Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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.

8 October 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 July 2007

The West Lothian Question Is Not the Only One Needing Answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 June 2007

British Values Or Scottish Values?

  Tuesday night this week was Andrew Marr Night on BBC Two. I’ve missed most of the BBC journalist’s History of Modern Britain series – just one of a whole wave of programmes recently that have been carrying out broad-sweeping reviews of aspects of British culture, history and politics. Unfortunately, I caught only the end of Tuesday’s programme, the final one in the series. Just in time to see Mr Marr, London skyline behind him, extolling the virtues of Britain as the former centre of empire in which now all the peoples of the world have converged, making it a microcosm of the global economy and culture. Concluding words to the effect that anyone who has the fortune to be born in Britain is truly blessed. Amen.

I did, however, manage to catch all of Mr Marr’s The Age of Genius later on in the evening: history of the Scottish Enlightenment, in particular the contributions made by the philosopher David Hume and the economist Adam Smith. Mr Marr concluded his interesting account by urging us to revisit the great Enlightenment thinkers and reignite our passion for their rational-progressive values, which was all the more necessary given the threat our civilisation faces from religious extremism and violence. One particularly lyrical passage celebrated the fact that the American Revolution and Constitution had drawn their inspiration from Hume. Did I catch a certain tinge of regret that Hume’s original vision of a federal Commonwealth including Britain and America, with an elected president and a constitution based on rational, secular principles, had not been realised? Certainly, the rallying call at the end of the programme suggested that we might now wish to re-evaluate the relevance of such constitutional ideas for Britain today . . ..

These two programmes helped to consolidate my thinking about the nature of Scottish engagement in Britology: to what extent is the emphasis on British values as the agent of social cohesion and national integration shaped by the fact some of its principal exponents are Scottish? Certainly, the leaders of our main political parties are all Scottish or of Scottish descent. GB [Gordon Brown] and Menzies Campbell are obviously so (their accent betraying them straight away). David Cameron, too, not only has a Scottish name but a Scottish father and paternal family. Blair, of course, also has a strong Scottish background. On top of which, all the parties have increasingly converged around both social liberalism and free-market economics – philosophies which Andrew Marr would doubtless trace back to the founding fathers, David Hume and Adam Smith respectively, whom he discussed on Tuesday night. I even heard Cameron utter the ‘P-word’ (‘progressive’) in relation to the Conservative Party on Tuesday . . ..

But my intention here is not to mount some sort of critique of Scottish Enlightenment liberalism as manifested by the parties today. I’m interested merely in pointing out that this philosophical and Scottish background does inevitably inform the Britology of these persons. It’s an obvious point in one way: Scottish commentators and politicians who wish to exercise any meaningful influence or power over the future of England have no alternative other than to play the Britain card. There’s actually no language available to them other than Britology; otherwise, people would inevitably ask, ‘who does this Scot think (s)he is telling us what values we should profess and how to run our affairs?’

By this, I’m not trying to imply that the only interest that motivates such Scottish politicians, thinkers and writers is that of wanting to wield some disproportionate and undemocratic influence over the people of England. On the contrary, it is evident that many of them feel profoundly attached to England, and concerned for its well-being and security. But, to use an analogy drawn from another area of human experience, theirs is a love (for England) that dares not speak its name. They cannot celebrate English values, people, history, institutions and traditions as English, because of the resentful reaction they’d receive (as described above), and because of the incredulity and indignation this would provoke from their more nationalist-minded countrymen. And so the only language in which they can express their engagement in English affairs is that of Britology: British values, British people, British nation.

Perhaps it would be better, and perhaps this may one day be possible, for anglophile Scots such as these – resident and working in England, their home – to refer to themselves as ‘Scottish Englanders’, in the same way that I have expressed the hope that other inhabitants of our country should also refer to themselves as English in the first instance, rather than British: Black English, Asian English, Irish English; and not forgetting English English (English without a claim to any supplementary nationality or ethnicity) and of course British English (an ethnically British English national; a category which could also be used to describe Scottish English or Welsh English people, for instance). Andrew Marr’s vision of Britain as a marvellous melting pot of different races, religions and nationalities is not that far from my own. The difference is that, as a Scot, he’s constrained to call it British; whereas, the reality he’s referring to is predominantly that of England and of the global culture that has sprung from her.

But there is one important aspect whereby the Scottish Britologists (or closet anglophiles, if you wish) are motivated by the wish to mark the English project that is Britain with a distinctively Scottish stamp: to take Britain as a whole in a direction that perhaps appeals more to Scottish than English hearts. And this is where the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment is felt. Marr’s appeal to Hume, as an exemplar of the ‘British’ values that could serve us well in today’s climate, is obviously associated with leanings towards secularism, rationalism and republicanism. Marr clearly felt sympathy towards Hume’s anti-clericalism and favour of a society whose founding principles were those of reason rather than supposedly ‘irrational’ faith: Enlightenment principles versus irrational religion-based movements – read Islamism but also conservative, establishment Christianity. By overthrowing the English monarchy, you would be killing two birds with one stone: creating the basis for a republic, and removing the Church from the heart of the constitution and the foundations of our civic values.

I’m not accusing Andrew Marr of republicanism (maybe he is a republican, I don’t know). But it’s true that a constitutional republic is the form of state that most closely matches Hume’s thinking. And in such an egalitarian framework, Britain would belong to all its citizens equally, perhaps for the first time. There would be no need for Scots to feel like second-class citizens – or second-class Englishmen, for ever slightly removed from the centre of power. Britain, and with it England, would indeed belong equally to the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish, and all the other nationalities, races, creeds and philosophies of the world that have made it their home. But perhaps not to the English, at least not in any special way that defines who the English are, and gives them a history and a sense of mission for the future.

Such a United Britain might well appeal to our (Scottish) Enlightenment minds; but would it speak equally to – dare I name the word? – the English soul?

17 June 2007

Does Britain Need a Constitution?

 

There was an interesting little article on yesterday’s Today programme on BBC Radio Four [yes, you may have worked out by now that I’m an avid listener!] comprising an interview with the columnist Jonathan Freedland and the academic historian Dr Lawrence Goldman. The theme of the interview was whether Britain could learn any lessons about national identity from the USA. In particular, Britain’s current confusions over its national identity and its quest for an agreed set of shared values was compared unfavourably with the situation in the States, where the fundamental values informing political and public life are literally written into their constitution and bill of rights. The interview ended by leaving open the suggestion that a similar written constitution might help Britain to unite around a common set of values, leading to the formation of a civic nationalism like that of America, rather than an ethnically defined nationalism, which is one of the reasons – it was argued – that British people tend to shy away from displays of patriotic pride.

In the item, it was mentioned that Gordon Brown – the arch-Britologist who is about to become the country’s PM – has also expressed support for the idea of a written constitution. Clearly, it would be possible to write vast tomes without exhausting this particular topic – not an option for myself at the moment! So what I’d like to do is make some rapid-fire observations about what the implications of such a written constitution might be, for the UK and particularly for England.

 

 

1) Support for a written constitution is a back-door vehicle for republicanism: in political terms, the logical expression of a written constitution is a republic, rather than what we have now, which is a constitutional monarchy. If the fundamental values and laws of a society are based on the authority of free rationality and its collective expression through the ballot box, then there is no longer any need for a monarchical ruler whose authority derives from another source – ultimately, the service of God. Jonathan Freedland, who argued in favour of a written constitution on the Today programme, is clearly well aware of the republican character of calls for such a thing, as he is the author of a book entitled Bring Home the Revolution: The case for a British Republic. This made the case that Britain should re-import the rationalist, republican values it had originally exported to America, and should formulate its own written constitution inspired by that of the States.

2) Many Britologists also have a republican agenda. Not just those who would like to see a British constitution, but many Britologists in general have a republican agenda that they do not openly acknowledge. ‘Britologist’ is my term for people who support the idea that there is a set of shared, core British values around which greater social cohesion and a renewed sense of national identity can be forged. In reality, there is little that is distinctively or uniquely British about these ‘values’. Rather, they are concepts whose valuation is derived from the Enlightenment, rationalist, liberal tradition. In political terms, these values are typically expressed in republican form: liberty, equality, tolerance, democracy.

3) A new constitutional settlement would potentially efface what is most distinctively British about British identity: Englishness. Britology involves a drive to suppress and deny public expression to the real core of British identity and culture: England and Englishness. The constitutional-monarchical settlement that has prevailed since the Act of Union with Scotland 300 years ago is quite clearly anglo-centric. England has always been the dominant partner in that marriage – economically, culturally, politically and demographically. As I’ve argued elsewhere (e.g. in my ‘manifesto’ piece republished in this blog on 12 June), ‘Britain’ as such has traditionally been an English political and cultural project: a manifestation and extension to the whole British Isles and (originally via the Empire) the whole world of the English identity and its ambiguously interrelated tendencies towards domination and liberation.

By contrast, the attempt to define and impose a new sense of Britishness purely in relation to a set of fundamental rational principles represents an attempt to write England out of the British story. In other words, it involves pretending that there is an abstract, ideal, pure Britain (a ‘Great Britain’ of the mind and spirit, indeed) that should really have taken form as a rational republic, not as rule over an expanded territory by the Kings and Queens of England (which is what they are, not Kings and Queens of Britain) and by the English parliament. Looking at it from the other angle, however, Britology could be viewed as the continuation and consummation of the English-British project seen as one in which Englishness is subsumed into Britain in the cause of ‘national unity’. The perpetuation of a strong and distinctive English identity then as now is the greatest obstacle to the creation of a ‘United Nations of Britain’ or a British Republic: something which, like the ethnic melting pot of the United States of America, could derive its patriotic fervour and sense of unity from civic, not ethnic, nationalism – pride in, and agreement around, a statement of guiding principles. It seems that, in order for our own increasingly multi-ethnic society to be transformed into a united nation, the pre-eminence and centrality of Englishness within Britishness must be eliminated and denied.

 

4) Britology is a means to satisfy the objectives of Scottish nationalism via another route. Given that Britology – particularly, the variant of it that involves calls for a written constitution – involves the rejection of the privileges (including those of rule) that have traditionally been enjoyed by the English, Britology could be seen as a means to satisfy the appetite of Scottish nationalists, but in a form that still preserves the ‘Union’. Actually, the Union strictly would not be preserved but would be redefined in a way that ensured full equality between all the peoples of the re-constituted nation: both the ethnically non-indigenous peoples that, it is said, need to be given a clearly defined set of British values with which to identify; and the indigenous Brits – the Celtic nations and the ‘Anglo-Saxons’; although one suspects that, underlying this, is some misguided notion that the Celts are the real indigenous Britons, the very word for Britain being of Celtic origin. Such an ethnically egalitarian, homogenised-Britannic nation might well satisfy the aspirations of many Scottish (and, indeed, Welsh and Northern Irish) nationalists, in that it would fulfil two key desires: the creation of a republic and ‘liberation’ from English rule. Perhaps this is the reason why the Scot Gordon Brown is so keen on a written constitution and the whole Britological shebang: preserving and completing the Union of Britain creates the condition whereby the former ‘slave’ (the Scot) can exercise power over the former master (the English).

5) But the continuing existence of English national pride and identity is the thorn in the Britologists’ side. Britons may well, as the Radio Four interviewees put it, feel distaste for patriotic flag waving because of its associations with the European ethnic nationalisms of the 20th century. But part of this discomfort also relates to the ambivalence which English people have towards Britishness: English people both take pride in the achievements and admirable characteristics of Britain for which they feel particularly responsible; while at the same time they recoil from the associations of these with imperialistic power, for which English people feel especially blamed, in part by the Britologists. And, bound up with this, is a distinctive English reserve and reluctance to indulge in displays of passionate feeling of any kind, including manifestations of patriotic fervour. This combination of factors is one of the reasons why the English desire and need to take pride in ‘their nation’ has increasingly focused on England itself, seen as distinct from Britain as a whole: less jingoistic / imperialist; and able to take pride in and celebrate English culture, tradition and people, but in a more ‘appropriately’ English way – such as flag waving not on military parades but at international football matches, as football was, after all, invented by the English. The idea of a civic-republican British nationalism for which all the peoples of Britain could feel the same pride and enthusiasm simply does not take into account the English character and pride in their nation – including in the way England has moulded and created the Britain we all know and love – and their attachment to the monarchy. And it is this that provides the greatest hope that the ultimate objectives of some of those who have attached their horses to the Britological waggon – a constitutional republic – will be defeated.

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