Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

15 January 2015

The leaders’ debates and the failure to imagine England

In the row about what format if any the party leaders’ debates in the upcoming general election should take, one factor that has consistently been ignored is the England-specific framing of the discussion. By this, I mean not just that the possibility of an England-specific debate – focusing on the type of ‘English matters’ on which many have recently advocated that only English MPs should have the right to vote – has simply not been considered; whereas separate Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish debates have been offered. But also, the fact that the whole frame of reference for defining what constitutes ‘major UK parties’ is effectively English – or at least Anglo-British – has failed to be acknowledged.

Take the statement yesterday by the Green Party’s Australian-born leader Natalie Bennett claiming that the Green Party (of England and Wales) was one of the five major parties “in Britain”. Well, no, it’s one of the five largest parties in England. If you really mean ‘Britain’, or the UK, then you’d probably have to rank the Greens as sixth, with the SNP clearly in third place, both in terms of party membership and likely parliamentary representation after the general election.

Then you get into meaningless semantics about what constitutes a ‘national’ party: whether it means standing candidates in every single British, as opposed to UK, seat – leaving aside the fact that the Greens, Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems all have separate ‘Scottish’ parties, so that, technically, UKIP is the only major UK-wide party that qualifies. Unless, of course, by ‘national’ you mean every English seat. Because that is what, in this debate about the debates, ‘national’ effectively does mean: it’s whether parties are standing everywhere in England that counts, and hence whether their leaders’ performance in the debates are of relevance and interest to an English TV audience.

Of course, this is not being acknowledged, and cannot be acknowledged, as politicians and media would then have to admit that, in this supposedly UK election, involving UK-wide issues, there are really multiple elections: those in the devolved nations, where the issues properly concern only policy areas reserved to the UK government, and where nation-specific parties need to make their respective pitches about how they intend to look after the interests of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people within the London parliament; and then, in contrast, there is the election in England, where both reserved matters of great importance such as the economy, the EU, security and immigration are at stake, along with England-only matters such as the NHS, education, social care and cuts to local government – among many others.

Instead, politicians and the media are seeking to maintain the pretence that there is a single UK electorate, and single set of policy issues of equivalent importance and relevance to that ‘national’ audience: the NHS alongside the economy; education alongside immigration; social care and housing alongside welfare. There is of course a single national audience affected by the parties’ positions in all of these areas – but it’s the English audience, not the British one. And the ‘English’ parties – in my sense – certainly shouldn’t make a pitch to viewers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the (English) NHS, education system and local government, as if they were of equal relevance to viewers in those countries as those parties’ policies on the economy, defence and immigration. In fact, to do so is tantamount to fraud, as those parties wouldn’t be able to do anything in devolved policy areas if people in those countries voted them into power in Westminster.

The only way to be fair and proportionate about this is to split the debates into reserved and devolved matters; to have separate debates in all four of the UK’s nations on the latter; and have one or more debate on reserved policy areas involving, in some way, all the major parties of each nation. Then, by all means, the Green Party of England and Wales should be included, at least in the separate English and Welsh debates; and the Scottish Greens should be included in the Scottish debate.

The way I’d split it, to keep it manageable and useful to voters, is as follows:

• A first debate, aired UK-wide, featuring just David Cameron and Ed Miliband: as the PMs in waiting. This would deal only with reserved matters, given its UK-wide transmission

• A second debate, aired UK-wide, featuring the leaders of all the parties that could end up as coalition partners to the Conservatives or Labour, or as holding the balance of power, i.e. the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the DUP. This debate should also be on reserved matters only and should exclude the Tories and Labour in order to counterbalance the potential bias from limiting the first debate to them. Although only UKIP and the Greens are ‘national’ (i.e. English) parties, it would be relevant to English voters to have the leaders of the main nation-specific parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland appearing on the platform, as these parties may form part of UK governments legislating for England. The debates would therefore give voters in England a chance to find out whether these parties would ally themselves with Labour or the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament; and what their stance on matters such as English votes for English laws, constitutional reform for England, and other issues of concern to English people such as immigration and EU membership would be. That might make a real difference to voting intentions

• Four further nation-specific debates should also then happen, including UKIP and the Greens in England, and the single nation-specific parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In England, the debate should reasonably deal with both England-specific and reserved matters, but with a greater emphasis on English issues, as reserved issues would have formed the focus of the previous two debates. Devoting a limited amount of time to reserved matters would enable, say, Nigel Farage to debate the EU and immigration with David Cameron, and Natalie Bennett to debate energy policy alongside the environment (England-only) with the other leaders.

But I strongly doubt that a truly equitable solution such as this will be adopted: equitable to the people of England, that is, rather than to the purported national-UK parties that are in fact no such thing.

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14 October 2014

TV leaders’ debates: English debates for British votes on English laws

The proposed format for the leaders’ debates on TV ahead of next May’s general election, announced yesterday, reveals the fundamental character of Parliament and UK government as a reimagining-as-British of an essentially English polity. Three debates are mooted: one involving only the two ‘prime ministers in waiting’ (David Cameron and Ed Miliband – so much for the voters being in charge!); one including Nick Clegg in addition the two above ‘presidential’ candidates (ostensibly, to allow the Lib Dem leader to defend his party’s record in government); and one adding UKIP’s Nigel Farage to the mix, because UKIP is putting up a candidate in every constituency in England, Scotland and Wales (and because, let’s face it, its poll ratings and electoral performance can no longer be ignored).

It is staggering how easily and casually the SNP in particular, and also Plaid Cymru, have been excluded from the debates, even though the SNP is now the UK’s third-largest party in terms of members and is likely to be the largest party in Scotland after the 2015 election, as current polling stands. This means that the SNP could well hold the balance of power in a hung parliament and be invited into a UK coalition. Despite this, and despite the fact that the SNP already has six MPs, David Cameron indicated he thought the Green Party should also be included in at least one of the debates, on the basis that it currently has a single MP. If the Greens, why not the SNP, or Plaid, or indeed the Northern Irish parties?

The answer, clearly, is that only parties with MPs elected in England are thought to matter. This is ultimately because the UK polity itself is effectively at core an English polity (though never openly avowed as such). This means that parties’ electoral ‘pitch’ is mainly to English voters on English laws and policies.

The practical reality of Westminster politics is actually the opposite of the way it’s normally construed: it’s not so much that only some laws are English-only (and hence, the argument goes, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should be excluded from debating and voting on them) while some are UK-wide; but in reality, all policies are English, and only some also extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In this context, the real function of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, particularly in the post-devolution era, is merely to add their numbers to the parliamentary arithmetic that determines the composition of UK governments and the passing of English laws. It is assumed, therefore, that the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru needn’t be invited to participate in any of the TV debates because they will not be determining the content of UK (i.e. English) laws after the election – even though the votes of their MPs may be essential in passing those laws, and the participation of their MPs in government may be required as part of a ruling coalition.

But if SNP and, potentially, Plaid and some Northern Irish MPs are needed to form a coalition, don’t English voters have the right to hear what their leaders have to say about the policy concessions they would demand on entering a coalition, and what stance they would take on voting on such a coalition’s England-only or England-mainly laws?

But the ‘English’ parties don’t want English voters to realise that they are dependent on non-English-elected MPs and, by extension, non-English voters for the passing of essentially English laws – by which I mean not only laws whose extent is in fact strictly limited to England (which are in reality very few in number), but all UK laws and government policies: on the basis of my contention above that all UK laws are fundamentally and primarily English laws in the first instance.

On this basis, the moniker of ‘English votes for English laws’, used to justify the potential exclusion of non-English-elected MPs from debates and votes on England-only legislation, is a convenient fiction to cover up the fact that all laws are England-mainly: designed for England by English parties (but which style themselves as ‘British’) and only as it were incidentally extending to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (or one or two of those additional parts of the UK, depending on the geographical extent of any actual bill).

So the UK-wide (i.e. ‘English’) parties don’t want the Scotland- and Wales-only party leaders to participate in the ostensibly UK-wide (i.e. English) TV debates because they don’t want English voters to realise that those Scottish and Welsh parties, as well as Scottish- and Welsh-elected MPs in ‘UK’ (i.e. English) parties, may ultimately call the shots in terms of both ‘UK-wide’ (i.e. England-mainly) and England-only laws.

But the English parties nonetheless want the votes of those parties in Parliament and, potentially, the participation of those parties’ MPs in coalition government. Hence, they need the votes of the Scottish and Welsh electorate, including on genuinely England-only matters: all three ‘UK’ debates will air in Scotland and Wales, even though all laws in devolved policy areas will not affect Scottish and Welsh voters. If those Scottish and Welsh votes can be channelled into ‘UK’ (i.e. English) parties, all the better. Hence, the exclusion of the leaders of the SNP and Plaid fulfils a convenient double purpose: optimise the non-nationalist vote in Scotland and Wales (i.e. the vote for ‘English’ parties in those countries), while preventing English voters from being aware that Scottish and Welsh MPs will play a decisive role in shaping their next government and their laws.

So we’re left in a ludicrous situation of England-only parties in the debates canvassing the votes of all British voters for the passing of English laws in the UK parliament! If the SNP and Plaid are sidelined out of the equation, then you don’t have to consider the awkward potential situation whereby either a Conservative- or Labour-led coalition might actually require the votes of Scottish- or Welsh-nationalist politicians to pass English (i.e. all) their laws.

In which case, we might find that calls for English votes on English laws are quietly dropped. But in the meantime, we mustn’t have the inner workings of a parliamentary system exposed to the view of English and non-English voters alike in which the votes of non-English MPs – and ultimately, of non-English voters – are reduced to the role of providing parliamentary voting fodder in support of fundamentally ‘English’ policy agendas.

But the essentially English status of those policies and of Parliament itself must never be openly acknowledged. If it was, then there would be no alternative other than to move to a more honest separation of English and UK-wide policies and politics: a genuinely English parliament to debate English laws, and a genuine UK parliament to reflect different views and priorities from across the UK, and not just a ‘Britain’ that is fundamentally England re-imagined and re-named.

22 May 2014

Why I’m voting UKIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 June 2012

The British patriotic colours of the English

As an English patriot and nationalist, I wonder whether I should be dismayed at the explosion of British patriotism that is accompanying the queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations this weekend. One could be tempted to think that all the patient efforts that have been made, and the slow progress that has been achieved, towards articulating and celebrating a distinct English identity and politics, separate from the British, have been reversed in a single weekend as the English lapse into their archaic, feudal reverence for their British monarchical overlords.

But I’m not sure that such gloom and doom would be justified. People are just getting swept up into a tribal mega-celebration. Meanwhile, I feel like the supporter of a small, local football team within the catchment area of a much bigger and more successful club – say, a Tranmere Rovers follower surrounded by Liverpool and Everton fans: my simple all-white colours dwarfed by the red, white and blue of those other clubs as they celebrate winning the Premier League and the FA Cup respectively in the same season! Some chance I’ve got to show off my more modest loyalties! Indeed, I’m not surprised that not many cars, homes or shops are – yet – decked out with the red and white of England that one might otherwise expect to be sprouting from first-floor windows and the tops of car doors during the run up to Euro 2012. If one were, during this weekend, to display the Cross of St. George instead of the all-conquering emblem of the Union Flag from one’s car or front window, it would be like turning up to a posh garden party in an England shirt instead of the black tie that was stipulated on the invite.

Clearly, however, British patriotism is alive and well, and living in England, and possibly in the UK’s other nations, though not to the same extent or in the same home nation-denying way. I have to say I’ve been a bit surprised and disappointed by it, although I perhaps shouldn’t have been. It’s probably too early to draw many conclusions about the long-term impact of the ‘Great British Summer’ on the English identity and the possibility of a distinct English politics. I think one thing it illustrates – which has been confirmed by surveys over the years – is that more English people than any other category in fact make no distinction between Englishness and Britishness, and see absolutely no conflict between displaying both British and English patriotism, though not simultaneously. It will be interesting to see whether there is a similar explosion of English English patriotism around Euro 2012 once the sound and fury of the Jubilee has subsided – especially if, against the odds, the England team progresses through to the quarter- or semi-final. Will people’s patriotic fervour be too worn out after the Jubilee festivities to get wound up again and refocused on England for Euro 2012? Well, a great deal depends on the performance of the team. Come on, England!

In this context, it was again disappointing that the (supposedly English) FA has chosen to run with the ridiculous away England kit that the team modelled in its friendly against Norway last Saturday: navy blue shirts and light blue shorts.

For a start, these are not England colours (which are, of course, red and white) but are Union colours; indeed, Scottish colours. It is as if the FA has aped the England-denying design philosophy of the British Olympic Association, which opted for Stella McCartney’s all-dark and pale blue Union Jack design for this year’s British Olympics kit (see below).

Look, guys, you might as well re-brand the England football team ‘Team GB’ now and have an end of it! Have these men at the FA got no sense of national pride and heritage? Why can’t they just stick to the red shirts and white shorts of proud 1966, Bobby Moore, World Cup-winning memory? I tell you why: it’s about commercialism. They’ve gone with the England-denying trend of the whole Jubilympics year – thinking, presumably, that English football fans, like suckers, will flock to buy the new kit to replace the red England shirts that are now surplus to requirements. Well, all I hope is that the kit bombs, along with the Olympic kit, and that if the England team does progress to the knock-out stages of Euro 2012, it’s drawn against teams where it has to wear its home kit, which, at least, has expunged the Union blue.

But there’s another thing I’d like to say about the England away kit for Euro 2012. I don’t know of a single incidence, apart from this, of a professional football team’s colours that have violated an unspoken design rule for football kits: that the shorts should not be in a lighter colour than the shirts, unless they are white. Just think for a moment: do you know of any team that plays in, say, red shirts and yellow shorts; or black shirts and red shorts; or, more to the point, dark blue shirts and light blue shorts? I don’t, although I’m sure people could trawl up some obscure examples.

This unwritten rule seems to have as its premise that combinations of dark-coloured shirts and light-coloured shorts (apart from white, which is seen a non-colour) suggest weakness and lack of masculine power: basically, you need to have a strong, male colour in your pants, or no colour at all. This England kit suggests emasculated weakness. It’s a losing kit, as opposed to England’s winning kit of 1966: full-blooded red shirts, with masculine (and English) white in the groin area. The most successful English club teams have all played in red, though it hurts me to say so: Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. And of course, so did the English national team in its hour of glory. So why on earth isn’t this England team going to do so? Do they actually want the team to lose?

All I can hope is that the England team goes on to indeed defy the odds and perform successfully in Euro 2012 in its home kit of white with red trim. Let’s see England’s streets bedecked in England’s colours, and so let the memory of this weekend’s Union fervour fade rapidly into the distance!

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