Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

24 October 2014

EVoEL made simple: two simple solutions to the West Lothian Question

By now, anyone with even a remote interest in British politics will know what the West Lothian Question is, and will be aware that one of the answers proposed to it is ‘English votes for English Laws’ (EVoEL).

Should anybody need a quick reminder, however, the West Lothian Question relates to the fact that, following devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is possible, on occasions, for MPs elected from those countries to have a decisive say on legislation pertaining to England only, whereas English MPs have no such say on bills on similar matters affecting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, because those matters are devolved to the parliament and assemblies of those countries respectively.

EVoEL is one remedy proposed to this imbalance and – in the view of many – injustice. EVoEL says that, on occasions such as those described above, only English MPs should be allowed to exercise the decisive vote (or, by extension, only English MPs should have any say and / or participate in debates) on such bills, including in all or just some of the stages of such bills’ passage through the Commons.

In practice, it is highly complicated to implement EVoEL, for a number of reasons that have been well documented and argued about elsewhere, two of the main ones being that:

1) On the basis of current bill-drafting practices, there are in fact very few England-only bills, either in whole or in part, so that even if a bill ‘primarily’ relates to England, it may not be justifiable to exclude non-English MPs from voting on it given the direct or indirect effects it may have on their constituents

2) One of those indirect consequences is the financial impact via the infamous Barnett Formula, whereby funding for the devolved nations is linked to the English budget allocation in such a way as to effectively guarantee a higher level of spending per head of population in those countries than in England. The fact that many England-only or England-mainly bills involve decisions about spending in England has therefore been used as justification for non-English MPs to continue voting on them. Even the SNP, which generally exercises a so-called ‘self-denying ordinance’ (i.e. doesn’t vote) on non-Scottish matters, does vote on mainly or exclusively English bills that affect Scotland in this indirect way.

I want here to suggest two non-mutually exclusive, ‘simple’ ways to implement EVoEL, or rather to solve the problem EVoEL is intended to solve without in fact preventing non-English-elected MPs from voting on ‘English’ laws. Of course, the most clear-cut solution is a separate English parliament, which comprehensively redresses the asymmetry of New Labour’s devolution settlement in that, by definition, only English-elected representatives would vote on England-only bills, in an England-only parliament.

But assuming that the present UK parliament is retained, for a time at least, as the legislative body for England, my simple solutions to the West Lothian Question would run as follows:

1) Introduce proportional representation (PR) for UK general elections. This would effectively eliminate the political dimension to the West Lothian problem, if not the national and constitutional aspects to it. The political dimension derives from the differential parliamentary representation of Labour and the Conservatives across the UK’s nations: Labour generally – but for how much longer? – winning most of the seats in Scotland and Wales (and therefore, when in government, being keen for its MPs from those countries to vote on its ‘English’ bills), and the Conservatives being more likely to win parliamentary majorities in England that are insufficient to form UK-wide majorities, owing to the party’s lack of seats in Scotland and Wales (and therefore making it necessary to form coalitions with parties whose numbers are in part made up by non-English MPs, who also vote on English bills – something which the Conservatives have been perfectly willing to go along with as part of the present coalition with the Liberal Democrats).

With PR, there would be very little difference between the state of the parties UK-wide and England-only, owing to the sheer demographic dominance of England, which has around 85% of the UK population. Accordingly, in 2010, the Conservatives won 40% of the popular vote in England only and 36% UK-wide. Similarly, Labour won 28% in England and 29% UK-wide, and the Lib Dems won 24% and 23% respectively. If these vote shares had been translated into shares of seats, the coalition between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would have had 63% of English seats and 59% of the seats UK-wide. In general, it would be unlikely that any UK-wide coalition necessitated by PR would not also command a majority of English seats, and it would certainly be politically unwise to put together a UK majority that failed to deliver an English majority.

By introducing PR, then, you could avoid having to ban non-English-elected MPs from voting on ‘English’ matters: you would not need to make any changes to existing parliamentary procedure, in fact, as the ruling coalition would depend on the loyal support of its English MPs to pass any of its bills, England-only or England +.

It would still be theoretically possible, though arithmetically unlikely, for ‘English’ bills to fail to obtain the support of most English MPs but still be passed owing to the support of Scottish and Welsh MPs. However, a fairly substantial rebellion by the coalition parties’ English MPs would be required, and this would present a bigger political problem to a coalition government than it did for the New Labour government that introduced foundation hospitals and university tuition fees in England despite a majority of English MPs rejecting the measures. This is because the English MPs voting against the government would be likely to be from only one of the coalition parties, rather than both (or all), meaning that any such rebellion would represent a direct challenge to the coalition’s very survival. Accordingly, rebellions on this scale would be more likely to be nipped in the bud.

2) All bills to require a majority of both England-only and UK-wide MPs. The two main parties are unlikely to embrace PR as an answer to the WLQ, despite the simplicity and elegance of the solution, as this would involve relinquishing their ambitions to win outright parliamentary majorities, pretty much for good. This fact reveals just how much the obfuscations and disingenuousness around the WLQ and EVoEL are bound up with narrow party self-interest: Labour’s ambition to govern being tied up with continuing to allow its Scottish and Welsh MPs to vote on English matters, and the Conservatives lust for power being bound up with denying the selfsame right to Scottish and Welsh members.

So an alternative ‘solution’ to this conundrum (although it could also be introduced in tandem with PR) would be to introduce a simple rule that all bills and clauses should require the support of a majority of both English MPs and all UK MPs to be passed. This again requires no modification to any parliamentary procedure – no ‘two classes of MPs’, and no endless disquisitions as to the geographical extent of bills or clauses – and simply ensures that no bill can be passed without procuring the support of a majority of England’s representatives.

The justification for this approach is based on a view about the relationship of Parliament to England, which is as stated in a previous blog about the televised leaders’ debates: that it is not so much that only some laws are English-only (and hence, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should putatively be excluded from debating and voting on them) while some are UK-wide; but that in reality, all laws are English, while some also extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (or to one or two of the above).

I can’t think of any legislation in recent years, other than the actual devolution legislation, that has not applied to England. The UK parliament is therefore the de facto English parliament: the English legislature. So if EVoEL is ostensibly a means to give England a voice, and to create something of a distinct English parliament within the UK parliament (as opposed to a separate body), then it seems fair that legislation should always be required to command a majority of English MPs.

I can hear the howls of indignation in certain quarters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: that this ‘discriminates’ against their MPs. But it does no such thing, really, because any legislation – even fully England-only bills – would still be required to obtain the support of a majority of MPs from across the UK under this rule. I.e. if a bill is supported by most English MPs but not by a majority of all UK MPs, then it is not passed – just as would be the case today.

There would, of course, be implications for the forming of governments, i.e. the need to ensure – where possible – that any incoming government enjoyed both a UK-wide and England-only majority. However, here again, not much would need to be changed. The process, as now (assuming PR had not been implemented), would be that any party winning an outright UK majority would normally form the government on their own, unless they failed to win a majority in England. In that case, they might wish to enter a coalition with another party with sufficient English MPs to make up an English majority – or alternatively, they could just work with other parties to secure English majorities for their bills on a case-by-case basis.

If no party won an outright majority, the process, as now, would be to find the single party or coalition that commanded the largest number of seats UK-wide: preferably, but not necessarily, a majority; and preferably, but not necessarily, the largest number / a majority of English seats. In the absence of a UK-majority (and English-majority) government, the same rule about getting English bills passed would apply: the government would just have to collaborate with other parties, which is probably a good thing for England’s governance, in any case.

In reality, it would be extremely unlikely for a party or coalition with a UK-wide majority to fail to secure an English majority. This has not happened in the post-war era: contrary to popular misconception, every single Labour majority government since 1945 has also succeeded in winning a majority of English MPs. The only two post-war Labour governments that have failed to win an English majority also failed to win a UK one: those elected in 1964 and February 1974.

If this dual-majority rule for votes in Parliament were introduced together with PR – which it could be – then the chance of a UK majority failing to deliver an English majority, or vice-versa, would be witheringly small.

The two answers to the West Lothian Question outlined here do not provide an answer to the ‘English Question’, which is: who governs England, and in whose name? If one or both of my proposals were implemented, the answer to that question would still be: the UK parliament and executive govern England, in the name of the UK. There would still be no properly English parliament: no English voice or recognition as a sovereign nation, with a right to determine the government of its own choosing.

But what would be achieved, if my proposals were adopted, would be a parliament more fitting to serve, even if only provisionally, as England’s legislature: properly accountable to the people of England; more accurately reflecting the priorities of English voters; and leading to the formation of governments that could not use their support from other parts of the UK to override the views of England’s elected representatives.

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22 May 2014

Why I’m voting UKIP

I’ll be voting UKIP in the European-Parliament elections later today. This is despite the fact that I don’t like the party all that much. To me, UKIP seems to represent much that is least generous and large-minded in the English spirit: suspicion toward foreigners; a narrow-minded pragmatism and individualism, as opposed to idealistic engagement toward the European continent and the broader international community; neo-liberal economics; British nationalism; a failure to articulate a discrete English identity and politics; and a social conservatism that is inadequate in responding to the complexity and diversity of modern English society.

So why vote for them? Mainly because they are the only party with a chance of winning any seats that is opposed to the UK’s EU membership and can be trusted to deliver a straightforward in / out referendum.

Why do I support the UK’s withdrawal from the EU? Wouldn’t that precisely be an example of the sort of narrow-minded Englishness I have just decried? My answer would be that, while I oppose the EU, I am still very much in favour of an England that engages positively and constructively with the European continent of which it is a part. I just don’t believe the EU provides the means and the forum for achieving that. The EU is undemocratic, non-transparent, bureaucratic and corrupt; it is the vehicle for a political project for the creation of a federal European super-state; and – most critically for me – the EU does not recognise England as a nation and would absorb it into a set of anonymous British ‘regions’.

What about the argument that only the Conservatives can deliver an in / out referendum, if they’re elected in the general election in one year’s time? Well, that’s a potential reason for voting Conservative at the general election, not at the European election. For now, it seems to me more important to send a message to the establishment parties that their policies and behaviour in relation to the EU have been unacceptable, and that the only way forward is to let us have our referendum. In any case, it’s quite conceivable that there could be a Conservative / UKIP coalition after the general election. If that happened, the Conservatives couldn’t wriggle out of their commitment to hold a referendum, as they did previously after the Lisbon Treaty was signed.

Another important reason for voting UKIP is to send a message to the Westminster parties that they have failed England on the immigration issue. The level of net migration and overall population growth in England in recent years (in the order of several millions) is unsustainable, and this has had a massive, and I would say largely negative, impact on working-class English people’s prospects for employment and pay, on communities, and on housing, public services and schools. Withdrawal from the EU would enable the UK to control the flow of immigration from EU states; and we should also greatly reduce the numbers coming in from the rest of the world.

Of course, we must continue to be generous and open to those who seek refuge in England and the UK as a whole from political or religious persecution in other parts of the world; and we should welcome those who can make a significant contribution to areas such as scientific research, technology and advanced manufacturing. But ultimately, I believe the role of governments is to look to the needs of their own people first. If we can stem the flow of immigrants, we can concentrate on creating jobs, training, education, improved health and decent life prospects for the millions of underemployed, inadequately educated, poor and disadvantaged English people that have been let down and left behind by the UK’s laissez-faire neo-liberalism and reliance on cheap foreign labour.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a ‘racial’ or racist stance: by ‘English people’, I am not referring to the so-called ‘white-English’ but to all who live in England and genuinely consider themselves to be English – at least in part – of whatever ethnic background. I do not accept the view that opposition to unfettered immigration in itself makes one a racist, because it’s immigration from all countries and parts of the world that I would like to restrict. Nor do I accept that seeking to defend and celebrate one’s own national identity, culture and traditions – in my case, English – is racist in itself. Of course, racism is often associated with such concerns if, for instance, a person has a narrowly ethnic concept of their nation or believes that their culture is superior to others. Conversely, celebrating ‘Britain’’s ethnic diversity and the cultures of all who have come to live here, while denigrating Englishness and castigating English patriotism as racist, is itself a form of (inverted) racism.

So, whereas there are undoubtedly some racists in UKIP, the Anglo-British patriotism the party espouses and its opposition to uncontrolled immigration are by no means intrinsically racist. UKIP’s inflammatory rhetoric on immigration is one of the things I precisely don’t like about the party, and this does undoubtedly play on people’s more irrational fears toward the foreigner and the ‘other’, which are a basic characteristic of racism. But focusing on this or that debatably ‘racist’ utterance by UKIP spokespersons is a smokescreen by which the other parties have tried to avoid engaging with the immigration question. And this does need to be tackled.

So it’s UKIP for me on 22 May 2014: to demand an in / out referendum on the UK’s EU membership; to send out a strong message on immigration; and to back a party that’s not ashamed of England and Englishness, even if it largely fails to differentiate these from Britain and the UK.

There are two other elections today where I live: district and parish councils. Just to demonstrate that I am an issues-based voter rather than a party loyalist, I intend to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate for the district council. That’s because the Liberal Democrats are the strongest voice against a massive New Town that is proposed to be built right on the doorstep of the village where I live, and which is supported by the Conservative-controlled council. The Lib Dem has a realistic chance of defeating the Conservative candidate, as the Tories are divided: one of the previous Conservative incumbents is now standing as an independent, so the Tory vote will be split, and the Lib Dems finished a close second last time.

The parish council has seen intrigue, cliques and scandal worthy of Midsomer Murders – although we haven’t had our first murder yet (thank goodness). I’ll be voting for all of the candidates opposed to the current ruling Clique. This could be the most intriguing and unpredictable contest of the lot!

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].

1 January 2012

Capital E Nationalism versus little e (and €) capitalism

Capital E Nationalism versus little e (and €) capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

English parliament

9 December 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

English parliament

8 October 2010

David Cameron: Big society, not English government

There is a paradox at the heart of David Cameron’s keynote speech to the Conservative Party conference on Wednesday of this week. The prime minister made an impassioned defence of his belief in abolishing ‘big government’ in favour of empowering individual people and smaller groupings of people (‘society’) to take decisions about the most important aspects of their lives, and to take the initiative in creating social and economic capital: a better, more responsible and more prosperous society. Yet, at the same time, Cameron holds on to a vision of the Government – the one he heads up as prime minister – as one for the whole of the United Kingdom, i.e. as one that is and must remain a bigger centre of power and political authority than, say, the smaller government provided by devolved nations within a federal state.

Indeed, Cameron set out this anti-devolution position in no uncertain terms:

“We will always pursue British interests. And there are some red lines we must never cross. The sight of that man responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, the biggest mass murderer in British history, set free to get a hero’s welcome in Tripoli. No. It was wrong, it undermined our standing in the world. Nothing like that must ever happen again.

“When I walked into Downing Street as Prime Minister, I was deeply conscious that I was taking over the heaviest of responsibilities, not least for the future of our United Kingdom. . . . I want to make something . . . clear. When I say I am Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, I really mean it. England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – we are weaker apart, we are stronger together, and together is the way we must remain.”

The paragraph about the release of the Lockerbie bomber is on one level pure posturing. If something like that happened again, there’s no way Cameron, even as the prime minister of the UK, could do anything about it, unless he’s planning on undoing not only Scottish devolution but hundreds of years of Scottish judicial independence. No, as the context makes clear, the reference to the Al-Megrahi case is really intended as an illustration of what could happen if devolution were extended to England: Cameron does have the power to prevent something like that, by ensuring that the governance of England, and the final say in judicial matters of this gravity in England and Wales, remain firmly in the hands of the British government, so as not to damage Britain’s ‘standing in the world’. So when Cameron says ‘Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’, he really means England to remain an integral part of his British remit.

In other words, empowering ‘people’, and transferring to them many of the responsibilities previously carried out for them by ‘government’, does not equate to giving the people, even less the ‘English people’, the choice as to how they wish to be governed at a national level. ‘England’ hardly enters Cameron’s vocabulary, being mentioned only twice throughout the 6,866 word-long speech, which at least is twice more than Ed Miliband referred to England in his keynote address last week. Cameron’s second use of the ‘E’ word comes immediately after the passage I’ve just quoted: “But there is of course another side to life as Prime Minister. Like for instance, being made to watch the England football team lose, 4-1 to Germany, in the company of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel”. So, having just rubbished any English pretensions to question the legitimacy of Cameron’s prime-ministerial authority over England, he then has to try and prove that he really is an Englishman at heart by referring to the World Cup episode – as if to say: ‘well, England, you can’t have your own government and prime minister, you’ll just have to put up with being only a football nation, and even that you’re not much good at!’

That much may or may not be true, but there’s no reason why, later on in his speech, Cameron couldn’t have mentioned, when discussing the bid for the 2018 World Cup, that it involves bringing it to England, as opposed to the Olympics, which he says will be “great for Britain” – and, indeed, in which ‘the country’ will be represented by Team Great Britain. In fact, questions such as who or what represents ‘the country’; how government stands in relation to the country; and, indeed, which country is represented by the word ‘country’ are central to an understanding of Cameron’s speech. The answer, it would appear, is ‘people’, meaning individuals, groups of people and ‘the people’ collectively, and on two occasions – toward the beginning and end of the speech, and hence framing it – the ‘British people’.

‘People’, ‘country’ and ‘government’ are the most common significant words in Cameron’s speech, running through it like a thread or rhythmical refrain, as this helpful word cloud provided by the BBC illustrates:

The relationship between these key concepts reveals how Cameron tries to square the circle between scrapping big government and insisting on the prerogatives of United Kingdom government. At the centre of Cameron’s vision, as I have said, are ‘people’ (59 mentions): people are at the centre of ‘government’ (36 instances); they are the central reference of government. Government is for people: it exists in order to enable people to take responsibility for the important things in their lives and the lives of those around them; and insofar as people gradually take on these responsibilities, they are in effect taking over the tasks they have previously relied on big government to carry out on their behalf – providing schools, running the health service, setting priorities for policing, carrying out town planning, providing social care, etc. Hence, the people not only take over the government but in effect become the government: “We are the radicals now, breaking apart the old system with a massive transfer of power, from the state to citizens, politicians to people, government to society. That is the power shift this country needs today and we can deliver it in government”.

‘People’ is inherently a collective term in Cameron’s conception: it does not just mean ‘individual persons’, as in the selfish individualism associated with previous toxic brands of Conservatism; it means people coming and working together to fulfil vital and valuable social objectives (forming the big society), whether this is creating wealth-generating businesses, looking after their families or providing a public service for their local communities. So the process of people taking on the work of government does not involve splitting up the ‘country’ (36 mentions) into fragmented, small units, and ultimately leaving individuals entirely on their own; on the contrary, the dynamic of the big society Cameron would like to set in motion is one whereby people go out into the world and work ‘together’ (22 appearances) in their mutual interest, and, in that process, mere ‘people’ become not just their own government but a country – a collectivity that is bigger and greater than individuals alone:

“We can build a country defined not by the selfishness of the Labour years but by the values of mutual responsibility that this party holds dear. A country defined not by what we consume but by what we contribute. A country, a society where we say: I am not alone. I will play my part. I will work with others to give Britain a brand new start.”

“This is your country. It’s time to believe it. It’s time to step up and own it. So mine is not just a vision of a more powerful country. It is a vision of a more powerful people. The knowledge in the heart of everyone – everyone – that . . . they are not small people but big citizens. People that believe in themselves. A Britain that believes in itself. Not a promise of a perfect country. Just an achievable future of a life more fulfilled and fulfilling for everyone. At this time of great national challenge, two parties have come together to help make it happen. Yes, this is a new kind of government, but no, not just because it’s a coalition. It is a new kind of government because it is realistic about what it can achieve on its own, but massively ambitious about what we can all achieve together. A government that believes in people, that trusts people, that knows its ultimate role is not to take from people but to give, to give power, to give control, to give everyone the chance to make the most of their own life and make better the lives of others.”

So, in a sense, the people, the government and the country are to become one and the same, defined by working together to make everyone’s conditions of life better. The government – specifically, the coalition government that Cameron leads – is on this view no more than the ultimate extension and expression of this principle of people coming together to form a self-governing country, responsible for and towards its own future. Hence, the government is no longer big government but becomes essentially an enabler of the big society, and co-terminous with that big society, which is, as it were, government by the people for the country. And that country is Britain or the United Kingdom precisely because the United Kingdom – comprising four separate peoples or nations that are “stronger together”, in Cameron’s words – exists by virtue of the very same dynamic as the big society and big-society government as set out in Cameron’s speech: coming together to work in the mutual, national interest. ‘People’, the ‘country’ and ‘government’ are all about uniting to create a better future for all – and the United Kingdom state isn’t big government but is the ultimate symbol of that unity:

“That’s what happened at the last election and that is the change we can lead. From state power to people power. From unchecked individualism to national unity and purpose. From big government to the big society.” [My emphasis]

There’s no room in this vision for anything we might like to call ‘England’, which is why it doesn’t feature in the word cloud: for Cameron, the people is the government is the country is the United Kingdom. All of these terms refer to each other, and represent each other, in a charmed closed circle that won’t be broken by the intrusion of a harsh reality such as that of England. But the reality of the big society is that it does represent and relate almost exclusively to England alone: all those radical reforms of the NHS, schools, policing, town planning, etc. will take effect in England only. It’s not just ‘people’ who will have to decide whether to respond to Cameron’s challenge to govern their own lives and build a better country; it’s the English people who will have to decide whether they can accept the real consequences for the quality of life and social fabric of their country, England, of Cameron’s vision of Britain.

David Cameron invites the English people to rise above their personal and collective self-interest, putting the big society and a united Britain ahead of selfish individualism and ‘narrow’ nationalism. However, as the bitter reality of cuts to English public services follows on from Cameron’s seductive rhetoric, it remains to be seen whether the English people will really feel their legitimate interests, and their democratic rights to choose their priorities for government and public services, are being served by a government which, in Cameron’s concluding words, is set up to “work, together, in the national [British] interest”.

22 May 2010

Lib-Con Coalition: A New Dispensation

In the language of theology, in case you’re not up to speed, the word ‘dispensation’ is used to refer to the ordering of divine grace or revelation, which allows us to know about God and enter into a relationship with him (or her, if you want to be inclusive). The Christian era is said to constitute a new dispensation, in which (hu)mankind enters into a more intimate relationship with God, sharing his (her) life, work and even the exercise of some of his (her) powers through the Holy Spirit.

This New-Testament era is contrasted with that of the Old Testament, in which revelation was very much more taken on trust: handed down by the powers that be through a series of law books and narratives testifying to the workings of an invisible and ultimately unknowable divine being. The New-Testament dispensation was, however, not a complete break from the old: the Almighty is still the Almighty and remains an absolute ruler, even if, in Christ, he has shown himself capable of partaking of our frailties.

The coalition government has something of the character of a ‘new dispensation’; and its ‘programme for government’, published on Thursday of this week, signals an attempt to seal a new covenant with the British public: to ‘seal the deal’ of a new politics and new policy programme that, while they do not quite fulfil the expectations of the old politics and the promises of the manifestoes that only two weeks earlier counted as holy writ, proclaim a new relationship between the politicians, and between politicians and the people.

The concept that occupies the place of God and Christ in this new dispensation is that of ‘the nation’. It is in the name and for the sake of the nation that the new coalition justifies its formation: “there was the option of a coalition in the national interest – and we seized it. When we set off on this journey, we were two parties with some policies in common and a shared desire to work in the national interest”. Rather like God, the nation thus invoked is an absolute quality, connoting a unity that is far above the fractured world of the broken society or party faction. Governing ‘in the national interest’ confers moral authority on our rulers whose absolute power, like that of God, is thus seen as being wielded for the benefit of all, not for the benefit of any one interest group such as a political party.

And like God condescending to humanity in Christ, our new leaders also declare themselves willing to share their power not only amongst themselves but with ‘the nation’ at large: “We have a shared ambition to clean up Westminster and a determination to oversee a radical redistribution of power away from Westminster and Whitehall to councils, communities and homes across the nation”. Verily, the kings shall rule in wisdom and in justice, dispensing power for the nation and to the nation; and the nation shall share in their kingdom.

But it’s when you try to name the nation in whose name our new leaders claim to rule that you land up in trouble. In the above quote, the nation in question can only be England, because the UK government has responsibility for councils and communities in England only. But the name of ‘England’ is hardly ever invoked in the 36-page document. Well, I suppose like the ineffable name of Yahweh (God), some words must never be uttered – we cannot give the impression that ‘the nation’ we govern, and in whose name we govern, is England! Heaven forefend!

However, to be fair, the words ‘England’ or ‘English’ are in fact used eight times in the document, compared with 51 instances of ‘nation(s)’, ‘national’ or ‘nationalised’. Three of the references to ‘England’ are to the Bank of England, but three do actually occur in the context of devolved policy areas:

“We will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities.”

“We will create directly elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities, subject to confirmatory referendums and full scrutiny by elected councillors.”

“We will develop a 24/7 urgent care service in every area of England, including GP out-of-hours services, and ensure every patient can access a local GP.”

One wonders why they felt the need to spell out the fact that these commitments relate only to England, not to ‘the nation’, given that all of the dozens of other England-only policies throughout the statement are covered by the block disclaimer on the very last page, which contains another of the references to England. Perhaps it’s because these are such big and specific promises that to omit ‘England’ could be seriously misleading to non-English readers and politically damaging to the coalition, who would be appearing to promise what it could in no manner deliver.

Or perhaps it’s simply that the document was cobbled together in haste as an assembly of the parties’ respective manifesto pledges that were acceptable to both coalition partners, given that the wording on the elected mayors and 24/7 urgent-care service is lifted straight from the Conservatives’ manifesto. Similarly, the block disclaimer at the end is lifted directly from the Lib Dem manifesto, with only a few essential alterations:

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

Whereas the similar back-page disclaimer in the Lib Dem manifesto states:

“Liberal Democrats have championed the devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales, and many decisions made in Westminster now apply to England only. That means that policies in those nations are increasingly different from those in England – reflecting different choices, priorities and circumstances. Our Scottish and Welsh Parties make their own policy on those issues. This document sets out our priorities for a Liberal Democrat Government in Westminster.”

So the coalition seems to have opted for the tried and trusted Lib Dem solution to the problem of how to present England-specific policies (cover them en bloc by a note at the end of the document), rather than the Tory approach, which is more to ignore the English Question altogether unless you have to say ‘England’ on trades-description grounds. But if this were the BBC or any other ‘national’ media organisation, they’d be risking severe censure by Ofcom or the BBC Trust for neglecting to spell out, policy area by policy area, which UK nations the coalition’s proposals relate to, and expecting people to go back over the whole document they’ve just read and try to work it out for themselves, even supposing they get as far as the small print about devolution at the end.

But the coalition doesn’t want readers of the statement to question the integrity of the concept of ‘the nation’ on which they build their whole claim to moral and political legitimacy. If people realised that sometimes ‘nation’ or ‘national’ means the UK, sometimes England and Wales, and sometimes just England, they might start to question which nation(s) the government sees itself as called to serve, and which nation(s) it derives its democratic mandate from – if indeed the coalition is truly governing in the interest of any actual nation, and not in the interest of its own parties and ideologies.

Above all, the coalition is keen to avoid creating the impression that it’s an English government deriving its mandate almost entirely from English voters, which is the truth of the matter: the two parties won 63.8% of the votes and 63.9% of seats in England – quite a remarkable degree of proportionality in aggregate, although to be properly proportional, the Lib Dems should have gained more seats and the Tories fewer. This compares with 35.6% of votes and 20.3% of seats in Scotland, and 46.2% of votes and 27.5% of seats in Wales – results which show how the Conservatives’ opposition to PR is based purely on their disproportionate gain of seats in England, whereas they would actually benefit from PR outside of England. This gives the lie to the coalition’s claim to be a government for ‘the nation’ as a whole, i.e. the UK.

So desperate is the coalition to erase the thought that the justifying absolute concept of ‘the nation’ is a fabrication and often means just ‘England’, that the document resorts several times to the rhetorical technique of multiplying references to ‘national’ in contexts where it actually means ‘English’ in order to hypnotically induce people into thinking it is referring to the UK as a whole. For example:

  1. “We will abolish the unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission and replace it with an efficient and democratically accountable system that provides a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects.

    “We will publish and present to Parliament a simple and consolidated national planning framework covering all forms of development and setting out national economic, environmental and social priorities.” [The IPC covers England only in most matters, and Wales in some; so the ‘national planning framework’ here relates mainly to England. Economic development and the environment are also devolved areas.]

  2. “We will maintain free entry to national museums and galleries, and give national museums greater freedoms.” [This means national museums and galleries in England, not national-Scottish or national-Welsh ones, as culture is a devolved area.]
  3. “Liberal Democrats have long opposed any new nuclear construction. Conservatives, by contrast, are committed to allowing the replacement of existing nuclear power stations provided that they are subject to the normal planning process for major projects (under a new National Planning Statement), and also provided that they receive no public subsidy.

“We will implement a process allowing the Liberal Democrats to maintain their opposition to nuclear power while permitting the Government to bring forward the National Planning Statement for ratification by Parliament so that new nuclear construction becomes possible. This process will involve:

  • “the Government completing the drafting of a national planning statement and putting it before Parliament;”. [Ditto on planning above – any new nuclear power stations will be built in England and Wales only, not Scotland, which has a separate planning system and whose government opposes new nuclear power stations.]

Of course, there are some policy areas where the coalition statement does use ‘national’ legitimately to refer to reserved, UK-wide matters, such as ‘national security’ (12 instances) and macro-economics. In the latter department, of course, the new dispensation represented by the coalition is more of a ‘dis-spending’. What the Lord giveth, he taketh away, another example of which being:

“We will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups”

versus

“We will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities”.

Nowhere is this dual character of the new dispensation – government dispensing power to the nation while retaining ultimate power in the name of the nation, including the power to give away and take back power – better revealed than in the coalition’s plans for “political reform”. There are many proposals here that represent a serious attempt to make Parliament more democratically accountable and less corrupt. But this ultimately represents Parliament and the political class attempting to grab back the initiative on reform, to make itself ultimately responsible for reforming itself and ‘British’ politics as a whole, rather than allowing the reform process to be driven by the people and to be open to a wider range of alternatives. Hence, the coalition, and by extension Parliament, decrees that we will be offered only the option of the Alternative Vote system by way of electoral reform; Parliament will decide on the nature of the new mainly or wholly elected House of Lords; and Parliament will decide how it is to reform its own procedures and allowances.

The coalition, and particularly the dominant Conservative part of it, has clearly made a calculation that if Parliament can demonstrate that it has cleaned up its act, and has made limited moves in the direction of really radical reform of its functions and election, then maybe the public will forgive it and allow it to continue exercising its time-honoured sovereign rule. Perhaps the coalition hopes, in short, that the new dispensation it is offering will lead the public in turn to make a dispensation of Parliament and MPs from the ultimate consequences of their sins.

And if there’s one area above all where the new dispensation is uncannily reminiscent of the old, it is, as I observed earlier, its determination to dispense with any recognition of England as a nation in its own right – and with the right to self-determination, as opposed to Westminster rule. No, England must be governed as ‘the nation’, not govern itself as the English nation. Gone is the Lib Dems’ manifesto pledge to: “Address the status of England within a federal Britain, through the Constitutional Convention set up to draft a written constitution for the UK as a whole.” Gone, in fact, is the whole constitutional convention idea: far too radical, allowing “citizens” and “the people” to have a say in a new written constitution, federal Britain and potentially English government! No, better to let Parliament decide on these things.

What we are left with, in the coalition’s new dispensation, is a ‘new politics’ that has not in fact changed radically from the old. To return to my theological analogy, it remains more Old Testament than New: God is still in his heaven, and Parliament still rules in the name of the nation. But maybe the people have lost faith with the old ways, and are no longer content with the laws and narratives of the Elected of God. Maybe they aspire instead to the freedom and dignity of the children of God, or of freeborn Englishmen and -women.

New wine is for new wineskins, as the biblical saying goes, not for old.

19 May 2010

Geographical extent of Cameron’s Big Society

If you were hoping that in the era of ‘change’ ushered in by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, official statements would be more honest and transparent about the UK countries they refer to, think again. Below is a transposition of yesterday’s statement on the coalition’s plans to implement the Conservatives’ Big Society manifesto policy for England, with the countries the proposals relate to being indicated in the left-hand column:

Country / -ies Policy proposal
Aspirational: Britain; in reality, England, as communities, local government and families are devolved Our Conservative – Liberal Democrat Government has come together with a driving ambition: to put more power and opportunity into people’s hands.

We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want. We want society – the families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form the fabric of so much of our everyday lives – to be bigger and stronger than ever before. Only when people and communities are given more power and take more responsibility can we achieve fairness and opportunity for all.

The Union play: denying the Big Society relates only to devolved functions of government but is the expression of a social transformation for the whole of Britain Building this Big Society isn’t just the responsibility of just one or two departments. It is the responsibility of every department of Government, and the responsibility of every citizen too. Government on its own cannot fix every problem. We are all in this together. We need to draw on the skills and expertise of people across the country as we respond to the social, political and economic challenges Britain faces.

This document outlines the already agreed policies that we believe will help make that possible. It is the first strand of a comprehensive Programme for Government to be published in the coming days, which will deliver the reform, renewal, fairness and change Britain needs.

England only 1. Give communities more powers

  • We will radically reform the planning system to give neighbourhoods far more ability to determine the shape of the places in which their inhabitants live.
  • We will introduce new powers to help communities save local facilities and services threatened with closure, and give communities the right to bid to take over local state-run services.
The first part relates to England only; the second part implies that government will also provide funding and other support for the devolved administrations to promote neighbourhood groups.
  • We will train a new generation of community organisers and support the creation of neighbourhood groups across the UK, especially in the most deprived areas.
UK 2. Encourage people to take an active role in their communities

  • We will take a range of measures to encourage volunteering and involvement in social action, including launching a national ‘Big Society Day’ and making regular community involvement a key element of civil service staff appraisals. ƒ
  • We will take a range of measures to encourage charitable giving and philanthropy.
England only
  • We will introduce a National Citizen Service. The initial flagship project will provide a programme for 16 year olds to give them a chance to develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens, mix with people from different backgrounds, and start getting involved in their communities.
England only 3. Transfer power from central to local government

  • We will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government, including a full review of local government finance.
  • We will give councils a general power of competence.
  • We will abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils.
UK 4. Support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises

  • We will support the creation and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and support these groups to have much greater involvement in the running of public services.
England only
  • We will give public sector workers a new right to form employee-owned co-operatives and bid to take over the services they deliver. This will empower millions of public sector workers to become their own boss and help them to deliver better services.
UK
  • We will use funds from dormant bank accounts to establish a Big Society Bank, which will provide new finance for neighbourhood groups, charities, social enterprises and other nongovernmental bodies.
UK 5. Publish government data

  • We will create a new ‘right to data’ so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public, and then published on a regular basis.
England and Wales
  • We will oblige the police to publish detailed local crime data statistics every month, so the public can get proper information about crime in their neighbourhoods and hold the police to account for their performance.

Opinions will vary on the Big Society proposals themselves. Some of them sound quite laudable. Few people could object, for instance, to the aims of encouraging volunteering, fostering community groups, and giving people more control over planning decisions and services in their local area. It would just be nice if the government could bring itself to mention that many of the key proposals here relate to England only, which would suggest that the government has aspirations and affection for England as such, and that it is concerned to improve the strength and mutuality of English communities.

It is hard to trust in the sincerity and benevolence of these proposals for England, and not to see in them merely a hidden agenda for spending cuts and privatisation, if the government is unwilling to acknowledge the name and identity of the country for which its plans are intended. Instead, the coalition government seems intent on devolving its responsibility for England away from any national tier of governance – whether at the British level or that of any prospective English government – down to the sub-national and even sub-local level: to the level, in fact, of Little England.

Cameron’s Big Society is therefore a vision of Little England, involving the dispersion of any aspirations the English as a whole might have towards self-government to the level of small-community empowerment and social enterprise. But can a Big Society England – an England where individuals are mindful of their social responsibilities, and communities become more caring and resourceful – really be fashioned in the absence of any big vision for England as a whole, and without English people feeling truly empowered to effect democratic change at the national level as well as the merely local?

For the Big Society vision to work in the benign way David Cameron appears to wish, it has to be a vision for which English people as a whole can take ownership and responsibility, to use Cameron’s favourite word. But if even David Cameron can’t articulate his vision for England in a holistic and transparent way, how can English people be expected to realise it?

13 May 2010

Who and what is the Lib-Con coalition for?

I’ve been carrying out a bit of a semantic analysis of the statement the Lib Dems and Conservatives released yesterday about their coalition agreement. What that means is that I’ve analysed the number of times key words occurred in the document. I define a ‘key word’ as a significant noun, verb, adverb or adjective (if you remember your grammar) that is used five or more times in the document, rather than basic link words such as prepositions, conjunctions or pronouns that are used very frequently.

I made an exception for the pronoun ‘we’, however, which appears no fewer than 49 times! The document is big on words expressing collective action and agreement: ‘we’ is the second-most repeated key word in the statement after ‘agree’ / ‘agreement’, which features a total of 63 times, in a total document of around 2,940 words. In third place, comes another collective term, ‘parties / party’ and ‘partners’ (35 instances).

What this illustrates is that the statement is continually reiterating the fact that it is based on agreement and consensus between two parties. Indeed, one might even go so far as to say that it bends over backwards to emphasise the fact that it is a full (11 times) agreement between two equal partners by mentioning ‘Liberal Democrat’ on no fewer than 13 occasions, compared with a modest seven references to ‘Conservative’.

However, when you read between the lines and examine the specific policy issues raised in the document, a very different picture emerges. On my analysis, a total of 20 key words occur in the context of policies set out from essentially a Conservative perspective in the document. Most of these refer to the economy and finance, and some of them in reality relate to areas of genuine agreement between the parties, such as their compromise on taxation policy (variations on the word ‘tax’ occur 12 times). However, I’ve ascribed all the key terms in this area to the Conservatives on the basis that they’re in the ascendancy on the economy in the coalition, and the sheer number and frequency of economic terms in the statement is expressive of the Tories’ priorities.

To be specific, the leading economic terms in the document are:

  1. ‘work’ (16 appearances)
  2. ‘reduce’ / ‘reduction’ (as in ‘deficit reduction’) (13 times)
  3. ‘tax’ (12)
  4. ‘allow’ / ‘allowance’ (ten)
  5. ‘bank’ / ‘banking’ (ten).

Other frequently occurring economic terms include ‘budget’, ‘financial’, ‘funding’, ‘jobs / Jobseekers’ and ‘spending’. The only non-economic terms to come anywhere near to competing with these, with respect to Conservative policy positions, are those relating to ‘Europe’, including ‘euro’, ‘EU’ and ‘non-EU’ (15 mentions) – strongly underscoring the fact that the Tories won the arguments over Europe in the coalition negotiations; e.g. ‘referendums’ (seven instances) on any future transfer of powers, no preparations to adopt the euro within the life of the parliament, limiting the application of the Working Time Directive, etc.

‘Referendum’ is what I would term an instance of a word evoking the ‘people’ or popular democracy / sovereignty, the only other word of this type being ‘public’ (five references). There are, however, further words of this sort in the document, which I’ve categorised as those expressing policies presented from a Lib Dem perspective. But the total number of such Lib Dem key words amounts to only eight, and they also occur less frequently than the Conservatives’ favourite expressions. The leading ones (apart from ‘Liberal’ and ‘Democrat’ themselves) are:

  1. ‘reform’ / ‘reforming’ (nine)
  2. ‘school(s)’ (eight)
  3. ‘vote(s)’ / ‘voter(s)’ (seven)
  4. ‘energy’ (as in energy policy) (seven).

Disappointingly, ‘elect’ (as in ‘election’ and ‘electoral reform’) occurs only five times; and neither ‘proportional’ (as in ‘proportional representation’) nor ‘Alternative’ (‘Alternative Vote’) appears more than four times. Indeed, as a reflection of the extent to which the Lib Dems have lost the philosophical arguments behind the formation of the coalition, the word ‘fair’, which was the central idea in the Lib Dems’ manifesto, occurs only twice.

Having said that, the concept of ‘responsibility’, which is a key term in David Cameron’s philosophical outlook and informs the thinking behind the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ idea in their manifesto, makes only one appearance throughout the entire document – to say nothing of ‘Big Society’ itself, which indeed is not mentioned at all. Does this mean that the thing that both parties had to sacrifice in order reach a deal was their whole social vision, as such? And are we no longer being invited to “participate in the government of Britain”, as the Conservatives’ manifesto put it?

Given the almost total absence of words reflecting popular, participative democracy (including ‘democrat’ / ‘democracy’ itself, which occurs only in the context of ‘Liberal Democrat’), it seems as though that invitation, having been turned down by the electorate, has now been withdrawn. Indeed, the coalition statement is full of terms relating to the nitty-gritty work of government, which, it seems, is to be regarded as very much the province of the ‘government’ (17 appearances) and ‘Parliament’ (13) alone. ‘Programmes’ (nine mentions), ‘power(s)’ (eight), ‘system(s)’ (eight) and ‘law’ / ‘legislation’ (seven) are other favourite phrases.

Another major set of key words connote ‘positive action’ and engagement, including ‘propose’ / ‘proposal’ (17), ‘commission’ / ‘commit’ / ‘committee’ (15), ‘increase’ (13) and ‘provide’ / ‘provision’ (11). The government has its ‘plan’ (seven mentions) and is getting on with it: it is the role of the government and politicians to govern, and that of the public to be governed, evidently. No change (one appearance, as in ‘Climate Change’) there, then, despite the fact that both parties campaigned on the basis that they would bring real change. Back to business as usual.

Except, what is the purpose of all this business of government; and who is this preoccupation with business – the economy – actually for? The coalition statement fails to articulate any social vision (i.e. what kind of society ‘we’ wish to create alongside a revived economy); nor does it express any clear concept of the country it is supposedly there to serve. Indeed, amazingly, the word ‘country’ appears only once in the statement (“our country’s security”) despite the fact that when the coalition was being negotiated and drawn up, the politicians involved endlessly referred to ‘the country’ and the ‘national interest’; and despite the predilection of our leaders for saying ‘this country’ in order to avoid being specific about which country (England, Britain, the UK) they’re talking about.

In fact, in the coalition policy statement, the politicians avoid being specific about the country they’re supposed to be governing by making virtually no reference to any of the countries involved, including – again, amazingly – ‘Britain’ (only six mentions), the ‘United Kingdom’ (two) and the ‘UK’ (two). Now that is real change compared to the Brito-mania of Cameron’s predecessor! But don’t get too excited, because ‘England’ enjoys only two name checks, both in the context of the Tories’ favourite topic, the economy (‘Bank of England’ x 2).

All of this could lead one to suppose that those who composed the statement are interested only in governing – almost, as it were, for its own sake – and not in the nation or nations they’ll be governing. ‘Nation’ / ‘national’ is referenced on ten occasions: three times in the context of the economy (‘National Insurance’ and ‘nationalised banks’); twice in connection with the stand-off towards the EU (‘nations of Europe’ and ‘national interests’); once in relation to civil liberties (‘National Identity Register’); and four times with reference to energy policy and infrastructure (‘national recharging network’ and ‘national planning’).

Nowhere, however, is ‘nation’ invoked in relation to any of the traditional nations of the UK as ‘communities’ (three mentions) with their own distinct identities, cultures and political life. Admittedly, ‘Scotland’ is implied, but not mentioned by name, in the commitment to implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission; and the extension of Welsh devolution is also covered in half a sentence. But the authors of the statement can’t even bring themselves to explicitly say ‘England’ when they refer enigmatically to their plan for a “commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question'” [their inverted commas, almost suggesting they don’t regard it as a real issue]. No reference to dealing with the ‘English Question’, then, which the Lib Dems’ manifesto pledged to tackle as part of a convention to draw up a written constitution for the UK. Indeed, no reference to such a convention at all!

One can only conclude that the coalition has no serious intention of addressing the West Lothian Question, let alone the English Question, preferring to knock them both into the five-year-long grass of their fixed-term deal. But over and above such England-centric considerations, what does the almost total absence of a national, even a British-national, dimension to the coalition’s Tory-blueprint for government actually signify? Am I right to detect the Lib Dem influence as being there, in the disregard of nationhood as an integral or even just an important component of politics, government and culture?

In fact, this disregard for nationhood, and specifically English nationhood, is something the Lib Dems and the Tories really do seem to have in common if their manifestoes are anything to go by, as they both advocated radical devolution of power within England rather than to England. As I argued previously, the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ vision even implied in extremis a radical dismantling of the English public sector itself in favour of disparate interest groups and communities. And this is one thing that the coalition policy announcement does reaffirm: “The parties will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. This will include a full review of local government finance.”

The ‘local government’ bit betrays the Lib Dems’ influence; if the Tories had it all their own way, this would have just read ‘local community groups’ or words to that effect. At least, there will be some sort of democratically accountable public sector within England, albeit not at the national level. Indeed, what is the ‘national level’ for the new coalition? It’s certainly not England (nor is it Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland), for which they did not seek and so did not receive a mandate at the election, and which they’re washing their hands of by conveniently handing over responsibility for spending cuts (‘financial autonomy’) to local authorities. For the new government, the national level means the macro-economy, international affairs (Britain versus Europe), defence and security, including energy security and the nuclear options of both the Trident and power-generation flavours. Reserved matters, in short.

That’s it, really; and that’s all of any substance that the coalition statement talks about. And let’s face it, that’s all the government has a genuine mandate of any sort to deal with. I suppose there’ll be more details about policies for education and ‘health’ (three mentions) in due course, and no doubt, the references to ‘Britain’ will multiply at that point, even though it’s England only they’ll be talking about. But not even to have attempted to outline any sort of social vision for ‘the nation’ in this, the initial policy statement of a historic coalition government, is surely wholly inadequate and worthy of blame.

After all, who or what is government for? Certainly, on this analysis at least, not for the people of England.

5 May 2010

Cameron’s Big Society is the next phase of the Thatcher revolution: privatising government and England itself

One of the things Margaret Thatcher was famous for saying was that there was “no such thing as society”. David Cameron’s Conservatives’ manifesto for the May 2010 election – entitled ‘Invitation To Join the Government Of Britain’ – has now self-consciously reversed this dictum, prefacing its section on changing society with the graphically illustrated words, “There is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state”.

Margaret Thatcher recognised only the core building blocks of ‘society’ as such: the individual and the family. In his turn, David Cameron is big on the family but downplays the individual, as he wishes to dissociate his ‘modern compassionate Conservatives’ from the selfish individualism that was fostered by Thatcher’s ideological obsession with private enterprise and the profit motive. However, those of us with long memories still attribute much of the break-down of communities up and down the land – particularly, working-class communities that had built up around particular industries – with the ideological, social and economic changes that Thatcher introduced, often with callous indifference to the misery and hopelessness they caused.

Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is on one level an attempt to redress the social injustices and deprivations the Thatcher revolution left in its wake by placing communities back at the centre of his model for society. But at the same time, this is opening up communities and society (communities as society) as the new front for privatisation and the unfolding of market principles: what Thatcher did for the individual, Cameron would like to do for society – privatise it and turn it into a market society.

A full-scale critique of the Conservatives’ Big Society concept is beyond the scope of the present article. However, in essence, I would like to urge those who are tempted to vote for the Conservatives and potentially give them an overall majority in the new parliament to think carefully about what the Big Society means in social, economic and political terms. The core idea, in my view, is that small groups of interested persons should be empowered to take over the ownership and / or management control of public-sector bodies responsible for providing public services and amenities as diverse as schools, hospitals, community facilities, social care and social services.

In theory, this form of ‘social enterprise’ (community enterprise as opposed to Thatcher’s private enterprise) is supposed to be carried out by groups forming themselves into, or already belonging to, co-operatives, mutual societies, charities, voluntary organisations and non-profit-making / socially responsible enterprises. This is doing for ownership of public services what Thatcher did for ownership of publicly owned assets such as council houses and nationalised industries: privatising them. The only difference is that the ‘private’ sphere is extended beyond the individual – as in Thatcherism – to the level of the community. This is, then, a form of privatising the public sector itself: moving from government ownership and responsibility for public services to ownership and responsibility on the part of private groups of individuals (communities), as opposed to private individuals alone under Thatcher.

This all sounds great in theory. In practice, however, these private- / community-owned public services will be competing against each other in an aggressive, competitive market place. In economic terms, these reforms are intended to make the ‘public’ sector run on private-enterprise principles as a means, in theory, to provide services much more cost-effectively in the way that commercial businesses are generally run in a more cost-conscious, efficient way than the public sector.

In short, the flip side to the privatisation of the public sector that the Big Society represents is public-spending cuts. The two go hand in hand: in order to provide public services more economically while minimising the social impact of cuts, the Conservatives believe it is necessary for those services to be run both on market principles and by those who are dedicated to that particular public service, such as the teachers, doctors, social workers, volunteers and communities themselves. These people will then have both an economic interest, indeed imperative, to run those services on as small a budget as possible while at the same time focusing on maximising the quality and positive social impact of the services they deliver.

All this is predicated on the assumption that it is possible to combine the virtues and driving forces of private enterprise and public service. There are indeed many examples of social enterprises, charities and mutual societies that already do superb work in the community on a self-financing, voluntary or partially publicly funded basis. So the model can work as part of the mix of public services. But Cameron’s sights seem set on re-modelling the whole of the public sector along these lines. Hence the ‘Big Society’: a concept that implies that the ‘little people’, or what Cameron referred to at the start of the election campaign as the ‘great ignored’, take on the functions and powers of ‘big government’, with the huge apparatus of the state replaced by tens of thousands of community enterprises and initiatives across the country – England, that is.

Before I elaborate on the England point, I just want to reiterate: this sounds great in principle, but in practice all of these little companies and mutual societies founded to run schools, hospitals and social services are going to be competing for government funding in an environment of brutal public-spending cuts; and they’ll also be set in competition against each other and against other businesses – private businesses from outside the communities concerned – that will be able to bid more price-competitively for contracts and licences to take over failing schools or improve hospital facilities. In order to compete for funding and deliver the statutory level of service they are required to provide, the co-operatives and social enterprises are going to have to make use of management expertise and operating techniques from commercial businesses, and it’s easy to imagine how all the little community groups will eventually get swallowed up into larger enterprises that can pool talent and costs, and provide services at a lower cost for the real customer: government.

What we could easily end up with is not the little people empowered to form the Big Society, but big business effectively doing the government’s job (or community enterprises joining together to form big businesses) at a fraction of the cost that the former public sector would have been either capable or willing to achieve. And this will inevitably involve reinforcing social inequalities and disadvantage, in that commercially minded businesses – albeit ones with an ostensibly socially responsible remit – will clearly be less willing to take over failing schools filled with problem children from dysfunctional homes, or under-performing hospitals requiring substantial investments to turn them around.

The money will be attracted to where the money is: wealthier, middle-class areas with parents who are willing to invest time and money in their children’s education, enabling ‘education providers’ to attract more funding because of the good academic results they have achieved. Or hospitals that have succeeded in delivering a greater ‘through-put’ of patients in particular areas of specialisation – resulting in a concentration of the best health-care facilities and personnel around specialist centres of excellence, and more ‘cost-effective’ health conditions and therapies. A less commercially orientated health system, on the other hand, might seek to provide an excellent level of medical care for the full range of health problems available in the areas where people actually live, including the ‘unglamorous’ conditions such as smoking-related illnesses and obesity, associated with the lifestyles of poorer people who, in addition, are less able to travel to the specialist centres where treatment might still be available on the NHS.

The English NHS, that is. Because let’s not forget that the tough medicine of the Tories’ Big Society is a prescription for England alone. Though they don’t say so in their manifesto, we should hardly need reminding that education, health care, social services, local government and communities, and policing are all devolved areas of government; and therefore, the UK government’s policies in these areas relate almost exclusively to England only. So it’s not really or mainly the British state that would be superseded by the Big Society but the public-sector assets and services of the English nation.

There’s another word for ‘privatisation’ that is particularly apt in this context: ‘de-nationalisation’. It’s the English nation whose systems and organisations for delivering public services would effectively be asset-stripped by the Tories: in theory made over to community-based co-operatives and social enterprises but in fact transformed into a free market in which the involvement of more ruthless profit-minded enterprises would increasingly become unavoidable.

This could potentially be another example of what happens in the absence of an authentic social vision for England on the part of the British political class: a vision based on the idea that the government and people of England can and should work together to improve the lives and opportunities of the English people; one that does see the government and public sector as having a real role in serving the people alongside a vibrant, enterprising private sector.

The British political establishment has, however, disowned the view that it has an authentic, valuable role to play in the life of the English people. This is precisely because it refuses to be a government for England (just as Cameron once famously indicated he did not want to be a prime minister for England) and refuses to allow the English people to have a government of its own. Instead, the establishment – whether New Labour or Cameron Conservative – have attempted to re-model English society along purely market-economy lines, and will continue to do so if we let them: the Big Society being one where English civic society is transformed into just another competitive market place, with the inevitable winners and losers.

Ultimately, then, it’s not the government of Britain that English people are being invited to participate in; but it’s a case that any idea and possibility that the British government is capable or willing to act as a government for England is being abandoned. Instead, the government, public sector and indeed nation of England will be privatised under the Tories: sold off to the most cost-effective bidder and dismembered perhaps even more effectively than through Gordon Brown’s unaccountable, regionally planned (English) economy.

Well, I for one won’t buy it. And I won’t vote for a party that seeks to absolve itself from the governance of England and wishes to permanently abandon any idea of an English government. And I urge all my readers not to vote Conservative for that reason, too. Even, if it is necessary (and only if it’s necessary) to do so in order to defeat your Tory candidate, vote Labour!
And believe you me, it really hurts and runs against the grain for me to say that.

At least, if there is a Labour-LibDem coalition of some sort, there’ll be a chance of some fundamental constitutional reforms, including consideration of the English Question, as stated in the Lib Dem manifesto. Under the Tories, there’s no chance – and England risks being for ever Little England, not a big nation, as it is privatised through the Big Society.

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