Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

6 May 2015

Vote UKIP: the English national party in British-nationalist clothes

Let me put one thing straight: I don’t think UKIP is an English-nationalist party, by any stretch of the imagination.

Page 61 of the party’s 2015 general election manifesto, for instance, makes it abundantly clear that it is British-nationalist. This page talks of Britain as a “strong, proud, independent, sovereign nation” – in its own right, that is, rather than as a union of nations. It commits the party to promoting a “unifying British culture, open to anyone who wishes to identify with Britain and British values”, which in practice always tends to mean denigrating Englishness and subordinating it to Britishness. And it states support for “a chronological understanding of British history and achievements in the National Curriculum, which should place due emphasis on the unique influence Britain has had in shaping the modern world” – not caring to mention that this curriculum and Britain-centric version of history would apply to English schools alone.

That said, I would still maintain that UKIP should be viewed as an ‘English national’ party and as the default choice for English nationalists at this election. By this, I mean that UKIP speaks to a culturally English, British patriotism: an England-centric imagining of ‘Britain’ that is virtually indistinguishable to the great majority of English people from what is understood by ‘England’ itself. Most ordinary English people, I would say, are still stuck in this traditional Anglo-British mindset, and would talk of ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ as fully interchangeable terms. To put it in fancy psycho-babble, the ‘Symbolic’ (formal discourse or language) used by UKIP might be British, but its ‘Imaginary’ (imaginative and emotional associations) is English: UKIP talks British but speaks to the English.

Indeed, I would argue that the explanation for UKIP’s rise to the level of support it enjoys today (consistently polling around 12% or 13% UK-wide – higher in England) is that it has tapped in to the groundswell of English nationalism and the increasing identification as English of those living in England. UKIP is the default English national party, in the same way that the SNP is the Scottish national party and Plaid Cymru is the party of Wales. That is to say, it places the concerns of those who wish to preserve the integrity of England as a nation and defend the interests of English people at the heart of its policies, even if they are couched in British terms.

There are many examples of pro-English policies in their manifesto, which most actual English nationalists would readily agree with, such as:

• the demand for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership, and support for withdrawal, or ‘BREXIT’

• insistence on much tougher limits on immigration, including via proper border controls (made possible by BREXIT) and an Australian-style points system; reducing the access of foreign nationals to public services and social housing

• reduction of the UK’s overseas aid budget – reinvesting the money in English public services

• focus on building houses in brownfield sites, as opposed to concreting over England’s green and pleasant land with unsuitable and unwanted development

• scrapping the Barnett Formula and allocating spending on a genuine needs basis, which in reality means less money for Scotland and more for deprived English areas

• scrapping HS2, which is a vanity project driven by EU dreams of a pan-European high-speed rail network, and which threatens to devastate vast swathes of precious English countryside

• resisting the Labour and Lib Dem push for various forms of unwanted local or regional devolution in England

• improving social care provision in England

• preserving the English NHS as a publicly funded service, free at the point of use; using the redistributed Barnett funds to abolish parking charges in English hospitals

• reintroducing grammar and technical schools in England to improve the prospects of bright students from poorer areas, and to enhance vocational training.

However, one area where the UKIP manifesto is seriously deficient is the question of an English parliament: the manifesto doesn’t raise this at all. The only commitment that is made towards enhancing English-national democracy is that of English votes on English laws, despite the fact that this is an unworkable policy. For instance, after the election, it’s quite possible that there could be completely different English and UK parliamentary majorities: the Tories winning a majority in England, while the only workable UK-wide majority would be formed by Labour in partnership – formal or informal – with the Lib Dems and the other ‘progressive’ parties, including the SNP.

The answer, obviously, is separate UK and English parliaments; but UKIP are unwilling or unable to acknowledge this elephant in the room. This may be because they are still intent on positioning themselves as a party for the whole UK, rather than an overtly England-centric party or – heaven forbid – and English-nationalist one. But England-centric they undoubtedly are: addressing priorities and grievances that are either solely or primarily those of the English.

It is for this reason that I am recommending that all English nationalists vote UKIP at the election tomorrow. Sadly, owing to our First Past the Post voting system, a vote for the English Democrats is a wasted vote – assuming they’re standing in your constituency at all: they’re not in mine. Many would say that voting for UKIP is also a waste; and indeed, because of the electoral system UKIP are generally not expected to win any extra seats at the election, despite being the third-largest party in terms of share of the vote.

However, in reality, there is only a minority of seats where people’s votes make any difference at all, i.e. the marginal seats that might actually change hands. The constituency where I live is a very safe Conservative seat, so voting UKIP won’t make any difference in terms of the overall election result. The point of doing so is merely to register support for the types of English national policies I’ve outlined above.

If, on the other hand, you live in a constituency where your vote could help swing the result, I would argue that you should vote in such a way as to minimise the chance of a Labour-controlled government. This is because Labour, of all the parties, is most committed to local / city / regional devolution in England – whether or not the people affected have voted for it. Labour’s manifesto avoids almost any reference to ‘England’ other than in the sections where it discusses its wish to see devolution to so-called ‘county regions’ (whatever they are) and a Senate of the Nations and Regions (and you know what that means) to replace the present House of Lords. Labour is also, of course, obsessed with avoiding a referendum on the EU and can be relied upon to do nothing whatsoever about immigration, other than perhaps to increase it.

Accordingly, if you live in a Tory-Labour marginal, I’d say vote Tory. If you live in a Labour-Lib Dem marginal (like the Cambridge constituency near my home), I’d say gird your loins and vote Lib Dem, to prevent Labour from amassing the seats it may need to form a government.

But ultimately, if your vote, like mine, will make very little difference – or if you have no truck with the sort of tactical voting scenarios I’ve just described – vote UKIP: the English national party in British-nationalist clothes.

22 May 2014

Why I’m voting UKIP

I’ll be voting UKIP in the European-Parliament elections later today. This is despite the fact that I don’t like the party all that much. To me, UKIP seems to represent much that is least generous and large-minded in the English spirit: suspicion toward foreigners; a narrow-minded pragmatism and individualism, as opposed to idealistic engagement toward the European continent and the broader international community; neo-liberal economics; British nationalism; a failure to articulate a discrete English identity and politics; and a social conservatism that is inadequate in responding to the complexity and diversity of modern English society.

So why vote for them? Mainly because they are the only party with a chance of winning any seats that is opposed to the UK’s EU membership and can be trusted to deliver a straightforward in / out referendum.

Why do I support the UK’s withdrawal from the EU? Wouldn’t that precisely be an example of the sort of narrow-minded Englishness I have just decried? My answer would be that, while I oppose the EU, I am still very much in favour of an England that engages positively and constructively with the European continent of which it is a part. I just don’t believe the EU provides the means and the forum for achieving that. The EU is undemocratic, non-transparent, bureaucratic and corrupt; it is the vehicle for a political project for the creation of a federal European super-state; and – most critically for me – the EU does not recognise England as a nation and would absorb it into a set of anonymous British ‘regions’.

What about the argument that only the Conservatives can deliver an in / out referendum, if they’re elected in the general election in one year’s time? Well, that’s a potential reason for voting Conservative at the general election, not at the European election. For now, it seems to me more important to send a message to the establishment parties that their policies and behaviour in relation to the EU have been unacceptable, and that the only way forward is to let us have our referendum. In any case, it’s quite conceivable that there could be a Conservative / UKIP coalition after the general election. If that happened, the Conservatives couldn’t wriggle out of their commitment to hold a referendum, as they did previously after the Lisbon Treaty was signed.

Another important reason for voting UKIP is to send a message to the Westminster parties that they have failed England on the immigration issue. The level of net migration and overall population growth in England in recent years (in the order of several millions) is unsustainable, and this has had a massive, and I would say largely negative, impact on working-class English people’s prospects for employment and pay, on communities, and on housing, public services and schools. Withdrawal from the EU would enable the UK to control the flow of immigration from EU states; and we should also greatly reduce the numbers coming in from the rest of the world.

Of course, we must continue to be generous and open to those who seek refuge in England and the UK as a whole from political or religious persecution in other parts of the world; and we should welcome those who can make a significant contribution to areas such as scientific research, technology and advanced manufacturing. But ultimately, I believe the role of governments is to look to the needs of their own people first. If we can stem the flow of immigrants, we can concentrate on creating jobs, training, education, improved health and decent life prospects for the millions of underemployed, inadequately educated, poor and disadvantaged English people that have been let down and left behind by the UK’s laissez-faire neo-liberalism and reliance on cheap foreign labour.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a ‘racial’ or racist stance: by ‘English people’, I am not referring to the so-called ‘white-English’ but to all who live in England and genuinely consider themselves to be English – at least in part – of whatever ethnic background. I do not accept the view that opposition to unfettered immigration in itself makes one a racist, because it’s immigration from all countries and parts of the world that I would like to restrict. Nor do I accept that seeking to defend and celebrate one’s own national identity, culture and traditions – in my case, English – is racist in itself. Of course, racism is often associated with such concerns if, for instance, a person has a narrowly ethnic concept of their nation or believes that their culture is superior to others. Conversely, celebrating ‘Britain’’s ethnic diversity and the cultures of all who have come to live here, while denigrating Englishness and castigating English patriotism as racist, is itself a form of (inverted) racism.

So, whereas there are undoubtedly some racists in UKIP, the Anglo-British patriotism the party espouses and its opposition to uncontrolled immigration are by no means intrinsically racist. UKIP’s inflammatory rhetoric on immigration is one of the things I precisely don’t like about the party, and this does undoubtedly play on people’s more irrational fears toward the foreigner and the ‘other’, which are a basic characteristic of racism. But focusing on this or that debatably ‘racist’ utterance by UKIP spokespersons is a smokescreen by which the other parties have tried to avoid engaging with the immigration question. And this does need to be tackled.

So it’s UKIP for me on 22 May 2014: to demand an in / out referendum on the UK’s EU membership; to send out a strong message on immigration; and to back a party that’s not ashamed of England and Englishness, even if it largely fails to differentiate these from Britain and the UK.

There are two other elections today where I live: district and parish councils. Just to demonstrate that I am an issues-based voter rather than a party loyalist, I intend to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate for the district council. That’s because the Liberal Democrats are the strongest voice against a massive New Town that is proposed to be built right on the doorstep of the village where I live, and which is supported by the Conservative-controlled council. The Lib Dem has a realistic chance of defeating the Conservative candidate, as the Tories are divided: one of the previous Conservative incumbents is now standing as an independent, so the Tory vote will be split, and the Lib Dems finished a close second last time.

The parish council has seen intrigue, cliques and scandal worthy of Midsomer Murders – although we haven’t had our first murder yet (thank goodness). I’ll be voting for all of the candidates opposed to the current ruling Clique. This could be the most intriguing and unpredictable contest of the lot!

19 April 2010

England remained a taboo word in the English debate

I’m beginning to think that ‘taboo’ is not too strong a word to describe ‘England’ when it comes to the discourse of the British establishment. What is a taboo? It’s something that is felt to be so abhorrent, and so challenging to established systems of authority and meaning, that it simply can’t be referred to and is suppressed from socially acceptable language.

An example of something that used to be taboo is incest. We now know that it does exist in society, often associated with abuse of children by their parents. But, like child abuse in general, it used to be impossible to even evoke its presence, and society’s revulsion at the act would be redirected at the person who spoke about it. The presence of child abuse by priests has also clearly been a taboo in the Catholic Church: something that simply could not be talked about in public in case it caused a ‘scandal’, whereas the real scandal was the actual abuse not its exposure, which was in fact necessary to prevent it from carrying on.

Both of these are examples where the activities that were the object of a taboo deeply challenged and threatened the moral authority invested in structures of social power: those of marriage, family and the father as head of the household, in the case of incest, and those of the Church and of the priest as father and shepherd to his flock in the case of child abuse by prelates.

If ‘England’ is indeed a taboo word, is this because referring to it in the context of a nationally broadcast political debate would risk undermining the moral authority invested in that other structure of power: the British state and parliament?

On the one hand, ITV’s leaders’ debate on ‘domestic’ (i.e. mostly English) issues last Thursday represented a step forward in that, when it came to devolved matters, the presenter Alastair Stewart did helpfully point out that, for instance, policing and justice were devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland, or that education was an area where “powers have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”, or words to that effect. However, at the same time, it was three steps back in that he omitted to clarify that this meant that the leaders’ discussion would then relate only to England and Wales, in the case of justice issues, or England only in the case of education and health.

I’m not sure that your average viewer would have automatically understood that the fact that powers had been devolved on a given issue meant that the politicians were talking only about England. Certainly, nothing in the context of the programme made that explicit: just as Alastair Stewart didn’t spell it out, none of the party leaders mentioned England once, even when talking about devolved matters, as they resorted to the usual circumlocutions: ‘this country’, ‘our public services’, ‘the NHS’, etc. And as none of the invited audience referred to England in their questions on devolved matters, this meant that the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ were not heard a single time throughout the hour and a half-long programme, despite half of it being devoted to England- or England and Wales-only matters.

What a genius way to avoid using the ‘E’ word while still fulfilling the broadcaster’s obligation of accuracy and impartiality in making clear which UK countries a particular issue affected! They must have spent some time working out how to do this and, in the process, avoid putting the leaders in the embarrassing position of having to admit that some of their key policies relate to England alone, which is something they studiously avoided doing in their manifestoes (see my analyses of these from earlier in the week).

It really did come across as though some serious thought had been given to the problem of how to avoid saying a particular topic related only to England, as if this was something that would be simply too shocking or confusing for voters. English voters, that is, because the way they went about it made it clear to non-English voters when a discussion was irrelevant for them – and this was coupled with Stewart plugging the separate debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that are to follow – but failed totally to make it clear to ordinary English voters when a discussion was only relevant to them.

But would it be shocking and confusing for English voters suddenly to hear Westminster politicians discussing education or health purely in relation to England? It might indeed be confusing for most English viewers because they’re simply not used to English issues being honestly debated as such and have been deceived for so long into thinking that these things apply to the whole of ‘Britain’. It would perhaps be shocking more for the political establishment, because it would be exposing their taboo. The unacknowledged truth that would be exposed by referring to ‘England’, in this case, would be the very existence of England as a nation, and a nation whose existence challenges the moral authority invested in British parliamentary democracy and power.

That moral authority has already been shaken to its foundations by the parliamentary-expenses scandal last year. Most commentators and the parties themselves acknowledge that the expenses furore revealed a deeper dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the British system of governance, for which it provided a catalyst. The essence of people’s anger against the system is that politicians have become unaccountable to voters and are no longer fulfilling their responsibility to represent their interests. In particular, the lack of accountability of Parliament to English voters on English matters is an aspect of this overall failure of the system that has hitherto been largely hidden from most English people, mainly because the parties and media have conspired to suppress the fact that there are such things as England-only matters by never referring to them as such: by never saying ‘England’.

The parties have entered into this general election believing they can simply carry on in the same way, setting out their blueprints for ‘Britain’ and systematically eliminating the ‘E’ word from their manifestoes, despite the fact that the critical debates around public expenditure, and social change and fairness, centre largely on England alone. To suddenly pull the parties up on this in a ‘national’ TV debate would potentially be to risk another expenses-type scandal blowing up right in the middle of the election campaign, which is the very moment when the politicians are trying to make themselves most accountable to the electorate. It would expose certain facts that would once again reveal politicians to have been lying to voters:

  • that the so-called ‘British’ general election is mainly an English election: not only the devolved issues but the other topics discussed in the debate, such as the economy and immigration, are centred on England, as England is the economic power house on which the prosperity and public finances of the other UK countries largely depend, and England’s much greater population density and proportionate share of migrants makes the immigration issue more critical for England than for the rest of the UK;
  • that the three main parties are lying to voters by presenting their policies as if they applied comprehensively to a country called Britain, and are thereby attempting to trick non-English voters into voting for them based on a policy agenda that does not apply to them while at the same time concealing this dupery and gerrymandering from English voters. Worse still, Labour has deliberately presented a separate Scottish manifesto with policies relevant only to the Scottish parliament, on the basis of which it aims to attract Scottish votes for the Westminster parliament and English law making;
  • and that, for all their promises to ring-fence different areas of public expenditure such as health, education and policing, these promises – for what they are worth – apply only to England, and that the block grants to Scotland and Wales on which those countries’ expenditure in these areas depends may well fall in line with overall reductions in English expenditure.

One positive that has come out of this, it occurs to me, is that maybe the fact that Alastair Stewart pointed out that powers were devolved in justice, education and health care made it difficult for David Cameron to wax lyrical about the Conservatives’ ‘Big Society’ vision, which was presented in their manifesto as extending to Britain as a whole but which relates almost entirely to devolved policy areas such as these. In fact, none of the leaders went in for the big lyrical ‘Britain’ thing when talking about devolved matters, not even Gordon Brown: the number of explicit references to ‘Britain’ as the putative country to which the parties’ policies applied was comparatively low. But the number of explicit references to ‘England’ – the actual country to which those policies apply – was precisely nil.

But if I’m correct that suppressing the ‘E’ word is not just highly convenient from a political point of view but manifests the operation of a taboo, then it is more than just their faith in politicians that would be challenged if people became aware that the politicians had been lying to them by presenting English matters as British.

In the other examples of taboos I discussed at the beginning of this article, it was the existence of incest at the heart of the sacred family unit and child abuse at the heart of Holy Church that the taboos were intended to cover up; and the exposure of those previously repressed truths caused many to question their faith in the traditional family, in the Church and in God himself. With the England taboo, it is the existence of England at the heart of the British state that the taboo aims to conceal; and the exposure of England as the real country that is both invoked and denied through all the British rhetoric risks undermining English people’s belief in Britain itself.

I almost feel that the party leaders’ inhibition about celebrating their visions for ‘Britain’, once it had been made clear that not all of their policies did apply across the UK, demonstrates that the currency of ‘Britain’ and Britishness has already become greatly devalued and discredited. This is despite the blanket ban on saying ‘England’, or perhaps because of it: if all it takes for the myth of an integral British nation to blow up from within is that politicians or TV presenters start referring to the country their policies address as ‘England’, then that fiction is resting on very shaky foundations indeed. No wonder they wouldn’t say ‘England’!

If the establishment refuses to refer to the country that dare not speak its name, this is because it is in danger of seeing its own true face by so doing. But until it does so, the English people will continue to suspect the politicians – rightly, in so many respects – of being two-faced. But we who do recognise that England is the face hidden behind the mask of Britishness must continue to speak the forbidden word until the truth is acknowledged. And once England is recognised as a nation, and the existence of English policies is openly referred to, it will only be a matter of time before the growing demand for an English parliament becomes irresistible.

We may not yet be pushing at an open door; but the cracks have begun to appear, and the false veneer of Britishness may yet shatter of its own accord through the sheer internal contradictions of trying to be something that it is not: a nation in its own right, in England’s place.

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.

13 April 2010

England 11, Scotland 188: Labour’s West Lothian manifestoes

‘A future fair for all’, Labour proclaims as its election manifesto title. This is a self-avowed programme for ‘national renewal’, a concept reiterated at the start of each section – apart from in the Scottish version, however, which includes this phrase only once, in Gordon Brown’s preface.

So which nation is Labour intending to renew, and which of Labour’s two manifestoes should we believe? Well, if the version you’re reading is the ‘British’ one, you’d have to conclude that the nation in question was Britain, which is mentioned no fewer than 101 times, with ‘British’ being referred to on an additional 31 occasions. However, if you’re looking at the Scottish document, you could be mistaken for thinking Labour’s commitment was all to ‘Scotland’, with the prime minister’s homeland being proudly referenced on a total of 60 occasions along with 125 instances of ‘Scottish’ and three of ‘Scots’. That’s a ratio of almost 3:2 in favour of Scotland over Britain.

One nation New Labour is definitely not interested in renewing is ‘England’. The name of this country is included only once in Labour’s blueprint for fairness, in the section on ‘Communities and creative Britain’: “We aim to bring more major international sporting competitions to Britain, beginning with our current partnership with the English FA to bring the 2018 World Cup to England”.

Odd that it’s described as the ‘English FA’ here, when the FA goes out of its way to avoid calling itself ‘English’ – just as New Labour goes out of its way to avoid referring to any of its English policies as English. Maybe the phrase ‘English FA’ is a cross-over from the Scottish text, where it was necessary to add the ‘English’ tag, just as they saw fit to clarify – in the sentence before the one I’ve just quoted – that the 2015 Rugby Union World Cup was taking place in England: a fact curiously omitted from the ‘British’ manifesto.

This is not an isolated instance: there are more references to ‘England’ in the Scottish manifesto than the ‘British’ one – seven, in fact. There is, however, greater parity – or ‘fairness’, as Labour would call it – in the number of mentions of ‘English’: 12 in Scotland compared with ten in ‘Britain’. Well, that’s understandable, I suppose, as these references are mainly to the English language as studied in schools or spoken by immigrants.

In addition to the ‘English FA’ allusion, the only two uses of ‘English’ in the British version of the manifesto, other than for referring to the language, also occur in the ‘Communities and creative Britain’ section – not surprising, really, given that the British government’s responsibilities in the area of communities, sport and the arts are in fact restricted to England. The first of these references is to ‘English Heritage’ whose function the manifesto defines as ensuring “the protection and maintenance of Britain‘s built historical legacy” [my emphasis]. Even ‘England”s history apparently belongs to ‘Britain’, let alone its present or future of New Labouresque fairness.

The other reference is to extending the ‘Right to Roam’ to the whole of the English coastline. Neither of these proposals, then, are apparently worthy of mention for Labour’s potential Scottish voters, despite the fact that – as Britons – English British heritage belongs to them, too, as does the right to roam England’s coastline.

When the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ are used in the Scottish manifesto to refer to an actual country that the British document is strangely incapable of acknowledging, this is to make injurious comparisons between the governments and public services in Scotland and ‘England’. For example, the Scottish text states: “Crime is lower than in 1997, but it is falling more slowly in Scotland than in England [sic] and last year in Scotland, there were almost nine thousand crimes of knife carrying”.

By contrast, the ‘British’ document declares: “Crime continued to fall during the recession . . . . and knife crime has fallen”. [NB Ed (Miliband, that is): not in ‘Britain’ as a whole it hasn’t, boy, because you’ve already told us it’s risen in Scotland – you must mean it’s fallen in England.]

In similar vein, the Scottish manifesto tells us: “Last year alone in England [there’s that word again!] there were 832 positive matches to the DNA database in cases of rape, murder and manslaughter. In order to protect the public, Scottish Labour will ensure that the most serious offenders are added to the database, no matter where or when they were convicted – and we will retain the DNA profiles of those arrested but not convicted for six years”.

By contrast, the British version omits the reference to ‘England’ and also deletes the phrase ‘in order to protect the public’. Why? Because they don’t want the said ‘public’ to realise that, in England, the DNA profiles of people arrested but not convicted for any offence, not just serious offences, are retained by the British database state, whereas in Scotland they are not. And the ambiguous wording is similarly intended to mislead Labour’s Scottish public into thinking they would retain the DNA profiles only of those arrested but not convicted of serious offences if they got re-elected into power in Holyrood, whereas in fact they’d introduce the authoritarian English system if they had their way. And if the systems in the two countries were the same, then – and only then – New Labour could fulfil the promise to make sure that ‘no matter where or when they were convicted’ (e.g. whether in Scotland or England & Wales), all serious offenders throughout Britain could be added to the database.

This example – and there are many similar – illustrates the duplicity behind New Labour’s dual manifestoes (or triple once the Welsh one presumably comes along) for a dual mandate:

  • In the Scottish manifesto – quite blatantly and unashamedly – they are canvassing the support of Scottish voters on devolved matters (such as crime, as in the examples above) with a separate programme of Scottish-only policies that they could implement only if they were elected into power in Scotland in 2011. As the introduction to the Scottish text states: “Where responsibility is devolved, Scottish Labour will endeavor [sic] to deliver for Scotland from opposition in the Scottish Parliament, a Parliament of minorities [by implication, one in which they are virtually a party in power], as we have done on new apprenticeships for young Scots. We will carry these commitments through into the next Scottish Parliament.” Hence the negative comparisons they make between policies in devolved areas in Scotland – which is of course actually governed by the SNP – and the situation in the corresponding areas in England.
  • In the ‘British’ manifesto, in contrast to the Scottish one, any suggestion that Labour’s policies in devolved areas are de facto English policies is systematically suppressed by referring to everything as being ‘British’ and for ‘Britain’. In England, in other words, Labour is desperate for voters not to make the sort of comparisons with Scotland that they’re so keen for Scottish voters to make the other way round, in case English voters decide their Scottish cousins are getting a decidedly better deal in the public services Labour likes to claim as its own special domain. So they’re deliberately misleading voters – if any ordinary voter can actually be bothered to plough through the turgid document – into thinking that Labour’s past and prospective policies apply across the whole of Britain.
  • And the other main reason why they don’t want English readers to realise that their policies in vital areas such as education, the NHS, crime and policing, and communities apply to England only is that those readers might start to question why a Scottish-elected MP such as Gordon Brown feels entitled to propose policies for people who can’t vote him out of office if they don’t like them. Even more so if they were to realise that the Labour Party was trying to get its Scottish MPs, like Brown, re-elected into power on a programme for Scotland, even though it’s the English programme (not the Scottish one at all) that they’d actually implement if they were re-elected. So that’s why they have to pretend it’s a British (i.e. UK- or Great Britain-wide) programme and not what it actually is: English.

It’s only when you read the two manifestoes side by side in this way that you can measure the full extent of Labour’s duplicity and hypocrisy: a Scottish programme for Scotland on which Scottish MPs will be elected to enact a British programme for England Britain – the West Lothian election.

I could pick out many examples, but I think you get the general idea, and I invite readers to read the two manifestoes side by side so long as they’ve got a strong stomach and stable blood pressure. Fortify yourself with a pint or two of good English ale first; or a wee dram or two has the same effect and carries less duty per unit.

I’ll just select a particularly choice example, about social care. In the English British version, it states: “We will establish a new National Care Service and forge a new settlement for our country as enduring as that which the Labour Government built after 1945. . . . From 2011 we will protect more than 400,000 of those with the greatest needs from all charges for care in the home”.

Yes, you’ve guessed it, the ‘national’ service and the ‘country’ in question are actually England, not Britain, as becomes evident when you make the comparison with Scotland that Labour doesn’t want you to make. As the Scottish document says:

“The welfare state, in its broadest sense [yes, in the sense that it’s different in Scotland from England], is the most profound expression of the shared values that bind Scotland and the other nations of the United Kingdom together in a social union. As society changes, so the settlement evolves [b******s it does!]. In Scotland we led the way, extending the frontiers of the welfare state with the introduction of free personal care [‘for all’, as they might say, not just the few]. . . . The Prime Minister’s aim of establishing a National Care Service to forge a new social care settlement for our country as enduring as that which the Labour Government built after 1945, expresses our ambition too. While we start from different circumstances and have services differently aligned, a National Care Service would be a further strand in the social union. [Note: ‘would be’, not ‘will be’, because in Scotland, they acknowledge that their faux-British ‘national’ care service is in fact English and voting Labour in this election can’t bring it about in Scotland. Not sure anyone will be too worried about that in Scotland, though.]

Our ambition is for free personal care to be part of a truly integrated service. It will be different in each nation of the UK, but will reflect our shared values.”

Try telling that to the English, you b******s, and see if you get re-elected then! No wonder they don’t insult the English readers of the British manifesto with all that baloney about a social union. Social union, my arse – if you’ll pardon my English.

So Labour promises a future fair for all Britons. It’s only that some Britons (e.g. the Scots) are treated ‘more fairly’ than others (e.g. the English), to adapt a famous phrase. Except New Labour would reject that analysis, because they scarcely acknowledge the very existence of England; so how can a country that doesn’t exist be treated less fairly than ‘another’ part of Britain which, they’d have you believe, is treated in exactly the same way? Orwellian New-Labour Newspeak, indeed!

So it comes as no surprise, in the section of the ‘British’ manifesto dealing with democratic reform, that absolutely no mention is made of ‘England’ while whole paragraphs deal with the ongoing processes of devolution in the UK’s other nations – proving incontrovertibly that Labour’s approach to the West Lothian Question, let alone the English Question, is not to ask it.

The reason: they are utterly dependent on the West Lothian Question in its most aggravated form – the West Lothian Election – if they are to have any chance of being re-elected: conning Scottish people into voting Labour on a Scottish ticket merely in order to secure power in Westminster – power over English matters, in other words. A con that they try to deny at all cost; mainly by denying there is any distinction between ‘Britain’ (including Scotland) and England.

But what are English voters to make of this? Well, if they want accountable government for England as England, they can do none other than reject Labour’s false account (narrative) of a Britain that denies England. And if Labour offers no policies for England, then they deserve no votes from English people.

27 March 2010

No Representation Without . . . Representation: The West Lothian Election and Avoidance Of the ‘E’ Word

I’m gearing up to a fight at the election. I’ve got my complaint emails primed in the full expectation that none of the leaders nor presenters will say ‘England’ in the leaders’ debates, even when discussing England-only policies; and that news item after news item will report on parties’ proposals on education, health or policing (etc., etc.) without bothering to mention that they relate only to England (and Wales, in the latter instance).

Does any of that matter, or am I just being an ‘indignant from Tunbridge Wells’ Little Englander pedantically pulling the media up on every slightest slip? Surely, everyone knows that when the politicians refer to ‘the NHS’, or the Tory spokesman sets out that party’s proposals for the ‘British’ education system, they’re really talking only about the NHS and education in England?

Well, the politically literate might realise this, but the default position of the average English citizen is to assume that when people in the media say ‘Britain’ or ‘this country’, they actually mean Britain as a whole, not just a part or parts of it. That this is not so is undeniable. But this does not necessarily mean that politicians and the media, in every case, are deliberately suppressing all reference to ‘England’, rather than just forgetting to include the word because it all starts to sound fussily pedantic after a while. This might be more Freudian slip than political censorship. However, if you know your Freud, you’ll know there’s no such thing as ‘innocent’ forgetting, and that what you omit to say, just as much as what you let slip, reveals the self-censorships and internal struggles involved in conforming to socially and politically acceptable norms.

Be that as it may, one thing all three party leaders will definitely agree on in their TV debates is avoidance of the ‘E’ word. But just what is the inconvenient, naked truth that the politicians wish to cover up by not referring to the actual name of ‘the country’ their policies address?

Well, perhaps it’s just that: the country they’re primarily addressing is England.

I’ve written extensively elsewhere on the way the proposed structure for the TV debates is almost diametrically the reverse of what it should be to properly reflect the post-devolution realities. Instead of having three ‘UK’ debates excluding the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, with separate debates in Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland that do include the leaders of parties that stand only in those countries, the UK debates should include the key players from the devolved nations because – for those nations – the election is only about UK-wide (reserved) matters, not nation-specific ones. What is more, the non-English parties may hold the balance of power in a hung parliament; so it is especially crucial in this election for viewers across the UK to hear what their leaders have to say.

By contrast, the only nation-specific debate(s) should be restricted to England, because only English voters are (or, at least, should be) voting on devolved issues in this election. As it’s turned out, one of the debates (on ITV) will be dealing mostly with English issues such as health and education, billed as ‘domestic’ issues. But you can bet your bottom English pound that these topics won’t be referred to as English. At least, ITV hasn’t yet deigned to respond to my helpful email suggestion that they do flag up the England-only policy areas as English in the programme.

Joking aside, the structure that has been adopted in fact ironically reveals the England-specific nature of the ‘national’ debates that politicians and media would rather have us not notice through their non-use of the word ‘England’. The ‘UK’ debates are all being held in England; they exclude the leaders of the Scottish- and Welsh-nationalist parties, thus enabling the perspective to be ‘English’ in the sense of being that of English viewers; and one whole debate is also mostly limited to English matters. And the fact of there being separate debates focusing on issues and parties specific to Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland makes the ‘national’ debates even more England-centric in all but name.

This structure itself replicates the structure of the debates and proceedings of the UK parliament, which has become a British parliament for England at the same time as an English parliament for the UK. The parties don’t want the public in England to realise that they’re using the debates and the campaign in general to seek the votes of non-English voters on English matters (what you could call the ‘West Lothian Election’), resulting in government of the English people by the British parliament. And they equally don’t want the public in the non-English countries to realise that their MPs will be beholden to the interests of parties whose power base and national focus is primarily England (though, and for that reason, unacknowledged): parliamentary lobby fodder whether voting on England-specific or reserved matters.

That’s why they don’t want Alex Salmond or Ieuan Wyn Jones showing up at the party (or showing up their parties). It’s ironic that they think it’s OK to exclude Alex Salmond, who has a legitimate say in reserved matters, while including Gordon Brown, who has no legitimacy in devolved (i.e. English) matters. But after all, you couldn’t have Alex Salmond turning up at the ITV debate and accusing Gordon Brown of proposing policies for England that he can have no democratic mandate to implement, could you? That just wouldn’t be ‘British’ fair play. But it would be democracy. And it would be an accurate representation of the facts.

But will the broadcasters in fact be in breach of their statutory duty to ensure accuracy and impartiality if they fail to point out that some of the policies being debated are relevant only to their English viewers? It would probably be easier to make a case for bias than inaccuracy, despite what I’ve said so far. It clearly is biased to provide an exclusive platform for the ‘English’-party leaders to speak to voters in Scotland and Wales, even if you take only reserved matters into consideration. It is doubly biased if the party leaders refer to devolved (i.e. English) issues as British, and by implication as relevant to Scotland and Wales, because this would amount to turning the UK election into the opening battle in the 2011 election for the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly while at the same time excluding two of the parties presently in power in those bodies.

So this is bias, but it’s bias that rests on inaccuracy and, frankly, a sheer lack of understanding about the actual mandates of MPs from the UK’s countries in the wake of devolution. The most egregious consequence of this at the election is likely to be in relation to the debate about spending on education, health and policing. I notice the Labour Party is now promising not to make any cuts in these areas, which will be paid for by even more swingeing cuts to other areas of the budget. But what Labour is not saying is that it’s only in England that it won’t be reducing the budget for these things; and that, as a result of the overall cuts, the Scottish and Welsh block budgets will be reduced (not before time, in some people’s view), resulting in likely cuts in education, health and policing in those countries. By not explicitly stating that it’s English education, health and policing that will be protected, Labour is deliberately misleading the electorate in Scotland and Wales into thinking that their funding in these areas is ring-fenced – in order to win their votes. And in allowing Labour to get away with this, it could be argued the media is showing bias towards them – except, of course, it’s allowing all the main parties to do the same thing. In this way, the Scots and Welsh are being wooed on English matters; and English voters are being cheated of the result they want in relation to the matters that affect them.

But apart from this West Lothian aspect to the election, are English people put in any kind of direct disadvantage through the inaccuracy of referring to English policies as British? It would be difficult to make a watertight case that calling English laws ‘British’ is inaccurate, as – strictly speaking – they are British laws: enacted by the British parliament comprising representatives from across the UK. So if you were going to be really pedantic about it, you would in fact have to call them ‘British laws for England’. And is it inaccurate, as such, to omit the ‘for England’ or ‘in England’ part (e.g. ‘the NHS in England’ or ‘schools in England’)? Or is this just a form of ellipsis made possible by the fact that the words omitted contain information which it is assumed people know about anyway?

OK, so calling English policies and laws ‘British’ is only partially inaccurate. But is it good enough for the media and politicians to be only partially accurate here? And isn’t presenting only a partial version of the facts again partial in the other sense: the opposite of ‘impartial’?

In this instance, this is a partiality that goes beyond specific policies or parties, and amounts to a bias in favour of the whole British-parliamentary system, of which the general election is meant to serve as a collective act of validation. The mis-representation of England-specific policies as UK-relevant helps to uphold the viewpoint that British-parliamentary democracy itself is ‘adequate’ for English voters: that it provides sufficient expression to the voice of English voters and an adequate representation of their views.

In order to maintain this perception, it is vital that the language politicians and media use to refer to the political process, system and community – the polity – is adequate to the country of which that polity is meant to be a representative expression, in the other sense of the word ‘adequate’: descriptively / epistemologically appropriate to, or commensurate with, the object described. In other words, if the British-parliamentary system is to be seen as adequate for England, then ‘Britain’ / ‘British’ must be seen as adequate terms for ‘England’ / ‘English’: the system of government and the country governed must become mirrors for one another – the British parliament as ‘representing’ the (British) people.

This whole fiction falls down if you start referring to the people Parliament is meant to represent as English in some matters and British in others. Apart from calling the democratic legitimacy of the whole system – and accordingly, the election – into question, it would actually be rather hard to keep switching between ‘England’ and ‘Britain’, sometimes within a single sentence, when referring to the country for which (British) policies are intended. It would require mental gymnastics on the part of our occasionally intellectually challenged politicians, for a start. But imagine the confusion and the linguistic overload if you had to start presenting the interdependency between genuinely British and English policy decisions in their true light. Parties would have to tell voters they intend to raise British taxes (or decrease some and increase others) in order to maintain spending on English education, health and policing while cutting the British defence and welfare budgets, reducing the Scottish and Welsh budgets, and cutting spending on English social care, local government, transport, environmental protection, etc.

If, on the other hand, you pretend that there’s just one British tax pool and one British budget in all these different areas, it makes the message easier to get across. The fact that it also enables the parties to gloss over the West Lothian Election and the question of Parliament’s legitimacy as a dual-purpose British and English legislature is almost a secondary but nonetheless highly convenient benefit of this linguistic economy with the truth. The fiction that there is only a single national budget that has to be apportioned between different government departments is also substantially true, but only if the nation in question is England. But in order to maintain the fiction that that nation is Britain, it’s imperative to never invoke the name of ‘England’. This results in what is actually quite a surreal situation where the country whose election this primarily is, and whose people are the main ones being targeted, is never mentioned by name.

But English people deserve more than this partially representative democracy: where the ‘part’ (England) is (mis)represented by the whole (the parliament for the UK), which – in order to maintain the fiction that it adequately represents the part – refers to the part as if it were the whole. Or, putting this another way, can UK MPs for English constituencies claim to truly represent them if they can’t even represent (accurately refer to and acknowledge) the country of which their constituencies are a part? Those MPs can, in effect, only represent the whole – the in fact partial (party-determined) interests of ‘Britain’ – and not their constituency as an integral part of another whole, the nation of England, for which the British parliament legislates. But if they don’t want to acknowledge their constituencies and their remit as English, they cannot be said to stand for (represent) England in any way, nor do they deserve the support of those who seek to defend the legitimate interests and rights of English people as a distinct part of Britain with its own legal system, for which Parliament is responsible.

In other words, when talking the language of the whole (Britain), our English politicians are only partly telling the truth; indeed, they are being party to a fiction that involves the representation of the part as if it were the whole. And yet, that part is a whole – England – that is only partially represented in this way, while this fiction serves the interests of parties that seek the mandate of the whole to govern the part. And, by being party to this fiction, the media is maintaining the partiality this involves: making the Union Parliament an adequate form of representation for England, and supporting the Union parties that defend the whole system.

Ultimately, then, by conspiring with the politicians to effectively bleep out the ‘E’ word (if that is what they do at the election), the media will be displaying institutional bias in favour of the British-political establishment and system of democracy. The upholding of this system requires that the emergence of an English-national politics be suppressed; and the most effective way to achieve this is by suppressing all reference to ‘English’ policies even when talking about British policies that only affect England.

This is not an innocent act of forgetting or a failure to be journalistically accurate in one’s choice of words; it is indeed more of a Freudian omission: a superficially casual and non-deliberate suppression of language that reveals profound, hidden truths and motivations. That said, the broadcasters cannot be singled out for blame in showing bias and support towards the very democratic system of which the election is supposed to be a vindication. The problem is with the system itself, not merely the media.

But if the media does, as I suspect it will, omit to refer to English policies as English policies, then this calls the validity of the whole process into question. The public – English and non-English alike – have a right to be informed about how, indeed whether, the parties’ policies might affect them. And if the media systemically fails to do that – because it is serving and enabling the stratagem that the British-political system itself employs to conceal the naked truth that it is a government for but not of England – then the general election will not deserve to be called an act of representative democracy.

At the very least, it will result in a continuing mis-representation of England.

24 January 2010

England: The Unspoken Other

“What we cannot speak of we must be silent about”. Ludwig Wittgenstein

I’ve received a reply from the BBC to my complaint about their failure to point out anywhere in their coverage that the Conservatives’ draft manifesto on health care related to England only. Here’s what they said:

Dear Mr Rickard

Thank you for your e-mail regarding a Radio 4 news broadcast on 2 January. Please accept our apologies for the delay in replying. We know our correspondents appreciate a quick response and are sorry you’ve had to wait on this occasion.

I understand you were unhappy with a report on the Conservatives’ manifesto for the National Health Service (NHS) and that you felt it failed to make it clear it related to England only. I note that you feel this was another example of an issue presented as relating to the whole of the UK and that it is a practice you continue to dislike.

We are aware that a report that is of great interest to one part of our audience may be of little interest to another. This issue of national and regional news is of great importance to BBC News and requires a balance which we are always striving to get just right.

While certain news items may be specific to one part of the country, and often reserved for coverage by our regional news, we also have to acknowledge and cater to the many listeners and viewers who express a clear interest in knowing what is happening in other parts of the UK. It is also the case that certain stories which at first appear geographically limited can ultimately have a wider impact on the country as a whole. [My emphasis.]

You may be interest in the following entry on The Editors blog by Mark Byford, the deputy director general, who looks at this issue and the recent review of the merits and challenges facing BBC News regionally and nationally by the BBC Trust. The Editors blog is availabe here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2008/06/uk_news_coverage.html

I would also like to assure you that we’ve registered your comments on our audience log for the benefit of the news teams and senior management. The audience logs are important documents that can help shape future decisions about content and ensure that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.

Thanks again for contacting us.

Regards

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

There’s something profoundly unsatisfactory about this response, over and above the plain fact that Mr Webb failed to address the substance of the complaint, which was that the BBC had failed in its duty to report on the news accurately and impartially. In this case, this would involve simply letting people know that the Tories’ proposed policies would be implemented only in England. Rather an important detail, one might think.

But let’s analyse what Mr Webb is saying here. I’m particularly interested in the section I’ve highlighted in italics. Mr Webb is comparing the coverage of the Tories’ draft NHS manifesto to the way ‘regional’ stories are reported on. In essence, he’s saying:

  1. The story in question did relate to just one ‘part of the country’ [a circumlocution for ‘England’: notice how, after the initial reference to my email, he can’t bring himself to use the ‘E’ word] but was nonetheless of interest to listeners outside of that ‘region’, and so was legitimately broadcast as a ‘national’ news story
  2. ‘Geographically limited’ [i.e. English] stories can have a significant impact on ‘the country as a whole’ [i.e. the UK], which thereby sets up a second reason why this particular story should have been broadcast on the national news: it’s not just ‘of interest to’ the whole of the UK (appealing to people who take an interest in current affairs), but it also affects the ‘interests’ of everyone in the UK. In other words, the Tories’ policies on the NHS could affect everyone in the UK materially in some way. Hence, though this was on one level just an ‘English matter’, it also matters to everyone in the UK – in both senses.

Well, yes, that’s all true: policy and expenditure decisions about the NHS in England are indeed of interest to many UK citizens living outside of England; and they do have a knock-on effect on the NHS’s outside of England, in that an overall increase or decrease in England-specific expenditure results in proportionally higher rises or cuts in expenditure in the other countries via the workings of the Barnett Formula.

But the relationship between spending in England and in the devolved countries is not straightforward or transparent. In this instance, Tory pledges not to cut the English NHS budget in real terms do not mean that the NHS budget won’t be cut in Scotland or Wales. If English spending declines overall despite the NHS budget being ring-fenced, then the Scottish and Welsh block grants will be smaller, and NHS spending in those countries may well have to be reduced. In order to understand how the Tories’ NHS policies will affect their interests – in the sense of ‘benefits’ – it is vital that Scottish and Welsh listeners understand the true relationship between England-specific policies and the corresponding policies in their own countries. And they can hardly come to this understanding if they’re not informed that the Tories’ policies are in fact only intended for England. To use Mr Webb’s analogy, this may have been a ‘regional’ story, relating to just one ‘part’ of the UK (England); but then, when genuine regional stories are covered at a ‘national’ level, the BBC does tend to take the trouble to spell out which region the story directly relates to.

So Mr Webb’s regional analogy completely falls over: a ‘regional’ story (e.g. one about Scottish politics or, say, an innovative private-public partnership being pioneered by a hospital Foundation Trust in one part of England) can well become a ‘national’ story (covered in the national news bulletins) if lots of people throughout the UK are interested in it and could be affected by it in some way. But that doesn’t make it a national story in the other sense: directly concerning the whole of the UK. But that’s precisely how the NHS story was covered: no attempt was made to make clear to listeners that it did relate just to one – albeit a highly influential – part of the UK. The word ‘England’ (the actual name for that ‘part’) simply wasn’t mentioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation; just as it was not referred to anywhere in the Tories draft NHS manifesto itself.

This illustrates a common observation: that while England is indeed formally ‘a part’ of the whole (Britain, the UK), it is generally referred to and thought of in British political discourse as if it were the whole (the UK) itself. In fact, there are two kinds of ‘parts’ of Britain from this point of view:

  1. England, which is a ‘geographically limited part’ of the UK but, as such, is politically and existentially (in terms of its official identity) indistinct from the UK and subsumed within it
  2. The ‘nations and regions’, both of which are really in effect thought of as regions of the UK / Britain (the ‘country’), the only difference being that three of those ‘regions’ have a distinct national character as recognised in the devolution settlement.

Such a structure does not reserve any place for England, which is where Mr Webb’s comparison of the Tory NHS story to a regional item is so disingenuous. On this model of the UK, the UK / Britain is ‘the country’ or ‘the nation’; and the nation is sub-divided into regions, three of which have their devolved, ‘nation-like’ systems of partial self-government. England (or ‘the regions’), on the other hand, is simply none other than the UK; just as Andalusia or Castile are regions of Spain (and are thereby also Spain), whereas the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia are national regions of Spain (and are by that token also still Spanish). On this analogy, England has become a ‘convenient’ (actually, inconvenient) name for the non-national regions of the UK; while Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland are the UK’s ‘national’ regions.

According to this understanding of the UK, then, England as such – as a nation – does not exist. This is a hard ‘truth’ whose implications are only beginning to dawn on me, despite the fact that I’ve voiced similar thoughts and discussed similar models for the relationship between England and the UK in numerous previous posts. In particular, thinking of things in these terms allows one to come to a deeper understanding of why the BBC won’t and can’t engage properly with complaints that they present ‘English’ stories as if they were British ones; and why the mainstream political parties resolutely persist in avoiding any reference to England when setting out their England-specific policies.

On an obvious level, this is of course done for political advantage: ultimately, because it maintains the whole British establishment and system of power, in and through which both the BBC and the parties seek to exercise their influence and prosper. But beyond these considerations of ‘interest’, the establishment won’t say ‘England’ because it can’t: how can you speak the name of something that does not exist? Both aspects are in play here:

  1. Because the establishment doesn’t want England to exist, in case this undermines its self-ascribed right to govern as Britain, it does not speak the name of England and thereby, in a sense, makes England not exist, at least within the formal discourse and self-understanding of British politics: ‘the Nation is Britain, and the parts of Britain are its nations and regions’. That’s it: no need to invoke an ‘England’ that is just not a distinct part of this whole.
  2. And because the word and name of England does not exist within the ‘politically correct’ language, it then becomes both inappropriate and irrelevant to mention it: language deals with things that exist, or that we believe to exist, not with what does not exist. ‘England’ has ceased to refer to anything in the present: it’s off the map of the British establishment’s mind, just as it’s off the physical map of the nations and regions. ‘England’, then, is a word that has served its time and is now redundant.

The BBC and the mainstream parties therefore do not say ‘England’, not just because they’d rather suppress all thought of England but because they’ve actually succeeded in removing the thought of it from the official and publicly ‘acceptable’ language of the British polity. They won’t say England because they can’t say England; and they can’t say England, not only because England officially doesn’t exist (it doesn’t refer to anything tangible within the polity) but because they actually don’t believe it exists any more, and they don’t know what ‘England’ means or should mean. In short, they’ve not only suppressed England from the apparatus of British governance, but they’ve repressed ‘England’ from their conscious minds and language.

This is the reason for my allusion to Wittgenstein at the start of this post: a foundational figure in what used to be referred to as the ‘English’, or at least ‘Anglo-Saxon’, school of analytical philosophy. The quote I used is my own translation from the original German that seeks to capture its ambiguity better than the classic translation: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. For me, my version (“What we cannot speak of we must be silent about”) perfectly encapsulates the combination of psychological repression and conceptual incapacity that characterises the British establishment’s silence with respect to ‘England’. First, out of political considerations of power, England was suppressed, both as a distinct national focus of politics and identity, and as something whose name – and in whose name – our political representatives could thereby speak. But then, once suppressed from the language, ‘England’ has become suppressed from the minds and understanding of reality of British politicians and media. England was first deliberately suppressed from political language and influence out of pure political motives; but now that language genuinely does not know it – so better not talk about it.

So on this view, England is no more. England is none other than the UK. And yet, England, as that which has been eliminated from British-political language, thinking and institutions – and as that which, in part for that reason, is beyond their reach and understanding – is also the Other of Britain. In psychological terms, if an individual represses a part of themselves and their history that they think of as unacceptable and inappropriate to express openly and socially, that part doesn’t in fact cease to exist, even if the individual’s conscious mind has succeeded in erasing all trace of it, and can no longer access the reality of that suppressed experience through deliberate thought and language. That part of themselves thereby becomes their ‘Other’: their repressed, unconscious selves that the conscious mind won’t and can’t recognise but sees as alien and unreal. The Other is the part of the individual that they have to suppress in order to think of themselves and to function as who they think they ‘are’. But in reality, those individuals cannot be whole persons until they are able to come to an understanding of and reconnect to the hidden parts of their selves and their histories.

So it is with England. The British establishment has suppressed its own deep roots in English identity and history because it projected onto England all the bad aspects of its own society, politics and history; and because it acted in the interests of redistributing power in a way that appeared more equitable than the England-dominated past, even while in fact continuing to exercise the same sovereign power that it previously wielded in England’s name. In other words, England had to die in order to be resurrected as Britain – but a Britain that, in order to be Britain, refuses and is incapable of acknowledging the England it still profoundly contains within it.

So England is Britain’s Other, whose name it cannot speak for fear that it might recognise itself in it. England is indeed both a ‘part’ and the whole of Britain: the part that in reality it needs to reaffirm as part of itself in order to be whole again. Otherwise, if the voice and identity of England cannot find expression within a Britain that would rather pass over it in silence, they will find expression in ways that could destroy the cohesion and survival of Britain itself as a political entity – just as, in an individual, unwanted traits and experiences end up being acted out in a more self-destructive manner if they are repressed indefinitely.

Well, this is a nice analytical model; but where does it leave us in practical terms? In particular, I’m wondering whether I should bother continuing to send off my complaint emails to the BBC every time they flagrantly ignore the England-specific nature of a story or policy announcement. If I do carry on, I certainly shouldn’t expect them to see reason, in the sense that, in my view, it is a simple case of reporting things in such a way that the public in different ‘parts’ of the UK know whether and how a story affects them. That’s what an ‘impartial’ public broadcaster is supposed to do, isn’t it?

But the responses I’ve received, as exemplified by Mr Webb’s email, reveal that the BBC appears not to see it that way. Perhaps they actually believe they’re carrying out their remit to report a story impartially by not making a point of saying ‘the Conservatives’ draft manifesto for the NHS in England’ or the ‘Liberal Democrats’ policy for childcare and education in England’ if the parties themselves choose not to spell this out.

More fundamentally, though, the BBC doesn’t see this as a serious enough issue, in my view, because they are a prime embodiment and propagator of the new Britain-centric political discourse and vision of the ‘nation’ that I’ve been describing. Despite Mr Webb’s comparison of the English-NHS story with an item of ‘regional’ news, the Corporation didn’t feel it was necessary to point out that the Tories’ proposals affected England only because they saw it as not just a ‘national’ story but a British story: about one of the national-British parties’ policies at the UK election for the ‘British NHS’, which were therefore of interest and relevance to the ‘whole country’. OK, ‘they’ – or some members of the various editorial teams involved – may have been dimly aware that, in fact, the policies related to England alone. But this fact would have been regarded as almost tangential and not worthy of being mentioned. The reason for this is that, for the BBC and the political establishment, there are really no such things as ‘English stories’ or ‘English politics’, but only British stories that happen, in some instances, to affect England only because of devolution but which are ‘British’ nonetheless because the nation itself is called ‘Britain’ and there is no such thing, officially, as ‘England’. These are, in short, ‘British’ policies that apply to a territory sometime known as ‘England’, and not ‘English policies’.

So the hard truth that I feel I’m perceiving more clearly now is that, for the British political and media establishment, the nation is Britain, and England does not exist: for them, England is merely the historic name for a part of Britain and a (British) cultural identity to which some remain sentimentally attached. England, in sum, is not present: neither ‘real’ in any objective, meaningful sense; nor ‘in the present’ (because it’s part of (British) history); nor represented in national politics (nor needing to be); nor requiring a mention when presenting ‘national’ policies.

Hitherto, my response to what I’ve called in this blog the establishment’s ‘Britology’ (the fabrication of a new British Nation as a sort of fiction: a creation of official and politically sanctioned discourse, language and symbolism) has preceded from the assumption that the ‘real’ nation that the fiction was intended to obfuscate and suppress was England, and that the establishment knew, more or less, what it was doing: a deliberate, politically led suppression of English national identity and pride. I’ve assumed that people generally knew that it was a lie, that they could see through it, and that the embargo of silence imposed on the word ‘England’ was really a conspiracy of silence maintained by all those who stood to gain from it: the established media and political parties.

But now I’m beginning to think that the establishment genuinely believes its own myths: that it’s not so much a case of collusion in the denial of England but shared delusion that England doesn’t exist. I think this is what we’re up against: not just the full weight of British political power but the power of a sort of collective psychosis. That may be too extreme a word to use. But really, I think there’s no alternative other than to conclude that powerful psychological forces such as repression (relegating unpalatable truths to the unconscious mind) are at work here if you are to really understand the systematic way in which all references to England are occulted from official documents, party-political pronouncements and media reports that relate to England alone; and the way that, when challenged, representatives of the organisations in question simply don’t get it: they genuinely don’t appreciate the significance and relevance of the omission of references to England.

Let’s put it this way: those of us who do love and value England, and see ourselves as English, of course think of England as a real nation. Therefore, when we notice that news stories and policies relating to England are presented as if they related to (the whole of) Britain, we think a mistake is being made: a deliberate mistake, intended to mislead, by the parties; and, if we’re being charitable, we think this is an oversight or error of omission on the part of the media for not picking the parties up on it. But if you try to get inside the mindset and assumptions of the Britological establishment, then you realise that they think England isn’t real and doesn’t exist; so that, for them, there are only British policies and stories at ‘national’ level. So saying that some of them relate to ‘England’ isn’t just a slightly irrelevant nicety but actually a non-sequitur: how can policies affect a non-existent country? For them, all policies are ‘British’ and relate only to ‘Britain’.

Devolution, as understood from this position, works like this: ‘all policies of the UK government relate to “Britain”; it’s just that some parts of Britain make their own policies in certain areas’. So ‘Britain’ is the name and identity of the nation, whether you’re talking just of the part (which we like to call England) or the whole. From this point of view, it isn’t deceitful to present policies affecting England only as ‘British’, because there is only Britain.

So I think we’re up against a government and establishment that not only refuses to recognise the right of the English nation to determine its own form of government, but which both refuses and – more profoundly – is incapable of recognising the very existence of an English nation. The new unofficial official map of the United Kingdom, for them, is one of a single, united Nation (‘Britain / the UK’), three parts of which are partially self-governing regions with a distinct national character: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England simply isn’t in the picture.

English nationalists are therefore inevitably not just campaigning for an English parliament but for recognition of England as a nation. Optimistically, you might say that the latter will flow from the former: if we manage to secure an English parliament, this will automatically entail official recognition that England is a distinct nation. But I would tend to put it the other way: we have first to win recognition of England as a nation for an English parliament even to be a realistic option on the table. If the establishment can’t even engage with relatively trivial and obvious complaints about omission of references to England in England-only policies and news reports, how can they be expected to seriously entertain calls for an English parliament? How can you have a parliament for a nation that doesn’t exist?

Maybe things are shifting more than I’m suggesting. It’s just that the wave of recent pre-election policy statements, in which the failure by the parties and media to mention their England-only character has been so gross, has depressed me a bit and made me wonder whether the powers that be will ever change. But it’s possible that change is nonetheless proceeding among the population as a whole and that, despite its inability to engage with any sort of English question, the establishment is getting increasingly isolated in its views from the people, who do think of themselves as English and want a government that cares about England and its needs. Maybe this is indeed the unspoken truth about the outbreak of disaffection towards the political class that was sparked off by the parliamentary-expenses scandal last year: that it reflects not just the ‘British public’s’ demand for a more accountable politics but the outrage of the English people at a British establishment that is pursuing its own agenda and interests without regard to the priorities, values and identity of the English nation. Perhaps England was the unspoken Other of this story, yet again.

So what do we do about the silence towards England that the establishment politicians and media would like to use to consign England to the dustbin of history? Well, the one thing we don’t do, even if tempted to, is fall silent ourselves. We have to keep on speaking out against it and asserting the right of England to be named, and so to exist. Keep on chipping away at the establishment armour – it might prove to be made of fragile porcelain rather than hardened steel.

As for me, I will keep complaining about unjustified omissions of ‘England’ where it should be mentioned, although I might vary the tactics a bit: not just write off to the BBC but consider other avenues, and also just ask them straight out why they chose not to mention that the policies or story in question related only to England? We’ve got to keep on gnawing away at their conscience and inserting ‘England’ into their consciousness, from which they’d rather relegate it.

Remember, apartheid South Africa and the Soviet dominion in Eastern Europe both collapsed at lightening speed after previously seeming as immovable as rocks. And that’s because the rot had set in from within: both systems were predicated on lies and on the denial of people’s right to freedom, democracy and national self-determination. Similarly, if the people continue moving away from the British establishment edifice by identifying as English and demanding a true national-English democracy, then that edifice may prove to be built on foundations of sand, not rock.

I for one, then, will not let England be an unspoken Other.

5 October 2009

The mother of all conspiracy theories: Blair for president, Mandelson for PM and Britain for the Euro

If you’re one for conspiracy theories, here’s one to keep you awake at night.

It’s already practically certain that Tony Blair will be appointed as the EU’s first president as soon as all 27 EU states have ratified the Lisbon Treaty. After the ‘yes’ vote in the got-it-wrong-do-it-again Irish referendum on Friday, only the Czech Republic and Poland have yet to sign above the dotted line, and this is expected to happen before the British general election, scheduled for May or June 2010. President Sarkozy of France is reported to have given his blessing for Blair to be shoe-horned into the post; and Angela Merkel is thought to be resigned to the idea.

Thinking about why Sarkosy would endorse Tony as president, it occurred to me that the plan might be to replace the so-called special relationship between Britain and the US with a new special relationship between the EU (headed up by the darling of the US political class, Tony Blair) and the US. In other words, Blair would be the ideal candidate to give the new EU job real clout in the international community, positioning the EU to become a global player in its own right.

Then I came across an article in the Mail Online that suggests that President Obama and other world leaders are planning to set up a new club of the world’s leading economies called the G4, comprising the US, Japan, China and the Eurozone countries. This certainly fits in with the idea that other EU countries want the EU itself to be elevated into a major world power in its own right.

The final piece in the jigsaw was suggested to me by a report in the Mirror, which indicated that Jack Straw’s House of Lords-reform bill will indeed remove the existing ban on lords becoming MPs for five years after resigning as lords. It had previously been mooted that this bill would remove the last impediment to Peter Mandelson’s glorious return to the House of Commons, and here was the confirmation.

So here’s the scenario: Mandelson is found a nice safe Labour seat at the general election as the heir apparent to Brown in the likely event that Labour loses. Or else, more sinister still, an incumbent Labour MP for a safe seat falls on his or her sword before the election allowing Mandelson to become an MP and then mount a coup to oust Brown; so we’d have Labour being led into the election by Prime Minister Mandelson. This would coincide with Tony Blair’s elevation to the EU presidency. If, by that time, the plan to form the G4 is on the way to fruition, the Labour Party would have a much stronger argument at the election for saying that Britain needs to remain at the heart of the EU in order to continue to have a powerful voice in the key economic decisions. They’d be able to claim with some credibility that a Mandelson premiership would be best placed to achieve such results given his long friendship with Blair, and his EU contacts and experience as the EU’s Trade Commissioner. They would certainly argue that a Euro-sceptic Tory government intent on renegotiating the terms of the Lisbon Treaty would marginalise Britain still more at the EU and global top tables. Indeed, Mandelson would be able to push for Britain’s entry into the euro, making it part of the Eurozone group of economies represented in the G4. Certainly, if the value of the pound continues to fall, thanks to Gordon Brown’s borrowing on our behalf, and drops below the euro, the economic arguments in favour of Britain joining the euro could become compelling.

And what of Gordon Brown himself? Perhaps he could then become the Eurozone’s special representative in G4 negotiations and day-to-day co-ordination of economic affairs: a reward for having damaged the British economy so much that it had to join the euro.

Even if Mandelson doesn’t succeed in ousting Brown before the election, as leader of the opposition, he could greatly reduce Prime Minister Cameron’s room for manoeuvre in his dealings with the EU, especially with his mate Tony in the hot seat there. And if Brown is given an influential role in the G4 or G20, it could make it very difficult to hold a referendum on Britain’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Apart from anything else, it could be argued that we need big hitters like Blair and Brown batting for Britain at the heart of the EU and the G4 grouping; and if Britain withdrew from Lisbon, or even from the EU, then not only would Blair have to resign as EU president, but Britain would have no influence whatsoever.

But what those idiots don’t realise is that were they to achieve, or even just attempt to achieve, these objectives through such machinations, this would only demonstrate still more the importance of Britain, or at least England, pulling away from the EU, as this is the only way to preserve our sovereignty and freedom from an unaccountable EU and corrupt, power-hungry politicians such as Mandelson, Blair and Sarkozy.

The stakes could not be much higher. What prospect would there be of establishing self-government for England as a distinct nation if Britain itself loses control over the management of its economy and signs away its sovereignty through the Lisbon Treaty / EU Constitution, which contains an in-built mechanism for transferring ever greater powers to the EU Parliament and Council of Ministers?

All the more reason to vote for a party that will give us a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty at the very least, if not EU membership. But are the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (who, as far as I can tell, still support a referendum on British membership of the EU) going to stand up and be counted?

3 May 2008

Cameron will win: it’s a generation game

I’ve been privately participating in the fever of speculation there’s been over the past few days – particularly since Labour’s local election debacle on Thursday – as to whether the tide of political fortunes has now turned back in the Tories’ favour, meaning they’ll win the next general election. Initially, I was sceptical about David Cameron’s prospects, as the Tories’ resurgence seems to be dependent more on people rejecting New Labour and Gordon Brown [GB] than on support for the Conservatives’ programme – whatever that might turn out to be. However, after the local election results, which saw Labour drop to third position on share of the votes behind the Liberal Democrats, and a consistent nationwide swing towards the Tories, I feel that, maybe, Cameron could just pull it off at the general election, which will take place probably in 2010.

Thinking about it further, there’s another reason why I think Cameron will win. This is my theory of generational evolution of society, or, putting it more simply, the way social changes are influenced by successive generations. I’m sure professional sociologists have developed a more scientific version of this idea, presumably with a technical name to boot; so I’m pretty sure this is not an ‘original’ theory, if such a thing exists in any absolute sense. However, if it is, I hereby dub it the ‘political generation game theory’, on the analogy of the amateur contestants of the immortal Bruce’s show who had to imitate the dazzling skills of professionals of one sort or another.

What the idea is, in essence, is that particular periods of a nation’s history – often defined or named in relation to the dominant political personality associated with it – have a character that is determined to a large extent as a function of the periods that immediately preceded them and the period before that. More precisely, each period is a reaction to the one before, which draws its inspiration in large part from the period before that. And it does this because the people who are most influential in shaping the character of any given age – the political, business and media opinion formers and decision makers – spent their most formative years (say, between the ages of about 10 and 19) in the period preceding the period in relation to which they are defining themselves.

An example: ‘the Blair years’ and New Labour were clearly in part a reaction to / against ‘Thatcherism’ and the period of ruthless market economics that is denoted by that term. And it was a reaction that represented in part a reprise of the social-democratic Labour that had been in power for much of the 1960s and 1970s, which was precisely the period in which the leaders in society during the Blair years spent their formative years. With the difference that the New Labour period was also a continuation of Thatcherism, which had in a sense laid the economic and political foundations for Blair’s social-democratic ‘redistributive capitalism’ to actually work – whereas the economic stagnation and political / union antagonisms of the 1970s had thwarted Labour’s ambitions to create a successful, prosperous welfare state. So what we got under Blair was a new blend of social democracy and market economics: social-market economics; equality of opportunity mutating into ‘equality of market opportunity’: the goal of government being to free up people to participate more fully in, and reap the rewards from, the market society (society as a market).

Similarly, you could say that Thatcherism itself was a reaction against the whole political and social model of the Wilson and Callaghan years: initially, the idealistic 1960s, with the vision of a socially and morally freer and more equal world, underpinned by economic prosperity and technological developments that enabled people to have a bloody good time, and enjoy hitherto only dreamt-of material and physical pleasures; later, collapsing into the cynicism and recriminations of the 1970s as the downward economic cycle and spiralling inflation caused industries to collapse, and engendered strife in the workplace, on the football terraces and in the inner cities as people sought scapegoats for the fact that living the good life was increasingly unrealistic.

The Thatcherite reaction to all that was indeed a reinstatement of the Tory values from the 1950s, when many of the leaders of the 1980s were in their ‘tens’ (aged 10 to 19): the individual standing on their own two feet and creating prosperity through their own hard work and enterprise – rather than just expecting a good standard of living to be handed to them effortlessly on a plate by their employer or the state. And yet, Thatcherism also carried forward much of the ethos and attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s: the anti-union and anti-industrial-working-class antagonisms on the part of the Thatcher government were in a sense the continuation of the 1970s industrial unrest, with the difference that Thatcher took on and saw off the unions, whereas Callaghan tried to instil reason in them through comradely beer and sandwiches at No. 10. Similarly, the materialistic individualism and hedonism of the ‘I’ve-got-money’ 1980s was a continuation, in the selfish-capitalist Thatcherite mode, of the increasingly cynical, materialistic direction that originally idealistic 1960s explorations of self-fulfilment and sexual freedom had followed in the 1970s.

So what of David Cameron, then? Are we about to enter into the ‘Cameronite’ reaction against Blairism and its feeble successor / continuation that is GB; just as the ineffectual Major saw out the dying phase of the Thatcherite period, and Callaghan stood watch over the waning of the initially optimistic Wilson Labour years – all prime ministers that took over mid-term from leaders that had really set the political tone for a whole period, but whose increasing unpopularity was a sign, perhaps, that one period was on its way out and the new epoch was about to begin?

If so, then a putative Cameron era, following my theory, should be both a continuation of some aspects of the preceding period (the Blair / Brown epoch), and a harking back to and blend of some aspects of the period before that, during which the leaders of the new age were growing up – which, in the case of Cameron’s relatively youthful team, was mainly the Thatcher years. Incidentally, the fact that it is now being said that people are no longer ‘scared’ of the Tories, for all Cameron’s charm, probably owes more to the fact that the people in the worlds of politics, business and the media who are, as it were, ‘of the same age’ as Cameron (or younger, as are many in his team) and are preparing his coronation grew up under Thatcher and would have regarded her attitudes and politics as normal, not as a grim assault on so much that my generation (growing up in the 1970s: the latter end of the ‘Blair generation’) held dear.

But we’ve already had the Thatcher ‘revival’: that was Tony Blair – Thatcherism with a socially caring face. And that’s part of the problem faced by David Cameron’s Conservatives (the ‘New Tories’ in all but name): they want to be ‘Conservatism with a caring face’ but Blair has already done that. So perhaps they’ll just have to reverse the paradigm and become ‘a caring society with a Thatcherite face’, perhaps?

The difference between these two terms can perhaps best be illustrated by the ambiguity of the ‘tag line’ – as the marketing bods might put it – for Cameron’s party philosophy: ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’. ‘Modern’ and ‘compassionate’: here are two words that could have been plucked straight from Blair’s vocabulary; and they sit comfortably – naturally almost – alongside ‘Conservatism’. Indeed, Conservatism has always been associated with the idea of compassion (of the wealthy) for the poor, and with social, philanthropic responsibility towards them. So this conveys the idea of classic, one-nation Conservatism (the Conservatism before Thatcher) – which in one sense was the space in the political spectrum that Blairism inhabited – but modernised in keeping with the challenges of today.

On the other hand, if you just insert a comma into the phrase, as follows – ‘modern, compassionate Conservatism’ – it changes the whole meaning. Syntactically, ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’ suggests a ‘compassionate Conservatism – single concept: one-nation conservatism – that is modern’. ‘Modern, compassionate Conservatism’, on the other hand, implies a ‘modern Conservatism, one of whose distinguishing features is that it is also compassionate’; in contradistinction to a previous form of Conservatism – Thatcherism – that is perceived as having lacked compassion. But by implication, this could suggest that the modern, compassionate Conservatism is also an updated, more compassionate version of Thatcherism itself. So this tag line is appealing to all three strands: modern, ‘Blairite’ care and compassion for the poor and disadvantaged in society (in keeping with the traditions of one-nation Conservatism) that also draws on all that was ‘good’ about Thatcherite Conservatism – its effectiveness, leadership qualities, appeal to English-British people’s distrust of state interference and ‘nannying’, and their wish to provide the best for themselves and their families, using their own skills and hard work, whether in material comforts, housing, health or education.

This in essence is the appeal of Cameron. On the one hand, he’s Blair Plus: embodying all that’s ‘good’ about Blair (the concern to alleviate society’s ills), but if anything pushed even further. Instead of Blair’s reform agenda, which in essence was economic reform (instilling market principles into the public services), we have a social reform policy. Instead of merely tinkering with the benefits system, attempting to provide more efficient public services and carrying out a bit of inner-city regeneration, Cameron’s Conservatives have set out their stall as a party that’s really trying to get to the bottom of what has caused the collapse of stable, responsible society in so many of our cities, and have so far come up with a rather traditional Conservative answer: that it’s about the break-down of the two-parent family, the absence of father figures, and the lack of discipline at school and in the home. And what is seen as being absent in such social contexts are the very values that Cameron is trying, in more neo-Thatcherite mode, to invoke as being at the heart of his political programme: individual and collective responsibility for making things better, rather than relying on central targets and the nanny state to deliver the improvements.

The initial outline of the vision that we were given at the Tory party conference last autumn suggested that one of the forms this new affirmation of the Thatcherite principles of personal moral responsibility for improving the things that matter to you in life could take was that of ‘local privatisation’: rolling back the frontiers of government and public-sector ownership and control not just at a national level but at the local level where people are users – ‘consumers’ – of services. So, for instance, rather than the Blairite approach of setting out a single blueprint for introducing market principles into schools and hospitals, which often meant putting them directly or indirectly in the hands of major corporate enterprises, the Cameron policy could well involve local people themselves taking managerial responsibility for their schools and hospitals – whether in the form of continuing public ownership of some sort (for instance, through trusts), or by actually establishing new schools (or taking over existing ones?) as businesses in which local people could take out shares and which would genuinely have to compete for private and public funding – while service levels were guaranteed, perhaps, through some form of charter and contractual agreement with local authorities.

To some extent, the finer details of this are just speculation, as the Conservatives have yet to outline their specific policies. But it’s informed speculation based on Tory statements, and reports into things like the family and the problems of the inner cities they’ve already produced; but also based on this generational theory of mine: that the Tories have this dual motivation to carry out the social-market agenda of Tony Blair more effectively and profoundly, and to do so in a way that resurrects the best principles of the Thatcherism they grew up under. This involves the idea of empowering and motivating ordinary individuals and communities to take responsibility for improving their lives by giving them a stake and a real say in the things that are most important to them. I think that however these fundamentals of ‘Cameronism’ are translated into tangible policy, they will help the Tories to win the next election because the people who are most influential in shaping public opinion were formed under Thatcher and want to see a return to her values of self-reliance and of the public taking private ownership of, literally, their own public services.

Looking at the massive nationwide swing to the Tories in this week’s local elections, the psephologists have come out with their usual meaningless predictions about how a general election would turn out on the same shares of the vote: a Tory landslide, with a possible 150-seat majority. What if this did happen, though? Would this mean, as Anthony Barnett of the OurKingdom blog put it, that “any democratic reform agenda is now in jeopardy”? The point is, if Cameron did win a comfortable outright parliamentary majority, he could – and probably would – ignore all the widespread support and calls for constitutional and institutional reform, such as a more accountable parliament (better still an English parliament), reform of the House of Lords, PR, a genuine bill of rights that protects civil liberties, and even an English Grand Committee to discuss England-only bills (why bother if the Tories have a majority both of English and UK-wide MPs?). Cameron might be a social and economic reformer at local level, but at national political level, it would not be in the perceived interests of his government or his party to do a single thing.

Cameron is no more interested in addressing the English Question, nor even in uttering the word ‘England’, than is GB. When Cameron talks of ‘our nation’, he means ‘Britain’ not England, even if the policies that are being discussed relate to England alone. Indeed, he has gone on record, in a Telegraph interview a few months back, as saying he’s not interested in being a PM for England – even though that’s what he effectively will be in most of his domestic agenda. And there seems little difference in the Tories’ description of their ‘responsibility agenda’ below from Brown’s emphasis on Britishness and his bringing together of the formulation of citizens’ rights with prescriptions about, and enforcement of, their responsibilities: “To make the most of the new world of freedom, we need to strengthen the structures which bring stability and a sense of belonging: home, neighbourhood and nation. Our Responsibility Agenda will therefore include Green Papers on welfare reform, health, marriage and relationships, addiction and debt, responsible business, social care, cohesion, and National Citizenship Service” (my emphases).

Like I said, the Cameron era will in many respects be a continuation of the Blair / Brown period. And it seems that the efforts to articulate, formalise and impose prescriptive definitions of (British) national identity and citizenship / responsibilities will be part of the baggage that is carried forward. I suppose that that’s also part of the Conservative unionist tradition and the British-nationalist Thatcherite legacy that the Cameron era will reaffirm; so there’s a ‘natural fit’ there between Brown’s wrapping of himself in the Union Flag and the New Conservatives.

There’s no doubt that the Conservative values, and the generational swing back to them, that Cameron appeals to are also in many respects English values: self-reliance, freedom from government interference, private ownership and enterprise, social responsibility and neighbourliness, and fairness towards the ‘poorest’ in society – as the Conservatives’ website continually refers, somewhat patronisingly, to the working class. And, in this respect, if English voters are largely responsible for electing a Conservative government with a large majority next time, then they can hardly complain when that government ignores the demand for an English parliament – except, of course, that government won’t have been elected by a majority of English voters; and if none of the major parties are even vaguely talking about the possibility of an English parliament, then the English people aren’t being offered the chance of voting for one.

This raises the possibility that the best hope for representative democratic English governance, accountable to the people of England, could again come from Scotland. Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales are unlikely to swing towards Cameron’s Conservatives to the same extent as the English. This could mean an increasing polarisation between ‘Tory England’, and nationalist and Labour Scotland and Wales, potentially resulting in growing antagonism and political divergence between England and the rest of the UK. Together with pressure in England to reduce the Barnett differentials (the formula guaranteeing Scotland and Wales a higher per capita level of public expenditure than the English), this could really give the Scottish-nationalist cause a massive shot in the arm. And, who knows, there might yet be a Scottish referendum that would say ‘yes’ to independence.

Cameron’s Conservatives, by continuing Brown’s Britishness crusade, might well yet set the seal on the Union’s demise. In which case perhaps, in ten years’ time, we might all be saying, along with Bruce (the English one, that is), “didn’t they do well?”

26 February 2008

Who does this country belong to, anyway?

Whatever the whys and wherefores of the Michael Martin expenses row (the Speaker of the House of Commons, who has been accused of abusing the code of conduct on MPs’ expenses at the same time as he is leading an enquiry into expenses abuses), I thought the vociferous “hear, hear” of support he obtained from MPs as he cried “Order, order” at the start of yesterday’s proceedings – coupled with one MP saying they weren’t going allow journalists to dictate Commons appointments – smacked of arrogance. What were they actually defending, at the end of the day: their own privileges, including a cushy expenses regime that would never be tolerated in business; or the interests of democracy – parliament and its elected members as representing the will of the people, not to be overridden by a bunch of reckless, cynical journalists? It came across strongly as the former.

The trouble is that MPs do appear to think that parliament’s debates, decisions and procedures represent a forum through which the nation as such is authentically represented and its will is expressed: that parliament’s view of the legitimacy and moral authority of its proceedings still carries the assent and the trust of the people. Clearly, parliamentarians – like many others – are well aware that there is a serious problem of mistrust towards politicians and disengagement from the political process. But they seem to want to pass a lot of the blame for this onto others, such as the media, rather than re-examining the process itself and putting their own house in order.

We like to think we have the world’s greatest parliamentary democracy; but the truth of the matter is that our government isn’t very democratic, in the sense of representing people power. Parliament generally seems more like a rubber stamp setting a seal of approval on policies and laws driven by the executive, for which often little understanding or assent on the part of the public either exists or is sought. In this way, the scrutiny of parliament is a poor substitute for genuine public consultation, in the sense of a concerted effort to inform people of the details of proposed legislation and to win their support. There is no need for the executive to do this when it can simply rely on the Commons majority of a compliant government party commanding an ever smaller minority of the popular vote.

Not only does the government not need to strive to achieve popular assent for its decisions, it is also not answerable to anything such as a nation. It is no wonder that the people are disengaging from Westminster politics when they no longer identify with, and as, the nation the Westminster parliament supposedly represents. Not only are the people – reasserting their various identities as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish – different from the one that parliament sees itself as representing (the British people); but also parliament no longer represents the people of Britain in a uniform, unitary way. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs defend the interests of their constituents and nations insofar as these are affected by the Union government; and they also vote on English matters in certain policy areas where they cannot influence policy for their own constituencies and countries (because these have been devolved to separate national bodies). By contrast, all the parliamentary votes cast by English MPs do relate to their own constituencies; but no distinction in kind is made between what are truly England-only decisions and which matters relate to the UK as a whole, so as to legitimise the participation of non-English MPs in the same decisions.

In other words, although the responsibilities of all MPs are the same (Union-wide and England-specific policy and laws), the non-English MPs are not accountable to any electorate on the England-only matters. Instead, they are elected by non-English people who select them on the basis of the parties’ policies for the Union as a whole, i.e. on which set of policies will be better for them, their local areas and their countries. So legislation and policies for England are supported by MPs elected by non-English voters whose voting decisions are influenced by non-English priorities. Meanwhile, English voters have only one vote for both Union-wide matters and England-specific issues; in contrast to their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts, who can choose between two distinct parties and programmes for their own country and for the Union as a whole. This inequality and distortion of representative democracy is covered up by a pretence common to all the parties, whereby, in manifestoes, policy statements and parliamentary debate, everything is treated and referred to as a generic British matter, even if it is English only.

This means that England is governed by a British parliament that is not accountable to it: it includes Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs not elected in England; and the English MPs are not elected on the basis of English manifestoes, as half the policies are UK-wide, and the half that are England-specific are not represented as such – not differentiated from the UK even though in reality they are.

So the Union does not exist any more – if the Union is defined as a unitary parliamentary democracy in which every person’s vote is equal and brings the same degree of representation, and in which parliament is accountable to all to the same extent. The will of the English people is not represented by this parliament – even less, that is, than is the will of the other more fairly represented nations of the UK. Instead, we have a growing divide between the will of the people and government power: British power is exercised over the people of England by parliament; rather than English power being exercised for and by the people of England through parliament. And parliament and the executive are indeed enamoured of this British power: the idea of being in charge of Britain as a major ‘world power’ – militarily, economically and culturally – boosted by the magnificence, traditions and privileges of Westminster and Whitehall that hark back to, and appear to prolong, the glories of Empire. Who can participate in such rituals and bask in such splendour, and not be carried along by the glamour of real power and the myths of British parliamentary democracy, especially as parliament is so unaccountable to the electorate and divorced from their real priorities?

In this way, MPs persuade themselves that the bills and policies they support express the will of the nation: swept along by the democratic process, they unwittingly or deliberately ignore the fact that that process is no longer in alignment with the people’s needs and choices. England is, in perhaps three senses, ‘over-ruled’ by Britain. Or another way of putting this is that the British parliament and state mis-represent England: represent England insufficiently democratically, and misrepresent England and the governance of England as if it were a unitary process of British governance for which they had a transparent mandate, which they do not. As I have described this elsewhere, this is an appropriation (a mis-appropriation) of England and English democracy to Britain: England should belong to the people of England; but instead, it’s been made the property and, as it were, the province of the British state – no longer a country in its own right and rights, but governed by a state and by representatives of other UK countries that are not answerable to it.

What are the ramifications beyond the Westminster village of this dispossession of England as a democratic nation? Are we English secure in the knowledge that our country is in the safe hands of leaders who care about England and its rights, and do not wish to exercise unrepresentative and disproportionate power over it? Well, no. Do we feel, more fundamentally, that the government and the political process belong to us – well, not exactly: we’ve become accustomed to putting up with a British government that very often looks after the interests of national and sectarian minorities (whether the working class, traditionally, under Old Labour, middle-class England under the Tories, and Wales and Scotland under New Labour) rather than seeking the backing of a clear majority of the English population for policies relating to England.

More pervasively, do we feel the nation and even the local areas we live in really belong to us; that we actually live in England rather than in some parallel universe of Britain where major decisions are taken by central, and also local, government that we haven’t elected, and all the signs and symbols of the state are those of one that is not fully ours? Do the streets belong to us; do communities, media, official / PC language, social administration and the public sector – indeed, all public facets of our lives? Are they English?

Is the much-famed obsession of the English with privacy and domesticity in one respect a reflection that we do not feel that the public domain belongs to us; that our country doesn’t belong to us? How much of the alienation of many young people can be traced to their not feeling that their education, upbringing and experiences have given them a sense of belonging where they live or that they have a stake in society? And how much of this is to do with that society being shaped by the British values of personal aspiration and success, rather than cherishing individuals as they are: often flawed and damaged but capable of re-building community and healing the hurts caused by the relentless pursuit of competitiveness and economic growth? And how much is the lack of pride and care we so often show towards our surroundings and neighbours to do with no sense of mutual belonging and dependency?

Such things cannot be restored by a British government alienated from, and unaccountable to, England; that does not even call it by its name. But England can recover its pride – if first it empowers its people.

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