neighbourhoods that are the repository of the valuable items they think will give them a surrogate worth they don’t hold in themselves, and that they’ll leave those shops gutted: visual metaphors for the impoverishment of their own hearts and souls.

Feeling devoid of value also means lacking a narrative. Many commentators have spoken of the terrifying fact that the rioters appeared to feel they had nothing to lose in their brazen confrontation with the forces of law and order, and their wanton acts of violence. Feeling you have nothing to lose means you have no hope in a better future: no narrative about your life that gives you a reasonable expectation of making progress and gaining some of the good things in life – education; a fulfilling career; a home; a decent family life; a reasonable standard of living. It’s these things, these terribly ordinary, mundane things, that many of the rioters feel they have no prospect of as well as no past experience of. This is what life has become for many urban English: rubbish schools; crap jobs or no jobs, and little dignity in work; crap housing, as decent homes have been priced way beyond the purse of the poorer sections of society; broken families; and declining living standards. It’s enough to provoke a riot! Oh yes, it just did.

The British, by contrast, can afford to send their children to good schools; or, if they can’t or won’t send them to private schools, they can afford to move to the areas where the top-performing publicly funded schools are located, thus pricing working-class people out of the housing market. The British have an expectation, indeed a sense of entitlement, to decent careers in the professions, business and the public sector. They can afford to give their children a better start in life, more expensive things (the latest laptops, smartphones, designer goods), and enjoyable and educational experiences. And if they can’t always actually be there with the children because they’re working long hours or their marriage has broken up, then they can at least afford better child care and material compensations for the children. And as the pressures on middle-class incomes mount, the pressures to get around the problems through little dodges such as tax evasion, expenses claims, back-handers and bankers’ bonuses also increase. But as ‘we’re all in it together’, this starts to become morally acceptable, even normal.

Now clearly, it’s simplistic to make out that all the ‘winners’ in English society are British while all the ‘losers’ are English. Many middle- and upper-middle-class people in England think of themselves as English and view their country as England. However, the narrative, or even meta-narrative, they tell for their lives – past and future – is much more likely to be British. That is, the account they give of themselves, and the meaning they give to their lives and identity, are far more likely to involve seeing themselves as included and playing a positive role in ‘British society’ and a ‘British nation’, and hence ultimately as being British.

Why is this so? Because ‘Britain’ represents the established political and economic order in England, and those who feel they have a stake in that order, and have made a success of their lives by adapting to it, are more likely to identify with it and give it their allegiance. The British narrative is of a country called Britain – or its carelessly bandied synonym ‘the UK’ – where it’s possible to be successful by playing the game: making sure you can get into the right schools, the right universities, the property ladder in the right areas, the right careers in the most promising economic sectors, and picking the right partner in life to be the mother or father of your children, and support each other’s career goals. And British politicians cater to that market – that demographic – rightly concluding they will be unelectable if they don’t help create conditions in which this British ethos and this British dream can prosper; because it’s mainly the British voters on whom election results depend and who, in England at least, bother to turn out to vote because they believe they have a stake in the result.

So the British narrative is one of success, where success and social inclusion is defined mainly in economic terms: being a successful agent in the market economy – indeed, in the market society. By contrast, the English narrative is one of failure: a story of break-down – economic, social and moral. Or rather, the English narrative is one that is set in the past tense only: one that can only look back at what we had, or believe we had, in the past; not one that looks forward to any future. It’s a narrative of exclusion, precisely because the discourse of inclusion in the successful society is British. Indeed, the British identity can be said to be ‘inclusive’, in the multi-cultural sense, mainly because immigrants who do prosper in England rightly conclude that they owe their success to Britain: to the British economic and political order. What immigrant would want to be proud to be English when the English have been systematically stripped of pride in their own nation?

Perhaps, then, rather than saying that England is a ‘tale of two countries’, as I suggested in my title, it would be more accurate to say that England is a country of two tales: two narratives that mutually exclude each other – the British narrative of success and meaning, which systematically denies any positive English story, relegating the English to the scrap heaps of history and of their own burning cities.

But at the same time, the British and the English are the two sides of the same coin: the acquisitive greed of the rioting English is but the naked face of the materialist, individualistic greed of the British, with their debased currency of economic success at all cost. The madness we saw on English streets is but a reflection of the madness of a Britain that has sold out to selfish materialism, and the success and entitlement culture.

In short, the madness of our English streets is the bedlam you get when the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

11 August 2011

England’s riots: if you keep trashing England, eventually England will trash you back

It’s easy to pontificate about this week’s riots in England. Everyone’s got their pet theory about the causes and possible solutions, and about what to do with the rioters and looters themselves. Many of those expressing an opinion have little or no first-hand experience of the geographical areas of which they write or of the riots; although many writers have been directly affected by the mayhem. In my case, I do have a lot of direct knowledge of Tottenham – the part of London where it all ‘kicked off’ last Saturday. One of the iconic pictures of the riot, the blazing Carpet Right store that was razed to the ground, is very close to somewhere I have stayed and visited on many occasions. But I wasn’t there on Saturday night and am currently staying in a part of England – Cambridgeshire – that appears up to now to have been unaffected by the troubles.

One fact that is worth pointing out right from the start is that these are English riots, not ‘British’. Up to now, as far as I know, there have been no disturbances and looting in Scotland, Wales or – for once – Northern Ireland. It typically took the media quite a while to wake up to the fact that the riots were limited to England and so should be referred to as ‘England’s riots’, rather than ‘UK riots’. Yesterday, however, I noticed what appeared to be a distinct shift in editorial policy, and the major news broadcasters all seemed to be correctly describing the riots as ‘English’. Which is more than can be said for David Cameron who, in his speech in Downing Street yesterday, still seemed incapable of acknowledging the specifically English character of the riots. Cameron referred merely to “parts of Britain” that were “sick” and failed, yet again, to mention ‘England’ once.

It seems paradoxical that one should feel aggrieved that the specifically English nature of the riots is not being acknowledged by politicians insisting on terming them ‘British’, as the riots are not exactly something to be proud of as an Englishman. But the reason for being angry about this is the same as the reason for being annoyed when any English issue is not referred to as such: it’s because this is a means for politicians and media not to engage with the English dimension of the issue concerned, and hence to avoid taking or suggesting any position to the effect that, maybe, English problems need English solutions – politicians that are willing to provide national leadership for England and to be accountable to the English people in so doing.

In fact, to me, England’s riots seem to illustrate in dramatic fashion what can happen when an entire nation is suppressed and ignored: dropped from the discourse, consciousness and attention of those are supposed to be providing leadership for it and are supposedly elected to serve its people. For years and years, England has in effect been ‘trashed’ by the political, media and liberal classes: disregarded, despised, ignored and erased from politically correct conversation. When a nation becomes the object of the contempt of its own ruling class, and of its economically better-off classes, should we be surprised if those who bear the brunt of that contempt strike back?

Now, I’m not trying to justify the senseless violence and criminality of the riots, and still less suggest that they are the expression of legitimate political protest, which they clearly are not. But in a way, that is the whole point: the young people involved are deprived not only socio-economically (although not all of them, it seems, are under-privileged) but they are deprived of a political language and means of expression for their anger and hostility towards authority. So instead, the outlet for their aggression is trashing retail outlets: symbols of a political and economic system that has left them excluded, marginalised, and frequently unemployed and unemployable.

Again, it’s too easy to generalise and make excuses for the predominantly young people responsible for the violence. But equally, it’s easy to fall into the opposite error. The government and media are attempting to develop a narrative for the riots that makes out that they exhibit ‘pure criminality’ and ‘mindless thuggery’, as well as being the consequence of inadequate parenting, and a break-down in morality and personal ethics ‘in society’ – for which, read England. But this just reduces the whole issue to one of individual ‘responsibility’ – one of Cameron’s favourite words – and glosses over the collective, political, English dimension. Criminality and thuggery, clearly in evidence on England’s streets this week, doesn’t come from nowhere, and it certainly doesn’t just come from the moral break-down of individuals, families and communities. It also has political causes and, in a less obvious way, motivations; and it sure as heck is going to have political consequences.

What we’re going to see is the British political and media establishment rallying round and closing ranks, and propagating the view that there can be only British solutions to these English social problems. And those ‘British solutions’ are going to be ones that flow from the reserved powers and UK-level thinking of the British establishment, rather than expressing a direct engagement with and concern for English social problems as English. Hence, there will be a focus on policing, and law and order (UK Home Office), with draconian punishments for the wrongdoers (which to some extent they deserve) and more ‘robust’ policing methods, which, however, does nothing to address the underlying causes of the violence and is likely to make certain sections of the communities concerned (e.g. the black population) feel even more persecuted than they already do.

Then the discourse around moral responsibility and parenting, however relevant these issues are, is again at the general level at which ‘national’ (i.e. UK) leaders are supposed to provide a moral example – leaving aside the fact that politicians have, in very recent memory, failed to provide such a moral example to society by cheating on their expenses and effectively stealing goods to a much higher value than most of the looters. And all this pontificating about ‘responsibility’ by the British great and good is, to a large extent, an abnegation of their political responsibility to create conditions in society – i.e. England – in which young people feel they have a steak in a meaningful future and in economic activity, rather than having nothing to lose from stealing from those perceived to have benefited from an economy in which they are the losers, and smashing up their country.

And then the call for rioters to forfeit their benefits, which looks likely to be the first e-petition to reach the threshold of 100,000 signatures needed to qualify for a debate in Parliament, again addresses the situation purely at the British level, in that benefits are a UK reserved matter. But how is leaving newly criminalised, unemployed youngsters without any support from society going to encourage them to seek a better path in life? Surely, this is just going to make them feel even more desperate and embittered, and make them lash out even more against a society that has spurned them.

And this is, for me, the crux of the matter. The young people who have been involved in the violence, and whose voices have occasionally been allowed to be heard in the media, have often shown complete contempt and disregard for the police, for the legal system, for any figure of authority, and for the victims of their crimes, particularly the businesses they have wrecked, which they dismiss as the property of ‘rich’ people that had it coming to them. Where does such contempt and hatred come from? In part, at least, they arise from the disregard and indifference of which these English youngsters have been the object throughout their whole lives on the part of a system that has treated them and their country – England – with wholesale contempt. The scorn and indignation that is now being directed towards England’s rioters – justifiably so, in many respects – is co-terminous with the general contempt that the British establishment has for England per se: it’s not just England’s rioters that are at fault, but a violent and ‘sick’ England, which the rioters are seen as symbolising. And the British establishment is set on re-imposing its sway over those unruly English.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I want law and order to be re-established, and I want to be kept safe from gangs of out-of-control youngsters treating wanton destruction as a piece of adrenalin-filled fun rather like a cheap substitute for a trip to Alton Towers that they couldn’t afford. But I don’t think the way to deal with the problem in the long term is to continue to fail to develop social policies for England, and particularly English youngsters, that enable people to take pride in their country. At the most minimal level, these riots demonstrate that those involved do not have pride in their country; and their country, Mr Cameron, is England. The British establishment can’t go on pretending England doesn’t exist, and making social policy for England subordinate to UK-national and economic priorities, regardless of the social impact, without expecting a backlash.

Well, obviously, the UK government does have social policies for England (i.e. in areas such as education, health and communities where its responsibilities – that word again – are limited to England), even though it goes out of its way to avoid acknowledging that those policies are in fact specific to England. But, as I’ve argued previously, those policies flow from an ideology that is economic in its underlying philosophy: essentially, the belief that if the state withdraws from activities that have hitherto been the domain of the public sector, and makes those areas of society the responsibility of the free market, then services will be more appropriate to the needs of individuals and communities, and will be delivered more cost-efficiently and will generate economic growth. Whatever you think of such social-market economics or neo-liberalism, it is an ideology and an economic theory, not proven, empirical ‘fact’ as such; and, for the present government, England is the playground in which these theories are being put to the test. Or should that be a battleground?

The trouble is, market economics have been tested out in England for the past 30 years, and while they’ve made many English people very wealthy, they’ve created a whole class of English people that have lost out: who, for whatever reasons, have not engaged or been able to engage in the market economy that so often prefers to import cheap labour rather than paying English people a living wage and giving them decent working conditions that allow them to gain self-respect from work rather than feeling exploited and looked down upon. And that’s to say nothing of all the army of young unemployed and soon-to-be unemployed from whom benefits such as the Educational Maintenance Allowance and subsidised higher education (both retained in the UK’s devolved nations), let alone welfare benefits and subsidised social services such as youth clubs and leisure facilities, are being withdrawn in the interests of the UK economy and at the behest of ‘the markets’ in which UK plc lives in fear of having its credit rating adjusted downwards, as a consequence, in part, of its massive bail-out of the irresponsible and excessively wealthy financial-services markets themselves.

Really, is it any wonder that these disaffected and disenfranchised youths lash out in an ignorance that is in no small measure testament to an English education system that has failed to endow them with a sense of pride in England even while it tries to inculcate in them a Britishness that means nothing to them in tangible economic terms? If your country means nothing to you – indeed, if you don’t even know anything of your country, its proud history, traditions and culture – then it means nothing to you to trash it. And it means nothing to those youngsters because it is nothing to the British establishment that sees England even less than it sees the faces of those behooded youngsters rampaging through England’s streets.

Those young people – England’s future – are destroying England because they lack a positive political means and language with which to protest against a system that has let them down. And no British solution, imposed top-down from a British establishment that refuses to engage with English society and to seek to be a genuine government for England – a servant of the English people – is going to address this problem, because it will simply perpetuate it. We need an English government that cares about the English people, especially its dysfunctional youngsters, and which can address the problems from the bottom up. Our British obsession with the markets has created a society where economic success or failure is king, and indeed where education is mostly about equipping people to be successful agents in the market place, rather than fully rounded individuals that will care for and contribute to the communities, people and nation around them, as well as generating wealth through work. And where the losers feel they have nothing left to lose in destroying what the winners have gained, they will surely do so.

Only an English civic society can remedy England’s social ills. But English civic society is the last thing the British government is interested in bringing about and fostering. Its vision is the Big Society in which – essentially – communities are left to fend for themselves in a market free-for-all. Well, the market isn’t working for our young people right now and they’re lashing out against it.

If England is denied a civic future in which people of all ages and backgrounds feel they can work together for a better nation, then England will become an even more un-civic, indeed un-civil and uncivilised, place than it has been this week.

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