Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

15 January 2015

The leaders’ debates and the failure to imagine England

In the row about what format if any the party leaders’ debates in the upcoming general election should take, one factor that has consistently been ignored is the England-specific framing of the discussion. By this, I mean not just that the possibility of an England-specific debate – focusing on the type of ‘English matters’ on which many have recently advocated that only English MPs should have the right to vote – has simply not been considered; whereas separate Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish debates have been offered. But also, the fact that the whole frame of reference for defining what constitutes ‘major UK parties’ is effectively English – or at least Anglo-British – has failed to be acknowledged.

Take the statement yesterday by the Green Party’s Australian-born leader Natalie Bennett claiming that the Green Party (of England and Wales) was one of the five major parties “in Britain”. Well, no, it’s one of the five largest parties in England. If you really mean ‘Britain’, or the UK, then you’d probably have to rank the Greens as sixth, with the SNP clearly in third place, both in terms of party membership and likely parliamentary representation after the general election.

Then you get into meaningless semantics about what constitutes a ‘national’ party: whether it means standing candidates in every single British, as opposed to UK, seat – leaving aside the fact that the Greens, Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems all have separate ‘Scottish’ parties, so that, technically, UKIP is the only major UK-wide party that qualifies. Unless, of course, by ‘national’ you mean every English seat. Because that is what, in this debate about the debates, ‘national’ effectively does mean: it’s whether parties are standing everywhere in England that counts, and hence whether their leaders’ performance in the debates are of relevance and interest to an English TV audience.

Of course, this is not being acknowledged, and cannot be acknowledged, as politicians and media would then have to admit that, in this supposedly UK election, involving UK-wide issues, there are really multiple elections: those in the devolved nations, where the issues properly concern only policy areas reserved to the UK government, and where nation-specific parties need to make their respective pitches about how they intend to look after the interests of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people within the London parliament; and then, in contrast, there is the election in England, where both reserved matters of great importance such as the economy, the EU, security and immigration are at stake, along with England-only matters such as the NHS, education, social care and cuts to local government – among many others.

Instead, politicians and the media are seeking to maintain the pretence that there is a single UK electorate, and single set of policy issues of equivalent importance and relevance to that ‘national’ audience: the NHS alongside the economy; education alongside immigration; social care and housing alongside welfare. There is of course a single national audience affected by the parties’ positions in all of these areas – but it’s the English audience, not the British one. And the ‘English’ parties – in my sense – certainly shouldn’t make a pitch to viewers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the (English) NHS, education system and local government, as if they were of equal relevance to viewers in those countries as those parties’ policies on the economy, defence and immigration. In fact, to do so is tantamount to fraud, as those parties wouldn’t be able to do anything in devolved policy areas if people in those countries voted them into power in Westminster.

The only way to be fair and proportionate about this is to split the debates into reserved and devolved matters; to have separate debates in all four of the UK’s nations on the latter; and have one or more debate on reserved policy areas involving, in some way, all the major parties of each nation. Then, by all means, the Green Party of England and Wales should be included, at least in the separate English and Welsh debates; and the Scottish Greens should be included in the Scottish debate.

The way I’d split it, to keep it manageable and useful to voters, is as follows:

• A first debate, aired UK-wide, featuring just David Cameron and Ed Miliband: as the PMs in waiting. This would deal only with reserved matters, given its UK-wide transmission

• A second debate, aired UK-wide, featuring the leaders of all the parties that could end up as coalition partners to the Conservatives or Labour, or as holding the balance of power, i.e. the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the DUP. This debate should also be on reserved matters only and should exclude the Tories and Labour in order to counterbalance the potential bias from limiting the first debate to them. Although only UKIP and the Greens are ‘national’ (i.e. English) parties, it would be relevant to English voters to have the leaders of the main nation-specific parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland appearing on the platform, as these parties may form part of UK governments legislating for England. The debates would therefore give voters in England a chance to find out whether these parties would ally themselves with Labour or the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament; and what their stance on matters such as English votes for English laws, constitutional reform for England, and other issues of concern to English people such as immigration and EU membership would be. That might make a real difference to voting intentions

• Four further nation-specific debates should also then happen, including UKIP and the Greens in England, and the single nation-specific parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In England, the debate should reasonably deal with both England-specific and reserved matters, but with a greater emphasis on English issues, as reserved issues would have formed the focus of the previous two debates. Devoting a limited amount of time to reserved matters would enable, say, Nigel Farage to debate the EU and immigration with David Cameron, and Natalie Bennett to debate energy policy alongside the environment (England-only) with the other leaders.

But I strongly doubt that a truly equitable solution such as this will be adopted: equitable to the people of England, that is, rather than to the purported national-UK parties that are in fact no such thing.

9 January 2013

Coalition Mid-Term Review: Sidelining England in the British-national interest

The UK coalition government published its mid-term review on Monday of this week. It is not the intention of this article to carry out a detailed analysis: I am interested mainly in the way England is treated, or rather is not, in the document.

At first sight, for a document produced by the UK government, it is remarkable how many times the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ actually appear: 15 and six respectively. However, most of the references to ‘England’ are of two related types: 1) where it is necessary to spell out that certain facts or policy proposals relate to England only in order to avoid misunderstanding, and to prevent people living in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland from thinking they are affected by them; and 2) to make sure that credit can be claimed for England-specific achievements for which the coalition parties hope to be rewarded by English voters at the next election.

Examples of the first type of reference occur on page 26, where the document refers to a number of policy proposals in the area of personal care as being specific to England, such as rules regarding eligibility for care and the introduction of a Deferred Payment Scheme designed to prevent people from having to sell their homes in order to pay for care. Clearly, these are important statutory and financial matters, and it is necessary to make it clear to non-English readers that they affect only people living in England.

Examples of the second type of reference are:

  • “We have provided the resources to help local authorities in England freeze their council tax for three years in a row” (page 14): Tory policy – please vote for us, England. (What are these ‘resources’, though? I thought local-authority funding in England was being cut, and the council-tax freeze was just a statutory, central government-imposed diktat. Do they mean local-authority funding is being cut by less than it would otherwise have been if authorities had been allowed to increase council tax willy nilly?)
  • “We have brought in the Protection of Freedoms Act to limit the retention of DNA samples in England and Wales in line with practice in Scotland” (page 37): Lib Dem policy – look, we actually do care about you, England, at least in the lofty area of British civil liberties if nothing else.

The first type of reference to England described above has the character of a legal declaration of ‘territorial extent’, along the lines of when cereal packets make it clear that a competition is limited to Great Britain and does not include Northern Ireland. And indeed, the whole document is circumscribed by a legal disclaimer of this sort covering territorial extent, which appears right at the end:

“As a result of devolution, many decisions made by UK Ministers or in the Westminster Parliament now apply to England only. The Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government make their own policy on these devolved issues. This document therefore sets out the agreed priorities for the Coalition Government in Westminster.”

No clarification as to which policies “now apply to England only”, of course! Is the general public just supposed to know what they are, as the document certainly doesn’t make this clear to the reader as it goes through the different policy areas, apart from the few exceptions I have already mentioned? But throwing in a disclaimer like this means the government can essentially cop out of providing a detailed break-down and say: ‘look, we’ve acknowledged that some policies are England-only, and anyone interested in those particular policies will know whether they’re England-specific or not’.

This is simply not good enough, although it is par for the course. We’ve come to expect from Westminster politicians and the UK government that they will avoid referring explicitly to ‘England’ as much as they possibly can, and will do so only when it is necessary to avoid factual misunderstanding and harmful political consequences, in the ways outlined above. But their unwillingness to acknowledge a country called ‘England’ to which so many of their policies relate means that Westminster politicians cannot and do not hold themselves properly accountable to the ‘nation’ and people affected by those policies.

This fact is evident in the evasive manner in which many of the policy ‘achievements’ and remaining objectives of the coalition are described; and in many instances, the evasiveness relates directly to the suppression of references to ‘England’. For example, the document never makes it explicitly clear that when it discusses ‘the NHS’, it means only the NHS in England. This helps it gloss over the fact that the coalition has legislated for a massive reform to the NHS that will alter it – in England only – quite radically from the institution created by the post-war Labour government. And yet, the government still has the gall to refer to it as “one of our great national institutions”, as if the NHS it presides over is still fundamentally the same old British NHS, which it no longer is (at least not in England).

So suppression of the England-specific nature of the NHS reforms goes hand in hand with evasiveness about the scope and nature of those reforms. For example, the document says: “We have improved the NHS by . . . starting to devolve commissioning of most health services to GP-led clinical commissioning groups”. But what it doesn’t say is that these changes are limited to England and that the said commissioning groups are statutorily obliged to consider bids from private health-care providers even if the services they provide are initially more expensive than those of existing, public-sector NHS providers.

A more honest account of the government’s measures would be explicit about both their England-specific character and their ultimate guiding principles, and would be expressed something like this: “We have reformed the NHS in England in such a way as to create a competitive health-care market in which private companies will increasingly take over the provision of publicly funded services”. This is actually intended to be an ideologically neutral statement of what the government has done: it has marketised the health-care sector in England, whether you believe that’s the most effective way to deliver health care or not. So why should a Tory-led government not trumpet that achievement? Well, because it suspects, probably correctly, that if English people knew what had been done to ‘their NHS’ (but not to the NHS’s in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), involving changes that were not set out in any manifesto or in the Coalition Agreement, they’d probably violently object. So instead, the coalition pretends that ‘the NHS’ remains fundamentally the same – a primarily public-sector and ‘British’ institution – neither of which is true any more: in England, that is.

The same analysis could be made of many, many other parts of the document that discuss England-specific policies and legislation while avoiding clarifying either that they relate to England only or that they are driven by an ideological bias in favour of private enterprise and markets at the expense of the public sector and, arguably, the public interest – in England. Another brief example – one among many – is where the document says: “We have introduced a presumption of sustainable development in the National Planning Policy Framework, which includes protection of the Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest”. How disingenuous can they be? What this really means is: “We have prepared legislation to make it easier to obtain planning permission for major developments in England’s countryside, with only Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest retaining the previous level of protection”. So England’s green and pleasant land can be concreted over under the pretext of driving economic growth, in the British national interest, regardless of the very passionate interest the English public has in protecting its countryside and natural heritage.

The identity of the ‘nation’ on which this concept of the ‘national interest’ is predicated is quite nebulous in the Mid-Term Review, as indeed it was in the original Coalition Agreement. This is quite simply because, in so many instances, the nation concerned is in reality England, but the government will not and cannot acknowledge this fact. This is rather damaging, as the very raison d’être of the coalition, then as now, is to govern in the ‘national interest’, as the title of the Mid-Term Review makes clear: “The Coalition: together in the national interest”. But whereas the phrase ‘national interest’ is adduced as justification for the coalition’s existence or for certain key decisions on five occasions in the document, the word ‘nation’ is used only once: “In 2012, the nation came together to celebrate the success of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Diamond Jubilee”.

Three of the references to ‘national interest’ relate to the formation and continuance of the coalition, based on pulling the UK round from a dangerous financial and economic crisis; one to supporting the work of the Airports Commission, which could lead to controversial approval for, say, a new terminal at Heathrow or a new runway at Stansted (i.e. more environmental degradation in England “in the national interest”); and the other reference deals with the decision to opt out of, or in to, various EU police and criminal-justice measures. In other words, ‘national interest’ is very narrowly defined in terms of a small number of strategically important reserved policy areas – the economy, air transport, foreign policy and security – whereas large parts of the document deal with devolved policy areas, i.e. with those affecting England only or mainly.

Are these English measures also being introduced in the ‘national interest’? It’s hard to believe they are given the unwillingness of the government to connect the phrase ‘national interest’ with the specific nation, England, concerned? And if they’re not being carried out in the English-national interest, in whose interest are they being done? The interest of the government’s ideological, commercial and financial bedfellows (its corporate sponsors and partners, and its financial creditors)? The interests of the UK state and establishment, and their preservation from an economic meltdown that could have accelerated the centrifugal, nationalist forces challenging their  continuing existence? Or the interests of the coalition parties themselves, who want to come out of the five-year relationship claiming they have fought their corner and followed through on their manifesto pledges – irrespective of the fact that many of the measures they’ve introduced were never outlined in detail and in some instances were flatly contradicted by their manifestos and by the Coalition Agreement, such as the [English] NHS reforms or the Higher Education policies (especially the massive hike in tuition fees for English students)?

But these questions, as indeed the English Question itself, are completely sidelined by the Mid-Term Review. After all, the Coalition can hardly be expected to hold itself accountable to an entity such as ‘the English people’, can it, if its remit is to govern in the British national interest?

18 July 2011

Open Public Services white paper: the one thing it’s not open about is England

The UK government’s ‘Open Public Services’ white paper was published last week. This sets out the government’s vision for public-service reform in England. Except you’d be hard put to realise from the text that it relates almost exclusively to England.

The white paper does, however, include a helpful explanation about its ‘scope’ right at the beginning, just after the title page and before you get to any content. It’s worth quoting this in full, as it’s a masterpiece of the double-speak involved when official language contorts itself so as to avoid saying ‘England’. Here’s what it says:

“We believe that more open public services can benefit everybody in the UK and that finding ways to deliver better services for less money is a challenge that is common to all four nations of the UK. The scope of this paper is UK wide, but in devolved areas of policy it is for the devolved administrations to determine their own approach to public service reform. The three devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all different although, in general, services such as health, education and those provided by local government are under devolved control. If you live or work in any of the devolved territories and are in any doubt as to which of these reforms would apply there, the relevant territorial office will be able to advise you.

“We are committed to working in partnership with the devolved administrations to share good practice and to explore whether our approach would suit their particular circumstances and need.”

WHAT THE F***! – if you’ll excuse my nowadays increasingly intemperate French, or rather Anglo-Saxon. There’s a much clearer and more concise way of explaining the ‘scope’ of the white paper. It’s this: “This paper relates in its entirety to England, and, owing to devolution, only limited parts of it apply to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”. But that would be far too much like ‘plain English’, in both senses: the same ‘plain English’, in fact, that the white paper itself says will be used for “explaining the scope and purpose of every [government spending] transaction”. On this basis, they presumably won’t be bending over backwards to explain to English people the ‘scope and purpose’ of the higher per-capita levels of public spending in the ‘devolved territories’ compared with the rest of the UK, i.e. England!

What an incredibly insulting, patronising way at once to explain and avoid explaining to “everybody in the UK” who is and is not affected by the proposals in this white paper! It talks of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as if they were imperial dominions begrudgingly granted a minor degree of administrative autonomy while remaining fundamentally beholden to Whitehall: “devolved administrations”; “devolved territories”; “relevant territorial office”. Meanwhile, which “territorial office” is going to explain in plain English to people who “live or work” in the non-devolved territory (England) that when the white paper says “UK wide”, it really means “only in full to England”? At least, this explanation of the white paper’s ‘scope’ refers to “all four nations of the UK” – but then why is England the only one undeserving of mention? [Sorry, Cornwall, you get even less of a look-in.]

Needless to say, the rest of the paper continues in the same vein and goes out of its way to avoid reminding its English readers that most of its proposals affect them only. The words ‘English or ‘England’ are in fact mentioned 12 times in the document; but only two of those references directly evoke a policy that applies to England, or England and Wales, only: “directly elected city mayors in England’s largest cities” (p. 31), and “communities across England and Wales are able to see where crime and disorder is happening in their neighbourhood” (p. 36). There are also two cases of ‘England’ being mentioned in the context of statistics, without spelling out that the reason those statistics relate to England only is that the relevant government department is responsible for England only: “In England today, people living in the poorest neighbourhoods will, on average, die seven years earlier than people living in the richest neighbourhoods” (p. 7: public health); and “the Department for Education has published a new dataset showing the funding and spending per pupil in each school in England” (education: p. 20). I suppose you could say the three references to the “English Baccalaureate” very indirectly acknowledge the fact that the white paper’s proposals on education relate to England only. Most of the other references are to ‘English’ as a language or school subject.

By contrast, there are 27 instances of ‘national’ together with one of ‘nation’ and two of ‘nations’. This government has a distinct predilection for the concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘national’ along with ‘we’ and ‘our’ (320 and 101 occurrences respectively) as the subject and possessive pronouns that stand in variously or simultaneously for ‘the government’ and ‘the nation collectively’, and are equally a way to avoid saying ‘England’ where the matter in hand relates to England. E.g.

“We rely on the police to patrol our streets to deter crime. If we get seriously injured we expect an ambulance to come when we ring 999. When we take our children to school, we look to teachers to pass on to them the best of human knowledge. We demand that our bins are collected regularly and that parks are well maintained” (‘we’ = ‘the nation’, i.e. in all of these instances, the English nation or ‘English people’);

“when times are tight and budgets are being cut to stabilise the economy and reduce our debts, opening public services is more important than ever – if we want to deliver better services for less money, improve public service productivity and stimulate innovation to drive the wider growth of the UK economy” (“we” and “our” = ‘the nation’ as the government, which wants to get more for less and “drive the growth of the UK economy”).

The whole of this white paper is encapsulated in this tension between the ‘we’ that are the individuals, and local groups and communities (and locally focused social and private enterprises), that are at one and the same time the users and providers of public services, and the ‘we’ that is the government that has to set a ‘national’ policy and funding framework for those locally produced and consumed services. But nowhere within this model is there any scope for a ‘we the English people’ that might be given national-level responsibility for designing and allocating public funding for those services that affect English people as a whole. That would be a true convergence of the ‘we’ of government and the ‘we’ as the public the government is supposed to serve.

Indeed, the white paper sets up a curious tripartite division of responsibilities in respect of public-service provision. There are, and I quote:

  • Individual services – These are personal services – for example in education, skills training, adult social care, childcare, housing support and individual healthcare – that are used by people on an individual basis.

    Neighbourhood services – These are services provided very locally and on a collective, rather than an individual, basis – such as maintenance of the local public realm, leisure and recreation facilities, and community safety.

    Commissioned services – These are local and national services that cannot be devolved to individuals or communities, such as tax collection, prisons, emergency healthcare or welfare to work.

So, according to the white paper, there are services that ‘we’ require and consume as individuals; and for these, the government’s idea appears to be that ‘we’ will be given a personal budget to be used up, where we can choose which provider to spend our money on: effectively, privatisation / marketisation of these services. Then there are services that ‘we’ as small local communities are to both use and provide for ourselves. And finally, there are ‘commissioned’ services where it is up to ‘us’ in government (local and ‘national’) to set policy and commission services, whether those services are provided by publicly or privately owned organisations.

Well, there’s another word that encompasses almost all of these services: ‘English’. Indeed, apart from ‘welfare to work’, there are none of these services that “cannot be devolved” at a national-English level, just as they have in fact been devolved to a variable degree to each of the three existing “devolved administrations”. But the white paper’s model for English ‘devolution’ is that while ‘we’ as individuals and communities are to have greater choice of and responsibility for the public services that can be “decentralised to the lowest appropriate level” (as the document puts it), nevertheless ‘we’ as the UK government are determined to retain control over all the ultimate levers of economic and political power in England: taxation, spending, work and welfare; law and order; and national security and public safety. But absolutely nowhere is there any scope for a ‘we the English people’ who might take over responsibility for the macro level of national policy as well as the micro level of individual and local service delivery. There is no ‘we’ that is at once the English nation and English government.

So it’s no wonder that the description of the white paper’s ‘scope’ does not mention ‘England’, because there’s no scope for anything we might recognise as England in the government’s ‘open public services’ model for England. In fact, this is all about opening up English public services to a market place of competing providers, and turning the public into consumers and, indeed, consumer-providers. So the government is opening England up to its private-sector chums; but it’s not really ‘open’ to the idea of the English people as such seeking to design and run their own services – and, indeed, owning those services – at a national level, despite the white paper’s assurances that the British government is going to carry out a ‘listening exercise’.

The agenda has been set and is going ahead. The English nation will be privatised. It’s a fait accompli or, as we English like to put it, we’re screwed.

20 July 2010

David Cameron: Big on society, little on England

There was more than a touch of déjà-vu about David Cameron’s re-launch of the Conservatives’ Big Society initiative yesterday. Here was a major policy speech relating almost exclusively to England in which the word ‘England’ was barely mentioned: once, in fact – and I’ll return to that in a moment. By contrast, Cameron spoke of the / our ‘country’ seven times and of ‘Britain’ twice, including in a rhetorical flourish at the end of his speech:

“It’s my hope – and my mission – that when people look back at this five, ten year-period from 2010, they’ll say: ‘In Britain they didn’t just pay down the deficit, they didn’t just balance the books, they didn’t just get the economy moving again, they did something really exciting in their society’. Whether it is in building affordable housing, tackling youth unemployment, inviting charities to deliver public services . . . the people in Britain worked out the answer to the big social problems”.

It was almost as if we were back to the good old bad old days of Gordon Brown: setting out the government’s England-only policies while studiously avoiding any reference to the ‘E’ word itself.

The difference between Cameron and Brown lies in the ‘content’ of the policy if not its British rhetorical dressing. Cameron’s statement, as summated in the above quote, is his programme for government in a nutshell: to rebalance the British economy and reduce the deficit (macro-economic policy: a reserved UK policy area) and to empower the “people in Britain” – specifically, the English people in Britain – to work out the solutions to their own social problems (social policy: an area of policy devolved to the respective governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but exercised on behalf of the people of England by the British government).

Hitherto exercised on behalf of the English people by the British government, that is: because the whole point of the Big Society is that, in theory at least, the formulation and implementation of social ‘policy’ as such, and the powers to deal with social problems, are going to be transferred to society itself down to the micro level (or the ‘nano level’, as Cameron called it): socially minded individuals, communities, local areas, and groups with a particular interest in specific aspects of civic society (such as parents running their own schools or communities getting involved in how they are policed).

The Big Society, in short, is what you get when the central British government sees its business exclusively as dealing with the macro dimension (UK macro-economics or the “national interest” – Cameron’s favourite phrase, which crops up in the second paragraph of his speech, when referring to deficit reduction) while disengaging altogether from the job of setting national policies in the social arena, which would in effect involve being a government for England. As a result, you have, on the one hand, the British macro layer of decision making in Whitehall and, on the other, the micro layer of the Big Society with absolutely no intermediate national-English layer of social or economic policy making, governance and democratic accountability.

In other words, ‘in Britain’, Government deals with what is its own ‘proper’ domain (macro-economics and other reserved policy areas) but does not ‘micro-manage’ the delivery of public services (to England), but instead devolves that responsibility to the micro level itself: the people who deliver those services. This is what is being offered to England by way of ‘equivalence’ to devolution for the other nations of the UK: ‘government of the people by the people for the people’ taken to a literal degree – disintermediated from the very democratically elected, national government and its institutions that are supposed to incarnate popular sovereignty, and instead being embodied in people themselves deciding to take direct action to deal with the social problems all around them. This is a ‘cultural revolution’ (or, as Cameron put it, “a huge culture change”) of almost Maoist scope: the people in a sense becoming the government and assuming its responsibilities, or – as the Conservative election manifesto referred to it – ‘joining the government of Britain’.

Except, as I say, what this actually means is becoming the government of England that the British government neither wishes nor is mandated to be. I am prepared to accept that Cameron, and many Conservative and even Lib Dem supporters of the coalition government, genuinely believe that the Big Society principles hold the key to resolving England’s social problems: that the era of ‘Big Government’ (or massive government engagement in social policy and public-service delivery) is over, and that society can find the answer to its problems only from within itself and from its own resources. Indeed, I agree with much of the localism behind the Big Society: that local issues are often best dealt with by the people directly affected by them; and that communities can really be revitalised if they can somehow come together to find a collective response to the social problems in their areas.

But if the Big Society is such a positive vision for transforming English society, why can politicians and the media not openly and honestly refer to it as an agenda for England? In virtually none of the media reports and discussions about Cameron’s Big Society launch I came across yesterday was the fact that it relates almost exclusively to England referred to. The honourable exception was the World At One news and current affairs programme on BBC Radio Four, where ‘England’ was mentioned twice, deep into the discussion, in such a way that you could be mistaken for thinking that only the particular aspect of the Big Society blueprint that was being referred to was limited to England rather than the whole thing.

I can’t remember now which aspect of the Big Society was being dealt with at that point. Perhaps it was the one reference to ‘England’ in Cameron’s speech: “we will create a Big Society Bank to help finance social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups through intermediaries. And I can announce today that it will be established using every penny of dormant bank and building society account money allocated to England”.

What does the phrase “dormant bank and building society account money allocated to England” actually mean? Is this money in dormant English bank accounts, or is it the portion of the total money lying dormant in bank accounts across the UK that had already been allocated to public expenditure in England – meaning, presumably, that an even higher proportionate share of that fund had also been allocated via the Barnett Formula to the other countries of the UK. Let’s hope it doesn’t mean a combination of the two: English bank accounts from which only a portion has been allocated to England, while an unfair share is set to be distributed to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Be that as it may, the very fact that the Big Society Bank is to be formed from a pot of money set aside for England gives away, almost as an indiscretion, the fact that the Big Society is strictly an English affair. But why can’t this fact be openly acknowledged and even celebrated?

Well, in a way, it would have been rather extraordinary and counter-cultural if Cameron’s speech had talked of creating the Big Society in England, and of English people being empowered to resolve English social problems – even if that’s what is in fact being talked about. This avoidance of explicit references to England when talking about England is indeed something we became all too familiar with in the bad old New Labour days, and is something that has also been discussed at considerable length in previous posts in this blog.

In essence, the word ‘England’ is avoided in all this discourse because ‘England’ is a void within it: there has been a total void or vacuum of social policy for England as such – as a nation – throughout New Labour’s tenure, and the Big Society is what is intended to fill it. But the Big Society in turn is not designed as an English policy as such because it is the very national, English dimension that the Big Society continues to avoid and circumvent. So whereas New Labour indeed micro-managed public-service delivery in England in a top-down manner, while denying any distinction between the British state and the English nation (calling them both ‘Britain’), Cameron’s Conservatives want public services in England (or, as they would put it, ‘Britain’) to micro-manage themselves without regard to any English-national policy dimension. Either way, there’s ‘British government’ on one side and ‘society in Britain [England]’ on the other, and they’re either conflated (New Labour) or divergent (Conservatives). But the one option that’s not envisaged is the intermediate one of an English government taking responsibility for English social policy in partnership with the English people to whom it is accountable.

The fact that the Big Society is essentially a by-product of the British government’s abnegation of its responsibility to co-ordinate social policy and public-service delivery in England – in part because it neither is nor wishes to be a government for England – was made glaringly obvious to me yesterday evening by a comment by Francis Maude, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, on Radio Four’s Tonight programme. What he said was that by definition there was no national plan for rolling out the Big Society. Yes: because, by definition, that would have to be a national-English plan, and the Big Society is what social policy in England becomes when the UK government washes its hands of it.

It remains to be seen whether the people of England will respond to the challenge to develop into a Big Society that the British government has set it. And, of course, this challenge is more than merely moral and social, in that the government’s withdrawal from social provision in England is being carried out as much in pursuit of what it sees as its primary role (macro-economic management and deficit reduction) as it is the consequence of the government’s unwillingness and lack of authority to provide leadership and vision in English social policy.

There are hard times ahead for England. But the English are a tough, resilient and resourceful people. And maybe, in learning to take control over our own social problems and public services, the English will start to demand political self-determination, too, at a national level where government is truly accountable at all levels to the people it is supposed to serve.

If the British government won’t provide direction for English society, maybe the English people will have to truly take over their own government in ways that go far beyond what is envisaged in Cameron’s Big Society.

22 May 2010

Lib-Con Coalition: A New Dispensation

In the language of theology, in case you’re not up to speed, the word ‘dispensation’ is used to refer to the ordering of divine grace or revelation, which allows us to know about God and enter into a relationship with him (or her, if you want to be inclusive). The Christian era is said to constitute a new dispensation, in which (hu)mankind enters into a more intimate relationship with God, sharing his (her) life, work and even the exercise of some of his (her) powers through the Holy Spirit.

This New-Testament era is contrasted with that of the Old Testament, in which revelation was very much more taken on trust: handed down by the powers that be through a series of law books and narratives testifying to the workings of an invisible and ultimately unknowable divine being. The New-Testament dispensation was, however, not a complete break from the old: the Almighty is still the Almighty and remains an absolute ruler, even if, in Christ, he has shown himself capable of partaking of our frailties.

The coalition government has something of the character of a ‘new dispensation’; and its ‘programme for government’, published on Thursday of this week, signals an attempt to seal a new covenant with the British public: to ‘seal the deal’ of a new politics and new policy programme that, while they do not quite fulfil the expectations of the old politics and the promises of the manifestoes that only two weeks earlier counted as holy writ, proclaim a new relationship between the politicians, and between politicians and the people.

The concept that occupies the place of God and Christ in this new dispensation is that of ‘the nation’. It is in the name and for the sake of the nation that the new coalition justifies its formation: “there was the option of a coalition in the national interest – and we seized it. When we set off on this journey, we were two parties with some policies in common and a shared desire to work in the national interest”. Rather like God, the nation thus invoked is an absolute quality, connoting a unity that is far above the fractured world of the broken society or party faction. Governing ‘in the national interest’ confers moral authority on our rulers whose absolute power, like that of God, is thus seen as being wielded for the benefit of all, not for the benefit of any one interest group such as a political party.

And like God condescending to humanity in Christ, our new leaders also declare themselves willing to share their power not only amongst themselves but with ‘the nation’ at large: “We have a shared ambition to clean up Westminster and a determination to oversee a radical redistribution of power away from Westminster and Whitehall to councils, communities and homes across the nation”. Verily, the kings shall rule in wisdom and in justice, dispensing power for the nation and to the nation; and the nation shall share in their kingdom.

But it’s when you try to name the nation in whose name our new leaders claim to rule that you land up in trouble. In the above quote, the nation in question can only be England, because the UK government has responsibility for councils and communities in England only. But the name of ‘England’ is hardly ever invoked in the 36-page document. Well, I suppose like the ineffable name of Yahweh (God), some words must never be uttered – we cannot give the impression that ‘the nation’ we govern, and in whose name we govern, is England! Heaven forefend!

However, to be fair, the words ‘England’ or ‘English’ are in fact used eight times in the document, compared with 51 instances of ‘nation(s)’, ‘national’ or ‘nationalised’. Three of the references to ‘England’ are to the Bank of England, but three do actually occur in the context of devolved policy areas:

“We will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities.”

“We will create directly elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities, subject to confirmatory referendums and full scrutiny by elected councillors.”

“We will develop a 24/7 urgent care service in every area of England, including GP out-of-hours services, and ensure every patient can access a local GP.”

One wonders why they felt the need to spell out the fact that these commitments relate only to England, not to ‘the nation’, given that all of the dozens of other England-only policies throughout the statement are covered by the block disclaimer on the very last page, which contains another of the references to England. Perhaps it’s because these are such big and specific promises that to omit ‘England’ could be seriously misleading to non-English readers and politically damaging to the coalition, who would be appearing to promise what it could in no manner deliver.

Or perhaps it’s simply that the document was cobbled together in haste as an assembly of the parties’ respective manifesto pledges that were acceptable to both coalition partners, given that the wording on the elected mayors and 24/7 urgent-care service is lifted straight from the Conservatives’ manifesto. Similarly, the block disclaimer at the end is lifted directly from the Lib Dem manifesto, with only a few essential alterations:

“The Government fully supports the devolution of powers to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. As a result of devolution, many decisions made by UK Ministers or in the Westminster Parliament now apply to England only. The Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Executive [sic] and the Welsh Assembly Government make their own policy on their devolved issues. This document therefore sets out the agreed priorities for the Coalition Government in Westminster.”

Whereas the similar back-page disclaimer in the Lib Dem manifesto states:

“Liberal Democrats have championed the devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales, and many decisions made in Westminster now apply to England only. That means that policies in those nations are increasingly different from those in England – reflecting different choices, priorities and circumstances. Our Scottish and Welsh Parties make their own policy on those issues. This document sets out our priorities for a Liberal Democrat Government in Westminster.”

So the coalition seems to have opted for the tried and trusted Lib Dem solution to the problem of how to present England-specific policies (cover them en bloc by a note at the end of the document), rather than the Tory approach, which is more to ignore the English Question altogether unless you have to say ‘England’ on trades-description grounds. But if this were the BBC or any other ‘national’ media organisation, they’d be risking severe censure by Ofcom or the BBC Trust for neglecting to spell out, policy area by policy area, which UK nations the coalition’s proposals relate to, and expecting people to go back over the whole document they’ve just read and try to work it out for themselves, even supposing they get as far as the small print about devolution at the end.

But the coalition doesn’t want readers of the statement to question the integrity of the concept of ‘the nation’ on which they build their whole claim to moral and political legitimacy. If people realised that sometimes ‘nation’ or ‘national’ means the UK, sometimes England and Wales, and sometimes just England, they might start to question which nation(s) the government sees itself as called to serve, and which nation(s) it derives its democratic mandate from – if indeed the coalition is truly governing in the interest of any actual nation, and not in the interest of its own parties and ideologies.

Above all, the coalition is keen to avoid creating the impression that it’s an English government deriving its mandate almost entirely from English voters, which is the truth of the matter: the two parties won 63.8% of the votes and 63.9% of seats in England – quite a remarkable degree of proportionality in aggregate, although to be properly proportional, the Lib Dems should have gained more seats and the Tories fewer. This compares with 35.6% of votes and 20.3% of seats in Scotland, and 46.2% of votes and 27.5% of seats in Wales – results which show how the Conservatives’ opposition to PR is based purely on their disproportionate gain of seats in England, whereas they would actually benefit from PR outside of England. This gives the lie to the coalition’s claim to be a government for ‘the nation’ as a whole, i.e. the UK.

So desperate is the coalition to erase the thought that the justifying absolute concept of ‘the nation’ is a fabrication and often means just ‘England’, that the document resorts several times to the rhetorical technique of multiplying references to ‘national’ in contexts where it actually means ‘English’ in order to hypnotically induce people into thinking it is referring to the UK as a whole. For example:

  1. “We will abolish the unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission and replace it with an efficient and democratically accountable system that provides a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects.

    “We will publish and present to Parliament a simple and consolidated national planning framework covering all forms of development and setting out national economic, environmental and social priorities.” [The IPC covers England only in most matters, and Wales in some; so the ‘national planning framework’ here relates mainly to England. Economic development and the environment are also devolved areas.]

  2. “We will maintain free entry to national museums and galleries, and give national museums greater freedoms.” [This means national museums and galleries in England, not national-Scottish or national-Welsh ones, as culture is a devolved area.]
  3. “Liberal Democrats have long opposed any new nuclear construction. Conservatives, by contrast, are committed to allowing the replacement of existing nuclear power stations provided that they are subject to the normal planning process for major projects (under a new National Planning Statement), and also provided that they receive no public subsidy.

“We will implement a process allowing the Liberal Democrats to maintain their opposition to nuclear power while permitting the Government to bring forward the National Planning Statement for ratification by Parliament so that new nuclear construction becomes possible. This process will involve:

  • “the Government completing the drafting of a national planning statement and putting it before Parliament;”. [Ditto on planning above – any new nuclear power stations will be built in England and Wales only, not Scotland, which has a separate planning system and whose government opposes new nuclear power stations.]

Of course, there are some policy areas where the coalition statement does use ‘national’ legitimately to refer to reserved, UK-wide matters, such as ‘national security’ (12 instances) and macro-economics. In the latter department, of course, the new dispensation represented by the coalition is more of a ‘dis-spending’. What the Lord giveth, he taketh away, another example of which being:

“We will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups”

versus

“We will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities”.

Nowhere is this dual character of the new dispensation – government dispensing power to the nation while retaining ultimate power in the name of the nation, including the power to give away and take back power – better revealed than in the coalition’s plans for “political reform”. There are many proposals here that represent a serious attempt to make Parliament more democratically accountable and less corrupt. But this ultimately represents Parliament and the political class attempting to grab back the initiative on reform, to make itself ultimately responsible for reforming itself and ‘British’ politics as a whole, rather than allowing the reform process to be driven by the people and to be open to a wider range of alternatives. Hence, the coalition, and by extension Parliament, decrees that we will be offered only the option of the Alternative Vote system by way of electoral reform; Parliament will decide on the nature of the new mainly or wholly elected House of Lords; and Parliament will decide how it is to reform its own procedures and allowances.

The coalition, and particularly the dominant Conservative part of it, has clearly made a calculation that if Parliament can demonstrate that it has cleaned up its act, and has made limited moves in the direction of really radical reform of its functions and election, then maybe the public will forgive it and allow it to continue exercising its time-honoured sovereign rule. Perhaps the coalition hopes, in short, that the new dispensation it is offering will lead the public in turn to make a dispensation of Parliament and MPs from the ultimate consequences of their sins.

And if there’s one area above all where the new dispensation is uncannily reminiscent of the old, it is, as I observed earlier, its determination to dispense with any recognition of England as a nation in its own right – and with the right to self-determination, as opposed to Westminster rule. No, England must be governed as ‘the nation’, not govern itself as the English nation. Gone is the Lib Dems’ manifesto pledge to: “Address the status of England within a federal Britain, through the Constitutional Convention set up to draft a written constitution for the UK as a whole.” Gone, in fact, is the whole constitutional convention idea: far too radical, allowing “citizens” and “the people” to have a say in a new written constitution, federal Britain and potentially English government! No, better to let Parliament decide on these things.

What we are left with, in the coalition’s new dispensation, is a ‘new politics’ that has not in fact changed radically from the old. To return to my theological analogy, it remains more Old Testament than New: God is still in his heaven, and Parliament still rules in the name of the nation. But maybe the people have lost faith with the old ways, and are no longer content with the laws and narratives of the Elected of God. Maybe they aspire instead to the freedom and dignity of the children of God, or of freeborn Englishmen and -women.

New wine is for new wineskins, as the biblical saying goes, not for old.

13 May 2010

Who and what is the Lib-Con coalition for?

I’ve been carrying out a bit of a semantic analysis of the statement the Lib Dems and Conservatives released yesterday about their coalition agreement. What that means is that I’ve analysed the number of times key words occurred in the document. I define a ‘key word’ as a significant noun, verb, adverb or adjective (if you remember your grammar) that is used five or more times in the document, rather than basic link words such as prepositions, conjunctions or pronouns that are used very frequently.

I made an exception for the pronoun ‘we’, however, which appears no fewer than 49 times! The document is big on words expressing collective action and agreement: ‘we’ is the second-most repeated key word in the statement after ‘agree’ / ‘agreement’, which features a total of 63 times, in a total document of around 2,940 words. In third place, comes another collective term, ‘parties / party’ and ‘partners’ (35 instances).

What this illustrates is that the statement is continually reiterating the fact that it is based on agreement and consensus between two parties. Indeed, one might even go so far as to say that it bends over backwards to emphasise the fact that it is a full (11 times) agreement between two equal partners by mentioning ‘Liberal Democrat’ on no fewer than 13 occasions, compared with a modest seven references to ‘Conservative’.

However, when you read between the lines and examine the specific policy issues raised in the document, a very different picture emerges. On my analysis, a total of 20 key words occur in the context of policies set out from essentially a Conservative perspective in the document. Most of these refer to the economy and finance, and some of them in reality relate to areas of genuine agreement between the parties, such as their compromise on taxation policy (variations on the word ‘tax’ occur 12 times). However, I’ve ascribed all the key terms in this area to the Conservatives on the basis that they’re in the ascendancy on the economy in the coalition, and the sheer number and frequency of economic terms in the statement is expressive of the Tories’ priorities.

To be specific, the leading economic terms in the document are:

  1. ‘work’ (16 appearances)
  2. ‘reduce’ / ‘reduction’ (as in ‘deficit reduction’) (13 times)
  3. ‘tax’ (12)
  4. ‘allow’ / ‘allowance’ (ten)
  5. ‘bank’ / ‘banking’ (ten).

Other frequently occurring economic terms include ‘budget’, ‘financial’, ‘funding’, ‘jobs / Jobseekers’ and ‘spending’. The only non-economic terms to come anywhere near to competing with these, with respect to Conservative policy positions, are those relating to ‘Europe’, including ‘euro’, ‘EU’ and ‘non-EU’ (15 mentions) – strongly underscoring the fact that the Tories won the arguments over Europe in the coalition negotiations; e.g. ‘referendums’ (seven instances) on any future transfer of powers, no preparations to adopt the euro within the life of the parliament, limiting the application of the Working Time Directive, etc.

‘Referendum’ is what I would term an instance of a word evoking the ‘people’ or popular democracy / sovereignty, the only other word of this type being ‘public’ (five references). There are, however, further words of this sort in the document, which I’ve categorised as those expressing policies presented from a Lib Dem perspective. But the total number of such Lib Dem key words amounts to only eight, and they also occur less frequently than the Conservatives’ favourite expressions. The leading ones (apart from ‘Liberal’ and ‘Democrat’ themselves) are:

  1. ‘reform’ / ‘reforming’ (nine)
  2. ‘school(s)’ (eight)
  3. ‘vote(s)’ / ‘voter(s)’ (seven)
  4. ‘energy’ (as in energy policy) (seven).

Disappointingly, ‘elect’ (as in ‘election’ and ‘electoral reform’) occurs only five times; and neither ‘proportional’ (as in ‘proportional representation’) nor ‘Alternative’ (‘Alternative Vote’) appears more than four times. Indeed, as a reflection of the extent to which the Lib Dems have lost the philosophical arguments behind the formation of the coalition, the word ‘fair’, which was the central idea in the Lib Dems’ manifesto, occurs only twice.

Having said that, the concept of ‘responsibility’, which is a key term in David Cameron’s philosophical outlook and informs the thinking behind the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ idea in their manifesto, makes only one appearance throughout the entire document – to say nothing of ‘Big Society’ itself, which indeed is not mentioned at all. Does this mean that the thing that both parties had to sacrifice in order reach a deal was their whole social vision, as such? And are we no longer being invited to “participate in the government of Britain”, as the Conservatives’ manifesto put it?

Given the almost total absence of words reflecting popular, participative democracy (including ‘democrat’ / ‘democracy’ itself, which occurs only in the context of ‘Liberal Democrat’), it seems as though that invitation, having been turned down by the electorate, has now been withdrawn. Indeed, the coalition statement is full of terms relating to the nitty-gritty work of government, which, it seems, is to be regarded as very much the province of the ‘government’ (17 appearances) and ‘Parliament’ (13) alone. ‘Programmes’ (nine mentions), ‘power(s)’ (eight), ‘system(s)’ (eight) and ‘law’ / ‘legislation’ (seven) are other favourite phrases.

Another major set of key words connote ‘positive action’ and engagement, including ‘propose’ / ‘proposal’ (17), ‘commission’ / ‘commit’ / ‘committee’ (15), ‘increase’ (13) and ‘provide’ / ‘provision’ (11). The government has its ‘plan’ (seven mentions) and is getting on with it: it is the role of the government and politicians to govern, and that of the public to be governed, evidently. No change (one appearance, as in ‘Climate Change’) there, then, despite the fact that both parties campaigned on the basis that they would bring real change. Back to business as usual.

Except, what is the purpose of all this business of government; and who is this preoccupation with business – the economy – actually for? The coalition statement fails to articulate any social vision (i.e. what kind of society ‘we’ wish to create alongside a revived economy); nor does it express any clear concept of the country it is supposedly there to serve. Indeed, amazingly, the word ‘country’ appears only once in the statement (“our country’s security”) despite the fact that when the coalition was being negotiated and drawn up, the politicians involved endlessly referred to ‘the country’ and the ‘national interest’; and despite the predilection of our leaders for saying ‘this country’ in order to avoid being specific about which country (England, Britain, the UK) they’re talking about.

In fact, in the coalition policy statement, the politicians avoid being specific about the country they’re supposed to be governing by making virtually no reference to any of the countries involved, including – again, amazingly – ‘Britain’ (only six mentions), the ‘United Kingdom’ (two) and the ‘UK’ (two). Now that is real change compared to the Brito-mania of Cameron’s predecessor! But don’t get too excited, because ‘England’ enjoys only two name checks, both in the context of the Tories’ favourite topic, the economy (‘Bank of England’ x 2).

All of this could lead one to suppose that those who composed the statement are interested only in governing – almost, as it were, for its own sake – and not in the nation or nations they’ll be governing. ‘Nation’ / ‘national’ is referenced on ten occasions: three times in the context of the economy (‘National Insurance’ and ‘nationalised banks’); twice in connection with the stand-off towards the EU (‘nations of Europe’ and ‘national interests’); once in relation to civil liberties (‘National Identity Register’); and four times with reference to energy policy and infrastructure (‘national recharging network’ and ‘national planning’).

Nowhere, however, is ‘nation’ invoked in relation to any of the traditional nations of the UK as ‘communities’ (three mentions) with their own distinct identities, cultures and political life. Admittedly, ‘Scotland’ is implied, but not mentioned by name, in the commitment to implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission; and the extension of Welsh devolution is also covered in half a sentence. But the authors of the statement can’t even bring themselves to explicitly say ‘England’ when they refer enigmatically to their plan for a “commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question'” [their inverted commas, almost suggesting they don’t regard it as a real issue]. No reference to dealing with the ‘English Question’, then, which the Lib Dems’ manifesto pledged to tackle as part of a convention to draw up a written constitution for the UK. Indeed, no reference to such a convention at all!

One can only conclude that the coalition has no serious intention of addressing the West Lothian Question, let alone the English Question, preferring to knock them both into the five-year-long grass of their fixed-term deal. But over and above such England-centric considerations, what does the almost total absence of a national, even a British-national, dimension to the coalition’s Tory-blueprint for government actually signify? Am I right to detect the Lib Dem influence as being there, in the disregard of nationhood as an integral or even just an important component of politics, government and culture?

In fact, this disregard for nationhood, and specifically English nationhood, is something the Lib Dems and the Tories really do seem to have in common if their manifestoes are anything to go by, as they both advocated radical devolution of power within England rather than to England. As I argued previously, the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ vision even implied in extremis a radical dismantling of the English public sector itself in favour of disparate interest groups and communities. And this is one thing that the coalition policy announcement does reaffirm: “The parties will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. This will include a full review of local government finance.”

The ‘local government’ bit betrays the Lib Dems’ influence; if the Tories had it all their own way, this would have just read ‘local community groups’ or words to that effect. At least, there will be some sort of democratically accountable public sector within England, albeit not at the national level. Indeed, what is the ‘national level’ for the new coalition? It’s certainly not England (nor is it Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland), for which they did not seek and so did not receive a mandate at the election, and which they’re washing their hands of by conveniently handing over responsibility for spending cuts (‘financial autonomy’) to local authorities. For the new government, the national level means the macro-economy, international affairs (Britain versus Europe), defence and security, including energy security and the nuclear options of both the Trident and power-generation flavours. Reserved matters, in short.

That’s it, really; and that’s all of any substance that the coalition statement talks about. And let’s face it, that’s all the government has a genuine mandate of any sort to deal with. I suppose there’ll be more details about policies for education and ‘health’ (three mentions) in due course, and no doubt, the references to ‘Britain’ will multiply at that point, even though it’s England only they’ll be talking about. But not even to have attempted to outline any sort of social vision for ‘the nation’ in this, the initial policy statement of a historic coalition government, is surely wholly inadequate and worthy of blame.

After all, who or what is government for? Certainly, on this analysis at least, not for the people of England.

8 July 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 March 2008

The English Subject: Time To Change It?

You know how it goes: sex, politics, money and religion – not things one talks about in polite society, at least not in England. Let’s change the subject, dear. England has arguably joined this list; and perhaps it was ever thus – England is not the kind of thing we English like to make too much of a fuss about, especially when we had a worldwide Empire to rule. We’ll just let the more abrasive, vulgar, bourgeois Britain be the vehicle through which we talk politics and get on with the unseemly business of earning our living. And that way, in the discreet seclusion of our castles, we can quietly enjoy our English freedoms and privacy – we don’t have to talk about it as well!

Somehow, that tact and reserve has percolated through history to the cappuccino class of today. It’s slightly embarrassing and vulgar to go on about England in the dinner parties of the chattering classes. But now the balance has shifted a bit: it’s Englishness not Britishness that’s just a tad common! But how much, fundamentally, has changed? It’s just that the always British bourgeoisie now holds the reins of power and its language has become the dominant discourse. And the class that’s in power always thinks that power is not class-based, as if power has come to it as a natural consequence of its talents and merits. And so ‘British values’ speak of and to a class-less society, don’t you know; whereas it’s ever so ignorant and working class to hammer on about little old England – or else, such talk harks back to the feudal values of baronial and aristocratic privilege.

But just as with the ruling aristocracy of old, Englishness is still the dirty little secret of the liberal middle classes to which they do not own up in civilised company – whereas, in the more enlightened modern British times in which we live, talk about sex, politics and money is now politically and socially OK (so long as you don’t take them too seriously); but definitely not religion, oh no. We’re English, you know; you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

But what is the English subject? Or should that be who? Is there such a thing, or person, as an English subject in an era when our leaders would have us all pledging our allegiance to Her Britannic Majesty: British subjects or British citizens? Or English persons subjected to British citizenship in a humiliating ritual of submission? Perhaps that’s what an English subject is: someone whose citizenship in their own country is subject to (conditional upon) their acceptance of the ‘rules’ and ‘duties’ of Britishness. Is that the reason why so many of us are embarrassed to talk up our Englishness: we feel too unworthy, little and diffident to assert ourselves as a nation in our own right; whereas the aggressive mask and language of Britishness gives us the apparatus of statehood and the confidence to rule?

But who is the ‘we’ who feel equipped to govern through the language and power structures of the British state? Who is the subject of rule: the subject who rules alongside those who are subject to that rule? Is this not, rather than the ‘royal we’ of Queen and Country, in fact the sovereign ‘we’: we the English people? The British state is the means through which we the English exercise our democratic power. Or at least it was: this identification of the English with the British state has now been greatly eroded for reasons frequently discussed throughout this blog and elsewhere – the break up, post-devolution, of the symbiotic relationship that existed in the minds of the English between England, the rest of the UK and the British state. And now the English subject – or the English subjectivity in the sense of psyche or consciousness – has been split in two: one part the anguished Englishman groping towards a new sense of identity and possibility of statehood; and one part the controlling Brit seeking to stuff the turbulent English genie back into the ale bottle from whence the wish for a new constitutional settlement had unwittingly released him.

Except, of course, these are not two persons or types of Englishman-Briton, but the two parts of the English subject, and subjectivity, that are seeking the way back to union. Because the subject (the I – indeed the eye – and the we) of government remains largely English. Just as the subjects of government – the people and issues that are governed – remain largely English. Central UK government, in other words, is still something carried out mainly by English people, with a London-centric English perspective, and involved with governing English matters on behalf of the English people. In many contexts, the only thing that’s British about it is the language (always refer to ‘Britain’ or ‘the country’, never ‘England’) and the institutional framework (officially, that of the UK government).

So English governance is still provided by English people through the medium of the UK state – it was ever thus. And the attitude towards the governance of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still reflects the perspective of the English subject in the driving seat of power, whether a particular aspect of governance is devolved or retained. I was struck by this the other day when reading through the government’s Climate Change Bill as part of my day job as a freelance technology-industry analyst. Occasionally, it makes reference to areas of environmental policy that are the responsibility of the devolved administrations: such and such a decision needs to be taken in partnership with the governments of Scotland and Wales, or this sort of emissions-monitoring report needs to be notified to those nations’ relevant bodies. And the reader thinks: well, everything in this bill refers to legislation and international undertakings by the United Kingdom government; but then, from atop the throne of British sovereignty, one occasionally looks down upon the bits subcontracted out to the governments in Scotland and Wales. So what does that make the perspective – the subjective viewpoint – of the UK government? It’s the perspective of English people who for centuries have been used to governing Scotland and Wales direct now having to acknowledge that bits of the process need to be handled by the natives themselves. That’s the subjectivity, the Englishness, of UK governance; even though, in objective terms – the formal language, the legal and political institutions, and the constitutional ‘personality’ of the state – it’s all British: not an ‘England’ or an ‘English’ in sight. This is because it’s England and the English that are doing the looking; it’s the English subject that’s inside the mind of the British state, not an object of its vision, which can be defined only in terms of Britishness.

Under this present government, this subjectively English concern to preserve the Britishness of the state has become blended with the dangerous catalyst, shall we say, of a certain Scottish-unionist wish both to preserve unitary British governance in the devolved nations, and to recast that Britishness as something that is no longer the expression of English dominance and the English subjectivity at the heart of the state. The only way, on this view, that a continuing Union can be reconciled with full equality between the nations of the UK (as opposed to traditional dominance of the other nations, through the British state, by England) is to invent a new unified single-British national identity and nation state in which the differences, and inequalities, between England and the other nations are finally, definitively, nullified. We become all, in the same way, British; and the English subject – the English subjectivity, consciousness and perspective – must become a British subject-citizen: taking on a new civic-national British identity, and forgetting England and Englishness. There will be no longer any English subject – no English mind and nationhood – and the objective-Britishness of the state, and of its official statements of national value and identity, will be the only truth and the only thing that matters. No English subjects, no English matters; only UK citizens and UK governance.

But it hasn’t come to that yet; and could it ever, really? The thing is, the Brownite Britishness project is predicated on a wish for the English subject not to exist that is so strong that it crosses over into a failure to see – through the objective-only focus of Brown’s style of British governance – that the English consciousness is still alive, if sick and divided, at the heart of the British state. English people are real, the English nation is real; English perspectives, priorities and ways of doing things exist – and how could they not be there right at the centre of government when that government is a work effected overwhelmingly by English people? That Englishness is not explicitly articulated in the workings of the British state; it’s not something that’s talked about in the formal, public discourse of politics and power – because up to now, we English have just not needed to govern in our own name and to bother about devising overtly English forms of statehood and civic identity: Britishness has done the job for us quite well enough, thank you – we don’t need to brag or rave like other more emotional peoples. We’re English, after all.

But not any more: Britishness is no longer ‘fit for purpose’, as the government might say. Devolution set not only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on a course separate, or semi-separate, from the UK but also England. We the English are still largely in denial of this, and the asymmetric devolution settlement is the expression of the continuing unwillingness or inability of so many English people – including English people in government – to accept the reality that the old unitary Britain is no more. And Brown has now come along and upped the ante to such an extent that he’s the made the choice between British governance and some form of English governance yet to be worked out equivalent to a choice of whether to be British-only (and not English) or to break up the Union. He’s the real criminal Union breaker here; because if the price of remaining citizens of a unitary Britain is to relinquish their Englishness, then this is a price that the massive majority of English people will refuse to pay, as soon as they realise what’s being asked of them.

So what’s the alternative to Brown’s Britishness; where can the British state, and the English subjectivity that is captive within it, go from here? Well, it needn’t go all that far, really; because, in some ways, we’re already at the destination if we could but see it. The British government is still the English government in all but name: government of the English by the English but articulated through the language and institutions of Britain. And the UK parliament has always been, and can be again, the English parliament: concerned overwhelmingly with English matters; and, in the retained UK-wide matters, dominated by the English perspective and English priorities – or, at least, by the priorities of a minority English political persuasion unfairly awarded the majority of seats.

So we could, if we wanted to, stay right where we are; and, with only the slightest tweaking of the system, we’d have our English government, our English parliament, and the ability, at last, to be proud to openly acknowledge and proclaim our Englishness. We just need to come to a moment of decision where we can pluck up the courage to make the English ‘we’ of government not just subjectively but objectively, officially and formally the subject of English political discourse, of English civic institutions and of a constitutional English nation. Those English ministries and English laws that express themselves in the oh-so-tactful and eloquent conventions of British legalese could then at last ‘say England’; that parliament, 85% of whose members and laws are for England only, could become in fact a parliament for England only. What would it take? No more than a translation into a logical, English expression of the existing status quo: let’s just call the Englishness of the British government by its name, and make it officially an English government, once and for all.

What would we do with the UK-wide areas of governance, though? What, that is, would we the English people now in control of our own governance do about the aspects of government responsibility for the whole of the UK that we the English had retained: through the British state that is still today the vehicle through which we hold on to control of the other nations of the UK. What I am suggesting is that maybe we’ve got the understanding of devolution the wrong way round. Because we’re fixated with the idea of the British state devolving power to the nations of the UK – including England one day, as many of us hope -we’ve failed to see the subjective truth of devolution, which is that it’s English power – articulated through the British state – that has been ‘lent’ back to the other nations. The shift in consciousness that I am advocating, whereby the English could wrest back power over English matters to themselves almost through little more than a coming to be conscious of the fact that they already do control their own affairs – in the alienating forms of Britishness – could enable us to see governance over the continuing Union (of whatever form) as something that we the English could devolve to a new federal UK body.

So not English devolution from the UK but devolution of UK matters from England. Not devolution from Britain resulting in a new English parliament and the necessity to recast the Union government into some federal mould; but a symbolic, and nonethless momentous, shift in our consciousness enabling us to see reflected in objective, institutional reality the subjective truth that the British state is already the work of the English nation. And then, devolution from the English nation of the responsibilities we have held for so long for the governance of Britain – and which have burdened us with a Britishness that has kept our English subjectivity suppressed – which can be transferred to a new UK body (if Scotland and Wales haven’t become independent by the time that happens) in which all the nations of the UK can indeed sit together as equals. The equality of different nations pooling their sovereignty together in the areas where it makes sense to do so; not the nullifying equality of Brown’s monolithic Britain predicated on the suppression of national differences.

Then, perhaps, it will be possible for the English subject to be talked about in polite society. Because we English really are very polite, you know; it’s just we’d grown tired of all the British abuse that we’d gone along with for so long.

6 February 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 5): No change to phone taps as evidence in Scotland

It probably goes without saying – correction, it has gone without being said – that the recommendations of the Chilcot Report, released today, that evidence derived from phone taps could be admissible in evidence in criminal trials (for instance, against suspected terrorists) do not apply to Scotland – only England and Wales. But I haven’t heard that being said on the news on BBC Radios Four and Five, or BBC One on the telly. Nor is it stated in the report that currently appears on the BBC News website.

But it’s there in black and white in the report itself. The problem is that, while the interception of communications is a reserved matter (i.e. still the responsibility of the Westminster government), procedure in courts of law and policing in Scotland are the responsibility of the devolved government in that country. So the Chilcot Report recommends that some form of Public Interest Immunity be introduced in Scotland, similar to that in England: meaning, as I understand it, that details concerning the methods used to obtain intercept evidence, and the full details of that evidence, could be withheld from open session of court in order to keep those intercept methods secret in the public interest. There are currently proposals of precisely this nature before the Scottish Parliament, which may – or may not – result in PII legislation in Scotland. However, as the Chilcot Report states on pp. 21-22: “We therefore recommend no change to the current legal regime for interception in Scotland until new legislation is in place and its potential impact has been assessed”.

So something that Gordon Brown insisted should be introduced, if it is in the end, in the interests strictly of national security (meaning the security of the UK as a whole), may come into law in England and Wales but not in Scotland. Does this matter? Well, surely where national security is at issue, there should not be one law for England and Wales, and one for Scotland – if we are one nation, that is. Similarly, where civil liberties are at issue. This is the other side to the coin of phone-tap evidence that didn’t seem to weigh much in the balance in the PM’s speech in the House of Commons this lunchtime. So depending on how you think the admittance of phone-tap data as evidence in criminal proceedings may either advance or impede the ‘war on terror’, or may impinge or not on civil liberties – it’s quite likely that some of the residents of the UK, terrorists and law-abiding citizens, are going to get off Scot free.

Addendum, 7 February: later in the day, the reports did indicate clearly from the outset that the proposed change to the rules affected England and Wales only. However, this was stated without any further explanation or comment; for instance, what were the ‘national security’ implications for Scotland going its own way on this issue, if that’s what they eventually decided to do? Was it not so important a matter that pressure should be brought to bear on Holyrood to pass the necessary Scottish legislation, to ensure that all UK citizens enjoyed the same degree of protection against the terror threat? Or if it wasn’t important enough to push through the measure in Scotland, was it really that important or necessary in England and Wales? Is it perhaps just another case, like that of the superfluous extension of detention without trial for terror suspects to 42 days, where GB [Gordon Brown] wants to be seen to be tough and decisive, but the measures involved are quite ineffective? And then the reporting as a whole still presented the debate as if it related to the whole of the UK, which it quite manifestly didn’t, as the Scottish dimension was not touched upon at all.

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