Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

19 November 2009

Labour’s vision is the Britain of the past, not the England of the present

I’ve been trying to work out why the Queen’s Speech detailing the Labour Party’s so-called programme for government up until the general election is so vacuous. Apart from the obvious things, that is: no mention of unemployment or immigration; no indication of precisely how the government – and which government – will fulfil its new statutory obligation to halve the UK’s fiscal deficit in four years at the same time as meet its pledges on public services; referring to all of the proposed bills as if they applied to the whole of the UK in a blanket fashion, whereas many of the key measures relate to England only; the complete lack of the word ‘England’ from the Queen’s speech, indeed, whereas Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were promised increased devolution; the total absence of references to reforming parliamentary expenses, let alone the thoroughgoing political and constitutional reform that all the parties paid lip service to back in May and June of this year; and the reality that virtually none of the legislative programme will actually make it onto the statute books before the election, and that what does become law may well be reversed by an incoming Conservative administration. What a pointless exercise, which illustrates how irrelevant and remote from people’s lives Westminster has become.

And I suppose that, in essence, is why it is all so vacuous: a process of British governance merely going through the motions and becoming almost self-referential rather than engaging dynamically and honestly with the people on whose behalf the work of government is supposed to be carried out. British law rather than government of, for and by the people of England. I guess that’s why the government feels it needs to legislate – or at least put forward legislation – for its commitments on public services and fiscal policy rather than just make those commitments and engage in debate about them. It’s as if the reputation and legitimacy of Parliament and this government have fallen so low that it’s no longer enough simply to promise to do something: you have to make those promises binding in law. But legislating for something doesn’t make it legitimate. This is British-parliamentary law making instead of real government and leadership, which involves engaging with people’s real lives, concerns and needs. In this sense, the absence of any verbal reference to England is the symptom of an unwillingness and lack of competency – in both meanings of the term – to be a government for England, even though that is what the British government is supposed to be in so many areas.

Look at the actual commitments the government is making to England (without saying so) in the form of statutory obligations that mostly won’t become statute anyway, and so aren’t worth the parliamentary Order Book paper they’re written on: binding commitments for suspected cancer sufferers to see a specialist within two weeks of a referral, and that no one should have to wait more than 18 weeks between a GP referral and a hospital appointment for other conditions; a commitment to provide one-to-one tuition to schoolchildren who need extra help; free personal care at home for the 280,000 most needy individuals plus other measures to help those already receiving free care or for those entering care homes. All very worthy commitments in themselves, but they come across as rather random. Why the priority on cancer referrals, as cancer is already comparatively well funded, rather than other aspects of health care that urgently need attention, such as strokes, the standard of personal care health professionals are able to provide patients in hospital, hospital hygiene, mental health, etc. etc.)? And what is the vision for the school system and for education as a whole in England, and, in particular, how is the government going to address the problem of failing schools, let alone that of failing pupils? The truth of the matter is the government doesn’t have a vision for English schools, in part because it can’t even acknowledge the name of the country for whose education system it is responsible. No vision of England means no vision for England’s NHS or health-care system.

And don’t even get me on to the subject of personal care, where the government still isn’t doing anything like what the Scottish government has been doing for years thanks to its generous funding via the Barnett Formula: free personal care at home for all who need it, irrespective of their financial means. Now, I’m not saying that we could afford such a level of provision in England, especially in these straitened financial times; but then, can we afford it in Scotland, either? How about drawing up a ‘Fairness In Government Bill’ specifying the minimum and maximum levels of public-service provision across the whole of the UK that are appropriate to different degrees of fiscal deficit – free personal care needing to be capped at a certain level, for all UK citizens, once the national debt reaches a specified amount? Oh, but I forgot: despite giving the impression that it could do something like that, the government can’t because of devolution. Well then, better still, give us an English Parliament, and then the fairly elected representatives of England could decide the level of taxation, borrowing and social-care provision that England can afford for its own people.

Because that’s what’s lacking in all of this: any kind of attempt to formulate policy for England that reflects English people’s priorities and preferences. Do we actually want the government’s nebulous ‘National Care System’, affiliated to the NHS, to be the centrally managed channel for government funding for and provision of social care? Wouldn’t we in England rather have a system that was managed and funded closer to the people it was aiming to help: through local authorities, communities, private providers, voluntary organisations, and direct financial and practical support to individual carers, rather than through some Whitehall-managed bureaucratic machine? But we’re not having this discussion because the government has given up, or perhaps has never wanted to be, this sort of genuine government for England.

But the Labour Party does have a vision for Britain. Except it’s a Britain of the past, not the Britain of the present, or a Britain and England of the future. On the same day as this most inconsequential of Queen’s Speeches, the Labour Party aired an extraordinary party-political broadcast:

In this embarrassing act of self-praise, the Labour Party identifies with Britain itself and with every major progressive movement of the 20th century, of which Britain is portrayed as having been in the vanguard. Well, perhaps not every movement: I’m sure there’s a brief flash of a CND march accompanying the commentary on the anti-apartheid movement – an intentional subliminal reference, perhaps, to give heart to socialist idealists that the Labour Party still represents them; but better not refer to this explicitly. And, needless to say, there is absolutely no reference to England even in the bits of the broadcast that refer to the England-only policies: the commitments about NHS treatment times; “free personal care for those who need it” (what, all of them?); the creation of a National Care Service (for ‘Britain’? no, it’s England only). Oh, of course, and no reference to the ‘achievement’ of devolution or to any of the actual policies the Labour government has carried out in England only: NHS prescription charges, parking fees, and life-prolonging drugs withheld, where these either do not apply or are provided respectively elsewhere in the UK (healthcare apartheid, in short); a target- and performance-driven education system that still has not demonstrably improved standards or focused on the needs of the economically and educationally disadvantaged – compared with a radical reform of the educational philosophy and system in Wales; free personal care in Scotland only.

Instead, Labour’s vision is a misty-eyed view of a past in which people did genuinely believe that Labour could deliver real change, and greater social equality and opportunity, for everyone across Britain; and in which it possessed the tools to deliver much of that agenda when it was in government. But Labour has in reality given away and abandoned that holistic vision of a united ‘British nation’, of social solidarity across the whole of the UK, and of concern for the needs of working people and those who cannot work, for one reason or another. And it’s also given away the levers of government to realise that vision. And so it retreats into a sterile sham of UK-wide law making underpinned by a dreamy re-writing of British history that places it at the centre of all meaningful social reform over the last 100 years: as much as to say that if it is elected into government again, it will continue the fight for progress in Britain.

But what will it actually do for England? And is it even bothered to ask the people of England what they want? Until it does, all its British law making and myth making will just be so many hollow words and fantasies.

27 October 2008

The Olympics and That English Britishness Again

I was in London on business on the day of the English and British Olympics victory parade a week and a bit ago. In fact, my meeting was at a location right on the route of the parade; and, as luck would have it, the meeting finished just moments before the procession came past. So I duly lined up to greet our victorious Olympians as they rode along.

Where I stood was at a relatively ‘quiet’ part of the route compared with Trafalgar Square and its environs. So there were a few Union Jacks and silly Lotto giant hands being waved about; but the atmosphere was not especially jingoistic. I looked around but didn’t spot any Flags of St. George; although I couldn’t exactly say they were ‘banned’ – but as I hadn’t come prepared, I couldn’t put this to the test! Nor were there any busy officials distributing Union Flags by the dozen to the naively enthusiastic masses; just one street vendor pushing a cart along the route and doing a brisk trade: a nice bit of English-British entrepreneurship, I thought!

As for the procession itself, I actually enjoyed it. There was surprisingly little tasteless British patriotism involved. I’d expected open-topped buses bedecked with Union Flags and slogans proudly proclaiming the ‘Great British’ team. But no, the single-decker floats were pretty plain, and all you saw were the athletes themselves: fit, healthy young people with beaming faces, clearly somewhat overwhelmed and delighted by the acclaim (including from myself, I have to say) they were being greeted by. There was something almost innocent about it: the people expressing their delight at these young persons’ individual triumphs, and the athletes in their turn showing pleasure at the joy they had brought.

I am sure that one of the reasons why the floats were so devoid of patriotic symbols was to avoid offending the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish athletes – and viewing public – who had already been treated to their own ‘national’ celebrations immediately on their return from the Games. And maybe also, it was to avoid offending the many English people who feel there should have been a separate opportunity to celebrate the successes of the English athletes. I suppose the last thing the organisers wanted was angry shouts from St. George’s Flag-waving protesters attempting to rip off the British flags and banners from the floats. Well, one can but dream!

Maybe the organisers had more sense than the politicians who couldn’t resist making capital out of our athletes’ triumphs at the time by saying how it proved that ‘Great Britain’ was still something we could all take pride in; and then further rubbing our noses in it by trying to seize the moment and push through a football Team GB: something which – in a sense, with fitting irony – may still be realised even if it ends up being just a Team England in disguise.

But what of the question as to whether England should have had its own Olympics victory parade? I myself went on record at the time to say that I didn’t think it was realistic or sensible to demand one, even if I agreed that it would have been both a fair and popular thing to do given that the other nations of the UK had organised their own celebrations. As with so many illustrations of the ambiguous inter-relationships between Englishness and Britishness, the question is complex.

I think it’s important to differentiate between what you would like to eventually see happening – i.e. English-national civic institutions, sporting teams and celebrations – and what is realistic or practical in the present day. But, at the same time, it’s also important to find a language in which to describe what goes on in the present that more accurately and fairly reflects its variable dual English and British character.

This relates to why I called it the ‘English and British’ Olympics victory parade at the start of this post. The parade was effectively doing double duty as both the ‘British’ and English victory celebration. This was the case not just out of political expedience and logistical practicality, but also for the reason that, as an England-only event would need to be on the same scale – if not greater – than a British parade, holding a British procession after an English celebration would come to seem embarrassingly redundant and also, ironically, a duplication of the English event. And this is because a celebration of ‘British’ achievements of this sort is already primarily an expression of English patriotism, albeit articulated in terms of Great Britain and Britishness.

It’s important to be precise in these matters to avoid misunderstanding. I’m not saying that a British celebration of this sort is somehow ‘sufficient’ to allow English people an outlet to express their national pride and that an England-only event is therefore on principle unnecessary. Such a position would effectively involve conspiring with the present behaviour and attitude of the British establishment, which actively seeks to suppress any form of expression of English-national identity and pride – indeed, to deny the very existence of England as a nation – and to put ‘Britain’ literally in England’s place.

But you have to distinguish, I think, between at least two forms of Britishness, from the English perspective: there’s an objective – institutional and, as it were, ‘instrumental’ – Britishness; and then there’s a subjective – emotional, personal and ‘existential’ – Britishness. The objective Britain basically comprises the establishment: the institutions of government, law, civic society, and formal ‘national’ identity, media and culture. In relation to these things in isolation, you could say that – for the time being, at least – there is no such thing as England. The formal Britain – the UK government and establishment – reduces England to a mere territory over which it has jurisdiction: no English-national governance; English Law, yes, but this is also the law of Wales and it’s decided on by the UK parliament; only British-national media (e.g. the BBC) and their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish subdivisions, but no English-national channels, newspapers; etc, etc.

At this point, some people (e.g. Cornish nationalists) might pull me up and say that there are plenty of English-national institutions, e.g. the Bank of England; the Church of England; the English language as the official language of Britain; English Heritage; English National Opera; the English National Ballet; English sporting teams; etc. But then these examples neatly illustrate my point. Some of these things are English only in name, rather like English Law. The Bank of England, for instance, is the central bank for the UK as a whole, and it’s only a historical anomaly that it still has ‘England’ in its title and hasn’t – yet – been re-named the ‘Bank of Britain’. Most of the other examples are not what you would call exclusively and objectively English institutions other than in the sense that, post-devolution, some aspects of UK government power relate to England only, such as heritage, culture and sport. But there’s no English national political control as such, at government level, over these organisations; nor do institutions such as the English National Opera see it as a particular part of their remit to celebrate English culture. The main exception here is the Church of England, which does have both a formal role and status within the UK establishment, and is an England-only institution in more than just name – which is one reason why I’m opposed to its disestablishment, at least until there are some properly England-only government bodies or formal recognition of England’s nation status. Otherwise, disestablishing the Church would mean there would no longer be any aspects of British governance that need make any reference to – or were in any form answerable to – England as a nation.

As for English sporting teams, these relate to the other type of national identity I set out above: the subjective, personal and ‘existential’. There is no sense in which the existence of England teams necessarily equates to the existence of England as an objective, formally established nation; but they do indicate that people living in England identify with England as their nation, subjectively and emotionally. That’s why I call this form of nationhood ‘existential’: England may not exist formally and objectively, but it does exist in the sense that people’s subjective identifications confer existence on it. ‘England exists because I am English, and many millions of my fellow countrymen also feel they are English’. Incidentally, this is the same basis on which a Cornish nation can be said to exist.

And the same could also be said of Britain. As I stated above, Britain, too, possesses this subjective character as a nation alongside its objective, institutional existence. For instance, there are many people living in England – possibly now in the minority – who feel and identify as British more than, or even to the exclusion of, English. This is just a fact, which those of us of the English-nationalist persuasion just have to accept, whether we like it or not: some English people claim they don’t feel any sense of Englishness at all but see themselves – if they see themselves as anything in national terms – as British first and foremost, or even British only. But, of course, a statement like this is deliberately paradoxical: it’s English people who tend to feel British rather than English; whereas feeling one was British to the exclusion of being Scottish or Welsh would be an almost incomprehensible attitude on the part of persons native to Scotland or Wales.

In other words, this form of Britishness is an English phenomenon. Traditionally, in fact, the British and English identities, at this subjective level, have tended to be inseparably intertwined, with the terms and symbols of Britishness and Englishness being seen as interchangeable – in England, that is. And, for many, this is still the case. In other words, the British and English identities are so indissociable for many English people that their feelings of patriotic pride, and the nation they felt they were celebrating, would be the same whether they were attending an Olympic Team GB victory parade or the English Ashes triumphal procession of a few years back. Therefore, in both this subjective sense and the objective, practical sense, the Olympics victory parade was indeed both an English and British celebration, as I wrote at the start of this piece. One iconographic acknowledgement of this I noticed were the billboards for that day’s London Evening Standard, which I glimpsed only in passing. What I thought it depicted was a group of Union Flag-waving Olympians (or perhaps they were just spectators) set in relief against a massive Flag of St. George. Don’t get too excited, though: this was one of those photo-editing jobbies, where one image is superimposed on another – the English flag wasn’t there in reality. However, this seemed to me to exemplify the old happy balance whereby the British and English national identities were fused and celebrated together.

Of course, there are many for whom this was never a ‘happy balance’ – particularly, those in the other nations of the UK. The Scots have always regarded the objectively ‘British’ character of the Union state as really just a front for England and English power; and the subjective merging of the English and British identities was adduced as evidence for this: when English people talked of Britain and British governance as supposedly inclusive terms that also incorporated Scotland, what they really meant – and what was in fact the objective political reality – was English dominance over Scottish affairs. And, indeed, English people did use to think of the British state and government as ‘theirs’, based on their subjective blending of the English and British national identities: the British state was the objective correlative and institutional expression of a British national identity that was essentially English in its subjective and emotional character, and its cultural manifestations.

Many Scottish people seem to think that this state of affairs still prevails, which is one of the reasons why they just don’t get English nationalism. In my terms, they think that the ‘instrumental’ and ‘existential’ British identities are still in harmony with one another. In other words, they see the UK state and its institutions as essentially the instrument of English power, propped up by the unthinking, subjective identification of English people with Britain. But, in fact, instrumental and existential Britishness are increasingly diverging, a process greatly accelerated by devolution. What this means is that the British and English identities are separating out and becoming dissociated from one another. English people are identifying increasingly as English in the first instance, at the subjective, emotional and existential level. And this means that Britishness is defined more and more in relation merely to the institutional and instrumental aspects of public and civic life: British governance, its traditions and the civic values that underpin them.

The whole Britishness agenda of the British establishment could be described as an attempt to rekindle English people’s identification with Britain, and as British. But because, post-devolution, that Britishness can no longer truly be the explicit expression of English national pride and political power, it ends up having to be a new form of Britishness: a Britishness that deliberately evacuates any overt acknowledgement or expression of the English subjective and national identity that has traditionally underpinned it. And this, ironically, condemns the new Britishness to being something of an empty shell: expressed in terms of civic, political, institutional and philosophical ideals without reference to the English national character, people, and sense of mission that once animated it. This is one of the reasons why the Olympics, which is one of the few sporting occasions where ‘the country’ is represented by a British team, constitutes such a powerful vehicle for the ‘Britologists’ (the would-be architects of the new Britain) to try and reconnect English national fervour and identity with Britain.

But then again, the pride in being British that English people feel in connection with Team GB’s Olympic successes is precisely that: the traditional pride of English people in ‘their’ Great Britain, or – another way of saying the same thing – pride in the greatness of England that is Great Britain. If politicians want English people to feel pride about Britain and her achievements, then there’s no escaping from the fact that that pride is essentially an English feeling and part of the subjective British identity that is an English phenomenon, and is based on a blurring of any distinction between Englishness and Britishness.

But what of those ‘English’ people who say they feel British only, and not English? It’s dangerous to generalise, and there are many different ‘types’ of people who might describe themselves in this way. But I can’t help feeling that the great majority of them still are ‘British only’ in a highly English way. This could be said for instance of Richard Morrison writing in last Wednesday’s Times. The author claims that “We [i.e. the English] are now a nation with a history but no destiny. We exist; we have needs, but no sense of self”. In support of this thesis, he points to all the things we tend to think of as typically English that are in reality of foreign origin. And yet, at the same time, this openness to a cosmopolitan array of overseas influences and newcomers is itself seen as something typical of England. But all the same, the author goes on to state: “I can’t recall a time when so many people living in England, people of all colours and creeds, are so obviously unsettled by the feeling that we no longer have control of our future, no ideal of what we want to be”. Well surely this is because the establishment keeps telling us – the English – that there is no future for us as England; that we are, and can only be, British; and that one of the defining characteristics of Britain is precisely the kind of openness to global influences, trade and migration that the author observes. But no one is saying that such phenomena are leading to a dilution of Britishness: and that’s precisely because Britain – the new Britain – is a nation-less (supra-national, global) concept that is dependent on stripping out Englishness and the English national identity from its core. And it’s this that leads to the alienation Richard Morrison describes.

So what I’m saying is that a ‘British-only national identity’ (itself something of a non-sequitur, as the new Britishness is something that points beyond nationhood, whereas traditional Britishness sat comfortably with complementary English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish identities), when it is felt by English people, partakes of a very English alienation from what it means to be English; precisely because Englishness, for those people, has more than ever lost itself in Britishness.

And this brings me back round to one of the issues I raised at the start of this piece: the problem of naming and describing the national-existential crisis we are going through. I think it can be a very powerful means of resistance against the establishment’s attempts to banish England from public discourse, and hence from the national consciousness, to reintroduce the terms ‘England’ and ‘English’ wherever appropriate, or even inappropriate. On the one hand, this is a political tactic; but, on the other hand, it’s also an attempt at describing things more accurately and honestly than the establishment, which deceitfully omits and suppresses references to England, even when what’s being discussed is either exclusively or at least partially English. It’s a case of subverting the official language in a way that points up what they don’t want you to notice.

In my example of the Olympic victory parade, officially, this is indeed correctly described as the British Olympics victory celebration. However, in reality, as I explained above, it was also the English victory parade, in more ways than one. Therefore, it is correct in another sense to call this the ‘English and British’ celebration. This approach can be extended to many other aspects of public life, particularly the language used about national government. For instance, it would be both subversive and, in my sense, accurate to describe the UK government as the ‘British and English government’ – since, in matters otherwise devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish government, the British government is a de facto government for England only. Similarly, the prime minister is accurately described as the British and English prime minister or, when talking about England-only areas of government, the ‘unelected English First Minister’ – my favourite designation! UK government departments with responsibilities for England only should also be referred to as, for instance, the ‘English Department for Culture, Media and Sport’ or the ‘Department of Health for England’.

In the case of government departments, neither the England-only ministries nor those with a genuine UK-wide remit tend to include ‘UK’ or ‘British’ in their title, as it is just a given that they are UK-wide bodies even when they’re not. Hence, adding ‘England’ or ‘English’ to them could even be regarded as a helpful aide-mémoire to ensure that people remember when some aspect of the government’s responsibilities is limited to England. But what of the many instances of when things are called ‘British’ when they are actually English or, more subtly, the media’s constant efforts to shape and articulate a common Britishness even when many of the cultural expressions of that Britishness are primarily, if not exclusively, English?

An example of the former is the large supermarkets’ and food producers’ growing tendency to (re-)label English produce, such as meat or fruit, as ‘British’. If you can establish that a given item is in fact English (as the labels often indicate which county they were produced in), then I think you should resolutely refuse to call it British, for instance, in conversation with your family as you go round the supermarket or when you refer to it at the tills. But should you boycott produce of this sort altogether out of protest against the suppression of the England tag or, indeed, the England flag from the labels? It’s a matter of individual choice; but I think that, if you can be sure that an item is English, far from boycotting the English produce, you should boycott any goods in the store in question that are labelled as Scottish or Welsh as a mark of protest against the discrimination against England that is being carried out. English farmers and food producers need all the help they can get, especially amid a recession; and it’s not their fault if the supermarkets decide to mis-label their goods.

You should also try to find opportunities to explain to the store why you’re buying ‘British’-labelled produce, and not Scottish- and Welsh-labelled items. For instance, you could say that you might buy Scottish and Welsh items if the English items were labelled as English (which would be fair and non-discriminatory) or if those Scottish and Welsh items were labelled as British, which is, after all, a term that is supposed to apply to Scotland and Wales, and not just England. One convenient opportunity to have this conversation is when a ‘British’-labelled item does not indicate explicitly whether it comes from England. You can simply then go to the Customer Service desk and ask them to find out for you whether it is English or not; and casually toss in the observation that you assume it is because the Scottish and Welsh items are labelled as Scottish and Welsh, and only the English items don’t appear to be correctly packaged!

Well, anyway, that’s what I’m going to try to do from now on. But what of the plethora of TV programmes that try to foster the idea of Britain as a ‘nation’, ranging from the sublime (such as BBC’s Coast – predicated on the clever idea of a Britain that is ‘one’ nation because it shares a common coastline and maritime heritage; and which, of course, just had to be presented by a Scot) to the ridiculous, such as ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent? Here, on one level, the ‘nation’ that such programmes refer to is correctly described as Britain, in the sense that they deal with people and places from all over the UK. But, insofar as these programmes are part of an establishment agenda to set Britain up as ‘the nation’ – for English people only, that is – I tend to favour the deliberately politically incorrect and derisive approach of re-labelling such programmes as English, especially as most of what they relate to is English. So: ‘that programme about the coast of England’ works well – aptly re-evoking England’s proud seafaring tradition and maritime culture; or ‘England’s Got Talent’. The ‘England Olympics team’ also gets people’s hackles up quite nicely, I find, too; although, if you want to be less sarcastic and more fair-minded – in a rather English manner – my choice of the ‘English and British Olympics team / victory parade’ perhaps gets you more of an audience. And if you’ve followed me till now, thank you.

The point about such linguistic acts of subversion, however petty they may seem, is that they are both a private and public act of revolt against the suppression of England from public discourse and, ultimately, from the identity and governance of ‘the nation’ as a whole. England exists and I exist as an Englishman. So long as we keep saying that, then they won’t get away with abolishing our nation.

26 August 2008

It’s not just about a football Team GB: it’s about the existence of GB as a nation

Alex Salmond is not just a superb tactician; he’s a master of strategy, too. At first, I thought his reiterated statement on Saturday that Scotland should have its own Olympics team was just a clever tactical response to the calls for a Team GB (or UK) football team for the 2012 Olympics. What better way, after all, to protect the existence of a separate Scottish football team and association than to have the entire Olympic team under the banner of Scotland, thereby ‘scotching’ efforts to have Scottish footballers playing for Team GB? This is an example of what I wrote about in my last post: the nationalist backlash to the other GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] efforts to engineer a football Team GB for 2012 and, who knows, permanently deprive the UK’s nations of their separate national football teams as a consequence. The more GB pushes the issue, the more the SNP will insist on a Scottish Olympic team, knowing they’ll enlist more and more support for the idea, the more Scots feel their cherished football team is under threat!

But I think Salmond is playing for higher strategic stakes: he actually seriously wants a Scottish Olympic team for 2012 – whether independence has been achieved by then or not – and is not just using the proposal as a bargaining chip to get GB to drop his insistence on a GB football side. GB, Seb Coe and the unionist establishment know they need to act fast and capitalise on the supposed waves of enthusiasm that Team Britannia is currently ruling! This is because the recognition of the four national UK Football Associations by football’s international body FIFA creates a precedent that could be exploited by the Scottish Government in any application to the International Olympic Committee for a separate Scottish Olympic team. If FIFA recognises that Scotland is a distinct nation and therefore allows it to have its own team, why shouldn’t the IOC? So the longer the idea of a football Team GB is challenged, the greater is the opportunity for the Scots to press for an Olympic Team Scotland.

Think what a disaster that would be for GB and his chums! The 2012 Olympics is supposed to be a massive showcase to demonstrate to the world that Great Britain is both a great and united kingdom (the verbal confusion here is deliberate!): successful (as demonstrated by the coveted medal haul), confident, dynamic, multi-cultural. Above all, GB wants it to become a narrative that will convince not only the world but the people of ‘this country’ itself that Great Britain (or the UK) actually is one nation: the ‘tribal’ national loyalties of its citizens, as most powerfully evidenced by its separate football teams, definitively overcome in a representation of ‘great Britishness’ in which the people of Britain will come together – will be present to themselves – and their existence as Great Britain will be confirmed in the admiring gaze of the assembled global audience.

What a farce, by contrast, if a separate Team Scotland poops the party and does its utmost (to quote GB’s school motto) to demonstrate that Scotland is a proud nation distinct from Great Britain, or whatever Team GB would be called at that point. What would it be called, in fact? I bet they’d try to get away with still calling it ‘Team GB’, even though – without Scotland – Great Britain no longer exists. I suppose technically, if Scotland hadn’t yet achieved political independence but only Olympic autonomy, they could argue that Great Britain still existed. In fact, Team GB might include some Scots in 2012, as their official nationality would still be British. However, they might be obliged to call it Team UK on the same grounds as the continuing British state post-Scottish independence would be called the United Kingdom (of England, Wales and Northern Ireland?) – even though such a nation also would not yet exist in 2012 if Scotland hadn’t yet quit the Union.

What a mess, indeed! This would totally destroy any pretence that ‘Great Britain’ actually exists as a nation, which is what is ultimately at stake. Salmond wants to shatter that illusion in front of all the world and wants to spark off Scottish-national fervour by the spectacle of that country’s bravehearts doing battle against the ‘British’ (i.e. the English): depriving them of an even greater tally of medals than they achieved with the participation of the Scots in Beijing and – who knows? – even competing against Team GB in the football! Maybe Salmond realises that he’s not going to get away with a Scottish-independence referendum till after the Olympics: he may have difficulty gaining support for it in the Scottish Parliament until after the next Scottish general election in 2011; and by that point, the unionists may have succeeded in talking up the importance of not causing a national humiliation ahead of the Olympics. However, if Scots are competing proudly as a distinct nation in the London Olympics, what a wonderful symbol that could offer of a new, vibrant Scotland freed from the restrictions of Westminster rule! Hold a snap referendum shortly after a successful Olympics, and then Scotland could be independent and organise its own showcase sporting spectacular – the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games – in which the existence of separate national teams for the four nations of the UK has somehow, inconsistently, never been challenged in any case.

But what of the football Team UK itself? In GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] Sky TV interview on Saturday, he spelt out that it would indeed be a Team UK, not Team GB. In my post on Saturday, I speculated that the insistence on the UK might be in deference to the players (and, indeed, the Association) of Northern Ireland, to whose participation it might be something of an insult if the team were still designated as GB. Speculating somewhat, could it be that FIFA president Sepp Blatter, in his discussions with GB, insisted that it should be referred to as a / the UK team? The logic behind this is that either the UK has four national teams or one national team that fully represents the same four nations, and which therefore has to be a UK side not a Great Britain team. Obviously, if Scotland decamps before 2012 – either sportingly or politically, too – this makes the question academic.

However, assuming Salmond’s strategy or dream of a Team Scotland doesn’t come to fruition, any actual Team UK would probably end up being – yes, you’ve guessed it – an England team, or perhaps an England + Northern Ireland team if unionist pressure in the Province succeeded in persuading the IFA to take part. Incidentally, this combination would again ‘justify’ the ‘UK’ tag. This doomsday scenario, from an England supporter’s perspective, is due to the fact that it’s hard to see the Scottish Football Association, the Football Association of Wales or, indeed, popular opposition in those countries being swayed to the idea of a Team UK. If those associations were persuaded or coerced into participating, then there really would be a possibility that their right to exist as separate national bodies – and hence, the existence of separate national teams – would be seriously under threat; which is something they are well aware of. This danger is in part a consequence of the logic behind a Team UK I outlined above: either four UK-national teams or one national-UK team encompassing the four nations, which is possibly FIFA’s own logic.

In this context, I had an interesting afternoon yesterday following all the coverage on BBC Radio Five Live while carrying out a long and tedious bank-holiday chore. They were actually broadcasting from Edinburgh, so there were multiple references to and discussions of Sean Connery’s and Alex Salmond’s voicing of support for a separate Scottish Olympic team; while they also kept tracking the progress of the BA ‘Pride’ aircraft bringing the victorious Team GB back home from Beijing. There were lots of live and recorded interviews with politicians and sports personalities. One of them was with Tony Blair’s former (English) Sports Minister Richard Caborn, who said he had been present at Gordon Brown’s meeting with Sepp Blatter, and that Blatter had assured GB that the separate UK FAs would not be at risk if they helped organise a Team UK for 2012. Caborn even asserted that Brown had received written assurances to this effect. This was contrasted with a comment from – if I remember correctly – a member of the Scottish supporters’ association, who said that when Sepp Blatter visited the SFA in March of this year, he had stated explicitly that the SFA would be very unwise to agree to a Team UK, as it could put their existence in jeopardy. Who do you believe? Better to be safe than sorry, I would say!

Another person they interviewed was Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport (in England) Andy Burnham, who uttered highly predictable remarks about how ‘the country’s’ Olympic success made one proud to be British, while making a muddled defence of the proposal for a Team UK. He said that it was right that young people “from all four corners of Great Britain” (err, shouldn’t that be the UK, Mr Burnham?) should have the opportunity to play for ‘their country’ at the Olympics. Asked whether he thought there would be much support for a Scotland Olympic team, he stated that he didn’t think there was a lot of support for this idea in ‘the country’; by which he appeared to mean ‘Great Britain’, although the only country whose support for the proposal is of any relevance is Scotland. And then he came out with the wisdom that, in any case, he felt British first and foremost, and then English only secondarily. Well, firstly, I don’t believe that: it’s the kind of thing that only an English unionist could say, and it reflects a traditional anglocentric view of the Union. And secondly, one was tempted to say to him (and maybe I did shout it at the radio!), ‘well, in that case, go and create your British football team, if you like; just leave our English team for those of us (in the majority, I feel – at least, the footballing majority) who feel English first and foremost, and British less and less. Now that’s a thought: separate Britain and England football teams – no more illogical, although fantastical, than the more realistic prospect of separate Teams Scotland and UK in 2012!

In any case, Mr Burnham was speaking out of turn as far as a Team UK is concerned: since sport is a devolved matter, his responsibilities in the area are officially limited to England. And that, incidentally, is another reason why a Team Scotland is a realistic possibility: as the Scottish Government is responsible for sport in that country, there is no reason why it should not campaign and apply for separate Olympic status, in keeping with the distinct nation status the British government itself conferred upon it through devolution.

And this really is the hub of the matter. The Scottish-nationalist position is logically consistent, whether you agree with it or not: it’s based on the unquestioned premise that Scotland is a distinct nation and, as such, has a right to separate national sports teams, both Olympian and footballing. It’s this sort of confident assertion of Scottish national identity that informed Sean Connery’s words yesterday: “Scotland should always be a stand-alone nation at whatever, I believe”. By contrast, there is no such unwavering certainty about ‘Great Britain”s nation status. In fact, it’s neither a nation (as it’s a kingdom encompassing two nations, or three if you include Wales) nor a state. Gordon Brown and all the Great Britishers ardently dream of Britain taking on the status of a nation; and a separate Team Scotland would give the lie to that. The British state, as opposed to nation, is the UK; and, unpacking what I assume to be Sepp Blatter’s Team-UK logic, he’s offering the option of either four teams for four nations, or one team for one state (the UK).

The solution? Transfer the nation status of England, Scotland and Wales (and, ambiguously, Northern Ireland; hence the vacillation between GB and UK) – as embodied in their separate football teams – onto ‘Great Britain’ by creating a single, united GB team; as if, in the process, the separate national loyalties and identities of the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish could also be transferred over and merged. This does appear to be the delusional and vain hope of all the passionate advocates of a Great Britain football team, who enviously eye up the even greater passion with which the UK nations’ supporters follow their football teams, and who say to themselves, ‘if only we could have all of that passion and national fervour behind Team GB in the greatest sporting event “this country” has ever held’! Some hope! It shows gross ignorance of football and condescension towards the people of the UK nations to think their loyalties could so easily and glibly be transformed.

(In passing, let me just express my indignation at the 2012 Olympics being characterised as the greatest sporting event Britain will ever have put on: this was the 1966 World Cup, of course. Another thing Andy Burnham said that I took issue with was when he described Team GB’s Beijing Olympics performance as the greatest sporting success he can recollect ‘this country’ having achieved since he was a child in the 1970s. Wrong again, Mr Burnham, it was the 2003 Rugby World Cup. I can’t speak for Scotland or Wales in these matters; nor can you.)

So the absence of a Great British football team stands as a glaring insult in the face of the British ‘project’ – as Lord Coe refers to it – that is Team GB and the 2012 Olympics. The game which, in GB’s words at the weekend, “[Britain] gave to the world” [sic], refuses to play ball and deny a century and a half of sporting rivalries, and centuries more of national rivalries and competition. ‘Surely, the Olympic spirit should overcome such nationalism’, Seb Coe was reported as saying at the weekend. But hang on, what are you saying? Is the Great Britain team in fact an example of the Olympic spirit bringing separate nations together, meaning that Great Britain is actually an international team. If so, then there should be no theoretical objection to us competing as separate England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland teams, in keeping with the traditions of sporting rivalry that have characterised both the UK and the Olympic movement throughout their history. Otherwise, if you followed Coe’s logic, there should be no national teams competing against each other at all, and the Olympics should be some multi-national, multi-cultural melting pot – rather similar, indeed, to the very image of Britain that they want to be realised in the London Olympics.

Oh sad, delusional GB! 2012 is a dream of a united nation of Great Britain: ‘the nation’ that is said to be acclaiming its returning Olympic heroes but which can’t even decide on its name or composition. I’m sure it will be a great spectacle. But football – the true spirit of football, if not the English FA – won’t collude with the Great British lie.

5 March 2008

Correction: the Proms are all right – just leave out ‘Jerusalem’!

What a marvellous thing serendipity is! I was just thinking yesterday that it was about time I did another piece on the English Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). I took a brief break from work and wandered downstairs to make myself a sandwich; tuned in to my beloved Radio Four; and heard a news item on yesterday morning’s speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) by the English Minister of State for Culture, Margaret Hodge, entitled, ‘Britishness, Heritage and the Arts: Should cultural institutions promote shared values and a common national identity?’

The Radio Four item homed in on the bit towards the end of the speech where Ms Hodge criticises the Proms (the traditional summer-time series of (mostly) classical music concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London) as being perhaps unrepresentative of the inclusive, culturally diverse, modern sense of Britishness that the cultural ‘sectors’ (e.g. the arts and media) should seek to express, as they hark back to the jingoism of Britain’s imperial past. The BBC wheeled on Nicholas Kenyon, the former director of the Proms, who defended this particular institution as precisely embodying the cultural diversity Ms Hodge was advocating – given that during the two-month-long series of Proms as a whole, a huge variety of musical styles and traditions from throughout the world are featured. It was just the traditional ‘Last Night of the Proms’ that could possibly justify Ms Hodge’s criticisms: much waving of the Union Flag and chanting of patriotic hymns such as ‘Rule Britannia!’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Jerusalem’.

The Radio Four article was prefaced by the presenter indicating that they had invited Margaret Hodge on to the programme to discuss her speech and that she had initially accepted, only to cancel later in the morning because of some other commitment that had cropped up. The newscaster speculated whether Downing Street had stepped in to prevent her appearance, presumably out of displeasure that she had associated something that David Cameron was quoted as describing as “a great symbol of our Britishness” with something nationalistic, culturally exclusive and anti-progressive.

Indeed, later in the day, during another wonderfully fortuitously timed work break (coinciding with the PM news programme on Radio Four), it emerged that during a briefing at 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s Spokesman had clarified that, “DCMS had also stated that, in the view of Margaret Hodge, the Proms were a wonderful, democratic and quintessentially British institution, which did a fantastic job to promote serious culture to millions of people; this was a view the Prime Minister very much agreed with”. Clearly, Ms Hodge had received a little slap on the wrist from GB [Gordon Brown] for having dared to criticise a tradition that provides an opportunity for people to wrap themselves up in the Union Jack and celebrate Britain as a great nation (which is not the same thing as old-fashioned British nationalism, you understand)!

To express the contrary point of view, the PM programme brought on the folk-rock singer Billy Bragg, formerly the bard of New Labour and latterly a critic of its more conservative tendencies. He defended Margaret Hodge’s earlier (but subsequently ‘moderated’) criticism of the Proms as being not particularly representative of, or conducive towards, a culturally inclusive Britain while balancing this point of view by agreeing to some extent with Nicholas Kenyon: that the ‘problem’ was only really with the Last Night, with its jingoistic resonances and parading of the Union Jack. And this is where things got really muddled: Billy Bragg then declared that, whereas he used to be quite sceptical towards the Union Flag because of its hard-right, nationalistic associations, he now felt more positive about it as a symbol of some of the great things that Britain had achieved, including through the Empire, and of an inclusive UK formed from the coming together of different nations [seeming to align himself with GB, then]. In support of this new-found pride in the flag, he compared this to the English taking pride in displaying the Cross of St. George; and ‘no one was going to try to stop them doing so’. Wrong; this is precisely what they (i.e. the government) do try to do: promote official flying of the Union Flag (as in the guidelines published by DCMS itself) and the discouragement (and actual banning?) of any official use in England of the flag of England.

Then Billy Bragg went on to claim that the association of the Union Jack with the imperialistic overtones of the Last Night of the Proms, and absence from that occasion of the other flags of the UK, was indeed a problem. Wrong again: in all the recent pictures I’ve seen of the Last Night of the Proms, there are many Flags of St. George alongside the Union Jacks, and also Welsh flags, banners reading ‘Cymru’, and even the occasional Saltire. So in fact, even the Last Night of the Proms could be given as an example of an inclusive, multi-national UK. I’m not sure, however, that this is a reason why GB would endorse the Proms: he for one, I’m sure, would prefer it if only Union Flags were on display in the Last Night, making it a celebration of a unified Nation of Britain and not of the different nations of the UK.

Maybe the problem with the Last Night of the Proms for Bragg and Hodge, then, is not so much its UK-wide symbolism but the fact that it stands for a mono-cultural and nationalistic Britishness, as opposed to the multi-cultural, internationalist Britishness they both espouse. OK, what we’re really talking about here is an English Britishness. It’s the Englishness of this particular celebration of Britishess they don’t like; in particular, its ‘elitist’, white English middle-class character. This is the subtext of Margaret Hodge’s critique as well as the basis for Billy Bragg’s inconsistency over the Cross of St. George: OK as a symbol for the English working class but definitely not if associated with white middle-class British nationalism – the old type, that is, where Britishness was celebrated as an extension of English national identity and pride. Why else would Bragg say that we could still have a Last Night of the Proms so long as it no longer included a rendition of ‘Jerusalem’? I ask you! Of all the anthems traditionally performed at the Last Night, this is the only one that is universally thought of as an English hymn as opposed to the unmistakable Britishness of ‘Rule Britannia!’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Bragg then alluded to the fact that a bit of Vaughan Williams wouldn’t go amiss: echoes of the Vaughan Williams (non-jingoistic British) versus Elgar (jingoistic, but also less authentically, British) controversy of two weeks ago! (Whereas, actually, they’re both English.)

The dichotomy that is at work in Bragg’s and particularly Hodge’s advocacy of a culturally inclusive Britishness, and indeed of a ‘culture industry’ that promotes social inclusion, is a common one within the ‘Britological’ promotion of Britishness over Englishness. ‘Britain’ is seen as culturally inclusive, open, internationalist; whereas Englishness is associated with all the worst aspects of exclusivity, narrowness and tribal nationalism that in the past were linked with Britain’s imposition of its rule and civilisation on the peoples of the Empire, and in the present is seen in hostility towards, and separation from, the multiplicity of peoples and cultures (again, many coming from the former Empire) that continue to settle in Britain. But the paradox of this British all-inclusiveness is that it is predicated on the exclusion of Englishness, the touchstone of the old mono-cultural, national Britishness: Britishness that was the expression of a nation – England – rather than a merging of multiple nations (including the ‘former’ nation of England) into a cultural (rather than ethnic-national) unity that has progressed beyond traditional nationhood and become truly international and global.

This helps to illuminate why Margaret Hodge’s criticism of the Proms is so fundamentally misguided: she rejects it as an example of an exclusive Britishness; and yet, of course, if the Last Night traditions were jettisoned on these politically correct grounds, it is they that would end up being excluded and censored in favour of the type of supposedly more inclusive, internationalist British culture of which Ms Hodge provides examples in her speech. Why can’t the Last Night of the Proms be retained as a relatively harmless expression of a now largely moribund British patriotism that was actually inclusive of the different nations of the UK – if necessary, alongside all those other cultural celebrations of multi-culturally inclusive Britain Ms Hodge supports? Isn’t that what true cultural diversity entails: mutual tolerance of difference, including different interpretations of Britishness? But again, it is perhaps the very native, ‘tribal’ quality of this particular celebration of national British identity that Ms Hodge objects to: the fact that it’s an English Britishness and by that very token perhaps evokes a Britain defined in terms of the four indigenous nations of the UK (or five, including Cornwall) that were united – albeit in a contested form – in the English-controlled UK before devolution? In other words, it’s an ethnic-British, mono-cultural Britishness: inclusiveness limited to white British people and not extended beyond ethnic boundaries to all-comers.

Isn’t this the real subtext of Ms Hodge’s speech: the Proms as appealing to an insular, conservative, white audience – described as “a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds [in PC language, implies ‘ethnic backgrounds’] feel at ease in being part of this”? Or, as she describes the situation in her constituency of Barking in East London, “a retreat to the old narrow bonds of kinship and ‘tribe’” [in context, clearly in part a reference to English nationalism, or at least the nationalism of white English people] being associated with far-right, racist extremism. This is the big logical, ideological and political mistake that is made in arguments of this type. The fact that some people who call themselves English nationalists (or British, or indeed any type of, nationalists) are racist does not mean that any affirmation of English national identity/-ies is racist, or indeed even nationalist as understood as entailing hostility to other cultures. But somewhere down the road in the split that has occurred in the English-British identity, the British establishment has decided to try to secure a monopoly on the ‘good’ English-British values: Britain as inclusive of many cultures; England as nationalistic, exclusive and xenophobic. According to this view, by definition, only Britain and Britishness can provide the foundation for the blending of so many nationalities and cultures into something new – a new Britishness – because it is not a nationalism but an internationalism. To Britain are ascribed the positive aspects of British history and culture: the progressivism of the Empire, and the international (British) civilisation it spawned along with its liberal values.

But you could just as easily turn the whole thing on its head and associate the positive aspects of British history and culture as English, and the negative aspects (the nationalism; the aggression towards other peoples, both within the British Isles and throughout the Empire; the racism; the insularity; etc.) as British. Historically, it is probably more accurate to describe many of Britain’s great institutions and values as originally and primarily English: parliamentary democracy, libertarianism and the openness to the world beyond these shores, admittedly mixed with imperialistic and mercenary motives as the English began opening up what became the British Empire long before the Union with Scotland. The truth of the matter is that both good and bad aspects were indeed both English and British, insofar as the identity and destiny of the English merged with that of the other nations of these islands.

To ascribe the negative features of British culture and history to England and Englishness is therefore not only to perpetrate a huge historic and epistemological injustice towards the English but also has disastrous consequences in the present that militate against the declared aim to create an inclusive British-cultural identity. The first consequence is the exclusion of England as a nation in its own right, along with the English national identity – seen as ‘bad’, ‘exclusive’, ‘retrograde’ – from the new internationalist, multi-cultural Britain. This was seen in the example discussed above: a would-be exclusion of the Last Night of the Proms from the new culture owing to its old English-British-nationalist connotations. But because cultural expressions of a traditional national and ethnic identity, such as in the Proms, are mistakenly seen as nationalistic and, implicitly, racist, this results in calls for these traditions to be modified or banned. However, such responses inescapably cross over into inverted racism in their own right because they imply automatic suspicion, hostility and censorship directed towards any expression of anything redolent of ‘ethnic-English’, ‘ethnic-British’, ‘white’, or just plain self-consciously ‘English’ culture. The one nationality and ethnicity that then gets excluded from the new multi-cultural Britishness is Englishness. Indeed, one might even say that this exclusion is constitutive of the new Britain as an international entity, as opposed to its traditional status as the expression of English national identity. So we have a sort of inverted cultural apartheid: only those cultural expressions that are multi-cultural and international in inspiration are authentically British in the new ‘inclusive’ definition of the term; and there’s no such thing (at least, it’s not ‘acceptable’) as traditional white-English or white-British culture.

The second disastrous consequence of the negativisation of Englishness is that ‘immigrant’ communities are encouraged to identify as British rather than English. The illogicality of this as a supposed strategy for promoting integration is astounding. First, Britishness is positioned ideologically as an international / multi-cultural concept and identity; then you take international migrants and encourage them (through citizenship courses and ceremonies, and new forms of cultural expression) to identify as British, i.e. as international and multi-cultural. So then, what you are left with is the migrant communities affirming an identity as international-multicultural-British that is separate from the identities of the ‘native British’ people around them who identify typically as English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. In other words, rather than embedding Britishness in the already established, historic cultures and identities of the nations of the UK, and then encouraging international migrants to identify with those cultures, Britishness is elevated to an international plane; so that, in reality, no truly profound cultural integration with the existing nations of the UK on the part of migrants need take place. Instead of international settlers becoming British in the same way that British people are British (by virtue of being English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish in the first instance), it’s Britain that is made international. The net result is virtually a reversal of the intended effect; instead of immigrants integrating with the national identities and cultures of the UK, a plural, international ‘cultural identity’ of Britain evolves with which the established nations of the UK are called to identify. We have to ‘get with’ the new ‘multi-culture’, since this is essentially the same as the global culture on which Britain’s future depends.

Well, we English at least have to accept these realities and relinquish our Englishness in favour of the new British internationalism. I don’t hear such a call being directed to the Scottish and the Welsh, whose quest to reaffirm their own distinct cultures and national identities (inclusive of those of migrant communities) was not alluded to in any shape or form in Margaret Hodge’s speech. And why should it be? She is after all only the English Minister of State for Culture (the Scots and Welsh having their own culture ministers); and her exhortations to embrace a new inclusive Britishness are therefore primarily – if not exclusively – directed to the English alone.

British internationalism versus English nationalism. Problem, though. GB [Gordon Brown] wants Britain to be a nation. All this talk about cultural pluralism and the repudiation of the Proms as a case of nationalist mono-culturalism does rather militate against the idea of both migrants and native British people converging in a monolithic, unitary Britishness of the kind that you could see the Last Night of the Proms as celebrating – if you ignore the flags of England, Wales and Scotland, that is. No wonder GB slapped Ms Hodge’s wrist! It’s not just the implication that GB’s flag waving, like that of the Last Night, has slightly jingoistic overtones. No, it’s the fact that Ms Hodge’s internationalist vision of Britain is not in fact a vision of a united Britain: it’s a multi-nation, not a nation. At least, in such a Britain, we English might be able to uphold our own national identity and traditions as one ‘tribe’ among many in the land; while we can hope that, in time, the madness of seeking to achieve cultural integration by denying the distinct cultures of the UK’s nations will recede. Then perhaps, the true conditions can be created for migrant communities to come together with the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish peoples; and we can develop shared multiple national identities, rather than a divisive, imposed Britishness – whether of the unitary, statist, Brownite variety; or the plural, cultural Hodgian kind.

So let’s keep the Last Night of the Proms for now. But for heaven’s sake, don’t let them remove ‘Jerusalem’ from the programme!

21 January 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 2): Flag Flying, the DCMS and the PM in China

I have to admit to feeling a bit disappointed about the Department of (English) Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) July consultation paper about flag flying on government buildings, which appeared on the new Governance of Britain website last week. I hadn’t really followed the detail of the government’s previous pronouncements on the issue, and I thought there might be some recommendations about flying flags other than the Union Flag, such as the Flag of St. George in England.

In fact, the consultation paper deals only with flying the Union Flag on UK government buildings in England, Scotland and Wales. What this effectively means is mostly government buildings in England, as the document “does not extend to Scottish Executive, Welsh Assembly buildings. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly government are responsible for policy on flag flying from their own buildings”.

What I want to know is, who’s responsible for plain, grammatical English (language, that is) in the DCMS? First of all, they omit the word ‘or’ from the first sentence, without which it is strictly speaking nonsensical. Secondly, do they mean that the Scottish Parliament is responsible for policy on flying the flag from the Scottish Parliament building only; or does this responsibility of the Scottish Parliament extend to other buildings of the Scottish Government (not Executive)? And if so, which flag or flags are we talking about (the Union Flag only or the Saltire or both, or others)? And what constitutes ‘their’ buildings anyway, as – technically – all Scottish Government buildings are UK government buildings (devolved not independent)? Unless ‘their’ has the legal sense of property ownership, in which case one might assume that at least the Scottish Parliament actually owns the premises where it convenes – but whether ownership of their accommodation extends to the Scottish Government and its various departments, I don’t know.

And ditto for Wales.

I suppose the consultation paper’s inability to address the English aspect of the flag issue (whether more frequent flying of the Flag of St. George on UK government buildings in England might help to foster a greater sense of national pride and engender a feeling that the UK government was at least trying to engage with the priorities of the English people) was only to be expected of the DCMS. As was its failure to communicate exactly which responsibilities in this matter are devolved to the Scottish and Welsh governments, and which are retained. This is because the DCMS is actually, in most but not all matters, the English Department of Culture, Media and Sport; as most but not all of the UK government’s responsibilities for these matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been devolved to those countries’ own governments. Therefore, you would think that the DCMS would see it as a major part of its remit to promote, affirm, celebrate and defend English culture and sport; though not the English media, as Media is a retained UK-wide function. But that’s not how they appear to see it, or at least how they communicate what their role is. When you visit the Department’s website, you are met with what is a now familiar difficulty of disentangling which of its responsibilities are UK-wide, which of them relate to England only, and which of them relate to both England and Wales. Indeed, on the home page, there isn’t a single reference to England, even though the Department’s competency in some of the areas mentioned on the home page (i.e. culture, sport and tourism & leisure) is limited to England.

So here’s another example of the same old deception of presenting a government department’s activities as if they covered the whole of the UK when in reality they involve England only. In fact, the DCMS is a veritable patchwork of retained and devolved responsibilities that illustrates the complexity and asymmetry of the current devolution settlement. Or which would illustrate it if it wasn’t such hard work to find out which bits are UK-wide and which bits England- (or England and Wales-) only. For example, go to the misnamed ‘What we do’ page, and you get a listing of no fewer than 20 topics for which the department is responsible. But you have to click through to each one to find out how nationwide its responsibilities in each domain are. And even then, it’s not always obvious.

Take the case of architecture. I clicked the link to ‘architecture and design’, where it said: “We are responsible for the quality of architectural design in this country”. Which country is that?, I asked. It’s not clear, as neither ‘England’, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’, ‘UK’, ‘United Kingdom’ nor ‘Britain’ appear on the page. It took a visit to the Scottish Government website for me to work out that the DCMS’s responsibilities for architecture do not extend to Scotland; although they encompass Wales (I think). Therefore, in this instance, ‘this country’ means England and Wales, apparently. Another grammatical howler and logical non-sequitur.

I did eventually come across a list indicating which of the Department’s responsibilities have been devolved to Scotland (but not Wales) and which have been retained. There it says, “DCMS will be responsible for sponsoring the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which will act in England as a Champion for Architecture”. Does this mean that the Commission will similarly act as a champion for architecture (why the capital letters?) in Wales? And is ‘acting in England as a Champion for Architecture’ the same thing as ‘acting as a champion for English architecture’? I think not; and I imagine that the same Commission (assuming it does have responsibility for Wales) wouldn’t be coy about saying that it was championing Welsh architecture. Note this preference for the phrase ‘in England’ over ‘English’. It means government departments, where they mention England at all, can talk about UK government responsibilities that are exercised ‘in England’ rather than about specifically English functions of government. The same applies to media reports about government policy or activities, where they say ‘in England’ as if to imply that those same departments had equivalent responsibilities in Scotland and Wales, which they don’t.

In the case of DCMS, what we have is not a department that proudly promotes the great culture of England (just as the corresponding devolved departments in Scotland and Wales so proudly affirm Scottish and Welsh culture) but a UK department looking after (UK) culture in England. So, to return to my point of departure, it’s not surprising that in the area of flag flying, they’re not an English government department making policy about flying the English flag on UK government buildings in England (unlike their devolved Scottish and Welsh counterparts, if I’ve understood the incoherent language of the consultation correctly); but rather, they’re a UK department making policy about flying the UK flag in England. Clearly, it’s not a department that’s interested in flying the flag for England.

By contrast, GB [Gordon Brown] was flying the flag for Britain in China last week. Or rather, he was promoting not British culture or values but British business, pure and simple. Note the ease with which any awkward questions about his hosts’ abysmal human rights record and their suppression of the Chinese people’s aspirations to a true democracy (such a pivotal British value, as Brown has frequently reiterated elsewhere) were not just brushed aside but swept right off the agenda and under the red carpet. Such a venal pursuit of privileged trading terms to me seemed a defeat of the much vaunted British values and a surrender of them to the mighty yuan. It was fitting, then, that the image of the Union Flag behind GB in a joint press conference with the Chinese Premier Wen was actually incorrect: it showed all four arms of the diagonal red Cross of St. Patrick closer to the horizontal centre of the flag than its outside. (See the video of the press conference; you’ll have to wait till almost the end for the flag to be flashed up.) When I first saw the image on the TV news, I thought the flag was actually flying upside down: the traditional military distress signal, indicating that a British position may have been captured.

Now where have I seen an inverted Union Jack recently?, I asked myself. I was reminded of the answer to that question when I visited the said new Governance of Britain website: they’ve adopted an upside-down Union Flag as their logo! What more telling symbol could there be that the government’s drive to create and reinforce a British-national culture and set of values is destined to defeat! Just as those values were defeated and in retreat in GB’s single-minded pursuit of Chinese consumers’ cash and Chinese investors’ funds last week. Perhaps the DCMS should produce some guidelines about the correct way to fly the Union Flag. Except they’d be so garbled that no one would be able to understand them. Certainly not the Mandarins organising the PM’s trip, it would appear!

If they want people to respect the flag, perhaps they could begin by respecting the values it’s meant to symbolise. Better still, replace it with the English flag, symbolising English people’s refusal to sell ourselves short and, indeed, auction our values to the highest bidder.

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