Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

29 November 2007

It’s not just England: the Premier League stuffs the other national teams, too

Confirmation of this fact, if one were needed, came two days ago with the announcement of Alex McLeish’s appointment as manager of Birmingham City. Apparently, managing a second-rate Premier League club (sorry, Blues fans) is more alluring than the prospect of steering your national team to the 2010 World Cup finals. Well, more rewarding, at least (he’s reported to be getting a fourfold pay rise); although, to give McLeish the benefit of the doubt, he has said he wants the challenge and opportunity to coach a group of players on a daily basis, which he wouldn’t get if he’d stayed on as Scotland manager.

So McLeish has joined the list of recent home nation managers who’ve jumped ship in favour of a more comfortable passage on the Premier League steam liner: Lawrie Sanchez, who – along with David Healy – had worked wonders with the Northern Ireland team, being lured away in mid-Euro-qualifying campaign by Al-Fayed’s dodgy dollars at Fulham; Mark Hughes, who appeared to be turning round the Wales team, abandoning them for Blackburn Rovers after a very nearly successful Euro 2004 qualifying campaign. It’s no wonder that the FA had to pay McLaren and Sven Goran Eriksson (particularly, the latter) such obscene salaries: that was probably the only way they could prevent them from also de-camping (perhaps not in the case of McLaren, though, who’s hardly covered himself in glory in the England job).

The priority at the FA is clearly the club game, particularly the massively lucrative Premier League. While this remains the case, it is hard to see how England or any of the other home nations can achieve success in international competition. The FA’s lack of vision and commitment for the national side was ironically borne out by the words of Premier League spokesman Dan Johnson earlier this week when he defended the League against UEFA president Michel Platini’s criticism that there were not enough English players and coaches at senior levels in English football. What he said was:

“We run the Premier League and we run it successfully, which is beneficial to the English game and that is our business and not Platini’s business. . . . We attract the best in the world and when English players are coming up against the best week in, week out we think it is good for them. . . . We want players who are able to compete with the best in the world. If you look at the current crop of players we have a world-class group and the investment that is going in right across Premier League clubs in academy players is high in terms of finance and intellectual commitment. I think there are various factors as to why we didn’t get through this time but the quality of the the players was not one of those factors”.

All of the thinking centres on the ‘business’ of running a successful Premier League and English club game as well as producing talented individual English players who feed into the Premier League and club set up and add to its global market appeal. But the national team is just an afterthought: there are no ideas about what it might take to mould a group of skilled individuals whose emotional, physical and financial investments are virtually all in the domestic and European club game into a winning international team. Basically, this is a very secondary priority. What you end up with is an elite group of world-class players who are able to command regular Premier League team places; but not the depth of English talent that is also regularly competing at the highest level. Hence, when – as during the failed Euro 2008 campaign and particularly the Croatia match – the top players are injured, there just isn’t an equivalent calibre of talent to replace them. Plus the players that come in have little experience of playing together as a team.

The FA and the Premier League indeed need to sort out their priorities. At the moment, it’s clear that the enormous cash cow that is the English club game is their main concern. But this is all short-term thinking and blinkered vision: how much more glamour and sales potential would there be for the Premier League if the English national team won either the European Nations Cup or the World Cup – as the ‘current . . . world-class group’ of top players ought to be capable of doing if indeed they are world-class? But it has to become the top priority; and the FA has to have the national pride, vision and – yes – the business plan in place to dream of glory and go for it.

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27 November 2007

Are England crap at football?

You’d think so to listen to all the wailing and gnashing of teeth there’s been since England were dumped into the outer darkness of non-qualification for Euro 2008! Nothing illustrates better the English character trait of self-deprecation than our chest-beating response to sporting failure. How different the reaction would have been had we held on to the 2-2 score line! Then it would have been a ‘dogged fight back’: the ‘never-say-die Dunkirk spirit’ whereby our ‘under-par side’ had determinedly held on to qualification. Not pretty but professional and effective. A very English defeat that was, then, and a very English victory that wasn’t: overhyped and self-depreciating in equal measure.

I should say that, as a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur, I’m used to making excuses for footballing under-achievement! But was England’s failure as abject as people are making out? Let’s look at the facts: we were without our two most influential and experienced defenders, including the captain John Terry. We were also without two world-class, match-winning strikers, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen. This absence of key team members was compounded by the coach’s error in dropping the goalkeeper Paul Robinson in favour of Scott Carson, who’d never played a full international, let alone one as crucial as this one. This created extra uncertainty in defence, with a group of defenders not used to playing with each other joined by a new keeper lacking the confidence to boss his area. I’m sure that had Robinson played, the first goal would never have happened; and had Terry and Ferdinand been on the pitch, the striker who ghosted in for the second would have been picked up and blocked.

This lack of leadership also translated itself to midfield. Why did McLaren insist on playing both Gerrard and Lampard, when they hardly ever work well together, and seem to cramp each other’s style and natural tendency to impose their stamp on midfield? Gerrard should have been played on his own (and substituted by Lampard if it wasn’t working out) with someone like Owen Hargreaves in the anchor role, where he displayed such flair in another crucial game: in the World Cup quarter-final against Portugal in 2006. And then to change the formation to 3-5-1-1 – or whatever it was they played – rather than stick with predictable old 4-4-2, which at least was working, is absolutely daft for such a big match.

All of which must give the impression that I do think the performance was inept. Yes, mistakes were made; but there was also not a little misfortune. There aren’t many teams missing four of their top players who would have been unaffected by their absence, something which was largely unremarked upon amid the orgy of self-castigation. I’m sure the Croatians would have been greatly encouraged by the fact their names were missing from the team sheet.

And what about the Croatians? Sure, they’re not Brazil, although they had a Brazilian playing for them! But there’s a rather arrogant assumption being made that it was especially humiliating that England’s defeat should come at the hands of such a small, ‘insignificant’ nation with a population about 8% that of England’s. What have the Croatians ever done in football, people say? Well, Croatia has existed as an independent country for only 16 years, and in that time, they’ve been regular qualifiers for the World Cup and the European Championship; they even reached the semi-final of the World Cup in 1998, beating Germany in the process. The former Yugoslavia, of which Croatia was a part, was also quite a footballing force and reached the final of the European Nations Cup twice in the 1960s, which is more than England have done.

In other words, you could compare Croatia in football terms to a country like Holland: small but with a distinguished tradition and elevated skill level. The latter was certainly in evidence last Wednesday as they gave the highly paid English stars a run for their money. But what was most impressive, I thought, was the level of commitment and energy they brought into winning a game where they didn’t even need a draw, doubtless spurred on by the roars of their 4,000-odd supporters who conspicuously out-shouted their normally more vocal English counterparts. Here’s a country only recently set free from the shackles of a larger state where they were dominated by their age-old neighbours and rivals, the Serbs; and the players seemed to really inject their game with patriotic pride and a will to win.

Now, what does that remind us of? ‘Scotland the Brave’, goes out the cry from north of the border! Maybe the rejuvenation of the Scottish football team also owes not a little to the boost to Scotland’s national pride that has been provided by the establishment of limited self-government and, perhaps more importantly, the fact that Scotland now actually has a meaningful official status as a distinct nation – which England does not. But Scotland also went out of the tournament, admittedly in the face of sterner opposition than England (both world champions Italy and France being in their group). However, for Scotland, their team’s unlucky last-minute downfall to the Italians was a heroic defeat. A similar loss by England would have been viewed by the media as farcical and inadequate just as was last Wednesday’s rude lesson administered at the hands of the Croatians. Deservedly so, one might well say: the Croatians are to the English what the Scots are to the Italians, in both population and footballing terms. But if you’re going to adopt that argument, then you’d have to say that it was to be expected that England should be pipped to the post by the much more numerous Russians – except that, on the balance of the two games between them, England got the better of the Russians. And you’d fancy both Croatia and England to beat Scotland more times than not; and Croatia also beat Italy at the 2002 World Cup group stage.

The point of all this is that the size of the population has nothing to do with it. After all, when it comes down to it, it’s still a case of 11 players on each side (or 21 players in each squad). A team is greater than the sum of its parts, and the Croatian team were fired up by their patriotic pride and will to win to achieve a little bit of greatness that belies the size of their country. It’s this above all that’s lacking from the England team and the organisation of the national side in general. There are many reasons for this: the much greater priority that is placed on the club game than on the national team; the fact that it’s the clubs predominantly that pay the players’ exorbitant wages and offer footballers at that level their most realistic chance of winning trophies – so they don’t want to go and get injured playing for England; and the fact that so many Premier League clubs prefer the short cut to success of bringing in imported talent for less cost than English players (see Blame Gordon Brown for England’s defeat) rather than making the longer-term investments in home-grown football skills. In this, football is a bit of a metaphor for modern Britain itself: commercial interests and selfish ambition dominate at the expense of opportunities for working-class people from our own country; and English football, in the guise of the Premier League, is offered up as a lucrative media product to a global market. So world superstars are what have to be served up to the paying public; not working-class lads being given a chance to make it for their local team.

Or promising talent being given a chance to make it through the national team . . .. Maybe the way to counteract the lack of motivation to play for one’s country for its own sake is to build an England team from the kind of young, raw talent that is not being given so much of a chance to make it in the club game. Perhaps the next England manager should bypass the egos and agents that exploit the national team as a form of self-promotion and product placement, and with whom the commercial managers at the FA are blandly complicit. The new coach should get together a group of talented youngsters who can be motivated to see the England side as the primary avenue through which they can strive for greatness and success in football, rather than the club game. There are plenty of gifted young footballers at Premier League or Championship clubs who are not being given the opportunity to establish themselves as first-team regulars and who are unlikely to ever win anything in the era of the dominance of the Top Four along with a few also-rans. Well, perhaps they should be given the chance to establish themselves as England regulars, and let’s forget about the superstars whose loyalty lies with their clubs. In this way, a true team can be developed: players who grow up together and get used to playing – and who want to play – for each other and for England. The England team and set up could become something along the lines of what top football clubs used to be: places where young English talent can be nurtured, trained and built into a winning combination that is greater than the sum of its parts.

England needs a football team whose players want to win for England more than for themselves and their clubs – just like the Croatians last week. That, together with official nation status that will eventually come from an English parliament or independence, could provide the injection of pride that England needs to achieve success at international football. Indeed, can there be success at international level unless we truly wish to achieve greatness and succeed as a nation?

21 November 2007

A government that minds its own business but not yours

What are we to make of the HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) missing CD-ROM scandal: the fact that someone popped a copy of half the UK’s personal details in the ordinary internal mail to the Audit Office and it’s now gone missing?

Nothing, possibly. It could just be a case of inexperience on the part of a junior subordinate. However, the mere fact that someone could even think it was acceptable to pop an unencrypted copy of intimate details about millions of families and their finances into the post and not even make it a recorded delivery is barely believable. Have they not got a secure, encrypted government data network they could use? If not, why not courier it from door to door to make sure it got there?

For me, it bespeaks an insufficient exercise of the government’s duty of care, which is something that should filter down to the lowest levels of the civil service. In this instance, inadequate regard was paid to the personal, human significance of the lost data to the people the government is supposed to be looking after. What was done involves regarding the data that was copied and sent in this way as just another bit of data: ‘well, if it doesn’t get there, we can always make another copy’. But it’s not just data: it’s precious, private information about people’s lives, which needs to be protected at all costs.

You can bet your bottom tax dollar that the government takes more precautions over its own secret data. Well, at least you’d like to think so; but maybe the next scandal to break will be someone leaving a laptop on a train containing all that the security services know about the 2,000-odd terrorist suspects in the UK they keep going on about. I don’t think so, though, do you? This government looks after its official secrets all right, just not yours and mine.

Alistair Darling tried to claim that the identity-card system they want to bring in will safeguard the sort of information that has been lost. How? What difference would everyone’s being issued with ID cards have made to the incident that has taken place? I can’t see the connection. It’s about administrative processes and enshrining in those processes an almost zealous determination to protect people’s intimate information as a sacred trust. But, of course, the type of information that will be gathered and stored via the ID-card system won’t be (just) mere bagatelles such as bank accounts, addresses, and names and ages of children: it will also involve ‘classified’ information such as criminal record, biometrics and, maybe, a means to access the entire history of a citizen’s interaction with the agencies of government and the public sector (medical records; births and marriages records; schooling; etc.) – basically, a card cloner’s or hacker’s dream!

I’m sure the government will take a lot more care over information of that sort, so vital for national security (but even so . . .). It’s just the information that’s vital for your security that can be dealt with in such a cavalier way. This government minds its own business, including looking after everything that it thinks it needs to know about yours – but it won’t mind yours.

And yet, the information that has been lost could have implications for national security as well as the personal security of many millions. Who knows, it might have been a terrorist inside job and, instead of being mailed to ‘The Audit Office, London’, the package could have winged its way to somewhere on the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan – or to a PC from where it could be distributed worldwide. The data that’s been lost could certainly be extremely valuable to the likes of Al-Qaeda or to cyber-terrorists. Maybe, instead of distrusting its own citizenry, the government could begin by taking care of the information its citizens have entrusted to it; and maybe, if it wants to gather in one place (around the ID card) so much additional information about us all, it could start by ensuring that the information it already has is secure.

The government should put its own house in order if it wants us to trust it over things like control orders and 56 days’ detention without charge. As this incident demonstrates, national security, it seems, begins at our homes.

19 November 2007

More on the Lib Dem leadership contenders: are they English?

The Lib Dem leadership campaign appears to present the chance for a breath of fresh air: an English leader for one of the UK’s big-three political parties, for a change. But are Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne English? They certainly seem incapable of acknowledging this openly.

Here’s how Nick Clegg describes his national background: “Son of a Dutch mother and half-Russian father”. Does that mean ‘half-English’ as well? I think you’re meant to just take it as read that he is English, and I’m certainly not of the view that you have to have pure English ancestry to count as English: I’ve got a half-Irish / half-English father, if you want to be technical, and my mother’s Welsh – but I’m still proud to be English, born and bred. Is Nick Clegg proud to be English, or is he more focused on his internationalism than his ‘nationality’?

What about Huhne? I can’t find any information about his parents’ nationality anywhere on the web: not on Wikipedia, not on Huhne’s two websites (his general one and his leadership campaign one), not on Google, not in the blogosphere. Perhaps I haven’t searched hard enough. However, it’s clear that this is something Huhne doesn’t want to be aired publicly, which is fair enough on one level; but he’s a politician who could (unlikely but not impossible) even be a prime minister.

His Wikipedia entry does tag him as English by means of a Flag of St. George icon; and he would certainly qualify as English by my and most people’s criteria: born and brought up in England. So does it matter that he can’t avow his national background? Well, it matters for the same reason as it matters for Clegg: we need to know whether being English is important for the two men; and whether their commitment to European integration and to regional / local devolution, and their apparent contempt for the Middle England voter in Huhne’s case (see previous post), mean that they disregard the English Question and any consideration of English nationhood and English-national political institutions.

And apart from anything else, I’m just curious to know where the name ‘Huhne’ comes from. It appears to be German: ‘Huhn’ meaning ‘chicken’ – admittedly not a good thing for a politician to be known as! So is he the son of German-Jewish refugees? Or, if not that, does he have some other German or Dutch ancestry? Certainly nothing to be ashamed of, in either case. The problem comes when you’re not prepared to be open about it, maybe because you’re afraid that the English people will reject you or distrust your commitment to England? Or that the British people, including Scots and Welsh, won’t vote for you if you talk up (or even mention) your Englishness.

Better just foreground the Russian and Dutch antecedence, in Clegg’s case, and keep whatever non-English ancestry there might be firmly in the background, in Huhne’s case. That way, we can be British and we won’t have to bother about the English Question or even about being English, whatever that might mean.

18 November 2007

Woeful lack of engagement with the English Question by the Lib Dem leadership candidates

For my sins, I’ve been looking over the campaign manifestos of the Liberal Democratic Party leadership candidates, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. I should perhaps have expected it but I was highly disappointed that neither candidate mentions the English Question even in passing, let alone related issues such as the West Lothian Question, constitutional reform (other than just PR and local devolution), the EU constitution, and the option of a referendum on the latter.

I did my customary count of references to ‘England’ or ‘English’. I found one reference in Nick Clegg’s statement: “Half of all school children in England are failing to get five GCSEs”. On the face of it, Chris Huhne performs better, with two mentions (!). However, only one of these was of England proper, while the other was a reference to the ‘English-speaking Commonwealth’ in the context of a passage on international affairs. The actual allusion to ‘England’ went as follows:

“First past the post elections entrench a confrontational style of politics in which the Labour and Conservative parties compete for the votes of 800,000 swing voters in marginal constituencies dominated by the concerns of Middle England. Those of us who vote in safe seats – Tonbridge or Torfaen, Reigate or the Rhondda – are effectively ignored by the parties.”

I see what he’s driving at, but the effect of what he’s saying is rather perverse. Basically, he’s implying that a few voters in Middle England unfairly determine the outcome of general elections and by extension the composition of the House of Commons. But are the concerns of those Middle-English voters truly reflected in the UK House of Commons? Isn’t it, rather, the case that the combination of the first-past-the-post (FTTP) system plus the West Lothian anomaly (for instance, as exemplified by such safe Welsh Labour seats as Torfaen and the Rhondda) deliver Labour a disproportionate parliamentary majority that overrides the more politically conservative priorities not just of Middle England but of England as a whole? If Chris Huhne means what he says about correcting the injustice of FTTP, then this should surely mean that (Middle) England should also be given a proper voice in running its own affairs – rather than, as now, those matters being dictated by a UK parliament in which Labour’s majority is swollen not just by FTTP but by Welsh and Scottish voters not elected in England. But the West Lothian dimension of the unrepresentative UK parliament is completely ignored by Huhne. Yes, I counted: not a single reference to ‘West Lothian’ in Huhne’s manifesto (nor in Clegg’s, for that matter).

All of this doesn’t inspire confidence that a stronger Lib Dem representation in the UK Parliament, elected either under FTTP or PR, would push for a resolution of the West Lothian Question. They seem to think that introducing PR would be sufficient: if the UK parliament much more accurately reflected political preferences across the UK as a whole – so the argument appears to go – then there would be no need for an English parliament, as the concerns of (Middle) England would also be adequately, proportionately, reflected in the make up of the House of Commons. If this is the thinking, it both illustrates much of the main political parties’ blindness towards the basic injustice towards England of the current constitutional settlement; and it is a politically self-serving position: the Lib Dems’ self-styled ‘radical’, left-of-centre agenda – as with the Labour Party’s policies now – would stand more of a chance of being furthered under a UK parliament elected by PR than under an English parliament, also elected by PR.

This brings me to the candidates’ policy statements. These basically promote an agenda for Britain / the UK as a whole, even in areas where there can be no such thing as a UK-wide set of policies, or institutions responsible for them: on the matters that have been devolved to the parliaments and assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but have been retained by the UK parliament for England only. This contradiction and imbalance in the perception of the very nation for which your policies are intended leads to more examples (like those we’re familiar with from Labour politicians) of the linguistic contortions that are required to give the impression you are talking about Britain; whereas, in reality, you are talking about England (but won’t the mention the fact because you want to keep up the pretence).

Let’s take as an example from Nick Clegg’s statement on the NHS: “When in government in Wales and Scotland, the Liberal Democrats showed what could be done – I want all parts of the UK to benefit from Liberal Democrat leadership”. Err, do you mean you want England also to benefit from Lib Dem leadership, Mr Clegg? If so, why don’t you say it? The only kind of Lib Dem leadership in the NHS you’d be able directly to provide as a UK PM or government minister would be for England.

And again, on education. As indicated above, here at least, Clegg uses the ‘E’ word – if only to damn the country for its educational failings. But, I ask you, what on earth does this sentence mean: “Working with our Members of the Scottish Parliament and Assembly Members in Wales, the Liberal Democrats will strive ceaselessly for a more mobile and classless society by making education a central theme for our party”? Do you mean, Mr Clegg, that Liberal Democrat MPs in the UK parliament representing constituencies in England will work in partnership with their peers in the corresponding devolved bodies in Scotland and Wales to pursue a common vision and agenda for education across the whole of the UK? Yes, I think that’s what you do mean; but then why don’t you utter the word ‘England’ alongside ‘Wales’ and ‘Scotland’? Because that would involve acknowledging the fact that there is no single parliamentary forum for the UK as a whole through which this agenda can be pursued. And it would involve making explicit the fact that what you’re trying to present as a unified approach for the UK as a whole really involves a disparity of treatment: Scottish and Welsh parliamentary / assembly representatives running their own affairs; the UK parliament running England’s.

What about Huhne’s treatment of the same policy areas? Huhne talks of these things in more general terms in the context of a setting out of his liberal vision: devolution of decision making and administration in health and education to locally elected bodies more adequately representing the needs of local people and users of the services; general vision of a more equal, just society preserving a strong role for a more accountable public sector in levelling inequalities. All well and good. But this is just another way of glossing over the fact that, in practice, Huhne could push through these innovative policy ideas only in England. OK, he would like them to be adopted across the UK. But his manner of presenting the ideas fails to acknowledge that there is no UK-wide political system for implementing the policies that might result from them.

Do either of the candidates’ manifestos address these constitutional issues in any form? As stated above, they talk mainly of political reform (PR and more powers for local government) rather than constitutional reform as such. Huhne does state that “constitutional change is a necessary pre-condition of partnership politics”, by which he is referring to PR enabling collaborative / coalition government. He also alludes in passing to the need for a “Freedom bill” to protect our fundamental liberties (why doesn’t he call this a Bill of Rights?). But neither of them deal head on with any of the big constitutional issues: national or regional devolution for England; independence for Scotland and the possibility of a federal UK; reform of the House of Lords; the option of a written constitution and Bill of Rights; or the EU Reform Treaty / constitution. This is surprising in that it’s Lib Dem policy that there should be a UK constitutional convention in which these issues can be debated, resulting in proposals that can be put to the people in a referendum.

And while we’re on the subject of referendums, neither candidate touches on the question of whether we need a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty, or even discusses the Reform Treaty at all. Instead, both talk in rather general terms of reform of EU institutions, meaning greater scrutiny, openness and accountability, and decentralisation of EU powers. Again, this is fine in principle; but shouldn’t the candidates express an opinion about how the EU Reform Treaty fits in with these objectives? On the face of it, the treaty appears to move more powers to the ‘centre’ (European institutions), even though it’s claimed that it creates more safeguards and a more influential role for the EU Parliament. The trouble here, it seems to me, is that the Lib Dems’ official policy is support for the EU Reform Treaty; but the candidates know that this is unpopular with the electorate and maybe even with quite a lot of Lib Dem party members. Are the Lib Dems’ tactics to just sit back and let Labour and the Tories slug it out between them while biding their time as to how they vote on the treaty (whether they abstain or support the government) depending on how large is the Labour rebellion and how the debate is shaping up? If so, this is dishonest and evasive. On an issue with such huge implications for the governance of the UK and of its four nations, the candidates really should come clean about their views and the basis for them.

All of this non-engagement with such crucial constitutional issues smacks of orchestrated avoidance. It’s as if the two candidates have knocked their heads together and agreed that neither of them will stake out a position on any of these questions that might actually be binding on them to pursue if they were elected. On the one hand, this reflects the Lib Dems’ ethos and organisational structure: policies are determined through a process of consultation and ratified by the party conference, not made up and aggressively pushed through by the leadership. Therefore, neither candidate appears willing to depart from safe, established positions that resonate with the maximum number of members. But this makes the candidates’ manifestos woefully inadequate as programmes for dealing with the major constitutional issues for the UK as a whole and England in particular. And the concern is that this evasiveness is symptomatic of more than internal party politics alone but reveals an unwillingness to engage with the English Question and, in general, the question of what forms of governance are best suited for the individual nations of the UK – or even a failure to perceive that these issues are fundamental and put into question the whole political process that the Lib Dems are engaged in. Instead, both candidates’ statements, for all their espousal of local and proportional democracy, are wedded to the traditional framework of UK-wide governance and the nation-as-Britain. And it appears that they are prepared to muddle along with all of the contradictions that the asymmetrical devolution settlement has introduced into the governance of the UK.

Time will tell whether, between the selection of a new leader and the next general election (whenever GB [Gordon Brown] finally plucks up the courage to call it), the Lib Dems can get to grips with these questions and call them by their name: ‘England’ and the future, or not, of the UK. But if they can’t develop a language in which they can refer to English matters as English matters, do they deserve the votes of a ‘Middle England’ they appear to despise?

13 November 2007

Brown’s Red Lines: An Alternative Take

Further to my previous post, Between E and U: Brown’s Red Lines and the Break Up of the UK, it occurred to me that I missed what now seems to be an obvious point about GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] so-called red lines: the areas of government where GB claims Britain has secured guarantees enabling it to get out of transferring sovereignty to the EU under the EU Reform Treaty.

Let’s recap what those red lines relate to: the justice system; foreign affairs; tax and social security (including all work, pensions and benefits matters); and the fundamental human rights framework of the state. In the earlier post, I argued that these guarantees were primarily intended to appease the English electorate, more Euro-sceptic than their Scottish and Welsh counterparts. A more straightforward interpretation would be that these areas represent virtually the entirety of the policy and legislative responsibilities that have remained the preserve of the UK government after the transfer of powers in so many other vital domestic matters to the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In other words, if substantial powers in these domains were transferred to the EU, there would be virtually nothing left of the UK government: the only real powers would be those of the devolved administrations and those of the UK government relating to the corresponding policy areas in England. Hence, any remaining rationale for a UK-wide government implementing policies and laws relating to England only but pretending that these still relate to Britain as a whole would be completely discredited: as there was very little UK-wide governance for the parliament and executive to attend to, they would effectively be dealing almost exclusively with England-only matters. It would then be only a matter of time before the need for the anomaly to be corrected became so pressing that an English parliament could be established.

What a strange state of affairs this is then: the UK state relying for its preservation in its current form on a European constitution from which the UK has derogated in its most fundamental areas! There should be no doubt now that the Reform Treaty is the European Constitution in all but name: last Saturday, Giscard d’Estaing, the author of the original Constitution, himself said on BBC Radio Four that the Treaty was substantially the same as the Constitution – he should know. Another way of expressing the irony of all this is to say that the red lines that are supposed to be guaranteeing UK independence from the EU are in fact making the very survival of the UK as we know it dependent on the EU; the UK constitution is shored up by the European Constitution.

Does this mean that supporters of English devolution or independence should back the EU Reform Treaty on the basis that, over time, GB’s red lines will be subverted and there will be less and less actual real UK government, enabling the emergence of an English parliament in the manner described above? Doubtless, there will be some English nationalists that would support such a strategy; but it’s a risky one: if real sovereignty were transferred from the UK to the EU, would the people of England then be allowed to decide for themselves whether they wanted an English government or not? Perhaps, on the contrary, the nightmare scenario of a break up of England into a number of ‘EU regions’ of comparable size to Scotland would then occur, and England as such would be no more.

As I stated before, England has the right to decide how deeply involved or not it wishes to become in the Euro-integrationist project; and, eventually, to decide whether it wishes to be an independent nation: independent of the UK and of the EU. The EU Reform Treaty / Constitution, which risks being ratified without the agreement of the people of England and, indeed, of the UK electorate as a whole, risks foreclosing such an option. We could then be left with a UK government that is increasingly toothless within Europe but which still pretends to have legitimacy as a British government, even though its real powers are limited to England. For this reason, the Reform Treaty should be opposed.

9 November 2007

Scotland gets the ‘our country’ treatment: Glasgow wins the Commonwealth Games for Britain!

Did you hear GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] words of congratulations to Glasgow for winning the right to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games? He started off by saying it would be a ‘great sporting decade for our country’. As you do, I wondered for a second which country GB was referring to: ‘does he actually mean Scotland, for once, and is owning up to the fact that his country really is Scotland – just using the royal “we”?’.

But then he clarified that he meant Britain, with words to the effect that the Commonwealth Games would come on top of the 2012 Olympics, while England [yes, I’m sure my ears didn’t deceive me and he actually said the word!] was bidding for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and England [YES!! Am I hallucinating but did he say the ‘E’ word twice in succession?!] was also bidding for the 2018 Football World Cup.

Then the really hilarious bit came at the end (I think I’m quoting reasonably accurately): “What better sporting decade could there be for our country – the whole of Great Britain?”. Obviously aware that he’d lumped a sporting triumph for Scotland in with a UK Olympics and two potential World Cups in England under the same ‘our country’, he felt he had to remove the confusion and spell out that by ‘our country’ he meant ‘Great Britain’. [It’s actually the UK, GB.] The contortions the man had to go through almost made me feel sorry for him, for just a moment. Until the laughter took over!

Sorry, Scotland, but your success is really a triumph for ‘our country’: Great Britain. Now you know what it feels like! How much more straightforward and unambiguous was Alex Salmond’s use of the phrase ‘our country’ in the wake of Glasgow’s success: “We will make these games the greatest sporting event our country has ever seen. . . . The schools across our country have been watching this and I think that it will be a moment of inspiration for that generation that looks forward to the 2014 Games”. No doubt about which country the First Minister is referring to when he says ‘our country’. Not so the Prime Minister who couldn’t even own up to feeling a bit of patriotic pride at his country’s – Scotland’s – success by speaking his country’s name. At least, he had the decency this time to utter the ‘E’ word – twice – when referring to our World Cup bids. Perhaps the message is finally beginning to get through? We can but hope.

By the way, congratulations Scotland; you deserve it and I’m sure it’ll be a great Games. So you’re planning on sticking around in the Commonwealth till at least 2014 then?

8 November 2007

The Olympics goes Ikea: The flat-packed stadium as a symbol for Britain

I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed by the ingenuity of the design for the 2012 Olympics athletics stadium or depressed by the apparent lack of ambition to create something that could stand as a powerful and beautiful symbol of Britain’s achievements for many years to come. The fact that it will be put together in such a way that it can be dismantled after the Games, and reduced to a much lower-capacity arena that could more easily be used by the local community and a low-ranking football or rugby team (Leyton Orient has been mooted), does seem cleverly to deliver on the objectives of leaving a lasting legacy and of producing something environmentally and socially sustainable.

All the same, I can’t help feeling a bit disappointed that an 80,000-seat stadium won’t be left in place, and will just be picked to pieces and left as a relatively unimpressive, small-scale stadium – less of a landmark than most English Premier League football stadiums, to say nothing of the national football and rugby stadiums at Wembley and Twickenham. Equally, it has to be said, the full-scale design (at least in the computer mock-ups) is not very aesthetically exciting: it’s been compared to gas-storage tanks, and understandably so. This is not much of a monument to what is billed as the greatest sporting event on earth – a description disputed by the football aficionados, however, who regard the Fifa World Cup as the biggest show in town.

I suppose the Games organisers are at least being consistent with the approach they’ve taken all along, which is to emphasise that the enduring legacy of the London Olympics will be its contribution to regenerating that part of East London and the long-term benefits it will bring to the community there. These benefits won’t be real unless the facilities are used and can be maintained by local people. That much is fair enough. But on one level, why can’t the local community and the country have great new sports facilities AND a magnificent, permanent memorial to the once-in-a-lifetime Games? Admittedly, this would cost more; but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Britain is supposed to be a wealthy country. Surely, commercial and / or public funds could be mustered to maintain the stadium permanently in its Olympic scale. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if – despite its dismountable design – the stadium were eventually kept in its full proportions, rather like the London Millennium Eye, which was originally only supposed to last for three years.

What is it about this country that we seem to have so little ambition to build aesthetically, as well as technologically, ground-breaking, enduring monuments to major events such as the millennium or the Olympics? One need think only of the structure formerly known as the Millennium Dome, which was so derided at the time and seems finally to have found a raison d’etre as the O2-sponsored concert arena – any reference to its former millennium symbolism long gone.

Perhaps, again, the problem is with the ‘this country’ part of the equation: it’s the British (strictly, the UK) Olympics in which we’ll be represented by a UK team, in contrast to many sports (including, obviously, football) in which there are separate teams for each of the nations of the UK. We don’t seem to have difficulty in producing major landmark buildings to symbolise our national institutions and sporting teams. Think of the new Wembley Stadium (what a contrast to the Olympic Stadium concept and design!); the Scottish Parliament building and Hampden Park; the new Welsh Assembly building and the Millennium Stadium. By contrast, we no longer appear to have the confidence to erect edifices that testify to the long-term ambitions and values of the UK as a nation. What have we got by way of UK monument to the millennium, after all? A commercial concert venue and a tourist attraction facing the Houses of Parliament, whose ‘pod’ design has been explicitly borrowed for the refreshment and toilet facilities for the equally temporary Olympic stadium.

Indeed, what a telling symbol for the UK the Olympic stadium will be! A flat-packed, recyclable, impermanent assemblage of different components which will very soon be dismantled!

6 November 2007

Nottingham: The New Capital of England?

What’s the capital city of England? Every child throughout the world probably knows the answer to that question: London, of course. Images of Big Ben, the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s, Buckingham Palace, etc. flash past.

But is London England’s capital city or the United Kingdom’s? London belongs to the whole of the UK, and almost every national institution headquartered there is, precisely, national (i.e. British) rather than English – with the exception of a few iconic cultural and sporting organisations, such as the English National Opera, the English National Ballet, Twickenham, Wembley or the FA.

In this respect, the capital city serves as a symbol for so many other instances (including, of course, parliament) whereby there are both national institutions for the UK as a whole, and parallel or subsidiary organisations for the nations of Scotland or Wales – but not England. Scotland has its capital in Edinburgh; Cardiff is the capital city of Wales – but it sounds rather odd to say England’s capital city is London. ‘In the absence of any other’, one feels like adding. This discrepancy – whose origins in the asymmetrical constitution of the UK are well known – struck me on reading Gareth Young’s recent post ‘Is Britain Doomed?‘ (well, actually Philip Hosking’s comment on that post) on the Our Kingdom blog, in which PH did refer to London rather dismissively as the ‘capital of England’. (The phrase puts me in mind of that ad of a few years ago, where a child is asked what the capital of ‘England’ is, and she thinks for a while before answering ‘E’ (i.e. letter E). Perhaps why that is so funny is not just because of the cleverness of the child in working out a coherent but wrong answer to a question she wasn’t sure of, but also the very fact that she didn’t know the answer – reflecting the ambiguity of London’s status.)

Maybe the fact that Philip Hosking’s unthinking assumption that London is the capital of England reflects a Celtic perspective on the UK, I don’t know. But from an English perspective, there’s not much of a sense that London is especially English, other than in the general sense that the UK itself is ‘English’: a product of English politics, statesmanship, military victories, culture and society over the centuries. English people generally are proud of London and of the fact that it is a great global metropolis, and the world’s financial capital (the capital of capital, if you like). But is it our capital; does it symbolise England?

It was for that reason that I added a facetious comment of my own to the Our Kingdom post pointing out that London was officially only the capital of the UK and that in this respect, as with the parliament, England doesn’t actually have a capital city. I then invited suggestions for the capital city of what would effectively have to be a devolved or independent England, if the country’s new capital were to have any formal rather than merely symbolic status. I suggested Canterbury: partly because it was the birthplace of Anglo-Saxon Christianity (and I’d personally like England to continue to have some sort of continuing official status as a Christian country), and partly, facetiously, because it’s got good access to Brussels via the Eurostar!

On reflection, however – and yes, this is the sort of sad rumination with which my brain is so frequently afflicted – I’d like to change my selection to Nottingham. Why Nottingham?

  1. The capital of England couldn’t be London as this would replicate all the Westminster-villagey, London-centric things that are wrong about UK politics; plus it would inevitably mean the federal English parliament and ministries would be too much under the thumb of the UK ones and would struggle to establish a separate identity and organisational culture
  2. You couldn’t locate the parliament in another big city like Manchester or Birmingham as this could result in that city trying to set itself up as a rival to London (and potentially failing); while it could generate a lot of jealousy and antagonism on the part of the other big cities that hadn’t been chosen
  3. It couldn’t be in a small but symbolically important city such as Canterbury, Winchester or York, as the coming of the parliament, the construction of a new parliament building and ministries, and the housing and infrastructure requirements would be overwhelming and would totally transform the city in which they were established. Equally, locating the parliament in York would get the Lancastrians up in arms (hopefully, not literally); putting it in Winchester would lead to accusations of South of England-centrism
  4. It would be good, nonetheless, to establish the parliament in a historic city with a rich and symbolic past
  5. Nottingham is just such a city, and its East Midlands geographical location is ideal: neither North nor South; good transport links to everywhere in the country
  6. It’s also a city in serious need of regeneration. Deciding to locate the parliament here would be the trigger for massive investment; plus it would be demonstrating the political establishment’s determination not to be identified with the privileged South but to be committed to English communities that need support
  7. And last but not least, it’s the home of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. What better symbol for our times of the people of England rising up in revolt against an overarching [pun intended] centralised state and a corrupt political elite!

Anyone got any better suggestions for England’s new capital?

2 November 2007

Menezes Killing: Why is no one talking about shoot-to-kill?

In yesterday’s and today’s coverage on the Metropolitan Police’s guilty verdict for ‘health and safety’ violations over the killing of the innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes [there’s got to be some sort of grim irony that they were done on health and safety, of all things!], no one seems to have raised the question of whether the security forces’ shoot-to-kill policy towards people they suspect of being on the point of committing a terrorist outrage needs to be re-examined. There was much discussion on this theme in the immediate wake of the blunder. But it’s all gone silent now. Why?

Let’s think about it logically. One of the justifications made by the police for their delayed attempts to stop suspects under observation, such as Menezes in this instance, is that it’s operationally important to follow where they go, who they link up with and what they do in order to gather vital intelligence and allow them to incriminate themselves. But effectively, in principle and definitely in practice, in Menezes’ case, this means waiting to intervene until the balance of certainty tips in favour of judging that the suspect really is on the point of doing something to threaten the lives of those around him. But if you wait until this point, you let a situation arise where, one way or another, something life-threatening is going to happen: either the terrorist blows himself up, or the security forces have to use force (shoot to kill) to stop him, and thereby endanger others in the same way that the suspect might have endangered them.

And what I don’t understand is why, even in circumstances where the security forces have deliberately left things effectively too late to avoid violence, they feel they have to use conventional bullets to bring things to a close. Aren’t there stun guns or tranquillisers that can be fired to have the same incapacitating effect? Surely, the whole point of acting in these situations is to prevent avoidable loss of innocent life. Isn’t it more consistent with this aim to use weapons that achieve the same effect without creating the result you’re trying to avoid?

For me, this sorry episode illustrates one of the ironies of the ‘war on terror’: that when the threat level is talked up and the climate of fear is heated up still further by the very people who are responsible for the public’s protection, this then justifies actions and engineers results that are precisely what the terrorists want. These consequences include the killing of innocent people; violent or unjust actions by the authorities towards suspected individuals or groups, particularly Muslims; a general clamp-down on civil liberties; and the creation of an atmosphere of terror, precisely, which is a win-win for the terrorists: either the government is pressurised into backing down from a particular position (e.g. the Spanish people after the Madrid bombings voting for a party that then withdrew Spanish forces from Iraq); or, on the contrary, the government is pushed into an attitude of defiance and hostility that whips up anti-Islamic sentiment and consolidates foreign-policy positions (e.g. support for the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan), which the terrorists and their sympathisers can then use for anti-Western propaganda purposes and as a recruiting sergeant.

And the thing about Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police boss, is that he has consistently talked up the terror threat, which is clearly in part a tactic to condition the public into being more tolerant about mistakes and injustices that are committed in what Blair and others involved in the security effort still like to characterise as a war situation. In fact, Blair or one of his allies (I can’t remember which) was on about the extremely high ongoing terror threat only two or three weeks ago, just as the Menezes case was about to begin.

This is not to say that one should not feel sympathy for the police officers involved in incidents like this, who do have to make split-second decisions that will inevitably result in a limited number of mistakes. But surely, the tactics and the shoot-to-kill policy do need looking at: delaying interventions until shootings become ‘inevitable’ (but are they, even in these situations?).

But one also has to feel sympathy, in this case, for the innocent victim and his family. It was Blair’s duty to protect him as much as his officers and his own position. The more he goes on about the extreme circumstances and atmosphere of fear the police were operating under – which, to some extent, he’s been responsible for making worse through his careless talk – the more you sense that he’s not truly sorry for what happened. And if he’s not sorry, is he exercising a proper duty of care towards the public? And if he isn’t exercising this duty, should he still be in his job?

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