Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

22 June 2008

Nationalism: Positive or Negative?

There has been much discussion recently, including on this blog, of what a ‘progressive’ English nationalism might mean. I can think of three main ways to configure this question:

  1. English nationalism could be viewed as progressive – itself a term that needs more precision; for the moment, let’s just say this means ‘associated with a liberal, left-of-centre social and political agenda’ – if it ascribes to itself many of the traditional values of English-British civic society, including tolerance towards and inclusion of a wide range of ethnicities, cultures and ways of life. This would be civic English nationalism as opposed to ethnic nationalism. This was recently criticised by Arthur Aughey (see also the helpful review of Arthur Aughey’s critique here) as essentially just the same as British civic nationalism which, Aughey claimed, English nationalists have to demolish in order to set up English nationalism as a civic movement, at the risk of allowing ethnic nationalism to come in and fill the place left vacant by British civic nationalism. My response to this in essence is that British civic nationalism is really a product of English history, politics and culture in the first place, i.e. it is already English civic nationalism. So it’s just a case of refocusing English civic society on England and the English, with these terms not defined in an ethnic sense.
  2. You can also argue that English nationalism is a positive thing – let’s use this term rather than the ideologically loaded ‘progressive’ – on simple democratic and libertarian principles, as follows: a) the English nation exists; b) as a nation, on established human-rights principles, it has the sovereign and democratic right to determine the form of government it wishes for itself. In this form, English nationalism is merely the defence of the rights and freedoms of a people, i.e. the English people. This is irrespective of any ideological agenda one might have to ‘improve’ that people and its society (progressivism), and does not necessarily make any assertion about the English having particular characteristics (cultural or racial) that make them any better than, or exclusive of, other people – although defenders of English-national rights will generally do so because they love England and its people, for all their flaws. This is the closest to my position, although I would also hope that an independent or federal England would embody the best aspects of traditional, English civic society.
  3. The final way to look at this question, which is one I want to raise briefly here, is considering nationalism from an ethical (as opposed to ethnic) perspective. This is an angle that is not often explicitly explored; but the ethical dimension is implicit behind any questioning of the progressive, or anti-progressive, character of nationalism.

Essentially, the question is as follows: is nationalism, even in some of its civic and libertarian aspects – as defined above – always to some extent discriminatory and exclusive? That is, insofar as English nationalism embodies a focus on creating English civic society, and on defending the democratic rights and freedoms of English people, would this not always in practice involve some element of discrimination and preferential treatment in favour of English people over non-English people, whether these are from other British countries, from other EU states or elsewhere?

Without going into detailed, specific examples or hypothetical cases, I’m interested in highlighting an issue that needs to be thought through, which could be put pithily as follows: is nationalism – any nationalism, not just English – always a form of discrimination like other ‘-isms’, in that it involves favouritism and partiality towards a particular nation; in the same way that sexism involves favouring one sex over another, and similarly for racism, ageism, homophobia, religious bigotry, etc.?

To some extent, I think this is a false question – and I’ll explain why in a moment. But I think it has bedevilled any attempt to establish English nationalism as a credible, positive idea. The fact that the question has not been posed explicitly has enabled ‘progressives’ to be unchallenged in positioning English nationalism in the wrong camp and in identifying it as a negative ‘-ism’ and as a form of discrimination in the way I suggest. The predisposition to answer the question I have just raised in the negative (‘yes, nationalism is always discriminatory; and therefore, English nationalism must also always be discriminatory’) has facilitated the negative association of English nationalism as an ethnic nationalism, via an easy slippage between ‘nationalism’ and ‘racism’.

If, on the other hand, you do raise this question explicitly, it forces a more honest, comprehensive answer. Yes, nationalism always to some extent involves being more concerned to protect the rights, freedoms, security and also economic interests of a particular nation, as opposed to those of other nationalities. But this ‘exclusion’ of non-nationals is the very condition upon which civic society and, indeed, democracy are founded and can be advanced. The society that is the civic society is a contingent, limited entity: limited in the number of people included, in the geographical space in which they live and – to a more relative extent – in its culture and traditions. The model of a civic society is therefore a polis (or polity). In the original Greek, this referred to a city state such as Athens – the words ‘civic’ and ‘city’ having the same Latin root; but in the modern sense, the starting point has to be a self-defining collectivity of people exercising its sovereign right to govern itself democratically. And the English nation is just such a collectivity.

This means that it is really down to the English – including those of non-British ethnicity who are British citizens and either live in England or consider themselves to be English – to decide, through properly democratic institutions, which newcomers can join the civic society and enjoy its rights, including social and economic rights such as education, training and the opportunity for dignified employment on a living wage. This is not necessarily discrimination – although, in practice, there could be instances where it was associated with discriminatory attitudes – but is, in essence, a society looking after its own, including those who have tended to be disenfranchised in British society, both democratically and economically. One would aspire to such an English civic society embodying values of compassion towards people of other nationalities (whether living in England or not), and openness towards the economic and cultural benefits of globalisation, while mitigating its negative social effects to a greater extent than has been done up to now. But it is a right – a human right – for a people to say: this is who we are and this is how we want our society to be; and if you are willing to accept us on our terms, we will welcome you and all you have to bring to our country.

Think what have been the consequences of the opposite attitude; and this is where the falseness of the assumption that nationalism is always to some extent discriminatory is revealed. The opposite view is one that simply can’t bite the bullet of nationhood and consequently won’t ask the national question, let alone the English question. ‘All nationalism is negative’ means ‘all nationalities are / should be included’; and this assumption has been at work in New Labour’s attempts to re-cast Britishness as a merely civic concept that ultimately replaces people’s old national allegiances (whether English / Scottish / Welsh / Irish or to any other nation around the world) with acceptance of a set of universal, civic ‘British values’.

In practice, the ‘all nationalities are included (more properly, ‘subsumed’) within Britishness’ approach has gone hand in hand with the government’s open door policies on migration: ‘all nationalities can be included (accommodated) in Britain’. This has been expressed in the view that people of any nation are welcome to settle here and eventually become British citizens so long as they contribute to society (i.e. in practice, largely, to the economy) and subscribe to said British values. No chance, in this context, to say: ‘wait, shouldn’t we be looking after the social and economic needs of English (and Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish) people first and foremost, and try to train up our own people to do the jobs (both skilled and unskilled) that the economy needs?’ No: quicker and cheaper to just bring labour in on the cheap from wherever it’s available; this is globalisation, after all. Putting the interests of English people before those from other EU states or those with skills to contribute would be (English-nationalist) discrimination, so the argument goes. But isn’t the opposite necessarily discrimination against the English? And isn’t the out-of-hand rejection of any argument that tries to advance the cause of a particular national group (i.e. the English) over that of any of the many and varied nationalities grouped into supra-national Britain also a form of discrimination? Hence, pushed to the extreme, ‘anti-nationalism’ is also a negative ‘-ism’: discrimination against, and prejudice towards, those who would defend the interests of a particular, limited group as opposed to that of a larger group (the British nation) that is able to deny that it is discriminating against any particular nation because it defines itself as based on the denial of nationality per se.

In either sense of the term ‘denial’, it’s England, Englishness and the English that are denied their civic, democratic and economic rights; and the British state is in denial of this fact, in that it can’t accept the existence of the England it denies. In this way, modern Britain demonstrates a curious paradox: a supposed civic society and democratic nation that denies the nation and nationhood on which it is built subverts its own foundations. In this way, a-national / supra-national Britain no longer represents the English nation who established it and which it exists to serve.

21 June 2008

National Identity: Ancient Frontiers And the Football Test

Watching the Euro 2008 football tournament has provided another occasion for me to ruminate on questions of national identity. I find myself being envious of the players and supporters of our European neighbours, whose countries are also their nations – injecting just that little bit of extra national pride into the efforts of the teams as they struggle not just for football glory but the (self-)esteem of their whole nation.

It’s hard to imagine the same sort of sentiments surrounding the England team, had they qualified; although, undoubtedly, the same passions would have been invoked in their respective countries by the participation of Scotland or Ireland. It’s not that a great many English people, including myself, would not be filled with jubilation if an England team won a tournament such as the European Nations Championship or the World Cup; nor that those who represent England in team sports don’t do so without a huge amount of pride. It’s just that it doesn’t mean quite as much as if your nation is also reflected and represented in every aspect of the public life of your country: politics, institutions, culture, the media, language, national traditions, a coherent sense of national identity, and a passionate attachment to a specific territory and its peoples. This is the case, in different ways, for all the nations participating in Euro 2008. But if England were competing, it would not be the case, in the same way, for her: we do not have an English Parliament or government; our national institutions are those of the UK, or else of England and Wales; there is widespread diffidence about, if not contempt towards, English culture; our media are officially ‘British’ (although in reality often English in all but name); our language is the global language and the official language of UEFA, even though no English-speaking nation is taking part in Euro 2008; many of our national traditions are ‘British’; English people still wrestle uncomfortably with their dual English-British national identity, and even with the very notion of national identity as such; and our territory and peoples – are they England and the English, or Britain and the British?

One imagines that the minds of players representing the likes of France, Spain, Germany or Croatia become filled with the historical facts and lore of their nations; and they see themselves handed the opportunity to symbolically defend and uphold the dignity, values and even territorial integrity of their nations as they represent everything their countries stand for and their nations’ entire histories, which have led to the existence of the national teams they themselves are a part of. By contrast, the great national achievements and struggles that an England player can call to mind are those of Britain, not – nominally, at least – of England: the British Empire; the democratic principles, rule of law and language that we have spread throughout the world; the victorious fight for freedom and justice in the Battle of Britain and the Second World War. The nation and the territory that were at the heart of these great convulsions of history were those of Britain. And this Britain is now falling apart and provokes considerable ambivalence in the minds and hearts of most English people and particularly, perhaps, in members of a sporting team for England, a country whose separateness from Britain / the UK only further calls to mind the break up of a once-proud Britain and the absence of an English nation state. Needless to say, this ambivalence can only be stirred up all the more as the strains of ‘God Save the Queen’ boom out throughout the stadium before the match begins; while French hearts, by contrast, are filled with national pride by the tones of the Marseillaise.

This idea of the national football team symbolically enacting a defence of the nation’s territory is quite an important one, it seems to me. Anthropologists of the Desmond Morris school would say that national team sport is a peaceful way to act out aggression and rivalry between countries. Games between England and Scotland, or between Germany and the Netherlands, always have something of this character of re-playing ancient enmities and settling old scores.

This is, as it were, the football test of national identity, which is probably a more valid and universal indicator than Norman Tebbit’s famous cricket test, given the greater passions provoked by football internationals than cricket test matches, and given the fact that football – like so many other things – is something that England has given to the whole world. The reality of national identity, as an emotional and cultural thing, is for me demonstrated by football allegiances more than by any other phenomenon. It’s in connection with football that you immediately realise that England and Scotland are indeed different nations and that they’ll never be merged into a unitary British sense of national identity. Indeed, it’s because of this incontrovertible evidence of nationhood that no other countries seem to have any difficulty accepting that England and Scotland should have separate national football teams and football associations, despite the fact that their nations (plus Wales and Northern Ireland) are not also states – unlike every other nation with a football team.

And, as I indicated above, the England and Scotland that are represented by their respective football teams are, among other things, territorial entities. When we think of England or Scotland, or indeed any other nation, one of the things we always picture in our minds are the outlines of those nations’ territories as they appear on maps. These are boundaries hard won by the battles of the past, re-played in the football contests of the present. But they are in many cases also ancient frontiers stretching back through history to Roman times and beyond. France – occupying pretty much the same land as ancient Gaul; Spain – España – Roman Hispania, minus Portugal; Germany – the Barbarian peoples of Germania; and Catholic Croatia, whose historic rivalry with its ethnic twin, Orthodox Serbia, reflects their location right on the divide between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, and the Western and Eastern Christian Church.

It is the same with England and Scotland: a territorial divide so ancient that the landscape of Northumberland still carries its traces in the Roman emperor Hadrian’s Wall. With one difference: Roman Britannia did not extend to the whole island of Britain; so the territory we now know as Britain (unlike in the cases referred to above) is an extension beyond the original Roman and pre-Roman territorial boundaries. Ancient Britannia referred pretty much to the territory now known as England and Wales; while Caledonia – Scotland – was a separate territorial and political entity.

These ancient divisions run deep. ‘Divisions’ is not the right word: ‘distinctions’ is perhaps better. These differences in culture, history, traditions and institutions – linked to an attachment to a specific land, and to a way of life which, in the past, was very much more dependent on the land – are what gives us our national characteristics, and defines us as a distinct national community. In this way, the nations of England and Scotland can trace their differences – their distinctions – along a continuous historical and folkloric thread that leads back to pre-Roman, indeed pre-historic, times; such as when the Celtic Britons were distinct from the Caledonian, non-Celtic Picts.

There was no integral, Celtic Britain that was somehow broken up by the Anglo-Saxon invasion – unless, of course, by ‘Britain’ you mean the territory of England and Wales (Roman Britannia). And that division between Celtic Britain and non-Celtic Caledonia has been carried over to this day in the division within the Celtic linguistic domain between ‘Brythonic’ Celtic (Welsh, Cornish and Breton) and ‘Goidelic’ (Gaelic in both its Irish form and its imported offshoot that is Scots). And these ancient divisions and distinctions within the island of Britain have been very much carried forward from history through to the present in the much closer institutional and national links that still exist between England and Wales, compared with the historically more recent and looser – and ever more loosening – ties between England and Scotland.

These ancient historic distinctions – demarcators of national territory and identity – suggest an illuminating perspective on the conflicting English and British identities of the English people. Beyond more transient considerations of 18th-century political union, ideology and imperial ambitions, the formation of a United Kingdom of Great Britain by the 1707 Act of Union expressed a more primordial, territorial logic. As people inhabiting a comparatively small island, it was natural that the instinct of the English to defend their national territory should extend beyond the border with Scotland to the whole of Britain, especially as trade and technology led to both many more dealings and rivalries with our continental neighbours – and consequently, many more dangers of assault and invasion by sea and later by air. This thinking is still very much alive in one of the key rationales that is brought forward for preserving the United Kingdom today: that we share a single territory, whose defence and security is best assured by preserving a political union.

For these expedient, but also vital, reasons, the political dominion of England was extended beyond England and Wales to encompass Scotland, and thereafter Ireland. Or, putting this another way, the national and political entity (England, incorporating Wales) that was the inheritor of the ancient Roman / pre-Roman Britannia was extended to Caledonia, i.e. to the whole island of Britannia. This has led to the two Britains that we have today: the political Britain, the UK state, that in so many ways is in practice the English state in all but name, even to this day; and the territory of Britain, where the distinctions between England, Scotland and Wales are increasingly being marked by separate institutional and cultural expressions of national identity. One Britain that really is England: the product of English history, difference, and the defence of her independence and territorial integrity that extended to the whole of Britain. And another geographical Britain that encompasses the two nations of England and Scotland (if you include Wales and Cornwall – historically, Brythonic Celtic entities – within England / Britannia); or four nations if you regard Wales and Cornwall as nations that are seceding more from England than from a Britain which, politically, was always already only England.

But what we have, and what we have ever had, is certainly not one Britain. We do, or at least did, have a United – English – Kingdom of Great Britain, maybe; but this has never been a single, united nation in the territorial sense, and hence in all the other senses that really matter to a people that identify with a land.

And when England can once again celebrate and affirm its distinction from Britain, and take pride in all that it has achieved both under the guise of Britain and in its own name, then maybe the English football team, too, will see itself as the defender and inheritor of a great English nation: of its history and its future.

12 June 2008

Campaign For Plain England No. 8: The BBC is told to ‘say England’

I can confirm that I am not Professor Anthony King, the author of an independent report commissioned by the BBC Trust, which appeared yesterday. I feel I need to point this out, as so much of the report could have been lifted directly from the analyses in this blog – particularly, this Campaign For Plain England series – of the way news reporting frequently describes the England-only decisions and statements of government as if they related to the whole of the UK.

So much of my analysis is there:

  • the way in which the TV or radio audience is often not “made aware by clear labelling which facts relate to which nations of the UK”
  • the way in which this leads viewers or listeners to assume that “the story applied to the whole UK when it did not”
  • the “common practice for presenters and newsreaders to mention at the top of a story that the story related only to England but then never to mention that fact again, even in the course of a lengthy programme”
  • the fact that “it was extremely rare for an attempt to be made to compare and contrast an event or development in England with a comparable event or development in one of the devolved nations”
  • the fact that in the Radio Four Today programme’s coverage of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] commitment to train British workers for British jobs (which in reality meant only English workers and training), “the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ were used only three times in the course of six items; the words ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ were used 46 times, and there were two unexplained references to the UK and ‘the country'”
  • and the fact that this lack of clarity was very much reflected in the government’s own communications, as exemplified by a press release that left it to a footnote at the end to make clear that “this press notice relates to England only”. Actually, in my experience, the wording is usually even more insulting: “This press notice relates to ‘England’ [in quotation marks] only”.

The focus of Professor King’s report is somewhat broader than my analyses. As he puts it, “the BBC Trust . . . asked us, in essence, a single question: in recent years, has the BBC’s UK-wide network news, current-affairs and factual programming kept pace with – and responded adequately and appropriately to – the United Kingdom’s changing political, social, economic and cultural architecture?” His answer to this question is an emphatic ‘no’. Specifically, he criticises not only the way England-only stories are misleadingly presented as UK or ‘British’ ones; but also the failure to report adequately, in national UK news, on politics and government in the devolved nations, which would properly inform people (particularly, English people) about the different ways the nations are governed, allowing them to make informed comparisons of the very divergent policies being pursued by each national government. The two failings are obviously interdependent: if England-specific news is presented as if it were UK-wide, then it would be rather inconsistent to make a big effort to point out how differently things are being done in the other UK countries.

Well, it’s nice to be able to say ‘I told you so’ once in a while! Where I take issue with Professor King is in two minor but significant areas. First, he refers to the fact that media present England-only stories as if they applied to the whole of the UK as exhibiting “a general bias in favour of stories about England or telling stories from an England perspective” and as “Anglocentric”. This is despite the fact that he also makes clear – as in one of the examples I refer to above – that ‘England’ is often hardly mentioned explicitly in such reports, and everything is described as relating to ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’. It scarcely seems fair to call this ‘Anglocentric’. It’s only Anglocentric insofar as England precisely is not differentiated from the UK (and hence English politics is not differentiated from Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politics). In other words, such stories articulate an assimilation of England to the UK / Britain, such that it amounts to a replacement of ‘England’ by ‘Britain’: when politicians and media reports really mean England, they say Britain.

This relates to my second point of divergence from Prof. King: his diagnosis of why this ignoring of the differences in the politics of the UK nations has occurred, even on the part of the BBC with its public-service remit. The Professor identifies this as reflecting the London- and Westminster-centric mindset of the national media, and their being “accustomed to a nation in which almost everything that really matters – politically, culturally, socially, financially – happens in or near London”. There is also a “symbiosis between BBC journalists and Westminster politicians. . . . They have a shared professional interest in convincing themselves – thereby perhaps unwittingly convincing
others – that nothing has changed, that God is still in his heaven and that power, real
power, is still located uniquely in the Palace of Westminster”.

It’s with this ‘perhaps unwittingly’ that I disagree. The failings in the BBC’s news reporting are so completely consistent with government practice that it is hard not to come to the conclusion that there is deliberate collusion between Westminster politicians and BBC journalists. The piece that is missing from Professor King’s analysis – in fairness, it wasn’t part of his brief – is a study of how government has practiced to deceive in exactly the same way: referring systematically to ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’ where England is really intended.

Professor King is pointing to a traditional mindset that did, and still does, exist: the identification between England and Britain, reflecting the fact that England was the centre of power of a unitary UK that no longer exists. But, overlaying this under New Labour in the post-devolution world, has been a more sinister and deliberate refusal to acknowledge that so much of the work of the UK government applies to England alone. And the reason why this has been done is that the establishment (and this includes the opposition parties, which carry on exactly the same deceit) doesn’t want the English public to be aware of the anomaly that England is the only UK country that doesn’t have a devolved national parliament to deal with its nation-specific affairs. Hence, playing on English people’s traditional identification of England with the UK, and bolstering the illusion by plentiful references to ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’ when the subject matter being discussed involves England only, is a deliberate tactic to prevent English people from grasping the realities of devolution and so demanding a piece of the action for themselves.

Professor King gets very close to this, to me, totally obvious inference; perhaps he realises this is what is going on but doesn’t say so, as his remit is to analyse only what the BBC has been doing, not to make assertions – however well backed up by abundant circumstantial evidence – as to the political motivations. The Professor talks about the benefits that would result from the BBC reporting much more clearly and accurately about the differences in governance between the UK nations. He writes: “we have been struck by the network’s apparent reluctance to explore or even take note of the UK’s emerging institutional variety, even when that variety is of UK-wide political significance and may ultimately impact upon the future of the UK itself”. Well, precisely: the BBC, in common with the UK government, doesn’t want this particular can of worms to be opened up.

Again: “the union’s variety, the state of the union and the future of the union should be threads running throughout the network’s output”. Of course, this is what should happen; and the fact that it hasn’t is precisely because the powers that be wanted to pretend that it was Westminster business as usual and that the ‘future of the union’ was unquestionable. And again: “Even when mention was made of the fact that a news item related only to England, it was extremely rare for an attempt to be made to compare and contrast an event or development in England with a comparable event or development in one of the devolved nations”. Well, exactly: the government doesn’t want people in England to make such comparisons because then they’ll realise there are alternatives to unpopular England-only policies being pursued by an unrepresentative UK government, which they could get if they had an English parliament elected under PR like those of Scotland and Wales.

All the same, Professor King’s report makes refreshing reading: it’s a breath of fresh air when an impartial person with the authority to call the BBC to account makes very similar observations to one’s own concerning the inadequacies of the media to ‘say England’ (and, indeed, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Northern Ireland’) when that’s what they mean.

The number’s up on the cosy collusion between the national media and the Westminster political class. Let’s hope the BBC puts its house in order even if the House of Commons won’t!

7 June 2008

Is the Governance of Britain Agenda Dead?

In the statement of its Draft Legislative Programme (DLP) presented to the House of Commons in May 2008, the UK government appeared to be back-pedalling on some of the more ‘Britological’ (Britishness-obsessed) aspects of its constitutional-reform agenda, also known under the rubric of ‘Governance of Britain’. The actual constitutional-reform measures proposed were somewhat tame: reform of the role of the Attorney General; giving Parliament more of a say in ratifying treaties and approving the deployment of the Armed Forces in wars; allowing citizens to demonstrate in Parliament Square without notifying their intentions in advance to the police, etc.

With regard to the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, the only mention was that the government would “consult on a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, to give people in the UK a clear idea of what we can expect from public authorities and from each other, and a framework for giving effect to our common values”. Note the surprising omission of the words ‘British’ and ‘Britain’ from this statement: just ‘Bill of Rights and Responsibilities’, not ‘British Bill’; ‘people in the UK’ not ‘British people’; ‘common values’ not ‘common British values’. And as for the previously proposed formal Statement of British Values, there was no reference to it in the DLP at all.

I’ve suggested before that this apparent abandonment – or at the very least, softening – of the Britishness message demonstrates that New Labour has realised that it has alienated the English electorate, whose support it will need if it is to have any chance of clinging on to power at the next general election. The DLP statement came in the aftermath of Labour’s disastrous showing in the English and Welsh local elections, and before its similar mauling in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election; and the dropping of references to Britishness is consistent with other voices in the Labour Party reacting to these setbacks, which have urged the party to address the concerns of Middle England, as reflected by the Crewe and Nantwich result. Could this mean that the Labour Party will actually start formulating policies that are explicitly articulated as being for England; i.e. that they’ll openly acknowledge that their policies in areas such as health, education and planning, which they’ve previously tried to pass of as relating to ‘Britain’, in fact extend largely to England only?

If you look at the actual text of the DLP statement, you could come to the conclusion that they’ve already started to do so, without of course signalling the fact in a blaze of publicity. For a document named ‘Preparing Britain for the future’, one of whose title pages carries the Governance of Britain logo, there are surprisingly few references to ‘Britain’. Apart from the inevitable reference in the foreword by Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman, most of the mentions of ‘Britain’ occur in the context of proposed legislation that relates to the UK as a whole, e.g. the Climate Change Bill (p. 12); Citizenship, Immigration and Borders Bill (p. 20); and the Constitutional Renewal Bill itself (p. 64), etc. However, the number of references to ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ adds up to only 17 throughout the 87-page document.

By a reversal of the normal pattern, the number of references to ‘England’ or ‘English’ (54) is over three-times that of references to Britain / British. Most of these mentions relate explicitly to the territorial ‘extent’ of the proposed legislation, i.e. which UK country or countries they are relevant to. In fact, chapter 3 of the statement, summarising all the proposed bills, contains an indication of the territorial extent of each of them. When you read these passages, you realise just what a mess the devolution settlement is and how much of a very British – or should that be English? – muddle it has made of the legislative process as different parts of the same bills relate to different combinations of the UK nations. Take the Education and Skills Bill: “Some parts of the Bill would extend to the whole of the United Kingdom. Other parts would extend to England only, England and Wales only, or England, Wales and Northern Ireland only”. The summaries don’t make it clear which bits relate to which countries, however.

It’s this jumbled state of affairs that has led English Justice Secretary Jack Straw – the government’s legalistic rottweiler in a manger – to argue against the proposal for English votes on English laws in the House of Commons, on the basis that this would result in a hopelessly complex situation in which different combinations of MPs would be entitled to vote on bills sometimes on a clause-by-clause basis. But for me, the obvious conclusion to draw from this is that such complexity exists already – as evidenced by the DLP itself – and that the most rational solution (and one that would make the governance of Britain as a whole much more transparent to its citizens) would be to make a clear divide – consistent for all the UK nations – between areas of UK-wide governance and nation-specific governance. Then there would be absolutely no ambiguity about which countries the UK government’s legislative programme related to since it would be to all of them without exception; any other policies or laws would be the business of the devolved or federal governments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (and, potentially, Cornwall).

Interestingly, the DLP statement’s references to bills’ territorial extent never include the word ‘Britain’, even when that territorial extent is Great Britain: England, Scotland and Wales. See, for example, the new Equality Bill: “The Bill would extend to England and Wales, and to Scotland. The subject matter of equal opportunities is reserved to the UK, with certain exceptions”. So why not just say ‘Great Britain’ if that’s effectively what you mean? The problem with doing so is twofold, it seems to me: 1) it would involve a ‘confusion’ between, on the one hand, ‘Britain’ as inappropriately used by the DLP document to invoke a unitary Nation of Britain whose formal legal personality is the UK and, on the other hand, ‘Great Britain’ in the technically correct sense as the narrower Union of England (and Wales) with Scotland; 2) ‘Britain’ itself does not have any formal legal status or personality: UK laws are actually made – incorporated into statute – as laws of England and Wales (or now, post-devolution, often of England and Wales separately), of Scotland or of Northern Ireland. Hence the statement of territorial extent, in so far as it refers to legal statute, has to list ‘England and Wales’ and ‘Scotland’ separately.

What this means, in effect, is that there is no such thing as governance of Britain ‘as such’: Britain does not exist as a legal entity over which governance is exercised in a unitary manner. In matters in which the UK government’s remit still extends to all the UK countries, it would perhaps be legitimate to refer to ‘UK governance’. But even in these areas, this governance is given formal expression in the shape of separate legislation for each of the countries. This was the case before devolution. But what devolution has brought is far more complexity regarding which bits of the legislation of each country are the work of which parliamentary body. In other words, whereas there has never been a consistent, unitary body of ‘British laws’, and hence British governance, now those different bodies of legislation are also put together via an inconsistent and, to an outsider, apparently randomly varying combination of national parliamentary processes.

Except in England, that is. The DLP statement contains a striking acknowledgement of the one truly consistent territorial extent for all the proposed legislation: “All bills would apply to England. Bills that make provisions in reserved areas (and excepted matters in Northern Ireland) will apply to the entire United Kingdom. In many cases, a bill may also apply in part to a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In other cases, the exact extent may not yet be known and discussions with the devolved administrations may still be continuing. The Government remains committed to respecting the devolution settlements” [my emphases]. Oh Gawd! Not even the government knows what the exact territorial extent of some parts of some bills is – no wonder its citizens can’t make head nor tail of it. But the one common denominator is that everything applies to England. Which makes me think that you could perhaps re-configure the usual way of looking at the uneven devolution settlement: not so much a case of England having no distinct status separate from the UK – such a status having been conferred, to a relative extent, on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through devolution; but rather that the only practical, real instance of a continuing unitary UK is England, as this is the only part of the UK to which the government’s legislative programme applies without exception or reserve, as it were.

If, then, the only united part of the kingdom is England, perhaps we ought to think of the United Kingdom as in fact the Kingdom of England. On this view, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution is the beginning of a process through which these once independent countries or parts of countries are slowly reasserting their independence not from the UK – even less so, from Britain – but from England. Maybe this is the ultimate reason why, post-devolution, it became so imperative for the ‘British’ establishment to avoid referring to England at all costs, even when the territorial extent of its actions was so often limited to England alone: it couldn’t allow the deadly, taboo secret to escape that a unitary ‘Britain’ had never existed in the full legal sense, and certainly existed even less now; but that what the establishment had tried since 1707 to pass off as a unitary Britain had always in fact been the English state in all but name. Hence the fact – and forgive the pun – that the New Labour government could never ‘state England’.

If this is the case, it would go a long way towards explaining the profound identification between ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ that still paralyses so much of the debate about what I would prefer to call the separate but related futures of the British nations, as opposed to the ‘Britain of the future’ referenced by the DLP. This document should more rightly be considered as a legislative programme for England, parts of which, to varying degrees, also extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The frequency of references to ‘England’ within the DLP document is in effect an acknowledgement of this fact. But this is still a long way from the sort of change in consciousness on the part of Parliament that would involve it realising that it is really the English, not British, Parliament; and that it needs not so much to ‘devolve’ power to an English parliament but to split into separate England-only and UK-wide bodies.

Only in this way can there be parliaments that are properly accountable to each of the UK nations, along with a true UK parliament, worthy of the name, that represents all of the UK nations equally rather than being what it has been historically and is so even more now: a right-old English muddle between England and ‘Britain’.

PS. Just as a footnote to the above post, there’s an interesting video of Jack Straw and the Human Rights Minister, Michael Wills (also responsible for the Statement of British Values), being questioned by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights in May (after the publication of the DLP) on the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. This is a very long video, but I’d recommend the bit roughly between the 26th and 29th minute, where one MP (I didn’t catch who he was) is questioning the ministers precisely on the ‘British’ aspects of the Bill of Rights and the proposed Statement of Values. Specifically, he pulls JS up on the wording in the DLP that refers to the Bill of Rights and the fact that it refers to the UK rather than to Britain / British. JS’s answer is revealingly faltering on this point, and the minister makes it explicitly clear that what he refers to as this ‘drafting issue’ precisely does relate to the ambiguities and uncertainties around the differing responsibilities of the devolved administrations in human rights-related matters.

Hence, it may not be possible to come up with a ‘British’ Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, in the proper legal sense, because there is no consistent unitary manner in which it could be applied and implemented across all the UK nations. So the confusions and complexities about differential UK governance prevail even in the human-rights area, which is supposed to be one in which the competence of the UK government extends in a unitary fashion across the UK.

One way of putting this problem is that, while rights might be considered universal – and hence applicable without variance across all three / four UK jurisdictions – responsibilities relate more to the social and economic aspects that the government is seeking to build into a putative Bill of Rights and Responsibilities; i.e. responsibilities that citizens have to one another, horizontally as it were, as members of society and as persons that have at least a moral duty (what Jack Straw refers to as a ‘non-justiciable’ responsibility) to look after each other economically (as in parents looking after children, or family looking after sick or elderly relatives). These aspects of the question, as Michael Wills’ comments immediately following the section I’ve referred to make plain, relate much more to the values of society: specifically, from the government’s perspective, the common British values that should then feed into and inform a distinctively British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and a correlative Statement of British Values.

But the problem for the government is that social and, to an extent, economic policies (insofar as public expenditure in Scotland and Wales, for instance, is an expression of those administrations’ economic priorities as much as their social policies) are now to a large extent the domain of the devolved administrations; and, by the same token, where they differ from English-UK policies, they are a reflection of different values among the different UK nations (although English values as such cannot be said to be reflected adequately by a UK parliament that does not represent the will of the English people).

So both from a legal-constitutional perspective, and a societal-values perspective, the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities is a distinctly problematic exercise. Dead in the water before it’s even started, one might be tempted to say.

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