Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

25 September 2007

Anyone See England in Gordon Brown’s Vision For Britain?

In GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] first speech to the Labour Party conference as its leader and PM yesterday, there were 54 mentions of the word ‘Britain’ and 28 of ‘British’. ‘England’ and ‘English’, on the other hand, appeared just once each. The single manifestation of ‘England’ occurred in a sentence that also accounted for one of the two appearances of each of ‘Scotland’ and ‘Wales’, where the PM cited foot and mouth and terrorism as examples of how Britain’s problems in general could not be solved by breaking up the Union: “as we saw again this summer there is no Scotland-only, no Wales-only, no England-only answer to the spread of disease or to terrorist attacks that can strike at any time, anywhere in any part of our country. And sharing this same small island, we will meet our environmental, economic and security challenges not by splitting apart but when we as Great Britain stand united together”.

I note in passing that GB chose to single out Scotland and Wales here before England, probably because he did not want to acknowledge the greatest challenge to the Union, which comes from the movements campaigning for English independence. The other mentions of the words ‘Scotland’ and ‘Wales’ were contingent and do not imply political bias: GB referred to the terrorist attack on “Scotland’s biggest airport” and to a boy who won the “Diana Prince of Wales medal”. I should also add that there were no references to either ‘Scottish’ or ‘Welsh’. The one use of ‘English’ related to the teaching of the English language in schools.

OK, you might say, GB is the prime minister of Britain, so you’d expect his message to concentrate on Britain. Well, technically, he’s the PM of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and I note that the abbreviation ‘UK’ also failed to make a single appearance in his speech. ‘United Kingdom’ appeared only once in an economic context, where it is usual to refer to statistics for the whole of the UK: “in the last month [there has been] a wave of financial turbulence that started in America . . . and has impacted on all countries including the United Kingdom and tested the stability of our financial system”.

The avoidance of referring to the UK and the preference for Britain / British is a common characteristic of the Britologists: those politicians and thought leaders who are trying to forge and reinforce the idea of a common British identity and set of values. The use of ‘UK’ is a constant reminder that the British state is not a unified nation as such but a coming together of four nations under the rule of a shared monarch and parliament. ‘Britain’ and ‘British’, on the other hand, can appear to relate to a more natural, cohesive national unit: in GB’s words, this “same small island” that we share (too bad for Northern Ireland, then, and the other semi-autonomous island communities of the UK, such as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands).

And ‘Britain’ not only represents the ideal of a truly united nation covering the full extent of the island of Britain, but it is also a Britain of ideals: a Britain of the mind and of values. So what does ‘Britain’ stand for in the mind of GB or, as he would put it, what does he stand for in the name of Britain? The clearest clue comes in a lyrical passage in which the phrase “I stand for a Britain” is repeated like an incantation at the start of nine consecutive sentences:

“I stand for a Britain where everyone should rise as far as their talents can take them and then the talents of each of us should contribute to the well being of all.

I stand for a Britain where all families who work hard can build a better life for themselves and their children.

I stand for a Britain where every young person who has it in them to study at college or university should not be prevented by money from doing so.

I stand for a Britain where public services exist for the patient, the pupil, the people who are to be served.

I stand for a Britain where it is a mark of citizenship that you should learn our language and traditions.

I stand for a Britain where we expect responsibility at every level of society.

I stand for a Britain that defends its citizens and both punishes crime and prevents it by dealing with the root causes.

I stand for a Britain where because this earth is on loan to us from future generations, we must all be stewards of the environment.

So I stand for a Britain where we all have obligations to each other and by fulfilling them, everyone has the chance to make the most of themselves”.

Not much about the aspirations voiced here that can elicit too many objections in themselves. However, I again note in passing that GB missed a perfect opportunity to include the word ‘English’ when he referred to its being a mark of British citizenship that everyone should “learn our language”. Hmm, Mr Brown, do you mean the English language? I wasn’t aware there was such a thing as the British language. Or are you just trying to avoid confrontation with defenders of the Welsh, Scottish Gaelic or even [Anglic] Scots languages by avoiding stating openly the idea that English should be imposed as the official unitary language for the whole of a united Britain?

How can we summarise this vision of Britain? It’s what you might call a mutually responsible meritocracy: GB believes in self-betterment and self-advancement; but this is enabled by supportive social structures and individual social responsibility, whereby those who do realise their abilities / talents and fulfil their aspirations have a duty to give back what they’ve received from society and contribute to giving the same opportunities to others. It’s a world view centred around the individual (including the idea that supportive social institutions such as schools and healthcare are for the individual person); but in which the more the individual achieves personal success, the more they have a responsibility to ensure that others can do the same, in a mutually sustaining, virtuous circle.

This vision of an aspirational, meritocratic Britain is explicitly outlined in another passage: “Not the old version of equality of opportunity – the rise of an exclusive meritocracy where only some can succeed and others are forever condemned to fail. But a genuinely meritocratic Britain, a Britain of all the talents. Where all are encouraged to aim high. And all by their effort can rise. A Britain of aspiration and also a Britain of mutual obligation where all play our part and recognise the duties we owe to each other.

New Labour: now the party of aspiration and community. Not just occupying but shaping and expanding the centre ground. A strong Britain; a fairer Britain. Putting people and their potential first”.

Fine-sounding words, although it’s not clear whether this supposedly new, indeed New Labour, vision of a genuine meritocracy is anything other than only a slight adjustment of the Blairite vision (which could be termed ‘equality of market opportunity’) back to a more traditional Labour focus on social assistance for the economically disadvantaged, thereby enabling them to realise their potential for the good of all.

But what is clear is that there is no vision for, or indeed of, England in GB’s roadmap for Britain. We should not be surprised at this, although we may be disappointed. GB is a Scottish prime minister for the UK; so it is in his interest to speak to and of a united Britain, because he cannot claim any ownership of or identification with specifically English interests or concerns. If you talk about a British nation and mention it enough times (54 mentions of ‘Britain’ and 28 of ‘British’ in a one-hour speech), then people may start to see your vision and believe that the Britain you stand for actually exists. But this is also a vision on which the future of the Labour Party as a party of power depends. And the future of Gordon Brown: the self-made man from Kirkcaldy who has risen to the pinnacle of British society and who now, in accordance with his value system, sees himself as responsible for the well-being of the whole of Britain. Or, in the concluding words of his speech: “I will stand up for British values. I will stand up for a strong Britain. And I will always stand up for you”.

In short, with GB, you get GB. But he doesn’t get England, and nor do you.

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8 July 2007

Are Suicide Bombings an Attack On ‘Our Values’?

At the time of the 7/7 bomb attacks, whose grim two-year anniversary was marked yesterday, it was said that these atrocities constituted an attack against ‘our values’ to which we had to show defiance. Similarly, during the recent wave of largely bungled bombings, the last of which – on Glasgow Airport – had a distinctly suicidal component, the terrorism that they exemplified was also characterised as an assault on our values.

Leaving aside for now the issue of what exactly ‘our values’ might be, are suicide bombings primarily intended to destroy them? Or, if that is indeed one of the avowed intentions of the suicide bomber, should we in a sense dignify that intention by building it up as a serious assault on our whole value system and way of life?

In our Western-centric way, we tend to forget that suicide bombings have become one of the tactics of choice in other conflicts: that between Israel and the Palestinians, and the de facto civil war between Muslims in Iraq, for instance. In these cases, the suicide bombing is not obviously intended as an attack on the values of the West per se, although it indirectly expresses opposition to Western policy and actions in the Middle East. Similarly, you could see the suicide assaults on targets in Western countries as intended, on one level, to make a political statement and achieve political objectives, albeit that this dimension does involve an element of opposition to Western values and ideology.

In this respect, the 9/11 and 7/7 incidents were extremely eloquent: in the former instance, an awe-inspiring assault on some of the most potent symbols of Western power and, in particular, the US superpower in the shape of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The fact that such a horrific action gave rise to so much jubilant celebration in many Muslim countries should not lead us to rush into condemnation of Islamic barbarism and blood-thirstiness but should – and perhaps was intended to – give us pause for thought about what the West collectively had done to give rise to such hatred and despair. Not that this exonerates the actions of terrorists. But it certainly made people sit up and start to pay attention to the problem, and in that respect, it was a powerful and successful act of communication.

Similarly, the 7/7 outrages could not have been timed for greater effect. The government, Tony Blair, the media and the official representatives of the city of London were all basking in the self-satisfied glow of Live8, the Gleneagles summit (and its promise to tackle global poverty) and the award of the 2012 Olympics to London the day before. The horror of 7/7 and its aftermath threw all of that into question, as if to say ‘enough with all your fine words; but this is the horror you’ve inflicted in Iraq and Palestine, and what are you going to do about it?’. This at least was one of the messages that seemed to come out of those attacks in the context in which they arose, even if the underlying thinking was twisted. The knee-jerk, indignant reaction to the bombings that they were an assault on ‘our values’ merely served to make us deaf to that message once again.

So what of the recent, mercifully ‘unsuccessful’, attacks? A new Scottish prime minister had just come into office without, as yet, any indication of a change in the policy on Britiish involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so an Iraqi doctor, working over here as part of our liberal, global, tolerant market society, attempts to carry out two massive bombings in London and one in Glasgow, Scotland – the first terror attack in that land. The political intention appears clear: to whip up public demands and personal pressure on GB [Gordon Brown] for a British withdrawal from those two countries. This is more the message from these failed attacks than that they are an assault on our values per se, although the ideological motivation is undeniably also present.

And by the way, isn’t it rather uncanny that London seems to have experienced more than its ‘fair share’ of bungled bombings: the supposedly attempted bombings of 21/7 and now these latest episodes? The 21/7 would-be bombers have claimed that they didn’t actually intend for their bombs to work, that they were just trying to wreak terror without the carnage – achieving the desired communication impact of terrorism minus the bloodshed; martyrdom for the cause without the ultimate martyrdom of death. Is it possible that the latest attacks were also not fully followed through for the same purpose: to provide a warning of what could happen if British policy didn’t change, rather than actually provoking a further wave of support for the British military presence in those countries, which might well have happened had the bombs gone off? Perhaps we should take it as a warning even if it wasn’t actually intended as such.

Ultimately, I’m speculating about the intentions of the suicide bombers, failed or successful. But we need to pay more attention to the message that these incidents are conveying if we really want to do everything to avoid a repetition, and one which this time could have massively deadly effects. The terrorists are wrong in their assumption that their actions can sway the policy decisions of Western governments, i.e. that policies will be amended in direct response to the threat that terrorism poses. However, they are correct in thinking that their attacks have a huge impact on our hearts and minds. The extremely cleverly conceived and executed attacks of 9/11; the brilliantly timed and co-ordinated bombings of 7/7; and the possibly calculated botched attacks of 21/7 and last week speak powerfully to our emotions and our imaginations. And this is perhaps the only language the terrorist feels is left to the people in whose name he misguidedly carries out his atrocities.

It shouldn’t have to take shared suffering and a common experience of suicide bombings to that of the Palestinian and Iraqi people for us to show compassion towards them and listen to their despair. We may not believe that we are directly responsible for the suffering in those lands; but we do have a duty and the opportunity to do something about it.

If only for own protection.

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