Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

15 June 2016

EU referendum: A battle for the (English) soul of Britain

It is funny how, when supporters of the campaign to remain in the EU seek terms with which to criticise the supposedly narrow, nationalistic focus of the Leave campaign, they resort to the dismissive language of ‘Little England’, to which a UK remaining part of the EU is deemed by contrast to be a ‘Great Britain’. On Tuesday of last week, Prime Minister Cameron made this very contrast in the head-to-head with Nigel Farage on ITV.

Similarly, on Thursday of last week, in the same channel’s debate between three politicians on either side of the argument, one of the Leave campaigners Amber Rudd also dismissed the ‘Little Englander’ mentality of the Leave side – only to then tie herself up in knots as she referred to the country post a Remain vote as “England”, to which she then had to hastily add “Scotland” and “Wales” given the presence on her side of the studio of the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon! It is as if there is a core of traditional national feeling and identity within ‘Britain’ that is instinctively designated – and usually disparaged – as ‘English’.

The EU referendum is indeed a battle between two competing British identities: a national (and at core English) Britain versus an international Britain (European, multi-national and multi-ethnic). The debates around governance, control of migration and even trade ultimately centre on questions of identity. Is your Britain essentially a projection and extension of an English identity rooted politically in the historic English traditions of Church, monarchy, Parliament and common law? Or is it a ‘modern’ Britain that no longer sees itself as having English roots but views itself as essentially European, grounded in the Western liberal-humanist-rationalist tradition, and as offering a civic identity that transcends ‘narrow’ national identities, ethnicities and creeds? Both of these latter aspects of the modern Britishness are also encapsulated in the magic term ‘British values’.

The table below compares the longer-term future for the governance of England and Britain under the scenario of either a Leave or Remain vote. My assumption is that, following a Leave vote, the UK would necessarily be thrown back on to its historically English constitution and forms of governance, and that ultimately Scotland, Northern Ireland and possibly even Wales might eventually split off, leaving the English form of government to apply in fact to England alone. Following a Remain vote, on the other hand, the UK – and with it England – could increasingly be absorbed into the process of European political union, creating pressure to abolish the English constitution (and with it, effectively, England) altogether.

Leave Remain
·     Reassertion of the principle of parliamentary sovereignty and of Parliament as the seat of English government ·      Transfer of further ‘international’ governmental powers (e.g. borders, security, military, foreign policy, pan-European matters) to the EU, with transfer of Parliament’s national (i.e. English) powers down to ‘regions’ and cities, resulting in a hollowing out of the English-national layer of government
·     The Church of England remains as the established Church and official religion of the land ·      As government is increasingly viewed as having a purely secular-humanist character (in keeping with the EU Treaties and practice), the pressure becomes irresistible to disestablish the Church – meaning the UK loses a foundational element of its grounding in the history of England as a Christian nation
·     The constitutional monarchy is preserved, safeguarding a line of succession that reaches back into England’s deepest history. The monarch remains the temporal head of the Church of England ·      As the Church has been disestablished, and as politics has shifted away from Parliament up to Brussels and down to ‘the regions’, the monarchy is seen as increasingly irrelevant and anachronistic. Eventually, as an elected EU presidency is established, and the European Parliament acquires genuine powers of legislation and scrutiny, the UK decides to replace the monarchy with an elected – and itself largely ceremonial – president
·     The supremacy of English and UK law is re-established, based around parliamentary statute and common law, with the Supreme Court in London as the ultimate instance in the justice system ·      The areas of application of EU law and regulation are increasingly extended, and a more integrated EU justice and policing system is developed. The English legal and justice system are slowly subsumed into the EU’s Civic and Roman Law-based system, and the European Court of Justice grows in power as the ultimate instance
·     A new Scottish independence referendum is held and is won by the nationalists. Brexit also catalyses a project to unify Ireland, with enough moderate unionists supporting this as a way to get Northern Ireland back into the EU (with EU protections for Protestant-minority rights) to ensure a majority in favour. Brexit also gives Plaid Cymru in Wales a massive boost, with traditional Labour supporters now seeing independence as the best means to get Wales back into the EU and free her from English dominance. If Wales does opt for independence, the English constitution now applies to England alone. (That does not mean it cannot and is not reformed and modernised over time – but then it is England’s constitution, not that of a polity that denies nation status to England.) ·      The redistribution of power to the EU and the English ‘regions’, along with the other changes outlined above, are consolidated in a new ‘British Constitution’, establishing a new ‘Republic of Britain’. This recognises Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall as historic ‘nations’ with parliaments or assemblies to manage their own regional affairs (these areas also largely correspond to European ‘regions’). England, however, ceases to exist as either a historic or a present-day political nation, and is broken up into its constituent Euro-regions. There is no Parliament dealing with exclusively English matters, as ‘English’ matters are now regulated by the regional assemblies. ‘England’ is also no longer officially a Christian nation, as the Church of England has been disestablished. No more ‘Kingdom of England’, either, since no king. No more English law, since that is incorporated into European law. As Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have achieved much of what they wanted from the EU (a ‘progressive’ politics and nullification of a once-dominant England), demands for independence and Irish unification fall away. ‘Britain’ becomes the civic nation to which all former constituent UK nations and British citizens originating from across the world all belong, without any distinction between them. The unity of the once-UK has been preserved, but at the price of England’s abolition.

 

I say that this is a battle for the ‘soul’ of Britain, as well as a battle between different identities and governance models, because what is at stake is whether we are ultimately a Christian nation (England – or Anglo-Britain insofar as the other nations of the UK are governed through the same historically English constitutional system) or whether we are part of a merely secular, international political union (the EU).

This is also what is at the heart of the discussion around sovereignty. Do we wish to be part of a polity in which sovereignty ultimately derives from divine sovereignty (political power exercised in obedience to the divine will via the God-given authority of the monarch as instantiated in parliamentary sovereignty), with the principles of individual freedom and conscience also deriving from the idea of the sovereign will answerable ultimately to God alone, over and above earthly political authority? Or do we wish to be part of a polity where authority is vested in a ‘rational’ law-making body (the Commission) acting in accordance with a liberal-humanist set of principles (the Treaties), and whose decisions and regulations are accepted by the collectivity with little or no dissent, because the collectivity (the ‘Union’ in an abstract sense) fundamentally subscribes to the principles and objectives that are embodied in the laws?

Fundamentally, this isn’t even an issue of one system being more or less democratic than the other. Both systems have their critics. On the one hand, many Remainers criticise the inadequately democratic character of the Anglo-British system, because of the very ‘absolute’ (and ultimately, divine) authority on which parliamentary sovereignty rests. The objection on this fundamental point is expressed in terms of criticism of aspects such as: the fact that sovereignty is indeed vested in Parliament rather than the people; the existence of a hereditary monarchy; the unelected House of Lords, with its historic origins in an aristocratic class system underpinned by monarchy; the established nature and privileges of the Church of England, including the fact that its diocesan bishops are guaranteed seats in the said House of Lords; and the elective dictatorship that is constituted by governments elected without a popular majority, owing to the disproportional voting system, but whose authority rests – precisely – on the principle of parliamentary sovereignty as opposed to the ‘popular will’.

By contrast, Leavers regard the fundamental principles of EU governance as suspect in that basing power on an elite, ‘rational’ authority (the Commission), unchecked by either an appeal to a ‘higher power’ (God and moral conscience) or popular mandate, is seen as laying the foundations of dictatorship and autocracy.

A stark choice indeed confronts us on 23 June: a Britain that retains its deep roots in the historic Christian kingdom of England and in English identity (albeit often popularly conflated with ‘British’ identity itself); or a modern Britain containing no fundamental connection with England or Englishness – but instead being multi-national, secular and part of a pan-European governance system.

It’s not just in or out, remain or leave: it’s whether England itself remains, or whether we leave England behind.

24 October 2014

EVoEL made simple: two simple solutions to the West Lothian Question

By now, anyone with even a remote interest in British politics will know what the West Lothian Question is, and will be aware that one of the answers proposed to it is ‘English votes for English Laws’ (EVoEL).

Should anybody need a quick reminder, however, the West Lothian Question relates to the fact that, following devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is possible, on occasions, for MPs elected from those countries to have a decisive say on legislation pertaining to England only, whereas English MPs have no such say on bills on similar matters affecting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, because those matters are devolved to the parliament and assemblies of those countries respectively.

EVoEL is one remedy proposed to this imbalance and – in the view of many – injustice. EVoEL says that, on occasions such as those described above, only English MPs should be allowed to exercise the decisive vote (or, by extension, only English MPs should have any say and / or participate in debates) on such bills, including in all or just some of the stages of such bills’ passage through the Commons.

In practice, it is highly complicated to implement EVoEL, for a number of reasons that have been well documented and argued about elsewhere, two of the main ones being that:

1) On the basis of current bill-drafting practices, there are in fact very few England-only bills, either in whole or in part, so that even if a bill ‘primarily’ relates to England, it may not be justifiable to exclude non-English MPs from voting on it given the direct or indirect effects it may have on their constituents

2) One of those indirect consequences is the financial impact via the infamous Barnett Formula, whereby funding for the devolved nations is linked to the English budget allocation in such a way as to effectively guarantee a higher level of spending per head of population in those countries than in England. The fact that many England-only or England-mainly bills involve decisions about spending in England has therefore been used as justification for non-English MPs to continue voting on them. Even the SNP, which generally exercises a so-called ‘self-denying ordinance’ (i.e. doesn’t vote) on non-Scottish matters, does vote on mainly or exclusively English bills that affect Scotland in this indirect way.

I want here to suggest two non-mutually exclusive, ‘simple’ ways to implement EVoEL, or rather to solve the problem EVoEL is intended to solve without in fact preventing non-English-elected MPs from voting on ‘English’ laws. Of course, the most clear-cut solution is a separate English parliament, which comprehensively redresses the asymmetry of New Labour’s devolution settlement in that, by definition, only English-elected representatives would vote on England-only bills, in an England-only parliament.

But assuming that the present UK parliament is retained, for a time at least, as the legislative body for England, my simple solutions to the West Lothian Question would run as follows:

1) Introduce proportional representation (PR) for UK general elections. This would effectively eliminate the political dimension to the West Lothian problem, if not the national and constitutional aspects to it. The political dimension derives from the differential parliamentary representation of Labour and the Conservatives across the UK’s nations: Labour generally – but for how much longer? – winning most of the seats in Scotland and Wales (and therefore, when in government, being keen for its MPs from those countries to vote on its ‘English’ bills), and the Conservatives being more likely to win parliamentary majorities in England that are insufficient to form UK-wide majorities, owing to the party’s lack of seats in Scotland and Wales (and therefore making it necessary to form coalitions with parties whose numbers are in part made up by non-English MPs, who also vote on English bills – something which the Conservatives have been perfectly willing to go along with as part of the present coalition with the Liberal Democrats).

With PR, there would be very little difference between the state of the parties UK-wide and England-only, owing to the sheer demographic dominance of England, which has around 85% of the UK population. Accordingly, in 2010, the Conservatives won 40% of the popular vote in England only and 36% UK-wide. Similarly, Labour won 28% in England and 29% UK-wide, and the Lib Dems won 24% and 23% respectively. If these vote shares had been translated into shares of seats, the coalition between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would have had 63% of English seats and 59% of the seats UK-wide. In general, it would be unlikely that any UK-wide coalition necessitated by PR would not also command a majority of English seats, and it would certainly be politically unwise to put together a UK majority that failed to deliver an English majority.

By introducing PR, then, you could avoid having to ban non-English-elected MPs from voting on ‘English’ matters: you would not need to make any changes to existing parliamentary procedure, in fact, as the ruling coalition would depend on the loyal support of its English MPs to pass any of its bills, England-only or England +.

It would still be theoretically possible, though arithmetically unlikely, for ‘English’ bills to fail to obtain the support of most English MPs but still be passed owing to the support of Scottish and Welsh MPs. However, a fairly substantial rebellion by the coalition parties’ English MPs would be required, and this would present a bigger political problem to a coalition government than it did for the New Labour government that introduced foundation hospitals and university tuition fees in England despite a majority of English MPs rejecting the measures. This is because the English MPs voting against the government would be likely to be from only one of the coalition parties, rather than both (or all), meaning that any such rebellion would represent a direct challenge to the coalition’s very survival. Accordingly, rebellions on this scale would be more likely to be nipped in the bud.

2) All bills to require a majority of both England-only and UK-wide MPs. The two main parties are unlikely to embrace PR as an answer to the WLQ, despite the simplicity and elegance of the solution, as this would involve relinquishing their ambitions to win outright parliamentary majorities, pretty much for good. This fact reveals just how much the obfuscations and disingenuousness around the WLQ and EVoEL are bound up with narrow party self-interest: Labour’s ambition to govern being tied up with continuing to allow its Scottish and Welsh MPs to vote on English matters, and the Conservatives lust for power being bound up with denying the selfsame right to Scottish and Welsh members.

So an alternative ‘solution’ to this conundrum (although it could also be introduced in tandem with PR) would be to introduce a simple rule that all bills and clauses should require the support of a majority of both English MPs and all UK MPs to be passed. This again requires no modification to any parliamentary procedure – no ‘two classes of MPs’, and no endless disquisitions as to the geographical extent of bills or clauses – and simply ensures that no bill can be passed without procuring the support of a majority of England’s representatives.

The justification for this approach is based on a view about the relationship of Parliament to England, which is as stated in a previous blog about the televised leaders’ debates: that it is not so much that only some laws are English-only (and hence, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should putatively be excluded from debating and voting on them) while some are UK-wide; but that in reality, all laws are English, while some also extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (or to one or two of the above).

I can’t think of any legislation in recent years, other than the actual devolution legislation, that has not applied to England. The UK parliament is therefore the de facto English parliament: the English legislature. So if EVoEL is ostensibly a means to give England a voice, and to create something of a distinct English parliament within the UK parliament (as opposed to a separate body), then it seems fair that legislation should always be required to command a majority of English MPs.

I can hear the howls of indignation in certain quarters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: that this ‘discriminates’ against their MPs. But it does no such thing, really, because any legislation – even fully England-only bills – would still be required to obtain the support of a majority of MPs from across the UK under this rule. I.e. if a bill is supported by most English MPs but not by a majority of all UK MPs, then it is not passed – just as would be the case today.

There would, of course, be implications for the forming of governments, i.e. the need to ensure – where possible – that any incoming government enjoyed both a UK-wide and England-only majority. However, here again, not much would need to be changed. The process, as now (assuming PR had not been implemented), would be that any party winning an outright UK majority would normally form the government on their own, unless they failed to win a majority in England. In that case, they might wish to enter a coalition with another party with sufficient English MPs to make up an English majority – or alternatively, they could just work with other parties to secure English majorities for their bills on a case-by-case basis.

If no party won an outright majority, the process, as now, would be to find the single party or coalition that commanded the largest number of seats UK-wide: preferably, but not necessarily, a majority; and preferably, but not necessarily, the largest number / a majority of English seats. In the absence of a UK-majority (and English-majority) government, the same rule about getting English bills passed would apply: the government would just have to collaborate with other parties, which is probably a good thing for England’s governance, in any case.

In reality, it would be extremely unlikely for a party or coalition with a UK-wide majority to fail to secure an English majority. This has not happened in the post-war era: contrary to popular misconception, every single Labour majority government since 1945 has also succeeded in winning a majority of English MPs. The only two post-war Labour governments that have failed to win an English majority also failed to win a UK one: those elected in 1964 and February 1974.

If this dual-majority rule for votes in Parliament were introduced together with PR – which it could be – then the chance of a UK majority failing to deliver an English majority, or vice-versa, would be witheringly small.

The two answers to the West Lothian Question outlined here do not provide an answer to the ‘English Question’, which is: who governs England, and in whose name? If one or both of my proposals were implemented, the answer to that question would still be: the UK parliament and executive govern England, in the name of the UK. There would still be no properly English parliament: no English voice or recognition as a sovereign nation, with a right to determine the government of its own choosing.

But what would be achieved, if my proposals were adopted, would be a parliament more fitting to serve, even if only provisionally, as England’s legislature: properly accountable to the people of England; more accurately reflecting the priorities of English voters; and leading to the formation of governments that could not use their support from other parts of the UK to override the views of England’s elected representatives.

14 October 2014

TV leaders’ debates: English debates for British votes on English laws

The proposed format for the leaders’ debates on TV ahead of next May’s general election, announced yesterday, reveals the fundamental character of Parliament and UK government as a reimagining-as-British of an essentially English polity. Three debates are mooted: one involving only the two ‘prime ministers in waiting’ (David Cameron and Ed Miliband – so much for the voters being in charge!); one including Nick Clegg in addition the two above ‘presidential’ candidates (ostensibly, to allow the Lib Dem leader to defend his party’s record in government); and one adding UKIP’s Nigel Farage to the mix, because UKIP is putting up a candidate in every constituency in England, Scotland and Wales (and because, let’s face it, its poll ratings and electoral performance can no longer be ignored).

It is staggering how easily and casually the SNP in particular, and also Plaid Cymru, have been excluded from the debates, even though the SNP is now the UK’s third-largest party in terms of members and is likely to be the largest party in Scotland after the 2015 election, as current polling stands. This means that the SNP could well hold the balance of power in a hung parliament and be invited into a UK coalition. Despite this, and despite the fact that the SNP already has six MPs, David Cameron indicated he thought the Green Party should also be included in at least one of the debates, on the basis that it currently has a single MP. If the Greens, why not the SNP, or Plaid, or indeed the Northern Irish parties?

The answer, clearly, is that only parties with MPs elected in England are thought to matter. This is ultimately because the UK polity itself is effectively at core an English polity (though never openly avowed as such). This means that parties’ electoral ‘pitch’ is mainly to English voters on English laws and policies.

The practical reality of Westminster politics is actually the opposite of the way it’s normally construed: it’s not so much that only some laws are English-only (and hence, the argument goes, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should be excluded from debating and voting on them) while some are UK-wide; but in reality, all policies are English, and only some also extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In this context, the real function of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, particularly in the post-devolution era, is merely to add their numbers to the parliamentary arithmetic that determines the composition of UK governments and the passing of English laws. It is assumed, therefore, that the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru needn’t be invited to participate in any of the TV debates because they will not be determining the content of UK (i.e. English) laws after the election – even though the votes of their MPs may be essential in passing those laws, and the participation of their MPs in government may be required as part of a ruling coalition.

But if SNP and, potentially, Plaid and some Northern Irish MPs are needed to form a coalition, don’t English voters have the right to hear what their leaders have to say about the policy concessions they would demand on entering a coalition, and what stance they would take on voting on such a coalition’s England-only or England-mainly laws?

But the ‘English’ parties don’t want English voters to realise that they are dependent on non-English-elected MPs and, by extension, non-English voters for the passing of essentially English laws – by which I mean not only laws whose extent is in fact strictly limited to England (which are in reality very few in number), but all UK laws and government policies: on the basis of my contention above that all UK laws are fundamentally and primarily English laws in the first instance.

On this basis, the moniker of ‘English votes for English laws’, used to justify the potential exclusion of non-English-elected MPs from debates and votes on England-only legislation, is a convenient fiction to cover up the fact that all laws are England-mainly: designed for England by English parties (but which style themselves as ‘British’) and only as it were incidentally extending to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (or one or two of those additional parts of the UK, depending on the geographical extent of any actual bill).

So the UK-wide (i.e. ‘English’) parties don’t want the Scotland- and Wales-only party leaders to participate in the ostensibly UK-wide (i.e. English) TV debates because they don’t want English voters to realise that those Scottish and Welsh parties, as well as Scottish- and Welsh-elected MPs in ‘UK’ (i.e. English) parties, may ultimately call the shots in terms of both ‘UK-wide’ (i.e. England-mainly) and England-only laws.

But the English parties nonetheless want the votes of those parties in Parliament and, potentially, the participation of those parties’ MPs in coalition government. Hence, they need the votes of the Scottish and Welsh electorate, including on genuinely England-only matters: all three ‘UK’ debates will air in Scotland and Wales, even though all laws in devolved policy areas will not affect Scottish and Welsh voters. If those Scottish and Welsh votes can be channelled into ‘UK’ (i.e. English) parties, all the better. Hence, the exclusion of the leaders of the SNP and Plaid fulfils a convenient double purpose: optimise the non-nationalist vote in Scotland and Wales (i.e. the vote for ‘English’ parties in those countries), while preventing English voters from being aware that Scottish and Welsh MPs will play a decisive role in shaping their next government and their laws.

So we’re left in a ludicrous situation of England-only parties in the debates canvassing the votes of all British voters for the passing of English laws in the UK parliament! If the SNP and Plaid are sidelined out of the equation, then you don’t have to consider the awkward potential situation whereby either a Conservative- or Labour-led coalition might actually require the votes of Scottish- or Welsh-nationalist politicians to pass English (i.e. all) their laws.

In which case, we might find that calls for English votes on English laws are quietly dropped. But in the meantime, we mustn’t have the inner workings of a parliamentary system exposed to the view of English and non-English voters alike in which the votes of non-English MPs – and ultimately, of non-English voters – are reduced to the role of providing parliamentary voting fodder in support of fundamentally ‘English’ policy agendas.

But the essentially English status of those policies and of Parliament itself must never be openly acknowledged. If it was, then there would be no alternative other than to move to a more honest separation of English and UK-wide policies and politics: a genuinely English parliament to debate English laws, and a genuine UK parliament to reflect different views and priorities from across the UK, and not just a ‘Britain’ that is fundamentally England re-imagined and re-named.

27 December 2012

Census and gay marriage: England remains a Christian nation – for now

Earlier this month, two interesting events took place in the same week. First, the results of the 2011 Census of England and Wales were published. Among many interesting findings, this reported that the proportion of the population of England and Wales stating that their religion was Christianity had fallen to 59.3%, from 71.7% in 2001: a drop of 12.4%. There was an almost exactly opposite rise in the number of those claiming they had no religion, from 14.8% to 25.1%: up 11.3%.

The proportion of those identifying as Christian in England alone – 59.4% – was pretty much identical to that for England and Wales combined. However, the proportion of those indicating they had no religious affiliation at all was significantly higher in Wales than in England: 32.1% versus 24.7% respectively. The main reason for this divergence is that there is a much higher share of non-Christian religions in England than in Wales, reflecting the greater extent of immigration to England. In particular, the Muslim share of the population in England was 5%, compared with only 1.5% in Wales. Across England and Wales as a whole, the Census reported that the proportion of the population claiming affiliation to Islam had risen from 3.0% in 2001 to 4.8% in 2011.

On this measure at least, England is still a Christian country. Indeed, the greatest threat to Christianity in England comes from secularisation not ‘Islamisation’, with the English Muslim population still being only 8% of the size of the Christian community. It seems to me that this is one of the paradoxes of anti-Muslim organisations such as the EDL or the BNP: that while they ostensibly seek to defend England’s / Britain’s Christian heritage against a perceived Islamic threat, many of their adherents are far from Christian in their own beliefs and lifestyles. It is really the broad Christian heritage and culture of England / Britain that they see themselves as defending. But the truth of the matter is, as the Census shows, that many people who previously categorised themselves as nominally Christian now no longer do call themselves Christian. That does not necessarily mean they do not believe in God, or even that they do not consider their beliefs and values are compatible with Christian faith. But the fact that they no longer feel they can definitely describe themselves as Christian nevertheless marks a profound culture shift.

Another profound culture shift that has taken place over the past ten to 15 years is in attitudes towards gay sex and relationships. I’m not sure if this is a generational thing, but until very recently, it used to be regarded as something noteworthy, unusual and even a bit distasteful for many heterosexuals if someone you knew was openly gay or in a gay relationship. But nowadays, it’s just regarded as part of normality: more ‘oh yes, and he’s gay’, rather than ‘he’s gay, you know’ – nudge nudge, wink wink.

Take these two trends together, and it’s not surprising that a moral consensus has grown up in favour of legalising gay marriage in England and Wales; and that a nation whose Christianity is increasingly vague and non-doctrinal seems to think that this is compatible with Christian values, and hence that there might be plenty of churches out there that will be happy to embrace their new ‘freedom’ to marry gays. This is the other event that took place earlier this month: the government’s announcement that it would proceed with legislation to introduce gay marriage in England and Wales.

Of course, in reality, gay marriage is far from compatible with mainstream Christian belief. While some have drawn parallels with the issue of women bishops, gay marriage is not at all in the same category. Most churches do not even have bishops or regard them as essential, let alone women bishops. This is simply not a point of common Christian belief across the denominations. By contrast, virtually all Christian churches regard gay marriage as a contradiction in terms, as marriage is by definition regarded as a union between a man and a woman. Indeed, most denominations still view gay sex itself as sinful: a belief that is at the origin of society’s repudiation of homosexuality until recent times.

As society generally no longer regards gay sex, or at least loving gay relationships, as morally wrong, so it seems to have assumed there can be no reasonable objection to gay couples choosing to affirm their relationships through marriage. But marriage isn’t just about de-culpabilising a sexual relationship: a mutual commitment – gay or straight – somehow being less complete, and therefore potentially more selfish and morally imperfect, outside of marriage. It isn’t in fact just about the commitment, which is of course to be welcomed in any relationship: it’s about the union constituted by marriage. In traditional Christian belief, marriage creates something new: marriage is a real – spiritual and bodily – union between a man and a woman, which reflects, restores and re-enacts the original unity of male and female in God: of male and female as created in the image of God. By definition, then, it has to be a coming together of a man and a woman. And the fact that the marital union embodies the union between God and humanity in Christ also means that the purpose of marriage reflects the nature and action of God in the world: as creator and redeemer. Hence, marriage is also intrinsically about creating new life – through procreation – and about dedication to guiding those new lives to faith, and ultimately to the eternal life of salvation.

This view of marriage is, however, very far removed from society’s increasingly secularised understanding of it as primarily a mutual commitment between a man and woman, and – if mutual commitment is what it’s all about – why not also between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman? Nevertheless, the government’s legislative proposals stopped short of imposing an obligation for churches to conduct gay weddings if they were requested by gay couples to do so. And in the case of the Church of England and its Welsh counterpart, the Church in Wales, the government proposes to actually prohibit those churches from carrying out gay marriage ceremonies, even if they, or individual parish churches, wish to do so.

The fact that the proposed legislation compels the Anglican churches of England and Wales not to marry gay couples, whereas other churches and religions in those countries can choose whether or not to do so, is linked to the Church of England’s established status. This means that Canon Law – the Church’s own internal legislation – is part of the law of the land. You cannot therefore have a situation in which statute – parliamentary legislation – and Canon Law are in conflict. This would have been the case if Parliament had allowed the Church of England to conduct gay weddings, whereas Canon Law forbids it. Of course, Parliament could have chosen to engineer such a conflict with the Church, in order to persuade or coerce it into bringing Canon Law into line with statute, rather than the other way round. However, if there had been resistance to this change within the Church – which there certainly would have been – this could have risked triggering the disestablishment of the Church. And this is a risk which, it seems, Parliament was not prepared to take at this stage.

It is indeed ironic that it is the very established status of the Church of England that exempts it from a measure that Parliament regards as fair and even as consistent with Christian values. And this is to say nothing of the anomalous situation that the Church in Wales finds itself in. Unlike the Church of England, the Welsh Church is not established; and yet it finds itself subject to the same prohibition of gay marriage as its English counterpart. This appears to have happened with very little if any consultation with the Church in Wales. It seems to have been the case that, as the gay marriage Bill applies to both England and Wales, it would have been even more anomalous and potentially unsustainable to completely ban the Anglican church in England from marrying gay couples while allowing the Anglican church in Wales to do so if it wished.

In the end, though, the inconsistencies surrounding the Bill are effectively no more than a manifestation of the contradiction involved in thinking that gay marriage is consistent with mainstream Christian faith, which it is not. Parliament is effectively wanting to have its secular-liberal cake and eat its established-religion cake, too: a secularisation of values, yes, but not a secularisation of the state – at least not yet.

So the Westminster politicians have shied away from pushing the liberal gay-marriage agenda to the point where disestablishment of the Church of England could have ensued. Were they motivated by a dim awareness that – as the Census showed – England remains a broadly Christian country, and that there was insufficient popular support for a confrontation with the Church on this matter, let alone for disestablishment? Or were they terrified at the prospect of disestablishment and of all the unforeseen consequences this might have, and reluctant to be the Parliament that overthrew more than 450 years of constitutional history?

I maintain that one of the consequences of disestablishing the Church of England is effectively the abolition of England as a civic nation. The Church of England is arguably the only English-national institution remaining at the heart of the British establishment: a body that confers a specific responsibility towards England and the English people on those at the heart of power, including the monarch and the Parliament that governs in the name of the monarch. Really, in some respects, the Church of England represents the spiritual heart and conscience of the English nation: its own doctrinal vagaries reflecting the increasingly loose and ill-defined ‘Christianity’ of the English nation at large.

So in this formal sense, too, England remains a Christian nation; and the continuation of the Church of England as not just the national-English church but the UK-state church has ensured in this instance that the laws of England, made by the UK parliament, remain true to England’s Christian tradition and faith. But if Christian faith in England erodes to the same extent as it has done since 2001, who knows for how much longer there will even be a Church of England? And with the removal of the Church of England from the British establishment, will England cease not just to be a Christian nation, but a nation in any sense?

13 October 2011

Scottish independence could free England to be herself

Scottish independence could be just the tonic England needs. It could set England free to be what she wants to be, to pursue her destiny and return to her roots. In fact, it could free England to be what many would like Great Britain to be today but can’t be, because it is being pulled in too many contrary directions.

England always has been and still is the national core of Great Britain and the United Kingdom: the constitution, parliament, monarchy and established religion of Great Britain and the UK are a continuation of the historic constitutional foundations, parliament, monarchy and established religion of England prior to the union with Scotland in 1707. This continuity is the underlying, ‘objective’ reason why English people traditionally have regarded ‘England’ and ‘Great Britain’ as synonymous: they have re-imagined Great Britain, and to a lesser extent the UK, as an extension of the English nation across the whole territory of Britain (and Ireland) – as ‘Greater England’. And this is because, at a fundamental, constitutional, level, Great Britain was a continuation of the historic English nation, except with Scotland grafted in.

Through the Acts of Union in 1707, Scotland started to be governed via the constitutional and parliamentary arrangements that prevailed for England and Wales, which remained unchanged. This was so much the case that some Scottish MPs at the time were amazed that the Scottish parliament was simply abolished and that the existing English parliament carried on in exactly the same way as before, except with the addition of the Scottish MPs. This was not the creation of a new British nation, distinct from the two nations from which it was formed, but an effective take-over of Scotland by the English state. In modern corporate terms, it was not a merger of equals; and though the new merged company might take on a new brand, it retains the same culture and corporate governance practices – and power structures – of the larger, acquiring entity. Or to take a political analogy from modern times, when West and East Germany were reunified, there were many in the former DDR who hoped this would result in a completely new German state, with a new constitution and identity. Instead, reunification simply took the form of adding the federal states of the DDR in to the existing Bundesrepublik: the identity of the state remained fundamentally that of the former West Germany, even though the united Germany had been created from the merger of two previously separate nations.

Over time, many people both south and north of the Scottish border did begin to see Great Britain as a nation in its own right and ‘British’ as their primary national identity, to which the distinct identities of ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ and, to a lesser extent, (Northern) Irish were subordinate and secondary. Perhaps the high point of this British nation was the Second World War, which brought people together from across the UK in a shared fight for freedom from tyranny. In the post-war period, this national-British solidarity took expression in the welfare state and nationalised industries, which were the embodiment of much that the British people had fought for in the war: a fairer, more equal society, with national, publicly owned assets and services designed to ensure productive employment and protection against chronic poverty for all. Alongside this, undeniably, One Nation Conservatism was also influential in fostering the sense that all in Britain were engaged in a shared effort to build a more prosperous, stronger nation; and that the wealthier sections of British society had a responsibility towards the less well-off, whichever part of Britain they lived in.

Since then, and particularly over the last 30 years or so, most of that national-British solidarity and sense of being ‘in it together’ – to quote a phrase – has been eroded, probably irrevocably. It isn’t only devolution that has brought this about. Devolution was in many respects a product of the undermining of a shared sense of national purpose that had taken place over the previous 20 years; but it also undoubtedly accelerated the process of the British nation’s disintegration.

What were the causes of this slow decay? Well, without doubt, the Thatcher government’s assault on the welfare state, the privatisation of the nationalised industries and even the smashing up of union power – unions being another embodiment of the sense of shared commitment to equality and fairness across the UK’s constituent countries – played a considerable role. It has been well documented how the Thatcher revolution contributed to disaffection with the Union in Scotland, as people there strongly objected to the market-economic policies of an ‘English’ Conservative government they had never voted for, and which also chose Scotland to trial the hated Poll Tax.

But the privatisation of state-owned industries, the under-investment in public services and the weakening of the welfare state also loosened the bonds between English people and the British state. English people lost their sense of confidence that the British state belonged to them and was ‘on their side’. If there is ‘no such thing as society’, as Margaret Thatcher once said, can there also be a nation? In other words, the rolling back of the state from the lives of its citizens made Britain less relevant and valuable to English people, and undermined the sense of belonging to a single British nation in which people were prepared to give up more of their hard-earned wealth for the sake of less well-off citizens elsewhere on the island, on the previously safe assumption that the system would take care of one if one needed it to. If it was every man for himself, maybe it should also be England for herself.

Scrolling forward to today, this sense that the British state has abandoned its unwritten promise to treat all its citizens fairly and equally has undoubtedly fuelled the huge resentment in England towards the Barnett Formula: the unequal public-spending formula that enables Scotland and Wales to continue to provide many of the free public, and publicly owned, services of the former British welfare state that have been withdrawn in England. This is of course further exacerbated by a sense of democratic unfairness linked to the fact that the more small-state, market-orientated policies in England have been introduced by Parliament with the support of Scottish and Welsh MPs whose constituents are not affected by them, while the devolved parliament and assembly respectively in those countries have pursued more traditional statist, social-democratic policies. It’s not that England would necessarily have chosen to go down the same social-democratic route as Scotland and Wales if we had had our own parliament, but that we’ve been denied the choice. The British state has pulled away from deep involvement in English public life while denying the English people the freedom to determine their own national priorities. And it compounds this betrayal by lying to the people of England that the old united Britain still exists, and by suppressing references to the England-specific scope of much British legislation and policy, so that English people do not realise how differently and undemocratically they are being treated.

Over and above this situation of fiscal unfairness and democratic disempowerment, the present devolution settlement and English resentment towards it risk tearing apart those essentially English constitutional foundations of the Union. A dual dynamic has increasingly left England without any status or role in the very state that it once viewed as its own. Whereas Scotland and Wales have increasingly established distinct national political and cultural identities (breaking up that sense of a unified Britain of which England thought of itself as the centre), the British establishment has also increasingly sought to suppress the corresponding emergence of a distinct English identity, or at least to restrict ‘Englishness’ to the merely cultural sphere so that it doesn’t express itself in terms of demands for an English-national politics (parliament and government). Such a development would usher in the end of Britain as a nation in its own right, replacing it with some sort of federal or confederal Union of multiple nations or even just a collection of separate, sovereign nations.

I’ve discussed and analysed this dynamic in many previous posts, so I won’t belabour it. However, the essential point I would like to make is that a British Union-state built on the would-be suppression of English political nationhood would ultimately implode because it would undermine its own traditional English foundations: monarchy, Church, parliamentary sovereignty (a principle established through the upheavals of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution in the 17th century), and constitutional and legal principles dating back to Magna Carta in the 13th century. For all their flaws and need of modernisation, English people are deeply attached to these anchors of English tradition and identity. Attempts to strip away these core English elements from the British constitution, motivated by a desire to consolidate an integral British nation to which Scotland and Wales may still wish to belong, will ultimately serve only to undermine the adherence of English people to Great Britain, and their identification as British.

Measures that could bring about such a severing of the organic ties between England and the Union include things like abolishing the Acts of Succession and Settlement, which would probably lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England (because the monarch could then be non-Anglican), and instituting a new British Bill of Rights, which would supersede and hence render constitutionally superfluous core English legal documents such as Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

It seems, however, that repealing or at least fundamentally modifying the Acts of Succession and Settlement – to say nothing of the Acts of Union and the English Bill of Rights – is precisely what David Cameron’s coalition government may have in mind if reports of their intention to allow the monarch to marry a Catholic (proscribed by the Act of Settlement) are to be believed. According to yesterday’s report in the Guardian: “Cameron is . . . proposing that Catholics should continue to be debarred from being head of state [as specified in the Acts of Succession and Settlement], but that anyone who marries a Catholic should not be debarred. The family would be entitled to bring up their children as Catholics as long as heirs do not seek to take the throne as a Catholic”.

If this is what Cameron is really thinking, then it reveals constitutional and ecclesiastical illiteracy of the highest order. There’s an absolutely irreconcilable contradiction here: the temporal head of the Church of England (the monarch), no less, marries a Catholic and then brings up his or her children as Catholics; but then, when it is time for the first-born (male or female, as Cameron is also proposing to scrap primogeniture) to inherit the throne, they are expected to renounce their faith (and become Anglican, or not?). Here’s how this does not stack up:

  1. The monarch as temporal Head of the Church of England cannot possibly marry a Catholic and bring up his children as Catholics. How can someone who stands guarantor for the fact that the faith of the land will remain Anglican (fidei defensor) bring up his own children in another faith? He or she is head not only of the Church of England but of his own spouse and family, so his or her faith must be the faith in which the family lives and is raised.
  2. However, in order to be permitted by the Catholic Church to marry a Catholic, the husband and wife would have to give a commitment that the children would indeed be brought up as Catholics. Therefore, the Head of the Church of England, and king or queen of England – or Great Britain, if you prefer – would be subject to the authority of the Church of Rome in spiritual and domestic matters, as would his or her heirs.
  3. Is it then reasonable or even possible to expect the rightful successor to the throne to renounce the faith they have been brought up in in order to inherit the crown? Once a Catholic, always a Catholic, at least in the eyes of the Catholic Church: if you’ve been baptised and confirmed in the Catholic faith, you remain subject to the spiritual authority of the Church, and are considered by the Church as remaining one of her members, no matter what alternative declaration of faith or unbelief you might subsequently make. It’s up to the Church to unmake a Catholic through excommunication. And you can’t decide to allow the monarch to marry outside of the Church of England, and allow first-born females to automatically become first in line to the throne, on the grounds of non-discrimination and then decide to debar first-born, Catholic children of the monarch from inheriting the crown.

As stated above, this is clearly an absurd plan; but that won’t stop constitutionally illiterate and anglophobic politicians from seeking to implement it. These proposals would inevitably lead to the disestablishment of the Church and the abolition of the provision that the Head of State must be Anglican, in order for him or her to be able to serve as temporal Head of the Anglican Church. And all of a sudden, the entire, English constitutional foundations of the British state would crumble: no longer officially an (Anglican-) Christian country; no longer at root the continuation of the historic English state; the monarch no longer inheriting the sacred duty of English kings to ensure that the Church (of England) remains the established religion and that the (Protestant) faith is upheld throughout the greater British realm; the monarch no longer having an absolute claim to the loyalty and devotion of his or her subjects, which is founded on the monarch’s fidelity to this sacred oversight over the kingdom’s spiritual weal; and similarly, the very sovereignty of Parliament fatally undermined because Parliament’s absolute power and moral authority derives from that of the monarch (it’s the sovereignty of the crown-in-Parliament), which in turn derives from the monarch’s status as God’s appointed representative for England / Great Britain: the roles of head of state and Head of the Church being absolutely indivisible.

So, no Act of Succession / Settlement = no Christian underpinning for the state = no basis for preserving the monarch and Parliament as currently constituted = no England as the heart beat and core identity of Great Britain.

But if Great Britain were no longer fundamentally a continuation of England’s most cherished traditions and constitutional foundations, why would English people wish to remain part of it?

Why undertake such a radical overhaul of the English foundations of the British state now, at this point in history, when the existence of Great Britain is threatened as never before by the drive towards Scottish independence? Is Cameron’s urge to eliminate marital inequalities of every kind (the debarring of gay persons from marriage (as underpinned by the Christian foundations of English law), and the debarring of kings and queens of the UK from marrying non-Anglicans) in fact at heart motivated by a wish to recast and transform for ever that other marriage of unequals: Great Britain itself? Why, after all, should a British monarch, and his or her family, have to belong to the English religion at all? Why could they not be Scottish Presbyterian, Welsh-Non-Conformist, Catholic or, while we’re at it, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or of no religion at all? Why should the Church of England be hard-wired into the British state as its official religion by means of this ‘discriminatory’ law that prevents the king or queen from marrying, and indeed being, a non-Anglican? Why indeed?

Cameron, as we know, is desperate to avoid being the last prime minister of the UK as currently constituted, i.e. as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But by tearing out the English foundations of the state, he ironically risks de-constituting the UK. A United Kingdom, even some sort of secular British nation, might well emerge from the carnage; but it would not be the UK that Cameron ostensibly seeks to defend: one that has England at its heart, and which English people, still today, hold dear to their heart.

But if it is those core English elements of Great Britain that one is seeking to preserve and carry forward to posterity – monarchy, Church, Parliament and English liberties – why go to all the trouble of re-casting them as something new, secularised and non-English British when it looks increasingly likely that Scotland will decide to leave the UK anyway? And perhaps that would be the best thing for all concerned. Perhaps it would enable England to retain its cherished traditions, institutions and constitutional foundations as English – and as part of a renewed English settlement – rather than trying to fall over backwards to create a de-anglicised settlement that the Scots don’t want anyway.

I’m not saying that England should maintain all of her ancient constitutional foundations unchanged should Scotland decide to go her own way. But it would be England’s choice whether to remain a Christian kingdom and how to translate that core identity into her laws, customs and institutions. Personally, I envision an England that would return to and deepen its Christian roots, perhaps going further than the historic Anglican settlement to reconnect with her ancient Catholic, but not necessarily Roman Catholic, heritage. At the very least, the new England would be a country where we could once again be proud of our Christian and non-Christian, English traditions, and not be ashamed of them or afraid to express them openly out of some misplaced desire not to offend our non-Christian and non-English fellow citizens – but equally not foisting our beliefs and practices on to others in a way that fails to respect their liberty and freedom of conscience. As for the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, this is something that probably does need to be transformed or at least redefined, such that the sovereignty of parliament more truly expresses, and is subject to, the will of the people, rather than being simply heir to the sovereign right of kings over and above the people.

But the point is it would be England’s choice how to take forward England’s constitution to an English future. And this could ironically be the surest way to preserve what many unionists now cherish most profoundly about Great Britain and the UK.

By contrast, Cameron’s way of de-christianising and de-anglicising the British state could be the quickest path to its total implosion.

  English parliament

5 August 2011

Are we off our heads? Capital punishment is back on the agenda

Judging from the hype, it seemed likely yesterday morning that the first e-petition to garner the 100,000 e-signatures required to qualify for a debate in Parliament, under the government’s new system, would be a demand to restore capital punishment. Specifically, the petition reads:

“We petition the government to review all treaties and international commitments which may inhibit the ability of Parliament to restore capital punishment. Following this review, the Ministry of Justice should map out the necessary legislative steps which will be required to restore the death penalty for the murder of children and police officers when killed in the line of duty.

“The findings of the review and the necessary substantive legislation to be presented to House of Commons for debate no later than 12 months after this petition passes the acceptance threshold.”

This petition was set in motion by the blogger Guido Fawkes and has now been triumphed by the Daily Mail, that paragon of enlightenment.

I’d previously lazily assumed that the petition was calling for a referendum on capital punishment. Instead, as is evident from the above text, it calls for Parliament to decide on the merits of the case and to pass the necessary legislation. It’s somewhat ironic, to say the least, that a blogger who has devoted himself to discrediting Westminster and the political establishment – deservedly so, to a great extent – should now be crediting Parliament with the wisdom to decide on such a matter. Perhaps this is an example of the same sort of bad faith that Parliament itself displays when it sends young men and women into battle to kill on our behalf: transferring to the ‘professionals’ the dirty work it wouldn’t wish to do direct. Similarly, if it’s Parliament that restores capital punishment, not the people in a referendum, then Parliament can be seen to carry the ‘guilt’ for any actual executions, not the broad mass of people that has demanded those executions take place.

For all the ethical complexities surrounding the issue of capital punishment (capably explored elsewhere), for me it comes down to this: you shouldn’t support capital punishment unless you yourself would be prepared to stare into the eyes of the condemned man, tie the noose around his neck, pull open the trap door and let him swing. If you thought it was right for the condemned person to die but couldn’t yourself kill them, then it is hypocritical to expect someone else to do the dirty work for you. And if you were willing to take on the role of executioner out of a sense of social responsibility, then I would doubt your humanity and capacity for compassion.

Similarly, if you yourself were condemned to death but were innocent of the crime attributed to you, you shouldn’t support capital punishment unless you believe it would still be right for your life to be taken under those circumstances.

I think many, perhaps most, of those who demand the restoration of capital punishment would be unwilling to apply the penalty to others – directly, face to face – still less to themselves.

Again, I think it’s rather ironic that this petition is being sponsored by someone whose historical predecessor – the 17th-century Guy Fawkes – was himself executed for high treason. Would the 21st-century Guido advocate the death penalty for a plot to blow up Parliament today? Presumably not, as only murdering children and police officers – not terrorism or murdering MPs – are on his petition as meriting the final sanction. Why this selectivity? If you’re going to bring back hanging, why not apply it to all murders, conspiracy to commit murder and manslaughter resulting from armed robbery? Why stop there? Why not terrorism? Why not the arguable treason committed by Parliament itself in handing over so much of its and our sovereignty to the EU without our permission?

The trouble is, where do you stop? Would Guido think that driving a man to suicide by ruthlessly exposing his misdemeanours and hypocrisy merited the death penalty because it constituted a form of indirect murder? Presumably not, as this is a ‘crime’ that he himself is perpetually in danger of committing. Ultimately, it’s pretty arbitrary which crime you feel does or does not constitute a capital offence, and society is effectively playing God when it ascribes to itself the right to take life in some grave circumstances but not others.

While we’re on the subject of God, I feel that, from a Christian perspective, one has always to try to imagine what Christ would want and say if he were walking among us as a man again. Would he be an advocate for capital punishment? Not likely. I couldn’t see Christ urging others to do something – kill criminals – he wasn’t prepared to do himself. And, lest we forget, Christ was that innocent man who was condemned to death and executed. Yes, he submitted himself to that ordeal and assented to his Father’s providential purpose in the matter. But that doesn’t mean he regarded his execution as just or right in itself, from a purely human perspective. Quite the opposite: it was the perfect expression and symbol of the injustice and sinfulness of mankind. And the crucifixion reveals the true meaning of execution: that it’s the deliberate destruction of the image of God incarnate in a human being.

But if the death of Christ is the archetype for all executions, could we not argue that capital punishment fulfils a redemptive, restorative purpose? Christ was crucified alongside two actual criminals – though thieves, not child or ‘cop’ murderers – one of whom expressed remorse for what he’d done and was told by Christ that he would enter paradise that very evening. Is not the prospect of being executed precisely what hardened criminals need to concentrate their minds on their misdeeds and to come to repentance: to offer their death, Christ-like, as an atonement for their sins and ours, and a plea for divine mercy?

Well, I do actually believe in restorative justice. Punishment for crime should be used not just to satisfy society’s need to avenge wrongdoing and protect itself from wrongdoers, but as a means to bring home to offenders the harsh reality of the suffering they’ve inflicted on their victims: to lead them to repentance and atonement, and to eventually encourage reconciliation and forgiveness between the perpetrator and the victim. But few of those advocating capital punishment today view it in that redemptive light: they want to restore it, but not because of any restorative purpose it may fulfil. It matters little to them whether the executed man is like the thief who comes to repentance or the thief crucified to the left of the dying Christ, who expressed no such remorse, and merely voiced anger about why Christ did not save himself and them. It does not matter to today’s supporters of capital punishment whether the condemned person goes to their death expressing genuine repentance and hope in divine mercy, or cursing God and society in a state of non-reconciliation: they should both die, and we should not concern ourselves with what happens to the condemned persons’ souls ‘beyond’ death, if there is such a thing.

This only goes to show how godless and mean-spirited we have become as a society; and those arguing in favour of capital punishment generally neither do so nor can do so out of Christian conviction.

In fact, there was a third man who was spared as a result of Christ’s crucifixion: Barrabas – an actual brigand and murderer – whom the baying masses had the chance to send to his death instead of Jesus. But under the instigation of their leaders, the people insisted on Christ’s execution, meaning that Barrabas was freed. This also expressed God’s providential purpose: Barrabas was in effect shown mercy by God, indirectly through the workings of imperfect human justice. Barrabas was given the opportunity and the time to come to repentance and reform his ways. We should do no different: lock murderers up, yes, to protect society and penalise wrongdoing; but use the punishment of imprisonment, and make that punishment as severe as necessary, to bring offenders back to their senses and repent of their sins.

Well, I can’t see our present-day penal system adopting such a Christian approach to punishment in the too-near future, either. But I’d still rather we showed mercy to murderers by sparing them the execution they meted out to their victims, whether they deserve that mercy or not – because God forgives the virtuous and evil man alike, and we should do no other. Fortunately, enough people seem to agree with me that, as I write, a petition to retain the ban on capital punishment is outpolling Guido Fawkes’ petition to restore it by over 80%.

Mercifully, perhaps, we are not as off our heads as a society as those who’d have murderers’ heads off.

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!

24 January 2010

England: The Unspoken Other

“What we cannot speak of we must be silent about”. Ludwig Wittgenstein

I’ve received a reply from the BBC to my complaint about their failure to point out anywhere in their coverage that the Conservatives’ draft manifesto on health care related to England only. Here’s what they said:

Dear Mr Rickard

Thank you for your e-mail regarding a Radio 4 news broadcast on 2 January. Please accept our apologies for the delay in replying. We know our correspondents appreciate a quick response and are sorry you’ve had to wait on this occasion.

I understand you were unhappy with a report on the Conservatives’ manifesto for the National Health Service (NHS) and that you felt it failed to make it clear it related to England only. I note that you feel this was another example of an issue presented as relating to the whole of the UK and that it is a practice you continue to dislike.

We are aware that a report that is of great interest to one part of our audience may be of little interest to another. This issue of national and regional news is of great importance to BBC News and requires a balance which we are always striving to get just right.

While certain news items may be specific to one part of the country, and often reserved for coverage by our regional news, we also have to acknowledge and cater to the many listeners and viewers who express a clear interest in knowing what is happening in other parts of the UK. It is also the case that certain stories which at first appear geographically limited can ultimately have a wider impact on the country as a whole. [My emphasis.]

You may be interest in the following entry on The Editors blog by Mark Byford, the deputy director general, who looks at this issue and the recent review of the merits and challenges facing BBC News regionally and nationally by the BBC Trust. The Editors blog is availabe here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2008/06/uk_news_coverage.html

I would also like to assure you that we’ve registered your comments on our audience log for the benefit of the news teams and senior management. The audience logs are important documents that can help shape future decisions about content and ensure that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.

Thanks again for contacting us.

Regards

Stuart Webb
BBC Complaints
__________________________________________
www.bbc.co.uk/complaints

There’s something profoundly unsatisfactory about this response, over and above the plain fact that Mr Webb failed to address the substance of the complaint, which was that the BBC had failed in its duty to report on the news accurately and impartially. In this case, this would involve simply letting people know that the Tories’ proposed policies would be implemented only in England. Rather an important detail, one might think.

But let’s analyse what Mr Webb is saying here. I’m particularly interested in the section I’ve highlighted in italics. Mr Webb is comparing the coverage of the Tories’ draft NHS manifesto to the way ‘regional’ stories are reported on. In essence, he’s saying:

  1. The story in question did relate to just one ‘part of the country’ [a circumlocution for ‘England’: notice how, after the initial reference to my email, he can’t bring himself to use the ‘E’ word] but was nonetheless of interest to listeners outside of that ‘region’, and so was legitimately broadcast as a ‘national’ news story
  2. ‘Geographically limited’ [i.e. English] stories can have a significant impact on ‘the country as a whole’ [i.e. the UK], which thereby sets up a second reason why this particular story should have been broadcast on the national news: it’s not just ‘of interest to’ the whole of the UK (appealing to people who take an interest in current affairs), but it also affects the ‘interests’ of everyone in the UK. In other words, the Tories’ policies on the NHS could affect everyone in the UK materially in some way. Hence, though this was on one level just an ‘English matter’, it also matters to everyone in the UK – in both senses.

Well, yes, that’s all true: policy and expenditure decisions about the NHS in England are indeed of interest to many UK citizens living outside of England; and they do have a knock-on effect on the NHS’s outside of England, in that an overall increase or decrease in England-specific expenditure results in proportionally higher rises or cuts in expenditure in the other countries via the workings of the Barnett Formula.

But the relationship between spending in England and in the devolved countries is not straightforward or transparent. In this instance, Tory pledges not to cut the English NHS budget in real terms do not mean that the NHS budget won’t be cut in Scotland or Wales. If English spending declines overall despite the NHS budget being ring-fenced, then the Scottish and Welsh block grants will be smaller, and NHS spending in those countries may well have to be reduced. In order to understand how the Tories’ NHS policies will affect their interests – in the sense of ‘benefits’ – it is vital that Scottish and Welsh listeners understand the true relationship between England-specific policies and the corresponding policies in their own countries. And they can hardly come to this understanding if they’re not informed that the Tories’ policies are in fact only intended for England. To use Mr Webb’s analogy, this may have been a ‘regional’ story, relating to just one ‘part’ of the UK (England); but then, when genuine regional stories are covered at a ‘national’ level, the BBC does tend to take the trouble to spell out which region the story directly relates to.

So Mr Webb’s regional analogy completely falls over: a ‘regional’ story (e.g. one about Scottish politics or, say, an innovative private-public partnership being pioneered by a hospital Foundation Trust in one part of England) can well become a ‘national’ story (covered in the national news bulletins) if lots of people throughout the UK are interested in it and could be affected by it in some way. But that doesn’t make it a national story in the other sense: directly concerning the whole of the UK. But that’s precisely how the NHS story was covered: no attempt was made to make clear to listeners that it did relate just to one – albeit a highly influential – part of the UK. The word ‘England’ (the actual name for that ‘part’) simply wasn’t mentioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation; just as it was not referred to anywhere in the Tories draft NHS manifesto itself.

This illustrates a common observation: that while England is indeed formally ‘a part’ of the whole (Britain, the UK), it is generally referred to and thought of in British political discourse as if it were the whole (the UK) itself. In fact, there are two kinds of ‘parts’ of Britain from this point of view:

  1. England, which is a ‘geographically limited part’ of the UK but, as such, is politically and existentially (in terms of its official identity) indistinct from the UK and subsumed within it
  2. The ‘nations and regions’, both of which are really in effect thought of as regions of the UK / Britain (the ‘country’), the only difference being that three of those ‘regions’ have a distinct national character as recognised in the devolution settlement.

Such a structure does not reserve any place for England, which is where Mr Webb’s comparison of the Tory NHS story to a regional item is so disingenuous. On this model of the UK, the UK / Britain is ‘the country’ or ‘the nation’; and the nation is sub-divided into regions, three of which have their devolved, ‘nation-like’ systems of partial self-government. England (or ‘the regions’), on the other hand, is simply none other than the UK; just as Andalusia or Castile are regions of Spain (and are thereby also Spain), whereas the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia are national regions of Spain (and are by that token also still Spanish). On this analogy, England has become a ‘convenient’ (actually, inconvenient) name for the non-national regions of the UK; while Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland are the UK’s ‘national’ regions.

According to this understanding of the UK, then, England as such – as a nation – does not exist. This is a hard ‘truth’ whose implications are only beginning to dawn on me, despite the fact that I’ve voiced similar thoughts and discussed similar models for the relationship between England and the UK in numerous previous posts. In particular, thinking of things in these terms allows one to come to a deeper understanding of why the BBC won’t and can’t engage properly with complaints that they present ‘English’ stories as if they were British ones; and why the mainstream political parties resolutely persist in avoiding any reference to England when setting out their England-specific policies.

On an obvious level, this is of course done for political advantage: ultimately, because it maintains the whole British establishment and system of power, in and through which both the BBC and the parties seek to exercise their influence and prosper. But beyond these considerations of ‘interest’, the establishment won’t say ‘England’ because it can’t: how can you speak the name of something that does not exist? Both aspects are in play here:

  1. Because the establishment doesn’t want England to exist, in case this undermines its self-ascribed right to govern as Britain, it does not speak the name of England and thereby, in a sense, makes England not exist, at least within the formal discourse and self-understanding of British politics: ‘the Nation is Britain, and the parts of Britain are its nations and regions’. That’s it: no need to invoke an ‘England’ that is just not a distinct part of this whole.
  2. And because the word and name of England does not exist within the ‘politically correct’ language, it then becomes both inappropriate and irrelevant to mention it: language deals with things that exist, or that we believe to exist, not with what does not exist. ‘England’ has ceased to refer to anything in the present: it’s off the map of the British establishment’s mind, just as it’s off the physical map of the nations and regions. ‘England’, then, is a word that has served its time and is now redundant.

The BBC and the mainstream parties therefore do not say ‘England’, not just because they’d rather suppress all thought of England but because they’ve actually succeeded in removing the thought of it from the official and publicly ‘acceptable’ language of the British polity. They won’t say England because they can’t say England; and they can’t say England, not only because England officially doesn’t exist (it doesn’t refer to anything tangible within the polity) but because they actually don’t believe it exists any more, and they don’t know what ‘England’ means or should mean. In short, they’ve not only suppressed England from the apparatus of British governance, but they’ve repressed ‘England’ from their conscious minds and language.

This is the reason for my allusion to Wittgenstein at the start of this post: a foundational figure in what used to be referred to as the ‘English’, or at least ‘Anglo-Saxon’, school of analytical philosophy. The quote I used is my own translation from the original German that seeks to capture its ambiguity better than the classic translation: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. For me, my version (“What we cannot speak of we must be silent about”) perfectly encapsulates the combination of psychological repression and conceptual incapacity that characterises the British establishment’s silence with respect to ‘England’. First, out of political considerations of power, England was suppressed, both as a distinct national focus of politics and identity, and as something whose name – and in whose name – our political representatives could thereby speak. But then, once suppressed from the language, ‘England’ has become suppressed from the minds and understanding of reality of British politicians and media. England was first deliberately suppressed from political language and influence out of pure political motives; but now that language genuinely does not know it – so better not talk about it.

So on this view, England is no more. England is none other than the UK. And yet, England, as that which has been eliminated from British-political language, thinking and institutions – and as that which, in part for that reason, is beyond their reach and understanding – is also the Other of Britain. In psychological terms, if an individual represses a part of themselves and their history that they think of as unacceptable and inappropriate to express openly and socially, that part doesn’t in fact cease to exist, even if the individual’s conscious mind has succeeded in erasing all trace of it, and can no longer access the reality of that suppressed experience through deliberate thought and language. That part of themselves thereby becomes their ‘Other’: their repressed, unconscious selves that the conscious mind won’t and can’t recognise but sees as alien and unreal. The Other is the part of the individual that they have to suppress in order to think of themselves and to function as who they think they ‘are’. But in reality, those individuals cannot be whole persons until they are able to come to an understanding of and reconnect to the hidden parts of their selves and their histories.

So it is with England. The British establishment has suppressed its own deep roots in English identity and history because it projected onto England all the bad aspects of its own society, politics and history; and because it acted in the interests of redistributing power in a way that appeared more equitable than the England-dominated past, even while in fact continuing to exercise the same sovereign power that it previously wielded in England’s name. In other words, England had to die in order to be resurrected as Britain – but a Britain that, in order to be Britain, refuses and is incapable of acknowledging the England it still profoundly contains within it.

So England is Britain’s Other, whose name it cannot speak for fear that it might recognise itself in it. England is indeed both a ‘part’ and the whole of Britain: the part that in reality it needs to reaffirm as part of itself in order to be whole again. Otherwise, if the voice and identity of England cannot find expression within a Britain that would rather pass over it in silence, they will find expression in ways that could destroy the cohesion and survival of Britain itself as a political entity – just as, in an individual, unwanted traits and experiences end up being acted out in a more self-destructive manner if they are repressed indefinitely.

Well, this is a nice analytical model; but where does it leave us in practical terms? In particular, I’m wondering whether I should bother continuing to send off my complaint emails to the BBC every time they flagrantly ignore the England-specific nature of a story or policy announcement. If I do carry on, I certainly shouldn’t expect them to see reason, in the sense that, in my view, it is a simple case of reporting things in such a way that the public in different ‘parts’ of the UK know whether and how a story affects them. That’s what an ‘impartial’ public broadcaster is supposed to do, isn’t it?

But the responses I’ve received, as exemplified by Mr Webb’s email, reveal that the BBC appears not to see it that way. Perhaps they actually believe they’re carrying out their remit to report a story impartially by not making a point of saying ‘the Conservatives’ draft manifesto for the NHS in England’ or the ‘Liberal Democrats’ policy for childcare and education in England’ if the parties themselves choose not to spell this out.

More fundamentally, though, the BBC doesn’t see this as a serious enough issue, in my view, because they are a prime embodiment and propagator of the new Britain-centric political discourse and vision of the ‘nation’ that I’ve been describing. Despite Mr Webb’s comparison of the English-NHS story with an item of ‘regional’ news, the Corporation didn’t feel it was necessary to point out that the Tories’ proposals affected England only because they saw it as not just a ‘national’ story but a British story: about one of the national-British parties’ policies at the UK election for the ‘British NHS’, which were therefore of interest and relevance to the ‘whole country’. OK, ‘they’ – or some members of the various editorial teams involved – may have been dimly aware that, in fact, the policies related to England alone. But this fact would have been regarded as almost tangential and not worthy of being mentioned. The reason for this is that, for the BBC and the political establishment, there are really no such things as ‘English stories’ or ‘English politics’, but only British stories that happen, in some instances, to affect England only because of devolution but which are ‘British’ nonetheless because the nation itself is called ‘Britain’ and there is no such thing, officially, as ‘England’. These are, in short, ‘British’ policies that apply to a territory sometime known as ‘England’, and not ‘English policies’.

So the hard truth that I feel I’m perceiving more clearly now is that, for the British political and media establishment, the nation is Britain, and England does not exist: for them, England is merely the historic name for a part of Britain and a (British) cultural identity to which some remain sentimentally attached. England, in sum, is not present: neither ‘real’ in any objective, meaningful sense; nor ‘in the present’ (because it’s part of (British) history); nor represented in national politics (nor needing to be); nor requiring a mention when presenting ‘national’ policies.

Hitherto, my response to what I’ve called in this blog the establishment’s ‘Britology’ (the fabrication of a new British Nation as a sort of fiction: a creation of official and politically sanctioned discourse, language and symbolism) has preceded from the assumption that the ‘real’ nation that the fiction was intended to obfuscate and suppress was England, and that the establishment knew, more or less, what it was doing: a deliberate, politically led suppression of English national identity and pride. I’ve assumed that people generally knew that it was a lie, that they could see through it, and that the embargo of silence imposed on the word ‘England’ was really a conspiracy of silence maintained by all those who stood to gain from it: the established media and political parties.

But now I’m beginning to think that the establishment genuinely believes its own myths: that it’s not so much a case of collusion in the denial of England but shared delusion that England doesn’t exist. I think this is what we’re up against: not just the full weight of British political power but the power of a sort of collective psychosis. That may be too extreme a word to use. But really, I think there’s no alternative other than to conclude that powerful psychological forces such as repression (relegating unpalatable truths to the unconscious mind) are at work here if you are to really understand the systematic way in which all references to England are occulted from official documents, party-political pronouncements and media reports that relate to England alone; and the way that, when challenged, representatives of the organisations in question simply don’t get it: they genuinely don’t appreciate the significance and relevance of the omission of references to England.

Let’s put it this way: those of us who do love and value England, and see ourselves as English, of course think of England as a real nation. Therefore, when we notice that news stories and policies relating to England are presented as if they related to (the whole of) Britain, we think a mistake is being made: a deliberate mistake, intended to mislead, by the parties; and, if we’re being charitable, we think this is an oversight or error of omission on the part of the media for not picking the parties up on it. But if you try to get inside the mindset and assumptions of the Britological establishment, then you realise that they think England isn’t real and doesn’t exist; so that, for them, there are only British policies and stories at ‘national’ level. So saying that some of them relate to ‘England’ isn’t just a slightly irrelevant nicety but actually a non-sequitur: how can policies affect a non-existent country? For them, all policies are ‘British’ and relate only to ‘Britain’.

Devolution, as understood from this position, works like this: ‘all policies of the UK government relate to “Britain”; it’s just that some parts of Britain make their own policies in certain areas’. So ‘Britain’ is the name and identity of the nation, whether you’re talking just of the part (which we like to call England) or the whole. From this point of view, it isn’t deceitful to present policies affecting England only as ‘British’, because there is only Britain.

So I think we’re up against a government and establishment that not only refuses to recognise the right of the English nation to determine its own form of government, but which both refuses and – more profoundly – is incapable of recognising the very existence of an English nation. The new unofficial official map of the United Kingdom, for them, is one of a single, united Nation (‘Britain / the UK’), three parts of which are partially self-governing regions with a distinct national character: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England simply isn’t in the picture.

English nationalists are therefore inevitably not just campaigning for an English parliament but for recognition of England as a nation. Optimistically, you might say that the latter will flow from the former: if we manage to secure an English parliament, this will automatically entail official recognition that England is a distinct nation. But I would tend to put it the other way: we have first to win recognition of England as a nation for an English parliament even to be a realistic option on the table. If the establishment can’t even engage with relatively trivial and obvious complaints about omission of references to England in England-only policies and news reports, how can they be expected to seriously entertain calls for an English parliament? How can you have a parliament for a nation that doesn’t exist?

Maybe things are shifting more than I’m suggesting. It’s just that the wave of recent pre-election policy statements, in which the failure by the parties and media to mention their England-only character has been so gross, has depressed me a bit and made me wonder whether the powers that be will ever change. But it’s possible that change is nonetheless proceeding among the population as a whole and that, despite its inability to engage with any sort of English question, the establishment is getting increasingly isolated in its views from the people, who do think of themselves as English and want a government that cares about England and its needs. Maybe this is indeed the unspoken truth about the outbreak of disaffection towards the political class that was sparked off by the parliamentary-expenses scandal last year: that it reflects not just the ‘British public’s’ demand for a more accountable politics but the outrage of the English people at a British establishment that is pursuing its own agenda and interests without regard to the priorities, values and identity of the English nation. Perhaps England was the unspoken Other of this story, yet again.

So what do we do about the silence towards England that the establishment politicians and media would like to use to consign England to the dustbin of history? Well, the one thing we don’t do, even if tempted to, is fall silent ourselves. We have to keep on speaking out against it and asserting the right of England to be named, and so to exist. Keep on chipping away at the establishment armour – it might prove to be made of fragile porcelain rather than hardened steel.

As for me, I will keep complaining about unjustified omissions of ‘England’ where it should be mentioned, although I might vary the tactics a bit: not just write off to the BBC but consider other avenues, and also just ask them straight out why they chose not to mention that the policies or story in question related only to England? We’ve got to keep on gnawing away at their conscience and inserting ‘England’ into their consciousness, from which they’d rather relegate it.

Remember, apartheid South Africa and the Soviet dominion in Eastern Europe both collapsed at lightening speed after previously seeming as immovable as rocks. And that’s because the rot had set in from within: both systems were predicated on lies and on the denial of people’s right to freedom, democracy and national self-determination. Similarly, if the people continue moving away from the British establishment edifice by identifying as English and demanding a true national-English democracy, then that edifice may prove to be built on foundations of sand, not rock.

I for one, then, will not let England be an unspoken Other.

6 November 2009

Will Afghanistan crystallise Britain’s ‘Russian moment’?

The Russian Empire – otherwise known as the Soviet Union – was broken on the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. Many commentators, including Russian ones, have pointed to the eerie parallels between Britain’s and America’s engagement in military conflict against the Taliban, and the defeat of the mighty Red Army at the hands of the Taliban’s predecessors, the Mujahedeen. If we were to take heed of the lessons of history – not just the living memory of the Soviet Union’s traumatic humiliation, but the thousands of years of successful Afghan resistance to imperial invaders – then we would immediately reverse the build-up of Western troops in that country and accelerate our exit strategy, if we have one. Indeed, we would never have got ourselves embroiled in a conflict we cannot win.

But the question I wish to pose here is this: Gordon Brown has today spoken of his determination that Britain and its allies will indeed ‘win’ in Afghanistan, however victory is defined (which is part of the problem). However, he also conceded the possibility that Britain might lose: “We will succeed or fail together and we will succeed”. But will Britain stay together if we lose?

Clearly, while there are parallels, Britain’s situation is not exactly the same as the Soviet Union’s during the 1980s. However, I would argue that, like the USSR, Britain’s actions in Afghanistan betray an imperial mindset. Indeed, Britain itself is still an empire in certain fundamental respects: not in the, as it were, empirical (i.e. real-world) sense of possessing vast colonies, but in its view of itself – its identity, its status in the world and its systems of governance.

These all come down to Britain’s concept of ‘authority’ – political and moral authority combined: Britain’s ‘right to rule’ linked to the fact that it sees itself as inherently ‘in the right’. This then translates to our military interventions in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, which the British establishment would like to see not as examples of more or less arbitrary interference in other countries’ affairs for the sake of Britain’s strategic interests, but as illustrations of how our might is indeed right: military power allied to a moral mission, and applied to promote British-style governance and implant British values in some benighted corner of a foreign field.

As far as the governance of Britain itself is concerned, I would argue that this is also still conducted in the manner of an empire, albeit one whose boundaries are mainly those of the islands of Great Britain, and with limited concessions to democracy. I’ll probably return to this topic in more detail on another occasion. But my main proposition here is that one of the main reasons why the Westminster political class has become so disconnected from the people – indeed, the peoples – of Britain is that they still view the business of governance in the light of the imperial mindset. In particular, the insistence on the sovereignty of Parliament, and on the entitlement of Parliament and the executive to make all the important decisions that affect our lives without being fundamentally answerable to the people, and without having to take popular opinion into account, exemplifies the concept of British authority described above: those that possess British might see themselves as imbued with British right – the right to rule over us in imperial fashion linked to the fact that this rule in itself is seen as in the right and righteous.

So in Britain, we have an elected empire: a form of absolute rule, albeit moderated by a limited amount of democracy, whose sovereignty derives from a moral absolute: that of the Sovereign herself, who is the inheritor and embodiment of the medieval divine right of kings. Except, in our constitutional monarchy, it is our elected so-called representatives that re-assign that divine right to themselves in the form of the sovereignty of Parliament.

But to return to my point of departure, what could happen to the British establishment’s sense of its divine right to rule, both at home and abroad, if things go disastrously wrong in Afghanistan, as they did for the Soviet Union? By this, I mean not just hundreds of British dead, as now, but thousands, even tens of thousands. How far are we prepared to continue with this folly to prove to ourselves that we were in the right all along? And at what point do we realise that perhaps we didn’t get it right, indeed may not be in the right, and that history may not conclude that God was on our side this time?

Who knows what ramifications a truly disastrous defeat in Afghanistan would have for our already shattered faith in the authority that our elected rulers exercise in our name? It did for the Soviet Union; would it do the same for Britain?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not wishing for such a catastrophe to occur in my wish for the United Kingdom as presently constituted to unravel. I’d rather we pulled out now while we still have a chance. But the omens are not good.

Gordon Brown says our brave British soldiers are fighting for our national security in Afghanistan. They may also be fighting for the survival of Britain in a sense that Brown does not intend.

1 November 2009

Come back Guy Fawkes, all is forgiven!

Guy Fawkes – the leader of the Gunpowder Plot conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 – is a figure about whom the English have been ambivalent ever since, depending on the varying repute in which Parliament has been held. Currently, respect for the Westminster Parliament is at one of its lowest ebbs ever, which moves Guy Fawkes more over to the positive end of the hero-to-villain spectrum.

In fact – exaggerating somewhat – one of the greatest services some latter-day terrorist could render to democracy in England would be to blow the old place up: of course, without any human casualties. I say this because if the Palace of Westminster were destroyed, it would be more than just a new parliament building that would be erected in its place: I feel sure that such a tabula rasa would result in a major overhaul of the antiquated and democratically deficient processes of the Westminster Parliament and, indeed, of the whole structure of parliamentary governance in Britain. Assuming that a radically new, modern parliament were built in the place of the bombed-out building – i.e. they did not attempt to reconstruct the Victorian white elephant that is the present parliament – it’s almost impossible to imagine that the institution itself, its culture and traditions, would remain the same.

For example, the chamber of the Commons would most likely be built in the horseshoe shape designed to foster a more collaborative and open style of debating as opposed to the antagonistic, punch-and-judy style of politics encouraged by the rectangular lay-out of the present chamber. The new building could also be designed literally to enable open, transparent politics by embodying more open spaces for MPs to conduct informal meetings and discussions, and by having many more glass walls and partitions, so that people can see who is talking to whom.

But over and above these architectural and cultural considerations, I think the necessity to construct a completely new parliament building would be perceived as an opportunity to make a completely fresh start with how we conduct parliamentary democracy and government in Britain. And, who knows, the trauma of the Westminster Parliament’s destruction might finally overcome the reluctance, indeed inability, of many English people to contemplate the establishment of an English parliament. Perhaps, with the whole new start and the massive financial cost that the need to rebuild Parliament made necessary, people would start to think that the new London parliament should be an English one, and that we should perhaps locate a totally new British parliament (dealing with reserved matters only) somewhere else altogether.

Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the old English Parliament; it’s time to bring him back and give him another chance, so we can restore it!

PS. For any anti-terrorist security staff or ‘lawful-intercept’ data analysts that might be reading this, I’m not actually advocating that terrorists should target the Palace of Westminster: it’s a metaphor.

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.