Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

9 January 2013

Coalition Mid-Term Review: Sidelining England in the British-national interest

The UK coalition government published its mid-term review on Monday of this week. It is not the intention of this article to carry out a detailed analysis: I am interested mainly in the way England is treated, or rather is not, in the document.

At first sight, for a document produced by the UK government, it is remarkable how many times the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ actually appear: 15 and six respectively. However, most of the references to ‘England’ are of two related types: 1) where it is necessary to spell out that certain facts or policy proposals relate to England only in order to avoid misunderstanding, and to prevent people living in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland from thinking they are affected by them; and 2) to make sure that credit can be claimed for England-specific achievements for which the coalition parties hope to be rewarded by English voters at the next election.

Examples of the first type of reference occur on page 26, where the document refers to a number of policy proposals in the area of personal care as being specific to England, such as rules regarding eligibility for care and the introduction of a Deferred Payment Scheme designed to prevent people from having to sell their homes in order to pay for care. Clearly, these are important statutory and financial matters, and it is necessary to make it clear to non-English readers that they affect only people living in England.

Examples of the second type of reference are:

  • “We have provided the resources to help local authorities in England freeze their council tax for three years in a row” (page 14): Tory policy – please vote for us, England. (What are these ‘resources’, though? I thought local-authority funding in England was being cut, and the council-tax freeze was just a statutory, central government-imposed diktat. Do they mean local-authority funding is being cut by less than it would otherwise have been if authorities had been allowed to increase council tax willy nilly?)
  • “We have brought in the Protection of Freedoms Act to limit the retention of DNA samples in England and Wales in line with practice in Scotland” (page 37): Lib Dem policy – look, we actually do care about you, England, at least in the lofty area of British civil liberties if nothing else.

The first type of reference to England described above has the character of a legal declaration of ‘territorial extent’, along the lines of when cereal packets make it clear that a competition is limited to Great Britain and does not include Northern Ireland. And indeed, the whole document is circumscribed by a legal disclaimer of this sort covering territorial extent, which appears right at the end:

“As a result of devolution, many decisions made by UK Ministers or in the Westminster Parliament now apply to England only. The Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government make their own policy on these devolved issues. This document therefore sets out the agreed priorities for the Coalition Government in Westminster.”

No clarification as to which policies “now apply to England only”, of course! Is the general public just supposed to know what they are, as the document certainly doesn’t make this clear to the reader as it goes through the different policy areas, apart from the few exceptions I have already mentioned? But throwing in a disclaimer like this means the government can essentially cop out of providing a detailed break-down and say: ‘look, we’ve acknowledged that some policies are England-only, and anyone interested in those particular policies will know whether they’re England-specific or not’.

This is simply not good enough, although it is par for the course. We’ve come to expect from Westminster politicians and the UK government that they will avoid referring explicitly to ‘England’ as much as they possibly can, and will do so only when it is necessary to avoid factual misunderstanding and harmful political consequences, in the ways outlined above. But their unwillingness to acknowledge a country called ‘England’ to which so many of their policies relate means that Westminster politicians cannot and do not hold themselves properly accountable to the ‘nation’ and people affected by those policies.

This fact is evident in the evasive manner in which many of the policy ‘achievements’ and remaining objectives of the coalition are described; and in many instances, the evasiveness relates directly to the suppression of references to ‘England’. For example, the document never makes it explicitly clear that when it discusses ‘the NHS’, it means only the NHS in England. This helps it gloss over the fact that the coalition has legislated for a massive reform to the NHS that will alter it – in England only – quite radically from the institution created by the post-war Labour government. And yet, the government still has the gall to refer to it as “one of our great national institutions”, as if the NHS it presides over is still fundamentally the same old British NHS, which it no longer is (at least not in England).

So suppression of the England-specific nature of the NHS reforms goes hand in hand with evasiveness about the scope and nature of those reforms. For example, the document says: “We have improved the NHS by . . . starting to devolve commissioning of most health services to GP-led clinical commissioning groups”. But what it doesn’t say is that these changes are limited to England and that the said commissioning groups are statutorily obliged to consider bids from private health-care providers even if the services they provide are initially more expensive than those of existing, public-sector NHS providers.

A more honest account of the government’s measures would be explicit about both their England-specific character and their ultimate guiding principles, and would be expressed something like this: “We have reformed the NHS in England in such a way as to create a competitive health-care market in which private companies will increasingly take over the provision of publicly funded services”. This is actually intended to be an ideologically neutral statement of what the government has done: it has marketised the health-care sector in England, whether you believe that’s the most effective way to deliver health care or not. So why should a Tory-led government not trumpet that achievement? Well, because it suspects, probably correctly, that if English people knew what had been done to ‘their NHS’ (but not to the NHS’s in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), involving changes that were not set out in any manifesto or in the Coalition Agreement, they’d probably violently object. So instead, the coalition pretends that ‘the NHS’ remains fundamentally the same – a primarily public-sector and ‘British’ institution – neither of which is true any more: in England, that is.

The same analysis could be made of many, many other parts of the document that discuss England-specific policies and legislation while avoiding clarifying either that they relate to England only or that they are driven by an ideological bias in favour of private enterprise and markets at the expense of the public sector and, arguably, the public interest – in England. Another brief example – one among many – is where the document says: “We have introduced a presumption of sustainable development in the National Planning Policy Framework, which includes protection of the Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest”. How disingenuous can they be? What this really means is: “We have prepared legislation to make it easier to obtain planning permission for major developments in England’s countryside, with only Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest retaining the previous level of protection”. So England’s green and pleasant land can be concreted over under the pretext of driving economic growth, in the British national interest, regardless of the very passionate interest the English public has in protecting its countryside and natural heritage.

The identity of the ‘nation’ on which this concept of the ‘national interest’ is predicated is quite nebulous in the Mid-Term Review, as indeed it was in the original Coalition Agreement. This is quite simply because, in so many instances, the nation concerned is in reality England, but the government will not and cannot acknowledge this fact. This is rather damaging, as the very raison d’être of the coalition, then as now, is to govern in the ‘national interest’, as the title of the Mid-Term Review makes clear: “The Coalition: together in the national interest”. But whereas the phrase ‘national interest’ is adduced as justification for the coalition’s existence or for certain key decisions on five occasions in the document, the word ‘nation’ is used only once: “In 2012, the nation came together to celebrate the success of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Diamond Jubilee”.

Three of the references to ‘national interest’ relate to the formation and continuance of the coalition, based on pulling the UK round from a dangerous financial and economic crisis; one to supporting the work of the Airports Commission, which could lead to controversial approval for, say, a new terminal at Heathrow or a new runway at Stansted (i.e. more environmental degradation in England “in the national interest”); and the other reference deals with the decision to opt out of, or in to, various EU police and criminal-justice measures. In other words, ‘national interest’ is very narrowly defined in terms of a small number of strategically important reserved policy areas – the economy, air transport, foreign policy and security – whereas large parts of the document deal with devolved policy areas, i.e. with those affecting England only or mainly.

Are these English measures also being introduced in the ‘national interest’? It’s hard to believe they are given the unwillingness of the government to connect the phrase ‘national interest’ with the specific nation, England, concerned? And if they’re not being carried out in the English-national interest, in whose interest are they being done? The interest of the government’s ideological, commercial and financial bedfellows (its corporate sponsors and partners, and its financial creditors)? The interests of the UK state and establishment, and their preservation from an economic meltdown that could have accelerated the centrifugal, nationalist forces challenging their  continuing existence? Or the interests of the coalition parties themselves, who want to come out of the five-year relationship claiming they have fought their corner and followed through on their manifesto pledges – irrespective of the fact that many of the measures they’ve introduced were never outlined in detail and in some instances were flatly contradicted by their manifestos and by the Coalition Agreement, such as the [English] NHS reforms or the Higher Education policies (especially the massive hike in tuition fees for English students)?

But these questions, as indeed the English Question itself, are completely sidelined by the Mid-Term Review. After all, the Coalition can hardly be expected to hold itself accountable to an entity such as ‘the English people’, can it, if its remit is to govern in the British national interest?

Advertisements

28 July 2012

Isles of Wonder, or a world left wondering?

So what are we to make of last night’s Olympics opening ceremony? Firstly, I would have to say that it was indeed spectacular and impressive, and many moments stood out that will doubtless linger on in the memory, such as the factory funnels emerging from [England’s] green and pleasant land; the Olympic rings being forged in the steel mills; and the magnificent solution they come up with for lighting the Olympic cauldron.

Now for the criticism. It would be easy to be churlish and run off a list of all the many aspects of British and English history that were glossed over or left out altogether. The ones that stuck out in my mind were the history of Empire and slavery, and the darker moments of our industrial past; although the ‘Satanic mills’ segment of last night’s show did allude to those in a gentle way. You could also mention Magna Carta; the long story of Christianity as a central pillar of the UK nations’ society and culture; the role of sports not included in the Olympics, such as rugby and cricket (or those which, from an English point of view, should not be represented by a British team, such as football); and the history of violence in English society, for which we are infamous throughout the world, as typified by football hooliganism and last summer’s riots.

Similarly, I thought that some of the history in the performance was a bit garbled and skewed, such as when there was a brief moment of remembrance for the victims of World Wars I and II, and the narrative then returned to 19th-century industrial scenes. How about remembering the victims of all wars Great Britain, and then the UK, has been involved in, including the American War of Independence, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Crimean and Boer Wars? Perhaps just a tad sensitive vis-à-vis our US, French, Russian and African guests – so the ceremony shied away from those out of political correctness.

Politically correct does really sum it up, although this was not always compatible with factually correct. I’m thinking, for example, of the celebration of the NHS, which pretended that there is still a ‘UK NHS’, true to its founding principles. The truth, as we know, is that there are now four NHS’s – one for each of the UK’s nations – and that the English one has just recently been opened up to private market forces. Of course, I suppose the creator of last night’s spectacular, Danny Boyle, could have been making another political point by making ‘the NHS’ such a centrepiece; although, if he was, this was again very subtle and indirect, and glossed over the fact that the NHS – the British one – is no more. Perhaps, rather, we should interpret the NHS bit as a celebration of ‘British times past’, of bygone Britain, like most of the rest of the show.

This was in fact a highly backward- and inward-looking, nostalgic and retro view of Britain, and will probably confirm to people of many other countries just how self-important, arrogant and insular ‘the British’ are. ‘Oh’, they might say, ‘so Britain invented the industrial revolution, unionism, women’s rights and suffrage, modern sport, popular music and the World Wide Web, did they?’ Apart from the fact that this is not strictly true, it’s all historical. What is its relevance to the present, and what sort of vision of its future does ‘Great Britain’ have today? And what is its relevance to the many other participating nations that are going through similar convulsions in the present? Has Britain learned something from its past that can help it to guide those other countries and help prepare a sustainable future for the community of nations going forward? What about a vision for a sustainable planet – post-industrial for countries like Britain but still very industrial for many developing nations – to present to all the nations gathered symbolically in the Olympic stadium and watching via the medium, TV, that was invented and first used in live broadcasts in Britain? And what were they to make of all of the ‘in’ cultural references that only British, and sometimes only English, people could really relate to? ‘God, these people are so damn introverted and up their own proverbials!’

The truth of the matter is that ‘Great Britain’ doesn’t actually have a vision of its future nor of its place in a rapidly evolving world. In no small measure, that’s because Great Britain is indeed a historical relic in itself: neither ever a proper, unified nation in its past; nor, certainly, a nation or polity in the present that is capable of expressing and mediating the hopes, aspirations, national sentiment or desire for deeper democracy on the part of its respective constituent nations.

So last night’s event was perhaps after all a fitting celebration of what it means to be British: a multifarious community with a strong sense of its past but no vision for the future. Isles of Wonder and historical reverie, indeed; but one that would have left the rest of the world wondering.

4 April 2012

England Uncut: From words to action?

In some respects, I quite admire UK Uncut: the protest movement that has put tax evasion and avoidance by wealthy corporations and individuals back on the UK political agenda, and has suggested there is an alternative to the coalition government’s remorseless cuts agenda.

But there’s one big problem about UK Uncut: they can’t bring themselves to say ‘England’ and engage with the England-specific aspects of the cuts. Many, but not all, of the cuts in public spending and services they’ve protested about relate exclusively to England; e.g. the effective abolition of the [English] NHS, the withdrawal of funding for arts degrees at [English] universities, and the closure of public libraries in towns and cities up and down the country [England].

For the use of ‘[England]‘ – in red font and square brackets – please see my previous post. Essentially, this could be read as meaning ‘England-cut’, or ‘England-denied’: cut off not only from public spending, and increasingly privatised, but cut out and denied from language, consciousness and the political conversation. The two processes are closely connected. If you don’t believe, to begin with, that there is such a thing as an English nation that has a right to determine for itself what sort of health service or higher-education system it wants, and how the money it raises through taxation is spent for the good of its people, then it makes it a lot easier for the UK government to simply impose these measures without consulting the [English] people they affect.

None of the above actions of the coalition government were spelled out in any of the main parties’ manifestos in the 2010 election. In fact, no policies at all were spelled out as being ‘English policies’, as the main parties steadfastly avoided referring to ‘England’ in the sections of their manifestos that dealt with England-only or England-mainly policy areas. If you don’t say the name of the country affected by your policies, then it’s easier to make out, to yourself and to the [English] public, that those policies are just ‘necessary reforms’ and ways to allocate scarce resources as effectively as possible, rather than an act of taking major public services out of national [English] ownership and control, and of stripping away vital elements of our national patrimony.

These measures become just ‘cuts’, not the ‘cutting of England’. And the more that cultural institutions and public services that make up England’s national civic life are removed or privatised, the more the unreality of England that was your starting point becomes the new reality: England-cut. It’s easy to deny England her rights as an economic, social and institutional entity – a nation – when you were denying her existence and validity as a nation to begin with. And the best way to fool the [English] public that its nation is being robbed from under its feet is to systematically avoid all reference to [England]: to censor it from discourse as a condition of abolishing it in reality.

UK Uncut’s silence on the England-specific dimension of the cuts effectively conspires with them: it’s part of the ‘conspiracy of silence’ the UK government relies on to pursue its programme of de-nationalising and ‘de-nationing’ England. And if that sounds over the top and paranoid, think of what UK Uncut could have achieved if they’d chosen to foreground the English dimension to these issues. They could have tapped into a much more powerful vein of anger and resentment at the raw deal England is getting from UK plc, which is pursuing, in [England], a far deeper and more radical programme, not just of cuts, but of public asset stripping than in the other parts of the UK – for the very good reason that it is not responsible for most public services in the other UK nations. So by not explicitly standing up in defence of English people’s services and rights, which are being denied in ways not faced by other British citizens, UK Uncut has indeed conspired in letting the UK government get away with it.

Well, that’s UK Uncut’s loss, and perhaps ours. I’m now setting up ‘England Uncut’ as a vehicle to tap into some of the creativity and power of social networking that UK Uncut has successfully used to organise its protests to see if we can’t do a bit of the same for England, as England. So far, it’s just a Twitter account, which I invite you to follow: https://twitter.com/#!/EnglandUncut. Maybe that’s all it will ever be. But it’s up to its followers to decide what it should become and whether it can indeed become a vehicle for protesting against England’s raw deal.

We think the first action that’s required is some sort of demo against the BBC, and its systemic failure to adequately represent English affairs as English, which can be redressed only by establishing a BBC England. An England Politics page on the BBC News website would be a start, rather than the derisory regionalisation of English politics we have to put up with now. More on this theme anon: watch this space.

So, England Uncut it is then. Enough talking (well, perhaps I’ll continue with that as well . . .). Time for action!

10 October 2011

Don’t treat England differently! The Health and Social Care Bill, and the denial of England

It’s a fitting irony that we’re relying on the unelected second chamber of the Union parliament – the House of Lords – to radically revise or throw out the government’s [English] Health and Social Care Bill this week. England has no democratically elected parliament of its own, so it’s up to a non-democratic part of the Union parliament to reject an English bill for which there is no democratic mandate.

In this sense, the Bill neatly symbolises England’s invidious constitutional position. England is ‘treated differently’ from the UK’s other nations, both politically (by not having a national parliament or assembly to stand up for its people and its rights), and – as a consequence of its disempowerment – medically, because the government can get away with a health-care bill that English people have not voted for.

It’s this basic connection between the political limbo status of England and the Union government’s radical privatisation of health-care delivery in England that the UK Uncut group that blocked Westminster Bridge yesterday afternoon simply don’t, or won’t, get. In my previous post, I discussed my futile efforts to get UK Uncut to acknowledge the England-specific nature of the Health and Social Care Bill, and to refer to ‘England’ in their campaign material; so I won’t go over that ground in detail again. But ‘Don’t treat England differently!’ would have been an excellent slogan for the demonstrators to use yesterday, as it sums up the link between the political and health-care discrimination against England.

Another good slogan would have been: ‘Don’t let the British government RIP off the English NHS!’ In fact, I suggested some England-focused slogans to UK Uncut on Twitter but, unsurprisingly, got no response: not a dicky bird. In fact, I got no response of any sort – not even offensive – to my countless tweets and email pointing out their ignoring / ignorance of the England-specific dimension of the Bill and the fact that this considerably lessens the political impact of their campaign.

But perhaps ‘Don’t treat England differently!’ does in fact sum up another aspect of UK Uncut’s position that blunts their effectiveness, so to speak: they resolutely refuse to treat England differently from the UK / Britain in media and communications terms. In other words, like the Union establishment itself, UK Uncut resolutely refuses to separate English matters out from UK matters, and to differentiate between England and Britain. But if you don’t treat England differently, in this sense, you affirm the legitimacy of the British state and parliament to legislate for England in the way it does: with scant regard for public and professional opinion about the health service, and absolutely no regard for the / an English nation as such whose health service it might actually be.

So by refusing to ‘treat England differently’ from the UK, UK Uncut validates the right of the Union parliament to ride rough-shod over genuine democracy for England and the English public interest. And what a respectable, restrained, middle-class and, indeed, establishment protest it was in the end! Merely 3,000-maximum protesters blocking the bridge in front of Parliament for three hours on a Sunday afternoon, when the potential to cause any serious disruption to the life of the capital city was virtually at its lowest! Almost a Sunday afternoon walk in the park. In fact, it feels more like an act of homage and prostration before the all-powerful British parliament. Indeed, the protesters did prostrate themselves at the start of the demo, by lying down and acting dead – symbolically conceding defeat before they’d even started.

To be honest, although I don’t in any way endorse their methods, I feel the English rioters in August made more of a point politically, and a more powerful comment on the state of English society, than did UK Uncut yesterday. I’m not suggesting the Undivided-Unionites (UK Uncutters) should have rioted, but they could have done something more dramatic and forceful, even if not actually violent. How about setting up a tent hospital on Parliament Green, like the protest tent community in Madrid, and making the point that this is what basic English health care would be like if the Union government got its way? But UK Uncut clearly wanted to minimise the risk of confrontation with the police, and of other less peaceful-minded groups getting involved and causing damage. After all, they didn’t want to be associated in the public’s mind with those squalid rioters from the English underclass, now did they? The UK may be uncut (not divided by devolution) in their aspirations, but they certainly don’t feel they have anything in common with those common people from the sink estates –whom, incidentally, the NHS is there to serve.

But just as yesterday’s UK Uncut protest is today’s fish and chip paper, even the English riots have now been forgotten, and the chasm between the British governing class and the English underclass, and working class, has been papered over – for a time. But one thing’s for sure: the UK Uncutters share more in common with that governing class than with the common people of England. The riots were a manifestation of the fact that England does not have a political voice: that the British political class is interested only in the British economy, and in pursuing their own ideological agenda and business interests, not in those who get left behind. And UK Uncut, which speaks only in the name of the UK, not England, stands solidly – or should that be limply? – among those who deny England that voice.

English parliament

7 October 2011

National Health Service or national myth? Why UK Uncut’s ‘Block the Bridge’ protest is an empty gesture

In Norway, after the horrendous massacres carried out by Anders Breivik in July of this year, acts of remembrance were organised throughout the country in which people held aloft red roses: the symbol of Norway’s governing Labour Party, and once the symbol of Britain’s. By contrast, no red roses will be carried by the followers of UK Uncut, which is organising a ‘Block the Bridge’ protest this coming Sunday: a blockade of Westminster Bridge, just opposite the Houses of Parliament, to urge the Lords to throw out the government’s NHS Bill – the last chance of its being defeated or modified.

No, the red rose – international symbol of socialism, and incidentally also an iconic symbol for England in the form of the Tudor Rose – will not be in evidence. This is despite the fact that the protesters ostensibly wish to defend the socialist principles and legacy of the ‘British’ NHS, founded in the wake of the Second World War by Attlee’s Labour government. Instead, the plan is apparently to deck the bridge out in the blue and white colours of the NHS brand, or at least the NHS brand in England, which uses a lighter blue colour than the logos for NHS Scotland and NHS Wales, and a darker blue than the branding for Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland – the equivalent of the NHS in the Province.


The NHS (the one in England)

Darker blue for Scotland

Nice Celtic image and dark-blue font for GIG Cymru

‘NHS’ vanished altogether in this sky-blue logo for Northern Ireland

As these logos neatly illustrate, the ‘British’ NHS that UK Uncut’s valiant brigades will be standing up for is not the British NHS at all but the English NHS; and the Union government’s NHS Bill does not constitute a dismantling of the British NHS but a reorganisation of the English NHS along market principles. The British NHS as such was in fact dismantled by the last Labour government’s lop-sided implementation of devolution, which created four separate health services for each of the UK’s established nations (for the purposes of this discussion, Cornwall being assimilated to England). And it was that same Labour government that began the further dismantling of the English NHS that UK Uncut and its supporters are demonstrating against, as it was Labour that began the marketisation of the NHS that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition is finishing off. And of course, Labour’s marketisation was based on the support of its Scottish and Welsh MPs, with whose help the introduction of Foundation Hospitals – in England only – would not have been passed.

So it is perhaps no wonder that those Blocking the Bridge on Sunday will not be sporting socialist red roses. Maybe the protesters realise deep down that it was Labour that first sold out the founding principles of the NHS: that it was to be both a state-run and -owned service, and a national service, available free at the point of use to all in Britain in a uniform, consistent way. And perhaps they realise that the NHS is already neither of those things and will be even less so – in England, that is – if the Bill goes through.

But try telling UK Uncut that the NHS Bill relates only to the NHS in England – and believe me, I have tried this week, via tweets and email – and you might as well be threatening to try and march the massed ranks of the English Defence League across Westminster Bridge on Sunday: stunning silence and a complete lack of engagement with the critique of UK Uncut’s discourse, which refers constantly to ‘Britain’ and the ‘UK’ in relation to this and many other England-specific issues, and never to ‘England’. Nothing. In fact, one imagines that UK Uncut would view demonstrators bringing banners displaying the Tudor Red Rose and flags of St. George on to the Bridge on Sunday more as potential reincarnations of Anders Breivik himself – whose somewhat tenuous Facebook links with some EDL members were joyfully paraded about in some parts of the media and blogosphere in the wake of July’s massacres – rather than as being like the noble Norwegian public standing up for a national institution and values that are under threat, and mourning its young.

Indeed, Sunday’s demonstration really has more of the character of an act of mourning for an NHS that no longer exists than a political campaign that stands a realistic chance of influencing the government and bringing about meaningful change. In this sense, the absence of socialist and English symbols betrays the lack of any coherent blueprint – to continue the logo theme – for how a truly nationally owned and accountable NHS might be organised and funded in England now that it is no longer possible to go back to the Bevanite British NHS. Because that’s what the protesters will be defending on Sunday: the founding principles of the British NHS, not the actual one in England that the NHS Bill relates to, or the potential for a better English NHS, run by an English government, that puts the needs of English people first.

In this sense, it seems to me that the UK Uncut protesters are more interested in engaging in political myth than practical reality. The NHS – the idea of a unified, UK-wide health service free at the point of use to all UK citizens – is still widely proclaimed as one of Britain’s great national institutions. Indeed, it is one of the things, alongside the BBC, that symbolises Britain itself: its national unity and values. But if people finally wake up to the truth that the British NHS no longer exists, it might also dawn on them that a unitary Britain no longer exists. UK Uncut’s failure to engage with these realities is therefore an expression of its, and many other people’s, profound inability to emotionally separate themselves from a British nation that is no more.

For my part, UK Uncut doesn’t cut it. Maybe the almost inevitable passing of the NHS Bill, for all the doubtless harm it will do to universal health-care provision in England, will finally convince people that the old Britain is dead and only an English politics, accountable to the English people, will put their interests before those of UK plc. I won’t be helping to Block the Bridge on Sunday, because I’d rather stand up for an English future than be stuck in futile mourning for the British past.

5 May 2010

Cameron’s Big Society is the next phase of the Thatcher revolution: privatising government and England itself

One of the things Margaret Thatcher was famous for saying was that there was “no such thing as society”. David Cameron’s Conservatives’ manifesto for the May 2010 election – entitled ‘Invitation To Join the Government Of Britain’ – has now self-consciously reversed this dictum, prefacing its section on changing society with the graphically illustrated words, “There is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state”.

Margaret Thatcher recognised only the core building blocks of ‘society’ as such: the individual and the family. In his turn, David Cameron is big on the family but downplays the individual, as he wishes to dissociate his ‘modern compassionate Conservatives’ from the selfish individualism that was fostered by Thatcher’s ideological obsession with private enterprise and the profit motive. However, those of us with long memories still attribute much of the break-down of communities up and down the land – particularly, working-class communities that had built up around particular industries – with the ideological, social and economic changes that Thatcher introduced, often with callous indifference to the misery and hopelessness they caused.

Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is on one level an attempt to redress the social injustices and deprivations the Thatcher revolution left in its wake by placing communities back at the centre of his model for society. But at the same time, this is opening up communities and society (communities as society) as the new front for privatisation and the unfolding of market principles: what Thatcher did for the individual, Cameron would like to do for society – privatise it and turn it into a market society.

A full-scale critique of the Conservatives’ Big Society concept is beyond the scope of the present article. However, in essence, I would like to urge those who are tempted to vote for the Conservatives and potentially give them an overall majority in the new parliament to think carefully about what the Big Society means in social, economic and political terms. The core idea, in my view, is that small groups of interested persons should be empowered to take over the ownership and / or management control of public-sector bodies responsible for providing public services and amenities as diverse as schools, hospitals, community facilities, social care and social services.

In theory, this form of ‘social enterprise’ (community enterprise as opposed to Thatcher’s private enterprise) is supposed to be carried out by groups forming themselves into, or already belonging to, co-operatives, mutual societies, charities, voluntary organisations and non-profit-making / socially responsible enterprises. This is doing for ownership of public services what Thatcher did for ownership of publicly owned assets such as council houses and nationalised industries: privatising them. The only difference is that the ‘private’ sphere is extended beyond the individual – as in Thatcherism – to the level of the community. This is, then, a form of privatising the public sector itself: moving from government ownership and responsibility for public services to ownership and responsibility on the part of private groups of individuals (communities), as opposed to private individuals alone under Thatcher.

This all sounds great in theory. In practice, however, these private- / community-owned public services will be competing against each other in an aggressive, competitive market place. In economic terms, these reforms are intended to make the ‘public’ sector run on private-enterprise principles as a means, in theory, to provide services much more cost-effectively in the way that commercial businesses are generally run in a more cost-conscious, efficient way than the public sector.

In short, the flip side to the privatisation of the public sector that the Big Society represents is public-spending cuts. The two go hand in hand: in order to provide public services more economically while minimising the social impact of cuts, the Conservatives believe it is necessary for those services to be run both on market principles and by those who are dedicated to that particular public service, such as the teachers, doctors, social workers, volunteers and communities themselves. These people will then have both an economic interest, indeed imperative, to run those services on as small a budget as possible while at the same time focusing on maximising the quality and positive social impact of the services they deliver.

All this is predicated on the assumption that it is possible to combine the virtues and driving forces of private enterprise and public service. There are indeed many examples of social enterprises, charities and mutual societies that already do superb work in the community on a self-financing, voluntary or partially publicly funded basis. So the model can work as part of the mix of public services. But Cameron’s sights seem set on re-modelling the whole of the public sector along these lines. Hence the ‘Big Society’: a concept that implies that the ‘little people’, or what Cameron referred to at the start of the election campaign as the ‘great ignored’, take on the functions and powers of ‘big government’, with the huge apparatus of the state replaced by tens of thousands of community enterprises and initiatives across the country – England, that is.

Before I elaborate on the England point, I just want to reiterate: this sounds great in principle, but in practice all of these little companies and mutual societies founded to run schools, hospitals and social services are going to be competing for government funding in an environment of brutal public-spending cuts; and they’ll also be set in competition against each other and against other businesses – private businesses from outside the communities concerned – that will be able to bid more price-competitively for contracts and licences to take over failing schools or improve hospital facilities. In order to compete for funding and deliver the statutory level of service they are required to provide, the co-operatives and social enterprises are going to have to make use of management expertise and operating techniques from commercial businesses, and it’s easy to imagine how all the little community groups will eventually get swallowed up into larger enterprises that can pool talent and costs, and provide services at a lower cost for the real customer: government.

What we could easily end up with is not the little people empowered to form the Big Society, but big business effectively doing the government’s job (or community enterprises joining together to form big businesses) at a fraction of the cost that the former public sector would have been either capable or willing to achieve. And this will inevitably involve reinforcing social inequalities and disadvantage, in that commercially minded businesses – albeit ones with an ostensibly socially responsible remit – will clearly be less willing to take over failing schools filled with problem children from dysfunctional homes, or under-performing hospitals requiring substantial investments to turn them around.

The money will be attracted to where the money is: wealthier, middle-class areas with parents who are willing to invest time and money in their children’s education, enabling ‘education providers’ to attract more funding because of the good academic results they have achieved. Or hospitals that have succeeded in delivering a greater ‘through-put’ of patients in particular areas of specialisation – resulting in a concentration of the best health-care facilities and personnel around specialist centres of excellence, and more ‘cost-effective’ health conditions and therapies. A less commercially orientated health system, on the other hand, might seek to provide an excellent level of medical care for the full range of health problems available in the areas where people actually live, including the ‘unglamorous’ conditions such as smoking-related illnesses and obesity, associated with the lifestyles of poorer people who, in addition, are less able to travel to the specialist centres where treatment might still be available on the NHS.

The English NHS, that is. Because let’s not forget that the tough medicine of the Tories’ Big Society is a prescription for England alone. Though they don’t say so in their manifesto, we should hardly need reminding that education, health care, social services, local government and communities, and policing are all devolved areas of government; and therefore, the UK government’s policies in these areas relate almost exclusively to England only. So it’s not really or mainly the British state that would be superseded by the Big Society but the public-sector assets and services of the English nation.

There’s another word for ‘privatisation’ that is particularly apt in this context: ‘de-nationalisation’. It’s the English nation whose systems and organisations for delivering public services would effectively be asset-stripped by the Tories: in theory made over to community-based co-operatives and social enterprises but in fact transformed into a free market in which the involvement of more ruthless profit-minded enterprises would increasingly become unavoidable.

This could potentially be another example of what happens in the absence of an authentic social vision for England on the part of the British political class: a vision based on the idea that the government and people of England can and should work together to improve the lives and opportunities of the English people; one that does see the government and public sector as having a real role in serving the people alongside a vibrant, enterprising private sector.

The British political establishment has, however, disowned the view that it has an authentic, valuable role to play in the life of the English people. This is precisely because it refuses to be a government for England (just as Cameron once famously indicated he did not want to be a prime minister for England) and refuses to allow the English people to have a government of its own. Instead, the establishment – whether New Labour or Cameron Conservative – have attempted to re-model English society along purely market-economy lines, and will continue to do so if we let them: the Big Society being one where English civic society is transformed into just another competitive market place, with the inevitable winners and losers.

Ultimately, then, it’s not the government of Britain that English people are being invited to participate in; but it’s a case that any idea and possibility that the British government is capable or willing to act as a government for England is being abandoned. Instead, the government, public sector and indeed nation of England will be privatised under the Tories: sold off to the most cost-effective bidder and dismembered perhaps even more effectively than through Gordon Brown’s unaccountable, regionally planned (English) economy.

Well, I for one won’t buy it. And I won’t vote for a party that seeks to absolve itself from the governance of England and wishes to permanently abandon any idea of an English government. And I urge all my readers not to vote Conservative for that reason, too. Even, if it is necessary (and only if it’s necessary) to do so in order to defeat your Tory candidate, vote Labour!
And believe you me, it really hurts and runs against the grain for me to say that.

At least, if there is a Labour-LibDem coalition of some sort, there’ll be a chance of some fundamental constitutional reforms, including consideration of the English Question, as stated in the Lib Dem manifesto. Under the Tories, there’s no chance – and England risks being for ever Little England, not a big nation, as it is privatised through the Big Society.

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 January 2010

A good day for burying references to England

The Conservatives published their draft manifesto for the English NHS yesterday, which failed to mention the only country it concerns – England – once. Yes, not once.

You can suggest questions on the policies, to be put to David Cameron in a webcast on Friday of this week, here. You can also vote on the existing questions regarding the omission of ‘England’. Please do so, as this will help ensure that at least one of them gets put to the Conservative leader. Mine is as follows:

“Do the Conservatives plan to reverse devolution in the area of health care? If not, I was wondering why your manifesto proposes policies for the NHS (i.e. that of Britain / the UK) rather than just the NHS in England? Why not mention England?”

Meanwhile, BBC Radio 4’s news output scarcely did any better yesterday, failing to indicate to listeners that the Tories’ proposals related to England only – eliciting the following complaint email from yours truly:

“Why did the news broadcasts on Radio 4 yesterday fail to mention that the Conservatives’ ‘manifesto’ for the NHS relates to England only? Is the BBC unaware of the effects of devolution in this policy area? Just because the Conservative Party fails to refer to England once in a manifesto that only concerns England, this doesn’t mean the BBC has to parrot them in such an uncritical manner.

“The BBC website performed a little bit better, saying that ‘[David Cameron] pledged maternity reforms in England to “meet mothers’ needs”‘. But even that could suggest that this was just one England-specific pledge in a manifesto that in other respects relates to the whole of the UK, which it doesn’t.

“This example also illustrates a tendency – on the website, and in TV and radio scripts – to signal that policies relate to England only in an incidental, passing manner, some way into the article, rather than up front in a way that unambiguously flags up the fact that the policies in question affect England only. For example, the website article begins: ‘Conservative leader David Cameron has said the NHS will be his “number one priority”, as the main parties step up their pre-election campaigning’. A casual reader could think Cameron is making the NHS across Britain his number-one priority. But he isn’t, as a Tory government would have responsibility for the NHS only in England. So why not say, “Conservative leader David Cameron has said the NHS in England will be his ‘number one priority'”?

“This complaint relates to an ongoing series of complaints I have with the BBC over its failure to properly report on English policies and legislation as English, not as ‘British’ as the parties try to pretend they are. Does the BBC have a political parti pris on this?”

Let’s see what they come back with on this. They still haven’t sent a full reply to my criticism of their coverage of the government’s plans to build nine nuclear power stations in England, one in Wales and none in Scotland, back in November.

19 November 2009

Labour’s vision is the Britain of the past, not the England of the present

I’ve been trying to work out why the Queen’s Speech detailing the Labour Party’s so-called programme for government up until the general election is so vacuous. Apart from the obvious things, that is: no mention of unemployment or immigration; no indication of precisely how the government – and which government – will fulfil its new statutory obligation to halve the UK’s fiscal deficit in four years at the same time as meet its pledges on public services; referring to all of the proposed bills as if they applied to the whole of the UK in a blanket fashion, whereas many of the key measures relate to England only; the complete lack of the word ‘England’ from the Queen’s speech, indeed, whereas Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were promised increased devolution; the total absence of references to reforming parliamentary expenses, let alone the thoroughgoing political and constitutional reform that all the parties paid lip service to back in May and June of this year; and the reality that virtually none of the legislative programme will actually make it onto the statute books before the election, and that what does become law may well be reversed by an incoming Conservative administration. What a pointless exercise, which illustrates how irrelevant and remote from people’s lives Westminster has become.

And I suppose that, in essence, is why it is all so vacuous: a process of British governance merely going through the motions and becoming almost self-referential rather than engaging dynamically and honestly with the people on whose behalf the work of government is supposed to be carried out. British law rather than government of, for and by the people of England. I guess that’s why the government feels it needs to legislate – or at least put forward legislation – for its commitments on public services and fiscal policy rather than just make those commitments and engage in debate about them. It’s as if the reputation and legitimacy of Parliament and this government have fallen so low that it’s no longer enough simply to promise to do something: you have to make those promises binding in law. But legislating for something doesn’t make it legitimate. This is British-parliamentary law making instead of real government and leadership, which involves engaging with people’s real lives, concerns and needs. In this sense, the absence of any verbal reference to England is the symptom of an unwillingness and lack of competency – in both meanings of the term – to be a government for England, even though that is what the British government is supposed to be in so many areas.

Look at the actual commitments the government is making to England (without saying so) in the form of statutory obligations that mostly won’t become statute anyway, and so aren’t worth the parliamentary Order Book paper they’re written on: binding commitments for suspected cancer sufferers to see a specialist within two weeks of a referral, and that no one should have to wait more than 18 weeks between a GP referral and a hospital appointment for other conditions; a commitment to provide one-to-one tuition to schoolchildren who need extra help; free personal care at home for the 280,000 most needy individuals plus other measures to help those already receiving free care or for those entering care homes. All very worthy commitments in themselves, but they come across as rather random. Why the priority on cancer referrals, as cancer is already comparatively well funded, rather than other aspects of health care that urgently need attention, such as strokes, the standard of personal care health professionals are able to provide patients in hospital, hospital hygiene, mental health, etc. etc.)? And what is the vision for the school system and for education as a whole in England, and, in particular, how is the government going to address the problem of failing schools, let alone that of failing pupils? The truth of the matter is the government doesn’t have a vision for English schools, in part because it can’t even acknowledge the name of the country for whose education system it is responsible. No vision of England means no vision for England’s NHS or health-care system.

And don’t even get me on to the subject of personal care, where the government still isn’t doing anything like what the Scottish government has been doing for years thanks to its generous funding via the Barnett Formula: free personal care at home for all who need it, irrespective of their financial means. Now, I’m not saying that we could afford such a level of provision in England, especially in these straitened financial times; but then, can we afford it in Scotland, either? How about drawing up a ‘Fairness In Government Bill’ specifying the minimum and maximum levels of public-service provision across the whole of the UK that are appropriate to different degrees of fiscal deficit – free personal care needing to be capped at a certain level, for all UK citizens, once the national debt reaches a specified amount? Oh, but I forgot: despite giving the impression that it could do something like that, the government can’t because of devolution. Well then, better still, give us an English Parliament, and then the fairly elected representatives of England could decide the level of taxation, borrowing and social-care provision that England can afford for its own people.

Because that’s what’s lacking in all of this: any kind of attempt to formulate policy for England that reflects English people’s priorities and preferences. Do we actually want the government’s nebulous ‘National Care System’, affiliated to the NHS, to be the centrally managed channel for government funding for and provision of social care? Wouldn’t we in England rather have a system that was managed and funded closer to the people it was aiming to help: through local authorities, communities, private providers, voluntary organisations, and direct financial and practical support to individual carers, rather than through some Whitehall-managed bureaucratic machine? But we’re not having this discussion because the government has given up, or perhaps has never wanted to be, this sort of genuine government for England.

But the Labour Party does have a vision for Britain. Except it’s a Britain of the past, not the Britain of the present, or a Britain and England of the future. On the same day as this most inconsequential of Queen’s Speeches, the Labour Party aired an extraordinary party-political broadcast:

In this embarrassing act of self-praise, the Labour Party identifies with Britain itself and with every major progressive movement of the 20th century, of which Britain is portrayed as having been in the vanguard. Well, perhaps not every movement: I’m sure there’s a brief flash of a CND march accompanying the commentary on the anti-apartheid movement – an intentional subliminal reference, perhaps, to give heart to socialist idealists that the Labour Party still represents them; but better not refer to this explicitly. And, needless to say, there is absolutely no reference to England even in the bits of the broadcast that refer to the England-only policies: the commitments about NHS treatment times; “free personal care for those who need it” (what, all of them?); the creation of a National Care Service (for ‘Britain’? no, it’s England only). Oh, of course, and no reference to the ‘achievement’ of devolution or to any of the actual policies the Labour government has carried out in England only: NHS prescription charges, parking fees, and life-prolonging drugs withheld, where these either do not apply or are provided respectively elsewhere in the UK (healthcare apartheid, in short); a target- and performance-driven education system that still has not demonstrably improved standards or focused on the needs of the economically and educationally disadvantaged – compared with a radical reform of the educational philosophy and system in Wales; free personal care in Scotland only.

Instead, Labour’s vision is a misty-eyed view of a past in which people did genuinely believe that Labour could deliver real change, and greater social equality and opportunity, for everyone across Britain; and in which it possessed the tools to deliver much of that agenda when it was in government. But Labour has in reality given away and abandoned that holistic vision of a united ‘British nation’, of social solidarity across the whole of the UK, and of concern for the needs of working people and those who cannot work, for one reason or another. And it’s also given away the levers of government to realise that vision. And so it retreats into a sterile sham of UK-wide law making underpinned by a dreamy re-writing of British history that places it at the centre of all meaningful social reform over the last 100 years: as much as to say that if it is elected into government again, it will continue the fight for progress in Britain.

But what will it actually do for England? And is it even bothered to ask the people of England what they want? Until it does, all its British law making and myth making will just be so many hollow words and fantasies.

8 October 2009

England: the unstated ‘real’ name of the British state

What follows is something of a ‘thought experiment’, as trendy ‘critical-theory’ lecturers might call it. It’s an attempt to logically think through some of the paradoxes of the British establishment’s present ways of describing itself and referring to its affairs. This is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis, by any means; just an attempt to expose an underlying structure and get inside the establishment mindset.

Case 1: the infamous conception of Britain / the UK as a ‘Britain of nations and regions’. This is obviously closely associated with Gordon Brown, who coined it. But it’s still for many the guiding template for the ‘new Britain’ of the post-devolution era, which requires further constitutional and political reform, including regional / local ‘devolution’ in England. And it even seems to have transformed the way in which ‘the Conservative Party of Britain’, as Gordon Brown erroneously but revealingly referred to it last week (technically, it’s the Conservative and Unionist Party), thinks about the Union, if the participants in that party’s debate on the Union or its proposed ‘Council of the Isles’ are anything to go by: representatives from all the (devolved) nations and from (the Conservative Party of) Britain, but not from England.

The limited question I want to ask here is this: if this new ‘Britain’ is composed of nations (Scotland and Wales, for sure; and more controversially, Northern Ireland) and of regions, what sort of entity is this Britain itself? This is intended as a purely logical question, in the first instance: what is the name for a territory, jurisdiction or sovereign state that has two sorts of subdivisions – nations and regions? A ‘union’ or grouping of nations into a single state tends to be designated as a federation or confederation. As examples of such a union, you can’t really count federal or confederal ‘nation-states’ such as the US or Switzerland respectively, since their subdivisions aren’t nations as such. You’d have to take discontinued states such as the USSR or Yugoslavia, whose subdivisions comprised formerly distinct (though historically variable) national territories that subsequently reaffirmed their status as nation states when the union-states of which they had been a part broke down. The prospective Federal EU that some dream of would be another example.

The USSR is quite a useful example. When it was still in existence, we tended informally to call it just ‘Russia’, because Russia was by far the largest and most dominant nation within the Union. After the break-up of the USSR, Russia itself is now formally known as the ‘Russian Federation’: a Union of many federal states or regions. Applying this analogy to ‘Britain’, it is also the case that throughout most of its history prior to devolution, the United Kingdom was often informally referred to – by English people and foreigners alike – as ‘England’, for similar reasons to those for calling the USSR ‘Russia’. Now, post-devolution, the national territories that had been assimilated into a unitary state (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) have reasserted a status as ‘nations’, albeit not fully sovereign nation-states like the former Soviet Republics.

On this analogy, then, the residual ‘British regions’ would be like the Russian Federation (i.e. effectively, English regions) but without reasserting their identity as a distinct nation as Russia has done. Applying the British model to the USSR (or however it would be renamed), it would be as if the Russian Federation had continued to be called the USSR, and the break-away Republics continued to be affiliated to the USSR but with recognition of their distinct nation status. The ‘new USSR’ would effectively be a ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Nations and Regions’. Such a state would be a ‘multi-national confederation’: a union of nations and subdivisions of nations (regions) having different relationships to the central state and each other, and so therefore not qualifying as a federal nation-state, in which each of the subdivisions would be equal to one another under the constitution.

If such a state had been formed (and the short-lived ‘CIS’, or ‘Commonwealth of Independent States’, was a prototype of something similar), it would doubtless have been imagined by the Soviet-Russian establishment as the means for Russia to maintain control and sovereignty over ‘its’ satellite nations within a single political structure without appearing to do so. But as a condition of achieving this, Russia itself would have had to forego the right to call and run itself as a separate nation, which would have lain bare the realpolitik behind the creation of the new USSR: that it was a means for one nation – Russia – to continue to dominate a number of dependent nations. Instead, officially, the name and nation status of ‘Russia’ would have had to disappear altogether, becoming merely a collection of ‘Soviet regions’ run directly by Moscow and the central-Soviet state, while the ‘nations’ enjoyed a degree of autonomous self-rule.

But what kind of thing would such a state of affairs, or affairs of a state, make the USSR? A ‘multi-national confederation’, yes. But the ‘regions’ within that confederation (i.e. the Russian regions) would actually also be the USSR: run by the state in a fully direct, unitary way; and identified with it, both formally (being called the ‘USSR’) and informally, in that the Russian population would be encouraged to transfer their identification with and allegiance to Russia to the new USSR, which would be the instrument and vehicle for the continuation of a powerful, imperial Russia under another guise.

In other words, the way in which a nation that has previously dominated a number of other nations through a supposedly equal, unitary political system can imagine that its unitary control continues to prevail once those nations start to break away is to re-group those nations into a new unity (new USSR or new ‘Britain’) with which it itself identifies. The former real unitary state (the USSR or Great Britain / the UK) that was often given the name of the dominant nation (Russia or England) becomes a confederation (no longer one nation but multiple nations) the unity of which is maintained in the mind of that dominant nation by a form of mental sleight of hand or fantasy denial of reality: the dominant nation identifies with the confederal state itself – thereby mentally transferring its own identity and personality as a united nation on to the confederal state. A union of multiple nations within a self-identical, homogeneous ‘nation-state’ is replaced by the identification of the leading nation with the new multi-national state. But in that process, the original dominant nation loses sight of its own distinct identity.

Hence, for the British establishment in the post-devolution world, England has become simply ‘Britain’: a Britain imagined as identical to – or co-terminous with – the devolved nations and the state itself. The ‘Britain of nations and regions’, therefore, is a UK [Britain] of [British] nations and English [British] regions: the state, the nations and the regions united in a single identity (Britain) whose ‘existence’ for the English is constituted by a process of identification – transferring English identity, nationhood, values, culture, history, tradition, etc. over to ‘Britain’. In reality, Britain is no longer a unitary state dominated by, and often designated as, England. But the way the establishment has reacted to the loss of the former English-British political union is to replace it with a psychological, existential union (i.e. a ‘union of identity’) between England and the new confederal Britain. But to be considered as a single entity, such a union can have only one name; and ‘Britain’ is the single name adopted for this new confederal structure into which England has been absorbed: disappearing in the process of becoming one-with-Britain, and thereby being the imaginary place in which Britain remains one.

But am I any nearer to answering my original question: what sort of entity is the ‘Britain’ that is subdivided into nations and regions? There’s no real logical answer to that question: you can’t easily call this Britain a ‘nation’, because then you’d have a ‘nation of nations and regions’, and you’d have all sorts of difficult questions about what the relationship was between the ‘mother nation’ Britain, and her national and regional children; and you’d have to explicitly acknowledge the non-inclusion of England as such within the system. But in addition to this logical and political dilemma, the reason why no one can satisfactorily answer this question is the same as the reason why the British establishment is incapable of referring to England as an entity distinct from itself: it’s because what this new Britain ‘really’ is, is England. On the analogy with the imaginary ‘continuity-USSR’ discussed above, England has been identified with the new effectively confederal British state (England ‘becoming’ Britain-as-the-UK; Russia becoming the new USSR) at the same time as that state is a sovereign body conferring a distinct national identity on its other parts, which thereby remain semi-autonomous parts of ‘Britain’. So the new ‘Britain’ is the way an essentially English perception of the former unitary UK as an extension of itself (as ‘Greater England’) is re-imagined as a new multi-national union with which England itself is identified – thereby preserving in imagination the old unity of England and Britain, and the ‘ownership’ of Britain by England; though at the expense of calling England ‘Britain’.

In this sense, England exists (or perhaps ‘subsists’ or ‘persists’ would be better) within the Britain of nations and regions not as an ‘object’ that can be described in rational, realistic terms (i.e. as a ‘nation’ or the collective name for a group of regions) but as its subject: it’s the hidden, nameless ‘national’ personality of the trans-national, confederal state – its inner psychological identity. England is in the mind of those English people – politicians or ordinary citizens – that have lived out the state’s identification of England with itself psychologically: in terms of their own personal sense of identity. ‘England’ is the unnamed, suppressed, subjective national identity of those English people who now explicitly identify as British first and foremost: who are content to regard the ‘Britain of nations and regions’ as a description of their ‘country’ and nation. It is, and can only be, English people who identify with the ‘nation’ of ‘Britain’ from which they are content to recognise that three other ‘nations’ have branched out (i.e. separated themselves from English control) and who also recognise that the ‘regions’ in question are regions of ‘their country’: in a more intimate and direct relationship with their country than that with the nations – because they are English regions (regions of their country England) even though it is not permitted to refer to them as such. The whole system only makes sense as an articulation of an ‘English’ point of view: the English ‘I’ (and eye) as it views the new British landscape – nations that are still really ‘ours’ (i.e. British) and regions that are even more so (i.e. English). England is the ‘we’ of Britain; but this fact must not and cannot ever be acknowledged, because then the realpolitik of the new Britain would be blown apart and exposed as an attempt by an England-centric establishment to retain power over a group of ‘other’ nations by re-imagining itself and them as a single entity known as Britain.

This relates to case 2, which I (mercifully) will not have time to explore in such depth: the articulation by national politicians of English matters as British. It is a cause of considerable exasperation to myself and many others that politicians whose ministerial portfolio or responsibilities are relevant to England only, because of devolution, continue to talk as if their policies and actions related to the whole of ‘Britain’. We’ve witnessed this tendency time and time again in this year’s party-conference season: none of the three established parties seems willing or able to refer to English matters as English matters. While it is true that this is a deliberate attempt to blind English people to the differences between English and devolved governance and policies, it is not enough in my view simply to hammer on endlessly about wilful deceit and insulting ignoring of England – which I’ve done frequently enough myself in these pages.

At one level, the fact that politicians and the media refer to English matters as British also reflects the fact that they genuinely don’t perceive the difference. And this is not even the same as saying that they are simply ignorant about devolution: of course, journalists and politicians are rational human beings (relatively so, perhaps!), and they’re aware about devolution in the part of their brains that deals with reality and facts. But rationality and realism are not what’s going on here because, quite simply, carrying on as if matters that relate to just one part of the Union related to all of it is irrational and at times not a little mad – like the recent row over parties’ commitments to the NHS, which was all about the English NHS, in practical terms, despite the fact that not a single item of commentary that I saw referred to England.

No, what’s going on – in addition to deliberate deception – is this process of psychological identification of England with Britain, predominantly by English people. If the politicians and media in question don’t properly make the distinction between England and Britain, it’s because they actually don’t see it (in) themselves: they’ve bought into, and completed in their own subjective minds, the state’s assimilation of England to ‘Britain’. They’re rather like the women in the film The Stepford Wives, who get replaced by identical, obedient automatons that are mechanical apart from one detail: the eyes are taken from the real women. In other words, these politicians and citizens have completed the process of national transformation and now answer only to the name ‘Britain’; except that this Britain is a re-working of an English ‘eye’ / I: a traditional English subjective perspective on the Union.

On this level, it actually doesn’t matter if the politician concerned knows that his portfolio extends only to England, and that when he’s referring to ‘Britain’ or ‘the country’ he actually means England. This is not only or always deceit, which involves passing one thing (England) off as another (Britain), because, in the politician’s mind, they’re not actually two different things: for them, there is only Britain; it’s just that in their particular case (e.g. education or health), their ‘British’ responsibilities stop at the borders with Scotland and Wales. So, in their minds, they’re actually ‘correct’ in referring to the country affected by their policies as ‘Britain’, because that’s how they genuinely see it. But then, of course, if the Britain involved in such cases does not extend to the ‘other’ UK nations, this is another way in which the ‘real’ name for ‘Britain’ is in fact England.

And this is why I believe that a self-governing England, with a distinct national identity, will emerge only when English people – including the English people who by and large still run the British state – are able to disentangle their English subjectivity from the objective reality that is known as Britain. After all, self-government implies that one knows who and what one’s ‘self’ actually is; and until English people can accept themselves as English, they will continue to be suppressed ‘subjects’ of the British state. Freeing ourselves politically as English citizens, therefore, will follow from freeing our minds to be English.

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.