Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

2 May 2009

Almunia for Britain (sorry, England)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10 January 2009

Lies, damn lies and censuses: nationality, national identity and ethnicity in the proposed 2011 UK censuses

It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: there are lies, damn lies and statistics. And the 2011 census belongs, clearly, in the latter category. Or the 2011 censuses, rather; because, in the wake of devolution, there are now three censuses for the UK – or four, if you include the superficial differences, mostly relating to the sequence of the questions, between the forms that will be sent out to households in England and Wales.

The questions about ‘national identity’ and ‘ethnic group’ in the proposed forms for England & Wales and Scotland respectively neatly illustrate how the way you gather statistics can pre-determine the answer you want, in the service of a political agenda; whether that agenda is to reinforce the cohesiveness of a British ‘national identity’ or to insidiously drive a wedge between the different national identities of the UK by defining them in ethnic terms.

First, the form for England and Wales. As reported by Toque, the 2011 census will ask people the following question about their ‘national identity’:

So far so good: very good, in fact. In contrast to the 2001 census, there are at least separate ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Northern Irish’ tick boxes; and they’re not indented underneath the ‘British’ category (making ‘British’ the implied primary national identity for all UK citizens), as they were in an earlier proposal for the ethnic categories in the census (see my previous discussion). And you can also pick more than one of these national identities, if you so wish; e.g. English and British, Scottish and British, etc. However, Cornish nationalists will understandably decry the absence of a ‘Cornish’ check box. And there’s also still a big problem with this ‘national identity’ list when set against the ‘ethnic group’ question:

It’s undoubtedly a good thing that people aren’t asked to differentiate in ethnic terms between Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness, Northern Irishness and Britishness: there’s a single ‘white’ category for all white persons who have selected one or more of these terms as their national identity (-ies). However, this implicitly sets up a ‘white-British’ ethnic group (like the one used in the 2001 census), as all of these five ‘national identities’ are basically those of Britain / the UK. This white-British ethnicity is differentiated in the ethnic-group question from ‘white Irish’; in contrast to the 2001 form, which defined a single ‘white Irish’ ethnicity that could include people with political loyalties or affiliations to either Northern Ireland or the Republic. In other words, the form is making an ethnic distinction purely on the basis of a political division: between Britain / the UK (including Northern Ireland) and the Republic of Ireland.

This definition of ethnic categories along the lines of state frontiers is completely inappropriate and unacceptable, politically and methodologically. In actual fact, this introduces into the census a third, unspoken type of ethnic / national categorisation – nationality – that is subtly different from ‘national identity’ but will inevitably skew the way respondents describe their national identity. White-British people are being forced by the form to define their ethnicity in relation to this third type of identity (nationality), i.e. their status as British citizens. If the form succeeds in getting English people to accept a definition of their ethnicity that is based on their nationality (i.e. ‘white-British’), then those same people are far more likely to tick the ‘British’ check box in the question on ‘national identity’ (No. 15 above), whether in addition to or instead of ‘English’.

In this way, the census manipulates the power of ethnic identity to reinforce a political identity: Britishness. In relation to all the ‘non-white-British’ ethnic categories, it also effectively biases people in favour of choosing ‘British’ as their ‘national identity’ by again using the political category ‘British’ as an ethnic identifier (e.g. in the top-level categories ‘Asian British’ and ‘Black British’). If, on the other hand, the terms ‘Asian English’ and ‘Black English’ were used alongside ‘Asian British’ and ‘Black British’, respondents selecting those ethnic groups would be far more likely to select ‘English’ as their national identities in addition to or instead of British. But if their very ethnicity is defined in relation to Britishness, this subliminally induces them to also pick an exclusively British national identity.

In the proposed Scottish census, by contrast, ethnically Asian and Black persons are allowed to view themselves ethnically as Scottish; i.e. the terms corresponding to the ethnic-group categories C and D in the England & Wales form shown above are ‘Asian, Asian Scottish or Asian British’ and ‘African, Caribbean or Black’ – a heading that includes the sub-categories ‘African Scottish’, ‘Caribbean Scottish’ and ‘Black Scottish’ alongside ‘African British’, ‘Caribbean British’ and ‘Black British’. This is of course designed to produce the same effect as would the inclusion of the categories of ‘Asian English’ and ‘African English’ in the English census (or ‘Asian Welsh’ and ‘African Welsh’ in Wales): it encourages people of those ethnicities to indicate ‘Scottish’ as one of their ‘national identities’ or even their only one, especially as the ‘ethnic’ designator ‘Scottish’ precedes that of ‘British’ in each of these ethnic-group categories.

To this extent, the Scottish form works in a similar way to the English & Welsh one, although to politically diametrically opposed ends: it encourages people to identify ethnically as Scottish so that they will also select ‘Scottish’ as their national identity, and perhaps their exclusive one. However, the Scottish census exploits ethnic identification in an even more pernicious way still. In contrast to the England & Wales form, the Scottish questionnaire explicitly separates out the terms ‘Scottish’, ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Northern Irish’ and ‘British’ as distinct ethnic categories, albeit only when identified with the white ethnic group, as illustrated below:

There are many things that could be said about these categories; but the most important point is the utterly insidious way that these ethnic categories are intended to influence the way people will fill in the checkboxes relating to ‘national identity’ (see below). If respondents are forced to define themselves ethnically as either Scottish, English, Welsh, Northern Irish or British (when these are political and cultural identities, not ethnic), then this will inevitably induce more of those that choose ‘Scottish’ to select only ‘Scottish’ as their national identity, and not Scottish and British. Here is the bit of the form relating to national identity:

Note the quite astonishing omission of ‘Welsh’, ‘Northern Irish’ and even ‘Irish’ as options for national identity, whereas these terms are options for ethnicity, a discrepancy that was reported on with some bemusement in Wednesday’s Wales Online. This seems to me to be a complete reversal of the correct way of looking at things: Welsh and (Northern) Irish, and Scottish and English for that matter, are properly to be seen as national and cultural identities, not ethnic ones.

What on earth is going on here? My interpretation is that the form is trying to foster an ‘ethnic-Scottish’ identity as the ‘primary’ national identity of Scottish people: one that takes precedence, precisely, over their British nationality. As people work their way through the form, they may well tick both ‘Scottish’ and ‘British’ in question No. 14 above on national identity. Then, when they come to question 15 on ethnic group, they are forced to choose between Scottishness and Britishness, purely on supposedly ethnic grounds. Scottish people going through this process will then think to themselves: ‘well, am I more Scottish or more British in terms of my genealogy and family affiliations’, which is how people think of their ethnicity. And, of course, they’re much more likely to answer ‘Scottish’ if they’ve got Scottish family roots and have lived in Scotland all their lives; whereas ‘British’ is a merely political affiliation: nationality as opposed to this faux ethnicity. So, once they’ve decided to describe themselves officially as of Scottish ethnicity, then they are a) much more likely to go back and cross out ‘British’ as one of their national identities (or not select it at all if they fill in question 15 before question 14); and b) more importantly, they may henceforth come to see their national identity as Scottish in the first instance, as the form invites them to see this concept in relation to a spurious Scottish ethnicity rather than their British nationality.

So whereas the England & Wales form defines ethnicity along the lines of nationality to reinforce an acceptance of a British national identity on the part of English people, the Scottish form defines national identity along the lines of a concocted Scottish ethnicity in order to undermine Scottish people’s identification with their British nationality.

It’s hard to say which is worse. If anything, I think it’s the Scottish one, which uses a totally unjustifiable division of the UK along dubious ethnic lines in the service of a nationalist agenda. This is the kind of ethnic nationalism that undermines the cause of civic and multi-ethnic nationalism. But both approaches will inevitably generate misleading results designed to support the national-identity politics of the UK and Scottish governments respectively.

As I said: there are lies, damn Scottish lies and UK censuses.

30 August 2008

Great Britain is England yet awhile

I was quite surprised recently at the reaction to a post of mine that was published on OurKingdom. In the piece, I explored some different scenarios for a referendum on Scottish independence. One of them was that, as a vote for Scottish independence would effectively break up Great Britain (the product of the 1707 Union between England and Scotland), then all of the people of Great Britain should be given a say. This proposal was intended only as an exercise in logical reasoning: if you regard Great Britain as a nation, then surely the whole of that nation should be allowed to choose whether it should be broken up. In the event, none of those commenting on the post took up this line of argument: there was not even a solitary unionist to defend the idea of Great Britain’s integrity as a nation. Scottish commenters, for their part, significantly seemed to regard any idea that the whole of Great Britain – or, indeed, the whole of the UK – should be allowed to give its assent to the departure of Scotland from the Union, and to the proposed shape of the continuing Union post-Scotland, as an (English) attempt to block the sovereign will of the Scottish people.

I was left with an impression that to argue that Great Britain is a nation – which is not, by the way, what I believe – meets with incomprehension in serious political debate. This is despite the fact that ‘the country’ and the state as a whole are almost always referred to in national political discourse as ‘Britain’; and the New Labour government has expended vast amounts of time, effort and money trying to invent and inculcate concepts such as ‘British values’, ‘Britishness’ and, indeed, British national identity that are supposed to unite all the peoples of the kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

And this is also despite the fact that Team GB – the ‘Great Britain’ Olympic team – returned home earlier this week to the rapturous acclaim of what was referred to by the media as ‘the nation’, Union Flags draped all over them; to be followed in subsequent days by patriotic receptions of their athletes from the peoples of Scotland and Wales with not a Union Flag in sight but only Saltires and Red Dragons. No proposals yet for a victory parade for the triumphant English athletes, although we have been promised a parade in London in October for all of Team GB. Understandably, this absence of an English parade, along with the handing out of Union Jacks to people attending receptions of English athletes in their local areas, has been greeted with howls of ‘foul play’.

But it’s clear that the Great Britain celebrations are meant to do double duty as the English celebrations. There’s something rather unrealistic about demanding or hoping that we might be allowed to fête our triumphant English athletes as English when they’re supposed to be representing Great Britain. This would be an ‘unnecessary’ duplication – precisely because Great Britain is already the double of England; and because the patriotic pride we take in Team GB is the publicly acceptable expression of English pride in her athletes. Look at the kit those athletes are wearing: it’s the England football kit – white tops with red trim; blue trousers. (Or is England’s football kit really in the British colours? But don’t get me on to the subject of the football team GB again!)

How can we unpack all of this? The UK (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is not a nation: to advocate this idea would meet with even more derision or incomprehension than to suggest that Great Britain as such is a nation. Depending on whether you regard Great Britain as a unitary nation, as a political union of two nations (England and Scotland), or indeed of three (England, Scotland and Wales), then the UK is a political union between – a state composed of – from one to three nations plus part of another (Ireland).

Hardly surprising, then, that ‘the UK’ is not used as the name for the Olympic team: it’s not a nation and, therefore, cannot be a channel of national pride. ‘Britain’, on the other hand (as opposed to ‘Great Britain’), is used informally as a synonym for the UK, while taking on the connotations of nationhood associated with ‘Great Britain’. This is why it is also a synonym for what national politicians refer to as ‘the country’: a term which, in its very imprecision, also encompasses and binds together the concepts of the UK state and of nationhood but avoids officially using the term ‘nation’ for the UK. Similarly, ‘Britain’, informally, is described as ‘the nation’ even when it refers to the UK.

So why isn’t ‘Britain’, rather than ‘Great Britain’, the name of the Olympic team, as this would at least imply the inclusion of athletes from Northern Ireland, as well as from other parts of the so-called ‘British Isles’ that are not formally part of the UK, such as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man? Well, I suppose it’s because – formally – ‘Britain’ is the name neither of a state nor of a nation; whereas Great Britain appears to be a bit of both: literally a bit of – part of – the official name of the UK state, and (to judge from its name at least) an integral nation; that is, one of the two nations that joined together to form the UK.

But Great Britain is also, as I said above, the double of England. It’s the place within which the ‘subjective’ national identity of the English (how they see themselves and what they call themselves as a ‘great’ nation), the ‘objective’ identity of the state (a Union of two to four nations greater than England, but of which England is the greater part) and the physical territory of the ‘country’ (Britain) converge. But that place, increasingly, exists only in the subjectivity – in the minds – of the English (or at least some of them), not in objective reality.

Great Britain is the name that England gave to itself when it took over Scotland in the 1707 Union: it’s the name of the ‘dominion’ of England (its territory and power) expanded to encompass the whole of Britain – ‘Great’ because it is ‘Greater England’; a Union that consolidated the greatness of England as Britain. In the popular imagination of the English, from 1707 till recent times, Great Britain was a nation – was the nation – because it was synonymous with the nation of England; the Union being imagined as an incorporation of Scotland into the English state, which is what it effectively was if you consider only aspects such as parliament, the executive and sovereignty – although Scotland retained many other aspects of separate civic nationhood, such as its own legal and education systems, and established church.

So, for England, Great Britain became the (English) nation: an imaginative fusion – union – of the English national identity, the political state, and the territory of Britain. But the point is the English did invest their sense of national identity into Great Britain to the extent that ‘England’ and ‘Great Britain’ became indistinguishable and interchangeable. For the Scots, this meant that ‘Great Britain’ always really meant just England, and its domination and subordination of Scotland through the apparatus of the ‘British’ state. However, for the English, this genuinely implied a blending of national identities – a pouring and offering out of Englishness into and for Britain – creating something new: a British nation and nationhood within which the Scots and the Welsh were also taken up; but which, subjectively, was of necessity the extension of Englishness to ‘Britain as a whole’ (Great Britain), because that imagined common Britishness was imagined through the minds of the English – the controllers of the narrative of British identity.

Nothing essentially changed in this dynamic when Ireland was added to the Union in 1801. The name of the state may have changed but it remained ‘Great Britain’ in its core identity: the national identity of the English as subjectively extended and merged into ‘Britain as a whole’, making Ireland, too (and now Northern Ireland), ‘really’ part of Great Britain: British; British Ireland. ‘Really’ in the sense that, insofar as it lived as a nation at all, this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (this union of Ireland with Great Britain, which was an incorporation of Ireland into the Union that was Great Britain) fully had the character of nationhood only in the minds of the English, for whom Great Britain was the objective reflection – the image, the double – of their own nation and the greatness of England.

The British ‘project’ – the realisation of Britain as a ‘great nation’ through Great Britain, the Empire and now the attempt to encapsulate the philosophical and political ‘greatness’ that is Britishness – has, therefore, always been essentially an English project. Not only in the objective sense that the English ‘as a nation’ somehow owned, drove and dominated the British adventure; but because the very Britishness of that project was a projection of the English: a creation of something, in their eyes, greater than themselves but of themselves, which in turn conferred greatness (the greatness of Britain) upon them.

And so now, too, our Olympians have gone out to the world and returned home in greatness, battles won. ‘Our’ Olympians, I say? Those of England or those of Great Britain?

For now, they are those of England and those of Great Britain; and our celebrations must do double duty for our athletes’ Englishness and Britishness – including the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish among them in whom, as Great Britons, we English also take national pride.

But the objective political reality which, for 300 years, has sustained the Great British dream is rapidly unravelling. As those displays of Scottish and Welsh patriotic pride revealed, it’s increasingly only the English who see themselves as British and their country as Great Britain. And then again, fewer and fewer of them. When that objective political union that binds England to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland fully dissolves, then maybe we can have our celebration of great English achievements. Or maybe, our celebrating English glories as English, not British, will be the thing that finally puts an end to the British project: the projection of our English ambitions and identity onto Great Britain.

It’s the desire to be greater than ourselves that led to Great Britain. Maybe England‘s finest hour will be when we accept that true greatness is just to be ourselves. And to achieve all that we are capable of – for ourselves and our country – in a spirit of friendship to others and personal striving that has its meaning in itself.

24 July 2008

Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on social cohesion promotes ethnic marginalisation of the English

The left-wing think tank Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report this week on Immigration and Social Cohesion in the UK. This was widely heralded in English-nationalist circles as arguing against the government’s policies of trying to impose normative British values and identity on the English as a means to foster social cohesion and multi-ethnic integration.

The report does indeed refute this approach. As it says about its findings in the Executive Summary: “The dominant ‘consensualist’ sensibility informing current policies of social cohesion, with its implied argument that immigration threatens a shared national identity and its emphasis on identifying processes that can foster commonalities, is out of step with our findings”. In essence, the report regards what it terms ‘relational’ and ‘structural’ factors as being more significant determinants of social cohesion than an artificially imposed Britishness. ‘Relational’ factors are those affecting inter-community relations, inter-change and problem resolution; and ‘structural’ interventions involve measures to address social inequalities, and ensure adequate and fair access to public services, and to economic and educational opportunity, for all ethnic groups, including the ‘long-term settled majority ethnic’ group, i.e. the group classified in the 2001 census of England and Wales as ‘White British’.

The report is actually quite a long, detailed sociological study; and I must confess not to have read it in full. But I did look more closely at the parts where it attempts to get to grips with specifically English experiences of immigration and the challenges this poses to particular communities. Based on that, I would say there are two fundamental flaws in the report: 1) it fails to tackle the implications of the questions it raises concerning national identity and the varying attitudes towards Britishness in the different countries of the UK; 2) it ends up being primarily about social cohesion and immigration in England, and about how to re-engage the English in an ongoing British-national project in which Englishness is defined in ethnic rather than civic terms.

On the first issue, the report interestingly observes how ‘long-term settled majority ethnic’ people in England have difficulty defining what Britishness means to them: it’s just ‘home’ and where they feel they belong, and is associated with values such as fairness and tolerance. This is what the authors of the report describe as “‘minus one ethnicity’. . . . the way predominant identities tend to be naturalised as unmarked and to define all other groups as ethnically marked and different”. This sounds like a general sociological concept that could in theory be applied to any country. In other words, majority-ethnic British people living in England would not think of themselves as just one British-ethnic group among many but would think of themselves as having a sort of zero ethnicity; meaning that only minority-ethnic groups would be classed as ‘ethnic’ – as indeed is the case in popular parlance. If this were a general principle, then in France, for instance, majority-ethnic French people would not think of themselves particularly as ethnically French but just as (nationally) French; while minority-ethnic groups would be designated in an ethnic way, as in fact they are; e.g. ‘maghrébin’ (Arabic-speaking North African), ‘africain’ (sub-Saharan African), etc.

But this analogy does not hold up. The difference is that the French unambiguously see themselves as French in a civic, national sense. While this is non-ethnic in principle, in practice it is also associated with precisely the ‘long-term settled majority ethnic’ population in France, and its long and proud history and culture. By contrast, the reason why the Rowntree Foundation report’s researchers encountered such fuzziness on the part of English respondents about their ‘White British’ ethnicity is because Britishness is also not a national identity with which majority-ethnic English people identify in an unambiguous and integral manner, as the French do with Frenchness. So what the report describes as a kind of ethnicity-neutral identity on the part of majority-ethnic people in England is in fact the well-known and oft-discussed syndrome of English people not having a secure sense of their national identity: merging it with Britishness at the same time as not feeling that Britishness as such entirely encapsulates who they are in ethnic-national terms; because, in fact, Britain may well be their civic nationality but not their national-ethnic identity, which is English. If the researchers had asked their interviewees about the meaning they attached to belonging to England, rather than belonging to Britain, they would undoubtedly have obtained a much more definite response along the lines of, ‘what do you mean? That’s a bit of a daft question, isn’t it? I am English, aren’t I; and England is my country’.

English people still feel that they ought to belong to Britain; but in reality, they often no longer do feel they belong to and in Britain: that who and what they are, ethnically and culturally, is no longer seamlessly mirrored in the state and society of the ‘Britain’ in which they live. So this is a case not so much of the ethnic neutrality of the dominant ethnic group but of the disconnect from the multi-ethnic (and hence ethnically neutral) ‘nation’ of Britain experienced by its largest national-ethnic group, the English.

The report goes on to observe that there were no such ambiguities towards Britishness on the part of the Scottish and Northern Irish research subjects. As they say: “In Scotland, the issue of belonging to Britain was seen as irrelevant for most people, who would rather relate to Scotland or not relate to any national affiliation at all”. Well, precisely: in Scotland and Northern Ireland, there has been a much more sustained, historical dissociation between the national identity and the civic British nation state, perceived as the English state. But then this makes it clear that the reason why ‘belonging to Scotland’ is so uncomplicated for the Scots is because Scotland is simply their nation; whereas ‘belonging to Britain’ cannot fail to be a complicated matter for the English because Britain is not their nation other than in the ambiguous sense whereby the English have tended to conflate the nation England with the civic state Britain.

But this disparity between the English, on the one hand, and the Scots and Northern Irish on the other (the report doesn’t research any communities in Wales) is based on an inconsistency in the report’s approach that goes right to the heart of its failure as a prescription for Britain as a whole, rather than just England. By the report’s own admission, as in the quote in the paragraph above, both Scotland and Britain are national affiliations, not ethnic ones: Scotland being an ethnic-cultural nation like England, and now well on its way to being a civic nation, or nation state; and Britain being merely a civic nation which, as the report says, the Scots would increasingly rather not relate, and indeed belong, to at all.

But this gives the lie to the report’s use of Britishness (as in the ‘long-term settled majority ethnic’ or ‘White British’ group) as a unified ethnic designation for all the indigenous peoples of the UK, with which English people’s non-identification is somehow a sign that they are the predominant ethnic group. On the contrary, the Scots do not identify with Britishness either; and the reason why they don’t is because they identify, in ethnic-national terms, as Scottish, just as the English more strongly identify as English than British in this ethnic-national sense.

And, incidentally, this strong Scottish national identity also becomes implicitly an ethnic identity in the sense that, insofar as the Scots identify with any ethnic classification, the report makes it clear that this is Scottish not British; and, indeed, it talks of the difficulties that Scotland has had in integrating the ‘other’ ethnic groups that have immigrated into Scotland in unprecedented numbers under New Labour.

In other words, Scottishness serves as an ethnic term, both in the report and in Scottish society. But the report itself glosses over the awkward questions this might raise in relation to its overall objective, which is basically to foster multi-ethnic cohesion within ‘Britain as a whole’. To throw the idea of distinct Scottish, Irish and Welsh ethnic as well as national identities into the discussion would really muddle things up; and, in any case, the report seeks to mitigate the importance of ethnic distinctions in favour of a progressive, economically redistributive and multi-cultural approach to social cohesion.

But in order to do this, it has to deny the validity of any idea on the part of the English that the new multi-ethnic civic society that is to be nurtured might actually go by the name of England rather than Britain. As was discussed above, it first tries to do this by making out that English people’s non-identification of themselves as (ethnically) British is because, in fact, they are the dominant British ethnic group. In other words, designations such as ‘long-term settled majority ethnic’ and ‘White British’ are really the most accurate and appropriate terms with which to categorise English people (English people, note, not Scots whose ethnic non-identification with Britain is said to have a different basis), even though – or perhaps, precisely because – they don’t know it:

“much of the professional and political rhetoric about multiculturalism did not recognise the white population as constituted ethnically. In other words, the term ‘white’ was stripped of ethnic content. For example, a survey of the Irish in England in the mid-1990s found that a majority thought they were a minority ethnic group but a large minority did not think they could be because they were white . . . . This assumed homogeneity of the white population reinforced the idea that ethnicity was the property of historical immigrations and not of the majority ethnic group, the English/British”.

In other words, the majority ethnic group – clearly identified here as in reality white English people – are designated as ‘English/British’: the same as the ‘White British’ category used in the 2001 census, which merges Englishness indistinctly into Britishness – but from which Irishness (‘White Irish’ in the census) and, by implication, Scottishness (effectively seen by the report as another minority-ethnic group within England-Britain, of equivalent status to Ireland in that respect) are distinct categories.

So the English really are majority-White-British, from the perspective of the ethnic mapping of the UK which the report subscribes to. But, by virtue of distinguishing this English-British ethnicity from the ‘minority’ Irish and Scottish ethnic identities, Englishness is curiously reinstated towards the end of the report as a distinct ethnic identity. And this is put to the service of the second way in which the report evades the possibility of any civic English nation and identity: Englishness becomes only one (albeit the majority) ethnic identity among the many identities of multi-ethnic Britain. As the report states: “the framework of social cohesion can offer Englishness the possibility of decentring itself from its condition of invisibility and predominance, and presenting itself to itself and to other groups as a specific ethnic group, with a specific history, values, expectations and affiliation to the national project”.

Note that it’s now Englishness that is said to have remained hitherto invisible as an ethnic identity owing to the very ‘predominance’ of the native-English ethnic group within Britain; whereas, earlier in the report, it was said to be the ethnic Britishness of the English that was blurred and indistinct in many English people’s minds. Having now changed tack and established Englishness as a distinct ethnicity, the purpose of such a move becomes clear in the above quote: if English people can come to see themselves as just one among many ethnic groups within Britain, they will relinquish their claims to pre-eminence or ‘ownership’ of the nation and, at the same time, recover a renewed sense of belonging to Britain and of ‘affiliation to the national project‘ – i.e. of re-engagement with the very British national project and affiliations which Scottish and Irish people no longer feel nor are expected to feel. (Note the use of the word ‘affiliation’, which was the very word used about Scotland’s disengagement from Britain in the quote about Scotland earlier on.)

In this sense, the report partakes of what I have previously described as the ‘ethnic marginalisation’ of England. If you categorise Englishness and the English as an ethnicity rather than as a nation, this enables you to deny the ‘sovereign right’ of the English to form themselves as a nation – whether as an independent state or a self-governing nation within a larger state. The report seems to say, ‘Why should one ethnic group among many deny to all the other ethnic groups of Britain the British identity and citizenship of which – as the report describes – they are so proud?’ But this view relies on marginalising the English as just an ethnic group and not as what it is: a historic nation. Seen from this latter perspective, it is indeed the right of the English to determine their form of governance and civic nationhood. And this is only a problem for England’s ethnic minorities if you do indeed define the English only in ethnic terms: as the dominant ethnic group. If, on the other hand, you define as English all British citizens living in England who do not actually see themselves as ‘foreign’ nationals (including Irish and Scottish), then they should all have a say in England’s political and constitutional future.

In conclusion, the Rowntree Foundation report disagrees that imposing an artificial and monolithic Britishness onto the ethnically diverse population of Britain will foster social cohesion. But it equally regards the resurgence of a strong and distinct English national identity as a threat to harmonious multi-cultural co-existence and the more equitable society it seeks to promote. So it endeavours to deny English national identity in contradictory ways that manifest the underlying political motivation: English people ‘really’ see themselves as, well, just British in a hazy, ill-defined way that reveals them as the dominant White-British ethnic group. No distinct, cohesive English national identity therefore presently exists, in contrast to the more nationally assertive Scots and Northern Irish. But – in deference to the feelings of many of their English respondents’ sense that the needs and rights of the English people have been neglected by New Labour – English people can be allowed to take pride in their Englishness; but only as one among many ethnicities engaged in forging the new Britain.

But what if the Scots’, Irish and Welsh reassertion of their distinct national identities does lead them to depart from Britain? Will England still have to be called Britain out of respect for the British identities and sensibilities of minority-ethnic groups? Will English people still not be able to call their state by their own name, even when the geographical territory of that state is limited to England?

This is absurd. True social cohesion and multi-ethnic integration in England – let’s call it that, if that’s what we’re talking about – will come about only when English people have a nation to which they truly feel they belong, and which belongs to them – and belongs to all the ethnic minorities that have made it their home, too.

5 July 2008

The Ethnic Marginalisation Of England

England, as we know, is a nation but not a state. Such a statement can imply different things, however. I was struck by this the other day when I was researching a post on the campaigns being mounted in support of Internet Top Level Domains (TLDs) for ‘sub-national’ territories such as cities (e.g. .ldn for London) or ‘regions’ with a distinct national cultural-ethnic identity (such as Catalonia, Brittany or Cornwall). Another blog I looked at in connection with this research referred to these regions as ‘stateless nations’; and Scotland (.sco) and Wales (.cym) were viewed as being in the same category. Well, I thought, if Scotland and Wales are described as ‘stateless nations’, then England (.eng) – which the blog did not refer to – must be the stateless nation par excellence, as it is larger than all of the above-mentioned ‘nations’ put together but has even less official status as a nation than either Scotland or Wales, and less political autonomy than Catalonia.

But in another way, is it appropriate to place England in the same category as Catalonia or Cornwall; or even to assert that Scotland and Wales are stateless nations in quite the same way as these other entities? There is a difference between the ‘constituent countries’ of the UK, as they’re officially known, and these ‘regions’. The difference, precisely, is that England, Scotland and Wales have always preserved official recognition as nations even within the British state; whereas, for centuries, territories such as Catalonia, Brittany or Cornwall have not enjoyed such a formal status, at least not without dispute.

In other words, Catalonia and Cornwall are ‘nations’ primarily in the cultural-ethnic sense: the people, or a significant proportion of them, in those ‘regions’ feel and believe they are a distinct nation. That nationhood is identified most closely with their distinctive languages, cultural traditions, ethnicity and common history, which can include a history of struggle to resist total assimilation into the state of which they are a part.

By contrast, England, Scotland and Wales – while being also nations in the cultural-ethnic sense I’ve just defined – are nations in a different, formal sense. Even prior to devolution, England and Wales, on the one hand, and Scotland, on the other, retained separate legal and education systems. One consequence was that they continued to be recognised as distinct national entities, even though the political system and state institutions through which they were governed were indistinct. And whereas they had the same legal and educational systems, England and Wales were also officially acknowledged as distinct nations in a political and administrative sense, and not merely as culturally-ethnically distinct ‘regional’ entities within a larger nation that encompassed them.

So England may well be a nation but not a state; but it is also a nation within a state – one that enjoyed and, to an extent, still enjoys official nation status, if not nation-statehood. We’re familiar with the history: England (which at that time subsumed Wales) was a nation-state or, in the terms of the day, a distinct, united and independent kingdom. After the Union with Scotland in 1707, England essentially retained the same apparatus of statehood and, in this sense, Great Britain represented the continuing English state. The difference, of course, was that this state was shared with, and extended to encompass, Scotland. Accordingly, the name of the state was changed to Great Britain in recognition of its territorial extent and the fact that, nominally, England and Scotland were equal partners in a shared polity; and that therefore the new state could not simply be referred to as ‘England’, which would imply that England had merely taken over Scotland. While the political reality may well have been a take-over of this sort, the choice of the name Great Britain did in fact also correspond to a truth: that England and Scotland had in fact not been integrated into a single nation through the Union but remained distinct nations in both the cultural-ethnic and legal-institutional senses described above. Great Britain, and the United Kingdom that succeeded it as a result of the Union with Ireland in 1801, was never anything more than a political union; and the nations of Britain remained as such.

What began to happen with the devolution of Scotland and Wales in 1998 was the unravelling of that political union. As so often happens, the politicians responsible got it all upside down. They thought that the changes they were introducing were merely political and would not in themselves undermine the Union, because – as they thought – the ‘common bonds’ of nationhood uniting the peoples of England, Scotland and Wales were so strong that a separation into three distinct nation states would be unthinkable to all but a fanatical nationalist minority. On the contrary, it was the political union between the three nations – the unitary institutions of the UK – that held the whole thing together: it was this union that meant that the distinct national identities and ambitions of England, Scotland and Wales were set aside because the system of governance they shared was perceived as having worked over centuries, and was basically fair, democratic and free. In other words, the political union held national(ist) ambitions in check; but once separate national political institutions were accorded to Scotland and Wales, they became the focus and instrument for expressing those distinct national identities, aspirations and political goals.

In a sense, though I disagree with the analysis, there is a simple logic behind the claim that is often made by establishment politicians that once England is granted its own parliament, this would mean the end of the United Kingdom. So long as England doesn’t jump the sinking British ship, there is a chance of keeping Scotland and Wales on board, i.e. committed to a common political undertaking and project: the British state. However, if England refocuses its politics around itself as a nation – as opposed to focusing it on Britain – then instead of three nations with unitary political institutions, you have three nations with their own national political institutions. And the ultimate logic, so the argument goes, is three separate nation states. (I disagree because it’s possible to imagine a federal system in which each nation would govern its own internal affairs but pool their sovereignty to deal with matters of common strategic, international interest.)

But the irony of such a conception of the situation is that it makes Britain re-emerge overtly as the English state that it has always been in all but name. This is because it’s England – its commitment and its willingness to put the perpetuation of the Union above its own ‘self-interest’, if necessary – that holds the whole thing together: no England, no Union. As Scotland and Wales separate themselves off both politically and emotionally from the Union (i.e. in terms of their own commitment to the Union that they were previously willing to regard as more important than ‘selfish’ national goals), what is left of the United Kingdom, as a unitary polity, is increasingly only England. This emerged in a rather telling way in the government’s Draft Legislative Programme for 2008/9, presented to Parliament in May 2008, which formed the basis for a previous post. The document gamely attempts to clarify the ‘territorial extent’ of the bills proposed. Indeed, different parts of some bills apply to a bewildering combination of the UK nations: England and Wales; England, Wales and N. Ireland; all of the UK, etc. This is of course because government responsibilities in the areas covered by the bills have been devolved in varying degrees to Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland. However, the one common denominator is that every part of every bill applies to England. In other words, England is now the only UK nation to which UK governance applies in a fully unitary fashion; the other nations having disengaged themselves to a varying extent from that unitary system. As much as to say that England is the United Kingdom; and the other nations are now only semi-united politically with England in that kingdom.

So England was a united kingdom before the 1707 Act of Union; and now it is the United Kingdom: the only truly united and unifying part of a state that the countries with which it was formerly united are increasingly walking away from. So it’s not so much a case of England deciding to turn its back on the Union and create its own new, separate English institutions; but rather that, as the other nations turn their back on the Union, the UK institutions re-emerge as what they always were at heart: those of England. Which is not to say that, if Scotland votes for independence in 2010, say, we should simply carry on with the same old political institutions and constitutional settlement that we have now in a rump-UK minus Scotland. Indeed not: this would be the opportunity for England to recast its fundamental national institutions anew and re-invent a proud, English democracy serving English needs and priorities in this challenging period of world history.

But the point is, whether a new English parliament in name as well as deed emerges as a result of Scottish secession from the Union (most likely), or through an equalisation of the present asymmetrical devolution settlement such as through a federation (unlikely but the only way to save common British institutions and statehood of any sort), this parliament will be the expression of a nation – England – that has always maintained its existence as a formal, political and juridical, nation, and not just a nation defined in cultural and ethnic terms. In fact, those who would seek to limit their definition and understanding of England and the English to such cultural and / or ethnic terms are actually contributing to the marginalisation of England within the British state and are making the possibility of English self-governance more, not less, remote. This is because, if the English are a nation only or primarily in the cultural-ethnic sense, then it can be argued that they have no special claim to be marked out from any other cultural or ethnic group within the British state by having their own parliament and institutions. England will secure recognition for itself as a nation with democratic rights only if it claims for itself the status of a formal – political and juridical – nation; and if it forces the British state to accept it as such. So, in a sense, in order to be acknowledged in the future as a nation with official status as a state or part of a state, England must be accepted as having always been such a nation – a polity, kingdom, and civic nation, in short – and that the British phase of its history was one where its civic identity was subsumed into Britain; but its national identity was unchanged.

England is indeed a nation with a culture, traditions, history and ethnic mix that is all its own, and of which it can be proud. But it is so much more than that: it’s a political and legal entity with a proud past, submerged present, and promising future. We’re England – not Catalonia or Brittany. And not Britain.

26 May 2008

English Nationalism and Progressive Politics

For me, ‘progressive’ is something of a dirty word. I associate it with the arrogance of the left – particularly, in the British context, of the Labour Party – and of some secular liberals, who seem to divide the world into the rational, modern, ‘progressive’ sheep to the left, and the ideologically reactionary and psychologically ‘regressive’, (religious-)conservative ‘goats’ to the right. Traditionally, however, on Judgement Day – or, as we might put it, ‘in the final analysis’ – it’s the goats on the left that are damned.

New Labour is now facing up to its own impending Judgement Day, at the next general election. Of course, it’s already had to endure three minor tribunals (the recent local elections, the London mayoral vote, and Crewe and Nantwich) where the electorate has damned it for its ineptitude, its arrogance and its lack of a vision for ‘the country’. And, we may ask, which country?

Of course, it’s predominantly the English electorate that has delivered the recent swings towards the Conservatives; not the Welsh (also polled in the local elections) and certainly not the Scots, where the Tories remain as weak a political force as ever. Is there a connection between this growing rejection of New Labour by the English and the fact that, in the PM’s recent statement concerning the government bills to be brought to parliament in the autumn term, the most systematic parts of the Governance of Britain agenda – the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, the Statement of British Values, and a possible British Constitution – were quietly put on hold?

One wonders what New Labour’s focus groups and private opinion polls have been revealing about the English public’s attitude to the Britishness crusade. Doubtless, people have been saying, ‘stop hammering on about what it means to be British and get on with the real job, particularly sorting out the problems with the economy’. A very pragmatic response, indeed, to the rather un-English attempts to systematise Britishness and even to establish a new integral Nation of Britain.

But the growing electoral favour enjoyed by David Cameron’s Conservatives (or shall we just call them the New Tories?) does not equate to a groundswell of support for English nationalism, as such; nor are the Conservatives the obvious choice for the majority of English people who favour some form of England-specific governance, ranging from an English Grand Committee to full independence. The Conservative Party is of course opposed to an English parliament and will probably abandon its as yet equivocal support for some variant of the EGC idea if it feels it can win a large outright majority. As the argument goes, since such a majority would be based entirely on the choices of voters in England – as distorted by the first-past-the-post electoral system – there would be no point in having a separate EGC for England-only bills, as the Tory majority in the EGC would simply be replicating that in the UK parliament as a whole. But would the Tory government’s legislative and policy programme constitute a new – let alone progressive – agenda for England?

Everyone wants to be progressive these days, even the New Tories. Indeed, in a recent article in The Independent, David Cameron affirmed that “it is the Conservative Party that is the champion of progressive ideals in Britain today”. The three main examples of Conservative progressivism Cameron provided were the commitment to eliminate poverty in Britain, environmental sustainability, and equality of opportunity / social mobility, which was described as “the most fundamental progressive ideal of all”. The mechanisms that the Tories would apply to realise these objectives were essentially those of the market, along with targeted increases in support to social services and charities working with the most vulnerable. These were contrasted to the “old-fashioned mechanisms of top-down state control” supposedly favoured by New Labour. In other words, David Cameron was unmistakably positioning the Tories as the party that would actually deliver on the New Labour agenda of market-driven economic and social reform, in contrast to GB [Gordon Brown], who had ‘conservatively’ resorted to his Old Labour statist instincts.

So in fact, the ‘new progressive’ politics of David Cameron’s Conservatives are just New Labour Mark II: he’s playing out the same old Conservative political narrative as Tony Blair himself, in which it is now the Tories, not New Labour, who have the innovative, flexible and market-orientated solutions to lift people out of poverty, to motivate individuals to improve their lives, to promote social cohesion, and to create wealth in an environmentally sustainable way. This is the same paradigm as New Labour: social-market economics or, in other words, Thatcherite economics as the instrument for achieving progressive social objectives, primarily because the market serves as the model for society itself. The more society is transformed into an efficiently functioning market, so the thinking goes, the more the needs of society will be addressed by the market and people’s lives will be improved by their enhanced participation in the market, i.e. through becoming ever more effective agents in the world of buying and selling, as employees and consumers.

David Cameron’s formula injects a modest degree of One Nation Conservatism back into the mix, in terms of stressing the importance of government concern for, and effective measures to support, the most vulnerable in society. But the message is essentially the same: greater social justice and improved economic efficiency are interdependent objectives, and addressing social problems is about enabling everyone to become economically productive individuals and social units – able both to create and capitalise on opportunity, and to lift up their own lives, without the economic inefficiency and social dependency of a bloated public sector. So Cameron talks of “paying couples to live together rather than apart” (economic incentive to engineer social result – what about the only recent Tory re-emphasis on marriage, which now appears to have been dropped?); “plans for radical welfare reform to help people move from long-term poverty to long-term employment” (difference from New Labour or Thatcherism? Cutting / re-structuring benefits to give people more incentive to work and so alleviate poverty); the green revolution driven by “markets and incentives for dynamic industrial change, rather than centre-left approaches such as bureaucracy and regulation”; and “radical school reform, bringing the best education to the poorest children by opening up the state system to new providers” (avowedly Blairite opening up of the education system to market mechanisms); etc.

So, David Cameron’s New Toryism in fact comprises a very tired set of arguably failed political mantras, and ultimately rests on an idea that (Britain’s) social problems can be addressed and remedied, in the first instance, through market mechanisms designed to stimulate economic growth. In this, it is not just the inheritor of New Labour, and by extension Thatcherism, but also in fact of Old Labour, which was economic and materialist in its thinking about social engineering, albeit that the formula was fundamentally different. Does this point to what is ultimately meant by progressive politics: a politics of how to improve society, where the model for that improvement is provided primarily by ideas of economic, technological and material ‘progress’? In this sense, the Tories are indeed true progressives: they worship the same Idols of wealth, power and human technology, and marvel at the social depredations caused by the greed, selfishness and lust for more that these unleash.

And another way in which the New Tories represent very much the same old politics is in their Britain-centric thinking. All the policy ideas are stated as relating to ‘Britain’, not England, even though those relating to education, the environment, and work with local-community organisations of every type, aimed at tackling distinctive local socio-economic problems, would mostly involve the government in its England-only aspects – policy in these areas for Scotland and Wales having been made the responsibility of the devolved administrations in those countries. Is it really possible, in the post-devolution world, to advocate a progressive politics for the whole of Britain when so many of the traditional levers for delivering that social agenda (education, health, housing, transport, communities and local government) have been devolved? The main political parties sidestep this problem by continuing to pretend that their remit in these areas is UK-wide, which they do by continually referring to ‘Britain’ and ‘this country’, and suppressing all mention of ‘England’ even when – or particularly when – they’re referring to England alone.

So to the intellectual poverty of the parties’ socio-economic prescriptions one has to add the political dishonesty of denying that the progressive agenda for Britain – insofar as it is thought of as being delivered by Westminster – is mainly a progressive agenda for England; the better to justify the participation of Scottish and Welsh Labour voters and MPs in deciding on laws and policies for England they are not directly affected by; or, under Cameron, to disguise the fact that a Tory government will have no mandate for Scotland or Wales – or even, really, for England, where it is unlikely to obtain an actual majority of the popular vote.

Can a government really be said to care for the people if it cannot even acknowledge them by name and affirm them for what they are: the people of England and not of Britain as a whole? And that means acknowledging English life and society as it really is: in many respects, profoundly broken and damaged; but also having many enduring, positive characteristics that can provide the basis for restoring civic pride and re-building shattered communities. Reaffirming English culture and identity as good and valuable in themselves, and rallying people around the idea that there is a whole ‘new’ nation – that of England – to be built, could provide a massive stimulus to re-engaging people in participative democracy at both local and national level, so long as voters’ actual intentions are reflected in election results and there is real accountability of politicians to the people at every level at which power is exercised. In short, we need political reform, giving the chance for the English people to vote on alternative ways forward for ‘their’ nation (England), before we can get any real momentum behind a new progressive agenda – as one could then begin to address the questions of who the progress is for, and who defines what constitutes progressive change in England.

How might this new English progressive agenda shape up? This is obviously a huge question. But it seems to me that the beginning of an answer to it could be found by definitively ‘breaking the mould’ – to coin a phrase – of the old assumptions and tribal loyalties associated with the ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’, while at the same time re-focusing and combining the best elements in the traditions of the left and of the middle of English-British politics towards addressing England’s real social problems. This involves making the social objectives paramount, and reforming the economy and politics in order to achieve those objectives most effectively: the objectives being to give individuals and communities more of a sense that they have a real stake in shaping their future, and can create sustainable economic activities and social infrastructure; in part because the purpose of business itself is redefined as being much more to do with creating and sustaining valued communities rather than providing increasingly insecure, and merely economic, value for isolated individuals (whether employees or shareholders) and for ‘the country’.

But such a programme is unrealistic without a significant transformation in the attitudes and expectations of people for their lives in general – moving away from placing value on material, technological and individual-economic progress for their own sake, and towards seeing progress in different terms: those of quality of life, not quantity of assets; of real, supportive and safe communities; sustainable production and consumption, not material excess; and technology harnessed towards the creation of an environmentally more sustainable way of life that needn’t discard all the positive benefits of our technological lifestyle in terms of comfort, health and a more enjoyable life. A better England, reflecting the priorities and addressing the needs of the people of England; and not a mad, economic growth-obsessed, and unsustainably globalising Britain whose economic success under New Labour – as we now realise – was built on the unsteady foundation of insane property prices and overactive global credit markets. Unrealistic? Well, maybe this sort of adjustment of our expectations will be forced upon us anyway through the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Better to plan ahead for, and make the most of, the wide-ranging changes that will have to happen in any case; and better that those who are doing this planning are people who care about England and her people, and are answerable to them.

The tables below illustrate my take on how the new progressive politics could re-state the old polarities of right and left. The first table shows how New Labour colonised not just the traditional centre of British politics but also classical or Thatcherite Conservative policies in the areas of society, the economy and international affairs; so much so that it has been impossible for the Tories to articulate any sort of credible position in these areas. The colour coding indicates which party has occupied the traditional left, centre and right positions in a number of areas during the majority of the New Labour period in power:

Angle Left Centre Right
Society Egalitarian, collectivist; working class: socialist Equality of opportunity, redistributive; middle class, aspirational: social democratic Hierarchical, individualist; upper(-middle) class, privilege: Tory
Economy Public ownership, command-based (‘needs-orientated’): socialist Regulated free markets, ‘social model’: social democratic Private ownership, demand-driven (market-orientated): ‘economic liberalism’, Thatcherism
Politics Statist, centralist, popular-unionist, ‘sovereignty of the people’, republican: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour Regionalist, localist, community-focused; small-scale, participative democracy: Liberal Anti-state, ‘centrifugal’, unionist-nationalist, ‘sovereignty of the individual’, monarchist: Tory
Philosophy, ideology Secular, rationalist, materialist, progressive, liberal; Western Enlightenment tradition: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour Pluralist, tolerant, consensus; libertarian, humanitarian, human rights-focused; Western Enlightenment tradition: Liberal Traditionalist, morally / socially conservative; (Anglican) establishment Christianity: Tory
International outlook Internationalist, solidarity / fraternity; ‘inclusive mono-culturalism’: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour A-national, universal; ‘exclusive multi-culturalism’: liberal Globalist, capitalist; imperialist mono-culturalism: Tory

David Cameron is clearly trying to re-occupy the centre ground for the Conservatives, particularly in the areas of society and politics as outlined in the above table. However, at the same time, this involves reaffirming Tory market economics – traditionally, a right-wing position – which was also colonised by New Labour. By emphasising the ‘soft’ social dimension of Tory policies (addressing the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, creating greater opportunity and social mobility, environmental sustainability), Cameron is distracting attention from the fact that the basic mechanism he has in mind for achieving these goals is good old-fashioned market economics: Blair II (or Thatcher III, if Blair is seen as Thatcher II).

If this form of economy-centric approach to social re-engineering is rejected as a progressive position in favour of making economic activity the servant of social objectives – as opposed to ransoming society to a growth-obsessed economy – then one can begin to see the parameters of a new progressive politics that could affirm and redefine the goals of the best of the traditional left and centre, while repudiating the more traditionally right-wing aspects of Conservatism and New Labour, such as dogmatic market economics, unchecked globalisation, and ignoring the needs and priorities of the English working and middle classes. The table below illustrates how this new progressive alignment might shape up:

Angle Progressive Left Progressive Centre Old Tory
Society Working class; social justice Middle class, Middle England; opportunity, fairness, social responsibility Upper(-middle) class and the very wealthy; ‘selfish’ individualism and corporate greed; privilege
Economy Economic pragmatism: best ownership structures to ensure sustainable delivery of social objectives; ‘social enterprise’ culture: successful businesses, serving social needs; some services back to public ownership? Economic diversity: multiplicity of public-private cross-overs; local / social enterprises meeting community needs; small business Private enterprise, exclusively demand-driven (market-orientated); big business; global capital
Politics Popular nationalism: celebration and promotion of English culture, people, traditions, history; sovereignty of the English people; pan-British federalism / co-operation; importance of cohesive but also ethnically / culturally / internationally inclusive, open English nation (or nation state) Localism-regionalism: strong, constitutionally safeguarded commitment to powerful representative local-regional democracy; citizens’ rights Unitary unionism / British nationalism; anti-state, anti-English-nationalist tendencies (individualist, global-capitalist)
Philosophy, ideology Secular, rationalist, materialist, progressive, liberal; Western Enlightenment tradition Pluralist, tolerant, consensus; libertarian, humanitarian, human rights-focused; Western Enlightenment tradition; Christian / respect for all faiths Increasingly anachronistic, unrealistic, mono-cultural traditionalism / Christian-social-moral conservatism
International outlook Internationalist, solidarity / fraternity; new ‘English multi-culturalism’; co-operation and participation in international bodies where in the national English interest Focus on global sustainable development, alleviating world poverty / disease, world environment challenges, justice / human rights: ‘one-world’ culture Globalist, capitalist; imperialist; Western-centric mono-culturalism

The Tories’ present appeal is too dependent on developing a narrative that they will safeguard economic prosperity to develop a radical progressive agenda that could easily occupy even the centre ground of progressive politics, as outlined in the above table. And they are certainly too wedded to the unionist ideal to articulate anything approximating to popular English nationalism, which does, on the other hand, have considerable appeal among the working- and middle-class sections of the population that represent the natural constituency for the left and centre of English politics.

English people will be re-engaged by politics when they can see ambitious but also grounded, realistic policies for addressing the terrible social problems that exist in England, which are the legacy of the failures of both the welfare state and Thatcherite market economics. This would indeed be a new progressive agenda, but it would have to do two things: make flourishing economic activity and enterprise, critical though they are, the servant of social needs and communities, and not the other way round; and, to some extent, put England and the English first – while by no means forgetting our international partnerships and responsibilities, and above all those to the poor and oppressed throughout the world. Which means two long-term habits of progressive thinking will need to be abandoned: making economic growth and success, measured in purely GDP terms, the motor and definition of social progress; and making Britain the focus of all policy, when that Britain no longer exists and may well disappear altogether under a Cameron government that will be intensely unpopular in Scotland.

Then maybe the Last Judgement on the progressives will not be as harsh as might be feared, and the terrible dichotomies of left and right will fade away – but only if self-professed progressives learn to put real people and nations before the global gods of power and money.

11 May 2008

The UK After Britain: Who Decides?

All of a sudden, the landscape seems to have shifted. Within the space of a month, two at most maybe, England appears to have come back into fashion. It now seems acceptable, in ‘progressive’ political commentary in the official press and on the blogosphere, to talk about what kind of England ‘we’ wish to create after the demise of the Union. It’s taken the realisation that the Conservatives will probably win outright at the next general election – a conclusion formed by many, including myself, after Labour’s disastrous local-election performance last week – to finally take on board the fact that the days of the Union are numbered and we’ll have to start talking and thinking about a separate England whether we like it or not. Welcome to the fold of sanity, one is tempted to say in greeting of the new converts!

Why is the break up of the Union so likely under Cameron? Well, it would only be hastening the inevitable, in any case. The reason, of course, is that if the Tories do win a comfortable parliamentary majority (albeit on a minority of the popular vote), this will be almost entirely on the basis of votes cast and seats won in England, while they have practically disappeared as an electoral force in Scotland and aren’t doing that much better in Wales. The prospect of living under a hated ‘English’ Conservative UK government, opposed to granting more powers to Holyrood, and perhaps reducing the influence, number and hence relevance of Scottish MPs in the UK parliament while forcing down the public-expenditure budget for Scotland, would almost certainly provide the final push and persuade a majority of the Scottish people to vote for independence – a referendum on which the SNP plans to hold in 2010. And if a referendum at that time were blocked by the other parties at Holyrood, then the next Scottish general election in 2011 would effectively be turned into a referendum in all but name.

In any case, it’s hard to see Scotland surviving in the Union till the end of a Cameron government unless the Tories come to their senses and realise that if they want to preserve any sort of Union, they’ll have to grant equal nation status and representation to each of the nations of the UK under a federal system, including England. As I’ve suggested before, maybe Cameron will do a deal with the SNP to hold a referendum after the 2012 Olympics – giving him two years to concoct a plan to save the Union.

However, rather than trying in vain to save the Union, would it not be far more sensible and show more foresight to start planning now for the future for all the countries of the UK after the end of the Union? The federal option is one such possible future. If, on the other hand, Scotland decides to go it alone, as now appears more likely, what then for England – and for Wales and Northern Ireland? Shouldn’t we start thinking and talking about the future for these countries (and also for Cornwall) – whether we stay together under new constitutional arrangements or whether we, too, go down the road of independence? Such ‘national conversations’ in each of our countries – mirroring the national conversation the SNP government has got going in Scotland – would provide an opportunity for ordinary citizens to have an input and try to get their voice heard, offering a chance to prevent the process being run by Westminster politicians seeking to preserve their privileges and their power.

The window of opportunity to hold these conversations is the period running up to a Scottish referendum on independence. Indeed, if we do not start working out what sort of future we want as nations after the Union, we could end up having that future dictated to us by the outcome of the Scottish vote. There’s a strong argument for saying that the people of Scotland alone do not have the right, at least morally, to determine the future of a union that involves many more people than just the Scots. (Last week, the Scottish Labour Party may already have conceded the constitutional principle that Holyrood has the ‘sovereign right’ to call such a referendum on its own initiative, as Anthony Barnett observed.) We’ve already seen the destructive effects of letting the Scots and Welsh vote on devolution without giving the people of England a say on whether they wanted the same constitutional arrangements for England; so we should not wander carelessly into a repeat of the same sort of mistake, but this time one with potentially even more drastic consequences.

In a comment on the OurKingdom blog last week, I argued that it would be illogical to extend a referendum on Scotland’s independence to all the citizens of the UK, in that only the Scottish people could be said to have a moral or constitutional right to vote on their nation’s status. The only way to give the other nations a say on the matter of independence at the same time as the Scottish vote would be ask the same question of voters in those countries; i.e. to ask the English whether they want an independent England, and the same for Wales and Northern Ireland (and possibly Cornwall).

In other words, a Scottish referendum on independence is asking voters there to answer essentially two questions rolled into one: 1) do you want the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as presently constituted to come to an end? 2) do you want this end to come in the form of independence for Scotland? If Scottish voters are entitled to determine whether the UK breaks up, then it should be self-evident that people in the other nations of the UK are entitled to the same choice. That’s the first of the two questions. In relation to the second, it’s unworkable and inequitable to ask the Scots if they want independence while asking the rest of the UK if they want something else, such as a federal UK, or a re-design of the devolution settlement creating English and Welsh parliaments, for instance. We should be asked the same question, and be given the same choice, as it relates to each nation in turn. And if the Scots voted for independence, this could simply invalidate referendums in England and Wales asking a different question, as the whole constitutional set up would have be re-evaluated and renegotiated as part of Scotland’s secession.

So if an independence referendum in Scotland now appears inevitable – whether it comes in 2010, 2011, 2012 or whenever – the people should demand equivalent referendums in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (and maybe also Cornwall). It’s not just up to the Scots to strike the final nail into the Union coffin; and if they get the option of voting for independence, so should the other nations of the UK.

And in the meantime – in the two to four years running up to a likely Scottish vote – it’s time for the people of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall to take charge of their future by starting to really reflect and debate what they want that future to be: a federal UK whose constitutional framework and institutional structures could be the same whether Scotland were included or not? Independence for each country? A new state of England and Wales, with devolved parliaments for Wales and Cornwall, and Northern Ireland becoming part of a united Ireland with strong guarantees for the rights of the Protestant community? A separate England with the ‘Celtic’ nations of the British Isles joined together into a new confederation?

It’s time to get those ‘national conversations’ going in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall. The future is ours, and the people – not the politicians – should decide.

Subsequent to this post, I’ve started a new blogsite intended to kick off just such a national conversation for England.

3 May 2008

Cameron will win: it’s a generation game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 March 2008

The English Subject: Time To Change It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 March 2008

England: The Inconvenient Nation Blocking European Federation

England and the EU represent two fundamentally opposing traditions and philosophies. England is the historical and spiritual centre of the great Anglo-Saxon civilisation: ‘Anglo-Saxon’ not in the sense of our ancient forebears who gave England and several of its counties and regions their names, along with a much disputed portion of our genetic inheritance; but ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in the sense of the culture, mentality and way of life of the English and the countries of the English-speaking world, particularly our North American and Australian cousins. This is in fact how the French tend to use the word, often derogatorily.

The EU, on the other hand, is the present-day avatar of the European philosophical and political tradition that reaches back to the civilisations of the ancient world, particularly Greece and Rome. You could say that the EU is the inheritor of the Roman Empire, the ideal of which survived after the collapse of Ancient Rome, was carried forward through the civilisations and empires of Roman Catholic Europe (the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburgs, for instance) and was then reinvented as a secular imperialist project through the failed Napoleonic and Hitlerian attempts to establish their Europe-wide dominion. I’m not suggesting that the EU is remotely akin to its more recent predecessors in terms of its ideology or methods; but all three pan-European projects of the last three centuries have drawn on a common ideal of a united European civilisation transcending the barriers between individual nation states that had pretty much existed since the fall of Rome.

The ideological foundation of the EU could be described as European secular humanism, whose roots do indeed go back to the philosophers and republics of the ancient world, and have been enriched and deepened through the influence of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions that have contested the destiny of the continent. This involves certain fundamental, universal and ‘timeless’ values and principles that are by definition a-national or transnational: not the expression of any one national tradition but nonetheless thought of as part of a common European heritage, even though the principles themselves are believed to be applicable to all human societies in any time or place. These principles, as set out in the Treaty of Lisbon (and, strangely enough, the failed EU Constitution, too) make familiar reading:

“DRAWING INSPIRATION from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law”.

This list of universal-European values is identical to the lists of ‘British values’ we are for ever being regaled with. So are British values the same as European values; and in what way do English values differ from these apparently shared British and European values? Well, these things are more mixed and complex than my somewhat schematic framework here allows for; but I’m tempted to say that if European values are the product of the interaction of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and the secular-humanist tradition, then English values lie more on the side of faith – particularly, obviously, Christianity – while British values and, indeed, European values in their contemporary acception lie more to the secular-humanist end of the scale.

The distinctive Anglo-Saxon contribution to modern constitutional democracies has indeed been to integrate Christian faith with liberal-humanist ideologies and polities: the United Kingdom, in which the King or Queen of England is both head of state and head of the official Church, a situation which still applies today, making England, at least, officially a Christian country at the same time as a democratic, constitutional monarchy; the United States – a republic founded on the universal (European) principles of human rights but where integral to the founding documents and official ceremonial of the nation are unmistakable Christian elements, where presidents and the state are said to put their trust in God, and where the Republican Party is the party of the Christian right.

In the EU, on the other hand, the constitutions of the largest nations – at least those, interestingly enough, that formerly lay within the bounds of the Roman Empire – embody a separation between Church and State: they’re secular foundations, and the universal liberal-humanist principles on which they rest their claim to legitimacy are not conceived of as having any intrinsic or necessary rooting in Christian faith. Nor are they overtly linked to Christianity in the European Constitution-in-all-but-name, despite the reference to their partly ‘religious’ inspiration: note, ‘religious’ merely, not Christian.

I stated above that the founding European / British values, by virtue of their universal-European character, were a-national or transnational. I note in passing that the founding of the EU on these transnational values – the way it sees itself as the defender and representative of those values across the continent, resisting the break-down of them that happened in the past when individual nations asserted themselves at the expense of others – is the main reason why I believe that the EU is fundamentally a Euro-federalist project: pre-programmed to move inexorably towards an integrated European super-state; a polity that has transcended and definitively overthrown the frontiers separating the (former) nation states of Europe.

In the contemporary British context, these transnational values feed into one of the ways in which advocacy of ‘British values’ seeks to undermine or devalue the efforts to affirm England as a nation in its own right. In particular, they underpin GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] attempt to recast the whole British state in the unifying mould of a formal, constitutional statement of British Values, and the fundamental rights and responsibilities of citizenship they articulate, which then come to replace any of the contingent, nation-specific and culturally relative formulations of value that co-exist in Britain today: a new Nation of Britain as a sort of a-national, universal-European-type citizenry, rather than as a culturally, ethnically, geographically and historically specific collectivity – such as the English nation.

The other aspect of ‘British values’ and Britishness that is often said to have transcended and evolved beyond traditional, limited national identities is their internationalism and globalism. But I would say that these characteristics are where Britishness more keenly reflects the historical contribution of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. This internationalism is the result of England’s long history of political and commercial engagement with the wider world beyond Europe: through its seafaring adventurers and merchants, and subsequently of course the Empire, which was in reality the English Empire just as the British state was the proxy-English state – England being the real driving force behind state and empire, and the civilisation that was spread worldwide through the Empire being essentially the Anglo-Saxon one. The Anglo-Saxon culture places greater emphasis on the values of individual freedom and free trade – personal and national liberty – than on liberty and equality as social ideals to be striven towards through political struggle: lived out, pragmatic freedom, and equality as equality of opportunity, i.e. the freedom to create and exploit opportunity.

This value system is focused more on the individual because in its origins, and still for many today, it has at its heart the idea of individual moral responsibility towards God (or, in the more secular modern context, the moral responsibility towards oneself and others) to use one’s gifts and chances in life to the best effect, not only for one’s own self-advancement but also to create wealth and economic value for others who will benefit from the businesses and assets (social, financial and technological) created by enterprise and initiative, and from the social responsibility and philanthropy of those who’ve been fortunate enough (or blessed by God) to be successful.

It’s this culture that places such a premium on individuals eagerly seeking and grabbing the opportunities that life presents them, coupled with free access to the super-highway of the oceans, and superior industry and technology, that led first to England-Britain and subsequently the USA establishing themselves as global superpowers: conquering the world but, at the same time, seeking to promote what is effectively the Anglo-Saxon, more Christian-influenced, version of liberal democracy wherever their military and economic influence penetrated, and in a spirit of often literally evangelical, missionary zeal.

And in the case of both England-Britain and the USA, not only did these nations go out to spread the gospel of individual freedom from collective oppression, along with the possibility for nations to become part of a great global trading civilisation, but – as a consequence of their success – individuals from all nations and cultures of the world flocked to Britain and the USA, making them probably the most multi-cultural, multi-ethnic societies in the world. This is England-Britain’s internationalism and multi-nationalism, which I would differentiate from the a-nationality and transnationality of the appeal to the European-universal secular-humanist values. These latter involve a denial of, and will to eventually abolish, the existence of separate nations and the divisions between them. By contrast, internationalism involves a willingness to embrace and absorb a plurality of nationalities and cultures into one’s own nation and understanding of one’s nationhood.

This very internationalism is also being used in the contemporary British context as another stick to beat down the English as they press for official recognition as a nation: ‘Britain is internationalist and open to the world’, so the argument goes, ‘while England is narrowly nationalistic and xenophobic’. But, as I argued in my previous post, this is both a travesty of history (because it’s England and Anglo-Saxon civilisation that has made Britain the multi-cultural society it is today), and is ideologically and tactically disastrous because it prevents cultural integration rather than facilitating it. England – the Anglo-Saxon culture – has historically been the heart of Britain and its internationalist expansion; and it can only be within that open, globally orientated, commercial, pragmatic, individualistic, Christian and tolerant English culture that is the lifeblood of Britain that all the migrants now coming to England can be truly welcomed and come to share our nation – not in an abstract Euro-Britain that denies the very nation, England, which is giving those migrants their opportunity, and which English people are rightly suspicious of and resisting.

England is a nation; not only just a nation but a great nation – the historical centre, as I say, of one of the world’s great civilisations. But the Euro-federalist project ultimately seeks the abolition of Europe’s nations, politically if not culturally. Therefore the wish of the English to reassert themselves as a nation, distinct from Britain even if remaining in some form of continuing United Kingdom, is a profound impediment to the fulfilment of European Union. If, on the other hand, England remains part of a unitary ‘Britain’, then it can be integrated within the European project. Better still if it loses its distinct national identity altogether as the influx of European and worldwide migrants is exploited by the British establishment as a lever to deny the fundamental Englishness of Britain. Brown’s European-British values, and the European-style statement of rights and responsibilities, and eventually European-style constitution, that flow from it are clearly critical to achieving this objective. England will then be transformed from a nation whose values and institutions are Christian-liberal-democratic to an anonymous part of a Nation of Britain based on a European-universal statement of collective human rights: a-national (because British ‘nationality’ is defined in universal, civic and European terms) and secular.

The much discussed and feared regionalisation of England that would flow from, and as it were consecrate, the formation of a new Euro-Britain must be seen in this context. All of the major nations of Europe have been parcelled up into regions as part of the blueprint for Europe-wide governance and its model of subsidiarity moving down the scale from European-level government, through ‘national’ administrations and down to the regional level – with regions in major countries such as Britain or Germany being equivalent in size and power to the smaller countries such as Belgium, Denmark or . . . Scotland. An England that wanted to remain an integral, in European terms large, nation and refused to be broken up into Euro-regions would clearly be an obstacle to the Federal Europe. They probably thought that, enviously eyeing the newfound democratic freedoms of the Scots and Welsh, we English would willingly embrace the same sort of thing at regional level. Except they hadn’t bargained for the fact that the regions proposed mean nothing to us English: no history, no heritage, you see; as we’ve been an integral nation for too long. For all the other major nations of Western Europe, this is not the case: the regions mean something because they retained distinct identities, political structures and even languages for far longer than they did – indeed, if they ever did – in England. Even in France, which has been a unitary state for about as long as England-Britain, the regions have retained distinct cultural, social and linguistic characteristics that mean that they are real in socio-cultural terms, and they have proper, historic names: Picardy, Burgundy, Brittany, etc. Not so in England: what kind of regional names and identities are ‘the North-West’, the ‘East Midlands’, the ‘South-West’ – even the ‘East of England’ region in fact disuses a more traditional name for that part of England, East Anglia. Perhaps too much of a reminder of the name of the tribe that gave our land its name.

So make England part of a unitary nation of Britain, and then you can break it up into Euro-regions – because neither Britain nor the regions mean anything to the English or reflect their culture, history and nationhood. Then, by a curious not-so-coincidence, England becomes Britannia once more: the province of ancient Rome, fulfilling the Euro-federalist project to reinstate the European-wide polity that Rome once represented.

Except they’re forgetting one thing: Roman Britannia was not the same as modern Britain; geographically, that is, as it did not include Scotland (Caledonia). So what was Britannia is in reality what is now England, Cornwall and Wales. Maybe our English, Welsh, Cornish and Scottish nations have got historical roots that just run too deep to allow ourselves to be integrated into an a-national Europe. And perhaps there’s still mileage (as opposed to kilometrage) in the distinct nations of the UK to resist a Euro-British Nation and a Euro-Federation.

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