Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

16 August 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture and caption from the BNP website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture from the Daily Telegraph article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 April 2008

Saint George: Patron Saint Of Suppressed Nations

The flags of St. George were out in force in England yesterday: our patron saint’s day – England Day. The red cross on a white background was even to be seen flying outside 10 Downing Street alongside the Union Flag, as 23 April is now officially the one day of the year when the Cross of St. George may be flown outside UK government buildings that are endowed with two flagpoles (see the recent Constitutional Renewal white paper, p. 57). Where there is only one flagpole, the Union Flag takes precedence – surprise, surprise. Perhaps they would have done well to consider my previous suggestion about new country-specific versions of the Union Flag incorporating the national flags as an ‘insert’ into the Union Flag – then they could effectively fly both the Union Jack and the England flag simultaneously all year round without having to invest in a second flagpole! But they wouldn’t want to convey the impression that England is a distinct part of the UK – which is what such a flag might do – as this would challenge the way they govern England as if it were Britain.

Oh well, I suppose one shouldn’t grumble: so long as the Flag of St. George is allowed to be flown beside and atop UK government buildings, this at least represents some sort of official recognition that England exists as a nation – and, what is more, a nation with a continuing Christian tradition. Significantly, Britain, which is not a nation, has neither a ‘Britain Day’ nor a patron saint – although if the Britologists get their way, the first of these facts may soon change; if not the second.

But who was this St. George who, along with his flag, is supposed to serve as a symbol for England? According to the more realistic legend of his life (the non-dragon-slaying version), he was an ethnic Greek soldier in the Roman army, who refused to participate in a persecution of the Christians towards the beginning of the fourth century and was martyred as a consequence. As such, he could be seen as a natural symbol for a once proud but subjugated people – the Greeks – rising up against an oppressive empire (Rome). And this is one of the reasons why St. George is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church and is also the patron saint of Greece.

Indeed, when I looked into it, I was struck by the list of countries of which St. George is the patron saint or where St. George’s Day is celebrated, or both. These include: Bulgaria, Catalonia, England, Georgia, Greece, Palestine, Russia and Serbia (and also Serb-populated areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro). These countries all have one, in some cases two, things in common: their nation status, indeed their very survival as a nation, has been under severe threat from an oppressive state or empire – Bulgaria and Georgia from the Soviet Union / Empire; Catalonia from Spain; Greece from the Roman Empire and later the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which also persecuted Serbia and took over the Serbian heartland of Kosovo; Palestine from Israel; Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro from a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, and subsequently from the Serbian-nationalist dream of a Greater Serbia; and England . . . from Britain.

I said that some of these countries had two things in common: Russia / the Soviet Union, Serbia / Yugoslavia and England / Britain have been as much agents of subjugation and aggression towards other nations as victims of such a form of suppression. It’s hard for us in the West to think of Russia as anything other than an aggressive, distrustful state that seeks to control and manipulate all the nations around it in a cynical, self-serving manner. However, Russia has in the past been the victim of terrible wars and persecutions that have come close to eradicating it as a nation, from the Mongol invasion of the 13th century to Hitler’s assault in World War II. Arguably, Russia – and certainly its Christian ‘soul’ – was as much a victim of Soviet totalitarianism as any of the other countries that lost their distinctive national identities when they became mere Soviet republics. Similarly, the resurgence of Serbian nationalism in the 1980s and 1990s, suffused with a heady mix of previously suppressed Orthodox Christianity, owed much to the fact that, although the Serbs were the dominant ethnic group in Communist Yugoslavia, they had to submerge and deny many of their national traditions for the sake of the cohesion of a monolithic, ethnically neutral, ideological state.

And what of England and Britain? Surely, I’m not suggesting that the subordination of England to Britain (symbolised, for instance, by the Union Flag taking precedence over the St. George’s Cross) is on a par with the suppression of Serbian national identity under Yugoslavia; or indeed, that the control previously exercised effectively by England over other nations in the British Empire and British Isles is akin to the ruthless Soviet subjugation of the nations surrounding Russia, or Serbian persecution of ethnic Albanians, Croats and Muslims in the terrible Balkan Wars of the 1990s?

Well, obviously, these things are different; but arguably, different only in degree not in kind. The convulsions in Former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union both involved nations that had been the centre of powerful multi-national states losing their grip on that power and attempting to reassert it in their own name rather than in the name, and for the ideals, of the former state: as Serbia in the 1990s, and in the shape of the resurgent Russia of the present decade. Similarly, the English were once the driving force behind the British Empire and the political heart of the United Kingdom. That Empire and – since devolution – England’s control over the other nations of the UK through the British state have gradually slipped away. The main difference is that, rather than reasserting itself in its own name – as England – England has tried to hold on to the illusion that the old Britain still exists as before; or rather, it has attempted to affirm and define a ‘new Britain’ that is very much just a 21st-century update of the old – but which is a denial of the changed realities of this century. What is this New Britain? A Britain that supposedly embodies only the positive ideals and ‘greatness’ of the British Empire – a world power standing for civilised, humane values – and none of its violent lust for power and for control over the world’s precious resources; and which, by denying its aggression and its racism (characteristics which it likes to think of as ‘English’ and ‘nationalistic’, not British), actually gives that aggression power over itself, rather than taming it. Or a Britain that is still what it was – a cohesive unitary state, identified with England in all but name – and not a Britain that now cannot even acknowledge England by name in case this blows open the reality that Britain has already been broken up through devolution into four differentially governed nations, and that what is known as Britain is really now only England.

Why is the British establishment – political and intellectual – so afraid of this emerging separate consciousness of England as a nation in its own right, no longer indissociable from the Britain with which it merged its identity for so long? Perhaps they are indeed afraid that a resurgent England, rather like Serbia and Russia, will assert itself in the shape of an ugly right-wing, racist nationalism: rejecting the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lateral liberal consensus; taking England out of the EU; and even trying to reassert its former prerogatives over Scotland and Wales. Such an England would indeed seem to represent the suppressed dark side of the British imperial and national project, just as Serbian and Russian nationalism were a re-expression of the darker aspects of Yugoslav and Soviet Communism. Better, on this view, for England to continue to try to uphold an image of itself as a ‘benign’ Britain than to let its own unacknowledged demons of malignant, narrow, ‘English’ nationalism escape.

Except, of course, the two things are inseparable parts of the same process: one nation, whether you refer to it as England or Britain, seeking a new identity and purpose in the light of the collapse of former imperial grandeur and of national unity back home; and trying to come to terms with and ‘own’ both the admirable and the dark aspects of a great past. England will have to emerge from this process of re-examination as a distinct national entity because the old Britain with which it was identified is no more – just as Serbia and Russia need to come to terms with being merely Serbia and Russia now that their great multi-national states and dreams of empire are over. And really, we British have so much less to fear from English nationalism than Serbia, Russia and their former compatriots had to fear from Serbian and Russian nationalism. Why? Because those values that the political and cultural elite so desperately seek to uphold as British-not-English really are English values all along that we the English previously invested in the British Empire and state, and which we must now redefine and reapply as part of a more realistic, modest and internationally collaborative existence as the nation of England.

English nationalism and Britishness: two sides of the same coin through which the English are striving towards a new currency of distinct nationhood. But for those values to be constructively reinvested in the real world of today, and not to be a dangerous fantasy recreation and re-enactment of the past, the coin must land on the English side: for too long the flipside of the British ‘heads’, but now having no choice, for our own sanity and survival, than to be the vanquisher of the mythical, delusional British dragon’s ‘tails’.

The Britain that has suppressed and submerged our English identity is increasingly in retreat, despite the best efforts of the establishment to reinvigorate it. Soon, the dragon must be slain and will not needlessly fight again; and under the banner of St. George – the patron saint of suppressed nations – England will reclaim its freedoms and its good faith for the future.

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.

30 October 2007

Why CAN’T Gordon Brown say ‘England’?

There’s a petition on the Downing Street website at the moment, organised by supporters of an English parliament, which urges the prime minister to actually say ‘England’, rather than ‘the country’ or ‘our country’ (or even ‘Britain’), when he means England: when he refers to matters such as health, education and housing where (as a result of devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) his ‘competence’ (to use an EU-speak term) or area of responsibility is in fact limited to England. But he can’t bring himself to do so as his recent ‘Brit-eulogy’ at the Labour Party conference and his inability to praise the England rugby team on behalf of England testified.

Why can’t our prime minister acknowledge or speak on behalf of the country that makes up 85% of the population of the nation he supposedly leads? This is more than a matter of semantics. The answer to this question goes to the heart of the identity of ‘our nation’; of Scots’ continuing engagement with it post-devolution and after a possible full independence; and of the survival, or not, of the Union if the Scots did set off on their own.

First, let’s recap a bit of history. If you took only the words of Gordon Brown [or GB as I like to call him: if he can’t refer to a country by its name but can talk only of ‘Britain’, I won’t refer to him by his name and will just call him ‘GB’ – the personification of Britain, indeed], then ‘our country’ is Britain. But Britain or Great Britain does not exist as a nation. There was a nation called Great Britain (more fully, the ‘Kingdom of Great Britain’; also informally known as the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain’) that was established by the Act of Union between the Kingdoms of England (which incorporated the principality of Wales) and Scotland in 1707. This nation or state lasted only 93 years till the further Act of Union between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland in 1800. This established the name of the state as the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. This in turn was given its present name of ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ in 1927 to reflect the reality of Irish partition and independence.

This latter event creates a historical precedent for what would presumably happen if the Scots became an independent nation before some solution changing the constitutional relationships between all the countries of the UK was reached. As the Union that is the UK encompasses more than just the union of England and Scotland but also two other unions (the union of England and Wales that existed since the 13th century, and the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), these two other unions would remain in effect, albeit altered, if Scotland left. This would in fact see the demise of ‘Great Britain’ (and by extension, ‘Britain’) as a name for the continuing state. But we would still have a United Kingdom: ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’, maybe. That is, until the probably inevitable further break up of such a unitary state into three more independent or federal nations!

Or would we? The on-off New Labour plans to break up England into a number of regions of comparable size to Scotland and Wales could be a way to pre-empt the break up of ‘Britain’ / ‘Great Britain’ by creating a ‘Britain of nations [Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland] and regions [the ‘former England’]’, as it’s been called. If Scotland were to break off from such a ‘Britain’, this could then be construed as a de facto region of Britain establishing itself as a separate nation. The continuing ‘British nation’ could then be named something like the ‘United Kingdom of Britain [not Great Britain any more with Scotland no longer in it], Wales and Northern Ireland’; or, hell, why not just go the whole hog and call it the ‘United Kingdom of Britain’ (‘Britain’ for short) – because if there’s no administrative difference between the regions of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (as they’re all run by devolved assemblies), there’s no reason to acknowledge any of them separately in the name of the state. Welsh and Northern Irish people could still informally refer to their countries as if they were nations; but well, England, you’ve always been proud of your history, and now that’s all you are!

Is this just a fantasy or, rather, nightmare scenario? Well, the total inability of GB to officially acknowledge the existence of an entity we like to call England isn’t reassuring at a time when he’s carrying out a constitutional reform process which – we learnt last week – will enshrine long-established British (yes, it’s that word again) principles of rights and responsibilities. And there’s a more well founded basis for these fears based on, yes, history again.

This is that England, like Great Britain, does not officially exist as a nation. It’s just that England ceased to exist from the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 (becoming Great Britain, as above); and Great Britain ceased to exist as a stand-alone entity (albeit it’s included in the name of the state) in 1800 with the union with Ireland. Scotland’s leaving [Great] Britain doesn’t of itself re-create an England: it would just leave a United Kingdom of Britain that – if England had not been granted devolution prior to Scotland’s independence – would in fact officially be more like the regionalised-England model: a United Kingdom defined and named officially as a Britain with certain powers devolved to two ‘countries’ and a number of regions.

In other words, the Britologists’ or British nationalists’ view would appear to boil down to the statement, ‘if England does not exist (as it doesn’t now, officially), why go to the trouble of creating a “new” nation called England – either prior to full Scottish independence or after it – if we can preserve a unitary state under its ‘existing’ (unofficial) banner of “Britain”?’ For these people, the Union / UK is synonymous with ‘Britain’; and so is England – for them – as England (sub)merged its identity, through the Union of Scotland, with that of Great Britain. From this perspective, any (re-)establishment of a separate entity called England would indeed represent the de-construction of the Union: its splitting into a separate England and Scotland.

But this is not true: the Union is greater than the Union between England and Scotland alone. As indicated above, it also incorporates a more long-standing union between England and Wales, and a union between a Great Britain including England and Wales with Northern Ireland. So the establishment of a distinct political and national identity for England – whether in the context of Scottish independence or not – in no way intrinsically subverts the Union / UK. It’s just that if Scotland but not the other nations broke off, it could be re-named, as I’ve suggested, the ‘United [and / or Federal] Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’; with the continuing participation of Scotland, this could be the ‘United [Federal] Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’. But both scenarios do indeed do away with a unitary ‘Great Britain’ or ‘Britain’, which hasn’t officially existed since 1800 in any case. So it’s not the Union that is threatened by English devolution and / or Scottish independence, but Britain.

So why do the supposed ‘Britological’ (Brit-illogical) defenders of the Union want to perpetuate the lie(s) that a) Britain is a nation (it’s not; the UK is); b) that the Union means Britain (which it doesn’t); and that c) ‘England’ doesn’t exist (i.e. that it’s – officially – only a nameless part of [Great] Britain)? To some extent, these myths could be characterised as a delusion as much as they are a deception. English people have historically, and until quite recent times, merged and conflated the English and British national identities: England did invest its identity and ambitions into ‘Great Britain’ through the Union and the Empire. The realisation that the days of a ‘great’ Britain – of a Britain as a major world power – are long gone is something that the leaders and people of England will have no escape from in a devolved or fully independent England. Tony Blair tried to stoke up this truly megalomaniac delusion of Britain the World Power in order to keep the myth of Britain as the Union and Nation going for a bit longer after the body blow he dealt it through the uneven devolution settlement. But England’s greatness is based on more than the achievements of Great Britain, and England will find, and can only find, renewed confidence and purpose when it is able to forge a new direction in its own name.

That’s if the Britologists let her. Because the other side of the British coin is continuing Scottish engagement in – as opposed to English identification with – the Union that is mis-named Britain. The Scots have never truly bought into ‘Britain’ as the English did. For them, it was always a convenient name for a tie up with England, indeed a marriage of convenience with England; in which using the name ‘Great Britain’ is a way to pretend that it’s a marriage of equals and a true union (the creation of a new merged entity from two formerly separate entities), rather than what it effectively was: an English take-over of Scotland. Better for Scots’ pride – and what a reflection, it could be argued, on English diplomacy and self-effacement – to call it ‘Great Britain’ rather than ‘Greater England’! It could have been called something like that. After all, the expanded English kingdom incorporating Wales from 1284 had been simply called ‘England’.

Historically, Scots have been committed to ‘Great Britain’ essentially through perceived self-interest. Political union with England enabled the Scottish people and nation to benefit from, and share in creating, the wealth of the British Empire. But both before and after that flowering of English civilisation, the establishment of Great Britain has enabled Scots to participate, in a surrogate manner, in the public life of a greater nation than Scotland alone (if greatness is measured in terms of political and economic power, and cultural influence); indeed, it has enabled Scots to exercise political power over, and shape the whole body politic of, England-Britain. Until devolution (fair play), this was, after all, the only way Scots people could also have any political influence over their own nation, since Scotland was (and England still is) ruled by the UK parliament and executive.

So, to some extent, the Union of England and Scotland (one of the three unions from which the UK was created) has persisted so long because it enabled Scots to ‘punch above their weight’, both nationally and internationally. One wonders to what extent the Scot Tony Blair’s insistence that Britain should try to keep punching above its weight on the international stage had anything to do with the realisation of how little influence Scotland, as opposed to England, would have in the world as an independent country, compared with the as yet not entirely extinguished glamour of British imperial power.

An independent Scotland would indeed be a bit-part player: comparable, in economic scale and geo-political affinity, with the likes of Norway and the other Nordic states, and Ireland. The Republic of Scotland might well eventually become a wealthy country, as Alex Salmond was saying at the SNP conference over the weekend, just like these Northern European peers; but not a powerful one. By contrast, England would continue to belong at the European top table alongside the likes of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland; and most likely, it would still sit at the global top table that is the United Nations Security Council, next to its US friend and ally.

The economic wealth and political power enjoyed by ‘the country’ would therefore not be fundamentally compromised by a break up of ‘the Union’ (of Britain, that is, not the UK), which Britologists claim would be the consequence of Scottish independence or English devolution. Indeed, in many respects, greater separation and autonomy for England and Scotland (whether full independence for both countries, or a looser relationship as part of a federal UK; or a federal UK minus Scotland) might in fact be the trigger for a rejuvenation of both countries’ economic and cultural life, and international relations. Certainly, freeing England from the disproportionate tax burden it carries on behalf of Scotland and Wales under the Barnett Formula could provide a major kick-start to its economy.

But – and here’s the rub – a devolved or independent England would leave the Labour Party unable ever to regain absolute power over England: the truly ‘great’ and certainly greater part of the Great Britain over which that party stands zealous guard. And it would leave Scottish and Welsh MPs (a greater proportion of whom are Labour than in England) bereft of their traditional role in influencing English affairs. As these are now separated from Scottish and Welsh domestic matters, these MPs can participate in making decisions on English laws and policies with apparent legitimacy only if these are termed British matters, not English.

But beyond this present political anomaly, referred to as the West Lothian Question, there is a fundamental question of national identity. [Funny that GB should be so keen to press on with plans for a British identity card system!] If our national identities were defined as English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish – rather than British – and if there were devolved and / or independent parliamentary bodies answerable to the people who call themselves English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, then not only the justification but the reality of Scottish people exercising political power over England in the name of Great Britain disappears. If the nations of the UK separate (if only to re-group in a federation), you no longer have Britain: the Union between England and Scotland. If you no longer have that, you have no possibility for Scottish people to be at the centre of power of a greater nation than Scotland alone. GB would have to pack his bags and go home from a global capital city to little old Kirkcaldy.

Better to pretend, then, that Britain still exists. ‘Still’? It doesn’t and never did; at least, not since 1800. But at least the name Britain is included in the name of the nation. And in that name, it’s still possible to wield disproportionate power over an English electorate that have not voted for you.

What do I say ‘England’? England, too, does not officially exist and hasn’t done so for longer than Great Britain; of course, how silly of me to forget! (Scotland and Wales have been allowed to return to official existence; but that leaves British regions, not England, doesn’t it?) But better not even whisper the name of England; otherwise, you might summon up the sleeping giant into existence, and then the whisker-thin justification for your power will disappear into a puff of spin. What better way to continue with the myth of Britain and the disproportionate system of power it props up than to pretend that Britain does exist, and England doesn’t? And even to enshrine that pretence in a new constitutional settlement that, by regionalising it, will do away with England once and for all?

So GB can rule only in the name of GB. His whole political identity is defined in terms of that mythical entity known fallaciously as Britain. His political identity, that is; don’t worry, he’s not going to deny his national identity as a Scot. There are Brits and Scots (not English); and because he’s both, he can exercise power over England (correction: Britain).

GB might represent Britain; but he doesn’t and cannot represent, in the office of prime minister, an England whose very existence he does not and cannot acknowledge. And that is why he can neither speak for England nor of her.

26 September 2007

Forget Drake, It Was the Turks What Saved Us! Trevor Philips and the Human Rights and Equality Commission

Cor blimey, I never knew that! Nearly escaped my attention amid all the hoo-ha surrounding Mealybland’s (sorry, Miliband’s) exposition of the ‘new wave’ of New Labour foreign policy yesterday. In a fringe meeting at the Labour conference, Trevor Philips – the head of the new Human Rights and Equality Commission – was advocating that we re-write our British (yes, British) history to bring out more strongly certain strands that have been overlooked, e.g. the long-term contribution made by Muslims. For instance, did you know that the real heroes and saviours in the defeat of the Armada were the Muslim Turks, who held up the Armada at the request of Elizabeth I. ‘Zounds, chaps; well we were b******d if we were going to rush a decent game of bowls (or should that be boules, Mr Philips?)!’

Now, I’m all in favour of including Islam and Muslims as an integral part of our understanding of modern Britain and modern England. In fact, I’m one of the first to react knee-jerk-fashion whenever I catch the putrid scent of Islamophobia (see other postings in this blog). But apparently, according to Mr Philips, we need to re-write and re-tell our whole history (by which he means British history, of course) to ensure Muslims are comprehensively included in that (are we going to do the same for the Jews, too?).

Fair enough that real contributions to British life or even military victories should be recognised: credit where credit’s due. But, for a start, I thought the PC cohorts had already been re-telling British history so that it brought out previously ‘under-emphasised’ aspects, such as the role of women and the history of Britain’s ethnic minorities. Do we a need a new revisionist history to revise the last revisionist history? Do we really need an ‘official’ British national history at all – a national story and myth, which is surely just an anachronistic re-arranging of the past to suit present political objectives and nation building? To be truly of use to us and to understand where we are now, what we really need is a completely open-minded, objective approach to history, so that no inconvenient truths and legacies that persist into the present can be suppressed?

Mr Philips’ new history is really about forging a new Britain for the present and future. Apparently, population changes and immigration are happening at such a rate that, for Mr Philips, there is “no going back” (er, to what, to a historically grounded sense of English identity and nationhood?) and you can no longer assume that people will inherit the values that bound the country together.

So, instead, there has to be a new formulation of values, including in a written constitution. But these are not abstract values, such as the ‘British values’ as advocated by a Blair or Brown: ‘freedom’, for instance, which is a value common to the whole of humanity not just Britain (I know what he means, but it’s a bit dodgy to imply that freedom is an abstract quality). No, what he’s talking about is: “a more explicit set of understandings which we can all share about how we treat each other and talk to each other and they have to be based on real values”. To explain what he means by real, he goes on to say that if these values were set out in a written constitution, they would have to be “an expression which is native and right for us”.

Well, his ‘explicit set of understandings’ sound like political correctness and imposed liberal orthodoxy to me. And, as for the native expression of real values, it is laudable that he’s trying to move away from the in fact highly abstract nature of ‘British values’ as generally propounded. But what does he mean? He doesn’t mean ‘native’ in the sense of the real ‘natives’ of Britain: the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish. He means British: British as reflecting the ‘authentic’ (revised) history of this land, which is in fact the ‘expression’ of a New Britain (New Labour New Britain) to be created: a united nation, with a single, official history; multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-faith; with no special privilege or recognition (even historical – especially historical) accorded to any group – such as the English, for instance.

Well, it was the Muslim Turks what saved us, after all!

4 September 2007

Unmasking the English: Another Catalogue Of England’s Terminal Decline?

Listened to the first programme in Andrew Marr’s new BBC Radio Four series Unmasking the English yesterday (as I write, still available as a podcast). Moderately interesting, with one or two insightful comments. I liked the one where he said that the English were the only nation on earth where ‘understated’ and ‘patriotic fervour’ went hand in hand. But on the whole, despite the title, I found it pretty unrevealing fare, in fact.

The series is attempting to get to grips with hidden, less immediately obvious aspects of Englishness from the avowed perspective of an ‘outsider’ – Andrew Marr being completely up front about his Scottish origins and standpoint. The series aims to achieve this by looking at fictional characters that appear to typify English characteristics. Yesterday’s programme focused on Agatha Christie’s Miss Marples. She was presented as an exemplar of English upper-class understatement, self-deprecation and muddling that tactically conceals a steely intellect and purpose determined to see through to the end whatever it has undertaken. Interestingly, and topically, Boris Johnson was offered as an illustration of a modern version of these traits.

However, the danger of basing a programme like this on fictional characters is that you end up with clichés and outdated caricatures of Englishness rather than something of contemporary relevance. Of course, we do all recognise that there is something ‘quintessentially English’ about Miss Marples, a character for whom there is a great deal of popular affection. But our understanding of what constitutes quintessential Englishness has itself to a large extent been formed by fictional characters such as Miss Marples.

A more interesting approach would have been to take ‘typically English’ detective fiction itself as the mask that in turn conceals and reveals something about the English – not to view Miss Marples as if she was a ‘real’ type of Englishness, of which Boris Johnson was a modern manifestation. Andrew Marr’s programme did touch upon these issues in a round-about way; for instance, when he described the typical scenario of a Miss Marples drama: where the spinster sleuth just happens to be around as a gruesome murder is committed, usually in an ‘idyllic’ English village setting; and pursues her investigations in a self-deprecating, unobtrusive but ruthless fashion until she unmasks the villain.

This sort of scenario is indeed typical of a form of English fiction – a particular manifestation of English culture – and there are many modern English dramas that take up the baton from Agatha Christie’s heroine, e.g. Midsomer Murders, Morse or Parsley & Thyme. But the more potentially revealing question would be to ask why the English have such an enduring fascination for such tales, and why do we like to present such an image of ourselves (rural, traditional idyll with underlying current of homicidal violence) to the rest of the world? And why are murder dramas – whether of this traditional variety or the more modern forensic kind – invariably screened either on Friday or Sunday evening: the times of the week when we’re most likely to let off steam and vent our frustrations about the working week? If our daily lives of drudgery are ‘murder’, then the murder mystery is where the disappointments and disaffections of ‘real’ English life are acted out in a surrogate way on an idealised stage matching how we’d like our experience of England to be, but which it mostly isn’t.

But because Andrew Marr ended up considering Miss Marples as a real type of Englishness (despite her fictional status), and an outdated one at that, the programme ended up in a logical paradox that it failed to acknowledge: Miss Marples was an example of quintessential English character traits but at the same time, these were seen as increasingly on the wane in modern Britain with its supposedly more thrusting, self-assertive culture, particularly in the world of work (which is opposed, as I have argued, to the idealised world of the murder mystery). As if to imply that Englishness itself – as defined by the programme – is on the decline and is no longer relevant to the real world of contemporary Britain?

On top of this, I felt uneasy about the series’ title: Unmasking the English. Is the implication that the amiable, bumbling image of a Miss Marples or Boris Johnson is, precisely, a fiction concealing real ‘new English’ characteristics that are in fact more adjusted to the modern world that the English have done so much to shape: tactical shrewdness, ruthless determination, ambition, cold calculation and aggression – precisely the kind of negative traits of which the English are so often accused by foreigners and outsiders, such as Mr Marr? Just as Miss Marples eventually unmasks the murderous villain beneath his or her villagey respectability, are these characteristics the reality of modern English society concealed beneath the mask of a Miss Marples?

Or should that be Miss Marr-ples? For it seems to me that it’s Andrew Marr who is playing the detective here, attempting to strip the English of one layer of our deceptive self-image of harmless amiability and revealing the brute beneath. But is not the whole polarity – murderous class-less reality of the mercenary modern world versus upper-class effortless, toil-less, sophistication – not itself the fiction? The reality of the English is not going to be revealed – at least, not directly – through such myths, which Andrew Marr seems to buy into. Perhaps in so doing, he has succumbed to the real deception that such fictions represent: appearing to reveal the English while concealing the realities of modern English life – and, at the same time, making excellent business from it!

15 June 2007

The British Myth

Why do so many of our religious leaders feel compelled to preach about British identity and values these days? It’s as if the word has gone out from government that they have a duty to be ‘on message’ about these things. This is because religion has the potential both to reinforce social divisions (cf. the supposed separation between devout Muslims and the rest of society) and to promote cohesion. ‘Better make sure you intone the “shared values” and “British identity” themes, boys, if you want an easy time from government’.

As I’ve observed before, the ‘Thought For the Day’ item on BBC Radio Four’s morning current-affairs programme, Today, is a prime outlet for these politico-religious, Britological outpourings. The three-minute God slot must have been deemed a suitably ‘soft’ part of the programme where it would be safe to toe the government line without appearing to compromise editorial integrity. (As is well known, the programme came under considerable pressure over its treatment of the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’, which provided part of the justification for Britain to participate in the Iraq War.)

Today it was the turn of Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s Chief Rabbi (of the orthodox hue, not the liberal persuasion). Rabbi Sacks argued that one of the distinctive contributions that religion could make to society was to bring shared ‘stories’ that encapsulated the nation’s collective identity: its understanding and memories about its past, which in turn provided the framework for a shared vision and sense of purpose looking towards the future. Britain’s story, so the Rabbi proceeded, could involve our most meaningful narratives about the historical struggles for justice, freedom and social progress. In other words, these stories encapsulate these fundamental values and ideals in narrative form, and impose them on our imagination and emotions as something essentially British. The Rabbi concluded that Britain needed a new ‘story’: if you like, an overall meta-narrative or myth, in the proper sense of the word, that makes sense of what it is to be British.

I’ve got nothing against this in principle, certainly in the more specific context of different religions. The presentation of an overarching story providing an account, ultimately, of who we are – of what it is to be human – is indeed a core feature and purpose of religion. But what does this mean transposed to the British context? When it comes to a narrative that can tell us something real about Britishness, and the experience of life in Britain today and in the past, doesn’t this need to be in the form of history rather than story; objective, truth-seeking investigation, not myth making?

Is the struggle for social justice, freedom and progress really the true story of Britain – that which can signify for us the essential meaning, the truth, of Britishness? Clearly, these things are part of the British identity and value system, and we have much to be proud of with respect to our traditions of democracy and freedom. But they’re obviously also not the whole story. And the reality of Britain today – and perhaps throughout its history – is one of a society that is in many respects desperately impoverished and divided – culturally, spiritually and socially. For example: the break down of families and marriages; children unloved and abused; monotonous, soul-destroying urban environments; drug abuse and crime; class divisions; lack of faith, hope and a shared vision for the future.

Well, I suppose you could say you can either talk up the positives or emphasise the negatives; and, in fact, I’m greatly in favour of stressing the positives and taking as hopeful an outlook on the future as the facts allow. But merely by-passing the real experiences of many Britons and glossing over them with a new collective British myth will not provide an effective means to confront the real challenges of Britain today and to build a sustainable future for its peoples. And it is in facing up to the darker realities that the politicians like to spin out of existence through their idealistic narratives – in differentiating themselves from political blandishments – that religions have a mission to make a distinctive contribution to the British future.

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