Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

10 October 2011

Don’t treat England differently! The Health and Social Care Bill, and the denial of England

It’s a fitting irony that we’re relying on the unelected second chamber of the Union parliament – the House of Lords – to radically revise or throw out the government’s [English] Health and Social Care Bill this week. England has no democratically elected parliament of its own, so it’s up to a non-democratic part of the Union parliament to reject an English bill for which there is no democratic mandate.

In this sense, the Bill neatly symbolises England’s invidious constitutional position. England is ‘treated differently’ from the UK’s other nations, both politically (by not having a national parliament or assembly to stand up for its people and its rights), and – as a consequence of its disempowerment – medically, because the government can get away with a health-care bill that English people have not voted for.

It’s this basic connection between the political limbo status of England and the Union government’s radical privatisation of health-care delivery in England that the UK Uncut group that blocked Westminster Bridge yesterday afternoon simply don’t, or won’t, get. In my previous post, I discussed my futile efforts to get UK Uncut to acknowledge the England-specific nature of the Health and Social Care Bill, and to refer to ‘England’ in their campaign material; so I won’t go over that ground in detail again. But ‘Don’t treat England differently!’ would have been an excellent slogan for the demonstrators to use yesterday, as it sums up the link between the political and health-care discrimination against England.

Another good slogan would have been: ‘Don’t let the British government RIP off the English NHS!’ In fact, I suggested some England-focused slogans to UK Uncut on Twitter but, unsurprisingly, got no response: not a dicky bird. In fact, I got no response of any sort – not even offensive – to my countless tweets and email pointing out their ignoring / ignorance of the England-specific dimension of the Bill and the fact that this considerably lessens the political impact of their campaign.

But perhaps ‘Don’t treat England differently!’ does in fact sum up another aspect of UK Uncut’s position that blunts their effectiveness, so to speak: they resolutely refuse to treat England differently from the UK / Britain in media and communications terms. In other words, like the Union establishment itself, UK Uncut resolutely refuses to separate English matters out from UK matters, and to differentiate between England and Britain. But if you don’t treat England differently, in this sense, you affirm the legitimacy of the British state and parliament to legislate for England in the way it does: with scant regard for public and professional opinion about the health service, and absolutely no regard for the / an English nation as such whose health service it might actually be.

So by refusing to ‘treat England differently’ from the UK, UK Uncut validates the right of the Union parliament to ride rough-shod over genuine democracy for England and the English public interest. And what a respectable, restrained, middle-class and, indeed, establishment protest it was in the end! Merely 3,000-maximum protesters blocking the bridge in front of Parliament for three hours on a Sunday afternoon, when the potential to cause any serious disruption to the life of the capital city was virtually at its lowest! Almost a Sunday afternoon walk in the park. In fact, it feels more like an act of homage and prostration before the all-powerful British parliament. Indeed, the protesters did prostrate themselves at the start of the demo, by lying down and acting dead – symbolically conceding defeat before they’d even started.

To be honest, although I don’t in any way endorse their methods, I feel the English rioters in August made more of a point politically, and a more powerful comment on the state of English society, than did UK Uncut yesterday. I’m not suggesting the Undivided-Unionites (UK Uncutters) should have rioted, but they could have done something more dramatic and forceful, even if not actually violent. How about setting up a tent hospital on Parliament Green, like the protest tent community in Madrid, and making the point that this is what basic English health care would be like if the Union government got its way? But UK Uncut clearly wanted to minimise the risk of confrontation with the police, and of other less peaceful-minded groups getting involved and causing damage. After all, they didn’t want to be associated in the public’s mind with those squalid rioters from the English underclass, now did they? The UK may be uncut (not divided by devolution) in their aspirations, but they certainly don’t feel they have anything in common with those common people from the sink estates –whom, incidentally, the NHS is there to serve.

But just as yesterday’s UK Uncut protest is today’s fish and chip paper, even the English riots have now been forgotten, and the chasm between the British governing class and the English underclass, and working class, has been papered over – for a time. But one thing’s for sure: the UK Uncutters share more in common with that governing class than with the common people of England. The riots were a manifestation of the fact that England does not have a political voice: that the British political class is interested only in the British economy, and in pursuing their own ideological agenda and business interests, not in those who get left behind. And UK Uncut, which speaks only in the name of the UK, not England, stands solidly – or should that be limply? – among those who deny England that voice.

English parliament

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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?

1 November 2009

Come back Guy Fawkes, all is forgiven!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

20 June 2009

The Dark Nationalist Heart of New Labour’s Devolution Project

I was struck last night by how the panellists of BBC1’s Any Questions displayed a rare unity in condemning the ‘nationalism’ to which they imputed the recent assaults on Romanian migrants in Northern Ireland. ‘There can be no place for nationalism in modern Britain’, they intoned to the audience’s acclaim.

Apart from the fact that statements such as this articulate a quasi-nationalistic, or inverted-nationalist, pride in Britain (‘what makes us “great as a nation” is our tolerance and integration of multiple nationalities’), this involved an unchallenged equation of hostility towards immigration / racism with ‘nationalism’. This was especially inappropriate in the Northern Ireland context where ‘nationalism’ is associated with Irish republicanism, and hence with Irish nationalism and not – what, actually? British nationalism à la BNP; the British ‘nationalism’ of Northern Irish loyalists (no one bothered to try and unpick whether the people behind the violence had been from the Catholic or Protestant community, or both); or even ‘English’ nationalism?

Certainly, it’s a stock response on the part of the political and media establishment to associate ‘English nationalism’ per se with xenophobia, opposition to immigration and racism. But this sort of knee-jerk reaction itself involves an unself-critical, phobic negativity towards (the concept of) the English – and certainly, the idea of the ‘white English’ – that crosses over into inverted racism, and which ‘colours’ (or, shall we say, emotionally infuses) people’s response to the concept of ‘English nationalism’. In other words, ‘English nationalism’, for the liberal political and media classes, evokes frightening images of racial politics and violence because, in part, the very concept of ‘the English nation’ is laden with associations of ‘white Anglo-Saxon’ ethnic aggressiveness and brutality. English nationalism is therefore discredited in the eyes of the liberal establishment because it is unable to dissociate it from its images of the historic assertion of English (racial) ‘superiority’ (for instance, typically, in the Empire). But the fact that the establishment is unable to re-envision what a modern and different English nationalism, and nation, could mean is itself the product of its ‘anti-English’ prejudice and generalisations bordering on racism: involving an assumption that the ‘white English’ (particularly of the ‘lower classes’) are in some sense intrinsically brutish and racist – in an a-historic way that reveals their ‘true nature’, rather than as a function of an imperial and industrial history that both brutalised and empowered the English on a massive scale.

This sort of anti-English preconception was built into the design of New Labour’s asymmetric devolution settlement: it was seen as legitimate to give political expression to Scottish and Welsh nationalism, just not English nationalism. Evidently, there is a place for some forms of nationalism in modern Britain – the ‘Celtic’ ones – but not the English variety. While this is not an exhaustive explanation, the anomalies and inequities of devolution do appear to have enacted a revenge against the English for centuries of perceived domination and aggression. First, there is the West Lothian Question: the well known fact that Scottish and Welsh MPs can make decisions and pass laws that relate to England only, whereas English MPs can no longer make decisions in the same policy areas in Scotland and Wales. This could be seen as a reversal of the historical situation, as viewed and resented through the prism of Scottish and Welsh nationalism: instead of England ruling Scotland and Wales through the political structures of the Union, now Scotland and Wales govern England through their elected representatives in Westminster, who ensure that England’s sovereignty and aspirations for self-government are frustrated.

It might seem a somewhat extreme characterisation of the present state of affairs to say that Scotland and Wales ‘govern England’; but it certainly is true that a system that involves the participation of Scottish and Welsh MPs is involved in the active suppression not only of the idea of an English parliament to govern English matters (which would restore parity with Scotland and Wales) but of English-national identity altogether: the cultural war New Labour has waged against the affirmation and celebration of Englishness in any form – the surest way to extinguish demands for English self-rule being to obliterate the English identity from the consciousness of the silent British majority. In this respect, New Labour’s attempts to replace Englishness with an a-national Britishness – in England only – are indeed reminiscent of the efforts made by an England-dominated United Kingdom in previous centuries to suppress the national identity, political aspirations and traditions of Scotland and Wales.

This notion of devolution enabling undue Scottish and Welsh domination of English affairs becomes less far-fetched when you bear in mind the disproportionate presence of Scottish-elected MPs that have filled senior cabinet positions throughout New Labour’s tenure, including, of course, Gordon Brown: chancellor for the first ten years and prime minister for the last two. And considering that Brown is the principal protagonist in the drive to assert and formalise a Britishness that displaces Englishness as the central cultural and national identity of the UK, this can only lend weight to suspicions that New Labour has got it in for England, which it views in the inherently negative way I described above.

However, the main grounds for believing that devolution enshrines nationalistic bias and vindictiveness towards England is the way New Labour has continued to operate the Barnett Formula: the funding mechanism that ensures that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland benefit from a consistently higher per-capita level of public expenditure than England. One thing to be observed to begin with is that Barnett is used to legitimise the continuing participation of non-English MPs in legislating for England, as spending decisions that relate directly to England only trigger incremental expenditure for the other nations.

But New Labour has used Barnett not only to justify the West Lothian Question but has attempted to justify it in itself as a supposedly ‘fair’ system for allocating public expenditure. It seems that it is construed as fair primarily because it does penalise England in favour of the devolved nations, not despite this fact. This sort of thinking was evidenced this week during a House of Lords inquiry into the Barnett Formula. Liam Byrne, the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, described the mechanism as “fair enough”, only to be rounded on by the Welsh Labour chair Lord Richard of Ammanford: “It doesn’t actually mean anything. Look at the difference between Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – is that fair?” So it’s OK for England to receive 14% less spending per head of population than Wales, 21% less than Scotland and 31% less than Northern Ireland; the only ‘unfairness’ in the system is the differentials between the devolved nations!

The view that this system is somehow ‘fair to England’ – except it’s not articulated as such, as this would be blatantly ridiculous and it ascribes to England some sort of legal personality, which the government denies: ‘fair for the UK as a whole’ would be the kind of phrase used – exemplifies the sort of nationalistic, anti-English bias that has characterised New Labour. It’s as if the view is that England ‘owes’ it to the other nations: that because it has historically been, and still is, more wealthy overall and more economically powerful than the other nations, it is ‘fair’ that it should both pay more taxes and receive less back on a sort of redistribution of wealth principle. But this involves a re-definition of redistribution of wealth on purely national lines, as if England as a whole were imagined as a nation of greedy capitalists and arrogant free marketeers that need to pay their dues to the exploited and neglected working class people of Scotland and Wales: the bedrock of the Labour movement.

In short, it’s ‘pay-back time’: overlaying the centuries-long resentment towards England’s wealth and power, England is being penalised for having supported Margaret Thatcher and her programme of privatisation, disinvestment in public services and ruthless market economics. ‘OK, if that’s how you want it, England, you can continue your programme of market reforms of public services; and if you want a public sector that is financially cost-efficient and run on market principles, then you can jolly well pay yourselves for the services that you don’t want the public purse to fund – after all, you can afford to, can’t you? But meanwhile, your taxes can fund those same services for us, because we can’t afford to pay for them ourselves but can choose to get them anyway through our higher public-spending allocation and devolved government’.

Such appears at least to be the ugly nationalistic, anti-English backdrop to the two-track Britain New Labour has ushered in with asymmetric devolution. This has allowed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to pursue a classic social-democratic path of high levels of funding for public services based on a redistributive tax system; that is, with wealth being redistributed from England, as the tax revenues from the devolved nations are not sufficient to fund the programme. Meanwhile, in England, New Labour has taken forward the Thatcherite agenda of reforming the public sector on market principles. In a market economy, individuals are required to pay for many things that are financed by the state in more social-democratic and socialist societies. Hence, the market economics can be used to justify the unwillingness of the state to subsidise certain things like university tuition fees (an ‘investment’ by individuals in their own economic future); various ‘luxuries’ around the edges of the standard level of medical treatment offered by the state health-care system (e.g. free parking and prescriptions, or highly advanced and expensive new drugs that it is not ‘cost-efficient’ for the public sector to provide free of charge); or personal care for the elderly, for which individuals in a market economy are expected to make their own provisions.

These sorts of market principle, which have continued and extended the measures to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ initiated under the Thatcher and Major governments, have been used to justify the government in England not paying for things that are funded by the devolved governments: public-sector savings made in England effectively cross-subsidise the higher levels of public spending in the other nations. Beneath an ideological agenda (reform of the public services in England), a nationalist agenda has been advanced that runs utterly counter to the principles of equality and social solidarity across the whole of the United Kingdom that Labour has traditionally stood for. Labour has created and endorsed a system of unequal levels of public-service provision based on a ‘national postcode lottery’, i.e. depending purely on which country you happen to live in. Four different NHS’s with care provided more
free at the point of use in some countries than others, and least of all in England; a vastly expanded university system that is free everywhere except England; and social care offered with varying levels of public funding, but virtually none in England. So much for Labour as the party of the working class and of the Union: not in England any more.

There’s an argument for saying that English people should pay for more of their medical, educational and personal-care needs, as they are better off on average. But that’s really not the point. Many English people struggle to pay for these things or simply can’t do so altogether, and so miss out on life-prolonging drug treatments or educational opportunities that their ‘fellow citizens’ elsewhere in the UK are able to benefit from. A true social-democratic- and socialist-style public sector should offer an equal level of service provision to anyone throughout the state that wishes to access it, whether or not they could afford to pay for private health care or education but choose not to. The wealthy end up paying proportionately more for public services anyway through higher taxes. Under the New Labour multi-track Britain, by contrast, those English people who are better off not only have to pay higher taxes but also have to pay for services that other UK citizens can obtain free of charge, as do poorer English people. One might even say that this extra degree of taxation (higher income tax + charges for public services) is a tax for being English.

But of course, it’s not just the middle and upper classes that pay the England tax; it’s Labour’s traditional core supporters: the English working class. On one level, it’s all very well taking the view that ‘middle England’ supports privatisation and a market economy, so they can jolly well pay for stuff rather than expecting the state to fund it. But it’s altogether another matter treating the less well-off people of England with the same disregard. It is disregarding working people in England to simply view it as acceptable that they should have to pay for hospital parking fees, prescription charges, their kids’ higher education and care for their elderly relatives, while non-English people can get all or most of that for free. What, are the English working class worth less than their Celtic cousins?

How much of this New Labour neglect of the common people of England can truly be put down to a combination of Celtic nationalism, anti-English nationalism, and indeed inverted-racist prejudice towards the white English working class? Well, an attribution to the English of an inherent preference for market economics – coming as it does from a movement that despised that ideology during the 1980s and early 1990s – could well imply a certain contempt for the English, suffused with Scottish and Welsh bitterness towards the ‘English’ Thatcher government.

But an even more fundamental and disturbing turning of the tables against the English is New Labour’s laissez-faire attitude to job creation, training and skills development for the English working class. The Labour government abandoned the core principle that it has a duty to assist working people in acquiring the skills they need to compete in an increasingly aggressive global market place, and to foster ‘full employment’ in England; and it just let the market take over. It’s as if the people of England weren’t worth the investment and didn’t matter, only the economy. And it’s because of Labour’s comprehensive sell out to market economics that it has encouraged the unprecedented levels of immigration we have experienced, deliberately to foster a low-wage economy; and, accordingly, a staggering nine-tenths of the new jobs created under the Labour government have gone to workers from overseas. Is it any wonder, then, that there is such widespread concern – whether well founded or not in individual cases – among traditional Labour voters in England about immigration, and about newcomers taking the jobs and housing that they might have thought a Labour government would have striven to provide for them?

How much of the liberal establishment’s contempt and fear of English white working-class racism and anti-immigration violence is an adequate response to a genuine threat? On the contrary, to what extent has that threat and that hostility towards migrants actually been brought about and magnified by New Labour’s pre-existing contempt and inverted racism towards the white working-class people of England, and the policies (or lack of them) that flowed from those attitudes?

Has New Labour, in its darker under-belly, espoused the contempt towards the ‘lazy’, ‘loutish’, disenfranchised English working class that Margaret Thatcher made her hallmark – and mixed it up in a heady cocktail together with Celtic nationalism, and politically-correct positive economic and cultural discrimination in favour of migrants and ethnic minorities?

One thing is for sure, though: English nationalism properly understood – as a movement that strives to redress the democratic and social inequalities of the devolution settlement out of a concern for all of the people residing and trying to earn a living in England – is far less likely to foster violence against innocent Romanian families than is the ‘British nationalism’ of the BNP or the various nationalisms of the other UK nations that have seen far lower levels of immigration than England.

But is there a place not just for English nationalism but for England itself in a British state and establishment that are so prejudiced against it?

18 September 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 September 2008

GB’s Dilemma: A Lack Of Vision

No unkindness to the blind-in-one-eye PM intended: I’m using ‘vision’ in the metaphorical sense here. One of the main criticisms that is currently being directed to GB [Gordon Brown], including by his own party, is that he has failed to set out his ‘vision’ for ‘the country’. This is true. But why has he failed so abjectly?

One reason that is not often discussed in the so-called national media is that GB has a problem with respect to the identity of ‘the country’ for which he is supposed to have a vision. As UK PM, he is effectively the leader of two countries: ‘Britain’ in retained matters; and England in matters that have been devolved to the governmental bodies of Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland, and where the UK government’s remit is now limited to England. These matters represent the majority of government business and also relate to fundamental traditional areas of Labour policy and social concern: education, health, social care, social services, planning, transport, etc.

Any Labour ‘vision’ for these things that is articulated purely as if it affected Britain as a whole is fundamentally flawed, indeed false: it involves hoodwinking the English public into thinking that Labour has a mandate to make and carry out policy in these areas because they are applied across the UK, which Labour was elected to govern; whereas, of course, the policies apply only to England, where Labour was not endorsed by the electorate in the 2005 elections, as more English people voted Tory than Labour.

There are additional, particular reasons why GB can articulate his ‘vision’ only in terms of ‘Britain’. Firstly, he actually appears to believe in Britain, i.e. that Britain exists as ‘the nation’ which he was elected to serve, and that people can / will buy in to a vision for that nation. Well, maybe he believed people would embrace this vision at the beginning of his premiership. But I doubt whether he believes that now after over a year of questioning of the legitimacy of a Scottish-elected PM making laws for a country to whose electorate he is not accountable; along with the perpetual chipping away at the Union’s credibility, aided and abetted by the adroit operator that is the Scottish First Minister.

Consequently, if it has become more and more difficult to set out any credible or acceptable vision for ‘Britain’ (when most of it relates to England only), this makes it more and more imperative to set out a credible vision specifically for England. That’s what Labour needs: the acknowledgement that most of what the UK government does directly affects England only, and a new vision addressing the English people as the English people, and setting out goals and priorities for England – and rectifying the inequalities of public expenditure and public-service provision between England and the other countries of the UK would be a good start.

But Labour, and GB in particular, can’t do this. GB can’t admit to being the de facto English First Minister precisely because of the issue of lack of democratic legitimacy: he’s not accountable, as a Scottish MP, to the people of England. And also, he doesn’t believe in England but only in Britain: not just because this justifies his political power, but – I believe – out of genuine adherence to an idea that Britain is the only true nation of this island; a credo which requires that England is not a distinct nation but only a part of the territory and nation of Britain. Maybe GB, like David Cameron, simply doesn’t want to be a PM for England only and is losing his enthusiasm for the job, which involves just that.

So the tragedy of GB’s premiership is not just that, having coveted the post for so long, he found that the trends in politics and economics undermined his credibility and support from the moment he took office; but that he found that the country he thought he was going to lead actually didn’t exist anymore – and the real country he was in charge of (England) rejected his attempts to subsume it into a Nation of Britain.

So, GB ‘really’ is blind in one eye: he has a vision only for Britain but fails to see England looming into view on his blind side. Or perhaps he does now; but he just can’t and won’t articulate what he sees.

7 July 2008

BOGOF, Gordon Brown!

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

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

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

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

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

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