Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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.



  1. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have already demanded that they be consulted on this bill, no doubt Stormont too. Once again the full UK Parliament which includes Irish Welsh and Scottish MP’s could vote through this bill that will pertain to England only as the devolved administrations will opt out of much of the bill, if not all of it.

    Comment by tally — 7 June 2008 @ 4.35 am | Reply

  2. […] an article on Britology Watch, David makes the important observation that references to ‘Britain’ and ‘British […]

    Pingback by Little Man in a Toque » All bills would apply to England — 7 June 2008 @ 6.37 am | Reply

  3. Tally, if you followed my reasoning, you could view Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs as in effect ‘English’ MPs: i.e. elected representatives of constituencies in countries which, prior to devolution, were indivisible from England; Parliament being effectively the parliament for a unitary English state, which just happened to go under the name of the UK / Britain. This means that when they now vote on England-only bills (or bills with a significant England-only, or England and Wales-only, component . . .), they are acting as English MPs in this unofficial and outdated sense of the term. But really, as we know, they are acting beyond their jurisdiction when they do so now, as legislation for their constituents in these matters is the responsibility of the devolved parliamentary bodies.

    In a way, you’d think they could / should become the object of some legal challenge as a result of this transgression of jurisdictional boundaries: note that the DLP statement refers merely to ‘territorial extent’ not jurisdictional competence, or some other phrase, which would be more accurate. The government falls over backward in this document to make it clear that it is trying not to transgress onto areas that are the responsibility of the devolved bodies; but it somehow doesn’t seem to demonstrate the same zeal in preventing its own Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on matters that are no longer part of their remit. Hence the whole pretence that these matters fall within the compass of ‘British governance’, which is a denial of what they really are – and arguably have always been – which is English governance.

    Comment by David — 7 June 2008 @ 7.07 am | Reply

  4. You have highlighted exactly what a mess devolution has brought about. The British state has always been the English state with a different name. All it’s machinery and whatever culture it contained have been principally if not exclusively English. There is no going back from devolution whatever the fantasists might say. But wouldn’t it be very English to somehow fudge the matter since the only real solution to the knot of worms you touch on is dissolution of the union. So, in a peculiarly English manner the union is effectively dissolved but nobody says so. This may well be the outcome of the general election whatever Cameron may say officially.

    Comment by kevin — 7 June 2008 @ 11.08 am | Reply

  5. I do not agree that “The British state has always been the English state with a different name” despite the endless insistence in many quarters that this is and was so. There is a danger here of falling for SNP propaganda simply through not challenging it.

    It certainly was not intended to be by the Scottish unionists who pushed through the Act of Union 1707 at the Scottish end and neither was it intended to be by the very much smaller but powerful body of unionists who pushed through the Act from the English end. Both groups were very conscious that what they were doing was creating a new state which is why it was specifically given a new name and new flag. To them it was the logical end stage of the monarchical union which had already been in existence for 104 years.

    In the case of Scotland,Unionism had a long (150 years) of increasing and thoughtful thinking and argument. Before 1707, Union had already been achieved twice ie in 1641( forced through by the Scots) and 1654-9 (implemented by Cromwell with happy Scottish cooperation).It had seized the imaginations of a wide range of people from aristocrats, merchants and academics to varying degrees. The royal family ie the Stuarts were devotees of unionism from way back in the 16nth century and never gave up. The last of the Stewarts, Queen Anne, saw it as the central project of her reign and flung her political influence behind the idea. Effectively she grabbed the window of opportunity offered by events at the time.
    It should be noted that the Scottish unionists, far from being seduced by money were, generally people of longstanding conviction on the matter . Many of them ahd been working for union since the 1670’s. It should also be noted that what caused the sudden outbreak of riots in October 1706 in Scotland was not the prospect of Union – this was an old and well argued cause – it was the revealing of the nature of the type of Union on offer ie full parlamentary Union which involved abolition of the Scottish parliament. It was this that rankled. It had been a general assumption throughout Scotland that Union would involve each country retain their own parliaments.
    They wanted “federal union” and said so specifically although the concept was never fully amplified in detail either to Scotland or England. This absence of hammering out the constitutional specifics at the time has bedevilled he British state ever since. England had no historical notion or precedence of federalism. The British Unionists were careful not to explore the idea.

    England was never so bothered by Union and most of the country were not very interested or just plain anti. The effort by James VI and 1 to proclaim himself King of Great Britain (three times) in 1603-5 was roundly rejected by the English parliament. Economcally , England saw little or no benefit in union with Scotland . Militarily, despite frequent modern statements to the contrary, England wasn’t too bothered either. Scotland was increasingly less of a military threat to England as the 17nth century progressed.
    The intellectual case for union was hardly argued at all . Remember, the English Commissioners also walked away from the Union negotiations of 1702-3 as not worth the bother (Scotland very enthusiastic at that time). This, despite Queen Anne’s personal efferts to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion.

    Most of the emphasis by both sides on the various union negotiations were always on financial /tax matters . Hardly any attention was paid to the constitutional aspect by either side. Both sides assumed that what was to be deliberated upon was the inception of a United Kingdom free trade ,equal taxation and defence zone of the sort that had already been in existence under Cromwell. England assumed , just like Scotland that the English parliament would continue .

    The tiny group of Unionists on the English side ie Duke of Marlborogh, Portland and Lords Harley and Godolfin (the Queen was Anglo-Scottish)never told the English parliament what they were planning. Their own constiutional appreciations were not much more far advanced than the English back benchers
    ( although Marlborough and Partland were convinced single British Parliamenters and anti federalists because they had ahd bad experiences of federalism in Holland when organising the war effort) who were, as now , swayed mainly by the political line their party told them to follow . The Tories were generally anti , often vociferously so.

    In pratice what happened was that Union was hardly allowed to be debated in the English parliament( unlike the Scottish Parliament). The bill was quietly maneged through both houses mainly with no debate or only truncated debate( 1-2 hours) This was by design ie to stop opposition crystallising.

    That England and their parliamentarians were effectively never told that both England and Scotland were being closed down and a new country created has been an enduring problem . Unlike Scotland, England and the English went on believing that they were living a country called England with an English parliament. Only belatedly did the realistion of Britishness take effect, possibly 80-100 years after the event and with many English never so. This situation was compounded by use of the existing English parliament and its trappings as a parliament for the new state .

    The sheer un-thought-out messiness and deviousness of inception of the new state is evident in that it has always been partly federal ie law, religion, education ,local government and (at first)political rights remained quite different in the two countries which remained two separate countries in the minds of their peoples. It is ironic that some 300 years after 1707 the English are now doing some serious constiutional thinking. It is also ironic that with the passing of the Scotland Act 1998, Scotland has at last acheived pretty well what they wanted in the in the 17nth century ie a federal state within a unitary British trade, tax and defence zone. Plus the Barnett Rules!
    It is this that is likely to be the killer of any aspiration Mr Salmond has to full independence.

    Comment by John — 7 June 2008 @ 5.04 pm | Reply

  6. John,

    Thank you for your thoughtful, erudite comment. I agree with you that it was not the original intention that the Union should be effectively an extension of the English state to Scotland, and that it’s not strictly accurate to describe it as such. I suppose my point was more symbolic and logical, taking a document that sets itself up as an exemplar of ‘governance of Britain’ but which then goes on to make a practical demonstration of how such a thing does not exist, and arguably never has.

    One analogy would be with the business world: you could describe the Union between Scotland and England as a reverse merger – pushed through by the smaller entity and creating something new (a re-branded entity) but which, owing to sheer economic power and weight of numbers ends up in practical terms being the continuation in conglomerate form of the former larger business. As I described it in a post on devolution, the UK is now like a sort of group holding company in which the company with all the clout and influence on the board has traditionally been England. Now the smaller subsidiaries have begun, and to a relative extent obtained, a de-merger from the group, while at the same time effective control over the board has passed to ‘Scotland Ltd’, which has been attracting a disproportionate share of investment from UK plc. This is understandably making the employees and shareholders of England Ltd decidedly unhappy, to the extent that a growing number of them are pressing for a change in the group structure altogether so that England Ltd can manage its own affairs and business development – and maybe even secure a break up of the group altogether.

    Comment by David — 8 June 2008 @ 3.00 am | Reply

  7. John, your history may well be spot on, regarding Scottish attitudes to the union, and I agree that English people probably had little interest in it but surely you cannnot deny that the overwhelming cultural force behind ‘Britain’ and its empire was English. I know there were many imperialist Scots but by sheer size and weight it was always England behind the enterprise. Surely this is why throughout the world even today Britain and England are interchangeable in a way that Scotland and Britain are not. This is our whole problem. Not everybody in the world can have been deceived by SNP propaganda as you put it. Further, just because I made this statement does not mean that I think it was a good thing. In fact I feel quite the reverse.

    Comment by kevin — 8 June 2008 @ 12.49 pm | Reply

  8. ‘Scotland has at last acheived pretty well what they wanted in the in the 17nth century ie a federal state within a unitary British trade, tax and defence zone. Plus the Barnett Rules!
    It is this that is likely to be the killer of any aspiration Mr Salmond has to full independence.’

    I think this is right except that it ignores what happens when England turns completely blue at a general election with no Tory seats in Scotland. England effectively takes over management of the UK on reserved matters with no mandate in Scotland. Also the votes of Scottish MPs in the Westminster parliament on England only matters are likely to be reduced to little more than a bit of a nuisance. The UK cabinet will not consist of a single MP from Scotland. I think Mr Salmond has a great deal to be hopeful about!

    Comment by kevin — 8 June 2008 @ 3.55 pm | Reply

  9. […] out ‘English clauses’ from clauses relating to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? In an analysis elsewhere of the government’s recent statement on its Draft Legislation Programme for the parliamentary […]

    Pingback by English pauses for English clauses begs more questions than it answers « A National Conversation For England — 10 June 2008 @ 8.02 am | Reply

  10. […] Comment on Is the Governance of Britain Agenda Dead? by Little Man …… an article on Britology Watch, David makes the important observation that references to Britain and British … Tags: Third Season, Bbc, Mark Mcewan, Serenity, Reader Comments, Chef Mark, Welsh, Scottish Nationalists, Culinary School, toque, Desmond Hotel, Cep, Bymark, Restaurateur, News Article […]

    Pingback by toque : scriptbest — 22 June 2008 @ 5.55 pm | Reply

  11. […] of the UK that is still governed in a unitary fashion by the Westminster government. As I discussed elsewhere, what devolution in effect means is that all of the laws enacted by the UK parliament apply to […]

    Pingback by Nation of England: Self-rule will come with self-pride « A National Conversation For England — 4 September 2008 @ 7.54 am | Reply

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