Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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.

3 April 2008

New British Coins: Time For Change?

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I had mixed feelings when they announced a few months ago that the symbol of Britannia (the Boadicea-like female warrior that is a traditional emblem for Britain and the British Empire) would no longer be appearing on any of our British coins, as she does on the current 50-pence piece (see above).  Although she represents a militaristic, imperialistic Britain that in some respects we shouldn’t be too proud of, I contemplated with dread the more ‘appropriate’, ‘contemporary’ symbols of Britishness we were promised we’d be getting. On top of which, the ‘British’ lion seated next to the figure of Britannia could also be taken as a symbol of England: picking up the theme of the Crest of England that appears on the 10-pence piece.

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The new designs were revealed for the first time yesterday. They employ quite a clever idea, which is to depict fragments of the Royal Crest on each of the six coins from 1p to 50p, which – when placed together in the right configuration – compose the complete crest, which is then united in a single image on the £1 coin. This is indeed quite a contemporary-NEWDESIGNSFORMATION

looking design, which re-expresses the idea of a unitary United Kingdom in quite a subtle way. Each of the coins appears to focus on different ‘constituent parts’ of the UK – otherwise known as the nations of the UK. In this respect, England appears – for a change – to come out of it quite well, as in fact all but the two-pence coin show parts of the English Three Lions emblem. By contrast, apart from the £1 coin, the Lion Rampant of Scotland appears in any recognisable way only on the 2p piece: continuing an honourable tradition whereby the higher-denomination coins show British or English emblems, while lower-value coinage is reserved for the smaller nations of the kingdom, as in the present five-pence piece (Scotland) and two-pence piece (Wales).

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Too bad for Wales with the new coins, though, as none of the parts of the Royal Crest contain any overt symbol for Wales – and it’s not as if the Principality is lacking in them: the Red Dragon, daffodils, leeks, even the rugby ball at a pinch! I can see the new coinage is going to re-ignite all the controversy there was last year over the absence of any Welsh element from the Union Flag. But then again, as a survey commissioned by the (English) Justice Ministry found only last week, the Welsh are the UK nation that feels the greatest sense of ‘belonging to Britain’ (more so than the English) – so perhaps they won’t mind too much (says he, tongue in cheek)! And don’t even mention the word ‘Cornwall’!

By contrast, the new designs appear to provide a definite promotion of the (Northern) Irish element, as the Irish harp appears in an obvious way in three of the six coins worth under a pound, compared with no Irish representation in the equivalent coins up to now. Not surprising, perhaps, given that the young designer, Matthew Dent, who won the contest to come up with the new images is from Bangor, Northern Ireland! [PS. I was corrected on this by a reader (see comments below). The designer is from the other Bangor, in North Wales, which only makes the comment about Welsh buy-in to Britishness all the more telling! Unless it’s just an ironic joke intended to provoke a row which, like the design itself, points to the disunited character of the kingdom, as Englisc Fyrd suggests.]

All this apparent focusing in on the emblems for the different nations of the UK could lead one to think that the new design was giving expression to a new consciousness of the UK as comprising distinct nations that are yet held together by the manifold bonds of history, tradition, loyalty to the monarchy (the Royal Crest theme) and that familiar old sense of ‘shared Britishness’. And yet the cleverness of the design is that it suggests that none of those separate national elements is sufficient in isolation: that it’s only when you put them together that you complete the picture and that you arrive at the national unity symbolised by the ‘one-ness’ of the one-pound coin. Of course, the very absence of any overt Welsh (or Cornish) symbolism might already have led one to the same conclusion: that these coins are not at all about celebrating the diverse consciousness and traditions of the nations of the UK but only about providing a modern symbol for the national unity of the UK in the same way that the Union Jack so cleverly embodies the concept of a unitary UK of (five) four three nations.

In fact, it’s the current coinage that does greater justice to the idea that Britain (as opposed to the UK) is comprised (notwithstanding Cornish claims of separateness) of England, Scotland and Wales – given the inclusion of separate English, Scottish and Welsh symbols on the different coins; the English benefiting from a traditional, but demographically proportionate, discrimination in having their emblems feature on both the 10p coin (see image above) and the 20p coin (below).

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But the new coins can of course be read in quite a different way. They could be viewed as symbolising the fact that the old Britain / Britannia is breaking up: a state whose imperial power and certainties acted as such a strong force for unity that the separate identities of England, Scotland and Wales could be celebrated without threatening it. Now, as the unity of the Royal Crest dissolves into fragments, we no longer have images on most of our coins that are complete symbols for either ‘Britain as a whole’ or indeed each of the constituent nations. Instead, we have disjointed bits of the Three Lions, the Lion Rampant and the Irish Harp, with elements from one emblem sometimes crossing over into the image of the other and sometimes not. As if to say that when we lose the vision of our distinct national identities as English, Scottish and Irish (let alone Welsh and Cornish), we lose the integral vision of Britain as a whole – of Britain as one.

Admittedly, this oneness is reunited in the new one-pound coin. But there’s something about this that doesn’t add up. Indeed, if you do add up the ‘values’ of the lower-denomination coins, you get 88 pence, not one pound. So the different values of the lesser coins (the different UK nations) from which the presence of distinct national symbols are deferred (‘differed’, changed) across the sequence of the coins do not properly come together in one-pound (one nation and one unitary (set of) value(s)); rather, they leave an unbridgeable difference.

Another word for that difference – 12p, to be precise – is change. So perhaps the new coins are an appropriate symbol for a changing United Kingdom, after all. But there’s no guarantee, like the comforting circular closure of the one-pound coin, that that change will preserve and reinstate a former unity whose brokenness is aptly symbolised by the fragmentary and incomplete symbols of the nations of Britain – whose search for new identity and values may yet produce even more difference.

29 January 2008

Gordon Brown and the Appropriation of Britain

There’s never been a Nation of Britain. That this is true is suggested by the very incongruity of the phrase ‘nation of Britain’; whereas ‘nation of England’, ‘nation of Scotland’ etc. come across as no different from, say, ‘nation of France’ or ‘nation of Russia’. That’s why people tend to say ‘British nation’ instead; or, preferably, just ‘Britain’ or ‘the nation’ on their own: avoiding the awkward coupling of ‘nation’ and ‘Britain’.

This is just playing with semantics, though, isn’t it? Well, as they say, yes and no. Is there really a difference between ‘nation of Britain’ and ‘British nation’? Yes, a nation of difference. ‘Nation of Britain’ implies that the nation is Britain: people and state as one – a true nation whose name is Britain. ‘British nation’, on the other hand, implies that the nation belongs to Britain or is an attribute of Britain. It implies a similar sort of relationship as in ‘British state’, ‘British royal family’ or ‘British Empire’: these are things that belong, or belonged, to Britain but are not identified with Britain. We did not, for instance, call our former worldwide dominion the ‘Empire of Britain’, which would have meant that the whole empire had been merged into a greater Great Britain and become indistinguishable from it. On the contrary, the colonies were viewed as British sovereign possessions – the British Empire – not as part of Britain itself.

In the same way, ‘British nation’ (if we can accept the concept at all) implies that the nation belongs to Britain but is not identified with / identical to Britain. The two words ‘Britain’ and ‘nation’ are not co-terminous or interchangeable. What then is the Britain that owns the nation, and what is the nation that it owns? One way of looking at it is that Britain is the state and the nation is the people; in which case, the people are not the possession of the state as such but an attribute of it: that without which the state would not exist as the apparatus for governing the people, and for constituting the people as a nation as a corollary of that process of governance. Yet, at the same time, Britain is a name for the people who, properly speaking, own the state and decide whether they want to consider the state to also be a nation: their nation.

In other words, the British state is responsible for and, at the same time, answerable to the British people; while the British people own the British state and decide whether they want that state to also be their nation: a nation of Britain. So long as Britain is not such a nation-state, then Britain (the people), Britain (the state) and Britain (the nation) are overlapping but not synonymous terms. Once Britain becomes a nation (once the British people decide to make Britain the name not just for their state but their nation), then there is just One Britain: people, state and nation as one.

This is how Gordon Brown [GB] and his fellow Britologists would like things to be. But if they achieved their objective, it would constitute an appropriation of Britain. By this, I mean both a transformation of Britain into a proper nation for the first time ever; and a theft of the Britain that has existed up to now and of the nationhood of the British. GB and his chums at the (English) Justice Ministry are embarked on a process of fundamental constitutional reform that is intended to result in things like a British written constitution, a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and a formal Statement of British Values. What documents such as these would do, if they were endorsed in a referendum, would be to radically alter the relationship between the British people, nation and state. They would in effect form a covenant of equal significance to something like the Magna Carta: a set of formal, legal documents that define the people and the state as a single united entity, or nation – the state as the people, as its appointed representative acting in its name, with the head of the government (if not the actual head of state, in the British context) being effectively the personification of the people.

People and state as one in a new nation of Britain. It’s a republic, in its principles if not in name. That is, the state is the people; it’s a res publica: a thing of the people. Whether or not it’s part of GB’s plans to establish an actual Republic of Britain is one of the great unspokens of this whole affair. What is for sure is that his constitution for a new nation of Britain lays down all the foundations for a situation where the abolition of the monarchy becomes eminently thinkable because the proposed constitution changes the whole basis of rule in ‘this country’. It would be a fundamental departure from the current establishment, in which the executive and parliament act in the name of the Sovereign, and have inherited the prerogatives of the Sovereign, albeit that they act on the basis of popular mandate, in theory, as determined through democratic elections. The state therefore rules over the people in the place of the monarch; while the people own the state to the extent that they determine which party or parties should exercise the levers of power and, ultimately, they are free to reject and change the state as currently constituted. Under the proposed new constitutional set up, the state no longer belongs to the people as something separate from it but is the people: the people and state are one; sovereignty of the people. And the executive and parliament no longer act in the name of the Sovereign – supposing there still is one – but, supposedly, in the name and place of the people.

There are of course many people in Britain who support such essentially republican principles and regard them as a prerequisite for full democracy. But what I’m saying is that this is not Britain: not Britain as we have known it, that is, which has been a constitutional monarchy since its foundation as the Kingdom of Great Britain through the Union of England and Scotland in 1707. It’s an appropriation of that Britain: Britain becomes a proper, true nation for the first time; people and state as one. But it’s also a theft of that Britain: GB and his government stealthily removing from us a Britain that we own (our Britain, our state, our constitutional monarchy, our royal family, our Kingdom) and replacing it with a Britain that we ourselves are; with which we are identified. The New Britain (New Labour, New Britain) that could ensue from a constitutional settlement might retain a monarch as an empty figurehead, giving people the misleading impression that nothing fundamentally had changed. But there would in reality no longer be any effectual place for the monarch within the constitution. And so a monarchy that currently stands as a guarantee of our freedoms and of the separation of people, nation and state would be no more.

And, as was remarked above, this would be a theft not just of our Britain and of our monarchy but also of our nationhood. Along with the separation of people and state, there has existed a separation of state and nation: the state has been Britain (which up to now has technically been shorthand for ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland’, or the UK), while the nations with which the people have identified have been England, Scotland, Wales or (Northern) Ireland. In reality, however, this identification has never been simple and straightforward. There has always been a blurring of the boundaries between nation and state, and the English in particular have traditionally seen England and Britain as interchangeable: Britain as the proxy-English state (an extension of English dominion and nationhood to the whole of the British Isles) and as another word for the nation of England.

So British people have always had dual nationality or more, if they are of mixed British parentage (English-British, Scottish-British, etc.). The extent to which they considered one of the polarities to be their more fundamental identity has been variable, and the boundaries between the two have been blurred. In the post-devolution, European-federalisation and globalised Britain of today, there has been a well documented shift towards British people identifying with one or more of England, Scotland, Wales or (Northern) Ireland as their national identity, while they see Britain increasingly as just the name of a state from which they feel alienated, which they feel has lost touch with the people and is increasingly irrelevant and powerless in any case as more and more powers are transferred to the EU, and as Britain’s fortunes depend on global economic and political trends.

GB has set out to oppose not just the break up of the state of Britain into its constituent nations but the disintegration of the British national identity as such. The constitutional establishment of a nation of Britain would be an amazing coup (in the sense of tour de force but suggesting also political force majeure) creating, for the first time, an official, unified British national identity. The British people (meaning the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish people living in the British Isles) would be formally identified with, appropriated to, the nation of Britain: One Britain – people, nation and state. It would all be official and legal, spelled out in a British Constitution; with a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities pertaining to the mutual, interdependent polarities of the people and state – nation – of Britain; and a Statement of British Values that would serve as the basis for a sort of Rite of Britishness.

You can see it now: British people (the people of the four nations living in Britain), once they’ve supposedly endorsed these measures in a referendum, being obliged to sign up to the Statement of British Values as being the code that constitutes their new civic national identity as Britons; or else, they’re free to leave the country. Think that’s fanciful? Just listen to the words of Michael Wills, the ‘Constitutional Renewal Minister’, in the Putney Debate on British values organised by the BBC Radio Four World Tonight programme last Friday: “if you don’t like it, you can leave. There’s nothing stopping you leaving . . . . You choose to stay here. You choose to be British”. Choose to be British, to accept the Statement of British Values and a new British constitutional settlement, or else ‘choose’ to live elsewhere.

And the rest: new national holidays and civic rites to celebrate our shared Britishness (see the new IPPR report The Power of Belonging: Identity, Citizenship and Social Cohesion), including secular rituals taking on the character of traditional religious rites of passage, in which the state is intimately associated with the most sacred acts and duties of individuals (marriage, raising children, etc.). And those same children no doubt lining up in class to proclaim an oath of allegiance to the flag (the Union Flag, of course) before and after school, to make sure they’re fully indoctrinated into their new civic Britishness and forget that there ever was an England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

But hang on, GB’s plan isn’t to undo the devolution settlement, and to abolish the separate ‘national’ parliaments and systems of governance for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s only the nation of England and the English national identity that GB is planning to fully erase from the constitution and the statute books. Replace a constitutional monarchy in which it is the historic King or Queen of England who is the head of state and the head of the Church of England with a British constitution with no real role for the English monarch, and no established religion or even faith (multi-culturalism, don’t you know), and then you really have appropriated the nation to Britain – and away from the English. The British nation then ceases to be what it has effectively always been: the English nation, the English realm, the possession of the English in the person of their Sovereign. For Britain to become the One Nation of Britain, it must cease to be the English-British nation. Indeed, England itself must cease to be but must, like the ‘rest’ of Britain, be appropriated to, and identified with, Britain. No English nation owning Britain; but England merged with, and absorbed into, a nation of Britain once and for good.

It’s this idea of a proper nation of Britain into which England has disappeared that makes sense of GB’s stated conception of Britain: “where Britain becomes as it should be – a Britain of nations and regions where there are many and not just one centre of initiative and energy for our country”. The way in which the separate devolved administrations and identities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can be accommodated within an overarching integral nation-state and national identity of Britain is through this combined appropriation of England to Britain (the abolition of England), and subsequent establishment of devolved government for those ‘regions’ of Britain that do not yet have it (i.e. England). So it’s not the regionalisation of England alone that abolishes England. The creation of regional ‘English’ administrations is part and parcel of the establishment of a new nation of Britain that requires England to no longer exist as a nation in order to become a nation itself, rather than what it currently is: the possession of the people of Britain, and primarily the English.

First you abolish England in a new British constitutional settlement; then you consolidate that abolition and wipe out any popular English aspiration for national status and political institutions by imposing regional devolution. This then enables Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to continue to refer to themselves, informally, as nations; whereas, constitutionally, they are technically just British regions, like those of the territory previously known as England. But if England were to continue to exist as a nation, with its own parliament and government, then Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have to be formally recognised as nations, too: with an equivalent constitutional status to the English nation.

So the idea seems to be: if England isn’t the dominant nation within the Union as now, then the other nations won’t feel the need to break away from the Union, eventually seeking full independence. Better still, if what you want is a united nation of Britain, what you have to do is find a way to abolish England altogether; so that all you have is equal regions. The ‘English’ regions won’t want to call themselves separate nations, as they aren’t; the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish can call themselves nations if they want, but they’ll be happy to be part of the unified nation of Britain because there will no longer be a big English nation to dominate them but just British regions of similar size and power to their own.

So GB’s new constitutional settlement is part of a plan to appropriate the English nation to Britain, and create a new nation of Britain and integral national-British identity. No more England.

But there are two major obstacles that could yet thwart these ambitions. First, the government has committed itself to seeking approval for any new constitutional arrangements in a referendum. How solid is such a commitment, though? After all, the Labour Party did promise to hold a referendum on the European Constitution and has now reneged on that pledge on the false claim that the revised European Reform Treaty is not the same thing (something that even the architect of the original constitution, Giscard d’Estaing refutes, having said that the two things are substantially identical). So the government could find a way to wriggle out of holding a / several referendum(s) on its new constitutional measures.

Assuming they don’t avoid a referendum, however, there is one important way in which they could totally rig the vote: as the referendum would be about establishing a British constitution, then it would have to be up to the whole of the British nation to decide whether they wanted it or not. But the ‘British nation’ as the ‘nation of Britain’ would only be constituted as such after such a constitution came into effect. It would be up to the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have the say about whether they wanted to become citizens of a new nation in which only Britain and Britishness had any official status as the national identity and state. It’s up to the English people to decide whether they want England to be abolished by a definitive merger into Britain. But the will of the English people could well be overridden by the collective decision of all the people living in Britain, which could include millions of recent migrants who have been encouraged by the government and media to identify as British rather than English, even if they live in England. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important for the government even now to refuse to acknowledge England as a nation and the English as a people: not referring to policies, laws and government departments that relate to England only as being English; but pretending that they are UK-wide or British – which, of course, they will be once England is finally abolished. So if England doesn’t exist, even now, the government could deny the validity of separate scrutiny of the will of the English people concerning a new constitution. British vote on a British constitution, and as it’s the government’s position that the nation of England doesn’t formally exist (and post-constitution, definitively won’t exist), the idea of asking the nation of England whether it wishes to cease to exist is a non-sequitur.

The other way in which GB’s ambitions could be thwarted is if the new constitution is rejected by the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This seems in some ways to be the most likely route to seeing off the spectre of a nation of Britain. This is because the Scots, in a clear majority, now see themselves as Scottish in the first instance, not British. It’s hard to imagine that, having obtained a measure of national self-rule and pride, the Scots would also vote themselves out of existence as an official nation. Unless GB is hoping he can play on the desire of some Scots to finally defeat the auld Enemy by voting it out of existence and breaking it up into units as small and dependent on the British state as itself; while playing on Scottish patriotism by maintaining devolved government as part of the new mix and allowing the Scots to still call themselves a nation, even if they technically wouldn’t be under Brown’s new unitary nation of Britain.

So GB’s solution to the threats posed to the Union by the asymmetrical devolution settlement he helped to bring in is not to maintain the status quo but radically change the Union itself. He wants to make it what it’s never been but what he thinks it should be: a nation of Britain – underpinned by a British constitution, Bill of Rights and Statement of British Values – in which what we now know as the nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cease to have any formal constitutional status as nations. England ceases to exist altogether and is broken up into devolved regions of comparable size to Scotland and Wales. As the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – unlike those of the territory formerly known as England – cover the regions that have traditionally been known as nations, they can continue informally to consider themselves as such. But technically, there’d be a new unitary nation of Britain. This would no longer be the property of a people separate from it, to be ruled over by a state also not identified with the nation(s) and people of Britain. Now, people, nation and state will be one and will form one Britain: a secular European republic in fact if not in name.

Perhaps then we’ll finally be able to drop the ridiculously long name of our country: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Let’s just call it the Kingdom of Britain; better still, the Republic of Britain. Either way, it won’t be Britain as we’ve known it. And it certainly won’t be England.

26 January 2008

British Values on ‘The World Tonight’: A Very English Debate

Listened to the debate about British values on BBC Radio Four’s The World Tonight news programme last night. This was framed in the context of the government’s plans to produce a ‘Statement of British Values’ to which everyone in the country is supposed to be able to subscribe.

To begin with, each of the five speakers was given three minutes to set out how they understood British values. First up was Michael Wills, the ‘Constitutional Renewal Minister’ at the (English) Justice Ministry. Essentially, he’s the one overseeing the whole project. He outlined the government’s decision to carry out a truly inclusive process of consulting ordinary people (as embodied by a ‘representative’ panel of citizens) – a process not driven by politicians (yeah, right) – which was expected to result in the said Statement of British Values.

Which might result in such a statement, as one of many possible outcomes; or which would result in such a statement? Surely, if the whole process is orientated towards the production of such a document, this predetermines the course that the supposedly free-ranging discussion will take, and presupposes that sufficient consensus already latently exists in order for agreement on a set of genuine, shared values to be reached and formulated. And whose position is based on this presupposition, and who is driving the whole thing? The government, and GB [Gordon Brown] in particular: not driven by politicians, my a***!

To his credit, Michael Wills did say the word ‘English’ once, under his breath, when he referred to the multiple identities that are subsumed under Britishness, which is a supposedly more inclusive term than any other. I say to his credit, because the next three speakers did not utter the ‘E’ word in their initial monologues; and they also, in their different ways, ended up articulating ‘Brito-centric’ value systems. David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, argued that more important than values were the national [British] institutions that safeguarded and gave practical expression to those values, and which were rooted in ‘the nation’s’ history: Britain as establishment and Union. Author and senior member of the Secular Society Joan Smith argued that the whole idea of national values was out of date and tribal, and that we should be formulating a new set of values that were all to do with individual rights and freedom: Britishness as inherently involving a kind of transcendence over ‘narrow’ nationalism (e.g. that of England) and as being at once at the origin and the vanguard of secular-liberal-progressive values per se. And Salma Yacoub, a Muslim Birmingham city councillor, who argued that in multi-ethnic Britain, there was no need for a formal Statement of British Values to which everyone should be expected to assent, as this only marked out ethnic minorities as different; and that one of the most endearing characteristics of Britain was its people’s ability to absorb and accept difference: Britishness as multi-cultural, multi-national pluralism, rather than reduced to a set of fixed ‘core values’.

Which left the fifth participant, Neal Ascherson: the token Scot. He was the only one who talked any sense at this stage of the discussion and hit the nail on the head. For him, the really important constitutional and national issues for debate were the two ‘E’s – Europe and England; a position which, I have to say, was remarkably similar to my own. In the British context, all the debating around British values was a complete waste of time, as far as Ascherson was concerned, so long as it failed to address the right of England (eight-tenths of the Union and essentially its heart) to be recognised and be given an appropriate, democratic form of governance as a nation in its own right, just like Scotland and Wales.

What was then remarkable about the remainder of the discussion, structured around a loose set of questions and answers, was that the three speakers who had put forward less dogmatic points of view than the minister – but nonethless Brito-centric in their conception of the nation and its most important values – gradually shifted around to a more or less implicit concession that, indeed, it was really Englishness that mattered more to them than Britishness. David Willetts stated that, as Englishness had never [well, at least not since 1707 – ed.] been expressed politically through the state, it was more associated with culture and history, something towards which he clearly had a deep devotion. For instance, he repudiated the new-fangled notion of ‘British literature’: NO, it’s English literature.

Or is my memory confusing him with the author Joan Smith [now there’s the female equivalent of almost the archetypal English name: John Smith] who, it transpired, associated the specifically national character of the values she espoused (as opposed to their universal, rational-humanist dimension) with England. She admitted, in fact, that she felt profoundly English, primarily through the medium of the English language, which, as a writer, was not just the tool of her trade but the way in which she expressed her own inner truth.

And then Salma Yacoub went so far as to say that imposition of a formal statement of Britishness could be positively divisive and destructive of the multi-cultural tolerance which, for her, typified the authentic British spirit. As noted above, she’d previously observed that what ethnic minorities cherish the most is just being accepted for what they are in the places where they live by the people already there. In my book, that means being accepted by English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish communities simply as a member of the community, as one of us; rather than being seen as already different (by virtue of ethnicity and culture) and being made to become something different again through the obligation to identify formally with a ‘Britishness of values’ that is other from the Britishness of everyday life that, as David Willett’s put it, is not in fact deliberately chosen but just something to which one becomes emotionally attached.

A Britishness of the English, in other words. Interspersed in the discussion were two vox pops: one with little snippets from Scottish men and women on the street about how they see Britishness, and its relation to Scottish and English identity; and the other, from academics and commentators who have written on these matters, myself not included [immodest – ed.]. From the Scots folk, it emerged that they’re not nearly so hung up about national identity and values as the English; that they have a strong sense of community, national solidarity and belonging; and that they perceive the English as being a bit screwed up about always having (and frequently failing) to be the best at everything: including having the best set of values, it would seem. (Towards the beginning of the debate, one of the participants – I think Joan Smith – had repudiated the notion that British values were about national ‘identity’. Maybe not per se, but they are a metaphor mediating the English search for a national identity which – by virtue of being disseminated across Britishness – is perpetually elusive.)

The academics and commentators included a Scot (whose name now escapes me) who basically expounded the view that British values are identical to English values: that if you asked most English people to list a set of fundamental English values, they’d come up with exactly the same qualities as if you’d asked them to define the core British values. Then the remaining scholarly vox pops seemed to have been chosen to illustrate that point, as they enumerated their versions of British values that were indistinguishable from what one would think of as typically English values – all articulated, it has to be said, in plummy English accents, like those of three of the debaters.

I can’t remember the specifics now; but these English-British values included things like fair play, tolerance of different points of view, liberty, free speech, etc. Neal Ascherson then underscored the assimilation of such values to England, rather than Scotland, by saying that the concept of ‘fair play’ reflected the perspective of the imperial overlord giving his subjects or enemies in battle a sporting chance; whereas the ‘Celts’ could think only of how they could get the better of those damned English, if necessary through sneakiness; i.e. the diametrical opposite of fair play. The same with tolerance: tolerance in debate, for instance – polite respect for the opponent’s point of view and a preference to seek some sort of middle-ground compromise solution – was an English characteristic and totally alien to Scottish politics, where you just try to thrash the opposition.

As if to prove the point, the very English-sounding Constitutional Renewal Minister, Michael Wills, indeed then tried to act as some kind of moderator, saying that each of the debaters had in fact articulated different views about Britishness; that this is what the wider national debate would all be about: a chance to air different perspectives, which, he felt sure, would be able somehow to coalesce into a unified Statement of British Values to which all could assent. And what, he was pushed to say, would happen if people chose not to subscribe to such a credo? Well, they could leave the country. When pressed further on that, he denied that that meant some sort of forcible purge of undesirables but that, merely, people would be free to choose to live elsewhere if they could not live here by the British Code Book (my term).

In other words, if you want to be different, you can’t be truly British. And if you want to be English, you’re not truly British, either. Because Englishness is both different from Britishness and the difference in Britishness. Englishness is what makes ‘British values’ truly distinctive in the way they are actually lived out, rather than just a bland, extra-national set of abstractions. And Englishness is what prevents Britishness from ever being fixed and present to itself (for instance, in a Statement of British Values) because the way in which Britishness is most authentically lived out – for actual English people – is through the diverse culture (and multiple cultures), history, institutions, value systems, religions and language of England (and for Scots, those of Scotland).

That’s true Britishness: the commonality in difference of the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish, and of all those who have come to live with us in our different nations. The government thinks it can converge all those differences into a single national Agreement. I feel that – in a very English way – we may just have to agree to differ.

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.

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