Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

9 January 2013

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

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

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

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

Examples of the second type of reference are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 January 2012

Capital E Nationalism versus little e (and €) capitalism

Capital E Nationalism versus little e (and €) capitalism

I remember with fondness a TV ad from a few years back (but I genuinely can’t remember the product it was advertising!) in which a small girl was asked by a schoolteacher, “What is the capital of England?” The girl pondered for a minute and said “E”. This humorous episode was followed by another in similar vein, in which a boy wondered if the sea was caused by someone leaving the tap running.

These are two images which, in retrospect, seem apt metaphors for our present-day national, financial and EU crises. These days, London scarcely feels like a capital of an entity that might be called ‘England’ or even the ‘United Kingdom’. A capital of international capital it certainly is, however; and David Cameron has scored multiple opinion-poll points in seeking to insulate the City from the impending Euro deluge. This is not so much defending the ‘national interest’ as insuring that our national interest rate remains at a level where we can go on borrowing from the City to pay back the City: keeping ourselves just about afloat (or keeping just ourselves afloat) as the Continent slips below the waterline of a euro debt caused by someone conveniently forgetting to turn off the tap of lending.

London and the UK as a whole do indeed seem to have taken on the character of an “offshore centre taking capital away from the rest of Europe”, as President Sarkozy is reported to have said to David Cameron at the summit meeting of 8/9 December. But have London and the UK also lost their moorings in any sort of grounded reality that one might know as ‘England’; let alone in the financial and political reality of a looming euro and EU meltdown?

Notwithstanding the disconnect between the City and the real (English) national interest, Europhile media and politicians have generally taken the view that David Cameron’s ‘veto’ of an as yet non-existent treaty was driven by and spoke to an ‘English’ point of view. Commentators have referred to an upsurge of ‘English nationalism’ in right-wing Tory ranks and have castigated the ‘Little Englander’ thinking behind resurgent euroscepticism. In so doing, they forget the original use of the term ‘Little Englander’, during the Second Boer War, to refer to people who were opposed to the very imperialist British-nationalist attitudes for which europhiles now criticise eurosceptics.

One example of this sort of critique is a recent article by David Marquand, who is a former chief advisor to Roy Jenkins when he was the President of the European Commission. Marquand characterises the resurgent post-summit euroscepticism as a peculiarly English, rather than British, phenomenon, arguing that it has been transformed from ‘scepticism’ to ‘phobia’: a visceral, in-the-gut reaction of hostility rather than rational, constructive-critical engagement. Marquand compares this ‘English’ europhobia with the supposedly more europhile and euro-integrationist sentiment prevalent in Scotland and Wales. And yet, despite the fact that Scottish and Welsh nationalists have for decades invoked the promise of closer ties with Brussels and the EU as a whole as one of their strongest arguments for separation from England, Marquand still feels entitled to blame English europhobia for potentially driving the Scots and the Welsh out of the UK.. And Marquand’s stance also ignores the evidence from opinion polls that Scots are just as eurosceptic as the English, if not more so: one recent ComRes survey found that 41% of Scots polled would vote for full withdrawal from the EU in a referendum on the issue, compared with between 35% and 40% in different parts of England.

Speaking as a genuine English nationalist, I view the misrepresentation of Tory euroscepticism as an English-nationalist position with a combination of bemusement and dismay. For example, Brian Walker writing in the Slugger O’Toole blog – normally a fairly rational voice of Northern Irish unionism – uncritically reproduces this (anti-)English-nationalist meme when he says: “The Financial Times (£) is alone today among UK national papers in spotting how the English nationalism of extreme Tory eurosceptics feeds Scottish separatism”. Walker goes on to quote Phillip Stephens from the same FT article: “Much of the Conservative party now speaks the language of English nationalism – driven to fury by Europe and increasingly driven out by the voters from Britain’s Celtic fringes”. In a later article, the same Brian Walker wonders why “the English political class . . . are less interested in the future of the British Union than the European one?”.

I wonder who Brian Walker regards as constituting the ‘English political class’. I wasn’t aware that such an entity existed. And no, Messrs Walker and Stephens, the Conservative Party precisely does NOT speak the language of English nationalism: Conservative politicians neither refer to nor speak in the name of ‘England’, nor do they talk of the ‘English national interest’; they talk only of ‘standing up for Britain’ and the ‘British national interest’. ‘England’ is banished from the discourse of the British polity in every way, other than as one of the choicest terms of insult in the dictionary; e.g. ‘Little Englander’ itself.

It is, however, true that Tory euroscepticism articulates a certain English attitude towards the EU project, albeit that the sentiment is articulated in ‘British’ terms. As Gareth Young pointed out in Our Kingdomearlier this month, a recent YouGov survey suggested that those who identify preferentially as English (as opposed to British) are more likely to be hostile to the UK’s membership of the EU. There is undoubtedly an insular streak in the English character, which veers towards isolationism in moments of national and European crisis. And there was more than a hint of the Dunkirk and Battle of Britain spirit in the England-based, UK popular press’s account of the Cameron veto moment – the Sun, for instance, depicting the PM in the guise of Churchill holding up a cigar-less ‘V’ sign, as if to say, ‘FU to the FU (Fiscal Union): we survived on our own through the dark days at the start of the War, so we can withstand the euro meltdown and German fiscal neo-imperialism by looking after our own interests now, too’.


This is ‘English’ nationalism, yes, but it’s English British nationalism: the British nationalism that appeals to those English people who still make little distinction between England and Britain, and view Britain / the United Kingdom as providing the strongest guarantee of England’s freedoms, security and prosperity. This attitude is perhaps worthy of the designation ‘little englander’ nationalism in the pejorative sense in which it is used nowadays; but we should write it with a lower-case ‘e’ to differentiate it from Little Englander (capital ‘E’) nationalism in the correct, historical sense of the term as reclaimed by contemporary English nationalists.

The little-englander (lower-case) mentality embodies a petty-minded pursuit of national-British economic self-interest, viewed as being best served by making Britain, and in particular London, a ‘safe haven’ of supposedly sound finance (i.e. somewhere for debt-business as usual), removed from the euro shipwreck: London as the capital of capital if not of England. This would in fact more aptly be termed ‘Little Britisher’ nationalism – at least if we are to pay any heed whatsoever to the actual terms in which it articulates itself.

By contrast, Little-Englander (capital ‘E’) nationalism in the true sense would be more aptly described as embodying a ‘Big Englander’ perspective. Domestically, Big-E nationalism is primarily a political project embodying the aspiration for England to be free to govern its own affairs. This means freedom from the UK state, and from the global corporatism and finance it has bought and borrowed into, just as much as it means freedom from real or imagined subservience to the EU. So yes, in this sense, real English nationalists – as opposed to Tory eurosceptics / europhobes inappropriately tarred with that brush – would in a sense not care, or perhaps care only relatively, if the UK’s departure from the EU were to bring about a break-up of the Union. But this is only because English self-governance is the primary goal, and if it takes either the UK’s departure from the EU or the break-up of the UK, or both, to achieve that aim, then so be it. But English self-rule is far from being the primary goal, or a publicly articulated goal in any case, of Tory eurosceptics – although one suspects that many of that breed would indeed privately not be overly concerned about the UK breaking up if it meant the Tories could exercise virtually perpetual control over English affairs, which is in fact far from being an inevitable or even likely consequence of English devolution or independence, whatever English-nationalists’ detractors might say.

In the international perspective, I think that Big E nationalism, in my conception of it, is consistent with more constructive engagement with the EU than the little-englander / Little-Britisher mentality exemplified by Cameron’s cowardly flight into the ‘British national interest’. An autonomous, confident England is and could be a big player on the European stage. Indeed, it is arguable that what the EU is missing in its present moment of crisis is leadership and support from England as a great European nation, which has been prepared in the past to stand by Europe and come to its rescue in its hour of need just as much as it has taken refuge from Europe in times of peril: the Dunkirk moment turning out ultimately to be a prelude to the Normandy landings. Now as then, the destinies and freedoms of England and Europe are intertwined, and we cannot mount a sustainable defence of England’s national interest in isolation from Europe.

What form would a more constructive, statesman-like, Big-Englander engagement towards the EU and response to the euro crisis have taken at the summit and in its wake? Certainly, a great leader like Churchill, conscious that now was the moment to demonstrate the greatness of the English nation in the face of a crisis threatening the prosperity and security of the whole continent of which England is a part, would engage positively and forcefully in negotiations with his European partners – and not run out of the room brandishing, well, nothing: not even the ultimately worthless agreement that a Chamberlain brought back from Munich in 1938.

We may disagree that the present treaty proposed by the Germans is up to the job of saving the euro, or even that saving the euro – at least in its present form – is worth doing at all. But then we should at least stay the course and press what I will insist on calling the English case, whatever that might have been if England had actually been at the table, and set out an English plan for saving the eurozone economies from their impending shipwreck. But if we want to shape the solution, we also have to be willing to be part of it: if we want to be an influential European power, playing a leading role in creating Europe’s economic and political future, then we have also to assume the responsibilities that go with it, and put our own economic security and national interests on the line for the greater good from which we can ultimately only benefit in terms of economic opportunity and political stature among our European partners.

The ‘we’ I am referring to here is England: to be a big player in Europe, we need (England) to be a big nation. Britain cannot be that big nation, because it fundamentally is not a nation, either ontologically (i.e. in terms of its self-identity) or politically. England is the big nation at the heart of Britain; but the British state and establishment has expunged England from its conception of itself, and is therefore no longer able or willing to act as the political expression of the English nation that it once was. Britain has become a de-anglicised, empty shell whose mission and purpose have narrowed down to an almost idolatrous pursuit of wealth for its own sake and to defence of ‘its’ short-term financial interests, which are fundamentally identified with those of the City of London and of corporate finance.

I’m not sure what we, as England, would or could have thrown into the negotiation with our European partners if we had been present at the table. Maybe we could have proposed that the Bank of England stand alongside the European Central Bank (ECB) to guarantee the outstanding sovereign debt of EU states, on the condition that the ECB start acting like a true reserve bank and be prepared to print money if necessary to prevent a total meltdown of the banking system and the euro. This would be a huge risk, but imagine the leverage and status this would give to England among her EU partners, including the power to drive a hard bargain and insist that other EU countries implement the so-called ‘fiscal prudence’ that the coalition government has made its hallmark! Plus it would mean that England would provide an invaluable counterweight to Germany and provide reassurance to smaller European nations that their democratic freedoms would not be mortgaged to German fiscal and EU political domination.

But no such reassurance has been received. England was not present at the table, only a mean-spirited and cowardly Britain whose ‘leader’ – unworthy though he was of that title – could think only of placating his friends in the City and his stroppier colleagues in Parliament, and of avoiding anything that might put either the UK’s financial credibility or his own political credibility at risk. Heaven forbid that Cameron should concede that the UK might have to make sacrifices to help its European friends, out of enlightened – as opposed to narrow – self-interest, and that the British people might have to be given the opportunity to approve or disapprove of yet another EU treaty, at the risk that the government’s view might be resoundingly defeated! If capital – financial and political – was to be made out of rejecting further European integration, even if this was being undertaken primarily out of desperation to save the eurozone economy, then Cameron was the man to make it!

This is not Little Englander nationalism. This is bigoted, Little-Britisher, short-termist self-interest. England was not at the party: either the European or the Conservative one! A true Little-Englander response would have been ‘Big E’ in both senses: England acting big, as a great nation, towards that other ‘E’ – Europe – which is bigger than merely the EU and the euro but risks being dragged down by their looming demise. England is a European nation, and its destiny is tied up with Europe. It’s the Little-Britishers, on the other hand, that are holding on to their imperial dreams of global (financial) domination and sailing off into the small-e ether of their financial petty-mindedness.

We needed capital E nationalism, not little e (and €) capitalism.


 

English parliament

9 December 2011

For the sake of Europe, Britain should hold a referendum on the EU

Conservative politicians have been busy spinning David Cameron’s veto of a new EU treaty last night as indicative of a strong stand in defence of the ‘British national interest’. In reality, it’s a sign of the weakness of the British position. Cameron had no choice other than to veto a treaty because he knew that the political pressure for a referendum on it in the UK would have been irresistible, and that the treaty would almost certainly have been rejected by the British people. As a result, Cameron has jeopardised a deal that might – just might – have saved the euro, on which millions of UK jobs depend. The UK has ended up isolated, and it’s by no means clear that even the hallowed interests of the City have been safeguarded, as under the draft deal agreed last night, it appears that the EU will still be able to impose a financial-transaction tax on the dealings of Eurozone-based banks in London.

All of this could have been avoided if we’d been given an in / out referendum on the EU much earlier, such as when the Lisbon Treaty was ratified. The fact that we weren’t offered this choice is the Labour Party’s fault, as it was they who reneged in government on their manifesto promise to hold a referendum on the EU Constitution, which is what, by common consent, the Lisbon Treaty was in all but name.

And while we’re on the subject of manifesto pledges, the Liberal Democrats, who more than any other party are desperate to avoid a referendum, ought really now to be demanding one. That’s because what was agreed last night is incontrovertibly a fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with the EU, which is what the Lib Dems stated in their last manifesto to be the grounds for justifying an in / out referendum. But have we heard the Lib Dems making any such demands? Of course not. Instead, their leader Nick Clegg is said to be 100% behind the stand taken by the PM last night. Why wouldn’t he be? It was the only way to avoid a referendum.

So the Lib Dems will be going around saying that, as any stricter fiscal rules for the Eurozone will be agreed outside the terms of any existing or new EU-wide treaty, they don’t involve a fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with the EU. And the Tories are saying no referendum is needed because no additional powers have been ceded to the EU, and no treaty has been agreed.

In reality, however, last night’s events have demonstrated the need for a definitive in / out referendum more conclusively than ever, and not just because last night’s deal involves a fundamental shift in the UK’s relationship with the EU. Cameron wouldn’t have been in the position of falling between the two stools of trying to safeguard the euro while at the same time defending the ‘British national interest’ if an earlier referendum had resolved the question of whether the British people believe that even being in the EU in the first place, let alone the euro, is in the British national interest. The problem is the political and business elites want the UK to be in the EU, but the British people – probably in the majority – don’t; so we end up in the ridiculous position of trying to be at once in Europe but not of it.

A referendum would have presented the opportunity for the UK, once and for all, to decide whether we want to be committed members of the EU or to let the EU get on with all the political, economic and fiscal integration they like, but without the UK being on board. Not having had such a referendum means that the UK’s very participation in the EU lacks democratic legitimacy. Consequently, there was absolutely no way Cameron could have committed the UK to yet another treaty without at last giving the British people the opportunity to decide whether we want to be of Europe as well as in it.

But that’s the clarity that’s needed now: not just for the UK and its people, but for the EU and Europe as a whole. The rest of the EU, with the possible exception of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Sweden, is understandably hacked off by David Cameron’s bulldog posturing. They’re defending their own respective national interests, too, after all, the difference being that they – or at least the French and Germans – view a successful euro and further EU integration as being in those interests. And they’re right that a successful euro is at least in the short-term interest of the UK, too, as the euro’s collapse would spell disaster for the UK economy just as much as it would for the Eurozone. So it’s not unreasonable for them to expect the UK to get behind their last-ditch plan to save the euro and to set aside ‘selfish’ national interest – such as protecting the City – in favour of the ‘common good’ of a prosperous Eurozone. It’s just that Cameron has no mandate to make such a deal, because the British political class has avoided seeking one for decades.

However, last night’s events have conclusively demonstrated the need for Britain’s position within, or outside of, the EU to be clarified once and for all, before we move irrevocably to a two-track EU with the UK on the margins. The British people need to know where we’re going with respect to the EU. And the other EU states and Europe as a whole need to know whether the UK is truly behind the EU project and the euro, or not.

Europe needs Britain to decide; the British people demand the right to decide. Will David Cameron finally demonstrate the leadership once shown by his role model, Churchill, and let Britain choose whether it is with or against an EU with Germany at its centre?

English parliament

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