Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

2 October 2009

Gordon Brown’s anglophobia is an expression of moral repugnance

“Britain – the four home nations – each is unique, each with its own great contribution and we will never allow separatists or narrow nationalists in Scotland or in Wales to sever the common bonds that bring our country together as one. And let me say to the people of Northern Ireland we will give you every support to complete the last and yet unfinished stage of the peace process which Tony Blair to his great credit started and which I want to see complete – the devolution of policing and justice to the people of Northern Ireland, which we want to see happen in the next few months.

“I want a Britain that is even more open to new ideas, even more creative, even more dynamic and leading the world and let me talk today about how we will do more to support the great British institutions that best define this country.”

Gordon Brown, Labour Party conference, 29 September 2009.

Gordon Brown hates England. Or should that be ‘England’, expressing the peculiar aversion our PM has towards the very idea of England – to the extent that he wishes it into non-existence? I defy anybody reading the above passage from Brown’s keynote speech to the Labour Party conference earlier this week not to acknowledge that it reveals an insulting contempt towards England at the very least. The PM refers to the “four home nations” and then mentions three of them by name, although the references towards Scotland and Wales are not especially affirming. But what about England? What indeed – our PM won’t commit the indecency of mentioning the unmentionable!

The Prime Minister is not so shy about referring to Britain; no, he loves ‘Britain’. I counted 61 instances of either ‘Britain’, ‘British’ or ‘Briton(s)’ in his speech compared with none – no, not a single one – to England. This is despite the fact that, as we know, most of the policy announcements in the speech related to England only, or to England and Wales with respect to crime and policing.

Brown’s presentation of English policies as if they were British exemplified all the familiar dishonest and self-serving motivations:

  • ‘Create the impression your policy “innovations” affect the whole of Britain to avoid comparisons with Scotland and / or Wales where these policies are more comprehensive and have been effective for some time already’: announcement of a ‘National Care Service’ [for England only] that will provide free personal care for the elderly, but only for “those with the highest needs” – as opposed to the universal free social care provided for Gordon Brown’s constituents. The same applies to Andy Burnham’s pusillanimous announcement of free parking for hospital inpatients and their families “over the next three years, as we can afford it” – as opposed to the free parking for both inpatients and outpatients that already applies in Scotland and Wales. Burnham also conveniently forgot to mention that his announcement related to England only.
  • ‘Avoid awkward questions about why a Scottish-elected prime minister is putting forward legislation that does not affect his constituents’: “I can tell the British people that between now and Christmas, neighbourhood policing [in England and Wales only] will focus in a more direct and intensive way on anti-social behaviour.  Action squads will crackdown in problem estates”. Whatever your views on how best to deal with anti-social behaviour, the truth of the matter is that this is a Scottish PM sending in the cops to crackdown on the English (and Welsh) populace.
  • ‘Avoid proper scrutiny of the nature and effect of taxation and spending commitments across the different countries of the UK’: “I am proud to announce today that by reforming tax relief [affecting people throughout the UK] we will by the end of the next Parliament be able to give the parents of a quarter of a million two year olds [in England only] free childcare for the first time”. The same goes for more or less any spending commitment: once you mention that a pledge relates to England only, awkward questions could be raised about why England appears to be being given preferential treatment by benefiting from increases in general taxation. Another example: “So we will raise tax at the very top [for all UK citizens], cut costs, have realistic public sector pay settlements [for all UK public-sector workers], make savings we know we can and in 2011 raise National Insurance [across the UK] by half a percent and that will ensure that each and every year we protect and improve Britain’s [i.e. England’s] frontline services”.

    Of course, it would be farcical to argue that only English public services will benefit from increases in UK taxation, as any rise in English expenditure gets passed on with interest to the devolved administrations via the Barnett Formula. However, in terms of policy presentation, it is just plain awkward if you have to explicitly acknowledge that commitments to maintain or increase spending on the NHS, education, policing and other ‘frontline services’ relate to England only: it looks as if England is being favoured, even if it isn’t. And if you then have to explain that rises in English expenditure will trigger even greater proportionate rises in the other nations – or, conversely, that if English spending falls, spending in the other countries will fall to an even greater degree – then you can get yourself into real deep waters with voters in England or the devolved nations respectively. Better to just pretend there is one undivided pot of taxation and spending – which there isn’t.

    This is of course going to be a, if not the, major battle ground at the general election; so you can expect all the parties to attempt to gloss over these inconvenient ‘complications’, and the media to ignore them as comprehensively as they did in the coverage of Brown’s speech – none of the commentary I’ve come across, including an extended analysis on the BBC News website, pointing out that much of it related to England only.

All of these reasons for making England out to be Britain were present in spades in Brown’s speech. But the aspect of it I’m interested in highlighting here is the moral character of Brown’s repugnance towards England. The speech sets up an implicit opposition between the ‘British values’ of fairness, responsibility and hard work, on the one hand, and what Brown perceives as the ‘English’ social and individual characteristics of unfairness, irresponsibility and work-shyness / the benefits culture. This view of England forms a subtext to Brown’s paean of praise to the above-mentioned ‘British values’, which are constantly reiterated throughout the speech:

“Bankers had lost sight of basic British values, acting responsibly and acting fairly.  The values that we, the hard working majority, live by every day”

“It’s the Britain that works best not by reckless risk-taking but by effort, by merit and by hard work. It’s the Britain that works not just by self-interest but by self-discipline, self-improvement and self-reliance. It’s the Britain where we don’t just care for ourselves, we also care for each other. And these are the values of fairness and responsibility that we teach our children, celebrate in our families, observe in our faiths, and honour in our communities. Call them middle class values, call them traditional working class values, call them family values, call them all of these; these are the values of the mainstream majority; the anchor of Britain’s families, the best instincts of the British people, the soul of our party and the mission of our government.”

In Brown’s vision, these Scottish-Presbyterian ‘British’ / (new) Labour values must be exercised in reforming and responding to the effectively English crisis of moral values that has led to the economic and social mess we are in. This perspective is evident even in relation to the reserved policy area of macro-economics, in that the near collapse of the UK’s banking sector is linked by Brown to the dominance of an essentially ‘English’ philosophical commitment to self-regulating free markets, and to socially irresponsible behaviour and greed on the part of English bankers.

“What let the world down last autumn was not just bankrupt institutions but a bankrupt ideology. What failed was the Conservative idea that markets always self-correct but never self-destruct. What failed was the right wing fundamentalism that says you just leave everything to the market and says that free markets should not just be free but values free. One day last October the executive of a major bank told us that his bank needed only overnight finance but no long term support from the government. The next day I found that this bank was going under with debts that were among the biggest of any bank, anywhere, at any time in history. Bankers had lost sight of basic British values, acting responsibly and acting fairly.  The values that we, the hard working majority, live by every day.”

Of course, it’s quite preposterous that Brown should now disown the market economics and belief in self-correcting markets that have characterised Labour’s economic policy in government and informed Brown’s own actions as Chancellor. But what I’m interested in here is the ‘national’ subtext: although the above passage does not explicitly say so (but then, Brown never explicitly refers to England if he can help it), the right-wing, Conservative market fundamentalism he describes is associated with English ideology and the English City of London, which would be a familiar association for someone like Brown who cut his political teeth in the battle against the ‘English’ Thatcherism of the 1980s, which was so deeply unpopular in Scotland. Never mind that the bank Brown alludes here to is almost certainly the Royal Bank of Scotland.

For Brown, what is needed to ‘fight’ against this unfair [English] Conservatism and the reckless irresponsibility of unchecked markets is a good dose of ‘British’ morals, and the British values of fairness, responsibility and honest hard work:

“Markets need what they cannot generate themselves; they need what the British people alone can bring to them, I say to you today; markets need morals.
So we will pass a new law to intervene on bankers’ bonuses whenever they put the economy at risk. And any director of any of our banks who is negligent will be disqualified from holding any such post. . . . I tell you this about our aims for the rescue of the banks: the British people will not pay for the banks.  No, the banks will pay back the British people.”

It is this same set of moral / British values that is brought to bear in Brown’s social policies affecting England (plus occasionally Wales) only. The implication is that it’s English moral irresponsibility, lack of fairness and idleness that has brought its society to the pass where it needs a stern application of correct British values to set things right. Take the example of the proposed measures to ‘help’ young unmarried mothers:

“It cannot be right, for a girl of sixteen, to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own. From now on all 16 and 17 year old parents [in England only] who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes. These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly. That’s better for them, better for their babies and better for us all in the long run.”

The opening words here, “it cannot be right”, are ambiguous: they imply that it’s morally wrong for 16- and 17-year-old [English] girls to get themselves pregnant, alongside the explicit meaning, which is that it’s ‘unfair’ and ‘irresponsible’ for [English] councils to give such girls a council flat without any other support. There we go again: reckless English teenagers causing social problems and unnecessary expense to the taxpayer through their immoral behaviour; and English councils compounding the problem by throwing money at them without really dealing with the underlying social and behavioural issues. So Brown’s solution: if English girls in such a situation, who are not cared for by their own irresponsible, dysfunctional families, want the support of the British taxpayer, then they’ll be effectively placed in a form of incarceration where they can jolly well learn how to behave and look after their babies ‘properly’.

The same attitude informs Brown’s announcements on things like tackling the effects of [English] binge drinking, [English and Welsh] anti-social behaviour, and dysfunctional [English] families:

  • “We thought that extended hours would make our city centres easier to police and in many areas it has. But it’s not working in some places and so we will give local authorities [in England] the power to ban 24 hour drinking throughout a community in the interests of local people”: clearly, we English drunkards can’t be trusted with ’24-hour drinking’, in contrast to the Scots with their Presbyterian, responsible behaviour around drink.
  • “There is also a way of intervening earlier to stop anti-social behaviour, slash welfare dependency and cut crime. Family intervention projects are a tough love, no nonsense approach with help for those who want to change and proper penalties for those who don’t or won’t. . . . Starting now and right across the next Parliament every one of the 50,000 most chaotic families [in England only] will be part of a family intervention project – with clear rules, and clear punishments if they don’t stick to them”: the British state is now going to take it upon itself to single out the most unfairly behaving, irresponsible and work-shy English families, and will make sure they learn how to stick to the British rules or else get the British stick!

Well, clearly, action is needed to deal with social problems such as these. The point I’m making is that Brown’s prescriptions are pervaded by a deep moral repugnance towards what are in effect characteristics of English society and culture. And that repugnance is not merely incidental, in the sense that they just happen to be English social problems because it’s only English society that the government that Brown heads up can act upon through legislation and policy. On the contrary, Brown has a personal, moral dislike and prejudice towards the English seen in the contrasting figures of the anti-social, indeed ‘anti-societal’, underclass, on the one hand, and the selfish, arrogant upper classes and mega-rich capitalists represented by the likes of David Cameron, George Osborne and the out-of-control bankers, who seek only to protect their own wealth and privileges.

To these images of Englishness, Brown opposes British values personified in what he repeatedly terms the ‘mainstream majority’ of hard-working, responsible working-class and middle-class communities, families and individuals. Brown articulates his and Labour’s ‘mission’ as being that of raising the [English] underclass and humbling the [English] upper classes, so that the whole of society meets in that mainstream middle ground and middle class of fairness, responsibility, the work ethic and meritocracy. Or bourgeois mediocrity and social conformity.

But one thing for sure is that Brown’s mission to reform ‘the country’ involves taking the England out of England, and transforming it into a ‘Britain’ made in Brown’s Scottish-Presbyterian image. And that’s why Brown can never say England: not just out of political expediency but because ‘England’ is the name for a moral decadence that he sees it as his duty to change – in the name of ‘British values’.

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