Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

23 May 2013

Gay marriage: a very English muddle

I’m opposed to the Marriage (Same-Sex) Bill. I have no problems with gay – or, as the PC term is now, LGBT – equality as a general concept, i.e. that LGBT people should be treated equally to any other citizens and should not be discriminated against. However, I do take issue with some of the ways LGBT equality has been implemented in practice, such as the requirement under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 for adoption agencies to take on gay and lesbian couples on an equal basis to heterosexual couples. That has meant that many Christian adoption agencies – which were generally recognised as providing an excellent service – have had to close, as they took the view that it is in the best interests of the child to be adopted by opposite-sex, preferably married, couples. By holding out for this view and not taking on same-sex couples, they would have run the risk of breaking the law.

Gay, or same-sex, marriage had, and arguably still has, the potential to present similar crises of conscience. If marriage is construed, like adoption, as a service that religious organisations such as churches provide to the public, then once same-sex marriage enters the statute books, those churches could be held to be in breach of the law by not offering marriage to gay couples. Section 2 of the present Bill, which passed its reading at the report stage earlier this week, offers churches and other religions protection against that eventuality by requiring religious organisations to opt in to the right to conduct same-sex marriages. In other words, there is no obligation on such organisations to provide same-sex marriage services if they do not agree with them on grounds of conscience.

So, no problem then? Well, the peculiar problem in England is that the Church of England historically has always had the obligation to marry any persons that requested it to do so, so long as the marriage thus solemnised was legal, e.g. not bigamous or prohibited for some other reason. Hence, introducing gay marriage could have put the Church in the position whereby it uniquely, as the established Church, had to offer gay weddings if gay couples asked it to do so. This is why the Bill has resorted to the drastic measure of actually prohibiting the Church of England (and the Anglican Church in Wales) from celebrating same-sex marriages. If it had not done so, there would have been a serious possibility of a legal challenge from gay couples who had been refused marriage by the Church.

As part of this obligation of the Church to marry those who ask it to do so in good faith (if not always in actual Christian faith), there has hitherto been just a single legal definition of marriage in English Law, i.e. no distinction between civil and religious marriage as exists in many countries in the rest of Europe. The new Bill maintains this tradition of recognising only one form of marriage but extends it to gay couples. Thus a somewhat absurd situation has arisen whereby the Church of England is still obliged to marry opposite-sex couples in church, and a single legal form of marriage (straight and gay) that applies to both religious and civil ceremonies is maintained, but the Church is prohibited from providing that form of marriage to gay couples.

This contradiction is absolutely bound to lead to legal challenges. But the fact that the new law will ban the Church from conducting same-sex weddings is intended to deflect those challenges away from the Church (which will have no option but to refuse gay couples) on to the law itself. Hence, the challenges, when they come, will take the form of judicial reviews or appeals to the European Court of Human Rights.

This is a very English muddle; indeed, one might even characterise it as very Anglican. England’s Church, and indeed English society, is a broad church, tolerating a wide spectrum of faith, ethics and sexuality. In one sense, the big joke in all this is that gay relationships and couples, involving vicars and bishops in many cases, have been quietly tolerated in the Church of England for decades. The real problem, for the Church, is perhaps that the possibilities of being either obliged to celebrate, or prohibited from celebrating, such relationships forces a resolution of the Church’s ambiguities on the morality of homosexuality. It pushes the issue out of the closet and into . . . the church. Will the Church turn down the wish of its gay congregants to marry in their places of worship, or will it utter a collective ‘I do’?

Well, the answer may soon be taken out of its hands, if indeed there are successful legal challenges to the ban on Anglican same-sex marriage. Ironically, the Church of England is perhaps more vulnerable in this area than other churches and faiths, which historically have not had the obligation to offer marriage to allcomers, as has the C of E.

The problem, as I have indicated above, is the single legal definition of marriage in England and Wales, which will now encompass same-sex unions. Over and above the fact that this may ultimately bring about the disestablishment of the Church of England – if it refuses to provide same-sex marriages once the ban on its doing so is overturned by the High Court or the ECtHR – this is the reason why I oppose the Bill.

I wouldn’t have any objection to gay civil marriage if law and practice made a distinction between civil and religious marriage. Indeed, making a split between civil marriage (open to gay and straight couples) and religious marriage (open by default only to straight couples but, at the discretion of each religious organisation, capable of being extended to gay couples) could have been a way to resolve the parallel muddle that has arisen over civil partnerships: the current civil form of recognition of same-sex unions (‘gay marriage’ in all but official documentation), which the Bill in its present form is neither abolishing nor extending to heterosexual couples – hence creating another anomaly and inequality. Indeed, even if a church or other religious organisation did not choose to conduct gay religious marriages, it could be open to them to conduct gay civil marriages within their own premises: equivalent to celebrating civil partnerships now, as civil partnerships would be ‘upgraded’ to ‘civil marriages’, equivalent to straight civil marriages.

But as the law continues to be based on a single definition of marriage – civil and religious, and now gay and straight – this means that what is at issue is not merely LGBT equality in the matter of civil marriage but English society’s collective understanding and formal definition of marriage per se. By legalising gay marriage, the British parliament is declaring that the official meaning and purpose of marriage in England and Wales are no longer as understood by traditional Christianity, which holds that marriage is the life-long union of a man and a woman, and is the foundation of family life and strong communities. (I’ve written about this extensively in my previous post from the point of view of traditional Christian faith, so won’t go back over this ground here.)

This is what is ultimately at stake for England here: our understanding and beliefs about the meaning and value of human sexuality, and the importance of the traditional family based around the rock of an unshakable union between a husband and a wife committed to each other and their children for life.

Let’s not be under any illusions here. The most ardent and determined LGBT-equality campaigners won’t be content with mere equality under the law: they want society not only to hold and propagate the view that gay sex and marriage are equal to their straight counterparts, but that they are equivalent to them, morally, socially and spiritually. They want to marginalise and stigmatise anyone who stands up for the traditional understanding of marriage, and brand them as bigots and homophobes. Indeed, that’s what they’re already doing. You wait for the challenges against churches, and church and other religious schools and their teachers, to come in.

Now that it’s law, it’ll become mandatory PC speak to acknowledge the ‘equal value’ and importance of gay and straight marriages. And what will inevitably be next is demands for ‘reproductive equality’: the equal ‘right’ for gay couples, especially if they’re married, to access ‘fertility services’ enabling them to have children (which, after all, is what marriage is supposed to be all about, they might say). So fertility clinics will not be allowed to give preference to straight couples having difficulty becoming joint parents in the natural way over gay or lesbian couples requiring treatments such as artificial insemination or surrogacy enabling one of them to become a parent, even though neither could become a parent under any circumstances if left to nature alone. Equal adoption and marriage rights: equal fertility rights – watch this space.

Would it matter if the traditional family disappears under the impact of an increasingly secularised society’s obsession with enabling every individual – gay or straight – to pursue and fulfil the same goals in the name of equal rights? Well, I think it does matter. Society needs people who are prepared to place their commitments to other people – wives, husbands, children, families, communities – above their dedication to pursuing their personal life goals and sexual, or other, destinies. And, I would say, society needs faith: the belief in, and commitment to, some thing or some being higher than oneself. Is this need met by changing society’s understanding of marriage so that it is merely the affirmation of two people’s love and passion for each other, and of their pursuit of personal fulfilment, divorced from the broader social and familial context?

Well, I guess we’ll muddle through. I hope so anyway. Maybe those who want dogmatically to insist we all acknowledge the equal value of gay sex and unions will not in fact win their ultimate victory, and English society will continue to tolerate diversity, even if hypocritically in some contexts, such as the Church.

The fact that the Marriage (Same-Sex) Bill is such an unholy English muddle gives me a sort of desperate hope.

6 January 2013

Inconsistent, dangerous and irrelevant: Proposed changes to the rules of succession

Further to my previous post, on the 2011 Census and gay marriage, it is noteworthy that, during December, another draft bill was published that relates to the issues of marriage equality and of England’s Christian establishment and history. This is the Succession to the Crown Bill 2012.

The Bill, which is expected to be rushed through ahead of the birth of the Duchess of Cambridge’s baby, makes two main provisions:

  1. Abolition of primogeniture: the rule that specifies that it is the first-born male who inherits the crown, even if one or more female children have been born to the existing monarch or their heir before the arrival of a male child. Now it will simply be the first-born child of the monarch or heir who will succeed to the throne, whether that child is male or female
  2. Right for the monarch or heir to marry a Roman Catholic: since the Bill of Rights of 1689, the monarch or heir has been barred from marrying a Roman Catholic, to help ensure the Protestant succession (more on this below).

The rationale that is given for these changes is that they do away with two instances of discrimination – against women and against Roman Catholics – that no longer appear justifiable in these equality-minded times of ours. But the fact that this Bill was published in the same month as the government’s proposals on gay marriage shows how absurdly inconsistent this rationale actually is. For example, if the basis for making the changes is equality, then why not allow the monarch or heir to marry someone of the same gender like the rest of the population? The Bill refers to the abolition of primogeniture as ensuring that “succession to the Crown [is] not to depend on gender”. Well, why not then “remove the disqualification” to the Crown – as the bill might put it – from marrying someone of the same gender?

And if we really want to apply the principle of equality consistently, then why not allow the monarch or heir to actually be a Roman Catholic as well as merely being allowed to marry one? And come to think of it, why should it be automatically the first-born child that inherits the Crown? Isn’t that discrimination against the later children? The first-born might be intellectually challenged or have flaws of character making her or him entirely unsuited to the Crown: a fact that has been sadly illustrated on numerous occasions in the history of England’s kings and queens! And ultimately, the real problem, from the point of view of equality, is the principle of a hereditary monarchy itself: why should anyone inherit the role of UK head of state nowadays? My point is that it’s completely ludicrous to defend these changes as being carried out for the sake of equality, as the whole institution of the monarchy is based on radical inequality!

Returning to my rhetorical question of why a monarch or heir should not be allowed to marry someone of the same gender once gay marriage becomes law: in actual fact, the various parliamentary Acts that deal with the rules of succession, including the present Bill, do not specify gay marriage as a factor barring someone from the throne. However, this is still excluded by virtue of the fact that the present or prospective monarch, as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, has to be married in an Anglican ceremony. And as the Church of England will be prohibited from conducting gay weddings under the gay-marriage legislation, this cannot happen, at least not without further changes to the law.

In an attempt to shore up the exclusion of gay monarchical marriage, the Succession to the Crown Bill 2012 retains the requirement for the six persons next in line to the throne to seek the consent of the current monarch if they wish to get married. If they marry without that consent, then they are barred from the throne. As Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the monarch is hardly likely to consent to their heir marrying someone of the same gender – i.e. in a non-Anglican rite – as this would be a direct challenge to the very established character of the Church of England, which it is the monarch’s role to defend.

In addition to these religio-political considerations, allowing the heir to the throne to marry someone of the same gender also counteracts one of the central purposes of a royal marriage, which is, precisely, to ensure the succession: to produce children who will form the line of succession to the throne – albeit that a first-born female will now automatically be at the head of the queue. In this sense, royal marriage retains one of the primary characteristics of traditional Christian marriage that will be lost from English Law’s definition of marriage once gay marriage comes into effect: that it is intended for the raising of children.

All of this perhaps seems somewhat academic and theoretical. But it is in fact not beyond the bounds of possibility that a future first- to sixth-in-line to the throne might wish to marry someone of the same gender and could find themselves prohibited from doing so by the queen or king. Imagine the uproar that would ensue! It would result in all manner of legal challenges, which would be added to the list of challenges that would already have been brought against the prohibition of gay marriage in the Anglican churches of England and Wales. And before we knew it, the monarch or heir could be free to marry whoever (s)he liked in whatever sort of ceremony, and freed of her / his obligation to head up the Church of England, which itself would be ‘free’ to conduct gay weddings, or not, by virtue of no longer being the established Church.

So the Succession to the Crown Bill 2012 in general is grossly inconsistent in its application of equality principles, and it is also dangerous, in that it chips away at the foundation stones of a hereditary Protestant-Christian monarchy it ostensibly sets out merely to reform. The specific provision allowing the monarch or heir to marry a Roman Catholic (but not one of the same gender or to be one) is similarly inconsistent and dangerous, although perhaps also irrelevant. For a start, the fact that the present or future monarch is allowed to marry an RC doesn’t make it likely they would do. As the law presently stands, the monarch is allowed in theory to be married to a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or member of any non-Anglican-Christian religion or of no religion. But it hasn’t happened. The reason for this is that the consort effectively needs to be Anglican even if they do not have to be, for the reasons given above: the royal marriage marks a necessary formal step towards ensuring the Anglican succession via the procreation and raising of an heir who will eventually be Supreme Governor of the Church. It was for this reason that the Duke of Edinburgh converted from Greek Orthodoxy to Anglicanism prior to marrying our present queen.

Any prospective Roman Catholic consort would most likely be prevailed upon to similarly convert to Anglicanism before marrying the monarch or heir. If, however, their devotion to the Catholic Church was so great that it overrode any sense that supporting their prospective spouse in her or his role as Defender of the Faith could also be considered a sacred, Christian calling of equivalent merit to their Catholic faith, then the marriage would almost certainly be called off. This would be a) because the unwillingness of the future prince or queen consort to switch denominations would be a cause of relationship break-down, or b) because this refusal would trigger a denial of consent for the couple to marry on the part of the reigning monarch, on similar grounds that consent would be denied if the heir wished to marry someone of the same gender: that it was an unsuitable match for a would-be British monarch and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and guarantor of the Protestant succession.

If, however, the couple still wished to get married, and had obtained the consent of the queen or king to do so, there is still no guarantee that the marriage could go ahead. This is because, in order for an Anglican wedding where one of the participants is Catholic to be considered valid by the Roman Catholic Church, it needs to be approved by the local Roman Catholic bishop; and the couple needs to give an undertaking to raise their children as Catholics. In other words, the Catholic Church would once again be in a position to approve or deny a wedding involving the British monarch or her / his heir! Isn’t that what all the trouble between Henry VIII and the Holy See was all about in the first place? Of course, it was; and that’s precisely what the prohibition of the monarch from marrying a Roman Catholic is intended to prevent!

Clearly, such a situation would be completely unacceptable to the UK government, the monarchy and most British people. Any monarch insisting on marrying a Roman Catholic (thereby undertaking to raise their children as Catholics) would almost certainly be forced to abdicate, just as Edward VIII was obliged to do when he insisted on marrying a divorcee (i.e. in a non-Anglican ceremony). And any heir demanding to marry a Roman Catholic would almost certainly be denied permission to do so by the reigning monarch, or else be removed from the succession. That’s unless the Church of England were disestablished and the monarch were relieved of her / his role as Supreme Governor – in which case, they could do pretty much whatever they wished.

In other words, the changes to the rules of succession put forward in the Succession to the Crown Bill 2012 are inconsistent, dangerous and irrelevant. They are predicated on principles of equality they cannot consistently fulfil, because to do so would mean the end of the Protestant-Christian succession itself. In addition, it is unlikely that the provision allowing the monarch to be married to a Roman Catholic will ever be acted on by any queen or king, unless disestablishment has taken place. But by applying equality principles to a hereditary monarchy – however inconsistently – the Bill creates grounds for further legal and political challenges to the present establishment.

This is no bad thing, perhaps – other than the fact that a wholesale demolition of the present establishment could result in the abolition of England as a Christian nation and, indeed, as any type of civic nation, as I argued in my previous article. Clearly, England’s demise would be a tragedy under any circumstances. But to happen as a result of the constitutional illiteracy and woolly-minded egalitarianism of the present omnishambles that passes for a British government would be worse than a tragedy: it would be a theatre of the absurd!

11 April 2011

L’interdiction de porter les burkhas est une honte pour la France

Feel free to Google-translate this, but I felt it needed to be said in the language of Racine.

Si ce n’est pas ridicule, l’interdiction de porter les burkhas dans les lieux publics, qui devient loi aujourd’hui, est une honte pour la France.

Ridicule à cause du nombre minuscule de porteuses de burkha en France, estimé à quelque deux milles. Une honte en raison des fières traditions de la liberté, de l’égalité et de la fraternité auxquelles le nom même de la République Française s’associe dans l’esprit de la communauté internationale.

Évidemment, la fraternité ne s’étend pas à nos sœurs musulmanes. Apparemment, la liberté ne signifie plus le libre choix de ses vêtements. Et l’égalité – au nom de laquelle on prétend justifier cette mesure discriminatoire – n’équivaut plus au droit d’être différent.

Et l’absurdité la plus grande, c’est qu’on pense que cette nouvelle loi va donner plus de sécurité aux citoyens français, et qu’elle aille donner lieu à une meilleure entente entre la France séculaire et la communauté musulmane, en France et à l’internationale. Tout au contraire : cela ne peut qu’aggraver les tensions et augmenter les accusations de la part du monde musulman que la France soit intolérante, raciste même, envers la religion et le peuple musulmans. Et, ici en Angleterre, l’on ne sait que trop quelles peuvent être les conséquences pour la sécurité de notre population d’accusations de cette sorte, quelque infondées qu’elles soient.

Et tout ceci pour quelques deux milles femmes qui désirent exprimer leur foi de cette manière. Cynisme politicien, peut-être, si ce n’était pas si ridicule.

5 February 2011

Ed Miliband: England is a promise politicians haven’t even made let alone broken

I was struck by the following phrase in the BBC’s account of Ed Miliband’s speech in Gateshead yesterday on the so-called ‘Promise of Britain’: “He argued that policies such as nearly trebling the cap on student tuition fees in England and scrapping the educational maintenance allowance would ‘take away the ladders’ for young people and have a profound impact on the country’s future.”

Could it really be, I wondered, that English Ed had actually referred to an England-only government policy as taking effect “in England”? I felt I had to check against delivery, as they say, so I had a look at the transcript of Ed’s speech on the Labour Party website. Sadly, I couldn’t find a single use of the word ‘England’, but I did see the following phrase: “they are cutting away the ladders, destroying the chances of children and young people, and undermine [sic] Britain’s future in a profound way”.

Oh well, I suppose in a speech on the Promise of Britain – distinct echoes of last year’s commemorations of the Battle of Britain with Miliband’s reminiscences on his parents’ flight from war-torn Belgium – it would be too much to expect England to get a mention. Instead, ‘Britain’ featured 18 times, and ‘this country’ or ‘our country’ appeared nine times.

Except, of course, that most of the coalition government’s measures that are supposedly cutting away the ladders of opportunity for young British people actually affect only young people living in England: the hike in tuition fees (originally introduced for England only by New Labour, of course); the Education Maintenance Allowance (being scrapped in England only but retained in Scotland and Wales); Sure Start; the alleged scrapping of a guaranteed apprenticeship place for 17- and 18-year-olds in the current Education Bill (not 100% sure that doesn’t also apply to Wales, but it definitely doesn’t apply in Scotland); etc.

Does it actually matter, on one level, if the Labour leader doesn’t make clear that the UK-government measures he’s criticising affect only one part of Britain – England – not the whole of it? Possibly not, in the sense that the cuts will affect English youngsters in the same way whether you call them English or British cuts. Plus Miliband is making a broader point about declining economic and educational opportunity for all young people in Britain as it is affected by factors common to all the UK’s nations, such as reduced social mobility, growing income inequality, increasingly stretched family budgets, lack of job opportunities and impossibly high house prices.

But it does matter that Ed does not refer to England if English young people are being sold a ‘Promise of Britain’ that New Labour itself broke: the promise of equal and fair support from the state and public services to all British youngsters as they start out in life. The Labour Party broke this promise in its devolution settlement coupled with an unfair funding mechanism that ensures that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish young people obtain more state support and subsidies than their English counterparts.

It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that Ed Miliband and / or his speech writers perpetuated the taboo on pronouncing the ‘E’ word in this speech, especially given the recent attempts by some in his party to develop a distinct message and policy agenda for England. Is Miliband’s speech a sign that Labour is in fact going to carry on down the Brownite path of eulogising ‘Britain’ and deceitfully framing all its policies as applying uniformly to Britain, even when they relate to England alone?

How can anyone believe in Miliband’s ‘Promise of Britain’ when it was not only New Labour that broke it in the first place, but when this promise is dishonest in its very concept: the idea of a ‘Britain Fair For All’ (as Labour’s 2010 election manifesto, written by Ed Miliband put it) that Labour has had neither the will nor the means to actually bring about?

Labour should stop going on about a ‘Promise of Britain’ it cannot keep, and should start making realistic and honest commitments to the next generation in England. At least, if Labour returned to government, it would actually have the power to keep those promises. But would it have the will?

20 June 2009

The Dark Nationalist Heart of New Labour’s Devolution Project

I was struck last night by how the panellists of BBC1’s Any Questions displayed a rare unity in condemning the ‘nationalism’ to which they imputed the recent assaults on Romanian migrants in Northern Ireland. ‘There can be no place for nationalism in modern Britain’, they intoned to the audience’s acclaim.

Apart from the fact that statements such as this articulate a quasi-nationalistic, or inverted-nationalist, pride in Britain (‘what makes us “great as a nation” is our tolerance and integration of multiple nationalities’), this involved an unchallenged equation of hostility towards immigration / racism with ‘nationalism’. This was especially inappropriate in the Northern Ireland context where ‘nationalism’ is associated with Irish republicanism, and hence with Irish nationalism and not – what, actually? British nationalism à la BNP; the British ‘nationalism’ of Northern Irish loyalists (no one bothered to try and unpick whether the people behind the violence had been from the Catholic or Protestant community, or both); or even ‘English’ nationalism?

Certainly, it’s a stock response on the part of the political and media establishment to associate ‘English nationalism’ per se with xenophobia, opposition to immigration and racism. But this sort of knee-jerk reaction itself involves an unself-critical, phobic negativity towards (the concept of) the English – and certainly, the idea of the ‘white English’ – that crosses over into inverted racism, and which ‘colours’ (or, shall we say, emotionally infuses) people’s response to the concept of ‘English nationalism’. In other words, ‘English nationalism’, for the liberal political and media classes, evokes frightening images of racial politics and violence because, in part, the very concept of ‘the English nation’ is laden with associations of ‘white Anglo-Saxon’ ethnic aggressiveness and brutality. English nationalism is therefore discredited in the eyes of the liberal establishment because it is unable to dissociate it from its images of the historic assertion of English (racial) ‘superiority’ (for instance, typically, in the Empire). But the fact that the establishment is unable to re-envision what a modern and different English nationalism, and nation, could mean is itself the product of its ‘anti-English’ prejudice and generalisations bordering on racism: involving an assumption that the ‘white English’ (particularly of the ‘lower classes’) are in some sense intrinsically brutish and racist – in an a-historic way that reveals their ‘true nature’, rather than as a function of an imperial and industrial history that both brutalised and empowered the English on a massive scale.

This sort of anti-English preconception was built into the design of New Labour’s asymmetric devolution settlement: it was seen as legitimate to give political expression to Scottish and Welsh nationalism, just not English nationalism. Evidently, there is a place for some forms of nationalism in modern Britain – the ‘Celtic’ ones – but not the English variety. While this is not an exhaustive explanation, the anomalies and inequities of devolution do appear to have enacted a revenge against the English for centuries of perceived domination and aggression. First, there is the West Lothian Question: the well known fact that Scottish and Welsh MPs can make decisions and pass laws that relate to England only, whereas English MPs can no longer make decisions in the same policy areas in Scotland and Wales. This could be seen as a reversal of the historical situation, as viewed and resented through the prism of Scottish and Welsh nationalism: instead of England ruling Scotland and Wales through the political structures of the Union, now Scotland and Wales govern England through their elected representatives in Westminster, who ensure that England’s sovereignty and aspirations for self-government are frustrated.

It might seem a somewhat extreme characterisation of the present state of affairs to say that Scotland and Wales ‘govern England’; but it certainly is true that a system that involves the participation of Scottish and Welsh MPs is involved in the active suppression not only of the idea of an English parliament to govern English matters (which would restore parity with Scotland and Wales) but of English-national identity altogether: the cultural war New Labour has waged against the affirmation and celebration of Englishness in any form – the surest way to extinguish demands for English self-rule being to obliterate the English identity from the consciousness of the silent British majority. In this respect, New Labour’s attempts to replace Englishness with an a-national Britishness – in England only – are indeed reminiscent of the efforts made by an England-dominated United Kingdom in previous centuries to suppress the national identity, political aspirations and traditions of Scotland and Wales.

This notion of devolution enabling undue Scottish and Welsh domination of English affairs becomes less far-fetched when you bear in mind the disproportionate presence of Scottish-elected MPs that have filled senior cabinet positions throughout New Labour’s tenure, including, of course, Gordon Brown: chancellor for the first ten years and prime minister for the last two. And considering that Brown is the principal protagonist in the drive to assert and formalise a Britishness that displaces Englishness as the central cultural and national identity of the UK, this can only lend weight to suspicions that New Labour has got it in for England, which it views in the inherently negative way I described above.

However, the main grounds for believing that devolution enshrines nationalistic bias and vindictiveness towards England is the way New Labour has continued to operate the Barnett Formula: the funding mechanism that ensures that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland benefit from a consistently higher per-capita level of public expenditure than England. One thing to be observed to begin with is that Barnett is used to legitimise the continuing participation of non-English MPs in legislating for England, as spending decisions that relate directly to England only trigger incremental expenditure for the other nations.

But New Labour has used Barnett not only to justify the West Lothian Question but has attempted to justify it in itself as a supposedly ‘fair’ system for allocating public expenditure. It seems that it is construed as fair primarily because it does penalise England in favour of the devolved nations, not despite this fact. This sort of thinking was evidenced this week during a House of Lords inquiry into the Barnett Formula. Liam Byrne, the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, described the mechanism as “fair enough”, only to be rounded on by the Welsh Labour chair Lord Richard of Ammanford: “It doesn’t actually mean anything. Look at the difference between Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – is that fair?” So it’s OK for England to receive 14% less spending per head of population than Wales, 21% less than Scotland and 31% less than Northern Ireland; the only ‘unfairness’ in the system is the differentials between the devolved nations!

The view that this system is somehow ‘fair to England’ – except it’s not articulated as such, as this would be blatantly ridiculous and it ascribes to England some sort of legal personality, which the government denies: ‘fair for the UK as a whole’ would be the kind of phrase used – exemplifies the sort of nationalistic, anti-English bias that has characterised New Labour. It’s as if the view is that England ‘owes’ it to the other nations: that because it has historically been, and still is, more wealthy overall and more economically powerful than the other nations, it is ‘fair’ that it should both pay more taxes and receive less back on a sort of redistribution of wealth principle. But this involves a re-definition of redistribution of wealth on purely national lines, as if England as a whole were imagined as a nation of greedy capitalists and arrogant free marketeers that need to pay their dues to the exploited and neglected working class people of Scotland and Wales: the bedrock of the Labour movement.

In short, it’s ‘pay-back time’: overlaying the centuries-long resentment towards England’s wealth and power, England is being penalised for having supported Margaret Thatcher and her programme of privatisation, disinvestment in public services and ruthless market economics. ‘OK, if that’s how you want it, England, you can continue your programme of market reforms of public services; and if you want a public sector that is financially cost-efficient and run on market principles, then you can jolly well pay yourselves for the services that you don’t want the public purse to fund – after all, you can afford to, can’t you? But meanwhile, your taxes can fund those same services for us, because we can’t afford to pay for them ourselves but can choose to get them anyway through our higher public-spending allocation and devolved government’.

Such appears at least to be the ugly nationalistic, anti-English backdrop to the two-track Britain New Labour has ushered in with asymmetric devolution. This has allowed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to pursue a classic social-democratic path of high levels of funding for public services based on a redistributive tax system; that is, with wealth being redistributed from England, as the tax revenues from the devolved nations are not sufficient to fund the programme. Meanwhile, in England, New Labour has taken forward the Thatcherite agenda of reforming the public sector on market principles. In a market economy, individuals are required to pay for many things that are financed by the state in more social-democratic and socialist societies. Hence, the market economics can be used to justify the unwillingness of the state to subsidise certain things like university tuition fees (an ‘investment’ by individuals in their own economic future); various ‘luxuries’ around the edges of the standard level of medical treatment offered by the state health-care system (e.g. free parking and prescriptions, or highly advanced and expensive new drugs that it is not ‘cost-efficient’ for the public sector to provide free of charge); or personal care for the elderly, for which individuals in a market economy are expected to make their own provisions.

These sorts of market principle, which have continued and extended the measures to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ initiated under the Thatcher and Major governments, have been used to justify the government in England not paying for things that are funded by the devolved governments: public-sector savings made in England effectively cross-subsidise the higher levels of public spending in the other nations. Beneath an ideological agenda (reform of the public services in England), a nationalist agenda has been advanced that runs utterly counter to the principles of equality and social solidarity across the whole of the United Kingdom that Labour has traditionally stood for. Labour has created and endorsed a system of unequal levels of public-service provision based on a ‘national postcode lottery’, i.e. depending purely on which country you happen to live in. Four different NHS’s with care provided more
free at the point of use in some countries than others, and least of all in England; a vastly expanded university system that is free everywhere except England; and social care offered with varying levels of public funding, but virtually none in England. So much for Labour as the party of the working class and of the Union: not in England any more.

There’s an argument for saying that English people should pay for more of their medical, educational and personal-care needs, as they are better off on average. But that’s really not the point. Many English people struggle to pay for these things or simply can’t do so altogether, and so miss out on life-prolonging drug treatments or educational opportunities that their ‘fellow citizens’ elsewhere in the UK are able to benefit from. A true social-democratic- and socialist-style public sector should offer an equal level of service provision to anyone throughout the state that wishes to access it, whether or not they could afford to pay for private health care or education but choose not to. The wealthy end up paying proportionately more for public services anyway through higher taxes. Under the New Labour multi-track Britain, by contrast, those English people who are better off not only have to pay higher taxes but also have to pay for services that other UK citizens can obtain free of charge, as do poorer English people. One might even say that this extra degree of taxation (higher income tax + charges for public services) is a tax for being English.

But of course, it’s not just the middle and upper classes that pay the England tax; it’s Labour’s traditional core supporters: the English working class. On one level, it’s all very well taking the view that ‘middle England’ supports privatisation and a market economy, so they can jolly well pay for stuff rather than expecting the state to fund it. But it’s altogether another matter treating the less well-off people of England with the same disregard. It is disregarding working people in England to simply view it as acceptable that they should have to pay for hospital parking fees, prescription charges, their kids’ higher education and care for their elderly relatives, while non-English people can get all or most of that for free. What, are the English working class worth less than their Celtic cousins?

How much of this New Labour neglect of the common people of England can truly be put down to a combination of Celtic nationalism, anti-English nationalism, and indeed inverted-racist prejudice towards the white English working class? Well, an attribution to the English of an inherent preference for market economics – coming as it does from a movement that despised that ideology during the 1980s and early 1990s – could well imply a certain contempt for the English, suffused with Scottish and Welsh bitterness towards the ‘English’ Thatcher government.

But an even more fundamental and disturbing turning of the tables against the English is New Labour’s laissez-faire attitude to job creation, training and skills development for the English working class. The Labour government abandoned the core principle that it has a duty to assist working people in acquiring the skills they need to compete in an increasingly aggressive global market place, and to foster ‘full employment’ in England; and it just let the market take over. It’s as if the people of England weren’t worth the investment and didn’t matter, only the economy. And it’s because of Labour’s comprehensive sell out to market economics that it has encouraged the unprecedented levels of immigration we have experienced, deliberately to foster a low-wage economy; and, accordingly, a staggering nine-tenths of the new jobs created under the Labour government have gone to workers from overseas. Is it any wonder, then, that there is such widespread concern – whether well founded or not in individual cases – among traditional Labour voters in England about immigration, and about newcomers taking the jobs and housing that they might have thought a Labour government would have striven to provide for them?

How much of the liberal establishment’s contempt and fear of English white working-class racism and anti-immigration violence is an adequate response to a genuine threat? On the contrary, to what extent has that threat and that hostility towards migrants actually been brought about and magnified by New Labour’s pre-existing contempt and inverted racism towards the white working-class people of England, and the policies (or lack of them) that flowed from those attitudes?

Has New Labour, in its darker under-belly, espoused the contempt towards the ‘lazy’, ‘loutish’, disenfranchised English working class that Margaret Thatcher made her hallmark – and mixed it up in a heady cocktail together with Celtic nationalism, and politically-correct positive economic and cultural discrimination in favour of migrants and ethnic minorities?

One thing is for sure, though: English nationalism properly understood – as a movement that strives to redress the democratic and social inequalities of the devolution settlement out of a concern for all of the people residing and trying to earn a living in England – is far less likely to foster violence against innocent Romanian families than is the ‘British nationalism’ of the BNP or the various nationalisms of the other UK nations that have seen far lower levels of immigration than England.

But is there a place not just for English nationalism but for England itself in a British state and establishment that are so prejudiced against it?

8 March 2009

Stillbirths and Neonatal Deaths: Ten Years of Devolution, Ten Years Of Failings

I first came across this story on the BBC News website on Wednesday morning last week. According to the report: “The number of stillbirths and deaths shortly after birth remains stubbornly high, claiming 17 babies every day on average in the UK, a report reveals. Every year in the UK nearly 4,000 babies are stillborn and another 2,500 die within four weeks. The stillbirth rate has not changed for a decade.”

The article then went on to quote a comment from the “Department of Health in England”, saying “there had been an increase in midwives and consultant obstetricians, and increased investment in the field”. This combination of statistics supposedly relating to ‘the UK’ and reaction from the DoH England [give them their due, the BBC do now more consistently make it clear when a UK government department has England-only responsibilities] immediately registered on my Britology radar: ‘are these UK figures actually England-only figures?’, I asked myself. Otherwise, why gauge reaction only from the English department concerned without any further comment relating to the rest of the UK? Such a practice usually is code for England-only information passing under the generic UK / Britain label.

The report about stillbirths and neonatal deaths was produced by the charitable society of the same name, the Stillbirths and Neonatal Deaths Society, or ‘Sands’. In fact, the document was due to be launched at the House of Commons later the same day, so it was not yet available for download. I scoured the Sands website in vain for information about whether the research and the activities of the charity were focused on England only or on the whole of the UK. The website talked only of UK-wide facts and figures, and in fact, it did not mention the word ‘England’ once anywhere. After more extended web research, I did manage to confirm that Sands is the established UK-wide charity organising emotional support and raising funds for research on the topic.

Later on in the day, I caught the BBC1 lunchtime news, where there was a more extended version of the report than had appeared on the BBC News website. This was an absolute masterpiece of ambiguity, which managed to completely avoid mentioning whether the Sands report related to England or to the whole of the UK, failing to (or perhaps succeeding in not) utter(ing) any of the words ‘England / English’, ‘Britain / Britain’ or ‘UK’. Any casual viewer would undoubtedly have been left with the impression that the information related to the whole of the UK; but this was never explicitly stated, even though Sands was calling for a ‘national’ [by implication, UK-wide] action plan to reduce the number of stillbirths and deaths in early infancy.

By now, I was getting really intrigued, and really frustrated. ‘Does the Sands report relate to England only or not; and if it does, why do they seem to want to suppress this fact rather than drawing comparisons between the situation in England and elsewhere in the UK, which would almost certainly be more embarrassing to the government?’, I wondered. I checked the Sands website in the evening – and still no report available to download. I was so irritated that I fired off the following email to the organisation:

“Dear Ms Duff [Sands’ Communications Officer],

“I followed with interest the press coverage today surrounding the launch of your Saving Babies’ Lives report. Will this report be available for download from your website soon?

“I am also interested to know whether its findings and recommendations relate to the whole of the UK or to England only, as the UK government and the Department of Health are responsible for healthcare and the NHS in England only. The media coverage (e.g. on the BBC1 lunchtime news) was somewhat unclear on this point. On your own website, you call for a nationally co-ordinated action plan (implying across the UK). But clearly, the government can only really co-ordinate all the measures required to reduce the number of stillbirths and neonatal deaths in England – unless your report recommends some sort of high-level, UK-wide co-ordination involving the participation of the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“I look forward to your reply.”

I don’t know whether this letter was viewed as a nuisance or irrelevance, or whether they were just plain too busy, but I haven’t yet received a response. In fact, it may well have been too close to the bone, as became evident when the report did finally appear on the website on Thursday and I was able to download it.

This is where I have to throw in a disclaimer. In some respects, I’m reluctant to critique this report, which is full of heart-breaking pictures of would-have-been parents cradling their stillborn infants, and desperate accounts of the devastating effect that stillbirths and neonatal deaths have on individuals and families. I’m not blaming Sands for the approach they’re taking, which is completely consistent and conscientious. I blame the UK-cum-de facto-English government and the effects of poorly managed, asymmetric devolution. So, as they say, the views expressed in this post are mine and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Sands.

Apart from all the detailed data on stillbirths and mortality in early infancy, and the recommendations for alleviating the situation, a clear underlying message that emerges from the Sands report, for me, is that the failure to reduce the incidence of these traumatic events is closely connected with asymmetric devolution. Sands don’t spell this out because they want to encourage government to develop a co-ordinated cross-UK strategy and set of policies that strongly prioritise the issue. Hence, their tactic appears to be that of taking the moral high ground and arguing that this is such a critical social issue (responsible for far more deaths, for instance, than road accidents or cot death) that the government should rise above the political obstacles and start dealing with it.

But the political barriers are evidently key. As the report itself says:

“In the UK a combination of problems means we fail to identify many babies who are at risk, and to ensure their best possible chance of life:

• We lack knowledge, data and research into why babies die.

• We have no reliable way to predict which pregnancies are at risk of stillbirth or death early in life.

• There is little awareness of the extent of the problem or what the risks are.

• We don’t have the resources in maternity care to ensure optimal care for every baby.

Above all there is no political will to make things change [my emphasis].”

Why is there no political will to make things change? The problem, it seems to me, is twofold:

  1. The UK government – which is the primary intended audience for this report – lacks the political will and, more importantly, the political muscle and power to co-ordinate and implement a UK-wide strategy in this area. Post-devolution, the remit of the UK Department of Health stops at the borders between England and Scotland, and England and Wales. And there’s been a failure, precisely, to develop mechanisms to co-ordinate strategy, share knowledge and implement best practice in areas of social policy, including healthcare and the (four) NHS(‘s), across the four nations of the UK. (See my discussion of this elsewhere.) And this sort of co-ordination is especially critical with respect to stillbirths and neonatal deaths, according to the Sands report.
  2. The UK government has even been unwilling to own and embrace its responsibilities to formulate priorities and develop social policies for England as England, and has tended to wash its hands of its duties as the de facto English government by passing on or outsourcing the setting of healthcare priorities to Primary Care Trusts and an increasingly marketised healthcare sector. This has also resulted in a failure to set adequate priorities and co-ordinate measures to deal with stillbirths and deaths in early infancy, as emerges from the report; although Sands does not link this explicitly to the contrast between the situation in England and the devolved UK nations.

One area where the government could co-ordinate action at a UK-wide level, and which is vital according to Sands, is in research into the causes of stillbirths and neonatal deaths. As the report says, “A serious lack of direct funding for scientific research to understand and prevent stillbirths is holding back progress that could be made in reducing the numbers of deaths”. Scientific research is a reserved power, so the UK government could directly fund research in this area; and Sands is calling on the government to match the £3 million it is raising for this purpose. £3 million: absolute peanuts compared with the billions the government is pumping into the banking sector. But, as I said in that previous discussion, as the UK government has retained the responsibility for managing the economy but not the ability to formulate joined-up social policy throughout the UK, it tends to prioritise the economic over the social: in England, that is, as the devolved administrations do have a social vision for their respective nations.

Indeed, one of the problems about a direct-funded research programme is that it has to be underpinned by co-ordinated cross-UK data gathering. As the Sands report says in its next recommendation: “Data collection on pregnancies is limited in the UK, the exception being in Scotland. We need nationally collated, detailed and standardised data about all pregnancies and outcomes on which to base research”. Well, yes, that says it all, doesn’t it? In fact, before devolution, there was a ‘national’ (i.e. UK-wide) programme for gathering data on the issue, called CESDI: Confidential Enquiry into Stillbirth and Deaths in Infancy. But, as the report indicates, “these enquiries have stopped since the formation of the Confidential Enquiries into Maternal and Child Health (CEMACH) which has less funding to cover a far wider remit of work. We would like to see resources to enable a return to enquiries into all stillbirths, in particular those which are unexplained”.

The last CESDI report was published in 2001; and from 2003, its work was taken over by CEMACH, which looks into maternal and childhood deaths (up to the age of 16) alongside perinatal and neonatal mortality – and does in fact have a much smaller budget than did CESDI alone. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, that is. In Scotland, on the other hand, as the report reiterates elsewhere, “detailed information about pregnancies and outcomes is available”. Why? Because the CEMACH work in Scotland is separately funded by a body known as NHS Quality Improvement Scotland (NHS QIS), which in fact will be taking over the whole CEMACH survey in Scotland from October of this year. (I add that this particular gem of information is not contained in the Sands report; I trawled it up from the CEMACH website.)

So let’s summarise. Research in Scotland is still focused on the specific problems of stillbirth and neonatal deaths; it enjoys superior funding to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which are dependent on the CEMACH process; and until as recently as 2007, the CEMACH survey was also using a flawed methodology. As Sands informs us: “From 2007 CEMACH has adapted [the Wigglesworth] classification system to address its widely recognised limitations, particularly in gathering information about conditions associated with a death”. On top of this, the Scottish NHS is abandoning the CEMACH process altogether from later this year. And no political will exists to sort out these disparities and ensure that rigorous data gathering of the kind that still takes place in Scotland is co-ordinated across the UK. Surprise, surprise.

A similar lack of political will seems to prevail with respect to ensuring the dissemination of best clinical practice. For example, the report states: “The Royal College of Nursing and other stakeholders are currently working on a UK-wide framework for the education and training of neonatal nurses. But this framework must be adopted in order to be effective”. Well, clearly, there has to be the ‘political will’ to standardise processes and share knowledge across the four national NHS organisations. And there would have to be a commitment to make the necessary investments to raise standards, which would be particularly costly throughout England, whereas this is easier to achieve in Scotland owing to its smaller scale and higher per-capita level of public expenditure, guaranteed through the Barnett Formula. I’m reading between the lines here; but it stands to reason that if there were enough political will to introduce the improved training framework in England, then there would be no problem about standardising it across the other UK countries owing to their higher proportionate share of the public finances. So the issue must be that the government is unwilling to spend the extra money in England (with the Barnett consequential of even greater expenditure in the other countries), while the devolved administrations presently do have the financial and political latitude to roll out improvements in this area.

And evidently, to judge from the Sands report, these improvements are desperately needed. At times, the report reads like a catalogue of failure to learn from avoidable mistakes in antenatal care, childbirth and neonatal intensive care, resulting in babies continuing to die unnecessarily from the same causes. And there is not just a failure to disseminate best practice, share knowledge and prioritise the issue but also a lack of resources: insufficient antenatal healthcare personnel, such as midwives and other specialists, who might be able to help detect problems earlier on in pregnancy; inadequate staffing levels in intensive-care units for premature babies, such that only 14 out of 50 of such units ‘in the UK’ are able to provide the one-to-one nursing care that the British Association of Perinatal Medicine (BAPM) regards as a minimum standard.

The fact that the statistics are aggregated across the whole of the UK in this way is one of the shortcomings of the Sands report. This prevents one from being able to gauge whether the problems are significantly worse in England than in the other UK countries, which would be linked to the funding inequalities and strategic issues (lack of UK-government focus on this as a serious social issue in England) resulting from asymmetric devolution. I have no way of knowing how many of those 14 under-resourced intensive-care units are located in England; but I’d be willing to bet that none of them are in Scotland. It has to be said that all the specific examples of bad practice and inadequate resourcing, and all of the references in the body of the report to comments from clinical experts or to other reports on the issue, are drawn from England.

Another aspect of this topic that is exclusive to England is the way that the processes of funding the NHS contribute to the inadequate priority and insufficient resourcing that are given to stillbirths and neonatal deaths. These are described by the report as follows:

“Newly implemented commissioning structures between the Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) and hospital trusts have been evolving to meet new government structures. While this brings more focus to what is required from maternity services in each hospital, contracts may omit any proactive remit to reduce perinatal deaths. An issue that is not highlighted in a contract for funds is less likely to attract specific focus or resources.

“As the contracts come into place hospitals can negotiate additional funds for posts or for focus as they see fit. However, many hospitals see contract negotiations as being driven by the PCTs and only a few have seen the opportunities provided by being able to focus on local issues.

Tariffs

“It is unclear what is or is not included in the tariffs paid to trusts for obstetric services, with a great deal of room for interpretation on whether or not tariffs have been adjusted to allow for the funding of quality improvements. For neonatal care there is no nationally mandated funding system and health economies are left to make their own local arrangements which leads to an inevitable variability in the level of care provided.”

What the report doesn’t state explicitly at this point is that these funding mechanisms that have evolved to meet ‘new government structures’ and this lack of a ‘nationally mandated funding system’ for neonatal care exist in England only; as it is only in England that the government is still calling the shots when it comes to NHS funding and healthcare priorities. The system described above has been developed deliberately to allow a greater role for market forces, with individual hospital trusts competing for funding from PCTs based on their proven record to meet government targets and treat larger numbers of patients with different types of medical need. What this leads to is the creation of centres of excellence and a concentration of investment in particular ‘generic’ areas (such as maternity services, as described here), which can then more successfully bid for funding. But this means that certain specialisations within those generic areas (such as neonatal care) are not prioritised in a strategic way, as the focus is more on generating a critical mass in more ‘fashionable’, headline-grabbing areas of care that can attract funding in a bidding war, rather than on actual clinical and social need: in this case, more resources for preventing and dealing with stillbirths and neonatal deaths. By contrast, as is evident from the dedicated resources allocated to the issue at a national level through NHS Quality Improvement Scotland (referred to above), stillbirths and neonatal deaths are a nation-wide NHS priority in Scotland.

Conclusion

For me, one of the things that emerges clearly from the picture of failure painted by the Sands report is a demonstration of the harmful consequences of asymmetric devolution. No progress has been made in improving clinical outcomes in ten years: the ten years during which devolution of healthcare has been in place, with different systems, and levels and mechanisms of funding, in place in each of the UK’s four nations. This has led to an absence of strategic UK-wide focus on stillbirths and neonatal deaths, with the consequence that there has been inadequate funding of scientific research, and a failure to disseminate best practice and drive through better training of specialist nursing staff. This is clearly linked to the funding inequalities built in to the asymmetric devolution settlement. The report cites Scotland as the only example of adequate data gathering on the causes of stillbirths and neonatal deaths, after the successful pre-devolution information-gathering process (CESDI) was abandoned in favour of a more poorly funded and less specifically focused system (CEMACH) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (but not Scotland) under the auspices of the infamous NICE (National – e.g. English – Institute for Clinical Excellence).

Meanwhile, there has been a lack of strategic focus on the issue in England, which in my view is linked to a general unwillingness on the part of the UK government to assume its responsibilities as the de facto English government in most areas of social policy, including the NHS. Instead, funding and prioritisation in England has been left in the hands of PCTs as part of a process designed to foster the development of a competitive healthcare market within the NHS. But, as we know, markets lead to winners and losers, and stillbirths and neonatal deaths have lost out to more market-friendly areas of obstetric and paediatric medicine where it is easier to demonstrate a return (improved patient outcomes) on investment, compared with the difficulties in making gains in stillbirths and neonatal deaths, where the causes of mortality are still often a mystery. But unless the resources are devoted to greater research and improved clinical care in this area, no improvements will ever take place.

Where I take issue with the Sands report is with its tactic of treating the issue purely at a UK-wide level, without differentiating between the nation-specific circumstances that are contributing to the ‘postcode lottery’ of varying standards of care and prioritisation throughout the UK. The report correctly identifies that the political dimension is key. And one absolutely fundamental aspect of this is that the UK government, in this area as in so many other aspects of healthcare, is unwilling to commit the levels of investment and to prioritise the issue at a national level (that is, an England- and hence UK-wide level) in the same way that it is prepared to enable the devolved governments to do so on a more limited scale. The pattern is: cut expenditure in England, and hand the thing over to the market as a supposedly more efficient way to deliver healthcare in line with patient customer demand, in order to release higher levels of funding on a smaller scale for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Until these structural and national inequalities are removed, there can be no integrated UK-wide strategy for beginning to reduce the number of stillbirths and neonatal deaths. Perhaps we may never be able to reinstate a coherent UK-wide strategy in this area given the lack of political will to reform the present asymmetric devolution settlement. But the government at least has a duty to drive a strategy on stillbirths and neonatal deaths for England. However, I doubt this will ever happen until there is a proper elected English government, genuinely accountable to the English people.

1 February 2009

Care for women victims of violence: the real gap in provision the EHRC ignores

Trevor Philips, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) he chairs, were in the news again on Friday. Mr Philips was threatening to take legal action against local authorities that fail to convince the Commission that they have adequate plans to redress their insufficient, or totally absent, provision of services for women who have been victims of violence or sexual assault. If the EHRC’s figures are reliable – and they do seem to have been quite thorough in their research – then the absence of provision in some parts of ‘the country’ are indeed truly deplorable: nearly one in four local authorities in Britain with no specialised support services at all.

What the EHRC and the media reporting on Mr Philips’ declaration of intent yesterday did not emphasise, however, is that the gaps in funding and provision exist almost entirely in England and, to a lesser extent, Wales. Why is this? Because, as it says almost at the end of the EHRC’s press release: “In Scotland, the Government has extended provision through a national Violence Against Women fund for over five years”.

Why should ‘the Government’ create a ‘national Violence Against Women fund’ in Scotland while no such provision exists in England or Wales? Rhetorical question, of course; because this is not in fact referring to the UK government, as you could be forgiven for thinking, but the Scottish government. So the EHRC’s criticisms are not in fact directed at local authorities throughout the UK, because Scotland is performing significantly better. Why? Because in Scotland, they have a devolved government that has made the provision of care for women victims of violence a national priority. And it doubtless helps that Scotland has superior funding to back this up through the higher per-capita public spending guaranteed by the Barnett Formula.

The fact that the EHRC itself believes that the ability to deliver an adequate level of provision in this area results from its being set as a national priority is evident from what the EHRC’s press release goes on to say about the Scottish fund: “But this fund is now at risk since some of the work previously ringfenced has been lost because of delegation of responsibility for part of the fund to local authorities, a system which, as this year’s report shows, isn’t working for victims of violence in the rest of Britain”.

Well, yes; so if the problem in the ‘rest of Britain’ is the delegation of responsibility to local authorities, doesn’t this logically imply that the EHRC’s criticism and actions should be directed against the national English government, which should be taking ownership of the issue and driving the improvements – as has the national Scottish government – and not against the local authorities Mr Philips is now menacing with his clunking fist? But there’s a problem with that, of course: there is no national English government. Consequently, there is no government department, or combination of departments, specifically tasked with looking after the welfare and rights of English women victims of violence; no English government, answerable to the English electorate, that has the needs and situation of English women sufficiently at heart that it takes responsibility for ensuring that their human rights are looked after and that the local authorities of England do their job in this area. And one of the reasons why English local authorities are failing to a greater extent than their Scottish counterparts is that they receive less funding for the job.

But you wouldn’t know that from the EHRC press release, from the media interviews with Trevor Philips on Friday or from the wider media coverage. The funding and political inequalities between Scotland and England were never once mentioned as a possible factor in the variations in provision. Instead, the EHRC press release talks of a “postcode lottery” of inconsistent services throughout Britain – a phrase which is increasingly used nowadays to gloss over the primary discrepancy in public-service provision in the UK, which is that between England and the other UK nations.

In fact, the press release revealingly uses the phrase “regional postcode lottery”. This refers to a map of differential provision throughout Great Britain (the ‘map of gaps’) that has been drawn up by the EHRC in partnership with the charity grouping End Violence Against Women (EVAW), in which Great Britain has been divided up into 11 ‘regions’ – two of the ‘regions’ being Scotland and Wales. So it’s not a regional postcode lottery, as such; but a lottery of superior provision in the nations of Scotland and Wales compared with (the regions of) England.

This map is interactive; and you can indeed search for the provision in your local area by individual postcode. However, you can also search the availability of different types of care for women victims of violence across the whole of Great Britain, with colour coding indicating the number of individual services that are available in the local authorities concerned. In the generic category, ‘violence against women services’, all of the red-coded areas (no provision) are in England: no red in either Scotland or Wales.

If you click through all the sub-categories, the only ones where Scotland and Wales are predominantly coloured red are where England is mostly red, too; e.g. ‘services for black minority ethnic women’ or ‘specialist domestic violence courts’.

Indeed, the section of the map of gaps site entitled ‘Postcode Lottery’ gives the whole game away. It states “Over a quarter of local authorities in GB offer no specialised service at all”. Then, at the end of a set of bullet points on the key findings of the EHRC / EVAW research, it says: “All Local Authorities in Wales and Scotland have at least one service but 30% (109) in England have no service”. QED: the ‘quarter of local authorities in GB’ with no specialised service are the same local authorities as the 30% of English ones with no service, because every single authority in Scotland and Wales has at least one service. And that’s why there’s no red colouring on the ‘regional’ map for Scotland and Wales under the search term ‘violence against women services’.

This is the real news story and the real scandal of inadequate care to vulnerable women that the media totally failed to pick up on on Friday. I first spotted the story in the print version of the Guardian, where there was nothing to indicate that the local authorities with serious deficiencies were almost all located in England until some way into the report, where it referred to the EHRC report’s statistics about provision in England and Wales – Wales being included because it is lacking in certain types of care, such as rape crisis centres. The rat that I was already smelling positively stank me out when I watched the Channel 4 News report where, again, no mention was made of the fact that England was the only UK country where there were local authorities without any form of provision – despite the fact that they showed the ‘map of gaps’ (as above), with red bits only in England. And the Channel 4 report mentioned that the best-performing local authority in ‘Britain’ was Glasgow – surprise, surprise. Could the reason for this just perhaps be because it was a Scottish local authority, benefiting from superior funding and the political backing of the Scottish government, which appeared to be the reason why there were no red bits on the Scottish part of the map?

But, as I said above, the specifically English dimension of deficient provision simply wasn’t on the EHRC’s radar. Or perhaps, rather, it was being deliberately obfuscated in the usual way: by referring to everything as ‘Britain’ this and ‘the country’ that; ‘regional’ and postcode lotteries, not national. What interest would the EHRC have in obscuring the real economic and political issue here? After all, as an organisation, it’s supposed to have a UK-wide remit and should therefore be concerned to get to the bottom of any obvious apparent nationwide pattern of inequality and discrimination, no matter how politically awkward this might be.

Well, in theory, yes; but the UK government pays the EHRC’s wages and is its political master. In order to truly do justice to the inconsistencies in levels of provision across the different nations of the UK, the EHRC would have almost no alternative other than to point out that a major factor – perhaps the most fundamental one of all – is asymmetric devolution coupled with funding inequalities affecting the UK’s nations. They would have to emphasise that, whereas Scotland and Wales have national governments that have made the issue a priority, England is governed by the UK government that does not see it as part of its role to develop social policy specifically for England and to meet the needs of the English people as such. Hence, that government has delegated responsibility in the area of care for women victims of violence to local authorities – an approach which the EHRC itself says results in inadequate prioritisation and channelling of resources. Resources which are in any case more limited in England because of the funding disparities.

So the EHRC ought to be directing its fire against the UK government that is providing such inadequate and unequal care for the women of England – as it is for the people of England as a whole in so many other areas. But that would be too difficult, too likely to incur the wrath of its UK-government masters and threaten its ‘independence’. And so Trevor Philips’ imperious anger is directed at the English local authorities as an easier target: one which enables the blame that should be aimed at the UK government to be deflected, so the EHRC can be seen to be doing something while not getting to the real root of the problem – the fact that England itself is the victim of structural discrimination, resulting in lack of care towards its people’s needs and unequal treatment compared with the other UK nations.

Until the EHRC addresses this most egregious of violations of the principles of equality and human rights within the UK, it cannot have the credibility that it deserves as a defender of the rights of vulnerable people. In fact, rather than the EHRC threatening legal action against inadequately funded and politically unsupported English local authorities, it seems to me that the EHRC itself would be a suitable candidate for legal action. In this instance, at least, it is failing in its statutory duty to defend the principles of equality and human rights for all in the UK without discrimination. And English women are the losers as a result.

Email of protest sent to EHRC (info@equalityhumanrights.com) – feel free to borrow it or the arguments above if you want to write, too:

“Dear Madam or Sir,

“I am writing to express my dismay at the failure of the EHRC and the media to address one of the most fundamental aspects of the question of inadequate provision of care for women victims of violence, which was the subject of prominent media coverage last Friday.

“It was completely obvious to me – and therefore must have been evident to thousands of others – that the local authorities with no provision at all were all located in England; while Scotland was the best-performing ‘region’. This is, as the EHRC’s press release itself acknowledges, because the (Scottish) government has made the issue a priority. There is also the additional fact that a higher per-capita level of public funding is available to the Scottish government on this issue, as on many others, owing to the inequalities of the Barnett Formula.

“This aspect of the question was barely touched upon in the media coverage; nor is it addressed in the EHRC’s own material on your website. However, it is fundamental to any consideration of inequalities and discrimination in social-service provision in the UK. England is discriminated against in two respects here: 1) no national government to drive the issue, as in Scotland and Wales (a key factor in the superior provision in Scotland, according to the EHRC itself); and 2) inferior funding.

“Instead of bullying and threatening the English local authorities over this issue, the EHRC should direct its fire at the UK government that is failing the English people by not exercising its responsibility to set policy and priorities in England – as there is no England-specific government to do this equivalent to those in Scotland and Wales. In fact, the EHRC itself should perhaps be the object of legal action, as it is failing to defend the people of England against the political and financial discrimination of which it is a victim at the hands of the UK government and as a result of asymmetric devolution. And, as inadequate provision of care for vulnerable women is a direct consequence of this structural discrimination, the EHRC as much as English local authorities are to blame for the present deficiencies so long as you persist in not calling the UK government to account.”

8 March 2008

New Labour, Brave New World: Equality for all – except children, fathers and conscientious objectors

Are we witnessing the start of ethical mono-culturalism? I had a mini-debate on ‘mono-culturalism’ with Gareth Young on OurKingdom the other day. For me, this term refers to the would-be imposition and engineering of a new secular-liberal Britain and understanding of Britishness, as part of the creation of a unitary British national identity and its supporting value system. This involves potentially riding roughshod over conscientious objections – often but not always based on religious conviction – to things like adoption by gay couples or abortion, both of which are proclaimed as ‘human rights’.

Without wanting to get into the whole argument about whether or not such things are indeed rights or not, another intimation of the rise of mono-culturalism has come in the last couple of days with the news that the parliamentary Labour Party was intent on ‘whipping’ the vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill: forcing Labour MPs to vote in favour of the government-sponsored bill, even though it contains measures that many MPs object to on conscientious grounds. These contentious provisions include allowing the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos for the purpose of medical research, and removing a legal obligation to respect a child’s ‘need for a father’ so as to allow both partners in a Lesbian relationship to be registered as the parents of children born through assisted conception.

The nature of the conscientious objection to each of these provisions is different. In the former case, it involves reference to concepts of the sanctity and integrity of the human person, which extends even to the embryo. In the latter instance, this involves reference to a child’s ‘right’ to have a father, based on an understanding of human nature and, for religious persons, of humanity’s place within a divine order of creation. It’s this particular topic I’m interested in discussing here because it involves a secular concept of equality and the attempt to impose this concept over and above the moral objections to it.

The heart of the matter, from the ethical and egalitarian perspective, is the bill’s proposal that licensed agencies providing IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) and other fertility treatments to women in same-sex relationships (whether civil partnerships or not) no longer need to take into consideration the ‘need for a father’ on the part of the resulting child. The intention behind this is to enable lesbian couples or individuals to have equal access to this form of fertility treatment to that afforded to straight couples.

You could argue that the removal of the reference to the child’s need for a father is merely a legal technicality clearing the way for Lesbian IVF. But can something so fundamental be literally written out of the legislation simply to facilitate an extension of ‘reproductive equality’? Do children not in fact need a father? And do they not have the right to a father founded on this basic human need? This belief, in essence, is the basis of the conscientious and / or religious objection to the measure.

In addition to the ethical arguments, which are highly complex in themselves, there are at least two problems from the egalitarian perspective with this effacement of the ‘need for a father’:

1) it sets a legal precedent, whereby a piece of legislation explicitly minimises – even discounts altogether – what could be seen as a universal human need. Subsequent legislation or legal cases could draw on this precedent to discredit the notion of a child’s need for a father in other circumstances; for instance, in child custody cases where a bias in favour of the view that children’s need for a mother is naturally greater than their need for a father could be unfairly decisive

2) the proposed legislation actually goes further than merely expunging the reference to the need for a father: it creates a right for the lesbian partner of the woman who gives birth to the child to replace the genetic father on the child’s actual birth certificate. This means, potentially, that two women (and at least one of the women) could be registered as if they were the child’s biological parents, even though it’s possible that neither of them are the genetic parents (in the case of IVF involving donor ova from a third woman, for instance). Indeed, should the donor ova come from the lesbian partner who is not carrying the baby (genetically, the mother), it is not her but the birth mother who will be registered as the real mother. The second parent in both cases – the one who fills the vacated space of the father on the birth certificate – is not registered either as ‘the father’ or as a second ‘mother’ but as a ‘parent’.

While the different possible birth-registration scenarios are mind-boggling with respect to their twisted terminological logic and ontological distortions, the point in relation to the child is not only that it is considered to not have a valid need for a father but, in legal terms, not to have a father at all. This is, contradictorily, despite the fact that the law also continues to recognise that children resulting from lesbian IVF do have biological fathers and, once they reach the age of maturity, they have the right to learn who they are and to try to contact them if they wish. But the difference is that, officially, this donor of the sperm that has created the child is just that: a sperm donor and not a father in either an emotional / social sense (such as with an adoptive father, for instance) or genetic sense: where the lesbian partner is registered as the ‘parent’, the genetic father loses his right in law to be considered even as the genetic father.

This means that the child that is being deprived of its right to have a genetic father that they do not know, even during childhood. This is in contrast to the circumstances of IVF children who have parents of both sexes where the genetic father is not the social father, or adopted children. In these instances, the child is still entitled and able to know that they have a genetic father even if they know next to nothing about that person. The child with two registered female parents, however, does not even have this right and existential possibility. Setting aside the fact that this makes the law not just an ass but a liar (because the child in question does have a genetic parent), this is also an inequality compared to other children who don’t know their biological father. Who knows what psychological harm could be caused by this sort of officially sanctioned deceit? It’s surely far more likely that children in this situation would be damaged by the absence of a father than if the existence of a biological father can at least be acknowledged. So in the name of equality to lesbians a potentially egregious inequality towards IVF children is to be legally sanctioned.

In addition to treating lesbian-IVF children unequally, the proposed bill is also grossly unjust towards the fathers concerned. Admittedly, children resulting from such procedures retain the right to seek out their genetic fathers when they reach adulthood. But even then, the fathers have no legal right to call themselves fathers, even though they are so in biological terms. Their status remains that merely of sperm donors. Of course, these are highly exceptional cases; but they could have huge ramifications for the legal status of fathers in general. I’ve suggested one example above (reference to the rights of fathers in child-custody cases). But how about male gay couples becoming parents through assisted conception? Could it not be argued that, in the name of equality, they should have the same ‘right’ to be considered as the two legal parents and that, accordingly, the law should include no formal recognition of a child’s ‘need for a mother’. Similarly, why should donors of sperm to lesbian couples be treated differently to donors of sperm to straight couples, where the sperm donor retains his legal right to be recognised as the biological father?

But clearly, something such as the removal of legal recognition of children’s ‘need for a mother’ would not, and should not, be accepted: children do need mothers and have a right to know that they have a mother, even if they do not know who she is. But why does the reverse not apply equally? If fathers can be legally relegated to the status of mere sperm donors, why shouldn’t women be legally relegated in analogous circumstances to the status of mere ovum or womb donors? The unequal provisions of the proposed legislation do indeed appear to imply that motherhood is deemed to be somehow more integral to the processes of conception, birth and child rearing, and their associated emotional needs, than fatherhood. In the specific context of the bill, the ‘need’ to be a parent on the part of lesbians is accordingly recognised as being at least equal to that of straight couples also seeking IVF and other fertility treatment. But as a consequence, the ‘right to motherhood’ of lesbians is being prioritised over the child’s ‘right for a father’ or the father’s ‘right to be recognised as the father’. And so, in the name of equality, notions of the sanctity of fatherhood (its sacred character as decreed by God) or simply of father’s human rights are being overridden, as are the sacred / human rights of children who need fathers.

But defenders of the government would point to the fact that Catholic MPs who object to aspects of the Bill have been given a get-out clause that enables them to refuse the whip and vote with their conscience. Well, maybe; but this does in fact apply only to Catholics, not to members of other Christian denominations, of other faiths or of none who have ethical objections to the Bill. So not only are some women’s rights to equality greater than the rights of the children and men affected by those women’s choices to be treated equally to other children and men in similar circumstances not involving lesbian parents; but also, some conscientious objections (those of Catholics) are considered as carrying more weight than others.

Apparently, then, under New Labour, some women are ‘more equal’ than some children and some men. And the secular concept of equality that is behind this unequal egalitarianism proceeds from an assumption that if an individual has a ‘need’ that society recognises (e.g. lesbian women’s ‘need’ to be mothers), this need must accorded equal ‘treatment’ by society and the medical profession. But in the recognition of these needs, the equal needs or conscientious objections of others are overruled. Unless you’re a Catholic, that is: the New Labour secular-liberal orthodoxy has not (yet) decided to tackle the Catholic Church head on. Doubtless, many of the most ardent advocates of New Labour’s British-secular-liberal orthodoxy would like to see it do so.

26 February 2008

Who does this country belong to, anyway?

Whatever the whys and wherefores of the Michael Martin expenses row (the Speaker of the House of Commons, who has been accused of abusing the code of conduct on MPs’ expenses at the same time as he is leading an enquiry into expenses abuses), I thought the vociferous “hear, hear” of support he obtained from MPs as he cried “Order, order” at the start of yesterday’s proceedings – coupled with one MP saying they weren’t going allow journalists to dictate Commons appointments – smacked of arrogance. What were they actually defending, at the end of the day: their own privileges, including a cushy expenses regime that would never be tolerated in business; or the interests of democracy – parliament and its elected members as representing the will of the people, not to be overridden by a bunch of reckless, cynical journalists? It came across strongly as the former.

The trouble is that MPs do appear to think that parliament’s debates, decisions and procedures represent a forum through which the nation as such is authentically represented and its will is expressed: that parliament’s view of the legitimacy and moral authority of its proceedings still carries the assent and the trust of the people. Clearly, parliamentarians – like many others – are well aware that there is a serious problem of mistrust towards politicians and disengagement from the political process. But they seem to want to pass a lot of the blame for this onto others, such as the media, rather than re-examining the process itself and putting their own house in order.

We like to think we have the world’s greatest parliamentary democracy; but the truth of the matter is that our government isn’t very democratic, in the sense of representing people power. Parliament generally seems more like a rubber stamp setting a seal of approval on policies and laws driven by the executive, for which often little understanding or assent on the part of the public either exists or is sought. In this way, the scrutiny of parliament is a poor substitute for genuine public consultation, in the sense of a concerted effort to inform people of the details of proposed legislation and to win their support. There is no need for the executive to do this when it can simply rely on the Commons majority of a compliant government party commanding an ever smaller minority of the popular vote.

Not only does the government not need to strive to achieve popular assent for its decisions, it is also not answerable to anything such as a nation. It is no wonder that the people are disengaging from Westminster politics when they no longer identify with, and as, the nation the Westminster parliament supposedly represents. Not only are the people – reasserting their various identities as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish – different from the one that parliament sees itself as representing (the British people); but also parliament no longer represents the people of Britain in a uniform, unitary way. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs defend the interests of their constituents and nations insofar as these are affected by the Union government; and they also vote on English matters in certain policy areas where they cannot influence policy for their own constituencies and countries (because these have been devolved to separate national bodies). By contrast, all the parliamentary votes cast by English MPs do relate to their own constituencies; but no distinction in kind is made between what are truly England-only decisions and which matters relate to the UK as a whole, so as to legitimise the participation of non-English MPs in the same decisions.

In other words, although the responsibilities of all MPs are the same (Union-wide and England-specific policy and laws), the non-English MPs are not accountable to any electorate on the England-only matters. Instead, they are elected by non-English people who select them on the basis of the parties’ policies for the Union as a whole, i.e. on which set of policies will be better for them, their local areas and their countries. So legislation and policies for England are supported by MPs elected by non-English voters whose voting decisions are influenced by non-English priorities. Meanwhile, English voters have only one vote for both Union-wide matters and England-specific issues; in contrast to their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts, who can choose between two distinct parties and programmes for their own country and for the Union as a whole. This inequality and distortion of representative democracy is covered up by a pretence common to all the parties, whereby, in manifestoes, policy statements and parliamentary debate, everything is treated and referred to as a generic British matter, even if it is English only.

This means that England is governed by a British parliament that is not accountable to it: it includes Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs not elected in England; and the English MPs are not elected on the basis of English manifestoes, as half the policies are UK-wide, and the half that are England-specific are not represented as such – not differentiated from the UK even though in reality they are.

So the Union does not exist any more – if the Union is defined as a unitary parliamentary democracy in which every person’s vote is equal and brings the same degree of representation, and in which parliament is accountable to all to the same extent. The will of the English people is not represented by this parliament – even less, that is, than is the will of the other more fairly represented nations of the UK. Instead, we have a growing divide between the will of the people and government power: British power is exercised over the people of England by parliament; rather than English power being exercised for and by the people of England through parliament. And parliament and the executive are indeed enamoured of this British power: the idea of being in charge of Britain as a major ‘world power’ – militarily, economically and culturally – boosted by the magnificence, traditions and privileges of Westminster and Whitehall that hark back to, and appear to prolong, the glories of Empire. Who can participate in such rituals and bask in such splendour, and not be carried along by the glamour of real power and the myths of British parliamentary democracy, especially as parliament is so unaccountable to the electorate and divorced from their real priorities?

In this way, MPs persuade themselves that the bills and policies they support express the will of the nation: swept along by the democratic process, they unwittingly or deliberately ignore the fact that that process is no longer in alignment with the people’s needs and choices. England is, in perhaps three senses, ‘over-ruled’ by Britain. Or another way of putting this is that the British parliament and state mis-represent England: represent England insufficiently democratically, and misrepresent England and the governance of England as if it were a unitary process of British governance for which they had a transparent mandate, which they do not. As I have described this elsewhere, this is an appropriation (a mis-appropriation) of England and English democracy to Britain: England should belong to the people of England; but instead, it’s been made the property and, as it were, the province of the British state – no longer a country in its own right and rights, but governed by a state and by representatives of other UK countries that are not answerable to it.

What are the ramifications beyond the Westminster village of this dispossession of England as a democratic nation? Are we English secure in the knowledge that our country is in the safe hands of leaders who care about England and its rights, and do not wish to exercise unrepresentative and disproportionate power over it? Well, no. Do we feel, more fundamentally, that the government and the political process belong to us – well, not exactly: we’ve become accustomed to putting up with a British government that very often looks after the interests of national and sectarian minorities (whether the working class, traditionally, under Old Labour, middle-class England under the Tories, and Wales and Scotland under New Labour) rather than seeking the backing of a clear majority of the English population for policies relating to England.

More pervasively, do we feel the nation and even the local areas we live in really belong to us; that we actually live in England rather than in some parallel universe of Britain where major decisions are taken by central, and also local, government that we haven’t elected, and all the signs and symbols of the state are those of one that is not fully ours? Do the streets belong to us; do communities, media, official / PC language, social administration and the public sector – indeed, all public facets of our lives? Are they English?

Is the much-famed obsession of the English with privacy and domesticity in one respect a reflection that we do not feel that the public domain belongs to us; that our country doesn’t belong to us? How much of the alienation of many young people can be traced to their not feeling that their education, upbringing and experiences have given them a sense of belonging where they live or that they have a stake in society? And how much of this is to do with that society being shaped by the British values of personal aspiration and success, rather than cherishing individuals as they are: often flawed and damaged but capable of re-building community and healing the hurts caused by the relentless pursuit of competitiveness and economic growth? And how much is the lack of pride and care we so often show towards our surroundings and neighbours to do with no sense of mutual belonging and dependency?

Such things cannot be restored by a British government alienated from, and unaccountable to, England; that does not even call it by its name. But England can recover its pride – if first it empowers its people.

20 February 2008

What are ‘English values’?

In this blog, I’ve set out to maintain a continuous critique of so-called ‘British values’: one of the central underpinnings of the UK government’s attempts to not only preserve the Union but also redefine and reorientate it for the 21st century in the face of the cultural and economic changes and uncertainties we face both nationally and internationally.

There are many problems with this enterprise, not the least of which is that the New Britain that New Labour – and GB [Gordon Brown] in particular – would like to establish relies on the suppression of any aspirations to formal nationhood on the part of the English. As a result of the asymmetrical devolution settlement during the first term of the Blair government, we’ve witnessed a sort of ‘paradigm reversal’. Previously, Britain (technically, the UK) was a unitary state in which all the national-level decisions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were taken by the Westminster government. And also decisions for England, of course. But England stood in a special relationship to Britain: Britain was to all intents and purposes the extension of England and the proxy-English state; British rule in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland effectively meant English control over their affairs. English people identified with Britain, meaning that the English and British national identities were effectively interchangeable from the English perspective.

Devolution has brought the beginning of the end of this sense that England and Britain are one: instead of England ruling Britain (i.e. ruling Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), we now have in many ways a rump British state in which the competency of the government in many critical policy areas is limited largely to England. This is now Britain ruling England; but Britain defined as the central UK government and state rather than as the other nations of Britain that were effectively ruled by England through the British state, and which English people assimilated into their own identity through the interchangeability of ‘English’ and ‘British’. (See, for instance, the unthinking habit English people used to have of referring to Scotland and Wales as if they were part of England.)

We’ve had, in other words, a seismic split in the English-British identity. In the imagination and sentiments of ordinary people, ‘Britain’ (in the sense of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) has separated out from England: as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland reassert their own national pride and an identity separate from that of England-Britain, English people in their turn have withdrawn the investment of their national pride in Britain and begun a process of redefining and reaffirming their own national identity as English in the first instance, rather than British. Meanwhile, the British state has separated itself in its thinking and attitudes from any ideas of (itself as representing) English nationhood along the lines of the emerging Scottish, Welsh and (Northern) Irish nations. It pretends that the old unitary Britain still exists, which in formal, legal terms it still does: power has only been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and could in theory be taken back at any time. And, of course, many areas of government have not been devolved, especially those that have an impact on the whole of the UK territory and population, such as international relations, energy policy and security.

This means that the government represents the continuation of the old British part of the English identity: split off from – no longer the state vehicle and political expression of – England. The government has not been able to embrace and espouse the popular movement for reaffirming Englishness and the nation of England, distinct from the British state. It could have done, perhaps; but this would have taken a visionary leader who was prepared to adopt a more populist and, perhaps, more working-class stance at a time when New Labour was positioning itself as a bastion of liberal-Middle Class conservatism, and as the party of the establishment that is built on the support of that strata of the population and reflects its values. You could say, ironically, that New Labour’s appeal was to the Old England (New Britain, Old England): the bit of England that identified more strongly with the old unitary British state and its principles. Labour, whose whole philosophy has always placed such a huge emphasis on using the lever of its power bases in working-class England, Scotland and Wales to force through its agenda of social change throughout the unitary state – including in conservative England who largely had to bankroll its programme – could not so easily now relinquish the unbridled power over the whole of the UK that Blair’s massive, disproportionate majorities had given it, based as they were on finally winning support from Middle England. Hence the shift in Labour’s whole sense of its mission from being the party of working-class socialist internationalism to the party of conservative English-British unionism: the party that seeks to conserve the old unitary British state and identity even when the people were separating away from it, and seeing themselves more as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish.

To summarise so far: pre-devolution, we had a unitary Britain dominated by England, in which the English and British identities were merged; post-devolution, we have a separating out of the identities of England and the ‘two Britains’ from which it had previously been indissociable: Britain in the sense of the other countries of the UK, and Britain in the sense of the unitary British state. That state, in the shape of the Labour government, took it upon itself to resurrect the rapidly disappearing unified British identity on which its legitimacy and power depended. Unable to reverse the devolution for which it was responsible, it could not re-establish Britishness by recreating the popular, organic sense of shared identity, history, family relatedness, and social solidarity and community encapsulated in a Britain with which the nations of the UK had all been to some extent happy to identify and belong: the English by seeing the other countries of Britain as an extension of England; and the other countries by seeing Britain as just another name for England, with which they were united in one kingdom. Labour’s only option was to take the formal values of the British state itself as the foundation of a new national-British unity – indeed, of a new Nation of Britain, as I’ve described it elsewhere.

This is nation building that proceeds from the state and from the centre; not, as previously, a state (Britain) that was experienced as an expression of the identities and affections of the people: a national unity that was felt and lived, rather than one that, initially at least, is merely conceptual and ideological. For what are these British values that all the nations of the UK are said to hold in common and around which the government hopes they will (re-)unite? They are principles of civic society that, historically, ‘Britain’ (in reality, often England before it merged into Britain) is said, if not to have originated, at least to have given their modern political expression in parliamentary democracy. As such, they are a combination of universal secular-humanist principles that no democrat could repudiate AND of characteristics and qualities valued by the English and said to be typical of the English. On the universal side: liberty / individual freedom, equality (of opportunity), democracy and the rule of law; on the English side – but blending into the universal concepts and giving them their human and cultural ‘flavour’ – tolerance, fairness / fair play, support for the underdog and compassion for the disadvantaged, and a healthy suspicion and contempt towards excessive power and wealth, particularly when that power is exercised towards the English as private individuals and as a nation.

In this way, the British government hopes to gain endorsement for its newly formulated set of British values from the English people because they are essentially English values: they’re the values of the British state that once was the effective English state and the expression of English national pride; and they’re amplified sentimentally by an appeal to cultural qualities that are undeniably associated with the English. The difference is that whereas, pre-devolution, those values were invested in a Britain (state and extension of England to the rest of Britain) with which the English identified, now the English have increasingly separated their national identity from Britain. This means that all the language of Britishness becomes just so much empty concepts and abstract ideas divorced from the English and no longer articulating a meaningful sense of nationhood for them, or inspiring a sense of purpose and confidence in an uncertain world and future. The discourse of Britishness, in other words, is a state language and ideology. Through it, the British state and government both represent what they think of as Britain and British (cf. the attempt to arrive at an official Statement of British Values), and see themselves as the representative – the democratic embodiment and expression – of Britain. Indeed, the state has become Britain, and Britain has become merely a state; whereas once, in an emotional and symbolic sense at least, it was a nation – the expression of the English nation.

In other words, before devolution, the unitary UK was build on a unity and common identity between England and Britain (state and the other countries). That unity has been broken; and the only unity with which it is in the power of the state to attempt to repair it is through a new unified, systematic articulation of a united Nation of Britain: effectively, a re-establishment of Britain through codified, foundational documents such as the Statement of British Values, a British Bill of Rights and, of course, a written constitution. That new inherent, conceptual unity of Britain – Britain present to itself in the articulation of the fundamental principles and values through which it understands itself – can become the means to (re-)establish a true nation (the state seeking the acceptance of, and identification with, its values from the people) if it replaces England: the previous centre, heart and national identity that gave life to the British state. Hence, a real cultural and political programme is afoot that indeed seeks to redefine and replace English history, culture and identity as and with British history, culture and identity: British values. You might say this is purely semantics, as I’ve already stated that the English and British identities have historically been merged. Historically, yes. But the difference now is that reference to the Englishness of Britishness, and to the historical reality that Britain has hitherto been effectively Greater England, is being systematically expunged. I’ve attempted to demonstrate this on numerous occasions, for instance, in my Campaign for Plain England blogs and numerous other posts exploring the censorship of references to England, which manifests a will for England not to exist; indeed, the transforming of it into virtual non-existence through a kind of deliberate double-think-type substitution of Britain or ‘this country’ for ‘England’ when England is what is actually at issue. British values may well be English values; but one is no longer allowed to say this, or indeed, to say ‘England’ at all.

But are English values British values? Meaningless question, really, as it presupposes that it might be possible to come up with a representative set of English values, precisely; in the same way as the British government claims it can set down a representative set of British values: one through which it can represent itself as representing Britain – state and nation (re-)united. Those British values discussed above can indeed be also, and perhaps more properly, described as English values. But English values, or rather Englishness per se, cannot be reduced to such an impoverished collection of abstractions. To find Englishness – the Englishness that has diverged from the path of formal, state, civic Britishness – you need to set your sights at both a more basic and higher level. There’s no essence or quintessence of Englishness, in a strict, philosophical sense; but we who live in England are surrounded by thousands of instances of Englishness – so much a part of the daily fabric of our lives and the cultural air we breathe that it almost appears invisible. I’m not myself now going to fall into the trap of trying to define Englishness in a narrow way. But, rather than being about philosophical and societal values, Englishness has more to do with what we value: the places, people, communities, activities and things that we love and on which we bestow value, and those we don’t; it’s about a way of life, the way we relate to one another with all our flaws, and a place we call home.

So much for the ‘basic’, and yet elusive, level of understanding of what England means to us; what of the higher level I referred to? Well, those universal British (but often historically more English) values I mentioned (liberty, equality, tolerance, respect for the rule of law) are fundamental secular-humanist principles: core concepts of a secular understanding of what you could call the value of humanity itself and the basis for human rights – the essential dignity and integrity of every human being from which flows the imperative that we respect individual free self-determination and the fundamental equality of all persons. Noble and vital principles, indeed, and essential for the defence of our freedoms – but universal and hardly ‘quintessentially British’. And can these absolute concepts and abstractions truly give form and voice to what are the highest, most sacred values we hold dear? Are these not, rather, things like love, kindness, self-sacrifice, justice, peace, friendship, childhood and life itself? Again, nothing quintessentially English or British about these. But the importance these qualities hold for us is precisely because of their sacred and spiritual character, however we qualify or understand those terms.

The English are a spiritual people – as are, if you think in these terms, every other people on earth. But this spirituality is indeed something fundamental to the character of our nation, as indeed it has helped to shape that character over centuries. One possible filter to understand the character of a people is to observe how they respond to the challenge to live up to the demands of loving and caring for one another, and respecting life – put in Christian terms, how they respond to the call of the spirit, and embody and express that spirit in the pattern of their lives. In this sense, there is much to commend and much also to be aggrieved at about modern life in England, where there is so much poverty of the spirit alongside material poverty and human selfishness.

England is a spiritual nation and still, officially, a Christian country, with an established Church and a queen who is both Head of the Church, Queen of England and head of the British state. Does it mean anything, this vestige of an ancient history that does not speak to many English people who do not regard themselves as Christians, or who do but do not consider it necessary for an established church to exist? Well, one would have thought that we English, of all peoples, would be reluctant to discard carelessly a ‘mere’ vestige of our ancient history: our centuries-old English history and tradition, and a reference to the millennial status of the Christian faith as the core value system of our nation, even if it no longer is. In our search to rediscover Englishness, and reaffirm it against a Britishness that would suppress it altogether, we must take cognisance of the fact that the established Church of England is a symbol and continuation of English power and English spirituality at the heart of the British state; a continuation, indeed, of that identification between Englishness and the British state that was broken through devolution.

This is a not frequently commented part of the England and Britain story: Englishness does also have this spiritual dimension, historically and contemporaneously; Britishness is a secular creed, which very likely would disestablish the Church as part of its new national-British constitutional settlement. This would sever both one of the last manifestations of England as the fulcrum of the British state and would remove the moral obligation for British political leaders to be mindful of their responsibilities to their Christian duties and calling, evoked by the Christian headship of the monarch to which governments are still – symbolically, at least – answerable.

This matters for a whole host of reasons, particularly in that it affects the understanding governments have of their fundamental mission and purpose which, beyond seeing to the material prosperity and security of its people, must look to their spiritual wellbeing. This means being seriously affected by the suffering, material and spiritual, of the people as if it were one’s own suffering: making a government that is truly for and of the people, and loves the people; dedicated to giving them hope, confidence and care in their needs and aspirations; and giving all the disenfranchised and alienated parts of the population (including especially the much maligned English youth) a sense that they have some sort of stake in a shared future.

Can a new secular Nation of Britain respond to such a calling? The question is most acute perhaps when it comes to considering how the nation relates to those whose values are not only ‘non-British’, as reductively defined by the state, but are so on religious grounds. I’m referring in particular to the Muslim community, particularly those communities who seek to regulate their lives around a stricter understanding of Islamic law and Koranic teaching. It is hard to see how there can be much place for such faith communities within Britishness and indeed Britain if, indeed, allegiance to official British values becomes the test of citizenship, replacing allegiance to the crown. It’s not that Muslims of this sort take issue with concepts such as personal liberty and equality, in the abstract; but it’s the way those concepts are interpreted and grounded in different religious and cultural traditions that is different. Those secular British values underpin a whole societal and economic model: one in which it is the role of government to release the potential of individuals to participate fully and freely in a secular lifestyle – acquiring material possessions and wealth; creating that wealth through work and career; buying and selling; and trading themselves and their bodies in work, sex and open-ended relationships.

But these values are fundamentally antithetical to the duties and rights expressed in Muslim belief and practice – as, indeed, to the duties and purpose of life as understood by any of the major religious traditions. The language of Britishness cannot reach out beyond itself to understand and embrace radical difference of this kind, and can only reject the pious and dogmatic fidelities of Islam as backward, oppressive and irrational – and as limiting the possibilities for Muslim communities to integrate and participate in the supposed benefits of British life.

Englishness and England, on the other hand, can respond and engage with such diversity in our midst. Englishness, that is, understood as being about appreciation of the little but precious things of daily life; of places, people, food and drink, communities, and caring about the people around you as if they were one’s own – which makes them one’s own. These are things we really do hold in common with Muslims and with those of other faith backgrounds; we all live in England, and can meet in a common and developing – not fixed – Englishness on the shared ground of England.

I say those of ‘other faith backgrounds’: other than our own, that is. We can meet those Muslims, and perhaps only meet those Muslims, on a ground where true dialogue, interchange and possibility of change can arise, if we let the background of our own faith – our English spirit – come to the fore. Not necessarily some arbitrary reconstruction of a, let’s face it, often dysfunctional, destructive and disreputable Christian history – but responding in a new way to that calling of the spirit of love and neighbourliness. A response from which our nation of England may yet be redefined and enjoy its renaissance.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.