Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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:

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.


Stuart Webb
BBC 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.

8 October 2009

England: the unstated ‘real’ name of the British state

What follows is something of a ‘thought experiment’, as trendy ‘critical-theory’ lecturers might call it. It’s an attempt to logically think through some of the paradoxes of the British establishment’s present ways of describing itself and referring to its affairs. This is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis, by any means; just an attempt to expose an underlying structure and get inside the establishment mindset.

Case 1: the infamous conception of Britain / the UK as a ‘Britain of nations and regions’. This is obviously closely associated with Gordon Brown, who coined it. But it’s still for many the guiding template for the ‘new Britain’ of the post-devolution era, which requires further constitutional and political reform, including regional / local ‘devolution’ in England. And it even seems to have transformed the way in which ‘the Conservative Party of Britain’, as Gordon Brown erroneously but revealingly referred to it last week (technically, it’s the Conservative and Unionist Party), thinks about the Union, if the participants in that party’s debate on the Union or its proposed ‘Council of the Isles’ are anything to go by: representatives from all the (devolved) nations and from (the Conservative Party of) Britain, but not from England.

The limited question I want to ask here is this: if this new ‘Britain’ is composed of nations (Scotland and Wales, for sure; and more controversially, Northern Ireland) and of regions, what sort of entity is this Britain itself? This is intended as a purely logical question, in the first instance: what is the name for a territory, jurisdiction or sovereign state that has two sorts of subdivisions – nations and regions? A ‘union’ or grouping of nations into a single state tends to be designated as a federation or confederation. As examples of such a union, you can’t really count federal or confederal ‘nation-states’ such as the US or Switzerland respectively, since their subdivisions aren’t nations as such. You’d have to take discontinued states such as the USSR or Yugoslavia, whose subdivisions comprised formerly distinct (though historically variable) national territories that subsequently reaffirmed their status as nation states when the union-states of which they had been a part broke down. The prospective Federal EU that some dream of would be another example.

The USSR is quite a useful example. When it was still in existence, we tended informally to call it just ‘Russia’, because Russia was by far the largest and most dominant nation within the Union. After the break-up of the USSR, Russia itself is now formally known as the ‘Russian Federation’: a Union of many federal states or regions. Applying this analogy to ‘Britain’, it is also the case that throughout most of its history prior to devolution, the United Kingdom was often informally referred to – by English people and foreigners alike – as ‘England’, for similar reasons to those for calling the USSR ‘Russia’. Now, post-devolution, the national territories that had been assimilated into a unitary state (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) have reasserted a status as ‘nations’, albeit not fully sovereign nation-states like the former Soviet Republics.

On this analogy, then, the residual ‘British regions’ would be like the Russian Federation (i.e. effectively, English regions) but without reasserting their identity as a distinct nation as Russia has done. Applying the British model to the USSR (or however it would be renamed), it would be as if the Russian Federation had continued to be called the USSR, and the break-away Republics continued to be affiliated to the USSR but with recognition of their distinct nation status. The ‘new USSR’ would effectively be a ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Nations and Regions’. Such a state would be a ‘multi-national confederation’: a union of nations and subdivisions of nations (regions) having different relationships to the central state and each other, and so therefore not qualifying as a federal nation-state, in which each of the subdivisions would be equal to one another under the constitution.

If such a state had been formed (and the short-lived ‘CIS’, or ‘Commonwealth of Independent States’, was a prototype of something similar), it would doubtless have been imagined by the Soviet-Russian establishment as the means for Russia to maintain control and sovereignty over ‘its’ satellite nations within a single political structure without appearing to do so. But as a condition of achieving this, Russia itself would have had to forego the right to call and run itself as a separate nation, which would have lain bare the realpolitik behind the creation of the new USSR: that it was a means for one nation – Russia – to continue to dominate a number of dependent nations. Instead, officially, the name and nation status of ‘Russia’ would have had to disappear altogether, becoming merely a collection of ‘Soviet regions’ run directly by Moscow and the central-Soviet state, while the ‘nations’ enjoyed a degree of autonomous self-rule.

But what kind of thing would such a state of affairs, or affairs of a state, make the USSR? A ‘multi-national confederation’, yes. But the ‘regions’ within that confederation (i.e. the Russian regions) would actually also be the USSR: run by the state in a fully direct, unitary way; and identified with it, both formally (being called the ‘USSR’) and informally, in that the Russian population would be encouraged to transfer their identification with and allegiance to Russia to the new USSR, which would be the instrument and vehicle for the continuation of a powerful, imperial Russia under another guise.

In other words, the way in which a nation that has previously dominated a number of other nations through a supposedly equal, unitary political system can imagine that its unitary control continues to prevail once those nations start to break away is to re-group those nations into a new unity (new USSR or new ‘Britain’) with which it itself identifies. The former real unitary state (the USSR or Great Britain / the UK) that was often given the name of the dominant nation (Russia or England) becomes a confederation (no longer one nation but multiple nations) the unity of which is maintained in the mind of that dominant nation by a form of mental sleight of hand or fantasy denial of reality: the dominant nation identifies with the confederal state itself – thereby mentally transferring its own identity and personality as a united nation on to the confederal state. A union of multiple nations within a self-identical, homogeneous ‘nation-state’ is replaced by the identification of the leading nation with the new multi-national state. But in that process, the original dominant nation loses sight of its own distinct identity.

Hence, for the British establishment in the post-devolution world, England has become simply ‘Britain’: a Britain imagined as identical to – or co-terminous with – the devolved nations and the state itself. The ‘Britain of nations and regions’, therefore, is a UK [Britain] of [British] nations and English [British] regions: the state, the nations and the regions united in a single identity (Britain) whose ‘existence’ for the English is constituted by a process of identification – transferring English identity, nationhood, values, culture, history, tradition, etc. over to ‘Britain’. In reality, Britain is no longer a unitary state dominated by, and often designated as, England. But the way the establishment has reacted to the loss of the former English-British political union is to replace it with a psychological, existential union (i.e. a ‘union of identity’) between England and the new confederal Britain. But to be considered as a single entity, such a union can have only one name; and ‘Britain’ is the single name adopted for this new confederal structure into which England has been absorbed: disappearing in the process of becoming one-with-Britain, and thereby being the imaginary place in which Britain remains one.

But am I any nearer to answering my original question: what sort of entity is the ‘Britain’ that is subdivided into nations and regions? There’s no real logical answer to that question: you can’t easily call this Britain a ‘nation’, because then you’d have a ‘nation of nations and regions’, and you’d have all sorts of difficult questions about what the relationship was between the ‘mother nation’ Britain, and her national and regional children; and you’d have to explicitly acknowledge the non-inclusion of England as such within the system. But in addition to this logical and political dilemma, the reason why no one can satisfactorily answer this question is the same as the reason why the British establishment is incapable of referring to England as an entity distinct from itself: it’s because what this new Britain ‘really’ is, is England. On the analogy with the imaginary ‘continuity-USSR’ discussed above, England has been identified with the new effectively confederal British state (England ‘becoming’ Britain-as-the-UK; Russia becoming the new USSR) at the same time as that state is a sovereign body conferring a distinct national identity on its other parts, which thereby remain semi-autonomous parts of ‘Britain’. So the new ‘Britain’ is the way an essentially English perception of the former unitary UK as an extension of itself (as ‘Greater England’) is re-imagined as a new multi-national union with which England itself is identified – thereby preserving in imagination the old unity of England and Britain, and the ‘ownership’ of Britain by England; though at the expense of calling England ‘Britain’.

In this sense, England exists (or perhaps ‘subsists’ or ‘persists’ would be better) within the Britain of nations and regions not as an ‘object’ that can be described in rational, realistic terms (i.e. as a ‘nation’ or the collective name for a group of regions) but as its subject: it’s the hidden, nameless ‘national’ personality of the trans-national, confederal state – its inner psychological identity. England is in the mind of those English people – politicians or ordinary citizens – that have lived out the state’s identification of England with itself psychologically: in terms of their own personal sense of identity. ‘England’ is the unnamed, suppressed, subjective national identity of those English people who now explicitly identify as British first and foremost: who are content to regard the ‘Britain of nations and regions’ as a description of their ‘country’ and nation. It is, and can only be, English people who identify with the ‘nation’ of ‘Britain’ from which they are content to recognise that three other ‘nations’ have branched out (i.e. separated themselves from English control) and who also recognise that the ‘regions’ in question are regions of ‘their country’: in a more intimate and direct relationship with their country than that with the nations – because they are English regions (regions of their country England) even though it is not permitted to refer to them as such. The whole system only makes sense as an articulation of an ‘English’ point of view: the English ‘I’ (and eye) as it views the new British landscape – nations that are still really ‘ours’ (i.e. British) and regions that are even more so (i.e. English). England is the ‘we’ of Britain; but this fact must not and cannot ever be acknowledged, because then the realpolitik of the new Britain would be blown apart and exposed as an attempt by an England-centric establishment to retain power over a group of ‘other’ nations by re-imagining itself and them as a single entity known as Britain.

This relates to case 2, which I (mercifully) will not have time to explore in such depth: the articulation by national politicians of English matters as British. It is a cause of considerable exasperation to myself and many others that politicians whose ministerial portfolio or responsibilities are relevant to England only, because of devolution, continue to talk as if their policies and actions related to the whole of ‘Britain’. We’ve witnessed this tendency time and time again in this year’s party-conference season: none of the three established parties seems willing or able to refer to English matters as English matters. While it is true that this is a deliberate attempt to blind English people to the differences between English and devolved governance and policies, it is not enough in my view simply to hammer on endlessly about wilful deceit and insulting ignoring of England – which I’ve done frequently enough myself in these pages.

At one level, the fact that politicians and the media refer to English matters as British also reflects the fact that they genuinely don’t perceive the difference. And this is not even the same as saying that they are simply ignorant about devolution: of course, journalists and politicians are rational human beings (relatively so, perhaps!), and they’re aware about devolution in the part of their brains that deals with reality and facts. But rationality and realism are not what’s going on here because, quite simply, carrying on as if matters that relate to just one part of the Union related to all of it is irrational and at times not a little mad – like the recent row over parties’ commitments to the NHS, which was all about the English NHS, in practical terms, despite the fact that not a single item of commentary that I saw referred to England.

No, what’s going on – in addition to deliberate deception – is this process of psychological identification of England with Britain, predominantly by English people. If the politicians and media in question don’t properly make the distinction between England and Britain, it’s because they actually don’t see it (in) themselves: they’ve bought into, and completed in their own subjective minds, the state’s assimilation of England to ‘Britain’. They’re rather like the women in the film The Stepford Wives, who get replaced by identical, obedient automatons that are mechanical apart from one detail: the eyes are taken from the real women. In other words, these politicians and citizens have completed the process of national transformation and now answer only to the name ‘Britain’; except that this Britain is a re-working of an English ‘eye’ / I: a traditional English subjective perspective on the Union.

On this level, it actually doesn’t matter if the politician concerned knows that his portfolio extends only to England, and that when he’s referring to ‘Britain’ or ‘the country’ he actually means England. This is not only or always deceit, which involves passing one thing (England) off as another (Britain), because, in the politician’s mind, they’re not actually two different things: for them, there is only Britain; it’s just that in their particular case (e.g. education or health), their ‘British’ responsibilities stop at the borders with Scotland and Wales. So, in their minds, they’re actually ‘correct’ in referring to the country affected by their policies as ‘Britain’, because that’s how they genuinely see it. But then, of course, if the Britain involved in such cases does not extend to the ‘other’ UK nations, this is another way in which the ‘real’ name for ‘Britain’ is in fact England.

And this is why I believe that a self-governing England, with a distinct national identity, will emerge only when English people – including the English people who by and large still run the British state – are able to disentangle their English subjectivity from the objective reality that is known as Britain. After all, self-government implies that one knows who and what one’s ‘self’ actually is; and until English people can accept themselves as English, they will continue to be suppressed ‘subjects’ of the British state. Freeing ourselves politically as English citizens, therefore, will follow from freeing our minds to be English.

20 June 2009

The Dark Nationalist Heart of New Labour’s Devolution Project

I was struck last night by how the panellists of BBC1’s Any Questions displayed a rare unity in condemning the ‘nationalism’ to which they imputed the recent assaults on Romanian migrants in Northern Ireland. ‘There can be no place for nationalism in modern Britain’, they intoned to the audience’s acclaim.

Apart from the fact that statements such as this articulate a quasi-nationalistic, or inverted-nationalist, pride in Britain (‘what makes us “great as a nation” is our tolerance and integration of multiple nationalities’), this involved an unchallenged equation of hostility towards immigration / racism with ‘nationalism’. This was especially inappropriate in the Northern Ireland context where ‘nationalism’ is associated with Irish republicanism, and hence with Irish nationalism and not – what, actually? British nationalism à la BNP; the British ‘nationalism’ of Northern Irish loyalists (no one bothered to try and unpick whether the people behind the violence had been from the Catholic or Protestant community, or both); or even ‘English’ nationalism?

Certainly, it’s a stock response on the part of the political and media establishment to associate ‘English nationalism’ per se with xenophobia, opposition to immigration and racism. But this sort of knee-jerk reaction itself involves an unself-critical, phobic negativity towards (the concept of) the English – and certainly, the idea of the ‘white English’ – that crosses over into inverted racism, and which ‘colours’ (or, shall we say, emotionally infuses) people’s response to the concept of ‘English nationalism’. In other words, ‘English nationalism’, for the liberal political and media classes, evokes frightening images of racial politics and violence because, in part, the very concept of ‘the English nation’ is laden with associations of ‘white Anglo-Saxon’ ethnic aggressiveness and brutality. English nationalism is therefore discredited in the eyes of the liberal establishment because it is unable to dissociate it from its images of the historic assertion of English (racial) ‘superiority’ (for instance, typically, in the Empire). But the fact that the establishment is unable to re-envision what a modern and different English nationalism, and nation, could mean is itself the product of its ‘anti-English’ prejudice and generalisations bordering on racism: involving an assumption that the ‘white English’ (particularly of the ‘lower classes’) are in some sense intrinsically brutish and racist – in an a-historic way that reveals their ‘true nature’, rather than as a function of an imperial and industrial history that both brutalised and empowered the English on a massive scale.

This sort of anti-English preconception was built into the design of New Labour’s asymmetric devolution settlement: it was seen as legitimate to give political expression to Scottish and Welsh nationalism, just not English nationalism. Evidently, there is a place for some forms of nationalism in modern Britain – the ‘Celtic’ ones – but not the English variety. While this is not an exhaustive explanation, the anomalies and inequities of devolution do appear to have enacted a revenge against the English for centuries of perceived domination and aggression. First, there is the West Lothian Question: the well known fact that Scottish and Welsh MPs can make decisions and pass laws that relate to England only, whereas English MPs can no longer make decisions in the same policy areas in Scotland and Wales. This could be seen as a reversal of the historical situation, as viewed and resented through the prism of Scottish and Welsh nationalism: instead of England ruling Scotland and Wales through the political structures of the Union, now Scotland and Wales govern England through their elected representatives in Westminster, who ensure that England’s sovereignty and aspirations for self-government are frustrated.

It might seem a somewhat extreme characterisation of the present state of affairs to say that Scotland and Wales ‘govern England’; but it certainly is true that a system that involves the participation of Scottish and Welsh MPs is involved in the active suppression not only of the idea of an English parliament to govern English matters (which would restore parity with Scotland and Wales) but of English-national identity altogether: the cultural war New Labour has waged against the affirmation and celebration of Englishness in any form – the surest way to extinguish demands for English self-rule being to obliterate the English identity from the consciousness of the silent British majority. In this respect, New Labour’s attempts to replace Englishness with an a-national Britishness – in England only – are indeed reminiscent of the efforts made by an England-dominated United Kingdom in previous centuries to suppress the national identity, political aspirations and traditions of Scotland and Wales.

This notion of devolution enabling undue Scottish and Welsh domination of English affairs becomes less far-fetched when you bear in mind the disproportionate presence of Scottish-elected MPs that have filled senior cabinet positions throughout New Labour’s tenure, including, of course, Gordon Brown: chancellor for the first ten years and prime minister for the last two. And considering that Brown is the principal protagonist in the drive to assert and formalise a Britishness that displaces Englishness as the central cultural and national identity of the UK, this can only lend weight to suspicions that New Labour has got it in for England, which it views in the inherently negative way I described above.

However, the main grounds for believing that devolution enshrines nationalistic bias and vindictiveness towards England is the way New Labour has continued to operate the Barnett Formula: the funding mechanism that ensures that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland benefit from a consistently higher per-capita level of public expenditure than England. One thing to be observed to begin with is that Barnett is used to legitimise the continuing participation of non-English MPs in legislating for England, as spending decisions that relate directly to England only trigger incremental expenditure for the other nations.

But New Labour has used Barnett not only to justify the West Lothian Question but has attempted to justify it in itself as a supposedly ‘fair’ system for allocating public expenditure. It seems that it is construed as fair primarily because it does penalise England in favour of the devolved nations, not despite this fact. This sort of thinking was evidenced this week during a House of Lords inquiry into the Barnett Formula. Liam Byrne, the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, described the mechanism as “fair enough”, only to be rounded on by the Welsh Labour chair Lord Richard of Ammanford: “It doesn’t actually mean anything. Look at the difference between Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – is that fair?” So it’s OK for England to receive 14% less spending per head of population than Wales, 21% less than Scotland and 31% less than Northern Ireland; the only ‘unfairness’ in the system is the differentials between the devolved nations!

The view that this system is somehow ‘fair to England’ – except it’s not articulated as such, as this would be blatantly ridiculous and it ascribes to England some sort of legal personality, which the government denies: ‘fair for the UK as a whole’ would be the kind of phrase used – exemplifies the sort of nationalistic, anti-English bias that has characterised New Labour. It’s as if the view is that England ‘owes’ it to the other nations: that because it has historically been, and still is, more wealthy overall and more economically powerful than the other nations, it is ‘fair’ that it should both pay more taxes and receive less back on a sort of redistribution of wealth principle. But this involves a re-definition of redistribution of wealth on purely national lines, as if England as a whole were imagined as a nation of greedy capitalists and arrogant free marketeers that need to pay their dues to the exploited and neglected working class people of Scotland and Wales: the bedrock of the Labour movement.

In short, it’s ‘pay-back time’: overlaying the centuries-long resentment towards England’s wealth and power, England is being penalised for having supported Margaret Thatcher and her programme of privatisation, disinvestment in public services and ruthless market economics. ‘OK, if that’s how you want it, England, you can continue your programme of market reforms of public services; and if you want a public sector that is financially cost-efficient and run on market principles, then you can jolly well pay yourselves for the services that you don’t want the public purse to fund – after all, you can afford to, can’t you? But meanwhile, your taxes can fund those same services for us, because we can’t afford to pay for them ourselves but can choose to get them anyway through our higher public-spending allocation and devolved government’.

Such appears at least to be the ugly nationalistic, anti-English backdrop to the two-track Britain New Labour has ushered in with asymmetric devolution. This has allowed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to pursue a classic social-democratic path of high levels of funding for public services based on a redistributive tax system; that is, with wealth being redistributed from England, as the tax revenues from the devolved nations are not sufficient to fund the programme. Meanwhile, in England, New Labour has taken forward the Thatcherite agenda of reforming the public sector on market principles. In a market economy, individuals are required to pay for many things that are financed by the state in more social-democratic and socialist societies. Hence, the market economics can be used to justify the unwillingness of the state to subsidise certain things like university tuition fees (an ‘investment’ by individuals in their own economic future); various ‘luxuries’ around the edges of the standard level of medical treatment offered by the state health-care system (e.g. free parking and prescriptions, or highly advanced and expensive new drugs that it is not ‘cost-efficient’ for the public sector to provide free of charge); or personal care for the elderly, for which individuals in a market economy are expected to make their own provisions.

These sorts of market principle, which have continued and extended the measures to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ initiated under the Thatcher and Major governments, have been used to justify the government in England not paying for things that are funded by the devolved governments: public-sector savings made in England effectively cross-subsidise the higher levels of public spending in the other nations. Beneath an ideological agenda (reform of the public services in England), a nationalist agenda has been advanced that runs utterly counter to the principles of equality and social solidarity across the whole of the United Kingdom that Labour has traditionally stood for. Labour has created and endorsed a system of unequal levels of public-service provision based on a ‘national postcode lottery’, i.e. depending purely on which country you happen to live in. Four different NHS’s with care provided more
free at the point of use in some countries than others, and least of all in England; a vastly expanded university system that is free everywhere except England; and social care offered with varying levels of public funding, but virtually none in England. So much for Labour as the party of the working class and of the Union: not in England any more.

There’s an argument for saying that English people should pay for more of their medical, educational and personal-care needs, as they are better off on average. But that’s really not the point. Many English people struggle to pay for these things or simply can’t do so altogether, and so miss out on life-prolonging drug treatments or educational opportunities that their ‘fellow citizens’ elsewhere in the UK are able to benefit from. A true social-democratic- and socialist-style public sector should offer an equal level of service provision to anyone throughout the state that wishes to access it, whether or not they could afford to pay for private health care or education but choose not to. The wealthy end up paying proportionately more for public services anyway through higher taxes. Under the New Labour multi-track Britain, by contrast, those English people who are better off not only have to pay higher taxes but also have to pay for services that other UK citizens can obtain free of charge, as do poorer English people. One might even say that this extra degree of taxation (higher income tax + charges for public services) is a tax for being English.

But of course, it’s not just the middle and upper classes that pay the England tax; it’s Labour’s traditional core supporters: the English working class. On one level, it’s all very well taking the view that ‘middle England’ supports privatisation and a market economy, so they can jolly well pay for stuff rather than expecting the state to fund it. But it’s altogether another matter treating the less well-off people of England with the same disregard. It is disregarding working people in England to simply view it as acceptable that they should have to pay for hospital parking fees, prescription charges, their kids’ higher education and care for their elderly relatives, while non-English people can get all or most of that for free. What, are the English working class worth less than their Celtic cousins?

How much of this New Labour neglect of the common people of England can truly be put down to a combination of Celtic nationalism, anti-English nationalism, and indeed inverted-racist prejudice towards the white English working class? Well, an attribution to the English of an inherent preference for market economics – coming as it does from a movement that despised that ideology during the 1980s and early 1990s – could well imply a certain contempt for the English, suffused with Scottish and Welsh bitterness towards the ‘English’ Thatcher government.

But an even more fundamental and disturbing turning of the tables against the English is New Labour’s laissez-faire attitude to job creation, training and skills development for the English working class. The Labour government abandoned the core principle that it has a duty to assist working people in acquiring the skills they need to compete in an increasingly aggressive global market place, and to foster ‘full employment’ in England; and it just let the market take over. It’s as if the people of England weren’t worth the investment and didn’t matter, only the economy. And it’s because of Labour’s comprehensive sell out to market economics that it has encouraged the unprecedented levels of immigration we have experienced, deliberately to foster a low-wage economy; and, accordingly, a staggering nine-tenths of the new jobs created under the Labour government have gone to workers from overseas. Is it any wonder, then, that there is such widespread concern – whether well founded or not in individual cases – among traditional Labour voters in England about immigration, and about newcomers taking the jobs and housing that they might have thought a Labour government would have striven to provide for them?

How much of the liberal establishment’s contempt and fear of English white working-class racism and anti-immigration violence is an adequate response to a genuine threat? On the contrary, to what extent has that threat and that hostility towards migrants actually been brought about and magnified by New Labour’s pre-existing contempt and inverted racism towards the white working-class people of England, and the policies (or lack of them) that flowed from those attitudes?

Has New Labour, in its darker under-belly, espoused the contempt towards the ‘lazy’, ‘loutish’, disenfranchised English working class that Margaret Thatcher made her hallmark – and mixed it up in a heady cocktail together with Celtic nationalism, and politically-correct positive economic and cultural discrimination in favour of migrants and ethnic minorities?

One thing is for sure, though: English nationalism properly understood – as a movement that strives to redress the democratic and social inequalities of the devolution settlement out of a concern for all of the people residing and trying to earn a living in England – is far less likely to foster violence against innocent Romanian families than is the ‘British nationalism’ of the BNP or the various nationalisms of the other UK nations that have seen far lower levels of immigration than England.

But is there a place not just for English nationalism but for England itself in a British state and establishment that are so prejudiced against it?

5 March 2008

Correction: the Proms are all right – just leave out ‘Jerusalem’!

What a marvellous thing serendipity is! I was just thinking yesterday that it was about time I did another piece on the English Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). I took a brief break from work and wandered downstairs to make myself a sandwich; tuned in to my beloved Radio Four; and heard a news item on yesterday morning’s speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) by the English Minister of State for Culture, Margaret Hodge, entitled, ‘Britishness, Heritage and the Arts: Should cultural institutions promote shared values and a common national identity?’

The Radio Four item homed in on the bit towards the end of the speech where Ms Hodge criticises the Proms (the traditional summer-time series of (mostly) classical music concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London) as being perhaps unrepresentative of the inclusive, culturally diverse, modern sense of Britishness that the cultural ‘sectors’ (e.g. the arts and media) should seek to express, as they hark back to the jingoism of Britain’s imperial past. The BBC wheeled on Nicholas Kenyon, the former director of the Proms, who defended this particular institution as precisely embodying the cultural diversity Ms Hodge was advocating – given that during the two-month-long series of Proms as a whole, a huge variety of musical styles and traditions from throughout the world are featured. It was just the traditional ‘Last Night of the Proms’ that could possibly justify Ms Hodge’s criticisms: much waving of the Union Flag and chanting of patriotic hymns such as ‘Rule Britannia!’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Jerusalem’.

The Radio Four article was prefaced by the presenter indicating that they had invited Margaret Hodge on to the programme to discuss her speech and that she had initially accepted, only to cancel later in the morning because of some other commitment that had cropped up. The newscaster speculated whether Downing Street had stepped in to prevent her appearance, presumably out of displeasure that she had associated something that David Cameron was quoted as describing as “a great symbol of our Britishness” with something nationalistic, culturally exclusive and anti-progressive.

Indeed, later in the day, during another wonderfully fortuitously timed work break (coinciding with the PM news programme on Radio Four), it emerged that during a briefing at 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s Spokesman had clarified that, “DCMS had also stated that, in the view of Margaret Hodge, the Proms were a wonderful, democratic and quintessentially British institution, which did a fantastic job to promote serious culture to millions of people; this was a view the Prime Minister very much agreed with”. Clearly, Ms Hodge had received a little slap on the wrist from GB [Gordon Brown] for having dared to criticise a tradition that provides an opportunity for people to wrap themselves up in the Union Jack and celebrate Britain as a great nation (which is not the same thing as old-fashioned British nationalism, you understand)!

To express the contrary point of view, the PM programme brought on the folk-rock singer Billy Bragg, formerly the bard of New Labour and latterly a critic of its more conservative tendencies. He defended Margaret Hodge’s earlier (but subsequently ‘moderated’) criticism of the Proms as being not particularly representative of, or conducive towards, a culturally inclusive Britain while balancing this point of view by agreeing to some extent with Nicholas Kenyon: that the ‘problem’ was only really with the Last Night, with its jingoistic resonances and parading of the Union Jack. And this is where things got really muddled: Billy Bragg then declared that, whereas he used to be quite sceptical towards the Union Flag because of its hard-right, nationalistic associations, he now felt more positive about it as a symbol of some of the great things that Britain had achieved, including through the Empire, and of an inclusive UK formed from the coming together of different nations [seeming to align himself with GB, then]. In support of this new-found pride in the flag, he compared this to the English taking pride in displaying the Cross of St. George; and ‘no one was going to try to stop them doing so’. Wrong; this is precisely what they (i.e. the government) do try to do: promote official flying of the Union Flag (as in the guidelines published by DCMS itself) and the discouragement (and actual banning?) of any official use in England of the flag of England.

Then Billy Bragg went on to claim that the association of the Union Jack with the imperialistic overtones of the Last Night of the Proms, and absence from that occasion of the other flags of the UK, was indeed a problem. Wrong again: in all the recent pictures I’ve seen of the Last Night of the Proms, there are many Flags of St. George alongside the Union Jacks, and also Welsh flags, banners reading ‘Cymru’, and even the occasional Saltire. So in fact, even the Last Night of the Proms could be given as an example of an inclusive, multi-national UK. I’m not sure, however, that this is a reason why GB would endorse the Proms: he for one, I’m sure, would prefer it if only Union Flags were on display in the Last Night, making it a celebration of a unified Nation of Britain and not of the different nations of the UK.

Maybe the problem with the Last Night of the Proms for Bragg and Hodge, then, is not so much its UK-wide symbolism but the fact that it stands for a mono-cultural and nationalistic Britishness, as opposed to the multi-cultural, internationalist Britishness they both espouse. OK, what we’re really talking about here is an English Britishness. It’s the Englishness of this particular celebration of Britishess they don’t like; in particular, its ‘elitist’, white English middle-class character. This is the subtext of Margaret Hodge’s critique as well as the basis for Billy Bragg’s inconsistency over the Cross of St. George: OK as a symbol for the English working class but definitely not if associated with white middle-class British nationalism – the old type, that is, where Britishness was celebrated as an extension of English national identity and pride. Why else would Bragg say that we could still have a Last Night of the Proms so long as it no longer included a rendition of ‘Jerusalem’? I ask you! Of all the anthems traditionally performed at the Last Night, this is the only one that is universally thought of as an English hymn as opposed to the unmistakable Britishness of ‘Rule Britannia!’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Bragg then alluded to the fact that a bit of Vaughan Williams wouldn’t go amiss: echoes of the Vaughan Williams (non-jingoistic British) versus Elgar (jingoistic, but also less authentically, British) controversy of two weeks ago! (Whereas, actually, they’re both English.)

The dichotomy that is at work in Bragg’s and particularly Hodge’s advocacy of a culturally inclusive Britishness, and indeed of a ‘culture industry’ that promotes social inclusion, is a common one within the ‘Britological’ promotion of Britishness over Englishness. ‘Britain’ is seen as culturally inclusive, open, internationalist; whereas Englishness is associated with all the worst aspects of exclusivity, narrowness and tribal nationalism that in the past were linked with Britain’s imposition of its rule and civilisation on the peoples of the Empire, and in the present is seen in hostility towards, and separation from, the multiplicity of peoples and cultures (again, many coming from the former Empire) that continue to settle in Britain. But the paradox of this British all-inclusiveness is that it is predicated on the exclusion of Englishness, the touchstone of the old mono-cultural, national Britishness: Britishness that was the expression of a nation – England – rather than a merging of multiple nations (including the ‘former’ nation of England) into a cultural (rather than ethnic-national) unity that has progressed beyond traditional nationhood and become truly international and global.

This helps to illuminate why Margaret Hodge’s criticism of the Proms is so fundamentally misguided: she rejects it as an example of an exclusive Britishness; and yet, of course, if the Last Night traditions were jettisoned on these politically correct grounds, it is they that would end up being excluded and censored in favour of the type of supposedly more inclusive, internationalist British culture of which Ms Hodge provides examples in her speech. Why can’t the Last Night of the Proms be retained as a relatively harmless expression of a now largely moribund British patriotism that was actually inclusive of the different nations of the UK – if necessary, alongside all those other cultural celebrations of multi-culturally inclusive Britain Ms Hodge supports? Isn’t that what true cultural diversity entails: mutual tolerance of difference, including different interpretations of Britishness? But again, it is perhaps the very native, ‘tribal’ quality of this particular celebration of national British identity that Ms Hodge objects to: the fact that it’s an English Britishness and by that very token perhaps evokes a Britain defined in terms of the four indigenous nations of the UK (or five, including Cornwall) that were united – albeit in a contested form – in the English-controlled UK before devolution? In other words, it’s an ethnic-British, mono-cultural Britishness: inclusiveness limited to white British people and not extended beyond ethnic boundaries to all-comers.

Isn’t this the real subtext of Ms Hodge’s speech: the Proms as appealing to an insular, conservative, white audience – described as “a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds [in PC language, implies ‘ethnic backgrounds’] feel at ease in being part of this”? Or, as she describes the situation in her constituency of Barking in East London, “a retreat to the old narrow bonds of kinship and ‘tribe’” [in context, clearly in part a reference to English nationalism, or at least the nationalism of white English people] being associated with far-right, racist extremism. This is the big logical, ideological and political mistake that is made in arguments of this type. The fact that some people who call themselves English nationalists (or British, or indeed any type of, nationalists) are racist does not mean that any affirmation of English national identity/-ies is racist, or indeed even nationalist as understood as entailing hostility to other cultures. But somewhere down the road in the split that has occurred in the English-British identity, the British establishment has decided to try to secure a monopoly on the ‘good’ English-British values: Britain as inclusive of many cultures; England as nationalistic, exclusive and xenophobic. According to this view, by definition, only Britain and Britishness can provide the foundation for the blending of so many nationalities and cultures into something new – a new Britishness – because it is not a nationalism but an internationalism. To Britain are ascribed the positive aspects of British history and culture: the progressivism of the Empire, and the international (British) civilisation it spawned along with its liberal values.

But you could just as easily turn the whole thing on its head and associate the positive aspects of British history and culture as English, and the negative aspects (the nationalism; the aggression towards other peoples, both within the British Isles and throughout the Empire; the racism; the insularity; etc.) as British. Historically, it is probably more accurate to describe many of Britain’s great institutions and values as originally and primarily English: parliamentary democracy, libertarianism and the openness to the world beyond these shores, admittedly mixed with imperialistic and mercenary motives as the English began opening up what became the British Empire long before the Union with Scotland. The truth of the matter is that both good and bad aspects were indeed both English and British, insofar as the identity and destiny of the English merged with that of the other nations of these islands.

To ascribe the negative features of British culture and history to England and Englishness is therefore not only to perpetrate a huge historic and epistemological injustice towards the English but also has disastrous consequences in the present that militate against the declared aim to create an inclusive British-cultural identity. The first consequence is the exclusion of England as a nation in its own right, along with the English national identity – seen as ‘bad’, ‘exclusive’, ‘retrograde’ – from the new internationalist, multi-cultural Britain. This was seen in the example discussed above: a would-be exclusion of the Last Night of the Proms from the new culture owing to its old English-British-nationalist connotations. But because cultural expressions of a traditional national and ethnic identity, such as in the Proms, are mistakenly seen as nationalistic and, implicitly, racist, this results in calls for these traditions to be modified or banned. However, such responses inescapably cross over into inverted racism in their own right because they imply automatic suspicion, hostility and censorship directed towards any expression of anything redolent of ‘ethnic-English’, ‘ethnic-British’, ‘white’, or just plain self-consciously ‘English’ culture. The one nationality and ethnicity that then gets excluded from the new multi-cultural Britishness is Englishness. Indeed, one might even say that this exclusion is constitutive of the new Britain as an international entity, as opposed to its traditional status as the expression of English national identity. So we have a sort of inverted cultural apartheid: only those cultural expressions that are multi-cultural and international in inspiration are authentically British in the new ‘inclusive’ definition of the term; and there’s no such thing (at least, it’s not ‘acceptable’) as traditional white-English or white-British culture.

The second disastrous consequence of the negativisation of Englishness is that ‘immigrant’ communities are encouraged to identify as British rather than English. The illogicality of this as a supposed strategy for promoting integration is astounding. First, Britishness is positioned ideologically as an international / multi-cultural concept and identity; then you take international migrants and encourage them (through citizenship courses and ceremonies, and new forms of cultural expression) to identify as British, i.e. as international and multi-cultural. So then, what you are left with is the migrant communities affirming an identity as international-multicultural-British that is separate from the identities of the ‘native British’ people around them who identify typically as English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. In other words, rather than embedding Britishness in the already established, historic cultures and identities of the nations of the UK, and then encouraging international migrants to identify with those cultures, Britishness is elevated to an international plane; so that, in reality, no truly profound cultural integration with the existing nations of the UK on the part of migrants need take place. Instead of international settlers becoming British in the same way that British people are British (by virtue of being English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish in the first instance), it’s Britain that is made international. The net result is virtually a reversal of the intended effect; instead of immigrants integrating with the national identities and cultures of the UK, a plural, international ‘cultural identity’ of Britain evolves with which the established nations of the UK are called to identify. We have to ‘get with’ the new ‘multi-culture’, since this is essentially the same as the global culture on which Britain’s future depends.

Well, we English at least have to accept these realities and relinquish our Englishness in favour of the new British internationalism. I don’t hear such a call being directed to the Scottish and the Welsh, whose quest to reaffirm their own distinct cultures and national identities (inclusive of those of migrant communities) was not alluded to in any shape or form in Margaret Hodge’s speech. And why should it be? She is after all only the English Minister of State for Culture (the Scots and Welsh having their own culture ministers); and her exhortations to embrace a new inclusive Britishness are therefore primarily – if not exclusively – directed to the English alone.

British internationalism versus English nationalism. Problem, though. GB [Gordon Brown] wants Britain to be a nation. All this talk about cultural pluralism and the repudiation of the Proms as a case of nationalist mono-culturalism does rather militate against the idea of both migrants and native British people converging in a monolithic, unitary Britishness of the kind that you could see the Last Night of the Proms as celebrating – if you ignore the flags of England, Wales and Scotland, that is. No wonder GB slapped Ms Hodge’s wrist! It’s not just the implication that GB’s flag waving, like that of the Last Night, has slightly jingoistic overtones. No, it’s the fact that Ms Hodge’s internationalist vision of Britain is not in fact a vision of a united Britain: it’s a multi-nation, not a nation. At least, in such a Britain, we English might be able to uphold our own national identity and traditions as one ‘tribe’ among many in the land; while we can hope that, in time, the madness of seeking to achieve cultural integration by denying the distinct cultures of the UK’s nations will recede. Then perhaps, the true conditions can be created for migrant communities to come together with the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish peoples; and we can develop shared multiple national identities, rather than a divisive, imposed Britishness – whether of the unitary, statist, Brownite variety; or the plural, cultural Hodgian kind.

So let’s keep the Last Night of the Proms for now. But for heaven’s sake, don’t let them remove ‘Jerusalem’ from the programme!

10 December 2007

Flying the Flag: Union or Nation?

Is it my imagination or are more national flags being flown on public buildings and at private homes across the four countries of the United Kingdom? I was struck by this, again, when I went down to London a couple of times last week. There were certainly more flags – mostly Union Jacks – than I’d noticed before atop flagpoles next to large hotels, or billowing out above shop entrances in the place where you’d expect to see the shop sign. I can’t speak for government buildings, as I didn’t pass any.

But the appearance of Union Jacks in commercial settings was perhaps of even greater symbolic significance. It was as if they were proclaiming, “This is London you’re in now – the capital of a great, vibrant, commercial nation: the United Kingdom”. For all the controversy that now surrounds it, the Union Jack can still carry the weight of such national pride. It’s a great symbol, really: a global icon that ranks in ‘brand recognition’ right alongside the Stars and Stripes or the Communist Red Flag. No wonder that our London-centric, power-obsessed politicians are so loathe to give it up!

Nor should they, or we, really. There is no reason why the Union Jack should not continue to serve as the visual symbol for the United Kingdom in whatever form in which that state survives. This is despite the recent suggestion of Welsh Labour MP Ian Lucas that the Red Dragon from the Welsh national flag should be incorporated in the Union Flag’s design. For non-initiates, the reasoning behind this is that the three-cross design of the flag makes reference only to England (upright red Cross of St. George on white background), Scotland (diagonal white Cross of St. Andrew on dark blue background) and Ireland (diagonal red Cross of St. Patrick on white background) – but not to Wales. If I had to choose between the two options, rather than messing up the neatness and cleverness of the Union Jack’s design by sticking a red dragon on it, I’d try to incorporate into it the Cross of St. David, Wales’s patron saint, which would be consistent with the conception behind the existing flag. This is a yellow cross on a black background. One rendition of how this might look is pictured below:


For all its politically correct and historically sensitive efforts to be inclusive, however, this ‘Inclusion Jack’ is a bit of a dog’s dinner visually, and it does rather ruin a powerful national and international emblem. I am in fact quite sympathetic to the objective of adding some explicit Welsh element to the Union Flag. As the son of a Welsh mother and English father growing up in England, I myself went through a phase of feeling indignant that the Union Jack made no overt reference to Wales. That said, the need to be inclusive in this way should be less acutely felt nowadays than then. As Wales has now acquired a substantial measure of self-government and official recognition as a distinct nation, the Red Dragon can be hoisted above official buildings across that land; whereas before, if any flag had been used, it would usually have been the Union Jack. And indeed, when I travelled to rural West Wales for the funeral of a family friend a couple of months ago, I did notice that the Welsh flag was being displayed more proudly and prominently than I’m sure was the case before.

I haven’t been to Scotland for many years, but I’m certain that in these days of devolved government, the Cross of St. Andrew must also be cropping up in all sorts of places where hitherto either the Union Flag or none would have been preferred. In England, too, as is well known, the Cross of St. George has largely superseded the Union Jack in popular affection and usage. I say that, but when I spent a couple of weeks in rural Lancashire towards the start of this year, it was the Union Flag that swung from poles in pubs or country gardens, not the Cross of St. George. Whether there’s some particularly strong unionist connection in that county, or whether this preference for the Union Jack is linked to local support for the BNP (related to ethnic tensions in Lancastrian cities such as Blackburn or Burnley), I don’t know. But generally, it is the red cross on a white background that is now viewed and used as the national flag by most English people.

By the people, that is, not the state. The irony of Ian Lucas’s intervention is that he should be pushing for more inclusion of the Welsh flag within that of the Union at the very time when the official use of the Union Flag in England is perceived by many as excluding, or precluding, the use of the Cross of St. George and, with it, the affirmation of English national identity. From this perspective, it is as if calls to add the Red Dragon on to the Union Jack – however fair in one respect – are adding insult to injury: not only can English people not expect to see ‘their’ national flag flying from public buildings, but also the Red Dragon is stuck onto the British flag as a permanent reminder of a historical injustice perpetrated by the English towards the Welsh: denial of recognition as a distinct nation, rather than as just a principality subsumed into England.

For, in fact, this historical situation is now reversed: it is England that is denied any official, constitutional status as a distinct nation within the UK; while the other three countries of the Union do now enjoy semi-separate nation status. And flying the Union Jack rather than the Cross of St. George on English public and government buildings is increasingly becoming a symbol of the denial of nationhood to the English.

How can these two not unreasonable but conflicting demands be reconciled: the Welsh wish to add some overt symbol of their country to the Union Flag; and the English desire to fly the Cross of St. George rather than the Union Flag? There is a simple solution that would obviate the need to ruin the design principles or ‘brand impact’ of the Union Jack. Separate versions of the Union Flag could be authorised for each nation in the UK that would incorporate their own national flags in miniature into the top-left corner of the flag in a similar way that the Australian and New Zealand flags or the Royal Navy Ensign insert the Union Flag. Specifically, each national flag could fill the quarter of the Union Jack demarcated by the lateral left-hand and vertical top bars of the red cross, i.e. they would go over the white surround to the red cross on that part of the flag. (This is simply because it would make the English and Northern Irish flags appear neater when inserted in this way, rather than having extra bits of white around their border deriving from the Union Flag.)

This solution would mean that the Welsh could have their Union Jack plus Red Dragon. It could be made explicit in the legislation or regulations establishing these flags that each country-specific version of the Union Flag was not exclusively for use in that country alone: that each version was a fully authorised variation on the Union Jack that could be flown in any part of the Union whenever and wherever it was felt appropriate. For example, the Welsh version could be flown by Welsh Guards regiments, even those based in England, or on ceremonies or visits involving the Prince of Wales – or wherever, really.

Similarly, the English version of the Union Jack – same flag as now but with the Cross of St. George flag inserted into the top-left corner – would enable national- and local-government and other public-sector organisations to fly both the Union Flag and the English flag at the same time. Some purists and English nationalists (among whom I count myself, by the way) might object to this compromise solution, feeling that only the Cross of St. George will do. But at least my suggestion would enable both sides of the argument to be assuaged to a limited extent: the new English version of the Union Flag would be both a fully authorised UK flag, of equivalent status to the unadulterated Union Jack, and it would prominently display the English national symbol. Better to have some recognition of England’s existence as a nation within the UK – which such a country-specific version of the Union Flag neatly symbolises – than none. If nothing else, this enables cost-conscious local authorities or hospitals, for instance, to be able to display both the UK and the English flag, if they were minded to, without having to invest in a second flag pole and incurring the extra costs of maintaining two sets of flags!

I’m assuming that the Northern Irish version of the flag would use the red upright cross, red hand and crown of the Ulster flag, rather than the Cross of St. Patrick. But that could well be somewhat controversial, to say the least, and the politicians there might have to compromise on the Flag of St. Patrick, which after all is used in the Union Jack now. I could see the thing getting rather party-political in Scotland, too, with SNP-led authorities tending to prefer to fly the Scottish flag alone, while unionist party-controlled authorities might choose the Scotland-specific version of the Union Flag.

However, that would be their affair, just as it should really be England’s choice whether to fly the Union Flag or the Cross of St. George on government buildings. But until we’re free to make that choice, having a version of the Union Jack that also includes the red cross of England seems like a satisfying and, dare I say it, sensible English compromise.

24 October 2007

We wouldn’t need immigration if we banned abortion


Now there’s a statement to get up the hackles of the PC crew! In a single assertion, managing to challenge and spuriously link two cherished dogmas of the liberal: that immigration is good for Britain and should be encouraged; and that abortion is a human right that should remain enshrined in law.

But it was intriguing that on two consecutive days this week, some striking demographic statistics were released. Yesterday, came the Office of National Statistics (ONS) forecasts about UK population growth to 2031, which, among other things, predicted that there would be 4.4 million more people living here by 2016. This was made up of a natural increase of 2.3 million (i.e. the difference between the number of births and deaths) and 2.1 million from net inward migration (the difference between the number of persons immigrating and emigrating).

Then today, as the 40th anniversary of the bill that legalised abortion approached, it was reported that the number of abortions in the UK currently stands at around 200,000 per year. Well, the maths are quite easy: if all those unborn children were allowed to go to term, then there’d be an additional natural increase in the population that would be almost as big as that from net inward migration. Consequently, you could argue that there would no longer be any ‘need’ for immigration: the population could naturally grow to the same extent as it is expected to do with the high level of forecast immigration, which the government claims is necessary to support Britain’s economic growth.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. For a start, around 0.8 million of the total of 2.3 million extra inhabitants resulting from natural population growth are expected to in fact be the children of immigrants. So if you added the remaining 1.5 million to the 1.8 million unborn babies that could be saved from abortions over the nine years to 2016, you’d have an increase of a ‘mere’ 3.3 million UK inhabitants! Probably enough, though, wouldn’t you think? But there wouldn’t be enough new people of working age, which is the government’s main argument in favour of immigration. So maybe we would still have to accept a limited amount of immigration (er, shall we say up to a million over nine years?). Then, through a combination of immigration and bringing into work the great unwashed mass of the unemployed (for instance, by actually training them to do the skilled work that is required and by paying them decent wages to do the unpleasant, menial jobs that are necessary – thereby showing that we value such work), maybe we could just about muddle through, if that’s not too English a phrase.

But, of course, I’m being hypothetical and polemical: there’s no way that abortion will be abolished in the foreseeable future. So it looks like we’ll just have to accept the immigration, then! The point I’m making is that the real rate of natural regeneration is much higher than people generally realise; it’s only the existence of such a large number of abortions that artificially keeps it down. If these lost lives came to be seen as a ‘natural resource’ that the country actually needed for its future economic growth and prosperity, then much of the government’s case in favour of mass immigration would disintegrate. And moreover, these 1.8 million lives that would otherwise be culled through abortion would all be ‘British’, or most of them anyway. Instead, the government seems to prefer the idea of giving immigrants and their children the chance of a prosperous life in Britain that the abortion law denies to so many Britons. It seems that the government’s dereliction of its duties to serve the needs of the British population first and foremost extends to the unborn as well as those fortunate enough to have been born.

Looking at this from the immigration-friendly perspective of the government, there is what could be called a demographic imperative to keep the present abortion laws in place. Given that the government wants to encourage high levels of immigration for a combination of ideological and economic reasons (which are disputable – see my previous post on this subject), then it would simply be unworkable to allow an extra 200,000 British babies per year to escape the axe of abortion. That would mean the official (as opposed to the even higher unofficial) population of the UK would grow by 6.2 million by 2016. Nobody wants that much population growth. They might be prepared to buy 4.4 million, on the basis that the net contribution of immigration to that total was ‘merely’ around 2.9 million, which could then be sold to the public as having been necessary to fuel the country’s economic growth. So if population growth is going to be kept down to such ‘acceptable’, ‘manageable’ levels, we’ll just have to keep the abortion laws in place, won’t we? And let’s just forget that, in the absence of abortion, natural regeneration of the population could actually be sufficient to meet our long-term needs, so that people can be persuaded that a high level of immigration is necessary.

In short, whereas at an individual level, abortion is often (but by no means always) misused as a form of after-the-event birth control for the personal convenience of the parents concerned, at a collective level, abortion is misused by the government as a convenient form of population control: offsetting the population rise through immigration which its own policies promote.

26 September 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 September 2007

Unmasking the English (Part Four): Privacy and the Problem of Nationhood

Last and final episode of Andrew Marr’s mini-series Unmasking the English aired on BBC Radio Four this morning (and again this evening). This one revolved around Dr. Johnson, the writer of the first dictionary of the English language. Not much discussion of his groundbreaking contribution to English philology and to lexicography in general, which disappointed me as a linguist. But then that wasn’t Marr’s remit.

Instead, he concentrated on Johnson as a type of the English curmudgeon: a bad-tempered, angry and yet eloquent and witty enemy of social climbing, pretension and insincerity. With the series’ customary linkage of a figure from the past – real or fictional – with contemporary manifestations of English culture, Dr. Johnson was compared to the likes of Richard Ingrams and the satirical magazine Private Eye, and to Tory newspaper columnists railing against the turpitudes of the chattering classes and the encroachments of political correctness.

Something in all of that, without a doubt. And yet, in keeping with the pattern of the series as a whole, Marr alluded only in passing to one of the central issues raised by his subject, which could have been used to bring out a deeper understanding of the whole problematic the series was supposed to be exploring: how to get behind the public mask of the English and understand their deeper motivations. Marr referred to Johnson’s use of religious language in his writings, which, according to Marr, presented a point of difference with contemporary England, where religion is strictly a private matter. Such a statement is probably more a reflection of Marr’s own opinion that religion should be confined to the private domain than the reality of all but the most recent past (and even so). For instance, Richard Ingrams has never made any secret of his Anglican faith, which he shares with Dr. Johnson. The same open acknowledgement of faith has also characterised many Conservative columnists over the years and today, as well as the traditional Tory Party as a whole (the Church of England being ‘the Conservative Party at prayer’) and Ann Widdecombe, whom Marr introduced as the best example of “Dr. Johnson in a skirt”.

In short, there has been no lack of defenders of England as a conservative (note the small ‘c’), Christian nation. If those voices are increasingly heard mainly in private, this is arguably because much of the public discourse as purveyed by the media (including the BBC) is dominated by the liberal (small ‘l’), pluralist agenda of which Andrew Marr is such an able spokesman. Christian faith in England has, then, in part been relegated to the private space partly because it has been banished from the public domain: ‘we’re a liberal, secular Britain – tolerant to a plurality of faiths and beliefs because none of them have any privileged claim or right to our adherence – not an England, one of whose defining characteristics is its millennial Christian tradition’.

But in a sense, the de-sacralising of the public space has accentuated what is in fact a defining characteristic of Englishness, which Marr connected with traditional Tory hostility towards governmental and regulatory interference with individual freedom: our love of privacy. If the private realm is for the English the natural home of religious faith, this is because the privacy of the home is a sacred realm. The Realm – the world of the State, of the Union and of politics – rarely engages the same passions and commitment as do our private concerns: our families, homes, communities, personal pursuits and dreams.

This is one of the defining characteristics of Englishness: the private lives behind the public masks. But Marr did not really delve. He merely concluded that, because the public realm appears so devalued to the English, we have always and always will feel that England is “going to the dogs”. Well, maybe. But some of us hold out the hope for an English nation that is re-connected with English people, not a British state for ever in pursuit of the alienating goals of modernisation, secularisation and progress for their own sake. But what hope is there for England, this nation of private persons?

There’s always hope for England. That, too, is a defining national trait. Our private genius can once again become nation-building – but only when the public domain is again allowed to be sacred to us and to be our home: to be England.

7 September 2007

Is UK Immigration Policy Designed To Undermine Englishness?

There’s no doubt that the English national identity is under considerable stress at the present time: from the political and cultural privileging of Britishness over Englishness; from the fact that – through devolution – the other nations of the UK have acquired the right to define their identity and determine their destiny in separation from the UK, while English people have not been accorded the same privilege; and from the substantial recent waves of immigration that have landed up mainly on English shores rather than those of Scotland or Wales.

It’s mainly these combined pressures of devolution and immigration that have precipitated the present crisis. And, indeed, the very intensity of the efforts to reaffirm British identity and values is clearly in part a reaction to the same stresses. But is there a more profound correlation between these three strands as they affect English national identity? Could it be the case that what amounts to UK-government tolerance, if not encouragement, of the high volume of immigration over recent years is actually an affirmation of a certain vision of Britishness, opposed to what adherents of that vision might regard as ‘narrow’ English nationalism?

Let’s set out the hypothetical causal chain like this: Scottish and Welsh devolution is seen as threatening not only the survival of the United Kingdom as a political union but also challenges the integrity and universality of so-called British values. In their liberal acception, these stand at the opposite end of the spectrum to nationalist separatism and to a ‘mono-ethnic’ culture and society (e.g. ‘white Anglo-Saxon’). Indeed, Britishness is to a substantial degree assimilated to the idea of the ‘global culture’ and the values that, under the Bush-Blair axis, were thought to be universally applicable to any particular culture, e.g. liberty (including free-market economics), democracy, equality (at least, nominal equality of economic opportunity), tolerance / pluralism, etc.

The welcoming of hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of people from all over the world to make their homes and establish economic activity in Britain was seen in part as a way to reaffirm this idea of British values as at the heart of the new globalised world, and British society as a microcosm and vanguard of the inevitable mixing of races and cultures that this involves. To this extent, the reaffirmation of a trans-cultural and trans-ethnic Britain (more so than multi-cultural and multi-ethnic) represents a vision of a unity that is of such a universal character that it transcends and more than offsets any impairment to the more limited unity of the United Kingdom, made up from the political union of its constituent countries. (Britain, in this sense, represents a unity that is of an ideal / ideological character; while the ‘United Kingdom’ refers merely to the political union.) But by the same token, this idea of Britain leaves no room at all for any notion of a separate English national, ethnic or political identity.

It is perhaps in this more general sense that the widespread immigration of the past few years does help to undermine the efforts to affirm and define a distinct English cultural and political future. The new trans-cultural, trans-ethnic Britain is predicated on the denial of a supposedly mono-cultural, mono-ethnic England. Indeed, the very idea and political project of Britain has always been dependent on the rejection of a separate, isolated English identity and state: not just an island cut off from the rest of the world, but a fragmentary part of that island, with hostile neighbours. Britain has always been the persona through which England has forged its connection with the outside world and, indeed, attempted to re-mould it in its image.

Which sort of brings me to my main point. While the reaffirmation of Britishness, paradoxically in part through immigration, undoubtedly expresses a denial of English separation and separateness, it is in fact mainly English people themselves who are the willing agents of that denial. As I’ve said elsewhere, the British project is primarily an English project: ‘Britain’ has been the cultural and political vehicle through which the English have striven to conquer and order the world. In its apparent trans-nationality, Britain has been a very English form of hypocrisy and subterfuge: things done in the name of Britain can be made out to be motivated by altruistic concern and universal values; whereas, in reality, that Britain was the means for England to dominate not only its island neighbours but large portions of every continent on earth.

This has been the secret reason for the success of ‘Britain’ as an international power and global cultural powerhouse: that it’s ultimately served the English national interest. But is it the case that Britain is no longer ruling the waves of immigration that are crashing onto its shores, and England’s former imperial dominance is coming home to roost? What I mean by this is that if the integrity of the British identity starts to be severely challenged by the new immigration, this means that its value for ensuring the security of English identity and society (probably, in both senses of that word) is also impaired. And it may be necessary to re-define what English identity means in separation from the old British comfort blanket, in order to regain a stable sense of who we are, and who amongst us we’re happy to accept as our countrymen. In other words, if we can’t tell what constitutes being English any more, how can we work out who has a right to live in England or not?

Let me try and illustrate some of the extreme challenges faced by British identity and, as a consequence, English identity. In a previous post, I discussed the multiple ‘ethnic’ categories by which I was confronted when filling in an NHS form. As was subsequently drawn to my attention, these are in fact the same categories that were used in the England and Wales Census of 2001. In that previous post, I argued that the ethnic category ‘White British’ represented an attempt to establish a core Britishness identified with race; and, while this could be viewed as implicitly racist, this also denied the option of using ‘English’ as a signifier of either ethnicity or nationality – something that was not denied to other ethnic groups, who were entitled to refer to themselves as ‘African’, ‘Bangladeshi’, etc. as well as British.

Subsequently, it occurred to me that this form could be interpreted in more or less the opposite way. If the term ‘British’, as used in this set of ethnic categories, is interpreted as in part a designator of ethnicity, this means that, by a curious logical reversal, if Black-African persons who are UK citizens can call themselves ‘Black-British-African’, this also makes ‘Black African’ a possible variety of British ethnicity as well as UK citizenship; the same going for Bangladeshis and all the other national-ethnic categories on the form that are paired with the term ‘British’.

The same ‘Briticisation’ of other races and cultures does not apply to the Chinese, at least in the terms of this form. They’re simply referred to as ‘Chinese’, not ‘British Chinese’ or ‘Chinese British’. ‘British Chinese’ would do perfectly well as a description of a UK citizen from a Chinese ethnic background. But the reason why the term seems unnatural is that we don’t feel comfortable making implicitly proprietorial claims over China (British Chinese) in the way we do over parts of Africa, the Caribbean or the subcontinent of Asia. Proprietorial claims, that is, which relate to ethnicity and ‘acculturation’: the assertion that a Chinese person living in the UK could be ‘properly’, ‘truly’ British in the same implicitly ethnic way that a Black African or Asian Bangladeshi person could be.

In the case of these latter categories, an ethnic identification with Britishness (or an extension to those categories of ‘British’ as a designator of ethnicity) has come to supplement and complete a merely national identification: to be a British citizen – as opposed to, historically, merely a British subject or national by virtue of living in a British imperial dependency – implies the possession of British ethnicity. We don’t feel we should symbolically extend this to the Chinese among us because they were never part of the British empire in quite the same way – although technically, I suppose, we could invent the category ‘Chinese or British Chinese Hong Kong’ to mirror the likes of ‘Asian or British Asian Indian’ – but that wouldn’t go down well politically!

‘Multi-ethnic Britain’ means precisely this: not a multiplicity of ethnic groupings within a Britain that somehow retains a fixed and separate native-British identity above, beyond or beneath that diversity; but a ‘British multi-ethnicity’. Britain is a nation that went out to conquer the world and has now incorporated all its formerly subject nations into its own identity, transforming Britishness from a nationality to an ‘internationality’: or a trans-national and trans-ethnic identity, as I referred to it earlier.

Let’s note in passing that this means that there are two contradictory ways in which the advocacy of a unitary Britishness suppresses any claims that Englishness deserves a separate national or ethnic status: 1) the view that if there is any native-British genetic-racial baseline, this is to be referred to as ‘British’ and not ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, etc.; and 2) the politically correct perspective that questions what I’ve referred to as the implicitly ‘racist’ implications of such British mono-ethnicity and considers that all ethnic groupings living in Britain have the right to be called ‘British’ with respect to ethnicity, not just their national / cultural background. But while this contradiction denies any role for a separate English identity, it also reveals the lack of any consensus as to what truly defines British ethnicity and nationality.

Do all ethnic groupings living in Britain have the implied right to call their ethnicity British? No, not Chinese apparently, as I’ve just remarked; and also not other categories that don’t conform to the ‘already-British-anyway’ assumption that attaches to people hailing from Britain’s former colonies. These are, on the Census / NHS form: ‘Other white background’; ‘Other mixed background’; and ‘Any other ethnic group’. In other words, these are the terms that are likely to apply to many of the more recent immigrants: Eastern Europeans; immigrants from non-European, non-former-British colonies; and mixed-race individuals (including Chinese-British) that are combinations involving either of the above, even if they are combined with one of the ‘British’ categories. The reason why I say these are not regarded as ‘properly’ British ethnic groupings is a) that the term British is not applied to them; and b) that parallel to the absence of ‘British’, the adjectives describing their ethnicity begin with lower-case letters – e.g. ‘Other white background’ versus ‘White British’ or ‘Black British African’, the use of the capital implying that there is some literal [meaning ‘to the letter’] equivalence and identification between the term that designates the ethnicity and the term that refers to the nation or region / continent. [OK, maybe pushing the point a bit there.]

But the point is, the whole thing is completely riddled with contradictions and is useless as a means of establishing a definition either of British nationality or ethnicity. For instance, many of the individuals corresponding to these ‘non-properly-British’ categories will be UK citizens and might wish to describe their ethnicity in British terms. Equally, while Eastern Europeans from EU countries have a right of residence here, they could well be viewed by many British people has having less priority in the ‘queue’ of people wanting to settle here than people from former imperial colonies, including those that are not from either Africa, the Caribbean or subcontinental Asia – e.g. Belize, Nepal or Australia.

This is clearly one of the unacknowledged reasons for the degree of anxiety that the more recent waves of immigration have provoked: that this is a mass migration on a par with that of the Asians and Afro-Caribbeans who came into this country from the 1950s to 1970s; but that it involves what seems to be a random and (in the light of the terror threat) scary mix of ethnicities from around the world, in contrast to our former imperial subjects for whom we felt a paternalistic sense of responsibility. Those former waves of immigration remained within the British comfort zone and did not appear to challenge British identity or culture. In the present, however, the multiplication of alien ethnic categories appearing to compete for British status appears to be straining things to the point of bursting – let alone frustrating any aspirations people might have to affirm their Englishness.

This has contributed to the formation of a conspiracy theory among some English-nationalist sympathisers (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m an English-nationalist sympathiser myself) that the UK government’s laissez-faire attitude towards immigration has been part of calculated plan (possibly inspired by Scots in positions of political power) to dilute the English community and franchise; i.e. to reduce the proportion of the population that is English and so diminish their political influence, particularly in relation to calls for an English parliament and / or independence.

While such conspiracy theories are an understandable offshoot of the stress which the English national identity is currently under, they are problematic on a number of levels. For a start, as the current and previous discussion on British ethnicity have attempted to show, it is extremely difficult to define or agree what constitutes English nationality or ethnicity in the present situation; and by extension, to know exactly what a phrase such as ‘diluting the English community’ might mean. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t have a working definition of Englishness, because if you abandon this concept altogether, you’re giving in to the official view that there is only a British and not English national identity.

One of the reasons why phrases such as ‘diluting the English community / population’ are problematic is they could be read as embodying an assumption that the ‘English community’ is defined ‘properly’ only in ethnic terms. However, apart from the increasing proportion of English residents that are recent or longer-term immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, how does this point of view deal with the growing mixed-race population: persons of both ‘White-British’ / ‘White-English’ and non-native British heritage? Does diluting the English community equate to diluting the ‘English race’ here? But do not the direct descendants of English people have an inalienable right to call themselves ‘properly’ English just as much as those who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are of more unadulterated English lineage?

All the same, the perception that the English population is being diluted, diminished or marginalised is certainly in part accentuated by the very ethnic terms that are used to categorise the population, such as those of the form that I’ve discussed. The difficulties connected with these categories ironically appear even more acute in the expanded list of ethnicities recommended by the Commission for Racial Equality, which are intended to be more inclusive and to make allowance for people wishing to declare themselves as English in the first instance, rather than British.

This extended ethnic set lists English, Scottish and Welsh as sub-categories first of White and then of British. This makes White-British-English – for many, the core definition of English ethnicity-nationality – only one out of 22 ethnic categories. Moreover, the atomising of British identity into so many categories and sub-categories means that many people who would tick the box ‘English’ if they were offered only national categories that reflected their cultural affinities and personal attachments are now invited to select one of the many other options on offer, from the more outlandish (e.g. ‘Gypsy’ or ‘Irish traveller’ – two separate categories) to the more mainstream such as Welsh and Scottish: somebody of mixed Anglo-Scottish parentage who’s lived all their life in England might be tempted to tick the Scottish box for political or career reasons, for instance, whereas ‘English’ might be more accurate as a description of their personality and cultural background. And I ask you, this is the Commission for Racial Equality we’re talking about, and they’re using the term ‘Gypsy’, presumably to refer to Romanis, for which Gypsy is generally considered a derogatory term nowadays. And, by the way, the Wikipedia listing for ‘Gypsy’ considers ‘Irish travellers’ to be a possible sub-category of Gypsy as opposed to Romani, which the CRE appears to assimilate to ‘Gypsy’! Doesn’t inspire confidence that they can get the relations between Britain and its constituent national tribes right!

As the above example of the Anglo-Scottish person demonstrates, this expanded list of ethnic categories and the way the form is designed not only makes White-British-English (the only guise under which you’re able to declare English ethnicity-nationality) appear to be a minority but also has the practical effect of reducing the number of respondents who will tick the England box. Some liberal-minded English folk, as another instance, might shy away from selecting a rather restrictive definition of Englishness and opt for the more ‘inclusive’ British. The positioning of ‘British’ on the form – the fact that it is listed as the primary sub-category of ‘White’ and the first one as you go down the list – naturally encourages people to select ‘British first’, leaving ‘English’ unselected, as you’re not supposed to tick both boxes. Scots and Welsh people, however, would be more inclined, and are often politically encouraged, to select ‘Scottish’ and ‘Welsh’ as opposed to British.

More insidiously still, if you look at this form (and I do invite you to hit the link), the sub-categories of ‘British’ (English, Scottish, Welsh and ‘Other, please write in’ (‘excludes NI’, as the small print on product labels often reads)) have less implied logical or proprietorial precedence than every other ethnic category: all the others (including Gypsy and Irish traveller) are listed on the same level – with the same degree of indenting – as ‘British’. So in fact, rather than there being 22 categories, there are really 18 categories and four sub-categories, one of which is the majority population of the UK: culturally English people.

I say ‘culturally’ here because it is as their ‘cultural background’ that this particular form invites respondents to view their ‘national’ identities (e.g. English, Welsh, etc.) as opposed to, or in conjunction with, their ethnic identities (White, Mixed, Asian, Black and Chinese or other). The 2005 consultation document on the 2011 census at least rectifies this implied relegation of Englishness to the status of sub-sub-category by putting it on the same level as all the other ethnic groupings; and it also corrects the ‘discriminatory’ use of lower-case adjectives for ‘non-properly-British’ ethnic groups. But there are still 20 categories to negotiate and they’re defined in ethnic terms, referred to as ‘single ethnic group categories’ – begging all the questions about the relations between ethnicity and nationality, the atomisation of Britishness, and the implied lack of pre-eminence accorded to Englishness – placing ‘English’ in a sort of minority of one out of 20 without any explicit privilege, although it’s still the first in the list. For reference, these 20 categories are as follows:

  1. White English (for Census returns in England)
  2. White Welsh (for Census returns in Wales)
  3. Other White British
  4. White Irish
  5. Other White background
  6. Mixed: White and Black Caribbean
  7. Mixed: White and Black African
  8. Mixed: White and Asian
  9. Mixed: Other Mixed background
  10. Indian
  11. Pakistani
  12. Bangladeshi
  13. Chinese
  14. Other Asian background
  15. Black Caribbean
  16. Black African
  17. Other Black background
  18. Arab
  19. Gypsy/Romany/Irish Traveller
  20. Other Ethnic Group

Alongside, and in addition to, these ‘single ethnic group categories’, the consultation asked for people’s reactions to an alternative / complementary set of ethnic categories referred to as ‘combined ethnic group categories’ – aggregates of the above, as follows:

  1. White (categories 1 to 4)
  2. Mixed (categories 5 to 9) [er, isn’t No. 5 ‘Other White background? ED]
  3. Asian or Asian British (categories 10 to 14) [well, at least the Chinese are now accorded Asian British status – ED]
  4. Black or Black British (categories 15 to 17)
  5. Other ethnic groups (categories 18 to 20)

The point of all this is to demonstrate the extent to which British and English identity and ethnicity has become such a (very English?) muddle. In our (English) efforts to bend over backwards and be inclusive and accommodating to the sensitivities of every other ethnic group, and to be non-discriminatory, we’ve ended up being not only unable to define what constitutes British nationality and a justifiable claim to UK residence and even citizenship; but also we’ve ended up denying any sort of privileged or even just clearly defined status to English people as (still) the majority ethnic-national grouping within Britain. And we’ve done this in the name of a trans-ethnic, trans-national ideal of Britain.

How can this be redressed? It’s a complex problem, so the answer will not be simple. But one way to at least begin to work ourselves out of the conceptual muddle would be to define national identity (while fully separate political structures still do not exist) in cultural rather than ethnic terms; and then to have the ethnic categories as secondary, qualifying descriptions. This would clearly separate out the national and ethnic terms that have become so ambiguously and insidiously mixed up; and it would enable the majority population (the English) to declare themselves as such.

So, for instance, if I was putting together a form of this sort, I would have cultural / national identities first, and list ‘ethnic’ identities second. The cultural / national list would ask people to specify what they regarded as their primary cultural identity (referred to below as ‘preferred cultural identity’), e.g. do they feel more English than Scottish (if they are of mixed parentage), or more or less English than Caribbean (if they are a first-, second- or subsequent-generation person from that ethnic background). The list might read:

  1. English
  2. Scottish
  3. Welsh
  4. Northern Irish
  5. Cornish
  6. Irish (Republic)
  7. Other European
  8. Combination of any of No.’s 1 to 7 above if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)
  9. African
  10. Caribbean
  11. Chinese / Hong Kong
  12. Jewish
  13. Subcontinental Asian [this category could be broken down into three (Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani) if the organisation soliciting the information had a justifiable need to quantify the different subcontinental Asian populations, e.g. typically, in a census or NHS form!]
  14. Combination of any of No.’s 9 to 13 with any, or any combination, of No.s 1 to 8, if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)
  15. Combination of any of No.’s 9 to 13 with any other of No.’s 9 to 13, if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)
  16. Any other culture (please specify)
  17. Any combination of No. 16 with any other named culture above if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)

The list of ethnic groupings could then be left very simple, e.g.:

  1. White / European / Caucasian
  2. Black / African / Caribbean
  3. Asian
  4. Any combination of the above (please specify)
  5. Other (please specify)

This way of doing things would have numerous benefits. For a start, it would enable people of whatever race who identify as English (and Scottish, Welsh and Irish) to state this with pride and confidence. It would also enable persons of mixed heritage (both mixed-race and descendants of immigrants) to affirm both parts of their identity in a way that more accurately reflects their subjective feelings and identifications. For instance, the grandchild of an immigrant from Nigeria whose parents were also of the same ethnic background could declare themself to be both English (culturally and nationally) and African (ethnically) – without the national and ethnic categories being mixed up in a manner that forces that individual to class themselves as something (e.g. Black British African) that makes them feel and appear not to be fully accepted as English.

If you’ve stayed with me on this mini-journey and read my previous post, you’ll remember that in the 2001 Census-based NHS form, I ticked myself as ‘Other white background’ even though (in fact, because) I’m of ‘mixed’ English, Welsh and Irish descent. On a form such as the one I’m advocating, I could select my actual cultural / national identification (English) without having to quibble; but if I wanted to declare my ‘mixed’ cultural background, I could do so, too. My mixed-race adopted sister, who’s as English as I am, could also select English as the national / cultural identity and No. 4 on the ethnic list (any combination of the above) without feeling she had to classify herself as anything by implication ‘less than’ properly English or British as she would have to do in the 2001 Census, e.g. White & Black African.

However, this list or one based on similar principles is unlikely to be adopted any time soon, as it gives precedence to English national and ethnic identity over British. Better, in the eyes of the powers that be, to have a total muddle over national identity in the name of an all-inclusive Britishness than to promote a clearly and non-discriminatorily defined – and proudly asserted – Englishness.

15 July 2007

British Ethnicity

Dicey subject, this! The reason I bring it up, apart from enjoying a bit of controversy (!), is that I was filling in a medical form earlier this evening, which asked you to state which ethnic group you belonged to. The options were as follows:

White British

White & Black African

Asian or Asian British Pakistani

Black or Black British African

White Irish

White & Asian

Asian or Asian British Bangladeshi

Other Black background

Other white background

Other mixed background

Other Asian background


White & Black Caribbean

Asian or Asian British Indian

Black or Black British Caribbean

Any other ethnic group

I entered, ‘Other white background’, even though someone of my background would be expected to declare ‘white British’. My reason for doing this wasn’t an English-nationalist protest about being made to refer to myself as British rather than English, although it does seem – or could be construed as – discriminatory that someone of an Irish background is allowed to specify Irishness as part of their ethnicity while someone of an English background is not allowed to declare their Englishness.

The problem, rather, is the fact of using the word ‘British’ to denote ethnicity at all. Firstly, if there is such a thing as a ‘white-British’ ethnic group as distinct from a ‘white-Irish’ group – which is disputable, to say the least – then my own ethnicity could not really be encompassed by either but would have to be described as ‘white British & white Irish’, on the analogy of the mixed-race groups such as ‘white & black African’. This is because I had an Irish grandmother on my father’s side, and my father has joint-British and -Irish nationality, which makes me ‘mixed-race’, or ‘of mixed background’ in the terms of the form.

Secondly, ‘British’ is being used inconsistently as a signifier of ethnicity on the form. In relation to the use of the term ‘white British’ – ignoring the politically-correct addition of ‘white Irish’ for the moment – it is reasonable to suppose that it implies that there is such a thing as a distinct, white ethnic group that you might call ‘indigenous or native Britons’. This implication is further supported by the use of the option ‘other white background’, which is clearly not intended to be used in the contrary way that I did but must refer to the general category of ‘white-European’ (as opposed to ‘white British’), encompassing anything from Scandinavians to Mediterraneans and Turks. When crossing the box for that category, I wondered in fact whether I would be assumed to be originally or ancestrally from France or Eastern Europe, for instance, even if I was a British national.

And this is the point: shouldn’t the British option have read, ‘white or white British European’ if it was going to be consistent with categories such as ‘black or black British Caribbean’ and ‘Asian or Asian British Pakistani’? The first term (‘black’) in the string ‘black British Caribbean’ is the real signifier of ethnicity (as is ‘white’ and ‘Asian’); the third term (‘Caribbean’ or ‘Pakistani’) denotes the region or country from where that ethnicity originates, as related to the individual concerned.

However, ‘British’ for the Black Caribbean or the Asian Pakistani is merely an optional extra designating national identity rather than ethnicity. It is being assumed that someone ticking such a box might say, ‘yes, I’m black and of Caribbean descent but I’m really British, too’ – but you can decide to waive the British bit and it won’t affect your ethnicity. The white person of British descent, on the other hand, has no choice but to accept ‘British’ as the designator both of their nationality and ethnicity: I’m not an ethnically white person of European heritage who chooses to call myself British (and am in fact a British national) but I’m ethnically British as well.

Does it matter that some UK citizens can effectively choose to have three ethnic-national identities while others are only allowed one? The Asian person in the above example is able to define themselves as (ethnically) Asian / (nationally) British / of Pakistani (family) background. The white-British person, on the other hand, is considered to be only British in all three respects.

This does matter, for a number of reasons. First, it’s rather disingenuous. You could view forms like this as having little to do with ethnicity. In reality, they’re a coded way to gather cultural information about the patient, such as religious affiliation (if they’re an ‘Asian British Bangladeshi’ or an ‘Asian British Pakistani’, for instance); and also to elicit census-type information enabling statisticians to track things like the distribution of immigrant-origin communities, their health problems and their use of public services.

Second, it’s not what you’d call conducive to cultural and national integration if ‘Britishness’ for some races (and it’s explicitly framed in ethnic terms by such forms) is a kind of optional extra that you can choose to take on, if you wish, while holding on to an ‘ethnic’ identity (a more profound identification) that actually ties you not just to a different race but to a different nation (e.g. Pakistan, India or China on this form).

Third, it is in fact rather discriminatory if ‘British’ is an optional extra for people of non-British family origin but not optional for people of British descent. Such people might, for example, wish to adopt a different designator of national identity to ‘British’ while retaining ‘British’, ‘white’, ‘European’ or something else entirely as the descriptor of their ethnicity. So, for instance, why can’t someone describe themself as ‘white English British’, if it’s legitimate for others now to call themselves ‘white Irish’ or ‘Asian Pakistani’ while at the same time being British nationals? ‘White English’ would not necessarily need to be a reinvention of the intrinsic linkage that my NHS form appeared to be making between the ‘white race’ and Britishness; but the ‘English’ could stand for the idea of the individual’s family’s country of origin (their ‘background’), which they could choose either to associate with or uncouple from Britishness in a national sense.

Official forms like this do not allow any separation between British statehood and English, Scottish or Welsh nationality and identity defined in a more personal, familial and cultural way; but they will allow a separation of that sort for ‘other races’. In this, for all its politically-correct contortions, my NHS form is quite racist: it implies that to be a truly British person, you can only be ‘white-British’. Any other use of the British tag by people of other ethnic origins is a sort of value-added extra and as it were a metaphorical national Britishness, which can never be on a par with ‘authentic’ British ethnicity that is automatic and not an option for the persons concerned.

In this, we have an illustration of the fallaciousness of Britology, which attempts to establish a core, timeless Britishness. In this instance, it’s identified with race. But there is no such thing as a British race that all who trace their family origins in Britain are obliged to adhere to. Britishness is a label we can reject and, by doing so, usher in a more open, diverse nation in which ethnically ‘British’, ethnically black and ethnically Asian people are all equally entitled and welcome to be called English.

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