Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

29 June 2015

British values, English society and Islam

Recent examples of, and thinking about, young ‘British-Asian’ Muslims who have been radicalised, and gone to fight and die in Syria or Iraq, have suggested that one of the main reasons for their actions is the need for a stronger sense of identity and belonging. The young people in question are said to feel isolated from and rejected by ‘British’ society, being cast as ‘Pakistani’, for instance, even if they are from a second- or third-generation ‘immigrant’ background, i.e. they were born here. But if they go to visit their families in Pakistan, they are frequently dismissed as ‘English’. So they feel they neither belong in Britain nor in Pakistan.

Joining extremist Islamist organisations such as IS, so the argument goes, makes these young people feel as though they belong to a greater community and movement, and indeed to a ‘state’: a trans-national ‘caliphate’ that serves a higher purpose and unity than existing, established nation states, and which in turn enables them to justify treasonous and violent acts against those states, whether the UK, Syria or Iraq.

Media and political commentary frequently articulates astonishment and dismay that such people could have so comprehensively rejected ‘British values’, as if it were obvious what these values are and that every British citizen should automatically subscribe to them. Attempts to enumerate these values usually include general qualities such as tolerance, respect for the rule of law, a sense of fair play, civic liberties, and non-discrimination along the lines of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or creed.

How could such youngsters, who’ve enjoyed the benefits of a society that embodies these values during their upbringing, turn their backs on that society and seek to destroy it? By implication, those minority-ethnic young Muslims should jolly well be grateful that they’ve enjoyed the benefits of British tolerance, law, fairness, and protection for their freedoms and minority rights, and should be grateful for what this country has given them, not turn against it.

But such an assessment of the phenomenon seems grossly incommensurate to the scale and nature of what those youngsters are embracing: not just an adolescent-type rejection of their parents’ decent values and moderate lifestyles, but a movement that actually celebrates barbarity, genocide, philistinism, and the rape and enslavement of women in the name of a self-consciously medieval reinterpretation of Islam. ‘Sorry, mum and dad, I reject your “British values” as inconsistent with Islam; and so I’m going to go and behead people who disagree with my interpretation of Islam, and commit sundry acts of slaughter, rape and pillage for the glory of Allah’. Or, ‘sorry, mum and dad, I don’t want to be married to a nice respectable Bradford small business owner, so I’m going to hitch myself to a psychopathic IS warrior and become his chattel for ever more’. This just doesn’t seem to add up, which is why it leaves the commentators flummoxed.

Perhaps the problem is in part the very ‘British-Asian’ identity that’s being offered to such young people: a hybrid, schizoid identity that is neither fully British nor fully Pakistani (or Bangladeshi, for example). This certainly does not denote an integrally Muslim identity, let alone a ‘British-Muslim’ or, dare I say it, even an ‘English-Muslim’ identity. One of the motivations for these young people, clearly, is that they are seeking an identity and sense of belonging that have a religious (i.e. Islamic) foundation; and, at the same time, they evidently don’t feel they belong in English society. I say ‘English’, rather than ‘British’, deliberately: the Muslims we hear about in the news invariably come from English cities and, as far as I know, there isn’t much of a problem of radicalisation of Scottish Muslims.

So the young people in question wish to affirm their identity as Muslims, over and above their merely British nationality or citizenship, and over and above their ‘Asian’ ethnicity. And, at the same time, they’ve grown up feeling alienated and estranged from the modern English society and communities around them, which are also increasingly secular and irreligious.

The solution, it seems to me, is to seek to foster the inclusion of Islam within English society, as opposed to the adoption of ‘British values’ by, or the imposition of those values on, Muslims living in England, as the latter approach merely partakes of the alienation and non- or counter-Islamic narrative those young Muslims are reacting against. At the same time, the adoption of an increasingly English identity by Muslim communities in England is what would really help overcome their alienation from British identity. This is because once you are, and are accepted as, English, then you truly become an integral part of the British political and cultural landscape in a way that mere acquisition of British nationality or citizenship cannot bring about.

What would such an ‘English Islam’ mean? It certainly doesn’t mean the ‘islamisation’ of England, as some people fear. What I’m thinking of is an opening up of Muslim communities to English civic society, and an embracing of Muslim communities and individuals by English civic society.

For example, Muslim communities and mosques could get involved in existing English community activities and charitable events, or create new ones open to all comers and benefiting the whole community, along typically English lines. These could include things like jumble sales, fêtes, sponsored runs, charity fundraising events, voluntary work, charity shops, etc. Conversely, Muslim communities could be invited to participate in such activities organised by churches or non-church community groups and organisations. In the light of the terrible atrocities being perpetrated by organisations such as IS in the name of Islam, it is sometimes hard to accept the proposition that Islam is a religion of peace and charity. Getting involved in ‘English’ charitable activities and events would be a powerful way to enact that truer form of Islam and demonstrate a counter-narrative to IS.

Similarly, churches and mosques should invite each other’s members to experience their worship and community life, and learn about each other’s faith, as guests. This doesn’t mean being made to participate in the other religion’s acts of worship and other observances, but rather it involves witnessing, and witnessing to, each other’s faith, religious practices and communities. This could only help build a deeper and more affectionate sense of mutual understanding and belonging in a shared community (beyond the narrow confines of each other’s churches or mosques), to which both faiths have a duty of care as fellow servants of the one true God.

It could well be that, as a result of such an extending of the hand of friendship across the religious divide, some Christians might convert to Islam. But equally, some Muslims could be drawn to Christian faith. That’s a challenge that would test the friendship and co-operation between the faith communities. But in resolving those tensions, a more solid and enduring mutual acceptance would surely be forged. In any case, Christian and secular English communities will either have to draw closer to the Muslims in their midst, or the present divisions and mutual distrust will continue to fester and generate recruits for IS. There is, ultimately, no positive alternative to this coming together of English and Muslim communities in a shared, renewed and plural Englishness. And at the same time, it is in reality a religious obligation for both Christians and Muslims to extend that hand of friendship to brethren beyond the church or mosque wall.

Similarly, I would say that Christian and Muslim schools should be open to children from Muslim and Christian backgrounds respectively, and indeed to children from any religious or non-religious background. Indeed, I wonder whether there shouldn’t be quotas to ensure the multi-faith composition of all such schools with, perhaps, 50% drawn from the religion or denomination to which the school claims to belong, with the other 50% representing roughly the religious / non-religious make-up of the remainder of the school’s local community.

The schools’ assemblies and other events should also reflect this diversity with, say, Muslim schools putting on nativity plays and Christmas carol concerts ahead of the Christmas holiday, alongside their celebrations of Muslim holidays and festivals, in which all of the schools’ pupils would be encouraged to take part. I went to a school where around 40% of the pupils were from Jewish backgrounds. Although there were separate assemblies for Jews and non-Jews on some days, on other days there were joint assemblies and prayers, and we had some wonderful Jewish speakers, which really helped me to gain an understanding and respect for the Jewish faith and post-war experience.

These schools, which would effectively be multi-faith, would in fact be an embodiment of the kind of plural English communities we need to be striving for: Muslims, Christians and others living, studying and working together, and sharing each other’s faith and experience. It’s hard to imagine a young Muslim brought up in such a school and community rejecting an Englishness that had been so inclusive, welcoming and friendly towards him or her and the Muslim faith: if there’s no conflict in such a young person’s mind between Islam and Englishness, then his or her Islam will not be used as a pretext to turn violently against England.

In other words, it’s shared Englishness that will bring about a sense of belonging to Britain on the part of young Muslims, not a British identity and set of values that are often not seen as compatible with Muslim faith and practice, and indeed are often advocated as a means to mitigate, control and relativise that Muslim identity. If Muslims feel that they and their faith are accepted as integral members and a valued feature of English civic society and communities, then it will make no sense – either religiously or psychologically – to turn against England. But conversely, we English will need to open our communities, civic society and hearts to Muslims and Islam.

We either love our neighbours as ourselves or make enemies of them. The choice is ours.

6 May 2015

Vote UKIP: the English national party in British-nationalist clothes

Let me put one thing straight: I don’t think UKIP is an English-nationalist party, by any stretch of the imagination.

Page 61 of the party’s 2015 general election manifesto, for instance, makes it abundantly clear that it is British-nationalist. This page talks of Britain as a “strong, proud, independent, sovereign nation” – in its own right, that is, rather than as a union of nations. It commits the party to promoting a “unifying British culture, open to anyone who wishes to identify with Britain and British values”, which in practice always tends to mean denigrating Englishness and subordinating it to Britishness. And it states support for “a chronological understanding of British history and achievements in the National Curriculum, which should place due emphasis on the unique influence Britain has had in shaping the modern world” – not caring to mention that this curriculum and Britain-centric version of history would apply to English schools alone.

That said, I would still maintain that UKIP should be viewed as an ‘English national’ party and as the default choice for English nationalists at this election. By this, I mean that UKIP speaks to a culturally English, British patriotism: an England-centric imagining of ‘Britain’ that is virtually indistinguishable to the great majority of English people from what is understood by ‘England’ itself. Most ordinary English people, I would say, are still stuck in this traditional Anglo-British mindset, and would talk of ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ as fully interchangeable terms. To put it in fancy psycho-babble, the ‘Symbolic’ (formal discourse or language) used by UKIP might be British, but its ‘Imaginary’ (imaginative and emotional associations) is English: UKIP talks British but speaks to the English.

Indeed, I would argue that the explanation for UKIP’s rise to the level of support it enjoys today (consistently polling around 12% or 13% UK-wide – higher in England) is that it has tapped in to the groundswell of English nationalism and the increasing identification as English of those living in England. UKIP is the default English national party, in the same way that the SNP is the Scottish national party and Plaid Cymru is the party of Wales. That is to say, it places the concerns of those who wish to preserve the integrity of England as a nation and defend the interests of English people at the heart of its policies, even if they are couched in British terms.

There are many examples of pro-English policies in their manifesto, which most actual English nationalists would readily agree with, such as:

• the demand for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership, and support for withdrawal, or ‘BREXIT’

• insistence on much tougher limits on immigration, including via proper border controls (made possible by BREXIT) and an Australian-style points system; reducing the access of foreign nationals to public services and social housing

• reduction of the UK’s overseas aid budget – reinvesting the money in English public services

• focus on building houses in brownfield sites, as opposed to concreting over England’s green and pleasant land with unsuitable and unwanted development

• scrapping the Barnett Formula and allocating spending on a genuine needs basis, which in reality means less money for Scotland and more for deprived English areas

• scrapping HS2, which is a vanity project driven by EU dreams of a pan-European high-speed rail network, and which threatens to devastate vast swathes of precious English countryside

• resisting the Labour and Lib Dem push for various forms of unwanted local or regional devolution in England

• improving social care provision in England

• preserving the English NHS as a publicly funded service, free at the point of use; using the redistributed Barnett funds to abolish parking charges in English hospitals

• reintroducing grammar and technical schools in England to improve the prospects of bright students from poorer areas, and to enhance vocational training.

However, one area where the UKIP manifesto is seriously deficient is the question of an English parliament: the manifesto doesn’t raise this at all. The only commitment that is made towards enhancing English-national democracy is that of English votes on English laws, despite the fact that this is an unworkable policy. For instance, after the election, it’s quite possible that there could be completely different English and UK parliamentary majorities: the Tories winning a majority in England, while the only workable UK-wide majority would be formed by Labour in partnership – formal or informal – with the Lib Dems and the other ‘progressive’ parties, including the SNP.

The answer, obviously, is separate UK and English parliaments; but UKIP are unwilling or unable to acknowledge this elephant in the room. This may be because they are still intent on positioning themselves as a party for the whole UK, rather than an overtly England-centric party or – heaven forbid – and English-nationalist one. But England-centric they undoubtedly are: addressing priorities and grievances that are either solely or primarily those of the English.

It is for this reason that I am recommending that all English nationalists vote UKIP at the election tomorrow. Sadly, owing to our First Past the Post voting system, a vote for the English Democrats is a wasted vote – assuming they’re standing in your constituency at all: they’re not in mine. Many would say that voting for UKIP is also a waste; and indeed, because of the electoral system UKIP are generally not expected to win any extra seats at the election, despite being the third-largest party in terms of share of the vote.

However, in reality, there is only a minority of seats where people’s votes make any difference at all, i.e. the marginal seats that might actually change hands. The constituency where I live is a very safe Conservative seat, so voting UKIP won’t make any difference in terms of the overall election result. The point of doing so is merely to register support for the types of English national policies I’ve outlined above.

If, on the other hand, you live in a constituency where your vote could help swing the result, I would argue that you should vote in such a way as to minimise the chance of a Labour-controlled government. This is because Labour, of all the parties, is most committed to local / city / regional devolution in England – whether or not the people affected have voted for it. Labour’s manifesto avoids almost any reference to ‘England’ other than in the sections where it discusses its wish to see devolution to so-called ‘county regions’ (whatever they are) and a Senate of the Nations and Regions (and you know what that means) to replace the present House of Lords. Labour is also, of course, obsessed with avoiding a referendum on the EU and can be relied upon to do nothing whatsoever about immigration, other than perhaps to increase it.

Accordingly, if you live in a Tory-Labour marginal, I’d say vote Tory. If you live in a Labour-Lib Dem marginal (like the Cambridge constituency near my home), I’d say gird your loins and vote Lib Dem, to prevent Labour from amassing the seats it may need to form a government.

But ultimately, if your vote, like mine, will make very little difference – or if you have no truck with the sort of tactical voting scenarios I’ve just described – vote UKIP: the English national party in British-nationalist clothes.

3 April 2015

TV leaders’ debate: no show for England

Well, it was a pretty poor show at the end of the day, the much-heralded TV leaders’ debate: two hours of three women and four men point scoring, and talking at and past each other, in a repetitive and circular fashion. Hardly worthy of the name ‘debate’, really, as there was no clash of contrary positions or setting out of opposing visions for ‘the country’, such as one would expect from a traditional debate.

In fact, there was and is no real vision for the country on the part of Britain’s party leaders: if the country is England, that is. It was noteworthy that the two leaders who did articulate any sort of coherent vision for the type of society they want their countries to be were the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood; and the countries they were talking about were Scotland and Wales respectively. Incidentally, Nicola Sturgeon also referred to England quite a bit: for instance, when setting out the SNP’s intention to vote down English health or education legislation that might adversely affect the funding or shape of Scottish services.

By contrast, as far as I can remember, the word ‘England’ did not issue one single time from the lips of either David Cameron, Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg. This was despite the fact that the debate moderator, Julie Etchingham, did somewhat surprisingly make a point of explaining that Westminster’s responsibilities in health care relate only to England.

The UKIP leader Nigel Farage mentioned England, but only when referring – justifiably – to the relatively poor deal the English are getting in terms of spending on public services in comparison with Scotland, and the need to abolish the Barnett Formula. And in general, the whole discussion on social matters such as the [English] NHS, [English] education, [English] housing, [English] apprenticeships, [English] social care, and immigration was reduced and subordinated to the economic arguments around funding: the balance of economic growth, taxation and borrowing that would be required to fund the services and benefits that we might be able to afford over the next five years.

It was all about the numbers, in fact: how many billions more for the [English] NHS; how many more doctors, nurses and midwives; how many targets missed in A&E and cancer care; how many more new schools and houses [in England]; how much could be saved by withdrawing from the EU and cutting overseas aid; how many immigrants; and how much the deficit could and would be cut by.

All important stuff, but essentially just an argument about money: how much of it will be available, where it’s coming from and how it will be portioned out, including to each of the UK’s nations. What’s missing is any attempt to set out a vision for the sort of society we want England to be and, within that context, what sort of health, education, social care, housing and welfare systems we want; and how they should be sustained economically in the long term through work and industries that provide both a decent income for individuals and families, and generate sufficient revenue for the government to pay for it all.

The starting point for politics, and for political debates, should really be different visions for the country and society, and economics should be subordinate to that: ‘this is the sort of national community we want to be, and the social values and systems that will bring us together as a nation; and consequently, this is the type of economy we need in order to realise our potential as people – and as a people – and not just generate economic growth and wealth as ends in themselves’.

The four male leaders, at least, were unable to articulate any bottom-up, people-centric policy vision of this sort. And it’s not altogether clear whether they’re incapable of doing so as a by-product of a refusal to offer government for a nation called England, whose name they’re unable to utter; or whether their absence of vision of and for England is merely an offshoot of their ideological incapacity to place nation and society in general – and English society and nationhood in particular, in this case – at the heart of policy making.

The female leaders, on the other hand, do seem to understand the importance of society and – in the case of the nationalist leaders – of nation. Indeed, of all the ‘English’ party leaders, Natalie Bennett came closest to articulating a policy vision centred on social values of care for each other and the environment, although she studiously avoiding calling that society ‘England’. But in a way, it was an obvious linkage: she stood on the podium as the English counterpart to the ‘progressive’, female leaders of the Scottish and Welsh parties. Maybe she’s missing a trick there.

Perhaps one can push the gender analogies too far: the women of the respective national households being more concerned about giving the children a rounded education and life skills; health- and social-care provision for the young and elderly of the family; decent job prospects and homes for the children; and protecting the environment for future generations. Meanwhile, the men are focused on the world outside the home: business, money and big, abstract numbers that can be hard to tie down to the actual impact they have on the lives and work situation of real people. Macho economics as much as macro-economics.

Be that as it may, if the family is England, its name and needs were not uppermost in the minds of any of our British political leaders last night. England is indeed poorly served by the British political system. It’s a poor show when England goes missing from a debate dealing with so many issues of national importance to England alone.

15 January 2015

The leaders’ debates and the failure to imagine England

In the row about what format if any the party leaders’ debates in the upcoming general election should take, one factor that has consistently been ignored is the England-specific framing of the discussion. By this, I mean not just that the possibility of an England-specific debate – focusing on the type of ‘English matters’ on which many have recently advocated that only English MPs should have the right to vote – has simply not been considered; whereas separate Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish debates have been offered. But also, the fact that the whole frame of reference for defining what constitutes ‘major UK parties’ is effectively English – or at least Anglo-British – has failed to be acknowledged.

Take the statement yesterday by the Green Party’s Australian-born leader Natalie Bennett claiming that the Green Party (of England and Wales) was one of the five major parties “in Britain”. Well, no, it’s one of the five largest parties in England. If you really mean ‘Britain’, or the UK, then you’d probably have to rank the Greens as sixth, with the SNP clearly in third place, both in terms of party membership and likely parliamentary representation after the general election.

Then you get into meaningless semantics about what constitutes a ‘national’ party: whether it means standing candidates in every single British, as opposed to UK, seat – leaving aside the fact that the Greens, Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems all have separate ‘Scottish’ parties, so that, technically, UKIP is the only major UK-wide party that qualifies. Unless, of course, by ‘national’ you mean every English seat. Because that is what, in this debate about the debates, ‘national’ effectively does mean: it’s whether parties are standing everywhere in England that counts, and hence whether their leaders’ performance in the debates are of relevance and interest to an English TV audience.

Of course, this is not being acknowledged, and cannot be acknowledged, as politicians and media would then have to admit that, in this supposedly UK election, involving UK-wide issues, there are really multiple elections: those in the devolved nations, where the issues properly concern only policy areas reserved to the UK government, and where nation-specific parties need to make their respective pitches about how they intend to look after the interests of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people within the London parliament; and then, in contrast, there is the election in England, where both reserved matters of great importance such as the economy, the EU, security and immigration are at stake, along with England-only matters such as the NHS, education, social care and cuts to local government – among many others.

Instead, politicians and the media are seeking to maintain the pretence that there is a single UK electorate, and single set of policy issues of equivalent importance and relevance to that ‘national’ audience: the NHS alongside the economy; education alongside immigration; social care and housing alongside welfare. There is of course a single national audience affected by the parties’ positions in all of these areas – but it’s the English audience, not the British one. And the ‘English’ parties – in my sense – certainly shouldn’t make a pitch to viewers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the (English) NHS, education system and local government, as if they were of equal relevance to viewers in those countries as those parties’ policies on the economy, defence and immigration. In fact, to do so is tantamount to fraud, as those parties wouldn’t be able to do anything in devolved policy areas if people in those countries voted them into power in Westminster.

The only way to be fair and proportionate about this is to split the debates into reserved and devolved matters; to have separate debates in all four of the UK’s nations on the latter; and have one or more debate on reserved policy areas involving, in some way, all the major parties of each nation. Then, by all means, the Green Party of England and Wales should be included, at least in the separate English and Welsh debates; and the Scottish Greens should be included in the Scottish debate.

The way I’d split it, to keep it manageable and useful to voters, is as follows:

• A first debate, aired UK-wide, featuring just David Cameron and Ed Miliband: as the PMs in waiting. This would deal only with reserved matters, given its UK-wide transmission

• A second debate, aired UK-wide, featuring the leaders of all the parties that could end up as coalition partners to the Conservatives or Labour, or as holding the balance of power, i.e. the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the DUP. This debate should also be on reserved matters only and should exclude the Tories and Labour in order to counterbalance the potential bias from limiting the first debate to them. Although only UKIP and the Greens are ‘national’ (i.e. English) parties, it would be relevant to English voters to have the leaders of the main nation-specific parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland appearing on the platform, as these parties may form part of UK governments legislating for England. The debates would therefore give voters in England a chance to find out whether these parties would ally themselves with Labour or the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament; and what their stance on matters such as English votes for English laws, constitutional reform for England, and other issues of concern to English people such as immigration and EU membership would be. That might make a real difference to voting intentions

• Four further nation-specific debates should also then happen, including UKIP and the Greens in England, and the single nation-specific parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In England, the debate should reasonably deal with both England-specific and reserved matters, but with a greater emphasis on English issues, as reserved issues would have formed the focus of the previous two debates. Devoting a limited amount of time to reserved matters would enable, say, Nigel Farage to debate the EU and immigration with David Cameron, and Natalie Bennett to debate energy policy alongside the environment (England-only) with the other leaders.

But I strongly doubt that a truly equitable solution such as this will be adopted: equitable to the people of England, that is, rather than to the purported national-UK parties that are in fact no such thing.

22 May 2014

Why I’m voting UKIP

I’ll be voting UKIP in the European-Parliament elections later today. This is despite the fact that I don’t like the party all that much. To me, UKIP seems to represent much that is least generous and large-minded in the English spirit: suspicion toward foreigners; a narrow-minded pragmatism and individualism, as opposed to idealistic engagement toward the European continent and the broader international community; neo-liberal economics; British nationalism; a failure to articulate a discrete English identity and politics; and a social conservatism that is inadequate in responding to the complexity and diversity of modern English society.

So why vote for them? Mainly because they are the only party with a chance of winning any seats that is opposed to the UK’s EU membership and can be trusted to deliver a straightforward in / out referendum.

Why do I support the UK’s withdrawal from the EU? Wouldn’t that precisely be an example of the sort of narrow-minded Englishness I have just decried? My answer would be that, while I oppose the EU, I am still very much in favour of an England that engages positively and constructively with the European continent of which it is a part. I just don’t believe the EU provides the means and the forum for achieving that. The EU is undemocratic, non-transparent, bureaucratic and corrupt; it is the vehicle for a political project for the creation of a federal European super-state; and – most critically for me – the EU does not recognise England as a nation and would absorb it into a set of anonymous British ‘regions’.

What about the argument that only the Conservatives can deliver an in / out referendum, if they’re elected in the general election in one year’s time? Well, that’s a potential reason for voting Conservative at the general election, not at the European election. For now, it seems to me more important to send a message to the establishment parties that their policies and behaviour in relation to the EU have been unacceptable, and that the only way forward is to let us have our referendum. In any case, it’s quite conceivable that there could be a Conservative / UKIP coalition after the general election. If that happened, the Conservatives couldn’t wriggle out of their commitment to hold a referendum, as they did previously after the Lisbon Treaty was signed.

Another important reason for voting UKIP is to send a message to the Westminster parties that they have failed England on the immigration issue. The level of net migration and overall population growth in England in recent years (in the order of several millions) is unsustainable, and this has had a massive, and I would say largely negative, impact on working-class English people’s prospects for employment and pay, on communities, and on housing, public services and schools. Withdrawal from the EU would enable the UK to control the flow of immigration from EU states; and we should also greatly reduce the numbers coming in from the rest of the world.

Of course, we must continue to be generous and open to those who seek refuge in England and the UK as a whole from political or religious persecution in other parts of the world; and we should welcome those who can make a significant contribution to areas such as scientific research, technology and advanced manufacturing. But ultimately, I believe the role of governments is to look to the needs of their own people first. If we can stem the flow of immigrants, we can concentrate on creating jobs, training, education, improved health and decent life prospects for the millions of underemployed, inadequately educated, poor and disadvantaged English people that have been let down and left behind by the UK’s laissez-faire neo-liberalism and reliance on cheap foreign labour.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a ‘racial’ or racist stance: by ‘English people’, I am not referring to the so-called ‘white-English’ but to all who live in England and genuinely consider themselves to be English – at least in part – of whatever ethnic background. I do not accept the view that opposition to unfettered immigration in itself makes one a racist, because it’s immigration from all countries and parts of the world that I would like to restrict. Nor do I accept that seeking to defend and celebrate one’s own national identity, culture and traditions – in my case, English – is racist in itself. Of course, racism is often associated with such concerns if, for instance, a person has a narrowly ethnic concept of their nation or believes that their culture is superior to others. Conversely, celebrating ‘Britain’’s ethnic diversity and the cultures of all who have come to live here, while denigrating Englishness and castigating English patriotism as racist, is itself a form of (inverted) racism.

So, whereas there are undoubtedly some racists in UKIP, the Anglo-British patriotism the party espouses and its opposition to uncontrolled immigration are by no means intrinsically racist. UKIP’s inflammatory rhetoric on immigration is one of the things I precisely don’t like about the party, and this does undoubtedly play on people’s more irrational fears toward the foreigner and the ‘other’, which are a basic characteristic of racism. But focusing on this or that debatably ‘racist’ utterance by UKIP spokespersons is a smokescreen by which the other parties have tried to avoid engaging with the immigration question. And this does need to be tackled.

So it’s UKIP for me on 22 May 2014: to demand an in / out referendum on the UK’s EU membership; to send out a strong message on immigration; and to back a party that’s not ashamed of England and Englishness, even if it largely fails to differentiate these from Britain and the UK.

There are two other elections today where I live: district and parish councils. Just to demonstrate that I am an issues-based voter rather than a party loyalist, I intend to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate for the district council. That’s because the Liberal Democrats are the strongest voice against a massive New Town that is proposed to be built right on the doorstep of the village where I live, and which is supported by the Conservative-controlled council. The Lib Dem has a realistic chance of defeating the Conservative candidate, as the Tories are divided: one of the previous Conservative incumbents is now standing as an independent, so the Tory vote will be split, and the Lib Dems finished a close second last time.

The parish council has seen intrigue, cliques and scandal worthy of Midsomer Murders – although we haven’t had our first murder yet (thank goodness). I’ll be voting for all of the candidates opposed to the current ruling Clique. This could be the most intriguing and unpredictable contest of the lot!

9 January 2013

Coalition Mid-Term Review: Sidelining England in the British-national interest

The UK coalition government published its mid-term review on Monday of this week. It is not the intention of this article to carry out a detailed analysis: I am interested mainly in the way England is treated, or rather is not, in the document.

At first sight, for a document produced by the UK government, it is remarkable how many times the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ actually appear: 15 and six respectively. However, most of the references to ‘England’ are of two related types: 1) where it is necessary to spell out that certain facts or policy proposals relate to England only in order to avoid misunderstanding, and to prevent people living in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland from thinking they are affected by them; and 2) to make sure that credit can be claimed for England-specific achievements for which the coalition parties hope to be rewarded by English voters at the next election.

Examples of the first type of reference occur on page 26, where the document refers to a number of policy proposals in the area of personal care as being specific to England, such as rules regarding eligibility for care and the introduction of a Deferred Payment Scheme designed to prevent people from having to sell their homes in order to pay for care. Clearly, these are important statutory and financial matters, and it is necessary to make it clear to non-English readers that they affect only people living in England.

Examples of the second type of reference are:

  • “We have provided the resources to help local authorities in England freeze their council tax for three years in a row” (page 14): Tory policy – please vote for us, England. (What are these ‘resources’, though? I thought local-authority funding in England was being cut, and the council-tax freeze was just a statutory, central government-imposed diktat. Do they mean local-authority funding is being cut by less than it would otherwise have been if authorities had been allowed to increase council tax willy nilly?)
  • “We have brought in the Protection of Freedoms Act to limit the retention of DNA samples in England and Wales in line with practice in Scotland” (page 37): Lib Dem policy – look, we actually do care about you, England, at least in the lofty area of British civil liberties if nothing else.

The first type of reference to England described above has the character of a legal declaration of ‘territorial extent’, along the lines of when cereal packets make it clear that a competition is limited to Great Britain and does not include Northern Ireland. And indeed, the whole document is circumscribed by a legal disclaimer of this sort covering territorial extent, which appears right at the end:

“As a result of devolution, many decisions made by UK Ministers or in the Westminster Parliament now apply to England only. The Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government make their own policy on these devolved issues. This document therefore sets out the agreed priorities for the Coalition Government in Westminster.”

No clarification as to which policies “now apply to England only”, of course! Is the general public just supposed to know what they are, as the document certainly doesn’t make this clear to the reader as it goes through the different policy areas, apart from the few exceptions I have already mentioned? But throwing in a disclaimer like this means the government can essentially cop out of providing a detailed break-down and say: ‘look, we’ve acknowledged that some policies are England-only, and anyone interested in those particular policies will know whether they’re England-specific or not’.

This is simply not good enough, although it is par for the course. We’ve come to expect from Westminster politicians and the UK government that they will avoid referring explicitly to ‘England’ as much as they possibly can, and will do so only when it is necessary to avoid factual misunderstanding and harmful political consequences, in the ways outlined above. But their unwillingness to acknowledge a country called ‘England’ to which so many of their policies relate means that Westminster politicians cannot and do not hold themselves properly accountable to the ‘nation’ and people affected by those policies.

This fact is evident in the evasive manner in which many of the policy ‘achievements’ and remaining objectives of the coalition are described; and in many instances, the evasiveness relates directly to the suppression of references to ‘England’. For example, the document never makes it explicitly clear that when it discusses ‘the NHS’, it means only the NHS in England. This helps it gloss over the fact that the coalition has legislated for a massive reform to the NHS that will alter it – in England only – quite radically from the institution created by the post-war Labour government. And yet, the government still has the gall to refer to it as “one of our great national institutions”, as if the NHS it presides over is still fundamentally the same old British NHS, which it no longer is (at least not in England).

So suppression of the England-specific nature of the NHS reforms goes hand in hand with evasiveness about the scope and nature of those reforms. For example, the document says: “We have improved the NHS by . . . starting to devolve commissioning of most health services to GP-led clinical commissioning groups”. But what it doesn’t say is that these changes are limited to England and that the said commissioning groups are statutorily obliged to consider bids from private health-care providers even if the services they provide are initially more expensive than those of existing, public-sector NHS providers.

A more honest account of the government’s measures would be explicit about both their England-specific character and their ultimate guiding principles, and would be expressed something like this: “We have reformed the NHS in England in such a way as to create a competitive health-care market in which private companies will increasingly take over the provision of publicly funded services”. This is actually intended to be an ideologically neutral statement of what the government has done: it has marketised the health-care sector in England, whether you believe that’s the most effective way to deliver health care or not. So why should a Tory-led government not trumpet that achievement? Well, because it suspects, probably correctly, that if English people knew what had been done to ‘their NHS’ (but not to the NHS’s in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), involving changes that were not set out in any manifesto or in the Coalition Agreement, they’d probably violently object. So instead, the coalition pretends that ‘the NHS’ remains fundamentally the same – a primarily public-sector and ‘British’ institution – neither of which is true any more: in England, that is.

The same analysis could be made of many, many other parts of the document that discuss England-specific policies and legislation while avoiding clarifying either that they relate to England only or that they are driven by an ideological bias in favour of private enterprise and markets at the expense of the public sector and, arguably, the public interest – in England. Another brief example – one among many – is where the document says: “We have introduced a presumption of sustainable development in the National Planning Policy Framework, which includes protection of the Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest”. How disingenuous can they be? What this really means is: “We have prepared legislation to make it easier to obtain planning permission for major developments in England’s countryside, with only Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest retaining the previous level of protection”. So England’s green and pleasant land can be concreted over under the pretext of driving economic growth, in the British national interest, regardless of the very passionate interest the English public has in protecting its countryside and natural heritage.

The identity of the ‘nation’ on which this concept of the ‘national interest’ is predicated is quite nebulous in the Mid-Term Review, as indeed it was in the original Coalition Agreement. This is quite simply because, in so many instances, the nation concerned is in reality England, but the government will not and cannot acknowledge this fact. This is rather damaging, as the very raison d’être of the coalition, then as now, is to govern in the ‘national interest’, as the title of the Mid-Term Review makes clear: “The Coalition: together in the national interest”. But whereas the phrase ‘national interest’ is adduced as justification for the coalition’s existence or for certain key decisions on five occasions in the document, the word ‘nation’ is used only once: “In 2012, the nation came together to celebrate the success of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Diamond Jubilee”.

Three of the references to ‘national interest’ relate to the formation and continuance of the coalition, based on pulling the UK round from a dangerous financial and economic crisis; one to supporting the work of the Airports Commission, which could lead to controversial approval for, say, a new terminal at Heathrow or a new runway at Stansted (i.e. more environmental degradation in England “in the national interest”); and the other reference deals with the decision to opt out of, or in to, various EU police and criminal-justice measures. In other words, ‘national interest’ is very narrowly defined in terms of a small number of strategically important reserved policy areas – the economy, air transport, foreign policy and security – whereas large parts of the document deal with devolved policy areas, i.e. with those affecting England only or mainly.

Are these English measures also being introduced in the ‘national interest’? It’s hard to believe they are given the unwillingness of the government to connect the phrase ‘national interest’ with the specific nation, England, concerned? And if they’re not being carried out in the English-national interest, in whose interest are they being done? The interest of the government’s ideological, commercial and financial bedfellows (its corporate sponsors and partners, and its financial creditors)? The interests of the UK state and establishment, and their preservation from an economic meltdown that could have accelerated the centrifugal, nationalist forces challenging their  continuing existence? Or the interests of the coalition parties themselves, who want to come out of the five-year relationship claiming they have fought their corner and followed through on their manifesto pledges – irrespective of the fact that many of the measures they’ve introduced were never outlined in detail and in some instances were flatly contradicted by their manifestos and by the Coalition Agreement, such as the [English] NHS reforms or the Higher Education policies (especially the massive hike in tuition fees for English students)?

But these questions, as indeed the English Question itself, are completely sidelined by the Mid-Term Review. After all, the Coalition can hardly be expected to hold itself accountable to an entity such as ‘the English people’, can it, if its remit is to govern in the British national interest?

27 December 2012

Census and gay marriage: England remains a Christian nation – for now

Earlier this month, two interesting events took place in the same week. First, the results of the 2011 Census of England and Wales were published. Among many interesting findings, this reported that the proportion of the population of England and Wales stating that their religion was Christianity had fallen to 59.3%, from 71.7% in 2001: a drop of 12.4%. There was an almost exactly opposite rise in the number of those claiming they had no religion, from 14.8% to 25.1%: up 11.3%.

The proportion of those identifying as Christian in England alone – 59.4% – was pretty much identical to that for England and Wales combined. However, the proportion of those indicating they had no religious affiliation at all was significantly higher in Wales than in England: 32.1% versus 24.7% respectively. The main reason for this divergence is that there is a much higher share of non-Christian religions in England than in Wales, reflecting the greater extent of immigration to England. In particular, the Muslim share of the population in England was 5%, compared with only 1.5% in Wales. Across England and Wales as a whole, the Census reported that the proportion of the population claiming affiliation to Islam had risen from 3.0% in 2001 to 4.8% in 2011.

On this measure at least, England is still a Christian country. Indeed, the greatest threat to Christianity in England comes from secularisation not ‘Islamisation’, with the English Muslim population still being only 8% of the size of the Christian community. It seems to me that this is one of the paradoxes of anti-Muslim organisations such as the EDL or the BNP: that while they ostensibly seek to defend England’s / Britain’s Christian heritage against a perceived Islamic threat, many of their adherents are far from Christian in their own beliefs and lifestyles. It is really the broad Christian heritage and culture of England / Britain that they see themselves as defending. But the truth of the matter is, as the Census shows, that many people who previously categorised themselves as nominally Christian now no longer do call themselves Christian. That does not necessarily mean they do not believe in God, or even that they do not consider their beliefs and values are compatible with Christian faith. But the fact that they no longer feel they can definitely describe themselves as Christian nevertheless marks a profound culture shift.

Another profound culture shift that has taken place over the past ten to 15 years is in attitudes towards gay sex and relationships. I’m not sure if this is a generational thing, but until very recently, it used to be regarded as something noteworthy, unusual and even a bit distasteful for many heterosexuals if someone you knew was openly gay or in a gay relationship. But nowadays, it’s just regarded as part of normality: more ‘oh yes, and he’s gay’, rather than ‘he’s gay, you know’ – nudge nudge, wink wink.

Take these two trends together, and it’s not surprising that a moral consensus has grown up in favour of legalising gay marriage in England and Wales; and that a nation whose Christianity is increasingly vague and non-doctrinal seems to think that this is compatible with Christian values, and hence that there might be plenty of churches out there that will be happy to embrace their new ‘freedom’ to marry gays. This is the other event that took place earlier this month: the government’s announcement that it would proceed with legislation to introduce gay marriage in England and Wales.

Of course, in reality, gay marriage is far from compatible with mainstream Christian belief. While some have drawn parallels with the issue of women bishops, gay marriage is not at all in the same category. Most churches do not even have bishops or regard them as essential, let alone women bishops. This is simply not a point of common Christian belief across the denominations. By contrast, virtually all Christian churches regard gay marriage as a contradiction in terms, as marriage is by definition regarded as a union between a man and a woman. Indeed, most denominations still view gay sex itself as sinful: a belief that is at the origin of society’s repudiation of homosexuality until recent times.

As society generally no longer regards gay sex, or at least loving gay relationships, as morally wrong, so it seems to have assumed there can be no reasonable objection to gay couples choosing to affirm their relationships through marriage. But marriage isn’t just about de-culpabilising a sexual relationship: a mutual commitment – gay or straight – somehow being less complete, and therefore potentially more selfish and morally imperfect, outside of marriage. It isn’t in fact just about the commitment, which is of course to be welcomed in any relationship: it’s about the union constituted by marriage. In traditional Christian belief, marriage creates something new: marriage is a real – spiritual and bodily – union between a man and a woman, which reflects, restores and re-enacts the original unity of male and female in God: of male and female as created in the image of God. By definition, then, it has to be a coming together of a man and a woman. And the fact that the marital union embodies the union between God and humanity in Christ also means that the purpose of marriage reflects the nature and action of God in the world: as creator and redeemer. Hence, marriage is also intrinsically about creating new life – through procreation – and about dedication to guiding those new lives to faith, and ultimately to the eternal life of salvation.

This view of marriage is, however, very far removed from society’s increasingly secularised understanding of it as primarily a mutual commitment between a man and woman, and – if mutual commitment is what it’s all about – why not also between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman? Nevertheless, the government’s legislative proposals stopped short of imposing an obligation for churches to conduct gay weddings if they were requested by gay couples to do so. And in the case of the Church of England and its Welsh counterpart, the Church in Wales, the government proposes to actually prohibit those churches from carrying out gay marriage ceremonies, even if they, or individual parish churches, wish to do so.

The fact that the proposed legislation compels the Anglican churches of England and Wales not to marry gay couples, whereas other churches and religions in those countries can choose whether or not to do so, is linked to the Church of England’s established status. This means that Canon Law – the Church’s own internal legislation – is part of the law of the land. You cannot therefore have a situation in which statute – parliamentary legislation – and Canon Law are in conflict. This would have been the case if Parliament had allowed the Church of England to conduct gay weddings, whereas Canon Law forbids it. Of course, Parliament could have chosen to engineer such a conflict with the Church, in order to persuade or coerce it into bringing Canon Law into line with statute, rather than the other way round. However, if there had been resistance to this change within the Church – which there certainly would have been – this could have risked triggering the disestablishment of the Church. And this is a risk which, it seems, Parliament was not prepared to take at this stage.

It is indeed ironic that it is the very established status of the Church of England that exempts it from a measure that Parliament regards as fair and even as consistent with Christian values. And this is to say nothing of the anomalous situation that the Church in Wales finds itself in. Unlike the Church of England, the Welsh Church is not established; and yet it finds itself subject to the same prohibition of gay marriage as its English counterpart. This appears to have happened with very little if any consultation with the Church in Wales. It seems to have been the case that, as the gay marriage Bill applies to both England and Wales, it would have been even more anomalous and potentially unsustainable to completely ban the Anglican church in England from marrying gay couples while allowing the Anglican church in Wales to do so if it wished.

In the end, though, the inconsistencies surrounding the Bill are effectively no more than a manifestation of the contradiction involved in thinking that gay marriage is consistent with mainstream Christian faith, which it is not. Parliament is effectively wanting to have its secular-liberal cake and eat its established-religion cake, too: a secularisation of values, yes, but not a secularisation of the state – at least not yet.

So the Westminster politicians have shied away from pushing the liberal gay-marriage agenda to the point where disestablishment of the Church of England could have ensued. Were they motivated by a dim awareness that – as the Census showed – England remains a broadly Christian country, and that there was insufficient popular support for a confrontation with the Church on this matter, let alone for disestablishment? Or were they terrified at the prospect of disestablishment and of all the unforeseen consequences this might have, and reluctant to be the Parliament that overthrew more than 450 years of constitutional history?

I maintain that one of the consequences of disestablishing the Church of England is effectively the abolition of England as a civic nation. The Church of England is arguably the only English-national institution remaining at the heart of the British establishment: a body that confers a specific responsibility towards England and the English people on those at the heart of power, including the monarch and the Parliament that governs in the name of the monarch. Really, in some respects, the Church of England represents the spiritual heart and conscience of the English nation: its own doctrinal vagaries reflecting the increasingly loose and ill-defined ‘Christianity’ of the English nation at large.

So in this formal sense, too, England remains a Christian nation; and the continuation of the Church of England as not just the national-English church but the UK-state church has ensured in this instance that the laws of England, made by the UK parliament, remain true to England’s Christian tradition and faith. But if Christian faith in England erodes to the same extent as it has done since 2001, who knows for how much longer there will even be a Church of England? And with the removal of the Church of England from the British establishment, will England cease not just to be a Christian nation, but a nation in any sense?

13 August 2012

Great Britain is merely an Olympic nation

It is often said of England that it is just a football nation. By that, it is meant that England comes together as a nation, and has national institutions of its own, only when it comes to football competitions and to other sports where England has its own team or league, such as rugby union or cricket. There is some justification for this, in that England clearly is not a civic nation – either a sovereign state or a self-governing part of a larger state – but nonetheless has the footballing status of one. Indeed, it has superior status to other nation states’ football associations, in that the FA still has a veto on any rule changes to the beautiful game. England is a football nation, then, in part because it is the home of football.

The same could be said of Great Britain and the Olympics. The Olympics are now arguably the only occasion when ‘Great Britain’ unites as a nation. For a little while, albeit imperfectly, we forget that we are in fact three nations (or four, or five, if you include Northern Ireland and / or Cornwall – but that’s a different story) and get together behind ‘Team GB’, with the mandatory Union Flags being draped around the shoulders of our Olympic heroes (whether they want it or not – and how could they refuse?): all differences cloaked in the colours of a rediscovered British patriotism.

And just like England, Great Britain is not a civic nation. The civic nation, the sovereign state, is the United Kingdom (informally known as ‘Britain’, rather than Great Britain). But we choose to compete as Great Britain. Why? In part, this is so that Northern Irish athletes have the freedom to choose whether to represent Britain or the Republic of Ireland. In part, also, this is because ‘Great Britain’ can arguably claim to have originated the present Olympic movement, in that the first modern Olympic Games of any sort were held in England (in the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock from 1850 onwards), while Great Britain was an inaugural participant in the first international Games in 1896, and has taken part – as Great Britain – in every summer and winter Olympics since. The IOC president Jacques Rogge paid tribute to Great Britain’s Olympic heritage in his speech at the 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony, when he referred to the fact that Great Britain had in effect originated modern sport as such by codifying its rules: just as England is the home of football, the Olympics were in effect coming home by taking place in Great Britain in 2012.

So football and the Olympics are two global sporting institutions with which our nationhood – whether as England or Great Britain – is bound up as originator and ‘owner’. It’s almost as if those particular games – football and Olympic – are not just an incidental part of our national heritage and of our contribution to global culture, but are an integral part of what constitutes us as nations: we are not so much nations that rediscover our sense of nationhood through international sports competitions, but are nations who experience ourselves truly as nations only when playing the games that properly speaking are ours to begin with, and which we have given to the world. Temporarily, the existential void that exists where a secure sense of nationhood should be is filled with the passion of the game and the excitement of ‘representing’ the nation under the colours of the flag – be they red and white, or red, white and blue.

But who in fact are the ‘we’ who lack the grounded experience of nationhood that comes from national civic institutions, and from sovereign, national self-rule? Who are the ‘we’ who so lack ‘internal’ recognition as a nation, and the ability to feel pride about ourselves as a nation, that we feel validated only when we are able to stand as the first among equals amid the international community of nations which, in a sense, we have brought into existence in the particular form in which that community has come together, e.g. through football or the Olympics? Our fragile national egos stand poised perilously between non-existence – non-particularity – and internationality: perfectly reflected in the international world that England or Great Britain can claim to have created, insofar as our very internationality is said by some commentators to be the quintessence of our ‘British nationhood’ and of the new, confident Britishness that Team GB’s successes is helping to cement. Hence, ‘we’ see ourselves as a nation – and see ourselves only when – perfectly mirrored and validated by the admiring international community of nations: as being a ‘nation of nations’ – effectively, an international community of nations ourselves; Great Britain.

The ‘we’ who escape in this way from our everyday nationless state to the ludic, spectacular, imaginary and international nationhood of the Games that seem to define us as a nation are the English people. Whether the sporting team concerned is England or Great Britain, it is we the English people that lose ourselves in the short-lived high of imagining ourselves as a great nation, once more, on the international stage – reasserting our ownership of and identification with the global community by beating them at, literally, our own game, so that the international community has no choice other than to recognise us as truly a unique nation in their midst.

Looking only at the surface of things, it would be easy to conclude that the English patriotic fervour that accompanied the nation’s football team’s progress through international competitions, up until its dismal performance in the 2010 World Cup, was a radically different phenomenon from the outbreak of British patriotic fervour that has accompanied Team GB’s glittering successes at London 2012. But they are fundamentally the same: they are expressions of English people’s need to have a proud sense of nationhood, which is ‘fulfilled’ temporarily through sport. This is the case, not only because those sports ‘belong to us’ but because those feelings are denied in day-to-day life, where we live in a nationless state in the other sense: a state – the UK – that is not a nation and denies nationhood to the English. The blossoming of the Union Flag, sprouting in bunting and branding over shops, pubs and homes across England, is a continuation not a break from the similar sprouting of the Cross of St. George that has accompanied football tournaments in the past. The England team has let us down and dashed our pride; but now Team GB seems to be restoring it. Great Britain is an Olympic nation just as England is a football nation; and fundamentally, this is because the nation, the people, who identify with and rave about those countries’ respective sporting feats are in both cases the English.

Of course, on another level, England and Great Britain are completely different entities. But they are also non-entities – non-civic nations – and so are ironically perfect, interchangeable channels for our unfulfilled desire for replete nationhood. ‘Team UK’ or ‘Team Britain’ wouldn’t do the job, a) because they’re names for the state, not ‘the nation’, and b) because they are too difficult for English people to identify with – too neutral and un-English. ‘Great Britain’ can function as ‘the nation’ only because English people identify with it as their nation: as effectively a proxy for, and a more grandiose way of saying, ‘England’. This may seem counter-intuitive, because the outbreak of unionflagitis across England would tend to suggest the opposite: that English people are espousing a British-not-English identity. But in fact, it’s a British-because-English identity, and ordinary people across the land are, once again, failing to make the kind of categorical distinction between Britishness and Englishness that the promoters of those two brands might wish they did.

Take the woman in my local corner shop, who said “the whole of England” would have been cheering on Mo Farah to win the 5000m race on Saturday night; or my partner – a university-educated woman who’s just turned 50 – who persists unself-consciously in referring to ‘Team GB’ as ‘England’, to the extent that I’ve given up correcting her. This sort of attitude, and habit of thought and speech, is replicated up and down the land: Team GB is simply viewed as an ‘English’ team, and all distinction between England and Britain is swept away in a tide of Union Flags.

This is the opposite effect from that which the political and media establishment, along with the liberal promoters of a self-sufficient Britishness, believe has been achieved. For them, saying ‘Great Britain’ is a way to avoid saying ‘England’ and invoking English nationhood; but for the English people, supporting Team GB is just another way of being patriotically English. This has been obvious from the extent to which the BBC, in its Olympics coverage, has been desperate to prevent any mention of Team GB athletes’ English identity, and to correct them whenever they referred to ‘England’ or ‘English’ competitors. Ironically, of course, the sheer fact of imposing an exclusively British identity on English sportsmen and -women only – while allowing ‘non-English’ British athletes to celebrate a dual identity (Scottish and British, or Somali and British) – reinforces the very Englishness of Britishness: the fact that Britishness, and the British patriotism of the Games, is at root just an expression of Englishness. English athletes who carelessly let the word ‘England’ slip from their mouths are in effect giving the Game away, in both senses: the Olympic Games being by definition an opportunity to celebrate a supposedly inclusive Britishness.

Liberal commentators have played along with this establishment game, observing how Team GB’s supposedly multicultural (by which is really meant multi-ethnic) composition, and the support the Team received across the social spectrum, illustrate and consolidate a new inclusive, civic Britishness. It achieves this, however, only if all reference to England and Englishness is systematically eliminated. Britishness is an inclusive identity only on the basis of England’s exclusion. The inclusive, civic Britishness is predicated on the idea that no nationality has any claim to being a pre-eminent or core element of British identity or culture. England is that core, and so it must be eradicated; and English people are only allowed to be British – or, as I said above, only English people must be British-only.

And this illustrates what the Olympic nation that is Great Britain – Team GB – actually is at root: it’s a flight from English nationhood, mostly by English people themselves, into the idealised, international nationhood that is ‘Britain’. But it needs to tap into English patriotism to gain the loyalty and support of the masses. So rather than succeeding in cancelling out English nationality, ‘Great Britain’ is nothing without it.

Great Britain, in other words, is merely an Olympic nation; but the real nation that underlies it, and will outlive the four-yearly enthusiasm for Team GB, is England.

29 July 2012

Further thoughts on the Olympics opening ceremony: a new British nationalism

At two days’ remove from the London Olympics opening ceremony, I’ve been able to form a clearer idea of what its underlying narrative was and why it appeals so strongly to lovers of all things British. In short, the ceremony enacted a journey from a pre-industrial, rural, geopolitically undefined Britain made up of the four historic nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland to a unified, modern, post-industrial, technological and urban British nation formed from the fusion of the historic nations together with the cultures and peoples that have immigrated to Britain in the post-war era.

Hence, although it was to some extent gratifying that the show began with the singing of the national anthems, or would-be national anthems, of the four historic nations, this places those nations firmly in the pre-modern past; whereas those same four nations were not represented as having any place or voice in the multi-ethnic Britain of today. [And at this point, I’ll just observe that Cornwall had no recognition whatsoever.] In other words, the ceremony dramatised the narrative of the new British nationalism, which sees ‘Britain’ as a civic nation to which all can belong on equal terms – those of an immigrant background alongside ‘native Britons’ – and which subsumes and traverses the supposedly more ethnic identities of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The face of the nation that the ceremony presented to the world was that of multi-ethnic, mono-national Britain, in contradistinction to a historically mono-ethnic (i.e. white) but multi-national Britain.

But is this multi-ethnic face merely skin-deep? Why, for instance, did Boyle not have the courage of his Briticist convictions, and make the girl and boy that hook up via a Facebook-type social network towards the end of the narrative section of the ceremony a white-black couple, instead of having the female part played by a black-white mixed-race girl and the male role taken by a black boy? Would it have been too shocking and unacceptable to the great British public, even today, to make a white girl getting together with a black boy the focal point of the whole multi-ethnic narrative? Or why not have a white man getting it on with a black girl – or is that too suggestive of the history of colonialism and slavery the ceremony refused to touch upon? How truly multi-ethnic is this brave new Britain if such a black and white beast with two backs is unpalatable to the viewing public?

This particular point touches upon the whole vacuity of the ceremony’s representation of modern Britain, with the multi-ethnic youth dancing in harmony to the fusion beats of grime music and the like. Merely one year ago, the multi-ethnic youth of areas such as Hackney – just down the road from the Olympic stadium – were rocking to a different beat as they smashed shop windows and burnt buildings to the ground. Which is the more authentic vision of contemporary Britain? Possibly both, or neither; or perhaps, one is the hope and the other is the experience. And the experience of many young English urbanites is a lack of meaningful opportunities and hope for work, education, or a better future for themselves and their families. The children may play – in the Olympics or in the disinhibited freedom of the riot – but how will they live? What are their prospects in an England denied recognition by the British state, and as citizens on the ethnic and economic margins of a marketised British society? Will the glittering spectacle of the Olympics, to which they are denied access, make them feel even more alienated from the opportunities and successes that seem reserved for a social elite: bankers, corporations, Olympians?

The opening ceremony identified Britain firmly with the Olympic ideal of nations fusing together as the Olympic rings emerged from the mills that made modern Britain. But is this ideal, in Britain’s case, a mere forgery: a fake, counterfeit image whose underlying reality is far more disunited, chaotic and ugly?

28 July 2012

Isles of Wonder, or a world left wondering?

So what are we to make of last night’s Olympics opening ceremony? Firstly, I would have to say that it was indeed spectacular and impressive, and many moments stood out that will doubtless linger on in the memory, such as the factory funnels emerging from [England’s] green and pleasant land; the Olympic rings being forged in the steel mills; and the magnificent solution they come up with for lighting the Olympic cauldron.

Now for the criticism. It would be easy to be churlish and run off a list of all the many aspects of British and English history that were glossed over or left out altogether. The ones that stuck out in my mind were the history of Empire and slavery, and the darker moments of our industrial past; although the ‘Satanic mills’ segment of last night’s show did allude to those in a gentle way. You could also mention Magna Carta; the long story of Christianity as a central pillar of the UK nations’ society and culture; the role of sports not included in the Olympics, such as rugby and cricket (or those which, from an English point of view, should not be represented by a British team, such as football); and the history of violence in English society, for which we are infamous throughout the world, as typified by football hooliganism and last summer’s riots.

Similarly, I thought that some of the history in the performance was a bit garbled and skewed, such as when there was a brief moment of remembrance for the victims of World Wars I and II, and the narrative then returned to 19th-century industrial scenes. How about remembering the victims of all wars Great Britain, and then the UK, has been involved in, including the American War of Independence, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Crimean and Boer Wars? Perhaps just a tad sensitive vis-à-vis our US, French, Russian and African guests – so the ceremony shied away from those out of political correctness.

Politically correct does really sum it up, although this was not always compatible with factually correct. I’m thinking, for example, of the celebration of the NHS, which pretended that there is still a ‘UK NHS’, true to its founding principles. The truth, as we know, is that there are now four NHS’s – one for each of the UK’s nations – and that the English one has just recently been opened up to private market forces. Of course, I suppose the creator of last night’s spectacular, Danny Boyle, could have been making another political point by making ‘the NHS’ such a centrepiece; although, if he was, this was again very subtle and indirect, and glossed over the fact that the NHS – the British one – is no more. Perhaps, rather, we should interpret the NHS bit as a celebration of ‘British times past’, of bygone Britain, like most of the rest of the show.

This was in fact a highly backward- and inward-looking, nostalgic and retro view of Britain, and will probably confirm to people of many other countries just how self-important, arrogant and insular ‘the British’ are. ‘Oh’, they might say, ‘so Britain invented the industrial revolution, unionism, women’s rights and suffrage, modern sport, popular music and the World Wide Web, did they?’ Apart from the fact that this is not strictly true, it’s all historical. What is its relevance to the present, and what sort of vision of its future does ‘Great Britain’ have today? And what is its relevance to the many other participating nations that are going through similar convulsions in the present? Has Britain learned something from its past that can help it to guide those other countries and help prepare a sustainable future for the community of nations going forward? What about a vision for a sustainable planet – post-industrial for countries like Britain but still very industrial for many developing nations – to present to all the nations gathered symbolically in the Olympic stadium and watching via the medium, TV, that was invented and first used in live broadcasts in Britain? And what were they to make of all of the ‘in’ cultural references that only British, and sometimes only English, people could really relate to? ‘God, these people are so damn introverted and up their own proverbials!’

The truth of the matter is that ‘Great Britain’ doesn’t actually have a vision of its future nor of its place in a rapidly evolving world. In no small measure, that’s because Great Britain is indeed a historical relic in itself: neither ever a proper, unified nation in its past; nor, certainly, a nation or polity in the present that is capable of expressing and mediating the hopes, aspirations, national sentiment or desire for deeper democracy on the part of its respective constituent nations.

So last night’s event was perhaps after all a fitting celebration of what it means to be British: a multifarious community with a strong sense of its past but no vision for the future. Isles of Wonder and historical reverie, indeed; but one that would have left the rest of the world wondering.

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