Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

5 May 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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6 November 2008

Barack Obama: America’s Tony Blair

Is Barack Obama a US version of Tony Blair? This is not a comparison that’s being made very much. After all, Tony Blair is yesterday’s man and George Bush’s big pal to boot. Progressives feel they were let down by Tony Blair; and they’re not about to compare that traitor with the man who’s now reignited their hope. But therein, of course, lies the validity of the analogy.

Think of the parallels: Obama is about the same age as Tony Blair when he came to power. Both men promised to bring fundamental change not only to the way their country was governed but to its whole ethos: a new liberal individualism, and a refocusing of market economics towards the promotion of opportunity and a more even distribution of the social benefits of prosperity. Obama also has the Blair charm factor, with a particularly strong appeal to women voters. And Obama has himself been handed a huge opportunity to push through his agenda, as the first-past-the-post electoral system has presented him with a majority in Congress that is out of proportion to the level of support he actually obtained in the country.

And, perhaps most fundamentally of all, he represents the prospect of a secularisation of America – challenging some of the most innately conservative features of American society, politics and values that have a Christian foundation: the responsibility of the individual to better himself and to look after his own, rather than relying on the state; the importance of the voluntary sector as a means to foster community and provide for those in need; the stress on traditional family values, heterosexual marriage and Christian faith. Against these fundamental building blocks of America, Obama looks set to implement a social-democratic political programme and a liberal moral agenda: the use of the tax system to redistribute wealth; a greater role for state welfare and social services, perhaps even a US version of the National Health Service; the possibility that young people may be obliged to do some form of state-sponsored community service, competing with voluntarism and suggesting echoes of Gordon Brown’s idea of needing to earn one’s rights through the due exercise of one’s social responsibilities; the promotion of the ethos of equality of opportunity; and a secular-liberal affirmation of the right of all persons – of whatever gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or creed – to live out their lives in the manner of their choosing, in a way that implies a moral equivalence of all such free individual choices, as opposed to a fundamentally Christian basis for society and ethics.

As part of this liberal-individualistic agenda, there is an aggressive assertion of women’s ‘right to choose’ over above the unborn human’s right to live. As others have shown, Obama is militantly pro-abortion, even to the extent that he may try to introduce an amendment to the US constitution that would make it a right for women to terminate their pregnancies all the way up to nine months for any reason, possibly including merely financial circumstances. He also advocates not only stem-cell research using live human embryos but the deliberate mass creation of embryos solely for the purpose of such research. In this, too, there is a parallel between Obama and New Labour which, despite the ostensibly Christian credentials of its leaders Blair and Brown, has maintained the UK’s comparatively late time limit for abortions (28 weeks) and high rate of terminations (200,000 a year), and has driven through legislation permitting stem-cell research and the creation of hybrid animal-human embryos – all in the name of social and scientific progress.

Another disquieting parallel between Obama and Blair is suggested by their brand of political Christianity. Like Blair, Obama appears to be imbued by a sense of his ‘God-given’ mission to bring change. To be fair to him, it would be hard for anyone with a Christian faith not to believe that God had called and chosen him for the task in some special way given his humble origins and seemingly miraculous meteoric rise to power. But it’s in the potential for megalomania and messianism that this combination of personal faith and massive temporal power presents concerns – particularly, the way in which Obama’s sense of mission to bring change, democracy and secular-liberal freedoms to the world may express itself in military terms.

Obama is no pacifist; and, indeed, he has gone on record as wanting to carry out some form of Iraq-style US military surge in Afghanistan – thereby echoing Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s staunch support for this exercise in Western-liberal supremacism and military folly. The West cannot and will not win – at least, not by military means – in Afghanistan: no army has ever succeeded in subduing that land by military might, not in thousands of years of empires that have met their match in Afghanistan’s barren mountainous hinterlands; not even the mighty Soviet Red Army. And yet Obama would carry on with this fruitless destruction of human life and take the fight on into Pakistan, with the potential of plunging that nuclear power into its own version of Iraq’s internecine chaos. But the lives of Taliban insurgents, Pakistani Islamic fanatics and Afghan civilians are expendable, it seems, in the cause of Western liberal values that Obama believes will somehow be advanced by their demise, as by the deaths of many more US and British servicemen and -women.

I don’t believe, as some appear to do, that Obama is the Antichrist. But I do believe that the combination of his sense of divine calling and commitment to secular liberalism makes him a potential enemy not just of America’s Christian traditions and values but of the sanctity of the human person, of Christian faith and institutions, and of life itself.

By their works shall ye know them. Let us hope that Obama will not be judged by the many thousands or millions of extra lives that may be needlessly lost in the operating theatre, research labs and battle fields. And let us hope that Obama genuinely will bring unity to America and not greater division, as Blair brought to Britain.

And God bless America.

3 May 2008

Cameron will win: it’s a generation game

I’ve been privately participating in the fever of speculation there’s been over the past few days – particularly since Labour’s local election debacle on Thursday – as to whether the tide of political fortunes has now turned back in the Tories’ favour, meaning they’ll win the next general election. Initially, I was sceptical about David Cameron’s prospects, as the Tories’ resurgence seems to be dependent more on people rejecting New Labour and Gordon Brown [GB] than on support for the Conservatives’ programme – whatever that might turn out to be. However, after the local election results, which saw Labour drop to third position on share of the votes behind the Liberal Democrats, and a consistent nationwide swing towards the Tories, I feel that, maybe, Cameron could just pull it off at the general election, which will take place probably in 2010.

Thinking about it further, there’s another reason why I think Cameron will win. This is my theory of generational evolution of society, or, putting it more simply, the way social changes are influenced by successive generations. I’m sure professional sociologists have developed a more scientific version of this idea, presumably with a technical name to boot; so I’m pretty sure this is not an ‘original’ theory, if such a thing exists in any absolute sense. However, if it is, I hereby dub it the ‘political generation game theory’, on the analogy of the amateur contestants of the immortal Bruce’s show who had to imitate the dazzling skills of professionals of one sort or another.

What the idea is, in essence, is that particular periods of a nation’s history – often defined or named in relation to the dominant political personality associated with it – have a character that is determined to a large extent as a function of the periods that immediately preceded them and the period before that. More precisely, each period is a reaction to the one before, which draws its inspiration in large part from the period before that. And it does this because the people who are most influential in shaping the character of any given age – the political, business and media opinion formers and decision makers – spent their most formative years (say, between the ages of about 10 and 19) in the period preceding the period in relation to which they are defining themselves.

An example: ‘the Blair years’ and New Labour were clearly in part a reaction to / against ‘Thatcherism’ and the period of ruthless market economics that is denoted by that term. And it was a reaction that represented in part a reprise of the social-democratic Labour that had been in power for much of the 1960s and 1970s, which was precisely the period in which the leaders in society during the Blair years spent their formative years. With the difference that the New Labour period was also a continuation of Thatcherism, which had in a sense laid the economic and political foundations for Blair’s social-democratic ‘redistributive capitalism’ to actually work – whereas the economic stagnation and political / union antagonisms of the 1970s had thwarted Labour’s ambitions to create a successful, prosperous welfare state. So what we got under Blair was a new blend of social democracy and market economics: social-market economics; equality of opportunity mutating into ‘equality of market opportunity’: the goal of government being to free up people to participate more fully in, and reap the rewards from, the market society (society as a market).

Similarly, you could say that Thatcherism itself was a reaction against the whole political and social model of the Wilson and Callaghan years: initially, the idealistic 1960s, with the vision of a socially and morally freer and more equal world, underpinned by economic prosperity and technological developments that enabled people to have a bloody good time, and enjoy hitherto only dreamt-of material and physical pleasures; later, collapsing into the cynicism and recriminations of the 1970s as the downward economic cycle and spiralling inflation caused industries to collapse, and engendered strife in the workplace, on the football terraces and in the inner cities as people sought scapegoats for the fact that living the good life was increasingly unrealistic.

The Thatcherite reaction to all that was indeed a reinstatement of the Tory values from the 1950s, when many of the leaders of the 1980s were in their ‘tens’ (aged 10 to 19): the individual standing on their own two feet and creating prosperity through their own hard work and enterprise – rather than just expecting a good standard of living to be handed to them effortlessly on a plate by their employer or the state. And yet, Thatcherism also carried forward much of the ethos and attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s: the anti-union and anti-industrial-working-class antagonisms on the part of the Thatcher government were in a sense the continuation of the 1970s industrial unrest, with the difference that Thatcher took on and saw off the unions, whereas Callaghan tried to instil reason in them through comradely beer and sandwiches at No. 10. Similarly, the materialistic individualism and hedonism of the ‘I’ve-got-money’ 1980s was a continuation, in the selfish-capitalist Thatcherite mode, of the increasingly cynical, materialistic direction that originally idealistic 1960s explorations of self-fulfilment and sexual freedom had followed in the 1970s.

So what of David Cameron, then? Are we about to enter into the ‘Cameronite’ reaction against Blairism and its feeble successor / continuation that is GB; just as the ineffectual Major saw out the dying phase of the Thatcherite period, and Callaghan stood watch over the waning of the initially optimistic Wilson Labour years – all prime ministers that took over mid-term from leaders that had really set the political tone for a whole period, but whose increasing unpopularity was a sign, perhaps, that one period was on its way out and the new epoch was about to begin?

If so, then a putative Cameron era, following my theory, should be both a continuation of some aspects of the preceding period (the Blair / Brown epoch), and a harking back to and blend of some aspects of the period before that, during which the leaders of the new age were growing up – which, in the case of Cameron’s relatively youthful team, was mainly the Thatcher years. Incidentally, the fact that it is now being said that people are no longer ‘scared’ of the Tories, for all Cameron’s charm, probably owes more to the fact that the people in the worlds of politics, business and the media who are, as it were, ‘of the same age’ as Cameron (or younger, as are many in his team) and are preparing his coronation grew up under Thatcher and would have regarded her attitudes and politics as normal, not as a grim assault on so much that my generation (growing up in the 1970s: the latter end of the ‘Blair generation’) held dear.

But we’ve already had the Thatcher ‘revival’: that was Tony Blair – Thatcherism with a socially caring face. And that’s part of the problem faced by David Cameron’s Conservatives (the ‘New Tories’ in all but name): they want to be ‘Conservatism with a caring face’ but Blair has already done that. So perhaps they’ll just have to reverse the paradigm and become ‘a caring society with a Thatcherite face’, perhaps?

The difference between these two terms can perhaps best be illustrated by the ambiguity of the ‘tag line’ – as the marketing bods might put it – for Cameron’s party philosophy: ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’. ‘Modern’ and ‘compassionate’: here are two words that could have been plucked straight from Blair’s vocabulary; and they sit comfortably – naturally almost – alongside ‘Conservatism’. Indeed, Conservatism has always been associated with the idea of compassion (of the wealthy) for the poor, and with social, philanthropic responsibility towards them. So this conveys the idea of classic, one-nation Conservatism (the Conservatism before Thatcher) – which in one sense was the space in the political spectrum that Blairism inhabited – but modernised in keeping with the challenges of today.

On the other hand, if you just insert a comma into the phrase, as follows – ‘modern, compassionate Conservatism’ – it changes the whole meaning. Syntactically, ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’ suggests a ‘compassionate Conservatism – single concept: one-nation conservatism – that is modern’. ‘Modern, compassionate Conservatism’, on the other hand, implies a ‘modern Conservatism, one of whose distinguishing features is that it is also compassionate’; in contradistinction to a previous form of Conservatism – Thatcherism – that is perceived as having lacked compassion. But by implication, this could suggest that the modern, compassionate Conservatism is also an updated, more compassionate version of Thatcherism itself. So this tag line is appealing to all three strands: modern, ‘Blairite’ care and compassion for the poor and disadvantaged in society (in keeping with the traditions of one-nation Conservatism) that also draws on all that was ‘good’ about Thatcherite Conservatism – its effectiveness, leadership qualities, appeal to English-British people’s distrust of state interference and ‘nannying’, and their wish to provide the best for themselves and their families, using their own skills and hard work, whether in material comforts, housing, health or education.

This in essence is the appeal of Cameron. On the one hand, he’s Blair Plus: embodying all that’s ‘good’ about Blair (the concern to alleviate society’s ills), but if anything pushed even further. Instead of Blair’s reform agenda, which in essence was economic reform (instilling market principles into the public services), we have a social reform policy. Instead of merely tinkering with the benefits system, attempting to provide more efficient public services and carrying out a bit of inner-city regeneration, Cameron’s Conservatives have set out their stall as a party that’s really trying to get to the bottom of what has caused the collapse of stable, responsible society in so many of our cities, and have so far come up with a rather traditional Conservative answer: that it’s about the break-down of the two-parent family, the absence of father figures, and the lack of discipline at school and in the home. And what is seen as being absent in such social contexts are the very values that Cameron is trying, in more neo-Thatcherite mode, to invoke as being at the heart of his political programme: individual and collective responsibility for making things better, rather than relying on central targets and the nanny state to deliver the improvements.

The initial outline of the vision that we were given at the Tory party conference last autumn suggested that one of the forms this new affirmation of the Thatcherite principles of personal moral responsibility for improving the things that matter to you in life could take was that of ‘local privatisation’: rolling back the frontiers of government and public-sector ownership and control not just at a national level but at the local level where people are users – ‘consumers’ – of services. So, for instance, rather than the Blairite approach of setting out a single blueprint for introducing market principles into schools and hospitals, which often meant putting them directly or indirectly in the hands of major corporate enterprises, the Cameron policy could well involve local people themselves taking managerial responsibility for their schools and hospitals – whether in the form of continuing public ownership of some sort (for instance, through trusts), or by actually establishing new schools (or taking over existing ones?) as businesses in which local people could take out shares and which would genuinely have to compete for private and public funding – while service levels were guaranteed, perhaps, through some form of charter and contractual agreement with local authorities.

To some extent, the finer details of this are just speculation, as the Conservatives have yet to outline their specific policies. But it’s informed speculation based on Tory statements, and reports into things like the family and the problems of the inner cities they’ve already produced; but also based on this generational theory of mine: that the Tories have this dual motivation to carry out the social-market agenda of Tony Blair more effectively and profoundly, and to do so in a way that resurrects the best principles of the Thatcherism they grew up under. This involves the idea of empowering and motivating ordinary individuals and communities to take responsibility for improving their lives by giving them a stake and a real say in the things that are most important to them. I think that however these fundamentals of ‘Cameronism’ are translated into tangible policy, they will help the Tories to win the next election because the people who are most influential in shaping public opinion were formed under Thatcher and want to see a return to her values of self-reliance and of the public taking private ownership of, literally, their own public services.

Looking at the massive nationwide swing to the Tories in this week’s local elections, the psephologists have come out with their usual meaningless predictions about how a general election would turn out on the same shares of the vote: a Tory landslide, with a possible 150-seat majority. What if this did happen, though? Would this mean, as Anthony Barnett of the OurKingdom blog put it, that “any democratic reform agenda is now in jeopardy”? The point is, if Cameron did win a comfortable outright parliamentary majority, he could – and probably would – ignore all the widespread support and calls for constitutional and institutional reform, such as a more accountable parliament (better still an English parliament), reform of the House of Lords, PR, a genuine bill of rights that protects civil liberties, and even an English Grand Committee to discuss England-only bills (why bother if the Tories have a majority both of English and UK-wide MPs?). Cameron might be a social and economic reformer at local level, but at national political level, it would not be in the perceived interests of his government or his party to do a single thing.

Cameron is no more interested in addressing the English Question, nor even in uttering the word ‘England’, than is GB. When Cameron talks of ‘our nation’, he means ‘Britain’ not England, even if the policies that are being discussed relate to England alone. Indeed, he has gone on record, in a Telegraph interview a few months back, as saying he’s not interested in being a PM for England – even though that’s what he effectively will be in most of his domestic agenda. And there seems little difference in the Tories’ description of their ‘responsibility agenda’ below from Brown’s emphasis on Britishness and his bringing together of the formulation of citizens’ rights with prescriptions about, and enforcement of, their responsibilities: “To make the most of the new world of freedom, we need to strengthen the structures which bring stability and a sense of belonging: home, neighbourhood and nation. Our Responsibility Agenda will therefore include Green Papers on welfare reform, health, marriage and relationships, addiction and debt, responsible business, social care, cohesion, and National Citizenship Service” (my emphases).

Like I said, the Cameron era will in many respects be a continuation of the Blair / Brown period. And it seems that the efforts to articulate, formalise and impose prescriptive definitions of (British) national identity and citizenship / responsibilities will be part of the baggage that is carried forward. I suppose that that’s also part of the Conservative unionist tradition and the British-nationalist Thatcherite legacy that the Cameron era will reaffirm; so there’s a ‘natural fit’ there between Brown’s wrapping of himself in the Union Flag and the New Conservatives.

There’s no doubt that the Conservative values, and the generational swing back to them, that Cameron appeals to are also in many respects English values: self-reliance, freedom from government interference, private ownership and enterprise, social responsibility and neighbourliness, and fairness towards the ‘poorest’ in society – as the Conservatives’ website continually refers, somewhat patronisingly, to the working class. And, in this respect, if English voters are largely responsible for electing a Conservative government with a large majority next time, then they can hardly complain when that government ignores the demand for an English parliament – except, of course, that government won’t have been elected by a majority of English voters; and if none of the major parties are even vaguely talking about the possibility of an English parliament, then the English people aren’t being offered the chance of voting for one.

This raises the possibility that the best hope for representative democratic English governance, accountable to the people of England, could again come from Scotland. Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales are unlikely to swing towards Cameron’s Conservatives to the same extent as the English. This could mean an increasing polarisation between ‘Tory England’, and nationalist and Labour Scotland and Wales, potentially resulting in growing antagonism and political divergence between England and the rest of the UK. Together with pressure in England to reduce the Barnett differentials (the formula guaranteeing Scotland and Wales a higher per capita level of public expenditure than the English), this could really give the Scottish-nationalist cause a massive shot in the arm. And, who knows, there might yet be a Scottish referendum that would say ‘yes’ to independence.

Cameron’s Conservatives, by continuing Brown’s Britishness crusade, might well yet set the seal on the Union’s demise. In which case perhaps, in ten years’ time, we might all be saying, along with Bruce (the English one, that is), “didn’t they do well?”

6 March 2008

England: The Inconvenient Nation Blocking European Federation

England and the EU represent two fundamentally opposing traditions and philosophies. England is the historical and spiritual centre of the great Anglo-Saxon civilisation: ‘Anglo-Saxon’ not in the sense of our ancient forebears who gave England and several of its counties and regions their names, along with a much disputed portion of our genetic inheritance; but ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in the sense of the culture, mentality and way of life of the English and the countries of the English-speaking world, particularly our North American and Australian cousins. This is in fact how the French tend to use the word, often derogatorily.

The EU, on the other hand, is the present-day avatar of the European philosophical and political tradition that reaches back to the civilisations of the ancient world, particularly Greece and Rome. You could say that the EU is the inheritor of the Roman Empire, the ideal of which survived after the collapse of Ancient Rome, was carried forward through the civilisations and empires of Roman Catholic Europe (the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburgs, for instance) and was then reinvented as a secular imperialist project through the failed Napoleonic and Hitlerian attempts to establish their Europe-wide dominion. I’m not suggesting that the EU is remotely akin to its more recent predecessors in terms of its ideology or methods; but all three pan-European projects of the last three centuries have drawn on a common ideal of a united European civilisation transcending the barriers between individual nation states that had pretty much existed since the fall of Rome.

The ideological foundation of the EU could be described as European secular humanism, whose roots do indeed go back to the philosophers and republics of the ancient world, and have been enriched and deepened through the influence of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions that have contested the destiny of the continent. This involves certain fundamental, universal and ‘timeless’ values and principles that are by definition a-national or transnational: not the expression of any one national tradition but nonetheless thought of as part of a common European heritage, even though the principles themselves are believed to be applicable to all human societies in any time or place. These principles, as set out in the Treaty of Lisbon (and, strangely enough, the failed EU Constitution, too) make familiar reading:

“DRAWING INSPIRATION from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law”.

This list of universal-European values is identical to the lists of ‘British values’ we are for ever being regaled with. So are British values the same as European values; and in what way do English values differ from these apparently shared British and European values? Well, these things are more mixed and complex than my somewhat schematic framework here allows for; but I’m tempted to say that if European values are the product of the interaction of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and the secular-humanist tradition, then English values lie more on the side of faith – particularly, obviously, Christianity – while British values and, indeed, European values in their contemporary acception lie more to the secular-humanist end of the scale.

The distinctive Anglo-Saxon contribution to modern constitutional democracies has indeed been to integrate Christian faith with liberal-humanist ideologies and polities: the United Kingdom, in which the King or Queen of England is both head of state and head of the official Church, a situation which still applies today, making England, at least, officially a Christian country at the same time as a democratic, constitutional monarchy; the United States – a republic founded on the universal (European) principles of human rights but where integral to the founding documents and official ceremonial of the nation are unmistakable Christian elements, where presidents and the state are said to put their trust in God, and where the Republican Party is the party of the Christian right.

In the EU, on the other hand, the constitutions of the largest nations – at least those, interestingly enough, that formerly lay within the bounds of the Roman Empire – embody a separation between Church and State: they’re secular foundations, and the universal liberal-humanist principles on which they rest their claim to legitimacy are not conceived of as having any intrinsic or necessary rooting in Christian faith. Nor are they overtly linked to Christianity in the European Constitution-in-all-but-name, despite the reference to their partly ‘religious’ inspiration: note, ‘religious’ merely, not Christian.

I stated above that the founding European / British values, by virtue of their universal-European character, were a-national or transnational. I note in passing that the founding of the EU on these transnational values – the way it sees itself as the defender and representative of those values across the continent, resisting the break-down of them that happened in the past when individual nations asserted themselves at the expense of others – is the main reason why I believe that the EU is fundamentally a Euro-federalist project: pre-programmed to move inexorably towards an integrated European super-state; a polity that has transcended and definitively overthrown the frontiers separating the (former) nation states of Europe.

In the contemporary British context, these transnational values feed into one of the ways in which advocacy of ‘British values’ seeks to undermine or devalue the efforts to affirm England as a nation in its own right. In particular, they underpin GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] attempt to recast the whole British state in the unifying mould of a formal, constitutional statement of British Values, and the fundamental rights and responsibilities of citizenship they articulate, which then come to replace any of the contingent, nation-specific and culturally relative formulations of value that co-exist in Britain today: a new Nation of Britain as a sort of a-national, universal-European-type citizenry, rather than as a culturally, ethnically, geographically and historically specific collectivity – such as the English nation.

The other aspect of ‘British values’ and Britishness that is often said to have transcended and evolved beyond traditional, limited national identities is their internationalism and globalism. But I would say that these characteristics are where Britishness more keenly reflects the historical contribution of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. This internationalism is the result of England’s long history of political and commercial engagement with the wider world beyond Europe: through its seafaring adventurers and merchants, and subsequently of course the Empire, which was in reality the English Empire just as the British state was the proxy-English state – England being the real driving force behind state and empire, and the civilisation that was spread worldwide through the Empire being essentially the Anglo-Saxon one. The Anglo-Saxon culture places greater emphasis on the values of individual freedom and free trade – personal and national liberty – than on liberty and equality as social ideals to be striven towards through political struggle: lived out, pragmatic freedom, and equality as equality of opportunity, i.e. the freedom to create and exploit opportunity.

This value system is focused more on the individual because in its origins, and still for many today, it has at its heart the idea of individual moral responsibility towards God (or, in the more secular modern context, the moral responsibility towards oneself and others) to use one’s gifts and chances in life to the best effect, not only for one’s own self-advancement but also to create wealth and economic value for others who will benefit from the businesses and assets (social, financial and technological) created by enterprise and initiative, and from the social responsibility and philanthropy of those who’ve been fortunate enough (or blessed by God) to be successful.

It’s this culture that places such a premium on individuals eagerly seeking and grabbing the opportunities that life presents them, coupled with free access to the super-highway of the oceans, and superior industry and technology, that led first to England-Britain and subsequently the USA establishing themselves as global superpowers: conquering the world but, at the same time, seeking to promote what is effectively the Anglo-Saxon, more Christian-influenced, version of liberal democracy wherever their military and economic influence penetrated, and in a spirit of often literally evangelical, missionary zeal.

And in the case of both England-Britain and the USA, not only did these nations go out to spread the gospel of individual freedom from collective oppression, along with the possibility for nations to become part of a great global trading civilisation, but – as a consequence of their success – individuals from all nations and cultures of the world flocked to Britain and the USA, making them probably the most multi-cultural, multi-ethnic societies in the world. This is England-Britain’s internationalism and multi-nationalism, which I would differentiate from the a-nationality and transnationality of the appeal to the European-universal secular-humanist values. These latter involve a denial of, and will to eventually abolish, the existence of separate nations and the divisions between them. By contrast, internationalism involves a willingness to embrace and absorb a plurality of nationalities and cultures into one’s own nation and understanding of one’s nationhood.

This very internationalism is also being used in the contemporary British context as another stick to beat down the English as they press for official recognition as a nation: ‘Britain is internationalist and open to the world’, so the argument goes, ‘while England is narrowly nationalistic and xenophobic’. But, as I argued in my previous post, this is both a travesty of history (because it’s England and Anglo-Saxon civilisation that has made Britain the multi-cultural society it is today), and is ideologically and tactically disastrous because it prevents cultural integration rather than facilitating it. England – the Anglo-Saxon culture – has historically been the heart of Britain and its internationalist expansion; and it can only be within that open, globally orientated, commercial, pragmatic, individualistic, Christian and tolerant English culture that is the lifeblood of Britain that all the migrants now coming to England can be truly welcomed and come to share our nation – not in an abstract Euro-Britain that denies the very nation, England, which is giving those migrants their opportunity, and which English people are rightly suspicious of and resisting.

England is a nation; not only just a nation but a great nation – the historical centre, as I say, of one of the world’s great civilisations. But the Euro-federalist project ultimately seeks the abolition of Europe’s nations, politically if not culturally. Therefore the wish of the English to reassert themselves as a nation, distinct from Britain even if remaining in some form of continuing United Kingdom, is a profound impediment to the fulfilment of European Union. If, on the other hand, England remains part of a unitary ‘Britain’, then it can be integrated within the European project. Better still if it loses its distinct national identity altogether as the influx of European and worldwide migrants is exploited by the British establishment as a lever to deny the fundamental Englishness of Britain. Brown’s European-British values, and the European-style statement of rights and responsibilities, and eventually European-style constitution, that flow from it are clearly critical to achieving this objective. England will then be transformed from a nation whose values and institutions are Christian-liberal-democratic to an anonymous part of a Nation of Britain based on a European-universal statement of collective human rights: a-national (because British ‘nationality’ is defined in universal, civic and European terms) and secular.

The much discussed and feared regionalisation of England that would flow from, and as it were consecrate, the formation of a new Euro-Britain must be seen in this context. All of the major nations of Europe have been parcelled up into regions as part of the blueprint for Europe-wide governance and its model of subsidiarity moving down the scale from European-level government, through ‘national’ administrations and down to the regional level – with regions in major countries such as Britain or Germany being equivalent in size and power to the smaller countries such as Belgium, Denmark or . . . Scotland. An England that wanted to remain an integral, in European terms large, nation and refused to be broken up into Euro-regions would clearly be an obstacle to the Federal Europe. They probably thought that, enviously eyeing the newfound democratic freedoms of the Scots and Welsh, we English would willingly embrace the same sort of thing at regional level. Except they hadn’t bargained for the fact that the regions proposed mean nothing to us English: no history, no heritage, you see; as we’ve been an integral nation for too long. For all the other major nations of Western Europe, this is not the case: the regions mean something because they retained distinct identities, political structures and even languages for far longer than they did – indeed, if they ever did – in England. Even in France, which has been a unitary state for about as long as England-Britain, the regions have retained distinct cultural, social and linguistic characteristics that mean that they are real in socio-cultural terms, and they have proper, historic names: Picardy, Burgundy, Brittany, etc. Not so in England: what kind of regional names and identities are ‘the North-West’, the ‘East Midlands’, the ‘South-West’ – even the ‘East of England’ region in fact disuses a more traditional name for that part of England, East Anglia. Perhaps too much of a reminder of the name of the tribe that gave our land its name.

So make England part of a unitary nation of Britain, and then you can break it up into Euro-regions – because neither Britain nor the regions mean anything to the English or reflect their culture, history and nationhood. Then, by a curious not-so-coincidence, England becomes Britannia once more: the province of ancient Rome, fulfilling the Euro-federalist project to reinstate the European-wide polity that Rome once represented.

Except they’re forgetting one thing: Roman Britannia was not the same as modern Britain; geographically, that is, as it did not include Scotland (Caledonia). So what was Britannia is in reality what is now England, Cornwall and Wales. Maybe our English, Welsh, Cornish and Scottish nations have got historical roots that just run too deep to allow ourselves to be integrated into an a-national Europe. And perhaps there’s still mileage (as opposed to kilometrage) in the distinct nations of the UK to resist a Euro-British Nation and a Euro-Federation.

4 October 2007

Does David Cameron Believe In England?

Like his Labour adversary, David Cameron believes in Britain. While not recurring with quite the same hypnotic frequency as in Brown’s oration, the words ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ nonetheless appeared 25 times in Cameron’s 68-minute-long Conservative Party keynote speech yesterday. That compares with three references to ‘England’, one to Wales and none to Scotland.

Unlike Gordon Brown, then, David Cameron seems more reluctant to openly discuss his own Scottish origins, being of Scottish descent on his father’s side. Cameron did in fact refer to his parents: his father a stockbroker and mother a magistrate of long standing in the Berkshire county town of Newbury. He also acknowledged his education at Eton School, similarly in the Royal County of Berkshire. All very English and Home Counties, you might think. Was this reluctance to admit to his Scottish family background, and even to utter the words ‘Scotland’ and ‘Scottish’, linked to a wish to totally ignore the ‘English question’ and / or West Lothian question: the issue of whether the Tories are going to back any formula that will exclude Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on England-only matters, and ultimately whether a separate English parliament along the lines of those in Scotland and Wales should be established? If this subject is taboo in what could well turn out to be the Conservatives’ launch pad for a general election, this doesn’t bode well for serious discussion on the issue during the election campaign.

Cameron may not have mentioned Scotland but he did pronounce the ‘E’ word three times, as mentioned above. What was the import of these references? For me, they bespeak targeting Northern English swing seats, which is the Tories’ main hope for an electoral break-through. First reference, towards the beginning of the speech: “we are back in the North of England, a force to be reckoned with in every part of our country”. [Er, by ‘our country’, Mr Cameron, do you mean England or Britain as throughout the rest of your speech: Freudian slip there!] Second reference: anecdote illustrating problems of children’s behaviour in schools and teachers being hindered from imposing discipline, based on experience of when “I went and taught in a school for a couple of days in the north of England”. Third mention: the gym set up by Amir Khan (“the best boxer in England”) in Bolton as an illustration of the value to be gained from a national citizens’ service for young people.

So every single mention of England – and there weren’t that many – related to the North. You could infer from this that the Tories aren’t particularly interested in dealing with the specific concerns of their safe heartlands in the rural Midlands and the South; or, indeed, in addressing England as a whole. All they need do is focus on winning a certain number of marginals, especially in the North, and that could be enough to gain them outright power or at least to produce a hung parliament. Does this also imply that they don’t think they have much of a chance of making significant strides in either Scotland or Wales, with the nationalists and Labour slugging it out between them?

If an election is called, as now appears the most likely outcome, it will then effectively be an England-only vote for the Tories. But of course, they can’t openly admit that. Hence the pretence throughout Cameron’s speech that the prospective election will involve issues affecting the whole nation (i.e. Britain) in equal measure; and that the ambitions he laid out for things like education, the NHS, the social services and even tax related to Britain as a whole and not merely England.

To be fair, this pretence is perhaps less disingenuous on the part of the Tories than of Labour: in the unlikely event that the Tories did win an overall majority in the UK as a whole, based on a substantial majority in England, this would at least mean that parliamentary votes on England-only matters involving the participation of Scottish and Welsh MPs would still reflect the majority in England – at least, the majority in terms of number of MPs if not the actual wishes of the English electorate, unless the Tories did pull off the feat of obtaining more than 50% of the English vote. In the context of a run up towards a general election, when the Tories – like Labour – tend to set their sights on the prospect of a disproportionate overall UK majority, the West Lothian question becomes less pressing for the Tories. If they can win a UK majority (and the ‘message’ clearly is that this is their goal), then Malcolm Rifkind’s compromise solution of a Grand Committee of English MPs deciding on England-only matters would probably be sufficient to address the concerns of Conservative Party members and supporters about the West Lothian anomaly – until that majority is lost again, and the injustice and disproportionality of that anomaly can once again not be ignored.

So the Tories are potentially going into an election under the pretence that they are fighting for Britain as a whole; whereas, in reality, they will be fighting for control in and through England, and any real power they have to deliver their social agenda can be exercised only in England. But according to his speech, Mr Cameron doesn’t believe in governments controlling people but: “I think if we give people more power and control over their lives, I think they’ll take the right decisions, they will grow stronger and society will grow stronger too. I don’t believe in an ever larger state doing more and more, I believe in trying to make people do more themselves for their families and with society as well”.

This is all very well; but Mr Cameron certainly doesn’t seem willing to entertain the idea of letting the English people have more control over their lives by giving in to what opinion polls show is majority opinion in favour of an English parliament. When he came to spelling out the political meaning of this greater control people will enjoy over their own lives, Cameron completely side-stepped the whole issue of devolved government and referred only to a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty, to elected city mayors and to scrapping the regional assemblies in favour of county councils. This refusal to even acknowledge the difficulties caused by the current devolution arrangements and the issues around constitutional reform was completely disingenuous: spin in Tory mode.

Cameron might argue that this speech wasn’t the place for dealing with details of policy, although there were plenty of general policy commitments on a host of domestic and international issues. Just as Gordon Brown’s speech last week was his ‘vision thing’, so Cameron’s was a ‘belief thing’: the words ‘belief’ or ‘believe’ occurred 30 times; and the whole oration was framed as an attempt to answer people’s questions about what Mr Cameron believes in. And actually, when it comes down to it, these beliefs come across as remarkably similar to those of Gordon Brown, although there are some subtle but significant differences in the language and tone. Both men claim to believe in empowering the individual to achieve their personal goals and potential; and both consider that individuals also have responsibilities towards the rest of society. However, whereas Gordon Brown describes this in terms of maximising individual opportunity, meritocracy and social responsibility, Cameron talks of individual control and moral responsibility towards others (epitomised in the family) based on personal freedom and what could be termed the ‘sovereignty of the individual’: the view that if people are given real freedom to make their own decisions, these will generally be the right decisions, both morally and in terms of reflecting their needs and the needs of those for whom they are responsible. As Cameron himself summarised: “That’s what I believe. Giving people more power and control over their lives. Making society more responsible and families stronger”.

In short, this is a classic Tory message: a belief that society will become healthier, more cohesive and orderly, more prosperous and more participative if people are allowed to make their own decisions free from government interference – based essentially on a religious-type belief in the inherent goodness of human beings and personal ambition. And in passing, while on the subject of religion, I note that Mr Cameron did not refer once to England’s or Britain’s Christian traditions, or to the whole issue of tensions between different faith communities in the country, particularly Muslims (no mention of the word ‘Islam’; one reference to a ‘Muslim’ member of the Shadow Cabinet): like the English issue, another intractable question that couldn’t be allowed to tarnish Cameron’s avowedly ‘optimistic’ view of the world. Is Mr Cameron a Tory Christian, and is his programme for allowing individuals to exercise moral responsibility towards themselves and society inspired by Christian faith? Nothing inherently wrong if it is; but in a statement of beliefs, it would have been interesting to know. Perhaps Cameron the propagator of spin is unwilling to openly acknowledge the religious underpinning of his belief system in the same way as his Scottish background, both of which he uncomfortably shares with both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. And if Mr Cameron’s beliefs aren’t grounded in formal or informal religious convictions, on what does he base his hope for what he essentially describes as nothing short of a moral transformation of the country?

Of Britain, that is. Because Mr Cameron’s programme is – ostensibly – one for Britain as a whole; his beliefs embody a view of what Britain can and should be. Even though, in practical reality, he’s talking mostly of England alone. Mr Cameron says, “People want the politics of belief and that means politics they can really believe in”. But, so long as Mr Cameron cannot bring himself to utter the word England even while that is what he is talking about, I’m not sure I believe in his politics. Just as I’m not sure that he really believes in England.

25 September 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 August 2007

Youth Crime and British Values

Whenever a terrorist outrage takes place, followed by the ritual response that it represents an assault on ‘our values’ that must be resisted, it’s not just the assumption that such acts of murder are primarily an attack on our values (as opposed to, say, a crime against humanity) that I find questionable. (See previous discussion on this point.) I also find it bemusing that there’s a presupposition that ‘our values’ are something wholly positive.

Of course, ‘our values’ should be defended, simply because they are our values. It’s our right to determine what those values should be, and we mustn’t be deterred from that by the men of violence. And it’s a natural reaction to want to rally round and reaffirm what we stand by. But implicit in this is also an idea that ‘our values’ are the right values: not just our right but the right – morally and philosophically superior to any other set of values.

These values of ours – which are also said to be intrinsically ‘British values’ – are usually defined in the most general of terms: liberty, democracy, tolerance, equality, progress, the rule of law, etc. Difficult to object against those on principle, although in practice, they often don’t mean what they say on the tin. But then do these somewhat abstract concepts truly encapsulate everything that we might mean by ‘our values’? You could say that they’re only the conceptual superstructure by which we justify and attempt to give a philosophical account of what is termed our ‘way of life’ – also said to be under threat from the terrorists. These values are as it were the ‘form’, or formal definition; while how we actually live, and what we live for and by, is the ‘content’ of British culture and society. And how should that content be described?

Another type of shocking event that puts ‘our values’ into question is apparently random acts of youth violence, such as that which claimed the life of young Rhys Jones last week. Incidents such as this do not easily fit the idea we’d like to hold of our society as living by the values of tolerance and the rule of law. That’s not to say that gang crime and youth violence are somehow the ‘truth’ of life in Britain today and fine-sounding generalities are a ‘lie’. One of the paradoxes of the whole thing is that while murders of this sort understandably lead to agonising discussions about ‘gun culture’, youth violence and anti-social behaviour, the crime statistics (or some of them) indicate that gun crime is decreasing.

Apart from our natural horror and outrage at the needless wasting of such a young life, society’s hand wringing stems from a fear that the violence this exemplifies represents another assault – like that of terrorism – on the tolerant, law-abiding society we like to think we are. This is not so much something that could realistically overwhelm society, bringing lawlessness and anarchy; rather, it is something that undermines society symbolically – impairing our self-image and the linkage we like to make between our liberties and social progress.

The vicar of the church situated behind the pub in whose car park poor Rhys was gunned down was interviewed on the BBC Radio Four Today programme on Friday morning. He stated his opinion that gang culture arises in part out of society’s ‘commoditisation’ of human life: that what you have is seen as more important than what and who you are. Whether that fits the motivation of the boy who killed Rhys Jones we may never know. But this does highlight an important issue. Our society has become more selfish and materialistic, and does set much more store by individual possessions and material assets than it did in the past. What’s involved in this is a sort of displacement of value: monetary value (wealth) comes to be seen as an intrinsic value; ‘our value’ to ourselves and others is seen in terms of ‘our value’ at the bank. Our values, as a society, are then inextricably linked with economic success.

These are not just philosophical or theological abstractions: they relate to the way politicians talk and ordinary people really think about British society and their own aspirations. One of the things that politicians like to point to as demonstrating the validity of our values and the ‘greatness’ of Britain is our economic success: the fact that we’re the ‘fourth-largest economy in the world’, or wherever we stand in the GDP rankings nowadays. And the conventional measures of individual success involve things like: getting a good education; progressing up whichever career ladder you’ve chosen; achieving a good standard of living; amassing possessions and properties; raising a family to enjoy even better material conditions and personal opportunities than you benefited from yourself, etc.

On one level, there’s nothing wrong about having such aspirations: better to have some goals in life, especially if they’re family-centred, than none. Equally, Britain does have an economic record over the last 20 years or so that we can feel proud about to some extent. But if these things are what truly define ‘our values’ – if there’s nothing beyond them – this does mean that terms that more adequately describe our way of life (what we live for and by) are things like individualism and materialism, rather than flattering abstractions such as liberty and progress, which could be viewed as referring to the underlying economic and social structures that enable our individual and material self-improvement. And if we define our worth in terms of our net worth – in a financial sense – this does mean that people who feel unable to enter into the path of personal progression described above feel worthless: devoid of respect from society and lacking in self-respect.

I find it ironic that Tony Blair chose the term ‘respect’ on which to hang his drive to reduce anti-social behaviour: the so-called ‘respect agenda’. ‘Respect’ is, of course, a concept central to the gang culture and has become almost a cliché in youth jargon as an expression of appreciation for a person or thing – one thinks of the Ali G parody of rapper language. People who’ve been members of gangs talk about how their membership, and the fact they were able to walk about carrying firearms or knives, made them feel empowered to demand respect from others; and that the one thing you absolutely couldn’t do was ‘disrespect’ / ‘dis’ gang members – another key term in the argot. I wouldn’t be surprised if the youngster who killed Rhys Jones hadn’t been put up to it by members of a gang as a means to show he was worthy of their respect and inclusion within their group.

The point of all this is to suggest that gang culture and the young people that get caught up in it are from being without any notion of respect for others; but their attraction for gangs is built on a sense of not being respected and regarded as having any worth by mainstream society. The formation of gangs is a way for such people to create an alternative society, in opposition to the mainstream culture, which they turn against violently in order to reinforce the cohesion and importance of their own group, to which they transfer their loyalty and sense of belonging – and from which they seek and obtain respect.

This then raises the question: to what extent does our society genuinely not show sufficient respect to some young people, so that they then reject its norms and notions of acceptable behaviour? I think it is true that British society does fail many of its young people in quite significant ways: inadequate education; family break up; the decline in the provision of constructive outlets for young people’s energies, for instance through membership of other types of youth organisation (sports and social clubs, Scouts, etc.) that offer that essential sense of belonging, the opportunity for energetic activities and the chance to develop feelings of self-worth from doing things for the community in which they live; and a false set of values that sets a higher store by career and financial success than by just being who you are and caring about others.

I think David Cameron is right when he says that the break down of family structures is key to all this. But I’m not convinced the Tories or any other political party have the ‘answers’. You can’t reinforce marriage, for instance, simply by a few tax incentives. The problem is not limited to particular deprived inner city areas or social classes but is common to society as a whole. One of the main reasons why marriages break down is because there is no social consensus about what marriage is and what purpose it should serve, resulting in a weakening of the commitment to marriage as an intrinsically good thing. And this is as much a phenomenon of the middle-to-upper classes as of the lower classes, although the social effects can be mitigated to some extent through the educational and financial opportunities that are still open to children in more well-off families affected by divorce.

Elsewhere, I’ve attempted to set out some new principles for civil marriage, which would require precisely such a new social consensus if they were ever to be implemented. In the present circumstances, it’s not really an option for us to try to go back to Christian concepts of marriage – even though I personally believe in them – because the majority of people (and, arguably, many Christians) no longer accept or live by Christian or any religion-based ethics, and there are sizeable portions of society that adhere to other faiths. But the main reason why we need to drastically improve our performance in the marriage area is children. Even if we adults find it difficult to agree about what marriage should mean, it’s unmistakably clear that children need stable parental relationships, and benefit from the sign and example of their parents commitment to them as children and to each other that marriage provides.

This is something that the faiths of our ethnic and religious minorities seem to have managed to hold on to better than the Christian or former-Christian majority. I was reminded of this last week by one of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries where two mothers change places with each other and go to live with each other’s families for a couple of weeks. One of the mothers in last week’s programme was a devout headscarf-wearing Muslim; while the other mother was a liberal-minded atheist who worked in a radical theatre company and whose daughter had recently come out as a Lesbian. One of the things that struck me most powerfully was the way in which her marriage, and duties to her husband and children, were so central to the Muslim woman. While this was linked with some social attitudes that we would find problematic in the West (prejudice towards homosexuals, ‘excessive’ deference towards the husband, limited freedom in lifestyle choices for the daughters), the Muslim family nonetheless provided an impressive example of family cohesion and togetherness of precisely the kind that is necessary to give children the best start in life and a sense of self-worth.

The importance of marriage and children are absolutely central to the ethics of Islam and of other minority faiths. And they need to become central to our own thinking about bringing about social cohesion and dealing with the problems of disaffected youth. The solution is in our own hands. We have to begin by reforming our own lives and relationships – otherwise, talk of reforming something as general and abstract as ‘society’ is meaningless. Adapting the aphorism, charity towards our children begins at home.

Of course, it’s not just about children and marriage; it’s about the principles and values that shape our whole lives. Are we fundamentally self-centred – focused on satisfying our own desires and aspirations, and on amassing ever more possessions and wealth? Or are we people-centred: concerned about the needs of those around us – our ‘neighbours’ in the traditional Christian sense – and doing what we can to help them? Most of us are probably a mixture of the two; but have we got the mix right – are our values truly the right values?

A society that is self-centred – individualistic and materialistic – is one that creates winners and losers. If we’re indifferent to the losers and they feel excluded from society’s rewards, we shouldn’t be too surprised if they band together and lash out against ‘our values’. A society that is people-centred, on the other hand, is one which by definition seeks to include and involve everyone, and which builds community and a system of mutual support and care based on true respect for others.

But it’s not really ‘our values’ that are impaired by the gun-wielding gang member or the terrorist suicide bomber; it’s our lives – those of the victims and those of the perpetrators. To what extent are the actions of the murderers in each case governed by the fact that ‘our values’ leave no place for them: for their lives, their values and their right to our respect? Which is not to justify their deeds but might help to explain them.

There must be something wrong with a society and world order that creates people who feel so alienated and hostile that they are driven to apparently indiscriminate acts of violence against it. Those people are not separate from our society and motivated by forces of which we can have no conception. Except, of course, we have separated them and factored them out of our values and our lives – which is the very source of the problem.

Next time a terrorist outrage reinforces our hostility towards Islam as a value system that radically challenges our own, perhaps we should remember the ways in which true Islam – not that of the terrorists – embodies good values that we no longer seem able to live by, such as those of permanent marriage and dedication to others. Perhaps our fear of Islam rests to some extent on our own lack of faith or even bad faith: a projection of our guilty consciences about the sacred values our lives no longer reflect.

And the next time a child is gunned down by another child, let’s not turn the child killer, in both senses, into a monster – the selfishness and indifference of our society and our values has already done that.

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