Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

2 October 2009

Gordon Brown’s anglophobia is an expression of moral repugnance

“Britain – the four home nations – each is unique, each with its own great contribution and we will never allow separatists or narrow nationalists in Scotland or in Wales to sever the common bonds that bring our country together as one. And let me say to the people of Northern Ireland we will give you every support to complete the last and yet unfinished stage of the peace process which Tony Blair to his great credit started and which I want to see complete – the devolution of policing and justice to the people of Northern Ireland, which we want to see happen in the next few months.

“I want a Britain that is even more open to new ideas, even more creative, even more dynamic and leading the world and let me talk today about how we will do more to support the great British institutions that best define this country.”

Gordon Brown, Labour Party conference, 29 September 2009.

Gordon Brown hates England. Or should that be ‘England’, expressing the peculiar aversion our PM has towards the very idea of England – to the extent that he wishes it into non-existence? I defy anybody reading the above passage from Brown’s keynote speech to the Labour Party conference earlier this week not to acknowledge that it reveals an insulting contempt towards England at the very least. The PM refers to the “four home nations” and then mentions three of them by name, although the references towards Scotland and Wales are not especially affirming. But what about England? What indeed – our PM won’t commit the indecency of mentioning the unmentionable!

The Prime Minister is not so shy about referring to Britain; no, he loves ‘Britain’. I counted 61 instances of either ‘Britain’, ‘British’ or ‘Briton(s)’ in his speech compared with none – no, not a single one – to England. This is despite the fact that, as we know, most of the policy announcements in the speech related to England only, or to England and Wales with respect to crime and policing.

Brown’s presentation of English policies as if they were British exemplified all the familiar dishonest and self-serving motivations:

  • ‘Create the impression your policy “innovations” affect the whole of Britain to avoid comparisons with Scotland and / or Wales where these policies are more comprehensive and have been effective for some time already’: announcement of a ‘National Care Service’ [for England only] that will provide free personal care for the elderly, but only for “those with the highest needs” – as opposed to the universal free social care provided for Gordon Brown’s constituents. The same applies to Andy Burnham’s pusillanimous announcement of free parking for hospital inpatients and their families “over the next three years, as we can afford it” – as opposed to the free parking for both inpatients and outpatients that already applies in Scotland and Wales. Burnham also conveniently forgot to mention that his announcement related to England only.
  • ‘Avoid awkward questions about why a Scottish-elected prime minister is putting forward legislation that does not affect his constituents’: “I can tell the British people that between now and Christmas, neighbourhood policing [in England and Wales only] will focus in a more direct and intensive way on anti-social behaviour.  Action squads will crackdown in problem estates”. Whatever your views on how best to deal with anti-social behaviour, the truth of the matter is that this is a Scottish PM sending in the cops to crackdown on the English (and Welsh) populace.
  • ‘Avoid proper scrutiny of the nature and effect of taxation and spending commitments across the different countries of the UK’: “I am proud to announce today that by reforming tax relief [affecting people throughout the UK] we will by the end of the next Parliament be able to give the parents of a quarter of a million two year olds [in England only] free childcare for the first time”. The same goes for more or less any spending commitment: once you mention that a pledge relates to England only, awkward questions could be raised about why England appears to be being given preferential treatment by benefiting from increases in general taxation. Another example: “So we will raise tax at the very top [for all UK citizens], cut costs, have realistic public sector pay settlements [for all UK public-sector workers], make savings we know we can and in 2011 raise National Insurance [across the UK] by half a percent and that will ensure that each and every year we protect and improve Britain’s [i.e. England’s] frontline services”.

    Of course, it would be farcical to argue that only English public services will benefit from increases in UK taxation, as any rise in English expenditure gets passed on with interest to the devolved administrations via the Barnett Formula. However, in terms of policy presentation, it is just plain awkward if you have to explicitly acknowledge that commitments to maintain or increase spending on the NHS, education, policing and other ‘frontline services’ relate to England only: it looks as if England is being favoured, even if it isn’t. And if you then have to explain that rises in English expenditure will trigger even greater proportionate rises in the other nations – or, conversely, that if English spending falls, spending in the other countries will fall to an even greater degree – then you can get yourself into real deep waters with voters in England or the devolved nations respectively. Better to just pretend there is one undivided pot of taxation and spending – which there isn’t.

    This is of course going to be a, if not the, major battle ground at the general election; so you can expect all the parties to attempt to gloss over these inconvenient ‘complications’, and the media to ignore them as comprehensively as they did in the coverage of Brown’s speech – none of the commentary I’ve come across, including an extended analysis on the BBC News website, pointing out that much of it related to England only.

All of these reasons for making England out to be Britain were present in spades in Brown’s speech. But the aspect of it I’m interested in highlighting here is the moral character of Brown’s repugnance towards England. The speech sets up an implicit opposition between the ‘British values’ of fairness, responsibility and hard work, on the one hand, and what Brown perceives as the ‘English’ social and individual characteristics of unfairness, irresponsibility and work-shyness / the benefits culture. This view of England forms a subtext to Brown’s paean of praise to the above-mentioned ‘British values’, which are constantly reiterated throughout the speech:

“Bankers had lost sight of basic British values, acting responsibly and acting fairly.  The values that we, the hard working majority, live by every day”

“It’s the Britain that works best not by reckless risk-taking but by effort, by merit and by hard work. It’s the Britain that works not just by self-interest but by self-discipline, self-improvement and self-reliance. It’s the Britain where we don’t just care for ourselves, we also care for each other. And these are the values of fairness and responsibility that we teach our children, celebrate in our families, observe in our faiths, and honour in our communities. Call them middle class values, call them traditional working class values, call them family values, call them all of these; these are the values of the mainstream majority; the anchor of Britain’s families, the best instincts of the British people, the soul of our party and the mission of our government.”

In Brown’s vision, these Scottish-Presbyterian ‘British’ / (new) Labour values must be exercised in reforming and responding to the effectively English crisis of moral values that has led to the economic and social mess we are in. This perspective is evident even in relation to the reserved policy area of macro-economics, in that the near collapse of the UK’s banking sector is linked by Brown to the dominance of an essentially ‘English’ philosophical commitment to self-regulating free markets, and to socially irresponsible behaviour and greed on the part of English bankers.

“What let the world down last autumn was not just bankrupt institutions but a bankrupt ideology. What failed was the Conservative idea that markets always self-correct but never self-destruct. What failed was the right wing fundamentalism that says you just leave everything to the market and says that free markets should not just be free but values free. One day last October the executive of a major bank told us that his bank needed only overnight finance but no long term support from the government. The next day I found that this bank was going under with debts that were among the biggest of any bank, anywhere, at any time in history. Bankers had lost sight of basic British values, acting responsibly and acting fairly.  The values that we, the hard working majority, live by every day.”

Of course, it’s quite preposterous that Brown should now disown the market economics and belief in self-correcting markets that have characterised Labour’s economic policy in government and informed Brown’s own actions as Chancellor. But what I’m interested in here is the ‘national’ subtext: although the above passage does not explicitly say so (but then, Brown never explicitly refers to England if he can help it), the right-wing, Conservative market fundamentalism he describes is associated with English ideology and the English City of London, which would be a familiar association for someone like Brown who cut his political teeth in the battle against the ‘English’ Thatcherism of the 1980s, which was so deeply unpopular in Scotland. Never mind that the bank Brown alludes here to is almost certainly the Royal Bank of Scotland.

For Brown, what is needed to ‘fight’ against this unfair [English] Conservatism and the reckless irresponsibility of unchecked markets is a good dose of ‘British’ morals, and the British values of fairness, responsibility and honest hard work:

“Markets need what they cannot generate themselves; they need what the British people alone can bring to them, I say to you today; markets need morals.
So we will pass a new law to intervene on bankers’ bonuses whenever they put the economy at risk. And any director of any of our banks who is negligent will be disqualified from holding any such post. . . . I tell you this about our aims for the rescue of the banks: the British people will not pay for the banks.  No, the banks will pay back the British people.”

It is this same set of moral / British values that is brought to bear in Brown’s social policies affecting England (plus occasionally Wales) only. The implication is that it’s English moral irresponsibility, lack of fairness and idleness that has brought its society to the pass where it needs a stern application of correct British values to set things right. Take the example of the proposed measures to ‘help’ young unmarried mothers:

“It cannot be right, for a girl of sixteen, to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own. From now on all 16 and 17 year old parents [in England only] who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes. These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly. That’s better for them, better for their babies and better for us all in the long run.”

The opening words here, “it cannot be right”, are ambiguous: they imply that it’s morally wrong for 16- and 17-year-old [English] girls to get themselves pregnant, alongside the explicit meaning, which is that it’s ‘unfair’ and ‘irresponsible’ for [English] councils to give such girls a council flat without any other support. There we go again: reckless English teenagers causing social problems and unnecessary expense to the taxpayer through their immoral behaviour; and English councils compounding the problem by throwing money at them without really dealing with the underlying social and behavioural issues. So Brown’s solution: if English girls in such a situation, who are not cared for by their own irresponsible, dysfunctional families, want the support of the British taxpayer, then they’ll be effectively placed in a form of incarceration where they can jolly well learn how to behave and look after their babies ‘properly’.

The same attitude informs Brown’s announcements on things like tackling the effects of [English] binge drinking, [English and Welsh] anti-social behaviour, and dysfunctional [English] families:

  • “We thought that extended hours would make our city centres easier to police and in many areas it has. But it’s not working in some places and so we will give local authorities [in England] the power to ban 24 hour drinking throughout a community in the interests of local people”: clearly, we English drunkards can’t be trusted with ’24-hour drinking’, in contrast to the Scots with their Presbyterian, responsible behaviour around drink.
  • “There is also a way of intervening earlier to stop anti-social behaviour, slash welfare dependency and cut crime. Family intervention projects are a tough love, no nonsense approach with help for those who want to change and proper penalties for those who don’t or won’t. . . . Starting now and right across the next Parliament every one of the 50,000 most chaotic families [in England only] will be part of a family intervention project – with clear rules, and clear punishments if they don’t stick to them”: the British state is now going to take it upon itself to single out the most unfairly behaving, irresponsible and work-shy English families, and will make sure they learn how to stick to the British rules or else get the British stick!

Well, clearly, action is needed to deal with social problems such as these. The point I’m making is that Brown’s prescriptions are pervaded by a deep moral repugnance towards what are in effect characteristics of English society and culture. And that repugnance is not merely incidental, in the sense that they just happen to be English social problems because it’s only English society that the government that Brown heads up can act upon through legislation and policy. On the contrary, Brown has a personal, moral dislike and prejudice towards the English seen in the contrasting figures of the anti-social, indeed ‘anti-societal’, underclass, on the one hand, and the selfish, arrogant upper classes and mega-rich capitalists represented by the likes of David Cameron, George Osborne and the out-of-control bankers, who seek only to protect their own wealth and privileges.

To these images of Englishness, Brown opposes British values personified in what he repeatedly terms the ‘mainstream majority’ of hard-working, responsible working-class and middle-class communities, families and individuals. Brown articulates his and Labour’s ‘mission’ as being that of raising the [English] underclass and humbling the [English] upper classes, so that the whole of society meets in that mainstream middle ground and middle class of fairness, responsibility, the work ethic and meritocracy. Or bourgeois mediocrity and social conformity.

But one thing for sure is that Brown’s mission to reform ‘the country’ involves taking the England out of England, and transforming it into a ‘Britain’ made in Brown’s Scottish-Presbyterian image. And that’s why Brown can never say England: not just out of political expediency but because ‘England’ is the name for a moral decadence that he sees it as his duty to change – in the name of ‘British values’.

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19 July 2009

Swine flu: the scourge for our times

Though a Christian, I’m not a subscriber to the view that new diseases, when they first make an appearance on the world stage, are scourges sent by the Almighty as a punishment for our manifold sins. Disease affects the ‘innocent’ just as much as the ‘guilty’; and it would be crass to think, as some defenders and detractors of Christianity alike appear to, that the Christian view is that all suffering represents some sort of direct chastisement for one’s personal sins – even though it may be regarded as something that can be a means to help free the individual from sin. But then that’s a very complex, theological discussion, for another time . . ..

But there does sometimes seem to be what could be called a ‘symbolic appropriateness’ to certain diseases, in some of their aspects. AIDS struck both the sexually promiscuous in the West, and innocent haemophiliacs and large swathes of impoverished Africa, at the end of two decades of ‘sexual liberation’ that had wrecked the previous Christian moral consensus on sexuality and the family. So it was ‘tempting’, but simplistic, to see this as God’s answer: ‘the best way to avoid STDs is lifelong monogamy’, i.e. to adhere to the teaching of Christianity and other faiths on sexual morality and the role of marriage.

Similarly, with swine flu, this struck at just the point where people in Britain were outraged at the way their political leaders had had their ‘snouts in the trough’: claiming for inappropriate ‘expenses’ worth tens of thousands of taxpayers’ pounds in some instances. Well, if we eat at the pigs’ table, no wonder when we catch a cold off them!

Of course, it’s not just the politicians that have been acting like greedy pigs. Swine flu comes in the wake of the credit crunch, brought about by the reckless actions of unregulated bankers driven by the prospect of obscene bonuses. As swine flu looked to be spreading through the UK in an exponential manner over the last few weeks, so more and more parts of what is referred to as ‘public life’ were also being revealed as having been infected with the virus of the ‘bonus bingeing culture’ (BBC): snuffling one’s way to fortune through dubious expenses and ‘performance incentives’ on top of already generous salary awards.

So in this context, it’s ironically ‘appropriate’ that Britain has been particularly severely affected by swine flu: the ‘scourge’ for our previous, and continuing, lust for money? Except, of course, that it’s the innocent children, elderly and sick that are ‘paying the price’ in the case of swine flu – just as it’s the ordinary hard-working wage earners, mortgage payers and voters that are literally paying the price for the bankers’ and politicians’ greed and incompetence.

And perhaps this greed and incompetence are the ‘real’ reasons why swine flu has spread so uncontrollably throughout the UK; that is, maybe the greed and incompetence have had tangible, practical consequences that have assisted the transmission of the virus. Everyone keeps on congratulating the government on how well it’s been handling swine flu. For example, even on BBC Radio Four’s Any Questions on Friday, one of the opposition spokesmen said he thought the government had dealt with the crisis commendably. Swine flu, it seems, is off limits for regular party politics, and nobody seems to be asking why. Should we not be as suspicious of politicians’ motives in this regard as we are in other matters?

‘Handling’ swine flu is precisely what they’re doing. The response to the whole epidemic is being ‘managed’ by a shadowy Whitehall body called the Civil Contingencies Committee, as my previous post reported. This body not only co-ordinates the whole response to the epidemic at a ‘national’, i.e. UK-wide, level; but it also manages ‘communications’ regarding the disease – i.e. it manages the news output on the topic. This latter observation accounts for the fact that after every report on TV and radio on the latest unfortunate deaths from swine flu, they’ve been continually repeating the official observation that ‘all the victims to date have had underlying serious medical conditions’. If necessary, a medical expert or even the Chief Medical Officer for England (and, doubtless, in ‘regional’ output in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this will be their equivalents to the CMO) pop up with bland reassurances to the effect that this is no more severe an outbreak of flu than regular seasonal flu (except it’s out of season) and people should not be alarmed, just follow the advice that’s been given out, contact the helpline to apply for Tamiflu (is the helpline up and running now? it wasn’t for ages), etc, etc.

Wet blanket, wet blanket: no criticism, no scrutiny of the actions of the ‘authorities’ permitted, in the interests of not spreading panic just as fast as the virus itself is spreading. Do we know whether in fact it’s true that all / most of the victims so far had ‘serious’ underlying conditions? And what qualifies as a serious condition? A good friend of mine’s got diabetes, and we’ve both just had severe, unseasonal ‘colds’. Have we just in fact had swine flu without realising it (there’s a lot of it about in the local area)? She went to the GP but I didn’t bother. She wasn’t given Tamiflu, despite the fact that people with diabetes are on the ‘at risk’ list, although she was prescribed antibiotics. Despite this, if she had unfortunately succumbed to swine flu – if that’s what it was – would her death have been explained away as being due to her having a ‘serious underlying condition’ – diabetes – alongside swine flu?

The point is, I don’t feel the epidemic is being handled well or consistently, despite – or perhaps because of – the vast propaganda machinery that’s being mobilised to reassure ‘the public’. I don’t generally go in for conspiracy theories; but if it would be wrong to call the present unwillingness of opposition politicians to call the government to account for their response to swine flu a ‘conspiracy of silence’, then it does at least appear to be a concerted, organised silence. Organised by the Civil Contingencies Committee, no doubt: the “Government’s dedicated crisis management mechanism”, as the official document puts it – a body that would step in to run the shop in the event of war or a devastating terrorist attack – has obviously sat all the party leaders down in a darkened room and reached a gentleman’s agreement with them along the following lines, as I imagine the scene: “Now, look here, chaps; we’re facing a pretty serious crisis here that could have devastating consequences for all of us, if you see what I mean. Now we don’t want to be seen to be spreading panic among the public or to let the tabloids get hold of this thing, do we (well, we’ll take care of the popular press, don’t you worry)? Let’s all pull together on this one, shall we? We’ve got a well organised contingency plan, everything’s in place to deal with the situation as best as possible, and even those johnnies from the devolved administrations are on message. So let’s not rock the boat, shall we, and we’ll keep you informed about what’s happening from day to day. OK?”

Joking aside, everybody is on message, and that’s what’s so disconcerting because it’s so exceptional. The government has clearly decided that this is a ‘national crisis’, as they’ve activated the official crisis-management mechanism. And that involves deliberately shutting down media and political scrutiny of how things are progressing, precisely in order to reassure the public, supposedly.

But if it really is a national crisis, wouldn’t it have been far more effective in combating the disease – let alone far more honest – to have acknowledged this fact up front right from the start of the outbreak? But then think what could have happened: normal life, i.e. ‘business as normal’, might have had to be shut down. No international travel, either out of or into the UK. Serious restrictions placed on people ‘suspected’ of having come down with the virus and on those with whom they’d come into contact. Whole businesses, organisations, schools and vital infrastructure could have been paralysed. Think of the impact on the economy, stupid! Only the other day, they were discussing projections of what could happen – in the future – if swine flu continued to spiral out of control: a potential loss of 5% of GDP! Well, such a loss would have been virtually inevitable if the kind of radical measures I’ve just suggested had been taken at the start of the outbreak with the aim of trying to prevent swine flu from spreading among the general population. Better to just underplay it; not impose strict quarantine measures; and hope we can ‘contain’ the virus’s spread and that it won’t be too virulent. And yet, as a consequence, it appears to have got completely out of control and we may yet face those economic consequences anyway!

But even now, the politicians don’t want any whistleblowers going about accusing the government of incompetence in its handling of the crisis and asking it to come clean about the extent of the epidemic and its likely effect on the economy. Why? Firstly, because their own role in sitting back and letting the Civil Contingencies Committee take charge, and in downplaying the disease so as not to damage the economy, will be exposed. There’s a general election coming along, you know. Secondly, they don’t want even more harm to be done to those fragile green shoots of economic recovery by people making out that swine flu is some great national crisis and serious threat to public health, despite the fact that that’s precisely what the government thinks it is.

After all, this is the summer tourist season, and tourism is one of Britain’s biggest industries. We don’t want people from other countries thinking it’s unsafe to come into Britain now, do we? So what if they do contract the disease here; at least, we won’t have to deal with the consequences! And does anybody know – and have the media investigated – how seriously the tourist industry has been affected by foreign nationals’ fear of coming into Britain and catching swine flu? A search for ‘swine flu’ in the ‘Enjoy England‘ website (“The official website for breaks and days out in England”) yielded the response: “Unfortunately we are unable to complete your request at this time”. A general web search on ‘impact of swine flu on British tourism’ yielded little of relevance to the question of how swine flu was affecting levels of visits to Britain by foreign nationals; although the Daily Telegraph have a dedicated page that today carried reports on restrictions being placed on British nationals who are thought to have swine flu travelling abroad.

The website of English UK – an umbrella organisation for the ‘TEFL’ (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) industry in the UK – reported three days ago that it was ‘business as usual for UK ELT industry’: “At present, the virus is no more dangerous than a typical seasonal flu and the UK is well-prepared for such an outbreak.  English Language Teaching (ELT) providers are operating as normal”. However, the organisation and its members are participating in a survey being carried out by a quango known as TIER (Tourism Industry Emergency Reaction Group) (!) monitoring the impact of swine flu on UK tourism. It turns out that submissions can be made to this survey until 26 July, and presumably, they won’t issue their report till some time later. Bit too late to do anything to prevent innocent visitors to the UK from taking swine flu back to their own countries, or worse. But, as they say, it’s ‘business as usual’.

So swine flu may not have been inflicted on the UK as a divine chastisement for the corruption and greed of our national institutions, politicians and bankers; but its rapid spread certainly has been encouraged by the unwillingness of the said institutions, politicians and bankers to disrupt their precious cash cow known as the UK economy. And don’t expect them to be too open and transparent any time soon about their role in downplaying the disease and acquiescing at half-hearted containment measures in the hope that the economic and political damage could be limited. Just as well that swine flu has turned out to be relatively ‘mild’, at least ‘at present’, as the English UK website puts it. Just imagine the carnage if it had turned out to be as lethal as they were fearing bird flu might be a couple of years ago! And, of course, swine flu could still turn nasty in that way, and we don’t know how it will mutate over the autumn and winter, and over the coming years. Next time we might not be so lucky; but can we have confidence that the initial response by the ‘authorities’ will be any different?

There is one thing we can do about it. After all, we’re not obliged to let the pigs eat at our table; and, at the next election, we get the chance to boot them out of the door.

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