Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

5 May 2009

It IS great to be British: Britology at its best

“It IS great to be British”. With its emphasis on ‘is’, this phrase reminds me of the opening of the song, ‘Oh, I DO like to be beside the seaside’. Brown’s latest eulogy of Britishness does indeed have something of that tone about it: well, we’ll all pull together, come rain and foul weather; there’s nothing like a crisis to get us going, and we’ll jolly well come up trumps in the end.

Well, that’s all right then. Evidently, we’re in safe hands. If you want an example of what I understand by the term ‘Britology’, this is a prime example. All the motifs are there in concentrated form. I was tempted to produce a detailed, blow-by-blow critique; but, like Brown, I’d just be going over old ground, and it would be dignifying the drivel (if not drizzle) in too high a degree.

If you feel like some bedtime reading to send you off into a fitful sleep spent endlessly turning over the same phrases in your mind, in the desperate attempt to squeeze out some meaning – any meaning; or if you fancy something to make your blood boil; then go ahead, take the plunge and read it. Here are just a few pointers to watch out for:

1) Britishness / Englishness: What Brown says about ‘Britishness’ could just as easily be called Englishness. And that’s because he IS essentially talking about Englishness, as the Britishness he outlines is what he needs the English to think of as their true, underlying ‘national identity’ – whereas, in reality, it’s Englishness that is the underlying national identity of Britishness: “We have shown over three centuries that a common ground of Britishness, of British identity, can be found in the stories of the various communities and nationalities that inhabit these islands. . . . On one side, our nurturing Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English identities and sensibilities – now, of course, added to by many others . . . . On the other, carefully balanced and held in tension, the organisations and operations of a British state that, shorn of nationalistic baggage, are the patriotic aspect of the nation state”.

Eugh? Decoded: ‘British patriotism (patriotism, you understand, not nationalism) is the acceptable face of the English nationalism (and national identity) that originally subjugated the other British nations and the colonies, who are now (after three centuries) England’s equals within a common Britishness’.

2) Don’t say ‘England’, or – if you have to – marginalise it: In order for Englishness to be re-presented as Britishness in this way, Brown needs to suppress or marginalise all references to England. This is because the thing he has to avoid at all costs is referring to the real political history of Britain, which is that the British state has been predominantly driven and moulded by English national and economic interests; and that England could once again develop a national consciousness that, this time, could see its interests as being better served outside the UK, rather than inside. This marginalisation is evident in the above-quoted reference to “our nurturing Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English identities and sensibilities”: putting ‘English’ last in line after the smaller nations, as if England were only one and – by implication – almost the least important driver of British identity; well, the least distinctive element in Brown’s Britishness, that’s for sure.

Another example is a quite ludicrous passage referring to the recent financial crisis:

“I believe a debate on Britishness is well timed, because of its relevance to the recent financial crisis. When it struck, no one questioned the British state standing behind banks headquartered in Scotland [yes, they bloody well did!]. No one discussed what a Wales-only response might be to the selling of sub-prime mortgages, or wondered how Northern Ireland might find its own solution to changing global conditions”.

Yes, this is where the discussion ends. ‘What about England, you f***er?’ was literally my response on reading this (well, OK, without the asterisks, if you see what I mean). The point being that people did question whether England would be better off weathering the financial crisis on its own: that it wouldn’t have been so s***ing awful in the first place, and then we wouldn’t have had to mortgage the future of the next generation of English kids and NHS patients to prop up the Scottish banks (and Chancellors) that had been foremost in getting us into the mess in the first place. (While on the subject of the NHS, you’ll love the lyrical passage about how it is an example of our fairness and unity as a ‘nation’. What a load of absolute tosh: there are four NHS’s thanks to Brown and New Labour, and the English one gets the smallest per-capita funding of them all – really united and fair!)

3)  British values: While we’re talking about ‘fairness’, all the pantheon of ‘British values’ are paraded out here, especially – alongside fairness – ‘tolerance’ and ‘liberty’, along with the Brownian insistence on ‘responsibilities’ alongside ‘rights’. It is highly ironic to hear someone like Brown emphasising liberty so much (an irony that seems totally to escape him), given the fact that his government has been responsible for removing countless liberties that have been fought for and cherished by the English over centuries.

4) British, not English, history: What is even more outrageous is that Brown presents this historic struggle as British history:

“But from the time of Magna Carta, to the civil wars and revolutions of the 17th century, through to the liberalism of Victorian Britain and the widening and deepening of democracy and fundamental rights throughout the last century, there has been a British tradition of liberty – what one writer has called our ‘gift to the world'”. 

Ahem: excuse me, Sir, but weren’t Magna Carta and the Civil War part of English history, before ‘Great Britain’ even existed? Not in Brown’s school of history, they aren’t. Just as a common Britishness – not England and Englishness – is the centre and driving force of Britain, for Brown, so ‘Britain’ is the ultimate telos of the history of these islands: the goal to which it inexorably tends and from whose standpoint alone the definitive history of these islands will be told. Or, in other words, those founding events in English history are indeed confined to history; whereas their continuing effects are now framed as part of the British present and future, which transforms those events retroactively into ‘British history’ (no longer English) and a founding part of the British identity. 

This appropriation to Britain of the narrative of English history is dependent on the suppression of the fact that the struggle for modern liberty began in England and is a constitutive part of the English national identity. Indeed, one might even contend that a hidden (or not so hidden) driving force behind Gordon Brown’s suppression of ‘our liberties’ is his urge to suppress England itself: the nurturing mother of freedom. 

5) Nations and regions: Just a few overt instances, made all the more sinister by the general talking up of Britain as the nation [is it my imagination, but are politicians and the media increasingly referring to Britain as a / the ‘nation’ nowadays, almost as much as they call it ‘the / this country’?], while references to England as a nation are avoided at all costs and the ‘regions’ are clearly meant to be English (although they could also be read as referring to Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland, too): 

“There is the changing role of the state and its relationship with our regions, with communities and individuals”. Is that his way of referring to devolution, which he doesn’t mention explicitly anywhere else?! Or is this just a reference to the non-mandated, centrally imposed regionalisation of England; the equally non-mandated reforms of local government; and the steadily advancing encroachment of the state into the lives and liberties of the individual? 

Or again: “a strong sense of shared patriotism can be built that relies not on race or on ancient and unchanging institutions, but rather on a foundation of values that can be shared by all of us, regardless of race, region or religion”. Race, region or religion – the new ‘3 R’s’! Oh, I get it: ‘region’ is the new collective term to refer to what Brown previously christened the ‘nations and regions’. It’s what you might call a more politically correct revision of that previous designation: it doesn’t ‘discriminate’ between the ‘nations’ of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the ‘regions’ of England, by simply referring to them all as regions. Well, that’s all right then. Except we know that, in reality, those nations do now have new national institutions (their own parliaments and governments), whereas we English are lumbered with the ancient and unchanging institution of the UK parliament – unless you count the unelected regional authorities as the new institutions for England. And, of course, this way of looking at it makes Britain the nation, as it is frequently termed in Brown’s essay. 

Elsewhere, Brown refers to Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland and England (let’s get the order right) as ‘nationalities’, not explicitly as nations. This implies that there aren’t four nations in the UK but just four distinct national identities that have fused to form a single British nation. But, ironically, this bizarre coinage makes the indigenous peoples of these islands seem like uprooted immigrants to Britain: having a nationality distinct from the nation (Britain) in which they now live. In fact, ‘nationality’ is more commonly used to refer to a person’s official national identity: their citizenship. We talk of ‘British nationality’ but of the ‘nations’ and national identities of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (and Cornwall, for some). 

This linguistic confusion marks out the way Brown turns the realities of British national identities on their head: ‘British’ is in reality the name of a ‘mere nationality’ (citizenship, statehood). But Brown wants to make Britain out to be a nation and the core national identity of its citizens. If Britain becomes a nation, then the ‘lesser’ term of ‘nationality’ can be applied to the UK’s historic national communities. And yet, ‘nationality’ is in fact the more ‘proper’ (official, legal, formal) name for a person’s ‘national identity’ – so that ascribing ‘nationality’ to the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish suggests that these – not Britishness – are the founding national identities of the UK. But then, all that is left for Brown to hook his concept of ‘proper’, true British nationhood on to are attributes of citizenship and statehood – those above-mentioned civic British values and the institutions of the state: “the organisations and operations of a British state, . . . shorn of nationalistic baggage, are the patriotic aspect of the nation state. . . . I believe we are discovering that what unites us is far greater than what separates us, and that the values we share most are those that matter most. Recognising them, and with them the rights and responsibilities that citizenship involves, will strengthen us as an open, diverse, adaptable, enabling and successful modern state”. The state as nation; and the nations as superseded, nationalistic ‘nationalities’. 

Well, I’m sorry; I ended up doing the lengthy demolition job after all. Familiar ground, but endless permutations of the same delusional reasoning and twisted logic. But it’s true, there is one thing that IS great about Britain: you’re never far from the water. Deep water in Brown’s case.

2 May 2009

Almunia for Britain (sorry, England)

Apparently, Manuel Almunia – Arsenal FC’s Spanish-born goalkeeper – is considering changing his nationality in order to be eligible to play for England. As the story on the BBC website put it: “The Spaniard, who has said he would consider playing for England, will be eligible to apply for citizenship this summer having signed in 2004. And that would enable the 31-year-old, who has never represented Spain, to play for England under Fabio Capello”.

Well, I suppose if we can have an Italian manager, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a Spanish keeper! Regardless of the question of the rules relating to eligibility for national teams, which I’ll return to, what amuses me about the way this story was reported is the automatic assumption that acquiring British citizenship makes you qualified to play for England. Not once in the BBC article is the distinction between becoming a British citizen and being eligible for the England team even pointed out. Indeed, the article quotes Almunia’s manager – the Frenchman, Arsene Wenger – without comment: “On the English side, for the national team, it is not so much a problem because if the guy decides to become English, he has had to observe and respect the rules like anybody else. Why should he then not be qualified to play for the national team?”

So Almunia is going to ‘become English’ now, is he? I thought he was going to become a British citizen! Does a naturalised Spaniard living in England automatically become English as well as British? I hope for Almunia’s sake that if he does take British citizenship, he will also take England to his heart and make her his adopted country; and that it won’t be just another case of a foreign national taking on British nationality as a flag of convenience to enable them to pursue the opportunities afforded to them here: in this case, playing for the England football team – but without any real identification with or love for England, but merely to fulfil the personal ambition to play in the World Cup Finals.

It’s an interesting thought, though: the idea that taking on British citizenship might automatically entitle one to be considered – indeed, might oblige one to identify – as one or other of English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. In other words, in order to be British, you would have to also take on the national identity of one of the ‘constituent countries’ of the UK. This would make British nationality logically dependent on being English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. In this sense, there would be no such thing as ‘British Spanish’ (or a Spanish Brit), nor, on the same basis, ‘British Indian’, ‘British Caribbean’ or ‘British Pakistani’. British English, British Scottish, British Welsh and British Irish (and, yes, British Cornish), maybe. Indeed, one might make a person’s Englishness (and Scottishness, Welshness, etc.) the true test of their Britishness – better than any Citizenship Test. Food for thought.

But I digress. There are two main things at work in this story: 1) the unthinking equation of, and slippage between, English and British identity throughout the BBC-website article, as demonstrated in the above quotes; and 2) the assumption that becoming a British citizen would be sufficient to qualify Almunia to play for England. Or should I say ‘presumption’, certainly on Arsene Wenger’s part, and maybe Almunia’s. I think, on the contrary, that you need to be English, not just British, to play for England. You can be English by adoption and not just by birth; but I do think that this adoption needs to take place. After all, adoption, though technically (legally) one way (the new parents formally declare the child as their own), is in fact a two-way process: in order to bond with its new family, the child must also emotionally adopt its new parents as its own. If Almunia and the football establishment want England supporters to adopt him into the family, he must also adopt us as his new home nation.

But talking of ‘home nations’, it isn’t even clear in the technical, legal, sense that by becoming a Brit, Almunia will be able to play for England. In an interesting discussion on FIFA’s rules on eligibility for national teams, a post on England Football Online concludes that the present FIFA rules leave a degree of ambiguity in situations where a player’s nationality “entitles him to represent more than one Association”: typically, in the case of someone who becomes a British citizen and who would therefore be eligible to play for any of the four national British sides, so long as he has never played for the national team of his original country, which Almunia hasn’t. In these cases, FIFA’s Executive Committee reserves the right to decide.

Here again, no automatic right to play for England by virtue solely of being British – but this time from the ultimate lawmakers of football. Would that our own lawmakers in the UK were such jealous guardians of the primacy of belonging to a nation over mere citizenship!

But at least if Almunia was declared eligible to play for England, on completion of his naturalisation, that would mean Arsenal would have two English players in their first team, instead of just one at present!

3 May 2008

Cameron will win: it’s a generation game

I’ve been privately participating in the fever of speculation there’s been over the past few days – particularly since Labour’s local election debacle on Thursday – as to whether the tide of political fortunes has now turned back in the Tories’ favour, meaning they’ll win the next general election. Initially, I was sceptical about David Cameron’s prospects, as the Tories’ resurgence seems to be dependent more on people rejecting New Labour and Gordon Brown [GB] than on support for the Conservatives’ programme – whatever that might turn out to be. However, after the local election results, which saw Labour drop to third position on share of the votes behind the Liberal Democrats, and a consistent nationwide swing towards the Tories, I feel that, maybe, Cameron could just pull it off at the general election, which will take place probably in 2010.

Thinking about it further, there’s another reason why I think Cameron will win. This is my theory of generational evolution of society, or, putting it more simply, the way social changes are influenced by successive generations. I’m sure professional sociologists have developed a more scientific version of this idea, presumably with a technical name to boot; so I’m pretty sure this is not an ‘original’ theory, if such a thing exists in any absolute sense. However, if it is, I hereby dub it the ‘political generation game theory’, on the analogy of the amateur contestants of the immortal Bruce’s show who had to imitate the dazzling skills of professionals of one sort or another.

What the idea is, in essence, is that particular periods of a nation’s history – often defined or named in relation to the dominant political personality associated with it – have a character that is determined to a large extent as a function of the periods that immediately preceded them and the period before that. More precisely, each period is a reaction to the one before, which draws its inspiration in large part from the period before that. And it does this because the people who are most influential in shaping the character of any given age – the political, business and media opinion formers and decision makers – spent their most formative years (say, between the ages of about 10 and 19) in the period preceding the period in relation to which they are defining themselves.

An example: ‘the Blair years’ and New Labour were clearly in part a reaction to / against ‘Thatcherism’ and the period of ruthless market economics that is denoted by that term. And it was a reaction that represented in part a reprise of the social-democratic Labour that had been in power for much of the 1960s and 1970s, which was precisely the period in which the leaders in society during the Blair years spent their formative years. With the difference that the New Labour period was also a continuation of Thatcherism, which had in a sense laid the economic and political foundations for Blair’s social-democratic ‘redistributive capitalism’ to actually work – whereas the economic stagnation and political / union antagonisms of the 1970s had thwarted Labour’s ambitions to create a successful, prosperous welfare state. So what we got under Blair was a new blend of social democracy and market economics: social-market economics; equality of opportunity mutating into ‘equality of market opportunity’: the goal of government being to free up people to participate more fully in, and reap the rewards from, the market society (society as a market).

Similarly, you could say that Thatcherism itself was a reaction against the whole political and social model of the Wilson and Callaghan years: initially, the idealistic 1960s, with the vision of a socially and morally freer and more equal world, underpinned by economic prosperity and technological developments that enabled people to have a bloody good time, and enjoy hitherto only dreamt-of material and physical pleasures; later, collapsing into the cynicism and recriminations of the 1970s as the downward economic cycle and spiralling inflation caused industries to collapse, and engendered strife in the workplace, on the football terraces and in the inner cities as people sought scapegoats for the fact that living the good life was increasingly unrealistic.

The Thatcherite reaction to all that was indeed a reinstatement of the Tory values from the 1950s, when many of the leaders of the 1980s were in their ‘tens’ (aged 10 to 19): the individual standing on their own two feet and creating prosperity through their own hard work and enterprise – rather than just expecting a good standard of living to be handed to them effortlessly on a plate by their employer or the state. And yet, Thatcherism also carried forward much of the ethos and attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s: the anti-union and anti-industrial-working-class antagonisms on the part of the Thatcher government were in a sense the continuation of the 1970s industrial unrest, with the difference that Thatcher took on and saw off the unions, whereas Callaghan tried to instil reason in them through comradely beer and sandwiches at No. 10. Similarly, the materialistic individualism and hedonism of the ‘I’ve-got-money’ 1980s was a continuation, in the selfish-capitalist Thatcherite mode, of the increasingly cynical, materialistic direction that originally idealistic 1960s explorations of self-fulfilment and sexual freedom had followed in the 1970s.

So what of David Cameron, then? Are we about to enter into the ‘Cameronite’ reaction against Blairism and its feeble successor / continuation that is GB; just as the ineffectual Major saw out the dying phase of the Thatcherite period, and Callaghan stood watch over the waning of the initially optimistic Wilson Labour years – all prime ministers that took over mid-term from leaders that had really set the political tone for a whole period, but whose increasing unpopularity was a sign, perhaps, that one period was on its way out and the new epoch was about to begin?

If so, then a putative Cameron era, following my theory, should be both a continuation of some aspects of the preceding period (the Blair / Brown epoch), and a harking back to and blend of some aspects of the period before that, during which the leaders of the new age were growing up – which, in the case of Cameron’s relatively youthful team, was mainly the Thatcher years. Incidentally, the fact that it is now being said that people are no longer ‘scared’ of the Tories, for all Cameron’s charm, probably owes more to the fact that the people in the worlds of politics, business and the media who are, as it were, ‘of the same age’ as Cameron (or younger, as are many in his team) and are preparing his coronation grew up under Thatcher and would have regarded her attitudes and politics as normal, not as a grim assault on so much that my generation (growing up in the 1970s: the latter end of the ‘Blair generation’) held dear.

But we’ve already had the Thatcher ‘revival’: that was Tony Blair – Thatcherism with a socially caring face. And that’s part of the problem faced by David Cameron’s Conservatives (the ‘New Tories’ in all but name): they want to be ‘Conservatism with a caring face’ but Blair has already done that. So perhaps they’ll just have to reverse the paradigm and become ‘a caring society with a Thatcherite face’, perhaps?

The difference between these two terms can perhaps best be illustrated by the ambiguity of the ‘tag line’ – as the marketing bods might put it – for Cameron’s party philosophy: ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’. ‘Modern’ and ‘compassionate’: here are two words that could have been plucked straight from Blair’s vocabulary; and they sit comfortably – naturally almost – alongside ‘Conservatism’. Indeed, Conservatism has always been associated with the idea of compassion (of the wealthy) for the poor, and with social, philanthropic responsibility towards them. So this conveys the idea of classic, one-nation Conservatism (the Conservatism before Thatcher) – which in one sense was the space in the political spectrum that Blairism inhabited – but modernised in keeping with the challenges of today.

On the other hand, if you just insert a comma into the phrase, as follows – ‘modern, compassionate Conservatism’ – it changes the whole meaning. Syntactically, ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’ suggests a ‘compassionate Conservatism – single concept: one-nation conservatism – that is modern’. ‘Modern, compassionate Conservatism’, on the other hand, implies a ‘modern Conservatism, one of whose distinguishing features is that it is also compassionate’; in contradistinction to a previous form of Conservatism – Thatcherism – that is perceived as having lacked compassion. But by implication, this could suggest that the modern, compassionate Conservatism is also an updated, more compassionate version of Thatcherism itself. So this tag line is appealing to all three strands: modern, ‘Blairite’ care and compassion for the poor and disadvantaged in society (in keeping with the traditions of one-nation Conservatism) that also draws on all that was ‘good’ about Thatcherite Conservatism – its effectiveness, leadership qualities, appeal to English-British people’s distrust of state interference and ‘nannying’, and their wish to provide the best for themselves and their families, using their own skills and hard work, whether in material comforts, housing, health or education.

This in essence is the appeal of Cameron. On the one hand, he’s Blair Plus: embodying all that’s ‘good’ about Blair (the concern to alleviate society’s ills), but if anything pushed even further. Instead of Blair’s reform agenda, which in essence was economic reform (instilling market principles into the public services), we have a social reform policy. Instead of merely tinkering with the benefits system, attempting to provide more efficient public services and carrying out a bit of inner-city regeneration, Cameron’s Conservatives have set out their stall as a party that’s really trying to get to the bottom of what has caused the collapse of stable, responsible society in so many of our cities, and have so far come up with a rather traditional Conservative answer: that it’s about the break-down of the two-parent family, the absence of father figures, and the lack of discipline at school and in the home. And what is seen as being absent in such social contexts are the very values that Cameron is trying, in more neo-Thatcherite mode, to invoke as being at the heart of his political programme: individual and collective responsibility for making things better, rather than relying on central targets and the nanny state to deliver the improvements.

The initial outline of the vision that we were given at the Tory party conference last autumn suggested that one of the forms this new affirmation of the Thatcherite principles of personal moral responsibility for improving the things that matter to you in life could take was that of ‘local privatisation’: rolling back the frontiers of government and public-sector ownership and control not just at a national level but at the local level where people are users – ‘consumers’ – of services. So, for instance, rather than the Blairite approach of setting out a single blueprint for introducing market principles into schools and hospitals, which often meant putting them directly or indirectly in the hands of major corporate enterprises, the Cameron policy could well involve local people themselves taking managerial responsibility for their schools and hospitals – whether in the form of continuing public ownership of some sort (for instance, through trusts), or by actually establishing new schools (or taking over existing ones?) as businesses in which local people could take out shares and which would genuinely have to compete for private and public funding – while service levels were guaranteed, perhaps, through some form of charter and contractual agreement with local authorities.

To some extent, the finer details of this are just speculation, as the Conservatives have yet to outline their specific policies. But it’s informed speculation based on Tory statements, and reports into things like the family and the problems of the inner cities they’ve already produced; but also based on this generational theory of mine: that the Tories have this dual motivation to carry out the social-market agenda of Tony Blair more effectively and profoundly, and to do so in a way that resurrects the best principles of the Thatcherism they grew up under. This involves the idea of empowering and motivating ordinary individuals and communities to take responsibility for improving their lives by giving them a stake and a real say in the things that are most important to them. I think that however these fundamentals of ‘Cameronism’ are translated into tangible policy, they will help the Tories to win the next election because the people who are most influential in shaping public opinion were formed under Thatcher and want to see a return to her values of self-reliance and of the public taking private ownership of, literally, their own public services.

Looking at the massive nationwide swing to the Tories in this week’s local elections, the psephologists have come out with their usual meaningless predictions about how a general election would turn out on the same shares of the vote: a Tory landslide, with a possible 150-seat majority. What if this did happen, though? Would this mean, as Anthony Barnett of the OurKingdom blog put it, that “any democratic reform agenda is now in jeopardy”? The point is, if Cameron did win a comfortable outright parliamentary majority, he could – and probably would – ignore all the widespread support and calls for constitutional and institutional reform, such as a more accountable parliament (better still an English parliament), reform of the House of Lords, PR, a genuine bill of rights that protects civil liberties, and even an English Grand Committee to discuss England-only bills (why bother if the Tories have a majority both of English and UK-wide MPs?). Cameron might be a social and economic reformer at local level, but at national political level, it would not be in the perceived interests of his government or his party to do a single thing.

Cameron is no more interested in addressing the English Question, nor even in uttering the word ‘England’, than is GB. When Cameron talks of ‘our nation’, he means ‘Britain’ not England, even if the policies that are being discussed relate to England alone. Indeed, he has gone on record, in a Telegraph interview a few months back, as saying he’s not interested in being a PM for England – even though that’s what he effectively will be in most of his domestic agenda. And there seems little difference in the Tories’ description of their ‘responsibility agenda’ below from Brown’s emphasis on Britishness and his bringing together of the formulation of citizens’ rights with prescriptions about, and enforcement of, their responsibilities: “To make the most of the new world of freedom, we need to strengthen the structures which bring stability and a sense of belonging: home, neighbourhood and nation. Our Responsibility Agenda will therefore include Green Papers on welfare reform, health, marriage and relationships, addiction and debt, responsible business, social care, cohesion, and National Citizenship Service” (my emphases).

Like I said, the Cameron era will in many respects be a continuation of the Blair / Brown period. And it seems that the efforts to articulate, formalise and impose prescriptive definitions of (British) national identity and citizenship / responsibilities will be part of the baggage that is carried forward. I suppose that that’s also part of the Conservative unionist tradition and the British-nationalist Thatcherite legacy that the Cameron era will reaffirm; so there’s a ‘natural fit’ there between Brown’s wrapping of himself in the Union Flag and the New Conservatives.

There’s no doubt that the Conservative values, and the generational swing back to them, that Cameron appeals to are also in many respects English values: self-reliance, freedom from government interference, private ownership and enterprise, social responsibility and neighbourliness, and fairness towards the ‘poorest’ in society – as the Conservatives’ website continually refers, somewhat patronisingly, to the working class. And, in this respect, if English voters are largely responsible for electing a Conservative government with a large majority next time, then they can hardly complain when that government ignores the demand for an English parliament – except, of course, that government won’t have been elected by a majority of English voters; and if none of the major parties are even vaguely talking about the possibility of an English parliament, then the English people aren’t being offered the chance of voting for one.

This raises the possibility that the best hope for representative democratic English governance, accountable to the people of England, could again come from Scotland. Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales are unlikely to swing towards Cameron’s Conservatives to the same extent as the English. This could mean an increasing polarisation between ‘Tory England’, and nationalist and Labour Scotland and Wales, potentially resulting in growing antagonism and political divergence between England and the rest of the UK. Together with pressure in England to reduce the Barnett differentials (the formula guaranteeing Scotland and Wales a higher per capita level of public expenditure than the English), this could really give the Scottish-nationalist cause a massive shot in the arm. And, who knows, there might yet be a Scottish referendum that would say ‘yes’ to independence.

Cameron’s Conservatives, by continuing Brown’s Britishness crusade, might well yet set the seal on the Union’s demise. In which case perhaps, in ten years’ time, we might all be saying, along with Bruce (the English one, that is), “didn’t they do well?”

15 March 2008

The English Subject: Time To Change It?

You know how it goes: sex, politics, money and religion – not things one talks about in polite society, at least not in England. Let’s change the subject, dear. England has arguably joined this list; and perhaps it was ever thus – England is not the kind of thing we English like to make too much of a fuss about, especially when we had a worldwide Empire to rule. We’ll just let the more abrasive, vulgar, bourgeois Britain be the vehicle through which we talk politics and get on with the unseemly business of earning our living. And that way, in the discreet seclusion of our castles, we can quietly enjoy our English freedoms and privacy – we don’t have to talk about it as well!

Somehow, that tact and reserve has percolated through history to the cappuccino class of today. It’s slightly embarrassing and vulgar to go on about England in the dinner parties of the chattering classes. But now the balance has shifted a bit: it’s Englishness not Britishness that’s just a tad common! But how much, fundamentally, has changed? It’s just that the always British bourgeoisie now holds the reins of power and its language has become the dominant discourse. And the class that’s in power always thinks that power is not class-based, as if power has come to it as a natural consequence of its talents and merits. And so ‘British values’ speak of and to a class-less society, don’t you know; whereas it’s ever so ignorant and working class to hammer on about little old England – or else, such talk harks back to the feudal values of baronial and aristocratic privilege.

But just as with the ruling aristocracy of old, Englishness is still the dirty little secret of the liberal middle classes to which they do not own up in civilised company – whereas, in the more enlightened modern British times in which we live, talk about sex, politics and money is now politically and socially OK (so long as you don’t take them too seriously); but definitely not religion, oh no. We’re English, you know; you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

But what is the English subject? Or should that be who? Is there such a thing, or person, as an English subject in an era when our leaders would have us all pledging our allegiance to Her Britannic Majesty: British subjects or British citizens? Or English persons subjected to British citizenship in a humiliating ritual of submission? Perhaps that’s what an English subject is: someone whose citizenship in their own country is subject to (conditional upon) their acceptance of the ‘rules’ and ‘duties’ of Britishness. Is that the reason why so many of us are embarrassed to talk up our Englishness: we feel too unworthy, little and diffident to assert ourselves as a nation in our own right; whereas the aggressive mask and language of Britishness gives us the apparatus of statehood and the confidence to rule?

But who is the ‘we’ who feel equipped to govern through the language and power structures of the British state? Who is the subject of rule: the subject who rules alongside those who are subject to that rule? Is this not, rather than the ‘royal we’ of Queen and Country, in fact the sovereign ‘we’: we the English people? The British state is the means through which we the English exercise our democratic power. Or at least it was: this identification of the English with the British state has now been greatly eroded for reasons frequently discussed throughout this blog and elsewhere – the break up, post-devolution, of the symbiotic relationship that existed in the minds of the English between England, the rest of the UK and the British state. And now the English subject – or the English subjectivity in the sense of psyche or consciousness – has been split in two: one part the anguished Englishman groping towards a new sense of identity and possibility of statehood; and one part the controlling Brit seeking to stuff the turbulent English genie back into the ale bottle from whence the wish for a new constitutional settlement had unwittingly released him.

Except, of course, these are not two persons or types of Englishman-Briton, but the two parts of the English subject, and subjectivity, that are seeking the way back to union. Because the subject (the I – indeed the eye – and the we) of government remains largely English. Just as the subjects of government – the people and issues that are governed – remain largely English. Central UK government, in other words, is still something carried out mainly by English people, with a London-centric English perspective, and involved with governing English matters on behalf of the English people. In many contexts, the only thing that’s British about it is the language (always refer to ‘Britain’ or ‘the country’, never ‘England’) and the institutional framework (officially, that of the UK government).

So English governance is still provided by English people through the medium of the UK state – it was ever thus. And the attitude towards the governance of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still reflects the perspective of the English subject in the driving seat of power, whether a particular aspect of governance is devolved or retained. I was struck by this the other day when reading through the government’s Climate Change Bill as part of my day job as a freelance technology-industry analyst. Occasionally, it makes reference to areas of environmental policy that are the responsibility of the devolved administrations: such and such a decision needs to be taken in partnership with the governments of Scotland and Wales, or this sort of emissions-monitoring report needs to be notified to those nations’ relevant bodies. And the reader thinks: well, everything in this bill refers to legislation and international undertakings by the United Kingdom government; but then, from atop the throne of British sovereignty, one occasionally looks down upon the bits subcontracted out to the governments in Scotland and Wales. So what does that make the perspective – the subjective viewpoint – of the UK government? It’s the perspective of English people who for centuries have been used to governing Scotland and Wales direct now having to acknowledge that bits of the process need to be handled by the natives themselves. That’s the subjectivity, the Englishness, of UK governance; even though, in objective terms – the formal language, the legal and political institutions, and the constitutional ‘personality’ of the state – it’s all British: not an ‘England’ or an ‘English’ in sight. This is because it’s England and the English that are doing the looking; it’s the English subject that’s inside the mind of the British state, not an object of its vision, which can be defined only in terms of Britishness.

Under this present government, this subjectively English concern to preserve the Britishness of the state has become blended with the dangerous catalyst, shall we say, of a certain Scottish-unionist wish both to preserve unitary British governance in the devolved nations, and to recast that Britishness as something that is no longer the expression of English dominance and the English subjectivity at the heart of the state. The only way, on this view, that a continuing Union can be reconciled with full equality between the nations of the UK (as opposed to traditional dominance of the other nations, through the British state, by England) is to invent a new unified single-British national identity and nation state in which the differences, and inequalities, between England and the other nations are finally, definitively, nullified. We become all, in the same way, British; and the English subject – the English subjectivity, consciousness and perspective – must become a British subject-citizen: taking on a new civic-national British identity, and forgetting England and Englishness. There will be no longer any English subject – no English mind and nationhood – and the objective-Britishness of the state, and of its official statements of national value and identity, will be the only truth and the only thing that matters. No English subjects, no English matters; only UK citizens and UK governance.

But it hasn’t come to that yet; and could it ever, really? The thing is, the Brownite Britishness project is predicated on a wish for the English subject not to exist that is so strong that it crosses over into a failure to see – through the objective-only focus of Brown’s style of British governance – that the English consciousness is still alive, if sick and divided, at the heart of the British state. English people are real, the English nation is real; English perspectives, priorities and ways of doing things exist – and how could they not be there right at the centre of government when that government is a work effected overwhelmingly by English people? That Englishness is not explicitly articulated in the workings of the British state; it’s not something that’s talked about in the formal, public discourse of politics and power – because up to now, we English have just not needed to govern in our own name and to bother about devising overtly English forms of statehood and civic identity: Britishness has done the job for us quite well enough, thank you – we don’t need to brag or rave like other more emotional peoples. We’re English, after all.

But not any more: Britishness is no longer ‘fit for purpose’, as the government might say. Devolution set not only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on a course separate, or semi-separate, from the UK but also England. We the English are still largely in denial of this, and the asymmetric devolution settlement is the expression of the continuing unwillingness or inability of so many English people – including English people in government – to accept the reality that the old unitary Britain is no more. And Brown has now come along and upped the ante to such an extent that he’s the made the choice between British governance and some form of English governance yet to be worked out equivalent to a choice of whether to be British-only (and not English) or to break up the Union. He’s the real criminal Union breaker here; because if the price of remaining citizens of a unitary Britain is to relinquish their Englishness, then this is a price that the massive majority of English people will refuse to pay, as soon as they realise what’s being asked of them.

So what’s the alternative to Brown’s Britishness; where can the British state, and the English subjectivity that is captive within it, go from here? Well, it needn’t go all that far, really; because, in some ways, we’re already at the destination if we could but see it. The British government is still the English government in all but name: government of the English by the English but articulated through the language and institutions of Britain. And the UK parliament has always been, and can be again, the English parliament: concerned overwhelmingly with English matters; and, in the retained UK-wide matters, dominated by the English perspective and English priorities – or, at least, by the priorities of a minority English political persuasion unfairly awarded the majority of seats.

So we could, if we wanted to, stay right where we are; and, with only the slightest tweaking of the system, we’d have our English government, our English parliament, and the ability, at last, to be proud to openly acknowledge and proclaim our Englishness. We just need to come to a moment of decision where we can pluck up the courage to make the English ‘we’ of government not just subjectively but objectively, officially and formally the subject of English political discourse, of English civic institutions and of a constitutional English nation. Those English ministries and English laws that express themselves in the oh-so-tactful and eloquent conventions of British legalese could then at last ‘say England’; that parliament, 85% of whose members and laws are for England only, could become in fact a parliament for England only. What would it take? No more than a translation into a logical, English expression of the existing status quo: let’s just call the Englishness of the British government by its name, and make it officially an English government, once and for all.

What would we do with the UK-wide areas of governance, though? What, that is, would we the English people now in control of our own governance do about the aspects of government responsibility for the whole of the UK that we the English had retained: through the British state that is still today the vehicle through which we hold on to control of the other nations of the UK. What I am suggesting is that maybe we’ve got the understanding of devolution the wrong way round. Because we’re fixated with the idea of the British state devolving power to the nations of the UK – including England one day, as many of us hope -we’ve failed to see the subjective truth of devolution, which is that it’s English power – articulated through the British state – that has been ‘lent’ back to the other nations. The shift in consciousness that I am advocating, whereby the English could wrest back power over English matters to themselves almost through little more than a coming to be conscious of the fact that they already do control their own affairs – in the alienating forms of Britishness – could enable us to see governance over the continuing Union (of whatever form) as something that we the English could devolve to a new federal UK body.

So not English devolution from the UK but devolution of UK matters from England. Not devolution from Britain resulting in a new English parliament and the necessity to recast the Union government into some federal mould; but a symbolic, and nonethless momentous, shift in our consciousness enabling us to see reflected in objective, institutional reality the subjective truth that the British state is already the work of the English nation. And then, devolution from the English nation of the responsibilities we have held for so long for the governance of Britain – and which have burdened us with a Britishness that has kept our English subjectivity suppressed – which can be transferred to a new UK body (if Scotland and Wales haven’t become independent by the time that happens) in which all the nations of the UK can indeed sit together as equals. The equality of different nations pooling their sovereignty together in the areas where it makes sense to do so; not the nullifying equality of Brown’s monolithic Britain predicated on the suppression of national differences.

Then, perhaps, it will be possible for the English subject to be talked about in polite society. Because we English really are very polite, you know; it’s just we’d grown tired of all the British abuse that we’d gone along with for so long.

24 February 2008

British Values and Islam: Can They Meet on English Ground?

The Bishop of Rochester, Dr. Nazir-Ali, is back in the news again today through his refusal to retract any of the remarks he made in a recent interview in the Daily Telegraph that Islamic extremism had turned certain parts of Britain into no-go areas for non-Muslims. Indeed, the death threats he and his family have received, along with a large volume of supportive correspondence, have confirmed him in his views.

The bishop’s concerns appear to be twofold:

1) The separation and isolation of ‘extremist’ Islamic communities that have become virtual ghettoes, according to the bishop. This means that non-Muslims feel threatened and are squeezed out, deprived of their right to live and work in those areas. The goal of multi-culturalism appears, therefore, to have spawned total separation, challenging the broader goal of integration; and, additionally, the extremist views that hold sway in such areas are turning the minds of youth, posing a security risk to the country as a whole.

2) The bishop fears that such Islamic extremism is filling a moral and spiritual void in Britain as a whole, caused by the erosion of the country’s Christian faith; and, as a consequence, there is a risk that Islam will in fact spread beyond the extremist ghettoes and pose itself as an alternative value system for the UK as a whole. As he says in the second Telegraph interview today (linked above): “The real danger to Britain today is the spiritual and moral vacuum that has occurred for the last 40 or 50 years. When you have such a vacuum something will fill it. If people are not given a fresh way of understanding what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a Christian-based society then something else may well take the place of all that we’re used to and that could be Islam”.

An observation in passing. For me, this demonstrates one of the big flaws in the debate about so-called Islamic extremism, Islamism, etc. On the one hand, these are real, serious issues. There is a problem about how Muslim communities should best be integrated within our society; there are areas where non-Muslims feel isolated and unwelcome; and there is a real security risk from young people being indoctrinated into a false understanding of Islam that justifies hatred and violence against non-Muslims. But people’s understandable fears about such things are combined with a more pervasive, cultural unease about Islam that is indeed Christian in its historical roots: the fear of Islam as a violent faith that seeks to take over and Islamify Western-Christian culture and nations.

This is Islamophobia: an ultimately prejudiced dislike and fear of Islam. It’s this fear that makes many people equate all Muslims who seek to lead their lives more strictly according to the laws and ordinances of their faith with extremism. This fear also modulates the movement in Dr. Nazir-Ali’s thoughts between genuinely extremist and, by that token, distorted Islam and Islam per se as a potential faith-based value system for this country – genuinely accepted and embraced by millions of British people as an alternative to Christianity or secularism. It’s only irrational fear of Islam that could make this last scenario appear realistic; it is, however, plausible to imagine that at some point there could be a quite widespread assault on the British state from home-grown jihadis. But such people and their twisted beliefs would never be willingly accepted by the British people, or even by the majority of British Muslims.

Perhaps for tactical reasons – to ride the wave of the general reaffirmation of Britishness – perhaps also out of genuine personal experience and conviction, Nazir-Ali associates his appeal for us to reinvent a Christian society with British values and tradition. Indeed, the bishop asserts:

“Do the British people really want to lose that rooting in the Christian faith that has given them everything they cherish – art, literature, architecture, institutions, the monarchy, their value system, their laws?”

While many of these things the bishop lists undoubtedly owe much to Britain’s Christian past, I don’t think many British people would accept that Christianity was the sole or main source of inspiration for all of them. Britain’s ‘value system’ has been decreasingly Christian for decades and centuries, certainly for longer than the 40 or 50 years the bishop refers to, i.e. from before the revolution in social mores in the 1960s. I’m bound to say that I think this perception of Britain per se (a 300-year-old state founded as our culture had already embarked on its gradual secularisation) as having been historically, and still being fundamentally, at root a Christian society reflects the perspective of an immigrant from a Muslim country; as indeed people coming to Britain from Pakistan do tend, at least initially, to think they’re coming to a Christian country and that that country is Britain – rather than England, Scotland or Wales – in the first instance.

So Dr. Nazir-Ali appears to oppose Christianity and British values, on one side, to Islam, on the other. Not surprising, then, that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech two and half weeks ago (discussed elsewhere in this blog) in which he called for consideration of the idea that sharia law could be incorporated in some way into English civil law is anathema to the Bishop of Rochester:

“People of every faith should be free within the law to follow what their spiritual leaders direct them to, but that’s very different from saying their structures should replace that of the English legal system because there would be huge conflicts”.

The scenario of some aspects of sharia becoming official English legal procedure and legislation clearly plays on Nazir-Ali’s fear of Islam ultimately coming to replace Britain’s own laws and institutions, with their Christian foundations. Or should that be England’s laws, institutions and Christian foundations? As I stated in the previous discussion on Rowan Williams’s speech (linked above), one of the reasons why the media and political establishment came down so hard on the Archbishop was that he was suggesting that there could be constructive, creative and to some extent open-ended dialogue and co-operation between the English legal system (itself plural in its sources of inspiration, not all of which Christian) and sharia (also not a uniform, monolithic body of doctrine and established procedure but admitting of multiple cultural variations throughout Islam). This flies in the face of the political drive to construct and impose a normative Britishness, e.g. through the proposed British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and a British written constitution. This effort to redefine a uniform Britishness is opposed both to the aspirations of many English people to define themselves primarily as English and to establish English national political institutions (such as a parliament); and to the aspiration of many Muslims to define their identity and regulate many aspects of their daily lives (including certain legal aspects) as Islamic in the first instance, and then British insofar as – and perhaps legitimately only if – British society and law allow them to retain and express their Muslim identity and beliefs.

So in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s conceptual framework, if I’ve understood it correctly, there is, on the one side, a potentially monopolistic, secular British state / value system / law and, on the other side, a more diverse English legal system and sense of identity encompassing and striving to integrate both Christian, Muslim and secular influences. The key differences between Rochester’s and Canterbury’s positions are therefore threefold:

  1. Rochester assimilates Christianity to British values and tradition, while Canterbury opposes a more plural and, indeed, Christian-inspired English tradition to a narrow secular Britishness
  2. Rochester sees the primary national identity of this country as Britain / British, while Canterbury’s focus is on the English nation, Church and law
  3. Rochester sees fundamentalist Islam as inimical to British society and its Christian-centred values (or, another way of putting this: he sees Islam per se as fundamentally inimical to Britain and its Christian-centred values); while Canterbury believes that English pragmatism, backed by a universal vision of the basis for law and for human rights that is both religious in inspiration and common to all religions, can create the grounds on which Islamic beliefs, culture and customs can be profoundly integrated within English society, law and liberalism: the respect for freedom of conscience, belief and lifestyle.

Both men are agreed – and, in fact, I agree with them – that true integration between ‘British’ people and Muslims can take place only if the British come to respect and engage with the religious grounds for Muslims’ wish to retain particular practices and ways of living that separate them to some extent from other communities; and that, in order for this to happen, we need to get back in touch with the properly religious inspiration and foundation of the laws and freedoms we hold dear. But such a process of integration is not compatible with the would-be imposition of a monolithic secular Britishness that decrees that people’s freedoms should be dependent on their accepting the primacy of the British state in determining their social responsibilities and fundamental collective identity – rather than these being shaped as an expression of the English and / or Muslim values and identity.

As I stated in my previous discussion of Dr. Rowan Williams’ speech, the British media and political establishment tries to capitalise on any apparent concession to extremist or radical Islamic views to whip up Islamophobia and manipulate it to get English people (who otherwise might be quite anti the Britishness drive) behind the British values and way of life that are supposedly under threat. But is there not in reality more common ground between the defence of the English nation and the defence of the freedom of English Muslims to continue to make their faith the centre of their lives while contributing to the common good? Both positions are opposed to a secular and potentially authoritarian Britishness that seeks to deny any place in the core definition of British values, citizenship and national identity not only to Islam but to England, and its historical and continuing Christian roots.

So Nazir-Ali is right on one level – about rediscovering and reinventing our Christian heritage and roots – but he’s wrong in identifying those with Britain and British values, rather than England. The British values that the political class is currently pushing are just as opposed, in many respects, to Christianity as to Islam, and certainly seek to eliminate the radical Englishness of the British state (its roots in England’s history and identity) as much as radical Islam. The British state seeks to play divide and rule with respect to the English and the Muslims amongst them, setting them one against the other – urging Muslims to identify and, effectively, ‘convert’ to a secular British identity that only alienates them still further from the English population as it resists being dragged into an a-national British citizenry.

The English and Muslims must both resist this and find common ground in the defence of their identity, their faith – and their Englishness.

22 February 2008

Brown’s Britishness: Nationality Or Citizenship?

Students of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] Brit-obsessed public discourse will have a field day with his speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) on ‘Managed Migration and Earned Citizenship’ on Wednesday. A theme calculated to allow the PM to wax lyrical on his beloved Britishness theme! Sixty-four occurrences of either ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ against a word total of 4,839, i.e. 1.3% of all the words. That doesn’t sound much, I suppose, but if you consider how many words (including the frequently occurring basic nouns, verbs and pronouns) there are in a typical sentence, particularly in a serious formal speech, that equates to quite a high ratio of Brits per sentence.

Not as high as the ratio of ‘citizen(s)’ or ‘citizenship’ per sentence in this instance, however! There were 75 appearances of the ‘C’ word = 1.55%. Well, I suppose the speech was about citizenship, after all. But was it more about citizenship than Britain or, indeed, than nationality? The concepts of ‘nation’, ‘national’ and ‘nationality’ – but, significantly, not ‘nationhood’ – occur a mere 20 times in the speech: only 0.4% of all words.

Does this mean that, for GB, Britishness is more about citizenship than about nationality or nationhood; the latter term being more emotive and personal, relating to whether people ‘feel British’ or regard Britishness as their personal national identity? This would appear to be the case when GB says:

“This is not jingoism, but practical, rational and purposeful – and therefore, I would argue, an essentially British form of patriotism.

“Patriotism is the sense that ‘all-of-us’ matters more than ‘any-of-us’ [does it, really – isn’t the whole basis of human rights the irreducible dignity and integrity of the individual human person; so are GB’s ‘responsibilities’ upon which our rights supposedly depend (see below) based on the assertion of the priority of the collectivity – the nation-state – over the individual?]. It defines a nation not by race or ethnicity, but by seeing us all as part of a collective project from which we all gain and to which we all contribute. Society is – as the great thinkers have long told us – a contract, even a covenant, in which we recognise that our destinies are interlinked. For rights only exist where people recognise responsibilities [cf. above note]; responsibilities only exist where people have a sense of shared fate; and shared fate only exists where there is a strong sense of collective belonging. So Britain is not just where we are but in an important sense part of who we are”.

Britain, in this definition, is ‘in an important sense part of who we are’ because the social contract that binds us together and our participation in a collective project – of creating and enriching Britain – is seen as more integral to our identity than a sense of belonging to a place, ethnicity or race. Or, indeed, more integral than the sense of belonging to a nation and the sense of national identity? This would appear to be the case, to judge from the passage that follows:

“the idea of citizenship can be addressed more cogently here in Britain than elsewhere because for centuries Britain has been made up of many nations. As the first – and probably the most successful – multi-national state in the world, we have always had to find ways of bringing people into a United Kingdom.

“Put it another way: geographically, Britain is a group of islands; historically, it is a set of ideas that have evolved over centuries: brought together uniquely across traditional boundaries and today united not by race or ethnicity but by distinctive values that have, over time, shaped the institutions of a multinational state”.

Let’s pause for a moment in wonder. GB appears to be conceding the point that, historically, Britain has comprised a number of nations – including, presumably, England. But don’t get your hopes up: he doesn’t say ‘England’ throughout the speech; nor, indeed, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ or ‘Ireland’. There are 11 references to ‘English’; but these are only to the language, not to anything such as a national identity. If you look at GB’s words more closely here, what he’s saying is that Britain is indeed a geographical place where, historically (“for centuries”), a number of nations have lived. ‘Nations’ here can imply ‘peoples’, rather than formally established political entities with defined territorial borders: the fundamental geographical unit for GB is Britain, not the nations of Britain; while the nations have merely inhabited that British territory – effectively, like provisional citizens, migrants or temporary residents, not as collectivities that identified with the land in which they lived.

Equally historically, however, Britain is presented here as a unified state forged by a process whereby the multiple nations of Britain have come together in a “United Kingdom”. The engine of that unification has not been some sort of organic convergence and ethnic inter-mixing of the nations of Britain over time, whereby gradually the old barriers between us have been broken down and we’ve come to think of ourselves as more British than English / Scottish / Welsh / Irish. No, the motor for unity is “a set of ideas that have evolved over centuries” – co-terminous with the ‘centuries’ during which Britain has been made up of many nations – and the “distinctive values that have, over time, shaped the institutions of a multinational state”.

The unity or Union that is the United Kingdom has been created by, and is founded on, a set of distinctive but shared ideas and values that have coalesced and are embodied in the institutions of a “multinational state”, e.g. in the ‘British Values’ and the ‘British Rights and Responsibilities’ that are defining of British civic society and British citizenship. Note that there is an uncertain shift here between the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘United Kingdom’ (or UK), which crops up elsewhere in GB’s speech. Britain is the geographical place, populated by multiple nations, but by that token not properly a unified nation in itself. The unity is achieved only at the level of statehood, citizenship, and common values and principles – at the level of the UK. But GB wants that unity to also be identified with a single Nation (rather than multiple nations) of Britain, and wants citizenship to be the foundation of a new national British identity. Hence, a constant, inconsistent slippage in his speech between the UK and Britain as the terms for the unitary state-nation – rather than nation-state – founded on codified civic principles.

These tensions are evident in the passage that follows, in which GB defines the British values he believes in:

  • “liberty – the concept of freedom under the law which has to be renewed every generation, about which I spoke in the autumn;
  • of civic duty;
  • of fairness;
  • and of internationalism – a Britain that sees the channel not as a moat that isolates us in narrow nationalism, but as a highway out to the world that for centuries has given our outward-looking nation an unsurpassed global reach.

“But that these values are founded secondly on a vision of citizenship that entails both responsibilities and rights”.

So Britain is both a nation – founded on a citizenship that embodies British values in a set of rights and responsibilities – and an internationalism: an “outward-looking nation” that also takes in to itself additional multiple nations from throughout the globe through migration; as opposed to the ‘narrow nationalism’ associated with insular protectionism towards smaller territorial national entities such as that of the Englishman’s castle, defended by the moat of the, yes, English Channel, Gordon.

All of this means that if the true ‘test’ of citizenship (like the actual test of entitlement to British citizenship for migrants that GB is proposing in his speech) is adherence to formal codes and statements setting out the legal and philosophical principles of British state-nationality (merging multiple original nationalities into a common citizenship), then the ‘original’ nations of the UK (the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish) have no intrinsic, special status with respect to Britishness than more recent migrants who embrace Britishness defined purely in relation to those shared principles. There is a sort of equalising going on here between the ‘nations’ that have historically inhabited these islands (the historical multi-national British state) and the multiple nationalities of newer arrivals, linked to Britain’s internationalism and global reach.

This brings about a peculiar reversal whereby the formal process of subscribing (to use GB’s term) to the principles – rights and responsibilities – of UK / British citizenship that would-be settlers here will have to go through, if GB’s proposals are implemented, make them almost more properly British citizens than those who consider themselves as in some degree British by virtue of having always lived here and of viewing themselves – additionally or primarily – as English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. This is because, under GB’s vision, the process of becoming a British citizen is transformed into a rite of passage, where you have to pass a number of tests that prove the sincerity of your wish to be a British citizen which, through the rights and responsibilities citizenship embodies and enacts, actually means something:

“we must ensure that British citizenship is a set of obligations as well as a guarantee of rights. And that British citizenship is a prized asset to be aspired to and cherished”.

But does this concept of ‘earned citizenship’ – prospective citizens proving that they have earned the right to British citizenship through the social and civic responsibility of their actions and the way they lead their lives – translate back to existing British citizens? If new British citizens are not just equal in their Britishness to people who have always lived here but in some sense more properly British (in that Britishness is founded on a set of codified values and principles that new citizens have formally signed up to), does this not make existing citizens themselves in some sense merely probationary and prospective citizens: mere residents on British soil whose true Britishness has yet to be formally tested and attested through a citizenship rite? Does this mean we will all have to prove our entitlement to (continuing) British citizenship by formally buying into the responsibilities and duties upon which it is being made to depend?

There is a serious ambiguity throughout GB’s speech about whether the concept of earned citizenship applies as much to existing citizens as prospective ones. This is because, inherent to the linkage GB makes between rights and responsibilities, is indeed the notion that rights (those of citizenship) have to be earned through socially responsible lives and the exercise of our civic duties. Indeed, the opening section of GB’s piece sets out these principles as the basis for the modern concept of British citizenship:

“for all citizens, I want us to emphasise – and, to some extent, codify – the rights they have . . . . But alongside these entitlements of citizenship, there are also duties. . . . This is one of the reasons why it makes sense – as we have announced – to consider amending the Human Rights Act to create a new British Bill of Rights and Duties which emphasises not just what people are entitled to but what they are expected to do in return in order to make ours a society we all want to live in.

“And this reciprocity of rights and responsibilities also shapes the new concept of ‘earned citizenship’ we are advancing today”.

As part of our formal buy in to this new statement of our rights and responsibilities, will we – like new immigrants – be obliged to relinquish our former national identities (as English, Scots, etc.) in favour of our new united British-national identity based on the common values of our citizenship? And how controlled will the sincerity of our adherence to these rights and responsibilities be?

“And of course, the final vital element in security inside our borders is the national ID cards system.

“While the first biometric ID cards will be issued to UK citizens during 2009, from the end of this year we will start to issue the first compulsory biometric IDs to non-EU foreign nationals coming to the UK. Such an identity scheme will help make it clear what status a person has – whether they are allowed to work, access benefits and how long they can stay.

“This is crucial in tackling illegal immigration. But it is also critical to moving towards, and enforcing, a system of earned citizenship.

“Those who are not entitled to benefits will not be able to claim them. And that will also include people from the EU who have come here to work but have not yet paid sufficient national insurance contributions.

“And probationary citizens will all have ID cards which will make it easier to ensure that they are exercising their responsibilities, and to decide on their progress to full citizenship.

“All this reflects the value we place on British citizenship and the urgent need to be clear about our collective national identity and common purpose”.

So we have moved from a national identity based on history, and a sense of belonging to a place and a territory, to one that is almost definitively, and definingly, encapsulated in a national ID scheme, designed to control our access to the rights of citizenship, depending on the extent to which we are fulfilling our civic responsibilities.

This is a national British identity codified, indeed digitised, by the British state; in fact, bestowed by the British state based on merit against a set of prescriptive qualifying criteria, rather than an automatic right. Being English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish isn’t one of those qualifying criteria – and you’d better accept GB’s state-civic Britishness if you want to preserve your native rights.

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