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:

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

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

Thanks again for contacting us.

Regards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 November 2009

Will Afghanistan crystallise Britain’s ‘Russian moment’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog at WordPress.com.