Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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.

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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.

20 February 2008

What are ‘English values’?

In this blog, I’ve set out to maintain a continuous critique of so-called ‘British values’: one of the central underpinnings of the UK government’s attempts to not only preserve the Union but also redefine and reorientate it for the 21st century in the face of the cultural and economic changes and uncertainties we face both nationally and internationally.

There are many problems with this enterprise, not the least of which is that the New Britain that New Labour – and GB [Gordon Brown] in particular – would like to establish relies on the suppression of any aspirations to formal nationhood on the part of the English. As a result of the asymmetrical devolution settlement during the first term of the Blair government, we’ve witnessed a sort of ‘paradigm reversal’. Previously, Britain (technically, the UK) was a unitary state in which all the national-level decisions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were taken by the Westminster government. And also decisions for England, of course. But England stood in a special relationship to Britain: Britain was to all intents and purposes the extension of England and the proxy-English state; British rule in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland effectively meant English control over their affairs. English people identified with Britain, meaning that the English and British national identities were effectively interchangeable from the English perspective.

Devolution has brought the beginning of the end of this sense that England and Britain are one: instead of England ruling Britain (i.e. ruling Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), we now have in many ways a rump British state in which the competency of the government in many critical policy areas is limited largely to England. This is now Britain ruling England; but Britain defined as the central UK government and state rather than as the other nations of Britain that were effectively ruled by England through the British state, and which English people assimilated into their own identity through the interchangeability of ‘English’ and ‘British’. (See, for instance, the unthinking habit English people used to have of referring to Scotland and Wales as if they were part of England.)

We’ve had, in other words, a seismic split in the English-British identity. In the imagination and sentiments of ordinary people, ‘Britain’ (in the sense of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) has separated out from England: as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland reassert their own national pride and an identity separate from that of England-Britain, English people in their turn have withdrawn the investment of their national pride in Britain and begun a process of redefining and reaffirming their own national identity as English in the first instance, rather than British. Meanwhile, the British state has separated itself in its thinking and attitudes from any ideas of (itself as representing) English nationhood along the lines of the emerging Scottish, Welsh and (Northern) Irish nations. It pretends that the old unitary Britain still exists, which in formal, legal terms it still does: power has only been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and could in theory be taken back at any time. And, of course, many areas of government have not been devolved, especially those that have an impact on the whole of the UK territory and population, such as international relations, energy policy and security.

This means that the government represents the continuation of the old British part of the English identity: split off from – no longer the state vehicle and political expression of – England. The government has not been able to embrace and espouse the popular movement for reaffirming Englishness and the nation of England, distinct from the British state. It could have done, perhaps; but this would have taken a visionary leader who was prepared to adopt a more populist and, perhaps, more working-class stance at a time when New Labour was positioning itself as a bastion of liberal-Middle Class conservatism, and as the party of the establishment that is built on the support of that strata of the population and reflects its values. You could say, ironically, that New Labour’s appeal was to the Old England (New Britain, Old England): the bit of England that identified more strongly with the old unitary British state and its principles. Labour, whose whole philosophy has always placed such a huge emphasis on using the lever of its power bases in working-class England, Scotland and Wales to force through its agenda of social change throughout the unitary state – including in conservative England who largely had to bankroll its programme – could not so easily now relinquish the unbridled power over the whole of the UK that Blair’s massive, disproportionate majorities had given it, based as they were on finally winning support from Middle England. Hence the shift in Labour’s whole sense of its mission from being the party of working-class socialist internationalism to the party of conservative English-British unionism: the party that seeks to conserve the old unitary British state and identity even when the people were separating away from it, and seeing themselves more as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish.

To summarise so far: pre-devolution, we had a unitary Britain dominated by England, in which the English and British identities were merged; post-devolution, we have a separating out of the identities of England and the ‘two Britains’ from which it had previously been indissociable: Britain in the sense of the other countries of the UK, and Britain in the sense of the unitary British state. That state, in the shape of the Labour government, took it upon itself to resurrect the rapidly disappearing unified British identity on which its legitimacy and power depended. Unable to reverse the devolution for which it was responsible, it could not re-establish Britishness by recreating the popular, organic sense of shared identity, history, family relatedness, and social solidarity and community encapsulated in a Britain with which the nations of the UK had all been to some extent happy to identify and belong: the English by seeing the other countries of Britain as an extension of England; and the other countries by seeing Britain as just another name for England, with which they were united in one kingdom. Labour’s only option was to take the formal values of the British state itself as the foundation of a new national-British unity – indeed, of a new Nation of Britain, as I’ve described it elsewhere.

This is nation building that proceeds from the state and from the centre; not, as previously, a state (Britain) that was experienced as an expression of the identities and affections of the people: a national unity that was felt and lived, rather than one that, initially at least, is merely conceptual and ideological. For what are these British values that all the nations of the UK are said to hold in common and around which the government hopes they will (re-)unite? They are principles of civic society that, historically, ‘Britain’ (in reality, often England before it merged into Britain) is said, if not to have originated, at least to have given their modern political expression in parliamentary democracy. As such, they are a combination of universal secular-humanist principles that no democrat could repudiate AND of characteristics and qualities valued by the English and said to be typical of the English. On the universal side: liberty / individual freedom, equality (of opportunity), democracy and the rule of law; on the English side – but blending into the universal concepts and giving them their human and cultural ‘flavour’ – tolerance, fairness / fair play, support for the underdog and compassion for the disadvantaged, and a healthy suspicion and contempt towards excessive power and wealth, particularly when that power is exercised towards the English as private individuals and as a nation.

In this way, the British government hopes to gain endorsement for its newly formulated set of British values from the English people because they are essentially English values: they’re the values of the British state that once was the effective English state and the expression of English national pride; and they’re amplified sentimentally by an appeal to cultural qualities that are undeniably associated with the English. The difference is that whereas, pre-devolution, those values were invested in a Britain (state and extension of England to the rest of Britain) with which the English identified, now the English have increasingly separated their national identity from Britain. This means that all the language of Britishness becomes just so much empty concepts and abstract ideas divorced from the English and no longer articulating a meaningful sense of nationhood for them, or inspiring a sense of purpose and confidence in an uncertain world and future. The discourse of Britishness, in other words, is a state language and ideology. Through it, the British state and government both represent what they think of as Britain and British (cf. the attempt to arrive at an official Statement of British Values), and see themselves as the representative – the democratic embodiment and expression – of Britain. Indeed, the state has become Britain, and Britain has become merely a state; whereas once, in an emotional and symbolic sense at least, it was a nation – the expression of the English nation.

In other words, before devolution, the unitary UK was build on a unity and common identity between England and Britain (state and the other countries). That unity has been broken; and the only unity with which it is in the power of the state to attempt to repair it is through a new unified, systematic articulation of a united Nation of Britain: effectively, a re-establishment of Britain through codified, foundational documents such as the Statement of British Values, a British Bill of Rights and, of course, a written constitution. That new inherent, conceptual unity of Britain – Britain present to itself in the articulation of the fundamental principles and values through which it understands itself – can become the means to (re-)establish a true nation (the state seeking the acceptance of, and identification with, its values from the people) if it replaces England: the previous centre, heart and national identity that gave life to the British state. Hence, a real cultural and political programme is afoot that indeed seeks to redefine and replace English history, culture and identity as and with British history, culture and identity: British values. You might say this is purely semantics, as I’ve already stated that the English and British identities have historically been merged. Historically, yes. But the difference now is that reference to the Englishness of Britishness, and to the historical reality that Britain has hitherto been effectively Greater England, is being systematically expunged. I’ve attempted to demonstrate this on numerous occasions, for instance, in my Campaign for Plain England blogs and numerous other posts exploring the censorship of references to England, which manifests a will for England not to exist; indeed, the transforming of it into virtual non-existence through a kind of deliberate double-think-type substitution of Britain or ‘this country’ for ‘England’ when England is what is actually at issue. British values may well be English values; but one is no longer allowed to say this, or indeed, to say ‘England’ at all.

But are English values British values? Meaningless question, really, as it presupposes that it might be possible to come up with a representative set of English values, precisely; in the same way as the British government claims it can set down a representative set of British values: one through which it can represent itself as representing Britain – state and nation (re-)united. Those British values discussed above can indeed be also, and perhaps more properly, described as English values. But English values, or rather Englishness per se, cannot be reduced to such an impoverished collection of abstractions. To find Englishness – the Englishness that has diverged from the path of formal, state, civic Britishness – you need to set your sights at both a more basic and higher level. There’s no essence or quintessence of Englishness, in a strict, philosophical sense; but we who live in England are surrounded by thousands of instances of Englishness – so much a part of the daily fabric of our lives and the cultural air we breathe that it almost appears invisible. I’m not myself now going to fall into the trap of trying to define Englishness in a narrow way. But, rather than being about philosophical and societal values, Englishness has more to do with what we value: the places, people, communities, activities and things that we love and on which we bestow value, and those we don’t; it’s about a way of life, the way we relate to one another with all our flaws, and a place we call home.

So much for the ‘basic’, and yet elusive, level of understanding of what England means to us; what of the higher level I referred to? Well, those universal British (but often historically more English) values I mentioned (liberty, equality, tolerance, respect for the rule of law) are fundamental secular-humanist principles: core concepts of a secular understanding of what you could call the value of humanity itself and the basis for human rights – the essential dignity and integrity of every human being from which flows the imperative that we respect individual free self-determination and the fundamental equality of all persons. Noble and vital principles, indeed, and essential for the defence of our freedoms – but universal and hardly ‘quintessentially British’. And can these absolute concepts and abstractions truly give form and voice to what are the highest, most sacred values we hold dear? Are these not, rather, things like love, kindness, self-sacrifice, justice, peace, friendship, childhood and life itself? Again, nothing quintessentially English or British about these. But the importance these qualities hold for us is precisely because of their sacred and spiritual character, however we qualify or understand those terms.

The English are a spiritual people – as are, if you think in these terms, every other people on earth. But this spirituality is indeed something fundamental to the character of our nation, as indeed it has helped to shape that character over centuries. One possible filter to understand the character of a people is to observe how they respond to the challenge to live up to the demands of loving and caring for one another, and respecting life – put in Christian terms, how they respond to the call of the spirit, and embody and express that spirit in the pattern of their lives. In this sense, there is much to commend and much also to be aggrieved at about modern life in England, where there is so much poverty of the spirit alongside material poverty and human selfishness.

England is a spiritual nation and still, officially, a Christian country, with an established Church and a queen who is both Head of the Church, Queen of England and head of the British state. Does it mean anything, this vestige of an ancient history that does not speak to many English people who do not regard themselves as Christians, or who do but do not consider it necessary for an established church to exist? Well, one would have thought that we English, of all peoples, would be reluctant to discard carelessly a ‘mere’ vestige of our ancient history: our centuries-old English history and tradition, and a reference to the millennial status of the Christian faith as the core value system of our nation, even if it no longer is. In our search to rediscover Englishness, and reaffirm it against a Britishness that would suppress it altogether, we must take cognisance of the fact that the established Church of England is a symbol and continuation of English power and English spirituality at the heart of the British state; a continuation, indeed, of that identification between Englishness and the British state that was broken through devolution.

This is a not frequently commented part of the England and Britain story: Englishness does also have this spiritual dimension, historically and contemporaneously; Britishness is a secular creed, which very likely would disestablish the Church as part of its new national-British constitutional settlement. This would sever both one of the last manifestations of England as the fulcrum of the British state and would remove the moral obligation for British political leaders to be mindful of their responsibilities to their Christian duties and calling, evoked by the Christian headship of the monarch to which governments are still – symbolically, at least – answerable.

This matters for a whole host of reasons, particularly in that it affects the understanding governments have of their fundamental mission and purpose which, beyond seeing to the material prosperity and security of its people, must look to their spiritual wellbeing. This means being seriously affected by the suffering, material and spiritual, of the people as if it were one’s own suffering: making a government that is truly for and of the people, and loves the people; dedicated to giving them hope, confidence and care in their needs and aspirations; and giving all the disenfranchised and alienated parts of the population (including especially the much maligned English youth) a sense that they have some sort of stake in a shared future.

Can a new secular Nation of Britain respond to such a calling? The question is most acute perhaps when it comes to considering how the nation relates to those whose values are not only ‘non-British’, as reductively defined by the state, but are so on religious grounds. I’m referring in particular to the Muslim community, particularly those communities who seek to regulate their lives around a stricter understanding of Islamic law and Koranic teaching. It is hard to see how there can be much place for such faith communities within Britishness and indeed Britain if, indeed, allegiance to official British values becomes the test of citizenship, replacing allegiance to the crown. It’s not that Muslims of this sort take issue with concepts such as personal liberty and equality, in the abstract; but it’s the way those concepts are interpreted and grounded in different religious and cultural traditions that is different. Those secular British values underpin a whole societal and economic model: one in which it is the role of government to release the potential of individuals to participate fully and freely in a secular lifestyle – acquiring material possessions and wealth; creating that wealth through work and career; buying and selling; and trading themselves and their bodies in work, sex and open-ended relationships.

But these values are fundamentally antithetical to the duties and rights expressed in Muslim belief and practice – as, indeed, to the duties and purpose of life as understood by any of the major religious traditions. The language of Britishness cannot reach out beyond itself to understand and embrace radical difference of this kind, and can only reject the pious and dogmatic fidelities of Islam as backward, oppressive and irrational – and as limiting the possibilities for Muslim communities to integrate and participate in the supposed benefits of British life.

Englishness and England, on the other hand, can respond and engage with such diversity in our midst. Englishness, that is, understood as being about appreciation of the little but precious things of daily life; of places, people, food and drink, communities, and caring about the people around you as if they were one’s own – which makes them one’s own. These are things we really do hold in common with Muslims and with those of other faith backgrounds; we all live in England, and can meet in a common and developing – not fixed – Englishness on the shared ground of England.

I say those of ‘other faith backgrounds’: other than our own, that is. We can meet those Muslims, and perhaps only meet those Muslims, on a ground where true dialogue, interchange and possibility of change can arise, if we let the background of our own faith – our English spirit – come to the fore. Not necessarily some arbitrary reconstruction of a, let’s face it, often dysfunctional, destructive and disreputable Christian history – but responding in a new way to that calling of the spirit of love and neighbourliness. A response from which our nation of England may yet be redefined and enjoy its renaissance.

27 August 2007

Youth Crime and British Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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