I’m beginning to think that ‘taboo’ is not too strong a word to describe ‘England’ when it comes to the discourse of the British establishment. What is a taboo? It’s something that is felt to be so abhorrent, and so challenging to established systems of authority and meaning, that it simply can’t be referred to and is suppressed from socially acceptable language.
An example of something that used to be taboo is incest. We now know that it does exist in society, often associated with abuse of children by their parents. But, like child abuse in general, it used to be impossible to even evoke its presence, and society’s revulsion at the act would be redirected at the person who spoke about it. The presence of child abuse by priests has also clearly been a taboo in the Catholic Church: something that simply could not be talked about in public in case it caused a ‘scandal’, whereas the real scandal was the actual abuse not its exposure, which was in fact necessary to prevent it from carrying on.
Both of these are examples where the activities that were the object of a taboo deeply challenged and threatened the moral authority invested in structures of social power: those of marriage, family and the father as head of the household, in the case of incest, and those of the Church and of the priest as father and shepherd to his flock in the case of child abuse by prelates.
If ‘England’ is indeed a taboo word, is this because referring to it in the context of a nationally broadcast political debate would risk undermining the moral authority invested in that other structure of power: the British state and parliament?
On the one hand, ITV’s leaders’ debate on ‘domestic’ (i.e. mostly English) issues last Thursday represented a step forward in that, when it came to devolved matters, the presenter Alastair Stewart did helpfully point out that, for instance, policing and justice were devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland, or that education was an area where “powers have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”, or words to that effect. However, at the same time, it was three steps back in that he omitted to clarify that this meant that the leaders’ discussion would then relate only to England and Wales, in the case of justice issues, or England only in the case of education and health.
I’m not sure that your average viewer would have automatically understood that the fact that powers had been devolved on a given issue meant that the politicians were talking only about England. Certainly, nothing in the context of the programme made that explicit: just as Alastair Stewart didn’t spell it out, none of the party leaders mentioned England once, even when talking about devolved matters, as they resorted to the usual circumlocutions: ‘this country’, ‘our public services’, ‘the NHS’, etc. And as none of the invited audience referred to England in their questions on devolved matters, this meant that the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ were not heard a single time throughout the hour and a half-long programme, despite half of it being devoted to England- or England and Wales-only matters.
What a genius way to avoid using the ‘E’ word while still fulfilling the broadcaster’s obligation of accuracy and impartiality in making clear which UK countries a particular issue affected! They must have spent some time working out how to do this and, in the process, avoid putting the leaders in the embarrassing position of having to admit that some of their key policies relate to England alone, which is something they studiously avoided doing in their manifestoes (see my analyses of these from earlier in the week).
It really did come across as though some serious thought had been given to the problem of how to avoid saying a particular topic related only to England, as if this was something that would be simply too shocking or confusing for voters. English voters, that is, because the way they went about it made it clear to non-English voters when a discussion was irrelevant for them – and this was coupled with Stewart plugging the separate debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that are to follow – but failed totally to make it clear to ordinary English voters when a discussion was only relevant to them.
But would it be shocking and confusing for English voters suddenly to hear Westminster politicians discussing education or health purely in relation to England? It might indeed be confusing for most English viewers because they’re simply not used to English issues being honestly debated as such and have been deceived for so long into thinking that these things apply to the whole of ‘Britain’. It would perhaps be shocking more for the political establishment, because it would be exposing their taboo. The unacknowledged truth that would be exposed by referring to ‘England’, in this case, would be the very existence of England as a nation, and a nation whose existence challenges the moral authority invested in British parliamentary democracy and power.
That moral authority has already been shaken to its foundations by the parliamentary-expenses scandal last year. Most commentators and the parties themselves acknowledge that the expenses furore revealed a deeper dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the British system of governance, for which it provided a catalyst. The essence of people’s anger against the system is that politicians have become unaccountable to voters and are no longer fulfilling their responsibility to represent their interests. In particular, the lack of accountability of Parliament to English voters on English matters is an aspect of this overall failure of the system that has hitherto been largely hidden from most English people, mainly because the parties and media have conspired to suppress the fact that there are such things as England-only matters by never referring to them as such: by never saying ‘England’.
The parties have entered into this general election believing they can simply carry on in the same way, setting out their blueprints for ‘Britain’ and systematically eliminating the ‘E’ word from their manifestoes, despite the fact that the critical debates around public expenditure, and social change and fairness, centre largely on England alone. To suddenly pull the parties up on this in a ‘national’ TV debate would potentially be to risk another expenses-type scandal blowing up right in the middle of the election campaign, which is the very moment when the politicians are trying to make themselves most accountable to the electorate. It would expose certain facts that would once again reveal politicians to have been lying to voters:
- that the so-called ‘British’ general election is mainly an English election: not only the devolved issues but the other topics discussed in the debate, such as the economy and immigration, are centred on England, as England is the economic power house on which the prosperity and public finances of the other UK countries largely depend, and England’s much greater population density and proportionate share of migrants makes the immigration issue more critical for England than for the rest of the UK;
- that the three main parties are lying to voters by presenting their policies as if they applied comprehensively to a country called Britain, and are thereby attempting to trick non-English voters into voting for them based on a policy agenda that does not apply to them while at the same time concealing this dupery and gerrymandering from English voters. Worse still, Labour has deliberately presented a separate Scottish manifesto with policies relevant only to the Scottish parliament, on the basis of which it aims to attract Scottish votes for the Westminster parliament and English law making;
- and that, for all their promises to ring-fence different areas of public expenditure such as health, education and policing, these promises – for what they are worth – apply only to England, and that the block grants to Scotland and Wales on which those countries’ expenditure in these areas depends may well fall in line with overall reductions in English expenditure.
One positive that has come out of this, it occurs to me, is that maybe the fact that Alastair Stewart pointed out that powers were devolved in justice, education and health care made it difficult for David Cameron to wax lyrical about the Conservatives’ ‘Big Society’ vision, which was presented in their manifesto as extending to Britain as a whole but which relates almost entirely to devolved policy areas such as these. In fact, none of the leaders went in for the big lyrical ‘Britain’ thing when talking about devolved matters, not even Gordon Brown: the number of explicit references to ‘Britain’ as the putative country to which the parties’ policies applied was comparatively low. But the number of explicit references to ‘England’ – the actual country to which those policies apply – was precisely nil.
But if I’m correct that suppressing the ‘E’ word is not just highly convenient from a political point of view but manifests the operation of a taboo, then it is more than just their faith in politicians that would be challenged if people became aware that the politicians had been lying to them by presenting English matters as British.
In the other examples of taboos I discussed at the beginning of this article, it was the existence of incest at the heart of the sacred family unit and child abuse at the heart of Holy Church that the taboos were intended to cover up; and the exposure of those previously repressed truths caused many to question their faith in the traditional family, in the Church and in God himself. With the England taboo, it is the existence of England at the heart of the British state that the taboo aims to conceal; and the exposure of England as the real country that is both invoked and denied through all the British rhetoric risks undermining English people’s belief in Britain itself.
I almost feel that the party leaders’ inhibition about celebrating their visions for ‘Britain’, once it had been made clear that not all of their policies did apply across the UK, demonstrates that the currency of ‘Britain’ and Britishness has already become greatly devalued and discredited. This is despite the blanket ban on saying ‘England’, or perhaps because of it: if all it takes for the myth of an integral British nation to blow up from within is that politicians or TV presenters start referring to the country their policies address as ‘England’, then that fiction is resting on very shaky foundations indeed. No wonder they wouldn’t say ‘England’!
If the establishment refuses to refer to the country that dare not speak its name, this is because it is in danger of seeing its own true face by so doing. But until it does so, the English people will continue to suspect the politicians – rightly, in so many respects – of being two-faced. But we who do recognise that England is the face hidden behind the mask of Britishness must continue to speak the forbidden word until the truth is acknowledged. And once England is recognised as a nation, and the existence of English policies is openly referred to, it will only be a matter of time before the growing demand for an English parliament becomes irresistible.
We may not yet be pushing at an open door; but the cracks have begun to appear, and the false veneer of Britishness may yet shatter of its own accord through the sheer internal contradictions of trying to be something that it is not: a nation in its own right, in England’s place.