Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

25 August 2009

No England victory parade, as an ashen-faced Brown is forced to say ‘England’ three times

Hard to say which is the greater victory: England beating the Aussies to regain the Ashes or the fact that this victory forced Gorden the Ashen One to at least write – if not speak – the word ‘England’ no fewer than three times! In a report on yesterday’s somewhat more subdued celebrations of England’s triumph at No. 10 than in the days of Tony Blair’s premiership, the Guardian quoted from a letter Brown had written to the England captain Andrew Strauss. It’s worth repeating in full here for its sheer rarity value:

“I wanted to write to congratulate you and the entire England squad on regaining the Ashes. The series has been yet another wonderful showcase for cricket and for all that is great about sport. It has provided high sporting drama throughout the summer that has yet again gripped the entire nation, and to win the Ashes with your magnificent display at the Oval – and coming back from the defeat at Headingley in the fourth test – shows great determination and commitment.

“There have been many outstanding performances this summer on both sides, but throughout the series you have led England from the front, with patience, resolution and courage. The country is extremely proud of what you have achieved this summer. I would like to invite the England squad in to Downing Street for a reception to celebrate your victory [my emphases].”

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you: Brown said England three times! Note, however, that despite the fact that the Ashes win wrung these words out of him, Brown couldn’t resist making mendacious mention of ‘the entire nation’ being gripped by the series (which nation, you liar? Britain or England? Say ‘English nation’ when you mean it!) and invoking the pride of ‘the country’: again, England or Britain? And also note the telling reference to ‘your victory’ at the end: not ‘our victory’, which would evoke true emotional engagement and national identification.

Well, if the whole ‘country’ of Britain is so proud of the English players, you wouldn’t mind them having a victory parade through the English and British capital city, would you – just as, last year, there was no apparent incongruity in your mind in allowing only a victory parade for the whole British Olympic team – not the English medallists only – for the English people to express their pride in ‘their’ athletes? Oh yes, how silly of me: it’s OK for the English to take pride in British achievements, but your talk of the whole of Britain taking pride in English successes is mere rhetoric. So much for your uttering the dreaded ‘E’ word: it’s all just empty talk.

Actually, I’m not really that upset about there not being a victory parade for the England cricket team like the one in 2005; nor that very few if any of the team members will be recommended for inclusion in the New Year’s Honours list, like the flurry of honours that were granted to the whole team last time we won the coveted relics. All of that was a bit OTT and something of a carrot to the English people: like the ancient Roman practice of organising games to appease the people and make them forget they don’t have any real power over their lives. But if it had been a British cricket team, then what a different story it would have been!

Anyway, just as he’s not really an England man, Brown isn’t a cricket man, either; and after his six-week break, he’s far too busy and got far too many important concerns to attend to than the celebration of a national (English) triumph.

On top of which, I’m not sure that, as a true Scot, his sympathies weren’t really with the Aussies. But he’s got plenty of opportunity to pay England back (not monetarily, you understand) through his political actions. England may have got back the Ashes of English cricket; but Brown will make sure she doesn’t rise from the ashes of her abolished nationhood. Now that’s a British victory Brown would drink a dram to, I feel sure.

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26 January 2008

British Values on ‘The World Tonight’: A Very English Debate

Listened to the debate about British values on BBC Radio Four’s The World Tonight news programme last night. This was framed in the context of the government’s plans to produce a ‘Statement of British Values’ to which everyone in the country is supposed to be able to subscribe.

To begin with, each of the five speakers was given three minutes to set out how they understood British values. First up was Michael Wills, the ‘Constitutional Renewal Minister’ at the (English) Justice Ministry. Essentially, he’s the one overseeing the whole project. He outlined the government’s decision to carry out a truly inclusive process of consulting ordinary people (as embodied by a ‘representative’ panel of citizens) – a process not driven by politicians (yeah, right) – which was expected to result in the said Statement of British Values.

Which might result in such a statement, as one of many possible outcomes; or which would result in such a statement? Surely, if the whole process is orientated towards the production of such a document, this predetermines the course that the supposedly free-ranging discussion will take, and presupposes that sufficient consensus already latently exists in order for agreement on a set of genuine, shared values to be reached and formulated. And whose position is based on this presupposition, and who is driving the whole thing? The government, and GB [Gordon Brown] in particular: not driven by politicians, my a***!

To his credit, Michael Wills did say the word ‘English’ once, under his breath, when he referred to the multiple identities that are subsumed under Britishness, which is a supposedly more inclusive term than any other. I say to his credit, because the next three speakers did not utter the ‘E’ word in their initial monologues; and they also, in their different ways, ended up articulating ‘Brito-centric’ value systems. David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, argued that more important than values were the national [British] institutions that safeguarded and gave practical expression to those values, and which were rooted in ‘the nation’s’ history: Britain as establishment and Union. Author and senior member of the Secular Society Joan Smith argued that the whole idea of national values was out of date and tribal, and that we should be formulating a new set of values that were all to do with individual rights and freedom: Britishness as inherently involving a kind of transcendence over ‘narrow’ nationalism (e.g. that of England) and as being at once at the origin and the vanguard of secular-liberal-progressive values per se. And Salma Yacoub, a Muslim Birmingham city councillor, who argued that in multi-ethnic Britain, there was no need for a formal Statement of British Values to which everyone should be expected to assent, as this only marked out ethnic minorities as different; and that one of the most endearing characteristics of Britain was its people’s ability to absorb and accept difference: Britishness as multi-cultural, multi-national pluralism, rather than reduced to a set of fixed ‘core values’.

Which left the fifth participant, Neal Ascherson: the token Scot. He was the only one who talked any sense at this stage of the discussion and hit the nail on the head. For him, the really important constitutional and national issues for debate were the two ‘E’s – Europe and England; a position which, I have to say, was remarkably similar to my own. In the British context, all the debating around British values was a complete waste of time, as far as Ascherson was concerned, so long as it failed to address the right of England (eight-tenths of the Union and essentially its heart) to be recognised and be given an appropriate, democratic form of governance as a nation in its own right, just like Scotland and Wales.

What was then remarkable about the remainder of the discussion, structured around a loose set of questions and answers, was that the three speakers who had put forward less dogmatic points of view than the minister – but nonethless Brito-centric in their conception of the nation and its most important values – gradually shifted around to a more or less implicit concession that, indeed, it was really Englishness that mattered more to them than Britishness. David Willetts stated that, as Englishness had never [well, at least not since 1707 – ed.] been expressed politically through the state, it was more associated with culture and history, something towards which he clearly had a deep devotion. For instance, he repudiated the new-fangled notion of ‘British literature’: NO, it’s English literature.

Or is my memory confusing him with the author Joan Smith [now there’s the female equivalent of almost the archetypal English name: John Smith] who, it transpired, associated the specifically national character of the values she espoused (as opposed to their universal, rational-humanist dimension) with England. She admitted, in fact, that she felt profoundly English, primarily through the medium of the English language, which, as a writer, was not just the tool of her trade but the way in which she expressed her own inner truth.

And then Salma Yacoub went so far as to say that imposition of a formal statement of Britishness could be positively divisive and destructive of the multi-cultural tolerance which, for her, typified the authentic British spirit. As noted above, she’d previously observed that what ethnic minorities cherish the most is just being accepted for what they are in the places where they live by the people already there. In my book, that means being accepted by English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish communities simply as a member of the community, as one of us; rather than being seen as already different (by virtue of ethnicity and culture) and being made to become something different again through the obligation to identify formally with a ‘Britishness of values’ that is other from the Britishness of everyday life that, as David Willett’s put it, is not in fact deliberately chosen but just something to which one becomes emotionally attached.

A Britishness of the English, in other words. Interspersed in the discussion were two vox pops: one with little snippets from Scottish men and women on the street about how they see Britishness, and its relation to Scottish and English identity; and the other, from academics and commentators who have written on these matters, myself not included [immodest – ed.]. From the Scots folk, it emerged that they’re not nearly so hung up about national identity and values as the English; that they have a strong sense of community, national solidarity and belonging; and that they perceive the English as being a bit screwed up about always having (and frequently failing) to be the best at everything: including having the best set of values, it would seem. (Towards the beginning of the debate, one of the participants – I think Joan Smith – had repudiated the notion that British values were about national ‘identity’. Maybe not per se, but they are a metaphor mediating the English search for a national identity which – by virtue of being disseminated across Britishness – is perpetually elusive.)

The academics and commentators included a Scot (whose name now escapes me) who basically expounded the view that British values are identical to English values: that if you asked most English people to list a set of fundamental English values, they’d come up with exactly the same qualities as if you’d asked them to define the core British values. Then the remaining scholarly vox pops seemed to have been chosen to illustrate that point, as they enumerated their versions of British values that were indistinguishable from what one would think of as typically English values – all articulated, it has to be said, in plummy English accents, like those of three of the debaters.

I can’t remember the specifics now; but these English-British values included things like fair play, tolerance of different points of view, liberty, free speech, etc. Neal Ascherson then underscored the assimilation of such values to England, rather than Scotland, by saying that the concept of ‘fair play’ reflected the perspective of the imperial overlord giving his subjects or enemies in battle a sporting chance; whereas the ‘Celts’ could think only of how they could get the better of those damned English, if necessary through sneakiness; i.e. the diametrical opposite of fair play. The same with tolerance: tolerance in debate, for instance – polite respect for the opponent’s point of view and a preference to seek some sort of middle-ground compromise solution – was an English characteristic and totally alien to Scottish politics, where you just try to thrash the opposition.

As if to prove the point, the very English-sounding Constitutional Renewal Minister, Michael Wills, indeed then tried to act as some kind of moderator, saying that each of the debaters had in fact articulated different views about Britishness; that this is what the wider national debate would all be about: a chance to air different perspectives, which, he felt sure, would be able somehow to coalesce into a unified Statement of British Values to which all could assent. And what, he was pushed to say, would happen if people chose not to subscribe to such a credo? Well, they could leave the country. When pressed further on that, he denied that that meant some sort of forcible purge of undesirables but that, merely, people would be free to choose to live elsewhere if they could not live here by the British Code Book (my term).

In other words, if you want to be different, you can’t be truly British. And if you want to be English, you’re not truly British, either. Because Englishness is both different from Britishness and the difference in Britishness. Englishness is what makes ‘British values’ truly distinctive in the way they are actually lived out, rather than just a bland, extra-national set of abstractions. And Englishness is what prevents Britishness from ever being fixed and present to itself (for instance, in a Statement of British Values) because the way in which Britishness is most authentically lived out – for actual English people – is through the diverse culture (and multiple cultures), history, institutions, value systems, religions and language of England (and for Scots, those of Scotland).

That’s true Britishness: the commonality in difference of the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish, and of all those who have come to live with us in our different nations. The government thinks it can converge all those differences into a single national Agreement. I feel that – in a very English way – we may just have to agree to differ.

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.

8 October 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 October 2007

Does David Cameron Believe In England?

Like his Labour adversary, David Cameron believes in Britain. While not recurring with quite the same hypnotic frequency as in Brown’s oration, the words ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ nonetheless appeared 25 times in Cameron’s 68-minute-long Conservative Party keynote speech yesterday. That compares with three references to ‘England’, one to Wales and none to Scotland.

Unlike Gordon Brown, then, David Cameron seems more reluctant to openly discuss his own Scottish origins, being of Scottish descent on his father’s side. Cameron did in fact refer to his parents: his father a stockbroker and mother a magistrate of long standing in the Berkshire county town of Newbury. He also acknowledged his education at Eton School, similarly in the Royal County of Berkshire. All very English and Home Counties, you might think. Was this reluctance to admit to his Scottish family background, and even to utter the words ‘Scotland’ and ‘Scottish’, linked to a wish to totally ignore the ‘English question’ and / or West Lothian question: the issue of whether the Tories are going to back any formula that will exclude Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on England-only matters, and ultimately whether a separate English parliament along the lines of those in Scotland and Wales should be established? If this subject is taboo in what could well turn out to be the Conservatives’ launch pad for a general election, this doesn’t bode well for serious discussion on the issue during the election campaign.

Cameron may not have mentioned Scotland but he did pronounce the ‘E’ word three times, as mentioned above. What was the import of these references? For me, they bespeak targeting Northern English swing seats, which is the Tories’ main hope for an electoral break-through. First reference, towards the beginning of the speech: “we are back in the North of England, a force to be reckoned with in every part of our country”. [Er, by ‘our country’, Mr Cameron, do you mean England or Britain as throughout the rest of your speech: Freudian slip there!] Second reference: anecdote illustrating problems of children’s behaviour in schools and teachers being hindered from imposing discipline, based on experience of when “I went and taught in a school for a couple of days in the north of England”. Third mention: the gym set up by Amir Khan (“the best boxer in England”) in Bolton as an illustration of the value to be gained from a national citizens’ service for young people.

So every single mention of England – and there weren’t that many – related to the North. You could infer from this that the Tories aren’t particularly interested in dealing with the specific concerns of their safe heartlands in the rural Midlands and the South; or, indeed, in addressing England as a whole. All they need do is focus on winning a certain number of marginals, especially in the North, and that could be enough to gain them outright power or at least to produce a hung parliament. Does this also imply that they don’t think they have much of a chance of making significant strides in either Scotland or Wales, with the nationalists and Labour slugging it out between them?

If an election is called, as now appears the most likely outcome, it will then effectively be an England-only vote for the Tories. But of course, they can’t openly admit that. Hence the pretence throughout Cameron’s speech that the prospective election will involve issues affecting the whole nation (i.e. Britain) in equal measure; and that the ambitions he laid out for things like education, the NHS, the social services and even tax related to Britain as a whole and not merely England.

To be fair, this pretence is perhaps less disingenuous on the part of the Tories than of Labour: in the unlikely event that the Tories did win an overall majority in the UK as a whole, based on a substantial majority in England, this would at least mean that parliamentary votes on England-only matters involving the participation of Scottish and Welsh MPs would still reflect the majority in England – at least, the majority in terms of number of MPs if not the actual wishes of the English electorate, unless the Tories did pull off the feat of obtaining more than 50% of the English vote. In the context of a run up towards a general election, when the Tories – like Labour – tend to set their sights on the prospect of a disproportionate overall UK majority, the West Lothian question becomes less pressing for the Tories. If they can win a UK majority (and the ‘message’ clearly is that this is their goal), then Malcolm Rifkind’s compromise solution of a Grand Committee of English MPs deciding on England-only matters would probably be sufficient to address the concerns of Conservative Party members and supporters about the West Lothian anomaly – until that majority is lost again, and the injustice and disproportionality of that anomaly can once again not be ignored.

So the Tories are potentially going into an election under the pretence that they are fighting for Britain as a whole; whereas, in reality, they will be fighting for control in and through England, and any real power they have to deliver their social agenda can be exercised only in England. But according to his speech, Mr Cameron doesn’t believe in governments controlling people but: “I think if we give people more power and control over their lives, I think they’ll take the right decisions, they will grow stronger and society will grow stronger too. I don’t believe in an ever larger state doing more and more, I believe in trying to make people do more themselves for their families and with society as well”.

This is all very well; but Mr Cameron certainly doesn’t seem willing to entertain the idea of letting the English people have more control over their lives by giving in to what opinion polls show is majority opinion in favour of an English parliament. When he came to spelling out the political meaning of this greater control people will enjoy over their own lives, Cameron completely side-stepped the whole issue of devolved government and referred only to a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty, to elected city mayors and to scrapping the regional assemblies in favour of county councils. This refusal to even acknowledge the difficulties caused by the current devolution arrangements and the issues around constitutional reform was completely disingenuous: spin in Tory mode.

Cameron might argue that this speech wasn’t the place for dealing with details of policy, although there were plenty of general policy commitments on a host of domestic and international issues. Just as Gordon Brown’s speech last week was his ‘vision thing’, so Cameron’s was a ‘belief thing’: the words ‘belief’ or ‘believe’ occurred 30 times; and the whole oration was framed as an attempt to answer people’s questions about what Mr Cameron believes in. And actually, when it comes down to it, these beliefs come across as remarkably similar to those of Gordon Brown, although there are some subtle but significant differences in the language and tone. Both men claim to believe in empowering the individual to achieve their personal goals and potential; and both consider that individuals also have responsibilities towards the rest of society. However, whereas Gordon Brown describes this in terms of maximising individual opportunity, meritocracy and social responsibility, Cameron talks of individual control and moral responsibility towards others (epitomised in the family) based on personal freedom and what could be termed the ‘sovereignty of the individual’: the view that if people are given real freedom to make their own decisions, these will generally be the right decisions, both morally and in terms of reflecting their needs and the needs of those for whom they are responsible. As Cameron himself summarised: “That’s what I believe. Giving people more power and control over their lives. Making society more responsible and families stronger”.

In short, this is a classic Tory message: a belief that society will become healthier, more cohesive and orderly, more prosperous and more participative if people are allowed to make their own decisions free from government interference – based essentially on a religious-type belief in the inherent goodness of human beings and personal ambition. And in passing, while on the subject of religion, I note that Mr Cameron did not refer once to England’s or Britain’s Christian traditions, or to the whole issue of tensions between different faith communities in the country, particularly Muslims (no mention of the word ‘Islam’; one reference to a ‘Muslim’ member of the Shadow Cabinet): like the English issue, another intractable question that couldn’t be allowed to tarnish Cameron’s avowedly ‘optimistic’ view of the world. Is Mr Cameron a Tory Christian, and is his programme for allowing individuals to exercise moral responsibility towards themselves and society inspired by Christian faith? Nothing inherently wrong if it is; but in a statement of beliefs, it would have been interesting to know. Perhaps Cameron the propagator of spin is unwilling to openly acknowledge the religious underpinning of his belief system in the same way as his Scottish background, both of which he uncomfortably shares with both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. And if Mr Cameron’s beliefs aren’t grounded in formal or informal religious convictions, on what does he base his hope for what he essentially describes as nothing short of a moral transformation of the country?

Of Britain, that is. Because Mr Cameron’s programme is – ostensibly – one for Britain as a whole; his beliefs embody a view of what Britain can and should be. Even though, in practical reality, he’s talking mostly of England alone. Mr Cameron says, “People want the politics of belief and that means politics they can really believe in”. But, so long as Mr Cameron cannot bring himself to utter the word England even while that is what he is talking about, I’m not sure I believe in his politics. Just as I’m not sure that he really believes in England.

25 September 2007

Anyone See England in Gordon Brown’s Vision For Britain?

In GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] first speech to the Labour Party conference as its leader and PM yesterday, there were 54 mentions of the word ‘Britain’ and 28 of ‘British’. ‘England’ and ‘English’, on the other hand, appeared just once each. The single manifestation of ‘England’ occurred in a sentence that also accounted for one of the two appearances of each of ‘Scotland’ and ‘Wales’, where the PM cited foot and mouth and terrorism as examples of how Britain’s problems in general could not be solved by breaking up the Union: “as we saw again this summer there is no Scotland-only, no Wales-only, no England-only answer to the spread of disease or to terrorist attacks that can strike at any time, anywhere in any part of our country. And sharing this same small island, we will meet our environmental, economic and security challenges not by splitting apart but when we as Great Britain stand united together”.

I note in passing that GB chose to single out Scotland and Wales here before England, probably because he did not want to acknowledge the greatest challenge to the Union, which comes from the movements campaigning for English independence. The other mentions of the words ‘Scotland’ and ‘Wales’ were contingent and do not imply political bias: GB referred to the terrorist attack on “Scotland’s biggest airport” and to a boy who won the “Diana Prince of Wales medal”. I should also add that there were no references to either ‘Scottish’ or ‘Welsh’. The one use of ‘English’ related to the teaching of the English language in schools.

OK, you might say, GB is the prime minister of Britain, so you’d expect his message to concentrate on Britain. Well, technically, he’s the PM of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and I note that the abbreviation ‘UK’ also failed to make a single appearance in his speech. ‘United Kingdom’ appeared only once in an economic context, where it is usual to refer to statistics for the whole of the UK: “in the last month [there has been] a wave of financial turbulence that started in America . . . and has impacted on all countries including the United Kingdom and tested the stability of our financial system”.

The avoidance of referring to the UK and the preference for Britain / British is a common characteristic of the Britologists: those politicians and thought leaders who are trying to forge and reinforce the idea of a common British identity and set of values. The use of ‘UK’ is a constant reminder that the British state is not a unified nation as such but a coming together of four nations under the rule of a shared monarch and parliament. ‘Britain’ and ‘British’, on the other hand, can appear to relate to a more natural, cohesive national unit: in GB’s words, this “same small island” that we share (too bad for Northern Ireland, then, and the other semi-autonomous island communities of the UK, such as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands).

And ‘Britain’ not only represents the ideal of a truly united nation covering the full extent of the island of Britain, but it is also a Britain of ideals: a Britain of the mind and of values. So what does ‘Britain’ stand for in the mind of GB or, as he would put it, what does he stand for in the name of Britain? The clearest clue comes in a lyrical passage in which the phrase “I stand for a Britain” is repeated like an incantation at the start of nine consecutive sentences:

“I stand for a Britain where everyone should rise as far as their talents can take them and then the talents of each of us should contribute to the well being of all.

I stand for a Britain where all families who work hard can build a better life for themselves and their children.

I stand for a Britain where every young person who has it in them to study at college or university should not be prevented by money from doing so.

I stand for a Britain where public services exist for the patient, the pupil, the people who are to be served.

I stand for a Britain where it is a mark of citizenship that you should learn our language and traditions.

I stand for a Britain where we expect responsibility at every level of society.

I stand for a Britain that defends its citizens and both punishes crime and prevents it by dealing with the root causes.

I stand for a Britain where because this earth is on loan to us from future generations, we must all be stewards of the environment.

So I stand for a Britain where we all have obligations to each other and by fulfilling them, everyone has the chance to make the most of themselves”.

Not much about the aspirations voiced here that can elicit too many objections in themselves. However, I again note in passing that GB missed a perfect opportunity to include the word ‘English’ when he referred to its being a mark of British citizenship that everyone should “learn our language”. Hmm, Mr Brown, do you mean the English language? I wasn’t aware there was such a thing as the British language. Or are you just trying to avoid confrontation with defenders of the Welsh, Scottish Gaelic or even [Anglic] Scots languages by avoiding stating openly the idea that English should be imposed as the official unitary language for the whole of a united Britain?

How can we summarise this vision of Britain? It’s what you might call a mutually responsible meritocracy: GB believes in self-betterment and self-advancement; but this is enabled by supportive social structures and individual social responsibility, whereby those who do realise their abilities / talents and fulfil their aspirations have a duty to give back what they’ve received from society and contribute to giving the same opportunities to others. It’s a world view centred around the individual (including the idea that supportive social institutions such as schools and healthcare are for the individual person); but in which the more the individual achieves personal success, the more they have a responsibility to ensure that others can do the same, in a mutually sustaining, virtuous circle.

This vision of an aspirational, meritocratic Britain is explicitly outlined in another passage: “Not the old version of equality of opportunity – the rise of an exclusive meritocracy where only some can succeed and others are forever condemned to fail. But a genuinely meritocratic Britain, a Britain of all the talents. Where all are encouraged to aim high. And all by their effort can rise. A Britain of aspiration and also a Britain of mutual obligation where all play our part and recognise the duties we owe to each other.

New Labour: now the party of aspiration and community. Not just occupying but shaping and expanding the centre ground. A strong Britain; a fairer Britain. Putting people and their potential first”.

Fine-sounding words, although it’s not clear whether this supposedly new, indeed New Labour, vision of a genuine meritocracy is anything other than only a slight adjustment of the Blairite vision (which could be termed ‘equality of market opportunity’) back to a more traditional Labour focus on social assistance for the economically disadvantaged, thereby enabling them to realise their potential for the good of all.

But what is clear is that there is no vision for, or indeed of, England in GB’s roadmap for Britain. We should not be surprised at this, although we may be disappointed. GB is a Scottish prime minister for the UK; so it is in his interest to speak to and of a united Britain, because he cannot claim any ownership of or identification with specifically English interests or concerns. If you talk about a British nation and mention it enough times (54 mentions of ‘Britain’ and 28 of ‘British’ in a one-hour speech), then people may start to see your vision and believe that the Britain you stand for actually exists. But this is also a vision on which the future of the Labour Party as a party of power depends. And the future of Gordon Brown: the self-made man from Kirkcaldy who has risen to the pinnacle of British society and who now, in accordance with his value system, sees himself as responsible for the well-being of the whole of Britain. Or, in the concluding words of his speech: “I will stand up for British values. I will stand up for a strong Britain. And I will always stand up for you”.

In short, with GB, you get GB. But he doesn’t get England, and nor do you.

4 July 2007

The West Lothian Question Is Not the Only One Needing Answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 June 2007

British Values Or Scottish Values?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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