Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

3 April 2015

TV leaders’ debate: no show for England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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9 December 2011

For the sake of Europe, Britain should hold a referendum on the EU

Conservative politicians have been busy spinning David Cameron’s veto of a new EU treaty last night as indicative of a strong stand in defence of the ‘British national interest’. In reality, it’s a sign of the weakness of the British position. Cameron had no choice other than to veto a treaty because he knew that the political pressure for a referendum on it in the UK would have been irresistible, and that the treaty would almost certainly have been rejected by the British people. As a result, Cameron has jeopardised a deal that might – just might – have saved the euro, on which millions of UK jobs depend. The UK has ended up isolated, and it’s by no means clear that even the hallowed interests of the City have been safeguarded, as under the draft deal agreed last night, it appears that the EU will still be able to impose a financial-transaction tax on the dealings of Eurozone-based banks in London.

All of this could have been avoided if we’d been given an in / out referendum on the EU much earlier, such as when the Lisbon Treaty was ratified. The fact that we weren’t offered this choice is the Labour Party’s fault, as it was they who reneged in government on their manifesto promise to hold a referendum on the EU Constitution, which is what, by common consent, the Lisbon Treaty was in all but name.

And while we’re on the subject of manifesto pledges, the Liberal Democrats, who more than any other party are desperate to avoid a referendum, ought really now to be demanding one. That’s because what was agreed last night is incontrovertibly a fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with the EU, which is what the Lib Dems stated in their last manifesto to be the grounds for justifying an in / out referendum. But have we heard the Lib Dems making any such demands? Of course not. Instead, their leader Nick Clegg is said to be 100% behind the stand taken by the PM last night. Why wouldn’t he be? It was the only way to avoid a referendum.

So the Lib Dems will be going around saying that, as any stricter fiscal rules for the Eurozone will be agreed outside the terms of any existing or new EU-wide treaty, they don’t involve a fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with the EU. And the Tories are saying no referendum is needed because no additional powers have been ceded to the EU, and no treaty has been agreed.

In reality, however, last night’s events have demonstrated the need for a definitive in / out referendum more conclusively than ever, and not just because last night’s deal involves a fundamental shift in the UK’s relationship with the EU. Cameron wouldn’t have been in the position of falling between the two stools of trying to safeguard the euro while at the same time defending the ‘British national interest’ if an earlier referendum had resolved the question of whether the British people believe that even being in the EU in the first place, let alone the euro, is in the British national interest. The problem is the political and business elites want the UK to be in the EU, but the British people – probably in the majority – don’t; so we end up in the ridiculous position of trying to be at once in Europe but not of it.

A referendum would have presented the opportunity for the UK, once and for all, to decide whether we want to be committed members of the EU or to let the EU get on with all the political, economic and fiscal integration they like, but without the UK being on board. Not having had such a referendum means that the UK’s very participation in the EU lacks democratic legitimacy. Consequently, there was absolutely no way Cameron could have committed the UK to yet another treaty without at last giving the British people the opportunity to decide whether we want to be of Europe as well as in it.

But that’s the clarity that’s needed now: not just for the UK and its people, but for the EU and Europe as a whole. The rest of the EU, with the possible exception of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Sweden, is understandably hacked off by David Cameron’s bulldog posturing. They’re defending their own respective national interests, too, after all, the difference being that they – or at least the French and Germans – view a successful euro and further EU integration as being in those interests. And they’re right that a successful euro is at least in the short-term interest of the UK, too, as the euro’s collapse would spell disaster for the UK economy just as much as it would for the Eurozone. So it’s not unreasonable for them to expect the UK to get behind their last-ditch plan to save the euro and to set aside ‘selfish’ national interest – such as protecting the City – in favour of the ‘common good’ of a prosperous Eurozone. It’s just that Cameron has no mandate to make such a deal, because the British political class has avoided seeking one for decades.

However, last night’s events have conclusively demonstrated the need for Britain’s position within, or outside of, the EU to be clarified once and for all, before we move irrevocably to a two-track EU with the UK on the margins. The British people need to know where we’re going with respect to the EU. And the other EU states and Europe as a whole need to know whether the UK is truly behind the EU project and the euro, or not.

Europe needs Britain to decide; the British people demand the right to decide. Will David Cameron finally demonstrate the leadership once shown by his role model, Churchill, and let Britain choose whether it is with or against an EU with Germany at its centre?

English parliament

9 June 2010

Downing Street flies the English flag: why they’ll be praying for English World Cup success in Whitehall

If they pray at all, that is – David Cameron having gone on record as saying that he does not seek guidance from God in prayer whenever he is confronted by a difficult decision, and Nick Clegg being an out and out atheist. But did David Cameron seek guidance from the Almighty, or even solicit the intercession of St. George, when deciding to break with tradition and fly the English flag at 10 Downing Street during the World Cup?

To be fair, he didn’t strictly need to: the decision pretty much made itself. The coalition government desperately needs England to have a successful run in the World Cup, for two main reasons. First, there is the boost to the economy it will provide. On the one hand, this is a short-term phenomenon as people shell out for overpriced England-branded clothes and general tat (including flags), buy HD-TVs and Sky subscriptions, and visit pubs and bars to watch the games and celebrate England’s victories. But in the longer term, if England are really successful (i.e. reach the semis, final or even win), this will bring about a feel-good factor that could be the difference between the UK going back into recession or not. If English people feel good about themselves and about England, this extra confidence will spill over into the economic domain, and people will be prepared to spend more on themselves, invest in English and British goods and services, and take more holidays in England.

This boost to English self-confidence and pride, along with the shot in the arm it would deliver to the British economy as a whole, will be especially critical as the government shapes up to deliver its swingeing cuts to English public services. This is the second reason why the government needs the England team to be successful. If English people are feeling generally good about themselves throughout the summer, they’ll be less resentful at England once again bearing the brunt of the autumn cuts compared with their Barnett-protected Scottish and Welsh cousins.

In fact, the World Cup feel-good factor may be just the tonic that’s needed to encourage English people to rally round, Dunkirk-style, and play the part of socially responsible, civic-minded citizens that the government wants them to take on – stepping into the breach left by the contracting public sector to ensure that the most vulnerable members of our communities are protected and looked after. World Cup success could be the thing to kick-start the Big Society – a vision that applies only to England – as English people, filled with renewed national self-esteem, also take pride in looking after their own and adopting a new collective sense of responsibility towards one another.

Think I’m embroidering? A bit, maybe. But think of the opposite scenario: England performs dismally and is knocked out at the group stage or in the round of 16. Think how miserable and depressed people will be if that happens. The temporary boost to the economy will fizzle out and will be only a fraction of what it could have been if England reach the semis or the final, as spending increases at each round. And people will be desperate to jet away on their continental holidays to escape the World Cup gloom and the ash cloud of looming budget cuts. And how much more resentful and unco-operative will English people be towards the cuts, and to the greater burden placed on England’s shoulders, when they eventually come?

A poor performance by England in the World Cup will lead to a diminution of national pride, which will make English people more diffident about the uncertain economic and fiscal outlook, resulting in them spending less and thinking of No. 1 more: looking after self-interest rather than being carried on an enthusiastic wave of civic responsibility towards others less fortunate than oneself, whose disproportionate suffering from the cuts will be regarded as an unfortunate necessity.

On reflection, if Cameron wants the people of England to be wafted on a Cloud Nine of feeling big about social responsibility, perhaps he really should direct a few more supplications in the direction of heaven! Personally, I will be sending the Almighty a few prayers for English victory – but out of belief rather than political desperation!

20 May 2010

Clegg ducks the English Question

Our new deputy PM, the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, yesterday announced what he termed the “biggest political reforms since 1832”. There is much to be commended in his proposals, which fall into three categories: 1) reversing New Labour’s erosion of our civil liberties; 2) reform of Parliament and party politics; and 3) further devolution, or what Clegg calls “redistribution of power away from the centre”.

The plans relating to civil liberties are especially welcome. Those relating to parliamentary reform and devolution are less so. I would pick out three main areas for concern:

  1. House of Lords reform: “This government will replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber where members are elected by a proportional voting system. There will be a committee charged specifically with making this happen. But make no mistake: that committee will not be yet another government talking shop. This will be a dedicated group devoted to kick-starting real reform.”

    Is that it then? No wide-ranging consultation of the British people about the sort of second chamber they would like to see for their parliament? The government is simply going to decree that we must switch to a fully elected Upper House, sweeping away centuries of tradition and an organic link to the history of England before it was Great Britain, which the government will bring about through a mere Act of Parliament? Don’t we get a referendum to find out if we like the ideas of this ‘dedicated committee’ chaired by Nick Clegg himself? To say nothing about whether this Upper House is going to replicate the West Lothian Question by allowing non-English-elected Lords or Senators to vote on English legislation while preventing English-elected representatives from doing the same for bills emanating from the Scottish Parliament and soon-to-be Welsh Parliament.

    By proceeding in haste like this (‘haste’ being Clegg’s own word to describe the pace of reform in the next sentence of his speech), an opportunity is being missed to consider these major constitutional reforms in the round, and particularly to factor in the English Question. Doing so would force Clegg’s committee to consider the possibility that if the England-specific functions of the House of Commons were transferred to an English Parliament, this might require the Upper House to evolve into a federal British Parliament, as well as a revising chamber, to deal with vestigial reserved matters.

    This is in fact the kind of measured approach the Liberal Democrats advocated in their election manifesto, where they stated that the English Question would need to be resolved as part of a comprehensive constitutional convention involving ordinary citizens as well as MPs. This idea appears to have been abandoned now and, along with it, any determination to really get to grips with the English Question, as the proposals on devolution make clear.

  2. Devolution: “You will get more control over the hospitals you use; the schools you send your children too; the homes that are built in your community.

    “In our legislative programme we will be setting out plans to strip away government’s unelected, inefficient quangos, plans to loosen the centralised grip of the Whitehall bureaucracy, plans to disperse power downwards to you instead. And we are serious about giving councils much more power over the money they use, so they depend less on the whims of Whitehall, and can deliver the services and support their communities need. We know that devolution of power is meaningless without money.

    “Our plans to disperse power also include strengthening devolution to other parts of Britain: Working with Holyrood to implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission. Working with the Welsh Assembly on introducing a referendum on the transfer of further powers to Wales. Supporting the continued success of the devolved government in Northern Ireland. And, of course, asking what we can do about the difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question.”

    The key sentence, for me, here is: “Our plans to disperse power also include strengthening devolution to other parts of Britain”. In that unthinking phrase, ‘other parts of Britain’, Clegg implicitly admits that the Lib-Cons’ ‘dispersion’ of power to communities (which I discussed yesterday in relation to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ policy presentation) relates to England only, even though he never explicitly says so: if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are ‘other parts of Britain’, then the ‘devolution of power’ from the centre he has just discussed can apply only to England. In other words, the Big Society (devolution of power in England) is what England is being offered by way of equivalence to devolution of power to the other parts of Britain. So instead of there being a national-English government to make decisions on the devolved policy areas Clegg refers to (health care, education, planning / housing, communities and local government), those decisions will be devolved to the sub-national, local / community level.

    But what’s really striking about the ‘other parts of Britain’ phrase is how it blatantly exposes the way that the political establishment simply takes it for granted that devolved policies discussed as if they were British are in fact English, and that everyone is somehow supposed to be aware of this unacknowledged given: it’s the elephant in the room that everyone sees but no one admits it’s there, as they’d then have to do something about it.

    And doing something about it – addressing the English Question – is clearly not Clegg’s intention, as the throw-away phrase, “And, of course, asking what we can do about the difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question”, makes clear. Put out almost as an embarrassed after-thought following the important and specific proposals mentioning Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by name. He can’t even bring himself to refer to England explicitly when he’s alluding to it, almost literally skirting around the issue of English governance seen as a series of ‘difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question’. It’s not difficult, you twit, just say it: the English Question. There, that didn’t hurt, did it?

    But over and above considerations of political correctness and, in the context of the coalition, expediency that dictate that one must never utter the nasty ‘E’ word in case one conjures the English elephant into existence, there is a practical, political reason and a symbolic reason why Clegg refers to the WLQ rather than the EQ. On the practical level, if you’re dealing with the issue of English governance in the framework of the WLQ, this means that you think or hope there could be some sort of procedural fix allowing English MPs to have the ‘ultimate’ say over English legislation that would be sufficient to keep English governance as the domain of the UK government and parliament. So, don’t mention the ‘E’ word in case the obvious solution of a separate English parliament and government comes into people’s minds.

    Second, on the symbolic level, the very assumption that the UK parliament is the natural home for English governance partakes of the same mindset that regards it as a self-evident truth – and, therefore, one that doesn’t need to be spoken of – that devolved issues as ‘properly’ dealt with by the British parliament are ‘really’ English issues; and that Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland are other parts of the UK. It’s that very English, very Westminster, Anglo-Britishness: the doublethink that both manages to really believe that England and Britain are symbiotically fused, but at the same time realistically recognises they are not the same – but let’s not talk about it, dear, in case we lose our privilege to govern.

    So much for “hand[ing] power back to people” – notice, it’s ‘people’, not ‘the people’, let alone ‘the English people’!

  3. Electoral reform: “There is, however, no programme to reform our political system [that] is complete without reform of our voting system. This government will be putting to you, in a referendum, the choice to introduce a new voting system, called the Alternative Vote. Under that new system far more MPs will have to secure support from at least half the people who vote in their constituency.”

    As with the absence of a full debate and referendum on the options for the Upper House, and as with the total lack of any suggestion that the English people as a whole should be offered a referendum on an English parliament, we’re also not being offered a full debate about different electoral systems and a proper referendum that includes at least one proportional option. Basically, this referendum is a choice between two first-past-the-post systems, as the Alternative Vote is just a mitigated form of FPTP that doesn’t even do what it says on the tin.

    The last sentence in the above quote ambiguously points to the inadequacy of AV: ‘far more MPs’ will be elected by a majority of voters in their constituency. This could imply that all MPs will need to secure a majority, as opposed to just some MPs under FPTP. But AV doesn’t in fact ensure this, as the winner has to gain only a majority of votes that are still in play in the preferential system for reallocating votes to the more successful candidates. So it’s quite possible for the winner to still only obtain a minority of the votes of all those who voted in the first place, if there are many voters who do not indicate any of the last two or three candidates left in the race as a second or subsequent preference.

    So Clegg is being dishonest about AV, partly because he doesn’t actually support it – that is, if the policy that was in the Lib Dems’ manifesto (PR) reflects Clegg’s real views. And AV, like all the other proposals for political reform and devolution in Clegg’s statement, basically preserves the privileges and assumptions of parliamentary and party-centric politics intact, as it’s a voting system that’s just as likely (some argue, more likely) to deliver an outright majority in parliament to a single party that can then rule England and Britain with the absolute power of a monarch for the next five years: guaranteed to be a full five years given Clegg’s proposal to introduce five-year fixed-term parliaments.

    Five years. I thought we might at least only have to put up with our unaccountable governments for a maximum of four years if fixed terms were introduced. And do we get a choice in a referendum about this, either?

    Not on your nelly! What do you think this is? This is Whig Britain, don’t you know, not the people’s republic of England!

18 September 2008

Due to devolution, parts of this item refer to the whole UK and parts refer to only some sections of the UK

What is the ‘item’ in question? Nick Clegg’s speech yesterday to the Lib Dem conference, as a footnote describes it on the Lib Dem website. I thought I’d just do a ‘Brit’ check and an ‘Engl’ check on the old word counter to see if, by any chance, the grandson of a Russian émigrée has any concept of England. I wasn’t – or rather was – disappointed: 39 instances of ‘Britain’ or ‘British’, and none of England (no, not a dicky bird); and also none of Scotland / Scottish, Wales / Welsh, or Northern Ireland / Irish, by the way. (Actually, there is a reference to Cornwall; but only to a single mum whose personal situation is meant to be illustrative of the difficulties faced by the people of ‘Britain’ as a whole.) Well, if they can refer to England in a footnote, such as the one in the title to this post, only as a ‘section of the UK’, I suppose this absence of mentions throughout the speech was only to be expected.

But there was I, going through all the references to ‘Britain’ and ‘British’, and noting all the places where these terms are used to refer to areas of policy that relate to England only as far as Westminster government is concerned. I.e. education: “We can have a better education system, and through it a better Britain”. Or health: “The NHS is a great national institution” (no: it’s four great national institutions). Or even the environment: “Education, health and crime. The top three concerns of the British people. They have been for decades. But I want us to get the environment up there too”.

I was thinking great: here’s a nice little opportunity for another critique of the way the main parties brush the democratic deficit and public-spending inequalities towards England resulting from devolution under the carpet by pretending that everything Westminster politicians do relates to the whole of the UK. And that is indeed a valid critique of Nick Clegg’s speech. As I’ve noted before in this blog, the Lib Dem leader appears to have no concept of England as an entity distinct from Britain, as his whole focus is on Britain and Britain-wide governance even when – as we have seen – those policies would in practice be implemented in England only. He even, like Gordon Brown, appears to view Britain as a / the only real ‘nation’ in these isles: “they found a home in Britain because ours is a nation of tolerance, of freedom, and of compassion”.

This ‘britification’ of England – so typical of the main parties – is in itself enough to make an English patriot’s blood boil. But then the footnote. I really couldn’t believe it at first. Not only the speech without a single passing reference to the largest actual nation of these isles. Not only the false impression it creates that, if in government, the Lib Dems would be making laws for the whole of the UK and not in fact for England only in most cases. And not only the complete failure to acknowledge the existence of England and her people as any kind of meaningful entity or constituency that the Lib Dems need to address. But then, to top it all, this insulting footnote: as if this easy-to-miss disclaimer were enough to counteract the deliberate Britain-only focus of the whole speech.

This is as bad as the disclaimers you get at the bottom of some ministerial press releases, where they say: “This notice relates only to ‘England'” (with ‘England’ indeed in apostrophes, revealing that it’s only a convenient name for a territorial jurisdiction not, in the government’s view, a nation). In fact, it’s worse; because even in the footnote, England is not mentioned but is referred to in the catch-all phrase “section of the UK”. I’m surprised and appalled the Lib Dems could replicate such an offensive practice. Perhaps I shouldn’t be.

Admittedly, in the speech, Nick Clegg calls for a comprehensive constitutional convention that could lead to “a new constitutional settlement”. But then, can one have any confidence that this convention would truly re-examine the devolution settlement as it affects England, and come up with proposals for a new settlement that is equitable to all the nations of the UK? Indeed, can one be confident that such a convention would actually be a UK-wide convention at all, despite the fact that the speech dresses it up as such, and not just a means to perpetuate and even deepen the suppression of England’s identity and distinctness as a national political entity? The reason I say this is that the only reference the speech makes to devolution – apart from the derisive footnote – is as follows: “We need to . . . . devolve control to councils, communities, families, parents, patients and pupils”. This is local devolution: the devolving of democratic decision making to every area of civic society where decisions are best taken at that level. But local government, communities and education are devolved parts of national government. In other words, if a Lib Dem government were to pursue such a process of local devolution, it would apply to England only. In addition, previously, the Lib Dem leader has gone on record to advocate devolution to the ‘regional’ as well as ‘local’ level – again, of course, only in England, though presented as if the policy would or could be applied across the whole of the UK. So one is left with the impression that the Lib Dem’s ‘British’ constitutional convention – like so many of their other ‘British’ policies – would in fact be an England-only constitutional convention. One through which the Lib Dems would be hoping to drive a regionalisation and localisation of governance in England only; and with not the slightest hint of ‘national’ devolution for England, as if that whole concept were a non-sequitur.

Naturally, one would expect any Lib Dem programme of constitutional reform to involve PR. But this is not in fact mentioned in the speech. And without addressing the unfairness of the asymmetric devolution settlement, even PR would not be sufficient to rectify the English democratic deficit. This is because Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people would be able to elect representatives to govern them in devolved matters; but English people would still be governed in these areas by the UK parliament, including by MPs and ministers not accountable to any English voter. But I suppose making up-front noises about a constitutional convention is a convenient means not to have to go into these matters before an election and to pretend they will all be dealt with in a fair and non-partisan way once a Lib Dem government is in place.

But that doesn’t prevent Clegg from perpetuating the illusion that such a government’s remit would be UK-wide in a unitary way, which it wouldn’t be. But at least he’s being honest in another way: that, in fact, England is just a ‘section of the UK’ as far as government is concerned. We have no distinct constitutional, political or legal status as a nation. And Britology Clegg, it seems, wants to keep it that way.

20 December 2007

Nick Clegg: No ambition for England, just like the other parties

At the start of his acceptance speech on his election two days ago as the leader of the Liberal Democrats – or, as I like to call them, the English-UK Liberal Democrats (see From a UK Of England and Semi-Autonomous Regions To a UK Of Autonomous Nations) – Nick Clegg stated: “Today is about two things: ambition, and change. . . . Renewed ambition to reach out to the millions of people who share our values, but have not yet voted for us. It’s about renewed ambition for Britain. Because we want to change politics, and change Britain”.

The rest of Mr Clegg’s speech went on to define this agenda of change for Britain (or, as I would put it, England-Britain) based on reaffirming liberalism as the core of those ‘British values’ that have supposedly not been represented by the two other big parties, Labour and the Conservatives. Indeed, to such an extent is liberalism the heart of British values that, in the new leader’s words, “I believe that liberalism is the thread that holds together everything this country stands for. Pull out that thread and the fabric of the nation unravels”.

Needless to say, ‘this country’ and ‘the nation’ are intended to refer to ‘Britain’ (i.e. the UK) even though on many of the policy areas in which Nick Clegg aims to effect his liberal transformation of the country, his direct influence will be limited to England; e.g. in education and health where he seeks a Britain “where parents, pupils and patients are in charge of our schools and hospitals”. (And, by the way, how does this vision for what are effectively England’s schools and NHS differ fundamentally from those recently outlined by GB [Gordon Brown] and David Cameron?)

But most of the speech passes over such England-specific realities. This is the broad vision thing, addressing fundamental values and general policy areas where there is still the scope for a Britain-wide politics; indeed, where politics, and the people and nation of Britain, can be reunited and reconnected: “our politics is broken. Out of step with people. Out of step with the modern world. That is why I have one sole ambition: to change Britain to make it the liberal country the British people want it to be. I want a new politics: a people’s politics. I want to live in a country where rights, freedoms and privacy are not the playthings of politicians, but safeguarded for everyone. Where political life is not a Westminster village freak show, but open, accessible, and helpful in people’s everyday lives”.

So Nick Clegg’s liberal vision is a vision for Britain and of Britain. But it is not a vision for England, nor indeed for Scotland or Wales, let alone for a Northern Ireland that could be regarded as having been left out of the picture amid all the references to ‘Britain’ as ‘the country’: ten references to ‘Britain’ or ‘British’, in fact, and none for any of the four individual nations that make up the UK. Indeed, Nick Clegg’s vision starts to look very similar to that of GB, who can refer to ‘the nation’ and his vision for it only as ‘Britain’; and to that of David Cameron, who thinks the Union’s interests outweigh fairness to the people of England and wants to be a prime minister for the UK not England. Similarly, Nick Clegg’s vision of liberalism as the core set of values that cements and defines the unity and nation of Britain leaves no scope for the divided realities of governance and politics in each of the UK countries.

But what if the way the English people want politics to become ‘in step’ with them, open and accessible is through an English parliament that focuses properly on the England-specific matters currently dealt with by an unrepresentative UK parliament and government headed up by someone not even elected in England?

But no, there is no place in Nick Clegg’s vision of national and political transformation for English devolution and equal governance for the four nations of the UK. Mr Clegg’s vision for representative government within England-Britain involves devolution and accountability at local and regional level only: a politics of Town Halls and regions, not of national parliaments. “That’s why I will hold regular and public Town Hall Meetings. . . . That’s why I will spend at least one day every week listening and campaigning outside Westminster. That’s why I will set up a network of real families, who have nothing to do with party politics, in every region of this country to advise me on what they think should be my priorities”.

What are the ‘regions of this country’, Nick Clegg; indeed, what is ‘this country’ that you claim that only liberalism can truly represent? Is Scotland a region of this country? Is Wales a region of it? Is England just a collection of regions, on a par with Scotland and Wales, but with no distinct status as a nation? Because ‘this country’ is Britain? Or is ‘this country’ in fact England; but you regard it as irrelevant to say so because you believe England should be divided up into regions of similar population size and political status to the nations of Scotland and Wales? Now where have I heard that idea before?

What if the ordinary people in the Town Halls of England and the real families in the regions of England say they want English government on matters that affect English people, and fair treatment for English families and young people in the distribution of public funding for health, social welfare and education between the nations of the UK? What if they say they want an English parliament that is on an equal footing to the parliament and assembly of Scotland and Wales? Will the new Liberal Democrat leader be able to come up with answers to such questions when he’s faced by them?

It’s early days yet; but the prognosis from his Day One inspirational speech is not good. Mr Clegg’s vision of liberalism, politics and the country is one for Britain only and, indeed, for a ‘one-Britain’ that no longer exists on the ground. As the new leader stated at the end of his speech: “we must start where people are, not where we think they should be. In short, I want the Liberal Democrats to be the future of politics. . . . To bring in a new politics. Of politicians who listen to people, not themselves. No more business as usual. No more government-knows-best. I want today to mark the beginning of real change in Britain. The beginning of Britain’s liberal future”.

But if ‘where people are’ is England and what they want is a political future for England, while the politicians and the government are still focused on Britain, is there a Liberal Democrat vision for such a thing?

19 November 2007

More on the Lib Dem leadership contenders: are they English?

The Lib Dem leadership campaign appears to present the chance for a breath of fresh air: an English leader for one of the UK’s big-three political parties, for a change. But are Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne English? They certainly seem incapable of acknowledging this openly.

Here’s how Nick Clegg describes his national background: “Son of a Dutch mother and half-Russian father”. Does that mean ‘half-English’ as well? I think you’re meant to just take it as read that he is English, and I’m certainly not of the view that you have to have pure English ancestry to count as English: I’ve got a half-Irish / half-English father, if you want to be technical, and my mother’s Welsh – but I’m still proud to be English, born and bred. Is Nick Clegg proud to be English, or is he more focused on his internationalism than his ‘nationality’?

What about Huhne? I can’t find any information about his parents’ nationality anywhere on the web: not on Wikipedia, not on Huhne’s two websites (his general one and his leadership campaign one), not on Google, not in the blogosphere. Perhaps I haven’t searched hard enough. However, it’s clear that this is something Huhne doesn’t want to be aired publicly, which is fair enough on one level; but he’s a politician who could (unlikely but not impossible) even be a prime minister.

His Wikipedia entry does tag him as English by means of a Flag of St. George icon; and he would certainly qualify as English by my and most people’s criteria: born and brought up in England. So does it matter that he can’t avow his national background? Well, it matters for the same reason as it matters for Clegg: we need to know whether being English is important for the two men; and whether their commitment to European integration and to regional / local devolution, and their apparent contempt for the Middle England voter in Huhne’s case (see previous post), mean that they disregard the English Question and any consideration of English nationhood and English-national political institutions.

And apart from anything else, I’m just curious to know where the name ‘Huhne’ comes from. It appears to be German: ‘Huhn’ meaning ‘chicken’ – admittedly not a good thing for a politician to be known as! So is he the son of German-Jewish refugees? Or, if not that, does he have some other German or Dutch ancestry? Certainly nothing to be ashamed of, in either case. The problem comes when you’re not prepared to be open about it, maybe because you’re afraid that the English people will reject you or distrust your commitment to England? Or that the British people, including Scots and Welsh, won’t vote for you if you talk up (or even mention) your Englishness.

Better just foreground the Russian and Dutch antecedence, in Clegg’s case, and keep whatever non-English ancestry there might be firmly in the background, in Huhne’s case. That way, we can be British and we won’t have to bother about the English Question or even about being English, whatever that might mean.

18 November 2007

Woeful lack of engagement with the English Question by the Lib Dem leadership candidates

For my sins, I’ve been looking over the campaign manifestos of the Liberal Democratic Party leadership candidates, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. I should perhaps have expected it but I was highly disappointed that neither candidate mentions the English Question even in passing, let alone related issues such as the West Lothian Question, constitutional reform (other than just PR and local devolution), the EU constitution, and the option of a referendum on the latter.

I did my customary count of references to ‘England’ or ‘English’. I found one reference in Nick Clegg’s statement: “Half of all school children in England are failing to get five GCSEs”. On the face of it, Chris Huhne performs better, with two mentions (!). However, only one of these was of England proper, while the other was a reference to the ‘English-speaking Commonwealth’ in the context of a passage on international affairs. The actual allusion to ‘England’ went as follows:

“First past the post elections entrench a confrontational style of politics in which the Labour and Conservative parties compete for the votes of 800,000 swing voters in marginal constituencies dominated by the concerns of Middle England. Those of us who vote in safe seats – Tonbridge or Torfaen, Reigate or the Rhondda – are effectively ignored by the parties.”

I see what he’s driving at, but the effect of what he’s saying is rather perverse. Basically, he’s implying that a few voters in Middle England unfairly determine the outcome of general elections and by extension the composition of the House of Commons. But are the concerns of those Middle-English voters truly reflected in the UK House of Commons? Isn’t it, rather, the case that the combination of the first-past-the-post (FTTP) system plus the West Lothian anomaly (for instance, as exemplified by such safe Welsh Labour seats as Torfaen and the Rhondda) deliver Labour a disproportionate parliamentary majority that overrides the more politically conservative priorities not just of Middle England but of England as a whole? If Chris Huhne means what he says about correcting the injustice of FTTP, then this should surely mean that (Middle) England should also be given a proper voice in running its own affairs – rather than, as now, those matters being dictated by a UK parliament in which Labour’s majority is swollen not just by FTTP but by Welsh and Scottish voters not elected in England. But the West Lothian dimension of the unrepresentative UK parliament is completely ignored by Huhne. Yes, I counted: not a single reference to ‘West Lothian’ in Huhne’s manifesto (nor in Clegg’s, for that matter).

All of this doesn’t inspire confidence that a stronger Lib Dem representation in the UK Parliament, elected either under FTTP or PR, would push for a resolution of the West Lothian Question. They seem to think that introducing PR would be sufficient: if the UK parliament much more accurately reflected political preferences across the UK as a whole – so the argument appears to go – then there would be no need for an English parliament, as the concerns of (Middle) England would also be adequately, proportionately, reflected in the make up of the House of Commons. If this is the thinking, it both illustrates much of the main political parties’ blindness towards the basic injustice towards England of the current constitutional settlement; and it is a politically self-serving position: the Lib Dems’ self-styled ‘radical’, left-of-centre agenda – as with the Labour Party’s policies now – would stand more of a chance of being furthered under a UK parliament elected by PR than under an English parliament, also elected by PR.

This brings me to the candidates’ policy statements. These basically promote an agenda for Britain / the UK as a whole, even in areas where there can be no such thing as a UK-wide set of policies, or institutions responsible for them: on the matters that have been devolved to the parliaments and assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but have been retained by the UK parliament for England only. This contradiction and imbalance in the perception of the very nation for which your policies are intended leads to more examples (like those we’re familiar with from Labour politicians) of the linguistic contortions that are required to give the impression you are talking about Britain; whereas, in reality, you are talking about England (but won’t the mention the fact because you want to keep up the pretence).

Let’s take as an example from Nick Clegg’s statement on the NHS: “When in government in Wales and Scotland, the Liberal Democrats showed what could be done – I want all parts of the UK to benefit from Liberal Democrat leadership”. Err, do you mean you want England also to benefit from Lib Dem leadership, Mr Clegg? If so, why don’t you say it? The only kind of Lib Dem leadership in the NHS you’d be able directly to provide as a UK PM or government minister would be for England.

And again, on education. As indicated above, here at least, Clegg uses the ‘E’ word – if only to damn the country for its educational failings. But, I ask you, what on earth does this sentence mean: “Working with our Members of the Scottish Parliament and Assembly Members in Wales, the Liberal Democrats will strive ceaselessly for a more mobile and classless society by making education a central theme for our party”? Do you mean, Mr Clegg, that Liberal Democrat MPs in the UK parliament representing constituencies in England will work in partnership with their peers in the corresponding devolved bodies in Scotland and Wales to pursue a common vision and agenda for education across the whole of the UK? Yes, I think that’s what you do mean; but then why don’t you utter the word ‘England’ alongside ‘Wales’ and ‘Scotland’? Because that would involve acknowledging the fact that there is no single parliamentary forum for the UK as a whole through which this agenda can be pursued. And it would involve making explicit the fact that what you’re trying to present as a unified approach for the UK as a whole really involves a disparity of treatment: Scottish and Welsh parliamentary / assembly representatives running their own affairs; the UK parliament running England’s.

What about Huhne’s treatment of the same policy areas? Huhne talks of these things in more general terms in the context of a setting out of his liberal vision: devolution of decision making and administration in health and education to locally elected bodies more adequately representing the needs of local people and users of the services; general vision of a more equal, just society preserving a strong role for a more accountable public sector in levelling inequalities. All well and good. But this is just another way of glossing over the fact that, in practice, Huhne could push through these innovative policy ideas only in England. OK, he would like them to be adopted across the UK. But his manner of presenting the ideas fails to acknowledge that there is no UK-wide political system for implementing the policies that might result from them.

Do either of the candidates’ manifestos address these constitutional issues in any form? As stated above, they talk mainly of political reform (PR and more powers for local government) rather than constitutional reform as such. Huhne does state that “constitutional change is a necessary pre-condition of partnership politics”, by which he is referring to PR enabling collaborative / coalition government. He also alludes in passing to the need for a “Freedom bill” to protect our fundamental liberties (why doesn’t he call this a Bill of Rights?). But neither of them deal head on with any of the big constitutional issues: national or regional devolution for England; independence for Scotland and the possibility of a federal UK; reform of the House of Lords; the option of a written constitution and Bill of Rights; or the EU Reform Treaty / constitution. This is surprising in that it’s Lib Dem policy that there should be a UK constitutional convention in which these issues can be debated, resulting in proposals that can be put to the people in a referendum.

And while we’re on the subject of referendums, neither candidate touches on the question of whether we need a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty, or even discusses the Reform Treaty at all. Instead, both talk in rather general terms of reform of EU institutions, meaning greater scrutiny, openness and accountability, and decentralisation of EU powers. Again, this is fine in principle; but shouldn’t the candidates express an opinion about how the EU Reform Treaty fits in with these objectives? On the face of it, the treaty appears to move more powers to the ‘centre’ (European institutions), even though it’s claimed that it creates more safeguards and a more influential role for the EU Parliament. The trouble here, it seems to me, is that the Lib Dems’ official policy is support for the EU Reform Treaty; but the candidates know that this is unpopular with the electorate and maybe even with quite a lot of Lib Dem party members. Are the Lib Dems’ tactics to just sit back and let Labour and the Tories slug it out between them while biding their time as to how they vote on the treaty (whether they abstain or support the government) depending on how large is the Labour rebellion and how the debate is shaping up? If so, this is dishonest and evasive. On an issue with such huge implications for the governance of the UK and of its four nations, the candidates really should come clean about their views and the basis for them.

All of this non-engagement with such crucial constitutional issues smacks of orchestrated avoidance. It’s as if the two candidates have knocked their heads together and agreed that neither of them will stake out a position on any of these questions that might actually be binding on them to pursue if they were elected. On the one hand, this reflects the Lib Dems’ ethos and organisational structure: policies are determined through a process of consultation and ratified by the party conference, not made up and aggressively pushed through by the leadership. Therefore, neither candidate appears willing to depart from safe, established positions that resonate with the maximum number of members. But this makes the candidates’ manifestos woefully inadequate as programmes for dealing with the major constitutional issues for the UK as a whole and England in particular. And the concern is that this evasiveness is symptomatic of more than internal party politics alone but reveals an unwillingness to engage with the English Question and, in general, the question of what forms of governance are best suited for the individual nations of the UK – or even a failure to perceive that these issues are fundamental and put into question the whole political process that the Lib Dems are engaged in. Instead, both candidates’ statements, for all their espousal of local and proportional democracy, are wedded to the traditional framework of UK-wide governance and the nation-as-Britain. And it appears that they are prepared to muddle along with all of the contradictions that the asymmetrical devolution settlement has introduced into the governance of the UK.

Time will tell whether, between the selection of a new leader and the next general election (whenever GB [Gordon Brown] finally plucks up the courage to call it), the Lib Dems can get to grips with these questions and call them by their name: ‘England’ and the future, or not, of the UK. But if they can’t develop a language in which they can refer to English matters as English matters, do they deserve the votes of a ‘Middle England’ they appear to despise?

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