Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

24 October 2014

EVoEL made simple: two simple solutions to the West Lothian Question

By now, anyone with even a remote interest in British politics will know what the West Lothian Question is, and will be aware that one of the answers proposed to it is ‘English votes for English Laws’ (EVoEL).

Should anybody need a quick reminder, however, the West Lothian Question relates to the fact that, following devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is possible, on occasions, for MPs elected from those countries to have a decisive say on legislation pertaining to England only, whereas English MPs have no such say on bills on similar matters affecting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, because those matters are devolved to the parliament and assemblies of those countries respectively.

EVoEL is one remedy proposed to this imbalance and – in the view of many – injustice. EVoEL says that, on occasions such as those described above, only English MPs should be allowed to exercise the decisive vote (or, by extension, only English MPs should have any say and / or participate in debates) on such bills, including in all or just some of the stages of such bills’ passage through the Commons.

In practice, it is highly complicated to implement EVoEL, for a number of reasons that have been well documented and argued about elsewhere, two of the main ones being that:

1) On the basis of current bill-drafting practices, there are in fact very few England-only bills, either in whole or in part, so that even if a bill ‘primarily’ relates to England, it may not be justifiable to exclude non-English MPs from voting on it given the direct or indirect effects it may have on their constituents

2) One of those indirect consequences is the financial impact via the infamous Barnett Formula, whereby funding for the devolved nations is linked to the English budget allocation in such a way as to effectively guarantee a higher level of spending per head of population in those countries than in England. The fact that many England-only or England-mainly bills involve decisions about spending in England has therefore been used as justification for non-English MPs to continue voting on them. Even the SNP, which generally exercises a so-called ‘self-denying ordinance’ (i.e. doesn’t vote) on non-Scottish matters, does vote on mainly or exclusively English bills that affect Scotland in this indirect way.

I want here to suggest two non-mutually exclusive, ‘simple’ ways to implement EVoEL, or rather to solve the problem EVoEL is intended to solve without in fact preventing non-English-elected MPs from voting on ‘English’ laws. Of course, the most clear-cut solution is a separate English parliament, which comprehensively redresses the asymmetry of New Labour’s devolution settlement in that, by definition, only English-elected representatives would vote on England-only bills, in an England-only parliament.

But assuming that the present UK parliament is retained, for a time at least, as the legislative body for England, my simple solutions to the West Lothian Question would run as follows:

1) Introduce proportional representation (PR) for UK general elections. This would effectively eliminate the political dimension to the West Lothian problem, if not the national and constitutional aspects to it. The political dimension derives from the differential parliamentary representation of Labour and the Conservatives across the UK’s nations: Labour generally – but for how much longer? – winning most of the seats in Scotland and Wales (and therefore, when in government, being keen for its MPs from those countries to vote on its ‘English’ bills), and the Conservatives being more likely to win parliamentary majorities in England that are insufficient to form UK-wide majorities, owing to the party’s lack of seats in Scotland and Wales (and therefore making it necessary to form coalitions with parties whose numbers are in part made up by non-English MPs, who also vote on English bills – something which the Conservatives have been perfectly willing to go along with as part of the present coalition with the Liberal Democrats).

With PR, there would be very little difference between the state of the parties UK-wide and England-only, owing to the sheer demographic dominance of England, which has around 85% of the UK population. Accordingly, in 2010, the Conservatives won 40% of the popular vote in England only and 36% UK-wide. Similarly, Labour won 28% in England and 29% UK-wide, and the Lib Dems won 24% and 23% respectively. If these vote shares had been translated into shares of seats, the coalition between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would have had 63% of English seats and 59% of the seats UK-wide. In general, it would be unlikely that any UK-wide coalition necessitated by PR would not also command a majority of English seats, and it would certainly be politically unwise to put together a UK majority that failed to deliver an English majority.

By introducing PR, then, you could avoid having to ban non-English-elected MPs from voting on ‘English’ matters: you would not need to make any changes to existing parliamentary procedure, in fact, as the ruling coalition would depend on the loyal support of its English MPs to pass any of its bills, England-only or England +.

It would still be theoretically possible, though arithmetically unlikely, for ‘English’ bills to fail to obtain the support of most English MPs but still be passed owing to the support of Scottish and Welsh MPs. However, a fairly substantial rebellion by the coalition parties’ English MPs would be required, and this would present a bigger political problem to a coalition government than it did for the New Labour government that introduced foundation hospitals and university tuition fees in England despite a majority of English MPs rejecting the measures. This is because the English MPs voting against the government would be likely to be from only one of the coalition parties, rather than both (or all), meaning that any such rebellion would represent a direct challenge to the coalition’s very survival. Accordingly, rebellions on this scale would be more likely to be nipped in the bud.

2) All bills to require a majority of both England-only and UK-wide MPs. The two main parties are unlikely to embrace PR as an answer to the WLQ, despite the simplicity and elegance of the solution, as this would involve relinquishing their ambitions to win outright parliamentary majorities, pretty much for good. This fact reveals just how much the obfuscations and disingenuousness around the WLQ and EVoEL are bound up with narrow party self-interest: Labour’s ambition to govern being tied up with continuing to allow its Scottish and Welsh MPs to vote on English matters, and the Conservatives lust for power being bound up with denying the selfsame right to Scottish and Welsh members.

So an alternative ‘solution’ to this conundrum (although it could also be introduced in tandem with PR) would be to introduce a simple rule that all bills and clauses should require the support of a majority of both English MPs and all UK MPs to be passed. This again requires no modification to any parliamentary procedure – no ‘two classes of MPs’, and no endless disquisitions as to the geographical extent of bills or clauses – and simply ensures that no bill can be passed without procuring the support of a majority of England’s representatives.

The justification for this approach is based on a view about the relationship of Parliament to England, which is as stated in a previous blog about the televised leaders’ debates: that it is not so much that only some laws are English-only (and hence, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should putatively be excluded from debating and voting on them) while some are UK-wide; but that in reality, all laws are English, while some also extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (or to one or two of the above).

I can’t think of any legislation in recent years, other than the actual devolution legislation, that has not applied to England. The UK parliament is therefore the de facto English parliament: the English legislature. So if EVoEL is ostensibly a means to give England a voice, and to create something of a distinct English parliament within the UK parliament (as opposed to a separate body), then it seems fair that legislation should always be required to command a majority of English MPs.

I can hear the howls of indignation in certain quarters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: that this ‘discriminates’ against their MPs. But it does no such thing, really, because any legislation – even fully England-only bills – would still be required to obtain the support of a majority of MPs from across the UK under this rule. I.e. if a bill is supported by most English MPs but not by a majority of all UK MPs, then it is not passed – just as would be the case today.

There would, of course, be implications for the forming of governments, i.e. the need to ensure – where possible – that any incoming government enjoyed both a UK-wide and England-only majority. However, here again, not much would need to be changed. The process, as now (assuming PR had not been implemented), would be that any party winning an outright UK majority would normally form the government on their own, unless they failed to win a majority in England. In that case, they might wish to enter a coalition with another party with sufficient English MPs to make up an English majority – or alternatively, they could just work with other parties to secure English majorities for their bills on a case-by-case basis.

If no party won an outright majority, the process, as now, would be to find the single party or coalition that commanded the largest number of seats UK-wide: preferably, but not necessarily, a majority; and preferably, but not necessarily, the largest number / a majority of English seats. In the absence of a UK-majority (and English-majority) government, the same rule about getting English bills passed would apply: the government would just have to collaborate with other parties, which is probably a good thing for England’s governance, in any case.

In reality, it would be extremely unlikely for a party or coalition with a UK-wide majority to fail to secure an English majority. This has not happened in the post-war era: contrary to popular misconception, every single Labour majority government since 1945 has also succeeded in winning a majority of English MPs. The only two post-war Labour governments that have failed to win an English majority also failed to win a UK one: those elected in 1964 and February 1974.

If this dual-majority rule for votes in Parliament were introduced together with PR – which it could be – then the chance of a UK majority failing to deliver an English majority, or vice-versa, would be witheringly small.

The two answers to the West Lothian Question outlined here do not provide an answer to the ‘English Question’, which is: who governs England, and in whose name? If one or both of my proposals were implemented, the answer to that question would still be: the UK parliament and executive govern England, in the name of the UK. There would still be no properly English parliament: no English voice or recognition as a sovereign nation, with a right to determine the government of its own choosing.

But what would be achieved, if my proposals were adopted, would be a parliament more fitting to serve, even if only provisionally, as England’s legislature: properly accountable to the people of England; more accurately reflecting the priorities of English voters; and leading to the formation of governments that could not use their support from other parts of the UK to override the views of England’s elected representatives.

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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.

20 April 2011

Land of hope and glory, maybe – but which land are we talking about?

It’s common in liberal-progressive circles nowadays to bemoan the emergence of ‘identity politics’, by which is meant a politics of national identity drawing variously on opposition to mass immigration and the assimilation of Britain into the EU, resistance to globalisation, Islamophobia and ethno-racism. Little attempt is made to differentiate between the various modes of nationalism: Scottish / Welsh / Irish-republican, British or English; ethnic, cultural or civic.

The fact that such a wide range of diverse political credos and projects are tarred with the same brush is a reflection of the fact that British liberal progressives themselves do not make a clear distinction between ‘Britain’ (UK or Great Britain?) and England. That is because they themselves are part of the ‘Anglo-British’ tradition of politics and identity in England, whereby traditionally ‘Britain’ and ‘England’ have been interchangeable, overlapping terms and concepts.

This is something I’ve discussed on many previous occasions. But it occurs to me that you could configure this Anglo-Britishness as follows:

  • When (s)he is deliberately or explicitly referring to the non-English parts of ‘Britain’, or to Britain as a whole, your traditional Anglo-Brit might well say ‘Britain’ but still actually be thinking of England or, more strictly, be thinking of ‘Britain’ in English terms, or as an extension of England, or with reference to England, or with England conceived as Britain’s fulcrum
  • When not focusing on or including the non-English parts of Britain, the traditional Anglo-Brit will happily say ‘England’ where technically ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’ would be a more accurate word for what they are referring to.

Be that as it may, the English identity has traditionally been bound up with this Anglo-Britishness, and popular national and patriotic (as opposed to ‘nationalist’) sentiment has made little effort to distinguish between England and Britain if it even noticed any difference between the two. I’d like to christen this hybrid ‘nation’ that the Anglo-Brits celebrate as ‘Bringland’: neither strictly Britain nor England but the real nation that the English traditionally took pride in.

Except, of course, Bringland never was real in any formal or official sense. But the unwritten constitution of the UK consecrated this informal identification between England and the British realm in that it made the British parliament the continuation of the pre-Union English parliament, with all its pre-existing rights and prerogatives; and made the English monarch, with his / her historic English role as Defender of the Faith and temporal Head of the Church of England, also the King or Queen of the UK and Commonwealth.

At the risk of gross simplification, one could say that the process of constitutional reform kicked off by New Labour and now being continued by the Con-Dem coalition fundamentally involves undermining and unravelling this organic existential / psychological / symbolic / spiritual fusion between England and the UK. The UK is being redefined as a distinct entity separated from its previous English core; or, as I put it elsewhere, England is being ‘disintermediated’ from the UK: deprived of any role or status, practical or symbolic, within the ‘values’ (economic, symbolic, political) underpinning the UK state.

The liberal establishment is driving these developments. It is happy for the UK to re-define itself as a polity that is to some extent ‘beyond nation’: transcends nationhood (specifically, has gone beyond its former English-national identity) and conceives of itself as inherently multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. In a sense, then, it is hardly surprising that there has been a nationalist backlash, as popular attachment to English / British / ‘Bringlish’ identity and traditions is profound and, I would say, enormously important and valuable.

But, as nationalists, we have to be clear in our own minds which nation we seek to uphold and defend: is it Britain / Bringland, or is it England? We can’t totally swim against the tide of history. The world is changing at what seems like an ever-accelerating pace, and England has to be open to operating in a globalised, culturally plural world if she is to establish herself and survive as a prosperous nation in her own right. And Bringland is unravelling, whether we like it or not: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are seeking to define their own future and their own governance, separate from the Bringlish Union; and the establishment itself has set its face against England and towards further constitutional innovation (which could include repealing the Acts of Succession and even disestablishing the Church of England), which risks definitively severing the organic, historic ties between England and the Union state.

We shouldn’t waste our time extolling and defending historic Anglo-Britain. Bringland is dying on its feet, and our choice is either to side with the trans-national, de-anglicised Britain of the liberals and the establishment, or to define and celebrate a new, distinct English identity and future, symbolically and politically distinct from Britain.

That is why I find it rather dismaying that in a poll of the readers of This England magazine, Land of Hope and Glory has emerged as the favourite candidate for an English national anthem. Land of Hope and Glory is a British, or Bringlish, hymn par excellence, celebrating Anglo-Britain’s ‘glorious’ imperial past and the expansion of the essentially English realm beyond Britain itself across the Empire:

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,

How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?

Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;

God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet,

God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.

This is not an anthem for a modern England, proud of its past, yes, and confident in its own identity, values and traditions but determined to be a partner to other nations and a participant in the international community on equal terms, rather than an imperial subjugator and rival to other powers. I suppose we should take heart from the fact that 93% of the readers of This England said they wanted a separate English national anthem. But this is the old and dying Anglo-British identity, not the New England – the new Jerusalem, indeed – of Blake’s poem.

For my part, I accept the charge of identity politics. But for me, this is not a politics that seeks to revive and inflame an old Anglo-British, imperialist patriotism and send it in a new xenophobic, vicious nationalist direction. For me, English nationalism is not so much about identity politics but about establishing England’s political identity. That is, unless and until England can establish its own identity and voice in the shape of formal, constitutionally secure political and cultural institutions, the prospects of its very existence as a nation are at best uncertain, at worst grim. My identity politics are not a case of reviving an ethnic Anglo-British identity in the face of powerful social and economic forces that threaten it but are about creating a new English nation, distinct from the old Anglo-British establishment that has now separated itself from its former English core.

Once England has a political centre of its own, it can indeed then begin to forge a new English identity around which the traditional Anglo-British pride can again coalesce and re-express itself in modern terms: proud of its ‘Bringlish’ past but focused on an English future.

8 October 2010

David Cameron: Big society, not English government

There is a paradox at the heart of David Cameron’s keynote speech to the Conservative Party conference on Wednesday of this week. The prime minister made an impassioned defence of his belief in abolishing ‘big government’ in favour of empowering individual people and smaller groupings of people (‘society’) to take decisions about the most important aspects of their lives, and to take the initiative in creating social and economic capital: a better, more responsible and more prosperous society. Yet, at the same time, Cameron holds on to a vision of the Government – the one he heads up as prime minister – as one for the whole of the United Kingdom, i.e. as one that is and must remain a bigger centre of power and political authority than, say, the smaller government provided by devolved nations within a federal state.

Indeed, Cameron set out this anti-devolution position in no uncertain terms:

“We will always pursue British interests. And there are some red lines we must never cross. The sight of that man responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, the biggest mass murderer in British history, set free to get a hero’s welcome in Tripoli. No. It was wrong, it undermined our standing in the world. Nothing like that must ever happen again.

“When I walked into Downing Street as Prime Minister, I was deeply conscious that I was taking over the heaviest of responsibilities, not least for the future of our United Kingdom. . . . I want to make something . . . clear. When I say I am Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, I really mean it. England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – we are weaker apart, we are stronger together, and together is the way we must remain.”

The paragraph about the release of the Lockerbie bomber is on one level pure posturing. If something like that happened again, there’s no way Cameron, even as the prime minister of the UK, could do anything about it, unless he’s planning on undoing not only Scottish devolution but hundreds of years of Scottish judicial independence. No, as the context makes clear, the reference to the Al-Megrahi case is really intended as an illustration of what could happen if devolution were extended to England: Cameron does have the power to prevent something like that, by ensuring that the governance of England, and the final say in judicial matters of this gravity in England and Wales, remain firmly in the hands of the British government, so as not to damage Britain’s ‘standing in the world’. So when Cameron says ‘Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’, he really means England to remain an integral part of his British remit.

In other words, empowering ‘people’, and transferring to them many of the responsibilities previously carried out for them by ‘government’, does not equate to giving the people, even less the ‘English people’, the choice as to how they wish to be governed at a national level. ‘England’ hardly enters Cameron’s vocabulary, being mentioned only twice throughout the 6,866 word-long speech, which at least is twice more than Ed Miliband referred to England in his keynote address last week. Cameron’s second use of the ‘E’ word comes immediately after the passage I’ve just quoted: “But there is of course another side to life as Prime Minister. Like for instance, being made to watch the England football team lose, 4-1 to Germany, in the company of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel”. So, having just rubbished any English pretensions to question the legitimacy of Cameron’s prime-ministerial authority over England, he then has to try and prove that he really is an Englishman at heart by referring to the World Cup episode – as if to say: ‘well, England, you can’t have your own government and prime minister, you’ll just have to put up with being only a football nation, and even that you’re not much good at!’

That much may or may not be true, but there’s no reason why, later on in his speech, Cameron couldn’t have mentioned, when discussing the bid for the 2018 World Cup, that it involves bringing it to England, as opposed to the Olympics, which he says will be “great for Britain” – and, indeed, in which ‘the country’ will be represented by Team Great Britain. In fact, questions such as who or what represents ‘the country’; how government stands in relation to the country; and, indeed, which country is represented by the word ‘country’ are central to an understanding of Cameron’s speech. The answer, it would appear, is ‘people’, meaning individuals, groups of people and ‘the people’ collectively, and on two occasions – toward the beginning and end of the speech, and hence framing it – the ‘British people’.

‘People’, ‘country’ and ‘government’ are the most common significant words in Cameron’s speech, running through it like a thread or rhythmical refrain, as this helpful word cloud provided by the BBC illustrates:

The relationship between these key concepts reveals how Cameron tries to square the circle between scrapping big government and insisting on the prerogatives of United Kingdom government. At the centre of Cameron’s vision, as I have said, are ‘people’ (59 mentions): people are at the centre of ‘government’ (36 instances); they are the central reference of government. Government is for people: it exists in order to enable people to take responsibility for the important things in their lives and the lives of those around them; and insofar as people gradually take on these responsibilities, they are in effect taking over the tasks they have previously relied on big government to carry out on their behalf – providing schools, running the health service, setting priorities for policing, carrying out town planning, providing social care, etc. Hence, the people not only take over the government but in effect become the government: “We are the radicals now, breaking apart the old system with a massive transfer of power, from the state to citizens, politicians to people, government to society. That is the power shift this country needs today and we can deliver it in government”.

‘People’ is inherently a collective term in Cameron’s conception: it does not just mean ‘individual persons’, as in the selfish individualism associated with previous toxic brands of Conservatism; it means people coming and working together to fulfil vital and valuable social objectives (forming the big society), whether this is creating wealth-generating businesses, looking after their families or providing a public service for their local communities. So the process of people taking on the work of government does not involve splitting up the ‘country’ (36 mentions) into fragmented, small units, and ultimately leaving individuals entirely on their own; on the contrary, the dynamic of the big society Cameron would like to set in motion is one whereby people go out into the world and work ‘together’ (22 appearances) in their mutual interest, and, in that process, mere ‘people’ become not just their own government but a country – a collectivity that is bigger and greater than individuals alone:

“We can build a country defined not by the selfishness of the Labour years but by the values of mutual responsibility that this party holds dear. A country defined not by what we consume but by what we contribute. A country, a society where we say: I am not alone. I will play my part. I will work with others to give Britain a brand new start.”

“This is your country. It’s time to believe it. It’s time to step up and own it. So mine is not just a vision of a more powerful country. It is a vision of a more powerful people. The knowledge in the heart of everyone – everyone – that . . . they are not small people but big citizens. People that believe in themselves. A Britain that believes in itself. Not a promise of a perfect country. Just an achievable future of a life more fulfilled and fulfilling for everyone. At this time of great national challenge, two parties have come together to help make it happen. Yes, this is a new kind of government, but no, not just because it’s a coalition. It is a new kind of government because it is realistic about what it can achieve on its own, but massively ambitious about what we can all achieve together. A government that believes in people, that trusts people, that knows its ultimate role is not to take from people but to give, to give power, to give control, to give everyone the chance to make the most of their own life and make better the lives of others.”

So, in a sense, the people, the government and the country are to become one and the same, defined by working together to make everyone’s conditions of life better. The government – specifically, the coalition government that Cameron leads – is on this view no more than the ultimate extension and expression of this principle of people coming together to form a self-governing country, responsible for and towards its own future. Hence, the government is no longer big government but becomes essentially an enabler of the big society, and co-terminous with that big society, which is, as it were, government by the people for the country. And that country is Britain or the United Kingdom precisely because the United Kingdom – comprising four separate peoples or nations that are “stronger together”, in Cameron’s words – exists by virtue of the very same dynamic as the big society and big-society government as set out in Cameron’s speech: coming together to work in the mutual, national interest. ‘People’, the ‘country’ and ‘government’ are all about uniting to create a better future for all – and the United Kingdom state isn’t big government but is the ultimate symbol of that unity:

“That’s what happened at the last election and that is the change we can lead. From state power to people power. From unchecked individualism to national unity and purpose. From big government to the big society.” [My emphasis]

There’s no room in this vision for anything we might like to call ‘England’, which is why it doesn’t feature in the word cloud: for Cameron, the people is the government is the country is the United Kingdom. All of these terms refer to each other, and represent each other, in a charmed closed circle that won’t be broken by the intrusion of a harsh reality such as that of England. But the reality of the big society is that it does represent and relate almost exclusively to England alone: all those radical reforms of the NHS, schools, policing, town planning, etc. will take effect in England only. It’s not just ‘people’ who will have to decide whether to respond to Cameron’s challenge to govern their own lives and build a better country; it’s the English people who will have to decide whether they can accept the real consequences for the quality of life and social fabric of their country, England, of Cameron’s vision of Britain.

David Cameron invites the English people to rise above their personal and collective self-interest, putting the big society and a united Britain ahead of selfish individualism and ‘narrow’ nationalism. However, as the bitter reality of cuts to English public services follows on from Cameron’s seductive rhetoric, it remains to be seen whether the English people will really feel their legitimate interests, and their democratic rights to choose their priorities for government and public services, are being served by a government which, in Cameron’s concluding words, is set up to “work, together, in the national [British] interest”.

29 September 2010

Ed Miliband addresses the country – only not by name

The BBC website provides a useful word cloud for Ed Miliband’s keynote address to the Labour Party conference yesterday. Here it is:

Two things immediately stand out: 1) after ‘generation’ (frequent references to a ‘new generation’ of Labour politics), the most frequently occurring word is ‘country’ (37 instances); 2) there is absolutely no reference to ‘England’ – not one.

On the one hand, this lack of engagement on the part of the new Labour leader with the idea or reality of England should and does not surprise us. It would be more surprising if Ed Miliband had talked at any length at all about ‘England’ and the need for the party to address the concerns of ordinary English people. On the other hand, the total absence of ‘England’ from the speech belies the new leader’s attempt to differentiate himself from New Labour, as the lack of an English dimension to Labour’s vision of and for ‘the country’ represents a strong thread of continuity with New Labour days. Instead of ‘England’, Miliband resorted to the stock term, ‘country’, that politicians and those in the media employ to avoid being specific about whether they are talking about Britain as a whole or England only, or both.

Nonetheless, Miliband’s speech does represent a break with New Labour practice in that ‘Britain’, too, appears to have lapsed into disuse: ‘British’ and ‘Britain’ garnered only 16 mentions. At least, we’re now not getting ‘Britain’ thrust in our faces at every turn when a Labour politician is talking about purely English policy areas; but that’s partly because there was very little on policy as such in Miliband’s speech, nor was there expected to be. So ‘country’ has come to replace ‘Britain’ as well as ‘England’, probably for the same reason: it allows you to avoid being specific about which country you’re referring to in different contexts, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of having to say ‘Britain’ when everyone knows that what you’re referring to is relevant to England only, but you can’t say so because ‘England’ is the ultimate taboo word.

This lack of references to the name(s) of the country or countries being evoked, and even to particular regions or parts of the country (such as the North or the South), creates a strange impression of non-specificity: a vision for the ‘country’ that is not grounded in any geographical, indeed geopolitical, reality. This is Labour’s, or Ed Miliband’s, vision for ‘society’, ‘the economy’, ‘government’ and ‘politics’ (all among the most commonly used words, as the word cloud illustrates) where the national collectivity and context that are implied and invoked in these terms remain completely nameless during large parts of the speech: as it were abstracted out of the vision. ‘We’ and ‘our’ (as in the endlessly intoned ‘our country’, ‘our society’, ‘our economy’) are among the most frequently occurring words in the speech (not shown in the word cloud, which is limited to nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives). But it’s never spelled out who are the ‘we’ thus addressed. In the end, the inescapable impression is that ‘we’ is above all the collective consciousness of the Labour Party in its aspiration to re-take ownership of ‘the country’:

“The optimism of Tony and Gordon who took on the established thinking and reshaped our country. We are the optimists in politics today. So, let’s be humble about our past. Let’s understand the need to change. Let’s inspire people with our vision of the good society. Let the message go out, a new generation has taken charge of Labour. Optimistic about our country. Optimistic about our world.”

Far from reaching out to the British people, let alone the English people, this is Labour talking to itself about Labour’s vision of ‘the country’ – as it were the ‘Labour nation’, which can be set out in its pure form, untainted by the all-too recent realities of Labour in government, only because it abstracts itself from any real national context.

But if you don’t name the country you’re talking about, can you really espouse and re-connect with the aspirations and priorities of ordinary people, who want their leaders to set out believable visions for their country – England – and, perhaps more importantly, want them to acknowledge ways in which they’ve let down their country in the past. Ed Miliband had a little go at this when he owned up to the failings of the outgoing Labour government in areas such as tuition fees and immigration policy:

“I understand why you felt that we were stuck in old thinking about higher and higher levels of personal debt, including tuition fees”

“this new generation recognises that we did not do enough to address concerns about globalisation, including migration. All of us heard it on the doorsteps about immigration. Like the man I met in my constituency who told me he had seen his mates’ wages driven down by the consequences of migration. If we don’t understand why he would feel angry – and it wasn’t about prejudice – then we are failing to serve those who we are in politics to represent. I am the son of immigrants. I believe that Britain has benefited economically, culturally, socially from those who came to this country. I don’t believe either that we can turn back the clock on free movement of labour in Europe. But we should never have pretended it would not have consequences. Consequences we should have dealt with.”

Note the tic of referring to the sensitive issue in each case almost as an afterthought introduced by ‘including’: including tuition fees (just another personal debt issue); including migration (just another fraught consequence of necessary globalisation). In fact, this is not really apologising for old New Labour’s policies in these areas at all. He’s not actually saying Labour was wrong to introduce tuition fees, just that these were an unfortunate extra debt burden on people. And then his expression of ‘understanding’ about migration turns into a defence of it – including his own personal background – as being overwhelmingly of benefit for Britain and in part a consequence of something regarded as essentially positive: the “free movement of labour in Europe”.

But it’s England and Wales specifically that were burdened by tuition fees and then top-up fees, thanks to the votes of Labour’s Scottish MPs, whose own constituents were exempt from both. It’s English voters who were mainly affected and concerned by immigration, as England has borne the brunt of it. Immigration may have enhanced the stock of Britain, in every sense, including that of the Miliband family, but what has it done for England? Answer me that, Ed. (And that’s an open question, but not one Ed Miliband is really prepared to address.)

In fact, Miliband – at least as exemplified in this speech – is not prepared to ask the English question itself, let alone suggest an answer to it, as this passage amply demonstrates:

“The old thinking told us that for 300 years, the choice was either the break up of the United Kingdom or Scotland and Wales run from London. We should be proud that Labour established the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. And we should make sure that after next May’s elections we re-elect Carwyn Jones as the First Minister in Wales and we elect Iain Gray as the new First Minister in Scotland. And I am so so proud that, against all the odds, we helped deliver peace in Northern Ireland. And it will be one of Tony Blair’s great legacies to this country and we owe our gratitude to him.”

So devolution as enacted by New Labour is something to be proud of. No hint of a suggestion that it might have left England just a tad short-changed and that it raises questions about the governance of England. Here above all, Ed Miliband is keeping faith with the old New Labour certainties and with the former Labour Lord Chancellor Derry Irving’s assertion that the best answer to the West Lothian Question is not to ask it! He can’t even bring himself to mention the ‘E’ word in the one passage throughout the whole speech where the English question is absolutely begging. But that’s precisely it: it’s begging a question he isn’t prepared to even engage in.

So England might as well just not exist at all in Ed Miliband’s vision of ‘the country’: ‘our country’, Labour’s country. And the unwillingness to even pronounce the dirty ‘E’ word signals a failure to acknowledge the ways in which New Labour profoundly let down England specifically – indeed, as we have seen, Miliband actually defends and justifies the outgoing government’s record in English matters even as he appears to acknowledge its failings.

So perhaps we should give the last word to the new leader himself. Nothing changes, really: new generation, same old new Labour and same old new Britain. For ‘the country’, you can in fact read ‘Britain’, or at least Labour’s fictitious, rose-tinted vision or version of it that air-brushes England out of the picture. Yes, you’ve guessed what the last word in the speech, and the last word of the speech, is:

“We are the optimists in politics today. So, let’s be humble about our past. Let’s understand the need to change. Let’s inspire people with our vision of the good society. Let the message go out, a new generation has taken charge of Labour. Optimistic about our country. Optimistic about our world. Optimistic about the power of politics. We are the optimists and together we will change Britain.”

20 May 2010

Clegg ducks the English Question

Our new deputy PM, the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, yesterday announced what he termed the “biggest political reforms since 1832”. There is much to be commended in his proposals, which fall into three categories: 1) reversing New Labour’s erosion of our civil liberties; 2) reform of Parliament and party politics; and 3) further devolution, or what Clegg calls “redistribution of power away from the centre”.

The plans relating to civil liberties are especially welcome. Those relating to parliamentary reform and devolution are less so. I would pick out three main areas for concern:

  1. House of Lords reform: “This government will replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber where members are elected by a proportional voting system. There will be a committee charged specifically with making this happen. But make no mistake: that committee will not be yet another government talking shop. This will be a dedicated group devoted to kick-starting real reform.”

    Is that it then? No wide-ranging consultation of the British people about the sort of second chamber they would like to see for their parliament? The government is simply going to decree that we must switch to a fully elected Upper House, sweeping away centuries of tradition and an organic link to the history of England before it was Great Britain, which the government will bring about through a mere Act of Parliament? Don’t we get a referendum to find out if we like the ideas of this ‘dedicated committee’ chaired by Nick Clegg himself? To say nothing about whether this Upper House is going to replicate the West Lothian Question by allowing non-English-elected Lords or Senators to vote on English legislation while preventing English-elected representatives from doing the same for bills emanating from the Scottish Parliament and soon-to-be Welsh Parliament.

    By proceeding in haste like this (‘haste’ being Clegg’s own word to describe the pace of reform in the next sentence of his speech), an opportunity is being missed to consider these major constitutional reforms in the round, and particularly to factor in the English Question. Doing so would force Clegg’s committee to consider the possibility that if the England-specific functions of the House of Commons were transferred to an English Parliament, this might require the Upper House to evolve into a federal British Parliament, as well as a revising chamber, to deal with vestigial reserved matters.

    This is in fact the kind of measured approach the Liberal Democrats advocated in their election manifesto, where they stated that the English Question would need to be resolved as part of a comprehensive constitutional convention involving ordinary citizens as well as MPs. This idea appears to have been abandoned now and, along with it, any determination to really get to grips with the English Question, as the proposals on devolution make clear.

  2. Devolution: “You will get more control over the hospitals you use; the schools you send your children too; the homes that are built in your community.

    “In our legislative programme we will be setting out plans to strip away government’s unelected, inefficient quangos, plans to loosen the centralised grip of the Whitehall bureaucracy, plans to disperse power downwards to you instead. And we are serious about giving councils much more power over the money they use, so they depend less on the whims of Whitehall, and can deliver the services and support their communities need. We know that devolution of power is meaningless without money.

    “Our plans to disperse power also include strengthening devolution to other parts of Britain: Working with Holyrood to implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission. Working with the Welsh Assembly on introducing a referendum on the transfer of further powers to Wales. Supporting the continued success of the devolved government in Northern Ireland. And, of course, asking what we can do about the difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question.”

    The key sentence, for me, here is: “Our plans to disperse power also include strengthening devolution to other parts of Britain”. In that unthinking phrase, ‘other parts of Britain’, Clegg implicitly admits that the Lib-Cons’ ‘dispersion’ of power to communities (which I discussed yesterday in relation to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ policy presentation) relates to England only, even though he never explicitly says so: if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are ‘other parts of Britain’, then the ‘devolution of power’ from the centre he has just discussed can apply only to England. In other words, the Big Society (devolution of power in England) is what England is being offered by way of equivalence to devolution of power to the other parts of Britain. So instead of there being a national-English government to make decisions on the devolved policy areas Clegg refers to (health care, education, planning / housing, communities and local government), those decisions will be devolved to the sub-national, local / community level.

    But what’s really striking about the ‘other parts of Britain’ phrase is how it blatantly exposes the way that the political establishment simply takes it for granted that devolved policies discussed as if they were British are in fact English, and that everyone is somehow supposed to be aware of this unacknowledged given: it’s the elephant in the room that everyone sees but no one admits it’s there, as they’d then have to do something about it.

    And doing something about it – addressing the English Question – is clearly not Clegg’s intention, as the throw-away phrase, “And, of course, asking what we can do about the difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question”, makes clear. Put out almost as an embarrassed after-thought following the important and specific proposals mentioning Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by name. He can’t even bring himself to refer to England explicitly when he’s alluding to it, almost literally skirting around the issue of English governance seen as a series of ‘difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question’. It’s not difficult, you twit, just say it: the English Question. There, that didn’t hurt, did it?

    But over and above considerations of political correctness and, in the context of the coalition, expediency that dictate that one must never utter the nasty ‘E’ word in case one conjures the English elephant into existence, there is a practical, political reason and a symbolic reason why Clegg refers to the WLQ rather than the EQ. On the practical level, if you’re dealing with the issue of English governance in the framework of the WLQ, this means that you think or hope there could be some sort of procedural fix allowing English MPs to have the ‘ultimate’ say over English legislation that would be sufficient to keep English governance as the domain of the UK government and parliament. So, don’t mention the ‘E’ word in case the obvious solution of a separate English parliament and government comes into people’s minds.

    Second, on the symbolic level, the very assumption that the UK parliament is the natural home for English governance partakes of the same mindset that regards it as a self-evident truth – and, therefore, one that doesn’t need to be spoken of – that devolved issues as ‘properly’ dealt with by the British parliament are ‘really’ English issues; and that Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland are other parts of the UK. It’s that very English, very Westminster, Anglo-Britishness: the doublethink that both manages to really believe that England and Britain are symbiotically fused, but at the same time realistically recognises they are not the same – but let’s not talk about it, dear, in case we lose our privilege to govern.

    So much for “hand[ing] power back to people” – notice, it’s ‘people’, not ‘the people’, let alone ‘the English people’!

  3. Electoral reform: “There is, however, no programme to reform our political system [that] is complete without reform of our voting system. This government will be putting to you, in a referendum, the choice to introduce a new voting system, called the Alternative Vote. Under that new system far more MPs will have to secure support from at least half the people who vote in their constituency.”

    As with the absence of a full debate and referendum on the options for the Upper House, and as with the total lack of any suggestion that the English people as a whole should be offered a referendum on an English parliament, we’re also not being offered a full debate about different electoral systems and a proper referendum that includes at least one proportional option. Basically, this referendum is a choice between two first-past-the-post systems, as the Alternative Vote is just a mitigated form of FPTP that doesn’t even do what it says on the tin.

    The last sentence in the above quote ambiguously points to the inadequacy of AV: ‘far more MPs’ will be elected by a majority of voters in their constituency. This could imply that all MPs will need to secure a majority, as opposed to just some MPs under FPTP. But AV doesn’t in fact ensure this, as the winner has to gain only a majority of votes that are still in play in the preferential system for reallocating votes to the more successful candidates. So it’s quite possible for the winner to still only obtain a minority of the votes of all those who voted in the first place, if there are many voters who do not indicate any of the last two or three candidates left in the race as a second or subsequent preference.

    So Clegg is being dishonest about AV, partly because he doesn’t actually support it – that is, if the policy that was in the Lib Dems’ manifesto (PR) reflects Clegg’s real views. And AV, like all the other proposals for political reform and devolution in Clegg’s statement, basically preserves the privileges and assumptions of parliamentary and party-centric politics intact, as it’s a voting system that’s just as likely (some argue, more likely) to deliver an outright majority in parliament to a single party that can then rule England and Britain with the absolute power of a monarch for the next five years: guaranteed to be a full five years given Clegg’s proposal to introduce five-year fixed-term parliaments.

    Five years. I thought we might at least only have to put up with our unaccountable governments for a maximum of four years if fixed terms were introduced. And do we get a choice in a referendum about this, either?

    Not on your nelly! What do you think this is? This is Whig Britain, don’t you know, not the people’s republic of England!

13 May 2010

Who and what is the Lib-Con coalition for?

I’ve been carrying out a bit of a semantic analysis of the statement the Lib Dems and Conservatives released yesterday about their coalition agreement. What that means is that I’ve analysed the number of times key words occurred in the document. I define a ‘key word’ as a significant noun, verb, adverb or adjective (if you remember your grammar) that is used five or more times in the document, rather than basic link words such as prepositions, conjunctions or pronouns that are used very frequently.

I made an exception for the pronoun ‘we’, however, which appears no fewer than 49 times! The document is big on words expressing collective action and agreement: ‘we’ is the second-most repeated key word in the statement after ‘agree’ / ‘agreement’, which features a total of 63 times, in a total document of around 2,940 words. In third place, comes another collective term, ‘parties / party’ and ‘partners’ (35 instances).

What this illustrates is that the statement is continually reiterating the fact that it is based on agreement and consensus between two parties. Indeed, one might even go so far as to say that it bends over backwards to emphasise the fact that it is a full (11 times) agreement between two equal partners by mentioning ‘Liberal Democrat’ on no fewer than 13 occasions, compared with a modest seven references to ‘Conservative’.

However, when you read between the lines and examine the specific policy issues raised in the document, a very different picture emerges. On my analysis, a total of 20 key words occur in the context of policies set out from essentially a Conservative perspective in the document. Most of these refer to the economy and finance, and some of them in reality relate to areas of genuine agreement between the parties, such as their compromise on taxation policy (variations on the word ‘tax’ occur 12 times). However, I’ve ascribed all the key terms in this area to the Conservatives on the basis that they’re in the ascendancy on the economy in the coalition, and the sheer number and frequency of economic terms in the statement is expressive of the Tories’ priorities.

To be specific, the leading economic terms in the document are:

  1. ‘work’ (16 appearances)
  2. ‘reduce’ / ‘reduction’ (as in ‘deficit reduction’) (13 times)
  3. ‘tax’ (12)
  4. ‘allow’ / ‘allowance’ (ten)
  5. ‘bank’ / ‘banking’ (ten).

Other frequently occurring economic terms include ‘budget’, ‘financial’, ‘funding’, ‘jobs / Jobseekers’ and ‘spending’. The only non-economic terms to come anywhere near to competing with these, with respect to Conservative policy positions, are those relating to ‘Europe’, including ‘euro’, ‘EU’ and ‘non-EU’ (15 mentions) – strongly underscoring the fact that the Tories won the arguments over Europe in the coalition negotiations; e.g. ‘referendums’ (seven instances) on any future transfer of powers, no preparations to adopt the euro within the life of the parliament, limiting the application of the Working Time Directive, etc.

‘Referendum’ is what I would term an instance of a word evoking the ‘people’ or popular democracy / sovereignty, the only other word of this type being ‘public’ (five references). There are, however, further words of this sort in the document, which I’ve categorised as those expressing policies presented from a Lib Dem perspective. But the total number of such Lib Dem key words amounts to only eight, and they also occur less frequently than the Conservatives’ favourite expressions. The leading ones (apart from ‘Liberal’ and ‘Democrat’ themselves) are:

  1. ‘reform’ / ‘reforming’ (nine)
  2. ‘school(s)’ (eight)
  3. ‘vote(s)’ / ‘voter(s)’ (seven)
  4. ‘energy’ (as in energy policy) (seven).

Disappointingly, ‘elect’ (as in ‘election’ and ‘electoral reform’) occurs only five times; and neither ‘proportional’ (as in ‘proportional representation’) nor ‘Alternative’ (‘Alternative Vote’) appears more than four times. Indeed, as a reflection of the extent to which the Lib Dems have lost the philosophical arguments behind the formation of the coalition, the word ‘fair’, which was the central idea in the Lib Dems’ manifesto, occurs only twice.

Having said that, the concept of ‘responsibility’, which is a key term in David Cameron’s philosophical outlook and informs the thinking behind the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ idea in their manifesto, makes only one appearance throughout the entire document – to say nothing of ‘Big Society’ itself, which indeed is not mentioned at all. Does this mean that the thing that both parties had to sacrifice in order reach a deal was their whole social vision, as such? And are we no longer being invited to “participate in the government of Britain”, as the Conservatives’ manifesto put it?

Given the almost total absence of words reflecting popular, participative democracy (including ‘democrat’ / ‘democracy’ itself, which occurs only in the context of ‘Liberal Democrat’), it seems as though that invitation, having been turned down by the electorate, has now been withdrawn. Indeed, the coalition statement is full of terms relating to the nitty-gritty work of government, which, it seems, is to be regarded as very much the province of the ‘government’ (17 appearances) and ‘Parliament’ (13) alone. ‘Programmes’ (nine mentions), ‘power(s)’ (eight), ‘system(s)’ (eight) and ‘law’ / ‘legislation’ (seven) are other favourite phrases.

Another major set of key words connote ‘positive action’ and engagement, including ‘propose’ / ‘proposal’ (17), ‘commission’ / ‘commit’ / ‘committee’ (15), ‘increase’ (13) and ‘provide’ / ‘provision’ (11). The government has its ‘plan’ (seven mentions) and is getting on with it: it is the role of the government and politicians to govern, and that of the public to be governed, evidently. No change (one appearance, as in ‘Climate Change’) there, then, despite the fact that both parties campaigned on the basis that they would bring real change. Back to business as usual.

Except, what is the purpose of all this business of government; and who is this preoccupation with business – the economy – actually for? The coalition statement fails to articulate any social vision (i.e. what kind of society ‘we’ wish to create alongside a revived economy); nor does it express any clear concept of the country it is supposedly there to serve. Indeed, amazingly, the word ‘country’ appears only once in the statement (“our country’s security”) despite the fact that when the coalition was being negotiated and drawn up, the politicians involved endlessly referred to ‘the country’ and the ‘national interest’; and despite the predilection of our leaders for saying ‘this country’ in order to avoid being specific about which country (England, Britain, the UK) they’re talking about.

In fact, in the coalition policy statement, the politicians avoid being specific about the country they’re supposed to be governing by making virtually no reference to any of the countries involved, including – again, amazingly – ‘Britain’ (only six mentions), the ‘United Kingdom’ (two) and the ‘UK’ (two). Now that is real change compared to the Brito-mania of Cameron’s predecessor! But don’t get too excited, because ‘England’ enjoys only two name checks, both in the context of the Tories’ favourite topic, the economy (‘Bank of England’ x 2).

All of this could lead one to suppose that those who composed the statement are interested only in governing – almost, as it were, for its own sake – and not in the nation or nations they’ll be governing. ‘Nation’ / ‘national’ is referenced on ten occasions: three times in the context of the economy (‘National Insurance’ and ‘nationalised banks’); twice in connection with the stand-off towards the EU (‘nations of Europe’ and ‘national interests’); once in relation to civil liberties (‘National Identity Register’); and four times with reference to energy policy and infrastructure (‘national recharging network’ and ‘national planning’).

Nowhere, however, is ‘nation’ invoked in relation to any of the traditional nations of the UK as ‘communities’ (three mentions) with their own distinct identities, cultures and political life. Admittedly, ‘Scotland’ is implied, but not mentioned by name, in the commitment to implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission; and the extension of Welsh devolution is also covered in half a sentence. But the authors of the statement can’t even bring themselves to explicitly say ‘England’ when they refer enigmatically to their plan for a “commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question'” [their inverted commas, almost suggesting they don’t regard it as a real issue]. No reference to dealing with the ‘English Question’, then, which the Lib Dems’ manifesto pledged to tackle as part of a convention to draw up a written constitution for the UK. Indeed, no reference to such a convention at all!

One can only conclude that the coalition has no serious intention of addressing the West Lothian Question, let alone the English Question, preferring to knock them both into the five-year-long grass of their fixed-term deal. But over and above such England-centric considerations, what does the almost total absence of a national, even a British-national, dimension to the coalition’s Tory-blueprint for government actually signify? Am I right to detect the Lib Dem influence as being there, in the disregard of nationhood as an integral or even just an important component of politics, government and culture?

In fact, this disregard for nationhood, and specifically English nationhood, is something the Lib Dems and the Tories really do seem to have in common if their manifestoes are anything to go by, as they both advocated radical devolution of power within England rather than to England. As I argued previously, the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ vision even implied in extremis a radical dismantling of the English public sector itself in favour of disparate interest groups and communities. And this is one thing that the coalition policy announcement does reaffirm: “The parties will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. This will include a full review of local government finance.”

The ‘local government’ bit betrays the Lib Dems’ influence; if the Tories had it all their own way, this would have just read ‘local community groups’ or words to that effect. At least, there will be some sort of democratically accountable public sector within England, albeit not at the national level. Indeed, what is the ‘national level’ for the new coalition? It’s certainly not England (nor is it Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland), for which they did not seek and so did not receive a mandate at the election, and which they’re washing their hands of by conveniently handing over responsibility for spending cuts (‘financial autonomy’) to local authorities. For the new government, the national level means the macro-economy, international affairs (Britain versus Europe), defence and security, including energy security and the nuclear options of both the Trident and power-generation flavours. Reserved matters, in short.

That’s it, really; and that’s all of any substance that the coalition statement talks about. And let’s face it, that’s all the government has a genuine mandate of any sort to deal with. I suppose there’ll be more details about policies for education and ‘health’ (three mentions) in due course, and no doubt, the references to ‘Britain’ will multiply at that point, even though it’s England only they’ll be talking about. But not even to have attempted to outline any sort of social vision for ‘the nation’ in this, the initial policy statement of a historic coalition government, is surely wholly inadequate and worthy of blame.

After all, who or what is government for? Certainly, on this analysis at least, not for the people of England.

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.

15 April 2010

Lib Dem manifesto: England included, but only as a footnote

I haven’t had the time, I’m afraid, to do a big long hatchet job from an English perspective on the Lib Dem manifesto as I have done on the Labour and Tory documents. However I will say this: congratulations to the Lib Dems for being the only one of the big three parties to a) address the English Question in any shape or form, and b) propose scrapping the unjust Barnett Formula.

On the English Question, they say they would: “address the status of England within a federal Britain, through the Constitutional Convention set up to draft a written constitution for the UK as a whole”. This has been pretty much their established position for a while now; and at least they’re proposing to resolve England’s anomalous constitutional position with some degree of democratic fairness.

On the Barnett Formula, they say they would “Replace the current Barnett formula for allocating funding to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments with a new needs-based formula, to be agreed by a Finance Commission of the Nations”. Not sure I like the implication of the ‘Nations’ concept here (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland being treated as nations while England is not), nor does this mention any sort of needs-based system for distributing funding throughout England – but it’s a start.

The Lib Dems don’t, however, discuss the West Lothian Question, which might seem a lesser issue than the more fundamental English Question. But the fact they omit this aspect of the English democratic deficit leads one to question the Lib Dems’ full commitment to making the Westminster parliament truly accountable to voters, while at the same time it raises doubts as to how they view the status of England as such within any putative federal Britain.

For a start, in a hung parliament, which is the only circumstance in which the Lib Dems have any realistic hope of being able to implement any of their manifesto proposals, one strongly suspects that they would be prepared to use the bargaining and voting powers of their Scottish and Welsh MPs as part of their support to a minority Labour or Tory government, including in passing England-only bills. If they don’t say explicitly that they wouldn’t do this, one can only suppose that realpolitik would kick in if they found themselves in a position of influence at Westminster, and they would practice non-English votes on English laws.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, they don’t seem to believe in any sort of clear distinction not only between English and non-English policies – the blurring of that distinction being the means by which Labour and the Conservatives attempt to justify using their non-English MPs to vote through English laws – but also between England and Britain per se: the actual identities of England and Britain as nations.

Like those of Labour and the Tories, the Lib Dem manifesto talks overwhelmingly of ‘Britain’ even though vast portions of it deal with England-only matters like schools and the NHS. When discussing these things in particular, the document stops short of explicitly referring to them as ‘British’ (talking of ‘our schools’ or ‘the NHS’, for instance) but nonetheless omits any reference at all to ‘England’ or ‘English’ in these contexts, even though it is England only for which these policies are intended. In the area of culture and sport, this is even worse, and everything is discussed as ‘British’ including a potential World Cup tournament in England in 2018 – even Labour refers to bringing the World Cup to England.

Now, in the spirit of ‘fairness’ that the manifesto claims as its own (carrying the tag line ‘Building a fairer Britain’), the Lib Dems do actually acknowledge that their policies in these areas relate to England only. But they do this in their customary manner: essentially, in a footnote, which even then admits to the fact only in a rather grudging, indirect way. In the last-but-one page, literally in the manner of a legal disclaimer, or advisory note to investors and analysts in a corporate annual report, they make the following admission:

“Liberal Democrats have championed the devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales, and many decisions made in Westminster now apply to England only. That means that policies in those nations are increasingly different from those in England – reflecting different choices, priorities and circumstances. Our Scottish and Welsh Parties make their own policy on those issues. This document sets out our priorities for a Liberal Democrat Government in Westminster.”

Note that they refer to their “priorities for a Liberal Democrat Government in Westminster”, not their priorities or policies for England, even though they admit that “many decisions made in Westminster now apply to England only”. It’s just not good enough to devote over a hundred pages to detailing your policies for an entity referred to as ‘Britain’ and then, in an obscure footnote, to half-heartedly admit that many of them are relevant to England only. The Lib Dems, like the other big parties, are clearly hanging on to the idea of forming a British government for England – with non-English MPs at Westminster continuing to form policies and pass laws for England – rather than allowing a government for the English people elected only by English people to come into being.

Not setting out their English policies as English policies, and canvassing the support of non-English voters on those policies under the pretence that they are ‘British’, means that the Lib Dems, too, are conning English people out of an honest and accountable election on openly English matters, and are perpetrating the ‘West Lothian Election’ just as much as Labour.

So, full marks to the Lib Dems for addressing the English Question. But, based on this manifesto, can we be really sure that they want England to be anything more than a footnote in their new written constitution: just a UK territory over which Westminster’s writ continues to hold sway?

14 April 2010

The Tories’ Big-Society Britain: England in all but name

Firstly, I have to say that the Conservatives’ election manifesto, ‘An Invitation To Join the Government Of Britain’, albeit misnamed, is a much more impressive affair than Labour’s shamefully anglophobic re-hashing of existing policies devoid of vision or principle. If people of a ‘progressive’ disposition were to approach the two policy statements in a spirit of genuine open-mindedness, I think many would conclude that the Tory manifesto is a much more ‘liberal’ document (with a small ‘l’) than Labour’s, with its concern to redress some of the present government’s erosion of our civil liberties and its aspiration to reverse the unaccountable centralisation of government.

That said, the Tories’ manifesto shares much of Labour’s will to suppress any English-national dimension to politics and civic society. On a superficial reading, you’d think the content of the manifesto was as it says on the tin: about revitalising British government and society, and setting them in a new relationship to one another. The document is stuffed full of inspirational references to ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ (140 in total), and to the ‘nation’ – meaning ‘Britain’ or the UK: 83 instances of ‘nation’ or ‘national’. By contrast, there are only 17 references to ‘England’ or ‘English’: admittedly more than Labour’s 11 versus 188 mentions of ‘Scotland’ / ‘Scottish’ in the Scottish version of its manifesto. At least, the Tories aren’t so disingenuous and gerrymandering that they produce a separate set of Scottish policies to persuade voters in that country to elect Scottish Labour MPs to serve as lobby fodder for English bills.

But the Conservatives’ ‘Big Society’ big idea can be realised, if at all, in England alone. The section of the manifesto in which this concept is spelled out in detail – ‘Change society’ – deals almost entirely with devolved policy areas: those in which the British government’s competence is limited to England or, in the case of justice and policing, to England and Wales. So all the proposals to ‘devolve’ power down to communities, individuals, and public-private business partnerships in areas such as local planning, schools and the NHS effectively do not relate to Britain as a whole, but only to England.

The mere fact that the Tories are incapable of honestly acknowledging that their plan to repair ‘broken Britain’ is in fact a blueprint for England should not of itself deter English patriots from voting Conservative if they like the Tories’ ideas, which are indeed much more original and attractive than Labour’s sterile and statist approach in many respects. But if, on the other hand, you do want to see government of England by the English people, you won’t get it from the Conservatives’ programme of ‘people power’.

The Tories’ plan is in effect one of devolution for and within England, rather than devolution to England: devolution of power to English communities, and associations of socially responsible individuals and organisations, rather than devolution of political power to democratic, English-national government and civic institutions. If you’re a localist or libertarian, you may think this is no bad thing. But as well as expressing the Conservative ideological bias in favour of private individuals and associations, as opposed to big government, this is a way of circumventing questions about the governance of England and the legitimacy, or otherwise, of the very ‘Government of Britain’ in which the Tories seek to re-engage the English people above all.

In effect, a British-national-public sector versus local-community-private sector dichotomy replaces the British-national / regional dichotomy in New Labour’s thinking about ‘the country’; but both frameworks leave no room for any sort of English-national tier of government, democracy or identity. This is less sinister than New Labour’s New Britain, in that at least the existence of England is acknowledged even if England is not viewed as distinct from ‘Britain’ in any way. Indeed, the whole manifesto is predicated on a profound but unspoken identification between England and Britain, reflected in the very fact that what is in reality a social programme for England only is expressed as being for Britain.

In this context, it is not surprising that the manifesto fails to propose a satisfactory solution to the West Lothian Question while not even acknowledging the broader English Question: the question of how England should be governed, which is a non-starter for the Tories, because they just unquestioningly assume that England is (governed as) Britain. Nevertheless, at least they do raise the West Lothian Question – which is more than Labour does – because they accept that England exists; even if their answer to the question is no solution:

“Labour have refused to address the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’: the unfair situation of Scottish MPs voting on matters which are devolved. A Conservative government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries.”

This policy does not amount to English Votes on English laws, or to a Grand Committee of English MPs with the exclusive right to debate and vote on England-only legislation. While being extremely vague, this statement appears to confirm expectations that the Tories will adopt ‘English pauses for English clauses’: English MPs only to make revisions to England-only laws at the committee stage of bills, while all UK MPs continue to be allowed to vote on those bills at their second and third reading.

This is a mere procedural tweak that leaves the WLQ in place, if anything in a more pernicious form: it relies on there being the same balance of power among English MPs as in the House as a whole – otherwise, amendments to bills made by English MPs can simply be rejected by the House as a whole, resulting in stalemate. And the measure can be reversed by any incoming Labour government. So apart from being practically ineffective, and liable to contribute to governmental paralysis and constitutional crisis, this measure is a million miles away from the establishment of any sort of English parliamentary forum in which the priorities and needs of the English nation as a whole can be deliberated and decided upon.

Ultimately, then, the Tories’ manifesto might well represent power to the people – but only if they’re content to continue not to be the English people.

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