Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

15 September 2008

England Nation Petition: Let’s Put GB On the Spot!

Not often I do a direct plug; but here goes. I invite UK readers of this blog to sign a new petition that has appeared on the 10 Downing Street website. This reads as follows:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to state whether he recognises that England is a nation.”

The background to this is the conclusion I’ve come to – which I know is shared by many – that England presently has no official or constitutional status as a nation whatsoever: effectively, England does not exist in any meaningful legal, political or constitutional sense. So, for instance, when people complain – as I have done frequently on this blog – that GB [Gordon Brown], Westminster politicians in general and the national media always talk about England and English matters as if they were the UK and British (and that they never say England when they mean England), this actually ‘correctly’ reflects the legal position: there is no such thing as England (other than as the name for a territory); only the UK (aka ‘Britain’) and UK governance exist. Further background to my thinking on this can be found here and here.

It’s time the government is called to account on this and forced to state, one way or another, whether it views England as a nation or not (as I think is the case). If, however, the answer to the petition is ‘yes, England is a nation’, this presents the English-nationalist cause with a major boost: at last, an official acknowledgement that England is to be regarded and celebrated as a nation. Such an admission would then enable the case for popular English sovereignty (the basis on which we might actually be consulted about our constitutional future, as well as the basis for any future English parliament) to be pressed much more powerfully: ‘as England is a nation’, we could say, ‘it is her right under human-rights legislation, to which the UK government has signed up, to demand to be able to govern herself in the manner of her own choosing’.

If, however, the government says ‘no, England is not a nation’, then this could become a major focus for protest. Again, an official statement; but this time an explicit government acknowledgement that England is no more as a nation, as opposed to the term the government prefers – ‘country’ – which carries no political or constitutional weight, as it’s just a territorial jurisdiction.

The further details of the petition tie acknowledgement of England’s nation status in to that of Scotland and Wales; i.e. if England is a nation, then Scotland and Wales are to be recognised as nations, too; but if England is not a nation, neither should Scotland nor Wales be accepted as such. This means that any rejection of the petition effectively also denies nationhood to Scotland and Wales; hence, the protests against it could be greatly magnified – media in those countries will be alerted . . .. However, if the response to the petition provides any latitude to the present impression that Scotland and Wales are being allowed to reaffirm their nationhood (through devolved government etc.) while England is merely (what is left of) Britain, that, too, could help to amplify the protests in England.

I suspect the response – if we manage to get up to the requisite total of 500 signatures – will be equivocal and ambiguous. But anything less than an explicit answer to this question will be treated as a rejection of the proposition that England is a nation. But let’s watch the government try to wriggle out of this one!

However, as I’ve just said, we need those 500 signatures. So please, if you treasure the truth that England is a nation, please sign up to this, and let’s force the government to say what it regards as the answer to the English question.

26 August 2008

It’s not just about a football Team GB: it’s about the existence of GB as a nation

Alex Salmond is not just a superb tactician; he’s a master of strategy, too. At first, I thought his reiterated statement on Saturday that Scotland should have its own Olympics team was just a clever tactical response to the calls for a Team GB (or UK) football team for the 2012 Olympics. What better way, after all, to protect the existence of a separate Scottish football team and association than to have the entire Olympic team under the banner of Scotland, thereby ‘scotching’ efforts to have Scottish footballers playing for Team GB? This is an example of what I wrote about in my last post: the nationalist backlash to the other GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] efforts to engineer a football Team GB for 2012 and, who knows, permanently deprive the UK’s nations of their separate national football teams as a consequence. The more GB pushes the issue, the more the SNP will insist on a Scottish Olympic team, knowing they’ll enlist more and more support for the idea, the more Scots feel their cherished football team is under threat!

But I think Salmond is playing for higher strategic stakes: he actually seriously wants a Scottish Olympic team for 2012 – whether independence has been achieved by then or not – and is not just using the proposal as a bargaining chip to get GB to drop his insistence on a GB football side. GB, Seb Coe and the unionist establishment know they need to act fast and capitalise on the supposed waves of enthusiasm that Team Britannia is currently ruling! This is because the recognition of the four national UK Football Associations by football’s international body FIFA creates a precedent that could be exploited by the Scottish Government in any application to the International Olympic Committee for a separate Scottish Olympic team. If FIFA recognises that Scotland is a distinct nation and therefore allows it to have its own team, why shouldn’t the IOC? So the longer the idea of a football Team GB is challenged, the greater is the opportunity for the Scots to press for an Olympic Team Scotland.

Think what a disaster that would be for GB and his chums! The 2012 Olympics is supposed to be a massive showcase to demonstrate to the world that Great Britain is both a great and united kingdom (the verbal confusion here is deliberate!): successful (as demonstrated by the coveted medal haul), confident, dynamic, multi-cultural. Above all, GB wants it to become a narrative that will convince not only the world but the people of ‘this country’ itself that Great Britain (or the UK) actually is one nation: the ‘tribal’ national loyalties of its citizens, as most powerfully evidenced by its separate football teams, definitively overcome in a representation of ‘great Britishness’ in which the people of Britain will come together – will be present to themselves – and their existence as Great Britain will be confirmed in the admiring gaze of the assembled global audience.

What a farce, by contrast, if a separate Team Scotland poops the party and does its utmost (to quote GB’s school motto) to demonstrate that Scotland is a proud nation distinct from Great Britain, or whatever Team GB would be called at that point. What would it be called, in fact? I bet they’d try to get away with still calling it ‘Team GB’, even though – without Scotland – Great Britain no longer exists. I suppose technically, if Scotland hadn’t yet achieved political independence but only Olympic autonomy, they could argue that Great Britain still existed. In fact, Team GB might include some Scots in 2012, as their official nationality would still be British. However, they might be obliged to call it Team UK on the same grounds as the continuing British state post-Scottish independence would be called the United Kingdom (of England, Wales and Northern Ireland?) – even though such a nation also would not yet exist in 2012 if Scotland hadn’t yet quit the Union.

What a mess, indeed! This would totally destroy any pretence that ‘Great Britain’ actually exists as a nation, which is what is ultimately at stake. Salmond wants to shatter that illusion in front of all the world and wants to spark off Scottish-national fervour by the spectacle of that country’s bravehearts doing battle against the ‘British’ (i.e. the English): depriving them of an even greater tally of medals than they achieved with the participation of the Scots in Beijing and – who knows? – even competing against Team GB in the football! Maybe Salmond realises that he’s not going to get away with a Scottish-independence referendum till after the Olympics: he may have difficulty gaining support for it in the Scottish Parliament until after the next Scottish general election in 2011; and by that point, the unionists may have succeeded in talking up the importance of not causing a national humiliation ahead of the Olympics. However, if Scots are competing proudly as a distinct nation in the London Olympics, what a wonderful symbol that could offer of a new, vibrant Scotland freed from the restrictions of Westminster rule! Hold a snap referendum shortly after a successful Olympics, and then Scotland could be independent and organise its own showcase sporting spectacular – the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games – in which the existence of separate national teams for the four nations of the UK has somehow, inconsistently, never been challenged in any case.

But what of the football Team UK itself? In GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] Sky TV interview on Saturday, he spelt out that it would indeed be a Team UK, not Team GB. In my post on Saturday, I speculated that the insistence on the UK might be in deference to the players (and, indeed, the Association) of Northern Ireland, to whose participation it might be something of an insult if the team were still designated as GB. Speculating somewhat, could it be that FIFA president Sepp Blatter, in his discussions with GB, insisted that it should be referred to as a / the UK team? The logic behind this is that either the UK has four national teams or one national team that fully represents the same four nations, and which therefore has to be a UK side not a Great Britain team. Obviously, if Scotland decamps before 2012 – either sportingly or politically, too – this makes the question academic.

However, assuming Salmond’s strategy or dream of a Team Scotland doesn’t come to fruition, any actual Team UK would probably end up being – yes, you’ve guessed it – an England team, or perhaps an England + Northern Ireland team if unionist pressure in the Province succeeded in persuading the IFA to take part. Incidentally, this combination would again ‘justify’ the ‘UK’ tag. This doomsday scenario, from an England supporter’s perspective, is due to the fact that it’s hard to see the Scottish Football Association, the Football Association of Wales or, indeed, popular opposition in those countries being swayed to the idea of a Team UK. If those associations were persuaded or coerced into participating, then there really would be a possibility that their right to exist as separate national bodies – and hence, the existence of separate national teams – would be seriously under threat; which is something they are well aware of. This danger is in part a consequence of the logic behind a Team UK I outlined above: either four UK-national teams or one national-UK team encompassing the four nations, which is possibly FIFA’s own logic.

In this context, I had an interesting afternoon yesterday following all the coverage on BBC Radio Five Live while carrying out a long and tedious bank-holiday chore. They were actually broadcasting from Edinburgh, so there were multiple references to and discussions of Sean Connery’s and Alex Salmond’s voicing of support for a separate Scottish Olympic team; while they also kept tracking the progress of the BA ‘Pride’ aircraft bringing the victorious Team GB back home from Beijing. There were lots of live and recorded interviews with politicians and sports personalities. One of them was with Tony Blair’s former (English) Sports Minister Richard Caborn, who said he had been present at Gordon Brown’s meeting with Sepp Blatter, and that Blatter had assured GB that the separate UK FAs would not be at risk if they helped organise a Team UK for 2012. Caborn even asserted that Brown had received written assurances to this effect. This was contrasted with a comment from – if I remember correctly – a member of the Scottish supporters’ association, who said that when Sepp Blatter visited the SFA in March of this year, he had stated explicitly that the SFA would be very unwise to agree to a Team UK, as it could put their existence in jeopardy. Who do you believe? Better to be safe than sorry, I would say!

Another person they interviewed was Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport (in England) Andy Burnham, who uttered highly predictable remarks about how ‘the country’s’ Olympic success made one proud to be British, while making a muddled defence of the proposal for a Team UK. He said that it was right that young people “from all four corners of Great Britain” (err, shouldn’t that be the UK, Mr Burnham?) should have the opportunity to play for ‘their country’ at the Olympics. Asked whether he thought there would be much support for a Scotland Olympic team, he stated that he didn’t think there was a lot of support for this idea in ‘the country’; by which he appeared to mean ‘Great Britain’, although the only country whose support for the proposal is of any relevance is Scotland. And then he came out with the wisdom that, in any case, he felt British first and foremost, and then English only secondarily. Well, firstly, I don’t believe that: it’s the kind of thing that only an English unionist could say, and it reflects a traditional anglocentric view of the Union. And secondly, one was tempted to say to him (and maybe I did shout it at the radio!), ‘well, in that case, go and create your British football team, if you like; just leave our English team for those of us (in the majority, I feel – at least, the footballing majority) who feel English first and foremost, and British less and less. Now that’s a thought: separate Britain and England football teams – no more illogical, although fantastical, than the more realistic prospect of separate Teams Scotland and UK in 2012!

In any case, Mr Burnham was speaking out of turn as far as a Team UK is concerned: since sport is a devolved matter, his responsibilities in the area are officially limited to England. And that, incidentally, is another reason why a Team Scotland is a realistic possibility: as the Scottish Government is responsible for sport in that country, there is no reason why it should not campaign and apply for separate Olympic status, in keeping with the distinct nation status the British government itself conferred upon it through devolution.

And this really is the hub of the matter. The Scottish-nationalist position is logically consistent, whether you agree with it or not: it’s based on the unquestioned premise that Scotland is a distinct nation and, as such, has a right to separate national sports teams, both Olympian and footballing. It’s this sort of confident assertion of Scottish national identity that informed Sean Connery’s words yesterday: “Scotland should always be a stand-alone nation at whatever, I believe”. By contrast, there is no such unwavering certainty about ‘Great Britain”s nation status. In fact, it’s neither a nation (as it’s a kingdom encompassing two nations, or three if you include Wales) nor a state. Gordon Brown and all the Great Britishers ardently dream of Britain taking on the status of a nation; and a separate Team Scotland would give the lie to that. The British state, as opposed to nation, is the UK; and, unpacking what I assume to be Sepp Blatter’s Team-UK logic, he’s offering the option of either four teams for four nations, or one team for one state (the UK).

The solution? Transfer the nation status of England, Scotland and Wales (and, ambiguously, Northern Ireland; hence the vacillation between GB and UK) – as embodied in their separate football teams – onto ‘Great Britain’ by creating a single, united GB team; as if, in the process, the separate national loyalties and identities of the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish could also be transferred over and merged. This does appear to be the delusional and vain hope of all the passionate advocates of a Great Britain football team, who enviously eye up the even greater passion with which the UK nations’ supporters follow their football teams, and who say to themselves, ‘if only we could have all of that passion and national fervour behind Team GB in the greatest sporting event “this country” has ever held’! Some hope! It shows gross ignorance of football and condescension towards the people of the UK nations to think their loyalties could so easily and glibly be transformed.

(In passing, let me just express my indignation at the 2012 Olympics being characterised as the greatest sporting event Britain will ever have put on: this was the 1966 World Cup, of course. Another thing Andy Burnham said that I took issue with was when he described Team GB’s Beijing Olympics performance as the greatest sporting success he can recollect ‘this country’ having achieved since he was a child in the 1970s. Wrong again, Mr Burnham, it was the 2003 Rugby World Cup. I can’t speak for Scotland or Wales in these matters; nor can you.)

So the absence of a Great British football team stands as a glaring insult in the face of the British ‘project’ – as Lord Coe refers to it – that is Team GB and the 2012 Olympics. The game which, in GB’s words at the weekend, “[Britain] gave to the world” [sic], refuses to play ball and deny a century and a half of sporting rivalries, and centuries more of national rivalries and competition. ‘Surely, the Olympic spirit should overcome such nationalism’, Seb Coe was reported as saying at the weekend. But hang on, what are you saying? Is the Great Britain team in fact an example of the Olympic spirit bringing separate nations together, meaning that Great Britain is actually an international team. If so, then there should be no theoretical objection to us competing as separate England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland teams, in keeping with the traditions of sporting rivalry that have characterised both the UK and the Olympic movement throughout their history. Otherwise, if you followed Coe’s logic, there should be no national teams competing against each other at all, and the Olympics should be some multi-national, multi-cultural melting pot – rather similar, indeed, to the very image of Britain that they want to be realised in the London Olympics.

Oh sad, delusional GB! 2012 is a dream of a united nation of Great Britain: ‘the nation’ that is said to be acclaiming its returning Olympic heroes but which can’t even decide on its name or composition. I’m sure it will be a great spectacle. But football – the true spirit of football, if not the English FA – won’t collude with the Great British lie.

25 July 2008

The Re-branded Saltire, And the Football Kits Of Scotland and England

I didn’t realise, till I looked into it, that the blue background colour of the Saltire – Scotland’s national flag – had been officially changed in 2003 by the Scottish Executive, as it was then. Well, not changed, exactly; more, standardised.

I’d noticed in pictures of the flag at football matches, SNP photo opportunities, and on car badges that a lighter blue colour seemed to be being adopted than what I had always regarded as the proper blue for the flag: a dark navy, as seen on the Scottish football and rugby team shirts. I assumed this was simply because this is a more popular shade of blue nowadays than traditional navy or royal blues. In this, it was akin to examples of corporate re-branding where companies adopt more universally appealing colours for their logo for marketing purposes. An example of this was a re-branding exercise carried out by the electronics firm Philips a few years ago, where they replaced the traditional royal blue colour of their logo with a lighter, brighter tint that is, in fact, rather similar to the new official colour for the saltire. (See Philips’ website to have a look at their logo.)

In some respects, the change in colour for the Saltire could indeed be described as a marketing exercise, the primary beneficiary of which was the SNP. The blue colour concerned – technically called ‘pantone 300’, which you can see here – is thought to have more universal appeal than traditional navy or royal blues, which are perceived as too masculine and (by that token?) dull. Lighter, brighter and softer blues are said to be more attractive to women (while not being perceived by men as ‘too’ feminine and therefore putting them off), which means that products marketed or packaged with these colours can be aimed at women as well as men, or at women exclusively.

Now, far be it from me to impugn the masculinity of the Scottish male by implying that Scotland has traded in a properly masculine blue for an ‘effeminate’ shade on its national flag. But – and you knew that was coming! – would Scottish football and rugby fans be happy to see their national teams wearing pantone 300 instead of their traditional deep, dark blue, which you can see in the background colour on the Scottish FA’s website.

Well, maybe some fans would have no qualms about a kit change – not just the women fans! After all, colours similar to pantone 300 are used for many football teams, such as Chelsea and Everton in the English Premier League. I guess a decisive factor would be how nationalistically minded the fans in question were, with more pro-Union Scots being perhaps less willing to make the change; although it has to be said that Glasgow Rangers (traditionally associated with the unionist ‘demographic’) seems to have thrown themselves unreservedly into pantone 300 territory, to judge from their latest squad photo. But then maybe, in this case, the marketing imperative was the overriding factor!

The reason why the adoption of the new colour for the national flag (and its possible adoption by the football and rugby teams) was such a coup for Scottish nationalists is that it clearly differentiates the Scottish flag from the traditional version of it that was incorporated into the Union Flag (which uses a darker blue, between royal and navy: pantone 280 if you’re interested). This means that my previous idea of creating country-specific versions of the Union Flag that have the national flags as ‘inserts’ in the top-left-hand quadrant wouldn’t really work very well in the case of Scotland: you’d be using two different shades of blue, and the visual impression would be a bit of a mess.

Does this mean that we should change the blue colour used in the Union Flag to pantone 300 in order to demonstrate a will to keep Scotland in the Union? Well, I haven’t seen Gordon Brown rushing to suggest this, thereby proving his alleged Scottish patriotism at the same time as sticking up for the Union, by ensuring that Scotland’s colours remained nailed to the UK mast. Maybe pantone 300 would look just a bit, well, effeminate combined with the red and white of the Union Jack! But really, suggesting that we should amend the Union Flag to better incorporate the re-branded Saltire is just as daft as the notion that the UK’s flag should include an explicit symbol for Wales, such as the red dragon or the yellow-cross-on-black-background of St. David. The whole point of the Union Flag, supposedly, is that it is the emblem of a unitary state and therefore is a self-sufficient symbol, showing the incorporation at a given moment of history of three nations (Wales being at that time part of the Kingdom of England) into a United Kingdom. Wanting to change things now to better bring out the individual symbols of the four nations is in fact to demonstrate that that Union is breaking down.

Which shouldn’t really, and doesn’t, bother an English nationalist such as me. But this is only to bring out the point that it really was quite a clever marketing ploy on the part of nationalist backers of the Saltire’s colour change to make sure that it was in fact clearly differentiated – separated out from – the blue of the Union Flag.

But what are the implications for England? Well, from a nationalist perspective, it would be satisfying to see the Scots adopting the lighter blue now used on their flag for their sporting kits. I’m assuming that the Scots are more likely to take the lead in this matter, as they did in ‘unilaterally’ differentiating their flag colour without considering (or while very much considering) the implications for the Union Flag. If the Scots made this change, then it would give us English the licence, as it were, to get rid of the Union blue we’ve so far retained for our football kit: the blue shorts of the home colours, which pick up the blue in the Union Flag and, hence, the blue of Scotland. If Scotland were to adopt a new kit colour that was unambiguously that of their national flag, not that of the Union Flag, then we English can do the same without any pangs of misplaced guilt.

The England football team could then play in all white with red trim as its home colours, just as the rugby team does: properly reflecting the white and red of the Flag of St. George. These would be colours our overpaid and jaded players could hopefully wear with renewed pride, as they’d be representing a nation that was clearly marking itself out as a nation distinct from the UK, whose colours England has played under hitherto.

Throw in Jerusalem as the national anthem, and we’d be half-way to self-rule!

3 May 2008

Cameron will win: it’s a generation game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 March 2008

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill: The Catholic Church Attacks Brown’s Achilles’ Heel

It intrigued me that it was the Catholic Cardinal of Scotland who chose this Easter to lead the campaign to persuade GB [Gordon Brown] to allow MPs a free vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Why was it the Scottish Cardinal, Archbishop Keith O’Brien, and not the Cardinal for England and Wales, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor? At least if it’s O’Brien, that means the legislation itself must relate to Scotland as well as England and Wales, I thought to myself. This fact couldn’t be taken for granted, as nowhere in the coverage did it mention which countries of the UK the bill related to. I felt compelled to check; and, indeed, in the bit of the bill headed ‘Extent’ (section 67 of 69), it did indicate that the legislation would extend to “England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland”.

I was pleased that it mentioned all the nations of the UK individually instead of saying ‘Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. But any illusion that this did constitute a reference to England as a distinct entity was brutally swept away by the thought that this phrase in fact acknowledges only three legal entities, or rather three jurisdictions: those of a) England and Wales, b) Scotland and c) Northern Ireland. Well, let’s console ourselves with the thought that at least in law England still exists as a formal entity, albeit joined at the hip to Wales, which shares its legal system.

But I digress. So, given that the bill related to retained matters (science, social equality and medical ethics), there was nothing untoward about the fact it was a senior Scottish Catholic churchman who was selected to voice the Church’s criticism of the bill and demand a free vote. But why choose a Scot in particular? Because, over and above Catholic MPs, particularly Labour ones, it was Scottish Catholic, and more generally Christian, voters who were being targeted. The Cardinal was not only urging GB to concede that MPs should be allowed to vote with their consciences but was stating that, in conscience, no Catholic MP could do anything other than vote against the bill. And if, despite the Church’s round condemnation of the bill as being un-Christian in its ethical principles, GB still insisted on whipping the vote, then, by implication, the Labour Party led by GB could not take the Scottish Catholic vote for granted in subsequent elections.

How significant a factor would the loss of the Catholic vote be to Labour, particularly in Scotland? It is the case that most Catholics in Scotland have traditionally voted Labour. More generally, it’s been suggested that the Catholic vote throughout the UK helped Labour secure its third term. The Church in Scotland has threatened before to urge its members to withdraw their support from Labour for creating a “morality devoid of any Christian principle”. Objections to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill have been voiced in similar terms. In an interview on BBC Radio Four’s World at One programme on Good Friday, Cardinal O’Brien referred (and I paraphrase) to the weird, un-Christian ethics that New Labour was promoting. This is what I would call its – and, in particular, GB’s – secular-British values of economic, social and technological progress. Labour spokespersons who have defended the bill have spoken of the benefits the research using hybrid human-animal embryos would procure in terms of treating chronic illnesses, of the importance of advancing (British) science and of the leadership position that permitting such research now might give Britain in the market for the new therapies that could result (partly because many other leading developed economies have banned the research on ethical grounds). All well and good; but the ends don’t justify the means: if what is being proposed is fundamentally morally wrong, then we should just try to achieve those economic, social and scientific goals by other means.

But could the Catholic Church actually deliver this transfer of electoral allegiance away from Labour on the part of its adherents? Well, it has to be said that the condemnation of the Bill in Cardinal O’Brien’s sermon today, and particularly the attack on GB for sponsoring the Bill, pulls no punches. One passage in particular contains a series of sentences unambiguously attributing responsibility for the ethically condemned aspects of the Bill squarely to GB:

“He is promoting a bill which will add to the 2.2 million human embryos already destroyed or experimented upon.

He is promoting a bill allowing scientists to create babies whose sole purpose will be to provide, without consent of anyone, parts of their organs or tissues.

He is promoting a bill which will sanction the raiding of dead people’s tissue to manufacture yet more embryos for experimentation.

He is promoting a bill which denies that a child has a biological father, allows tampering with birth certificates, removing biological parents, and inserting someone altogether different.

And this bill will indeed be used to further extend the abortion laws.”

Any Catholic hearing or reading this would be left in no doubt that GB and New Labour had put themselves morally beyond the pale if they push through this Bill by denying their MPs a free vote. And this could be an electorally significant factor, especially on GB’s Scottish home turf. Significantly, the SNP has not missed the opportunity to make it clear that their MPs will be given a free vote.

And it’s not just Catholics who will be urged to take a long hard look at Labour from an ethical perspective. I doubt, for instance, if many of the God-fearing folk of Kirkcaldy will be too impressed by GB’s wholehearted support for measures that are repugnant not only to most believers but to the much-vaunted British senses of decency and fair play – in this instance, fair play not just towards embryos but to children denied a right to a father (see my previous discussion). Will the son of the manse be going to the kirk this Easter Sunday morning, I wonder?

So all of this places GB in an uncomfortable double bind: carry on denying his MPs the right to vote against the Bill on grounds of conscience, and risk being seen as un- (if not anti-) Christian, and losing the Catholic and Christian vote – particularly damaging in Scotland; or back down, and again be seen as indecisive and as not having the courage of his convictions owing to his obsession with ensuring Labour can be re-elected into power next time.

Happy Easter, Gordon!

19 February 2008

Gordon Brown and Accountability To England

He said it! As a matter of fact, GB [Gordon Brown] said the word ‘England’ four times in his nearly 12-minute-long interview on BBC Scotland’s The Politics Show on Sunday. The nature and context of those references reveals the heart of the dilemma GB is wrestling with in relation to devolution: his lack of accountability to the people of England for the decisions he takes on their behalf.

In this respect, the first of GB’s mentions of England, about three minutes into the interview, was hugely significant. He referred to the recent vote in the Scottish Parliament that “we should review the arrangements which govern the relationship between Scotland and England, particularly the financial accountability relationships”. You have to be on the alert to spot this one, as GB says ‘England’ quickly and under his breath, not articulating the word properly – a not uncommon syndrome on the part of New Labour politicians when forced to acknowledge the existence of England.

So GB’s almost physical difficulty in spitting out the word ‘England’ arises in the context of ‘financial accountability’. This also means democratic accountability: GB is talking about the idea, to be discussed in the proposed devolution review, that the Scottish Parliament should have the power to raise more of the tax income it actually spends, making it more accountable to the Scottish electorate for that expenditure. In the interview, GB evades the possible implication of this, which is that the Scottish Parliament might have to increase certain taxes from their current amounts in order to maintain the relatively high level of public expenditure per head of population in Scotland, and so reduce the subsidisation of that expenditure by the central UK government.

What the rather extraordinary, if barely audible, reference to England (rather than the UK or Britain, as usual for GB) in this context involves is an almost literally tacit acknowledgement that it’s England, more especially the English people, that subsidises Scottish public expenditure; and that, consequently, there’s a problem of financial / democratic accountability for this to England. This problem could come into even starker relief if the Scottish Parliament were responsible for raising the majority of its own revenues. Such a situation would increase the incongruity and injustice of the fact that Scottish Westminster MPs are allowed to vote on government expenditure in England, while English MPs (and, in fact, those Scottish MPs) would have even less input than now into determining the level of public expenditure in Scotland. And this would doubtless lead to more pressure for Scottish MPs either to voluntarily desist from exercising this right (through an English Grand Committee) or for this right to be withdrawn from them. The consequence: MSPs gaining more control over Scottish policies and expenditure; Scottish MPs having even less influence in Scotland, and now even less to do at Westminster, as they could not participate in England-only business. The rationale for Scotland continuing to participate in the Union and its parliament would be eroded still more and Scotland would be one step further down the road to independence. Meanwhile, the position of GB and his government would be further compromised: as a Scottish MP, what right would GB have to formulate policies and dictate expenditure for England? His government would be, and would be revealed as being, in even more respects an England-only government; and how can that be led by someone not even elected in England?

So why does GB appear to be accepting the possibility that the Scottish Parliament should have greater tax-raising powers? In fact, this is a ploy, and he doesn’t want to do this. Actually, GB is implicitly threatening the Scottish Parliament and the SNP with having to increase taxation in Scotland in order to finance their programme. In other words, it’s more a question of Scotland having the power (i.e. no other choice than) to raise more taxes, rather than having more tax-raising powers. In this context, it is significant that two of the other references to ‘England’, towards the end of the interview, arise in connection with a possible re-evaluation of the Barnett Formula: again, the critical ‘financial accountability relationships’, in GB’s words, between Scotland and England. Here, however, as in the rest of the interview, GB’s explicit reference is to the UK-wide impact of any changes to the devolution settlement, rather than to bilateral Scotland-England relationships – although these are clearly implicated. The PM states that the Barnett Formula doesn’t just affect Scotland or England but the whole of the UK and all its constituent parts. Then, in a response to the interviewer’s question about comparisons between public expenditure in Scotland and some of the English ‘regions’, GB makes passing reference to the existence of statistics setting out the level of expenditure in the regions of England – without acknowledging that these reveal that Scotland is getting a better deal than any of them, with the possible exception of London.

By referring to the Barnett Formula in this way towards the end of the interview, GB is clearly expressing a reluctance to abolish it altogether, simply because of pressure from the Scottish Parliament to have more responsibility for raising its revenues. He’s effectively reminding his Scottish audience that it’s the Barnett Formula that guarantees Scotland a higher level of public expenditure per head than the Scottish people could possibly afford if they lacked the subsidies provided by the central UK government. This is part of a benign appeal by GB, throughout the interview, to the benefits Scotland receives from being part of the Union. Another example of such benefits is in the area of security. In relation to terrorism, GB said there could be “no Scotland-only, no Wales-only, no England-only solution [the fourth reference to ‘England’]”. In other words, Scotland benefits not only from the financial patronage of a benevolent UK state but also from its power as a force for protection from external threats. However, this reference to security is in fact given in response to the questioner’s somewhat half-hearted attempts to tease out of GB what he meant by saying that devolution was not a “one-way street”, i.e. that some powers could be taken back by the Westminster government, such as in the area of justice and security.

The fact that policing and the legal system in Scotland is the responsibility of the Scottish Government does of course have implications for the national security of the UK, as was evidenced two weeks ago by the decision in principle to admit phone-tapping evidence in terrorist cases in England and Wales, which, as it stands, cannot be implemented in Scotland. But this is not the point here: GB is effectively threatening the Scottish Parliament and the SNP that if it presses the point about having greater powers in some areas (e.g. raising taxes), it may be necessary to remove some of its powers in other areas (e.g. justice), ostensibly in the interests of the whole of the UK, and of Scotland as part of the UK. The use of anti-terrorism as an example is calculated to appear more reasonable and benign than if other perhaps more expensive areas of Scottish governance had been singled out, such as the heavily subsidised healthcare and education systems. But the underlying implication is that, basically, anything could be up for grabs and no area of Scottish self-rule is sacrosanct; after all, it’s devolution not definitive separation, which means that the Westminster government’s prerogative to take back any powers at any time remains in place.

The message to Scotland is, if you want to raise more of your taxes, you might have to raise more taxes; and if you want to offset some of the increased tax burden on Scotland this would involve, you might have to cede certain areas of government back to Westminster. Such an outcome would mean:

  • more accountability on the part of the Scottish parliament to its electorate for the portion of public expenditure for which it was directly responsible
  • a reduction of the scope, and hence the amount, of this expenditure through a reduction of the powers of the Scottish government
  • an increase in the proportion of public expenditure in Scotland for which the Westminster parliament was directly responsible, with the consequence that Scottish Westminster MPs were more relevant again, in that they had more input into policy and expenditure for Scotland
  • a reduction in the English sense of injustice about the Barnett Formula and the West Lothian anomaly, even while these inequalities remained in effect. This would be because more of the decision making about Scottish public expenditure would be rolled up into the decisions and voting about expenditure for the UK as a whole, from which it would not be so clearly differentiated. And if Scottish MPs were not voting so obviously on England-only matters but on UK-wide matters (even if these involved continuing to favour Scotland and Wales over England in the distribution of the public purse), this would be seen as more democratically legitimate and accountable than the present state of affairs.

I’m sure that GB would like to move in this direction, in that essentially his whole model of governance is one of a central UK government making decisions for the whole of Britain in the name of the ‘British people’, of which the Scottish people in his view are an integral and (merely) devolved part. Towards the end of the interview, GB refers several times to “the people”, the “British people” and the “Scottish people” – but never once to the “English people”. Of course, he doesn’t: he’s not governing in their name, after all. In his concluding rhetorical flourish, GB makes great play of how important and integral to him are Scotland and the Scottish people, and their continuing place in the UK for which he effectively positions himself as the guarantor.

But what of England and the English people? The interview makes it clear that the devolution review is going to be run from Westminster, even though it involves (no more than) the participation of representatives from the Scottish parliament – and despite the fact that GB makes great play of the fact that it was the Scottish Parliament that voted for it. And it’s a review for Scotland, parallel to the review concerning a possible extension of the powers of the Welsh Assembly, as GB himself points out. But there’s to be no such review or discussion about devolution for England.

So Scotland is being told that if it pushes too hard for more tax-raising powers, it may need to lose some of its political powers – and do so, perhaps, simply to remain viable. GB is saying, ‘if you want to raise proportionally more of your own budget, the UK government will withdraw some of its subsidies unless you cede control of more items within your current budget back to the UK government – otherwise, the political and financial cost to the rest of the UK (and of “England”, under the breath) of the present devolution settlement will be unsustainable’. Perhaps best, then, not to rock the boat too much and continue with the cosy arrangements of the Barnett Formula, which in its fundamentals the government is not calling into question.

Either way, the English people won’t need to be consulted. After all, accountability to England for the government’s actions taken on behalf of ‘Britain’ and of ‘Scotland’ is the last thing anyone wants – least of all, the MP for Kirkcaldy.

10 December 2007

Flying the Flag: Union or Nation?

Is it my imagination or are more national flags being flown on public buildings and at private homes across the four countries of the United Kingdom? I was struck by this, again, when I went down to London a couple of times last week. There were certainly more flags – mostly Union Jacks – than I’d noticed before atop flagpoles next to large hotels, or billowing out above shop entrances in the place where you’d expect to see the shop sign. I can’t speak for government buildings, as I didn’t pass any.

But the appearance of Union Jacks in commercial settings was perhaps of even greater symbolic significance. It was as if they were proclaiming, “This is London you’re in now – the capital of a great, vibrant, commercial nation: the United Kingdom”. For all the controversy that now surrounds it, the Union Jack can still carry the weight of such national pride. It’s a great symbol, really: a global icon that ranks in ‘brand recognition’ right alongside the Stars and Stripes or the Communist Red Flag. No wonder that our London-centric, power-obsessed politicians are so loathe to give it up!

Nor should they, or we, really. There is no reason why the Union Jack should not continue to serve as the visual symbol for the United Kingdom in whatever form in which that state survives. This is despite the recent suggestion of Welsh Labour MP Ian Lucas that the Red Dragon from the Welsh national flag should be incorporated in the Union Flag’s design. For non-initiates, the reasoning behind this is that the three-cross design of the flag makes reference only to England (upright red Cross of St. George on white background), Scotland (diagonal white Cross of St. Andrew on dark blue background) and Ireland (diagonal red Cross of St. Patrick on white background) – but not to Wales. If I had to choose between the two options, rather than messing up the neatness and cleverness of the Union Jack’s design by sticking a red dragon on it, I’d try to incorporate into it the Cross of St. David, Wales’s patron saint, which would be consistent with the conception behind the existing flag. This is a yellow cross on a black background. One rendition of how this might look is pictured below:

New_Union_Flag_proposal_by_Liam_Roberts

For all its politically correct and historically sensitive efforts to be inclusive, however, this ‘Inclusion Jack’ is a bit of a dog’s dinner visually, and it does rather ruin a powerful national and international emblem. I am in fact quite sympathetic to the objective of adding some explicit Welsh element to the Union Flag. As the son of a Welsh mother and English father growing up in England, I myself went through a phase of feeling indignant that the Union Jack made no overt reference to Wales. That said, the need to be inclusive in this way should be less acutely felt nowadays than then. As Wales has now acquired a substantial measure of self-government and official recognition as a distinct nation, the Red Dragon can be hoisted above official buildings across that land; whereas before, if any flag had been used, it would usually have been the Union Jack. And indeed, when I travelled to rural West Wales for the funeral of a family friend a couple of months ago, I did notice that the Welsh flag was being displayed more proudly and prominently than I’m sure was the case before.

I haven’t been to Scotland for many years, but I’m certain that in these days of devolved government, the Cross of St. Andrew must also be cropping up in all sorts of places where hitherto either the Union Flag or none would have been preferred. In England, too, as is well known, the Cross of St. George has largely superseded the Union Jack in popular affection and usage. I say that, but when I spent a couple of weeks in rural Lancashire towards the start of this year, it was the Union Flag that swung from poles in pubs or country gardens, not the Cross of St. George. Whether there’s some particularly strong unionist connection in that county, or whether this preference for the Union Jack is linked to local support for the BNP (related to ethnic tensions in Lancastrian cities such as Blackburn or Burnley), I don’t know. But generally, it is the red cross on a white background that is now viewed and used as the national flag by most English people.

By the people, that is, not the state. The irony of Ian Lucas’s intervention is that he should be pushing for more inclusion of the Welsh flag within that of the Union at the very time when the official use of the Union Flag in England is perceived by many as excluding, or precluding, the use of the Cross of St. George and, with it, the affirmation of English national identity. From this perspective, it is as if calls to add the Red Dragon on to the Union Jack – however fair in one respect – are adding insult to injury: not only can English people not expect to see ‘their’ national flag flying from public buildings, but also the Red Dragon is stuck onto the British flag as a permanent reminder of a historical injustice perpetrated by the English towards the Welsh: denial of recognition as a distinct nation, rather than as just a principality subsumed into England.

For, in fact, this historical situation is now reversed: it is England that is denied any official, constitutional status as a distinct nation within the UK; while the other three countries of the Union do now enjoy semi-separate nation status. And flying the Union Jack rather than the Cross of St. George on English public and government buildings is increasingly becoming a symbol of the denial of nationhood to the English.

How can these two not unreasonable but conflicting demands be reconciled: the Welsh wish to add some overt symbol of their country to the Union Flag; and the English desire to fly the Cross of St. George rather than the Union Flag? There is a simple solution that would obviate the need to ruin the design principles or ‘brand impact’ of the Union Jack. Separate versions of the Union Flag could be authorised for each nation in the UK that would incorporate their own national flags in miniature into the top-left corner of the flag in a similar way that the Australian and New Zealand flags or the Royal Navy Ensign insert the Union Flag. Specifically, each national flag could fill the quarter of the Union Jack demarcated by the lateral left-hand and vertical top bars of the red cross, i.e. they would go over the white surround to the red cross on that part of the flag. (This is simply because it would make the English and Northern Irish flags appear neater when inserted in this way, rather than having extra bits of white around their border deriving from the Union Flag.)

This solution would mean that the Welsh could have their Union Jack plus Red Dragon. It could be made explicit in the legislation or regulations establishing these flags that each country-specific version of the Union Flag was not exclusively for use in that country alone: that each version was a fully authorised variation on the Union Jack that could be flown in any part of the Union whenever and wherever it was felt appropriate. For example, the Welsh version could be flown by Welsh Guards regiments, even those based in England, or on ceremonies or visits involving the Prince of Wales – or wherever, really.

Similarly, the English version of the Union Jack – same flag as now but with the Cross of St. George flag inserted into the top-left corner – would enable national- and local-government and other public-sector organisations to fly both the Union Flag and the English flag at the same time. Some purists and English nationalists (among whom I count myself, by the way) might object to this compromise solution, feeling that only the Cross of St. George will do. But at least my suggestion would enable both sides of the argument to be assuaged to a limited extent: the new English version of the Union Flag would be both a fully authorised UK flag, of equivalent status to the unadulterated Union Jack, and it would prominently display the English national symbol. Better to have some recognition of England’s existence as a nation within the UK – which such a country-specific version of the Union Flag neatly symbolises – than none. If nothing else, this enables cost-conscious local authorities or hospitals, for instance, to be able to display both the UK and the English flag, if they were minded to, without having to invest in a second flag pole and incurring the extra costs of maintaining two sets of flags!

I’m assuming that the Northern Irish version of the flag would use the red upright cross, red hand and crown of the Ulster flag, rather than the Cross of St. Patrick. But that could well be somewhat controversial, to say the least, and the politicians there might have to compromise on the Flag of St. Patrick, which after all is used in the Union Jack now. I could see the thing getting rather party-political in Scotland, too, with SNP-led authorities tending to prefer to fly the Scottish flag alone, while unionist party-controlled authorities might choose the Scotland-specific version of the Union Flag.

However, that would be their affair, just as it should really be England’s choice whether to fly the Union Flag or the Cross of St. George on government buildings. But until we’re free to make that choice, having a version of the Union Jack that also includes the red cross of England seems like a satisfying and, dare I say it, sensible English compromise.

30 October 2007

Why CAN’T Gordon Brown say ‘England’?

There’s a petition on the Downing Street website at the moment, organised by supporters of an English parliament, which urges the prime minister to actually say ‘England’, rather than ‘the country’ or ‘our country’ (or even ‘Britain’), when he means England: when he refers to matters such as health, education and housing where (as a result of devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) his ‘competence’ (to use an EU-speak term) or area of responsibility is in fact limited to England. But he can’t bring himself to do so as his recent ‘Brit-eulogy’ at the Labour Party conference and his inability to praise the England rugby team on behalf of England testified.

Why can’t our prime minister acknowledge or speak on behalf of the country that makes up 85% of the population of the nation he supposedly leads? This is more than a matter of semantics. The answer to this question goes to the heart of the identity of ‘our nation’; of Scots’ continuing engagement with it post-devolution and after a possible full independence; and of the survival, or not, of the Union if the Scots did set off on their own.

First, let’s recap a bit of history. If you took only the words of Gordon Brown [or GB as I like to call him: if he can’t refer to a country by its name but can talk only of ‘Britain’, I won’t refer to him by his name and will just call him ‘GB’ – the personification of Britain, indeed], then ‘our country’ is Britain. But Britain or Great Britain does not exist as a nation. There was a nation called Great Britain (more fully, the ‘Kingdom of Great Britain’; also informally known as the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain’) that was established by the Act of Union between the Kingdoms of England (which incorporated the principality of Wales) and Scotland in 1707. This nation or state lasted only 93 years till the further Act of Union between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland in 1800. This established the name of the state as the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. This in turn was given its present name of ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ in 1927 to reflect the reality of Irish partition and independence.

This latter event creates a historical precedent for what would presumably happen if the Scots became an independent nation before some solution changing the constitutional relationships between all the countries of the UK was reached. As the Union that is the UK encompasses more than just the union of England and Scotland but also two other unions (the union of England and Wales that existed since the 13th century, and the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), these two other unions would remain in effect, albeit altered, if Scotland left. This would in fact see the demise of ‘Great Britain’ (and by extension, ‘Britain’) as a name for the continuing state. But we would still have a United Kingdom: ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’, maybe. That is, until the probably inevitable further break up of such a unitary state into three more independent or federal nations!

Or would we? The on-off New Labour plans to break up England into a number of regions of comparable size to Scotland and Wales could be a way to pre-empt the break up of ‘Britain’ / ‘Great Britain’ by creating a ‘Britain of nations [Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland] and regions [the ‘former England’]’, as it’s been called. If Scotland were to break off from such a ‘Britain’, this could then be construed as a de facto region of Britain establishing itself as a separate nation. The continuing ‘British nation’ could then be named something like the ‘United Kingdom of Britain [not Great Britain any more with Scotland no longer in it], Wales and Northern Ireland’; or, hell, why not just go the whole hog and call it the ‘United Kingdom of Britain’ (‘Britain’ for short) – because if there’s no administrative difference between the regions of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (as they’re all run by devolved assemblies), there’s no reason to acknowledge any of them separately in the name of the state. Welsh and Northern Irish people could still informally refer to their countries as if they were nations; but well, England, you’ve always been proud of your history, and now that’s all you are!

Is this just a fantasy or, rather, nightmare scenario? Well, the total inability of GB to officially acknowledge the existence of an entity we like to call England isn’t reassuring at a time when he’s carrying out a constitutional reform process which – we learnt last week – will enshrine long-established British (yes, it’s that word again) principles of rights and responsibilities. And there’s a more well founded basis for these fears based on, yes, history again.

This is that England, like Great Britain, does not officially exist as a nation. It’s just that England ceased to exist from the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 (becoming Great Britain, as above); and Great Britain ceased to exist as a stand-alone entity (albeit it’s included in the name of the state) in 1800 with the union with Ireland. Scotland’s leaving [Great] Britain doesn’t of itself re-create an England: it would just leave a United Kingdom of Britain that – if England had not been granted devolution prior to Scotland’s independence – would in fact officially be more like the regionalised-England model: a United Kingdom defined and named officially as a Britain with certain powers devolved to two ‘countries’ and a number of regions.

In other words, the Britologists’ or British nationalists’ view would appear to boil down to the statement, ‘if England does not exist (as it doesn’t now, officially), why go to the trouble of creating a “new” nation called England – either prior to full Scottish independence or after it – if we can preserve a unitary state under its ‘existing’ (unofficial) banner of “Britain”?’ For these people, the Union / UK is synonymous with ‘Britain’; and so is England – for them – as England (sub)merged its identity, through the Union of Scotland, with that of Great Britain. From this perspective, any (re-)establishment of a separate entity called England would indeed represent the de-construction of the Union: its splitting into a separate England and Scotland.

But this is not true: the Union is greater than the Union between England and Scotland alone. As indicated above, it also incorporates a more long-standing union between England and Wales, and a union between a Great Britain including England and Wales with Northern Ireland. So the establishment of a distinct political and national identity for England – whether in the context of Scottish independence or not – in no way intrinsically subverts the Union / UK. It’s just that if Scotland but not the other nations broke off, it could be re-named, as I’ve suggested, the ‘United [and / or Federal] Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’; with the continuing participation of Scotland, this could be the ‘United [Federal] Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’. But both scenarios do indeed do away with a unitary ‘Great Britain’ or ‘Britain’, which hasn’t officially existed since 1800 in any case. So it’s not the Union that is threatened by English devolution and / or Scottish independence, but Britain.

So why do the supposed ‘Britological’ (Brit-illogical) defenders of the Union want to perpetuate the lie(s) that a) Britain is a nation (it’s not; the UK is); b) that the Union means Britain (which it doesn’t); and that c) ‘England’ doesn’t exist (i.e. that it’s – officially – only a nameless part of [Great] Britain)? To some extent, these myths could be characterised as a delusion as much as they are a deception. English people have historically, and until quite recent times, merged and conflated the English and British national identities: England did invest its identity and ambitions into ‘Great Britain’ through the Union and the Empire. The realisation that the days of a ‘great’ Britain – of a Britain as a major world power – are long gone is something that the leaders and people of England will have no escape from in a devolved or fully independent England. Tony Blair tried to stoke up this truly megalomaniac delusion of Britain the World Power in order to keep the myth of Britain as the Union and Nation going for a bit longer after the body blow he dealt it through the uneven devolution settlement. But England’s greatness is based on more than the achievements of Great Britain, and England will find, and can only find, renewed confidence and purpose when it is able to forge a new direction in its own name.

That’s if the Britologists let her. Because the other side of the British coin is continuing Scottish engagement in – as opposed to English identification with – the Union that is mis-named Britain. The Scots have never truly bought into ‘Britain’ as the English did. For them, it was always a convenient name for a tie up with England, indeed a marriage of convenience with England; in which using the name ‘Great Britain’ is a way to pretend that it’s a marriage of equals and a true union (the creation of a new merged entity from two formerly separate entities), rather than what it effectively was: an English take-over of Scotland. Better for Scots’ pride – and what a reflection, it could be argued, on English diplomacy and self-effacement – to call it ‘Great Britain’ rather than ‘Greater England’! It could have been called something like that. After all, the expanded English kingdom incorporating Wales from 1284 had been simply called ‘England’.

Historically, Scots have been committed to ‘Great Britain’ essentially through perceived self-interest. Political union with England enabled the Scottish people and nation to benefit from, and share in creating, the wealth of the British Empire. But both before and after that flowering of English civilisation, the establishment of Great Britain has enabled Scots to participate, in a surrogate manner, in the public life of a greater nation than Scotland alone (if greatness is measured in terms of political and economic power, and cultural influence); indeed, it has enabled Scots to exercise political power over, and shape the whole body politic of, England-Britain. Until devolution (fair play), this was, after all, the only way Scots people could also have any political influence over their own nation, since Scotland was (and England still is) ruled by the UK parliament and executive.

So, to some extent, the Union of England and Scotland (one of the three unions from which the UK was created) has persisted so long because it enabled Scots to ‘punch above their weight’, both nationally and internationally. One wonders to what extent the Scot Tony Blair’s insistence that Britain should try to keep punching above its weight on the international stage had anything to do with the realisation of how little influence Scotland, as opposed to England, would have in the world as an independent country, compared with the as yet not entirely extinguished glamour of British imperial power.

An independent Scotland would indeed be a bit-part player: comparable, in economic scale and geo-political affinity, with the likes of Norway and the other Nordic states, and Ireland. The Republic of Scotland might well eventually become a wealthy country, as Alex Salmond was saying at the SNP conference over the weekend, just like these Northern European peers; but not a powerful one. By contrast, England would continue to belong at the European top table alongside the likes of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland; and most likely, it would still sit at the global top table that is the United Nations Security Council, next to its US friend and ally.

The economic wealth and political power enjoyed by ‘the country’ would therefore not be fundamentally compromised by a break up of ‘the Union’ (of Britain, that is, not the UK), which Britologists claim would be the consequence of Scottish independence or English devolution. Indeed, in many respects, greater separation and autonomy for England and Scotland (whether full independence for both countries, or a looser relationship as part of a federal UK; or a federal UK minus Scotland) might in fact be the trigger for a rejuvenation of both countries’ economic and cultural life, and international relations. Certainly, freeing England from the disproportionate tax burden it carries on behalf of Scotland and Wales under the Barnett Formula could provide a major kick-start to its economy.

But – and here’s the rub – a devolved or independent England would leave the Labour Party unable ever to regain absolute power over England: the truly ‘great’ and certainly greater part of the Great Britain over which that party stands zealous guard. And it would leave Scottish and Welsh MPs (a greater proportion of whom are Labour than in England) bereft of their traditional role in influencing English affairs. As these are now separated from Scottish and Welsh domestic matters, these MPs can participate in making decisions on English laws and policies with apparent legitimacy only if these are termed British matters, not English.

But beyond this present political anomaly, referred to as the West Lothian Question, there is a fundamental question of national identity. [Funny that GB should be so keen to press on with plans for a British identity card system!] If our national identities were defined as English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish – rather than British – and if there were devolved and / or independent parliamentary bodies answerable to the people who call themselves English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, then not only the justification but the reality of Scottish people exercising political power over England in the name of Great Britain disappears. If the nations of the UK separate (if only to re-group in a federation), you no longer have Britain: the Union between England and Scotland. If you no longer have that, you have no possibility for Scottish people to be at the centre of power of a greater nation than Scotland alone. GB would have to pack his bags and go home from a global capital city to little old Kirkcaldy.

Better to pretend, then, that Britain still exists. ‘Still’? It doesn’t and never did; at least, not since 1800. But at least the name Britain is included in the name of the nation. And in that name, it’s still possible to wield disproportionate power over an English electorate that have not voted for you.

What do I say ‘England’? England, too, does not officially exist and hasn’t done so for longer than Great Britain; of course, how silly of me to forget! (Scotland and Wales have been allowed to return to official existence; but that leaves British regions, not England, doesn’t it?) But better not even whisper the name of England; otherwise, you might summon up the sleeping giant into existence, and then the whisker-thin justification for your power will disappear into a puff of spin. What better way to continue with the myth of Britain and the disproportionate system of power it props up than to pretend that Britain does exist, and England doesn’t? And even to enshrine that pretence in a new constitutional settlement that, by regionalising it, will do away with England once and for all?

So GB can rule only in the name of GB. His whole political identity is defined in terms of that mythical entity known fallaciously as Britain. His political identity, that is; don’t worry, he’s not going to deny his national identity as a Scot. There are Brits and Scots (not English); and because he’s both, he can exercise power over England (correction: Britain).

GB might represent Britain; but he doesn’t and cannot represent, in the office of prime minister, an England whose very existence he does not and cannot acknowledge. And that is why he can neither speak for England nor of her.

18 October 2007

Who doesn’t want a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty, and why?

OK, so I’m being politically and legally correct, and am referring to the treaty that the EU Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) today is going to attempt to reach agreement on as a reform treaty, not a constitution. My aim here is not to re-hash the debate as to whether the treaty is substantially the same or not as the EU Constitution that was rejected in referendums (technically, referenda if you know your Latin) in France and the Netherlands. This is a semantic distinction: whether or not you call the proposed treaty constitutional or not, it certainly relates to matters that are constitutional in nature, i.e. which affect the sovereignty, and legislative and executive powers, of the UK.

If the UK did have a written constitution, a referendum on the Treaty might well be mandatory, as it is in Ireland. It is only the Labour government’s so-called ‘red lines’, which (disputedly) guarantee the UK’s right to opt out of EU legislation and control in four fundamental areas, that enable the government to claim that the new treaty is not the same as the rejected Constitution and that therefore it is not to be held to its 2005 election-manifesto promise to hold a referendum on it. Clearly, the politics is paramount: if Mr Brown did refer to it as a constitutional treaty, he’d be forced to concede a referendum; therefore, because he doesn’t want a referendum, it’s ‘not a constitutional treaty’.

So why doesn’t Prime Minister Gordon Brown (or GB as I insist on calling him) want a referendum? If we can discount his alleged reason for ‘opting out’ of one – as indicated above – the main reasons appear to be as follows:

  1. He’s afraid of losing. GB has already demonstrated his aversion to losing votes by ducking out of an autumn general election when the polls started to suggest he might not win an outright majority. (See previous post.)
  2. It would turn into a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in general. The former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Menzies (Ming) Campbell, correctly identified the fact that a referendum on the Treaty would be rolled up into a more general debate about the direction in which the EU is heading and Britain’s aims in remaining, or not remaining, a member. The secret fear of the centre-left parties (Labour and the Lib Dems) is doubtless that a ‘no’ vote (a not unlikely outcome) would be seen by many as a vote to leave the EU. This would once again open up an argument that these parties would like to view as definitively settled; hence, Ming Campbell’s honesty in wanting to use a referendum to in fact settle it once and for all. Perhaps he calculated that, if the British people were confronted by the bigger choice of whether to keep the UK in the EU or to leave the EU, they would be swayed in favour of the former option and would then back the ongoing process of further integration with the EU.

David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, who is now calling for a referendum, is doubtless doing so also on the basis of a political calculation. He has clearly worked out that the government will resist these calls and that the Treaty will probably be voted through in parliament. If this happens, Cameron can claim that the Tories are the one party that has held the Labour Party to account over its manifesto pledge and called for a referendum specifically on the Treaty, and can therefore reap the dividend in terms of electoral support. If parliament were to reject the Treaty (highly unlikely, as this would require a sizeable Labour rebellion, the abstention – at the very least – of the Lib Dems, and the support of the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists: highly problematic, as we shall see), this would also provide an enormous boost to Cameron’s standing in the political media and the opinion polls.

On either outcome, Cameron is obviously calculating that the Tories will reap the benefits of popular support for a referendum. However, if they were subsequently elected into power at the next election, they might not be obliged to hold a referendum on the Treaty because, by that stage, it could already have been operating for two years, and a) the need for a referendum might no longer be perceived to be that great (if, in fact, no significant conflicts between EU decisions and the interests of the UK as interpreted by the government had arisen); and b) it could be presented as no longer practical; for instance, if it required a complicated process of re-negotiating Britain’s participation in the Treaty and its red lines. The Tories could then say that we just had to make the best of a bad job and that they would unflinchingly defend ‘British interests’ (you can hear the language already) within the previously agreed framework. And if they were pressured into holding a referendum, they could limit it to the Treaty rather than generalising it to EU membership per se. Which brings me to another benefit this whole affair has had for Cameron: it has enabled him to finally put to bed the damaging disputes between Europhiles and Eurosceptics within his party.

3) A referendum would open out a new front in the so-called English Question: the disproportionate role of Scottish and Welsh electors and political representatives in deciding matters affecting England. This is because the voters in Scotland and Wales are much more likely to support the Treaty, whereas the most probable result in England is a rejection. The additional ‘yes’ votes in Scotland and Wales (and in Northern Ireland, let’s not forget) could easily sway the result in favour of the Treaty. The main political parties – especially GB and the Labour Party – want to keep this dimension of the debate under wraps because of the huge issues that are at stake: they can’t concede that any referendum might in effect be two referenda [sorry, I’m a pedant] – one in England and one for the countries enjoying devolved government. If they conceded this fact, or if it was even aired in the media without their acknowledging it, this would make the existence of this post-devolution electoral anomaly in the House of Commons (where it is of course known as the West Lothian Question) even more glaring. And let’s not forget that in a House of Commons vote on the Treaty, it could well be the more Europhile Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs who would ensure that the Treaty is ratified. So we are once again confronted with a political debate carried out in GB Double-speak: where defence of perceived English concerns and interests cannot be acknowledged as such but can be articulated only in terms of ‘British interests’ and ‘Britain’s red lines’. Because in reality, this is only an English debate. Support for the Treaty and for greater integration with the EU is virtually a given in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and is certainly backed by the nationalist parties (see below). People in those countries aren’t nearly as bothered about the government’s red lines. People in England would like a vote on them all the same, thank you very much.

4) The government has its own domestic constitutional agenda, which it doesn’t want to be disrupted. Lest we forget, there is an ongoing UK constitutional-reform review headed up by Justice Minister Jack Straw. The government doesn’t want this to be rolled up into a broader constitutional debate by acknowledging that the EU Treaty has any constitutional implications. Given that a referendum would be bound to stir up this debate, and particularly the thorny English Question, best not admit that the Treaty is constitutional in its effects. The aim is clearly to get the discussion on the Treaty out of the way with a neat, quick parliamentary process of debate, review and whipped vote. Then the UK constitutional issues can be dealt with entirely separately. Not that any of us can or should pre-judge the proposals that Jack Straw and GB will come out with; but all the signs from what they’ve said and, more especially, not said, are that they are not going to offer any solution to the English or West Lothian Questions that is at all satisfactory to the majority of English people who take an active interest in democracy.

So much for GB’s objections to a referendum. Who else opposes it? The Scottish and Welsh nationalists, of course. At first sight, this could seem counter-intuitive in that some of the powers that could be transferred to the EU (and at least one of the government’s red lines that relate to those powers) are devolved ones: justice and home affairs (JHA) (to some extent, also, tax and benefits, as these are linked to the level set in England). The two other red lines involve retained powers: foreign affairs and security, and human rights. One might think, then, that on principle the Scottish and Welsh nationalists would back a referendum, as it would give the people of Scotland and Wales the chance to express their views on areas over which they currently have a direct democratic say (the devolved matters) as well as to make their opinions known on the retained, UK-wide matters.

This would in fact be the more principled position but is not one the nationalists have adopted. Why is this? In the short term, there could be two negative consequences for them if a referendum were held:

  1. They make a similar calculation to GB: they fear they could lose a referendum. What is more, having endorsed a referendum and then lost it primarily because of English votes, this would be a huge loss of prestige and could lead to an erosion of their support.

  2. This would involve them supporting and abiding by a UK-wide political process and democratic decision, which also affects devolved powers. This runs counter to the devolved power they have already achieved and their objective of gaining even more independence from Westminster.

In the long-term, the nationalist parties also have a strategy of supporting further integration of the UK with the EU, and further transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels, because this weakens the dependency of Scotland and Wales on UK institutions and government, and makes it more possible for Scotland and Wales to negotiate their own arrangements and status within the EU independently of Westminster. The nationalists clearly believe that this strategy is best served in the present by supporting the proposed Reform Treaty – preferably without but if necessary with the red lines – and, in exchange for their co-operation, trying to leverage the best deal possible for their countries in pursuit of their ultimate objective of full independence.

In this way, and not for the first time, the Labour government, while claiming to support legislation that is in the interests of the whole of the UK (i.e. the Treaty) and avoiding an argument that could destabilise the Union (the one between England, Scotland and Wales, that is), is in fact furthering the objectives of those who want to see the complete break up of the Union. In the first instance, this is the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. But this could also advance the cause of English nationalism (a cause to which I am sympathetic, by the way), because if England is denied a referendum on a Treaty that it might well have rejected, this will only stir up further resentment at the disproportionate influence of Scottish and Welsh politicians in pushing through the Treaty.

So now we have the unedifying spectacle of Scottish and Welsh nationalists lending their support to the detested UK government over a Treaty entered into by that government on their behalf, and which could diminish some of the devolved powers they’ve only just secured, because their support promotes their pursuit of perceived national self-interest.

Here’s what the SNP’s press release about the first IGC conference in July stated:

“Alyn Smith today welcomed the launch of the Inter-Governmental Conference on the proposed EU reform treaty. . . .

“Commenting on the launch Mr Smith said:

‘While welcoming the re-launch of this EU reform process as a way of making an EU of 27 member states work more efficiently and effectively, it is essential that those involved in the negotiations recognise that they must come forward with a text that truly reflects the aspirations and concerns of all of the EU’s peoples, including Scotland'”.

Very supportive of the UK government, I thought.

And here’s the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru’s statement of their Europe policy:

“Plaid Cymru strongly supports the creation of a more democratic European Union with a written constitution and a Charter of Fundamental Rights incorporated in the Treaty. . . .

“Plaid Cymru will:

  • Push for the right of direct appeal to the European Court, for example, as this could be highly relevant in challenging the United Kingdom’s refusal to apply the additionality principle to European funding.
  • Campaign for Wales to achieve full membership as a member-state of the EU.
  • Review the work of the Assembly’s European Committee with a view to improving its capacity to predict the effects of EU legislation and to scrutinise Assembly legislation arising from it.
  • Develop a multifunctional centre to act for Wales in Brussels. The Government of Wales Representation would be housed within this ‘embassy’, as would representatives of other relevant organisations”.

No wonder Plaid Cymru backs the (strictly non-constitutional, you understand) Treaty! And by the way, the technical-sounding ‘additionality’ principle, which appears so harmless, is the one whereby the government doesn’t use money from the EU Structural Funds spent in Wales to merely replace funding it would otherwise have taken from UK resources: that money should be additional to earmarked UK funding. So this is a sort of Barnett Formula+: the Barnett Formula being the one whereby the people of Scotland and Wales are already guaranteed a higher proportion of public expenditure per capita than the people of England. Sounds like the extra powers the European Court may get under the Treaty could come in handy, then!

What an alliance of the Great and the Not-So-Good is lined up against a referendum, then – and even those who back it (the Tories) are making a cynical calculation that there probably won’t be one! But England (yes, England, not Britain) should be allowed a referendum. It’s our democratic right. The UK parliament doesn’t adequately represent the interests of England in this matter, and a parliamentary vote in favour of the Treaty will not reflect the will of the English people. More damage to the Union can be the only consequence.

We deserve better. And who knows, England might even vote in favour of the Treaty – just as England might even have given GB the benefit of the doubt in a general election before he chickened out.

Let the Scottish and Welsh forge self-interested closer ties with the EU if they want to. But it’s also our right in England to decide our own future within Europe.

23 September 2007

Jack Straw: Impartial Constitutional Architect or Labour Party Politician?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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