Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

8 October 2007

Never Mind About the Election, England; At Least You Beat the Aussies!

Funny that the BBC were allowed to release the news of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] decision not to call a general election at 4.30 on Saturday afternoon, even though the interview through which he chose to announce this fact to the nation wasn’t due to be aired till Andrew Marr’s 9 am programme on Sunday morning! Coincided neatly with England’s marvellous against-the-odds victory against Australia in the Rugby World Cup. I say ‘coincided’; but was this a coincidence? What do you think!

An ideal moment to bury bad news, to quote a phrase! Did GB think we in England might be feeling a little pissed off that, having had the carrot of booting Labour out of power dangled in front of us, we were now once again going to have to submit to the stick of a government we hadn’t chosen – hadn’t chosen, that is, either in an election this year or in 2005? Let’s remember the facts: Labour polled only 35.5% of the popular vote in England on a low turn-out in 2005, 0.2% less than the Tories. If the opinion polls that GB says had nothing to do with his decision not to call an autumn election are to be believed, the comfortable lead the Tories stood to gain in the crucial English marginals – the only real contest in the election – could have overturned Labour’s Commons majority. Probably not enough to give the Tories an outright majority in their turn; but then, we’d have had a hung parliament based entirely on the West Lothian anomaly: the fact that Scottish and Welsh MPs, a greater share of which would be Labour, could vote on England-only matters, i.e. on the only matters that mattered – on GB’s entire agenda for change and ‘vision for Britain’, which is in fact a programme for England – education, health, social services, law and order, etc.

If the timing of the announcement wasn’t intended to dampen the annoyance of English electors, who appeared to be turning away from GB in their droves, as they celebrated a national sporting triumph, why pick such a moment? Mr Marr could have been forgiven for being just a tad pissed off in his turn; his little scoop being given away before his Sunday broadcast. But then again, I suppose his audience must have shot through the roof when it was advertised that GB had chosen it as the platform to make his excuses. Plus, of course, it enhanced Mr Marr’s already dazzling reputation that the Great Man had chosen his Sunday morning slot to speak to the nation: England, that is – I’m sure Scotland was too interested in the outcome of its own Rugby quarter-final to be that bothered by an announcement that hardly affected it anyway.

All a bit cosy, really: two Scots chatting away about a UK election that would have been all about promoting a Scottish-Labour vision for England’s future. Too simplistic? Maybe, a little. But the election certainly would have had more than a little potential to bust open the glaring disparities between political opinion and philosophies north and south of the border; and the fact that GB’s continuing franchise as PM would have been hugely dependent on the Scottish and Welsh vote on matters not directly concerning the electorates in those countries. Note that Marr didn’t push GB on this issue (nor David Cameron, for that matter, whom he interviewed live in the studio after the recorded interview with GB). Is that because, in Andrew Marr, GB knew he had a natural Unionist ally: a ‘Britologist’, as I would call him, who believes in the British political and national project, and sees it as the best way to further Scottish national interests and a British-Republican vision? (See my post British Values or Scottish Values?)

Not that I’m saying that GB, too, is a republican, as well as Andrew Marr; at least, not avowedly so – he’s too realistic a politician to know that he couldn’t get away with that. But he is preparing a set of constitutional reforms, aided by his partner in crime Jack Straw. And we in England can rest assured that there will be no resolution of the West Lothian Question in whatever deal we are offered; or not offered, as it’ll be the current unrepresentative parliament that will be voting on it, not one we could have elected in November. After all, if there was a solution to the WLQ that still preserved a UK parliament, Mr Brown wouldn’t be able to vote on his own agenda. And it’s clear he values this more than the opinions of the English electorate.

Wonder what he’ll drop on us when we beat the French! (Oh, I know: definitely no referendum on the EU constitution, chaps!)

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24 September 2007

Unmasking the English (Part Four): Privacy and the Problem of Nationhood

Last and final episode of Andrew Marr’s mini-series Unmasking the English aired on BBC Radio Four this morning (and again this evening). This one revolved around Dr. Johnson, the writer of the first dictionary of the English language. Not much discussion of his groundbreaking contribution to English philology and to lexicography in general, which disappointed me as a linguist. But then that wasn’t Marr’s remit.

Instead, he concentrated on Johnson as a type of the English curmudgeon: a bad-tempered, angry and yet eloquent and witty enemy of social climbing, pretension and insincerity. With the series’ customary linkage of a figure from the past – real or fictional – with contemporary manifestations of English culture, Dr. Johnson was compared to the likes of Richard Ingrams and the satirical magazine Private Eye, and to Tory newspaper columnists railing against the turpitudes of the chattering classes and the encroachments of political correctness.

Something in all of that, without a doubt. And yet, in keeping with the pattern of the series as a whole, Marr alluded only in passing to one of the central issues raised by his subject, which could have been used to bring out a deeper understanding of the whole problematic the series was supposed to be exploring: how to get behind the public mask of the English and understand their deeper motivations. Marr referred to Johnson’s use of religious language in his writings, which, according to Marr, presented a point of difference with contemporary England, where religion is strictly a private matter. Such a statement is probably more a reflection of Marr’s own opinion that religion should be confined to the private domain than the reality of all but the most recent past (and even so). For instance, Richard Ingrams has never made any secret of his Anglican faith, which he shares with Dr. Johnson. The same open acknowledgement of faith has also characterised many Conservative columnists over the years and today, as well as the traditional Tory Party as a whole (the Church of England being ‘the Conservative Party at prayer’) and Ann Widdecombe, whom Marr introduced as the best example of “Dr. Johnson in a skirt”.

In short, there has been no lack of defenders of England as a conservative (note the small ‘c’), Christian nation. If those voices are increasingly heard mainly in private, this is arguably because much of the public discourse as purveyed by the media (including the BBC) is dominated by the liberal (small ‘l’), pluralist agenda of which Andrew Marr is such an able spokesman. Christian faith in England has, then, in part been relegated to the private space partly because it has been banished from the public domain: ‘we’re a liberal, secular Britain – tolerant to a plurality of faiths and beliefs because none of them have any privileged claim or right to our adherence – not an England, one of whose defining characteristics is its millennial Christian tradition’.

But in a sense, the de-sacralising of the public space has accentuated what is in fact a defining characteristic of Englishness, which Marr connected with traditional Tory hostility towards governmental and regulatory interference with individual freedom: our love of privacy. If the private realm is for the English the natural home of religious faith, this is because the privacy of the home is a sacred realm. The Realm – the world of the State, of the Union and of politics – rarely engages the same passions and commitment as do our private concerns: our families, homes, communities, personal pursuits and dreams.

This is one of the defining characteristics of Englishness: the private lives behind the public masks. But Marr did not really delve. He merely concluded that, because the public realm appears so devalued to the English, we have always and always will feel that England is “going to the dogs”. Well, maybe. But some of us hold out the hope for an English nation that is re-connected with English people, not a British state for ever in pursuit of the alienating goals of modernisation, secularisation and progress for their own sake. But what hope is there for England, this nation of private persons?

There’s always hope for England. That, too, is a defining national trait. Our private genius can once again become nation-building – but only when the public domain is again allowed to be sacred to us and to be our home: to be England.

17 September 2007

Unmasking the English (Part Three): Same Old Boring Theme

I apologise if I’m boring my readers by banging on about Andrew Marr’s Radio Four series, Unmasking the English, the third programme in which was aired this morning. If I am boring you, perhaps this is in part a reflection on the series itself, which is starting to get a bit predictable and repetitive on the boring theme itself.

English daily life is just a little bit (or perhaps a lot) boring; so we need to spice it up by going just a little bit (or a lot) wild in our leisure time – for instance, by such mad pursuits as quad-biking in Northumberland, racing souped-up Volkswagens (good-old English make, that!) in Surrey, hunting foxes (er, before they banned it) or binging on stag weekends in Amsterdam. The historical-fictional exemplar for this type of Englishness: R S Surtees’ 170-year-old character Mr Jorrocks; contemporary avatar, the motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson.

Same idea about the fundamental antinomies of English culture and personalities, too: orderliness, indeed fastidiousness, in real urban working life offset by living out a fantasy of aristocratic, reckless abandon in the country. And also, the same thematic and logical contradictions in the programme:

  1. Are the English still – or were they ever, really – like the (apparently) out-of-date Mr Jorrocks; or is that template dying out? Mr Marr provided as many examples of how the mundane, ‘degenerate’ character of modern English life has led to our losing the Jorrocks spirit as examples of its survival: founder of the ‘lads’ mag’ Loaded lamenting that the only outlandish pursuits vaunted by the genre today are those that involve exercising the right arm, rather than the ‘crazy’ Jorrocks-like danger sports that originally filled Loaded‘s pages; anecdote of the adrenaline junky Jeremy Clarkson and friend ‘madly’ hiring an Amsterdam prostitute’s shop window for the night, in true Jorrocks spirit, to make fun of all the pissed English stag-night celebrants as they, indeed, staggered past in search of more decadent sport (degeneracy).
  2. The above ambiguity being linked to the fact that Jorrocks is a fictional character of the past; and therefore, looking for his traces in the present is always going to be something of a quixotic quest for fantastical splendours only dimly reflected in present realities – but then a quest that reflects back on those realities as if showing what a sad lot we English are, dwelling on the past almost in the very act of trying to reinvent it against the drab backdrop of our daily toil. We seem to be stuck in the same old mould, us boring English.

But then, isn’t the reality of life always just a little bit more (or less?) boring than our fantasies – including the reality of our ‘hobbies’ through which we try to alleviate the monotony and narrow regularity (indeed, regulated-ness) of daily life? Even those examples of apparent disorderly behaviour with which Mr Marr contrasted the general tedium vitae exemplify a very English concern for orderliness, rules and rituals: the regular routines of Friday-night car racing, and the de rigueur immaculate presentation and maintenance of the souped-up VWs; the rituals, ceremony and protocols of the hunt; and even Clarkson can’t tear round a circuit or hurl himself down a hillside without turning it into a competition involving tightly (if somewhat randomly) defined rules.

Maybe that’s the real madness and genius of the English that Jorrocks exemplifies: not a wild, aggressive, untamed zest for life that stands in contrast to our tamed and boring modern lives; but a will to push things to the limits while at the same time expressing one’s mastery and domination by imposing and maintaining rules and order even on and at the edges of madness and mayhem. The two together – order and chaos – in manic, eccentric (dis)harmony; never at the extremes of either but the one tempering the other and infusing it with self-mocking humour.

In other words, taking the piss even while getting pissed; and getting pissed off if the rules of binging (stag nights and all) are not respected.

10 September 2007

Unmasking the English (Part Two): Sir Walter Raleigh

Just listened to the second instalment of Andrew Marr’s BBC Radio Four series Unmasking the English, focusing this time on a ‘real-life’ – though larger than life – ‘character’, the Elizabethan adventurer and courtier Sir Walter Raleigh.

I thought the focus was a bit better than that of the last programme, discussing the Miss Marples ‘type’ of Englishness. Although again the exemplar of Englishness chosen was, to say the least, somewhat antiquated, Mr Marr suggested that Raleigh reveals most about the English in the reaction towards him on the part of English people today. Mr Marr correctly identified the fact that we admire exceptional, flamboyant, fearless individuals – especially those that give ‘Johnny Foreigner’ a run for his euros: people who override our self-imposed rules of restraint and self-effacement. And, at the same time, as and when such personalities ‘overstep the mark’ or ‘go too far’, we love to do them down, even to the extent of dragging them to their ruin – and then we regret doing so ever after.

In this respect, Andrew Marr’s main point in this programme was that Raleigh is a character in whom we live out vicariously an image of ourselves as freed from the constraints of conventional English society and modern living, and setting out to conquer the world.

But is this just a fantasy or, to use Marr’s metaphor, a mask? As in the first programme in the series, the presenter appeared to want to have it both ways: while Sir Raleigh was seen as merely a fantasy projection of English greatness, Mr Marr also described him as an example of a double-sided (or two-faced?) aspect of real English people and civilisation. On the one hand, we like to think of ourselves as noble, cultured and debonair; but this is a mask that conceals common aggression and violence when it comes to promoting our own self-interest and that of the country. Raleigh was compared to ambitious City traders, seen as the real swashbucklers and world beaters of today.

Hence, the tantalising ambiguity of Mr Marr’s concluding phrase: Raleigh was a symbol of how the English would “like to think we are and are not, and never were”. Are we / were we really never like Sir Walter Raleigh; or is this something that we’d merely like to think we’re not like and never were – but in fact, we are and have been in the past aggressive and violent in that way? The emphasis of most of the programme seemed to suggest that the latter interpretation of this question was more in line with Mr Marr’s own view. Either way, we lose: we’re either aggressive Black Adder-type bastards, at heart; or Middle-English, plodding City accountants dreaming, Monty Python-like, of being lion tamers.

4 September 2007

Unmasking the English: Another Catalogue Of England’s Terminal Decline?

Listened to the first programme in Andrew Marr’s new BBC Radio Four series Unmasking the English yesterday (as I write, still available as a podcast). Moderately interesting, with one or two insightful comments. I liked the one where he said that the English were the only nation on earth where ‘understated’ and ‘patriotic fervour’ went hand in hand. But on the whole, despite the title, I found it pretty unrevealing fare, in fact.

The series is attempting to get to grips with hidden, less immediately obvious aspects of Englishness from the avowed perspective of an ‘outsider’ – Andrew Marr being completely up front about his Scottish origins and standpoint. The series aims to achieve this by looking at fictional characters that appear to typify English characteristics. Yesterday’s programme focused on Agatha Christie’s Miss Marples. She was presented as an exemplar of English upper-class understatement, self-deprecation and muddling that tactically conceals a steely intellect and purpose determined to see through to the end whatever it has undertaken. Interestingly, and topically, Boris Johnson was offered as an illustration of a modern version of these traits.

However, the danger of basing a programme like this on fictional characters is that you end up with clichés and outdated caricatures of Englishness rather than something of contemporary relevance. Of course, we do all recognise that there is something ‘quintessentially English’ about Miss Marples, a character for whom there is a great deal of popular affection. But our understanding of what constitutes quintessential Englishness has itself to a large extent been formed by fictional characters such as Miss Marples.

A more interesting approach would have been to take ‘typically English’ detective fiction itself as the mask that in turn conceals and reveals something about the English – not to view Miss Marples as if she was a ‘real’ type of Englishness, of which Boris Johnson was a modern manifestation. Andrew Marr’s programme did touch upon these issues in a round-about way; for instance, when he described the typical scenario of a Miss Marples drama: where the spinster sleuth just happens to be around as a gruesome murder is committed, usually in an ‘idyllic’ English village setting; and pursues her investigations in a self-deprecating, unobtrusive but ruthless fashion until she unmasks the villain.

This sort of scenario is indeed typical of a form of English fiction – a particular manifestation of English culture – and there are many modern English dramas that take up the baton from Agatha Christie’s heroine, e.g. Midsomer Murders, Morse or Parsley & Thyme. But the more potentially revealing question would be to ask why the English have such an enduring fascination for such tales, and why do we like to present such an image of ourselves (rural, traditional idyll with underlying current of homicidal violence) to the rest of the world? And why are murder dramas – whether of this traditional variety or the more modern forensic kind – invariably screened either on Friday or Sunday evening: the times of the week when we’re most likely to let off steam and vent our frustrations about the working week? If our daily lives of drudgery are ‘murder’, then the murder mystery is where the disappointments and disaffections of ‘real’ English life are acted out in a surrogate way on an idealised stage matching how we’d like our experience of England to be, but which it mostly isn’t.

But because Andrew Marr ended up considering Miss Marples as a real type of Englishness (despite her fictional status), and an outdated one at that, the programme ended up in a logical paradox that it failed to acknowledge: Miss Marples was an example of quintessential English character traits but at the same time, these were seen as increasingly on the wane in modern Britain with its supposedly more thrusting, self-assertive culture, particularly in the world of work (which is opposed, as I have argued, to the idealised world of the murder mystery). As if to imply that Englishness itself – as defined by the programme – is on the decline and is no longer relevant to the real world of contemporary Britain?

On top of this, I felt uneasy about the series’ title: Unmasking the English. Is the implication that the amiable, bumbling image of a Miss Marples or Boris Johnson is, precisely, a fiction concealing real ‘new English’ characteristics that are in fact more adjusted to the modern world that the English have done so much to shape: tactical shrewdness, ruthless determination, ambition, cold calculation and aggression – precisely the kind of negative traits of which the English are so often accused by foreigners and outsiders, such as Mr Marr? Just as Miss Marples eventually unmasks the murderous villain beneath his or her villagey respectability, are these characteristics the reality of modern English society concealed beneath the mask of a Miss Marples?

Or should that be Miss Marr-ples? For it seems to me that it’s Andrew Marr who is playing the detective here, attempting to strip the English of one layer of our deceptive self-image of harmless amiability and revealing the brute beneath. But is not the whole polarity – murderous class-less reality of the mercenary modern world versus upper-class effortless, toil-less, sophistication – not itself the fiction? The reality of the English is not going to be revealed – at least, not directly – through such myths, which Andrew Marr seems to buy into. Perhaps in so doing, he has succumbed to the real deception that such fictions represent: appearing to reveal the English while concealing the realities of modern English life – and, at the same time, making excellent business from it!

21 June 2007

British Values Or Scottish Values?

  Tuesday night this week was Andrew Marr Night on BBC Two. I’ve missed most of the BBC journalist’s History of Modern Britain series – just one of a whole wave of programmes recently that have been carrying out broad-sweeping reviews of aspects of British culture, history and politics. Unfortunately, I caught only the end of Tuesday’s programme, the final one in the series. Just in time to see Mr Marr, London skyline behind him, extolling the virtues of Britain as the former centre of empire in which now all the peoples of the world have converged, making it a microcosm of the global economy and culture. Concluding words to the effect that anyone who has the fortune to be born in Britain is truly blessed. Amen.

I did, however, manage to catch all of Mr Marr’s The Age of Genius later on in the evening: history of the Scottish Enlightenment, in particular the contributions made by the philosopher David Hume and the economist Adam Smith. Mr Marr concluded his interesting account by urging us to revisit the great Enlightenment thinkers and reignite our passion for their rational-progressive values, which was all the more necessary given the threat our civilisation faces from religious extremism and violence. One particularly lyrical passage celebrated the fact that the American Revolution and Constitution had drawn their inspiration from Hume. Did I catch a certain tinge of regret that Hume’s original vision of a federal Commonwealth including Britain and America, with an elected president and a constitution based on rational, secular principles, had not been realised? Certainly, the rallying call at the end of the programme suggested that we might now wish to re-evaluate the relevance of such constitutional ideas for Britain today . . ..

These two programmes helped to consolidate my thinking about the nature of Scottish engagement in Britology: to what extent is the emphasis on British values as the agent of social cohesion and national integration shaped by the fact some of its principal exponents are Scottish? Certainly, the leaders of our main political parties are all Scottish or of Scottish descent. GB [Gordon Brown] and Menzies Campbell are obviously so (their accent betraying them straight away). David Cameron, too, not only has a Scottish name but a Scottish father and paternal family. Blair, of course, also has a strong Scottish background. On top of which, all the parties have increasingly converged around both social liberalism and free-market economics – philosophies which Andrew Marr would doubtless trace back to the founding fathers, David Hume and Adam Smith respectively, whom he discussed on Tuesday night. I even heard Cameron utter the ‘P-word’ (‘progressive’) in relation to the Conservative Party on Tuesday . . ..

But my intention here is not to mount some sort of critique of Scottish Enlightenment liberalism as manifested by the parties today. I’m interested merely in pointing out that this philosophical and Scottish background does inevitably inform the Britology of these persons. It’s an obvious point in one way: Scottish commentators and politicians who wish to exercise any meaningful influence or power over the future of England have no alternative other than to play the Britain card. There’s actually no language available to them other than Britology; otherwise, people would inevitably ask, ‘who does this Scot think (s)he is telling us what values we should profess and how to run our affairs?’

By this, I’m not trying to imply that the only interest that motivates such Scottish politicians, thinkers and writers is that of wanting to wield some disproportionate and undemocratic influence over the people of England. On the contrary, it is evident that many of them feel profoundly attached to England, and concerned for its well-being and security. But, to use an analogy drawn from another area of human experience, theirs is a love (for England) that dares not speak its name. They cannot celebrate English values, people, history, institutions and traditions as English, because of the resentful reaction they’d receive (as described above), and because of the incredulity and indignation this would provoke from their more nationalist-minded countrymen. And so the only language in which they can express their engagement in English affairs is that of Britology: British values, British people, British nation.

Perhaps it would be better, and perhaps this may one day be possible, for anglophile Scots such as these – resident and working in England, their home – to refer to themselves as ‘Scottish Englanders’, in the same way that I have expressed the hope that other inhabitants of our country should also refer to themselves as English in the first instance, rather than British: Black English, Asian English, Irish English; and not forgetting English English (English without a claim to any supplementary nationality or ethnicity) and of course British English (an ethnically British English national; a category which could also be used to describe Scottish English or Welsh English people, for instance). Andrew Marr’s vision of Britain as a marvellous melting pot of different races, religions and nationalities is not that far from my own. The difference is that, as a Scot, he’s constrained to call it British; whereas, the reality he’s referring to is predominantly that of England and of the global culture that has sprung from her.

But there is one important aspect whereby the Scottish Britologists (or closet anglophiles, if you wish) are motivated by the wish to mark the English project that is Britain with a distinctively Scottish stamp: to take Britain as a whole in a direction that perhaps appeals more to Scottish than English hearts. And this is where the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment is felt. Marr’s appeal to Hume, as an exemplar of the ‘British’ values that could serve us well in today’s climate, is obviously associated with leanings towards secularism, rationalism and republicanism. Marr clearly felt sympathy towards Hume’s anti-clericalism and favour of a society whose founding principles were those of reason rather than supposedly ‘irrational’ faith: Enlightenment principles versus irrational religion-based movements – read Islamism but also conservative, establishment Christianity. By overthrowing the English monarchy, you would be killing two birds with one stone: creating the basis for a republic, and removing the Church from the heart of the constitution and the foundations of our civic values.

I’m not accusing Andrew Marr of republicanism (maybe he is a republican, I don’t know). But it’s true that a constitutional republic is the form of state that most closely matches Hume’s thinking. And in such an egalitarian framework, Britain would belong to all its citizens equally, perhaps for the first time. There would be no need for Scots to feel like second-class citizens – or second-class Englishmen, for ever slightly removed from the centre of power. Britain, and with it England, would indeed belong equally to the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish, and all the other nationalities, races, creeds and philosophies of the world that have made it their home. But perhaps not to the English, at least not in any special way that defines who the English are, and gives them a history and a sense of mission for the future.

Such a United Britain might well appeal to our (Scottish) Enlightenment minds; but would it speak equally to – dare I name the word? – the English soul?

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