Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

8 July 2008

What are we fighting for? Libertarians and nationalists must make common cause

There has been much discussion recently – including on this blog – about whether English nationalism can be reconciled with progressive politics; and whether progressives need to espouse the nationalist cause, associate it with left-of-centre values, and thereby prevent it from falling into the hands of the far right.

I would go further. I would say not only that English nationalism could and should be taken up as a progressive cause but that it should also be at the forefront of the great cause célèbre of the moment: the fight to preserve our civil liberties, currently being championed by the former Conservative shadow home secretary David Davis through the by-election he has called to force a public debate on the issues.

I would recommend to my readers the excellent article by Anthony Barnett of the OurKingdom blog on David Davis’s stand and its significance, if they haven’t already come across this. I left a long’ish comment on it, which I reproduce here, as it summarises my thinking and leads to the point I want to make now:

“This is why we should have the confidence to celebrate the fact that a leading politician is taking issues of principle and government to the people, irrespective of his party politics.

“Especially in Britain (or should I say England, as arguably Alex Salmond has already done this in Scotland).”

Naturally, I see this caveat – “or should I say England” – as key. You won’t see Scottish or Welsh nationalists mounting your barricades, as they’re not interested in building open, representative and constitutional British democracy.

The way I’m interested in framing the issue is as follows: is the British state and parliament losing its democratic legitimacy as a consequence of measures such as 42 days and identity management; or is its recourse to such measures a consequence of the fact that it is losing its legitimacy? One of the truths that the database society manifests is that government no longer trusts the people; and it no longer trusts the people because it has lost the trust of the people.

But it’s not just about government but about the state: the British state, in particular. You’re right to link the ‘transformational government’ programme to the break down of the unitary state that the Labour government itself initiated through devolution. The whole British establishment knows that it is engaged in a battle for its very survival and that its legitimacy to represent and speak for the different nations of Britain has been fundamentally and fatally undermined.

And this is why, in more than a merely metaphorical or rhetorical sense, every citizen becomes a potential terrorist: someone whom the government suspects of wishing the British state as presently constituted to fall apart – which growing ranks of its citizenry do in fact wish. 42 days and systematic identity management across all government departments are of a piece, in that they are about – as you put it, quoting from ‘Who do they think we are?’ – discovering the “deep truth about the citizen (or business) based on their behaviour, experiences, beliefs, needs or desires”.

In other words, it’s about finding out who is an enemy of the state: the enemy within. For most of us, ID cards and CCTV surveillance are ‘sufficient’ for the state apparatus to reassure itself that we are not a serious threat. For the rest of us, there’s 42 days. But the danger is in the blurring, in the eyes and state machinery of paranoid control, between legitimate, democratic antagonism towards the state, and illegitimate, physically violent hostility: terrorism.

I’m an enemy of the British state, in that I’d like to see it replaced by a federal state or abolished altogether (i.e. through Scottish and English independence). And if we had a federal state, this should have much less central power, with most of the national-level decisions taken by an English parliament and a much stronger local-government sector. Does this make me ‘suspect’ in the eyes of the database state? Probably, yes: and therein lies its true danger.

But we need to be clear that the fight is not just with ‘the state’ in some universal sense; but with the British state. And this is because it’s primarily an English struggle, as the Scots and Welsh are pursuing their own paths towards constitutional democracy. And what will emerge, if the libertarians are successful in the present fight, will almost certainly not be a new written constitution, bill of rights and representative democracy for Britain but for England. Indeed, it’s fundamentally because the people of England have lost their faith in the legitimacy of the British state to govern them that the government is so concerned to manage and orchestrate their British identity in the first place.

And it is to popular English national sentiment, and to the sense of our traditional English liberties, that the libertarian cause will have to appeal if it is to touch the hearts and minds of the Sun-reading class.

What I want to say here follows on from these points. The libertarian and nationalist cause in this country have fundamentally the same goals and should see themselves as natural allies. ‘This country’ being England, let it be understood. Put simply, we’re both pushing for an end to the British state as currently constituted, and want a proper representative democracy – responsive to the needs, concerns and sentiments of the people – backed up by a new constitutional settlement and preferably a bill of rights.

But the reality that the libertarians need to get their head round is that this new constitutional settlement must radically address and resolve the asymmetry with which the different nations of the UK are presently governed. There is no way back to the old unitary UK, and the new constitution cannot be one that applies in a monolithic way to the whole of ‘Britain’. The unitary UK no longer exists, and to pretend that it does – as the government has attempted to do since devolution – is either wilful deceit (an attempt to suppress English aspirations for democratic self-governance) or blind self-deception. Similarly, there is no stock of idealism, aspiration, energy and commitment that could unite the English, Scots and Welsh behind a common cause for a new British constitution and a system of governance that pretended to accommodate and perpetuate the present muddled and iniquitous devolution settlement.

The only way forward for the libertarian movement is to accept that there can be no unitary-British process of constitutional reform: the Scots and the Welsh are seeking and articulating their own way forward, and the aspirations of those countries for national self-determination cannot simply be subsumed and channelled into a single British constitutional process. Which means that, for the rest of us, the process is of necessity an English process. The difference, for the time being at least, between the libertarian and the nationalist is merely that the latter regards this necessity as being also a virtue. But it can become so for the libertarian, too, especially if the process results in the outcomes that libertarians have sought for so long: electoral reform; an executive accountable to parliament; a parliament accountable to the people; a truly independent judiciary respecting our age-old, English civil liberties, such as habeas corpus and privacy; etc.

Indeed, I would say that accepting that this process has got to be an English one in the first instance, and espousing this as a positive thing in its own right, actually presents the only realistic possibility of achieving the libertarian objectives in the present circumstances. This is firstly because an English solution – a new English constitutional settlement – is the only realistic goal, for the reasons I’ve set out: no more unitary British fixes to the broken Union. Secondly, it’s the only way that the libertarian cause, such as it has been taken up by David Davis, can become a truly popular cause. This is – as I set out in my comment on Anthony Barnett’s article – because the more profound reason why Westminster politicians and the British government are no longer trusted is because they are out of touch with the English people and are not properly accountable to them: a government that does dual purpose as a UK and as an English administration, elected through a ludicrously disproportionate voting system, and by the votes of Scottish and Welsh people, headed up by a Scottish PM and several senior Scottish ministers who make laws for England but can’t be voted out by English people; whereas the people of Scotland and Wales can vote for two governments – one specifically for their countries, with policy agendas directly addressing the needs and concerns of their countries; and one for reserved UK matters (and for England-only matters to boot).

And then, on top of all this, an emasculated parliament that dutifully performs the will of the executive through a combination of misplaced party loyalty and corrupt deal making, and which is therefore unable to defend the freedoms or represent the will of the people; but which still has the nerve to claim that its ‘sovereignty’ is sacrosanct – as if this had anything to do with the sovereign will of the people, rather than being merely a reference to the sovereign power of the monarch as enacted by an executive whose only claim to a democratic mandate is an election held at its own whim where it is awarded sweeping majorities purely and simply because of the crazy electoral system – and certainly not because of the actual votes of the English people.

This has got to stop. And we need a new constitutional settlement for England. Forget about the British dimension for the moment; that’s out of our hands – ‘our hands’ meaning, of course, the hands of the English. As English people, we have to seek a democratic solution for England, and leave the Scots and Welsh to work out their own destiny. What we can do, however – and this is perhaps the only chance for any British state to survive – is frame our new constitution in such a way that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish can choose to join us or not. By this, I’m referring to the fact that there are two dimensions to the reform process:

  1. an English bill of rights, which would enshrine the fundamental, universal principles and liberties I’ve alluded to, e.g. parliamentary accountability, representative democracy, judicial independence, freedom until charged of an imprisonable offence, innocence until proven guilty, etc. There’s nothing wrong in such a bill of rights being referred to as English rather than British; if such a statement is a product of the English people themselves freely articulating and agreeing to a set of fundamental principles, then it should justly and proudly be called English. There’s nothing to then prevent the Scots and Welsh adopting those principles wholesale as laying the foundation for their own governance, or adapting them to their different circumstances and, in the case of Scotland, juridical principles;
  2. the specific forms of governance that are devised in accordance with such principles, and which would form the basis of a new English constitution. In this aspect of the process, we – the English people – could devise a federal, Britain-wide system that could accommodate the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish if they wished to be part of it. If we got the design right, they might decide not to go off on their own. But, in order for that to happen, there would have to be a high degree of autonomy for each of the nations of the UK, so as to give expression to the aspirations for national self-determination in each of them, including, of course, in England. The nations of the present UK would become the primary sources of sovereign authority in the land – sovereign because answerable to their people – and the national parliaments would have to have equal powers, including those of initiating primary legislation and raising all the taxes required to fund the programmes for which they were responsible.

A multi-national, federal constitutional settlement such as this could potentially balance out the four nations’ aspirations for autonomy with the wish to remain in a union of friendship and co-operation in matters of mutual interest, which would be the domain of a federal British government. A constitutional settlement which, on the other hand, tried to impose a unitary British bill of rights and written constitution would be bound to provoke resistance and resentment on the part of Scots and English alike; whereas, letting the Scots and the Welsh appropriate ever greater powers to their devolved bodies while denying the parity of a similar national parliament to the English might just drive the placid English into revolt.

But the important point is that the formulation and realisation of this new federal system of governance should be driven primarily by the English, and not imposed on them from above by the British government, as in the present government’s stymied Governance of Britain programme. We need to devise a federal system that protects the rights of the smaller nations of Britain, so their will cannot be overridden. It would have to be a system they wanted to join; and that’s really how the choice should be formulated: a comprehensive settlement, addressing English demands for freedom and democracy, that the other UK nations should be offered the choice of joining if they wish. As opposed to a process of drift whereby the other nations elect to abandon the rotten British ship, and we English will not have worked out a new system of governance to protect our rights, and give proud and positive expression to England and Englishness, which will otherwise be merely the default option in any case. Such a declaration of intent might give some decent impetus to the whole process of redrawing the national-constitutional map of these islands, and bring the agonising death of the unitary UK to a swift and merciful end. So, we – the English people – would say to our neighbours: ‘OK, you’ve been working your way towards self-governance; now we in England are going to recast our forms of governance, and reformulate our rights, and you can join us – with your national rights and democratic will protected – if you wish, or not’.

But it’s down to us, the English people, to seize the initiative and set the agenda. After all, if we don’t stand up for our freedoms, the British parliament has shown itself unwilling and unable to protect them.

12 June 2008

Campaign For Plain England No. 8: The BBC is told to ‘say England’

I can confirm that I am not Professor Anthony King, the author of an independent report commissioned by the BBC Trust, which appeared yesterday. I feel I need to point this out, as so much of the report could have been lifted directly from the analyses in this blog – particularly, this Campaign For Plain England series – of the way news reporting frequently describes the England-only decisions and statements of government as if they related to the whole of the UK.

So much of my analysis is there:

  • the way in which the TV or radio audience is often not “made aware by clear labelling which facts relate to which nations of the UK”
  • the way in which this leads viewers or listeners to assume that “the story applied to the whole UK when it did not”
  • the “common practice for presenters and newsreaders to mention at the top of a story that the story related only to England but then never to mention that fact again, even in the course of a lengthy programme”
  • the fact that “it was extremely rare for an attempt to be made to compare and contrast an event or development in England with a comparable event or development in one of the devolved nations”
  • the fact that in the Radio Four Today programme’s coverage of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] commitment to train British workers for British jobs (which in reality meant only English workers and training), “the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ were used only three times in the course of six items; the words ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ were used 46 times, and there were two unexplained references to the UK and ‘the country'”
  • and the fact that this lack of clarity was very much reflected in the government’s own communications, as exemplified by a press release that left it to a footnote at the end to make clear that “this press notice relates to England only”. Actually, in my experience, the wording is usually even more insulting: “This press notice relates to ‘England’ [in quotation marks] only”.

The focus of Professor King’s report is somewhat broader than my analyses. As he puts it, “the BBC Trust . . . asked us, in essence, a single question: in recent years, has the BBC’s UK-wide network news, current-affairs and factual programming kept pace with – and responded adequately and appropriately to – the United Kingdom’s changing political, social, economic and cultural architecture?” His answer to this question is an emphatic ‘no’. Specifically, he criticises not only the way England-only stories are misleadingly presented as UK or ‘British’ ones; but also the failure to report adequately, in national UK news, on politics and government in the devolved nations, which would properly inform people (particularly, English people) about the different ways the nations are governed, allowing them to make informed comparisons of the very divergent policies being pursued by each national government. The two failings are obviously interdependent: if England-specific news is presented as if it were UK-wide, then it would be rather inconsistent to make a big effort to point out how differently things are being done in the other UK countries.

Well, it’s nice to be able to say ‘I told you so’ once in a while! Where I take issue with Professor King is in two minor but significant areas. First, he refers to the fact that media present England-only stories as if they applied to the whole of the UK as exhibiting “a general bias in favour of stories about England or telling stories from an England perspective” and as “Anglocentric”. This is despite the fact that he also makes clear – as in one of the examples I refer to above – that ‘England’ is often hardly mentioned explicitly in such reports, and everything is described as relating to ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’. It scarcely seems fair to call this ‘Anglocentric’. It’s only Anglocentric insofar as England precisely is not differentiated from the UK (and hence English politics is not differentiated from Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politics). In other words, such stories articulate an assimilation of England to the UK / Britain, such that it amounts to a replacement of ‘England’ by ‘Britain’: when politicians and media reports really mean England, they say Britain.

This relates to my second point of divergence from Prof. King: his diagnosis of why this ignoring of the differences in the politics of the UK nations has occurred, even on the part of the BBC with its public-service remit. The Professor identifies this as reflecting the London- and Westminster-centric mindset of the national media, and their being “accustomed to a nation in which almost everything that really matters – politically, culturally, socially, financially – happens in or near London”. There is also a “symbiosis between BBC journalists and Westminster politicians. . . . They have a shared professional interest in convincing themselves – thereby perhaps unwittingly convincing
others – that nothing has changed, that God is still in his heaven and that power, real
power, is still located uniquely in the Palace of Westminster”.

It’s with this ‘perhaps unwittingly’ that I disagree. The failings in the BBC’s news reporting are so completely consistent with government practice that it is hard not to come to the conclusion that there is deliberate collusion between Westminster politicians and BBC journalists. The piece that is missing from Professor King’s analysis – in fairness, it wasn’t part of his brief – is a study of how government has practiced to deceive in exactly the same way: referring systematically to ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’ where England is really intended.

Professor King is pointing to a traditional mindset that did, and still does, exist: the identification between England and Britain, reflecting the fact that England was the centre of power of a unitary UK that no longer exists. But, overlaying this under New Labour in the post-devolution world, has been a more sinister and deliberate refusal to acknowledge that so much of the work of the UK government applies to England alone. And the reason why this has been done is that the establishment (and this includes the opposition parties, which carry on exactly the same deceit) doesn’t want the English public to be aware of the anomaly that England is the only UK country that doesn’t have a devolved national parliament to deal with its nation-specific affairs. Hence, playing on English people’s traditional identification of England with the UK, and bolstering the illusion by plentiful references to ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’ when the subject matter being discussed involves England only, is a deliberate tactic to prevent English people from grasping the realities of devolution and so demanding a piece of the action for themselves.

Professor King gets very close to this, to me, totally obvious inference; perhaps he realises this is what is going on but doesn’t say so, as his remit is to analyse only what the BBC has been doing, not to make assertions – however well backed up by abundant circumstantial evidence – as to the political motivations. The Professor talks about the benefits that would result from the BBC reporting much more clearly and accurately about the differences in governance between the UK nations. He writes: “we have been struck by the network’s apparent reluctance to explore or even take note of the UK’s emerging institutional variety, even when that variety is of UK-wide political significance and may ultimately impact upon the future of the UK itself”. Well, precisely: the BBC, in common with the UK government, doesn’t want this particular can of worms to be opened up.

Again: “the union’s variety, the state of the union and the future of the union should be threads running throughout the network’s output”. Of course, this is what should happen; and the fact that it hasn’t is precisely because the powers that be wanted to pretend that it was Westminster business as usual and that the ‘future of the union’ was unquestionable. And again: “Even when mention was made of the fact that a news item related only to England, it was extremely rare for an attempt to be made to compare and contrast an event or development in England with a comparable event or development in one of the devolved nations”. Well, exactly: the government doesn’t want people in England to make such comparisons because then they’ll realise there are alternatives to unpopular England-only policies being pursued by an unrepresentative UK government, which they could get if they had an English parliament elected under PR like those of Scotland and Wales.

All the same, Professor King’s report makes refreshing reading: it’s a breath of fresh air when an impartial person with the authority to call the BBC to account makes very similar observations to one’s own concerning the inadequacies of the media to ‘say England’ (and, indeed, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Northern Ireland’) when that’s what they mean.

The number’s up on the cosy collusion between the national media and the Westminster political class. Let’s hope the BBC puts its house in order even if the House of Commons won’t!

3 May 2008

Cameron will win: it’s a generation game

I’ve been privately participating in the fever of speculation there’s been over the past few days – particularly since Labour’s local election debacle on Thursday – as to whether the tide of political fortunes has now turned back in the Tories’ favour, meaning they’ll win the next general election. Initially, I was sceptical about David Cameron’s prospects, as the Tories’ resurgence seems to be dependent more on people rejecting New Labour and Gordon Brown [GB] than on support for the Conservatives’ programme – whatever that might turn out to be. However, after the local election results, which saw Labour drop to third position on share of the votes behind the Liberal Democrats, and a consistent nationwide swing towards the Tories, I feel that, maybe, Cameron could just pull it off at the general election, which will take place probably in 2010.

Thinking about it further, there’s another reason why I think Cameron will win. This is my theory of generational evolution of society, or, putting it more simply, the way social changes are influenced by successive generations. I’m sure professional sociologists have developed a more scientific version of this idea, presumably with a technical name to boot; so I’m pretty sure this is not an ‘original’ theory, if such a thing exists in any absolute sense. However, if it is, I hereby dub it the ‘political generation game theory’, on the analogy of the amateur contestants of the immortal Bruce’s show who had to imitate the dazzling skills of professionals of one sort or another.

What the idea is, in essence, is that particular periods of a nation’s history – often defined or named in relation to the dominant political personality associated with it – have a character that is determined to a large extent as a function of the periods that immediately preceded them and the period before that. More precisely, each period is a reaction to the one before, which draws its inspiration in large part from the period before that. And it does this because the people who are most influential in shaping the character of any given age – the political, business and media opinion formers and decision makers – spent their most formative years (say, between the ages of about 10 and 19) in the period preceding the period in relation to which they are defining themselves.

An example: ‘the Blair years’ and New Labour were clearly in part a reaction to / against ‘Thatcherism’ and the period of ruthless market economics that is denoted by that term. And it was a reaction that represented in part a reprise of the social-democratic Labour that had been in power for much of the 1960s and 1970s, which was precisely the period in which the leaders in society during the Blair years spent their formative years. With the difference that the New Labour period was also a continuation of Thatcherism, which had in a sense laid the economic and political foundations for Blair’s social-democratic ‘redistributive capitalism’ to actually work – whereas the economic stagnation and political / union antagonisms of the 1970s had thwarted Labour’s ambitions to create a successful, prosperous welfare state. So what we got under Blair was a new blend of social democracy and market economics: social-market economics; equality of opportunity mutating into ‘equality of market opportunity’: the goal of government being to free up people to participate more fully in, and reap the rewards from, the market society (society as a market).

Similarly, you could say that Thatcherism itself was a reaction against the whole political and social model of the Wilson and Callaghan years: initially, the idealistic 1960s, with the vision of a socially and morally freer and more equal world, underpinned by economic prosperity and technological developments that enabled people to have a bloody good time, and enjoy hitherto only dreamt-of material and physical pleasures; later, collapsing into the cynicism and recriminations of the 1970s as the downward economic cycle and spiralling inflation caused industries to collapse, and engendered strife in the workplace, on the football terraces and in the inner cities as people sought scapegoats for the fact that living the good life was increasingly unrealistic.

The Thatcherite reaction to all that was indeed a reinstatement of the Tory values from the 1950s, when many of the leaders of the 1980s were in their ‘tens’ (aged 10 to 19): the individual standing on their own two feet and creating prosperity through their own hard work and enterprise – rather than just expecting a good standard of living to be handed to them effortlessly on a plate by their employer or the state. And yet, Thatcherism also carried forward much of the ethos and attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s: the anti-union and anti-industrial-working-class antagonisms on the part of the Thatcher government were in a sense the continuation of the 1970s industrial unrest, with the difference that Thatcher took on and saw off the unions, whereas Callaghan tried to instil reason in them through comradely beer and sandwiches at No. 10. Similarly, the materialistic individualism and hedonism of the ‘I’ve-got-money’ 1980s was a continuation, in the selfish-capitalist Thatcherite mode, of the increasingly cynical, materialistic direction that originally idealistic 1960s explorations of self-fulfilment and sexual freedom had followed in the 1970s.

So what of David Cameron, then? Are we about to enter into the ‘Cameronite’ reaction against Blairism and its feeble successor / continuation that is GB; just as the ineffectual Major saw out the dying phase of the Thatcherite period, and Callaghan stood watch over the waning of the initially optimistic Wilson Labour years – all prime ministers that took over mid-term from leaders that had really set the political tone for a whole period, but whose increasing unpopularity was a sign, perhaps, that one period was on its way out and the new epoch was about to begin?

If so, then a putative Cameron era, following my theory, should be both a continuation of some aspects of the preceding period (the Blair / Brown epoch), and a harking back to and blend of some aspects of the period before that, during which the leaders of the new age were growing up – which, in the case of Cameron’s relatively youthful team, was mainly the Thatcher years. Incidentally, the fact that it is now being said that people are no longer ‘scared’ of the Tories, for all Cameron’s charm, probably owes more to the fact that the people in the worlds of politics, business and the media who are, as it were, ‘of the same age’ as Cameron (or younger, as are many in his team) and are preparing his coronation grew up under Thatcher and would have regarded her attitudes and politics as normal, not as a grim assault on so much that my generation (growing up in the 1970s: the latter end of the ‘Blair generation’) held dear.

But we’ve already had the Thatcher ‘revival’: that was Tony Blair – Thatcherism with a socially caring face. And that’s part of the problem faced by David Cameron’s Conservatives (the ‘New Tories’ in all but name): they want to be ‘Conservatism with a caring face’ but Blair has already done that. So perhaps they’ll just have to reverse the paradigm and become ‘a caring society with a Thatcherite face’, perhaps?

The difference between these two terms can perhaps best be illustrated by the ambiguity of the ‘tag line’ – as the marketing bods might put it – for Cameron’s party philosophy: ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’. ‘Modern’ and ‘compassionate’: here are two words that could have been plucked straight from Blair’s vocabulary; and they sit comfortably – naturally almost – alongside ‘Conservatism’. Indeed, Conservatism has always been associated with the idea of compassion (of the wealthy) for the poor, and with social, philanthropic responsibility towards them. So this conveys the idea of classic, one-nation Conservatism (the Conservatism before Thatcher) – which in one sense was the space in the political spectrum that Blairism inhabited – but modernised in keeping with the challenges of today.

On the other hand, if you just insert a comma into the phrase, as follows – ‘modern, compassionate Conservatism’ – it changes the whole meaning. Syntactically, ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’ suggests a ‘compassionate Conservatism – single concept: one-nation conservatism – that is modern’. ‘Modern, compassionate Conservatism’, on the other hand, implies a ‘modern Conservatism, one of whose distinguishing features is that it is also compassionate’; in contradistinction to a previous form of Conservatism – Thatcherism – that is perceived as having lacked compassion. But by implication, this could suggest that the modern, compassionate Conservatism is also an updated, more compassionate version of Thatcherism itself. So this tag line is appealing to all three strands: modern, ‘Blairite’ care and compassion for the poor and disadvantaged in society (in keeping with the traditions of one-nation Conservatism) that also draws on all that was ‘good’ about Thatcherite Conservatism – its effectiveness, leadership qualities, appeal to English-British people’s distrust of state interference and ‘nannying’, and their wish to provide the best for themselves and their families, using their own skills and hard work, whether in material comforts, housing, health or education.

This in essence is the appeal of Cameron. On the one hand, he’s Blair Plus: embodying all that’s ‘good’ about Blair (the concern to alleviate society’s ills), but if anything pushed even further. Instead of Blair’s reform agenda, which in essence was economic reform (instilling market principles into the public services), we have a social reform policy. Instead of merely tinkering with the benefits system, attempting to provide more efficient public services and carrying out a bit of inner-city regeneration, Cameron’s Conservatives have set out their stall as a party that’s really trying to get to the bottom of what has caused the collapse of stable, responsible society in so many of our cities, and have so far come up with a rather traditional Conservative answer: that it’s about the break-down of the two-parent family, the absence of father figures, and the lack of discipline at school and in the home. And what is seen as being absent in such social contexts are the very values that Cameron is trying, in more neo-Thatcherite mode, to invoke as being at the heart of his political programme: individual and collective responsibility for making things better, rather than relying on central targets and the nanny state to deliver the improvements.

The initial outline of the vision that we were given at the Tory party conference last autumn suggested that one of the forms this new affirmation of the Thatcherite principles of personal moral responsibility for improving the things that matter to you in life could take was that of ‘local privatisation’: rolling back the frontiers of government and public-sector ownership and control not just at a national level but at the local level where people are users – ‘consumers’ – of services. So, for instance, rather than the Blairite approach of setting out a single blueprint for introducing market principles into schools and hospitals, which often meant putting them directly or indirectly in the hands of major corporate enterprises, the Cameron policy could well involve local people themselves taking managerial responsibility for their schools and hospitals – whether in the form of continuing public ownership of some sort (for instance, through trusts), or by actually establishing new schools (or taking over existing ones?) as businesses in which local people could take out shares and which would genuinely have to compete for private and public funding – while service levels were guaranteed, perhaps, through some form of charter and contractual agreement with local authorities.

To some extent, the finer details of this are just speculation, as the Conservatives have yet to outline their specific policies. But it’s informed speculation based on Tory statements, and reports into things like the family and the problems of the inner cities they’ve already produced; but also based on this generational theory of mine: that the Tories have this dual motivation to carry out the social-market agenda of Tony Blair more effectively and profoundly, and to do so in a way that resurrects the best principles of the Thatcherism they grew up under. This involves the idea of empowering and motivating ordinary individuals and communities to take responsibility for improving their lives by giving them a stake and a real say in the things that are most important to them. I think that however these fundamentals of ‘Cameronism’ are translated into tangible policy, they will help the Tories to win the next election because the people who are most influential in shaping public opinion were formed under Thatcher and want to see a return to her values of self-reliance and of the public taking private ownership of, literally, their own public services.

Looking at the massive nationwide swing to the Tories in this week’s local elections, the psephologists have come out with their usual meaningless predictions about how a general election would turn out on the same shares of the vote: a Tory landslide, with a possible 150-seat majority. What if this did happen, though? Would this mean, as Anthony Barnett of the OurKingdom blog put it, that “any democratic reform agenda is now in jeopardy”? The point is, if Cameron did win a comfortable outright parliamentary majority, he could – and probably would – ignore all the widespread support and calls for constitutional and institutional reform, such as a more accountable parliament (better still an English parliament), reform of the House of Lords, PR, a genuine bill of rights that protects civil liberties, and even an English Grand Committee to discuss England-only bills (why bother if the Tories have a majority both of English and UK-wide MPs?). Cameron might be a social and economic reformer at local level, but at national political level, it would not be in the perceived interests of his government or his party to do a single thing.

Cameron is no more interested in addressing the English Question, nor even in uttering the word ‘England’, than is GB. When Cameron talks of ‘our nation’, he means ‘Britain’ not England, even if the policies that are being discussed relate to England alone. Indeed, he has gone on record, in a Telegraph interview a few months back, as saying he’s not interested in being a PM for England – even though that’s what he effectively will be in most of his domestic agenda. And there seems little difference in the Tories’ description of their ‘responsibility agenda’ below from Brown’s emphasis on Britishness and his bringing together of the formulation of citizens’ rights with prescriptions about, and enforcement of, their responsibilities: “To make the most of the new world of freedom, we need to strengthen the structures which bring stability and a sense of belonging: home, neighbourhood and nation. Our Responsibility Agenda will therefore include Green Papers on welfare reform, health, marriage and relationships, addiction and debt, responsible business, social care, cohesion, and National Citizenship Service” (my emphases).

Like I said, the Cameron era will in many respects be a continuation of the Blair / Brown period. And it seems that the efforts to articulate, formalise and impose prescriptive definitions of (British) national identity and citizenship / responsibilities will be part of the baggage that is carried forward. I suppose that that’s also part of the Conservative unionist tradition and the British-nationalist Thatcherite legacy that the Cameron era will reaffirm; so there’s a ‘natural fit’ there between Brown’s wrapping of himself in the Union Flag and the New Conservatives.

There’s no doubt that the Conservative values, and the generational swing back to them, that Cameron appeals to are also in many respects English values: self-reliance, freedom from government interference, private ownership and enterprise, social responsibility and neighbourliness, and fairness towards the ‘poorest’ in society – as the Conservatives’ website continually refers, somewhat patronisingly, to the working class. And, in this respect, if English voters are largely responsible for electing a Conservative government with a large majority next time, then they can hardly complain when that government ignores the demand for an English parliament – except, of course, that government won’t have been elected by a majority of English voters; and if none of the major parties are even vaguely talking about the possibility of an English parliament, then the English people aren’t being offered the chance of voting for one.

This raises the possibility that the best hope for representative democratic English governance, accountable to the people of England, could again come from Scotland. Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales are unlikely to swing towards Cameron’s Conservatives to the same extent as the English. This could mean an increasing polarisation between ‘Tory England’, and nationalist and Labour Scotland and Wales, potentially resulting in growing antagonism and political divergence between England and the rest of the UK. Together with pressure in England to reduce the Barnett differentials (the formula guaranteeing Scotland and Wales a higher per capita level of public expenditure than the English), this could really give the Scottish-nationalist cause a massive shot in the arm. And, who knows, there might yet be a Scottish referendum that would say ‘yes’ to independence.

Cameron’s Conservatives, by continuing Brown’s Britishness crusade, might well yet set the seal on the Union’s demise. In which case perhaps, in ten years’ time, we might all be saying, along with Bruce (the English one, that is), “didn’t they do well?”

26 February 2008

Who does this country belong to, anyway?

Whatever the whys and wherefores of the Michael Martin expenses row (the Speaker of the House of Commons, who has been accused of abusing the code of conduct on MPs’ expenses at the same time as he is leading an enquiry into expenses abuses), I thought the vociferous “hear, hear” of support he obtained from MPs as he cried “Order, order” at the start of yesterday’s proceedings – coupled with one MP saying they weren’t going allow journalists to dictate Commons appointments – smacked of arrogance. What were they actually defending, at the end of the day: their own privileges, including a cushy expenses regime that would never be tolerated in business; or the interests of democracy – parliament and its elected members as representing the will of the people, not to be overridden by a bunch of reckless, cynical journalists? It came across strongly as the former.

The trouble is that MPs do appear to think that parliament’s debates, decisions and procedures represent a forum through which the nation as such is authentically represented and its will is expressed: that parliament’s view of the legitimacy and moral authority of its proceedings still carries the assent and the trust of the people. Clearly, parliamentarians – like many others – are well aware that there is a serious problem of mistrust towards politicians and disengagement from the political process. But they seem to want to pass a lot of the blame for this onto others, such as the media, rather than re-examining the process itself and putting their own house in order.

We like to think we have the world’s greatest parliamentary democracy; but the truth of the matter is that our government isn’t very democratic, in the sense of representing people power. Parliament generally seems more like a rubber stamp setting a seal of approval on policies and laws driven by the executive, for which often little understanding or assent on the part of the public either exists or is sought. In this way, the scrutiny of parliament is a poor substitute for genuine public consultation, in the sense of a concerted effort to inform people of the details of proposed legislation and to win their support. There is no need for the executive to do this when it can simply rely on the Commons majority of a compliant government party commanding an ever smaller minority of the popular vote.

Not only does the government not need to strive to achieve popular assent for its decisions, it is also not answerable to anything such as a nation. It is no wonder that the people are disengaging from Westminster politics when they no longer identify with, and as, the nation the Westminster parliament supposedly represents. Not only are the people – reasserting their various identities as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish – different from the one that parliament sees itself as representing (the British people); but also parliament no longer represents the people of Britain in a uniform, unitary way. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs defend the interests of their constituents and nations insofar as these are affected by the Union government; and they also vote on English matters in certain policy areas where they cannot influence policy for their own constituencies and countries (because these have been devolved to separate national bodies). By contrast, all the parliamentary votes cast by English MPs do relate to their own constituencies; but no distinction in kind is made between what are truly England-only decisions and which matters relate to the UK as a whole, so as to legitimise the participation of non-English MPs in the same decisions.

In other words, although the responsibilities of all MPs are the same (Union-wide and England-specific policy and laws), the non-English MPs are not accountable to any electorate on the England-only matters. Instead, they are elected by non-English people who select them on the basis of the parties’ policies for the Union as a whole, i.e. on which set of policies will be better for them, their local areas and their countries. So legislation and policies for England are supported by MPs elected by non-English voters whose voting decisions are influenced by non-English priorities. Meanwhile, English voters have only one vote for both Union-wide matters and England-specific issues; in contrast to their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts, who can choose between two distinct parties and programmes for their own country and for the Union as a whole. This inequality and distortion of representative democracy is covered up by a pretence common to all the parties, whereby, in manifestoes, policy statements and parliamentary debate, everything is treated and referred to as a generic British matter, even if it is English only.

This means that England is governed by a British parliament that is not accountable to it: it includes Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs not elected in England; and the English MPs are not elected on the basis of English manifestoes, as half the policies are UK-wide, and the half that are England-specific are not represented as such – not differentiated from the UK even though in reality they are.

So the Union does not exist any more – if the Union is defined as a unitary parliamentary democracy in which every person’s vote is equal and brings the same degree of representation, and in which parliament is accountable to all to the same extent. The will of the English people is not represented by this parliament – even less, that is, than is the will of the other more fairly represented nations of the UK. Instead, we have a growing divide between the will of the people and government power: British power is exercised over the people of England by parliament; rather than English power being exercised for and by the people of England through parliament. And parliament and the executive are indeed enamoured of this British power: the idea of being in charge of Britain as a major ‘world power’ – militarily, economically and culturally – boosted by the magnificence, traditions and privileges of Westminster and Whitehall that hark back to, and appear to prolong, the glories of Empire. Who can participate in such rituals and bask in such splendour, and not be carried along by the glamour of real power and the myths of British parliamentary democracy, especially as parliament is so unaccountable to the electorate and divorced from their real priorities?

In this way, MPs persuade themselves that the bills and policies they support express the will of the nation: swept along by the democratic process, they unwittingly or deliberately ignore the fact that that process is no longer in alignment with the people’s needs and choices. England is, in perhaps three senses, ‘over-ruled’ by Britain. Or another way of putting this is that the British parliament and state mis-represent England: represent England insufficiently democratically, and misrepresent England and the governance of England as if it were a unitary process of British governance for which they had a transparent mandate, which they do not. As I have described this elsewhere, this is an appropriation (a mis-appropriation) of England and English democracy to Britain: England should belong to the people of England; but instead, it’s been made the property and, as it were, the province of the British state – no longer a country in its own right and rights, but governed by a state and by representatives of other UK countries that are not answerable to it.

What are the ramifications beyond the Westminster village of this dispossession of England as a democratic nation? Are we English secure in the knowledge that our country is in the safe hands of leaders who care about England and its rights, and do not wish to exercise unrepresentative and disproportionate power over it? Well, no. Do we feel, more fundamentally, that the government and the political process belong to us – well, not exactly: we’ve become accustomed to putting up with a British government that very often looks after the interests of national and sectarian minorities (whether the working class, traditionally, under Old Labour, middle-class England under the Tories, and Wales and Scotland under New Labour) rather than seeking the backing of a clear majority of the English population for policies relating to England.

More pervasively, do we feel the nation and even the local areas we live in really belong to us; that we actually live in England rather than in some parallel universe of Britain where major decisions are taken by central, and also local, government that we haven’t elected, and all the signs and symbols of the state are those of one that is not fully ours? Do the streets belong to us; do communities, media, official / PC language, social administration and the public sector – indeed, all public facets of our lives? Are they English?

Is the much-famed obsession of the English with privacy and domesticity in one respect a reflection that we do not feel that the public domain belongs to us; that our country doesn’t belong to us? How much of the alienation of many young people can be traced to their not feeling that their education, upbringing and experiences have given them a sense of belonging where they live or that they have a stake in society? And how much of this is to do with that society being shaped by the British values of personal aspiration and success, rather than cherishing individuals as they are: often flawed and damaged but capable of re-building community and healing the hurts caused by the relentless pursuit of competitiveness and economic growth? And how much is the lack of pride and care we so often show towards our surroundings and neighbours to do with no sense of mutual belonging and dependency?

Such things cannot be restored by a British government alienated from, and unaccountable to, England; that does not even call it by its name. But England can recover its pride – if first it empowers its people.

18 November 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 October 2007

Is PR the elephant in the English Grand Committee room?

PR in UK national elections is a measure that could go a long way to addressing the grievances of English voters resentful at the way the Scottish and Welsh people have been allowed proportionally elected parliamentary bodies to govern their domestic affairs, while this has been denied England – while at the same time, decisions affecting England are taken by an unrepresentative government whose artificial parliamentary majority is bolstered still further by Scottish and Welsh MPs whose constituents are not directly affected by those decisions.

An ‘English Grand Committee’ whose composition reflected the actual share of the votes obtained by the parties at the last general election would not have differed greatly from the composition of the UK parliament as a whole as elected under PR. Admittedly, Labour would have been entitled to seek to assemble a parliamentary majority for the UK government (having obtained more votes than any other party across the UK – though not a majority); and the Tories would have carried more weight than Labour (but only just) in the EGC. But in both cases, neither of the two largest parties would have commanded an overall majority, and the Lib Dems would have held the balance of power.

Such a ‘solution’ would not really address the case for an English parliament, which rests on the right of the English people to have a parliament that gives expression to their national identity and political choices – if is is their democratic will to have such a parliament, which the Scots and Welsh have been allowed to choose in a referendum. Nonetheless, if supporters of the EGC compromise solution (really, a non-solution) to the English Question were keen to avoid the accusation of partisanship and gerrymandering, then they should back PR. It’s only under the present first-past-the-post system that potential conflicts between a Labour majority or minority UK government and a Conservative-controlled EGC could arise. Give us PR, and then there would be far less conflict and much more co-operation between the government and the EGC. And, what is more, both bodies might actually reflect public opinion (heaven forfend!).

Tell you what – rather than beating about the bush for the next two or three years until GB [Gordon Brown] can pick his moment to cheat the majority will of the British and English electorate for another four or five years, why don’t we set up an EGC now that is picked on a proportional basis: 35.7% Tory, 35.5% Labour and 22.9% Lib Dem; not sure what to do about the 2.6% UKIP, though! Then the three main parties might actually have to work together and make deals to get the parliamentary business done.

God, no! Far easier to abuse an unrepresentative absolute majority enhanced by Scottish and Welsh MPs to push English matters through!

But is PR, which neither Labour nor the Tories wish to discuss in this context (since they dream of absolute UK and English majorities) in fact the only radical measure that could save the Union? Give the English people representative democracy and the growing calls for independence suddenly lose much of their force. Come on then, GB, the Defender of the Union: how about PR in your new constitutional reform measures?

8 October 2007

Never Mind About the Election, England; At Least You Beat the Aussies!

Funny that the BBC were allowed to release the news of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] decision not to call a general election at 4.30 on Saturday afternoon, even though the interview through which he chose to announce this fact to the nation wasn’t due to be aired till Andrew Marr’s 9 am programme on Sunday morning! Coincided neatly with England’s marvellous against-the-odds victory against Australia in the Rugby World Cup. I say ‘coincided’; but was this a coincidence? What do you think!

An ideal moment to bury bad news, to quote a phrase! Did GB think we in England might be feeling a little pissed off that, having had the carrot of booting Labour out of power dangled in front of us, we were now once again going to have to submit to the stick of a government we hadn’t chosen – hadn’t chosen, that is, either in an election this year or in 2005? Let’s remember the facts: Labour polled only 35.5% of the popular vote in England on a low turn-out in 2005, 0.2% less than the Tories. If the opinion polls that GB says had nothing to do with his decision not to call an autumn election are to be believed, the comfortable lead the Tories stood to gain in the crucial English marginals – the only real contest in the election – could have overturned Labour’s Commons majority. Probably not enough to give the Tories an outright majority in their turn; but then, we’d have had a hung parliament based entirely on the West Lothian anomaly: the fact that Scottish and Welsh MPs, a greater share of which would be Labour, could vote on England-only matters, i.e. on the only matters that mattered – on GB’s entire agenda for change and ‘vision for Britain’, which is in fact a programme for England – education, health, social services, law and order, etc.

If the timing of the announcement wasn’t intended to dampen the annoyance of English electors, who appeared to be turning away from GB in their droves, as they celebrated a national sporting triumph, why pick such a moment? Mr Marr could have been forgiven for being just a tad pissed off in his turn; his little scoop being given away before his Sunday broadcast. But then again, I suppose his audience must have shot through the roof when it was advertised that GB had chosen it as the platform to make his excuses. Plus, of course, it enhanced Mr Marr’s already dazzling reputation that the Great Man had chosen his Sunday morning slot to speak to the nation: England, that is – I’m sure Scotland was too interested in the outcome of its own Rugby quarter-final to be that bothered by an announcement that hardly affected it anyway.

All a bit cosy, really: two Scots chatting away about a UK election that would have been all about promoting a Scottish-Labour vision for England’s future. Too simplistic? Maybe, a little. But the election certainly would have had more than a little potential to bust open the glaring disparities between political opinion and philosophies north and south of the border; and the fact that GB’s continuing franchise as PM would have been hugely dependent on the Scottish and Welsh vote on matters not directly concerning the electorates in those countries. Note that Marr didn’t push GB on this issue (nor David Cameron, for that matter, whom he interviewed live in the studio after the recorded interview with GB). Is that because, in Andrew Marr, GB knew he had a natural Unionist ally: a ‘Britologist’, as I would call him, who believes in the British political and national project, and sees it as the best way to further Scottish national interests and a British-Republican vision? (See my post British Values or Scottish Values?)

Not that I’m saying that GB, too, is a republican, as well as Andrew Marr; at least, not avowedly so – he’s too realistic a politician to know that he couldn’t get away with that. But he is preparing a set of constitutional reforms, aided by his partner in crime Jack Straw. And we in England can rest assured that there will be no resolution of the West Lothian Question in whatever deal we are offered; or not offered, as it’ll be the current unrepresentative parliament that will be voting on it, not one we could have elected in November. After all, if there was a solution to the WLQ that still preserved a UK parliament, Mr Brown wouldn’t be able to vote on his own agenda. And it’s clear he values this more than the opinions of the English electorate.

Wonder what he’ll drop on us when we beat the French! (Oh, I know: definitely no referendum on the EU constitution, chaps!)

23 September 2007

Jack Straw: Impartial Constitutional Architect or Labour Party Politician?

They had Jack Straw – GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] appointee to draw up proposals for constitutional reform – on the early-morning ITV news show this morning. I tuned in at the point where he was warning the Tories away from supporting measures allowing English MPs only to vote on England-only matters. This would, he said, inevitably lead to the formation of an English parliament, which would inevitably lead to the break up of the UK.

These are intimidation tactics. For a start, an English parliament would not necessarily have to result in the break up of the Union (though many who support the parliament do also back English independence). There are all sorts of constitutional arrangements that could allocate powers to England equivalent to those enjoyed by Scotland and Wales, while other powers and responsibilities remained the prerogative of a UK parliament and executive. Again in intimidatory mode, in the interview, Straw sought to remind the Scots that their powers were devolved not constitutionally established and that, by implication, they could be taken back by Westminster. This was as if to warn the Scottish Nationalists implicitly not to rock the boat, for instance by supporting English demands for English MPs only to vote on England-only matters, or pressing for the Scottish parliament to ‘abrogate’ powers for regulating Scotland’s fiscal and financial affairs in complete independence from the Westminster government.

Straw’s main argument, perhaps his only one (I’ve heard him elsewhere make the same case) for the need to preserve the Union at all costs is that, according to him, England’s international status and influence would be diminished by breaking Britain up. The example he gave on this occasion was European countries that have broken up and supposedly now have less influence in the EU as a consequence. Hmm, excuse me, but ask the Czechs or the Slovenes whether they’d rather be independent members of the EU or be dependent on a Czechoslovak or Yugoslav regime for their internal governance and external affairs, and I think you’ll find the riposte to that example. But what of Britain’s role, say, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and in global strategic affairs? It’s unlikely that an independent England (assuming England took over the legal personality of the UK) would be kicked out of the Security Council unless it chose to leave. Doesn’t it have a veto on such a decision, in any case? And this move would not be supported by either the US (which would continue to see England, as it does Britain, as an essential international ally) or France, who would be worried that its own disproportionate representation on the Security Council might thereby be undermined. It would be far more likely, in my view, that additional countries might be voted in as permanent members, such as India and Brazil – which would be no bad thing, in any case.

But this is all completely hypothetical and shouldn’t stand in the way of the primary consideration, which is that if the English people want greater or total separation from the UK, it is their right to have it. Straw, like Blair, is hung up on the idea of Britain as a major world power, which it really isn’t and can’t sustain other than as a close ally of the States, enabling it to exercise limited moral and strategic influence on that country. Better to forge a new and truly post-imperial identity as England; and I’m far from convinced that our European neighbours wouldn’t be better disposed to collaborate with a reinvigorated, dynamic England than with island-fortress Britain.

So by warning about the diminution of Britain’s stature if the UK was broken up, Straw is once again resorting to scare tactics. The most fundamental rationale for his and the Labour Party’s support not only for a Union reinforced by a written constitution but also denying the right of English MPs alone to vote on English affairs is that he wants to avoid Labour losing the power to form a UK-wide, centralised government based on a minority of the votes. This was evident in his evasive response to the interviewer’s question about the meaning of GB’s inclusion in government of members of other parties. In passing, the interviewer alluded to the fact that Straw had previously vehemently opposed PR: another measure that would prevent Labour from ever gaining absolute power again. Straw merely described Brown’s supposedly more collaborative approach to government as an attempt to rebuild a nationwide (Britain-wide) consensus and unity, which had been impaired by the Iraq War.

This might be one of the spin offs of Brown’s tactic, and one which serves the overall strategic objective of bolstering the Union. But, it has to be observed, there is also a potentially massive electoral pay off, judging from the latest opinion polls. From the actual effect, infer the intention: it was Brown’s aim all along to leverage this supposedly more inclusive approach to government to bring back wavering voters into the Labour fold. ‘You don’t need to vote for another party and thereby risk a hung parliament, which might require coalition government and might further weaken the Union that is in peril – just vote for avuncular, trustworthy Brown and you get effectively a coalition government anyway!’

Clearly, you’ll never get more proportionate representation for English people by electing a Labour government. They want to retain a UK-wide government elected by the first-past-the-post system, which gives them such big disproportionate majorities on a UK-wide vote, let alone an England-only vote. Oh yes, I’ve just remembered: in the last election, the Tories – even on the first-past-the-post system – beat Labour in England; they and the Lib Dems would hammer them under PR. No wonder Jack Straw, who at one point admitted his partisanship, doesn’t want English MPs to vote on England-only matters!

4 July 2007

The West Lothian Question Is Not the Only One Needing Answers

A cautious welcome to GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] proposals for constitutional reform yesterday. We’ll have to see how things turn out in terms of the consultation and legislative process. Personally not happy that Jack Straw is the man charged with co-ordinating the thing – he of the opportunistic Islamophobia at the back end of last year and one of the prime Britologists.

Of course, GB flatly refused to deal with the ‘West Lothian question’: why Scottish and Welsh MPs should continue to be allowed to vote on matters relating only to England, while English MPs can’t vote on exclusively Scottish and Welsh issues of the same kind, as these are now handled by the devolved institutions of those countries. Any new constitutional settlement that does not seek to resolve this anomaly will not last long without modifications.

The Tory solution would simply be to limit the right to vote on English matters to MPs from English constituencies. Both the Tories and Labour are worried that going any further – creating an English parliament with similar powers to the parliament and assembly of Scotland and Wales respectively – could imperil the survival of the Union. In previous blog entries, I’ve suggested that these concerns are connected with – but not necessarily exclusively determined by – two factors, which may or not be combined in any particular instance: 1) a peculiarly Scottish vicarious relationship with England via British identity and institutions, whereby Scottish politicians (including, arguably, the leaders of all three major UK parties) wish to maintain a disproportionate influence and power over English affairs, which a discontinuation of the prevailing UK-wide structures would disable; 2) a back-door republican agenda: wishing to create a British Republic, united around things like a Bill of Rights and a written constitution, which would effectively sever the age-old ties between the state, and the English monarch and church.

The jury’s out on the second of these concerns, although the proposal to remove from the PM the right to appoint Church of England bishops could be interpreted as potentially the thin end of the wedge towards disestablishment, even though it makes sense from an ecclesiastical point of view. Equally, a Bill of Rights and written constitution are very much on the agenda: for those who care about such things, time to ensure that any written constitution that does emerge preserves the monarchy and explicitly emphasises the historical and continuing importance of Christianity as the primary religious belief system of Britain – while obviously protecting the right of everyone to practice any law-abiding religion they like, or none.

On the first of the above two concerns about the Union – the Scottish wish for disproportionate influence over English affairs – GB’s resistance to even addressing the West Lothian question would appear to confirm the syndrome. In the case of the Labour Party, and indeed the Tories, this is linked to another form of disproportionality: the fact that the current constitutional arrangements, together with the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, enable them to exercise majority rule over the whole of the UK on a minority of the popular vote. An English parliament elected using FPTP – based on votes cast at the last general election – would have been Conservative, as the Tories basically won the election in England. But on the basis of any reasonably proportionate voting system, no party would have held an absolute majority, either in England only or across the UK.

Hence, Labour’s UK-wide power is propped up by both the West Lothian anomaly (Scottish and Welsh MPs giving them their majority) and the current voting system; while any hopes the Tories have of regaining the government of the UK are also dependent on FPTP. Now, any English parliament would have to use PR, both for fairness and consistency with the arrangements in Scotland and Wales, and because this would be the only means to prevent the kind of disproportionate governments we’ve had in the UK for at least 30 years or more. As Labour would stand to be the losers from FPTP in England-only elections, I’m sure they’d find their way to accepting PR if an English parliament did come about! So when Labour and the Tories talk about an English parliament endangering the Union, one of the things that is implicit in that is their concern never again to be the single party of government over the whole Union. May that day indeed come soon!

Needless to say, the issue of proportionate representation was not tackled by GB, although he has apparently said that a paper on the voting system will be published at a later stage. But we’ve heard that one before, haven’t we? When will this paper appear? Shouldn’t the voting system be factored into the general conversation GB says politicians should be having with the public about the constitution? The currently grossly disproportionate system is surely the single largest factor behind people’s disaffection from politics, as the majority feel their vote won’t make a difference; something which is confirmed by the attitude of the parties, which think it’s only really worthwhile targeting the swing seats. Giving the vote to 16-year-olds won’t change that.

But there are some more profound questions that this whole business of reappraising the relationship of England with the rest of the UK as part of a new constitutional settlement raises, which I’ll just list for now:

  1. Just as supporters of a British republic attach their cause to the coat tails of a written constitution, is it not also the case that support for an English parliament can, but does not always, serve as the vehicle for those who genuinely want a fully independent English state? It’s time for everyone both to be explicit about what their ultimate aspirations are from constitutional reform – and they’ll have to be so in order to press for what they want – and to be on the alert towards the way hidden agendas could be advanced by the decisions that are made. OK, putting my cards on the table: I’m in favour of an English parliament with at least comparable powers to those of Scotland and Wales. In addition, my heart would like to see a separate English state; but my head tells me that might not be either practical or in the best interests of England at the present time.
  2. Would the creation of an English parliament not inevitably accelerate the momentum towards independence for both Scotland and England? This is not just because English people might be so delighted with their newfound freedom and proportional system of government that they might want to go the whole hog. But also, self-rule for England could break the vicarious relationship that many Scots feel towards England, which I referred to above. This relationship, while being about exercising political influence over a historically more powerful neighbour, also does involve a genuine sense of shared identity and – dare I say it? – affection. If England decides to define its identity and destiny on its own, effectively divorcing itself from the union with Scotland, could this not be the final factor that tips the majority in Scotland into supporting independence?
  3. Are there not long-term, global factors that suggest that independence for the constituent countries of the UK is almost inevitable? You could argue that the growing trend for people in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to wish to govern themselves and define their national identities in separation from British institutions and identity are influenced by global factors. As business and the economy become ever more globalised, it becomes less and less important for countries to group together into larger states in order to create the scale of economic activity and political influence needed to prosper. In Europe, of course, the EU has also brought about economic and institutional change that makes it much more possible for smaller countries to not only be viable but also perform very strongly in economic terms – cf. Ireland. (One concern about a break up of the UK would clearly be that it might expose England to greater control by and dependency towards the EU; which is something that supporters for full English independence need to think carefully about.) There are many examples of larger European states that have broken up into their constituent nations and are now doing very nicely, thank you very much: the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia. Can we in Britain resist these macro-economic trends, especially if they speak to the growing aspirations of the different nations of Britain for more independence? And should we resist them, if our prospects are potentially improved by the ability to pursue our own priorities that independence could bring?
  4. Wales might choose to remain united with England if Scotland went its own way. One observation that’s not often made is that even if the Scots did opt for independence, the Welsh might not. Support for Welsh independence is limited largely to majority Welsh-speaking areas, and it’s unlikely to grow much stronger in the short-to-medium term. As discussions understandably centre on the future of the union between England and Scotland, we shouldn’t ignore the much older union with Wales, which arguably goes back much further than its historical start date of 1536: the now England and Wales were united in the Roman province of Britannia, while Scotland (‘Caledonia’) was separate. It might seem fanciful to go back that far in tracing the roots of national identity and institutions. But many of the nations of Europe can similarly trace the roots of their identities, languages and territorial borders to Roman and even pre-Roman times. Indeed, the terrible conflict in the former Yugoslavia, which goes back centuries, was in part because the nations there lie on the former fault lines between the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, and between European Christendom and (Ottoman) Islam. While the languages and even ethnic composition of European countries have often changed beyond recognition over the centuries, something of a continuing sense of national identity persists. Perhaps the English and Welsh will define their future together, thereby recapturing something of the ancient traditions that bind them.

Blog at WordPress.com.