Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

28 October 2008

Was the Osborne-Deripaska scandal pay-back from Mandy – and Gordon?

I’m surprised no one has made the link, which may or may not exist in reality. First, allegations are made last week that Shadow Chancellor George Osborne may have tried to arrange a donation to the Conservative Party from Russian aluminium magnate Oleg Deripasky while a guest on the latter’s yacht moored off Corfu. This would have broken the rules, as Deripasky is a foreign national. Vigorous denials from Osborne, followed by an apology yesterday to the effect that he had made a mistake in giving the appearance that he had solicited a donation; whilst admitting that he had in fact discussed the possibility of a donation (without actually requesting or obtaining one) during his summer holiday in Corfu.

Then it emerges there’s a Mandelson connection: not only are Mandy and Oleg long-established chums (with allegations of conflicts of interest in Mandelson’s former role as EU Trade Commissioner), but Mandelson was also on holiday in Corfu at the same time, where he met up with both Deripasky (and may even have stayed on his yacht overnight) and Osborne. In fact, he’s reported to have had lunch with Osborne, during which he bad-mouthed Gordon Brown.

Isn’t it just a little bit of a coincidence that, no sooner than Mandelson is recalled by Brown to the UK Cabinet, a story emerges – based on facts that must have been known to Mandelson – that puts the credibility and potentially the career of the Tory spokesman on the economy at serious risk? And this just at the time when Brown is trying to resurrect his own career on the basis of his supposedly decisive and capable management of economic affairs.

Personally, I just can’t help thinking that it’s Brown who’s behind the leaking of this story to the press, carried out with the aim of destroying a political opponent. I’ve suspected Brown of doing this in the past with other adversaries, and maybe even with Mandelson himself in his two previous resignations from ministerial posts on account of alleged financial impropriety and abuse of his position.

Let’s picture the scenario. It comes to the attention of Brown (as it’s reported in the Sunday Times) that Mandelson was uttering insults about him during his lunch with Osborne in Corfu. So, on Mandy’s entering the cabinet, Brown makes it clear that his loyalty to Mandelson (e.g. defending him against any subsequent suggestions of impropriety that may come to the surface) comes at the price of Mandelson’s total loyalty to him. And, to prove his loyalty, what can Mandelson give him on Osborne? Admittedly, the claims that Osborne did in fact request a donation from Deripasky came from Osborne’s former Oxford pal, Nat Rothschild. But, it emerges, Rothschild is also a friend of Mandelson’s . . . (see Rothschild’s letter to The Times about the affair). Then, in fact (coincidentally?), a story casting doubt on Mandelson’s integrity in his relationship with Deripasky does come to light; and Brown pulls a few strings to get his friends in the European Commission to deny any abuse of position on Mandelson’s part in securing a trade deal that worked to Deripasky’s advantage – thereby enabling Brown to demonstrate his loyalty to Mandelson.

I don’t have any facts to base this on; but the timing of it all just seems too fortuitous to be entirely coincidental. Brown is indeed back to his best: posturing as the firm hand on the tiller of the economy. And what better way to get the public to accept that you’re the only man who can steer the nation’s ship – or should that be yacht? – through the turbulent financial seas than to destroy the reputation of the Tories’ economics spokesman? The firm hand is indeed still a clunking fist.

27 October 2008

The Olympics and That English Britishness Again

I was in London on business on the day of the English and British Olympics victory parade a week and a bit ago. In fact, my meeting was at a location right on the route of the parade; and, as luck would have it, the meeting finished just moments before the procession came past. So I duly lined up to greet our victorious Olympians as they rode along.

Where I stood was at a relatively ‘quiet’ part of the route compared with Trafalgar Square and its environs. So there were a few Union Jacks and silly Lotto giant hands being waved about; but the atmosphere was not especially jingoistic. I looked around but didn’t spot any Flags of St. George; although I couldn’t exactly say they were ‘banned’ – but as I hadn’t come prepared, I couldn’t put this to the test! Nor were there any busy officials distributing Union Flags by the dozen to the naively enthusiastic masses; just one street vendor pushing a cart along the route and doing a brisk trade: a nice bit of English-British entrepreneurship, I thought!

As for the procession itself, I actually enjoyed it. There was surprisingly little tasteless British patriotism involved. I’d expected open-topped buses bedecked with Union Flags and slogans proudly proclaiming the ‘Great British’ team. But no, the single-decker floats were pretty plain, and all you saw were the athletes themselves: fit, healthy young people with beaming faces, clearly somewhat overwhelmed and delighted by the acclaim (including from myself, I have to say) they were being greeted by. There was something almost innocent about it: the people expressing their delight at these young persons’ individual triumphs, and the athletes in their turn showing pleasure at the joy they had brought.

I am sure that one of the reasons why the floats were so devoid of patriotic symbols was to avoid offending the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish athletes – and viewing public – who had already been treated to their own ‘national’ celebrations immediately on their return from the Games. And maybe also, it was to avoid offending the many English people who feel there should have been a separate opportunity to celebrate the successes of the English athletes. I suppose the last thing the organisers wanted was angry shouts from St. George’s Flag-waving protesters attempting to rip off the British flags and banners from the floats. Well, one can but dream!

Maybe the organisers had more sense than the politicians who couldn’t resist making capital out of our athletes’ triumphs at the time by saying how it proved that ‘Great Britain’ was still something we could all take pride in; and then further rubbing our noses in it by trying to seize the moment and push through a football Team GB: something which – in a sense, with fitting irony – may still be realised even if it ends up being just a Team England in disguise.

But what of the question as to whether England should have had its own Olympics victory parade? I myself went on record at the time to say that I didn’t think it was realistic or sensible to demand one, even if I agreed that it would have been both a fair and popular thing to do given that the other nations of the UK had organised their own celebrations. As with so many illustrations of the ambiguous inter-relationships between Englishness and Britishness, the question is complex.

I think it’s important to differentiate between what you would like to eventually see happening – i.e. English-national civic institutions, sporting teams and celebrations – and what is realistic or practical in the present day. But, at the same time, it’s also important to find a language in which to describe what goes on in the present that more accurately and fairly reflects its variable dual English and British character.

This relates to why I called it the ‘English and British’ Olympics victory parade at the start of this post. The parade was effectively doing double duty as both the ‘British’ and English victory celebration. This was the case not just out of political expedience and logistical practicality, but also for the reason that, as an England-only event would need to be on the same scale – if not greater – than a British parade, holding a British procession after an English celebration would come to seem embarrassingly redundant and also, ironically, a duplication of the English event. And this is because a celebration of ‘British’ achievements of this sort is already primarily an expression of English patriotism, albeit articulated in terms of Great Britain and Britishness.

It’s important to be precise in these matters to avoid misunderstanding. I’m not saying that a British celebration of this sort is somehow ‘sufficient’ to allow English people an outlet to express their national pride and that an England-only event is therefore on principle unnecessary. Such a position would effectively involve conspiring with the present behaviour and attitude of the British establishment, which actively seeks to suppress any form of expression of English-national identity and pride – indeed, to deny the very existence of England as a nation – and to put ‘Britain’ literally in England’s place.

But you have to distinguish, I think, between at least two forms of Britishness, from the English perspective: there’s an objective – institutional and, as it were, ‘instrumental’ – Britishness; and then there’s a subjective – emotional, personal and ‘existential’ – Britishness. The objective Britain basically comprises the establishment: the institutions of government, law, civic society, and formal ‘national’ identity, media and culture. In relation to these things in isolation, you could say that – for the time being, at least – there is no such thing as England. The formal Britain – the UK government and establishment – reduces England to a mere territory over which it has jurisdiction: no English-national governance; English Law, yes, but this is also the law of Wales and it’s decided on by the UK parliament; only British-national media (e.g. the BBC) and their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish subdivisions, but no English-national channels, newspapers; etc, etc.

At this point, some people (e.g. Cornish nationalists) might pull me up and say that there are plenty of English-national institutions, e.g. the Bank of England; the Church of England; the English language as the official language of Britain; English Heritage; English National Opera; the English National Ballet; English sporting teams; etc. But then these examples neatly illustrate my point. Some of these things are English only in name, rather like English Law. The Bank of England, for instance, is the central bank for the UK as a whole, and it’s only a historical anomaly that it still has ‘England’ in its title and hasn’t – yet – been re-named the ‘Bank of Britain’. Most of the other examples are not what you would call exclusively and objectively English institutions other than in the sense that, post-devolution, some aspects of UK government power relate to England only, such as heritage, culture and sport. But there’s no English national political control as such, at government level, over these organisations; nor do institutions such as the English National Opera see it as a particular part of their remit to celebrate English culture. The main exception here is the Church of England, which does have both a formal role and status within the UK establishment, and is an England-only institution in more than just name – which is one reason why I’m opposed to its disestablishment, at least until there are some properly England-only government bodies or formal recognition of England’s nation status. Otherwise, disestablishing the Church would mean there would no longer be any aspects of British governance that need make any reference to – or were in any form answerable to – England as a nation.

As for English sporting teams, these relate to the other type of national identity I set out above: the subjective, personal and ‘existential’. There is no sense in which the existence of England teams necessarily equates to the existence of England as an objective, formally established nation; but they do indicate that people living in England identify with England as their nation, subjectively and emotionally. That’s why I call this form of nationhood ‘existential’: England may not exist formally and objectively, but it does exist in the sense that people’s subjective identifications confer existence on it. ‘England exists because I am English, and many millions of my fellow countrymen also feel they are English’. Incidentally, this is the same basis on which a Cornish nation can be said to exist.

And the same could also be said of Britain. As I stated above, Britain, too, possesses this subjective character as a nation alongside its objective, institutional existence. For instance, there are many people living in England – possibly now in the minority – who feel and identify as British more than, or even to the exclusion of, English. This is just a fact, which those of us of the English-nationalist persuasion just have to accept, whether we like it or not: some English people claim they don’t feel any sense of Englishness at all but see themselves – if they see themselves as anything in national terms – as British first and foremost, or even British only. But, of course, a statement like this is deliberately paradoxical: it’s English people who tend to feel British rather than English; whereas feeling one was British to the exclusion of being Scottish or Welsh would be an almost incomprehensible attitude on the part of persons native to Scotland or Wales.

In other words, this form of Britishness is an English phenomenon. Traditionally, in fact, the British and English identities, at this subjective level, have tended to be inseparably intertwined, with the terms and symbols of Britishness and Englishness being seen as interchangeable – in England, that is. And, for many, this is still the case. In other words, the British and English identities are so indissociable for many English people that their feelings of patriotic pride, and the nation they felt they were celebrating, would be the same whether they were attending an Olympic Team GB victory parade or the English Ashes triumphal procession of a few years back. Therefore, in both this subjective sense and the objective, practical sense, the Olympics victory parade was indeed both an English and British celebration, as I wrote at the start of this piece. One iconographic acknowledgement of this I noticed were the billboards for that day’s London Evening Standard, which I glimpsed only in passing. What I thought it depicted was a group of Union Flag-waving Olympians (or perhaps they were just spectators) set in relief against a massive Flag of St. George. Don’t get too excited, though: this was one of those photo-editing jobbies, where one image is superimposed on another – the English flag wasn’t there in reality. However, this seemed to me to exemplify the old happy balance whereby the British and English national identities were fused and celebrated together.

Of course, there are many for whom this was never a ‘happy balance’ – particularly, those in the other nations of the UK. The Scots have always regarded the objectively ‘British’ character of the Union state as really just a front for England and English power; and the subjective merging of the English and British identities was adduced as evidence for this: when English people talked of Britain and British governance as supposedly inclusive terms that also incorporated Scotland, what they really meant – and what was in fact the objective political reality – was English dominance over Scottish affairs. And, indeed, English people did use to think of the British state and government as ‘theirs’, based on their subjective blending of the English and British national identities: the British state was the objective correlative and institutional expression of a British national identity that was essentially English in its subjective and emotional character, and its cultural manifestations.

Many Scottish people seem to think that this state of affairs still prevails, which is one of the reasons why they just don’t get English nationalism. In my terms, they think that the ‘instrumental’ and ‘existential’ British identities are still in harmony with one another. In other words, they see the UK state and its institutions as essentially the instrument of English power, propped up by the unthinking, subjective identification of English people with Britain. But, in fact, instrumental and existential Britishness are increasingly diverging, a process greatly accelerated by devolution. What this means is that the British and English identities are separating out and becoming dissociated from one another. English people are identifying increasingly as English in the first instance, at the subjective, emotional and existential level. And this means that Britishness is defined more and more in relation merely to the institutional and instrumental aspects of public and civic life: British governance, its traditions and the civic values that underpin them.

The whole Britishness agenda of the British establishment could be described as an attempt to rekindle English people’s identification with Britain, and as British. But because, post-devolution, that Britishness can no longer truly be the explicit expression of English national pride and political power, it ends up having to be a new form of Britishness: a Britishness that deliberately evacuates any overt acknowledgement or expression of the English subjective and national identity that has traditionally underpinned it. And this, ironically, condemns the new Britishness to being something of an empty shell: expressed in terms of civic, political, institutional and philosophical ideals without reference to the English national character, people, and sense of mission that once animated it. This is one of the reasons why the Olympics, which is one of the few sporting occasions where ‘the country’ is represented by a British team, constitutes such a powerful vehicle for the ‘Britologists’ (the would-be architects of the new Britain) to try and reconnect English national fervour and identity with Britain.

But then again, the pride in being British that English people feel in connection with Team GB’s Olympic successes is precisely that: the traditional pride of English people in ‘their’ Great Britain, or – another way of saying the same thing – pride in the greatness of England that is Great Britain. If politicians want English people to feel pride about Britain and her achievements, then there’s no escaping from the fact that that pride is essentially an English feeling and part of the subjective British identity that is an English phenomenon, and is based on a blurring of any distinction between Englishness and Britishness.

But what of those ‘English’ people who say they feel British only, and not English? It’s dangerous to generalise, and there are many different ‘types’ of people who might describe themselves in this way. But I can’t help feeling that the great majority of them still are ‘British only’ in a highly English way. This could be said for instance of Richard Morrison writing in last Wednesday’s Times. The author claims that “We [i.e. the English] are now a nation with a history but no destiny. We exist; we have needs, but no sense of self”. In support of this thesis, he points to all the things we tend to think of as typically English that are in reality of foreign origin. And yet, at the same time, this openness to a cosmopolitan array of overseas influences and newcomers is itself seen as something typical of England. But all the same, the author goes on to state: “I can’t recall a time when so many people living in England, people of all colours and creeds, are so obviously unsettled by the feeling that we no longer have control of our future, no ideal of what we want to be”. Well surely this is because the establishment keeps telling us – the English – that there is no future for us as England; that we are, and can only be, British; and that one of the defining characteristics of Britain is precisely the kind of openness to global influences, trade and migration that the author observes. But no one is saying that such phenomena are leading to a dilution of Britishness: and that’s precisely because Britain – the new Britain – is a nation-less (supra-national, global) concept that is dependent on stripping out Englishness and the English national identity from its core. And it’s this that leads to the alienation Richard Morrison describes.

So what I’m saying is that a ‘British-only national identity’ (itself something of a non-sequitur, as the new Britishness is something that points beyond nationhood, whereas traditional Britishness sat comfortably with complementary English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish identities), when it is felt by English people, partakes of a very English alienation from what it means to be English; precisely because Englishness, for those people, has more than ever lost itself in Britishness.

And this brings me back round to one of the issues I raised at the start of this piece: the problem of naming and describing the national-existential crisis we are going through. I think it can be a very powerful means of resistance against the establishment’s attempts to banish England from public discourse, and hence from the national consciousness, to reintroduce the terms ‘England’ and ‘English’ wherever appropriate, or even inappropriate. On the one hand, this is a political tactic; but, on the other hand, it’s also an attempt at describing things more accurately and honestly than the establishment, which deceitfully omits and suppresses references to England, even when what’s being discussed is either exclusively or at least partially English. It’s a case of subverting the official language in a way that points up what they don’t want you to notice.

In my example of the Olympic victory parade, officially, this is indeed correctly described as the British Olympics victory celebration. However, in reality, as I explained above, it was also the English victory parade, in more ways than one. Therefore, it is correct in another sense to call this the ‘English and British’ celebration. This approach can be extended to many other aspects of public life, particularly the language used about national government. For instance, it would be both subversive and, in my sense, accurate to describe the UK government as the ‘British and English government’ – since, in matters otherwise devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish government, the British government is a de facto government for England only. Similarly, the prime minister is accurately described as the British and English prime minister or, when talking about England-only areas of government, the ‘unelected English First Minister’ – my favourite designation! UK government departments with responsibilities for England only should also be referred to as, for instance, the ‘English Department for Culture, Media and Sport’ or the ‘Department of Health for England’.

In the case of government departments, neither the England-only ministries nor those with a genuine UK-wide remit tend to include ‘UK’ or ‘British’ in their title, as it is just a given that they are UK-wide bodies even when they’re not. Hence, adding ‘England’ or ‘English’ to them could even be regarded as a helpful aide-mémoire to ensure that people remember when some aspect of the government’s responsibilities is limited to England. But what of the many instances of when things are called ‘British’ when they are actually English or, more subtly, the media’s constant efforts to shape and articulate a common Britishness even when many of the cultural expressions of that Britishness are primarily, if not exclusively, English?

An example of the former is the large supermarkets’ and food producers’ growing tendency to (re-)label English produce, such as meat or fruit, as ‘British’. If you can establish that a given item is in fact English (as the labels often indicate which county they were produced in), then I think you should resolutely refuse to call it British, for instance, in conversation with your family as you go round the supermarket or when you refer to it at the tills. But should you boycott produce of this sort altogether out of protest against the suppression of the England tag or, indeed, the England flag from the labels? It’s a matter of individual choice; but I think that, if you can be sure that an item is English, far from boycotting the English produce, you should boycott any goods in the store in question that are labelled as Scottish or Welsh as a mark of protest against the discrimination against England that is being carried out. English farmers and food producers need all the help they can get, especially amid a recession; and it’s not their fault if the supermarkets decide to mis-label their goods.

You should also try to find opportunities to explain to the store why you’re buying ‘British’-labelled produce, and not Scottish- and Welsh-labelled items. For instance, you could say that you might buy Scottish and Welsh items if the English items were labelled as English (which would be fair and non-discriminatory) or if those Scottish and Welsh items were labelled as British, which is, after all, a term that is supposed to apply to Scotland and Wales, and not just England. One convenient opportunity to have this conversation is when a ‘British’-labelled item does not indicate explicitly whether it comes from England. You can simply then go to the Customer Service desk and ask them to find out for you whether it is English or not; and casually toss in the observation that you assume it is because the Scottish and Welsh items are labelled as Scottish and Welsh, and only the English items don’t appear to be correctly packaged!

Well, anyway, that’s what I’m going to try to do from now on. But what of the plethora of TV programmes that try to foster the idea of Britain as a ‘nation’, ranging from the sublime (such as BBC’s Coast – predicated on the clever idea of a Britain that is ‘one’ nation because it shares a common coastline and maritime heritage; and which, of course, just had to be presented by a Scot) to the ridiculous, such as ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent? Here, on one level, the ‘nation’ that such programmes refer to is correctly described as Britain, in the sense that they deal with people and places from all over the UK. But, insofar as these programmes are part of an establishment agenda to set Britain up as ‘the nation’ – for English people only, that is – I tend to favour the deliberately politically incorrect and derisive approach of re-labelling such programmes as English, especially as most of what they relate to is English. So: ‘that programme about the coast of England’ works well – aptly re-evoking England’s proud seafaring tradition and maritime culture; or ‘England’s Got Talent’. The ‘England Olympics team’ also gets people’s hackles up quite nicely, I find, too; although, if you want to be less sarcastic and more fair-minded – in a rather English manner – my choice of the ‘English and British Olympics team / victory parade’ perhaps gets you more of an audience. And if you’ve followed me till now, thank you.

The point about such linguistic acts of subversion, however petty they may seem, is that they are both a private and public act of revolt against the suppression of England from public discourse and, ultimately, from the identity and governance of ‘the nation’ as a whole. England exists and I exist as an Englishman. So long as we keep saying that, then they won’t get away with abolishing our nation.

5 October 2008

Is there such a thing as ‘multi-cultural England’?

Yesterday, I went walkabout in multi-cultural Britain: in Wood Green and Tottenham in North London, to be precise. Time was, back in the 1970s when I was growing up not far from there, that the white English population was in a clear majority, even in areas such as Wood Green and Tottenham where there were concentrations of what we used to refer to as ‘immigrant’ populations: mostly black-Caribbean and Indian-subcontinental, with a sizeable Cypriot community around Tottenham. Over the intervening period – and at an accelerating rate over the last 15 years or so – all of that has changed. The area is now a complete ethnic melting pot, with large populations of Muslims from a variety of backgrounds (not just Pakistani, by any means) but also, it seems, virtually every ethnic group under the sun. While waiting in the remarkably orderly, English-style queue at the overcrowded Morrisons store, I estimated that no more than one in 20 of the people around me were ‘native white English’, judging from their appearance and voices. Such a ‘minoritisation’ of what is commonly designated as the ‘majority white-British’ population actualises on the ground the sort of minority-equivalent status that is given to white-English people in one of the proposed ethnic categorisations for the 2011 census in England, in which that category is indeed one of a list of 20.

Such a living, pulsating experience of multi-cultural diversity challenges the attitudes of people such as myself who remain deeply attached to the idea that the primary culture of England should be that of England, which has indeed been traditionally associated with the ‘native white’ ethnic group but which can in theory be just as easily embraced by ethnic minorities; and which, conversely, can also expand and adapt to accommodate greater ethnic diversity. In some respects, this has already happened with the waves of immigration into England from the 1950s to the 1970s, as a considerable degree of integration of those black and Asian communities has already occurred: meaning they have come to be seen as playing an integral part in English society and culture (and are accepted as ‘English’); while people of those backgrounds have increasingly adopted many facets of English life and culture into their own lifestyles and communities, and see themselves as English.

But, really, when one is confronted by the sheer volume of what is now more often referred to as ‘migration’ – rather than immigration – that has taken place in recent years, one does begin to feel a stranger in one’s own land. Virtually all of the more economically successful white people have now moved out of areas like Wood Green and Tottenham, establishing themselves in the greener suburbs, Essex and the wider commuter belt. Consequently, the white people who are left are often the poorest and most socially disadvantaged. As an evidently middle-class and seemingly – but not, regrettably, in reality – more wealthy white male, I stand out in the crowd even more than what used to be called the white working class. I find myself exchanging fleeting looks of mutual recognition with these fellow white Brits and sense that they feel pleased, even relieved, that there are still educated middle-class white people in the neighbourhood. Except, of course, I haven’t lived permanently in North London since the early 1980s when I was effectively among the first waves of mass migration of white people from the area.

I wonder whether, if I did live there, I would in my turn embrace and celebrate its multi-cultural diversity. On one level, there certainly is much to celebrate and take delight in. There is a huge variety of shops, businesses, people and languages from all over the world to engage the senses and enrich the mind. But, as someone from outside the area, I can indulgently dip in and out of it, and don’t have to be confronted and assuaged by the constant sights and sounds of real-world diversity day and, increasingly, night. I think that, if you were going to commit yourself to living in such an area, and to working to make it a more functional and truly cross-cultural community, you really would have to embrace its multi-culturalism whole-heartedly. By ‘multi-culturalism’, here, I don’t mean the now much discredited aim of facilitating different communities in retaining and expressing their separate cultures alongside one another, which has been accused of fostering divisions and hindering integration. No, I mean the sheer fact of multiple cultures co-existing and interacting, albeit that people might still walk around in their own cultural-ethnic-religious-linguistic bubbles, and the actual fusion of cultures is limited in extent, partly in consequence of the ideology of multi-culturalism itself.

That multi-culturalism is almost always labelled ‘British multi-culturalism’. I did so myself at the beginning of this piece, in part by association with a brochure on one of the much-improved local schools I found lying around our Tottenham friends’ house. This booklet made much of the school’s multi-cultural diversity: the fact that each culture was celebrated, learnt about and factored in to the teaching of each child; and the fact that there were 54 languages – at the last count – spoken by the children at the school. In summary, the school was characterised as a living – and functioning – example of ‘multi-cultural Britain’. I don’t question the fact, as attested in recent Ofsted survey results, that this school is indeed one of the most improved schools in ‘the country’. But I do wonder whether a) the fact that it is such a multi-cultural mish-mash was one of the main reasons why it previously had so many problems; and b) whether the English children at the school really have a better educational experience for being in such a small minority than if they were in a school that embodied and taught their English culture and identity first and foremost.

The problem with the concept of ‘multi-cultural Britain’ is that it makes multi-culturalism and ethnic diversity an intrinsic characteristic or property of Britain and Britishness. Consequently, if one wishes to foster and engineer a multi-cultural country, the name of that country has to be Britain, not England. If Britain is the place of a multiplicity of cultures, then the singularity of the English culture and identity could be seen as just one among the many cultures that needs to be melded and shaped into the new diverse Britain. However, the difference is that the English identity is also thought of as being already British. This means that, if multi-cultural Britishness is to be affirmed and lived out in a school environment, there is no place for a singular Englishness that is distinct from the Britishness that embodies the ideal of diversity. Consequently, the singularity of the English identity is transformed into a unique form of deprivation: the English children alone are seen as having only one culture – that of (multi-cultural) Britain, not of a separate Englishness alongside, and giving life to, that Britishness. By contrast, the other ethnic groups are afforded the possibility of a continuing experience of cultural diversity that their children can ‘own’ and celebrate: ‘British’ and Polish; ‘British’ and Somali; ‘British’ and Pakistani; etc. In other words, only the English children do not have an ‘other’ (English) identity that is celebrated alongside their Britishness: they are British only. And this translates into the broader dynamic in the ‘British’ culture of England, whereby ethnic minorities are encouraged to own and affirm their original culture alongside their British identity; whereas English people are exhorted to be British and not English.

Clearly, the experience of Wood Green and Tottenham is at the extreme end of the multi-cultural scale. But, by that token, it also presents a test case to see if the multi-cultural experiment can work: if a viable multi-cultural school community can be created here, then it becomes a model for the whole of ‘the country’. That country by definition being Britain, of course. Wrong; because this particular form of educational ‘multi-culturalisation’ is limited to England. In Scottish and Welsh schools, they’re not trying to promote ‘multi-cultural Britain’ but, if anything, multi-ethnic Scotland and Wales, respectively. The schools in those countries seek to embody and inculcate a Scottish and a Welsh identity that is civic in character; which means that it reflects and takes forward the social, cultural and philosophical traditions of those nations. Because this identity is civic, and not ethnic, it can serve as the place in which all ethnic groups living in Scotland or Wales can converge, and affirm a common Scottishness or Welshness.

This comparison with Scotland and Wales helps to make clear that the project to create multi-cultural Britain in England involves the framing of Englishness as a purely ethnic category (but also only a hypothetical category owing to the non-acceptance of an Englishness distinct from Britishness), leading to a denial of any civic expression or extension of that (ethnic) Englishness within Britishness. The character of civic society – meaning the public, shared life, institutions and structures of the ‘nation’ – is applied only to Britain. Britain, not England, is the name of the civic society in which all ethnic groups and all cultures are expected to converge, including the ‘English’ that do not exist as such, since they are already British.

But the actual country in which this is supposed to happen is England, not Britain. And I don’t mean this just in the geographical sense that the UK establishment applies to England: a mere territory over which its writ applies absolutely, whereas that writ is partially devolved to elected bodies in the other ‘parts’ of the UK. No, I mean ‘country’ also in the sense that – contrary to what the establishment might wish – England exists as a nation: a real culture, a real people; with characteristics, social structures, ways of behaving, attitudes and traditions that are its own, and which are only partially reflected in those values that are so often said to be ‘British’. Multi-cultural Britain, if it is to become a reality, will in effect need to be multi-cultural and multi-ethnic England; just as the same cultural and ethnic diversity is being moulded into multi-ethnic Scotland and Wales across the northern and western borders of England. The majority culture – which is English – will remain the majority culture. For true integration of all the newer waves of migrants to take place (that place being England), this will have to involve English people over time coming to accept people of those other races and cultures as English: as part of the total experience of English life, society and culture. As I stated above, this has already happened to a considerable extent with respect to the black and Asian immigration of the period from the 1950s to the 1970s. But it’s taken time: the time for two whole generations to grow up and to experience an England where ethnic and cultural diversity is just a plain fact and an intrinsic part of their experience of England.

The only place – the country – in which further integration of the more recent migrants can occur is England; albeit that the challenges are even more acute this time round given the sheer scale of immigration and the greater diversity of the ethnic groups concerned. England is the real country and civilisation into which these newcomers must be absorbed if at all. And this means that the way out of a failed multi-culturalism is not to use the education system to inculcate a superficial Britishness (itself a sort of abstract ‘multi-culture’) but one which celebrates the country it is in – England (and, indeed, the cultural Englishness of ‘Britishness’ itself as lived out in England) – as the land that is welcoming other peoples and cultures to be part of itself.

It’s madness to think that by teaching and aspiring to a new multi-cultural Britishness – in England only – one can create it, as it were almost instantaneously. This is pure wish fulfilment: integration is a slow and painful process – the work of generations – and it can take place in England only. This Britishness – so abstract, so idealistic – is the fantasy of a harmonious, multi-cultural society we can live out now, simply by wishing it and thinking it; but it can achieve this, in its own mind, only by leaving out England, which is in fact its only basis in reality.

On a more general level, the ideology of multi-cultural Britishness, as propagated through English schools, is symptomatic of the madness of this present government and of the establishment as a whole that thinks itself to be the owner and guarantor of ‘this country’s’ civic values; but has in effect abstracted them from the only country, and the only culture, where they can truly take effect: England.

2 October 2008

A united country: But which country, Mr Cameron?

At first sight, David Cameron’s performance in his keynote speech to the Tory conference yesterday was superior to that of either Nick Clegg or Gordon Brown in their own conference speeches. That is, if you take as your criterion my somewhat facetious measure of the number of references to ‘England’ or ‘English’: seven in Cameron’s speech, compared with four in GB’s and none whatsoever in Britology Clegg’s. However, closer analysis reveals that six out of Cameron’s mentions were of the ‘Bank of England’, and only one was of England herself – in the sentence that also contained the only instances of the words ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Northern Ireland’: “I am deeply patriotic about this country and believe we have both a remarkable history and an incredible future. I believe in the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and I will never do anything to put it at risk”.

That’s it. That’s all the mention the great nations of ‘this country’ merit. No discussion of devolution; of the Tories’ parlous electoral position in Scotland or Wales; and of the proposed alliance / merger with the UUP in Northern Ireland mooted a couple of months ago. To say nothing – and he did say nothing – about the West Lothian Question or the English Question. And that’s because saying nothing about these things enabled Cameron to pretend that the whole of his speech was about a single, united ‘country’ (25 occurrences) called Britain (15) which a Conservative majority at the next election would give the Tories a mandate to govern – ignoring the fact that they’d have virtually no representation in either Scotland or Wales, and that practically all their MPs would represent English constituencies.

And that’s why Cameron’s speech was in large measure just addressed at an English audience and dealt with England-only policy proposals. But it had to make out that these related to ‘Britain’ in order to gloss over the England-only nature of a Tory government – both with respect to its support and its sphere of action.

Take the much-touted transport policy: new high-speed rail links between English cities instead of a third runway at Heathrow. All in favour of that, except Cameron had to go and spoil it, didn’t he: “So when our economy is overheating in the south east but still needs more investment in the north the right thing to do is not go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow but instead build a new high speed rail network linking Birmingham, Manchester, London, Leeds let’s help rebalance Britain’s economy”. Doh! No, it’s not ‘Britain’, dummy: those are all English cities. A great policy for England, which should help its environment as well as its economy, and you have to go and call it a plan for Britain. No wonder those Scots are complaining that you’re giving preferential treatment to England (are they having a laugh?). Now, if you’d just presented the policy accurately as one for England alone – as your competence in transport affairs will be limited to England – they couldn’t reasonably complain you were discriminating against Scotland by just doing your job as a government for England. Could they?

Maybe Cameron needs to go back to school and re-learn his geography. And he’s got a plan for schools, too – but only in England, you understand. As he said: “there aren’t enough good schools, particularly secondary schools, particularly in some of our bigger towns and cities” – presumably, including some of those same English cities that will be connected with those new high-speed rail links. However, here I would agree with him: state secondary education in England is failing too many kids, especially in poorer inner-city areas; certainly by comparison with the better-funded state systems in Scotland and Wales. Not sure his ‘reform’ (ugly Blairite word) offers all the answers, though: “That’s why Michael Gove has such radical plans to establish 1,000 New Academies, with real freedoms, like grant maintained schools used to have. And that’s why, together, we will break open the state monopoly and allow new schools to be set up”. Sounds a bit like more of the same Blairite marketisation of the system – only in England – which conveniently allows the English education budget to be kept down, as academies are expected to attract much of their funding from alternative sources, such as businesses and commercial sponsorship. Well, perhaps it will generate some improvement. They couldn’t do much worse than New Labour. But don’t let’s be fooled by the ‘together, we will break open the state monopoly’ – this ‘together’ being a leitmotiv throughout the speech that articulates its core idea of unity: as a party, society and country. There’s only one country these measures relate to and that’s England, not Britain.

Ditto the NHS. David Cameron says: “We are the party of the NHS in Britain today and under my leadership that is how it’s going to stay”. Wrong again: all your points about the NHS concern only the NHS in England, not Britain. There’s something in what you say, though: too many targets; too much bureaucracy; too many reforms; not enough control given to the people at the coal face who actually care for patients – the doctors, nurses and cleaning teams. Perhaps if we were honest and just recognised that we’re talking about the English NHS here, then maybe there’d be more emphasis on delivering a service that genuinely reflected English people’s priorities. But then, that might lead to more vociferous calls for spending parity with Scotland and Wales. Cameron’s speech is short on specifics so as to avoid these embarrassing funding issues; and he merely appears to offer more market forces and competition a la Blair: “We’ll give patients an informed choice about where to go for their care so doctors stop answering to Whitehall, and start answering to patients”. To have a choice is fine; but to have a decent standard of care available for all within reasonable distance from their homes is better in these cash-strapped times. I’m not sure that having hospitals and GP surgeries competing with each other to attract more patients and funding is going to deliver that basic level for all – a value which still seems to inform NHS provision in the other countries of the UK.

Does it matter that when Cameron refers to Britain in relation to these things, he’s actually talking only about England? If the Tories deliver policies that are more in tune with what English people want, what does it matter if he dresses them up as British? It does matter, in my view, because he’s making a fool out of the English. The Scots and Welsh aren’t fooled when they listen to such blandishments: they know full well that Cameron’s talking about exclusively English matters. They just switch off till he comes on to genuine UK-wide topics such as the economy or defence. It’s only the English that are tricked into believing the Tories are coming up with remedies to fix “our broken society” in these policy areas. And we’re then prepared to buy in to solutions that appear to answer to our aspirations but which in reality peddle the same old privatisation mantras that we’ve been assailed with since the days of Margaret Thatcher. And privatisation allows public expenditure to be kept down and so help fund the more generously state-funded systems in Scotland and Wales.

But then, a Tory government wouldn’t be responsible for how the Scottish and Welsh governments spent our their money, would it? In fact, it would be responsible for transport, education and health only in England. ‘Responsibility’ is one of Cameron’s new by-words, and there was a whole lyrical passage on it: 

“For me, the most important word is responsibility. Personal responsibility. Professional responsibility. Civic responsibility. Corporate responsibility. Our responsibility to our family, to our neighbourhood, our country. . . . That is what this Party is all about. Every big decision; every big judgment I make: I ask myself some simple questions. Does this encourage responsibility and discourage irresponsibility?” Fair enough; but the country for which a Tory government would be responsible – and to which it would be answerable – certainly wouldn’t be England, even though 100% of its laws applied to England and only 30% or so applied to the rest of the UK. Westminster politicians have got used, under New Labour, to not being responsible to the people they’re governing (English – not British – people in the case of English MPs) or alternatively not governing (Scottish people, in the case of Scottish MPs). Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the blight of sleaze, described by Cameron in these terms: “no-one will ever take lectures from politicians about responsibility unless we put our own house in order. That means sorting out our broken politics. People are sick of it. Sick of the sleaze, sick of the cynicism”.

Well, in my book, putting the Westminster House in order, mending our broken politics and dealing with the cynicism born of lack of accountability means fixing the inequitable, asymmetric devolution settlement that truly has broken ‘this country’: creating a Britain in which Scotland and Wales can and do look after their own interests literally on England’s expenses; and where supposedly national ‘UK’ politicians feel they have a mandate to run England when no one in England has been given the opportunity to vote on any policies for England. Maybe the UK state, in the guise of the New Labour and prospective New Conservative governments, can only offer England a reheated diet of Thatcherite privatisation, precisely because the state won’t take responsibility for England. Because the UK state doesn’t want to be what it actually is: a government for England. If they truly wished to live up to their responsibilities to England, then they’d actually try to design education, health and transport systems that genuinely correspond to what English people want and need. And I feel sure this would involve a deep commitment to public funding, albeit with responsibility for management and delivery of services passed down to the local level, and to the actual providers and users of those services.

But instead – with the honourable exception of the fast rail-link policy (and even there, we haven’t seen the details yet) – we appear to be being offered an under-funded education and health system in England dressed up as British parent, pupil, patient and provider power. Because Cameron is ever conscious of his responsibility to Britain: not to ‘Scotland’ or ‘Wales’, you understand; but to keeping the Union together by subsidising those other parts of it at England’s expense.

As he puts it in his finale: “I believe we now have the opportunity, and more than that the responsibility, to bring our country together. Together in the face of this financial crisis. Together in determination that we will come through it. Together in the hope, the belief that better times will lie ahead”.

We may get through these tough times together, Mr Cameron. But until you’re prepared to acknowledge what you are and are not doing for England, you won’t convince me that you’ll act responsibly towards my country.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.