Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

20 May 2010

Clegg ducks the English Question

Our new deputy PM, the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, yesterday announced what he termed the “biggest political reforms since 1832”. There is much to be commended in his proposals, which fall into three categories: 1) reversing New Labour’s erosion of our civil liberties; 2) reform of Parliament and party politics; and 3) further devolution, or what Clegg calls “redistribution of power away from the centre”.

The plans relating to civil liberties are especially welcome. Those relating to parliamentary reform and devolution are less so. I would pick out three main areas for concern:

  1. House of Lords reform: “This government will replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber where members are elected by a proportional voting system. There will be a committee charged specifically with making this happen. But make no mistake: that committee will not be yet another government talking shop. This will be a dedicated group devoted to kick-starting real reform.”

    Is that it then? No wide-ranging consultation of the British people about the sort of second chamber they would like to see for their parliament? The government is simply going to decree that we must switch to a fully elected Upper House, sweeping away centuries of tradition and an organic link to the history of England before it was Great Britain, which the government will bring about through a mere Act of Parliament? Don’t we get a referendum to find out if we like the ideas of this ‘dedicated committee’ chaired by Nick Clegg himself? To say nothing about whether this Upper House is going to replicate the West Lothian Question by allowing non-English-elected Lords or Senators to vote on English legislation while preventing English-elected representatives from doing the same for bills emanating from the Scottish Parliament and soon-to-be Welsh Parliament.

    By proceeding in haste like this (‘haste’ being Clegg’s own word to describe the pace of reform in the next sentence of his speech), an opportunity is being missed to consider these major constitutional reforms in the round, and particularly to factor in the English Question. Doing so would force Clegg’s committee to consider the possibility that if the England-specific functions of the House of Commons were transferred to an English Parliament, this might require the Upper House to evolve into a federal British Parliament, as well as a revising chamber, to deal with vestigial reserved matters.

    This is in fact the kind of measured approach the Liberal Democrats advocated in their election manifesto, where they stated that the English Question would need to be resolved as part of a comprehensive constitutional convention involving ordinary citizens as well as MPs. This idea appears to have been abandoned now and, along with it, any determination to really get to grips with the English Question, as the proposals on devolution make clear.

  2. Devolution: “You will get more control over the hospitals you use; the schools you send your children too; the homes that are built in your community.

    “In our legislative programme we will be setting out plans to strip away government’s unelected, inefficient quangos, plans to loosen the centralised grip of the Whitehall bureaucracy, plans to disperse power downwards to you instead. And we are serious about giving councils much more power over the money they use, so they depend less on the whims of Whitehall, and can deliver the services and support their communities need. We know that devolution of power is meaningless without money.

    “Our plans to disperse power also include strengthening devolution to other parts of Britain: Working with Holyrood to implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission. Working with the Welsh Assembly on introducing a referendum on the transfer of further powers to Wales. Supporting the continued success of the devolved government in Northern Ireland. And, of course, asking what we can do about the difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question.”

    The key sentence, for me, here is: “Our plans to disperse power also include strengthening devolution to other parts of Britain”. In that unthinking phrase, ‘other parts of Britain’, Clegg implicitly admits that the Lib-Cons’ ‘dispersion’ of power to communities (which I discussed yesterday in relation to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ policy presentation) relates to England only, even though he never explicitly says so: if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are ‘other parts of Britain’, then the ‘devolution of power’ from the centre he has just discussed can apply only to England. In other words, the Big Society (devolution of power in England) is what England is being offered by way of equivalence to devolution of power to the other parts of Britain. So instead of there being a national-English government to make decisions on the devolved policy areas Clegg refers to (health care, education, planning / housing, communities and local government), those decisions will be devolved to the sub-national, local / community level.

    But what’s really striking about the ‘other parts of Britain’ phrase is how it blatantly exposes the way that the political establishment simply takes it for granted that devolved policies discussed as if they were British are in fact English, and that everyone is somehow supposed to be aware of this unacknowledged given: it’s the elephant in the room that everyone sees but no one admits it’s there, as they’d then have to do something about it.

    And doing something about it – addressing the English Question – is clearly not Clegg’s intention, as the throw-away phrase, “And, of course, asking what we can do about the difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question”, makes clear. Put out almost as an embarrassed after-thought following the important and specific proposals mentioning Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by name. He can’t even bring himself to refer to England explicitly when he’s alluding to it, almost literally skirting around the issue of English governance seen as a series of ‘difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question’. It’s not difficult, you twit, just say it: the English Question. There, that didn’t hurt, did it?

    But over and above considerations of political correctness and, in the context of the coalition, expediency that dictate that one must never utter the nasty ‘E’ word in case one conjures the English elephant into existence, there is a practical, political reason and a symbolic reason why Clegg refers to the WLQ rather than the EQ. On the practical level, if you’re dealing with the issue of English governance in the framework of the WLQ, this means that you think or hope there could be some sort of procedural fix allowing English MPs to have the ‘ultimate’ say over English legislation that would be sufficient to keep English governance as the domain of the UK government and parliament. So, don’t mention the ‘E’ word in case the obvious solution of a separate English parliament and government comes into people’s minds.

    Second, on the symbolic level, the very assumption that the UK parliament is the natural home for English governance partakes of the same mindset that regards it as a self-evident truth – and, therefore, one that doesn’t need to be spoken of – that devolved issues as ‘properly’ dealt with by the British parliament are ‘really’ English issues; and that Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland are other parts of the UK. It’s that very English, very Westminster, Anglo-Britishness: the doublethink that both manages to really believe that England and Britain are symbiotically fused, but at the same time realistically recognises they are not the same – but let’s not talk about it, dear, in case we lose our privilege to govern.

    So much for “hand[ing] power back to people” – notice, it’s ‘people’, not ‘the people’, let alone ‘the English people’!

  3. Electoral reform: “There is, however, no programme to reform our political system [that] is complete without reform of our voting system. This government will be putting to you, in a referendum, the choice to introduce a new voting system, called the Alternative Vote. Under that new system far more MPs will have to secure support from at least half the people who vote in their constituency.”

    As with the absence of a full debate and referendum on the options for the Upper House, and as with the total lack of any suggestion that the English people as a whole should be offered a referendum on an English parliament, we’re also not being offered a full debate about different electoral systems and a proper referendum that includes at least one proportional option. Basically, this referendum is a choice between two first-past-the-post systems, as the Alternative Vote is just a mitigated form of FPTP that doesn’t even do what it says on the tin.

    The last sentence in the above quote ambiguously points to the inadequacy of AV: ‘far more MPs’ will be elected by a majority of voters in their constituency. This could imply that all MPs will need to secure a majority, as opposed to just some MPs under FPTP. But AV doesn’t in fact ensure this, as the winner has to gain only a majority of votes that are still in play in the preferential system for reallocating votes to the more successful candidates. So it’s quite possible for the winner to still only obtain a minority of the votes of all those who voted in the first place, if there are many voters who do not indicate any of the last two or three candidates left in the race as a second or subsequent preference.

    So Clegg is being dishonest about AV, partly because he doesn’t actually support it – that is, if the policy that was in the Lib Dems’ manifesto (PR) reflects Clegg’s real views. And AV, like all the other proposals for political reform and devolution in Clegg’s statement, basically preserves the privileges and assumptions of parliamentary and party-centric politics intact, as it’s a voting system that’s just as likely (some argue, more likely) to deliver an outright majority in parliament to a single party that can then rule England and Britain with the absolute power of a monarch for the next five years: guaranteed to be a full five years given Clegg’s proposal to introduce five-year fixed-term parliaments.

    Five years. I thought we might at least only have to put up with our unaccountable governments for a maximum of four years if fixed terms were introduced. And do we get a choice in a referendum about this, either?

    Not on your nelly! What do you think this is? This is Whig Britain, don’t you know, not the people’s republic of England!

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3 December 2008

Damian In-the-Dock Green: Breaches In Confidence That Betray a Cynical Political Culture

I must confess to having initially reacted with a large dose of cynicism last week to the news of the arrest and questioning of the Tory immigration spokesman Damian Green. I thought he must have been up to some sort of political skulduggery given the routine assumption that politicians do indulge in dodgy intrigue and rule bending to procure political advantage. On learning a bit more about the case, I assumed that he must have been offering inducements of some kind to the civil servant who kept feeding him titbits on wrongdoing, ‘malfeasance’ and cover-ups at the Home Office; or else, that the civil servant in question was himself politically motivated, so that at least there was connivance between him and Damian Green in breaking the law (albeit a questionable law in many of its provisions: the Official Secrets Act) in order to score points against the government – a government for which, if I need remind my readers, I have the utmost contempt.

Only subsequently, on reading some of the storm of protest and indignation about the affair, did I pause to reflect a bit more about the civil-liberties implication of the events. Even if the police had a reasonable suspicion that Damian Green had been offering the civil servant in question inducements to betray official secrets, surely the use of a whole squad of counter-terrorist officers to search the MP’s parliamentary office and interrogate him for a whole day was completely inappropriate and excessive. Would it not have been sufficient for ordinary detectives to have a quiet word with Damian Green in his offices after consulting with the Speaker of the Commons and the MP’s boss, the Conservative Party leader David Cameron? The actions and motivation of the Speaker, Michael Martin, in allowing the police raid to go ahead are highly questionable. And then there are the implications for the confidential nature of Damian Green’s work and dealings with his constituents, which the police appeared to regard as completely open for them to look through in the search for incriminating evidence. Should the confidentiality of an MP’s correspondence, files and computers not be regarded by default as completely off limits, and only to be made available to the police under the gravest of circumstances and under reasonable suspicion of serious criminality, such as actual support for terrorism, which might have warranted the use of anti-terrorist officers? But no one has suggested that anything remotely like that had been going on.

Then it occurred to me that, in their suspicions towards Damian Green, and in their apparent belief that there was nothing untoward or objectionable in their investigative methods in this case, the police were demonstrating the same sort of cynicism and lack of respect towards MPs and the parliamentary process as I had done in my initial reaction. After the way the political elite rallied round to protect Tony Blair and his cronies in the ‘cash for honours’ investigation, which ended with no prosecutions and accusations of wasted police resources and effort, such cynicism on their part would be understandable. In this case, however, the police’s attentions were directed towards the dealings of an opposition politician claiming to be exercising his duty to call the government to account for its illegal and deceitful doings, and not towards corrupt political patronage carried on with the acquiescence of the PM.

The Damian Green case therefore demonstrated that cynicism of this sort – whether it is that of the police, the media or the general public – can lead to complacency towards and even acquiescence with the government’s use of secrecy and anti-terrorist measures to suppress disclosure and scrutiny of its own dishonest or incompetent dealings. By means of the incident and the subsequent ‘outing’ of the civil servant involved (Christopher Galley), the message was being put out that civil servants who blew the whistle on government wrongdoing – and even politicians that sought to get hold of and release information about that wrongdoing – could expect the full force of the law to come down on their heads. The government’s newly re-recruited spin-meister and bully boy, Peter Mandelson, reinforced this message this morning, I notice: accusing the Conservative Party leadership of sanctioning inducements to Galley (who was motivated by ambition not the public interest, according to Mandelson) and of conniving in law breaking and violation of the Civil Service Code in order to score political points – almost exactly my own initially cynical reaction.

In view of the fact that this was clearly the message the government wants to put out, I find it completely impossible to believe that the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and probably also Gordon Brown himself – who seems to run cabinet government on a Stalinist-style central command-and-control basis – did not have prior knowledge that the police intended to raid Damian Green’s offices and arrest him. Certainly, if Jacqui Smith did not have such foreknowledge, this would in itself almost justify a resignation on her part: in circumstances as grave and unprecedented as these, for the police not to consult her and gain at least her tacit approval would reveal a huge lack of confidence in the Home Secretary on the part of the police, along with ineffectiveness on her part in setting acceptable guidelines for the police in such matters. If Smith genuinely didn’t know about it, it’s hard to avoid the thought that she may not have done so because Gordon Brown didn’t inform her: i.e. he himself was very much informed and sanctioned the whole thing, and didn’t see fit to tell his Home Secretary about it, as he wouldn’t want an unseemly row and was intent on demonstrating who was really in charge.

This is, of course, speculation. But I’ve long suspected Gordon Brown of being a ruthless Machiavellian operator, who’s prepared to use whatever underhand tactics are at his disposal to ruin the reputations of his opponents both inside and outside the Labour Party: this time, Damian Green, by tainting him with the slur of suborning a civil servant from the proper and legal exercise of his duties; last time, by again using the offices of Peter Mandelson to try to get an accusation of improper soliciting of a donation to the Tory Party to stick on the Conservative Treasury spokesman George Osborne. In fact, there’ve been so many of these personal and career ruins in Brown’s wake that you might almost think it was he who triggered the stories and investigations about the cash for honours scandal in the first place, in an attempt to discredit and even oust Tony Blair. The fact that neither Brown nor Jacqui Smith have felt the least bit inclined to express any regret, let alone apology, about the outrageous handling of the Green investigation by the police can only lend further support to the view that one or both of them knew all about it and sought to secure political advantage from it.

One test of this supposition would be to imagine for a moment how the Labour leadership would react to a request from the police to carry out a similar inspection of, say, the Labour Immigration Minister’s Commons office and confidential files. Do we think for a moment that this would have been permitted? Of course, it wouldn’t. Therefore, whoever it was in the government that gave the green light for the police’s actions last week (Michael Martin, Jacqui Smith or Gordon Brown) was / were, at least in (large) part, motivated by achieving political advantage and revenge for Green’s embarrassing disclosures; and all of Mandelson’s blandishments about upholding the law and the Civil Service Code are a load of utterly futile and discreditable tosh.

Or am I just being cynical again? The point is that the actions of the government in sanctioning (whether ad or post hoc) the police’s actions last week, where there are clear potential political gains for it in doing so, only serve to bring the whole political process and, indeed, the law into disrepute. It is the government that should be setting an example in these matters: it should be completely open about who in government knew, or did not know, what; and in repudiating the police’s disproportionate actions. If it has nothing to hide, this should not be a problem. But the fact that the government has failed to adequately address such questions and concerns can only fuel the type of speculation that I have indulged in here. And, moreover, it is clear that the government did have something to hide, which is why the leaks occurred in the first place; and why the government was, and is, so furious about them.

And this brings us to the hub of the matter: the government comes over all indignant about the leaks carried out by Galley and Green (sounds like a firm of solicitors or executioners!), as if its secrets were all of the utmost importance (hence meriting the deployment of counter-terrorist officers); whereas in fact, it’s obvious they were highly embarrassed and politically harmed by the disclosures. And yet, the government shows cavalier disregard for the secrets and confidential information of its own citizens: whether those of Damian Green’s constituents, whose business was laid bare to the investigating officers last week; or to every citizen in the land, whose personal data has been handled with such gross negligence by a government that feels entitled to gather more and more of it, and to put it all in one place through the ID-card scheme.

It’s this lack of respect and, seemingly, trust for the privacy and honest secrets of the ordinary citizen that betrays the true depths of cynicism to which this government has stooped. The government’s secrets are held to be sacrosanct, even if they comprise a record of misconduct and incompetence. The citizen’s secrets, on the other hand, are to be an open book to the government – and to any organisation with which the government chooses to share, or to which it decides to sell, that information; or to any criminal, terrorist or ordinary citizen who happens to stumble upon or hack into data containing millions of our personal details. What have we got to hide or to fear, after all, from this whiter-than-white, trustworthy and supremely competent government? And if we have got something we’d rather they didn’t know, does that justify ‘the authorities’ in being suspicious that we might be up to criminal or even terrorist activities? Hence justifying the deployment of a counter-terrorist squad to search our premises? Because if it’s allowed to happen to an MP today, it could become a routine tactic to intimidate troublesome citizens tomorrow.

And what is an MP, after all, other than a representative of the people? If the government feels it is justified to treat inconvenient MPs in such a bullying and invasive manner, then it is to us the people that it is showing disregard and cynicism – as indeed it did quite specifically in this instance by allowing the police to peruse the confidential information of Mr Green’s constituents, apparently without any safeguards to the unofficial secrets involved. The reason for this discrimination and these double standards? The government’s job is to govern, and the citizen is there to be governed. So if the government decides it needs more and more of the citizen’s personal information in order to secure the processes and continuance of its governance against mounting threats (the ultimate justifying threat being that of ‘terror’), then it is the government’s prerogative both to appropriate that information and to cloak it, and the use to which it is put, in an ever more enveloping shroud of secrecy. Such as the information the Home Office had gathered on which Labour MPs were likely to vote against 42 days’ detention without charge for terror suspects, which was another of the items leaked by Christopher Galley. It seems that not even Labour’s own MPs are to be trusted.

This is government that sees its primary objective as perpetuating itself and defending itself against the threats to its survival by any means fair or foul. Government that sees itself, not the people, as the ultimate arbiter of its own actions which alone – in its view – can be characterised as ‘in the public interest’; not the actions of the government’s detractors and critics. Government for the government, and not government accountable to the people in the shape of its representatives: in this case, Damian Green MP. The government’s cynical condoning of the police’s actions last week is a sign that it has lost touch with the one thing that confers legitimacy upon it: not its own power but the trust of the people. And from the government’s increasingly paranoid perspective, it is the people in turn that are not to be trusted: potential terrorists all if they question the integrity and expose the incompetence of the government’s security operations and apparatus.

This is perhaps an episode that does justify strong criticism of, indeed cynicism towards, the British parliamentary system. The reason why the government is so out of touch with the people is that it does not have to rely on the support of even a large minority – let alone majority – of the people in UK elections. This is a government that was elected by only 22% of the British electorate (36% of those who actually voted). But that low level of support gave it an absolute majority and, effectively, the absolute power of a monarch, in whose name – and with whose sovereign authority – it governs.

But at the same time – and for all its flaws – this incident also demonstrates the greatness of the English and British parliamentary system: the fact that parliament at its best is not just an assemblage of party clones who slavishly back their government’s and parties’ positions on every issue. The fact that each MP is a free agent: a representative, symbol, defender and example of the freedom of every English and British citizen. And that they can, and do, stand up to abuses of power; even when further abuses are heaped upon them in the attempt to shut them up.

And that is why, despite the government’s betrayal of our confidence – indeed, of our confidential information – I still have confidence in the parliamentary process that England bequeathed to the world.

18 November 2008

Presumed Consent

There was much discussion in the media yesterday about whether the government would or should change the legislation on organ donations, so that there would be ‘presumed consent’: it would be assumed that everyone was happy for their organs to be transplanted after their death into people who needed them; and you’d have to opt out of this by explicitly stating that you didn’t want this to be done.
Of course, what was not to the fore of the media discussions was the fact that the issue related to England only. The media, as usual, failed to make this clear. The BBC news website story compares Gordon Brown’s approach with the lines taken in Scotland and Wales – so, reading between the lines, you can work out that the story relates to England only – but it doesn’t spell that out; and it’s placed in the ‘UK’ news section of the site, rather than the England section.
I must admit I was rather angry when I heard that GB [Gordon Brown] wasn’t ruling out introducing presumed consent legislation (to England) despite the recommendation of the expert committee. Typical prime ministerial arrogance; plus, as a Scottish-elected MP, he has no right to impose this on England, whatever you think of the whys and wherefores of the issue. This contrasts with the approach taken in Scotland, in fact, where they’ve concentrated on a public-information campaign, which has significantly increased the number of donors coming forward. They’re initially going to try this approach in England, too, apparently; but GB has rather pre-empted the outcome by his posturing on the subject today: the clunking fist getting things done. Well, I feel like saying ‘p*** off back to Scotland, Gordon; and let the English decide for themselves on this issue’.
In fact, if you wanted to really push the boat out on this one, you could say presumed consent – even in the absence of actual, positive consent – is a metaphor for how the UK government presumes that English people consent to all the legislation (including all the civil liberties-infringing laws) that is enacted on their behalf by a UK parliament that is neither a legitimate nor representative parliament for England in most of what it does. Never mind what the experts say; nor what English people may or may not think about it: Scottish-elected PM Gordon Brown may impose it on us (but not his own constituents) anyway. Arrogant b*****d!
As for the merits of the issue itself, I’m against presumed consent because it could end up overriding the feelings of bereaved family members and friends, particularly in cases where there hasn’t been time to discuss the issue with the dying person – e.g. in cases of sudden illness or accidental death. It’s really the feelings of the family that are most important; once you’re dead, you won’t mind what happens to your body, whether you regard death as a simple annihilation of all life and consciousness, or as the start of the new life of salvation. Besides which, I personally believe that human bodies are sacred, whether alive or dead; and they’re the property ultimately of God, not the state. Therefore, they should be treated with reverence and not as an automatic spare-parts warehouse; and the family’s act of surrendering their departed loved-ones’ organs should also be respected as a reverential, sacrificial gift of life to another person made possible by the death of their family member. This makes it truly Christ-like in a manner that I think must be pleasing to the Almighty – but how should I know?
In short, the government’s presumption to be able to use dead (English) citizens’ bodies in this way is another example of its de-sacralising of human lives and bodies, similar (but at the other end of life) to its presumption that it’s OK to experiment on human embryos and combine them with animal DNA for the advancement of science; and to abort foetuses whose existence is too distressing or inconvenient for their parents. At least they’re more honest in these latter instances, in that they’re not pretending to obtain any consent on the part of the (British) human beings they abuse and destroy in this way.

22 February 2008

Brown’s Britishness: Nationality Or Citizenship?

Students of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] Brit-obsessed public discourse will have a field day with his speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) on ‘Managed Migration and Earned Citizenship’ on Wednesday. A theme calculated to allow the PM to wax lyrical on his beloved Britishness theme! Sixty-four occurrences of either ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ against a word total of 4,839, i.e. 1.3% of all the words. That doesn’t sound much, I suppose, but if you consider how many words (including the frequently occurring basic nouns, verbs and pronouns) there are in a typical sentence, particularly in a serious formal speech, that equates to quite a high ratio of Brits per sentence.

Not as high as the ratio of ‘citizen(s)’ or ‘citizenship’ per sentence in this instance, however! There were 75 appearances of the ‘C’ word = 1.55%. Well, I suppose the speech was about citizenship, after all. But was it more about citizenship than Britain or, indeed, than nationality? The concepts of ‘nation’, ‘national’ and ‘nationality’ – but, significantly, not ‘nationhood’ – occur a mere 20 times in the speech: only 0.4% of all words.

Does this mean that, for GB, Britishness is more about citizenship than about nationality or nationhood; the latter term being more emotive and personal, relating to whether people ‘feel British’ or regard Britishness as their personal national identity? This would appear to be the case when GB says:

“This is not jingoism, but practical, rational and purposeful – and therefore, I would argue, an essentially British form of patriotism.

“Patriotism is the sense that ‘all-of-us’ matters more than ‘any-of-us’ [does it, really – isn’t the whole basis of human rights the irreducible dignity and integrity of the individual human person; so are GB’s ‘responsibilities’ upon which our rights supposedly depend (see below) based on the assertion of the priority of the collectivity – the nation-state – over the individual?]. It defines a nation not by race or ethnicity, but by seeing us all as part of a collective project from which we all gain and to which we all contribute. Society is – as the great thinkers have long told us – a contract, even a covenant, in which we recognise that our destinies are interlinked. For rights only exist where people recognise responsibilities [cf. above note]; responsibilities only exist where people have a sense of shared fate; and shared fate only exists where there is a strong sense of collective belonging. So Britain is not just where we are but in an important sense part of who we are”.

Britain, in this definition, is ‘in an important sense part of who we are’ because the social contract that binds us together and our participation in a collective project – of creating and enriching Britain – is seen as more integral to our identity than a sense of belonging to a place, ethnicity or race. Or, indeed, more integral than the sense of belonging to a nation and the sense of national identity? This would appear to be the case, to judge from the passage that follows:

“the idea of citizenship can be addressed more cogently here in Britain than elsewhere because for centuries Britain has been made up of many nations. As the first – and probably the most successful – multi-national state in the world, we have always had to find ways of bringing people into a United Kingdom.

“Put it another way: geographically, Britain is a group of islands; historically, it is a set of ideas that have evolved over centuries: brought together uniquely across traditional boundaries and today united not by race or ethnicity but by distinctive values that have, over time, shaped the institutions of a multinational state”.

Let’s pause for a moment in wonder. GB appears to be conceding the point that, historically, Britain has comprised a number of nations – including, presumably, England. But don’t get your hopes up: he doesn’t say ‘England’ throughout the speech; nor, indeed, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ or ‘Ireland’. There are 11 references to ‘English’; but these are only to the language, not to anything such as a national identity. If you look at GB’s words more closely here, what he’s saying is that Britain is indeed a geographical place where, historically (“for centuries”), a number of nations have lived. ‘Nations’ here can imply ‘peoples’, rather than formally established political entities with defined territorial borders: the fundamental geographical unit for GB is Britain, not the nations of Britain; while the nations have merely inhabited that British territory – effectively, like provisional citizens, migrants or temporary residents, not as collectivities that identified with the land in which they lived.

Equally historically, however, Britain is presented here as a unified state forged by a process whereby the multiple nations of Britain have come together in a “United Kingdom”. The engine of that unification has not been some sort of organic convergence and ethnic inter-mixing of the nations of Britain over time, whereby gradually the old barriers between us have been broken down and we’ve come to think of ourselves as more British than English / Scottish / Welsh / Irish. No, the motor for unity is “a set of ideas that have evolved over centuries” – co-terminous with the ‘centuries’ during which Britain has been made up of many nations – and the “distinctive values that have, over time, shaped the institutions of a multinational state”.

The unity or Union that is the United Kingdom has been created by, and is founded on, a set of distinctive but shared ideas and values that have coalesced and are embodied in the institutions of a “multinational state”, e.g. in the ‘British Values’ and the ‘British Rights and Responsibilities’ that are defining of British civic society and British citizenship. Note that there is an uncertain shift here between the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘United Kingdom’ (or UK), which crops up elsewhere in GB’s speech. Britain is the geographical place, populated by multiple nations, but by that token not properly a unified nation in itself. The unity is achieved only at the level of statehood, citizenship, and common values and principles – at the level of the UK. But GB wants that unity to also be identified with a single Nation (rather than multiple nations) of Britain, and wants citizenship to be the foundation of a new national British identity. Hence, a constant, inconsistent slippage in his speech between the UK and Britain as the terms for the unitary state-nation – rather than nation-state – founded on codified civic principles.

These tensions are evident in the passage that follows, in which GB defines the British values he believes in:

  • “liberty – the concept of freedom under the law which has to be renewed every generation, about which I spoke in the autumn;
  • of civic duty;
  • of fairness;
  • and of internationalism – a Britain that sees the channel not as a moat that isolates us in narrow nationalism, but as a highway out to the world that for centuries has given our outward-looking nation an unsurpassed global reach.

“But that these values are founded secondly on a vision of citizenship that entails both responsibilities and rights”.

So Britain is both a nation – founded on a citizenship that embodies British values in a set of rights and responsibilities – and an internationalism: an “outward-looking nation” that also takes in to itself additional multiple nations from throughout the globe through migration; as opposed to the ‘narrow nationalism’ associated with insular protectionism towards smaller territorial national entities such as that of the Englishman’s castle, defended by the moat of the, yes, English Channel, Gordon.

All of this means that if the true ‘test’ of citizenship (like the actual test of entitlement to British citizenship for migrants that GB is proposing in his speech) is adherence to formal codes and statements setting out the legal and philosophical principles of British state-nationality (merging multiple original nationalities into a common citizenship), then the ‘original’ nations of the UK (the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish) have no intrinsic, special status with respect to Britishness than more recent migrants who embrace Britishness defined purely in relation to those shared principles. There is a sort of equalising going on here between the ‘nations’ that have historically inhabited these islands (the historical multi-national British state) and the multiple nationalities of newer arrivals, linked to Britain’s internationalism and global reach.

This brings about a peculiar reversal whereby the formal process of subscribing (to use GB’s term) to the principles – rights and responsibilities – of UK / British citizenship that would-be settlers here will have to go through, if GB’s proposals are implemented, make them almost more properly British citizens than those who consider themselves as in some degree British by virtue of having always lived here and of viewing themselves – additionally or primarily – as English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. This is because, under GB’s vision, the process of becoming a British citizen is transformed into a rite of passage, where you have to pass a number of tests that prove the sincerity of your wish to be a British citizen which, through the rights and responsibilities citizenship embodies and enacts, actually means something:

“we must ensure that British citizenship is a set of obligations as well as a guarantee of rights. And that British citizenship is a prized asset to be aspired to and cherished”.

But does this concept of ‘earned citizenship’ – prospective citizens proving that they have earned the right to British citizenship through the social and civic responsibility of their actions and the way they lead their lives – translate back to existing British citizens? If new British citizens are not just equal in their Britishness to people who have always lived here but in some sense more properly British (in that Britishness is founded on a set of codified values and principles that new citizens have formally signed up to), does this not make existing citizens themselves in some sense merely probationary and prospective citizens: mere residents on British soil whose true Britishness has yet to be formally tested and attested through a citizenship rite? Does this mean we will all have to prove our entitlement to (continuing) British citizenship by formally buying into the responsibilities and duties upon which it is being made to depend?

There is a serious ambiguity throughout GB’s speech about whether the concept of earned citizenship applies as much to existing citizens as prospective ones. This is because, inherent to the linkage GB makes between rights and responsibilities, is indeed the notion that rights (those of citizenship) have to be earned through socially responsible lives and the exercise of our civic duties. Indeed, the opening section of GB’s piece sets out these principles as the basis for the modern concept of British citizenship:

“for all citizens, I want us to emphasise – and, to some extent, codify – the rights they have . . . . But alongside these entitlements of citizenship, there are also duties. . . . This is one of the reasons why it makes sense – as we have announced – to consider amending the Human Rights Act to create a new British Bill of Rights and Duties which emphasises not just what people are entitled to but what they are expected to do in return in order to make ours a society we all want to live in.

“And this reciprocity of rights and responsibilities also shapes the new concept of ‘earned citizenship’ we are advancing today”.

As part of our formal buy in to this new statement of our rights and responsibilities, will we – like new immigrants – be obliged to relinquish our former national identities (as English, Scots, etc.) in favour of our new united British-national identity based on the common values of our citizenship? And how controlled will the sincerity of our adherence to these rights and responsibilities be?

“And of course, the final vital element in security inside our borders is the national ID cards system.

“While the first biometric ID cards will be issued to UK citizens during 2009, from the end of this year we will start to issue the first compulsory biometric IDs to non-EU foreign nationals coming to the UK. Such an identity scheme will help make it clear what status a person has – whether they are allowed to work, access benefits and how long they can stay.

“This is crucial in tackling illegal immigration. But it is also critical to moving towards, and enforcing, a system of earned citizenship.

“Those who are not entitled to benefits will not be able to claim them. And that will also include people from the EU who have come here to work but have not yet paid sufficient national insurance contributions.

“And probationary citizens will all have ID cards which will make it easier to ensure that they are exercising their responsibilities, and to decide on their progress to full citizenship.

“All this reflects the value we place on British citizenship and the urgent need to be clear about our collective national identity and common purpose”.

So we have moved from a national identity based on history, and a sense of belonging to a place and a territory, to one that is almost definitively, and definingly, encapsulated in a national ID scheme, designed to control our access to the rights of citizenship, depending on the extent to which we are fulfilling our civic responsibilities.

This is a national British identity codified, indeed digitised, by the British state; in fact, bestowed by the British state based on merit against a set of prescriptive qualifying criteria, rather than an automatic right. Being English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish isn’t one of those qualifying criteria – and you’d better accept GB’s state-civic Britishness if you want to preserve your native rights.

6 February 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 5): No change to phone taps as evidence in Scotland

It probably goes without saying – correction, it has gone without being said – that the recommendations of the Chilcot Report, released today, that evidence derived from phone taps could be admissible in evidence in criminal trials (for instance, against suspected terrorists) do not apply to Scotland – only England and Wales. But I haven’t heard that being said on the news on BBC Radios Four and Five, or BBC One on the telly. Nor is it stated in the report that currently appears on the BBC News website.

But it’s there in black and white in the report itself. The problem is that, while the interception of communications is a reserved matter (i.e. still the responsibility of the Westminster government), procedure in courts of law and policing in Scotland are the responsibility of the devolved government in that country. So the Chilcot Report recommends that some form of Public Interest Immunity be introduced in Scotland, similar to that in England: meaning, as I understand it, that details concerning the methods used to obtain intercept evidence, and the full details of that evidence, could be withheld from open session of court in order to keep those intercept methods secret in the public interest. There are currently proposals of precisely this nature before the Scottish Parliament, which may – or may not – result in PII legislation in Scotland. However, as the Chilcot Report states on pp. 21-22: “We therefore recommend no change to the current legal regime for interception in Scotland until new legislation is in place and its potential impact has been assessed”.

So something that Gordon Brown insisted should be introduced, if it is in the end, in the interests strictly of national security (meaning the security of the UK as a whole), may come into law in England and Wales but not in Scotland. Does this matter? Well, surely where national security is at issue, there should not be one law for England and Wales, and one for Scotland – if we are one nation, that is. Similarly, where civil liberties are at issue. This is the other side to the coin of phone-tap evidence that didn’t seem to weigh much in the balance in the PM’s speech in the House of Commons this lunchtime. So depending on how you think the admittance of phone-tap data as evidence in criminal proceedings may either advance or impede the ‘war on terror’, or may impinge or not on civil liberties – it’s quite likely that some of the residents of the UK, terrorists and law-abiding citizens, are going to get off Scot free.

Addendum, 7 February: later in the day, the reports did indicate clearly from the outset that the proposed change to the rules affected England and Wales only. However, this was stated without any further explanation or comment; for instance, what were the ‘national security’ implications for Scotland going its own way on this issue, if that’s what they eventually decided to do? Was it not so important a matter that pressure should be brought to bear on Holyrood to pass the necessary Scottish legislation, to ensure that all UK citizens enjoyed the same degree of protection against the terror threat? Or if it wasn’t important enough to push through the measure in Scotland, was it really that important or necessary in England and Wales? Is it perhaps just another case, like that of the superfluous extension of detention without trial for terror suspects to 42 days, where GB [Gordon Brown] wants to be seen to be tough and decisive, but the measures involved are quite ineffective? And then the reporting as a whole still presented the debate as if it related to the whole of the UK, which it quite manifestly didn’t, as the Scottish dimension was not touched upon at all.

2 November 2007

Menezes Killing: Why is no one talking about shoot-to-kill?

In yesterday’s and today’s coverage on the Metropolitan Police’s guilty verdict for ‘health and safety’ violations over the killing of the innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes [there’s got to be some sort of grim irony that they were done on health and safety, of all things!], no one seems to have raised the question of whether the security forces’ shoot-to-kill policy towards people they suspect of being on the point of committing a terrorist outrage needs to be re-examined. There was much discussion on this theme in the immediate wake of the blunder. But it’s all gone silent now. Why?

Let’s think about it logically. One of the justifications made by the police for their delayed attempts to stop suspects under observation, such as Menezes in this instance, is that it’s operationally important to follow where they go, who they link up with and what they do in order to gather vital intelligence and allow them to incriminate themselves. But effectively, in principle and definitely in practice, in Menezes’ case, this means waiting to intervene until the balance of certainty tips in favour of judging that the suspect really is on the point of doing something to threaten the lives of those around him. But if you wait until this point, you let a situation arise where, one way or another, something life-threatening is going to happen: either the terrorist blows himself up, or the security forces have to use force (shoot to kill) to stop him, and thereby endanger others in the same way that the suspect might have endangered them.

And what I don’t understand is why, even in circumstances where the security forces have deliberately left things effectively too late to avoid violence, they feel they have to use conventional bullets to bring things to a close. Aren’t there stun guns or tranquillisers that can be fired to have the same incapacitating effect? Surely, the whole point of acting in these situations is to prevent avoidable loss of innocent life. Isn’t it more consistent with this aim to use weapons that achieve the same effect without creating the result you’re trying to avoid?

For me, this sorry episode illustrates one of the ironies of the ‘war on terror’: that when the threat level is talked up and the climate of fear is heated up still further by the very people who are responsible for the public’s protection, this then justifies actions and engineers results that are precisely what the terrorists want. These consequences include the killing of innocent people; violent or unjust actions by the authorities towards suspected individuals or groups, particularly Muslims; a general clamp-down on civil liberties; and the creation of an atmosphere of terror, precisely, which is a win-win for the terrorists: either the government is pressurised into backing down from a particular position (e.g. the Spanish people after the Madrid bombings voting for a party that then withdrew Spanish forces from Iraq); or, on the contrary, the government is pushed into an attitude of defiance and hostility that whips up anti-Islamic sentiment and consolidates foreign-policy positions (e.g. support for the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan), which the terrorists and their sympathisers can then use for anti-Western propaganda purposes and as a recruiting sergeant.

And the thing about Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police boss, is that he has consistently talked up the terror threat, which is clearly in part a tactic to condition the public into being more tolerant about mistakes and injustices that are committed in what Blair and others involved in the security effort still like to characterise as a war situation. In fact, Blair or one of his allies (I can’t remember which) was on about the extremely high ongoing terror threat only two or three weeks ago, just as the Menezes case was about to begin.

This is not to say that one should not feel sympathy for the police officers involved in incidents like this, who do have to make split-second decisions that will inevitably result in a limited number of mistakes. But surely, the tactics and the shoot-to-kill policy do need looking at: delaying interventions until shootings become ‘inevitable’ (but are they, even in these situations?).

But one also has to feel sympathy, in this case, for the innocent victim and his family. It was Blair’s duty to protect him as much as his officers and his own position. The more he goes on about the extreme circumstances and atmosphere of fear the police were operating under – which, to some extent, he’s been responsible for making worse through his careless talk – the more you sense that he’s not truly sorry for what happened. And if he’s not sorry, is he exercising a proper duty of care towards the public? And if he isn’t exercising this duty, should he still be in his job?

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