Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

8 September 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 April 2011

The ‘nations and regions’ model of the UK enshrines division and inequality

Some of us hoped that Gordon Brown’s demise would have seen his beloved ‘nations and regions’ travesty of the UK put to bed: the idea that Britain / the UK is comprised of (devolved) nations and (British) regions, with no place for an English nation. But it seems this idea is too deeply embedded in the British-establishment consciousness to fade away along with its biggest fan.

One of the reasons why this concept won’t simply disappear relates to one of the ways in which it in fact perpetuates a divided and unequal vision of the UK. There are two main aspects to this:

  1. The nations and regions idea re-works the old Anglo-British conflation of England with Britain / the UK. The language and the thinking have changed significantly, but the underlying structure is the same. Previously, because the identities of England and Great Britain were so profoundly fused in the mind of the establishment, and of many ordinary English people, it used to seem perfectly normal and acceptable in England to say ‘England’ when you really meant Britain, and vice-versa. Now, that’s reversed: the politically correct thing is to say ‘the UK’, ‘Britain’ or ‘the country’ irrespective of whether you do actually mean the UK, Great Britain or England. But there’s still fundamentally the same conflation of England with the UK, except now you can’t overtly express it. Hence, the total taboo on saying ‘England’.
  2. Even within the logic of the nations and region concept, there is an implied inequality and demarcation between the regions and nations, which is perhaps even more divisive than the previous careless projection of Englishness beyond England’s borders. That is, what is effectively England – historically and territorially – is viewed as more ‘properly’ British and as the ‘core’ of Britain; whereas the ‘nations’ are by definition somewhat other than Britain and not viewed as an integral part of it. In other words, instead of four equal but distinct ‘home nations’ joined together in a shared Britain and Britishness (seen as both a political union, and common cultural and national heritage), only England is truly Britain (except, of course, you can’t call England ‘England’ any more, but only ‘Britain’). You end up with a nation of Britain whose heartland is effectively England but is divided up into regions surrounded by other merely affiliated, and not integrally British, nations.

So the ‘nations and regions’ model of Britain / the UK is deeply divisive, and in fact fosters and enshrines a Dis-United Kingdom: it denies the distinct identity of England while also denying full British status to the non-English nations. Ultimately, it’s designed to prevent the emergence of a different, federal model for the UK in which four nations (or five if you include Cornwall) can be joined together in an equal political union without suppressing either their distinct national identities or their shared Britishness.

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 July 2010

David Cameron: Big on society, little on England

There was more than a touch of déjà-vu about David Cameron’s re-launch of the Conservatives’ Big Society initiative yesterday. Here was a major policy speech relating almost exclusively to England in which the word ‘England’ was barely mentioned: once, in fact – and I’ll return to that in a moment. By contrast, Cameron spoke of the / our ‘country’ seven times and of ‘Britain’ twice, including in a rhetorical flourish at the end of his speech:

“It’s my hope – and my mission – that when people look back at this five, ten year-period from 2010, they’ll say: ‘In Britain they didn’t just pay down the deficit, they didn’t just balance the books, they didn’t just get the economy moving again, they did something really exciting in their society’. Whether it is in building affordable housing, tackling youth unemployment, inviting charities to deliver public services . . . the people in Britain worked out the answer to the big social problems”.

It was almost as if we were back to the good old bad old days of Gordon Brown: setting out the government’s England-only policies while studiously avoiding any reference to the ‘E’ word itself.

The difference between Cameron and Brown lies in the ‘content’ of the policy if not its British rhetorical dressing. Cameron’s statement, as summated in the above quote, is his programme for government in a nutshell: to rebalance the British economy and reduce the deficit (macro-economic policy: a reserved UK policy area) and to empower the “people in Britain” – specifically, the English people in Britain – to work out the solutions to their own social problems (social policy: an area of policy devolved to the respective governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but exercised on behalf of the people of England by the British government).

Hitherto exercised on behalf of the English people by the British government, that is: because the whole point of the Big Society is that, in theory at least, the formulation and implementation of social ‘policy’ as such, and the powers to deal with social problems, are going to be transferred to society itself down to the micro level (or the ‘nano level’, as Cameron called it): socially minded individuals, communities, local areas, and groups with a particular interest in specific aspects of civic society (such as parents running their own schools or communities getting involved in how they are policed).

The Big Society, in short, is what you get when the central British government sees its business exclusively as dealing with the macro dimension (UK macro-economics or the “national interest” – Cameron’s favourite phrase, which crops up in the second paragraph of his speech, when referring to deficit reduction) while disengaging altogether from the job of setting national policies in the social arena, which would in effect involve being a government for England. As a result, you have, on the one hand, the British macro layer of decision making in Whitehall and, on the other, the micro layer of the Big Society with absolutely no intermediate national-English layer of social or economic policy making, governance and democratic accountability.

In other words, ‘in Britain’, Government deals with what is its own ‘proper’ domain (macro-economics and other reserved policy areas) but does not ‘micro-manage’ the delivery of public services (to England), but instead devolves that responsibility to the micro level itself: the people who deliver those services. This is what is being offered to England by way of ‘equivalence’ to devolution for the other nations of the UK: ‘government of the people by the people for the people’ taken to a literal degree – disintermediated from the very democratically elected, national government and its institutions that are supposed to incarnate popular sovereignty, and instead being embodied in people themselves deciding to take direct action to deal with the social problems all around them. This is a ‘cultural revolution’ (or, as Cameron put it, “a huge culture change”) of almost Maoist scope: the people in a sense becoming the government and assuming its responsibilities, or – as the Conservative election manifesto referred to it – ‘joining the government of Britain’.

Except, as I say, what this actually means is becoming the government of England that the British government neither wishes nor is mandated to be. I am prepared to accept that Cameron, and many Conservative and even Lib Dem supporters of the coalition government, genuinely believe that the Big Society principles hold the key to resolving England’s social problems: that the era of ‘Big Government’ (or massive government engagement in social policy and public-service delivery) is over, and that society can find the answer to its problems only from within itself and from its own resources. Indeed, I agree with much of the localism behind the Big Society: that local issues are often best dealt with by the people directly affected by them; and that communities can really be revitalised if they can somehow come together to find a collective response to the social problems in their areas.

But if the Big Society is such a positive vision for transforming English society, why can politicians and the media not openly and honestly refer to it as an agenda for England? In virtually none of the media reports and discussions about Cameron’s Big Society launch I came across yesterday was the fact that it relates almost exclusively to England referred to. The honourable exception was the World At One news and current affairs programme on BBC Radio Four, where ‘England’ was mentioned twice, deep into the discussion, in such a way that you could be mistaken for thinking that only the particular aspect of the Big Society blueprint that was being referred to was limited to England rather than the whole thing.

I can’t remember now which aspect of the Big Society was being dealt with at that point. Perhaps it was the one reference to ‘England’ in Cameron’s speech: “we will create a Big Society Bank to help finance social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups through intermediaries. And I can announce today that it will be established using every penny of dormant bank and building society account money allocated to England”.

What does the phrase “dormant bank and building society account money allocated to England” actually mean? Is this money in dormant English bank accounts, or is it the portion of the total money lying dormant in bank accounts across the UK that had already been allocated to public expenditure in England – meaning, presumably, that an even higher proportionate share of that fund had also been allocated via the Barnett Formula to the other countries of the UK. Let’s hope it doesn’t mean a combination of the two: English bank accounts from which only a portion has been allocated to England, while an unfair share is set to be distributed to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Be that as it may, the very fact that the Big Society Bank is to be formed from a pot of money set aside for England gives away, almost as an indiscretion, the fact that the Big Society is strictly an English affair. But why can’t this fact be openly acknowledged and even celebrated?

Well, in a way, it would have been rather extraordinary and counter-cultural if Cameron’s speech had talked of creating the Big Society in England, and of English people being empowered to resolve English social problems – even if that’s what is in fact being talked about. This avoidance of explicit references to England when talking about England is indeed something we became all too familiar with in the bad old New Labour days, and is something that has also been discussed at considerable length in previous posts in this blog.

In essence, the word ‘England’ is avoided in all this discourse because ‘England’ is a void within it: there has been a total void or vacuum of social policy for England as such – as a nation – throughout New Labour’s tenure, and the Big Society is what is intended to fill it. But the Big Society in turn is not designed as an English policy as such because it is the very national, English dimension that the Big Society continues to avoid and circumvent. So whereas New Labour indeed micro-managed public-service delivery in England in a top-down manner, while denying any distinction between the British state and the English nation (calling them both ‘Britain’), Cameron’s Conservatives want public services in England (or, as they would put it, ‘Britain’) to micro-manage themselves without regard to any English-national policy dimension. Either way, there’s ‘British government’ on one side and ‘society in Britain [England]’ on the other, and they’re either conflated (New Labour) or divergent (Conservatives). But the one option that’s not envisaged is the intermediate one of an English government taking responsibility for English social policy in partnership with the English people to whom it is accountable.

The fact that the Big Society is essentially a by-product of the British government’s abnegation of its responsibility to co-ordinate social policy and public-service delivery in England – in part because it neither is nor wishes to be a government for England – was made glaringly obvious to me yesterday evening by a comment by Francis Maude, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, on Radio Four’s Tonight programme. What he said was that by definition there was no national plan for rolling out the Big Society. Yes: because, by definition, that would have to be a national-English plan, and the Big Society is what social policy in England becomes when the UK government washes its hands of it.

It remains to be seen whether the people of England will respond to the challenge to develop into a Big Society that the British government has set it. And, of course, this challenge is more than merely moral and social, in that the government’s withdrawal from social provision in England is being carried out as much in pursuit of what it sees as its primary role (macro-economic management and deficit reduction) as it is the consequence of the government’s unwillingness and lack of authority to provide leadership and vision in English social policy.

There are hard times ahead for England. But the English are a tough, resilient and resourceful people. And maybe, in learning to take control over our own social problems and public services, the English will start to demand political self-determination, too, at a national level where government is truly accountable at all levels to the people it is supposed to serve.

If the British government won’t provide direction for English society, maybe the English people will have to truly take over their own government in ways that go far beyond what is envisaged in Cameron’s Big Society.

5 May 2010

Cameron’s Big Society is the next phase of the Thatcher revolution: privatising government and England itself

One of the things Margaret Thatcher was famous for saying was that there was “no such thing as society”. David Cameron’s Conservatives’ manifesto for the May 2010 election – entitled ‘Invitation To Join the Government Of Britain’ – has now self-consciously reversed this dictum, prefacing its section on changing society with the graphically illustrated words, “There is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state”.

Margaret Thatcher recognised only the core building blocks of ‘society’ as such: the individual and the family. In his turn, David Cameron is big on the family but downplays the individual, as he wishes to dissociate his ‘modern compassionate Conservatives’ from the selfish individualism that was fostered by Thatcher’s ideological obsession with private enterprise and the profit motive. However, those of us with long memories still attribute much of the break-down of communities up and down the land – particularly, working-class communities that had built up around particular industries – with the ideological, social and economic changes that Thatcher introduced, often with callous indifference to the misery and hopelessness they caused.

Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is on one level an attempt to redress the social injustices and deprivations the Thatcher revolution left in its wake by placing communities back at the centre of his model for society. But at the same time, this is opening up communities and society (communities as society) as the new front for privatisation and the unfolding of market principles: what Thatcher did for the individual, Cameron would like to do for society – privatise it and turn it into a market society.

A full-scale critique of the Conservatives’ Big Society concept is beyond the scope of the present article. However, in essence, I would like to urge those who are tempted to vote for the Conservatives and potentially give them an overall majority in the new parliament to think carefully about what the Big Society means in social, economic and political terms. The core idea, in my view, is that small groups of interested persons should be empowered to take over the ownership and / or management control of public-sector bodies responsible for providing public services and amenities as diverse as schools, hospitals, community facilities, social care and social services.

In theory, this form of ‘social enterprise’ (community enterprise as opposed to Thatcher’s private enterprise) is supposed to be carried out by groups forming themselves into, or already belonging to, co-operatives, mutual societies, charities, voluntary organisations and non-profit-making / socially responsible enterprises. This is doing for ownership of public services what Thatcher did for ownership of publicly owned assets such as council houses and nationalised industries: privatising them. The only difference is that the ‘private’ sphere is extended beyond the individual – as in Thatcherism – to the level of the community. This is, then, a form of privatising the public sector itself: moving from government ownership and responsibility for public services to ownership and responsibility on the part of private groups of individuals (communities), as opposed to private individuals alone under Thatcher.

This all sounds great in theory. In practice, however, these private- / community-owned public services will be competing against each other in an aggressive, competitive market place. In economic terms, these reforms are intended to make the ‘public’ sector run on private-enterprise principles as a means, in theory, to provide services much more cost-effectively in the way that commercial businesses are generally run in a more cost-conscious, efficient way than the public sector.

In short, the flip side to the privatisation of the public sector that the Big Society represents is public-spending cuts. The two go hand in hand: in order to provide public services more economically while minimising the social impact of cuts, the Conservatives believe it is necessary for those services to be run both on market principles and by those who are dedicated to that particular public service, such as the teachers, doctors, social workers, volunteers and communities themselves. These people will then have both an economic interest, indeed imperative, to run those services on as small a budget as possible while at the same time focusing on maximising the quality and positive social impact of the services they deliver.

All this is predicated on the assumption that it is possible to combine the virtues and driving forces of private enterprise and public service. There are indeed many examples of social enterprises, charities and mutual societies that already do superb work in the community on a self-financing, voluntary or partially publicly funded basis. So the model can work as part of the mix of public services. But Cameron’s sights seem set on re-modelling the whole of the public sector along these lines. Hence the ‘Big Society’: a concept that implies that the ‘little people’, or what Cameron referred to at the start of the election campaign as the ‘great ignored’, take on the functions and powers of ‘big government’, with the huge apparatus of the state replaced by tens of thousands of community enterprises and initiatives across the country – England, that is.

Before I elaborate on the England point, I just want to reiterate: this sounds great in principle, but in practice all of these little companies and mutual societies founded to run schools, hospitals and social services are going to be competing for government funding in an environment of brutal public-spending cuts; and they’ll also be set in competition against each other and against other businesses – private businesses from outside the communities concerned – that will be able to bid more price-competitively for contracts and licences to take over failing schools or improve hospital facilities. In order to compete for funding and deliver the statutory level of service they are required to provide, the co-operatives and social enterprises are going to have to make use of management expertise and operating techniques from commercial businesses, and it’s easy to imagine how all the little community groups will eventually get swallowed up into larger enterprises that can pool talent and costs, and provide services at a lower cost for the real customer: government.

What we could easily end up with is not the little people empowered to form the Big Society, but big business effectively doing the government’s job (or community enterprises joining together to form big businesses) at a fraction of the cost that the former public sector would have been either capable or willing to achieve. And this will inevitably involve reinforcing social inequalities and disadvantage, in that commercially minded businesses – albeit ones with an ostensibly socially responsible remit – will clearly be less willing to take over failing schools filled with problem children from dysfunctional homes, or under-performing hospitals requiring substantial investments to turn them around.

The money will be attracted to where the money is: wealthier, middle-class areas with parents who are willing to invest time and money in their children’s education, enabling ‘education providers’ to attract more funding because of the good academic results they have achieved. Or hospitals that have succeeded in delivering a greater ‘through-put’ of patients in particular areas of specialisation – resulting in a concentration of the best health-care facilities and personnel around specialist centres of excellence, and more ‘cost-effective’ health conditions and therapies. A less commercially orientated health system, on the other hand, might seek to provide an excellent level of medical care for the full range of health problems available in the areas where people actually live, including the ‘unglamorous’ conditions such as smoking-related illnesses and obesity, associated with the lifestyles of poorer people who, in addition, are less able to travel to the specialist centres where treatment might still be available on the NHS.

The English NHS, that is. Because let’s not forget that the tough medicine of the Tories’ Big Society is a prescription for England alone. Though they don’t say so in their manifesto, we should hardly need reminding that education, health care, social services, local government and communities, and policing are all devolved areas of government; and therefore, the UK government’s policies in these areas relate almost exclusively to England only. So it’s not really or mainly the British state that would be superseded by the Big Society but the public-sector assets and services of the English nation.

There’s another word for ‘privatisation’ that is particularly apt in this context: ‘de-nationalisation’. It’s the English nation whose systems and organisations for delivering public services would effectively be asset-stripped by the Tories: in theory made over to community-based co-operatives and social enterprises but in fact transformed into a free market in which the involvement of more ruthless profit-minded enterprises would increasingly become unavoidable.

This could potentially be another example of what happens in the absence of an authentic social vision for England on the part of the British political class: a vision based on the idea that the government and people of England can and should work together to improve the lives and opportunities of the English people; one that does see the government and public sector as having a real role in serving the people alongside a vibrant, enterprising private sector.

The British political establishment has, however, disowned the view that it has an authentic, valuable role to play in the life of the English people. This is precisely because it refuses to be a government for England (just as Cameron once famously indicated he did not want to be a prime minister for England) and refuses to allow the English people to have a government of its own. Instead, the establishment – whether New Labour or Cameron Conservative – have attempted to re-model English society along purely market-economy lines, and will continue to do so if we let them: the Big Society being one where English civic society is transformed into just another competitive market place, with the inevitable winners and losers.

Ultimately, then, it’s not the government of Britain that English people are being invited to participate in; but it’s a case that any idea and possibility that the British government is capable or willing to act as a government for England is being abandoned. Instead, the government, public sector and indeed nation of England will be privatised under the Tories: sold off to the most cost-effective bidder and dismembered perhaps even more effectively than through Gordon Brown’s unaccountable, regionally planned (English) economy.

Well, I for one won’t buy it. And I won’t vote for a party that seeks to absolve itself from the governance of England and wishes to permanently abandon any idea of an English government. And I urge all my readers not to vote Conservative for that reason, too. Even, if it is necessary (and only if it’s necessary) to do so in order to defeat your Tory candidate, vote Labour!
And believe you me, it really hurts and runs against the grain for me to say that.

At least, if there is a Labour-LibDem coalition of some sort, there’ll be a chance of some fundamental constitutional reforms, including consideration of the English Question, as stated in the Lib Dem manifesto. Under the Tories, there’s no chance – and England risks being for ever Little England, not a big nation, as it is privatised through the Big Society.

19 April 2010

England remained a taboo word in the English debate

I’m beginning to think that ‘taboo’ is not too strong a word to describe ‘England’ when it comes to the discourse of the British establishment. What is a taboo? It’s something that is felt to be so abhorrent, and so challenging to established systems of authority and meaning, that it simply can’t be referred to and is suppressed from socially acceptable language.

An example of something that used to be taboo is incest. We now know that it does exist in society, often associated with abuse of children by their parents. But, like child abuse in general, it used to be impossible to even evoke its presence, and society’s revulsion at the act would be redirected at the person who spoke about it. The presence of child abuse by priests has also clearly been a taboo in the Catholic Church: something that simply could not be talked about in public in case it caused a ‘scandal’, whereas the real scandal was the actual abuse not its exposure, which was in fact necessary to prevent it from carrying on.

Both of these are examples where the activities that were the object of a taboo deeply challenged and threatened the moral authority invested in structures of social power: those of marriage, family and the father as head of the household, in the case of incest, and those of the Church and of the priest as father and shepherd to his flock in the case of child abuse by prelates.

If ‘England’ is indeed a taboo word, is this because referring to it in the context of a nationally broadcast political debate would risk undermining the moral authority invested in that other structure of power: the British state and parliament?

On the one hand, ITV’s leaders’ debate on ‘domestic’ (i.e. mostly English) issues last Thursday represented a step forward in that, when it came to devolved matters, the presenter Alastair Stewart did helpfully point out that, for instance, policing and justice were devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland, or that education was an area where “powers have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”, or words to that effect. However, at the same time, it was three steps back in that he omitted to clarify that this meant that the leaders’ discussion would then relate only to England and Wales, in the case of justice issues, or England only in the case of education and health.

I’m not sure that your average viewer would have automatically understood that the fact that powers had been devolved on a given issue meant that the politicians were talking only about England. Certainly, nothing in the context of the programme made that explicit: just as Alastair Stewart didn’t spell it out, none of the party leaders mentioned England once, even when talking about devolved matters, as they resorted to the usual circumlocutions: ‘this country’, ‘our public services’, ‘the NHS’, etc. And as none of the invited audience referred to England in their questions on devolved matters, this meant that the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ were not heard a single time throughout the hour and a half-long programme, despite half of it being devoted to England- or England and Wales-only matters.

What a genius way to avoid using the ‘E’ word while still fulfilling the broadcaster’s obligation of accuracy and impartiality in making clear which UK countries a particular issue affected! They must have spent some time working out how to do this and, in the process, avoid putting the leaders in the embarrassing position of having to admit that some of their key policies relate to England alone, which is something they studiously avoided doing in their manifestoes (see my analyses of these from earlier in the week).

It really did come across as though some serious thought had been given to the problem of how to avoid saying a particular topic related only to England, as if this was something that would be simply too shocking or confusing for voters. English voters, that is, because the way they went about it made it clear to non-English voters when a discussion was irrelevant for them – and this was coupled with Stewart plugging the separate debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that are to follow – but failed totally to make it clear to ordinary English voters when a discussion was only relevant to them.

But would it be shocking and confusing for English voters suddenly to hear Westminster politicians discussing education or health purely in relation to England? It might indeed be confusing for most English viewers because they’re simply not used to English issues being honestly debated as such and have been deceived for so long into thinking that these things apply to the whole of ‘Britain’. It would perhaps be shocking more for the political establishment, because it would be exposing their taboo. The unacknowledged truth that would be exposed by referring to ‘England’, in this case, would be the very existence of England as a nation, and a nation whose existence challenges the moral authority invested in British parliamentary democracy and power.

That moral authority has already been shaken to its foundations by the parliamentary-expenses scandal last year. Most commentators and the parties themselves acknowledge that the expenses furore revealed a deeper dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the British system of governance, for which it provided a catalyst. The essence of people’s anger against the system is that politicians have become unaccountable to voters and are no longer fulfilling their responsibility to represent their interests. In particular, the lack of accountability of Parliament to English voters on English matters is an aspect of this overall failure of the system that has hitherto been largely hidden from most English people, mainly because the parties and media have conspired to suppress the fact that there are such things as England-only matters by never referring to them as such: by never saying ‘England’.

The parties have entered into this general election believing they can simply carry on in the same way, setting out their blueprints for ‘Britain’ and systematically eliminating the ‘E’ word from their manifestoes, despite the fact that the critical debates around public expenditure, and social change and fairness, centre largely on England alone. To suddenly pull the parties up on this in a ‘national’ TV debate would potentially be to risk another expenses-type scandal blowing up right in the middle of the election campaign, which is the very moment when the politicians are trying to make themselves most accountable to the electorate. It would expose certain facts that would once again reveal politicians to have been lying to voters:

  • that the so-called ‘British’ general election is mainly an English election: not only the devolved issues but the other topics discussed in the debate, such as the economy and immigration, are centred on England, as England is the economic power house on which the prosperity and public finances of the other UK countries largely depend, and England’s much greater population density and proportionate share of migrants makes the immigration issue more critical for England than for the rest of the UK;
  • that the three main parties are lying to voters by presenting their policies as if they applied comprehensively to a country called Britain, and are thereby attempting to trick non-English voters into voting for them based on a policy agenda that does not apply to them while at the same time concealing this dupery and gerrymandering from English voters. Worse still, Labour has deliberately presented a separate Scottish manifesto with policies relevant only to the Scottish parliament, on the basis of which it aims to attract Scottish votes for the Westminster parliament and English law making;
  • and that, for all their promises to ring-fence different areas of public expenditure such as health, education and policing, these promises – for what they are worth – apply only to England, and that the block grants to Scotland and Wales on which those countries’ expenditure in these areas depends may well fall in line with overall reductions in English expenditure.

One positive that has come out of this, it occurs to me, is that maybe the fact that Alastair Stewart pointed out that powers were devolved in justice, education and health care made it difficult for David Cameron to wax lyrical about the Conservatives’ ‘Big Society’ vision, which was presented in their manifesto as extending to Britain as a whole but which relates almost entirely to devolved policy areas such as these. In fact, none of the leaders went in for the big lyrical ‘Britain’ thing when talking about devolved matters, not even Gordon Brown: the number of explicit references to ‘Britain’ as the putative country to which the parties’ policies applied was comparatively low. But the number of explicit references to ‘England’ – the actual country to which those policies apply – was precisely nil.

But if I’m correct that suppressing the ‘E’ word is not just highly convenient from a political point of view but manifests the operation of a taboo, then it is more than just their faith in politicians that would be challenged if people became aware that the politicians had been lying to them by presenting English matters as British.

In the other examples of taboos I discussed at the beginning of this article, it was the existence of incest at the heart of the sacred family unit and child abuse at the heart of Holy Church that the taboos were intended to cover up; and the exposure of those previously repressed truths caused many to question their faith in the traditional family, in the Church and in God himself. With the England taboo, it is the existence of England at the heart of the British state that the taboo aims to conceal; and the exposure of England as the real country that is both invoked and denied through all the British rhetoric risks undermining English people’s belief in Britain itself.

I almost feel that the party leaders’ inhibition about celebrating their visions for ‘Britain’, once it had been made clear that not all of their policies did apply across the UK, demonstrates that the currency of ‘Britain’ and Britishness has already become greatly devalued and discredited. This is despite the blanket ban on saying ‘England’, or perhaps because of it: if all it takes for the myth of an integral British nation to blow up from within is that politicians or TV presenters start referring to the country their policies address as ‘England’, then that fiction is resting on very shaky foundations indeed. No wonder they wouldn’t say ‘England’!

If the establishment refuses to refer to the country that dare not speak its name, this is because it is in danger of seeing its own true face by so doing. But until it does so, the English people will continue to suspect the politicians – rightly, in so many respects – of being two-faced. But we who do recognise that England is the face hidden behind the mask of Britishness must continue to speak the forbidden word until the truth is acknowledged. And once England is recognised as a nation, and the existence of English policies is openly referred to, it will only be a matter of time before the growing demand for an English parliament becomes irresistible.

We may not yet be pushing at an open door; but the cracks have begun to appear, and the false veneer of Britishness may yet shatter of its own accord through the sheer internal contradictions of trying to be something that it is not: a nation in its own right, in England’s place.

14 April 2010

Make ITV ask the West Lothian Question

I’ve ranted on enough about the way England-specific topics are unlikely to be explicitly dealt with as such in the much heralded prime-ministerial debates, including in this blog. But now Power 2010 is giving people a chance – however slim – to persuade ITV to ask the leaders where they stand on English votes on English laws (EVoEL) during the first debate tomorrow, on ‘domestic’ (i.e. mostly English) issues.

They’ve set up a web page that allows you to send an email requesting that ITV ask the West Lothian Question that the Labour and Tory manifestoes, published this week, have already shown the parties to be unwilling to even address, let alone resolve in any meaningful way.

Give it a go and, you never know, the leaders might actually be forced to utter the ‘E’ word: it’ll be worth it for the sheer entertainment value of watching Gordon Brown squirm as he pushes that hated word out of his mouth!

13 April 2010

England 11, Scotland 188: Labour’s West Lothian manifestoes

‘A future fair for all’, Labour proclaims as its election manifesto title. This is a self-avowed programme for ‘national renewal’, a concept reiterated at the start of each section – apart from in the Scottish version, however, which includes this phrase only once, in Gordon Brown’s preface.

So which nation is Labour intending to renew, and which of Labour’s two manifestoes should we believe? Well, if the version you’re reading is the ‘British’ one, you’d have to conclude that the nation in question was Britain, which is mentioned no fewer than 101 times, with ‘British’ being referred to on an additional 31 occasions. However, if you’re looking at the Scottish document, you could be mistaken for thinking Labour’s commitment was all to ‘Scotland’, with the prime minister’s homeland being proudly referenced on a total of 60 occasions along with 125 instances of ‘Scottish’ and three of ‘Scots’. That’s a ratio of almost 3:2 in favour of Scotland over Britain.

One nation New Labour is definitely not interested in renewing is ‘England’. The name of this country is included only once in Labour’s blueprint for fairness, in the section on ‘Communities and creative Britain’: “We aim to bring more major international sporting competitions to Britain, beginning with our current partnership with the English FA to bring the 2018 World Cup to England”.

Odd that it’s described as the ‘English FA’ here, when the FA goes out of its way to avoid calling itself ‘English’ – just as New Labour goes out of its way to avoid referring to any of its English policies as English. Maybe the phrase ‘English FA’ is a cross-over from the Scottish text, where it was necessary to add the ‘English’ tag, just as they saw fit to clarify – in the sentence before the one I’ve just quoted – that the 2015 Rugby Union World Cup was taking place in England: a fact curiously omitted from the ‘British’ manifesto.

This is not an isolated instance: there are more references to ‘England’ in the Scottish manifesto than the ‘British’ one – seven, in fact. There is, however, greater parity – or ‘fairness’, as Labour would call it – in the number of mentions of ‘English’: 12 in Scotland compared with ten in ‘Britain’. Well, that’s understandable, I suppose, as these references are mainly to the English language as studied in schools or spoken by immigrants.

In addition to the ‘English FA’ allusion, the only two uses of ‘English’ in the British version of the manifesto, other than for referring to the language, also occur in the ‘Communities and creative Britain’ section – not surprising, really, given that the British government’s responsibilities in the area of communities, sport and the arts are in fact restricted to England. The first of these references is to ‘English Heritage’ whose function the manifesto defines as ensuring “the protection and maintenance of Britain‘s built historical legacy” [my emphasis]. Even ‘England”s history apparently belongs to ‘Britain’, let alone its present or future of New Labouresque fairness.

The other reference is to extending the ‘Right to Roam’ to the whole of the English coastline. Neither of these proposals, then, are apparently worthy of mention for Labour’s potential Scottish voters, despite the fact that – as Britons – English British heritage belongs to them, too, as does the right to roam England’s coastline.

When the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ are used in the Scottish manifesto to refer to an actual country that the British document is strangely incapable of acknowledging, this is to make injurious comparisons between the governments and public services in Scotland and ‘England’. For example, the Scottish text states: “Crime is lower than in 1997, but it is falling more slowly in Scotland than in England [sic] and last year in Scotland, there were almost nine thousand crimes of knife carrying”.

By contrast, the ‘British’ document declares: “Crime continued to fall during the recession . . . . and knife crime has fallen”. [NB Ed (Miliband, that is): not in ‘Britain’ as a whole it hasn’t, boy, because you’ve already told us it’s risen in Scotland – you must mean it’s fallen in England.]

In similar vein, the Scottish manifesto tells us: “Last year alone in England [there’s that word again!] there were 832 positive matches to the DNA database in cases of rape, murder and manslaughter. In order to protect the public, Scottish Labour will ensure that the most serious offenders are added to the database, no matter where or when they were convicted – and we will retain the DNA profiles of those arrested but not convicted for six years”.

By contrast, the British version omits the reference to ‘England’ and also deletes the phrase ‘in order to protect the public’. Why? Because they don’t want the said ‘public’ to realise that, in England, the DNA profiles of people arrested but not convicted for any offence, not just serious offences, are retained by the British database state, whereas in Scotland they are not. And the ambiguous wording is similarly intended to mislead Labour’s Scottish public into thinking they would retain the DNA profiles only of those arrested but not convicted of serious offences if they got re-elected into power in Holyrood, whereas in fact they’d introduce the authoritarian English system if they had their way. And if the systems in the two countries were the same, then – and only then – New Labour could fulfil the promise to make sure that ‘no matter where or when they were convicted’ (e.g. whether in Scotland or England & Wales), all serious offenders throughout Britain could be added to the database.

This example – and there are many similar – illustrates the duplicity behind New Labour’s dual manifestoes (or triple once the Welsh one presumably comes along) for a dual mandate:

  • In the Scottish manifesto – quite blatantly and unashamedly – they are canvassing the support of Scottish voters on devolved matters (such as crime, as in the examples above) with a separate programme of Scottish-only policies that they could implement only if they were elected into power in Scotland in 2011. As the introduction to the Scottish text states: “Where responsibility is devolved, Scottish Labour will endeavor [sic] to deliver for Scotland from opposition in the Scottish Parliament, a Parliament of minorities [by implication, one in which they are virtually a party in power], as we have done on new apprenticeships for young Scots. We will carry these commitments through into the next Scottish Parliament.” Hence the negative comparisons they make between policies in devolved areas in Scotland – which is of course actually governed by the SNP – and the situation in the corresponding areas in England.
  • In the ‘British’ manifesto, in contrast to the Scottish one, any suggestion that Labour’s policies in devolved areas are de facto English policies is systematically suppressed by referring to everything as being ‘British’ and for ‘Britain’. In England, in other words, Labour is desperate for voters not to make the sort of comparisons with Scotland that they’re so keen for Scottish voters to make the other way round, in case English voters decide their Scottish cousins are getting a decidedly better deal in the public services Labour likes to claim as its own special domain. So they’re deliberately misleading voters – if any ordinary voter can actually be bothered to plough through the turgid document – into thinking that Labour’s past and prospective policies apply across the whole of Britain.
  • And the other main reason why they don’t want English readers to realise that their policies in vital areas such as education, the NHS, crime and policing, and communities apply to England only is that those readers might start to question why a Scottish-elected MP such as Gordon Brown feels entitled to propose policies for people who can’t vote him out of office if they don’t like them. Even more so if they were to realise that the Labour Party was trying to get its Scottish MPs, like Brown, re-elected into power on a programme for Scotland, even though it’s the English programme (not the Scottish one at all) that they’d actually implement if they were re-elected. So that’s why they have to pretend it’s a British (i.e. UK- or Great Britain-wide) programme and not what it actually is: English.

It’s only when you read the two manifestoes side by side in this way that you can measure the full extent of Labour’s duplicity and hypocrisy: a Scottish programme for Scotland on which Scottish MPs will be elected to enact a British programme for England Britain – the West Lothian election.

I could pick out many examples, but I think you get the general idea, and I invite readers to read the two manifestoes side by side so long as they’ve got a strong stomach and stable blood pressure. Fortify yourself with a pint or two of good English ale first; or a wee dram or two has the same effect and carries less duty per unit.

I’ll just select a particularly choice example, about social care. In the English British version, it states: “We will establish a new National Care Service and forge a new settlement for our country as enduring as that which the Labour Government built after 1945. . . . From 2011 we will protect more than 400,000 of those with the greatest needs from all charges for care in the home”.

Yes, you’ve guessed it, the ‘national’ service and the ‘country’ in question are actually England, not Britain, as becomes evident when you make the comparison with Scotland that Labour doesn’t want you to make. As the Scottish document says:

“The welfare state, in its broadest sense [yes, in the sense that it’s different in Scotland from England], is the most profound expression of the shared values that bind Scotland and the other nations of the United Kingdom together in a social union. As society changes, so the settlement evolves [b******s it does!]. In Scotland we led the way, extending the frontiers of the welfare state with the introduction of free personal care [‘for all’, as they might say, not just the few]. . . . The Prime Minister’s aim of establishing a National Care Service to forge a new social care settlement for our country as enduring as that which the Labour Government built after 1945, expresses our ambition too. While we start from different circumstances and have services differently aligned, a National Care Service would be a further strand in the social union. [Note: ‘would be’, not ‘will be’, because in Scotland, they acknowledge that their faux-British ‘national’ care service is in fact English and voting Labour in this election can’t bring it about in Scotland. Not sure anyone will be too worried about that in Scotland, though.]

Our ambition is for free personal care to be part of a truly integrated service. It will be different in each nation of the UK, but will reflect our shared values.”

Try telling that to the English, you b******s, and see if you get re-elected then! No wonder they don’t insult the English readers of the British manifesto with all that baloney about a social union. Social union, my arse – if you’ll pardon my English.

So Labour promises a future fair for all Britons. It’s only that some Britons (e.g. the Scots) are treated ‘more fairly’ than others (e.g. the English), to adapt a famous phrase. Except New Labour would reject that analysis, because they scarcely acknowledge the very existence of England; so how can a country that doesn’t exist be treated less fairly than ‘another’ part of Britain which, they’d have you believe, is treated in exactly the same way? Orwellian New-Labour Newspeak, indeed!

So it comes as no surprise, in the section of the ‘British’ manifesto dealing with democratic reform, that absolutely no mention is made of ‘England’ while whole paragraphs deal with the ongoing processes of devolution in the UK’s other nations – proving incontrovertibly that Labour’s approach to the West Lothian Question, let alone the English Question, is not to ask it.

The reason: they are utterly dependent on the West Lothian Question in its most aggravated form – the West Lothian Election – if they are to have any chance of being re-elected: conning Scottish people into voting Labour on a Scottish ticket merely in order to secure power in Westminster – power over English matters, in other words. A con that they try to deny at all cost; mainly by denying there is any distinction between ‘Britain’ (including Scotland) and England.

But what are English voters to make of this? Well, if they want accountable government for England as England, they can do none other than reject Labour’s false account (narrative) of a Britain that denies England. And if Labour offers no policies for England, then they deserve no votes from English people.

27 March 2010

No Representation Without . . . Representation: The West Lothian Election and Avoidance Of the ‘E’ Word

I’m gearing up to a fight at the election. I’ve got my complaint emails primed in the full expectation that none of the leaders nor presenters will say ‘England’ in the leaders’ debates, even when discussing England-only policies; and that news item after news item will report on parties’ proposals on education, health or policing (etc., etc.) without bothering to mention that they relate only to England (and Wales, in the latter instance).

Does any of that matter, or am I just being an ‘indignant from Tunbridge Wells’ Little Englander pedantically pulling the media up on every slightest slip? Surely, everyone knows that when the politicians refer to ‘the NHS’, or the Tory spokesman sets out that party’s proposals for the ‘British’ education system, they’re really talking only about the NHS and education in England?

Well, the politically literate might realise this, but the default position of the average English citizen is to assume that when people in the media say ‘Britain’ or ‘this country’, they actually mean Britain as a whole, not just a part or parts of it. That this is not so is undeniable. But this does not necessarily mean that politicians and the media, in every case, are deliberately suppressing all reference to ‘England’, rather than just forgetting to include the word because it all starts to sound fussily pedantic after a while. This might be more Freudian slip than political censorship. However, if you know your Freud, you’ll know there’s no such thing as ‘innocent’ forgetting, and that what you omit to say, just as much as what you let slip, reveals the self-censorships and internal struggles involved in conforming to socially and politically acceptable norms.

Be that as it may, one thing all three party leaders will definitely agree on in their TV debates is avoidance of the ‘E’ word. But just what is the inconvenient, naked truth that the politicians wish to cover up by not referring to the actual name of ‘the country’ their policies address?

Well, perhaps it’s just that: the country they’re primarily addressing is England.

I’ve written extensively elsewhere on the way the proposed structure for the TV debates is almost diametrically the reverse of what it should be to properly reflect the post-devolution realities. Instead of having three ‘UK’ debates excluding the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, with separate debates in Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland that do include the leaders of parties that stand only in those countries, the UK debates should include the key players from the devolved nations because – for those nations – the election is only about UK-wide (reserved) matters, not nation-specific ones. What is more, the non-English parties may hold the balance of power in a hung parliament; so it is especially crucial in this election for viewers across the UK to hear what their leaders have to say.

By contrast, the only nation-specific debate(s) should be restricted to England, because only English voters are (or, at least, should be) voting on devolved issues in this election. As it’s turned out, one of the debates (on ITV) will be dealing mostly with English issues such as health and education, billed as ‘domestic’ issues. But you can bet your bottom English pound that these topics won’t be referred to as English. At least, ITV hasn’t yet deigned to respond to my helpful email suggestion that they do flag up the England-only policy areas as English in the programme.

Joking aside, the structure that has been adopted in fact ironically reveals the England-specific nature of the ‘national’ debates that politicians and media would rather have us not notice through their non-use of the word ‘England’. The ‘UK’ debates are all being held in England; they exclude the leaders of the Scottish- and Welsh-nationalist parties, thus enabling the perspective to be ‘English’ in the sense of being that of English viewers; and one whole debate is also mostly limited to English matters. And the fact of there being separate debates focusing on issues and parties specific to Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland makes the ‘national’ debates even more England-centric in all but name.

This structure itself replicates the structure of the debates and proceedings of the UK parliament, which has become a British parliament for England at the same time as an English parliament for the UK. The parties don’t want the public in England to realise that they’re using the debates and the campaign in general to seek the votes of non-English voters on English matters (what you could call the ‘West Lothian Election’), resulting in government of the English people by the British parliament. And they equally don’t want the public in the non-English countries to realise that their MPs will be beholden to the interests of parties whose power base and national focus is primarily England (though, and for that reason, unacknowledged): parliamentary lobby fodder whether voting on England-specific or reserved matters.

That’s why they don’t want Alex Salmond or Ieuan Wyn Jones showing up at the party (or showing up their parties). It’s ironic that they think it’s OK to exclude Alex Salmond, who has a legitimate say in reserved matters, while including Gordon Brown, who has no legitimacy in devolved (i.e. English) matters. But after all, you couldn’t have Alex Salmond turning up at the ITV debate and accusing Gordon Brown of proposing policies for England that he can have no democratic mandate to implement, could you? That just wouldn’t be ‘British’ fair play. But it would be democracy. And it would be an accurate representation of the facts.

But will the broadcasters in fact be in breach of their statutory duty to ensure accuracy and impartiality if they fail to point out that some of the policies being debated are relevant only to their English viewers? It would probably be easier to make a case for bias than inaccuracy, despite what I’ve said so far. It clearly is biased to provide an exclusive platform for the ‘English’-party leaders to speak to voters in Scotland and Wales, even if you take only reserved matters into consideration. It is doubly biased if the party leaders refer to devolved (i.e. English) issues as British, and by implication as relevant to Scotland and Wales, because this would amount to turning the UK election into the opening battle in the 2011 election for the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly while at the same time excluding two of the parties presently in power in those bodies.

So this is bias, but it’s bias that rests on inaccuracy and, frankly, a sheer lack of understanding about the actual mandates of MPs from the UK’s countries in the wake of devolution. The most egregious consequence of this at the election is likely to be in relation to the debate about spending on education, health and policing. I notice the Labour Party is now promising not to make any cuts in these areas, which will be paid for by even more swingeing cuts to other areas of the budget. But what Labour is not saying is that it’s only in England that it won’t be reducing the budget for these things; and that, as a result of the overall cuts, the Scottish and Welsh block budgets will be reduced (not before time, in some people’s view), resulting in likely cuts in education, health and policing in those countries. By not explicitly stating that it’s English education, health and policing that will be protected, Labour is deliberately misleading the electorate in Scotland and Wales into thinking that their funding in these areas is ring-fenced – in order to win their votes. And in allowing Labour to get away with this, it could be argued the media is showing bias towards them – except, of course, it’s allowing all the main parties to do the same thing. In this way, the Scots and Welsh are being wooed on English matters; and English voters are being cheated of the result they want in relation to the matters that affect them.

But apart from this West Lothian aspect to the election, are English people put in any kind of direct disadvantage through the inaccuracy of referring to English policies as British? It would be difficult to make a watertight case that calling English laws ‘British’ is inaccurate, as – strictly speaking – they are British laws: enacted by the British parliament comprising representatives from across the UK. So if you were going to be really pedantic about it, you would in fact have to call them ‘British laws for England’. And is it inaccurate, as such, to omit the ‘for England’ or ‘in England’ part (e.g. ‘the NHS in England’ or ‘schools in England’)? Or is this just a form of ellipsis made possible by the fact that the words omitted contain information which it is assumed people know about anyway?

OK, so calling English policies and laws ‘British’ is only partially inaccurate. But is it good enough for the media and politicians to be only partially accurate here? And isn’t presenting only a partial version of the facts again partial in the other sense: the opposite of ‘impartial’?

In this instance, this is a partiality that goes beyond specific policies or parties, and amounts to a bias in favour of the whole British-parliamentary system, of which the general election is meant to serve as a collective act of validation. The mis-representation of England-specific policies as UK-relevant helps to uphold the viewpoint that British-parliamentary democracy itself is ‘adequate’ for English voters: that it provides sufficient expression to the voice of English voters and an adequate representation of their views.

In order to maintain this perception, it is vital that the language politicians and media use to refer to the political process, system and community – the polity – is adequate to the country of which that polity is meant to be a representative expression, in the other sense of the word ‘adequate’: descriptively / epistemologically appropriate to, or commensurate with, the object described. In other words, if the British-parliamentary system is to be seen as adequate for England, then ‘Britain’ / ‘British’ must be seen as adequate terms for ‘England’ / ‘English’: the system of government and the country governed must become mirrors for one another – the British parliament as ‘representing’ the (British) people.

This whole fiction falls down if you start referring to the people Parliament is meant to represent as English in some matters and British in others. Apart from calling the democratic legitimacy of the whole system – and accordingly, the election – into question, it would actually be rather hard to keep switching between ‘England’ and ‘Britain’, sometimes within a single sentence, when referring to the country for which (British) policies are intended. It would require mental gymnastics on the part of our occasionally intellectually challenged politicians, for a start. But imagine the confusion and the linguistic overload if you had to start presenting the interdependency between genuinely British and English policy decisions in their true light. Parties would have to tell voters they intend to raise British taxes (or decrease some and increase others) in order to maintain spending on English education, health and policing while cutting the British defence and welfare budgets, reducing the Scottish and Welsh budgets, and cutting spending on English social care, local government, transport, environmental protection, etc.

If, on the other hand, you pretend that there’s just one British tax pool and one British budget in all these different areas, it makes the message easier to get across. The fact that it also enables the parties to gloss over the West Lothian Election and the question of Parliament’s legitimacy as a dual-purpose British and English legislature is almost a secondary but nonetheless highly convenient benefit of this linguistic economy with the truth. The fiction that there is only a single national budget that has to be apportioned between different government departments is also substantially true, but only if the nation in question is England. But in order to maintain the fiction that that nation is Britain, it’s imperative to never invoke the name of ‘England’. This results in what is actually quite a surreal situation where the country whose election this primarily is, and whose people are the main ones being targeted, is never mentioned by name.

But English people deserve more than this partially representative democracy: where the ‘part’ (England) is (mis)represented by the whole (the parliament for the UK), which – in order to maintain the fiction that it adequately represents the part – refers to the part as if it were the whole. Or, putting this another way, can UK MPs for English constituencies claim to truly represent them if they can’t even represent (accurately refer to and acknowledge) the country of which their constituencies are a part? Those MPs can, in effect, only represent the whole – the in fact partial (party-determined) interests of ‘Britain’ – and not their constituency as an integral part of another whole, the nation of England, for which the British parliament legislates. But if they don’t want to acknowledge their constituencies and their remit as English, they cannot be said to stand for (represent) England in any way, nor do they deserve the support of those who seek to defend the legitimate interests and rights of English people as a distinct part of Britain with its own legal system, for which Parliament is responsible.

In other words, when talking the language of the whole (Britain), our English politicians are only partly telling the truth; indeed, they are being party to a fiction that involves the representation of the part as if it were the whole. And yet, that part is a whole – England – that is only partially represented in this way, while this fiction serves the interests of parties that seek the mandate of the whole to govern the part. And, by being party to this fiction, the media is maintaining the partiality this involves: making the Union Parliament an adequate form of representation for England, and supporting the Union parties that defend the whole system.

Ultimately, then, by conspiring with the politicians to effectively bleep out the ‘E’ word (if that is what they do at the election), the media will be displaying institutional bias in favour of the British-political establishment and system of democracy. The upholding of this system requires that the emergence of an English-national politics be suppressed; and the most effective way to achieve this is by suppressing all reference to ‘English’ policies even when talking about British policies that only affect England.

This is not an innocent act of forgetting or a failure to be journalistically accurate in one’s choice of words; it is indeed more of a Freudian omission: a superficially casual and non-deliberate suppression of language that reveals profound, hidden truths and motivations. That said, the broadcasters cannot be singled out for blame in showing bias and support towards the very democratic system of which the election is supposed to be a vindication. The problem is with the system itself, not merely the media.

But if the media does, as I suspect it will, omit to refer to English policies as English policies, then this calls the validity of the whole process into question. The public – English and non-English alike – have a right to be informed about how, indeed whether, the parties’ policies might affect them. And if the media systemically fails to do that – because it is serving and enabling the stratagem that the British-political system itself employs to conceal the naked truth that it is a government for but not of England – then the general election will not deserve to be called an act of representative democracy.

At the very least, it will result in a continuing mis-representation of England.

6 November 2009

Will Afghanistan crystallise Britain’s ‘Russian moment’?

The Russian Empire – otherwise known as the Soviet Union – was broken on the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. Many commentators, including Russian ones, have pointed to the eerie parallels between Britain’s and America’s engagement in military conflict against the Taliban, and the defeat of the mighty Red Army at the hands of the Taliban’s predecessors, the Mujahedeen. If we were to take heed of the lessons of history – not just the living memory of the Soviet Union’s traumatic humiliation, but the thousands of years of successful Afghan resistance to imperial invaders – then we would immediately reverse the build-up of Western troops in that country and accelerate our exit strategy, if we have one. Indeed, we would never have got ourselves embroiled in a conflict we cannot win.

But the question I wish to pose here is this: Gordon Brown has today spoken of his determination that Britain and its allies will indeed ‘win’ in Afghanistan, however victory is defined (which is part of the problem). However, he also conceded the possibility that Britain might lose: “We will succeed or fail together and we will succeed”. But will Britain stay together if we lose?

Clearly, while there are parallels, Britain’s situation is not exactly the same as the Soviet Union’s during the 1980s. However, I would argue that, like the USSR, Britain’s actions in Afghanistan betray an imperial mindset. Indeed, Britain itself is still an empire in certain fundamental respects: not in the, as it were, empirical (i.e. real-world) sense of possessing vast colonies, but in its view of itself – its identity, its status in the world and its systems of governance.

These all come down to Britain’s concept of ‘authority’ – political and moral authority combined: Britain’s ‘right to rule’ linked to the fact that it sees itself as inherently ‘in the right’. This then translates to our military interventions in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, which the British establishment would like to see not as examples of more or less arbitrary interference in other countries’ affairs for the sake of Britain’s strategic interests, but as illustrations of how our might is indeed right: military power allied to a moral mission, and applied to promote British-style governance and implant British values in some benighted corner of a foreign field.

As far as the governance of Britain itself is concerned, I would argue that this is also still conducted in the manner of an empire, albeit one whose boundaries are mainly those of the islands of Great Britain, and with limited concessions to democracy. I’ll probably return to this topic in more detail on another occasion. But my main proposition here is that one of the main reasons why the Westminster political class has become so disconnected from the people – indeed, the peoples – of Britain is that they still view the business of governance in the light of the imperial mindset. In particular, the insistence on the sovereignty of Parliament, and on the entitlement of Parliament and the executive to make all the important decisions that affect our lives without being fundamentally answerable to the people, and without having to take popular opinion into account, exemplifies the concept of British authority described above: those that possess British might see themselves as imbued with British right – the right to rule over us in imperial fashion linked to the fact that this rule in itself is seen as in the right and righteous.

So in Britain, we have an elected empire: a form of absolute rule, albeit moderated by a limited amount of democracy, whose sovereignty derives from a moral absolute: that of the Sovereign herself, who is the inheritor and embodiment of the medieval divine right of kings. Except, in our constitutional monarchy, it is our elected so-called representatives that re-assign that divine right to themselves in the form of the sovereignty of Parliament.

But to return to my point of departure, what could happen to the British establishment’s sense of its divine right to rule, both at home and abroad, if things go disastrously wrong in Afghanistan, as they did for the Soviet Union? By this, I mean not just hundreds of British dead, as now, but thousands, even tens of thousands. How far are we prepared to continue with this folly to prove to ourselves that we were in the right all along? And at what point do we realise that perhaps we didn’t get it right, indeed may not be in the right, and that history may not conclude that God was on our side this time?

Who knows what ramifications a truly disastrous defeat in Afghanistan would have for our already shattered faith in the authority that our elected rulers exercise in our name? It did for the Soviet Union; would it do the same for Britain?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not wishing for such a catastrophe to occur in my wish for the United Kingdom as presently constituted to unravel. I’d rather we pulled out now while we still have a chance. But the omens are not good.

Gordon Brown says our brave British soldiers are fighting for our national security in Afghanistan. They may also be fighting for the survival of Britain in a sense that Brown does not intend.

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