Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

20 June 2016

England expects everyone to do their duty, and vote Leave

There are two very straightforward reasons why the people of England should vote to leave the EU on Thursday of this week:

  1. If you vote to remain in the EU, you are voting for England and the UK to be increasingly governed as part of a pan-European political union that is set up to evolve into a federal European superstate. It will gradually do so, individual policy measure by individual policy measure, beginning with: fiscal union among the Eurozone countries; TTIP (the trade agreement with the US, which could lead, among other things, to the dismantling of the UK’s various NHSs, the ground for which was prepared by the last government’s Health and Social Care Bill, which had not been put to any English voter); and an EU army. The prime minister’s boast that he has secured a UK opt-out from the EU’s project to bring about ‘ever-closer union’ is meaningless if the EU does evolve into a federal state: we’ll still be part of a federal system that will be effectively the main power in our land.
  2. Voting Leave is the only way, short of independence, to secure the future of England as a polity: a political nation. Even in the EU as it is now, before it evolves into the federal state that so many of its proponents are driving it to become, there is no scope for an English-national tier of governance. The EU principle of subsidiarity – that government should be devolved to the appropriate level for the issues concerned – completely bypasses England: it goes from the EU (matters of Europe-wide significance), to member states (the Westminster government: UK-wide matters), to regions and then localities. Where is England in this? Apart from the fact that the Westminster establishment appears hell-bent on ‘devolving’ every potential national-English policy area to regions and city regions (almost as if in tacit compliance with the EU governance model), it is hard to see how an English parliament and government could deal with the consequences of unfettered immigration from the EU, with no control over population growth and a consequent inability to design English public services and planning regimes focused on the needs and priorities of English people. Such matters would have to be handled by the UK government in ‘partnership’ with the EU; and policies in these areas would effectively become joint UK-EU policies that explicitly acknowledge continuing mass migration to the UK (and mainly England), and which design an ‘appropriate’  response that factors in rapid population growth, including financial assistance to support public services and infrastructure development. And as we know, EU financial assistance always comes with a trade-off in terms of accepting an enhanced EU role in additional policy areas.

Ultimately, the choice comes down to this: Do you want be part of a European polity or an English polity; a citizen of Europe or an English man or woman? England, the choice is yours – for now, at least.

13 August 2012

Great Britain is merely an Olympic nation

It is often said of England that it is just a football nation. By that, it is meant that England comes together as a nation, and has national institutions of its own, only when it comes to football competitions and to other sports where England has its own team or league, such as rugby union or cricket. There is some justification for this, in that England clearly is not a civic nation – either a sovereign state or a self-governing part of a larger state – but nonetheless has the footballing status of one. Indeed, it has superior status to other nation states’ football associations, in that the FA still has a veto on any rule changes to the beautiful game. England is a football nation, then, in part because it is the home of football.

The same could be said of Great Britain and the Olympics. The Olympics are now arguably the only occasion when ‘Great Britain’ unites as a nation. For a little while, albeit imperfectly, we forget that we are in fact three nations (or four, or five, if you include Northern Ireland and / or Cornwall – but that’s a different story) and get together behind ‘Team GB’, with the mandatory Union Flags being draped around the shoulders of our Olympic heroes (whether they want it or not – and how could they refuse?): all differences cloaked in the colours of a rediscovered British patriotism.

And just like England, Great Britain is not a civic nation. The civic nation, the sovereign state, is the United Kingdom (informally known as ‘Britain’, rather than Great Britain). But we choose to compete as Great Britain. Why? In part, this is so that Northern Irish athletes have the freedom to choose whether to represent Britain or the Republic of Ireland. In part, also, this is because ‘Great Britain’ can arguably claim to have originated the present Olympic movement, in that the first modern Olympic Games of any sort were held in England (in the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock from 1850 onwards), while Great Britain was an inaugural participant in the first international Games in 1896, and has taken part – as Great Britain – in every summer and winter Olympics since. The IOC president Jacques Rogge paid tribute to Great Britain’s Olympic heritage in his speech at the 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony, when he referred to the fact that Great Britain had in effect originated modern sport as such by codifying its rules: just as England is the home of football, the Olympics were in effect coming home by taking place in Great Britain in 2012.

So football and the Olympics are two global sporting institutions with which our nationhood – whether as England or Great Britain – is bound up as originator and ‘owner’. It’s almost as if those particular games – football and Olympic – are not just an incidental part of our national heritage and of our contribution to global culture, but are an integral part of what constitutes us as nations: we are not so much nations that rediscover our sense of nationhood through international sports competitions, but are nations who experience ourselves truly as nations only when playing the games that properly speaking are ours to begin with, and which we have given to the world. Temporarily, the existential void that exists where a secure sense of nationhood should be is filled with the passion of the game and the excitement of ‘representing’ the nation under the colours of the flag – be they red and white, or red, white and blue.

But who in fact are the ‘we’ who lack the grounded experience of nationhood that comes from national civic institutions, and from sovereign, national self-rule? Who are the ‘we’ who so lack ‘internal’ recognition as a nation, and the ability to feel pride about ourselves as a nation, that we feel validated only when we are able to stand as the first among equals amid the international community of nations which, in a sense, we have brought into existence in the particular form in which that community has come together, e.g. through football or the Olympics? Our fragile national egos stand poised perilously between non-existence – non-particularity – and internationality: perfectly reflected in the international world that England or Great Britain can claim to have created, insofar as our very internationality is said by some commentators to be the quintessence of our ‘British nationhood’ and of the new, confident Britishness that Team GB’s successes is helping to cement. Hence, ‘we’ see ourselves as a nation – and see ourselves only when – perfectly mirrored and validated by the admiring international community of nations: as being a ‘nation of nations’ – effectively, an international community of nations ourselves; Great Britain.

The ‘we’ who escape in this way from our everyday nationless state to the ludic, spectacular, imaginary and international nationhood of the Games that seem to define us as a nation are the English people. Whether the sporting team concerned is England or Great Britain, it is we the English people that lose ourselves in the short-lived high of imagining ourselves as a great nation, once more, on the international stage – reasserting our ownership of and identification with the global community by beating them at, literally, our own game, so that the international community has no choice other than to recognise us as truly a unique nation in their midst.

Looking only at the surface of things, it would be easy to conclude that the English patriotic fervour that accompanied the nation’s football team’s progress through international competitions, up until its dismal performance in the 2010 World Cup, was a radically different phenomenon from the outbreak of British patriotic fervour that has accompanied Team GB’s glittering successes at London 2012. But they are fundamentally the same: they are expressions of English people’s need to have a proud sense of nationhood, which is ‘fulfilled’ temporarily through sport. This is the case, not only because those sports ‘belong to us’ but because those feelings are denied in day-to-day life, where we live in a nationless state in the other sense: a state – the UK – that is not a nation and denies nationhood to the English. The blossoming of the Union Flag, sprouting in bunting and branding over shops, pubs and homes across England, is a continuation not a break from the similar sprouting of the Cross of St. George that has accompanied football tournaments in the past. The England team has let us down and dashed our pride; but now Team GB seems to be restoring it. Great Britain is an Olympic nation just as England is a football nation; and fundamentally, this is because the nation, the people, who identify with and rave about those countries’ respective sporting feats are in both cases the English.

Of course, on another level, England and Great Britain are completely different entities. But they are also non-entities – non-civic nations – and so are ironically perfect, interchangeable channels for our unfulfilled desire for replete nationhood. ‘Team UK’ or ‘Team Britain’ wouldn’t do the job, a) because they’re names for the state, not ‘the nation’, and b) because they are too difficult for English people to identify with – too neutral and un-English. ‘Great Britain’ can function as ‘the nation’ only because English people identify with it as their nation: as effectively a proxy for, and a more grandiose way of saying, ‘England’. This may seem counter-intuitive, because the outbreak of unionflagitis across England would tend to suggest the opposite: that English people are espousing a British-not-English identity. But in fact, it’s a British-because-English identity, and ordinary people across the land are, once again, failing to make the kind of categorical distinction between Britishness and Englishness that the promoters of those two brands might wish they did.

Take the woman in my local corner shop, who said “the whole of England” would have been cheering on Mo Farah to win the 5000m race on Saturday night; or my partner – a university-educated woman who’s just turned 50 – who persists unself-consciously in referring to ‘Team GB’ as ‘England’, to the extent that I’ve given up correcting her. This sort of attitude, and habit of thought and speech, is replicated up and down the land: Team GB is simply viewed as an ‘English’ team, and all distinction between England and Britain is swept away in a tide of Union Flags.

This is the opposite effect from that which the political and media establishment, along with the liberal promoters of a self-sufficient Britishness, believe has been achieved. For them, saying ‘Great Britain’ is a way to avoid saying ‘England’ and invoking English nationhood; but for the English people, supporting Team GB is just another way of being patriotically English. This has been obvious from the extent to which the BBC, in its Olympics coverage, has been desperate to prevent any mention of Team GB athletes’ English identity, and to correct them whenever they referred to ‘England’ or ‘English’ competitors. Ironically, of course, the sheer fact of imposing an exclusively British identity on English sportsmen and -women only – while allowing ‘non-English’ British athletes to celebrate a dual identity (Scottish and British, or Somali and British) – reinforces the very Englishness of Britishness: the fact that Britishness, and the British patriotism of the Games, is at root just an expression of Englishness. English athletes who carelessly let the word ‘England’ slip from their mouths are in effect giving the Game away, in both senses: the Olympic Games being by definition an opportunity to celebrate a supposedly inclusive Britishness.

Liberal commentators have played along with this establishment game, observing how Team GB’s supposedly multicultural (by which is really meant multi-ethnic) composition, and the support the Team received across the social spectrum, illustrate and consolidate a new inclusive, civic Britishness. It achieves this, however, only if all reference to England and Englishness is systematically eliminated. Britishness is an inclusive identity only on the basis of England’s exclusion. The inclusive, civic Britishness is predicated on the idea that no nationality has any claim to being a pre-eminent or core element of British identity or culture. England is that core, and so it must be eradicated; and English people are only allowed to be British – or, as I said above, only English people must be British-only.

And this illustrates what the Olympic nation that is Great Britain – Team GB – actually is at root: it’s a flight from English nationhood, mostly by English people themselves, into the idealised, international nationhood that is ‘Britain’. But it needs to tap into English patriotism to gain the loyalty and support of the masses. So rather than succeeding in cancelling out English nationality, ‘Great Britain’ is nothing without it.

Great Britain, in other words, is merely an Olympic nation; but the real nation that underlies it, and will outlive the four-yearly enthusiasm for Team GB, is England.

1 January 2012

Capital E Nationalism versus little e (and €) capitalism

Capital E Nationalism versus little e (and €) capitalism

I remember with fondness a TV ad from a few years back (but I genuinely can’t remember the product it was advertising!) in which a small girl was asked by a schoolteacher, “What is the capital of England?” The girl pondered for a minute and said “E”. This humorous episode was followed by another in similar vein, in which a boy wondered if the sea was caused by someone leaving the tap running.

These are two images which, in retrospect, seem apt metaphors for our present-day national, financial and EU crises. These days, London scarcely feels like a capital of an entity that might be called ‘England’ or even the ‘United Kingdom’. A capital of international capital it certainly is, however; and David Cameron has scored multiple opinion-poll points in seeking to insulate the City from the impending Euro deluge. This is not so much defending the ‘national interest’ as insuring that our national interest rate remains at a level where we can go on borrowing from the City to pay back the City: keeping ourselves just about afloat (or keeping just ourselves afloat) as the Continent slips below the waterline of a euro debt caused by someone conveniently forgetting to turn off the tap of lending.

London and the UK as a whole do indeed seem to have taken on the character of an “offshore centre taking capital away from the rest of Europe”, as President Sarkozy is reported to have said to David Cameron at the summit meeting of 8/9 December. But have London and the UK also lost their moorings in any sort of grounded reality that one might know as ‘England’; let alone in the financial and political reality of a looming euro and EU meltdown?

Notwithstanding the disconnect between the City and the real (English) national interest, Europhile media and politicians have generally taken the view that David Cameron’s ‘veto’ of an as yet non-existent treaty was driven by and spoke to an ‘English’ point of view. Commentators have referred to an upsurge of ‘English nationalism’ in right-wing Tory ranks and have castigated the ‘Little Englander’ thinking behind resurgent euroscepticism. In so doing, they forget the original use of the term ‘Little Englander’, during the Second Boer War, to refer to people who were opposed to the very imperialist British-nationalist attitudes for which europhiles now criticise eurosceptics.

One example of this sort of critique is a recent article by David Marquand, who is a former chief advisor to Roy Jenkins when he was the President of the European Commission. Marquand characterises the resurgent post-summit euroscepticism as a peculiarly English, rather than British, phenomenon, arguing that it has been transformed from ‘scepticism’ to ‘phobia’: a visceral, in-the-gut reaction of hostility rather than rational, constructive-critical engagement. Marquand compares this ‘English’ europhobia with the supposedly more europhile and euro-integrationist sentiment prevalent in Scotland and Wales. And yet, despite the fact that Scottish and Welsh nationalists have for decades invoked the promise of closer ties with Brussels and the EU as a whole as one of their strongest arguments for separation from England, Marquand still feels entitled to blame English europhobia for potentially driving the Scots and the Welsh out of the UK.. And Marquand’s stance also ignores the evidence from opinion polls that Scots are just as eurosceptic as the English, if not more so: one recent ComRes survey found that 41% of Scots polled would vote for full withdrawal from the EU in a referendum on the issue, compared with between 35% and 40% in different parts of England.

Speaking as a genuine English nationalist, I view the misrepresentation of Tory euroscepticism as an English-nationalist position with a combination of bemusement and dismay. For example, Brian Walker writing in the Slugger O’Toole blog – normally a fairly rational voice of Northern Irish unionism – uncritically reproduces this (anti-)English-nationalist meme when he says: “The Financial Times (£) is alone today among UK national papers in spotting how the English nationalism of extreme Tory eurosceptics feeds Scottish separatism”. Walker goes on to quote Phillip Stephens from the same FT article: “Much of the Conservative party now speaks the language of English nationalism – driven to fury by Europe and increasingly driven out by the voters from Britain’s Celtic fringes”. In a later article, the same Brian Walker wonders why “the English political class . . . are less interested in the future of the British Union than the European one?”.

I wonder who Brian Walker regards as constituting the ‘English political class’. I wasn’t aware that such an entity existed. And no, Messrs Walker and Stephens, the Conservative Party precisely does NOT speak the language of English nationalism: Conservative politicians neither refer to nor speak in the name of ‘England’, nor do they talk of the ‘English national interest’; they talk only of ‘standing up for Britain’ and the ‘British national interest’. ‘England’ is banished from the discourse of the British polity in every way, other than as one of the choicest terms of insult in the dictionary; e.g. ‘Little Englander’ itself.

It is, however, true that Tory euroscepticism articulates a certain English attitude towards the EU project, albeit that the sentiment is articulated in ‘British’ terms. As Gareth Young pointed out in Our Kingdomearlier this month, a recent YouGov survey suggested that those who identify preferentially as English (as opposed to British) are more likely to be hostile to the UK’s membership of the EU. There is undoubtedly an insular streak in the English character, which veers towards isolationism in moments of national and European crisis. And there was more than a hint of the Dunkirk and Battle of Britain spirit in the England-based, UK popular press’s account of the Cameron veto moment – the Sun, for instance, depicting the PM in the guise of Churchill holding up a cigar-less ‘V’ sign, as if to say, ‘FU to the FU (Fiscal Union): we survived on our own through the dark days at the start of the War, so we can withstand the euro meltdown and German fiscal neo-imperialism by looking after our own interests now, too’.


This is ‘English’ nationalism, yes, but it’s English British nationalism: the British nationalism that appeals to those English people who still make little distinction between England and Britain, and view Britain / the United Kingdom as providing the strongest guarantee of England’s freedoms, security and prosperity. This attitude is perhaps worthy of the designation ‘little englander’ nationalism in the pejorative sense in which it is used nowadays; but we should write it with a lower-case ‘e’ to differentiate it from Little Englander (capital ‘E’) nationalism in the correct, historical sense of the term as reclaimed by contemporary English nationalists.

The little-englander (lower-case) mentality embodies a petty-minded pursuit of national-British economic self-interest, viewed as being best served by making Britain, and in particular London, a ‘safe haven’ of supposedly sound finance (i.e. somewhere for debt-business as usual), removed from the euro shipwreck: London as the capital of capital if not of England. This would in fact more aptly be termed ‘Little Britisher’ nationalism – at least if we are to pay any heed whatsoever to the actual terms in which it articulates itself.

By contrast, Little-Englander (capital ‘E’) nationalism in the true sense would be more aptly described as embodying a ‘Big Englander’ perspective. Domestically, Big-E nationalism is primarily a political project embodying the aspiration for England to be free to govern its own affairs. This means freedom from the UK state, and from the global corporatism and finance it has bought and borrowed into, just as much as it means freedom from real or imagined subservience to the EU. So yes, in this sense, real English nationalists – as opposed to Tory eurosceptics / europhobes inappropriately tarred with that brush – would in a sense not care, or perhaps care only relatively, if the UK’s departure from the EU were to bring about a break-up of the Union. But this is only because English self-governance is the primary goal, and if it takes either the UK’s departure from the EU or the break-up of the UK, or both, to achieve that aim, then so be it. But English self-rule is far from being the primary goal, or a publicly articulated goal in any case, of Tory eurosceptics – although one suspects that many of that breed would indeed privately not be overly concerned about the UK breaking up if it meant the Tories could exercise virtually perpetual control over English affairs, which is in fact far from being an inevitable or even likely consequence of English devolution or independence, whatever English-nationalists’ detractors might say.

In the international perspective, I think that Big E nationalism, in my conception of it, is consistent with more constructive engagement with the EU than the little-englander / Little-Britisher mentality exemplified by Cameron’s cowardly flight into the ‘British national interest’. An autonomous, confident England is and could be a big player on the European stage. Indeed, it is arguable that what the EU is missing in its present moment of crisis is leadership and support from England as a great European nation, which has been prepared in the past to stand by Europe and come to its rescue in its hour of need just as much as it has taken refuge from Europe in times of peril: the Dunkirk moment turning out ultimately to be a prelude to the Normandy landings. Now as then, the destinies and freedoms of England and Europe are intertwined, and we cannot mount a sustainable defence of England’s national interest in isolation from Europe.

What form would a more constructive, statesman-like, Big-Englander engagement towards the EU and response to the euro crisis have taken at the summit and in its wake? Certainly, a great leader like Churchill, conscious that now was the moment to demonstrate the greatness of the English nation in the face of a crisis threatening the prosperity and security of the whole continent of which England is a part, would engage positively and forcefully in negotiations with his European partners – and not run out of the room brandishing, well, nothing: not even the ultimately worthless agreement that a Chamberlain brought back from Munich in 1938.

We may disagree that the present treaty proposed by the Germans is up to the job of saving the euro, or even that saving the euro – at least in its present form – is worth doing at all. But then we should at least stay the course and press what I will insist on calling the English case, whatever that might have been if England had actually been at the table, and set out an English plan for saving the eurozone economies from their impending shipwreck. But if we want to shape the solution, we also have to be willing to be part of it: if we want to be an influential European power, playing a leading role in creating Europe’s economic and political future, then we have also to assume the responsibilities that go with it, and put our own economic security and national interests on the line for the greater good from which we can ultimately only benefit in terms of economic opportunity and political stature among our European partners.

The ‘we’ I am referring to here is England: to be a big player in Europe, we need (England) to be a big nation. Britain cannot be that big nation, because it fundamentally is not a nation, either ontologically (i.e. in terms of its self-identity) or politically. England is the big nation at the heart of Britain; but the British state and establishment has expunged England from its conception of itself, and is therefore no longer able or willing to act as the political expression of the English nation that it once was. Britain has become a de-anglicised, empty shell whose mission and purpose have narrowed down to an almost idolatrous pursuit of wealth for its own sake and to defence of ‘its’ short-term financial interests, which are fundamentally identified with those of the City of London and of corporate finance.

I’m not sure what we, as England, would or could have thrown into the negotiation with our European partners if we had been present at the table. Maybe we could have proposed that the Bank of England stand alongside the European Central Bank (ECB) to guarantee the outstanding sovereign debt of EU states, on the condition that the ECB start acting like a true reserve bank and be prepared to print money if necessary to prevent a total meltdown of the banking system and the euro. This would be a huge risk, but imagine the leverage and status this would give to England among her EU partners, including the power to drive a hard bargain and insist that other EU countries implement the so-called ‘fiscal prudence’ that the coalition government has made its hallmark! Plus it would mean that England would provide an invaluable counterweight to Germany and provide reassurance to smaller European nations that their democratic freedoms would not be mortgaged to German fiscal and EU political domination.

But no such reassurance has been received. England was not present at the table, only a mean-spirited and cowardly Britain whose ‘leader’ – unworthy though he was of that title – could think only of placating his friends in the City and his stroppier colleagues in Parliament, and of avoiding anything that might put either the UK’s financial credibility or his own political credibility at risk. Heaven forbid that Cameron should concede that the UK might have to make sacrifices to help its European friends, out of enlightened – as opposed to narrow – self-interest, and that the British people might have to be given the opportunity to approve or disapprove of yet another EU treaty, at the risk that the government’s view might be resoundingly defeated! If capital – financial and political – was to be made out of rejecting further European integration, even if this was being undertaken primarily out of desperation to save the eurozone economy, then Cameron was the man to make it!

This is not Little Englander nationalism. This is bigoted, Little-Britisher, short-termist self-interest. England was not at the party: either the European or the Conservative one! A true Little-Englander response would have been ‘Big E’ in both senses: England acting big, as a great nation, towards that other ‘E’ – Europe – which is bigger than merely the EU and the euro but risks being dragged down by their looming demise. England is a European nation, and its destiny is tied up with Europe. It’s the Little-Britishers, on the other hand, that are holding on to their imperial dreams of global (financial) domination and sailing off into the small-e ether of their financial petty-mindedness.

We needed capital E nationalism, not little e (and €) capitalism.


 

English parliament

8 September 2011

If they won’t say ‘England’, we shouldn’t say ‘Britain’

It’s a familiar gripe: most England-based politicians, journalists, bloggers, etc. simply refuse to say ‘England’ even when it is English facts they’re talking about. If they speak the name of any country at all – rather than simply saying ‘our country’, or even just ‘our’ and ‘we’ – it’ll invariably be ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’.

I was struck by another example of the phenomenon last week when I listened to an otherwise perceptive and thought-provoking talk on BBC Radio Four’s ‘Four Thought‘ programme given by Ed Howker, co-author of the book ‘Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth’. Perhaps the clue was in the name, or perhaps it was because the speaker was recorded at the Edinburgh Festival, but I heard the word ‘England’ only once in Ed Howker’s talk, whereas the rest of his presentation was peppered with references to ‘Britain’, including – if not mainly – in contexts that were exclusively English: particularly last month’s riots.

Why this persistent, obdurate will not to name English social phenomena, facts and policies as English but refer to them indiscriminately as ‘British’ – even on the part of someone who clearly has some insights and is genuinely concerned about the viewpoint and experiences of the young English people involved in the riots? Clearly, part of the problem is that some of the issues discussed were genuinely UK-wide, such as the blight of youth unemployment, social attitudes towards young people and cuts to benefits that many young people depend on. But this was interspersed with discussion of topics that were undeniably England-specific.

On one level, Howker was merely trying to be inclusive for his Edinburgh audience by generalising to ‘Britain’ matters that mainly related to England: a device that ‘English’ Britishers employ all the time. But saying ‘Britain’ when talking about England is inclusive in a more general sense: one where it is necessary to speak to Britain as well as of Britain if you wish to be included within public life and take part in the national conversation that defines Britain itself. That is to say, ‘Britain’ increasingly manifests and articulates itself, and asserts its claim to power and authority, primarily through discourse itself.

One definition of ‘Britain’ is that it is the name for the sovereign power and authority – the established order – that holds sway over the geographical territory also known loosely as ‘Britain’ (i.e. the United Kingdom and its crown dependencies). In this sense, Britain is the ‘nation’ as defined in terms of its system of (self-)government: the nation as polity – sovereign parliament and people, rulers and ruled, as one. Prior to devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, that sovereign power used to be co-terminous – or was more readily imagined as co-terminous – with the whole territory of the UK / Britain and with all its peoples: there was no distinction made between Britain the great power (that rules the waves and the empire beyond), Britain the territory (the realm) and Britain the nation (that never shall be slaves because it rules itself). As a consequence of devolution, however, there has been a profound tearing asunder of Britain the polity from Britain as territory and as people: the first Britain’s writ no longer holds over the whole of the second Britain – the territory and its peoples. (Technically, its writ does still apply across the UK, as Britain retains full sovereignty over the devolved nations and can take back the devolved powers at any time – but in practice, or at least in popular imagination, those powers and that sovereignty have been transferred and not merely delegated.)

So when people such as myself rail against the fact that politicians refer to English matters as ‘British’, or as simply pertaining to ‘this country’ without any reference to the country’s name, we are pointing to this split whereby ‘British’ governance now in practice applies in many matters only to the geographical territory of England rather than the whole territory of the UK: the Britain of government no longer literally and metaphorically ‘maps on to’ the territory of Britain, but often extends to England alone. For this reason, these should more properly be called English matters, rather than British. Yet, on another level, these remain British matters and are ‘appropriately’ described as such, insofar as they remain matters of ‘British’ governance: pertaining to Britain as the name of the sovereign power. In this sense, even England itself is correctly designated as ‘Britain’ on the basis that it is a British territory, which falls under the sovereign power that is Britain – indeed, it is now the only territory that remains wholly within the British orbit.

The point I’m trying to make is that when people ‘talk Britain’, and apply the name of Britain to England, what they are primarily doing is asserting the sovereign authority of Britain over England rather than mis-describing England as ‘Britain’. Asserting that sovereignty involves assimilating England to Britain. A failure to impose this assimilation would mean that Britain would no longer be itself – a nation defined in its very self-government – but would be seen increasingly as a sort of arbitrary imposition of extraneous, undemocratic, oppressive control denying England the self-government that it – Britain – claims as its own prerogative. This is indeed how those who assert England’s right to self-government see Britain, and I’ll return to the implications of this below.

But before I do this, I’d like to comment on the fact that this use of ‘Britain’ as the name for the nation is something perpetrated not only by establishment figures such as politicians but also by those who challenge government’s policies in quite fundamental ways – without challenging the British system of government itself through which those policies have been implemented. This observation would apply to Ed Howker above and, in general, to the various movements and social analyses that have sprung up in this era of government cuts to challenge the assumptions behind the cuts and demand a change of course, such as the UK Uncut protest movement or the ‘Fight Back’ account of the (mostly English) student protests at the end of last year. These analyses all uncritically refer to the nation as ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’ despite the fact that many of the cuts and public-sector reforms that are being protested about apply to England only. And that’s because the rhetoric of ‘Britain’ is the discourse through which power articulates itself. This means that if you want to be heard by the powers that be – if you want your analysis to be not only insightful and accurate but effective in instigating political change – you have to formulate your arguments in the terms that the British establishment imposes and dictates: through the language of ‘Britain’, which is the language of the established polity.

By contrast, if you decide to air your grievances as ‘English’ and frame your social analysis as applying to a country called ‘England’, you can be virtually guaranteed that your arguments will be dismissed out of hand and not even listened to, or else misrepresented and wilfully misunderstood as being merely narrowly nationalistic, chippy or even racist. To be included in the national debate, you must say ‘Britain’ because ‘Britain’ is as much the name and discourse in and through which that debate is conducted as it is the name of the ‘nation’ being debated. But if you try to articulate a different sense of identity, nationhood and political focus – an English one – you can be sure that you and your opinions will be excluded from any conversation of influence or power. To speak to and of ‘Britain’ is therefore a means to be inclusive, not only because it opens out English issues to all UK citizens (whether accurately or inaccurately), but because to be or feel included in any position to wield political, social or economic power, that power play must be directed to, and be articulated in terms of, ‘Britain’.

But there’s a problem for the Britologists: the propagandists for Britain who would propagate Britain through discourse itself. While saying ‘England’ is absolutely excluded from any discourse of power, the Britishers are aware that they can no longer get away with referring to the nation as ‘Britain’ in contexts where it is completely obvious that only England is really being talked about. In the Howker talk I mentioned above, for instance, it did become necessary at one point for the speaker to be geographically specific and refer to ‘England’ – if I remember correctly, referring to the fact that the devastation caused by the riots took place in English cities only.

Similarly, British politicians can no longer really get away with talking about policies as applying to ‘Britain’ in cases where people have become aware that they apply to England alone. Paradoxically, to describe them in this way would involve particularising Britain: making the term ‘Britain’ apply only to a limited geographical part of Britain (England), rather than to the whole of the territory and to the sovereign power of government in general. This is what Gordon Brown effectively did, setting up a bizarre UK comprising Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Britain, with Britain meaning both the UK and England: the two Britains I discussed above – the British polity and the territory over which it has retained full sovereignty, which has been reduced to England only.

So instead of acknowledging the shrinking of Britain down to England, the present tactic of the establishment is generally to avoid using any specific name for ‘this country’, and thereby avoid both the odd and confusing use of ‘Britain’ where ‘England’ is obviously meant, and the ‘inappropriate’ acknowledgement of England by name where British sovereign governance is being asserted and exercised. Above all, you mustn’t create the impression that government policies are British policies for England, which would invoke that post-devolution separation between Britain and its constituent parts, and would lead people to think that maybe we would be better off with English policies for England, with English-national politicians acting in the English-national interest, rather than British politicians governing England in the British interest, including in the interest of perpetuating the very system of power and governance that Britain itself is.

By using the expression ‘this country’ – and still more by personalising it as ‘our country’, and even just as ‘we’ and ‘our’ – the establishment tries to re-invoke that pre-devolution sense that we are just ‘one nation’: government and people united in shared self-government, mutual acknowledgement and respect, and common Britishness. Ironically, then, the unity and cohesion of Britain – and the adhesion of England to Britain – can be assured only by acknowledging ‘this country’ neither as Britain nor as England wherever facts and policies are being referred to in their exclusivity to England.

Using the language of ‘this country’, and of ‘society’ in general, helps to de-particularise the matters being discussed: it abstracts them from their particularity to England and naturalises them. That is, it’s a strategy that makes ‘this country’ seem a self-evident, natural, absolute concept whose meaning ‘we’ understand when we use it. Clearly, it’s a way of saying Britain, evoking Britain, without actually saying the word ‘Britain’: it’s a way of implying that there is still a shared national-British conversation and polity – one that in fact defines ‘us’ as a nation – that is as timeless and unchanging as the geology of the British Isles. This is not just the immutable order of British society but the order of things, the way things are; and it’s what makes ‘us’ British.

But this is a fabrication and a chimera: not so much a lie as a self-justifying, rationalising fiction. Britain isn’t the natural order of things and an immovable edifice solid in its immemorial foundations, but a political construct and project: it’s a system of sovereign government that the citizens of the UK used to identify with and think of as their own; but now that unity between the polity, the territory and the people of Britain has broken. This is the true meaning of ‘broken Britain’: don’t ascribe this concept to dysfunctional English communities and rioting English youth. It’s the politicians that have broken Britain, and no amount of endless invocations of ‘our country’ will bring it back.

In short, the breaking up of Britain into its component territories and nations means that the British government increasingly appears more like a Union government than a national government: it’s a government that seeks to hold together a union of multiple nations, and indeed whose continued existence as a system of governance depends on its ability to do so. As English nationalists who by definition support the idea of England as a self-governing nation (rather than a province of a self-styled British nation), we must do everything in our power to oppose the British establishment’s attempts to suppress the idea of England as a nation in its own right and with its own rights, including those of self-government. And that also means opposing and subverting the rhetorical tricks through which ‘Britain’ seeks to impose itself on our minds and hearts as the, and indeed ‘our’, nation.

What I’m suggesting is that, just as the defenders of the British order refuse to say ‘England’, we in turn should refuse to say ‘Britain’ or ‘this country’. Instead, when we’re referring to Britain as the sovereign power and established order in the land, we should wherever possible call it ‘the Union’; ‘the Union government’ instead of ‘British government’; ‘the Union’ instead of ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’; ‘Unionists’ for anyone who identifies as British, and supports the present disenfranchisement and suppression of England. Doing this helps to objectify and politicise ‘Britain’, making it clear that we view it as a political system and construct (a Union of nations) rather than as a self-evident, self-governing ‘country’ that we are all supposed to identify with and accept as our own, despite the realities on the ground and in our own sense of distinct English nationhood. And suppressing ‘Britain’ from our language also replicates and pays back the humiliating and insulting suppression of ‘England’ from the discourse through which ‘Britain’ imposes its power and identity over England.

I’m not saying that we should refuse to say ‘Britain’ altogether. We should retain the word in its two other common meanings: the geographical land mass, and principally the island of Britain itself; and ‘British’ in the cultural sense, referring to the shared history and traditions of people throughout the nations of Britain. This is Britain as a historic national identity whose days are numbered in terms of the politically enforced unity of the Union state, but which we can continue to celebrate as a historic achievement and as an expression of solidarity between the British peoples, who share so much in common. But we should refuse to say ‘Britain’ as the name of the ‘nation’-as-polity: the sovereign political power. This is to deny ‘Britain’ the power that it would assert over England, not just physically in terms of laws we must obey but psychologically by imposing Britain as ‘our country’. Our country is England, not Britain; and Britain is a Union state that seeks to run England for its own benefit, not that of England’s people. And we must express this fact in our language.

And of course, it doesn’t go without saying that we should always call ‘our country’ ‘England’ wherever it is really England we are talking about. Let’s not worry about being inclusive to non-English Britons by pretending we’re talking about the whole Union when we’re really discussing English matters. And above all, let’s not try to be inclusive in the broader sense: replicating a discourse of ‘Britain’ by which the Union seeks to impose itself as the power in the land and the power over our minds, and whose linguistic norms we must conform to if we are to feel included in the national conversation and life of the ‘nation’. We seek in fact to establish a new English nation, and it must first exist in the truth of our language if it is to truly challenge the terms and realities of Union rule.

11 August 2011

England’s riots: if you keep trashing England, eventually England will trash you back

It’s easy to pontificate about this week’s riots in England. Everyone’s got their pet theory about the causes and possible solutions, and about what to do with the rioters and looters themselves. Many of those expressing an opinion have little or no first-hand experience of the geographical areas of which they write or of the riots; although many writers have been directly affected by the mayhem. In my case, I do have a lot of direct knowledge of Tottenham – the part of London where it all ‘kicked off’ last Saturday. One of the iconic pictures of the riot, the blazing Carpet Right store that was razed to the ground, is very close to somewhere I have stayed and visited on many occasions. But I wasn’t there on Saturday night and am currently staying in a part of England – Cambridgeshire – that appears up to now to have been unaffected by the troubles.

One fact that is worth pointing out right from the start is that these are English riots, not ‘British’. Up to now, as far as I know, there have been no disturbances and looting in Scotland, Wales or – for once – Northern Ireland. It typically took the media quite a while to wake up to the fact that the riots were limited to England and so should be referred to as ‘England’s riots’, rather than ‘UK riots’. Yesterday, however, I noticed what appeared to be a distinct shift in editorial policy, and the major news broadcasters all seemed to be correctly describing the riots as ‘English’. Which is more than can be said for David Cameron who, in his speech in Downing Street yesterday, still seemed incapable of acknowledging the specifically English character of the riots. Cameron referred merely to “parts of Britain” that were “sick” and failed, yet again, to mention ‘England’ once.

It seems paradoxical that one should feel aggrieved that the specifically English nature of the riots is not being acknowledged by politicians insisting on terming them ‘British’, as the riots are not exactly something to be proud of as an Englishman. But the reason for being angry about this is the same as the reason for being annoyed when any English issue is not referred to as such: it’s because this is a means for politicians and media not to engage with the English dimension of the issue concerned, and hence to avoid taking or suggesting any position to the effect that, maybe, English problems need English solutions – politicians that are willing to provide national leadership for England and to be accountable to the English people in so doing.

In fact, to me, England’s riots seem to illustrate in dramatic fashion what can happen when an entire nation is suppressed and ignored: dropped from the discourse, consciousness and attention of those are supposed to be providing leadership for it and are supposedly elected to serve its people. For years and years, England has in effect been ‘trashed’ by the political, media and liberal classes: disregarded, despised, ignored and erased from politically correct conversation. When a nation becomes the object of the contempt of its own ruling class, and of its economically better-off classes, should we be surprised if those who bear the brunt of that contempt strike back?

Now, I’m not trying to justify the senseless violence and criminality of the riots, and still less suggest that they are the expression of legitimate political protest, which they clearly are not. But in a way, that is the whole point: the young people involved are deprived not only socio-economically (although not all of them, it seems, are under-privileged) but they are deprived of a political language and means of expression for their anger and hostility towards authority. So instead, the outlet for their aggression is trashing retail outlets: symbols of a political and economic system that has left them excluded, marginalised, and frequently unemployed and unemployable.

Again, it’s too easy to generalise and make excuses for the predominantly young people responsible for the violence. But equally, it’s easy to fall into the opposite error. The government and media are attempting to develop a narrative for the riots that makes out that they exhibit ‘pure criminality’ and ‘mindless thuggery’, as well as being the consequence of inadequate parenting, and a break-down in morality and personal ethics ‘in society’ – for which, read England. But this just reduces the whole issue to one of individual ‘responsibility’ – one of Cameron’s favourite words – and glosses over the collective, political, English dimension. Criminality and thuggery, clearly in evidence on England’s streets this week, doesn’t come from nowhere, and it certainly doesn’t just come from the moral break-down of individuals, families and communities. It also has political causes and, in a less obvious way, motivations; and it sure as heck is going to have political consequences.

What we’re going to see is the British political and media establishment rallying round and closing ranks, and propagating the view that there can be only British solutions to these English social problems. And those ‘British solutions’ are going to be ones that flow from the reserved powers and UK-level thinking of the British establishment, rather than expressing a direct engagement with and concern for English social problems as English. Hence, there will be a focus on policing, and law and order (UK Home Office), with draconian punishments for the wrongdoers (which to some extent they deserve) and more ‘robust’ policing methods, which, however, does nothing to address the underlying causes of the violence and is likely to make certain sections of the communities concerned (e.g. the black population) feel even more persecuted than they already do.

Then the discourse around moral responsibility and parenting, however relevant these issues are, is again at the general level at which ‘national’ (i.e. UK) leaders are supposed to provide a moral example – leaving aside the fact that politicians have, in very recent memory, failed to provide such a moral example to society by cheating on their expenses and effectively stealing goods to a much higher value than most of the looters. And all this pontificating about ‘responsibility’ by the British great and good is, to a large extent, an abnegation of their political responsibility to create conditions in society – i.e. England – in which young people feel they have a steak in a meaningful future and in economic activity, rather than having nothing to lose from stealing from those perceived to have benefited from an economy in which they are the losers, and smashing up their country.

And then the call for rioters to forfeit their benefits, which looks likely to be the first e-petition to reach the threshold of 100,000 signatures needed to qualify for a debate in Parliament, again addresses the situation purely at the British level, in that benefits are a UK reserved matter. But how is leaving newly criminalised, unemployed youngsters without any support from society going to encourage them to seek a better path in life? Surely, this is just going to make them feel even more desperate and embittered, and make them lash out even more against a society that has spurned them.

And this is, for me, the crux of the matter. The young people who have been involved in the violence, and whose voices have occasionally been allowed to be heard in the media, have often shown complete contempt and disregard for the police, for the legal system, for any figure of authority, and for the victims of their crimes, particularly the businesses they have wrecked, which they dismiss as the property of ‘rich’ people that had it coming to them. Where does such contempt and hatred come from? In part, at least, they arise from the disregard and indifference of which these English youngsters have been the object throughout their whole lives on the part of a system that has treated them and their country – England – with wholesale contempt. The scorn and indignation that is now being directed towards England’s rioters – justifiably so, in many respects – is co-terminous with the general contempt that the British establishment has for England per se: it’s not just England’s rioters that are at fault, but a violent and ‘sick’ England, which the rioters are seen as symbolising. And the British establishment is set on re-imposing its sway over those unruly English.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I want law and order to be re-established, and I want to be kept safe from gangs of out-of-control youngsters treating wanton destruction as a piece of adrenalin-filled fun rather like a cheap substitute for a trip to Alton Towers that they couldn’t afford. But I don’t think the way to deal with the problem in the long term is to continue to fail to develop social policies for England, and particularly English youngsters, that enable people to take pride in their country. At the most minimal level, these riots demonstrate that those involved do not have pride in their country; and their country, Mr Cameron, is England. The British establishment can’t go on pretending England doesn’t exist, and making social policy for England subordinate to UK-national and economic priorities, regardless of the social impact, without expecting a backlash.

Well, obviously, the UK government does have social policies for England (i.e. in areas such as education, health and communities where its responsibilities – that word again – are limited to England), even though it goes out of its way to avoid acknowledging that those policies are in fact specific to England. But, as I’ve argued previously, those policies flow from an ideology that is economic in its underlying philosophy: essentially, the belief that if the state withdraws from activities that have hitherto been the domain of the public sector, and makes those areas of society the responsibility of the free market, then services will be more appropriate to the needs of individuals and communities, and will be delivered more cost-efficiently and will generate economic growth. Whatever you think of such social-market economics or neo-liberalism, it is an ideology and an economic theory, not proven, empirical ‘fact’ as such; and, for the present government, England is the playground in which these theories are being put to the test. Or should that be a battleground?

The trouble is, market economics have been tested out in England for the past 30 years, and while they’ve made many English people very wealthy, they’ve created a whole class of English people that have lost out: who, for whatever reasons, have not engaged or been able to engage in the market economy that so often prefers to import cheap labour rather than paying English people a living wage and giving them decent working conditions that allow them to gain self-respect from work rather than feeling exploited and looked down upon. And that’s to say nothing of all the army of young unemployed and soon-to-be unemployed from whom benefits such as the Educational Maintenance Allowance and subsidised higher education (both retained in the UK’s devolved nations), let alone welfare benefits and subsidised social services such as youth clubs and leisure facilities, are being withdrawn in the interests of the UK economy and at the behest of ‘the markets’ in which UK plc lives in fear of having its credit rating adjusted downwards, as a consequence, in part, of its massive bail-out of the irresponsible and excessively wealthy financial-services markets themselves.

Really, is it any wonder that these disaffected and disenfranchised youths lash out in an ignorance that is in no small measure testament to an English education system that has failed to endow them with a sense of pride in England even while it tries to inculcate in them a Britishness that means nothing to them in tangible economic terms? If your country means nothing to you – indeed, if you don’t even know anything of your country, its proud history, traditions and culture – then it means nothing to you to trash it. And it means nothing to those youngsters because it is nothing to the British establishment that sees England even less than it sees the faces of those behooded youngsters rampaging through England’s streets.

Those young people – England’s future – are destroying England because they lack a positive political means and language with which to protest against a system that has let them down. And no British solution, imposed top-down from a British establishment that refuses to engage with English society and to seek to be a genuine government for England – a servant of the English people – is going to address this problem, because it will simply perpetuate it. We need an English government that cares about the English people, especially its dysfunctional youngsters, and which can address the problems from the bottom up. Our British obsession with the markets has created a society where economic success or failure is king, and indeed where education is mostly about equipping people to be successful agents in the market place, rather than fully rounded individuals that will care for and contribute to the communities, people and nation around them, as well as generating wealth through work. And where the losers feel they have nothing left to lose in destroying what the winners have gained, they will surely do so.

Only an English civic society can remedy England’s social ills. But English civic society is the last thing the British government is interested in bringing about and fostering. Its vision is the Big Society in which – essentially – communities are left to fend for themselves in a market free-for-all. Well, the market isn’t working for our young people right now and they’re lashing out against it.

If England is denied a civic future in which people of all ages and backgrounds feel they can work together for a better nation, then England will become an even more un-civic, indeed un-civil and uncivilised, place than it has been this week.

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