Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

16 August 2010

‘Racist’ English nationalism: an alibi for Britain’s anglophobia and Islamophobia

It’s become something of a cliché in the discourse of the progressive wing of so-called British politics to refer to a supposed association between English nationalism and the racist far right. The key illustration of this link that is usually brought forward nowadays is the English Defence League: the protest organisation set up to resist the alleged spread of Shariah Law, and the ‘Islamification’ of England and the UK as a whole.

The EDL itself refutes the charge of racism; and as a general point, the question of the connection between ‘anti-Islamism’ / Islamophobia and racism is an interesting and complex one, which I’ll discuss quite a bit during the course of this post. While it’s true that hostility or wariness towards Islam, or some of its manifestations, by no means intrinsically involve racism, they are often a cover for it. This is certainly the case with the British National Party (BNP), which uses opposition to ‘Islamism’ (radical, political, militant Islam) as a displaced channel for racial hatred and phobia – the Muslims in question being invariably Pakistanis, Turks, North Africans, Arabs and other ethnic communities the BNP would like to expel from Britain.

Russian girl leads a recent EDL protest march in Dudley, bearing the Russian flag (from the EDL website)

And herein lies a problem: it’s the British-nationalist parties such as the BNP and UKIP that tend to exploit Islamophobia more systematically in pursuit of anti-immigration and racist political agendas, not ‘English-nationalist’ movements such as the EDL or the English Democrats. (And for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not suggesting there is an intrinsic link between racism and opposition to mass immigration – any more than I’m arguing there’s an intrinsic association between Islamophobia and racism – but the two do often go hand in hand: racist sentiment is exploited in pursuit of anti-immigration policies, while anti-immigration politics often serve as a displaced, legitimised channel for racism.)

In addition, it’s questionable to what extent the EDL really qualifies as an English-nationalist movement as such, i.e. one that believes that England is a sovereign nation that is entitled to determine for itself how it should be governed, whether as an independent state or as part of a continuing United Kingdom of some sort. On its website, the EDL talks just as much about defending Britain, the United Kingdom and ‘our country’ (the usual term for avoiding being explicit about whether you are referring to England or Britain) as it talks about England. If anything, the EDL appeals to what you could call the British nationalism of English patriots: that traditional English pride in Great Britain that sees no fundamental contradiction or difference between Britain and England, and sees defending the English way of life and the sovereign British state as one and the same thing.

It’s a mark perhaps of the extent to which all things England have been marginalised and repudiated by the liberal British establishment that this English pride in Great Britain now expresses itself primarily in terms of English-national symbols as opposed to British ones, even as the traditional ambiguities regarding the distinction between England and Britain persist: the British symbols have become so tainted with both racism of the BNP variety and the anglophobic bias of the British government that the only way that non-racist English pride in Britain can be asserted is through the symbols of England that traditionally were not viewed as contrary to an inclusive British patriotism.

And let’s not forget the catalyst that sparked the creation of the EDL: the insults that were directed at British troops returning from Iraq by a handful of Muslim hotheads in Luton, in March 2009. The said troops are of course part of the British Army, sent out to that Muslim country for the alleged purpose of defending Britain and British interests, not England as such. The EDL are in a sense, and perhaps even see themselves, rather like a latter-day Home Guard, set up to defend the ‘home front’ (England) in support of our boys on the eastern front in Iraq and Afghanistan. And let’s not forget that the theme tune for the TV sitcom Dads’ Army proclaimed, ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler, If you think old England‘s done!’, even as the arrows representing the retreating western front on the map of Britain and France displayed the Union Flag: the defence of Britain and the defence of England seen as one and the same thing.

The difference now is that the enemy is not Nazi Germany but ‘Islamism’, which, despite its radically different philosophical basis and political agenda, is viewed by its opponents in a similar light to Nazism. Note the pejorative impact of adding an ‘ism’ to the end of a word: Nazism, Islamism, racism, nationalism indeed; the word ‘Nazi’ itself being a shortened form for ‘national socialism’ – the effect of the ‘ism’ being to imply the existence of doctrinaire extremism, thereby foreclosing a more open and enquiring discussion about the phenomena at issue, whether Islam or nationalism.

Indeed, it’s in their opposition to ‘Islamism’ that the EDL and the British government find common cause: the avowed purpose of the EDL being to resist the influence of Islamists at home, while the mission of the British Armed Forces was often presented as that of destroying Islamist terror movements in their home base in Iraq and Afghanistan. I say ‘was’, as the rhetoric around the concept of Islamism, on the part of the British government at least, seems to have died down a bit since the demise of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. And indeed, it’s perhaps mainly in reaction to the perception that the British government’s determination to vanquish Jihadist Islam was slacking (troops returning from Iraq, with the police allowing Muslims to jeer at them; the soldiers in Afghanistan not being adequately equipped for the task; etc.) that the EDL was formed. So the EDL is not in fact primarily an English-nationalist movement at all, but an English movement for the defence of Britain whose motivations are remarkably similar to those of the British government itself during the last decade: a reaction to Islamist ‘Terror’ and the fear of Islam.

Picture and caption from the BNP website

By contrast, the overtly racist BNP rejects what it terms Britain’s illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems to me that this is partly, ironically, because the BNP does not wish to be seen to be condoning violence against Muslims, which – whatever justificatory gloss you put on it – Britain’s military adventures in those countries have undoubtedly involved. But this position on the part of the BNP also allows it to whip up hysteria against ‘the enemy within’ (Islamism) in pursuit of its racism-fuelled anti-immigration agenda: “Mass immigration has created a large pool of Muslims in Britain from which the Islamists — who have been waging war against the infidel khufars of Europe for over 1,300 years — can actively recruit. Britain’s biased foreign policy has given these Islamists, who are already not short of hatred for all things Western, a gift horse with which they can justify attacks inside Britain” (quote from the BNP website).

So to summarise the discussion so far: the EDL, which sees itself as anti-Islamist but not racist, defends Britain’s military campaigns in Muslim countries; whereas the BNP, which also sees itself as anti-Islamist and anti-immigration, and is racist whether it accepts the accusation or not, rejects the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the better to refocus attention on the ‘war’ against Islamism within Britain, which it hopes will eventually result in the mass expulsion of Asian Muslims from the UK. Neither of these movements, however, can accurately be described as English-nationalist.

The main political force that is avowedly English-nationalist, the English Democrats Party (EDP), seems at first sight to be altogether unconcerned by the supposed Islamist threat: I could not find a single reference on the party’s website to either ‘Islamism’ / ‘Islamist’ (or indeed ‘Islam’), ‘Shariah’ or ‘Muslim’. The one mention of ‘burka’ was a link to a Daily Telegraph article reporting the words of that doyen of secular-liberal, anti-religious respectability, Richard Dawkins, comparing the burka to a “full bin-liner thing” – thereby perhaps making a comical, unconscious association between ‘bin liner’ and ‘Bin Laden’. Dawkins did go on to clarify that, “as a liberal”, he did not support a ban on women wearing the burka in public – although his words were reportedly condemned as Islamophobic by a representative of the Muslim Association of Britain.

By contrast, a ban on the burka is one of the pet causes of the UK Independence Party, whose website mentions the word on no fewer than 179 occasions (according to my Yahoo! search restricted to the UKIP site). UKIP would reject the charge that its proposed ban on the burka is an expression of Islamophobia. Such justification that is brought forward for it centres around security concerns and an opposition to divisive forms of multiculturalism. However, UKIP’s advocacy of bans on face and head coverings (including the niqab, or full veil, but not, I assume, the Islamic head scarf, or hijab) is expressed in terms that link legitimate security concerns to the more irrational element of fear that is the very essence of Islamophobia: “one of the 21/7 bombers escaped wearing the burka; the hidden face can also hide a terrorist. When we talk of terrorism, we usually refer to a problem coming from within Islam. Of all the religions, Islam is the only one whose leaders do not wish their followers to integrate into our society, and Sharia, which can alas [also?] be described as gender apartheid, holds growing sway in too many parts of our country. So the burka is a symbol of separation, discrimination and fear”.

These words from the pen of UKIP’s leader Lord Pearson could easily have slipped from the mouth of BNP chief Nick Griffin, and illustrate how wariness towards Islam, or certain aspects of it, that could be seen as based on legitimate, indeed liberal, concerns around security, women’s rights and cultural integration is often also informed by more irrational motivations such as pure fear, and cultural, racial and (anti-)religious prejudice: the real threat of terrorism sliding over into the spectre of the Islamist Terror, and the burka being not so much an objective symbol of fear but the object of the viewer’s fear.

The same concerns inform but do not exhaustively explain UKIP’s anti-immigration policy: “A significant proportion of immigrants and their descendents are neither assimilating nor integrating into British society. This problem is encouraged by the official promotion of multiculturalism which threatens social cohesion”. Many ordinary conservative- and indeed liberal-minded English folk [deliberate small ‘c’ and ‘l’] would agree with this proposition. In fact, I myself would agree with it, to the extent that I believe that multiculturalism has been used to promote a new form of multi-ethnic Britishness that is opposed to the supposedly mono-ethnic culture at the heart of traditional Britishness, which I would call the English culture: multiculturalism and anglophobia united in an unholy alliance to create a new Britain in which ‘the English’ (viewed by the liberals as an ethnic term, i.e. the white English) are just one ethnic group among many, and no longer the core culture.

This is a more nuanced position on multiculturalism and the role of Islam, which argues that it is not so much the existence of a multiplicity of cultures, races and religious practices in England that is marginalising the English culture and identity in its own country, although there have to be limits on the number of people from whatever cultural background that come into England, which is arguably already overcrowded. The problem, rather, is the way that cultural diversity has become another ‘ism’ (multiculturalism): a key plank of a progressive ‘British’ political agenda that styles itself as anti-(English) nationalist by virtue of being anti the very concept of the / an English nation.

Having defended the English Democrats against the charge of Islamophobia, I have to admit, however, that the English Democrats’ policies on immigration and multiculturalism are expressed in terms remarkably similar to those of UKIP and the BNP, except the primary reference for the ‘nation’ allegedly threatened by mass immigration is England, not Britain, and there is no explicit singling out of Muslims: “Many English cities are being colonised by immigrant communities who do not want to be part of English society, who want their own language and laws and reject English ‘Western’ values. Which begs the question: why did they come here in the first place? And leads to the second question: why not go back to wherever they feel they actually belong and give us back our cities? . . . Mass immigration must be ended. We would deport illegal immigrants and all those immigrants who are extremists, terrorists and criminals. We would regain control of our immigration systems by leaving the European Union”.

There’s no explicit reference to Islam here, but it’s clear what is mainly meant by “immigrant communities who do not want to be part of English society, who want their own language and laws and reject English ‘Western’ values” and by “immigrants who are extremists, terrorists and criminals”: it’s the same suspicion and fear of the Islamist Terror – the fear of radical Islam because it symbolises the radically Other – exacerbated, in the case of English nationalists, by the genuine onslaught against English identity that has been carried out by the British establishment in tandem with the ideology of multiculturalism.

So how can we unpick this tangled web of complex cross-overs between racism, anti-Islamism / Islamophobia, opposition to mass immigration, nationalism and British-establishment liberalism (by which I mean the British political and cultural establishment, and its broad liberal consensus around fundamental values, under New Labour and now the ConDem coalition)? One way to try to make sense of it all is to set out the different positions of the movements and ideologies I’ve discussed in relation to these issues in a table, as follows:

Party / Ideology Is racist and, if so, towards which groups? Is anti-Islamist / Islamophobic? Viewpoint on mass immigration Backs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Sees itself as defending which (concept of) the nation?
EDL Strongly denies it Yes Against Yes England and Britain without distinction
BNP Yes: towards any ‘non-white-British’ groups Yes Against No Britain (with England seen as an integral but subordinate part of Britain)
UKIP Not overtly Yes Against Yes, but in a qualified way Britain / the UK
EDP Not overtly Yes, but implicitly Against Yes, but in a qualified way England
British-establishment liberalism Yes: towards the ‘white-English’ Yes, but implicitly Has encouraged it Yes Britain / the UK

All of these movements and ideologies could be described as nationalisms of one sort or another; and they’re mostly in fact variants of British nationalism, even the EDL, as I argued above. The only properly English-nationalist movement here is the EDP. And what in fact all of these nationalisms share in common is Islamophobia to varying degrees of intensity and explicitness.

Some readers will no doubt reject my characterisation of British-establishment liberalism as a form of nationalism, along with the charge that it is marked by Islamophobia. But as I’ve tried to bring out in the argument and quotations above, there is really only a sliding scale separating more liberal justifications for suspiciousness towards Islam, and for war in Muslim countries, and more irrational fears about the intentions of Muslims and the effects of (mainly Muslim) mass immigration on the culture, identity and even survival of the ‘nation’.

In addition, the British government under New Labour, and now, it seems, under the ConDems, have indeed ruthlessly pursued what can adequately be described only as a nationalist agenda to articulate, maintain and impose the idea of an integral British nation over and against the internal and external threats to its existence, both real and imagined: (English) nationalism, mass immigration and multiculturalism and the hostility towards them, Islamism, and terrorism. Furthermore, this has involved the most aggressive foreign policy that Britain has seen in decades – arguably, not since the botched Suez War – involving an apparent readiness to sanction dubiously legal pre-emptive military action against Muslim countries, supposedly in the national interest.

In all of these forms of nationalism, I’m arguing that there’s a more or less narrow scale leading from anti-Islamism via Islamophobia to racism. In the case of UKIP and the EDP, the specific racial make-up of the Muslims / Islamists that are the object of anti-immigration resentment and general suspicion is not usually referred to explicitly. We need to read the pronouncements of the BNP and, to a lesser extent, the EDL to get explicit references to what is only implied by UKIP and the EDP: these are ‘Asians’, used in a more or less restrictive sense – sometimes mainly meaning the Pakistani community, sometimes covering pretty much the whole extended Islamic community and faith seen as the expression of an alien (Asian) culture that is radically different from our European and Christian civilisation. The word ‘culture’ is, after all, so often used as a politically correct euphemism for ‘ethnicity’ or ‘race’; so that, by extension, the much despised multiculturalism also implies multi-racialism, and the immigrants who are viewed as wishing only to retain their own culture and law are Muslims of another race who are perceived as preferring to keep up a sort of apartheid separating them from the (white) English than integrate with the English community at large.

In addition, British-establishment liberalism, rather than being merely anti-Islamist and anti-Asian-racist to a greater or lesser degree, is anti-Islamist-racist and anti-English-racist: both Islamophobic and anglophobic. How does that compute? This is a case of denied and inverted racism: the English as such are the ‘acceptable’ object of liberal-establishment racism, in part because they are the projection of the anti-Muslim racism the establishment won’t admit to but which it expresses violently outside of Britain, in its wars in Muslim lands. In other words, the establishment denies the Islamophobic racism at its heart by projecting it outwards: physically outside of Britain, by taking it out on Muslim countries; and symbolically, by ascribing it to the English, thereby evincing inverted racism – the English becoming the symbol of the British establishment’s own racism, in its very heart, which it used to be proud to call ‘England’. In this way, the supposedly racist ‘English nationalists’ represent Britain’s ‘alibi’: the group it can point to in order to exonerate itself of racial crimes abroad by saying, ‘no, that’s where the racism was at the time of the alleged incident: at home in England, whereas I was just out doing my work and my duty defending Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan!’

My view that the establishment is both anti-Muslim-racist (and by implication, anti-Asian-racist) and racist towards the English is based on how I view Islamophobia and anti-Islamism. Let me clear about this: I’m not saying that some of the forces of militant Islam don’t pose a threat to the security of Western countries. The events of 9/11 and 7/7 provided ample proof of that. But where concerns about this threat cross over into frankly hysterical fears about the imminent imposition of Shariah and the Islamification of England and Britain, this is where Islamophobia (the irrational fear and loathing of Islam) is at work; and Islamophobia, in my view, always involves a racial element, which some people (e.g. the BNP) try to exploit for their own political purposes.

With regard to the Islamophobia at play within establishment liberalism, you could say of it what used to be said of anti-Catholicism: that anti-Catholicism [replace with ‘anti-Islamism’] is the anti-semitism of the liberal. Anti-Islamism is indeed in many respects the new anti-semitism: like the Jews before the war (the Second World War, that is) and in Nazi Germany, today’s Muslims are a combined racial-religious minority, some of whom insist – how dare they? – on continuing to adhere to their religious Law and in not mixing, socially and racially, with the surrounding population, call them Gentiles or kuffar.

In the liberal context, the suspicion and anxiety provoked by this racial-religious minority that appears to reject Western liberal values articulates itself in relation to typical liberal concerns around women’s rights (e.g. the burka issue), the desired goal of racial-cultural integration, and the supposedly irrational and archaic nature of the Muslim faith and religious practices. The words of Richard Dawkins, in the article referred to above where he’s reported as describing the burka as a ‘bin liner’, are perhaps instructive here: “I do feel visceral revulsion at the burka because for me it is a symbol of the oppression of women. . . . As a liberal I would hesitate to propose a blanket ban [unfortunate choice of words] on any style of dress because of the implications for individual liberty and freedom of choice”.

Picture from the Daily Telegraph article

The phrase ‘visceral revulsion’ conveys a highly emotional reaction – suggesting that Dawkins is almost sick to his gut at the sight of burka-wearing women – and responses to seeing the burka and niqab are often expressed in such emotive terms, as if an instinctive abhorrence or fear is more natural and spontaneous, and therefore not dependent on cultural (and racial) assumptions and prejudices. But these are what Dawkins then immediately adduces to justify his reaction: the burka being, for him, a symbol of the oppression of women; and no doubt, his Western liberal-secular and atheistic beliefs also make him recoil at such an apparently ‘primitive’, religiously motivated, ‘irrational’ and distasteful cultural practice, so alien to those of the ‘civilised’ West.

At least, Dawkins does have the rather English decency not to advocate banning the burka, as is urged by some of the British nationalists I’ve discussed plus their associates in far-right parties on the European continent. But not only by the far right, as legislators in both France and Belgium have voted to ban people from wearing the burka and all face coverings. And they’ve done so precisely out of the same ‘liberal’ considerations that motivate both Dawkins’ gut reaction and his reluctance to propose a burka prohibition: to eliminate a supposed means to oppress women and to oblige Muslims to integrate more with the mainstream culture.

But did the legislators in question bother to ask the women themselves whether they wore the burka out of allegedly religiously justified but ‘in fact’ cultural oppression by their North African, Turkish and Arab menfolk? Perhaps they could have tried to take those women aside and use the services of trained counsellors to try and elicit whether emotional and physical abuse was going on, in much the same manner as they would deal with presumed victims of domestic violence and rape – but not by insisting, as Jack Straw infamously did, that the women strip off their veils so the emotions written on their naked faces could be read.

According to some of the reports I’ve read, the number of women wearing the burka in France is absolutely minimal: around 200 or so. You’d think the lawmakers could find a better use of their time and of taxpayers’ resources rather than bothering themselves with such a minor social issue! Except, of course, the issue isn’t important primarily by virtue of its physical impact on actual women’s lives but as a symbolic matter: it’s a question of banning the burka as a ‘symbol’ of women’s oppression or, as Lord Pearson similarly put it, a “symbol of discrimination, separation and fear” – never mind how much real oppression, fear, and forced gender and racial apartheid are involved. Ultimately, then, laws proscribing Islamic face coverings are about symbolically and bullyingly asserting the primacy of Western values, laws and culture over the values, laws and culture of the Muslim ethnic minorities living in our midst. But the effect of such proscriptive legislation is not to achieve greater integration and acceptance of Western values on the part of the Muslim communities targeted in this way, but to drive further divisions between them and mainstream society, and in fact to ghettoise those communities still further, so they can express their culture and religious practices safely on their own territory without fear of persecution backed by the might of the law.

But, as I say, in England and Britain, we’ve stopped short of banning the burka. But that doesn’t make Britain any less Islamophobic than mainland Europe: whereas their expression of Islamophobia is to ban the hijab from schools (in France), and now ban face coverings in public buildings and transport, the British expression of it has been our military forays in Iraq and Afghanistan; and whereas some in the British establishment might lament the intolerance they see in the French and Belgian laws, politicians in those nations have vehemently criticised what they portray as Britain’s ‘brutal’, indeed unlawful, actions in those Muslim countries, in stooge-like support of our American allies.

We might say that, whereas continental Europeans have directed their anti-Islamist fears inwards, against their own Muslim populations, we’ve directed it outwards against the Muslim populations of other lands. In this sense, the actions of the French secular-liberal state could be compared with BNP policy: focusing the aggression on the enemy within rather than without. I guess the urge to commit acts of violence against Muslims, whether ‘symbolic’ or physical, in revenge for the violence we have suffered at the hands of self-styled Jihadists, has to go somewhere; so it goes where it can. And joining the US anti-Islamist / anti-‘Terror’ bandwagon was the perfect opportunity for Britain to direct this violence outwards, rather than inwards towards its own substantial Muslim minorities, which could have dangerously exacerbated racial tensions in England and would have gone against the hallowed doctrine of multiculturalism.

Ultimately, what I’m implying about the British military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they could not have been justified by the establishment if the countries in question had not been Muslim and non-European (racially and culturally), and if the establishment had not drawn on, shall we call it, the popular or populist Islamophobia at work in the nationalist movements I’ve discussed, and also in the liberal and conservative English and British population at large. It’s this Islamophobia that made the propaganda around WMD credible to so many in the run up to the Iraq War; and it’s the same Terror of Islam that has been used to argue that Britain’s presence in Afghanistan is about wiping out Islamist-terrorist infrastructure. Whereas, in fact, there were no WMD in Iraq, and Al Qaeda disappeared like a puff of smoke in Afghanistan, leaving our brave troops – for whom I have nothing but admiration – shadow-boxing against the hardline-Muslim Taliban in a sterile conflict they cannot win, and without any evidence this has helped reduce the real terrorist threat – if anything, the contrary.

But at least, sending our boys out to bash the Muslims provided an outlet for anti-Islam sentiment. However, as these military escapades have been unsuccessful at realising their declared aims (and how could they have been successful, as those aims were themselves phantasms conjured up by fear?), this has created more of a potential for the Islamophobia to seek expression domestically, through organisations such as the EDL, whose formation, as I discussed above, was in part a reaction to a frustration of the desire to see fanatical Muslims defeated abroad and the terror threat – both real and imagined – lifted.

As the example of the EDL suggests, the relationship between British-establishment Islamophobia and that of nationalist groups is to an extent organic: the military forays in Muslim lands represent in part an attempt to channel anti-Islam sentiment outside of Britain, away from its potential to generate inter-community and inter-racial violence, such as that which has indeed been seen in the past in places such as Oldham. But the very act of doing so partakes of the very same Islamophobia, which is present in a more subtle form in liberal repugnance at, and preconceptions about, Islam, including that religion’s treatment of women, which is of course also one of the retrospective justifications brought forward for Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan.

It is this channelling of anti-Muslim aggression into an overtly more reasonable and liberal outlet that enables the establishment to dissociate itself from populist Islamophobia by claiming that this domestic anti-Islamism is a characterstic of English nationalism rather than of the British nationalism that it itself represents. But, as we’ve seen, there’s only really a sliding scale between liberal Islamophobia and the more overtly racist expressions of it; and both of these are far more typically associated with the symbols and discourse of the ‘British nation’ than with those of England.

England is therefore, as I’ve said, Britain’s alibi. But ascribing racism to English nationalism also provides a convenient extra weapon in the armoury of the British establishment’s assault on any idea or expression of English nationhood – a powerful tool to fallaciously persuade the great liberal and conservative English majority that any assertion of English nationhood will inevitably stir up the mythical demons of an allegedly racist English past.

I say the liberals and conservatives (small ‘l’ and ‘c’) because the progressives don’t need convincing: they’re already sold on the myth that English nationalism is inherently tied up with the assertion of white-racial supremacy, and that only ‘Britain’ can serve as a vessel for multiculturalism and multi-racialism. And it is this hooking of the ‘Britain’ brand to the ideals of multiculturalism that creates such an imperative for the British establishment to disown the Islamophobia at the very heart of its own liberalism, given that racially underpinned prejudice towards one of the many cultures that are meant to be accommodated within the multicultural framework is apparently so radically at odds with that multiculturalism itself.

Hence, it is so convenient to point the finger of blame for racist Islamophobia on the English nationalists, and to ascribe it to those – mostly British nationalists, but also some English nationalists – who would rather have a mono-racial, mono-cultural England and Britain, rather than to English and British society at large and a more all-pervading suspiciousness towards Islam.

But is multiculturalism really a counter-racist, inclusive ideal? On the contrary, it seems to me, the so-called British model of multiculturalism is quite profoundly racist in a rather subtle way, which in turn reveals what British anglophobia and British Islamophobia have in common. This is because British multiculturalism involves the idea that the different cultures in Britain should remain different, multiple and separate; and the state and the public sector provides support for the different communities to preserve and express their distinct cultures. But it’s this that reinforces cultural and racial apartheid: each ethnic group in their separate compartments, not overlapping, intermingling and being transformed in the mutual exchange of values, customs and shared humanity. It’s the apartheid of the ethnic-racial tick box, as per the profoundly racist Census of England and Wales: ‘British-Pakistani’ and ‘White-English’ in radically separate categories because the whole population has been broken up into a thousand and one distinct racial-cultural ethnic groups, the ‘English’ being just one, and a white-only one to boot.

The deeply racist reaction of the British establishment in the face of the fracturing of (the idea of) a monolithic British nation through the combined impact of nationalisms (including, and perhaps primarily (if the truth be told), the Scottish and Welsh variety) and mass immigration has been to redefine the unity and integrity of Britain in terms of its very diversity and multiplicity, and to celebrate and reinforce that rather than truly trying to integrate it within the core culture and tradition of the realm. And that’s because the core culture and identity are those of England, not Britain as such.

The British establishment has carried on a sort of racial divide and rule: divide the population into apparently irreconcilable units, racially and culturally, the better to promulgate the idea of Britain and the authority of the British state as the only things that can hold it all together. By contrast, the only way true cultural cohesion could be fostered in England would be by celebrating England itself as the nation into which immigrants have come to make their home, and Englishness as the culture they should aspire to embrace – rather than a multicultural Britishness that exempts them and the English from coming together. For it has to be a mutual process: the English sharing of their culture in a spirit of welcome and generosity, and migrants sharing the riches of their cultures in a way that is respectful of but not subservient to the host culture – and both being transformed in the process.

This is the only way forward for English nationalists and for Muslims that seek genuine dialogue and integration within English society, without having to give up the aspects of their culture and faith they hold most dear. The ‘enemy’ for the English is not the Muslims, nor should we English allow ourselves to become enemies to the Muslims. The true enemy is the racism in all our hearts, which the British establishment would rather we directed against each other instead of transcending it to create a new England, freed from the prejudices and divisions that are Britain’s stock in trade and only hope.

7 June 2008

Is the Governance of Britain Agenda Dead?

In the statement of its Draft Legislative Programme (DLP) presented to the House of Commons in May 2008, the UK government appeared to be back-pedalling on some of the more ‘Britological’ (Britishness-obsessed) aspects of its constitutional-reform agenda, also known under the rubric of ‘Governance of Britain’. The actual constitutional-reform measures proposed were somewhat tame: reform of the role of the Attorney General; giving Parliament more of a say in ratifying treaties and approving the deployment of the Armed Forces in wars; allowing citizens to demonstrate in Parliament Square without notifying their intentions in advance to the police, etc.

With regard to the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, the only mention was that the government would “consult on a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, to give people in the UK a clear idea of what we can expect from public authorities and from each other, and a framework for giving effect to our common values”. Note the surprising omission of the words ‘British’ and ‘Britain’ from this statement: just ‘Bill of Rights and Responsibilities’, not ‘British Bill’; ‘people in the UK’ not ‘British people’; ‘common values’ not ‘common British values’. And as for the previously proposed formal Statement of British Values, there was no reference to it in the DLP at all.

I’ve suggested before that this apparent abandonment – or at the very least, softening – of the Britishness message demonstrates that New Labour has realised that it has alienated the English electorate, whose support it will need if it is to have any chance of clinging on to power at the next general election. The DLP statement came in the aftermath of Labour’s disastrous showing in the English and Welsh local elections, and before its similar mauling in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election; and the dropping of references to Britishness is consistent with other voices in the Labour Party reacting to these setbacks, which have urged the party to address the concerns of Middle England, as reflected by the Crewe and Nantwich result. Could this mean that the Labour Party will actually start formulating policies that are explicitly articulated as being for England; i.e. that they’ll openly acknowledge that their policies in areas such as health, education and planning, which they’ve previously tried to pass of as relating to ‘Britain’, in fact extend largely to England only?

If you look at the actual text of the DLP statement, you could come to the conclusion that they’ve already started to do so, without of course signalling the fact in a blaze of publicity. For a document named ‘Preparing Britain for the future’, one of whose title pages carries the Governance of Britain logo, there are surprisingly few references to ‘Britain’. Apart from the inevitable reference in the foreword by Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman, most of the mentions of ‘Britain’ occur in the context of proposed legislation that relates to the UK as a whole, e.g. the Climate Change Bill (p. 12); Citizenship, Immigration and Borders Bill (p. 20); and the Constitutional Renewal Bill itself (p. 64), etc. However, the number of references to ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ adds up to only 17 throughout the 87-page document.

By a reversal of the normal pattern, the number of references to ‘England’ or ‘English’ (54) is over three-times that of references to Britain / British. Most of these mentions relate explicitly to the territorial ‘extent’ of the proposed legislation, i.e. which UK country or countries they are relevant to. In fact, chapter 3 of the statement, summarising all the proposed bills, contains an indication of the territorial extent of each of them. When you read these passages, you realise just what a mess the devolution settlement is and how much of a very British – or should that be English? – muddle it has made of the legislative process as different parts of the same bills relate to different combinations of the UK nations. Take the Education and Skills Bill: “Some parts of the Bill would extend to the whole of the United Kingdom. Other parts would extend to England only, England and Wales only, or England, Wales and Northern Ireland only”. The summaries don’t make it clear which bits relate to which countries, however.

It’s this jumbled state of affairs that has led English Justice Secretary Jack Straw – the government’s legalistic rottweiler in a manger – to argue against the proposal for English votes on English laws in the House of Commons, on the basis that this would result in a hopelessly complex situation in which different combinations of MPs would be entitled to vote on bills sometimes on a clause-by-clause basis. But for me, the obvious conclusion to draw from this is that such complexity exists already – as evidenced by the DLP itself – and that the most rational solution (and one that would make the governance of Britain as a whole much more transparent to its citizens) would be to make a clear divide – consistent for all the UK nations – between areas of UK-wide governance and nation-specific governance. Then there would be absolutely no ambiguity about which countries the UK government’s legislative programme related to since it would be to all of them without exception; any other policies or laws would be the business of the devolved or federal governments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (and, potentially, Cornwall).

Interestingly, the DLP statement’s references to bills’ territorial extent never include the word ‘Britain’, even when that territorial extent is Great Britain: England, Scotland and Wales. See, for example, the new Equality Bill: “The Bill would extend to England and Wales, and to Scotland. The subject matter of equal opportunities is reserved to the UK, with certain exceptions”. So why not just say ‘Great Britain’ if that’s effectively what you mean? The problem with doing so is twofold, it seems to me: 1) it would involve a ‘confusion’ between, on the one hand, ‘Britain’ as inappropriately used by the DLP document to invoke a unitary Nation of Britain whose formal legal personality is the UK and, on the other hand, ‘Great Britain’ in the technically correct sense as the narrower Union of England (and Wales) with Scotland; 2) ‘Britain’ itself does not have any formal legal status or personality: UK laws are actually made – incorporated into statute – as laws of England and Wales (or now, post-devolution, often of England and Wales separately), of Scotland or of Northern Ireland. Hence the statement of territorial extent, in so far as it refers to legal statute, has to list ‘England and Wales’ and ‘Scotland’ separately.

What this means, in effect, is that there is no such thing as governance of Britain ‘as such’: Britain does not exist as a legal entity over which governance is exercised in a unitary manner. In matters in which the UK government’s remit still extends to all the UK countries, it would perhaps be legitimate to refer to ‘UK governance’. But even in these areas, this governance is given formal expression in the shape of separate legislation for each of the countries. This was the case before devolution. But what devolution has brought is far more complexity regarding which bits of the legislation of each country are the work of which parliamentary body. In other words, whereas there has never been a consistent, unitary body of ‘British laws’, and hence British governance, now those different bodies of legislation are also put together via an inconsistent and, to an outsider, apparently randomly varying combination of national parliamentary processes.

Except in England, that is. The DLP statement contains a striking acknowledgement of the one truly consistent territorial extent for all the proposed legislation: “All bills would apply to England. Bills that make provisions in reserved areas (and excepted matters in Northern Ireland) will apply to the entire United Kingdom. In many cases, a bill may also apply in part to a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In other cases, the exact extent may not yet be known and discussions with the devolved administrations may still be continuing. The Government remains committed to respecting the devolution settlements” [my emphases]. Oh Gawd! Not even the government knows what the exact territorial extent of some parts of some bills is – no wonder its citizens can’t make head nor tail of it. But the one common denominator is that everything applies to England. Which makes me think that you could perhaps re-configure the usual way of looking at the uneven devolution settlement: not so much a case of England having no distinct status separate from the UK – such a status having been conferred, to a relative extent, on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through devolution; but rather that the only practical, real instance of a continuing unitary UK is England, as this is the only part of the UK to which the government’s legislative programme applies without exception or reserve, as it were.

If, then, the only united part of the kingdom is England, perhaps we ought to think of the United Kingdom as in fact the Kingdom of England. On this view, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution is the beginning of a process through which these once independent countries or parts of countries are slowly reasserting their independence not from the UK – even less so, from Britain – but from England. Maybe this is the ultimate reason why, post-devolution, it became so imperative for the ‘British’ establishment to avoid referring to England at all costs, even when the territorial extent of its actions was so often limited to England alone: it couldn’t allow the deadly, taboo secret to escape that a unitary ‘Britain’ had never existed in the full legal sense, and certainly existed even less now; but that what the establishment had tried since 1707 to pass off as a unitary Britain had always in fact been the English state in all but name. Hence the fact – and forgive the pun – that the New Labour government could never ‘state England’.

If this is the case, it would go a long way towards explaining the profound identification between ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ that still paralyses so much of the debate about what I would prefer to call the separate but related futures of the British nations, as opposed to the ‘Britain of the future’ referenced by the DLP. This document should more rightly be considered as a legislative programme for England, parts of which, to varying degrees, also extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The frequency of references to ‘England’ within the DLP document is in effect an acknowledgement of this fact. But this is still a long way from the sort of change in consciousness on the part of Parliament that would involve it realising that it is really the English, not British, Parliament; and that it needs not so much to ‘devolve’ power to an English parliament but to split into separate England-only and UK-wide bodies.

Only in this way can there be parliaments that are properly accountable to each of the UK nations, along with a true UK parliament, worthy of the name, that represents all of the UK nations equally rather than being what it has been historically and is so even more now: a right-old English muddle between England and ‘Britain’.

PS. Just as a footnote to the above post, there’s an interesting video of Jack Straw and the Human Rights Minister, Michael Wills (also responsible for the Statement of British Values), being questioned by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights in May (after the publication of the DLP) on the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. This is a very long video, but I’d recommend the bit roughly between the 26th and 29th minute, where one MP (I didn’t catch who he was) is questioning the ministers precisely on the ‘British’ aspects of the Bill of Rights and the proposed Statement of Values. Specifically, he pulls JS up on the wording in the DLP that refers to the Bill of Rights and the fact that it refers to the UK rather than to Britain / British. JS’s answer is revealingly faltering on this point, and the minister makes it explicitly clear that what he refers to as this ‘drafting issue’ precisely does relate to the ambiguities and uncertainties around the differing responsibilities of the devolved administrations in human rights-related matters.

Hence, it may not be possible to come up with a ‘British’ Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, in the proper legal sense, because there is no consistent unitary manner in which it could be applied and implemented across all the UK nations. So the confusions and complexities about differential UK governance prevail even in the human-rights area, which is supposed to be one in which the competence of the UK government extends in a unitary fashion across the UK.

One way of putting this problem is that, while rights might be considered universal – and hence applicable without variance across all three / four UK jurisdictions – responsibilities relate more to the social and economic aspects that the government is seeking to build into a putative Bill of Rights and Responsibilities; i.e. responsibilities that citizens have to one another, horizontally as it were, as members of society and as persons that have at least a moral duty (what Jack Straw refers to as a ‘non-justiciable’ responsibility) to look after each other economically (as in parents looking after children, or family looking after sick or elderly relatives). These aspects of the question, as Michael Wills’ comments immediately following the section I’ve referred to make plain, relate much more to the values of society: specifically, from the government’s perspective, the common British values that should then feed into and inform a distinctively British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and a correlative Statement of British Values.

But the problem for the government is that social and, to an extent, economic policies (insofar as public expenditure in Scotland and Wales, for instance, is an expression of those administrations’ economic priorities as much as their social policies) are now to a large extent the domain of the devolved administrations; and, by the same token, where they differ from English-UK policies, they are a reflection of different values among the different UK nations (although English values as such cannot be said to be reflected adequately by a UK parliament that does not represent the will of the English people).

So both from a legal-constitutional perspective, and a societal-values perspective, the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities is a distinctly problematic exercise. Dead in the water before it’s even started, one might be tempted to say.

9 February 2008

Sharia, English Law and British Values

It’s open season on Islamophobia again. All it takes is for a batty old archbishop to make a few ill-considered remarks about incorporating some aspects of Islamic law, or sharia, into English law [sic], and out troop all the old stereotypes and prejudices about Islam: floggings, stonings, mutilations, beheadings, religious extremism and absolutism, oppression of women, the imposition of the veil, and the ambition of (some) Muslims to impose sharia on Britain and the West in general. What a load of disgraceful hysteria that is a shame on our country.

Actually, ‘ill-considered’ is virtually the opposite of what Archbishop Rowan Williams’ words in a lecture on 7 February were, other than in the political sense: he should perhaps have realised the furious zeal that would be unleashed to stuff the genie he’d released back into its rightful confinement. The fact that the archbishop was saying something worthwhile is almost ‘proved’ negatively by the calibre of his opponents. First of all, GB [Gordon Brown], whose spokesman stated that the prime minister “believes that British laws should be based on British values”. What on earth is that supposed to mean? There is no such thing as ‘British law’ other than as an aggregate of English law (the legal system for England and Wales) and Scottish law. And are (should) the laws of England, Wales and Scotland (be) ‘based on’ British values, whatever they may be? And is a statement such as this even a refutation of Rowan Williams’s argument, in two ways: 1) no one is denying – least of all, Rowan Williams – that the laws of Britain should be consistent with the most fundamental principles of British civilisation and society; but the archbishop isn’t advocating incorporating certain elements of sharia directly into ‘British law’ and British statutes, so the conflict in this sense doesn’t arise; 2) many of the principles of sharia law in the areas Rowan Williams is talking about (such as marital disputes and family law) are already consistent with British law and values; and, indeed, on another definition, if Muslims as Muslims are to be accepted as British, does that not mean that their values must be taken into consideration in any determination of what ‘British values’ might mean?

And then there’s Trevor Philips, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (he of the ironically ‘pro-Muslim’ revisionist British history that overrides, indeed overwrites, the separate ‘native’ histories of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland). His take on it was that “the suggestion that a British court should treat people differently according to their faith – whether that’s being Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, is absolutely divisive, and I think, really rather dangerous”. Well, this is not what Dr Williams was suggesting, either. He wasn’t advocating that ‘British courts’ (sorry, slip of the tongue, English (or Welsh) or Scottish courts) should treat people differently according to their religion; he was saying that Muslims should perhaps have the right, under English law, to seek resolution and redress in certain types of cases (essentially, domestic and financial), if they wish, through sharia-type procedures, all under the auspices and control of the English legal system. What is divisive about that? It’s not one law for Muslims and another for all the other British people. It’s an integration of limited aspects of sharia into English law, so as to guarantee that Muslims could resolve certain issues legally in accordance with their conscience and customs, while enjoying the same legal protections and rights as any other British citizen.

I’d call that integrationist and inclusive, not divisive. In fact, it’s people who are rigorously opposed to allowing for any kind of role for sharia or other religiously based laws and jurisdiction in British civic society who are divisive. As a Muslim, so the argument goes (and Blair in his time and Jack Straw have argued along these lines), you can reconcile your joint identities as British and Muslim only if you accept the ultimate supremacy of British law, indeed the rule of law, over all prescriptions and rules deriving from your own religious tradition that might place you in conflict with British laws and fundamental values; and sharia is seen as the example par excellence of such a code that is seen as conflicting with and alien to inherently British principles and values. You either accept British values, thereby subordinating your separate Muslim identity to a shared British identity founded on those values, or you don’t – in which case, in principle, you are forfeiting your right to be called a British citizen.

I think Rowan Williams was also attacking this narrow identification of British citizenship with uniform and monopolistic acceptance of the abstract and absolutist claim of the law to govern the lives of all citizens equally, without any right for particular groups of citizens to freely choose to regulate certain aspects of their lives differently, in accordance with particular customs or beliefs. As the archbishop stated: “The danger is in acting as if the authority that managed the abstract level of equal citizenship represented a sovereign order which then allowed other levels to exist. But if the reality of society is plural . . . this is a damagingly inadequate account of common life, in which certain kinds of affiliation are marginalised or privatised to the extent that what is produced is a ghettoised pattern of social life, in which particular sorts of interest and of reasoning are tolerated as private matters but never granted legitimacy in public as part of a continuing debate about shared goods and priorities”.

This could almost be a description of the way in which calls for a distinct English nation and legislative body (parliament) are suppressed by the British state and value system that certain proponents such as GB (as I’ve argued elsewhere) wish to transform into a unitary British nation where the state is viewed as representing the sovereignty (absolute authority) of the British people: equality before a unitary ‘British’ law. Meanwhile, public expressions of Englishness are denied any official sanction; indeed, the state itself suppresses any reference to England as a nation within, but distinct from, Britain even when the sphere of its own activities is limited to England. And more fundamentally, the terms in which any officially accepted discussion regarding ‘shared values’ (what Dr Williams calls “shared goods and priorities”) is allowed to take place are defined exclusively as British; while English values and culture are marginalised and dismissed as merely the whims of private individuals. You can define yourself as English, just as you can be fundamentally Muslim, only in the privacy of your heart and your home; but officially, you’re British – or else, you are free to leave.

And this is why it’s particularly pernicious that the row that erupted over Rowan Williams’ lecture should have referred to the idea of accommodating Sharia within British law. No, Dr Williams’ lecture is entitled Islam in English Law: Civil and Religious Law in England. It’s an English matter, not British. English law already allows certain types of dispute to be resolved in civil, rather than legal, procedures under the terms of Orthodox Jewish law or, indeed, sharia; and the outcomes of such procedures are legally binding. What the archbishop is proposing is no more than a formalisation and extension of such arrangements so as to ensure legal oversight and improved guarantees that the rights and freedoms enshrined in English law are not overridden by the rulings of any given sharia court, which can vary according to the ethnic background and school of Islamic belief of each Muslim community.

Such a deviation from a uniform, legalistic Britishness on the part of English courts clearly cannot be tolerated. There is, after all, only one British law, nation and set of values for all. Well, there are not; but there will be if GB gets his way. Englishman beware: it may be Islamic law they’re excluding from Britain now, but it’ll be English law next. Perhaps that’s another trick that a written British constitution will pull off: the creation of a unified British law, superseding an English legal system based on tradition, precedent and the freedom to be different.

9 January 2008

English Justice Ministry: The real reason why they broke up the Home Office

Last May, when they split up the Home Office into two government departments – the continuing Home Office and the Justice Ministry – it was all supposed to be about arriving at a more rational division of responsibilities, enabling the respective departments to deliver their objectives more effectively. Hence, the Justice Ministry is now responsible for the administration of the whole justice system, particularly the courts, prisons and probation service. The Home Office, on the other hand, retained responsibility for crime-prevention and -detection strategy, the anti-terrorism effort / homeland security, and immigration control and the defence of the UK’s borders.

What they didn’t say – and I can’t remember any media comment picking up on this at the time – is that the Justice Ministry’s and Home Office’s areas of responsibility, with only a few exceptions, map on to the functions that have been devolved to the Scottish Government (in the shape of the Scottish Justice Department) and those that have been retained by the UK government respectively. The Justice Ministry is, then, in effect the English Justice Ministry; OK, technically the Justice Ministry for England and Wales, as there is only one justice system for both countries.

I say there are a few exceptions. One of these is the Justice Ministry’s responsibility for constitutional affairs, and particularly for administering the UK’s devolved system of government (ensuring a proper and effective division of responsibilities  and co-operation between UK and devolved government departments) and the running of elections (but presumably only UK-wide elections, and local elections in England and Wales, not Scotland-only polls). So one of the Justice Ministry’s few UK-wide responsibilities is to ensure the smooth running of devolved government. This expertise must indeed have served it well when it came to dividing up the Home Office itself into two departments: one UK-wide and one, err, effectively ‘devolved’ – relating to England and Wales only, but not in name.

Not in name, that’s for sure: you’d be hard put to find many references, in all the descriptions of its activities on its website, to the fact that most of its responsibilities cover only England and Wales.  Take the press release greeting its establishment, for instance, where all the introductory general blurb contains no reference to England and Wales at all, leaving the impression that the Justice Ministry’s responsibilities are UK-wide, which they overwhelmingly are not. And, as just noted, even some of those UK-wide functions are concerned with the division of responsibilities between the UK and devolved governments.

The distorted impression cuts both ways: some of the continuing Home Office’s responsibilities relate to England and Wales only, not to the UK as a whole. But again, you always have to look beyond the general information to become aware of this fact. So, for instance, the Home Office deals with the police service in England and Wales only, not in Scotland (the Scottish Justice Department deals with that). But you have to look towards the bottom of the page detailing the Home Office’s organisational structure to be alerted to that specific fact, where a link takes you to a separate website supposedly providing information about the UK police but which is of course limited to England and Wales.

Actually, that must be it: what those specialists on the constitution and devolution at the (English and Welsh) Justice Ministry have really built up a store of expertise about is designing government departments that are effectively England-only units but where the impression is strongly maintained that they are UK departments! Let’s re-name it the Department for Double-speak: run an English ministry but pretend so hard that it’s a UK department that not only the public but you yourself begin to believe it is one! After all, if people became aware that so many of the government’s departments dealt with English matters only, they might start thinking it was logical and fair for those departments to be accountable to the English electorate and an English parliament.

I suppose it should not be a matter of any surprise, then, that the Justice Ministry (the English and Welsh one, that is) is presided over by that overseer of the government’s programme of constitutional reform and arch-enemy of English devolution, Jack Straw. What hope is there that the reforms he may eventually propose will be anything other than an attempt to set the inequities of the current devolution settlement on a more permanent and seemingly legitimate constitutional footing – especially as one of the very raisons d’etre of the Justice Ministry is to maintain a rigid, but artificial and inconsistent, divide between UK / British departments on one side (even if they’re in effect English ministries) and devolved (non-English) departments on the other. Devolution and England: never the twain shall meet, it appears, under the auspices of the Justice Ministry – even though it itself is effectively a devolved English department.

Clearly, then, there’s little prospect of justice for England while England is not even allowed to administer justice in its own name.

18 October 2007

Who doesn’t want a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty, and why?

OK, so I’m being politically and legally correct, and am referring to the treaty that the EU Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) today is going to attempt to reach agreement on as a reform treaty, not a constitution. My aim here is not to re-hash the debate as to whether the treaty is substantially the same or not as the EU Constitution that was rejected in referendums (technically, referenda if you know your Latin) in France and the Netherlands. This is a semantic distinction: whether or not you call the proposed treaty constitutional or not, it certainly relates to matters that are constitutional in nature, i.e. which affect the sovereignty, and legislative and executive powers, of the UK.

If the UK did have a written constitution, a referendum on the Treaty might well be mandatory, as it is in Ireland. It is only the Labour government’s so-called ‘red lines’, which (disputedly) guarantee the UK’s right to opt out of EU legislation and control in four fundamental areas, that enable the government to claim that the new treaty is not the same as the rejected Constitution and that therefore it is not to be held to its 2005 election-manifesto promise to hold a referendum on it. Clearly, the politics is paramount: if Mr Brown did refer to it as a constitutional treaty, he’d be forced to concede a referendum; therefore, because he doesn’t want a referendum, it’s ‘not a constitutional treaty’.

So why doesn’t Prime Minister Gordon Brown (or GB as I insist on calling him) want a referendum? If we can discount his alleged reason for ‘opting out’ of one – as indicated above – the main reasons appear to be as follows:

  1. He’s afraid of losing. GB has already demonstrated his aversion to losing votes by ducking out of an autumn general election when the polls started to suggest he might not win an outright majority. (See previous post.)
  2. It would turn into a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in general. The former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Menzies (Ming) Campbell, correctly identified the fact that a referendum on the Treaty would be rolled up into a more general debate about the direction in which the EU is heading and Britain’s aims in remaining, or not remaining, a member. The secret fear of the centre-left parties (Labour and the Lib Dems) is doubtless that a ‘no’ vote (a not unlikely outcome) would be seen by many as a vote to leave the EU. This would once again open up an argument that these parties would like to view as definitively settled; hence, Ming Campbell’s honesty in wanting to use a referendum to in fact settle it once and for all. Perhaps he calculated that, if the British people were confronted by the bigger choice of whether to keep the UK in the EU or to leave the EU, they would be swayed in favour of the former option and would then back the ongoing process of further integration with the EU.

David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, who is now calling for a referendum, is doubtless doing so also on the basis of a political calculation. He has clearly worked out that the government will resist these calls and that the Treaty will probably be voted through in parliament. If this happens, Cameron can claim that the Tories are the one party that has held the Labour Party to account over its manifesto pledge and called for a referendum specifically on the Treaty, and can therefore reap the dividend in terms of electoral support. If parliament were to reject the Treaty (highly unlikely, as this would require a sizeable Labour rebellion, the abstention – at the very least – of the Lib Dems, and the support of the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists: highly problematic, as we shall see), this would also provide an enormous boost to Cameron’s standing in the political media and the opinion polls.

On either outcome, Cameron is obviously calculating that the Tories will reap the benefits of popular support for a referendum. However, if they were subsequently elected into power at the next election, they might not be obliged to hold a referendum on the Treaty because, by that stage, it could already have been operating for two years, and a) the need for a referendum might no longer be perceived to be that great (if, in fact, no significant conflicts between EU decisions and the interests of the UK as interpreted by the government had arisen); and b) it could be presented as no longer practical; for instance, if it required a complicated process of re-negotiating Britain’s participation in the Treaty and its red lines. The Tories could then say that we just had to make the best of a bad job and that they would unflinchingly defend ‘British interests’ (you can hear the language already) within the previously agreed framework. And if they were pressured into holding a referendum, they could limit it to the Treaty rather than generalising it to EU membership per se. Which brings me to another benefit this whole affair has had for Cameron: it has enabled him to finally put to bed the damaging disputes between Europhiles and Eurosceptics within his party.

3) A referendum would open out a new front in the so-called English Question: the disproportionate role of Scottish and Welsh electors and political representatives in deciding matters affecting England. This is because the voters in Scotland and Wales are much more likely to support the Treaty, whereas the most probable result in England is a rejection. The additional ‘yes’ votes in Scotland and Wales (and in Northern Ireland, let’s not forget) could easily sway the result in favour of the Treaty. The main political parties – especially GB and the Labour Party – want to keep this dimension of the debate under wraps because of the huge issues that are at stake: they can’t concede that any referendum might in effect be two referenda [sorry, I’m a pedant] – one in England and one for the countries enjoying devolved government. If they conceded this fact, or if it was even aired in the media without their acknowledging it, this would make the existence of this post-devolution electoral anomaly in the House of Commons (where it is of course known as the West Lothian Question) even more glaring. And let’s not forget that in a House of Commons vote on the Treaty, it could well be the more Europhile Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs who would ensure that the Treaty is ratified. So we are once again confronted with a political debate carried out in GB Double-speak: where defence of perceived English concerns and interests cannot be acknowledged as such but can be articulated only in terms of ‘British interests’ and ‘Britain’s red lines’. Because in reality, this is only an English debate. Support for the Treaty and for greater integration with the EU is virtually a given in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and is certainly backed by the nationalist parties (see below). People in those countries aren’t nearly as bothered about the government’s red lines. People in England would like a vote on them all the same, thank you very much.

4) The government has its own domestic constitutional agenda, which it doesn’t want to be disrupted. Lest we forget, there is an ongoing UK constitutional-reform review headed up by Justice Minister Jack Straw. The government doesn’t want this to be rolled up into a broader constitutional debate by acknowledging that the EU Treaty has any constitutional implications. Given that a referendum would be bound to stir up this debate, and particularly the thorny English Question, best not admit that the Treaty is constitutional in its effects. The aim is clearly to get the discussion on the Treaty out of the way with a neat, quick parliamentary process of debate, review and whipped vote. Then the UK constitutional issues can be dealt with entirely separately. Not that any of us can or should pre-judge the proposals that Jack Straw and GB will come out with; but all the signs from what they’ve said and, more especially, not said, are that they are not going to offer any solution to the English or West Lothian Questions that is at all satisfactory to the majority of English people who take an active interest in democracy.

So much for GB’s objections to a referendum. Who else opposes it? The Scottish and Welsh nationalists, of course. At first sight, this could seem counter-intuitive in that some of the powers that could be transferred to the EU (and at least one of the government’s red lines that relate to those powers) are devolved ones: justice and home affairs (JHA) (to some extent, also, tax and benefits, as these are linked to the level set in England). The two other red lines involve retained powers: foreign affairs and security, and human rights. One might think, then, that on principle the Scottish and Welsh nationalists would back a referendum, as it would give the people of Scotland and Wales the chance to express their views on areas over which they currently have a direct democratic say (the devolved matters) as well as to make their opinions known on the retained, UK-wide matters.

This would in fact be the more principled position but is not one the nationalists have adopted. Why is this? In the short term, there could be two negative consequences for them if a referendum were held:

  1. They make a similar calculation to GB: they fear they could lose a referendum. What is more, having endorsed a referendum and then lost it primarily because of English votes, this would be a huge loss of prestige and could lead to an erosion of their support.

  2. This would involve them supporting and abiding by a UK-wide political process and democratic decision, which also affects devolved powers. This runs counter to the devolved power they have already achieved and their objective of gaining even more independence from Westminster.

In the long-term, the nationalist parties also have a strategy of supporting further integration of the UK with the EU, and further transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels, because this weakens the dependency of Scotland and Wales on UK institutions and government, and makes it more possible for Scotland and Wales to negotiate their own arrangements and status within the EU independently of Westminster. The nationalists clearly believe that this strategy is best served in the present by supporting the proposed Reform Treaty – preferably without but if necessary with the red lines – and, in exchange for their co-operation, trying to leverage the best deal possible for their countries in pursuit of their ultimate objective of full independence.

In this way, and not for the first time, the Labour government, while claiming to support legislation that is in the interests of the whole of the UK (i.e. the Treaty) and avoiding an argument that could destabilise the Union (the one between England, Scotland and Wales, that is), is in fact furthering the objectives of those who want to see the complete break up of the Union. In the first instance, this is the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. But this could also advance the cause of English nationalism (a cause to which I am sympathetic, by the way), because if England is denied a referendum on a Treaty that it might well have rejected, this will only stir up further resentment at the disproportionate influence of Scottish and Welsh politicians in pushing through the Treaty.

So now we have the unedifying spectacle of Scottish and Welsh nationalists lending their support to the detested UK government over a Treaty entered into by that government on their behalf, and which could diminish some of the devolved powers they’ve only just secured, because their support promotes their pursuit of perceived national self-interest.

Here’s what the SNP’s press release about the first IGC conference in July stated:

“Alyn Smith today welcomed the launch of the Inter-Governmental Conference on the proposed EU reform treaty. . . .

“Commenting on the launch Mr Smith said:

‘While welcoming the re-launch of this EU reform process as a way of making an EU of 27 member states work more efficiently and effectively, it is essential that those involved in the negotiations recognise that they must come forward with a text that truly reflects the aspirations and concerns of all of the EU’s peoples, including Scotland'”.

Very supportive of the UK government, I thought.

And here’s the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru’s statement of their Europe policy:

“Plaid Cymru strongly supports the creation of a more democratic European Union with a written constitution and a Charter of Fundamental Rights incorporated in the Treaty. . . .

“Plaid Cymru will:

  • Push for the right of direct appeal to the European Court, for example, as this could be highly relevant in challenging the United Kingdom’s refusal to apply the additionality principle to European funding.
  • Campaign for Wales to achieve full membership as a member-state of the EU.
  • Review the work of the Assembly’s European Committee with a view to improving its capacity to predict the effects of EU legislation and to scrutinise Assembly legislation arising from it.
  • Develop a multifunctional centre to act for Wales in Brussels. The Government of Wales Representation would be housed within this ‘embassy’, as would representatives of other relevant organisations”.

No wonder Plaid Cymru backs the (strictly non-constitutional, you understand) Treaty! And by the way, the technical-sounding ‘additionality’ principle, which appears so harmless, is the one whereby the government doesn’t use money from the EU Structural Funds spent in Wales to merely replace funding it would otherwise have taken from UK resources: that money should be additional to earmarked UK funding. So this is a sort of Barnett Formula+: the Barnett Formula being the one whereby the people of Scotland and Wales are already guaranteed a higher proportion of public expenditure per capita than the people of England. Sounds like the extra powers the European Court may get under the Treaty could come in handy, then!

What an alliance of the Great and the Not-So-Good is lined up against a referendum, then – and even those who back it (the Tories) are making a cynical calculation that there probably won’t be one! But England (yes, England, not Britain) should be allowed a referendum. It’s our democratic right. The UK parliament doesn’t adequately represent the interests of England in this matter, and a parliamentary vote in favour of the Treaty will not reflect the will of the English people. More damage to the Union can be the only consequence.

We deserve better. And who knows, England might even vote in favour of the Treaty – just as England might even have given GB the benefit of the doubt in a general election before he chickened out.

Let the Scottish and Welsh forge self-interested closer ties with the EU if they want to. But it’s also our right in England to decide our own future within Europe.

8 October 2007

Never Mind About the Election, England; At Least You Beat the Aussies!

Funny that the BBC were allowed to release the news of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] decision not to call a general election at 4.30 on Saturday afternoon, even though the interview through which he chose to announce this fact to the nation wasn’t due to be aired till Andrew Marr’s 9 am programme on Sunday morning! Coincided neatly with England’s marvellous against-the-odds victory against Australia in the Rugby World Cup. I say ‘coincided’; but was this a coincidence? What do you think!

An ideal moment to bury bad news, to quote a phrase! Did GB think we in England might be feeling a little pissed off that, having had the carrot of booting Labour out of power dangled in front of us, we were now once again going to have to submit to the stick of a government we hadn’t chosen – hadn’t chosen, that is, either in an election this year or in 2005? Let’s remember the facts: Labour polled only 35.5% of the popular vote in England on a low turn-out in 2005, 0.2% less than the Tories. If the opinion polls that GB says had nothing to do with his decision not to call an autumn election are to be believed, the comfortable lead the Tories stood to gain in the crucial English marginals – the only real contest in the election – could have overturned Labour’s Commons majority. Probably not enough to give the Tories an outright majority in their turn; but then, we’d have had a hung parliament based entirely on the West Lothian anomaly: the fact that Scottish and Welsh MPs, a greater share of which would be Labour, could vote on England-only matters, i.e. on the only matters that mattered – on GB’s entire agenda for change and ‘vision for Britain’, which is in fact a programme for England – education, health, social services, law and order, etc.

If the timing of the announcement wasn’t intended to dampen the annoyance of English electors, who appeared to be turning away from GB in their droves, as they celebrated a national sporting triumph, why pick such a moment? Mr Marr could have been forgiven for being just a tad pissed off in his turn; his little scoop being given away before his Sunday broadcast. But then again, I suppose his audience must have shot through the roof when it was advertised that GB had chosen it as the platform to make his excuses. Plus, of course, it enhanced Mr Marr’s already dazzling reputation that the Great Man had chosen his Sunday morning slot to speak to the nation: England, that is – I’m sure Scotland was too interested in the outcome of its own Rugby quarter-final to be that bothered by an announcement that hardly affected it anyway.

All a bit cosy, really: two Scots chatting away about a UK election that would have been all about promoting a Scottish-Labour vision for England’s future. Too simplistic? Maybe, a little. But the election certainly would have had more than a little potential to bust open the glaring disparities between political opinion and philosophies north and south of the border; and the fact that GB’s continuing franchise as PM would have been hugely dependent on the Scottish and Welsh vote on matters not directly concerning the electorates in those countries. Note that Marr didn’t push GB on this issue (nor David Cameron, for that matter, whom he interviewed live in the studio after the recorded interview with GB). Is that because, in Andrew Marr, GB knew he had a natural Unionist ally: a ‘Britologist’, as I would call him, who believes in the British political and national project, and sees it as the best way to further Scottish national interests and a British-Republican vision? (See my post British Values or Scottish Values?)

Not that I’m saying that GB, too, is a republican, as well as Andrew Marr; at least, not avowedly so – he’s too realistic a politician to know that he couldn’t get away with that. But he is preparing a set of constitutional reforms, aided by his partner in crime Jack Straw. And we in England can rest assured that there will be no resolution of the West Lothian Question in whatever deal we are offered; or not offered, as it’ll be the current unrepresentative parliament that will be voting on it, not one we could have elected in November. After all, if there was a solution to the WLQ that still preserved a UK parliament, Mr Brown wouldn’t be able to vote on his own agenda. And it’s clear he values this more than the opinions of the English electorate.

Wonder what he’ll drop on us when we beat the French! (Oh, I know: definitely no referendum on the EU constitution, chaps!)

23 September 2007

Jack Straw: Impartial Constitutional Architect or Labour Party Politician?

They had Jack Straw – GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] appointee to draw up proposals for constitutional reform – on the early-morning ITV news show this morning. I tuned in at the point where he was warning the Tories away from supporting measures allowing English MPs only to vote on England-only matters. This would, he said, inevitably lead to the formation of an English parliament, which would inevitably lead to the break up of the UK.

These are intimidation tactics. For a start, an English parliament would not necessarily have to result in the break up of the Union (though many who support the parliament do also back English independence). There are all sorts of constitutional arrangements that could allocate powers to England equivalent to those enjoyed by Scotland and Wales, while other powers and responsibilities remained the prerogative of a UK parliament and executive. Again in intimidatory mode, in the interview, Straw sought to remind the Scots that their powers were devolved not constitutionally established and that, by implication, they could be taken back by Westminster. This was as if to warn the Scottish Nationalists implicitly not to rock the boat, for instance by supporting English demands for English MPs only to vote on England-only matters, or pressing for the Scottish parliament to ‘abrogate’ powers for regulating Scotland’s fiscal and financial affairs in complete independence from the Westminster government.

Straw’s main argument, perhaps his only one (I’ve heard him elsewhere make the same case) for the need to preserve the Union at all costs is that, according to him, England’s international status and influence would be diminished by breaking Britain up. The example he gave on this occasion was European countries that have broken up and supposedly now have less influence in the EU as a consequence. Hmm, excuse me, but ask the Czechs or the Slovenes whether they’d rather be independent members of the EU or be dependent on a Czechoslovak or Yugoslav regime for their internal governance and external affairs, and I think you’ll find the riposte to that example. But what of Britain’s role, say, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and in global strategic affairs? It’s unlikely that an independent England (assuming England took over the legal personality of the UK) would be kicked out of the Security Council unless it chose to leave. Doesn’t it have a veto on such a decision, in any case? And this move would not be supported by either the US (which would continue to see England, as it does Britain, as an essential international ally) or France, who would be worried that its own disproportionate representation on the Security Council might thereby be undermined. It would be far more likely, in my view, that additional countries might be voted in as permanent members, such as India and Brazil – which would be no bad thing, in any case.

But this is all completely hypothetical and shouldn’t stand in the way of the primary consideration, which is that if the English people want greater or total separation from the UK, it is their right to have it. Straw, like Blair, is hung up on the idea of Britain as a major world power, which it really isn’t and can’t sustain other than as a close ally of the States, enabling it to exercise limited moral and strategic influence on that country. Better to forge a new and truly post-imperial identity as England; and I’m far from convinced that our European neighbours wouldn’t be better disposed to collaborate with a reinvigorated, dynamic England than with island-fortress Britain.

So by warning about the diminution of Britain’s stature if the UK was broken up, Straw is once again resorting to scare tactics. The most fundamental rationale for his and the Labour Party’s support not only for a Union reinforced by a written constitution but also denying the right of English MPs alone to vote on English affairs is that he wants to avoid Labour losing the power to form a UK-wide, centralised government based on a minority of the votes. This was evident in his evasive response to the interviewer’s question about the meaning of GB’s inclusion in government of members of other parties. In passing, the interviewer alluded to the fact that Straw had previously vehemently opposed PR: another measure that would prevent Labour from ever gaining absolute power again. Straw merely described Brown’s supposedly more collaborative approach to government as an attempt to rebuild a nationwide (Britain-wide) consensus and unity, which had been impaired by the Iraq War.

This might be one of the spin offs of Brown’s tactic, and one which serves the overall strategic objective of bolstering the Union. But, it has to be observed, there is also a potentially massive electoral pay off, judging from the latest opinion polls. From the actual effect, infer the intention: it was Brown’s aim all along to leverage this supposedly more inclusive approach to government to bring back wavering voters into the Labour fold. ‘You don’t need to vote for another party and thereby risk a hung parliament, which might require coalition government and might further weaken the Union that is in peril – just vote for avuncular, trustworthy Brown and you get effectively a coalition government anyway!’

Clearly, you’ll never get more proportionate representation for English people by electing a Labour government. They want to retain a UK-wide government elected by the first-past-the-post system, which gives them such big disproportionate majorities on a UK-wide vote, let alone an England-only vote. Oh yes, I’ve just remembered: in the last election, the Tories – even on the first-past-the-post system – beat Labour in England; they and the Lib Dems would hammer them under PR. No wonder Jack Straw, who at one point admitted his partisanship, doesn’t want English MPs to vote on England-only matters!

29 July 2007

What Is Britain Doing In Afghanistan?

Most people in Britain probably don’t have a very clear idea about what British forces are doing in Afghanistan – apart from the obvious: fighting fierce battles with the Taliban on a daily basis and incurring casualties. Probably, not many people really care that much about Afghanistan, either. They do care about the safety of our troops and might vaguely buy into the proposition that the work they are doing out there is of vital importance to national security. But the war in Afghanistan is not very high up in their list of political priorities – not even in the top ten for the great majority, I suspect.

With a sigh, we say to ourselves that at least the government must know what they’re doing and we have to trust them. I, too, would like to believe that the government has a plan. But if they do, they haven’t made it their business to communicate it in plain English.

OK, so we all know we’re fighting the Taliban-Al Qaeda (the two seem to have merged into one in media discourse); and that we mustn’t allow them to get back into power in Afghanistan or continue to build a power base across the border in Pakistan and so risk destabilising that country. But do we really think we can defeat the Taliban militarily? Let’s remember: these are essentially the same guys who saw off the might of the Red Army. They’re hardened, skilled fighters; well equipped; about as highly motivated as they come; they know the impenetrable terrain like a taxi driver knows the Knowledge; and they have a dense network of logistical and manpower support composed of a ragtag alliance of local warlords, drug producers (whom they doubtless protect and derive revenue from) and Islamic hardliners, whether of local origin or coming to them from all over the world via Pakistan.

I don’t think our under-equipped and under-manned forces, however brave and well trained they are, will be able to bust that sort of operation. The Americans certainly won’t. Besides which, looking at it from a historical angle (would that our leaders did so more often!), no one to my knowledge has a) ever actually won a guerilla war, which is what this has become, or b) ever successfully invaded and imposed their will on Afghanistan – not in thousands of years of empires that have come and gone, including the British one.

So one word that could be used to describe what the British are doing in Afghanistan is folly: we’re fighting a war we can’t win and which, moreover, the government probably realises we can’t win. One military or political authority on these matters – I can’t remember who it was now – hit the headlines a few days ago with the claim that we may need to remain in Afghanistan for 40 years or so to achieve our objectives. In my book, that’s code for saying we can’t win. Otherwise, what on earth is such a proposition based on? Why 40 years? Why not make a plan for two years, or a plan a, b and c, plus a worst-case scenario, so at least we know roughly when we can expect to get out, whether ‘victorious’ or not?

The obvious inference is there is no such plan; that no one has the vaguest idea when we’ll be able to extricate ourselves from the stalemate we appear to have got ourselves into. There’s just the ill-defined hope that eventually, over time, the Islamist cause will burn out and be revealed as a failed ideological project, in just the same way that Soviet Communism eventually had to admit that it was non-viable and imploded. That’s where the 40-years idea comes from: on the analogy with the 40 years it took us to ‘win’ the Cold War.

This reminds me of our dear old friend Sir Alan West, the UK Security Minister (see blog of 10 July), who estimated earlier this month that the fight against terrorism in this country could take 15 years. What was that based on? A wet finger held up in the wind? A calculation that we could use the skills gained in the struggle against Northern Irish terrorism, plus our greater ability to isolate Islamic terrorist groups (in part through the willingness of other British people, Muslims or not, to ‘snitch’ on them), to ensure that we could, say, halve the time it took for us to defeat the IRA? And does all this rest on a plan of some kind?

Did Tony Blair have a plan when he sent our troops into Afghanistan? Perhaps a hidden one he was keeping close to his chest? On the face of it, Afghanistan could be written off as one of the prime examples of Tony Blair’s tragic hubris and folly: the man who thought he could do no wrong and who chose to use force to bring about justice and freedom, and found instead that it brought about the opposite of what he intended. Perhaps even the tragedy of a basically good man trapped in a situation of violence which he thinks he can control and direct by going along with it to a limited extent – but then finds he can’t stop the runaway train.

Whatever the hidden wellsprings of the Afghan tragedy within Tony Blair’s ‘heart and mind’ (idealism, Christian hope, megalomania, hubris), the decision to send British forces on this mission and the thinking about their continuing – perhaps indefinite – presence there could certainly be said to exemplify the folly of Britology. The concept of the British mission in Afghanistan involves the idea that Britain is a ‘great power’: a world power, indeed, that has the capability and, by that token, almost the duty and calling to stand up and be counted, and to take a lead in the fight against those who would destroy ‘our values’, ‘our civilisation’ and ‘our way of life’. This notion was expressed by Tony Blair on numerous occasions when he was PM. It was recently re-stated by Jack Straw, Blair’s erstwhile ally and now in charge of formulating GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] constitutional reforms. In a BBC Radio Four interview, defending the integrity of the United Kingdom against those who wish to see more independence for its constituent countries, Jack Straw again argued that we should not forget that the UK is a great power at the international level, which should not be compromised by breaking it up.

Well, clearly, we do have a duty (every nation has a duty) to defend all that is good, true, civilised, sacred and human, wherever we are in a position to do so. But is Britain really a ‘great power’ that should or can do this in Afghanistan – even supposing that that’s what we’re really doing there? In fact, we’re not even a significant regional power. The reason why Afghanistan is strategically important is that it’s sandwiched between three of the real superpowers of the 21st century, all of which have an interest in what happens there: Russia, China and India. In addition, it neighbours Iran, which appears to have – or has been represented as having – ambitions of its own to be a regional (nuclear) superpower.

One way of looking at it is that we’re doing Russia’s and India’s job for them: both countries are engaged in struggles with Islamic insurgents within their own borders (in Chechenia and Kashmir); both therefore have a clear interest in the suppression of Taliban and Al-Qaeda militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan; but neither country can really intervene directly – Russia because it has already experienced its own ‘Vietnam’ in Afghanistan, and India because of its troubled relations with Pakistan. And everyone wants to keep China out of the frame. China pursues a clearly self-interested, non-ethical foreign policy; and it would not have been beyond the bounds of possibility that it would have tried to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with whatever regime was in power in Afghanistan if there was an economic interest in doing so. It must have been part of the mix of strategic thinking (at least, I like to think there are strategists in the US State Department that think along these lines) to get into Afghanistan before the Chinese got a toehold there, in terms of economic-development and social projects, and supporting personnel.

But what advantage do we Britons get out of our presence and sacrifices in Afghanistan? Isn’t it about time we pursued a somewhat more self-interested foreign policy, or at least did not put ourselves – and our soldiers – out on a limb for our ‘international partners’, some of whom don’t appear to be that appreciative? It’s far from clear that our involvement in Afghanistan has brought any significant benefits for us in the fight against Al-Qaeda and Islamically inspired terrorism, both in the region and at home. Arguably, the opposite: we’ve pushed Al-Qaeda into the mountainous borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they seem to be able to operate with impunity; and our intervention has provided grist to the mill for the terrorist recruiters, who point to it as yet another sign that we’re engaged in a persecutory ‘crusade’ against Islam.

Primarily, of course, the Afghan escapade is a US-led project. But from recent media coverage in Britain, you could be forgiven for not being aware of this. It’s always the British role, British ‘contacts’ with the Taliban and British casualties we hear about, hardly ever those of the US. It’s as if the Afghan War is being positioned as a / the British war, just as the Iraq War and consequent insurgency has been positioned as predominantly a US affair that the British have just gone along with and supported. Is this because, yet again, we’re providing ‘cover’ for the Americans in Afghanistan: concealing the extent of their continuing presence there and, more particularly, in the border territory with Pakistan? The Americans were reported this week to have been pushing to be allowed to take a more leading (and overt) role in the military efforts to attack Islamist strongholds on the Pakistani side of the border. So while us brave Brits have been taking the hit in Helmand (three more soldiers killed in the last three days), have we just been distracting attention from all that the Americans have been busily getting on with?

And there’s another reason why it’s been useful for the media to try to depict Afghanistan as ‘our war’ – apart from the fact that they couldn’t get away with this in relation to Iraq. This is that it allows emotional support for our forces’ presence in Afghanistan to be built up by playing on the whole British thing referred to above: our young lads, with all the skill and bravery of the British Army, nobly defending our way of life from its enemies – taking the fight to the terrorists, indeed – and in some cases, sacrificing their lives in the cause.

Caught a bit of the latest episode of the ITV series Guarding the Queen last week. This is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Coldstream Guards, who are the regiment responsible for guarding the royal residences. Last week’s programme saw them getting ready and departing for a tour of duty in Afghanistan: young soldiers talking about their excitement at setting off for the “adventure” [sic] of serving in one of the most dangerous war zones on the planet; regiment commander speaking of the inevitable fatalities but asserting that we’re not just fighting our enemies at home, but the nation is also being defended thousands of miles away in places like Afghanistan; embarking soldiers being exhorted by their commanding officer to give no quarter to the enemy when they’re out there and to “give them hell” [verbatim].

OK, so this is fighting talk intended to help his men be psyched up and ready for the tough fighting that awaits them. However, on national TV, this is not the kind of language to reassure Muslims that we’re not anti-Islam, e.g. that we don’t in fact want to cast all Muslims into hell. Some people in the Muslim world think we mean such statements literally. Equally, it seems rather tasteless for the programme to have played along with the idea that the war in Afghanistan was some sort of exciting Boys’ Own adventure awaiting our brave young men. War is not an adventure; it’s horrific. No doubt those lads will experience the thrill of the chase and the adrenalin rush of armed combat, which is a life they’ve chosen, after all. But they’ll also encounter something of the hell their commander was urging them to give their enemies.

In fairness to the programme, the next instalment promises to show the reality of the regiment’s tour in Afghanistan; and from the excerpts they showed, there’ll be some men returning home in a box. But one can’t help thinking that this is basically war propaganda and part of an unspoken army recruitment drive. This is because if the powers that be are imagining that we could be staying in Afghanistan (and Iraq?) indefinitely, we’re going to need a steady supply of new recruits to replace those lost in the fighting, and to build up the overall personnel levels to overcome the serious over-stretching of human and material resources that the Army Chief of Staff was talking about last week.

All the same, that commander’s fighting talk about wiping out the enemy – which reminded me of the Royal Irish Regiment commander Tim Collins’ similar blood-thirsty call to arms ahead of the Iraq War – did make me wonder whether the Taliban are a fitting object for such homicidal zeal, albeit in a supposedly noble cause. Do we the British really have such a quarrel with the Taliban that we should seek to utterly exterminate them, or at least rhetorically posture that that’s what we’re about? Obviously, we don’t like them; and there’s much not to like. Equally, if they’re attacking us to the death, we have a right to kill them in self-defence. But do we really want to destroy them completely?

If we do want to exterminate the Taliban, two questions follow: 1) is it morally right to seek this objective, and 2) do we actually plan to achieve it, as opposed to merely wanting to do so? If that’s really what we’re at, maybe the logic would indeed require some US-style – but more effectively implemented – scorched-earth policy, employing massive resources and fire power to really have a good go at them once and for all, with all the consequent risk of loss of innocent lives and wanton destruction. Because with the current level of resourcing, it is indeed hard to envisage an end to the cycle that’s started to set in: our boys get the Taliban on the run; but then they haven’t got the resources to chase them into their strongholds and finish them off; so not surprisingly, a short while later, the Taliban have regrouped and are said to be ‘resurgent’. (I don’t in fact advocate this scorched-earth policy; but the current tactics don’t appear to be getting anywhere – so the logic would be either to do enough to give oneself a chance of winning (futile in Afghanistan, in my view, for the reasons indicated earlier) or get out.)

But, so the argument goes, the main enemy we’re after is Al-Qaeda not the Taliban – except that the two have become almost synonymous in Afghanistan, as was observed above. But was that always the primary objective? If so, it appears not to have been well served by US and British intervention in Afghanistan. But was the main goal not regime change, in any case; and the hunt for those responsible for 9/11 provided a perfect pretext, just as the removal of WMD provided such a flawed pretext for going into Iraq?

I say this based on a view about the Americans’ guiding strategic vision, if indeed they have one. What they seem to have been trying to prevent is a sort of nightmare Domino Effect (funny how these Cold War throw-backs keep surfacing), whereby one state after another stretching from Pakistan right through to Saudi Arabia would fall to (Al-Qaeda-backed) Islamists. And two of these countries potentially would have nuclear arsenals: Pakistan, which already does, and Iran. If Al-Qaeda got their hands on these weapons, there’d be no telling what kind of damage they might do. So the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were mainly intended to establish buffer states – Western-style democracies – between Iran and Pakistan, on one side, and Iran and Saudi Arabia, on the other. Iran would thereby be isolated and, who knows, she could be made to bow to US pressure over her nuclear programme and democratic reforms; and Al-Qaeda would be robbed of its power base in the region.

Except, of course, pretty much the opposite has happened. Afghanistan and Iraq have been destabilised, and American intervention has created an opportunity for Al-Qaeda to increase their influence in those countries: joining their efforts with those of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and working alongside Sunni insurgents in Iraq to have a go at the Americans and their allies, and make a serious bid for power, which would have been inconceivable under Saddam.

The nightmare vision that the Americans seem to have been motivated to prevent, if I’m right, illustrates the conceptual bankruptcy that informs Western thinking about the ‘Islamist’ threat and / or the War on Terror. Even if all of the five countries I mentioned had been allowed to remain, or to move further in the direction of becoming, fundamentalist Islamic states, they would all have had quite a different character and understanding of Islam; and it’s by no means certain they would all have been natural allies of Al-Qaeda. The Iranians are (Shi’ite) fundamentalists, but they don’t share Al-Qaeda’s Sunni-based jihadism nor Saudi-style fundamentalism. And the extent to which the different strands of radical Islamic belief are not natural bed-fellows is demonstrated by the civil war in Iraq, setting Shi’ites against Sunnis. It might have been far smarter for the Americans to have cultivated improved relations with both Iran and Iraq (a former ally), for instance by getting some real momentum behind peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. After all, it’s not unprecedented for the West to maintain expedient friendships with Islamic regimes we find objectionable from a political and religious point of view; cf. Saudi Arabia itself and the less than perfectly democratic, two-faced regime of President Musharraf in Pakistan. That way, Afghanistan would really have been isolated, and co-ordinated international efforts could have been mounted to restrict the flow of money, personnel and logistical support to the Taliban regime and Al-Qaeda.

Instead, the American thinking bears all the hallmarks of that of the Cold War, as I’ve been remarking. They seem to treat ‘Islamism’ as a single, unified ideology and organised threat in the same way as Soviet communism. In response to this, they believe (or believed, at least, before the Iraqi fiasco) that Western doctrines of freedom, democracy and secular governance could carry the day throughout the region, just as they had done throughout former Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. But this is totally disastrous when applied to the Muslim Middle East on top of the long, humiliating history of Western support for Israel. It can only heap fuel on the fire of suspicion that the US does want to replace Islam with its own values as the basis for political power in the region, which – as I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog – is a plausible description of what the US and the West would really like to happen in the Middle East. This then makes Al-Qaeda seem more credible as a defender of the integrity of Islam in its heartlands, and as the main organisation that is really willing and able to take on the US and its allies, particularly Britain.

If the Americans did start to take over direct responsibility for anti-insurgent operations in Pakistan, one can’t help fearing that this would push that country into the same chaos as Iraq, thereby increasing the threat that Al-Qaeda could gain real influence over the ‘Islamists’ in that country and, who knows, eventually get its hands on Pakistan’s nuclear armoury. In this respect, Britain is exercising a much-needed moderating role in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and, reading between the lines, this must have been high on the agenda in last week’s visit of David Miliband – the new British Foreign Secretary and golden boy of British politics – to both countries. This coming week, GB is off to meet the President and to reaffirm the Special Relationship. Up to now, GB has been, as usual, shrewdly reticent about what his plans are for the continuing British military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. But if I’ve read the runes of cultural and media discourse on the subject correctly (Salman Rushdie knighthood as a tactic to consolidate liberal support for the war effort; general effort to enhance emotional endorsement and sympathy for the struggle in Afghanistan), we’re not about to see a substantial change of tack.

But then perhaps it might ultimately be not such a bad thing that we don’t have a policy reversal, at least for the present. Maybe, indeed, the potentially moderating influence we can exercise on the US is the most important reason for us to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. At least, we can try to stop the Americans f***ing up in Pakistan as they did in Iraq!

And maybe this was the reason for us being part of the show from day one. I’ve occasionally wondered whether the real reason for Tony Blair providing such apparently uncritical support for US action in Afghanistan and Iraq was that he was concerned to prevent the Americans from being totally isolated internationally: without any support from any of their traditional and more newfound allies for their policies, and thereby more vulnerable than ever to the terror threat. One can certainly see how Tony Blair would have thought that the world would be a much more dangerous place if the Americans went ahead with their strategy on their own, without the support of even their closest historical ally; or even if they retreated, partly out of pique, into the kind of 1930s-style isolationism that helped to precipitate the Second World War. Maybe, by staying on the inside, Mr Blair thought this was the only way to prevent an even greater catastrophe from happening, and to avert the disaster of a USA that felt it had no friends in the world and therefore had no alternative but to take all necessary measures on its own.

If this is true – even if just part of the complex and troubling set of motivations for Mr Blair leading British forces into battle in Afghanistan and Iraq – then maybe our ex-PM is more of a Saint Tony than any of us realised at the time. And maybe now his mission to bring peace in Palestine is his way to expiate all the errors committed in those two countries and to concentrate on what he knew all along was the only way that reconciliation could be brought to the Middle East and terrorism could be defeated.

And perhaps this is the most important – and perhaps the only – reason why Britain should be doing what it is in Afghanistan.

4 July 2007

The West Lothian Question Is Not the Only One Needing Answers

A cautious welcome to GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] proposals for constitutional reform yesterday. We’ll have to see how things turn out in terms of the consultation and legislative process. Personally not happy that Jack Straw is the man charged with co-ordinating the thing – he of the opportunistic Islamophobia at the back end of last year and one of the prime Britologists.

Of course, GB flatly refused to deal with the ‘West Lothian question’: why Scottish and Welsh MPs should continue to be allowed to vote on matters relating only to England, while English MPs can’t vote on exclusively Scottish and Welsh issues of the same kind, as these are now handled by the devolved institutions of those countries. Any new constitutional settlement that does not seek to resolve this anomaly will not last long without modifications.

The Tory solution would simply be to limit the right to vote on English matters to MPs from English constituencies. Both the Tories and Labour are worried that going any further – creating an English parliament with similar powers to the parliament and assembly of Scotland and Wales respectively – could imperil the survival of the Union. In previous blog entries, I’ve suggested that these concerns are connected with – but not necessarily exclusively determined by – two factors, which may or not be combined in any particular instance: 1) a peculiarly Scottish vicarious relationship with England via British identity and institutions, whereby Scottish politicians (including, arguably, the leaders of all three major UK parties) wish to maintain a disproportionate influence and power over English affairs, which a discontinuation of the prevailing UK-wide structures would disable; 2) a back-door republican agenda: wishing to create a British Republic, united around things like a Bill of Rights and a written constitution, which would effectively sever the age-old ties between the state, and the English monarch and church.

The jury’s out on the second of these concerns, although the proposal to remove from the PM the right to appoint Church of England bishops could be interpreted as potentially the thin end of the wedge towards disestablishment, even though it makes sense from an ecclesiastical point of view. Equally, a Bill of Rights and written constitution are very much on the agenda: for those who care about such things, time to ensure that any written constitution that does emerge preserves the monarchy and explicitly emphasises the historical and continuing importance of Christianity as the primary religious belief system of Britain – while obviously protecting the right of everyone to practice any law-abiding religion they like, or none.

On the first of the above two concerns about the Union – the Scottish wish for disproportionate influence over English affairs – GB’s resistance to even addressing the West Lothian question would appear to confirm the syndrome. In the case of the Labour Party, and indeed the Tories, this is linked to another form of disproportionality: the fact that the current constitutional arrangements, together with the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, enable them to exercise majority rule over the whole of the UK on a minority of the popular vote. An English parliament elected using FPTP – based on votes cast at the last general election – would have been Conservative, as the Tories basically won the election in England. But on the basis of any reasonably proportionate voting system, no party would have held an absolute majority, either in England only or across the UK.

Hence, Labour’s UK-wide power is propped up by both the West Lothian anomaly (Scottish and Welsh MPs giving them their majority) and the current voting system; while any hopes the Tories have of regaining the government of the UK are also dependent on FPTP. Now, any English parliament would have to use PR, both for fairness and consistency with the arrangements in Scotland and Wales, and because this would be the only means to prevent the kind of disproportionate governments we’ve had in the UK for at least 30 years or more. As Labour would stand to be the losers from FPTP in England-only elections, I’m sure they’d find their way to accepting PR if an English parliament did come about! So when Labour and the Tories talk about an English parliament endangering the Union, one of the things that is implicit in that is their concern never again to be the single party of government over the whole Union. May that day indeed come soon!

Needless to say, the issue of proportionate representation was not tackled by GB, although he has apparently said that a paper on the voting system will be published at a later stage. But we’ve heard that one before, haven’t we? When will this paper appear? Shouldn’t the voting system be factored into the general conversation GB says politicians should be having with the public about the constitution? The currently grossly disproportionate system is surely the single largest factor behind people’s disaffection from politics, as the majority feel their vote won’t make a difference; something which is confirmed by the attitude of the parties, which think it’s only really worthwhile targeting the swing seats. Giving the vote to 16-year-olds won’t change that.

But there are some more profound questions that this whole business of reappraising the relationship of England with the rest of the UK as part of a new constitutional settlement raises, which I’ll just list for now:

  1. Just as supporters of a British republic attach their cause to the coat tails of a written constitution, is it not also the case that support for an English parliament can, but does not always, serve as the vehicle for those who genuinely want a fully independent English state? It’s time for everyone both to be explicit about what their ultimate aspirations are from constitutional reform – and they’ll have to be so in order to press for what they want – and to be on the alert towards the way hidden agendas could be advanced by the decisions that are made. OK, putting my cards on the table: I’m in favour of an English parliament with at least comparable powers to those of Scotland and Wales. In addition, my heart would like to see a separate English state; but my head tells me that might not be either practical or in the best interests of England at the present time.
  2. Would the creation of an English parliament not inevitably accelerate the momentum towards independence for both Scotland and England? This is not just because English people might be so delighted with their newfound freedom and proportional system of government that they might want to go the whole hog. But also, self-rule for England could break the vicarious relationship that many Scots feel towards England, which I referred to above. This relationship, while being about exercising political influence over a historically more powerful neighbour, also does involve a genuine sense of shared identity and – dare I say it? – affection. If England decides to define its identity and destiny on its own, effectively divorcing itself from the union with Scotland, could this not be the final factor that tips the majority in Scotland into supporting independence?
  3. Are there not long-term, global factors that suggest that independence for the constituent countries of the UK is almost inevitable? You could argue that the growing trend for people in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to wish to govern themselves and define their national identities in separation from British institutions and identity are influenced by global factors. As business and the economy become ever more globalised, it becomes less and less important for countries to group together into larger states in order to create the scale of economic activity and political influence needed to prosper. In Europe, of course, the EU has also brought about economic and institutional change that makes it much more possible for smaller countries to not only be viable but also perform very strongly in economic terms – cf. Ireland. (One concern about a break up of the UK would clearly be that it might expose England to greater control by and dependency towards the EU; which is something that supporters for full English independence need to think carefully about.) There are many examples of larger European states that have broken up into their constituent nations and are now doing very nicely, thank you very much: the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia. Can we in Britain resist these macro-economic trends, especially if they speak to the growing aspirations of the different nations of Britain for more independence? And should we resist them, if our prospects are potentially improved by the ability to pursue our own priorities that independence could bring?
  4. Wales might choose to remain united with England if Scotland went its own way. One observation that’s not often made is that even if the Scots did opt for independence, the Welsh might not. Support for Welsh independence is limited largely to majority Welsh-speaking areas, and it’s unlikely to grow much stronger in the short-to-medium term. As discussions understandably centre on the future of the union between England and Scotland, we shouldn’t ignore the much older union with Wales, which arguably goes back much further than its historical start date of 1536: the now England and Wales were united in the Roman province of Britannia, while Scotland (‘Caledonia’) was separate. It might seem fanciful to go back that far in tracing the roots of national identity and institutions. But many of the nations of Europe can similarly trace the roots of their identities, languages and territorial borders to Roman and even pre-Roman times. Indeed, the terrible conflict in the former Yugoslavia, which goes back centuries, was in part because the nations there lie on the former fault lines between the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, and between European Christendom and (Ottoman) Islam. While the languages and even ethnic composition of European countries have often changed beyond recognition over the centuries, something of a continuing sense of national identity persists. Perhaps the English and Welsh will define their future together, thereby recapturing something of the ancient traditions that bind them.

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