Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

5 February 2011

Ed Miliband: England is a promise politicians haven’t even made let alone broken

I was struck by the following phrase in the BBC’s account of Ed Miliband’s speech in Gateshead yesterday on the so-called ‘Promise of Britain’: “He argued that policies such as nearly trebling the cap on student tuition fees in England and scrapping the educational maintenance allowance would ‘take away the ladders’ for young people and have a profound impact on the country’s future.”

Could it really be, I wondered, that English Ed had actually referred to an England-only government policy as taking effect “in England”? I felt I had to check against delivery, as they say, so I had a look at the transcript of Ed’s speech on the Labour Party website. Sadly, I couldn’t find a single use of the word ‘England’, but I did see the following phrase: “they are cutting away the ladders, destroying the chances of children and young people, and undermine [sic] Britain’s future in a profound way”.

Oh well, I suppose in a speech on the Promise of Britain – distinct echoes of last year’s commemorations of the Battle of Britain with Miliband’s reminiscences on his parents’ flight from war-torn Belgium – it would be too much to expect England to get a mention. Instead, ‘Britain’ featured 18 times, and ‘this country’ or ‘our country’ appeared nine times.

Except, of course, that most of the coalition government’s measures that are supposedly cutting away the ladders of opportunity for young British people actually affect only young people living in England: the hike in tuition fees (originally introduced for England only by New Labour, of course); the Education Maintenance Allowance (being scrapped in England only but retained in Scotland and Wales); Sure Start; the alleged scrapping of a guaranteed apprenticeship place for 17- and 18-year-olds in the current Education Bill (not 100% sure that doesn’t also apply to Wales, but it definitely doesn’t apply in Scotland); etc.

Does it actually matter, on one level, if the Labour leader doesn’t make clear that the UK-government measures he’s criticising affect only one part of Britain – England – not the whole of it? Possibly not, in the sense that the cuts will affect English youngsters in the same way whether you call them English or British cuts. Plus Miliband is making a broader point about declining economic and educational opportunity for all young people in Britain as it is affected by factors common to all the UK’s nations, such as reduced social mobility, growing income inequality, increasingly stretched family budgets, lack of job opportunities and impossibly high house prices.

But it does matter that Ed does not refer to England if English young people are being sold a ‘Promise of Britain’ that New Labour itself broke: the promise of equal and fair support from the state and public services to all British youngsters as they start out in life. The Labour Party broke this promise in its devolution settlement coupled with an unfair funding mechanism that ensures that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish young people obtain more state support and subsidies than their English counterparts.

It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that Ed Miliband and / or his speech writers perpetuated the taboo on pronouncing the ‘E’ word in this speech, especially given the recent attempts by some in his party to develop a distinct message and policy agenda for England. Is Miliband’s speech a sign that Labour is in fact going to carry on down the Brownite path of eulogising ‘Britain’ and deceitfully framing all its policies as applying uniformly to Britain, even when they relate to England alone?

How can anyone believe in Miliband’s ‘Promise of Britain’ when it was not only New Labour that broke it in the first place, but when this promise is dishonest in its very concept: the idea of a ‘Britain Fair For All’ (as Labour’s 2010 election manifesto, written by Ed Miliband put it) that Labour has had neither the will nor the means to actually bring about?

Labour should stop going on about a ‘Promise of Britain’ it cannot keep, and should start making realistic and honest commitments to the next generation in England. At least, if Labour returned to government, it would actually have the power to keep those promises. But would it have the will?

9 June 2010

Downing Street flies the English flag: why they’ll be praying for English World Cup success in Whitehall

If they pray at all, that is – David Cameron having gone on record as saying that he does not seek guidance from God in prayer whenever he is confronted by a difficult decision, and Nick Clegg being an out and out atheist. But did David Cameron seek guidance from the Almighty, or even solicit the intercession of St. George, when deciding to break with tradition and fly the English flag at 10 Downing Street during the World Cup?

To be fair, he didn’t strictly need to: the decision pretty much made itself. The coalition government desperately needs England to have a successful run in the World Cup, for two main reasons. First, there is the boost to the economy it will provide. On the one hand, this is a short-term phenomenon as people shell out for overpriced England-branded clothes and general tat (including flags), buy HD-TVs and Sky subscriptions, and visit pubs and bars to watch the games and celebrate England’s victories. But in the longer term, if England are really successful (i.e. reach the semis, final or even win), this will bring about a feel-good factor that could be the difference between the UK going back into recession or not. If English people feel good about themselves and about England, this extra confidence will spill over into the economic domain, and people will be prepared to spend more on themselves, invest in English and British goods and services, and take more holidays in England.

This boost to English self-confidence and pride, along with the shot in the arm it would deliver to the British economy as a whole, will be especially critical as the government shapes up to deliver its swingeing cuts to English public services. This is the second reason why the government needs the England team to be successful. If English people are feeling generally good about themselves throughout the summer, they’ll be less resentful at England once again bearing the brunt of the autumn cuts compared with their Barnett-protected Scottish and Welsh cousins.

In fact, the World Cup feel-good factor may be just the tonic that’s needed to encourage English people to rally round, Dunkirk-style, and play the part of socially responsible, civic-minded citizens that the government wants them to take on – stepping into the breach left by the contracting public sector to ensure that the most vulnerable members of our communities are protected and looked after. World Cup success could be the thing to kick-start the Big Society – a vision that applies only to England – as English people, filled with renewed national self-esteem, also take pride in looking after their own and adopting a new collective sense of responsibility towards one another.

Think I’m embroidering? A bit, maybe. But think of the opposite scenario: England performs dismally and is knocked out at the group stage or in the round of 16. Think how miserable and depressed people will be if that happens. The temporary boost to the economy will fizzle out and will be only a fraction of what it could have been if England reach the semis or the final, as spending increases at each round. And people will be desperate to jet away on their continental holidays to escape the World Cup gloom and the ash cloud of looming budget cuts. And how much more resentful and unco-operative will English people be towards the cuts, and to the greater burden placed on England’s shoulders, when they eventually come?

A poor performance by England in the World Cup will lead to a diminution of national pride, which will make English people more diffident about the uncertain economic and fiscal outlook, resulting in them spending less and thinking of No. 1 more: looking after self-interest rather than being carried on an enthusiastic wave of civic responsibility towards others less fortunate than oneself, whose disproportionate suffering from the cuts will be regarded as an unfortunate necessity.

On reflection, if Cameron wants the people of England to be wafted on a Cloud Nine of feeling big about social responsibility, perhaps he really should direct a few more supplications in the direction of heaven! Personally, I will be sending the Almighty a few prayers for English victory – but out of belief rather than political desperation!

24 January 2010

England: The Unspoken Other

“What we cannot speak of we must be silent about”. Ludwig Wittgenstein

I’ve received a reply from the BBC to my complaint about their failure to point out anywhere in their coverage that the Conservatives’ draft manifesto on health care related to England only. Here’s what they said:

Dear Mr Rickard

Thank you for your e-mail regarding a Radio 4 news broadcast on 2 January. Please accept our apologies for the delay in replying. We know our correspondents appreciate a quick response and are sorry you’ve had to wait on this occasion.

I understand you were unhappy with a report on the Conservatives’ manifesto for the National Health Service (NHS) and that you felt it failed to make it clear it related to England only. I note that you feel this was another example of an issue presented as relating to the whole of the UK and that it is a practice you continue to dislike.

We are aware that a report that is of great interest to one part of our audience may be of little interest to another. This issue of national and regional news is of great importance to BBC News and requires a balance which we are always striving to get just right.

While certain news items may be specific to one part of the country, and often reserved for coverage by our regional news, we also have to acknowledge and cater to the many listeners and viewers who express a clear interest in knowing what is happening in other parts of the UK. It is also the case that certain stories which at first appear geographically limited can ultimately have a wider impact on the country as a whole. [My emphasis.]

You may be interest in the following entry on The Editors blog by Mark Byford, the deputy director general, who looks at this issue and the recent review of the merits and challenges facing BBC News regionally and nationally by the BBC Trust. The Editors blog is availabe here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2008/06/uk_news_coverage.html

I would also like to assure you that we’ve registered your comments on our audience log for the benefit of the news teams and senior management. The audience logs are important documents that can help shape future decisions about content and ensure that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.

Thanks again for contacting us.

Regards

Stuart Webb
BBC Complaints
__________________________________________
www.bbc.co.uk/complaints

There’s something profoundly unsatisfactory about this response, over and above the plain fact that Mr Webb failed to address the substance of the complaint, which was that the BBC had failed in its duty to report on the news accurately and impartially. In this case, this would involve simply letting people know that the Tories’ proposed policies would be implemented only in England. Rather an important detail, one might think.

But let’s analyse what Mr Webb is saying here. I’m particularly interested in the section I’ve highlighted in italics. Mr Webb is comparing the coverage of the Tories’ draft NHS manifesto to the way ‘regional’ stories are reported on. In essence, he’s saying:

  1. The story in question did relate to just one ‘part of the country’ [a circumlocution for ‘England’: notice how, after the initial reference to my email, he can’t bring himself to use the ‘E’ word] but was nonetheless of interest to listeners outside of that ‘region’, and so was legitimately broadcast as a ‘national’ news story
  2. ‘Geographically limited’ [i.e. English] stories can have a significant impact on ‘the country as a whole’ [i.e. the UK], which thereby sets up a second reason why this particular story should have been broadcast on the national news: it’s not just ‘of interest to’ the whole of the UK (appealing to people who take an interest in current affairs), but it also affects the ‘interests’ of everyone in the UK. In other words, the Tories’ policies on the NHS could affect everyone in the UK materially in some way. Hence, though this was on one level just an ‘English matter’, it also matters to everyone in the UK – in both senses.

Well, yes, that’s all true: policy and expenditure decisions about the NHS in England are indeed of interest to many UK citizens living outside of England; and they do have a knock-on effect on the NHS’s outside of England, in that an overall increase or decrease in England-specific expenditure results in proportionally higher rises or cuts in expenditure in the other countries via the workings of the Barnett Formula.

But the relationship between spending in England and in the devolved countries is not straightforward or transparent. In this instance, Tory pledges not to cut the English NHS budget in real terms do not mean that the NHS budget won’t be cut in Scotland or Wales. If English spending declines overall despite the NHS budget being ring-fenced, then the Scottish and Welsh block grants will be smaller, and NHS spending in those countries may well have to be reduced. In order to understand how the Tories’ NHS policies will affect their interests – in the sense of ‘benefits’ – it is vital that Scottish and Welsh listeners understand the true relationship between England-specific policies and the corresponding policies in their own countries. And they can hardly come to this understanding if they’re not informed that the Tories’ policies are in fact only intended for England. To use Mr Webb’s analogy, this may have been a ‘regional’ story, relating to just one ‘part’ of the UK (England); but then, when genuine regional stories are covered at a ‘national’ level, the BBC does tend to take the trouble to spell out which region the story directly relates to.

So Mr Webb’s regional analogy completely falls over: a ‘regional’ story (e.g. one about Scottish politics or, say, an innovative private-public partnership being pioneered by a hospital Foundation Trust in one part of England) can well become a ‘national’ story (covered in the national news bulletins) if lots of people throughout the UK are interested in it and could be affected by it in some way. But that doesn’t make it a national story in the other sense: directly concerning the whole of the UK. But that’s precisely how the NHS story was covered: no attempt was made to make clear to listeners that it did relate just to one – albeit a highly influential – part of the UK. The word ‘England’ (the actual name for that ‘part’) simply wasn’t mentioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation; just as it was not referred to anywhere in the Tories draft NHS manifesto itself.

This illustrates a common observation: that while England is indeed formally ‘a part’ of the whole (Britain, the UK), it is generally referred to and thought of in British political discourse as if it were the whole (the UK) itself. In fact, there are two kinds of ‘parts’ of Britain from this point of view:

  1. England, which is a ‘geographically limited part’ of the UK but, as such, is politically and existentially (in terms of its official identity) indistinct from the UK and subsumed within it
  2. The ‘nations and regions’, both of which are really in effect thought of as regions of the UK / Britain (the ‘country’), the only difference being that three of those ‘regions’ have a distinct national character as recognised in the devolution settlement.

Such a structure does not reserve any place for England, which is where Mr Webb’s comparison of the Tory NHS story to a regional item is so disingenuous. On this model of the UK, the UK / Britain is ‘the country’ or ‘the nation’; and the nation is sub-divided into regions, three of which have their devolved, ‘nation-like’ systems of partial self-government. England (or ‘the regions’), on the other hand, is simply none other than the UK; just as Andalusia or Castile are regions of Spain (and are thereby also Spain), whereas the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia are national regions of Spain (and are by that token also still Spanish). On this analogy, England has become a ‘convenient’ (actually, inconvenient) name for the non-national regions of the UK; while Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland are the UK’s ‘national’ regions.

According to this understanding of the UK, then, England as such – as a nation – does not exist. This is a hard ‘truth’ whose implications are only beginning to dawn on me, despite the fact that I’ve voiced similar thoughts and discussed similar models for the relationship between England and the UK in numerous previous posts. In particular, thinking of things in these terms allows one to come to a deeper understanding of why the BBC won’t and can’t engage properly with complaints that they present ‘English’ stories as if they were British ones; and why the mainstream political parties resolutely persist in avoiding any reference to England when setting out their England-specific policies.

On an obvious level, this is of course done for political advantage: ultimately, because it maintains the whole British establishment and system of power, in and through which both the BBC and the parties seek to exercise their influence and prosper. But beyond these considerations of ‘interest’, the establishment won’t say ‘England’ because it can’t: how can you speak the name of something that does not exist? Both aspects are in play here:

  1. Because the establishment doesn’t want England to exist, in case this undermines its self-ascribed right to govern as Britain, it does not speak the name of England and thereby, in a sense, makes England not exist, at least within the formal discourse and self-understanding of British politics: ‘the Nation is Britain, and the parts of Britain are its nations and regions’. That’s it: no need to invoke an ‘England’ that is just not a distinct part of this whole.
  2. And because the word and name of England does not exist within the ‘politically correct’ language, it then becomes both inappropriate and irrelevant to mention it: language deals with things that exist, or that we believe to exist, not with what does not exist. ‘England’ has ceased to refer to anything in the present: it’s off the map of the British establishment’s mind, just as it’s off the physical map of the nations and regions. ‘England’, then, is a word that has served its time and is now redundant.

The BBC and the mainstream parties therefore do not say ‘England’, not just because they’d rather suppress all thought of England but because they’ve actually succeeded in removing the thought of it from the official and publicly ‘acceptable’ language of the British polity. They won’t say England because they can’t say England; and they can’t say England, not only because England officially doesn’t exist (it doesn’t refer to anything tangible within the polity) but because they actually don’t believe it exists any more, and they don’t know what ‘England’ means or should mean. In short, they’ve not only suppressed England from the apparatus of British governance, but they’ve repressed ‘England’ from their conscious minds and language.

This is the reason for my allusion to Wittgenstein at the start of this post: a foundational figure in what used to be referred to as the ‘English’, or at least ‘Anglo-Saxon’, school of analytical philosophy. The quote I used is my own translation from the original German that seeks to capture its ambiguity better than the classic translation: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. For me, my version (“What we cannot speak of we must be silent about”) perfectly encapsulates the combination of psychological repression and conceptual incapacity that characterises the British establishment’s silence with respect to ‘England’. First, out of political considerations of power, England was suppressed, both as a distinct national focus of politics and identity, and as something whose name – and in whose name – our political representatives could thereby speak. But then, once suppressed from the language, ‘England’ has become suppressed from the minds and understanding of reality of British politicians and media. England was first deliberately suppressed from political language and influence out of pure political motives; but now that language genuinely does not know it – so better not talk about it.

So on this view, England is no more. England is none other than the UK. And yet, England, as that which has been eliminated from British-political language, thinking and institutions – and as that which, in part for that reason, is beyond their reach and understanding – is also the Other of Britain. In psychological terms, if an individual represses a part of themselves and their history that they think of as unacceptable and inappropriate to express openly and socially, that part doesn’t in fact cease to exist, even if the individual’s conscious mind has succeeded in erasing all trace of it, and can no longer access the reality of that suppressed experience through deliberate thought and language. That part of themselves thereby becomes their ‘Other’: their repressed, unconscious selves that the conscious mind won’t and can’t recognise but sees as alien and unreal. The Other is the part of the individual that they have to suppress in order to think of themselves and to function as who they think they ‘are’. But in reality, those individuals cannot be whole persons until they are able to come to an understanding of and reconnect to the hidden parts of their selves and their histories.

So it is with England. The British establishment has suppressed its own deep roots in English identity and history because it projected onto England all the bad aspects of its own society, politics and history; and because it acted in the interests of redistributing power in a way that appeared more equitable than the England-dominated past, even while in fact continuing to exercise the same sovereign power that it previously wielded in England’s name. In other words, England had to die in order to be resurrected as Britain – but a Britain that, in order to be Britain, refuses and is incapable of acknowledging the England it still profoundly contains within it.

So England is Britain’s Other, whose name it cannot speak for fear that it might recognise itself in it. England is indeed both a ‘part’ and the whole of Britain: the part that in reality it needs to reaffirm as part of itself in order to be whole again. Otherwise, if the voice and identity of England cannot find expression within a Britain that would rather pass over it in silence, they will find expression in ways that could destroy the cohesion and survival of Britain itself as a political entity – just as, in an individual, unwanted traits and experiences end up being acted out in a more self-destructive manner if they are repressed indefinitely.

Well, this is a nice analytical model; but where does it leave us in practical terms? In particular, I’m wondering whether I should bother continuing to send off my complaint emails to the BBC every time they flagrantly ignore the England-specific nature of a story or policy announcement. If I do carry on, I certainly shouldn’t expect them to see reason, in the sense that, in my view, it is a simple case of reporting things in such a way that the public in different ‘parts’ of the UK know whether and how a story affects them. That’s what an ‘impartial’ public broadcaster is supposed to do, isn’t it?

But the responses I’ve received, as exemplified by Mr Webb’s email, reveal that the BBC appears not to see it that way. Perhaps they actually believe they’re carrying out their remit to report a story impartially by not making a point of saying ‘the Conservatives’ draft manifesto for the NHS in England’ or the ‘Liberal Democrats’ policy for childcare and education in England’ if the parties themselves choose not to spell this out.

More fundamentally, though, the BBC doesn’t see this as a serious enough issue, in my view, because they are a prime embodiment and propagator of the new Britain-centric political discourse and vision of the ‘nation’ that I’ve been describing. Despite Mr Webb’s comparison of the English-NHS story with an item of ‘regional’ news, the Corporation didn’t feel it was necessary to point out that the Tories’ proposals affected England only because they saw it as not just a ‘national’ story but a British story: about one of the national-British parties’ policies at the UK election for the ‘British NHS’, which were therefore of interest and relevance to the ‘whole country’. OK, ‘they’ – or some members of the various editorial teams involved – may have been dimly aware that, in fact, the policies related to England alone. But this fact would have been regarded as almost tangential and not worthy of being mentioned. The reason for this is that, for the BBC and the political establishment, there are really no such things as ‘English stories’ or ‘English politics’, but only British stories that happen, in some instances, to affect England only because of devolution but which are ‘British’ nonetheless because the nation itself is called ‘Britain’ and there is no such thing, officially, as ‘England’. These are, in short, ‘British’ policies that apply to a territory sometime known as ‘England’, and not ‘English policies’.

So the hard truth that I feel I’m perceiving more clearly now is that, for the British political and media establishment, the nation is Britain, and England does not exist: for them, England is merely the historic name for a part of Britain and a (British) cultural identity to which some remain sentimentally attached. England, in sum, is not present: neither ‘real’ in any objective, meaningful sense; nor ‘in the present’ (because it’s part of (British) history); nor represented in national politics (nor needing to be); nor requiring a mention when presenting ‘national’ policies.

Hitherto, my response to what I’ve called in this blog the establishment’s ‘Britology’ (the fabrication of a new British Nation as a sort of fiction: a creation of official and politically sanctioned discourse, language and symbolism) has preceded from the assumption that the ‘real’ nation that the fiction was intended to obfuscate and suppress was England, and that the establishment knew, more or less, what it was doing: a deliberate, politically led suppression of English national identity and pride. I’ve assumed that people generally knew that it was a lie, that they could see through it, and that the embargo of silence imposed on the word ‘England’ was really a conspiracy of silence maintained by all those who stood to gain from it: the established media and political parties.

But now I’m beginning to think that the establishment genuinely believes its own myths: that it’s not so much a case of collusion in the denial of England but shared delusion that England doesn’t exist. I think this is what we’re up against: not just the full weight of British political power but the power of a sort of collective psychosis. That may be too extreme a word to use. But really, I think there’s no alternative other than to conclude that powerful psychological forces such as repression (relegating unpalatable truths to the unconscious mind) are at work here if you are to really understand the systematic way in which all references to England are occulted from official documents, party-political pronouncements and media reports that relate to England alone; and the way that, when challenged, representatives of the organisations in question simply don’t get it: they genuinely don’t appreciate the significance and relevance of the omission of references to England.

Let’s put it this way: those of us who do love and value England, and see ourselves as English, of course think of England as a real nation. Therefore, when we notice that news stories and policies relating to England are presented as if they related to (the whole of) Britain, we think a mistake is being made: a deliberate mistake, intended to mislead, by the parties; and, if we’re being charitable, we think this is an oversight or error of omission on the part of the media for not picking the parties up on it. But if you try to get inside the mindset and assumptions of the Britological establishment, then you realise that they think England isn’t real and doesn’t exist; so that, for them, there are only British policies and stories at ‘national’ level. So saying that some of them relate to ‘England’ isn’t just a slightly irrelevant nicety but actually a non-sequitur: how can policies affect a non-existent country? For them, all policies are ‘British’ and relate only to ‘Britain’.

Devolution, as understood from this position, works like this: ‘all policies of the UK government relate to “Britain”; it’s just that some parts of Britain make their own policies in certain areas’. So ‘Britain’ is the name and identity of the nation, whether you’re talking just of the part (which we like to call England) or the whole. From this point of view, it isn’t deceitful to present policies affecting England only as ‘British’, because there is only Britain.

So I think we’re up against a government and establishment that not only refuses to recognise the right of the English nation to determine its own form of government, but which both refuses and – more profoundly – is incapable of recognising the very existence of an English nation. The new unofficial official map of the United Kingdom, for them, is one of a single, united Nation (‘Britain / the UK’), three parts of which are partially self-governing regions with a distinct national character: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England simply isn’t in the picture.

English nationalists are therefore inevitably not just campaigning for an English parliament but for recognition of England as a nation. Optimistically, you might say that the latter will flow from the former: if we manage to secure an English parliament, this will automatically entail official recognition that England is a distinct nation. But I would tend to put it the other way: we have first to win recognition of England as a nation for an English parliament even to be a realistic option on the table. If the establishment can’t even engage with relatively trivial and obvious complaints about omission of references to England in England-only policies and news reports, how can they be expected to seriously entertain calls for an English parliament? How can you have a parliament for a nation that doesn’t exist?

Maybe things are shifting more than I’m suggesting. It’s just that the wave of recent pre-election policy statements, in which the failure by the parties and media to mention their England-only character has been so gross, has depressed me a bit and made me wonder whether the powers that be will ever change. But it’s possible that change is nonetheless proceeding among the population as a whole and that, despite its inability to engage with any sort of English question, the establishment is getting increasingly isolated in its views from the people, who do think of themselves as English and want a government that cares about England and its needs. Maybe this is indeed the unspoken truth about the outbreak of disaffection towards the political class that was sparked off by the parliamentary-expenses scandal last year: that it reflects not just the ‘British public’s’ demand for a more accountable politics but the outrage of the English people at a British establishment that is pursuing its own agenda and interests without regard to the priorities, values and identity of the English nation. Perhaps England was the unspoken Other of this story, yet again.

So what do we do about the silence towards England that the establishment politicians and media would like to use to consign England to the dustbin of history? Well, the one thing we don’t do, even if tempted to, is fall silent ourselves. We have to keep on speaking out against it and asserting the right of England to be named, and so to exist. Keep on chipping away at the establishment armour – it might prove to be made of fragile porcelain rather than hardened steel.

As for me, I will keep complaining about unjustified omissions of ‘England’ where it should be mentioned, although I might vary the tactics a bit: not just write off to the BBC but consider other avenues, and also just ask them straight out why they chose not to mention that the policies or story in question related only to England? We’ve got to keep on gnawing away at their conscience and inserting ‘England’ into their consciousness, from which they’d rather relegate it.

Remember, apartheid South Africa and the Soviet dominion in Eastern Europe both collapsed at lightening speed after previously seeming as immovable as rocks. And that’s because the rot had set in from within: both systems were predicated on lies and on the denial of people’s right to freedom, democracy and national self-determination. Similarly, if the people continue moving away from the British establishment edifice by identifying as English and demanding a true national-English democracy, then that edifice may prove to be built on foundations of sand, not rock.

I for one, then, will not let England be an unspoken Other.

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.

2 July 2009

Gordon Brown makes the case for an English parliament

In what is, on one level, an astonishingly insulting and complacent article in the Daily Record yesterday, commemorating the tenth anniversary of Scottish devolution, our hapless unelected First Minister unwittingly demonstrates the case for an English parliament. He achieves this feat not only by extolling, as successes of the Scottish parliament, the very things that most embitter the English about their democratic deficit and fiscal inequality compared with the Scots (“free personal care for the elderly, tuition fees, free travel for the elderly and prescription charges”) but by advancing arguments in favour of the Scottish parliament that undermine the very integrity of the Union and can logically be applied to England in just the same way as to Scotland.

For a start, though, the above list of benefits that devolution has secured for Scotland really is rubbing English noses in it – does he not realise that these are the very stuff of English grievances about the Barnett Formula and the lack of an English government accountable to the English people? If he does realise this, then this can only be described as indulging in Anglophobic schadenfreude. Brown has the gall to imply that the absence of such benefits in England reflects a different political culture and national priorities: he calls these policies “Scottish solutions to Scottish issues”, as if they weren’t issues in England and the different policies that apply to England were somehow the expression of England’s democratic choices – whereas we know that top-up fees for English students in particular were passed into law only with the support of Scottish MPs whose constituents are not affected by them.

This law, and the equally unjust fact that elderly persons in England have to meet the cost of their personal care, which is provided free of charge in Scotland (only yesterday the government was proposing a new system where English people only will have to pay into an insurance scheme – effectively, a top-up tax – or else pay a lump sum on retirement to cover the costs of their care in old age), are perfect examples of the kind of “unpopular decisions [that] were made on health, education and policing”, which Brown brings forward as justification for a Scottish parliament.

Well, just because a government’s policies are unpopular, that doesn’t make them illegitimate if the government is properly democratic and accountable. But Brown implies that the policies for Scotland of successive Westminster governments were insufficiently democratic and responsive to the wishes of the Scottish people, and that they were not only bad policies but bad government: “people now often forget . . . how poorly Scotland had been dealt with in the past. People rightly felt frustrated in recent decades as unpopular decisions were made on health, education and policing. Scotland could be governed better. People deserved better”. Well, if this is the case for Scotland, then it is equally valid for England: New Labour’s policies for England only on health, education and policing are not only unpopular with the people they affect but are an instance of deficiently democratic, unaccountable government, with decisions being made for England by Westminster politicians that are not answerable to the English people.

In fact, the situation now is even more unjust than that which applied to the Scots before devolution. At least then, the legislative activity of non-Scottish MPs affecting Scotland was democratically legitimate, as Britain was a fully unitary state at that time; so there was in principle no distinction between Scottish and non-Scottish MPs, as there was just one national government accountable to all the people in the Kingdom. Ironically, though, the fact that Brown singles out these policy areas is indicative of the fact that, in his thinking, Scotland was not an integral part of a unitary kingdom even before devolution.

Ever since the Acts of Union in 1707, Scotland has maintained distinct policies and systems in education and justice; or rather, the Union state has seen fit to allow Scotland to hold on to its different approaches and traditions in these areas. And this in essence is why Brown views the pre-devolution settlement as unfair to Scotland: the differences between Scotland and England in these regards, and with respect to the Kirk (an aspect of Scottish culture that is highly familiar to Brown), are seen as constitutive of a Scottish national identity that is distinct from that of ‘mainstream Britain’ (aka England). Consequently, the Scottish parliament, when it started its work in 1999, was truly Scotland’s ‘own’ parliament precisely because it handed back to the Scots the responsibility for legislating about those aspects of Scottish life that had always remained distinctive and defining of Scottish identity. So it wasn’t so much that devolution opened up a breach in the unitary British state but rather it acknowledged the pre-existing fact of the difference between Scotland and Britain. As Brown says: “For the first time in 300 years, Scotland once again had its own parliament”.

Well, I’m sorry, no: for 300 years (i.e. ever since the Acts of Union), Scotland did have its own parliament – the Union Parliament. If Scotland and England are parts of a genuine Union – two nations merging into one state – then the parliament for that state is the only legitimate parliament for each of those nations. You can’t have it both ways: either Scotland, before devolution, was part of an integral Union, so that devolution brought about something fundamentally new (a distinct Scottish-national polity); or it was never truly integrated into the United Kingdom state, so that Holyrood was in fact the restoration of something that had been lost for 300 years: a properly Scottish parliament. This is clearly how Brown sees it. But if this is the case, it undermines the legitimacy of the Westminster parliament to act as a parliament for England and, indeed, it undermines the foundations of the Union itself. If the Union Parliament’s jurisdiction in properly Scottish domestic matters has never been legitimate – if it has never been ‘Scotland’s own parliament’ – then how can we accept its legitimacy in English domestic policy and legislation? But, more fundamentally, the assertion of a distinct Scottish polity that is said to have continued in a suppressed form throughout the duration of the Union implies that the Union has never been authentic or complete: not the two nations merging to form one but remaining two separate entities merely governed through a common system that did not really belong to either of them – a common-law (indeed, Commons-law) partnership and marriage of convenience, rather than a true marriage of equals on the basis of which there is no longer any distinction between the spouses, who hold everything in common after they are married.

Either that, or the model is that the Westminster parliament – despite being avowedly the parliament for a unitary state – remained fundamentally the English parliament it had historically been, to which Scotland was effectively subordinated through the Union: a situation that the present Scottish parliament remedied. This indeed seems to be the model that Brown adopts with all of his talk about “how poorly Scotland had been dealt with in the past”: as if Scotland were something that the Westminster parliament merely ‘dealt with’ as an object of policy, rather than being a nation that governed its own affairs through the parliament of a Union of which it was an integral part. This model undermines the assumptions of the Union just as much as the idea of Scotland and England remaining separate entities while governed by a common system: in this instance, the Union is merely the political instrument of an English nation that ruled Scotland essentially in its own interests; as opposed to a common structure of government that belonged to neither of the distinct nations.

Well, if the Westminster parliament has always in essence remained the English parliament, let it become an authentic English parliament once more, just as Holyrood, in Brown’s view, is an authentic Scottish parliament: English-elected MPs only making the laws that apply to England; rather than England being ruled, as now, in the interests of the ‘Union’ (i.e. of the devolved nations) by a parliament that is not accountable to the English people. This is a direct reversal of the historical situation that Brown adduces as the justification for creating the present Scottish parliament: a Union parliament (effectively, the proxy of England) ruling Scotland undemocratically in a way that placed the needs of the ‘Union’ above the wishes of the people of Scotland.

But, in such a restored English parliament, there would be no place for unelected (non-English-elected) prime ministers such as Gordon Brown: there would be no opportunity for gravy train-riding Scottish politicians to have their Westminster cake and eat devolved government or, as I would put it, have their own Scottish cake and eat England’s, too. The way Brown puts it, in his article, is: “devolution gives Scotland the best of both worlds”. Well, yes. That statement comes after Brown has reeled off a list of ways in which the fact of being part of a ‘Union’ works to the advantage of Scotland (and very often to the corresponding disadvantage of England), such as: the bail-out of “Scotland’s two main banks” (I thought they were financial institutions vital for the British economy), which “saved thousands of Scottish jobs and protected Scots’ hard-earned savings” (what about the HBOS jobs in Halifax? Well, you see, as the Scots are so hard-working and thrifty, they deserved it more than us spendthrift English); and preferential treatment of Scottish shipyards in defence contracts building two “state-of-the-art aircraft carriers” whose actual benefit for the Armed Forces, in terms of providing capabilities that are needed (as opposed to offering subsidies to Scottish industry), is highly questionable.

And that’s to say nothing of “the [Scottish] parliament’s £35billion annual budget” that enables Scottish people – good luck to them – to enjoy 20% higher levels of per-capita public expenditure than the English: those free university and personal-care places being subsidised by the lack of them in England. No wonder that Brown affirms, towards the end of this homily to Scottish self-interest, that “I’m proud that this Government [i.e. the UK government] has never stopped focusing on delivering for the Scottish people”.

Well, perhaps it’s time we had an English government that would focus a bit more on delivering for the English people. And we know who wouldn’t be in charge of it.

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?

8 March 2009

Stillbirths and Neonatal Deaths: Ten Years of Devolution, Ten Years Of Failings

I first came across this story on the BBC News website on Wednesday morning last week. According to the report: “The number of stillbirths and deaths shortly after birth remains stubbornly high, claiming 17 babies every day on average in the UK, a report reveals. Every year in the UK nearly 4,000 babies are stillborn and another 2,500 die within four weeks. The stillbirth rate has not changed for a decade.”

The article then went on to quote a comment from the “Department of Health in England”, saying “there had been an increase in midwives and consultant obstetricians, and increased investment in the field”. This combination of statistics supposedly relating to ‘the UK’ and reaction from the DoH England [give them their due, the BBC do now more consistently make it clear when a UK government department has England-only responsibilities] immediately registered on my Britology radar: ‘are these UK figures actually England-only figures?’, I asked myself. Otherwise, why gauge reaction only from the English department concerned without any further comment relating to the rest of the UK? Such a practice usually is code for England-only information passing under the generic UK / Britain label.

The report about stillbirths and neonatal deaths was produced by the charitable society of the same name, the Stillbirths and Neonatal Deaths Society, or ‘Sands’. In fact, the document was due to be launched at the House of Commons later the same day, so it was not yet available for download. I scoured the Sands website in vain for information about whether the research and the activities of the charity were focused on England only or on the whole of the UK. The website talked only of UK-wide facts and figures, and in fact, it did not mention the word ‘England’ once anywhere. After more extended web research, I did manage to confirm that Sands is the established UK-wide charity organising emotional support and raising funds for research on the topic.

Later on in the day, I caught the BBC1 lunchtime news, where there was a more extended version of the report than had appeared on the BBC News website. This was an absolute masterpiece of ambiguity, which managed to completely avoid mentioning whether the Sands report related to England or to the whole of the UK, failing to (or perhaps succeeding in not) utter(ing) any of the words ‘England / English’, ‘Britain / Britain’ or ‘UK’. Any casual viewer would undoubtedly have been left with the impression that the information related to the whole of the UK; but this was never explicitly stated, even though Sands was calling for a ‘national’ [by implication, UK-wide] action plan to reduce the number of stillbirths and deaths in early infancy.

By now, I was getting really intrigued, and really frustrated. ‘Does the Sands report relate to England only or not; and if it does, why do they seem to want to suppress this fact rather than drawing comparisons between the situation in England and elsewhere in the UK, which would almost certainly be more embarrassing to the government?’, I wondered. I checked the Sands website in the evening – and still no report available to download. I was so irritated that I fired off the following email to the organisation:

“Dear Ms Duff [Sands’ Communications Officer],

“I followed with interest the press coverage today surrounding the launch of your Saving Babies’ Lives report. Will this report be available for download from your website soon?

“I am also interested to know whether its findings and recommendations relate to the whole of the UK or to England only, as the UK government and the Department of Health are responsible for healthcare and the NHS in England only. The media coverage (e.g. on the BBC1 lunchtime news) was somewhat unclear on this point. On your own website, you call for a nationally co-ordinated action plan (implying across the UK). But clearly, the government can only really co-ordinate all the measures required to reduce the number of stillbirths and neonatal deaths in England – unless your report recommends some sort of high-level, UK-wide co-ordination involving the participation of the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“I look forward to your reply.”

I don’t know whether this letter was viewed as a nuisance or irrelevance, or whether they were just plain too busy, but I haven’t yet received a response. In fact, it may well have been too close to the bone, as became evident when the report did finally appear on the website on Thursday and I was able to download it.

This is where I have to throw in a disclaimer. In some respects, I’m reluctant to critique this report, which is full of heart-breaking pictures of would-have-been parents cradling their stillborn infants, and desperate accounts of the devastating effect that stillbirths and neonatal deaths have on individuals and families. I’m not blaming Sands for the approach they’re taking, which is completely consistent and conscientious. I blame the UK-cum-de facto-English government and the effects of poorly managed, asymmetric devolution. So, as they say, the views expressed in this post are mine and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Sands.

Apart from all the detailed data on stillbirths and mortality in early infancy, and the recommendations for alleviating the situation, a clear underlying message that emerges from the Sands report, for me, is that the failure to reduce the incidence of these traumatic events is closely connected with asymmetric devolution. Sands don’t spell this out because they want to encourage government to develop a co-ordinated cross-UK strategy and set of policies that strongly prioritise the issue. Hence, their tactic appears to be that of taking the moral high ground and arguing that this is such a critical social issue (responsible for far more deaths, for instance, than road accidents or cot death) that the government should rise above the political obstacles and start dealing with it.

But the political barriers are evidently key. As the report itself says:

“In the UK a combination of problems means we fail to identify many babies who are at risk, and to ensure their best possible chance of life:

• We lack knowledge, data and research into why babies die.

• We have no reliable way to predict which pregnancies are at risk of stillbirth or death early in life.

• There is little awareness of the extent of the problem or what the risks are.

• We don’t have the resources in maternity care to ensure optimal care for every baby.

Above all there is no political will to make things change [my emphasis].”

Why is there no political will to make things change? The problem, it seems to me, is twofold:

  1. The UK government – which is the primary intended audience for this report – lacks the political will and, more importantly, the political muscle and power to co-ordinate and implement a UK-wide strategy in this area. Post-devolution, the remit of the UK Department of Health stops at the borders between England and Scotland, and England and Wales. And there’s been a failure, precisely, to develop mechanisms to co-ordinate strategy, share knowledge and implement best practice in areas of social policy, including healthcare and the (four) NHS(‘s), across the four nations of the UK. (See my discussion of this elsewhere.) And this sort of co-ordination is especially critical with respect to stillbirths and neonatal deaths, according to the Sands report.
  2. The UK government has even been unwilling to own and embrace its responsibilities to formulate priorities and develop social policies for England as England, and has tended to wash its hands of its duties as the de facto English government by passing on or outsourcing the setting of healthcare priorities to Primary Care Trusts and an increasingly marketised healthcare sector. This has also resulted in a failure to set adequate priorities and co-ordinate measures to deal with stillbirths and deaths in early infancy, as emerges from the report; although Sands does not link this explicitly to the contrast between the situation in England and the devolved UK nations.

One area where the government could co-ordinate action at a UK-wide level, and which is vital according to Sands, is in research into the causes of stillbirths and neonatal deaths. As the report says, “A serious lack of direct funding for scientific research to understand and prevent stillbirths is holding back progress that could be made in reducing the numbers of deaths”. Scientific research is a reserved power, so the UK government could directly fund research in this area; and Sands is calling on the government to match the £3 million it is raising for this purpose. £3 million: absolute peanuts compared with the billions the government is pumping into the banking sector. But, as I said in that previous discussion, as the UK government has retained the responsibility for managing the economy but not the ability to formulate joined-up social policy throughout the UK, it tends to prioritise the economic over the social: in England, that is, as the devolved administrations do have a social vision for their respective nations.

Indeed, one of the problems about a direct-funded research programme is that it has to be underpinned by co-ordinated cross-UK data gathering. As the Sands report says in its next recommendation: “Data collection on pregnancies is limited in the UK, the exception being in Scotland. We need nationally collated, detailed and standardised data about all pregnancies and outcomes on which to base research”. Well, yes, that says it all, doesn’t it? In fact, before devolution, there was a ‘national’ (i.e. UK-wide) programme for gathering data on the issue, called CESDI: Confidential Enquiry into Stillbirth and Deaths in Infancy. But, as the report indicates, “these enquiries have stopped since the formation of the Confidential Enquiries into Maternal and Child Health (CEMACH) which has less funding to cover a far wider remit of work. We would like to see resources to enable a return to enquiries into all stillbirths, in particular those which are unexplained”.

The last CESDI report was published in 2001; and from 2003, its work was taken over by CEMACH, which looks into maternal and childhood deaths (up to the age of 16) alongside perinatal and neonatal mortality – and does in fact have a much smaller budget than did CESDI alone. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, that is. In Scotland, on the other hand, as the report reiterates elsewhere, “detailed information about pregnancies and outcomes is available”. Why? Because the CEMACH work in Scotland is separately funded by a body known as NHS Quality Improvement Scotland (NHS QIS), which in fact will be taking over the whole CEMACH survey in Scotland from October of this year. (I add that this particular gem of information is not contained in the Sands report; I trawled it up from the CEMACH website.)

So let’s summarise. Research in Scotland is still focused on the specific problems of stillbirth and neonatal deaths; it enjoys superior funding to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which are dependent on the CEMACH process; and until as recently as 2007, the CEMACH survey was also using a flawed methodology. As Sands informs us: “From 2007 CEMACH has adapted [the Wigglesworth] classification system to address its widely recognised limitations, particularly in gathering information about conditions associated with a death”. On top of this, the Scottish NHS is abandoning the CEMACH process altogether from later this year. And no political will exists to sort out these disparities and ensure that rigorous data gathering of the kind that still takes place in Scotland is co-ordinated across the UK. Surprise, surprise.

A similar lack of political will seems to prevail with respect to ensuring the dissemination of best clinical practice. For example, the report states: “The Royal College of Nursing and other stakeholders are currently working on a UK-wide framework for the education and training of neonatal nurses. But this framework must be adopted in order to be effective”. Well, clearly, there has to be the ‘political will’ to standardise processes and share knowledge across the four national NHS organisations. And there would have to be a commitment to make the necessary investments to raise standards, which would be particularly costly throughout England, whereas this is easier to achieve in Scotland owing to its smaller scale and higher per-capita level of public expenditure, guaranteed through the Barnett Formula. I’m reading between the lines here; but it stands to reason that if there were enough political will to introduce the improved training framework in England, then there would be no problem about standardising it across the other UK countries owing to their higher proportionate share of the public finances. So the issue must be that the government is unwilling to spend the extra money in England (with the Barnett consequential of even greater expenditure in the other countries), while the devolved administrations presently do have the financial and political latitude to roll out improvements in this area.

And evidently, to judge from the Sands report, these improvements are desperately needed. At times, the report reads like a catalogue of failure to learn from avoidable mistakes in antenatal care, childbirth and neonatal intensive care, resulting in babies continuing to die unnecessarily from the same causes. And there is not just a failure to disseminate best practice, share knowledge and prioritise the issue but also a lack of resources: insufficient antenatal healthcare personnel, such as midwives and other specialists, who might be able to help detect problems earlier on in pregnancy; inadequate staffing levels in intensive-care units for premature babies, such that only 14 out of 50 of such units ‘in the UK’ are able to provide the one-to-one nursing care that the British Association of Perinatal Medicine (BAPM) regards as a minimum standard.

The fact that the statistics are aggregated across the whole of the UK in this way is one of the shortcomings of the Sands report. This prevents one from being able to gauge whether the problems are significantly worse in England than in the other UK countries, which would be linked to the funding inequalities and strategic issues (lack of UK-government focus on this as a serious social issue in England) resulting from asymmetric devolution. I have no way of knowing how many of those 14 under-resourced intensive-care units are located in England; but I’d be willing to bet that none of them are in Scotland. It has to be said that all the specific examples of bad practice and inadequate resourcing, and all of the references in the body of the report to comments from clinical experts or to other reports on the issue, are drawn from England.

Another aspect of this topic that is exclusive to England is the way that the processes of funding the NHS contribute to the inadequate priority and insufficient resourcing that are given to stillbirths and neonatal deaths. These are described by the report as follows:

“Newly implemented commissioning structures between the Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) and hospital trusts have been evolving to meet new government structures. While this brings more focus to what is required from maternity services in each hospital, contracts may omit any proactive remit to reduce perinatal deaths. An issue that is not highlighted in a contract for funds is less likely to attract specific focus or resources.

“As the contracts come into place hospitals can negotiate additional funds for posts or for focus as they see fit. However, many hospitals see contract negotiations as being driven by the PCTs and only a few have seen the opportunities provided by being able to focus on local issues.

Tariffs

“It is unclear what is or is not included in the tariffs paid to trusts for obstetric services, with a great deal of room for interpretation on whether or not tariffs have been adjusted to allow for the funding of quality improvements. For neonatal care there is no nationally mandated funding system and health economies are left to make their own local arrangements which leads to an inevitable variability in the level of care provided.”

What the report doesn’t state explicitly at this point is that these funding mechanisms that have evolved to meet ‘new government structures’ and this lack of a ‘nationally mandated funding system’ for neonatal care exist in England only; as it is only in England that the government is still calling the shots when it comes to NHS funding and healthcare priorities. The system described above has been developed deliberately to allow a greater role for market forces, with individual hospital trusts competing for funding from PCTs based on their proven record to meet government targets and treat larger numbers of patients with different types of medical need. What this leads to is the creation of centres of excellence and a concentration of investment in particular ‘generic’ areas (such as maternity services, as described here), which can then more successfully bid for funding. But this means that certain specialisations within those generic areas (such as neonatal care) are not prioritised in a strategic way, as the focus is more on generating a critical mass in more ‘fashionable’, headline-grabbing areas of care that can attract funding in a bidding war, rather than on actual clinical and social need: in this case, more resources for preventing and dealing with stillbirths and neonatal deaths. By contrast, as is evident from the dedicated resources allocated to the issue at a national level through NHS Quality Improvement Scotland (referred to above), stillbirths and neonatal deaths are a nation-wide NHS priority in Scotland.

Conclusion

For me, one of the things that emerges clearly from the picture of failure painted by the Sands report is a demonstration of the harmful consequences of asymmetric devolution. No progress has been made in improving clinical outcomes in ten years: the ten years during which devolution of healthcare has been in place, with different systems, and levels and mechanisms of funding, in place in each of the UK’s four nations. This has led to an absence of strategic UK-wide focus on stillbirths and neonatal deaths, with the consequence that there has been inadequate funding of scientific research, and a failure to disseminate best practice and drive through better training of specialist nursing staff. This is clearly linked to the funding inequalities built in to the asymmetric devolution settlement. The report cites Scotland as the only example of adequate data gathering on the causes of stillbirths and neonatal deaths, after the successful pre-devolution information-gathering process (CESDI) was abandoned in favour of a more poorly funded and less specifically focused system (CEMACH) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (but not Scotland) under the auspices of the infamous NICE (National – e.g. English – Institute for Clinical Excellence).

Meanwhile, there has been a lack of strategic focus on the issue in England, which in my view is linked to a general unwillingness on the part of the UK government to assume its responsibilities as the de facto English government in most areas of social policy, including the NHS. Instead, funding and prioritisation in England has been left in the hands of PCTs as part of a process designed to foster the development of a competitive healthcare market within the NHS. But, as we know, markets lead to winners and losers, and stillbirths and neonatal deaths have lost out to more market-friendly areas of obstetric and paediatric medicine where it is easier to demonstrate a return (improved patient outcomes) on investment, compared with the difficulties in making gains in stillbirths and neonatal deaths, where the causes of mortality are still often a mystery. But unless the resources are devoted to greater research and improved clinical care in this area, no improvements will ever take place.

Where I take issue with the Sands report is with its tactic of treating the issue purely at a UK-wide level, without differentiating between the nation-specific circumstances that are contributing to the ‘postcode lottery’ of varying standards of care and prioritisation throughout the UK. The report correctly identifies that the political dimension is key. And one absolutely fundamental aspect of this is that the UK government, in this area as in so many other aspects of healthcare, is unwilling to commit the levels of investment and to prioritise the issue at a national level (that is, an England- and hence UK-wide level) in the same way that it is prepared to enable the devolved governments to do so on a more limited scale. The pattern is: cut expenditure in England, and hand the thing over to the market as a supposedly more efficient way to deliver healthcare in line with patient customer demand, in order to release higher levels of funding on a smaller scale for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Until these structural and national inequalities are removed, there can be no integrated UK-wide strategy for beginning to reduce the number of stillbirths and neonatal deaths. Perhaps we may never be able to reinstate a coherent UK-wide strategy in this area given the lack of political will to reform the present asymmetric devolution settlement. But the government at least has a duty to drive a strategy on stillbirths and neonatal deaths for England. However, I doubt this will ever happen until there is a proper elected English government, genuinely accountable to the English people.

6 February 2009

A Tale of Two Nations, or the grit is always greater on the other side

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. To the north of the border, the citizens were protected from the worst effects of the gathering storms. The provisions were as plentiful as an RBS senior executive’s bonuses – in good times and in bad. The difference was really not that great up there, in any case.

South of the border, by contrast, things were slowing down so much they were grinding to a halt. The climate had deteriorated to such an extent that workplaces and schools were shut down; and people were in any case unable to get to them, even if they were still employing the locals. There was nothing for it but to head into the streets and the parks, and fight it out.

And that’s only talking about the weather, the grit and the snowball fights! Yes, we’ve shown true Brit grit this week, even – or especially – where the grit has run out. Desperate folk have still battled their way into work (there is, after all, a lot of job insecurity about) and have ensured that the essential services kept running; apart from one or two refineries and power stations that we’ll talk about elsewhere, perhaps. Where necessary, selfless individuals have gone out into the bleak conditions on their own initiative to help pull cars out of snow drifts, and bring comfort and relief to stranded motorists. Whole communities have rallied round and shown their best side, providing emergency accommodation to those who were caught out unprepared. It’s the blitz spirit all over again; except this time, perhaps we should call it the ‘blizzard spirit’.

Where have these epic tales of dire emergency, valiant rescue and communal cheer been played out? Where indeed? The media, whose staff miraculously managed to make it into work this week (again, keeping those ‘essential’ services going), would have you believe it was in some place known as ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’. ‘All across the UK’ they chimed, and ‘across the eastern parts of the UK’ they echoed. By my reckoning, though, almost all the places mentioned were in England, with a few incidental allusions to parts of Wales and Northern Ireland. But 95% of it has referred to England. Not one mention of Scotland until this evening; it appears that the poor climate may finally have caught up with them there, too, after all.

OK, not even I can try to lay blame for the relatively clement weather in Scotland on asymmetric devolution and the Barnett Formula, tempting though that might be in a bloody-minded sort of way. But I do blame these things for the way the weather was reported and, more importantly, for the way the media has dealt with the right-royal English farce of our being once again unprepared for wintry weather and running out of grit, of all things.

Yes, it’s an English farce, not a British one – just as the snow has fallen mostly on England and hardly at all on Scotland. Or rather, it’s a farce that has unfolded in England but been orchestrated by the (English) Department of Transport. I listened with not inconsiderable schadenfreude this evening to the report on BBC Radio Four’s PM programme on the too-little-too-late efforts of the “English Transport Secretary” to co-ordinate the distribution of the English counties’ dwindling reserves of gritting salt amongst themselves, with those that had more supplies sharing them out with the less well provisioned areas. Yes, they actually described the hapless minister as ‘English’, which I notice that the PM programme now does regularly when referring to a UK-government minister whose portfolio is limited to England, owing to devolution. Well done, BBC – you’ll be calling yourself the English BBC next!

What a fiasco that the English counties should be having to ration their gritting operations precisely as winter is winding up to its climax because the English government-that-isn’t-a-government-for-England has neglected to put in place proper processes and supplies to deal with all contingencies. Ah, rationing – that blitz spirit again!

But why, I asked myself, aren’t the English counties looking to their northern-British ‘compatriots’ who, we learnt earlier this week, have absolutely plentiful supplies of grit as well as armies of gritters on stand-by should they be needed. Needed in Scotland, that is. Oh yes, there’s no danger of them running out of grit up there! Why? Because they have a national government that is genuinely accountable to the people and who can, and would, be voted out if they endangered people’s lives and let everything grind to a halt because they neglected their duty to prepare for severe weather conditions. And because, thanks to the generosity of the English taxpayer, they have more of a budget for that sort of thing.

Well, after all, the Barnett Formula is about ‘need’, isn’t it; and, in respect to snow and ice, the needs of Scotland are undoubtedly greater, aren’t they? Usually, maybe; but not this time. So, given that the English counties are in danger of running out of grit, and their teams of gritter drivers were in danger of collapsing with exhaustion at their wheels, why didn’t we hear of generous blitz-spirited offers of grit and gritters from the Scottish counties to their English counterparts? Even if they wanted paying for them, which would have been a bit like paying for them twice over, quite frankly.

Well, it’s a different system, you see; and a different country. Why should one country whose government has taken the necessary precautions sacrifice its own precious resources to help out another whose government (or what passes as it) has neglected its duties? Why indeed? You can see their point.

But the media can’t, apparently. For the media, it was a time of extreme weather for all of Britain; and they made no reference to any idea of English counties borrowing or purchasing salt from the Scottish or Welsh ones that weren’t in danger of running out – though that fact was also not generally reported. No, the media was about as blind to the devolutionary aspects of the gritting crisis as were those English motorists battling their way to work and home through the drifting snow. Well, we don’t want the people of England becoming too aware of the superior provisions made by the respective governments of Scotland and Wales – backed by English taxpayer pounds – compared to the negligence towards England of the English UK government. Better to turn a blind eye to it.

Now that reminds me of someone! Idiot he isn’t; Scottish he most certainly is. And blind to the injustices his unelected English government heaps upon the English people like a snowstorm coming in from the continent of Europe, while the Scottish people yet enjoy good times at their expense.

Are we sure it wasn’t a snowball that blinded him in one eye: the one pointing towards England, that is? Well, at least I know who I’d like to chuck my snowballs at!

1 February 2009

Care for women victims of violence: the real gap in provision the EHRC ignores

Trevor Philips, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) he chairs, were in the news again on Friday. Mr Philips was threatening to take legal action against local authorities that fail to convince the Commission that they have adequate plans to redress their insufficient, or totally absent, provision of services for women who have been victims of violence or sexual assault. If the EHRC’s figures are reliable – and they do seem to have been quite thorough in their research – then the absence of provision in some parts of ‘the country’ are indeed truly deplorable: nearly one in four local authorities in Britain with no specialised support services at all.

What the EHRC and the media reporting on Mr Philips’ declaration of intent yesterday did not emphasise, however, is that the gaps in funding and provision exist almost entirely in England and, to a lesser extent, Wales. Why is this? Because, as it says almost at the end of the EHRC’s press release: “In Scotland, the Government has extended provision through a national Violence Against Women fund for over five years”.

Why should ‘the Government’ create a ‘national Violence Against Women fund’ in Scotland while no such provision exists in England or Wales? Rhetorical question, of course; because this is not in fact referring to the UK government, as you could be forgiven for thinking, but the Scottish government. So the EHRC’s criticisms are not in fact directed at local authorities throughout the UK, because Scotland is performing significantly better. Why? Because in Scotland, they have a devolved government that has made the provision of care for women victims of violence a national priority. And it doubtless helps that Scotland has superior funding to back this up through the higher per-capita public spending guaranteed by the Barnett Formula.

The fact that the EHRC itself believes that the ability to deliver an adequate level of provision in this area results from its being set as a national priority is evident from what the EHRC’s press release goes on to say about the Scottish fund: “But this fund is now at risk since some of the work previously ringfenced has been lost because of delegation of responsibility for part of the fund to local authorities, a system which, as this year’s report shows, isn’t working for victims of violence in the rest of Britain”.

Well, yes; so if the problem in the ‘rest of Britain’ is the delegation of responsibility to local authorities, doesn’t this logically imply that the EHRC’s criticism and actions should be directed against the national English government, which should be taking ownership of the issue and driving the improvements – as has the national Scottish government – and not against the local authorities Mr Philips is now menacing with his clunking fist? But there’s a problem with that, of course: there is no national English government. Consequently, there is no government department, or combination of departments, specifically tasked with looking after the welfare and rights of English women victims of violence; no English government, answerable to the English electorate, that has the needs and situation of English women sufficiently at heart that it takes responsibility for ensuring that their human rights are looked after and that the local authorities of England do their job in this area. And one of the reasons why English local authorities are failing to a greater extent than their Scottish counterparts is that they receive less funding for the job.

But you wouldn’t know that from the EHRC press release, from the media interviews with Trevor Philips on Friday or from the wider media coverage. The funding and political inequalities between Scotland and England were never once mentioned as a possible factor in the variations in provision. Instead, the EHRC press release talks of a “postcode lottery” of inconsistent services throughout Britain – a phrase which is increasingly used nowadays to gloss over the primary discrepancy in public-service provision in the UK, which is that between England and the other UK nations.

In fact, the press release revealingly uses the phrase “regional postcode lottery”. This refers to a map of differential provision throughout Great Britain (the ‘map of gaps’) that has been drawn up by the EHRC in partnership with the charity grouping End Violence Against Women (EVAW), in which Great Britain has been divided up into 11 ‘regions’ – two of the ‘regions’ being Scotland and Wales. So it’s not a regional postcode lottery, as such; but a lottery of superior provision in the nations of Scotland and Wales compared with (the regions of) England.

This map is interactive; and you can indeed search for the provision in your local area by individual postcode. However, you can also search the availability of different types of care for women victims of violence across the whole of Great Britain, with colour coding indicating the number of individual services that are available in the local authorities concerned. In the generic category, ‘violence against women services’, all of the red-coded areas (no provision) are in England: no red in either Scotland or Wales.

If you click through all the sub-categories, the only ones where Scotland and Wales are predominantly coloured red are where England is mostly red, too; e.g. ‘services for black minority ethnic women’ or ‘specialist domestic violence courts’.

Indeed, the section of the map of gaps site entitled ‘Postcode Lottery’ gives the whole game away. It states “Over a quarter of local authorities in GB offer no specialised service at all”. Then, at the end of a set of bullet points on the key findings of the EHRC / EVAW research, it says: “All Local Authorities in Wales and Scotland have at least one service but 30% (109) in England have no service”. QED: the ‘quarter of local authorities in GB’ with no specialised service are the same local authorities as the 30% of English ones with no service, because every single authority in Scotland and Wales has at least one service. And that’s why there’s no red colouring on the ‘regional’ map for Scotland and Wales under the search term ‘violence against women services’.

This is the real news story and the real scandal of inadequate care to vulnerable women that the media totally failed to pick up on on Friday. I first spotted the story in the print version of the Guardian, where there was nothing to indicate that the local authorities with serious deficiencies were almost all located in England until some way into the report, where it referred to the EHRC report’s statistics about provision in England and Wales – Wales being included because it is lacking in certain types of care, such as rape crisis centres. The rat that I was already smelling positively stank me out when I watched the Channel 4 News report where, again, no mention was made of the fact that England was the only UK country where there were local authorities without any form of provision – despite the fact that they showed the ‘map of gaps’ (as above), with red bits only in England. And the Channel 4 report mentioned that the best-performing local authority in ‘Britain’ was Glasgow – surprise, surprise. Could the reason for this just perhaps be because it was a Scottish local authority, benefiting from superior funding and the political backing of the Scottish government, which appeared to be the reason why there were no red bits on the Scottish part of the map?

But, as I said above, the specifically English dimension of deficient provision simply wasn’t on the EHRC’s radar. Or perhaps, rather, it was being deliberately obfuscated in the usual way: by referring to everything as ‘Britain’ this and ‘the country’ that; ‘regional’ and postcode lotteries, not national. What interest would the EHRC have in obscuring the real economic and political issue here? After all, as an organisation, it’s supposed to have a UK-wide remit and should therefore be concerned to get to the bottom of any obvious apparent nationwide pattern of inequality and discrimination, no matter how politically awkward this might be.

Well, in theory, yes; but the UK government pays the EHRC’s wages and is its political master. In order to truly do justice to the inconsistencies in levels of provision across the different nations of the UK, the EHRC would have almost no alternative other than to point out that a major factor – perhaps the most fundamental one of all – is asymmetric devolution coupled with funding inequalities affecting the UK’s nations. They would have to emphasise that, whereas Scotland and Wales have national governments that have made the issue a priority, England is governed by the UK government that does not see it as part of its role to develop social policy specifically for England and to meet the needs of the English people as such. Hence, that government has delegated responsibility in the area of care for women victims of violence to local authorities – an approach which the EHRC itself says results in inadequate prioritisation and channelling of resources. Resources which are in any case more limited in England because of the funding disparities.

So the EHRC ought to be directing its fire against the UK government that is providing such inadequate and unequal care for the women of England – as it is for the people of England as a whole in so many other areas. But that would be too difficult, too likely to incur the wrath of its UK-government masters and threaten its ‘independence’. And so Trevor Philips’ imperious anger is directed at the English local authorities as an easier target: one which enables the blame that should be aimed at the UK government to be deflected, so the EHRC can be seen to be doing something while not getting to the real root of the problem – the fact that England itself is the victim of structural discrimination, resulting in lack of care towards its people’s needs and unequal treatment compared with the other UK nations.

Until the EHRC addresses this most egregious of violations of the principles of equality and human rights within the UK, it cannot have the credibility that it deserves as a defender of the rights of vulnerable people. In fact, rather than the EHRC threatening legal action against inadequately funded and politically unsupported English local authorities, it seems to me that the EHRC itself would be a suitable candidate for legal action. In this instance, at least, it is failing in its statutory duty to defend the principles of equality and human rights for all in the UK without discrimination. And English women are the losers as a result.

Email of protest sent to EHRC (info@equalityhumanrights.com) – feel free to borrow it or the arguments above if you want to write, too:

“Dear Madam or Sir,

“I am writing to express my dismay at the failure of the EHRC and the media to address one of the most fundamental aspects of the question of inadequate provision of care for women victims of violence, which was the subject of prominent media coverage last Friday.

“It was completely obvious to me – and therefore must have been evident to thousands of others – that the local authorities with no provision at all were all located in England; while Scotland was the best-performing ‘region’. This is, as the EHRC’s press release itself acknowledges, because the (Scottish) government has made the issue a priority. There is also the additional fact that a higher per-capita level of public funding is available to the Scottish government on this issue, as on many others, owing to the inequalities of the Barnett Formula.

“This aspect of the question was barely touched upon in the media coverage; nor is it addressed in the EHRC’s own material on your website. However, it is fundamental to any consideration of inequalities and discrimination in social-service provision in the UK. England is discriminated against in two respects here: 1) no national government to drive the issue, as in Scotland and Wales (a key factor in the superior provision in Scotland, according to the EHRC itself); and 2) inferior funding.

“Instead of bullying and threatening the English local authorities over this issue, the EHRC should direct its fire at the UK government that is failing the English people by not exercising its responsibility to set policy and priorities in England – as there is no England-specific government to do this equivalent to those in Scotland and Wales. In fact, the EHRC itself should perhaps be the object of legal action, as it is failing to defend the people of England against the political and financial discrimination of which it is a victim at the hands of the UK government and as a result of asymmetric devolution. And, as inadequate provision of care for vulnerable women is a direct consequence of this structural discrimination, the EHRC as much as English local authorities are to blame for the present deficiencies so long as you persist in not calling the UK government to account.”

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.