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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3 July 2009

Government response to swine flu: over-complicated by devolution?

In media coverage yesterday of the change in the official response to swine flu from ‘containment’ to ‘treatment’, I was struck by the usual ambiguity as to whether the information provided related to England only or the whole of the UK. For instance, in the BBC News website’s report, it stated: “Andy Burnham, the health secretary in England, said: ‘The national focus will be on treating the increasing numbers affected by swine flu. Cases are doubling every week and on this trend we could see over 100,000 cases per day by the end of August'”. Pleasing that the BBC correctly characterises Andy Burnham as the English health secretary; but then, is the “national focus” one for England only or for the whole of the UK? Probably the latter, as the 100,000 cases per day figure was being talked of as the UK-wide total. But all the same, this got me wondering: how is the response to swine flu being co-ordinated – if at all – between the UK government and the devolved administrations, with their separate responsibilities for health care? And is the apparent failure of the containment strategy in part a consequence of different approaches having been adopted in the different UK nations?

Unlike the radio and TV coverage, the BBC website article did report that, “Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon announced similar changes to the flu strategy at a simultaneous briefing in Edinburgh”. So it appeared that there is a single UK-wide strategy and a co-ordinated response across the different health departments. This was even more apparent when I visited the Department of Health [England]‘s and the Scottish Government‘s websites and read their remarkably similar statements on the change in tactics.

After much further investigation, it turns out that the Department of Health [England] has retained the responsibility for drawing up the overall UK strategy for dealing with flu pandemics, along with the lead role in co-ordinating the operational response to any actual outbreak; although the devolved administrations are supposed to put in place their own NHS and civil-contingency systems and resources for responding to any crisis – in line with the UK plan.

As the government’s national framework document puts it: “A ministerial committee (MISC 32), comprising ministers from across central government departments and the devolved administrations, oversees and coordinates national preparations for an influenza pandemic”. Then, in the event of the World Health Organisation declaring that a pandemic has reached phase 4 or higher (currently, we’re on phase 6 for swine flu), the following happens: “the Government’s dedicated crisis management mechanism – the Civil Contingencies Committee (CCC) – [is] activated in support of the Department of Health. The CCC will direct central government activities, coordinate the wider response, make key strategic and tactical decisions on the countermeasures required and determine national priorities. The CCC will be guided by input from central departments and agencies and from local responders through Regional [English] Civil Contingencies Committees (RCCCs) and the devolved administrations. It will work with the national News Coordination Centre to maintain public confidence [i.e. manage the news]”.

So we’re currently in a situation where a nebulous Civil Contingencies Committee is co-ordinating the response UK-wide, in keeping with a pre-established plan, and managing the news in such a way as to maintain morale. No wonder that the English-UK and devolved health departments appeared yesterday to be singing perfectly from the same hymn sheet in their media pronouncements in a display of quite exceptional synchronisation and unity! And that, despite the imminent prospect of 100,000 new cases of swine flu per week, we’re being blandly reassured that we’re now moving in a controlled, pre-planned way from containment to ‘treatment’ – implying that it can be successfully ‘treated’ in the vast majority of cases; whereas, in reality, we’re all just desperately praying that it doesn’t suddenly become much more virulent or resistant to Tamiflu.

But, as I said above, one can’t help wondering whether the failure of the containment approach (surely, prevention is better than cure?) is partly the result of the wheels of co-ordination between the UK central government and the devolved administrations not running as smoothly as yesterday’s united front would have us believe. If you read the national framework document, the sheer number of organisations – international, national-UK, ‘regional’ (English), devolved and local – that are involved in formulating strategies and co-ordinating the response is mind-boggling. Amid this already hugely complicated landscape the fact that the NHS and civil-contingency measures are replicated with slight variations in each of the devolved nations and the ‘English regions’ surely cannot help to streamline processes and ensure that everybody knows what everybody else in the chain of command is supposed to be doing.

Take a look at the section that deals with the different organisational elements involved in each of the devolved administrations (pages 49 to 52). This is a masterpiece of bureacracy-speak, and of bureacracy full stop, with departments, committees, sub-committees, groups, sub-groups, directors, trusts, agencies, directorates, etc. etc. all having a role to play. I can’t prove that having these complicated and distinct organisational schemes in each of the devolved countries has contributed to the ineffectiveness of the containment measures; but they surely cannot help. And it is the case that Scotland is one of the ‘hotspots’ of the disease, in part – allegedly – because no Scottish-Government advice for people to stop travelling to Mexico was given out in the early stages of the outbreak.

But, for the time being, we are supposed to be resting assured that all the UK health departments are acting perfectly in concert according to a well-structured plan. But the only reason they’re able to both act in this way, and be on message to such an extent, is that their actions are being centrally directed by a shadowy Whitehall committee, which is also driving the media communications in such a way as to reassure the populace that ‘the government’ has everything under control.

And one of the principal, and well-tried, weapons of media misinformation at the fingertips of the national ‘News Coordination Centre’ is to imply – to gullible people in England, at least – that everything forms part of a homogeneous UK-wide health-care and emergency-response system. Well, the plan may be UK-wide – and the operational direction currently is, too, now we’re in an advanced phase of the pandemic – but the delivery certainly is not.

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