Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

30 April 2011

Royal wedding – ‘what Britain does best’ or what Britain is: a union of unequals?

I’m beginning to write this an hour before the service commences: the royal wedding. So I’m starting blind, before the start of the spectacle that I’ll be going round to a neighbour’s to watch – which will provide the necessary flesh to this cultural commentary.

Apart from being a ceremony in which a man and a woman commit their lives to one another, we are told that the royal wedding is an example of ‘what Britain does best’. More precisely, it is the ceremony and the celebration themselves that are ‘what Britain does best’: ceremonial performed with military precision, coupled with joyful but dignified, restrained popular celebration. In other words, the wedding symbolises Britain itself: a hierarchical, orderly society to which the people – like the commoner Kate Middleton – give their joyous but equally solemn assent.

Britain, like a traditional Christian marriage, is indeed a union. And as this particular wedding solemnises the union of the future head of the British state (who in that sense personifies the state and the established order) with a ‘girl of the people’, it symbolises in a particularly apt and condensed way the organic union that is meant to turn a kingdom into a nation: rulers and subjects united, like the married couple, in one flesh.

But is this union – Britain, that is – truly a marriage of equals, or does this wedding in fact symbolise the unequal nature of society and power across the Union, including in the relationship between the different nations (plural) of the kingdom? After all, the wedding takes place in the sacred burial place of the English kings, at the heart of the historic capital of England and centre of English government. It is conducted in a Church of England abbey, with some of the service being led by the pastoral head of the Anglican Communion (its future temporal head being Prince William himself, of course) using the hallowed English rite that is the Book of Common Prayer. This marriage and the union it symbolises are English in all but name, or English but not in name: the United Kingdom of whose perpetuation this wedding is a celebration being in essence a continuation of the ancient English kingdom, with William and Catherine being the future King and Queen of England. No one calls the British monarch the ‘King of Britain’ or the ‘King of the UK’: they’re the King of England – though not explicitly referred to as such in politically correct society – and at the same time head of the United Kingdom state.

This dual function and nomenclature reveals the fact that the UK is not a true and full union whereby the two – England and Scotland – could be said to have come together to form a new entity (Britain); the English crown united with the people (English and non-English) of the realm in an organic, integral British nation. Instead, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall remain as semi-distinct adjuncts to the English crown: like jewels within it but not integral to its English design and manufacture. And a great divide continues to separate the exalted class of the rulers from the people: the crown is not in fact one with the people; and England is not one with Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall in a united British nation.

Perhaps this is where a distinct identity for the English people was lost, along with any concept of popular English sovereignty; and where, instead of seeing each other as being oppressed by the same social inequalities and absence of true democracy, the non-English people of these isles have viewed ‘the English’, rather than the British state, as the oppressors. And this is because the English have never divorced their identity as a people and as a nation from the ancient English kingdom that has been subsumed within the British state, which has inherited its powers, prerogatives and mystique. As a consequence, the English have been identified by others with the British oppressor because they have identified themselves as subjects of the English kingdom / British state: not just willingly subjecting themselves to English-monarchical rule as it is continued within the British state, but framing their own subjectivity (their consciousness of themselves as a people) as British subjects: loyal servants and agents of the now British realm.

This is what, for me, is symbolised by the royal wedding: not the true union of a people with its rulers in an integral British nation but the identification of the English with their oppressor, the British state – a ‘commoner’ being ‘elevated’ to royal status, but not in a way that expresses or brings about the equality of the two, but rather in a way that confirms and perpetuates the separate status of those two worlds. But it’s not so much the future king or the present queen that is responsible for this continuing and only exceptionally bridgeable gap between the ruler and the subject. It is the British state – represented by those insipid ministerial faces seated in the row behind the glorious Westminster Abbey choir during the wedding service – that has inherited the privileges and aura of monarchical rule and exercises a power over the English (and non-English) people that is as much subjective as objectively subjecting: a power over our minds – leading us to willingly embrace, indeed celebrate, our subservient Britishness in fawning adoration – as much as it is objective, practical disempowerment and absence of democratic self-determination.

Today, ‘the nation’ may have celebrated a union that in turn symbolised the nation. But this unity of the ‘British nation’ is defined quintessentially in this very act of celebration and of marriage through which the English subject – as personified by Kate Middleton – is subsumed within and identified with the personification of the British state. So this is not a real, mature nation at all but merely a powerful, eloquent enactment of subjection to Britain. And until we break the spell through which the British state charms us into submitting to its ‘majesty’, the English nation will continue to be absent from the party.

24 January 2010

England: The Unspoken Other

“What we cannot speak of we must be silent about”. Ludwig Wittgenstein

I’ve received a reply from the BBC to my complaint about their failure to point out anywhere in their coverage that the Conservatives’ draft manifesto on health care related to England only. Here’s what they said:

Dear Mr Rickard

Thank you for your e-mail regarding a Radio 4 news broadcast on 2 January. Please accept our apologies for the delay in replying. We know our correspondents appreciate a quick response and are sorry you’ve had to wait on this occasion.

I understand you were unhappy with a report on the Conservatives’ manifesto for the National Health Service (NHS) and that you felt it failed to make it clear it related to England only. I note that you feel this was another example of an issue presented as relating to the whole of the UK and that it is a practice you continue to dislike.

We are aware that a report that is of great interest to one part of our audience may be of little interest to another. This issue of national and regional news is of great importance to BBC News and requires a balance which we are always striving to get just right.

While certain news items may be specific to one part of the country, and often reserved for coverage by our regional news, we also have to acknowledge and cater to the many listeners and viewers who express a clear interest in knowing what is happening in other parts of the UK. It is also the case that certain stories which at first appear geographically limited can ultimately have a wider impact on the country as a whole. [My emphasis.]

You may be interest in the following entry on The Editors blog by Mark Byford, the deputy director general, who looks at this issue and the recent review of the merits and challenges facing BBC News regionally and nationally by the BBC Trust. The Editors blog is availabe here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2008/06/uk_news_coverage.html

I would also like to assure you that we’ve registered your comments on our audience log for the benefit of the news teams and senior management. The audience logs are important documents that can help shape future decisions about content and ensure that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.

Thanks again for contacting us.

Regards

Stuart Webb
BBC Complaints
__________________________________________
www.bbc.co.uk/complaints

There’s something profoundly unsatisfactory about this response, over and above the plain fact that Mr Webb failed to address the substance of the complaint, which was that the BBC had failed in its duty to report on the news accurately and impartially. In this case, this would involve simply letting people know that the Tories’ proposed policies would be implemented only in England. Rather an important detail, one might think.

But let’s analyse what Mr Webb is saying here. I’m particularly interested in the section I’ve highlighted in italics. Mr Webb is comparing the coverage of the Tories’ draft NHS manifesto to the way ‘regional’ stories are reported on. In essence, he’s saying:

  1. The story in question did relate to just one ‘part of the country’ [a circumlocution for ‘England’: notice how, after the initial reference to my email, he can’t bring himself to use the ‘E’ word] but was nonetheless of interest to listeners outside of that ‘region’, and so was legitimately broadcast as a ‘national’ news story
  2. ‘Geographically limited’ [i.e. English] stories can have a significant impact on ‘the country as a whole’ [i.e. the UK], which thereby sets up a second reason why this particular story should have been broadcast on the national news: it’s not just ‘of interest to’ the whole of the UK (appealing to people who take an interest in current affairs), but it also affects the ‘interests’ of everyone in the UK. In other words, the Tories’ policies on the NHS could affect everyone in the UK materially in some way. Hence, though this was on one level just an ‘English matter’, it also matters to everyone in the UK – in both senses.

Well, yes, that’s all true: policy and expenditure decisions about the NHS in England are indeed of interest to many UK citizens living outside of England; and they do have a knock-on effect on the NHS’s outside of England, in that an overall increase or decrease in England-specific expenditure results in proportionally higher rises or cuts in expenditure in the other countries via the workings of the Barnett Formula.

But the relationship between spending in England and in the devolved countries is not straightforward or transparent. In this instance, Tory pledges not to cut the English NHS budget in real terms do not mean that the NHS budget won’t be cut in Scotland or Wales. If English spending declines overall despite the NHS budget being ring-fenced, then the Scottish and Welsh block grants will be smaller, and NHS spending in those countries may well have to be reduced. In order to understand how the Tories’ NHS policies will affect their interests – in the sense of ‘benefits’ – it is vital that Scottish and Welsh listeners understand the true relationship between England-specific policies and the corresponding policies in their own countries. And they can hardly come to this understanding if they’re not informed that the Tories’ policies are in fact only intended for England. To use Mr Webb’s analogy, this may have been a ‘regional’ story, relating to just one ‘part’ of the UK (England); but then, when genuine regional stories are covered at a ‘national’ level, the BBC does tend to take the trouble to spell out which region the story directly relates to.

So Mr Webb’s regional analogy completely falls over: a ‘regional’ story (e.g. one about Scottish politics or, say, an innovative private-public partnership being pioneered by a hospital Foundation Trust in one part of England) can well become a ‘national’ story (covered in the national news bulletins) if lots of people throughout the UK are interested in it and could be affected by it in some way. But that doesn’t make it a national story in the other sense: directly concerning the whole of the UK. But that’s precisely how the NHS story was covered: no attempt was made to make clear to listeners that it did relate just to one – albeit a highly influential – part of the UK. The word ‘England’ (the actual name for that ‘part’) simply wasn’t mentioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation; just as it was not referred to anywhere in the Tories draft NHS manifesto itself.

This illustrates a common observation: that while England is indeed formally ‘a part’ of the whole (Britain, the UK), it is generally referred to and thought of in British political discourse as if it were the whole (the UK) itself. In fact, there are two kinds of ‘parts’ of Britain from this point of view:

  1. England, which is a ‘geographically limited part’ of the UK but, as such, is politically and existentially (in terms of its official identity) indistinct from the UK and subsumed within it
  2. The ‘nations and regions’, both of which are really in effect thought of as regions of the UK / Britain (the ‘country’), the only difference being that three of those ‘regions’ have a distinct national character as recognised in the devolution settlement.

Such a structure does not reserve any place for England, which is where Mr Webb’s comparison of the Tory NHS story to a regional item is so disingenuous. On this model of the UK, the UK / Britain is ‘the country’ or ‘the nation’; and the nation is sub-divided into regions, three of which have their devolved, ‘nation-like’ systems of partial self-government. England (or ‘the regions’), on the other hand, is simply none other than the UK; just as Andalusia or Castile are regions of Spain (and are thereby also Spain), whereas the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia are national regions of Spain (and are by that token also still Spanish). On this analogy, England has become a ‘convenient’ (actually, inconvenient) name for the non-national regions of the UK; while Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland are the UK’s ‘national’ regions.

According to this understanding of the UK, then, England as such – as a nation – does not exist. This is a hard ‘truth’ whose implications are only beginning to dawn on me, despite the fact that I’ve voiced similar thoughts and discussed similar models for the relationship between England and the UK in numerous previous posts. In particular, thinking of things in these terms allows one to come to a deeper understanding of why the BBC won’t and can’t engage properly with complaints that they present ‘English’ stories as if they were British ones; and why the mainstream political parties resolutely persist in avoiding any reference to England when setting out their England-specific policies.

On an obvious level, this is of course done for political advantage: ultimately, because it maintains the whole British establishment and system of power, in and through which both the BBC and the parties seek to exercise their influence and prosper. But beyond these considerations of ‘interest’, the establishment won’t say ‘England’ because it can’t: how can you speak the name of something that does not exist? Both aspects are in play here:

  1. Because the establishment doesn’t want England to exist, in case this undermines its self-ascribed right to govern as Britain, it does not speak the name of England and thereby, in a sense, makes England not exist, at least within the formal discourse and self-understanding of British politics: ‘the Nation is Britain, and the parts of Britain are its nations and regions’. That’s it: no need to invoke an ‘England’ that is just not a distinct part of this whole.
  2. And because the word and name of England does not exist within the ‘politically correct’ language, it then becomes both inappropriate and irrelevant to mention it: language deals with things that exist, or that we believe to exist, not with what does not exist. ‘England’ has ceased to refer to anything in the present: it’s off the map of the British establishment’s mind, just as it’s off the physical map of the nations and regions. ‘England’, then, is a word that has served its time and is now redundant.

The BBC and the mainstream parties therefore do not say ‘England’, not just because they’d rather suppress all thought of England but because they’ve actually succeeded in removing the thought of it from the official and publicly ‘acceptable’ language of the British polity. They won’t say England because they can’t say England; and they can’t say England, not only because England officially doesn’t exist (it doesn’t refer to anything tangible within the polity) but because they actually don’t believe it exists any more, and they don’t know what ‘England’ means or should mean. In short, they’ve not only suppressed England from the apparatus of British governance, but they’ve repressed ‘England’ from their conscious minds and language.

This is the reason for my allusion to Wittgenstein at the start of this post: a foundational figure in what used to be referred to as the ‘English’, or at least ‘Anglo-Saxon’, school of analytical philosophy. The quote I used is my own translation from the original German that seeks to capture its ambiguity better than the classic translation: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. For me, my version (“What we cannot speak of we must be silent about”) perfectly encapsulates the combination of psychological repression and conceptual incapacity that characterises the British establishment’s silence with respect to ‘England’. First, out of political considerations of power, England was suppressed, both as a distinct national focus of politics and identity, and as something whose name – and in whose name – our political representatives could thereby speak. But then, once suppressed from the language, ‘England’ has become suppressed from the minds and understanding of reality of British politicians and media. England was first deliberately suppressed from political language and influence out of pure political motives; but now that language genuinely does not know it – so better not talk about it.

So on this view, England is no more. England is none other than the UK. And yet, England, as that which has been eliminated from British-political language, thinking and institutions – and as that which, in part for that reason, is beyond their reach and understanding – is also the Other of Britain. In psychological terms, if an individual represses a part of themselves and their history that they think of as unacceptable and inappropriate to express openly and socially, that part doesn’t in fact cease to exist, even if the individual’s conscious mind has succeeded in erasing all trace of it, and can no longer access the reality of that suppressed experience through deliberate thought and language. That part of themselves thereby becomes their ‘Other’: their repressed, unconscious selves that the conscious mind won’t and can’t recognise but sees as alien and unreal. The Other is the part of the individual that they have to suppress in order to think of themselves and to function as who they think they ‘are’. But in reality, those individuals cannot be whole persons until they are able to come to an understanding of and reconnect to the hidden parts of their selves and their histories.

So it is with England. The British establishment has suppressed its own deep roots in English identity and history because it projected onto England all the bad aspects of its own society, politics and history; and because it acted in the interests of redistributing power in a way that appeared more equitable than the England-dominated past, even while in fact continuing to exercise the same sovereign power that it previously wielded in England’s name. In other words, England had to die in order to be resurrected as Britain – but a Britain that, in order to be Britain, refuses and is incapable of acknowledging the England it still profoundly contains within it.

So England is Britain’s Other, whose name it cannot speak for fear that it might recognise itself in it. England is indeed both a ‘part’ and the whole of Britain: the part that in reality it needs to reaffirm as part of itself in order to be whole again. Otherwise, if the voice and identity of England cannot find expression within a Britain that would rather pass over it in silence, they will find expression in ways that could destroy the cohesion and survival of Britain itself as a political entity – just as, in an individual, unwanted traits and experiences end up being acted out in a more self-destructive manner if they are repressed indefinitely.

Well, this is a nice analytical model; but where does it leave us in practical terms? In particular, I’m wondering whether I should bother continuing to send off my complaint emails to the BBC every time they flagrantly ignore the England-specific nature of a story or policy announcement. If I do carry on, I certainly shouldn’t expect them to see reason, in the sense that, in my view, it is a simple case of reporting things in such a way that the public in different ‘parts’ of the UK know whether and how a story affects them. That’s what an ‘impartial’ public broadcaster is supposed to do, isn’t it?

But the responses I’ve received, as exemplified by Mr Webb’s email, reveal that the BBC appears not to see it that way. Perhaps they actually believe they’re carrying out their remit to report a story impartially by not making a point of saying ‘the Conservatives’ draft manifesto for the NHS in England’ or the ‘Liberal Democrats’ policy for childcare and education in England’ if the parties themselves choose not to spell this out.

More fundamentally, though, the BBC doesn’t see this as a serious enough issue, in my view, because they are a prime embodiment and propagator of the new Britain-centric political discourse and vision of the ‘nation’ that I’ve been describing. Despite Mr Webb’s comparison of the English-NHS story with an item of ‘regional’ news, the Corporation didn’t feel it was necessary to point out that the Tories’ proposals affected England only because they saw it as not just a ‘national’ story but a British story: about one of the national-British parties’ policies at the UK election for the ‘British NHS’, which were therefore of interest and relevance to the ‘whole country’. OK, ‘they’ – or some members of the various editorial teams involved – may have been dimly aware that, in fact, the policies related to England alone. But this fact would have been regarded as almost tangential and not worthy of being mentioned. The reason for this is that, for the BBC and the political establishment, there are really no such things as ‘English stories’ or ‘English politics’, but only British stories that happen, in some instances, to affect England only because of devolution but which are ‘British’ nonetheless because the nation itself is called ‘Britain’ and there is no such thing, officially, as ‘England’. These are, in short, ‘British’ policies that apply to a territory sometime known as ‘England’, and not ‘English policies’.

So the hard truth that I feel I’m perceiving more clearly now is that, for the British political and media establishment, the nation is Britain, and England does not exist: for them, England is merely the historic name for a part of Britain and a (British) cultural identity to which some remain sentimentally attached. England, in sum, is not present: neither ‘real’ in any objective, meaningful sense; nor ‘in the present’ (because it’s part of (British) history); nor represented in national politics (nor needing to be); nor requiring a mention when presenting ‘national’ policies.

Hitherto, my response to what I’ve called in this blog the establishment’s ‘Britology’ (the fabrication of a new British Nation as a sort of fiction: a creation of official and politically sanctioned discourse, language and symbolism) has preceded from the assumption that the ‘real’ nation that the fiction was intended to obfuscate and suppress was England, and that the establishment knew, more or less, what it was doing: a deliberate, politically led suppression of English national identity and pride. I’ve assumed that people generally knew that it was a lie, that they could see through it, and that the embargo of silence imposed on the word ‘England’ was really a conspiracy of silence maintained by all those who stood to gain from it: the established media and political parties.

But now I’m beginning to think that the establishment genuinely believes its own myths: that it’s not so much a case of collusion in the denial of England but shared delusion that England doesn’t exist. I think this is what we’re up against: not just the full weight of British political power but the power of a sort of collective psychosis. That may be too extreme a word to use. But really, I think there’s no alternative other than to conclude that powerful psychological forces such as repression (relegating unpalatable truths to the unconscious mind) are at work here if you are to really understand the systematic way in which all references to England are occulted from official documents, party-political pronouncements and media reports that relate to England alone; and the way that, when challenged, representatives of the organisations in question simply don’t get it: they genuinely don’t appreciate the significance and relevance of the omission of references to England.

Let’s put it this way: those of us who do love and value England, and see ourselves as English, of course think of England as a real nation. Therefore, when we notice that news stories and policies relating to England are presented as if they related to (the whole of) Britain, we think a mistake is being made: a deliberate mistake, intended to mislead, by the parties; and, if we’re being charitable, we think this is an oversight or error of omission on the part of the media for not picking the parties up on it. But if you try to get inside the mindset and assumptions of the Britological establishment, then you realise that they think England isn’t real and doesn’t exist; so that, for them, there are only British policies and stories at ‘national’ level. So saying that some of them relate to ‘England’ isn’t just a slightly irrelevant nicety but actually a non-sequitur: how can policies affect a non-existent country? For them, all policies are ‘British’ and relate only to ‘Britain’.

Devolution, as understood from this position, works like this: ‘all policies of the UK government relate to “Britain”; it’s just that some parts of Britain make their own policies in certain areas’. So ‘Britain’ is the name and identity of the nation, whether you’re talking just of the part (which we like to call England) or the whole. From this point of view, it isn’t deceitful to present policies affecting England only as ‘British’, because there is only Britain.

So I think we’re up against a government and establishment that not only refuses to recognise the right of the English nation to determine its own form of government, but which both refuses and – more profoundly – is incapable of recognising the very existence of an English nation. The new unofficial official map of the United Kingdom, for them, is one of a single, united Nation (‘Britain / the UK’), three parts of which are partially self-governing regions with a distinct national character: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England simply isn’t in the picture.

English nationalists are therefore inevitably not just campaigning for an English parliament but for recognition of England as a nation. Optimistically, you might say that the latter will flow from the former: if we manage to secure an English parliament, this will automatically entail official recognition that England is a distinct nation. But I would tend to put it the other way: we have first to win recognition of England as a nation for an English parliament even to be a realistic option on the table. If the establishment can’t even engage with relatively trivial and obvious complaints about omission of references to England in England-only policies and news reports, how can they be expected to seriously entertain calls for an English parliament? How can you have a parliament for a nation that doesn’t exist?

Maybe things are shifting more than I’m suggesting. It’s just that the wave of recent pre-election policy statements, in which the failure by the parties and media to mention their England-only character has been so gross, has depressed me a bit and made me wonder whether the powers that be will ever change. But it’s possible that change is nonetheless proceeding among the population as a whole and that, despite its inability to engage with any sort of English question, the establishment is getting increasingly isolated in its views from the people, who do think of themselves as English and want a government that cares about England and its needs. Maybe this is indeed the unspoken truth about the outbreak of disaffection towards the political class that was sparked off by the parliamentary-expenses scandal last year: that it reflects not just the ‘British public’s’ demand for a more accountable politics but the outrage of the English people at a British establishment that is pursuing its own agenda and interests without regard to the priorities, values and identity of the English nation. Perhaps England was the unspoken Other of this story, yet again.

So what do we do about the silence towards England that the establishment politicians and media would like to use to consign England to the dustbin of history? Well, the one thing we don’t do, even if tempted to, is fall silent ourselves. We have to keep on speaking out against it and asserting the right of England to be named, and so to exist. Keep on chipping away at the establishment armour – it might prove to be made of fragile porcelain rather than hardened steel.

As for me, I will keep complaining about unjustified omissions of ‘England’ where it should be mentioned, although I might vary the tactics a bit: not just write off to the BBC but consider other avenues, and also just ask them straight out why they chose not to mention that the policies or story in question related only to England? We’ve got to keep on gnawing away at their conscience and inserting ‘England’ into their consciousness, from which they’d rather relegate it.

Remember, apartheid South Africa and the Soviet dominion in Eastern Europe both collapsed at lightening speed after previously seeming as immovable as rocks. And that’s because the rot had set in from within: both systems were predicated on lies and on the denial of people’s right to freedom, democracy and national self-determination. Similarly, if the people continue moving away from the British establishment edifice by identifying as English and demanding a true national-English democracy, then that edifice may prove to be built on foundations of sand, not rock.

I for one, then, will not let England be an unspoken Other.

6 November 2009

Will Afghanistan crystallise Britain’s ‘Russian moment’?

The Russian Empire – otherwise known as the Soviet Union – was broken on the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. Many commentators, including Russian ones, have pointed to the eerie parallels between Britain’s and America’s engagement in military conflict against the Taliban, and the defeat of the mighty Red Army at the hands of the Taliban’s predecessors, the Mujahedeen. If we were to take heed of the lessons of history – not just the living memory of the Soviet Union’s traumatic humiliation, but the thousands of years of successful Afghan resistance to imperial invaders – then we would immediately reverse the build-up of Western troops in that country and accelerate our exit strategy, if we have one. Indeed, we would never have got ourselves embroiled in a conflict we cannot win.

But the question I wish to pose here is this: Gordon Brown has today spoken of his determination that Britain and its allies will indeed ‘win’ in Afghanistan, however victory is defined (which is part of the problem). However, he also conceded the possibility that Britain might lose: “We will succeed or fail together and we will succeed”. But will Britain stay together if we lose?

Clearly, while there are parallels, Britain’s situation is not exactly the same as the Soviet Union’s during the 1980s. However, I would argue that, like the USSR, Britain’s actions in Afghanistan betray an imperial mindset. Indeed, Britain itself is still an empire in certain fundamental respects: not in the, as it were, empirical (i.e. real-world) sense of possessing vast colonies, but in its view of itself – its identity, its status in the world and its systems of governance.

These all come down to Britain’s concept of ‘authority’ – political and moral authority combined: Britain’s ‘right to rule’ linked to the fact that it sees itself as inherently ‘in the right’. This then translates to our military interventions in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, which the British establishment would like to see not as examples of more or less arbitrary interference in other countries’ affairs for the sake of Britain’s strategic interests, but as illustrations of how our might is indeed right: military power allied to a moral mission, and applied to promote British-style governance and implant British values in some benighted corner of a foreign field.

As far as the governance of Britain itself is concerned, I would argue that this is also still conducted in the manner of an empire, albeit one whose boundaries are mainly those of the islands of Great Britain, and with limited concessions to democracy. I’ll probably return to this topic in more detail on another occasion. But my main proposition here is that one of the main reasons why the Westminster political class has become so disconnected from the people – indeed, the peoples – of Britain is that they still view the business of governance in the light of the imperial mindset. In particular, the insistence on the sovereignty of Parliament, and on the entitlement of Parliament and the executive to make all the important decisions that affect our lives without being fundamentally answerable to the people, and without having to take popular opinion into account, exemplifies the concept of British authority described above: those that possess British might see themselves as imbued with British right – the right to rule over us in imperial fashion linked to the fact that this rule in itself is seen as in the right and righteous.

So in Britain, we have an elected empire: a form of absolute rule, albeit moderated by a limited amount of democracy, whose sovereignty derives from a moral absolute: that of the Sovereign herself, who is the inheritor and embodiment of the medieval divine right of kings. Except, in our constitutional monarchy, it is our elected so-called representatives that re-assign that divine right to themselves in the form of the sovereignty of Parliament.

But to return to my point of departure, what could happen to the British establishment’s sense of its divine right to rule, both at home and abroad, if things go disastrously wrong in Afghanistan, as they did for the Soviet Union? By this, I mean not just hundreds of British dead, as now, but thousands, even tens of thousands. How far are we prepared to continue with this folly to prove to ourselves that we were in the right all along? And at what point do we realise that perhaps we didn’t get it right, indeed may not be in the right, and that history may not conclude that God was on our side this time?

Who knows what ramifications a truly disastrous defeat in Afghanistan would have for our already shattered faith in the authority that our elected rulers exercise in our name? It did for the Soviet Union; would it do the same for Britain?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not wishing for such a catastrophe to occur in my wish for the United Kingdom as presently constituted to unravel. I’d rather we pulled out now while we still have a chance. But the omens are not good.

Gordon Brown says our brave British soldiers are fighting for our national security in Afghanistan. They may also be fighting for the survival of Britain in a sense that Brown does not intend.

1 November 2009

Come back Guy Fawkes, all is forgiven!

Guy Fawkes – the leader of the Gunpowder Plot conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 – is a figure about whom the English have been ambivalent ever since, depending on the varying repute in which Parliament has been held. Currently, respect for the Westminster Parliament is at one of its lowest ebbs ever, which moves Guy Fawkes more over to the positive end of the hero-to-villain spectrum.

In fact – exaggerating somewhat – one of the greatest services some latter-day terrorist could render to democracy in England would be to blow the old place up: of course, without any human casualties. I say this because if the Palace of Westminster were destroyed, it would be more than just a new parliament building that would be erected in its place: I feel sure that such a tabula rasa would result in a major overhaul of the antiquated and democratically deficient processes of the Westminster Parliament and, indeed, of the whole structure of parliamentary governance in Britain. Assuming that a radically new, modern parliament were built in the place of the bombed-out building – i.e. they did not attempt to reconstruct the Victorian white elephant that is the present parliament – it’s almost impossible to imagine that the institution itself, its culture and traditions, would remain the same.

For example, the chamber of the Commons would most likely be built in the horseshoe shape designed to foster a more collaborative and open style of debating as opposed to the antagonistic, punch-and-judy style of politics encouraged by the rectangular lay-out of the present chamber. The new building could also be designed literally to enable open, transparent politics by embodying more open spaces for MPs to conduct informal meetings and discussions, and by having many more glass walls and partitions, so that people can see who is talking to whom.

But over and above these architectural and cultural considerations, I think the necessity to construct a completely new parliament building would be perceived as an opportunity to make a completely fresh start with how we conduct parliamentary democracy and government in Britain. And, who knows, the trauma of the Westminster Parliament’s destruction might finally overcome the reluctance, indeed inability, of many English people to contemplate the establishment of an English parliament. Perhaps, with the whole new start and the massive financial cost that the need to rebuild Parliament made necessary, people would start to think that the new London parliament should be an English one, and that we should perhaps locate a totally new British parliament (dealing with reserved matters only) somewhere else altogether.

Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the old English Parliament; it’s time to bring him back and give him another chance, so we can restore it!

PS. For any anti-terrorist security staff or ‘lawful-intercept’ data analysts that might be reading this, I’m not actually advocating that terrorists should target the Palace of Westminster: it’s a metaphor.

31 March 2009

Britain: The Self-Undermining Nation-State

Britain: the English Empire

While other countries formed nation-states, the English built an Empire. If all we English had been bothered about back then in the 18th and 19th centuries had been nation building, then I’ve no doubt we’d have had a unitary Nation of Britain long since: our little island fortress, with our sights and ambitions set merely on looking to our own affairs and keeping our European neighbours out of them.

But that sort of thing was for them, not us. So many of the European nations that emerged from smaller and larger entities alike during the 18th and particularly 19th centuries were landlocked or hemmed in by bigger powers. Not so we English. The open seas stretched out before us, and after we’d seen off first the Spanish Armada and then Napoleon’s navy, we ruled the waves as far as the Americas, Africa, India and Australia.

I’m not justifying all that our world-conquering ancestors did back then in a different world; but let’s not pretend either that our European rivals would not have done the same given half the chance. Indeed, the fact that they had to break out of a land lock helps to explain why the mid-20th-century Germans needed to fight for European domination first as stage one of their plan to rule the world.

The English Empire – what an achievement! Totally un-PC, of course, to speak in such terms – but our modern globalised world and, indeed, our multi-cultural Britain would simply not exist had our mercenary and missionary forebears not sailed off to drag half the world into the modern era. Un-PC, perhaps above all, to dub it the English Empire, not British. But it was the English that were the driving force and the power behind the imperial throne – albeit that many Scots, too, were happy to seize the opportunities for wealth, power and self-advancement that the Empire afforded them, for good or ill.

Should we English be proud of the Empire? To say simply ‘no’ is to conspire with the Britologists that would have everything that is great about ‘this country’ reflect back on ‘Britain’ and lay the blame for all that is bad on England and the English. For them, the English are essentially individualistic, aggressive, even violent; hostile and arrogantly contemptuous towards other cultures, which we supposedly blithely trampled over in the Empire; conservative, narrow-minded and insular. Yet in almost the same breath, they’d have us believe that the Empire in its British essence (as opposed to the ‘English’ aggression and opportunism that drove it) embodied the values that are still true, relevant and British for us today: tolerance, liberty, democracy, fairness and the rule of law. Values, in fact, which – according to Gordon Brown – could and should define a contemporary British ‘Nation’.

Well, I say ‘no’ to that British version of our history: that all-too simplistic dividing of the past into the English ‘black’ and the British ‘white’. You don’t get ‘greatness’ without it containing a little ‘grey’. The Roman Empire was great; its civilisation and technology were prodigies of its time; its law, literature and language, and later its conversion to Christianity, left an enduring legacy throughout Europe and the whole of Christendom. And yet, Rome was built on the back of military conquest, slavery and dictatorship. In the same way, our Empire spread English civilisation, industry, law, language, democracy and Christian faith throughout the world. And yes, it did so on the back of military conquest, slavery and imperial – though not dictatorial – rule. You can’t have one without the other; be proud of one without the other; have your British Empire without your England. You can’t say the ‘good’ values were and are all British but the ‘bad’ actions were all those of the English – because it was the actions and beliefs of the English that created the world in which those values stand today as our enduring legacy: our English legacy. And of that I am truly proud.

Others created nations; we English created the modern world. But as we rightly and democratically surrendered our imperial dominions to their own people, and as other global powers entered the stage, our horizons narrowed to our British island. Without the rationale of overwhelming mutual interest, and without the common enterprise of Empire, the marriage of convenience between England and Scotland that forms the bedrock of the United Kingdom finally looks set to be breaking down. Those who still cherish the ideal image of ‘Britain’s’ imperial greatness – conveniently forgetting the hard realities of domination and exploitation that were an integral part of that story, or ascribing them to England – now seek to build that Britain into a nation; rather than let it slide inexorably into the history books – the books telling the history of England, that is.

Britain never was, still is not and pray God never will be a ‘nation’ in its own right. For some of the Britologists, this is what it should have been from the beginning: from the time of the Acts of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. If this had happened – say, for instance, if Nelson had been defeated at Trafalgar and our energies had subsequently been turned in on ourselves instead of Empire – Britain would now be a European nation-state comparable to those of a similar scale, such as Germany and Italy, that were put together from a collection of kingdoms and principalities during the 19th century. This is how Brown and his ilk would like Britain to be today, fearful that a break-up of Britain into its constituent nations would diminish ‘this country’s’ standing among its European neighbours and weaken its ability to defend its interests within Europe and the international community – albeit peacefully in the present era, thank God.

Of course, logically, such a break-up would by definition diminish this country’s standing if ‘this country’ is defined as Britain: Britain – as a would-be nation-state – simply would be no more. But this would not lessen England’s standing. On the contrary, England would re-emerge from Britain’s shadows as the great nation it always has been, both before and through the period of Union with Scotland: comparable but superior in its past achievements to those other empire-building nations and former rivals France and Spain. England did not need to build a nation of Britain. It already was a great nation at the time of the Union, and the uncomfortable truth is that, from day one, ‘Great Britain’ was more the name of England’s Empire than that of a nation subsuming England. The Union with Scotland was in reality more of an annexation of Scotland – followed one century later by Ireland – into the English Empire, which was already beginning to expand across the globe by the beginning of the 18th century.

In fact, one way of thinking about it would be to say that ‘Britain’ itself was England’s ‘home Empire’ (hence, ‘Great Britain’) as opposed to the Empire ‘abroad’. Scotland and Ireland would then be described as having been originally English colonies, subsequently absorbed into the same political state as England: union within a common state (the English state, renamed ‘Britain’ / the UK to reflect its enlarged geographical extent) but not a common nation. Commonwealth of nations, not British Nation. Unlike a power such as France, whose colonies were all assimilated into France itself, each of the ‘British nations’ (both the other nations of the British Isles and those of the broader Empire) retained or developed distinct identities as nations: distinct from England, that is.

British ‘nationhood’: nothing if not England

So the ‘British’ designation of the other British nations in fact signifies their difference from England – in the past and in the present – as well as England’s enduring difference from Britain. At the same time, however, the British nations’ Britishness mediates a continuing union with England – politically, culturally, socially: a state (in both senses) that can persist so long as England, too, continues to see and describe itself as British. England is the central point of reference and underlying national identity of Britain. This latter term also denotes the commonality and ‘sameness’ of Britain, as well as the place of the ‘properly British’: where Britain is thought of as present to itself and in possession of itself, providing a centre of original and authentic Britishness that can be imagined as remaining present through its dispersion across multiple different British nations. But, because it serves this purpose, England cannot define itself as distinct from Britain; it cannot set itself apart from Britain, and / or see itself as superior to the ‘other’ British nations, because this would mean that it was not ‘one’ with – an equal partner to and the means for the unity of – the other nations: the guarantor and foundation of a common Britishness.

These mutually dependent pulls of shared identity / union and continuing difference help to explain why it is over against a distinct, ‘superior’ England that the ‘British nations’ both define their own difference and assert a shared Britishness: a Britishness shared with England, that is, but which is predicated on the suppression of an England that is itself distinct from Britain, since England has to serve as the place (literally) of a continuing Britain and ‘proper’ Britishness that those other nations can then both share and differentiate themselves from.

‘We are Scottish and British but not English’. This is still a view, I think, held by the majority of Scots. But it’s ironically connected with another common Scottish perception, which is that English people simply see themselves as ‘British’; that when they refer to England, they tend to mean Britain – and when they say Britain, they generally mean England. (For the moment, forget about the whole British government thing of saying ‘Britain’ rather than ‘England’ even when England is meant; I’m talking about the traditional Scottish assumptions, which are of course related to present British-government practice.) This is ironic because it exemplifies the conflicting pulls and ties of shared identity and difference with and from England that are mediated through ‘Britain’: Scotland is ‘one’ with England but only through Britain; but then again, an identification of England with Britain is asserted (which is what would in fact make that Union with England through Britain truly a union) but is itself framed as an ‘error’, and as the expression of ‘English’ arrogance, imperialism and will to dominate. So, through and as ‘Britain’, England is seen as both one with Scotland and different from it: an identification of England with Britain (and hence, a fundamental union between Scotland and England) is at once asserted and denied. Or putting it another way: Scotland sees itself as both ‘a part of’ Britain and ‘apart from England’ – but only if England and Britain are seen as both the same as each other and different from one another.

I think the same line of reasoning could be applied to the relationship between England and Wales; perhaps more so given the two countries’ much longer and deeper ties of shared and differentiated nationhood within ‘Britain’, which arguably go back to Roman times (or even earlier), when the actual colony of Britannia comprised roughly the territory of England and Wales today. The relationships are more complicated and painful in Northern Ireland. Here, I think the pulls are not so much between Ireland and England within Britain – on the analogy with Scotland and Wales – but between Ireland and Britain ‘as a whole’; although this structure still depends on England providing the ground and basis on which Britain can be viewed as a proper nation, as opposed to a collection of three or four nations. And hence, alongside the Union Jack, the Northern Irish Loyalists fly a flag that is essentially the Cross of St. George with the red hand of Ulster in the centre: as if to say that Ulster’s British centre is England.

So, in order for the other nations of Britain to be seen as nations that are distinct from England, on the one hand, and which are still fundamentally and authentically united with – one with – England in the Union, England itself has to be seen as (and see itself as) one with – identified with – Britain. This provides a core and foundation of ‘proper’ Britishness (British national identity) that the other British nations can then both share and ‘own’ (rather than having to share and own Englishness) at the same time as they can differentiate themselves from and within that Britishness insofar as it is also seen as a self-attributed (and self-defining) ‘property’ and national characteristic of England.

The denial of a distinct England (and England’s self-abnegation) is in this way the precondition for a ‘proper’ British nation to exist: England must be Britain for Britain to be – and for the other nations to be semi-detached parts of Britain not annexes of England. I have to say that I think it is this fundamental structure that allows a phrase such as ‘a Britain of nations and regions’ to make any sense at all. Analysed from a purely logical perspective, this is a complete non-sequitur if you presuppose a logical hierarchy whereby regions are smaller dependent subsets of nations. If Scotland and Wales are the ‘nations’ here, and the ‘regions’ are the sub-national territories formerly known as England, what does that make Britain? A nation or a ‘supra-nation’? Well, yes, perhaps the latter – another word for ‘supra-nation’ being ’empire’, which is what – in my contention – Britain always was: the core of England’s Empire. Or alternatively, if Britain is a / the nation in this phrase, then shouldn’t Scotland and Wales be described rather as regions on the same basis as the [formerly] English regions? Yes, of course they should. But the structure isn’t logical in this way, or rather it obeys a different logic: it is the identification of England with Britain that enables the ‘other’ nations of Britain to affirm a distinct national identity while remaining organic parts of Britain; while, if England has become Britain, the smaller sub-national units into which it has been divided are then aptly described as regions of a British nation.

This paradoxical structure results from the two conflicting pulls within New Labour’s attempt to fashion a new British Nation – integral Britishness, on the one hand, along with devolution for some of its parts, on the other. This leads to the need to assert a strong core of British national identity at the centre, allowing the smaller countries at the periphery to be both distinct nations and partakers of a shared British identity: the British identity of England, that is – turning the whole edifice into an integral British Nation. This is in contrast to what I describe as the original and historic character of Britain as essentially the core and name of England’s Empire, with the other British nations as dominions or ‘possessions’ of England. The two structures could be illustrated as follows:

 

Imperial Britain


 

Nation of Britain


 

Comparing the two diagrams, it is noteworthy that a former hierarchy of nations (England as the central sovereign national power within the United Kingdom both governing and ‘owning’ the other British nations) has been replaced by a hierarchy of governance: the central UK government exercising governance / sovereignty over the ‘nations and regions’ in some matters but devolving power in other areas. Or at least, that was the blueprint for the [English] regions until the electorate in the proposed North-East region scuppered the idea. But, as we know, the present government has continued with its regionalising agenda, although the Regional Authorities now are little more than unelected arms of central government. So a more accurate rendition of the present situation would perhaps have been to draw the above diagram with a thick arrow going one-way from the centre down to the regions.

This replacement of inter-national UK governance by inter-tier UK governance reflects the fact that devolution as implemented by New Labour did double duty as a process of delegating to the ‘nations’ certain aspects of governance previously handled by the England-dominated UK government alongside a process of developing a new regional tier and structure of governance. That’s to say, this is regional governance effectively within the context of a new integral Nation of Britain. To complete this structural transformation, ‘Britain’ is promoted from its position as England’s ‘dominion’ within the imperial set up (the territory over which England exercised sovereignty and which England ‘possessed’) to the position as the sovereign national power in its own right. Accordingly, England is demoted to the status of a mere territory over which the central British government exercises sovereignty and which it ‘possesses’ as its own; to the extent that it feels entitled to dispose over – indeed, dispose of – the English territory as it chooses by parcelling it up into smaller administrative units.

But this also means that ‘Britain’ governs the UK in England’s place. In other words, Britain both takes England’s place as the sovereign and central power within the structure, and represents (indeed, re-presents) England within the continuing inter-national aspects of the system. Or, putting it another way, ‘Britain’ in the new structure continues to also be effectively England: it rests on the British national identity of the English, or the identification of England with Britain; and it exercises and takes forward England’s historic role and responsibility of governance over itself (i.e., in this instance, over the ‘regions’) and over the other British nations. This is still effectively governance from the English centre, albeit that this cannot be acknowledged, as it is supposed to be a unitary system of British governance, with British nations and British regions standing in a relation of equality towards one another within an all-embracing Britishness.

Conclusion

So the Britishness is really just an overlay over a much more long-standing structure, with Britain taking over and taking forward England’s historic role as the power in the land. This system, as it stands, is dependent on ‘Britain’ both being and not being England. Firstly, for Britain to have a ‘national identity’ in its right requires that the people of England (continue to) identify as British / identify with Britain, providing a[n English] core of Britishness that the other nations of Britain can both see themselves as sharing and uniting with in a profound way (as it and they are both British), while differentiating themselves from it in a manner that defines their own national identities as being distinct from that of England / English Britishness.

This is the core problem with Brown’s Britishness agenda: the non-existence, precisely, of a core Britishness. ‘Britain’ is incapable of grounding its identity as a ‘nation’ within itself because it has always been, and continues to be, essentially a system of governance unifying a collection of distinct nations – now even more than ever, in fact, as the second of my above two diagrams illustrates: ‘Britain’ / the UK is just a hierarchical system of governance and a set of relationships between its constituent parts, not an integral nation in itself. This is why Brown and New Labour can define ‘core Britishness’ only in terms of a set of general moral and political values that themselves relate to the processes of governance and civic society: liberty, tolerance, democracy, justice, the rule of law, etc.

The reality is that the ‘core identity’ of Britain is the [only in part British] national identity of the English. And this is made up of a much deeper, broader, more concrete and personal set of characteristics, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that can ever be encapsulated by a mere set of philosophical and political abstractions. It is of these things – the character, culture, society, history and traditions of a whole national community – that real ‘national identity’ is made. England has and is all of these things; Britain ‘of itself’ does and is not. So in order to be a nation, ‘Britain’ has to appropriate the national identity of England to itself (another way of saying it has to ensure that English people [continue to] see all of their English characteristics and values as essentially British). But Brown cannot engage with the question at this level, because if he did, he’d be forced to acknowledge that his British national identity is, at its core, none other than England’s by another name. And so, because he cannot acknowledge the concrete reality of the English people and identity as the real core of, and dominant culture and nation within, the UK (as it always has been), his Britishness can be articulated only at the level of abstract ‘shared British values’.

And secondly – and this is perhaps even more determining for the future of a continuing Britain – the other British nations also need this core Britishness and centre of Britain to be Britain-but-not-England and to still be England all the same. On the one hand, they need this, as I described above, to feel connected to a common Britishness (of which ‘England’ is the guarantor and foundation) that is the place of an authentic and equal Union between the nations of the UK, rather than being in fact just another name for a separate England of which they have historically been subordinate British-imperial ‘possessions’. And, on the other hand, the fact that this ‘British centre’ is also still England is necessary for them to define their own national identity as distinct [from England] through devolution.

In other words, the other British nations define themselves as nations through differentiation from the English centre of Britain; but they need that English centre to be British first and foremost in order to continue to feel anchored in a common Britishness. If, on the other hand, that Englishness of the British centre were somehow to be effaced altogether, then the other British nations would ironically lose the basis for their own distinct national identities, at least as contained within the British framework. They need England to exist in order not to be English; and they need England to be Britain in order to be British. Pull England out of the whole system – create a Britain ‘without England’ at its centre – and the national identities of the other British nations, and their sense of belonging to a ‘national-British’ community of any description, would be completely stripped of their present anchoring, and the constituent parts of what we now know as Britain would spin off into a chaotic existential abyss.

All of which doesn’t exactly make it easy to see what the way forward might be. But although the present system does shore up some sort of unitary structure for UK governance within the context of devolution – and while it does create a British anchor for the diverging and increasingly autonomous identities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – it is hardly a sustainable, rational or fair set up for England, which is condemned to a limbo land of being and not being a nation, and being the prop upon which the whole UK edifice and its other nations depend for their present existence.

And the point is, if this is not sustainable for England, then it cannot be a sustainable basis for a continuing United Kingdom, either. That is because England is the core national identity of the UK; but a UK that seeks both to deny that fact and yet relies on it is an edifice built on a foundation that undermines itself.

5 March 2009

Shorts (2): Dominic Grieve and New Tory Britishness

Dominic Grieve, the Conservative Shadow Justice Secretary and an ‘original’ thinker on the English Question, has been setting out the blueprint for the prospective Tory government’s policies on promoting a more cohesive society, based on transcending the divisions created by New Labour multiculturalism and political correctness. Or should that be a more cohesive Britain?

While there is much to commend in Mr Grieve’s speech – and, indeed, I would commend it to anyone interested in gaining an insight into the direction Tory thinking and policy are heading in this area – parts of the text seem depressingly familiar:

“The laws and concepts underlying [multiculturalism] seem to me to drive people apart endangering our traditional sense of community based on shared values.  It is these values honed by history, that have created our legal and constitutional arrangements. But to the present government this historic sense of Britishness has been attacked as incompatible with modernity. . . .

“In schools, the dumbing down of history has resulted in a system where the teaching of a narrative of British history has all but vanished.  Instead of children being taught to take interest in and have respect for past events and individuals who have shaped their lives, they are encouraged to be contemptuous of people who in the past did not live up to the then unknown values of modern Britain.

“I am convinced that this approach has hindered more recent immigrants to this country developing a sense of belonging. Faced with a society that seems to be suffering an identity breakdown, should we be surprised that they find a common identity with their fellow countrymen hard to identify?”

So is the Tory prescription to the break-down of community cohesion through increasing cultural diversity more emphasis on ‘shared British values’; more teaching of ‘our country’s’ history as British history; and perseverance with engineering a modern British-national identity and even Nation of Britain, superseding Britain’s diverse ethnic communities’ originally discrete identities, such as that of Englishness? Plus ça change, as that traditional English saying goes!

There is one ray of hope, however. As Grieve says in his conclusion: “we will only succeed in developing  a community of values and a shared national identity if we allow all people the freedom to discover and to coalesce around their shared aspirations, arguing out areas of disagreement”. I take it from this that this ‘freedom’ includes the liberty to define one’s identity as English in the first instance, rather than British; and for this new Englishness to also provide an identity and set of values that other ethnic communities can embrace.

But the way Grieve describes the process again sounds depressingly similar to the present government’s orchestrated efforts to redefine the fundamental principles on which ‘this country”s governance and national identity should rest as British in the first instance, rather than English:

“This is why I believe that there is merit in looking to the creation of a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities to help better define ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights] prescriptions and ensure that the principles in the ECHR are expressed so as to be seen as being relevant to all people and not as at present an international obligation that seems on occasion to appear to privilege certain individuals over the rights of the law abiding majority.

“Preparing such a Bill would also provide us with an opportunity to engage in a national debate as to what aspects of our legal and constitutional framework constitute core values in the area of civil liberties that could merit better protection than the Human Rights Act itself currently affords.

“For example I believe that the right to trial by jury in indictable cases should be protected as a key feature of our participatory democracy. We may also wish to add to the right to freedom of expression in the ECHR and ensure that principles of equality under the law are spelt out-an important issue in countering the current lobbying for special privileges for different groups.

“There are also sound arguments for including the obligations of individuals to the wider community as well. While some rights are properly absolute, there is no reason under the ECHR, why the failure to act in a neighbourly and acceptable way should not be taken into account if an individual seeks to invoke rights.”

While I’m fully behind the goal of better defining and protecting principles such as trial by jury, freedom of expression and equality under the law, you can bet your bottom pound sterling that this ‘national debate’ about ‘core values’, and the ‘participatory democracy’ that enshrines and defends those core values, will be British and British only. For England, that is, of course: Scotland, as we know, is having its own national debate on these matters and may decide to go its own way. But no scope for a debate about English identity, values, freedoms and democracy under these Tories proposals. Not even if that’s what the people demand? And I especially dislike the last sentence of the passage quoted above, which seems no different from Gordon Brown’s attempts to make our ‘rights’ dependent on conforming to a prescriptive view of responsible, ‘acceptable’ behaviour. So long as we obey the law, and the laws themselves are reasonable, our rights are rights, whether we like the way people enjoying those rights conduct their lives or not.

But there’s just a glimmer – a little chink of ambiguity that could yet reveal itself as a chasm of differentiation between the suffocating embrace of New Labour’s Britishness and a future acknowledgement of England and Englishness. For is all this history that Grieve talks about British or English; indeed, are the values and identity of ‘Britain’ he talks about ultimately expressions of English culture and national identity? As I say, there’s just a hint of ambiguity here and there:

“From the Saxon moot court, through Magna Carta, the Glorious revolution of 1688 and onwards, freedom and equality under the law has been central to what English and with it British identity has been all about”.

“We have seen centuries old principles that a person’s home was inviolable to a bailiff seeking to carry out civil distress of goods overturned with impunity, so that the proud adage that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ will soon be but an historic memory”.

“What message for instance does the case of Binyam Mohamed convey in terms of our values when we are faced with accusations that we colluded with the USA in interrogation practises that were outlawed by the English Parliament in the mid 17th century?”

What indeed? And maybe we need a new English parliament to make sure our fundamental English liberty is defined and reaffirmed anew for the 21st century. And maybe the way to uphold the Tory principle of the freedom of individuals and communities to be left to pursue their own path, and negotiate their own way to live and work together in peace and prosperity free from state interference, is to assert this as an English value over against the prescriptive collectivism, political orthodoxy and authoritarianism of New Labour Britishness. Because this is both a fundamental Tory principle and a ‘core value’ of England.

Perhaps the fact that, if the Tories are voted into power at the next election, this will be entirely due to the electorate in England (even if they won’t secure the majority of actual votes in England), will eventually give the Tories the courage to make a break from the New Labour mantra that only Britishness can provide a base of core values from which to build a cohesive society: a belief set that is still all-too evident throughout most of Grieve’s speech. And maybe the Tories will come to the realisation that the traditional Britishness (as opposed to New Labour’s neo-British nationalism) is actually an expression of Englishness, which alone can form the basis for a cohesive society and participatory democracy for and in England itself.

3 December 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 September 2008

Due to devolution, parts of this item refer to the whole UK and parts refer to only some sections of the UK

What is the ‘item’ in question? Nick Clegg’s speech yesterday to the Lib Dem conference, as a footnote describes it on the Lib Dem website. I thought I’d just do a ‘Brit’ check and an ‘Engl’ check on the old word counter to see if, by any chance, the grandson of a Russian émigrée has any concept of England. I wasn’t – or rather was – disappointed: 39 instances of ‘Britain’ or ‘British’, and none of England (no, not a dicky bird); and also none of Scotland / Scottish, Wales / Welsh, or Northern Ireland / Irish, by the way. (Actually, there is a reference to Cornwall; but only to a single mum whose personal situation is meant to be illustrative of the difficulties faced by the people of ‘Britain’ as a whole.) Well, if they can refer to England in a footnote, such as the one in the title to this post, only as a ‘section of the UK’, I suppose this absence of mentions throughout the speech was only to be expected.

But there was I, going through all the references to ‘Britain’ and ‘British’, and noting all the places where these terms are used to refer to areas of policy that relate to England only as far as Westminster government is concerned. I.e. education: “We can have a better education system, and through it a better Britain”. Or health: “The NHS is a great national institution” (no: it’s four great national institutions). Or even the environment: “Education, health and crime. The top three concerns of the British people. They have been for decades. But I want us to get the environment up there too”.

I was thinking great: here’s a nice little opportunity for another critique of the way the main parties brush the democratic deficit and public-spending inequalities towards England resulting from devolution under the carpet by pretending that everything Westminster politicians do relates to the whole of the UK. And that is indeed a valid critique of Nick Clegg’s speech. As I’ve noted before in this blog, the Lib Dem leader appears to have no concept of England as an entity distinct from Britain, as his whole focus is on Britain and Britain-wide governance even when – as we have seen – those policies would in practice be implemented in England only. He even, like Gordon Brown, appears to view Britain as a / the only real ‘nation’ in these isles: “they found a home in Britain because ours is a nation of tolerance, of freedom, and of compassion”.

This ‘britification’ of England – so typical of the main parties – is in itself enough to make an English patriot’s blood boil. But then the footnote. I really couldn’t believe it at first. Not only the speech without a single passing reference to the largest actual nation of these isles. Not only the false impression it creates that, if in government, the Lib Dems would be making laws for the whole of the UK and not in fact for England only in most cases. And not only the complete failure to acknowledge the existence of England and her people as any kind of meaningful entity or constituency that the Lib Dems need to address. But then, to top it all, this insulting footnote: as if this easy-to-miss disclaimer were enough to counteract the deliberate Britain-only focus of the whole speech.

This is as bad as the disclaimers you get at the bottom of some ministerial press releases, where they say: “This notice relates only to ‘England'” (with ‘England’ indeed in apostrophes, revealing that it’s only a convenient name for a territorial jurisdiction not, in the government’s view, a nation). In fact, it’s worse; because even in the footnote, England is not mentioned but is referred to in the catch-all phrase “section of the UK”. I’m surprised and appalled the Lib Dems could replicate such an offensive practice. Perhaps I shouldn’t be.

Admittedly, in the speech, Nick Clegg calls for a comprehensive constitutional convention that could lead to “a new constitutional settlement”. But then, can one have any confidence that this convention would truly re-examine the devolution settlement as it affects England, and come up with proposals for a new settlement that is equitable to all the nations of the UK? Indeed, can one be confident that such a convention would actually be a UK-wide convention at all, despite the fact that the speech dresses it up as such, and not just a means to perpetuate and even deepen the suppression of England’s identity and distinctness as a national political entity? The reason I say this is that the only reference the speech makes to devolution – apart from the derisive footnote – is as follows: “We need to . . . . devolve control to councils, communities, families, parents, patients and pupils”. This is local devolution: the devolving of democratic decision making to every area of civic society where decisions are best taken at that level. But local government, communities and education are devolved parts of national government. In other words, if a Lib Dem government were to pursue such a process of local devolution, it would apply to England only. In addition, previously, the Lib Dem leader has gone on record to advocate devolution to the ‘regional’ as well as ‘local’ level – again, of course, only in England, though presented as if the policy would or could be applied across the whole of the UK. So one is left with the impression that the Lib Dem’s ‘British’ constitutional convention – like so many of their other ‘British’ policies – would in fact be an England-only constitutional convention. One through which the Lib Dems would be hoping to drive a regionalisation and localisation of governance in England only; and with not the slightest hint of ‘national’ devolution for England, as if that whole concept were a non-sequitur.

Naturally, one would expect any Lib Dem programme of constitutional reform to involve PR. But this is not in fact mentioned in the speech. And without addressing the unfairness of the asymmetric devolution settlement, even PR would not be sufficient to rectify the English democratic deficit. This is because Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people would be able to elect representatives to govern them in devolved matters; but English people would still be governed in these areas by the UK parliament, including by MPs and ministers not accountable to any English voter. But I suppose making up-front noises about a constitutional convention is a convenient means not to have to go into these matters before an election and to pretend they will all be dealt with in a fair and non-partisan way once a Lib Dem government is in place.

But that doesn’t prevent Clegg from perpetuating the illusion that such a government’s remit would be UK-wide in a unitary way, which it wouldn’t be. But at least he’s being honest in another way: that, in fact, England is just a ‘section of the UK’ as far as government is concerned. We have no distinct constitutional, political or legal status as a nation. And Britology Clegg, it seems, wants to keep it that way.

8 July 2008

What are we fighting for? Libertarians and nationalists must make common cause

There has been much discussion recently – including on this blog – about whether English nationalism can be reconciled with progressive politics; and whether progressives need to espouse the nationalist cause, associate it with left-of-centre values, and thereby prevent it from falling into the hands of the far right.

I would go further. I would say not only that English nationalism could and should be taken up as a progressive cause but that it should also be at the forefront of the great cause célèbre of the moment: the fight to preserve our civil liberties, currently being championed by the former Conservative shadow home secretary David Davis through the by-election he has called to force a public debate on the issues.

I would recommend to my readers the excellent article by Anthony Barnett of the OurKingdom blog on David Davis’s stand and its significance, if they haven’t already come across this. I left a long’ish comment on it, which I reproduce here, as it summarises my thinking and leads to the point I want to make now:

“This is why we should have the confidence to celebrate the fact that a leading politician is taking issues of principle and government to the people, irrespective of his party politics.

“Especially in Britain (or should I say England, as arguably Alex Salmond has already done this in Scotland).”

Naturally, I see this caveat – “or should I say England” – as key. You won’t see Scottish or Welsh nationalists mounting your barricades, as they’re not interested in building open, representative and constitutional British democracy.

The way I’m interested in framing the issue is as follows: is the British state and parliament losing its democratic legitimacy as a consequence of measures such as 42 days and identity management; or is its recourse to such measures a consequence of the fact that it is losing its legitimacy? One of the truths that the database society manifests is that government no longer trusts the people; and it no longer trusts the people because it has lost the trust of the people.

But it’s not just about government but about the state: the British state, in particular. You’re right to link the ‘transformational government’ programme to the break down of the unitary state that the Labour government itself initiated through devolution. The whole British establishment knows that it is engaged in a battle for its very survival and that its legitimacy to represent and speak for the different nations of Britain has been fundamentally and fatally undermined.

And this is why, in more than a merely metaphorical or rhetorical sense, every citizen becomes a potential terrorist: someone whom the government suspects of wishing the British state as presently constituted to fall apart – which growing ranks of its citizenry do in fact wish. 42 days and systematic identity management across all government departments are of a piece, in that they are about – as you put it, quoting from ‘Who do they think we are?’ – discovering the “deep truth about the citizen (or business) based on their behaviour, experiences, beliefs, needs or desires”.

In other words, it’s about finding out who is an enemy of the state: the enemy within. For most of us, ID cards and CCTV surveillance are ‘sufficient’ for the state apparatus to reassure itself that we are not a serious threat. For the rest of us, there’s 42 days. But the danger is in the blurring, in the eyes and state machinery of paranoid control, between legitimate, democratic antagonism towards the state, and illegitimate, physically violent hostility: terrorism.

I’m an enemy of the British state, in that I’d like to see it replaced by a federal state or abolished altogether (i.e. through Scottish and English independence). And if we had a federal state, this should have much less central power, with most of the national-level decisions taken by an English parliament and a much stronger local-government sector. Does this make me ‘suspect’ in the eyes of the database state? Probably, yes: and therein lies its true danger.

But we need to be clear that the fight is not just with ‘the state’ in some universal sense; but with the British state. And this is because it’s primarily an English struggle, as the Scots and Welsh are pursuing their own paths towards constitutional democracy. And what will emerge, if the libertarians are successful in the present fight, will almost certainly not be a new written constitution, bill of rights and representative democracy for Britain but for England. Indeed, it’s fundamentally because the people of England have lost their faith in the legitimacy of the British state to govern them that the government is so concerned to manage and orchestrate their British identity in the first place.

And it is to popular English national sentiment, and to the sense of our traditional English liberties, that the libertarian cause will have to appeal if it is to touch the hearts and minds of the Sun-reading class.

What I want to say here follows on from these points. The libertarian and nationalist cause in this country have fundamentally the same goals and should see themselves as natural allies. ‘This country’ being England, let it be understood. Put simply, we’re both pushing for an end to the British state as currently constituted, and want a proper representative democracy – responsive to the needs, concerns and sentiments of the people – backed up by a new constitutional settlement and preferably a bill of rights.

But the reality that the libertarians need to get their head round is that this new constitutional settlement must radically address and resolve the asymmetry with which the different nations of the UK are presently governed. There is no way back to the old unitary UK, and the new constitution cannot be one that applies in a monolithic way to the whole of ‘Britain’. The unitary UK no longer exists, and to pretend that it does – as the government has attempted to do since devolution – is either wilful deceit (an attempt to suppress English aspirations for democratic self-governance) or blind self-deception. Similarly, there is no stock of idealism, aspiration, energy and commitment that could unite the English, Scots and Welsh behind a common cause for a new British constitution and a system of governance that pretended to accommodate and perpetuate the present muddled and iniquitous devolution settlement.

The only way forward for the libertarian movement is to accept that there can be no unitary-British process of constitutional reform: the Scots and the Welsh are seeking and articulating their own way forward, and the aspirations of those countries for national self-determination cannot simply be subsumed and channelled into a single British constitutional process. Which means that, for the rest of us, the process is of necessity an English process. The difference, for the time being at least, between the libertarian and the nationalist is merely that the latter regards this necessity as being also a virtue. But it can become so for the libertarian, too, especially if the process results in the outcomes that libertarians have sought for so long: electoral reform; an executive accountable to parliament; a parliament accountable to the people; a truly independent judiciary respecting our age-old, English civil liberties, such as habeas corpus and privacy; etc.

Indeed, I would say that accepting that this process has got to be an English one in the first instance, and espousing this as a positive thing in its own right, actually presents the only realistic possibility of achieving the libertarian objectives in the present circumstances. This is firstly because an English solution – a new English constitutional settlement – is the only realistic goal, for the reasons I’ve set out: no more unitary British fixes to the broken Union. Secondly, it’s the only way that the libertarian cause, such as it has been taken up by David Davis, can become a truly popular cause. This is – as I set out in my comment on Anthony Barnett’s article – because the more profound reason why Westminster politicians and the British government are no longer trusted is because they are out of touch with the English people and are not properly accountable to them: a government that does dual purpose as a UK and as an English administration, elected through a ludicrously disproportionate voting system, and by the votes of Scottish and Welsh people, headed up by a Scottish PM and several senior Scottish ministers who make laws for England but can’t be voted out by English people; whereas the people of Scotland and Wales can vote for two governments – one specifically for their countries, with policy agendas directly addressing the needs and concerns of their countries; and one for reserved UK matters (and for England-only matters to boot).

And then, on top of all this, an emasculated parliament that dutifully performs the will of the executive through a combination of misplaced party loyalty and corrupt deal making, and which is therefore unable to defend the freedoms or represent the will of the people; but which still has the nerve to claim that its ‘sovereignty’ is sacrosanct – as if this had anything to do with the sovereign will of the people, rather than being merely a reference to the sovereign power of the monarch as enacted by an executive whose only claim to a democratic mandate is an election held at its own whim where it is awarded sweeping majorities purely and simply because of the crazy electoral system – and certainly not because of the actual votes of the English people.

This has got to stop. And we need a new constitutional settlement for England. Forget about the British dimension for the moment; that’s out of our hands – ‘our hands’ meaning, of course, the hands of the English. As English people, we have to seek a democratic solution for England, and leave the Scots and Welsh to work out their own destiny. What we can do, however – and this is perhaps the only chance for any British state to survive – is frame our new constitution in such a way that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish can choose to join us or not. By this, I’m referring to the fact that there are two dimensions to the reform process:

  1. an English bill of rights, which would enshrine the fundamental, universal principles and liberties I’ve alluded to, e.g. parliamentary accountability, representative democracy, judicial independence, freedom until charged of an imprisonable offence, innocence until proven guilty, etc. There’s nothing wrong in such a bill of rights being referred to as English rather than British; if such a statement is a product of the English people themselves freely articulating and agreeing to a set of fundamental principles, then it should justly and proudly be called English. There’s nothing to then prevent the Scots and Welsh adopting those principles wholesale as laying the foundation for their own governance, or adapting them to their different circumstances and, in the case of Scotland, juridical principles;
  2. the specific forms of governance that are devised in accordance with such principles, and which would form the basis of a new English constitution. In this aspect of the process, we – the English people – could devise a federal, Britain-wide system that could accommodate the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish if they wished to be part of it. If we got the design right, they might decide not to go off on their own. But, in order for that to happen, there would have to be a high degree of autonomy for each of the nations of the UK, so as to give expression to the aspirations for national self-determination in each of them, including, of course, in England. The nations of the present UK would become the primary sources of sovereign authority in the land – sovereign because answerable to their people – and the national parliaments would have to have equal powers, including those of initiating primary legislation and raising all the taxes required to fund the programmes for which they were responsible.

A multi-national, federal constitutional settlement such as this could potentially balance out the four nations’ aspirations for autonomy with the wish to remain in a union of friendship and co-operation in matters of mutual interest, which would be the domain of a federal British government. A constitutional settlement which, on the other hand, tried to impose a unitary British bill of rights and written constitution would be bound to provoke resistance and resentment on the part of Scots and English alike; whereas, letting the Scots and the Welsh appropriate ever greater powers to their devolved bodies while denying the parity of a similar national parliament to the English might just drive the placid English into revolt.

But the important point is that the formulation and realisation of this new federal system of governance should be driven primarily by the English, and not imposed on them from above by the British government, as in the present government’s stymied Governance of Britain programme. We need to devise a federal system that protects the rights of the smaller nations of Britain, so their will cannot be overridden. It would have to be a system they wanted to join; and that’s really how the choice should be formulated: a comprehensive settlement, addressing English demands for freedom and democracy, that the other UK nations should be offered the choice of joining if they wish. As opposed to a process of drift whereby the other nations elect to abandon the rotten British ship, and we English will not have worked out a new system of governance to protect our rights, and give proud and positive expression to England and Englishness, which will otherwise be merely the default option in any case. Such a declaration of intent might give some decent impetus to the whole process of redrawing the national-constitutional map of these islands, and bring the agonising death of the unitary UK to a swift and merciful end. So, we – the English people – would say to our neighbours: ‘OK, you’ve been working your way towards self-governance; now we in England are going to recast our forms of governance, and reformulate our rights, and you can join us – with your national rights and democratic will protected – if you wish, or not’.

But it’s down to us, the English people, to seize the initiative and set the agenda. After all, if we don’t stand up for our freedoms, the British parliament has shown itself unwilling and unable to protect them.

7 July 2008

BOGOF, Gordon Brown!

Gordon Brown has been dispensing some of his home-spun Scottish wisdom again! Apparently, according to the BBC website news report, he thinks we Britons should “stop wasting food in an effort to help combat rising living costs” and that “‘unnecessary’ purchases were contributing to price hikes, and . . . people [should] plan meals in advance and store food properly”. On BBC Radio Four this morning, they also mentioned that GB thinks supermarkets should stop running ‘buy three for the price of two’-type offers, encouraging consumers to buy more food than they need, which they end up throwing away.

OK, I know where he’s coming from. There is a serious point that people do tend to over-provision and throw away an obscene amount of food; and this does have serious consequences for the environment and global food prices, as demand from western economies is higher than it needs to be. GB’s intervention comes on the same day as a Cabinet Office report on the issue is being published; and this will look into the complex issues in some depth.

However, it’s a bit rich coming from the PM to lecture English consumers on their buying and eating habits. Thanks to his exhortations, the supermarkets will offer fewer multi-saver deals to cash-strapped families that need them! It’s one thing to buy food you don’t need; but it’s altogether another thing to take advantage of temporary price reductions and stock up with things that you know you will use. This is how many people on what used to be called the bread line get by. Of course, the New Labour government, being so remote from the concerns of working people it used to represent, has become insensitive to these realities. Oh well, I’m sure the much-vaunted mechanisms of the market will find a way round this obstacle; and if they can’t offer buy-one-get-one-free (BOGOF) deals, the supermarkets will find other ways to reduce the prices on essentials to keep the punters coming through the door.

But what I’d like to say to GB is – on the same principle as doing away with BOGOF promotions – can we do away with a system whereby English political consumers voters have no choice other than to buy one government and get another vote-free! We have one election in which we vote for both the UK government and a government for England; whereas punters in Scotland and Wales can vote once for their own devolved governments, and a second time for a British (oh yes, and an English) government. Come to think of it, that means Scottish and Welsh voters get three for the price of two; whereas, really, we in England pay double for just one!

The consequence is, we get a Scottish-elected PM whose jurisdiction on food matters is limited to England: a country he’s not elected to serve. Which entitles him, in his own eyes, to lecture us on food economy. So my response to GB is: BOGOF, Mr Brown!

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