Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

22 May 2014

Why I’m voting UKIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 June 2012

Is it wrong to be proud to be British?

With polling evidence today suggesting that the Jubilee celebrations have made 33% of people across England, Scotland and Wales ‘more proud to be British’ – and only 1% less proud – it is perhaps time to ask what if anything is wrong about being proud to be British. Am I proud to be British?

The question was prompted in my mind this morning by my brief walk across the village green to buy my Sunday paper from the village store run by a well-established Asian family. So well-established in fact that the two large England flags draped from the first-floor windows above the shop were the only England flags I saw on my admittedly unrepresentative perambulation. And I don’t think this was just commercial opportunism on their part: the guy who manages the shop is active in the village football club, speaks with an English accent and is a genuine England football fan.

I did, however, see plenty of Union Flags hanging down and over from the Jubilee festivities, in the form of bunting, an advertising banner attached to the railings in front of one of the two mercifully still trading pubs looking out upon the green, and even a discreet but moderately large flag posted on the corner of a front-garden wall. ‘Discreet’ perhaps best sums it up. It’s as if loads of patriotically ‘British’ – and mostly middle-class? – people have seized the opportunity presented by the Jubilee to take their turn to run up their allegiance on a flag pole, having for years suffered in silence as white vans, semi-detached houses and family estate cars up and down the land have proclaimed their loud and garish support for the England team in what have been destined to be but short-lived flowerings of English footballing glory. But this is done discreetly, as I say: nice streams of bunting – not in your face all over houses and cars. Very English, indeed.

In fact, I’ve seen only two cars – and perhaps even just the one car, seen on two occasions – sporting the Union Flag atop their car door frames. It simply isn’t ‘British’ to make a display of one’s patriotism in such a ‘common’ fashion – or not so common as it turns out. (Leaving aside the fact that it is British, apparently, to spend three days literally parading the British flag, and celebrating the British state, all the way down the Thames, in front of the Palace and in the City of London.) Mind you, I’ve seen only two vehicles similarly displaying the Flag of St. George, and England’s first Euro 2012 game is only a day away.

I remarked on this fact to my partner last night as we went on a ludicrous late-night shopping foray to our nearest Tesco. As we were leaving the store, we saw one of the offending cars displaying the Union Flag above the driver’s and front passenger’s doors, and my partner said to me: “There you are, somebody’s flying the flag”. Of course, I had to point out to her that it was the ‘wrong’ flag, if indeed this display of patriotism had been prompted by the football, not the Jubilee. I managed, just, to avoid the potential for a blazing row, but not without a comment to the effect that I was judging the person responsible for the Union Flag display on appearances rather than the sentiment in the heart, which would have been the same whether it was a Union or England flag. Is that right?

What I would say in reply – but didn’t, as I really didn’t want that blazing row at 11.15 pm on a Saturday night – is that this is like saying that someone wearing an Arsenal shirt is going to support Spurs (my team) in tomorrow’s FA Cup final because their sentiment and loyalties are basically the same, and, after all, both teams come from North London. Err, no, it really doesn’t work that way. While the footballing example is perhaps somewhat crass and trivial, the point I’m making is that the meanings and values associated with (middle-class) English people discreetly proclaiming their pride in being British, on the one hand, and (working-class) English people loudly broadcasting their pride in being English are widely divergent and profound.

For those English people who are prouder to be British today than they were ten days ago, the objects of their pride are things like: the Queen; the monarchy; the system and traditions of British government; perhaps even, a little bit, Britain’s ‘proud’ imperial past; London as a ‘world city’; the British ability to organise and execute things like the river pageant, rock concert, cathedral service, carriage procession and fly-past with such dignity, order and precision; British ‘culture’, both high and low; and the British ‘nation’ as a great player on the world stage – supposedly – on, and up to, whom the eyes of all the world were looking. By contrast, for those English people who have been wont, in the past, to festoon English flags all over their property during international football tournaments, their pride in England relates to more ‘basic’ things – some might say simpler and more fundamental things: physical and sporting prowess; generally peaceful, but essentially ‘tribal’, competition and ‘battle’; England’s great footballing traditions and passion; and a rare occasion to come together and celebrate our common belonging as a nation, while taking advantage of a perfect excuse for a piss-up.

Which of these things are ‘better’? Who can say? I know, however, which of these things I’m more proud of. I greatly respect the Queen, who is in fact as much the Queen of England, in the popular imagination, as the Queen of Britain. Indeed, when did you ever hear the phrase, ‘the Queen of the UK’? I also do respect and, in some ways, reverence the UK traditions of government, which have evolved from centuries of English history, and from the constitutional settlement reached in the wake of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. Nonetheless, the system is in dire need of a radical overhaul, including recognising England’s right to self-determination and self-government. And all the pomp and circumstance? Well, yes, it’s highly impressive and entertaining. But I’d rather that ‘Britain at its best’ were defined less in terms of pageantry and more in terms of government working to improve the social and economic conditions of ordinary English folk, so they can access good education and decent, sustainable employment based on an economy that uses England’s talents and resources for the good of its people, not primarily for the profit of big business, the City and global corporations. At least English people gathering to watch the football in boozy bars, or on the terraces in the Ukraine and Poland, are only going to start a bit of a brawl and not a war – unlike those canons firing off their 60-gun salutes or those jet fighters brazenly displaying Britain’s fading military might.

Oh yes, and while I think of it, it is mostly English people who are more proud to be British as a result of the Jubilee – or at least they’re prouder to be British to twice a degree as Scottish people. The YouGov poll linked to above found that the proportion of English people that was prouder of being British post-Jubilee ranged ‘region’ by ‘region’ between 34% and 36%. In Scotland, however, the proportion was only 19%. This is still quite high, especially as only 3% of Scots were less proud as a consequence of the Jubilee. Nonetheless, it’s a telling indicator that Britishness is a proposition that appeals to English people significantly more than to Scots; and that’s because, really, it is a largely English phenomenon.

So how do you want your patriotism flavoured, England? Do you want it British-styly, or down-to-earth, common-or-garden English? Well, we’ll see how people’s newly re-found pride in Britishness fares when things do indeed come crashing down to earth and back to reality after the temporary escapism of the Jubilee – or after England come crashing out of Euro 2012!

13 August 2011

England: A Tale Of Two Countries

What is the greatest division in England today? Is it the famous North-South Divide? Is it the gap between the haves and the have-nots? How about England’s world-famous class system? Or the division between rioters and non-rioters?

My answer is that it’s none of those things and, at the same time, all of them. But the biggest division in England today, and one which subsumes the others, is that between England and Britain, and between the English and the British.

Who are the English? Well, the rioting English – and let’s not pretend, as the British establishment has tried to, that these were UK riots – live mostly in what we shall call the ‘inner shitties’: shit, gang-infested areas and housing estates; attending shit schools that leave them ignorant and under-equipped for the modern work market; often in shit jobs on the minimum wage, if they’ve got work at all; and living in crappy social and physical environments where survival, and getting what you can get whenever and however you can get it, is just the norm.

Not all of the English live in the inner shitties, of course. Let’s not forget about the ‘country-shite’, where most of the low-paid, unskilled work is now carried out by Eastern European migrants; where housing costs are so prohibitive that families working in the country can no longer afford to live there; and where the situation has become so desperate for many farmers that they have the highest suicide rate of any section of the English population. But the riots were urban and weren’t about the country(side) – although they were about the country (England).

Where do the British live? Well, they were on their expensive foreign holidays when the trouble broke out. The English go on foreign trips, too, of course, though less now than they used to a few years ago, the Spanish Costa being the destination of choice. The British, by contrast, are a bit more selective and cosmopolitan in their holiday destinations: France and Tuscany, rather than Spain; and if you must do the Med, then at least make it somewhere a bit more exclusive than the major Spanish and Greek resorts – I don’t know, like Corfu, for instance, favoured by our wealthy chancellor.

When back in Britain, the British tend to live in the better areas that generally were not directly affected by the riots, with the exception of Ealing – though that’s near to the ganglands of Hanwell: Kensington and Chelsea, for instance; or Muswell Hill, where the TV producers and executives congregate, rather than neighbouring, ransacked Wood Green and Tottenham. From their comfortable islands of prosperity, it’s easy for the British to project the riots as a symptom of others’ failed morality, as these are depths of behaviour to which they’d like to think they’d never stoop and will probably never have to. From a safe distance, the British can generously characterise the violence and criminality as the expression of ‘sick’ parts of ‘our society’, for which they’ll set about prescribing remedies, including more ‘robust’ policing, and law and order measures that will keep the rioting English away from their doorsteps: a sort of ‘kettling’ and ghettoising on a grand scale.

In an excoriating attack yesterday on the hypocrisy of the British establishment in relation to the riots, the columnist Peter Oborne recounted the story of a posh dinner party he’d attended in West London, where the guests were talking of the ‘north-south divide’. He took them to mean the divisions between the north and south of England but eventually realised they were flippantly referring to the areas north and south of Kensington High Street. For him, this was an example of how the wealthy economic and political elite of Britain increasingly live in their own bubble, detached from the poverty and deprivation in many parts of England and their own cities, and feeling little sense of real ‘responsibility’ (Cameron’s favourite word) either for causing England’s social problems or for doing anything meaningful about them.

In fact, if there’s one thing the riots appeared to demonstrate, it was that there is much less of a north-south divide than is often acknowledged – in England, that is, as opposed to the divide between Britain and England. The riots, as a popular, on-the-ground phenomenon, spread like wildfire from the south of England to the north but did not spread across England’s northern and western borders: clearly, an England-wide and English-national phenomenon, with young English people throughout the country expressing solidarity with each other, of however crazed and destructive a kind, and wreaking mayhem for the same reasons.

And what were those reasons? Can ‘mindless’ violence, as the British termed it, have a rational cause; or can senseless destruction have a meaning? It’s too easy to jump to conclusions and provide ready-made explanations that often tell us more about the person offering the analysis than the events they’re trying to explain away. Isn’t the point, precisely, that actions that appear meaningless, to the British at least, express the fact that, for many English people, their lives themselves are without meaning?

Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, rather than being devoid of meaning, the lives of many urban English people have come to be seen – by themselves as much as by the British – as stripped of any intrinsic value. The only things that have any value for them are valuable things: merchandise that can be bought and sold for a high price. And if the rioters’ humanity has been debased by a life of humiliating relative poverty and feeling personally under-valued, then it is not so surprising that they in turn strip out the shops in their neighbourhoods that are the repository of the valuable items they think will give them a surrogate worth they don’t hold in themselves, and that they’ll leave those shops gutted: visual metaphors for the impoverishment of their own hearts and souls.

Feeling devoid of value also means lacking a narrative. Many commentators have spoken of the terrifying fact that the rioters appeared to feel they had nothing to lose in their brazen confrontation with the forces of law and order, and their wanton acts of violence. Feeling you have nothing to lose means you have no hope in a better future: no narrative about your life that gives you a reasonable expectation of making progress and gaining some of the good things in life – education; a fulfilling career; a home; a decent family life; a reasonable standard of living. It’s these things, these terribly ordinary, mundane things, that many of the rioters feel they have no prospect of as well as no past experience of. This is what life has become for many urban English: rubbish schools; crap jobs or no jobs, and little dignity in work; crap housing, as decent homes have been priced way beyond the purse of the poorer sections of society; broken families; and declining living standards. It’s enough to provoke a riot! Oh yes, it just did.

The British, by contrast, can afford to send their children to good schools; or, if they can’t or won’t send them to private schools, they can afford to move to the areas where the top-performing publicly funded schools are located, thus pricing working-class people out of the housing market. The British have an expectation, indeed a sense of entitlement, to decent careers in the professions, business and the public sector. They can afford to give their children a better start in life, more expensive things (the latest laptops, smartphones, designer goods), and enjoyable and educational experiences. And if they can’t always actually be there with the children because they’re working long hours or their marriage has broken up, then they can at least afford better child care and material compensations for the children. And as the pressures on middle-class incomes mount, the pressures to get around the problems through little dodges such as tax evasion, expenses claims, back-handers and bankers’ bonuses also increase. But as ‘we’re all in it together’, this starts to become morally acceptable, even normal.

Now clearly, it’s simplistic to make out that all the ‘winners’ in English society are British while all the ‘losers’ are English. Many middle- and upper-middle-class people in England think of themselves as English and view their country as England. However, the narrative, or even meta-narrative, they tell for their lives – past and future – is much more likely to be British. That is, the account they give of themselves, and the meaning they give to their lives and identity, are far more likely to involve seeing themselves as included and playing a positive role in ‘British society’ and a ‘British nation’, and hence ultimately as being British.

Why is this so? Because ‘Britain’ represents the established political and economic order in England, and those who feel they have a stake in that order, and have made a success of their lives by adapting to it, are more likely to identify with it and give it their allegiance. The British narrative is of a country called Britain – or its carelessly bandied synonym ‘the UK’ – where it’s possible to be successful by playing the game: making sure you can get into the right schools, the right universities, the property ladder in the right areas, the right careers in the most promising economic sectors, and picking the right partner in life to be the mother or father of your children, and support each other’s career goals. And British politicians cater to that market – that demographic – rightly concluding they will be unelectable if they don’t help create conditions in which this British ethos and this British dream can prosper; because it’s mainly the British voters on whom election results depend and who, in England at least, bother to turn out to vote because they believe they have a stake in the result.

So the British narrative is one of success, where success and social inclusion is defined mainly in economic terms: being a successful agent in the market economy – indeed, in the market society. By contrast, the English narrative is one of failure: a story of break-down – economic, social and moral. Or rather, the English narrative is one that is set in the past tense only: one that can only look back at what we had, or believe we had, in the past; not one that looks forward to any future. It’s a narrative of exclusion, precisely because the discourse of inclusion in the successful society is British. Indeed, the British identity can be said to be ‘inclusive’, in the multi-cultural sense, mainly because immigrants who do prosper in England rightly conclude that they owe their success to Britain: to the British economic and political order. What immigrant would want to be proud to be English when the English have been systematically stripped of pride in their own nation?

Perhaps, then, rather than saying that England is a ‘tale of two countries’, as I suggested in my title, it would be more accurate to say that England is a country of two tales: two narratives that mutually exclude each other – the British narrative of success and meaning, which systematically denies any positive English story, relegating the English to the scrap heaps of history and of their own burning cities.

But at the same time, the British and the English are the two sides of the same coin: the acquisitive greed of the rioting English is but the naked face of the materialist, individualistic greed of the British, with their debased currency of economic success at all cost. The madness we saw on English streets is but a reflection of the madness of a Britain that has sold out to selfish materialism, and the success and entitlement culture.

In short, the madness of our English streets is the bedlam you get when the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

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