Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

3 April 2015

TV leaders’ debate: no show for England

Well, it was a pretty poor show at the end of the day, the much-heralded TV leaders’ debate: two hours of three women and four men point scoring, and talking at and past each other, in a repetitive and circular fashion. Hardly worthy of the name ‘debate’, really, as there was no clash of contrary positions or setting out of opposing visions for ‘the country’, such as one would expect from a traditional debate.

In fact, there was and is no real vision for the country on the part of Britain’s party leaders: if the country is England, that is. It was noteworthy that the two leaders who did articulate any sort of coherent vision for the type of society they want their countries to be were the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood; and the countries they were talking about were Scotland and Wales respectively. Incidentally, Nicola Sturgeon also referred to England quite a bit: for instance, when setting out the SNP’s intention to vote down English health or education legislation that might adversely affect the funding or shape of Scottish services.

By contrast, as far as I can remember, the word ‘England’ did not issue one single time from the lips of either David Cameron, Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg. This was despite the fact that the debate moderator, Julie Etchingham, did somewhat surprisingly make a point of explaining that Westminster’s responsibilities in health care relate only to England.

The UKIP leader Nigel Farage mentioned England, but only when referring – justifiably – to the relatively poor deal the English are getting in terms of spending on public services in comparison with Scotland, and the need to abolish the Barnett Formula. And in general, the whole discussion on social matters such as the [English] NHS, [English] education, [English] housing, [English] apprenticeships, [English] social care, and immigration was reduced and subordinated to the economic arguments around funding: the balance of economic growth, taxation and borrowing that would be required to fund the services and benefits that we might be able to afford over the next five years.

It was all about the numbers, in fact: how many billions more for the [English] NHS; how many more doctors, nurses and midwives; how many targets missed in A&E and cancer care; how many more new schools and houses [in England]; how much could be saved by withdrawing from the EU and cutting overseas aid; how many immigrants; and how much the deficit could and would be cut by.

All important stuff, but essentially just an argument about money: how much of it will be available, where it’s coming from and how it will be portioned out, including to each of the UK’s nations. What’s missing is any attempt to set out a vision for the sort of society we want England to be and, within that context, what sort of health, education, social care, housing and welfare systems we want; and how they should be sustained economically in the long term through work and industries that provide both a decent income for individuals and families, and generate sufficient revenue for the government to pay for it all.

The starting point for politics, and for political debates, should really be different visions for the country and society, and economics should be subordinate to that: ‘this is the sort of national community we want to be, and the social values and systems that will bring us together as a nation; and consequently, this is the type of economy we need in order to realise our potential as people – and as a people – and not just generate economic growth and wealth as ends in themselves’.

The four male leaders, at least, were unable to articulate any bottom-up, people-centric policy vision of this sort. And it’s not altogether clear whether they’re incapable of doing so as a by-product of a refusal to offer government for a nation called England, whose name they’re unable to utter; or whether their absence of vision of and for England is merely an offshoot of their ideological incapacity to place nation and society in general – and English society and nationhood in particular, in this case – at the heart of policy making.

The female leaders, on the other hand, do seem to understand the importance of society and – in the case of the nationalist leaders – of nation. Indeed, of all the ‘English’ party leaders, Natalie Bennett came closest to articulating a policy vision centred on social values of care for each other and the environment, although she studiously avoiding calling that society ‘England’. But in a way, it was an obvious linkage: she stood on the podium as the English counterpart to the ‘progressive’, female leaders of the Scottish and Welsh parties. Maybe she’s missing a trick there.

Perhaps one can push the gender analogies too far: the women of the respective national households being more concerned about giving the children a rounded education and life skills; health- and social-care provision for the young and elderly of the family; decent job prospects and homes for the children; and protecting the environment for future generations. Meanwhile, the men are focused on the world outside the home: business, money and big, abstract numbers that can be hard to tie down to the actual impact they have on the lives and work situation of real people. Macho economics as much as macro-economics.

Be that as it may, if the family is England, its name and needs were not uppermost in the minds of any of our British political leaders last night. England is indeed poorly served by the British political system. It’s a poor show when England goes missing from a debate dealing with so many issues of national importance to England alone.

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15 January 2015

The leaders’ debates and the failure to imagine England

In the row about what format if any the party leaders’ debates in the upcoming general election should take, one factor that has consistently been ignored is the England-specific framing of the discussion. By this, I mean not just that the possibility of an England-specific debate – focusing on the type of ‘English matters’ on which many have recently advocated that only English MPs should have the right to vote – has simply not been considered; whereas separate Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish debates have been offered. But also, the fact that the whole frame of reference for defining what constitutes ‘major UK parties’ is effectively English – or at least Anglo-British – has failed to be acknowledged.

Take the statement yesterday by the Green Party’s Australian-born leader Natalie Bennett claiming that the Green Party (of England and Wales) was one of the five major parties “in Britain”. Well, no, it’s one of the five largest parties in England. If you really mean ‘Britain’, or the UK, then you’d probably have to rank the Greens as sixth, with the SNP clearly in third place, both in terms of party membership and likely parliamentary representation after the general election.

Then you get into meaningless semantics about what constitutes a ‘national’ party: whether it means standing candidates in every single British, as opposed to UK, seat – leaving aside the fact that the Greens, Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems all have separate ‘Scottish’ parties, so that, technically, UKIP is the only major UK-wide party that qualifies. Unless, of course, by ‘national’ you mean every English seat. Because that is what, in this debate about the debates, ‘national’ effectively does mean: it’s whether parties are standing everywhere in England that counts, and hence whether their leaders’ performance in the debates are of relevance and interest to an English TV audience.

Of course, this is not being acknowledged, and cannot be acknowledged, as politicians and media would then have to admit that, in this supposedly UK election, involving UK-wide issues, there are really multiple elections: those in the devolved nations, where the issues properly concern only policy areas reserved to the UK government, and where nation-specific parties need to make their respective pitches about how they intend to look after the interests of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people within the London parliament; and then, in contrast, there is the election in England, where both reserved matters of great importance such as the economy, the EU, security and immigration are at stake, along with England-only matters such as the NHS, education, social care and cuts to local government – among many others.

Instead, politicians and the media are seeking to maintain the pretence that there is a single UK electorate, and single set of policy issues of equivalent importance and relevance to that ‘national’ audience: the NHS alongside the economy; education alongside immigration; social care and housing alongside welfare. There is of course a single national audience affected by the parties’ positions in all of these areas – but it’s the English audience, not the British one. And the ‘English’ parties – in my sense – certainly shouldn’t make a pitch to viewers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the (English) NHS, education system and local government, as if they were of equal relevance to viewers in those countries as those parties’ policies on the economy, defence and immigration. In fact, to do so is tantamount to fraud, as those parties wouldn’t be able to do anything in devolved policy areas if people in those countries voted them into power in Westminster.

The only way to be fair and proportionate about this is to split the debates into reserved and devolved matters; to have separate debates in all four of the UK’s nations on the latter; and have one or more debate on reserved policy areas involving, in some way, all the major parties of each nation. Then, by all means, the Green Party of England and Wales should be included, at least in the separate English and Welsh debates; and the Scottish Greens should be included in the Scottish debate.

The way I’d split it, to keep it manageable and useful to voters, is as follows:

• A first debate, aired UK-wide, featuring just David Cameron and Ed Miliband: as the PMs in waiting. This would deal only with reserved matters, given its UK-wide transmission

• A second debate, aired UK-wide, featuring the leaders of all the parties that could end up as coalition partners to the Conservatives or Labour, or as holding the balance of power, i.e. the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the DUP. This debate should also be on reserved matters only and should exclude the Tories and Labour in order to counterbalance the potential bias from limiting the first debate to them. Although only UKIP and the Greens are ‘national’ (i.e. English) parties, it would be relevant to English voters to have the leaders of the main nation-specific parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland appearing on the platform, as these parties may form part of UK governments legislating for England. The debates would therefore give voters in England a chance to find out whether these parties would ally themselves with Labour or the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament; and what their stance on matters such as English votes for English laws, constitutional reform for England, and other issues of concern to English people such as immigration and EU membership would be. That might make a real difference to voting intentions

• Four further nation-specific debates should also then happen, including UKIP and the Greens in England, and the single nation-specific parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In England, the debate should reasonably deal with both England-specific and reserved matters, but with a greater emphasis on English issues, as reserved issues would have formed the focus of the previous two debates. Devoting a limited amount of time to reserved matters would enable, say, Nigel Farage to debate the EU and immigration with David Cameron, and Natalie Bennett to debate energy policy alongside the environment (England-only) with the other leaders.

But I strongly doubt that a truly equitable solution such as this will be adopted: equitable to the people of England, that is, rather than to the purported national-UK parties that are in fact no such thing.

14 October 2014

TV leaders’ debates: English debates for British votes on English laws

The proposed format for the leaders’ debates on TV ahead of next May’s general election, announced yesterday, reveals the fundamental character of Parliament and UK government as a reimagining-as-British of an essentially English polity. Three debates are mooted: one involving only the two ‘prime ministers in waiting’ (David Cameron and Ed Miliband – so much for the voters being in charge!); one including Nick Clegg in addition the two above ‘presidential’ candidates (ostensibly, to allow the Lib Dem leader to defend his party’s record in government); and one adding UKIP’s Nigel Farage to the mix, because UKIP is putting up a candidate in every constituency in England, Scotland and Wales (and because, let’s face it, its poll ratings and electoral performance can no longer be ignored).

It is staggering how easily and casually the SNP in particular, and also Plaid Cymru, have been excluded from the debates, even though the SNP is now the UK’s third-largest party in terms of members and is likely to be the largest party in Scotland after the 2015 election, as current polling stands. This means that the SNP could well hold the balance of power in a hung parliament and be invited into a UK coalition. Despite this, and despite the fact that the SNP already has six MPs, David Cameron indicated he thought the Green Party should also be included in at least one of the debates, on the basis that it currently has a single MP. If the Greens, why not the SNP, or Plaid, or indeed the Northern Irish parties?

The answer, clearly, is that only parties with MPs elected in England are thought to matter. This is ultimately because the UK polity itself is effectively at core an English polity (though never openly avowed as such). This means that parties’ electoral ‘pitch’ is mainly to English voters on English laws and policies.

The practical reality of Westminster politics is actually the opposite of the way it’s normally construed: it’s not so much that only some laws are English-only (and hence, the argument goes, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should be excluded from debating and voting on them) while some are UK-wide; but in reality, all policies are English, and only some also extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In this context, the real function of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, particularly in the post-devolution era, is merely to add their numbers to the parliamentary arithmetic that determines the composition of UK governments and the passing of English laws. It is assumed, therefore, that the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru needn’t be invited to participate in any of the TV debates because they will not be determining the content of UK (i.e. English) laws after the election – even though the votes of their MPs may be essential in passing those laws, and the participation of their MPs in government may be required as part of a ruling coalition.

But if SNP and, potentially, Plaid and some Northern Irish MPs are needed to form a coalition, don’t English voters have the right to hear what their leaders have to say about the policy concessions they would demand on entering a coalition, and what stance they would take on voting on such a coalition’s England-only or England-mainly laws?

But the ‘English’ parties don’t want English voters to realise that they are dependent on non-English-elected MPs and, by extension, non-English voters for the passing of essentially English laws – by which I mean not only laws whose extent is in fact strictly limited to England (which are in reality very few in number), but all UK laws and government policies: on the basis of my contention above that all UK laws are fundamentally and primarily English laws in the first instance.

On this basis, the moniker of ‘English votes for English laws’, used to justify the potential exclusion of non-English-elected MPs from debates and votes on England-only legislation, is a convenient fiction to cover up the fact that all laws are England-mainly: designed for England by English parties (but which style themselves as ‘British’) and only as it were incidentally extending to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (or one or two of those additional parts of the UK, depending on the geographical extent of any actual bill).

So the UK-wide (i.e. ‘English’) parties don’t want the Scotland- and Wales-only party leaders to participate in the ostensibly UK-wide (i.e. English) TV debates because they don’t want English voters to realise that those Scottish and Welsh parties, as well as Scottish- and Welsh-elected MPs in ‘UK’ (i.e. English) parties, may ultimately call the shots in terms of both ‘UK-wide’ (i.e. England-mainly) and England-only laws.

But the English parties nonetheless want the votes of those parties in Parliament and, potentially, the participation of those parties’ MPs in coalition government. Hence, they need the votes of the Scottish and Welsh electorate, including on genuinely England-only matters: all three ‘UK’ debates will air in Scotland and Wales, even though all laws in devolved policy areas will not affect Scottish and Welsh voters. If those Scottish and Welsh votes can be channelled into ‘UK’ (i.e. English) parties, all the better. Hence, the exclusion of the leaders of the SNP and Plaid fulfils a convenient double purpose: optimise the non-nationalist vote in Scotland and Wales (i.e. the vote for ‘English’ parties in those countries), while preventing English voters from being aware that Scottish and Welsh MPs will play a decisive role in shaping their next government and their laws.

So we’re left in a ludicrous situation of England-only parties in the debates canvassing the votes of all British voters for the passing of English laws in the UK parliament! If the SNP and Plaid are sidelined out of the equation, then you don’t have to consider the awkward potential situation whereby either a Conservative- or Labour-led coalition might actually require the votes of Scottish- or Welsh-nationalist politicians to pass English (i.e. all) their laws.

In which case, we might find that calls for English votes on English laws are quietly dropped. But in the meantime, we mustn’t have the inner workings of a parliamentary system exposed to the view of English and non-English voters alike in which the votes of non-English MPs – and ultimately, of non-English voters – are reduced to the role of providing parliamentary voting fodder in support of fundamentally ‘English’ policy agendas.

But the essentially English status of those policies and of Parliament itself must never be openly acknowledged. If it was, then there would be no alternative other than to move to a more honest separation of English and UK-wide policies and politics: a genuinely English parliament to debate English laws, and a genuine UK parliament to reflect different views and priorities from across the UK, and not just a ‘Britain’ that is fundamentally England re-imagined and re-named.

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