Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

30 January 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 3): Stop and Search, and Social Care

Just a couple of quickies from the media over the past few days. First, the ‘stop and search’ row that broke out at PMQs this morning. Haven’t followed the coverage as systematically as usual, but I didn’t hear either GB [Gordon Brown] or David Cameron referring to the fact that they were talking about relaxing the rules regarding stopping and searching (young) people in the streets in England and Wales only. The reports on the Radio Four lunchtime and evening news similarly didn’t mention the fact that the debate was relevant to England and Wales only – or at least, I didn’t hear any mention of it.

The BBC News website is – as on many occasions – the worthy exception. Its report does mention in two places that the discussion involves England and Wales: the Tories’ claim that scrapping the bureaucratic forms the police have to fill in every time they stop someone “would save 900,000 police hours per year in England and Wales”; and a reference to Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief inspector of constabulary in England and Wales, who’s produced a report on it. However, the first six paragraphs of the BBC News website report fail to mention ‘England and Wales’ at all; and the way the alleged statistic of 900,000 police hours per year is thrown in out of any context could give the impression that this is being referred to only because statistics for England and Wales are gathered and published separately, not because the whole story refers to England and Wales alone.

Why does this matter? How would the issue be debated differently if the proposals for England and Wales were contrasted with the approach taken in Scotland? It’s known that stop and search makes only a negligible contribution to reducing youth crime and gang violence, which is the alleged reason for relaxing the rules. Equally, statistics (and damn statistics) show that ethnic and religious minorities are more likely than their white [English] counterparts to be stopped and searched, leading to resentment at supposed racism and Islamophobia on the part of the [English] police – despite DC’s bland assurances that the [English] police are “no longer racist”. [Really – not even a little bit, in parts?] In addition, playing on the [English] public’s fear that stop and search is necessary to reduce gang violence (even though it’s pretty ineffectual) contributes to the demonisation of [English] youth, while increased stop and search is likely to increase the disaffection of young [English] people towards the [English] police.

OK, so how are the preventive approach, the thinking, the attitudes towards young people, the extent of gang violence, and the whole problem of youth crime different in Scotland? What lessons can we learn, if any, from our northern neighbours? Is English youth really as bad as it’s (only implicitly) being made out to be, and is it that much worse than Scottish youth? Only goes to show what a violent, uncouth and racist lot we English are then, doesn’t it?

Verdict: GB and DC – 0 out of 5 for opportunistic, let’s-play-on-the-fear-of-crime-on-English-streets stop and search politics; BBC Radio Four: 0 out of 5 (no mention of England and Wales); BBC News website (2 out of 5: if you’re wised up, man, you can read between da lines about dem English lies).

Quickly on to the social care issue. BBC Radio Four, again [you can tell I’m a devotee, if only in the Victor Meldrew ‘I don’t believe it’ school] have been running an excellent, informative and campaigning ‘Care in the UK’ month of programmes. Except, you’ve guessed it, it’s about social care in England: about 90% of it, that is. Look at their Care Calculator and their Care Questionnaire: all England only. The resumés of the month’s programmes – virtually all England. You become aware of this exclusively English content only when you click through to the detailed information; the introductory pages make no mention of England – but in this case, what you get is definitely not what it says on the tin.

Why does it matter? Because it blunts the whole campaigning thrust of the programme. The situation of personal and social care in England is desperate. But if you make out that you’re talking about the UK, not England, then you can avoid referring to the infinitely better deal the Scots are currently getting: free personal care for all who need it. The question the programme asks is why isn’t the UK getting better social care provision? What it should be asking is ‘why isn’t England getting better social care provision, like that available in Scotland?’ Instead, you get a sentence like this: “Social care is means tested in most of the UK“: no, it’s means-tested in England, not in Scotland.

The You and Yours programme has sent a set of listeners’ questions to the Care Minister, who’s a junior minister in the Department of Health: the English Department of Health, that is, whose remit is social care in England not in the UK. Do you really think he’ll address the English dimension of the question? Does he really care about England? They may make a few improvements around the edges, and then the government can say that it’s listened to the British people; and the programme will say that it’s helped to improve care in the UK – avoiding those embarrassing comparisons with Scotland, where the situation will still be – to coin a phrase -miles better.

Verdict: 3 out of 5 for the BBC; very worthy exercise but deceitful in pretending that there’s some kind of uniform UK-wide governmental responsibility for these issues; whereas England’s plight in this area is because it’s ‘cared for’ by a UK government that thinks England needs to carry the financial burden of the Union.

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29 January 2008

Gordon Brown and the Appropriation of Britain

There’s never been a Nation of Britain. That this is true is suggested by the very incongruity of the phrase ‘nation of Britain’; whereas ‘nation of England’, ‘nation of Scotland’ etc. come across as no different from, say, ‘nation of France’ or ‘nation of Russia’. That’s why people tend to say ‘British nation’ instead; or, preferably, just ‘Britain’ or ‘the nation’ on their own: avoiding the awkward coupling of ‘nation’ and ‘Britain’.

This is just playing with semantics, though, isn’t it? Well, as they say, yes and no. Is there really a difference between ‘nation of Britain’ and ‘British nation’? Yes, a nation of difference. ‘Nation of Britain’ implies that the nation is Britain: people and state as one – a true nation whose name is Britain. ‘British nation’, on the other hand, implies that the nation belongs to Britain or is an attribute of Britain. It implies a similar sort of relationship as in ‘British state’, ‘British royal family’ or ‘British Empire’: these are things that belong, or belonged, to Britain but are not identified with Britain. We did not, for instance, call our former worldwide dominion the ‘Empire of Britain’, which would have meant that the whole empire had been merged into a greater Great Britain and become indistinguishable from it. On the contrary, the colonies were viewed as British sovereign possessions – the British Empire – not as part of Britain itself.

In the same way, ‘British nation’ (if we can accept the concept at all) implies that the nation belongs to Britain but is not identified with / identical to Britain. The two words ‘Britain’ and ‘nation’ are not co-terminous or interchangeable. What then is the Britain that owns the nation, and what is the nation that it owns? One way of looking at it is that Britain is the state and the nation is the people; in which case, the people are not the possession of the state as such but an attribute of it: that without which the state would not exist as the apparatus for governing the people, and for constituting the people as a nation as a corollary of that process of governance. Yet, at the same time, Britain is a name for the people who, properly speaking, own the state and decide whether they want to consider the state to also be a nation: their nation.

In other words, the British state is responsible for and, at the same time, answerable to the British people; while the British people own the British state and decide whether they want that state to also be their nation: a nation of Britain. So long as Britain is not such a nation-state, then Britain (the people), Britain (the state) and Britain (the nation) are overlapping but not synonymous terms. Once Britain becomes a nation (once the British people decide to make Britain the name not just for their state but their nation), then there is just One Britain: people, state and nation as one.

This is how Gordon Brown [GB] and his fellow Britologists would like things to be. But if they achieved their objective, it would constitute an appropriation of Britain. By this, I mean both a transformation of Britain into a proper nation for the first time ever; and a theft of the Britain that has existed up to now and of the nationhood of the British. GB and his chums at the (English) Justice Ministry are embarked on a process of fundamental constitutional reform that is intended to result in things like a British written constitution, a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and a formal Statement of British Values. What documents such as these would do, if they were endorsed in a referendum, would be to radically alter the relationship between the British people, nation and state. They would in effect form a covenant of equal significance to something like the Magna Carta: a set of formal, legal documents that define the people and the state as a single united entity, or nation – the state as the people, as its appointed representative acting in its name, with the head of the government (if not the actual head of state, in the British context) being effectively the personification of the people.

People and state as one in a new nation of Britain. It’s a republic, in its principles if not in name. That is, the state is the people; it’s a res publica: a thing of the people. Whether or not it’s part of GB’s plans to establish an actual Republic of Britain is one of the great unspokens of this whole affair. What is for sure is that his constitution for a new nation of Britain lays down all the foundations for a situation where the abolition of the monarchy becomes eminently thinkable because the proposed constitution changes the whole basis of rule in ‘this country’. It would be a fundamental departure from the current establishment, in which the executive and parliament act in the name of the Sovereign, and have inherited the prerogatives of the Sovereign, albeit that they act on the basis of popular mandate, in theory, as determined through democratic elections. The state therefore rules over the people in the place of the monarch; while the people own the state to the extent that they determine which party or parties should exercise the levers of power and, ultimately, they are free to reject and change the state as currently constituted. Under the proposed new constitutional set up, the state no longer belongs to the people as something separate from it but is the people: the people and state are one; sovereignty of the people. And the executive and parliament no longer act in the name of the Sovereign – supposing there still is one – but, supposedly, in the name and place of the people.

There are of course many people in Britain who support such essentially republican principles and regard them as a prerequisite for full democracy. But what I’m saying is that this is not Britain: not Britain as we have known it, that is, which has been a constitutional monarchy since its foundation as the Kingdom of Great Britain through the Union of England and Scotland in 1707. It’s an appropriation of that Britain: Britain becomes a proper, true nation for the first time; people and state as one. But it’s also a theft of that Britain: GB and his government stealthily removing from us a Britain that we own (our Britain, our state, our constitutional monarchy, our royal family, our Kingdom) and replacing it with a Britain that we ourselves are; with which we are identified. The New Britain (New Labour, New Britain) that could ensue from a constitutional settlement might retain a monarch as an empty figurehead, giving people the misleading impression that nothing fundamentally had changed. But there would in reality no longer be any effectual place for the monarch within the constitution. And so a monarchy that currently stands as a guarantee of our freedoms and of the separation of people, nation and state would be no more.

And, as was remarked above, this would be a theft not just of our Britain and of our monarchy but also of our nationhood. Along with the separation of people and state, there has existed a separation of state and nation: the state has been Britain (which up to now has technically been shorthand for ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland’, or the UK), while the nations with which the people have identified have been England, Scotland, Wales or (Northern) Ireland. In reality, however, this identification has never been simple and straightforward. There has always been a blurring of the boundaries between nation and state, and the English in particular have traditionally seen England and Britain as interchangeable: Britain as the proxy-English state (an extension of English dominion and nationhood to the whole of the British Isles) and as another word for the nation of England.

So British people have always had dual nationality or more, if they are of mixed British parentage (English-British, Scottish-British, etc.). The extent to which they considered one of the polarities to be their more fundamental identity has been variable, and the boundaries between the two have been blurred. In the post-devolution, European-federalisation and globalised Britain of today, there has been a well documented shift towards British people identifying with one or more of England, Scotland, Wales or (Northern) Ireland as their national identity, while they see Britain increasingly as just the name of a state from which they feel alienated, which they feel has lost touch with the people and is increasingly irrelevant and powerless in any case as more and more powers are transferred to the EU, and as Britain’s fortunes depend on global economic and political trends.

GB has set out to oppose not just the break up of the state of Britain into its constituent nations but the disintegration of the British national identity as such. The constitutional establishment of a nation of Britain would be an amazing coup (in the sense of tour de force but suggesting also political force majeure) creating, for the first time, an official, unified British national identity. The British people (meaning the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish people living in the British Isles) would be formally identified with, appropriated to, the nation of Britain: One Britain – people, nation and state. It would all be official and legal, spelled out in a British Constitution; with a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities pertaining to the mutual, interdependent polarities of the people and state – nation – of Britain; and a Statement of British Values that would serve as the basis for a sort of Rite of Britishness.

You can see it now: British people (the people of the four nations living in Britain), once they’ve supposedly endorsed these measures in a referendum, being obliged to sign up to the Statement of British Values as being the code that constitutes their new civic national identity as Britons; or else, they’re free to leave the country. Think that’s fanciful? Just listen to the words of Michael Wills, the ‘Constitutional Renewal Minister’, in the Putney Debate on British values organised by the BBC Radio Four World Tonight programme last Friday: “if you don’t like it, you can leave. There’s nothing stopping you leaving . . . . You choose to stay here. You choose to be British”. Choose to be British, to accept the Statement of British Values and a new British constitutional settlement, or else ‘choose’ to live elsewhere.

And the rest: new national holidays and civic rites to celebrate our shared Britishness (see the new IPPR report The Power of Belonging: Identity, Citizenship and Social Cohesion), including secular rituals taking on the character of traditional religious rites of passage, in which the state is intimately associated with the most sacred acts and duties of individuals (marriage, raising children, etc.). And those same children no doubt lining up in class to proclaim an oath of allegiance to the flag (the Union Flag, of course) before and after school, to make sure they’re fully indoctrinated into their new civic Britishness and forget that there ever was an England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

But hang on, GB’s plan isn’t to undo the devolution settlement, and to abolish the separate ‘national’ parliaments and systems of governance for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s only the nation of England and the English national identity that GB is planning to fully erase from the constitution and the statute books. Replace a constitutional monarchy in which it is the historic King or Queen of England who is the head of state and the head of the Church of England with a British constitution with no real role for the English monarch, and no established religion or even faith (multi-culturalism, don’t you know), and then you really have appropriated the nation to Britain – and away from the English. The British nation then ceases to be what it has effectively always been: the English nation, the English realm, the possession of the English in the person of their Sovereign. For Britain to become the One Nation of Britain, it must cease to be the English-British nation. Indeed, England itself must cease to be but must, like the ‘rest’ of Britain, be appropriated to, and identified with, Britain. No English nation owning Britain; but England merged with, and absorbed into, a nation of Britain once and for good.

It’s this idea of a proper nation of Britain into which England has disappeared that makes sense of GB’s stated conception of Britain: “where Britain becomes as it should be – a Britain of nations and regions where there are many and not just one centre of initiative and energy for our country”. The way in which the separate devolved administrations and identities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can be accommodated within an overarching integral nation-state and national identity of Britain is through this combined appropriation of England to Britain (the abolition of England), and subsequent establishment of devolved government for those ‘regions’ of Britain that do not yet have it (i.e. England). So it’s not the regionalisation of England alone that abolishes England. The creation of regional ‘English’ administrations is part and parcel of the establishment of a new nation of Britain that requires England to no longer exist as a nation in order to become a nation itself, rather than what it currently is: the possession of the people of Britain, and primarily the English.

First you abolish England in a new British constitutional settlement; then you consolidate that abolition and wipe out any popular English aspiration for national status and political institutions by imposing regional devolution. This then enables Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to continue to refer to themselves, informally, as nations; whereas, constitutionally, they are technically just British regions, like those of the territory previously known as England. But if England were to continue to exist as a nation, with its own parliament and government, then Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have to be formally recognised as nations, too: with an equivalent constitutional status to the English nation.

So the idea seems to be: if England isn’t the dominant nation within the Union as now, then the other nations won’t feel the need to break away from the Union, eventually seeking full independence. Better still, if what you want is a united nation of Britain, what you have to do is find a way to abolish England altogether; so that all you have is equal regions. The ‘English’ regions won’t want to call themselves separate nations, as they aren’t; the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish can call themselves nations if they want, but they’ll be happy to be part of the unified nation of Britain because there will no longer be a big English nation to dominate them but just British regions of similar size and power to their own.

So GB’s new constitutional settlement is part of a plan to appropriate the English nation to Britain, and create a new nation of Britain and integral national-British identity. No more England.

But there are two major obstacles that could yet thwart these ambitions. First, the government has committed itself to seeking approval for any new constitutional arrangements in a referendum. How solid is such a commitment, though? After all, the Labour Party did promise to hold a referendum on the European Constitution and has now reneged on that pledge on the false claim that the revised European Reform Treaty is not the same thing (something that even the architect of the original constitution, Giscard d’Estaing refutes, having said that the two things are substantially identical). So the government could find a way to wriggle out of holding a / several referendum(s) on its new constitutional measures.

Assuming they don’t avoid a referendum, however, there is one important way in which they could totally rig the vote: as the referendum would be about establishing a British constitution, then it would have to be up to the whole of the British nation to decide whether they wanted it or not. But the ‘British nation’ as the ‘nation of Britain’ would only be constituted as such after such a constitution came into effect. It would be up to the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have the say about whether they wanted to become citizens of a new nation in which only Britain and Britishness had any official status as the national identity and state. It’s up to the English people to decide whether they want England to be abolished by a definitive merger into Britain. But the will of the English people could well be overridden by the collective decision of all the people living in Britain, which could include millions of recent migrants who have been encouraged by the government and media to identify as British rather than English, even if they live in England. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important for the government even now to refuse to acknowledge England as a nation and the English as a people: not referring to policies, laws and government departments that relate to England only as being English; but pretending that they are UK-wide or British – which, of course, they will be once England is finally abolished. So if England doesn’t exist, even now, the government could deny the validity of separate scrutiny of the will of the English people concerning a new constitution. British vote on a British constitution, and as it’s the government’s position that the nation of England doesn’t formally exist (and post-constitution, definitively won’t exist), the idea of asking the nation of England whether it wishes to cease to exist is a non-sequitur.

The other way in which GB’s ambitions could be thwarted is if the new constitution is rejected by the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This seems in some ways to be the most likely route to seeing off the spectre of a nation of Britain. This is because the Scots, in a clear majority, now see themselves as Scottish in the first instance, not British. It’s hard to imagine that, having obtained a measure of national self-rule and pride, the Scots would also vote themselves out of existence as an official nation. Unless GB is hoping he can play on the desire of some Scots to finally defeat the auld Enemy by voting it out of existence and breaking it up into units as small and dependent on the British state as itself; while playing on Scottish patriotism by maintaining devolved government as part of the new mix and allowing the Scots to still call themselves a nation, even if they technically wouldn’t be under Brown’s new unitary nation of Britain.

So GB’s solution to the threats posed to the Union by the asymmetrical devolution settlement he helped to bring in is not to maintain the status quo but radically change the Union itself. He wants to make it what it’s never been but what he thinks it should be: a nation of Britain – underpinned by a British constitution, Bill of Rights and Statement of British Values – in which what we now know as the nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cease to have any formal constitutional status as nations. England ceases to exist altogether and is broken up into devolved regions of comparable size to Scotland and Wales. As the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – unlike those of the territory formerly known as England – cover the regions that have traditionally been known as nations, they can continue informally to consider themselves as such. But technically, there’d be a new unitary nation of Britain. This would no longer be the property of a people separate from it, to be ruled over by a state also not identified with the nation(s) and people of Britain. Now, people, nation and state will be one and will form one Britain: a secular European republic in fact if not in name.

Perhaps then we’ll finally be able to drop the ridiculously long name of our country: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Let’s just call it the Kingdom of Britain; better still, the Republic of Britain. Either way, it won’t be Britain as we’ve known it. And it certainly won’t be England.

26 January 2008

British Values on ‘The World Tonight’: A Very English Debate

Listened to the debate about British values on BBC Radio Four’s The World Tonight news programme last night. This was framed in the context of the government’s plans to produce a ‘Statement of British Values’ to which everyone in the country is supposed to be able to subscribe.

To begin with, each of the five speakers was given three minutes to set out how they understood British values. First up was Michael Wills, the ‘Constitutional Renewal Minister’ at the (English) Justice Ministry. Essentially, he’s the one overseeing the whole project. He outlined the government’s decision to carry out a truly inclusive process of consulting ordinary people (as embodied by a ‘representative’ panel of citizens) – a process not driven by politicians (yeah, right) – which was expected to result in the said Statement of British Values.

Which might result in such a statement, as one of many possible outcomes; or which would result in such a statement? Surely, if the whole process is orientated towards the production of such a document, this predetermines the course that the supposedly free-ranging discussion will take, and presupposes that sufficient consensus already latently exists in order for agreement on a set of genuine, shared values to be reached and formulated. And whose position is based on this presupposition, and who is driving the whole thing? The government, and GB [Gordon Brown] in particular: not driven by politicians, my a***!

To his credit, Michael Wills did say the word ‘English’ once, under his breath, when he referred to the multiple identities that are subsumed under Britishness, which is a supposedly more inclusive term than any other. I say to his credit, because the next three speakers did not utter the ‘E’ word in their initial monologues; and they also, in their different ways, ended up articulating ‘Brito-centric’ value systems. David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, argued that more important than values were the national [British] institutions that safeguarded and gave practical expression to those values, and which were rooted in ‘the nation’s’ history: Britain as establishment and Union. Author and senior member of the Secular Society Joan Smith argued that the whole idea of national values was out of date and tribal, and that we should be formulating a new set of values that were all to do with individual rights and freedom: Britishness as inherently involving a kind of transcendence over ‘narrow’ nationalism (e.g. that of England) and as being at once at the origin and the vanguard of secular-liberal-progressive values per se. And Salma Yacoub, a Muslim Birmingham city councillor, who argued that in multi-ethnic Britain, there was no need for a formal Statement of British Values to which everyone should be expected to assent, as this only marked out ethnic minorities as different; and that one of the most endearing characteristics of Britain was its people’s ability to absorb and accept difference: Britishness as multi-cultural, multi-national pluralism, rather than reduced to a set of fixed ‘core values’.

Which left the fifth participant, Neal Ascherson: the token Scot. He was the only one who talked any sense at this stage of the discussion and hit the nail on the head. For him, the really important constitutional and national issues for debate were the two ‘E’s – Europe and England; a position which, I have to say, was remarkably similar to my own. In the British context, all the debating around British values was a complete waste of time, as far as Ascherson was concerned, so long as it failed to address the right of England (eight-tenths of the Union and essentially its heart) to be recognised and be given an appropriate, democratic form of governance as a nation in its own right, just like Scotland and Wales.

What was then remarkable about the remainder of the discussion, structured around a loose set of questions and answers, was that the three speakers who had put forward less dogmatic points of view than the minister – but nonethless Brito-centric in their conception of the nation and its most important values – gradually shifted around to a more or less implicit concession that, indeed, it was really Englishness that mattered more to them than Britishness. David Willetts stated that, as Englishness had never [well, at least not since 1707 – ed.] been expressed politically through the state, it was more associated with culture and history, something towards which he clearly had a deep devotion. For instance, he repudiated the new-fangled notion of ‘British literature’: NO, it’s English literature.

Or is my memory confusing him with the author Joan Smith [now there’s the female equivalent of almost the archetypal English name: John Smith] who, it transpired, associated the specifically national character of the values she espoused (as opposed to their universal, rational-humanist dimension) with England. She admitted, in fact, that she felt profoundly English, primarily through the medium of the English language, which, as a writer, was not just the tool of her trade but the way in which she expressed her own inner truth.

And then Salma Yacoub went so far as to say that imposition of a formal statement of Britishness could be positively divisive and destructive of the multi-cultural tolerance which, for her, typified the authentic British spirit. As noted above, she’d previously observed that what ethnic minorities cherish the most is just being accepted for what they are in the places where they live by the people already there. In my book, that means being accepted by English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish communities simply as a member of the community, as one of us; rather than being seen as already different (by virtue of ethnicity and culture) and being made to become something different again through the obligation to identify formally with a ‘Britishness of values’ that is other from the Britishness of everyday life that, as David Willett’s put it, is not in fact deliberately chosen but just something to which one becomes emotionally attached.

A Britishness of the English, in other words. Interspersed in the discussion were two vox pops: one with little snippets from Scottish men and women on the street about how they see Britishness, and its relation to Scottish and English identity; and the other, from academics and commentators who have written on these matters, myself not included [immodest – ed.]. From the Scots folk, it emerged that they’re not nearly so hung up about national identity and values as the English; that they have a strong sense of community, national solidarity and belonging; and that they perceive the English as being a bit screwed up about always having (and frequently failing) to be the best at everything: including having the best set of values, it would seem. (Towards the beginning of the debate, one of the participants – I think Joan Smith – had repudiated the notion that British values were about national ‘identity’. Maybe not per se, but they are a metaphor mediating the English search for a national identity which – by virtue of being disseminated across Britishness – is perpetually elusive.)

The academics and commentators included a Scot (whose name now escapes me) who basically expounded the view that British values are identical to English values: that if you asked most English people to list a set of fundamental English values, they’d come up with exactly the same qualities as if you’d asked them to define the core British values. Then the remaining scholarly vox pops seemed to have been chosen to illustrate that point, as they enumerated their versions of British values that were indistinguishable from what one would think of as typically English values – all articulated, it has to be said, in plummy English accents, like those of three of the debaters.

I can’t remember the specifics now; but these English-British values included things like fair play, tolerance of different points of view, liberty, free speech, etc. Neal Ascherson then underscored the assimilation of such values to England, rather than Scotland, by saying that the concept of ‘fair play’ reflected the perspective of the imperial overlord giving his subjects or enemies in battle a sporting chance; whereas the ‘Celts’ could think only of how they could get the better of those damned English, if necessary through sneakiness; i.e. the diametrical opposite of fair play. The same with tolerance: tolerance in debate, for instance – polite respect for the opponent’s point of view and a preference to seek some sort of middle-ground compromise solution – was an English characteristic and totally alien to Scottish politics, where you just try to thrash the opposition.

As if to prove the point, the very English-sounding Constitutional Renewal Minister, Michael Wills, indeed then tried to act as some kind of moderator, saying that each of the debaters had in fact articulated different views about Britishness; that this is what the wider national debate would all be about: a chance to air different perspectives, which, he felt sure, would be able somehow to coalesce into a unified Statement of British Values to which all could assent. And what, he was pushed to say, would happen if people chose not to subscribe to such a credo? Well, they could leave the country. When pressed further on that, he denied that that meant some sort of forcible purge of undesirables but that, merely, people would be free to choose to live elsewhere if they could not live here by the British Code Book (my term).

In other words, if you want to be different, you can’t be truly British. And if you want to be English, you’re not truly British, either. Because Englishness is both different from Britishness and the difference in Britishness. Englishness is what makes ‘British values’ truly distinctive in the way they are actually lived out, rather than just a bland, extra-national set of abstractions. And Englishness is what prevents Britishness from ever being fixed and present to itself (for instance, in a Statement of British Values) because the way in which Britishness is most authentically lived out – for actual English people – is through the diverse culture (and multiple cultures), history, institutions, value systems, religions and language of England (and for Scots, those of Scotland).

That’s true Britishness: the commonality in difference of the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish, and of all those who have come to live with us in our different nations. The government thinks it can converge all those differences into a single national Agreement. I feel that – in a very English way – we may just have to agree to differ.

23 January 2008

Spurs 5-1 Arsenal

Filed under: football,Spurs — David @ 4.39 am

Ecstatic, Brian.

21 January 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 2): Flag Flying, the DCMS and the PM in China

I have to admit to feeling a bit disappointed about the Department of (English) Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) July consultation paper about flag flying on government buildings, which appeared on the new Governance of Britain website last week. I hadn’t really followed the detail of the government’s previous pronouncements on the issue, and I thought there might be some recommendations about flying flags other than the Union Flag, such as the Flag of St. George in England.

In fact, the consultation paper deals only with flying the Union Flag on UK government buildings in England, Scotland and Wales. What this effectively means is mostly government buildings in England, as the document “does not extend to Scottish Executive, Welsh Assembly buildings. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly government are responsible for policy on flag flying from their own buildings”.

What I want to know is, who’s responsible for plain, grammatical English (language, that is) in the DCMS? First of all, they omit the word ‘or’ from the first sentence, without which it is strictly speaking nonsensical. Secondly, do they mean that the Scottish Parliament is responsible for policy on flying the flag from the Scottish Parliament building only; or does this responsibility of the Scottish Parliament extend to other buildings of the Scottish Government (not Executive)? And if so, which flag or flags are we talking about (the Union Flag only or the Saltire or both, or others)? And what constitutes ‘their’ buildings anyway, as – technically – all Scottish Government buildings are UK government buildings (devolved not independent)? Unless ‘their’ has the legal sense of property ownership, in which case one might assume that at least the Scottish Parliament actually owns the premises where it convenes – but whether ownership of their accommodation extends to the Scottish Government and its various departments, I don’t know.

And ditto for Wales.

I suppose the consultation paper’s inability to address the English aspect of the flag issue (whether more frequent flying of the Flag of St. George on UK government buildings in England might help to foster a greater sense of national pride and engender a feeling that the UK government was at least trying to engage with the priorities of the English people) was only to be expected of the DCMS. As was its failure to communicate exactly which responsibilities in this matter are devolved to the Scottish and Welsh governments, and which are retained. This is because the DCMS is actually, in most but not all matters, the English Department of Culture, Media and Sport; as most but not all of the UK government’s responsibilities for these matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been devolved to those countries’ own governments. Therefore, you would think that the DCMS would see it as a major part of its remit to promote, affirm, celebrate and defend English culture and sport; though not the English media, as Media is a retained UK-wide function. But that’s not how they appear to see it, or at least how they communicate what their role is. When you visit the Department’s website, you are met with what is a now familiar difficulty of disentangling which of its responsibilities are UK-wide, which of them relate to England only, and which of them relate to both England and Wales. Indeed, on the home page, there isn’t a single reference to England, even though the Department’s competency in some of the areas mentioned on the home page (i.e. culture, sport and tourism & leisure) is limited to England.

So here’s another example of the same old deception of presenting a government department’s activities as if they covered the whole of the UK when in reality they involve England only. In fact, the DCMS is a veritable patchwork of retained and devolved responsibilities that illustrates the complexity and asymmetry of the current devolution settlement. Or which would illustrate it if it wasn’t such hard work to find out which bits are UK-wide and which bits England- (or England and Wales-) only. For example, go to the misnamed ‘What we do’ page, and you get a listing of no fewer than 20 topics for which the department is responsible. But you have to click through to each one to find out how nationwide its responsibilities in each domain are. And even then, it’s not always obvious.

Take the case of architecture. I clicked the link to ‘architecture and design’, where it said: “We are responsible for the quality of architectural design in this country”. Which country is that?, I asked. It’s not clear, as neither ‘England’, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’, ‘UK’, ‘United Kingdom’ nor ‘Britain’ appear on the page. It took a visit to the Scottish Government website for me to work out that the DCMS’s responsibilities for architecture do not extend to Scotland; although they encompass Wales (I think). Therefore, in this instance, ‘this country’ means England and Wales, apparently. Another grammatical howler and logical non-sequitur.

I did eventually come across a list indicating which of the Department’s responsibilities have been devolved to Scotland (but not Wales) and which have been retained. There it says, “DCMS will be responsible for sponsoring the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which will act in England as a Champion for Architecture”. Does this mean that the Commission will similarly act as a champion for architecture (why the capital letters?) in Wales? And is ‘acting in England as a Champion for Architecture’ the same thing as ‘acting as a champion for English architecture’? I think not; and I imagine that the same Commission (assuming it does have responsibility for Wales) wouldn’t be coy about saying that it was championing Welsh architecture. Note this preference for the phrase ‘in England’ over ‘English’. It means government departments, where they mention England at all, can talk about UK government responsibilities that are exercised ‘in England’ rather than about specifically English functions of government. The same applies to media reports about government policy or activities, where they say ‘in England’ as if to imply that those same departments had equivalent responsibilities in Scotland and Wales, which they don’t.

In the case of DCMS, what we have is not a department that proudly promotes the great culture of England (just as the corresponding devolved departments in Scotland and Wales so proudly affirm Scottish and Welsh culture) but a UK department looking after (UK) culture in England. So, to return to my point of departure, it’s not surprising that in the area of flag flying, they’re not an English government department making policy about flying the English flag on UK government buildings in England (unlike their devolved Scottish and Welsh counterparts, if I’ve understood the incoherent language of the consultation correctly); but rather, they’re a UK department making policy about flying the UK flag in England. Clearly, it’s not a department that’s interested in flying the flag for England.

By contrast, GB [Gordon Brown] was flying the flag for Britain in China last week. Or rather, he was promoting not British culture or values but British business, pure and simple. Note the ease with which any awkward questions about his hosts’ abysmal human rights record and their suppression of the Chinese people’s aspirations to a true democracy (such a pivotal British value, as Brown has frequently reiterated elsewhere) were not just brushed aside but swept right off the agenda and under the red carpet. Such a venal pursuit of privileged trading terms to me seemed a defeat of the much vaunted British values and a surrender of them to the mighty yuan. It was fitting, then, that the image of the Union Flag behind GB in a joint press conference with the Chinese Premier Wen was actually incorrect: it showed all four arms of the diagonal red Cross of St. Patrick closer to the horizontal centre of the flag than its outside. (See the video of the press conference; you’ll have to wait till almost the end for the flag to be flashed up.) When I first saw the image on the TV news, I thought the flag was actually flying upside down: the traditional military distress signal, indicating that a British position may have been captured.

Now where have I seen an inverted Union Jack recently?, I asked myself. I was reminded of the answer to that question when I visited the said new Governance of Britain website: they’ve adopted an upside-down Union Flag as their logo! What more telling symbol could there be that the government’s drive to create and reinforce a British-national culture and set of values is destined to defeat! Just as those values were defeated and in retreat in GB’s single-minded pursuit of Chinese consumers’ cash and Chinese investors’ funds last week. Perhaps the DCMS should produce some guidelines about the correct way to fly the Union Flag. Except they’d be so garbled that no one would be able to understand them. Certainly not the Mandarins organising the PM’s trip, it would appear!

If they want people to respect the flag, perhaps they could begin by respecting the values it’s meant to symbolise. Better still, replace it with the English flag, symbolising English people’s refusal to sell ourselves short and, indeed, auction our values to the highest bidder.

17 January 2008

The Campaign For Plain England (No. 1)

Taking my cue from the Campaign for Plain English – the organisation that campaigns for public bodies and businesses to produce information for the public and consumers in simple, easy-to-understand English – I’m today launching the Campaign for Plain England: an occasional series pointing up failures by government, politicians, public-sector organisations and the media to make it plain when they’re referring to England.

First in the series, today’s news story about the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report calling for GPs in England to prescribe more generic drugs rather than their branded equivalants in order to prevent unnecessary expense. The report does appear to refer to the fact that it relates only to the NHS in England: ‘England’ is mentioned in total six times in the report’s 36 pages. However, on closer examination, readers have to infer that the report deals only with England; or else they must rely on contextual information such as their background knowledge that the House of Commons has competency in such matters only in relation to England, or by reference to the BBC News’ website‘s clarification that the report concerns itself with England (hat tip to the said website for saying ‘England’ in the first sentence of its report).

The report never makes it totally explicit that its recommendations relate to England only. The actual references to England come in the form of statistical information concerning the historical and current situation with regard to drug prescribing. The rest of its lengthy deliberations contain no reference to England. Nor is England mentioned on the title page.

Perhaps this lack of transparency about the report’s exclusive England focus was what foxed the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, as they referred to the Public Accounts Committee’s report in their news bulletin, and then conducted a five-minute interview with a supporter and opponent of the Committee’s recommendations, without once mentioning they related to England only. So there was I left hanging, not sure whether in fact the report was relevant to the UK as a whole or just England, but assuming that it was England only, which indeed turns out to be the case – I presume.

4 out of 5 for the BBC news website (not 5, as only one mention of England, admittedly in the first sentence)

1 out of 5 for the Public Accounts Committee report (several mentions of England but never totally explicit that the whole report relates to England)

0 out of 5 for the Today programme – total editorial failure there!

12 January 2008

This department relates to ‘England’

Call me obsessed – well, I am a bit – but I was just looking out of curiosity. I was thinking that the way the BBC has recently been getting round the problem of reporting on legislation and government policy that relates to England only (e.g. in education, health, housing, planning, etc.) is to add the words ‘in England’ at the end of the headline. For instance, two days ago, when the BBC News on Radio Four reported the story that one-fifth of English state schools were still failing to meet the government’s minimum targets for GCSE attainment, the fact that the item referred to English schools was indicated by sticking ‘in England’ at the end of the sentence. I thought this was a bit invidious, in that it suggested that the problem of inadequate performance itself was limited to England; as if there was a special failure on the part of English schools or pupils in particular that did not apply to Scottish or Welsh schools, and that this was somehow a reflection on English social failings. If this had been put the other way round, i.e. if the sentence had begun by saying “20% of English schools are failing . . .”, this might have made it clearer that the government has direct responsibility for English educational matters – in fact, that its competence in education relates only to England; and that if anyone should carry the can, it’s the government.

To be fair to the BBC (or, as I like to call it in such matters, BBC England), their report on the story on their website does start with the words, “Almost a fifth of England’s state secondary schools do not yet meet the government’s new ‘floor target'”; although that is the first and last time the report mentions the fact that the newly released figures concern English education only. In addition, I myself did post a blog a couple of months ago urging the BBC and the media in general to make more of an effort to indicate when political stories were relevant to England alone by, for instance, adding the phrase ‘in England’ somewhere in the sentence.

So, I thought to myself today, hat tip to the BBC for at least spelling out when stories are unique to England a bit more. I wondered whether they’d taken a lead from the press release on the (English) Department for Children, Schools and Families website. I thought the department must surely state fairly prominently that the new statistics related to England only: what’s the point of a set of statistics if you don’t know to which unit of population or organisations they relate?

But oh no, the facts were even worse than I expected, or should that be ‘suspected’? Have a look yourself: the only reference to England in the entire press release was in a footnote carrying the obscure words, “This press notice relates to ‘England'”. I kid you not, the apostrophes around ‘England’ are there in black and white for all to read. What is ‘England’, we might feel entitled to ask? If they actually mean England – a real country, geographical territory and statistical population group – why put it in apostrophes, as if it was something unreal or unofficial? If you weren’t alerted to the facts, you could actually completely fail to grasp the whole import of this sentence, which is that all the information and statistics you have just been reading concern English schools only, not those of the UK as a whole. Up until that point – and apart from the obscure meaning of this footnote, you might not see it at all if you don’t get to the end of the press release – there’s been nothing to indicate that the figures weren’t those for the UK, or at least for England and Wales (which they’re not: the Welsh Assembly Government looks after Welsh education matters).

The reason why I say you have to be alerted to the facts is that you need the contextual knowledge that educational issues have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be aware not only that individual press releases deal with English matters only but that the whole Department for Children, Schools and Families is an English government body, not one with UK-wide responsibilities. The Department itself certainly isn’t going to tell you. I think of myself as being reasonably well informed in these matters. But even I was slightly foxed by the ‘Cymraeg’ link in the bottom frame of the web pages, which takes you to information on the Welsh Language Scheme. I thought, does the Department have any responsibilities for education in Wales after all? Well, maybe it does have some residual, strategic involvement or at least a point of view. But that’s it. Look at the Department’s page about their regional office structure: nine English regions there (hmm, don’t get me on to that one!) but nothing in Wales. But nothing in the ‘About us‘ page about England, either. At least, they don’t go on about Britain or the UK there!

For me, the phrase “This press notice relates to ‘England'” is symptomatic of the denial of any official, formal status to England as a nation; and moreover, as the nation whose education services and standards represent the entire domain of responsibility of the Department itself. What other implication could there be in putting ‘England’ in inverted commas? This says, ‘the area informally known as England but which is not an official term’. It’s the only way they can refer to the territory and population to which all their statistics (indeed, their work as a whole) relate without making themselves look ridiculous. Otherwise, they’d have to say something like, “This press notice relates to the regions of the UK administered by the central UK government”, or “This notice does not relate to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland”.

Well, if the DCSF (or whatever acronym they eventually adopt) think it’s OK to add ‘England’ as an unofficial footnote, then I feel entitled in adding ‘England’ unofficially to the name of the department itself, which shall henceforth be known as the ‘English’ Department for Children, Schools and Families. After all, as they say themselves, it is a UK department that relates – despite itself – to ‘England’ only.

9 January 2008

English Justice Ministry: The real reason why they broke up the Home Office

Last May, when they split up the Home Office into two government departments – the continuing Home Office and the Justice Ministry – it was all supposed to be about arriving at a more rational division of responsibilities, enabling the respective departments to deliver their objectives more effectively. Hence, the Justice Ministry is now responsible for the administration of the whole justice system, particularly the courts, prisons and probation service. The Home Office, on the other hand, retained responsibility for crime-prevention and -detection strategy, the anti-terrorism effort / homeland security, and immigration control and the defence of the UK’s borders.

What they didn’t say – and I can’t remember any media comment picking up on this at the time – is that the Justice Ministry’s and Home Office’s areas of responsibility, with only a few exceptions, map on to the functions that have been devolved to the Scottish Government (in the shape of the Scottish Justice Department) and those that have been retained by the UK government respectively. The Justice Ministry is, then, in effect the English Justice Ministry; OK, technically the Justice Ministry for England and Wales, as there is only one justice system for both countries.

I say there are a few exceptions. One of these is the Justice Ministry’s responsibility for constitutional affairs, and particularly for administering the UK’s devolved system of government (ensuring a proper and effective division of responsibilities  and co-operation between UK and devolved government departments) and the running of elections (but presumably only UK-wide elections, and local elections in England and Wales, not Scotland-only polls). So one of the Justice Ministry’s few UK-wide responsibilities is to ensure the smooth running of devolved government. This expertise must indeed have served it well when it came to dividing up the Home Office itself into two departments: one UK-wide and one, err, effectively ‘devolved’ – relating to England and Wales only, but not in name.

Not in name, that’s for sure: you’d be hard put to find many references, in all the descriptions of its activities on its website, to the fact that most of its responsibilities cover only England and Wales.  Take the press release greeting its establishment, for instance, where all the introductory general blurb contains no reference to England and Wales at all, leaving the impression that the Justice Ministry’s responsibilities are UK-wide, which they overwhelmingly are not. And, as just noted, even some of those UK-wide functions are concerned with the division of responsibilities between the UK and devolved governments.

The distorted impression cuts both ways: some of the continuing Home Office’s responsibilities relate to England and Wales only, not to the UK as a whole. But again, you always have to look beyond the general information to become aware of this fact. So, for instance, the Home Office deals with the police service in England and Wales only, not in Scotland (the Scottish Justice Department deals with that). But you have to look towards the bottom of the page detailing the Home Office’s organisational structure to be alerted to that specific fact, where a link takes you to a separate website supposedly providing information about the UK police but which is of course limited to England and Wales.

Actually, that must be it: what those specialists on the constitution and devolution at the (English and Welsh) Justice Ministry have really built up a store of expertise about is designing government departments that are effectively England-only units but where the impression is strongly maintained that they are UK departments! Let’s re-name it the Department for Double-speak: run an English ministry but pretend so hard that it’s a UK department that not only the public but you yourself begin to believe it is one! After all, if people became aware that so many of the government’s departments dealt with English matters only, they might start thinking it was logical and fair for those departments to be accountable to the English electorate and an English parliament.

I suppose it should not be a matter of any surprise, then, that the Justice Ministry (the English and Welsh one, that is) is presided over by that overseer of the government’s programme of constitutional reform and arch-enemy of English devolution, Jack Straw. What hope is there that the reforms he may eventually propose will be anything other than an attempt to set the inequities of the current devolution settlement on a more permanent and seemingly legitimate constitutional footing – especially as one of the very raisons d’etre of the Justice Ministry is to maintain a rigid, but artificial and inconsistent, divide between UK / British departments on one side (even if they’re in effect English ministries) and devolved (non-English) departments on the other. Devolution and England: never the twain shall meet, it appears, under the auspices of the Justice Ministry – even though it itself is effectively a devolved English department.

Clearly, then, there’s little prospect of justice for England while England is not even allowed to administer justice in its own name.

7 January 2008

Stop Press: PM says ‘England’ four times in one speech!

Filed under: England,Gordon Brown,NHS,politics,say England — David @ 5.52 pm

Catch me someone, I think I’m falling from my chair! GB [Gordon Brown] uttered the word ‘England’ four times today in his 5,800-word speech on his proposals for improved preventive health screening in the English NHS! Did I read and hear correctly? You could be forgiven for missing those references; almost succeeded in burying that English wood amid those British trees!

But I suppose, eventually, if you want to use statistics to back up your statements and you’re setting out specific proposals, even GB has to state what those commitments actually relate to:

  • “15 million people in England with a chronic or long-term disease” (mentioned twice) [15 million! F*** me, what an unhealthy nation we’ve turned into – must be the stress of living under these intolerable discriminatory conditions!]
  • “Over time everyone in England will have access to the right preventative health check-up” [‘over time’ – nice politician’s cop-out phrase – how long is that piece of string?]
  • “we will continue to open up acute care with, from the spring, the choice of hospitals trusts across private and public sectors in England extending to over 300” [that’s not a new measure, it’s just an ongoing development].

The entire remainder of the speech simply carries on as if there were just one national British NHS, and one nationwide set of policies and strategic objectives for the NHS, which is completely fallacious. [12 references to ‘Britain’ or ‘British’, for instance, including such woolly and deceitful phrases as ‘the British NHS’ and ‘the very best care is offered to all British people, based on the need they have not the money they have’.]

As we know from the media controversy and statements from health professionals last week, there are now four national NHS’s in the UK, with strategy and funding priorities on the services in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland being driven by those countries’ devolved administrations. The consequence is that very different levels of care are offered to people depending on the nation they live in, rather than their financial and practical need.

So long as the Scottish PM for England and Britain continues to talk about the NHS in England as if it were the British NHS, we can be sure that his priorities for the health service will be based around his pan-British agenda of redistributing resources away from ‘wealthy England’ rather than fairness for the less well-off and chronically sick English people.

Gordon does it again: no mention of England in his plans for the NHS

Filed under: England,Gordon Brown,NHS,politics,say England — David @ 8.50 am

Tuned in to the Radio Four Today Programme interview with Gordon Brown [GB] at 8.10 this morning with expectations raised. The news summary that immediately preceded it had actually made explicit the fact that GB’s new initiative to improve preventive screening in the NHS for things like heart disease and various cancers applied ‘in England’, not to the whole of the UK. Here’s a gilt-edged opportunity for GB to utter the most despised word in his vocabulary, ‘England’, I thought.

I should have known better. In the actual interview, I listened in vain for any utterance of the ‘E’ word. The screening programme was for ‘the nation’ and for ‘people’, not ‘England’ and ‘English people’. Also, a woeful failure on the part of the interviewer, Ed Sturton (I think), to question GB on the British Medical Association’s criticism of the new proposals, coming as they do in the wake of cuts in the budget (in England) for curative treatment for the very same medical conditions – the implication being that ‘preventive care’ was being used as a pretext for inadequate resourcing of curative therapies.

Also, no recognition by GB (and no questioning by the interviewer) of last week’s media controversy about differences in funding and treatment in the ‘four NHS’s’ of the UK. Would have been informative to compare GB’s emphasis on preventive screening in England to the approach taken by NHS Scotland or GIG Cymru, for instance.

Another failure by ‘BBC England’ (I don’t think) to call the English-UK PM to account.

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