Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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?

13 May 2010

Who and what is the Lib-Con coalition for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 October 2009

Gordon Brown’s anglophobia is an expression of moral repugnance

“Britain – the four home nations – each is unique, each with its own great contribution and we will never allow separatists or narrow nationalists in Scotland or in Wales to sever the common bonds that bring our country together as one. And let me say to the people of Northern Ireland we will give you every support to complete the last and yet unfinished stage of the peace process which Tony Blair to his great credit started and which I want to see complete – the devolution of policing and justice to the people of Northern Ireland, which we want to see happen in the next few months.

“I want a Britain that is even more open to new ideas, even more creative, even more dynamic and leading the world and let me talk today about how we will do more to support the great British institutions that best define this country.”

Gordon Brown, Labour Party conference, 29 September 2009.

Gordon Brown hates England. Or should that be ‘England’, expressing the peculiar aversion our PM has towards the very idea of England – to the extent that he wishes it into non-existence? I defy anybody reading the above passage from Brown’s keynote speech to the Labour Party conference earlier this week not to acknowledge that it reveals an insulting contempt towards England at the very least. The PM refers to the “four home nations” and then mentions three of them by name, although the references towards Scotland and Wales are not especially affirming. But what about England? What indeed – our PM won’t commit the indecency of mentioning the unmentionable!

The Prime Minister is not so shy about referring to Britain; no, he loves ‘Britain’. I counted 61 instances of either ‘Britain’, ‘British’ or ‘Briton(s)’ in his speech compared with none – no, not a single one – to England. This is despite the fact that, as we know, most of the policy announcements in the speech related to England only, or to England and Wales with respect to crime and policing.

Brown’s presentation of English policies as if they were British exemplified all the familiar dishonest and self-serving motivations:

  • ‘Create the impression your policy “innovations” affect the whole of Britain to avoid comparisons with Scotland and / or Wales where these policies are more comprehensive and have been effective for some time already’: announcement of a ‘National Care Service’ [for England only] that will provide free personal care for the elderly, but only for “those with the highest needs” – as opposed to the universal free social care provided for Gordon Brown’s constituents. The same applies to Andy Burnham’s pusillanimous announcement of free parking for hospital inpatients and their families “over the next three years, as we can afford it” – as opposed to the free parking for both inpatients and outpatients that already applies in Scotland and Wales. Burnham also conveniently forgot to mention that his announcement related to England only.
  • ‘Avoid awkward questions about why a Scottish-elected prime minister is putting forward legislation that does not affect his constituents’: “I can tell the British people that between now and Christmas, neighbourhood policing [in England and Wales only] will focus in a more direct and intensive way on anti-social behaviour.  Action squads will crackdown in problem estates”. Whatever your views on how best to deal with anti-social behaviour, the truth of the matter is that this is a Scottish PM sending in the cops to crackdown on the English (and Welsh) populace.
  • ‘Avoid proper scrutiny of the nature and effect of taxation and spending commitments across the different countries of the UK’: “I am proud to announce today that by reforming tax relief [affecting people throughout the UK] we will by the end of the next Parliament be able to give the parents of a quarter of a million two year olds [in England only] free childcare for the first time”. The same goes for more or less any spending commitment: once you mention that a pledge relates to England only, awkward questions could be raised about why England appears to be being given preferential treatment by benefiting from increases in general taxation. Another example: “So we will raise tax at the very top [for all UK citizens], cut costs, have realistic public sector pay settlements [for all UK public-sector workers], make savings we know we can and in 2011 raise National Insurance [across the UK] by half a percent and that will ensure that each and every year we protect and improve Britain’s [i.e. England’s] frontline services”.

    Of course, it would be farcical to argue that only English public services will benefit from increases in UK taxation, as any rise in English expenditure gets passed on with interest to the devolved administrations via the Barnett Formula. However, in terms of policy presentation, it is just plain awkward if you have to explicitly acknowledge that commitments to maintain or increase spending on the NHS, education, policing and other ‘frontline services’ relate to England only: it looks as if England is being favoured, even if it isn’t. And if you then have to explain that rises in English expenditure will trigger even greater proportionate rises in the other nations – or, conversely, that if English spending falls, spending in the other countries will fall to an even greater degree – then you can get yourself into real deep waters with voters in England or the devolved nations respectively. Better to just pretend there is one undivided pot of taxation and spending – which there isn’t.

    This is of course going to be a, if not the, major battle ground at the general election; so you can expect all the parties to attempt to gloss over these inconvenient ‘complications’, and the media to ignore them as comprehensively as they did in the coverage of Brown’s speech – none of the commentary I’ve come across, including an extended analysis on the BBC News website, pointing out that much of it related to England only.

All of these reasons for making England out to be Britain were present in spades in Brown’s speech. But the aspect of it I’m interested in highlighting here is the moral character of Brown’s repugnance towards England. The speech sets up an implicit opposition between the ‘British values’ of fairness, responsibility and hard work, on the one hand, and what Brown perceives as the ‘English’ social and individual characteristics of unfairness, irresponsibility and work-shyness / the benefits culture. This view of England forms a subtext to Brown’s paean of praise to the above-mentioned ‘British values’, which are constantly reiterated throughout the speech:

“Bankers had lost sight of basic British values, acting responsibly and acting fairly.  The values that we, the hard working majority, live by every day”

“It’s the Britain that works best not by reckless risk-taking but by effort, by merit and by hard work. It’s the Britain that works not just by self-interest but by self-discipline, self-improvement and self-reliance. It’s the Britain where we don’t just care for ourselves, we also care for each other. And these are the values of fairness and responsibility that we teach our children, celebrate in our families, observe in our faiths, and honour in our communities. Call them middle class values, call them traditional working class values, call them family values, call them all of these; these are the values of the mainstream majority; the anchor of Britain’s families, the best instincts of the British people, the soul of our party and the mission of our government.”

In Brown’s vision, these Scottish-Presbyterian ‘British’ / (new) Labour values must be exercised in reforming and responding to the effectively English crisis of moral values that has led to the economic and social mess we are in. This perspective is evident even in relation to the reserved policy area of macro-economics, in that the near collapse of the UK’s banking sector is linked by Brown to the dominance of an essentially ‘English’ philosophical commitment to self-regulating free markets, and to socially irresponsible behaviour and greed on the part of English bankers.

“What let the world down last autumn was not just bankrupt institutions but a bankrupt ideology. What failed was the Conservative idea that markets always self-correct but never self-destruct. What failed was the right wing fundamentalism that says you just leave everything to the market and says that free markets should not just be free but values free. One day last October the executive of a major bank told us that his bank needed only overnight finance but no long term support from the government. The next day I found that this bank was going under with debts that were among the biggest of any bank, anywhere, at any time in history. Bankers had lost sight of basic British values, acting responsibly and acting fairly.  The values that we, the hard working majority, live by every day.”

Of course, it’s quite preposterous that Brown should now disown the market economics and belief in self-correcting markets that have characterised Labour’s economic policy in government and informed Brown’s own actions as Chancellor. But what I’m interested in here is the ‘national’ subtext: although the above passage does not explicitly say so (but then, Brown never explicitly refers to England if he can help it), the right-wing, Conservative market fundamentalism he describes is associated with English ideology and the English City of London, which would be a familiar association for someone like Brown who cut his political teeth in the battle against the ‘English’ Thatcherism of the 1980s, which was so deeply unpopular in Scotland. Never mind that the bank Brown alludes here to is almost certainly the Royal Bank of Scotland.

For Brown, what is needed to ‘fight’ against this unfair [English] Conservatism and the reckless irresponsibility of unchecked markets is a good dose of ‘British’ morals, and the British values of fairness, responsibility and honest hard work:

“Markets need what they cannot generate themselves; they need what the British people alone can bring to them, I say to you today; markets need morals.
So we will pass a new law to intervene on bankers’ bonuses whenever they put the economy at risk. And any director of any of our banks who is negligent will be disqualified from holding any such post. . . . I tell you this about our aims for the rescue of the banks: the British people will not pay for the banks.  No, the banks will pay back the British people.”

It is this same set of moral / British values that is brought to bear in Brown’s social policies affecting England (plus occasionally Wales) only. The implication is that it’s English moral irresponsibility, lack of fairness and idleness that has brought its society to the pass where it needs a stern application of correct British values to set things right. Take the example of the proposed measures to ‘help’ young unmarried mothers:

“It cannot be right, for a girl of sixteen, to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own. From now on all 16 and 17 year old parents [in England only] who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes. These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly. That’s better for them, better for their babies and better for us all in the long run.”

The opening words here, “it cannot be right”, are ambiguous: they imply that it’s morally wrong for 16- and 17-year-old [English] girls to get themselves pregnant, alongside the explicit meaning, which is that it’s ‘unfair’ and ‘irresponsible’ for [English] councils to give such girls a council flat without any other support. There we go again: reckless English teenagers causing social problems and unnecessary expense to the taxpayer through their immoral behaviour; and English councils compounding the problem by throwing money at them without really dealing with the underlying social and behavioural issues. So Brown’s solution: if English girls in such a situation, who are not cared for by their own irresponsible, dysfunctional families, want the support of the British taxpayer, then they’ll be effectively placed in a form of incarceration where they can jolly well learn how to behave and look after their babies ‘properly’.

The same attitude informs Brown’s announcements on things like tackling the effects of [English] binge drinking, [English and Welsh] anti-social behaviour, and dysfunctional [English] families:

  • “We thought that extended hours would make our city centres easier to police and in many areas it has. But it’s not working in some places and so we will give local authorities [in England] the power to ban 24 hour drinking throughout a community in the interests of local people”: clearly, we English drunkards can’t be trusted with ’24-hour drinking’, in contrast to the Scots with their Presbyterian, responsible behaviour around drink.
  • “There is also a way of intervening earlier to stop anti-social behaviour, slash welfare dependency and cut crime. Family intervention projects are a tough love, no nonsense approach with help for those who want to change and proper penalties for those who don’t or won’t. . . . Starting now and right across the next Parliament every one of the 50,000 most chaotic families [in England only] will be part of a family intervention project – with clear rules, and clear punishments if they don’t stick to them”: the British state is now going to take it upon itself to single out the most unfairly behaving, irresponsible and work-shy English families, and will make sure they learn how to stick to the British rules or else get the British stick!

Well, clearly, action is needed to deal with social problems such as these. The point I’m making is that Brown’s prescriptions are pervaded by a deep moral repugnance towards what are in effect characteristics of English society and culture. And that repugnance is not merely incidental, in the sense that they just happen to be English social problems because it’s only English society that the government that Brown heads up can act upon through legislation and policy. On the contrary, Brown has a personal, moral dislike and prejudice towards the English seen in the contrasting figures of the anti-social, indeed ‘anti-societal’, underclass, on the one hand, and the selfish, arrogant upper classes and mega-rich capitalists represented by the likes of David Cameron, George Osborne and the out-of-control bankers, who seek only to protect their own wealth and privileges.

To these images of Englishness, Brown opposes British values personified in what he repeatedly terms the ‘mainstream majority’ of hard-working, responsible working-class and middle-class communities, families and individuals. Brown articulates his and Labour’s ‘mission’ as being that of raising the [English] underclass and humbling the [English] upper classes, so that the whole of society meets in that mainstream middle ground and middle class of fairness, responsibility, the work ethic and meritocracy. Or bourgeois mediocrity and social conformity.

But one thing for sure is that Brown’s mission to reform ‘the country’ involves taking the England out of England, and transforming it into a ‘Britain’ made in Brown’s Scottish-Presbyterian image. And that’s why Brown can never say England: not just out of political expediency but because ‘England’ is the name for a moral decadence that he sees it as his duty to change – in the name of ‘British values’.

5 May 2009

It IS great to be British: Britology at its best

“It IS great to be British”. With its emphasis on ‘is’, this phrase reminds me of the opening of the song, ‘Oh, I DO like to be beside the seaside’. Brown’s latest eulogy of Britishness does indeed have something of that tone about it: well, we’ll all pull together, come rain and foul weather; there’s nothing like a crisis to get us going, and we’ll jolly well come up trumps in the end.

Well, that’s all right then. Evidently, we’re in safe hands. If you want an example of what I understand by the term ‘Britology’, this is a prime example. All the motifs are there in concentrated form. I was tempted to produce a detailed, blow-by-blow critique; but, like Brown, I’d just be going over old ground, and it would be dignifying the drivel (if not drizzle) in too high a degree.

If you feel like some bedtime reading to send you off into a fitful sleep spent endlessly turning over the same phrases in your mind, in the desperate attempt to squeeze out some meaning – any meaning; or if you fancy something to make your blood boil; then go ahead, take the plunge and read it. Here are just a few pointers to watch out for:

1) Britishness / Englishness: What Brown says about ‘Britishness’ could just as easily be called Englishness. And that’s because he IS essentially talking about Englishness, as the Britishness he outlines is what he needs the English to think of as their true, underlying ‘national identity’ – whereas, in reality, it’s Englishness that is the underlying national identity of Britishness: “We have shown over three centuries that a common ground of Britishness, of British identity, can be found in the stories of the various communities and nationalities that inhabit these islands. . . . On one side, our nurturing Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English identities and sensibilities – now, of course, added to by many others . . . . On the other, carefully balanced and held in tension, the organisations and operations of a British state that, shorn of nationalistic baggage, are the patriotic aspect of the nation state”.

Eugh? Decoded: ‘British patriotism (patriotism, you understand, not nationalism) is the acceptable face of the English nationalism (and national identity) that originally subjugated the other British nations and the colonies, who are now (after three centuries) England’s equals within a common Britishness’.

2) Don’t say ‘England’, or – if you have to – marginalise it: In order for Englishness to be re-presented as Britishness in this way, Brown needs to suppress or marginalise all references to England. This is because the thing he has to avoid at all costs is referring to the real political history of Britain, which is that the British state has been predominantly driven and moulded by English national and economic interests; and that England could once again develop a national consciousness that, this time, could see its interests as being better served outside the UK, rather than inside. This marginalisation is evident in the above-quoted reference to “our nurturing Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English identities and sensibilities”: putting ‘English’ last in line after the smaller nations, as if England were only one and – by implication – almost the least important driver of British identity; well, the least distinctive element in Brown’s Britishness, that’s for sure.

Another example is a quite ludicrous passage referring to the recent financial crisis:

“I believe a debate on Britishness is well timed, because of its relevance to the recent financial crisis. When it struck, no one questioned the British state standing behind banks headquartered in Scotland [yes, they bloody well did!]. No one discussed what a Wales-only response might be to the selling of sub-prime mortgages, or wondered how Northern Ireland might find its own solution to changing global conditions”.

Yes, this is where the discussion ends. ‘What about England, you f***er?’ was literally my response on reading this (well, OK, without the asterisks, if you see what I mean). The point being that people did question whether England would be better off weathering the financial crisis on its own: that it wouldn’t have been so s***ing awful in the first place, and then we wouldn’t have had to mortgage the future of the next generation of English kids and NHS patients to prop up the Scottish banks (and Chancellors) that had been foremost in getting us into the mess in the first place. (While on the subject of the NHS, you’ll love the lyrical passage about how it is an example of our fairness and unity as a ‘nation’. What a load of absolute tosh: there are four NHS’s thanks to Brown and New Labour, and the English one gets the smallest per-capita funding of them all – really united and fair!)

3)  British values: While we’re talking about ‘fairness’, all the pantheon of ‘British values’ are paraded out here, especially – alongside fairness – ‘tolerance’ and ‘liberty’, along with the Brownian insistence on ‘responsibilities’ alongside ‘rights’. It is highly ironic to hear someone like Brown emphasising liberty so much (an irony that seems totally to escape him), given the fact that his government has been responsible for removing countless liberties that have been fought for and cherished by the English over centuries.

4) British, not English, history: What is even more outrageous is that Brown presents this historic struggle as British history:

“But from the time of Magna Carta, to the civil wars and revolutions of the 17th century, through to the liberalism of Victorian Britain and the widening and deepening of democracy and fundamental rights throughout the last century, there has been a British tradition of liberty – what one writer has called our ‘gift to the world'”. 

Ahem: excuse me, Sir, but weren’t Magna Carta and the Civil War part of English history, before ‘Great Britain’ even existed? Not in Brown’s school of history, they aren’t. Just as a common Britishness – not England and Englishness – is the centre and driving force of Britain, for Brown, so ‘Britain’ is the ultimate telos of the history of these islands: the goal to which it inexorably tends and from whose standpoint alone the definitive history of these islands will be told. Or, in other words, those founding events in English history are indeed confined to history; whereas their continuing effects are now framed as part of the British present and future, which transforms those events retroactively into ‘British history’ (no longer English) and a founding part of the British identity. 

This appropriation to Britain of the narrative of English history is dependent on the suppression of the fact that the struggle for modern liberty began in England and is a constitutive part of the English national identity. Indeed, one might even contend that a hidden (or not so hidden) driving force behind Gordon Brown’s suppression of ‘our liberties’ is his urge to suppress England itself: the nurturing mother of freedom. 

5) Nations and regions: Just a few overt instances, made all the more sinister by the general talking up of Britain as the nation [is it my imagination, but are politicians and the media increasingly referring to Britain as a / the ‘nation’ nowadays, almost as much as they call it ‘the / this country’?], while references to England as a nation are avoided at all costs and the ‘regions’ are clearly meant to be English (although they could also be read as referring to Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland, too): 

“There is the changing role of the state and its relationship with our regions, with communities and individuals”. Is that his way of referring to devolution, which he doesn’t mention explicitly anywhere else?! Or is this just a reference to the non-mandated, centrally imposed regionalisation of England; the equally non-mandated reforms of local government; and the steadily advancing encroachment of the state into the lives and liberties of the individual? 

Or again: “a strong sense of shared patriotism can be built that relies not on race or on ancient and unchanging institutions, but rather on a foundation of values that can be shared by all of us, regardless of race, region or religion”. Race, region or religion – the new ‘3 R’s’! Oh, I get it: ‘region’ is the new collective term to refer to what Brown previously christened the ‘nations and regions’. It’s what you might call a more politically correct revision of that previous designation: it doesn’t ‘discriminate’ between the ‘nations’ of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the ‘regions’ of England, by simply referring to them all as regions. Well, that’s all right then. Except we know that, in reality, those nations do now have new national institutions (their own parliaments and governments), whereas we English are lumbered with the ancient and unchanging institution of the UK parliament – unless you count the unelected regional authorities as the new institutions for England. And, of course, this way of looking at it makes Britain the nation, as it is frequently termed in Brown’s essay. 

Elsewhere, Brown refers to Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland and England (let’s get the order right) as ‘nationalities’, not explicitly as nations. This implies that there aren’t four nations in the UK but just four distinct national identities that have fused to form a single British nation. But, ironically, this bizarre coinage makes the indigenous peoples of these islands seem like uprooted immigrants to Britain: having a nationality distinct from the nation (Britain) in which they now live. In fact, ‘nationality’ is more commonly used to refer to a person’s official national identity: their citizenship. We talk of ‘British nationality’ but of the ‘nations’ and national identities of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (and Cornwall, for some). 

This linguistic confusion marks out the way Brown turns the realities of British national identities on their head: ‘British’ is in reality the name of a ‘mere nationality’ (citizenship, statehood). But Brown wants to make Britain out to be a nation and the core national identity of its citizens. If Britain becomes a nation, then the ‘lesser’ term of ‘nationality’ can be applied to the UK’s historic national communities. And yet, ‘nationality’ is in fact the more ‘proper’ (official, legal, formal) name for a person’s ‘national identity’ – so that ascribing ‘nationality’ to the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish suggests that these – not Britishness – are the founding national identities of the UK. But then, all that is left for Brown to hook his concept of ‘proper’, true British nationhood on to are attributes of citizenship and statehood – those above-mentioned civic British values and the institutions of the state: “the organisations and operations of a British state, . . . shorn of nationalistic baggage, are the patriotic aspect of the nation state. . . . I believe we are discovering that what unites us is far greater than what separates us, and that the values we share most are those that matter most. Recognising them, and with them the rights and responsibilities that citizenship involves, will strengthen us as an open, diverse, adaptable, enabling and successful modern state”. The state as nation; and the nations as superseded, nationalistic ‘nationalities’. 

Well, I’m sorry; I ended up doing the lengthy demolition job after all. Familiar ground, but endless permutations of the same delusional reasoning and twisted logic. But it’s true, there is one thing that IS great about Britain: you’re never far from the water. Deep water in Brown’s case.

24 September 2008

In case you hadn’t heard, Mr Brown; Fife’s in Scotland

Gordon Brown (or GB, as I like to call him) puts me in mind of that old Anglo-American music-hall routine: “I say tomato [tom-ah-to] and you say tomato [tom-eight-o]”, and so on. Except, in his case, it’s “I say Britain and you say England”. He’s referring to the same thing but could almost be talking a different language. And while we’re on the subject of language, mention of the English language accounted for two out of GB’s four uses of the words ‘England’ or ‘English’ in his 6,700 word-long speech to the Labour Party conference yesterday; compared with 38 of ‘Britain’ or ‘British’, 29 of ‘country’ (as in the phrases ‘our country’, ‘the country’ or ‘this country’), and only one each of ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Northern Ireland’ (sorry, guys; also, none for Cornwall – just to be inclusive).

I say the English language, but Gordon described it as “one of Britain’s great assets”, the list of which was as follows: “our stability, our openness, our scientific genius, our creative industries, and yes our English language”. Yes, Gordon, it is the English language – no need to be embarrassed to call it by its name. But it isn’t the property of Britain: it isn’t ‘our (i.e. Britain’s) English language’ or even the ‘British language’, although I somehow suspect you’d prefer it to be known as such. The English language is something that shows how the contribution to world culture of what is sometimes called ‘Anglo-Saxon’ civilisation – in a non-ethnic sense – is far greater than that of Britain alone: a language formed over centuries from a blend of Germanic, Norman-French and classical influences that has spread worldwide (initially, through the power of the English-British Empire) to become the means through which so many different nations and peoples express themselves and their stories in their own words – in ‘their English language’ – and find a voice that resonates with ours.

But GB has to go and bring the stature of this great world language down to the level of his own little Britain, as the second reference to English reads as follows: “the other side of welcoming newcomers who can help Britain is being tough about excluding those adults who won’t and can’t. That’s why we have introduced the Australian-style points-based system, the citizenship test, the English language test and we will introduce a migrant charge for public services”. So the English language here is just another hoop through which migrants have to jump to prove they are worthy of becoming British citizens, along with the much-derided citizenship test and a mean-spirited poll tax-like charge pending the elevation to British taxpayer status. OK; it shouldn’t and can’t be an automatic right for just anyone to become a British citizen without knowing anything about ‘the country’ they’ll be living in or speaking the language (which should possibly also include Welsh in parts of Wales). But these ‘Brownie points’, as we’ll call them, that migrants have to earn are clearly indeed the ‘other side’ of the openness and the globally orientated Britain that the PM extols in other parts of the speech.

Indeed, there’s always another side to Gordon Brown: welcoming migrants to Britain who are prepared (and only those who are prepared) to contribute to the country’s economy and society in specified ways thought to be in the national interest, at the same time as making contradictory and unfulfillable commitments to ensure that “British firms and British workers can reap the rewards of a world economy set to double in size”. Going on about ‘fairness’ to all at the same time as making it clear that this fairness is qualified – it has to be earned by playing by the rules and being prepared to contribute to society in highly prescribed ways: “Our aim is a something for something, nothing for nothing Britain. A Britain of fair chances for all, and fair rules applied to all. So our policy is that everyone who can work, must work. That’s why James Purnell has introduced reforms so that apart from genuine cases of illness, the dole is only for those looking for work or actively preparing for it. That’s only fair to the people pulling their weight [my emphases]”. Fair do’s: we can’t have people scrounging off the dole; but everyone who can work must work? What is this: Stalinist Russia? So there’s now a social (and legal?) obligation for everyone to work, is there? So what, is the British state going to create artificial jobs, as they used to in the Soviet Union, to ensure that every citizen has a job that they are compelled to do, even in an economic downturn? Including, presumably, the mothers of those two-year-olds for whom the British state is now going to make free nursery places available so that they’ll have to work rather than staying at home during their children’s earliest years? And doubtless, this also includes those ‘British workers’ who’ll have to jolly well work to be worthy of the name, even if there are no jobs worthy of the name ‘British worker’ for them to do: a crap, unsuitable and unskilled job paying the New Labour minimum wage that Brown is so proud of is, after all, better than no job – except, of course, for the successful hoop-jumping new migrants filling quotas of more skilled positions for which ‘British’ people, let down by the state education system, are inadequately trained.

Or should that be ‘English’ people and the English education system? Because the unspoken ‘other side’ of Brown’s fairer Britain is unfairness to England. Most of the ways in which Brown promises to deliver greater fairness to ‘Britain’ in fact relate to policy areas where Brown’s government’s competence applies to England only. But of course, he doesn’t ‘say England’ because that would involve acknowledging that the English people have had a bloody raw deal under New Labour and the devolution ‘settlement’ (another word Brown nauseatingly peddles in the speech) that is another of the ‘achievements’ of New Labour GB boasts about. So, for instance, as part of “our commitment to a fair NHS in a fair society. . . . over the next few years the NHS generates cash savings in its drugs budget we will plough savings back into abolishing charges for all patients with long-term conditions. That’s the fairness patients want and the fairness every Labour party member will go out and fight for”. Sorry, do I understand this double-speak correctly? Point one: this applies to the NHS in England only, as the NHS in the other UK nations is the responsibility of their devolved governments. So, the NHS in England will be making cash savings in its drugs budget: what, by not licensing the kind of live-saving and life-prolonging drugs for chronic conditions such as cancer and Alzheimers that are funded by the public purse in Scotland? So, by saving money in these areas, the government will finally be able to abolish prescription charges in England; but only for those with long-term or chronic conditions, not for everyone, as in Scotland. So when Brown, immediately before the passage I’ve just quoted, says “I can announce today for those in our nation battling cancer from next year you will not pay prescription charges” [my emphasis]; what he’s actually saying is: ‘because in England – as opposed to Scotland – we won’t fund the more expensive but effective drug treatments for certain cancers, cancer patients will at least get free prescriptions for more standard, cheaper drugs’ – next year that is: let’s hope those patients survive till then! What a bloody disgrace!

And the same can be said for Brown’s ‘prescriptions’ for education and social care – in England only that is: making up, but only partially, for New Labour’s underfunding and undervaluing of English children and elderly persons compared with the investment that devolution and the Barnett Formula have made possible for them in Scotland and Wales. What of the “fairness [which] demands nothing less than excellence in every school, for every child” – in England, you understand? This boils down to two commitments: 1) ensuring that no child leaves primary school unable to read, write and count – big deal, that was probably done better in the 19th century than the disgraceful situation of today; and 2) ensuring that schools that don’t fulfil their targets for GCSE passes are closed down or brought under new management – reinforcing the obsessive New Labour targets culture and narrow focus on academic achievement, as opposed to vocational training that might actually create the skilled English workers capable of carrying out the jobs in the new British industries and services that Brown goes on about.

And what of the “fairness older people deserve”? Well, dear, that nice Mr Brown says he’s going to look after us: “The generation that rebuilt Britain from the ashes of the war deserves better and so I can tell you today that Alan Johnson and I will also bring forward new plans to help people to stay longer in their own homes and provide greater protection against the costs of care – dignity and hope for everyone in their later years”. Not free personal care, you understand, as in Scotland; just greater ‘protection against the costs of care’, whatever that means. And enabling people to at least stay in their homes for longer (which new technology will be able to make cheaper than institutionalising them), even if they may still have to release their equity in those homes to (part-)fund their own care.

Bloody h***! At least, Mr Brown’s constituents don’t get treated like that! And that really is the ‘other side’ of the picture of a ‘fairer Britain’ that Brown paints in his speech. GB certainly has fulfilled the commitment he made to the people of Fife whom “25 years ago I asked . . . to send me to parliament to serve the country I love”. Except, which country is that, Gordon? In case you hadn’t heard, Fife’s in Scotland; but almost everything you talk about relates to England. We don’t hear about all that you, as a Scottish Labour constituency MP, have done for your electorate and for Scotland. Why not? This is a) because most of the measures that exemplify your fairer Britain have already been surpassed by policies introduced by the Scottish government; b) because you can’t claim direct responsibility for those achievements, as they’ve been brought about by MSPs rather than Scottish Westminster MPs such as yourself; and c) this would show up the unfairness towards England that has been perpetrated by devolution and the Barnett Formula, whereby those English people who still won’t be getting the cancer drugs they need on the NHS nor free personal care are helping fund those provisions for all who need them north of the border.

And yet, in another way, GB can claim some credit for these ‘achievements’. After all, he did back asymmetric devolution and, as Chancellor, was in an excellent position to ensure the continuance of the Barnett Formula and protect that higher per-capita public-expenditure budget for Scotland. As is his Scottish successor in the post, Alistair Darling. So he has been a good Scottish constituency MP, after all: putting the interests of ‘his country’ first.

But he won’t tell us this country is Scotland; just as he won’t tell us that the flipside of the British coin is unfairness to England dressed up as a belated programme for a fairer Britain. Because there’s always a flipside to Gordon. He says New Labour is building a fair Britain; but we know this is at the expense of England and to the advantage of the smaller nations of the UK. He says – in the only actual reference to those four nations (sorry Cornwall, you don’t get a look in) – “stronger together as England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland we can make our United Kingdom even better”; we know he means ‘forget it, England; there’s no way you’re governing yourself like Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland because they need your money too much’. He says, at the end of his speech, “This is our country, Britain. We are building it together, together we are making it greater”; we know he’s pretending to be a democratically elected PM for a country called ‘Britain’, whereas in reality he’s the unelected First Minister for England and his real loyalties lie with his Scottish constituents. He says, “Together we are building the fair society in this place”; we know this place certainly isn’t England, and it isn’t English fair play.

He says Britain; I say England.

PS. Ed Lowther from BBC Parliament appears to have been reading this post and has taken up the charge. Nice to see someone from the BBC finally cottoning on to the deliberate and deceitful suppression of mentions of England by politicians when they’re talking about England. Perhaps the Beeb will begin to apply the same analysis to their own output, too!

And finally, another plug: sign the ‘England Nation’ petition, and get GB to call England a nation.

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