Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

27 September 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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24 September 2008

In case you hadn’t heard, Mr Brown; Fife’s in Scotland

Gordon Brown (or GB, as I like to call him) puts me in mind of that old Anglo-American music-hall routine: “I say tomato [tom-ah-to] and you say tomato [tom-eight-o]”, and so on. Except, in his case, it’s “I say Britain and you say England”. He’s referring to the same thing but could almost be talking a different language. And while we’re on the subject of language, mention of the English language accounted for two out of GB’s four uses of the words ‘England’ or ‘English’ in his 6,700 word-long speech to the Labour Party conference yesterday; compared with 38 of ‘Britain’ or ‘British’, 29 of ‘country’ (as in the phrases ‘our country’, ‘the country’ or ‘this country’), and only one each of ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Northern Ireland’ (sorry, guys; also, none for Cornwall – just to be inclusive).

I say the English language, but Gordon described it as “one of Britain’s great assets”, the list of which was as follows: “our stability, our openness, our scientific genius, our creative industries, and yes our English language”. Yes, Gordon, it is the English language – no need to be embarrassed to call it by its name. But it isn’t the property of Britain: it isn’t ‘our (i.e. Britain’s) English language’ or even the ‘British language’, although I somehow suspect you’d prefer it to be known as such. The English language is something that shows how the contribution to world culture of what is sometimes called ‘Anglo-Saxon’ civilisation – in a non-ethnic sense – is far greater than that of Britain alone: a language formed over centuries from a blend of Germanic, Norman-French and classical influences that has spread worldwide (initially, through the power of the English-British Empire) to become the means through which so many different nations and peoples express themselves and their stories in their own words – in ‘their English language’ – and find a voice that resonates with ours.

But GB has to go and bring the stature of this great world language down to the level of his own little Britain, as the second reference to English reads as follows: “the other side of welcoming newcomers who can help Britain is being tough about excluding those adults who won’t and can’t. That’s why we have introduced the Australian-style points-based system, the citizenship test, the English language test and we will introduce a migrant charge for public services”. So the English language here is just another hoop through which migrants have to jump to prove they are worthy of becoming British citizens, along with the much-derided citizenship test and a mean-spirited poll tax-like charge pending the elevation to British taxpayer status. OK; it shouldn’t and can’t be an automatic right for just anyone to become a British citizen without knowing anything about ‘the country’ they’ll be living in or speaking the language (which should possibly also include Welsh in parts of Wales). But these ‘Brownie points’, as we’ll call them, that migrants have to earn are clearly indeed the ‘other side’ of the openness and the globally orientated Britain that the PM extols in other parts of the speech.

Indeed, there’s always another side to Gordon Brown: welcoming migrants to Britain who are prepared (and only those who are prepared) to contribute to the country’s economy and society in specified ways thought to be in the national interest, at the same time as making contradictory and unfulfillable commitments to ensure that “British firms and British workers can reap the rewards of a world economy set to double in size”. Going on about ‘fairness’ to all at the same time as making it clear that this fairness is qualified – it has to be earned by playing by the rules and being prepared to contribute to society in highly prescribed ways: “Our aim is a something for something, nothing for nothing Britain. A Britain of fair chances for all, and fair rules applied to all. So our policy is that everyone who can work, must work. That’s why James Purnell has introduced reforms so that apart from genuine cases of illness, the dole is only for those looking for work or actively preparing for it. That’s only fair to the people pulling their weight [my emphases]”. Fair do’s: we can’t have people scrounging off the dole; but everyone who can work must work? What is this: Stalinist Russia? So there’s now a social (and legal?) obligation for everyone to work, is there? So what, is the British state going to create artificial jobs, as they used to in the Soviet Union, to ensure that every citizen has a job that they are compelled to do, even in an economic downturn? Including, presumably, the mothers of those two-year-olds for whom the British state is now going to make free nursery places available so that they’ll have to work rather than staying at home during their children’s earliest years? And doubtless, this also includes those ‘British workers’ who’ll have to jolly well work to be worthy of the name, even if there are no jobs worthy of the name ‘British worker’ for them to do: a crap, unsuitable and unskilled job paying the New Labour minimum wage that Brown is so proud of is, after all, better than no job – except, of course, for the successful hoop-jumping new migrants filling quotas of more skilled positions for which ‘British’ people, let down by the state education system, are inadequately trained.

Or should that be ‘English’ people and the English education system? Because the unspoken ‘other side’ of Brown’s fairer Britain is unfairness to England. Most of the ways in which Brown promises to deliver greater fairness to ‘Britain’ in fact relate to policy areas where Brown’s government’s competence applies to England only. But of course, he doesn’t ‘say England’ because that would involve acknowledging that the English people have had a bloody raw deal under New Labour and the devolution ‘settlement’ (another word Brown nauseatingly peddles in the speech) that is another of the ‘achievements’ of New Labour GB boasts about. So, for instance, as part of “our commitment to a fair NHS in a fair society. . . . over the next few years the NHS generates cash savings in its drugs budget we will plough savings back into abolishing charges for all patients with long-term conditions. That’s the fairness patients want and the fairness every Labour party member will go out and fight for”. Sorry, do I understand this double-speak correctly? Point one: this applies to the NHS in England only, as the NHS in the other UK nations is the responsibility of their devolved governments. So, the NHS in England will be making cash savings in its drugs budget: what, by not licensing the kind of live-saving and life-prolonging drugs for chronic conditions such as cancer and Alzheimers that are funded by the public purse in Scotland? So, by saving money in these areas, the government will finally be able to abolish prescription charges in England; but only for those with long-term or chronic conditions, not for everyone, as in Scotland. So when Brown, immediately before the passage I’ve just quoted, says “I can announce today for those in our nation battling cancer from next year you will not pay prescription charges” [my emphasis]; what he’s actually saying is: ‘because in England – as opposed to Scotland – we won’t fund the more expensive but effective drug treatments for certain cancers, cancer patients will at least get free prescriptions for more standard, cheaper drugs’ – next year that is: let’s hope those patients survive till then! What a bloody disgrace!

And the same can be said for Brown’s ‘prescriptions’ for education and social care – in England only that is: making up, but only partially, for New Labour’s underfunding and undervaluing of English children and elderly persons compared with the investment that devolution and the Barnett Formula have made possible for them in Scotland and Wales. What of the “fairness [which] demands nothing less than excellence in every school, for every child” – in England, you understand? This boils down to two commitments: 1) ensuring that no child leaves primary school unable to read, write and count – big deal, that was probably done better in the 19th century than the disgraceful situation of today; and 2) ensuring that schools that don’t fulfil their targets for GCSE passes are closed down or brought under new management – reinforcing the obsessive New Labour targets culture and narrow focus on academic achievement, as opposed to vocational training that might actually create the skilled English workers capable of carrying out the jobs in the new British industries and services that Brown goes on about.

And what of the “fairness older people deserve”? Well, dear, that nice Mr Brown says he’s going to look after us: “The generation that rebuilt Britain from the ashes of the war deserves better and so I can tell you today that Alan Johnson and I will also bring forward new plans to help people to stay longer in their own homes and provide greater protection against the costs of care – dignity and hope for everyone in their later years”. Not free personal care, you understand, as in Scotland; just greater ‘protection against the costs of care’, whatever that means. And enabling people to at least stay in their homes for longer (which new technology will be able to make cheaper than institutionalising them), even if they may still have to release their equity in those homes to (part-)fund their own care.

Bloody h***! At least, Mr Brown’s constituents don’t get treated like that! And that really is the ‘other side’ of the picture of a ‘fairer Britain’ that Brown paints in his speech. GB certainly has fulfilled the commitment he made to the people of Fife whom “25 years ago I asked . . . to send me to parliament to serve the country I love”. Except, which country is that, Gordon? In case you hadn’t heard, Fife’s in Scotland; but almost everything you talk about relates to England. We don’t hear about all that you, as a Scottish Labour constituency MP, have done for your electorate and for Scotland. Why not? This is a) because most of the measures that exemplify your fairer Britain have already been surpassed by policies introduced by the Scottish government; b) because you can’t claim direct responsibility for those achievements, as they’ve been brought about by MSPs rather than Scottish Westminster MPs such as yourself; and c) this would show up the unfairness towards England that has been perpetrated by devolution and the Barnett Formula, whereby those English people who still won’t be getting the cancer drugs they need on the NHS nor free personal care are helping fund those provisions for all who need them north of the border.

And yet, in another way, GB can claim some credit for these ‘achievements’. After all, he did back asymmetric devolution and, as Chancellor, was in an excellent position to ensure the continuance of the Barnett Formula and protect that higher per-capita public-expenditure budget for Scotland. As is his Scottish successor in the post, Alistair Darling. So he has been a good Scottish constituency MP, after all: putting the interests of ‘his country’ first.

But he won’t tell us this country is Scotland; just as he won’t tell us that the flipside of the British coin is unfairness to England dressed up as a belated programme for a fairer Britain. Because there’s always a flipside to Gordon. He says New Labour is building a fair Britain; but we know this is at the expense of England and to the advantage of the smaller nations of the UK. He says – in the only actual reference to those four nations (sorry Cornwall, you don’t get a look in) – “stronger together as England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland we can make our United Kingdom even better”; we know he means ‘forget it, England; there’s no way you’re governing yourself like Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland because they need your money too much’. He says, at the end of his speech, “This is our country, Britain. We are building it together, together we are making it greater”; we know he’s pretending to be a democratically elected PM for a country called ‘Britain’, whereas in reality he’s the unelected First Minister for England and his real loyalties lie with his Scottish constituents. He says, “Together we are building the fair society in this place”; we know this place certainly isn’t England, and it isn’t English fair play.

He says Britain; I say England.

PS. Ed Lowther from BBC Parliament appears to have been reading this post and has taken up the charge. Nice to see someone from the BBC finally cottoning on to the deliberate and deceitful suppression of mentions of England by politicians when they’re talking about England. Perhaps the Beeb will begin to apply the same analysis to their own output, too!

And finally, another plug: sign the ‘England Nation’ petition, and get GB to call England a nation.

15 September 2008

England Nation Petition: Let’s Put GB On the Spot!

Not often I do a direct plug; but here goes. I invite UK readers of this blog to sign a new petition that has appeared on the 10 Downing Street website. This reads as follows:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to state whether he recognises that England is a nation.”

The background to this is the conclusion I’ve come to – which I know is shared by many – that England presently has no official or constitutional status as a nation whatsoever: effectively, England does not exist in any meaningful legal, political or constitutional sense. So, for instance, when people complain – as I have done frequently on this blog – that GB [Gordon Brown], Westminster politicians in general and the national media always talk about England and English matters as if they were the UK and British (and that they never say England when they mean England), this actually ‘correctly’ reflects the legal position: there is no such thing as England (other than as the name for a territory); only the UK (aka ‘Britain’) and UK governance exist. Further background to my thinking on this can be found here and here.

It’s time the government is called to account on this and forced to state, one way or another, whether it views England as a nation or not (as I think is the case). If, however, the answer to the petition is ‘yes, England is a nation’, this presents the English-nationalist cause with a major boost: at last, an official acknowledgement that England is to be regarded and celebrated as a nation. Such an admission would then enable the case for popular English sovereignty (the basis on which we might actually be consulted about our constitutional future, as well as the basis for any future English parliament) to be pressed much more powerfully: ‘as England is a nation’, we could say, ‘it is her right under human-rights legislation, to which the UK government has signed up, to demand to be able to govern herself in the manner of her own choosing’.

If, however, the government says ‘no, England is not a nation’, then this could become a major focus for protest. Again, an official statement; but this time an explicit government acknowledgement that England is no more as a nation, as opposed to the term the government prefers – ‘country’ – which carries no political or constitutional weight, as it’s just a territorial jurisdiction.

The further details of the petition tie acknowledgement of England’s nation status in to that of Scotland and Wales; i.e. if England is a nation, then Scotland and Wales are to be recognised as nations, too; but if England is not a nation, neither should Scotland nor Wales be accepted as such. This means that any rejection of the petition effectively also denies nationhood to Scotland and Wales; hence, the protests against it could be greatly magnified – media in those countries will be alerted . . .. However, if the response to the petition provides any latitude to the present impression that Scotland and Wales are being allowed to reaffirm their nationhood (through devolved government etc.) while England is merely (what is left of) Britain, that, too, could help to amplify the protests in England.

I suspect the response – if we manage to get up to the requisite total of 500 signatures – will be equivocal and ambiguous. But anything less than an explicit answer to this question will be treated as a rejection of the proposition that England is a nation. But let’s watch the government try to wriggle out of this one!

However, as I’ve just said, we need those 500 signatures. So please, if you treasure the truth that England is a nation, please sign up to this, and let’s force the government to say what it regards as the answer to the English question.

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