Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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.

13 May 2010

Who and what is the Lib-Con coalition for?

I’ve been carrying out a bit of a semantic analysis of the statement the Lib Dems and Conservatives released yesterday about their coalition agreement. What that means is that I’ve analysed the number of times key words occurred in the document. I define a ‘key word’ as a significant noun, verb, adverb or adjective (if you remember your grammar) that is used five or more times in the document, rather than basic link words such as prepositions, conjunctions or pronouns that are used very frequently.

I made an exception for the pronoun ‘we’, however, which appears no fewer than 49 times! The document is big on words expressing collective action and agreement: ‘we’ is the second-most repeated key word in the statement after ‘agree’ / ‘agreement’, which features a total of 63 times, in a total document of around 2,940 words. In third place, comes another collective term, ‘parties / party’ and ‘partners’ (35 instances).

What this illustrates is that the statement is continually reiterating the fact that it is based on agreement and consensus between two parties. Indeed, one might even go so far as to say that it bends over backwards to emphasise the fact that it is a full (11 times) agreement between two equal partners by mentioning ‘Liberal Democrat’ on no fewer than 13 occasions, compared with a modest seven references to ‘Conservative’.

However, when you read between the lines and examine the specific policy issues raised in the document, a very different picture emerges. On my analysis, a total of 20 key words occur in the context of policies set out from essentially a Conservative perspective in the document. Most of these refer to the economy and finance, and some of them in reality relate to areas of genuine agreement between the parties, such as their compromise on taxation policy (variations on the word ‘tax’ occur 12 times). However, I’ve ascribed all the key terms in this area to the Conservatives on the basis that they’re in the ascendancy on the economy in the coalition, and the sheer number and frequency of economic terms in the statement is expressive of the Tories’ priorities.

To be specific, the leading economic terms in the document are:

  1. ‘work’ (16 appearances)
  2. ‘reduce’ / ‘reduction’ (as in ‘deficit reduction’) (13 times)
  3. ‘tax’ (12)
  4. ‘allow’ / ‘allowance’ (ten)
  5. ‘bank’ / ‘banking’ (ten).

Other frequently occurring economic terms include ‘budget’, ‘financial’, ‘funding’, ‘jobs / Jobseekers’ and ‘spending’. The only non-economic terms to come anywhere near to competing with these, with respect to Conservative policy positions, are those relating to ‘Europe’, including ‘euro’, ‘EU’ and ‘non-EU’ (15 mentions) – strongly underscoring the fact that the Tories won the arguments over Europe in the coalition negotiations; e.g. ‘referendums’ (seven instances) on any future transfer of powers, no preparations to adopt the euro within the life of the parliament, limiting the application of the Working Time Directive, etc.

‘Referendum’ is what I would term an instance of a word evoking the ‘people’ or popular democracy / sovereignty, the only other word of this type being ‘public’ (five references). There are, however, further words of this sort in the document, which I’ve categorised as those expressing policies presented from a Lib Dem perspective. But the total number of such Lib Dem key words amounts to only eight, and they also occur less frequently than the Conservatives’ favourite expressions. The leading ones (apart from ‘Liberal’ and ‘Democrat’ themselves) are:

  1. ‘reform’ / ‘reforming’ (nine)
  2. ‘school(s)’ (eight)
  3. ‘vote(s)’ / ‘voter(s)’ (seven)
  4. ‘energy’ (as in energy policy) (seven).

Disappointingly, ‘elect’ (as in ‘election’ and ‘electoral reform’) occurs only five times; and neither ‘proportional’ (as in ‘proportional representation’) nor ‘Alternative’ (‘Alternative Vote’) appears more than four times. Indeed, as a reflection of the extent to which the Lib Dems have lost the philosophical arguments behind the formation of the coalition, the word ‘fair’, which was the central idea in the Lib Dems’ manifesto, occurs only twice.

Having said that, the concept of ‘responsibility’, which is a key term in David Cameron’s philosophical outlook and informs the thinking behind the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ idea in their manifesto, makes only one appearance throughout the entire document – to say nothing of ‘Big Society’ itself, which indeed is not mentioned at all. Does this mean that the thing that both parties had to sacrifice in order reach a deal was their whole social vision, as such? And are we no longer being invited to “participate in the government of Britain”, as the Conservatives’ manifesto put it?

Given the almost total absence of words reflecting popular, participative democracy (including ‘democrat’ / ‘democracy’ itself, which occurs only in the context of ‘Liberal Democrat’), it seems as though that invitation, having been turned down by the electorate, has now been withdrawn. Indeed, the coalition statement is full of terms relating to the nitty-gritty work of government, which, it seems, is to be regarded as very much the province of the ‘government’ (17 appearances) and ‘Parliament’ (13) alone. ‘Programmes’ (nine mentions), ‘power(s)’ (eight), ‘system(s)’ (eight) and ‘law’ / ‘legislation’ (seven) are other favourite phrases.

Another major set of key words connote ‘positive action’ and engagement, including ‘propose’ / ‘proposal’ (17), ‘commission’ / ‘commit’ / ‘committee’ (15), ‘increase’ (13) and ‘provide’ / ‘provision’ (11). The government has its ‘plan’ (seven mentions) and is getting on with it: it is the role of the government and politicians to govern, and that of the public to be governed, evidently. No change (one appearance, as in ‘Climate Change’) there, then, despite the fact that both parties campaigned on the basis that they would bring real change. Back to business as usual.

Except, what is the purpose of all this business of government; and who is this preoccupation with business – the economy – actually for? The coalition statement fails to articulate any social vision (i.e. what kind of society ‘we’ wish to create alongside a revived economy); nor does it express any clear concept of the country it is supposedly there to serve. Indeed, amazingly, the word ‘country’ appears only once in the statement (“our country’s security”) despite the fact that when the coalition was being negotiated and drawn up, the politicians involved endlessly referred to ‘the country’ and the ‘national interest’; and despite the predilection of our leaders for saying ‘this country’ in order to avoid being specific about which country (England, Britain, the UK) they’re talking about.

In fact, in the coalition policy statement, the politicians avoid being specific about the country they’re supposed to be governing by making virtually no reference to any of the countries involved, including – again, amazingly – ‘Britain’ (only six mentions), the ‘United Kingdom’ (two) and the ‘UK’ (two). Now that is real change compared to the Brito-mania of Cameron’s predecessor! But don’t get too excited, because ‘England’ enjoys only two name checks, both in the context of the Tories’ favourite topic, the economy (‘Bank of England’ x 2).

All of this could lead one to suppose that those who composed the statement are interested only in governing – almost, as it were, for its own sake – and not in the nation or nations they’ll be governing. ‘Nation’ / ‘national’ is referenced on ten occasions: three times in the context of the economy (‘National Insurance’ and ‘nationalised banks’); twice in connection with the stand-off towards the EU (‘nations of Europe’ and ‘national interests’); once in relation to civil liberties (‘National Identity Register’); and four times with reference to energy policy and infrastructure (‘national recharging network’ and ‘national planning’).

Nowhere, however, is ‘nation’ invoked in relation to any of the traditional nations of the UK as ‘communities’ (three mentions) with their own distinct identities, cultures and political life. Admittedly, ‘Scotland’ is implied, but not mentioned by name, in the commitment to implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission; and the extension of Welsh devolution is also covered in half a sentence. But the authors of the statement can’t even bring themselves to explicitly say ‘England’ when they refer enigmatically to their plan for a “commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question'” [their inverted commas, almost suggesting they don’t regard it as a real issue]. No reference to dealing with the ‘English Question’, then, which the Lib Dems’ manifesto pledged to tackle as part of a convention to draw up a written constitution for the UK. Indeed, no reference to such a convention at all!

One can only conclude that the coalition has no serious intention of addressing the West Lothian Question, let alone the English Question, preferring to knock them both into the five-year-long grass of their fixed-term deal. But over and above such England-centric considerations, what does the almost total absence of a national, even a British-national, dimension to the coalition’s Tory-blueprint for government actually signify? Am I right to detect the Lib Dem influence as being there, in the disregard of nationhood as an integral or even just an important component of politics, government and culture?

In fact, this disregard for nationhood, and specifically English nationhood, is something the Lib Dems and the Tories really do seem to have in common if their manifestoes are anything to go by, as they both advocated radical devolution of power within England rather than to England. As I argued previously, the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ vision even implied in extremis a radical dismantling of the English public sector itself in favour of disparate interest groups and communities. And this is one thing that the coalition policy announcement does reaffirm: “The parties will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. This will include a full review of local government finance.”

The ‘local government’ bit betrays the Lib Dems’ influence; if the Tories had it all their own way, this would have just read ‘local community groups’ or words to that effect. At least, there will be some sort of democratically accountable public sector within England, albeit not at the national level. Indeed, what is the ‘national level’ for the new coalition? It’s certainly not England (nor is it Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland), for which they did not seek and so did not receive a mandate at the election, and which they’re washing their hands of by conveniently handing over responsibility for spending cuts (‘financial autonomy’) to local authorities. For the new government, the national level means the macro-economy, international affairs (Britain versus Europe), defence and security, including energy security and the nuclear options of both the Trident and power-generation flavours. Reserved matters, in short.

That’s it, really; and that’s all of any substance that the coalition statement talks about. And let’s face it, that’s all the government has a genuine mandate of any sort to deal with. I suppose there’ll be more details about policies for education and ‘health’ (three mentions) in due course, and no doubt, the references to ‘Britain’ will multiply at that point, even though it’s England only they’ll be talking about. But not even to have attempted to outline any sort of social vision for ‘the nation’ in this, the initial policy statement of a historic coalition government, is surely wholly inadequate and worthy of blame.

After all, who or what is government for? Certainly, on this analysis at least, not for the people of England.

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