Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

10 June 2012

Is it wrong to be proud to be British?

With polling evidence today suggesting that the Jubilee celebrations have made 33% of people across England, Scotland and Wales ‘more proud to be British’ – and only 1% less proud – it is perhaps time to ask what if anything is wrong about being proud to be British. Am I proud to be British?

The question was prompted in my mind this morning by my brief walk across the village green to buy my Sunday paper from the village store run by a well-established Asian family. So well-established in fact that the two large England flags draped from the first-floor windows above the shop were the only England flags I saw on my admittedly unrepresentative perambulation. And I don’t think this was just commercial opportunism on their part: the guy who manages the shop is active in the village football club, speaks with an English accent and is a genuine England football fan.

I did, however, see plenty of Union Flags hanging down and over from the Jubilee festivities, in the form of bunting, an advertising banner attached to the railings in front of one of the two mercifully still trading pubs looking out upon the green, and even a discreet but moderately large flag posted on the corner of a front-garden wall. ‘Discreet’ perhaps best sums it up. It’s as if loads of patriotically ‘British’ – and mostly middle-class? – people have seized the opportunity presented by the Jubilee to take their turn to run up their allegiance on a flag pole, having for years suffered in silence as white vans, semi-detached houses and family estate cars up and down the land have proclaimed their loud and garish support for the England team in what have been destined to be but short-lived flowerings of English footballing glory. But this is done discreetly, as I say: nice streams of bunting – not in your face all over houses and cars. Very English, indeed.

In fact, I’ve seen only two cars – and perhaps even just the one car, seen on two occasions – sporting the Union Flag atop their car door frames. It simply isn’t ‘British’ to make a display of one’s patriotism in such a ‘common’ fashion – or not so common as it turns out. (Leaving aside the fact that it is British, apparently, to spend three days literally parading the British flag, and celebrating the British state, all the way down the Thames, in front of the Palace and in the City of London.) Mind you, I’ve seen only two vehicles similarly displaying the Flag of St. George, and England’s first Euro 2012 game is only a day away.

I remarked on this fact to my partner last night as we went on a ludicrous late-night shopping foray to our nearest Tesco. As we were leaving the store, we saw one of the offending cars displaying the Union Flag above the driver’s and front passenger’s doors, and my partner said to me: “There you are, somebody’s flying the flag”. Of course, I had to point out to her that it was the ‘wrong’ flag, if indeed this display of patriotism had been prompted by the football, not the Jubilee. I managed, just, to avoid the potential for a blazing row, but not without a comment to the effect that I was judging the person responsible for the Union Flag display on appearances rather than the sentiment in the heart, which would have been the same whether it was a Union or England flag. Is that right?

What I would say in reply – but didn’t, as I really didn’t want that blazing row at 11.15 pm on a Saturday night – is that this is like saying that someone wearing an Arsenal shirt is going to support Spurs (my team) in tomorrow’s FA Cup final because their sentiment and loyalties are basically the same, and, after all, both teams come from North London. Err, no, it really doesn’t work that way. While the footballing example is perhaps somewhat crass and trivial, the point I’m making is that the meanings and values associated with (middle-class) English people discreetly proclaiming their pride in being British, on the one hand, and (working-class) English people loudly broadcasting their pride in being English are widely divergent and profound.

For those English people who are prouder to be British today than they were ten days ago, the objects of their pride are things like: the Queen; the monarchy; the system and traditions of British government; perhaps even, a little bit, Britain’s ‘proud’ imperial past; London as a ‘world city’; the British ability to organise and execute things like the river pageant, rock concert, cathedral service, carriage procession and fly-past with such dignity, order and precision; British ‘culture’, both high and low; and the British ‘nation’ as a great player on the world stage – supposedly – on, and up to, whom the eyes of all the world were looking. By contrast, for those English people who have been wont, in the past, to festoon English flags all over their property during international football tournaments, their pride in England relates to more ‘basic’ things – some might say simpler and more fundamental things: physical and sporting prowess; generally peaceful, but essentially ‘tribal’, competition and ‘battle’; England’s great footballing traditions and passion; and a rare occasion to come together and celebrate our common belonging as a nation, while taking advantage of a perfect excuse for a piss-up.

Which of these things are ‘better’? Who can say? I know, however, which of these things I’m more proud of. I greatly respect the Queen, who is in fact as much the Queen of England, in the popular imagination, as the Queen of Britain. Indeed, when did you ever hear the phrase, ‘the Queen of the UK’? I also do respect and, in some ways, reverence the UK traditions of government, which have evolved from centuries of English history, and from the constitutional settlement reached in the wake of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. Nonetheless, the system is in dire need of a radical overhaul, including recognising England’s right to self-determination and self-government. And all the pomp and circumstance? Well, yes, it’s highly impressive and entertaining. But I’d rather that ‘Britain at its best’ were defined less in terms of pageantry and more in terms of government working to improve the social and economic conditions of ordinary English folk, so they can access good education and decent, sustainable employment based on an economy that uses England’s talents and resources for the good of its people, not primarily for the profit of big business, the City and global corporations. At least English people gathering to watch the football in boozy bars, or on the terraces in the Ukraine and Poland, are only going to start a bit of a brawl and not a war – unlike those canons firing off their 60-gun salutes or those jet fighters brazenly displaying Britain’s fading military might.

Oh yes, and while I think of it, it is mostly English people who are more proud to be British as a result of the Jubilee – or at least they’re prouder to be British to twice a degree as Scottish people. The YouGov poll linked to above found that the proportion of English people that was prouder of being British post-Jubilee ranged ‘region’ by ‘region’ between 34% and 36%. In Scotland, however, the proportion was only 19%. This is still quite high, especially as only 3% of Scots were less proud as a consequence of the Jubilee. Nonetheless, it’s a telling indicator that Britishness is a proposition that appeals to English people significantly more than to Scots; and that’s because, really, it is a largely English phenomenon.

So how do you want your patriotism flavoured, England? Do you want it British-styly, or down-to-earth, common-or-garden English? Well, we’ll see how people’s newly re-found pride in Britishness fares when things do indeed come crashing down to earth and back to reality after the temporary escapism of the Jubilee – or after England come crashing out of Euro 2012!

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10 October 2011

Don’t treat England differently! The Health and Social Care Bill, and the denial of England

It’s a fitting irony that we’re relying on the unelected second chamber of the Union parliament – the House of Lords – to radically revise or throw out the government’s [English] Health and Social Care Bill this week. England has no democratically elected parliament of its own, so it’s up to a non-democratic part of the Union parliament to reject an English bill for which there is no democratic mandate.

In this sense, the Bill neatly symbolises England’s invidious constitutional position. England is ‘treated differently’ from the UK’s other nations, both politically (by not having a national parliament or assembly to stand up for its people and its rights), and – as a consequence of its disempowerment – medically, because the government can get away with a health-care bill that English people have not voted for.

It’s this basic connection between the political limbo status of England and the Union government’s radical privatisation of health-care delivery in England that the UK Uncut group that blocked Westminster Bridge yesterday afternoon simply don’t, or won’t, get. In my previous post, I discussed my futile efforts to get UK Uncut to acknowledge the England-specific nature of the Health and Social Care Bill, and to refer to ‘England’ in their campaign material; so I won’t go over that ground in detail again. But ‘Don’t treat England differently!’ would have been an excellent slogan for the demonstrators to use yesterday, as it sums up the link between the political and health-care discrimination against England.

Another good slogan would have been: ‘Don’t let the British government RIP off the English NHS!’ In fact, I suggested some England-focused slogans to UK Uncut on Twitter but, unsurprisingly, got no response: not a dicky bird. In fact, I got no response of any sort – not even offensive – to my countless tweets and email pointing out their ignoring / ignorance of the England-specific dimension of the Bill and the fact that this considerably lessens the political impact of their campaign.

But perhaps ‘Don’t treat England differently!’ does in fact sum up another aspect of UK Uncut’s position that blunts their effectiveness, so to speak: they resolutely refuse to treat England differently from the UK / Britain in media and communications terms. In other words, like the Union establishment itself, UK Uncut resolutely refuses to separate English matters out from UK matters, and to differentiate between England and Britain. But if you don’t treat England differently, in this sense, you affirm the legitimacy of the British state and parliament to legislate for England in the way it does: with scant regard for public and professional opinion about the health service, and absolutely no regard for the / an English nation as such whose health service it might actually be.

So by refusing to ‘treat England differently’ from the UK, UK Uncut validates the right of the Union parliament to ride rough-shod over genuine democracy for England and the English public interest. And what a respectable, restrained, middle-class and, indeed, establishment protest it was in the end! Merely 3,000-maximum protesters blocking the bridge in front of Parliament for three hours on a Sunday afternoon, when the potential to cause any serious disruption to the life of the capital city was virtually at its lowest! Almost a Sunday afternoon walk in the park. In fact, it feels more like an act of homage and prostration before the all-powerful British parliament. Indeed, the protesters did prostrate themselves at the start of the demo, by lying down and acting dead – symbolically conceding defeat before they’d even started.

To be honest, although I don’t in any way endorse their methods, I feel the English rioters in August made more of a point politically, and a more powerful comment on the state of English society, than did UK Uncut yesterday. I’m not suggesting the Undivided-Unionites (UK Uncutters) should have rioted, but they could have done something more dramatic and forceful, even if not actually violent. How about setting up a tent hospital on Parliament Green, like the protest tent community in Madrid, and making the point that this is what basic English health care would be like if the Union government got its way? But UK Uncut clearly wanted to minimise the risk of confrontation with the police, and of other less peaceful-minded groups getting involved and causing damage. After all, they didn’t want to be associated in the public’s mind with those squalid rioters from the English underclass, now did they? The UK may be uncut (not divided by devolution) in their aspirations, but they certainly don’t feel they have anything in common with those common people from the sink estates –whom, incidentally, the NHS is there to serve.

But just as yesterday’s UK Uncut protest is today’s fish and chip paper, even the English riots have now been forgotten, and the chasm between the British governing class and the English underclass, and working class, has been papered over – for a time. But one thing’s for sure: the UK Uncutters share more in common with that governing class than with the common people of England. The riots were a manifestation of the fact that England does not have a political voice: that the British political class is interested only in the British economy, and in pursuing their own ideological agenda and business interests, not in those who get left behind. And UK Uncut, which speaks only in the name of the UK, not England, stands solidly – or should that be limply? – among those who deny England that voice.

English parliament

12 September 2011

The BBC’s supposedly ‘English’ bias

Apparently, the Scots have been whingeing about the BBC having too much of an ‘English bias‘. For those of us who are aware of the extent to which the BBC, other news media and Union politicians in fact go out of their way to avoid referring to ‘England’, this appears a bit of a sick joke.

But I suppose the Scots’ complaint is the reverse side of the same devalued Union coin that we English complain about: events and stories that are in fact limited to England are referred to as if they related to the whole Union, usually by means of the avoidance phrase ‘this country’ or its synonyms. For English viewers and listeners, this creates, and is intended to create, the impression that the story in question does pertain to the whole Union, when it doesn’t. And for the Scottish audience, this whips up the old irritation about ‘English’ people arrogantly assuming that England-specific stories are applicable, and hence of interest, to the whole UK.

This is another instance of what I wrote about in my previous post. In many ways, the BBC is the mouthpiece of the Union state and hence is a prime agent in perpetuating the discourse of ‘Britain’: the (mis-)representation of ‘the nation’ as a unified, British polity. Hence, many news stories are presented as ‘British’ – or at least as relating to ‘this country’ – because they are a matter of and for the established British order, of which the BBC itself is an integral part. Scots and English alike are rightly annoyed, from different perspectives, that such English stories are portrayed as having UK-wide relevance; and yet, they are also a UK matter in that, for the present, English matters are dealt with by and through the Union establishment: British parliament, British Broadcasting Corporation, British press, etc.

So to all you Scots out there, I say don’t blame us English for the BBC’s ‘English’ bias: blame the Union establishment that deliberately suppresses the distinction between ‘Britain’ and ‘England’ in order to hold on to its power over English affairs and English minds. Rather like the Union government itself, the BBC doesn’t want to be an English Broadcasting Corporation even though that is what it has de facto become in so many ways.

8 September 2011

If they won’t say ‘England’, we shouldn’t say ‘Britain’

It’s a familiar gripe: most England-based politicians, journalists, bloggers, etc. simply refuse to say ‘England’ even when it is English facts they’re talking about. If they speak the name of any country at all – rather than simply saying ‘our country’, or even just ‘our’ and ‘we’ – it’ll invariably be ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’.

I was struck by another example of the phenomenon last week when I listened to an otherwise perceptive and thought-provoking talk on BBC Radio Four’s ‘Four Thought‘ programme given by Ed Howker, co-author of the book ‘Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth’. Perhaps the clue was in the name, or perhaps it was because the speaker was recorded at the Edinburgh Festival, but I heard the word ‘England’ only once in Ed Howker’s talk, whereas the rest of his presentation was peppered with references to ‘Britain’, including – if not mainly – in contexts that were exclusively English: particularly last month’s riots.

Why this persistent, obdurate will not to name English social phenomena, facts and policies as English but refer to them indiscriminately as ‘British’ – even on the part of someone who clearly has some insights and is genuinely concerned about the viewpoint and experiences of the young English people involved in the riots? Clearly, part of the problem is that some of the issues discussed were genuinely UK-wide, such as the blight of youth unemployment, social attitudes towards young people and cuts to benefits that many young people depend on. But this was interspersed with discussion of topics that were undeniably England-specific.

On one level, Howker was merely trying to be inclusive for his Edinburgh audience by generalising to ‘Britain’ matters that mainly related to England: a device that ‘English’ Britishers employ all the time. But saying ‘Britain’ when talking about England is inclusive in a more general sense: one where it is necessary to speak to Britain as well as of Britain if you wish to be included within public life and take part in the national conversation that defines Britain itself. That is to say, ‘Britain’ increasingly manifests and articulates itself, and asserts its claim to power and authority, primarily through discourse itself.

One definition of ‘Britain’ is that it is the name for the sovereign power and authority – the established order – that holds sway over the geographical territory also known loosely as ‘Britain’ (i.e. the United Kingdom and its crown dependencies). In this sense, Britain is the ‘nation’ as defined in terms of its system of (self-)government: the nation as polity – sovereign parliament and people, rulers and ruled, as one. Prior to devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, that sovereign power used to be co-terminous – or was more readily imagined as co-terminous – with the whole territory of the UK / Britain and with all its peoples: there was no distinction made between Britain the great power (that rules the waves and the empire beyond), Britain the territory (the realm) and Britain the nation (that never shall be slaves because it rules itself). As a consequence of devolution, however, there has been a profound tearing asunder of Britain the polity from Britain as territory and as people: the first Britain’s writ no longer holds over the whole of the second Britain – the territory and its peoples. (Technically, its writ does still apply across the UK, as Britain retains full sovereignty over the devolved nations and can take back the devolved powers at any time – but in practice, or at least in popular imagination, those powers and that sovereignty have been transferred and not merely delegated.)

So when people such as myself rail against the fact that politicians refer to English matters as ‘British’, or as simply pertaining to ‘this country’ without any reference to the country’s name, we are pointing to this split whereby ‘British’ governance now in practice applies in many matters only to the geographical territory of England rather than the whole territory of the UK: the Britain of government no longer literally and metaphorically ‘maps on to’ the territory of Britain, but often extends to England alone. For this reason, these should more properly be called English matters, rather than British. Yet, on another level, these remain British matters and are ‘appropriately’ described as such, insofar as they remain matters of ‘British’ governance: pertaining to Britain as the name of the sovereign power. In this sense, even England itself is correctly designated as ‘Britain’ on the basis that it is a British territory, which falls under the sovereign power that is Britain – indeed, it is now the only territory that remains wholly within the British orbit.

The point I’m trying to make is that when people ‘talk Britain’, and apply the name of Britain to England, what they are primarily doing is asserting the sovereign authority of Britain over England rather than mis-describing England as ‘Britain’. Asserting that sovereignty involves assimilating England to Britain. A failure to impose this assimilation would mean that Britain would no longer be itself – a nation defined in its very self-government – but would be seen increasingly as a sort of arbitrary imposition of extraneous, undemocratic, oppressive control denying England the self-government that it – Britain – claims as its own prerogative. This is indeed how those who assert England’s right to self-government see Britain, and I’ll return to the implications of this below.

But before I do this, I’d like to comment on the fact that this use of ‘Britain’ as the name for the nation is something perpetrated not only by establishment figures such as politicians but also by those who challenge government’s policies in quite fundamental ways – without challenging the British system of government itself through which those policies have been implemented. This observation would apply to Ed Howker above and, in general, to the various movements and social analyses that have sprung up in this era of government cuts to challenge the assumptions behind the cuts and demand a change of course, such as the UK Uncut protest movement or the ‘Fight Back’ account of the (mostly English) student protests at the end of last year. These analyses all uncritically refer to the nation as ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’ despite the fact that many of the cuts and public-sector reforms that are being protested about apply to England only. And that’s because the rhetoric of ‘Britain’ is the discourse through which power articulates itself. This means that if you want to be heard by the powers that be – if you want your analysis to be not only insightful and accurate but effective in instigating political change – you have to formulate your arguments in the terms that the British establishment imposes and dictates: through the language of ‘Britain’, which is the language of the established polity.

By contrast, if you decide to air your grievances as ‘English’ and frame your social analysis as applying to a country called ‘England’, you can be virtually guaranteed that your arguments will be dismissed out of hand and not even listened to, or else misrepresented and wilfully misunderstood as being merely narrowly nationalistic, chippy or even racist. To be included in the national debate, you must say ‘Britain’ because ‘Britain’ is as much the name and discourse in and through which that debate is conducted as it is the name of the ‘nation’ being debated. But if you try to articulate a different sense of identity, nationhood and political focus – an English one – you can be sure that you and your opinions will be excluded from any conversation of influence or power. To speak to and of ‘Britain’ is therefore a means to be inclusive, not only because it opens out English issues to all UK citizens (whether accurately or inaccurately), but because to be or feel included in any position to wield political, social or economic power, that power play must be directed to, and be articulated in terms of, ‘Britain’.

But there’s a problem for the Britologists: the propagandists for Britain who would propagate Britain through discourse itself. While saying ‘England’ is absolutely excluded from any discourse of power, the Britishers are aware that they can no longer get away with referring to the nation as ‘Britain’ in contexts where it is completely obvious that only England is really being talked about. In the Howker talk I mentioned above, for instance, it did become necessary at one point for the speaker to be geographically specific and refer to ‘England’ – if I remember correctly, referring to the fact that the devastation caused by the riots took place in English cities only.

Similarly, British politicians can no longer really get away with talking about policies as applying to ‘Britain’ in cases where people have become aware that they apply to England alone. Paradoxically, to describe them in this way would involve particularising Britain: making the term ‘Britain’ apply only to a limited geographical part of Britain (England), rather than to the whole of the territory and to the sovereign power of government in general. This is what Gordon Brown effectively did, setting up a bizarre UK comprising Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Britain, with Britain meaning both the UK and England: the two Britains I discussed above – the British polity and the territory over which it has retained full sovereignty, which has been reduced to England only.

So instead of acknowledging the shrinking of Britain down to England, the present tactic of the establishment is generally to avoid using any specific name for ‘this country’, and thereby avoid both the odd and confusing use of ‘Britain’ where ‘England’ is obviously meant, and the ‘inappropriate’ acknowledgement of England by name where British sovereign governance is being asserted and exercised. Above all, you mustn’t create the impression that government policies are British policies for England, which would invoke that post-devolution separation between Britain and its constituent parts, and would lead people to think that maybe we would be better off with English policies for England, with English-national politicians acting in the English-national interest, rather than British politicians governing England in the British interest, including in the interest of perpetuating the very system of power and governance that Britain itself is.

By using the expression ‘this country’ – and still more by personalising it as ‘our country’, and even just as ‘we’ and ‘our’ – the establishment tries to re-invoke that pre-devolution sense that we are just ‘one nation’: government and people united in shared self-government, mutual acknowledgement and respect, and common Britishness. Ironically, then, the unity and cohesion of Britain – and the adhesion of England to Britain – can be assured only by acknowledging ‘this country’ neither as Britain nor as England wherever facts and policies are being referred to in their exclusivity to England.

Using the language of ‘this country’, and of ‘society’ in general, helps to de-particularise the matters being discussed: it abstracts them from their particularity to England and naturalises them. That is, it’s a strategy that makes ‘this country’ seem a self-evident, natural, absolute concept whose meaning ‘we’ understand when we use it. Clearly, it’s a way of saying Britain, evoking Britain, without actually saying the word ‘Britain’: it’s a way of implying that there is still a shared national-British conversation and polity – one that in fact defines ‘us’ as a nation – that is as timeless and unchanging as the geology of the British Isles. This is not just the immutable order of British society but the order of things, the way things are; and it’s what makes ‘us’ British.

But this is a fabrication and a chimera: not so much a lie as a self-justifying, rationalising fiction. Britain isn’t the natural order of things and an immovable edifice solid in its immemorial foundations, but a political construct and project: it’s a system of sovereign government that the citizens of the UK used to identify with and think of as their own; but now that unity between the polity, the territory and the people of Britain has broken. This is the true meaning of ‘broken Britain’: don’t ascribe this concept to dysfunctional English communities and rioting English youth. It’s the politicians that have broken Britain, and no amount of endless invocations of ‘our country’ will bring it back.

In short, the breaking up of Britain into its component territories and nations means that the British government increasingly appears more like a Union government than a national government: it’s a government that seeks to hold together a union of multiple nations, and indeed whose continued existence as a system of governance depends on its ability to do so. As English nationalists who by definition support the idea of England as a self-governing nation (rather than a province of a self-styled British nation), we must do everything in our power to oppose the British establishment’s attempts to suppress the idea of England as a nation in its own right and with its own rights, including those of self-government. And that also means opposing and subverting the rhetorical tricks through which ‘Britain’ seeks to impose itself on our minds and hearts as the, and indeed ‘our’, nation.

What I’m suggesting is that, just as the defenders of the British order refuse to say ‘England’, we in turn should refuse to say ‘Britain’ or ‘this country’. Instead, when we’re referring to Britain as the sovereign power and established order in the land, we should wherever possible call it ‘the Union’; ‘the Union government’ instead of ‘British government’; ‘the Union’ instead of ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’; ‘Unionists’ for anyone who identifies as British, and supports the present disenfranchisement and suppression of England. Doing this helps to objectify and politicise ‘Britain’, making it clear that we view it as a political system and construct (a Union of nations) rather than as a self-evident, self-governing ‘country’ that we are all supposed to identify with and accept as our own, despite the realities on the ground and in our own sense of distinct English nationhood. And suppressing ‘Britain’ from our language also replicates and pays back the humiliating and insulting suppression of ‘England’ from the discourse through which ‘Britain’ imposes its power and identity over England.

I’m not saying that we should refuse to say ‘Britain’ altogether. We should retain the word in its two other common meanings: the geographical land mass, and principally the island of Britain itself; and ‘British’ in the cultural sense, referring to the shared history and traditions of people throughout the nations of Britain. This is Britain as a historic national identity whose days are numbered in terms of the politically enforced unity of the Union state, but which we can continue to celebrate as a historic achievement and as an expression of solidarity between the British peoples, who share so much in common. But we should refuse to say ‘Britain’ as the name of the ‘nation’-as-polity: the sovereign political power. This is to deny ‘Britain’ the power that it would assert over England, not just physically in terms of laws we must obey but psychologically by imposing Britain as ‘our country’. Our country is England, not Britain; and Britain is a Union state that seeks to run England for its own benefit, not that of England’s people. And we must express this fact in our language.

And of course, it doesn’t go without saying that we should always call ‘our country’ ‘England’ wherever it is really England we are talking about. Let’s not worry about being inclusive to non-English Britons by pretending we’re talking about the whole Union when we’re really discussing English matters. And above all, let’s not try to be inclusive in the broader sense: replicating a discourse of ‘Britain’ by which the Union seeks to impose itself as the power in the land and the power over our minds, and whose linguistic norms we must conform to if we are to feel included in the national conversation and life of the ‘nation’. We seek in fact to establish a new English nation, and it must first exist in the truth of our language if it is to truly challenge the terms and realities of Union rule.

15 August 2011

Cameron and Miliband speak of England’s riots without saying “England”

I suppose this sort of thing should come as no surprise any more. ‘England’ is, after all, the absolute taboo word for the leaders of the main UK parties. Therefore, it’s par for the course that neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband could bring themselves to say “England” in their speeches today on the English riots and their proposed response to them. To be fair to Miliband, his speech did include the following phrase quite early on: “no major English city seemed safe or immune from what was happening”. But that was it: no further reference to the nation scarred by the riots last week in an article incredibly and insultingly entitled ‘The National Conversation’. What the ****! (I apologise to my readers, but I’m increasingly using the ‘F’ word these days, almost in inverse proportion to politicians’ non-use of the ‘E’ word.)

I’m not proposing to conduct a detailed analysis of these two speeches here. (Sigh of relief from some of you out there, no doubt.) I just can’t bring myself to do it, to be honest. Besides which, it would be pretty pointless: no one who really needs to hear the anger of a nation ignored and anonymised, even at a moment of national crisis, is likely to take note of anything I say. I mean, for C*****’s sake, large parts of our major cities were smashed up, ransacked and burnt down, and they STILL can’t bring themselves to address the nation by name! What is it actually going to take?

But it’s not just about hearing the anger of a nation spurned, but about the possibility of meaningful dialogue: you can’t have a meaningful ‘national conversation’ if one side of the discussion isn’t listened to, acknowledged and named by the other side. But as I suggested in my previous post, the British-establishment discourse and world view, which is now reasserting itself, is simply not willing or able to engage with the English narrative of futility, envy, rage and humiliation that was expressed in such a self-defeating manner last week because those resorting to such pointless violence lack the political language and civic skills to protest and challenge the powers that be more constructively.

How can I put it succinctly? It’s not just that the English violence that erupted last week stokes and confirms the establishment’s irrational fear of a nameless, formless, anarchic English mob that threatens to overthrow the whole British order, so that the establishment then reacts by castigating the moral disorder of certain nameless ‘parts of society’, and proposes stern measures to reassert the rule of law and impose proper discipline on the youth. It’s that the British frame of reference and set of values – the British narrative – that are imposed on the situation represent and reaffirm the very structure of repression that led to the violence erupting in the way it did in the first place. This is because the British narrative of ‘individual moral responsibility’ to which everything is now being reduced – however important this concept is – is effectively being used to deny the English young people concerned their own voice and their own stories. If heard, these would no doubt include many tales of chaos, violence, and spiritual and moral emptiness that their lives have thus far been filled with, and which erupted onto the streets last week.

The British establishment doesn’t want to hear that very English tale of what life is like for so many young people in our cities: it doesn’t want to hear it now, after the event, and it didn’t want to before the event. And it was because it wasn’t listening that the violence erupted; and as it’s listening even less now, the violence is all too likely to recur.

One of the things these young people need – certainly more than they need distant politicians they don’t know and respect even less preaching moral responsibility at them – is a country to feel proud of. The patriotic sentiment is important to young people, young men in particular. They need to feel they can be self-respecting, grown-up men, contributing to the prosperity and good of their country as well as bettering themselves. But that country, England, has been systematically belittled, fractured and marginalised by the politicians over the last 30 years or so, and particularly since 1997. The politicians have nothing to say to and of that country, despite the fact that both Cameron and Miliband peppered their speeches today with references to ‘our country’ and ‘the country’. The parties have no commitment to England and to any sort of vision of a better English nation, where it would be politicians and not just rioters who would hang their heads in shame at last week’s destruction, because it reveals how they have failed England and not delivered on their social contract to provide decent living spaces, education, employment and prospects to England’s youth.

It’s not only the youth of England that has failed but the British politicians that have failed English youth. They have nothing to say to that England, and they certainly aren’t listening. And that’s why ‘England’ will continue to be suppressed and ignored, not just in British political language, but in British policies that will not address English problems if they cannot address England by name.

13 August 2011

England: A Tale Of Two Countries

What is the greatest division in England today? Is it the famous North-South Divide? Is it the gap between the haves and the have-nots? How about England’s world-famous class system? Or the division between rioters and non-rioters?

My answer is that it’s none of those things and, at the same time, all of them. But the biggest division in England today, and one which subsumes the others, is that between England and Britain, and between the English and the British.

Who are the English? Well, the rioting English – and let’s not pretend, as the British establishment has tried to, that these were UK riots – live mostly in what we shall call the ‘inner shitties’: shit, gang-infested areas and housing estates; attending shit schools that leave them ignorant and under-equipped for the modern work market; often in shit jobs on the minimum wage, if they’ve got work at all; and living in crappy social and physical environments where survival, and getting what you can get whenever and however you can get it, is just the norm.

Not all of the English live in the inner shitties, of course. Let’s not forget about the ‘country-shite’, where most of the low-paid, unskilled work is now carried out by Eastern European migrants; where housing costs are so prohibitive that families working in the country can no longer afford to live there; and where the situation has become so desperate for many farmers that they have the highest suicide rate of any section of the English population. But the riots were urban and weren’t about the country(side) – although they were about the country (England).

Where do the British live? Well, they were on their expensive foreign holidays when the trouble broke out. The English go on foreign trips, too, of course, though less now than they used to a few years ago, the Spanish Costa being the destination of choice. The British, by contrast, are a bit more selective and cosmopolitan in their holiday destinations: France and Tuscany, rather than Spain; and if you must do the Med, then at least make it somewhere a bit more exclusive than the major Spanish and Greek resorts – I don’t know, like Corfu, for instance, favoured by our wealthy chancellor.

When back in Britain, the British tend to live in the better areas that generally were not directly affected by the riots, with the exception of Ealing – though that’s near to the ganglands of Hanwell: Kensington and Chelsea, for instance; or Muswell Hill, where the TV producers and executives congregate, rather than neighbouring, ransacked Wood Green and Tottenham. From their comfortable islands of prosperity, it’s easy for the British to project the riots as a symptom of others’ failed morality, as these are depths of behaviour to which they’d like to think they’d never stoop and will probably never have to. From a safe distance, the British can generously characterise the violence and criminality as the expression of ‘sick’ parts of ‘our society’, for which they’ll set about prescribing remedies, including more ‘robust’ policing, and law and order measures that will keep the rioting English away from their doorsteps: a sort of ‘kettling’ and ghettoising on a grand scale.

In an excoriating attack yesterday on the hypocrisy of the British establishment in relation to the riots, the columnist Peter Oborne recounted the story of a posh dinner party he’d attended in West London, where the guests were talking of the ‘north-south divide’. He took them to mean the divisions between the north and south of England but eventually realised they were flippantly referring to the areas north and south of Kensington High Street. For him, this was an example of how the wealthy economic and political elite of Britain increasingly live in their own bubble, detached from the poverty and deprivation in many parts of England and their own cities, and feeling little sense of real ‘responsibility’ (Cameron’s favourite word) either for causing England’s social problems or for doing anything meaningful about them.

In fact, if there’s one thing the riots appeared to demonstrate, it was that there is much less of a north-south divide than is often acknowledged – in England, that is, as opposed to the divide between Britain and England. The riots, as a popular, on-the-ground phenomenon, spread like wildfire from the south of England to the north but did not spread across England’s northern and western borders: clearly, an England-wide and English-national phenomenon, with young English people throughout the country expressing solidarity with each other, of however crazed and destructive a kind, and wreaking mayhem for the same reasons.

And what were those reasons? Can ‘mindless’ violence, as the British termed it, have a rational cause; or can senseless destruction have a meaning? It’s too easy to jump to conclusions and provide ready-made explanations that often tell us more about the person offering the analysis than the events they’re trying to explain away. Isn’t the point, precisely, that actions that appear meaningless, to the British at least, express the fact that, for many English people, their lives themselves are without meaning?

Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, rather than being devoid of meaning, the lives of many urban English people have come to be seen – by themselves as much as by the British – as stripped of any intrinsic value. The only things that have any value for them are valuable things: merchandise that can be bought and sold for a high price. And if the rioters’ humanity has been debased by a life of humiliating relative poverty and feeling personally under-valued, then it is not so surprising that they in turn strip out the shops in their neighbourhoods that are the repository of the valuable items they think will give them a surrogate worth they don’t hold in themselves, and that they’ll leave those shops gutted: visual metaphors for the impoverishment of their own hearts and souls.

Feeling devoid of value also means lacking a narrative. Many commentators have spoken of the terrifying fact that the rioters appeared to feel they had nothing to lose in their brazen confrontation with the forces of law and order, and their wanton acts of violence. Feeling you have nothing to lose means you have no hope in a better future: no narrative about your life that gives you a reasonable expectation of making progress and gaining some of the good things in life – education; a fulfilling career; a home; a decent family life; a reasonable standard of living. It’s these things, these terribly ordinary, mundane things, that many of the rioters feel they have no prospect of as well as no past experience of. This is what life has become for many urban English: rubbish schools; crap jobs or no jobs, and little dignity in work; crap housing, as decent homes have been priced way beyond the purse of the poorer sections of society; broken families; and declining living standards. It’s enough to provoke a riot! Oh yes, it just did.

The British, by contrast, can afford to send their children to good schools; or, if they can’t or won’t send them to private schools, they can afford to move to the areas where the top-performing publicly funded schools are located, thus pricing working-class people out of the housing market. The British have an expectation, indeed a sense of entitlement, to decent careers in the professions, business and the public sector. They can afford to give their children a better start in life, more expensive things (the latest laptops, smartphones, designer goods), and enjoyable and educational experiences. And if they can’t always actually be there with the children because they’re working long hours or their marriage has broken up, then they can at least afford better child care and material compensations for the children. And as the pressures on middle-class incomes mount, the pressures to get around the problems through little dodges such as tax evasion, expenses claims, back-handers and bankers’ bonuses also increase. But as ‘we’re all in it together’, this starts to become morally acceptable, even normal.

Now clearly, it’s simplistic to make out that all the ‘winners’ in English society are British while all the ‘losers’ are English. Many middle- and upper-middle-class people in England think of themselves as English and view their country as England. However, the narrative, or even meta-narrative, they tell for their lives – past and future – is much more likely to be British. That is, the account they give of themselves, and the meaning they give to their lives and identity, are far more likely to involve seeing themselves as included and playing a positive role in ‘British society’ and a ‘British nation’, and hence ultimately as being British.

Why is this so? Because ‘Britain’ represents the established political and economic order in England, and those who feel they have a stake in that order, and have made a success of their lives by adapting to it, are more likely to identify with it and give it their allegiance. The British narrative is of a country called Britain – or its carelessly bandied synonym ‘the UK’ – where it’s possible to be successful by playing the game: making sure you can get into the right schools, the right universities, the property ladder in the right areas, the right careers in the most promising economic sectors, and picking the right partner in life to be the mother or father of your children, and support each other’s career goals. And British politicians cater to that market – that demographic – rightly concluding they will be unelectable if they don’t help create conditions in which this British ethos and this British dream can prosper; because it’s mainly the British voters on whom election results depend and who, in England at least, bother to turn out to vote because they believe they have a stake in the result.

So the British narrative is one of success, where success and social inclusion is defined mainly in economic terms: being a successful agent in the market economy – indeed, in the market society. By contrast, the English narrative is one of failure: a story of break-down – economic, social and moral. Or rather, the English narrative is one that is set in the past tense only: one that can only look back at what we had, or believe we had, in the past; not one that looks forward to any future. It’s a narrative of exclusion, precisely because the discourse of inclusion in the successful society is British. Indeed, the British identity can be said to be ‘inclusive’, in the multi-cultural sense, mainly because immigrants who do prosper in England rightly conclude that they owe their success to Britain: to the British economic and political order. What immigrant would want to be proud to be English when the English have been systematically stripped of pride in their own nation?

Perhaps, then, rather than saying that England is a ‘tale of two countries’, as I suggested in my title, it would be more accurate to say that England is a country of two tales: two narratives that mutually exclude each other – the British narrative of success and meaning, which systematically denies any positive English story, relegating the English to the scrap heaps of history and of their own burning cities.

But at the same time, the British and the English are the two sides of the same coin: the acquisitive greed of the rioting English is but the naked face of the materialist, individualistic greed of the British, with their debased currency of economic success at all cost. The madness we saw on English streets is but a reflection of the madness of a Britain that has sold out to selfish materialism, and the success and entitlement culture.

In short, the madness of our English streets is the bedlam you get when the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

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