Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

26 September 2007

Forget Drake, It Was the Turks What Saved Us! Trevor Philips and the Human Rights and Equality Commission

Cor blimey, I never knew that! Nearly escaped my attention amid all the hoo-ha surrounding Mealybland’s (sorry, Miliband’s) exposition of the ‘new wave’ of New Labour foreign policy yesterday. In a fringe meeting at the Labour conference, Trevor Philips – the head of the new Human Rights and Equality Commission – was advocating that we re-write our British (yes, British) history to bring out more strongly certain strands that have been overlooked, e.g. the long-term contribution made by Muslims. For instance, did you know that the real heroes and saviours in the defeat of the Armada were the Muslim Turks, who held up the Armada at the request of Elizabeth I. ‘Zounds, chaps; well we were b******d if we were going to rush a decent game of bowls (or should that be boules, Mr Philips?)!’

Now, I’m all in favour of including Islam and Muslims as an integral part of our understanding of modern Britain and modern England. In fact, I’m one of the first to react knee-jerk-fashion whenever I catch the putrid scent of Islamophobia (see other postings in this blog). But apparently, according to Mr Philips, we need to re-write and re-tell our whole history (by which he means British history, of course) to ensure Muslims are comprehensively included in that (are we going to do the same for the Jews, too?).

Fair enough that real contributions to British life or even military victories should be recognised: credit where credit’s due. But, for a start, I thought the PC cohorts had already been re-telling British history so that it brought out previously ‘under-emphasised’ aspects, such as the role of women and the history of Britain’s ethnic minorities. Do we a need a new revisionist history to revise the last revisionist history? Do we really need an ‘official’ British national history at all – a national story and myth, which is surely just an anachronistic re-arranging of the past to suit present political objectives and nation building? To be truly of use to us and to understand where we are now, what we really need is a completely open-minded, objective approach to history, so that no inconvenient truths and legacies that persist into the present can be suppressed?

Mr Philips’ new history is really about forging a new Britain for the present and future. Apparently, population changes and immigration are happening at such a rate that, for Mr Philips, there is “no going back” (er, to what, to a historically grounded sense of English identity and nationhood?) and you can no longer assume that people will inherit the values that bound the country together.

So, instead, there has to be a new formulation of values, including in a written constitution. But these are not abstract values, such as the ‘British values’ as advocated by a Blair or Brown: ‘freedom’, for instance, which is a value common to the whole of humanity not just Britain (I know what he means, but it’s a bit dodgy to imply that freedom is an abstract quality). No, what he’s talking about is: “a more explicit set of understandings which we can all share about how we treat each other and talk to each other and they have to be based on real values”. To explain what he means by real, he goes on to say that if these values were set out in a written constitution, they would have to be “an expression which is native and right for us”.

Well, his ‘explicit set of understandings’ sound like political correctness and imposed liberal orthodoxy to me. And, as for the native expression of real values, it is laudable that he’s trying to move away from the in fact highly abstract nature of ‘British values’ as generally propounded. But what does he mean? He doesn’t mean ‘native’ in the sense of the real ‘natives’ of Britain: the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish. He means British: British as reflecting the ‘authentic’ (revised) history of this land, which is in fact the ‘expression’ of a New Britain (New Labour New Britain) to be created: a united nation, with a single, official history; multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-faith; with no special privilege or recognition (even historical – especially historical) accorded to any group – such as the English, for instance.

Well, it was the Muslim Turks what saved us, after all!

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25 September 2007

Anyone See England in Gordon Brown’s Vision For Britain?

In GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] first speech to the Labour Party conference as its leader and PM yesterday, there were 54 mentions of the word ‘Britain’ and 28 of ‘British’. ‘England’ and ‘English’, on the other hand, appeared just once each. The single manifestation of ‘England’ occurred in a sentence that also accounted for one of the two appearances of each of ‘Scotland’ and ‘Wales’, where the PM cited foot and mouth and terrorism as examples of how Britain’s problems in general could not be solved by breaking up the Union: “as we saw again this summer there is no Scotland-only, no Wales-only, no England-only answer to the spread of disease or to terrorist attacks that can strike at any time, anywhere in any part of our country. And sharing this same small island, we will meet our environmental, economic and security challenges not by splitting apart but when we as Great Britain stand united together”.

I note in passing that GB chose to single out Scotland and Wales here before England, probably because he did not want to acknowledge the greatest challenge to the Union, which comes from the movements campaigning for English independence. The other mentions of the words ‘Scotland’ and ‘Wales’ were contingent and do not imply political bias: GB referred to the terrorist attack on “Scotland’s biggest airport” and to a boy who won the “Diana Prince of Wales medal”. I should also add that there were no references to either ‘Scottish’ or ‘Welsh’. The one use of ‘English’ related to the teaching of the English language in schools.

OK, you might say, GB is the prime minister of Britain, so you’d expect his message to concentrate on Britain. Well, technically, he’s the PM of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and I note that the abbreviation ‘UK’ also failed to make a single appearance in his speech. ‘United Kingdom’ appeared only once in an economic context, where it is usual to refer to statistics for the whole of the UK: “in the last month [there has been] a wave of financial turbulence that started in America . . . and has impacted on all countries including the United Kingdom and tested the stability of our financial system”.

The avoidance of referring to the UK and the preference for Britain / British is a common characteristic of the Britologists: those politicians and thought leaders who are trying to forge and reinforce the idea of a common British identity and set of values. The use of ‘UK’ is a constant reminder that the British state is not a unified nation as such but a coming together of four nations under the rule of a shared monarch and parliament. ‘Britain’ and ‘British’, on the other hand, can appear to relate to a more natural, cohesive national unit: in GB’s words, this “same small island” that we share (too bad for Northern Ireland, then, and the other semi-autonomous island communities of the UK, such as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands).

And ‘Britain’ not only represents the ideal of a truly united nation covering the full extent of the island of Britain, but it is also a Britain of ideals: a Britain of the mind and of values. So what does ‘Britain’ stand for in the mind of GB or, as he would put it, what does he stand for in the name of Britain? The clearest clue comes in a lyrical passage in which the phrase “I stand for a Britain” is repeated like an incantation at the start of nine consecutive sentences:

“I stand for a Britain where everyone should rise as far as their talents can take them and then the talents of each of us should contribute to the well being of all.

I stand for a Britain where all families who work hard can build a better life for themselves and their children.

I stand for a Britain where every young person who has it in them to study at college or university should not be prevented by money from doing so.

I stand for a Britain where public services exist for the patient, the pupil, the people who are to be served.

I stand for a Britain where it is a mark of citizenship that you should learn our language and traditions.

I stand for a Britain where we expect responsibility at every level of society.

I stand for a Britain that defends its citizens and both punishes crime and prevents it by dealing with the root causes.

I stand for a Britain where because this earth is on loan to us from future generations, we must all be stewards of the environment.

So I stand for a Britain where we all have obligations to each other and by fulfilling them, everyone has the chance to make the most of themselves”.

Not much about the aspirations voiced here that can elicit too many objections in themselves. However, I again note in passing that GB missed a perfect opportunity to include the word ‘English’ when he referred to its being a mark of British citizenship that everyone should “learn our language”. Hmm, Mr Brown, do you mean the English language? I wasn’t aware there was such a thing as the British language. Or are you just trying to avoid confrontation with defenders of the Welsh, Scottish Gaelic or even [Anglic] Scots languages by avoiding stating openly the idea that English should be imposed as the official unitary language for the whole of a united Britain?

How can we summarise this vision of Britain? It’s what you might call a mutually responsible meritocracy: GB believes in self-betterment and self-advancement; but this is enabled by supportive social structures and individual social responsibility, whereby those who do realise their abilities / talents and fulfil their aspirations have a duty to give back what they’ve received from society and contribute to giving the same opportunities to others. It’s a world view centred around the individual (including the idea that supportive social institutions such as schools and healthcare are for the individual person); but in which the more the individual achieves personal success, the more they have a responsibility to ensure that others can do the same, in a mutually sustaining, virtuous circle.

This vision of an aspirational, meritocratic Britain is explicitly outlined in another passage: “Not the old version of equality of opportunity – the rise of an exclusive meritocracy where only some can succeed and others are forever condemned to fail. But a genuinely meritocratic Britain, a Britain of all the talents. Where all are encouraged to aim high. And all by their effort can rise. A Britain of aspiration and also a Britain of mutual obligation where all play our part and recognise the duties we owe to each other.

New Labour: now the party of aspiration and community. Not just occupying but shaping and expanding the centre ground. A strong Britain; a fairer Britain. Putting people and their potential first”.

Fine-sounding words, although it’s not clear whether this supposedly new, indeed New Labour, vision of a genuine meritocracy is anything other than only a slight adjustment of the Blairite vision (which could be termed ‘equality of market opportunity’) back to a more traditional Labour focus on social assistance for the economically disadvantaged, thereby enabling them to realise their potential for the good of all.

But what is clear is that there is no vision for, or indeed of, England in GB’s roadmap for Britain. We should not be surprised at this, although we may be disappointed. GB is a Scottish prime minister for the UK; so it is in his interest to speak to and of a united Britain, because he cannot claim any ownership of or identification with specifically English interests or concerns. If you talk about a British nation and mention it enough times (54 mentions of ‘Britain’ and 28 of ‘British’ in a one-hour speech), then people may start to see your vision and believe that the Britain you stand for actually exists. But this is also a vision on which the future of the Labour Party as a party of power depends. And the future of Gordon Brown: the self-made man from Kirkcaldy who has risen to the pinnacle of British society and who now, in accordance with his value system, sees himself as responsible for the well-being of the whole of Britain. Or, in the concluding words of his speech: “I will stand up for British values. I will stand up for a strong Britain. And I will always stand up for you”.

In short, with GB, you get GB. But he doesn’t get England, and nor do you.

24 September 2007

Unmasking the English (Part Four): Privacy and the Problem of Nationhood

Last and final episode of Andrew Marr’s mini-series Unmasking the English aired on BBC Radio Four this morning (and again this evening). This one revolved around Dr. Johnson, the writer of the first dictionary of the English language. Not much discussion of his groundbreaking contribution to English philology and to lexicography in general, which disappointed me as a linguist. But then that wasn’t Marr’s remit.

Instead, he concentrated on Johnson as a type of the English curmudgeon: a bad-tempered, angry and yet eloquent and witty enemy of social climbing, pretension and insincerity. With the series’ customary linkage of a figure from the past – real or fictional – with contemporary manifestations of English culture, Dr. Johnson was compared to the likes of Richard Ingrams and the satirical magazine Private Eye, and to Tory newspaper columnists railing against the turpitudes of the chattering classes and the encroachments of political correctness.

Something in all of that, without a doubt. And yet, in keeping with the pattern of the series as a whole, Marr alluded only in passing to one of the central issues raised by his subject, which could have been used to bring out a deeper understanding of the whole problematic the series was supposed to be exploring: how to get behind the public mask of the English and understand their deeper motivations. Marr referred to Johnson’s use of religious language in his writings, which, according to Marr, presented a point of difference with contemporary England, where religion is strictly a private matter. Such a statement is probably more a reflection of Marr’s own opinion that religion should be confined to the private domain than the reality of all but the most recent past (and even so). For instance, Richard Ingrams has never made any secret of his Anglican faith, which he shares with Dr. Johnson. The same open acknowledgement of faith has also characterised many Conservative columnists over the years and today, as well as the traditional Tory Party as a whole (the Church of England being ‘the Conservative Party at prayer’) and Ann Widdecombe, whom Marr introduced as the best example of “Dr. Johnson in a skirt”.

In short, there has been no lack of defenders of England as a conservative (note the small ‘c’), Christian nation. If those voices are increasingly heard mainly in private, this is arguably because much of the public discourse as purveyed by the media (including the BBC) is dominated by the liberal (small ‘l’), pluralist agenda of which Andrew Marr is such an able spokesman. Christian faith in England has, then, in part been relegated to the private space partly because it has been banished from the public domain: ‘we’re a liberal, secular Britain – tolerant to a plurality of faiths and beliefs because none of them have any privileged claim or right to our adherence – not an England, one of whose defining characteristics is its millennial Christian tradition’.

But in a sense, the de-sacralising of the public space has accentuated what is in fact a defining characteristic of Englishness, which Marr connected with traditional Tory hostility towards governmental and regulatory interference with individual freedom: our love of privacy. If the private realm is for the English the natural home of religious faith, this is because the privacy of the home is a sacred realm. The Realm – the world of the State, of the Union and of politics – rarely engages the same passions and commitment as do our private concerns: our families, homes, communities, personal pursuits and dreams.

This is one of the defining characteristics of Englishness: the private lives behind the public masks. But Marr did not really delve. He merely concluded that, because the public realm appears so devalued to the English, we have always and always will feel that England is “going to the dogs”. Well, maybe. But some of us hold out the hope for an English nation that is re-connected with English people, not a British state for ever in pursuit of the alienating goals of modernisation, secularisation and progress for their own sake. But what hope is there for England, this nation of private persons?

There’s always hope for England. That, too, is a defining national trait. Our private genius can once again become nation-building – but only when the public domain is again allowed to be sacred to us and to be our home: to be England.

23 September 2007

Jack Straw: Impartial Constitutional Architect or Labour Party Politician?

They had Jack Straw – GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] appointee to draw up proposals for constitutional reform – on the early-morning ITV news show this morning. I tuned in at the point where he was warning the Tories away from supporting measures allowing English MPs only to vote on England-only matters. This would, he said, inevitably lead to the formation of an English parliament, which would inevitably lead to the break up of the UK.

These are intimidation tactics. For a start, an English parliament would not necessarily have to result in the break up of the Union (though many who support the parliament do also back English independence). There are all sorts of constitutional arrangements that could allocate powers to England equivalent to those enjoyed by Scotland and Wales, while other powers and responsibilities remained the prerogative of a UK parliament and executive. Again in intimidatory mode, in the interview, Straw sought to remind the Scots that their powers were devolved not constitutionally established and that, by implication, they could be taken back by Westminster. This was as if to warn the Scottish Nationalists implicitly not to rock the boat, for instance by supporting English demands for English MPs only to vote on England-only matters, or pressing for the Scottish parliament to ‘abrogate’ powers for regulating Scotland’s fiscal and financial affairs in complete independence from the Westminster government.

Straw’s main argument, perhaps his only one (I’ve heard him elsewhere make the same case) for the need to preserve the Union at all costs is that, according to him, England’s international status and influence would be diminished by breaking Britain up. The example he gave on this occasion was European countries that have broken up and supposedly now have less influence in the EU as a consequence. Hmm, excuse me, but ask the Czechs or the Slovenes whether they’d rather be independent members of the EU or be dependent on a Czechoslovak or Yugoslav regime for their internal governance and external affairs, and I think you’ll find the riposte to that example. But what of Britain’s role, say, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and in global strategic affairs? It’s unlikely that an independent England (assuming England took over the legal personality of the UK) would be kicked out of the Security Council unless it chose to leave. Doesn’t it have a veto on such a decision, in any case? And this move would not be supported by either the US (which would continue to see England, as it does Britain, as an essential international ally) or France, who would be worried that its own disproportionate representation on the Security Council might thereby be undermined. It would be far more likely, in my view, that additional countries might be voted in as permanent members, such as India and Brazil – which would be no bad thing, in any case.

But this is all completely hypothetical and shouldn’t stand in the way of the primary consideration, which is that if the English people want greater or total separation from the UK, it is their right to have it. Straw, like Blair, is hung up on the idea of Britain as a major world power, which it really isn’t and can’t sustain other than as a close ally of the States, enabling it to exercise limited moral and strategic influence on that country. Better to forge a new and truly post-imperial identity as England; and I’m far from convinced that our European neighbours wouldn’t be better disposed to collaborate with a reinvigorated, dynamic England than with island-fortress Britain.

So by warning about the diminution of Britain’s stature if the UK was broken up, Straw is once again resorting to scare tactics. The most fundamental rationale for his and the Labour Party’s support not only for a Union reinforced by a written constitution but also denying the right of English MPs alone to vote on English affairs is that he wants to avoid Labour losing the power to form a UK-wide, centralised government based on a minority of the votes. This was evident in his evasive response to the interviewer’s question about the meaning of GB’s inclusion in government of members of other parties. In passing, the interviewer alluded to the fact that Straw had previously vehemently opposed PR: another measure that would prevent Labour from ever gaining absolute power again. Straw merely described Brown’s supposedly more collaborative approach to government as an attempt to rebuild a nationwide (Britain-wide) consensus and unity, which had been impaired by the Iraq War.

This might be one of the spin offs of Brown’s tactic, and one which serves the overall strategic objective of bolstering the Union. But, it has to be observed, there is also a potentially massive electoral pay off, judging from the latest opinion polls. From the actual effect, infer the intention: it was Brown’s aim all along to leverage this supposedly more inclusive approach to government to bring back wavering voters into the Labour fold. ‘You don’t need to vote for another party and thereby risk a hung parliament, which might require coalition government and might further weaken the Union that is in peril – just vote for avuncular, trustworthy Brown and you get effectively a coalition government anyway!’

Clearly, you’ll never get more proportionate representation for English people by electing a Labour government. They want to retain a UK-wide government elected by the first-past-the-post system, which gives them such big disproportionate majorities on a UK-wide vote, let alone an England-only vote. Oh yes, I’ve just remembered: in the last election, the Tories – even on the first-past-the-post system – beat Labour in England; they and the Lib Dems would hammer them under PR. No wonder Jack Straw, who at one point admitted his partisanship, doesn’t want English MPs to vote on England-only matters!

17 September 2007

Unmasking the English (Part Three): Same Old Boring Theme

I apologise if I’m boring my readers by banging on about Andrew Marr’s Radio Four series, Unmasking the English, the third programme in which was aired this morning. If I am boring you, perhaps this is in part a reflection on the series itself, which is starting to get a bit predictable and repetitive on the boring theme itself.

English daily life is just a little bit (or perhaps a lot) boring; so we need to spice it up by going just a little bit (or a lot) wild in our leisure time – for instance, by such mad pursuits as quad-biking in Northumberland, racing souped-up Volkswagens (good-old English make, that!) in Surrey, hunting foxes (er, before they banned it) or binging on stag weekends in Amsterdam. The historical-fictional exemplar for this type of Englishness: R S Surtees’ 170-year-old character Mr Jorrocks; contemporary avatar, the motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson.

Same idea about the fundamental antinomies of English culture and personalities, too: orderliness, indeed fastidiousness, in real urban working life offset by living out a fantasy of aristocratic, reckless abandon in the country. And also, the same thematic and logical contradictions in the programme:

  1. Are the English still – or were they ever, really – like the (apparently) out-of-date Mr Jorrocks; or is that template dying out? Mr Marr provided as many examples of how the mundane, ‘degenerate’ character of modern English life has led to our losing the Jorrocks spirit as examples of its survival: founder of the ‘lads’ mag’ Loaded lamenting that the only outlandish pursuits vaunted by the genre today are those that involve exercising the right arm, rather than the ‘crazy’ Jorrocks-like danger sports that originally filled Loaded‘s pages; anecdote of the adrenaline junky Jeremy Clarkson and friend ‘madly’ hiring an Amsterdam prostitute’s shop window for the night, in true Jorrocks spirit, to make fun of all the pissed English stag-night celebrants as they, indeed, staggered past in search of more decadent sport (degeneracy).
  2. The above ambiguity being linked to the fact that Jorrocks is a fictional character of the past; and therefore, looking for his traces in the present is always going to be something of a quixotic quest for fantastical splendours only dimly reflected in present realities – but then a quest that reflects back on those realities as if showing what a sad lot we English are, dwelling on the past almost in the very act of trying to reinvent it against the drab backdrop of our daily toil. We seem to be stuck in the same old mould, us boring English.

But then, isn’t the reality of life always just a little bit more (or less?) boring than our fantasies – including the reality of our ‘hobbies’ through which we try to alleviate the monotony and narrow regularity (indeed, regulated-ness) of daily life? Even those examples of apparent disorderly behaviour with which Mr Marr contrasted the general tedium vitae exemplify a very English concern for orderliness, rules and rituals: the regular routines of Friday-night car racing, and the de rigueur immaculate presentation and maintenance of the souped-up VWs; the rituals, ceremony and protocols of the hunt; and even Clarkson can’t tear round a circuit or hurl himself down a hillside without turning it into a competition involving tightly (if somewhat randomly) defined rules.

Maybe that’s the real madness and genius of the English that Jorrocks exemplifies: not a wild, aggressive, untamed zest for life that stands in contrast to our tamed and boring modern lives; but a will to push things to the limits while at the same time expressing one’s mastery and domination by imposing and maintaining rules and order even on and at the edges of madness and mayhem. The two together – order and chaos – in manic, eccentric (dis)harmony; never at the extremes of either but the one tempering the other and infusing it with self-mocking humour.

In other words, taking the piss even while getting pissed; and getting pissed off if the rules of binging (stag nights and all) are not respected.

10 September 2007

Unmasking the English (Part Two): Sir Walter Raleigh

Just listened to the second instalment of Andrew Marr’s BBC Radio Four series Unmasking the English, focusing this time on a ‘real-life’ – though larger than life – ‘character’, the Elizabethan adventurer and courtier Sir Walter Raleigh.

I thought the focus was a bit better than that of the last programme, discussing the Miss Marples ‘type’ of Englishness. Although again the exemplar of Englishness chosen was, to say the least, somewhat antiquated, Mr Marr suggested that Raleigh reveals most about the English in the reaction towards him on the part of English people today. Mr Marr correctly identified the fact that we admire exceptional, flamboyant, fearless individuals – especially those that give ‘Johnny Foreigner’ a run for his euros: people who override our self-imposed rules of restraint and self-effacement. And, at the same time, as and when such personalities ‘overstep the mark’ or ‘go too far’, we love to do them down, even to the extent of dragging them to their ruin – and then we regret doing so ever after.

In this respect, Andrew Marr’s main point in this programme was that Raleigh is a character in whom we live out vicariously an image of ourselves as freed from the constraints of conventional English society and modern living, and setting out to conquer the world.

But is this just a fantasy or, to use Marr’s metaphor, a mask? As in the first programme in the series, the presenter appeared to want to have it both ways: while Sir Raleigh was seen as merely a fantasy projection of English greatness, Mr Marr also described him as an example of a double-sided (or two-faced?) aspect of real English people and civilisation. On the one hand, we like to think of ourselves as noble, cultured and debonair; but this is a mask that conceals common aggression and violence when it comes to promoting our own self-interest and that of the country. Raleigh was compared to ambitious City traders, seen as the real swashbucklers and world beaters of today.

Hence, the tantalising ambiguity of Mr Marr’s concluding phrase: Raleigh was a symbol of how the English would “like to think we are and are not, and never were”. Are we / were we really never like Sir Walter Raleigh; or is this something that we’d merely like to think we’re not like and never were – but in fact, we are and have been in the past aggressive and violent in that way? The emphasis of most of the programme seemed to suggest that the latter interpretation of this question was more in line with Mr Marr’s own view. Either way, we lose: we’re either aggressive Black Adder-type bastards, at heart; or Middle-English, plodding City accountants dreaming, Monty Python-like, of being lion tamers.

7 September 2007

Is UK Immigration Policy Designed To Undermine Englishness?

There’s no doubt that the English national identity is under considerable stress at the present time: from the political and cultural privileging of Britishness over Englishness; from the fact that – through devolution – the other nations of the UK have acquired the right to define their identity and determine their destiny in separation from the UK, while English people have not been accorded the same privilege; and from the substantial recent waves of immigration that have landed up mainly on English shores rather than those of Scotland or Wales.

It’s mainly these combined pressures of devolution and immigration that have precipitated the present crisis. And, indeed, the very intensity of the efforts to reaffirm British identity and values is clearly in part a reaction to the same stresses. But is there a more profound correlation between these three strands as they affect English national identity? Could it be the case that what amounts to UK-government tolerance, if not encouragement, of the high volume of immigration over recent years is actually an affirmation of a certain vision of Britishness, opposed to what adherents of that vision might regard as ‘narrow’ English nationalism?

Let’s set out the hypothetical causal chain like this: Scottish and Welsh devolution is seen as threatening not only the survival of the United Kingdom as a political union but also challenges the integrity and universality of so-called British values. In their liberal acception, these stand at the opposite end of the spectrum to nationalist separatism and to a ‘mono-ethnic’ culture and society (e.g. ‘white Anglo-Saxon’). Indeed, Britishness is to a substantial degree assimilated to the idea of the ‘global culture’ and the values that, under the Bush-Blair axis, were thought to be universally applicable to any particular culture, e.g. liberty (including free-market economics), democracy, equality (at least, nominal equality of economic opportunity), tolerance / pluralism, etc.

The welcoming of hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of people from all over the world to make their homes and establish economic activity in Britain was seen in part as a way to reaffirm this idea of British values as at the heart of the new globalised world, and British society as a microcosm and vanguard of the inevitable mixing of races and cultures that this involves. To this extent, the reaffirmation of a trans-cultural and trans-ethnic Britain (more so than multi-cultural and multi-ethnic) represents a vision of a unity that is of such a universal character that it transcends and more than offsets any impairment to the more limited unity of the United Kingdom, made up from the political union of its constituent countries. (Britain, in this sense, represents a unity that is of an ideal / ideological character; while the ‘United Kingdom’ refers merely to the political union.) But by the same token, this idea of Britain leaves no room at all for any notion of a separate English national, ethnic or political identity.

It is perhaps in this more general sense that the widespread immigration of the past few years does help to undermine the efforts to affirm and define a distinct English cultural and political future. The new trans-cultural, trans-ethnic Britain is predicated on the denial of a supposedly mono-cultural, mono-ethnic England. Indeed, the very idea and political project of Britain has always been dependent on the rejection of a separate, isolated English identity and state: not just an island cut off from the rest of the world, but a fragmentary part of that island, with hostile neighbours. Britain has always been the persona through which England has forged its connection with the outside world and, indeed, attempted to re-mould it in its image.

Which sort of brings me to my main point. While the reaffirmation of Britishness, paradoxically in part through immigration, undoubtedly expresses a denial of English separation and separateness, it is in fact mainly English people themselves who are the willing agents of that denial. As I’ve said elsewhere, the British project is primarily an English project: ‘Britain’ has been the cultural and political vehicle through which the English have striven to conquer and order the world. In its apparent trans-nationality, Britain has been a very English form of hypocrisy and subterfuge: things done in the name of Britain can be made out to be motivated by altruistic concern and universal values; whereas, in reality, that Britain was the means for England to dominate not only its island neighbours but large portions of every continent on earth.

This has been the secret reason for the success of ‘Britain’ as an international power and global cultural powerhouse: that it’s ultimately served the English national interest. But is it the case that Britain is no longer ruling the waves of immigration that are crashing onto its shores, and England’s former imperial dominance is coming home to roost? What I mean by this is that if the integrity of the British identity starts to be severely challenged by the new immigration, this means that its value for ensuring the security of English identity and society (probably, in both senses of that word) is also impaired. And it may be necessary to re-define what English identity means in separation from the old British comfort blanket, in order to regain a stable sense of who we are, and who amongst us we’re happy to accept as our countrymen. In other words, if we can’t tell what constitutes being English any more, how can we work out who has a right to live in England or not?

Let me try and illustrate some of the extreme challenges faced by British identity and, as a consequence, English identity. In a previous post, I discussed the multiple ‘ethnic’ categories by which I was confronted when filling in an NHS form. As was subsequently drawn to my attention, these are in fact the same categories that were used in the England and Wales Census of 2001. In that previous post, I argued that the ethnic category ‘White British’ represented an attempt to establish a core Britishness identified with race; and, while this could be viewed as implicitly racist, this also denied the option of using ‘English’ as a signifier of either ethnicity or nationality – something that was not denied to other ethnic groups, who were entitled to refer to themselves as ‘African’, ‘Bangladeshi’, etc. as well as British.

Subsequently, it occurred to me that this form could be interpreted in more or less the opposite way. If the term ‘British’, as used in this set of ethnic categories, is interpreted as in part a designator of ethnicity, this means that, by a curious logical reversal, if Black-African persons who are UK citizens can call themselves ‘Black-British-African’, this also makes ‘Black African’ a possible variety of British ethnicity as well as UK citizenship; the same going for Bangladeshis and all the other national-ethnic categories on the form that are paired with the term ‘British’.

The same ‘Briticisation’ of other races and cultures does not apply to the Chinese, at least in the terms of this form. They’re simply referred to as ‘Chinese’, not ‘British Chinese’ or ‘Chinese British’. ‘British Chinese’ would do perfectly well as a description of a UK citizen from a Chinese ethnic background. But the reason why the term seems unnatural is that we don’t feel comfortable making implicitly proprietorial claims over China (British Chinese) in the way we do over parts of Africa, the Caribbean or the subcontinent of Asia. Proprietorial claims, that is, which relate to ethnicity and ‘acculturation’: the assertion that a Chinese person living in the UK could be ‘properly’, ‘truly’ British in the same implicitly ethnic way that a Black African or Asian Bangladeshi person could be.

In the case of these latter categories, an ethnic identification with Britishness (or an extension to those categories of ‘British’ as a designator of ethnicity) has come to supplement and complete a merely national identification: to be a British citizen – as opposed to, historically, merely a British subject or national by virtue of living in a British imperial dependency – implies the possession of British ethnicity. We don’t feel we should symbolically extend this to the Chinese among us because they were never part of the British empire in quite the same way – although technically, I suppose, we could invent the category ‘Chinese or British Chinese Hong Kong’ to mirror the likes of ‘Asian or British Asian Indian’ – but that wouldn’t go down well politically!

‘Multi-ethnic Britain’ means precisely this: not a multiplicity of ethnic groupings within a Britain that somehow retains a fixed and separate native-British identity above, beyond or beneath that diversity; but a ‘British multi-ethnicity’. Britain is a nation that went out to conquer the world and has now incorporated all its formerly subject nations into its own identity, transforming Britishness from a nationality to an ‘internationality’: or a trans-national and trans-ethnic identity, as I referred to it earlier.

Let’s note in passing that this means that there are two contradictory ways in which the advocacy of a unitary Britishness suppresses any claims that Englishness deserves a separate national or ethnic status: 1) the view that if there is any native-British genetic-racial baseline, this is to be referred to as ‘British’ and not ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, etc.; and 2) the politically correct perspective that questions what I’ve referred to as the implicitly ‘racist’ implications of such British mono-ethnicity and considers that all ethnic groupings living in Britain have the right to be called ‘British’ with respect to ethnicity, not just their national / cultural background. But while this contradiction denies any role for a separate English identity, it also reveals the lack of any consensus as to what truly defines British ethnicity and nationality.

Do all ethnic groupings living in Britain have the implied right to call their ethnicity British? No, not Chinese apparently, as I’ve just remarked; and also not other categories that don’t conform to the ‘already-British-anyway’ assumption that attaches to people hailing from Britain’s former colonies. These are, on the Census / NHS form: ‘Other white background’; ‘Other mixed background’; and ‘Any other ethnic group’. In other words, these are the terms that are likely to apply to many of the more recent immigrants: Eastern Europeans; immigrants from non-European, non-former-British colonies; and mixed-race individuals (including Chinese-British) that are combinations involving either of the above, even if they are combined with one of the ‘British’ categories. The reason why I say these are not regarded as ‘properly’ British ethnic groupings is a) that the term British is not applied to them; and b) that parallel to the absence of ‘British’, the adjectives describing their ethnicity begin with lower-case letters – e.g. ‘Other white background’ versus ‘White British’ or ‘Black British African’, the use of the capital implying that there is some literal [meaning ‘to the letter’] equivalence and identification between the term that designates the ethnicity and the term that refers to the nation or region / continent. [OK, maybe pushing the point a bit there.]

But the point is, the whole thing is completely riddled with contradictions and is useless as a means of establishing a definition either of British nationality or ethnicity. For instance, many of the individuals corresponding to these ‘non-properly-British’ categories will be UK citizens and might wish to describe their ethnicity in British terms. Equally, while Eastern Europeans from EU countries have a right of residence here, they could well be viewed by many British people has having less priority in the ‘queue’ of people wanting to settle here than people from former imperial colonies, including those that are not from either Africa, the Caribbean or subcontinental Asia – e.g. Belize, Nepal or Australia.

This is clearly one of the unacknowledged reasons for the degree of anxiety that the more recent waves of immigration have provoked: that this is a mass migration on a par with that of the Asians and Afro-Caribbeans who came into this country from the 1950s to 1970s; but that it involves what seems to be a random and (in the light of the terror threat) scary mix of ethnicities from around the world, in contrast to our former imperial subjects for whom we felt a paternalistic sense of responsibility. Those former waves of immigration remained within the British comfort zone and did not appear to challenge British identity or culture. In the present, however, the multiplication of alien ethnic categories appearing to compete for British status appears to be straining things to the point of bursting – let alone frustrating any aspirations people might have to affirm their Englishness.

This has contributed to the formation of a conspiracy theory among some English-nationalist sympathisers (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m an English-nationalist sympathiser myself) that the UK government’s laissez-faire attitude towards immigration has been part of calculated plan (possibly inspired by Scots in positions of political power) to dilute the English community and franchise; i.e. to reduce the proportion of the population that is English and so diminish their political influence, particularly in relation to calls for an English parliament and / or independence.

While such conspiracy theories are an understandable offshoot of the stress which the English national identity is currently under, they are problematic on a number of levels. For a start, as the current and previous discussion on British ethnicity have attempted to show, it is extremely difficult to define or agree what constitutes English nationality or ethnicity in the present situation; and by extension, to know exactly what a phrase such as ‘diluting the English community’ might mean. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t have a working definition of Englishness, because if you abandon this concept altogether, you’re giving in to the official view that there is only a British and not English national identity.

One of the reasons why phrases such as ‘diluting the English community / population’ are problematic is they could be read as embodying an assumption that the ‘English community’ is defined ‘properly’ only in ethnic terms. However, apart from the increasing proportion of English residents that are recent or longer-term immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, how does this point of view deal with the growing mixed-race population: persons of both ‘White-British’ / ‘White-English’ and non-native British heritage? Does diluting the English community equate to diluting the ‘English race’ here? But do not the direct descendants of English people have an inalienable right to call themselves ‘properly’ English just as much as those who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are of more unadulterated English lineage?

All the same, the perception that the English population is being diluted, diminished or marginalised is certainly in part accentuated by the very ethnic terms that are used to categorise the population, such as those of the form that I’ve discussed. The difficulties connected with these categories ironically appear even more acute in the expanded list of ethnicities recommended by the Commission for Racial Equality, which are intended to be more inclusive and to make allowance for people wishing to declare themselves as English in the first instance, rather than British.

This extended ethnic set lists English, Scottish and Welsh as sub-categories first of White and then of British. This makes White-British-English – for many, the core definition of English ethnicity-nationality – only one out of 22 ethnic categories. Moreover, the atomising of British identity into so many categories and sub-categories means that many people who would tick the box ‘English’ if they were offered only national categories that reflected their cultural affinities and personal attachments are now invited to select one of the many other options on offer, from the more outlandish (e.g. ‘Gypsy’ or ‘Irish traveller’ – two separate categories) to the more mainstream such as Welsh and Scottish: somebody of mixed Anglo-Scottish parentage who’s lived all their life in England might be tempted to tick the Scottish box for political or career reasons, for instance, whereas ‘English’ might be more accurate as a description of their personality and cultural background. And I ask you, this is the Commission for Racial Equality we’re talking about, and they’re using the term ‘Gypsy’, presumably to refer to Romanis, for which Gypsy is generally considered a derogatory term nowadays. And, by the way, the Wikipedia listing for ‘Gypsy’ considers ‘Irish travellers’ to be a possible sub-category of Gypsy as opposed to Romani, which the CRE appears to assimilate to ‘Gypsy’! Doesn’t inspire confidence that they can get the relations between Britain and its constituent national tribes right!

As the above example of the Anglo-Scottish person demonstrates, this expanded list of ethnic categories and the way the form is designed not only makes White-British-English (the only guise under which you’re able to declare English ethnicity-nationality) appear to be a minority but also has the practical effect of reducing the number of respondents who will tick the England box. Some liberal-minded English folk, as another instance, might shy away from selecting a rather restrictive definition of Englishness and opt for the more ‘inclusive’ British. The positioning of ‘British’ on the form – the fact that it is listed as the primary sub-category of ‘White’ and the first one as you go down the list – naturally encourages people to select ‘British first’, leaving ‘English’ unselected, as you’re not supposed to tick both boxes. Scots and Welsh people, however, would be more inclined, and are often politically encouraged, to select ‘Scottish’ and ‘Welsh’ as opposed to British.

More insidiously still, if you look at this form (and I do invite you to hit the link), the sub-categories of ‘British’ (English, Scottish, Welsh and ‘Other, please write in’ (‘excludes NI’, as the small print on product labels often reads)) have less implied logical or proprietorial precedence than every other ethnic category: all the others (including Gypsy and Irish traveller) are listed on the same level – with the same degree of indenting – as ‘British’. So in fact, rather than there being 22 categories, there are really 18 categories and four sub-categories, one of which is the majority population of the UK: culturally English people.

I say ‘culturally’ here because it is as their ‘cultural background’ that this particular form invites respondents to view their ‘national’ identities (e.g. English, Welsh, etc.) as opposed to, or in conjunction with, their ethnic identities (White, Mixed, Asian, Black and Chinese or other). The 2005 consultation document on the 2011 census at least rectifies this implied relegation of Englishness to the status of sub-sub-category by putting it on the same level as all the other ethnic groupings; and it also corrects the ‘discriminatory’ use of lower-case adjectives for ‘non-properly-British’ ethnic groups. But there are still 20 categories to negotiate and they’re defined in ethnic terms, referred to as ‘single ethnic group categories’ – begging all the questions about the relations between ethnicity and nationality, the atomisation of Britishness, and the implied lack of pre-eminence accorded to Englishness – placing ‘English’ in a sort of minority of one out of 20 without any explicit privilege, although it’s still the first in the list. For reference, these 20 categories are as follows:

  1. White English (for Census returns in England)
  2. White Welsh (for Census returns in Wales)
  3. Other White British
  4. White Irish
  5. Other White background
  6. Mixed: White and Black Caribbean
  7. Mixed: White and Black African
  8. Mixed: White and Asian
  9. Mixed: Other Mixed background
  10. Indian
  11. Pakistani
  12. Bangladeshi
  13. Chinese
  14. Other Asian background
  15. Black Caribbean
  16. Black African
  17. Other Black background
  18. Arab
  19. Gypsy/Romany/Irish Traveller
  20. Other Ethnic Group

Alongside, and in addition to, these ‘single ethnic group categories’, the consultation asked for people’s reactions to an alternative / complementary set of ethnic categories referred to as ‘combined ethnic group categories’ – aggregates of the above, as follows:

  1. White (categories 1 to 4)
  2. Mixed (categories 5 to 9) [er, isn’t No. 5 ‘Other White background? ED]
  3. Asian or Asian British (categories 10 to 14) [well, at least the Chinese are now accorded Asian British status – ED]
  4. Black or Black British (categories 15 to 17)
  5. Other ethnic groups (categories 18 to 20)

The point of all this is to demonstrate the extent to which British and English identity and ethnicity has become such a (very English?) muddle. In our (English) efforts to bend over backwards and be inclusive and accommodating to the sensitivities of every other ethnic group, and to be non-discriminatory, we’ve ended up being not only unable to define what constitutes British nationality and a justifiable claim to UK residence and even citizenship; but also we’ve ended up denying any sort of privileged or even just clearly defined status to English people as (still) the majority ethnic-national grouping within Britain. And we’ve done this in the name of a trans-ethnic, trans-national ideal of Britain.

How can this be redressed? It’s a complex problem, so the answer will not be simple. But one way to at least begin to work ourselves out of the conceptual muddle would be to define national identity (while fully separate political structures still do not exist) in cultural rather than ethnic terms; and then to have the ethnic categories as secondary, qualifying descriptions. This would clearly separate out the national and ethnic terms that have become so ambiguously and insidiously mixed up; and it would enable the majority population (the English) to declare themselves as such.

So, for instance, if I was putting together a form of this sort, I would have cultural / national identities first, and list ‘ethnic’ identities second. The cultural / national list would ask people to specify what they regarded as their primary cultural identity (referred to below as ‘preferred cultural identity’), e.g. do they feel more English than Scottish (if they are of mixed parentage), or more or less English than Caribbean (if they are a first-, second- or subsequent-generation person from that ethnic background). The list might read:

  1. English
  2. Scottish
  3. Welsh
  4. Northern Irish
  5. Cornish
  6. Irish (Republic)
  7. Other European
  8. Combination of any of No.’s 1 to 7 above if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)
  9. African
  10. Caribbean
  11. Chinese / Hong Kong
  12. Jewish
  13. Subcontinental Asian [this category could be broken down into three (Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani) if the organisation soliciting the information had a justifiable need to quantify the different subcontinental Asian populations, e.g. typically, in a census or NHS form!]
  14. Combination of any of No.’s 9 to 13 with any, or any combination, of No.s 1 to 8, if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)
  15. Combination of any of No.’s 9 to 13 with any other of No.’s 9 to 13, if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)
  16. Any other culture (please specify)
  17. Any combination of No. 16 with any other named culture above if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)

The list of ethnic groupings could then be left very simple, e.g.:

  1. White / European / Caucasian
  2. Black / African / Caribbean
  3. Asian
  4. Any combination of the above (please specify)
  5. Other (please specify)

This way of doing things would have numerous benefits. For a start, it would enable people of whatever race who identify as English (and Scottish, Welsh and Irish) to state this with pride and confidence. It would also enable persons of mixed heritage (both mixed-race and descendants of immigrants) to affirm both parts of their identity in a way that more accurately reflects their subjective feelings and identifications. For instance, the grandchild of an immigrant from Nigeria whose parents were also of the same ethnic background could declare themself to be both English (culturally and nationally) and African (ethnically) – without the national and ethnic categories being mixed up in a manner that forces that individual to class themselves as something (e.g. Black British African) that makes them feel and appear not to be fully accepted as English.

If you’ve stayed with me on this mini-journey and read my previous post, you’ll remember that in the 2001 Census-based NHS form, I ticked myself as ‘Other white background’ even though (in fact, because) I’m of ‘mixed’ English, Welsh and Irish descent. On a form such as the one I’m advocating, I could select my actual cultural / national identification (English) without having to quibble; but if I wanted to declare my ‘mixed’ cultural background, I could do so, too. My mixed-race adopted sister, who’s as English as I am, could also select English as the national / cultural identity and No. 4 on the ethnic list (any combination of the above) without feeling she had to classify herself as anything by implication ‘less than’ properly English or British as she would have to do in the 2001 Census, e.g. White & Black African.

However, this list or one based on similar principles is unlikely to be adopted any time soon, as it gives precedence to English national and ethnic identity over British. Better, in the eyes of the powers that be, to have a total muddle over national identity in the name of an all-inclusive Britishness than to promote a clearly and non-discriminatorily defined – and proudly asserted – Englishness.

4 September 2007

Unmasking the English: Another Catalogue Of England’s Terminal Decline?

Listened to the first programme in Andrew Marr’s new BBC Radio Four series Unmasking the English yesterday (as I write, still available as a podcast). Moderately interesting, with one or two insightful comments. I liked the one where he said that the English were the only nation on earth where ‘understated’ and ‘patriotic fervour’ went hand in hand. But on the whole, despite the title, I found it pretty unrevealing fare, in fact.

The series is attempting to get to grips with hidden, less immediately obvious aspects of Englishness from the avowed perspective of an ‘outsider’ – Andrew Marr being completely up front about his Scottish origins and standpoint. The series aims to achieve this by looking at fictional characters that appear to typify English characteristics. Yesterday’s programme focused on Agatha Christie’s Miss Marples. She was presented as an exemplar of English upper-class understatement, self-deprecation and muddling that tactically conceals a steely intellect and purpose determined to see through to the end whatever it has undertaken. Interestingly, and topically, Boris Johnson was offered as an illustration of a modern version of these traits.

However, the danger of basing a programme like this on fictional characters is that you end up with clichés and outdated caricatures of Englishness rather than something of contemporary relevance. Of course, we do all recognise that there is something ‘quintessentially English’ about Miss Marples, a character for whom there is a great deal of popular affection. But our understanding of what constitutes quintessential Englishness has itself to a large extent been formed by fictional characters such as Miss Marples.

A more interesting approach would have been to take ‘typically English’ detective fiction itself as the mask that in turn conceals and reveals something about the English – not to view Miss Marples as if she was a ‘real’ type of Englishness, of which Boris Johnson was a modern manifestation. Andrew Marr’s programme did touch upon these issues in a round-about way; for instance, when he described the typical scenario of a Miss Marples drama: where the spinster sleuth just happens to be around as a gruesome murder is committed, usually in an ‘idyllic’ English village setting; and pursues her investigations in a self-deprecating, unobtrusive but ruthless fashion until she unmasks the villain.

This sort of scenario is indeed typical of a form of English fiction – a particular manifestation of English culture – and there are many modern English dramas that take up the baton from Agatha Christie’s heroine, e.g. Midsomer Murders, Morse or Parsley & Thyme. But the more potentially revealing question would be to ask why the English have such an enduring fascination for such tales, and why do we like to present such an image of ourselves (rural, traditional idyll with underlying current of homicidal violence) to the rest of the world? And why are murder dramas – whether of this traditional variety or the more modern forensic kind – invariably screened either on Friday or Sunday evening: the times of the week when we’re most likely to let off steam and vent our frustrations about the working week? If our daily lives of drudgery are ‘murder’, then the murder mystery is where the disappointments and disaffections of ‘real’ English life are acted out in a surrogate way on an idealised stage matching how we’d like our experience of England to be, but which it mostly isn’t.

But because Andrew Marr ended up considering Miss Marples as a real type of Englishness (despite her fictional status), and an outdated one at that, the programme ended up in a logical paradox that it failed to acknowledge: Miss Marples was an example of quintessential English character traits but at the same time, these were seen as increasingly on the wane in modern Britain with its supposedly more thrusting, self-assertive culture, particularly in the world of work (which is opposed, as I have argued, to the idealised world of the murder mystery). As if to imply that Englishness itself – as defined by the programme – is on the decline and is no longer relevant to the real world of contemporary Britain?

On top of this, I felt uneasy about the series’ title: Unmasking the English. Is the implication that the amiable, bumbling image of a Miss Marples or Boris Johnson is, precisely, a fiction concealing real ‘new English’ characteristics that are in fact more adjusted to the modern world that the English have done so much to shape: tactical shrewdness, ruthless determination, ambition, cold calculation and aggression – precisely the kind of negative traits of which the English are so often accused by foreigners and outsiders, such as Mr Marr? Just as Miss Marples eventually unmasks the murderous villain beneath his or her villagey respectability, are these characteristics the reality of modern English society concealed beneath the mask of a Miss Marples?

Or should that be Miss Marr-ples? For it seems to me that it’s Andrew Marr who is playing the detective here, attempting to strip the English of one layer of our deceptive self-image of harmless amiability and revealing the brute beneath. But is not the whole polarity – murderous class-less reality of the mercenary modern world versus upper-class effortless, toil-less, sophistication – not itself the fiction? The reality of the English is not going to be revealed – at least, not directly – through such myths, which Andrew Marr seems to buy into. Perhaps in so doing, he has succumbed to the real deception that such fictions represent: appearing to reveal the English while concealing the realities of modern English life – and, at the same time, making excellent business from it!

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