Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

30 June 2009

‘Building Britain’s Future’: it’s mostly for England only; only Brown won’t say so

Gordon Brown presented his ‘Building Britain’s Future’ policy document in Parliament yesterday: largely a re-hash of previously aired proposals in areas such as jobs, training and benefits; housing; education; health care; the economy; and energy and innovation. Given that most of the draft policies related to devolved areas of government, they mostly concerned England only. But once again, this was completely ignored by Brown, who did not say the words ‘England’ or ‘English’ a single time in his speech – not once – compared with ten references to ‘Britain’ or ‘British’.

At the end of this post, I will include a transcription of Brown’s speech and will attempt to annotate in square brackets where it relates to England only, to England plus some other parts of the UK, the whole of the UK, or a combination. This is not always straightforward owing to the overlaps between areas such as education and skills [England], on the one hand, and measures to combat unemployment that leverage the benefits system [UK]. However, it is straightforward in many areas such as education, health and housing.

The BBC yesterday seemed suddenly to have woken up to the fact that where the government says ‘Britain’ in these areas, it actually means England only. I noticed this first in the article on the BBC website anticipating the PM’s statement, referred to in my previous post. This was repeated in the article on the same website reporting on the speech after the event: “The policy document unveiled by Mr Brown in the House of Commons is called ‘Building Britain’s future’ although many proposals relate to England only as a result of devolution in areas such as health and education”. Bravo, BBC; you’ve finally got it!

Indeed, this dawning of the devolution truisms appeared to come as a genuine revelation to the BBC copy editors yesterday. After a brief lapse in the news bulletin ahead of the PM programme on Radio Four at 5.00 PM – where the England-only character of much of the legislative programme was not alluded to a single time – the same channel’s six o’clock news triumphantly trumpeted the fact that the measures on housing, say, were ‘for England only’, while the proposals on education were ‘again, for England only’. The same sort of phrasing cropped up in the news report for BBC2’s Newsnight programme later in the evening. While I was pleased that the penny had finally dropped, the phrase and the tone with which it was spoken seemed to suggest that the government was somehow showing favouritism or an undue concentration of attention towards England by showering all of these national debt-funded goodies upon England alone, as if this implied neglect of the other UK nations. Someone needs to explain to them that it’s ‘England only’ because the government’s scope for action – any action – in these areas is limited to England alone; therefore, they can’t announce measures on housing and education for the UK as a whole, even when appearing to do so: it’s not favouritism but deception – saying the UK even when the measures involved only concern England.

Someone also needs to explain to them about the Barnett Formula: any increases in expenditure in England will trigger corresponding increases in the block grants for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, ensuring that the differential of higher per-capita spending in those countries compared with England is maintained. No measures to reform that inequitous system were announced yesterday, I note!

The government’s avoidance of this particular consideration is wrapped up in its evasiveness about whether or not it is planning to cut or increase expenditure overall across the UK. The terms in which the current argument between the government and the opposition on that issue is framed studiously avoid the really contentious questions about favouritism towards some UK nations at the expense of others: will increases in expenditure on health, education and policing in England have to be funded by decreases in areas where the government’s responsibilities are genuinely UK-wide (such as defence, benefits or tax credits) and therefore affect the other UK nations? Or will they be funded by savage cuts to the budget in other areas of England-only expenditure, such as transport and environmental protection? And, as a result, will expenditure in England as a whole be rising or falling, with consequent, politically contentious rises or falls in the devolved nations? Better not to raise such awkward questions and pretend we’re talking about a homogeneous UK and a single UK budget pot.

That’s one of the reasons why Brown’s speech made not one reference to ‘England’, or indeed to any of the other UK nations, yesterday. The other main factor behind the suppression of the ‘E’ word relates to the more general concern about the legitimacy, or lack of it, of the government and Parliament as a government and Parliament for England. Though it would be more accurate and honest to do so, if Brown, Cameron and Co. suddenly started explicitly stating when they were referring to England only, or a combination of England and one or more of the other UK nations (assuming they even know themselves in every instance), then many more people would have the same startling revelation as some of the BBC staff appeared to experience yesterday: ‘how come they’re discussing these things only in relation to England?’ Then they might start asking the consequential questions about the legitimacy of MPs (and PMs) not elected in England debating and legislating in areas that concern England only, and about how public expenditure is apportioned unfairly across the UK.

Anyway, here’s Brown’s speech and my square-bracketed attempt to ‘de-britologise’ it – to unpick which country / -ies Brown is actually talking about when he says ‘Britain’:

Mr Speaker, in the last year we have taken action to prevent a collapse of banks, protect homeowners against recession and maintain vital investments in public services at the time people need them most. Now as we seek to move our economy out of recession we are setting out the steps we are proposing to support growth and jobs in the economy.

In the last two recessions, tens of thousands of young people were written off to become a generation lost to work – a mistake this government will not repeat.

And so today we are announcing new measures – to be paid for from the spending allocations made in the budget and from switches of spending — to meet new priorities that include creating new growth, new jobs and new housing.

Targeted investments to support jobs and strengthen growth are also the surest and fastest way to reduce deficits and debt in every country.

So my first announcement is about new jobs for young people: [UK-wide] starting from January every young person under 25 who has been unemployed for a year will receive a guaranteed job, work experience or training place.

In return, and I believe there will be public support for this, they will also from next spring have the obligation to accept that guaranteed offer.

This is the first time that any government has guaranteed that jobs and training will be available to young people and, crucially, has also made it mandatory for young people that, if there is a job available, to take this work up and have their benefits cut if they do not.

[UK-wide] To underpin this guarantee, as part of the investments we announced in the budget, 1 billion is being set aside for the future jobs fund that will provide 100,000 jobs for young people – with another 50,000 in areas of high unemployment.

From this September we will realise our pledge to all school-leavers that every 16- and 17-year-old [in England only] will receive an offer of a school or college place – or a training place or apprenticeship. And from this September we will also offer 20,000 new full time community service places [in England].

This complements the help for adults who have been unemployed for six months: who will get access to skills training [in England] or a jobs subsidy [UK-wide] – part of around £5 billion we set aside in the budget and pre-budget report for targeted support with jobs and training.

Mr. Speaker, in total, through the action taken so far – and by rejecting the view that government should cut investment in a recession – we are preventing the loss of around 500,000 jobs. And our continued investment in giving immediate help, through Jobcentre Plus [across the UK], to people made unemployed, is already making a difference – with each month around 250,000 people moving off unemployment.

Mr Speaker, new jobs for the future will also come through making the necessary investments in – low carbon energy, digital technology, financial services, bioscience, advanced manufacturing, transport – the building blocks of the competitive economy of the future so we will use the coming Queen’s Speech to ensure the British economy is best placed to take up these opportunities.

First, the new Energy Bill will enable us to support up to four commercial-scale carbon capture and storage demonstration plants for Britain [although none might be built in Scotland if planning permission is withheld]. The bill complements the £1.4 billion of public investment provided in the budget, and up to 4 billion now on offer from the EIB.

In addition – following our reforms to the policy, [English] planning and regulatory regimes – we will see between now and 2020 as we meet our renewable energy targets – around £100 billion invested by the private sector. These investments will make Britain a major global player in the low carbon market, with another 400 thousand green jobs by 2017, taking total British employment in the sector to well over a million [‘Britain’ does mean Britain here].

Secondly, the Digital Economy Bill will help underpin our commitment to enable broadband for all [across the UK] by 2012, working towards a nationwide [i.e. UK-wide] high-speed broadband network by 2016 with additional government investment unlocking new jobs and billions of extra investment from the private sector.

Thirdly, a new [UK] innovation fund will be announced today by the Science Minister. £150 million of public money which will over time lever in up to £1 billion of private sector investment in biotechnology, life sciences, low carbon technologies and advanced manufacturing.

Over the coming weeks, the Transport Secretary will set out plans to advance the electrification of transport [across the UK: railways being reserved] – cutting rail carbon emissions – on newly electrified lines – by around one third.

Lord Davies will lead a new drive to improve the country’s infrastructure and so increase the efficiency with which projects are taken forward, with the establishment of a new body, Infrastructure UK [a quango that will presumably have different areas and degrees of responsibility in different parts of the UK but will probably be strangled at birth, in any case, when the Tories get elected].

Further, an asset sales board will work with the shareholder executive to achieve our £16 billion assets sales target – money that can be redirected to public investment. [Euh? I think this is selling off the government’s stakes in newly nationalised banks, etc.]

Mr Speaker, these investments will strengthen our economy and create new jobs. And we believe investment by government and the private sector will enable the economy to create over the next five years 1.5 million new skilled jobs in Britain.

Mr Speaker, in every part of the country [implies Britain but can affect England only] there is an urgent need for new social housing and for new affordable home ownership.

So the [English] Housing Minister is announcing that in the next two years – from the re-allocation of funds [England-only funds or funds from the UK-wide budget?] – we will more than treble the extra investment in housing [in England]: from the £600 million announced at the budget to a total of £2.1 billion today: financing over the next twenty four months a total of 110,000 affordable homes to rent or buy; and in doing so creating an estimated 45,000 jobs in construction and related industries.

And by building new and additional homes we can now also reform social housing allocation – enabling local authorities [in England] to give more priority to local people whose names have been on waiting lists for far too long.

We will consult on reforms to the council house finance system to allow local authorities [in England] to retain all the proceeds from their own council house sales and council rents. And we want to see a bigger role and responsibility for [English] local authorities to meet housing needs of people in their areas.

Mr Speaker, we will continue to take forward the far reaching [UK-wide] reforms of financial supervision that we have embarked upon – domestically and globally – since the financial crisis hit in mid 2007. For those who argue that this issue is falling off the agenda, let me make it clear – sorting out the irresponsibility and regulatory weaknesses that led to the crisis remains an urgent imperative and one that we will continue to prioritise both at home and abroad.

The [UK-wide] Financial Services and Business Bill, will ensure better consumer protection, including a ban on unsolicited credit card cheques and in addition, the FSA is taking action to ensure there can be no return to the old short-termist approach to executive pay in the banking sector. And to help tackle tax avoidance, the treasury have also published today a new tax code for banks.

Mr Speaker, alongside our strategy for growth and jobs, we will introduce new [mostly England-only] legislation: for education, to address child poverty and a Policing, Crime and Private Security Bill. And in doing so we will create a new set of public service entitlements for parents, patients and citizens – securing for them more personal services tailored to their needs.

For patients in the NHS [in England] this will mean enforceable entitlements to prompt treatment and high standards of care.

  • a guarantee that no-one who needs to see a cancer specialist waits more than 2 weeks
  • a guarantee of a free health-check up on the NHS for everyone over 40
  • and a guarantee that no-one waits more than 18 weeks for hospital treatment

    And the [English] Health Secretary will bring forward, later this year, proposals to further focus the NHS towards prevention and the earliest intervention; to extend the choices for people to have treatment and care at times that suit them [e.g. via polyclinics, in England only] and whenever possible in their own homes; to reform and improve maternity and early years’ services; and we will shortly consult on far-reaching proposals for how we need to modernise our health and social care systems [in England] so that our country [England] can meet the challenge of an ageing society.

    The second set of public service entitlements [for England] will be for all parents – with the guarantee of individually tailored education for their child as part of our far-reaching reform of our [English] schools system. Mr Speaker, I want all our children [English children, Mr Brown] to have opportunities that are available today only to those who can pay for them in private education. It is right that personal tutoring should be extended to all who need it, so there will be a new guarantee for parents [in England] of:

  • A personal tutor for every pupil at secondary school and
  • Catch up tuition, including 1-1, for those who need it;

    So that every school is a good school, and so that we meet the national [English] challenge to eliminate underperforming schools by 2011, we will see the best head teachers working in more than one school as we radically expand trusts, academies and federations to increase the supply of good school places throughout the country.

    The third set of new public service entitlements is the offer neighbourhood police teams [in England and Wales] can make to all citizens in every community. Already, since April last year, there are 3,600 teams in place – offering to every part of the country policing tailored to the community’s needs.

    We will now go further; and guarantee local people [in England and Wales] more power to keep their neighbourhoods safe, including the right

  • to hold the police to account at monthly beat meetings,
  • to have a say on CCTV and other crime prevention measures
  • and to vote on how offenders pay back to the community.

    Our Policing, Crime and Private Security Bill will give the police [in England and Wales] more time on the beat by changing and reducing the reporting requirements for police officers on stop and search forms [so they can still stop and search at will but won’t have to document it as much; so how will abuses be prevented?]

    And new rights to ensure that [English and Welsh] women are better protected against violence – that will take account of recommendations made in response to our violence against women and girls consultation, to be published this autumn. [Long overdue, in my view, given the way devolution has done English women a disservice in this regard.]

    Mr Speaker, we will also legislate to ensure protection for children [across the UK] – with a new and strengthened system of statutory age ratings for video games.

    Because British citizenship brings responsibilities as well as rights, we will now require newcomers to earn the right to stay, extending the [UK-wide] points based system to probationary citizenship. Very simply, Mr Speaker, the more you contribute to your community the greater your chance of becoming a citizen.

    Mr Speaker, the Foreign Secretary will introduce legislation [UK-wide] to prohibit the use, development, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions – bringing into British law the international agreement we led the way on signing last year.

    Finally Mr Speaker, Building Britain’s Future must clearly start here – in this parliament – with our commitment to cleaning up politics and establishing a new and strong democratic and constitutional settlement to rebuild trust in politics [how about an English parliament to deal with those England-only matters, then?]. And I can announce today on the House of Lords that we will legislate next session: to complete the process of removing the hereditary principle from the second chamber and to provide for the disqualification of members where there is reason to do so.

    And we will set out proposals to complete Lords’ reform by bringing forward a draft bill for a smaller and democratically constituted second chamber. [How about consulting the UK people on this major item of constitutional reform?]

    Mr Speaker, there is a real choice for our country [England and Britain]; creating jobs or doing nothing. Driving growth forward or letting then recession take its course. We will not walk away from the British people in difficult times. [But you contemptuously turn your back on the English people, Mr Brown.]

    I commend this statement to the House.


29 June 2009

The BBC gets it right: perhaps the nagging is working!

Filed under: BBC,Britain,devolution,England,Gordon Brown,politics,say England — David @ 10.22 am

Just spotted this on the BBC news website, writing about Brown’s ‘Building England’s Britain’s Future’ vision statement that is due to be inflicted on us this afternoon:

“The policy document being unveiled by Mr Brown in the House of Commons at 1530 BST is called ‘Building Britain’s future’ – although many of the proposals are thought to relate to England only as a result of devolution in areas such as health and education.”

By Jove, I think they’ve got it! Perhaps all the nagging is finally paying off. But mustn’t speak too soon: let’s see how the TV and radio cover it later on.

The World At One concedes they were wrong

Got a reply from Jamie Angus, the editor of Radio Four’s World At One programme, to my complaint about an article on Friday that completely omitted to mention that the government’s proposed reforms of literacy and numeracy teaching in primary schools related to England only (see previous post):

“David you are absolutely right. The item in the news bulletin mentioned
this was England-only, but we should have mentioned it again in the
interviews that followed later in the programme. Apologies for getting
this wrong.”

27 June 2009

Changes to teaching of literacy and numeracy in primary schools (in England)

Here’s a note of complaint I sent to the BBC Radio Four World at One programme yesterday:

“I would like to complain about the article on today’s programme concerning the government’s plans to hand responsibility for achieving targets on English and maths in primary schools to local authorities.

“Not once in the entire article, including the interview with the Secretary of State, was it mentioned that these changes relate to England only. Granted, many of your listeners are well informed about devolution; but there must have been many thousands who were not aware that the current system and the government’s proposals affect only English schools.

“It is a dereliction of your duty to contextualise the news not to have indicated this. Most listeners in the devolved nations will probably have realised the article didn’t concern them; so it was insulting to them, too, to pretend that this was a UK story. Unless the default ‘nation’ for domestic policy stories is in fact England, meaning you’d only have to spell it out if it was a genuine UK-wide report. Which is it?”

This matters because the government is obviously trying to make political capital out of this U-turn and adoption of Tory policy ahead of the next general election. If listeners are made aware that the existing and proposed policies affect England only, this invites comparison with Scotland and Wales, which have already abandoned ‘central-government’ control over teaching methods. The plans to ‘localise’ much of education policy – in England – were even referred to at one point as a ‘devolution’.

So in England, we’ve had to put up with an authoritarian, rigid form of control from Westminster for the duration of the Labour government, whereas in Scotland and Wales, they’ve already been able to develop strategies that hand more responsibility over to teachers, because of devolution. Now we’re getting our own devolution of primary school teaching in England; but this is devolution down to local not national level. But, by omitting to reference the England-only character of the government’s move, the impression is created that a UK-wide policy change is being carried out. The government thereby earns kudos for making a long-overdue improvement but avoids awkward questions about why they insisted on a methodology for England that had already been abandoned in the rest of the UK.

And they also avoid questions about the democratic legitimacy of their power to legislate on English education only without a specific mandate from the English people. Instead, the very existence of any national-English level at which this policy could be examined, decided upon and implemented is circumvented by making out that this is a programme of UK-wide localisation, instead of an England-only policy that lacks the authority and national vision of the policies in Scotland and Wales.

20 June 2009

The Dark Nationalist Heart of New Labour’s Devolution Project

I was struck last night by how the panellists of BBC1’s Any Questions displayed a rare unity in condemning the ‘nationalism’ to which they imputed the recent assaults on Romanian migrants in Northern Ireland. ‘There can be no place for nationalism in modern Britain’, they intoned to the audience’s acclaim.

Apart from the fact that statements such as this articulate a quasi-nationalistic, or inverted-nationalist, pride in Britain (‘what makes us “great as a nation” is our tolerance and integration of multiple nationalities’), this involved an unchallenged equation of hostility towards immigration / racism with ‘nationalism’. This was especially inappropriate in the Northern Ireland context where ‘nationalism’ is associated with Irish republicanism, and hence with Irish nationalism and not – what, actually? British nationalism à la BNP; the British ‘nationalism’ of Northern Irish loyalists (no one bothered to try and unpick whether the people behind the violence had been from the Catholic or Protestant community, or both); or even ‘English’ nationalism?

Certainly, it’s a stock response on the part of the political and media establishment to associate ‘English nationalism’ per se with xenophobia, opposition to immigration and racism. But this sort of knee-jerk reaction itself involves an unself-critical, phobic negativity towards (the concept of) the English – and certainly, the idea of the ‘white English’ – that crosses over into inverted racism, and which ‘colours’ (or, shall we say, emotionally infuses) people’s response to the concept of ‘English nationalism’. In other words, ‘English nationalism’, for the liberal political and media classes, evokes frightening images of racial politics and violence because, in part, the very concept of ‘the English nation’ is laden with associations of ‘white Anglo-Saxon’ ethnic aggressiveness and brutality. English nationalism is therefore discredited in the eyes of the liberal establishment because it is unable to dissociate it from its images of the historic assertion of English (racial) ‘superiority’ (for instance, typically, in the Empire). But the fact that the establishment is unable to re-envision what a modern and different English nationalism, and nation, could mean is itself the product of its ‘anti-English’ prejudice and generalisations bordering on racism: involving an assumption that the ‘white English’ (particularly of the ‘lower classes’) are in some sense intrinsically brutish and racist – in an a-historic way that reveals their ‘true nature’, rather than as a function of an imperial and industrial history that both brutalised and empowered the English on a massive scale.

This sort of anti-English preconception was built into the design of New Labour’s asymmetric devolution settlement: it was seen as legitimate to give political expression to Scottish and Welsh nationalism, just not English nationalism. Evidently, there is a place for some forms of nationalism in modern Britain – the ‘Celtic’ ones – but not the English variety. While this is not an exhaustive explanation, the anomalies and inequities of devolution do appear to have enacted a revenge against the English for centuries of perceived domination and aggression. First, there is the West Lothian Question: the well known fact that Scottish and Welsh MPs can make decisions and pass laws that relate to England only, whereas English MPs can no longer make decisions in the same policy areas in Scotland and Wales. This could be seen as a reversal of the historical situation, as viewed and resented through the prism of Scottish and Welsh nationalism: instead of England ruling Scotland and Wales through the political structures of the Union, now Scotland and Wales govern England through their elected representatives in Westminster, who ensure that England’s sovereignty and aspirations for self-government are frustrated.

It might seem a somewhat extreme characterisation of the present state of affairs to say that Scotland and Wales ‘govern England’; but it certainly is true that a system that involves the participation of Scottish and Welsh MPs is involved in the active suppression not only of the idea of an English parliament to govern English matters (which would restore parity with Scotland and Wales) but of English-national identity altogether: the cultural war New Labour has waged against the affirmation and celebration of Englishness in any form – the surest way to extinguish demands for English self-rule being to obliterate the English identity from the consciousness of the silent British majority. In this respect, New Labour’s attempts to replace Englishness with an a-national Britishness – in England only – are indeed reminiscent of the efforts made by an England-dominated United Kingdom in previous centuries to suppress the national identity, political aspirations and traditions of Scotland and Wales.

This notion of devolution enabling undue Scottish and Welsh domination of English affairs becomes less far-fetched when you bear in mind the disproportionate presence of Scottish-elected MPs that have filled senior cabinet positions throughout New Labour’s tenure, including, of course, Gordon Brown: chancellor for the first ten years and prime minister for the last two. And considering that Brown is the principal protagonist in the drive to assert and formalise a Britishness that displaces Englishness as the central cultural and national identity of the UK, this can only lend weight to suspicions that New Labour has got it in for England, which it views in the inherently negative way I described above.

However, the main grounds for believing that devolution enshrines nationalistic bias and vindictiveness towards England is the way New Labour has continued to operate the Barnett Formula: the funding mechanism that ensures that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland benefit from a consistently higher per-capita level of public expenditure than England. One thing to be observed to begin with is that Barnett is used to legitimise the continuing participation of non-English MPs in legislating for England, as spending decisions that relate directly to England only trigger incremental expenditure for the other nations.

But New Labour has used Barnett not only to justify the West Lothian Question but has attempted to justify it in itself as a supposedly ‘fair’ system for allocating public expenditure. It seems that it is construed as fair primarily because it does penalise England in favour of the devolved nations, not despite this fact. This sort of thinking was evidenced this week during a House of Lords inquiry into the Barnett Formula. Liam Byrne, the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, described the mechanism as “fair enough”, only to be rounded on by the Welsh Labour chair Lord Richard of Ammanford: “It doesn’t actually mean anything. Look at the difference between Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – is that fair?” So it’s OK for England to receive 14% less spending per head of population than Wales, 21% less than Scotland and 31% less than Northern Ireland; the only ‘unfairness’ in the system is the differentials between the devolved nations!

The view that this system is somehow ‘fair to England’ – except it’s not articulated as such, as this would be blatantly ridiculous and it ascribes to England some sort of legal personality, which the government denies: ‘fair for the UK as a whole’ would be the kind of phrase used – exemplifies the sort of nationalistic, anti-English bias that has characterised New Labour. It’s as if the view is that England ‘owes’ it to the other nations: that because it has historically been, and still is, more wealthy overall and more economically powerful than the other nations, it is ‘fair’ that it should both pay more taxes and receive less back on a sort of redistribution of wealth principle. But this involves a re-definition of redistribution of wealth on purely national lines, as if England as a whole were imagined as a nation of greedy capitalists and arrogant free marketeers that need to pay their dues to the exploited and neglected working class people of Scotland and Wales: the bedrock of the Labour movement.

In short, it’s ‘pay-back time’: overlaying the centuries-long resentment towards England’s wealth and power, England is being penalised for having supported Margaret Thatcher and her programme of privatisation, disinvestment in public services and ruthless market economics. ‘OK, if that’s how you want it, England, you can continue your programme of market reforms of public services; and if you want a public sector that is financially cost-efficient and run on market principles, then you can jolly well pay yourselves for the services that you don’t want the public purse to fund – after all, you can afford to, can’t you? But meanwhile, your taxes can fund those same services for us, because we can’t afford to pay for them ourselves but can choose to get them anyway through our higher public-spending allocation and devolved government’.

Such appears at least to be the ugly nationalistic, anti-English backdrop to the two-track Britain New Labour has ushered in with asymmetric devolution. This has allowed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to pursue a classic social-democratic path of high levels of funding for public services based on a redistributive tax system; that is, with wealth being redistributed from England, as the tax revenues from the devolved nations are not sufficient to fund the programme. Meanwhile, in England, New Labour has taken forward the Thatcherite agenda of reforming the public sector on market principles. In a market economy, individuals are required to pay for many things that are financed by the state in more social-democratic and socialist societies. Hence, the market economics can be used to justify the unwillingness of the state to subsidise certain things like university tuition fees (an ‘investment’ by individuals in their own economic future); various ‘luxuries’ around the edges of the standard level of medical treatment offered by the state health-care system (e.g. free parking and prescriptions, or highly advanced and expensive new drugs that it is not ‘cost-efficient’ for the public sector to provide free of charge); or personal care for the elderly, for which individuals in a market economy are expected to make their own provisions.

These sorts of market principle, which have continued and extended the measures to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ initiated under the Thatcher and Major governments, have been used to justify the government in England not paying for things that are funded by the devolved governments: public-sector savings made in England effectively cross-subsidise the higher levels of public spending in the other nations. Beneath an ideological agenda (reform of the public services in England), a nationalist agenda has been advanced that runs utterly counter to the principles of equality and social solidarity across the whole of the United Kingdom that Labour has traditionally stood for. Labour has created and endorsed a system of unequal levels of public-service provision based on a ‘national postcode lottery’, i.e. depending purely on which country you happen to live in. Four different NHS’s with care provided more
free at the point of use in some countries than others, and least of all in England; a vastly expanded university system that is free everywhere except England; and social care offered with varying levels of public funding, but virtually none in England. So much for Labour as the party of the working class and of the Union: not in England any more.

There’s an argument for saying that English people should pay for more of their medical, educational and personal-care needs, as they are better off on average. But that’s really not the point. Many English people struggle to pay for these things or simply can’t do so altogether, and so miss out on life-prolonging drug treatments or educational opportunities that their ‘fellow citizens’ elsewhere in the UK are able to benefit from. A true social-democratic- and socialist-style public sector should offer an equal level of service provision to anyone throughout the state that wishes to access it, whether or not they could afford to pay for private health care or education but choose not to. The wealthy end up paying proportionately more for public services anyway through higher taxes. Under the New Labour multi-track Britain, by contrast, those English people who are better off not only have to pay higher taxes but also have to pay for services that other UK citizens can obtain free of charge, as do poorer English people. One might even say that this extra degree of taxation (higher income tax + charges for public services) is a tax for being English.

But of course, it’s not just the middle and upper classes that pay the England tax; it’s Labour’s traditional core supporters: the English working class. On one level, it’s all very well taking the view that ‘middle England’ supports privatisation and a market economy, so they can jolly well pay for stuff rather than expecting the state to fund it. But it’s altogether another matter treating the less well-off people of England with the same disregard. It is disregarding working people in England to simply view it as acceptable that they should have to pay for hospital parking fees, prescription charges, their kids’ higher education and care for their elderly relatives, while non-English people can get all or most of that for free. What, are the English working class worth less than their Celtic cousins?

How much of this New Labour neglect of the common people of England can truly be put down to a combination of Celtic nationalism, anti-English nationalism, and indeed inverted-racist prejudice towards the white English working class? Well, an attribution to the English of an inherent preference for market economics – coming as it does from a movement that despised that ideology during the 1980s and early 1990s – could well imply a certain contempt for the English, suffused with Scottish and Welsh bitterness towards the ‘English’ Thatcher government.

But an even more fundamental and disturbing turning of the tables against the English is New Labour’s laissez-faire attitude to job creation, training and skills development for the English working class. The Labour government abandoned the core principle that it has a duty to assist working people in acquiring the skills they need to compete in an increasingly aggressive global market place, and to foster ‘full employment’ in England; and it just let the market take over. It’s as if the people of England weren’t worth the investment and didn’t matter, only the economy. And it’s because of Labour’s comprehensive sell out to market economics that it has encouraged the unprecedented levels of immigration we have experienced, deliberately to foster a low-wage economy; and, accordingly, a staggering nine-tenths of the new jobs created under the Labour government have gone to workers from overseas. Is it any wonder, then, that there is such widespread concern – whether well founded or not in individual cases – among traditional Labour voters in England about immigration, and about newcomers taking the jobs and housing that they might have thought a Labour government would have striven to provide for them?

How much of the liberal establishment’s contempt and fear of English white working-class racism and anti-immigration violence is an adequate response to a genuine threat? On the contrary, to what extent has that threat and that hostility towards migrants actually been brought about and magnified by New Labour’s pre-existing contempt and inverted racism towards the white working-class people of England, and the policies (or lack of them) that flowed from those attitudes?

Has New Labour, in its darker under-belly, espoused the contempt towards the ‘lazy’, ‘loutish’, disenfranchised English working class that Margaret Thatcher made her hallmark – and mixed it up in a heady cocktail together with Celtic nationalism, and politically-correct positive economic and cultural discrimination in favour of migrants and ethnic minorities?

One thing is for sure, though: English nationalism properly understood – as a movement that strives to redress the democratic and social inequalities of the devolution settlement out of a concern for all of the people residing and trying to earn a living in England – is far less likely to foster violence against innocent Romanian families than is the ‘British nationalism’ of the BNP or the various nationalisms of the other UK nations that have seen far lower levels of immigration than England.

But is there a place not just for English nationalism but for England itself in a British state and establishment that are so prejudiced against it?

16 June 2009

Dairy Farmers of Britain: No government bail-out

Just in case you were in any doubt, the dairy-farmers’ co-operative organisation Dairy Farmers of Britain that went into receivership earlier this month operates in England and Wales only, not Scotland or Northern Ireland. You wouldn’t necessarily realise that from the news reports on TV and radio that are covering the story today, though. The one I caught on BBC1’s Breakfast show merely referred to the plight of some dairy farmers in ‘the UK’.

No wonder, then, that there’s been no bail-out for the organisation, whose debts must surely be infinitesimal compared with those of the Scottish banks! The statement on DFB’s collapse by the Secretary of State for the Environment (for England) Hilary Benn rather pathetically just accepted the organisation’s demise as inevitable. Nothing to be done. No action to keep the business going and maintain the thousands of livelihoods in England and Wales that depend on it, such as trying to get supermarkets to pay a decent wholesale price for English milk?

Mind you, the supermarkets I tend to shop in don’t sell ‘English milk’, in any case; just something they stick an insultingly huge Union Flag on and call ‘British’ – meaning that it must be English or Welsh, as you can’t imagine they’d dare to stick the same flag on Scottish produce and call it ‘British’! In fact, I’ve noticed that the Scotland-based Wiseman’s Dairy has been doing remarkably well recently; although, again, you wouldn’t necessarily know they’re Scottish unless you read the small print and notice the Glasgow postcode. No Union Flag on the bottles – the company’s Scottish, don’t you know, so we can’t have the British flag on there, can we? – but also no explicit Scottish markers, in case they put off the English consumers that now make up 66% of their market.

Having said that, it would be fair to observe that Wisemans also now sources much – perhaps even most – of its milk from English farmers. But again, we wouldn’t want to indicate that on the labels, would we? With this partly in mind, I tend to buy Wisemans milk or one of its other brands, ‘freshnlo’, when I can in preference to the Union Jack-stamped, ‘British’ (i.e. English) varieties, simply because of the insult of the flag and the censorship of the milk’s English origins. But how come Wisemans has done so well, particularly since devolution? Could it be that the Scottish milk industry and dairy farmers have enjoyed more support, grants and investment funding through the good offices of the Scottish Government? You can’t, after all, imagine the Scottish Government being quite as casual about the demise of a major Scottish milk producer as the British Government has been about Dairy Farmers of Britain England and Wales.

And I have to say that this organisation, for which I feel sympathy, made a big branding error in attaching the ‘Britain’ tag to its name. I can’t be the only one who would have gone out of my way to buy their milk if they’d called themselves ‘Dairy Farmers of England and Wales’, which would have been in complete contrast to the rest of the market, which falls over backwards to suppress any mention of ‘England’ from English produce.

The Calman Report: Consolidating asymmetrical devolution

It would be easy to undertake a nit-picking, petulant reading of the long-awaited Final Report of the Commission on Scottish Devolution chaired by Professor Sir Kenneth Calman, which was finally published yesterday. The report does not review the Scottish devolution settlement in the round, either in relation to its effects on the UK-wide tier of governance that provides government for England, nor on devolution in Wales and Northern Ireland. This was explicitly not the remit of the Commission; therefore, it cannot be reproached for not making explicit recommendations about devolution for or within England, or for how Scottish devolution can be made more compatible with the interests of England alongside ‘serving Scotland better’: the actual title of the report.

However, it is legitimate, I think, to criticise the Commission on grounds of inconsistency. The essence of its approach to devolution is to arrive at improvements to the way the reserved and devolved powers, governments and parliaments interact and complement each other in practice. Consequently, to be consistent, the Commission should have considered the effects of Scottish devolution on the workings and legitimacy of national-UK governance just as much as it reviews in depth the way the Scottish Parliament and Executive work and interact with the UK government, and how their accountability to the people of Scotland can be enhanced.

In its omission of any review of the broader consequences of devolution for the UK as a whole, and particularly for its largest constituent part (England), the Commission perpetuates and entrenches the asymmetrical approach that has been taken towards Scottish devolution from the Scottish Constitutional Convention of 1989 onwards: considering only what is in the best interests of Scotland-within-the-Union, not a more equitable and accountable constitutional settlement and system of governance for the whole of the UK.

Indeed, the issue of asymmetry is integral to Calman’s conception of the Union itself, and the concept is frequently referred to in the report. The way Calman seeks to circumvent the criticism that devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has brought about an egregious asymmetry in the governance of the UK – with England being the only UK nation that is denied any political expression of its national identity – is to suggest that this asymmetry has always been a fundamental characteristic of the Union: “The territorial constitution of the United Kingdom is therefore radically asymmetrical. This reflects the history and geography of these islands, and like many other aspects of the UK constitution has grown and developed rather than being designed”.

But elsewhere, the report makes it clear that the present-day asymmetry of the UK constitution has very much been brought about – or, at the very least greatly extended – by the deliberate design of the devolution settlement: “The creation of the Scottish Parliament was part of a larger policy of devolution instituted by the Labour Government after its election victory in 1997. This was applied in different ways to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland . . . . The result is that the United Kingdom now has a quite distinctive form of partial and asymmetric devolution – partial in that there has so far been no devolution to the largest component nation of the UK, England (other than to London); and asymmetric in that devolution differs in nature and extent in each of the nations and territories to which it has been applied.”

Notice the subtle but significant semantic shift here: according to the report, the fact that there has been no national-level devolution for England is not what makes the present devolution settlement asymmetric, but rather this asymmetry is in relation to the differing nature and extent of devolution in each of the nations to which it has been applied. As if the fact that it has not been applied at all to England is not the epitome of the asymmetry and the difference described! But no, this just makes devolution ‘partial’.

On the contrary, it is the partial nature of devolution, in both senses (biased and unfinished), that makes devolution asymmetrical. And the raison d’être for the Calman Commission is to examine ways in which devolution can be extended and enhanced – but for Scotland only, making it by definition more partial (limited to one part of the UK only, and hence one-sided in both senses) and asymmetrical. The work of the Commission is therefore directly and deliberately engaged in making the political Union that is the UK itself more asymmetrical in its structures of governance.

The report deploys a classic rhetorical trick to suggest that this intolerable asymmetry is not just ‘organic’ to the Union (having evolved in some sense naturally over the course of history, rather than having been deliberately engineered at a particular point in history, such as the passing of the 1998 Scotland Act) but that it reflects the distinct needs and aspirations of the different nations of the UK, including England:

“Although the Government’s programme of devolution marked a substantial change from the earlier Westminster-based status quo, it can also be seen within a longstanding tradition in the UK of making constitutional change organically in response to particular pressures, rather than by sweeping reforms. It is a means for the UK to provide varying degrees of regional autonomy to match the differing needs and circumstances of its component parts, without the more fundamental restructuring of the constitution that a move to a fully federal structure would entail.”

The report tries to make out that the fact that there is no distinct national layer of governance for England – that the UK government is also the de facto English government – has evolved organically and historically in this way out of the separate relationships England has had with the other UK nations, and that the present situation is somehow adequate to the needs and wishes of the English people. Indeed, the report goes so far as to suggest that:

“This unique asymmetry is not a problem [my emphasis]. If anything, it is something to be proud of – Scotland’s constitutional arrangements have grown or evolved in response to need, like many other aspects of the constitution of the UK. Their asymmetry reflects the underlying reality: Scotland is a small nation sharing islands, and a Union, with a much larger neighbour. The UK’s territorial constitution reflects the radical asymmetry of its geography and demography. Not only do the smaller nations in the UK each have different levels of decentralised power; but there is no equivalent of devolved institutions for England. The UK Parliament at Westminster is also England’s parliament, and the UK Government is England’s government too.”

There you have it: the ‘UK-is-England-is-the-UK’ moment. Historic, organic, set in stone: the UK parliament is England’s parliament, and the UK government is England’s government; the one perfectly adequate to the other. No difference, no disconnect. A ‘territorial constitution’ that makes the territory of England, in political terms, none other than the (vestigial) unitary UK, while devolution for the ‘nations’ is defined in terms of the degree of political difference and divergence that they, and only they, enjoy from the central power, i.e. effectively from England. No asymmetry of devolution, then, from England’s perspective, because England is one and the same as the UK: the founding symmetry that counterbalances the asymmetry; the centre of the system that assures its continuing unity and coherence even within a framework of increasing divergence from that centre on the part of the periphery. In short, England’s non-differentiation from the UK is what assures the continuing existence and identity (sameness, continuance) of the UK across difference and across history; and it is what prevents the presence of radical asymmetry – the absence of any constituent part and nation of the UK that actually is the UK in any fundamental sense.

No wonder, then, that it is at this point in the report (sections 2.12 to 2.15, to be precise) that it touches upon the only sort of devolution for England that it is prepared to countenance: “It is not for us to discuss where or how power might be decentralised or devolved in England – whether, as has been proposed in the past, to regional level, or by giving more power to local institutions”. Well, by very virtue of describing devolution for England in these terms, the report is prescribing the form it should take: not national but regional or local, as there can by definition not be any devolution and divergence of England as a nation from the UK if the basis for the UK’s supposed unity as analysed above (England’s non-differentiation from the UK) is to be preserved.

Having said this, and to its credit, the report does acknowledge that England is a nation, and that the governance of the UK (and of England as the cornerstone of the UK) cannot remain unchanged in the context of devolution:

“Devolution to Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) created political institutions that exercise many of the powers of central Government for a significant proportion of the UK. That inevitably has meant that the governance of the rest of the UK cannot continue unchanged.

“It is not sufficient for Scots (or indeed Welsh or Northern Ireland citizens) to dismiss this as simply a problem for the English: the internal arrangements of the Union are a matter for all of us. The UK now has a territorial constitution, and it needs, in our view, to be more fully and clearly set out.”

This idea of making a new constitutional statement regarding the basis for the union between the different nations of the UK in the context of devolution has its fullest expression in the Calman Report in the idea of the UK as a ‘social Union’. In particular, this pertains to shared ‘social rights’:

“The most important of these [social rights] are that access to health care and education should be, as now, essentially free and provided at the point of need. And when taxes are shared across the UK they should take account of that need. Our first recommendation is therefore that the Scottish and UK Parliaments should confirm their common understanding of what those rights are, and the responsibilities that go with them.”

This statement, which is indeed the first recommendation the report makes, is implicitly a criticism of the failure of the UK to put these principles into practice, in particular through the inequitable distribution of the UK’s tax revenues via the Barnett Formula that has meant that the other nations have been able to deliver these ‘social rights’ (e.g. free access to expensive life-prolonging drugs, no tuition fees in higher education, free social care for the elderly, etc.) far more comprehensively than has the UK government acting supposedly in the interests of England. The Report notably does not recommend that the Barnett Formula should be scrapped until a fair determination of a more needs-based system for distributing tax revenues in pursuit of these social rights can be made. But in principle, the report recognises that the Barnett Formula does not adequately reflect real social needs across the UK.

Up until now, devolution may well be said in practice to have undermined this social Union that the Report describes as an integral characteristic and purpose for the political Union that is the UK itself. By recommending a stronger commitment to implementing the social Union across the UK, the Report is seeking to strengthen and reaffirm that political Union. However, it is far from self-evident that the Report’s principal recommendations – much greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland; in particular, a substantial reduction in Scotland’s block grant from the UK Treasury linked to an enhanced ability to vary the level of income tax in Scotland – will advance these goals without reform of the Barnett Formula, and without political reform for England.

In essence, Scotland will have even greater freedom to pursue these social objectives, which will still be inequitably cross-subsidised by the English taxpayer. The block grant and the Barnett Formula that underpins it are not being abolished. If the Scottish Government decides not to change the level of income tax that Scots are currently paying, Scotland will get absolutely the same deal as now: about 25% higher per-capita public expenditure. In fact, the Scottish government could, if it chose, now cut its income tax – procuring a significant competitive economic advantage over the rest of the UK – and only have to reduce its public expenditure to the same level as England, thanks to the Barnett consequentials. More likely, the Scottish government will only tinker with tax rates: why rock the boat when it’s worked so well to Scotland’s advantage up till now?

The primary avowed purpose of Calman’s recommendation of greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland is to improve the accountability of the Scottish Parliament for the revenue it raises and spends on the country’s behalf. Fair enough. But what is fundamentally unfair and inequitable – over and above the unequal distribution of public expenditure – is the fact that there is no such accountability on tax and expenditure in England. Decisions on expenditure in departments that now deal with England only (in devolved areas such as education, health and transport) are made by the whole UK parliament and government, including MPs not elected in England. Here we have the asymmetry of devolution that really aggravates people and undermines the standing of the Union in England: if Calman’s recommendations are implemented, Scotland will be able to make its own decisions not just on how to spend the public finances but how to raise them, free from the participation of English MPs; but England has no such freedom, and Scottish MPs support and vote through measures that result in the relative under-funding of England to the deliberate benefit of Scotland.

Yes, as the report says: devolution has indeed succeeded for Scotland and is ‘serving Scotland better’. Further enhancement of Scottish self-government may well result in an even stronger Scotland. But if this is done by continuing to serve England so ill, then it will not result in a stronger Union. England will not for ever sustain asymmetrical devolution by accepting to be governed as the UK and for the UK. But devolution as presently constituted relies on this asymmetry and inequality: allowing Scotland to both have its own cake and eat England’s.

But what happens to a ‘United’ Kingdom built on such uneven foundations when the people of England demand their own slice of the cake and a form of government best suited to their needs?

9 June 2009

Labour election and government disaster – in England (and Cornwall)

It’s interesting how comment on Labour’s disastrous (for it) performance at the polls in the European elections has tended to focus on the story in Scotland and Wales: coming a poor second to the SNP and losing to the Tories for the first time since 1918 respectively. The truth of the matter is that Labour’s results in those countries were relatively good: 20.8% of the vote in Scotland and 20.3% in Wales. In reality, Labour’s abysmally low watermark of 15.7% across Great Britain (i.e. excluding Northern Ireland) was due mainly to its rejection by voters in England, where Labour polled only 15.1% by my calculations (I had to calculate it myself, as the BBC website didn’t give any separate figures for England as a whole).

In some of the English Euro-regions, Labour’s performance amounted almost to a complete wipe-out. In my own region of the East of England (not much discussed in media analysis), the party finished in fourth place with only 10.5% of votes: down 5.8% on 2005. In the South West, Labour came fifth with a mere 7.7% (down 6.8%). I note that, in Cornwall, the UK’s governing party landed up in sixth place behind the Cornish nationalist party Mebyon Kernow – congratulations to you guys! I note also that the Lib Dems, who performed relatively poorly in Scotland and Wales, gained a 14.1% share of the vote in England: just 1% behind Labour, compared with the 2% margin separating the parties across Great Britain as a whole. This lends some credence to the idea that the Liberal Democrats could overtake Labour as the second-largest party at a general election: in England, that is.

This makes the ‘performance’ of the Parliamentary Labour Party this evening in giving Gordon Brown their ringing endorsement all the more farcical and galling. Look at some of the ridiculously unconvincing expressions of support they came out with after their meeting tonight where they once again bottled it and failed to mount a campaign to get rid of Brown, despite the fact that it’s well known that many of them just wish he would disappear! The choicest passage in the BBC report is the following: “Loyalist Lord Foulkes said there had been ‘great support for Gordon’ and when Mr Clarke spoke ‘no-one even put their hands together'”. Hmm, no one applauded the accused men in the Stalinist show trials, either!

Do they never learn? Don’t they understand that no one believes such blandishments and these expressions of ‘strong support’ for the PM any more, if they ever did: that it’s all about a party the voters have rejected rallying round and yielding to a forcible manifestation of party discipline in a context in which, if MPs are not voted out in constituencies across England, they risk being booted out by the party apparatus under the pretext of expenses-related sanctions? But this unrepresentative body that has appointed itself as entitled to choose England’s and Britain’s political leader doesn’t care about what the voters in England actually think about them and what they want, which is Brown out and a proper, accountable government for England. But hey, guys, don’t you think there’s a lesson for you, there: the lesson from the European and local elections – that you’ve got to start paying attention to the concerns and wishes of the English people? And the same applies to the analysis of why the BNP won two seats and improved its share of the vote in England: this is down to traditional Labour supporters turning away from the party because it has not taken heed of their concerns about housing, jobs and immigration.

Earlier in the day, these issues, together with public services, were signalled by the Labour backbencher Jon Cruddas as areas where Labour was lacking in clear vision and distinct policies. In the BBC article referred to above, Cruddas is further reported as saying that Labour’s problem is not so much one of leadership as policies. I agree with him on one level: there is a vacuum in what Brown himself, after his cabinet reshuffle last Friday, described as the ‘domestic’ policy area – one of three main focuses of his remaining premiership, the others being the economy and so-called constitutional reform. But this vacuum is also a leadership issue: Brown cannot display, and has not displayed, leadership on domestic issues because so many of them relate to England only, not the ‘better Britain’ that Brown invoked last week as the goal he aimed to begin to achieve before the next election.

Why can’t Brown display leadership in domestic English matters? Because he knows, viscerally perhaps, that his leadership is simply not accepted by the English people; that he has no mandate in England: even less of a mandate than in Britain as a whole, that is; and because he can’t even bring himself to acknowledge the name and identity of the country – England – that is crying out for leadership, vision and strong policy direction from a prime minister or first minister that is actually answerable to it. As opposed to being answerable only to the morally bankrupt and politically moribund Parliamentary Labour Party.

So bully for Brown tonight. But it’s simply delaying the inevitable demise of the undemocratic Labour government. And continuing to deny the people of England the right to choose their own leader.

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