Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

20 November 2009

One good thing to emerge from the Queen’s Speech

In the spirit of praising best practice when it arises, I feel it incumbent upon me to record that, for once, the BBC’s radio and online reporting of Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech was exemplary in pointing out when the proposed legislation related solely or mainly to England and not the whole of the UK. The news broadcasts I heard on Radio 4 pointed out explicitly that the key measures for schools, the NHS and social care applied to England alone: something quite unprecedented for the BBC. And the summary of the legislative programme on the BBC website indicated for each item which UK nations they related to. E.g. Children, Schools and Families Bill, “Whole bill applies to England. Other parts cover Wales and extends in part to Northern Ireland”; Personal Care at Home Bill, “Applies to England only”; and Health Bill, “guaranteeing cancer patients in England a consultation within two weeks, a free health check for all over-40s and that no-one will have to wait more than 18 months [I think that should read ‘weeks’] between a GP referral and hospital treatment”. Well done, BBC!

I can’t comment on the TV news or on other news media, as I didn’t see them. But I was further encouraged yesterday by Radio 4’s reporting on the farcical row that has broken out about the proposals for free personal care, with some Labour MPs complaining they have pre-empted the conclusions of a consultation that ended only this week (a blatant case of electioneering, then). The Radio 4 report, on ‘Today In Parliament’, was prefaced by the mention that the proposals related to England only.

If the BBC can make it clear in this way which parts of the UK the government’s legislative programme relate to, then there’s hope that, come the general election, it will similarly make an effort to point out which of the UK’s nations are affected, and which are not, by the policies the parties present and debate during the election campaign. In any case, I’m keeping a watching brief and will be bashing off further emails of complaint should the occasion arise. I nearly did so the other night, in fact, when I heard a BBC World Service discussion on the work of NICE (the National Institute for Clinical Excellence): the body that decides whether to approve drugs for the NHS in England and Wales based on a cost-benefit analysis. The World Service report failed to mention NICE’s geographical remit, implying that its work related to the whole of the UK; whereas we know that Scotland enjoys better per-capita funding than England for drug treatments and is not under NICE’s thumb. But it was kind of late; and I need to get out more!

I have, however, received a holding reply to my last complaint, about the misreporting of the government’s proposals for ten new nuclear power plants, all but one of which are to be located in England – and none in Scotland (wonder why). So watch this space.

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24 September 2008

In case you hadn’t heard, Mr Brown; Fife’s in Scotland

Gordon Brown (or GB, as I like to call him) puts me in mind of that old Anglo-American music-hall routine: “I say tomato [tom-ah-to] and you say tomato [tom-eight-o]”, and so on. Except, in his case, it’s “I say Britain and you say England”. He’s referring to the same thing but could almost be talking a different language. And while we’re on the subject of language, mention of the English language accounted for two out of GB’s four uses of the words ‘England’ or ‘English’ in his 6,700 word-long speech to the Labour Party conference yesterday; compared with 38 of ‘Britain’ or ‘British’, 29 of ‘country’ (as in the phrases ‘our country’, ‘the country’ or ‘this country’), and only one each of ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Northern Ireland’ (sorry, guys; also, none for Cornwall – just to be inclusive).

I say the English language, but Gordon described it as “one of Britain’s great assets”, the list of which was as follows: “our stability, our openness, our scientific genius, our creative industries, and yes our English language”. Yes, Gordon, it is the English language – no need to be embarrassed to call it by its name. But it isn’t the property of Britain: it isn’t ‘our (i.e. Britain’s) English language’ or even the ‘British language’, although I somehow suspect you’d prefer it to be known as such. The English language is something that shows how the contribution to world culture of what is sometimes called ‘Anglo-Saxon’ civilisation – in a non-ethnic sense – is far greater than that of Britain alone: a language formed over centuries from a blend of Germanic, Norman-French and classical influences that has spread worldwide (initially, through the power of the English-British Empire) to become the means through which so many different nations and peoples express themselves and their stories in their own words – in ‘their English language’ – and find a voice that resonates with ours.

But GB has to go and bring the stature of this great world language down to the level of his own little Britain, as the second reference to English reads as follows: “the other side of welcoming newcomers who can help Britain is being tough about excluding those adults who won’t and can’t. That’s why we have introduced the Australian-style points-based system, the citizenship test, the English language test and we will introduce a migrant charge for public services”. So the English language here is just another hoop through which migrants have to jump to prove they are worthy of becoming British citizens, along with the much-derided citizenship test and a mean-spirited poll tax-like charge pending the elevation to British taxpayer status. OK; it shouldn’t and can’t be an automatic right for just anyone to become a British citizen without knowing anything about ‘the country’ they’ll be living in or speaking the language (which should possibly also include Welsh in parts of Wales). But these ‘Brownie points’, as we’ll call them, that migrants have to earn are clearly indeed the ‘other side’ of the openness and the globally orientated Britain that the PM extols in other parts of the speech.

Indeed, there’s always another side to Gordon Brown: welcoming migrants to Britain who are prepared (and only those who are prepared) to contribute to the country’s economy and society in specified ways thought to be in the national interest, at the same time as making contradictory and unfulfillable commitments to ensure that “British firms and British workers can reap the rewards of a world economy set to double in size”. Going on about ‘fairness’ to all at the same time as making it clear that this fairness is qualified – it has to be earned by playing by the rules and being prepared to contribute to society in highly prescribed ways: “Our aim is a something for something, nothing for nothing Britain. A Britain of fair chances for all, and fair rules applied to all. So our policy is that everyone who can work, must work. That’s why James Purnell has introduced reforms so that apart from genuine cases of illness, the dole is only for those looking for work or actively preparing for it. That’s only fair to the people pulling their weight [my emphases]”. Fair do’s: we can’t have people scrounging off the dole; but everyone who can work must work? What is this: Stalinist Russia? So there’s now a social (and legal?) obligation for everyone to work, is there? So what, is the British state going to create artificial jobs, as they used to in the Soviet Union, to ensure that every citizen has a job that they are compelled to do, even in an economic downturn? Including, presumably, the mothers of those two-year-olds for whom the British state is now going to make free nursery places available so that they’ll have to work rather than staying at home during their children’s earliest years? And doubtless, this also includes those ‘British workers’ who’ll have to jolly well work to be worthy of the name, even if there are no jobs worthy of the name ‘British worker’ for them to do: a crap, unsuitable and unskilled job paying the New Labour minimum wage that Brown is so proud of is, after all, better than no job – except, of course, for the successful hoop-jumping new migrants filling quotas of more skilled positions for which ‘British’ people, let down by the state education system, are inadequately trained.

Or should that be ‘English’ people and the English education system? Because the unspoken ‘other side’ of Brown’s fairer Britain is unfairness to England. Most of the ways in which Brown promises to deliver greater fairness to ‘Britain’ in fact relate to policy areas where Brown’s government’s competence applies to England only. But of course, he doesn’t ‘say England’ because that would involve acknowledging that the English people have had a bloody raw deal under New Labour and the devolution ‘settlement’ (another word Brown nauseatingly peddles in the speech) that is another of the ‘achievements’ of New Labour GB boasts about. So, for instance, as part of “our commitment to a fair NHS in a fair society. . . . over the next few years the NHS generates cash savings in its drugs budget we will plough savings back into abolishing charges for all patients with long-term conditions. That’s the fairness patients want and the fairness every Labour party member will go out and fight for”. Sorry, do I understand this double-speak correctly? Point one: this applies to the NHS in England only, as the NHS in the other UK nations is the responsibility of their devolved governments. So, the NHS in England will be making cash savings in its drugs budget: what, by not licensing the kind of live-saving and life-prolonging drugs for chronic conditions such as cancer and Alzheimers that are funded by the public purse in Scotland? So, by saving money in these areas, the government will finally be able to abolish prescription charges in England; but only for those with long-term or chronic conditions, not for everyone, as in Scotland. So when Brown, immediately before the passage I’ve just quoted, says “I can announce today for those in our nation battling cancer from next year you will not pay prescription charges” [my emphasis]; what he’s actually saying is: ‘because in England – as opposed to Scotland – we won’t fund the more expensive but effective drug treatments for certain cancers, cancer patients will at least get free prescriptions for more standard, cheaper drugs’ – next year that is: let’s hope those patients survive till then! What a bloody disgrace!

And the same can be said for Brown’s ‘prescriptions’ for education and social care – in England only that is: making up, but only partially, for New Labour’s underfunding and undervaluing of English children and elderly persons compared with the investment that devolution and the Barnett Formula have made possible for them in Scotland and Wales. What of the “fairness [which] demands nothing less than excellence in every school, for every child” – in England, you understand? This boils down to two commitments: 1) ensuring that no child leaves primary school unable to read, write and count – big deal, that was probably done better in the 19th century than the disgraceful situation of today; and 2) ensuring that schools that don’t fulfil their targets for GCSE passes are closed down or brought under new management – reinforcing the obsessive New Labour targets culture and narrow focus on academic achievement, as opposed to vocational training that might actually create the skilled English workers capable of carrying out the jobs in the new British industries and services that Brown goes on about.

And what of the “fairness older people deserve”? Well, dear, that nice Mr Brown says he’s going to look after us: “The generation that rebuilt Britain from the ashes of the war deserves better and so I can tell you today that Alan Johnson and I will also bring forward new plans to help people to stay longer in their own homes and provide greater protection against the costs of care – dignity and hope for everyone in their later years”. Not free personal care, you understand, as in Scotland; just greater ‘protection against the costs of care’, whatever that means. And enabling people to at least stay in their homes for longer (which new technology will be able to make cheaper than institutionalising them), even if they may still have to release their equity in those homes to (part-)fund their own care.

Bloody h***! At least, Mr Brown’s constituents don’t get treated like that! And that really is the ‘other side’ of the picture of a ‘fairer Britain’ that Brown paints in his speech. GB certainly has fulfilled the commitment he made to the people of Fife whom “25 years ago I asked . . . to send me to parliament to serve the country I love”. Except, which country is that, Gordon? In case you hadn’t heard, Fife’s in Scotland; but almost everything you talk about relates to England. We don’t hear about all that you, as a Scottish Labour constituency MP, have done for your electorate and for Scotland. Why not? This is a) because most of the measures that exemplify your fairer Britain have already been surpassed by policies introduced by the Scottish government; b) because you can’t claim direct responsibility for those achievements, as they’ve been brought about by MSPs rather than Scottish Westminster MPs such as yourself; and c) this would show up the unfairness towards England that has been perpetrated by devolution and the Barnett Formula, whereby those English people who still won’t be getting the cancer drugs they need on the NHS nor free personal care are helping fund those provisions for all who need them north of the border.

And yet, in another way, GB can claim some credit for these ‘achievements’. After all, he did back asymmetric devolution and, as Chancellor, was in an excellent position to ensure the continuance of the Barnett Formula and protect that higher per-capita public-expenditure budget for Scotland. As is his Scottish successor in the post, Alistair Darling. So he has been a good Scottish constituency MP, after all: putting the interests of ‘his country’ first.

But he won’t tell us this country is Scotland; just as he won’t tell us that the flipside of the British coin is unfairness to England dressed up as a belated programme for a fairer Britain. Because there’s always a flipside to Gordon. He says New Labour is building a fair Britain; but we know this is at the expense of England and to the advantage of the smaller nations of the UK. He says – in the only actual reference to those four nations (sorry Cornwall, you don’t get a look in) – “stronger together as England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland we can make our United Kingdom even better”; we know he means ‘forget it, England; there’s no way you’re governing yourself like Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland because they need your money too much’. He says, at the end of his speech, “This is our country, Britain. We are building it together, together we are making it greater”; we know he’s pretending to be a democratically elected PM for a country called ‘Britain’, whereas in reality he’s the unelected First Minister for England and his real loyalties lie with his Scottish constituents. He says, “Together we are building the fair society in this place”; we know this place certainly isn’t England, and it isn’t English fair play.

He says Britain; I say England.

PS. Ed Lowther from BBC Parliament appears to have been reading this post and has taken up the charge. Nice to see someone from the BBC finally cottoning on to the deliberate and deceitful suppression of mentions of England by politicians when they’re talking about England. Perhaps the Beeb will begin to apply the same analysis to their own output, too!

And finally, another plug: sign the ‘England Nation’ petition, and get GB to call England a nation.

13 May 2008

Campaign for Plain England No. 7: social care – but where?

Just had a listen to GB’s 4.30-minute long speech yesterday, introducing the British government’s consultation on social care in England. At least, I assume it related to England only, for two reasons: 1) England is the only ‘part of the country’, as GB would say (and did say, in fact – but I’ll come on to that) where the Scottish-elected PM has any say over social care; and 2) the BBC and other media reports – to their credit – did state up front that the consultation was designed, in the BBC’s words, to “reform the social care system for England’s ageing population” – which does rather make it sound as though ‘England’s ageing population’ are making themselves an increasing nuisance and causing an inconvenient budgetary shortfall, in contrast to a more neutral phrase that could have been used, like ‘social care for the elderly in England’.

In passing, a brief description of those reforms as outlined yesterday: the usual New Labour mix of no new money from the public purse for England, coupled with incentives for individuals to save for their later social-care needs (so they don’t have to sell the family silver to pay for it – but they’ll still have to pay for it); plus more ‘efficient’ (cost-effective) co-operation between the health and social services, and more help to assist people to lead independent lives at home (less of a burden on social services, although probably many people would genuinely benefit from that until their condition becomes too debilitating).

So I had to gather from the context that the reforms being proposed related to England only: GB certainly didn’t say so. Yes, not a dicky bird on England: not one single measly mention of the ‘E’ word from the unelected Scottish English First Minister. However, I did spot a particularly pernicious circumlocution that just about summed it up. As usual with GB’s utterances, you had to be alert to pick up on it, as he passed quickly on. The offending passage, about three minutes into the speech, was:

“We know that differences in entitlement between different areas of the country create uncertainty and anxiety for people when they are most vulnerable. Of course, those who have the most need are given the most support”.

What are these ‘differences in entitlement between different areas of the country’? This can mean only the difference between the entitlement to free social care in Scotland compared with the means-tested systems in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. GB tries to gloss over this in the second sentence I’ve quoted by implying that the ‘difference in entitlement’ is the same as the means-tested system itself, which ensures that ‘those who have the most [financial as well as care] need are given the most support’. But there isn’t a ‘difference in entitlement’ between different areas in England: everyone has the same level of entitlement relative to means. By contrast, the difference in entitlement in Scotland is not proportionate to individuals’ means or care needs: all elderly people who are thought to need personal or nursing care in Scotland are offered it free of charge regardless of means or the severity of their condition.

As a result, GB is reiterating two deceits here: 1) that the Barnett Formula, which guarantees the higher levels of public expenditure in Scotland that enable the provision of free personal care there, is a reflection of genuine social need and of greater poverty in Scotland; 2) that his remit as PM in the social-care area extends to ‘the country’ (the whole of the UK) and not just England. So he can try to make out that he is a reasonable UK PM trying to ensure a fair distribution of stretched public finances across the whole of ‘the country’, rather than a Scottish-elected PM who needs to make the English social-care budget stretch as far as possible so as to subsidise the superior and more expensive system for his constituents. Well, us wealthy, property-owning English shouldn’t whinge so much, should we? We should be glad that we do have assets we can sell to pay for our social care – unlike so many of our northern cousins, apparently – and if we’re worried about the future, we should just save for it now like the thrifty Scots!

Approval ratings:

  • BBC: four out of five – well done for being up front about the fact that the measures related to England only. Docked one point for suggesting it was almost the ‘fault’ of the ageing English population that the public purse for social care was so stretched – rather than the truth, which is that the English would probably be more than happy to pay for better social care through their taxes if they were given a democratic say in the matter, as opposed to wasting many more billions on futile fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance.
  • GB: zero – say England when you mean it, man!

30 January 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 3): Stop and Search, and Social Care

Just a couple of quickies from the media over the past few days. First, the ‘stop and search’ row that broke out at PMQs this morning. Haven’t followed the coverage as systematically as usual, but I didn’t hear either GB [Gordon Brown] or David Cameron referring to the fact that they were talking about relaxing the rules regarding stopping and searching (young) people in the streets in England and Wales only. The reports on the Radio Four lunchtime and evening news similarly didn’t mention the fact that the debate was relevant to England and Wales only – or at least, I didn’t hear any mention of it.

The BBC News website is – as on many occasions – the worthy exception. Its report does mention in two places that the discussion involves England and Wales: the Tories’ claim that scrapping the bureaucratic forms the police have to fill in every time they stop someone “would save 900,000 police hours per year in England and Wales”; and a reference to Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief inspector of constabulary in England and Wales, who’s produced a report on it. However, the first six paragraphs of the BBC News website report fail to mention ‘England and Wales’ at all; and the way the alleged statistic of 900,000 police hours per year is thrown in out of any context could give the impression that this is being referred to only because statistics for England and Wales are gathered and published separately, not because the whole story refers to England and Wales alone.

Why does this matter? How would the issue be debated differently if the proposals for England and Wales were contrasted with the approach taken in Scotland? It’s known that stop and search makes only a negligible contribution to reducing youth crime and gang violence, which is the alleged reason for relaxing the rules. Equally, statistics (and damn statistics) show that ethnic and religious minorities are more likely than their white [English] counterparts to be stopped and searched, leading to resentment at supposed racism and Islamophobia on the part of the [English] police – despite DC’s bland assurances that the [English] police are “no longer racist”. [Really – not even a little bit, in parts?] In addition, playing on the [English] public’s fear that stop and search is necessary to reduce gang violence (even though it’s pretty ineffectual) contributes to the demonisation of [English] youth, while increased stop and search is likely to increase the disaffection of young [English] people towards the [English] police.

OK, so how are the preventive approach, the thinking, the attitudes towards young people, the extent of gang violence, and the whole problem of youth crime different in Scotland? What lessons can we learn, if any, from our northern neighbours? Is English youth really as bad as it’s (only implicitly) being made out to be, and is it that much worse than Scottish youth? Only goes to show what a violent, uncouth and racist lot we English are then, doesn’t it?

Verdict: GB and DC – 0 out of 5 for opportunistic, let’s-play-on-the-fear-of-crime-on-English-streets stop and search politics; BBC Radio Four: 0 out of 5 (no mention of England and Wales); BBC News website (2 out of 5: if you’re wised up, man, you can read between da lines about dem English lies).

Quickly on to the social care issue. BBC Radio Four, again [you can tell I’m a devotee, if only in the Victor Meldrew ‘I don’t believe it’ school] have been running an excellent, informative and campaigning ‘Care in the UK’ month of programmes. Except, you’ve guessed it, it’s about social care in England: about 90% of it, that is. Look at their Care Calculator and their Care Questionnaire: all England only. The resumés of the month’s programmes – virtually all England. You become aware of this exclusively English content only when you click through to the detailed information; the introductory pages make no mention of England – but in this case, what you get is definitely not what it says on the tin.

Why does it matter? Because it blunts the whole campaigning thrust of the programme. The situation of personal and social care in England is desperate. But if you make out that you’re talking about the UK, not England, then you can avoid referring to the infinitely better deal the Scots are currently getting: free personal care for all who need it. The question the programme asks is why isn’t the UK getting better social care provision? What it should be asking is ‘why isn’t England getting better social care provision, like that available in Scotland?’ Instead, you get a sentence like this: “Social care is means tested in most of the UK“: no, it’s means-tested in England, not in Scotland.

The You and Yours programme has sent a set of listeners’ questions to the Care Minister, who’s a junior minister in the Department of Health: the English Department of Health, that is, whose remit is social care in England not in the UK. Do you really think he’ll address the English dimension of the question? Does he really care about England? They may make a few improvements around the edges, and then the government can say that it’s listened to the British people; and the programme will say that it’s helped to improve care in the UK – avoiding those embarrassing comparisons with Scotland, where the situation will still be – to coin a phrase -miles better.

Verdict: 3 out of 5 for the BBC; very worthy exercise but deceitful in pretending that there’s some kind of uniform UK-wide governmental responsibility for these issues; whereas England’s plight in this area is because it’s ‘cared for’ by a UK government that thinks England needs to carry the financial burden of the Union.

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