Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

14 October 2014

TV leaders’ debates: English debates for British votes on English laws

The proposed format for the leaders’ debates on TV ahead of next May’s general election, announced yesterday, reveals the fundamental character of Parliament and UK government as a reimagining-as-British of an essentially English polity. Three debates are mooted: one involving only the two ‘prime ministers in waiting’ (David Cameron and Ed Miliband – so much for the voters being in charge!); one including Nick Clegg in addition the two above ‘presidential’ candidates (ostensibly, to allow the Lib Dem leader to defend his party’s record in government); and one adding UKIP’s Nigel Farage to the mix, because UKIP is putting up a candidate in every constituency in England, Scotland and Wales (and because, let’s face it, its poll ratings and electoral performance can no longer be ignored).

It is staggering how easily and casually the SNP in particular, and also Plaid Cymru, have been excluded from the debates, even though the SNP is now the UK’s third-largest party in terms of members and is likely to be the largest party in Scotland after the 2015 election, as current polling stands. This means that the SNP could well hold the balance of power in a hung parliament and be invited into a UK coalition. Despite this, and despite the fact that the SNP already has six MPs, David Cameron indicated he thought the Green Party should also be included in at least one of the debates, on the basis that it currently has a single MP. If the Greens, why not the SNP, or Plaid, or indeed the Northern Irish parties?

The answer, clearly, is that only parties with MPs elected in England are thought to matter. This is ultimately because the UK polity itself is effectively at core an English polity (though never openly avowed as such). This means that parties’ electoral ‘pitch’ is mainly to English voters on English laws and policies.

The practical reality of Westminster politics is actually the opposite of the way it’s normally construed: it’s not so much that only some laws are English-only (and hence, the argument goes, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should be excluded from debating and voting on them) while some are UK-wide; but in reality, all policies are English, and only some also extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In this context, the real function of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, particularly in the post-devolution era, is merely to add their numbers to the parliamentary arithmetic that determines the composition of UK governments and the passing of English laws. It is assumed, therefore, that the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru needn’t be invited to participate in any of the TV debates because they will not be determining the content of UK (i.e. English) laws after the election – even though the votes of their MPs may be essential in passing those laws, and the participation of their MPs in government may be required as part of a ruling coalition.

But if SNP and, potentially, Plaid and some Northern Irish MPs are needed to form a coalition, don’t English voters have the right to hear what their leaders have to say about the policy concessions they would demand on entering a coalition, and what stance they would take on voting on such a coalition’s England-only or England-mainly laws?

But the ‘English’ parties don’t want English voters to realise that they are dependent on non-English-elected MPs and, by extension, non-English voters for the passing of essentially English laws – by which I mean not only laws whose extent is in fact strictly limited to England (which are in reality very few in number), but all UK laws and government policies: on the basis of my contention above that all UK laws are fundamentally and primarily English laws in the first instance.

On this basis, the moniker of ‘English votes for English laws’, used to justify the potential exclusion of non-English-elected MPs from debates and votes on England-only legislation, is a convenient fiction to cover up the fact that all laws are England-mainly: designed for England by English parties (but which style themselves as ‘British’) and only as it were incidentally extending to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (or one or two of those additional parts of the UK, depending on the geographical extent of any actual bill).

So the UK-wide (i.e. ‘English’) parties don’t want the Scotland- and Wales-only party leaders to participate in the ostensibly UK-wide (i.e. English) TV debates because they don’t want English voters to realise that those Scottish and Welsh parties, as well as Scottish- and Welsh-elected MPs in ‘UK’ (i.e. English) parties, may ultimately call the shots in terms of both ‘UK-wide’ (i.e. England-mainly) and England-only laws.

But the English parties nonetheless want the votes of those parties in Parliament and, potentially, the participation of those parties’ MPs in coalition government. Hence, they need the votes of the Scottish and Welsh electorate, including on genuinely England-only matters: all three ‘UK’ debates will air in Scotland and Wales, even though all laws in devolved policy areas will not affect Scottish and Welsh voters. If those Scottish and Welsh votes can be channelled into ‘UK’ (i.e. English) parties, all the better. Hence, the exclusion of the leaders of the SNP and Plaid fulfils a convenient double purpose: optimise the non-nationalist vote in Scotland and Wales (i.e. the vote for ‘English’ parties in those countries), while preventing English voters from being aware that Scottish and Welsh MPs will play a decisive role in shaping their next government and their laws.

So we’re left in a ludicrous situation of England-only parties in the debates canvassing the votes of all British voters for the passing of English laws in the UK parliament! If the SNP and Plaid are sidelined out of the equation, then you don’t have to consider the awkward potential situation whereby either a Conservative- or Labour-led coalition might actually require the votes of Scottish- or Welsh-nationalist politicians to pass English (i.e. all) their laws.

In which case, we might find that calls for English votes on English laws are quietly dropped. But in the meantime, we mustn’t have the inner workings of a parliamentary system exposed to the view of English and non-English voters alike in which the votes of non-English MPs – and ultimately, of non-English voters – are reduced to the role of providing parliamentary voting fodder in support of fundamentally ‘English’ policy agendas.

But the essentially English status of those policies and of Parliament itself must never be openly acknowledged. If it was, then there would be no alternative other than to move to a more honest separation of English and UK-wide policies and politics: a genuinely English parliament to debate English laws, and a genuine UK parliament to reflect different views and priorities from across the UK, and not just a ‘Britain’ that is fundamentally England re-imagined and re-named.

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

12 September 2011

The BBC’s supposedly ‘English’ bias

Apparently, the Scots have been whingeing about the BBC having too much of an ‘English bias‘. For those of us who are aware of the extent to which the BBC, other news media and Union politicians in fact go out of their way to avoid referring to ‘England’, this appears a bit of a sick joke.

But I suppose the Scots’ complaint is the reverse side of the same devalued Union coin that we English complain about: events and stories that are in fact limited to England are referred to as if they related to the whole Union, usually by means of the avoidance phrase ‘this country’ or its synonyms. For English viewers and listeners, this creates, and is intended to create, the impression that the story in question does pertain to the whole Union, when it doesn’t. And for the Scottish audience, this whips up the old irritation about ‘English’ people arrogantly assuming that England-specific stories are applicable, and hence of interest, to the whole UK.

This is another instance of what I wrote about in my previous post. In many ways, the BBC is the mouthpiece of the Union state and hence is a prime agent in perpetuating the discourse of ‘Britain': the (mis-)representation of ‘the nation’ as a unified, British polity. Hence, many news stories are presented as ‘British’ – or at least as relating to ‘this country’ – because they are a matter of and for the established British order, of which the BBC itself is an integral part. Scots and English alike are rightly annoyed, from different perspectives, that such English stories are portrayed as having UK-wide relevance; and yet, they are also a UK matter in that, for the present, English matters are dealt with by and through the Union establishment: British parliament, British Broadcasting Corporation, British press, etc.

So to all you Scots out there, I say don’t blame us English for the BBC’s ‘English’ bias: blame the Union establishment that deliberately suppresses the distinction between ‘Britain’ and ‘England’ in order to hold on to its power over English affairs and English minds. Rather like the Union government itself, the BBC doesn’t want to be an English Broadcasting Corporation even though that is what it has de facto become in so many ways.

3 July 2011

The Demography and Economics of England and London: Time for a separation?

This week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) produced its estimates for the UK’s population for the year to June 2010. This revealed that the number of people living in the UK rose by a staggering 470,000 over this period, to 62,262,000. Net migration (the difference between the number of people immigrating into the UK and the number of those emigrating) in fact accounted for less than half of the population growth: 230,000. (Well, that’s OK then.) The majority of the growth resulted from increased birth rates (797,000) – including from more inward migration of women of child-bearing age – and a reduced death rate.

What the headline figures and the media headlines didn’t comment on was the distribution of the population growth across the different countries and regions of the UK. However, these figures are available from the ONS, and they paint an interesting picture. According to the ONS, the estimated resident population of England rose by 424,300 (or 0.8%) to 52,234,000 in the 12 months to June 2010. This means that 90% of the UK’s estimated population growth in the year to June 2010 occurred in England, whereas England’s population as a whole constituted 83.8% of the UK’s population at June 2009. In other words, England is bearing a disproportionate share of the UK’s massive rise in population. The ONS does not break down England’s population growth by ‘natural’ causes (i.e. births vs. deaths) and net migration. But it’s a fair bet that as 90% of the UK total relates to England, around half or just under half of England’s population growth resulted from net migration.

This has clearly been a long-term trend as another set of data from the ONS suggests (this set looks at permanent residents and excludes those who are here only temporarily). Here, the English population at September 2010 is put at 51,363,000. Of this total, 6,472,000 people were not born in the UK: 12.6%. By comparison, only around 6.4% of the population of Scotland is estimated to have been born outside of the UK, while only 5.7% of the N. Irish population (much of whom presumably come from the Republic) and 5% of Welsh residents were born outside of the UK.

In terms of UK citizenship, of the 51.36 million English residents, around 4.02 million (7.8%) are estimated to be foreign nationals. (The difference, obviously, is that the remaining 4.8% of the English population that were not born in the UK have subsequently become UK citizens.) By comparison, 4.9% of the Scottish population comprises foreign nationals, versus 3.9% of Northern Irish residents and 3.2% of Wales’ inhabitants.

These figures clearly demonstrate that England has been impacted by population growth and net migration to a much greater extent than the UK’s other nations, and over a long time span. People will draw their own conclusions from these figures and use them at the service of their own agendas. But they at least put English people’s concerns about immigration into a clearer context: we actually have more grounds for concern than our neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. (Having said that, these perceptions are distorted by the situation in London – of which, more below.)

England is already one of the most densely populated countries in the world. I make it that England’s resident population of 52.2 million gives it a population density of 1,038 people per square mile. According to Wikipedia’s list of countries by population density (which curiously does not break down the UK figure by its four main nations but does include separate figures for Jersey and Guernsey, for instance), that would put England in 31st place. However, most of the countries or dependent territories with greater population densities are either small islands or territories that mainly comprise a single dense urban conglomeration, such as Macau, Monaco or Singapore, to name the top three. The only countries with any significant land mass ahead of England are Bangladesh (2,919 people per square mile), South Korea (1,261) and the Netherlands (1,041). And the Netherlands has only 32% of England’s land mass: so we’re as densely populated as the Netherlands but on more than triple the scale.

By contrast, according to the same Wikipedia, Scotland‘s population density is a mere 171 people per square mile, Wales‘ is 361, and even little Northern Ireland‘s is only 315 – which would make them (if you add them in as separate countries to Wikipedia’s list), the equal-142nd-, 80th- and 94th-most populous countries / territories in the world respectively. (Just for inclusiveness, Cornwall‘s population density, according to Wikipedia, is 390 per square mile: 79th.)

Population density is all well and good, but it’s not in itself harmful, at least not to economic prosperity, as the territories towards the top of the Wikipedia list are generally among the most wealthy and fast-growing in the world (Bangladesh excepted). The same might have been said about England a few years ago. Perhaps it’s not so bad, after all, to be a densely populated small island dominated by a single urban conglomeration. But it would probably be more accurate to say that even in the ill-fated ‘boom-without-bust’ New Labour years, it wasn’t so much England that was the prosperous small-island territory overshadowed by a single metropolis, but that London, the South-East and the M4 corridor on their own were the ‘island of prosperity’ that should be compared with the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong. Indeed, the economy of ‘Londengland’, should we call it, was and still is rather similar to those of Singapore, Hong Kong and indeed Monaco: dominated by international finance and global trading links; a playground of the mega-rich; and a local economy fuelled by property speculation, and propped up by easy access to tax havens (which are also, strangely, among the most densely populated territories in the Wikipedia list) and other tax-avoidance scams.

According to the ONS, the permanently resident population of Greater London at September 2010 was 7.76 million. Of these, a staggering 34.4%
were not born in the UK, while 21.7% were non-UK nationals. And bear in mind, these figures relate to longer-term residents (i.e. people living in London for a year or more) and therefore exclude London’s transient population, much of which is also non-British. No wonder that whenever I go to London, which is quite frequently, I feel as though I’m in a foreign country: to a great extent, I am.

If we use the 7.76 million population figure, I calculate that Greater London has a population density of 12,792 per square mile, which would put London as a stand-alone entity in fifth place in the global league table, behind Hong Kong but ahead of Gibraltar. [Funny how so many of the most densely populated territories are present or former British colonies – including, arguably, England itself.] Conversely, if you exclude the population data for London from the English totals, you find that the proportion of the population not born in the UK declines to 8.7% (versus 6.4% in Scotland). Similarly, excluding London, the proportion of England’s population that are not UK citizens drops to only 5.4% (versus 4.9% in Scotland). And in terms of population density, without London, England’s total drops to 877 per square mile. This is still relatively high (it’s on a par with Japan) but a lot lower than the total including London. But bear in mind that this latter figure excludes shorter-term, very often non-UK-national, residents.

To summarise, if you look at England without London, the share of the population that is either non-UK-born or non-UK-national is much lower than the overall England totals, and is nearer to the levels in the other UK nations. Similarly, population density is also a lot lower: still high but not at the crisis level it appears to have reached if you include London. Looking at this the other way round, London is quite exceptional for England, and for the UK as a whole, in terms of the level of immigration it has absorbed and its population density.

In the light of the demographic and economic differences between London and the rest of the UK, it is not really surprising that the idea of London becoming ‘independent’, or at least more fully devolved, from the rest of the UK has recently been voiced (see here and here). Would it in fact make sense to make London a sort of semi-autonomous city state whose relationship with the rest of the UK would be akin to that of Hong Kong with China, or Monaco with France? We could let London do what it does best and be what it wants to be: a global city and magnet to finance, creative industries and people from all over the world, with a unique international culture – and a haven for super-rich tycoons seeking to avoid taxation in their countries of origin?

One of the articles outlining the case for London’s ‘independence’ even suggested that the rest of England could keep the royal family while London became a republic. On the contrary, I think it would be much more to London’s advantage to retain the monarchy and the Palace of Westminster as the seat of its government, while the rest of England could opt to become a republic if it wished to. Those old trappings of empire are a massive draw for the global travelling classes; and it would be fitting as a symbol of London’s transition to a fully ‘non-English’ British territory, inhabited by people from across the world, if the city retained at its heart some reminders of the former Empire that had first conquered the world in order subsequently to be taken over by it. London would become just another of those small but super-rich territories to whose confines the former riches of Empire had shrunk – leaving England free from British-imperial and Westminster rule to pursue its own destiny. The British royal family would then be one of those cardboard cut-out monarchies from diminutive European principalities and duchies such as Monaco and Liechtenstein. Indeed, London could even become the ‘British Kingdom of London': the one territory in the former UK that retained Britishness as its national identity – leaving England to be England at last.

Of course, this is all a bit of a flight of fantasy, but there’s a serious point behind it: the economy and demographics of London and the South-East do distort those of the rest of England, which is a very different country from London. And London not only distorts the economic and demographic realities but also the perception of them, which is shaped by a London-centric politics and media. London is multicultural, international ‘Britain’ in a way that no other part of England or the UK is. And because London thinks of itself as the capital and centre of a continuing, and indeed continuous, British realm and historic legacy, it cannot get its head round the idea that, beyond London’s confines, there is in fact a diverse land of several nations that do not always look towards London as the template for their society, as the embodiment of their values or as the legitimate seat of power.

As a node of international trade, travel, culture and finance, it is inevitable that London sees itself as the capital of a country called ‘Britain’, because ‘Britain’ is the UK’s international brand: it’s the way ‘this country’ packages and markets itself across the world. And the UK state fosters a ‘British’-national identity for its – and even more so London’s – ethnic minorities in part because of the internationality associated with the British tag. This means that ‘British’ can serve as the label for the civic national identity of UK citizens, while ‘English’ (and ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ and ‘Northern Irish’) is relegated to the status of ‘ethnic Britishness’. In this way, London is the capital of a civic, multi-ethnic Britain of which the ‘English’ or the ‘ethnic British’ are only one ethnic group among others – admittedly still the majority population in London, but for how long?

My point is that London, at least in official parlance, does not see itself as the capital of a country called England: it may be a part of England but it is also apart from England. And if the capital city that rules England increasingly neither sees itself, nor is seen, as ‘English’, how does this affect the way England is governed? Shouldn’t London’s rule over England be severed? And is that a condition for England to be free to govern itself?

I do seriously think that England will not be able to break free from the British political and cultural establishment’s stranglehold on government, the economy, values and perceptions of national identity until the ties between London and the rest of England are radically loosened. Quite what form this separation would take is hard to predict; plus it is up to the English people, not the British government, to decide what should happen to its historic capital. One possible solution is a London devolved from within England, which in turn would be part of a UK of federal nations, if not an independent state. Alternatively, London could become to all intents and purposes a separate federal UK nation (the site of the continuing ‘British nation’, as I suggested above), generating wealth and commerce that would contribute income to the UK’s coffers for reserved matters such as defence and macro-economics, but with most of its tax revenues retained for its own public services and investment. In short, London could become England’s, and the UK’s, Hong Kong.

I’m not sure that many Londoners would particularly like their city’s transformation into a capital for global trade and business – but that’s the way it’s going, and that’s the way many in the City, the media and the corridors of power would like it to go. But should England continue to be dragged along in London’s wake and thrall? Can we define a different path for England if the agenda is for ever dictated by London’s perceived and vested interests?

England is a different country from London. Is it time for London to be a different country from England?

31 March 2011

UK Un(England cut): Why has England been cut from UK Uncut’s narrative?

In some respects, I admire UK Uncut: the web-based movement of protest against the British government’s cuts agenda, which organised the ‘flash mob’ that occupied Fortnum & Masons on Saturday after the TUC’s protest march. At least, this is a group of mostly young people getting involved in politics and standing up for something. That’s a lot to be thankful for, given that many of my generation – the parents of the youngsters concerned – have previously been somewhat scornful of the lack of political engagement and awareness of today’s youth. On top of which, UK Uncut is creative, resourceful and peaceful – not like the ‘Black Bloc’ anarchists that actually did all the wrecking and rioting on Saturday. And UK Uncut does appear to have been reasonably successful at bringing the issue of tax avoidance back to the top of the political agenda.

I do, however, find UK Uncut’s position on the cuts rather naïve and simplistic. They argue that merely eliminating all the tax avoidance (presently legal) and evasion (illegal) of major corporations and wealthy individuals, as well as taxing bank profits and bonuses more, would generate revenue of over £95 billion, making the government’s programme to cut the structural deficit in four years completely unnecessary, so that the UK could remain ‘uncut’. I’m all in favour of reducing the opportunities to avoid taxation and of hitting the banks harder. But even so, it’s unrealistic to suppose you could recover as much as £95 billion, and the issues are complex. For example, if businesses are genuinely multi-national, and if wealthy individuals are resident in more than one country, and have sources of income from more than one country, you can’t necessarily recover all of the taxes they owe in the UK.

Besides which, it’s simplistic Robin Hood economics and politics to claim that you can simply take from the rich and give back to the poor ad infinitum. Whether we like it or not, we are living in a globalised market economy; and there do need to be rewards and incentives for success. Otherwise, the wealthiest investors and entrepreneurs, and the big corporations can easily de-camp to other countries that allow them to hold on to more of what they’ve earned. It’s about striking a balance. I actually agree that the balance has swung too far in favour of what used to be known as ‘capital’. But I don’t think it’s possible or sensible to demonise wealth as theft and demand it all back. In the longer term, we’ll need a successful, competitive economy to generate the wealth required to fund generous public services and welfare; and whipping up an anti-business, anti-success ethos is not the best way to go about it.

But that’s not my main gripe about UK Uncut. What I find concerning is the group’s total lack of an English focus or vision. It’s a movement of protest against the UK government’s public-spending cuts; but there’s zero recognition that many of the cuts they object to affect England only, or affect England considerably more than other UK nations. Take the following passage from the UK Uncut website’s page about the cuts: “David Cameron himself has said that the cuts will change Britain’s ‘whole way of life’. Every aspect of what was fought for by generations seems under threat – from selling off the forests, privatising health provision, closing the libraries and swimming pools, to scrapping rural bus routes”. Well, David Cameron might refer to these things as relating to ‘Britain'; but an informed protest movement ought to be aware that they affect England only.

In similar vein, the website says: “A cabinet of millionaires have decided that libraries, healthcare, education funding, voluntary services, sports, the environment, the disabled, the poor and the elderly must pay the price for the recklessness of the rich”. Again, in the first six of the policy areas referred to here, the government’s cabinet of millionaires took their decisions for England only, not the UK.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to keep referring to ‘England’ by name all the time in relation to every single England-only policy. If it’s understood from the context that these things are happening in England only, then that’s fine. Equally, however, I do take issue with what appears to be deliberate avoidance of referring explicitly to England: why not mention, just occasionally, that the government’s privatisation and Big Society agenda that accompanies the cuts relates virtually exclusively to England, or that the marketisation of the NHS is happening in England only, or that students are having to stump up big tuition-fee increases in England only? Wouldn’t it add to the group’s attack on the government’s statements that ‘we’re all in this together’ to show that some people – i.e. the English – are having to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of the cuts?

In fact, there’s not one mention of the word ‘England’ in relation to specific cuts across the group’s whole website – not a single one. I did a Google search for the word ‘England’ on the site, and it came up with 14 instances, none of which related to a discussion of England-specific cuts but did include several mentions of the Bank of England, and mildly derogatory references to “middle England” or to “slavery in 18th century England”. By contrast, there were 1,230 references to ‘UK’ on the site. OK, the clue is in the name of the organisation; but even so it’s impossible not to think that there’s a pathological avoidance of the ‘E’ word going on when you read the following passage: “Everyone from pensioners to teenagers, veterans to newbies have already joined our actions in towns from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth”. This is a nice little alliteration, maybe; but why pick the extremities of Scotland and Wales rather than include an English geographical reference, especially as the vast majority of the protests UK Uncut organises takes place in English towns and cities? Come on guys, where’s England?

Does it actually matter whether UK Uncut spells out the fact that many of the cuts they’re protesting against relate to England only or mainly, and that those who take part in their actions should also be aware of it so they can inform the public they come in contact with about it? On one level, it doesn’t matter, as the central thrust of UK Uncut’s campaign is against the government’s economic policies – their perceived lack of effectiveness and fairness – which are a reserved matter, applying to the whole UK. But on another level, this failure or unwillingness to point out which cuts relate specifically to England does weaken UK Uncut’s position, in three ways:

  1. UK Uncut criticises the unfairness of the cuts. But one of the most unfair aspects of them is that they are applied unevenly across the UK, with people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continuing to be guaranteed higher per-capita public spending, out of proportion with relative need, than those in England via the Barnett Formula.
  2. Not pointing out the fact that many of the cuts and associated public-sector ‘reforms’ UK Uncut takes issue with are England-specific (e.g. those relating to higher education, NHS privatisation, local-authority services such as libraries, etc.) means that the group can’t criticise one of the main impacts of the cuts across the UK, which results from the unfair devolution settlement: that it drives deeper social and economic divisions between the UK’s nations.
  3. And a failure to highlight the fact that some of the UK cuts are genuinely UK-wide while some are England-only means that the group cannot and does not question the political legitimacy of the whole cuts agenda as it applies to England: the policies have been decided not only by a ‘cabinet of millionaires’ but by elected representatives that are not accountable to the people of England for those decisions. The cabinet answers to a British government and parliament that claims to be acting in the ‘national interest’ in carrying out its programme of cuts. But, whether you agree with that statement or not (and UK Uncut clearly doesn’t), this is the British-national interest, not the interest of the English nation where those cuts are actually made. And the government has no mandate, nor has it sought one, from the English people as a whole for the cuts it imposes not in their name.

In other words, by not pointing out that the English cuts are not only unfair but democratically illegitimate, UK Uncut actually confirms and validates the political legitimacy of the cuts even as it attacks their economic inefficacy and damaging social consequences: they don’t agree that the government’s decisions are right, but they do agree with its right to make those decisions. So in reality, the political establishment has nothing to fear from UK Uncut, because UK Uncut fundamentally assents to the present UK settlement, including unfair asymmetric devolution, which UK Uncut is unwilling to acknowledge in any way. Indeed, UK Uncut’s apparently systematic avoidance of the ‘E’ word throughout its website is almost text-book UK-establishment speak: whatever you do, don’t refer to England, especially when talking about England-specific matters.

UK Uncut accuses the government of condoning tax avoidance on a massive scale; but I accuse UK Uncut of condoning the government’s avoidance of the English question, which is a central aspect of the unfairness and illegitimacy of many of the most stringent cuts the government is imposing. UK Uncut says ‘tax the rich to give more to the poor'; I say, ‘tax the Scots and Welsh more if they want more public spending, and stop subsidising the devolved nations from English taxes’.

In short, UK Uncut’s refusal to acknowledge any England-specific character to the UK-government’s cuts agenda means that the UK is indeed uncut in a manner not intended by UK Uncut: in UK Uncut’s view, the UK polity remains very much the legitimate government of England. But this also means that not only is England cut financially but, for both the UK government and UK Uncut, it is cut out of its very existence.

8 October 2010

David Cameron: Big society, not English government

There is a paradox at the heart of David Cameron’s keynote speech to the Conservative Party conference on Wednesday of this week. The prime minister made an impassioned defence of his belief in abolishing ‘big government’ in favour of empowering individual people and smaller groupings of people (‘society’) to take decisions about the most important aspects of their lives, and to take the initiative in creating social and economic capital: a better, more responsible and more prosperous society. Yet, at the same time, Cameron holds on to a vision of the Government – the one he heads up as prime minister – as one for the whole of the United Kingdom, i.e. as one that is and must remain a bigger centre of power and political authority than, say, the smaller government provided by devolved nations within a federal state.

Indeed, Cameron set out this anti-devolution position in no uncertain terms:

“We will always pursue British interests. And there are some red lines we must never cross. The sight of that man responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, the biggest mass murderer in British history, set free to get a hero’s welcome in Tripoli. No. It was wrong, it undermined our standing in the world. Nothing like that must ever happen again.

“When I walked into Downing Street as Prime Minister, I was deeply conscious that I was taking over the heaviest of responsibilities, not least for the future of our United Kingdom. . . . I want to make something . . . clear. When I say I am Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, I really mean it. England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – we are weaker apart, we are stronger together, and together is the way we must remain.”

The paragraph about the release of the Lockerbie bomber is on one level pure posturing. If something like that happened again, there’s no way Cameron, even as the prime minister of the UK, could do anything about it, unless he’s planning on undoing not only Scottish devolution but hundreds of years of Scottish judicial independence. No, as the context makes clear, the reference to the Al-Megrahi case is really intended as an illustration of what could happen if devolution were extended to England: Cameron does have the power to prevent something like that, by ensuring that the governance of England, and the final say in judicial matters of this gravity in England and Wales, remain firmly in the hands of the British government, so as not to damage Britain’s ‘standing in the world’. So when Cameron says ‘Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’, he really means England to remain an integral part of his British remit.

In other words, empowering ‘people’, and transferring to them many of the responsibilities previously carried out for them by ‘government’, does not equate to giving the people, even less the ‘English people’, the choice as to how they wish to be governed at a national level. ‘England’ hardly enters Cameron’s vocabulary, being mentioned only twice throughout the 6,866 word-long speech, which at least is twice more than Ed Miliband referred to England in his keynote address last week. Cameron’s second use of the ‘E’ word comes immediately after the passage I’ve just quoted: “But there is of course another side to life as Prime Minister. Like for instance, being made to watch the England football team lose, 4-1 to Germany, in the company of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel”. So, having just rubbished any English pretensions to question the legitimacy of Cameron’s prime-ministerial authority over England, he then has to try and prove that he really is an Englishman at heart by referring to the World Cup episode – as if to say: ‘well, England, you can’t have your own government and prime minister, you’ll just have to put up with being only a football nation, and even that you’re not much good at!’

That much may or may not be true, but there’s no reason why, later on in his speech, Cameron couldn’t have mentioned, when discussing the bid for the 2018 World Cup, that it involves bringing it to England, as opposed to the Olympics, which he says will be “great for Britain” – and, indeed, in which ‘the country’ will be represented by Team Great Britain. In fact, questions such as who or what represents ‘the country'; how government stands in relation to the country; and, indeed, which country is represented by the word ‘country’ are central to an understanding of Cameron’s speech. The answer, it would appear, is ‘people’, meaning individuals, groups of people and ‘the people’ collectively, and on two occasions – toward the beginning and end of the speech, and hence framing it – the ‘British people’.

‘People’, ‘country’ and ‘government’ are the most common significant words in Cameron’s speech, running through it like a thread or rhythmical refrain, as this helpful word cloud provided by the BBC illustrates:

The relationship between these key concepts reveals how Cameron tries to square the circle between scrapping big government and insisting on the prerogatives of United Kingdom government. At the centre of Cameron’s vision, as I have said, are ‘people’ (59 mentions): people are at the centre of ‘government’ (36 instances); they are the central reference of government. Government is for people: it exists in order to enable people to take responsibility for the important things in their lives and the lives of those around them; and insofar as people gradually take on these responsibilities, they are in effect taking over the tasks they have previously relied on big government to carry out on their behalf – providing schools, running the health service, setting priorities for policing, carrying out town planning, providing social care, etc. Hence, the people not only take over the government but in effect become the government: “We are the radicals now, breaking apart the old system with a massive transfer of power, from the state to citizens, politicians to people, government to society. That is the power shift this country needs today and we can deliver it in government”.

‘People’ is inherently a collective term in Cameron’s conception: it does not just mean ‘individual persons’, as in the selfish individualism associated with previous toxic brands of Conservatism; it means people coming and working together to fulfil vital and valuable social objectives (forming the big society), whether this is creating wealth-generating businesses, looking after their families or providing a public service for their local communities. So the process of people taking on the work of government does not involve splitting up the ‘country’ (36 mentions) into fragmented, small units, and ultimately leaving individuals entirely on their own; on the contrary, the dynamic of the big society Cameron would like to set in motion is one whereby people go out into the world and work ‘together’ (22 appearances) in their mutual interest, and, in that process, mere ‘people’ become not just their own government but a country – a collectivity that is bigger and greater than individuals alone:

“We can build a country defined not by the selfishness of the Labour years but by the values of mutual responsibility that this party holds dear. A country defined not by what we consume but by what we contribute. A country, a society where we say: I am not alone. I will play my part. I will work with others to give Britain a brand new start.”

“This is your country. It’s time to believe it. It’s time to step up and own it. So mine is not just a vision of a more powerful country. It is a vision of a more powerful people. The knowledge in the heart of everyone – everyone – that . . . they are not small people but big citizens. People that believe in themselves. A Britain that believes in itself. Not a promise of a perfect country. Just an achievable future of a life more fulfilled and fulfilling for everyone. At this time of great national challenge, two parties have come together to help make it happen. Yes, this is a new kind of government, but no, not just because it’s a coalition. It is a new kind of government because it is realistic about what it can achieve on its own, but massively ambitious about what we can all achieve together. A government that believes in people, that trusts people, that knows its ultimate role is not to take from people but to give, to give power, to give control, to give everyone the chance to make the most of their own life and make better the lives of others.”

So, in a sense, the people, the government and the country are to become one and the same, defined by working together to make everyone’s conditions of life better. The government – specifically, the coalition government that Cameron leads – is on this view no more than the ultimate extension and expression of this principle of people coming together to form a self-governing country, responsible for and towards its own future. Hence, the government is no longer big government but becomes essentially an enabler of the big society, and co-terminous with that big society, which is, as it were, government by the people for the country. And that country is Britain or the United Kingdom precisely because the United Kingdom – comprising four separate peoples or nations that are “stronger together”, in Cameron’s words – exists by virtue of the very same dynamic as the big society and big-society government as set out in Cameron’s speech: coming together to work in the mutual, national interest. ‘People’, the ‘country’ and ‘government’ are all about uniting to create a better future for all – and the United Kingdom state isn’t big government but is the ultimate symbol of that unity:

“That’s what happened at the last election and that is the change we can lead. From state power to people power. From unchecked individualism to national unity and purpose. From big government to the big society.” [My emphasis]

There’s no room in this vision for anything we might like to call ‘England’, which is why it doesn’t feature in the word cloud: for Cameron, the people is the government is the country is the United Kingdom. All of these terms refer to each other, and represent each other, in a charmed closed circle that won’t be broken by the intrusion of a harsh reality such as that of England. But the reality of the big society is that it does represent and relate almost exclusively to England alone: all those radical reforms of the NHS, schools, policing, town planning, etc. will take effect in England only. It’s not just ‘people’ who will have to decide whether to respond to Cameron’s challenge to govern their own lives and build a better country; it’s the English people who will have to decide whether they can accept the real consequences for the quality of life and social fabric of their country, England, of Cameron’s vision of Britain.

David Cameron invites the English people to rise above their personal and collective self-interest, putting the big society and a united Britain ahead of selfish individualism and ‘narrow’ nationalism. However, as the bitter reality of cuts to English public services follows on from Cameron’s seductive rhetoric, it remains to be seen whether the English people will really feel their legitimate interests, and their democratic rights to choose their priorities for government and public services, are being served by a government which, in Cameron’s concluding words, is set up to “work, together, in the national [British] interest”.

23 September 2010

Is it time to reclaim the cross at the heart of England’s flag and identity?

Is England standing on the verge of a Catholic revival? Ludicrous question, many would say; longed-for reality, many others would echo. You have to know how to read the signs of the times. The trouble is the signs are pointing in too many contrary directions. Who is the one who would “prepare the way of the Lord” and make his paths straight?

The visit of Pope Benedict last week would be viewed by some as at least a sign of hope that England was being pointed back in the right direction. I say ‘England’ advisedly, as the Pope was visiting two countries with respect to the pastoral mission of his visit; even though, when in England, he diplomatically tended to refer to “Britain” and the “United Kingdom” as the name of ‘this country’.

‘Pastoral’ is perhaps not quite the right word and doesn’t fully capture the ultimate significance of the pope’s unprecedented visit. This was a case of prophetic witness: the spiritual successor to Saint Peter drawing ‘the nation”s attention to the centrality of Catholic-Christian faith, ethics and tradition in the history and identity of England, and hence to the vital role it should continue to play in informing our leaders’ efforts to deal with the social, moral and environmental challenges of the present age. As the pope said toward the end of his speech to assembled dignitaries and former prime ministers in Westminster Hall: “The angels looking down on us from the magnificent ceiling of this ancient Hall remind us of the long tradition from which British Parliamentary democracy has evolved. They remind us that God is constantly watching over us to guide and protect us. And they summon us to acknowledge the vital contribution that religious belief has made and can continue to make to the life of the nation”.

Alongside the angels, one Englishman who bore witness to the primacy of faith-informed conscience over state power might well have been gazing down from heaven at the proceedings last Friday: Saint Thomas More, as he’s known by Catholics, who was condemned to death on the very spot where the pope delivered his speech for refusing to repudiate the authority of the pope as the supreme governor of the Church in England. Indeed, the present pope’s reference to Thomas More was the sole explicit mention of ‘England’ in his speech in Westminster Hall: “I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first”.

In a way, More’s stand was just one in a long line of English acts of rebellion against the absolute authority of monarchical rule from Westminster, stretching from Magna Carta through to the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. The narrative of British history has not tended to view it as such, because More was defending the Catholic faith of his fellow Englishmen against the absolutist imposition of the Protestant religion, whereas the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution involved the defence of different versions of reformed Christianity against the absolutist re-imposition of Catholicism. Indeed, through the wars of resistance to Catholic pretenders during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot under James I, the cause of English independence and freedom came to be associated with suspicion and hostility toward Catholic Europe. By ensuring that a Catholic could never again ascend to the English throne, the Act of Succession, and the Acts of Union between England and Scotland, finally consolidated this transfer of authority in matters of faith from the pope in Rome to the monarch in Westminster at the same time as they ironically consigned the separate kingdom of England to the history books.

You could argue, therefore, that Henry VIII’s expropriation of the role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England was the beginning of the end not only of Catholicism as the national religion of England but of England itself as a distinct nation state. Far from liberating the English people from the absolute power of a corrupt and oppressive Church, Henry reassigned the moral authority for the exercise of absolute power to himself as temporal ruler, an authority that was subsequently transferred to the soon-to-be British Parliament during the Glorious Revolution, and which has remained with Parliament to this day. The unaccountable rule that Westminster exercises over English affairs in the present is a direct consequence of the establishment of the new state religion and religious state of Great Britain over three hundred years ago, given that Parliament still wields the absolute authority of the queen as head of the British state and earthly head of the Church of England.

But does England have to return to its ancestral Catholicism in order to rediscover its distinct identity and reassert itself as a sovereign nation in its own right? Let’s put this question another way: if the people of England did undergo a collective spiritual conversion to and renewal of its erstwhile national faith, would this of necessity also entail the unravelling of the British state as we know it and the re-establishment of England as a sovereign nation? The answer to that question is almost certainly ‘yes’. The rule of the British state over England is perpetuated by the profound identification of the people of England – as historically symbolised and embodied by the Church of England – with the institutions and symbols of British statehood, an identification that is personified in the figure of the monarch: British ruler and defender of the English faith. If, on the other hand, the English people no longer literally invested their faith in the British state but began believing in a higher authority than Parliament and the monarch, then the old idolatry of British-parliamentary sovereignty would no longer hold sway.

But surely, I hear you say, such a re-conversion to a form of dogmatic Christianity in which even its followers are losing their faith is both unlikely and undesirable. The ongoing erosion of English people’s faith in the British settlement is far more likely to be accompanied by the continuing unravelling of the old Anglican verities without being replaced by new Catholic certainties. Well, maybe; but would the state that resulted from the break-up of Great Britain in such circumstances really be the great English nation we all long for, or would it end up as just some multi-cultural, faithless and rootless Rump Britain? Is not the very identity of England inherently bound up with its great Catholic-Christian history and tradition? Do away with the Church of England without reviving the Church in England and you run the risk of finally bringing about the ‘end of the end’ of England.

Clearly, though, it’s impossible to artificially resurrect a medieval faith destroyed by the earthly ambitions of British monarchs, imperialists and republicans, combined with the philosophical assaults of science and Enlightenment secular humanism, simply in order to provide a touchstone for a new English-national identity. In the first instance, such a revival could only be the work of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, it has to arise from our hearts and not our ideological blueprints for a new England. England can be a Christian democracy only if the sovereign English people desire to be Christian.

But we are, at root and at heart, a Christian people. Our very national flag holds aloft the Cross of Christ washed in the blood of our redeemer. There are perhaps troubled times ahead: spiritual and, who knows, perhaps physical warfare in which competing creeds and centres of power will struggle for control over our lives and our land. Perhaps Britain as we know it must die; but will England be reborn in its place?

We are approaching the 2,000th anniversary of the crucifixion of Christ – perhaps that’s another ambiguous sign for us in this time of uncertainty for ourselves and for England. I for one, though, am content to gaze upon the cross of Christ and the Flag of England as a sign of hope that, through it all, Christian England will endure.

20 May 2010

Clegg ducks the English Question

Our new deputy PM, the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, yesterday announced what he termed the “biggest political reforms since 1832″. There is much to be commended in his proposals, which fall into three categories: 1) reversing New Labour’s erosion of our civil liberties; 2) reform of Parliament and party politics; and 3) further devolution, or what Clegg calls “redistribution of power away from the centre”.

The plans relating to civil liberties are especially welcome. Those relating to parliamentary reform and devolution are less so. I would pick out three main areas for concern:

  1. House of Lords reform: “This government will replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber where members are elected by a proportional voting system. There will be a committee charged specifically with making this happen. But make no mistake: that committee will not be yet another government talking shop. This will be a dedicated group devoted to kick-starting real reform.”

    Is that it then? No wide-ranging consultation of the British people about the sort of second chamber they would like to see for their parliament? The government is simply going to decree that we must switch to a fully elected Upper House, sweeping away centuries of tradition and an organic link to the history of England before it was Great Britain, which the government will bring about through a mere Act of Parliament? Don’t we get a referendum to find out if we like the ideas of this ‘dedicated committee’ chaired by Nick Clegg himself? To say nothing about whether this Upper House is going to replicate the West Lothian Question by allowing non-English-elected Lords or Senators to vote on English legislation while preventing English-elected representatives from doing the same for bills emanating from the Scottish Parliament and soon-to-be Welsh Parliament.

    By proceeding in haste like this (‘haste’ being Clegg’s own word to describe the pace of reform in the next sentence of his speech), an opportunity is being missed to consider these major constitutional reforms in the round, and particularly to factor in the English Question. Doing so would force Clegg’s committee to consider the possibility that if the England-specific functions of the House of Commons were transferred to an English Parliament, this might require the Upper House to evolve into a federal British Parliament, as well as a revising chamber, to deal with vestigial reserved matters.

    This is in fact the kind of measured approach the Liberal Democrats advocated in their election manifesto, where they stated that the English Question would need to be resolved as part of a comprehensive constitutional convention involving ordinary citizens as well as MPs. This idea appears to have been abandoned now and, along with it, any determination to really get to grips with the English Question, as the proposals on devolution make clear.

  2. Devolution: “You will get more control over the hospitals you use; the schools you send your children too; the homes that are built in your community.

    “In our legislative programme we will be setting out plans to strip away government’s unelected, inefficient quangos, plans to loosen the centralised grip of the Whitehall bureaucracy, plans to disperse power downwards to you instead. And we are serious about giving councils much more power over the money they use, so they depend less on the whims of Whitehall, and can deliver the services and support their communities need. We know that devolution of power is meaningless without money.

    “Our plans to disperse power also include strengthening devolution to other parts of Britain: Working with Holyrood to implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission. Working with the Welsh Assembly on introducing a referendum on the transfer of further powers to Wales. Supporting the continued success of the devolved government in Northern Ireland. And, of course, asking what we can do about the difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question.”

    The key sentence, for me, here is: “Our plans to disperse power also include strengthening devolution to other parts of Britain”. In that unthinking phrase, ‘other parts of Britain’, Clegg implicitly admits that the Lib-Cons’ ‘dispersion’ of power to communities (which I discussed yesterday in relation to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ policy presentation) relates to England only, even though he never explicitly says so: if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are ‘other parts of Britain’, then the ‘devolution of power’ from the centre he has just discussed can apply only to England. In other words, the Big Society (devolution of power in England) is what England is being offered by way of equivalence to devolution of power to the other parts of Britain. So instead of there being a national-English government to make decisions on the devolved policy areas Clegg refers to (health care, education, planning / housing, communities and local government), those decisions will be devolved to the sub-national, local / community level.

    But what’s really striking about the ‘other parts of Britain’ phrase is how it blatantly exposes the way that the political establishment simply takes it for granted that devolved policies discussed as if they were British are in fact English, and that everyone is somehow supposed to be aware of this unacknowledged given: it’s the elephant in the room that everyone sees but no one admits it’s there, as they’d then have to do something about it.

    And doing something about it – addressing the English Question – is clearly not Clegg’s intention, as the throw-away phrase, “And, of course, asking what we can do about the difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question”, makes clear. Put out almost as an embarrassed after-thought following the important and specific proposals mentioning Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by name. He can’t even bring himself to refer to England explicitly when he’s alluding to it, almost literally skirting around the issue of English governance seen as a series of ‘difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question’. It’s not difficult, you twit, just say it: the English Question. There, that didn’t hurt, did it?

    But over and above considerations of political correctness and, in the context of the coalition, expediency that dictate that one must never utter the nasty ‘E’ word in case one conjures the English elephant into existence, there is a practical, political reason and a symbolic reason why Clegg refers to the WLQ rather than the EQ. On the practical level, if you’re dealing with the issue of English governance in the framework of the WLQ, this means that you think or hope there could be some sort of procedural fix allowing English MPs to have the ‘ultimate’ say over English legislation that would be sufficient to keep English governance as the domain of the UK government and parliament. So, don’t mention the ‘E’ word in case the obvious solution of a separate English parliament and government comes into people’s minds.

    Second, on the symbolic level, the very assumption that the UK parliament is the natural home for English governance partakes of the same mindset that regards it as a self-evident truth – and, therefore, one that doesn’t need to be spoken of – that devolved issues as ‘properly’ dealt with by the British parliament are ‘really’ English issues; and that Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland are other parts of the UK. It’s that very English, very Westminster, Anglo-Britishness: the doublethink that both manages to really believe that England and Britain are symbiotically fused, but at the same time realistically recognises they are not the same – but let’s not talk about it, dear, in case we lose our privilege to govern.

    So much for “hand[ing] power back to people” – notice, it’s ‘people’, not ‘the people’, let alone ‘the English people’!

  3. Electoral reform: “There is, however, no programme to reform our political system [that] is complete without reform of our voting system. This government will be putting to you, in a referendum, the choice to introduce a new voting system, called the Alternative Vote. Under that new system far more MPs will have to secure support from at least half the people who vote in their constituency.”

    As with the absence of a full debate and referendum on the options for the Upper House, and as with the total lack of any suggestion that the English people as a whole should be offered a referendum on an English parliament, we’re also not being offered a full debate about different electoral systems and a proper referendum that includes at least one proportional option. Basically, this referendum is a choice between two first-past-the-post systems, as the Alternative Vote is just a mitigated form of FPTP that doesn’t even do what it says on the tin.

    The last sentence in the above quote ambiguously points to the inadequacy of AV: ‘far more MPs’ will be elected by a majority of voters in their constituency. This could imply that all MPs will need to secure a majority, as opposed to just some MPs under FPTP. But AV doesn’t in fact ensure this, as the winner has to gain only a majority of votes that are still in play in the preferential system for reallocating votes to the more successful candidates. So it’s quite possible for the winner to still only obtain a minority of the votes of all those who voted in the first place, if there are many voters who do not indicate any of the last two or three candidates left in the race as a second or subsequent preference.

    So Clegg is being dishonest about AV, partly because he doesn’t actually support it – that is, if the policy that was in the Lib Dems’ manifesto (PR) reflects Clegg’s real views. And AV, like all the other proposals for political reform and devolution in Clegg’s statement, basically preserves the privileges and assumptions of parliamentary and party-centric politics intact, as it’s a voting system that’s just as likely (some argue, more likely) to deliver an outright majority in parliament to a single party that can then rule England and Britain with the absolute power of a monarch for the next five years: guaranteed to be a full five years given Clegg’s proposal to introduce five-year fixed-term parliaments.

    Five years. I thought we might at least only have to put up with our unaccountable governments for a maximum of four years if fixed terms were introduced. And do we get a choice in a referendum about this, either?

    Not on your nelly! What do you think this is? This is Whig Britain, don’t you know, not the people’s republic of England!

13 May 2010

Who and what is the Lib-Con coalition for?

I’ve been carrying out a bit of a semantic analysis of the statement the Lib Dems and Conservatives released yesterday about their coalition agreement. What that means is that I’ve analysed the number of times key words occurred in the document. I define a ‘key word’ as a significant noun, verb, adverb or adjective (if you remember your grammar) that is used five or more times in the document, rather than basic link words such as prepositions, conjunctions or pronouns that are used very frequently.

I made an exception for the pronoun ‘we’, however, which appears no fewer than 49 times! The document is big on words expressing collective action and agreement: ‘we’ is the second-most repeated key word in the statement after ‘agree’ / ‘agreement’, which features a total of 63 times, in a total document of around 2,940 words. In third place, comes another collective term, ‘parties / party’ and ‘partners’ (35 instances).

What this illustrates is that the statement is continually reiterating the fact that it is based on agreement and consensus between two parties. Indeed, one might even go so far as to say that it bends over backwards to emphasise the fact that it is a full (11 times) agreement between two equal partners by mentioning ‘Liberal Democrat’ on no fewer than 13 occasions, compared with a modest seven references to ‘Conservative’.

However, when you read between the lines and examine the specific policy issues raised in the document, a very different picture emerges. On my analysis, a total of 20 key words occur in the context of policies set out from essentially a Conservative perspective in the document. Most of these refer to the economy and finance, and some of them in reality relate to areas of genuine agreement between the parties, such as their compromise on taxation policy (variations on the word ‘tax’ occur 12 times). However, I’ve ascribed all the key terms in this area to the Conservatives on the basis that they’re in the ascendancy on the economy in the coalition, and the sheer number and frequency of economic terms in the statement is expressive of the Tories’ priorities.

To be specific, the leading economic terms in the document are:

  1. ‘work’ (16 appearances)
  2. ‘reduce’ / ‘reduction’ (as in ‘deficit reduction’) (13 times)
  3. ‘tax’ (12)
  4. ‘allow’ / ‘allowance’ (ten)
  5. ‘bank’ / ‘banking’ (ten).

Other frequently occurring economic terms include ‘budget’, ‘financial’, ‘funding’, ‘jobs / Jobseekers’ and ‘spending’. The only non-economic terms to come anywhere near to competing with these, with respect to Conservative policy positions, are those relating to ‘Europe’, including ‘euro’, ‘EU’ and ‘non-EU’ (15 mentions) – strongly underscoring the fact that the Tories won the arguments over Europe in the coalition negotiations; e.g. ‘referendums’ (seven instances) on any future transfer of powers, no preparations to adopt the euro within the life of the parliament, limiting the application of the Working Time Directive, etc.

‘Referendum’ is what I would term an instance of a word evoking the ‘people’ or popular democracy / sovereignty, the only other word of this type being ‘public’ (five references). There are, however, further words of this sort in the document, which I’ve categorised as those expressing policies presented from a Lib Dem perspective. But the total number of such Lib Dem key words amounts to only eight, and they also occur less frequently than the Conservatives’ favourite expressions. The leading ones (apart from ‘Liberal’ and ‘Democrat’ themselves) are:

  1. ‘reform’ / ‘reforming’ (nine)
  2. ‘school(s)’ (eight)
  3. ‘vote(s)’ / ‘voter(s)’ (seven)
  4. ‘energy’ (as in energy policy) (seven).

Disappointingly, ‘elect’ (as in ‘election’ and ‘electoral reform’) occurs only five times; and neither ‘proportional’ (as in ‘proportional representation’) nor ‘Alternative’ (‘Alternative Vote’) appears more than four times. Indeed, as a reflection of the extent to which the Lib Dems have lost the philosophical arguments behind the formation of the coalition, the word ‘fair’, which was the central idea in the Lib Dems’ manifesto, occurs only twice.

Having said that, the concept of ‘responsibility’, which is a key term in David Cameron’s philosophical outlook and informs the thinking behind the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ idea in their manifesto, makes only one appearance throughout the entire document – to say nothing of ‘Big Society’ itself, which indeed is not mentioned at all. Does this mean that the thing that both parties had to sacrifice in order reach a deal was their whole social vision, as such? And are we no longer being invited to “participate in the government of Britain”, as the Conservatives’ manifesto put it?

Given the almost total absence of words reflecting popular, participative democracy (including ‘democrat’ / ‘democracy’ itself, which occurs only in the context of ‘Liberal Democrat’), it seems as though that invitation, having been turned down by the electorate, has now been withdrawn. Indeed, the coalition statement is full of terms relating to the nitty-gritty work of government, which, it seems, is to be regarded as very much the province of the ‘government’ (17 appearances) and ‘Parliament’ (13) alone. ‘Programmes’ (nine mentions), ‘power(s)’ (eight), ‘system(s)’ (eight) and ‘law’ / ‘legislation’ (seven) are other favourite phrases.

Another major set of key words connote ‘positive action’ and engagement, including ‘propose’ / ‘proposal’ (17), ‘commission’ / ‘commit’ / ‘committee’ (15), ‘increase’ (13) and ‘provide’ / ‘provision’ (11). The government has its ‘plan’ (seven mentions) and is getting on with it: it is the role of the government and politicians to govern, and that of the public to be governed, evidently. No change (one appearance, as in ‘Climate Change’) there, then, despite the fact that both parties campaigned on the basis that they would bring real change. Back to business as usual.

Except, what is the purpose of all this business of government; and who is this preoccupation with business – the economy – actually for? The coalition statement fails to articulate any social vision (i.e. what kind of society ‘we’ wish to create alongside a revived economy); nor does it express any clear concept of the country it is supposedly there to serve. Indeed, amazingly, the word ‘country’ appears only once in the statement (“our country’s security”) despite the fact that when the coalition was being negotiated and drawn up, the politicians involved endlessly referred to ‘the country’ and the ‘national interest'; and despite the predilection of our leaders for saying ‘this country’ in order to avoid being specific about which country (England, Britain, the UK) they’re talking about.

In fact, in the coalition policy statement, the politicians avoid being specific about the country they’re supposed to be governing by making virtually no reference to any of the countries involved, including – again, amazingly – ‘Britain’ (only six mentions), the ‘United Kingdom’ (two) and the ‘UK’ (two). Now that is real change compared to the Brito-mania of Cameron’s predecessor! But don’t get too excited, because ‘England’ enjoys only two name checks, both in the context of the Tories’ favourite topic, the economy (‘Bank of England’ x 2).

All of this could lead one to suppose that those who composed the statement are interested only in governing – almost, as it were, for its own sake – and not in the nation or nations they’ll be governing. ‘Nation’ / ‘national’ is referenced on ten occasions: three times in the context of the economy (‘National Insurance’ and ‘nationalised banks’); twice in connection with the stand-off towards the EU (‘nations of Europe’ and ‘national interests’); once in relation to civil liberties (‘National Identity Register’); and four times with reference to energy policy and infrastructure (‘national recharging network’ and ‘national planning’).

Nowhere, however, is ‘nation’ invoked in relation to any of the traditional nations of the UK as ‘communities’ (three mentions) with their own distinct identities, cultures and political life. Admittedly, ‘Scotland’ is implied, but not mentioned by name, in the commitment to implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission; and the extension of Welsh devolution is also covered in half a sentence. But the authors of the statement can’t even bring themselves to explicitly say ‘England’ when they refer enigmatically to their plan for a “commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question'” [their inverted commas, almost suggesting they don't regard it as a real issue]. No reference to dealing with the ‘English Question’, then, which the Lib Dems’ manifesto pledged to tackle as part of a convention to draw up a written constitution for the UK. Indeed, no reference to such a convention at all!

One can only conclude that the coalition has no serious intention of addressing the West Lothian Question, let alone the English Question, preferring to knock them both into the five-year-long grass of their fixed-term deal. But over and above such England-centric considerations, what does the almost total absence of a national, even a British-national, dimension to the coalition’s Tory-blueprint for government actually signify? Am I right to detect the Lib Dem influence as being there, in the disregard of nationhood as an integral or even just an important component of politics, government and culture?

In fact, this disregard for nationhood, and specifically English nationhood, is something the Lib Dems and the Tories really do seem to have in common if their manifestoes are anything to go by, as they both advocated radical devolution of power within England rather than to England. As I argued previously, the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ vision even implied in extremis a radical dismantling of the English public sector itself in favour of disparate interest groups and communities. And this is one thing that the coalition policy announcement does reaffirm: “The parties will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. This will include a full review of local government finance.”

The ‘local government’ bit betrays the Lib Dems’ influence; if the Tories had it all their own way, this would have just read ‘local community groups’ or words to that effect. At least, there will be some sort of democratically accountable public sector within England, albeit not at the national level. Indeed, what is the ‘national level’ for the new coalition? It’s certainly not England (nor is it Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland), for which they did not seek and so did not receive a mandate at the election, and which they’re washing their hands of by conveniently handing over responsibility for spending cuts (‘financial autonomy’) to local authorities. For the new government, the national level means the macro-economy, international affairs (Britain versus Europe), defence and security, including energy security and the nuclear options of both the Trident and power-generation flavours. Reserved matters, in short.

That’s it, really; and that’s all of any substance that the coalition statement talks about. And let’s face it, that’s all the government has a genuine mandate of any sort to deal with. I suppose there’ll be more details about policies for education and ‘health’ (three mentions) in due course, and no doubt, the references to ‘Britain’ will multiply at that point, even though it’s England only they’ll be talking about. But not even to have attempted to outline any sort of social vision for ‘the nation’ in this, the initial policy statement of a historic coalition government, is surely wholly inadequate and worthy of blame.

After all, who or what is government for? Certainly, on this analysis at least, not for the people of England.

19 November 2009

Labour’s vision is the Britain of the past, not the England of the present

I’ve been trying to work out why the Queen’s Speech detailing the Labour Party’s so-called programme for government up until the general election is so vacuous. Apart from the obvious things, that is: no mention of unemployment or immigration; no indication of precisely how the government – and which government – will fulfil its new statutory obligation to halve the UK’s fiscal deficit in four years at the same time as meet its pledges on public services; referring to all of the proposed bills as if they applied to the whole of the UK in a blanket fashion, whereas many of the key measures relate to England only; the complete lack of the word ‘England’ from the Queen’s speech, indeed, whereas Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were promised increased devolution; the total absence of references to reforming parliamentary expenses, let alone the thoroughgoing political and constitutional reform that all the parties paid lip service to back in May and June of this year; and the reality that virtually none of the legislative programme will actually make it onto the statute books before the election, and that what does become law may well be reversed by an incoming Conservative administration. What a pointless exercise, which illustrates how irrelevant and remote from people’s lives Westminster has become.

And I suppose that, in essence, is why it is all so vacuous: a process of British governance merely going through the motions and becoming almost self-referential rather than engaging dynamically and honestly with the people on whose behalf the work of government is supposed to be carried out. British law rather than government of, for and by the people of England. I guess that’s why the government feels it needs to legislate – or at least put forward legislation – for its commitments on public services and fiscal policy rather than just make those commitments and engage in debate about them. It’s as if the reputation and legitimacy of Parliament and this government have fallen so low that it’s no longer enough simply to promise to do something: you have to make those promises binding in law. But legislating for something doesn’t make it legitimate. This is British-parliamentary law making instead of real government and leadership, which involves engaging with people’s real lives, concerns and needs. In this sense, the absence of any verbal reference to England is the symptom of an unwillingness and lack of competency – in both meanings of the term – to be a government for England, even though that is what the British government is supposed to be in so many areas.

Look at the actual commitments the government is making to England (without saying so) in the form of statutory obligations that mostly won’t become statute anyway, and so aren’t worth the parliamentary Order Book paper they’re written on: binding commitments for suspected cancer sufferers to see a specialist within two weeks of a referral, and that no one should have to wait more than 18 weeks between a GP referral and a hospital appointment for other conditions; a commitment to provide one-to-one tuition to schoolchildren who need extra help; free personal care at home for the 280,000 most needy individuals plus other measures to help those already receiving free care or for those entering care homes. All very worthy commitments in themselves, but they come across as rather random. Why the priority on cancer referrals, as cancer is already comparatively well funded, rather than other aspects of health care that urgently need attention, such as strokes, the standard of personal care health professionals are able to provide patients in hospital, hospital hygiene, mental health, etc. etc.)? And what is the vision for the school system and for education as a whole in England, and, in particular, how is the government going to address the problem of failing schools, let alone that of failing pupils? The truth of the matter is the government doesn’t have a vision for English schools, in part because it can’t even acknowledge the name of the country for whose education system it is responsible. No vision of England means no vision for England’s NHS or health-care system.

And don’t even get me on to the subject of personal care, where the government still isn’t doing anything like what the Scottish government has been doing for years thanks to its generous funding via the Barnett Formula: free personal care at home for all who need it, irrespective of their financial means. Now, I’m not saying that we could afford such a level of provision in England, especially in these straitened financial times; but then, can we afford it in Scotland, either? How about drawing up a ‘Fairness In Government Bill’ specifying the minimum and maximum levels of public-service provision across the whole of the UK that are appropriate to different degrees of fiscal deficit – free personal care needing to be capped at a certain level, for all UK citizens, once the national debt reaches a specified amount? Oh, but I forgot: despite giving the impression that it could do something like that, the government can’t because of devolution. Well then, better still, give us an English Parliament, and then the fairly elected representatives of England could decide the level of taxation, borrowing and social-care provision that England can afford for its own people.

Because that’s what’s lacking in all of this: any kind of attempt to formulate policy for England that reflects English people’s priorities and preferences. Do we actually want the government’s nebulous ‘National Care System’, affiliated to the NHS, to be the centrally managed channel for government funding for and provision of social care? Wouldn’t we in England rather have a system that was managed and funded closer to the people it was aiming to help: through local authorities, communities, private providers, voluntary organisations, and direct financial and practical support to individual carers, rather than through some Whitehall-managed bureaucratic machine? But we’re not having this discussion because the government has given up, or perhaps has never wanted to be, this sort of genuine government for England.

But the Labour Party does have a vision for Britain. Except it’s a Britain of the past, not the Britain of the present, or a Britain and England of the future. On the same day as this most inconsequential of Queen’s Speeches, the Labour Party aired an extraordinary party-political broadcast:

In this embarrassing act of self-praise, the Labour Party identifies with Britain itself and with every major progressive movement of the 20th century, of which Britain is portrayed as having been in the vanguard. Well, perhaps not every movement: I’m sure there’s a brief flash of a CND march accompanying the commentary on the anti-apartheid movement – an intentional subliminal reference, perhaps, to give heart to socialist idealists that the Labour Party still represents them; but better not refer to this explicitly. And, needless to say, there is absolutely no reference to England even in the bits of the broadcast that refer to the England-only policies: the commitments about NHS treatment times; “free personal care for those who need it” (what, all of them?); the creation of a National Care Service (for ‘Britain’? no, it’s England only). Oh, of course, and no reference to the ‘achievement’ of devolution or to any of the actual policies the Labour government has carried out in England only: NHS prescription charges, parking fees, and life-prolonging drugs withheld, where these either do not apply or are provided respectively elsewhere in the UK (healthcare apartheid, in short); a target- and performance-driven education system that still has not demonstrably improved standards or focused on the needs of the economically and educationally disadvantaged – compared with a radical reform of the educational philosophy and system in Wales; free personal care in Scotland only.

Instead, Labour’s vision is a misty-eyed view of a past in which people did genuinely believe that Labour could deliver real change, and greater social equality and opportunity, for everyone across Britain; and in which it possessed the tools to deliver much of that agenda when it was in government. But Labour has in reality given away and abandoned that holistic vision of a united ‘British nation’, of social solidarity across the whole of the UK, and of concern for the needs of working people and those who cannot work, for one reason or another. And it’s also given away the levers of government to realise that vision. And so it retreats into a sterile sham of UK-wide law making underpinned by a dreamy re-writing of British history that places it at the centre of all meaningful social reform over the last 100 years: as much as to say that if it is elected into government again, it will continue the fight for progress in Britain.

But what will it actually do for England? And is it even bothered to ask the people of England what they want? Until it does, all its British law making and myth making will just be so many hollow words and fantasies.

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