Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

3 April 2015

TV leaders’ debate: no show for England

Well, it was a pretty poor show at the end of the day, the much-heralded TV leaders’ debate: two hours of three women and four men point scoring, and talking at and past each other, in a repetitive and circular fashion. Hardly worthy of the name ‘debate’, really, as there was no clash of contrary positions or setting out of opposing visions for ‘the country’, such as one would expect from a traditional debate.

In fact, there was and is no real vision for the country on the part of Britain’s party leaders: if the country is England, that is. It was noteworthy that the two leaders who did articulate any sort of coherent vision for the type of society they want their countries to be were the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood; and the countries they were talking about were Scotland and Wales respectively. Incidentally, Nicola Sturgeon also referred to England quite a bit: for instance, when setting out the SNP’s intention to vote down English health or education legislation that might adversely affect the funding or shape of Scottish services.

By contrast, as far as I can remember, the word ‘England’ did not issue one single time from the lips of either David Cameron, Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg. This was despite the fact that the debate moderator, Julie Etchingham, did somewhat surprisingly make a point of explaining that Westminster’s responsibilities in health care relate only to England.

The UKIP leader Nigel Farage mentioned England, but only when referring – justifiably – to the relatively poor deal the English are getting in terms of spending on public services in comparison with Scotland, and the need to abolish the Barnett Formula. And in general, the whole discussion on social matters such as the [English] NHS, [English] education, [English] housing, [English] apprenticeships, [English] social care, and immigration was reduced and subordinated to the economic arguments around funding: the balance of economic growth, taxation and borrowing that would be required to fund the services and benefits that we might be able to afford over the next five years.

It was all about the numbers, in fact: how many billions more for the [English] NHS; how many more doctors, nurses and midwives; how many targets missed in A&E and cancer care; how many more new schools and houses [in England]; how much could be saved by withdrawing from the EU and cutting overseas aid; how many immigrants; and how much the deficit could and would be cut by.

All important stuff, but essentially just an argument about money: how much of it will be available, where it’s coming from and how it will be portioned out, including to each of the UK’s nations. What’s missing is any attempt to set out a vision for the sort of society we want England to be and, within that context, what sort of health, education, social care, housing and welfare systems we want; and how they should be sustained economically in the long term through work and industries that provide both a decent income for individuals and families, and generate sufficient revenue for the government to pay for it all.

The starting point for politics, and for political debates, should really be different visions for the country and society, and economics should be subordinate to that: ‘this is the sort of national community we want to be, and the social values and systems that will bring us together as a nation; and consequently, this is the type of economy we need in order to realise our potential as people – and as a people – and not just generate economic growth and wealth as ends in themselves’.

The four male leaders, at least, were unable to articulate any bottom-up, people-centric policy vision of this sort. And it’s not altogether clear whether they’re incapable of doing so as a by-product of a refusal to offer government for a nation called England, whose name they’re unable to utter; or whether their absence of vision of and for England is merely an offshoot of their ideological incapacity to place nation and society in general – and English society and nationhood in particular, in this case – at the heart of policy making.

The female leaders, on the other hand, do seem to understand the importance of society and – in the case of the nationalist leaders – of nation. Indeed, of all the ‘English’ party leaders, Natalie Bennett came closest to articulating a policy vision centred on social values of care for each other and the environment, although she studiously avoiding calling that society ‘England’. But in a way, it was an obvious linkage: she stood on the podium as the English counterpart to the ‘progressive’, female leaders of the Scottish and Welsh parties. Maybe she’s missing a trick there.

Perhaps one can push the gender analogies too far: the women of the respective national households being more concerned about giving the children a rounded education and life skills; health- and social-care provision for the young and elderly of the family; decent job prospects and homes for the children; and protecting the environment for future generations. Meanwhile, the men are focused on the world outside the home: business, money and big, abstract numbers that can be hard to tie down to the actual impact they have on the lives and work situation of real people. Macho economics as much as macro-economics.

Be that as it may, if the family is England, its name and needs were not uppermost in the minds of any of our British political leaders last night. England is indeed poorly served by the British political system. It’s a poor show when England goes missing from a debate dealing with so many issues of national importance to England alone.

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15 August 2011

Cameron and Miliband speak of England’s riots without saying “England”

I suppose this sort of thing should come as no surprise any more. ‘England’ is, after all, the absolute taboo word for the leaders of the main UK parties. Therefore, it’s par for the course that neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband could bring themselves to say “England” in their speeches today on the English riots and their proposed response to them. To be fair to Miliband, his speech did include the following phrase quite early on: “no major English city seemed safe or immune from what was happening”. But that was it: no further reference to the nation scarred by the riots last week in an article incredibly and insultingly entitled ‘The National Conversation’. What the ****! (I apologise to my readers, but I’m increasingly using the ‘F’ word these days, almost in inverse proportion to politicians’ non-use of the ‘E’ word.)

I’m not proposing to conduct a detailed analysis of these two speeches here. (Sigh of relief from some of you out there, no doubt.) I just can’t bring myself to do it, to be honest. Besides which, it would be pretty pointless: no one who really needs to hear the anger of a nation ignored and anonymised, even at a moment of national crisis, is likely to take note of anything I say. I mean, for C*****’s sake, large parts of our major cities were smashed up, ransacked and burnt down, and they STILL can’t bring themselves to address the nation by name! What is it actually going to take?

But it’s not just about hearing the anger of a nation spurned, but about the possibility of meaningful dialogue: you can’t have a meaningful ‘national conversation’ if one side of the discussion isn’t listened to, acknowledged and named by the other side. But as I suggested in my previous post, the British-establishment discourse and world view, which is now reasserting itself, is simply not willing or able to engage with the English narrative of futility, envy, rage and humiliation that was expressed in such a self-defeating manner last week because those resorting to such pointless violence lack the political language and civic skills to protest and challenge the powers that be more constructively.

How can I put it succinctly? It’s not just that the English violence that erupted last week stokes and confirms the establishment’s irrational fear of a nameless, formless, anarchic English mob that threatens to overthrow the whole British order, so that the establishment then reacts by castigating the moral disorder of certain nameless ‘parts of society’, and proposes stern measures to reassert the rule of law and impose proper discipline on the youth. It’s that the British frame of reference and set of values – the British narrative – that are imposed on the situation represent and reaffirm the very structure of repression that led to the violence erupting in the way it did in the first place. This is because the British narrative of ‘individual moral responsibility’ to which everything is now being reduced – however important this concept is – is effectively being used to deny the English young people concerned their own voice and their own stories. If heard, these would no doubt include many tales of chaos, violence, and spiritual and moral emptiness that their lives have thus far been filled with, and which erupted onto the streets last week.

The British establishment doesn’t want to hear that very English tale of what life is like for so many young people in our cities: it doesn’t want to hear it now, after the event, and it didn’t want to before the event. And it was because it wasn’t listening that the violence erupted; and as it’s listening even less now, the violence is all too likely to recur.

One of the things these young people need – certainly more than they need distant politicians they don’t know and respect even less preaching moral responsibility at them – is a country to feel proud of. The patriotic sentiment is important to young people, young men in particular. They need to feel they can be self-respecting, grown-up men, contributing to the prosperity and good of their country as well as bettering themselves. But that country, England, has been systematically belittled, fractured and marginalised by the politicians over the last 30 years or so, and particularly since 1997. The politicians have nothing to say to and of that country, despite the fact that both Cameron and Miliband peppered their speeches today with references to ‘our country’ and ‘the country’. The parties have no commitment to England and to any sort of vision of a better English nation, where it would be politicians and not just rioters who would hang their heads in shame at last week’s destruction, because it reveals how they have failed England and not delivered on their social contract to provide decent living spaces, education, employment and prospects to England’s youth.

It’s not only the youth of England that has failed but the British politicians that have failed English youth. They have nothing to say to that England, and they certainly aren’t listening. And that’s why ‘England’ will continue to be suppressed and ignored, not just in British political language, but in British policies that will not address English problems if they cannot address England by name.

5 February 2011

Ed Miliband: England is a promise politicians haven’t even made let alone broken

I was struck by the following phrase in the BBC’s account of Ed Miliband’s speech in Gateshead yesterday on the so-called ‘Promise of Britain’: “He argued that policies such as nearly trebling the cap on student tuition fees in England and scrapping the educational maintenance allowance would ‘take away the ladders’ for young people and have a profound impact on the country’s future.”

Could it really be, I wondered, that English Ed had actually referred to an England-only government policy as taking effect “in England”? I felt I had to check against delivery, as they say, so I had a look at the transcript of Ed’s speech on the Labour Party website. Sadly, I couldn’t find a single use of the word ‘England’, but I did see the following phrase: “they are cutting away the ladders, destroying the chances of children and young people, and undermine [sic] Britain’s future in a profound way”.

Oh well, I suppose in a speech on the Promise of Britain – distinct echoes of last year’s commemorations of the Battle of Britain with Miliband’s reminiscences on his parents’ flight from war-torn Belgium – it would be too much to expect England to get a mention. Instead, ‘Britain’ featured 18 times, and ‘this country’ or ‘our country’ appeared nine times.

Except, of course, that most of the coalition government’s measures that are supposedly cutting away the ladders of opportunity for young British people actually affect only young people living in England: the hike in tuition fees (originally introduced for England only by New Labour, of course); the Education Maintenance Allowance (being scrapped in England only but retained in Scotland and Wales); Sure Start; the alleged scrapping of a guaranteed apprenticeship place for 17- and 18-year-olds in the current Education Bill (not 100% sure that doesn’t also apply to Wales, but it definitely doesn’t apply in Scotland); etc.

Does it actually matter, on one level, if the Labour leader doesn’t make clear that the UK-government measures he’s criticising affect only one part of Britain – England – not the whole of it? Possibly not, in the sense that the cuts will affect English youngsters in the same way whether you call them English or British cuts. Plus Miliband is making a broader point about declining economic and educational opportunity for all young people in Britain as it is affected by factors common to all the UK’s nations, such as reduced social mobility, growing income inequality, increasingly stretched family budgets, lack of job opportunities and impossibly high house prices.

But it does matter that Ed does not refer to England if English young people are being sold a ‘Promise of Britain’ that New Labour itself broke: the promise of equal and fair support from the state and public services to all British youngsters as they start out in life. The Labour Party broke this promise in its devolution settlement coupled with an unfair funding mechanism that ensures that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish young people obtain more state support and subsidies than their English counterparts.

It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that Ed Miliband and / or his speech writers perpetuated the taboo on pronouncing the ‘E’ word in this speech, especially given the recent attempts by some in his party to develop a distinct message and policy agenda for England. Is Miliband’s speech a sign that Labour is in fact going to carry on down the Brownite path of eulogising ‘Britain’ and deceitfully framing all its policies as applying uniformly to Britain, even when they relate to England alone?

How can anyone believe in Miliband’s ‘Promise of Britain’ when it was not only New Labour that broke it in the first place, but when this promise is dishonest in its very concept: the idea of a ‘Britain Fair For All’ (as Labour’s 2010 election manifesto, written by Ed Miliband put it) that Labour has had neither the will nor the means to actually bring about?

Labour should stop going on about a ‘Promise of Britain’ it cannot keep, and should start making realistic and honest commitments to the next generation in England. At least, if Labour returned to government, it would actually have the power to keep those promises. But would it have the will?

29 September 2010

Ed Miliband addresses the country – only not by name

The BBC website provides a useful word cloud for Ed Miliband’s keynote address to the Labour Party conference yesterday. Here it is:

Two things immediately stand out: 1) after ‘generation’ (frequent references to a ‘new generation’ of Labour politics), the most frequently occurring word is ‘country’ (37 instances); 2) there is absolutely no reference to ‘England’ – not one.

On the one hand, this lack of engagement on the part of the new Labour leader with the idea or reality of England should and does not surprise us. It would be more surprising if Ed Miliband had talked at any length at all about ‘England’ and the need for the party to address the concerns of ordinary English people. On the other hand, the total absence of ‘England’ from the speech belies the new leader’s attempt to differentiate himself from New Labour, as the lack of an English dimension to Labour’s vision of and for ‘the country’ represents a strong thread of continuity with New Labour days. Instead of ‘England’, Miliband resorted to the stock term, ‘country’, that politicians and those in the media employ to avoid being specific about whether they are talking about Britain as a whole or England only, or both.

Nonetheless, Miliband’s speech does represent a break with New Labour practice in that ‘Britain’, too, appears to have lapsed into disuse: ‘British’ and ‘Britain’ garnered only 16 mentions. At least, we’re now not getting ‘Britain’ thrust in our faces at every turn when a Labour politician is talking about purely English policy areas; but that’s partly because there was very little on policy as such in Miliband’s speech, nor was there expected to be. So ‘country’ has come to replace ‘Britain’ as well as ‘England’, probably for the same reason: it allows you to avoid being specific about which country you’re referring to in different contexts, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of having to say ‘Britain’ when everyone knows that what you’re referring to is relevant to England only, but you can’t say so because ‘England’ is the ultimate taboo word.

This lack of references to the name(s) of the country or countries being evoked, and even to particular regions or parts of the country (such as the North or the South), creates a strange impression of non-specificity: a vision for the ‘country’ that is not grounded in any geographical, indeed geopolitical, reality. This is Labour’s, or Ed Miliband’s, vision for ‘society’, ‘the economy’, ‘government’ and ‘politics’ (all among the most commonly used words, as the word cloud illustrates) where the national collectivity and context that are implied and invoked in these terms remain completely nameless during large parts of the speech: as it were abstracted out of the vision. ‘We’ and ‘our’ (as in the endlessly intoned ‘our country’, ‘our society’, ‘our economy’) are among the most frequently occurring words in the speech (not shown in the word cloud, which is limited to nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives). But it’s never spelled out who are the ‘we’ thus addressed. In the end, the inescapable impression is that ‘we’ is above all the collective consciousness of the Labour Party in its aspiration to re-take ownership of ‘the country’:

“The optimism of Tony and Gordon who took on the established thinking and reshaped our country. We are the optimists in politics today. So, let’s be humble about our past. Let’s understand the need to change. Let’s inspire people with our vision of the good society. Let the message go out, a new generation has taken charge of Labour. Optimistic about our country. Optimistic about our world.”

Far from reaching out to the British people, let alone the English people, this is Labour talking to itself about Labour’s vision of ‘the country’ – as it were the ‘Labour nation’, which can be set out in its pure form, untainted by the all-too recent realities of Labour in government, only because it abstracts itself from any real national context.

But if you don’t name the country you’re talking about, can you really espouse and re-connect with the aspirations and priorities of ordinary people, who want their leaders to set out believable visions for their country – England – and, perhaps more importantly, want them to acknowledge ways in which they’ve let down their country in the past. Ed Miliband had a little go at this when he owned up to the failings of the outgoing Labour government in areas such as tuition fees and immigration policy:

“I understand why you felt that we were stuck in old thinking about higher and higher levels of personal debt, including tuition fees”

“this new generation recognises that we did not do enough to address concerns about globalisation, including migration. All of us heard it on the doorsteps about immigration. Like the man I met in my constituency who told me he had seen his mates’ wages driven down by the consequences of migration. If we don’t understand why he would feel angry – and it wasn’t about prejudice – then we are failing to serve those who we are in politics to represent. I am the son of immigrants. I believe that Britain has benefited economically, culturally, socially from those who came to this country. I don’t believe either that we can turn back the clock on free movement of labour in Europe. But we should never have pretended it would not have consequences. Consequences we should have dealt with.”

Note the tic of referring to the sensitive issue in each case almost as an afterthought introduced by ‘including’: including tuition fees (just another personal debt issue); including migration (just another fraught consequence of necessary globalisation). In fact, this is not really apologising for old New Labour’s policies in these areas at all. He’s not actually saying Labour was wrong to introduce tuition fees, just that these were an unfortunate extra debt burden on people. And then his expression of ‘understanding’ about migration turns into a defence of it – including his own personal background – as being overwhelmingly of benefit for Britain and in part a consequence of something regarded as essentially positive: the “free movement of labour in Europe”.

But it’s England and Wales specifically that were burdened by tuition fees and then top-up fees, thanks to the votes of Labour’s Scottish MPs, whose own constituents were exempt from both. It’s English voters who were mainly affected and concerned by immigration, as England has borne the brunt of it. Immigration may have enhanced the stock of Britain, in every sense, including that of the Miliband family, but what has it done for England? Answer me that, Ed. (And that’s an open question, but not one Ed Miliband is really prepared to address.)

In fact, Miliband – at least as exemplified in this speech – is not prepared to ask the English question itself, let alone suggest an answer to it, as this passage amply demonstrates:

“The old thinking told us that for 300 years, the choice was either the break up of the United Kingdom or Scotland and Wales run from London. We should be proud that Labour established the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. And we should make sure that after next May’s elections we re-elect Carwyn Jones as the First Minister in Wales and we elect Iain Gray as the new First Minister in Scotland. And I am so so proud that, against all the odds, we helped deliver peace in Northern Ireland. And it will be one of Tony Blair’s great legacies to this country and we owe our gratitude to him.”

So devolution as enacted by New Labour is something to be proud of. No hint of a suggestion that it might have left England just a tad short-changed and that it raises questions about the governance of England. Here above all, Ed Miliband is keeping faith with the old New Labour certainties and with the former Labour Lord Chancellor Derry Irving’s assertion that the best answer to the West Lothian Question is not to ask it! He can’t even bring himself to mention the ‘E’ word in the one passage throughout the whole speech where the English question is absolutely begging. But that’s precisely it: it’s begging a question he isn’t prepared to even engage in.

So England might as well just not exist at all in Ed Miliband’s vision of ‘the country’: ‘our country’, Labour’s country. And the unwillingness to even pronounce the dirty ‘E’ word signals a failure to acknowledge the ways in which New Labour profoundly let down England specifically – indeed, as we have seen, Miliband actually defends and justifies the outgoing government’s record in English matters even as he appears to acknowledge its failings.

So perhaps we should give the last word to the new leader himself. Nothing changes, really: new generation, same old new Labour and same old new Britain. For ‘the country’, you can in fact read ‘Britain’, or at least Labour’s fictitious, rose-tinted vision or version of it that air-brushes England out of the picture. Yes, you’ve guessed what the last word in the speech, and the last word of the speech, is:

“We are the optimists in politics today. So, let’s be humble about our past. Let’s understand the need to change. Let’s inspire people with our vision of the good society. Let the message go out, a new generation has taken charge of Labour. Optimistic about our country. Optimistic about our world. Optimistic about the power of politics. We are the optimists and together we will change Britain.”

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