Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

23 December 2008

Naming ‘the country’, or do Scots take holidays in England?

For the avoidance of doubt, I like Scotland and Wales. As a matter of fact, I love Wales, having Welsh family and friends, and having spent many a happy holiday there. I’ve also enjoyed trips up to Scotland to stay with friends in Glasgow and Edinburgh, which are really fine cities, and to go walking in the lochs. But, I wonder, would Scottish and Welsh people say the same thing about England? ‘I like / love England’ or ‘I’m looking forward to my holiday in England’? These are not statements that somehow ring true, even if they were true! Do Scottish people actually talk of taking holidays in England, even if they do? And if they don’t, does this betray an ambivalence towards a country containing holiday destinations that the Scottish people in question might in fact love?

I suppose the reluctance of Scottish people to talk about their holidays ‘in England’, and to profess to having enjoyed their stay in ‘the country’, is not always the product of a dislike of the English similar to English people’s mixed feelings about the French when they say that France is too good for the French – not that the Scots would be likely to admit that England was ‘too good’ for anyone! No, for Scots and Welsh people, saying they’ve been on holiday in England is a bit like English people saying they’ve been on holiday in England: it doesn’t exactly convey much information and it naturally begs the question, ‘oh, whereabouts in England?’ Accordingly, you tend to hear statements like, ‘we went to Yorkshire this year’ or, like the PM, ‘we stayed in Norfolk for a couple of weeks’. In other words, Scots and Welsh people would normally refer to the part of England – county or ‘region’ – they stayed in, without the name for that part of England necessarily having to contain the word ‘England’ itself; unless it were something generic such as ‘the North of England’.

And yet, the fact that, for the Scots and Welsh, saying they’ve been on holiday in England is like English people saying the same thing; and the fact that they can talk about travelling to Yorkshire or East Anglia with the familiarity and assumed shared knowledge of people for whom those places are a part of their own country, does indicate an ambiguous, and ambivalent, relationship towards ‘the country’ that is England. It is, in fact, as if England were the country: the heartland and existential core of that other country, Britain, of which Scotland and Wales are – now, at least – semi-detached parts or sub-countries. It is as if, for Scots and Welsh people, England is in some sense their country – ‘their’ England – in the same way that English people have tended to nurture proprietorial feelings about Scotland and Wales: that, even though they recognised that the locals felt a proud sense of separate nationhood, those countries ultimately belonged to England and were part of the English ‘domain’ that was otherwise known as Britain.

These are very delicate issues that Scots and Welsh people won’t readily admit to. That is why they won’t name as England ‘the country’ that they feel in some sense belongs to them – and to which they belong – but will refer only to the county or region of England they’ve been to; and, if they do name that mutual sense of national belonging, they’ll call it ‘the country’ or ‘Britain’: not ‘we love England, to which we feel Scotland and Wales somehow still belong – and of which we, as Scots and Welsh people, also feel a sense of shared ownership’, but ‘we love Yorkshire’ or ‘we love East Anglia’; and ‘we feel that we have a stake in England, along with the English themselves, because we are all part of “the country” that is Britain’.

From these sorts of responses flow two alternative contemporary models for the relationship between the different nations that form part(s) of ‘the country’ that is Britain. One of these, which I would contend is very close to the hearts of many Scottish and Welsh people, but which they naturally find it hard to admit to, is a feeling of belonging to a national whole of which the core identity, culture and society are those of England: Scotland and Wales (and, insofar as it is included as an integral part of ‘Britain’, Northern Ireland; leaving aside the Cornish question for now . . .) as effectively peripheral, semi-autonomous nation-regions of ‘the country’ that is England-Britain: on the one hand, England and, on the other, the two (three / four) nations of ‘Greater Britain’, as one might say. England as the heartland of Britain (traditionally having merged its identity with that of Britain), with Scotland and Wales (and N. Ireland and Cornwall) making up the extended English-British domain beyond England; hence ‘Greater Britain’.

The other model is the New Labour, politically expedient and politically correct suppression of the embarrassing and increasingly humiliating psychological, political and cultural truth that Scotland and Wales have been effectively dependent ‘regions’ of a Britain that was in essence another name for England. So, just as Scottish and Welsh people can’t admit to their feelings of loving and belonging to an integral nation whose heart is England – and so will talk only of regions, ‘the country’ and ‘Britain’ – so now, Scotland and Wales are to be viewed as sub-nations of a Britain that is otherwise sub-divided only into regions, counties and cities. It seems that, in order to assert not only their political but also their emotional independence from England, the very existence of an England to which Scotland and Wales have traditionally felt they belonged must be denied and a new, more dignified, equal set of relationships asserted: Scotland and Wales not as regions but as small nations of equal stature and status to – ironically – a number of ‘other’ similarly-sized ‘British regions’ occupying ‘the country’ formerly known and loved as England but now referred to only as ‘Britain’. Psychologically, you could say that this is one way of dealing with the pain of separation: Scotland and Wales find themselves surprisingly missing their organic connection to England-Britain; so this pain and grief is creatively re-worked into a Britain that is ‘missing England’ in the other sense. In this way, the would-be wishing of England into non-existence is in fact the other side of a grieving for their union with England that it is not acceptable for proud Scottish and Welsh nationalists to articulate. Hence, the most effective way psychologically to deny that you are missing England is for England to go missing: for it no longer to exist.

This is perhaps another way to configure the bizarre would-be re-crafting of a Britain without England that has taken place in the wake of devolution. It’s a symptom of psychological fissure and splitting, which manifests itself in different ways from either side of the equation, and either side of the border. For the Scots and the Welsh – particularly, the Scots – there’s the pain and regret that dare not speak its name: that England is no longer their England – part of what it has meant to be Scottish for 300 years, if only on occasions by negative self-definition; and, conversely, that they are no longer integrally part of England, in either the geopolitical or emotional sense. The project to create a ‘New Britain’ of which Scotland is a semi-autonomous sub-nation is, as I’ve said, in part an attempt to deny that pain; and it is also an effort to imagine how to re-connect Scotland organically to a greater Britain of which it was once a part through England – only this time without England, from which the decision has been taken to separate Scotland’s identity.

Yes, this stratagem is also one that enables Labour to make out that it has a mandate to govern England through the inflated majority that its Scottish and Welsh MPs give it; and it enables Gordon Brown to posture as an elected leader for England, even though he represents a Scottish constituency: by denying that England exists and by affirming that – in ‘England’ only – there is only the UK, so that all UK MPs should participate in its governance. But this is also the expression of the torn loyalties of Scottish ‘nationalist-unionists’ who want to belong to a greater Britain without that Britain being fundamentally England.

From the English side of the equation, articulating everything as British only even when the matters at hand relate to England only is a way to deny the splitting up of the Union that has already occurred: it’s playing on that old organic non-distinction between England and Britain in the minds of English people that used to correspond to the political reality – when there was unitary (English) governance over the whole of Great Britain. Again, the political advantage of perpetuating the illusion that nothing has changed is clear: if people are unaware that what’s being talked and decided about relates to England only, they won’t start questioning why Scottish and Welsh MPs are getting involved in the process. However, at a deeper level, it’s about an unwillingness to give up that organic unity with Scotland and Wales that made English people feel those countries were part of themselves; indeed, part of England. We don’t want to wake up to the reality that our beloved country has split up and our children have left us: we want to still be part of one big English-British family.

Where does that leave us now, though? We’re in an intermediate, transitional state: not quite separate from one another but no longer joined at the hip. No longer a unitary Great Britain of which England was the foundation; but still a Union – in name only – that forces England to be effectively the place of a Britain that is dependent for the continuing participation of the Scots on its not being England. ‘This country’ of ours could be named, according to the first of my above models for post-devolution Britain, the ‘Disunited Kingdom of England and Greater Britain’ – the latter term being one that could also encompass Northern Ireland if that province is construed as another part of the greater British dominion of which England is the now partially dis-associated centre. And we – England – are no longer Great Britain but not yet willing and courageous enough to be only England – England alone.

But the separation must come: it must be completed, rather, because once it got started, there was no turning back the clock – like a spouse that can no longer go back to the union that once existed as soon as she has started to think of herself as a separate person before actually making the divorce final. The Scots have decided to be Scots first and foremost, and to break their organic union with England. England, too, must learn to let go. Then perhaps we can begin to find true greatness in ourselves and not in dominion; and not in Britain.

And then, perhaps, the Scots, too, might be able to confess to loving their holidays in England: a foreign country of which one can say ‘I’m going to England’, rather than one’s own country of which one would say ‘I am going to region x or county y’. An England that is no longer the mirror of Scotland’s own national humiliation and the object of unspoken, guilty, unrequited love. An England that is its own nation and need no longer be merely ‘the country’ for Britain’s sake.

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3 December 2008

Damian In-the-Dock Green: Breaches In Confidence That Betray a Cynical Political Culture

I must confess to having initially reacted with a large dose of cynicism last week to the news of the arrest and questioning of the Tory immigration spokesman Damian Green. I thought he must have been up to some sort of political skulduggery given the routine assumption that politicians do indulge in dodgy intrigue and rule bending to procure political advantage. On learning a bit more about the case, I assumed that he must have been offering inducements of some kind to the civil servant who kept feeding him titbits on wrongdoing, ‘malfeasance’ and cover-ups at the Home Office; or else, that the civil servant in question was himself politically motivated, so that at least there was connivance between him and Damian Green in breaking the law (albeit a questionable law in many of its provisions: the Official Secrets Act) in order to score points against the government – a government for which, if I need remind my readers, I have the utmost contempt.

Only subsequently, on reading some of the storm of protest and indignation about the affair, did I pause to reflect a bit more about the civil-liberties implication of the events. Even if the police had a reasonable suspicion that Damian Green had been offering the civil servant in question inducements to betray official secrets, surely the use of a whole squad of counter-terrorist officers to search the MP’s parliamentary office and interrogate him for a whole day was completely inappropriate and excessive. Would it not have been sufficient for ordinary detectives to have a quiet word with Damian Green in his offices after consulting with the Speaker of the Commons and the MP’s boss, the Conservative Party leader David Cameron? The actions and motivation of the Speaker, Michael Martin, in allowing the police raid to go ahead are highly questionable. And then there are the implications for the confidential nature of Damian Green’s work and dealings with his constituents, which the police appeared to regard as completely open for them to look through in the search for incriminating evidence. Should the confidentiality of an MP’s correspondence, files and computers not be regarded by default as completely off limits, and only to be made available to the police under the gravest of circumstances and under reasonable suspicion of serious criminality, such as actual support for terrorism, which might have warranted the use of anti-terrorist officers? But no one has suggested that anything remotely like that had been going on.

Then it occurred to me that, in their suspicions towards Damian Green, and in their apparent belief that there was nothing untoward or objectionable in their investigative methods in this case, the police were demonstrating the same sort of cynicism and lack of respect towards MPs and the parliamentary process as I had done in my initial reaction. After the way the political elite rallied round to protect Tony Blair and his cronies in the ‘cash for honours’ investigation, which ended with no prosecutions and accusations of wasted police resources and effort, such cynicism on their part would be understandable. In this case, however, the police’s attentions were directed towards the dealings of an opposition politician claiming to be exercising his duty to call the government to account for its illegal and deceitful doings, and not towards corrupt political patronage carried on with the acquiescence of the PM.

The Damian Green case therefore demonstrated that cynicism of this sort – whether it is that of the police, the media or the general public – can lead to complacency towards and even acquiescence with the government’s use of secrecy and anti-terrorist measures to suppress disclosure and scrutiny of its own dishonest or incompetent dealings. By means of the incident and the subsequent ‘outing’ of the civil servant involved (Christopher Galley), the message was being put out that civil servants who blew the whistle on government wrongdoing – and even politicians that sought to get hold of and release information about that wrongdoing – could expect the full force of the law to come down on their heads. The government’s newly re-recruited spin-meister and bully boy, Peter Mandelson, reinforced this message this morning, I notice: accusing the Conservative Party leadership of sanctioning inducements to Galley (who was motivated by ambition not the public interest, according to Mandelson) and of conniving in law breaking and violation of the Civil Service Code in order to score political points – almost exactly my own initially cynical reaction.

In view of the fact that this was clearly the message the government wants to put out, I find it completely impossible to believe that the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and probably also Gordon Brown himself – who seems to run cabinet government on a Stalinist-style central command-and-control basis – did not have prior knowledge that the police intended to raid Damian Green’s offices and arrest him. Certainly, if Jacqui Smith did not have such foreknowledge, this would in itself almost justify a resignation on her part: in circumstances as grave and unprecedented as these, for the police not to consult her and gain at least her tacit approval would reveal a huge lack of confidence in the Home Secretary on the part of the police, along with ineffectiveness on her part in setting acceptable guidelines for the police in such matters. If Smith genuinely didn’t know about it, it’s hard to avoid the thought that she may not have done so because Gordon Brown didn’t inform her: i.e. he himself was very much informed and sanctioned the whole thing, and didn’t see fit to tell his Home Secretary about it, as he wouldn’t want an unseemly row and was intent on demonstrating who was really in charge.

This is, of course, speculation. But I’ve long suspected Gordon Brown of being a ruthless Machiavellian operator, who’s prepared to use whatever underhand tactics are at his disposal to ruin the reputations of his opponents both inside and outside the Labour Party: this time, Damian Green, by tainting him with the slur of suborning a civil servant from the proper and legal exercise of his duties; last time, by again using the offices of Peter Mandelson to try to get an accusation of improper soliciting of a donation to the Tory Party to stick on the Conservative Treasury spokesman George Osborne. In fact, there’ve been so many of these personal and career ruins in Brown’s wake that you might almost think it was he who triggered the stories and investigations about the cash for honours scandal in the first place, in an attempt to discredit and even oust Tony Blair. The fact that neither Brown nor Jacqui Smith have felt the least bit inclined to express any regret, let alone apology, about the outrageous handling of the Green investigation by the police can only lend further support to the view that one or both of them knew all about it and sought to secure political advantage from it.

One test of this supposition would be to imagine for a moment how the Labour leadership would react to a request from the police to carry out a similar inspection of, say, the Labour Immigration Minister’s Commons office and confidential files. Do we think for a moment that this would have been permitted? Of course, it wouldn’t. Therefore, whoever it was in the government that gave the green light for the police’s actions last week (Michael Martin, Jacqui Smith or Gordon Brown) was / were, at least in (large) part, motivated by achieving political advantage and revenge for Green’s embarrassing disclosures; and all of Mandelson’s blandishments about upholding the law and the Civil Service Code are a load of utterly futile and discreditable tosh.

Or am I just being cynical again? The point is that the actions of the government in sanctioning (whether ad or post hoc) the police’s actions last week, where there are clear potential political gains for it in doing so, only serve to bring the whole political process and, indeed, the law into disrepute. It is the government that should be setting an example in these matters: it should be completely open about who in government knew, or did not know, what; and in repudiating the police’s disproportionate actions. If it has nothing to hide, this should not be a problem. But the fact that the government has failed to adequately address such questions and concerns can only fuel the type of speculation that I have indulged in here. And, moreover, it is clear that the government did have something to hide, which is why the leaks occurred in the first place; and why the government was, and is, so furious about them.

And this brings us to the hub of the matter: the government comes over all indignant about the leaks carried out by Galley and Green (sounds like a firm of solicitors or executioners!), as if its secrets were all of the utmost importance (hence meriting the deployment of counter-terrorist officers); whereas in fact, it’s obvious they were highly embarrassed and politically harmed by the disclosures. And yet, the government shows cavalier disregard for the secrets and confidential information of its own citizens: whether those of Damian Green’s constituents, whose business was laid bare to the investigating officers last week; or to every citizen in the land, whose personal data has been handled with such gross negligence by a government that feels entitled to gather more and more of it, and to put it all in one place through the ID-card scheme.

It’s this lack of respect and, seemingly, trust for the privacy and honest secrets of the ordinary citizen that betrays the true depths of cynicism to which this government has stooped. The government’s secrets are held to be sacrosanct, even if they comprise a record of misconduct and incompetence. The citizen’s secrets, on the other hand, are to be an open book to the government – and to any organisation with which the government chooses to share, or to which it decides to sell, that information; or to any criminal, terrorist or ordinary citizen who happens to stumble upon or hack into data containing millions of our personal details. What have we got to hide or to fear, after all, from this whiter-than-white, trustworthy and supremely competent government? And if we have got something we’d rather they didn’t know, does that justify ‘the authorities’ in being suspicious that we might be up to criminal or even terrorist activities? Hence justifying the deployment of a counter-terrorist squad to search our premises? Because if it’s allowed to happen to an MP today, it could become a routine tactic to intimidate troublesome citizens tomorrow.

And what is an MP, after all, other than a representative of the people? If the government feels it is justified to treat inconvenient MPs in such a bullying and invasive manner, then it is to us the people that it is showing disregard and cynicism – as indeed it did quite specifically in this instance by allowing the police to peruse the confidential information of Mr Green’s constituents, apparently without any safeguards to the unofficial secrets involved. The reason for this discrimination and these double standards? The government’s job is to govern, and the citizen is there to be governed. So if the government decides it needs more and more of the citizen’s personal information in order to secure the processes and continuance of its governance against mounting threats (the ultimate justifying threat being that of ‘terror’), then it is the government’s prerogative both to appropriate that information and to cloak it, and the use to which it is put, in an ever more enveloping shroud of secrecy. Such as the information the Home Office had gathered on which Labour MPs were likely to vote against 42 days’ detention without charge for terror suspects, which was another of the items leaked by Christopher Galley. It seems that not even Labour’s own MPs are to be trusted.

This is government that sees its primary objective as perpetuating itself and defending itself against the threats to its survival by any means fair or foul. Government that sees itself, not the people, as the ultimate arbiter of its own actions which alone – in its view – can be characterised as ‘in the public interest’; not the actions of the government’s detractors and critics. Government for the government, and not government accountable to the people in the shape of its representatives: in this case, Damian Green MP. The government’s cynical condoning of the police’s actions last week is a sign that it has lost touch with the one thing that confers legitimacy upon it: not its own power but the trust of the people. And from the government’s increasingly paranoid perspective, it is the people in turn that are not to be trusted: potential terrorists all if they question the integrity and expose the incompetence of the government’s security operations and apparatus.

This is perhaps an episode that does justify strong criticism of, indeed cynicism towards, the British parliamentary system. The reason why the government is so out of touch with the people is that it does not have to rely on the support of even a large minority – let alone majority – of the people in UK elections. This is a government that was elected by only 22% of the British electorate (36% of those who actually voted). But that low level of support gave it an absolute majority and, effectively, the absolute power of a monarch, in whose name – and with whose sovereign authority – it governs.

But at the same time – and for all its flaws – this incident also demonstrates the greatness of the English and British parliamentary system: the fact that parliament at its best is not just an assemblage of party clones who slavishly back their government’s and parties’ positions on every issue. The fact that each MP is a free agent: a representative, symbol, defender and example of the freedom of every English and British citizen. And that they can, and do, stand up to abuses of power; even when further abuses are heaped upon them in the attempt to shut them up.

And that is why, despite the government’s betrayal of our confidence – indeed, of our confidential information – I still have confidence in the parliamentary process that England bequeathed to the world.

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