Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

5 May 2009

It IS great to be British: Britology at its best

“It IS great to be British”. With its emphasis on ‘is’, this phrase reminds me of the opening of the song, ‘Oh, I DO like to be beside the seaside’. Brown’s latest eulogy of Britishness does indeed have something of that tone about it: well, we’ll all pull together, come rain and foul weather; there’s nothing like a crisis to get us going, and we’ll jolly well come up trumps in the end.

Well, that’s all right then. Evidently, we’re in safe hands. If you want an example of what I understand by the term ‘Britology’, this is a prime example. All the motifs are there in concentrated form. I was tempted to produce a detailed, blow-by-blow critique; but, like Brown, I’d just be going over old ground, and it would be dignifying the drivel (if not drizzle) in too high a degree.

If you feel like some bedtime reading to send you off into a fitful sleep spent endlessly turning over the same phrases in your mind, in the desperate attempt to squeeze out some meaning – any meaning; or if you fancy something to make your blood boil; then go ahead, take the plunge and read it. Here are just a few pointers to watch out for:

1) Britishness / Englishness: What Brown says about ‘Britishness’ could just as easily be called Englishness. And that’s because he IS essentially talking about Englishness, as the Britishness he outlines is what he needs the English to think of as their true, underlying ‘national identity’ – whereas, in reality, it’s Englishness that is the underlying national identity of Britishness: “We have shown over three centuries that a common ground of Britishness, of British identity, can be found in the stories of the various communities and nationalities that inhabit these islands. . . . On one side, our nurturing Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English identities and sensibilities – now, of course, added to by many others . . . . On the other, carefully balanced and held in tension, the organisations and operations of a British state that, shorn of nationalistic baggage, are the patriotic aspect of the nation state”.

Eugh? Decoded: ‘British patriotism (patriotism, you understand, not nationalism) is the acceptable face of the English nationalism (and national identity) that originally subjugated the other British nations and the colonies, who are now (after three centuries) England’s equals within a common Britishness’.

2) Don’t say ‘England’, or – if you have to – marginalise it: In order for Englishness to be re-presented as Britishness in this way, Brown needs to suppress or marginalise all references to England. This is because the thing he has to avoid at all costs is referring to the real political history of Britain, which is that the British state has been predominantly driven and moulded by English national and economic interests; and that England could once again develop a national consciousness that, this time, could see its interests as being better served outside the UK, rather than inside. This marginalisation is evident in the above-quoted reference to “our nurturing Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English identities and sensibilities”: putting ‘English’ last in line after the smaller nations, as if England were only one and – by implication – almost the least important driver of British identity; well, the least distinctive element in Brown’s Britishness, that’s for sure.

Another example is a quite ludicrous passage referring to the recent financial crisis:

“I believe a debate on Britishness is well timed, because of its relevance to the recent financial crisis. When it struck, no one questioned the British state standing behind banks headquartered in Scotland [yes, they bloody well did!]. No one discussed what a Wales-only response might be to the selling of sub-prime mortgages, or wondered how Northern Ireland might find its own solution to changing global conditions”.

Yes, this is where the discussion ends. ‘What about England, you f***er?’ was literally my response on reading this (well, OK, without the asterisks, if you see what I mean). The point being that people did question whether England would be better off weathering the financial crisis on its own: that it wouldn’t have been so s***ing awful in the first place, and then we wouldn’t have had to mortgage the future of the next generation of English kids and NHS patients to prop up the Scottish banks (and Chancellors) that had been foremost in getting us into the mess in the first place. (While on the subject of the NHS, you’ll love the lyrical passage about how it is an example of our fairness and unity as a ‘nation’. What a load of absolute tosh: there are four NHS’s thanks to Brown and New Labour, and the English one gets the smallest per-capita funding of them all – really united and fair!)

3)  British values: While we’re talking about ‘fairness’, all the pantheon of ‘British values’ are paraded out here, especially – alongside fairness – ‘tolerance’ and ‘liberty’, along with the Brownian insistence on ‘responsibilities’ alongside ‘rights’. It is highly ironic to hear someone like Brown emphasising liberty so much (an irony that seems totally to escape him), given the fact that his government has been responsible for removing countless liberties that have been fought for and cherished by the English over centuries.

4) British, not English, history: What is even more outrageous is that Brown presents this historic struggle as British history:

“But from the time of Magna Carta, to the civil wars and revolutions of the 17th century, through to the liberalism of Victorian Britain and the widening and deepening of democracy and fundamental rights throughout the last century, there has been a British tradition of liberty – what one writer has called our ‘gift to the world'”. 

Ahem: excuse me, Sir, but weren’t Magna Carta and the Civil War part of English history, before ‘Great Britain’ even existed? Not in Brown’s school of history, they aren’t. Just as a common Britishness – not England and Englishness – is the centre and driving force of Britain, for Brown, so ‘Britain’ is the ultimate telos of the history of these islands: the goal to which it inexorably tends and from whose standpoint alone the definitive history of these islands will be told. Or, in other words, those founding events in English history are indeed confined to history; whereas their continuing effects are now framed as part of the British present and future, which transforms those events retroactively into ‘British history’ (no longer English) and a founding part of the British identity. 

This appropriation to Britain of the narrative of English history is dependent on the suppression of the fact that the struggle for modern liberty began in England and is a constitutive part of the English national identity. Indeed, one might even contend that a hidden (or not so hidden) driving force behind Gordon Brown’s suppression of ‘our liberties’ is his urge to suppress England itself: the nurturing mother of freedom. 

5) Nations and regions: Just a few overt instances, made all the more sinister by the general talking up of Britain as the nation [is it my imagination, but are politicians and the media increasingly referring to Britain as a / the ‘nation’ nowadays, almost as much as they call it ‘the / this country’?], while references to England as a nation are avoided at all costs and the ‘regions’ are clearly meant to be English (although they could also be read as referring to Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland, too): 

“There is the changing role of the state and its relationship with our regions, with communities and individuals”. Is that his way of referring to devolution, which he doesn’t mention explicitly anywhere else?! Or is this just a reference to the non-mandated, centrally imposed regionalisation of England; the equally non-mandated reforms of local government; and the steadily advancing encroachment of the state into the lives and liberties of the individual? 

Or again: “a strong sense of shared patriotism can be built that relies not on race or on ancient and unchanging institutions, but rather on a foundation of values that can be shared by all of us, regardless of race, region or religion”. Race, region or religion – the new ‘3 R’s’! Oh, I get it: ‘region’ is the new collective term to refer to what Brown previously christened the ‘nations and regions’. It’s what you might call a more politically correct revision of that previous designation: it doesn’t ‘discriminate’ between the ‘nations’ of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the ‘regions’ of England, by simply referring to them all as regions. Well, that’s all right then. Except we know that, in reality, those nations do now have new national institutions (their own parliaments and governments), whereas we English are lumbered with the ancient and unchanging institution of the UK parliament – unless you count the unelected regional authorities as the new institutions for England. And, of course, this way of looking at it makes Britain the nation, as it is frequently termed in Brown’s essay. 

Elsewhere, Brown refers to Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland and England (let’s get the order right) as ‘nationalities’, not explicitly as nations. This implies that there aren’t four nations in the UK but just four distinct national identities that have fused to form a single British nation. But, ironically, this bizarre coinage makes the indigenous peoples of these islands seem like uprooted immigrants to Britain: having a nationality distinct from the nation (Britain) in which they now live. In fact, ‘nationality’ is more commonly used to refer to a person’s official national identity: their citizenship. We talk of ‘British nationality’ but of the ‘nations’ and national identities of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (and Cornwall, for some). 

This linguistic confusion marks out the way Brown turns the realities of British national identities on their head: ‘British’ is in reality the name of a ‘mere nationality’ (citizenship, statehood). But Brown wants to make Britain out to be a nation and the core national identity of its citizens. If Britain becomes a nation, then the ‘lesser’ term of ‘nationality’ can be applied to the UK’s historic national communities. And yet, ‘nationality’ is in fact the more ‘proper’ (official, legal, formal) name for a person’s ‘national identity’ – so that ascribing ‘nationality’ to the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish suggests that these – not Britishness – are the founding national identities of the UK. But then, all that is left for Brown to hook his concept of ‘proper’, true British nationhood on to are attributes of citizenship and statehood – those above-mentioned civic British values and the institutions of the state: “the organisations and operations of a British state, . . . shorn of nationalistic baggage, are the patriotic aspect of the nation state. . . . I believe we are discovering that what unites us is far greater than what separates us, and that the values we share most are those that matter most. Recognising them, and with them the rights and responsibilities that citizenship involves, will strengthen us as an open, diverse, adaptable, enabling and successful modern state”. The state as nation; and the nations as superseded, nationalistic ‘nationalities’. 

Well, I’m sorry; I ended up doing the lengthy demolition job after all. Familiar ground, but endless permutations of the same delusional reasoning and twisted logic. But it’s true, there is one thing that IS great about Britain: you’re never far from the water. Deep water in Brown’s case.

4 May 2009

Carol Ann Duffy: First Female (correction, first Scottish) Poet Laureate

With all the hoo-ha last week about Carol Ann Duffy being the first woman appointed to the position of ‘Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, the fact that she is also the first Scot to hold the position was conveniently glossed over.

I’ve got nothing against the woman. I don’t know her work, although people I know who have read it speak highly of it. Nor is it altogether inappropriate that a Scot should be appointed, as the geographical extent of the post does comprise the whole of the UK. Nor is it even especially surprising that Carol Ann Duffy is the first Scottish poet to have been thus honoured, as the position enjoys a long heritage in English history, going back to the role of versificator regis in the medieval English court, and later being named ‘Poet Laureate of the Kingdom of England’.

Fair enough, I suppose: if the UK can have a Scottish PM, why not also have a Scottish Poet Laureate? Well, in the case of the PM, as we know, the problem is that Scotland and Wales have their own First Ministers to deal with domestic policy issues; so that it is inappropriate for someone elected in Scotland to have governmental responsibility for English domestic issues when they are not accountable for their actions in that respect to any English voters.

In the case of the PL, the problem is that there are separate ‘national poets’ for Scotland and Wales now. I say ‘now’ as shorthand for ‘after devolution’: the first ‘Scots Makar’ having been appointed by the Scottish Parliament in 2004; and the first ‘National Poet for Wales’ having been appointed in 2005. And Carol Ann Duffy is the first ‘British’ Poet Laureate to have been nominated since those dates. So at the very time when Scotland and Wales have gained their own national parliaments and national poets, we in England get an unaccountable Scottish PM who denies the very existence of England, and a Scottish Poet Laureate whose remit covers the whole of the UK, not England in particular.

I trust that she will refrain from writing poetry that claims to speak on behalf of England or to represent an authentic English voice – unlike Gordon Brown, who does abrogate the right to represent us when he doesn’t. But then doesn’t the land of Shakespeare deserve its own present-day national poet? Any suggestions?

2 May 2009

Almunia for Britain (sorry, England)

Apparently, Manuel Almunia – Arsenal FC’s Spanish-born goalkeeper – is considering changing his nationality in order to be eligible to play for England. As the story on the BBC website put it: “The Spaniard, who has said he would consider playing for England, will be eligible to apply for citizenship this summer having signed in 2004. And that would enable the 31-year-old, who has never represented Spain, to play for England under Fabio Capello”.

Well, I suppose if we can have an Italian manager, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a Spanish keeper! Regardless of the question of the rules relating to eligibility for national teams, which I’ll return to, what amuses me about the way this story was reported is the automatic assumption that acquiring British citizenship makes you qualified to play for England. Not once in the BBC article is the distinction between becoming a British citizen and being eligible for the England team even pointed out. Indeed, the article quotes Almunia’s manager – the Frenchman, Arsene Wenger – without comment: “On the English side, for the national team, it is not so much a problem because if the guy decides to become English, he has had to observe and respect the rules like anybody else. Why should he then not be qualified to play for the national team?”

So Almunia is going to ‘become English’ now, is he? I thought he was going to become a British citizen! Does a naturalised Spaniard living in England automatically become English as well as British? I hope for Almunia’s sake that if he does take British citizenship, he will also take England to his heart and make her his adopted country; and that it won’t be just another case of a foreign national taking on British nationality as a flag of convenience to enable them to pursue the opportunities afforded to them here: in this case, playing for the England football team – but without any real identification with or love for England, but merely to fulfil the personal ambition to play in the World Cup Finals.

It’s an interesting thought, though: the idea that taking on British citizenship might automatically entitle one to be considered – indeed, might oblige one to identify – as one or other of English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. In other words, in order to be British, you would have to also take on the national identity of one of the ‘constituent countries’ of the UK. This would make British nationality logically dependent on being English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. In this sense, there would be no such thing as ‘British Spanish’ (or a Spanish Brit), nor, on the same basis, ‘British Indian’, ‘British Caribbean’ or ‘British Pakistani’. British English, British Scottish, British Welsh and British Irish (and, yes, British Cornish), maybe. Indeed, one might make a person’s Englishness (and Scottishness, Welshness, etc.) the true test of their Britishness – better than any Citizenship Test. Food for thought.

But I digress. There are two main things at work in this story: 1) the unthinking equation of, and slippage between, English and British identity throughout the BBC-website article, as demonstrated in the above quotes; and 2) the assumption that becoming a British citizen would be sufficient to qualify Almunia to play for England. Or should I say ‘presumption’, certainly on Arsene Wenger’s part, and maybe Almunia’s. I think, on the contrary, that you need to be English, not just British, to play for England. You can be English by adoption and not just by birth; but I do think that this adoption needs to take place. After all, adoption, though technically (legally) one way (the new parents formally declare the child as their own), is in fact a two-way process: in order to bond with its new family, the child must also emotionally adopt its new parents as its own. If Almunia and the football establishment want England supporters to adopt him into the family, he must also adopt us as his new home nation.

But talking of ‘home nations’, it isn’t even clear in the technical, legal, sense that by becoming a Brit, Almunia will be able to play for England. In an interesting discussion on FIFA’s rules on eligibility for national teams, a post on England Football Online concludes that the present FIFA rules leave a degree of ambiguity in situations where a player’s nationality “entitles him to represent more than one Association”: typically, in the case of someone who becomes a British citizen and who would therefore be eligible to play for any of the four national British sides, so long as he has never played for the national team of his original country, which Almunia hasn’t. In these cases, FIFA’s Executive Committee reserves the right to decide.

Here again, no automatic right to play for England by virtue solely of being British – but this time from the ultimate lawmakers of football. Would that our own lawmakers in the UK were such jealous guardians of the primacy of belonging to a nation over mere citizenship!

But at least if Almunia was declared eligible to play for England, on completion of his naturalisation, that would mean Arsenal would have two English players in their first team, instead of just one at present!

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.