Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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.

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