I’m gearing up to a fight at the election. I’ve got my complaint emails primed in the full expectation that none of the leaders nor presenters will say ‘England’ in the leaders’ debates, even when discussing England-only policies; and that news item after news item will report on parties’ proposals on education, health or policing (etc., etc.) without bothering to mention that they relate only to England (and Wales, in the latter instance).
Does any of that matter, or am I just being an ‘indignant from Tunbridge Wells’ Little Englander pedantically pulling the media up on every slightest slip? Surely, everyone knows that when the politicians refer to ‘the NHS’, or the Tory spokesman sets out that party’s proposals for the ‘British’ education system, they’re really talking only about the NHS and education in England?
Well, the politically literate might realise this, but the default position of the average English citizen is to assume that when people in the media say ‘Britain’ or ‘this country’, they actually mean Britain as a whole, not just a part or parts of it. That this is not so is undeniable. But this does not necessarily mean that politicians and the media, in every case, are deliberately suppressing all reference to ‘England’, rather than just forgetting to include the word because it all starts to sound fussily pedantic after a while. This might be more Freudian slip than political censorship. However, if you know your Freud, you’ll know there’s no such thing as ‘innocent’ forgetting, and that what you omit to say, just as much as what you let slip, reveals the self-censorships and internal struggles involved in conforming to socially and politically acceptable norms.
Be that as it may, one thing all three party leaders will definitely agree on in their TV debates is avoidance of the ‘E’ word. But just what is the inconvenient, naked truth that the politicians wish to cover up by not referring to the actual name of ‘the country’ their policies address?
Well, perhaps it’s just that: the country they’re primarily addressing is England.
I’ve written extensively elsewhere on the way the proposed structure for the TV debates is almost diametrically the reverse of what it should be to properly reflect the post-devolution realities. Instead of having three ‘UK’ debates excluding the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, with separate debates in Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland that do include the leaders of parties that stand only in those countries, the UK debates should include the key players from the devolved nations because – for those nations – the election is only about UK-wide (reserved) matters, not nation-specific ones. What is more, the non-English parties may hold the balance of power in a hung parliament; so it is especially crucial in this election for viewers across the UK to hear what their leaders have to say.
By contrast, the only nation-specific debate(s) should be restricted to England, because only English voters are (or, at least, should be) voting on devolved issues in this election. As it’s turned out, one of the debates (on ITV) will be dealing mostly with English issues such as health and education, billed as ‘domestic’ issues. But you can bet your bottom English pound that these topics won’t be referred to as English. At least, ITV hasn’t yet deigned to respond to my helpful email suggestion that they do flag up the England-only policy areas as English in the programme.
Joking aside, the structure that has been adopted in fact ironically reveals the England-specific nature of the ‘national’ debates that politicians and media would rather have us not notice through their non-use of the word ‘England’. The ‘UK’ debates are all being held in England; they exclude the leaders of the Scottish- and Welsh-nationalist parties, thus enabling the perspective to be ‘English’ in the sense of being that of English viewers; and one whole debate is also mostly limited to English matters. And the fact of there being separate debates focusing on issues and parties specific to Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland makes the ‘national’ debates even more England-centric in all but name.
This structure itself replicates the structure of the debates and proceedings of the UK parliament, which has become a British parliament for England at the same time as an English parliament for the UK. The parties don’t want the public in England to realise that they’re using the debates and the campaign in general to seek the votes of non-English voters on English matters (what you could call the ‘West Lothian Election’), resulting in government of the English people by the British parliament. And they equally don’t want the public in the non-English countries to realise that their MPs will be beholden to the interests of parties whose power base and national focus is primarily England (though, and for that reason, unacknowledged): parliamentary lobby fodder whether voting on England-specific or reserved matters.
That’s why they don’t want Alex Salmond or Ieuan Wyn Jones showing up at the party (or showing up their parties). It’s ironic that they think it’s OK to exclude Alex Salmond, who has a legitimate say in reserved matters, while including Gordon Brown, who has no legitimacy in devolved (i.e. English) matters. But after all, you couldn’t have Alex Salmond turning up at the ITV debate and accusing Gordon Brown of proposing policies for England that he can have no democratic mandate to implement, could you? That just wouldn’t be ‘British’ fair play. But it would be democracy. And it would be an accurate representation of the facts.
But will the broadcasters in fact be in breach of their statutory duty to ensure accuracy and impartiality if they fail to point out that some of the policies being debated are relevant only to their English viewers? It would probably be easier to make a case for bias than inaccuracy, despite what I’ve said so far. It clearly is biased to provide an exclusive platform for the ‘English’-party leaders to speak to voters in Scotland and Wales, even if you take only reserved matters into consideration. It is doubly biased if the party leaders refer to devolved (i.e. English) issues as British, and by implication as relevant to Scotland and Wales, because this would amount to turning the UK election into the opening battle in the 2011 election for the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly while at the same time excluding two of the parties presently in power in those bodies.
So this is bias, but it’s bias that rests on inaccuracy and, frankly, a sheer lack of understanding about the actual mandates of MPs from the UK’s countries in the wake of devolution. The most egregious consequence of this at the election is likely to be in relation to the debate about spending on education, health and policing. I notice the Labour Party is now promising not to make any cuts in these areas, which will be paid for by even more swingeing cuts to other areas of the budget. But what Labour is not saying is that it’s only in England that it won’t be reducing the budget for these things; and that, as a result of the overall cuts, the Scottish and Welsh block budgets will be reduced (not before time, in some people’s view), resulting in likely cuts in education, health and policing in those countries. By not explicitly stating that it’s English education, health and policing that will be protected, Labour is deliberately misleading the electorate in Scotland and Wales into thinking that their funding in these areas is ring-fenced – in order to win their votes. And in allowing Labour to get away with this, it could be argued the media is showing bias towards them – except, of course, it’s allowing all the main parties to do the same thing. In this way, the Scots and Welsh are being wooed on English matters; and English voters are being cheated of the result they want in relation to the matters that affect them.
But apart from this West Lothian aspect to the election, are English people put in any kind of direct disadvantage through the inaccuracy of referring to English policies as British? It would be difficult to make a watertight case that calling English laws ‘British’ is inaccurate, as – strictly speaking – they are British laws: enacted by the British parliament comprising representatives from across the UK. So if you were going to be really pedantic about it, you would in fact have to call them ‘British laws for England’. And is it inaccurate, as such, to omit the ‘for England’ or ‘in England’ part (e.g. ‘the NHS in England’ or ‘schools in England’)? Or is this just a form of ellipsis made possible by the fact that the words omitted contain information which it is assumed people know about anyway?
OK, so calling English policies and laws ‘British’ is only partially inaccurate. But is it good enough for the media and politicians to be only partially accurate here? And isn’t presenting only a partial version of the facts again partial in the other sense: the opposite of ‘impartial’?
In this instance, this is a partiality that goes beyond specific policies or parties, and amounts to a bias in favour of the whole British-parliamentary system, of which the general election is meant to serve as a collective act of validation. The mis-representation of England-specific policies as UK-relevant helps to uphold the viewpoint that British-parliamentary democracy itself is ‘adequate’ for English voters: that it provides sufficient expression to the voice of English voters and an adequate representation of their views.
In order to maintain this perception, it is vital that the language politicians and media use to refer to the political process, system and community – the polity – is adequate to the country of which that polity is meant to be a representative expression, in the other sense of the word ‘adequate’: descriptively / epistemologically appropriate to, or commensurate with, the object described. In other words, if the British-parliamentary system is to be seen as adequate for England, then ‘Britain’ / ‘British’ must be seen as adequate terms for ‘England’ / ‘English’: the system of government and the country governed must become mirrors for one another – the British parliament as ‘representing’ the (British) people.
This whole fiction falls down if you start referring to the people Parliament is meant to represent as English in some matters and British in others. Apart from calling the democratic legitimacy of the whole system – and accordingly, the election – into question, it would actually be rather hard to keep switching between ‘England’ and ‘Britain’, sometimes within a single sentence, when referring to the country for which (British) policies are intended. It would require mental gymnastics on the part of our occasionally intellectually challenged politicians, for a start. But imagine the confusion and the linguistic overload if you had to start presenting the interdependency between genuinely British and English policy decisions in their true light. Parties would have to tell voters they intend to raise British taxes (or decrease some and increase others) in order to maintain spending on English education, health and policing while cutting the British defence and welfare budgets, reducing the Scottish and Welsh budgets, and cutting spending on English social care, local government, transport, environmental protection, etc.
If, on the other hand, you pretend that there’s just one British tax pool and one British budget in all these different areas, it makes the message easier to get across. The fact that it also enables the parties to gloss over the West Lothian Election and the question of Parliament’s legitimacy as a dual-purpose British and English legislature is almost a secondary but nonetheless highly convenient benefit of this linguistic economy with the truth. The fiction that there is only a single national budget that has to be apportioned between different government departments is also substantially true, but only if the nation in question is England. But in order to maintain the fiction that that nation is Britain, it’s imperative to never invoke the name of ‘England’. This results in what is actually quite a surreal situation where the country whose election this primarily is, and whose people are the main ones being targeted, is never mentioned by name.
But English people deserve more than this partially representative democracy: where the ‘part’ (England) is (mis)represented by the whole (the parliament for the UK), which – in order to maintain the fiction that it adequately represents the part – refers to the part as if it were the whole. Or, putting this another way, can UK MPs for English constituencies claim to truly represent them if they can’t even represent (accurately refer to and acknowledge) the country of which their constituencies are a part? Those MPs can, in effect, only represent the whole – the in fact partial (party-determined) interests of ‘Britain’ – and not their constituency as an integral part of another whole, the nation of England, for which the British parliament legislates. But if they don’t want to acknowledge their constituencies and their remit as English, they cannot be said to stand for (represent) England in any way, nor do they deserve the support of those who seek to defend the legitimate interests and rights of English people as a distinct part of Britain with its own legal system, for which Parliament is responsible.
In other words, when talking the language of the whole (Britain), our English politicians are only partly telling the truth; indeed, they are being party to a fiction that involves the representation of the part as if it were the whole. And yet, that part is a whole – England – that is only partially represented in this way, while this fiction serves the interests of parties that seek the mandate of the whole to govern the part. And, by being party to this fiction, the media is maintaining the partiality this involves: making the Union Parliament an adequate form of representation for England, and supporting the Union parties that defend the whole system.
Ultimately, then, by conspiring with the politicians to effectively bleep out the ‘E’ word (if that is what they do at the election), the media will be displaying institutional bias in favour of the British-political establishment and system of democracy. The upholding of this system requires that the emergence of an English-national politics be suppressed; and the most effective way to achieve this is by suppressing all reference to ‘English’ policies even when talking about British policies that only affect England.
This is not an innocent act of forgetting or a failure to be journalistically accurate in one’s choice of words; it is indeed more of a Freudian omission: a superficially casual and non-deliberate suppression of language that reveals profound, hidden truths and motivations. That said, the broadcasters cannot be singled out for blame in showing bias and support towards the very democratic system of which the election is supposed to be a vindication. The problem is with the system itself, not merely the media.
But if the media does, as I suspect it will, omit to refer to English policies as English policies, then this calls the validity of the whole process into question. The public – English and non-English alike – have a right to be informed about how, indeed whether, the parties’ policies might affect them. And if the media systemically fails to do that – because it is serving and enabling the stratagem that the British-political system itself employs to conceal the naked truth that it is a government for but not of England – then the general election will not deserve to be called an act of representative democracy.
At the very least, it will result in a continuing mis-representation of England.