Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

5 May 2011

The mountain above or the town below: the choice for England

Not wanting to come across as too Martin Luther King, I did have a peculiar dream this morning. I dreamt that I was taking on the challenge of climbing a remote mountain in somewhere like Iceland. This involved jumping off a cliff into an icy fjord, swimming across it (braving the fish, which, I was told, liked to take a bite out of swimmers), and then climbing up the wooded slopes of the mountain on the other side, inhabited by wild animals such as wolves and wild boar that I might need to defend myself against. However, as I had started to climb the steep forest path, I turned to my right to look down at the view and found to my astonishment that there was a town immediately below. Indeed, one fork in the path before me led straight into a rather attractive road in the town, which was clearly a historic city somewhat like Oxford (or Reykjavik, to continue with the Iceland theme). A more modern, red-bricked building on the left-hand side of the road reminded me of a civic building such as a court house, university library or even a prison.

Coming at the start of the day when the first UK-wide referendum I’ve been eligible to vote in is taking place, this dream seemed rather allegorical to me. In brief, it seemed to pose the question: do I continue to take the potentially hard, isolated (‘Iceland’ = ‘isolation’) and dangerous road of no compromise with the British political system, and continue to climb my own particular mountain in the hope that I will eventually reach the sunlit uplands where the vision of a new English nation will become visible to all, rather like the figure of Christ in Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ transfiguring England’s green mountains and pleasant pastures with the radiance of his divine countenance? Or do I take the route of society and the polis (the city state): one of civilised debate and compromise between the red brick to the left and the blue sea I expected to see to my right? Participating in the referendum seems just like this choice: accept what the polity and what society is offering; choose between the rock of AV or the hard place of FPTP; and walk down the middle of the road of urban conformity. Or was the choice, rather, an impossible one between the ‘rock’ of the lonely path up the mountain to a new England, or the hard place of compromise with Britain?

Both choices are ambiguous: the lonely path is, on the one hand, a warning against vanity, obsession and solipsism, dangers which I personally could all too easily succumb to. But, on the other hand, it is potentially a spiritual path inviting me to rise to the challenge, confront my demons and follow my destiny. Similarly, the urban path could be that of ‘easy street’ and of a cop-out: being prepared to play the political game, and climb not a mountain but the various ladders and greasy poles that society offers to one: career, housing, political and personal advancement. But also, the social route is perhaps one of belonging, contentment, security and sociability: not making oneself out to be different from or better than one’s peers, and being prepared to go along with the consensus and majority view.

What route should I take? I’ve already forcefully advocated non-participation in today’s referendum elsewhere on the grounds that it contemptuously ignores England’s claims to self-determination. I couldn’t now ‘climb down’ and say, well, it’s OK to vote for AV (which I do think is marginally better than FPTP) and play the British game. In reality, though, there is a ‘third way’ and a third option in the referendum that is not the middle-of-the-road compromise that is AV, and enables you to choose England while participating in the British political process. You can do your civic duty and turn up to vote; but simply not vote for either AV or FPTP, and spoil your ballot paper by writing nothing on it or, alternatively, writing your demand for an English parliament or a referendum on the UK’s EU membership. The real alternative vote here is not to accept either of the alternatives on offer but to demand a different choice: a choice for England.

In reality, the choice between the mountain above and the town below is not as extreme as my dream depicted it. Every day, we make little choices that determine the course of our lives as individuals and as nations: sometimes leading us along a path of isolation, and sometimes binding us closer to the community of our peers and to the community of nations. Sometimes, it’s better to take the lonely path, and sometimes it’s better to go with the mainstream. Both are alternative options, depending on circumstances, for advancing the cause of English self-determination.

In any case, which is a more isolated view, and which is the more commonly held perception, today? The number of non-voters – including those who spoil their ballots – could well exceed that of either the Yes or No sides in the referendum. In which case, England will have spoken by its unwillingness to choose between two means to disenfranchise her. Sometimes the lonely path is the road well trodden.

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