Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

3 April 2015

TV leaders’ debate: no show for England

Well, it was a pretty poor show at the end of the day, the much-heralded TV leaders’ debate: two hours of three women and four men point scoring, and talking at and past each other, in a repetitive and circular fashion. Hardly worthy of the name ‘debate’, really, as there was no clash of contrary positions or setting out of opposing visions for ‘the country’, such as one would expect from a traditional debate.

In fact, there was and is no real vision for the country on the part of Britain’s party leaders: if the country is England, that is. It was noteworthy that the two leaders who did articulate any sort of coherent vision for the type of society they want their countries to be were the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood; and the countries they were talking about were Scotland and Wales respectively. Incidentally, Nicola Sturgeon also referred to England quite a bit: for instance, when setting out the SNP’s intention to vote down English health or education legislation that might adversely affect the funding or shape of Scottish services.

By contrast, as far as I can remember, the word ‘England’ did not issue one single time from the lips of either David Cameron, Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg. This was despite the fact that the debate moderator, Julie Etchingham, did somewhat surprisingly make a point of explaining that Westminster’s responsibilities in health care relate only to England.

The UKIP leader Nigel Farage mentioned England, but only when referring – justifiably – to the relatively poor deal the English are getting in terms of spending on public services in comparison with Scotland, and the need to abolish the Barnett Formula. And in general, the whole discussion on social matters such as the [English] NHS, [English] education, [English] housing, [English] apprenticeships, [English] social care, and immigration was reduced and subordinated to the economic arguments around funding: the balance of economic growth, taxation and borrowing that would be required to fund the services and benefits that we might be able to afford over the next five years.

It was all about the numbers, in fact: how many billions more for the [English] NHS; how many more doctors, nurses and midwives; how many targets missed in A&E and cancer care; how many more new schools and houses [in England]; how much could be saved by withdrawing from the EU and cutting overseas aid; how many immigrants; and how much the deficit could and would be cut by.

All important stuff, but essentially just an argument about money: how much of it will be available, where it’s coming from and how it will be portioned out, including to each of the UK’s nations. What’s missing is any attempt to set out a vision for the sort of society we want England to be and, within that context, what sort of health, education, social care, housing and welfare systems we want; and how they should be sustained economically in the long term through work and industries that provide both a decent income for individuals and families, and generate sufficient revenue for the government to pay for it all.

The starting point for politics, and for political debates, should really be different visions for the country and society, and economics should be subordinate to that: ‘this is the sort of national community we want to be, and the social values and systems that will bring us together as a nation; and consequently, this is the type of economy we need in order to realise our potential as people – and as a people – and not just generate economic growth and wealth as ends in themselves’.

The four male leaders, at least, were unable to articulate any bottom-up, people-centric policy vision of this sort. And it’s not altogether clear whether they’re incapable of doing so as a by-product of a refusal to offer government for a nation called England, whose name they’re unable to utter; or whether their absence of vision of and for England is merely an offshoot of their ideological incapacity to place nation and society in general – and English society and nationhood in particular, in this case – at the heart of policy making.

The female leaders, on the other hand, do seem to understand the importance of society and – in the case of the nationalist leaders – of nation. Indeed, of all the ‘English’ party leaders, Natalie Bennett came closest to articulating a policy vision centred on social values of care for each other and the environment, although she studiously avoiding calling that society ‘England’. But in a way, it was an obvious linkage: she stood on the podium as the English counterpart to the ‘progressive’, female leaders of the Scottish and Welsh parties. Maybe she’s missing a trick there.

Perhaps one can push the gender analogies too far: the women of the respective national households being more concerned about giving the children a rounded education and life skills; health- and social-care provision for the young and elderly of the family; decent job prospects and homes for the children; and protecting the environment for future generations. Meanwhile, the men are focused on the world outside the home: business, money and big, abstract numbers that can be hard to tie down to the actual impact they have on the lives and work situation of real people. Macho economics as much as macro-economics.

Be that as it may, if the family is England, its name and needs were not uppermost in the minds of any of our British political leaders last night. England is indeed poorly served by the British political system. It’s a poor show when England goes missing from a debate dealing with so many issues of national importance to England alone.

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31 March 2011

UK Un(England cut): Why has England been cut from UK Uncut’s narrative?

In some respects, I admire UK Uncut: the web-based movement of protest against the British government’s cuts agenda, which organised the ‘flash mob’ that occupied Fortnum & Masons on Saturday after the TUC’s protest march. At least, this is a group of mostly young people getting involved in politics and standing up for something. That’s a lot to be thankful for, given that many of my generation – the parents of the youngsters concerned – have previously been somewhat scornful of the lack of political engagement and awareness of today’s youth. On top of which, UK Uncut is creative, resourceful and peaceful – not like the ‘Black Bloc’ anarchists that actually did all the wrecking and rioting on Saturday. And UK Uncut does appear to have been reasonably successful at bringing the issue of tax avoidance back to the top of the political agenda.

I do, however, find UK Uncut’s position on the cuts rather naïve and simplistic. They argue that merely eliminating all the tax avoidance (presently legal) and evasion (illegal) of major corporations and wealthy individuals, as well as taxing bank profits and bonuses more, would generate revenue of over £95 billion, making the government’s programme to cut the structural deficit in four years completely unnecessary, so that the UK could remain ‘uncut’. I’m all in favour of reducing the opportunities to avoid taxation and of hitting the banks harder. But even so, it’s unrealistic to suppose you could recover as much as £95 billion, and the issues are complex. For example, if businesses are genuinely multi-national, and if wealthy individuals are resident in more than one country, and have sources of income from more than one country, you can’t necessarily recover all of the taxes they owe in the UK.

Besides which, it’s simplistic Robin Hood economics and politics to claim that you can simply take from the rich and give back to the poor ad infinitum. Whether we like it or not, we are living in a globalised market economy; and there do need to be rewards and incentives for success. Otherwise, the wealthiest investors and entrepreneurs, and the big corporations can easily de-camp to other countries that allow them to hold on to more of what they’ve earned. It’s about striking a balance. I actually agree that the balance has swung too far in favour of what used to be known as ‘capital’. But I don’t think it’s possible or sensible to demonise wealth as theft and demand it all back. In the longer term, we’ll need a successful, competitive economy to generate the wealth required to fund generous public services and welfare; and whipping up an anti-business, anti-success ethos is not the best way to go about it.

But that’s not my main gripe about UK Uncut. What I find concerning is the group’s total lack of an English focus or vision. It’s a movement of protest against the UK government’s public-spending cuts; but there’s zero recognition that many of the cuts they object to affect England only, or affect England considerably more than other UK nations. Take the following passage from the UK Uncut website’s page about the cuts: “David Cameron himself has said that the cuts will change Britain’s ‘whole way of life’. Every aspect of what was fought for by generations seems under threat – from selling off the forests, privatising health provision, closing the libraries and swimming pools, to scrapping rural bus routes”. Well, David Cameron might refer to these things as relating to ‘Britain’; but an informed protest movement ought to be aware that they affect England only.

In similar vein, the website says: “A cabinet of millionaires have decided that libraries, healthcare, education funding, voluntary services, sports, the environment, the disabled, the poor and the elderly must pay the price for the recklessness of the rich”. Again, in the first six of the policy areas referred to here, the government’s cabinet of millionaires took their decisions for England only, not the UK.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to keep referring to ‘England’ by name all the time in relation to every single England-only policy. If it’s understood from the context that these things are happening in England only, then that’s fine. Equally, however, I do take issue with what appears to be deliberate avoidance of referring explicitly to England: why not mention, just occasionally, that the government’s privatisation and Big Society agenda that accompanies the cuts relates virtually exclusively to England, or that the marketisation of the NHS is happening in England only, or that students are having to stump up big tuition-fee increases in England only? Wouldn’t it add to the group’s attack on the government’s statements that ‘we’re all in this together’ to show that some people – i.e. the English – are having to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of the cuts?

In fact, there’s not one mention of the word ‘England’ in relation to specific cuts across the group’s whole website – not a single one. I did a Google search for the word ‘England’ on the site, and it came up with 14 instances, none of which related to a discussion of England-specific cuts but did include several mentions of the Bank of England, and mildly derogatory references to “middle England” or to “slavery in 18th century England”. By contrast, there were 1,230 references to ‘UK’ on the site. OK, the clue is in the name of the organisation; but even so it’s impossible not to think that there’s a pathological avoidance of the ‘E’ word going on when you read the following passage: “Everyone from pensioners to teenagers, veterans to newbies have already joined our actions in towns from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth”. This is a nice little alliteration, maybe; but why pick the extremities of Scotland and Wales rather than include an English geographical reference, especially as the vast majority of the protests UK Uncut organises takes place in English towns and cities? Come on guys, where’s England?

Does it actually matter whether UK Uncut spells out the fact that many of the cuts they’re protesting against relate to England only or mainly, and that those who take part in their actions should also be aware of it so they can inform the public they come in contact with about it? On one level, it doesn’t matter, as the central thrust of UK Uncut’s campaign is against the government’s economic policies – their perceived lack of effectiveness and fairness – which are a reserved matter, applying to the whole UK. But on another level, this failure or unwillingness to point out which cuts relate specifically to England does weaken UK Uncut’s position, in three ways:

  1. UK Uncut criticises the unfairness of the cuts. But one of the most unfair aspects of them is that they are applied unevenly across the UK, with people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continuing to be guaranteed higher per-capita public spending, out of proportion with relative need, than those in England via the Barnett Formula.
  2. Not pointing out the fact that many of the cuts and associated public-sector ‘reforms’ UK Uncut takes issue with are England-specific (e.g. those relating to higher education, NHS privatisation, local-authority services such as libraries, etc.) means that the group can’t criticise one of the main impacts of the cuts across the UK, which results from the unfair devolution settlement: that it drives deeper social and economic divisions between the UK’s nations.
  3. And a failure to highlight the fact that some of the UK cuts are genuinely UK-wide while some are England-only means that the group cannot and does not question the political legitimacy of the whole cuts agenda as it applies to England: the policies have been decided not only by a ‘cabinet of millionaires’ but by elected representatives that are not accountable to the people of England for those decisions. The cabinet answers to a British government and parliament that claims to be acting in the ‘national interest’ in carrying out its programme of cuts. But, whether you agree with that statement or not (and UK Uncut clearly doesn’t), this is the British-national interest, not the interest of the English nation where those cuts are actually made. And the government has no mandate, nor has it sought one, from the English people as a whole for the cuts it imposes not in their name.

In other words, by not pointing out that the English cuts are not only unfair but democratically illegitimate, UK Uncut actually confirms and validates the political legitimacy of the cuts even as it attacks their economic inefficacy and damaging social consequences: they don’t agree that the government’s decisions are right, but they do agree with its right to make those decisions. So in reality, the political establishment has nothing to fear from UK Uncut, because UK Uncut fundamentally assents to the present UK settlement, including unfair asymmetric devolution, which UK Uncut is unwilling to acknowledge in any way. Indeed, UK Uncut’s apparently systematic avoidance of the ‘E’ word throughout its website is almost text-book UK-establishment speak: whatever you do, don’t refer to England, especially when talking about England-specific matters.

UK Uncut accuses the government of condoning tax avoidance on a massive scale; but I accuse UK Uncut of condoning the government’s avoidance of the English question, which is a central aspect of the unfairness and illegitimacy of many of the most stringent cuts the government is imposing. UK Uncut says ‘tax the rich to give more to the poor’; I say, ‘tax the Scots and Welsh more if they want more public spending, and stop subsidising the devolved nations from English taxes’.

In short, UK Uncut’s refusal to acknowledge any England-specific character to the UK-government’s cuts agenda means that the UK is indeed uncut in a manner not intended by UK Uncut: in UK Uncut’s view, the UK polity remains very much the legitimate government of England. But this also means that not only is England cut financially but, for both the UK government and UK Uncut, it is cut out of its very existence.

20 July 2010

David Cameron: Big on society, little on England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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