Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

1 April 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 August 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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