Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

9 January 2013

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

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

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

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

Examples of the second type of reference are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 April 2012

England Uncut: From words to action?

In some respects, I quite admire UK Uncut: the protest movement that has put tax evasion and avoidance by wealthy corporations and individuals back on the UK political agenda, and has suggested there is an alternative to the coalition government’s remorseless cuts agenda.

But there’s one big problem about UK Uncut: they can’t bring themselves to say ‘England’ and engage with the England-specific aspects of the cuts. Many, but not all, of the cuts in public spending and services they’ve protested about relate exclusively to England; e.g. the effective abolition of the [English] NHS, the withdrawal of funding for arts degrees at [English] universities, and the closure of public libraries in towns and cities up and down the country [England].

For the use of ‘[England]‘ – in red font and square brackets – please see my previous post. Essentially, this could be read as meaning ‘England-cut’, or ‘England-denied’: cut off not only from public spending, and increasingly privatised, but cut out and denied from language, consciousness and the political conversation. The two processes are closely connected. If you don’t believe, to begin with, that there is such a thing as an English nation that has a right to determine for itself what sort of health service or higher-education system it wants, and how the money it raises through taxation is spent for the good of its people, then it makes it a lot easier for the UK government to simply impose these measures without consulting the [English] people they affect.

None of the above actions of the coalition government were spelled out in any of the main parties’ manifestos in the 2010 election. In fact, no policies at all were spelled out as being ‘English policies’, as the main parties steadfastly avoided referring to ‘England’ in the sections of their manifestos that dealt with England-only or England-mainly policy areas. If you don’t say the name of the country affected by your policies, then it’s easier to make out, to yourself and to the [English] public, that those policies are just ‘necessary reforms’ and ways to allocate scarce resources as effectively as possible, rather than an act of taking major public services out of national [English] ownership and control, and of stripping away vital elements of our national patrimony.

These measures become just ‘cuts’, not the ‘cutting of England’. And the more that cultural institutions and public services that make up England’s national civic life are removed or privatised, the more the unreality of England that was your starting point becomes the new reality: England-cut. It’s easy to deny England her rights as an economic, social and institutional entity – a nation – when you were denying her existence and validity as a nation to begin with. And the best way to fool the [English] public that its nation is being robbed from under its feet is to systematically avoid all reference to [England]: to censor it from discourse as a condition of abolishing it in reality.

UK Uncut’s silence on the England-specific dimension of the cuts effectively conspires with them: it’s part of the ‘conspiracy of silence’ the UK government relies on to pursue its programme of de-nationalising and ‘de-nationing’ England. And if that sounds over the top and paranoid, think of what UK Uncut could have achieved if they’d chosen to foreground the English dimension to these issues. They could have tapped into a much more powerful vein of anger and resentment at the raw deal England is getting from UK plc, which is pursuing, in [England], a far deeper and more radical programme, not just of cuts, but of public asset stripping than in the other parts of the UK – for the very good reason that it is not responsible for most public services in the other UK nations. So by not explicitly standing up in defence of English people’s services and rights, which are being denied in ways not faced by other British citizens, UK Uncut has indeed conspired in letting the UK government get away with it.

Well, that’s UK Uncut’s loss, and perhaps ours. I’m now setting up ‘England Uncut’ as a vehicle to tap into some of the creativity and power of social networking that UK Uncut has successfully used to organise its protests to see if we can’t do a bit of the same for England, as England. So far, it’s just a Twitter account, which I invite you to follow: https://twitter.com/#!/EnglandUncut. Maybe that’s all it will ever be. But it’s up to its followers to decide what it should become and whether it can indeed become a vehicle for protesting against England’s raw deal.

We think the first action that’s required is some sort of demo against the BBC, and its systemic failure to adequately represent English affairs as English, which can be redressed only by establishing a BBC England. An England Politics page on the BBC News website would be a start, rather than the derisory regionalisation of English politics we have to put up with now. More on this theme anon: watch this space.

So, England Uncut it is then. Enough talking (well, perhaps I’ll continue with that as well . . .). Time for action!

1 April 2012

[Un]rule Brit-Anglia: Speaking the Eng-closed

Have we been wrong in the way we’ve configured devolution? Specifically, have we [English] been wrong in the way we’ve understood devolution as, to an extent, setting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland free to govern their own affairs and forge their own identities; while we [English] have been denied the choice of self-determination and self-identity: subjected to the imposition both of British rule and British identity?

Could we [English] perhaps not reverse this paradigm? Could it not be argued, on the contrary, that in being allowed to run many of their own affairs, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have been allowed to affirm and own their very Britishness; while it is we [English] that have set out in a different direction: a distinctive, [English] direction, albeit under the direction of the British polity and in a way that is predicated on the absence of a distinct Englishness?

That’s why I’m choosing to call it [English] – in red font and square brackets – rather than just ‘English’. The post-devolution [England] has been a virtual, shadowy ‘Anti-England’: the unacknowledged Real that is the actual ground of meaning (and also ‘ground’ in the sense of ‘territory’) and the referent of the symbols of Britishness and of the imagined country that is ‘Britain’. In other words, the UK government – particularly in relation to devolved matters – has become in one sense ‘really’ an English government. That is to say, its actions and laws relate in reality – on the ground and in terms of their impact on real people’s lives – primarily to England. But those actions and laws are symbolised as ‘British’ not ‘English’: they are not spoken of as the actions of an English government that affect a land called England and people who are English. Though the government itself is comprised mainly of English people, elected from English constituencies for which they are, at least in theory, elected to provide national government, the members of the UK government and parliament speak of themselves as a British government of a country called Britain.

In short, we [English] have had, since devolution, ‘government of the [English] people by British (but in fact mainly [English]) people for the British state (though ostensibly for the [English] people). It’s been a sort of ‘not-the-English government’: both really English, in the sense outlined above, but not-English / anti-English / British at the same time. Of England, by English people but not in England’s name, which would mean it was democratically accountable to a nation that knows itself as ‘England’, and acknowledges that government and those MPs as its representatives: which would, in other words, be real English (not [English]) government.

So I’m suggesting a new typographical convention – [England] and [English] in red and square brackets – as a way to refer to the ‘really’ English character of what tends to be referred to and imagined as ‘British’ even though it primarily relates to England in terms of its material import, and reflects an English perspective – political and cultural – on ‘the country’. For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not suggesting that ‘British’ and [English] are in some sense equivalent terms: that if we all know that what is spoken of as ‘British’ is in fact really [English], but that we’re all just being inclusive and politically correct by referring to it as ‘British’, it doesn’t really matter whether you call it [English] or British.

For example, I’m not saying, as some Scottish nationalists do, that the British government and establishment are ‘really’ an English government and establishment. Well, yes, it is an English establishment, but one that is best evoked as an [English] establishment. The establishment, and particularly our present government, is comprised of privileged, largely public school- and Oxbridge-educated English people, with a typically English cultural and political perspective on the nation they like to imagine as ‘Britain’ and the polity they refer to as the UK. But it cannot really be referred to as an ‘English establishment’ when the people involved present themselves primarily as ‘British’, and see themselves as governing a country called ‘Britain’. They are English-as-British people that view themselves as governing England-as-the-UK; and it seems somewhat unfair, but understandable, for Scots nats to feed that back as ‘British-but-really-English’ people governing in the interests of a Britain-that-is-really-England. The whole point is that, whereas it might in fact be ‘really’ an English government, it’s not a government in England’s name that holds itself accountable to the English nation: it’s an English-but-not-English government, a ‘not-the-English’ government – an [English] government.

The more ‘British’, the more not-English, in fact – by which I’m trying to suggest a paradox that the more post-devolution British governments have tried to affirm their ‘British’ character and deny their [English] reality, the more distinct from the rest of Britain / residual Britain have their [English] policies been. In other words, the more they’ve led [England] in a distinct direction, different from the devolved nations, the more indistinct from ‘Britain’ has been their way of talking about [England] – as if the way to deny the separating of [England] away from the other nations of Britain that has been driven as much by their distinct policies for [England] as by devolution is to talk more and more as if that [England] and those [English] policies were all there is of Britain: to retreat into a solipsism, as much as a solecism, which denies the splitting up of Britain by re-imagining [England] as ‘Britain as a whole’ and, indeed, as ‘Britain as whole‘. So in fact, the more ‘British’ England’s governance and self-representation has become, the more [English] it has in fact been: distinct from the rest of Britain, which has a justifiable claim to represent the ‘true Britain’ and the true (at least, post-war) traditions and consensus of British government and political values.

The Labour governments of Blair and Brown neatly illustrate this paradigm and paradox. As I’ve argued elsewhere, one of the purposes behind devolution to Scotland and Wales was to allow Labour to maintain its hegemony over those countries in perpetuity, and to pursue Old Labour social-democratic policies there that Labour had given up on for [England]. New Labour, ostensibly a project for a ‘New Britain’, was in fact a programme for [England] only. New Labour’s Big Lie and act of treachery towards England was that, at the very moment that it plotted a neo-Thatcherite course for [England] only (on the assumption that Old Labour was unelectable in England), it had the gall to make out that this was a programme for Britain (as a whole). Old Labour was true British Labour – a party that thought that, by definition, socialist principles should be applied across Britain as a whole. New Labour, on the other hand, is really [English] Labour: charting a distinct (neo-liberal, market-capitalist) direction for [England] while at the same time presenting this as if it were a project for a New Britain and consistent with, but modernising, British Labour’s values – whereas, in fact, those British Labour principles had been abandoned for [England] but remained alive, well and funded by the British state in the devolved nations.

So, contrary to the language and our [English] conception of devolution, it was the devolved countries that remained more truly British, whereas it was the land that could be referred to only as ‘Britain’ (i.e. [England]) that set off in a different direction. This is not so much ‘England is Britain is England’, as the Scots-nats would have it, but ‘Scotland / Wales / N. Ireland is Britain and “Britain” is [England]‘.

But I don’t think one should impute deliberate treachery and deceit to the whole Labour movement in this matter; although I’m positive the Labour leadership knew what it was doing by spinning [England] as Britain. For the mass of [English] Labour members and New Labour apologists, [England] could be referred to only as ‘Britain’ because Labour was in massive denial that its distinct policy agenda for [England] was separating [England] from the old socialist Britain for which Labour was supposed to stand just as firmly as devolution was doing. Devolution and a distinct agenda for [England] in fact went hand in hand for New Labour: devolving Scotland and Wales to pursue separate policy agendas for the devolved countries and for [England]; but denying it was pursuing divide and rule, and abandoning its socialist principles for [England] only, by making out that [England]
was Britain – ultimately not divided from ‘the rest of Britain’ because it had been re-imagined as the ‘whole of Britain’ and no longer actually included the ‘rest of Britain’ within its New Labour horizons. The New Britain was in fact [England].

But what of the oh-so [English] present government and the not-PM-for-England, David Cameron, himself? Laughably, David Cameron’s Canute-like refusal to endorse a new EU fiscal-consolidation treaty back in December of last year was portrayed by some as an example of a new Conservative ‘English nationalism‘, something which I refute in turn here. But there are some senior Tories who would explicitly like to champion this sort of ‘go-it-alone-England’ – free from the two Unions: European and British – as the new English nationalism. Tories such as John Redwood, who described this anti-EU English nationalism recently, and paradoxically, as “the new force in UK politics”. (Paradoxically, because he still refers to “UK politics”; and English nationalism as such can be talked of as a reality only when it starts to become possible to use the phrase ‘English politics’.)

John Redwood is perhaps something of an exception, in that, unlike many of his parliamentary colleagues, he has never been ashamed of talking about England as a nation in her own right, with her own claims to self-determination. But for most Conservative MPs, it would be more appropriate to talk of [English] nationalism rather than English nationalism. Yes, they are, mostly, English MPs, elected from English constituencies, with a typically ‘English’ cultural outlook, conception of the UK and antipathy towards EU interference in [English] affairs. But the ‘nation’ they wish to safeguard from absorption into continental Europe is ‘Britain’. And if it’s necessary to accept the secession of Scotland as the price for being able to preserve, govern and shape that Britain in accordance with their ideological precepts, then so be it. Their Britain will just keep calm and carry on – with or without Scotland, and preferably without the EU – except that, without Scotland, it would be, err, mainly at least, England. But why let reality stand in the way of a good political fiction?

So the [English] nationalism of the New Tories is far from being a positive political programme for a new, self-governing England (which is true English nationalism). In fact, it represents a radical continuation of the distinct, Blairite policy agenda and vision for [England] originally set by New Labour, and which is so resolute to resist anything that might stand in its way that it’s prepared to go even further than New Labour in splitting [England] off from (the rest of) Britain. Whereas, for New Labour, it was sufficient to hive Scotland and Wales into devolved Old Labour enclaves in order to continue the Thatcherite agenda in [England], for the New Tories, it may be necessary to ditch Scotland altogether – if not, perhaps, Wales; at least, not yet – in order to continue the work of Blair.

But don’t let’s fool ourselves that this will involve building a New England as the continuation of Blair’s New Britain, because, just like New Labour, the New Tory project involves a radical denial of England as a nation in her own right, and with rights of her own. In fact, just as Cameron’s Conservatives are prepared to risk separating off ‘Old Britain’ (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) from [England] even further than devolution by happily tolerating Scottish secession, they are also pushing the England-denying project to its radical limits by privatising the last vestiges of the post-war British-national settlement in [England], which ultimately means privatising [England] itself.

This is the profound meaning of the [English] government’s Big Society agenda and programme of privatisation of things like the [English] NHS (which I now like to call the ‘English Public Health-care System’ (EPHS), as it is no longer British, nor nationalised, nor a single ‘service’ as such but is definitely English), [English] education, [English] policing and even [English] local government and public administration. Are you getting the point now? Thatcherism was about privatising British nationalised industries. But Thatcher’s New Labour and New Tory continuators have extended this programme of privatisation and marketisation beyond industry to the institutions and organisations that symbolised and embodied a shared British nation – but only within [England]. And once you’ve torn down – brick by brick, as Cameron put it last week – the edifice of the British state in [England] that was once publicly owned and run in the public interest, you’re left not with a new England but an atomised landscape in which health care, education, planning, policing and all the rest are no longer seen as being ultimately the responsibility of a national (e.g. English) government but are all in the hands of the private domain and the market: private enterprise, private individuals, social enterprises and co-operatives, competitive health-care providers, public-private partnerships, local GP consortia, local development plans concocted by democratically unaccountable local cliques in place of proper local democracy, etc.

In short, abolishing the national in [England] (nationalised industries, and nationally owned and accountable public services) ultimately means abolishing the English nation. The ultimate logic of Thatcherite privatisation and marketisation is the asset-stripping of nationhood, so that all you’re left with is the private sphere (and its extension, the micro-local) and the market. But for [England] only: they’ve made sure of that.

But the left – or the post-Blairite wasteland that passes for one in [England] – have got no answer to this, because any sort of answer would have to be national, and the nation to which the answer would apply could only be ‘England’. That’s why I have absolutely no confidence in the claims made this week that Labour, if re-elected into [English] government, would ‘repeal’ the present government’s privatisation of the [English] NHS, or the EPHS, if you’ve followed me to this point. And that’s not just because the [English] Health and Social Care Bill was in fact no more than a continuation to its logical limit of many of the marketisation measures New Labour introduced into the [English] NHS, but because Labour has no language in which to articulate a vision for the / an English nation as such, let alone for a new NHS that would be per force an English NHS now, because all possibility of maintaining the pretence that the now abolished [English] NHS was the NHS (i.e. the original, British one, founded by the post-war Labour government) has vanished. Just as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have remained true to the post-war British settlement, they still have their British NHS: state-run, -owned and -funded. So a new Labour (not New Labour?) [English] government couldn’t ‘reintroduce’ or ‘re-nationalise’ the NHS (the British one) because it still exists, except not in England. No, they’d have to create something new: an English health service.

Is the left in [England] at all capable of articulating a vision of and for England? Well, that is the 64,000-dollar (donation) question. And it’s a question, ultimately, that applies to all of our [English] political class, not just to Labour. Politicians will not be able to ‘reconnect’ with the [English] public, as the saying goes, until they reconnect with their own Englishness: until they liberate themselves from the mental chains, repression and ‘enclosures’ that prevent them from seeing and accepting themselves as English, and as having a primary purpose, as English politicians, to serve the English people and nation.

I use the expression ‘enclosure’ to refer to a confinement of the English and of England to the private realm, both in the context of the wholesale privatisation of England I’ve just described and in the context of a process whereby persons engaged in public life in [England] close off their ‘inner Englishness’ into their private life: not to be spoken of in politically correct, British (i.e. [English]) society. Of course, the two processes are linked. I was struck by this recently when reading an article entitled, ‘Britain is not just “undergoing privatisation”, this is a modern enclosure movement’. This described the process of privatisation of [English] public services, essentially as I have described it, as a latter-day version of the enclosure of common land in England from the 16th century onwards, but without mentioning that either the modern or original enclosures were largely limited to England – something that I wasted no time in pointing out in the comments!

What sort of mental enclosure, intellectual barrier or self-censorship prevents the author and many like him from acknowledging that public assets and services are being closed off into the private realm in [England] only or primarily, not ‘Britain’? Is it because they themselves – in the wake of Thatcher and Blair – fundamentally do not believe in an English public realm, out of some sort of internalised hatred and contempt for England, the common English people and themselves as English? It is as if, in their minds, England and the English – and themselves as English – deserve no better: deserve, that is, to be just cut-off, isolated, private individuals striving and competing against one another for the services and goods they need from private suppliers and employers, rather than expecting as of right the dignity of a nation that takes care of its own.

Politicians, left or right, will not be able to make an effective stand against the privatisation of England until they are prepared to resist the privatisation of their own Englishness. They’re going to have to ‘out’ themselves from their own British enclosures – ‘come out’ publicly as English – before they can pretend to speak in the name of an English public: an idea that they have thus far repudiated just as they have repudiated their own Englishness. English ownership of public assets means English people owning their Englishness. But until such time as those who would represent [England] can think of themselves as English, and identify with the English people, England will remain in the British enclosure.

In short, New Labour brought us an England re-imagined and marketed as ‘Cool Britannia’. The New Tories have brought us ‘Rule Brit-Anglia’: an England privatised and branded by the market as ‘Britain’. But for England to come into its own, to ‘unrule Brit-Anglia’, English people must first break open the mental ‘Eng-closure’ that prevents them from saying ‘England’ and choosing to speak in her name – which is, after all, what a real English parliament would be for. Then, perhaps, we’ll at last be able to talk of a self-governing England, not a Brit-ruled [England].

26 November 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

English parliament

11 November 2011

There’s one corner of a football field that will be for ever England

Stuart Pearce’s defence of the Team GB Olympic football team in yesterday’s Guardian exemplifies what I term an ‘England-plus’ way of thinking about Britain. That is to say, Pearce, like many English people, thinks of (Great) Britain or the UK as essentially England + the other home nations. This is not quite the same thing as the traditional ‘Greater England’ conception of the UK – in which ‘England’ and ‘Great Britain’ were regarded as synonymous – but it is the heir to this way of thinking.

Pearce clearly recognises the distinction between England and Great Britain, although he expresses this in somewhat professional terms: “Pearce also insisted that the Team GB role will not detract from managing the England Under-21 team. ‘It won’t affect my focus – [it] is my day-to-day job’, he said”. But he also clearly views the GB team he will be managing as basically an England team plus the best eligible players from the other UK nations: “‘What if Ryan [Giggs] had been English and available to play for England’”. In other words, Team GB is like an England team enhanced by the best non-English British players: England-plus.

In reality, Team GB looks as though it will be an ‘England-plus-Wales’ team, rather than England-plus-the home nations, despite the fact that Pearce says he “will be picking from all four nations”. The only non-English players that have been mentioned in connection with Team GB – both in the Guardian article and generally – are Welsh: Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ryan Giggs. So it’s pretty meaningless for Pearce to imply he’ll be picking Scottish and Northern Irish players, as none have signalled their interest (and none would be good enough? – dig, dig), and any players that did accept the poisoned Team GB chalice could well end up being banned from playing from their national sides or, worse still, never forgiven by the fans.

But Pearce is not in fact going to pick any Scottish or Northern Irish players for perhaps another reason: that they haven’t crossed his mental radar. The pool of players Pearce is drawing from comprises those of the English Premier League, which is the main career avenue for Welsh players, and which now also includes a Welsh club (Swansea) and could include another Welsh club (Cardiff) if they were promoted. So Team GB is not a genuine UK-wide team seeking to draw upon and give an opportunity to the best young talent from each of the home nations; but it is in fact a ‘Best of British from the English Premier League’ outfit that just happens not to involve any Scottish or Northern Irish players right now. And that’s partly because young players from those countries are developed through their own national club system and youth academies, which Pearce is not involved with.

The fact that Pearce can still talk of Team GB as a genuine British team exemplifies the ‘England-plus’ mentality in general: Britain / the UK is thought of as basically England plus the other UK nations. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are ‘included’; indeed, that is the reason why ‘the UK’ or ‘Britain’ is what is said, rather than ‘England’: in order to be inclusive towards the other nations. But ‘the country’ that is in English people’s minds when they say ‘Britain’ in this sort of inclusive context is essentially England. I don’t mean this in a logical or factual sense, but in terms of the feeling, the passion, and the mental and cultural associations that are evoked when English people project their sense of nationhood across the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘the UK’. For example, Scottish associations are unlikely to be foremost in an English person’s mind when they’re thinking of typically British things: they won’t naturally think of Edinburgh, kilts or haggis but might think of London, Laura Ashley or that other animal-bladder by-product, the football. When an English person says ‘Britain’ or ‘UK’, they might mean what they say, but they’re imagining England.

This England-plus conception – in which the mental landscape behind ‘Britain’ is essentially that of England, though it nominally includes the other three countries – is in contrast to the Union establishment’s present ‘Britain-minus’ conception of England: England is thought of as the UK / Britain minus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is the ‘Lesser Britain’ resulting from devolution that I have previously written about, which is in reality England only (i.e. the territory and jurisdiction), but which the establishment refuses to verbalise as England but persists in calling ‘Britain’ or ‘the country’. As a consequence of the establishment of Team GB, a Britain-minus team is what we could end up with instead of our present four home nation sides: FIFA could use Team GB as a precedent and impose on us a single ‘British’ team. But Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish players would be strongly encouraged by their presumably disbanding associations to have nothing to do with a Britain team. In other words, such a team would effectively be an England team, but one that is officially designated as the Britain team, though it is minus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland players: Britain-minus.

Such a team would be a fitting symbol for an establishment Britain that has become even more devoid of real meaning and inclusiveness than the England-plus understanding of ‘the nation’ of many English people, including Stuart Pearce. In contrast to Team GB, the FIFA-imposed ‘Britain’ team would not only be a Britain without Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but a Britain without England – Britain-minus.

Forget about the controversy over the home nations’ sides not being allowed by FIFA to wear poppies embroidered in their shirts this weekend, important though this issue is. Such a controversy would pale into insignificance compared with a FIFA ban on English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish players from even wearing their nations’ shirts to begin with, because the only ‘national’ team they’re allowed to play for is the ‘Britain’ team.

On one level, this would be a perfect outcome for the British establishment: perhaps the most potent present-day symbolism of the English nation – its football team – would be consigned to the history books where England belongs, as far as the establishment is concerned. But a permanent ‘Team Britain’ would represent only a pyrrhic victory for the Union. A British national football team would illustrate the vacuity of the establishment’s Little-Britain, Britain-minus thinking: not only effectively excluding Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but failing to capture the identification and engage the passion of English fans. It would be a ‘Britain-minus-England/Scotland/Wales/Northern Ireland’ team; ‘Britain one – home nations nil’.

In short, under a permanent Britain team, the UK would have won the match but lost its claim to the title: the title, that is, of a consensual Union of proud nations. It would in essence be a ‘minus state’: a state, and a team, without any national core or meaning. And such a minus state could not endure: as space abhors a vacuum, a Team Britain not worthy of the name would be swept away as the nations reasserted themselves, quite possibly politically as well as on the football field.

There’s one corner of a football field that will be for ever England. And no England-plus Team GB or Britain-minus UK team will ever take that away.

 English parliament

10 October 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

English parliament

7 October 2011

National Health Service or national myth? Why UK Uncut’s ‘Block the Bridge’ protest is an empty gesture

In Norway, after the horrendous massacres carried out by Anders Breivik in July of this year, acts of remembrance were organised throughout the country in which people held aloft red roses: the symbol of Norway’s governing Labour Party, and once the symbol of Britain’s. By contrast, no red roses will be carried by the followers of UK Uncut, which is organising a ‘Block the Bridge’ protest this coming Sunday: a blockade of Westminster Bridge, just opposite the Houses of Parliament, to urge the Lords to throw out the government’s NHS Bill – the last chance of its being defeated or modified.

No, the red rose – international symbol of socialism, and incidentally also an iconic symbol for England in the form of the Tudor Rose – will not be in evidence. This is despite the fact that the protesters ostensibly wish to defend the socialist principles and legacy of the ‘British’ NHS, founded in the wake of the Second World War by Attlee’s Labour government. Instead, the plan is apparently to deck the bridge out in the blue and white colours of the NHS brand, or at least the NHS brand in England, which uses a lighter blue colour than the logos for NHS Scotland and NHS Wales, and a darker blue than the branding for Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland – the equivalent of the NHS in the Province.


The NHS (the one in England)

Darker blue for Scotland

Nice Celtic image and dark-blue font for GIG Cymru

‘NHS’ vanished altogether in this sky-blue logo for Northern Ireland

As these logos neatly illustrate, the ‘British’ NHS that UK Uncut’s valiant brigades will be standing up for is not the British NHS at all but the English NHS; and the Union government’s NHS Bill does not constitute a dismantling of the British NHS but a reorganisation of the English NHS along market principles. The British NHS as such was in fact dismantled by the last Labour government’s lop-sided implementation of devolution, which created four separate health services for each of the UK’s established nations (for the purposes of this discussion, Cornwall being assimilated to England). And it was that same Labour government that began the further dismantling of the English NHS that UK Uncut and its supporters are demonstrating against, as it was Labour that began the marketisation of the NHS that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition is finishing off. And of course, Labour’s marketisation was based on the support of its Scottish and Welsh MPs, with whose help the introduction of Foundation Hospitals – in England only – would not have been passed.

So it is perhaps no wonder that those Blocking the Bridge on Sunday will not be sporting socialist red roses. Maybe the protesters realise deep down that it was Labour that first sold out the founding principles of the NHS: that it was to be both a state-run and -owned service, and a national service, available free at the point of use to all in Britain in a uniform, consistent way. And perhaps they realise that the NHS is already neither of those things and will be even less so – in England, that is – if the Bill goes through.

But try telling UK Uncut that the NHS Bill relates only to the NHS in England – and believe me, I have tried this week, via tweets and email – and you might as well be threatening to try and march the massed ranks of the English Defence League across Westminster Bridge on Sunday: stunning silence and a complete lack of engagement with the critique of UK Uncut’s discourse, which refers constantly to ‘Britain’ and the ‘UK’ in relation to this and many other England-specific issues, and never to ‘England’. Nothing. In fact, one imagines that UK Uncut would view demonstrators bringing banners displaying the Tudor Red Rose and flags of St. George on to the Bridge on Sunday more as potential reincarnations of Anders Breivik himself – whose somewhat tenuous Facebook links with some EDL members were joyfully paraded about in some parts of the media and blogosphere in the wake of July’s massacres – rather than as being like the noble Norwegian public standing up for a national institution and values that are under threat, and mourning its young.

Indeed, Sunday’s demonstration really has more of the character of an act of mourning for an NHS that no longer exists than a political campaign that stands a realistic chance of influencing the government and bringing about meaningful change. In this sense, the absence of socialist and English symbols betrays the lack of any coherent blueprint – to continue the logo theme – for how a truly nationally owned and accountable NHS might be organised and funded in England now that it is no longer possible to go back to the Bevanite British NHS. Because that’s what the protesters will be defending on Sunday: the founding principles of the British NHS, not the actual one in England that the NHS Bill relates to, or the potential for a better English NHS, run by an English government, that puts the needs of English people first.

In this sense, it seems to me that the UK Uncut protesters are more interested in engaging in political myth than practical reality. The NHS – the idea of a unified, UK-wide health service free at the point of use to all UK citizens – is still widely proclaimed as one of Britain’s great national institutions. Indeed, it is one of the things, alongside the BBC, that symbolises Britain itself: its national unity and values. But if people finally wake up to the truth that the British NHS no longer exists, it might also dawn on them that a unitary Britain no longer exists. UK Uncut’s failure to engage with these realities is therefore an expression of its, and many other people’s, profound inability to emotionally separate themselves from a British nation that is no more.

For my part, UK Uncut doesn’t cut it. Maybe the almost inevitable passing of the NHS Bill, for all the doubtless harm it will do to universal health-care provision in England, will finally convince people that the old Britain is dead and only an English politics, accountable to the English people, will put their interests before those of UK plc. I won’t be helping to Block the Bridge on Sunday, because I’d rather stand up for an English future than be stuck in futile mourning for the British past.

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.

8 September 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 August 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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