Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

4 July 2007

The West Lothian Question Is Not the Only One Needing Answers

A cautious welcome to GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] proposals for constitutional reform yesterday. We’ll have to see how things turn out in terms of the consultation and legislative process. Personally not happy that Jack Straw is the man charged with co-ordinating the thing – he of the opportunistic Islamophobia at the back end of last year and one of the prime Britologists.

Of course, GB flatly refused to deal with the ‘West Lothian question’: why Scottish and Welsh MPs should continue to be allowed to vote on matters relating only to England, while English MPs can’t vote on exclusively Scottish and Welsh issues of the same kind, as these are now handled by the devolved institutions of those countries. Any new constitutional settlement that does not seek to resolve this anomaly will not last long without modifications.

The Tory solution would simply be to limit the right to vote on English matters to MPs from English constituencies. Both the Tories and Labour are worried that going any further – creating an English parliament with similar powers to the parliament and assembly of Scotland and Wales respectively – could imperil the survival of the Union. In previous blog entries, I’ve suggested that these concerns are connected with – but not necessarily exclusively determined by – two factors, which may or not be combined in any particular instance: 1) a peculiarly Scottish vicarious relationship with England via British identity and institutions, whereby Scottish politicians (including, arguably, the leaders of all three major UK parties) wish to maintain a disproportionate influence and power over English affairs, which a discontinuation of the prevailing UK-wide structures would disable; 2) a back-door republican agenda: wishing to create a British Republic, united around things like a Bill of Rights and a written constitution, which would effectively sever the age-old ties between the state, and the English monarch and church.

The jury’s out on the second of these concerns, although the proposal to remove from the PM the right to appoint Church of England bishops could be interpreted as potentially the thin end of the wedge towards disestablishment, even though it makes sense from an ecclesiastical point of view. Equally, a Bill of Rights and written constitution are very much on the agenda: for those who care about such things, time to ensure that any written constitution that does emerge preserves the monarchy and explicitly emphasises the historical and continuing importance of Christianity as the primary religious belief system of Britain – while obviously protecting the right of everyone to practice any law-abiding religion they like, or none.

On the first of the above two concerns about the Union – the Scottish wish for disproportionate influence over English affairs – GB’s resistance to even addressing the West Lothian question would appear to confirm the syndrome. In the case of the Labour Party, and indeed the Tories, this is linked to another form of disproportionality: the fact that the current constitutional arrangements, together with the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, enable them to exercise majority rule over the whole of the UK on a minority of the popular vote. An English parliament elected using FPTP – based on votes cast at the last general election – would have been Conservative, as the Tories basically won the election in England. But on the basis of any reasonably proportionate voting system, no party would have held an absolute majority, either in England only or across the UK.

Hence, Labour’s UK-wide power is propped up by both the West Lothian anomaly (Scottish and Welsh MPs giving them their majority) and the current voting system; while any hopes the Tories have of regaining the government of the UK are also dependent on FPTP. Now, any English parliament would have to use PR, both for fairness and consistency with the arrangements in Scotland and Wales, and because this would be the only means to prevent the kind of disproportionate governments we’ve had in the UK for at least 30 years or more. As Labour would stand to be the losers from FPTP in England-only elections, I’m sure they’d find their way to accepting PR if an English parliament did come about! So when Labour and the Tories talk about an English parliament endangering the Union, one of the things that is implicit in that is their concern never again to be the single party of government over the whole Union. May that day indeed come soon!

Needless to say, the issue of proportionate representation was not tackled by GB, although he has apparently said that a paper on the voting system will be published at a later stage. But we’ve heard that one before, haven’t we? When will this paper appear? Shouldn’t the voting system be factored into the general conversation GB says politicians should be having with the public about the constitution? The currently grossly disproportionate system is surely the single largest factor behind people’s disaffection from politics, as the majority feel their vote won’t make a difference; something which is confirmed by the attitude of the parties, which think it’s only really worthwhile targeting the swing seats. Giving the vote to 16-year-olds won’t change that.

But there are some more profound questions that this whole business of reappraising the relationship of England with the rest of the UK as part of a new constitutional settlement raises, which I’ll just list for now:

  1. Just as supporters of a British republic attach their cause to the coat tails of a written constitution, is it not also the case that support for an English parliament can, but does not always, serve as the vehicle for those who genuinely want a fully independent English state? It’s time for everyone both to be explicit about what their ultimate aspirations are from constitutional reform – and they’ll have to be so in order to press for what they want – and to be on the alert towards the way hidden agendas could be advanced by the decisions that are made. OK, putting my cards on the table: I’m in favour of an English parliament with at least comparable powers to those of Scotland and Wales. In addition, my heart would like to see a separate English state; but my head tells me that might not be either practical or in the best interests of England at the present time.
  2. Would the creation of an English parliament not inevitably accelerate the momentum towards independence for both Scotland and England? This is not just because English people might be so delighted with their newfound freedom and proportional system of government that they might want to go the whole hog. But also, self-rule for England could break the vicarious relationship that many Scots feel towards England, which I referred to above. This relationship, while being about exercising political influence over a historically more powerful neighbour, also does involve a genuine sense of shared identity and – dare I say it? – affection. If England decides to define its identity and destiny on its own, effectively divorcing itself from the union with Scotland, could this not be the final factor that tips the majority in Scotland into supporting independence?
  3. Are there not long-term, global factors that suggest that independence for the constituent countries of the UK is almost inevitable? You could argue that the growing trend for people in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to wish to govern themselves and define their national identities in separation from British institutions and identity are influenced by global factors. As business and the economy become ever more globalised, it becomes less and less important for countries to group together into larger states in order to create the scale of economic activity and political influence needed to prosper. In Europe, of course, the EU has also brought about economic and institutional change that makes it much more possible for smaller countries to not only be viable but also perform very strongly in economic terms – cf. Ireland. (One concern about a break up of the UK would clearly be that it might expose England to greater control by and dependency towards the EU; which is something that supporters for full English independence need to think carefully about.) There are many examples of larger European states that have broken up into their constituent nations and are now doing very nicely, thank you very much: the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia. Can we in Britain resist these macro-economic trends, especially if they speak to the growing aspirations of the different nations of Britain for more independence? And should we resist them, if our prospects are potentially improved by the ability to pursue our own priorities that independence could bring?
  4. Wales might choose to remain united with England if Scotland went its own way. One observation that’s not often made is that even if the Scots did opt for independence, the Welsh might not. Support for Welsh independence is limited largely to majority Welsh-speaking areas, and it’s unlikely to grow much stronger in the short-to-medium term. As discussions understandably centre on the future of the union between England and Scotland, we shouldn’t ignore the much older union with Wales, which arguably goes back much further than its historical start date of 1536: the now England and Wales were united in the Roman province of Britannia, while Scotland (‘Caledonia’) was separate. It might seem fanciful to go back that far in tracing the roots of national identity and institutions. But many of the nations of Europe can similarly trace the roots of their identities, languages and territorial borders to Roman and even pre-Roman times. Indeed, the terrible conflict in the former Yugoslavia, which goes back centuries, was in part because the nations there lie on the former fault lines between the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, and between European Christendom and (Ottoman) Islam. While the languages and even ethnic composition of European countries have often changed beyond recognition over the centuries, something of a continuing sense of national identity persists. Perhaps the English and Welsh will define their future together, thereby recapturing something of the ancient traditions that bind them.
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8 Comments »

  1. I think the proportion of EP supporters who would also not mind independence is definitely increasing. I think they feel we must have an EP no matter what happens to the Union and I agree. Your point about Europe is interesting. I am not particularly eurosceptic and consider the major threat to England has always been the overarching British state but I know many in the EP movement would strongly disagree. My view is that England HAS to assert her identity BECAUSE of Europe and this is one reason I hate these bogus euro ‘regions’. I may well be wrong but I feel many people in England would be a bit more comfortable in Europe if England’s identity was not hidden under the ‘British’ label. I feel England is being squeezed between two suffocating ‘Britains’ that of the old empire and the new liberal multicutural one which seeks to expunge Englishness from its model. But England must be free whether in Europe or not.

    I do not agree with your misty eyed notion about England and Wales because when Britain was a Roman province there was no England. The coming of the Anglo-Saxons is crucial to English identity and why not as they gave us both our name and our language. The arrival of these Germanic tribes is a faultline with Wales that is probably the most important event in our shared history. Having said this if we separated from Scotland, and Wales wished to remain attached with its own parliament I don’t think many people in England would object. It would be entirely up to Wales to decide but if we all stayed in Europe they might as well separate I would have thought.

    Comment by K2 — 4 July 2007 @ 5.52 pm | Reply

  2. I agree my point about the Welsh is a bit idealistic, and I’m aware that many English people wouldn’t want to share a re-hashed version of Britain minus Scotland with the Welsh. I have to confess to subjective factors: I’ve got Welsh parentage as well as English – English born and bred, but still a little bit of my heart sings in the valleys!

    Comment by britologywatch — 4 July 2007 @ 9.00 pm | Reply

  3. Let your heart sing away! My great grandfather was a highland Scot and this part of my personal history is important to me but I am culturally English, born and bred like you, and England is England. This point is salient though because this ‘ethnic’ link that many English people have with the other home nations I think is one of the reasons so many English people hold on to notions of ‘Britain’. But a closer analysis shows this to be flawed thinking although it may be emotionally understandable. The first of course is the ‘Scottishness’ and ‘Welshness’ of people in those countries who also share ethnic links with England. Mostly they deny them and concentrate solely on their ‘Celtic’ heritage. Also ideas of ‘ethnicity’ concerning the home nations are somewhat ridiculous and to be regarded with suspicion. What of somebody English (and there are many) who has a French or a Polish grandmother or an Indian one? This emotional ‘ethnic’ British identity cannot possibly include them. They are culturally English; they are not Scottish or Welsh. At the end of the day all the home nations are what they are: nations.

    Comment by K2 — 5 July 2007 @ 7.14 am | Reply

  4. I agree with you entirely on this ethnic issue: any definition of Englishness, Welshness, Scottishness or even Britishness cannot be purely ethnic but is predominantly cultural and national. But does that not also mean that some supporters of an English parliament or independence should be more critical about the linkage they like to make between England / Englishness and the Anglo-Saxons – at least from the ethnic perspective if not cultural / historical? Surely, even before the waves of mass immigration that started, arguably, in the 19th century (but you could go back further, of course), the English were already quite an ethnic mish-mash of Celtic / Roman / Anglo-Saxon / Norse / Norman, etc.; and obviously, the language and culture were greatly influenced by those of France through the Normans.

    Now, of course, it’s completely unworkable to define any kind of coherent ‘English ethnicity’, from either a genetic or ideological point of view: almost everyone who calls themself English will have mixed ancestry (there was a programme about this on the telly a few months back, where people who thought they were descended from the Anglo-Saxons or the Vikings were genetically tested to reveal ethnic origins from as far as Africa or China).

    As I say in my ‘manifesto’ piece at the start of this blog, is English who identifies with and cherishes English culture, history and people, of whatever race they may be.

    Comment by britologywatch — 5 July 2007 @ 7.33 am | Reply

  5. Well I wouldn’t take the ‘results’ of that 100% English programme too seriously. What is interesting is that no other nation is ever subjected to this Nazi style DNA testing with an obvious agenda of undermining ordinary people’s feelings of Englishness. It’s ‘point’ if it had one was presumably to illustrate that there is no ethnic basis to being English. As if anybody with half an ounce of sense thought otherwise.

    I do not accept this notion that the Anglo-Saxons were just a cultural blip in a long line of other peoples who came to these shores. I reject this list that has become popular funnily enough with liberal ‘Britologists’ Celts, Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Hugenots etc etc right down to migrations of the 20th century. All of these migrants have contributed to and continue to contribute to English culture but the Anglo-Saxons were a cultural seachange. Culturally they are vital to English identity and this is of course why there have been considerable efforts on the part of Britologists to downgrade them or wipe them out of history. As I think I have said before the fact that they do this in the English language is an irony of ironies. Anglo-Saxon influence on English culture cannot be underestimated except by those with an Anglophobic agenda which of course peculiarly includes many English people. They are the bedrock of English culture. This is reflected perfectly in the English language which ordinary English people held onto through 300 years of Norman oppression. Norman French changed the language for ever and in my opinion because of this historical event the language became one of the world’s most beautiful. Every historical cloud has a silver lining. But it is still almost impossible to construct a meaningful sentence in English without using words which allowing for changes of pronunciation and spelling would have been perfectly understood by Alfred the Great. How can one compare the contribution of Hugenots for example whatever it may have been with this bedrock? I do not need to discuss the common law, the attachment to monarchy, or the custom of the Anglo-Saxon witan.

    To deny this foundation is simply a lie and I do not think it is necessary to deny it in order for English identity to be inclusive. I agree absolutely that those who seek an ethnic identity based on the Anglo-Saxons are almost certainly deluding themselves. It is like asking an Italian to trace his genetics back to the Etruscans. However it does not mean that within the white European ethnicity in England that there are not a few Anglo-Saxon genes floating around. The truth as always is complicated. Genetically of course they would be almost indistinguishable from Viking genes as another of the little ironies of English history is of course that had the Vikings been Christian when they arrived nobody would have been able to tell them apart from the Frisians, the Angles or the Saxons.

    I do not mind an emphasis on the ‘mixed’ start to England if it helps people from elsewhere to feel included but let us not pretend that Anglo-Saxon England was like Heathrow airport today.

    With respect to your Welsh heritage the Celtic contribution to the fledgling nation that would become known as England is there for all to see particularly in the visual arts. And the enormous Roman contribution. But it is natural for English people to concentrate on the Anglo-Saxons as the foundation stone. After all we are not Welsh, we are not Roman, we are not Norman. We are English.

    Comment by K2 — 5 July 2007 @ 4.22 pm | Reply

  6. Actually, I agree with you that the TV programme in question was part of the agenda to undermine people’s sense of Englishness; and I’m also not trying to deny the importance of the Anglo-Saxon heritage, both ethnically and culturally.

    Where I think I diverge from you is in identifying that heritage as the single-most defining cornerstone of English identity. If you do that, you’re in danger of imposing a rather restrictive, unitary concept of Englishness, similar to Britology in its drive to limit diversity. One has to try to get the two in balance – identity and diversity – which is not easy. I’d like to think that being English is – perhaps uniquely, in some way – about being or striving to be greater than the sum of our parts, even if the Anglo-Saxon quotient is the largest numerical component in that sum.

    Comment by britologywatch — 6 July 2007 @ 5.00 am | Reply

  7. What is it with the ‘English’….you wipe away hundreds of years of history and deny your legitimate ancestry..why? No other European nation does this apart from ww2 Germany. Do your research and you will find that you are a mixture of people not disimilar to continental Europeans. Hey even modern Germany acknowledges its true roots …why cant you?

    YOU ARE NOT GERMAN!!!! So forget it!!! For once and for all!! that way continental Europe will stop laughing at you ….because they do at present!!! You are a mix of many people and the sooner you understand this you will gain respect from your CONTINENTAL BROTHERS….Hail Ceasar!!!

    Comment by Roman — 2 October 2007 @ 6.29 pm | Reply

  8. I agree with your essential point, Roman, as you’ll see from my dialogue with K2 here: that the English have a mixed genetic heritage. But on the other hand, it is a particularly English mix. At a simple level, there are obvious regional and national differences in the physical characteristics of different European peoples, which clearly reflect their varying ethnic ancestry, although these are often talked of in stereotypical terms; e.g. Nordic / North German people being blonde and blue-eyed, Mediterranean people having darker skin and hair, etc.

    The point about English people emphasising their Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) heritage at the present time is that it’s part of an effort to redefine English identity and nationhood as separate from that of the rest of the UK. The ethnic dimension is part of this bigger picture, and it can’t be ignored, as one of the ways in which English people feel their nationhood is under threat is through the high level of immigration by people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds that there has been in recent years. In this context, the attempt to define what constitutes authentic English ethnicity is precisely the opposite of what you say: it involves affirming English history and ancestry.

    That doesn’t mean we’re automatically rejecting any commonalities with our European neighbours or wishing to automatically exclude people from our country on racial grounds. Nor does it make us any different from other European nations, all of which have their own ideas or myths about their ethnic and historic origins, which may not be all that scientific: the French imagining they go back to the Gauls and thinking of themselves as ‘Latin’ people (whereas in reality they, too, are a mix with a lot of Germanic elements in there: ‘France’ referring to the Franks); the Germans with their continuing ethnic-Germanic ideas of nationhood; the Russians thinking they’re at the heart of the Slavonic tribe, whereas their name derives from that of a Viking people; etc.

    We all need our national myths; and there is an element of factual truth in such myths even if the historical and scientific accuracy of them is debatable.

    Comment by David — 3 October 2007 @ 4.20 am | Reply


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