Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

5 May 2010

Cameron’s Big Society is the next phase of the Thatcher revolution: privatising government and England itself

One of the things Margaret Thatcher was famous for saying was that there was “no such thing as society”. David Cameron’s Conservatives’ manifesto for the May 2010 election – entitled ‘Invitation To Join the Government Of Britain’ – has now self-consciously reversed this dictum, prefacing its section on changing society with the graphically illustrated words, “There is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state”.

Margaret Thatcher recognised only the core building blocks of ‘society’ as such: the individual and the family. In his turn, David Cameron is big on the family but downplays the individual, as he wishes to dissociate his ‘modern compassionate Conservatives’ from the selfish individualism that was fostered by Thatcher’s ideological obsession with private enterprise and the profit motive. However, those of us with long memories still attribute much of the break-down of communities up and down the land – particularly, working-class communities that had built up around particular industries – with the ideological, social and economic changes that Thatcher introduced, often with callous indifference to the misery and hopelessness they caused.

Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is on one level an attempt to redress the social injustices and deprivations the Thatcher revolution left in its wake by placing communities back at the centre of his model for society. But at the same time, this is opening up communities and society (communities as society) as the new front for privatisation and the unfolding of market principles: what Thatcher did for the individual, Cameron would like to do for society – privatise it and turn it into a market society.

A full-scale critique of the Conservatives’ Big Society concept is beyond the scope of the present article. However, in essence, I would like to urge those who are tempted to vote for the Conservatives and potentially give them an overall majority in the new parliament to think carefully about what the Big Society means in social, economic and political terms. The core idea, in my view, is that small groups of interested persons should be empowered to take over the ownership and / or management control of public-sector bodies responsible for providing public services and amenities as diverse as schools, hospitals, community facilities, social care and social services.

In theory, this form of ‘social enterprise’ (community enterprise as opposed to Thatcher’s private enterprise) is supposed to be carried out by groups forming themselves into, or already belonging to, co-operatives, mutual societies, charities, voluntary organisations and non-profit-making / socially responsible enterprises. This is doing for ownership of public services what Thatcher did for ownership of publicly owned assets such as council houses and nationalised industries: privatising them. The only difference is that the ‘private’ sphere is extended beyond the individual – as in Thatcherism – to the level of the community. This is, then, a form of privatising the public sector itself: moving from government ownership and responsibility for public services to ownership and responsibility on the part of private groups of individuals (communities), as opposed to private individuals alone under Thatcher.

This all sounds great in theory. In practice, however, these private- / community-owned public services will be competing against each other in an aggressive, competitive market place. In economic terms, these reforms are intended to make the ‘public’ sector run on private-enterprise principles as a means, in theory, to provide services much more cost-effectively in the way that commercial businesses are generally run in a more cost-conscious, efficient way than the public sector.

In short, the flip side to the privatisation of the public sector that the Big Society represents is public-spending cuts. The two go hand in hand: in order to provide public services more economically while minimising the social impact of cuts, the Conservatives believe it is necessary for those services to be run both on market principles and by those who are dedicated to that particular public service, such as the teachers, doctors, social workers, volunteers and communities themselves. These people will then have both an economic interest, indeed imperative, to run those services on as small a budget as possible while at the same time focusing on maximising the quality and positive social impact of the services they deliver.

All this is predicated on the assumption that it is possible to combine the virtues and driving forces of private enterprise and public service. There are indeed many examples of social enterprises, charities and mutual societies that already do superb work in the community on a self-financing, voluntary or partially publicly funded basis. So the model can work as part of the mix of public services. But Cameron’s sights seem set on re-modelling the whole of the public sector along these lines. Hence the ‘Big Society’: a concept that implies that the ‘little people’, or what Cameron referred to at the start of the election campaign as the ‘great ignored’, take on the functions and powers of ‘big government’, with the huge apparatus of the state replaced by tens of thousands of community enterprises and initiatives across the country – England, that is.

Before I elaborate on the England point, I just want to reiterate: this sounds great in principle, but in practice all of these little companies and mutual societies founded to run schools, hospitals and social services are going to be competing for government funding in an environment of brutal public-spending cuts; and they’ll also be set in competition against each other and against other businesses – private businesses from outside the communities concerned – that will be able to bid more price-competitively for contracts and licences to take over failing schools or improve hospital facilities. In order to compete for funding and deliver the statutory level of service they are required to provide, the co-operatives and social enterprises are going to have to make use of management expertise and operating techniques from commercial businesses, and it’s easy to imagine how all the little community groups will eventually get swallowed up into larger enterprises that can pool talent and costs, and provide services at a lower cost for the real customer: government.

What we could easily end up with is not the little people empowered to form the Big Society, but big business effectively doing the government’s job (or community enterprises joining together to form big businesses) at a fraction of the cost that the former public sector would have been either capable or willing to achieve. And this will inevitably involve reinforcing social inequalities and disadvantage, in that commercially minded businesses – albeit ones with an ostensibly socially responsible remit – will clearly be less willing to take over failing schools filled with problem children from dysfunctional homes, or under-performing hospitals requiring substantial investments to turn them around.

The money will be attracted to where the money is: wealthier, middle-class areas with parents who are willing to invest time and money in their children’s education, enabling ‘education providers’ to attract more funding because of the good academic results they have achieved. Or hospitals that have succeeded in delivering a greater ‘through-put’ of patients in particular areas of specialisation – resulting in a concentration of the best health-care facilities and personnel around specialist centres of excellence, and more ‘cost-effective’ health conditions and therapies. A less commercially orientated health system, on the other hand, might seek to provide an excellent level of medical care for the full range of health problems available in the areas where people actually live, including the ‘unglamorous’ conditions such as smoking-related illnesses and obesity, associated with the lifestyles of poorer people who, in addition, are less able to travel to the specialist centres where treatment might still be available on the NHS.

The English NHS, that is. Because let’s not forget that the tough medicine of the Tories’ Big Society is a prescription for England alone. Though they don’t say so in their manifesto, we should hardly need reminding that education, health care, social services, local government and communities, and policing are all devolved areas of government; and therefore, the UK government’s policies in these areas relate almost exclusively to England only. So it’s not really or mainly the British state that would be superseded by the Big Society but the public-sector assets and services of the English nation.

There’s another word for ‘privatisation’ that is particularly apt in this context: ‘de-nationalisation’. It’s the English nation whose systems and organisations for delivering public services would effectively be asset-stripped by the Tories: in theory made over to community-based co-operatives and social enterprises but in fact transformed into a free market in which the involvement of more ruthless profit-minded enterprises would increasingly become unavoidable.

This could potentially be another example of what happens in the absence of an authentic social vision for England on the part of the British political class: a vision based on the idea that the government and people of England can and should work together to improve the lives and opportunities of the English people; one that does see the government and public sector as having a real role in serving the people alongside a vibrant, enterprising private sector.

The British political establishment has, however, disowned the view that it has an authentic, valuable role to play in the life of the English people. This is precisely because it refuses to be a government for England (just as Cameron once famously indicated he did not want to be a prime minister for England) and refuses to allow the English people to have a government of its own. Instead, the establishment – whether New Labour or Cameron Conservative – have attempted to re-model English society along purely market-economy lines, and will continue to do so if we let them: the Big Society being one where English civic society is transformed into just another competitive market place, with the inevitable winners and losers.

Ultimately, then, it’s not the government of Britain that English people are being invited to participate in; but it’s a case that any idea and possibility that the British government is capable or willing to act as a government for England is being abandoned. Instead, the government, public sector and indeed nation of England will be privatised under the Tories: sold off to the most cost-effective bidder and dismembered perhaps even more effectively than through Gordon Brown’s unaccountable, regionally planned (English) economy.

Well, I for one won’t buy it. And I won’t vote for a party that seeks to absolve itself from the governance of England and wishes to permanently abandon any idea of an English government. And I urge all my readers not to vote Conservative for that reason, too. Even, if it is necessary (and only if it’s necessary) to do so in order to defeat your Tory candidate, vote Labour!
And believe you me, it really hurts and runs against the grain for me to say that.

At least, if there is a Labour-LibDem coalition of some sort, there’ll be a chance of some fundamental constitutional reforms, including consideration of the English Question, as stated in the Lib Dem manifesto. Under the Tories, there’s no chance – and England risks being for ever Little England, not a big nation, as it is privatised through the Big Society.

31 March 2009

Britain: The Self-Undermining Nation-State

Britain: the English Empire

While other countries formed nation-states, the English built an Empire. If all we English had been bothered about back then in the 18th and 19th centuries had been nation building, then I’ve no doubt we’d have had a unitary Nation of Britain long since: our little island fortress, with our sights and ambitions set merely on looking to our own affairs and keeping our European neighbours out of them.

But that sort of thing was for them, not us. So many of the European nations that emerged from smaller and larger entities alike during the 18th and particularly 19th centuries were landlocked or hemmed in by bigger powers. Not so we English. The open seas stretched out before us, and after we’d seen off first the Spanish Armada and then Napoleon’s navy, we ruled the waves as far as the Americas, Africa, India and Australia.

I’m not justifying all that our world-conquering ancestors did back then in a different world; but let’s not pretend either that our European rivals would not have done the same given half the chance. Indeed, the fact that they had to break out of a land lock helps to explain why the mid-20th-century Germans needed to fight for European domination first as stage one of their plan to rule the world.

The English Empire – what an achievement! Totally un-PC, of course, to speak in such terms – but our modern globalised world and, indeed, our multi-cultural Britain would simply not exist had our mercenary and missionary forebears not sailed off to drag half the world into the modern era. Un-PC, perhaps above all, to dub it the English Empire, not British. But it was the English that were the driving force and the power behind the imperial throne – albeit that many Scots, too, were happy to seize the opportunities for wealth, power and self-advancement that the Empire afforded them, for good or ill.

Should we English be proud of the Empire? To say simply ‘no’ is to conspire with the Britologists that would have everything that is great about ‘this country’ reflect back on ‘Britain’ and lay the blame for all that is bad on England and the English. For them, the English are essentially individualistic, aggressive, even violent; hostile and arrogantly contemptuous towards other cultures, which we supposedly blithely trampled over in the Empire; conservative, narrow-minded and insular. Yet in almost the same breath, they’d have us believe that the Empire in its British essence (as opposed to the ‘English’ aggression and opportunism that drove it) embodied the values that are still true, relevant and British for us today: tolerance, liberty, democracy, fairness and the rule of law. Values, in fact, which – according to Gordon Brown – could and should define a contemporary British ‘Nation’.

Well, I say ‘no’ to that British version of our history: that all-too simplistic dividing of the past into the English ‘black’ and the British ‘white’. You don’t get ‘greatness’ without it containing a little ‘grey’. The Roman Empire was great; its civilisation and technology were prodigies of its time; its law, literature and language, and later its conversion to Christianity, left an enduring legacy throughout Europe and the whole of Christendom. And yet, Rome was built on the back of military conquest, slavery and dictatorship. In the same way, our Empire spread English civilisation, industry, law, language, democracy and Christian faith throughout the world. And yes, it did so on the back of military conquest, slavery and imperial – though not dictatorial – rule. You can’t have one without the other; be proud of one without the other; have your British Empire without your England. You can’t say the ‘good’ values were and are all British but the ‘bad’ actions were all those of the English – because it was the actions and beliefs of the English that created the world in which those values stand today as our enduring legacy: our English legacy. And of that I am truly proud.

Others created nations; we English created the modern world. But as we rightly and democratically surrendered our imperial dominions to their own people, and as other global powers entered the stage, our horizons narrowed to our British island. Without the rationale of overwhelming mutual interest, and without the common enterprise of Empire, the marriage of convenience between England and Scotland that forms the bedrock of the United Kingdom finally looks set to be breaking down. Those who still cherish the ideal image of ‘Britain’s’ imperial greatness – conveniently forgetting the hard realities of domination and exploitation that were an integral part of that story, or ascribing them to England – now seek to build that Britain into a nation; rather than let it slide inexorably into the history books – the books telling the history of England, that is.

Britain never was, still is not and pray God never will be a ‘nation’ in its own right. For some of the Britologists, this is what it should have been from the beginning: from the time of the Acts of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. If this had happened – say, for instance, if Nelson had been defeated at Trafalgar and our energies had subsequently been turned in on ourselves instead of Empire – Britain would now be a European nation-state comparable to those of a similar scale, such as Germany and Italy, that were put together from a collection of kingdoms and principalities during the 19th century. This is how Brown and his ilk would like Britain to be today, fearful that a break-up of Britain into its constituent nations would diminish ‘this country’s’ standing among its European neighbours and weaken its ability to defend its interests within Europe and the international community – albeit peacefully in the present era, thank God.

Of course, logically, such a break-up would by definition diminish this country’s standing if ‘this country’ is defined as Britain: Britain – as a would-be nation-state – simply would be no more. But this would not lessen England’s standing. On the contrary, England would re-emerge from Britain’s shadows as the great nation it always has been, both before and through the period of Union with Scotland: comparable but superior in its past achievements to those other empire-building nations and former rivals France and Spain. England did not need to build a nation of Britain. It already was a great nation at the time of the Union, and the uncomfortable truth is that, from day one, ‘Great Britain’ was more the name of England’s Empire than that of a nation subsuming England. The Union with Scotland was in reality more of an annexation of Scotland – followed one century later by Ireland – into the English Empire, which was already beginning to expand across the globe by the beginning of the 18th century.

In fact, one way of thinking about it would be to say that ‘Britain’ itself was England’s ‘home Empire’ (hence, ‘Great Britain’) as opposed to the Empire ‘abroad’. Scotland and Ireland would then be described as having been originally English colonies, subsequently absorbed into the same political state as England: union within a common state (the English state, renamed ‘Britain’ / the UK to reflect its enlarged geographical extent) but not a common nation. Commonwealth of nations, not British Nation. Unlike a power such as France, whose colonies were all assimilated into France itself, each of the ‘British nations’ (both the other nations of the British Isles and those of the broader Empire) retained or developed distinct identities as nations: distinct from England, that is.

British ‘nationhood’: nothing if not England

So the ‘British’ designation of the other British nations in fact signifies their difference from England – in the past and in the present – as well as England’s enduring difference from Britain. At the same time, however, the British nations’ Britishness mediates a continuing union with England – politically, culturally, socially: a state (in both senses) that can persist so long as England, too, continues to see and describe itself as British. England is the central point of reference and underlying national identity of Britain. This latter term also denotes the commonality and ‘sameness’ of Britain, as well as the place of the ‘properly British’: where Britain is thought of as present to itself and in possession of itself, providing a centre of original and authentic Britishness that can be imagined as remaining present through its dispersion across multiple different British nations. But, because it serves this purpose, England cannot define itself as distinct from Britain; it cannot set itself apart from Britain, and / or see itself as superior to the ‘other’ British nations, because this would mean that it was not ‘one’ with – an equal partner to and the means for the unity of – the other nations: the guarantor and foundation of a common Britishness.

These mutually dependent pulls of shared identity / union and continuing difference help to explain why it is over against a distinct, ‘superior’ England that the ‘British nations’ both define their own difference and assert a shared Britishness: a Britishness shared with England, that is, but which is predicated on the suppression of an England that is itself distinct from Britain, since England has to serve as the place (literally) of a continuing Britain and ‘proper’ Britishness that those other nations can then both share and differentiate themselves from.

‘We are Scottish and British but not English’. This is still a view, I think, held by the majority of Scots. But it’s ironically connected with another common Scottish perception, which is that English people simply see themselves as ‘British’; that when they refer to England, they tend to mean Britain – and when they say Britain, they generally mean England. (For the moment, forget about the whole British government thing of saying ‘Britain’ rather than ‘England’ even when England is meant; I’m talking about the traditional Scottish assumptions, which are of course related to present British-government practice.) This is ironic because it exemplifies the conflicting pulls and ties of shared identity and difference with and from England that are mediated through ‘Britain’: Scotland is ‘one’ with England but only through Britain; but then again, an identification of England with Britain is asserted (which is what would in fact make that Union with England through Britain truly a union) but is itself framed as an ‘error’, and as the expression of ‘English’ arrogance, imperialism and will to dominate. So, through and as ‘Britain’, England is seen as both one with Scotland and different from it: an identification of England with Britain (and hence, a fundamental union between Scotland and England) is at once asserted and denied. Or putting it another way: Scotland sees itself as both ‘a part of’ Britain and ‘apart from England’ – but only if England and Britain are seen as both the same as each other and different from one another.

I think the same line of reasoning could be applied to the relationship between England and Wales; perhaps more so given the two countries’ much longer and deeper ties of shared and differentiated nationhood within ‘Britain’, which arguably go back to Roman times (or even earlier), when the actual colony of Britannia comprised roughly the territory of England and Wales today. The relationships are more complicated and painful in Northern Ireland. Here, I think the pulls are not so much between Ireland and England within Britain – on the analogy with Scotland and Wales – but between Ireland and Britain ‘as a whole’; although this structure still depends on England providing the ground and basis on which Britain can be viewed as a proper nation, as opposed to a collection of three or four nations. And hence, alongside the Union Jack, the Northern Irish Loyalists fly a flag that is essentially the Cross of St. George with the red hand of Ulster in the centre: as if to say that Ulster’s British centre is England.

So, in order for the other nations of Britain to be seen as nations that are distinct from England, on the one hand, and which are still fundamentally and authentically united with – one with – England in the Union, England itself has to be seen as (and see itself as) one with – identified with – Britain. This provides a core and foundation of ‘proper’ Britishness (British national identity) that the other British nations can then both share and ‘own’ (rather than having to share and own Englishness) at the same time as they can differentiate themselves from and within that Britishness insofar as it is also seen as a self-attributed (and self-defining) ‘property’ and national characteristic of England.

The denial of a distinct England (and England’s self-abnegation) is in this way the precondition for a ‘proper’ British nation to exist: England must be Britain for Britain to be – and for the other nations to be semi-detached parts of Britain not annexes of England. I have to say that I think it is this fundamental structure that allows a phrase such as ‘a Britain of nations and regions’ to make any sense at all. Analysed from a purely logical perspective, this is a complete non-sequitur if you presuppose a logical hierarchy whereby regions are smaller dependent subsets of nations. If Scotland and Wales are the ‘nations’ here, and the ‘regions’ are the sub-national territories formerly known as England, what does that make Britain? A nation or a ‘supra-nation’? Well, yes, perhaps the latter – another word for ‘supra-nation’ being ’empire’, which is what – in my contention – Britain always was: the core of England’s Empire. Or alternatively, if Britain is a / the nation in this phrase, then shouldn’t Scotland and Wales be described rather as regions on the same basis as the [formerly] English regions? Yes, of course they should. But the structure isn’t logical in this way, or rather it obeys a different logic: it is the identification of England with Britain that enables the ‘other’ nations of Britain to affirm a distinct national identity while remaining organic parts of Britain; while, if England has become Britain, the smaller sub-national units into which it has been divided are then aptly described as regions of a British nation.

This paradoxical structure results from the two conflicting pulls within New Labour’s attempt to fashion a new British Nation – integral Britishness, on the one hand, along with devolution for some of its parts, on the other. This leads to the need to assert a strong core of British national identity at the centre, allowing the smaller countries at the periphery to be both distinct nations and partakers of a shared British identity: the British identity of England, that is – turning the whole edifice into an integral British Nation. This is in contrast to what I describe as the original and historic character of Britain as essentially the core and name of England’s Empire, with the other British nations as dominions or ‘possessions’ of England. The two structures could be illustrated as follows:

 

Imperial Britain


 

Nation of Britain


 

Comparing the two diagrams, it is noteworthy that a former hierarchy of nations (England as the central sovereign national power within the United Kingdom both governing and ‘owning’ the other British nations) has been replaced by a hierarchy of governance: the central UK government exercising governance / sovereignty over the ‘nations and regions’ in some matters but devolving power in other areas. Or at least, that was the blueprint for the [English] regions until the electorate in the proposed North-East region scuppered the idea. But, as we know, the present government has continued with its regionalising agenda, although the Regional Authorities now are little more than unelected arms of central government. So a more accurate rendition of the present situation would perhaps have been to draw the above diagram with a thick arrow going one-way from the centre down to the regions.

This replacement of inter-national UK governance by inter-tier UK governance reflects the fact that devolution as implemented by New Labour did double duty as a process of delegating to the ‘nations’ certain aspects of governance previously handled by the England-dominated UK government alongside a process of developing a new regional tier and structure of governance. That’s to say, this is regional governance effectively within the context of a new integral Nation of Britain. To complete this structural transformation, ‘Britain’ is promoted from its position as England’s ‘dominion’ within the imperial set up (the territory over which England exercised sovereignty and which England ‘possessed’) to the position as the sovereign national power in its own right. Accordingly, England is demoted to the status of a mere territory over which the central British government exercises sovereignty and which it ‘possesses’ as its own; to the extent that it feels entitled to dispose over – indeed, dispose of – the English territory as it chooses by parcelling it up into smaller administrative units.

But this also means that ‘Britain’ governs the UK in England’s place. In other words, Britain both takes England’s place as the sovereign and central power within the structure, and represents (indeed, re-presents) England within the continuing inter-national aspects of the system. Or, putting it another way, ‘Britain’ in the new structure continues to also be effectively England: it rests on the British national identity of the English, or the identification of England with Britain; and it exercises and takes forward England’s historic role and responsibility of governance over itself (i.e., in this instance, over the ‘regions’) and over the other British nations. This is still effectively governance from the English centre, albeit that this cannot be acknowledged, as it is supposed to be a unitary system of British governance, with British nations and British regions standing in a relation of equality towards one another within an all-embracing Britishness.

Conclusion

So the Britishness is really just an overlay over a much more long-standing structure, with Britain taking over and taking forward England’s historic role as the power in the land. This system, as it stands, is dependent on ‘Britain’ both being and not being England. Firstly, for Britain to have a ‘national identity’ in its right requires that the people of England (continue to) identify as British / identify with Britain, providing a[n English] core of Britishness that the other nations of Britain can both see themselves as sharing and uniting with in a profound way (as it and they are both British), while differentiating themselves from it in a manner that defines their own national identities as being distinct from that of England / English Britishness.

This is the core problem with Brown’s Britishness agenda: the non-existence, precisely, of a core Britishness. ‘Britain’ is incapable of grounding its identity as a ‘nation’ within itself because it has always been, and continues to be, essentially a system of governance unifying a collection of distinct nations – now even more than ever, in fact, as the second of my above two diagrams illustrates: ‘Britain’ / the UK is just a hierarchical system of governance and a set of relationships between its constituent parts, not an integral nation in itself. This is why Brown and New Labour can define ‘core Britishness’ only in terms of a set of general moral and political values that themselves relate to the processes of governance and civic society: liberty, tolerance, democracy, justice, the rule of law, etc.

The reality is that the ‘core identity’ of Britain is the [only in part British] national identity of the English. And this is made up of a much deeper, broader, more concrete and personal set of characteristics, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that can ever be encapsulated by a mere set of philosophical and political abstractions. It is of these things – the character, culture, society, history and traditions of a whole national community – that real ‘national identity’ is made. England has and is all of these things; Britain ‘of itself’ does and is not. So in order to be a nation, ‘Britain’ has to appropriate the national identity of England to itself (another way of saying it has to ensure that English people [continue to] see all of their English characteristics and values as essentially British). But Brown cannot engage with the question at this level, because if he did, he’d be forced to acknowledge that his British national identity is, at its core, none other than England’s by another name. And so, because he cannot acknowledge the concrete reality of the English people and identity as the real core of, and dominant culture and nation within, the UK (as it always has been), his Britishness can be articulated only at the level of abstract ‘shared British values’.

And secondly – and this is perhaps even more determining for the future of a continuing Britain – the other British nations also need this core Britishness and centre of Britain to be Britain-but-not-England and to still be England all the same. On the one hand, they need this, as I described above, to feel connected to a common Britishness (of which ‘England’ is the guarantor and foundation) that is the place of an authentic and equal Union between the nations of the UK, rather than being in fact just another name for a separate England of which they have historically been subordinate British-imperial ‘possessions’. And, on the other hand, the fact that this ‘British centre’ is also still England is necessary for them to define their own national identity as distinct [from England] through devolution.

In other words, the other British nations define themselves as nations through differentiation from the English centre of Britain; but they need that English centre to be British first and foremost in order to continue to feel anchored in a common Britishness. If, on the other hand, that Englishness of the British centre were somehow to be effaced altogether, then the other British nations would ironically lose the basis for their own distinct national identities, at least as contained within the British framework. They need England to exist in order not to be English; and they need England to be Britain in order to be British. Pull England out of the whole system – create a Britain ‘without England’ at its centre – and the national identities of the other British nations, and their sense of belonging to a ‘national-British’ community of any description, would be completely stripped of their present anchoring, and the constituent parts of what we now know as Britain would spin off into a chaotic existential abyss.

All of which doesn’t exactly make it easy to see what the way forward might be. But although the present system does shore up some sort of unitary structure for UK governance within the context of devolution – and while it does create a British anchor for the diverging and increasingly autonomous identities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – it is hardly a sustainable, rational or fair set up for England, which is condemned to a limbo land of being and not being a nation, and being the prop upon which the whole UK edifice and its other nations depend for their present existence.

And the point is, if this is not sustainable for England, then it cannot be a sustainable basis for a continuing United Kingdom, either. That is because England is the core national identity of the UK; but a UK that seeks both to deny that fact and yet relies on it is an edifice built on a foundation that undermines itself.

25 September 2008

A TV Of Nations and Regions

The media and telecoms regulator Ofcom today published the second phase of its Public Service Broadcasting Review. This looks at a number of alternative new funding models for public-service TV broadcasting in the era following the digital switch-over and beyond. The report questions some of the assumptions behind PSB funding in the present and explores different combinations of public and commercial funding for such services, and models of competition to obtain such funding and broadcasting licences.

One assumption that is not challenged in the report – or at least, its Executive Summary – is that there is both strong consumer demand and a public-service obligation to provide ‘nations and regions’ programming, both news and non-news. The phrase crops up all over the eight-page summary, particularly in relation to two of the proposed new models for ITV services and funding, e.g.:

  • The ‘enhanced Evolution model’: “ITV1 could become a network of nations-based licences, or a single UK licence, with obligations only for UK origination, UK and international news, and potentially news for the devolved nations and the English regions”.
  • The ‘refined BBC / Channel 4 model’: “Channel 3 licensees would have no ongoing public service benefits or obligations, but could compete for funding to provide nations and regions news,
    alongside others”.

Then, under the rubric “Provision of news and information for the devolved nations is an essential
requirement for any future model, and is likely to need replacement funding”, a number of options for securing this laudable aim are mapped out, which include:

  • “Provide new public funding for Channel 3 licensees in the nations and regions;
  • Introduce competitive funding for services in the nations and regions to enable
    other providers to bid, potentially enabling the creation of cross-media services in
    Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; or
  • Fund the creation of dedicated channels for the devolved nations, such as that
    proposed by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission.”

One suspects that the demand for ‘nations’ services in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might be somewhat greater than demand for services focused on the (English) regions! Perhaps they should have consulted on the question of whether broadcasters felt there would be demand for a channel or services dedicated to the English nation. One suspects that the commercial potential for such a service, particularly if it was based on a public-service remit, would be quite high. Maybe it’s just the political will to provide public funding for a national English TV service that is lacking!

The absence of real demand for [English] regional programming seems reflected in the reports main proposals for ITV:

  • “retained nations and regions news, but a modest reduction in the minimum
    requirement for news minutage, reflecting removal of some daytime bulletins;
  • reduced minimum requirements for nations and regions non-news programming,
    to 15 minutes in England and from 3 to 1.5 hours in Wales, Scotland and
    Northern Ireland”.

For the avoidance of doubt, that’s 15 minutes of non-news factual programming for the English regions per week, as the more detailed discussion of this proposal in the body of the report makes clear: “in England, the requirement for a quota for ‘other’ non-news programmes in the English regions to be met through an average 15 minutes per week of current affairs and other factual elements from 2009, which may be delivered within news slots”. That’s 15 minutes for each of the English regions, compared with 1.5 hours for the ‘nations’ of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So clearly, they’re not anticipating much interest in this regional fare! However, if there were quality programming dealing with national English stories – political, social and cultural – I’m sure the broadcasters would have a job to limit it to the 1.5 hours allotted to the smaller nations! But they wouldn’t want so much attention to be drawn to the failings (or absence) of English governance, the economic and social problems of our cities and rural areas, or the decline of so many local and national traditions, would they?

So it seems as though the regional model is all we in England are going to be offered, even to the extent that Ofcom has given its approval to a rationalisation of ITV’s English ‘regional’ news desks from 17 to nine: neatly mapping on to the nine regions the government has divided England up into through its unelected Regional Assemblies and Ministers for the Regions – apart from poor old Borders TV, which does now look as though it will be merged with Tyne Tees: welcome to England, chaps!

Ofcom seems unable to think outside the nations and regions TV box; or perhaps it’s just prevented or intimidated from doing so by its political masters. The nations and regions model of broadcasting – and the nations and regions model for Britain it rests on – is based on a conflation of England with Britain, the political rationale for which is well known: to deny nation status to England but not to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and so to legitimise and perpetuate the sovereignty and domination of the unrepresentative UK parliament over English affairs, thereby withholding from English people the democratic choices and national self-determination accorded to the devolved ‘nations’. Ofcom can’t get beyond this rigid, pre-imposed model for the UK: [English] regions and devolved nations of equivalent size or less.

But surely, redesigning the funding and licensing models for public-service broadcasting is an ideal opportunity to, as it were, recast this model not remain hide-bound to it. Instead of an essentially two- or three-tier model for broadcast content and organisations (international and national-UK; regional-national; and genuinely local: down to the local community or even neighbourhood level), why can’t we work at developing a three- (or four-) tiered model: yes, international and truly UK-wide news and general programming; then properly national news, with a Scottish Six (BBC Scotland Six O’Clock News) matched by equivalent English Six and Welsh Six news programmes, for instance; and then truly local and regional news with, in the English context, programming at the level of shire counties or more authentic regional groupings of counties, such as an ‘Anglia’ region that combined Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk rather than the present ‘super-Anglia’ region that also includes Essex, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire; or say, a ‘Yorkshire’ region that reincorporated Humberside and Teeside?

This wouldn’t in fact necessitate the creation of a ‘BBC England’ paralleling the present BBC Scotland or BBC Wales. All you need do is restructure the organisation and funding of public-service broadcasters so that they can actually deliver programming that reflects the range of topics (international, national, regional-local) that people are genuinely interested in, and which fulfils the duty of news coverage to report the facts accurately, clearly and intelligently. So, for instance, instead of the main network news broadcasts being divided into international and supposedly UK / national stories (with the latter really being almost exclusively England-only while being misleadingly passed off as British, to the considerable annoyance of informed viewers in all four nations of the UK) followed by ‘regional’ news, you could divide them into three parts: international and properly UK-wide stories, for instance dealing with the economy, taxation, immigration or national security; then properly national-level stories, i.e. dealing with those levels of politics and society that are governed by the devolved institutions (or not, in England’s case); and then the local-regional news.

I’m sure there would be just as much demand and interest in Scotland and Wales for national-Scottish and national-Welsh news stories (albeit that these might seem parochial to an English audience) as there would be enthusiasm in England for properly English stories that are currently made out to be British, e.g. stories about education, transport, planning, crime and justice, and other social issues. While satisfying the English appetite to see England treated explicitly and fairly as a nation in its own right, and achieving a more accurate depiction of the range of governance across the UK following devolution (in line with the recommendations of a recent BBC report also commented in this blog), this would also free Scottish and Welsh viewers from being bombarded with entirely England-focused news masquerading as British. And I’m equally sure there would be plenty of interest in ‘regional’-Scottish and ‘regional’-Welsh broadcasting, reflecting the considerable cultural and economic diversity of the different parts of those countries, to match the local, county or regional-level concerns of English viewers.

But a restructuring of this sort would go completely against the grain of the present policies of denying England any representation as a nation: whether politically or on TV. And that’s why, in the consultation questions asked at the end of the report’s Executive Summary, there’s no thought of asking whether broadcasters consider there might be demand for national-English programming. No, it’s just nations and regions again:

  1. “Do you agree with our findings that nations and regions news continues to have an important role and that additional funding should be provided to sustain it?
  2. Which of the three refined models do you think is most appropriate in the devolved nations?
  3. Do you agree with our analysis of the future potential for local content services?”

Well, my answer to No.’s 1 and 2 is yes: but only if you’re counting England as a nation. But something tells me I could be regions away from the truth.

And finally, yet another plug: please sign the ‘England Nation’ petition. Thank you.

18 September 2008

Due to devolution, parts of this item refer to the whole UK and parts refer to only some sections of the UK

What is the ‘item’ in question? Nick Clegg’s speech yesterday to the Lib Dem conference, as a footnote describes it on the Lib Dem website. I thought I’d just do a ‘Brit’ check and an ‘Engl’ check on the old word counter to see if, by any chance, the grandson of a Russian émigrée has any concept of England. I wasn’t – or rather was – disappointed: 39 instances of ‘Britain’ or ‘British’, and none of England (no, not a dicky bird); and also none of Scotland / Scottish, Wales / Welsh, or Northern Ireland / Irish, by the way. (Actually, there is a reference to Cornwall; but only to a single mum whose personal situation is meant to be illustrative of the difficulties faced by the people of ‘Britain’ as a whole.) Well, if they can refer to England in a footnote, such as the one in the title to this post, only as a ‘section of the UK’, I suppose this absence of mentions throughout the speech was only to be expected.

But there was I, going through all the references to ‘Britain’ and ‘British’, and noting all the places where these terms are used to refer to areas of policy that relate to England only as far as Westminster government is concerned. I.e. education: “We can have a better education system, and through it a better Britain”. Or health: “The NHS is a great national institution” (no: it’s four great national institutions). Or even the environment: “Education, health and crime. The top three concerns of the British people. They have been for decades. But I want us to get the environment up there too”.

I was thinking great: here’s a nice little opportunity for another critique of the way the main parties brush the democratic deficit and public-spending inequalities towards England resulting from devolution under the carpet by pretending that everything Westminster politicians do relates to the whole of the UK. And that is indeed a valid critique of Nick Clegg’s speech. As I’ve noted before in this blog, the Lib Dem leader appears to have no concept of England as an entity distinct from Britain, as his whole focus is on Britain and Britain-wide governance even when – as we have seen – those policies would in practice be implemented in England only. He even, like Gordon Brown, appears to view Britain as a / the only real ‘nation’ in these isles: “they found a home in Britain because ours is a nation of tolerance, of freedom, and of compassion”.

This ‘britification’ of England – so typical of the main parties – is in itself enough to make an English patriot’s blood boil. But then the footnote. I really couldn’t believe it at first. Not only the speech without a single passing reference to the largest actual nation of these isles. Not only the false impression it creates that, if in government, the Lib Dems would be making laws for the whole of the UK and not in fact for England only in most cases. And not only the complete failure to acknowledge the existence of England and her people as any kind of meaningful entity or constituency that the Lib Dems need to address. But then, to top it all, this insulting footnote: as if this easy-to-miss disclaimer were enough to counteract the deliberate Britain-only focus of the whole speech.

This is as bad as the disclaimers you get at the bottom of some ministerial press releases, where they say: “This notice relates only to ‘England'” (with ‘England’ indeed in apostrophes, revealing that it’s only a convenient name for a territorial jurisdiction not, in the government’s view, a nation). In fact, it’s worse; because even in the footnote, England is not mentioned but is referred to in the catch-all phrase “section of the UK”. I’m surprised and appalled the Lib Dems could replicate such an offensive practice. Perhaps I shouldn’t be.

Admittedly, in the speech, Nick Clegg calls for a comprehensive constitutional convention that could lead to “a new constitutional settlement”. But then, can one have any confidence that this convention would truly re-examine the devolution settlement as it affects England, and come up with proposals for a new settlement that is equitable to all the nations of the UK? Indeed, can one be confident that such a convention would actually be a UK-wide convention at all, despite the fact that the speech dresses it up as such, and not just a means to perpetuate and even deepen the suppression of England’s identity and distinctness as a national political entity? The reason I say this is that the only reference the speech makes to devolution – apart from the derisive footnote – is as follows: “We need to . . . . devolve control to councils, communities, families, parents, patients and pupils”. This is local devolution: the devolving of democratic decision making to every area of civic society where decisions are best taken at that level. But local government, communities and education are devolved parts of national government. In other words, if a Lib Dem government were to pursue such a process of local devolution, it would apply to England only. In addition, previously, the Lib Dem leader has gone on record to advocate devolution to the ‘regional’ as well as ‘local’ level – again, of course, only in England, though presented as if the policy would or could be applied across the whole of the UK. So one is left with the impression that the Lib Dem’s ‘British’ constitutional convention – like so many of their other ‘British’ policies – would in fact be an England-only constitutional convention. One through which the Lib Dems would be hoping to drive a regionalisation and localisation of governance in England only; and with not the slightest hint of ‘national’ devolution for England, as if that whole concept were a non-sequitur.

Naturally, one would expect any Lib Dem programme of constitutional reform to involve PR. But this is not in fact mentioned in the speech. And without addressing the unfairness of the asymmetric devolution settlement, even PR would not be sufficient to rectify the English democratic deficit. This is because Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people would be able to elect representatives to govern them in devolved matters; but English people would still be governed in these areas by the UK parliament, including by MPs and ministers not accountable to any English voter. But I suppose making up-front noises about a constitutional convention is a convenient means not to have to go into these matters before an election and to pretend they will all be dealt with in a fair and non-partisan way once a Lib Dem government is in place.

But that doesn’t prevent Clegg from perpetuating the illusion that such a government’s remit would be UK-wide in a unitary way, which it wouldn’t be. But at least he’s being honest in another way: that, in fact, England is just a ‘section of the UK’ as far as government is concerned. We have no distinct constitutional, political or legal status as a nation. And Britology Clegg, it seems, wants to keep it that way.

22 April 2008

Regional governance and the English parliament

It is often assumed by opponents of an English parliament that such a body would merely replicate the centralist pattern of governance that is characteristic of the present UK regime. One of the reasons for this is a simple equation that is made between the concept of ‘nationalism’ and support for a strong, unitary and by extension centrally organised nation state.

But there are many different possible blueprints for an English parliament and self-rule; and these involve a variety of relationships between all the different layers of government, ranging from the ‘local’ to the European and international. My personal preference hitherto has been a federal UK: a UK initially of four or five (including Cornwall) ‘nations’, with parliaments that have the same level of governmental responsibility in each of their respective territories. This would eliminate the imbalance of the present devolution settlement, whereby the people of Scotland and Wales are entitled to elect parliamentary bodies to deal with areas such as education, health and planning for their own countries exclusively, while policy and laws for England in these matters are made by the UK parliament elected by all the people of the UK.

I put the word ‘nation’ into inverted commas above because the parts of a federal UK as thus described are presently not formally defined as nations; nor would it be necessary for devolved federal parliaments to be limited to nations as such. Technically, as I say, none of the UK territories that we like to know as nations are nations in law: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are officially referred to as ‘constituent parts’ or ‘constituent countries’ of the UK. So ‘national’ devolution for each of these territories need not actually be described as such, but could be referred to as a form of regional devolution – with England obviously being a significantly larger ‘UK region’ than all the others.

Clearly, however, this sort of nomenclature would not be acceptable to the majority of the people in any of the UK’s ‘constituent countries’ (nor is this something I would subscribe to), as citizens are profoundly attached to their countries and are proud to call them ‘nations’ – as unofficially as you like! I do, however, think that a variation (and rather a significant variation) of the model I’ve just described is how GB [Gordon Brown] would like to see devolution eventually pan out. I think he sees Scotland, Wales and (to an indeterminate degree) Northern Ireland both as nations – in the informal, emotional sense – and as British regions. This dual identity is in some respects no different from the double status these countries have always had as distinct ‘nations’ within a unitary British state. The only difference – in theory – about devolved governance is that certain powers were delegated to the Scots and the Welsh themselves. A transfer of power does not in itself equate to a shift in national identity.

In other words, Brown’s original concept for devolution was probably that the Scots and Welsh would be content simply to have more of a say over devolved matters while still seeing themselves as primarily British, and viewing their devolved institutions effectively as just a layer of regional governance in all but name. In the event, of course, devolution has set in train a momentum whereby many people in Scotland and Wales increasingly see their devolved bodies as national institutions, and would like to see them take more nation-type powers away from Westminster; with the endgame for many obviously being full independence.

GB’s ideal template, then, is regional devolution. I think maybe that when New Labour was planning to introduce democratically elected devolved regional government throughout England, and when GB mooted that now (in)famous concept that Britain ‘as it should be’ was a “Britain of nations and regions”, they genuinely didn’t fully realise that this would be perceived as expressing an intention to dismember England into a set of regions of equivalent size, and with equivalent political powers, to Scotland: effectively abolishing England as an entity with any constitutional or legal status as a nation within the UK. I think Brown at least just had his own blueprint in mind for what I’ve called elsewhere a unitary ‘state-nation of Britain’, with certain areas of government devolved effectively to the regions, three of which coincided with the smaller ‘nations’ of the UK, and the remaining nine of which were English regions.

I’m being generous here; but I do genuinely think Brown still thinks of ‘England’ as a nation, in the same way that he thinks of Scotland as a nation: as a cultural, emotional, personal thing for which one can have a profound affection; but which is secondary, in political terms, to the state-as-nation – England coexisting with / subsumed under Britain in the same way that Scotland exists as a nation within a nation, or a country within a country. It’s just that he neglected to explicitly associate England as such with his regional model of devolution (by, for instance, referring to the ‘regions’ as the ‘regions of England’) or even to refer to England at all as a nation – avoiding the ‘E’ word as much as he possibly can, so as not to evoke the spectre of English devolution that threatens to break up his British Banquo’s feast. (A metaphor that makes Brown a Macbeth figure – something that is perhaps both over-flattering and unjustly condemnatory; but is pleasing all the same!)

I would not have said that Brown still thinks of England as a nation had I not stumbled across the following statement from the great man following FIFA’s decision last October to drop its continental rotation policy for the Football World Cup, enabling England to bid to hold the tournament in 2018: “I am delighted that FIFA have opened the door for the World Cup to come back to England. By 2018, it will be 52 years since England hosted the World Cup. The nation which gave football to the world deserves to have the greatest tournament back on these shores”. Yes, you’re not delusional: he said England twice in three sentences and explicitly called her a ‘nation’. You could call this just consummate politics: GB playing to the English patriotic audience, whose sentiments are always to the fore when it’s a question of the ‘national game’ and the national team. But I don’t think GB would have risked making such a statement – quite the most explicit statement that England is a nation I have ever come across from him – if he didn’t at one level hold it to be true. And that’s the point: for GB, ‘England’ signifies a nation in a cultural and emotional sense only; in the same way (but without the emotion) as Scotland does. And this is a sense that is closely connected with, and evoked by, national sports events and teams. 

By the way, I don’t have empirical evidence for my assertion that this is how GB experiences his Scottish national identity: he and his minions declined to answer the question in my email to Downing Street, “Does the PM consider himself to be Scottish or British in the first instance, and why?” I sent this question (with ‘England’ replacing ‘Scotland’ where appropriate) to a number of top politicians. Interestingly, the only answer I got back was from David Cameron’s office: “David was born in England so, if you are asking whether he is Scottish, English or Welsh – he is English. However, he likes to think of himself as British”. Well, there you have it: a consummate ambiguous, non-committal politician’s answer! But actually, for me, that vindicates what I’ve always asserted about David Cameron: that he’s English in the way that really matters, which is emotional and personal identification with a place, people and culture that have moulded you; whereas ‘British’ is merely his formal, public, passport national identity – the one that emotionally-anally retentive Brown thinks should be uppermost.

But I digress. What I wanted to say is that Brown’s regional model for devolution needn’t be construed as implying a malevolent will to abolish England as such. What it would achieve, if implemented, would be to deny the possibility of an English parliament, and English national political and civic institutions in general. And that’s the nub of the problem: Brown might wish the devolved Scottish and Welsh institutions to be merely a regional layer of governance; but they’re perceived by the Scottish, Welsh and English alike as national bodies. Therefore, the mooted regionalisation of England denies England the national representation and status that appears to have been accorded to Scotland and Wales, which Brown would have wished was merely regional – and may still wish to recast as such.

This state of affairs can perhaps be illuminated by looking at what aspects of governmental ‘competence’ (areas of responsibility) could be most typically classified as national or regional (or, indeed, international and local); how these competences have been distributed under New Labour between the various layers of governance; and different models for how they could be redistributed in the context of an English parliament. This categorisation would doubtless be disputed by many; however, it’s not meant to be absolute but merely to illustrate how Scotland and Wales have been accorded ‘national’ powers that have been denied to England; and how things could be very different.

Competences typically associated with different tiers of governance

  • International (EU): co-ordination of matters affecting peaceful relations between nations / states, and where multi-lateral action is more effective than unilateral; e.g. trade, human rights, employment regulations, international environmental policy and action against climate change, product and safety standards, defence in its international dimension, market liberalisation, etc.
  • National: areas of policy and legislation primarily affecting the social and economic development and well-being of the whole nation or state; e.g. economic and fiscal policy, defence and security, justice and policing, social security and benefits system; national aspects of environmental regulation; strategic aspects of education, health, transport and planning; the ‘culture’ industries, etc.
  • Regional: co-ordination of national social, economic and environmental policies at a sub-national level, including region-specific variations in non-strategic aspects of education, health and culture (for instance, where a specific ‘regional’ language or other cultural traditions need to be taken into consideration); and also, formulation and execution of regional development plans for things such as infrastructure, housing, business and transport
  • Local: administration and delivery of the major public services as they impinge on individuals and communities, including education, health, public transport, waste collection and recycling, small-scale planning decisions, etc.

Bearing the above categories in mind, the table below illustrates the current distribution of these competences across the various tiers of UK government in the wake of the EU constitutional treaty, and devolution for Scotland and Wales; along with a series of possible re-configurations of these layers of governance in the context of a federal UK or of complete independence for each of its current constituent countries. Crosses signify the actual or potential existence of a competence in the respective area

No.

Governmental Body

International competences

National competences

Regional competences

Local competences

1

EU post-Lisbon Treaty

X

X

2

UK post-Lisbon Treaty

X

Both UK-wide and England-only

England only

3

England post-devolution

4

Scotland and Wales post-devolution

X

X

5

English regional government as rejected in North-East referendum

X

6

Unelected English regional assemblies and quangos

X

X

7

English local authorities

X

 

 

 

 

 

 

8

Federal UK parliament and government inside the EU

Optional

UK-wide only

9

National parliaments and governments within a federal UK inside the EU

X

X

10

Elected English regional assemblies and administrations within a federal UK

X

X

11

Regionally extended English local government within a federal UK

X

X

12

English county and district authorities within a federal UK

X

X

13

Independent England, Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland (and Cornwall)

Optional

X

X

14

English regions within an independent England

 

X

X

Rows 1 and 2 in the above table illustrate how some national competences as I have defined them have been transferred to the EU under the Lisbon Treaty; while the UK – in part through the government’s ‘red lines’ – has, for the time being, retained certain powers that you could view as more properly international within the context of an integrated economic market, e.g. human rights and employment regulation.

Rows 2 to 4 illustrate how the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly have acquired some but not all of the powers that I would categorise as ‘national’ (e.g. justice (in the case of Scotland), strategic aspects of education and planning, culture, etc.), as well as others that are ‘regional’. Meanwhile, those same areas of governance for England are handled by the UK parliament and government, and there is absolutely no layer of exclusive England-wide governance.

Lines 6 and 7 show how the unelected regional bodies that have been introduced without a democratic mandate have also encroached on the powers of elected local authorities in England.

Lines 8 to 14 are intended to show a wide range of possibilities for international, national, regional and local governance that could all be accommodated with the existence of national parliaments and governments for each of the countries of the UK. For example, a federal UK government could decide to transfer its powers in ‘international’ matters to the EU, or not – depending on the will of the people as expressed in a referendum. Similarly, the balance of powers between the remaining UK-wide government and the governments of each of the UK nations would need to be determined. My own preference would be for quite a minimal layer of UK-wide governance limited, say, to areas where close UK-wide co-ordination would make the most sense, such as: defence and security; border and immigration control; fiscal and monetary policy (restricted to the minimum necessary required by the fact that each country would continue to use the pound as its currency); the environment; and ‘cross-border’ transport and infrastructure planning.

In reality, the level of co-operation that would be required in these areas between England, Scotland and Wales if they became fully independent nations would be virtually the same as that between the same nations within a federal UK. The principal difference would be that a federal UK / British government would maintain a distinct legal personality and provide a single voice (and therefore might be more effective) in international affairs – acting on behalf of the nations of the UK within international bodies and strategic relationships such as the EU, the UN, NATO, and bilateral dealings with major international partners. But there would have to be a new humility on the part of this federal UK, as it would not be acting at its own behest and playing the old power games inherited from our imperial and militarily triumphant past. On the contrary, it would essentially be delegated by the separate nations of these islands to defend our interests as nations in our own right; and if Mr UK failed to act in this spirit, then his legitimacy would be seriously in question.

Similarly, there is no reason why various new forms of regional and local governance should not spring up and prosper alongside an English parliament and government, whether federal or independent. The problem that English nationalists currently have with proposals for regional governance in England isn’t necessarily based on a centralist rejection of regional government per se, but is mainly a disagreement with the model as proposed by New Labour, which completely bypasses any England-wide layer of governance. But if English regions (however defined) genuinely want to take on more areas of governmental competence – including some of those I’ve categorised as ‘national’ – then a new English government should not in theory feel undermined by that because it would not be perceived as a threat to the identity, indeed the existence, of England as a nation, or to its territorial integrity.

It could be the case that such an increasingly powerful English region might eventually wish to become a UK-federal or independent nation. However, in the foreseeable future, this seems rather unlikely, unless you count Cornwall as an ‘English region’. But Cornwall is a completely unique case, and ‘regional government’ for Cornwall within England would already be perceived by many in Cornwall as effectively national devolution – generating the same sort of momentum for ultimate separation as we currently witness in Scotland and Wales vis-a-vis the UK. In any case, perhaps as part of the establishment of a federal UK, Cornwall could acquire equal status as a UK nation to the other four countries right from the start.

English ‘regions’ could also emerge and develop organically out of existing English counties, which – unlike the regions proposed by New Labour at the start of the present decade – comprise traditional territories that people relate to and identify with. So, for instance, new regions could be formed from a number of contiguous counties joining together if they felt that this was in the best interests of the people they represent (and subject to referendum): row 11 in the above table. In this case, the new regions would acquire additional regional competences alongside their existing local ones. Eventually, when they had really established themselves as sustainable, cohesive entities, such regions could also take on some ‘national’ competences (e.g. by developing completely separate education and health systems) – but you’re looking a long way down the road to the future at that point.

In a similar way, existing counties might take on regional responsibilities (row 12 above) or (which is another way of expressing the same thing) take on additional responsibilities for formulating and delivering policy in areas such as education, healthcare and planning – something that might make sense if those counties had a large population, a distinct cultural identity and also county-specific environmental, planning or infrastructure challenges. Examples could be Cornwall again (only disputably an English ‘county’); Yorkshire (traditionally a single county, though currently split up into four, including Humberside); or Essex (with a distinct culture and infrastructure demands in the vicinity of London).

There is therefore absolutely no intrinsic reason why an English parliament should adopt the same sort of centralising mentality and control freakery as the present-day Westminster government. If anything, it would create a natural momentum towards the break up of power at the centre; and it would be rather hypocritical and hard to justify for an English parliament to block the democratic will of English people if they did want increasing powers for regional and local government.

The respective international, national, regional and local tiers of government should ideally rest naturally on the shoulders of the people thus governed: the institutions exercising the responsibilities of national governance, as I have defined them, should really also symbolise and defend the common identity and culture of the people as a nation. In this respect, the present British state has failed in its proper mission, as it can perpetuate itself only by denying the English people any such official identity and voice as a nation. Whether a federal UK government could resist the temptation to try to claw back the powers it would have ceded to the respective national UK parliaments is a matter for mere speculation. I personally increasingly feel that nothing short of virtual or actual independence for England would guarantee that it could be sufficiently free from central UK control.

As I argued above, there would be very little practical difference between a federal UK with only a thin layer of strategic UK-wide governance, and a number of separate, independent British nation states co-operating closely on matters of mutual interest for these small islands that we inhabit. In any case, England may gain such an independent status more quickly than it realises if Scotland opts to go down that route in a few years time.

Those who cherish the United Kingdom and wish to see it continuing in the long term had better soon start rolling out genuine federal-style devolution to the nations and regions of Britain, including the English nation and regions. Otherwise, Scotland’s independence will be greeted by English people as our deliverance as much as Scotland’s.

6 March 2008

England: The Inconvenient Nation Blocking European Federation

England and the EU represent two fundamentally opposing traditions and philosophies. England is the historical and spiritual centre of the great Anglo-Saxon civilisation: ‘Anglo-Saxon’ not in the sense of our ancient forebears who gave England and several of its counties and regions their names, along with a much disputed portion of our genetic inheritance; but ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in the sense of the culture, mentality and way of life of the English and the countries of the English-speaking world, particularly our North American and Australian cousins. This is in fact how the French tend to use the word, often derogatorily.

The EU, on the other hand, is the present-day avatar of the European philosophical and political tradition that reaches back to the civilisations of the ancient world, particularly Greece and Rome. You could say that the EU is the inheritor of the Roman Empire, the ideal of which survived after the collapse of Ancient Rome, was carried forward through the civilisations and empires of Roman Catholic Europe (the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburgs, for instance) and was then reinvented as a secular imperialist project through the failed Napoleonic and Hitlerian attempts to establish their Europe-wide dominion. I’m not suggesting that the EU is remotely akin to its more recent predecessors in terms of its ideology or methods; but all three pan-European projects of the last three centuries have drawn on a common ideal of a united European civilisation transcending the barriers between individual nation states that had pretty much existed since the fall of Rome.

The ideological foundation of the EU could be described as European secular humanism, whose roots do indeed go back to the philosophers and republics of the ancient world, and have been enriched and deepened through the influence of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions that have contested the destiny of the continent. This involves certain fundamental, universal and ‘timeless’ values and principles that are by definition a-national or transnational: not the expression of any one national tradition but nonetheless thought of as part of a common European heritage, even though the principles themselves are believed to be applicable to all human societies in any time or place. These principles, as set out in the Treaty of Lisbon (and, strangely enough, the failed EU Constitution, too) make familiar reading:

“DRAWING INSPIRATION from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law”.

This list of universal-European values is identical to the lists of ‘British values’ we are for ever being regaled with. So are British values the same as European values; and in what way do English values differ from these apparently shared British and European values? Well, these things are more mixed and complex than my somewhat schematic framework here allows for; but I’m tempted to say that if European values are the product of the interaction of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and the secular-humanist tradition, then English values lie more on the side of faith – particularly, obviously, Christianity – while British values and, indeed, European values in their contemporary acception lie more to the secular-humanist end of the scale.

The distinctive Anglo-Saxon contribution to modern constitutional democracies has indeed been to integrate Christian faith with liberal-humanist ideologies and polities: the United Kingdom, in which the King or Queen of England is both head of state and head of the official Church, a situation which still applies today, making England, at least, officially a Christian country at the same time as a democratic, constitutional monarchy; the United States – a republic founded on the universal (European) principles of human rights but where integral to the founding documents and official ceremonial of the nation are unmistakable Christian elements, where presidents and the state are said to put their trust in God, and where the Republican Party is the party of the Christian right.

In the EU, on the other hand, the constitutions of the largest nations – at least those, interestingly enough, that formerly lay within the bounds of the Roman Empire – embody a separation between Church and State: they’re secular foundations, and the universal liberal-humanist principles on which they rest their claim to legitimacy are not conceived of as having any intrinsic or necessary rooting in Christian faith. Nor are they overtly linked to Christianity in the European Constitution-in-all-but-name, despite the reference to their partly ‘religious’ inspiration: note, ‘religious’ merely, not Christian.

I stated above that the founding European / British values, by virtue of their universal-European character, were a-national or transnational. I note in passing that the founding of the EU on these transnational values – the way it sees itself as the defender and representative of those values across the continent, resisting the break-down of them that happened in the past when individual nations asserted themselves at the expense of others – is the main reason why I believe that the EU is fundamentally a Euro-federalist project: pre-programmed to move inexorably towards an integrated European super-state; a polity that has transcended and definitively overthrown the frontiers separating the (former) nation states of Europe.

In the contemporary British context, these transnational values feed into one of the ways in which advocacy of ‘British values’ seeks to undermine or devalue the efforts to affirm England as a nation in its own right. In particular, they underpin GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] attempt to recast the whole British state in the unifying mould of a formal, constitutional statement of British Values, and the fundamental rights and responsibilities of citizenship they articulate, which then come to replace any of the contingent, nation-specific and culturally relative formulations of value that co-exist in Britain today: a new Nation of Britain as a sort of a-national, universal-European-type citizenry, rather than as a culturally, ethnically, geographically and historically specific collectivity – such as the English nation.

The other aspect of ‘British values’ and Britishness that is often said to have transcended and evolved beyond traditional, limited national identities is their internationalism and globalism. But I would say that these characteristics are where Britishness more keenly reflects the historical contribution of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. This internationalism is the result of England’s long history of political and commercial engagement with the wider world beyond Europe: through its seafaring adventurers and merchants, and subsequently of course the Empire, which was in reality the English Empire just as the British state was the proxy-English state – England being the real driving force behind state and empire, and the civilisation that was spread worldwide through the Empire being essentially the Anglo-Saxon one. The Anglo-Saxon culture places greater emphasis on the values of individual freedom and free trade – personal and national liberty – than on liberty and equality as social ideals to be striven towards through political struggle: lived out, pragmatic freedom, and equality as equality of opportunity, i.e. the freedom to create and exploit opportunity.

This value system is focused more on the individual because in its origins, and still for many today, it has at its heart the idea of individual moral responsibility towards God (or, in the more secular modern context, the moral responsibility towards oneself and others) to use one’s gifts and chances in life to the best effect, not only for one’s own self-advancement but also to create wealth and economic value for others who will benefit from the businesses and assets (social, financial and technological) created by enterprise and initiative, and from the social responsibility and philanthropy of those who’ve been fortunate enough (or blessed by God) to be successful.

It’s this culture that places such a premium on individuals eagerly seeking and grabbing the opportunities that life presents them, coupled with free access to the super-highway of the oceans, and superior industry and technology, that led first to England-Britain and subsequently the USA establishing themselves as global superpowers: conquering the world but, at the same time, seeking to promote what is effectively the Anglo-Saxon, more Christian-influenced, version of liberal democracy wherever their military and economic influence penetrated, and in a spirit of often literally evangelical, missionary zeal.

And in the case of both England-Britain and the USA, not only did these nations go out to spread the gospel of individual freedom from collective oppression, along with the possibility for nations to become part of a great global trading civilisation, but – as a consequence of their success – individuals from all nations and cultures of the world flocked to Britain and the USA, making them probably the most multi-cultural, multi-ethnic societies in the world. This is England-Britain’s internationalism and multi-nationalism, which I would differentiate from the a-nationality and transnationality of the appeal to the European-universal secular-humanist values. These latter involve a denial of, and will to eventually abolish, the existence of separate nations and the divisions between them. By contrast, internationalism involves a willingness to embrace and absorb a plurality of nationalities and cultures into one’s own nation and understanding of one’s nationhood.

This very internationalism is also being used in the contemporary British context as another stick to beat down the English as they press for official recognition as a nation: ‘Britain is internationalist and open to the world’, so the argument goes, ‘while England is narrowly nationalistic and xenophobic’. But, as I argued in my previous post, this is both a travesty of history (because it’s England and Anglo-Saxon civilisation that has made Britain the multi-cultural society it is today), and is ideologically and tactically disastrous because it prevents cultural integration rather than facilitating it. England – the Anglo-Saxon culture – has historically been the heart of Britain and its internationalist expansion; and it can only be within that open, globally orientated, commercial, pragmatic, individualistic, Christian and tolerant English culture that is the lifeblood of Britain that all the migrants now coming to England can be truly welcomed and come to share our nation – not in an abstract Euro-Britain that denies the very nation, England, which is giving those migrants their opportunity, and which English people are rightly suspicious of and resisting.

England is a nation; not only just a nation but a great nation – the historical centre, as I say, of one of the world’s great civilisations. But the Euro-federalist project ultimately seeks the abolition of Europe’s nations, politically if not culturally. Therefore the wish of the English to reassert themselves as a nation, distinct from Britain even if remaining in some form of continuing United Kingdom, is a profound impediment to the fulfilment of European Union. If, on the other hand, England remains part of a unitary ‘Britain’, then it can be integrated within the European project. Better still if it loses its distinct national identity altogether as the influx of European and worldwide migrants is exploited by the British establishment as a lever to deny the fundamental Englishness of Britain. Brown’s European-British values, and the European-style statement of rights and responsibilities, and eventually European-style constitution, that flow from it are clearly critical to achieving this objective. England will then be transformed from a nation whose values and institutions are Christian-liberal-democratic to an anonymous part of a Nation of Britain based on a European-universal statement of collective human rights: a-national (because British ‘nationality’ is defined in universal, civic and European terms) and secular.

The much discussed and feared regionalisation of England that would flow from, and as it were consecrate, the formation of a new Euro-Britain must be seen in this context. All of the major nations of Europe have been parcelled up into regions as part of the blueprint for Europe-wide governance and its model of subsidiarity moving down the scale from European-level government, through ‘national’ administrations and down to the regional level – with regions in major countries such as Britain or Germany being equivalent in size and power to the smaller countries such as Belgium, Denmark or . . . Scotland. An England that wanted to remain an integral, in European terms large, nation and refused to be broken up into Euro-regions would clearly be an obstacle to the Federal Europe. They probably thought that, enviously eyeing the newfound democratic freedoms of the Scots and Welsh, we English would willingly embrace the same sort of thing at regional level. Except they hadn’t bargained for the fact that the regions proposed mean nothing to us English: no history, no heritage, you see; as we’ve been an integral nation for too long. For all the other major nations of Western Europe, this is not the case: the regions mean something because they retained distinct identities, political structures and even languages for far longer than they did – indeed, if they ever did – in England. Even in France, which has been a unitary state for about as long as England-Britain, the regions have retained distinct cultural, social and linguistic characteristics that mean that they are real in socio-cultural terms, and they have proper, historic names: Picardy, Burgundy, Brittany, etc. Not so in England: what kind of regional names and identities are ‘the North-West’, the ‘East Midlands’, the ‘South-West’ – even the ‘East of England’ region in fact disuses a more traditional name for that part of England, East Anglia. Perhaps too much of a reminder of the name of the tribe that gave our land its name.

So make England part of a unitary nation of Britain, and then you can break it up into Euro-regions – because neither Britain nor the regions mean anything to the English or reflect their culture, history and nationhood. Then, by a curious not-so-coincidence, England becomes Britannia once more: the province of ancient Rome, fulfilling the Euro-federalist project to reinstate the European-wide polity that Rome once represented.

Except they’re forgetting one thing: Roman Britannia was not the same as modern Britain; geographically, that is, as it did not include Scotland (Caledonia). So what was Britannia is in reality what is now England, Cornwall and Wales. Maybe our English, Welsh, Cornish and Scottish nations have got historical roots that just run too deep to allow ourselves to be integrated into an a-national Europe. And perhaps there’s still mileage (as opposed to kilometrage) in the distinct nations of the UK to resist a Euro-British Nation and a Euro-Federation.

29 January 2008

Gordon Brown and the Appropriation of Britain

There’s never been a Nation of Britain. That this is true is suggested by the very incongruity of the phrase ‘nation of Britain’; whereas ‘nation of England’, ‘nation of Scotland’ etc. come across as no different from, say, ‘nation of France’ or ‘nation of Russia’. That’s why people tend to say ‘British nation’ instead; or, preferably, just ‘Britain’ or ‘the nation’ on their own: avoiding the awkward coupling of ‘nation’ and ‘Britain’.

This is just playing with semantics, though, isn’t it? Well, as they say, yes and no. Is there really a difference between ‘nation of Britain’ and ‘British nation’? Yes, a nation of difference. ‘Nation of Britain’ implies that the nation is Britain: people and state as one – a true nation whose name is Britain. ‘British nation’, on the other hand, implies that the nation belongs to Britain or is an attribute of Britain. It implies a similar sort of relationship as in ‘British state’, ‘British royal family’ or ‘British Empire’: these are things that belong, or belonged, to Britain but are not identified with Britain. We did not, for instance, call our former worldwide dominion the ‘Empire of Britain’, which would have meant that the whole empire had been merged into a greater Great Britain and become indistinguishable from it. On the contrary, the colonies were viewed as British sovereign possessions – the British Empire – not as part of Britain itself.

In the same way, ‘British nation’ (if we can accept the concept at all) implies that the nation belongs to Britain but is not identified with / identical to Britain. The two words ‘Britain’ and ‘nation’ are not co-terminous or interchangeable. What then is the Britain that owns the nation, and what is the nation that it owns? One way of looking at it is that Britain is the state and the nation is the people; in which case, the people are not the possession of the state as such but an attribute of it: that without which the state would not exist as the apparatus for governing the people, and for constituting the people as a nation as a corollary of that process of governance. Yet, at the same time, Britain is a name for the people who, properly speaking, own the state and decide whether they want to consider the state to also be a nation: their nation.

In other words, the British state is responsible for and, at the same time, answerable to the British people; while the British people own the British state and decide whether they want that state to also be their nation: a nation of Britain. So long as Britain is not such a nation-state, then Britain (the people), Britain (the state) and Britain (the nation) are overlapping but not synonymous terms. Once Britain becomes a nation (once the British people decide to make Britain the name not just for their state but their nation), then there is just One Britain: people, state and nation as one.

This is how Gordon Brown [GB] and his fellow Britologists would like things to be. But if they achieved their objective, it would constitute an appropriation of Britain. By this, I mean both a transformation of Britain into a proper nation for the first time ever; and a theft of the Britain that has existed up to now and of the nationhood of the British. GB and his chums at the (English) Justice Ministry are embarked on a process of fundamental constitutional reform that is intended to result in things like a British written constitution, a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and a formal Statement of British Values. What documents such as these would do, if they were endorsed in a referendum, would be to radically alter the relationship between the British people, nation and state. They would in effect form a covenant of equal significance to something like the Magna Carta: a set of formal, legal documents that define the people and the state as a single united entity, or nation – the state as the people, as its appointed representative acting in its name, with the head of the government (if not the actual head of state, in the British context) being effectively the personification of the people.

People and state as one in a new nation of Britain. It’s a republic, in its principles if not in name. That is, the state is the people; it’s a res publica: a thing of the people. Whether or not it’s part of GB’s plans to establish an actual Republic of Britain is one of the great unspokens of this whole affair. What is for sure is that his constitution for a new nation of Britain lays down all the foundations for a situation where the abolition of the monarchy becomes eminently thinkable because the proposed constitution changes the whole basis of rule in ‘this country’. It would be a fundamental departure from the current establishment, in which the executive and parliament act in the name of the Sovereign, and have inherited the prerogatives of the Sovereign, albeit that they act on the basis of popular mandate, in theory, as determined through democratic elections. The state therefore rules over the people in the place of the monarch; while the people own the state to the extent that they determine which party or parties should exercise the levers of power and, ultimately, they are free to reject and change the state as currently constituted. Under the proposed new constitutional set up, the state no longer belongs to the people as something separate from it but is the people: the people and state are one; sovereignty of the people. And the executive and parliament no longer act in the name of the Sovereign – supposing there still is one – but, supposedly, in the name and place of the people.

There are of course many people in Britain who support such essentially republican principles and regard them as a prerequisite for full democracy. But what I’m saying is that this is not Britain: not Britain as we have known it, that is, which has been a constitutional monarchy since its foundation as the Kingdom of Great Britain through the Union of England and Scotland in 1707. It’s an appropriation of that Britain: Britain becomes a proper, true nation for the first time; people and state as one. But it’s also a theft of that Britain: GB and his government stealthily removing from us a Britain that we own (our Britain, our state, our constitutional monarchy, our royal family, our Kingdom) and replacing it with a Britain that we ourselves are; with which we are identified. The New Britain (New Labour, New Britain) that could ensue from a constitutional settlement might retain a monarch as an empty figurehead, giving people the misleading impression that nothing fundamentally had changed. But there would in reality no longer be any effectual place for the monarch within the constitution. And so a monarchy that currently stands as a guarantee of our freedoms and of the separation of people, nation and state would be no more.

And, as was remarked above, this would be a theft not just of our Britain and of our monarchy but also of our nationhood. Along with the separation of people and state, there has existed a separation of state and nation: the state has been Britain (which up to now has technically been shorthand for ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland’, or the UK), while the nations with which the people have identified have been England, Scotland, Wales or (Northern) Ireland. In reality, however, this identification has never been simple and straightforward. There has always been a blurring of the boundaries between nation and state, and the English in particular have traditionally seen England and Britain as interchangeable: Britain as the proxy-English state (an extension of English dominion and nationhood to the whole of the British Isles) and as another word for the nation of England.

So British people have always had dual nationality or more, if they are of mixed British parentage (English-British, Scottish-British, etc.). The extent to which they considered one of the polarities to be their more fundamental identity has been variable, and the boundaries between the two have been blurred. In the post-devolution, European-federalisation and globalised Britain of today, there has been a well documented shift towards British people identifying with one or more of England, Scotland, Wales or (Northern) Ireland as their national identity, while they see Britain increasingly as just the name of a state from which they feel alienated, which they feel has lost touch with the people and is increasingly irrelevant and powerless in any case as more and more powers are transferred to the EU, and as Britain’s fortunes depend on global economic and political trends.

GB has set out to oppose not just the break up of the state of Britain into its constituent nations but the disintegration of the British national identity as such. The constitutional establishment of a nation of Britain would be an amazing coup (in the sense of tour de force but suggesting also political force majeure) creating, for the first time, an official, unified British national identity. The British people (meaning the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish people living in the British Isles) would be formally identified with, appropriated to, the nation of Britain: One Britain – people, nation and state. It would all be official and legal, spelled out in a British Constitution; with a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities pertaining to the mutual, interdependent polarities of the people and state – nation – of Britain; and a Statement of British Values that would serve as the basis for a sort of Rite of Britishness.

You can see it now: British people (the people of the four nations living in Britain), once they’ve supposedly endorsed these measures in a referendum, being obliged to sign up to the Statement of British Values as being the code that constitutes their new civic national identity as Britons; or else, they’re free to leave the country. Think that’s fanciful? Just listen to the words of Michael Wills, the ‘Constitutional Renewal Minister’, in the Putney Debate on British values organised by the BBC Radio Four World Tonight programme last Friday: “if you don’t like it, you can leave. There’s nothing stopping you leaving . . . . You choose to stay here. You choose to be British”. Choose to be British, to accept the Statement of British Values and a new British constitutional settlement, or else ‘choose’ to live elsewhere.

And the rest: new national holidays and civic rites to celebrate our shared Britishness (see the new IPPR report The Power of Belonging: Identity, Citizenship and Social Cohesion), including secular rituals taking on the character of traditional religious rites of passage, in which the state is intimately associated with the most sacred acts and duties of individuals (marriage, raising children, etc.). And those same children no doubt lining up in class to proclaim an oath of allegiance to the flag (the Union Flag, of course) before and after school, to make sure they’re fully indoctrinated into their new civic Britishness and forget that there ever was an England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

But hang on, GB’s plan isn’t to undo the devolution settlement, and to abolish the separate ‘national’ parliaments and systems of governance for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s only the nation of England and the English national identity that GB is planning to fully erase from the constitution and the statute books. Replace a constitutional monarchy in which it is the historic King or Queen of England who is the head of state and the head of the Church of England with a British constitution with no real role for the English monarch, and no established religion or even faith (multi-culturalism, don’t you know), and then you really have appropriated the nation to Britain – and away from the English. The British nation then ceases to be what it has effectively always been: the English nation, the English realm, the possession of the English in the person of their Sovereign. For Britain to become the One Nation of Britain, it must cease to be the English-British nation. Indeed, England itself must cease to be but must, like the ‘rest’ of Britain, be appropriated to, and identified with, Britain. No English nation owning Britain; but England merged with, and absorbed into, a nation of Britain once and for good.

It’s this idea of a proper nation of Britain into which England has disappeared that makes sense of GB’s stated conception of Britain: “where Britain becomes as it should be – a Britain of nations and regions where there are many and not just one centre of initiative and energy for our country”. The way in which the separate devolved administrations and identities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can be accommodated within an overarching integral nation-state and national identity of Britain is through this combined appropriation of England to Britain (the abolition of England), and subsequent establishment of devolved government for those ‘regions’ of Britain that do not yet have it (i.e. England). So it’s not the regionalisation of England alone that abolishes England. The creation of regional ‘English’ administrations is part and parcel of the establishment of a new nation of Britain that requires England to no longer exist as a nation in order to become a nation itself, rather than what it currently is: the possession of the people of Britain, and primarily the English.

First you abolish England in a new British constitutional settlement; then you consolidate that abolition and wipe out any popular English aspiration for national status and political institutions by imposing regional devolution. This then enables Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to continue to refer to themselves, informally, as nations; whereas, constitutionally, they are technically just British regions, like those of the territory previously known as England. But if England were to continue to exist as a nation, with its own parliament and government, then Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have to be formally recognised as nations, too: with an equivalent constitutional status to the English nation.

So the idea seems to be: if England isn’t the dominant nation within the Union as now, then the other nations won’t feel the need to break away from the Union, eventually seeking full independence. Better still, if what you want is a united nation of Britain, what you have to do is find a way to abolish England altogether; so that all you have is equal regions. The ‘English’ regions won’t want to call themselves separate nations, as they aren’t; the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish can call themselves nations if they want, but they’ll be happy to be part of the unified nation of Britain because there will no longer be a big English nation to dominate them but just British regions of similar size and power to their own.

So GB’s new constitutional settlement is part of a plan to appropriate the English nation to Britain, and create a new nation of Britain and integral national-British identity. No more England.

But there are two major obstacles that could yet thwart these ambitions. First, the government has committed itself to seeking approval for any new constitutional arrangements in a referendum. How solid is such a commitment, though? After all, the Labour Party did promise to hold a referendum on the European Constitution and has now reneged on that pledge on the false claim that the revised European Reform Treaty is not the same thing (something that even the architect of the original constitution, Giscard d’Estaing refutes, having said that the two things are substantially identical). So the government could find a way to wriggle out of holding a / several referendum(s) on its new constitutional measures.

Assuming they don’t avoid a referendum, however, there is one important way in which they could totally rig the vote: as the referendum would be about establishing a British constitution, then it would have to be up to the whole of the British nation to decide whether they wanted it or not. But the ‘British nation’ as the ‘nation of Britain’ would only be constituted as such after such a constitution came into effect. It would be up to the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have the say about whether they wanted to become citizens of a new nation in which only Britain and Britishness had any official status as the national identity and state. It’s up to the English people to decide whether they want England to be abolished by a definitive merger into Britain. But the will of the English people could well be overridden by the collective decision of all the people living in Britain, which could include millions of recent migrants who have been encouraged by the government and media to identify as British rather than English, even if they live in England. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important for the government even now to refuse to acknowledge England as a nation and the English as a people: not referring to policies, laws and government departments that relate to England only as being English; but pretending that they are UK-wide or British – which, of course, they will be once England is finally abolished. So if England doesn’t exist, even now, the government could deny the validity of separate scrutiny of the will of the English people concerning a new constitution. British vote on a British constitution, and as it’s the government’s position that the nation of England doesn’t formally exist (and post-constitution, definitively won’t exist), the idea of asking the nation of England whether it wishes to cease to exist is a non-sequitur.

The other way in which GB’s ambitions could be thwarted is if the new constitution is rejected by the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This seems in some ways to be the most likely route to seeing off the spectre of a nation of Britain. This is because the Scots, in a clear majority, now see themselves as Scottish in the first instance, not British. It’s hard to imagine that, having obtained a measure of national self-rule and pride, the Scots would also vote themselves out of existence as an official nation. Unless GB is hoping he can play on the desire of some Scots to finally defeat the auld Enemy by voting it out of existence and breaking it up into units as small and dependent on the British state as itself; while playing on Scottish patriotism by maintaining devolved government as part of the new mix and allowing the Scots to still call themselves a nation, even if they technically wouldn’t be under Brown’s new unitary nation of Britain.

So GB’s solution to the threats posed to the Union by the asymmetrical devolution settlement he helped to bring in is not to maintain the status quo but radically change the Union itself. He wants to make it what it’s never been but what he thinks it should be: a nation of Britain – underpinned by a British constitution, Bill of Rights and Statement of British Values – in which what we now know as the nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cease to have any formal constitutional status as nations. England ceases to exist altogether and is broken up into devolved regions of comparable size to Scotland and Wales. As the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – unlike those of the territory formerly known as England – cover the regions that have traditionally been known as nations, they can continue informally to consider themselves as such. But technically, there’d be a new unitary nation of Britain. This would no longer be the property of a people separate from it, to be ruled over by a state also not identified with the nation(s) and people of Britain. Now, people, nation and state will be one and will form one Britain: a secular European republic in fact if not in name.

Perhaps then we’ll finally be able to drop the ridiculously long name of our country: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Let’s just call it the Kingdom of Britain; better still, the Republic of Britain. Either way, it won’t be Britain as we’ve known it. And it certainly won’t be England.

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