Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

26 February 2008

Who does this country belong to, anyway?

Whatever the whys and wherefores of the Michael Martin expenses row (the Speaker of the House of Commons, who has been accused of abusing the code of conduct on MPs’ expenses at the same time as he is leading an enquiry into expenses abuses), I thought the vociferous “hear, hear” of support he obtained from MPs as he cried “Order, order” at the start of yesterday’s proceedings – coupled with one MP saying they weren’t going allow journalists to dictate Commons appointments – smacked of arrogance. What were they actually defending, at the end of the day: their own privileges, including a cushy expenses regime that would never be tolerated in business; or the interests of democracy – parliament and its elected members as representing the will of the people, not to be overridden by a bunch of reckless, cynical journalists? It came across strongly as the former.

The trouble is that MPs do appear to think that parliament’s debates, decisions and procedures represent a forum through which the nation as such is authentically represented and its will is expressed: that parliament’s view of the legitimacy and moral authority of its proceedings still carries the assent and the trust of the people. Clearly, parliamentarians – like many others – are well aware that there is a serious problem of mistrust towards politicians and disengagement from the political process. But they seem to want to pass a lot of the blame for this onto others, such as the media, rather than re-examining the process itself and putting their own house in order.

We like to think we have the world’s greatest parliamentary democracy; but the truth of the matter is that our government isn’t very democratic, in the sense of representing people power. Parliament generally seems more like a rubber stamp setting a seal of approval on policies and laws driven by the executive, for which often little understanding or assent on the part of the public either exists or is sought. In this way, the scrutiny of parliament is a poor substitute for genuine public consultation, in the sense of a concerted effort to inform people of the details of proposed legislation and to win their support. There is no need for the executive to do this when it can simply rely on the Commons majority of a compliant government party commanding an ever smaller minority of the popular vote.

Not only does the government not need to strive to achieve popular assent for its decisions, it is also not answerable to anything such as a nation. It is no wonder that the people are disengaging from Westminster politics when they no longer identify with, and as, the nation the Westminster parliament supposedly represents. Not only are the people – reasserting their various identities as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish – different from the one that parliament sees itself as representing (the British people); but also parliament no longer represents the people of Britain in a uniform, unitary way. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs defend the interests of their constituents and nations insofar as these are affected by the Union government; and they also vote on English matters in certain policy areas where they cannot influence policy for their own constituencies and countries (because these have been devolved to separate national bodies). By contrast, all the parliamentary votes cast by English MPs do relate to their own constituencies; but no distinction in kind is made between what are truly England-only decisions and which matters relate to the UK as a whole, so as to legitimise the participation of non-English MPs in the same decisions.

In other words, although the responsibilities of all MPs are the same (Union-wide and England-specific policy and laws), the non-English MPs are not accountable to any electorate on the England-only matters. Instead, they are elected by non-English people who select them on the basis of the parties’ policies for the Union as a whole, i.e. on which set of policies will be better for them, their local areas and their countries. So legislation and policies for England are supported by MPs elected by non-English voters whose voting decisions are influenced by non-English priorities. Meanwhile, English voters have only one vote for both Union-wide matters and England-specific issues; in contrast to their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts, who can choose between two distinct parties and programmes for their own country and for the Union as a whole. This inequality and distortion of representative democracy is covered up by a pretence common to all the parties, whereby, in manifestoes, policy statements and parliamentary debate, everything is treated and referred to as a generic British matter, even if it is English only.

This means that England is governed by a British parliament that is not accountable to it: it includes Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs not elected in England; and the English MPs are not elected on the basis of English manifestoes, as half the policies are UK-wide, and the half that are England-specific are not represented as such – not differentiated from the UK even though in reality they are.

So the Union does not exist any more – if the Union is defined as a unitary parliamentary democracy in which every person’s vote is equal and brings the same degree of representation, and in which parliament is accountable to all to the same extent. The will of the English people is not represented by this parliament – even less, that is, than is the will of the other more fairly represented nations of the UK. Instead, we have a growing divide between the will of the people and government power: British power is exercised over the people of England by parliament; rather than English power being exercised for and by the people of England through parliament. And parliament and the executive are indeed enamoured of this British power: the idea of being in charge of Britain as a major ‘world power’ – militarily, economically and culturally – boosted by the magnificence, traditions and privileges of Westminster and Whitehall that hark back to, and appear to prolong, the glories of Empire. Who can participate in such rituals and bask in such splendour, and not be carried along by the glamour of real power and the myths of British parliamentary democracy, especially as parliament is so unaccountable to the electorate and divorced from their real priorities?

In this way, MPs persuade themselves that the bills and policies they support express the will of the nation: swept along by the democratic process, they unwittingly or deliberately ignore the fact that that process is no longer in alignment with the people’s needs and choices. England is, in perhaps three senses, ‘over-ruled’ by Britain. Or another way of putting this is that the British parliament and state mis-represent England: represent England insufficiently democratically, and misrepresent England and the governance of England as if it were a unitary process of British governance for which they had a transparent mandate, which they do not. As I have described this elsewhere, this is an appropriation (a mis-appropriation) of England and English democracy to Britain: England should belong to the people of England; but instead, it’s been made the property and, as it were, the province of the British state – no longer a country in its own right and rights, but governed by a state and by representatives of other UK countries that are not answerable to it.

What are the ramifications beyond the Westminster village of this dispossession of England as a democratic nation? Are we English secure in the knowledge that our country is in the safe hands of leaders who care about England and its rights, and do not wish to exercise unrepresentative and disproportionate power over it? Well, no. Do we feel, more fundamentally, that the government and the political process belong to us – well, not exactly: we’ve become accustomed to putting up with a British government that very often looks after the interests of national and sectarian minorities (whether the working class, traditionally, under Old Labour, middle-class England under the Tories, and Wales and Scotland under New Labour) rather than seeking the backing of a clear majority of the English population for policies relating to England.

More pervasively, do we feel the nation and even the local areas we live in really belong to us; that we actually live in England rather than in some parallel universe of Britain where major decisions are taken by central, and also local, government that we haven’t elected, and all the signs and symbols of the state are those of one that is not fully ours? Do the streets belong to us; do communities, media, official / PC language, social administration and the public sector – indeed, all public facets of our lives? Are they English?

Is the much-famed obsession of the English with privacy and domesticity in one respect a reflection that we do not feel that the public domain belongs to us; that our country doesn’t belong to us? How much of the alienation of many young people can be traced to their not feeling that their education, upbringing and experiences have given them a sense of belonging where they live or that they have a stake in society? And how much of this is to do with that society being shaped by the British values of personal aspiration and success, rather than cherishing individuals as they are: often flawed and damaged but capable of re-building community and healing the hurts caused by the relentless pursuit of competitiveness and economic growth? And how much is the lack of pride and care we so often show towards our surroundings and neighbours to do with no sense of mutual belonging and dependency?

Such things cannot be restored by a British government alienated from, and unaccountable to, England; that does not even call it by its name. But England can recover its pride – if first it empowers its people.

25 February 2008

Losing makes victory all the sweeter

Filed under: Carling Cup Final,football,Spurs — David @ 1.03 am

OK, so it’s not the Premier League but it’ll do! We had to beat Arsenal and Chelsea to win it, so that makes the success all the sweeter. Eight years of failing to beat Arsenal, put to bed with style in the semi-final; about 20 years with only one victory against Chelsea up till this afternoon. The days of humiliation are over – look out lads, we’re back!

[Written with all the objectivity and analytical detachment you’ve come to expect!]

2-1, 2-1, 2-1, 2-1!

Spurs lift cup

24 February 2008

British Values and Islam: Can They Meet on English Ground?

The Bishop of Rochester, Dr. Nazir-Ali, is back in the news again today through his refusal to retract any of the remarks he made in a recent interview in the Daily Telegraph that Islamic extremism had turned certain parts of Britain into no-go areas for non-Muslims. Indeed, the death threats he and his family have received, along with a large volume of supportive correspondence, have confirmed him in his views.

The bishop’s concerns appear to be twofold:

1) The separation and isolation of ‘extremist’ Islamic communities that have become virtual ghettoes, according to the bishop. This means that non-Muslims feel threatened and are squeezed out, deprived of their right to live and work in those areas. The goal of multi-culturalism appears, therefore, to have spawned total separation, challenging the broader goal of integration; and, additionally, the extremist views that hold sway in such areas are turning the minds of youth, posing a security risk to the country as a whole.

2) The bishop fears that such Islamic extremism is filling a moral and spiritual void in Britain as a whole, caused by the erosion of the country’s Christian faith; and, as a consequence, there is a risk that Islam will in fact spread beyond the extremist ghettoes and pose itself as an alternative value system for the UK as a whole. As he says in the second Telegraph interview today (linked above): “The real danger to Britain today is the spiritual and moral vacuum that has occurred for the last 40 or 50 years. When you have such a vacuum something will fill it. If people are not given a fresh way of understanding what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a Christian-based society then something else may well take the place of all that we’re used to and that could be Islam”.

An observation in passing. For me, this demonstrates one of the big flaws in the debate about so-called Islamic extremism, Islamism, etc. On the one hand, these are real, serious issues. There is a problem about how Muslim communities should best be integrated within our society; there are areas where non-Muslims feel isolated and unwelcome; and there is a real security risk from young people being indoctrinated into a false understanding of Islam that justifies hatred and violence against non-Muslims. But people’s understandable fears about such things are combined with a more pervasive, cultural unease about Islam that is indeed Christian in its historical roots: the fear of Islam as a violent faith that seeks to take over and Islamify Western-Christian culture and nations.

This is Islamophobia: an ultimately prejudiced dislike and fear of Islam. It’s this fear that makes many people equate all Muslims who seek to lead their lives more strictly according to the laws and ordinances of their faith with extremism. This fear also modulates the movement in Dr. Nazir-Ali’s thoughts between genuinely extremist and, by that token, distorted Islam and Islam per se as a potential faith-based value system for this country – genuinely accepted and embraced by millions of British people as an alternative to Christianity or secularism. It’s only irrational fear of Islam that could make this last scenario appear realistic; it is, however, plausible to imagine that at some point there could be a quite widespread assault on the British state from home-grown jihadis. But such people and their twisted beliefs would never be willingly accepted by the British people, or even by the majority of British Muslims.

Perhaps for tactical reasons – to ride the wave of the general reaffirmation of Britishness – perhaps also out of genuine personal experience and conviction, Nazir-Ali associates his appeal for us to reinvent a Christian society with British values and tradition. Indeed, the bishop asserts:

“Do the British people really want to lose that rooting in the Christian faith that has given them everything they cherish – art, literature, architecture, institutions, the monarchy, their value system, their laws?”

While many of these things the bishop lists undoubtedly owe much to Britain’s Christian past, I don’t think many British people would accept that Christianity was the sole or main source of inspiration for all of them. Britain’s ‘value system’ has been decreasingly Christian for decades and centuries, certainly for longer than the 40 or 50 years the bishop refers to, i.e. from before the revolution in social mores in the 1960s. I’m bound to say that I think this perception of Britain per se (a 300-year-old state founded as our culture had already embarked on its gradual secularisation) as having been historically, and still being fundamentally, at root a Christian society reflects the perspective of an immigrant from a Muslim country; as indeed people coming to Britain from Pakistan do tend, at least initially, to think they’re coming to a Christian country and that that country is Britain – rather than England, Scotland or Wales – in the first instance.

So Dr. Nazir-Ali appears to oppose Christianity and British values, on one side, to Islam, on the other. Not surprising, then, that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech two and half weeks ago (discussed elsewhere in this blog) in which he called for consideration of the idea that sharia law could be incorporated in some way into English civil law is anathema to the Bishop of Rochester:

“People of every faith should be free within the law to follow what their spiritual leaders direct them to, but that’s very different from saying their structures should replace that of the English legal system because there would be huge conflicts”.

The scenario of some aspects of sharia becoming official English legal procedure and legislation clearly plays on Nazir-Ali’s fear of Islam ultimately coming to replace Britain’s own laws and institutions, with their Christian foundations. Or should that be England’s laws, institutions and Christian foundations? As I stated in the previous discussion on Rowan Williams’s speech (linked above), one of the reasons why the media and political establishment came down so hard on the Archbishop was that he was suggesting that there could be constructive, creative and to some extent open-ended dialogue and co-operation between the English legal system (itself plural in its sources of inspiration, not all of which Christian) and sharia (also not a uniform, monolithic body of doctrine and established procedure but admitting of multiple cultural variations throughout Islam). This flies in the face of the political drive to construct and impose a normative Britishness, e.g. through the proposed British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and a British written constitution. This effort to redefine a uniform Britishness is opposed both to the aspirations of many English people to define themselves primarily as English and to establish English national political institutions (such as a parliament); and to the aspiration of many Muslims to define their identity and regulate many aspects of their daily lives (including certain legal aspects) as Islamic in the first instance, and then British insofar as – and perhaps legitimately only if – British society and law allow them to retain and express their Muslim identity and beliefs.

So in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s conceptual framework, if I’ve understood it correctly, there is, on the one side, a potentially monopolistic, secular British state / value system / law and, on the other side, a more diverse English legal system and sense of identity encompassing and striving to integrate both Christian, Muslim and secular influences. The key differences between Rochester’s and Canterbury’s positions are therefore threefold:

  1. Rochester assimilates Christianity to British values and tradition, while Canterbury opposes a more plural and, indeed, Christian-inspired English tradition to a narrow secular Britishness
  2. Rochester sees the primary national identity of this country as Britain / British, while Canterbury’s focus is on the English nation, Church and law
  3. Rochester sees fundamentalist Islam as inimical to British society and its Christian-centred values (or, another way of putting this: he sees Islam per se as fundamentally inimical to Britain and its Christian-centred values); while Canterbury believes that English pragmatism, backed by a universal vision of the basis for law and for human rights that is both religious in inspiration and common to all religions, can create the grounds on which Islamic beliefs, culture and customs can be profoundly integrated within English society, law and liberalism: the respect for freedom of conscience, belief and lifestyle.

Both men are agreed – and, in fact, I agree with them – that true integration between ‘British’ people and Muslims can take place only if the British come to respect and engage with the religious grounds for Muslims’ wish to retain particular practices and ways of living that separate them to some extent from other communities; and that, in order for this to happen, we need to get back in touch with the properly religious inspiration and foundation of the laws and freedoms we hold dear. But such a process of integration is not compatible with the would-be imposition of a monolithic secular Britishness that decrees that people’s freedoms should be dependent on their accepting the primacy of the British state in determining their social responsibilities and fundamental collective identity – rather than these being shaped as an expression of the English and / or Muslim values and identity.

As I stated in my previous discussion of Dr. Rowan Williams’ speech, the British media and political establishment tries to capitalise on any apparent concession to extremist or radical Islamic views to whip up Islamophobia and manipulate it to get English people (who otherwise might be quite anti the Britishness drive) behind the British values and way of life that are supposedly under threat. But is there not in reality more common ground between the defence of the English nation and the defence of the freedom of English Muslims to continue to make their faith the centre of their lives while contributing to the common good? Both positions are opposed to a secular and potentially authoritarian Britishness that seeks to deny any place in the core definition of British values, citizenship and national identity not only to Islam but to England, and its historical and continuing Christian roots.

So Nazir-Ali is right on one level – about rediscovering and reinventing our Christian heritage and roots – but he’s wrong in identifying those with Britain and British values, rather than England. The British values that the political class is currently pushing are just as opposed, in many respects, to Christianity as to Islam, and certainly seek to eliminate the radical Englishness of the British state (its roots in England’s history and identity) as much as radical Islam. The British state seeks to play divide and rule with respect to the English and the Muslims amongst them, setting them one against the other – urging Muslims to identify and, effectively, ‘convert’ to a secular British identity that only alienates them still further from the English population as it resists being dragged into an a-national British citizenry.

The English and Muslims must both resist this and find common ground in the defence of their identity, their faith – and their Englishness.

22 February 2008

Brown’s Britishness: Nationality Or Citizenship?

Students of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] Brit-obsessed public discourse will have a field day with his speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) on ‘Managed Migration and Earned Citizenship’ on Wednesday. A theme calculated to allow the PM to wax lyrical on his beloved Britishness theme! Sixty-four occurrences of either ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ against a word total of 4,839, i.e. 1.3% of all the words. That doesn’t sound much, I suppose, but if you consider how many words (including the frequently occurring basic nouns, verbs and pronouns) there are in a typical sentence, particularly in a serious formal speech, that equates to quite a high ratio of Brits per sentence.

Not as high as the ratio of ‘citizen(s)’ or ‘citizenship’ per sentence in this instance, however! There were 75 appearances of the ‘C’ word = 1.55%. Well, I suppose the speech was about citizenship, after all. But was it more about citizenship than Britain or, indeed, than nationality? The concepts of ‘nation’, ‘national’ and ‘nationality’ – but, significantly, not ‘nationhood’ – occur a mere 20 times in the speech: only 0.4% of all words.

Does this mean that, for GB, Britishness is more about citizenship than about nationality or nationhood; the latter term being more emotive and personal, relating to whether people ‘feel British’ or regard Britishness as their personal national identity? This would appear to be the case when GB says:

“This is not jingoism, but practical, rational and purposeful – and therefore, I would argue, an essentially British form of patriotism.

“Patriotism is the sense that ‘all-of-us’ matters more than ‘any-of-us’ [does it, really – isn’t the whole basis of human rights the irreducible dignity and integrity of the individual human person; so are GB’s ‘responsibilities’ upon which our rights supposedly depend (see below) based on the assertion of the priority of the collectivity – the nation-state – over the individual?]. It defines a nation not by race or ethnicity, but by seeing us all as part of a collective project from which we all gain and to which we all contribute. Society is – as the great thinkers have long told us – a contract, even a covenant, in which we recognise that our destinies are interlinked. For rights only exist where people recognise responsibilities [cf. above note]; responsibilities only exist where people have a sense of shared fate; and shared fate only exists where there is a strong sense of collective belonging. So Britain is not just where we are but in an important sense part of who we are”.

Britain, in this definition, is ‘in an important sense part of who we are’ because the social contract that binds us together and our participation in a collective project – of creating and enriching Britain – is seen as more integral to our identity than a sense of belonging to a place, ethnicity or race. Or, indeed, more integral than the sense of belonging to a nation and the sense of national identity? This would appear to be the case, to judge from the passage that follows:

“the idea of citizenship can be addressed more cogently here in Britain than elsewhere because for centuries Britain has been made up of many nations. As the first – and probably the most successful – multi-national state in the world, we have always had to find ways of bringing people into a United Kingdom.

“Put it another way: geographically, Britain is a group of islands; historically, it is a set of ideas that have evolved over centuries: brought together uniquely across traditional boundaries and today united not by race or ethnicity but by distinctive values that have, over time, shaped the institutions of a multinational state”.

Let’s pause for a moment in wonder. GB appears to be conceding the point that, historically, Britain has comprised a number of nations – including, presumably, England. But don’t get your hopes up: he doesn’t say ‘England’ throughout the speech; nor, indeed, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ or ‘Ireland’. There are 11 references to ‘English’; but these are only to the language, not to anything such as a national identity. If you look at GB’s words more closely here, what he’s saying is that Britain is indeed a geographical place where, historically (“for centuries”), a number of nations have lived. ‘Nations’ here can imply ‘peoples’, rather than formally established political entities with defined territorial borders: the fundamental geographical unit for GB is Britain, not the nations of Britain; while the nations have merely inhabited that British territory – effectively, like provisional citizens, migrants or temporary residents, not as collectivities that identified with the land in which they lived.

Equally historically, however, Britain is presented here as a unified state forged by a process whereby the multiple nations of Britain have come together in a “United Kingdom”. The engine of that unification has not been some sort of organic convergence and ethnic inter-mixing of the nations of Britain over time, whereby gradually the old barriers between us have been broken down and we’ve come to think of ourselves as more British than English / Scottish / Welsh / Irish. No, the motor for unity is “a set of ideas that have evolved over centuries” – co-terminous with the ‘centuries’ during which Britain has been made up of many nations – and the “distinctive values that have, over time, shaped the institutions of a multinational state”.

The unity or Union that is the United Kingdom has been created by, and is founded on, a set of distinctive but shared ideas and values that have coalesced and are embodied in the institutions of a “multinational state”, e.g. in the ‘British Values’ and the ‘British Rights and Responsibilities’ that are defining of British civic society and British citizenship. Note that there is an uncertain shift here between the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘United Kingdom’ (or UK), which crops up elsewhere in GB’s speech. Britain is the geographical place, populated by multiple nations, but by that token not properly a unified nation in itself. The unity is achieved only at the level of statehood, citizenship, and common values and principles – at the level of the UK. But GB wants that unity to also be identified with a single Nation (rather than multiple nations) of Britain, and wants citizenship to be the foundation of a new national British identity. Hence, a constant, inconsistent slippage in his speech between the UK and Britain as the terms for the unitary state-nation – rather than nation-state – founded on codified civic principles.

These tensions are evident in the passage that follows, in which GB defines the British values he believes in:

  • “liberty – the concept of freedom under the law which has to be renewed every generation, about which I spoke in the autumn;
  • of civic duty;
  • of fairness;
  • and of internationalism – a Britain that sees the channel not as a moat that isolates us in narrow nationalism, but as a highway out to the world that for centuries has given our outward-looking nation an unsurpassed global reach.

“But that these values are founded secondly on a vision of citizenship that entails both responsibilities and rights”.

So Britain is both a nation – founded on a citizenship that embodies British values in a set of rights and responsibilities – and an internationalism: an “outward-looking nation” that also takes in to itself additional multiple nations from throughout the globe through migration; as opposed to the ‘narrow nationalism’ associated with insular protectionism towards smaller territorial national entities such as that of the Englishman’s castle, defended by the moat of the, yes, English Channel, Gordon.

All of this means that if the true ‘test’ of citizenship (like the actual test of entitlement to British citizenship for migrants that GB is proposing in his speech) is adherence to formal codes and statements setting out the legal and philosophical principles of British state-nationality (merging multiple original nationalities into a common citizenship), then the ‘original’ nations of the UK (the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish) have no intrinsic, special status with respect to Britishness than more recent migrants who embrace Britishness defined purely in relation to those shared principles. There is a sort of equalising going on here between the ‘nations’ that have historically inhabited these islands (the historical multi-national British state) and the multiple nationalities of newer arrivals, linked to Britain’s internationalism and global reach.

This brings about a peculiar reversal whereby the formal process of subscribing (to use GB’s term) to the principles – rights and responsibilities – of UK / British citizenship that would-be settlers here will have to go through, if GB’s proposals are implemented, make them almost more properly British citizens than those who consider themselves as in some degree British by virtue of having always lived here and of viewing themselves – additionally or primarily – as English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. This is because, under GB’s vision, the process of becoming a British citizen is transformed into a rite of passage, where you have to pass a number of tests that prove the sincerity of your wish to be a British citizen which, through the rights and responsibilities citizenship embodies and enacts, actually means something:

“we must ensure that British citizenship is a set of obligations as well as a guarantee of rights. And that British citizenship is a prized asset to be aspired to and cherished”.

But does this concept of ‘earned citizenship’ – prospective citizens proving that they have earned the right to British citizenship through the social and civic responsibility of their actions and the way they lead their lives – translate back to existing British citizens? If new British citizens are not just equal in their Britishness to people who have always lived here but in some sense more properly British (in that Britishness is founded on a set of codified values and principles that new citizens have formally signed up to), does this not make existing citizens themselves in some sense merely probationary and prospective citizens: mere residents on British soil whose true Britishness has yet to be formally tested and attested through a citizenship rite? Does this mean we will all have to prove our entitlement to (continuing) British citizenship by formally buying into the responsibilities and duties upon which it is being made to depend?

There is a serious ambiguity throughout GB’s speech about whether the concept of earned citizenship applies as much to existing citizens as prospective ones. This is because, inherent to the linkage GB makes between rights and responsibilities, is indeed the notion that rights (those of citizenship) have to be earned through socially responsible lives and the exercise of our civic duties. Indeed, the opening section of GB’s piece sets out these principles as the basis for the modern concept of British citizenship:

“for all citizens, I want us to emphasise – and, to some extent, codify – the rights they have . . . . But alongside these entitlements of citizenship, there are also duties. . . . This is one of the reasons why it makes sense – as we have announced – to consider amending the Human Rights Act to create a new British Bill of Rights and Duties which emphasises not just what people are entitled to but what they are expected to do in return in order to make ours a society we all want to live in.

“And this reciprocity of rights and responsibilities also shapes the new concept of ‘earned citizenship’ we are advancing today”.

As part of our formal buy in to this new statement of our rights and responsibilities, will we – like new immigrants – be obliged to relinquish our former national identities (as English, Scots, etc.) in favour of our new united British-national identity based on the common values of our citizenship? And how controlled will the sincerity of our adherence to these rights and responsibilities be?

“And of course, the final vital element in security inside our borders is the national ID cards system.

“While the first biometric ID cards will be issued to UK citizens during 2009, from the end of this year we will start to issue the first compulsory biometric IDs to non-EU foreign nationals coming to the UK. Such an identity scheme will help make it clear what status a person has – whether they are allowed to work, access benefits and how long they can stay.

“This is crucial in tackling illegal immigration. But it is also critical to moving towards, and enforcing, a system of earned citizenship.

“Those who are not entitled to benefits will not be able to claim them. And that will also include people from the EU who have come here to work but have not yet paid sufficient national insurance contributions.

“And probationary citizens will all have ID cards which will make it easier to ensure that they are exercising their responsibilities, and to decide on their progress to full citizenship.

“All this reflects the value we place on British citizenship and the urgent need to be clear about our collective national identity and common purpose”.

So we have moved from a national identity based on history, and a sense of belonging to a place and a territory, to one that is almost definitively, and definingly, encapsulated in a national ID scheme, designed to control our access to the rights of citizenship, depending on the extent to which we are fulfilling our civic responsibilities.

This is a national British identity codified, indeed digitised, by the British state; in fact, bestowed by the British state based on merit against a set of prescriptive qualifying criteria, rather than an automatic right. Being English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish isn’t one of those qualifying criteria – and you’d better accept GB’s state-civic Britishness if you want to preserve your native rights.

20 February 2008

What are ‘English values’?

In this blog, I’ve set out to maintain a continuous critique of so-called ‘British values’: one of the central underpinnings of the UK government’s attempts to not only preserve the Union but also redefine and reorientate it for the 21st century in the face of the cultural and economic changes and uncertainties we face both nationally and internationally.

There are many problems with this enterprise, not the least of which is that the New Britain that New Labour – and GB [Gordon Brown] in particular – would like to establish relies on the suppression of any aspirations to formal nationhood on the part of the English. As a result of the asymmetrical devolution settlement during the first term of the Blair government, we’ve witnessed a sort of ‘paradigm reversal’. Previously, Britain (technically, the UK) was a unitary state in which all the national-level decisions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were taken by the Westminster government. And also decisions for England, of course. But England stood in a special relationship to Britain: Britain was to all intents and purposes the extension of England and the proxy-English state; British rule in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland effectively meant English control over their affairs. English people identified with Britain, meaning that the English and British national identities were effectively interchangeable from the English perspective.

Devolution has brought the beginning of the end of this sense that England and Britain are one: instead of England ruling Britain (i.e. ruling Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), we now have in many ways a rump British state in which the competency of the government in many critical policy areas is limited largely to England. This is now Britain ruling England; but Britain defined as the central UK government and state rather than as the other nations of Britain that were effectively ruled by England through the British state, and which English people assimilated into their own identity through the interchangeability of ‘English’ and ‘British’. (See, for instance, the unthinking habit English people used to have of referring to Scotland and Wales as if they were part of England.)

We’ve had, in other words, a seismic split in the English-British identity. In the imagination and sentiments of ordinary people, ‘Britain’ (in the sense of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) has separated out from England: as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland reassert their own national pride and an identity separate from that of England-Britain, English people in their turn have withdrawn the investment of their national pride in Britain and begun a process of redefining and reaffirming their own national identity as English in the first instance, rather than British. Meanwhile, the British state has separated itself in its thinking and attitudes from any ideas of (itself as representing) English nationhood along the lines of the emerging Scottish, Welsh and (Northern) Irish nations. It pretends that the old unitary Britain still exists, which in formal, legal terms it still does: power has only been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and could in theory be taken back at any time. And, of course, many areas of government have not been devolved, especially those that have an impact on the whole of the UK territory and population, such as international relations, energy policy and security.

This means that the government represents the continuation of the old British part of the English identity: split off from – no longer the state vehicle and political expression of – England. The government has not been able to embrace and espouse the popular movement for reaffirming Englishness and the nation of England, distinct from the British state. It could have done, perhaps; but this would have taken a visionary leader who was prepared to adopt a more populist and, perhaps, more working-class stance at a time when New Labour was positioning itself as a bastion of liberal-Middle Class conservatism, and as the party of the establishment that is built on the support of that strata of the population and reflects its values. You could say, ironically, that New Labour’s appeal was to the Old England (New Britain, Old England): the bit of England that identified more strongly with the old unitary British state and its principles. Labour, whose whole philosophy has always placed such a huge emphasis on using the lever of its power bases in working-class England, Scotland and Wales to force through its agenda of social change throughout the unitary state – including in conservative England who largely had to bankroll its programme – could not so easily now relinquish the unbridled power over the whole of the UK that Blair’s massive, disproportionate majorities had given it, based as they were on finally winning support from Middle England. Hence the shift in Labour’s whole sense of its mission from being the party of working-class socialist internationalism to the party of conservative English-British unionism: the party that seeks to conserve the old unitary British state and identity even when the people were separating away from it, and seeing themselves more as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish.

To summarise so far: pre-devolution, we had a unitary Britain dominated by England, in which the English and British identities were merged; post-devolution, we have a separating out of the identities of England and the ‘two Britains’ from which it had previously been indissociable: Britain in the sense of the other countries of the UK, and Britain in the sense of the unitary British state. That state, in the shape of the Labour government, took it upon itself to resurrect the rapidly disappearing unified British identity on which its legitimacy and power depended. Unable to reverse the devolution for which it was responsible, it could not re-establish Britishness by recreating the popular, organic sense of shared identity, history, family relatedness, and social solidarity and community encapsulated in a Britain with which the nations of the UK had all been to some extent happy to identify and belong: the English by seeing the other countries of Britain as an extension of England; and the other countries by seeing Britain as just another name for England, with which they were united in one kingdom. Labour’s only option was to take the formal values of the British state itself as the foundation of a new national-British unity – indeed, of a new Nation of Britain, as I’ve described it elsewhere.

This is nation building that proceeds from the state and from the centre; not, as previously, a state (Britain) that was experienced as an expression of the identities and affections of the people: a national unity that was felt and lived, rather than one that, initially at least, is merely conceptual and ideological. For what are these British values that all the nations of the UK are said to hold in common and around which the government hopes they will (re-)unite? They are principles of civic society that, historically, ‘Britain’ (in reality, often England before it merged into Britain) is said, if not to have originated, at least to have given their modern political expression in parliamentary democracy. As such, they are a combination of universal secular-humanist principles that no democrat could repudiate AND of characteristics and qualities valued by the English and said to be typical of the English. On the universal side: liberty / individual freedom, equality (of opportunity), democracy and the rule of law; on the English side – but blending into the universal concepts and giving them their human and cultural ‘flavour’ – tolerance, fairness / fair play, support for the underdog and compassion for the disadvantaged, and a healthy suspicion and contempt towards excessive power and wealth, particularly when that power is exercised towards the English as private individuals and as a nation.

In this way, the British government hopes to gain endorsement for its newly formulated set of British values from the English people because they are essentially English values: they’re the values of the British state that once was the effective English state and the expression of English national pride; and they’re amplified sentimentally by an appeal to cultural qualities that are undeniably associated with the English. The difference is that whereas, pre-devolution, those values were invested in a Britain (state and extension of England to the rest of Britain) with which the English identified, now the English have increasingly separated their national identity from Britain. This means that all the language of Britishness becomes just so much empty concepts and abstract ideas divorced from the English and no longer articulating a meaningful sense of nationhood for them, or inspiring a sense of purpose and confidence in an uncertain world and future. The discourse of Britishness, in other words, is a state language and ideology. Through it, the British state and government both represent what they think of as Britain and British (cf. the attempt to arrive at an official Statement of British Values), and see themselves as the representative – the democratic embodiment and expression – of Britain. Indeed, the state has become Britain, and Britain has become merely a state; whereas once, in an emotional and symbolic sense at least, it was a nation – the expression of the English nation.

In other words, before devolution, the unitary UK was build on a unity and common identity between England and Britain (state and the other countries). That unity has been broken; and the only unity with which it is in the power of the state to attempt to repair it is through a new unified, systematic articulation of a united Nation of Britain: effectively, a re-establishment of Britain through codified, foundational documents such as the Statement of British Values, a British Bill of Rights and, of course, a written constitution. That new inherent, conceptual unity of Britain – Britain present to itself in the articulation of the fundamental principles and values through which it understands itself – can become the means to (re-)establish a true nation (the state seeking the acceptance of, and identification with, its values from the people) if it replaces England: the previous centre, heart and national identity that gave life to the British state. Hence, a real cultural and political programme is afoot that indeed seeks to redefine and replace English history, culture and identity as and with British history, culture and identity: British values. You might say this is purely semantics, as I’ve already stated that the English and British identities have historically been merged. Historically, yes. But the difference now is that reference to the Englishness of Britishness, and to the historical reality that Britain has hitherto been effectively Greater England, is being systematically expunged. I’ve attempted to demonstrate this on numerous occasions, for instance, in my Campaign for Plain England blogs and numerous other posts exploring the censorship of references to England, which manifests a will for England not to exist; indeed, the transforming of it into virtual non-existence through a kind of deliberate double-think-type substitution of Britain or ‘this country’ for ‘England’ when England is what is actually at issue. British values may well be English values; but one is no longer allowed to say this, or indeed, to say ‘England’ at all.

But are English values British values? Meaningless question, really, as it presupposes that it might be possible to come up with a representative set of English values, precisely; in the same way as the British government claims it can set down a representative set of British values: one through which it can represent itself as representing Britain – state and nation (re-)united. Those British values discussed above can indeed be also, and perhaps more properly, described as English values. But English values, or rather Englishness per se, cannot be reduced to such an impoverished collection of abstractions. To find Englishness – the Englishness that has diverged from the path of formal, state, civic Britishness – you need to set your sights at both a more basic and higher level. There’s no essence or quintessence of Englishness, in a strict, philosophical sense; but we who live in England are surrounded by thousands of instances of Englishness – so much a part of the daily fabric of our lives and the cultural air we breathe that it almost appears invisible. I’m not myself now going to fall into the trap of trying to define Englishness in a narrow way. But, rather than being about philosophical and societal values, Englishness has more to do with what we value: the places, people, communities, activities and things that we love and on which we bestow value, and those we don’t; it’s about a way of life, the way we relate to one another with all our flaws, and a place we call home.

So much for the ‘basic’, and yet elusive, level of understanding of what England means to us; what of the higher level I referred to? Well, those universal British (but often historically more English) values I mentioned (liberty, equality, tolerance, respect for the rule of law) are fundamental secular-humanist principles: core concepts of a secular understanding of what you could call the value of humanity itself and the basis for human rights – the essential dignity and integrity of every human being from which flows the imperative that we respect individual free self-determination and the fundamental equality of all persons. Noble and vital principles, indeed, and essential for the defence of our freedoms – but universal and hardly ‘quintessentially British’. And can these absolute concepts and abstractions truly give form and voice to what are the highest, most sacred values we hold dear? Are these not, rather, things like love, kindness, self-sacrifice, justice, peace, friendship, childhood and life itself? Again, nothing quintessentially English or British about these. But the importance these qualities hold for us is precisely because of their sacred and spiritual character, however we qualify or understand those terms.

The English are a spiritual people – as are, if you think in these terms, every other people on earth. But this spirituality is indeed something fundamental to the character of our nation, as indeed it has helped to shape that character over centuries. One possible filter to understand the character of a people is to observe how they respond to the challenge to live up to the demands of loving and caring for one another, and respecting life – put in Christian terms, how they respond to the call of the spirit, and embody and express that spirit in the pattern of their lives. In this sense, there is much to commend and much also to be aggrieved at about modern life in England, where there is so much poverty of the spirit alongside material poverty and human selfishness.

England is a spiritual nation and still, officially, a Christian country, with an established Church and a queen who is both Head of the Church, Queen of England and head of the British state. Does it mean anything, this vestige of an ancient history that does not speak to many English people who do not regard themselves as Christians, or who do but do not consider it necessary for an established church to exist? Well, one would have thought that we English, of all peoples, would be reluctant to discard carelessly a ‘mere’ vestige of our ancient history: our centuries-old English history and tradition, and a reference to the millennial status of the Christian faith as the core value system of our nation, even if it no longer is. In our search to rediscover Englishness, and reaffirm it against a Britishness that would suppress it altogether, we must take cognisance of the fact that the established Church of England is a symbol and continuation of English power and English spirituality at the heart of the British state; a continuation, indeed, of that identification between Englishness and the British state that was broken through devolution.

This is a not frequently commented part of the England and Britain story: Englishness does also have this spiritual dimension, historically and contemporaneously; Britishness is a secular creed, which very likely would disestablish the Church as part of its new national-British constitutional settlement. This would sever both one of the last manifestations of England as the fulcrum of the British state and would remove the moral obligation for British political leaders to be mindful of their responsibilities to their Christian duties and calling, evoked by the Christian headship of the monarch to which governments are still – symbolically, at least – answerable.

This matters for a whole host of reasons, particularly in that it affects the understanding governments have of their fundamental mission and purpose which, beyond seeing to the material prosperity and security of its people, must look to their spiritual wellbeing. This means being seriously affected by the suffering, material and spiritual, of the people as if it were one’s own suffering: making a government that is truly for and of the people, and loves the people; dedicated to giving them hope, confidence and care in their needs and aspirations; and giving all the disenfranchised and alienated parts of the population (including especially the much maligned English youth) a sense that they have some sort of stake in a shared future.

Can a new secular Nation of Britain respond to such a calling? The question is most acute perhaps when it comes to considering how the nation relates to those whose values are not only ‘non-British’, as reductively defined by the state, but are so on religious grounds. I’m referring in particular to the Muslim community, particularly those communities who seek to regulate their lives around a stricter understanding of Islamic law and Koranic teaching. It is hard to see how there can be much place for such faith communities within Britishness and indeed Britain if, indeed, allegiance to official British values becomes the test of citizenship, replacing allegiance to the crown. It’s not that Muslims of this sort take issue with concepts such as personal liberty and equality, in the abstract; but it’s the way those concepts are interpreted and grounded in different religious and cultural traditions that is different. Those secular British values underpin a whole societal and economic model: one in which it is the role of government to release the potential of individuals to participate fully and freely in a secular lifestyle – acquiring material possessions and wealth; creating that wealth through work and career; buying and selling; and trading themselves and their bodies in work, sex and open-ended relationships.

But these values are fundamentally antithetical to the duties and rights expressed in Muslim belief and practice – as, indeed, to the duties and purpose of life as understood by any of the major religious traditions. The language of Britishness cannot reach out beyond itself to understand and embrace radical difference of this kind, and can only reject the pious and dogmatic fidelities of Islam as backward, oppressive and irrational – and as limiting the possibilities for Muslim communities to integrate and participate in the supposed benefits of British life.

Englishness and England, on the other hand, can respond and engage with such diversity in our midst. Englishness, that is, understood as being about appreciation of the little but precious things of daily life; of places, people, food and drink, communities, and caring about the people around you as if they were one’s own – which makes them one’s own. These are things we really do hold in common with Muslims and with those of other faith backgrounds; we all live in England, and can meet in a common and developing – not fixed – Englishness on the shared ground of England.

I say those of ‘other faith backgrounds’: other than our own, that is. We can meet those Muslims, and perhaps only meet those Muslims, on a ground where true dialogue, interchange and possibility of change can arise, if we let the background of our own faith – our English spirit – come to the fore. Not necessarily some arbitrary reconstruction of a, let’s face it, often dysfunctional, destructive and disreputable Christian history – but responding in a new way to that calling of the spirit of love and neighbourliness. A response from which our nation of England may yet be redefined and enjoy its renaissance.

19 February 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 6): Vaughan Williams and Elgar

You can forgive Hilary Davan Wetton for choosing to defend the cause of the English composer, Vaughan Williams, in the manner he does in last Friday’s Telegraph. The man makes out a case for celebrating the works of Vaughan Williams, the 50th anniversary of whose death falls this year, as a great, indeed “quintessentially British”, composer. This is a tactic: he wants to shame a government that has not funded any commemorations of Vaughan Williams – not even a postal stamp – by talking up his Britishness, arguing that: “Here is a national emblem from which we can all draw inspiration if we want to try to ‘gather together under the Flag’, as we are urged to do. Not the flag of crude jingoism, or even the exuberant patriotism of Land of Hope and Glory, but a deeply felt, understated sense of what it means to be British”.

Vaughan Williams, then, is more ‘truly British’ even than Elgar (the composer of the tune to Land of Hope and Glory), who qualified for inclusion on the old £20 notes, many of which are still in circulation. Err, sorry to dampen your campaigning zeal, Mr Davan Wetton; but maybe one of the reasons why Vaughan Williams has not yet been lauded by the British state is that he was quintessentially English, not British. A collector of English folk songs (those of southern England, too), not “British folk tunes”, as you write; someone whose music traces its heritage back to the traditions of English – not ‘British’ – renaissance music (‘Britain’ didn’t even exist in the renaissance), and whose musical influences that you name are all traditionally thought of as English: Tallis, Purcell, Holst, Walton and Britten.

By contrast, Wetton does not even include the English composer Elgar, in whose music, according to him, “German influences are clearly audible”, in his list of great British composers. Well, I’ll agree with you there, Mr Davan Wetton, as he of all people is a composer you would tend to think of as quintessentially English; not only because of Land of Hope and Glory but of works such as the Enigma Variations and Pomp and Circumstance.

As observed above, it’s Land of Hope and Glory that has earned Elgar his fame as a celebrated British composer – claims which, according to Davan Wetton and a commentator from the review Gramophone they invited on to BBC Radio Four’s Today programme this morning to debate Davan Wetton’s claims with him, are highly exaggerated and unrepresentative. This is because Elgar would have rejected the – err, British – jingoism of Land of Hope and Glory, whose words he was not responsible for. And, by the way, those words do not actually mention ‘Britain’, or ‘England’ for that matter. They clearly are a reference to Britain and its empire; but like the musical tradition continued by Vaughan Williams and Elgar, the anthem traces Britain’s power and essence back to their earlier and deeper roots in Englishness:

Thine equal laws, by Freedom gained,
Have ruled thee well and long;
By Freedom gained, by Truth maintained,
Thine Empire shall be strong.

It’s a bit rich, then, that Davan Wetton should not include Elgar in his list of British musical greats – whose German influences he appears to regard as contrary to such a claim – when he explicitly dismisses his endorsement of Vaughan Williams and the fellow members of his British pantheon in the following terms: “This is not an appeal for a shallow ‘Little Englander’ mentality. None of these composers was insular: Holst studied Sanskrit, Vaughan Williams went to France to study with Ravel, Walton adored jazz and Britten was entranced by Gamelan music from Bali”.

OK, I get it: ‘British’ composers are internationalist, not narrow Little Englanders – despite the fact that his list of British composers comprises great English composers. And the English composer Elgar represents such English jingoism, despite the fact that he is generally thought of as more British than his fellows (unfairly, owing to the only semi-British / semi-English patriotism of words he didn’t write) and the fact his influences were just as international as all those other ‘British’ composers.

What a load of old bunkum! They’re all great English composers; and, as such, their influences are both typically English and international: they wouldn’t have the universal, worldwide appeal and musical complexity they do have if they hadn’t been profoundly influenced by great music from around the world. If we’re going to celebrate the great music of our country, let this at least be England when we’re talking about England. And, for that reason, I agree that the government should do more to mark the anniversary of Vaughan Williams: a great figure in English music.

Gordon Brown and Accountability To England

He said it! As a matter of fact, GB [Gordon Brown] said the word ‘England’ four times in his nearly 12-minute-long interview on BBC Scotland’s The Politics Show on Sunday. The nature and context of those references reveals the heart of the dilemma GB is wrestling with in relation to devolution: his lack of accountability to the people of England for the decisions he takes on their behalf.

In this respect, the first of GB’s mentions of England, about three minutes into the interview, was hugely significant. He referred to the recent vote in the Scottish Parliament that “we should review the arrangements which govern the relationship between Scotland and England, particularly the financial accountability relationships”. You have to be on the alert to spot this one, as GB says ‘England’ quickly and under his breath, not articulating the word properly – a not uncommon syndrome on the part of New Labour politicians when forced to acknowledge the existence of England.

So GB’s almost physical difficulty in spitting out the word ‘England’ arises in the context of ‘financial accountability’. This also means democratic accountability: GB is talking about the idea, to be discussed in the proposed devolution review, that the Scottish Parliament should have the power to raise more of the tax income it actually spends, making it more accountable to the Scottish electorate for that expenditure. In the interview, GB evades the possible implication of this, which is that the Scottish Parliament might have to increase certain taxes from their current amounts in order to maintain the relatively high level of public expenditure per head of population in Scotland, and so reduce the subsidisation of that expenditure by the central UK government.

What the rather extraordinary, if barely audible, reference to England (rather than the UK or Britain, as usual for GB) in this context involves is an almost literally tacit acknowledgement that it’s England, more especially the English people, that subsidises Scottish public expenditure; and that, consequently, there’s a problem of financial / democratic accountability for this to England. This problem could come into even starker relief if the Scottish Parliament were responsible for raising the majority of its own revenues. Such a situation would increase the incongruity and injustice of the fact that Scottish Westminster MPs are allowed to vote on government expenditure in England, while English MPs (and, in fact, those Scottish MPs) would have even less input than now into determining the level of public expenditure in Scotland. And this would doubtless lead to more pressure for Scottish MPs either to voluntarily desist from exercising this right (through an English Grand Committee) or for this right to be withdrawn from them. The consequence: MSPs gaining more control over Scottish policies and expenditure; Scottish MPs having even less influence in Scotland, and now even less to do at Westminster, as they could not participate in England-only business. The rationale for Scotland continuing to participate in the Union and its parliament would be eroded still more and Scotland would be one step further down the road to independence. Meanwhile, the position of GB and his government would be further compromised: as a Scottish MP, what right would GB have to formulate policies and dictate expenditure for England? His government would be, and would be revealed as being, in even more respects an England-only government; and how can that be led by someone not even elected in England?

So why does GB appear to be accepting the possibility that the Scottish Parliament should have greater tax-raising powers? In fact, this is a ploy, and he doesn’t want to do this. Actually, GB is implicitly threatening the Scottish Parliament and the SNP with having to increase taxation in Scotland in order to finance their programme. In other words, it’s more a question of Scotland having the power (i.e. no other choice than) to raise more taxes, rather than having more tax-raising powers. In this context, it is significant that two of the other references to ‘England’, towards the end of the interview, arise in connection with a possible re-evaluation of the Barnett Formula: again, the critical ‘financial accountability relationships’, in GB’s words, between Scotland and England. Here, however, as in the rest of the interview, GB’s explicit reference is to the UK-wide impact of any changes to the devolution settlement, rather than to bilateral Scotland-England relationships – although these are clearly implicated. The PM states that the Barnett Formula doesn’t just affect Scotland or England but the whole of the UK and all its constituent parts. Then, in a response to the interviewer’s question about comparisons between public expenditure in Scotland and some of the English ‘regions’, GB makes passing reference to the existence of statistics setting out the level of expenditure in the regions of England – without acknowledging that these reveal that Scotland is getting a better deal than any of them, with the possible exception of London.

By referring to the Barnett Formula in this way towards the end of the interview, GB is clearly expressing a reluctance to abolish it altogether, simply because of pressure from the Scottish Parliament to have more responsibility for raising its revenues. He’s effectively reminding his Scottish audience that it’s the Barnett Formula that guarantees Scotland a higher level of public expenditure per head than the Scottish people could possibly afford if they lacked the subsidies provided by the central UK government. This is part of a benign appeal by GB, throughout the interview, to the benefits Scotland receives from being part of the Union. Another example of such benefits is in the area of security. In relation to terrorism, GB said there could be “no Scotland-only, no Wales-only, no England-only solution [the fourth reference to ‘England’]”. In other words, Scotland benefits not only from the financial patronage of a benevolent UK state but also from its power as a force for protection from external threats. However, this reference to security is in fact given in response to the questioner’s somewhat half-hearted attempts to tease out of GB what he meant by saying that devolution was not a “one-way street”, i.e. that some powers could be taken back by the Westminster government, such as in the area of justice and security.

The fact that policing and the legal system in Scotland is the responsibility of the Scottish Government does of course have implications for the national security of the UK, as was evidenced two weeks ago by the decision in principle to admit phone-tapping evidence in terrorist cases in England and Wales, which, as it stands, cannot be implemented in Scotland. But this is not the point here: GB is effectively threatening the Scottish Parliament and the SNP that if it presses the point about having greater powers in some areas (e.g. raising taxes), it may be necessary to remove some of its powers in other areas (e.g. justice), ostensibly in the interests of the whole of the UK, and of Scotland as part of the UK. The use of anti-terrorism as an example is calculated to appear more reasonable and benign than if other perhaps more expensive areas of Scottish governance had been singled out, such as the heavily subsidised healthcare and education systems. But the underlying implication is that, basically, anything could be up for grabs and no area of Scottish self-rule is sacrosanct; after all, it’s devolution not definitive separation, which means that the Westminster government’s prerogative to take back any powers at any time remains in place.

The message to Scotland is, if you want to raise more of your taxes, you might have to raise more taxes; and if you want to offset some of the increased tax burden on Scotland this would involve, you might have to cede certain areas of government back to Westminster. Such an outcome would mean:

  • more accountability on the part of the Scottish parliament to its electorate for the portion of public expenditure for which it was directly responsible
  • a reduction of the scope, and hence the amount, of this expenditure through a reduction of the powers of the Scottish government
  • an increase in the proportion of public expenditure in Scotland for which the Westminster parliament was directly responsible, with the consequence that Scottish Westminster MPs were more relevant again, in that they had more input into policy and expenditure for Scotland
  • a reduction in the English sense of injustice about the Barnett Formula and the West Lothian anomaly, even while these inequalities remained in effect. This would be because more of the decision making about Scottish public expenditure would be rolled up into the decisions and voting about expenditure for the UK as a whole, from which it would not be so clearly differentiated. And if Scottish MPs were not voting so obviously on England-only matters but on UK-wide matters (even if these involved continuing to favour Scotland and Wales over England in the distribution of the public purse), this would be seen as more democratically legitimate and accountable than the present state of affairs.

I’m sure that GB would like to move in this direction, in that essentially his whole model of governance is one of a central UK government making decisions for the whole of Britain in the name of the ‘British people’, of which the Scottish people in his view are an integral and (merely) devolved part. Towards the end of the interview, GB refers several times to “the people”, the “British people” and the “Scottish people” – but never once to the “English people”. Of course, he doesn’t: he’s not governing in their name, after all. In his concluding rhetorical flourish, GB makes great play of how important and integral to him are Scotland and the Scottish people, and their continuing place in the UK for which he effectively positions himself as the guarantor.

But what of England and the English people? The interview makes it clear that the devolution review is going to be run from Westminster, even though it involves (no more than) the participation of representatives from the Scottish parliament – and despite the fact that GB makes great play of the fact that it was the Scottish Parliament that voted for it. And it’s a review for Scotland, parallel to the review concerning a possible extension of the powers of the Welsh Assembly, as GB himself points out. But there’s to be no such review or discussion about devolution for England.

So Scotland is being told that if it pushes too hard for more tax-raising powers, it may need to lose some of its political powers – and do so, perhaps, simply to remain viable. GB is saying, ‘if you want to raise proportionally more of your own budget, the UK government will withdraw some of its subsidies unless you cede control of more items within your current budget back to the UK government – otherwise, the political and financial cost to the rest of the UK (and of “England”, under the breath) of the present devolution settlement will be unsustainable’. Perhaps best, then, not to rock the boat too much and continue with the cosy arrangements of the Barnett Formula, which in its fundamentals the government is not calling into question.

Either way, the English people won’t need to be consulted. After all, accountability to England for the government’s actions taken on behalf of ‘Britain’ and of ‘Scotland’ is the last thing anyone wants – least of all, the MP for Kirkcaldy.

9 February 2008

Sharia, English Law and British Values

It’s open season on Islamophobia again. All it takes is for a batty old archbishop to make a few ill-considered remarks about incorporating some aspects of Islamic law, or sharia, into English law [sic], and out troop all the old stereotypes and prejudices about Islam: floggings, stonings, mutilations, beheadings, religious extremism and absolutism, oppression of women, the imposition of the veil, and the ambition of (some) Muslims to impose sharia on Britain and the West in general. What a load of disgraceful hysteria that is a shame on our country.

Actually, ‘ill-considered’ is virtually the opposite of what Archbishop Rowan Williams’ words in a lecture on 7 February were, other than in the political sense: he should perhaps have realised the furious zeal that would be unleashed to stuff the genie he’d released back into its rightful confinement. The fact that the archbishop was saying something worthwhile is almost ‘proved’ negatively by the calibre of his opponents. First of all, GB [Gordon Brown], whose spokesman stated that the prime minister “believes that British laws should be based on British values”. What on earth is that supposed to mean? There is no such thing as ‘British law’ other than as an aggregate of English law (the legal system for England and Wales) and Scottish law. And are (should) the laws of England, Wales and Scotland (be) ‘based on’ British values, whatever they may be? And is a statement such as this even a refutation of Rowan Williams’s argument, in two ways: 1) no one is denying – least of all, Rowan Williams – that the laws of Britain should be consistent with the most fundamental principles of British civilisation and society; but the archbishop isn’t advocating incorporating certain elements of sharia directly into ‘British law’ and British statutes, so the conflict in this sense doesn’t arise; 2) many of the principles of sharia law in the areas Rowan Williams is talking about (such as marital disputes and family law) are already consistent with British law and values; and, indeed, on another definition, if Muslims as Muslims are to be accepted as British, does that not mean that their values must be taken into consideration in any determination of what ‘British values’ might mean?

And then there’s Trevor Philips, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (he of the ironically ‘pro-Muslim’ revisionist British history that overrides, indeed overwrites, the separate ‘native’ histories of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland). His take on it was that “the suggestion that a British court should treat people differently according to their faith – whether that’s being Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, is absolutely divisive, and I think, really rather dangerous”. Well, this is not what Dr Williams was suggesting, either. He wasn’t advocating that ‘British courts’ (sorry, slip of the tongue, English (or Welsh) or Scottish courts) should treat people differently according to their religion; he was saying that Muslims should perhaps have the right, under English law, to seek resolution and redress in certain types of cases (essentially, domestic and financial), if they wish, through sharia-type procedures, all under the auspices and control of the English legal system. What is divisive about that? It’s not one law for Muslims and another for all the other British people. It’s an integration of limited aspects of sharia into English law, so as to guarantee that Muslims could resolve certain issues legally in accordance with their conscience and customs, while enjoying the same legal protections and rights as any other British citizen.

I’d call that integrationist and inclusive, not divisive. In fact, it’s people who are rigorously opposed to allowing for any kind of role for sharia or other religiously based laws and jurisdiction in British civic society who are divisive. As a Muslim, so the argument goes (and Blair in his time and Jack Straw have argued along these lines), you can reconcile your joint identities as British and Muslim only if you accept the ultimate supremacy of British law, indeed the rule of law, over all prescriptions and rules deriving from your own religious tradition that might place you in conflict with British laws and fundamental values; and sharia is seen as the example par excellence of such a code that is seen as conflicting with and alien to inherently British principles and values. You either accept British values, thereby subordinating your separate Muslim identity to a shared British identity founded on those values, or you don’t – in which case, in principle, you are forfeiting your right to be called a British citizen.

I think Rowan Williams was also attacking this narrow identification of British citizenship with uniform and monopolistic acceptance of the abstract and absolutist claim of the law to govern the lives of all citizens equally, without any right for particular groups of citizens to freely choose to regulate certain aspects of their lives differently, in accordance with particular customs or beliefs. As the archbishop stated: “The danger is in acting as if the authority that managed the abstract level of equal citizenship represented a sovereign order which then allowed other levels to exist. But if the reality of society is plural . . . this is a damagingly inadequate account of common life, in which certain kinds of affiliation are marginalised or privatised to the extent that what is produced is a ghettoised pattern of social life, in which particular sorts of interest and of reasoning are tolerated as private matters but never granted legitimacy in public as part of a continuing debate about shared goods and priorities”.

This could almost be a description of the way in which calls for a distinct English nation and legislative body (parliament) are suppressed by the British state and value system that certain proponents such as GB (as I’ve argued elsewhere) wish to transform into a unitary British nation where the state is viewed as representing the sovereignty (absolute authority) of the British people: equality before a unitary ‘British’ law. Meanwhile, public expressions of Englishness are denied any official sanction; indeed, the state itself suppresses any reference to England as a nation within, but distinct from, Britain even when the sphere of its own activities is limited to England. And more fundamentally, the terms in which any officially accepted discussion regarding ‘shared values’ (what Dr Williams calls “shared goods and priorities”) is allowed to take place are defined exclusively as British; while English values and culture are marginalised and dismissed as merely the whims of private individuals. You can define yourself as English, just as you can be fundamentally Muslim, only in the privacy of your heart and your home; but officially, you’re British – or else, you are free to leave.

And this is why it’s particularly pernicious that the row that erupted over Rowan Williams’ lecture should have referred to the idea of accommodating Sharia within British law. No, Dr Williams’ lecture is entitled Islam in English Law: Civil and Religious Law in England. It’s an English matter, not British. English law already allows certain types of dispute to be resolved in civil, rather than legal, procedures under the terms of Orthodox Jewish law or, indeed, sharia; and the outcomes of such procedures are legally binding. What the archbishop is proposing is no more than a formalisation and extension of such arrangements so as to ensure legal oversight and improved guarantees that the rights and freedoms enshrined in English law are not overridden by the rulings of any given sharia court, which can vary according to the ethnic background and school of Islamic belief of each Muslim community.

Such a deviation from a uniform, legalistic Britishness on the part of English courts clearly cannot be tolerated. There is, after all, only one British law, nation and set of values for all. Well, there are not; but there will be if GB gets his way. Englishman beware: it may be Islamic law they’re excluding from Britain now, but it’ll be English law next. Perhaps that’s another trick that a written British constitution will pull off: the creation of a unified British law, superseding an English legal system based on tradition, precedent and the freedom to be different.

6 February 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 5): No change to phone taps as evidence in Scotland

It probably goes without saying – correction, it has gone without being said – that the recommendations of the Chilcot Report, released today, that evidence derived from phone taps could be admissible in evidence in criminal trials (for instance, against suspected terrorists) do not apply to Scotland – only England and Wales. But I haven’t heard that being said on the news on BBC Radios Four and Five, or BBC One on the telly. Nor is it stated in the report that currently appears on the BBC News website.

But it’s there in black and white in the report itself. The problem is that, while the interception of communications is a reserved matter (i.e. still the responsibility of the Westminster government), procedure in courts of law and policing in Scotland are the responsibility of the devolved government in that country. So the Chilcot Report recommends that some form of Public Interest Immunity be introduced in Scotland, similar to that in England: meaning, as I understand it, that details concerning the methods used to obtain intercept evidence, and the full details of that evidence, could be withheld from open session of court in order to keep those intercept methods secret in the public interest. There are currently proposals of precisely this nature before the Scottish Parliament, which may – or may not – result in PII legislation in Scotland. However, as the Chilcot Report states on pp. 21-22: “We therefore recommend no change to the current legal regime for interception in Scotland until new legislation is in place and its potential impact has been assessed”.

So something that Gordon Brown insisted should be introduced, if it is in the end, in the interests strictly of national security (meaning the security of the UK as a whole), may come into law in England and Wales but not in Scotland. Does this matter? Well, surely where national security is at issue, there should not be one law for England and Wales, and one for Scotland – if we are one nation, that is. Similarly, where civil liberties are at issue. This is the other side to the coin of phone-tap evidence that didn’t seem to weigh much in the balance in the PM’s speech in the House of Commons this lunchtime. So depending on how you think the admittance of phone-tap data as evidence in criminal proceedings may either advance or impede the ‘war on terror’, or may impinge or not on civil liberties – it’s quite likely that some of the residents of the UK, terrorists and law-abiding citizens, are going to get off Scot free.

Addendum, 7 February: later in the day, the reports did indicate clearly from the outset that the proposed change to the rules affected England and Wales only. However, this was stated without any further explanation or comment; for instance, what were the ‘national security’ implications for Scotland going its own way on this issue, if that’s what they eventually decided to do? Was it not so important a matter that pressure should be brought to bear on Holyrood to pass the necessary Scottish legislation, to ensure that all UK citizens enjoyed the same degree of protection against the terror threat? Or if it wasn’t important enough to push through the measure in Scotland, was it really that important or necessary in England and Wales? Is it perhaps just another case, like that of the superfluous extension of detention without trial for terror suspects to 42 days, where GB [Gordon Brown] wants to be seen to be tough and decisive, but the measures involved are quite ineffective? And then the reporting as a whole still presented the debate as if it related to the whole of the UK, which it quite manifestly didn’t, as the Scottish dimension was not touched upon at all.

5 February 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 4): GP opening hours

Much of the media coverage yesterday concerning the row between the [English] government and the British Medical Association (BMA) over a proposed new contract for GPs in England obscured the fact that the dispute is completely limited to England. I was driving for much of yesterday and so was able to listen to several radio news reports at different times of the day. The morning bulletins failed to mention at all that this was an England-only matter. In the BBC Radio Four evening news, there was a single mention of the fact that the [English] Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, would be writing direct to GPs in England to put the government’s case.

The story on the BBC News website does mention England three times but in a way that also doesn’t make it completely plain that the dispute is exclusive to England. The article twice states the fact that Alan Johnson will “be writing to every GP in England”; and reports that “if they [GPs] reject it, ministers will impose a tougher settlement in England”. If you were not aware that Alan Johnson’s responsibilities are restricted to England, you could conclude from these statements that what’s happening is that greedy over-paid English GPs are resisting longer and more flexible surgery opening hours, while their counterparts elsewhere in the UK have embraced the changes. Hence, a tougher solution has to be ‘imposed’ on England, whereas it’s been willingly accepted elsewhere.

This is not true. It’s basically an issue of unequal funding of GP services in England compared with Scotland and Wales, along with a privatisation agenda for England that is a complete non-starter in the rest of the UK. The BMA does not object to extended hours for GPs in England but is resisting the government’s proposals because they are not accompanied by any additional funding. According to the BMA, this could result in an inferior quality of service to patients during daytime hours, who include those who are most in need of a sustained level of care from a medical team that knows them and their condition – something that traditional general practice provides so well. The BMA believes that the government is deliberately trying to push a confrontation with doctors in England, so as to make out that English GPs are unwilling to provide the extended services the government claims it wants to promote (without funding them). This will enable it to introduce so-called ‘polyclinics’: large multi-practitioner primary-care clinics run by multinational companies. These clinics would effectively mean that the government was ‘outsourcing’ much of the GP service to commercial providers, thereby cutting its costs, and resulting in a decline of traditional general practice along with the continuity of care and of relationships with doctors that it facilitates.

In England, that is, not in Scotland or Wales. The plans for the health services in both those nations (see links in previous sentence) involve a more collaborative relationship with the BMA in planning extended roles for GPs – including, yes, extended surgery hours – but as part of schemes where the resources are being made available to ensure that service provision is improved in local areas where the need is greatest. In other words, GPs will work longer and more flexible hours, and their responsibilities will grow; but this work will be properly funded by the public sector and planned out as part of an integrated programme for improving care for the most vulnerable. 

By inadequately conveying the fact that the row over GP terms and conditions relates to England only, the media is effectively supporting the government in pushing a whole separate agenda for public health-service provision in England compared with Scotland and Wales.

Verdict: BBC Radio News, 1 out of 5 – one mention of ‘in England’ but not clearly identifying the dispute as exclusively an English matter

BBC News website, 2 out of 5 – three mentions of England; but again, not clear to the uninformed reader that the dispute is about an inequality of funding and disparity of policy for the health service in England compared to those in Scotland and Wales.

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