Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

29 September 2010

Ed Miliband addresses the country – only not by name

The BBC website provides a useful word cloud for Ed Miliband’s keynote address to the Labour Party conference yesterday. Here it is:

Two things immediately stand out: 1) after ‘generation’ (frequent references to a ‘new generation’ of Labour politics), the most frequently occurring word is ‘country’ (37 instances); 2) there is absolutely no reference to ‘England’ – not one.

On the one hand, this lack of engagement on the part of the new Labour leader with the idea or reality of England should and does not surprise us. It would be more surprising if Ed Miliband had talked at any length at all about ‘England’ and the need for the party to address the concerns of ordinary English people. On the other hand, the total absence of ‘England’ from the speech belies the new leader’s attempt to differentiate himself from New Labour, as the lack of an English dimension to Labour’s vision of and for ‘the country’ represents a strong thread of continuity with New Labour days. Instead of ‘England’, Miliband resorted to the stock term, ‘country’, that politicians and those in the media employ to avoid being specific about whether they are talking about Britain as a whole or England only, or both.

Nonetheless, Miliband’s speech does represent a break with New Labour practice in that ‘Britain’, too, appears to have lapsed into disuse: ‘British’ and ‘Britain’ garnered only 16 mentions. At least, we’re now not getting ‘Britain’ thrust in our faces at every turn when a Labour politician is talking about purely English policy areas; but that’s partly because there was very little on policy as such in Miliband’s speech, nor was there expected to be. So ‘country’ has come to replace ‘Britain’ as well as ‘England’, probably for the same reason: it allows you to avoid being specific about which country you’re referring to in different contexts, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of having to say ‘Britain’ when everyone knows that what you’re referring to is relevant to England only, but you can’t say so because ‘England’ is the ultimate taboo word.

This lack of references to the name(s) of the country or countries being evoked, and even to particular regions or parts of the country (such as the North or the South), creates a strange impression of non-specificity: a vision for the ‘country’ that is not grounded in any geographical, indeed geopolitical, reality. This is Labour’s, or Ed Miliband’s, vision for ‘society’, ‘the economy’, ‘government’ and ‘politics’ (all among the most commonly used words, as the word cloud illustrates) where the national collectivity and context that are implied and invoked in these terms remain completely nameless during large parts of the speech: as it were abstracted out of the vision. ‘We’ and ‘our’ (as in the endlessly intoned ‘our country’, ‘our society’, ‘our economy’) are among the most frequently occurring words in the speech (not shown in the word cloud, which is limited to nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives). But it’s never spelled out who are the ‘we’ thus addressed. In the end, the inescapable impression is that ‘we’ is above all the collective consciousness of the Labour Party in its aspiration to re-take ownership of ‘the country’:

“The optimism of Tony and Gordon who took on the established thinking and reshaped our country. We are the optimists in politics today. So, let’s be humble about our past. Let’s understand the need to change. Let’s inspire people with our vision of the good society. Let the message go out, a new generation has taken charge of Labour. Optimistic about our country. Optimistic about our world.”

Far from reaching out to the British people, let alone the English people, this is Labour talking to itself about Labour’s vision of ‘the country’ – as it were the ‘Labour nation’, which can be set out in its pure form, untainted by the all-too recent realities of Labour in government, only because it abstracts itself from any real national context.

But if you don’t name the country you’re talking about, can you really espouse and re-connect with the aspirations and priorities of ordinary people, who want their leaders to set out believable visions for their country – England – and, perhaps more importantly, want them to acknowledge ways in which they’ve let down their country in the past. Ed Miliband had a little go at this when he owned up to the failings of the outgoing Labour government in areas such as tuition fees and immigration policy:

“I understand why you felt that we were stuck in old thinking about higher and higher levels of personal debt, including tuition fees”

“this new generation recognises that we did not do enough to address concerns about globalisation, including migration. All of us heard it on the doorsteps about immigration. Like the man I met in my constituency who told me he had seen his mates’ wages driven down by the consequences of migration. If we don’t understand why he would feel angry – and it wasn’t about prejudice – then we are failing to serve those who we are in politics to represent. I am the son of immigrants. I believe that Britain has benefited economically, culturally, socially from those who came to this country. I don’t believe either that we can turn back the clock on free movement of labour in Europe. But we should never have pretended it would not have consequences. Consequences we should have dealt with.”

Note the tic of referring to the sensitive issue in each case almost as an afterthought introduced by ‘including’: including tuition fees (just another personal debt issue); including migration (just another fraught consequence of necessary globalisation). In fact, this is not really apologising for old New Labour’s policies in these areas at all. He’s not actually saying Labour was wrong to introduce tuition fees, just that these were an unfortunate extra debt burden on people. And then his expression of ‘understanding’ about migration turns into a defence of it – including his own personal background – as being overwhelmingly of benefit for Britain and in part a consequence of something regarded as essentially positive: the “free movement of labour in Europe”.

But it’s England and Wales specifically that were burdened by tuition fees and then top-up fees, thanks to the votes of Labour’s Scottish MPs, whose own constituents were exempt from both. It’s English voters who were mainly affected and concerned by immigration, as England has borne the brunt of it. Immigration may have enhanced the stock of Britain, in every sense, including that of the Miliband family, but what has it done for England? Answer me that, Ed. (And that’s an open question, but not one Ed Miliband is really prepared to address.)

In fact, Miliband – at least as exemplified in this speech – is not prepared to ask the English question itself, let alone suggest an answer to it, as this passage amply demonstrates:

“The old thinking told us that for 300 years, the choice was either the break up of the United Kingdom or Scotland and Wales run from London. We should be proud that Labour established the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. And we should make sure that after next May’s elections we re-elect Carwyn Jones as the First Minister in Wales and we elect Iain Gray as the new First Minister in Scotland. And I am so so proud that, against all the odds, we helped deliver peace in Northern Ireland. And it will be one of Tony Blair’s great legacies to this country and we owe our gratitude to him.”

So devolution as enacted by New Labour is something to be proud of. No hint of a suggestion that it might have left England just a tad short-changed and that it raises questions about the governance of England. Here above all, Ed Miliband is keeping faith with the old New Labour certainties and with the former Labour Lord Chancellor Derry Irving’s assertion that the best answer to the West Lothian Question is not to ask it! He can’t even bring himself to mention the ‘E’ word in the one passage throughout the whole speech where the English question is absolutely begging. But that’s precisely it: it’s begging a question he isn’t prepared to even engage in.

So England might as well just not exist at all in Ed Miliband’s vision of ‘the country’: ‘our country’, Labour’s country. And the unwillingness to even pronounce the dirty ‘E’ word signals a failure to acknowledge the ways in which New Labour profoundly let down England specifically – indeed, as we have seen, Miliband actually defends and justifies the outgoing government’s record in English matters even as he appears to acknowledge its failings.

So perhaps we should give the last word to the new leader himself. Nothing changes, really: new generation, same old new Labour and same old new Britain. For ‘the country’, you can in fact read ‘Britain’, or at least Labour’s fictitious, rose-tinted vision or version of it that air-brushes England out of the picture. Yes, you’ve guessed what the last word in the speech, and the last word of the speech, is:

“We are the optimists in politics today. So, let’s be humble about our past. Let’s understand the need to change. Let’s inspire people with our vision of the good society. Let the message go out, a new generation has taken charge of Labour. Optimistic about our country. Optimistic about our world. Optimistic about the power of politics. We are the optimists and together we will change Britain.”

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15 August 2009

The Conservatives are the “party of the NHS”: but which one?

It’s as if devolution never happened and we were back in the ‘good old days’ when there genuinely was only one National Health Service. Not one single item – not one – in all of the news coverage I saw or heard yesterday on the reaction to Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s criticism of the NHS on US TV correctly referred to the organisation in question as the ‘English NHS’ (or, at least, the ‘NHS in England’), which is what they were actually talking about.

At least, David Cameron, Andrew Lansley (the Conservative Shadow Health Secretary (for England)) and Andy Burnham (the actual Health Secretary in England) can only have been referring to the NHS in England in their comments following Hannan’s contribution, as that’s the only NHS they either will have (if the Tories win the general election) or presently have responsibility for. But you couldn’t tell that from what they said.

David Cameron: “Just look at all the support which the NHS has received on Twitter over the last couple of days. It is a reminder – if one were needed – of how proud we in Britain are of the NHS. . . . That’s why we as a Party are so committed not just to the principles behind the NHS, but to doing all we can to improve the way it works in practice.”

Andrew Lansley: “Andrew pointed out that many of the NHS reforms promised by Labour, including practice-based commissioning, Foundation Trusts, patient choice and independent sector investment, have stalled under Gordon Brown. And he stressed, ‘All those who care about the NHS know that these are the kind of reforms that will enable us to achieve the combination of equity, efficiency and excellence which should be the hallmark of the NHS’.”

Andy Burnham: “I would almost feel . . . it is unpatriotic because he is talking in foreign media and not representing, in my view, the views of the vast majority of British people and actually, I think giving an unfair impression of the National Health Service himself, a British representative on foreign media”.

Let me note in passing what a complete and utter joke those last remarks of Andy Burnham’s are. Has Burnham suddenly transmuted into an English patriot, as it’s only the English NHS that he and the government of which he is a part has anything to do with? I don’t think so. Hannan’s not a ‘British representative’, i.e. a representative of the British government or parliament. But if he was, then doubtless Burnham feels his job would be to do what Burnham himself does: not so much misrepresenting the ‘British NHS’ abroad but misrepresenting the English NHS to the English public as the British NHS!

And as for that Twitter stream, don’t waste your time checking it out. It’s full of junk now, and I had to click down a couple of hundred entries before I got any reference to England that wasn’t either a porn link or a job ad, or indeed practically any reference to the political debate.

But actually, Twitter is quite a good metaphor for the debate: full of sentimental waffle but very little substance. It’s easy to prattle on about the NHS as a great British institution of which the people of Britain are rightly proud and keen to defend from unfair criticism from abroad. But the reality is that as a national-British institution, the NHS already no longer exists. It’s New Labour, not the Tories, that did away with it through devolution. And its the New Labour British government that did far more than the Tories ever did to privatise the NHS in England, with things like public-private partnerships to build and run new hospitals, the introduction of internal health-care markets, Foundation Trusts, and competition between GP surgeries and the new supposedly ‘consumer-friendly’ polyclinics, etc. Admittedly, while all of that was going on, the NHS’s of the other UK nations were – for good or ill – remaining more faithful to Labour’s traditional socialist principles, with fully public sector-based organisations amply subsidised by the English taxpayer.

Does it matter, though, whether you call it the ‘English NHS’ or the ‘British NHS’? Isn’t this just semantics? Well, I think the English believe in the principle of calling a spade a spade: if you are talking about something that relates to England only, you should at least have the honesty and courtesy to let people know that’s what you’re doing. Of course, on one level, it’s legitimate to refer to the ‘British NHS’ even when discussing policy for its English variant; i.e. when talking about the founding principles that are said to inform the NHS throughout Britain to this day: fully public-funded health care free at the point of delivery. But the point is those principles are not applied evenly, and equally, across the whole of the UK. There is no longer a single UK model for how public-sector health care should be funded and organised. And the model presently applied in England has moved further away from the NHS’s original principles than that in any of the other UK nations.

This does matter for the political debate going forward into the general election. Daniel Hannan has helpfully exposed a vulnerability of the Tories in England, because it’s clear that the Tories do support further reform of the English NHS along the lines set out by New Labour. Those Tory reforms mentioned above in the context of Andrew Lansley’s reaction to Hannan’s remarks (“practice-based commissioning, Foundation Trusts, patient choice and independent sector investment”) are precisely New Labour policies that the Tories claim the government has failed to deliver. If the Tories pursue them, they will indeed drive further marketisation of the NHS – but only in England. By appealing to the founding ‘British NHS’ principles, and by promising to increase NHS funding in real terms, the Tories are trying to make out that they back the traditional, fully nationalised model for health-care delivery in the UK. They may well support a generously public-funded health-care system; but in England, at least, the delivery model will involve a much greater role for private companies and market competition, which will inevitably lead to inequalities and increased variations in the availability of high-quality NHS treatment for different conditions in different parts of ‘the country’ – England, that is. But the more they talk up their allegiance to the traditions of the ‘British NHS’, the more they hope we won’t read the English small print.

Plus the Tories are also addressing the non-English electoral ‘market’, of course, and are hoping that the uninformed (misinformed) public there – again, through the emotive appeal to the NHS as a national-British institution – will be deluded into thinking that a Conservative government will have direct influence on health-care policy in their countries (which it won’t) and will stand guarantor for traditional NHS values there – which it may do, through acquiescence with the policy variations and funding inequalities that have flowed from asymmetric devolution and the Barnett Formula. But actually, a real-terms increase in public expenditure on health in England will not necessarily deliver corresponding and proportionately greater increases in NHS funding in the other countries of the UK. This is because public expenditure overall under the Tories is set to decrease, so that increases in the health budget will have to be paid for by cuts elsewhere. And a decrease in overall spending in England will result in even greater proportionate decreases in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In other words, increased investment in the NHS in England may actually result in the need to cut the NHS budget in the other nations. While some of us in England might derive malicious satisfaction from what would in effect be a levelling out of healthcare apartheid (and, after all, the Tories have promised, dishonestly, to improve equality of NHS care throughout the UK), this is a wilful deception of voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: the Tories appear to be promising to increase NHS funding throughout the UK; but actually, they’re talking about England only; and increases in the English health-care budget may indirectly lead to decreases in the health-care budget in the other parts of the UK.

But Labour can’t talk, either. This system of unequal funding and differing delivery models throughout the UK is the one that they set up; and to claim that they support a uniform UK-wide NHS organised along traditional lines is a pure, downright lie. Well, they might emotionally support it, with misty-eyed reverence towards Nye Bevan and the post-war settlement; but in practice, the New Labour government has already broken up that British NHS beyond repair. The truth of the matter is New Labour has run out of policy ideas for the NHS in England but has supported a traditional-type NHS in the other UK countries. So all it can do is appeal to ‘patriotic’ and nostalgic support for a great British institution that is no more (in England, at least) in the hope that it can deceive enough of the English people for enough of the time to secure another election ‘victory’ that will enable it to continue to cross-subsidise a traditional NHS in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through further privatisation of the system in England – as they have done since 1997.

Well, the English people won’t fall for that one again. But they might fall for the similar trap the Tories are laying. The English people need to have an informed debate on the type of health-care system they want in England; because that’s what the whole argument is really all about. Health care in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is dealt with separately by the devolved administrations. So it’s only the English system that the Westminster politicians can do anything about. By claiming, as David Cameron did yesterday, that the Conservatives are the “party of the NHS”, the Tories are trying to reassure the English people that the NHS is safe in their hands. But that’s not the point. There will still be an NHS; but what sort of NHS will it be in England, as opposed to the doubtless very different NHS’s that are developing along divergent lines in the rest of the UK? The Tories need to be honest and up front about the small print of their plans for England, and not obfuscate the whole discussion by misleading references to a monolithic British NHS that is no more. But so do the politicians of all parties.

After all, Mr Cameron, Brown and Co., you can’t fool all of the English people all of the time, even if you think you can.

20 June 2009

The Dark Nationalist Heart of New Labour’s Devolution Project

I was struck last night by how the panellists of BBC1’s Any Questions displayed a rare unity in condemning the ‘nationalism’ to which they imputed the recent assaults on Romanian migrants in Northern Ireland. ‘There can be no place for nationalism in modern Britain’, they intoned to the audience’s acclaim.

Apart from the fact that statements such as this articulate a quasi-nationalistic, or inverted-nationalist, pride in Britain (‘what makes us “great as a nation” is our tolerance and integration of multiple nationalities’), this involved an unchallenged equation of hostility towards immigration / racism with ‘nationalism’. This was especially inappropriate in the Northern Ireland context where ‘nationalism’ is associated with Irish republicanism, and hence with Irish nationalism and not – what, actually? British nationalism à la BNP; the British ‘nationalism’ of Northern Irish loyalists (no one bothered to try and unpick whether the people behind the violence had been from the Catholic or Protestant community, or both); or even ‘English’ nationalism?

Certainly, it’s a stock response on the part of the political and media establishment to associate ‘English nationalism’ per se with xenophobia, opposition to immigration and racism. But this sort of knee-jerk reaction itself involves an unself-critical, phobic negativity towards (the concept of) the English – and certainly, the idea of the ‘white English’ – that crosses over into inverted racism, and which ‘colours’ (or, shall we say, emotionally infuses) people’s response to the concept of ‘English nationalism’. In other words, ‘English nationalism’, for the liberal political and media classes, evokes frightening images of racial politics and violence because, in part, the very concept of ‘the English nation’ is laden with associations of ‘white Anglo-Saxon’ ethnic aggressiveness and brutality. English nationalism is therefore discredited in the eyes of the liberal establishment because it is unable to dissociate it from its images of the historic assertion of English (racial) ‘superiority’ (for instance, typically, in the Empire). But the fact that the establishment is unable to re-envision what a modern and different English nationalism, and nation, could mean is itself the product of its ‘anti-English’ prejudice and generalisations bordering on racism: involving an assumption that the ‘white English’ (particularly of the ‘lower classes’) are in some sense intrinsically brutish and racist – in an a-historic way that reveals their ‘true nature’, rather than as a function of an imperial and industrial history that both brutalised and empowered the English on a massive scale.

This sort of anti-English preconception was built into the design of New Labour’s asymmetric devolution settlement: it was seen as legitimate to give political expression to Scottish and Welsh nationalism, just not English nationalism. Evidently, there is a place for some forms of nationalism in modern Britain – the ‘Celtic’ ones – but not the English variety. While this is not an exhaustive explanation, the anomalies and inequities of devolution do appear to have enacted a revenge against the English for centuries of perceived domination and aggression. First, there is the West Lothian Question: the well known fact that Scottish and Welsh MPs can make decisions and pass laws that relate to England only, whereas English MPs can no longer make decisions in the same policy areas in Scotland and Wales. This could be seen as a reversal of the historical situation, as viewed and resented through the prism of Scottish and Welsh nationalism: instead of England ruling Scotland and Wales through the political structures of the Union, now Scotland and Wales govern England through their elected representatives in Westminster, who ensure that England’s sovereignty and aspirations for self-government are frustrated.

It might seem a somewhat extreme characterisation of the present state of affairs to say that Scotland and Wales ‘govern England’; but it certainly is true that a system that involves the participation of Scottish and Welsh MPs is involved in the active suppression not only of the idea of an English parliament to govern English matters (which would restore parity with Scotland and Wales) but of English-national identity altogether: the cultural war New Labour has waged against the affirmation and celebration of Englishness in any form – the surest way to extinguish demands for English self-rule being to obliterate the English identity from the consciousness of the silent British majority. In this respect, New Labour’s attempts to replace Englishness with an a-national Britishness – in England only – are indeed reminiscent of the efforts made by an England-dominated United Kingdom in previous centuries to suppress the national identity, political aspirations and traditions of Scotland and Wales.

This notion of devolution enabling undue Scottish and Welsh domination of English affairs becomes less far-fetched when you bear in mind the disproportionate presence of Scottish-elected MPs that have filled senior cabinet positions throughout New Labour’s tenure, including, of course, Gordon Brown: chancellor for the first ten years and prime minister for the last two. And considering that Brown is the principal protagonist in the drive to assert and formalise a Britishness that displaces Englishness as the central cultural and national identity of the UK, this can only lend weight to suspicions that New Labour has got it in for England, which it views in the inherently negative way I described above.

However, the main grounds for believing that devolution enshrines nationalistic bias and vindictiveness towards England is the way New Labour has continued to operate the Barnett Formula: the funding mechanism that ensures that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland benefit from a consistently higher per-capita level of public expenditure than England. One thing to be observed to begin with is that Barnett is used to legitimise the continuing participation of non-English MPs in legislating for England, as spending decisions that relate directly to England only trigger incremental expenditure for the other nations.

But New Labour has used Barnett not only to justify the West Lothian Question but has attempted to justify it in itself as a supposedly ‘fair’ system for allocating public expenditure. It seems that it is construed as fair primarily because it does penalise England in favour of the devolved nations, not despite this fact. This sort of thinking was evidenced this week during a House of Lords inquiry into the Barnett Formula. Liam Byrne, the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, described the mechanism as “fair enough”, only to be rounded on by the Welsh Labour chair Lord Richard of Ammanford: “It doesn’t actually mean anything. Look at the difference between Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – is that fair?” So it’s OK for England to receive 14% less spending per head of population than Wales, 21% less than Scotland and 31% less than Northern Ireland; the only ‘unfairness’ in the system is the differentials between the devolved nations!

The view that this system is somehow ‘fair to England’ – except it’s not articulated as such, as this would be blatantly ridiculous and it ascribes to England some sort of legal personality, which the government denies: ‘fair for the UK as a whole’ would be the kind of phrase used – exemplifies the sort of nationalistic, anti-English bias that has characterised New Labour. It’s as if the view is that England ‘owes’ it to the other nations: that because it has historically been, and still is, more wealthy overall and more economically powerful than the other nations, it is ‘fair’ that it should both pay more taxes and receive less back on a sort of redistribution of wealth principle. But this involves a re-definition of redistribution of wealth on purely national lines, as if England as a whole were imagined as a nation of greedy capitalists and arrogant free marketeers that need to pay their dues to the exploited and neglected working class people of Scotland and Wales: the bedrock of the Labour movement.

In short, it’s ‘pay-back time’: overlaying the centuries-long resentment towards England’s wealth and power, England is being penalised for having supported Margaret Thatcher and her programme of privatisation, disinvestment in public services and ruthless market economics. ‘OK, if that’s how you want it, England, you can continue your programme of market reforms of public services; and if you want a public sector that is financially cost-efficient and run on market principles, then you can jolly well pay yourselves for the services that you don’t want the public purse to fund – after all, you can afford to, can’t you? But meanwhile, your taxes can fund those same services for us, because we can’t afford to pay for them ourselves but can choose to get them anyway through our higher public-spending allocation and devolved government’.

Such appears at least to be the ugly nationalistic, anti-English backdrop to the two-track Britain New Labour has ushered in with asymmetric devolution. This has allowed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to pursue a classic social-democratic path of high levels of funding for public services based on a redistributive tax system; that is, with wealth being redistributed from England, as the tax revenues from the devolved nations are not sufficient to fund the programme. Meanwhile, in England, New Labour has taken forward the Thatcherite agenda of reforming the public sector on market principles. In a market economy, individuals are required to pay for many things that are financed by the state in more social-democratic and socialist societies. Hence, the market economics can be used to justify the unwillingness of the state to subsidise certain things like university tuition fees (an ‘investment’ by individuals in their own economic future); various ‘luxuries’ around the edges of the standard level of medical treatment offered by the state health-care system (e.g. free parking and prescriptions, or highly advanced and expensive new drugs that it is not ‘cost-efficient’ for the public sector to provide free of charge); or personal care for the elderly, for which individuals in a market economy are expected to make their own provisions.

These sorts of market principle, which have continued and extended the measures to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ initiated under the Thatcher and Major governments, have been used to justify the government in England not paying for things that are funded by the devolved governments: public-sector savings made in England effectively cross-subsidise the higher levels of public spending in the other nations. Beneath an ideological agenda (reform of the public services in England), a nationalist agenda has been advanced that runs utterly counter to the principles of equality and social solidarity across the whole of the United Kingdom that Labour has traditionally stood for. Labour has created and endorsed a system of unequal levels of public-service provision based on a ‘national postcode lottery’, i.e. depending purely on which country you happen to live in. Four different NHS’s with care provided more
free at the point of use in some countries than others, and least of all in England; a vastly expanded university system that is free everywhere except England; and social care offered with varying levels of public funding, but virtually none in England. So much for Labour as the party of the working class and of the Union: not in England any more.

There’s an argument for saying that English people should pay for more of their medical, educational and personal-care needs, as they are better off on average. But that’s really not the point. Many English people struggle to pay for these things or simply can’t do so altogether, and so miss out on life-prolonging drug treatments or educational opportunities that their ‘fellow citizens’ elsewhere in the UK are able to benefit from. A true social-democratic- and socialist-style public sector should offer an equal level of service provision to anyone throughout the state that wishes to access it, whether or not they could afford to pay for private health care or education but choose not to. The wealthy end up paying proportionately more for public services anyway through higher taxes. Under the New Labour multi-track Britain, by contrast, those English people who are better off not only have to pay higher taxes but also have to pay for services that other UK citizens can obtain free of charge, as do poorer English people. One might even say that this extra degree of taxation (higher income tax + charges for public services) is a tax for being English.

But of course, it’s not just the middle and upper classes that pay the England tax; it’s Labour’s traditional core supporters: the English working class. On one level, it’s all very well taking the view that ‘middle England’ supports privatisation and a market economy, so they can jolly well pay for stuff rather than expecting the state to fund it. But it’s altogether another matter treating the less well-off people of England with the same disregard. It is disregarding working people in England to simply view it as acceptable that they should have to pay for hospital parking fees, prescription charges, their kids’ higher education and care for their elderly relatives, while non-English people can get all or most of that for free. What, are the English working class worth less than their Celtic cousins?

How much of this New Labour neglect of the common people of England can truly be put down to a combination of Celtic nationalism, anti-English nationalism, and indeed inverted-racist prejudice towards the white English working class? Well, an attribution to the English of an inherent preference for market economics – coming as it does from a movement that despised that ideology during the 1980s and early 1990s – could well imply a certain contempt for the English, suffused with Scottish and Welsh bitterness towards the ‘English’ Thatcher government.

But an even more fundamental and disturbing turning of the tables against the English is New Labour’s laissez-faire attitude to job creation, training and skills development for the English working class. The Labour government abandoned the core principle that it has a duty to assist working people in acquiring the skills they need to compete in an increasingly aggressive global market place, and to foster ‘full employment’ in England; and it just let the market take over. It’s as if the people of England weren’t worth the investment and didn’t matter, only the economy. And it’s because of Labour’s comprehensive sell out to market economics that it has encouraged the unprecedented levels of immigration we have experienced, deliberately to foster a low-wage economy; and, accordingly, a staggering nine-tenths of the new jobs created under the Labour government have gone to workers from overseas. Is it any wonder, then, that there is such widespread concern – whether well founded or not in individual cases – among traditional Labour voters in England about immigration, and about newcomers taking the jobs and housing that they might have thought a Labour government would have striven to provide for them?

How much of the liberal establishment’s contempt and fear of English white working-class racism and anti-immigration violence is an adequate response to a genuine threat? On the contrary, to what extent has that threat and that hostility towards migrants actually been brought about and magnified by New Labour’s pre-existing contempt and inverted racism towards the white working-class people of England, and the policies (or lack of them) that flowed from those attitudes?

Has New Labour, in its darker under-belly, espoused the contempt towards the ‘lazy’, ‘loutish’, disenfranchised English working class that Margaret Thatcher made her hallmark – and mixed it up in a heady cocktail together with Celtic nationalism, and politically-correct positive economic and cultural discrimination in favour of migrants and ethnic minorities?

One thing is for sure, though: English nationalism properly understood – as a movement that strives to redress the democratic and social inequalities of the devolution settlement out of a concern for all of the people residing and trying to earn a living in England – is far less likely to foster violence against innocent Romanian families than is the ‘British nationalism’ of the BNP or the various nationalisms of the other UK nations that have seen far lower levels of immigration than England.

But is there a place not just for English nationalism but for England itself in a British state and establishment that are so prejudiced against it?

16 June 2009

The Calman Report: Consolidating asymmetrical devolution

It would be easy to undertake a nit-picking, petulant reading of the long-awaited Final Report of the Commission on Scottish Devolution chaired by Professor Sir Kenneth Calman, which was finally published yesterday. The report does not review the Scottish devolution settlement in the round, either in relation to its effects on the UK-wide tier of governance that provides government for England, nor on devolution in Wales and Northern Ireland. This was explicitly not the remit of the Commission; therefore, it cannot be reproached for not making explicit recommendations about devolution for or within England, or for how Scottish devolution can be made more compatible with the interests of England alongside ‘serving Scotland better’: the actual title of the report.

However, it is legitimate, I think, to criticise the Commission on grounds of inconsistency. The essence of its approach to devolution is to arrive at improvements to the way the reserved and devolved powers, governments and parliaments interact and complement each other in practice. Consequently, to be consistent, the Commission should have considered the effects of Scottish devolution on the workings and legitimacy of national-UK governance just as much as it reviews in depth the way the Scottish Parliament and Executive work and interact with the UK government, and how their accountability to the people of Scotland can be enhanced.

In its omission of any review of the broader consequences of devolution for the UK as a whole, and particularly for its largest constituent part (England), the Commission perpetuates and entrenches the asymmetrical approach that has been taken towards Scottish devolution from the Scottish Constitutional Convention of 1989 onwards: considering only what is in the best interests of Scotland-within-the-Union, not a more equitable and accountable constitutional settlement and system of governance for the whole of the UK.

Indeed, the issue of asymmetry is integral to Calman’s conception of the Union itself, and the concept is frequently referred to in the report. The way Calman seeks to circumvent the criticism that devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has brought about an egregious asymmetry in the governance of the UK – with England being the only UK nation that is denied any political expression of its national identity – is to suggest that this asymmetry has always been a fundamental characteristic of the Union: “The territorial constitution of the United Kingdom is therefore radically asymmetrical. This reflects the history and geography of these islands, and like many other aspects of the UK constitution has grown and developed rather than being designed”.

But elsewhere, the report makes it clear that the present-day asymmetry of the UK constitution has very much been brought about – or, at the very least greatly extended – by the deliberate design of the devolution settlement: “The creation of the Scottish Parliament was part of a larger policy of devolution instituted by the Labour Government after its election victory in 1997. This was applied in different ways to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland . . . . The result is that the United Kingdom now has a quite distinctive form of partial and asymmetric devolution – partial in that there has so far been no devolution to the largest component nation of the UK, England (other than to London); and asymmetric in that devolution differs in nature and extent in each of the nations and territories to which it has been applied.”

Notice the subtle but significant semantic shift here: according to the report, the fact that there has been no national-level devolution for England is not what makes the present devolution settlement asymmetric, but rather this asymmetry is in relation to the differing nature and extent of devolution in each of the nations to which it has been applied. As if the fact that it has not been applied at all to England is not the epitome of the asymmetry and the difference described! But no, this just makes devolution ‘partial’.

On the contrary, it is the partial nature of devolution, in both senses (biased and unfinished), that makes devolution asymmetrical. And the raison d’être for the Calman Commission is to examine ways in which devolution can be extended and enhanced – but for Scotland only, making it by definition more partial (limited to one part of the UK only, and hence one-sided in both senses) and asymmetrical. The work of the Commission is therefore directly and deliberately engaged in making the political Union that is the UK itself more asymmetrical in its structures of governance.

The report deploys a classic rhetorical trick to suggest that this intolerable asymmetry is not just ‘organic’ to the Union (having evolved in some sense naturally over the course of history, rather than having been deliberately engineered at a particular point in history, such as the passing of the 1998 Scotland Act) but that it reflects the distinct needs and aspirations of the different nations of the UK, including England:

“Although the Government’s programme of devolution marked a substantial change from the earlier Westminster-based status quo, it can also be seen within a longstanding tradition in the UK of making constitutional change organically in response to particular pressures, rather than by sweeping reforms. It is a means for the UK to provide varying degrees of regional autonomy to match the differing needs and circumstances of its component parts, without the more fundamental restructuring of the constitution that a move to a fully federal structure would entail.”

The report tries to make out that the fact that there is no distinct national layer of governance for England – that the UK government is also the de facto English government – has evolved organically and historically in this way out of the separate relationships England has had with the other UK nations, and that the present situation is somehow adequate to the needs and wishes of the English people. Indeed, the report goes so far as to suggest that:

“This unique asymmetry is not a problem [my emphasis]. If anything, it is something to be proud of – Scotland’s constitutional arrangements have grown or evolved in response to need, like many other aspects of the constitution of the UK. Their asymmetry reflects the underlying reality: Scotland is a small nation sharing islands, and a Union, with a much larger neighbour. The UK’s territorial constitution reflects the radical asymmetry of its geography and demography. Not only do the smaller nations in the UK each have different levels of decentralised power; but there is no equivalent of devolved institutions for England. The UK Parliament at Westminster is also England’s parliament, and the UK Government is England’s government too.”

There you have it: the ‘UK-is-England-is-the-UK’ moment. Historic, organic, set in stone: the UK parliament is England’s parliament, and the UK government is England’s government; the one perfectly adequate to the other. No difference, no disconnect. A ‘territorial constitution’ that makes the territory of England, in political terms, none other than the (vestigial) unitary UK, while devolution for the ‘nations’ is defined in terms of the degree of political difference and divergence that they, and only they, enjoy from the central power, i.e. effectively from England. No asymmetry of devolution, then, from England’s perspective, because England is one and the same as the UK: the founding symmetry that counterbalances the asymmetry; the centre of the system that assures its continuing unity and coherence even within a framework of increasing divergence from that centre on the part of the periphery. In short, England’s non-differentiation from the UK is what assures the continuing existence and identity (sameness, continuance) of the UK across difference and across history; and it is what prevents the presence of radical asymmetry – the absence of any constituent part and nation of the UK that actually is the UK in any fundamental sense.

No wonder, then, that it is at this point in the report (sections 2.12 to 2.15, to be precise) that it touches upon the only sort of devolution for England that it is prepared to countenance: “It is not for us to discuss where or how power might be decentralised or devolved in England – whether, as has been proposed in the past, to regional level, or by giving more power to local institutions”. Well, by very virtue of describing devolution for England in these terms, the report is prescribing the form it should take: not national but regional or local, as there can by definition not be any devolution and divergence of England as a nation from the UK if the basis for the UK’s supposed unity as analysed above (England’s non-differentiation from the UK) is to be preserved.

Having said this, and to its credit, the report does acknowledge that England is a nation, and that the governance of the UK (and of England as the cornerstone of the UK) cannot remain unchanged in the context of devolution:

“Devolution to Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) created political institutions that exercise many of the powers of central Government for a significant proportion of the UK. That inevitably has meant that the governance of the rest of the UK cannot continue unchanged.

“It is not sufficient for Scots (or indeed Welsh or Northern Ireland citizens) to dismiss this as simply a problem for the English: the internal arrangements of the Union are a matter for all of us. The UK now has a territorial constitution, and it needs, in our view, to be more fully and clearly set out.”

This idea of making a new constitutional statement regarding the basis for the union between the different nations of the UK in the context of devolution has its fullest expression in the Calman Report in the idea of the UK as a ‘social Union’. In particular, this pertains to shared ‘social rights’:

“The most important of these [social rights] are that access to health care and education should be, as now, essentially free and provided at the point of need. And when taxes are shared across the UK they should take account of that need. Our first recommendation is therefore that the Scottish and UK Parliaments should confirm their common understanding of what those rights are, and the responsibilities that go with them.”

This statement, which is indeed the first recommendation the report makes, is implicitly a criticism of the failure of the UK to put these principles into practice, in particular through the inequitable distribution of the UK’s tax revenues via the Barnett Formula that has meant that the other nations have been able to deliver these ‘social rights’ (e.g. free access to expensive life-prolonging drugs, no tuition fees in higher education, free social care for the elderly, etc.) far more comprehensively than has the UK government acting supposedly in the interests of England. The Report notably does not recommend that the Barnett Formula should be scrapped until a fair determination of a more needs-based system for distributing tax revenues in pursuit of these social rights can be made. But in principle, the report recognises that the Barnett Formula does not adequately reflect real social needs across the UK.

Up until now, devolution may well be said in practice to have undermined this social Union that the Report describes as an integral characteristic and purpose for the political Union that is the UK itself. By recommending a stronger commitment to implementing the social Union across the UK, the Report is seeking to strengthen and reaffirm that political Union. However, it is far from self-evident that the Report’s principal recommendations – much greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland; in particular, a substantial reduction in Scotland’s block grant from the UK Treasury linked to an enhanced ability to vary the level of income tax in Scotland – will advance these goals without reform of the Barnett Formula, and without political reform for England.

In essence, Scotland will have even greater freedom to pursue these social objectives, which will still be inequitably cross-subsidised by the English taxpayer. The block grant and the Barnett Formula that underpins it are not being abolished. If the Scottish Government decides not to change the level of income tax that Scots are currently paying, Scotland will get absolutely the same deal as now: about 25% higher per-capita public expenditure. In fact, the Scottish government could, if it chose, now cut its income tax – procuring a significant competitive economic advantage over the rest of the UK – and only have to reduce its public expenditure to the same level as England, thanks to the Barnett consequentials. More likely, the Scottish government will only tinker with tax rates: why rock the boat when it’s worked so well to Scotland’s advantage up till now?

The primary avowed purpose of Calman’s recommendation of greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland is to improve the accountability of the Scottish Parliament for the revenue it raises and spends on the country’s behalf. Fair enough. But what is fundamentally unfair and inequitable – over and above the unequal distribution of public expenditure – is the fact that there is no such accountability on tax and expenditure in England. Decisions on expenditure in departments that now deal with England only (in devolved areas such as education, health and transport) are made by the whole UK parliament and government, including MPs not elected in England. Here we have the asymmetry of devolution that really aggravates people and undermines the standing of the Union in England: if Calman’s recommendations are implemented, Scotland will be able to make its own decisions not just on how to spend the public finances but how to raise them, free from the participation of English MPs; but England has no such freedom, and Scottish MPs support and vote through measures that result in the relative under-funding of England to the deliberate benefit of Scotland.

Yes, as the report says: devolution has indeed succeeded for Scotland and is ‘serving Scotland better’. Further enhancement of Scottish self-government may well result in an even stronger Scotland. But if this is done by continuing to serve England so ill, then it will not result in a stronger Union. England will not for ever sustain asymmetrical devolution by accepting to be governed as the UK and for the UK. But devolution as presently constituted relies on this asymmetry and inequality: allowing Scotland to both have its own cake and eat England’s.

But what happens to a ‘United’ Kingdom built on such uneven foundations when the people of England demand their own slice of the cake and a form of government best suited to their needs?

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