Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

1 April 2012

[Un]rule Brit-Anglia: Speaking the Eng-closed

Have we been wrong in the way we’ve configured devolution? Specifically, have we [English] been wrong in the way we’ve understood devolution as, to an extent, setting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland free to govern their own affairs and forge their own identities; while we [English] have been denied the choice of self-determination and self-identity: subjected to the imposition both of British rule and British identity?

Could we [English] perhaps not reverse this paradigm? Could it not be argued, on the contrary, that in being allowed to run many of their own affairs, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have been allowed to affirm and own their very Britishness; while it is we [English] that have set out in a different direction: a distinctive, [English] direction, albeit under the direction of the British polity and in a way that is predicated on the absence of a distinct Englishness?

That’s why I’m choosing to call it [English] – in red font and square brackets – rather than just ‘English’. The post-devolution [England] has been a virtual, shadowy ‘Anti-England’: the unacknowledged Real that is the actual ground of meaning (and also ‘ground’ in the sense of ‘territory’) and the referent of the symbols of Britishness and of the imagined country that is ‘Britain’. In other words, the UK government – particularly in relation to devolved matters – has become in one sense ‘really’ an English government. That is to say, its actions and laws relate in reality – on the ground and in terms of their impact on real people’s lives – primarily to England. But those actions and laws are symbolised as ‘British’ not ‘English’: they are not spoken of as the actions of an English government that affect a land called England and people who are English. Though the government itself is comprised mainly of English people, elected from English constituencies for which they are, at least in theory, elected to provide national government, the members of the UK government and parliament speak of themselves as a British government of a country called Britain.

In short, we [English] have had, since devolution, ‘government of the [English] people by British (but in fact mainly [English]) people for the British state (though ostensibly for the [English] people). It’s been a sort of ‘not-the-English government’: both really English, in the sense outlined above, but not-English / anti-English / British at the same time. Of England, by English people but not in England’s name, which would mean it was democratically accountable to a nation that knows itself as ‘England’, and acknowledges that government and those MPs as its representatives: which would, in other words, be real English (not [English]) government.

So I’m suggesting a new typographical convention – [England] and [English] in red and square brackets – as a way to refer to the ‘really’ English character of what tends to be referred to and imagined as ‘British’ even though it primarily relates to England in terms of its material import, and reflects an English perspective – political and cultural – on ‘the country’. For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not suggesting that ‘British’ and [English] are in some sense equivalent terms: that if we all know that what is spoken of as ‘British’ is in fact really [English], but that we’re all just being inclusive and politically correct by referring to it as ‘British’, it doesn’t really matter whether you call it [English] or British.

For example, I’m not saying, as some Scottish nationalists do, that the British government and establishment are ‘really’ an English government and establishment. Well, yes, it is an English establishment, but one that is best evoked as an [English] establishment. The establishment, and particularly our present government, is comprised of privileged, largely public school- and Oxbridge-educated English people, with a typically English cultural and political perspective on the nation they like to imagine as ‘Britain’ and the polity they refer to as the UK. But it cannot really be referred to as an ‘English establishment’ when the people involved present themselves primarily as ‘British’, and see themselves as governing a country called ‘Britain’. They are English-as-British people that view themselves as governing England-as-the-UK; and it seems somewhat unfair, but understandable, for Scots nats to feed that back as ‘British-but-really-English’ people governing in the interests of a Britain-that-is-really-England. The whole point is that, whereas it might in fact be ‘really’ an English government, it’s not a government in England’s name that holds itself accountable to the English nation: it’s an English-but-not-English government, a ‘not-the-English’ government – an [English] government.

The more ‘British’, the more not-English, in fact – by which I’m trying to suggest a paradox that the more post-devolution British governments have tried to affirm their ‘British’ character and deny their [English] reality, the more distinct from the rest of Britain / residual Britain have their [English] policies been. In other words, the more they’ve led [England] in a distinct direction, different from the devolved nations, the more indistinct from ‘Britain’ has been their way of talking about [England] – as if the way to deny the separating of [England] away from the other nations of Britain that has been driven as much by their distinct policies for [England] as by devolution is to talk more and more as if that [England] and those [English] policies were all there is of Britain: to retreat into a solipsism, as much as a solecism, which denies the splitting up of Britain by re-imagining [England] as ‘Britain as a whole’ and, indeed, as ‘Britain as whole‘. So in fact, the more ‘British’ England’s governance and self-representation has become, the more [English] it has in fact been: distinct from the rest of Britain, which has a justifiable claim to represent the ‘true Britain’ and the true (at least, post-war) traditions and consensus of British government and political values.

The Labour governments of Blair and Brown neatly illustrate this paradigm and paradox. As I’ve argued elsewhere, one of the purposes behind devolution to Scotland and Wales was to allow Labour to maintain its hegemony over those countries in perpetuity, and to pursue Old Labour social-democratic policies there that Labour had given up on for [England]. New Labour, ostensibly a project for a ‘New Britain’, was in fact a programme for [England] only. New Labour’s Big Lie and act of treachery towards England was that, at the very moment that it plotted a neo-Thatcherite course for [England] only (on the assumption that Old Labour was unelectable in England), it had the gall to make out that this was a programme for Britain (as a whole). Old Labour was true British Labour – a party that thought that, by definition, socialist principles should be applied across Britain as a whole. New Labour, on the other hand, is really [English] Labour: charting a distinct (neo-liberal, market-capitalist) direction for [England] while at the same time presenting this as if it were a project for a New Britain and consistent with, but modernising, British Labour’s values – whereas, in fact, those British Labour principles had been abandoned for [England] but remained alive, well and funded by the British state in the devolved nations.

So, contrary to the language and our [English] conception of devolution, it was the devolved countries that remained more truly British, whereas it was the land that could be referred to only as ‘Britain’ (i.e. [England]) that set off in a different direction. This is not so much ‘England is Britain is England’, as the Scots-nats would have it, but ‘Scotland / Wales / N. Ireland is Britain and “Britain” is [England]‘.

But I don’t think one should impute deliberate treachery and deceit to the whole Labour movement in this matter; although I’m positive the Labour leadership knew what it was doing by spinning [England] as Britain. For the mass of [English] Labour members and New Labour apologists, [England] could be referred to only as ‘Britain’ because Labour was in massive denial that its distinct policy agenda for [England] was separating [England] from the old socialist Britain for which Labour was supposed to stand just as firmly as devolution was doing. Devolution and a distinct agenda for [England] in fact went hand in hand for New Labour: devolving Scotland and Wales to pursue separate policy agendas for the devolved countries and for [England]; but denying it was pursuing divide and rule, and abandoning its socialist principles for [England] only, by making out that [England]
was Britain – ultimately not divided from ‘the rest of Britain’ because it had been re-imagined as the ‘whole of Britain’ and no longer actually included the ‘rest of Britain’ within its New Labour horizons. The New Britain was in fact [England].

But what of the oh-so [English] present government and the not-PM-for-England, David Cameron, himself? Laughably, David Cameron’s Canute-like refusal to endorse a new EU fiscal-consolidation treaty back in December of last year was portrayed by some as an example of a new Conservative ‘English nationalism‘, something which I refute in turn here. But there are some senior Tories who would explicitly like to champion this sort of ‘go-it-alone-England’ – free from the two Unions: European and British – as the new English nationalism. Tories such as John Redwood, who described this anti-EU English nationalism recently, and paradoxically, as “the new force in UK politics”. (Paradoxically, because he still refers to “UK politics”; and English nationalism as such can be talked of as a reality only when it starts to become possible to use the phrase ‘English politics’.)

John Redwood is perhaps something of an exception, in that, unlike many of his parliamentary colleagues, he has never been ashamed of talking about England as a nation in her own right, with her own claims to self-determination. But for most Conservative MPs, it would be more appropriate to talk of [English] nationalism rather than English nationalism. Yes, they are, mostly, English MPs, elected from English constituencies, with a typically ‘English’ cultural outlook, conception of the UK and antipathy towards EU interference in [English] affairs. But the ‘nation’ they wish to safeguard from absorption into continental Europe is ‘Britain’. And if it’s necessary to accept the secession of Scotland as the price for being able to preserve, govern and shape that Britain in accordance with their ideological precepts, then so be it. Their Britain will just keep calm and carry on – with or without Scotland, and preferably without the EU – except that, without Scotland, it would be, err, mainly at least, England. But why let reality stand in the way of a good political fiction?

So the [English] nationalism of the New Tories is far from being a positive political programme for a new, self-governing England (which is true English nationalism). In fact, it represents a radical continuation of the distinct, Blairite policy agenda and vision for [England] originally set by New Labour, and which is so resolute to resist anything that might stand in its way that it’s prepared to go even further than New Labour in splitting [England] off from (the rest of) Britain. Whereas, for New Labour, it was sufficient to hive Scotland and Wales into devolved Old Labour enclaves in order to continue the Thatcherite agenda in [England], for the New Tories, it may be necessary to ditch Scotland altogether – if not, perhaps, Wales; at least, not yet – in order to continue the work of Blair.

But don’t let’s fool ourselves that this will involve building a New England as the continuation of Blair’s New Britain, because, just like New Labour, the New Tory project involves a radical denial of England as a nation in her own right, and with rights of her own. In fact, just as Cameron’s Conservatives are prepared to risk separating off ‘Old Britain’ (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) from [England] even further than devolution by happily tolerating Scottish secession, they are also pushing the England-denying project to its radical limits by privatising the last vestiges of the post-war British-national settlement in [England], which ultimately means privatising [England] itself.

This is the profound meaning of the [English] government’s Big Society agenda and programme of privatisation of things like the [English] NHS (which I now like to call the ‘English Public Health-care System’ (EPHS), as it is no longer British, nor nationalised, nor a single ‘service’ as such but is definitely English), [English] education, [English] policing and even [English] local government and public administration. Are you getting the point now? Thatcherism was about privatising British nationalised industries. But Thatcher’s New Labour and New Tory continuators have extended this programme of privatisation and marketisation beyond industry to the institutions and organisations that symbolised and embodied a shared British nation – but only within [England]. And once you’ve torn down – brick by brick, as Cameron put it last week – the edifice of the British state in [England] that was once publicly owned and run in the public interest, you’re left not with a new England but an atomised landscape in which health care, education, planning, policing and all the rest are no longer seen as being ultimately the responsibility of a national (e.g. English) government but are all in the hands of the private domain and the market: private enterprise, private individuals, social enterprises and co-operatives, competitive health-care providers, public-private partnerships, local GP consortia, local development plans concocted by democratically unaccountable local cliques in place of proper local democracy, etc.

In short, abolishing the national in [England] (nationalised industries, and nationally owned and accountable public services) ultimately means abolishing the English nation. The ultimate logic of Thatcherite privatisation and marketisation is the asset-stripping of nationhood, so that all you’re left with is the private sphere (and its extension, the micro-local) and the market. But for [England] only: they’ve made sure of that.

But the left – or the post-Blairite wasteland that passes for one in [England] – have got no answer to this, because any sort of answer would have to be national, and the nation to which the answer would apply could only be ‘England’. That’s why I have absolutely no confidence in the claims made this week that Labour, if re-elected into [English] government, would ‘repeal’ the present government’s privatisation of the [English] NHS, or the EPHS, if you’ve followed me to this point. And that’s not just because the [English] Health and Social Care Bill was in fact no more than a continuation to its logical limit of many of the marketisation measures New Labour introduced into the [English] NHS, but because Labour has no language in which to articulate a vision for the / an English nation as such, let alone for a new NHS that would be per force an English NHS now, because all possibility of maintaining the pretence that the now abolished [English] NHS was the NHS (i.e. the original, British one, founded by the post-war Labour government) has vanished. Just as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have remained true to the post-war British settlement, they still have their British NHS: state-run, -owned and -funded. So a new Labour (not New Labour?) [English] government couldn’t ‘reintroduce’ or ‘re-nationalise’ the NHS (the British one) because it still exists, except not in England. No, they’d have to create something new: an English health service.

Is the left in [England] at all capable of articulating a vision of and for England? Well, that is the 64,000-dollar (donation) question. And it’s a question, ultimately, that applies to all of our [English] political class, not just to Labour. Politicians will not be able to ‘reconnect’ with the [English] public, as the saying goes, until they reconnect with their own Englishness: until they liberate themselves from the mental chains, repression and ‘enclosures’ that prevent them from seeing and accepting themselves as English, and as having a primary purpose, as English politicians, to serve the English people and nation.

I use the expression ‘enclosure’ to refer to a confinement of the English and of England to the private realm, both in the context of the wholesale privatisation of England I’ve just described and in the context of a process whereby persons engaged in public life in [England] close off their ‘inner Englishness’ into their private life: not to be spoken of in politically correct, British (i.e. [English]) society. Of course, the two processes are linked. I was struck by this recently when reading an article entitled, ‘Britain is not just “undergoing privatisation”, this is a modern enclosure movement’. This described the process of privatisation of [English] public services, essentially as I have described it, as a latter-day version of the enclosure of common land in England from the 16th century onwards, but without mentioning that either the modern or original enclosures were largely limited to England – something that I wasted no time in pointing out in the comments!

What sort of mental enclosure, intellectual barrier or self-censorship prevents the author and many like him from acknowledging that public assets and services are being closed off into the private realm in [England] only or primarily, not ‘Britain’? Is it because they themselves – in the wake of Thatcher and Blair – fundamentally do not believe in an English public realm, out of some sort of internalised hatred and contempt for England, the common English people and themselves as English? It is as if, in their minds, England and the English – and themselves as English – deserve no better: deserve, that is, to be just cut-off, isolated, private individuals striving and competing against one another for the services and goods they need from private suppliers and employers, rather than expecting as of right the dignity of a nation that takes care of its own.

Politicians, left or right, will not be able to make an effective stand against the privatisation of England until they are prepared to resist the privatisation of their own Englishness. They’re going to have to ‘out’ themselves from their own British enclosures – ‘come out’ publicly as English – before they can pretend to speak in the name of an English public: an idea that they have thus far repudiated just as they have repudiated their own Englishness. English ownership of public assets means English people owning their Englishness. But until such time as those who would represent [England] can think of themselves as English, and identify with the English people, England will remain in the British enclosure.

In short, New Labour brought us an England re-imagined and marketed as ‘Cool Britannia’. The New Tories have brought us ‘Rule Brit-Anglia’: an England privatised and branded by the market as ‘Britain’. But for England to come into its own, to ‘unrule Brit-Anglia’, English people must first break open the mental ‘Eng-closure’ that prevents them from saying ‘England’ and choosing to speak in her name – which is, after all, what a real English parliament would be for. Then, perhaps, we’ll at last be able to talk of a self-governing England, not a Brit-ruled [England].

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11 August 2011

England’s riots: if you keep trashing England, eventually England will trash you back

It’s easy to pontificate about this week’s riots in England. Everyone’s got their pet theory about the causes and possible solutions, and about what to do with the rioters and looters themselves. Many of those expressing an opinion have little or no first-hand experience of the geographical areas of which they write or of the riots; although many writers have been directly affected by the mayhem. In my case, I do have a lot of direct knowledge of Tottenham – the part of London where it all ‘kicked off’ last Saturday. One of the iconic pictures of the riot, the blazing Carpet Right store that was razed to the ground, is very close to somewhere I have stayed and visited on many occasions. But I wasn’t there on Saturday night and am currently staying in a part of England – Cambridgeshire – that appears up to now to have been unaffected by the troubles.

One fact that is worth pointing out right from the start is that these are English riots, not ‘British’. Up to now, as far as I know, there have been no disturbances and looting in Scotland, Wales or – for once – Northern Ireland. It typically took the media quite a while to wake up to the fact that the riots were limited to England and so should be referred to as ‘England’s riots’, rather than ‘UK riots’. Yesterday, however, I noticed what appeared to be a distinct shift in editorial policy, and the major news broadcasters all seemed to be correctly describing the riots as ‘English’. Which is more than can be said for David Cameron who, in his speech in Downing Street yesterday, still seemed incapable of acknowledging the specifically English character of the riots. Cameron referred merely to “parts of Britain” that were “sick” and failed, yet again, to mention ‘England’ once.

It seems paradoxical that one should feel aggrieved that the specifically English nature of the riots is not being acknowledged by politicians insisting on terming them ‘British’, as the riots are not exactly something to be proud of as an Englishman. But the reason for being angry about this is the same as the reason for being annoyed when any English issue is not referred to as such: it’s because this is a means for politicians and media not to engage with the English dimension of the issue concerned, and hence to avoid taking or suggesting any position to the effect that, maybe, English problems need English solutions – politicians that are willing to provide national leadership for England and to be accountable to the English people in so doing.

In fact, to me, England’s riots seem to illustrate in dramatic fashion what can happen when an entire nation is suppressed and ignored: dropped from the discourse, consciousness and attention of those are supposed to be providing leadership for it and are supposedly elected to serve its people. For years and years, England has in effect been ‘trashed’ by the political, media and liberal classes: disregarded, despised, ignored and erased from politically correct conversation. When a nation becomes the object of the contempt of its own ruling class, and of its economically better-off classes, should we be surprised if those who bear the brunt of that contempt strike back?

Now, I’m not trying to justify the senseless violence and criminality of the riots, and still less suggest that they are the expression of legitimate political protest, which they clearly are not. But in a way, that is the whole point: the young people involved are deprived not only socio-economically (although not all of them, it seems, are under-privileged) but they are deprived of a political language and means of expression for their anger and hostility towards authority. So instead, the outlet for their aggression is trashing retail outlets: symbols of a political and economic system that has left them excluded, marginalised, and frequently unemployed and unemployable.

Again, it’s too easy to generalise and make excuses for the predominantly young people responsible for the violence. But equally, it’s easy to fall into the opposite error. The government and media are attempting to develop a narrative for the riots that makes out that they exhibit ‘pure criminality’ and ‘mindless thuggery’, as well as being the consequence of inadequate parenting, and a break-down in morality and personal ethics ‘in society’ – for which, read England. But this just reduces the whole issue to one of individual ‘responsibility’ – one of Cameron’s favourite words – and glosses over the collective, political, English dimension. Criminality and thuggery, clearly in evidence on England’s streets this week, doesn’t come from nowhere, and it certainly doesn’t just come from the moral break-down of individuals, families and communities. It also has political causes and, in a less obvious way, motivations; and it sure as heck is going to have political consequences.

What we’re going to see is the British political and media establishment rallying round and closing ranks, and propagating the view that there can be only British solutions to these English social problems. And those ‘British solutions’ are going to be ones that flow from the reserved powers and UK-level thinking of the British establishment, rather than expressing a direct engagement with and concern for English social problems as English. Hence, there will be a focus on policing, and law and order (UK Home Office), with draconian punishments for the wrongdoers (which to some extent they deserve) and more ‘robust’ policing methods, which, however, does nothing to address the underlying causes of the violence and is likely to make certain sections of the communities concerned (e.g. the black population) feel even more persecuted than they already do.

Then the discourse around moral responsibility and parenting, however relevant these issues are, is again at the general level at which ‘national’ (i.e. UK) leaders are supposed to provide a moral example – leaving aside the fact that politicians have, in very recent memory, failed to provide such a moral example to society by cheating on their expenses and effectively stealing goods to a much higher value than most of the looters. And all this pontificating about ‘responsibility’ by the British great and good is, to a large extent, an abnegation of their political responsibility to create conditions in society – i.e. England – in which young people feel they have a steak in a meaningful future and in economic activity, rather than having nothing to lose from stealing from those perceived to have benefited from an economy in which they are the losers, and smashing up their country.

And then the call for rioters to forfeit their benefits, which looks likely to be the first e-petition to reach the threshold of 100,000 signatures needed to qualify for a debate in Parliament, again addresses the situation purely at the British level, in that benefits are a UK reserved matter. But how is leaving newly criminalised, unemployed youngsters without any support from society going to encourage them to seek a better path in life? Surely, this is just going to make them feel even more desperate and embittered, and make them lash out even more against a society that has spurned them.

And this is, for me, the crux of the matter. The young people who have been involved in the violence, and whose voices have occasionally been allowed to be heard in the media, have often shown complete contempt and disregard for the police, for the legal system, for any figure of authority, and for the victims of their crimes, particularly the businesses they have wrecked, which they dismiss as the property of ‘rich’ people that had it coming to them. Where does such contempt and hatred come from? In part, at least, they arise from the disregard and indifference of which these English youngsters have been the object throughout their whole lives on the part of a system that has treated them and their country – England – with wholesale contempt. The scorn and indignation that is now being directed towards England’s rioters – justifiably so, in many respects – is co-terminous with the general contempt that the British establishment has for England per se: it’s not just England’s rioters that are at fault, but a violent and ‘sick’ England, which the rioters are seen as symbolising. And the British establishment is set on re-imposing its sway over those unruly English.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I want law and order to be re-established, and I want to be kept safe from gangs of out-of-control youngsters treating wanton destruction as a piece of adrenalin-filled fun rather like a cheap substitute for a trip to Alton Towers that they couldn’t afford. But I don’t think the way to deal with the problem in the long term is to continue to fail to develop social policies for England, and particularly English youngsters, that enable people to take pride in their country. At the most minimal level, these riots demonstrate that those involved do not have pride in their country; and their country, Mr Cameron, is England. The British establishment can’t go on pretending England doesn’t exist, and making social policy for England subordinate to UK-national and economic priorities, regardless of the social impact, without expecting a backlash.

Well, obviously, the UK government does have social policies for England (i.e. in areas such as education, health and communities where its responsibilities – that word again – are limited to England), even though it goes out of its way to avoid acknowledging that those policies are in fact specific to England. But, as I’ve argued previously, those policies flow from an ideology that is economic in its underlying philosophy: essentially, the belief that if the state withdraws from activities that have hitherto been the domain of the public sector, and makes those areas of society the responsibility of the free market, then services will be more appropriate to the needs of individuals and communities, and will be delivered more cost-efficiently and will generate economic growth. Whatever you think of such social-market economics or neo-liberalism, it is an ideology and an economic theory, not proven, empirical ‘fact’ as such; and, for the present government, England is the playground in which these theories are being put to the test. Or should that be a battleground?

The trouble is, market economics have been tested out in England for the past 30 years, and while they’ve made many English people very wealthy, they’ve created a whole class of English people that have lost out: who, for whatever reasons, have not engaged or been able to engage in the market economy that so often prefers to import cheap labour rather than paying English people a living wage and giving them decent working conditions that allow them to gain self-respect from work rather than feeling exploited and looked down upon. And that’s to say nothing of all the army of young unemployed and soon-to-be unemployed from whom benefits such as the Educational Maintenance Allowance and subsidised higher education (both retained in the UK’s devolved nations), let alone welfare benefits and subsidised social services such as youth clubs and leisure facilities, are being withdrawn in the interests of the UK economy and at the behest of ‘the markets’ in which UK plc lives in fear of having its credit rating adjusted downwards, as a consequence, in part, of its massive bail-out of the irresponsible and excessively wealthy financial-services markets themselves.

Really, is it any wonder that these disaffected and disenfranchised youths lash out in an ignorance that is in no small measure testament to an English education system that has failed to endow them with a sense of pride in England even while it tries to inculcate in them a Britishness that means nothing to them in tangible economic terms? If your country means nothing to you – indeed, if you don’t even know anything of your country, its proud history, traditions and culture – then it means nothing to you to trash it. And it means nothing to those youngsters because it is nothing to the British establishment that sees England even less than it sees the faces of those behooded youngsters rampaging through England’s streets.

Those young people – England’s future – are destroying England because they lack a positive political means and language with which to protest against a system that has let them down. And no British solution, imposed top-down from a British establishment that refuses to engage with English society and to seek to be a genuine government for England – a servant of the English people – is going to address this problem, because it will simply perpetuate it. We need an English government that cares about the English people, especially its dysfunctional youngsters, and which can address the problems from the bottom up. Our British obsession with the markets has created a society where economic success or failure is king, and indeed where education is mostly about equipping people to be successful agents in the market place, rather than fully rounded individuals that will care for and contribute to the communities, people and nation around them, as well as generating wealth through work. And where the losers feel they have nothing left to lose in destroying what the winners have gained, they will surely do so.

Only an English civic society can remedy England’s social ills. But English civic society is the last thing the British government is interested in bringing about and fostering. Its vision is the Big Society in which – essentially – communities are left to fend for themselves in a market free-for-all. Well, the market isn’t working for our young people right now and they’re lashing out against it.

If England is denied a civic future in which people of all ages and backgrounds feel they can work together for a better nation, then England will become an even more un-civic, indeed un-civil and uncivilised, place than it has been this week.

5 May 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 October 2009

Gordon Brown’s anglophobia is an expression of moral repugnance

“Britain – the four home nations – each is unique, each with its own great contribution and we will never allow separatists or narrow nationalists in Scotland or in Wales to sever the common bonds that bring our country together as one. And let me say to the people of Northern Ireland we will give you every support to complete the last and yet unfinished stage of the peace process which Tony Blair to his great credit started and which I want to see complete – the devolution of policing and justice to the people of Northern Ireland, which we want to see happen in the next few months.

“I want a Britain that is even more open to new ideas, even more creative, even more dynamic and leading the world and let me talk today about how we will do more to support the great British institutions that best define this country.”

Gordon Brown, Labour Party conference, 29 September 2009.

Gordon Brown hates England. Or should that be ‘England’, expressing the peculiar aversion our PM has towards the very idea of England – to the extent that he wishes it into non-existence? I defy anybody reading the above passage from Brown’s keynote speech to the Labour Party conference earlier this week not to acknowledge that it reveals an insulting contempt towards England at the very least. The PM refers to the “four home nations” and then mentions three of them by name, although the references towards Scotland and Wales are not especially affirming. But what about England? What indeed – our PM won’t commit the indecency of mentioning the unmentionable!

The Prime Minister is not so shy about referring to Britain; no, he loves ‘Britain’. I counted 61 instances of either ‘Britain’, ‘British’ or ‘Briton(s)’ in his speech compared with none – no, not a single one – to England. This is despite the fact that, as we know, most of the policy announcements in the speech related to England only, or to England and Wales with respect to crime and policing.

Brown’s presentation of English policies as if they were British exemplified all the familiar dishonest and self-serving motivations:

  • ‘Create the impression your policy “innovations” affect the whole of Britain to avoid comparisons with Scotland and / or Wales where these policies are more comprehensive and have been effective for some time already’: announcement of a ‘National Care Service’ [for England only] that will provide free personal care for the elderly, but only for “those with the highest needs” – as opposed to the universal free social care provided for Gordon Brown’s constituents. The same applies to Andy Burnham’s pusillanimous announcement of free parking for hospital inpatients and their families “over the next three years, as we can afford it” – as opposed to the free parking for both inpatients and outpatients that already applies in Scotland and Wales. Burnham also conveniently forgot to mention that his announcement related to England only.
  • ‘Avoid awkward questions about why a Scottish-elected prime minister is putting forward legislation that does not affect his constituents’: “I can tell the British people that between now and Christmas, neighbourhood policing [in England and Wales only] will focus in a more direct and intensive way on anti-social behaviour.  Action squads will crackdown in problem estates”. Whatever your views on how best to deal with anti-social behaviour, the truth of the matter is that this is a Scottish PM sending in the cops to crackdown on the English (and Welsh) populace.
  • ‘Avoid proper scrutiny of the nature and effect of taxation and spending commitments across the different countries of the UK’: “I am proud to announce today that by reforming tax relief [affecting people throughout the UK] we will by the end of the next Parliament be able to give the parents of a quarter of a million two year olds [in England only] free childcare for the first time”. The same goes for more or less any spending commitment: once you mention that a pledge relates to England only, awkward questions could be raised about why England appears to be being given preferential treatment by benefiting from increases in general taxation. Another example: “So we will raise tax at the very top [for all UK citizens], cut costs, have realistic public sector pay settlements [for all UK public-sector workers], make savings we know we can and in 2011 raise National Insurance [across the UK] by half a percent and that will ensure that each and every year we protect and improve Britain’s [i.e. England’s] frontline services”.

    Of course, it would be farcical to argue that only English public services will benefit from increases in UK taxation, as any rise in English expenditure gets passed on with interest to the devolved administrations via the Barnett Formula. However, in terms of policy presentation, it is just plain awkward if you have to explicitly acknowledge that commitments to maintain or increase spending on the NHS, education, policing and other ‘frontline services’ relate to England only: it looks as if England is being favoured, even if it isn’t. And if you then have to explain that rises in English expenditure will trigger even greater proportionate rises in the other nations – or, conversely, that if English spending falls, spending in the other countries will fall to an even greater degree – then you can get yourself into real deep waters with voters in England or the devolved nations respectively. Better to just pretend there is one undivided pot of taxation and spending – which there isn’t.

    This is of course going to be a, if not the, major battle ground at the general election; so you can expect all the parties to attempt to gloss over these inconvenient ‘complications’, and the media to ignore them as comprehensively as they did in the coverage of Brown’s speech – none of the commentary I’ve come across, including an extended analysis on the BBC News website, pointing out that much of it related to England only.

All of these reasons for making England out to be Britain were present in spades in Brown’s speech. But the aspect of it I’m interested in highlighting here is the moral character of Brown’s repugnance towards England. The speech sets up an implicit opposition between the ‘British values’ of fairness, responsibility and hard work, on the one hand, and what Brown perceives as the ‘English’ social and individual characteristics of unfairness, irresponsibility and work-shyness / the benefits culture. This view of England forms a subtext to Brown’s paean of praise to the above-mentioned ‘British values’, which are constantly reiterated throughout the speech:

“Bankers had lost sight of basic British values, acting responsibly and acting fairly.  The values that we, the hard working majority, live by every day”

“It’s the Britain that works best not by reckless risk-taking but by effort, by merit and by hard work. It’s the Britain that works not just by self-interest but by self-discipline, self-improvement and self-reliance. It’s the Britain where we don’t just care for ourselves, we also care for each other. And these are the values of fairness and responsibility that we teach our children, celebrate in our families, observe in our faiths, and honour in our communities. Call them middle class values, call them traditional working class values, call them family values, call them all of these; these are the values of the mainstream majority; the anchor of Britain’s families, the best instincts of the British people, the soul of our party and the mission of our government.”

In Brown’s vision, these Scottish-Presbyterian ‘British’ / (new) Labour values must be exercised in reforming and responding to the effectively English crisis of moral values that has led to the economic and social mess we are in. This perspective is evident even in relation to the reserved policy area of macro-economics, in that the near collapse of the UK’s banking sector is linked by Brown to the dominance of an essentially ‘English’ philosophical commitment to self-regulating free markets, and to socially irresponsible behaviour and greed on the part of English bankers.

“What let the world down last autumn was not just bankrupt institutions but a bankrupt ideology. What failed was the Conservative idea that markets always self-correct but never self-destruct. What failed was the right wing fundamentalism that says you just leave everything to the market and says that free markets should not just be free but values free. One day last October the executive of a major bank told us that his bank needed only overnight finance but no long term support from the government. The next day I found that this bank was going under with debts that were among the biggest of any bank, anywhere, at any time in history. Bankers had lost sight of basic British values, acting responsibly and acting fairly.  The values that we, the hard working majority, live by every day.”

Of course, it’s quite preposterous that Brown should now disown the market economics and belief in self-correcting markets that have characterised Labour’s economic policy in government and informed Brown’s own actions as Chancellor. But what I’m interested in here is the ‘national’ subtext: although the above passage does not explicitly say so (but then, Brown never explicitly refers to England if he can help it), the right-wing, Conservative market fundamentalism he describes is associated with English ideology and the English City of London, which would be a familiar association for someone like Brown who cut his political teeth in the battle against the ‘English’ Thatcherism of the 1980s, which was so deeply unpopular in Scotland. Never mind that the bank Brown alludes here to is almost certainly the Royal Bank of Scotland.

For Brown, what is needed to ‘fight’ against this unfair [English] Conservatism and the reckless irresponsibility of unchecked markets is a good dose of ‘British’ morals, and the British values of fairness, responsibility and honest hard work:

“Markets need what they cannot generate themselves; they need what the British people alone can bring to them, I say to you today; markets need morals.
So we will pass a new law to intervene on bankers’ bonuses whenever they put the economy at risk. And any director of any of our banks who is negligent will be disqualified from holding any such post. . . . I tell you this about our aims for the rescue of the banks: the British people will not pay for the banks.  No, the banks will pay back the British people.”

It is this same set of moral / British values that is brought to bear in Brown’s social policies affecting England (plus occasionally Wales) only. The implication is that it’s English moral irresponsibility, lack of fairness and idleness that has brought its society to the pass where it needs a stern application of correct British values to set things right. Take the example of the proposed measures to ‘help’ young unmarried mothers:

“It cannot be right, for a girl of sixteen, to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own. From now on all 16 and 17 year old parents [in England only] who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes. These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly. That’s better for them, better for their babies and better for us all in the long run.”

The opening words here, “it cannot be right”, are ambiguous: they imply that it’s morally wrong for 16- and 17-year-old [English] girls to get themselves pregnant, alongside the explicit meaning, which is that it’s ‘unfair’ and ‘irresponsible’ for [English] councils to give such girls a council flat without any other support. There we go again: reckless English teenagers causing social problems and unnecessary expense to the taxpayer through their immoral behaviour; and English councils compounding the problem by throwing money at them without really dealing with the underlying social and behavioural issues. So Brown’s solution: if English girls in such a situation, who are not cared for by their own irresponsible, dysfunctional families, want the support of the British taxpayer, then they’ll be effectively placed in a form of incarceration where they can jolly well learn how to behave and look after their babies ‘properly’.

The same attitude informs Brown’s announcements on things like tackling the effects of [English] binge drinking, [English and Welsh] anti-social behaviour, and dysfunctional [English] families:

  • “We thought that extended hours would make our city centres easier to police and in many areas it has. But it’s not working in some places and so we will give local authorities [in England] the power to ban 24 hour drinking throughout a community in the interests of local people”: clearly, we English drunkards can’t be trusted with ’24-hour drinking’, in contrast to the Scots with their Presbyterian, responsible behaviour around drink.
  • “There is also a way of intervening earlier to stop anti-social behaviour, slash welfare dependency and cut crime. Family intervention projects are a tough love, no nonsense approach with help for those who want to change and proper penalties for those who don’t or won’t. . . . Starting now and right across the next Parliament every one of the 50,000 most chaotic families [in England only] will be part of a family intervention project – with clear rules, and clear punishments if they don’t stick to them”: the British state is now going to take it upon itself to single out the most unfairly behaving, irresponsible and work-shy English families, and will make sure they learn how to stick to the British rules or else get the British stick!

Well, clearly, action is needed to deal with social problems such as these. The point I’m making is that Brown’s prescriptions are pervaded by a deep moral repugnance towards what are in effect characteristics of English society and culture. And that repugnance is not merely incidental, in the sense that they just happen to be English social problems because it’s only English society that the government that Brown heads up can act upon through legislation and policy. On the contrary, Brown has a personal, moral dislike and prejudice towards the English seen in the contrasting figures of the anti-social, indeed ‘anti-societal’, underclass, on the one hand, and the selfish, arrogant upper classes and mega-rich capitalists represented by the likes of David Cameron, George Osborne and the out-of-control bankers, who seek only to protect their own wealth and privileges.

To these images of Englishness, Brown opposes British values personified in what he repeatedly terms the ‘mainstream majority’ of hard-working, responsible working-class and middle-class communities, families and individuals. Brown articulates his and Labour’s ‘mission’ as being that of raising the [English] underclass and humbling the [English] upper classes, so that the whole of society meets in that mainstream middle ground and middle class of fairness, responsibility, the work ethic and meritocracy. Or bourgeois mediocrity and social conformity.

But one thing for sure is that Brown’s mission to reform ‘the country’ involves taking the England out of England, and transforming it into a ‘Britain’ made in Brown’s Scottish-Presbyterian image. And that’s why Brown can never say England: not just out of political expediency but because ‘England’ is the name for a moral decadence that he sees it as his duty to change – in the name of ‘British values’.

17 August 2009

The debate on the National Health Service is a proxy for a debate on nation-specific ideologies and policies

I’ve been particularly struck in the past few days by the extent to which the debate on the two main parties’ commitment to the principles and funding of the NHS has been completely blind to its English dimension. I suppose this should not come as any surprise, as it’s totally normal for Labour and the Tories to discuss England-specific matters as if they related to the whole of the UK. But this time, the blanket ignoring of the fact that the debate is relevant to England alone has been total, not only on the part of the politicians involved but also the media and bloggers. What is it about the National Health Service that makes us blind to its national specificities?

I suppose part of it is that the NHS is one of those national British institutions we like to think of as being present and valued to an equal degree in all parts of the UK, like the BBC, the Royal Family (for some, at least) and Parliament itself. But like Parliament and, to some extent, even the BBC, the national character of the NHS has been fundamentally changed by devolution. There are now four NHS’s (one in each of the UK’s constituent countries), with four government departments looking after them, four separate organisational structures, and separate funding arrangements. As with all legislation and social policy for England, the NHS in England is looked after by the UK government and the UK Department of Health. So although the government and Westminster politicians discuss policy for the NHS in the British terms relating to the level at which policy is made for it (at the UK level), the NHS in question is the English one, not a British one as such, which does not exist any more after devolution.

Given the apparent total unwillingness of the parties and the media to engage with the fact that the NHS whose future is being discussed is the English one, it is necessary to ask what they have to gain in ignoring this fact. In essence, the parties are trying to avoid framing an ideological polarity in national terms: ‘English’ political philosophy and social policy = support for privatisation, market principles and a reduced-size public sector; ‘British’ ideology and policy = support for nationalisation, state control of essential services and a generously funded public sector.

The truth of the matter is that, in England, the New Labour government has carried out major reforms to the NHS that have introduced more elements of privatisation than the previous Conservative governments were ever able to get away with; e.g. Foundation Trusts; autonomous GP surgeries competing for funding based on ‘performance’; public-private partnerships to build and run hospitals; outsourcing essential and ‘inessential’ services to private contractors; the introduction of patient ‘choice’, causing treatment centres to compete against each other to deliver the most lucrative and ‘popular’ treatments; more ‘consumer-friendly’ polyclinics being forced through despite the objections of practitioners fearing it would result in the break-down of individual doctor-patient relationships; etc. etc.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the Tories’ actual policies as outlined in policy documents such as their Plan for NHS Improvement are pretty much more of the same: advocating a flexible blend of public-sector and private-provider approaches to deliver the desired health benefits supposedly more cost-effectively and efficiently. This document, by the way, is an absolute master class in the art of dodging the issue of which National Health Service, or rather which nation’s health service, is being discussed, as it studiously avoids referring to England in all but some statistical examples that strangely relate to England alone (strangely, that is, if you thought the policy document was referring to Britain when in fact it was dealing with the English NHS only).

So for all the hullabaloo over the past few days, it turns out that there are in practice no ideological differences between Labour and the Conservatives over the NHS (in England, that is); just minor differences in the methods to be adopted to deliver the same type of ‘reforms’ – by which is meant the introduction of market mechanisms that supposedly lead to greater efficiency, and improved patient choice and outcomes. But to listen to the politicians from both parties as they traded blows over this you could be mistaken for thinking that what they are really falling over backwards to agree about is their commitment to the principles of a generously funded, public sector-based ‘British’ NHS that lives up to its founding mission to provide health care free at the point of delivery.

Two aspects are key here: 1) a general ideological shift has occurred, prompted by the recession, whereby people’s faith that markets could go on delivering ever greater prosperity, and hence the mechanisms and means to continually improve the NHS, has been shaken; and they are worried that talk of increasing private-sector involvement in the health-care system is simply an excuse to make expenditure cuts. Labour are clearly playing on these concerns; and the Tories are having to emphasise the fact that they plan to increase expenditure on the NHS (in England) in real terms, and underplay the fact that they are still intending to introduce more private-sector mechanisms for allocating those resources and delivering care; 2) both parties have a strong vested interest in suppressing the fact that the marketisation of the NHS they have been carrying out and intend to extend even further is limited to England, whereas the separately administered and funded NHS’s in the other countries of the UK have continued on more traditional public-sector lines.

In other words, the parties’ concern to underplay their commitment to market principles in the NHS is of one piece with their need to suppress the England-specific character of those market reforms – by which I do not mean that those reforms are supported by the English people and reflect the English ‘character’ as such; but rather the mere fact that those reforms have been and would be driven through in England only. Why is this? Because both parties, for their separate reasons, want to be seen as parties for Britain, not England. Labour is appealing to its core support, particularly in Scotland and Wales where it has supported and provided funding (via the Barnett Formula) for traditional public-sector NHS’s. Ignoring the rather different market-orientated policies that have been specific to its management of the English NHS helps Labour to invoke the folk memory of the nationalised health service when it was indeed a uniform public-sector service for the whole of Britain.

The Tories, for their part, are desperate not to be seen as a party associated with the Thatcherite market economics and wholesale privatisations that always enjoyed far more popular support (though never that of a majority of English voters) in England than in Scotland or Wales. For the Tories, openly supporting private-sector initiatives to improve public health-care outcomes, even though (and in part because) such measures would be limited to England, would be electoral suicide in Scotland and Wales. The Conservatives would then be portrayed as the party for the wealthy south of England, intent on cutting public expenditure in England, leading to reduced budgets in Scotland and Wales via the workings of the Barnett Formula. And, in fact, this is true. As I stated in my previous post on this subject, although the Tories are actually pledging to increase expenditure on health in England, they’re planning overall cuts in spending, which will result in lower budgets for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations, and possibly the need to cut spending on their NHS’s. So in fact, the Tories may end up spending more on the English NHS resulting in less spending on the NHS’s in the other UK countries.

So, by referring to the English NHS as the British NHS, the Labour Party are trying to gloss over their record in government, which has involved a substantial degree of privatisation of the service in England that the party has not supported in Scotland or Wales. And the Tories are also trying to downplay their actual support for market reforms of the NHS in England, which risks conjuring up the ghost of Margaret Thatcher and the idea that the Conservatives are the party for the wealthy and privileged of England (particularly, the south), not a progressive party for the whole of Britain.

But the consequence is that neither of the parties can be honest about their plans for the English NHS as such. Can we really be sure that if, by some freak, Labour got re-elected, they would not deepen their marketisation of the NHS – in England, only? And can we be confident that when the Tories set about extending the role of the private sector in the NHS (in England only), this will not become an excuse for delivering ‘efficiency savings’ that can then be passed on to the less efficient NHS’s in the other UK nations via the superior state funding they are guaranteed by the Barnett Formula? We don’t know, because the parties won’t tell us. They merely talk in misty-eyed terms of the British institution that is the NHS and how they stand firmly by its principles – even if those principles are put into practice in very different ways in England from the rest of the UK.

On one level, that’s fine: why shouldn’t the different nations of Britain develop the NHS along divergent lines in accordance with popular and national priorities? Why not, indeed? Except, in England, our actual priorities are not taken into consideration at all: the parties appeal to our affections for a fully state-funded and -run ‘British’ NHS and then they deliver an NHS in England that suits their own ideological and economic agendas, and is not what most English people are expecting, I would think. If the politicians actually engaged in dialogue with the English people and debated with them what sort of NHS we think we can afford, and the mix of public- and private-sector approaches that might best deliver the desired result, they might be surprised at the response they got. I don’t actually know what that would be: it might be more traditional public-sector, or more innovative, commercial and hybrid public-private. Genuine public consultation across the nation could deliver surprising results.

But the point is we’re not consulted, because a politics of dialogue between the English people and their political representatives would actually create a national English political community: one which might in turn design an English NHS that was worthy of the name. Instead, under the guise of a supposedly uniform British NHS that no longer exists, the parties canvass our support and that of those living in the other UK nations in order to deliver their own unspoken agendas for England. Unspoken, that is, because if they can’t even say the name of the country whose NHS they are supposedly standing up for, then such a health service is not a National Health Service that is truly designed with the best health outcomes in mind for the English nation.

And then they have the gall to talk of patriotism.

20 June 2009

The Dark Nationalist Heart of New Labour’s Devolution Project

I was struck last night by how the panellists of BBC1’s Any Questions displayed a rare unity in condemning the ‘nationalism’ to which they imputed the recent assaults on Romanian migrants in Northern Ireland. ‘There can be no place for nationalism in modern Britain’, they intoned to the audience’s acclaim.

Apart from the fact that statements such as this articulate a quasi-nationalistic, or inverted-nationalist, pride in Britain (‘what makes us “great as a nation” is our tolerance and integration of multiple nationalities’), this involved an unchallenged equation of hostility towards immigration / racism with ‘nationalism’. This was especially inappropriate in the Northern Ireland context where ‘nationalism’ is associated with Irish republicanism, and hence with Irish nationalism and not – what, actually? British nationalism à la BNP; the British ‘nationalism’ of Northern Irish loyalists (no one bothered to try and unpick whether the people behind the violence had been from the Catholic or Protestant community, or both); or even ‘English’ nationalism?

Certainly, it’s a stock response on the part of the political and media establishment to associate ‘English nationalism’ per se with xenophobia, opposition to immigration and racism. But this sort of knee-jerk reaction itself involves an unself-critical, phobic negativity towards (the concept of) the English – and certainly, the idea of the ‘white English’ – that crosses over into inverted racism, and which ‘colours’ (or, shall we say, emotionally infuses) people’s response to the concept of ‘English nationalism’. In other words, ‘English nationalism’, for the liberal political and media classes, evokes frightening images of racial politics and violence because, in part, the very concept of ‘the English nation’ is laden with associations of ‘white Anglo-Saxon’ ethnic aggressiveness and brutality. English nationalism is therefore discredited in the eyes of the liberal establishment because it is unable to dissociate it from its images of the historic assertion of English (racial) ‘superiority’ (for instance, typically, in the Empire). But the fact that the establishment is unable to re-envision what a modern and different English nationalism, and nation, could mean is itself the product of its ‘anti-English’ prejudice and generalisations bordering on racism: involving an assumption that the ‘white English’ (particularly of the ‘lower classes’) are in some sense intrinsically brutish and racist – in an a-historic way that reveals their ‘true nature’, rather than as a function of an imperial and industrial history that both brutalised and empowered the English on a massive scale.

This sort of anti-English preconception was built into the design of New Labour’s asymmetric devolution settlement: it was seen as legitimate to give political expression to Scottish and Welsh nationalism, just not English nationalism. Evidently, there is a place for some forms of nationalism in modern Britain – the ‘Celtic’ ones – but not the English variety. While this is not an exhaustive explanation, the anomalies and inequities of devolution do appear to have enacted a revenge against the English for centuries of perceived domination and aggression. First, there is the West Lothian Question: the well known fact that Scottish and Welsh MPs can make decisions and pass laws that relate to England only, whereas English MPs can no longer make decisions in the same policy areas in Scotland and Wales. This could be seen as a reversal of the historical situation, as viewed and resented through the prism of Scottish and Welsh nationalism: instead of England ruling Scotland and Wales through the political structures of the Union, now Scotland and Wales govern England through their elected representatives in Westminster, who ensure that England’s sovereignty and aspirations for self-government are frustrated.

It might seem a somewhat extreme characterisation of the present state of affairs to say that Scotland and Wales ‘govern England’; but it certainly is true that a system that involves the participation of Scottish and Welsh MPs is involved in the active suppression not only of the idea of an English parliament to govern English matters (which would restore parity with Scotland and Wales) but of English-national identity altogether: the cultural war New Labour has waged against the affirmation and celebration of Englishness in any form – the surest way to extinguish demands for English self-rule being to obliterate the English identity from the consciousness of the silent British majority. In this respect, New Labour’s attempts to replace Englishness with an a-national Britishness – in England only – are indeed reminiscent of the efforts made by an England-dominated United Kingdom in previous centuries to suppress the national identity, political aspirations and traditions of Scotland and Wales.

This notion of devolution enabling undue Scottish and Welsh domination of English affairs becomes less far-fetched when you bear in mind the disproportionate presence of Scottish-elected MPs that have filled senior cabinet positions throughout New Labour’s tenure, including, of course, Gordon Brown: chancellor for the first ten years and prime minister for the last two. And considering that Brown is the principal protagonist in the drive to assert and formalise a Britishness that displaces Englishness as the central cultural and national identity of the UK, this can only lend weight to suspicions that New Labour has got it in for England, which it views in the inherently negative way I described above.

However, the main grounds for believing that devolution enshrines nationalistic bias and vindictiveness towards England is the way New Labour has continued to operate the Barnett Formula: the funding mechanism that ensures that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland benefit from a consistently higher per-capita level of public expenditure than England. One thing to be observed to begin with is that Barnett is used to legitimise the continuing participation of non-English MPs in legislating for England, as spending decisions that relate directly to England only trigger incremental expenditure for the other nations.

But New Labour has used Barnett not only to justify the West Lothian Question but has attempted to justify it in itself as a supposedly ‘fair’ system for allocating public expenditure. It seems that it is construed as fair primarily because it does penalise England in favour of the devolved nations, not despite this fact. This sort of thinking was evidenced this week during a House of Lords inquiry into the Barnett Formula. Liam Byrne, the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, described the mechanism as “fair enough”, only to be rounded on by the Welsh Labour chair Lord Richard of Ammanford: “It doesn’t actually mean anything. Look at the difference between Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – is that fair?” So it’s OK for England to receive 14% less spending per head of population than Wales, 21% less than Scotland and 31% less than Northern Ireland; the only ‘unfairness’ in the system is the differentials between the devolved nations!

The view that this system is somehow ‘fair to England’ – except it’s not articulated as such, as this would be blatantly ridiculous and it ascribes to England some sort of legal personality, which the government denies: ‘fair for the UK as a whole’ would be the kind of phrase used – exemplifies the sort of nationalistic, anti-English bias that has characterised New Labour. It’s as if the view is that England ‘owes’ it to the other nations: that because it has historically been, and still is, more wealthy overall and more economically powerful than the other nations, it is ‘fair’ that it should both pay more taxes and receive less back on a sort of redistribution of wealth principle. But this involves a re-definition of redistribution of wealth on purely national lines, as if England as a whole were imagined as a nation of greedy capitalists and arrogant free marketeers that need to pay their dues to the exploited and neglected working class people of Scotland and Wales: the bedrock of the Labour movement.

In short, it’s ‘pay-back time’: overlaying the centuries-long resentment towards England’s wealth and power, England is being penalised for having supported Margaret Thatcher and her programme of privatisation, disinvestment in public services and ruthless market economics. ‘OK, if that’s how you want it, England, you can continue your programme of market reforms of public services; and if you want a public sector that is financially cost-efficient and run on market principles, then you can jolly well pay yourselves for the services that you don’t want the public purse to fund – after all, you can afford to, can’t you? But meanwhile, your taxes can fund those same services for us, because we can’t afford to pay for them ourselves but can choose to get them anyway through our higher public-spending allocation and devolved government’.

Such appears at least to be the ugly nationalistic, anti-English backdrop to the two-track Britain New Labour has ushered in with asymmetric devolution. This has allowed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to pursue a classic social-democratic path of high levels of funding for public services based on a redistributive tax system; that is, with wealth being redistributed from England, as the tax revenues from the devolved nations are not sufficient to fund the programme. Meanwhile, in England, New Labour has taken forward the Thatcherite agenda of reforming the public sector on market principles. In a market economy, individuals are required to pay for many things that are financed by the state in more social-democratic and socialist societies. Hence, the market economics can be used to justify the unwillingness of the state to subsidise certain things like university tuition fees (an ‘investment’ by individuals in their own economic future); various ‘luxuries’ around the edges of the standard level of medical treatment offered by the state health-care system (e.g. free parking and prescriptions, or highly advanced and expensive new drugs that it is not ‘cost-efficient’ for the public sector to provide free of charge); or personal care for the elderly, for which individuals in a market economy are expected to make their own provisions.

These sorts of market principle, which have continued and extended the measures to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ initiated under the Thatcher and Major governments, have been used to justify the government in England not paying for things that are funded by the devolved governments: public-sector savings made in England effectively cross-subsidise the higher levels of public spending in the other nations. Beneath an ideological agenda (reform of the public services in England), a nationalist agenda has been advanced that runs utterly counter to the principles of equality and social solidarity across the whole of the United Kingdom that Labour has traditionally stood for. Labour has created and endorsed a system of unequal levels of public-service provision based on a ‘national postcode lottery’, i.e. depending purely on which country you happen to live in. Four different NHS’s with care provided more
free at the point of use in some countries than others, and least of all in England; a vastly expanded university system that is free everywhere except England; and social care offered with varying levels of public funding, but virtually none in England. So much for Labour as the party of the working class and of the Union: not in England any more.

There’s an argument for saying that English people should pay for more of their medical, educational and personal-care needs, as they are better off on average. But that’s really not the point. Many English people struggle to pay for these things or simply can’t do so altogether, and so miss out on life-prolonging drug treatments or educational opportunities that their ‘fellow citizens’ elsewhere in the UK are able to benefit from. A true social-democratic- and socialist-style public sector should offer an equal level of service provision to anyone throughout the state that wishes to access it, whether or not they could afford to pay for private health care or education but choose not to. The wealthy end up paying proportionately more for public services anyway through higher taxes. Under the New Labour multi-track Britain, by contrast, those English people who are better off not only have to pay higher taxes but also have to pay for services that other UK citizens can obtain free of charge, as do poorer English people. One might even say that this extra degree of taxation (higher income tax + charges for public services) is a tax for being English.

But of course, it’s not just the middle and upper classes that pay the England tax; it’s Labour’s traditional core supporters: the English working class. On one level, it’s all very well taking the view that ‘middle England’ supports privatisation and a market economy, so they can jolly well pay for stuff rather than expecting the state to fund it. But it’s altogether another matter treating the less well-off people of England with the same disregard. It is disregarding working people in England to simply view it as acceptable that they should have to pay for hospital parking fees, prescription charges, their kids’ higher education and care for their elderly relatives, while non-English people can get all or most of that for free. What, are the English working class worth less than their Celtic cousins?

How much of this New Labour neglect of the common people of England can truly be put down to a combination of Celtic nationalism, anti-English nationalism, and indeed inverted-racist prejudice towards the white English working class? Well, an attribution to the English of an inherent preference for market economics – coming as it does from a movement that despised that ideology during the 1980s and early 1990s – could well imply a certain contempt for the English, suffused with Scottish and Welsh bitterness towards the ‘English’ Thatcher government.

But an even more fundamental and disturbing turning of the tables against the English is New Labour’s laissez-faire attitude to job creation, training and skills development for the English working class. The Labour government abandoned the core principle that it has a duty to assist working people in acquiring the skills they need to compete in an increasingly aggressive global market place, and to foster ‘full employment’ in England; and it just let the market take over. It’s as if the people of England weren’t worth the investment and didn’t matter, only the economy. And it’s because of Labour’s comprehensive sell out to market economics that it has encouraged the unprecedented levels of immigration we have experienced, deliberately to foster a low-wage economy; and, accordingly, a staggering nine-tenths of the new jobs created under the Labour government have gone to workers from overseas. Is it any wonder, then, that there is such widespread concern – whether well founded or not in individual cases – among traditional Labour voters in England about immigration, and about newcomers taking the jobs and housing that they might have thought a Labour government would have striven to provide for them?

How much of the liberal establishment’s contempt and fear of English white working-class racism and anti-immigration violence is an adequate response to a genuine threat? On the contrary, to what extent has that threat and that hostility towards migrants actually been brought about and magnified by New Labour’s pre-existing contempt and inverted racism towards the white working-class people of England, and the policies (or lack of them) that flowed from those attitudes?

Has New Labour, in its darker under-belly, espoused the contempt towards the ‘lazy’, ‘loutish’, disenfranchised English working class that Margaret Thatcher made her hallmark – and mixed it up in a heady cocktail together with Celtic nationalism, and politically-correct positive economic and cultural discrimination in favour of migrants and ethnic minorities?

One thing is for sure, though: English nationalism properly understood – as a movement that strives to redress the democratic and social inequalities of the devolution settlement out of a concern for all of the people residing and trying to earn a living in England – is far less likely to foster violence against innocent Romanian families than is the ‘British nationalism’ of the BNP or the various nationalisms of the other UK nations that have seen far lower levels of immigration than England.

But is there a place not just for English nationalism but for England itself in a British state and establishment that are so prejudiced against it?

26 May 2008

English Nationalism and Progressive Politics

For me, ‘progressive’ is something of a dirty word. I associate it with the arrogance of the left – particularly, in the British context, of the Labour Party – and of some secular liberals, who seem to divide the world into the rational, modern, ‘progressive’ sheep to the left, and the ideologically reactionary and psychologically ‘regressive’, (religious-)conservative ‘goats’ to the right. Traditionally, however, on Judgement Day – or, as we might put it, ‘in the final analysis’ – it’s the goats on the left that are damned.

New Labour is now facing up to its own impending Judgement Day, at the next general election. Of course, it’s already had to endure three minor tribunals (the recent local elections, the London mayoral vote, and Crewe and Nantwich) where the electorate has damned it for its ineptitude, its arrogance and its lack of a vision for ‘the country’. And, we may ask, which country?

Of course, it’s predominantly the English electorate that has delivered the recent swings towards the Conservatives; not the Welsh (also polled in the local elections) and certainly not the Scots, where the Tories remain as weak a political force as ever. Is there a connection between this growing rejection of New Labour by the English and the fact that, in the PM’s recent statement concerning the government bills to be brought to parliament in the autumn term, the most systematic parts of the Governance of Britain agenda – the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, the Statement of British Values, and a possible British Constitution – were quietly put on hold?

One wonders what New Labour’s focus groups and private opinion polls have been revealing about the English public’s attitude to the Britishness crusade. Doubtless, people have been saying, ‘stop hammering on about what it means to be British and get on with the real job, particularly sorting out the problems with the economy’. A very pragmatic response, indeed, to the rather un-English attempts to systematise Britishness and even to establish a new integral Nation of Britain.

But the growing electoral favour enjoyed by David Cameron’s Conservatives (or shall we just call them the New Tories?) does not equate to a groundswell of support for English nationalism, as such; nor are the Conservatives the obvious choice for the majority of English people who favour some form of England-specific governance, ranging from an English Grand Committee to full independence. The Conservative Party is of course opposed to an English parliament and will probably abandon its as yet equivocal support for some variant of the EGC idea if it feels it can win a large outright majority. As the argument goes, since such a majority would be based entirely on the choices of voters in England – as distorted by the first-past-the-post electoral system – there would be no point in having a separate EGC for England-only bills, as the Tory majority in the EGC would simply be replicating that in the UK parliament as a whole. But would the Tory government’s legislative and policy programme constitute a new – let alone progressive – agenda for England?

Everyone wants to be progressive these days, even the New Tories. Indeed, in a recent article in The Independent, David Cameron affirmed that “it is the Conservative Party that is the champion of progressive ideals in Britain today”. The three main examples of Conservative progressivism Cameron provided were the commitment to eliminate poverty in Britain, environmental sustainability, and equality of opportunity / social mobility, which was described as “the most fundamental progressive ideal of all”. The mechanisms that the Tories would apply to realise these objectives were essentially those of the market, along with targeted increases in support to social services and charities working with the most vulnerable. These were contrasted to the “old-fashioned mechanisms of top-down state control” supposedly favoured by New Labour. In other words, David Cameron was unmistakably positioning the Tories as the party that would actually deliver on the New Labour agenda of market-driven economic and social reform, in contrast to GB [Gordon Brown], who had ‘conservatively’ resorted to his Old Labour statist instincts.

So in fact, the ‘new progressive’ politics of David Cameron’s Conservatives are just New Labour Mark II: he’s playing out the same old Conservative political narrative as Tony Blair himself, in which it is now the Tories, not New Labour, who have the innovative, flexible and market-orientated solutions to lift people out of poverty, to motivate individuals to improve their lives, to promote social cohesion, and to create wealth in an environmentally sustainable way. This is the same paradigm as New Labour: social-market economics or, in other words, Thatcherite economics as the instrument for achieving progressive social objectives, primarily because the market serves as the model for society itself. The more society is transformed into an efficiently functioning market, so the thinking goes, the more the needs of society will be addressed by the market and people’s lives will be improved by their enhanced participation in the market, i.e. through becoming ever more effective agents in the world of buying and selling, as employees and consumers.

David Cameron’s formula injects a modest degree of One Nation Conservatism back into the mix, in terms of stressing the importance of government concern for, and effective measures to support, the most vulnerable in society. But the message is essentially the same: greater social justice and improved economic efficiency are interdependent objectives, and addressing social problems is about enabling everyone to become economically productive individuals and social units – able both to create and capitalise on opportunity, and to lift up their own lives, without the economic inefficiency and social dependency of a bloated public sector. So Cameron talks of “paying couples to live together rather than apart” (economic incentive to engineer social result – what about the only recent Tory re-emphasis on marriage, which now appears to have been dropped?); “plans for radical welfare reform to help people move from long-term poverty to long-term employment” (difference from New Labour or Thatcherism? Cutting / re-structuring benefits to give people more incentive to work and so alleviate poverty); the green revolution driven by “markets and incentives for dynamic industrial change, rather than centre-left approaches such as bureaucracy and regulation”; and “radical school reform, bringing the best education to the poorest children by opening up the state system to new providers” (avowedly Blairite opening up of the education system to market mechanisms); etc.

So, David Cameron’s New Toryism in fact comprises a very tired set of arguably failed political mantras, and ultimately rests on an idea that (Britain’s) social problems can be addressed and remedied, in the first instance, through market mechanisms designed to stimulate economic growth. In this, it is not just the inheritor of New Labour, and by extension Thatcherism, but also in fact of Old Labour, which was economic and materialist in its thinking about social engineering, albeit that the formula was fundamentally different. Does this point to what is ultimately meant by progressive politics: a politics of how to improve society, where the model for that improvement is provided primarily by ideas of economic, technological and material ‘progress’? In this sense, the Tories are indeed true progressives: they worship the same Idols of wealth, power and human technology, and marvel at the social depredations caused by the greed, selfishness and lust for more that these unleash.

And another way in which the New Tories represent very much the same old politics is in their Britain-centric thinking. All the policy ideas are stated as relating to ‘Britain’, not England, even though those relating to education, the environment, and work with local-community organisations of every type, aimed at tackling distinctive local socio-economic problems, would mostly involve the government in its England-only aspects – policy in these areas for Scotland and Wales having been made the responsibility of the devolved administrations in those countries. Is it really possible, in the post-devolution world, to advocate a progressive politics for the whole of Britain when so many of the traditional levers for delivering that social agenda (education, health, housing, transport, communities and local government) have been devolved? The main political parties sidestep this problem by continuing to pretend that their remit in these areas is UK-wide, which they do by continually referring to ‘Britain’ and ‘this country’, and suppressing all mention of ‘England’ even when – or particularly when – they’re referring to England alone.

So to the intellectual poverty of the parties’ socio-economic prescriptions one has to add the political dishonesty of denying that the progressive agenda for Britain – insofar as it is thought of as being delivered by Westminster – is mainly a progressive agenda for England; the better to justify the participation of Scottish and Welsh Labour voters and MPs in deciding on laws and policies for England they are not directly affected by; or, under Cameron, to disguise the fact that a Tory government will have no mandate for Scotland or Wales – or even, really, for England, where it is unlikely to obtain an actual majority of the popular vote.

Can a government really be said to care for the people if it cannot even acknowledge them by name and affirm them for what they are: the people of England and not of Britain as a whole? And that means acknowledging English life and society as it really is: in many respects, profoundly broken and damaged; but also having many enduring, positive characteristics that can provide the basis for restoring civic pride and re-building shattered communities. Reaffirming English culture and identity as good and valuable in themselves, and rallying people around the idea that there is a whole ‘new’ nation – that of England – to be built, could provide a massive stimulus to re-engaging people in participative democracy at both local and national level, so long as voters’ actual intentions are reflected in election results and there is real accountability of politicians to the people at every level at which power is exercised. In short, we need political reform, giving the chance for the English people to vote on alternative ways forward for ‘their’ nation (England), before we can get any real momentum behind a new progressive agenda – as one could then begin to address the questions of who the progress is for, and who defines what constitutes progressive change in England.

How might this new English progressive agenda shape up? This is obviously a huge question. But it seems to me that the beginning of an answer to it could be found by definitively ‘breaking the mould’ – to coin a phrase – of the old assumptions and tribal loyalties associated with the ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’, while at the same time re-focusing and combining the best elements in the traditions of the left and of the middle of English-British politics towards addressing England’s real social problems. This involves making the social objectives paramount, and reforming the economy and politics in order to achieve those objectives most effectively: the objectives being to give individuals and communities more of a sense that they have a real stake in shaping their future, and can create sustainable economic activities and social infrastructure; in part because the purpose of business itself is redefined as being much more to do with creating and sustaining valued communities rather than providing increasingly insecure, and merely economic, value for isolated individuals (whether employees or shareholders) and for ‘the country’.

But such a programme is unrealistic without a significant transformation in the attitudes and expectations of people for their lives in general – moving away from placing value on material, technological and individual-economic progress for their own sake, and towards seeing progress in different terms: those of quality of life, not quantity of assets; of real, supportive and safe communities; sustainable production and consumption, not material excess; and technology harnessed towards the creation of an environmentally more sustainable way of life that needn’t discard all the positive benefits of our technological lifestyle in terms of comfort, health and a more enjoyable life. A better England, reflecting the priorities and addressing the needs of the people of England; and not a mad, economic growth-obsessed, and unsustainably globalising Britain whose economic success under New Labour – as we now realise – was built on the unsteady foundation of insane property prices and overactive global credit markets. Unrealistic? Well, maybe this sort of adjustment of our expectations will be forced upon us anyway through the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Better to plan ahead for, and make the most of, the wide-ranging changes that will have to happen in any case; and better that those who are doing this planning are people who care about England and her people, and are answerable to them.

The tables below illustrate my take on how the new progressive politics could re-state the old polarities of right and left. The first table shows how New Labour colonised not just the traditional centre of British politics but also classical or Thatcherite Conservative policies in the areas of society, the economy and international affairs; so much so that it has been impossible for the Tories to articulate any sort of credible position in these areas. The colour coding indicates which party has occupied the traditional left, centre and right positions in a number of areas during the majority of the New Labour period in power:

Angle Left Centre Right
Society Egalitarian, collectivist; working class: socialist Equality of opportunity, redistributive; middle class, aspirational: social democratic Hierarchical, individualist; upper(-middle) class, privilege: Tory
Economy Public ownership, command-based (‘needs-orientated’): socialist Regulated free markets, ‘social model’: social democratic Private ownership, demand-driven (market-orientated): ‘economic liberalism’, Thatcherism
Politics Statist, centralist, popular-unionist, ‘sovereignty of the people’, republican: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour Regionalist, localist, community-focused; small-scale, participative democracy: Liberal Anti-state, ‘centrifugal’, unionist-nationalist, ‘sovereignty of the individual’, monarchist: Tory
Philosophy, ideology Secular, rationalist, materialist, progressive, liberal; Western Enlightenment tradition: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour Pluralist, tolerant, consensus; libertarian, humanitarian, human rights-focused; Western Enlightenment tradition: Liberal Traditionalist, morally / socially conservative; (Anglican) establishment Christianity: Tory
International outlook Internationalist, solidarity / fraternity; ‘inclusive mono-culturalism’: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour A-national, universal; ‘exclusive multi-culturalism’: liberal Globalist, capitalist; imperialist mono-culturalism: Tory

David Cameron is clearly trying to re-occupy the centre ground for the Conservatives, particularly in the areas of society and politics as outlined in the above table. However, at the same time, this involves reaffirming Tory market economics – traditionally, a right-wing position – which was also colonised by New Labour. By emphasising the ‘soft’ social dimension of Tory policies (addressing the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, creating greater opportunity and social mobility, environmental sustainability), Cameron is distracting attention from the fact that the basic mechanism he has in mind for achieving these goals is good old-fashioned market economics: Blair II (or Thatcher III, if Blair is seen as Thatcher II).

If this form of economy-centric approach to social re-engineering is rejected as a progressive position in favour of making economic activity the servant of social objectives – as opposed to ransoming society to a growth-obsessed economy – then one can begin to see the parameters of a new progressive politics that could affirm and redefine the goals of the best of the traditional left and centre, while repudiating the more traditionally right-wing aspects of Conservatism and New Labour, such as dogmatic market economics, unchecked globalisation, and ignoring the needs and priorities of the English working and middle classes. The table below illustrates how this new progressive alignment might shape up:

Angle Progressive Left Progressive Centre Old Tory
Society Working class; social justice Middle class, Middle England; opportunity, fairness, social responsibility Upper(-middle) class and the very wealthy; ‘selfish’ individualism and corporate greed; privilege
Economy Economic pragmatism: best ownership structures to ensure sustainable delivery of social objectives; ‘social enterprise’ culture: successful businesses, serving social needs; some services back to public ownership? Economic diversity: multiplicity of public-private cross-overs; local / social enterprises meeting community needs; small business Private enterprise, exclusively demand-driven (market-orientated); big business; global capital
Politics Popular nationalism: celebration and promotion of English culture, people, traditions, history; sovereignty of the English people; pan-British federalism / co-operation; importance of cohesive but also ethnically / culturally / internationally inclusive, open English nation (or nation state) Localism-regionalism: strong, constitutionally safeguarded commitment to powerful representative local-regional democracy; citizens’ rights Unitary unionism / British nationalism; anti-state, anti-English-nationalist tendencies (individualist, global-capitalist)
Philosophy, ideology Secular, rationalist, materialist, progressive, liberal; Western Enlightenment tradition Pluralist, tolerant, consensus; libertarian, humanitarian, human rights-focused; Western Enlightenment tradition; Christian / respect for all faiths Increasingly anachronistic, unrealistic, mono-cultural traditionalism / Christian-social-moral conservatism
International outlook Internationalist, solidarity / fraternity; new ‘English multi-culturalism’; co-operation and participation in international bodies where in the national English interest Focus on global sustainable development, alleviating world poverty / disease, world environment challenges, justice / human rights: ‘one-world’ culture Globalist, capitalist; imperialist; Western-centric mono-culturalism

The Tories’ present appeal is too dependent on developing a narrative that they will safeguard economic prosperity to develop a radical progressive agenda that could easily occupy even the centre ground of progressive politics, as outlined in the above table. And they are certainly too wedded to the unionist ideal to articulate anything approximating to popular English nationalism, which does, on the other hand, have considerable appeal among the working- and middle-class sections of the population that represent the natural constituency for the left and centre of English politics.

English people will be re-engaged by politics when they can see ambitious but also grounded, realistic policies for addressing the terrible social problems that exist in England, which are the legacy of the failures of both the welfare state and Thatcherite market economics. This would indeed be a new progressive agenda, but it would have to do two things: make flourishing economic activity and enterprise, critical though they are, the servant of social needs and communities, and not the other way round; and, to some extent, put England and the English first – while by no means forgetting our international partnerships and responsibilities, and above all those to the poor and oppressed throughout the world. Which means two long-term habits of progressive thinking will need to be abandoned: making economic growth and success, measured in purely GDP terms, the motor and definition of social progress; and making Britain the focus of all policy, when that Britain no longer exists and may well disappear altogether under a Cameron government that will be intensely unpopular in Scotland.

Then maybe the Last Judgement on the progressives will not be as harsh as might be feared, and the terrible dichotomies of left and right will fade away – but only if self-professed progressives learn to put real people and nations before the global gods of power and money.

6 March 2008

England: The Inconvenient Nation Blocking European Federation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 March 2008

The Britain Of Brown’s Dreams: Meritocracy Not Democracy

“Let us go out with confidence to meet the world to come, let us embrace this new age of ambition, and let us build the Britain of our dreams”.

How many of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] fellow-British citizens share his dreams for Britain? How many of them have any sort of dreams for Britain as such? I can’t think of anyone I know – and, as an English nationalist, I’m in a minority of one among my circle of friends – who goes around saying, ‘I wish that in Britain, there was more equality of access to educational opportunity’, or ‘if only in Britain we had a culture and politics that really encouraged creativity and ambition’. It’s not only that many people, if they have any dreams at all for their country, would refer to these as dreams for England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland; and don’t talk about Britain this and Britain that (unlike Mr Brown: 22 references to ‘Britain’ / ‘British’ in a speech of 3,065 words – actually, a comparatively low proportion for him). But it’s that people’s ‘dreams’ are more personal: related above all to what they would like to achieve for themselves and their families, and – as part of that – what they would like for the localities, communities, towns and cities, and ultimately the country and world in which they live. The importance within all of this that people ascribe to their ‘nation’ derives from so many ties of shared experience, identity, history and priorities, extending from the individual level where dreams take shape to those around us who have similar dreams, and our realisation that the fulfilment of those dreams, or indeed the wellbeing of the communities we cherish, is based on mutual dependency, collaboration and support.

GB would probably try to make out that his ‘dream for Britain’, presented at Labour’s spring conference on Saturday, does try to espouse this individual level of aspiration and ambition. Indeed, he sets out his whole vision as being based on releasing the potential of the individual:

“We are the first generation to be able to say that there need be no limit on how far your talent can take you, no cap on what you can do with your potential and no ceiling on how many of us can fulfill our dreams”.

Creating the ‘Britain of our dreams’ is about creating a Britain in which everyone can fulfil their dreams. Indeed, the essence of Brown’s vision for Britain is a meritocracy where upward social mobility is determined by individual talent, which the structures of British society enable to be fully released:

“The new way, in this new age of rising ambition, is to provide a platform, from which each individual can rise.  And this, is a new common purpose that our generation can forge together, a new meritocracy, a new wave of upward social mobility, that instead of unlocking just some of the talent of some of the people, must in this generation unlock all of the talents, of all of the people”.

While this meritocracy is a benefit that society confers on people (advancement and recognition based on the use of one’s talents that society has helped you to develop), it is also an imperative: meritocracy that must unlock all of the talents of all of the people. This is where the interface between GB’s Christian family background and his social doctrine is most evident. In Christian teaching, the fulfilment of an individual’s talents is a moral duty: the expression of gifts received by the individual from God for the benefit of all. In GB’s vision, this personal duty to develop one’s potential becomes elevated to the central purpose of society as a whole, which also fulfils an economic imperative: enabling Britain to compete and prosper in a global economy that places a premium on talent, creativity and knowledge.

In short, GB’s model of a meritocratic society is a purely economic one, in which the opportunities that society gives the individual through education, healthcare and other forms of social provision are an investment on which it is as much a social as moral responsibility of the individual to generate a return – through work, and the benefits to society and the economy that derive from the active expression of individuals’ talents. This translates to GB’s political programme as follows:

“to forge this common purpose we must create:

– a new economic policy, that is designed to reward talent, creativity and skills
– a new social and welfare policy of rights and responsibilities that equips people to master change, instead of letting change master them
– a programme of new education reforms that for trusts, specialist and academy schools, focus on excellence for all
– a new politics that places power and the opportunity to change things in the hands of people themselves
– and new personalised public services, tailored to meet our needs and choices so that we can live the lives we all choose, with a pace of reform stepped up not slowed down”.

To unpack this somewhat, the reference to ‘a new social and welfare policy of rights and responsibilities’ means that welfare is linked to this idea of a social-moral obligation to work and thereby express one’s talents. As GB says later in the speech, “we will insist that all who can work, must work, in fairness to all of us who do. Between now and 2010, we will give people new hope by helping another 100,000 people move from welfare to work”. So is there now to be a general obligation for British citizens to work, for the good of society and the economy; even those citizens not seeking or needing welfare benefits? And we all know what ‘helping people to move from welfare to work’ involves in practice: forcing many sick and disabled people, and their carers, into often inappropriate or unrewarding employment; or insisting that new mothers should work and then be obliged to pay for childcare, often with no economic advantage to themselves and the loss of the ability to be full-time mothers during their children’s pre-school years.

Obviously, there are also cases of people who could easily work choosing not to do so and claiming benefits, and who could rediscover a purpose in life and gain renewed self-esteem from moving into employment. But the point is, in Brown’s vision, that a person’s value is defined primarily in terms of their economic value: their ability to contribute to society, and to enhance their own lives, through economic activity and development. As if there were little or no value in the lives of those (children or the sick) who are dependent on the care of others who, in turn, choose to dedicate themselves to those dependants and thereby limit their engagement in society viewed as a market economy.

Instead, in Brown’s vision, the onus to care for children and the sick is shifted away from those who love them to society, which invests in educational and healthcare services designed to maximise the ability of people to participate fully in the market economy and capitalise on the social-market opportunity that those services both represent in themselves (here and now) and in turn enable for the future. For instance, there are Brown’s education reforms that are about fostering an array of choices that represent opportunity for both the providers and ‘customers’, whose future opportunities will be shaped by the excellence of the education services they receive: “a programme of new education reforms that for trusts, specialist and academy schools, focus on excellence for all”. (So much for the old ideal of a rounded liberal education that included both academic and non-academic subjects, many of which were not simply focused on economically orientated performance and excellence at every turn.)

Or healthcare provision prioritising economically active individuals’ needs to design their personal healthcare plans around their busy lives (e.g. through multi-GP polyclinics where you could end up seeing any one of 20 or more doctors, depending on who happened to be on duty at the time) – rather than services focused on the needs of long-term sick and disabled people who typically benefit most from the more cost-intensive, continuous one-to-one relationship with a single GP: “new personalised public services, tailored to meet our needs and choices so that we can live the lives we all choose”. Lives we choose, or lives in which the only time we can squeeze in our medical appointments is the supposedly free time of the weekend or evenings – so pressured are the demands of economically competitive living?

And don’t be fooled by the pledge of “a new politics that places power and the opportunity to change things in the hands of people themselves”. This is not political power or people power, and the opportunity to throw out an unpopular and unrepresentative government, or even change the state itself to one that more closely reflects people’s national identities and priorities. No, this is economic opportunity only: the power of individuals to change their lives through the exercise of their talents; the power of the meritocracy, not democracy:

“That’s what Labour values in action look like: using the opportunity of power, to unleash the power of opportunity”.

“policies that year on year will meet the challenges of global change by ensuring opportunity and security not just for some, but for all who play by the rules. This is what I mean by fairness to hard-working families”.

So long as you ‘play by the rules’ of Brown’s Britain and fulfil your duty to society by working hard, then you’ll have economic opportunity and the protection of the state – but not if you want to opt out of the collective purpose to create a Britain of dreams, and seek freedom from the intrusive interference and demands of the British state.

Or if you wish to reject New Labour’s drive to build its New British Jerusalem in England’s once green and pleasant land. That is because most of these long-term policies for Britain are of course in fact solely for England (those in education, health and housing, for instance) and rest on the assumption that Labour will continue relentlessly to exercise power over England through the UK government for years and years to come: phrases such as “by 2010”, “year on year”, “over the next decade” and even “over the next 25 years” recur again and again throughout the speech.

So it looks as though, in England, we could be stuck with Brown’s Britain of dreams (or, as the Labour spring conference website has it, “New Labour your Britain”) for years, even decades, to come – whether we’ve voted for it or not; for we the English certainly haven’t voted for it, for England, since at least 1997, because there is no such thing as English votes by English people for English laws. So we can look forward to ever more competitive markets in education and health, giving us the ‘choice’ of public services to fit around our busy individualised, compartmentalised lives that we have ‘chosen’, and matching our aspirations for our children defined purely in terms of economic success and social advancement – as opposed to their happiness and contribution to enriching the quality of life of those around them. And we can look forward to three million new homes to cater to Britain’s massive immigration-fuelled population growth, concentrated almost exclusively in England, providing labour for Britain’s economic powerhouse – cluttering up our already overcrowded land, and replacing green field with unwanted eco-towns foisted upon disempowered, objecting local communities; the rest no doubt increasingly served by new nuclear power stations, also sited in England.

Let’s build Brown’s Britain of dreams, then: Britain’s economic meritocracy. In the absence of English democracy, it seems that is the only ‘choice’ that awaits us – even if it may in fact herald the England of our nightmares.

26 February 2008

Who does this country belong to, anyway?

Whatever the whys and wherefores of the Michael Martin expenses row (the Speaker of the House of Commons, who has been accused of abusing the code of conduct on MPs’ expenses at the same time as he is leading an enquiry into expenses abuses), I thought the vociferous “hear, hear” of support he obtained from MPs as he cried “Order, order” at the start of yesterday’s proceedings – coupled with one MP saying they weren’t going allow journalists to dictate Commons appointments – smacked of arrogance. What were they actually defending, at the end of the day: their own privileges, including a cushy expenses regime that would never be tolerated in business; or the interests of democracy – parliament and its elected members as representing the will of the people, not to be overridden by a bunch of reckless, cynical journalists? It came across strongly as the former.

The trouble is that MPs do appear to think that parliament’s debates, decisions and procedures represent a forum through which the nation as such is authentically represented and its will is expressed: that parliament’s view of the legitimacy and moral authority of its proceedings still carries the assent and the trust of the people. Clearly, parliamentarians – like many others – are well aware that there is a serious problem of mistrust towards politicians and disengagement from the political process. But they seem to want to pass a lot of the blame for this onto others, such as the media, rather than re-examining the process itself and putting their own house in order.

We like to think we have the world’s greatest parliamentary democracy; but the truth of the matter is that our government isn’t very democratic, in the sense of representing people power. Parliament generally seems more like a rubber stamp setting a seal of approval on policies and laws driven by the executive, for which often little understanding or assent on the part of the public either exists or is sought. In this way, the scrutiny of parliament is a poor substitute for genuine public consultation, in the sense of a concerted effort to inform people of the details of proposed legislation and to win their support. There is no need for the executive to do this when it can simply rely on the Commons majority of a compliant government party commanding an ever smaller minority of the popular vote.

Not only does the government not need to strive to achieve popular assent for its decisions, it is also not answerable to anything such as a nation. It is no wonder that the people are disengaging from Westminster politics when they no longer identify with, and as, the nation the Westminster parliament supposedly represents. Not only are the people – reasserting their various identities as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish – different from the one that parliament sees itself as representing (the British people); but also parliament no longer represents the people of Britain in a uniform, unitary way. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs defend the interests of their constituents and nations insofar as these are affected by the Union government; and they also vote on English matters in certain policy areas where they cannot influence policy for their own constituencies and countries (because these have been devolved to separate national bodies). By contrast, all the parliamentary votes cast by English MPs do relate to their own constituencies; but no distinction in kind is made between what are truly England-only decisions and which matters relate to the UK as a whole, so as to legitimise the participation of non-English MPs in the same decisions.

In other words, although the responsibilities of all MPs are the same (Union-wide and England-specific policy and laws), the non-English MPs are not accountable to any electorate on the England-only matters. Instead, they are elected by non-English people who select them on the basis of the parties’ policies for the Union as a whole, i.e. on which set of policies will be better for them, their local areas and their countries. So legislation and policies for England are supported by MPs elected by non-English voters whose voting decisions are influenced by non-English priorities. Meanwhile, English voters have only one vote for both Union-wide matters and England-specific issues; in contrast to their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts, who can choose between two distinct parties and programmes for their own country and for the Union as a whole. This inequality and distortion of representative democracy is covered up by a pretence common to all the parties, whereby, in manifestoes, policy statements and parliamentary debate, everything is treated and referred to as a generic British matter, even if it is English only.

This means that England is governed by a British parliament that is not accountable to it: it includes Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs not elected in England; and the English MPs are not elected on the basis of English manifestoes, as half the policies are UK-wide, and the half that are England-specific are not represented as such – not differentiated from the UK even though in reality they are.

So the Union does not exist any more – if the Union is defined as a unitary parliamentary democracy in which every person’s vote is equal and brings the same degree of representation, and in which parliament is accountable to all to the same extent. The will of the English people is not represented by this parliament – even less, that is, than is the will of the other more fairly represented nations of the UK. Instead, we have a growing divide between the will of the people and government power: British power is exercised over the people of England by parliament; rather than English power being exercised for and by the people of England through parliament. And parliament and the executive are indeed enamoured of this British power: the idea of being in charge of Britain as a major ‘world power’ – militarily, economically and culturally – boosted by the magnificence, traditions and privileges of Westminster and Whitehall that hark back to, and appear to prolong, the glories of Empire. Who can participate in such rituals and bask in such splendour, and not be carried along by the glamour of real power and the myths of British parliamentary democracy, especially as parliament is so unaccountable to the electorate and divorced from their real priorities?

In this way, MPs persuade themselves that the bills and policies they support express the will of the nation: swept along by the democratic process, they unwittingly or deliberately ignore the fact that that process is no longer in alignment with the people’s needs and choices. England is, in perhaps three senses, ‘over-ruled’ by Britain. Or another way of putting this is that the British parliament and state mis-represent England: represent England insufficiently democratically, and misrepresent England and the governance of England as if it were a unitary process of British governance for which they had a transparent mandate, which they do not. As I have described this elsewhere, this is an appropriation (a mis-appropriation) of England and English democracy to Britain: England should belong to the people of England; but instead, it’s been made the property and, as it were, the province of the British state – no longer a country in its own right and rights, but governed by a state and by representatives of other UK countries that are not answerable to it.

What are the ramifications beyond the Westminster village of this dispossession of England as a democratic nation? Are we English secure in the knowledge that our country is in the safe hands of leaders who care about England and its rights, and do not wish to exercise unrepresentative and disproportionate power over it? Well, no. Do we feel, more fundamentally, that the government and the political process belong to us – well, not exactly: we’ve become accustomed to putting up with a British government that very often looks after the interests of national and sectarian minorities (whether the working class, traditionally, under Old Labour, middle-class England under the Tories, and Wales and Scotland under New Labour) rather than seeking the backing of a clear majority of the English population for policies relating to England.

More pervasively, do we feel the nation and even the local areas we live in really belong to us; that we actually live in England rather than in some parallel universe of Britain where major decisions are taken by central, and also local, government that we haven’t elected, and all the signs and symbols of the state are those of one that is not fully ours? Do the streets belong to us; do communities, media, official / PC language, social administration and the public sector – indeed, all public facets of our lives? Are they English?

Is the much-famed obsession of the English with privacy and domesticity in one respect a reflection that we do not feel that the public domain belongs to us; that our country doesn’t belong to us? How much of the alienation of many young people can be traced to their not feeling that their education, upbringing and experiences have given them a sense of belonging where they live or that they have a stake in society? And how much of this is to do with that society being shaped by the British values of personal aspiration and success, rather than cherishing individuals as they are: often flawed and damaged but capable of re-building community and healing the hurts caused by the relentless pursuit of competitiveness and economic growth? And how much is the lack of pride and care we so often show towards our surroundings and neighbours to do with no sense of mutual belonging and dependency?

Such things cannot be restored by a British government alienated from, and unaccountable to, England; that does not even call it by its name. But England can recover its pride – if first it empowers its people.

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