Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

26 May 2008

English Nationalism and Progressive Politics

For me, ‘progressive’ is something of a dirty word. I associate it with the arrogance of the left – particularly, in the British context, of the Labour Party – and of some secular liberals, who seem to divide the world into the rational, modern, ‘progressive’ sheep to the left, and the ideologically reactionary and psychologically ‘regressive’, (religious-)conservative ‘goats’ to the right. Traditionally, however, on Judgement Day – or, as we might put it, ‘in the final analysis’ – it’s the goats on the left that are damned.

New Labour is now facing up to its own impending Judgement Day, at the next general election. Of course, it’s already had to endure three minor tribunals (the recent local elections, the London mayoral vote, and Crewe and Nantwich) where the electorate has damned it for its ineptitude, its arrogance and its lack of a vision for ‘the country’. And, we may ask, which country?

Of course, it’s predominantly the English electorate that has delivered the recent swings towards the Conservatives; not the Welsh (also polled in the local elections) and certainly not the Scots, where the Tories remain as weak a political force as ever. Is there a connection between this growing rejection of New Labour by the English and the fact that, in the PM’s recent statement concerning the government bills to be brought to parliament in the autumn term, the most systematic parts of the Governance of Britain agenda – the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, the Statement of British Values, and a possible British Constitution – were quietly put on hold?

One wonders what New Labour’s focus groups and private opinion polls have been revealing about the English public’s attitude to the Britishness crusade. Doubtless, people have been saying, ‘stop hammering on about what it means to be British and get on with the real job, particularly sorting out the problems with the economy’. A very pragmatic response, indeed, to the rather un-English attempts to systematise Britishness and even to establish a new integral Nation of Britain.

But the growing electoral favour enjoyed by David Cameron’s Conservatives (or shall we just call them the New Tories?) does not equate to a groundswell of support for English nationalism, as such; nor are the Conservatives the obvious choice for the majority of English people who favour some form of England-specific governance, ranging from an English Grand Committee to full independence. The Conservative Party is of course opposed to an English parliament and will probably abandon its as yet equivocal support for some variant of the EGC idea if it feels it can win a large outright majority. As the argument goes, since such a majority would be based entirely on the choices of voters in England – as distorted by the first-past-the-post electoral system – there would be no point in having a separate EGC for England-only bills, as the Tory majority in the EGC would simply be replicating that in the UK parliament as a whole. But would the Tory government’s legislative and policy programme constitute a new – let alone progressive – agenda for England?

Everyone wants to be progressive these days, even the New Tories. Indeed, in a recent article in The Independent, David Cameron affirmed that “it is the Conservative Party that is the champion of progressive ideals in Britain today”. The three main examples of Conservative progressivism Cameron provided were the commitment to eliminate poverty in Britain, environmental sustainability, and equality of opportunity / social mobility, which was described as “the most fundamental progressive ideal of all”. The mechanisms that the Tories would apply to realise these objectives were essentially those of the market, along with targeted increases in support to social services and charities working with the most vulnerable. These were contrasted to the “old-fashioned mechanisms of top-down state control” supposedly favoured by New Labour. In other words, David Cameron was unmistakably positioning the Tories as the party that would actually deliver on the New Labour agenda of market-driven economic and social reform, in contrast to GB [Gordon Brown], who had ‘conservatively’ resorted to his Old Labour statist instincts.

So in fact, the ‘new progressive’ politics of David Cameron’s Conservatives are just New Labour Mark II: he’s playing out the same old Conservative political narrative as Tony Blair himself, in which it is now the Tories, not New Labour, who have the innovative, flexible and market-orientated solutions to lift people out of poverty, to motivate individuals to improve their lives, to promote social cohesion, and to create wealth in an environmentally sustainable way. This is the same paradigm as New Labour: social-market economics or, in other words, Thatcherite economics as the instrument for achieving progressive social objectives, primarily because the market serves as the model for society itself. The more society is transformed into an efficiently functioning market, so the thinking goes, the more the needs of society will be addressed by the market and people’s lives will be improved by their enhanced participation in the market, i.e. through becoming ever more effective agents in the world of buying and selling, as employees and consumers.

David Cameron’s formula injects a modest degree of One Nation Conservatism back into the mix, in terms of stressing the importance of government concern for, and effective measures to support, the most vulnerable in society. But the message is essentially the same: greater social justice and improved economic efficiency are interdependent objectives, and addressing social problems is about enabling everyone to become economically productive individuals and social units – able both to create and capitalise on opportunity, and to lift up their own lives, without the economic inefficiency and social dependency of a bloated public sector. So Cameron talks of “paying couples to live together rather than apart” (economic incentive to engineer social result – what about the only recent Tory re-emphasis on marriage, which now appears to have been dropped?); “plans for radical welfare reform to help people move from long-term poverty to long-term employment” (difference from New Labour or Thatcherism? Cutting / re-structuring benefits to give people more incentive to work and so alleviate poverty); the green revolution driven by “markets and incentives for dynamic industrial change, rather than centre-left approaches such as bureaucracy and regulation”; and “radical school reform, bringing the best education to the poorest children by opening up the state system to new providers” (avowedly Blairite opening up of the education system to market mechanisms); etc.

So, David Cameron’s New Toryism in fact comprises a very tired set of arguably failed political mantras, and ultimately rests on an idea that (Britain’s) social problems can be addressed and remedied, in the first instance, through market mechanisms designed to stimulate economic growth. In this, it is not just the inheritor of New Labour, and by extension Thatcherism, but also in fact of Old Labour, which was economic and materialist in its thinking about social engineering, albeit that the formula was fundamentally different. Does this point to what is ultimately meant by progressive politics: a politics of how to improve society, where the model for that improvement is provided primarily by ideas of economic, technological and material ‘progress’? In this sense, the Tories are indeed true progressives: they worship the same Idols of wealth, power and human technology, and marvel at the social depredations caused by the greed, selfishness and lust for more that these unleash.

And another way in which the New Tories represent very much the same old politics is in their Britain-centric thinking. All the policy ideas are stated as relating to ‘Britain’, not England, even though those relating to education, the environment, and work with local-community organisations of every type, aimed at tackling distinctive local socio-economic problems, would mostly involve the government in its England-only aspects – policy in these areas for Scotland and Wales having been made the responsibility of the devolved administrations in those countries. Is it really possible, in the post-devolution world, to advocate a progressive politics for the whole of Britain when so many of the traditional levers for delivering that social agenda (education, health, housing, transport, communities and local government) have been devolved? The main political parties sidestep this problem by continuing to pretend that their remit in these areas is UK-wide, which they do by continually referring to ‘Britain’ and ‘this country’, and suppressing all mention of ‘England’ even when – or particularly when – they’re referring to England alone.

So to the intellectual poverty of the parties’ socio-economic prescriptions one has to add the political dishonesty of denying that the progressive agenda for Britain – insofar as it is thought of as being delivered by Westminster – is mainly a progressive agenda for England; the better to justify the participation of Scottish and Welsh Labour voters and MPs in deciding on laws and policies for England they are not directly affected by; or, under Cameron, to disguise the fact that a Tory government will have no mandate for Scotland or Wales – or even, really, for England, where it is unlikely to obtain an actual majority of the popular vote.

Can a government really be said to care for the people if it cannot even acknowledge them by name and affirm them for what they are: the people of England and not of Britain as a whole? And that means acknowledging English life and society as it really is: in many respects, profoundly broken and damaged; but also having many enduring, positive characteristics that can provide the basis for restoring civic pride and re-building shattered communities. Reaffirming English culture and identity as good and valuable in themselves, and rallying people around the idea that there is a whole ‘new’ nation – that of England – to be built, could provide a massive stimulus to re-engaging people in participative democracy at both local and national level, so long as voters’ actual intentions are reflected in election results and there is real accountability of politicians to the people at every level at which power is exercised. In short, we need political reform, giving the chance for the English people to vote on alternative ways forward for ‘their’ nation (England), before we can get any real momentum behind a new progressive agenda – as one could then begin to address the questions of who the progress is for, and who defines what constitutes progressive change in England.

How might this new English progressive agenda shape up? This is obviously a huge question. But it seems to me that the beginning of an answer to it could be found by definitively ‘breaking the mould’ – to coin a phrase – of the old assumptions and tribal loyalties associated with the ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’, while at the same time re-focusing and combining the best elements in the traditions of the left and of the middle of English-British politics towards addressing England’s real social problems. This involves making the social objectives paramount, and reforming the economy and politics in order to achieve those objectives most effectively: the objectives being to give individuals and communities more of a sense that they have a real stake in shaping their future, and can create sustainable economic activities and social infrastructure; in part because the purpose of business itself is redefined as being much more to do with creating and sustaining valued communities rather than providing increasingly insecure, and merely economic, value for isolated individuals (whether employees or shareholders) and for ‘the country’.

But such a programme is unrealistic without a significant transformation in the attitudes and expectations of people for their lives in general – moving away from placing value on material, technological and individual-economic progress for their own sake, and towards seeing progress in different terms: those of quality of life, not quantity of assets; of real, supportive and safe communities; sustainable production and consumption, not material excess; and technology harnessed towards the creation of an environmentally more sustainable way of life that needn’t discard all the positive benefits of our technological lifestyle in terms of comfort, health and a more enjoyable life. A better England, reflecting the priorities and addressing the needs of the people of England; and not a mad, economic growth-obsessed, and unsustainably globalising Britain whose economic success under New Labour – as we now realise – was built on the unsteady foundation of insane property prices and overactive global credit markets. Unrealistic? Well, maybe this sort of adjustment of our expectations will be forced upon us anyway through the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Better to plan ahead for, and make the most of, the wide-ranging changes that will have to happen in any case; and better that those who are doing this planning are people who care about England and her people, and are answerable to them.

The tables below illustrate my take on how the new progressive politics could re-state the old polarities of right and left. The first table shows how New Labour colonised not just the traditional centre of British politics but also classical or Thatcherite Conservative policies in the areas of society, the economy and international affairs; so much so that it has been impossible for the Tories to articulate any sort of credible position in these areas. The colour coding indicates which party has occupied the traditional left, centre and right positions in a number of areas during the majority of the New Labour period in power:

Angle Left Centre Right
Society Egalitarian, collectivist; working class: socialist Equality of opportunity, redistributive; middle class, aspirational: social democratic Hierarchical, individualist; upper(-middle) class, privilege: Tory
Economy Public ownership, command-based (‘needs-orientated’): socialist Regulated free markets, ‘social model’: social democratic Private ownership, demand-driven (market-orientated): ‘economic liberalism’, Thatcherism
Politics Statist, centralist, popular-unionist, ‘sovereignty of the people’, republican: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour Regionalist, localist, community-focused; small-scale, participative democracy: Liberal Anti-state, ‘centrifugal’, unionist-nationalist, ‘sovereignty of the individual’, monarchist: Tory
Philosophy, ideology Secular, rationalist, materialist, progressive, liberal; Western Enlightenment tradition: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour Pluralist, tolerant, consensus; libertarian, humanitarian, human rights-focused; Western Enlightenment tradition: Liberal Traditionalist, morally / socially conservative; (Anglican) establishment Christianity: Tory
International outlook Internationalist, solidarity / fraternity; ‘inclusive mono-culturalism’: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour A-national, universal; ‘exclusive multi-culturalism’: liberal Globalist, capitalist; imperialist mono-culturalism: Tory

David Cameron is clearly trying to re-occupy the centre ground for the Conservatives, particularly in the areas of society and politics as outlined in the above table. However, at the same time, this involves reaffirming Tory market economics – traditionally, a right-wing position – which was also colonised by New Labour. By emphasising the ‘soft’ social dimension of Tory policies (addressing the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, creating greater opportunity and social mobility, environmental sustainability), Cameron is distracting attention from the fact that the basic mechanism he has in mind for achieving these goals is good old-fashioned market economics: Blair II (or Thatcher III, if Blair is seen as Thatcher II).

If this form of economy-centric approach to social re-engineering is rejected as a progressive position in favour of making economic activity the servant of social objectives – as opposed to ransoming society to a growth-obsessed economy – then one can begin to see the parameters of a new progressive politics that could affirm and redefine the goals of the best of the traditional left and centre, while repudiating the more traditionally right-wing aspects of Conservatism and New Labour, such as dogmatic market economics, unchecked globalisation, and ignoring the needs and priorities of the English working and middle classes. The table below illustrates how this new progressive alignment might shape up:

Angle Progressive Left Progressive Centre Old Tory
Society Working class; social justice Middle class, Middle England; opportunity, fairness, social responsibility Upper(-middle) class and the very wealthy; ‘selfish’ individualism and corporate greed; privilege
Economy Economic pragmatism: best ownership structures to ensure sustainable delivery of social objectives; ‘social enterprise’ culture: successful businesses, serving social needs; some services back to public ownership? Economic diversity: multiplicity of public-private cross-overs; local / social enterprises meeting community needs; small business Private enterprise, exclusively demand-driven (market-orientated); big business; global capital
Politics Popular nationalism: celebration and promotion of English culture, people, traditions, history; sovereignty of the English people; pan-British federalism / co-operation; importance of cohesive but also ethnically / culturally / internationally inclusive, open English nation (or nation state) Localism-regionalism: strong, constitutionally safeguarded commitment to powerful representative local-regional democracy; citizens’ rights Unitary unionism / British nationalism; anti-state, anti-English-nationalist tendencies (individualist, global-capitalist)
Philosophy, ideology Secular, rationalist, materialist, progressive, liberal; Western Enlightenment tradition Pluralist, tolerant, consensus; libertarian, humanitarian, human rights-focused; Western Enlightenment tradition; Christian / respect for all faiths Increasingly anachronistic, unrealistic, mono-cultural traditionalism / Christian-social-moral conservatism
International outlook Internationalist, solidarity / fraternity; new ‘English multi-culturalism’; co-operation and participation in international bodies where in the national English interest Focus on global sustainable development, alleviating world poverty / disease, world environment challenges, justice / human rights: ‘one-world’ culture Globalist, capitalist; imperialist; Western-centric mono-culturalism

The Tories’ present appeal is too dependent on developing a narrative that they will safeguard economic prosperity to develop a radical progressive agenda that could easily occupy even the centre ground of progressive politics, as outlined in the above table. And they are certainly too wedded to the unionist ideal to articulate anything approximating to popular English nationalism, which does, on the other hand, have considerable appeal among the working- and middle-class sections of the population that represent the natural constituency for the left and centre of English politics.

English people will be re-engaged by politics when they can see ambitious but also grounded, realistic policies for addressing the terrible social problems that exist in England, which are the legacy of the failures of both the welfare state and Thatcherite market economics. This would indeed be a new progressive agenda, but it would have to do two things: make flourishing economic activity and enterprise, critical though they are, the servant of social needs and communities, and not the other way round; and, to some extent, put England and the English first – while by no means forgetting our international partnerships and responsibilities, and above all those to the poor and oppressed throughout the world. Which means two long-term habits of progressive thinking will need to be abandoned: making economic growth and success, measured in purely GDP terms, the motor and definition of social progress; and making Britain the focus of all policy, when that Britain no longer exists and may well disappear altogether under a Cameron government that will be intensely unpopular in Scotland.

Then maybe the Last Judgement on the progressives will not be as harsh as might be feared, and the terrible dichotomies of left and right will fade away – but only if self-professed progressives learn to put real people and nations before the global gods of power and money.

3 May 2008

Cameron will win: it’s a generation game

I’ve been privately participating in the fever of speculation there’s been over the past few days – particularly since Labour’s local election debacle on Thursday – as to whether the tide of political fortunes has now turned back in the Tories’ favour, meaning they’ll win the next general election. Initially, I was sceptical about David Cameron’s prospects, as the Tories’ resurgence seems to be dependent more on people rejecting New Labour and Gordon Brown [GB] than on support for the Conservatives’ programme – whatever that might turn out to be. However, after the local election results, which saw Labour drop to third position on share of the votes behind the Liberal Democrats, and a consistent nationwide swing towards the Tories, I feel that, maybe, Cameron could just pull it off at the general election, which will take place probably in 2010.

Thinking about it further, there’s another reason why I think Cameron will win. This is my theory of generational evolution of society, or, putting it more simply, the way social changes are influenced by successive generations. I’m sure professional sociologists have developed a more scientific version of this idea, presumably with a technical name to boot; so I’m pretty sure this is not an ‘original’ theory, if such a thing exists in any absolute sense. However, if it is, I hereby dub it the ‘political generation game theory’, on the analogy of the amateur contestants of the immortal Bruce’s show who had to imitate the dazzling skills of professionals of one sort or another.

What the idea is, in essence, is that particular periods of a nation’s history – often defined or named in relation to the dominant political personality associated with it – have a character that is determined to a large extent as a function of the periods that immediately preceded them and the period before that. More precisely, each period is a reaction to the one before, which draws its inspiration in large part from the period before that. And it does this because the people who are most influential in shaping the character of any given age – the political, business and media opinion formers and decision makers – spent their most formative years (say, between the ages of about 10 and 19) in the period preceding the period in relation to which they are defining themselves.

An example: ‘the Blair years’ and New Labour were clearly in part a reaction to / against ‘Thatcherism’ and the period of ruthless market economics that is denoted by that term. And it was a reaction that represented in part a reprise of the social-democratic Labour that had been in power for much of the 1960s and 1970s, which was precisely the period in which the leaders in society during the Blair years spent their formative years. With the difference that the New Labour period was also a continuation of Thatcherism, which had in a sense laid the economic and political foundations for Blair’s social-democratic ‘redistributive capitalism’ to actually work – whereas the economic stagnation and political / union antagonisms of the 1970s had thwarted Labour’s ambitions to create a successful, prosperous welfare state. So what we got under Blair was a new blend of social democracy and market economics: social-market economics; equality of opportunity mutating into ‘equality of market opportunity’: the goal of government being to free up people to participate more fully in, and reap the rewards from, the market society (society as a market).

Similarly, you could say that Thatcherism itself was a reaction against the whole political and social model of the Wilson and Callaghan years: initially, the idealistic 1960s, with the vision of a socially and morally freer and more equal world, underpinned by economic prosperity and technological developments that enabled people to have a bloody good time, and enjoy hitherto only dreamt-of material and physical pleasures; later, collapsing into the cynicism and recriminations of the 1970s as the downward economic cycle and spiralling inflation caused industries to collapse, and engendered strife in the workplace, on the football terraces and in the inner cities as people sought scapegoats for the fact that living the good life was increasingly unrealistic.

The Thatcherite reaction to all that was indeed a reinstatement of the Tory values from the 1950s, when many of the leaders of the 1980s were in their ‘tens’ (aged 10 to 19): the individual standing on their own two feet and creating prosperity through their own hard work and enterprise – rather than just expecting a good standard of living to be handed to them effortlessly on a plate by their employer or the state. And yet, Thatcherism also carried forward much of the ethos and attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s: the anti-union and anti-industrial-working-class antagonisms on the part of the Thatcher government were in a sense the continuation of the 1970s industrial unrest, with the difference that Thatcher took on and saw off the unions, whereas Callaghan tried to instil reason in them through comradely beer and sandwiches at No. 10. Similarly, the materialistic individualism and hedonism of the ‘I’ve-got-money’ 1980s was a continuation, in the selfish-capitalist Thatcherite mode, of the increasingly cynical, materialistic direction that originally idealistic 1960s explorations of self-fulfilment and sexual freedom had followed in the 1970s.

So what of David Cameron, then? Are we about to enter into the ‘Cameronite’ reaction against Blairism and its feeble successor / continuation that is GB; just as the ineffectual Major saw out the dying phase of the Thatcherite period, and Callaghan stood watch over the waning of the initially optimistic Wilson Labour years – all prime ministers that took over mid-term from leaders that had really set the political tone for a whole period, but whose increasing unpopularity was a sign, perhaps, that one period was on its way out and the new epoch was about to begin?

If so, then a putative Cameron era, following my theory, should be both a continuation of some aspects of the preceding period (the Blair / Brown epoch), and a harking back to and blend of some aspects of the period before that, during which the leaders of the new age were growing up – which, in the case of Cameron’s relatively youthful team, was mainly the Thatcher years. Incidentally, the fact that it is now being said that people are no longer ‘scared’ of the Tories, for all Cameron’s charm, probably owes more to the fact that the people in the worlds of politics, business and the media who are, as it were, ‘of the same age’ as Cameron (or younger, as are many in his team) and are preparing his coronation grew up under Thatcher and would have regarded her attitudes and politics as normal, not as a grim assault on so much that my generation (growing up in the 1970s: the latter end of the ‘Blair generation’) held dear.

But we’ve already had the Thatcher ‘revival’: that was Tony Blair – Thatcherism with a socially caring face. And that’s part of the problem faced by David Cameron’s Conservatives (the ‘New Tories’ in all but name): they want to be ‘Conservatism with a caring face’ but Blair has already done that. So perhaps they’ll just have to reverse the paradigm and become ‘a caring society with a Thatcherite face’, perhaps?

The difference between these two terms can perhaps best be illustrated by the ambiguity of the ‘tag line’ – as the marketing bods might put it – for Cameron’s party philosophy: ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’. ‘Modern’ and ‘compassionate’: here are two words that could have been plucked straight from Blair’s vocabulary; and they sit comfortably – naturally almost – alongside ‘Conservatism’. Indeed, Conservatism has always been associated with the idea of compassion (of the wealthy) for the poor, and with social, philanthropic responsibility towards them. So this conveys the idea of classic, one-nation Conservatism (the Conservatism before Thatcher) – which in one sense was the space in the political spectrum that Blairism inhabited – but modernised in keeping with the challenges of today.

On the other hand, if you just insert a comma into the phrase, as follows – ‘modern, compassionate Conservatism’ – it changes the whole meaning. Syntactically, ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’ suggests a ‘compassionate Conservatism – single concept: one-nation conservatism – that is modern’. ‘Modern, compassionate Conservatism’, on the other hand, implies a ‘modern Conservatism, one of whose distinguishing features is that it is also compassionate’; in contradistinction to a previous form of Conservatism – Thatcherism – that is perceived as having lacked compassion. But by implication, this could suggest that the modern, compassionate Conservatism is also an updated, more compassionate version of Thatcherism itself. So this tag line is appealing to all three strands: modern, ‘Blairite’ care and compassion for the poor and disadvantaged in society (in keeping with the traditions of one-nation Conservatism) that also draws on all that was ‘good’ about Thatcherite Conservatism – its effectiveness, leadership qualities, appeal to English-British people’s distrust of state interference and ‘nannying’, and their wish to provide the best for themselves and their families, using their own skills and hard work, whether in material comforts, housing, health or education.

This in essence is the appeal of Cameron. On the one hand, he’s Blair Plus: embodying all that’s ‘good’ about Blair (the concern to alleviate society’s ills), but if anything pushed even further. Instead of Blair’s reform agenda, which in essence was economic reform (instilling market principles into the public services), we have a social reform policy. Instead of merely tinkering with the benefits system, attempting to provide more efficient public services and carrying out a bit of inner-city regeneration, Cameron’s Conservatives have set out their stall as a party that’s really trying to get to the bottom of what has caused the collapse of stable, responsible society in so many of our cities, and have so far come up with a rather traditional Conservative answer: that it’s about the break-down of the two-parent family, the absence of father figures, and the lack of discipline at school and in the home. And what is seen as being absent in such social contexts are the very values that Cameron is trying, in more neo-Thatcherite mode, to invoke as being at the heart of his political programme: individual and collective responsibility for making things better, rather than relying on central targets and the nanny state to deliver the improvements.

The initial outline of the vision that we were given at the Tory party conference last autumn suggested that one of the forms this new affirmation of the Thatcherite principles of personal moral responsibility for improving the things that matter to you in life could take was that of ‘local privatisation’: rolling back the frontiers of government and public-sector ownership and control not just at a national level but at the local level where people are users – ‘consumers’ – of services. So, for instance, rather than the Blairite approach of setting out a single blueprint for introducing market principles into schools and hospitals, which often meant putting them directly or indirectly in the hands of major corporate enterprises, the Cameron policy could well involve local people themselves taking managerial responsibility for their schools and hospitals – whether in the form of continuing public ownership of some sort (for instance, through trusts), or by actually establishing new schools (or taking over existing ones?) as businesses in which local people could take out shares and which would genuinely have to compete for private and public funding – while service levels were guaranteed, perhaps, through some form of charter and contractual agreement with local authorities.

To some extent, the finer details of this are just speculation, as the Conservatives have yet to outline their specific policies. But it’s informed speculation based on Tory statements, and reports into things like the family and the problems of the inner cities they’ve already produced; but also based on this generational theory of mine: that the Tories have this dual motivation to carry out the social-market agenda of Tony Blair more effectively and profoundly, and to do so in a way that resurrects the best principles of the Thatcherism they grew up under. This involves the idea of empowering and motivating ordinary individuals and communities to take responsibility for improving their lives by giving them a stake and a real say in the things that are most important to them. I think that however these fundamentals of ‘Cameronism’ are translated into tangible policy, they will help the Tories to win the next election because the people who are most influential in shaping public opinion were formed under Thatcher and want to see a return to her values of self-reliance and of the public taking private ownership of, literally, their own public services.

Looking at the massive nationwide swing to the Tories in this week’s local elections, the psephologists have come out with their usual meaningless predictions about how a general election would turn out on the same shares of the vote: a Tory landslide, with a possible 150-seat majority. What if this did happen, though? Would this mean, as Anthony Barnett of the OurKingdom blog put it, that “any democratic reform agenda is now in jeopardy”? The point is, if Cameron did win a comfortable outright parliamentary majority, he could – and probably would – ignore all the widespread support and calls for constitutional and institutional reform, such as a more accountable parliament (better still an English parliament), reform of the House of Lords, PR, a genuine bill of rights that protects civil liberties, and even an English Grand Committee to discuss England-only bills (why bother if the Tories have a majority both of English and UK-wide MPs?). Cameron might be a social and economic reformer at local level, but at national political level, it would not be in the perceived interests of his government or his party to do a single thing.

Cameron is no more interested in addressing the English Question, nor even in uttering the word ‘England’, than is GB. When Cameron talks of ‘our nation’, he means ‘Britain’ not England, even if the policies that are being discussed relate to England alone. Indeed, he has gone on record, in a Telegraph interview a few months back, as saying he’s not interested in being a PM for England – even though that’s what he effectively will be in most of his domestic agenda. And there seems little difference in the Tories’ description of their ‘responsibility agenda’ below from Brown’s emphasis on Britishness and his bringing together of the formulation of citizens’ rights with prescriptions about, and enforcement of, their responsibilities: “To make the most of the new world of freedom, we need to strengthen the structures which bring stability and a sense of belonging: home, neighbourhood and nation. Our Responsibility Agenda will therefore include Green Papers on welfare reform, health, marriage and relationships, addiction and debt, responsible business, social care, cohesion, and National Citizenship Service” (my emphases).

Like I said, the Cameron era will in many respects be a continuation of the Blair / Brown period. And it seems that the efforts to articulate, formalise and impose prescriptive definitions of (British) national identity and citizenship / responsibilities will be part of the baggage that is carried forward. I suppose that that’s also part of the Conservative unionist tradition and the British-nationalist Thatcherite legacy that the Cameron era will reaffirm; so there’s a ‘natural fit’ there between Brown’s wrapping of himself in the Union Flag and the New Conservatives.

There’s no doubt that the Conservative values, and the generational swing back to them, that Cameron appeals to are also in many respects English values: self-reliance, freedom from government interference, private ownership and enterprise, social responsibility and neighbourliness, and fairness towards the ‘poorest’ in society – as the Conservatives’ website continually refers, somewhat patronisingly, to the working class. And, in this respect, if English voters are largely responsible for electing a Conservative government with a large majority next time, then they can hardly complain when that government ignores the demand for an English parliament – except, of course, that government won’t have been elected by a majority of English voters; and if none of the major parties are even vaguely talking about the possibility of an English parliament, then the English people aren’t being offered the chance of voting for one.

This raises the possibility that the best hope for representative democratic English governance, accountable to the people of England, could again come from Scotland. Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales are unlikely to swing towards Cameron’s Conservatives to the same extent as the English. This could mean an increasing polarisation between ‘Tory England’, and nationalist and Labour Scotland and Wales, potentially resulting in growing antagonism and political divergence between England and the rest of the UK. Together with pressure in England to reduce the Barnett differentials (the formula guaranteeing Scotland and Wales a higher per capita level of public expenditure than the English), this could really give the Scottish-nationalist cause a massive shot in the arm. And, who knows, there might yet be a Scottish referendum that would say ‘yes’ to independence.

Cameron’s Conservatives, by continuing Brown’s Britishness crusade, might well yet set the seal on the Union’s demise. In which case perhaps, in ten years’ time, we might all be saying, along with Bruce (the English one, that is), “didn’t they do well?”

15 March 2008

The English Subject: Time To Change It?

You know how it goes: sex, politics, money and religion – not things one talks about in polite society, at least not in England. Let’s change the subject, dear. England has arguably joined this list; and perhaps it was ever thus – England is not the kind of thing we English like to make too much of a fuss about, especially when we had a worldwide Empire to rule. We’ll just let the more abrasive, vulgar, bourgeois Britain be the vehicle through which we talk politics and get on with the unseemly business of earning our living. And that way, in the discreet seclusion of our castles, we can quietly enjoy our English freedoms and privacy – we don’t have to talk about it as well!

Somehow, that tact and reserve has percolated through history to the cappuccino class of today. It’s slightly embarrassing and vulgar to go on about England in the dinner parties of the chattering classes. But now the balance has shifted a bit: it’s Englishness not Britishness that’s just a tad common! But how much, fundamentally, has changed? It’s just that the always British bourgeoisie now holds the reins of power and its language has become the dominant discourse. And the class that’s in power always thinks that power is not class-based, as if power has come to it as a natural consequence of its talents and merits. And so ‘British values’ speak of and to a class-less society, don’t you know; whereas it’s ever so ignorant and working class to hammer on about little old England – or else, such talk harks back to the feudal values of baronial and aristocratic privilege.

But just as with the ruling aristocracy of old, Englishness is still the dirty little secret of the liberal middle classes to which they do not own up in civilised company – whereas, in the more enlightened modern British times in which we live, talk about sex, politics and money is now politically and socially OK (so long as you don’t take them too seriously); but definitely not religion, oh no. We’re English, you know; you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

But what is the English subject? Or should that be who? Is there such a thing, or person, as an English subject in an era when our leaders would have us all pledging our allegiance to Her Britannic Majesty: British subjects or British citizens? Or English persons subjected to British citizenship in a humiliating ritual of submission? Perhaps that’s what an English subject is: someone whose citizenship in their own country is subject to (conditional upon) their acceptance of the ‘rules’ and ‘duties’ of Britishness. Is that the reason why so many of us are embarrassed to talk up our Englishness: we feel too unworthy, little and diffident to assert ourselves as a nation in our own right; whereas the aggressive mask and language of Britishness gives us the apparatus of statehood and the confidence to rule?

But who is the ‘we’ who feel equipped to govern through the language and power structures of the British state? Who is the subject of rule: the subject who rules alongside those who are subject to that rule? Is this not, rather than the ‘royal we’ of Queen and Country, in fact the sovereign ‘we’: we the English people? The British state is the means through which we the English exercise our democratic power. Or at least it was: this identification of the English with the British state has now been greatly eroded for reasons frequently discussed throughout this blog and elsewhere – the break up, post-devolution, of the symbiotic relationship that existed in the minds of the English between England, the rest of the UK and the British state. And now the English subject – or the English subjectivity in the sense of psyche or consciousness – has been split in two: one part the anguished Englishman groping towards a new sense of identity and possibility of statehood; and one part the controlling Brit seeking to stuff the turbulent English genie back into the ale bottle from whence the wish for a new constitutional settlement had unwittingly released him.

Except, of course, these are not two persons or types of Englishman-Briton, but the two parts of the English subject, and subjectivity, that are seeking the way back to union. Because the subject (the I – indeed the eye – and the we) of government remains largely English. Just as the subjects of government – the people and issues that are governed – remain largely English. Central UK government, in other words, is still something carried out mainly by English people, with a London-centric English perspective, and involved with governing English matters on behalf of the English people. In many contexts, the only thing that’s British about it is the language (always refer to ‘Britain’ or ‘the country’, never ‘England’) and the institutional framework (officially, that of the UK government).

So English governance is still provided by English people through the medium of the UK state – it was ever thus. And the attitude towards the governance of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still reflects the perspective of the English subject in the driving seat of power, whether a particular aspect of governance is devolved or retained. I was struck by this the other day when reading through the government’s Climate Change Bill as part of my day job as a freelance technology-industry analyst. Occasionally, it makes reference to areas of environmental policy that are the responsibility of the devolved administrations: such and such a decision needs to be taken in partnership with the governments of Scotland and Wales, or this sort of emissions-monitoring report needs to be notified to those nations’ relevant bodies. And the reader thinks: well, everything in this bill refers to legislation and international undertakings by the United Kingdom government; but then, from atop the throne of British sovereignty, one occasionally looks down upon the bits subcontracted out to the governments in Scotland and Wales. So what does that make the perspective – the subjective viewpoint – of the UK government? It’s the perspective of English people who for centuries have been used to governing Scotland and Wales direct now having to acknowledge that bits of the process need to be handled by the natives themselves. That’s the subjectivity, the Englishness, of UK governance; even though, in objective terms – the formal language, the legal and political institutions, and the constitutional ‘personality’ of the state – it’s all British: not an ‘England’ or an ‘English’ in sight. This is because it’s England and the English that are doing the looking; it’s the English subject that’s inside the mind of the British state, not an object of its vision, which can be defined only in terms of Britishness.

Under this present government, this subjectively English concern to preserve the Britishness of the state has become blended with the dangerous catalyst, shall we say, of a certain Scottish-unionist wish both to preserve unitary British governance in the devolved nations, and to recast that Britishness as something that is no longer the expression of English dominance and the English subjectivity at the heart of the state. The only way, on this view, that a continuing Union can be reconciled with full equality between the nations of the UK (as opposed to traditional dominance of the other nations, through the British state, by England) is to invent a new unified single-British national identity and nation state in which the differences, and inequalities, between England and the other nations are finally, definitively, nullified. We become all, in the same way, British; and the English subject – the English subjectivity, consciousness and perspective – must become a British subject-citizen: taking on a new civic-national British identity, and forgetting England and Englishness. There will be no longer any English subject – no English mind and nationhood – and the objective-Britishness of the state, and of its official statements of national value and identity, will be the only truth and the only thing that matters. No English subjects, no English matters; only UK citizens and UK governance.

But it hasn’t come to that yet; and could it ever, really? The thing is, the Brownite Britishness project is predicated on a wish for the English subject not to exist that is so strong that it crosses over into a failure to see – through the objective-only focus of Brown’s style of British governance – that the English consciousness is still alive, if sick and divided, at the heart of the British state. English people are real, the English nation is real; English perspectives, priorities and ways of doing things exist – and how could they not be there right at the centre of government when that government is a work effected overwhelmingly by English people? That Englishness is not explicitly articulated in the workings of the British state; it’s not something that’s talked about in the formal, public discourse of politics and power – because up to now, we English have just not needed to govern in our own name and to bother about devising overtly English forms of statehood and civic identity: Britishness has done the job for us quite well enough, thank you – we don’t need to brag or rave like other more emotional peoples. We’re English, after all.

But not any more: Britishness is no longer ‘fit for purpose’, as the government might say. Devolution set not only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on a course separate, or semi-separate, from the UK but also England. We the English are still largely in denial of this, and the asymmetric devolution settlement is the expression of the continuing unwillingness or inability of so many English people – including English people in government – to accept the reality that the old unitary Britain is no more. And Brown has now come along and upped the ante to such an extent that he’s the made the choice between British governance and some form of English governance yet to be worked out equivalent to a choice of whether to be British-only (and not English) or to break up the Union. He’s the real criminal Union breaker here; because if the price of remaining citizens of a unitary Britain is to relinquish their Englishness, then this is a price that the massive majority of English people will refuse to pay, as soon as they realise what’s being asked of them.

So what’s the alternative to Brown’s Britishness; where can the British state, and the English subjectivity that is captive within it, go from here? Well, it needn’t go all that far, really; because, in some ways, we’re already at the destination if we could but see it. The British government is still the English government in all but name: government of the English by the English but articulated through the language and institutions of Britain. And the UK parliament has always been, and can be again, the English parliament: concerned overwhelmingly with English matters; and, in the retained UK-wide matters, dominated by the English perspective and English priorities – or, at least, by the priorities of a minority English political persuasion unfairly awarded the majority of seats.

So we could, if we wanted to, stay right where we are; and, with only the slightest tweaking of the system, we’d have our English government, our English parliament, and the ability, at last, to be proud to openly acknowledge and proclaim our Englishness. We just need to come to a moment of decision where we can pluck up the courage to make the English ‘we’ of government not just subjectively but objectively, officially and formally the subject of English political discourse, of English civic institutions and of a constitutional English nation. Those English ministries and English laws that express themselves in the oh-so-tactful and eloquent conventions of British legalese could then at last ‘say England’; that parliament, 85% of whose members and laws are for England only, could become in fact a parliament for England only. What would it take? No more than a translation into a logical, English expression of the existing status quo: let’s just call the Englishness of the British government by its name, and make it officially an English government, once and for all.

What would we do with the UK-wide areas of governance, though? What, that is, would we the English people now in control of our own governance do about the aspects of government responsibility for the whole of the UK that we the English had retained: through the British state that is still today the vehicle through which we hold on to control of the other nations of the UK. What I am suggesting is that maybe we’ve got the understanding of devolution the wrong way round. Because we’re fixated with the idea of the British state devolving power to the nations of the UK – including England one day, as many of us hope -we’ve failed to see the subjective truth of devolution, which is that it’s English power – articulated through the British state – that has been ‘lent’ back to the other nations. The shift in consciousness that I am advocating, whereby the English could wrest back power over English matters to themselves almost through little more than a coming to be conscious of the fact that they already do control their own affairs – in the alienating forms of Britishness – could enable us to see governance over the continuing Union (of whatever form) as something that we the English could devolve to a new federal UK body.

So not English devolution from the UK but devolution of UK matters from England. Not devolution from Britain resulting in a new English parliament and the necessity to recast the Union government into some federal mould; but a symbolic, and nonethless momentous, shift in our consciousness enabling us to see reflected in objective, institutional reality the subjective truth that the British state is already the work of the English nation. And then, devolution from the English nation of the responsibilities we have held for so long for the governance of Britain – and which have burdened us with a Britishness that has kept our English subjectivity suppressed – which can be transferred to a new UK body (if Scotland and Wales haven’t become independent by the time that happens) in which all the nations of the UK can indeed sit together as equals. The equality of different nations pooling their sovereignty together in the areas where it makes sense to do so; not the nullifying equality of Brown’s monolithic Britain predicated on the suppression of national differences.

Then, perhaps, it will be possible for the English subject to be talked about in polite society. Because we English really are very polite, you know; it’s just we’d grown tired of all the British abuse that we’d gone along with for so long.

6 March 2008

England: The Inconvenient Nation Blocking European Federation

England and the EU represent two fundamentally opposing traditions and philosophies. England is the historical and spiritual centre of the great Anglo-Saxon civilisation: ‘Anglo-Saxon’ not in the sense of our ancient forebears who gave England and several of its counties and regions their names, along with a much disputed portion of our genetic inheritance; but ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in the sense of the culture, mentality and way of life of the English and the countries of the English-speaking world, particularly our North American and Australian cousins. This is in fact how the French tend to use the word, often derogatorily.

The EU, on the other hand, is the present-day avatar of the European philosophical and political tradition that reaches back to the civilisations of the ancient world, particularly Greece and Rome. You could say that the EU is the inheritor of the Roman Empire, the ideal of which survived after the collapse of Ancient Rome, was carried forward through the civilisations and empires of Roman Catholic Europe (the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburgs, for instance) and was then reinvented as a secular imperialist project through the failed Napoleonic and Hitlerian attempts to establish their Europe-wide dominion. I’m not suggesting that the EU is remotely akin to its more recent predecessors in terms of its ideology or methods; but all three pan-European projects of the last three centuries have drawn on a common ideal of a united European civilisation transcending the barriers between individual nation states that had pretty much existed since the fall of Rome.

The ideological foundation of the EU could be described as European secular humanism, whose roots do indeed go back to the philosophers and republics of the ancient world, and have been enriched and deepened through the influence of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions that have contested the destiny of the continent. This involves certain fundamental, universal and ‘timeless’ values and principles that are by definition a-national or transnational: not the expression of any one national tradition but nonetheless thought of as part of a common European heritage, even though the principles themselves are believed to be applicable to all human societies in any time or place. These principles, as set out in the Treaty of Lisbon (and, strangely enough, the failed EU Constitution, too) make familiar reading:

“DRAWING INSPIRATION from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law”.

This list of universal-European values is identical to the lists of ‘British values’ we are for ever being regaled with. So are British values the same as European values; and in what way do English values differ from these apparently shared British and European values? Well, these things are more mixed and complex than my somewhat schematic framework here allows for; but I’m tempted to say that if European values are the product of the interaction of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and the secular-humanist tradition, then English values lie more on the side of faith – particularly, obviously, Christianity – while British values and, indeed, European values in their contemporary acception lie more to the secular-humanist end of the scale.

The distinctive Anglo-Saxon contribution to modern constitutional democracies has indeed been to integrate Christian faith with liberal-humanist ideologies and polities: the United Kingdom, in which the King or Queen of England is both head of state and head of the official Church, a situation which still applies today, making England, at least, officially a Christian country at the same time as a democratic, constitutional monarchy; the United States – a republic founded on the universal (European) principles of human rights but where integral to the founding documents and official ceremonial of the nation are unmistakable Christian elements, where presidents and the state are said to put their trust in God, and where the Republican Party is the party of the Christian right.

In the EU, on the other hand, the constitutions of the largest nations – at least those, interestingly enough, that formerly lay within the bounds of the Roman Empire – embody a separation between Church and State: they’re secular foundations, and the universal liberal-humanist principles on which they rest their claim to legitimacy are not conceived of as having any intrinsic or necessary rooting in Christian faith. Nor are they overtly linked to Christianity in the European Constitution-in-all-but-name, despite the reference to their partly ‘religious’ inspiration: note, ‘religious’ merely, not Christian.

I stated above that the founding European / British values, by virtue of their universal-European character, were a-national or transnational. I note in passing that the founding of the EU on these transnational values – the way it sees itself as the defender and representative of those values across the continent, resisting the break-down of them that happened in the past when individual nations asserted themselves at the expense of others – is the main reason why I believe that the EU is fundamentally a Euro-federalist project: pre-programmed to move inexorably towards an integrated European super-state; a polity that has transcended and definitively overthrown the frontiers separating the (former) nation states of Europe.

In the contemporary British context, these transnational values feed into one of the ways in which advocacy of ‘British values’ seeks to undermine or devalue the efforts to affirm England as a nation in its own right. In particular, they underpin GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] attempt to recast the whole British state in the unifying mould of a formal, constitutional statement of British Values, and the fundamental rights and responsibilities of citizenship they articulate, which then come to replace any of the contingent, nation-specific and culturally relative formulations of value that co-exist in Britain today: a new Nation of Britain as a sort of a-national, universal-European-type citizenry, rather than as a culturally, ethnically, geographically and historically specific collectivity – such as the English nation.

The other aspect of ‘British values’ and Britishness that is often said to have transcended and evolved beyond traditional, limited national identities is their internationalism and globalism. But I would say that these characteristics are where Britishness more keenly reflects the historical contribution of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. This internationalism is the result of England’s long history of political and commercial engagement with the wider world beyond Europe: through its seafaring adventurers and merchants, and subsequently of course the Empire, which was in reality the English Empire just as the British state was the proxy-English state – England being the real driving force behind state and empire, and the civilisation that was spread worldwide through the Empire being essentially the Anglo-Saxon one. The Anglo-Saxon culture places greater emphasis on the values of individual freedom and free trade – personal and national liberty – than on liberty and equality as social ideals to be striven towards through political struggle: lived out, pragmatic freedom, and equality as equality of opportunity, i.e. the freedom to create and exploit opportunity.

This value system is focused more on the individual because in its origins, and still for many today, it has at its heart the idea of individual moral responsibility towards God (or, in the more secular modern context, the moral responsibility towards oneself and others) to use one’s gifts and chances in life to the best effect, not only for one’s own self-advancement but also to create wealth and economic value for others who will benefit from the businesses and assets (social, financial and technological) created by enterprise and initiative, and from the social responsibility and philanthropy of those who’ve been fortunate enough (or blessed by God) to be successful.

It’s this culture that places such a premium on individuals eagerly seeking and grabbing the opportunities that life presents them, coupled with free access to the super-highway of the oceans, and superior industry and technology, that led first to England-Britain and subsequently the USA establishing themselves as global superpowers: conquering the world but, at the same time, seeking to promote what is effectively the Anglo-Saxon, more Christian-influenced, version of liberal democracy wherever their military and economic influence penetrated, and in a spirit of often literally evangelical, missionary zeal.

And in the case of both England-Britain and the USA, not only did these nations go out to spread the gospel of individual freedom from collective oppression, along with the possibility for nations to become part of a great global trading civilisation, but – as a consequence of their success – individuals from all nations and cultures of the world flocked to Britain and the USA, making them probably the most multi-cultural, multi-ethnic societies in the world. This is England-Britain’s internationalism and multi-nationalism, which I would differentiate from the a-nationality and transnationality of the appeal to the European-universal secular-humanist values. These latter involve a denial of, and will to eventually abolish, the existence of separate nations and the divisions between them. By contrast, internationalism involves a willingness to embrace and absorb a plurality of nationalities and cultures into one’s own nation and understanding of one’s nationhood.

This very internationalism is also being used in the contemporary British context as another stick to beat down the English as they press for official recognition as a nation: ‘Britain is internationalist and open to the world’, so the argument goes, ‘while England is narrowly nationalistic and xenophobic’. But, as I argued in my previous post, this is both a travesty of history (because it’s England and Anglo-Saxon civilisation that has made Britain the multi-cultural society it is today), and is ideologically and tactically disastrous because it prevents cultural integration rather than facilitating it. England – the Anglo-Saxon culture – has historically been the heart of Britain and its internationalist expansion; and it can only be within that open, globally orientated, commercial, pragmatic, individualistic, Christian and tolerant English culture that is the lifeblood of Britain that all the migrants now coming to England can be truly welcomed and come to share our nation – not in an abstract Euro-Britain that denies the very nation, England, which is giving those migrants their opportunity, and which English people are rightly suspicious of and resisting.

England is a nation; not only just a nation but a great nation – the historical centre, as I say, of one of the world’s great civilisations. But the Euro-federalist project ultimately seeks the abolition of Europe’s nations, politically if not culturally. Therefore the wish of the English to reassert themselves as a nation, distinct from Britain even if remaining in some form of continuing United Kingdom, is a profound impediment to the fulfilment of European Union. If, on the other hand, England remains part of a unitary ‘Britain’, then it can be integrated within the European project. Better still if it loses its distinct national identity altogether as the influx of European and worldwide migrants is exploited by the British establishment as a lever to deny the fundamental Englishness of Britain. Brown’s European-British values, and the European-style statement of rights and responsibilities, and eventually European-style constitution, that flow from it are clearly critical to achieving this objective. England will then be transformed from a nation whose values and institutions are Christian-liberal-democratic to an anonymous part of a Nation of Britain based on a European-universal statement of collective human rights: a-national (because British ‘nationality’ is defined in universal, civic and European terms) and secular.

The much discussed and feared regionalisation of England that would flow from, and as it were consecrate, the formation of a new Euro-Britain must be seen in this context. All of the major nations of Europe have been parcelled up into regions as part of the blueprint for Europe-wide governance and its model of subsidiarity moving down the scale from European-level government, through ‘national’ administrations and down to the regional level – with regions in major countries such as Britain or Germany being equivalent in size and power to the smaller countries such as Belgium, Denmark or . . . Scotland. An England that wanted to remain an integral, in European terms large, nation and refused to be broken up into Euro-regions would clearly be an obstacle to the Federal Europe. They probably thought that, enviously eyeing the newfound democratic freedoms of the Scots and Welsh, we English would willingly embrace the same sort of thing at regional level. Except they hadn’t bargained for the fact that the regions proposed mean nothing to us English: no history, no heritage, you see; as we’ve been an integral nation for too long. For all the other major nations of Western Europe, this is not the case: the regions mean something because they retained distinct identities, political structures and even languages for far longer than they did – indeed, if they ever did – in England. Even in France, which has been a unitary state for about as long as England-Britain, the regions have retained distinct cultural, social and linguistic characteristics that mean that they are real in socio-cultural terms, and they have proper, historic names: Picardy, Burgundy, Brittany, etc. Not so in England: what kind of regional names and identities are ‘the North-West’, the ‘East Midlands’, the ‘South-West’ – even the ‘East of England’ region in fact disuses a more traditional name for that part of England, East Anglia. Perhaps too much of a reminder of the name of the tribe that gave our land its name.

So make England part of a unitary nation of Britain, and then you can break it up into Euro-regions – because neither Britain nor the regions mean anything to the English or reflect their culture, history and nationhood. Then, by a curious not-so-coincidence, England becomes Britannia once more: the province of ancient Rome, fulfilling the Euro-federalist project to reinstate the European-wide polity that Rome once represented.

Except they’re forgetting one thing: Roman Britannia was not the same as modern Britain; geographically, that is, as it did not include Scotland (Caledonia). So what was Britannia is in reality what is now England, Cornwall and Wales. Maybe our English, Welsh, Cornish and Scottish nations have got historical roots that just run too deep to allow ourselves to be integrated into an a-national Europe. And perhaps there’s still mileage (as opposed to kilometrage) in the distinct nations of the UK to resist a Euro-British Nation and a Euro-Federation.

24 February 2008

British Values and Islam: Can They Meet on English Ground?

The Bishop of Rochester, Dr. Nazir-Ali, is back in the news again today through his refusal to retract any of the remarks he made in a recent interview in the Daily Telegraph that Islamic extremism had turned certain parts of Britain into no-go areas for non-Muslims. Indeed, the death threats he and his family have received, along with a large volume of supportive correspondence, have confirmed him in his views.

The bishop’s concerns appear to be twofold:

1) The separation and isolation of ‘extremist’ Islamic communities that have become virtual ghettoes, according to the bishop. This means that non-Muslims feel threatened and are squeezed out, deprived of their right to live and work in those areas. The goal of multi-culturalism appears, therefore, to have spawned total separation, challenging the broader goal of integration; and, additionally, the extremist views that hold sway in such areas are turning the minds of youth, posing a security risk to the country as a whole.

2) The bishop fears that such Islamic extremism is filling a moral and spiritual void in Britain as a whole, caused by the erosion of the country’s Christian faith; and, as a consequence, there is a risk that Islam will in fact spread beyond the extremist ghettoes and pose itself as an alternative value system for the UK as a whole. As he says in the second Telegraph interview today (linked above): “The real danger to Britain today is the spiritual and moral vacuum that has occurred for the last 40 or 50 years. When you have such a vacuum something will fill it. If people are not given a fresh way of understanding what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a Christian-based society then something else may well take the place of all that we’re used to and that could be Islam”.

An observation in passing. For me, this demonstrates one of the big flaws in the debate about so-called Islamic extremism, Islamism, etc. On the one hand, these are real, serious issues. There is a problem about how Muslim communities should best be integrated within our society; there are areas where non-Muslims feel isolated and unwelcome; and there is a real security risk from young people being indoctrinated into a false understanding of Islam that justifies hatred and violence against non-Muslims. But people’s understandable fears about such things are combined with a more pervasive, cultural unease about Islam that is indeed Christian in its historical roots: the fear of Islam as a violent faith that seeks to take over and Islamify Western-Christian culture and nations.

This is Islamophobia: an ultimately prejudiced dislike and fear of Islam. It’s this fear that makes many people equate all Muslims who seek to lead their lives more strictly according to the laws and ordinances of their faith with extremism. This fear also modulates the movement in Dr. Nazir-Ali’s thoughts between genuinely extremist and, by that token, distorted Islam and Islam per se as a potential faith-based value system for this country – genuinely accepted and embraced by millions of British people as an alternative to Christianity or secularism. It’s only irrational fear of Islam that could make this last scenario appear realistic; it is, however, plausible to imagine that at some point there could be a quite widespread assault on the British state from home-grown jihadis. But such people and their twisted beliefs would never be willingly accepted by the British people, or even by the majority of British Muslims.

Perhaps for tactical reasons – to ride the wave of the general reaffirmation of Britishness – perhaps also out of genuine personal experience and conviction, Nazir-Ali associates his appeal for us to reinvent a Christian society with British values and tradition. Indeed, the bishop asserts:

“Do the British people really want to lose that rooting in the Christian faith that has given them everything they cherish – art, literature, architecture, institutions, the monarchy, their value system, their laws?”

While many of these things the bishop lists undoubtedly owe much to Britain’s Christian past, I don’t think many British people would accept that Christianity was the sole or main source of inspiration for all of them. Britain’s ‘value system’ has been decreasingly Christian for decades and centuries, certainly for longer than the 40 or 50 years the bishop refers to, i.e. from before the revolution in social mores in the 1960s. I’m bound to say that I think this perception of Britain per se (a 300-year-old state founded as our culture had already embarked on its gradual secularisation) as having been historically, and still being fundamentally, at root a Christian society reflects the perspective of an immigrant from a Muslim country; as indeed people coming to Britain from Pakistan do tend, at least initially, to think they’re coming to a Christian country and that that country is Britain – rather than England, Scotland or Wales – in the first instance.

So Dr. Nazir-Ali appears to oppose Christianity and British values, on one side, to Islam, on the other. Not surprising, then, that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech two and half weeks ago (discussed elsewhere in this blog) in which he called for consideration of the idea that sharia law could be incorporated in some way into English civil law is anathema to the Bishop of Rochester:

“People of every faith should be free within the law to follow what their spiritual leaders direct them to, but that’s very different from saying their structures should replace that of the English legal system because there would be huge conflicts”.

The scenario of some aspects of sharia becoming official English legal procedure and legislation clearly plays on Nazir-Ali’s fear of Islam ultimately coming to replace Britain’s own laws and institutions, with their Christian foundations. Or should that be England’s laws, institutions and Christian foundations? As I stated in the previous discussion on Rowan Williams’s speech (linked above), one of the reasons why the media and political establishment came down so hard on the Archbishop was that he was suggesting that there could be constructive, creative and to some extent open-ended dialogue and co-operation between the English legal system (itself plural in its sources of inspiration, not all of which Christian) and sharia (also not a uniform, monolithic body of doctrine and established procedure but admitting of multiple cultural variations throughout Islam). This flies in the face of the political drive to construct and impose a normative Britishness, e.g. through the proposed British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and a British written constitution. This effort to redefine a uniform Britishness is opposed both to the aspirations of many English people to define themselves primarily as English and to establish English national political institutions (such as a parliament); and to the aspiration of many Muslims to define their identity and regulate many aspects of their daily lives (including certain legal aspects) as Islamic in the first instance, and then British insofar as – and perhaps legitimately only if – British society and law allow them to retain and express their Muslim identity and beliefs.

So in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s conceptual framework, if I’ve understood it correctly, there is, on the one side, a potentially monopolistic, secular British state / value system / law and, on the other side, a more diverse English legal system and sense of identity encompassing and striving to integrate both Christian, Muslim and secular influences. The key differences between Rochester’s and Canterbury’s positions are therefore threefold:

  1. Rochester assimilates Christianity to British values and tradition, while Canterbury opposes a more plural and, indeed, Christian-inspired English tradition to a narrow secular Britishness
  2. Rochester sees the primary national identity of this country as Britain / British, while Canterbury’s focus is on the English nation, Church and law
  3. Rochester sees fundamentalist Islam as inimical to British society and its Christian-centred values (or, another way of putting this: he sees Islam per se as fundamentally inimical to Britain and its Christian-centred values); while Canterbury believes that English pragmatism, backed by a universal vision of the basis for law and for human rights that is both religious in inspiration and common to all religions, can create the grounds on which Islamic beliefs, culture and customs can be profoundly integrated within English society, law and liberalism: the respect for freedom of conscience, belief and lifestyle.

Both men are agreed – and, in fact, I agree with them – that true integration between ‘British’ people and Muslims can take place only if the British come to respect and engage with the religious grounds for Muslims’ wish to retain particular practices and ways of living that separate them to some extent from other communities; and that, in order for this to happen, we need to get back in touch with the properly religious inspiration and foundation of the laws and freedoms we hold dear. But such a process of integration is not compatible with the would-be imposition of a monolithic secular Britishness that decrees that people’s freedoms should be dependent on their accepting the primacy of the British state in determining their social responsibilities and fundamental collective identity – rather than these being shaped as an expression of the English and / or Muslim values and identity.

As I stated in my previous discussion of Dr. Rowan Williams’ speech, the British media and political establishment tries to capitalise on any apparent concession to extremist or radical Islamic views to whip up Islamophobia and manipulate it to get English people (who otherwise might be quite anti the Britishness drive) behind the British values and way of life that are supposedly under threat. But is there not in reality more common ground between the defence of the English nation and the defence of the freedom of English Muslims to continue to make their faith the centre of their lives while contributing to the common good? Both positions are opposed to a secular and potentially authoritarian Britishness that seeks to deny any place in the core definition of British values, citizenship and national identity not only to Islam but to England, and its historical and continuing Christian roots.

So Nazir-Ali is right on one level – about rediscovering and reinventing our Christian heritage and roots – but he’s wrong in identifying those with Britain and British values, rather than England. The British values that the political class is currently pushing are just as opposed, in many respects, to Christianity as to Islam, and certainly seek to eliminate the radical Englishness of the British state (its roots in England’s history and identity) as much as radical Islam. The British state seeks to play divide and rule with respect to the English and the Muslims amongst them, setting them one against the other – urging Muslims to identify and, effectively, ‘convert’ to a secular British identity that only alienates them still further from the English population as it resists being dragged into an a-national British citizenry.

The English and Muslims must both resist this and find common ground in the defence of their identity, their faith – and their Englishness.

22 February 2008

Brown’s Britishness: Nationality Or Citizenship?

Students of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] Brit-obsessed public discourse will have a field day with his speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) on ‘Managed Migration and Earned Citizenship’ on Wednesday. A theme calculated to allow the PM to wax lyrical on his beloved Britishness theme! Sixty-four occurrences of either ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ against a word total of 4,839, i.e. 1.3% of all the words. That doesn’t sound much, I suppose, but if you consider how many words (including the frequently occurring basic nouns, verbs and pronouns) there are in a typical sentence, particularly in a serious formal speech, that equates to quite a high ratio of Brits per sentence.

Not as high as the ratio of ‘citizen(s)’ or ‘citizenship’ per sentence in this instance, however! There were 75 appearances of the ‘C’ word = 1.55%. Well, I suppose the speech was about citizenship, after all. But was it more about citizenship than Britain or, indeed, than nationality? The concepts of ‘nation’, ‘national’ and ‘nationality’ – but, significantly, not ‘nationhood’ – occur a mere 20 times in the speech: only 0.4% of all words.

Does this mean that, for GB, Britishness is more about citizenship than about nationality or nationhood; the latter term being more emotive and personal, relating to whether people ‘feel British’ or regard Britishness as their personal national identity? This would appear to be the case when GB says:

“This is not jingoism, but practical, rational and purposeful – and therefore, I would argue, an essentially British form of patriotism.

“Patriotism is the sense that ‘all-of-us’ matters more than ‘any-of-us’ [does it, really – isn’t the whole basis of human rights the irreducible dignity and integrity of the individual human person; so are GB’s ‘responsibilities’ upon which our rights supposedly depend (see below) based on the assertion of the priority of the collectivity – the nation-state – over the individual?]. It defines a nation not by race or ethnicity, but by seeing us all as part of a collective project from which we all gain and to which we all contribute. Society is – as the great thinkers have long told us – a contract, even a covenant, in which we recognise that our destinies are interlinked. For rights only exist where people recognise responsibilities [cf. above note]; responsibilities only exist where people have a sense of shared fate; and shared fate only exists where there is a strong sense of collective belonging. So Britain is not just where we are but in an important sense part of who we are”.

Britain, in this definition, is ‘in an important sense part of who we are’ because the social contract that binds us together and our participation in a collective project – of creating and enriching Britain – is seen as more integral to our identity than a sense of belonging to a place, ethnicity or race. Or, indeed, more integral than the sense of belonging to a nation and the sense of national identity? This would appear to be the case, to judge from the passage that follows:

“the idea of citizenship can be addressed more cogently here in Britain than elsewhere because for centuries Britain has been made up of many nations. As the first – and probably the most successful – multi-national state in the world, we have always had to find ways of bringing people into a United Kingdom.

“Put it another way: geographically, Britain is a group of islands; historically, it is a set of ideas that have evolved over centuries: brought together uniquely across traditional boundaries and today united not by race or ethnicity but by distinctive values that have, over time, shaped the institutions of a multinational state”.

Let’s pause for a moment in wonder. GB appears to be conceding the point that, historically, Britain has comprised a number of nations – including, presumably, England. But don’t get your hopes up: he doesn’t say ‘England’ throughout the speech; nor, indeed, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ or ‘Ireland’. There are 11 references to ‘English’; but these are only to the language, not to anything such as a national identity. If you look at GB’s words more closely here, what he’s saying is that Britain is indeed a geographical place where, historically (“for centuries”), a number of nations have lived. ‘Nations’ here can imply ‘peoples’, rather than formally established political entities with defined territorial borders: the fundamental geographical unit for GB is Britain, not the nations of Britain; while the nations have merely inhabited that British territory – effectively, like provisional citizens, migrants or temporary residents, not as collectivities that identified with the land in which they lived.

Equally historically, however, Britain is presented here as a unified state forged by a process whereby the multiple nations of Britain have come together in a “United Kingdom”. The engine of that unification has not been some sort of organic convergence and ethnic inter-mixing of the nations of Britain over time, whereby gradually the old barriers between us have been broken down and we’ve come to think of ourselves as more British than English / Scottish / Welsh / Irish. No, the motor for unity is “a set of ideas that have evolved over centuries” – co-terminous with the ‘centuries’ during which Britain has been made up of many nations – and the “distinctive values that have, over time, shaped the institutions of a multinational state”.

The unity or Union that is the United Kingdom has been created by, and is founded on, a set of distinctive but shared ideas and values that have coalesced and are embodied in the institutions of a “multinational state”, e.g. in the ‘British Values’ and the ‘British Rights and Responsibilities’ that are defining of British civic society and British citizenship. Note that there is an uncertain shift here between the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘United Kingdom’ (or UK), which crops up elsewhere in GB’s speech. Britain is the geographical place, populated by multiple nations, but by that token not properly a unified nation in itself. The unity is achieved only at the level of statehood, citizenship, and common values and principles – at the level of the UK. But GB wants that unity to also be identified with a single Nation (rather than multiple nations) of Britain, and wants citizenship to be the foundation of a new national British identity. Hence, a constant, inconsistent slippage in his speech between the UK and Britain as the terms for the unitary state-nation – rather than nation-state – founded on codified civic principles.

These tensions are evident in the passage that follows, in which GB defines the British values he believes in:

  • “liberty – the concept of freedom under the law which has to be renewed every generation, about which I spoke in the autumn;
  • of civic duty;
  • of fairness;
  • and of internationalism – a Britain that sees the channel not as a moat that isolates us in narrow nationalism, but as a highway out to the world that for centuries has given our outward-looking nation an unsurpassed global reach.

“But that these values are founded secondly on a vision of citizenship that entails both responsibilities and rights”.

So Britain is both a nation – founded on a citizenship that embodies British values in a set of rights and responsibilities – and an internationalism: an “outward-looking nation” that also takes in to itself additional multiple nations from throughout the globe through migration; as opposed to the ‘narrow nationalism’ associated with insular protectionism towards smaller territorial national entities such as that of the Englishman’s castle, defended by the moat of the, yes, English Channel, Gordon.

All of this means that if the true ‘test’ of citizenship (like the actual test of entitlement to British citizenship for migrants that GB is proposing in his speech) is adherence to formal codes and statements setting out the legal and philosophical principles of British state-nationality (merging multiple original nationalities into a common citizenship), then the ‘original’ nations of the UK (the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish) have no intrinsic, special status with respect to Britishness than more recent migrants who embrace Britishness defined purely in relation to those shared principles. There is a sort of equalising going on here between the ‘nations’ that have historically inhabited these islands (the historical multi-national British state) and the multiple nationalities of newer arrivals, linked to Britain’s internationalism and global reach.

This brings about a peculiar reversal whereby the formal process of subscribing (to use GB’s term) to the principles – rights and responsibilities – of UK / British citizenship that would-be settlers here will have to go through, if GB’s proposals are implemented, make them almost more properly British citizens than those who consider themselves as in some degree British by virtue of having always lived here and of viewing themselves – additionally or primarily – as English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. This is because, under GB’s vision, the process of becoming a British citizen is transformed into a rite of passage, where you have to pass a number of tests that prove the sincerity of your wish to be a British citizen which, through the rights and responsibilities citizenship embodies and enacts, actually means something:

“we must ensure that British citizenship is a set of obligations as well as a guarantee of rights. And that British citizenship is a prized asset to be aspired to and cherished”.

But does this concept of ‘earned citizenship’ – prospective citizens proving that they have earned the right to British citizenship through the social and civic responsibility of their actions and the way they lead their lives – translate back to existing British citizens? If new British citizens are not just equal in their Britishness to people who have always lived here but in some sense more properly British (in that Britishness is founded on a set of codified values and principles that new citizens have formally signed up to), does this not make existing citizens themselves in some sense merely probationary and prospective citizens: mere residents on British soil whose true Britishness has yet to be formally tested and attested through a citizenship rite? Does this mean we will all have to prove our entitlement to (continuing) British citizenship by formally buying into the responsibilities and duties upon which it is being made to depend?

There is a serious ambiguity throughout GB’s speech about whether the concept of earned citizenship applies as much to existing citizens as prospective ones. This is because, inherent to the linkage GB makes between rights and responsibilities, is indeed the notion that rights (those of citizenship) have to be earned through socially responsible lives and the exercise of our civic duties. Indeed, the opening section of GB’s piece sets out these principles as the basis for the modern concept of British citizenship:

“for all citizens, I want us to emphasise – and, to some extent, codify – the rights they have . . . . But alongside these entitlements of citizenship, there are also duties. . . . This is one of the reasons why it makes sense – as we have announced – to consider amending the Human Rights Act to create a new British Bill of Rights and Duties which emphasises not just what people are entitled to but what they are expected to do in return in order to make ours a society we all want to live in.

“And this reciprocity of rights and responsibilities also shapes the new concept of ‘earned citizenship’ we are advancing today”.

As part of our formal buy in to this new statement of our rights and responsibilities, will we – like new immigrants – be obliged to relinquish our former national identities (as English, Scots, etc.) in favour of our new united British-national identity based on the common values of our citizenship? And how controlled will the sincerity of our adherence to these rights and responsibilities be?

“And of course, the final vital element in security inside our borders is the national ID cards system.

“While the first biometric ID cards will be issued to UK citizens during 2009, from the end of this year we will start to issue the first compulsory biometric IDs to non-EU foreign nationals coming to the UK. Such an identity scheme will help make it clear what status a person has – whether they are allowed to work, access benefits and how long they can stay.

“This is crucial in tackling illegal immigration. But it is also critical to moving towards, and enforcing, a system of earned citizenship.

“Those who are not entitled to benefits will not be able to claim them. And that will also include people from the EU who have come here to work but have not yet paid sufficient national insurance contributions.

“And probationary citizens will all have ID cards which will make it easier to ensure that they are exercising their responsibilities, and to decide on their progress to full citizenship.

“All this reflects the value we place on British citizenship and the urgent need to be clear about our collective national identity and common purpose”.

So we have moved from a national identity based on history, and a sense of belonging to a place and a territory, to one that is almost definitively, and definingly, encapsulated in a national ID scheme, designed to control our access to the rights of citizenship, depending on the extent to which we are fulfilling our civic responsibilities.

This is a national British identity codified, indeed digitised, by the British state; in fact, bestowed by the British state based on merit against a set of prescriptive qualifying criteria, rather than an automatic right. Being English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish isn’t one of those qualifying criteria – and you’d better accept GB’s state-civic Britishness if you want to preserve your native rights.

20 February 2008

What are ‘English values’?

In this blog, I’ve set out to maintain a continuous critique of so-called ‘British values’: one of the central underpinnings of the UK government’s attempts to not only preserve the Union but also redefine and reorientate it for the 21st century in the face of the cultural and economic changes and uncertainties we face both nationally and internationally.

There are many problems with this enterprise, not the least of which is that the New Britain that New Labour – and GB [Gordon Brown] in particular – would like to establish relies on the suppression of any aspirations to formal nationhood on the part of the English. As a result of the asymmetrical devolution settlement during the first term of the Blair government, we’ve witnessed a sort of ‘paradigm reversal’. Previously, Britain (technically, the UK) was a unitary state in which all the national-level decisions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were taken by the Westminster government. And also decisions for England, of course. But England stood in a special relationship to Britain: Britain was to all intents and purposes the extension of England and the proxy-English state; British rule in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland effectively meant English control over their affairs. English people identified with Britain, meaning that the English and British national identities were effectively interchangeable from the English perspective.

Devolution has brought the beginning of the end of this sense that England and Britain are one: instead of England ruling Britain (i.e. ruling Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), we now have in many ways a rump British state in which the competency of the government in many critical policy areas is limited largely to England. This is now Britain ruling England; but Britain defined as the central UK government and state rather than as the other nations of Britain that were effectively ruled by England through the British state, and which English people assimilated into their own identity through the interchangeability of ‘English’ and ‘British’. (See, for instance, the unthinking habit English people used to have of referring to Scotland and Wales as if they were part of England.)

We’ve had, in other words, a seismic split in the English-British identity. In the imagination and sentiments of ordinary people, ‘Britain’ (in the sense of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) has separated out from England: as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland reassert their own national pride and an identity separate from that of England-Britain, English people in their turn have withdrawn the investment of their national pride in Britain and begun a process of redefining and reaffirming their own national identity as English in the first instance, rather than British. Meanwhile, the British state has separated itself in its thinking and attitudes from any ideas of (itself as representing) English nationhood along the lines of the emerging Scottish, Welsh and (Northern) Irish nations. It pretends that the old unitary Britain still exists, which in formal, legal terms it still does: power has only been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and could in theory be taken back at any time. And, of course, many areas of government have not been devolved, especially those that have an impact on the whole of the UK territory and population, such as international relations, energy policy and security.

This means that the government represents the continuation of the old British part of the English identity: split off from – no longer the state vehicle and political expression of – England. The government has not been able to embrace and espouse the popular movement for reaffirming Englishness and the nation of England, distinct from the British state. It could have done, perhaps; but this would have taken a visionary leader who was prepared to adopt a more populist and, perhaps, more working-class stance at a time when New Labour was positioning itself as a bastion of liberal-Middle Class conservatism, and as the party of the establishment that is built on the support of that strata of the population and reflects its values. You could say, ironically, that New Labour’s appeal was to the Old England (New Britain, Old England): the bit of England that identified more strongly with the old unitary British state and its principles. Labour, whose whole philosophy has always placed such a huge emphasis on using the lever of its power bases in working-class England, Scotland and Wales to force through its agenda of social change throughout the unitary state – including in conservative England who largely had to bankroll its programme – could not so easily now relinquish the unbridled power over the whole of the UK that Blair’s massive, disproportionate majorities had given it, based as they were on finally winning support from Middle England. Hence the shift in Labour’s whole sense of its mission from being the party of working-class socialist internationalism to the party of conservative English-British unionism: the party that seeks to conserve the old unitary British state and identity even when the people were separating away from it, and seeing themselves more as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish.

To summarise so far: pre-devolution, we had a unitary Britain dominated by England, in which the English and British identities were merged; post-devolution, we have a separating out of the identities of England and the ‘two Britains’ from which it had previously been indissociable: Britain in the sense of the other countries of the UK, and Britain in the sense of the unitary British state. That state, in the shape of the Labour government, took it upon itself to resurrect the rapidly disappearing unified British identity on which its legitimacy and power depended. Unable to reverse the devolution for which it was responsible, it could not re-establish Britishness by recreating the popular, organic sense of shared identity, history, family relatedness, and social solidarity and community encapsulated in a Britain with which the nations of the UK had all been to some extent happy to identify and belong: the English by seeing the other countries of Britain as an extension of England; and the other countries by seeing Britain as just another name for England, with which they were united in one kingdom. Labour’s only option was to take the formal values of the British state itself as the foundation of a new national-British unity – indeed, of a new Nation of Britain, as I’ve described it elsewhere.

This is nation building that proceeds from the state and from the centre; not, as previously, a state (Britain) that was experienced as an expression of the identities and affections of the people: a national unity that was felt and lived, rather than one that, initially at least, is merely conceptual and ideological. For what are these British values that all the nations of the UK are said to hold in common and around which the government hopes they will (re-)unite? They are principles of civic society that, historically, ‘Britain’ (in reality, often England before it merged into Britain) is said, if not to have originated, at least to have given their modern political expression in parliamentary democracy. As such, they are a combination of universal secular-humanist principles that no democrat could repudiate AND of characteristics and qualities valued by the English and said to be typical of the English. On the universal side: liberty / individual freedom, equality (of opportunity), democracy and the rule of law; on the English side – but blending into the universal concepts and giving them their human and cultural ‘flavour’ – tolerance, fairness / fair play, support for the underdog and compassion for the disadvantaged, and a healthy suspicion and contempt towards excessive power and wealth, particularly when that power is exercised towards the English as private individuals and as a nation.

In this way, the British government hopes to gain endorsement for its newly formulated set of British values from the English people because they are essentially English values: they’re the values of the British state that once was the effective English state and the expression of English national pride; and they’re amplified sentimentally by an appeal to cultural qualities that are undeniably associated with the English. The difference is that whereas, pre-devolution, those values were invested in a Britain (state and extension of England to the rest of Britain) with which the English identified, now the English have increasingly separated their national identity from Britain. This means that all the language of Britishness becomes just so much empty concepts and abstract ideas divorced from the English and no longer articulating a meaningful sense of nationhood for them, or inspiring a sense of purpose and confidence in an uncertain world and future. The discourse of Britishness, in other words, is a state language and ideology. Through it, the British state and government both represent what they think of as Britain and British (cf. the attempt to arrive at an official Statement of British Values), and see themselves as the representative – the democratic embodiment and expression – of Britain. Indeed, the state has become Britain, and Britain has become merely a state; whereas once, in an emotional and symbolic sense at least, it was a nation – the expression of the English nation.

In other words, before devolution, the unitary UK was build on a unity and common identity between England and Britain (state and the other countries). That unity has been broken; and the only unity with which it is in the power of the state to attempt to repair it is through a new unified, systematic articulation of a united Nation of Britain: effectively, a re-establishment of Britain through codified, foundational documents such as the Statement of British Values, a British Bill of Rights and, of course, a written constitution. That new inherent, conceptual unity of Britain – Britain present to itself in the articulation of the fundamental principles and values through which it understands itself – can become the means to (re-)establish a true nation (the state seeking the acceptance of, and identification with, its values from the people) if it replaces England: the previous centre, heart and national identity that gave life to the British state. Hence, a real cultural and political programme is afoot that indeed seeks to redefine and replace English history, culture and identity as and with British history, culture and identity: British values. You might say this is purely semantics, as I’ve already stated that the English and British identities have historically been merged. Historically, yes. But the difference now is that reference to the Englishness of Britishness, and to the historical reality that Britain has hitherto been effectively Greater England, is being systematically expunged. I’ve attempted to demonstrate this on numerous occasions, for instance, in my Campaign for Plain England blogs and numerous other posts exploring the censorship of references to England, which manifests a will for England not to exist; indeed, the transforming of it into virtual non-existence through a kind of deliberate double-think-type substitution of Britain or ‘this country’ for ‘England’ when England is what is actually at issue. British values may well be English values; but one is no longer allowed to say this, or indeed, to say ‘England’ at all.

But are English values British values? Meaningless question, really, as it presupposes that it might be possible to come up with a representative set of English values, precisely; in the same way as the British government claims it can set down a representative set of British values: one through which it can represent itself as representing Britain – state and nation (re-)united. Those British values discussed above can indeed be also, and perhaps more properly, described as English values. But English values, or rather Englishness per se, cannot be reduced to such an impoverished collection of abstractions. To find Englishness – the Englishness that has diverged from the path of formal, state, civic Britishness – you need to set your sights at both a more basic and higher level. There’s no essence or quintessence of Englishness, in a strict, philosophical sense; but we who live in England are surrounded by thousands of instances of Englishness – so much a part of the daily fabric of our lives and the cultural air we breathe that it almost appears invisible. I’m not myself now going to fall into the trap of trying to define Englishness in a narrow way. But, rather than being about philosophical and societal values, Englishness has more to do with what we value: the places, people, communities, activities and things that we love and on which we bestow value, and those we don’t; it’s about a way of life, the way we relate to one another with all our flaws, and a place we call home.

So much for the ‘basic’, and yet elusive, level of understanding of what England means to us; what of the higher level I referred to? Well, those universal British (but often historically more English) values I mentioned (liberty, equality, tolerance, respect for the rule of law) are fundamental secular-humanist principles: core concepts of a secular understanding of what you could call the value of humanity itself and the basis for human rights – the essential dignity and integrity of every human being from which flows the imperative that we respect individual free self-determination and the fundamental equality of all persons. Noble and vital principles, indeed, and essential for the defence of our freedoms – but universal and hardly ‘quintessentially British’. And can these absolute concepts and abstractions truly give form and voice to what are the highest, most sacred values we hold dear? Are these not, rather, things like love, kindness, self-sacrifice, justice, peace, friendship, childhood and life itself? Again, nothing quintessentially English or British about these. But the importance these qualities hold for us is precisely because of their sacred and spiritual character, however we qualify or understand those terms.

The English are a spiritual people – as are, if you think in these terms, every other people on earth. But this spirituality is indeed something fundamental to the character of our nation, as indeed it has helped to shape that character over centuries. One possible filter to understand the character of a people is to observe how they respond to the challenge to live up to the demands of loving and caring for one another, and respecting life – put in Christian terms, how they respond to the call of the spirit, and embody and express that spirit in the pattern of their lives. In this sense, there is much to commend and much also to be aggrieved at about modern life in England, where there is so much poverty of the spirit alongside material poverty and human selfishness.

England is a spiritual nation and still, officially, a Christian country, with an established Church and a queen who is both Head of the Church, Queen of England and head of the British state. Does it mean anything, this vestige of an ancient history that does not speak to many English people who do not regard themselves as Christians, or who do but do not consider it necessary for an established church to exist? Well, one would have thought that we English, of all peoples, would be reluctant to discard carelessly a ‘mere’ vestige of our ancient history: our centuries-old English history and tradition, and a reference to the millennial status of the Christian faith as the core value system of our nation, even if it no longer is. In our search to rediscover Englishness, and reaffirm it against a Britishness that would suppress it altogether, we must take cognisance of the fact that the established Church of England is a symbol and continuation of English power and English spirituality at the heart of the British state; a continuation, indeed, of that identification between Englishness and the British state that was broken through devolution.

This is a not frequently commented part of the England and Britain story: Englishness does also have this spiritual dimension, historically and contemporaneously; Britishness is a secular creed, which very likely would disestablish the Church as part of its new national-British constitutional settlement. This would sever both one of the last manifestations of England as the fulcrum of the British state and would remove the moral obligation for British political leaders to be mindful of their responsibilities to their Christian duties and calling, evoked by the Christian headship of the monarch to which governments are still – symbolically, at least – answerable.

This matters for a whole host of reasons, particularly in that it affects the understanding governments have of their fundamental mission and purpose which, beyond seeing to the material prosperity and security of its people, must look to their spiritual wellbeing. This means being seriously affected by the suffering, material and spiritual, of the people as if it were one’s own suffering: making a government that is truly for and of the people, and loves the people; dedicated to giving them hope, confidence and care in their needs and aspirations; and giving all the disenfranchised and alienated parts of the population (including especially the much maligned English youth) a sense that they have some sort of stake in a shared future.

Can a new secular Nation of Britain respond to such a calling? The question is most acute perhaps when it comes to considering how the nation relates to those whose values are not only ‘non-British’, as reductively defined by the state, but are so on religious grounds. I’m referring in particular to the Muslim community, particularly those communities who seek to regulate their lives around a stricter understanding of Islamic law and Koranic teaching. It is hard to see how there can be much place for such faith communities within Britishness and indeed Britain if, indeed, allegiance to official British values becomes the test of citizenship, replacing allegiance to the crown. It’s not that Muslims of this sort take issue with concepts such as personal liberty and equality, in the abstract; but it’s the way those concepts are interpreted and grounded in different religious and cultural traditions that is different. Those secular British values underpin a whole societal and economic model: one in which it is the role of government to release the potential of individuals to participate fully and freely in a secular lifestyle – acquiring material possessions and wealth; creating that wealth through work and career; buying and selling; and trading themselves and their bodies in work, sex and open-ended relationships.

But these values are fundamentally antithetical to the duties and rights expressed in Muslim belief and practice – as, indeed, to the duties and purpose of life as understood by any of the major religious traditions. The language of Britishness cannot reach out beyond itself to understand and embrace radical difference of this kind, and can only reject the pious and dogmatic fidelities of Islam as backward, oppressive and irrational – and as limiting the possibilities for Muslim communities to integrate and participate in the supposed benefits of British life.

Englishness and England, on the other hand, can respond and engage with such diversity in our midst. Englishness, that is, understood as being about appreciation of the little but precious things of daily life; of places, people, food and drink, communities, and caring about the people around you as if they were one’s own – which makes them one’s own. These are things we really do hold in common with Muslims and with those of other faith backgrounds; we all live in England, and can meet in a common and developing – not fixed – Englishness on the shared ground of England.

I say those of ‘other faith backgrounds’: other than our own, that is. We can meet those Muslims, and perhaps only meet those Muslims, on a ground where true dialogue, interchange and possibility of change can arise, if we let the background of our own faith – our English spirit – come to the fore. Not necessarily some arbitrary reconstruction of a, let’s face it, often dysfunctional, destructive and disreputable Christian history – but responding in a new way to that calling of the spirit of love and neighbourliness. A response from which our nation of England may yet be redefined and enjoy its renaissance.

29 January 2008

Gordon Brown and the Appropriation of Britain

There’s never been a Nation of Britain. That this is true is suggested by the very incongruity of the phrase ‘nation of Britain’; whereas ‘nation of England’, ‘nation of Scotland’ etc. come across as no different from, say, ‘nation of France’ or ‘nation of Russia’. That’s why people tend to say ‘British nation’ instead; or, preferably, just ‘Britain’ or ‘the nation’ on their own: avoiding the awkward coupling of ‘nation’ and ‘Britain’.

This is just playing with semantics, though, isn’t it? Well, as they say, yes and no. Is there really a difference between ‘nation of Britain’ and ‘British nation’? Yes, a nation of difference. ‘Nation of Britain’ implies that the nation is Britain: people and state as one – a true nation whose name is Britain. ‘British nation’, on the other hand, implies that the nation belongs to Britain or is an attribute of Britain. It implies a similar sort of relationship as in ‘British state’, ‘British royal family’ or ‘British Empire’: these are things that belong, or belonged, to Britain but are not identified with Britain. We did not, for instance, call our former worldwide dominion the ‘Empire of Britain’, which would have meant that the whole empire had been merged into a greater Great Britain and become indistinguishable from it. On the contrary, the colonies were viewed as British sovereign possessions – the British Empire – not as part of Britain itself.

In the same way, ‘British nation’ (if we can accept the concept at all) implies that the nation belongs to Britain but is not identified with / identical to Britain. The two words ‘Britain’ and ‘nation’ are not co-terminous or interchangeable. What then is the Britain that owns the nation, and what is the nation that it owns? One way of looking at it is that Britain is the state and the nation is the people; in which case, the people are not the possession of the state as such but an attribute of it: that without which the state would not exist as the apparatus for governing the people, and for constituting the people as a nation as a corollary of that process of governance. Yet, at the same time, Britain is a name for the people who, properly speaking, own the state and decide whether they want to consider the state to also be a nation: their nation.

In other words, the British state is responsible for and, at the same time, answerable to the British people; while the British people own the British state and decide whether they want that state to also be their nation: a nation of Britain. So long as Britain is not such a nation-state, then Britain (the people), Britain (the state) and Britain (the nation) are overlapping but not synonymous terms. Once Britain becomes a nation (once the British people decide to make Britain the name not just for their state but their nation), then there is just One Britain: people, state and nation as one.

This is how Gordon Brown [GB] and his fellow Britologists would like things to be. But if they achieved their objective, it would constitute an appropriation of Britain. By this, I mean both a transformation of Britain into a proper nation for the first time ever; and a theft of the Britain that has existed up to now and of the nationhood of the British. GB and his chums at the (English) Justice Ministry are embarked on a process of fundamental constitutional reform that is intended to result in things like a British written constitution, a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and a formal Statement of British Values. What documents such as these would do, if they were endorsed in a referendum, would be to radically alter the relationship between the British people, nation and state. They would in effect form a covenant of equal significance to something like the Magna Carta: a set of formal, legal documents that define the people and the state as a single united entity, or nation – the state as the people, as its appointed representative acting in its name, with the head of the government (if not the actual head of state, in the British context) being effectively the personification of the people.

People and state as one in a new nation of Britain. It’s a republic, in its principles if not in name. That is, the state is the people; it’s a res publica: a thing of the people. Whether or not it’s part of GB’s plans to establish an actual Republic of Britain is one of the great unspokens of this whole affair. What is for sure is that his constitution for a new nation of Britain lays down all the foundations for a situation where the abolition of the monarchy becomes eminently thinkable because the proposed constitution changes the whole basis of rule in ‘this country’. It would be a fundamental departure from the current establishment, in which the executive and parliament act in the name of the Sovereign, and have inherited the prerogatives of the Sovereign, albeit that they act on the basis of popular mandate, in theory, as determined through democratic elections. The state therefore rules over the people in the place of the monarch; while the people own the state to the extent that they determine which party or parties should exercise the levers of power and, ultimately, they are free to reject and change the state as currently constituted. Under the proposed new constitutional set up, the state no longer belongs to the people as something separate from it but is the people: the people and state are one; sovereignty of the people. And the executive and parliament no longer act in the name of the Sovereign – supposing there still is one – but, supposedly, in the name and place of the people.

There are of course many people in Britain who support such essentially republican principles and regard them as a prerequisite for full democracy. But what I’m saying is that this is not Britain: not Britain as we have known it, that is, which has been a constitutional monarchy since its foundation as the Kingdom of Great Britain through the Union of England and Scotland in 1707. It’s an appropriation of that Britain: Britain becomes a proper, true nation for the first time; people and state as one. But it’s also a theft of that Britain: GB and his government stealthily removing from us a Britain that we own (our Britain, our state, our constitutional monarchy, our royal family, our Kingdom) and replacing it with a Britain that we ourselves are; with which we are identified. The New Britain (New Labour, New Britain) that could ensue from a constitutional settlement might retain a monarch as an empty figurehead, giving people the misleading impression that nothing fundamentally had changed. But there would in reality no longer be any effectual place for the monarch within the constitution. And so a monarchy that currently stands as a guarantee of our freedoms and of the separation of people, nation and state would be no more.

And, as was remarked above, this would be a theft not just of our Britain and of our monarchy but also of our nationhood. Along with the separation of people and state, there has existed a separation of state and nation: the state has been Britain (which up to now has technically been shorthand for ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland’, or the UK), while the nations with which the people have identified have been England, Scotland, Wales or (Northern) Ireland. In reality, however, this identification has never been simple and straightforward. There has always been a blurring of the boundaries between nation and state, and the English in particular have traditionally seen England and Britain as interchangeable: Britain as the proxy-English state (an extension of English dominion and nationhood to the whole of the British Isles) and as another word for the nation of England.

So British people have always had dual nationality or more, if they are of mixed British parentage (English-British, Scottish-British, etc.). The extent to which they considered one of the polarities to be their more fundamental identity has been variable, and the boundaries between the two have been blurred. In the post-devolution, European-federalisation and globalised Britain of today, there has been a well documented shift towards British people identifying with one or more of England, Scotland, Wales or (Northern) Ireland as their national identity, while they see Britain increasingly as just the name of a state from which they feel alienated, which they feel has lost touch with the people and is increasingly irrelevant and powerless in any case as more and more powers are transferred to the EU, and as Britain’s fortunes depend on global economic and political trends.

GB has set out to oppose not just the break up of the state of Britain into its constituent nations but the disintegration of the British national identity as such. The constitutional establishment of a nation of Britain would be an amazing coup (in the sense of tour de force but suggesting also political force majeure) creating, for the first time, an official, unified British national identity. The British people (meaning the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish people living in the British Isles) would be formally identified with, appropriated to, the nation of Britain: One Britain – people, nation and state. It would all be official and legal, spelled out in a British Constitution; with a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities pertaining to the mutual, interdependent polarities of the people and state – nation – of Britain; and a Statement of British Values that would serve as the basis for a sort of Rite of Britishness.

You can see it now: British people (the people of the four nations living in Britain), once they’ve supposedly endorsed these measures in a referendum, being obliged to sign up to the Statement of British Values as being the code that constitutes their new civic national identity as Britons; or else, they’re free to leave the country. Think that’s fanciful? Just listen to the words of Michael Wills, the ‘Constitutional Renewal Minister’, in the Putney Debate on British values organised by the BBC Radio Four World Tonight programme last Friday: “if you don’t like it, you can leave. There’s nothing stopping you leaving . . . . You choose to stay here. You choose to be British”. Choose to be British, to accept the Statement of British Values and a new British constitutional settlement, or else ‘choose’ to live elsewhere.

And the rest: new national holidays and civic rites to celebrate our shared Britishness (see the new IPPR report The Power of Belonging: Identity, Citizenship and Social Cohesion), including secular rituals taking on the character of traditional religious rites of passage, in which the state is intimately associated with the most sacred acts and duties of individuals (marriage, raising children, etc.). And those same children no doubt lining up in class to proclaim an oath of allegiance to the flag (the Union Flag, of course) before and after school, to make sure they’re fully indoctrinated into their new civic Britishness and forget that there ever was an England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

But hang on, GB’s plan isn’t to undo the devolution settlement, and to abolish the separate ‘national’ parliaments and systems of governance for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s only the nation of England and the English national identity that GB is planning to fully erase from the constitution and the statute books. Replace a constitutional monarchy in which it is the historic King or Queen of England who is the head of state and the head of the Church of England with a British constitution with no real role for the English monarch, and no established religion or even faith (multi-culturalism, don’t you know), and then you really have appropriated the nation to Britain – and away from the English. The British nation then ceases to be what it has effectively always been: the English nation, the English realm, the possession of the English in the person of their Sovereign. For Britain to become the One Nation of Britain, it must cease to be the English-British nation. Indeed, England itself must cease to be but must, like the ‘rest’ of Britain, be appropriated to, and identified with, Britain. No English nation owning Britain; but England merged with, and absorbed into, a nation of Britain once and for good.

It’s this idea of a proper nation of Britain into which England has disappeared that makes sense of GB’s stated conception of Britain: “where Britain becomes as it should be – a Britain of nations and regions where there are many and not just one centre of initiative and energy for our country”. The way in which the separate devolved administrations and identities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can be accommodated within an overarching integral nation-state and national identity of Britain is through this combined appropriation of England to Britain (the abolition of England), and subsequent establishment of devolved government for those ‘regions’ of Britain that do not yet have it (i.e. England). So it’s not the regionalisation of England alone that abolishes England. The creation of regional ‘English’ administrations is part and parcel of the establishment of a new nation of Britain that requires England to no longer exist as a nation in order to become a nation itself, rather than what it currently is: the possession of the people of Britain, and primarily the English.

First you abolish England in a new British constitutional settlement; then you consolidate that abolition and wipe out any popular English aspiration for national status and political institutions by imposing regional devolution. This then enables Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to continue to refer to themselves, informally, as nations; whereas, constitutionally, they are technically just British regions, like those of the territory previously known as England. But if England were to continue to exist as a nation, with its own parliament and government, then Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have to be formally recognised as nations, too: with an equivalent constitutional status to the English nation.

So the idea seems to be: if England isn’t the dominant nation within the Union as now, then the other nations won’t feel the need to break away from the Union, eventually seeking full independence. Better still, if what you want is a united nation of Britain, what you have to do is find a way to abolish England altogether; so that all you have is equal regions. The ‘English’ regions won’t want to call themselves separate nations, as they aren’t; the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish can call themselves nations if they want, but they’ll be happy to be part of the unified nation of Britain because there will no longer be a big English nation to dominate them but just British regions of similar size and power to their own.

So GB’s new constitutional settlement is part of a plan to appropriate the English nation to Britain, and create a new nation of Britain and integral national-British identity. No more England.

But there are two major obstacles that could yet thwart these ambitions. First, the government has committed itself to seeking approval for any new constitutional arrangements in a referendum. How solid is such a commitment, though? After all, the Labour Party did promise to hold a referendum on the European Constitution and has now reneged on that pledge on the false claim that the revised European Reform Treaty is not the same thing (something that even the architect of the original constitution, Giscard d’Estaing refutes, having said that the two things are substantially identical). So the government could find a way to wriggle out of holding a / several referendum(s) on its new constitutional measures.

Assuming they don’t avoid a referendum, however, there is one important way in which they could totally rig the vote: as the referendum would be about establishing a British constitution, then it would have to be up to the whole of the British nation to decide whether they wanted it or not. But the ‘British nation’ as the ‘nation of Britain’ would only be constituted as such after such a constitution came into effect. It would be up to the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have the say about whether they wanted to become citizens of a new nation in which only Britain and Britishness had any official status as the national identity and state. It’s up to the English people to decide whether they want England to be abolished by a definitive merger into Britain. But the will of the English people could well be overridden by the collective decision of all the people living in Britain, which could include millions of recent migrants who have been encouraged by the government and media to identify as British rather than English, even if they live in England. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important for the government even now to refuse to acknowledge England as a nation and the English as a people: not referring to policies, laws and government departments that relate to England only as being English; but pretending that they are UK-wide or British – which, of course, they will be once England is finally abolished. So if England doesn’t exist, even now, the government could deny the validity of separate scrutiny of the will of the English people concerning a new constitution. British vote on a British constitution, and as it’s the government’s position that the nation of England doesn’t formally exist (and post-constitution, definitively won’t exist), the idea of asking the nation of England whether it wishes to cease to exist is a non-sequitur.

The other way in which GB’s ambitions could be thwarted is if the new constitution is rejected by the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This seems in some ways to be the most likely route to seeing off the spectre of a nation of Britain. This is because the Scots, in a clear majority, now see themselves as Scottish in the first instance, not British. It’s hard to imagine that, having obtained a measure of national self-rule and pride, the Scots would also vote themselves out of existence as an official nation. Unless GB is hoping he can play on the desire of some Scots to finally defeat the auld Enemy by voting it out of existence and breaking it up into units as small and dependent on the British state as itself; while playing on Scottish patriotism by maintaining devolved government as part of the new mix and allowing the Scots to still call themselves a nation, even if they technically wouldn’t be under Brown’s new unitary nation of Britain.

So GB’s solution to the threats posed to the Union by the asymmetrical devolution settlement he helped to bring in is not to maintain the status quo but radically change the Union itself. He wants to make it what it’s never been but what he thinks it should be: a nation of Britain – underpinned by a British constitution, Bill of Rights and Statement of British Values – in which what we now know as the nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cease to have any formal constitutional status as nations. England ceases to exist altogether and is broken up into devolved regions of comparable size to Scotland and Wales. As the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – unlike those of the territory formerly known as England – cover the regions that have traditionally been known as nations, they can continue informally to consider themselves as such. But technically, there’d be a new unitary nation of Britain. This would no longer be the property of a people separate from it, to be ruled over by a state also not identified with the nation(s) and people of Britain. Now, people, nation and state will be one and will form one Britain: a secular European republic in fact if not in name.

Perhaps then we’ll finally be able to drop the ridiculously long name of our country: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Let’s just call it the Kingdom of Britain; better still, the Republic of Britain. Either way, it won’t be Britain as we’ve known it. And it certainly won’t be England.

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.

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