Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

15 March 2008

The English Subject: Time To Change It?

You know how it goes: sex, politics, money and religion – not things one talks about in polite society, at least not in England. Let’s change the subject, dear. England has arguably joined this list; and perhaps it was ever thus – England is not the kind of thing we English like to make too much of a fuss about, especially when we had a worldwide Empire to rule. We’ll just let the more abrasive, vulgar, bourgeois Britain be the vehicle through which we talk politics and get on with the unseemly business of earning our living. And that way, in the discreet seclusion of our castles, we can quietly enjoy our English freedoms and privacy – we don’t have to talk about it as well!

Somehow, that tact and reserve has percolated through history to the cappuccino class of today. It’s slightly embarrassing and vulgar to go on about England in the dinner parties of the chattering classes. But now the balance has shifted a bit: it’s Englishness not Britishness that’s just a tad common! But how much, fundamentally, has changed? It’s just that the always British bourgeoisie now holds the reins of power and its language has become the dominant discourse. And the class that’s in power always thinks that power is not class-based, as if power has come to it as a natural consequence of its talents and merits. And so ‘British values’ speak of and to a class-less society, don’t you know; whereas it’s ever so ignorant and working class to hammer on about little old England – or else, such talk harks back to the feudal values of baronial and aristocratic privilege.

But just as with the ruling aristocracy of old, Englishness is still the dirty little secret of the liberal middle classes to which they do not own up in civilised company – whereas, in the more enlightened modern British times in which we live, talk about sex, politics and money is now politically and socially OK (so long as you don’t take them too seriously); but definitely not religion, oh no. We’re English, you know; you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

But what is the English subject? Or should that be who? Is there such a thing, or person, as an English subject in an era when our leaders would have us all pledging our allegiance to Her Britannic Majesty: British subjects or British citizens? Or English persons subjected to British citizenship in a humiliating ritual of submission? Perhaps that’s what an English subject is: someone whose citizenship in their own country is subject to (conditional upon) their acceptance of the ‘rules’ and ‘duties’ of Britishness. Is that the reason why so many of us are embarrassed to talk up our Englishness: we feel too unworthy, little and diffident to assert ourselves as a nation in our own right; whereas the aggressive mask and language of Britishness gives us the apparatus of statehood and the confidence to rule?

But who is the ‘we’ who feel equipped to govern through the language and power structures of the British state? Who is the subject of rule: the subject who rules alongside those who are subject to that rule? Is this not, rather than the ‘royal we’ of Queen and Country, in fact the sovereign ‘we’: we the English people? The British state is the means through which we the English exercise our democratic power. Or at least it was: this identification of the English with the British state has now been greatly eroded for reasons frequently discussed throughout this blog and elsewhere – the break up, post-devolution, of the symbiotic relationship that existed in the minds of the English between England, the rest of the UK and the British state. And now the English subject – or the English subjectivity in the sense of psyche or consciousness – has been split in two: one part the anguished Englishman groping towards a new sense of identity and possibility of statehood; and one part the controlling Brit seeking to stuff the turbulent English genie back into the ale bottle from whence the wish for a new constitutional settlement had unwittingly released him.

Except, of course, these are not two persons or types of Englishman-Briton, but the two parts of the English subject, and subjectivity, that are seeking the way back to union. Because the subject (the I – indeed the eye – and the we) of government remains largely English. Just as the subjects of government – the people and issues that are governed – remain largely English. Central UK government, in other words, is still something carried out mainly by English people, with a London-centric English perspective, and involved with governing English matters on behalf of the English people. In many contexts, the only thing that’s British about it is the language (always refer to ‘Britain’ or ‘the country’, never ‘England’) and the institutional framework (officially, that of the UK government).

So English governance is still provided by English people through the medium of the UK state – it was ever thus. And the attitude towards the governance of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still reflects the perspective of the English subject in the driving seat of power, whether a particular aspect of governance is devolved or retained. I was struck by this the other day when reading through the government’s Climate Change Bill as part of my day job as a freelance technology-industry analyst. Occasionally, it makes reference to areas of environmental policy that are the responsibility of the devolved administrations: such and such a decision needs to be taken in partnership with the governments of Scotland and Wales, or this sort of emissions-monitoring report needs to be notified to those nations’ relevant bodies. And the reader thinks: well, everything in this bill refers to legislation and international undertakings by the United Kingdom government; but then, from atop the throne of British sovereignty, one occasionally looks down upon the bits subcontracted out to the governments in Scotland and Wales. So what does that make the perspective – the subjective viewpoint – of the UK government? It’s the perspective of English people who for centuries have been used to governing Scotland and Wales direct now having to acknowledge that bits of the process need to be handled by the natives themselves. That’s the subjectivity, the Englishness, of UK governance; even though, in objective terms – the formal language, the legal and political institutions, and the constitutional ‘personality’ of the state – it’s all British: not an ‘England’ or an ‘English’ in sight. This is because it’s England and the English that are doing the looking; it’s the English subject that’s inside the mind of the British state, not an object of its vision, which can be defined only in terms of Britishness.

Under this present government, this subjectively English concern to preserve the Britishness of the state has become blended with the dangerous catalyst, shall we say, of a certain Scottish-unionist wish both to preserve unitary British governance in the devolved nations, and to recast that Britishness as something that is no longer the expression of English dominance and the English subjectivity at the heart of the state. The only way, on this view, that a continuing Union can be reconciled with full equality between the nations of the UK (as opposed to traditional dominance of the other nations, through the British state, by England) is to invent a new unified single-British national identity and nation state in which the differences, and inequalities, between England and the other nations are finally, definitively, nullified. We become all, in the same way, British; and the English subject – the English subjectivity, consciousness and perspective – must become a British subject-citizen: taking on a new civic-national British identity, and forgetting England and Englishness. There will be no longer any English subject – no English mind and nationhood – and the objective-Britishness of the state, and of its official statements of national value and identity, will be the only truth and the only thing that matters. No English subjects, no English matters; only UK citizens and UK governance.

But it hasn’t come to that yet; and could it ever, really? The thing is, the Brownite Britishness project is predicated on a wish for the English subject not to exist that is so strong that it crosses over into a failure to see – through the objective-only focus of Brown’s style of British governance – that the English consciousness is still alive, if sick and divided, at the heart of the British state. English people are real, the English nation is real; English perspectives, priorities and ways of doing things exist – and how could they not be there right at the centre of government when that government is a work effected overwhelmingly by English people? That Englishness is not explicitly articulated in the workings of the British state; it’s not something that’s talked about in the formal, public discourse of politics and power – because up to now, we English have just not needed to govern in our own name and to bother about devising overtly English forms of statehood and civic identity: Britishness has done the job for us quite well enough, thank you – we don’t need to brag or rave like other more emotional peoples. We’re English, after all.

But not any more: Britishness is no longer ‘fit for purpose’, as the government might say. Devolution set not only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on a course separate, or semi-separate, from the UK but also England. We the English are still largely in denial of this, and the asymmetric devolution settlement is the expression of the continuing unwillingness or inability of so many English people – including English people in government – to accept the reality that the old unitary Britain is no more. And Brown has now come along and upped the ante to such an extent that he’s the made the choice between British governance and some form of English governance yet to be worked out equivalent to a choice of whether to be British-only (and not English) or to break up the Union. He’s the real criminal Union breaker here; because if the price of remaining citizens of a unitary Britain is to relinquish their Englishness, then this is a price that the massive majority of English people will refuse to pay, as soon as they realise what’s being asked of them.

So what’s the alternative to Brown’s Britishness; where can the British state, and the English subjectivity that is captive within it, go from here? Well, it needn’t go all that far, really; because, in some ways, we’re already at the destination if we could but see it. The British government is still the English government in all but name: government of the English by the English but articulated through the language and institutions of Britain. And the UK parliament has always been, and can be again, the English parliament: concerned overwhelmingly with English matters; and, in the retained UK-wide matters, dominated by the English perspective and English priorities – or, at least, by the priorities of a minority English political persuasion unfairly awarded the majority of seats.

So we could, if we wanted to, stay right where we are; and, with only the slightest tweaking of the system, we’d have our English government, our English parliament, and the ability, at last, to be proud to openly acknowledge and proclaim our Englishness. We just need to come to a moment of decision where we can pluck up the courage to make the English ‘we’ of government not just subjectively but objectively, officially and formally the subject of English political discourse, of English civic institutions and of a constitutional English nation. Those English ministries and English laws that express themselves in the oh-so-tactful and eloquent conventions of British legalese could then at last ‘say England’; that parliament, 85% of whose members and laws are for England only, could become in fact a parliament for England only. What would it take? No more than a translation into a logical, English expression of the existing status quo: let’s just call the Englishness of the British government by its name, and make it officially an English government, once and for all.

What would we do with the UK-wide areas of governance, though? What, that is, would we the English people now in control of our own governance do about the aspects of government responsibility for the whole of the UK that we the English had retained: through the British state that is still today the vehicle through which we hold on to control of the other nations of the UK. What I am suggesting is that maybe we’ve got the understanding of devolution the wrong way round. Because we’re fixated with the idea of the British state devolving power to the nations of the UK – including England one day, as many of us hope -we’ve failed to see the subjective truth of devolution, which is that it’s English power – articulated through the British state – that has been ‘lent’ back to the other nations. The shift in consciousness that I am advocating, whereby the English could wrest back power over English matters to themselves almost through little more than a coming to be conscious of the fact that they already do control their own affairs – in the alienating forms of Britishness – could enable us to see governance over the continuing Union (of whatever form) as something that we the English could devolve to a new federal UK body.

So not English devolution from the UK but devolution of UK matters from England. Not devolution from Britain resulting in a new English parliament and the necessity to recast the Union government into some federal mould; but a symbolic, and nonethless momentous, shift in our consciousness enabling us to see reflected in objective, institutional reality the subjective truth that the British state is already the work of the English nation. And then, devolution from the English nation of the responsibilities we have held for so long for the governance of Britain – and which have burdened us with a Britishness that has kept our English subjectivity suppressed – which can be transferred to a new UK body (if Scotland and Wales haven’t become independent by the time that happens) in which all the nations of the UK can indeed sit together as equals. The equality of different nations pooling their sovereignty together in the areas where it makes sense to do so; not the nullifying equality of Brown’s monolithic Britain predicated on the suppression of national differences.

Then, perhaps, it will be possible for the English subject to be talked about in polite society. Because we English really are very polite, you know; it’s just we’d grown tired of all the British abuse that we’d gone along with for so long.

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