Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

31 March 2011

UK Un(England cut): Why has England been cut from UK Uncut’s narrative?

In some respects, I admire UK Uncut: the web-based movement of protest against the British government’s cuts agenda, which organised the ‘flash mob’ that occupied Fortnum & Masons on Saturday after the TUC’s protest march. At least, this is a group of mostly young people getting involved in politics and standing up for something. That’s a lot to be thankful for, given that many of my generation – the parents of the youngsters concerned – have previously been somewhat scornful of the lack of political engagement and awareness of today’s youth. On top of which, UK Uncut is creative, resourceful and peaceful – not like the ‘Black Bloc’ anarchists that actually did all the wrecking and rioting on Saturday. And UK Uncut does appear to have been reasonably successful at bringing the issue of tax avoidance back to the top of the political agenda.

I do, however, find UK Uncut’s position on the cuts rather naïve and simplistic. They argue that merely eliminating all the tax avoidance (presently legal) and evasion (illegal) of major corporations and wealthy individuals, as well as taxing bank profits and bonuses more, would generate revenue of over £95 billion, making the government’s programme to cut the structural deficit in four years completely unnecessary, so that the UK could remain ‘uncut’. I’m all in favour of reducing the opportunities to avoid taxation and of hitting the banks harder. But even so, it’s unrealistic to suppose you could recover as much as £95 billion, and the issues are complex. For example, if businesses are genuinely multi-national, and if wealthy individuals are resident in more than one country, and have sources of income from more than one country, you can’t necessarily recover all of the taxes they owe in the UK.

Besides which, it’s simplistic Robin Hood economics and politics to claim that you can simply take from the rich and give back to the poor ad infinitum. Whether we like it or not, we are living in a globalised market economy; and there do need to be rewards and incentives for success. Otherwise, the wealthiest investors and entrepreneurs, and the big corporations can easily de-camp to other countries that allow them to hold on to more of what they’ve earned. It’s about striking a balance. I actually agree that the balance has swung too far in favour of what used to be known as ‘capital’. But I don’t think it’s possible or sensible to demonise wealth as theft and demand it all back. In the longer term, we’ll need a successful, competitive economy to generate the wealth required to fund generous public services and welfare; and whipping up an anti-business, anti-success ethos is not the best way to go about it.

But that’s not my main gripe about UK Uncut. What I find concerning is the group’s total lack of an English focus or vision. It’s a movement of protest against the UK government’s public-spending cuts; but there’s zero recognition that many of the cuts they object to affect England only, or affect England considerably more than other UK nations. Take the following passage from the UK Uncut website’s page about the cuts: “David Cameron himself has said that the cuts will change Britain’s ‘whole way of life’. Every aspect of what was fought for by generations seems under threat – from selling off the forests, privatising health provision, closing the libraries and swimming pools, to scrapping rural bus routes”. Well, David Cameron might refer to these things as relating to ‘Britain’; but an informed protest movement ought to be aware that they affect England only.

In similar vein, the website says: “A cabinet of millionaires have decided that libraries, healthcare, education funding, voluntary services, sports, the environment, the disabled, the poor and the elderly must pay the price for the recklessness of the rich”. Again, in the first six of the policy areas referred to here, the government’s cabinet of millionaires took their decisions for England only, not the UK.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to keep referring to ‘England’ by name all the time in relation to every single England-only policy. If it’s understood from the context that these things are happening in England only, then that’s fine. Equally, however, I do take issue with what appears to be deliberate avoidance of referring explicitly to England: why not mention, just occasionally, that the government’s privatisation and Big Society agenda that accompanies the cuts relates virtually exclusively to England, or that the marketisation of the NHS is happening in England only, or that students are having to stump up big tuition-fee increases in England only? Wouldn’t it add to the group’s attack on the government’s statements that ‘we’re all in this together’ to show that some people – i.e. the English – are having to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of the cuts?

In fact, there’s not one mention of the word ‘England’ in relation to specific cuts across the group’s whole website – not a single one. I did a Google search for the word ‘England’ on the site, and it came up with 14 instances, none of which related to a discussion of England-specific cuts but did include several mentions of the Bank of England, and mildly derogatory references to “middle England” or to “slavery in 18th century England”. By contrast, there were 1,230 references to ‘UK’ on the site. OK, the clue is in the name of the organisation; but even so it’s impossible not to think that there’s a pathological avoidance of the ‘E’ word going on when you read the following passage: “Everyone from pensioners to teenagers, veterans to newbies have already joined our actions in towns from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth”. This is a nice little alliteration, maybe; but why pick the extremities of Scotland and Wales rather than include an English geographical reference, especially as the vast majority of the protests UK Uncut organises takes place in English towns and cities? Come on guys, where’s England?

Does it actually matter whether UK Uncut spells out the fact that many of the cuts they’re protesting against relate to England only or mainly, and that those who take part in their actions should also be aware of it so they can inform the public they come in contact with about it? On one level, it doesn’t matter, as the central thrust of UK Uncut’s campaign is against the government’s economic policies – their perceived lack of effectiveness and fairness – which are a reserved matter, applying to the whole UK. But on another level, this failure or unwillingness to point out which cuts relate specifically to England does weaken UK Uncut’s position, in three ways:

  1. UK Uncut criticises the unfairness of the cuts. But one of the most unfair aspects of them is that they are applied unevenly across the UK, with people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continuing to be guaranteed higher per-capita public spending, out of proportion with relative need, than those in England via the Barnett Formula.
  2. Not pointing out the fact that many of the cuts and associated public-sector ‘reforms’ UK Uncut takes issue with are England-specific (e.g. those relating to higher education, NHS privatisation, local-authority services such as libraries, etc.) means that the group can’t criticise one of the main impacts of the cuts across the UK, which results from the unfair devolution settlement: that it drives deeper social and economic divisions between the UK’s nations.
  3. And a failure to highlight the fact that some of the UK cuts are genuinely UK-wide while some are England-only means that the group cannot and does not question the political legitimacy of the whole cuts agenda as it applies to England: the policies have been decided not only by a ‘cabinet of millionaires’ but by elected representatives that are not accountable to the people of England for those decisions. The cabinet answers to a British government and parliament that claims to be acting in the ‘national interest’ in carrying out its programme of cuts. But, whether you agree with that statement or not (and UK Uncut clearly doesn’t), this is the British-national interest, not the interest of the English nation where those cuts are actually made. And the government has no mandate, nor has it sought one, from the English people as a whole for the cuts it imposes not in their name.

In other words, by not pointing out that the English cuts are not only unfair but democratically illegitimate, UK Uncut actually confirms and validates the political legitimacy of the cuts even as it attacks their economic inefficacy and damaging social consequences: they don’t agree that the government’s decisions are right, but they do agree with its right to make those decisions. So in reality, the political establishment has nothing to fear from UK Uncut, because UK Uncut fundamentally assents to the present UK settlement, including unfair asymmetric devolution, which UK Uncut is unwilling to acknowledge in any way. Indeed, UK Uncut’s apparently systematic avoidance of the ‘E’ word throughout its website is almost text-book UK-establishment speak: whatever you do, don’t refer to England, especially when talking about England-specific matters.

UK Uncut accuses the government of condoning tax avoidance on a massive scale; but I accuse UK Uncut of condoning the government’s avoidance of the English question, which is a central aspect of the unfairness and illegitimacy of many of the most stringent cuts the government is imposing. UK Uncut says ‘tax the rich to give more to the poor’; I say, ‘tax the Scots and Welsh more if they want more public spending, and stop subsidising the devolved nations from English taxes’.

In short, UK Uncut’s refusal to acknowledge any England-specific character to the UK-government’s cuts agenda means that the UK is indeed uncut in a manner not intended by UK Uncut: in UK Uncut’s view, the UK polity remains very much the legitimate government of England. But this also means that not only is England cut financially but, for both the UK government and UK Uncut, it is cut out of its very existence.

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7 March 2011

White and English, but not white-English: how to deal with the discriminatory Census for England and Wales

In two weeks’ time, all UK citizens will be required in law to fill in the national Census. Except, as in so many of these matters, there isn’t a Census for the whole UK but separate Censuses for England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Not that you’d know this from the coverage in the England-based British media, though, which hasn’t drawn our attention to the fact that the Census, like so much of domestic policy, has been devolved.

In England and Wales, we’ll be expected to answer the following two questions on our national identity and ‘ethnic group’:



The only difference between England and Wales will be the order in which the options ‘English’ and ‘Welsh’ appear on the form, and the fact that a Welsh-language version is available in Wales.

In Scotland, the ethnic-group question runs as follows:


Spot the difference? In England and Wales, non-white ethnic groups, as such, are not offered the standard option of including ‘English’ as part of their ethnic group: they’re officially classified only as ‘Black British’, ‘Asian British’, etc., and not ‘Black English’ or ‘Asian English’. By contrast, black and Asian persons living in Scotland are permitted to identify as ‘Black Scottish’ and ‘Asian Scottish’.

Not only is the ethnicity of black and minority ethnic (BAME) persons in England and Wales not officially to be classified as ‘English’ or ‘Welsh’, but those latter terms are reserved as ethnic categories exclusively for white persons. I.e., according to British officialdom, if you’re ethnically English, you’re white. If that sounds a bit like the BNP, that’s because this is a form of – indeed, a form for – racial apartheid.

Now, of course, people filling in the form can write in ‘English’ as their ethnic group. But how many black or Asian respondents are seriously going to write in ‘English’ in the space left blank for ‘any other Black / African / Caribbean background’ or ‘any other Asian background’? Even if people from those population groups think of their culture as English, they’re not going to write ‘English’ in here because ‘English’ isn’t exactly an Afro-Caribbean or Asian ‘background’ as such; plus most form fillers will think that their English identity is adequately implied by the term ‘British’ included in the ethnic-group headings, especially if they’ve specified ‘English’ as their national identity in the previous question.

So the Census is going to come up with millions of non-white people who supposedly identify ethnically as ‘British’ rather than ‘English’. But this is totally meaningless because they weren’t even given the option of viewing themselves as English.

Meanwhile, if you are, as I am, white and English, the Census form leaves you no choice other than to accept that your ‘ethnic group’ is ‘white-English’. This hyphenated, racialised cultural identity is implied by the very fact that ‘English’ is a sub-category of ‘White’ alone. But I consider myself to be part of an English ethnic group – where ‘ethnic group’ implies culture – not a white-English sub-section of English / British society. I.e. my English ethnicity – culture – has nothing to do with the colour of my skin, and I don’t see myself as part of a culture associated only with one racial group. So what should I put down on the form here, and what should I write in?

Apart from its highly suspect racial-political bias against seeing English, as opposed to British, culture and identity as something multi-racial and multi-cultural, the problem is that the Census completely muddles up a number of distinct categories or types of national / cultural / ethnic identity. I would say there are four main forms of ‘national’ identity:

  • Citizenship / nationality (i.e. statehood): in this sense, I personally am British
  • Social identity: I identify as English and am seen by everyone who meets me as English because I sound, look and behave in typically English ways, and because my relationships, economic activities and engagement in society as a public space are shaped by the structures and institutions of English society (e.g. the English class system, the English as opposed to British public sector, the opportunities and limitations of the economy of southern England, etc.). My national identity is, therefore, English because I’ve been thoroughly socialised as English, and my life is shaped by English social norms and institutions
  • Cultural / ethnic-group identity: here again, I’m English, if ‘ethnic group’ refers primarily to culture. Culture is about how we express ourselves in terms of collective, national rituals, traditions, customs and ways of life, as well as through creativity and the arts. My culture is distinctly English, although I recognise there is a great deal of continuity and overlap between that Englishness and the other national cultures of the UK
  • Race / kinship: so here, I’m white and arguably white-British in the sense that all the ancestors I know of came from different parts of the British Isles, including what is now the Republic of Ireland. So perhaps I should tick both the ‘English / Welsh / Scottish / N. Irish / British’ and the ‘Irish’ boxes? Except the form doesn’t allow you to do so, exercising its own special form of ethnic apartheid again, separating the ‘British’ from the ‘non-British’ white populations. Goodness, even if I could enumerate the full set of my ancestors’ countries of origin – which I can’t – I couldn’t possibly say with any degree of scientific certainty what precise mix of British racial-ethnic-genetic antecedents I embody. I’d just rather call myself ‘white’ and have an end of it; but the form wants me to see myself as white-something, and effectively as either white-British or white-Irish. And if you do write in ‘English’, they’ll have you down as some sort of racial extremist: insisting on specifying ‘English’ in particular, as opposed to lumping ‘English’ in with all the other British-racial categories.

What a load of absurd and politically manipulated nonsense this all is! I’d have nothing to do with it if the law didn’t insist I went along with it. The Census’s national-identity question arguably implies all four types of identity I’ve enumerated here, so I could reply alternately British, English, Irish and even Welsh (given my Welsh maternal family), and all four would be correct on one level but wouldn’t reflect how I really feel, which is English. And the ethnic-group question egregiously conflates cultural and racial identity, and disallows ‘English’ as a term that applies to all racial groups, which is in fact how I view the term.

So how am I actually going to answer? ‘English’, obviously, as far as national identity is concerned. Many of my fellow countrymen will also tick ‘British’, partly because the question also implies the other main type of national identity: citizenship. So again, the Census will generate some marvellous stats about how the majority of English people also or exclusively identify as British; but the data will be completely useless because the Census is so inexplicit about how these terms for national identity are to be understood.

And as for ‘ethnic group’, I’m just going to tick White and then write in ‘White’. If they want to know about race, then fine: I’m happy to be seen as white. But I won’t be pigeonholed as ‘white-English’, still less as someone who insists on a white-English racial identity. My ethnicity is English, not my white skin colour. (Well, OK, that’s English too, on one level: not a pretty sight on a foreign beach!)

Clearly, other English people will have their own individual take on these things, and will have their own strategies for filling in, deflecting and subverting these injurious and biased questions about national and ethnic identity. And so the whole exercise will produce meaningless information, because it just doesn’t reflect the way English people – both white and non-white – now see themselves in terms of nationhood and culture. In truth, it’s more of a desperate last-ditched effort on the part of the Anglo-British establishment to mirror back to themselves a population that still views itself as British.

But like all statistical surveys, you get back pretty much what you put in. A load of rubbish in this instance.

1 March 2011

It’s official: English law discriminates against Christianity

Yesterday, a black Christian couple were told that Derby City Council had been right to bar them from fostering children because of their refusal to tell children in their care that the practice of homosexuality is a good thing, which contradicts their Christian views about sexual ethics. The ruling of the High Court in London stated that laws protecting people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation “should take precedence” over the right not to be discriminated against on religious grounds, and that if children were placed with carers who objected to homosexuality and same-sex relationships, “there may well be a conflict with the local authority’s duty to ‘safeguard and promote the welfare’ of looked-after children”.

This ruling may well be correct in law – I’m not qualified to judge – but if it is, it does legalise discrimination against Christians and those of other faiths. The very wording of the ruling implies this: if there’s a conflict between discrimination on the grounds of homosexuality and discrimination on the grounds of religious belief, then it’s better to discriminate against the people who hold the religious beliefs in question rather than (merely appear to) discriminate against gays.

Why? Apart from debatable technical reasons (i.e. “there may well be a conflict with the local authority’s duty to ‘safeguard and promote the welfare’ of looked-after children”), the only reason for privileging sexual orientation over religious belief is that the moral rectitude, or at least the absence of immorality, of same-sex relationships has become unquestionable and uncontestable (including in law), whereas religious beliefs are now regarded as fundamentally questionable and are no longer accepted as resting on absolutes, either moral or epistemological (i.e. as being based on an objective theory of knowledge).

As the BBC’s religious correspondent Robert Pigott, writing yesterday, put it: “This was the most decisive ruling against the idea of Christian values underpinning English law since judges ruled last year that to protect views simply because they were religious would be irrational, divisive and arbitrary. Today the message was that courts would interpret the law in cases like the Johns’ according to secular and not religious values”. So not only do the laws themselves enshrine secular values and philosophically sceptical views towards religion – including Christianity: England’s traditional faith – but secular interpretions of the law will ‘take precedence’ over religious ones where there is a conflict.

I suppose one should not complain too much if the law and its interpretation reflect general changes in society, and its views on ethics and faith. But my point is that, as a result of yesterday’s ruling, this is likely to result in egregious discrimination against Christians and those of other faiths, which ought to be prevented in law not defended. For a start, the Johns – the couple at the centre of the case – were not adjudged to have committed any act of discrimination against gays: they weren’t actively trying to prevent gay couples from fostering; although many people, not just Christians, would regard a married couple like the Johns as more suitable foster parents than a gay couple.

So in reality, it’s just the Johns’ beliefs that were regarded as discriminatory and as therefore potentially being a ‘bad influence’ on the children committed to their care; i.e. as encouraging children to take on similarly ‘discriminatory’ views, thereby damaging their welfare, which the Council is statutorily obliged to safeguard. But is the Court, and society in general, really saying there is such a thing as a totally neutral, non-discriminatory environment in which children can grow up? The ruling appears to imply that it’s wrong for Christian foster carers to tell children that gay sex is morally bad but it would be OK for atheist couples to tell children that Christianity is wrong, both morally and in terms of its claim to truth. Is that what we’re saying: it’s wrong for Christians to tell their foster or adopted children (and their own children, too?) that gay sex is wrong, but it’s OK – in fact, positively a good thing – for non-believers to tell their charges that Christianity is wrong?

Besides which, the Johns weren’t even insisting on the right to tell children in their care that gay sex was ‘wrong’, only that they couldn’t tell a child that “the practice of homosexuality was a good thing” [quote from Mrs John’s speech after the ruling]. In other words, the Court has decided not only that foster carers shouldn’t preach their Christianity to their children but that they should preach the ‘virtues’ of a gay lifestyle, i.e. actively promote homosexuality.

Let’s try to imagine a real-world situation: a child being looked after by the Johns is asking them about sex and relationships and, in the interests of that child’s rounded development, they’re supposed to tell him or her that it’s not only perfectly all right to be gay but that gay relationships are a positively good thing – just as good and valid as marriage (if not more so?) – even though the Johns don’t actually believe that last point to be true and their own lives are lived out on different principles. What nonsense! How is the child to make sense of that? ‘So, you’re telling me it’s OK for me to have gay relationships, even though you don’t think they’re right?’ How is that providing coherent moral guidance for kids?

No, what they would of course do is say that it’s OK to be gay (which virtually all Christians believe nowadays) but that, in their opinion, the practice of homosexuality is morally wrong and that the child should wait till he or she had grown up a bit more and was sure about their sexuality before deciding to enter into a relationship; and that after the age of 18, they would in any case be completely free to make their own decisions and that, whatever they decided, they would still be loved. This is being honest with the child and presenting him or her with moral guidance consistent with their own lifestyle, which the child can react against or not when they reach maturity. Plus it’s no different from what most loving parents would do, even in the case that their child came out as gay rather than just seeking guidance on matters of sexuality: they’d prefer their children not to start having sexual relationships until they were 18 and / or had left home.

If the Court thinks that providing children with strict moral guidelines together with loving care, up until the time that the child is legally old enough to make all his or her own decisions, represents a threat to the child’s healthy development, then it is the Court that is out of touch with English social mores, and it is the Court that is being discriminatory, not people like the Johns. Does the Court really think it would be more in the interests of a child’s welfare for its foster parents to say: “being gay is a good thing, and we’d be perfectly happy for you to start having a same-sex relationship just as soon as you’re over the age of consent”? That would appear to be what is being implied by the ruling: better to give children the ‘moral guidance’ that gay sex, and indeed any sex, is fine and proper so long as it’s legal. So one of the unintended (or perhaps intended?) consequences of this ruling will be to undermine the authority of parents to give their children any moral guidance about sex that might appear to limit their sexual freedom once over the age of consent.

And there are other apparent unintended consequences or implications to this ruling:

  • The Court appears to be saying that it’s ‘better’ for children to be fostered and adopted by gay couples than by Christians with a strict moral code
  • A same-sex relationship is therefore ‘better’ than a conventional marriage lived according to Christian principles, as being brought up in such an environment is potentially damaging to children
  • It’s wrong to tell children that gay sex is wrong, but it’s OK – indeed, a good thing – to tell children that Christianity and other faiths are wrong
  • It’s legitimate in certain circumstances to discriminate against people on the grounds of their religious beliefs, even when those beliefs do not result in discrimination against other people or beliefs
  • The legislature for England now gives greater ‘precedence’ to secular-liberal principles – even ones which conflict with general custom and practice in society – than Christian principles
  • The views of working-class black-English Christians are treated as less worthy of respect than the ideology of middle-class British liberals: would the Johns have been treated with the same contempt had they been middle-class white Londoners? Maybe; but maybe not.

In making its ruling yesterday, did the Court intend to imply all of the above statements? If not, an urgent clarification is needed – and, indeed, the Johns have called for a public enquiry on the issues raised. There are two fundamental issues at stake: the welfare of children and the law’s attitude towards those with religious beliefs. Without further clarification, yesterday’s ruling strongly implies a discriminatory attitude towards traditional religious faith: that it is somehow ‘objectively’ wrong, both morally and philosophically; whereas the belief in the moral rectitude of gay relationships has somehow been elevated into an unquestionable objective truth. On what basis? Are we really saying that if foster, adoptive and even genetic parents have strong religious views and moral principles, and they pass those on to their children, they are thereby damaging those children’s welfare and development?

Well, one unintended consequence of this prejudiced, stupid and ill-thought-through ruling is that the law has once again shown itself to be an ass: and an ass that, in matters of faith versus homosexuality, has got it completely arse over tip.

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