Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

15 January 2015

The leaders’ debates and the failure to imagine England

In the row about what format if any the party leaders’ debates in the upcoming general election should take, one factor that has consistently been ignored is the England-specific framing of the discussion. By this, I mean not just that the possibility of an England-specific debate – focusing on the type of ‘English matters’ on which many have recently advocated that only English MPs should have the right to vote – has simply not been considered; whereas separate Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish debates have been offered. But also, the fact that the whole frame of reference for defining what constitutes ‘major UK parties’ is effectively English – or at least Anglo-British – has failed to be acknowledged.

Take the statement yesterday by the Green Party’s Australian-born leader Natalie Bennett claiming that the Green Party (of England and Wales) was one of the five major parties “in Britain”. Well, no, it’s one of the five largest parties in England. If you really mean ‘Britain’, or the UK, then you’d probably have to rank the Greens as sixth, with the SNP clearly in third place, both in terms of party membership and likely parliamentary representation after the general election.

Then you get into meaningless semantics about what constitutes a ‘national’ party: whether it means standing candidates in every single British, as opposed to UK, seat – leaving aside the fact that the Greens, Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems all have separate ‘Scottish’ parties, so that, technically, UKIP is the only major UK-wide party that qualifies. Unless, of course, by ‘national’ you mean every English seat. Because that is what, in this debate about the debates, ‘national’ effectively does mean: it’s whether parties are standing everywhere in England that counts, and hence whether their leaders’ performance in the debates are of relevance and interest to an English TV audience.

Of course, this is not being acknowledged, and cannot be acknowledged, as politicians and media would then have to admit that, in this supposedly UK election, involving UK-wide issues, there are really multiple elections: those in the devolved nations, where the issues properly concern only policy areas reserved to the UK government, and where nation-specific parties need to make their respective pitches about how they intend to look after the interests of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people within the London parliament; and then, in contrast, there is the election in England, where both reserved matters of great importance such as the economy, the EU, security and immigration are at stake, along with England-only matters such as the NHS, education, social care and cuts to local government – among many others.

Instead, politicians and the media are seeking to maintain the pretence that there is a single UK electorate, and single set of policy issues of equivalent importance and relevance to that ‘national’ audience: the NHS alongside the economy; education alongside immigration; social care and housing alongside welfare. There is of course a single national audience affected by the parties’ positions in all of these areas – but it’s the English audience, not the British one. And the ‘English’ parties – in my sense – certainly shouldn’t make a pitch to viewers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the (English) NHS, education system and local government, as if they were of equal relevance to viewers in those countries as those parties’ policies on the economy, defence and immigration. In fact, to do so is tantamount to fraud, as those parties wouldn’t be able to do anything in devolved policy areas if people in those countries voted them into power in Westminster.

The only way to be fair and proportionate about this is to split the debates into reserved and devolved matters; to have separate debates in all four of the UK’s nations on the latter; and have one or more debate on reserved policy areas involving, in some way, all the major parties of each nation. Then, by all means, the Green Party of England and Wales should be included, at least in the separate English and Welsh debates; and the Scottish Greens should be included in the Scottish debate.

The way I’d split it, to keep it manageable and useful to voters, is as follows:

• A first debate, aired UK-wide, featuring just David Cameron and Ed Miliband: as the PMs in waiting. This would deal only with reserved matters, given its UK-wide transmission

• A second debate, aired UK-wide, featuring the leaders of all the parties that could end up as coalition partners to the Conservatives or Labour, or as holding the balance of power, i.e. the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the DUP. This debate should also be on reserved matters only and should exclude the Tories and Labour in order to counterbalance the potential bias from limiting the first debate to them. Although only UKIP and the Greens are ‘national’ (i.e. English) parties, it would be relevant to English voters to have the leaders of the main nation-specific parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland appearing on the platform, as these parties may form part of UK governments legislating for England. The debates would therefore give voters in England a chance to find out whether these parties would ally themselves with Labour or the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament; and what their stance on matters such as English votes for English laws, constitutional reform for England, and other issues of concern to English people such as immigration and EU membership would be. That might make a real difference to voting intentions

• Four further nation-specific debates should also then happen, including UKIP and the Greens in England, and the single nation-specific parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In England, the debate should reasonably deal with both England-specific and reserved matters, but with a greater emphasis on English issues, as reserved issues would have formed the focus of the previous two debates. Devoting a limited amount of time to reserved matters would enable, say, Nigel Farage to debate the EU and immigration with David Cameron, and Natalie Bennett to debate energy policy alongside the environment (England-only) with the other leaders.

But I strongly doubt that a truly equitable solution such as this will be adopted: equitable to the people of England, that is, rather than to the purported national-UK parties that are in fact no such thing.

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9 January 2013

Coalition Mid-Term Review: Sidelining England in the British-national interest

The UK coalition government published its mid-term review on Monday of this week. It is not the intention of this article to carry out a detailed analysis: I am interested mainly in the way England is treated, or rather is not, in the document.

At first sight, for a document produced by the UK government, it is remarkable how many times the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ actually appear: 15 and six respectively. However, most of the references to ‘England’ are of two related types: 1) where it is necessary to spell out that certain facts or policy proposals relate to England only in order to avoid misunderstanding, and to prevent people living in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland from thinking they are affected by them; and 2) to make sure that credit can be claimed for England-specific achievements for which the coalition parties hope to be rewarded by English voters at the next election.

Examples of the first type of reference occur on page 26, where the document refers to a number of policy proposals in the area of personal care as being specific to England, such as rules regarding eligibility for care and the introduction of a Deferred Payment Scheme designed to prevent people from having to sell their homes in order to pay for care. Clearly, these are important statutory and financial matters, and it is necessary to make it clear to non-English readers that they affect only people living in England.

Examples of the second type of reference are:

  • “We have provided the resources to help local authorities in England freeze their council tax for three years in a row” (page 14): Tory policy – please vote for us, England. (What are these ‘resources’, though? I thought local-authority funding in England was being cut, and the council-tax freeze was just a statutory, central government-imposed diktat. Do they mean local-authority funding is being cut by less than it would otherwise have been if authorities had been allowed to increase council tax willy nilly?)
  • “We have brought in the Protection of Freedoms Act to limit the retention of DNA samples in England and Wales in line with practice in Scotland” (page 37): Lib Dem policy – look, we actually do care about you, England, at least in the lofty area of British civil liberties if nothing else.

The first type of reference to England described above has the character of a legal declaration of ‘territorial extent’, along the lines of when cereal packets make it clear that a competition is limited to Great Britain and does not include Northern Ireland. And indeed, the whole document is circumscribed by a legal disclaimer of this sort covering territorial extent, which appears right at the end:

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

No clarification as to which policies “now apply to England only”, of course! Is the general public just supposed to know what they are, as the document certainly doesn’t make this clear to the reader as it goes through the different policy areas, apart from the few exceptions I have already mentioned? But throwing in a disclaimer like this means the government can essentially cop out of providing a detailed break-down and say: ‘look, we’ve acknowledged that some policies are England-only, and anyone interested in those particular policies will know whether they’re England-specific or not’.

This is simply not good enough, although it is par for the course. We’ve come to expect from Westminster politicians and the UK government that they will avoid referring explicitly to ‘England’ as much as they possibly can, and will do so only when it is necessary to avoid factual misunderstanding and harmful political consequences, in the ways outlined above. But their unwillingness to acknowledge a country called ‘England’ to which so many of their policies relate means that Westminster politicians cannot and do not hold themselves properly accountable to the ‘nation’ and people affected by those policies.

This fact is evident in the evasive manner in which many of the policy ‘achievements’ and remaining objectives of the coalition are described; and in many instances, the evasiveness relates directly to the suppression of references to ‘England’. For example, the document never makes it explicitly clear that when it discusses ‘the NHS’, it means only the NHS in England. This helps it gloss over the fact that the coalition has legislated for a massive reform to the NHS that will alter it – in England only – quite radically from the institution created by the post-war Labour government. And yet, the government still has the gall to refer to it as “one of our great national institutions”, as if the NHS it presides over is still fundamentally the same old British NHS, which it no longer is (at least not in England).

So suppression of the England-specific nature of the NHS reforms goes hand in hand with evasiveness about the scope and nature of those reforms. For example, the document says: “We have improved the NHS by . . . starting to devolve commissioning of most health services to GP-led clinical commissioning groups”. But what it doesn’t say is that these changes are limited to England and that the said commissioning groups are statutorily obliged to consider bids from private health-care providers even if the services they provide are initially more expensive than those of existing, public-sector NHS providers.

A more honest account of the government’s measures would be explicit about both their England-specific character and their ultimate guiding principles, and would be expressed something like this: “We have reformed the NHS in England in such a way as to create a competitive health-care market in which private companies will increasingly take over the provision of publicly funded services”. This is actually intended to be an ideologically neutral statement of what the government has done: it has marketised the health-care sector in England, whether you believe that’s the most effective way to deliver health care or not. So why should a Tory-led government not trumpet that achievement? Well, because it suspects, probably correctly, that if English people knew what had been done to ‘their NHS’ (but not to the NHS’s in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), involving changes that were not set out in any manifesto or in the Coalition Agreement, they’d probably violently object. So instead, the coalition pretends that ‘the NHS’ remains fundamentally the same – a primarily public-sector and ‘British’ institution – neither of which is true any more: in England, that is.

The same analysis could be made of many, many other parts of the document that discuss England-specific policies and legislation while avoiding clarifying either that they relate to England only or that they are driven by an ideological bias in favour of private enterprise and markets at the expense of the public sector and, arguably, the public interest – in England. Another brief example – one among many – is where the document says: “We have introduced a presumption of sustainable development in the National Planning Policy Framework, which includes protection of the Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest”. How disingenuous can they be? What this really means is: “We have prepared legislation to make it easier to obtain planning permission for major developments in England’s countryside, with only Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest retaining the previous level of protection”. So England’s green and pleasant land can be concreted over under the pretext of driving economic growth, in the British national interest, regardless of the very passionate interest the English public has in protecting its countryside and natural heritage.

The identity of the ‘nation’ on which this concept of the ‘national interest’ is predicated is quite nebulous in the Mid-Term Review, as indeed it was in the original Coalition Agreement. This is quite simply because, in so many instances, the nation concerned is in reality England, but the government will not and cannot acknowledge this fact. This is rather damaging, as the very raison d’être of the coalition, then as now, is to govern in the ‘national interest’, as the title of the Mid-Term Review makes clear: “The Coalition: together in the national interest”. But whereas the phrase ‘national interest’ is adduced as justification for the coalition’s existence or for certain key decisions on five occasions in the document, the word ‘nation’ is used only once: “In 2012, the nation came together to celebrate the success of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Diamond Jubilee”.

Three of the references to ‘national interest’ relate to the formation and continuance of the coalition, based on pulling the UK round from a dangerous financial and economic crisis; one to supporting the work of the Airports Commission, which could lead to controversial approval for, say, a new terminal at Heathrow or a new runway at Stansted (i.e. more environmental degradation in England “in the national interest”); and the other reference deals with the decision to opt out of, or in to, various EU police and criminal-justice measures. In other words, ‘national interest’ is very narrowly defined in terms of a small number of strategically important reserved policy areas – the economy, air transport, foreign policy and security – whereas large parts of the document deal with devolved policy areas, i.e. with those affecting England only or mainly.

Are these English measures also being introduced in the ‘national interest’? It’s hard to believe they are given the unwillingness of the government to connect the phrase ‘national interest’ with the specific nation, England, concerned? And if they’re not being carried out in the English-national interest, in whose interest are they being done? The interest of the government’s ideological, commercial and financial bedfellows (its corporate sponsors and partners, and its financial creditors)? The interests of the UK state and establishment, and their preservation from an economic meltdown that could have accelerated the centrifugal, nationalist forces challenging their  continuing existence? Or the interests of the coalition parties themselves, who want to come out of the five-year relationship claiming they have fought their corner and followed through on their manifesto pledges – irrespective of the fact that many of the measures they’ve introduced were never outlined in detail and in some instances were flatly contradicted by their manifestos and by the Coalition Agreement, such as the [English] NHS reforms or the Higher Education policies (especially the massive hike in tuition fees for English students)?

But these questions, as indeed the English Question itself, are completely sidelined by the Mid-Term Review. After all, the Coalition can hardly be expected to hold itself accountable to an entity such as ‘the English people’, can it, if its remit is to govern in the British national interest?

18 July 2011

Open Public Services white paper: the one thing it’s not open about is England

The UK government’s ‘Open Public Services’ white paper was published last week. This sets out the government’s vision for public-service reform in England. Except you’d be hard put to realise from the text that it relates almost exclusively to England.

The white paper does, however, include a helpful explanation about its ‘scope’ right at the beginning, just after the title page and before you get to any content. It’s worth quoting this in full, as it’s a masterpiece of the double-speak involved when official language contorts itself so as to avoid saying ‘England’. Here’s what it says:

“We believe that more open public services can benefit everybody in the UK and that finding ways to deliver better services for less money is a challenge that is common to all four nations of the UK. The scope of this paper is UK wide, but in devolved areas of policy it is for the devolved administrations to determine their own approach to public service reform. The three devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all different although, in general, services such as health, education and those provided by local government are under devolved control. If you live or work in any of the devolved territories and are in any doubt as to which of these reforms would apply there, the relevant territorial office will be able to advise you.

“We are committed to working in partnership with the devolved administrations to share good practice and to explore whether our approach would suit their particular circumstances and need.”

WHAT THE F***! – if you’ll excuse my nowadays increasingly intemperate French, or rather Anglo-Saxon. There’s a much clearer and more concise way of explaining the ‘scope’ of the white paper. It’s this: “This paper relates in its entirety to England, and, owing to devolution, only limited parts of it apply to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”. But that would be far too much like ‘plain English’, in both senses: the same ‘plain English’, in fact, that the white paper itself says will be used for “explaining the scope and purpose of every [government spending] transaction”. On this basis, they presumably won’t be bending over backwards to explain to English people the ‘scope and purpose’ of the higher per-capita levels of public spending in the ‘devolved territories’ compared with the rest of the UK, i.e. England!

What an incredibly insulting, patronising way at once to explain and avoid explaining to “everybody in the UK” who is and is not affected by the proposals in this white paper! It talks of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as if they were imperial dominions begrudgingly granted a minor degree of administrative autonomy while remaining fundamentally beholden to Whitehall: “devolved administrations”; “devolved territories”; “relevant territorial office”. Meanwhile, which “territorial office” is going to explain in plain English to people who “live or work” in the non-devolved territory (England) that when the white paper says “UK wide”, it really means “only in full to England”? At least, this explanation of the white paper’s ‘scope’ refers to “all four nations of the UK” – but then why is England the only one undeserving of mention? [Sorry, Cornwall, you get even less of a look-in.]

Needless to say, the rest of the paper continues in the same vein and goes out of its way to avoid reminding its English readers that most of its proposals affect them only. The words ‘English or ‘England’ are in fact mentioned 12 times in the document; but only two of those references directly evoke a policy that applies to England, or England and Wales, only: “directly elected city mayors in England’s largest cities” (p. 31), and “communities across England and Wales are able to see where crime and disorder is happening in their neighbourhood” (p. 36). There are also two cases of ‘England’ being mentioned in the context of statistics, without spelling out that the reason those statistics relate to England only is that the relevant government department is responsible for England only: “In England today, people living in the poorest neighbourhoods will, on average, die seven years earlier than people living in the richest neighbourhoods” (p. 7: public health); and “the Department for Education has published a new dataset showing the funding and spending per pupil in each school in England” (education: p. 20). I suppose you could say the three references to the “English Baccalaureate” very indirectly acknowledge the fact that the white paper’s proposals on education relate to England only. Most of the other references are to ‘English’ as a language or school subject.

By contrast, there are 27 instances of ‘national’ together with one of ‘nation’ and two of ‘nations’. This government has a distinct predilection for the concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘national’ along with ‘we’ and ‘our’ (320 and 101 occurrences respectively) as the subject and possessive pronouns that stand in variously or simultaneously for ‘the government’ and ‘the nation collectively’, and are equally a way to avoid saying ‘England’ where the matter in hand relates to England. E.g.

“We rely on the police to patrol our streets to deter crime. If we get seriously injured we expect an ambulance to come when we ring 999. When we take our children to school, we look to teachers to pass on to them the best of human knowledge. We demand that our bins are collected regularly and that parks are well maintained” (‘we’ = ‘the nation’, i.e. in all of these instances, the English nation or ‘English people’);

“when times are tight and budgets are being cut to stabilise the economy and reduce our debts, opening public services is more important than ever – if we want to deliver better services for less money, improve public service productivity and stimulate innovation to drive the wider growth of the UK economy” (“we” and “our” = ‘the nation’ as the government, which wants to get more for less and “drive the growth of the UK economy”).

The whole of this white paper is encapsulated in this tension between the ‘we’ that are the individuals, and local groups and communities (and locally focused social and private enterprises), that are at one and the same time the users and providers of public services, and the ‘we’ that is the government that has to set a ‘national’ policy and funding framework for those locally produced and consumed services. But nowhere within this model is there any scope for a ‘we the English people’ that might be given national-level responsibility for designing and allocating public funding for those services that affect English people as a whole. That would be a true convergence of the ‘we’ of government and the ‘we’ as the public the government is supposed to serve.

Indeed, the white paper sets up a curious tripartite division of responsibilities in respect of public-service provision. There are, and I quote:

  • Individual services – These are personal services – for example in education, skills training, adult social care, childcare, housing support and individual healthcare – that are used by people on an individual basis.

    Neighbourhood services – These are services provided very locally and on a collective, rather than an individual, basis – such as maintenance of the local public realm, leisure and recreation facilities, and community safety.

    Commissioned services – These are local and national services that cannot be devolved to individuals or communities, such as tax collection, prisons, emergency healthcare or welfare to work.

So, according to the white paper, there are services that ‘we’ require and consume as individuals; and for these, the government’s idea appears to be that ‘we’ will be given a personal budget to be used up, where we can choose which provider to spend our money on: effectively, privatisation / marketisation of these services. Then there are services that ‘we’ as small local communities are to both use and provide for ourselves. And finally, there are ‘commissioned’ services where it is up to ‘us’ in government (local and ‘national’) to set policy and commission services, whether those services are provided by publicly or privately owned organisations.

Well, there’s another word that encompasses almost all of these services: ‘English’. Indeed, apart from ‘welfare to work’, there are none of these services that “cannot be devolved” at a national-English level, just as they have in fact been devolved to a variable degree to each of the three existing “devolved administrations”. But the white paper’s model for English ‘devolution’ is that while ‘we’ as individuals and communities are to have greater choice of and responsibility for the public services that can be “decentralised to the lowest appropriate level” (as the document puts it), nevertheless ‘we’ as the UK government are determined to retain control over all the ultimate levers of economic and political power in England: taxation, spending, work and welfare; law and order; and national security and public safety. But absolutely nowhere is there any scope for a ‘we the English people’ who might take over responsibility for the macro level of national policy as well as the micro level of individual and local service delivery. There is no ‘we’ that is at once the English nation and English government.

So it’s no wonder that the description of the white paper’s ‘scope’ does not mention ‘England’, because there’s no scope for anything we might recognise as England in the government’s ‘open public services’ model for England. In fact, this is all about opening up English public services to a market place of competing providers, and turning the public into consumers and, indeed, consumer-providers. So the government is opening England up to its private-sector chums; but it’s not really ‘open’ to the idea of the English people as such seeking to design and run their own services – and, indeed, owning those services – at a national level, despite the white paper’s assurances that the British government is going to carry out a ‘listening exercise’.

The agenda has been set and is going ahead. The English nation will be privatised. It’s a fait accompli or, as we English like to put it, we’re screwed.

20 July 2010

David Cameron: Big on society, little on England

There was more than a touch of déjà-vu about David Cameron’s re-launch of the Conservatives’ Big Society initiative yesterday. Here was a major policy speech relating almost exclusively to England in which the word ‘England’ was barely mentioned: once, in fact – and I’ll return to that in a moment. By contrast, Cameron spoke of the / our ‘country’ seven times and of ‘Britain’ twice, including in a rhetorical flourish at the end of his speech:

“It’s my hope – and my mission – that when people look back at this five, ten year-period from 2010, they’ll say: ‘In Britain they didn’t just pay down the deficit, they didn’t just balance the books, they didn’t just get the economy moving again, they did something really exciting in their society’. Whether it is in building affordable housing, tackling youth unemployment, inviting charities to deliver public services . . . the people in Britain worked out the answer to the big social problems”.

It was almost as if we were back to the good old bad old days of Gordon Brown: setting out the government’s England-only policies while studiously avoiding any reference to the ‘E’ word itself.

The difference between Cameron and Brown lies in the ‘content’ of the policy if not its British rhetorical dressing. Cameron’s statement, as summated in the above quote, is his programme for government in a nutshell: to rebalance the British economy and reduce the deficit (macro-economic policy: a reserved UK policy area) and to empower the “people in Britain” – specifically, the English people in Britain – to work out the solutions to their own social problems (social policy: an area of policy devolved to the respective governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but exercised on behalf of the people of England by the British government).

Hitherto exercised on behalf of the English people by the British government, that is: because the whole point of the Big Society is that, in theory at least, the formulation and implementation of social ‘policy’ as such, and the powers to deal with social problems, are going to be transferred to society itself down to the micro level (or the ‘nano level’, as Cameron called it): socially minded individuals, communities, local areas, and groups with a particular interest in specific aspects of civic society (such as parents running their own schools or communities getting involved in how they are policed).

The Big Society, in short, is what you get when the central British government sees its business exclusively as dealing with the macro dimension (UK macro-economics or the “national interest” – Cameron’s favourite phrase, which crops up in the second paragraph of his speech, when referring to deficit reduction) while disengaging altogether from the job of setting national policies in the social arena, which would in effect involve being a government for England. As a result, you have, on the one hand, the British macro layer of decision making in Whitehall and, on the other, the micro layer of the Big Society with absolutely no intermediate national-English layer of social or economic policy making, governance and democratic accountability.

In other words, ‘in Britain’, Government deals with what is its own ‘proper’ domain (macro-economics and other reserved policy areas) but does not ‘micro-manage’ the delivery of public services (to England), but instead devolves that responsibility to the micro level itself: the people who deliver those services. This is what is being offered to England by way of ‘equivalence’ to devolution for the other nations of the UK: ‘government of the people by the people for the people’ taken to a literal degree – disintermediated from the very democratically elected, national government and its institutions that are supposed to incarnate popular sovereignty, and instead being embodied in people themselves deciding to take direct action to deal with the social problems all around them. This is a ‘cultural revolution’ (or, as Cameron put it, “a huge culture change”) of almost Maoist scope: the people in a sense becoming the government and assuming its responsibilities, or – as the Conservative election manifesto referred to it – ‘joining the government of Britain’.

Except, as I say, what this actually means is becoming the government of England that the British government neither wishes nor is mandated to be. I am prepared to accept that Cameron, and many Conservative and even Lib Dem supporters of the coalition government, genuinely believe that the Big Society principles hold the key to resolving England’s social problems: that the era of ‘Big Government’ (or massive government engagement in social policy and public-service delivery) is over, and that society can find the answer to its problems only from within itself and from its own resources. Indeed, I agree with much of the localism behind the Big Society: that local issues are often best dealt with by the people directly affected by them; and that communities can really be revitalised if they can somehow come together to find a collective response to the social problems in their areas.

But if the Big Society is such a positive vision for transforming English society, why can politicians and the media not openly and honestly refer to it as an agenda for England? In virtually none of the media reports and discussions about Cameron’s Big Society launch I came across yesterday was the fact that it relates almost exclusively to England referred to. The honourable exception was the World At One news and current affairs programme on BBC Radio Four, where ‘England’ was mentioned twice, deep into the discussion, in such a way that you could be mistaken for thinking that only the particular aspect of the Big Society blueprint that was being referred to was limited to England rather than the whole thing.

I can’t remember now which aspect of the Big Society was being dealt with at that point. Perhaps it was the one reference to ‘England’ in Cameron’s speech: “we will create a Big Society Bank to help finance social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups through intermediaries. And I can announce today that it will be established using every penny of dormant bank and building society account money allocated to England”.

What does the phrase “dormant bank and building society account money allocated to England” actually mean? Is this money in dormant English bank accounts, or is it the portion of the total money lying dormant in bank accounts across the UK that had already been allocated to public expenditure in England – meaning, presumably, that an even higher proportionate share of that fund had also been allocated via the Barnett Formula to the other countries of the UK. Let’s hope it doesn’t mean a combination of the two: English bank accounts from which only a portion has been allocated to England, while an unfair share is set to be distributed to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Be that as it may, the very fact that the Big Society Bank is to be formed from a pot of money set aside for England gives away, almost as an indiscretion, the fact that the Big Society is strictly an English affair. But why can’t this fact be openly acknowledged and even celebrated?

Well, in a way, it would have been rather extraordinary and counter-cultural if Cameron’s speech had talked of creating the Big Society in England, and of English people being empowered to resolve English social problems – even if that’s what is in fact being talked about. This avoidance of explicit references to England when talking about England is indeed something we became all too familiar with in the bad old New Labour days, and is something that has also been discussed at considerable length in previous posts in this blog.

In essence, the word ‘England’ is avoided in all this discourse because ‘England’ is a void within it: there has been a total void or vacuum of social policy for England as such – as a nation – throughout New Labour’s tenure, and the Big Society is what is intended to fill it. But the Big Society in turn is not designed as an English policy as such because it is the very national, English dimension that the Big Society continues to avoid and circumvent. So whereas New Labour indeed micro-managed public-service delivery in England in a top-down manner, while denying any distinction between the British state and the English nation (calling them both ‘Britain’), Cameron’s Conservatives want public services in England (or, as they would put it, ‘Britain’) to micro-manage themselves without regard to any English-national policy dimension. Either way, there’s ‘British government’ on one side and ‘society in Britain [England]’ on the other, and they’re either conflated (New Labour) or divergent (Conservatives). But the one option that’s not envisaged is the intermediate one of an English government taking responsibility for English social policy in partnership with the English people to whom it is accountable.

The fact that the Big Society is essentially a by-product of the British government’s abnegation of its responsibility to co-ordinate social policy and public-service delivery in England – in part because it neither is nor wishes to be a government for England – was made glaringly obvious to me yesterday evening by a comment by Francis Maude, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, on Radio Four’s Tonight programme. What he said was that by definition there was no national plan for rolling out the Big Society. Yes: because, by definition, that would have to be a national-English plan, and the Big Society is what social policy in England becomes when the UK government washes its hands of it.

It remains to be seen whether the people of England will respond to the challenge to develop into a Big Society that the British government has set it. And, of course, this challenge is more than merely moral and social, in that the government’s withdrawal from social provision in England is being carried out as much in pursuit of what it sees as its primary role (macro-economic management and deficit reduction) as it is the consequence of the government’s unwillingness and lack of authority to provide leadership and vision in English social policy.

There are hard times ahead for England. But the English are a tough, resilient and resourceful people. And maybe, in learning to take control over our own social problems and public services, the English will start to demand political self-determination, too, at a national level where government is truly accountable at all levels to the people it is supposed to serve.

If the British government won’t provide direction for English society, maybe the English people will have to truly take over their own government in ways that go far beyond what is envisaged in Cameron’s Big Society.

22 May 2010

Lib-Con Coalition: A New Dispensation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

versus

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 April 2010

The Tories’ Big-Society Britain: England in all but name

Firstly, I have to say that the Conservatives’ election manifesto, ‘An Invitation To Join the Government Of Britain’, albeit misnamed, is a much more impressive affair than Labour’s shamefully anglophobic re-hashing of existing policies devoid of vision or principle. If people of a ‘progressive’ disposition were to approach the two policy statements in a spirit of genuine open-mindedness, I think many would conclude that the Tory manifesto is a much more ‘liberal’ document (with a small ‘l’) than Labour’s, with its concern to redress some of the present government’s erosion of our civil liberties and its aspiration to reverse the unaccountable centralisation of government.

That said, the Tories’ manifesto shares much of Labour’s will to suppress any English-national dimension to politics and civic society. On a superficial reading, you’d think the content of the manifesto was as it says on the tin: about revitalising British government and society, and setting them in a new relationship to one another. The document is stuffed full of inspirational references to ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ (140 in total), and to the ‘nation’ – meaning ‘Britain’ or the UK: 83 instances of ‘nation’ or ‘national’. By contrast, there are only 17 references to ‘England’ or ‘English’: admittedly more than Labour’s 11 versus 188 mentions of ‘Scotland’ / ‘Scottish’ in the Scottish version of its manifesto. At least, the Tories aren’t so disingenuous and gerrymandering that they produce a separate set of Scottish policies to persuade voters in that country to elect Scottish Labour MPs to serve as lobby fodder for English bills.

But the Conservatives’ ‘Big Society’ big idea can be realised, if at all, in England alone. The section of the manifesto in which this concept is spelled out in detail – ‘Change society’ – deals almost entirely with devolved policy areas: those in which the British government’s competence is limited to England or, in the case of justice and policing, to England and Wales. So all the proposals to ‘devolve’ power down to communities, individuals, and public-private business partnerships in areas such as local planning, schools and the NHS effectively do not relate to Britain as a whole, but only to England.

The mere fact that the Tories are incapable of honestly acknowledging that their plan to repair ‘broken Britain’ is in fact a blueprint for England should not of itself deter English patriots from voting Conservative if they like the Tories’ ideas, which are indeed much more original and attractive than Labour’s sterile and statist approach in many respects. But if, on the other hand, you do want to see government of England by the English people, you won’t get it from the Conservatives’ programme of ‘people power’.

The Tories’ plan is in effect one of devolution for and within England, rather than devolution to England: devolution of power to English communities, and associations of socially responsible individuals and organisations, rather than devolution of political power to democratic, English-national government and civic institutions. If you’re a localist or libertarian, you may think this is no bad thing. But as well as expressing the Conservative ideological bias in favour of private individuals and associations, as opposed to big government, this is a way of circumventing questions about the governance of England and the legitimacy, or otherwise, of the very ‘Government of Britain’ in which the Tories seek to re-engage the English people above all.

In effect, a British-national-public sector versus local-community-private sector dichotomy replaces the British-national / regional dichotomy in New Labour’s thinking about ‘the country’; but both frameworks leave no room for any sort of English-national tier of government, democracy or identity. This is less sinister than New Labour’s New Britain, in that at least the existence of England is acknowledged even if England is not viewed as distinct from ‘Britain’ in any way. Indeed, the whole manifesto is predicated on a profound but unspoken identification between England and Britain, reflected in the very fact that what is in reality a social programme for England only is expressed as being for Britain.

In this context, it is not surprising that the manifesto fails to propose a satisfactory solution to the West Lothian Question while not even acknowledging the broader English Question: the question of how England should be governed, which is a non-starter for the Tories, because they just unquestioningly assume that England is (governed as) Britain. Nevertheless, at least they do raise the West Lothian Question – which is more than Labour does – because they accept that England exists; even if their answer to the question is no solution:

“Labour have refused to address the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’: the unfair situation of Scottish MPs voting on matters which are devolved. A Conservative government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries.”

This policy does not amount to English Votes on English laws, or to a Grand Committee of English MPs with the exclusive right to debate and vote on England-only legislation. While being extremely vague, this statement appears to confirm expectations that the Tories will adopt ‘English pauses for English clauses’: English MPs only to make revisions to England-only laws at the committee stage of bills, while all UK MPs continue to be allowed to vote on those bills at their second and third reading.

This is a mere procedural tweak that leaves the WLQ in place, if anything in a more pernicious form: it relies on there being the same balance of power among English MPs as in the House as a whole – otherwise, amendments to bills made by English MPs can simply be rejected by the House as a whole, resulting in stalemate. And the measure can be reversed by any incoming Labour government. So apart from being practically ineffective, and liable to contribute to governmental paralysis and constitutional crisis, this measure is a million miles away from the establishment of any sort of English parliamentary forum in which the priorities and needs of the English nation as a whole can be deliberated and decided upon.

Ultimately, then, the Tories’ manifesto might well represent power to the people – but only if they’re content to continue not to be the English people.

27 September 2008

Abolishing the Act of Settlement: again, it’s all about getting rid of England

The Guardian newspaper yesterday carried news of constitutional proposals drafted by Chris Bryant MP, who was charged with reviewing the UK constitution by Gordon Brown. The main ideas are that of abolishing primogeniture (the principle whereby the male children of UK monarchs take precedence over the female ones in the line of succession to the throne) and reform of the Act of Succession: the 1701 law that bans Roman Catholics, or those married to Catholics, from taking their place in the line of succession, i.e. ultimately from being king or queen. Curiously, the proposals are also reported to include limiting the powers of the Privy Council: a shadowy body, which is in theory the monarch’s private advisory committee, but which is in reality a branch of the executive and answerable to the Cabinet. One of the roles of the Privy Council is to arbitrate in disputes between the UK government and the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales.

Why should we be worried or even bothered about these proposals to repeal such seemingly archaic and irrelevant features of the UK’s eclectic constitution? As far as primogeniture is concerned, it does seem rather unimportant and discriminatory to insist that if the first child of a reigning monarch is female, she should should be relegated behind any younger brothers in the line of succession. Probably most British people who are still attached to the monarchy would not be too concerned by scrapping this rule; and those of an anti-monarchic bent probably couldn’t be bothered.

For me, however, it seems like an assault on one of the last bastions of an idea about authority in society that is Christian at root: that authority is ultimately vested by God in male persons. This is authority, not overweening power or a blank cheque to do as you wish, and is really in fact a form of service: the duty to represent and uphold God’s authority and truth in the land, to serve him and try to ensure that his will is done.

This idea of the divine role of the monarch as a servant of God is closely linked to the reasoning behind the Act of Settlement. As the Guardian puts it, quoting from the words of the Coronation Oath, the monarch’s constitutional duty is to “maintaine the Laws of God the true profession of the Gospel and the Protestant reformed religion established by law . . . and . . . preserve unto the bishops and clergy of this realm and to the churches committed to their charge all such rights and privileges as by law do or shall appertain unto them or any of them”. The monarch has to be Anglican because of this combined duty to ‘maintain the Laws of God’ (i.e. to ensure that secular laws as well as church governance reflect God’s law) and to defend the established Protestant religion. This latter duty involves both the monarch’s role as the Supreme Governor and Head of the Church of England, and a general responsibility to uphold the Church of Scotland (the established church of that land), even though the monarch is not the formal head of the Kirk.

If you remove the requirement for the monarch to be Anglican, then he or she cannot exercise this role as Defender of the (Protestant Christian) Faith, nor can (s)he be the Head of the Church of England. Consequently, as the Guardian article states, reforming the Act of Settlement would probably lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England.

Again, why should this matter? There are many supporters of an English parliament or English independence who would be happy to see the disestablishment of the Church of England and would prefer England to be constitutionally a secular country, without any established religion. However, they’re missing something here. The talk is only of disestablishing the Church of England and not the Church of Scotland. Admittedly, the Church of Scotland is not an established, state church in the way that the Head of the UK state’s simultaneous headship of the Church of England makes that church a state religion. But nonetheless, the Church of Scotland is the official, ‘national’ church of that land, with statutory duties to tender to the pastoral care of all the Scottish people, whether they belong to that church or not. Equally, as I have indicated above, the British king or queen still has a constitutional responsibility – as contained in the Oath of Accession – to “defend the security” of the Kirk.

No one, to my knowledge, is presently talking about ‘disestablishing’ the Church of Scotland in the sense of stripping it of its formal status as Scotland’s ‘national’ Church, its legal responsibility for the pastoral care of all who live in Scotland, nor its royal protection. Nor, certainly, is anyone talking about allowing the Church of England to retain a similar status and set of responsibilities in the event of its disestablishment; i.e. that it should continue to be, in some sense, the national Church for England and to retain its age-old responsibility for the ‘care of souls’ in every parish in the land. That land being England.

And it’s England’s status as a nation that is ultimately at stake. The Church of England is perhaps the only remaining institution that preserves any sort of constitutional status for England as such. Through the Church of England, the head of the UK state and hence the state itself is constitutionally bound to have care and exercise governance over a real, established entity known as England and her people. If you sever the link between the monarch (and the state) and the Church of England, this means that there is no longer any established body that has jurisdiction over England as a nation. This would then mean that the UK monarch would have no particular constitutional duty to defend England as such – whether in a general or merely spiritual sense. And, accordingly, the UK state could decree that England as such was history, as there is no other constitutional, legal or political framework or institution that belongs to England only and exercises governance over England only.

In a context of constitutional reform in which England’s status as a nation was assured and protected by things such as an English parliament – or even just the political will to acknowledge the nation and governance of England as precisely that and not treat it as just a territorial jurisdiction of UK governance – such an untying of the organic links between the state, the Christian faith and England would not be so grave a matter. But a comprehensive reform package of this sort is not what is on offer; far from it. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the idea of any kind of English self-governance is not remotely on the government’s constitutional-reform radar, as they have no model of governance other than that of UK-parliamentary sovereignty, to which England is absolutely subject, while any idea of English national, popular sovereignty is seen simply as a non-sequitur. And England would be even more subject to, and constitutionally indistinct from, the UK state as it currently stands if the Church of England were disestablished as there would be no national English Church to look out for us, and no head of state that was constitutionally bound to care and pray for England as such.

And this is why the as yet unspecified proposals to reform the Privy Council appear particularly sinister to me. If the Privy Council’s powers to arbitrate in disputes between the UK state and Scotland or Wales were limited, presumably, this means that a body that currently has a constitutional duty to consider the interests of England – through its ties with the monarch and its exercise of the royal prerogative in matters such as the appointment of Church of England bishops, for instance – would no longer have as much influence in matters to do with the relationship between retained (UK-wide) and devolved governance. If decisions in such grey areas were left to the Cabinet and / or to parliament, rather than the Privy Council, there would be no need or duty to consider the interests of England at all, because parliament and the executive do not represent or govern any entity known as England but only the UK. So there would no longer be a third party – England – that could be seen as being affected by disputes between the UK state and the devolved nations. Constitutionally, there would be, in fact, only Britain and the devolved nations.

So these proposed measures could signal nothing less than the beginning of the end, or even the end of the end, of England.

Don’t let it happen. Please sign the ‘England Nation’ petition, if you haven’t done so already. Thank you.

18 September 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 May 2008

English Nationalism and Progressive Politics

For me, ‘progressive’ is something of a dirty word. I associate it with the arrogance of the left – particularly, in the British context, of the Labour Party – and of some secular liberals, who seem to divide the world into the rational, modern, ‘progressive’ sheep to the left, and the ideologically reactionary and psychologically ‘regressive’, (religious-)conservative ‘goats’ to the right. Traditionally, however, on Judgement Day – or, as we might put it, ‘in the final analysis’ – it’s the goats on the left that are damned.

New Labour is now facing up to its own impending Judgement Day, at the next general election. Of course, it’s already had to endure three minor tribunals (the recent local elections, the London mayoral vote, and Crewe and Nantwich) where the electorate has damned it for its ineptitude, its arrogance and its lack of a vision for ‘the country’. And, we may ask, which country?

Of course, it’s predominantly the English electorate that has delivered the recent swings towards the Conservatives; not the Welsh (also polled in the local elections) and certainly not the Scots, where the Tories remain as weak a political force as ever. Is there a connection between this growing rejection of New Labour by the English and the fact that, in the PM’s recent statement concerning the government bills to be brought to parliament in the autumn term, the most systematic parts of the Governance of Britain agenda – the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, the Statement of British Values, and a possible British Constitution – were quietly put on hold?

One wonders what New Labour’s focus groups and private opinion polls have been revealing about the English public’s attitude to the Britishness crusade. Doubtless, people have been saying, ‘stop hammering on about what it means to be British and get on with the real job, particularly sorting out the problems with the economy’. A very pragmatic response, indeed, to the rather un-English attempts to systematise Britishness and even to establish a new integral Nation of Britain.

But the growing electoral favour enjoyed by David Cameron’s Conservatives (or shall we just call them the New Tories?) does not equate to a groundswell of support for English nationalism, as such; nor are the Conservatives the obvious choice for the majority of English people who favour some form of England-specific governance, ranging from an English Grand Committee to full independence. The Conservative Party is of course opposed to an English parliament and will probably abandon its as yet equivocal support for some variant of the EGC idea if it feels it can win a large outright majority. As the argument goes, since such a majority would be based entirely on the choices of voters in England – as distorted by the first-past-the-post electoral system – there would be no point in having a separate EGC for England-only bills, as the Tory majority in the EGC would simply be replicating that in the UK parliament as a whole. But would the Tory government’s legislative and policy programme constitute a new – let alone progressive – agenda for England?

Everyone wants to be progressive these days, even the New Tories. Indeed, in a recent article in The Independent, David Cameron affirmed that “it is the Conservative Party that is the champion of progressive ideals in Britain today”. The three main examples of Conservative progressivism Cameron provided were the commitment to eliminate poverty in Britain, environmental sustainability, and equality of opportunity / social mobility, which was described as “the most fundamental progressive ideal of all”. The mechanisms that the Tories would apply to realise these objectives were essentially those of the market, along with targeted increases in support to social services and charities working with the most vulnerable. These were contrasted to the “old-fashioned mechanisms of top-down state control” supposedly favoured by New Labour. In other words, David Cameron was unmistakably positioning the Tories as the party that would actually deliver on the New Labour agenda of market-driven economic and social reform, in contrast to GB [Gordon Brown], who had ‘conservatively’ resorted to his Old Labour statist instincts.

So in fact, the ‘new progressive’ politics of David Cameron’s Conservatives are just New Labour Mark II: he’s playing out the same old Conservative political narrative as Tony Blair himself, in which it is now the Tories, not New Labour, who have the innovative, flexible and market-orientated solutions to lift people out of poverty, to motivate individuals to improve their lives, to promote social cohesion, and to create wealth in an environmentally sustainable way. This is the same paradigm as New Labour: social-market economics or, in other words, Thatcherite economics as the instrument for achieving progressive social objectives, primarily because the market serves as the model for society itself. The more society is transformed into an efficiently functioning market, so the thinking goes, the more the needs of society will be addressed by the market and people’s lives will be improved by their enhanced participation in the market, i.e. through becoming ever more effective agents in the world of buying and selling, as employees and consumers.

David Cameron’s formula injects a modest degree of One Nation Conservatism back into the mix, in terms of stressing the importance of government concern for, and effective measures to support, the most vulnerable in society. But the message is essentially the same: greater social justice and improved economic efficiency are interdependent objectives, and addressing social problems is about enabling everyone to become economically productive individuals and social units – able both to create and capitalise on opportunity, and to lift up their own lives, without the economic inefficiency and social dependency of a bloated public sector. So Cameron talks of “paying couples to live together rather than apart” (economic incentive to engineer social result – what about the only recent Tory re-emphasis on marriage, which now appears to have been dropped?); “plans for radical welfare reform to help people move from long-term poverty to long-term employment” (difference from New Labour or Thatcherism? Cutting / re-structuring benefits to give people more incentive to work and so alleviate poverty); the green revolution driven by “markets and incentives for dynamic industrial change, rather than centre-left approaches such as bureaucracy and regulation”; and “radical school reform, bringing the best education to the poorest children by opening up the state system to new providers” (avowedly Blairite opening up of the education system to market mechanisms); etc.

So, David Cameron’s New Toryism in fact comprises a very tired set of arguably failed political mantras, and ultimately rests on an idea that (Britain’s) social problems can be addressed and remedied, in the first instance, through market mechanisms designed to stimulate economic growth. In this, it is not just the inheritor of New Labour, and by extension Thatcherism, but also in fact of Old Labour, which was economic and materialist in its thinking about social engineering, albeit that the formula was fundamentally different. Does this point to what is ultimately meant by progressive politics: a politics of how to improve society, where the model for that improvement is provided primarily by ideas of economic, technological and material ‘progress’? In this sense, the Tories are indeed true progressives: they worship the same Idols of wealth, power and human technology, and marvel at the social depredations caused by the greed, selfishness and lust for more that these unleash.

And another way in which the New Tories represent very much the same old politics is in their Britain-centric thinking. All the policy ideas are stated as relating to ‘Britain’, not England, even though those relating to education, the environment, and work with local-community organisations of every type, aimed at tackling distinctive local socio-economic problems, would mostly involve the government in its England-only aspects – policy in these areas for Scotland and Wales having been made the responsibility of the devolved administrations in those countries. Is it really possible, in the post-devolution world, to advocate a progressive politics for the whole of Britain when so many of the traditional levers for delivering that social agenda (education, health, housing, transport, communities and local government) have been devolved? The main political parties sidestep this problem by continuing to pretend that their remit in these areas is UK-wide, which they do by continually referring to ‘Britain’ and ‘this country’, and suppressing all mention of ‘England’ even when – or particularly when – they’re referring to England alone.

So to the intellectual poverty of the parties’ socio-economic prescriptions one has to add the political dishonesty of denying that the progressive agenda for Britain – insofar as it is thought of as being delivered by Westminster – is mainly a progressive agenda for England; the better to justify the participation of Scottish and Welsh Labour voters and MPs in deciding on laws and policies for England they are not directly affected by; or, under Cameron, to disguise the fact that a Tory government will have no mandate for Scotland or Wales – or even, really, for England, where it is unlikely to obtain an actual majority of the popular vote.

Can a government really be said to care for the people if it cannot even acknowledge them by name and affirm them for what they are: the people of England and not of Britain as a whole? And that means acknowledging English life and society as it really is: in many respects, profoundly broken and damaged; but also having many enduring, positive characteristics that can provide the basis for restoring civic pride and re-building shattered communities. Reaffirming English culture and identity as good and valuable in themselves, and rallying people around the idea that there is a whole ‘new’ nation – that of England – to be built, could provide a massive stimulus to re-engaging people in participative democracy at both local and national level, so long as voters’ actual intentions are reflected in election results and there is real accountability of politicians to the people at every level at which power is exercised. In short, we need political reform, giving the chance for the English people to vote on alternative ways forward for ‘their’ nation (England), before we can get any real momentum behind a new progressive agenda – as one could then begin to address the questions of who the progress is for, and who defines what constitutes progressive change in England.

How might this new English progressive agenda shape up? This is obviously a huge question. But it seems to me that the beginning of an answer to it could be found by definitively ‘breaking the mould’ – to coin a phrase – of the old assumptions and tribal loyalties associated with the ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’, while at the same time re-focusing and combining the best elements in the traditions of the left and of the middle of English-British politics towards addressing England’s real social problems. This involves making the social objectives paramount, and reforming the economy and politics in order to achieve those objectives most effectively: the objectives being to give individuals and communities more of a sense that they have a real stake in shaping their future, and can create sustainable economic activities and social infrastructure; in part because the purpose of business itself is redefined as being much more to do with creating and sustaining valued communities rather than providing increasingly insecure, and merely economic, value for isolated individuals (whether employees or shareholders) and for ‘the country’.

But such a programme is unrealistic without a significant transformation in the attitudes and expectations of people for their lives in general – moving away from placing value on material, technological and individual-economic progress for their own sake, and towards seeing progress in different terms: those of quality of life, not quantity of assets; of real, supportive and safe communities; sustainable production and consumption, not material excess; and technology harnessed towards the creation of an environmentally more sustainable way of life that needn’t discard all the positive benefits of our technological lifestyle in terms of comfort, health and a more enjoyable life. A better England, reflecting the priorities and addressing the needs of the people of England; and not a mad, economic growth-obsessed, and unsustainably globalising Britain whose economic success under New Labour – as we now realise – was built on the unsteady foundation of insane property prices and overactive global credit markets. Unrealistic? Well, maybe this sort of adjustment of our expectations will be forced upon us anyway through the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Better to plan ahead for, and make the most of, the wide-ranging changes that will have to happen in any case; and better that those who are doing this planning are people who care about England and her people, and are answerable to them.

The tables below illustrate my take on how the new progressive politics could re-state the old polarities of right and left. The first table shows how New Labour colonised not just the traditional centre of British politics but also classical or Thatcherite Conservative policies in the areas of society, the economy and international affairs; so much so that it has been impossible for the Tories to articulate any sort of credible position in these areas. The colour coding indicates which party has occupied the traditional left, centre and right positions in a number of areas during the majority of the New Labour period in power:

Angle Left Centre Right
Society Egalitarian, collectivist; working class: socialist Equality of opportunity, redistributive; middle class, aspirational: social democratic Hierarchical, individualist; upper(-middle) class, privilege: Tory
Economy Public ownership, command-based (‘needs-orientated’): socialist Regulated free markets, ‘social model’: social democratic Private ownership, demand-driven (market-orientated): ‘economic liberalism’, Thatcherism
Politics Statist, centralist, popular-unionist, ‘sovereignty of the people’, republican: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour Regionalist, localist, community-focused; small-scale, participative democracy: Liberal Anti-state, ‘centrifugal’, unionist-nationalist, ‘sovereignty of the individual’, monarchist: Tory
Philosophy, ideology Secular, rationalist, materialist, progressive, liberal; Western Enlightenment tradition: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour Pluralist, tolerant, consensus; libertarian, humanitarian, human rights-focused; Western Enlightenment tradition: Liberal Traditionalist, morally / socially conservative; (Anglican) establishment Christianity: Tory
International outlook Internationalist, solidarity / fraternity; ‘inclusive mono-culturalism’: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour A-national, universal; ‘exclusive multi-culturalism’: liberal Globalist, capitalist; imperialist mono-culturalism: Tory

David Cameron is clearly trying to re-occupy the centre ground for the Conservatives, particularly in the areas of society and politics as outlined in the above table. However, at the same time, this involves reaffirming Tory market economics – traditionally, a right-wing position – which was also colonised by New Labour. By emphasising the ‘soft’ social dimension of Tory policies (addressing the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, creating greater opportunity and social mobility, environmental sustainability), Cameron is distracting attention from the fact that the basic mechanism he has in mind for achieving these goals is good old-fashioned market economics: Blair II (or Thatcher III, if Blair is seen as Thatcher II).

If this form of economy-centric approach to social re-engineering is rejected as a progressive position in favour of making economic activity the servant of social objectives – as opposed to ransoming society to a growth-obsessed economy – then one can begin to see the parameters of a new progressive politics that could affirm and redefine the goals of the best of the traditional left and centre, while repudiating the more traditionally right-wing aspects of Conservatism and New Labour, such as dogmatic market economics, unchecked globalisation, and ignoring the needs and priorities of the English working and middle classes. The table below illustrates how this new progressive alignment might shape up:

Angle Progressive Left Progressive Centre Old Tory
Society Working class; social justice Middle class, Middle England; opportunity, fairness, social responsibility Upper(-middle) class and the very wealthy; ‘selfish’ individualism and corporate greed; privilege
Economy Economic pragmatism: best ownership structures to ensure sustainable delivery of social objectives; ‘social enterprise’ culture: successful businesses, serving social needs; some services back to public ownership? Economic diversity: multiplicity of public-private cross-overs; local / social enterprises meeting community needs; small business Private enterprise, exclusively demand-driven (market-orientated); big business; global capital
Politics Popular nationalism: celebration and promotion of English culture, people, traditions, history; sovereignty of the English people; pan-British federalism / co-operation; importance of cohesive but also ethnically / culturally / internationally inclusive, open English nation (or nation state) Localism-regionalism: strong, constitutionally safeguarded commitment to powerful representative local-regional democracy; citizens’ rights Unitary unionism / British nationalism; anti-state, anti-English-nationalist tendencies (individualist, global-capitalist)
Philosophy, ideology Secular, rationalist, materialist, progressive, liberal; Western Enlightenment tradition Pluralist, tolerant, consensus; libertarian, humanitarian, human rights-focused; Western Enlightenment tradition; Christian / respect for all faiths Increasingly anachronistic, unrealistic, mono-cultural traditionalism / Christian-social-moral conservatism
International outlook Internationalist, solidarity / fraternity; new ‘English multi-culturalism’; co-operation and participation in international bodies where in the national English interest Focus on global sustainable development, alleviating world poverty / disease, world environment challenges, justice / human rights: ‘one-world’ culture Globalist, capitalist; imperialist; Western-centric mono-culturalism

The Tories’ present appeal is too dependent on developing a narrative that they will safeguard economic prosperity to develop a radical progressive agenda that could easily occupy even the centre ground of progressive politics, as outlined in the above table. And they are certainly too wedded to the unionist ideal to articulate anything approximating to popular English nationalism, which does, on the other hand, have considerable appeal among the working- and middle-class sections of the population that represent the natural constituency for the left and centre of English politics.

English people will be re-engaged by politics when they can see ambitious but also grounded, realistic policies for addressing the terrible social problems that exist in England, which are the legacy of the failures of both the welfare state and Thatcherite market economics. This would indeed be a new progressive agenda, but it would have to do two things: make flourishing economic activity and enterprise, critical though they are, the servant of social needs and communities, and not the other way round; and, to some extent, put England and the English first – while by no means forgetting our international partnerships and responsibilities, and above all those to the poor and oppressed throughout the world. Which means two long-term habits of progressive thinking will need to be abandoned: making economic growth and success, measured in purely GDP terms, the motor and definition of social progress; and making Britain the focus of all policy, when that Britain no longer exists and may well disappear altogether under a Cameron government that will be intensely unpopular in Scotland.

Then maybe the Last Judgement on the progressives will not be as harsh as might be feared, and the terrible dichotomies of left and right will fade away – but only if self-professed progressives learn to put real people and nations before the global gods of power and money.

19 February 2008

Gordon Brown and Accountability To England

He said it! As a matter of fact, GB [Gordon Brown] said the word ‘England’ four times in his nearly 12-minute-long interview on BBC Scotland’s The Politics Show on Sunday. The nature and context of those references reveals the heart of the dilemma GB is wrestling with in relation to devolution: his lack of accountability to the people of England for the decisions he takes on their behalf.

In this respect, the first of GB’s mentions of England, about three minutes into the interview, was hugely significant. He referred to the recent vote in the Scottish Parliament that “we should review the arrangements which govern the relationship between Scotland and England, particularly the financial accountability relationships”. You have to be on the alert to spot this one, as GB says ‘England’ quickly and under his breath, not articulating the word properly – a not uncommon syndrome on the part of New Labour politicians when forced to acknowledge the existence of England.

So GB’s almost physical difficulty in spitting out the word ‘England’ arises in the context of ‘financial accountability’. This also means democratic accountability: GB is talking about the idea, to be discussed in the proposed devolution review, that the Scottish Parliament should have the power to raise more of the tax income it actually spends, making it more accountable to the Scottish electorate for that expenditure. In the interview, GB evades the possible implication of this, which is that the Scottish Parliament might have to increase certain taxes from their current amounts in order to maintain the relatively high level of public expenditure per head of population in Scotland, and so reduce the subsidisation of that expenditure by the central UK government.

What the rather extraordinary, if barely audible, reference to England (rather than the UK or Britain, as usual for GB) in this context involves is an almost literally tacit acknowledgement that it’s England, more especially the English people, that subsidises Scottish public expenditure; and that, consequently, there’s a problem of financial / democratic accountability for this to England. This problem could come into even starker relief if the Scottish Parliament were responsible for raising the majority of its own revenues. Such a situation would increase the incongruity and injustice of the fact that Scottish Westminster MPs are allowed to vote on government expenditure in England, while English MPs (and, in fact, those Scottish MPs) would have even less input than now into determining the level of public expenditure in Scotland. And this would doubtless lead to more pressure for Scottish MPs either to voluntarily desist from exercising this right (through an English Grand Committee) or for this right to be withdrawn from them. The consequence: MSPs gaining more control over Scottish policies and expenditure; Scottish MPs having even less influence in Scotland, and now even less to do at Westminster, as they could not participate in England-only business. The rationale for Scotland continuing to participate in the Union and its parliament would be eroded still more and Scotland would be one step further down the road to independence. Meanwhile, the position of GB and his government would be further compromised: as a Scottish MP, what right would GB have to formulate policies and dictate expenditure for England? His government would be, and would be revealed as being, in even more respects an England-only government; and how can that be led by someone not even elected in England?

So why does GB appear to be accepting the possibility that the Scottish Parliament should have greater tax-raising powers? In fact, this is a ploy, and he doesn’t want to do this. Actually, GB is implicitly threatening the Scottish Parliament and the SNP with having to increase taxation in Scotland in order to finance their programme. In other words, it’s more a question of Scotland having the power (i.e. no other choice than) to raise more taxes, rather than having more tax-raising powers. In this context, it is significant that two of the other references to ‘England’, towards the end of the interview, arise in connection with a possible re-evaluation of the Barnett Formula: again, the critical ‘financial accountability relationships’, in GB’s words, between Scotland and England. Here, however, as in the rest of the interview, GB’s explicit reference is to the UK-wide impact of any changes to the devolution settlement, rather than to bilateral Scotland-England relationships – although these are clearly implicated. The PM states that the Barnett Formula doesn’t just affect Scotland or England but the whole of the UK and all its constituent parts. Then, in a response to the interviewer’s question about comparisons between public expenditure in Scotland and some of the English ‘regions’, GB makes passing reference to the existence of statistics setting out the level of expenditure in the regions of England – without acknowledging that these reveal that Scotland is getting a better deal than any of them, with the possible exception of London.

By referring to the Barnett Formula in this way towards the end of the interview, GB is clearly expressing a reluctance to abolish it altogether, simply because of pressure from the Scottish Parliament to have more responsibility for raising its revenues. He’s effectively reminding his Scottish audience that it’s the Barnett Formula that guarantees Scotland a higher level of public expenditure per head than the Scottish people could possibly afford if they lacked the subsidies provided by the central UK government. This is part of a benign appeal by GB, throughout the interview, to the benefits Scotland receives from being part of the Union. Another example of such benefits is in the area of security. In relation to terrorism, GB said there could be “no Scotland-only, no Wales-only, no England-only solution [the fourth reference to ‘England’]”. In other words, Scotland benefits not only from the financial patronage of a benevolent UK state but also from its power as a force for protection from external threats. However, this reference to security is in fact given in response to the questioner’s somewhat half-hearted attempts to tease out of GB what he meant by saying that devolution was not a “one-way street”, i.e. that some powers could be taken back by the Westminster government, such as in the area of justice and security.

The fact that policing and the legal system in Scotland is the responsibility of the Scottish Government does of course have implications for the national security of the UK, as was evidenced two weeks ago by the decision in principle to admit phone-tapping evidence in terrorist cases in England and Wales, which, as it stands, cannot be implemented in Scotland. But this is not the point here: GB is effectively threatening the Scottish Parliament and the SNP that if it presses the point about having greater powers in some areas (e.g. raising taxes), it may be necessary to remove some of its powers in other areas (e.g. justice), ostensibly in the interests of the whole of the UK, and of Scotland as part of the UK. The use of anti-terrorism as an example is calculated to appear more reasonable and benign than if other perhaps more expensive areas of Scottish governance had been singled out, such as the heavily subsidised healthcare and education systems. But the underlying implication is that, basically, anything could be up for grabs and no area of Scottish self-rule is sacrosanct; after all, it’s devolution not definitive separation, which means that the Westminster government’s prerogative to take back any powers at any time remains in place.

The message to Scotland is, if you want to raise more of your taxes, you might have to raise more taxes; and if you want to offset some of the increased tax burden on Scotland this would involve, you might have to cede certain areas of government back to Westminster. Such an outcome would mean:

  • more accountability on the part of the Scottish parliament to its electorate for the portion of public expenditure for which it was directly responsible
  • a reduction of the scope, and hence the amount, of this expenditure through a reduction of the powers of the Scottish government
  • an increase in the proportion of public expenditure in Scotland for which the Westminster parliament was directly responsible, with the consequence that Scottish Westminster MPs were more relevant again, in that they had more input into policy and expenditure for Scotland
  • a reduction in the English sense of injustice about the Barnett Formula and the West Lothian anomaly, even while these inequalities remained in effect. This would be because more of the decision making about Scottish public expenditure would be rolled up into the decisions and voting about expenditure for the UK as a whole, from which it would not be so clearly differentiated. And if Scottish MPs were not voting so obviously on England-only matters but on UK-wide matters (even if these involved continuing to favour Scotland and Wales over England in the distribution of the public purse), this would be seen as more democratically legitimate and accountable than the present state of affairs.

I’m sure that GB would like to move in this direction, in that essentially his whole model of governance is one of a central UK government making decisions for the whole of Britain in the name of the ‘British people’, of which the Scottish people in his view are an integral and (merely) devolved part. Towards the end of the interview, GB refers several times to “the people”, the “British people” and the “Scottish people” – but never once to the “English people”. Of course, he doesn’t: he’s not governing in their name, after all. In his concluding rhetorical flourish, GB makes great play of how important and integral to him are Scotland and the Scottish people, and their continuing place in the UK for which he effectively positions himself as the guarantor.

But what of England and the English people? The interview makes it clear that the devolution review is going to be run from Westminster, even though it involves (no more than) the participation of representatives from the Scottish parliament – and despite the fact that GB makes great play of the fact that it was the Scottish Parliament that voted for it. And it’s a review for Scotland, parallel to the review concerning a possible extension of the powers of the Welsh Assembly, as GB himself points out. But there’s to be no such review or discussion about devolution for England.

So Scotland is being told that if it pushes too hard for more tax-raising powers, it may need to lose some of its political powers – and do so, perhaps, simply to remain viable. GB is saying, ‘if you want to raise proportionally more of your own budget, the UK government will withdraw some of its subsidies unless you cede control of more items within your current budget back to the UK government – otherwise, the political and financial cost to the rest of the UK (and of “England”, under the breath) of the present devolution settlement will be unsustainable’. Perhaps best, then, not to rock the boat too much and continue with the cosy arrangements of the Barnett Formula, which in its fundamentals the government is not calling into question.

Either way, the English people won’t need to be consulted. After all, accountability to England for the government’s actions taken on behalf of ‘Britain’ and of ‘Scotland’ is the last thing anyone wants – least of all, the MP for Kirkcaldy.

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