Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

24 April 2008

Saint George: Patron Saint Of Suppressed Nations

The flags of St. George were out in force in England yesterday: our patron saint’s day – England Day. The red cross on a white background was even to be seen flying outside 10 Downing Street alongside the Union Flag, as 23 April is now officially the one day of the year when the Cross of St. George may be flown outside UK government buildings that are endowed with two flagpoles (see the recent Constitutional Renewal white paper, p. 57). Where there is only one flagpole, the Union Flag takes precedence – surprise, surprise. Perhaps they would have done well to consider my previous suggestion about new country-specific versions of the Union Flag incorporating the national flags as an ‘insert’ into the Union Flag – then they could effectively fly both the Union Jack and the England flag simultaneously all year round without having to invest in a second flagpole! But they wouldn’t want to convey the impression that England is a distinct part of the UK – which is what such a flag might do – as this would challenge the way they govern England as if it were Britain.

Oh well, I suppose one shouldn’t grumble: so long as the Flag of St. George is allowed to be flown beside and atop UK government buildings, this at least represents some sort of official recognition that England exists as a nation – and, what is more, a nation with a continuing Christian tradition. Significantly, Britain, which is not a nation, has neither a ‘Britain Day’ nor a patron saint – although if the Britologists get their way, the first of these facts may soon change; if not the second.

But who was this St. George who, along with his flag, is supposed to serve as a symbol for England? According to the more realistic legend of his life (the non-dragon-slaying version), he was an ethnic Greek soldier in the Roman army, who refused to participate in a persecution of the Christians towards the beginning of the fourth century and was martyred as a consequence. As such, he could be seen as a natural symbol for a once proud but subjugated people – the Greeks – rising up against an oppressive empire (Rome). And this is one of the reasons why St. George is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church and is also the patron saint of Greece.

Indeed, when I looked into it, I was struck by the list of countries of which St. George is the patron saint or where St. George’s Day is celebrated, or both. These include: Bulgaria, Catalonia, England, Georgia, Greece, Palestine, Russia and Serbia (and also Serb-populated areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro). These countries all have one, in some cases two, things in common: their nation status, indeed their very survival as a nation, has been under severe threat from an oppressive state or empire – Bulgaria and Georgia from the Soviet Union / Empire; Catalonia from Spain; Greece from the Roman Empire and later the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which also persecuted Serbia and took over the Serbian heartland of Kosovo; Palestine from Israel; Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro from a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, and subsequently from the Serbian-nationalist dream of a Greater Serbia; and England . . . from Britain.

I said that some of these countries had two things in common: Russia / the Soviet Union, Serbia / Yugoslavia and England / Britain have been as much agents of subjugation and aggression towards other nations as victims of such a form of suppression. It’s hard for us in the West to think of Russia as anything other than an aggressive, distrustful state that seeks to control and manipulate all the nations around it in a cynical, self-serving manner. However, Russia has in the past been the victim of terrible wars and persecutions that have come close to eradicating it as a nation, from the Mongol invasion of the 13th century to Hitler’s assault in World War II. Arguably, Russia – and certainly its Christian ‘soul’ – was as much a victim of Soviet totalitarianism as any of the other countries that lost their distinctive national identities when they became mere Soviet republics. Similarly, the resurgence of Serbian nationalism in the 1980s and 1990s, suffused with a heady mix of previously suppressed Orthodox Christianity, owed much to the fact that, although the Serbs were the dominant ethnic group in Communist Yugoslavia, they had to submerge and deny many of their national traditions for the sake of the cohesion of a monolithic, ethnically neutral, ideological state.

And what of England and Britain? Surely, I’m not suggesting that the subordination of England to Britain (symbolised, for instance, by the Union Flag taking precedence over the St. George’s Cross) is on a par with the suppression of Serbian national identity under Yugoslavia; or indeed, that the control previously exercised effectively by England over other nations in the British Empire and British Isles is akin to the ruthless Soviet subjugation of the nations surrounding Russia, or Serbian persecution of ethnic Albanians, Croats and Muslims in the terrible Balkan Wars of the 1990s?

Well, obviously, these things are different; but arguably, different only in degree not in kind. The convulsions in Former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union both involved nations that had been the centre of powerful multi-national states losing their grip on that power and attempting to reassert it in their own name rather than in the name, and for the ideals, of the former state: as Serbia in the 1990s, and in the shape of the resurgent Russia of the present decade. Similarly, the English were once the driving force behind the British Empire and the political heart of the United Kingdom. That Empire and – since devolution – England’s control over the other nations of the UK through the British state have gradually slipped away. The main difference is that, rather than reasserting itself in its own name – as England – England has tried to hold on to the illusion that the old Britain still exists as before; or rather, it has attempted to affirm and define a ‘new Britain’ that is very much just a 21st-century update of the old – but which is a denial of the changed realities of this century. What is this New Britain? A Britain that supposedly embodies only the positive ideals and ‘greatness’ of the British Empire – a world power standing for civilised, humane values – and none of its violent lust for power and for control over the world’s precious resources; and which, by denying its aggression and its racism (characteristics which it likes to think of as ‘English’ and ‘nationalistic’, not British), actually gives that aggression power over itself, rather than taming it. Or a Britain that is still what it was – a cohesive unitary state, identified with England in all but name – and not a Britain that now cannot even acknowledge England by name in case this blows open the reality that Britain has already been broken up through devolution into four differentially governed nations, and that what is known as Britain is really now only England.

Why is the British establishment – political and intellectual – so afraid of this emerging separate consciousness of England as a nation in its own right, no longer indissociable from the Britain with which it merged its identity for so long? Perhaps they are indeed afraid that a resurgent England, rather like Serbia and Russia, will assert itself in the shape of an ugly right-wing, racist nationalism: rejecting the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lateral liberal consensus; taking England out of the EU; and even trying to reassert its former prerogatives over Scotland and Wales. Such an England would indeed seem to represent the suppressed dark side of the British imperial and national project, just as Serbian and Russian nationalism were a re-expression of the darker aspects of Yugoslav and Soviet Communism. Better, on this view, for England to continue to try to uphold an image of itself as a ‘benign’ Britain than to let its own unacknowledged demons of malignant, narrow, ‘English’ nationalism escape.

Except, of course, the two things are inseparable parts of the same process: one nation, whether you refer to it as England or Britain, seeking a new identity and purpose in the light of the collapse of former imperial grandeur and of national unity back home; and trying to come to terms with and ‘own’ both the admirable and the dark aspects of a great past. England will have to emerge from this process of re-examination as a distinct national entity because the old Britain with which it was identified is no more – just as Serbia and Russia need to come to terms with being merely Serbia and Russia now that their great multi-national states and dreams of empire are over. And really, we British have so much less to fear from English nationalism than Serbia, Russia and their former compatriots had to fear from Serbian and Russian nationalism. Why? Because those values that the political and cultural elite so desperately seek to uphold as British-not-English really are English values all along that we the English previously invested in the British Empire and state, and which we must now redefine and reapply as part of a more realistic, modest and internationally collaborative existence as the nation of England.

English nationalism and Britishness: two sides of the same coin through which the English are striving towards a new currency of distinct nationhood. But for those values to be constructively reinvested in the real world of today, and not to be a dangerous fantasy recreation and re-enactment of the past, the coin must land on the English side: for too long the flipside of the British ‘heads’, but now having no choice, for our own sanity and survival, than to be the vanquisher of the mythical, delusional British dragon’s ‘tails’.

The Britain that has suppressed and submerged our English identity is increasingly in retreat, despite the best efforts of the establishment to reinvigorate it. Soon, the dragon must be slain and will not needlessly fight again; and under the banner of St. George – the patron saint of suppressed nations – England will reclaim its freedoms and its good faith for the future.

22 April 2008

Regional governance and the English parliament

It is often assumed by opponents of an English parliament that such a body would merely replicate the centralist pattern of governance that is characteristic of the present UK regime. One of the reasons for this is a simple equation that is made between the concept of ‘nationalism’ and support for a strong, unitary and by extension centrally organised nation state.

But there are many different possible blueprints for an English parliament and self-rule; and these involve a variety of relationships between all the different layers of government, ranging from the ‘local’ to the European and international. My personal preference hitherto has been a federal UK: a UK initially of four or five (including Cornwall) ‘nations’, with parliaments that have the same level of governmental responsibility in each of their respective territories. This would eliminate the imbalance of the present devolution settlement, whereby the people of Scotland and Wales are entitled to elect parliamentary bodies to deal with areas such as education, health and planning for their own countries exclusively, while policy and laws for England in these matters are made by the UK parliament elected by all the people of the UK.

I put the word ‘nation’ into inverted commas above because the parts of a federal UK as thus described are presently not formally defined as nations; nor would it be necessary for devolved federal parliaments to be limited to nations as such. Technically, as I say, none of the UK territories that we like to know as nations are nations in law: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are officially referred to as ‘constituent parts’ or ‘constituent countries’ of the UK. So ‘national’ devolution for each of these territories need not actually be described as such, but could be referred to as a form of regional devolution – with England obviously being a significantly larger ‘UK region’ than all the others.

Clearly, however, this sort of nomenclature would not be acceptable to the majority of the people in any of the UK’s ‘constituent countries’ (nor is this something I would subscribe to), as citizens are profoundly attached to their countries and are proud to call them ‘nations’ – as unofficially as you like! I do, however, think that a variation (and rather a significant variation) of the model I’ve just described is how GB [Gordon Brown] would like to see devolution eventually pan out. I think he sees Scotland, Wales and (to an indeterminate degree) Northern Ireland both as nations – in the informal, emotional sense – and as British regions. This dual identity is in some respects no different from the double status these countries have always had as distinct ‘nations’ within a unitary British state. The only difference – in theory – about devolved governance is that certain powers were delegated to the Scots and the Welsh themselves. A transfer of power does not in itself equate to a shift in national identity.

In other words, Brown’s original concept for devolution was probably that the Scots and Welsh would be content simply to have more of a say over devolved matters while still seeing themselves as primarily British, and viewing their devolved institutions effectively as just a layer of regional governance in all but name. In the event, of course, devolution has set in train a momentum whereby many people in Scotland and Wales increasingly see their devolved bodies as national institutions, and would like to see them take more nation-type powers away from Westminster; with the endgame for many obviously being full independence.

GB’s ideal template, then, is regional devolution. I think maybe that when New Labour was planning to introduce democratically elected devolved regional government throughout England, and when GB mooted that now (in)famous concept that Britain ‘as it should be’ was a “Britain of nations and regions”, they genuinely didn’t fully realise that this would be perceived as expressing an intention to dismember England into a set of regions of equivalent size, and with equivalent political powers, to Scotland: effectively abolishing England as an entity with any constitutional or legal status as a nation within the UK. I think Brown at least just had his own blueprint in mind for what I’ve called elsewhere a unitary ‘state-nation of Britain’, with certain areas of government devolved effectively to the regions, three of which coincided with the smaller ‘nations’ of the UK, and the remaining nine of which were English regions.

I’m being generous here; but I do genuinely think Brown still thinks of ‘England’ as a nation, in the same way that he thinks of Scotland as a nation: as a cultural, emotional, personal thing for which one can have a profound affection; but which is secondary, in political terms, to the state-as-nation – England coexisting with / subsumed under Britain in the same way that Scotland exists as a nation within a nation, or a country within a country. It’s just that he neglected to explicitly associate England as such with his regional model of devolution (by, for instance, referring to the ‘regions’ as the ‘regions of England’) or even to refer to England at all as a nation – avoiding the ‘E’ word as much as he possibly can, so as not to evoke the spectre of English devolution that threatens to break up his British Banquo’s feast. (A metaphor that makes Brown a Macbeth figure – something that is perhaps both over-flattering and unjustly condemnatory; but is pleasing all the same!)

I would not have said that Brown still thinks of England as a nation had I not stumbled across the following statement from the great man following FIFA’s decision last October to drop its continental rotation policy for the Football World Cup, enabling England to bid to hold the tournament in 2018: “I am delighted that FIFA have opened the door for the World Cup to come back to England. By 2018, it will be 52 years since England hosted the World Cup. The nation which gave football to the world deserves to have the greatest tournament back on these shores”. Yes, you’re not delusional: he said England twice in three sentences and explicitly called her a ‘nation’. You could call this just consummate politics: GB playing to the English patriotic audience, whose sentiments are always to the fore when it’s a question of the ‘national game’ and the national team. But I don’t think GB would have risked making such a statement – quite the most explicit statement that England is a nation I have ever come across from him – if he didn’t at one level hold it to be true. And that’s the point: for GB, ‘England’ signifies a nation in a cultural and emotional sense only; in the same way (but without the emotion) as Scotland does. And this is a sense that is closely connected with, and evoked by, national sports events and teams. 

By the way, I don’t have empirical evidence for my assertion that this is how GB experiences his Scottish national identity: he and his minions declined to answer the question in my email to Downing Street, “Does the PM consider himself to be Scottish or British in the first instance, and why?” I sent this question (with ‘England’ replacing ‘Scotland’ where appropriate) to a number of top politicians. Interestingly, the only answer I got back was from David Cameron’s office: “David was born in England so, if you are asking whether he is Scottish, English or Welsh – he is English. However, he likes to think of himself as British”. Well, there you have it: a consummate ambiguous, non-committal politician’s answer! But actually, for me, that vindicates what I’ve always asserted about David Cameron: that he’s English in the way that really matters, which is emotional and personal identification with a place, people and culture that have moulded you; whereas ‘British’ is merely his formal, public, passport national identity – the one that emotionally-anally retentive Brown thinks should be uppermost.

But I digress. What I wanted to say is that Brown’s regional model for devolution needn’t be construed as implying a malevolent will to abolish England as such. What it would achieve, if implemented, would be to deny the possibility of an English parliament, and English national political and civic institutions in general. And that’s the nub of the problem: Brown might wish the devolved Scottish and Welsh institutions to be merely a regional layer of governance; but they’re perceived by the Scottish, Welsh and English alike as national bodies. Therefore, the mooted regionalisation of England denies England the national representation and status that appears to have been accorded to Scotland and Wales, which Brown would have wished was merely regional – and may still wish to recast as such.

This state of affairs can perhaps be illuminated by looking at what aspects of governmental ‘competence’ (areas of responsibility) could be most typically classified as national or regional (or, indeed, international and local); how these competences have been distributed under New Labour between the various layers of governance; and different models for how they could be redistributed in the context of an English parliament. This categorisation would doubtless be disputed by many; however, it’s not meant to be absolute but merely to illustrate how Scotland and Wales have been accorded ‘national’ powers that have been denied to England; and how things could be very different.

Competences typically associated with different tiers of governance

  • International (EU): co-ordination of matters affecting peaceful relations between nations / states, and where multi-lateral action is more effective than unilateral; e.g. trade, human rights, employment regulations, international environmental policy and action against climate change, product and safety standards, defence in its international dimension, market liberalisation, etc.
  • National: areas of policy and legislation primarily affecting the social and economic development and well-being of the whole nation or state; e.g. economic and fiscal policy, defence and security, justice and policing, social security and benefits system; national aspects of environmental regulation; strategic aspects of education, health, transport and planning; the ‘culture’ industries, etc.
  • Regional: co-ordination of national social, economic and environmental policies at a sub-national level, including region-specific variations in non-strategic aspects of education, health and culture (for instance, where a specific ‘regional’ language or other cultural traditions need to be taken into consideration); and also, formulation and execution of regional development plans for things such as infrastructure, housing, business and transport
  • Local: administration and delivery of the major public services as they impinge on individuals and communities, including education, health, public transport, waste collection and recycling, small-scale planning decisions, etc.

Bearing the above categories in mind, the table below illustrates the current distribution of these competences across the various tiers of UK government in the wake of the EU constitutional treaty, and devolution for Scotland and Wales; along with a series of possible re-configurations of these layers of governance in the context of a federal UK or of complete independence for each of its current constituent countries. Crosses signify the actual or potential existence of a competence in the respective area

No.

Governmental Body

International competences

National competences

Regional competences

Local competences

1

EU post-Lisbon Treaty

X

X

2

UK post-Lisbon Treaty

X

Both UK-wide and England-only

England only

3

England post-devolution

4

Scotland and Wales post-devolution

X

X

5

English regional government as rejected in North-East referendum

X

6

Unelected English regional assemblies and quangos

X

X

7

English local authorities

X

 

 

 

 

 

 

8

Federal UK parliament and government inside the EU

Optional

UK-wide only

9

National parliaments and governments within a federal UK inside the EU

X

X

10

Elected English regional assemblies and administrations within a federal UK

X

X

11

Regionally extended English local government within a federal UK

X

X

12

English county and district authorities within a federal UK

X

X

13

Independent England, Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland (and Cornwall)

Optional

X

X

14

English regions within an independent England

 

X

X

Rows 1 and 2 in the above table illustrate how some national competences as I have defined them have been transferred to the EU under the Lisbon Treaty; while the UK – in part through the government’s ‘red lines’ – has, for the time being, retained certain powers that you could view as more properly international within the context of an integrated economic market, e.g. human rights and employment regulation.

Rows 2 to 4 illustrate how the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly have acquired some but not all of the powers that I would categorise as ‘national’ (e.g. justice (in the case of Scotland), strategic aspects of education and planning, culture, etc.), as well as others that are ‘regional’. Meanwhile, those same areas of governance for England are handled by the UK parliament and government, and there is absolutely no layer of exclusive England-wide governance.

Lines 6 and 7 show how the unelected regional bodies that have been introduced without a democratic mandate have also encroached on the powers of elected local authorities in England.

Lines 8 to 14 are intended to show a wide range of possibilities for international, national, regional and local governance that could all be accommodated with the existence of national parliaments and governments for each of the countries of the UK. For example, a federal UK government could decide to transfer its powers in ‘international’ matters to the EU, or not – depending on the will of the people as expressed in a referendum. Similarly, the balance of powers between the remaining UK-wide government and the governments of each of the UK nations would need to be determined. My own preference would be for quite a minimal layer of UK-wide governance limited, say, to areas where close UK-wide co-ordination would make the most sense, such as: defence and security; border and immigration control; fiscal and monetary policy (restricted to the minimum necessary required by the fact that each country would continue to use the pound as its currency); the environment; and ‘cross-border’ transport and infrastructure planning.

In reality, the level of co-operation that would be required in these areas between England, Scotland and Wales if they became fully independent nations would be virtually the same as that between the same nations within a federal UK. The principal difference would be that a federal UK / British government would maintain a distinct legal personality and provide a single voice (and therefore might be more effective) in international affairs – acting on behalf of the nations of the UK within international bodies and strategic relationships such as the EU, the UN, NATO, and bilateral dealings with major international partners. But there would have to be a new humility on the part of this federal UK, as it would not be acting at its own behest and playing the old power games inherited from our imperial and militarily triumphant past. On the contrary, it would essentially be delegated by the separate nations of these islands to defend our interests as nations in our own right; and if Mr UK failed to act in this spirit, then his legitimacy would be seriously in question.

Similarly, there is no reason why various new forms of regional and local governance should not spring up and prosper alongside an English parliament and government, whether federal or independent. The problem that English nationalists currently have with proposals for regional governance in England isn’t necessarily based on a centralist rejection of regional government per se, but is mainly a disagreement with the model as proposed by New Labour, which completely bypasses any England-wide layer of governance. But if English regions (however defined) genuinely want to take on more areas of governmental competence – including some of those I’ve categorised as ‘national’ – then a new English government should not in theory feel undermined by that because it would not be perceived as a threat to the identity, indeed the existence, of England as a nation, or to its territorial integrity.

It could be the case that such an increasingly powerful English region might eventually wish to become a UK-federal or independent nation. However, in the foreseeable future, this seems rather unlikely, unless you count Cornwall as an ‘English region’. But Cornwall is a completely unique case, and ‘regional government’ for Cornwall within England would already be perceived by many in Cornwall as effectively national devolution – generating the same sort of momentum for ultimate separation as we currently witness in Scotland and Wales vis-a-vis the UK. In any case, perhaps as part of the establishment of a federal UK, Cornwall could acquire equal status as a UK nation to the other four countries right from the start.

English ‘regions’ could also emerge and develop organically out of existing English counties, which – unlike the regions proposed by New Labour at the start of the present decade – comprise traditional territories that people relate to and identify with. So, for instance, new regions could be formed from a number of contiguous counties joining together if they felt that this was in the best interests of the people they represent (and subject to referendum): row 11 in the above table. In this case, the new regions would acquire additional regional competences alongside their existing local ones. Eventually, when they had really established themselves as sustainable, cohesive entities, such regions could also take on some ‘national’ competences (e.g. by developing completely separate education and health systems) – but you’re looking a long way down the road to the future at that point.

In a similar way, existing counties might take on regional responsibilities (row 12 above) or (which is another way of expressing the same thing) take on additional responsibilities for formulating and delivering policy in areas such as education, healthcare and planning – something that might make sense if those counties had a large population, a distinct cultural identity and also county-specific environmental, planning or infrastructure challenges. Examples could be Cornwall again (only disputably an English ‘county’); Yorkshire (traditionally a single county, though currently split up into four, including Humberside); or Essex (with a distinct culture and infrastructure demands in the vicinity of London).

There is therefore absolutely no intrinsic reason why an English parliament should adopt the same sort of centralising mentality and control freakery as the present-day Westminster government. If anything, it would create a natural momentum towards the break up of power at the centre; and it would be rather hypocritical and hard to justify for an English parliament to block the democratic will of English people if they did want increasing powers for regional and local government.

The respective international, national, regional and local tiers of government should ideally rest naturally on the shoulders of the people thus governed: the institutions exercising the responsibilities of national governance, as I have defined them, should really also symbolise and defend the common identity and culture of the people as a nation. In this respect, the present British state has failed in its proper mission, as it can perpetuate itself only by denying the English people any such official identity and voice as a nation. Whether a federal UK government could resist the temptation to try to claw back the powers it would have ceded to the respective national UK parliaments is a matter for mere speculation. I personally increasingly feel that nothing short of virtual or actual independence for England would guarantee that it could be sufficiently free from central UK control.

As I argued above, there would be very little practical difference between a federal UK with only a thin layer of strategic UK-wide governance, and a number of separate, independent British nation states co-operating closely on matters of mutual interest for these small islands that we inhabit. In any case, England may gain such an independent status more quickly than it realises if Scotland opts to go down that route in a few years time.

Those who cherish the United Kingdom and wish to see it continuing in the long term had better soon start rolling out genuine federal-style devolution to the nations and regions of Britain, including the English nation and regions. Otherwise, Scotland’s independence will be greeted by English people as our deliverance as much as Scotland’s.

14 April 2008

What can the Internet tell us about British values?

This is my somewhat belated contribution to a request for views made by the OpenDemocracy blogsite on the possible role Internet discussions might play in a putative ‘national conversation’ or debate on ‘British values’, leading towards the formulation of an official Statement of British Values. In addition to this specific debate, OpenDemocracy are seeking to open out the discussion to a consideration of the wider role the Internet might play in encouraging greater participation by citizens in debating and taking decisions on important national issues, such as constitutional or electoral reform.

As one might expect, I take the whole topic of a national conversation towards a Statement of British Values with a considerable dose of salt. In the first place, which nation is holding this conversation, and who is it supposed to be engaging – Britain, the UK or England? And then, can there ever really be a representative, definitive formal Statement of British Values – a sort of meta-statement encapsulating and distilling the essence of all the particular, relative statements (lower-case ‘s’) – because, precisely, it may be in all those particularities and peculiarities that the distinctive characteristics, mentalities and cultures of the different nations and peoples of ‘Britain’ are to be found. The abstract summation of that diversity within a single formal document might then be about as representative of real British values as the current House of Commons is of British people’s actual opinions and concerns: not very.

This touches upon one of the main problems with the idea of establishing some formal processes whereby the Internet could enable a much broader cross-section of society to participate in important debates and re-engage in politics more generally: is this being used as a substitute for a genuinely representative, participative politics? And this question in turn can perhaps be taken in two different ways. Firstly, the Westminster government knows that its legitimacy as a body that is representative of, and accountable to, the British people is extremely flimsy. But instead of carrying out thoroughgoing reforms so that parliament actually expresses public opinion more accurately, the government institutes a process that merely appears to extend the procedures and subject matters of parliamentary debate to the people (Internet consultations); while all the time the government reserves, and in 99% of cases exercises, its prerogative to ignore what appears to be the will of the people and take the decisions in exactly the same manner as before: in whipped votes that simply replicate time after time the disproportionality of the results of British general elections.

The second, related way in which Internet debates – at least, in the UK context – might be only a poor substitute for true open democracy (open and responsive, while not subservient, to public opinion), is that they require a certain level of trust and belief to already exist that the political process as such is a forum in which ‘the nation’ can meet and thrash things out, in the knowledge that any eventual conclusions and decisions will adequately reflect and respect the will of the people. In other words, Internet consultations will work effectively only within a political culture where people believe that politicians are genuinely seeking to work for the good of the whole country – as such – and want their decisions on our behalf to be based on consensus and clear majority backing.

UK politics is so far removed from this sort of situation that it can be hard for us to imagine what that might mean or have any confidence that it could exist in the UK. One thing that brought this home to me was something in France that I recently had the opportunity to learn about through my day job. This was a major summit on environmental policy (called the ‘Grenelle de l’environnement’) that took place in autumn last year, which involved the participation of an impressive collection of industry representatives, unions, NGOs, civil servants, politicians and other interested groups really trying to think through the environmental and economic challenges faced by France in the context of the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. You could never imagine any process like that happening in the UK; a) because you could never get such a diverse set of conflicting interest groups to sit down intensively over several weeks to thrash out shared, innovative policy ideas that the government was actually obliged to work into legislative and policy proposals; and b) you couldn’t imagine, in the UK, the kind of acceptance of, and commitment to, the process as belonging to and representing the whole nation as there appeared to be in France. Michael Wills’ ‘representative’ body of citizens trying to agree on British Values just wouldn’t carry the same conviction that it did represent ‘the nation’. In other words, national Internet debates could be a valuable part of the overall political process, but only if people had confidence that the political process as a whole constituted a national debate leading towards consensus and decisions that were in the best interests of the whole nation.

But then again, which nation? And that’s another difference from France and many of our European neighbours. In addition to the fact that most other European countries have electoral systems that produce much more proportionate parliaments, another reason why people in those countries respect the political process and believe in it as a national forum is that people believe in their nations as their nations: only in a proper, united nation can a national political process – parliamentary or Internet debates, for instance – adequately serve as a forum for the whole nation. There’s got to be a ‘nation of Britain’ for a ‘British national conversation’ as such to have any meaning: both an ongoing national conversation in general, and particularly a discussion on ‘national values’. You can’t answer the question ‘what are British values?’ till you’ve answered the question ‘who are British values for?’, i.e. is there a British nation as such for whom a representative set of values can be put together? Similarly, you can’t use the Internet to create a consensus politics around which the nation can unite and through which its views can be heard, if the nation as such is so divided, and has so little faith that politicians are anything more than partisan creatures seeking to push through their own ideological agendas and personal self-interest over and above the interests of ‘the nation’ however defined. The Internet cannot create the new politics; but if that new politics existed, the Internet could become one means among many for the views of ‘the nation’ to be heard. And people would believe in the Internet process because they would believe in the process per se.

As has been stated by other respondents to OpenDemocracy’s consultation, Internet debates can provide meaningful answers only if the right questions are asked. And this, along with the lack of a respected national political process, is the fatal flaw with the present debate on British values. In reality, the answer to the real question that is at work here, ‘who are British values for?’, is the English: the whole exercise is designed to re-engage English people in seeing their national identity and political status as British in the first instance, rather than English. In this sense, it’s just part of the whole Britology thing, as I call it, which precisely is the cultural and political attempt to define, as it were, almost a timeless set of ‘quintessentially British’ values: an ‘essence of Britishness’ that is so abstract and universal that people can accept it and embrace it without any reference, precisely, to the national question as such – the question whether, as well as expressing universal philosophical convictions and values, ‘British values’ in their particularity are also the expression of a nation – i.e. the English nation. If, on the other hand, you limit the discussion to a debate on the value system that should constitute the guiding principles of the British political system, this means you can avoid the real question: which nation are those values and that politics supposed to represent?

The whole British Values roadshow in general – not just the discussions around the formal Statement but the bigger ‘national conversation’ – is in my view primarily a means through which a political establishment that does not represent England is trying to channel a quest on the part of the English to redefine their national identity and representative politics into a new, and indeed, definitive statement of a Britishness with which that nascent English civic identity has hitherto been merged. In other words, it’s a last-ditch effort on the part of an unrepresentative British establishment to regain English assent to still be governed by it – but that ‘assent’ and participation can be elicited and enlisted only by excluding the real, English question: should the English now be English or British? And is there a ‘British nation’ at all for which a ‘Statement of British Values’ can be the basis for a new representative politics – one of whose channels for national debate could be the Internet?

The more general question about the role of the Internet as a forum for national political debate is an important one, and OpenDemocracy is to be commended for its efforts in articulating the parameters of the issue: how a medium as diverse and individualistic as the Internet could yet provide the basis of, what shall we call it, ‘e-governance’. I would like to have engaged in the technicalities of that discussion in more detail, as I’m naturally interested in the Internet as a medium for political debate. But in the terms with which the present debate is framed – a British national conversation on British values – there just didn’t seem much point.

The relationship between the British political establishment and the English people is like that of a troubled marriage: Mars and Venus – two conflicting ways of seeing things that just can’t find a common language and purpose any more. But instead of trying to patch things up and keep up a false façade of (national) unity for the neighbours, perhaps it’s better to start negotiating the terms of an amicable divorce – one that allows England to establish a new sort of relationship and partnership with the other members of the British family who’ve already flown the British nest and begun to establish their own separate lives and identities: a grown-up, adult relationship as an equal, not as the domineering British husband or parent patronising his wife and children, and making decisions for them without listening to their views.

Now that sounds like a modern, pragmatic, English answer to the ‘British question’!

11 April 2008

English Nationalism and Christianity: The Case of ‘Jerusalem’

It was reported yesterday that the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, the Very Rev. Colin Slee, has banned the singing of the hymn Jerusalem in the cathedral on the grounds that ‘the words do not praise God and are too nationalistic’, according to ‘senior clergy’. The words of a spokesman for the Diocese of Southwark, as quoted by the article, were: “The Dean of Southwark does not believe that [the hymn] is to the glory of God and it is not therefore used in private memorial services”. Well, I once had a young work colleague who died in a tragic climbing accident, and Jerusalem was sung at his funeral service; and it was a highly moving and appropriate choice for someone who loved the open country and whose life on earth was snuffed out at about the same age as that of Christ.

Before I proceed, let us remind ourselves of those disputed words:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

The question I would want to ask of the Dean is what is the link, in his mind, between this hymn being supposedly un-Christian (or ‘not to the glory of God’) and its (English) nationalism? Are the two things separate, or is there an implied link: it’s not Christian because it’s an expression of nationalism?

Firstly, I’d have to say, as a Christian myself, that I have had doubts in the past about whether this anthem was truly Christian in spirit. The defence of Jerusalem that has been made against the Dean’s prohibition of it – that it is a hugely popular hymn and the English people’s choice as national anthem (and mine, by the way) – doesn’t of itself make it, or at least the original Blake poem, a celebration of Christian faith. I’ve tended to think of Blake’s vision as being that of a utopian, socialistic ‘New Jerusalem’ built by human effort and a more humane application of technology rather than the New Jerusalem of faith, which for Christians is consummated at the end of time, even though we do have a duty to begin to build it in this life.

But like any great poem, the words are capable of multiple interpretations, and Jerusalem can be seen as a sort of prophetic, genuinely Christian-inspired vision. The metaphor of the ‘Holy Lamb of God’ (authentic Christian reverence there) literally gracing the green mountains and pleasant pastures of England can be viewed as perfectly consistent with the Christian belief that the risen Christ is with us here and now, and that we have a calling to work in the present day for the establishment of his kingdom on earth. That is a truly inspiring vision relevant as much for Blake’s time (fighting against the grim conditions of life for industrial workers) as for the present day when there is still so much horrific exploitation of the poor and of children throughout the world by big business and greed. So while the poem’s concluding call to build “Jerusalem / In England’s green and pleasant land” can indeed be judged as utopian and philosophically materialist (expressing an essentially secular vision of human progress), it can also be seen as a summons to Christians not to ignore the suffering of their brothers and sisters, and to translate their principles into action in defence of the poor and exploited.

So much for the charge that Jerusalem does not glorify God. If this view rests on very shaky foundations, is the poem’s nationalism the real problem – nationalism in general (and English nationalism in particular?) being construed as inconsistent with true Christian faith and worship? There certainly are ways in which the nationalistic tenor of the poem could be seen as problematic from a Christian perspective. The poem and the hymn have been associated with British imperialism. Although, in the present-day context, it is possible and in my view legitimate to dissociate English nationalism from the British imperialism of the past, there’s no doubt that at the time Blake was writing, and for much of the history since then, it’s been impossible to separate these two strands in the English popular imagination and sentiment. The Victorians thought of the Empire as England’s historic mission: to bring essentially English civilisation and English (‘Protestant’) Christian faith to the supposedly heathen and ‘savage’ millions that had not yet heard the Word or sampled the refined joys of the English way of life.

It surely must be these historical associations with imperialism and prejudice that make the ‘English nationalism’ of the hymn questionable in Dean Slee’s eyes. But on the one hand, even though we (the English, British, Christians, the West) no longer view the culture, religions and races of the former colonies of the Empire as inferior, and requiring conversion and elevation to our superior level, these associations of the poem are still the mark of a past when Christian faith and a sense of mission inspired thousands of English men and women to travel the world with a genuine ambition to spread the Gospel and witness to the Christian way of life – however misguided we now think some of their presuppositions and attitudes were.

Similarly, it is this linkage of English nationalism with the worst expressions of British imperialism, bigotry, racism and indeed nationalism, in the distant and more recent past, that makes many liberals – whether Christian or not – shy away from any idea that celebrating Englishness and the English nation as such could possibly be a good thing. But there’s a form of duplicity or, indeed, ‘bad faith’ that is often at work here: England is used as the scapegoat and as the projection for all that is now thought of as bad and unacceptable in historical Britishness. This then strips ‘modern’ Britishness of all the negative associations with the Empire and xenophobic nationalism so that it can become the symbol of all that is now considered to be good and acceptable about . . . about what exactly? Well, about England, Englishness and the legacy of the British Empire, in actual fact: its internationalist, multi-cultural inclusiveness (like the Empire, including peoples from all over the world in the tolerant, law-abiding English British civilisation); its Christian-derived liberal progressivism and egalitarianism; and its continuing sense of itself as a great nation that stands for true values and the vision of a better world that still looks very much like Blake’s Jerusalem.

So, ‘Englishness = bad’ and ‘Britishness = good’. I doubt very much whether Dean Slee would regard the nationalist connotations of the hymn as nearly so objectionable if one substituted the word ‘Britain’ for ‘England’ in the text of the poem: ‘Britain’s pleasant pastures’ and ‘Britain’s green and pleasant land’. Who could object to those words (well, millions of English people who love the hymn, for a start – but it’s a rhetorical question!)? Suddenly, from a celebration of England’s (don’t you mean Britain’s?) nationalist-imperialist past, it becomes something that can evoke an inclusive, ecological Britain where all are equal, including those of ‘lesser’ social classes, religions or races once ruthlessly exploited by the . . . English.

Well, as I say, the poem is capable of multiple interpretations. And even though I’ve put words into Dean Slee’s mouth in attempting to understand his objections to Jerusalem, it does appear to conform to the liberal and, as I would call it, Britological logic whereby Britishness is viewed as inclusive and universal, while Englishness is thought of as exclusive (xenophobic and elitist) and ‘narrow’. Britishness is inclusive, yes; but only on condition that it excludes from itself any association with Englishness – something that is symbolised perfectly by the Dean’s literal exclusion of this archetypally English hymn from his cathedral.

Of course, this is nonsense; but it’s the way the champions of Britishness think. This view of the world involves a completely fallacious splitting up of the previously indissociable English and British identity whereby, as I’ve said, England is made the projection of all that is bad about our history and culture, and Britain is transformed into the natural inheritor of all the best bits of that history and civilisation. Our history, our culture; our Englishness. We English nationalists must resist this systematic denial of the very English history, traditions and collective endeavour that have created the Britain that the Britologists seek to dissociate from England, and from which they wish to evacuate English self-awareness and identity. And while not denying the mistakes and wrongs that English people have perpetrated on other nations and races through imperialism and an overweaning sense of superiority, we must hold on to and espouse as English those values and virtues that we cherish, and which the Britologists would have us believe are exclusively those of modern Britain: exclusive of England and Englishness, that is.

And for me, at least, those values include Christian faith, and a respect for religious faith in general. It seems to me that what is at stake ultimately in the Dean’s banning of a hymn that is at once very Christian in much of its inspiration (as I argued above) and very English is a quite mistaken dissociation of Christian faith from the English national identity. Does it really matter whether Blake’s poem conforms to either Biblical, Catholic or modern liberal-Christian orthodoxy if the great majority of English people experience it as a hymn of Christian hope for a better future for their country and as a celebration of the blessings that God (or simply good fortune) have bestowed on their beautiful land? National sentiment and traditions are inextricably linked with Christian faith in Christian cultures, precisely; and Jerusalem is an expression of just such a national, English Christian culture.

In an era when the survival of England as both a civic nation and as a Christian country is under severe threat, this Church of England Dean’s condemnation of Jerusalem as a non-Christian hymn is one of the most stupid acts of shooting oneself in the foot imaginable! I for one, as an English patriot and as a Christian, will continue to sing it – with greater gusto than ever.

3 April 2008

New British Coins: Time For Change?

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I had mixed feelings when they announced a few months ago that the symbol of Britannia (the Boadicea-like female warrior that is a traditional emblem for Britain and the British Empire) would no longer be appearing on any of our British coins, as she does on the current 50-pence piece (see above).  Although she represents a militaristic, imperialistic Britain that in some respects we shouldn’t be too proud of, I contemplated with dread the more ‘appropriate’, ‘contemporary’ symbols of Britishness we were promised we’d be getting. On top of which, the ‘British’ lion seated next to the figure of Britannia could also be taken as a symbol of England: picking up the theme of the Crest of England that appears on the 10-pence piece.

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The new designs were revealed for the first time yesterday. They employ quite a clever idea, which is to depict fragments of the Royal Crest on each of the six coins from 1p to 50p, which – when placed together in the right configuration – compose the complete crest, which is then united in a single image on the £1 coin. This is indeed quite a contemporary-NEWDESIGNSFORMATION

looking design, which re-expresses the idea of a unitary United Kingdom in quite a subtle way. Each of the coins appears to focus on different ‘constituent parts’ of the UK – otherwise known as the nations of the UK. In this respect, England appears – for a change – to come out of it quite well, as in fact all but the two-pence coin show parts of the English Three Lions emblem. By contrast, apart from the £1 coin, the Lion Rampant of Scotland appears in any recognisable way only on the 2p piece: continuing an honourable tradition whereby the higher-denomination coins show British or English emblems, while lower-value coinage is reserved for the smaller nations of the kingdom, as in the present five-pence piece (Scotland) and two-pence piece (Wales).

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Too bad for Wales with the new coins, though, as none of the parts of the Royal Crest contain any overt symbol for Wales – and it’s not as if the Principality is lacking in them: the Red Dragon, daffodils, leeks, even the rugby ball at a pinch! I can see the new coinage is going to re-ignite all the controversy there was last year over the absence of any Welsh element from the Union Flag. But then again, as a survey commissioned by the (English) Justice Ministry found only last week, the Welsh are the UK nation that feels the greatest sense of ‘belonging to Britain’ (more so than the English) – so perhaps they won’t mind too much (says he, tongue in cheek)! And don’t even mention the word ‘Cornwall’!

By contrast, the new designs appear to provide a definite promotion of the (Northern) Irish element, as the Irish harp appears in an obvious way in three of the six coins worth under a pound, compared with no Irish representation in the equivalent coins up to now. Not surprising, perhaps, given that the young designer, Matthew Dent, who won the contest to come up with the new images is from Bangor, Northern Ireland! [PS. I was corrected on this by a reader (see comments below). The designer is from the other Bangor, in North Wales, which only makes the comment about Welsh buy-in to Britishness all the more telling! Unless it’s just an ironic joke intended to provoke a row which, like the design itself, points to the disunited character of the kingdom, as Englisc Fyrd suggests.]

All this apparent focusing in on the emblems for the different nations of the UK could lead one to think that the new design was giving expression to a new consciousness of the UK as comprising distinct nations that are yet held together by the manifold bonds of history, tradition, loyalty to the monarchy (the Royal Crest theme) and that familiar old sense of ‘shared Britishness’. And yet the cleverness of the design is that it suggests that none of those separate national elements is sufficient in isolation: that it’s only when you put them together that you complete the picture and that you arrive at the national unity symbolised by the ‘one-ness’ of the one-pound coin. Of course, the very absence of any overt Welsh (or Cornish) symbolism might already have led one to the same conclusion: that these coins are not at all about celebrating the diverse consciousness and traditions of the nations of the UK but only about providing a modern symbol for the national unity of the UK in the same way that the Union Jack so cleverly embodies the concept of a unitary UK of (five) four three nations.

In fact, it’s the current coinage that does greater justice to the idea that Britain (as opposed to the UK) is comprised (notwithstanding Cornish claims of separateness) of England, Scotland and Wales – given the inclusion of separate English, Scottish and Welsh symbols on the different coins; the English benefiting from a traditional, but demographically proportionate, discrimination in having their emblems feature on both the 10p coin (see image above) and the 20p coin (below).

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But the new coins can of course be read in quite a different way. They could be viewed as symbolising the fact that the old Britain / Britannia is breaking up: a state whose imperial power and certainties acted as such a strong force for unity that the separate identities of England, Scotland and Wales could be celebrated without threatening it. Now, as the unity of the Royal Crest dissolves into fragments, we no longer have images on most of our coins that are complete symbols for either ‘Britain as a whole’ or indeed each of the constituent nations. Instead, we have disjointed bits of the Three Lions, the Lion Rampant and the Irish Harp, with elements from one emblem sometimes crossing over into the image of the other and sometimes not. As if to say that when we lose the vision of our distinct national identities as English, Scottish and Irish (let alone Welsh and Cornish), we lose the integral vision of Britain as a whole – of Britain as one.

Admittedly, this oneness is reunited in the new one-pound coin. But there’s something about this that doesn’t add up. Indeed, if you do add up the ‘values’ of the lower-denomination coins, you get 88 pence, not one pound. So the different values of the lesser coins (the different UK nations) from which the presence of distinct national symbols are deferred (‘differed’, changed) across the sequence of the coins do not properly come together in one-pound (one nation and one unitary (set of) value(s)); rather, they leave an unbridgeable difference.

Another word for that difference – 12p, to be precise – is change. So perhaps the new coins are an appropriate symbol for a changing United Kingdom, after all. But there’s no guarantee, like the comforting circular closure of the one-pound coin, that that change will preserve and reinstate a former unity whose brokenness is aptly symbolised by the fragmentary and incomplete symbols of the nations of Britain – whose search for new identity and values may yet produce even more difference.

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