Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

20 November 2009

One good thing to emerge from the Queen’s Speech

In the spirit of praising best practice when it arises, I feel it incumbent upon me to record that, for once, the BBC’s radio and online reporting of Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech was exemplary in pointing out when the proposed legislation related solely or mainly to England and not the whole of the UK. The news broadcasts I heard on Radio 4 pointed out explicitly that the key measures for schools, the NHS and social care applied to England alone: something quite unprecedented for the BBC. And the summary of the legislative programme on the BBC website indicated for each item which UK nations they related to. E.g. Children, Schools and Families Bill, “Whole bill applies to England. Other parts cover Wales and extends in part to Northern Ireland”; Personal Care at Home Bill, “Applies to England only”; and Health Bill, “guaranteeing cancer patients in England a consultation within two weeks, a free health check for all over-40s and that no-one will have to wait more than 18 months [I think that should read ‘weeks’] between a GP referral and hospital treatment”. Well done, BBC!

I can’t comment on the TV news or on other news media, as I didn’t see them. But I was further encouraged yesterday by Radio 4’s reporting on the farcical row that has broken out about the proposals for free personal care, with some Labour MPs complaining they have pre-empted the conclusions of a consultation that ended only this week (a blatant case of electioneering, then). The Radio 4 report, on ‘Today In Parliament’, was prefaced by the mention that the proposals related to England only.

If the BBC can make it clear in this way which parts of the UK the government’s legislative programme relate to, then there’s hope that, come the general election, it will similarly make an effort to point out which of the UK’s nations are affected, and which are not, by the policies the parties present and debate during the election campaign. In any case, I’m keeping a watching brief and will be bashing off further emails of complaint should the occasion arise. I nearly did so the other night, in fact, when I heard a BBC World Service discussion on the work of NICE (the National Institute for Clinical Excellence): the body that decides whether to approve drugs for the NHS in England and Wales based on a cost-benefit analysis. The World Service report failed to mention NICE’s geographical remit, implying that its work related to the whole of the UK; whereas we know that Scotland enjoys better per-capita funding than England for drug treatments and is not under NICE’s thumb. But it was kind of late; and I need to get out more!

I have, however, received a holding reply to my last complaint, about the misreporting of the government’s proposals for ten new nuclear power plants, all but one of which are to be located in England – and none in Scotland (wonder why). So watch this space.

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19 November 2009

Labour’s vision is the Britain of the past, not the England of the present

I’ve been trying to work out why the Queen’s Speech detailing the Labour Party’s so-called programme for government up until the general election is so vacuous. Apart from the obvious things, that is: no mention of unemployment or immigration; no indication of precisely how the government – and which government – will fulfil its new statutory obligation to halve the UK’s fiscal deficit in four years at the same time as meet its pledges on public services; referring to all of the proposed bills as if they applied to the whole of the UK in a blanket fashion, whereas many of the key measures relate to England only; the complete lack of the word ‘England’ from the Queen’s speech, indeed, whereas Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were promised increased devolution; the total absence of references to reforming parliamentary expenses, let alone the thoroughgoing political and constitutional reform that all the parties paid lip service to back in May and June of this year; and the reality that virtually none of the legislative programme will actually make it onto the statute books before the election, and that what does become law may well be reversed by an incoming Conservative administration. What a pointless exercise, which illustrates how irrelevant and remote from people’s lives Westminster has become.

And I suppose that, in essence, is why it is all so vacuous: a process of British governance merely going through the motions and becoming almost self-referential rather than engaging dynamically and honestly with the people on whose behalf the work of government is supposed to be carried out. British law rather than government of, for and by the people of England. I guess that’s why the government feels it needs to legislate – or at least put forward legislation – for its commitments on public services and fiscal policy rather than just make those commitments and engage in debate about them. It’s as if the reputation and legitimacy of Parliament and this government have fallen so low that it’s no longer enough simply to promise to do something: you have to make those promises binding in law. But legislating for something doesn’t make it legitimate. This is British-parliamentary law making instead of real government and leadership, which involves engaging with people’s real lives, concerns and needs. In this sense, the absence of any verbal reference to England is the symptom of an unwillingness and lack of competency – in both meanings of the term – to be a government for England, even though that is what the British government is supposed to be in so many areas.

Look at the actual commitments the government is making to England (without saying so) in the form of statutory obligations that mostly won’t become statute anyway, and so aren’t worth the parliamentary Order Book paper they’re written on: binding commitments for suspected cancer sufferers to see a specialist within two weeks of a referral, and that no one should have to wait more than 18 weeks between a GP referral and a hospital appointment for other conditions; a commitment to provide one-to-one tuition to schoolchildren who need extra help; free personal care at home for the 280,000 most needy individuals plus other measures to help those already receiving free care or for those entering care homes. All very worthy commitments in themselves, but they come across as rather random. Why the priority on cancer referrals, as cancer is already comparatively well funded, rather than other aspects of health care that urgently need attention, such as strokes, the standard of personal care health professionals are able to provide patients in hospital, hospital hygiene, mental health, etc. etc.)? And what is the vision for the school system and for education as a whole in England, and, in particular, how is the government going to address the problem of failing schools, let alone that of failing pupils? The truth of the matter is the government doesn’t have a vision for English schools, in part because it can’t even acknowledge the name of the country for whose education system it is responsible. No vision of England means no vision for England’s NHS or health-care system.

And don’t even get me on to the subject of personal care, where the government still isn’t doing anything like what the Scottish government has been doing for years thanks to its generous funding via the Barnett Formula: free personal care at home for all who need it, irrespective of their financial means. Now, I’m not saying that we could afford such a level of provision in England, especially in these straitened financial times; but then, can we afford it in Scotland, either? How about drawing up a ‘Fairness In Government Bill’ specifying the minimum and maximum levels of public-service provision across the whole of the UK that are appropriate to different degrees of fiscal deficit – free personal care needing to be capped at a certain level, for all UK citizens, once the national debt reaches a specified amount? Oh, but I forgot: despite giving the impression that it could do something like that, the government can’t because of devolution. Well then, better still, give us an English Parliament, and then the fairly elected representatives of England could decide the level of taxation, borrowing and social-care provision that England can afford for its own people.

Because that’s what’s lacking in all of this: any kind of attempt to formulate policy for England that reflects English people’s priorities and preferences. Do we actually want the government’s nebulous ‘National Care System’, affiliated to the NHS, to be the centrally managed channel for government funding for and provision of social care? Wouldn’t we in England rather have a system that was managed and funded closer to the people it was aiming to help: through local authorities, communities, private providers, voluntary organisations, and direct financial and practical support to individual carers, rather than through some Whitehall-managed bureaucratic machine? But we’re not having this discussion because the government has given up, or perhaps has never wanted to be, this sort of genuine government for England.

But the Labour Party does have a vision for Britain. Except it’s a Britain of the past, not the Britain of the present, or a Britain and England of the future. On the same day as this most inconsequential of Queen’s Speeches, the Labour Party aired an extraordinary party-political broadcast:

In this embarrassing act of self-praise, the Labour Party identifies with Britain itself and with every major progressive movement of the 20th century, of which Britain is portrayed as having been in the vanguard. Well, perhaps not every movement: I’m sure there’s a brief flash of a CND march accompanying the commentary on the anti-apartheid movement – an intentional subliminal reference, perhaps, to give heart to socialist idealists that the Labour Party still represents them; but better not refer to this explicitly. And, needless to say, there is absolutely no reference to England even in the bits of the broadcast that refer to the England-only policies: the commitments about NHS treatment times; “free personal care for those who need it” (what, all of them?); the creation of a National Care Service (for ‘Britain’? no, it’s England only). Oh, of course, and no reference to the ‘achievement’ of devolution or to any of the actual policies the Labour government has carried out in England only: NHS prescription charges, parking fees, and life-prolonging drugs withheld, where these either do not apply or are provided respectively elsewhere in the UK (healthcare apartheid, in short); a target- and performance-driven education system that still has not demonstrably improved standards or focused on the needs of the economically and educationally disadvantaged – compared with a radical reform of the educational philosophy and system in Wales; free personal care in Scotland only.

Instead, Labour’s vision is a misty-eyed view of a past in which people did genuinely believe that Labour could deliver real change, and greater social equality and opportunity, for everyone across Britain; and in which it possessed the tools to deliver much of that agenda when it was in government. But Labour has in reality given away and abandoned that holistic vision of a united ‘British nation’, of social solidarity across the whole of the UK, and of concern for the needs of working people and those who cannot work, for one reason or another. And it’s also given away the levers of government to realise that vision. And so it retreats into a sterile sham of UK-wide law making underpinned by a dreamy re-writing of British history that places it at the centre of all meaningful social reform over the last 100 years: as much as to say that if it is elected into government again, it will continue the fight for progress in Britain.

But what will it actually do for England? And is it even bothered to ask the people of England what they want? Until it does, all its British law making and myth making will just be so many hollow words and fantasies.

11 November 2009

Complaint about BBC coverage of Britain’s new nuclear power stations; and reply regarding the One Show

Below is the text of an email of complaint I sent to the BBC yesterday:

I am complaining about the fact that the BBC’s reporting on the government’s plans for ten new nuclear power stations, announced yesterday, failed to explain why almost all of them (nine) are to be built in England and none in Scotland. This is because the new ‘streamlined’ planning regime, brought about by legislation passed in 2008, relates mainly to England, and to Wales only with respect to energy installations and harbours. The same applies to the quango, the Infrastructure Planning Commission, set up to oversee the new planning system.While the reports on BBC radio, TV and online news did indicate that none of the new nuclear plants were to be built in Scotland, they failed completely to explain why. Instead, government spokespersons (e.g. Ed Miliband) were quoted referring to the energy needs of ‘the nation’; and references were made to the IPC and its framework guidance on ‘nationally significant infrastructure’ projects, in such a way as to imply that policy in such matters is being formulated and applied on a consistent UK-wide basis. This is, however, not the case, and the vast majority of the planning framework documents that the IPC is currently formulating will apply to England only; and the one regarding nuclear power under which planning applications for the new plants will be handled relates to England and Wales only.So whereas the UK government does have responsibility for energy strategy across the UK, the system under which it is attempting to drive through controversial developments is largely restricted to England. This is a critical fact that should have been mentioned given the concerns over the environmental impact and safety of nuclear power. Indeed, some of the proposed plants are situated close to major population centres, such as Bradwell in Essex (very close to London) and Oldbury in Gloucestershire (near Bristol). By contrast, Scotland would really have been a much more suitable location for some of these plants given the remoteness of some of its coastline and its greatly inferior population density.

The reason why Scotland is excluded is of course devolution: planning in Scotland is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, which is refusing to authorise any new nuclear plants. So the BBC’s lack of rigour in reporting on this issue is another example of its failure to be critical and explicit in making clear whenever UK-government policy applies to England only or mainly, as in this instance. This relates to previous complaints I have made about this more general failing on the part of BBC news coverage, and to a reply I received from Paul Hunter dated 25 October 2009.

By the way, while I’m on the subject, the website for the Infrastructure Planning Commission is a classic example of the way many websites for England-specific government departments or quangos contain very few up-front references to the actual name of the ‘nation’ they’re supposed to be serving. If all you look at are the home page and the general ‘about’ pages, often the only way you could be sure these are UK organisations of any sort is by looking at the web address or by other indications such as language and web-site design. Other classic examples of the genre include the (English) Department of Health and the Department for (English) Children, Schools and Families, whose website proclaims: “The purpose of the Department for Children, Schools and Families is to make this the best place in the world for children and young people to grow up” – ‘this’ being the way they refer to England. I wonder what cyber visitors from other countries make of this shame-faced way of suppressing references to your own country, whereas their government websites plaster the name and symbols of their nations all over the place; contrast the French Health Ministry or the German Environment Ministry. I suppose at least they have the decency not to stick the Union Jack on all the pages and refer to ‘the country’ as Britain on these websites; instead, they avoid explicitly naming the country at all.

Yesterday, I also received a reply to my earlier complaint about an episode of BBC1’s ‘One Show’:

Dear Mr RickardThank you for your e-mail regarding ‘The One Show’ on 28 October and for your comments on the report about proposals to begin giving children career advice at the age of seven..

 

While a Government proposal, limited to England, may have been the topical trigger for this report its focus was the general idea of giving children careers advice at this young age; something which although perhaps not a reality for any part of the UK at the moment the programme felt was an interesting idea to explore.

Ruby Wax set out to look at the wider issues and to gauge reaction to such an idea. This encompassed looking at some of the concerns about children’s aspirations in life which prompted the proposal, as well as the likelihood of people growing up to do the jobs they wanted to do when they were seven years old.

I note however that you would have appreciated some mention of the fact that the Governments proposal is limited to England at the moment and would like to assure you that we’ve registered your comments on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback we compile daily for the programme and senior management within the BBC. This ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the Corporation.

Thanks again for contacting us.

Regards

Stuart Webb
BBC Complaints
__________________________________________
http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints

In essence, this response amounts to dismissing my complaint about the programme’s failure to clarify that the government’s proposal related to England only as a personal preference rather than a substantive criticism that the lack of such an indication was fundamentally misleading: in this instance, perpetuating the ignorance of English viewers that the government’s education policies apply to England only; and, in the case of non-English viewers who are not especially well versed on the effects of devolution, potentially alarming them about something that in fact does not affect them. Note the sheer ignorance and complacency of the sentence, “some mention of the fact that the Governments proposal is limited to England at the moment”: no, it’s not ‘at the moment’, you utter ignoramus – any UK government proposal on these matters can only ever relate to England only, unless there are plans to reverse devolution. Trouble is you can’t reply to these BBC emails, but you have to do a whole new complaint. So this is effectively my response.

I also note that Ruby Wax talked only to people on English streets and English education specialists. Why not go and talk to people in Glasgow or Cardiff if the programme was merely mooting a general idea? Well, that’s because this would make the (intended?) implication that the government’s ideas were relevant to the whole of the UK far more explicit; and hence would make the programme more vulnerable to accusations of misleading inaccuracy when reporting on England-specific affairs.

Clearly, the item was relevant to Britain only in one of the modern meanings of the word ‘Britain’, which is ‘England’. But the One Show is predicated on the lie that there is still just One Nation in political terms.

Oh well, we’ll keep chipping away.

6 November 2009

Will Afghanistan crystallise Britain’s ‘Russian moment’?

The Russian Empire – otherwise known as the Soviet Union – was broken on the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. Many commentators, including Russian ones, have pointed to the eerie parallels between Britain’s and America’s engagement in military conflict against the Taliban, and the defeat of the mighty Red Army at the hands of the Taliban’s predecessors, the Mujahedeen. If we were to take heed of the lessons of history – not just the living memory of the Soviet Union’s traumatic humiliation, but the thousands of years of successful Afghan resistance to imperial invaders – then we would immediately reverse the build-up of Western troops in that country and accelerate our exit strategy, if we have one. Indeed, we would never have got ourselves embroiled in a conflict we cannot win.

But the question I wish to pose here is this: Gordon Brown has today spoken of his determination that Britain and its allies will indeed ‘win’ in Afghanistan, however victory is defined (which is part of the problem). However, he also conceded the possibility that Britain might lose: “We will succeed or fail together and we will succeed”. But will Britain stay together if we lose?

Clearly, while there are parallels, Britain’s situation is not exactly the same as the Soviet Union’s during the 1980s. However, I would argue that, like the USSR, Britain’s actions in Afghanistan betray an imperial mindset. Indeed, Britain itself is still an empire in certain fundamental respects: not in the, as it were, empirical (i.e. real-world) sense of possessing vast colonies, but in its view of itself – its identity, its status in the world and its systems of governance.

These all come down to Britain’s concept of ‘authority’ – political and moral authority combined: Britain’s ‘right to rule’ linked to the fact that it sees itself as inherently ‘in the right’. This then translates to our military interventions in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, which the British establishment would like to see not as examples of more or less arbitrary interference in other countries’ affairs for the sake of Britain’s strategic interests, but as illustrations of how our might is indeed right: military power allied to a moral mission, and applied to promote British-style governance and implant British values in some benighted corner of a foreign field.

As far as the governance of Britain itself is concerned, I would argue that this is also still conducted in the manner of an empire, albeit one whose boundaries are mainly those of the islands of Great Britain, and with limited concessions to democracy. I’ll probably return to this topic in more detail on another occasion. But my main proposition here is that one of the main reasons why the Westminster political class has become so disconnected from the people – indeed, the peoples – of Britain is that they still view the business of governance in the light of the imperial mindset. In particular, the insistence on the sovereignty of Parliament, and on the entitlement of Parliament and the executive to make all the important decisions that affect our lives without being fundamentally answerable to the people, and without having to take popular opinion into account, exemplifies the concept of British authority described above: those that possess British might see themselves as imbued with British right – the right to rule over us in imperial fashion linked to the fact that this rule in itself is seen as in the right and righteous.

So in Britain, we have an elected empire: a form of absolute rule, albeit moderated by a limited amount of democracy, whose sovereignty derives from a moral absolute: that of the Sovereign herself, who is the inheritor and embodiment of the medieval divine right of kings. Except, in our constitutional monarchy, it is our elected so-called representatives that re-assign that divine right to themselves in the form of the sovereignty of Parliament.

But to return to my point of departure, what could happen to the British establishment’s sense of its divine right to rule, both at home and abroad, if things go disastrously wrong in Afghanistan, as they did for the Soviet Union? By this, I mean not just hundreds of British dead, as now, but thousands, even tens of thousands. How far are we prepared to continue with this folly to prove to ourselves that we were in the right all along? And at what point do we realise that perhaps we didn’t get it right, indeed may not be in the right, and that history may not conclude that God was on our side this time?

Who knows what ramifications a truly disastrous defeat in Afghanistan would have for our already shattered faith in the authority that our elected rulers exercise in our name? It did for the Soviet Union; would it do the same for Britain?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not wishing for such a catastrophe to occur in my wish for the United Kingdom as presently constituted to unravel. I’d rather we pulled out now while we still have a chance. But the omens are not good.

Gordon Brown says our brave British soldiers are fighting for our national security in Afghanistan. They may also be fighting for the survival of Britain in a sense that Brown does not intend.

2 November 2009

Has Alan Johnson made a hash of his leadership bid?

No smoke without fire, as they say; or, in this instance, no smoking gun without getting your enemy to shoot themselves in the foot by firing someone they shouldn’t!

I’m getting into this conspiracy malarkey! When I first heard the news that Home Secretary Alan Johnson had taken the ill-advised decision to sack the chairman of the government’s own advisory committee on illegal drug use, Professor David Nutt, simply because he’d publicly expressed disagreement with the government having re-classified cannabis as a Class B drug (reversing its previous downgrading of the drug to the less dangerous Class C category), I thought Johnson had blotted his copy book as a potential successor. Since then, the crisis has got even worse for Johnson, with the resignation in protest of two of Professor Nutt’s colleagues on the committee.

Having now concluded that the touting of David Miliband as the ‘favourite’ candidate for the EU Foreign Secretary High Representative job is a means for him to be taken out of the running as a potential successor to Gordon Brown, it’s now occurred to me that Alan Johnson could also have been handed a poisoned chalice in being told to sack David Nutt. This has engineered a nice media-fuelled row that could seriously damage Johnson’s credibility as a possible Labour leader and future prime minister. And who is the real ‘decision maker’ and governmental string puller that has prompted this action on Johnson’s part? Surely, none other than the Dark One, Peter Mandelson, who is seeking to manipulate his own way into the position of Labour leader and possibly even PM.

In this respect, the mysterious removal from contention of the two top candidates for the Labour leadership – Miliband and Johnson – is completely consistent with the pattern established under Blair, in which all of the potential rivals to Brown were picked off one after the other. Mandelson has clearly learnt from his ‘predecessor’ as Labour leader; or was it the other way round all along?

1 November 2009

Come back Guy Fawkes, all is forgiven!

Guy Fawkes – the leader of the Gunpowder Plot conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 – is a figure about whom the English have been ambivalent ever since, depending on the varying repute in which Parliament has been held. Currently, respect for the Westminster Parliament is at one of its lowest ebbs ever, which moves Guy Fawkes more over to the positive end of the hero-to-villain spectrum.

In fact – exaggerating somewhat – one of the greatest services some latter-day terrorist could render to democracy in England would be to blow the old place up: of course, without any human casualties. I say this because if the Palace of Westminster were destroyed, it would be more than just a new parliament building that would be erected in its place: I feel sure that such a tabula rasa would result in a major overhaul of the antiquated and democratically deficient processes of the Westminster Parliament and, indeed, of the whole structure of parliamentary governance in Britain. Assuming that a radically new, modern parliament were built in the place of the bombed-out building – i.e. they did not attempt to reconstruct the Victorian white elephant that is the present parliament – it’s almost impossible to imagine that the institution itself, its culture and traditions, would remain the same.

For example, the chamber of the Commons would most likely be built in the horseshoe shape designed to foster a more collaborative and open style of debating as opposed to the antagonistic, punch-and-judy style of politics encouraged by the rectangular lay-out of the present chamber. The new building could also be designed literally to enable open, transparent politics by embodying more open spaces for MPs to conduct informal meetings and discussions, and by having many more glass walls and partitions, so that people can see who is talking to whom.

But over and above these architectural and cultural considerations, I think the necessity to construct a completely new parliament building would be perceived as an opportunity to make a completely fresh start with how we conduct parliamentary democracy and government in Britain. And, who knows, the trauma of the Westminster Parliament’s destruction might finally overcome the reluctance, indeed inability, of many English people to contemplate the establishment of an English parliament. Perhaps, with the whole new start and the massive financial cost that the need to rebuild Parliament made necessary, people would start to think that the new London parliament should be an English one, and that we should perhaps locate a totally new British parliament (dealing with reserved matters only) somewhere else altogether.

Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the old English Parliament; it’s time to bring him back and give him another chance, so we can restore it!

PS. For any anti-terrorist security staff or ‘lawful-intercept’ data analysts that might be reading this, I’m not actually advocating that terrorists should target the Palace of Westminster: it’s a metaphor.

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