Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

13 August 2012

Great Britain is merely an Olympic nation

It is often said of England that it is just a football nation. By that, it is meant that England comes together as a nation, and has national institutions of its own, only when it comes to football competitions and to other sports where England has its own team or league, such as rugby union or cricket. There is some justification for this, in that England clearly is not a civic nation – either a sovereign state or a self-governing part of a larger state – but nonetheless has the footballing status of one. Indeed, it has superior status to other nation states’ football associations, in that the FA still has a veto on any rule changes to the beautiful game. England is a football nation, then, in part because it is the home of football.

The same could be said of Great Britain and the Olympics. The Olympics are now arguably the only occasion when ‘Great Britain’ unites as a nation. For a little while, albeit imperfectly, we forget that we are in fact three nations (or four, or five, if you include Northern Ireland and / or Cornwall – but that’s a different story) and get together behind ‘Team GB’, with the mandatory Union Flags being draped around the shoulders of our Olympic heroes (whether they want it or not – and how could they refuse?): all differences cloaked in the colours of a rediscovered British patriotism.

And just like England, Great Britain is not a civic nation. The civic nation, the sovereign state, is the United Kingdom (informally known as ‘Britain’, rather than Great Britain). But we choose to compete as Great Britain. Why? In part, this is so that Northern Irish athletes have the freedom to choose whether to represent Britain or the Republic of Ireland. In part, also, this is because ‘Great Britain’ can arguably claim to have originated the present Olympic movement, in that the first modern Olympic Games of any sort were held in England (in the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock from 1850 onwards), while Great Britain was an inaugural participant in the first international Games in 1896, and has taken part – as Great Britain – in every summer and winter Olympics since. The IOC president Jacques Rogge paid tribute to Great Britain’s Olympic heritage in his speech at the 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony, when he referred to the fact that Great Britain had in effect originated modern sport as such by codifying its rules: just as England is the home of football, the Olympics were in effect coming home by taking place in Great Britain in 2012.

So football and the Olympics are two global sporting institutions with which our nationhood – whether as England or Great Britain – is bound up as originator and ‘owner’. It’s almost as if those particular games – football and Olympic – are not just an incidental part of our national heritage and of our contribution to global culture, but are an integral part of what constitutes us as nations: we are not so much nations that rediscover our sense of nationhood through international sports competitions, but are nations who experience ourselves truly as nations only when playing the games that properly speaking are ours to begin with, and which we have given to the world. Temporarily, the existential void that exists where a secure sense of nationhood should be is filled with the passion of the game and the excitement of ‘representing’ the nation under the colours of the flag – be they red and white, or red, white and blue.

But who in fact are the ‘we’ who lack the grounded experience of nationhood that comes from national civic institutions, and from sovereign, national self-rule? Who are the ‘we’ who so lack ‘internal’ recognition as a nation, and the ability to feel pride about ourselves as a nation, that we feel validated only when we are able to stand as the first among equals amid the international community of nations which, in a sense, we have brought into existence in the particular form in which that community has come together, e.g. through football or the Olympics? Our fragile national egos stand poised perilously between non-existence – non-particularity – and internationality: perfectly reflected in the international world that England or Great Britain can claim to have created, insofar as our very internationality is said by some commentators to be the quintessence of our ‘British nationhood’ and of the new, confident Britishness that Team GB’s successes is helping to cement. Hence, ‘we’ see ourselves as a nation – and see ourselves only when – perfectly mirrored and validated by the admiring international community of nations: as being a ‘nation of nations’ – effectively, an international community of nations ourselves; Great Britain.

The ‘we’ who escape in this way from our everyday nationless state to the ludic, spectacular, imaginary and international nationhood of the Games that seem to define us as a nation are the English people. Whether the sporting team concerned is England or Great Britain, it is we the English people that lose ourselves in the short-lived high of imagining ourselves as a great nation, once more, on the international stage – reasserting our ownership of and identification with the global community by beating them at, literally, our own game, so that the international community has no choice other than to recognise us as truly a unique nation in their midst.

Looking only at the surface of things, it would be easy to conclude that the English patriotic fervour that accompanied the nation’s football team’s progress through international competitions, up until its dismal performance in the 2010 World Cup, was a radically different phenomenon from the outbreak of British patriotic fervour that has accompanied Team GB’s glittering successes at London 2012. But they are fundamentally the same: they are expressions of English people’s need to have a proud sense of nationhood, which is ‘fulfilled’ temporarily through sport. This is the case, not only because those sports ‘belong to us’ but because those feelings are denied in day-to-day life, where we live in a nationless state in the other sense: a state – the UK – that is not a nation and denies nationhood to the English. The blossoming of the Union Flag, sprouting in bunting and branding over shops, pubs and homes across England, is a continuation not a break from the similar sprouting of the Cross of St. George that has accompanied football tournaments in the past. The England team has let us down and dashed our pride; but now Team GB seems to be restoring it. Great Britain is an Olympic nation just as England is a football nation; and fundamentally, this is because the nation, the people, who identify with and rave about those countries’ respective sporting feats are in both cases the English.

Of course, on another level, England and Great Britain are completely different entities. But they are also non-entities – non-civic nations – and so are ironically perfect, interchangeable channels for our unfulfilled desire for replete nationhood. ‘Team UK’ or ‘Team Britain’ wouldn’t do the job, a) because they’re names for the state, not ‘the nation’, and b) because they are too difficult for English people to identify with – too neutral and un-English. ‘Great Britain’ can function as ‘the nation’ only because English people identify with it as their nation: as effectively a proxy for, and a more grandiose way of saying, ‘England’. This may seem counter-intuitive, because the outbreak of unionflagitis across England would tend to suggest the opposite: that English people are espousing a British-not-English identity. But in fact, it’s a British-because-English identity, and ordinary people across the land are, once again, failing to make the kind of categorical distinction between Britishness and Englishness that the promoters of those two brands might wish they did.

Take the woman in my local corner shop, who said “the whole of England” would have been cheering on Mo Farah to win the 5000m race on Saturday night; or my partner – a university-educated woman who’s just turned 50 – who persists unself-consciously in referring to ‘Team GB’ as ‘England’, to the extent that I’ve given up correcting her. This sort of attitude, and habit of thought and speech, is replicated up and down the land: Team GB is simply viewed as an ‘English’ team, and all distinction between England and Britain is swept away in a tide of Union Flags.

This is the opposite effect from that which the political and media establishment, along with the liberal promoters of a self-sufficient Britishness, believe has been achieved. For them, saying ‘Great Britain’ is a way to avoid saying ‘England’ and invoking English nationhood; but for the English people, supporting Team GB is just another way of being patriotically English. This has been obvious from the extent to which the BBC, in its Olympics coverage, has been desperate to prevent any mention of Team GB athletes’ English identity, and to correct them whenever they referred to ‘England’ or ‘English’ competitors. Ironically, of course, the sheer fact of imposing an exclusively British identity on English sportsmen and -women only – while allowing ‘non-English’ British athletes to celebrate a dual identity (Scottish and British, or Somali and British) – reinforces the very Englishness of Britishness: the fact that Britishness, and the British patriotism of the Games, is at root just an expression of Englishness. English athletes who carelessly let the word ‘England’ slip from their mouths are in effect giving the Game away, in both senses: the Olympic Games being by definition an opportunity to celebrate a supposedly inclusive Britishness.

Liberal commentators have played along with this establishment game, observing how Team GB’s supposedly multicultural (by which is really meant multi-ethnic) composition, and the support the Team received across the social spectrum, illustrate and consolidate a new inclusive, civic Britishness. It achieves this, however, only if all reference to England and Englishness is systematically eliminated. Britishness is an inclusive identity only on the basis of England’s exclusion. The inclusive, civic Britishness is predicated on the idea that no nationality has any claim to being a pre-eminent or core element of British identity or culture. England is that core, and so it must be eradicated; and English people are only allowed to be British – or, as I said above, only English people must be British-only.

And this illustrates what the Olympic nation that is Great Britain – Team GB – actually is at root: it’s a flight from English nationhood, mostly by English people themselves, into the idealised, international nationhood that is ‘Britain’. But it needs to tap into English patriotism to gain the loyalty and support of the masses. So rather than succeeding in cancelling out English nationality, ‘Great Britain’ is nothing without it.

Great Britain, in other words, is merely an Olympic nation; but the real nation that underlies it, and will outlive the four-yearly enthusiasm for Team GB, is England.

28 July 2012

Isles of Wonder, or a world left wondering?

So what are we to make of last night’s Olympics opening ceremony? Firstly, I would have to say that it was indeed spectacular and impressive, and many moments stood out that will doubtless linger on in the memory, such as the factory funnels emerging from [England’s] green and pleasant land; the Olympic rings being forged in the steel mills; and the magnificent solution they come up with for lighting the Olympic cauldron.

Now for the criticism. It would be easy to be churlish and run off a list of all the many aspects of British and English history that were glossed over or left out altogether. The ones that stuck out in my mind were the history of Empire and slavery, and the darker moments of our industrial past; although the ‘Satanic mills’ segment of last night’s show did allude to those in a gentle way. You could also mention Magna Carta; the long story of Christianity as a central pillar of the UK nations’ society and culture; the role of sports not included in the Olympics, such as rugby and cricket (or those which, from an English point of view, should not be represented by a British team, such as football); and the history of violence in English society, for which we are infamous throughout the world, as typified by football hooliganism and last summer’s riots.

Similarly, I thought that some of the history in the performance was a bit garbled and skewed, such as when there was a brief moment of remembrance for the victims of World Wars I and II, and the narrative then returned to 19th-century industrial scenes. How about remembering the victims of all wars Great Britain, and then the UK, has been involved in, including the American War of Independence, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Crimean and Boer Wars? Perhaps just a tad sensitive vis-à-vis our US, French, Russian and African guests – so the ceremony shied away from those out of political correctness.

Politically correct does really sum it up, although this was not always compatible with factually correct. I’m thinking, for example, of the celebration of the NHS, which pretended that there is still a ‘UK NHS’, true to its founding principles. The truth, as we know, is that there are now four NHS’s – one for each of the UK’s nations – and that the English one has just recently been opened up to private market forces. Of course, I suppose the creator of last night’s spectacular, Danny Boyle, could have been making another political point by making ‘the NHS’ such a centrepiece; although, if he was, this was again very subtle and indirect, and glossed over the fact that the NHS – the British one – is no more. Perhaps, rather, we should interpret the NHS bit as a celebration of ‘British times past’, of bygone Britain, like most of the rest of the show.

This was in fact a highly backward- and inward-looking, nostalgic and retro view of Britain, and will probably confirm to people of many other countries just how self-important, arrogant and insular ‘the British’ are. ‘Oh’, they might say, ‘so Britain invented the industrial revolution, unionism, women’s rights and suffrage, modern sport, popular music and the World Wide Web, did they?’ Apart from the fact that this is not strictly true, it’s all historical. What is its relevance to the present, and what sort of vision of its future does ‘Great Britain’ have today? And what is its relevance to the many other participating nations that are going through similar convulsions in the present? Has Britain learned something from its past that can help it to guide those other countries and help prepare a sustainable future for the community of nations going forward? What about a vision for a sustainable planet – post-industrial for countries like Britain but still very industrial for many developing nations – to present to all the nations gathered symbolically in the Olympic stadium and watching via the medium, TV, that was invented and first used in live broadcasts in Britain? And what were they to make of all of the ‘in’ cultural references that only British, and sometimes only English, people could really relate to? ‘God, these people are so damn introverted and up their own proverbials!’

The truth of the matter is that ‘Great Britain’ doesn’t actually have a vision of its future nor of its place in a rapidly evolving world. In no small measure, that’s because Great Britain is indeed a historical relic in itself: neither ever a proper, unified nation in its past; nor, certainly, a nation or polity in the present that is capable of expressing and mediating the hopes, aspirations, national sentiment or desire for deeper democracy on the part of its respective constituent nations.

So last night’s event was perhaps after all a fitting celebration of what it means to be British: a multifarious community with a strong sense of its past but no vision for the future. Isles of Wonder and historical reverie, indeed; but one that would have left the rest of the world wondering.

11 November 2011

There’s one corner of a football field that will be for ever England

Stuart Pearce’s defence of the Team GB Olympic football team in yesterday’s Guardian exemplifies what I term an ‘England-plus’ way of thinking about Britain. That is to say, Pearce, like many English people, thinks of (Great) Britain or the UK as essentially England + the other home nations. This is not quite the same thing as the traditional ‘Greater England’ conception of the UK – in which ‘England’ and ‘Great Britain’ were regarded as synonymous – but it is the heir to this way of thinking.

Pearce clearly recognises the distinction between England and Great Britain, although he expresses this in somewhat professional terms: “Pearce also insisted that the Team GB role will not detract from managing the England Under-21 team. ‘It won’t affect my focus – [it] is my day-to-day job’, he said”. But he also clearly views the GB team he will be managing as basically an England team plus the best eligible players from the other UK nations: “‘What if Ryan [Giggs] had been English and available to play for England'”. In other words, Team GB is like an England team enhanced by the best non-English British players: England-plus.

In reality, Team GB looks as though it will be an ‘England-plus-Wales’ team, rather than England-plus-the home nations, despite the fact that Pearce says he “will be picking from all four nations”. The only non-English players that have been mentioned in connection with Team GB – both in the Guardian article and generally – are Welsh: Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ryan Giggs. So it’s pretty meaningless for Pearce to imply he’ll be picking Scottish and Northern Irish players, as none have signalled their interest (and none would be good enough? – dig, dig), and any players that did accept the poisoned Team GB chalice could well end up being banned from playing from their national sides or, worse still, never forgiven by the fans.

But Pearce is not in fact going to pick any Scottish or Northern Irish players for perhaps another reason: that they haven’t crossed his mental radar. The pool of players Pearce is drawing from comprises those of the English Premier League, which is the main career avenue for Welsh players, and which now also includes a Welsh club (Swansea) and could include another Welsh club (Cardiff) if they were promoted. So Team GB is not a genuine UK-wide team seeking to draw upon and give an opportunity to the best young talent from each of the home nations; but it is in fact a ‘Best of British from the English Premier League’ outfit that just happens not to involve any Scottish or Northern Irish players right now. And that’s partly because young players from those countries are developed through their own national club system and youth academies, which Pearce is not involved with.

The fact that Pearce can still talk of Team GB as a genuine British team exemplifies the ‘England-plus’ mentality in general: Britain / the UK is thought of as basically England plus the other UK nations. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are ‘included’; indeed, that is the reason why ‘the UK’ or ‘Britain’ is what is said, rather than ‘England’: in order to be inclusive towards the other nations. But ‘the country’ that is in English people’s minds when they say ‘Britain’ in this sort of inclusive context is essentially England. I don’t mean this in a logical or factual sense, but in terms of the feeling, the passion, and the mental and cultural associations that are evoked when English people project their sense of nationhood across the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘the UK’. For example, Scottish associations are unlikely to be foremost in an English person’s mind when they’re thinking of typically British things: they won’t naturally think of Edinburgh, kilts or haggis but might think of London, Laura Ashley or that other animal-bladder by-product, the football. When an English person says ‘Britain’ or ‘UK’, they might mean what they say, but they’re imagining England.

This England-plus conception – in which the mental landscape behind ‘Britain’ is essentially that of England, though it nominally includes the other three countries – is in contrast to the Union establishment’s present ‘Britain-minus’ conception of England: England is thought of as the UK / Britain minus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is the ‘Lesser Britain’ resulting from devolution that I have previously written about, which is in reality England only (i.e. the territory and jurisdiction), but which the establishment refuses to verbalise as England but persists in calling ‘Britain’ or ‘the country’. As a consequence of the establishment of Team GB, a Britain-minus team is what we could end up with instead of our present four home nation sides: FIFA could use Team GB as a precedent and impose on us a single ‘British’ team. But Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish players would be strongly encouraged by their presumably disbanding associations to have nothing to do with a Britain team. In other words, such a team would effectively be an England team, but one that is officially designated as the Britain team, though it is minus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland players: Britain-minus.

Such a team would be a fitting symbol for an establishment Britain that has become even more devoid of real meaning and inclusiveness than the England-plus understanding of ‘the nation’ of many English people, including Stuart Pearce. In contrast to Team GB, the FIFA-imposed ‘Britain’ team would not only be a Britain without Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but a Britain without England – Britain-minus.

Forget about the controversy over the home nations’ sides not being allowed by FIFA to wear poppies embroidered in their shirts this weekend, important though this issue is. Such a controversy would pale into insignificance compared with a FIFA ban on English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish players from even wearing their nations’ shirts to begin with, because the only ‘national’ team they’re allowed to play for is the ‘Britain’ team.

On one level, this would be a perfect outcome for the British establishment: perhaps the most potent present-day symbolism of the English nation – its football team – would be consigned to the history books where England belongs, as far as the establishment is concerned. But a permanent ‘Team Britain’ would represent only a pyrrhic victory for the Union. A British national football team would illustrate the vacuity of the establishment’s Little-Britain, Britain-minus thinking: not only effectively excluding Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but failing to capture the identification and engage the passion of English fans. It would be a ‘Britain-minus-England/Scotland/Wales/Northern Ireland’ team; ‘Britain one – home nations nil’.

In short, under a permanent Britain team, the UK would have won the match but lost its claim to the title: the title, that is, of a consensual Union of proud nations. It would in essence be a ‘minus state’: a state, and a team, without any national core or meaning. And such a minus state could not endure: as space abhors a vacuum, a Team Britain not worthy of the name would be swept away as the nations reasserted themselves, quite possibly politically as well as on the football field.

There’s one corner of a football field that will be for ever England. And no England-plus Team GB or Britain-minus UK team will ever take that away.

 English parliament

13 October 2011

Scottish independence could free England to be herself

Scottish independence could be just the tonic England needs. It could set England free to be what she wants to be, to pursue her destiny and return to her roots. In fact, it could free England to be what many would like Great Britain to be today but can’t be, because it is being pulled in too many contrary directions.

England always has been and still is the national core of Great Britain and the United Kingdom: the constitution, parliament, monarchy and established religion of Great Britain and the UK are a continuation of the historic constitutional foundations, parliament, monarchy and established religion of England prior to the union with Scotland in 1707. This continuity is the underlying, ‘objective’ reason why English people traditionally have regarded ‘England’ and ‘Great Britain’ as synonymous: they have re-imagined Great Britain, and to a lesser extent the UK, as an extension of the English nation across the whole territory of Britain (and Ireland) – as ‘Greater England’. And this is because, at a fundamental, constitutional, level, Great Britain was a continuation of the historic English nation, except with Scotland grafted in.

Through the Acts of Union in 1707, Scotland started to be governed via the constitutional and parliamentary arrangements that prevailed for England and Wales, which remained unchanged. This was so much the case that some Scottish MPs at the time were amazed that the Scottish parliament was simply abolished and that the existing English parliament carried on in exactly the same way as before, except with the addition of the Scottish MPs. This was not the creation of a new British nation, distinct from the two nations from which it was formed, but an effective take-over of Scotland by the English state. In modern corporate terms, it was not a merger of equals; and though the new merged company might take on a new brand, it retains the same culture and corporate governance practices – and power structures – of the larger, acquiring entity. Or to take a political analogy from modern times, when West and East Germany were reunified, there were many in the former DDR who hoped this would result in a completely new German state, with a new constitution and identity. Instead, reunification simply took the form of adding the federal states of the DDR in to the existing Bundesrepublik: the identity of the state remained fundamentally that of the former West Germany, even though the united Germany had been created from the merger of two previously separate nations.

Over time, many people both south and north of the Scottish border did begin to see Great Britain as a nation in its own right and ‘British’ as their primary national identity, to which the distinct identities of ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ and, to a lesser extent, (Northern) Irish were subordinate and secondary. Perhaps the high point of this British nation was the Second World War, which brought people together from across the UK in a shared fight for freedom from tyranny. In the post-war period, this national-British solidarity took expression in the welfare state and nationalised industries, which were the embodiment of much that the British people had fought for in the war: a fairer, more equal society, with national, publicly owned assets and services designed to ensure productive employment and protection against chronic poverty for all. Alongside this, undeniably, One Nation Conservatism was also influential in fostering the sense that all in Britain were engaged in a shared effort to build a more prosperous, stronger nation; and that the wealthier sections of British society had a responsibility towards the less well-off, whichever part of Britain they lived in.

Since then, and particularly over the last 30 years or so, most of that national-British solidarity and sense of being ‘in it together’ – to quote a phrase – has been eroded, probably irrevocably. It isn’t only devolution that has brought this about. Devolution was in many respects a product of the undermining of a shared sense of national purpose that had taken place over the previous 20 years; but it also undoubtedly accelerated the process of the British nation’s disintegration.

What were the causes of this slow decay? Well, without doubt, the Thatcher government’s assault on the welfare state, the privatisation of the nationalised industries and even the smashing up of union power – unions being another embodiment of the sense of shared commitment to equality and fairness across the UK’s constituent countries – played a considerable role. It has been well documented how the Thatcher revolution contributed to disaffection with the Union in Scotland, as people there strongly objected to the market-economic policies of an ‘English’ Conservative government they had never voted for, and which also chose Scotland to trial the hated Poll Tax.

But the privatisation of state-owned industries, the under-investment in public services and the weakening of the welfare state also loosened the bonds between English people and the British state. English people lost their sense of confidence that the British state belonged to them and was ‘on their side’. If there is ‘no such thing as society’, as Margaret Thatcher once said, can there also be a nation? In other words, the rolling back of the state from the lives of its citizens made Britain less relevant and valuable to English people, and undermined the sense of belonging to a single British nation in which people were prepared to give up more of their hard-earned wealth for the sake of less well-off citizens elsewhere on the island, on the previously safe assumption that the system would take care of one if one needed it to. If it was every man for himself, maybe it should also be England for herself.

Scrolling forward to today, this sense that the British state has abandoned its unwritten promise to treat all its citizens fairly and equally has undoubtedly fuelled the huge resentment in England towards the Barnett Formula: the unequal public-spending formula that enables Scotland and Wales to continue to provide many of the free public, and publicly owned, services of the former British welfare state that have been withdrawn in England. This is of course further exacerbated by a sense of democratic unfairness linked to the fact that the more small-state, market-orientated policies in England have been introduced by Parliament with the support of Scottish and Welsh MPs whose constituents are not affected by them, while the devolved parliament and assembly respectively in those countries have pursued more traditional statist, social-democratic policies. It’s not that England would necessarily have chosen to go down the same social-democratic route as Scotland and Wales if we had had our own parliament, but that we’ve been denied the choice. The British state has pulled away from deep involvement in English public life while denying the English people the freedom to determine their own national priorities. And it compounds this betrayal by lying to the people of England that the old united Britain still exists, and by suppressing references to the England-specific scope of much British legislation and policy, so that English people do not realise how differently and undemocratically they are being treated.

Over and above this situation of fiscal unfairness and democratic disempowerment, the present devolution settlement and English resentment towards it risk tearing apart those essentially English constitutional foundations of the Union. A dual dynamic has increasingly left England without any status or role in the very state that it once viewed as its own. Whereas Scotland and Wales have increasingly established distinct national political and cultural identities (breaking up that sense of a unified Britain of which England thought of itself as the centre), the British establishment has also increasingly sought to suppress the corresponding emergence of a distinct English identity, or at least to restrict ‘Englishness’ to the merely cultural sphere so that it doesn’t express itself in terms of demands for an English-national politics (parliament and government). Such a development would usher in the end of Britain as a nation in its own right, replacing it with some sort of federal or confederal Union of multiple nations or even just a collection of separate, sovereign nations.

I’ve discussed and analysed this dynamic in many previous posts, so I won’t belabour it. However, the essential point I would like to make is that a British Union-state built on the would-be suppression of English political nationhood would ultimately implode because it would undermine its own traditional English foundations: monarchy, Church, parliamentary sovereignty (a principle established through the upheavals of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution in the 17th century), and constitutional and legal principles dating back to Magna Carta in the 13th century. For all their flaws and need of modernisation, English people are deeply attached to these anchors of English tradition and identity. Attempts to strip away these core English elements from the British constitution, motivated by a desire to consolidate an integral British nation to which Scotland and Wales may still wish to belong, will ultimately serve only to undermine the adherence of English people to Great Britain, and their identification as British.

Measures that could bring about such a severing of the organic ties between England and the Union include things like abolishing the Acts of Succession and Settlement, which would probably lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England (because the monarch could then be non-Anglican), and instituting a new British Bill of Rights, which would supersede and hence render constitutionally superfluous core English legal documents such as Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

It seems, however, that repealing or at least fundamentally modifying the Acts of Succession and Settlement – to say nothing of the Acts of Union and the English Bill of Rights – is precisely what David Cameron’s coalition government may have in mind if reports of their intention to allow the monarch to marry a Catholic (proscribed by the Act of Settlement) are to be believed. According to yesterday’s report in the Guardian: “Cameron is . . . proposing that Catholics should continue to be debarred from being head of state [as specified in the Acts of Succession and Settlement], but that anyone who marries a Catholic should not be debarred. The family would be entitled to bring up their children as Catholics as long as heirs do not seek to take the throne as a Catholic”.

If this is what Cameron is really thinking, then it reveals constitutional and ecclesiastical illiteracy of the highest order. There’s an absolutely irreconcilable contradiction here: the temporal head of the Church of England (the monarch), no less, marries a Catholic and then brings up his or her children as Catholics; but then, when it is time for the first-born (male or female, as Cameron is also proposing to scrap primogeniture) to inherit the throne, they are expected to renounce their faith (and become Anglican, or not?). Here’s how this does not stack up:

  1. The monarch as temporal Head of the Church of England cannot possibly marry a Catholic and bring up his children as Catholics. How can someone who stands guarantor for the fact that the faith of the land will remain Anglican (fidei defensor) bring up his own children in another faith? He or she is head not only of the Church of England but of his own spouse and family, so his or her faith must be the faith in which the family lives and is raised.
  2. However, in order to be permitted by the Catholic Church to marry a Catholic, the husband and wife would have to give a commitment that the children would indeed be brought up as Catholics. Therefore, the Head of the Church of England, and king or queen of England – or Great Britain, if you prefer – would be subject to the authority of the Church of Rome in spiritual and domestic matters, as would his or her heirs.
  3. Is it then reasonable or even possible to expect the rightful successor to the throne to renounce the faith they have been brought up in in order to inherit the crown? Once a Catholic, always a Catholic, at least in the eyes of the Catholic Church: if you’ve been baptised and confirmed in the Catholic faith, you remain subject to the spiritual authority of the Church, and are considered by the Church as remaining one of her members, no matter what alternative declaration of faith or unbelief you might subsequently make. It’s up to the Church to unmake a Catholic through excommunication. And you can’t decide to allow the monarch to marry outside of the Church of England, and allow first-born females to automatically become first in line to the throne, on the grounds of non-discrimination and then decide to debar first-born, Catholic children of the monarch from inheriting the crown.

As stated above, this is clearly an absurd plan; but that won’t stop constitutionally illiterate and anglophobic politicians from seeking to implement it. These proposals would inevitably lead to the disestablishment of the Church and the abolition of the provision that the Head of State must be Anglican, in order for him or her to be able to serve as temporal Head of the Anglican Church. And all of a sudden, the entire, English constitutional foundations of the British state would crumble: no longer officially an (Anglican-) Christian country; no longer at root the continuation of the historic English state; the monarch no longer inheriting the sacred duty of English kings to ensure that the Church (of England) remains the established religion and that the (Protestant) faith is upheld throughout the greater British realm; the monarch no longer having an absolute claim to the loyalty and devotion of his or her subjects, which is founded on the monarch’s fidelity to this sacred oversight over the kingdom’s spiritual weal; and similarly, the very sovereignty of Parliament fatally undermined because Parliament’s absolute power and moral authority derives from that of the monarch (it’s the sovereignty of the crown-in-Parliament), which in turn derives from the monarch’s status as God’s appointed representative for England / Great Britain: the roles of head of state and Head of the Church being absolutely indivisible.

So, no Act of Succession / Settlement = no Christian underpinning for the state = no basis for preserving the monarch and Parliament as currently constituted = no England as the heart beat and core identity of Great Britain.

But if Great Britain were no longer fundamentally a continuation of England’s most cherished traditions and constitutional foundations, why would English people wish to remain part of it?

Why undertake such a radical overhaul of the English foundations of the British state now, at this point in history, when the existence of Great Britain is threatened as never before by the drive towards Scottish independence? Is Cameron’s urge to eliminate marital inequalities of every kind (the debarring of gay persons from marriage (as underpinned by the Christian foundations of English law), and the debarring of kings and queens of the UK from marrying non-Anglicans) in fact at heart motivated by a wish to recast and transform for ever that other marriage of unequals: Great Britain itself? Why, after all, should a British monarch, and his or her family, have to belong to the English religion at all? Why could they not be Scottish Presbyterian, Welsh-Non-Conformist, Catholic or, while we’re at it, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or of no religion at all? Why should the Church of England be hard-wired into the British state as its official religion by means of this ‘discriminatory’ law that prevents the king or queen from marrying, and indeed being, a non-Anglican? Why indeed?

Cameron, as we know, is desperate to avoid being the last prime minister of the UK as currently constituted, i.e. as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But by tearing out the English foundations of the state, he ironically risks de-constituting the UK. A United Kingdom, even some sort of secular British nation, might well emerge from the carnage; but it would not be the UK that Cameron ostensibly seeks to defend: one that has England at its heart, and which English people, still today, hold dear to their heart.

But if it is those core English elements of Great Britain that one is seeking to preserve and carry forward to posterity – monarchy, Church, Parliament and English liberties – why go to all the trouble of re-casting them as something new, secularised and non-English British when it looks increasingly likely that Scotland will decide to leave the UK anyway? And perhaps that would be the best thing for all concerned. Perhaps it would enable England to retain its cherished traditions, institutions and constitutional foundations as English – and as part of a renewed English settlement – rather than trying to fall over backwards to create a de-anglicised settlement that the Scots don’t want anyway.

I’m not saying that England should maintain all of her ancient constitutional foundations unchanged should Scotland decide to go her own way. But it would be England’s choice whether to remain a Christian kingdom and how to translate that core identity into her laws, customs and institutions. Personally, I envision an England that would return to and deepen its Christian roots, perhaps going further than the historic Anglican settlement to reconnect with her ancient Catholic, but not necessarily Roman Catholic, heritage. At the very least, the new England would be a country where we could once again be proud of our Christian and non-Christian, English traditions, and not be ashamed of them or afraid to express them openly out of some misplaced desire not to offend our non-Christian and non-English fellow citizens – but equally not foisting our beliefs and practices on to others in a way that fails to respect their liberty and freedom of conscience. As for the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, this is something that probably does need to be transformed or at least redefined, such that the sovereignty of parliament more truly expresses, and is subject to, the will of the people, rather than being simply heir to the sovereign right of kings over and above the people.

But the point is it would be England’s choice how to take forward England’s constitution to an English future. And this could ironically be the surest way to preserve what many unionists now cherish most profoundly about Great Britain and the UK.

By contrast, Cameron’s way of de-christianising and de-anglicising the British state could be the quickest path to its total implosion.

  English parliament

23 September 2010

Is it time to reclaim the cross at the heart of England’s flag and identity?

Is England standing on the verge of a Catholic revival? Ludicrous question, many would say; longed-for reality, many others would echo. You have to know how to read the signs of the times. The trouble is the signs are pointing in too many contrary directions. Who is the one who would “prepare the way of the Lord” and make his paths straight?

The visit of Pope Benedict last week would be viewed by some as at least a sign of hope that England was being pointed back in the right direction. I say ‘England’ advisedly, as the Pope was visiting two countries with respect to the pastoral mission of his visit; even though, when in England, he diplomatically tended to refer to “Britain” and the “United Kingdom” as the name of ‘this country’.

‘Pastoral’ is perhaps not quite the right word and doesn’t fully capture the ultimate significance of the pope’s unprecedented visit. This was a case of prophetic witness: the spiritual successor to Saint Peter drawing ‘the nation”s attention to the centrality of Catholic-Christian faith, ethics and tradition in the history and identity of England, and hence to the vital role it should continue to play in informing our leaders’ efforts to deal with the social, moral and environmental challenges of the present age. As the pope said toward the end of his speech to assembled dignitaries and former prime ministers in Westminster Hall: “The angels looking down on us from the magnificent ceiling of this ancient Hall remind us of the long tradition from which British Parliamentary democracy has evolved. They remind us that God is constantly watching over us to guide and protect us. And they summon us to acknowledge the vital contribution that religious belief has made and can continue to make to the life of the nation”.

Alongside the angels, one Englishman who bore witness to the primacy of faith-informed conscience over state power might well have been gazing down from heaven at the proceedings last Friday: Saint Thomas More, as he’s known by Catholics, who was condemned to death on the very spot where the pope delivered his speech for refusing to repudiate the authority of the pope as the supreme governor of the Church in England. Indeed, the present pope’s reference to Thomas More was the sole explicit mention of ‘England’ in his speech in Westminster Hall: “I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first”.

In a way, More’s stand was just one in a long line of English acts of rebellion against the absolute authority of monarchical rule from Westminster, stretching from Magna Carta through to the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. The narrative of British history has not tended to view it as such, because More was defending the Catholic faith of his fellow Englishmen against the absolutist imposition of the Protestant religion, whereas the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution involved the defence of different versions of reformed Christianity against the absolutist re-imposition of Catholicism. Indeed, through the wars of resistance to Catholic pretenders during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot under James I, the cause of English independence and freedom came to be associated with suspicion and hostility toward Catholic Europe. By ensuring that a Catholic could never again ascend to the English throne, the Act of Succession, and the Acts of Union between England and Scotland, finally consolidated this transfer of authority in matters of faith from the pope in Rome to the monarch in Westminster at the same time as they ironically consigned the separate kingdom of England to the history books.

You could argue, therefore, that Henry VIII’s expropriation of the role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England was the beginning of the end not only of Catholicism as the national religion of England but of England itself as a distinct nation state. Far from liberating the English people from the absolute power of a corrupt and oppressive Church, Henry reassigned the moral authority for the exercise of absolute power to himself as temporal ruler, an authority that was subsequently transferred to the soon-to-be British Parliament during the Glorious Revolution, and which has remained with Parliament to this day. The unaccountable rule that Westminster exercises over English affairs in the present is a direct consequence of the establishment of the new state religion and religious state of Great Britain over three hundred years ago, given that Parliament still wields the absolute authority of the queen as head of the British state and earthly head of the Church of England.

But does England have to return to its ancestral Catholicism in order to rediscover its distinct identity and reassert itself as a sovereign nation in its own right? Let’s put this question another way: if the people of England did undergo a collective spiritual conversion to and renewal of its erstwhile national faith, would this of necessity also entail the unravelling of the British state as we know it and the re-establishment of England as a sovereign nation? The answer to that question is almost certainly ‘yes’. The rule of the British state over England is perpetuated by the profound identification of the people of England – as historically symbolised and embodied by the Church of England – with the institutions and symbols of British statehood, an identification that is personified in the figure of the monarch: British ruler and defender of the English faith. If, on the other hand, the English people no longer literally invested their faith in the British state but began believing in a higher authority than Parliament and the monarch, then the old idolatry of British-parliamentary sovereignty would no longer hold sway.

But surely, I hear you say, such a re-conversion to a form of dogmatic Christianity in which even its followers are losing their faith is both unlikely and undesirable. The ongoing erosion of English people’s faith in the British settlement is far more likely to be accompanied by the continuing unravelling of the old Anglican verities without being replaced by new Catholic certainties. Well, maybe; but would the state that resulted from the break-up of Great Britain in such circumstances really be the great English nation we all long for, or would it end up as just some multi-cultural, faithless and rootless Rump Britain? Is not the very identity of England inherently bound up with its great Catholic-Christian history and tradition? Do away with the Church of England without reviving the Church in England and you run the risk of finally bringing about the ‘end of the end’ of England.

Clearly, though, it’s impossible to artificially resurrect a medieval faith destroyed by the earthly ambitions of British monarchs, imperialists and republicans, combined with the philosophical assaults of science and Enlightenment secular humanism, simply in order to provide a touchstone for a new English-national identity. In the first instance, such a revival could only be the work of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, it has to arise from our hearts and not our ideological blueprints for a new England. England can be a Christian democracy only if the sovereign English people desire to be Christian.

But we are, at root and at heart, a Christian people. Our very national flag holds aloft the Cross of Christ washed in the blood of our redeemer. There are perhaps troubled times ahead: spiritual and, who knows, perhaps physical warfare in which competing creeds and centres of power will struggle for control over our lives and our land. Perhaps Britain as we know it must die; but will England be reborn in its place?

We are approaching the 2,000th anniversary of the crucifixion of Christ – perhaps that’s another ambiguous sign for us in this time of uncertainty for ourselves and for England. I for one, though, am content to gaze upon the cross of Christ and the Flag of England as a sign of hope that, through it all, Christian England will endure.

20 May 2010

Clegg ducks the English Question

Our new deputy PM, the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, yesterday announced what he termed the “biggest political reforms since 1832”. There is much to be commended in his proposals, which fall into three categories: 1) reversing New Labour’s erosion of our civil liberties; 2) reform of Parliament and party politics; and 3) further devolution, or what Clegg calls “redistribution of power away from the centre”.

The plans relating to civil liberties are especially welcome. Those relating to parliamentary reform and devolution are less so. I would pick out three main areas for concern:

  1. House of Lords reform: “This government will replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber where members are elected by a proportional voting system. There will be a committee charged specifically with making this happen. But make no mistake: that committee will not be yet another government talking shop. This will be a dedicated group devoted to kick-starting real reform.”

    Is that it then? No wide-ranging consultation of the British people about the sort of second chamber they would like to see for their parliament? The government is simply going to decree that we must switch to a fully elected Upper House, sweeping away centuries of tradition and an organic link to the history of England before it was Great Britain, which the government will bring about through a mere Act of Parliament? Don’t we get a referendum to find out if we like the ideas of this ‘dedicated committee’ chaired by Nick Clegg himself? To say nothing about whether this Upper House is going to replicate the West Lothian Question by allowing non-English-elected Lords or Senators to vote on English legislation while preventing English-elected representatives from doing the same for bills emanating from the Scottish Parliament and soon-to-be Welsh Parliament.

    By proceeding in haste like this (‘haste’ being Clegg’s own word to describe the pace of reform in the next sentence of his speech), an opportunity is being missed to consider these major constitutional reforms in the round, and particularly to factor in the English Question. Doing so would force Clegg’s committee to consider the possibility that if the England-specific functions of the House of Commons were transferred to an English Parliament, this might require the Upper House to evolve into a federal British Parliament, as well as a revising chamber, to deal with vestigial reserved matters.

    This is in fact the kind of measured approach the Liberal Democrats advocated in their election manifesto, where they stated that the English Question would need to be resolved as part of a comprehensive constitutional convention involving ordinary citizens as well as MPs. This idea appears to have been abandoned now and, along with it, any determination to really get to grips with the English Question, as the proposals on devolution make clear.

  2. Devolution: “You will get more control over the hospitals you use; the schools you send your children too; the homes that are built in your community.

    “In our legislative programme we will be setting out plans to strip away government’s unelected, inefficient quangos, plans to loosen the centralised grip of the Whitehall bureaucracy, plans to disperse power downwards to you instead. And we are serious about giving councils much more power over the money they use, so they depend less on the whims of Whitehall, and can deliver the services and support their communities need. We know that devolution of power is meaningless without money.

    “Our plans to disperse power also include strengthening devolution to other parts of Britain: Working with Holyrood to implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission. Working with the Welsh Assembly on introducing a referendum on the transfer of further powers to Wales. Supporting the continued success of the devolved government in Northern Ireland. And, of course, asking what we can do about the difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question.”

    The key sentence, for me, here is: “Our plans to disperse power also include strengthening devolution to other parts of Britain”. In that unthinking phrase, ‘other parts of Britain’, Clegg implicitly admits that the Lib-Cons’ ‘dispersion’ of power to communities (which I discussed yesterday in relation to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ policy presentation) relates to England only, even though he never explicitly says so: if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are ‘other parts of Britain’, then the ‘devolution of power’ from the centre he has just discussed can apply only to England. In other words, the Big Society (devolution of power in England) is what England is being offered by way of equivalence to devolution of power to the other parts of Britain. So instead of there being a national-English government to make decisions on the devolved policy areas Clegg refers to (health care, education, planning / housing, communities and local government), those decisions will be devolved to the sub-national, local / community level.

    But what’s really striking about the ‘other parts of Britain’ phrase is how it blatantly exposes the way that the political establishment simply takes it for granted that devolved policies discussed as if they were British are in fact English, and that everyone is somehow supposed to be aware of this unacknowledged given: it’s the elephant in the room that everyone sees but no one admits it’s there, as they’d then have to do something about it.

    And doing something about it – addressing the English Question – is clearly not Clegg’s intention, as the throw-away phrase, “And, of course, asking what we can do about the difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question”, makes clear. Put out almost as an embarrassed after-thought following the important and specific proposals mentioning Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by name. He can’t even bring himself to refer to England explicitly when he’s alluding to it, almost literally skirting around the issue of English governance seen as a series of ‘difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question’. It’s not difficult, you twit, just say it: the English Question. There, that didn’t hurt, did it?

    But over and above considerations of political correctness and, in the context of the coalition, expediency that dictate that one must never utter the nasty ‘E’ word in case one conjures the English elephant into existence, there is a practical, political reason and a symbolic reason why Clegg refers to the WLQ rather than the EQ. On the practical level, if you’re dealing with the issue of English governance in the framework of the WLQ, this means that you think or hope there could be some sort of procedural fix allowing English MPs to have the ‘ultimate’ say over English legislation that would be sufficient to keep English governance as the domain of the UK government and parliament. So, don’t mention the ‘E’ word in case the obvious solution of a separate English parliament and government comes into people’s minds.

    Second, on the symbolic level, the very assumption that the UK parliament is the natural home for English governance partakes of the same mindset that regards it as a self-evident truth – and, therefore, one that doesn’t need to be spoken of – that devolved issues as ‘properly’ dealt with by the British parliament are ‘really’ English issues; and that Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland are other parts of the UK. It’s that very English, very Westminster, Anglo-Britishness: the doublethink that both manages to really believe that England and Britain are symbiotically fused, but at the same time realistically recognises they are not the same – but let’s not talk about it, dear, in case we lose our privilege to govern.

    So much for “hand[ing] power back to people” – notice, it’s ‘people’, not ‘the people’, let alone ‘the English people’!

  3. Electoral reform: “There is, however, no programme to reform our political system [that] is complete without reform of our voting system. This government will be putting to you, in a referendum, the choice to introduce a new voting system, called the Alternative Vote. Under that new system far more MPs will have to secure support from at least half the people who vote in their constituency.”

    As with the absence of a full debate and referendum on the options for the Upper House, and as with the total lack of any suggestion that the English people as a whole should be offered a referendum on an English parliament, we’re also not being offered a full debate about different electoral systems and a proper referendum that includes at least one proportional option. Basically, this referendum is a choice between two first-past-the-post systems, as the Alternative Vote is just a mitigated form of FPTP that doesn’t even do what it says on the tin.

    The last sentence in the above quote ambiguously points to the inadequacy of AV: ‘far more MPs’ will be elected by a majority of voters in their constituency. This could imply that all MPs will need to secure a majority, as opposed to just some MPs under FPTP. But AV doesn’t in fact ensure this, as the winner has to gain only a majority of votes that are still in play in the preferential system for reallocating votes to the more successful candidates. So it’s quite possible for the winner to still only obtain a minority of the votes of all those who voted in the first place, if there are many voters who do not indicate any of the last two or three candidates left in the race as a second or subsequent preference.

    So Clegg is being dishonest about AV, partly because he doesn’t actually support it – that is, if the policy that was in the Lib Dems’ manifesto (PR) reflects Clegg’s real views. And AV, like all the other proposals for political reform and devolution in Clegg’s statement, basically preserves the privileges and assumptions of parliamentary and party-centric politics intact, as it’s a voting system that’s just as likely (some argue, more likely) to deliver an outright majority in parliament to a single party that can then rule England and Britain with the absolute power of a monarch for the next five years: guaranteed to be a full five years given Clegg’s proposal to introduce five-year fixed-term parliaments.

    Five years. I thought we might at least only have to put up with our unaccountable governments for a maximum of four years if fixed terms were introduced. And do we get a choice in a referendum about this, either?

    Not on your nelly! What do you think this is? This is Whig Britain, don’t you know, not the people’s republic of England!

11 March 2009

Shorts (4): Football Team GB – I’ve got a better idea

One of the things that’s truly ‘great’ about football in Britain (by which I actually mean all four nations of the UK, not just England) is the strength of the game at the grassroots. The literally thousands of amateur clubs that are kept going by the dedication of their coaches, the support of family members and the passions of their players; the vast structure of leagues and cup competitions at every level of the game, and for every age and, increasingly, gender. It’s these clubs that keep alive the true spirit of football, which provides a generally friendly way to fight out local rivalries, and a chance for young people to take out their aggression, keep fit and achieve a bit of glory.

The Olympics, too, was originally supposed to embody this spirit of amateur sport. It was supposed to be – and still is to some extent, even in Britain – about individuals who have a dream, and strive through sheer perseverance, skill and hard work to achieve it or at least give their all in the attempt. And it’s about friendly rivalry between nations – pointing the way to a world of peace in the more serious and vital affairs of life as well as in mere play.

All this trouble about a British Olympics football team is essentially because it’s got caught up in the turbulent national-identity politics of the present. Why not just cut through all of that and organise a mammoth all-UK amateur cup competition for the right to compete at the Olympics as ‘Team GB’ – pitching teams from all four corners of the UK against each other: little village sides from Kent journeying up to farthest John O’Groats, if necessary, in order to progress to the next round; with a team from County Antrim slugging it out in Merthyr Tydfil. If the clubs need help with their travelling and other expenses, then they could get support from the same Lotto fund that is being ploughed into the Olympic facilities – given that it’s going towards the same event.

This could be a real amateur sporting affair, in keeping with the original spirit of both football and the Olympics as I’ve described it. This means the top amateur clubs like those in the English Blue Square League, which are in reality semi-professional, would be excluded.

This would give a chance for talented amateur sportsmen and -women from across the UK to go in pursuit of an amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to represent not just ‘Great Britain’ but their community, village, town and, yes, nation (whether England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) at the greatest sporting tournament on earth – well, the second after the Football World Cup! This wouldn’t in fact be the British Olympic football team but merely a British football team. I say ‘merely’; but in reality, this would be more truly and profoundly a British team than any meaningless Team GB packed with overpaid professional players for whom the Olympics did not mean much compared with tournaments like the Premier or Champions’ Leagues. This would be something that passionate football enthusiasts from across Britain would have had to fight for.

A team comprising the ‘best’ amateur club (or clubs, including the women’s team) in Britain (or at least the winner of the All-UK Challenge Cup) wouldn’t in any way compromise the status of the four separate national Football Associations. This is precisely because it wouldn’t be a / the ‘national-British’ team, and because the separate national associations would all be engaged in organising the tournament and administering the participation of all ‘their’ affiliated amateur clubs that were interested in taking part. Indeed, the clubs themselves would doubtless regard their clashes with clubs from other national associations as their own small-scale version of full international matches. So this would be an international amateur contest to select one lucky (or two including the women) representative team(s): a team of Britain and not the Britain Team.

And the point of all this is that it would mobilise a huge amount of support and goodwill from what is known as the ‘British public’ – by which is meant the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The level of interest and enthusiasm would potentially be immense as local communities got behind their teams and the English / British love of the underdog was played out to the max. This really would be great and would truly bring to the fore the ‘best of British’ – if not the best British Team. And above all, it would exhibit the long-lost idea of sport: that it’s not about the winning but the taking part.

But the powers that be are interested only in winning: winning medals, winning prestige for ‘Britain’, and winning the fight for a Football Team GB as they see it, whether the people want it or not. But contrast the enthusiastic backing that a ‘Team GB’ selected the way I am proposing would generate to the devastation that could be wrought on the precious game of football by imposing a professional Team GB on us.

Football is, and could be even more, something that unites the different nations of the UK. If the government and the BOA get their way, it could become something that divides us, even to the extent of contributing to the eventual break-up of the UK if that is what is necessary to preserve our national teams and associations – because the demand for separation would surely grow enormously if the footballing heart of our four nations was ripped out and stuck to the badge of Britain, instead of being worn with pride on the shirtsleeves of amateur FCs from throughout our islands.

If you think this is a good idea, let me know – and I’ll suggest it to those said ‘powers that be’. How about the BOA, the (English) FA and 10 Downing Street for starters!

27 January 2009

Shorts (No. 1): English literature – the ‘essence of Great Britain’?

Filed under: Britain,Britology,England,English literature,Great Britain,NHS — David @ 7.45 pm

OK, not even I can keep up the 3,000-word essay format every time I put up a post! So I’m going to start a new series of ‘shorts’: snapshots of my Britological encounters on the WWW and other media.

Here’s one to kick off the series: a post entitled “English literature: The Essence of Great Britain”. My readers will appreciate the wry, ironic smile that such an alluring title induced in me! As it happens, there wasn’t much else to this post other than this aperçu. So I added a lengthy(‘ish) comment to beef it up and put the other point of view. It’s still awaiting ‘moderation’ as I write; but as I am the soul of moderation (…), I’d be surprised if it didn’t pass.However, just in case, here it is:

“Don’t you mean English literature embodies the essence of England, and English history, culture, etc? Just as Scottish literature evokes the Scottish experience, and Irish literature conveys the Irish spirit and history, etc. The very fact that we call it ‘English literature’ should tell you something: that it’s ultimately an expression of the English culture and character. There’s no such thing as ‘British literature’ (even less ‘Great British literature’) other than as the sum of the separate canons of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish literature.

“It’s true, however, that in the past, the national and political identities of England and Great Britain have been merged. But that’s never been the case for its literature or other art forms. And it’s even less so now that the political and formal identities of Britain and England are increasingly parting company.”

You might want to check the post out and add suitably de-britologising comments of your own. But go easy on the author: he’s intelligent and well-meaning but just needs to have gently pointed out to him that England and Britain are not one and the same. Witness his interesting analysis of NHS deficiencies, which just needs to have one extra thing mentioned to complete the picture: the fact that what he describes is taking place in England only and that there is no such thing as the ‘British NHS’ any more. Perhaps leave him a comment there, instead.

That’s really all for now, folks! But don’t worry, it won’t be too long before the next dissertation hits a screen near you!

3 January 2009

Channel 4 Friday: What a load of (anti-English) rubbish!

Channel 4 used to be edgy and innovative; now it just seems to churn out the same old formula programming and anti-English bias as all the other terrestrial channels.

Witness last night’s offerings. I caught a snippet of the Channel 4 News report on what I am henceforth calling the ‘English government’s’ [= the UK government in its capacity as the unelected government for England] new public-information campaign to combat obesity, ‘Change4Life’. Of course, if you didn’t already know that the Department of Health deals with health matters in England only, there’s no way you would have guessed from the Channel 4 report that this initiative is limited to England. They never once mentioned this fact, and referred to ‘national’ this and ‘Britain’ that, as if England and Britain were one and the same thing – which, with respect to health policy and this campaign at least, they manifestly are not.

For once, by contrast, the BBC got it right. The report on their news website correctly identified that the campaign related to England only, although it misleadingly suggested that the 2007 Foresight report on obesity related to the UK as a whole, describing it as “the largest UK study into obesity, backed by the government”. In fact, the report dealt with England only, as you can see for yourself here. The article also mentioned explicitly that Scotland already has a similar campaign of its own. The BBC 1 Ten O’Clock News did even better, making it clear on two or three occasions in its report that the Change4Life campaign and related statistics it referred to concerned England only. One of the illustrations even had a caption that read ‘Department of Health England’: a very pleasing, and accurate, juxtaposition of the official name of the government department and its territorial jurisdiction. Perhaps the BBC is finally getting the message; which is more than can be said for Channel 4, clearly.

Incidentally, the Change4Life website also goes extremely softly softly when it comes to broadcasting its England-only remit. On the home page, it does invite the visitor to: “Join the people across England who are already making a Change4Life”. This sort of wording is also typical of news reports that refer explicitly to England, including the above-mentioned BBC one: they say ‘in England’ at some point; but they don’t flag up in lights the fact that it’s an England-specific initiative on the part of the [de facto English] government. So much so, in fact, that visitors to the Change4Life website – attracted to it, perhaps, by the TV news reports that gave the impression it related to the whole of the UK – have to be informed at the bottom of a page about activities in ‘my local area’ that “Are you in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland? This resource only covers England”.

What a contrast if you do follow the links to the campaigns in the other nations of the UK! The website for the Scottish campaign, ‘Take life on’, literally flags up the fact that it’s a Scotland-only initiative, funded by the Scottish Government: it is decked in the colours of the Saltire, with the flag itself in evidence in the top-right-hand corner of every page. Similarly, the Welsh campaign, ‘Health Challenge Wales’, couldn’t be more explicit about its Wales-only character, indicated – in addition to its actual name – by the mention on the home page that it is “brought to you by the Welsh Assembly Government”. And as for Northern Ireland, the opening paragraph reads: “Welcome to the get a life, get active website. We all need to be active, and most of us in Northern Ireland aren’t nearly active enough”. And the website is peppered with links subtly conveying its ‘national-Irish’ character through the colours of orange and green.

One wonders whether the people of England would be more responsive to this sort of government information drive if the powers that be paid them the courtesy of informing them that this was an initiative specially designed for England, addressing issues that are of concern to everyone in England. Better still, if the afore-mentioned powers were those of a properly elected English government. If they did this, perhaps there would be less of the instinctive reaction against the ‘nanny state’ condescending to us about our bad habits; because it wouldn’t be the UK state talking down to us from on high in Westminster, but a truly English government that we the English people had actually elected and which we might accept was genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of England – just as the campaigns in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have no qualms about emphasising the fact that they have been put together for their nations by their national governments.

And, incidentally, we should not be surprised by the irony that the English anti-obesity initiative is the last one to be launched, despite the fact that we make up around 85% of the UK population. Undoubtedly, this is linked with funding issues. Change4Life is relying on sponsorship from food producers and retailers, including brands that you would not necessarily associate with healthy eating but which will be able to make use of the campaign’s logo and branding on their products and in their stores: Cadbury, Kelloggs, Pepsi, Tesco, etc. Even so, there are concerns that Change4Life will still not be adequately funded. By contrast, the partners for the Scottish and Welsh campaigns include no commercial organisations but only publicly funded bodies and charities. Clearly, government funding for such initiatives is not an issue in those countries compared with England.

Later in the evening, I had the misfortune to watch most of ‘A Place In the Sun Down Under’, which followed the eventually successful efforts to find a new home for a family desperate to quit these shores for brighter horizons in Australia. I’m not sure that this sort of fayre is really what we need in England right now in the midst of a miserable midwinter and an even more gloomy economic climate. The programme extolled the virtues of the sunny Australian lifestyle and economic opportunities, which it contrasted favourably to the bleakness of life back in ‘Blighty’; and it gleefully reeled off the statistics about the thousands of ‘Brits’ that are flocking to a ‘better life’ down under. It’s enough to make you comfort-eat and build up those weather-defying fat reserves! (My excuse.)

I suppose many of my readers can relate to this couple’s wish to escape from dreary, misgoverned Britain, if only they had £265k mortgage-free to throw around! The programme went on about Brits getting out of Britain to such an extent that I completely missed the fact, garnered only from the Channel 4 website, that the couple were actually from Wrexham (in North Wales). So they weren’t so much desperate to escape Britain as to quit Wales! During the programme, I did in fact think that the wife sounded Welsh, although the husband definitely came across as English. In fact, the repetitive references to ‘Britain’ and ‘Brits’ naturally led me to think that the couple lived in England, as – I thought – it would probably explicitly say ‘Scotland’ and ‘Wales’ if that was where they actually lived: ‘Britain’ equalling England in Channel 4 speak. But then I didn’t think about the aspect that Scottish and Welsh people might ring or write in to complain about the negative impression that was being given about their countries. Better to just say Britain and let people think the derogatory portrayal related to England only!

Am I being paranoid? Maybe, a little. But the programme did gloss over the fact that the emigrating couple were from Wales and created the impression they lived in England. And there was so much negativity about ‘Britain’ (generally, a synonym or overlapping term for England) that it seemed to partake of the usual tendency to do England down. At the same time the programme constituted such a promo for Australia, you felt it must be receiving funding or other support from the Australian government. It’s as if it were saying to all us English folk seeking a healthier lifestyle: don’t bother with the English government’s half-hearted anti-obesity campaign, just de-camp to Australia, where you’ll get plenty of opportunity to ‘eat better, move more and live longer’!

Or you could check out Channel 4’s forthcoming serving of ‘The Great British Food Fight’, previewed after ‘A Place In the Sun’. Oh Gawd, I said inwardly; why can’t they just give all this ‘Great Britain’ malarkey a rest! Not content simply with the title ‘The Big Food Fight’ they used last year, they feel they have to stick the words ‘Great British’ in there to beef it up still further. Or should that be ‘pork’ and ‘chicken’ it up, as two of the episodes – presented by Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittenstall respectively – will be focusing on the ‘British’ pork and chicken industries. Not that I am an expert, but I would be pretty confident that most pork or chicken labelled in the shops as ‘British’ (and therefore, by definition, almost all ‘British pork’ and ‘British chicken’ per se) is in fact produced and processed in England. ‘British’ is just a brand for these meats, as one pork-industry website explicitly states. That is, it’s the brand used for English meat, as the practice of supermarkets such as Tesco – which is the subject of Fearnley-Whittenstall’s programme – is to label anything produced in England (including, in my area, local East Anglian pork and milk) as ‘British’, while anything from Scotland or Wales carries the names and flags of those countries. So when Oliver and Fearnley-Whittenstall take British pork and chicken producers and retailers to task, remember that the objects of their criticisms are English producers that have to keep their costs down to a minimum to remain afloat against a tide of cheaper imports.

In fact, there’s not much about the content or the celebrity-chef presenters of the ‘Great British Food Fight’ that is properly British, as opposed to English only, unless you count Gordon Ramsay as Scottish because he was born there. And that includes the ‘Little Chef’ chain of restaurants (described by Channel 4 as a ‘British institution’) that are going to get the Heston Blumenthal treatment, only nine out of 185 of which are located in Scotland. Intriguingly, 15 Little Chefs are also to be found in Wales (including one in Wrexham, I note); so, based on the proportion of Little Chefs per head of population, you should really call them a Welsh institution – but then again, safer to imply they’re English (which they mainly are, to be fair) by calling them British! In short, the Little Chefs are another fat-filled reason to leave Wales
the country England – or at least to upbraid it for its supposedly low-quality and unhealthy food.

And what is ‘British food’, anyway? It always used to be called ‘English food’ or ‘English cooking’, which used to be negatively compared with French or Italian cuisine. I suppose the sub-text is ‘English food used to be rubbish until it was transformed by numerous multi-cultural influences and the healthy-eating fad, and became “great British” food’. But note: no one is suggesting that the recently elevated status of British food is down to traditional Scottish and Welsh influences, which would be a justifiable reason to call it British. So even in its ‘new improved’, healthy, multi-cultural Britishness, British food is still largely English in origin.

Which, fortunately, cannot be said of the ‘Big Brother’ concept: the TV one, that is (which is Dutch), as opposed to the original inspiration – George Orwell’s 1984 – which is English. How very apt that this evening of British nanny-state doing down of the English lifestyle and diet – combined with the lauding of celebrity ‘British’ chefs campaigning to make our food healthier, more natural and more original – should culminate with ‘Celebrity Big Brother’: a veritable fusion, as they say, of the ethos of the Surveillance State and our supposed obsession with celebrity. It is indeed fitting that a channel that can serve up such a sustained diet of anti-English tripe should also produce a programme that reduces the real intrusion of the UK state into our English liberties and privacy to the status of a game show, and to prurient tabloid-style curiosity into the private lives of the rich and famous.

In so doing, they debase a medium that could and should be dealing with the real reasons why English people distrust their unrepresentative and paranoid politicians (who in turn distrust them), why they live so unhealthily, and why they are flocking out of the country in droves – such as: inadequate disposable income to spend on healthier food; the power of the big brands and supermarkets that sell the processed and mass-produced ‘British’ foods (and drive down the prices to English producers) in superstores to which we increasingly have few alternatives, as the big chains plus the recession are driving the small retailers out of business; our money tied up in over-priced, under-sized housing that we can’t sell; dead-end jobs (if we’re lucky), excessive working hours, a high cost of living and intense stress levels; and a growing gulf between the richest and the poorest resulting in envy of, and lust for, wealth and fame.

Oh yes, and the rubbish fayre and trashing of England served up by the likes of Channel 4.

23 December 2008

Naming ‘the country’, or do Scots take holidays in England?

For the avoidance of doubt, I like Scotland and Wales. As a matter of fact, I love Wales, having Welsh family and friends, and having spent many a happy holiday there. I’ve also enjoyed trips up to Scotland to stay with friends in Glasgow and Edinburgh, which are really fine cities, and to go walking in the lochs. But, I wonder, would Scottish and Welsh people say the same thing about England? ‘I like / love England’ or ‘I’m looking forward to my holiday in England’? These are not statements that somehow ring true, even if they were true! Do Scottish people actually talk of taking holidays in England, even if they do? And if they don’t, does this betray an ambivalence towards a country containing holiday destinations that the Scottish people in question might in fact love?

I suppose the reluctance of Scottish people to talk about their holidays ‘in England’, and to profess to having enjoyed their stay in ‘the country’, is not always the product of a dislike of the English similar to English people’s mixed feelings about the French when they say that France is too good for the French – not that the Scots would be likely to admit that England was ‘too good’ for anyone! No, for Scots and Welsh people, saying they’ve been on holiday in England is a bit like English people saying they’ve been on holiday in England: it doesn’t exactly convey much information and it naturally begs the question, ‘oh, whereabouts in England?’ Accordingly, you tend to hear statements like, ‘we went to Yorkshire this year’ or, like the PM, ‘we stayed in Norfolk for a couple of weeks’. In other words, Scots and Welsh people would normally refer to the part of England – county or ‘region’ – they stayed in, without the name for that part of England necessarily having to contain the word ‘England’ itself; unless it were something generic such as ‘the North of England’.

And yet, the fact that, for the Scots and Welsh, saying they’ve been on holiday in England is like English people saying the same thing; and the fact that they can talk about travelling to Yorkshire or East Anglia with the familiarity and assumed shared knowledge of people for whom those places are a part of their own country, does indicate an ambiguous, and ambivalent, relationship towards ‘the country’ that is England. It is, in fact, as if England were the country: the heartland and existential core of that other country, Britain, of which Scotland and Wales are – now, at least – semi-detached parts or sub-countries. It is as if, for Scots and Welsh people, England is in some sense their country – ‘their’ England – in the same way that English people have tended to nurture proprietorial feelings about Scotland and Wales: that, even though they recognised that the locals felt a proud sense of separate nationhood, those countries ultimately belonged to England and were part of the English ‘domain’ that was otherwise known as Britain.

These are very delicate issues that Scots and Welsh people won’t readily admit to. That is why they won’t name as England ‘the country’ that they feel in some sense belongs to them – and to which they belong – but will refer only to the county or region of England they’ve been to; and, if they do name that mutual sense of national belonging, they’ll call it ‘the country’ or ‘Britain’: not ‘we love England, to which we feel Scotland and Wales somehow still belong – and of which we, as Scots and Welsh people, also feel a sense of shared ownership’, but ‘we love Yorkshire’ or ‘we love East Anglia’; and ‘we feel that we have a stake in England, along with the English themselves, because we are all part of “the country” that is Britain’.

From these sorts of responses flow two alternative contemporary models for the relationship between the different nations that form part(s) of ‘the country’ that is Britain. One of these, which I would contend is very close to the hearts of many Scottish and Welsh people, but which they naturally find it hard to admit to, is a feeling of belonging to a national whole of which the core identity, culture and society are those of England: Scotland and Wales (and, insofar as it is included as an integral part of ‘Britain’, Northern Ireland; leaving aside the Cornish question for now . . .) as effectively peripheral, semi-autonomous nation-regions of ‘the country’ that is England-Britain: on the one hand, England and, on the other, the two (three / four) nations of ‘Greater Britain’, as one might say. England as the heartland of Britain (traditionally having merged its identity with that of Britain), with Scotland and Wales (and N. Ireland and Cornwall) making up the extended English-British domain beyond England; hence ‘Greater Britain’.

The other model is the New Labour, politically expedient and politically correct suppression of the embarrassing and increasingly humiliating psychological, political and cultural truth that Scotland and Wales have been effectively dependent ‘regions’ of a Britain that was in essence another name for England. So, just as Scottish and Welsh people can’t admit to their feelings of loving and belonging to an integral nation whose heart is England – and so will talk only of regions, ‘the country’ and ‘Britain’ – so now, Scotland and Wales are to be viewed as sub-nations of a Britain that is otherwise sub-divided only into regions, counties and cities. It seems that, in order to assert not only their political but also their emotional independence from England, the very existence of an England to which Scotland and Wales have traditionally felt they belonged must be denied and a new, more dignified, equal set of relationships asserted: Scotland and Wales not as regions but as small nations of equal stature and status to – ironically – a number of ‘other’ similarly-sized ‘British regions’ occupying ‘the country’ formerly known and loved as England but now referred to only as ‘Britain’. Psychologically, you could say that this is one way of dealing with the pain of separation: Scotland and Wales find themselves surprisingly missing their organic connection to England-Britain; so this pain and grief is creatively re-worked into a Britain that is ‘missing England’ in the other sense. In this way, the would-be wishing of England into non-existence is in fact the other side of a grieving for their union with England that it is not acceptable for proud Scottish and Welsh nationalists to articulate. Hence, the most effective way psychologically to deny that you are missing England is for England to go missing: for it no longer to exist.

This is perhaps another way to configure the bizarre would-be re-crafting of a Britain without England that has taken place in the wake of devolution. It’s a symptom of psychological fissure and splitting, which manifests itself in different ways from either side of the equation, and either side of the border. For the Scots and the Welsh – particularly, the Scots – there’s the pain and regret that dare not speak its name: that England is no longer their England – part of what it has meant to be Scottish for 300 years, if only on occasions by negative self-definition; and, conversely, that they are no longer integrally part of England, in either the geopolitical or emotional sense. The project to create a ‘New Britain’ of which Scotland is a semi-autonomous sub-nation is, as I’ve said, in part an attempt to deny that pain; and it is also an effort to imagine how to re-connect Scotland organically to a greater Britain of which it was once a part through England – only this time without England, from which the decision has been taken to separate Scotland’s identity.

Yes, this stratagem is also one that enables Labour to make out that it has a mandate to govern England through the inflated majority that its Scottish and Welsh MPs give it; and it enables Gordon Brown to posture as an elected leader for England, even though he represents a Scottish constituency: by denying that England exists and by affirming that – in ‘England’ only – there is only the UK, so that all UK MPs should participate in its governance. But this is also the expression of the torn loyalties of Scottish ‘nationalist-unionists’ who want to belong to a greater Britain without that Britain being fundamentally England.

From the English side of the equation, articulating everything as British only even when the matters at hand relate to England only is a way to deny the splitting up of the Union that has already occurred: it’s playing on that old organic non-distinction between England and Britain in the minds of English people that used to correspond to the political reality – when there was unitary (English) governance over the whole of Great Britain. Again, the political advantage of perpetuating the illusion that nothing has changed is clear: if people are unaware that what’s being talked and decided about relates to England only, they won’t start questioning why Scottish and Welsh MPs are getting involved in the process. However, at a deeper level, it’s about an unwillingness to give up that organic unity with Scotland and Wales that made English people feel those countries were part of themselves; indeed, part of England. We don’t want to wake up to the reality that our beloved country has split up and our children have left us: we want to still be part of one big English-British family.

Where does that leave us now, though? We’re in an intermediate, transitional state: not quite separate from one another but no longer joined at the hip. No longer a unitary Great Britain of which England was the foundation; but still a Union – in name only – that forces England to be effectively the place of a Britain that is dependent for the continuing participation of the Scots on its not being England. ‘This country’ of ours could be named, according to the first of my above models for post-devolution Britain, the ‘Disunited Kingdom of England and Greater Britain’ – the latter term being one that could also encompass Northern Ireland if that province is construed as another part of the greater British dominion of which England is the now partially dis-associated centre. And we – England – are no longer Great Britain but not yet willing and courageous enough to be only England – England alone.

But the separation must come: it must be completed, rather, because once it got started, there was no turning back the clock – like a spouse that can no longer go back to the union that once existed as soon as she has started to think of herself as a separate person before actually making the divorce final. The Scots have decided to be Scots first and foremost, and to break their organic union with England. England, too, must learn to let go. Then perhaps we can begin to find true greatness in ourselves and not in dominion; and not in Britain.

And then, perhaps, the Scots, too, might be able to confess to loving their holidays in England: a foreign country of which one can say ‘I’m going to England’, rather than one’s own country of which one would say ‘I am going to region x or county y’. An England that is no longer the mirror of Scotland’s own national humiliation and the object of unspoken, guilty, unrequited love. An England that is its own nation and need no longer be merely ‘the country’ for Britain’s sake.

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