Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

9 June 2009

Labour election and government disaster – in England (and Cornwall)

It’s interesting how comment on Labour’s disastrous (for it) performance at the polls in the European elections has tended to focus on the story in Scotland and Wales: coming a poor second to the SNP and losing to the Tories for the first time since 1918 respectively. The truth of the matter is that Labour’s results in those countries were relatively good: 20.8% of the vote in Scotland and 20.3% in Wales. In reality, Labour’s abysmally low watermark of 15.7% across Great Britain (i.e. excluding Northern Ireland) was due mainly to its rejection by voters in England, where Labour polled only 15.1% by my calculations (I had to calculate it myself, as the BBC website didn’t give any separate figures for England as a whole).

In some of the English Euro-regions, Labour’s performance amounted almost to a complete wipe-out. In my own region of the East of England (not much discussed in media analysis), the party finished in fourth place with only 10.5% of votes: down 5.8% on 2005. In the South West, Labour came fifth with a mere 7.7% (down 6.8%). I note that, in Cornwall, the UK’s governing party landed up in sixth place behind the Cornish nationalist party Mebyon Kernow – congratulations to you guys! I note also that the Lib Dems, who performed relatively poorly in Scotland and Wales, gained a 14.1% share of the vote in England: just 1% behind Labour, compared with the 2% margin separating the parties across Great Britain as a whole. This lends some credence to the idea that the Liberal Democrats could overtake Labour as the second-largest party at a general election: in England, that is.

This makes the ‘performance’ of the Parliamentary Labour Party this evening in giving Gordon Brown their ringing endorsement all the more farcical and galling. Look at some of the ridiculously unconvincing expressions of support they came out with after their meeting tonight where they once again bottled it and failed to mount a campaign to get rid of Brown, despite the fact that it’s well known that many of them just wish he would disappear! The choicest passage in the BBC report is the following: “Loyalist Lord Foulkes said there had been ‘great support for Gordon’ and when Mr Clarke spoke ‘no-one even put their hands together'”. Hmm, no one applauded the accused men in the Stalinist show trials, either!

Do they never learn? Don’t they understand that no one believes such blandishments and these expressions of ‘strong support’ for the PM any more, if they ever did: that it’s all about a party the voters have rejected rallying round and yielding to a forcible manifestation of party discipline in a context in which, if MPs are not voted out in constituencies across England, they risk being booted out by the party apparatus under the pretext of expenses-related sanctions? But this unrepresentative body that has appointed itself as entitled to choose England’s and Britain’s political leader doesn’t care about what the voters in England actually think about them and what they want, which is Brown out and a proper, accountable government for England. But hey, guys, don’t you think there’s a lesson for you, there: the lesson from the European and local elections – that you’ve got to start paying attention to the concerns and wishes of the English people? And the same applies to the analysis of why the BNP won two seats and improved its share of the vote in England: this is down to traditional Labour supporters turning away from the party because it has not taken heed of their concerns about housing, jobs and immigration.

Earlier in the day, these issues, together with public services, were signalled by the Labour backbencher Jon Cruddas as areas where Labour was lacking in clear vision and distinct policies. In the BBC article referred to above, Cruddas is further reported as saying that Labour’s problem is not so much one of leadership as policies. I agree with him on one level: there is a vacuum in what Brown himself, after his cabinet reshuffle last Friday, described as the ‘domestic’ policy area – one of three main focuses of his remaining premiership, the others being the economy and so-called constitutional reform. But this vacuum is also a leadership issue: Brown cannot display, and has not displayed, leadership on domestic issues because so many of them relate to England only, not the ‘better Britain’ that Brown invoked last week as the goal he aimed to begin to achieve before the next election.

Why can’t Brown display leadership in domestic English matters? Because he knows, viscerally perhaps, that his leadership is simply not accepted by the English people; that he has no mandate in England: even less of a mandate than in Britain as a whole, that is; and because he can’t even bring himself to acknowledge the name and identity of the country – England – that is crying out for leadership, vision and strong policy direction from a prime minister or first minister that is actually answerable to it. As opposed to being answerable only to the morally bankrupt and politically moribund Parliamentary Labour Party.

So bully for Brown tonight. But it’s simply delaying the inevitable demise of the undemocratic Labour government. And continuing to deny the people of England the right to choose their own leader.

23 December 2008

Naming ‘the country’, or do Scots take holidays in England?

For the avoidance of doubt, I like Scotland and Wales. As a matter of fact, I love Wales, having Welsh family and friends, and having spent many a happy holiday there. I’ve also enjoyed trips up to Scotland to stay with friends in Glasgow and Edinburgh, which are really fine cities, and to go walking in the lochs. But, I wonder, would Scottish and Welsh people say the same thing about England? ‘I like / love England’ or ‘I’m looking forward to my holiday in England’? These are not statements that somehow ring true, even if they were true! Do Scottish people actually talk of taking holidays in England, even if they do? And if they don’t, does this betray an ambivalence towards a country containing holiday destinations that the Scottish people in question might in fact love?

I suppose the reluctance of Scottish people to talk about their holidays ‘in England’, and to profess to having enjoyed their stay in ‘the country’, is not always the product of a dislike of the English similar to English people’s mixed feelings about the French when they say that France is too good for the French – not that the Scots would be likely to admit that England was ‘too good’ for anyone! No, for Scots and Welsh people, saying they’ve been on holiday in England is a bit like English people saying they’ve been on holiday in England: it doesn’t exactly convey much information and it naturally begs the question, ‘oh, whereabouts in England?’ Accordingly, you tend to hear statements like, ‘we went to Yorkshire this year’ or, like the PM, ‘we stayed in Norfolk for a couple of weeks’. In other words, Scots and Welsh people would normally refer to the part of England – county or ‘region’ – they stayed in, without the name for that part of England necessarily having to contain the word ‘England’ itself; unless it were something generic such as ‘the North of England’.

And yet, the fact that, for the Scots and Welsh, saying they’ve been on holiday in England is like English people saying the same thing; and the fact that they can talk about travelling to Yorkshire or East Anglia with the familiarity and assumed shared knowledge of people for whom those places are a part of their own country, does indicate an ambiguous, and ambivalent, relationship towards ‘the country’ that is England. It is, in fact, as if England were the country: the heartland and existential core of that other country, Britain, of which Scotland and Wales are – now, at least – semi-detached parts or sub-countries. It is as if, for Scots and Welsh people, England is in some sense their country – ‘their’ England – in the same way that English people have tended to nurture proprietorial feelings about Scotland and Wales: that, even though they recognised that the locals felt a proud sense of separate nationhood, those countries ultimately belonged to England and were part of the English ‘domain’ that was otherwise known as Britain.

These are very delicate issues that Scots and Welsh people won’t readily admit to. That is why they won’t name as England ‘the country’ that they feel in some sense belongs to them – and to which they belong – but will refer only to the county or region of England they’ve been to; and, if they do name that mutual sense of national belonging, they’ll call it ‘the country’ or ‘Britain’: not ‘we love England, to which we feel Scotland and Wales somehow still belong – and of which we, as Scots and Welsh people, also feel a sense of shared ownership’, but ‘we love Yorkshire’ or ‘we love East Anglia’; and ‘we feel that we have a stake in England, along with the English themselves, because we are all part of “the country” that is Britain’.

From these sorts of responses flow two alternative contemporary models for the relationship between the different nations that form part(s) of ‘the country’ that is Britain. One of these, which I would contend is very close to the hearts of many Scottish and Welsh people, but which they naturally find it hard to admit to, is a feeling of belonging to a national whole of which the core identity, culture and society are those of England: Scotland and Wales (and, insofar as it is included as an integral part of ‘Britain’, Northern Ireland; leaving aside the Cornish question for now . . .) as effectively peripheral, semi-autonomous nation-regions of ‘the country’ that is England-Britain: on the one hand, England and, on the other, the two (three / four) nations of ‘Greater Britain’, as one might say. England as the heartland of Britain (traditionally having merged its identity with that of Britain), with Scotland and Wales (and N. Ireland and Cornwall) making up the extended English-British domain beyond England; hence ‘Greater Britain’.

The other model is the New Labour, politically expedient and politically correct suppression of the embarrassing and increasingly humiliating psychological, political and cultural truth that Scotland and Wales have been effectively dependent ‘regions’ of a Britain that was in essence another name for England. So, just as Scottish and Welsh people can’t admit to their feelings of loving and belonging to an integral nation whose heart is England – and so will talk only of regions, ‘the country’ and ‘Britain’ – so now, Scotland and Wales are to be viewed as sub-nations of a Britain that is otherwise sub-divided only into regions, counties and cities. It seems that, in order to assert not only their political but also their emotional independence from England, the very existence of an England to which Scotland and Wales have traditionally felt they belonged must be denied and a new, more dignified, equal set of relationships asserted: Scotland and Wales not as regions but as small nations of equal stature and status to – ironically – a number of ‘other’ similarly-sized ‘British regions’ occupying ‘the country’ formerly known and loved as England but now referred to only as ‘Britain’. Psychologically, you could say that this is one way of dealing with the pain of separation: Scotland and Wales find themselves surprisingly missing their organic connection to England-Britain; so this pain and grief is creatively re-worked into a Britain that is ‘missing England’ in the other sense. In this way, the would-be wishing of England into non-existence is in fact the other side of a grieving for their union with England that it is not acceptable for proud Scottish and Welsh nationalists to articulate. Hence, the most effective way psychologically to deny that you are missing England is for England to go missing: for it no longer to exist.

This is perhaps another way to configure the bizarre would-be re-crafting of a Britain without England that has taken place in the wake of devolution. It’s a symptom of psychological fissure and splitting, which manifests itself in different ways from either side of the equation, and either side of the border. For the Scots and the Welsh – particularly, the Scots – there’s the pain and regret that dare not speak its name: that England is no longer their England – part of what it has meant to be Scottish for 300 years, if only on occasions by negative self-definition; and, conversely, that they are no longer integrally part of England, in either the geopolitical or emotional sense. The project to create a ‘New Britain’ of which Scotland is a semi-autonomous sub-nation is, as I’ve said, in part an attempt to deny that pain; and it is also an effort to imagine how to re-connect Scotland organically to a greater Britain of which it was once a part through England – only this time without England, from which the decision has been taken to separate Scotland’s identity.

Yes, this stratagem is also one that enables Labour to make out that it has a mandate to govern England through the inflated majority that its Scottish and Welsh MPs give it; and it enables Gordon Brown to posture as an elected leader for England, even though he represents a Scottish constituency: by denying that England exists and by affirming that – in ‘England’ only – there is only the UK, so that all UK MPs should participate in its governance. But this is also the expression of the torn loyalties of Scottish ‘nationalist-unionists’ who want to belong to a greater Britain without that Britain being fundamentally England.

From the English side of the equation, articulating everything as British only even when the matters at hand relate to England only is a way to deny the splitting up of the Union that has already occurred: it’s playing on that old organic non-distinction between England and Britain in the minds of English people that used to correspond to the political reality – when there was unitary (English) governance over the whole of Great Britain. Again, the political advantage of perpetuating the illusion that nothing has changed is clear: if people are unaware that what’s being talked and decided about relates to England only, they won’t start questioning why Scottish and Welsh MPs are getting involved in the process. However, at a deeper level, it’s about an unwillingness to give up that organic unity with Scotland and Wales that made English people feel those countries were part of themselves; indeed, part of England. We don’t want to wake up to the reality that our beloved country has split up and our children have left us: we want to still be part of one big English-British family.

Where does that leave us now, though? We’re in an intermediate, transitional state: not quite separate from one another but no longer joined at the hip. No longer a unitary Great Britain of which England was the foundation; but still a Union – in name only – that forces England to be effectively the place of a Britain that is dependent for the continuing participation of the Scots on its not being England. ‘This country’ of ours could be named, according to the first of my above models for post-devolution Britain, the ‘Disunited Kingdom of England and Greater Britain’ – the latter term being one that could also encompass Northern Ireland if that province is construed as another part of the greater British dominion of which England is the now partially dis-associated centre. And we – England – are no longer Great Britain but not yet willing and courageous enough to be only England – England alone.

But the separation must come: it must be completed, rather, because once it got started, there was no turning back the clock – like a spouse that can no longer go back to the union that once existed as soon as she has started to think of herself as a separate person before actually making the divorce final. The Scots have decided to be Scots first and foremost, and to break their organic union with England. England, too, must learn to let go. Then perhaps we can begin to find true greatness in ourselves and not in dominion; and not in Britain.

And then, perhaps, the Scots, too, might be able to confess to loving their holidays in England: a foreign country of which one can say ‘I’m going to England’, rather than one’s own country of which one would say ‘I am going to region x or county y’. An England that is no longer the mirror of Scotland’s own national humiliation and the object of unspoken, guilty, unrequited love. An England that is its own nation and need no longer be merely ‘the country’ for Britain’s sake.

11 May 2008

The UK After Britain: Who Decides?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 April 2008

New British Coins: Time For Change?

EMBLEMS50PENCE

I had mixed feelings when they announced a few months ago that the symbol of Britannia (the Boadicea-like female warrior that is a traditional emblem for Britain and the British Empire) would no longer be appearing on any of our British coins, as she does on the current 50-pence piece (see above).  Although she represents a militaristic, imperialistic Britain that in some respects we shouldn’t be too proud of, I contemplated with dread the more ‘appropriate’, ‘contemporary’ symbols of Britishness we were promised we’d be getting. On top of which, the ‘British’ lion seated next to the figure of Britannia could also be taken as a symbol of England: picking up the theme of the Crest of England that appears on the 10-pence piece.

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The new designs were revealed for the first time yesterday. They employ quite a clever idea, which is to depict fragments of the Royal Crest on each of the six coins from 1p to 50p, which – when placed together in the right configuration – compose the complete crest, which is then united in a single image on the £1 coin. This is indeed quite a contemporary-NEWDESIGNSFORMATION

looking design, which re-expresses the idea of a unitary United Kingdom in quite a subtle way. Each of the coins appears to focus on different ‘constituent parts’ of the UK – otherwise known as the nations of the UK. In this respect, England appears – for a change – to come out of it quite well, as in fact all but the two-pence coin show parts of the English Three Lions emblem. By contrast, apart from the £1 coin, the Lion Rampant of Scotland appears in any recognisable way only on the 2p piece: continuing an honourable tradition whereby the higher-denomination coins show British or English emblems, while lower-value coinage is reserved for the smaller nations of the kingdom, as in the present five-pence piece (Scotland) and two-pence piece (Wales).

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Too bad for Wales with the new coins, though, as none of the parts of the Royal Crest contain any overt symbol for Wales – and it’s not as if the Principality is lacking in them: the Red Dragon, daffodils, leeks, even the rugby ball at a pinch! I can see the new coinage is going to re-ignite all the controversy there was last year over the absence of any Welsh element from the Union Flag. But then again, as a survey commissioned by the (English) Justice Ministry found only last week, the Welsh are the UK nation that feels the greatest sense of ‘belonging to Britain’ (more so than the English) – so perhaps they won’t mind too much (says he, tongue in cheek)! And don’t even mention the word ‘Cornwall’!

By contrast, the new designs appear to provide a definite promotion of the (Northern) Irish element, as the Irish harp appears in an obvious way in three of the six coins worth under a pound, compared with no Irish representation in the equivalent coins up to now. Not surprising, perhaps, given that the young designer, Matthew Dent, who won the contest to come up with the new images is from Bangor, Northern Ireland! [PS. I was corrected on this by a reader (see comments below). The designer is from the other Bangor, in North Wales, which only makes the comment about Welsh buy-in to Britishness all the more telling! Unless it’s just an ironic joke intended to provoke a row which, like the design itself, points to the disunited character of the kingdom, as Englisc Fyrd suggests.]

All this apparent focusing in on the emblems for the different nations of the UK could lead one to think that the new design was giving expression to a new consciousness of the UK as comprising distinct nations that are yet held together by the manifold bonds of history, tradition, loyalty to the monarchy (the Royal Crest theme) and that familiar old sense of ‘shared Britishness’. And yet the cleverness of the design is that it suggests that none of those separate national elements is sufficient in isolation: that it’s only when you put them together that you complete the picture and that you arrive at the national unity symbolised by the ‘one-ness’ of the one-pound coin. Of course, the very absence of any overt Welsh (or Cornish) symbolism might already have led one to the same conclusion: that these coins are not at all about celebrating the diverse consciousness and traditions of the nations of the UK but only about providing a modern symbol for the national unity of the UK in the same way that the Union Jack so cleverly embodies the concept of a unitary UK of (five) four three nations.

In fact, it’s the current coinage that does greater justice to the idea that Britain (as opposed to the UK) is comprised (notwithstanding Cornish claims of separateness) of England, Scotland and Wales – given the inclusion of separate English, Scottish and Welsh symbols on the different coins; the English benefiting from a traditional, but demographically proportionate, discrimination in having their emblems feature on both the 10p coin (see image above) and the 20p coin (below).

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But the new coins can of course be read in quite a different way. They could be viewed as symbolising the fact that the old Britain / Britannia is breaking up: a state whose imperial power and certainties acted as such a strong force for unity that the separate identities of England, Scotland and Wales could be celebrated without threatening it. Now, as the unity of the Royal Crest dissolves into fragments, we no longer have images on most of our coins that are complete symbols for either ‘Britain as a whole’ or indeed each of the constituent nations. Instead, we have disjointed bits of the Three Lions, the Lion Rampant and the Irish Harp, with elements from one emblem sometimes crossing over into the image of the other and sometimes not. As if to say that when we lose the vision of our distinct national identities as English, Scottish and Irish (let alone Welsh and Cornish), we lose the integral vision of Britain as a whole – of Britain as one.

Admittedly, this oneness is reunited in the new one-pound coin. But there’s something about this that doesn’t add up. Indeed, if you do add up the ‘values’ of the lower-denomination coins, you get 88 pence, not one pound. So the different values of the lesser coins (the different UK nations) from which the presence of distinct national symbols are deferred (‘differed’, changed) across the sequence of the coins do not properly come together in one-pound (one nation and one unitary (set of) value(s)); rather, they leave an unbridgeable difference.

Another word for that difference – 12p, to be precise – is change. So perhaps the new coins are an appropriate symbol for a changing United Kingdom, after all. But there’s no guarantee, like the comforting circular closure of the one-pound coin, that that change will preserve and reinstate a former unity whose brokenness is aptly symbolised by the fragmentary and incomplete symbols of the nations of Britain – whose search for new identity and values may yet produce even more difference.

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