Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

22 May 2010

Lib-Con Coalition: A New Dispensation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

versus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

13 May 2010

Who and what is the Lib-Con coalition for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 April 2010

Lib Dem manifesto: England included, but only as a footnote

I haven’t had the time, I’m afraid, to do a big long hatchet job from an English perspective on the Lib Dem manifesto as I have done on the Labour and Tory documents. However I will say this: congratulations to the Lib Dems for being the only one of the big three parties to a) address the English Question in any shape or form, and b) propose scrapping the unjust Barnett Formula.

On the English Question, they say they would: “address the status of England within a federal Britain, through the Constitutional Convention set up to draft a written constitution for the UK as a whole”. This has been pretty much their established position for a while now; and at least they’re proposing to resolve England’s anomalous constitutional position with some degree of democratic fairness.

On the Barnett Formula, they say they would “Replace the current Barnett formula for allocating funding to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments with a new needs-based formula, to be agreed by a Finance Commission of the Nations”. Not sure I like the implication of the ‘Nations’ concept here (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland being treated as nations while England is not), nor does this mention any sort of needs-based system for distributing funding throughout England – but it’s a start.

The Lib Dems don’t, however, discuss the West Lothian Question, which might seem a lesser issue than the more fundamental English Question. But the fact they omit this aspect of the English democratic deficit leads one to question the Lib Dems’ full commitment to making the Westminster parliament truly accountable to voters, while at the same time it raises doubts as to how they view the status of England as such within any putative federal Britain.

For a start, in a hung parliament, which is the only circumstance in which the Lib Dems have any realistic hope of being able to implement any of their manifesto proposals, one strongly suspects that they would be prepared to use the bargaining and voting powers of their Scottish and Welsh MPs as part of their support to a minority Labour or Tory government, including in passing England-only bills. If they don’t say explicitly that they wouldn’t do this, one can only suppose that realpolitik would kick in if they found themselves in a position of influence at Westminster, and they would practice non-English votes on English laws.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, they don’t seem to believe in any sort of clear distinction not only between English and non-English policies – the blurring of that distinction being the means by which Labour and the Conservatives attempt to justify using their non-English MPs to vote through English laws – but also between England and Britain per se: the actual identities of England and Britain as nations.

Like those of Labour and the Tories, the Lib Dem manifesto talks overwhelmingly of ‘Britain’ even though vast portions of it deal with England-only matters like schools and the NHS. When discussing these things in particular, the document stops short of explicitly referring to them as ‘British’ (talking of ‘our schools’ or ‘the NHS’, for instance) but nonetheless omits any reference at all to ‘England’ or ‘English’ in these contexts, even though it is England only for which these policies are intended. In the area of culture and sport, this is even worse, and everything is discussed as ‘British’ including a potential World Cup tournament in England in 2018 – even Labour refers to bringing the World Cup to England.

Now, in the spirit of ‘fairness’ that the manifesto claims as its own (carrying the tag line ‘Building a fairer Britain’), the Lib Dems do actually acknowledge that their policies in these areas relate to England only. But they do this in their customary manner: essentially, in a footnote, which even then admits to the fact only in a rather grudging, indirect way. In the last-but-one page, literally in the manner of a legal disclaimer, or advisory note to investors and analysts in a corporate annual report, they make the following admission:

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

Note that they refer to their “priorities for a Liberal Democrat Government in Westminster”, not their priorities or policies for England, even though they admit that “many decisions made in Westminster now apply to England only”. It’s just not good enough to devote over a hundred pages to detailing your policies for an entity referred to as ‘Britain’ and then, in an obscure footnote, to half-heartedly admit that many of them are relevant to England only. The Lib Dems, like the other big parties, are clearly hanging on to the idea of forming a British government for England – with non-English MPs at Westminster continuing to form policies and pass laws for England – rather than allowing a government for the English people elected only by English people to come into being.

Not setting out their English policies as English policies, and canvassing the support of non-English voters on those policies under the pretence that they are ‘British’, means that the Lib Dems, too, are conning English people out of an honest and accountable election on openly English matters, and are perpetrating the ‘West Lothian Election’ just as much as Labour.

So, full marks to the Lib Dems for addressing the English Question. But, based on this manifesto, can we be really sure that they want England to be anything more than a footnote in their new written constitution: just a UK territory over which Westminster’s writ continues to hold sway?

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.

5 October 2009

The mother of all conspiracy theories: Blair for president, Mandelson for PM and Britain for the Euro

If you’re one for conspiracy theories, here’s one to keep you awake at night.

It’s already practically certain that Tony Blair will be appointed as the EU’s first president as soon as all 27 EU states have ratified the Lisbon Treaty. After the ‘yes’ vote in the got-it-wrong-do-it-again Irish referendum on Friday, only the Czech Republic and Poland have yet to sign above the dotted line, and this is expected to happen before the British general election, scheduled for May or June 2010. President Sarkozy of France is reported to have given his blessing for Blair to be shoe-horned into the post; and Angela Merkel is thought to be resigned to the idea.

Thinking about why Sarkosy would endorse Tony as president, it occurred to me that the plan might be to replace the so-called special relationship between Britain and the US with a new special relationship between the EU (headed up by the darling of the US political class, Tony Blair) and the US. In other words, Blair would be the ideal candidate to give the new EU job real clout in the international community, positioning the EU to become a global player in its own right.

Then I came across an article in the Mail Online that suggests that President Obama and other world leaders are planning to set up a new club of the world’s leading economies called the G4, comprising the US, Japan, China and the Eurozone countries. This certainly fits in with the idea that other EU countries want the EU itself to be elevated into a major world power in its own right.

The final piece in the jigsaw was suggested to me by a report in the Mirror, which indicated that Jack Straw’s House of Lords-reform bill will indeed remove the existing ban on lords becoming MPs for five years after resigning as lords. It had previously been mooted that this bill would remove the last impediment to Peter Mandelson’s glorious return to the House of Commons, and here was the confirmation.

So here’s the scenario: Mandelson is found a nice safe Labour seat at the general election as the heir apparent to Brown in the likely event that Labour loses. Or else, more sinister still, an incumbent Labour MP for a safe seat falls on his or her sword before the election allowing Mandelson to become an MP and then mount a coup to oust Brown; so we’d have Labour being led into the election by Prime Minister Mandelson. This would coincide with Tony Blair’s elevation to the EU presidency. If, by that time, the plan to form the G4 is on the way to fruition, the Labour Party would have a much stronger argument at the election for saying that Britain needs to remain at the heart of the EU in order to continue to have a powerful voice in the key economic decisions. They’d be able to claim with some credibility that a Mandelson premiership would be best placed to achieve such results given his long friendship with Blair, and his EU contacts and experience as the EU’s Trade Commissioner. They would certainly argue that a Euro-sceptic Tory government intent on renegotiating the terms of the Lisbon Treaty would marginalise Britain still more at the EU and global top tables. Indeed, Mandelson would be able to push for Britain’s entry into the euro, making it part of the Eurozone group of economies represented in the G4. Certainly, if the value of the pound continues to fall, thanks to Gordon Brown’s borrowing on our behalf, and drops below the euro, the economic arguments in favour of Britain joining the euro could become compelling.

And what of Gordon Brown himself? Perhaps he could then become the Eurozone’s special representative in G4 negotiations and day-to-day co-ordination of economic affairs: a reward for having damaged the British economy so much that it had to join the euro.

Even if Mandelson doesn’t succeed in ousting Brown before the election, as leader of the opposition, he could greatly reduce Prime Minister Cameron’s room for manoeuvre in his dealings with the EU, especially with his mate Tony in the hot seat there. And if Brown is given an influential role in the G4 or G20, it could make it very difficult to hold a referendum on Britain’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Apart from anything else, it could be argued that we need big hitters like Blair and Brown batting for Britain at the heart of the EU and the G4 grouping; and if Britain withdrew from Lisbon, or even from the EU, then not only would Blair have to resign as EU president, but Britain would have no influence whatsoever.

But what those idiots don’t realise is that were they to achieve, or even just attempt to achieve, these objectives through such machinations, this would only demonstrate still more the importance of Britain, or at least England, pulling away from the EU, as this is the only way to preserve our sovereignty and freedom from an unaccountable EU and corrupt, power-hungry politicians such as Mandelson, Blair and Sarkozy.

The stakes could not be much higher. What prospect would there be of establishing self-government for England as a distinct nation if Britain itself loses control over the management of its economy and signs away its sovereignty through the Lisbon Treaty / EU Constitution, which contains an in-built mechanism for transferring ever greater powers to the EU Parliament and Council of Ministers?

All the more reason to vote for a party that will give us a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty at the very least, if not EU membership. But are the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (who, as far as I can tell, still support a referendum on British membership of the EU) going to stand up and be counted?

2 July 2009

Gordon Brown makes the case for an English parliament

In what is, on one level, an astonishingly insulting and complacent article in the Daily Record yesterday, commemorating the tenth anniversary of Scottish devolution, our hapless unelected First Minister unwittingly demonstrates the case for an English parliament. He achieves this feat not only by extolling, as successes of the Scottish parliament, the very things that most embitter the English about their democratic deficit and fiscal inequality compared with the Scots (“free personal care for the elderly, tuition fees, free travel for the elderly and prescription charges”) but by advancing arguments in favour of the Scottish parliament that undermine the very integrity of the Union and can logically be applied to England in just the same way as to Scotland.

For a start, though, the above list of benefits that devolution has secured for Scotland really is rubbing English noses in it – does he not realise that these are the very stuff of English grievances about the Barnett Formula and the lack of an English government accountable to the English people? If he does realise this, then this can only be described as indulging in Anglophobic schadenfreude. Brown has the gall to imply that the absence of such benefits in England reflects a different political culture and national priorities: he calls these policies “Scottish solutions to Scottish issues”, as if they weren’t issues in England and the different policies that apply to England were somehow the expression of England’s democratic choices – whereas we know that top-up fees for English students in particular were passed into law only with the support of Scottish MPs whose constituents are not affected by them.

This law, and the equally unjust fact that elderly persons in England have to meet the cost of their personal care, which is provided free of charge in Scotland (only yesterday the government was proposing a new system where English people only will have to pay into an insurance scheme – effectively, a top-up tax – or else pay a lump sum on retirement to cover the costs of their care in old age), are perfect examples of the kind of “unpopular decisions [that] were made on health, education and policing”, which Brown brings forward as justification for a Scottish parliament.

Well, just because a government’s policies are unpopular, that doesn’t make them illegitimate if the government is properly democratic and accountable. But Brown implies that the policies for Scotland of successive Westminster governments were insufficiently democratic and responsive to the wishes of the Scottish people, and that they were not only bad policies but bad government: “people now often forget . . . how poorly Scotland had been dealt with in the past. People rightly felt frustrated in recent decades as unpopular decisions were made on health, education and policing. Scotland could be governed better. People deserved better”. Well, if this is the case for Scotland, then it is equally valid for England: New Labour’s policies for England only on health, education and policing are not only unpopular with the people they affect but are an instance of deficiently democratic, unaccountable government, with decisions being made for England by Westminster politicians that are not answerable to the English people.

In fact, the situation now is even more unjust than that which applied to the Scots before devolution. At least then, the legislative activity of non-Scottish MPs affecting Scotland was democratically legitimate, as Britain was a fully unitary state at that time; so there was in principle no distinction between Scottish and non-Scottish MPs, as there was just one national government accountable to all the people in the Kingdom. Ironically, though, the fact that Brown singles out these policy areas is indicative of the fact that, in his thinking, Scotland was not an integral part of a unitary kingdom even before devolution.

Ever since the Acts of Union in 1707, Scotland has maintained distinct policies and systems in education and justice; or rather, the Union state has seen fit to allow Scotland to hold on to its different approaches and traditions in these areas. And this in essence is why Brown views the pre-devolution settlement as unfair to Scotland: the differences between Scotland and England in these regards, and with respect to the Kirk (an aspect of Scottish culture that is highly familiar to Brown), are seen as constitutive of a Scottish national identity that is distinct from that of ‘mainstream Britain’ (aka England). Consequently, the Scottish parliament, when it started its work in 1999, was truly Scotland’s ‘own’ parliament precisely because it handed back to the Scots the responsibility for legislating about those aspects of Scottish life that had always remained distinctive and defining of Scottish identity. So it wasn’t so much that devolution opened up a breach in the unitary British state but rather it acknowledged the pre-existing fact of the difference between Scotland and Britain. As Brown says: “For the first time in 300 years, Scotland once again had its own parliament”.

Well, I’m sorry, no: for 300 years (i.e. ever since the Acts of Union), Scotland did have its own parliament – the Union Parliament. If Scotland and England are parts of a genuine Union – two nations merging into one state – then the parliament for that state is the only legitimate parliament for each of those nations. You can’t have it both ways: either Scotland, before devolution, was part of an integral Union, so that devolution brought about something fundamentally new (a distinct Scottish-national polity); or it was never truly integrated into the United Kingdom state, so that Holyrood was in fact the restoration of something that had been lost for 300 years: a properly Scottish parliament. This is clearly how Brown sees it. But if this is the case, it undermines the legitimacy of the Westminster parliament to act as a parliament for England and, indeed, it undermines the foundations of the Union itself. If the Union Parliament’s jurisdiction in properly Scottish domestic matters has never been legitimate – if it has never been ‘Scotland’s own parliament’ – then how can we accept its legitimacy in English domestic policy and legislation? But, more fundamentally, the assertion of a distinct Scottish polity that is said to have continued in a suppressed form throughout the duration of the Union implies that the Union has never been authentic or complete: not the two nations merging to form one but remaining two separate entities merely governed through a common system that did not really belong to either of them – a common-law (indeed, Commons-law) partnership and marriage of convenience, rather than a true marriage of equals on the basis of which there is no longer any distinction between the spouses, who hold everything in common after they are married.

Either that, or the model is that the Westminster parliament – despite being avowedly the parliament for a unitary state – remained fundamentally the English parliament it had historically been, to which Scotland was effectively subordinated through the Union: a situation that the present Scottish parliament remedied. This indeed seems to be the model that Brown adopts with all of his talk about “how poorly Scotland had been dealt with in the past”: as if Scotland were something that the Westminster parliament merely ‘dealt with’ as an object of policy, rather than being a nation that governed its own affairs through the parliament of a Union of which it was an integral part. This model undermines the assumptions of the Union just as much as the idea of Scotland and England remaining separate entities while governed by a common system: in this instance, the Union is merely the political instrument of an English nation that ruled Scotland essentially in its own interests; as opposed to a common structure of government that belonged to neither of the distinct nations.

Well, if the Westminster parliament has always in essence remained the English parliament, let it become an authentic English parliament once more, just as Holyrood, in Brown’s view, is an authentic Scottish parliament: English-elected MPs only making the laws that apply to England; rather than England being ruled, as now, in the interests of the ‘Union’ (i.e. of the devolved nations) by a parliament that is not accountable to the English people. This is a direct reversal of the historical situation that Brown adduces as the justification for creating the present Scottish parliament: a Union parliament (effectively, the proxy of England) ruling Scotland undemocratically in a way that placed the needs of the ‘Union’ above the wishes of the people of Scotland.

But, in such a restored English parliament, there would be no place for unelected (non-English-elected) prime ministers such as Gordon Brown: there would be no opportunity for gravy train-riding Scottish politicians to have their Westminster cake and eat devolved government or, as I would put it, have their own Scottish cake and eat England’s, too. The way Brown puts it, in his article, is: “devolution gives Scotland the best of both worlds”. Well, yes. That statement comes after Brown has reeled off a list of ways in which the fact of being part of a ‘Union’ works to the advantage of Scotland (and very often to the corresponding disadvantage of England), such as: the bail-out of “Scotland’s two main banks” (I thought they were financial institutions vital for the British economy), which “saved thousands of Scottish jobs and protected Scots’ hard-earned savings” (what about the HBOS jobs in Halifax? Well, you see, as the Scots are so hard-working and thrifty, they deserved it more than us spendthrift English); and preferential treatment of Scottish shipyards in defence contracts building two “state-of-the-art aircraft carriers” whose actual benefit for the Armed Forces, in terms of providing capabilities that are needed (as opposed to offering subsidies to Scottish industry), is highly questionable.

And that’s to say nothing of “the [Scottish] parliament’s £35billion annual budget” that enables Scottish people – good luck to them – to enjoy 20% higher levels of per-capita public expenditure than the English: those free university and personal-care places being subsidised by the lack of them in England. No wonder that Brown affirms, towards the end of this homily to Scottish self-interest, that “I’m proud that this Government [i.e. the UK government] has never stopped focusing on delivering for the Scottish people”.

Well, perhaps it’s time we had an English government that would focus a bit more on delivering for the English people. And we know who wouldn’t be in charge of it.

9 June 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

2 October 2008

A united country: But which country, Mr Cameron?

At first sight, David Cameron’s performance in his keynote speech to the Tory conference yesterday was superior to that of either Nick Clegg or Gordon Brown in their own conference speeches. That is, if you take as your criterion my somewhat facetious measure of the number of references to ‘England’ or ‘English’: seven in Cameron’s speech, compared with four in GB’s and none whatsoever in Britology Clegg’s. However, closer analysis reveals that six out of Cameron’s mentions were of the ‘Bank of England’, and only one was of England herself – in the sentence that also contained the only instances of the words ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Northern Ireland’: “I am deeply patriotic about this country and believe we have both a remarkable history and an incredible future. I believe in the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and I will never do anything to put it at risk”.

That’s it. That’s all the mention the great nations of ‘this country’ merit. No discussion of devolution; of the Tories’ parlous electoral position in Scotland or Wales; and of the proposed alliance / merger with the UUP in Northern Ireland mooted a couple of months ago. To say nothing – and he did say nothing – about the West Lothian Question or the English Question. And that’s because saying nothing about these things enabled Cameron to pretend that the whole of his speech was about a single, united ‘country’ (25 occurrences) called Britain (15) which a Conservative majority at the next election would give the Tories a mandate to govern – ignoring the fact that they’d have virtually no representation in either Scotland or Wales, and that practically all their MPs would represent English constituencies.

And that’s why Cameron’s speech was in large measure just addressed at an English audience and dealt with England-only policy proposals. But it had to make out that these related to ‘Britain’ in order to gloss over the England-only nature of a Tory government – both with respect to its support and its sphere of action.

Take the much-touted transport policy: new high-speed rail links between English cities instead of a third runway at Heathrow. All in favour of that, except Cameron had to go and spoil it, didn’t he: “So when our economy is overheating in the south east but still needs more investment in the north the right thing to do is not go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow but instead build a new high speed rail network linking Birmingham, Manchester, London, Leeds let’s help rebalance Britain’s economy”. Doh! No, it’s not ‘Britain’, dummy: those are all English cities. A great policy for England, which should help its environment as well as its economy, and you have to go and call it a plan for Britain. No wonder those Scots are complaining that you’re giving preferential treatment to England (are they having a laugh?). Now, if you’d just presented the policy accurately as one for England alone – as your competence in transport affairs will be limited to England – they couldn’t reasonably complain you were discriminating against Scotland by just doing your job as a government for England. Could they?

Maybe Cameron needs to go back to school and re-learn his geography. And he’s got a plan for schools, too – but only in England, you understand. As he said: “there aren’t enough good schools, particularly secondary schools, particularly in some of our bigger towns and cities” – presumably, including some of those same English cities that will be connected with those new high-speed rail links. However, here I would agree with him: state secondary education in England is failing too many kids, especially in poorer inner-city areas; certainly by comparison with the better-funded state systems in Scotland and Wales. Not sure his ‘reform’ (ugly Blairite word) offers all the answers, though: “That’s why Michael Gove has such radical plans to establish 1,000 New Academies, with real freedoms, like grant maintained schools used to have. And that’s why, together, we will break open the state monopoly and allow new schools to be set up”. Sounds a bit like more of the same Blairite marketisation of the system – only in England – which conveniently allows the English education budget to be kept down, as academies are expected to attract much of their funding from alternative sources, such as businesses and commercial sponsorship. Well, perhaps it will generate some improvement. They couldn’t do much worse than New Labour. But don’t let’s be fooled by the ‘together, we will break open the state monopoly’ – this ‘together’ being a leitmotiv throughout the speech that articulates its core idea of unity: as a party, society and country. There’s only one country these measures relate to and that’s England, not Britain.

Ditto the NHS. David Cameron says: “We are the party of the NHS in Britain today and under my leadership that is how it’s going to stay”. Wrong again: all your points about the NHS concern only the NHS in England, not Britain. There’s something in what you say, though: too many targets; too much bureaucracy; too many reforms; not enough control given to the people at the coal face who actually care for patients – the doctors, nurses and cleaning teams. Perhaps if we were honest and just recognised that we’re talking about the English NHS here, then maybe there’d be more emphasis on delivering a service that genuinely reflected English people’s priorities. But then, that might lead to more vociferous calls for spending parity with Scotland and Wales. Cameron’s speech is short on specifics so as to avoid these embarrassing funding issues; and he merely appears to offer more market forces and competition a la Blair: “We’ll give patients an informed choice about where to go for their care so doctors stop answering to Whitehall, and start answering to patients”. To have a choice is fine; but to have a decent standard of care available for all within reasonable distance from their homes is better in these cash-strapped times. I’m not sure that having hospitals and GP surgeries competing with each other to attract more patients and funding is going to deliver that basic level for all – a value which still seems to inform NHS provision in the other countries of the UK.

Does it matter that when Cameron refers to Britain in relation to these things, he’s actually talking only about England? If the Tories deliver policies that are more in tune with what English people want, what does it matter if he dresses them up as British? It does matter, in my view, because he’s making a fool out of the English. The Scots and Welsh aren’t fooled when they listen to such blandishments: they know full well that Cameron’s talking about exclusively English matters. They just switch off till he comes on to genuine UK-wide topics such as the economy or defence. It’s only the English that are tricked into believing the Tories are coming up with remedies to fix “our broken society” in these policy areas. And we’re then prepared to buy in to solutions that appear to answer to our aspirations but which in reality peddle the same old privatisation mantras that we’ve been assailed with since the days of Margaret Thatcher. And privatisation allows public expenditure to be kept down and so help fund the more generously state-funded systems in Scotland and Wales.

But then, a Tory government wouldn’t be responsible for how the Scottish and Welsh governments spent our their money, would it? In fact, it would be responsible for transport, education and health only in England. ‘Responsibility’ is one of Cameron’s new by-words, and there was a whole lyrical passage on it: 

“For me, the most important word is responsibility. Personal responsibility. Professional responsibility. Civic responsibility. Corporate responsibility. Our responsibility to our family, to our neighbourhood, our country. . . . That is what this Party is all about. Every big decision; every big judgment I make: I ask myself some simple questions. Does this encourage responsibility and discourage irresponsibility?” Fair enough; but the country for which a Tory government would be responsible – and to which it would be answerable – certainly wouldn’t be England, even though 100% of its laws applied to England and only 30% or so applied to the rest of the UK. Westminster politicians have got used, under New Labour, to not being responsible to the people they’re governing (English – not British – people in the case of English MPs) or alternatively not governing (Scottish people, in the case of Scottish MPs). Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the blight of sleaze, described by Cameron in these terms: “no-one will ever take lectures from politicians about responsibility unless we put our own house in order. That means sorting out our broken politics. People are sick of it. Sick of the sleaze, sick of the cynicism”.

Well, in my book, putting the Westminster House in order, mending our broken politics and dealing with the cynicism born of lack of accountability means fixing the inequitable, asymmetric devolution settlement that truly has broken ‘this country’: creating a Britain in which Scotland and Wales can and do look after their own interests literally on England’s expenses; and where supposedly national ‘UK’ politicians feel they have a mandate to run England when no one in England has been given the opportunity to vote on any policies for England. Maybe the UK state, in the guise of the New Labour and prospective New Conservative governments, can only offer England a reheated diet of Thatcherite privatisation, precisely because the state won’t take responsibility for England. Because the UK state doesn’t want to be what it actually is: a government for England. If they truly wished to live up to their responsibilities to England, then they’d actually try to design education, health and transport systems that genuinely correspond to what English people want and need. And I feel sure this would involve a deep commitment to public funding, albeit with responsibility for management and delivery of services passed down to the local level, and to the actual providers and users of those services.

But instead – with the honourable exception of the fast rail-link policy (and even there, we haven’t seen the details yet) – we appear to be being offered an under-funded education and health system in England dressed up as British parent, pupil, patient and provider power. Because Cameron is ever conscious of his responsibility to Britain: not to ‘Scotland’ or ‘Wales’, you understand; but to keeping the Union together by subsidising those other parts of it at England’s expense.

As he puts it in his finale: “I believe we now have the opportunity, and more than that the responsibility, to bring our country together. Together in the face of this financial crisis. Together in determination that we will come through it. Together in the hope, the belief that better times will lie ahead”.

We may get through these tough times together, Mr Cameron. But until you’re prepared to acknowledge what you are and are not doing for England, you won’t convince me that you’ll act responsibly towards my country.

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.