Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

8 December 2007

From a UK Of England and Semi-Autonomous Regions To a UK Of Autonomous Nations

We English, for all our faults, are very polite and respectful of other nations’ sensitivities. So much so that we don’t even call our own country by its name so as to make sure that all who live here feel included and equal. However, now it’s got to the point that the very existence of our country as an officially recognised nation is under threat. While Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are able to govern significant parts of their own domestic affairs and have been awarded official constitutional status as distinct nations within the UK, England remains without such privileges. The territory known as England is, officially, just the part of the UK whose affairs, domestic and international, continue to be regulated exclusively by the central UK government. In addition, as is well known, there are some who would like to dismember the territory of England altogether by splitting it up into a number of regions with devolved powers similar to those of Scotland and Wales. This would be the political fulfilment of a concept of the UK, in Gordon Brown’s words, as a “Britain of nations and regions” – England having been finally wiped off the map as a nation and replaced by regions.

One of the forms in which the official non-existence of England is manifested is by the way in which the government, and also the opposition parties to a large extent, carry on as if legislation, decisions and public services that effectively now relate to England only are still matters for the UK as a whole. I don’t mean this just in the sense that MPs from the other nations of the UK are entitled to vote on them even if the corresponding matters for their own countries are now dealt with by devolved administrations (the so-called West Lothian Question). I mean this also in the symbolic sense: that in discussion, debate and presentation of legislation and the work of government, the fact that so much of it concerns England exclusively is barely remarked upon; and everything is referred to as if it affected the whole ‘nation’, i.e. the UK. As I’ve commented in several previous posts, Gordon Brown himself has a pathological aversion to uttering the words ‘England’ or ‘English’, even when he’s speaking about policies and legislation on matters such as education and health where his government’s remit is for England only. There is an obvious reason for this avoidance, of course: that if he was more honest and did make explicit which bits of his legislative programme and ‘vision’ for ‘the country’ related to England only, English people would question even more his legitimacy as a de facto English prime minister in so many respects, but one who does not even represent an English constituency.

Countless examples could be given of the way that official documentation and websites relating to Westminster government departments whose powers in all but England have been devolved continue to describe themselves as the UK / national bodies, while referring readers or website visitors on to the separate bodies and regulations for the other countries of the UK. Of course, this asymmetry affects the very name of those ministries or public bodies: there is no ‘English Department for Education’ or ‘Department of Health for England’ to match the Scottish Education Department or the Welsh Department for Health and Social Services; only The Department for Children, Schools and Families, or The Department of Health. I was again struck by these disparities yesterday when replying to a comment on the Campaign for an English Parliament News Blog accusing Gordon Brown of lying when he stated that there is only one – British – NHS. This is clearly not true, at least not in the way Gordon Brown intended it. There are quite distinct NHS organisations in England, Scotland and Wales – different names, different structures, different websites and, as we know, differential funding. Visit the websites for NHS Scotland or NHS Wales (otherwise known as GIG Cymru), and you’re in no doubt which country’s health service is involved. Do a Google search for ‘NHS in England’, however, and you’ll be sent to the ‘national’ NHS website where, from the home page at least, you’d be hard put to realise that this was the NHS site for England only and not the UK as a whole. You have to dig a bit further to realise that you won’t find any information specific to health districts or services in Scotland or Wales, but only in England.

Usually, ‘England’ is mentioned explicitly in such official documentation or political debate only when it is critically important to spell out the fact that the points being made affect England alone, e.g. in the actual text of Acts of Parliament; or where people in Scotland and Wales need to be referred on to the information that concerns them – as they, too, could easily be misled into thinking that information that passes itself off as UK-wide does relate to the whole of the UK rather than to England alone (see, for example, the page on the ‘UK’ NHS website describing the NHS’s organisational structure, where they have to spell out that the information is for England only, and links are provided to the NHS sites for the three other UK countries).

The erasure of the word ‘England’ from the nomenclature and language of what is effectively English government and politics can engender an understandable sense of paranoia, especially in a context where England is bereft of any separate constitutional status, and where so many influential figures (including Gordon Brown) seemingly want to wish it out of existence.

But there is a different way of configuring all of this. You could say that one reason why the government and ‘impartial’ media (such as the BBC and ITN) refuse to refer to the government and public bodies in their England-only aspects as those of England is that this could create the impression that the nation is England. The people of Scotland and Wales have always felt, with much justification, that the UK government was – in all but name – the English government; and that, given the overwhelming numerical, economic and political dominance of England within the UK, they were effectively ruled by England as if they were a part of England. Now that, post-devolution, the Westminster government serves a dual purpose as both the government of the UK (in retained matters) and the government of England (in matters devolved to the other countries), if you started to explicitly refer to the government in the latter respects as the English government, then people could start thinking of it as the English government in the retained areas as well. Far better, from this perspective, to keep hammering on about it being the British government – even in England-only matters – than to let the impression develop that what devolution is really about is England devolving some but not all of its powers to ‘nations’ that have for centuries effectively – in terms of the realities of power – been English regions.

As I have remarked in a previous post on devolution, the British / UK government, parliament and state are effectively the English government, parliament and state. This is not just a default position (‘they’re what serves as the English state and parliament in the absence of a properly autonomous constitutional status for England’); nor simply a reflection of the above-mentioned political realities (‘the UK state is the English state because it is, and has always been, controlled by the English in their own national interest’). The UK state (more loosely referred to as ‘Britain’) is the English state because it is the form in which England has defined itself in official national and constitutional terms ever since the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707.

I aim to go into this aspect of the question in more detail in a subsequent post. But the paradox I’m trying to point out here is that English official organisations and media find it impossible to refer to themselves verbally as English because the very discourse through which Englishness has articulated itself officially for centuries is that of Britishness. English may have become the international language; but there is no place within it, officially, for the nation of England. In its international persona as Britain, England belongs to everyone, just as does the English language – but not in any special way to the ‘English’. But the point is that this self-effacement of the English behind Britishness and internationalism is, and has been, precisely an English self-effacement and the form that the English have chosen to give their statehood and statesmanship. Britain is the political identity or persona of England; British political and national institutions, where no separate English-only equivalent exists, are English institutions in all but name; and Britishness is a projection of part of Englishness – and not always the best part.

So Britain is England. This is something the Scottish and Welsh have always understood, defining their own nationhood in opposition to the English-British overlords. But that doesn’t mean that England is Britain. England is real and distinct: the national identity – the heart and soul – of most of the people born and brought up in the part of the UK whose affairs are entirely regulated by the Westminster government. Britain is the English state: created by the English and shared with (and increasingly spurned by) the rest of the UK. As I stated in that previous post on devolution, this symbiosis of England and Britain is one of the reasons why the British political establishment is so blind to the very concept of devolution for England: the logic being that England cannot be devolved from itself (i.e. Britain). And on this logic, devolution makes sense only for the non-English parts of England-Britain, which, precisely, are devolved from England.

But the British establishment is trying very hard to perpetuate the identification of England with Britain. This is, indeed, the only way it can ensure the survival of ‘Britain’ as the English state: a unitary structure through which the English have fooled themselves they were not the unwelcome, autocratic masters of the Scots and Welsh by transforming themselves and everyone else into equal, democratic Britons. How much of the oft-voiced fear about the dire consequences of breaking up the ‘Union’ is to do not so much with the supposed break up of the United Kingdom per se but the shattering of an English illusion of greatness: the illusory identity of ‘Britain’ itself as the projection of England’s historic ideals concerning the greatness of its international power and civilisation – of Great Britain? The more the reality of that greatness fades into a historic past, the more certain parts of the establishment cling on to the dream. But as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland distance themselves from the centre of British power, the only nation over which the establishment can continue to impose Britishness is England. But this denial of Englishness on the part of the ‘British’ establishment only shows that establishment up all the more as, at core, English.

The establishment may wish to deny England in the name of an international Britain: to call England Britain. But the people of England increasingly seek to be called by their own name and to determine their own destiny – just as do the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: freed from the British shackles. So one way in which we can begin to effect this change is to start calling Britain England. This would be a way to resist the systematic suppression of all references to England within official discourse and national institutions: by systematically reinserting ‘English’ and ‘England’ into all mentions of the ‘British’ state or nation. This would point up the fact that Britain / the UK is the English state in all but name; and by naming it England, this would highlight the fact that Britain is not yet the kind of properly English state or nation that English people want and deserve: English government for and by the English people.

The best way I can think of doing this is through combinations of ‘England-Britain’ or ‘English-British’, etc. For instance, where a government body or representative is referring to their work or policies for the nation (meaning England), in describing those policies, one could strive to always add a reference to England. So in the case of the national NHS website referred to above, it would be appropriate to call this the ‘national UK website for NHS England’ (on the analogy of ‘NHS Scotland’ and ‘NHS Wales’). Similarly, while talking of the (UK) Department of Health, one could refer to it as ‘the UK Department of Health for England’. Prime minister Gordon Brown could be termed ‘the UK prime minister for England’ or even the ‘Scottish English prime minister’ in relation to devolved matters; and the ‘England-UK prime minister’ in all other matters.

The point of these constructions is that they involve deliberately incongruous combinations of England + Britain or UK; and the combinations should be both as explanatory and incongruous as possible – in other words, showing an awareness of the ‘official’ status of the body or person concerned as ‘British’, while signalling the fact they are doing double duty for England, too. In matters where one wishes to suggest disapproval, from an English perspective, of the conduct of the British state carried out in England’s name, one could put ‘Britain’ before ‘England’; e.g. ‘the involvement of British-English troops in Iraq’. Conversely, where you want to suggest that a ‘British’ policy or action, domestic or international, is the expression of English values or attitudes, ‘England’ could be put first: ‘English-British fair play’; ‘England-Britain’s Special Relationship with the USA’; etc.

The point being that ‘Britain’, up to now, has been an English creation and entity; but one which, as the Scots and Welsh are freeing themselves from its grip, is turning its attention to subordinating the English themselves. So what I’m advocating is English-linguistic insubordination to point out the realities suppressed by the illusions of Britishness. Britain / the UK is the English state; and the partially devolved constitution we have now is a UK of England and semi-autonomous regions (Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland). Some of the Britologists, as was pointed out above, want to re-imagine this as a Britain of nations (Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland) and regions. But how much is that not ultimately a kind of endgame of English-Britishness: the self-denial of England along with the levelling of any real difference between England and the other countries of the UK in an all-embracing Britain. Because, effectively, such a scenario would just create multiple British regions of equivalent status, thereby stripping Scotland and Wales (if they were locked into such a federal scenario) of any distinctive political and constitutional status: as nations defining themselves as distinct from England, rather than as homogeneous British regions. Such a federal Britain would be in none of the existing nation’s interests because they would cease to exist as nations: because there would be only one nation – England-Britain.

We don’t want either a UK of England and regions, or a Britain of nations and regions – but a United Kingdom of autonomous nations. Until that day arrives, the establishment will continue to try to absorb England into Britain, and Britain will continue as the de facto English state. But English people must continue to point out the ambiguous duality of this ‘UK government for England’.

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11 Comments »

  1. I realise that this might be a bit semantic but instead of a United Kingdom of autonomous nations how about a United Kingdom of Independent States?

    Comment by Michael Follon — 8 December 2007 @ 9.17 am | Reply

  2. I thought “Britain” was originally a creation of England AND Scotland?

    Comment by Chris Abbott — 8 December 2007 @ 11.46 am | Reply

  3. Re Michael’s comment, yes, that’s the other option; just not much point calling that the UK, unless the Union concerned was just the ‘personal union’ of a single monarch common to all four countries.

    Re Chris’s comment, yes, of course, Great Britain was / is the creation of both England and Scotland. But I think there has traditionally been a difference in the way Scotland and England viewed their relationship to the Union, with Scottish people making a clearer distinction between Scotland and Britain as a whole, while English people have tended to conflate England and Britain – hence, the traditional English habit of speech of referring to the UK as ‘England’. This reflects the fact, in my view, that Great Britain should more accurately be described as an incorporation of Scotland into the English state rather than a merger of equals forming something altogether new.

    Post-devolution, Scotland has begun to forge a political identity separate from that of Britain; but England is not being allowed the same freedom. What this means is that, more than ever perhaps, ‘Britain’ becomes the form and name of English statehood. But then, if Britain is England, in political and constitutional terms, the whole thing can be stood on its head, and we can subversively start to describe the UK government and British national institutions as those of England.

    Comment by David — 9 December 2007 @ 4.23 am | Reply

  4. Dave,

    With regard to your comments (9 December 2007) in the last sentence of paragraph two, the following is an extract from a 1954 legal finding by Lord Cooper in the Scottish Court of Session –

    ‘…I have difficulty in seeing why it should have been supposed that the new Parliament of Great Britain must inherit all the peculiar characteristics of the English Parliament but none of the Scottish Parliament, as if all that happened in 1707 was that Scottish representatives were admitted to Parliament of England. That is not what was done…’

    Source: MacCormick v Lord Advocate 1954 (1953 SC 396)

    Comment by Michael Follon — 9 December 2007 @ 1.48 pm | Reply

  5. Michael, are you saying that this legal opinion does find that the Great Britain parliament did inherit all the characteristics of the English parliament but none of the Scottish parliament? The part-sentence included at the end of the quote makes it unclear.

    Comment by David — 10 December 2007 @ 6.36 am | Reply

  6. David,

    The full legal opinion can be found at the following URL –

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacCormick_v._Lord_Advocate

    Comment by Michael Follon — 10 December 2007 @ 11.54 am | Reply

  7. […] leader of the Liberal Democrats – or, as I like to call them, the English-UK Liberal Democrats (see From a UK Of England and Semi-Autonomous Regions To a UK Of Autonomous Nations) – Nick Clegg stated: “Today is about two things: ambition, and change. . . . Renewed […]

    Pingback by Nick Clegg: No ambition for England, just like the other parties « Britology Watch: Deconstructing ‘British Values’ — 20 December 2007 @ 9.01 pm | Reply

  8. “We English, for all our faults, are very polite and respectful of other nations’ sensitivities. So much so that we don’t even call our own country by its name so as to make sure that all who live here feel included and equal.”

    Such nonsense! First sentence…eh? Second sentence…eh? You really do believe your own PR, don’t you?

    Comment by tom timpson — 26 March 2008 @ 8.26 am | Reply

  9. Tom, did you get beyond the second sentence? It’s partly intended to be ironic: linking the current suppression of England as a distinct nation to English self-deprecation and reserve. I’m actually really taking a poke at Britishness, and the engagement of some PC English people in Britishness: ‘we can’t go on about our Englishness, as we have to include everyone = Britishness’.

    What I really do believe is that the existence of a / the English nation as such is under threat; and until I start hearing the government and mainstream media talking about English matters as English matters, and starting to discuss English governance and identity, not just British, I’ll continue with my PR, as you call it.

    Comment by David — 26 March 2008 @ 9.11 am | Reply

  10. Im from the North of ireland
    and this Really didnt make much Sence
    it just sounded like England want to be Called Britain, well since im a Republican i call England Britain anyway, if i thought that my home was a Region of England, id pick up arms and Shoot every British Government Official until i gained independence, i have Family who live in England and My Grandmother was Born in England in 1942 {shes dead now} so i dont have any bad fealings towards the English, but i really hate the way there Government try to Rule Us , when they know they cant i for 1 and millions more here, dont Reconise the So Called British Sovereignty over any of ireland.
    Us and the English would have a better relationship if it was a Personal Union instead of Political , because it just makes thing Hard for the Governments on Boths Sides of the Irish Sea we Are In the European Union, and Should be Getting on, instead of the other Island ruling Another Island of People who dont wish to be ruled..

    Comment by RJ — 19 July 2009 @ 8.11 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for the comment, RJ. I wrote the post some time ago, but the main point I was making is that English people have traditionally seen England and the British state as indivisible. The creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland – as it was before Irish independence and partition – was on one level a means for England to absorb Ireland, Scotland and Wales into England politically (subordinating them effectively to English rule) without appearing to do so, as all the countries (including England) were all supposed to be equal partners in a unified kingdom. Hence, nationalists in the other nations have tended to see British rule and domination by England as one and the same thing, as you do also.

      In the present, in the wake of devolution, there has been a subtle shift in the definition of Britishness and the way British identity is superimposed on to England. This plays on English people’s traditional identification with Britain but is actually intended to replace an English-national identity with a British one. And, as I suggested in the post, this is designed to create a new sort of ‘nation of Britain’, divided up into regions, which nominally accommodates the national aspirations of the Scots, N. Irish and Welsh but effectively turns them and the whole of England into a series of ‘British regions’. This is, perhaps, the last gasp of a unitary English-British unionism.

      Comment by David — 20 July 2009 @ 7.49 am | Reply


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