Gordon Brown (or GB, as I like to call him) puts me in mind of that old Anglo-American music-hall routine: “I say tomato [tom-ah-to] and you say tomato [tom-eight-o]”, and so on. Except, in his case, it’s “I say Britain and you say England”. He’s referring to the same thing but could almost be talking a different language. And while we’re on the subject of language, mention of the English language accounted for two out of GB’s four uses of the words ‘England’ or ‘English’ in his 6,700 word-long speech to the Labour Party conference yesterday; compared with 38 of ‘Britain’ or ‘British’, 29 of ‘country’ (as in the phrases ‘our country’, ‘the country’ or ‘this country’), and only one each of ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Northern Ireland’ (sorry, guys; also, none for Cornwall – just to be inclusive).
I say the English language, but Gordon described it as “one of Britain’s great assets”, the list of which was as follows: “our stability, our openness, our scientific genius, our creative industries, and yes our English language”. Yes, Gordon, it is the English language – no need to be embarrassed to call it by its name. But it isn’t the property of Britain: it isn’t ‘our (i.e. Britain’s) English language’ or even the ‘British language’, although I somehow suspect you’d prefer it to be known as such. The English language is something that shows how the contribution to world culture of what is sometimes called ‘Anglo-Saxon’ civilisation – in a non-ethnic sense – is far greater than that of Britain alone: a language formed over centuries from a blend of Germanic, Norman-French and classical influences that has spread worldwide (initially, through the power of the English-British Empire) to become the means through which so many different nations and peoples express themselves and their stories in their own words – in ‘their English language’ – and find a voice that resonates with ours.
But GB has to go and bring the stature of this great world language down to the level of his own little Britain, as the second reference to English reads as follows: “the other side of welcoming newcomers who can help Britain is being tough about excluding those adults who won’t and can’t. That’s why we have introduced the Australian-style points-based system, the citizenship test, the English language test and we will introduce a migrant charge for public services”. So the English language here is just another hoop through which migrants have to jump to prove they are worthy of becoming British citizens, along with the much-derided citizenship test and a mean-spirited poll tax-like charge pending the elevation to British taxpayer status. OK; it shouldn’t and can’t be an automatic right for just anyone to become a British citizen without knowing anything about ‘the country’ they’ll be living in or speaking the language (which should possibly also include Welsh in parts of Wales). But these ‘Brownie points’, as we’ll call them, that migrants have to earn are clearly indeed the ‘other side’ of the openness and the globally orientated Britain that the PM extols in other parts of the speech.
Indeed, there’s always another side to Gordon Brown: welcoming migrants to Britain who are prepared (and only those who are prepared) to contribute to the country’s economy and society in specified ways thought to be in the national interest, at the same time as making contradictory and unfulfillable commitments to ensure that “British firms and British workers can reap the rewards of a world economy set to double in size”. Going on about ‘fairness’ to all at the same time as making it clear that this fairness is qualified – it has to be earned by playing by the rules and being prepared to contribute to society in highly prescribed ways: “Our aim is a something for something, nothing for nothing Britain. A Britain of fair chances for all, and fair rules applied to all. So our policy is that everyone who can work, must work. That’s why James Purnell has introduced reforms so that apart from genuine cases of illness, the dole is only for those looking for work or actively preparing for it. That’s only fair to the people pulling their weight [my emphases]”. Fair do’s: we can’t have people scrounging off the dole; but everyone who can work must work? What is this: Stalinist Russia? So there’s now a social (and legal?) obligation for everyone to work, is there? So what, is the British state going to create artificial jobs, as they used to in the Soviet Union, to ensure that every citizen has a job that they are compelled to do, even in an economic downturn? Including, presumably, the mothers of those two-year-olds for whom the British state is now going to make free nursery places available so that they’ll have to work rather than staying at home during their children’s earliest years? And doubtless, this also includes those ‘British workers’ who’ll have to jolly well work to be worthy of the name, even if there are no jobs worthy of the name ‘British worker’ for them to do: a crap, unsuitable and unskilled job paying the New Labour minimum wage that Brown is so proud of is, after all, better than no job – except, of course, for the successful hoop-jumping new migrants filling quotas of more skilled positions for which ‘British’ people, let down by the state education system, are inadequately trained.
Or should that be ‘English’ people and the English education system? Because the unspoken ‘other side’ of Brown’s fairer Britain is unfairness to England. Most of the ways in which Brown promises to deliver greater fairness to ‘Britain’ in fact relate to policy areas where Brown’s government’s competence applies to England only. But of course, he doesn’t ‘say England’ because that would involve acknowledging that the English people have had a bloody raw deal under New Labour and the devolution ‘settlement’ (another word Brown nauseatingly peddles in the speech) that is another of the ‘achievements’ of New Labour GB boasts about. So, for instance, as part of “our commitment to a fair NHS in a fair society. . . . over the next few years the NHS generates cash savings in its drugs budget we will plough savings back into abolishing charges for all patients with long-term conditions. That’s the fairness patients want and the fairness every Labour party member will go out and fight for”. Sorry, do I understand this double-speak correctly? Point one: this applies to the NHS in England only, as the NHS in the other UK nations is the responsibility of their devolved governments. So, the NHS in England will be making cash savings in its drugs budget: what, by not licensing the kind of live-saving and life-prolonging drugs for chronic conditions such as cancer and Alzheimers that are funded by the public purse in Scotland? So, by saving money in these areas, the government will finally be able to abolish prescription charges in England; but only for those with long-term or chronic conditions, not for everyone, as in Scotland. So when Brown, immediately before the passage I’ve just quoted, says “I can announce today for those in our nation battling cancer from next year you will not pay prescription charges” [my emphasis]; what he’s actually saying is: ‘because in England – as opposed to Scotland – we won’t fund the more expensive but effective drug treatments for certain cancers, cancer patients will at least get free prescriptions for more standard, cheaper drugs’ – next year that is: let’s hope those patients survive till then! What a bloody disgrace!
And the same can be said for Brown’s ‘prescriptions’ for education and social care – in England only that is: making up, but only partially, for New Labour’s underfunding and undervaluing of English children and elderly persons compared with the investment that devolution and the Barnett Formula have made possible for them in Scotland and Wales. What of the “fairness [which] demands nothing less than excellence in every school, for every child” – in England, you understand? This boils down to two commitments: 1) ensuring that no child leaves primary school unable to read, write and count – big deal, that was probably done better in the 19th century than the disgraceful situation of today; and 2) ensuring that schools that don’t fulfil their targets for GCSE passes are closed down or brought under new management – reinforcing the obsessive New Labour targets culture and narrow focus on academic achievement, as opposed to vocational training that might actually create the skilled English workers capable of carrying out the jobs in the new British industries and services that Brown goes on about.
And what of the “fairness older people deserve”? Well, dear, that nice Mr Brown says he’s going to look after us: “The generation that rebuilt Britain from the ashes of the war deserves better and so I can tell you today that Alan Johnson and I will also bring forward new plans to help people to stay longer in their own homes and provide greater protection against the costs of care – dignity and hope for everyone in their later years”. Not free personal care, you understand, as in Scotland; just greater ‘protection against the costs of care’, whatever that means. And enabling people to at least stay in their homes for longer (which new technology will be able to make cheaper than institutionalising them), even if they may still have to release their equity in those homes to (part-)fund their own care.
Bloody h***! At least, Mr Brown’s constituents don’t get treated like that! And that really is the ‘other side’ of the picture of a ‘fairer Britain’ that Brown paints in his speech. GB certainly has fulfilled the commitment he made to the people of Fife whom “25 years ago I asked . . . to send me to parliament to serve the country I love”. Except, which country is that, Gordon? In case you hadn’t heard, Fife’s in Scotland; but almost everything you talk about relates to England. We don’t hear about all that you, as a Scottish Labour constituency MP, have done for your electorate and for Scotland. Why not? This is a) because most of the measures that exemplify your fairer Britain have already been surpassed by policies introduced by the Scottish government; b) because you can’t claim direct responsibility for those achievements, as they’ve been brought about by MSPs rather than Scottish Westminster MPs such as yourself; and c) this would show up the unfairness towards England that has been perpetrated by devolution and the Barnett Formula, whereby those English people who still won’t be getting the cancer drugs they need on the NHS nor free personal care are helping fund those provisions for all who need them north of the border.
And yet, in another way, GB can claim some credit for these ‘achievements’. After all, he did back asymmetric devolution and, as Chancellor, was in an excellent position to ensure the continuance of the Barnett Formula and protect that higher per-capita public-expenditure budget for Scotland. As is his Scottish successor in the post, Alistair Darling. So he has been a good Scottish constituency MP, after all: putting the interests of ‘his country’ first.
But he won’t tell us this country is Scotland; just as he won’t tell us that the flipside of the British coin is unfairness to England dressed up as a belated programme for a fairer Britain. Because there’s always a flipside to Gordon. He says New Labour is building a fair Britain; but we know this is at the expense of England and to the advantage of the smaller nations of the UK. He says – in the only actual reference to those four nations (sorry Cornwall, you don’t get a look in) – “stronger together as England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland we can make our United Kingdom even better”; we know he means ‘forget it, England; there’s no way you’re governing yourself like Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland because they need your money too much’. He says, at the end of his speech, “This is our country, Britain. We are building it together, together we are making it greater”; we know he’s pretending to be a democratically elected PM for a country called ‘Britain’, whereas in reality he’s the unelected First Minister for England and his real loyalties lie with his Scottish constituents. He says, “Together we are building the fair society in this place”; we know this place certainly isn’t England, and it isn’t English fair play.
He says Britain; I say England.
PS. Ed Lowther from BBC Parliament appears to have been reading this post and has taken up the charge. Nice to see someone from the BBC finally cottoning on to the deliberate and deceitful suppression of mentions of England by politicians when they’re talking about England. Perhaps the Beeb will begin to apply the same analysis to their own output, too!
And finally, another plug: sign the ‘England Nation’ petition, and get GB to call England a nation.