Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

31 October 2007

Is PR the elephant in the English Grand Committee room?

PR in UK national elections is a measure that could go a long way to addressing the grievances of English voters resentful at the way the Scottish and Welsh people have been allowed proportionally elected parliamentary bodies to govern their domestic affairs, while this has been denied England – while at the same time, decisions affecting England are taken by an unrepresentative government whose artificial parliamentary majority is bolstered still further by Scottish and Welsh MPs whose constituents are not directly affected by those decisions.

An ‘English Grand Committee’ whose composition reflected the actual share of the votes obtained by the parties at the last general election would not have differed greatly from the composition of the UK parliament as a whole as elected under PR. Admittedly, Labour would have been entitled to seek to assemble a parliamentary majority for the UK government (having obtained more votes than any other party across the UK – though not a majority); and the Tories would have carried more weight than Labour (but only just) in the EGC. But in both cases, neither of the two largest parties would have commanded an overall majority, and the Lib Dems would have held the balance of power.

Such a ‘solution’ would not really address the case for an English parliament, which rests on the right of the English people to have a parliament that gives expression to their national identity and political choices – if is is their democratic will to have such a parliament, which the Scots and Welsh have been allowed to choose in a referendum. Nonetheless, if supporters of the EGC compromise solution (really, a non-solution) to the English Question were keen to avoid the accusation of partisanship and gerrymandering, then they should back PR. It’s only under the present first-past-the-post system that potential conflicts between a Labour majority or minority UK government and a Conservative-controlled EGC could arise. Give us PR, and then there would be far less conflict and much more co-operation between the government and the EGC. And, what is more, both bodies might actually reflect public opinion (heaven forfend!).

Tell you what – rather than beating about the bush for the next two or three years until GB [Gordon Brown] can pick his moment to cheat the majority will of the British and English electorate for another four or five years, why don’t we set up an EGC now that is picked on a proportional basis: 35.7% Tory, 35.5% Labour and 22.9% Lib Dem; not sure what to do about the 2.6% UKIP, though! Then the three main parties might actually have to work together and make deals to get the parliamentary business done.

God, no! Far easier to abuse an unrepresentative absolute majority enhanced by Scottish and Welsh MPs to push English matters through!

But is PR, which neither Labour nor the Tories wish to discuss in this context (since they dream of absolute UK and English majorities) in fact the only radical measure that could save the Union? Give the English people representative democracy and the growing calls for independence suddenly lose much of their force. Come on then, GB, the Defender of the Union: how about PR in your new constitutional reform measures?

If Gordon Brown can’t say England, the media should

If GB [Gordon Brown] is, should I say, constitutionally unable to utter the word ‘England’, in case he invokes the existence of an unofficial country that could threaten the continuance of the Union (see last post), then doesn’t the media have a duty to do so? By which I mean broadsheet newspapers and the broadcasting establishment as well as the popular press that is already championing the cause of more democratic accountability for English voters.

I was struck by this on listening to the BBC Radio Four news this morning, where they reported that GB was proposing tougher measures to close down failing schools. ‘Failing schools in England‘ was my indignant-from-Tunbridge Wells reflex reaction! But then I thought, why couldn’t they have actually specified that the proposed measures related only to English schools? All they need do is add ‘in England’ to each such announcement of a new policy or piece of legislation. By that simple measure, people would increasingly come to realise that GB and his crew are effectively only an English government in most domestic affairs, or rather a UK government acting as if England were the UK.

Why should the BBC, say, change its policy in this regard – assuming that it is a policy, at all, and not just a case of an unthinking force of habit that means that even the BBC forgets that most UK-government measures now relate to England only; or else, a product of a liberal, pro-Union political position? Clearly, it would suit the purposes of supporters of an English parliament and devolution settlement if the media did start spelling out when parliamentary decisions related to England only or, indeed, to England and Wales only, or to the whole of the UK.

But this would arguably also be a case of the BBC being truer to its mission and its Charter, which in this context involves reporting on events accurately and impartially, and informing people as fully and clearly as possible. Listeners, viewers and readers of news have a right to know if politicians’ decisions and statements affect them (and only them) or not. If they don’t have this information, how can they make informed decisions themselves about who to support in elections?

The BBC and the established media in general have a duty to say England. All it takes is two little words, ‘in England’, that need adding to the first sentence of news reports. Not too hard or embarrassing to use the E word, is it?

30 October 2007

Why CAN’T Gordon Brown say ‘England’?

There’s a petition on the Downing Street website at the moment, organised by supporters of an English parliament, which urges the prime minister to actually say ‘England’, rather than ‘the country’ or ‘our country’ (or even ‘Britain’), when he means England: when he refers to matters such as health, education and housing where (as a result of devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) his ‘competence’ (to use an EU-speak term) or area of responsibility is in fact limited to England. But he can’t bring himself to do so as his recent ‘Brit-eulogy’ at the Labour Party conference and his inability to praise the England rugby team on behalf of England testified.

Why can’t our prime minister acknowledge or speak on behalf of the country that makes up 85% of the population of the nation he supposedly leads? This is more than a matter of semantics. The answer to this question goes to the heart of the identity of ‘our nation’; of Scots’ continuing engagement with it post-devolution and after a possible full independence; and of the survival, or not, of the Union if the Scots did set off on their own.

First, let’s recap a bit of history. If you took only the words of Gordon Brown [or GB as I like to call him: if he can’t refer to a country by its name but can talk only of ‘Britain’, I won’t refer to him by his name and will just call him ‘GB’ – the personification of Britain, indeed], then ‘our country’ is Britain. But Britain or Great Britain does not exist as a nation. There was a nation called Great Britain (more fully, the ‘Kingdom of Great Britain’; also informally known as the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain’) that was established by the Act of Union between the Kingdoms of England (which incorporated the principality of Wales) and Scotland in 1707. This nation or state lasted only 93 years till the further Act of Union between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland in 1800. This established the name of the state as the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. This in turn was given its present name of ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ in 1927 to reflect the reality of Irish partition and independence.

This latter event creates a historical precedent for what would presumably happen if the Scots became an independent nation before some solution changing the constitutional relationships between all the countries of the UK was reached. As the Union that is the UK encompasses more than just the union of England and Scotland but also two other unions (the union of England and Wales that existed since the 13th century, and the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), these two other unions would remain in effect, albeit altered, if Scotland left. This would in fact see the demise of ‘Great Britain’ (and by extension, ‘Britain’) as a name for the continuing state. But we would still have a United Kingdom: ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’, maybe. That is, until the probably inevitable further break up of such a unitary state into three more independent or federal nations!

Or would we? The on-off New Labour plans to break up England into a number of regions of comparable size to Scotland and Wales could be a way to pre-empt the break up of ‘Britain’ / ‘Great Britain’ by creating a ‘Britain of nations [Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland] and regions [the ‘former England’]’, as it’s been called. If Scotland were to break off from such a ‘Britain’, this could then be construed as a de facto region of Britain establishing itself as a separate nation. The continuing ‘British nation’ could then be named something like the ‘United Kingdom of Britain [not Great Britain any more with Scotland no longer in it], Wales and Northern Ireland’; or, hell, why not just go the whole hog and call it the ‘United Kingdom of Britain’ (‘Britain’ for short) – because if there’s no administrative difference between the regions of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (as they’re all run by devolved assemblies), there’s no reason to acknowledge any of them separately in the name of the state. Welsh and Northern Irish people could still informally refer to their countries as if they were nations; but well, England, you’ve always been proud of your history, and now that’s all you are!

Is this just a fantasy or, rather, nightmare scenario? Well, the total inability of GB to officially acknowledge the existence of an entity we like to call England isn’t reassuring at a time when he’s carrying out a constitutional reform process which – we learnt last week – will enshrine long-established British (yes, it’s that word again) principles of rights and responsibilities. And there’s a more well founded basis for these fears based on, yes, history again.

This is that England, like Great Britain, does not officially exist as a nation. It’s just that England ceased to exist from the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 (becoming Great Britain, as above); and Great Britain ceased to exist as a stand-alone entity (albeit it’s included in the name of the state) in 1800 with the union with Ireland. Scotland’s leaving [Great] Britain doesn’t of itself re-create an England: it would just leave a United Kingdom of Britain that – if England had not been granted devolution prior to Scotland’s independence – would in fact officially be more like the regionalised-England model: a United Kingdom defined and named officially as a Britain with certain powers devolved to two ‘countries’ and a number of regions.

In other words, the Britologists’ or British nationalists’ view would appear to boil down to the statement, ‘if England does not exist (as it doesn’t now, officially), why go to the trouble of creating a “new” nation called England – either prior to full Scottish independence or after it – if we can preserve a unitary state under its ‘existing’ (unofficial) banner of “Britain”?’ For these people, the Union / UK is synonymous with ‘Britain’; and so is England – for them – as England (sub)merged its identity, through the Union of Scotland, with that of Great Britain. From this perspective, any (re-)establishment of a separate entity called England would indeed represent the de-construction of the Union: its splitting into a separate England and Scotland.

But this is not true: the Union is greater than the Union between England and Scotland alone. As indicated above, it also incorporates a more long-standing union between England and Wales, and a union between a Great Britain including England and Wales with Northern Ireland. So the establishment of a distinct political and national identity for England – whether in the context of Scottish independence or not – in no way intrinsically subverts the Union / UK. It’s just that if Scotland but not the other nations broke off, it could be re-named, as I’ve suggested, the ‘United [and / or Federal] Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’; with the continuing participation of Scotland, this could be the ‘United [Federal] Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’. But both scenarios do indeed do away with a unitary ‘Great Britain’ or ‘Britain’, which hasn’t officially existed since 1800 in any case. So it’s not the Union that is threatened by English devolution and / or Scottish independence, but Britain.

So why do the supposed ‘Britological’ (Brit-illogical) defenders of the Union want to perpetuate the lie(s) that a) Britain is a nation (it’s not; the UK is); b) that the Union means Britain (which it doesn’t); and that c) ‘England’ doesn’t exist (i.e. that it’s – officially – only a nameless part of [Great] Britain)? To some extent, these myths could be characterised as a delusion as much as they are a deception. English people have historically, and until quite recent times, merged and conflated the English and British national identities: England did invest its identity and ambitions into ‘Great Britain’ through the Union and the Empire. The realisation that the days of a ‘great’ Britain – of a Britain as a major world power – are long gone is something that the leaders and people of England will have no escape from in a devolved or fully independent England. Tony Blair tried to stoke up this truly megalomaniac delusion of Britain the World Power in order to keep the myth of Britain as the Union and Nation going for a bit longer after the body blow he dealt it through the uneven devolution settlement. But England’s greatness is based on more than the achievements of Great Britain, and England will find, and can only find, renewed confidence and purpose when it is able to forge a new direction in its own name.

That’s if the Britologists let her. Because the other side of the British coin is continuing Scottish engagement in – as opposed to English identification with – the Union that is mis-named Britain. The Scots have never truly bought into ‘Britain’ as the English did. For them, it was always a convenient name for a tie up with England, indeed a marriage of convenience with England; in which using the name ‘Great Britain’ is a way to pretend that it’s a marriage of equals and a true union (the creation of a new merged entity from two formerly separate entities), rather than what it effectively was: an English take-over of Scotland. Better for Scots’ pride – and what a reflection, it could be argued, on English diplomacy and self-effacement – to call it ‘Great Britain’ rather than ‘Greater England’! It could have been called something like that. After all, the expanded English kingdom incorporating Wales from 1284 had been simply called ‘England’.

Historically, Scots have been committed to ‘Great Britain’ essentially through perceived self-interest. Political union with England enabled the Scottish people and nation to benefit from, and share in creating, the wealth of the British Empire. But both before and after that flowering of English civilisation, the establishment of Great Britain has enabled Scots to participate, in a surrogate manner, in the public life of a greater nation than Scotland alone (if greatness is measured in terms of political and economic power, and cultural influence); indeed, it has enabled Scots to exercise political power over, and shape the whole body politic of, England-Britain. Until devolution (fair play), this was, after all, the only way Scots people could also have any political influence over their own nation, since Scotland was (and England still is) ruled by the UK parliament and executive.

So, to some extent, the Union of England and Scotland (one of the three unions from which the UK was created) has persisted so long because it enabled Scots to ‘punch above their weight’, both nationally and internationally. One wonders to what extent the Scot Tony Blair’s insistence that Britain should try to keep punching above its weight on the international stage had anything to do with the realisation of how little influence Scotland, as opposed to England, would have in the world as an independent country, compared with the as yet not entirely extinguished glamour of British imperial power.

An independent Scotland would indeed be a bit-part player: comparable, in economic scale and geo-political affinity, with the likes of Norway and the other Nordic states, and Ireland. The Republic of Scotland might well eventually become a wealthy country, as Alex Salmond was saying at the SNP conference over the weekend, just like these Northern European peers; but not a powerful one. By contrast, England would continue to belong at the European top table alongside the likes of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland; and most likely, it would still sit at the global top table that is the United Nations Security Council, next to its US friend and ally.

The economic wealth and political power enjoyed by ‘the country’ would therefore not be fundamentally compromised by a break up of ‘the Union’ (of Britain, that is, not the UK), which Britologists claim would be the consequence of Scottish independence or English devolution. Indeed, in many respects, greater separation and autonomy for England and Scotland (whether full independence for both countries, or a looser relationship as part of a federal UK; or a federal UK minus Scotland) might in fact be the trigger for a rejuvenation of both countries’ economic and cultural life, and international relations. Certainly, freeing England from the disproportionate tax burden it carries on behalf of Scotland and Wales under the Barnett Formula could provide a major kick-start to its economy.

But – and here’s the rub – a devolved or independent England would leave the Labour Party unable ever to regain absolute power over England: the truly ‘great’ and certainly greater part of the Great Britain over which that party stands zealous guard. And it would leave Scottish and Welsh MPs (a greater proportion of whom are Labour than in England) bereft of their traditional role in influencing English affairs. As these are now separated from Scottish and Welsh domestic matters, these MPs can participate in making decisions on English laws and policies with apparent legitimacy only if these are termed British matters, not English.

But beyond this present political anomaly, referred to as the West Lothian Question, there is a fundamental question of national identity. [Funny that GB should be so keen to press on with plans for a British identity card system!] If our national identities were defined as English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish – rather than British – and if there were devolved and / or independent parliamentary bodies answerable to the people who call themselves English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, then not only the justification but the reality of Scottish people exercising political power over England in the name of Great Britain disappears. If the nations of the UK separate (if only to re-group in a federation), you no longer have Britain: the Union between England and Scotland. If you no longer have that, you have no possibility for Scottish people to be at the centre of power of a greater nation than Scotland alone. GB would have to pack his bags and go home from a global capital city to little old Kirkcaldy.

Better to pretend, then, that Britain still exists. ‘Still’? It doesn’t and never did; at least, not since 1800. But at least the name Britain is included in the name of the nation. And in that name, it’s still possible to wield disproportionate power over an English electorate that have not voted for you.

What do I say ‘England’? England, too, does not officially exist and hasn’t done so for longer than Great Britain; of course, how silly of me to forget! (Scotland and Wales have been allowed to return to official existence; but that leaves British regions, not England, doesn’t it?) But better not even whisper the name of England; otherwise, you might summon up the sleeping giant into existence, and then the whisker-thin justification for your power will disappear into a puff of spin. What better way to continue with the myth of Britain and the disproportionate system of power it props up than to pretend that Britain does exist, and England doesn’t? And even to enshrine that pretence in a new constitutional settlement that, by regionalising it, will do away with England once and for all?

So GB can rule only in the name of GB. His whole political identity is defined in terms of that mythical entity known fallaciously as Britain. His political identity, that is; don’t worry, he’s not going to deny his national identity as a Scot. There are Brits and Scots (not English); and because he’s both, he can exercise power over England (correction: Britain).

GB might represent Britain; but he doesn’t and cannot represent, in the office of prime minister, an England whose very existence he does not and cannot acknowledge. And that is why he can neither speak for England nor of her.

26 October 2007

Between E & U: Brown’s Red Lines And the Break Up of the UK

The trouble with the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union (EU) is that it wants the EU to be like the UK; whereas the EU sees itself as more like a European version of, or counterpart to, the USA. If the EU were like the UK, it would see itself as a sort of commonwealth (indeed, Common Market) of separate nations agreeing to abide by common rules and loose conventions designed to promote the fair conduct of international trade, economic development and cultural understanding.

But the EU isn’t like that. The EU sees itself as the expression and as yet only partial realisation of a will to forge a united Europe: one that definitively overcomes all the divisions and conflicts that have pitted European nations against each other throughout the millennia. The ultimate manifestation of this victory over divisions between nations will be when all fundamental legal and political differences between the nations of Europe are abolished, and they freely unite – ‘pool their sovereignty’ – within a new supra-national European sovereign body or state with its own parliament, legislature, judiciary, monetary system, social policies, bill of rights and . . . constitution – among other things.

Many people in EU member states share this vision in its broad outlines without always realising the extent to which its logical outworking will be a complete political union, most likely in the form of a federal state. I say this based on the fact that several countries voted in favour of the EU constitution, either in uncontroversial parliamentary votes or in referenda – when we were still allowed to call it a constitution, that is. It should be borne in mind that many European countries were part of, or made up of, European empires, or confederations of nations or regional principalities, until a relatively recent period in their history: until the First World War in many instances. This applies both to many smaller states, such as Ireland or the Central European nations that were part of the Habsburg Empire, and larger ones such as Germany and Italy: made up of a large number of distinct principalities until as late as the second half of the 19th century. For these countries, then, the idea of a Federal Europe not only does not seem a disturbing prospect, but probably seems like the most rational, inevitable and comfortable arrangement to govern the relations between European states that, in the absence of such a Union, have too often pursued their rivalry with each other through military means.

By contrast, the nations that rejected the EU constitution in referenda – France and the Netherlands – are countries with a long tradition of unified, centralised states that were also at the heart of global empires, again until recent times. The UK, which would certainly have rejected the constitution (and almost certainly would reject the present Reform Treaty), is another case in point. Perhaps the French and Dutch people rejected the constitution ultimately because they felt it was moving too far in the direction of creating a European federal state that would do away with their cherished independence and national political institutions.

In the UK, we like to think that things like the abolition of trade barriers; the free movement of goods, services and people between nations; and the harmonisation of regulations, social policy and environmental action that the EU has brought are the real benefits of EU membership: that they’re what the EU is for. But in reality, these things flow from the core project behind the EU, rather than being the things that in themselves define what the EU is and should remain; and they are but stepping stones towards the complete realisation of that project. In other words, as the real goal is the political and legal unification of Europe, then the abolition of trade barriers, geopolitical borders and differential treatment of (discrimination towards) citizens of other member states compared with one’s own nationals can all be seen as integral, necessary characteristics that a supra-national Euro-state would have to have. It’s because the aim is to bring about the unification of European nations in a super-state like this that these things have been introduced, and not simply because the goal is to create a . . . Common Market for the promotion of trade and economic growth on fair competitive terms.

This core EU project is advanced by gradually extending the areas in which national sovereignty is ‘pooled’ at a European level, i.e. that sovereignty is effectively transferred to EU institutions. The current Reform Treaty is a big step in that direction. It doesn’t matter whether we call it a constitution or not. This is not only because it has substantially the same effect as the ‘abandoned’ constitution, but because it is working towards the same end: the establishment of united and effectual EU-wide governmental institutions and processes.

The very nature and scope of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] much-vaunted red lines, which he brings forward as proof that the UK is not entering into a constitutional arrangement (viz a Federal Europe), ironically demonstrate the extent to which the Treaty does represent a radical move in the direction of a European state. What are the areas of UK ‘competence’ these red lines are supposed to preserve from the Euro take-over? No less than: the justice system; foreign affairs; fiscal autonomy and social security (social policy, and employment and labour affairs); and the fundamental human rights framework of the state. These represent basically the three core pillars of the executive (the Home Office, Foreign Office and Treasury) plus the judiciary. And the Treaty is also creating the EU as a distinct legal entity (‘state’ to you and me) at the same time as instituting a European President and a de facto Foreign Minister, albeit that the powers of those two individuals and their office will be limited, at least initially. Brown’s red lines may well signal that we are not entering into this constitution-in-all-but name; but all our fellow EU members are, and how long will be really be able or allowed to hold out and resist not only these moves but subsequent additional initiatives working towards ever closer integration?

But there’s another purpose – closer to home – that the red lines are serving. They are a means by which GB is attempting to strike a compromise between two contradictory pulls – integrationist and separatist – that threaten to pull that other Union, the UK, apart. As I explored in my previous post on this subject, the integrationist cause would be likely to command a majority in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while the separatist cause would almost certainly be backed by a majority of the English electorate. By attempting to avoid a referendum on the Treaty, GB aims to fend off a vote that might reveal and open up still further a profound schism between England and the rest of the UK, with very different cultures, political philosophies and opinions about the direction in which ‘the country’ (i.e. the different countries of the UK) should be heading. GB hopes that the red lines will constitute [sorry, used the C word there!] a sufficient balance between the UK continuing to participate in the ongoing process of euro-integration and England retaining control over its own governance, which is essentially what is meant by the red lines: the UK, in political terms, being primarily a synonym for England in this post-devolution era.

But England deserves better. England has the need and right to make its own decisions about the extent to which it wishes to participate in the Euro-project. In essence, if the UK parliament decides to ratify the Treaty, this may well come down to the votes of Scottish and Welsh MPs swinging the decision in favour of the integrationists. But the will of the English people, which is so distorted by the composition of the UK parliament, will not have been sounded out. And this can only contribute to further bitterness towards the UK establishment and the EU, and further demands for independence.

All of which gets in the way of what could and should be a serious process of reflection for England about what its international future should be now that Imperial Britain is no more, and Scotland and Wales are increasingly following Ireland in breaking away from the Union (UK) and moving towards the Union (EU). What kind of role in Europe and the world can and should a separate England pursue? Do we have to go along with what I’ve described as an inexorable progression towards a Federal Europe? Is the English idea of a free-market Europe of distinct but closely interconnected nations (somewhat like the ideal of what the UK has been and could be again) now just a pipe dream?

We had a referendum 34 years ago on that particular vision of Europe, known then as the Common Market; and we endorsed it. But we’ve never had the chance of a free, properly democratic, representative vote on what the EU has become (because it was already pre-programmed to follow this course): a proto-Federal Republic of Europe. That’s the kind of referendum we should have; but failing that, let’s at least have a referendum on the Reform Treaty. And please let the will of the English people, as distinct from that of the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, be allowed to be heard and taken into consideration.

But between E (England) and U (a United Europe), how long will that other U (the UK) be able to hold together? Brown’s red lines may prove to be a thin Euro-blue line that breaks up the UK.

24 October 2007

We wouldn’t need immigration if we banned abortion

Discuss.

Now there’s a statement to get up the hackles of the PC crew! In a single assertion, managing to challenge and spuriously link two cherished dogmas of the liberal: that immigration is good for Britain and should be encouraged; and that abortion is a human right that should remain enshrined in law.

But it was intriguing that on two consecutive days this week, some striking demographic statistics were released. Yesterday, came the Office of National Statistics (ONS) forecasts about UK population growth to 2031, which, among other things, predicted that there would be 4.4 million more people living here by 2016. This was made up of a natural increase of 2.3 million (i.e. the difference between the number of births and deaths) and 2.1 million from net inward migration (the difference between the number of persons immigrating and emigrating).

Then today, as the 40th anniversary of the bill that legalised abortion approached, it was reported that the number of abortions in the UK currently stands at around 200,000 per year. Well, the maths are quite easy: if all those unborn children were allowed to go to term, then there’d be an additional natural increase in the population that would be almost as big as that from net inward migration. Consequently, you could argue that there would no longer be any ‘need’ for immigration: the population could naturally grow to the same extent as it is expected to do with the high level of forecast immigration, which the government claims is necessary to support Britain’s economic growth.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. For a start, around 0.8 million of the total of 2.3 million extra inhabitants resulting from natural population growth are expected to in fact be the children of immigrants. So if you added the remaining 1.5 million to the 1.8 million unborn babies that could be saved from abortions over the nine years to 2016, you’d have an increase of a ‘mere’ 3.3 million UK inhabitants! Probably enough, though, wouldn’t you think? But there wouldn’t be enough new people of working age, which is the government’s main argument in favour of immigration. So maybe we would still have to accept a limited amount of immigration (er, shall we say up to a million over nine years?). Then, through a combination of immigration and bringing into work the great unwashed mass of the unemployed (for instance, by actually training them to do the skilled work that is required and by paying them decent wages to do the unpleasant, menial jobs that are necessary – thereby showing that we value such work), maybe we could just about muddle through, if that’s not too English a phrase.

But, of course, I’m being hypothetical and polemical: there’s no way that abortion will be abolished in the foreseeable future. So it looks like we’ll just have to accept the immigration, then! The point I’m making is that the real rate of natural regeneration is much higher than people generally realise; it’s only the existence of such a large number of abortions that artificially keeps it down. If these lost lives came to be seen as a ‘natural resource’ that the country actually needed for its future economic growth and prosperity, then much of the government’s case in favour of mass immigration would disintegrate. And moreover, these 1.8 million lives that would otherwise be culled through abortion would all be ‘British’, or most of them anyway. Instead, the government seems to prefer the idea of giving immigrants and their children the chance of a prosperous life in Britain that the abortion law denies to so many Britons. It seems that the government’s dereliction of its duties to serve the needs of the British population first and foremost extends to the unborn as well as those fortunate enough to have been born.

Looking at this from the immigration-friendly perspective of the government, there is what could be called a demographic imperative to keep the present abortion laws in place. Given that the government wants to encourage high levels of immigration for a combination of ideological and economic reasons (which are disputable – see my previous post on this subject), then it would simply be unworkable to allow an extra 200,000 British babies per year to escape the axe of abortion. That would mean the official (as opposed to the even higher unofficial) population of the UK would grow by 6.2 million by 2016. Nobody wants that much population growth. They might be prepared to buy 4.4 million, on the basis that the net contribution of immigration to that total was ‘merely’ around 2.9 million, which could then be sold to the public as having been necessary to fuel the country’s economic growth. So if population growth is going to be kept down to such ‘acceptable’, ‘manageable’ levels, we’ll just have to keep the abortion laws in place, won’t we? And let’s just forget that, in the absence of abortion, natural regeneration of the population could actually be sufficient to meet our long-term needs, so that people can be persuaded that a high level of immigration is necessary.

In short, whereas at an individual level, abortion is often (but by no means always) misused as a form of after-the-event birth control for the personal convenience of the parents concerned, at a collective level, abortion is misused by the government as a convenient form of population control: offsetting the population rise through immigration which its own policies promote.

Immigration As Onshoring

Immigration, from an economic point of view, could be described as a form of ‘onshoring’. What is this? People are more familiar with the term ‘offshoring’, which is used to describe large enterprises’ practice of contracting out certain business functions to third-party providers in ‘offshore’ destinations: places like India, Singapore, Malaysia, Eastern Europe and, increasingly, China. I.e. when the phone call you make to your bank or insurance company is routed to a call centre in Bangalore or wherever, this means the bank or insurer in question has generally outsourced that particular customer-service function to an offshore provider.

‘Onshore’ is in fact a term that is used by offshoring providers (which include major household-name consulting and IT-services firms such as Accenture, Cap Gemini, IBM and many others) to refer to the siting of such outsourced facilities in the client’s own country, for reasons such as the practical need to be physically close to the client or because the client’s own customers (e.g. you and me as bank account holders) aren’t happy chatting about our intimate details to people located half the way round the globe (although that can make it easier for some people). ‘Nearshore’ is when the outsourcing provider is located in the same ‘region’ as the client; although the way some multinationals segment the globe into different regions, for a UK customer, that could just as easily mean Moscow or Dubrovnik as Dublin or Amsterdam.

What’s the purpose of offshoring? It’s fundamentally a means for businesses to cut costs. It’s cheaper to use the services of third-party specialists in developing economies because their labour costs are so much lower and because they can produce economies of scale in delivering the required function that an individual business would be unable to achieve if it maintained the function in house.

What kind of ‘onshoring’ is enabled by immigration? It’s basically the mirror image of offshoring: instead of sending work out to parts of the world where staff are cheap, hard-working but also well qualified, immigration / onshoring functions by importing the same types of staff from similar parts of the world to work in the UK. The reason why there is a need to import workers (rather than export the work) is that the jobs they are needed to do are physical in nature and can only be done in the UK; e.g. agricultural work, low-grade industrial jobs, cleaning, plumbing, building, waiting table – but also highly skilled jobs such as nursing, medical practice, teaching, etc.

The economic rationale for meeting this labour requirement through migrant workers / onshoring is essentially the same as that for offshoring: staff of this sort are cheaper, more hard-working and often more skilled than their British alternatives. So it’s easier for UK plc to simply access a ready-made pool of affordable, qualified staff from abroad rather than go to the trouble of training and maintaining a sufficient number and quality of personnel ‘in house’. The extra costs on the economy that would be required to train up British people to do all the jobs that are needed and to pay them acceptable wages are not merely analogous to the extra costs faced by businesses in maintaining certain functions in house rather than offshoring: in many instances, it would of course be businesses themselves that would be carrying out the training and paying the salaries of these additional British workers.

The fact that immigration serves the purposes of onshoring as described above dawned on me last week when the Home Office published details of a report it has produced for the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs on the economic ‘benefits’ of immigration. It was striking how these benefits were described in almost starkly economic terms. Not surprising, I suppose, given the economic remit for the report. All the same, though, no consideration was given (at least in the media reports on the Home Office’s paper) to how the social impact of mass migration might counteract some of the advantages measured in purely macro-economic terms.

For instance, the report said migration had had no significant impact on the unemployment rates of British citizens. In other words, it hasn’t increased unemployment; but had it not been for the migration, would there not have been a need to employ more British people instead? The counter-argument then goes that a) there is a shortage of the skills involved, and b) British people are often unwilling to do some of the more menial jobs concerned. But this of course comes down mostly to . . . economics again. There’s a skill shortage because we haven’t been prepared to invest in training up our own population to a sufficient standard (this would require higher taxes but would then lead to more well-paid British people in work paying tax). And British people are often not prepared to do certain types of physical work because it’s undervalued – in both an economic sense (humiliatingly and impractically low-paid) and a cultural sense: we look down on menial work of this sort rather than showing respect to the people who do it on our behalf. And because we undervalue this ‘low-grade’ work and the people who do it, we feel it’s fitting to outsource it (or should that be ‘insource’ it?) to immigrants for whom we needn’t have so much of a sense of responsibility.

Again, the Home Office report said that immigration has had a slightly positive effect on wage levels overall and only “very modest negative effects” on the lowest-paid unskilled workers, which has in turn been mitigated by the minimum wage (i.e. immigration ensures that more people get paid only the minimum wage and not more). Well, forgive me, but a ‘modest’ deterioration in the pay of an already low-paid worker is equivalent to a substantial pay cut for better-paid workers – and they’re already at the bottom of the food chain. And this is not even taking account of the impact of the black economy of illegal migrants who are paid well below the minimum wage and therefore limit the number of jobs in the legal economy that would be available at minimum-wage levels. But this, too, is economically ‘beneficial’ up to a certain point, in that it drives down costs in the economy as a whole, resulting in cheaper goods and services, and more personal wealth for those who exploit illegal immigrants in this way, and thereby promote illegal immigration.

One of the implications of all this is that it seems that government is now prepared to accept the existence of a permanent stratum of British society (sometimes derogatorily referred to as the ‘underclass’) consisting of under-qualified people who are either unable or unwilling to find employment, partly because wages have been driven down to the lowest legal level, and partly because they share society’s attitude that certain types of work are demeaning. Does this signify that we’ve abandoned altogether the aim of creating ‘full employment’ for all our citizens: a phrase belonging to the political vocabulary of the 1970s and 1980s?

Economists talk of the inevitability of a certain level of ‘structural unemployment’ in modern economies. What this means is that there will always be a proportion of the population of working age for whom ‘suitable’ employment will not be available as economies develop and the needs of business evolve. These people in theory then need to be re-trained and incentivised to seek and take up whatever work is on offer. Logically, however, if the needs of business are increasingly being met by migrant workers and the number of unemployed British citizens is remaining pretty much constant over time, this must mean there is a fairly substantial number of long-term unemployed and people for whom the creation of personally and financially rewarding employment has become a low priority, politically and economically.

These trends must be linked to the high levels of crime and social problems such as family break-downs, drug abuse and anti-social behaviour. This is not to say that the lack of opportunities in education, training and employment are simply the cause of social disintegration. It works both ways: people don’t take up the opportunities that are there because they can’t be bothered to work and would rather live on whatever benefits are available plus illicit sources of income, including the black economy and crime. But it seems obvious to me that many of these social ills result from people not feeling they have a stake in mainstream society and its much-vaunted prosperity. This is particularly clear in the case of young people, many of whom grow up in dysfunctional families without a responsible father figure (and often, what father figure there is will not be a model of a disciplined approach to working life), are inadequately educated and are exposed to all sorts of malign social influences that foster an antagonistic, aggressive attitude towards authority figures and social institutions – including providers of training and employment. In a sense, it’s no wonder that so many of these youngsters drift into a life of crime and delinquency. Even less surprising given that society and business seem to have abandoned the aim of creating opportunity and legitimate economic activity for them and take the easy option of filling the job vacancies with migrants.

Those same economists and politicians would argue that this sort of analysis is simplistic and that in a global economy, business must be free to access the best ‘human resources’ at the most affordable price on a truly global scale – whether that means offshoring or onshoring in my sense. And it is true that immigration can’t be viewed in isolation from globalisation, and Britain can’t sit on the beach head – Canute-like – and command the tide of ‘necessary’ migrant workers to turn away from our shores. Equally, however, this issue forces us to think about the social purpose of economic activity and growth. Ultimately, business and economic activity should be about meeting the basic needs of the society in which they take place: the need for employment, and the need for both essential and (where possible) luxury goods and services. Business and economic growth are not aims in themselves but are only of any real value if they contribute to meeting the needs of all, or as many as possible, in our society in a sustainable manner. But under Thatcher, Blair and now Brown, we’ve abandoned an economic model that puts the needs of society first in favour of one that prioritises the needs of the market.

I’m not saying we should revert to a discredited socialist socio-economic model, and I’m not a socialist. But there does need to be some re-balancing of our idolatry of the market: the market does not intrinsically meet, and is not in practice meeting, the needs of British society if we’re having to transform the country into a microcosm of the global economy by importing foreign workers to do the jobs that should preferably be intended for British people who could benefit from them.

And it is not just ‘British society’, and ‘the country’ as Britain or the UK, that I’m concerned about. As someone who cares passionately about England and would like to see England reaffirm itself officially as a distinct nation (not necessarily through complete independence), the impact of immigration is profoundly worrying. This issue was thrown into a disturbing light yesterday when the UK government’s Office for National Statistics released new forecasts for ‘the country’s’ population growth. These revise previous forecasts upwards and predict that the UK population (and that’s just the official number) will grow by 4.4 million to 65 million by 2016; and then to 70 million by 2028, reaching 71 million by 2031.

According to the ONS, just under half of the 4.4 million increase to 2016 will be accounted for by ‘net inward migration’: the difference between immigrants and emigrants. But as the number of people escaping the UK to live abroad last year was put in the region of around 200,000, I believe, potentially the number of immigrants settling in the UK by 2016 could be around four million. (And incidentally, how much of the ‘skills shortage’ adduced in support of immigration results from the fact that it is mainly skilled professionals and people with a trade that are emigrating?) In addition, the remaining portion of the population growth that is accounted for by increased fertility and longer life expectancy also includes a substantial contribution from the immigrant population. Immigrants tend to be younger and, accordingly, of child-rearing age; and they often come from cultures where families tend to be bigger than in the UK. The correspondent discussing the ONS report on the BBC One news last night suggested therefore that immigration, directly or indirectly, would account for around 70% of the overall projected population growth.

Of course, these are just forecasts, and all manner of environmental, economic, political or security events or crises could intervene to derail the UK’s economic growth that is fuelling the immigration. But one of the most disturbing aspects of the forecasts was the fact that most of the population growth will be concentrated in England. You could miss this fact from one of the ways in which the numbers are set out: population rise to 2016 of 8% for England, 7% for Northern Ireland, 5% for Wales and only 3% for Scotland – lower fertility and life expectancy being the reasons mentioned for that last statistic; but it also obviously means lower immigration.

But an 8% population rise for England (which accounts for around 85% of the UK population currently) is clearly massively more in absolute terms than 7% for Northern Ireland, 5% for Wales and 3% for Scotland. A graph on the BBC News web page discussing the ONS report makes this clearer (see above link). From this, you can tell that – should the predictions prove accurate – the population of England will rise from around 51.5 million now to over 60 million by 2031. In my estimation, that’s well over 80% of the overall population growth.

OK, you could say that this is proportionately less of a burden, relative to the current population, than will be shouldered by the rest of the UK. But England is already far more densely populated than the other countries of the UK; indeed (I think this is correct), England is the country with the highest population density in the world. In this context, to be reckoning with a population increase of such magnitude (8% by 2016 and over double that by 2031) seems total madness. There are all manner of huge implications in all of this in terms of environmental and economic impact and sustainability, town planning and housing, and the effect on English social cohesion and culture.

Apart from any of these broader complex issues, one has to ask whether we really need and want such a massive population growth. I think most English people would give a resounding ‘no’ to such a question. And that doesn’t mean their objections or fears can simply be written off as the expression of ignorance or nationalistic xenophobia. Clearly, some of the population growth is unavoidable and even desirable: we need more babies to be born, grow up and prosper in order to offset and maintain a population that is ageing owing to longer life expectancy. Equally, for the time being at least, there is not much that can be done to limit migration from other EU countries. But most immigration experts accept that EU immigration is not the main problem, as citizens of other EU countries come and go (just as UK citizens go to live and work in other EU countries, and then often return). The real issue is non-EU migrants whose aim is to stay permanently.

Personally speaking, I don’t object at all on principle to people coming to England from non-EU or non-European backgrounds, or indeed non-British-cultural backgrounds, in the broad sense of coming from non-Commonwealth / non-former-British-imperial countries. Other people sympathetic to the aim of greater autonomy and independence for England would be more opposed to such immigration on principle. But where I share common ground with those people is in the view that immigration needs to be set at a realistic, reasonable and sustainable level that puts the needs of the people who are already here – the needs of English people – first: those needs (indeed, rights) I talked about above. For employment, training, personal fulfilment and quality of life, the necessities of life and a bit of luxury, and a stake in the future of their own country.

What nation wouldn’t seek to look after its own people first before seeing what assistance it could offer to people from other countries who are seeking to make a life for themselves and can make a valuable contribution to the society and economy of the country into which they immigrate? Well, England, apparently. But no, it’s not a case of England not putting the needs of its own people first, but rather of the UK not serving and caring about England. Strategy and policy in these matters are decided and implemented by politicians and business people who are not properly accountable to the English people. Indeed, they often regard the very notion of England and the idea that England should weigh in the balance in considerations about immigration into the UK as irrelevant, even embarrassing. Business and the economy are going to need this extra population in order to sustain their current growth trajectory, so they reason; but do the people exist to feed the greed of growth-obsessed global markets, or are markets there to feed the people? Is UK plc just a growing pool of human resources drawn from all over the world that businesses operating here should be able to access at will (just as they can access human resources from all over the world for other purposes, via offshoring)? Or is the UK, rather, just a formerly convenient, but now increasingly oppressive, grouping of individual nations that wish to regain their freedom to decide for themselves about the demographic, economic and environmental changes that will be in the best interests of their people in the 21st century?

One thing’s for sure: if the kind of massive population growth that is projected, concentrated in England, is allowed to go ahead, this will crack to breaking point the current political system that allows Scottish and Welsh MPs to exercise a disproportionate influence on English social and economic policy; and which ensures that Scottish and Welsh people enjoy a greater per-capita share of the UK’s wealth than English people. If the English population is going to increase to such an extent, and that of other UK countries by so little by comparison, surely the system will crack.

But let’s hope it cracks sooner rather than later, before it’s too late, so that English people can start to decide for themselves how much immigration and population growth is acceptable and feasible for such a small, overcrowded but proud, independent-spirited and dynamic nation.

21 October 2007

The country is proud: which country, Gordon?

The English rugby team did indeed do us proud last night: what a valiant effort! With the rub of the green, the result could so well have gone in their favour. And what an achievement to get to the final in the first place!

Cringe of the night: mugshot of GB [Gordon Brown to you] hypocritically sporting red tie on white shirt, and then placing himself smugly at the centre of proceedings at the end of the game shaking the hands of all the England team. Pleased, though, that Johnny Wilkinson didn’t pause to chat with him and so let him seize the photo opportunity he was so evidently after!

GB’s remarks after the match also got the proverbial hackles up, too:

“England’s performance at this World Cup, and in the final against South Africa, was an inspiration to millions in our country.

“Their victories against France and Australia will live long in our memory and the country is extremely proud of their extraordinary achievements over the past few weeks”.

When you say ‘their’ victory was an inspiration to ‘our country’, which country are you talking about, Gordon? England or Britain? And when you say ‘the country is proud’, is that England or Britain? The man can’t bring himself to utter the ‘E’ word even when praising its sportsmen! Why can’t he say their achievements were an inspiration to millions in England and the UK as a whole, which is probably true: some Scottish and Welsh people will undoubtedly have admired England’s performance in the last three matches? And why can’t he say ‘England is proud’, or even ‘England and the whole of Britain is proud’?

Instead, he has to go and wrap the whole thing up in the ambiguity of ‘our / the country’, which also marked his recent speech to the Labour Party conference (see previous post on that). GB just can’t bring himself to say anything that makes it embarrassingly obvious that most English people don’t feel he’s qualified to represent or speak on behalf of England. ‘What gives you the right to say “England is proud”?’, we might say. Well, on one level, he is qualified as he’s the prime minister of the UK, which includes England. But, in my view, if he can’t even bring himself to say ‘England and the whole of Britain are proud’, then this gives the lie to the spurious unity of ‘our / the country’ he so ambiguously refers to.

So if the people of England resent him being our appointed representative at the Rugby World Cup final, and even he has difficulty in speaking (in) the name of England, perhaps we should have a prime minister of England who can do the job for us?

18 October 2007

Who doesn’t want a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty, and why?

OK, so I’m being politically and legally correct, and am referring to the treaty that the EU Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) today is going to attempt to reach agreement on as a reform treaty, not a constitution. My aim here is not to re-hash the debate as to whether the treaty is substantially the same or not as the EU Constitution that was rejected in referendums (technically, referenda if you know your Latin) in France and the Netherlands. This is a semantic distinction: whether or not you call the proposed treaty constitutional or not, it certainly relates to matters that are constitutional in nature, i.e. which affect the sovereignty, and legislative and executive powers, of the UK.

If the UK did have a written constitution, a referendum on the Treaty might well be mandatory, as it is in Ireland. It is only the Labour government’s so-called ‘red lines’, which (disputedly) guarantee the UK’s right to opt out of EU legislation and control in four fundamental areas, that enable the government to claim that the new treaty is not the same as the rejected Constitution and that therefore it is not to be held to its 2005 election-manifesto promise to hold a referendum on it. Clearly, the politics is paramount: if Mr Brown did refer to it as a constitutional treaty, he’d be forced to concede a referendum; therefore, because he doesn’t want a referendum, it’s ‘not a constitutional treaty’.

So why doesn’t Prime Minister Gordon Brown (or GB as I insist on calling him) want a referendum? If we can discount his alleged reason for ‘opting out’ of one – as indicated above – the main reasons appear to be as follows:

  1. He’s afraid of losing. GB has already demonstrated his aversion to losing votes by ducking out of an autumn general election when the polls started to suggest he might not win an outright majority. (See previous post.)
  2. It would turn into a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in general. The former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Menzies (Ming) Campbell, correctly identified the fact that a referendum on the Treaty would be rolled up into a more general debate about the direction in which the EU is heading and Britain’s aims in remaining, or not remaining, a member. The secret fear of the centre-left parties (Labour and the Lib Dems) is doubtless that a ‘no’ vote (a not unlikely outcome) would be seen by many as a vote to leave the EU. This would once again open up an argument that these parties would like to view as definitively settled; hence, Ming Campbell’s honesty in wanting to use a referendum to in fact settle it once and for all. Perhaps he calculated that, if the British people were confronted by the bigger choice of whether to keep the UK in the EU or to leave the EU, they would be swayed in favour of the former option and would then back the ongoing process of further integration with the EU.

David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, who is now calling for a referendum, is doubtless doing so also on the basis of a political calculation. He has clearly worked out that the government will resist these calls and that the Treaty will probably be voted through in parliament. If this happens, Cameron can claim that the Tories are the one party that has held the Labour Party to account over its manifesto pledge and called for a referendum specifically on the Treaty, and can therefore reap the dividend in terms of electoral support. If parliament were to reject the Treaty (highly unlikely, as this would require a sizeable Labour rebellion, the abstention – at the very least – of the Lib Dems, and the support of the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists: highly problematic, as we shall see), this would also provide an enormous boost to Cameron’s standing in the political media and the opinion polls.

On either outcome, Cameron is obviously calculating that the Tories will reap the benefits of popular support for a referendum. However, if they were subsequently elected into power at the next election, they might not be obliged to hold a referendum on the Treaty because, by that stage, it could already have been operating for two years, and a) the need for a referendum might no longer be perceived to be that great (if, in fact, no significant conflicts between EU decisions and the interests of the UK as interpreted by the government had arisen); and b) it could be presented as no longer practical; for instance, if it required a complicated process of re-negotiating Britain’s participation in the Treaty and its red lines. The Tories could then say that we just had to make the best of a bad job and that they would unflinchingly defend ‘British interests’ (you can hear the language already) within the previously agreed framework. And if they were pressured into holding a referendum, they could limit it to the Treaty rather than generalising it to EU membership per se. Which brings me to another benefit this whole affair has had for Cameron: it has enabled him to finally put to bed the damaging disputes between Europhiles and Eurosceptics within his party.

3) A referendum would open out a new front in the so-called English Question: the disproportionate role of Scottish and Welsh electors and political representatives in deciding matters affecting England. This is because the voters in Scotland and Wales are much more likely to support the Treaty, whereas the most probable result in England is a rejection. The additional ‘yes’ votes in Scotland and Wales (and in Northern Ireland, let’s not forget) could easily sway the result in favour of the Treaty. The main political parties – especially GB and the Labour Party – want to keep this dimension of the debate under wraps because of the huge issues that are at stake: they can’t concede that any referendum might in effect be two referenda [sorry, I’m a pedant] – one in England and one for the countries enjoying devolved government. If they conceded this fact, or if it was even aired in the media without their acknowledging it, this would make the existence of this post-devolution electoral anomaly in the House of Commons (where it is of course known as the West Lothian Question) even more glaring. And let’s not forget that in a House of Commons vote on the Treaty, it could well be the more Europhile Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs who would ensure that the Treaty is ratified. So we are once again confronted with a political debate carried out in GB Double-speak: where defence of perceived English concerns and interests cannot be acknowledged as such but can be articulated only in terms of ‘British interests’ and ‘Britain’s red lines’. Because in reality, this is only an English debate. Support for the Treaty and for greater integration with the EU is virtually a given in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and is certainly backed by the nationalist parties (see below). People in those countries aren’t nearly as bothered about the government’s red lines. People in England would like a vote on them all the same, thank you very much.

4) The government has its own domestic constitutional agenda, which it doesn’t want to be disrupted. Lest we forget, there is an ongoing UK constitutional-reform review headed up by Justice Minister Jack Straw. The government doesn’t want this to be rolled up into a broader constitutional debate by acknowledging that the EU Treaty has any constitutional implications. Given that a referendum would be bound to stir up this debate, and particularly the thorny English Question, best not admit that the Treaty is constitutional in its effects. The aim is clearly to get the discussion on the Treaty out of the way with a neat, quick parliamentary process of debate, review and whipped vote. Then the UK constitutional issues can be dealt with entirely separately. Not that any of us can or should pre-judge the proposals that Jack Straw and GB will come out with; but all the signs from what they’ve said and, more especially, not said, are that they are not going to offer any solution to the English or West Lothian Questions that is at all satisfactory to the majority of English people who take an active interest in democracy.

So much for GB’s objections to a referendum. Who else opposes it? The Scottish and Welsh nationalists, of course. At first sight, this could seem counter-intuitive in that some of the powers that could be transferred to the EU (and at least one of the government’s red lines that relate to those powers) are devolved ones: justice and home affairs (JHA) (to some extent, also, tax and benefits, as these are linked to the level set in England). The two other red lines involve retained powers: foreign affairs and security, and human rights. One might think, then, that on principle the Scottish and Welsh nationalists would back a referendum, as it would give the people of Scotland and Wales the chance to express their views on areas over which they currently have a direct democratic say (the devolved matters) as well as to make their opinions known on the retained, UK-wide matters.

This would in fact be the more principled position but is not one the nationalists have adopted. Why is this? In the short term, there could be two negative consequences for them if a referendum were held:

  1. They make a similar calculation to GB: they fear they could lose a referendum. What is more, having endorsed a referendum and then lost it primarily because of English votes, this would be a huge loss of prestige and could lead to an erosion of their support.

  2. This would involve them supporting and abiding by a UK-wide political process and democratic decision, which also affects devolved powers. This runs counter to the devolved power they have already achieved and their objective of gaining even more independence from Westminster.

In the long-term, the nationalist parties also have a strategy of supporting further integration of the UK with the EU, and further transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels, because this weakens the dependency of Scotland and Wales on UK institutions and government, and makes it more possible for Scotland and Wales to negotiate their own arrangements and status within the EU independently of Westminster. The nationalists clearly believe that this strategy is best served in the present by supporting the proposed Reform Treaty – preferably without but if necessary with the red lines – and, in exchange for their co-operation, trying to leverage the best deal possible for their countries in pursuit of their ultimate objective of full independence.

In this way, and not for the first time, the Labour government, while claiming to support legislation that is in the interests of the whole of the UK (i.e. the Treaty) and avoiding an argument that could destabilise the Union (the one between England, Scotland and Wales, that is), is in fact furthering the objectives of those who want to see the complete break up of the Union. In the first instance, this is the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. But this could also advance the cause of English nationalism (a cause to which I am sympathetic, by the way), because if England is denied a referendum on a Treaty that it might well have rejected, this will only stir up further resentment at the disproportionate influence of Scottish and Welsh politicians in pushing through the Treaty.

So now we have the unedifying spectacle of Scottish and Welsh nationalists lending their support to the detested UK government over a Treaty entered into by that government on their behalf, and which could diminish some of the devolved powers they’ve only just secured, because their support promotes their pursuit of perceived national self-interest.

Here’s what the SNP’s press release about the first IGC conference in July stated:

“Alyn Smith today welcomed the launch of the Inter-Governmental Conference on the proposed EU reform treaty. . . .

“Commenting on the launch Mr Smith said:

‘While welcoming the re-launch of this EU reform process as a way of making an EU of 27 member states work more efficiently and effectively, it is essential that those involved in the negotiations recognise that they must come forward with a text that truly reflects the aspirations and concerns of all of the EU’s peoples, including Scotland'”.

Very supportive of the UK government, I thought.

And here’s the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru’s statement of their Europe policy:

“Plaid Cymru strongly supports the creation of a more democratic European Union with a written constitution and a Charter of Fundamental Rights incorporated in the Treaty. . . .

“Plaid Cymru will:

  • Push for the right of direct appeal to the European Court, for example, as this could be highly relevant in challenging the United Kingdom’s refusal to apply the additionality principle to European funding.
  • Campaign for Wales to achieve full membership as a member-state of the EU.
  • Review the work of the Assembly’s European Committee with a view to improving its capacity to predict the effects of EU legislation and to scrutinise Assembly legislation arising from it.
  • Develop a multifunctional centre to act for Wales in Brussels. The Government of Wales Representation would be housed within this ‘embassy’, as would representatives of other relevant organisations”.

No wonder Plaid Cymru backs the (strictly non-constitutional, you understand) Treaty! And by the way, the technical-sounding ‘additionality’ principle, which appears so harmless, is the one whereby the government doesn’t use money from the EU Structural Funds spent in Wales to merely replace funding it would otherwise have taken from UK resources: that money should be additional to earmarked UK funding. So this is a sort of Barnett Formula+: the Barnett Formula being the one whereby the people of Scotland and Wales are already guaranteed a higher proportion of public expenditure per capita than the people of England. Sounds like the extra powers the European Court may get under the Treaty could come in handy, then!

What an alliance of the Great and the Not-So-Good is lined up against a referendum, then – and even those who back it (the Tories) are making a cynical calculation that there probably won’t be one! But England (yes, England, not Britain) should be allowed a referendum. It’s our democratic right. The UK parliament doesn’t adequately represent the interests of England in this matter, and a parliamentary vote in favour of the Treaty will not reflect the will of the English people. More damage to the Union can be the only consequence.

We deserve better. And who knows, England might even vote in favour of the Treaty – just as England might even have given GB the benefit of the doubt in a general election before he chickened out.

Let the Scottish and Welsh forge self-interested closer ties with the EU if they want to. But it’s also our right in England to decide our own future within Europe.

8 October 2007

Never Mind About the Election, England; At Least You Beat the Aussies!

Funny that the BBC were allowed to release the news of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] decision not to call a general election at 4.30 on Saturday afternoon, even though the interview through which he chose to announce this fact to the nation wasn’t due to be aired till Andrew Marr’s 9 am programme on Sunday morning! Coincided neatly with England’s marvellous against-the-odds victory against Australia in the Rugby World Cup. I say ‘coincided’; but was this a coincidence? What do you think!

An ideal moment to bury bad news, to quote a phrase! Did GB think we in England might be feeling a little pissed off that, having had the carrot of booting Labour out of power dangled in front of us, we were now once again going to have to submit to the stick of a government we hadn’t chosen – hadn’t chosen, that is, either in an election this year or in 2005? Let’s remember the facts: Labour polled only 35.5% of the popular vote in England on a low turn-out in 2005, 0.2% less than the Tories. If the opinion polls that GB says had nothing to do with his decision not to call an autumn election are to be believed, the comfortable lead the Tories stood to gain in the crucial English marginals – the only real contest in the election – could have overturned Labour’s Commons majority. Probably not enough to give the Tories an outright majority in their turn; but then, we’d have had a hung parliament based entirely on the West Lothian anomaly: the fact that Scottish and Welsh MPs, a greater share of which would be Labour, could vote on England-only matters, i.e. on the only matters that mattered – on GB’s entire agenda for change and ‘vision for Britain’, which is in fact a programme for England – education, health, social services, law and order, etc.

If the timing of the announcement wasn’t intended to dampen the annoyance of English electors, who appeared to be turning away from GB in their droves, as they celebrated a national sporting triumph, why pick such a moment? Mr Marr could have been forgiven for being just a tad pissed off in his turn; his little scoop being given away before his Sunday broadcast. But then again, I suppose his audience must have shot through the roof when it was advertised that GB had chosen it as the platform to make his excuses. Plus, of course, it enhanced Mr Marr’s already dazzling reputation that the Great Man had chosen his Sunday morning slot to speak to the nation: England, that is – I’m sure Scotland was too interested in the outcome of its own Rugby quarter-final to be that bothered by an announcement that hardly affected it anyway.

All a bit cosy, really: two Scots chatting away about a UK election that would have been all about promoting a Scottish-Labour vision for England’s future. Too simplistic? Maybe, a little. But the election certainly would have had more than a little potential to bust open the glaring disparities between political opinion and philosophies north and south of the border; and the fact that GB’s continuing franchise as PM would have been hugely dependent on the Scottish and Welsh vote on matters not directly concerning the electorates in those countries. Note that Marr didn’t push GB on this issue (nor David Cameron, for that matter, whom he interviewed live in the studio after the recorded interview with GB). Is that because, in Andrew Marr, GB knew he had a natural Unionist ally: a ‘Britologist’, as I would call him, who believes in the British political and national project, and sees it as the best way to further Scottish national interests and a British-Republican vision? (See my post British Values or Scottish Values?)

Not that I’m saying that GB, too, is a republican, as well as Andrew Marr; at least, not avowedly so – he’s too realistic a politician to know that he couldn’t get away with that. But he is preparing a set of constitutional reforms, aided by his partner in crime Jack Straw. And we in England can rest assured that there will be no resolution of the West Lothian Question in whatever deal we are offered; or not offered, as it’ll be the current unrepresentative parliament that will be voting on it, not one we could have elected in November. After all, if there was a solution to the WLQ that still preserved a UK parliament, Mr Brown wouldn’t be able to vote on his own agenda. And it’s clear he values this more than the opinions of the English electorate.

Wonder what he’ll drop on us when we beat the French! (Oh, I know: definitely no referendum on the EU constitution, chaps!)

4 October 2007

Does David Cameron Believe In England?

Like his Labour adversary, David Cameron believes in Britain. While not recurring with quite the same hypnotic frequency as in Brown’s oration, the words ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ nonetheless appeared 25 times in Cameron’s 68-minute-long Conservative Party keynote speech yesterday. That compares with three references to ‘England’, one to Wales and none to Scotland.

Unlike Gordon Brown, then, David Cameron seems more reluctant to openly discuss his own Scottish origins, being of Scottish descent on his father’s side. Cameron did in fact refer to his parents: his father a stockbroker and mother a magistrate of long standing in the Berkshire county town of Newbury. He also acknowledged his education at Eton School, similarly in the Royal County of Berkshire. All very English and Home Counties, you might think. Was this reluctance to admit to his Scottish family background, and even to utter the words ‘Scotland’ and ‘Scottish’, linked to a wish to totally ignore the ‘English question’ and / or West Lothian question: the issue of whether the Tories are going to back any formula that will exclude Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on England-only matters, and ultimately whether a separate English parliament along the lines of those in Scotland and Wales should be established? If this subject is taboo in what could well turn out to be the Conservatives’ launch pad for a general election, this doesn’t bode well for serious discussion on the issue during the election campaign.

Cameron may not have mentioned Scotland but he did pronounce the ‘E’ word three times, as mentioned above. What was the import of these references? For me, they bespeak targeting Northern English swing seats, which is the Tories’ main hope for an electoral break-through. First reference, towards the beginning of the speech: “we are back in the North of England, a force to be reckoned with in every part of our country”. [Er, by ‘our country’, Mr Cameron, do you mean England or Britain as throughout the rest of your speech: Freudian slip there!] Second reference: anecdote illustrating problems of children’s behaviour in schools and teachers being hindered from imposing discipline, based on experience of when “I went and taught in a school for a couple of days in the north of England”. Third mention: the gym set up by Amir Khan (“the best boxer in England”) in Bolton as an illustration of the value to be gained from a national citizens’ service for young people.

So every single mention of England – and there weren’t that many – related to the North. You could infer from this that the Tories aren’t particularly interested in dealing with the specific concerns of their safe heartlands in the rural Midlands and the South; or, indeed, in addressing England as a whole. All they need do is focus on winning a certain number of marginals, especially in the North, and that could be enough to gain them outright power or at least to produce a hung parliament. Does this also imply that they don’t think they have much of a chance of making significant strides in either Scotland or Wales, with the nationalists and Labour slugging it out between them?

If an election is called, as now appears the most likely outcome, it will then effectively be an England-only vote for the Tories. But of course, they can’t openly admit that. Hence the pretence throughout Cameron’s speech that the prospective election will involve issues affecting the whole nation (i.e. Britain) in equal measure; and that the ambitions he laid out for things like education, the NHS, the social services and even tax related to Britain as a whole and not merely England.

To be fair, this pretence is perhaps less disingenuous on the part of the Tories than of Labour: in the unlikely event that the Tories did win an overall majority in the UK as a whole, based on a substantial majority in England, this would at least mean that parliamentary votes on England-only matters involving the participation of Scottish and Welsh MPs would still reflect the majority in England – at least, the majority in terms of number of MPs if not the actual wishes of the English electorate, unless the Tories did pull off the feat of obtaining more than 50% of the English vote. In the context of a run up towards a general election, when the Tories – like Labour – tend to set their sights on the prospect of a disproportionate overall UK majority, the West Lothian question becomes less pressing for the Tories. If they can win a UK majority (and the ‘message’ clearly is that this is their goal), then Malcolm Rifkind’s compromise solution of a Grand Committee of English MPs deciding on England-only matters would probably be sufficient to address the concerns of Conservative Party members and supporters about the West Lothian anomaly – until that majority is lost again, and the injustice and disproportionality of that anomaly can once again not be ignored.

So the Tories are potentially going into an election under the pretence that they are fighting for Britain as a whole; whereas, in reality, they will be fighting for control in and through England, and any real power they have to deliver their social agenda can be exercised only in England. But according to his speech, Mr Cameron doesn’t believe in governments controlling people but: “I think if we give people more power and control over their lives, I think they’ll take the right decisions, they will grow stronger and society will grow stronger too. I don’t believe in an ever larger state doing more and more, I believe in trying to make people do more themselves for their families and with society as well”.

This is all very well; but Mr Cameron certainly doesn’t seem willing to entertain the idea of letting the English people have more control over their lives by giving in to what opinion polls show is majority opinion in favour of an English parliament. When he came to spelling out the political meaning of this greater control people will enjoy over their own lives, Cameron completely side-stepped the whole issue of devolved government and referred only to a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty, to elected city mayors and to scrapping the regional assemblies in favour of county councils. This refusal to even acknowledge the difficulties caused by the current devolution arrangements and the issues around constitutional reform was completely disingenuous: spin in Tory mode.

Cameron might argue that this speech wasn’t the place for dealing with details of policy, although there were plenty of general policy commitments on a host of domestic and international issues. Just as Gordon Brown’s speech last week was his ‘vision thing’, so Cameron’s was a ‘belief thing’: the words ‘belief’ or ‘believe’ occurred 30 times; and the whole oration was framed as an attempt to answer people’s questions about what Mr Cameron believes in. And actually, when it comes down to it, these beliefs come across as remarkably similar to those of Gordon Brown, although there are some subtle but significant differences in the language and tone. Both men claim to believe in empowering the individual to achieve their personal goals and potential; and both consider that individuals also have responsibilities towards the rest of society. However, whereas Gordon Brown describes this in terms of maximising individual opportunity, meritocracy and social responsibility, Cameron talks of individual control and moral responsibility towards others (epitomised in the family) based on personal freedom and what could be termed the ‘sovereignty of the individual’: the view that if people are given real freedom to make their own decisions, these will generally be the right decisions, both morally and in terms of reflecting their needs and the needs of those for whom they are responsible. As Cameron himself summarised: “That’s what I believe. Giving people more power and control over their lives. Making society more responsible and families stronger”.

In short, this is a classic Tory message: a belief that society will become healthier, more cohesive and orderly, more prosperous and more participative if people are allowed to make their own decisions free from government interference – based essentially on a religious-type belief in the inherent goodness of human beings and personal ambition. And in passing, while on the subject of religion, I note that Mr Cameron did not refer once to England’s or Britain’s Christian traditions, or to the whole issue of tensions between different faith communities in the country, particularly Muslims (no mention of the word ‘Islam’; one reference to a ‘Muslim’ member of the Shadow Cabinet): like the English issue, another intractable question that couldn’t be allowed to tarnish Cameron’s avowedly ‘optimistic’ view of the world. Is Mr Cameron a Tory Christian, and is his programme for allowing individuals to exercise moral responsibility towards themselves and society inspired by Christian faith? Nothing inherently wrong if it is; but in a statement of beliefs, it would have been interesting to know. Perhaps Cameron the propagator of spin is unwilling to openly acknowledge the religious underpinning of his belief system in the same way as his Scottish background, both of which he uncomfortably shares with both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. And if Mr Cameron’s beliefs aren’t grounded in formal or informal religious convictions, on what does he base his hope for what he essentially describes as nothing short of a moral transformation of the country?

Of Britain, that is. Because Mr Cameron’s programme is – ostensibly – one for Britain as a whole; his beliefs embody a view of what Britain can and should be. Even though, in practical reality, he’s talking mostly of England alone. Mr Cameron says, “People want the politics of belief and that means politics they can really believe in”. But, so long as Mr Cameron cannot bring himself to utter the word England even while that is what he is talking about, I’m not sure I believe in his politics. Just as I’m not sure that he really believes in England.

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