Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

31 July 2009

Debbie Purdy: No unintended consequences from assisted suicide, please; we’re British

I’ve just lost most of the sympathy I had for Debbie Purdy, the multiple sclerosis sufferer who yesterday won a landmark ruling in the House of Lords meaning that the Director of Public Prosecutions must now clarify the basis on which people who assist chronically sick people in taking their own lives will be prosecuted under English and Welsh law.

Asked in a BBC Radio Four Today programme interview this morning whether she thought a change in the law ‘in Britain’ in favour of assisted suicide in cases such as hers would lead to situations where elderly and sick people are bullied into taking their own lives in order not to be a burden on others, or where there is a financial interest on the part of those helping them to die, Ms Purdy dismissed this possibility out of hand by saying – and I paraphrase – that she didn’t think ‘British people’ today would behave in such a manner.

Oh, wake up, Ms Purdy! Of course, people will do such things if they think they can get away with it. That’s just human nature, and the ‘British’ are no better, morally, than anyone else. While I have sympathy for people suffering from chronic or terminal diseases who can’t think of any way they can die with dignity other than taking their own lives, this casual dismissal of the unintended consequences that will surely flow from liberalising the law on assisted suicide exemplifies the selfishness and moral self-righteousness of those who argue for the right for what used to be known as euthanasia: ‘our despair and right to get other people to kill us is morally more important than the unfortunate consequence that others will take their lives or be killed when they didn’t really want to, or when other options for their care could otherwise have been found’.

On top of which, Ms Purdy and the Radio Four interviewer talked continually of the legal situation in ‘Britain’ and didn’t once mention that the change in the law that might follow from yesterday’s ruling would affect England and Wales only, not ‘Britain’. The phrase ‘this country’ also passed the lips of both Ms Purdy and the interviewer to further obfuscate which country they were talking about. I suppose whether the change in the law relates to England and Wales only or Britain as a whole doesn’t affect the ethical issue; but when Ms Purdy appealed to the decency of ‘British’ people as part of her bland dismissal of the claim that people will take advantage of legalised assisted suicide to accelerate the demise of those who wish to die naturally, then I’m afraid she lost me completely. If the woman wants to change the law, then at least she could have the decency to know which country’s law she is changing.

No doubt, though, if this legal change does pass through Parliament – which Ms Purdy suggested she would like to happen – then Scottish and Northern Irish MPs will help vote it through even though none of their sick and elderly constituents will meet an untimely death as a consequence. Whereas, of course, it’s up to MSPs to change the law in Scotland; and, indeed, the MSP Margo MacDonald has been proposing a similar change there. But at least, if assisted suicide is legalised in Scotland, it will be Scottish elected representatives only who are responsible.

But then again, sick and dying English and Welsh patients are British, really, aren’t we? We’re decent people and won’t want to be a burden on our relatively underfunded NHS, compared with Scotland and Northern Ireland, that is; or on our families that might otherwise have to pay for a protracted period of social care, unlike in Scotland where it’s free. So my advice is: do the decent thing; lie back, take the lethal injection and think of the Empire.

2 July 2009

Gordon Brown makes the case for an English parliament

In what is, on one level, an astonishingly insulting and complacent article in the Daily Record yesterday, commemorating the tenth anniversary of Scottish devolution, our hapless unelected First Minister unwittingly demonstrates the case for an English parliament. He achieves this feat not only by extolling, as successes of the Scottish parliament, the very things that most embitter the English about their democratic deficit and fiscal inequality compared with the Scots (“free personal care for the elderly, tuition fees, free travel for the elderly and prescription charges”) but by advancing arguments in favour of the Scottish parliament that undermine the very integrity of the Union and can logically be applied to England in just the same way as to Scotland.

For a start, though, the above list of benefits that devolution has secured for Scotland really is rubbing English noses in it – does he not realise that these are the very stuff of English grievances about the Barnett Formula and the lack of an English government accountable to the English people? If he does realise this, then this can only be described as indulging in Anglophobic schadenfreude. Brown has the gall to imply that the absence of such benefits in England reflects a different political culture and national priorities: he calls these policies “Scottish solutions to Scottish issues”, as if they weren’t issues in England and the different policies that apply to England were somehow the expression of England’s democratic choices – whereas we know that top-up fees for English students in particular were passed into law only with the support of Scottish MPs whose constituents are not affected by them.

This law, and the equally unjust fact that elderly persons in England have to meet the cost of their personal care, which is provided free of charge in Scotland (only yesterday the government was proposing a new system where English people only will have to pay into an insurance scheme – effectively, a top-up tax – or else pay a lump sum on retirement to cover the costs of their care in old age), are perfect examples of the kind of “unpopular decisions [that] were made on health, education and policing”, which Brown brings forward as justification for a Scottish parliament.

Well, just because a government’s policies are unpopular, that doesn’t make them illegitimate if the government is properly democratic and accountable. But Brown implies that the policies for Scotland of successive Westminster governments were insufficiently democratic and responsive to the wishes of the Scottish people, and that they were not only bad policies but bad government: “people now often forget . . . how poorly Scotland had been dealt with in the past. People rightly felt frustrated in recent decades as unpopular decisions were made on health, education and policing. Scotland could be governed better. People deserved better”. Well, if this is the case for Scotland, then it is equally valid for England: New Labour’s policies for England only on health, education and policing are not only unpopular with the people they affect but are an instance of deficiently democratic, unaccountable government, with decisions being made for England by Westminster politicians that are not answerable to the English people.

In fact, the situation now is even more unjust than that which applied to the Scots before devolution. At least then, the legislative activity of non-Scottish MPs affecting Scotland was democratically legitimate, as Britain was a fully unitary state at that time; so there was in principle no distinction between Scottish and non-Scottish MPs, as there was just one national government accountable to all the people in the Kingdom. Ironically, though, the fact that Brown singles out these policy areas is indicative of the fact that, in his thinking, Scotland was not an integral part of a unitary kingdom even before devolution.

Ever since the Acts of Union in 1707, Scotland has maintained distinct policies and systems in education and justice; or rather, the Union state has seen fit to allow Scotland to hold on to its different approaches and traditions in these areas. And this in essence is why Brown views the pre-devolution settlement as unfair to Scotland: the differences between Scotland and England in these regards, and with respect to the Kirk (an aspect of Scottish culture that is highly familiar to Brown), are seen as constitutive of a Scottish national identity that is distinct from that of ‘mainstream Britain’ (aka England). Consequently, the Scottish parliament, when it started its work in 1999, was truly Scotland’s ‘own’ parliament precisely because it handed back to the Scots the responsibility for legislating about those aspects of Scottish life that had always remained distinctive and defining of Scottish identity. So it wasn’t so much that devolution opened up a breach in the unitary British state but rather it acknowledged the pre-existing fact of the difference between Scotland and Britain. As Brown says: “For the first time in 300 years, Scotland once again had its own parliament”.

Well, I’m sorry, no: for 300 years (i.e. ever since the Acts of Union), Scotland did have its own parliament – the Union Parliament. If Scotland and England are parts of a genuine Union – two nations merging into one state – then the parliament for that state is the only legitimate parliament for each of those nations. You can’t have it both ways: either Scotland, before devolution, was part of an integral Union, so that devolution brought about something fundamentally new (a distinct Scottish-national polity); or it was never truly integrated into the United Kingdom state, so that Holyrood was in fact the restoration of something that had been lost for 300 years: a properly Scottish parliament. This is clearly how Brown sees it. But if this is the case, it undermines the legitimacy of the Westminster parliament to act as a parliament for England and, indeed, it undermines the foundations of the Union itself. If the Union Parliament’s jurisdiction in properly Scottish domestic matters has never been legitimate – if it has never been ‘Scotland’s own parliament’ – then how can we accept its legitimacy in English domestic policy and legislation? But, more fundamentally, the assertion of a distinct Scottish polity that is said to have continued in a suppressed form throughout the duration of the Union implies that the Union has never been authentic or complete: not the two nations merging to form one but remaining two separate entities merely governed through a common system that did not really belong to either of them – a common-law (indeed, Commons-law) partnership and marriage of convenience, rather than a true marriage of equals on the basis of which there is no longer any distinction between the spouses, who hold everything in common after they are married.

Either that, or the model is that the Westminster parliament – despite being avowedly the parliament for a unitary state – remained fundamentally the English parliament it had historically been, to which Scotland was effectively subordinated through the Union: a situation that the present Scottish parliament remedied. This indeed seems to be the model that Brown adopts with all of his talk about “how poorly Scotland had been dealt with in the past”: as if Scotland were something that the Westminster parliament merely ‘dealt with’ as an object of policy, rather than being a nation that governed its own affairs through the parliament of a Union of which it was an integral part. This model undermines the assumptions of the Union just as much as the idea of Scotland and England remaining separate entities while governed by a common system: in this instance, the Union is merely the political instrument of an English nation that ruled Scotland essentially in its own interests; as opposed to a common structure of government that belonged to neither of the distinct nations.

Well, if the Westminster parliament has always in essence remained the English parliament, let it become an authentic English parliament once more, just as Holyrood, in Brown’s view, is an authentic Scottish parliament: English-elected MPs only making the laws that apply to England; rather than England being ruled, as now, in the interests of the ‘Union’ (i.e. of the devolved nations) by a parliament that is not accountable to the English people. This is a direct reversal of the historical situation that Brown adduces as the justification for creating the present Scottish parliament: a Union parliament (effectively, the proxy of England) ruling Scotland undemocratically in a way that placed the needs of the ‘Union’ above the wishes of the people of Scotland.

But, in such a restored English parliament, there would be no place for unelected (non-English-elected) prime ministers such as Gordon Brown: there would be no opportunity for gravy train-riding Scottish politicians to have their Westminster cake and eat devolved government or, as I would put it, have their own Scottish cake and eat England’s, too. The way Brown puts it, in his article, is: “devolution gives Scotland the best of both worlds”. Well, yes. That statement comes after Brown has reeled off a list of ways in which the fact of being part of a ‘Union’ works to the advantage of Scotland (and very often to the corresponding disadvantage of England), such as: the bail-out of “Scotland’s two main banks” (I thought they were financial institutions vital for the British economy), which “saved thousands of Scottish jobs and protected Scots’ hard-earned savings” (what about the HBOS jobs in Halifax? Well, you see, as the Scots are so hard-working and thrifty, they deserved it more than us spendthrift English); and preferential treatment of Scottish shipyards in defence contracts building two “state-of-the-art aircraft carriers” whose actual benefit for the Armed Forces, in terms of providing capabilities that are needed (as opposed to offering subsidies to Scottish industry), is highly questionable.

And that’s to say nothing of “the [Scottish] parliament’s £35billion annual budget” that enables Scottish people – good luck to them – to enjoy 20% higher levels of per-capita public expenditure than the English: those free university and personal-care places being subsidised by the lack of them in England. No wonder that Brown affirms, towards the end of this homily to Scottish self-interest, that “I’m proud that this Government [i.e. the UK government] has never stopped focusing on delivering for the Scottish people”.

Well, perhaps it’s time we had an English government that would focus a bit more on delivering for the English people. And we know who wouldn’t be in charge of it.

16 June 2009

The Calman Report: Consolidating asymmetrical devolution

It would be easy to undertake a nit-picking, petulant reading of the long-awaited Final Report of the Commission on Scottish Devolution chaired by Professor Sir Kenneth Calman, which was finally published yesterday. The report does not review the Scottish devolution settlement in the round, either in relation to its effects on the UK-wide tier of governance that provides government for England, nor on devolution in Wales and Northern Ireland. This was explicitly not the remit of the Commission; therefore, it cannot be reproached for not making explicit recommendations about devolution for or within England, or for how Scottish devolution can be made more compatible with the interests of England alongside ‘serving Scotland better’: the actual title of the report.

However, it is legitimate, I think, to criticise the Commission on grounds of inconsistency. The essence of its approach to devolution is to arrive at improvements to the way the reserved and devolved powers, governments and parliaments interact and complement each other in practice. Consequently, to be consistent, the Commission should have considered the effects of Scottish devolution on the workings and legitimacy of national-UK governance just as much as it reviews in depth the way the Scottish Parliament and Executive work and interact with the UK government, and how their accountability to the people of Scotland can be enhanced.

In its omission of any review of the broader consequences of devolution for the UK as a whole, and particularly for its largest constituent part (England), the Commission perpetuates and entrenches the asymmetrical approach that has been taken towards Scottish devolution from the Scottish Constitutional Convention of 1989 onwards: considering only what is in the best interests of Scotland-within-the-Union, not a more equitable and accountable constitutional settlement and system of governance for the whole of the UK.

Indeed, the issue of asymmetry is integral to Calman’s conception of the Union itself, and the concept is frequently referred to in the report. The way Calman seeks to circumvent the criticism that devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has brought about an egregious asymmetry in the governance of the UK – with England being the only UK nation that is denied any political expression of its national identity – is to suggest that this asymmetry has always been a fundamental characteristic of the Union: “The territorial constitution of the United Kingdom is therefore radically asymmetrical. This reflects the history and geography of these islands, and like many other aspects of the UK constitution has grown and developed rather than being designed”.

But elsewhere, the report makes it clear that the present-day asymmetry of the UK constitution has very much been brought about – or, at the very least greatly extended – by the deliberate design of the devolution settlement: “The creation of the Scottish Parliament was part of a larger policy of devolution instituted by the Labour Government after its election victory in 1997. This was applied in different ways to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland . . . . The result is that the United Kingdom now has a quite distinctive form of partial and asymmetric devolution – partial in that there has so far been no devolution to the largest component nation of the UK, England (other than to London); and asymmetric in that devolution differs in nature and extent in each of the nations and territories to which it has been applied.”

Notice the subtle but significant semantic shift here: according to the report, the fact that there has been no national-level devolution for England is not what makes the present devolution settlement asymmetric, but rather this asymmetry is in relation to the differing nature and extent of devolution in each of the nations to which it has been applied. As if the fact that it has not been applied at all to England is not the epitome of the asymmetry and the difference described! But no, this just makes devolution ‘partial’.

On the contrary, it is the partial nature of devolution, in both senses (biased and unfinished), that makes devolution asymmetrical. And the raison d’être for the Calman Commission is to examine ways in which devolution can be extended and enhanced – but for Scotland only, making it by definition more partial (limited to one part of the UK only, and hence one-sided in both senses) and asymmetrical. The work of the Commission is therefore directly and deliberately engaged in making the political Union that is the UK itself more asymmetrical in its structures of governance.

The report deploys a classic rhetorical trick to suggest that this intolerable asymmetry is not just ‘organic’ to the Union (having evolved in some sense naturally over the course of history, rather than having been deliberately engineered at a particular point in history, such as the passing of the 1998 Scotland Act) but that it reflects the distinct needs and aspirations of the different nations of the UK, including England:

“Although the Government’s programme of devolution marked a substantial change from the earlier Westminster-based status quo, it can also be seen within a longstanding tradition in the UK of making constitutional change organically in response to particular pressures, rather than by sweeping reforms. It is a means for the UK to provide varying degrees of regional autonomy to match the differing needs and circumstances of its component parts, without the more fundamental restructuring of the constitution that a move to a fully federal structure would entail.”

The report tries to make out that the fact that there is no distinct national layer of governance for England – that the UK government is also the de facto English government – has evolved organically and historically in this way out of the separate relationships England has had with the other UK nations, and that the present situation is somehow adequate to the needs and wishes of the English people. Indeed, the report goes so far as to suggest that:

“This unique asymmetry is not a problem [my emphasis]. If anything, it is something to be proud of – Scotland’s constitutional arrangements have grown or evolved in response to need, like many other aspects of the constitution of the UK. Their asymmetry reflects the underlying reality: Scotland is a small nation sharing islands, and a Union, with a much larger neighbour. The UK’s territorial constitution reflects the radical asymmetry of its geography and demography. Not only do the smaller nations in the UK each have different levels of decentralised power; but there is no equivalent of devolved institutions for England. The UK Parliament at Westminster is also England’s parliament, and the UK Government is England’s government too.”

There you have it: the ‘UK-is-England-is-the-UK’ moment. Historic, organic, set in stone: the UK parliament is England’s parliament, and the UK government is England’s government; the one perfectly adequate to the other. No difference, no disconnect. A ‘territorial constitution’ that makes the territory of England, in political terms, none other than the (vestigial) unitary UK, while devolution for the ‘nations’ is defined in terms of the degree of political difference and divergence that they, and only they, enjoy from the central power, i.e. effectively from England. No asymmetry of devolution, then, from England’s perspective, because England is one and the same as the UK: the founding symmetry that counterbalances the asymmetry; the centre of the system that assures its continuing unity and coherence even within a framework of increasing divergence from that centre on the part of the periphery. In short, England’s non-differentiation from the UK is what assures the continuing existence and identity (sameness, continuance) of the UK across difference and across history; and it is what prevents the presence of radical asymmetry – the absence of any constituent part and nation of the UK that actually is the UK in any fundamental sense.

No wonder, then, that it is at this point in the report (sections 2.12 to 2.15, to be precise) that it touches upon the only sort of devolution for England that it is prepared to countenance: “It is not for us to discuss where or how power might be decentralised or devolved in England – whether, as has been proposed in the past, to regional level, or by giving more power to local institutions”. Well, by very virtue of describing devolution for England in these terms, the report is prescribing the form it should take: not national but regional or local, as there can by definition not be any devolution and divergence of England as a nation from the UK if the basis for the UK’s supposed unity as analysed above (England’s non-differentiation from the UK) is to be preserved.

Having said this, and to its credit, the report does acknowledge that England is a nation, and that the governance of the UK (and of England as the cornerstone of the UK) cannot remain unchanged in the context of devolution:

“Devolution to Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) created political institutions that exercise many of the powers of central Government for a significant proportion of the UK. That inevitably has meant that the governance of the rest of the UK cannot continue unchanged.

“It is not sufficient for Scots (or indeed Welsh or Northern Ireland citizens) to dismiss this as simply a problem for the English: the internal arrangements of the Union are a matter for all of us. The UK now has a territorial constitution, and it needs, in our view, to be more fully and clearly set out.”

This idea of making a new constitutional statement regarding the basis for the union between the different nations of the UK in the context of devolution has its fullest expression in the Calman Report in the idea of the UK as a ‘social Union’. In particular, this pertains to shared ‘social rights’:

“The most important of these [social rights] are that access to health care and education should be, as now, essentially free and provided at the point of need. And when taxes are shared across the UK they should take account of that need. Our first recommendation is therefore that the Scottish and UK Parliaments should confirm their common understanding of what those rights are, and the responsibilities that go with them.”

This statement, which is indeed the first recommendation the report makes, is implicitly a criticism of the failure of the UK to put these principles into practice, in particular through the inequitable distribution of the UK’s tax revenues via the Barnett Formula that has meant that the other nations have been able to deliver these ‘social rights’ (e.g. free access to expensive life-prolonging drugs, no tuition fees in higher education, free social care for the elderly, etc.) far more comprehensively than has the UK government acting supposedly in the interests of England. The Report notably does not recommend that the Barnett Formula should be scrapped until a fair determination of a more needs-based system for distributing tax revenues in pursuit of these social rights can be made. But in principle, the report recognises that the Barnett Formula does not adequately reflect real social needs across the UK.

Up until now, devolution may well be said in practice to have undermined this social Union that the Report describes as an integral characteristic and purpose for the political Union that is the UK itself. By recommending a stronger commitment to implementing the social Union across the UK, the Report is seeking to strengthen and reaffirm that political Union. However, it is far from self-evident that the Report’s principal recommendations – much greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland; in particular, a substantial reduction in Scotland’s block grant from the UK Treasury linked to an enhanced ability to vary the level of income tax in Scotland – will advance these goals without reform of the Barnett Formula, and without political reform for England.

In essence, Scotland will have even greater freedom to pursue these social objectives, which will still be inequitably cross-subsidised by the English taxpayer. The block grant and the Barnett Formula that underpins it are not being abolished. If the Scottish Government decides not to change the level of income tax that Scots are currently paying, Scotland will get absolutely the same deal as now: about 25% higher per-capita public expenditure. In fact, the Scottish government could, if it chose, now cut its income tax – procuring a significant competitive economic advantage over the rest of the UK – and only have to reduce its public expenditure to the same level as England, thanks to the Barnett consequentials. More likely, the Scottish government will only tinker with tax rates: why rock the boat when it’s worked so well to Scotland’s advantage up till now?

The primary avowed purpose of Calman’s recommendation of greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland is to improve the accountability of the Scottish Parliament for the revenue it raises and spends on the country’s behalf. Fair enough. But what is fundamentally unfair and inequitable – over and above the unequal distribution of public expenditure – is the fact that there is no such accountability on tax and expenditure in England. Decisions on expenditure in departments that now deal with England only (in devolved areas such as education, health and transport) are made by the whole UK parliament and government, including MPs not elected in England. Here we have the asymmetry of devolution that really aggravates people and undermines the standing of the Union in England: if Calman’s recommendations are implemented, Scotland will be able to make its own decisions not just on how to spend the public finances but how to raise them, free from the participation of English MPs; but England has no such freedom, and Scottish MPs support and vote through measures that result in the relative under-funding of England to the deliberate benefit of Scotland.

Yes, as the report says: devolution has indeed succeeded for Scotland and is ‘serving Scotland better’. Further enhancement of Scottish self-government may well result in an even stronger Scotland. But if this is done by continuing to serve England so ill, then it will not result in a stronger Union. England will not for ever sustain asymmetrical devolution by accepting to be governed as the UK and for the UK. But devolution as presently constituted relies on this asymmetry and inequality: allowing Scotland to both have its own cake and eat England’s.

But what happens to a ‘United’ Kingdom built on such uneven foundations when the people of England demand their own slice of the cake and a form of government best suited to their needs?

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