Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

29 July 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

28 July 2012

Isles of Wonder, or a world left wondering?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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