Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

18 October 2007

Who doesn’t want a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty, and why?

OK, so I’m being politically and legally correct, and am referring to the treaty that the EU Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) today is going to attempt to reach agreement on as a reform treaty, not a constitution. My aim here is not to re-hash the debate as to whether the treaty is substantially the same or not as the EU Constitution that was rejected in referendums (technically, referenda if you know your Latin) in France and the Netherlands. This is a semantic distinction: whether or not you call the proposed treaty constitutional or not, it certainly relates to matters that are constitutional in nature, i.e. which affect the sovereignty, and legislative and executive powers, of the UK.

If the UK did have a written constitution, a referendum on the Treaty might well be mandatory, as it is in Ireland. It is only the Labour government’s so-called ‘red lines’, which (disputedly) guarantee the UK’s right to opt out of EU legislation and control in four fundamental areas, that enable the government to claim that the new treaty is not the same as the rejected Constitution and that therefore it is not to be held to its 2005 election-manifesto promise to hold a referendum on it. Clearly, the politics is paramount: if Mr Brown did refer to it as a constitutional treaty, he’d be forced to concede a referendum; therefore, because he doesn’t want a referendum, it’s ‘not a constitutional treaty’.

So why doesn’t Prime Minister Gordon Brown (or GB as I insist on calling him) want a referendum? If we can discount his alleged reason for ‘opting out’ of one – as indicated above – the main reasons appear to be as follows:

  1. He’s afraid of losing. GB has already demonstrated his aversion to losing votes by ducking out of an autumn general election when the polls started to suggest he might not win an outright majority. (See previous post.)
  2. It would turn into a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in general. The former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Menzies (Ming) Campbell, correctly identified the fact that a referendum on the Treaty would be rolled up into a more general debate about the direction in which the EU is heading and Britain’s aims in remaining, or not remaining, a member. The secret fear of the centre-left parties (Labour and the Lib Dems) is doubtless that a ‘no’ vote (a not unlikely outcome) would be seen by many as a vote to leave the EU. This would once again open up an argument that these parties would like to view as definitively settled; hence, Ming Campbell’s honesty in wanting to use a referendum to in fact settle it once and for all. Perhaps he calculated that, if the British people were confronted by the bigger choice of whether to keep the UK in the EU or to leave the EU, they would be swayed in favour of the former option and would then back the ongoing process of further integration with the EU.

David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, who is now calling for a referendum, is doubtless doing so also on the basis of a political calculation. He has clearly worked out that the government will resist these calls and that the Treaty will probably be voted through in parliament. If this happens, Cameron can claim that the Tories are the one party that has held the Labour Party to account over its manifesto pledge and called for a referendum specifically on the Treaty, and can therefore reap the dividend in terms of electoral support. If parliament were to reject the Treaty (highly unlikely, as this would require a sizeable Labour rebellion, the abstention – at the very least – of the Lib Dems, and the support of the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists: highly problematic, as we shall see), this would also provide an enormous boost to Cameron’s standing in the political media and the opinion polls.

On either outcome, Cameron is obviously calculating that the Tories will reap the benefits of popular support for a referendum. However, if they were subsequently elected into power at the next election, they might not be obliged to hold a referendum on the Treaty because, by that stage, it could already have been operating for two years, and a) the need for a referendum might no longer be perceived to be that great (if, in fact, no significant conflicts between EU decisions and the interests of the UK as interpreted by the government had arisen); and b) it could be presented as no longer practical; for instance, if it required a complicated process of re-negotiating Britain’s participation in the Treaty and its red lines. The Tories could then say that we just had to make the best of a bad job and that they would unflinchingly defend ‘British interests’ (you can hear the language already) within the previously agreed framework. And if they were pressured into holding a referendum, they could limit it to the Treaty rather than generalising it to EU membership per se. Which brings me to another benefit this whole affair has had for Cameron: it has enabled him to finally put to bed the damaging disputes between Europhiles and Eurosceptics within his party.

3) A referendum would open out a new front in the so-called English Question: the disproportionate role of Scottish and Welsh electors and political representatives in deciding matters affecting England. This is because the voters in Scotland and Wales are much more likely to support the Treaty, whereas the most probable result in England is a rejection. The additional ‘yes’ votes in Scotland and Wales (and in Northern Ireland, let’s not forget) could easily sway the result in favour of the Treaty. The main political parties – especially GB and the Labour Party – want to keep this dimension of the debate under wraps because of the huge issues that are at stake: they can’t concede that any referendum might in effect be two referenda [sorry, I’m a pedant] – one in England and one for the countries enjoying devolved government. If they conceded this fact, or if it was even aired in the media without their acknowledging it, this would make the existence of this post-devolution electoral anomaly in the House of Commons (where it is of course known as the West Lothian Question) even more glaring. And let’s not forget that in a House of Commons vote on the Treaty, it could well be the more Europhile Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs who would ensure that the Treaty is ratified. So we are once again confronted with a political debate carried out in GB Double-speak: where defence of perceived English concerns and interests cannot be acknowledged as such but can be articulated only in terms of ‘British interests’ and ‘Britain’s red lines’. Because in reality, this is only an English debate. Support for the Treaty and for greater integration with the EU is virtually a given in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and is certainly backed by the nationalist parties (see below). People in those countries aren’t nearly as bothered about the government’s red lines. People in England would like a vote on them all the same, thank you very much.

4) The government has its own domestic constitutional agenda, which it doesn’t want to be disrupted. Lest we forget, there is an ongoing UK constitutional-reform review headed up by Justice Minister Jack Straw. The government doesn’t want this to be rolled up into a broader constitutional debate by acknowledging that the EU Treaty has any constitutional implications. Given that a referendum would be bound to stir up this debate, and particularly the thorny English Question, best not admit that the Treaty is constitutional in its effects. The aim is clearly to get the discussion on the Treaty out of the way with a neat, quick parliamentary process of debate, review and whipped vote. Then the UK constitutional issues can be dealt with entirely separately. Not that any of us can or should pre-judge the proposals that Jack Straw and GB will come out with; but all the signs from what they’ve said and, more especially, not said, are that they are not going to offer any solution to the English or West Lothian Questions that is at all satisfactory to the majority of English people who take an active interest in democracy.

So much for GB’s objections to a referendum. Who else opposes it? The Scottish and Welsh nationalists, of course. At first sight, this could seem counter-intuitive in that some of the powers that could be transferred to the EU (and at least one of the government’s red lines that relate to those powers) are devolved ones: justice and home affairs (JHA) (to some extent, also, tax and benefits, as these are linked to the level set in England). The two other red lines involve retained powers: foreign affairs and security, and human rights. One might think, then, that on principle the Scottish and Welsh nationalists would back a referendum, as it would give the people of Scotland and Wales the chance to express their views on areas over which they currently have a direct democratic say (the devolved matters) as well as to make their opinions known on the retained, UK-wide matters.

This would in fact be the more principled position but is not one the nationalists have adopted. Why is this? In the short term, there could be two negative consequences for them if a referendum were held:

  1. They make a similar calculation to GB: they fear they could lose a referendum. What is more, having endorsed a referendum and then lost it primarily because of English votes, this would be a huge loss of prestige and could lead to an erosion of their support.

  2. This would involve them supporting and abiding by a UK-wide political process and democratic decision, which also affects devolved powers. This runs counter to the devolved power they have already achieved and their objective of gaining even more independence from Westminster.

In the long-term, the nationalist parties also have a strategy of supporting further integration of the UK with the EU, and further transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels, because this weakens the dependency of Scotland and Wales on UK institutions and government, and makes it more possible for Scotland and Wales to negotiate their own arrangements and status within the EU independently of Westminster. The nationalists clearly believe that this strategy is best served in the present by supporting the proposed Reform Treaty – preferably without but if necessary with the red lines – and, in exchange for their co-operation, trying to leverage the best deal possible for their countries in pursuit of their ultimate objective of full independence.

In this way, and not for the first time, the Labour government, while claiming to support legislation that is in the interests of the whole of the UK (i.e. the Treaty) and avoiding an argument that could destabilise the Union (the one between England, Scotland and Wales, that is), is in fact furthering the objectives of those who want to see the complete break up of the Union. In the first instance, this is the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. But this could also advance the cause of English nationalism (a cause to which I am sympathetic, by the way), because if England is denied a referendum on a Treaty that it might well have rejected, this will only stir up further resentment at the disproportionate influence of Scottish and Welsh politicians in pushing through the Treaty.

So now we have the unedifying spectacle of Scottish and Welsh nationalists lending their support to the detested UK government over a Treaty entered into by that government on their behalf, and which could diminish some of the devolved powers they’ve only just secured, because their support promotes their pursuit of perceived national self-interest.

Here’s what the SNP’s press release about the first IGC conference in July stated:

“Alyn Smith today welcomed the launch of the Inter-Governmental Conference on the proposed EU reform treaty. . . .

“Commenting on the launch Mr Smith said:

‘While welcoming the re-launch of this EU reform process as a way of making an EU of 27 member states work more efficiently and effectively, it is essential that those involved in the negotiations recognise that they must come forward with a text that truly reflects the aspirations and concerns of all of the EU’s peoples, including Scotland'”.

Very supportive of the UK government, I thought.

And here’s the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru’s statement of their Europe policy:

“Plaid Cymru strongly supports the creation of a more democratic European Union with a written constitution and a Charter of Fundamental Rights incorporated in the Treaty. . . .

“Plaid Cymru will:

  • Push for the right of direct appeal to the European Court, for example, as this could be highly relevant in challenging the United Kingdom’s refusal to apply the additionality principle to European funding.
  • Campaign for Wales to achieve full membership as a member-state of the EU.
  • Review the work of the Assembly’s European Committee with a view to improving its capacity to predict the effects of EU legislation and to scrutinise Assembly legislation arising from it.
  • Develop a multifunctional centre to act for Wales in Brussels. The Government of Wales Representation would be housed within this ‘embassy’, as would representatives of other relevant organisations”.

No wonder Plaid Cymru backs the (strictly non-constitutional, you understand) Treaty! And by the way, the technical-sounding ‘additionality’ principle, which appears so harmless, is the one whereby the government doesn’t use money from the EU Structural Funds spent in Wales to merely replace funding it would otherwise have taken from UK resources: that money should be additional to earmarked UK funding. So this is a sort of Barnett Formula+: the Barnett Formula being the one whereby the people of Scotland and Wales are already guaranteed a higher proportion of public expenditure per capita than the people of England. Sounds like the extra powers the European Court may get under the Treaty could come in handy, then!

What an alliance of the Great and the Not-So-Good is lined up against a referendum, then – and even those who back it (the Tories) are making a cynical calculation that there probably won’t be one! But England (yes, England, not Britain) should be allowed a referendum. It’s our democratic right. The UK parliament doesn’t adequately represent the interests of England in this matter, and a parliamentary vote in favour of the Treaty will not reflect the will of the English people. More damage to the Union can be the only consequence.

We deserve better. And who knows, England might even vote in favour of the Treaty – just as England might even have given GB the benefit of the doubt in a general election before he chickened out.

Let the Scottish and Welsh forge self-interested closer ties with the EU if they want to. But it’s also our right in England to decide our own future within Europe.

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8 October 2007

Never Mind About the Election, England; At Least You Beat the Aussies!

Funny that the BBC were allowed to release the news of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] decision not to call a general election at 4.30 on Saturday afternoon, even though the interview through which he chose to announce this fact to the nation wasn’t due to be aired till Andrew Marr’s 9 am programme on Sunday morning! Coincided neatly with England’s marvellous against-the-odds victory against Australia in the Rugby World Cup. I say ‘coincided’; but was this a coincidence? What do you think!

An ideal moment to bury bad news, to quote a phrase! Did GB think we in England might be feeling a little pissed off that, having had the carrot of booting Labour out of power dangled in front of us, we were now once again going to have to submit to the stick of a government we hadn’t chosen – hadn’t chosen, that is, either in an election this year or in 2005? Let’s remember the facts: Labour polled only 35.5% of the popular vote in England on a low turn-out in 2005, 0.2% less than the Tories. If the opinion polls that GB says had nothing to do with his decision not to call an autumn election are to be believed, the comfortable lead the Tories stood to gain in the crucial English marginals – the only real contest in the election – could have overturned Labour’s Commons majority. Probably not enough to give the Tories an outright majority in their turn; but then, we’d have had a hung parliament based entirely on the West Lothian anomaly: the fact that Scottish and Welsh MPs, a greater share of which would be Labour, could vote on England-only matters, i.e. on the only matters that mattered – on GB’s entire agenda for change and ‘vision for Britain’, which is in fact a programme for England – education, health, social services, law and order, etc.

If the timing of the announcement wasn’t intended to dampen the annoyance of English electors, who appeared to be turning away from GB in their droves, as they celebrated a national sporting triumph, why pick such a moment? Mr Marr could have been forgiven for being just a tad pissed off in his turn; his little scoop being given away before his Sunday broadcast. But then again, I suppose his audience must have shot through the roof when it was advertised that GB had chosen it as the platform to make his excuses. Plus, of course, it enhanced Mr Marr’s already dazzling reputation that the Great Man had chosen his Sunday morning slot to speak to the nation: England, that is – I’m sure Scotland was too interested in the outcome of its own Rugby quarter-final to be that bothered by an announcement that hardly affected it anyway.

All a bit cosy, really: two Scots chatting away about a UK election that would have been all about promoting a Scottish-Labour vision for England’s future. Too simplistic? Maybe, a little. But the election certainly would have had more than a little potential to bust open the glaring disparities between political opinion and philosophies north and south of the border; and the fact that GB’s continuing franchise as PM would have been hugely dependent on the Scottish and Welsh vote on matters not directly concerning the electorates in those countries. Note that Marr didn’t push GB on this issue (nor David Cameron, for that matter, whom he interviewed live in the studio after the recorded interview with GB). Is that because, in Andrew Marr, GB knew he had a natural Unionist ally: a ‘Britologist’, as I would call him, who believes in the British political and national project, and sees it as the best way to further Scottish national interests and a British-Republican vision? (See my post British Values or Scottish Values?)

Not that I’m saying that GB, too, is a republican, as well as Andrew Marr; at least, not avowedly so – he’s too realistic a politician to know that he couldn’t get away with that. But he is preparing a set of constitutional reforms, aided by his partner in crime Jack Straw. And we in England can rest assured that there will be no resolution of the West Lothian Question in whatever deal we are offered; or not offered, as it’ll be the current unrepresentative parliament that will be voting on it, not one we could have elected in November. After all, if there was a solution to the WLQ that still preserved a UK parliament, Mr Brown wouldn’t be able to vote on his own agenda. And it’s clear he values this more than the opinions of the English electorate.

Wonder what he’ll drop on us when we beat the French! (Oh, I know: definitely no referendum on the EU constitution, chaps!)

4 October 2007

Does David Cameron Believe In England?

Like his Labour adversary, David Cameron believes in Britain. While not recurring with quite the same hypnotic frequency as in Brown’s oration, the words ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ nonetheless appeared 25 times in Cameron’s 68-minute-long Conservative Party keynote speech yesterday. That compares with three references to ‘England’, one to Wales and none to Scotland.

Unlike Gordon Brown, then, David Cameron seems more reluctant to openly discuss his own Scottish origins, being of Scottish descent on his father’s side. Cameron did in fact refer to his parents: his father a stockbroker and mother a magistrate of long standing in the Berkshire county town of Newbury. He also acknowledged his education at Eton School, similarly in the Royal County of Berkshire. All very English and Home Counties, you might think. Was this reluctance to admit to his Scottish family background, and even to utter the words ‘Scotland’ and ‘Scottish’, linked to a wish to totally ignore the ‘English question’ and / or West Lothian question: the issue of whether the Tories are going to back any formula that will exclude Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on England-only matters, and ultimately whether a separate English parliament along the lines of those in Scotland and Wales should be established? If this subject is taboo in what could well turn out to be the Conservatives’ launch pad for a general election, this doesn’t bode well for serious discussion on the issue during the election campaign.

Cameron may not have mentioned Scotland but he did pronounce the ‘E’ word three times, as mentioned above. What was the import of these references? For me, they bespeak targeting Northern English swing seats, which is the Tories’ main hope for an electoral break-through. First reference, towards the beginning of the speech: “we are back in the North of England, a force to be reckoned with in every part of our country”. [Er, by ‘our country’, Mr Cameron, do you mean England or Britain as throughout the rest of your speech: Freudian slip there!] Second reference: anecdote illustrating problems of children’s behaviour in schools and teachers being hindered from imposing discipline, based on experience of when “I went and taught in a school for a couple of days in the north of England”. Third mention: the gym set up by Amir Khan (“the best boxer in England”) in Bolton as an illustration of the value to be gained from a national citizens’ service for young people.

So every single mention of England – and there weren’t that many – related to the North. You could infer from this that the Tories aren’t particularly interested in dealing with the specific concerns of their safe heartlands in the rural Midlands and the South; or, indeed, in addressing England as a whole. All they need do is focus on winning a certain number of marginals, especially in the North, and that could be enough to gain them outright power or at least to produce a hung parliament. Does this also imply that they don’t think they have much of a chance of making significant strides in either Scotland or Wales, with the nationalists and Labour slugging it out between them?

If an election is called, as now appears the most likely outcome, it will then effectively be an England-only vote for the Tories. But of course, they can’t openly admit that. Hence the pretence throughout Cameron’s speech that the prospective election will involve issues affecting the whole nation (i.e. Britain) in equal measure; and that the ambitions he laid out for things like education, the NHS, the social services and even tax related to Britain as a whole and not merely England.

To be fair, this pretence is perhaps less disingenuous on the part of the Tories than of Labour: in the unlikely event that the Tories did win an overall majority in the UK as a whole, based on a substantial majority in England, this would at least mean that parliamentary votes on England-only matters involving the participation of Scottish and Welsh MPs would still reflect the majority in England – at least, the majority in terms of number of MPs if not the actual wishes of the English electorate, unless the Tories did pull off the feat of obtaining more than 50% of the English vote. In the context of a run up towards a general election, when the Tories – like Labour – tend to set their sights on the prospect of a disproportionate overall UK majority, the West Lothian question becomes less pressing for the Tories. If they can win a UK majority (and the ‘message’ clearly is that this is their goal), then Malcolm Rifkind’s compromise solution of a Grand Committee of English MPs deciding on England-only matters would probably be sufficient to address the concerns of Conservative Party members and supporters about the West Lothian anomaly – until that majority is lost again, and the injustice and disproportionality of that anomaly can once again not be ignored.

So the Tories are potentially going into an election under the pretence that they are fighting for Britain as a whole; whereas, in reality, they will be fighting for control in and through England, and any real power they have to deliver their social agenda can be exercised only in England. But according to his speech, Mr Cameron doesn’t believe in governments controlling people but: “I think if we give people more power and control over their lives, I think they’ll take the right decisions, they will grow stronger and society will grow stronger too. I don’t believe in an ever larger state doing more and more, I believe in trying to make people do more themselves for their families and with society as well”.

This is all very well; but Mr Cameron certainly doesn’t seem willing to entertain the idea of letting the English people have more control over their lives by giving in to what opinion polls show is majority opinion in favour of an English parliament. When he came to spelling out the political meaning of this greater control people will enjoy over their own lives, Cameron completely side-stepped the whole issue of devolved government and referred only to a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty, to elected city mayors and to scrapping the regional assemblies in favour of county councils. This refusal to even acknowledge the difficulties caused by the current devolution arrangements and the issues around constitutional reform was completely disingenuous: spin in Tory mode.

Cameron might argue that this speech wasn’t the place for dealing with details of policy, although there were plenty of general policy commitments on a host of domestic and international issues. Just as Gordon Brown’s speech last week was his ‘vision thing’, so Cameron’s was a ‘belief thing’: the words ‘belief’ or ‘believe’ occurred 30 times; and the whole oration was framed as an attempt to answer people’s questions about what Mr Cameron believes in. And actually, when it comes down to it, these beliefs come across as remarkably similar to those of Gordon Brown, although there are some subtle but significant differences in the language and tone. Both men claim to believe in empowering the individual to achieve their personal goals and potential; and both consider that individuals also have responsibilities towards the rest of society. However, whereas Gordon Brown describes this in terms of maximising individual opportunity, meritocracy and social responsibility, Cameron talks of individual control and moral responsibility towards others (epitomised in the family) based on personal freedom and what could be termed the ‘sovereignty of the individual’: the view that if people are given real freedom to make their own decisions, these will generally be the right decisions, both morally and in terms of reflecting their needs and the needs of those for whom they are responsible. As Cameron himself summarised: “That’s what I believe. Giving people more power and control over their lives. Making society more responsible and families stronger”.

In short, this is a classic Tory message: a belief that society will become healthier, more cohesive and orderly, more prosperous and more participative if people are allowed to make their own decisions free from government interference – based essentially on a religious-type belief in the inherent goodness of human beings and personal ambition. And in passing, while on the subject of religion, I note that Mr Cameron did not refer once to England’s or Britain’s Christian traditions, or to the whole issue of tensions between different faith communities in the country, particularly Muslims (no mention of the word ‘Islam’; one reference to a ‘Muslim’ member of the Shadow Cabinet): like the English issue, another intractable question that couldn’t be allowed to tarnish Cameron’s avowedly ‘optimistic’ view of the world. Is Mr Cameron a Tory Christian, and is his programme for allowing individuals to exercise moral responsibility towards themselves and society inspired by Christian faith? Nothing inherently wrong if it is; but in a statement of beliefs, it would have been interesting to know. Perhaps Cameron the propagator of spin is unwilling to openly acknowledge the religious underpinning of his belief system in the same way as his Scottish background, both of which he uncomfortably shares with both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. And if Mr Cameron’s beliefs aren’t grounded in formal or informal religious convictions, on what does he base his hope for what he essentially describes as nothing short of a moral transformation of the country?

Of Britain, that is. Because Mr Cameron’s programme is – ostensibly – one for Britain as a whole; his beliefs embody a view of what Britain can and should be. Even though, in practical reality, he’s talking mostly of England alone. Mr Cameron says, “People want the politics of belief and that means politics they can really believe in”. But, so long as Mr Cameron cannot bring himself to utter the word England even while that is what he is talking about, I’m not sure I believe in his politics. Just as I’m not sure that he really believes in England.

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