Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

11 November 2009

Complaint about BBC coverage of Britain’s new nuclear power stations; and reply regarding the One Show

Below is the text of an email of complaint I sent to the BBC yesterday:

I am complaining about the fact that the BBC’s reporting on the government’s plans for ten new nuclear power stations, announced yesterday, failed to explain why almost all of them (nine) are to be built in England and none in Scotland. This is because the new ‘streamlined’ planning regime, brought about by legislation passed in 2008, relates mainly to England, and to Wales only with respect to energy installations and harbours. The same applies to the quango, the Infrastructure Planning Commission, set up to oversee the new planning system.While the reports on BBC radio, TV and online news did indicate that none of the new nuclear plants were to be built in Scotland, they failed completely to explain why. Instead, government spokespersons (e.g. Ed Miliband) were quoted referring to the energy needs of ‘the nation’; and references were made to the IPC and its framework guidance on ‘nationally significant infrastructure’ projects, in such a way as to imply that policy in such matters is being formulated and applied on a consistent UK-wide basis. This is, however, not the case, and the vast majority of the planning framework documents that the IPC is currently formulating will apply to England only; and the one regarding nuclear power under which planning applications for the new plants will be handled relates to England and Wales only.So whereas the UK government does have responsibility for energy strategy across the UK, the system under which it is attempting to drive through controversial developments is largely restricted to England. This is a critical fact that should have been mentioned given the concerns over the environmental impact and safety of nuclear power. Indeed, some of the proposed plants are situated close to major population centres, such as Bradwell in Essex (very close to London) and Oldbury in Gloucestershire (near Bristol). By contrast, Scotland would really have been a much more suitable location for some of these plants given the remoteness of some of its coastline and its greatly inferior population density.

The reason why Scotland is excluded is of course devolution: planning in Scotland is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, which is refusing to authorise any new nuclear plants. So the BBC’s lack of rigour in reporting on this issue is another example of its failure to be critical and explicit in making clear whenever UK-government policy applies to England only or mainly, as in this instance. This relates to previous complaints I have made about this more general failing on the part of BBC news coverage, and to a reply I received from Paul Hunter dated 25 October 2009.

By the way, while I’m on the subject, the website for the Infrastructure Planning Commission is a classic example of the way many websites for England-specific government departments or quangos contain very few up-front references to the actual name of the ‘nation’ they’re supposed to be serving. If all you look at are the home page and the general ‘about’ pages, often the only way you could be sure these are UK organisations of any sort is by looking at the web address or by other indications such as language and web-site design. Other classic examples of the genre include the (English) Department of Health and the Department for (English) Children, Schools and Families, whose website proclaims: “The purpose of the Department for Children, Schools and Families is to make this the best place in the world for children and young people to grow up” – ‘this’ being the way they refer to England. I wonder what cyber visitors from other countries make of this shame-faced way of suppressing references to your own country, whereas their government websites plaster the name and symbols of their nations all over the place; contrast the French Health Ministry or the German Environment Ministry. I suppose at least they have the decency not to stick the Union Jack on all the pages and refer to ‘the country’ as Britain on these websites; instead, they avoid explicitly naming the country at all.

Yesterday, I also received a reply to my earlier complaint about an episode of BBC1’s ‘One Show’:

Dear Mr RickardThank you for your e-mail regarding ‘The One Show’ on 28 October and for your comments on the report about proposals to begin giving children career advice at the age of seven..

 

While a Government proposal, limited to England, may have been the topical trigger for this report its focus was the general idea of giving children careers advice at this young age; something which although perhaps not a reality for any part of the UK at the moment the programme felt was an interesting idea to explore.

Ruby Wax set out to look at the wider issues and to gauge reaction to such an idea. This encompassed looking at some of the concerns about children’s aspirations in life which prompted the proposal, as well as the likelihood of people growing up to do the jobs they wanted to do when they were seven years old.

I note however that you would have appreciated some mention of the fact that the Governments proposal is limited to England at the moment and would like to assure you that we’ve registered your comments on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback we compile daily for the programme and senior management within the BBC. This ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the Corporation.

Thanks again for contacting us.

Regards

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

In essence, this response amounts to dismissing my complaint about the programme’s failure to clarify that the government’s proposal related to England only as a personal preference rather than a substantive criticism that the lack of such an indication was fundamentally misleading: in this instance, perpetuating the ignorance of English viewers that the government’s education policies apply to England only; and, in the case of non-English viewers who are not especially well versed on the effects of devolution, potentially alarming them about something that in fact does not affect them. Note the sheer ignorance and complacency of the sentence, “some mention of the fact that the Governments proposal is limited to England at the moment”: no, it’s not ‘at the moment’, you utter ignoramus – any UK government proposal on these matters can only ever relate to England only, unless there are plans to reverse devolution. Trouble is you can’t reply to these BBC emails, but you have to do a whole new complaint. So this is effectively my response.

I also note that Ruby Wax talked only to people on English streets and English education specialists. Why not go and talk to people in Glasgow or Cardiff if the programme was merely mooting a general idea? Well, that’s because this would make the (intended?) implication that the government’s ideas were relevant to the whole of the UK far more explicit; and hence would make the programme more vulnerable to accusations of misleading inaccuracy when reporting on England-specific affairs.

Clearly, the item was relevant to Britain only in one of the modern meanings of the word ‘Britain’, which is ‘England’. But the One Show is predicated on the lie that there is still just One Nation in political terms.

Oh well, we’ll keep chipping away.

28 August 2009

Patients Association report on mistreatment of vulnerable patients in the NHS: why hide its England-only character?

The Patients Association – a lobby group that looks after NHS patients’ concerns and rights in England and Wales – yesterday published a shocking report containing 16 case studies of the mistreatment and neglect of elderly and vulnerable patients in NHS hospitals.

It probably won’t surprise my readers to learn that all the case studies in question related to English hospitals. However, this fact appeared to elude the media yesterday. At one point, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, it was stated that the case studies were drawn from “across the UK”, wording that was reiterated on the BBC website. Later in the programme, in the news headlines, they did indicate that all 16 case studies involved the experiences of English patients only, while clarifying that people from throughout the UK had contacted the Patients Association with similar examples of neglect. Another article on the BBC website does make this explicit while failing to make clear that not only the examples of abuses but the whole objective and scope of the report are to highlight instances of malpractice in England, and to call on the Department of Health (England) and the Care Quality Commission (the quango that looks after the quality of health- and social care in England) to take action.

Sky News are no better. The report on their website equally makes no mention of the England-only content and purpose of the Patients Association report. The Sky News web page contains a video in which agony aunt Claire Rayner, the president of the Association, asserts that many of the problems derive from the government’s obsession with targets, which force NHS staff to regard patients as mere units and as boxes to tick off rather than real people needing time, care and attention. Of course, this government-driven target culture, and the innumerable targets themselves, affect the English NHS only. They do things differently in the devolved NHS’s.

(Incidentally, I drew the failure of the Sky News report to mention the England-only nature of the story to the attention of their person in charge of dealing with viewer concerns, with whom I’ve been having an email dialogue following on from an open letter to the BBC that I posted on English Parliament Online and drew to Sky News’ attention. I received an initial response from the Sky News executive in question, in which he maintained that Sky does always take care to indicate when a political story relates to England only. I’ve since drawn to his attention two instances relating to the English NHS – including the present one – where this has manifestly not been the case; but I have yet to hear back from him.)

One of the reasons why the lazy media got it wrong – again – is that the Patients Association report does not make it explicit at any point that its observations and recommendations relate to England only. But they do affect only England: as I said, all the case studies concern events that took place in England; and the report’s call to action is addressed only to the authorities that deal with the English NHS. This absence of explicit references to England is in fact a characteristic of all the Patient Association’s communications and campaigns. Indeed, looking at its website, you’d be hard put to work out that the Association’s active campaigning is limited to England and Wales, and then in the latter country only in instances relating to common English and Welsh law. However, reading between the lines, all of the Association’s campaigns dealing with issues of health-care delivery, and the way in which they’re described on the website (with references to ‘the government’ and the Department of Health (England)), emerge as England-specific: GP services, care of older people, health-care-associated infections, dentistry and mixed-sex wards. I then discovered that there is a separate Scotland Patients Association – not affiliated to the (England and Wales) Patient Association – that deals with the corresponding issues for the Scottish NHS.

Why does the Patients Association (England and Wales) appear to go out of its way to conceal the in fact mostly England-specific nature of its activities? This seems in part to be an issue of funding. The PA reported that, after its report was publicised in the media yesterday, it had been “inundated by hundreds of emails and calls from patients across the country contacting us to offer their support and relate their own experiences of poor care”. This will in effect have served as a massive membership drive, and the Patients Association welcomes members (and corresponding financial contributions) from across the UK. It was therefore important for the Association to emphasise that their report deals with issues of concern to people across the UK, which the rush of offers of support and information on further abuses yesterday confirmed. Also, to be fair, the PA does provide information on how to complain about, and seek legal redress for, poor NHS treatment in each of the UK’s nations. But in terms of campaigning for action and change, the Patients Association’s activities are largely limited to England. The Association is in effect soliciting financial support from Scottish and Northern Irish citizens that would probably be more effectively directed to their own patients’ associations, which can actually do something about issues in those countries.

A similar situation applies to corporate sponsorship. The Patients Association’s list of corporate sponsors contains some impressive names; e.g. AstraZeneca, Denplan, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, 3M, Napp Pharmaceuticals, Pfizer and Virgin Healthcare. Compare these with the sponsors of the Scottish Association: Arnold Clark, Barrhead Travel, It’s so Easy! Travel Insurance, Lloyds Pharmacy, Mobility Scotland, ScotWest Credit Union, Ross Harper Solicitors and Vision Call – Eye Care Home Services. Hardly as prestigious nor, one suspects, as remunerative! The Patients Association is clearly passing itself off as the ‘British’ association in order to secure the backing of such global blue-chip enterprises. Does it fear that if it more accurately designated itself as the Patients Association for England and Wales, it would lose some of these sponsors and the revenue they bring, and would have to rely on more ‘parochial’ English names?

On one level, I am reluctant to criticise the Association for this, as it is clearly important that it maximises its income in order to act as an effective advocate for English and Welsh NHS patients. However, is this advocacy not itself severely impaired and limited by the Association’s almost total avoidance of references to England, or to England and Wales, in the campaign material it puts out? Referring to issues relating to health-care delivery in England without any reference to England itself, as if they were issues of relevance to the whole of the UK, insulates the Association’s critiques and prevents them from becoming a truly powerful cross-UK analysis involving comparisons between practices, patient satisfaction and funding in each of the UK’s health services. It is as if the Association does not want in any way to connect its criticisms of bad practice in England with the politics of devolution, and of health-care funding and provision in the rest of the UK. But isn’t it vitally important to compare the experience of patients in England with that in Scotland or Wales; and if they’re doing things better in those countries, what can we in England learn from them – and do we need to direct more funding into improving the situation in England, given that per-capita expenditure on health care in England lags that in the other UK nations?

But clearly, the Patients Association has decided to avoid getting enmeshed in such political controversies. It would rather carry on working away in its own little bubble: drawing its concerns to the Department of Health (England) and the (English) Care Quality Commission without embarrassing either of these bodies by pointing out to the public that they’re letting England down compared with the corresponding bodies in the other UK countries that are more focused on the needs of their countrymen and -women. After all, rock the boat too much, and you could put off the corporate sponsors; and go on about England too much, and you could put off the individual members from Scotland and Northern Ireland.

But is it possible for the Patients Association to help bring about real improvements to the care provided to English NHS patients if the Association itself doesn’t care enough about England to mention her by name?

17 August 2009

The debate on the National Health Service is a proxy for a debate on nation-specific ideologies and policies

I’ve been particularly struck in the past few days by the extent to which the debate on the two main parties’ commitment to the principles and funding of the NHS has been completely blind to its English dimension. I suppose this should not come as any surprise, as it’s totally normal for Labour and the Tories to discuss England-specific matters as if they related to the whole of the UK. But this time, the blanket ignoring of the fact that the debate is relevant to England alone has been total, not only on the part of the politicians involved but also the media and bloggers. What is it about the National Health Service that makes us blind to its national specificities?

I suppose part of it is that the NHS is one of those national British institutions we like to think of as being present and valued to an equal degree in all parts of the UK, like the BBC, the Royal Family (for some, at least) and Parliament itself. But like Parliament and, to some extent, even the BBC, the national character of the NHS has been fundamentally changed by devolution. There are now four NHS’s (one in each of the UK’s constituent countries), with four government departments looking after them, four separate organisational structures, and separate funding arrangements. As with all legislation and social policy for England, the NHS in England is looked after by the UK government and the UK Department of Health. So although the government and Westminster politicians discuss policy for the NHS in the British terms relating to the level at which policy is made for it (at the UK level), the NHS in question is the English one, not a British one as such, which does not exist any more after devolution.

Given the apparent total unwillingness of the parties and the media to engage with the fact that the NHS whose future is being discussed is the English one, it is necessary to ask what they have to gain in ignoring this fact. In essence, the parties are trying to avoid framing an ideological polarity in national terms: ‘English’ political philosophy and social policy = support for privatisation, market principles and a reduced-size public sector; ‘British’ ideology and policy = support for nationalisation, state control of essential services and a generously funded public sector.

The truth of the matter is that, in England, the New Labour government has carried out major reforms to the NHS that have introduced more elements of privatisation than the previous Conservative governments were ever able to get away with; e.g. Foundation Trusts; autonomous GP surgeries competing for funding based on ‘performance’; public-private partnerships to build and run hospitals; outsourcing essential and ‘inessential’ services to private contractors; the introduction of patient ‘choice’, causing treatment centres to compete against each other to deliver the most lucrative and ‘popular’ treatments; more ‘consumer-friendly’ polyclinics being forced through despite the objections of practitioners fearing it would result in the break-down of individual doctor-patient relationships; etc. etc.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the Tories’ actual policies as outlined in policy documents such as their Plan for NHS Improvement are pretty much more of the same: advocating a flexible blend of public-sector and private-provider approaches to deliver the desired health benefits supposedly more cost-effectively and efficiently. This document, by the way, is an absolute master class in the art of dodging the issue of which National Health Service, or rather which nation’s health service, is being discussed, as it studiously avoids referring to England in all but some statistical examples that strangely relate to England alone (strangely, that is, if you thought the policy document was referring to Britain when in fact it was dealing with the English NHS only).

So for all the hullabaloo over the past few days, it turns out that there are in practice no ideological differences between Labour and the Conservatives over the NHS (in England, that is); just minor differences in the methods to be adopted to deliver the same type of ‘reforms’ – by which is meant the introduction of market mechanisms that supposedly lead to greater efficiency, and improved patient choice and outcomes. But to listen to the politicians from both parties as they traded blows over this you could be mistaken for thinking that what they are really falling over backwards to agree about is their commitment to the principles of a generously funded, public sector-based ‘British’ NHS that lives up to its founding mission to provide health care free at the point of delivery.

Two aspects are key here: 1) a general ideological shift has occurred, prompted by the recession, whereby people’s faith that markets could go on delivering ever greater prosperity, and hence the mechanisms and means to continually improve the NHS, has been shaken; and they are worried that talk of increasing private-sector involvement in the health-care system is simply an excuse to make expenditure cuts. Labour are clearly playing on these concerns; and the Tories are having to emphasise the fact that they plan to increase expenditure on the NHS (in England) in real terms, and underplay the fact that they are still intending to introduce more private-sector mechanisms for allocating those resources and delivering care; 2) both parties have a strong vested interest in suppressing the fact that the marketisation of the NHS they have been carrying out and intend to extend even further is limited to England, whereas the separately administered and funded NHS’s in the other countries of the UK have continued on more traditional public-sector lines.

In other words, the parties’ concern to underplay their commitment to market principles in the NHS is of one piece with their need to suppress the England-specific character of those market reforms – by which I do not mean that those reforms are supported by the English people and reflect the English ‘character’ as such; but rather the mere fact that those reforms have been and would be driven through in England only. Why is this? Because both parties, for their separate reasons, want to be seen as parties for Britain, not England. Labour is appealing to its core support, particularly in Scotland and Wales where it has supported and provided funding (via the Barnett Formula) for traditional public-sector NHS’s. Ignoring the rather different market-orientated policies that have been specific to its management of the English NHS helps Labour to invoke the folk memory of the nationalised health service when it was indeed a uniform public-sector service for the whole of Britain.

The Tories, for their part, are desperate not to be seen as a party associated with the Thatcherite market economics and wholesale privatisations that always enjoyed far more popular support (though never that of a majority of English voters) in England than in Scotland or Wales. For the Tories, openly supporting private-sector initiatives to improve public health-care outcomes, even though (and in part because) such measures would be limited to England, would be electoral suicide in Scotland and Wales. The Conservatives would then be portrayed as the party for the wealthy south of England, intent on cutting public expenditure in England, leading to reduced budgets in Scotland and Wales via the workings of the Barnett Formula. And, in fact, this is true. As I stated in my previous post on this subject, although the Tories are actually pledging to increase expenditure on health in England, they’re planning overall cuts in spending, which will result in lower budgets for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations, and possibly the need to cut spending on their NHS’s. So in fact, the Tories may end up spending more on the English NHS resulting in less spending on the NHS’s in the other UK countries.

So, by referring to the English NHS as the British NHS, the Labour Party are trying to gloss over their record in government, which has involved a substantial degree of privatisation of the service in England that the party has not supported in Scotland or Wales. And the Tories are also trying to downplay their actual support for market reforms of the NHS in England, which risks conjuring up the ghost of Margaret Thatcher and the idea that the Conservatives are the party for the wealthy and privileged of England (particularly, the south), not a progressive party for the whole of Britain.

But the consequence is that neither of the parties can be honest about their plans for the English NHS as such. Can we really be sure that if, by some freak, Labour got re-elected, they would not deepen their marketisation of the NHS – in England, only? And can we be confident that when the Tories set about extending the role of the private sector in the NHS (in England only), this will not become an excuse for delivering ‘efficiency savings’ that can then be passed on to the less efficient NHS’s in the other UK nations via the superior state funding they are guaranteed by the Barnett Formula? We don’t know, because the parties won’t tell us. They merely talk in misty-eyed terms of the British institution that is the NHS and how they stand firmly by its principles – even if those principles are put into practice in very different ways in England from the rest of the UK.

On one level, that’s fine: why shouldn’t the different nations of Britain develop the NHS along divergent lines in accordance with popular and national priorities? Why not, indeed? Except, in England, our actual priorities are not taken into consideration at all: the parties appeal to our affections for a fully state-funded and -run ‘British’ NHS and then they deliver an NHS in England that suits their own ideological and economic agendas, and is not what most English people are expecting, I would think. If the politicians actually engaged in dialogue with the English people and debated with them what sort of NHS we think we can afford, and the mix of public- and private-sector approaches that might best deliver the desired result, they might be surprised at the response they got. I don’t actually know what that would be: it might be more traditional public-sector, or more innovative, commercial and hybrid public-private. Genuine public consultation across the nation could deliver surprising results.

But the point is we’re not consulted, because a politics of dialogue between the English people and their political representatives would actually create a national English political community: one which might in turn design an English NHS that was worthy of the name. Instead, under the guise of a supposedly uniform British NHS that no longer exists, the parties canvass our support and that of those living in the other UK nations in order to deliver their own unspoken agendas for England. Unspoken, that is, because if they can’t even say the name of the country whose NHS they are supposedly standing up for, then such a health service is not a National Health Service that is truly designed with the best health outcomes in mind for the English nation.

And then they have the gall to talk of patriotism.

15 August 2009

The Conservatives are the “party of the NHS”: but which one?

It’s as if devolution never happened and we were back in the ‘good old days’ when there genuinely was only one National Health Service. Not one single item – not one – in all of the news coverage I saw or heard yesterday on the reaction to Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s criticism of the NHS on US TV correctly referred to the organisation in question as the ‘English NHS’ (or, at least, the ‘NHS in England’), which is what they were actually talking about.

At least, David Cameron, Andrew Lansley (the Conservative Shadow Health Secretary (for England)) and Andy Burnham (the actual Health Secretary in England) can only have been referring to the NHS in England in their comments following Hannan’s contribution, as that’s the only NHS they either will have (if the Tories win the general election) or presently have responsibility for. But you couldn’t tell that from what they said.

David Cameron: “Just look at all the support which the NHS has received on Twitter over the last couple of days. It is a reminder – if one were needed – of how proud we in Britain are of the NHS. . . . That’s why we as a Party are so committed not just to the principles behind the NHS, but to doing all we can to improve the way it works in practice.”

Andrew Lansley: “Andrew pointed out that many of the NHS reforms promised by Labour, including practice-based commissioning, Foundation Trusts, patient choice and independent sector investment, have stalled under Gordon Brown. And he stressed, ‘All those who care about the NHS know that these are the kind of reforms that will enable us to achieve the combination of equity, efficiency and excellence which should be the hallmark of the NHS’.”

Andy Burnham: “I would almost feel . . . it is unpatriotic because he is talking in foreign media and not representing, in my view, the views of the vast majority of British people and actually, I think giving an unfair impression of the National Health Service himself, a British representative on foreign media”.

Let me note in passing what a complete and utter joke those last remarks of Andy Burnham’s are. Has Burnham suddenly transmuted into an English patriot, as it’s only the English NHS that he and the government of which he is a part has anything to do with? I don’t think so. Hannan’s not a ‘British representative’, i.e. a representative of the British government or parliament. But if he was, then doubtless Burnham feels his job would be to do what Burnham himself does: not so much misrepresenting the ‘British NHS’ abroad but misrepresenting the English NHS to the English public as the British NHS!

And as for that Twitter stream, don’t waste your time checking it out. It’s full of junk now, and I had to click down a couple of hundred entries before I got any reference to England that wasn’t either a porn link or a job ad, or indeed practically any reference to the political debate.

But actually, Twitter is quite a good metaphor for the debate: full of sentimental waffle but very little substance. It’s easy to prattle on about the NHS as a great British institution of which the people of Britain are rightly proud and keen to defend from unfair criticism from abroad. But the reality is that as a national-British institution, the NHS already no longer exists. It’s New Labour, not the Tories, that did away with it through devolution. And its the New Labour British government that did far more than the Tories ever did to privatise the NHS in England, with things like public-private partnerships to build and run new hospitals, the introduction of internal health-care markets, Foundation Trusts, and competition between GP surgeries and the new supposedly ‘consumer-friendly’ polyclinics, etc. Admittedly, while all of that was going on, the NHS’s of the other UK nations were – for good or ill – remaining more faithful to Labour’s traditional socialist principles, with fully public sector-based organisations amply subsidised by the English taxpayer.

Does it matter, though, whether you call it the ‘English NHS’ or the ‘British NHS’? Isn’t this just semantics? Well, I think the English believe in the principle of calling a spade a spade: if you are talking about something that relates to England only, you should at least have the honesty and courtesy to let people know that’s what you’re doing. Of course, on one level, it’s legitimate to refer to the ‘British NHS’ even when discussing policy for its English variant; i.e. when talking about the founding principles that are said to inform the NHS throughout Britain to this day: fully public-funded health care free at the point of delivery. But the point is those principles are not applied evenly, and equally, across the whole of the UK. There is no longer a single UK model for how public-sector health care should be funded and organised. And the model presently applied in England has moved further away from the NHS’s original principles than that in any of the other UK nations.

This does matter for the political debate going forward into the general election. Daniel Hannan has helpfully exposed a vulnerability of the Tories in England, because it’s clear that the Tories do support further reform of the English NHS along the lines set out by New Labour. Those Tory reforms mentioned above in the context of Andrew Lansley’s reaction to Hannan’s remarks (“practice-based commissioning, Foundation Trusts, patient choice and independent sector investment”) are precisely New Labour policies that the Tories claim the government has failed to deliver. If the Tories pursue them, they will indeed drive further marketisation of the NHS – but only in England. By appealing to the founding ‘British NHS’ principles, and by promising to increase NHS funding in real terms, the Tories are trying to make out that they back the traditional, fully nationalised model for health-care delivery in the UK. They may well support a generously public-funded health-care system; but in England, at least, the delivery model will involve a much greater role for private companies and market competition, which will inevitably lead to inequalities and increased variations in the availability of high-quality NHS treatment for different conditions in different parts of ‘the country’ – England, that is. But the more they talk up their allegiance to the traditions of the ‘British NHS’, the more they hope we won’t read the English small print.

Plus the Tories are also addressing the non-English electoral ‘market’, of course, and are hoping that the uninformed (misinformed) public there – again, through the emotive appeal to the NHS as a national-British institution – will be deluded into thinking that a Conservative government will have direct influence on health-care policy in their countries (which it won’t) and will stand guarantor for traditional NHS values there – which it may do, through acquiescence with the policy variations and funding inequalities that have flowed from asymmetric devolution and the Barnett Formula. But actually, a real-terms increase in public expenditure on health in England will not necessarily deliver corresponding and proportionately greater increases in NHS funding in the other countries of the UK. This is because public expenditure overall under the Tories is set to decrease, so that increases in the health budget will have to be paid for by cuts elsewhere. And a decrease in overall spending in England will result in even greater proportionate decreases in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In other words, increased investment in the NHS in England may actually result in the need to cut the NHS budget in the other nations. While some of us in England might derive malicious satisfaction from what would in effect be a levelling out of healthcare apartheid (and, after all, the Tories have promised, dishonestly, to improve equality of NHS care throughout the UK), this is a wilful deception of voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: the Tories appear to be promising to increase NHS funding throughout the UK; but actually, they’re talking about England only; and increases in the English health-care budget may indirectly lead to decreases in the health-care budget in the other parts of the UK.

But Labour can’t talk, either. This system of unequal funding and differing delivery models throughout the UK is the one that they set up; and to claim that they support a uniform UK-wide NHS organised along traditional lines is a pure, downright lie. Well, they might emotionally support it, with misty-eyed reverence towards Nye Bevan and the post-war settlement; but in practice, the New Labour government has already broken up that British NHS beyond repair. The truth of the matter is New Labour has run out of policy ideas for the NHS in England but has supported a traditional-type NHS in the other UK countries. So all it can do is appeal to ‘patriotic’ and nostalgic support for a great British institution that is no more (in England, at least) in the hope that it can deceive enough of the English people for enough of the time to secure another election ‘victory’ that will enable it to continue to cross-subsidise a traditional NHS in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through further privatisation of the system in England – as they have done since 1997.

Well, the English people won’t fall for that one again. But they might fall for the similar trap the Tories are laying. The English people need to have an informed debate on the type of health-care system they want in England; because that’s what the whole argument is really all about. Health care in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is dealt with separately by the devolved administrations. So it’s only the English system that the Westminster politicians can do anything about. By claiming, as David Cameron did yesterday, that the Conservatives are the “party of the NHS”, the Tories are trying to reassure the English people that the NHS is safe in their hands. But that’s not the point. There will still be an NHS; but what sort of NHS will it be in England, as opposed to the doubtless very different NHS’s that are developing along divergent lines in the rest of the UK? The Tories need to be honest and up front about the small print of their plans for England, and not obfuscate the whole discussion by misleading references to a monolithic British NHS that is no more. But so do the politicians of all parties.

After all, Mr Cameron, Brown and Co., you can’t fool all of the English people all of the time, even if you think you can.

3 July 2009

Government response to swine flu: over-complicated by devolution?

In media coverage yesterday of the change in the official response to swine flu from ‘containment’ to ‘treatment’, I was struck by the usual ambiguity as to whether the information provided related to England only or the whole of the UK. For instance, in the BBC News website’s report, it stated: “Andy Burnham, the health secretary in England, said: ‘The national focus will be on treating the increasing numbers affected by swine flu. Cases are doubling every week and on this trend we could see over 100,000 cases per day by the end of August'”. Pleasing that the BBC correctly characterises Andy Burnham as the English health secretary; but then, is the “national focus” one for England only or for the whole of the UK? Probably the latter, as the 100,000 cases per day figure was being talked of as the UK-wide total. But all the same, this got me wondering: how is the response to swine flu being co-ordinated – if at all – between the UK government and the devolved administrations, with their separate responsibilities for health care? And is the apparent failure of the containment strategy in part a consequence of different approaches having been adopted in the different UK nations?

Unlike the radio and TV coverage, the BBC website article did report that, “Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon announced similar changes to the flu strategy at a simultaneous briefing in Edinburgh”. So it appeared that there is a single UK-wide strategy and a co-ordinated response across the different health departments. This was even more apparent when I visited the Department of Health [England]‘s and the Scottish Government‘s websites and read their remarkably similar statements on the change in tactics.

After much further investigation, it turns out that the Department of Health [England] has retained the responsibility for drawing up the overall UK strategy for dealing with flu pandemics, along with the lead role in co-ordinating the operational response to any actual outbreak; although the devolved administrations are supposed to put in place their own NHS and civil-contingency systems and resources for responding to any crisis – in line with the UK plan.

As the government’s national framework document puts it: “A ministerial committee (MISC 32), comprising ministers from across central government departments and the devolved administrations, oversees and coordinates national preparations for an influenza pandemic”. Then, in the event of the World Health Organisation declaring that a pandemic has reached phase 4 or higher (currently, we’re on phase 6 for swine flu), the following happens: “the Government’s dedicated crisis management mechanism – the Civil Contingencies Committee (CCC) – [is] activated in support of the Department of Health. The CCC will direct central government activities, coordinate the wider response, make key strategic and tactical decisions on the countermeasures required and determine national priorities. The CCC will be guided by input from central departments and agencies and from local responders through Regional [English] Civil Contingencies Committees (RCCCs) and the devolved administrations. It will work with the national News Coordination Centre to maintain public confidence [i.e. manage the news]”.

So we’re currently in a situation where a nebulous Civil Contingencies Committee is co-ordinating the response UK-wide, in keeping with a pre-established plan, and managing the news in such a way as to maintain morale. No wonder that the English-UK and devolved health departments appeared yesterday to be singing perfectly from the same hymn sheet in their media pronouncements in a display of quite exceptional synchronisation and unity! And that, despite the imminent prospect of 100,000 new cases of swine flu per week, we’re being blandly reassured that we’re now moving in a controlled, pre-planned way from containment to ‘treatment’ – implying that it can be successfully ‘treated’ in the vast majority of cases; whereas, in reality, we’re all just desperately praying that it doesn’t suddenly become much more virulent or resistant to Tamiflu.

But, as I said above, one can’t help wondering whether the failure of the containment approach (surely, prevention is better than cure?) is partly the result of the wheels of co-ordination between the UK central government and the devolved administrations not running as smoothly as yesterday’s united front would have us believe. If you read the national framework document, the sheer number of organisations – international, national-UK, ‘regional’ (English), devolved and local – that are involved in formulating strategies and co-ordinating the response is mind-boggling. Amid this already hugely complicated landscape the fact that the NHS and civil-contingency measures are replicated with slight variations in each of the devolved nations and the ‘English regions’ surely cannot help to streamline processes and ensure that everybody knows what everybody else in the chain of command is supposed to be doing.

Take a look at the section that deals with the different organisational elements involved in each of the devolved administrations (pages 49 to 52). This is a masterpiece of bureacracy-speak, and of bureacracy full stop, with departments, committees, sub-committees, groups, sub-groups, directors, trusts, agencies, directorates, etc. etc. all having a role to play. I can’t prove that having these complicated and distinct organisational schemes in each of the devolved countries has contributed to the ineffectiveness of the containment measures; but they surely cannot help. And it is the case that Scotland is one of the ‘hotspots’ of the disease, in part – allegedly – because no Scottish-Government advice for people to stop travelling to Mexico was given out in the early stages of the outbreak.

But, for the time being, we are supposed to be resting assured that all the UK health departments are acting perfectly in concert according to a well-structured plan. But the only reason they’re able to both act in this way, and be on message to such an extent, is that their actions are being centrally directed by a shadowy Whitehall committee, which is also driving the media communications in such a way as to reassure the populace that ‘the government’ has everything under control.

And one of the principal, and well-tried, weapons of media misinformation at the fingertips of the national ‘News Coordination Centre’ is to imply – to gullible people in England, at least – that everything forms part of a homogeneous UK-wide health-care and emergency-response system. Well, the plan may be UK-wide – and the operational direction currently is, too, now we’re in an advanced phase of the pandemic – but the delivery certainly is not.

3 January 2009

Channel 4 Friday: What a load of (anti-English) rubbish!

Channel 4 used to be edgy and innovative; now it just seems to churn out the same old formula programming and anti-English bias as all the other terrestrial channels.

Witness last night’s offerings. I caught a snippet of the Channel 4 News report on what I am henceforth calling the ‘English government’s’ [= the UK government in its capacity as the unelected government for England] new public-information campaign to combat obesity, ‘Change4Life’. Of course, if you didn’t already know that the Department of Health deals with health matters in England only, there’s no way you would have guessed from the Channel 4 report that this initiative is limited to England. They never once mentioned this fact, and referred to ‘national’ this and ‘Britain’ that, as if England and Britain were one and the same thing – which, with respect to health policy and this campaign at least, they manifestly are not.

For once, by contrast, the BBC got it right. The report on their news website correctly identified that the campaign related to England only, although it misleadingly suggested that the 2007 Foresight report on obesity related to the UK as a whole, describing it as “the largest UK study into obesity, backed by the government”. In fact, the report dealt with England only, as you can see for yourself here. The article also mentioned explicitly that Scotland already has a similar campaign of its own. The BBC 1 Ten O’Clock News did even better, making it clear on two or three occasions in its report that the Change4Life campaign and related statistics it referred to concerned England only. One of the illustrations even had a caption that read ‘Department of Health England’: a very pleasing, and accurate, juxtaposition of the official name of the government department and its territorial jurisdiction. Perhaps the BBC is finally getting the message; which is more than can be said for Channel 4, clearly.

Incidentally, the Change4Life website also goes extremely softly softly when it comes to broadcasting its England-only remit. On the home page, it does invite the visitor to: “Join the people across England who are already making a Change4Life”. This sort of wording is also typical of news reports that refer explicitly to England, including the above-mentioned BBC one: they say ‘in England’ at some point; but they don’t flag up in lights the fact that it’s an England-specific initiative on the part of the [de facto English] government. So much so, in fact, that visitors to the Change4Life website – attracted to it, perhaps, by the TV news reports that gave the impression it related to the whole of the UK – have to be informed at the bottom of a page about activities in ‘my local area’ that “Are you in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland? This resource only covers England”.

What a contrast if you do follow the links to the campaigns in the other nations of the UK! The website for the Scottish campaign, ‘Take life on’, literally flags up the fact that it’s a Scotland-only initiative, funded by the Scottish Government: it is decked in the colours of the Saltire, with the flag itself in evidence in the top-right-hand corner of every page. Similarly, the Welsh campaign, ‘Health Challenge Wales’, couldn’t be more explicit about its Wales-only character, indicated – in addition to its actual name – by the mention on the home page that it is “brought to you by the Welsh Assembly Government”. And as for Northern Ireland, the opening paragraph reads: “Welcome to the get a life, get active website. We all need to be active, and most of us in Northern Ireland aren’t nearly active enough”. And the website is peppered with links subtly conveying its ‘national-Irish’ character through the colours of orange and green.

One wonders whether the people of England would be more responsive to this sort of government information drive if the powers that be paid them the courtesy of informing them that this was an initiative specially designed for England, addressing issues that are of concern to everyone in England. Better still, if the afore-mentioned powers were those of a properly elected English government. If they did this, perhaps there would be less of the instinctive reaction against the ‘nanny state’ condescending to us about our bad habits; because it wouldn’t be the UK state talking down to us from on high in Westminster, but a truly English government that we the English people had actually elected and which we might accept was genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of England – just as the campaigns in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have no qualms about emphasising the fact that they have been put together for their nations by their national governments.

And, incidentally, we should not be surprised by the irony that the English anti-obesity initiative is the last one to be launched, despite the fact that we make up around 85% of the UK population. Undoubtedly, this is linked with funding issues. Change4Life is relying on sponsorship from food producers and retailers, including brands that you would not necessarily associate with healthy eating but which will be able to make use of the campaign’s logo and branding on their products and in their stores: Cadbury, Kelloggs, Pepsi, Tesco, etc. Even so, there are concerns that Change4Life will still not be adequately funded. By contrast, the partners for the Scottish and Welsh campaigns include no commercial organisations but only publicly funded bodies and charities. Clearly, government funding for such initiatives is not an issue in those countries compared with England.

Later in the evening, I had the misfortune to watch most of ‘A Place In the Sun Down Under’, which followed the eventually successful efforts to find a new home for a family desperate to quit these shores for brighter horizons in Australia. I’m not sure that this sort of fayre is really what we need in England right now in the midst of a miserable midwinter and an even more gloomy economic climate. The programme extolled the virtues of the sunny Australian lifestyle and economic opportunities, which it contrasted favourably to the bleakness of life back in ‘Blighty’; and it gleefully reeled off the statistics about the thousands of ‘Brits’ that are flocking to a ‘better life’ down under. It’s enough to make you comfort-eat and build up those weather-defying fat reserves! (My excuse.)

I suppose many of my readers can relate to this couple’s wish to escape from dreary, misgoverned Britain, if only they had £265k mortgage-free to throw around! The programme went on about Brits getting out of Britain to such an extent that I completely missed the fact, garnered only from the Channel 4 website, that the couple were actually from Wrexham (in North Wales). So they weren’t so much desperate to escape Britain as to quit Wales! During the programme, I did in fact think that the wife sounded Welsh, although the husband definitely came across as English. In fact, the repetitive references to ‘Britain’ and ‘Brits’ naturally led me to think that the couple lived in England, as – I thought – it would probably explicitly say ‘Scotland’ and ‘Wales’ if that was where they actually lived: ‘Britain’ equalling England in Channel 4 speak. But then I didn’t think about the aspect that Scottish and Welsh people might ring or write in to complain about the negative impression that was being given about their countries. Better to just say Britain and let people think the derogatory portrayal related to England only!

Am I being paranoid? Maybe, a little. But the programme did gloss over the fact that the emigrating couple were from Wales and created the impression they lived in England. And there was so much negativity about ‘Britain’ (generally, a synonym or overlapping term for England) that it seemed to partake of the usual tendency to do England down. At the same time the programme constituted such a promo for Australia, you felt it must be receiving funding or other support from the Australian government. It’s as if it were saying to all us English folk seeking a healthier lifestyle: don’t bother with the English government’s half-hearted anti-obesity campaign, just de-camp to Australia, where you’ll get plenty of opportunity to ‘eat better, move more and live longer’!

Or you could check out Channel 4’s forthcoming serving of ‘The Great British Food Fight’, previewed after ‘A Place In the Sun’. Oh Gawd, I said inwardly; why can’t they just give all this ‘Great Britain’ malarkey a rest! Not content simply with the title ‘The Big Food Fight’ they used last year, they feel they have to stick the words ‘Great British’ in there to beef it up still further. Or should that be ‘pork’ and ‘chicken’ it up, as two of the episodes – presented by Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittenstall respectively – will be focusing on the ‘British’ pork and chicken industries. Not that I am an expert, but I would be pretty confident that most pork or chicken labelled in the shops as ‘British’ (and therefore, by definition, almost all ‘British pork’ and ‘British chicken’ per se) is in fact produced and processed in England. ‘British’ is just a brand for these meats, as one pork-industry website explicitly states. That is, it’s the brand used for English meat, as the practice of supermarkets such as Tesco – which is the subject of Fearnley-Whittenstall’s programme – is to label anything produced in England (including, in my area, local East Anglian pork and milk) as ‘British’, while anything from Scotland or Wales carries the names and flags of those countries. So when Oliver and Fearnley-Whittenstall take British pork and chicken producers and retailers to task, remember that the objects of their criticisms are English producers that have to keep their costs down to a minimum to remain afloat against a tide of cheaper imports.

In fact, there’s not much about the content or the celebrity-chef presenters of the ‘Great British Food Fight’ that is properly British, as opposed to English only, unless you count Gordon Ramsay as Scottish because he was born there. And that includes the ‘Little Chef’ chain of restaurants (described by Channel 4 as a ‘British institution’) that are going to get the Heston Blumenthal treatment, only nine out of 185 of which are located in Scotland. Intriguingly, 15 Little Chefs are also to be found in Wales (including one in Wrexham, I note); so, based on the proportion of Little Chefs per head of population, you should really call them a Welsh institution – but then again, safer to imply they’re English (which they mainly are, to be fair) by calling them British! In short, the Little Chefs are another fat-filled reason to leave Wales
the country England – or at least to upbraid it for its supposedly low-quality and unhealthy food.

And what is ‘British food’, anyway? It always used to be called ‘English food’ or ‘English cooking’, which used to be negatively compared with French or Italian cuisine. I suppose the sub-text is ‘English food used to be rubbish until it was transformed by numerous multi-cultural influences and the healthy-eating fad, and became “great British” food’. But note: no one is suggesting that the recently elevated status of British food is down to traditional Scottish and Welsh influences, which would be a justifiable reason to call it British. So even in its ‘new improved’, healthy, multi-cultural Britishness, British food is still largely English in origin.

Which, fortunately, cannot be said of the ‘Big Brother’ concept: the TV one, that is (which is Dutch), as opposed to the original inspiration – George Orwell’s 1984 – which is English. How very apt that this evening of British nanny-state doing down of the English lifestyle and diet – combined with the lauding of celebrity ‘British’ chefs campaigning to make our food healthier, more natural and more original – should culminate with ‘Celebrity Big Brother’: a veritable fusion, as they say, of the ethos of the Surveillance State and our supposed obsession with celebrity. It is indeed fitting that a channel that can serve up such a sustained diet of anti-English tripe should also produce a programme that reduces the real intrusion of the UK state into our English liberties and privacy to the status of a game show, and to prurient tabloid-style curiosity into the private lives of the rich and famous.

In so doing, they debase a medium that could and should be dealing with the real reasons why English people distrust their unrepresentative and paranoid politicians (who in turn distrust them), why they live so unhealthily, and why they are flocking out of the country in droves – such as: inadequate disposable income to spend on healthier food; the power of the big brands and supermarkets that sell the processed and mass-produced ‘British’ foods (and drive down the prices to English producers) in superstores to which we increasingly have few alternatives, as the big chains plus the recession are driving the small retailers out of business; our money tied up in over-priced, under-sized housing that we can’t sell; dead-end jobs (if we’re lucky), excessive working hours, a high cost of living and intense stress levels; and a growing gulf between the richest and the poorest resulting in envy of, and lust for, wealth and fame.

Oh yes, and the rubbish fayre and trashing of England served up by the likes of Channel 4.

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.

5 February 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 4): GP opening hours

Much of the media coverage yesterday concerning the row between the [English] government and the British Medical Association (BMA) over a proposed new contract for GPs in England obscured the fact that the dispute is completely limited to England. I was driving for much of yesterday and so was able to listen to several radio news reports at different times of the day. The morning bulletins failed to mention at all that this was an England-only matter. In the BBC Radio Four evening news, there was a single mention of the fact that the [English] Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, would be writing direct to GPs in England to put the government’s case.

The story on the BBC News website does mention England three times but in a way that also doesn’t make it completely plain that the dispute is exclusive to England. The article twice states the fact that Alan Johnson will “be writing to every GP in England”; and reports that “if they [GPs] reject it, ministers will impose a tougher settlement in England”. If you were not aware that Alan Johnson’s responsibilities are restricted to England, you could conclude from these statements that what’s happening is that greedy over-paid English GPs are resisting longer and more flexible surgery opening hours, while their counterparts elsewhere in the UK have embraced the changes. Hence, a tougher solution has to be ‘imposed’ on England, whereas it’s been willingly accepted elsewhere.

This is not true. It’s basically an issue of unequal funding of GP services in England compared with Scotland and Wales, along with a privatisation agenda for England that is a complete non-starter in the rest of the UK. The BMA does not object to extended hours for GPs in England but is resisting the government’s proposals because they are not accompanied by any additional funding. According to the BMA, this could result in an inferior quality of service to patients during daytime hours, who include those who are most in need of a sustained level of care from a medical team that knows them and their condition – something that traditional general practice provides so well. The BMA believes that the government is deliberately trying to push a confrontation with doctors in England, so as to make out that English GPs are unwilling to provide the extended services the government claims it wants to promote (without funding them). This will enable it to introduce so-called ‘polyclinics’: large multi-practitioner primary-care clinics run by multinational companies. These clinics would effectively mean that the government was ‘outsourcing’ much of the GP service to commercial providers, thereby cutting its costs, and resulting in a decline of traditional general practice along with the continuity of care and of relationships with doctors that it facilitates.

In England, that is, not in Scotland or Wales. The plans for the health services in both those nations (see links in previous sentence) involve a more collaborative relationship with the BMA in planning extended roles for GPs – including, yes, extended surgery hours – but as part of schemes where the resources are being made available to ensure that service provision is improved in local areas where the need is greatest. In other words, GPs will work longer and more flexible hours, and their responsibilities will grow; but this work will be properly funded by the public sector and planned out as part of an integrated programme for improving care for the most vulnerable. 

By inadequately conveying the fact that the row over GP terms and conditions relates to England only, the media is effectively supporting the government in pushing a whole separate agenda for public health-service provision in England compared with Scotland and Wales.

Verdict: BBC Radio News, 1 out of 5 – one mention of ‘in England’ but not clearly identifying the dispute as exclusively an English matter

BBC News website, 2 out of 5 – three mentions of England; but again, not clear to the uninformed reader that the dispute is about an inequality of funding and disparity of policy for the health service in England compared to those in Scotland and Wales.

30 January 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 3): Stop and Search, and Social Care

Just a couple of quickies from the media over the past few days. First, the ‘stop and search’ row that broke out at PMQs this morning. Haven’t followed the coverage as systematically as usual, but I didn’t hear either GB [Gordon Brown] or David Cameron referring to the fact that they were talking about relaxing the rules regarding stopping and searching (young) people in the streets in England and Wales only. The reports on the Radio Four lunchtime and evening news similarly didn’t mention the fact that the debate was relevant to England and Wales only – or at least, I didn’t hear any mention of it.

The BBC News website is – as on many occasions – the worthy exception. Its report does mention in two places that the discussion involves England and Wales: the Tories’ claim that scrapping the bureaucratic forms the police have to fill in every time they stop someone “would save 900,000 police hours per year in England and Wales”; and a reference to Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief inspector of constabulary in England and Wales, who’s produced a report on it. However, the first six paragraphs of the BBC News website report fail to mention ‘England and Wales’ at all; and the way the alleged statistic of 900,000 police hours per year is thrown in out of any context could give the impression that this is being referred to only because statistics for England and Wales are gathered and published separately, not because the whole story refers to England and Wales alone.

Why does this matter? How would the issue be debated differently if the proposals for England and Wales were contrasted with the approach taken in Scotland? It’s known that stop and search makes only a negligible contribution to reducing youth crime and gang violence, which is the alleged reason for relaxing the rules. Equally, statistics (and damn statistics) show that ethnic and religious minorities are more likely than their white [English] counterparts to be stopped and searched, leading to resentment at supposed racism and Islamophobia on the part of the [English] police – despite DC’s bland assurances that the [English] police are “no longer racist”. [Really – not even a little bit, in parts?] In addition, playing on the [English] public’s fear that stop and search is necessary to reduce gang violence (even though it’s pretty ineffectual) contributes to the demonisation of [English] youth, while increased stop and search is likely to increase the disaffection of young [English] people towards the [English] police.

OK, so how are the preventive approach, the thinking, the attitudes towards young people, the extent of gang violence, and the whole problem of youth crime different in Scotland? What lessons can we learn, if any, from our northern neighbours? Is English youth really as bad as it’s (only implicitly) being made out to be, and is it that much worse than Scottish youth? Only goes to show what a violent, uncouth and racist lot we English are then, doesn’t it?

Verdict: GB and DC – 0 out of 5 for opportunistic, let’s-play-on-the-fear-of-crime-on-English-streets stop and search politics; BBC Radio Four: 0 out of 5 (no mention of England and Wales); BBC News website (2 out of 5: if you’re wised up, man, you can read between da lines about dem English lies).

Quickly on to the social care issue. BBC Radio Four, again [you can tell I’m a devotee, if only in the Victor Meldrew ‘I don’t believe it’ school] have been running an excellent, informative and campaigning ‘Care in the UK’ month of programmes. Except, you’ve guessed it, it’s about social care in England: about 90% of it, that is. Look at their Care Calculator and their Care Questionnaire: all England only. The resumés of the month’s programmes – virtually all England. You become aware of this exclusively English content only when you click through to the detailed information; the introductory pages make no mention of England – but in this case, what you get is definitely not what it says on the tin.

Why does it matter? Because it blunts the whole campaigning thrust of the programme. The situation of personal and social care in England is desperate. But if you make out that you’re talking about the UK, not England, then you can avoid referring to the infinitely better deal the Scots are currently getting: free personal care for all who need it. The question the programme asks is why isn’t the UK getting better social care provision? What it should be asking is ‘why isn’t England getting better social care provision, like that available in Scotland?’ Instead, you get a sentence like this: “Social care is means tested in most of the UK“: no, it’s means-tested in England, not in Scotland.

The You and Yours programme has sent a set of listeners’ questions to the Care Minister, who’s a junior minister in the Department of Health: the English Department of Health, that is, whose remit is social care in England not in the UK. Do you really think he’ll address the English dimension of the question? Does he really care about England? They may make a few improvements around the edges, and then the government can say that it’s listened to the British people; and the programme will say that it’s helped to improve care in the UK – avoiding those embarrassing comparisons with Scotland, where the situation will still be – to coin a phrase -miles better.

Verdict: 3 out of 5 for the BBC; very worthy exercise but deceitful in pretending that there’s some kind of uniform UK-wide governmental responsibility for these issues; whereas England’s plight in this area is because it’s ‘cared for’ by a UK government that thinks England needs to carry the financial burden of the Union.

17 January 2008

The Campaign For Plain England (No. 1)

Taking my cue from the Campaign for Plain English – the organisation that campaigns for public bodies and businesses to produce information for the public and consumers in simple, easy-to-understand English – I’m today launching the Campaign for Plain England: an occasional series pointing up failures by government, politicians, public-sector organisations and the media to make it plain when they’re referring to England.

First in the series, today’s news story about the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report calling for GPs in England to prescribe more generic drugs rather than their branded equivalants in order to prevent unnecessary expense. The report does appear to refer to the fact that it relates only to the NHS in England: ‘England’ is mentioned in total six times in the report’s 36 pages. However, on closer examination, readers have to infer that the report deals only with England; or else they must rely on contextual information such as their background knowledge that the House of Commons has competency in such matters only in relation to England, or by reference to the BBC News’ website‘s clarification that the report concerns itself with England (hat tip to the said website for saying ‘England’ in the first sentence of its report).

The report never makes it totally explicit that its recommendations relate to England only. The actual references to England come in the form of statistical information concerning the historical and current situation with regard to drug prescribing. The rest of its lengthy deliberations contain no reference to England. Nor is England mentioned on the title page.

Perhaps this lack of transparency about the report’s exclusive England focus was what foxed the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, as they referred to the Public Accounts Committee’s report in their news bulletin, and then conducted a five-minute interview with a supporter and opponent of the Committee’s recommendations, without once mentioning they related to England only. So there was I left hanging, not sure whether in fact the report was relevant to the UK as a whole or just England, but assuming that it was England only, which indeed turns out to be the case – I presume.

4 out of 5 for the BBC news website (not 5, as only one mention of England, admittedly in the first sentence)

1 out of 5 for the Public Accounts Committee report (several mentions of England but never totally explicit that the whole report relates to England)

0 out of 5 for the Today programme – total editorial failure there!

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