Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

18 July 2011

Open Public Services white paper: the one thing it’s not open about is England

The UK government’s ‘Open Public Services’ white paper was published last week. This sets out the government’s vision for public-service reform in England. Except you’d be hard put to realise from the text that it relates almost exclusively to England.

The white paper does, however, include a helpful explanation about its ‘scope’ right at the beginning, just after the title page and before you get to any content. It’s worth quoting this in full, as it’s a masterpiece of the double-speak involved when official language contorts itself so as to avoid saying ‘England’. Here’s what it says:

“We believe that more open public services can benefit everybody in the UK and that finding ways to deliver better services for less money is a challenge that is common to all four nations of the UK. The scope of this paper is UK wide, but in devolved areas of policy it is for the devolved administrations to determine their own approach to public service reform. The three devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all different although, in general, services such as health, education and those provided by local government are under devolved control. If you live or work in any of the devolved territories and are in any doubt as to which of these reforms would apply there, the relevant territorial office will be able to advise you.

“We are committed to working in partnership with the devolved administrations to share good practice and to explore whether our approach would suit their particular circumstances and need.”

WHAT THE F***! – if you’ll excuse my nowadays increasingly intemperate French, or rather Anglo-Saxon. There’s a much clearer and more concise way of explaining the ‘scope’ of the white paper. It’s this: “This paper relates in its entirety to England, and, owing to devolution, only limited parts of it apply to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”. But that would be far too much like ‘plain English’, in both senses: the same ‘plain English’, in fact, that the white paper itself says will be used for “explaining the scope and purpose of every [government spending] transaction”. On this basis, they presumably won’t be bending over backwards to explain to English people the ‘scope and purpose’ of the higher per-capita levels of public spending in the ‘devolved territories’ compared with the rest of the UK, i.e. England!

What an incredibly insulting, patronising way at once to explain and avoid explaining to “everybody in the UK” who is and is not affected by the proposals in this white paper! It talks of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as if they were imperial dominions begrudgingly granted a minor degree of administrative autonomy while remaining fundamentally beholden to Whitehall: “devolved administrations”; “devolved territories”; “relevant territorial office”. Meanwhile, which “territorial office” is going to explain in plain English to people who “live or work” in the non-devolved territory (England) that when the white paper says “UK wide”, it really means “only in full to England”? At least, this explanation of the white paper’s ‘scope’ refers to “all four nations of the UK” – but then why is England the only one undeserving of mention? [Sorry, Cornwall, you get even less of a look-in.]

Needless to say, the rest of the paper continues in the same vein and goes out of its way to avoid reminding its English readers that most of its proposals affect them only. The words ‘English or ‘England’ are in fact mentioned 12 times in the document; but only two of those references directly evoke a policy that applies to England, or England and Wales, only: “directly elected city mayors in England’s largest cities” (p. 31), and “communities across England and Wales are able to see where crime and disorder is happening in their neighbourhood” (p. 36). There are also two cases of ‘England’ being mentioned in the context of statistics, without spelling out that the reason those statistics relate to England only is that the relevant government department is responsible for England only: “In England today, people living in the poorest neighbourhoods will, on average, die seven years earlier than people living in the richest neighbourhoods” (p. 7: public health); and “the Department for Education has published a new dataset showing the funding and spending per pupil in each school in England” (education: p. 20). I suppose you could say the three references to the “English Baccalaureate” very indirectly acknowledge the fact that the white paper’s proposals on education relate to England only. Most of the other references are to ‘English’ as a language or school subject.

By contrast, there are 27 instances of ‘national’ together with one of ‘nation’ and two of ‘nations’. This government has a distinct predilection for the concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘national’ along with ‘we’ and ‘our’ (320 and 101 occurrences respectively) as the subject and possessive pronouns that stand in variously or simultaneously for ‘the government’ and ‘the nation collectively’, and are equally a way to avoid saying ‘England’ where the matter in hand relates to England. E.g.

“We rely on the police to patrol our streets to deter crime. If we get seriously injured we expect an ambulance to come when we ring 999. When we take our children to school, we look to teachers to pass on to them the best of human knowledge. We demand that our bins are collected regularly and that parks are well maintained” (‘we’ = ‘the nation’, i.e. in all of these instances, the English nation or ‘English people’);

“when times are tight and budgets are being cut to stabilise the economy and reduce our debts, opening public services is more important than ever – if we want to deliver better services for less money, improve public service productivity and stimulate innovation to drive the wider growth of the UK economy” (“we” and “our” = ‘the nation’ as the government, which wants to get more for less and “drive the growth of the UK economy”).

The whole of this white paper is encapsulated in this tension between the ‘we’ that are the individuals, and local groups and communities (and locally focused social and private enterprises), that are at one and the same time the users and providers of public services, and the ‘we’ that is the government that has to set a ‘national’ policy and funding framework for those locally produced and consumed services. But nowhere within this model is there any scope for a ‘we the English people’ that might be given national-level responsibility for designing and allocating public funding for those services that affect English people as a whole. That would be a true convergence of the ‘we’ of government and the ‘we’ as the public the government is supposed to serve.

Indeed, the white paper sets up a curious tripartite division of responsibilities in respect of public-service provision. There are, and I quote:

  • Individual services – These are personal services – for example in education, skills training, adult social care, childcare, housing support and individual healthcare – that are used by people on an individual basis.

    Neighbourhood services – These are services provided very locally and on a collective, rather than an individual, basis – such as maintenance of the local public realm, leisure and recreation facilities, and community safety.

    Commissioned services – These are local and national services that cannot be devolved to individuals or communities, such as tax collection, prisons, emergency healthcare or welfare to work.

So, according to the white paper, there are services that ‘we’ require and consume as individuals; and for these, the government’s idea appears to be that ‘we’ will be given a personal budget to be used up, where we can choose which provider to spend our money on: effectively, privatisation / marketisation of these services. Then there are services that ‘we’ as small local communities are to both use and provide for ourselves. And finally, there are ‘commissioned’ services where it is up to ‘us’ in government (local and ‘national’) to set policy and commission services, whether those services are provided by publicly or privately owned organisations.

Well, there’s another word that encompasses almost all of these services: ‘English’. Indeed, apart from ‘welfare to work’, there are none of these services that “cannot be devolved” at a national-English level, just as they have in fact been devolved to a variable degree to each of the three existing “devolved administrations”. But the white paper’s model for English ‘devolution’ is that while ‘we’ as individuals and communities are to have greater choice of and responsibility for the public services that can be “decentralised to the lowest appropriate level” (as the document puts it), nevertheless ‘we’ as the UK government are determined to retain control over all the ultimate levers of economic and political power in England: taxation, spending, work and welfare; law and order; and national security and public safety. But absolutely nowhere is there any scope for a ‘we the English people’ who might take over responsibility for the macro level of national policy as well as the micro level of individual and local service delivery. There is no ‘we’ that is at once the English nation and English government.

So it’s no wonder that the description of the white paper’s ‘scope’ does not mention ‘England’, because there’s no scope for anything we might recognise as England in the government’s ‘open public services’ model for England. In fact, this is all about opening up English public services to a market place of competing providers, and turning the public into consumers and, indeed, consumer-providers. So the government is opening England up to its private-sector chums; but it’s not really ‘open’ to the idea of the English people as such seeking to design and run their own services – and, indeed, owning those services – at a national level, despite the white paper’s assurances that the British government is going to carry out a ‘listening exercise’.

The agenda has been set and is going ahead. The English nation will be privatised. It’s a fait accompli or, as we English like to put it, we’re screwed.

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1 Comment »

  1. “The scope of this paper is UK wide, but in devolved areas of policy it is for the devolved administrations to determine their own approach to public service reform”

    After a few platitudes about the National Eisteddfod and the Mabinogion(!), that was Cameron’s line in his speech to the National Assembly last week …. you really should think about following England’s example …. It was a damp squib of a speech. The Coalition hadn’t even managed to agree anything on their ‘Calman-style’ commission for Wales.

    I never really understood Cameron’s desire to appear before the devolved institutions. If he commends anything they have done or are about to do it’s like a pat on the head from teacher. If he disagrees with anything, he’s rubbing up against a separate electoral mandate.

    Comment by Hendre — 18 July 2011 @ 2.21 pm | Reply


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