Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

15 June 2016

EU referendum: A battle for the (English) soul of Britain

It is funny how, when supporters of the campaign to remain in the EU seek terms with which to criticise the supposedly narrow, nationalistic focus of the Leave campaign, they resort to the dismissive language of ‘Little England’, to which a UK remaining part of the EU is deemed by contrast to be a ‘Great Britain’. On Tuesday of last week, Prime Minister Cameron made this very contrast in the head-to-head with Nigel Farage on ITV.

Similarly, on Thursday of last week, in the same channel’s debate between three politicians on either side of the argument, one of the Leave campaigners Amber Rudd also dismissed the ‘Little Englander’ mentality of the Leave side – only to then tie herself up in knots as she referred to the country post a Remain vote as “England”, to which she then had to hastily add “Scotland” and “Wales” given the presence on her side of the studio of the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon! It is as if there is a core of traditional national feeling and identity within ‘Britain’ that is instinctively designated – and usually disparaged – as ‘English’.

The EU referendum is indeed a battle between two competing British identities: a national (and at core English) Britain versus an international Britain (European, multi-national and multi-ethnic). The debates around governance, control of migration and even trade ultimately centre on questions of identity. Is your Britain essentially a projection and extension of an English identity rooted politically in the historic English traditions of Church, monarchy, Parliament and common law? Or is it a ‘modern’ Britain that no longer sees itself as having English roots but views itself as essentially European, grounded in the Western liberal-humanist-rationalist tradition, and as offering a civic identity that transcends ‘narrow’ national identities, ethnicities and creeds? Both of these latter aspects of the modern Britishness are also encapsulated in the magic term ‘British values’.

The table below compares the longer-term future for the governance of England and Britain under the scenario of either a Leave or Remain vote. My assumption is that, following a Leave vote, the UK would necessarily be thrown back on to its historically English constitution and forms of governance, and that ultimately Scotland, Northern Ireland and possibly even Wales might eventually split off, leaving the English form of government to apply in fact to England alone. Following a Remain vote, on the other hand, the UK – and with it England – could increasingly be absorbed into the process of European political union, creating pressure to abolish the English constitution (and with it, effectively, England) altogether.

Leave Remain
·     Reassertion of the principle of parliamentary sovereignty and of Parliament as the seat of English government ·      Transfer of further ‘international’ governmental powers (e.g. borders, security, military, foreign policy, pan-European matters) to the EU, with transfer of Parliament’s national (i.e. English) powers down to ‘regions’ and cities, resulting in a hollowing out of the English-national layer of government
·     The Church of England remains as the established Church and official religion of the land ·      As government is increasingly viewed as having a purely secular-humanist character (in keeping with the EU Treaties and practice), the pressure becomes irresistible to disestablish the Church – meaning the UK loses a foundational element of its grounding in the history of England as a Christian nation
·     The constitutional monarchy is preserved, safeguarding a line of succession that reaches back into England’s deepest history. The monarch remains the temporal head of the Church of England ·      As the Church has been disestablished, and as politics has shifted away from Parliament up to Brussels and down to ‘the regions’, the monarchy is seen as increasingly irrelevant and anachronistic. Eventually, as an elected EU presidency is established, and the European Parliament acquires genuine powers of legislation and scrutiny, the UK decides to replace the monarchy with an elected – and itself largely ceremonial – president
·     The supremacy of English and UK law is re-established, based around parliamentary statute and common law, with the Supreme Court in London as the ultimate instance in the justice system ·      The areas of application of EU law and regulation are increasingly extended, and a more integrated EU justice and policing system is developed. The English legal and justice system are slowly subsumed into the EU’s Civic and Roman Law-based system, and the European Court of Justice grows in power as the ultimate instance
·     A new Scottish independence referendum is held and is won by the nationalists. Brexit also catalyses a project to unify Ireland, with enough moderate unionists supporting this as a way to get Northern Ireland back into the EU (with EU protections for Protestant-minority rights) to ensure a majority in favour. Brexit also gives Plaid Cymru in Wales a massive boost, with traditional Labour supporters now seeing independence as the best means to get Wales back into the EU and free her from English dominance. If Wales does opt for independence, the English constitution now applies to England alone. (That does not mean it cannot and is not reformed and modernised over time – but then it is England’s constitution, not that of a polity that denies nation status to England.) ·      The redistribution of power to the EU and the English ‘regions’, along with the other changes outlined above, are consolidated in a new ‘British Constitution’, establishing a new ‘Republic of Britain’. This recognises Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall as historic ‘nations’ with parliaments or assemblies to manage their own regional affairs (these areas also largely correspond to European ‘regions’). England, however, ceases to exist as either a historic or a present-day political nation, and is broken up into its constituent Euro-regions. There is no Parliament dealing with exclusively English matters, as ‘English’ matters are now regulated by the regional assemblies. ‘England’ is also no longer officially a Christian nation, as the Church of England has been disestablished. No more ‘Kingdom of England’, either, since no king. No more English law, since that is incorporated into European law. As Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have achieved much of what they wanted from the EU (a ‘progressive’ politics and nullification of a once-dominant England), demands for independence and Irish unification fall away. ‘Britain’ becomes the civic nation to which all former constituent UK nations and British citizens originating from across the world all belong, without any distinction between them. The unity of the once-UK has been preserved, but at the price of England’s abolition.

 

I say that this is a battle for the ‘soul’ of Britain, as well as a battle between different identities and governance models, because what is at stake is whether we are ultimately a Christian nation (England – or Anglo-Britain insofar as the other nations of the UK are governed through the same historically English constitutional system) or whether we are part of a merely secular, international political union (the EU).

This is also what is at the heart of the discussion around sovereignty. Do we wish to be part of a polity in which sovereignty ultimately derives from divine sovereignty (political power exercised in obedience to the divine will via the God-given authority of the monarch as instantiated in parliamentary sovereignty), with the principles of individual freedom and conscience also deriving from the idea of the sovereign will answerable ultimately to God alone, over and above earthly political authority? Or do we wish to be part of a polity where authority is vested in a ‘rational’ law-making body (the Commission) acting in accordance with a liberal-humanist set of principles (the Treaties), and whose decisions and regulations are accepted by the collectivity with little or no dissent, because the collectivity (the ‘Union’ in an abstract sense) fundamentally subscribes to the principles and objectives that are embodied in the laws?

Fundamentally, this isn’t even an issue of one system being more or less democratic than the other. Both systems have their critics. On the one hand, many Remainers criticise the inadequately democratic character of the Anglo-British system, because of the very ‘absolute’ (and ultimately, divine) authority on which parliamentary sovereignty rests. The objection on this fundamental point is expressed in terms of criticism of aspects such as: the fact that sovereignty is indeed vested in Parliament rather than the people; the existence of a hereditary monarchy; the unelected House of Lords, with its historic origins in an aristocratic class system underpinned by monarchy; the established nature and privileges of the Church of England, including the fact that its diocesan bishops are guaranteed seats in the said House of Lords; and the elective dictatorship that is constituted by governments elected without a popular majority, owing to the disproportional voting system, but whose authority rests – precisely – on the principle of parliamentary sovereignty as opposed to the ‘popular will’.

By contrast, Leavers regard the fundamental principles of EU governance as suspect in that basing power on an elite, ‘rational’ authority (the Commission), unchecked by either an appeal to a ‘higher power’ (God and moral conscience) or popular mandate, is seen as laying the foundations of dictatorship and autocracy.

A stark choice indeed confronts us on 23 June: a Britain that retains its deep roots in the historic Christian kingdom of England and in English identity (albeit often popularly conflated with ‘British’ identity itself); or a modern Britain containing no fundamental connection with England or Englishness – but instead being multi-national, secular and part of a pan-European governance system.

It’s not just in or out, remain or leave: it’s whether England itself remains, or whether we leave England behind.

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6 May 2015

Vote UKIP: the English national party in British-nationalist clothes

Let me put one thing straight: I don’t think UKIP is an English-nationalist party, by any stretch of the imagination.

Page 61 of the party’s 2015 general election manifesto, for instance, makes it abundantly clear that it is British-nationalist. This page talks of Britain as a “strong, proud, independent, sovereign nation” – in its own right, that is, rather than as a union of nations. It commits the party to promoting a “unifying British culture, open to anyone who wishes to identify with Britain and British values”, which in practice always tends to mean denigrating Englishness and subordinating it to Britishness. And it states support for “a chronological understanding of British history and achievements in the National Curriculum, which should place due emphasis on the unique influence Britain has had in shaping the modern world” – not caring to mention that this curriculum and Britain-centric version of history would apply to English schools alone.

That said, I would still maintain that UKIP should be viewed as an ‘English national’ party and as the default choice for English nationalists at this election. By this, I mean that UKIP speaks to a culturally English, British patriotism: an England-centric imagining of ‘Britain’ that is virtually indistinguishable to the great majority of English people from what is understood by ‘England’ itself. Most ordinary English people, I would say, are still stuck in this traditional Anglo-British mindset, and would talk of ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ as fully interchangeable terms. To put it in fancy psycho-babble, the ‘Symbolic’ (formal discourse or language) used by UKIP might be British, but its ‘Imaginary’ (imaginative and emotional associations) is English: UKIP talks British but speaks to the English.

Indeed, I would argue that the explanation for UKIP’s rise to the level of support it enjoys today (consistently polling around 12% or 13% UK-wide – higher in England) is that it has tapped in to the groundswell of English nationalism and the increasing identification as English of those living in England. UKIP is the default English national party, in the same way that the SNP is the Scottish national party and Plaid Cymru is the party of Wales. That is to say, it places the concerns of those who wish to preserve the integrity of England as a nation and defend the interests of English people at the heart of its policies, even if they are couched in British terms.

There are many examples of pro-English policies in their manifesto, which most actual English nationalists would readily agree with, such as:

• the demand for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership, and support for withdrawal, or ‘BREXIT’

• insistence on much tougher limits on immigration, including via proper border controls (made possible by BREXIT) and an Australian-style points system; reducing the access of foreign nationals to public services and social housing

• reduction of the UK’s overseas aid budget – reinvesting the money in English public services

• focus on building houses in brownfield sites, as opposed to concreting over England’s green and pleasant land with unsuitable and unwanted development

• scrapping the Barnett Formula and allocating spending on a genuine needs basis, which in reality means less money for Scotland and more for deprived English areas

• scrapping HS2, which is a vanity project driven by EU dreams of a pan-European high-speed rail network, and which threatens to devastate vast swathes of precious English countryside

• resisting the Labour and Lib Dem push for various forms of unwanted local or regional devolution in England

• improving social care provision in England

• preserving the English NHS as a publicly funded service, free at the point of use; using the redistributed Barnett funds to abolish parking charges in English hospitals

• reintroducing grammar and technical schools in England to improve the prospects of bright students from poorer areas, and to enhance vocational training.

However, one area where the UKIP manifesto is seriously deficient is the question of an English parliament: the manifesto doesn’t raise this at all. The only commitment that is made towards enhancing English-national democracy is that of English votes on English laws, despite the fact that this is an unworkable policy. For instance, after the election, it’s quite possible that there could be completely different English and UK parliamentary majorities: the Tories winning a majority in England, while the only workable UK-wide majority would be formed by Labour in partnership – formal or informal – with the Lib Dems and the other ‘progressive’ parties, including the SNP.

The answer, obviously, is separate UK and English parliaments; but UKIP are unwilling or unable to acknowledge this elephant in the room. This may be because they are still intent on positioning themselves as a party for the whole UK, rather than an overtly England-centric party or – heaven forbid – and English-nationalist one. But England-centric they undoubtedly are: addressing priorities and grievances that are either solely or primarily those of the English.

It is for this reason that I am recommending that all English nationalists vote UKIP at the election tomorrow. Sadly, owing to our First Past the Post voting system, a vote for the English Democrats is a wasted vote – assuming they’re standing in your constituency at all: they’re not in mine. Many would say that voting for UKIP is also a waste; and indeed, because of the electoral system UKIP are generally not expected to win any extra seats at the election, despite being the third-largest party in terms of share of the vote.

However, in reality, there is only a minority of seats where people’s votes make any difference at all, i.e. the marginal seats that might actually change hands. The constituency where I live is a very safe Conservative seat, so voting UKIP won’t make any difference in terms of the overall election result. The point of doing so is merely to register support for the types of English national policies I’ve outlined above.

If, on the other hand, you live in a constituency where your vote could help swing the result, I would argue that you should vote in such a way as to minimise the chance of a Labour-controlled government. This is because Labour, of all the parties, is most committed to local / city / regional devolution in England – whether or not the people affected have voted for it. Labour’s manifesto avoids almost any reference to ‘England’ other than in the sections where it discusses its wish to see devolution to so-called ‘county regions’ (whatever they are) and a Senate of the Nations and Regions (and you know what that means) to replace the present House of Lords. Labour is also, of course, obsessed with avoiding a referendum on the EU and can be relied upon to do nothing whatsoever about immigration, other than perhaps to increase it.

Accordingly, if you live in a Tory-Labour marginal, I’d say vote Tory. If you live in a Labour-Lib Dem marginal (like the Cambridge constituency near my home), I’d say gird your loins and vote Lib Dem, to prevent Labour from amassing the seats it may need to form a government.

But ultimately, if your vote, like mine, will make very little difference – or if you have no truck with the sort of tactical voting scenarios I’ve just described – vote UKIP: the English national party in British-nationalist clothes.

13 August 2012

Great Britain is merely an Olympic nation

It is often said of England that it is just a football nation. By that, it is meant that England comes together as a nation, and has national institutions of its own, only when it comes to football competitions and to other sports where England has its own team or league, such as rugby union or cricket. There is some justification for this, in that England clearly is not a civic nation – either a sovereign state or a self-governing part of a larger state – but nonetheless has the footballing status of one. Indeed, it has superior status to other nation states’ football associations, in that the FA still has a veto on any rule changes to the beautiful game. England is a football nation, then, in part because it is the home of football.

The same could be said of Great Britain and the Olympics. The Olympics are now arguably the only occasion when ‘Great Britain’ unites as a nation. For a little while, albeit imperfectly, we forget that we are in fact three nations (or four, or five, if you include Northern Ireland and / or Cornwall – but that’s a different story) and get together behind ‘Team GB’, with the mandatory Union Flags being draped around the shoulders of our Olympic heroes (whether they want it or not – and how could they refuse?): all differences cloaked in the colours of a rediscovered British patriotism.

And just like England, Great Britain is not a civic nation. The civic nation, the sovereign state, is the United Kingdom (informally known as ‘Britain’, rather than Great Britain). But we choose to compete as Great Britain. Why? In part, this is so that Northern Irish athletes have the freedom to choose whether to represent Britain or the Republic of Ireland. In part, also, this is because ‘Great Britain’ can arguably claim to have originated the present Olympic movement, in that the first modern Olympic Games of any sort were held in England (in the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock from 1850 onwards), while Great Britain was an inaugural participant in the first international Games in 1896, and has taken part – as Great Britain – in every summer and winter Olympics since. The IOC president Jacques Rogge paid tribute to Great Britain’s Olympic heritage in his speech at the 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony, when he referred to the fact that Great Britain had in effect originated modern sport as such by codifying its rules: just as England is the home of football, the Olympics were in effect coming home by taking place in Great Britain in 2012.

So football and the Olympics are two global sporting institutions with which our nationhood – whether as England or Great Britain – is bound up as originator and ‘owner’. It’s almost as if those particular games – football and Olympic – are not just an incidental part of our national heritage and of our contribution to global culture, but are an integral part of what constitutes us as nations: we are not so much nations that rediscover our sense of nationhood through international sports competitions, but are nations who experience ourselves truly as nations only when playing the games that properly speaking are ours to begin with, and which we have given to the world. Temporarily, the existential void that exists where a secure sense of nationhood should be is filled with the passion of the game and the excitement of ‘representing’ the nation under the colours of the flag – be they red and white, or red, white and blue.

But who in fact are the ‘we’ who lack the grounded experience of nationhood that comes from national civic institutions, and from sovereign, national self-rule? Who are the ‘we’ who so lack ‘internal’ recognition as a nation, and the ability to feel pride about ourselves as a nation, that we feel validated only when we are able to stand as the first among equals amid the international community of nations which, in a sense, we have brought into existence in the particular form in which that community has come together, e.g. through football or the Olympics? Our fragile national egos stand poised perilously between non-existence – non-particularity – and internationality: perfectly reflected in the international world that England or Great Britain can claim to have created, insofar as our very internationality is said by some commentators to be the quintessence of our ‘British nationhood’ and of the new, confident Britishness that Team GB’s successes is helping to cement. Hence, ‘we’ see ourselves as a nation – and see ourselves only when – perfectly mirrored and validated by the admiring international community of nations: as being a ‘nation of nations’ – effectively, an international community of nations ourselves; Great Britain.

The ‘we’ who escape in this way from our everyday nationless state to the ludic, spectacular, imaginary and international nationhood of the Games that seem to define us as a nation are the English people. Whether the sporting team concerned is England or Great Britain, it is we the English people that lose ourselves in the short-lived high of imagining ourselves as a great nation, once more, on the international stage – reasserting our ownership of and identification with the global community by beating them at, literally, our own game, so that the international community has no choice other than to recognise us as truly a unique nation in their midst.

Looking only at the surface of things, it would be easy to conclude that the English patriotic fervour that accompanied the nation’s football team’s progress through international competitions, up until its dismal performance in the 2010 World Cup, was a radically different phenomenon from the outbreak of British patriotic fervour that has accompanied Team GB’s glittering successes at London 2012. But they are fundamentally the same: they are expressions of English people’s need to have a proud sense of nationhood, which is ‘fulfilled’ temporarily through sport. This is the case, not only because those sports ‘belong to us’ but because those feelings are denied in day-to-day life, where we live in a nationless state in the other sense: a state – the UK – that is not a nation and denies nationhood to the English. The blossoming of the Union Flag, sprouting in bunting and branding over shops, pubs and homes across England, is a continuation not a break from the similar sprouting of the Cross of St. George that has accompanied football tournaments in the past. The England team has let us down and dashed our pride; but now Team GB seems to be restoring it. Great Britain is an Olympic nation just as England is a football nation; and fundamentally, this is because the nation, the people, who identify with and rave about those countries’ respective sporting feats are in both cases the English.

Of course, on another level, England and Great Britain are completely different entities. But they are also non-entities – non-civic nations – and so are ironically perfect, interchangeable channels for our unfulfilled desire for replete nationhood. ‘Team UK’ or ‘Team Britain’ wouldn’t do the job, a) because they’re names for the state, not ‘the nation’, and b) because they are too difficult for English people to identify with – too neutral and un-English. ‘Great Britain’ can function as ‘the nation’ only because English people identify with it as their nation: as effectively a proxy for, and a more grandiose way of saying, ‘England’. This may seem counter-intuitive, because the outbreak of unionflagitis across England would tend to suggest the opposite: that English people are espousing a British-not-English identity. But in fact, it’s a British-because-English identity, and ordinary people across the land are, once again, failing to make the kind of categorical distinction between Britishness and Englishness that the promoters of those two brands might wish they did.

Take the woman in my local corner shop, who said “the whole of England” would have been cheering on Mo Farah to win the 5000m race on Saturday night; or my partner – a university-educated woman who’s just turned 50 – who persists unself-consciously in referring to ‘Team GB’ as ‘England’, to the extent that I’ve given up correcting her. This sort of attitude, and habit of thought and speech, is replicated up and down the land: Team GB is simply viewed as an ‘English’ team, and all distinction between England and Britain is swept away in a tide of Union Flags.

This is the opposite effect from that which the political and media establishment, along with the liberal promoters of a self-sufficient Britishness, believe has been achieved. For them, saying ‘Great Britain’ is a way to avoid saying ‘England’ and invoking English nationhood; but for the English people, supporting Team GB is just another way of being patriotically English. This has been obvious from the extent to which the BBC, in its Olympics coverage, has been desperate to prevent any mention of Team GB athletes’ English identity, and to correct them whenever they referred to ‘England’ or ‘English’ competitors. Ironically, of course, the sheer fact of imposing an exclusively British identity on English sportsmen and -women only – while allowing ‘non-English’ British athletes to celebrate a dual identity (Scottish and British, or Somali and British) – reinforces the very Englishness of Britishness: the fact that Britishness, and the British patriotism of the Games, is at root just an expression of Englishness. English athletes who carelessly let the word ‘England’ slip from their mouths are in effect giving the Game away, in both senses: the Olympic Games being by definition an opportunity to celebrate a supposedly inclusive Britishness.

Liberal commentators have played along with this establishment game, observing how Team GB’s supposedly multicultural (by which is really meant multi-ethnic) composition, and the support the Team received across the social spectrum, illustrate and consolidate a new inclusive, civic Britishness. It achieves this, however, only if all reference to England and Englishness is systematically eliminated. Britishness is an inclusive identity only on the basis of England’s exclusion. The inclusive, civic Britishness is predicated on the idea that no nationality has any claim to being a pre-eminent or core element of British identity or culture. England is that core, and so it must be eradicated; and English people are only allowed to be British – or, as I said above, only English people must be British-only.

And this illustrates what the Olympic nation that is Great Britain – Team GB – actually is at root: it’s a flight from English nationhood, mostly by English people themselves, into the idealised, international nationhood that is ‘Britain’. But it needs to tap into English patriotism to gain the loyalty and support of the masses. So rather than succeeding in cancelling out English nationality, ‘Great Britain’ is nothing without it.

Great Britain, in other words, is merely an Olympic nation; but the real nation that underlies it, and will outlive the four-yearly enthusiasm for Team GB, is England.

29 July 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

28 July 2012

Isles of Wonder, or a world left wondering?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 June 2012

Is it wrong to be proud to be British?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 June 2012

The British patriotic colours of the English

As an English patriot and nationalist, I wonder whether I should be dismayed at the explosion of British patriotism that is accompanying the queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations this weekend. One could be tempted to think that all the patient efforts that have been made, and the slow progress that has been achieved, towards articulating and celebrating a distinct English identity and politics, separate from the British, have been reversed in a single weekend as the English lapse into their archaic, feudal reverence for their British monarchical overlords.

But I’m not sure that such gloom and doom would be justified. People are just getting swept up into a tribal mega-celebration. Meanwhile, I feel like the supporter of a small, local football team within the catchment area of a much bigger and more successful club – say, a Tranmere Rovers follower surrounded by Liverpool and Everton fans: my simple all-white colours dwarfed by the red, white and blue of those other clubs as they celebrate winning the Premier League and the FA Cup respectively in the same season! Some chance I’ve got to show off my more modest loyalties! Indeed, I’m not surprised that not many cars, homes or shops are – yet – decked out with the red and white of England that one might otherwise expect to be sprouting from first-floor windows and the tops of car doors during the run up to Euro 2012. If one were, during this weekend, to display the Cross of St. George instead of the all-conquering emblem of the Union Flag from one’s car or front window, it would be like turning up to a posh garden party in an England shirt instead of the black tie that was stipulated on the invite.

Clearly, however, British patriotism is alive and well, and living in England, and possibly in the UK’s other nations, though not to the same extent or in the same home nation-denying way. I have to say I’ve been a bit surprised and disappointed by it, although I perhaps shouldn’t have been. It’s probably too early to draw many conclusions about the long-term impact of the ‘Great British Summer’ on the English identity and the possibility of a distinct English politics. I think one thing it illustrates – which has been confirmed by surveys over the years – is that more English people than any other category in fact make no distinction between Englishness and Britishness, and see absolutely no conflict between displaying both British and English patriotism, though not simultaneously. It will be interesting to see whether there is a similar explosion of English English patriotism around Euro 2012 once the sound and fury of the Jubilee has subsided – especially if, against the odds, the England team progresses through to the quarter- or semi-final. Will people’s patriotic fervour be too worn out after the Jubilee festivities to get wound up again and refocused on England for Euro 2012? Well, a great deal depends on the performance of the team. Come on, England!

In this context, it was again disappointing that the (supposedly English) FA has chosen to run with the ridiculous away England kit that the team modelled in its friendly against Norway last Saturday: navy blue shirts and light blue shorts.

For a start, these are not England colours (which are, of course, red and white) but are Union colours; indeed, Scottish colours. It is as if the FA has aped the England-denying design philosophy of the British Olympic Association, which opted for Stella McCartney’s all-dark and pale blue Union Jack design for this year’s British Olympics kit (see below).

Look, guys, you might as well re-brand the England football team ‘Team GB’ now and have an end of it! Have these men at the FA got no sense of national pride and heritage? Why can’t they just stick to the red shirts and white shorts of proud 1966, Bobby Moore, World Cup-winning memory? I tell you why: it’s about commercialism. They’ve gone with the England-denying trend of the whole Jubilympics year – thinking, presumably, that English football fans, like suckers, will flock to buy the new kit to replace the red England shirts that are now surplus to requirements. Well, all I hope is that the kit bombs, along with the Olympic kit, and that if the England team does progress to the knock-out stages of Euro 2012, it’s drawn against teams where it has to wear its home kit, which, at least, has expunged the Union blue.

But there’s another thing I’d like to say about the England away kit for Euro 2012. I don’t know of a single incidence, apart from this, of a professional football team’s colours that have violated an unspoken design rule for football kits: that the shorts should not be in a lighter colour than the shirts, unless they are white. Just think for a moment: do you know of any team that plays in, say, red shirts and yellow shorts; or black shirts and red shorts; or, more to the point, dark blue shirts and light blue shorts? I don’t, although I’m sure people could trawl up some obscure examples.

This unwritten rule seems to have as its premise that combinations of dark-coloured shirts and light-coloured shorts (apart from white, which is seen a non-colour) suggest weakness and lack of masculine power: basically, you need to have a strong, male colour in your pants, or no colour at all. This England kit suggests emasculated weakness. It’s a losing kit, as opposed to England’s winning kit of 1966: full-blooded red shirts, with masculine (and English) white in the groin area. The most successful English club teams have all played in red, though it hurts me to say so: Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. And of course, so did the English national team in its hour of glory. So why on earth isn’t this England team going to do so? Do they actually want the team to lose?

All I can hope is that the England team goes on to indeed defy the odds and perform successfully in Euro 2012 in its home kit of white with red trim. Let’s see England’s streets bedecked in England’s colours, and so let the memory of this weekend’s Union fervour fade rapidly into the distance!

1 April 2012

[Un]rule Brit-Anglia: Speaking the Eng-closed

Have we been wrong in the way we’ve configured devolution? Specifically, have we [English] been wrong in the way we’ve understood devolution as, to an extent, setting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland free to govern their own affairs and forge their own identities; while we [English] have been denied the choice of self-determination and self-identity: subjected to the imposition both of British rule and British identity?

Could we [English] perhaps not reverse this paradigm? Could it not be argued, on the contrary, that in being allowed to run many of their own affairs, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have been allowed to affirm and own their very Britishness; while it is we [English] that have set out in a different direction: a distinctive, [English] direction, albeit under the direction of the British polity and in a way that is predicated on the absence of a distinct Englishness?

That’s why I’m choosing to call it [English] – in red font and square brackets – rather than just ‘English’. The post-devolution [England] has been a virtual, shadowy ‘Anti-England’: the unacknowledged Real that is the actual ground of meaning (and also ‘ground’ in the sense of ‘territory’) and the referent of the symbols of Britishness and of the imagined country that is ‘Britain’. In other words, the UK government – particularly in relation to devolved matters – has become in one sense ‘really’ an English government. That is to say, its actions and laws relate in reality – on the ground and in terms of their impact on real people’s lives – primarily to England. But those actions and laws are symbolised as ‘British’ not ‘English’: they are not spoken of as the actions of an English government that affect a land called England and people who are English. Though the government itself is comprised mainly of English people, elected from English constituencies for which they are, at least in theory, elected to provide national government, the members of the UK government and parliament speak of themselves as a British government of a country called Britain.

In short, we [English] have had, since devolution, ‘government of the [English] people by British (but in fact mainly [English]) people for the British state (though ostensibly for the [English] people). It’s been a sort of ‘not-the-English government’: both really English, in the sense outlined above, but not-English / anti-English / British at the same time. Of England, by English people but not in England’s name, which would mean it was democratically accountable to a nation that knows itself as ‘England’, and acknowledges that government and those MPs as its representatives: which would, in other words, be real English (not [English]) government.

So I’m suggesting a new typographical convention – [England] and [English] in red and square brackets – as a way to refer to the ‘really’ English character of what tends to be referred to and imagined as ‘British’ even though it primarily relates to England in terms of its material import, and reflects an English perspective – political and cultural – on ‘the country’. For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not suggesting that ‘British’ and [English] are in some sense equivalent terms: that if we all know that what is spoken of as ‘British’ is in fact really [English], but that we’re all just being inclusive and politically correct by referring to it as ‘British’, it doesn’t really matter whether you call it [English] or British.

For example, I’m not saying, as some Scottish nationalists do, that the British government and establishment are ‘really’ an English government and establishment. Well, yes, it is an English establishment, but one that is best evoked as an [English] establishment. The establishment, and particularly our present government, is comprised of privileged, largely public school- and Oxbridge-educated English people, with a typically English cultural and political perspective on the nation they like to imagine as ‘Britain’ and the polity they refer to as the UK. But it cannot really be referred to as an ‘English establishment’ when the people involved present themselves primarily as ‘British’, and see themselves as governing a country called ‘Britain’. They are English-as-British people that view themselves as governing England-as-the-UK; and it seems somewhat unfair, but understandable, for Scots nats to feed that back as ‘British-but-really-English’ people governing in the interests of a Britain-that-is-really-England. The whole point is that, whereas it might in fact be ‘really’ an English government, it’s not a government in England’s name that holds itself accountable to the English nation: it’s an English-but-not-English government, a ‘not-the-English’ government – an [English] government.

The more ‘British’, the more not-English, in fact – by which I’m trying to suggest a paradox that the more post-devolution British governments have tried to affirm their ‘British’ character and deny their [English] reality, the more distinct from the rest of Britain / residual Britain have their [English] policies been. In other words, the more they’ve led [England] in a distinct direction, different from the devolved nations, the more indistinct from ‘Britain’ has been their way of talking about [England] – as if the way to deny the separating of [England] away from the other nations of Britain that has been driven as much by their distinct policies for [England] as by devolution is to talk more and more as if that [England] and those [English] policies were all there is of Britain: to retreat into a solipsism, as much as a solecism, which denies the splitting up of Britain by re-imagining [England] as ‘Britain as a whole’ and, indeed, as ‘Britain as whole‘. So in fact, the more ‘British’ England’s governance and self-representation has become, the more [English] it has in fact been: distinct from the rest of Britain, which has a justifiable claim to represent the ‘true Britain’ and the true (at least, post-war) traditions and consensus of British government and political values.

The Labour governments of Blair and Brown neatly illustrate this paradigm and paradox. As I’ve argued elsewhere, one of the purposes behind devolution to Scotland and Wales was to allow Labour to maintain its hegemony over those countries in perpetuity, and to pursue Old Labour social-democratic policies there that Labour had given up on for [England]. New Labour, ostensibly a project for a ‘New Britain’, was in fact a programme for [England] only. New Labour’s Big Lie and act of treachery towards England was that, at the very moment that it plotted a neo-Thatcherite course for [England] only (on the assumption that Old Labour was unelectable in England), it had the gall to make out that this was a programme for Britain (as a whole). Old Labour was true British Labour – a party that thought that, by definition, socialist principles should be applied across Britain as a whole. New Labour, on the other hand, is really [English] Labour: charting a distinct (neo-liberal, market-capitalist) direction for [England] while at the same time presenting this as if it were a project for a New Britain and consistent with, but modernising, British Labour’s values – whereas, in fact, those British Labour principles had been abandoned for [England] but remained alive, well and funded by the British state in the devolved nations.

So, contrary to the language and our [English] conception of devolution, it was the devolved countries that remained more truly British, whereas it was the land that could be referred to only as ‘Britain’ (i.e. [England]) that set off in a different direction. This is not so much ‘England is Britain is England’, as the Scots-nats would have it, but ‘Scotland / Wales / N. Ireland is Britain and “Britain” is [England]‘.

But I don’t think one should impute deliberate treachery and deceit to the whole Labour movement in this matter; although I’m positive the Labour leadership knew what it was doing by spinning [England] as Britain. For the mass of [English] Labour members and New Labour apologists, [England] could be referred to only as ‘Britain’ because Labour was in massive denial that its distinct policy agenda for [England] was separating [England] from the old socialist Britain for which Labour was supposed to stand just as firmly as devolution was doing. Devolution and a distinct agenda for [England] in fact went hand in hand for New Labour: devolving Scotland and Wales to pursue separate policy agendas for the devolved countries and for [England]; but denying it was pursuing divide and rule, and abandoning its socialist principles for [England] only, by making out that [England]
was Britain – ultimately not divided from ‘the rest of Britain’ because it had been re-imagined as the ‘whole of Britain’ and no longer actually included the ‘rest of Britain’ within its New Labour horizons. The New Britain was in fact [England].

But what of the oh-so [English] present government and the not-PM-for-England, David Cameron, himself? Laughably, David Cameron’s Canute-like refusal to endorse a new EU fiscal-consolidation treaty back in December of last year was portrayed by some as an example of a new Conservative ‘English nationalism‘, something which I refute in turn here. But there are some senior Tories who would explicitly like to champion this sort of ‘go-it-alone-England’ – free from the two Unions: European and British – as the new English nationalism. Tories such as John Redwood, who described this anti-EU English nationalism recently, and paradoxically, as “the new force in UK politics”. (Paradoxically, because he still refers to “UK politics”; and English nationalism as such can be talked of as a reality only when it starts to become possible to use the phrase ‘English politics’.)

John Redwood is perhaps something of an exception, in that, unlike many of his parliamentary colleagues, he has never been ashamed of talking about England as a nation in her own right, with her own claims to self-determination. But for most Conservative MPs, it would be more appropriate to talk of [English] nationalism rather than English nationalism. Yes, they are, mostly, English MPs, elected from English constituencies, with a typically ‘English’ cultural outlook, conception of the UK and antipathy towards EU interference in [English] affairs. But the ‘nation’ they wish to safeguard from absorption into continental Europe is ‘Britain’. And if it’s necessary to accept the secession of Scotland as the price for being able to preserve, govern and shape that Britain in accordance with their ideological precepts, then so be it. Their Britain will just keep calm and carry on – with or without Scotland, and preferably without the EU – except that, without Scotland, it would be, err, mainly at least, England. But why let reality stand in the way of a good political fiction?

So the [English] nationalism of the New Tories is far from being a positive political programme for a new, self-governing England (which is true English nationalism). In fact, it represents a radical continuation of the distinct, Blairite policy agenda and vision for [England] originally set by New Labour, and which is so resolute to resist anything that might stand in its way that it’s prepared to go even further than New Labour in splitting [England] off from (the rest of) Britain. Whereas, for New Labour, it was sufficient to hive Scotland and Wales into devolved Old Labour enclaves in order to continue the Thatcherite agenda in [England], for the New Tories, it may be necessary to ditch Scotland altogether – if not, perhaps, Wales; at least, not yet – in order to continue the work of Blair.

But don’t let’s fool ourselves that this will involve building a New England as the continuation of Blair’s New Britain, because, just like New Labour, the New Tory project involves a radical denial of England as a nation in her own right, and with rights of her own. In fact, just as Cameron’s Conservatives are prepared to risk separating off ‘Old Britain’ (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) from [England] even further than devolution by happily tolerating Scottish secession, they are also pushing the England-denying project to its radical limits by privatising the last vestiges of the post-war British-national settlement in [England], which ultimately means privatising [England] itself.

This is the profound meaning of the [English] government’s Big Society agenda and programme of privatisation of things like the [English] NHS (which I now like to call the ‘English Public Health-care System’ (EPHS), as it is no longer British, nor nationalised, nor a single ‘service’ as such but is definitely English), [English] education, [English] policing and even [English] local government and public administration. Are you getting the point now? Thatcherism was about privatising British nationalised industries. But Thatcher’s New Labour and New Tory continuators have extended this programme of privatisation and marketisation beyond industry to the institutions and organisations that symbolised and embodied a shared British nation – but only within [England]. And once you’ve torn down – brick by brick, as Cameron put it last week – the edifice of the British state in [England] that was once publicly owned and run in the public interest, you’re left not with a new England but an atomised landscape in which health care, education, planning, policing and all the rest are no longer seen as being ultimately the responsibility of a national (e.g. English) government but are all in the hands of the private domain and the market: private enterprise, private individuals, social enterprises and co-operatives, competitive health-care providers, public-private partnerships, local GP consortia, local development plans concocted by democratically unaccountable local cliques in place of proper local democracy, etc.

In short, abolishing the national in [England] (nationalised industries, and nationally owned and accountable public services) ultimately means abolishing the English nation. The ultimate logic of Thatcherite privatisation and marketisation is the asset-stripping of nationhood, so that all you’re left with is the private sphere (and its extension, the micro-local) and the market. But for [England] only: they’ve made sure of that.

But the left – or the post-Blairite wasteland that passes for one in [England] – have got no answer to this, because any sort of answer would have to be national, and the nation to which the answer would apply could only be ‘England’. That’s why I have absolutely no confidence in the claims made this week that Labour, if re-elected into [English] government, would ‘repeal’ the present government’s privatisation of the [English] NHS, or the EPHS, if you’ve followed me to this point. And that’s not just because the [English] Health and Social Care Bill was in fact no more than a continuation to its logical limit of many of the marketisation measures New Labour introduced into the [English] NHS, but because Labour has no language in which to articulate a vision for the / an English nation as such, let alone for a new NHS that would be per force an English NHS now, because all possibility of maintaining the pretence that the now abolished [English] NHS was the NHS (i.e. the original, British one, founded by the post-war Labour government) has vanished. Just as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have remained true to the post-war British settlement, they still have their British NHS: state-run, -owned and -funded. So a new Labour (not New Labour?) [English] government couldn’t ‘reintroduce’ or ‘re-nationalise’ the NHS (the British one) because it still exists, except not in England. No, they’d have to create something new: an English health service.

Is the left in [England] at all capable of articulating a vision of and for England? Well, that is the 64,000-dollar (donation) question. And it’s a question, ultimately, that applies to all of our [English] political class, not just to Labour. Politicians will not be able to ‘reconnect’ with the [English] public, as the saying goes, until they reconnect with their own Englishness: until they liberate themselves from the mental chains, repression and ‘enclosures’ that prevent them from seeing and accepting themselves as English, and as having a primary purpose, as English politicians, to serve the English people and nation.

I use the expression ‘enclosure’ to refer to a confinement of the English and of England to the private realm, both in the context of the wholesale privatisation of England I’ve just described and in the context of a process whereby persons engaged in public life in [England] close off their ‘inner Englishness’ into their private life: not to be spoken of in politically correct, British (i.e. [English]) society. Of course, the two processes are linked. I was struck by this recently when reading an article entitled, ‘Britain is not just “undergoing privatisation”, this is a modern enclosure movement’. This described the process of privatisation of [English] public services, essentially as I have described it, as a latter-day version of the enclosure of common land in England from the 16th century onwards, but without mentioning that either the modern or original enclosures were largely limited to England – something that I wasted no time in pointing out in the comments!

What sort of mental enclosure, intellectual barrier or self-censorship prevents the author and many like him from acknowledging that public assets and services are being closed off into the private realm in [England] only or primarily, not ‘Britain’? Is it because they themselves – in the wake of Thatcher and Blair – fundamentally do not believe in an English public realm, out of some sort of internalised hatred and contempt for England, the common English people and themselves as English? It is as if, in their minds, England and the English – and themselves as English – deserve no better: deserve, that is, to be just cut-off, isolated, private individuals striving and competing against one another for the services and goods they need from private suppliers and employers, rather than expecting as of right the dignity of a nation that takes care of its own.

Politicians, left or right, will not be able to make an effective stand against the privatisation of England until they are prepared to resist the privatisation of their own Englishness. They’re going to have to ‘out’ themselves from their own British enclosures – ‘come out’ publicly as English – before they can pretend to speak in the name of an English public: an idea that they have thus far repudiated just as they have repudiated their own Englishness. English ownership of public assets means English people owning their Englishness. But until such time as those who would represent [England] can think of themselves as English, and identify with the English people, England will remain in the British enclosure.

In short, New Labour brought us an England re-imagined and marketed as ‘Cool Britannia’. The New Tories have brought us ‘Rule Brit-Anglia’: an England privatised and branded by the market as ‘Britain’. But for England to come into its own, to ‘unrule Brit-Anglia’, English people must first break open the mental ‘Eng-closure’ that prevents them from saying ‘England’ and choosing to speak in her name – which is, after all, what a real English parliament would be for. Then, perhaps, we’ll at last be able to talk of a self-governing England, not a Brit-ruled [England].

12 September 2011

The BBC’s supposedly ‘English’ bias

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

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

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

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

8 September 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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