Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

8 July 2008

What are we fighting for? Libertarians and nationalists must make common cause

There has been much discussion recently – including on this blog – about whether English nationalism can be reconciled with progressive politics; and whether progressives need to espouse the nationalist cause, associate it with left-of-centre values, and thereby prevent it from falling into the hands of the far right.

I would go further. I would say not only that English nationalism could and should be taken up as a progressive cause but that it should also be at the forefront of the great cause célèbre of the moment: the fight to preserve our civil liberties, currently being championed by the former Conservative shadow home secretary David Davis through the by-election he has called to force a public debate on the issues.

I would recommend to my readers the excellent article by Anthony Barnett of the OurKingdom blog on David Davis’s stand and its significance, if they haven’t already come across this. I left a long’ish comment on it, which I reproduce here, as it summarises my thinking and leads to the point I want to make now:

“This is why we should have the confidence to celebrate the fact that a leading politician is taking issues of principle and government to the people, irrespective of his party politics.

“Especially in Britain (or should I say England, as arguably Alex Salmond has already done this in Scotland).”

Naturally, I see this caveat – “or should I say England” – as key. You won’t see Scottish or Welsh nationalists mounting your barricades, as they’re not interested in building open, representative and constitutional British democracy.

The way I’m interested in framing the issue is as follows: is the British state and parliament losing its democratic legitimacy as a consequence of measures such as 42 days and identity management; or is its recourse to such measures a consequence of the fact that it is losing its legitimacy? One of the truths that the database society manifests is that government no longer trusts the people; and it no longer trusts the people because it has lost the trust of the people.

But it’s not just about government but about the state: the British state, in particular. You’re right to link the ‘transformational government’ programme to the break down of the unitary state that the Labour government itself initiated through devolution. The whole British establishment knows that it is engaged in a battle for its very survival and that its legitimacy to represent and speak for the different nations of Britain has been fundamentally and fatally undermined.

And this is why, in more than a merely metaphorical or rhetorical sense, every citizen becomes a potential terrorist: someone whom the government suspects of wishing the British state as presently constituted to fall apart – which growing ranks of its citizenry do in fact wish. 42 days and systematic identity management across all government departments are of a piece, in that they are about – as you put it, quoting from ‘Who do they think we are?’ – discovering the “deep truth about the citizen (or business) based on their behaviour, experiences, beliefs, needs or desires”.

In other words, it’s about finding out who is an enemy of the state: the enemy within. For most of us, ID cards and CCTV surveillance are ‘sufficient’ for the state apparatus to reassure itself that we are not a serious threat. For the rest of us, there’s 42 days. But the danger is in the blurring, in the eyes and state machinery of paranoid control, between legitimate, democratic antagonism towards the state, and illegitimate, physically violent hostility: terrorism.

I’m an enemy of the British state, in that I’d like to see it replaced by a federal state or abolished altogether (i.e. through Scottish and English independence). And if we had a federal state, this should have much less central power, with most of the national-level decisions taken by an English parliament and a much stronger local-government sector. Does this make me ‘suspect’ in the eyes of the database state? Probably, yes: and therein lies its true danger.

But we need to be clear that the fight is not just with ‘the state’ in some universal sense; but with the British state. And this is because it’s primarily an English struggle, as the Scots and Welsh are pursuing their own paths towards constitutional democracy. And what will emerge, if the libertarians are successful in the present fight, will almost certainly not be a new written constitution, bill of rights and representative democracy for Britain but for England. Indeed, it’s fundamentally because the people of England have lost their faith in the legitimacy of the British state to govern them that the government is so concerned to manage and orchestrate their British identity in the first place.

And it is to popular English national sentiment, and to the sense of our traditional English liberties, that the libertarian cause will have to appeal if it is to touch the hearts and minds of the Sun-reading class.

What I want to say here follows on from these points. The libertarian and nationalist cause in this country have fundamentally the same goals and should see themselves as natural allies. ‘This country’ being England, let it be understood. Put simply, we’re both pushing for an end to the British state as currently constituted, and want a proper representative democracy – responsive to the needs, concerns and sentiments of the people – backed up by a new constitutional settlement and preferably a bill of rights.

But the reality that the libertarians need to get their head round is that this new constitutional settlement must radically address and resolve the asymmetry with which the different nations of the UK are presently governed. There is no way back to the old unitary UK, and the new constitution cannot be one that applies in a monolithic way to the whole of ‘Britain’. The unitary UK no longer exists, and to pretend that it does – as the government has attempted to do since devolution – is either wilful deceit (an attempt to suppress English aspirations for democratic self-governance) or blind self-deception. Similarly, there is no stock of idealism, aspiration, energy and commitment that could unite the English, Scots and Welsh behind a common cause for a new British constitution and a system of governance that pretended to accommodate and perpetuate the present muddled and iniquitous devolution settlement.

The only way forward for the libertarian movement is to accept that there can be no unitary-British process of constitutional reform: the Scots and the Welsh are seeking and articulating their own way forward, and the aspirations of those countries for national self-determination cannot simply be subsumed and channelled into a single British constitutional process. Which means that, for the rest of us, the process is of necessity an English process. The difference, for the time being at least, between the libertarian and the nationalist is merely that the latter regards this necessity as being also a virtue. But it can become so for the libertarian, too, especially if the process results in the outcomes that libertarians have sought for so long: electoral reform; an executive accountable to parliament; a parliament accountable to the people; a truly independent judiciary respecting our age-old, English civil liberties, such as habeas corpus and privacy; etc.

Indeed, I would say that accepting that this process has got to be an English one in the first instance, and espousing this as a positive thing in its own right, actually presents the only realistic possibility of achieving the libertarian objectives in the present circumstances. This is firstly because an English solution – a new English constitutional settlement – is the only realistic goal, for the reasons I’ve set out: no more unitary British fixes to the broken Union. Secondly, it’s the only way that the libertarian cause, such as it has been taken up by David Davis, can become a truly popular cause. This is – as I set out in my comment on Anthony Barnett’s article – because the more profound reason why Westminster politicians and the British government are no longer trusted is because they are out of touch with the English people and are not properly accountable to them: a government that does dual purpose as a UK and as an English administration, elected through a ludicrously disproportionate voting system, and by the votes of Scottish and Welsh people, headed up by a Scottish PM and several senior Scottish ministers who make laws for England but can’t be voted out by English people; whereas the people of Scotland and Wales can vote for two governments – one specifically for their countries, with policy agendas directly addressing the needs and concerns of their countries; and one for reserved UK matters (and for England-only matters to boot).

And then, on top of all this, an emasculated parliament that dutifully performs the will of the executive through a combination of misplaced party loyalty and corrupt deal making, and which is therefore unable to defend the freedoms or represent the will of the people; but which still has the nerve to claim that its ‘sovereignty’ is sacrosanct – as if this had anything to do with the sovereign will of the people, rather than being merely a reference to the sovereign power of the monarch as enacted by an executive whose only claim to a democratic mandate is an election held at its own whim where it is awarded sweeping majorities purely and simply because of the crazy electoral system – and certainly not because of the actual votes of the English people.

This has got to stop. And we need a new constitutional settlement for England. Forget about the British dimension for the moment; that’s out of our hands – ‘our hands’ meaning, of course, the hands of the English. As English people, we have to seek a democratic solution for England, and leave the Scots and Welsh to work out their own destiny. What we can do, however – and this is perhaps the only chance for any British state to survive – is frame our new constitution in such a way that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish can choose to join us or not. By this, I’m referring to the fact that there are two dimensions to the reform process:

  1. an English bill of rights, which would enshrine the fundamental, universal principles and liberties I’ve alluded to, e.g. parliamentary accountability, representative democracy, judicial independence, freedom until charged of an imprisonable offence, innocence until proven guilty, etc. There’s nothing wrong in such a bill of rights being referred to as English rather than British; if such a statement is a product of the English people themselves freely articulating and agreeing to a set of fundamental principles, then it should justly and proudly be called English. There’s nothing to then prevent the Scots and Welsh adopting those principles wholesale as laying the foundation for their own governance, or adapting them to their different circumstances and, in the case of Scotland, juridical principles;
  2. the specific forms of governance that are devised in accordance with such principles, and which would form the basis of a new English constitution. In this aspect of the process, we – the English people – could devise a federal, Britain-wide system that could accommodate the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish if they wished to be part of it. If we got the design right, they might decide not to go off on their own. But, in order for that to happen, there would have to be a high degree of autonomy for each of the nations of the UK, so as to give expression to the aspirations for national self-determination in each of them, including, of course, in England. The nations of the present UK would become the primary sources of sovereign authority in the land – sovereign because answerable to their people – and the national parliaments would have to have equal powers, including those of initiating primary legislation and raising all the taxes required to fund the programmes for which they were responsible.

A multi-national, federal constitutional settlement such as this could potentially balance out the four nations’ aspirations for autonomy with the wish to remain in a union of friendship and co-operation in matters of mutual interest, which would be the domain of a federal British government. A constitutional settlement which, on the other hand, tried to impose a unitary British bill of rights and written constitution would be bound to provoke resistance and resentment on the part of Scots and English alike; whereas, letting the Scots and the Welsh appropriate ever greater powers to their devolved bodies while denying the parity of a similar national parliament to the English might just drive the placid English into revolt.

But the important point is that the formulation and realisation of this new federal system of governance should be driven primarily by the English, and not imposed on them from above by the British government, as in the present government’s stymied Governance of Britain programme. We need to devise a federal system that protects the rights of the smaller nations of Britain, so their will cannot be overridden. It would have to be a system they wanted to join; and that’s really how the choice should be formulated: a comprehensive settlement, addressing English demands for freedom and democracy, that the other UK nations should be offered the choice of joining if they wish. As opposed to a process of drift whereby the other nations elect to abandon the rotten British ship, and we English will not have worked out a new system of governance to protect our rights, and give proud and positive expression to England and Englishness, which will otherwise be merely the default option in any case. Such a declaration of intent might give some decent impetus to the whole process of redrawing the national-constitutional map of these islands, and bring the agonising death of the unitary UK to a swift and merciful end. So, we – the English people – would say to our neighbours: ‘OK, you’ve been working your way towards self-governance; now we in England are going to recast our forms of governance, and reformulate our rights, and you can join us – with your national rights and democratic will protected – if you wish, or not’.

But it’s down to us, the English people, to seize the initiative and set the agenda. After all, if we don’t stand up for our freedoms, the British parliament has shown itself unwilling and unable to protect them.

22 February 2008

Brown’s Britishness: Nationality Or Citizenship?

Students of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] Brit-obsessed public discourse will have a field day with his speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) on ‘Managed Migration and Earned Citizenship’ on Wednesday. A theme calculated to allow the PM to wax lyrical on his beloved Britishness theme! Sixty-four occurrences of either ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ against a word total of 4,839, i.e. 1.3% of all the words. That doesn’t sound much, I suppose, but if you consider how many words (including the frequently occurring basic nouns, verbs and pronouns) there are in a typical sentence, particularly in a serious formal speech, that equates to quite a high ratio of Brits per sentence.

Not as high as the ratio of ‘citizen(s)’ or ‘citizenship’ per sentence in this instance, however! There were 75 appearances of the ‘C’ word = 1.55%. Well, I suppose the speech was about citizenship, after all. But was it more about citizenship than Britain or, indeed, than nationality? The concepts of ‘nation’, ‘national’ and ‘nationality’ – but, significantly, not ‘nationhood’ – occur a mere 20 times in the speech: only 0.4% of all words.

Does this mean that, for GB, Britishness is more about citizenship than about nationality or nationhood; the latter term being more emotive and personal, relating to whether people ‘feel British’ or regard Britishness as their personal national identity? This would appear to be the case when GB says:

“This is not jingoism, but practical, rational and purposeful – and therefore, I would argue, an essentially British form of patriotism.

“Patriotism is the sense that ‘all-of-us’ matters more than ‘any-of-us’ [does it, really – isn’t the whole basis of human rights the irreducible dignity and integrity of the individual human person; so are GB’s ‘responsibilities’ upon which our rights supposedly depend (see below) based on the assertion of the priority of the collectivity – the nation-state – over the individual?]. It defines a nation not by race or ethnicity, but by seeing us all as part of a collective project from which we all gain and to which we all contribute. Society is – as the great thinkers have long told us – a contract, even a covenant, in which we recognise that our destinies are interlinked. For rights only exist where people recognise responsibilities [cf. above note]; responsibilities only exist where people have a sense of shared fate; and shared fate only exists where there is a strong sense of collective belonging. So Britain is not just where we are but in an important sense part of who we are”.

Britain, in this definition, is ‘in an important sense part of who we are’ because the social contract that binds us together and our participation in a collective project – of creating and enriching Britain – is seen as more integral to our identity than a sense of belonging to a place, ethnicity or race. Or, indeed, more integral than the sense of belonging to a nation and the sense of national identity? This would appear to be the case, to judge from the passage that follows:

“the idea of citizenship can be addressed more cogently here in Britain than elsewhere because for centuries Britain has been made up of many nations. As the first – and probably the most successful – multi-national state in the world, we have always had to find ways of bringing people into a United Kingdom.

“Put it another way: geographically, Britain is a group of islands; historically, it is a set of ideas that have evolved over centuries: brought together uniquely across traditional boundaries and today united not by race or ethnicity but by distinctive values that have, over time, shaped the institutions of a multinational state”.

Let’s pause for a moment in wonder. GB appears to be conceding the point that, historically, Britain has comprised a number of nations – including, presumably, England. But don’t get your hopes up: he doesn’t say ‘England’ throughout the speech; nor, indeed, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ or ‘Ireland’. There are 11 references to ‘English’; but these are only to the language, not to anything such as a national identity. If you look at GB’s words more closely here, what he’s saying is that Britain is indeed a geographical place where, historically (“for centuries”), a number of nations have lived. ‘Nations’ here can imply ‘peoples’, rather than formally established political entities with defined territorial borders: the fundamental geographical unit for GB is Britain, not the nations of Britain; while the nations have merely inhabited that British territory – effectively, like provisional citizens, migrants or temporary residents, not as collectivities that identified with the land in which they lived.

Equally historically, however, Britain is presented here as a unified state forged by a process whereby the multiple nations of Britain have come together in a “United Kingdom”. The engine of that unification has not been some sort of organic convergence and ethnic inter-mixing of the nations of Britain over time, whereby gradually the old barriers between us have been broken down and we’ve come to think of ourselves as more British than English / Scottish / Welsh / Irish. No, the motor for unity is “a set of ideas that have evolved over centuries” – co-terminous with the ‘centuries’ during which Britain has been made up of many nations – and the “distinctive values that have, over time, shaped the institutions of a multinational state”.

The unity or Union that is the United Kingdom has been created by, and is founded on, a set of distinctive but shared ideas and values that have coalesced and are embodied in the institutions of a “multinational state”, e.g. in the ‘British Values’ and the ‘British Rights and Responsibilities’ that are defining of British civic society and British citizenship. Note that there is an uncertain shift here between the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘United Kingdom’ (or UK), which crops up elsewhere in GB’s speech. Britain is the geographical place, populated by multiple nations, but by that token not properly a unified nation in itself. The unity is achieved only at the level of statehood, citizenship, and common values and principles – at the level of the UK. But GB wants that unity to also be identified with a single Nation (rather than multiple nations) of Britain, and wants citizenship to be the foundation of a new national British identity. Hence, a constant, inconsistent slippage in his speech between the UK and Britain as the terms for the unitary state-nation – rather than nation-state – founded on codified civic principles.

These tensions are evident in the passage that follows, in which GB defines the British values he believes in:

  • “liberty – the concept of freedom under the law which has to be renewed every generation, about which I spoke in the autumn;
  • of civic duty;
  • of fairness;
  • and of internationalism – a Britain that sees the channel not as a moat that isolates us in narrow nationalism, but as a highway out to the world that for centuries has given our outward-looking nation an unsurpassed global reach.

“But that these values are founded secondly on a vision of citizenship that entails both responsibilities and rights”.

So Britain is both a nation – founded on a citizenship that embodies British values in a set of rights and responsibilities – and an internationalism: an “outward-looking nation” that also takes in to itself additional multiple nations from throughout the globe through migration; as opposed to the ‘narrow nationalism’ associated with insular protectionism towards smaller territorial national entities such as that of the Englishman’s castle, defended by the moat of the, yes, English Channel, Gordon.

All of this means that if the true ‘test’ of citizenship (like the actual test of entitlement to British citizenship for migrants that GB is proposing in his speech) is adherence to formal codes and statements setting out the legal and philosophical principles of British state-nationality (merging multiple original nationalities into a common citizenship), then the ‘original’ nations of the UK (the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish) have no intrinsic, special status with respect to Britishness than more recent migrants who embrace Britishness defined purely in relation to those shared principles. There is a sort of equalising going on here between the ‘nations’ that have historically inhabited these islands (the historical multi-national British state) and the multiple nationalities of newer arrivals, linked to Britain’s internationalism and global reach.

This brings about a peculiar reversal whereby the formal process of subscribing (to use GB’s term) to the principles – rights and responsibilities – of UK / British citizenship that would-be settlers here will have to go through, if GB’s proposals are implemented, make them almost more properly British citizens than those who consider themselves as in some degree British by virtue of having always lived here and of viewing themselves – additionally or primarily – as English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. This is because, under GB’s vision, the process of becoming a British citizen is transformed into a rite of passage, where you have to pass a number of tests that prove the sincerity of your wish to be a British citizen which, through the rights and responsibilities citizenship embodies and enacts, actually means something:

“we must ensure that British citizenship is a set of obligations as well as a guarantee of rights. And that British citizenship is a prized asset to be aspired to and cherished”.

But does this concept of ‘earned citizenship’ – prospective citizens proving that they have earned the right to British citizenship through the social and civic responsibility of their actions and the way they lead their lives – translate back to existing British citizens? If new British citizens are not just equal in their Britishness to people who have always lived here but in some sense more properly British (in that Britishness is founded on a set of codified values and principles that new citizens have formally signed up to), does this not make existing citizens themselves in some sense merely probationary and prospective citizens: mere residents on British soil whose true Britishness has yet to be formally tested and attested through a citizenship rite? Does this mean we will all have to prove our entitlement to (continuing) British citizenship by formally buying into the responsibilities and duties upon which it is being made to depend?

There is a serious ambiguity throughout GB’s speech about whether the concept of earned citizenship applies as much to existing citizens as prospective ones. This is because, inherent to the linkage GB makes between rights and responsibilities, is indeed the notion that rights (those of citizenship) have to be earned through socially responsible lives and the exercise of our civic duties. Indeed, the opening section of GB’s piece sets out these principles as the basis for the modern concept of British citizenship:

“for all citizens, I want us to emphasise – and, to some extent, codify – the rights they have . . . . But alongside these entitlements of citizenship, there are also duties. . . . This is one of the reasons why it makes sense – as we have announced – to consider amending the Human Rights Act to create a new British Bill of Rights and Duties which emphasises not just what people are entitled to but what they are expected to do in return in order to make ours a society we all want to live in.

“And this reciprocity of rights and responsibilities also shapes the new concept of ‘earned citizenship’ we are advancing today”.

As part of our formal buy in to this new statement of our rights and responsibilities, will we – like new immigrants – be obliged to relinquish our former national identities (as English, Scots, etc.) in favour of our new united British-national identity based on the common values of our citizenship? And how controlled will the sincerity of our adherence to these rights and responsibilities be?

“And of course, the final vital element in security inside our borders is the national ID cards system.

“While the first biometric ID cards will be issued to UK citizens during 2009, from the end of this year we will start to issue the first compulsory biometric IDs to non-EU foreign nationals coming to the UK. Such an identity scheme will help make it clear what status a person has – whether they are allowed to work, access benefits and how long they can stay.

“This is crucial in tackling illegal immigration. But it is also critical to moving towards, and enforcing, a system of earned citizenship.

“Those who are not entitled to benefits will not be able to claim them. And that will also include people from the EU who have come here to work but have not yet paid sufficient national insurance contributions.

“And probationary citizens will all have ID cards which will make it easier to ensure that they are exercising their responsibilities, and to decide on their progress to full citizenship.

“All this reflects the value we place on British citizenship and the urgent need to be clear about our collective national identity and common purpose”.

So we have moved from a national identity based on history, and a sense of belonging to a place and a territory, to one that is almost definitively, and definingly, encapsulated in a national ID scheme, designed to control our access to the rights of citizenship, depending on the extent to which we are fulfilling our civic responsibilities.

This is a national British identity codified, indeed digitised, by the British state; in fact, bestowed by the British state based on merit against a set of prescriptive qualifying criteria, rather than an automatic right. Being English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish isn’t one of those qualifying criteria – and you’d better accept GB’s state-civic Britishness if you want to preserve your native rights.

21 November 2007

A government that minds its own business but not yours

What are we to make of the HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) missing CD-ROM scandal: the fact that someone popped a copy of half the UK’s personal details in the ordinary internal mail to the Audit Office and it’s now gone missing?

Nothing, possibly. It could just be a case of inexperience on the part of a junior subordinate. However, the mere fact that someone could even think it was acceptable to pop an unencrypted copy of intimate details about millions of families and their finances into the post and not even make it a recorded delivery is barely believable. Have they not got a secure, encrypted government data network they could use? If not, why not courier it from door to door to make sure it got there?

For me, it bespeaks an insufficient exercise of the government’s duty of care, which is something that should filter down to the lowest levels of the civil service. In this instance, inadequate regard was paid to the personal, human significance of the lost data to the people the government is supposed to be looking after. What was done involves regarding the data that was copied and sent in this way as just another bit of data: ‘well, if it doesn’t get there, we can always make another copy’. But it’s not just data: it’s precious, private information about people’s lives, which needs to be protected at all costs.

You can bet your bottom tax dollar that the government takes more precautions over its own secret data. Well, at least you’d like to think so; but maybe the next scandal to break will be someone leaving a laptop on a train containing all that the security services know about the 2,000-odd terrorist suspects in the UK they keep going on about. I don’t think so, though, do you? This government looks after its official secrets all right, just not yours and mine.

Alistair Darling tried to claim that the identity-card system they want to bring in will safeguard the sort of information that has been lost. How? What difference would everyone’s being issued with ID cards have made to the incident that has taken place? I can’t see the connection. It’s about administrative processes and enshrining in those processes an almost zealous determination to protect people’s intimate information as a sacred trust. But, of course, the type of information that will be gathered and stored via the ID-card system won’t be (just) mere bagatelles such as bank accounts, addresses, and names and ages of children: it will also involve ‘classified’ information such as criminal record, biometrics and, maybe, a means to access the entire history of a citizen’s interaction with the agencies of government and the public sector (medical records; births and marriages records; schooling; etc.) – basically, a card cloner’s or hacker’s dream!

I’m sure the government will take a lot more care over information of that sort, so vital for national security (but even so . . .). It’s just the information that’s vital for your security that can be dealt with in such a cavalier way. This government minds its own business, including looking after everything that it thinks it needs to know about yours – but it won’t mind yours.

And yet, the information that has been lost could have implications for national security as well as the personal security of many millions. Who knows, it might have been a terrorist inside job and, instead of being mailed to ‘The Audit Office, London’, the package could have winged its way to somewhere on the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan – or to a PC from where it could be distributed worldwide. The data that’s been lost could certainly be extremely valuable to the likes of Al-Qaeda or to cyber-terrorists. Maybe, instead of distrusting its own citizenry, the government could begin by taking care of the information its citizens have entrusted to it; and maybe, if it wants to gather in one place (around the ID card) so much additional information about us all, it could start by ensuring that the information it already has is secure.

The government should put its own house in order if it wants us to trust it over things like control orders and 56 days’ detention without charge. As this incident demonstrates, national security, it seems, begins at our homes.

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