Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

13 October 2011

Scottish independence could free England to be herself

Scottish independence could be just the tonic England needs. It could set England free to be what she wants to be, to pursue her destiny and return to her roots. In fact, it could free England to be what many would like Great Britain to be today but can’t be, because it is being pulled in too many contrary directions.

England always has been and still is the national core of Great Britain and the United Kingdom: the constitution, parliament, monarchy and established religion of Great Britain and the UK are a continuation of the historic constitutional foundations, parliament, monarchy and established religion of England prior to the union with Scotland in 1707. This continuity is the underlying, ‘objective’ reason why English people traditionally have regarded ‘England’ and ‘Great Britain’ as synonymous: they have re-imagined Great Britain, and to a lesser extent the UK, as an extension of the English nation across the whole territory of Britain (and Ireland) – as ‘Greater England’. And this is because, at a fundamental, constitutional, level, Great Britain was a continuation of the historic English nation, except with Scotland grafted in.

Through the Acts of Union in 1707, Scotland started to be governed via the constitutional and parliamentary arrangements that prevailed for England and Wales, which remained unchanged. This was so much the case that some Scottish MPs at the time were amazed that the Scottish parliament was simply abolished and that the existing English parliament carried on in exactly the same way as before, except with the addition of the Scottish MPs. This was not the creation of a new British nation, distinct from the two nations from which it was formed, but an effective take-over of Scotland by the English state. In modern corporate terms, it was not a merger of equals; and though the new merged company might take on a new brand, it retains the same culture and corporate governance practices – and power structures – of the larger, acquiring entity. Or to take a political analogy from modern times, when West and East Germany were reunified, there were many in the former DDR who hoped this would result in a completely new German state, with a new constitution and identity. Instead, reunification simply took the form of adding the federal states of the DDR in to the existing Bundesrepublik: the identity of the state remained fundamentally that of the former West Germany, even though the united Germany had been created from the merger of two previously separate nations.

Over time, many people both south and north of the Scottish border did begin to see Great Britain as a nation in its own right and ‘British’ as their primary national identity, to which the distinct identities of ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ and, to a lesser extent, (Northern) Irish were subordinate and secondary. Perhaps the high point of this British nation was the Second World War, which brought people together from across the UK in a shared fight for freedom from tyranny. In the post-war period, this national-British solidarity took expression in the welfare state and nationalised industries, which were the embodiment of much that the British people had fought for in the war: a fairer, more equal society, with national, publicly owned assets and services designed to ensure productive employment and protection against chronic poverty for all. Alongside this, undeniably, One Nation Conservatism was also influential in fostering the sense that all in Britain were engaged in a shared effort to build a more prosperous, stronger nation; and that the wealthier sections of British society had a responsibility towards the less well-off, whichever part of Britain they lived in.

Since then, and particularly over the last 30 years or so, most of that national-British solidarity and sense of being ‘in it together’ – to quote a phrase – has been eroded, probably irrevocably. It isn’t only devolution that has brought this about. Devolution was in many respects a product of the undermining of a shared sense of national purpose that had taken place over the previous 20 years; but it also undoubtedly accelerated the process of the British nation’s disintegration.

What were the causes of this slow decay? Well, without doubt, the Thatcher government’s assault on the welfare state, the privatisation of the nationalised industries and even the smashing up of union power – unions being another embodiment of the sense of shared commitment to equality and fairness across the UK’s constituent countries – played a considerable role. It has been well documented how the Thatcher revolution contributed to disaffection with the Union in Scotland, as people there strongly objected to the market-economic policies of an ‘English’ Conservative government they had never voted for, and which also chose Scotland to trial the hated Poll Tax.

But the privatisation of state-owned industries, the under-investment in public services and the weakening of the welfare state also loosened the bonds between English people and the British state. English people lost their sense of confidence that the British state belonged to them and was ‘on their side’. If there is ‘no such thing as society’, as Margaret Thatcher once said, can there also be a nation? In other words, the rolling back of the state from the lives of its citizens made Britain less relevant and valuable to English people, and undermined the sense of belonging to a single British nation in which people were prepared to give up more of their hard-earned wealth for the sake of less well-off citizens elsewhere on the island, on the previously safe assumption that the system would take care of one if one needed it to. If it was every man for himself, maybe it should also be England for herself.

Scrolling forward to today, this sense that the British state has abandoned its unwritten promise to treat all its citizens fairly and equally has undoubtedly fuelled the huge resentment in England towards the Barnett Formula: the unequal public-spending formula that enables Scotland and Wales to continue to provide many of the free public, and publicly owned, services of the former British welfare state that have been withdrawn in England. This is of course further exacerbated by a sense of democratic unfairness linked to the fact that the more small-state, market-orientated policies in England have been introduced by Parliament with the support of Scottish and Welsh MPs whose constituents are not affected by them, while the devolved parliament and assembly respectively in those countries have pursued more traditional statist, social-democratic policies. It’s not that England would necessarily have chosen to go down the same social-democratic route as Scotland and Wales if we had had our own parliament, but that we’ve been denied the choice. The British state has pulled away from deep involvement in English public life while denying the English people the freedom to determine their own national priorities. And it compounds this betrayal by lying to the people of England that the old united Britain still exists, and by suppressing references to the England-specific scope of much British legislation and policy, so that English people do not realise how differently and undemocratically they are being treated.

Over and above this situation of fiscal unfairness and democratic disempowerment, the present devolution settlement and English resentment towards it risk tearing apart those essentially English constitutional foundations of the Union. A dual dynamic has increasingly left England without any status or role in the very state that it once viewed as its own. Whereas Scotland and Wales have increasingly established distinct national political and cultural identities (breaking up that sense of a unified Britain of which England thought of itself as the centre), the British establishment has also increasingly sought to suppress the corresponding emergence of a distinct English identity, or at least to restrict ‘Englishness’ to the merely cultural sphere so that it doesn’t express itself in terms of demands for an English-national politics (parliament and government). Such a development would usher in the end of Britain as a nation in its own right, replacing it with some sort of federal or confederal Union of multiple nations or even just a collection of separate, sovereign nations.

I’ve discussed and analysed this dynamic in many previous posts, so I won’t belabour it. However, the essential point I would like to make is that a British Union-state built on the would-be suppression of English political nationhood would ultimately implode because it would undermine its own traditional English foundations: monarchy, Church, parliamentary sovereignty (a principle established through the upheavals of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution in the 17th century), and constitutional and legal principles dating back to Magna Carta in the 13th century. For all their flaws and need of modernisation, English people are deeply attached to these anchors of English tradition and identity. Attempts to strip away these core English elements from the British constitution, motivated by a desire to consolidate an integral British nation to which Scotland and Wales may still wish to belong, will ultimately serve only to undermine the adherence of English people to Great Britain, and their identification as British.

Measures that could bring about such a severing of the organic ties between England and the Union include things like abolishing the Acts of Succession and Settlement, which would probably lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England (because the monarch could then be non-Anglican), and instituting a new British Bill of Rights, which would supersede and hence render constitutionally superfluous core English legal documents such as Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

It seems, however, that repealing or at least fundamentally modifying the Acts of Succession and Settlement – to say nothing of the Acts of Union and the English Bill of Rights – is precisely what David Cameron’s coalition government may have in mind if reports of their intention to allow the monarch to marry a Catholic (proscribed by the Act of Settlement) are to be believed. According to yesterday’s report in the Guardian: “Cameron is . . . proposing that Catholics should continue to be debarred from being head of state [as specified in the Acts of Succession and Settlement], but that anyone who marries a Catholic should not be debarred. The family would be entitled to bring up their children as Catholics as long as heirs do not seek to take the throne as a Catholic”.

If this is what Cameron is really thinking, then it reveals constitutional and ecclesiastical illiteracy of the highest order. There’s an absolutely irreconcilable contradiction here: the temporal head of the Church of England (the monarch), no less, marries a Catholic and then brings up his or her children as Catholics; but then, when it is time for the first-born (male or female, as Cameron is also proposing to scrap primogeniture) to inherit the throne, they are expected to renounce their faith (and become Anglican, or not?). Here’s how this does not stack up:

  1. The monarch as temporal Head of the Church of England cannot possibly marry a Catholic and bring up his children as Catholics. How can someone who stands guarantor for the fact that the faith of the land will remain Anglican (fidei defensor) bring up his own children in another faith? He or she is head not only of the Church of England but of his own spouse and family, so his or her faith must be the faith in which the family lives and is raised.
  2. However, in order to be permitted by the Catholic Church to marry a Catholic, the husband and wife would have to give a commitment that the children would indeed be brought up as Catholics. Therefore, the Head of the Church of England, and king or queen of England – or Great Britain, if you prefer – would be subject to the authority of the Church of Rome in spiritual and domestic matters, as would his or her heirs.
  3. Is it then reasonable or even possible to expect the rightful successor to the throne to renounce the faith they have been brought up in in order to inherit the crown? Once a Catholic, always a Catholic, at least in the eyes of the Catholic Church: if you’ve been baptised and confirmed in the Catholic faith, you remain subject to the spiritual authority of the Church, and are considered by the Church as remaining one of her members, no matter what alternative declaration of faith or unbelief you might subsequently make. It’s up to the Church to unmake a Catholic through excommunication. And you can’t decide to allow the monarch to marry outside of the Church of England, and allow first-born females to automatically become first in line to the throne, on the grounds of non-discrimination and then decide to debar first-born, Catholic children of the monarch from inheriting the crown.

As stated above, this is clearly an absurd plan; but that won’t stop constitutionally illiterate and anglophobic politicians from seeking to implement it. These proposals would inevitably lead to the disestablishment of the Church and the abolition of the provision that the Head of State must be Anglican, in order for him or her to be able to serve as temporal Head of the Anglican Church. And all of a sudden, the entire, English constitutional foundations of the British state would crumble: no longer officially an (Anglican-) Christian country; no longer at root the continuation of the historic English state; the monarch no longer inheriting the sacred duty of English kings to ensure that the Church (of England) remains the established religion and that the (Protestant) faith is upheld throughout the greater British realm; the monarch no longer having an absolute claim to the loyalty and devotion of his or her subjects, which is founded on the monarch’s fidelity to this sacred oversight over the kingdom’s spiritual weal; and similarly, the very sovereignty of Parliament fatally undermined because Parliament’s absolute power and moral authority derives from that of the monarch (it’s the sovereignty of the crown-in-Parliament), which in turn derives from the monarch’s status as God’s appointed representative for England / Great Britain: the roles of head of state and Head of the Church being absolutely indivisible.

So, no Act of Succession / Settlement = no Christian underpinning for the state = no basis for preserving the monarch and Parliament as currently constituted = no England as the heart beat and core identity of Great Britain.

But if Great Britain were no longer fundamentally a continuation of England’s most cherished traditions and constitutional foundations, why would English people wish to remain part of it?

Why undertake such a radical overhaul of the English foundations of the British state now, at this point in history, when the existence of Great Britain is threatened as never before by the drive towards Scottish independence? Is Cameron’s urge to eliminate marital inequalities of every kind (the debarring of gay persons from marriage (as underpinned by the Christian foundations of English law), and the debarring of kings and queens of the UK from marrying non-Anglicans) in fact at heart motivated by a wish to recast and transform for ever that other marriage of unequals: Great Britain itself? Why, after all, should a British monarch, and his or her family, have to belong to the English religion at all? Why could they not be Scottish Presbyterian, Welsh-Non-Conformist, Catholic or, while we’re at it, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or of no religion at all? Why should the Church of England be hard-wired into the British state as its official religion by means of this ‘discriminatory’ law that prevents the king or queen from marrying, and indeed being, a non-Anglican? Why indeed?

Cameron, as we know, is desperate to avoid being the last prime minister of the UK as currently constituted, i.e. as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But by tearing out the English foundations of the state, he ironically risks de-constituting the UK. A United Kingdom, even some sort of secular British nation, might well emerge from the carnage; but it would not be the UK that Cameron ostensibly seeks to defend: one that has England at its heart, and which English people, still today, hold dear to their heart.

But if it is those core English elements of Great Britain that one is seeking to preserve and carry forward to posterity – monarchy, Church, Parliament and English liberties – why go to all the trouble of re-casting them as something new, secularised and non-English British when it looks increasingly likely that Scotland will decide to leave the UK anyway? And perhaps that would be the best thing for all concerned. Perhaps it would enable England to retain its cherished traditions, institutions and constitutional foundations as English – and as part of a renewed English settlement – rather than trying to fall over backwards to create a de-anglicised settlement that the Scots don’t want anyway.

I’m not saying that England should maintain all of her ancient constitutional foundations unchanged should Scotland decide to go her own way. But it would be England’s choice whether to remain a Christian kingdom and how to translate that core identity into her laws, customs and institutions. Personally, I envision an England that would return to and deepen its Christian roots, perhaps going further than the historic Anglican settlement to reconnect with her ancient Catholic, but not necessarily Roman Catholic, heritage. At the very least, the new England would be a country where we could once again be proud of our Christian and non-Christian, English traditions, and not be ashamed of them or afraid to express them openly out of some misplaced desire not to offend our non-Christian and non-English fellow citizens – but equally not foisting our beliefs and practices on to others in a way that fails to respect their liberty and freedom of conscience. As for the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, this is something that probably does need to be transformed or at least redefined, such that the sovereignty of parliament more truly expresses, and is subject to, the will of the people, rather than being simply heir to the sovereign right of kings over and above the people.

But the point is it would be England’s choice how to take forward England’s constitution to an English future. And this could ironically be the surest way to preserve what many unionists now cherish most profoundly about Great Britain and the UK.

By contrast, Cameron’s way of de-christianising and de-anglicising the British state could be the quickest path to its total implosion.

  English parliament

20 April 2011

Land of hope and glory, maybe – but which land are we talking about?

It’s common in liberal-progressive circles nowadays to bemoan the emergence of ‘identity politics’, by which is meant a politics of national identity drawing variously on opposition to mass immigration and the assimilation of Britain into the EU, resistance to globalisation, Islamophobia and ethno-racism. Little attempt is made to differentiate between the various modes of nationalism: Scottish / Welsh / Irish-republican, British or English; ethnic, cultural or civic.

The fact that such a wide range of diverse political credos and projects are tarred with the same brush is a reflection of the fact that British liberal progressives themselves do not make a clear distinction between ‘Britain’ (UK or Great Britain?) and England. That is because they themselves are part of the ‘Anglo-British’ tradition of politics and identity in England, whereby traditionally ‘Britain’ and ‘England’ have been interchangeable, overlapping terms and concepts.

This is something I’ve discussed on many previous occasions. But it occurs to me that you could configure this Anglo-Britishness as follows:

  • When (s)he is deliberately or explicitly referring to the non-English parts of ‘Britain’, or to Britain as a whole, your traditional Anglo-Brit might well say ‘Britain’ but still actually be thinking of England or, more strictly, be thinking of ‘Britain’ in English terms, or as an extension of England, or with reference to England, or with England conceived as Britain’s fulcrum
  • When not focusing on or including the non-English parts of Britain, the traditional Anglo-Brit will happily say ‘England’ where technically ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’ would be a more accurate word for what they are referring to.

Be that as it may, the English identity has traditionally been bound up with this Anglo-Britishness, and popular national and patriotic (as opposed to ‘nationalist’) sentiment has made little effort to distinguish between England and Britain if it even noticed any difference between the two. I’d like to christen this hybrid ‘nation’ that the Anglo-Brits celebrate as ‘Bringland’: neither strictly Britain nor England but the real nation that the English traditionally took pride in.

Except, of course, Bringland never was real in any formal or official sense. But the unwritten constitution of the UK consecrated this informal identification between England and the British realm in that it made the British parliament the continuation of the pre-Union English parliament, with all its pre-existing rights and prerogatives; and made the English monarch, with his / her historic English role as Defender of the Faith and temporal Head of the Church of England, also the King or Queen of the UK and Commonwealth.

At the risk of gross simplification, one could say that the process of constitutional reform kicked off by New Labour and now being continued by the Con-Dem coalition fundamentally involves undermining and unravelling this organic existential / psychological / symbolic / spiritual fusion between England and the UK. The UK is being redefined as a distinct entity separated from its previous English core; or, as I put it elsewhere, England is being ‘disintermediated’ from the UK: deprived of any role or status, practical or symbolic, within the ‘values’ (economic, symbolic, political) underpinning the UK state.

The liberal establishment is driving these developments. It is happy for the UK to re-define itself as a polity that is to some extent ‘beyond nation’: transcends nationhood (specifically, has gone beyond its former English-national identity) and conceives of itself as inherently multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. In a sense, then, it is hardly surprising that there has been a nationalist backlash, as popular attachment to English / British / ‘Bringlish’ identity and traditions is profound and, I would say, enormously important and valuable.

But, as nationalists, we have to be clear in our own minds which nation we seek to uphold and defend: is it Britain / Bringland, or is it England? We can’t totally swim against the tide of history. The world is changing at what seems like an ever-accelerating pace, and England has to be open to operating in a globalised, culturally plural world if she is to establish herself and survive as a prosperous nation in her own right. And Bringland is unravelling, whether we like it or not: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are seeking to define their own future and their own governance, separate from the Bringlish Union; and the establishment itself has set its face against England and towards further constitutional innovation (which could include repealing the Acts of Succession and even disestablishing the Church of England), which risks definitively severing the organic, historic ties between England and the Union state.

We shouldn’t waste our time extolling and defending historic Anglo-Britain. Bringland is dying on its feet, and our choice is either to side with the trans-national, de-anglicised Britain of the liberals and the establishment, or to define and celebrate a new, distinct English identity and future, symbolically and politically distinct from Britain.

That is why I find it rather dismaying that in a poll of the readers of This England magazine, Land of Hope and Glory has emerged as the favourite candidate for an English national anthem. Land of Hope and Glory is a British, or Bringlish, hymn par excellence, celebrating Anglo-Britain’s ‘glorious’ imperial past and the expansion of the essentially English realm beyond Britain itself across the Empire:

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,

How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?

Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;

God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet,

God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.

This is not an anthem for a modern England, proud of its past, yes, and confident in its own identity, values and traditions but determined to be a partner to other nations and a participant in the international community on equal terms, rather than an imperial subjugator and rival to other powers. I suppose we should take heart from the fact that 93% of the readers of This England said they wanted a separate English national anthem. But this is the old and dying Anglo-British identity, not the New England – the new Jerusalem, indeed – of Blake’s poem.

For my part, I accept the charge of identity politics. But for me, this is not a politics that seeks to revive and inflame an old Anglo-British, imperialist patriotism and send it in a new xenophobic, vicious nationalist direction. For me, English nationalism is not so much about identity politics but about establishing England’s political identity. That is, unless and until England can establish its own identity and voice in the shape of formal, constitutionally secure political and cultural institutions, the prospects of its very existence as a nation are at best uncertain, at worst grim. My identity politics are not a case of reviving an ethnic Anglo-British identity in the face of powerful social and economic forces that threaten it but are about creating a new English nation, distinct from the old Anglo-British establishment that has now separated itself from its former English core.

Once England has a political centre of its own, it can indeed then begin to forge a new English identity around which the traditional Anglo-British pride can again coalesce and re-express itself in modern terms: proud of its ‘Bringlish’ past but focused on an English future.

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.

20 February 2008

What are ‘English values’?

In this blog, I’ve set out to maintain a continuous critique of so-called ‘British values’: one of the central underpinnings of the UK government’s attempts to not only preserve the Union but also redefine and reorientate it for the 21st century in the face of the cultural and economic changes and uncertainties we face both nationally and internationally.

There are many problems with this enterprise, not the least of which is that the New Britain that New Labour – and GB [Gordon Brown] in particular – would like to establish relies on the suppression of any aspirations to formal nationhood on the part of the English. As a result of the asymmetrical devolution settlement during the first term of the Blair government, we’ve witnessed a sort of ‘paradigm reversal’. Previously, Britain (technically, the UK) was a unitary state in which all the national-level decisions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were taken by the Westminster government. And also decisions for England, of course. But England stood in a special relationship to Britain: Britain was to all intents and purposes the extension of England and the proxy-English state; British rule in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland effectively meant English control over their affairs. English people identified with Britain, meaning that the English and British national identities were effectively interchangeable from the English perspective.

Devolution has brought the beginning of the end of this sense that England and Britain are one: instead of England ruling Britain (i.e. ruling Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), we now have in many ways a rump British state in which the competency of the government in many critical policy areas is limited largely to England. This is now Britain ruling England; but Britain defined as the central UK government and state rather than as the other nations of Britain that were effectively ruled by England through the British state, and which English people assimilated into their own identity through the interchangeability of ‘English’ and ‘British’. (See, for instance, the unthinking habit English people used to have of referring to Scotland and Wales as if they were part of England.)

We’ve had, in other words, a seismic split in the English-British identity. In the imagination and sentiments of ordinary people, ‘Britain’ (in the sense of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) has separated out from England: as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland reassert their own national pride and an identity separate from that of England-Britain, English people in their turn have withdrawn the investment of their national pride in Britain and begun a process of redefining and reaffirming their own national identity as English in the first instance, rather than British. Meanwhile, the British state has separated itself in its thinking and attitudes from any ideas of (itself as representing) English nationhood along the lines of the emerging Scottish, Welsh and (Northern) Irish nations. It pretends that the old unitary Britain still exists, which in formal, legal terms it still does: power has only been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and could in theory be taken back at any time. And, of course, many areas of government have not been devolved, especially those that have an impact on the whole of the UK territory and population, such as international relations, energy policy and security.

This means that the government represents the continuation of the old British part of the English identity: split off from – no longer the state vehicle and political expression of – England. The government has not been able to embrace and espouse the popular movement for reaffirming Englishness and the nation of England, distinct from the British state. It could have done, perhaps; but this would have taken a visionary leader who was prepared to adopt a more populist and, perhaps, more working-class stance at a time when New Labour was positioning itself as a bastion of liberal-Middle Class conservatism, and as the party of the establishment that is built on the support of that strata of the population and reflects its values. You could say, ironically, that New Labour’s appeal was to the Old England (New Britain, Old England): the bit of England that identified more strongly with the old unitary British state and its principles. Labour, whose whole philosophy has always placed such a huge emphasis on using the lever of its power bases in working-class England, Scotland and Wales to force through its agenda of social change throughout the unitary state – including in conservative England who largely had to bankroll its programme – could not so easily now relinquish the unbridled power over the whole of the UK that Blair’s massive, disproportionate majorities had given it, based as they were on finally winning support from Middle England. Hence the shift in Labour’s whole sense of its mission from being the party of working-class socialist internationalism to the party of conservative English-British unionism: the party that seeks to conserve the old unitary British state and identity even when the people were separating away from it, and seeing themselves more as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish.

To summarise so far: pre-devolution, we had a unitary Britain dominated by England, in which the English and British identities were merged; post-devolution, we have a separating out of the identities of England and the ‘two Britains’ from which it had previously been indissociable: Britain in the sense of the other countries of the UK, and Britain in the sense of the unitary British state. That state, in the shape of the Labour government, took it upon itself to resurrect the rapidly disappearing unified British identity on which its legitimacy and power depended. Unable to reverse the devolution for which it was responsible, it could not re-establish Britishness by recreating the popular, organic sense of shared identity, history, family relatedness, and social solidarity and community encapsulated in a Britain with which the nations of the UK had all been to some extent happy to identify and belong: the English by seeing the other countries of Britain as an extension of England; and the other countries by seeing Britain as just another name for England, with which they were united in one kingdom. Labour’s only option was to take the formal values of the British state itself as the foundation of a new national-British unity – indeed, of a new Nation of Britain, as I’ve described it elsewhere.

This is nation building that proceeds from the state and from the centre; not, as previously, a state (Britain) that was experienced as an expression of the identities and affections of the people: a national unity that was felt and lived, rather than one that, initially at least, is merely conceptual and ideological. For what are these British values that all the nations of the UK are said to hold in common and around which the government hopes they will (re-)unite? They are principles of civic society that, historically, ‘Britain’ (in reality, often England before it merged into Britain) is said, if not to have originated, at least to have given their modern political expression in parliamentary democracy. As such, they are a combination of universal secular-humanist principles that no democrat could repudiate AND of characteristics and qualities valued by the English and said to be typical of the English. On the universal side: liberty / individual freedom, equality (of opportunity), democracy and the rule of law; on the English side – but blending into the universal concepts and giving them their human and cultural ‘flavour’ – tolerance, fairness / fair play, support for the underdog and compassion for the disadvantaged, and a healthy suspicion and contempt towards excessive power and wealth, particularly when that power is exercised towards the English as private individuals and as a nation.

In this way, the British government hopes to gain endorsement for its newly formulated set of British values from the English people because they are essentially English values: they’re the values of the British state that once was the effective English state and the expression of English national pride; and they’re amplified sentimentally by an appeal to cultural qualities that are undeniably associated with the English. The difference is that whereas, pre-devolution, those values were invested in a Britain (state and extension of England to the rest of Britain) with which the English identified, now the English have increasingly separated their national identity from Britain. This means that all the language of Britishness becomes just so much empty concepts and abstract ideas divorced from the English and no longer articulating a meaningful sense of nationhood for them, or inspiring a sense of purpose and confidence in an uncertain world and future. The discourse of Britishness, in other words, is a state language and ideology. Through it, the British state and government both represent what they think of as Britain and British (cf. the attempt to arrive at an official Statement of British Values), and see themselves as the representative – the democratic embodiment and expression – of Britain. Indeed, the state has become Britain, and Britain has become merely a state; whereas once, in an emotional and symbolic sense at least, it was a nation – the expression of the English nation.

In other words, before devolution, the unitary UK was build on a unity and common identity between England and Britain (state and the other countries). That unity has been broken; and the only unity with which it is in the power of the state to attempt to repair it is through a new unified, systematic articulation of a united Nation of Britain: effectively, a re-establishment of Britain through codified, foundational documents such as the Statement of British Values, a British Bill of Rights and, of course, a written constitution. That new inherent, conceptual unity of Britain – Britain present to itself in the articulation of the fundamental principles and values through which it understands itself – can become the means to (re-)establish a true nation (the state seeking the acceptance of, and identification with, its values from the people) if it replaces England: the previous centre, heart and national identity that gave life to the British state. Hence, a real cultural and political programme is afoot that indeed seeks to redefine and replace English history, culture and identity as and with British history, culture and identity: British values. You might say this is purely semantics, as I’ve already stated that the English and British identities have historically been merged. Historically, yes. But the difference now is that reference to the Englishness of Britishness, and to the historical reality that Britain has hitherto been effectively Greater England, is being systematically expunged. I’ve attempted to demonstrate this on numerous occasions, for instance, in my Campaign for Plain England blogs and numerous other posts exploring the censorship of references to England, which manifests a will for England not to exist; indeed, the transforming of it into virtual non-existence through a kind of deliberate double-think-type substitution of Britain or ‘this country’ for ‘England’ when England is what is actually at issue. British values may well be English values; but one is no longer allowed to say this, or indeed, to say ‘England’ at all.

But are English values British values? Meaningless question, really, as it presupposes that it might be possible to come up with a representative set of English values, precisely; in the same way as the British government claims it can set down a representative set of British values: one through which it can represent itself as representing Britain – state and nation (re-)united. Those British values discussed above can indeed be also, and perhaps more properly, described as English values. But English values, or rather Englishness per se, cannot be reduced to such an impoverished collection of abstractions. To find Englishness – the Englishness that has diverged from the path of formal, state, civic Britishness – you need to set your sights at both a more basic and higher level. There’s no essence or quintessence of Englishness, in a strict, philosophical sense; but we who live in England are surrounded by thousands of instances of Englishness – so much a part of the daily fabric of our lives and the cultural air we breathe that it almost appears invisible. I’m not myself now going to fall into the trap of trying to define Englishness in a narrow way. But, rather than being about philosophical and societal values, Englishness has more to do with what we value: the places, people, communities, activities and things that we love and on which we bestow value, and those we don’t; it’s about a way of life, the way we relate to one another with all our flaws, and a place we call home.

So much for the ‘basic’, and yet elusive, level of understanding of what England means to us; what of the higher level I referred to? Well, those universal British (but often historically more English) values I mentioned (liberty, equality, tolerance, respect for the rule of law) are fundamental secular-humanist principles: core concepts of a secular understanding of what you could call the value of humanity itself and the basis for human rights – the essential dignity and integrity of every human being from which flows the imperative that we respect individual free self-determination and the fundamental equality of all persons. Noble and vital principles, indeed, and essential for the defence of our freedoms – but universal and hardly ‘quintessentially British’. And can these absolute concepts and abstractions truly give form and voice to what are the highest, most sacred values we hold dear? Are these not, rather, things like love, kindness, self-sacrifice, justice, peace, friendship, childhood and life itself? Again, nothing quintessentially English or British about these. But the importance these qualities hold for us is precisely because of their sacred and spiritual character, however we qualify or understand those terms.

The English are a spiritual people – as are, if you think in these terms, every other people on earth. But this spirituality is indeed something fundamental to the character of our nation, as indeed it has helped to shape that character over centuries. One possible filter to understand the character of a people is to observe how they respond to the challenge to live up to the demands of loving and caring for one another, and respecting life – put in Christian terms, how they respond to the call of the spirit, and embody and express that spirit in the pattern of their lives. In this sense, there is much to commend and much also to be aggrieved at about modern life in England, where there is so much poverty of the spirit alongside material poverty and human selfishness.

England is a spiritual nation and still, officially, a Christian country, with an established Church and a queen who is both Head of the Church, Queen of England and head of the British state. Does it mean anything, this vestige of an ancient history that does not speak to many English people who do not regard themselves as Christians, or who do but do not consider it necessary for an established church to exist? Well, one would have thought that we English, of all peoples, would be reluctant to discard carelessly a ‘mere’ vestige of our ancient history: our centuries-old English history and tradition, and a reference to the millennial status of the Christian faith as the core value system of our nation, even if it no longer is. In our search to rediscover Englishness, and reaffirm it against a Britishness that would suppress it altogether, we must take cognisance of the fact that the established Church of England is a symbol and continuation of English power and English spirituality at the heart of the British state; a continuation, indeed, of that identification between Englishness and the British state that was broken through devolution.

This is a not frequently commented part of the England and Britain story: Englishness does also have this spiritual dimension, historically and contemporaneously; Britishness is a secular creed, which very likely would disestablish the Church as part of its new national-British constitutional settlement. This would sever both one of the last manifestations of England as the fulcrum of the British state and would remove the moral obligation for British political leaders to be mindful of their responsibilities to their Christian duties and calling, evoked by the Christian headship of the monarch to which governments are still – symbolically, at least – answerable.

This matters for a whole host of reasons, particularly in that it affects the understanding governments have of their fundamental mission and purpose which, beyond seeing to the material prosperity and security of its people, must look to their spiritual wellbeing. This means being seriously affected by the suffering, material and spiritual, of the people as if it were one’s own suffering: making a government that is truly for and of the people, and loves the people; dedicated to giving them hope, confidence and care in their needs and aspirations; and giving all the disenfranchised and alienated parts of the population (including especially the much maligned English youth) a sense that they have some sort of stake in a shared future.

Can a new secular Nation of Britain respond to such a calling? The question is most acute perhaps when it comes to considering how the nation relates to those whose values are not only ‘non-British’, as reductively defined by the state, but are so on religious grounds. I’m referring in particular to the Muslim community, particularly those communities who seek to regulate their lives around a stricter understanding of Islamic law and Koranic teaching. It is hard to see how there can be much place for such faith communities within Britishness and indeed Britain if, indeed, allegiance to official British values becomes the test of citizenship, replacing allegiance to the crown. It’s not that Muslims of this sort take issue with concepts such as personal liberty and equality, in the abstract; but it’s the way those concepts are interpreted and grounded in different religious and cultural traditions that is different. Those secular British values underpin a whole societal and economic model: one in which it is the role of government to release the potential of individuals to participate fully and freely in a secular lifestyle – acquiring material possessions and wealth; creating that wealth through work and career; buying and selling; and trading themselves and their bodies in work, sex and open-ended relationships.

But these values are fundamentally antithetical to the duties and rights expressed in Muslim belief and practice – as, indeed, to the duties and purpose of life as understood by any of the major religious traditions. The language of Britishness cannot reach out beyond itself to understand and embrace radical difference of this kind, and can only reject the pious and dogmatic fidelities of Islam as backward, oppressive and irrational – and as limiting the possibilities for Muslim communities to integrate and participate in the supposed benefits of British life.

Englishness and England, on the other hand, can respond and engage with such diversity in our midst. Englishness, that is, understood as being about appreciation of the little but precious things of daily life; of places, people, food and drink, communities, and caring about the people around you as if they were one’s own – which makes them one’s own. These are things we really do hold in common with Muslims and with those of other faith backgrounds; we all live in England, and can meet in a common and developing – not fixed – Englishness on the shared ground of England.

I say those of ‘other faith backgrounds’: other than our own, that is. We can meet those Muslims, and perhaps only meet those Muslims, on a ground where true dialogue, interchange and possibility of change can arise, if we let the background of our own faith – our English spirit – come to the fore. Not necessarily some arbitrary reconstruction of a, let’s face it, often dysfunctional, destructive and disreputable Christian history – but responding in a new way to that calling of the spirit of love and neighbourliness. A response from which our nation of England may yet be redefined and enjoy its renaissance.

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