Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

31 October 2009

EU conspiracy update: Blair out; Plan B (Miliband) kicks in

Further to my previous post on this topic, it would appear from reports emerging out of this week’s EU summit that Peter, Gordon and Tony’s little plan to shoe Tony into the EU top job has been scuppered. Too bad for the Eurosceptic cause in the UK!

So ‘Plan B’ has kicked in: to get David Miliband – the present UK Foreign Secretary – into the post of EU Foreign Secretary High Representative. Apparently, he’s the ‘favourite’ for the job: meaning the most likely to be cherry-picked by the EU elite, not actually the candidate favoured by any electorate. I must admit I didn’t see that one coming up on the blind side; but it’s an obvious stitch-up. I can’t believe Miliband’s undeclared ‘candidacy’ did not emerge as a result of squalid trade-offs at the summit: ‘OK, so we can’t have Tony; but at least give us David (Miliband): he’ll support Britain’s entry into the Euro, and he’ll also help to sell the Lisbon deal to the British people, and we can hopefully get away without any sort of referendum’.

This is perfect for Mandy, too: get a potential rival for the soon to be vacant position as Labour Party leader / PM out of the way (assuming Brown steps down on the grounds of ‘illness’ before the election, and they find a way to enable Mandelson to be elected as an MP and then as Labour leader) while placing a grateful yes man in one of the top EU-State ministerial jobs who’ll be happy to execute Mandelson’s plan to lead Britain into the Euro and help set up a new G3 or G4 of the leading global economies – the US, China, the Eurozone and possibly Japan. At the same time, Miliband can indeed be sold to the British public (or the gullible members of it), perhaps more effectively than could Tony Blair, as ‘our man in Brussels’: batting for the British national interest in a post-Lisbon world in which the EU-State increasingly comes to take the place of former ‘nation states’ (as Britain is sometimes referred to) at the international top table, and in which real power no longer resides in the discredited Mother of Parliaments.

The Mother of all conspiracy theories, indeed. Watch this space!

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5 October 2009

The mother of all conspiracy theories: Blair for president, Mandelson for PM and Britain for the Euro

If you’re one for conspiracy theories, here’s one to keep you awake at night.

It’s already practically certain that Tony Blair will be appointed as the EU’s first president as soon as all 27 EU states have ratified the Lisbon Treaty. After the ‘yes’ vote in the got-it-wrong-do-it-again Irish referendum on Friday, only the Czech Republic and Poland have yet to sign above the dotted line, and this is expected to happen before the British general election, scheduled for May or June 2010. President Sarkozy of France is reported to have given his blessing for Blair to be shoe-horned into the post; and Angela Merkel is thought to be resigned to the idea.

Thinking about why Sarkosy would endorse Tony as president, it occurred to me that the plan might be to replace the so-called special relationship between Britain and the US with a new special relationship between the EU (headed up by the darling of the US political class, Tony Blair) and the US. In other words, Blair would be the ideal candidate to give the new EU job real clout in the international community, positioning the EU to become a global player in its own right.

Then I came across an article in the Mail Online that suggests that President Obama and other world leaders are planning to set up a new club of the world’s leading economies called the G4, comprising the US, Japan, China and the Eurozone countries. This certainly fits in with the idea that other EU countries want the EU itself to be elevated into a major world power in its own right.

The final piece in the jigsaw was suggested to me by a report in the Mirror, which indicated that Jack Straw’s House of Lords-reform bill will indeed remove the existing ban on lords becoming MPs for five years after resigning as lords. It had previously been mooted that this bill would remove the last impediment to Peter Mandelson’s glorious return to the House of Commons, and here was the confirmation.

So here’s the scenario: Mandelson is found a nice safe Labour seat at the general election as the heir apparent to Brown in the likely event that Labour loses. Or else, more sinister still, an incumbent Labour MP for a safe seat falls on his or her sword before the election allowing Mandelson to become an MP and then mount a coup to oust Brown; so we’d have Labour being led into the election by Prime Minister Mandelson. This would coincide with Tony Blair’s elevation to the EU presidency. If, by that time, the plan to form the G4 is on the way to fruition, the Labour Party would have a much stronger argument at the election for saying that Britain needs to remain at the heart of the EU in order to continue to have a powerful voice in the key economic decisions. They’d be able to claim with some credibility that a Mandelson premiership would be best placed to achieve such results given his long friendship with Blair, and his EU contacts and experience as the EU’s Trade Commissioner. They would certainly argue that a Euro-sceptic Tory government intent on renegotiating the terms of the Lisbon Treaty would marginalise Britain still more at the EU and global top tables. Indeed, Mandelson would be able to push for Britain’s entry into the euro, making it part of the Eurozone group of economies represented in the G4. Certainly, if the value of the pound continues to fall, thanks to Gordon Brown’s borrowing on our behalf, and drops below the euro, the economic arguments in favour of Britain joining the euro could become compelling.

And what of Gordon Brown himself? Perhaps he could then become the Eurozone’s special representative in G4 negotiations and day-to-day co-ordination of economic affairs: a reward for having damaged the British economy so much that it had to join the euro.

Even if Mandelson doesn’t succeed in ousting Brown before the election, as leader of the opposition, he could greatly reduce Prime Minister Cameron’s room for manoeuvre in his dealings with the EU, especially with his mate Tony in the hot seat there. And if Brown is given an influential role in the G4 or G20, it could make it very difficult to hold a referendum on Britain’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Apart from anything else, it could be argued that we need big hitters like Blair and Brown batting for Britain at the heart of the EU and the G4 grouping; and if Britain withdrew from Lisbon, or even from the EU, then not only would Blair have to resign as EU president, but Britain would have no influence whatsoever.

But what those idiots don’t realise is that were they to achieve, or even just attempt to achieve, these objectives through such machinations, this would only demonstrate still more the importance of Britain, or at least England, pulling away from the EU, as this is the only way to preserve our sovereignty and freedom from an unaccountable EU and corrupt, power-hungry politicians such as Mandelson, Blair and Sarkozy.

The stakes could not be much higher. What prospect would there be of establishing self-government for England as a distinct nation if Britain itself loses control over the management of its economy and signs away its sovereignty through the Lisbon Treaty / EU Constitution, which contains an in-built mechanism for transferring ever greater powers to the EU Parliament and Council of Ministers?

All the more reason to vote for a party that will give us a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty at the very least, if not EU membership. But are the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (who, as far as I can tell, still support a referendum on British membership of the EU) going to stand up and be counted?

3 December 2008

Damian In-the-Dock Green: Breaches In Confidence That Betray a Cynical Political Culture

I must confess to having initially reacted with a large dose of cynicism last week to the news of the arrest and questioning of the Tory immigration spokesman Damian Green. I thought he must have been up to some sort of political skulduggery given the routine assumption that politicians do indulge in dodgy intrigue and rule bending to procure political advantage. On learning a bit more about the case, I assumed that he must have been offering inducements of some kind to the civil servant who kept feeding him titbits on wrongdoing, ‘malfeasance’ and cover-ups at the Home Office; or else, that the civil servant in question was himself politically motivated, so that at least there was connivance between him and Damian Green in breaking the law (albeit a questionable law in many of its provisions: the Official Secrets Act) in order to score points against the government – a government for which, if I need remind my readers, I have the utmost contempt.

Only subsequently, on reading some of the storm of protest and indignation about the affair, did I pause to reflect a bit more about the civil-liberties implication of the events. Even if the police had a reasonable suspicion that Damian Green had been offering the civil servant in question inducements to betray official secrets, surely the use of a whole squad of counter-terrorist officers to search the MP’s parliamentary office and interrogate him for a whole day was completely inappropriate and excessive. Would it not have been sufficient for ordinary detectives to have a quiet word with Damian Green in his offices after consulting with the Speaker of the Commons and the MP’s boss, the Conservative Party leader David Cameron? The actions and motivation of the Speaker, Michael Martin, in allowing the police raid to go ahead are highly questionable. And then there are the implications for the confidential nature of Damian Green’s work and dealings with his constituents, which the police appeared to regard as completely open for them to look through in the search for incriminating evidence. Should the confidentiality of an MP’s correspondence, files and computers not be regarded by default as completely off limits, and only to be made available to the police under the gravest of circumstances and under reasonable suspicion of serious criminality, such as actual support for terrorism, which might have warranted the use of anti-terrorist officers? But no one has suggested that anything remotely like that had been going on.

Then it occurred to me that, in their suspicions towards Damian Green, and in their apparent belief that there was nothing untoward or objectionable in their investigative methods in this case, the police were demonstrating the same sort of cynicism and lack of respect towards MPs and the parliamentary process as I had done in my initial reaction. After the way the political elite rallied round to protect Tony Blair and his cronies in the ‘cash for honours’ investigation, which ended with no prosecutions and accusations of wasted police resources and effort, such cynicism on their part would be understandable. In this case, however, the police’s attentions were directed towards the dealings of an opposition politician claiming to be exercising his duty to call the government to account for its illegal and deceitful doings, and not towards corrupt political patronage carried on with the acquiescence of the PM.

The Damian Green case therefore demonstrated that cynicism of this sort – whether it is that of the police, the media or the general public – can lead to complacency towards and even acquiescence with the government’s use of secrecy and anti-terrorist measures to suppress disclosure and scrutiny of its own dishonest or incompetent dealings. By means of the incident and the subsequent ‘outing’ of the civil servant involved (Christopher Galley), the message was being put out that civil servants who blew the whistle on government wrongdoing – and even politicians that sought to get hold of and release information about that wrongdoing – could expect the full force of the law to come down on their heads. The government’s newly re-recruited spin-meister and bully boy, Peter Mandelson, reinforced this message this morning, I notice: accusing the Conservative Party leadership of sanctioning inducements to Galley (who was motivated by ambition not the public interest, according to Mandelson) and of conniving in law breaking and violation of the Civil Service Code in order to score political points – almost exactly my own initially cynical reaction.

In view of the fact that this was clearly the message the government wants to put out, I find it completely impossible to believe that the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and probably also Gordon Brown himself – who seems to run cabinet government on a Stalinist-style central command-and-control basis – did not have prior knowledge that the police intended to raid Damian Green’s offices and arrest him. Certainly, if Jacqui Smith did not have such foreknowledge, this would in itself almost justify a resignation on her part: in circumstances as grave and unprecedented as these, for the police not to consult her and gain at least her tacit approval would reveal a huge lack of confidence in the Home Secretary on the part of the police, along with ineffectiveness on her part in setting acceptable guidelines for the police in such matters. If Smith genuinely didn’t know about it, it’s hard to avoid the thought that she may not have done so because Gordon Brown didn’t inform her: i.e. he himself was very much informed and sanctioned the whole thing, and didn’t see fit to tell his Home Secretary about it, as he wouldn’t want an unseemly row and was intent on demonstrating who was really in charge.

This is, of course, speculation. But I’ve long suspected Gordon Brown of being a ruthless Machiavellian operator, who’s prepared to use whatever underhand tactics are at his disposal to ruin the reputations of his opponents both inside and outside the Labour Party: this time, Damian Green, by tainting him with the slur of suborning a civil servant from the proper and legal exercise of his duties; last time, by again using the offices of Peter Mandelson to try to get an accusation of improper soliciting of a donation to the Tory Party to stick on the Conservative Treasury spokesman George Osborne. In fact, there’ve been so many of these personal and career ruins in Brown’s wake that you might almost think it was he who triggered the stories and investigations about the cash for honours scandal in the first place, in an attempt to discredit and even oust Tony Blair. The fact that neither Brown nor Jacqui Smith have felt the least bit inclined to express any regret, let alone apology, about the outrageous handling of the Green investigation by the police can only lend further support to the view that one or both of them knew all about it and sought to secure political advantage from it.

One test of this supposition would be to imagine for a moment how the Labour leadership would react to a request from the police to carry out a similar inspection of, say, the Labour Immigration Minister’s Commons office and confidential files. Do we think for a moment that this would have been permitted? Of course, it wouldn’t. Therefore, whoever it was in the government that gave the green light for the police’s actions last week (Michael Martin, Jacqui Smith or Gordon Brown) was / were, at least in (large) part, motivated by achieving political advantage and revenge for Green’s embarrassing disclosures; and all of Mandelson’s blandishments about upholding the law and the Civil Service Code are a load of utterly futile and discreditable tosh.

Or am I just being cynical again? The point is that the actions of the government in sanctioning (whether ad or post hoc) the police’s actions last week, where there are clear potential political gains for it in doing so, only serve to bring the whole political process and, indeed, the law into disrepute. It is the government that should be setting an example in these matters: it should be completely open about who in government knew, or did not know, what; and in repudiating the police’s disproportionate actions. If it has nothing to hide, this should not be a problem. But the fact that the government has failed to adequately address such questions and concerns can only fuel the type of speculation that I have indulged in here. And, moreover, it is clear that the government did have something to hide, which is why the leaks occurred in the first place; and why the government was, and is, so furious about them.

And this brings us to the hub of the matter: the government comes over all indignant about the leaks carried out by Galley and Green (sounds like a firm of solicitors or executioners!), as if its secrets were all of the utmost importance (hence meriting the deployment of counter-terrorist officers); whereas in fact, it’s obvious they were highly embarrassed and politically harmed by the disclosures. And yet, the government shows cavalier disregard for the secrets and confidential information of its own citizens: whether those of Damian Green’s constituents, whose business was laid bare to the investigating officers last week; or to every citizen in the land, whose personal data has been handled with such gross negligence by a government that feels entitled to gather more and more of it, and to put it all in one place through the ID-card scheme.

It’s this lack of respect and, seemingly, trust for the privacy and honest secrets of the ordinary citizen that betrays the true depths of cynicism to which this government has stooped. The government’s secrets are held to be sacrosanct, even if they comprise a record of misconduct and incompetence. The citizen’s secrets, on the other hand, are to be an open book to the government – and to any organisation with which the government chooses to share, or to which it decides to sell, that information; or to any criminal, terrorist or ordinary citizen who happens to stumble upon or hack into data containing millions of our personal details. What have we got to hide or to fear, after all, from this whiter-than-white, trustworthy and supremely competent government? And if we have got something we’d rather they didn’t know, does that justify ‘the authorities’ in being suspicious that we might be up to criminal or even terrorist activities? Hence justifying the deployment of a counter-terrorist squad to search our premises? Because if it’s allowed to happen to an MP today, it could become a routine tactic to intimidate troublesome citizens tomorrow.

And what is an MP, after all, other than a representative of the people? If the government feels it is justified to treat inconvenient MPs in such a bullying and invasive manner, then it is to us the people that it is showing disregard and cynicism – as indeed it did quite specifically in this instance by allowing the police to peruse the confidential information of Mr Green’s constituents, apparently without any safeguards to the unofficial secrets involved. The reason for this discrimination and these double standards? The government’s job is to govern, and the citizen is there to be governed. So if the government decides it needs more and more of the citizen’s personal information in order to secure the processes and continuance of its governance against mounting threats (the ultimate justifying threat being that of ‘terror’), then it is the government’s prerogative both to appropriate that information and to cloak it, and the use to which it is put, in an ever more enveloping shroud of secrecy. Such as the information the Home Office had gathered on which Labour MPs were likely to vote against 42 days’ detention without charge for terror suspects, which was another of the items leaked by Christopher Galley. It seems that not even Labour’s own MPs are to be trusted.

This is government that sees its primary objective as perpetuating itself and defending itself against the threats to its survival by any means fair or foul. Government that sees itself, not the people, as the ultimate arbiter of its own actions which alone – in its view – can be characterised as ‘in the public interest’; not the actions of the government’s detractors and critics. Government for the government, and not government accountable to the people in the shape of its representatives: in this case, Damian Green MP. The government’s cynical condoning of the police’s actions last week is a sign that it has lost touch with the one thing that confers legitimacy upon it: not its own power but the trust of the people. And from the government’s increasingly paranoid perspective, it is the people in turn that are not to be trusted: potential terrorists all if they question the integrity and expose the incompetence of the government’s security operations and apparatus.

This is perhaps an episode that does justify strong criticism of, indeed cynicism towards, the British parliamentary system. The reason why the government is so out of touch with the people is that it does not have to rely on the support of even a large minority – let alone majority – of the people in UK elections. This is a government that was elected by only 22% of the British electorate (36% of those who actually voted). But that low level of support gave it an absolute majority and, effectively, the absolute power of a monarch, in whose name – and with whose sovereign authority – it governs.

But at the same time – and for all its flaws – this incident also demonstrates the greatness of the English and British parliamentary system: the fact that parliament at its best is not just an assemblage of party clones who slavishly back their government’s and parties’ positions on every issue. The fact that each MP is a free agent: a representative, symbol, defender and example of the freedom of every English and British citizen. And that they can, and do, stand up to abuses of power; even when further abuses are heaped upon them in the attempt to shut them up.

And that is why, despite the government’s betrayal of our confidence – indeed, of our confidential information – I still have confidence in the parliamentary process that England bequeathed to the world.

6 November 2008

Barack Obama: America’s Tony Blair

Is Barack Obama a US version of Tony Blair? This is not a comparison that’s being made very much. After all, Tony Blair is yesterday’s man and George Bush’s big pal to boot. Progressives feel they were let down by Tony Blair; and they’re not about to compare that traitor with the man who’s now reignited their hope. But therein, of course, lies the validity of the analogy.

Think of the parallels: Obama is about the same age as Tony Blair when he came to power. Both men promised to bring fundamental change not only to the way their country was governed but to its whole ethos: a new liberal individualism, and a refocusing of market economics towards the promotion of opportunity and a more even distribution of the social benefits of prosperity. Obama also has the Blair charm factor, with a particularly strong appeal to women voters. And Obama has himself been handed a huge opportunity to push through his agenda, as the first-past-the-post electoral system has presented him with a majority in Congress that is out of proportion to the level of support he actually obtained in the country.

And, perhaps most fundamentally of all, he represents the prospect of a secularisation of America – challenging some of the most innately conservative features of American society, politics and values that have a Christian foundation: the responsibility of the individual to better himself and to look after his own, rather than relying on the state; the importance of the voluntary sector as a means to foster community and provide for those in need; the stress on traditional family values, heterosexual marriage and Christian faith. Against these fundamental building blocks of America, Obama looks set to implement a social-democratic political programme and a liberal moral agenda: the use of the tax system to redistribute wealth; a greater role for state welfare and social services, perhaps even a US version of the National Health Service; the possibility that young people may be obliged to do some form of state-sponsored community service, competing with voluntarism and suggesting echoes of Gordon Brown’s idea of needing to earn one’s rights through the due exercise of one’s social responsibilities; the promotion of the ethos of equality of opportunity; and a secular-liberal affirmation of the right of all persons – of whatever gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or creed – to live out their lives in the manner of their choosing, in a way that implies a moral equivalence of all such free individual choices, as opposed to a fundamentally Christian basis for society and ethics.

As part of this liberal-individualistic agenda, there is an aggressive assertion of women’s ‘right to choose’ over above the unborn human’s right to live. As others have shown, Obama is militantly pro-abortion, even to the extent that he may try to introduce an amendment to the US constitution that would make it a right for women to terminate their pregnancies all the way up to nine months for any reason, possibly including merely financial circumstances. He also advocates not only stem-cell research using live human embryos but the deliberate mass creation of embryos solely for the purpose of such research. In this, too, there is a parallel between Obama and New Labour which, despite the ostensibly Christian credentials of its leaders Blair and Brown, has maintained the UK’s comparatively late time limit for abortions (28 weeks) and high rate of terminations (200,000 a year), and has driven through legislation permitting stem-cell research and the creation of hybrid animal-human embryos – all in the name of social and scientific progress.

Another disquieting parallel between Obama and Blair is suggested by their brand of political Christianity. Like Blair, Obama appears to be imbued by a sense of his ‘God-given’ mission to bring change. To be fair to him, it would be hard for anyone with a Christian faith not to believe that God had called and chosen him for the task in some special way given his humble origins and seemingly miraculous meteoric rise to power. But it’s in the potential for megalomania and messianism that this combination of personal faith and massive temporal power presents concerns – particularly, the way in which Obama’s sense of mission to bring change, democracy and secular-liberal freedoms to the world may express itself in military terms.

Obama is no pacifist; and, indeed, he has gone on record as wanting to carry out some form of Iraq-style US military surge in Afghanistan – thereby echoing Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s staunch support for this exercise in Western-liberal supremacism and military folly. The West cannot and will not win – at least, not by military means – in Afghanistan: no army has ever succeeded in subduing that land by military might, not in thousands of years of empires that have met their match in Afghanistan’s barren mountainous hinterlands; not even the mighty Soviet Red Army. And yet Obama would carry on with this fruitless destruction of human life and take the fight on into Pakistan, with the potential of plunging that nuclear power into its own version of Iraq’s internecine chaos. But the lives of Taliban insurgents, Pakistani Islamic fanatics and Afghan civilians are expendable, it seems, in the cause of Western liberal values that Obama believes will somehow be advanced by their demise, as by the deaths of many more US and British servicemen and -women.

I don’t believe, as some appear to do, that Obama is the Antichrist. But I do believe that the combination of his sense of divine calling and commitment to secular liberalism makes him a potential enemy not just of America’s Christian traditions and values but of the sanctity of the human person, of Christian faith and institutions, and of life itself.

By their works shall ye know them. Let us hope that Obama will not be judged by the many thousands or millions of extra lives that may be needlessly lost in the operating theatre, research labs and battle fields. And let us hope that Obama genuinely will bring unity to America and not greater division, as Blair brought to Britain.

And God bless America.

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?”

9 February 2008

Sharia, English Law and British Values

It’s open season on Islamophobia again. All it takes is for a batty old archbishop to make a few ill-considered remarks about incorporating some aspects of Islamic law, or sharia, into English law [sic], and out troop all the old stereotypes and prejudices about Islam: floggings, stonings, mutilations, beheadings, religious extremism and absolutism, oppression of women, the imposition of the veil, and the ambition of (some) Muslims to impose sharia on Britain and the West in general. What a load of disgraceful hysteria that is a shame on our country.

Actually, ‘ill-considered’ is virtually the opposite of what Archbishop Rowan Williams’ words in a lecture on 7 February were, other than in the political sense: he should perhaps have realised the furious zeal that would be unleashed to stuff the genie he’d released back into its rightful confinement. The fact that the archbishop was saying something worthwhile is almost ‘proved’ negatively by the calibre of his opponents. First of all, GB [Gordon Brown], whose spokesman stated that the prime minister “believes that British laws should be based on British values”. What on earth is that supposed to mean? There is no such thing as ‘British law’ other than as an aggregate of English law (the legal system for England and Wales) and Scottish law. And are (should) the laws of England, Wales and Scotland (be) ‘based on’ British values, whatever they may be? And is a statement such as this even a refutation of Rowan Williams’s argument, in two ways: 1) no one is denying – least of all, Rowan Williams – that the laws of Britain should be consistent with the most fundamental principles of British civilisation and society; but the archbishop isn’t advocating incorporating certain elements of sharia directly into ‘British law’ and British statutes, so the conflict in this sense doesn’t arise; 2) many of the principles of sharia law in the areas Rowan Williams is talking about (such as marital disputes and family law) are already consistent with British law and values; and, indeed, on another definition, if Muslims as Muslims are to be accepted as British, does that not mean that their values must be taken into consideration in any determination of what ‘British values’ might mean?

And then there’s Trevor Philips, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (he of the ironically ‘pro-Muslim’ revisionist British history that overrides, indeed overwrites, the separate ‘native’ histories of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland). His take on it was that “the suggestion that a British court should treat people differently according to their faith – whether that’s being Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, is absolutely divisive, and I think, really rather dangerous”. Well, this is not what Dr Williams was suggesting, either. He wasn’t advocating that ‘British courts’ (sorry, slip of the tongue, English (or Welsh) or Scottish courts) should treat people differently according to their religion; he was saying that Muslims should perhaps have the right, under English law, to seek resolution and redress in certain types of cases (essentially, domestic and financial), if they wish, through sharia-type procedures, all under the auspices and control of the English legal system. What is divisive about that? It’s not one law for Muslims and another for all the other British people. It’s an integration of limited aspects of sharia into English law, so as to guarantee that Muslims could resolve certain issues legally in accordance with their conscience and customs, while enjoying the same legal protections and rights as any other British citizen.

I’d call that integrationist and inclusive, not divisive. In fact, it’s people who are rigorously opposed to allowing for any kind of role for sharia or other religiously based laws and jurisdiction in British civic society who are divisive. As a Muslim, so the argument goes (and Blair in his time and Jack Straw have argued along these lines), you can reconcile your joint identities as British and Muslim only if you accept the ultimate supremacy of British law, indeed the rule of law, over all prescriptions and rules deriving from your own religious tradition that might place you in conflict with British laws and fundamental values; and sharia is seen as the example par excellence of such a code that is seen as conflicting with and alien to inherently British principles and values. You either accept British values, thereby subordinating your separate Muslim identity to a shared British identity founded on those values, or you don’t – in which case, in principle, you are forfeiting your right to be called a British citizen.

I think Rowan Williams was also attacking this narrow identification of British citizenship with uniform and monopolistic acceptance of the abstract and absolutist claim of the law to govern the lives of all citizens equally, without any right for particular groups of citizens to freely choose to regulate certain aspects of their lives differently, in accordance with particular customs or beliefs. As the archbishop stated: “The danger is in acting as if the authority that managed the abstract level of equal citizenship represented a sovereign order which then allowed other levels to exist. But if the reality of society is plural . . . this is a damagingly inadequate account of common life, in which certain kinds of affiliation are marginalised or privatised to the extent that what is produced is a ghettoised pattern of social life, in which particular sorts of interest and of reasoning are tolerated as private matters but never granted legitimacy in public as part of a continuing debate about shared goods and priorities”.

This could almost be a description of the way in which calls for a distinct English nation and legislative body (parliament) are suppressed by the British state and value system that certain proponents such as GB (as I’ve argued elsewhere) wish to transform into a unitary British nation where the state is viewed as representing the sovereignty (absolute authority) of the British people: equality before a unitary ‘British’ law. Meanwhile, public expressions of Englishness are denied any official sanction; indeed, the state itself suppresses any reference to England as a nation within, but distinct from, Britain even when the sphere of its own activities is limited to England. And more fundamentally, the terms in which any officially accepted discussion regarding ‘shared values’ (what Dr Williams calls “shared goods and priorities”) is allowed to take place are defined exclusively as British; while English values and culture are marginalised and dismissed as merely the whims of private individuals. You can define yourself as English, just as you can be fundamentally Muslim, only in the privacy of your heart and your home; but officially, you’re British – or else, you are free to leave.

And this is why it’s particularly pernicious that the row that erupted over Rowan Williams’ lecture should have referred to the idea of accommodating Sharia within British law. No, Dr Williams’ lecture is entitled Islam in English Law: Civil and Religious Law in England. It’s an English matter, not British. English law already allows certain types of dispute to be resolved in civil, rather than legal, procedures under the terms of Orthodox Jewish law or, indeed, sharia; and the outcomes of such procedures are legally binding. What the archbishop is proposing is no more than a formalisation and extension of such arrangements so as to ensure legal oversight and improved guarantees that the rights and freedoms enshrined in English law are not overridden by the rulings of any given sharia court, which can vary according to the ethnic background and school of Islamic belief of each Muslim community.

Such a deviation from a uniform, legalistic Britishness on the part of English courts clearly cannot be tolerated. There is, after all, only one British law, nation and set of values for all. Well, there are not; but there will be if GB gets his way. Englishman beware: it may be Islamic law they’re excluding from Britain now, but it’ll be English law next. Perhaps that’s another trick that a written British constitution will pull off: the creation of a unified British law, superseding an English legal system based on tradition, precedent and the freedom to be different.

23 December 2007

Saint Tony becomes a Catholic: a conversion of heart and mind?

Commenting on Tony Blair’s reception into the Catholic Church on Friday, the Vatican is reported to have stated that the decision by someone as authoritative as Tony Blair to join the Church can “only arouse joy and respect”.

Speaking as a Roman Catholic myself, I have to say that while I respect the former PM’s decision, it doesn’t fill me with joy. I’m with Ann Widdecombe, the Tory MP and Catholic convert, who wonders whether Mr Blair has now changed his mind over the many decisions he took and supported that ran contrary to Church teaching and advice.

Mr Blair is a profoundly ambiguous figure from a moral perspective: hero or villain; morally courageous or moral coward? The decision over which he faced the biggest moral dilemma – and over which he has been most condemned – is of course that of taking the UK into the US-led war in Iraq. What I’m concerned about is that Tony Blair’s acceptance into the Catholic Church could lend the impression, especially in the Middle East, that the Church endorses that decision. In fact, almost every senior figure in the Church, including the late Pope John Paul II, spoke out against the war and affirmed that it did not meet the criteria for a Just War.

Tony Blair is known to have prayed over his decision back in 2003. While this fact, or at least the public admission of it, provoked a combination of shock, derision and outrage on the part of many non-religious people in the UK, this behaviour is the minimum that would be expected of Christians contemplating doing something that would inevitably result in the loss of many thousands of innocent lives. Even so, Mr Blair went ahead with the war, ignoring the personal advice against doing so he’s known to have received from the late Pope along with the consensus in the worldwide Catholic Church and the opinion of most senior Anglicans.

Moral courage or moral cowardice? Probably a bit of both. Who knows, really, what motivated Mr Blair’s decision? Judgement is mine, says the Lord. All I can say is that, in my opinion, informed by my own Catholic faith, it was a profoundly wrong choice, both morally and strategically. It was not a Just War; it did result in the needless loss of hundreds of thousands of lives; it has destabilised Iraq and the whole Middle East; it undermined the political consensus and moral authority behind the USA and Britain in the ‘war on terror’; and it has increased support for so-called Islamist terrorism.

Elsewhere, I’ve expressed the hope that there may have been nobler, hidden reasons for Tony Blair’s backing for the USA in Iraq, such as the need to be ‘in’ with George Bush in order to exercise influence over his choices and steer him away from even more disastrous courses of action. Also, I wondered whether Mr Blair’s new role of Middle East peace envoy had been taken on partly out of a wish to make reparation for the damage to the whole region and the escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for which the Iraq War has been responsible. Mr Blair is a highly intelligent man, and his decision to become a Catholic demonstrates he’s also a man who is finally having the courage of his convictions. He must know that it’s the divisions in Israel-Palestine that are the ultimate source of Islamically inspired terrorism; and that bringing peace in the Holy Land, rather than bringing war to the Middle East, is the only way to defeat the terrorists.

Blessed are the peacemakers. The proof of Tony Blair’s religious conversion will be if he can show that he is one.

30 October 2007

Why CAN’T Gordon Brown say ‘England’?

There’s a petition on the Downing Street website at the moment, organised by supporters of an English parliament, which urges the prime minister to actually say ‘England’, rather than ‘the country’ or ‘our country’ (or even ‘Britain’), when he means England: when he refers to matters such as health, education and housing where (as a result of devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) his ‘competence’ (to use an EU-speak term) or area of responsibility is in fact limited to England. But he can’t bring himself to do so as his recent ‘Brit-eulogy’ at the Labour Party conference and his inability to praise the England rugby team on behalf of England testified.

Why can’t our prime minister acknowledge or speak on behalf of the country that makes up 85% of the population of the nation he supposedly leads? This is more than a matter of semantics. The answer to this question goes to the heart of the identity of ‘our nation’; of Scots’ continuing engagement with it post-devolution and after a possible full independence; and of the survival, or not, of the Union if the Scots did set off on their own.

First, let’s recap a bit of history. If you took only the words of Gordon Brown [or GB as I like to call him: if he can’t refer to a country by its name but can talk only of ‘Britain’, I won’t refer to him by his name and will just call him ‘GB’ – the personification of Britain, indeed], then ‘our country’ is Britain. But Britain or Great Britain does not exist as a nation. There was a nation called Great Britain (more fully, the ‘Kingdom of Great Britain’; also informally known as the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain’) that was established by the Act of Union between the Kingdoms of England (which incorporated the principality of Wales) and Scotland in 1707. This nation or state lasted only 93 years till the further Act of Union between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland in 1800. This established the name of the state as the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. This in turn was given its present name of ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ in 1927 to reflect the reality of Irish partition and independence.

This latter event creates a historical precedent for what would presumably happen if the Scots became an independent nation before some solution changing the constitutional relationships between all the countries of the UK was reached. As the Union that is the UK encompasses more than just the union of England and Scotland but also two other unions (the union of England and Wales that existed since the 13th century, and the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), these two other unions would remain in effect, albeit altered, if Scotland left. This would in fact see the demise of ‘Great Britain’ (and by extension, ‘Britain’) as a name for the continuing state. But we would still have a United Kingdom: ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’, maybe. That is, until the probably inevitable further break up of such a unitary state into three more independent or federal nations!

Or would we? The on-off New Labour plans to break up England into a number of regions of comparable size to Scotland and Wales could be a way to pre-empt the break up of ‘Britain’ / ‘Great Britain’ by creating a ‘Britain of nations [Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland] and regions [the ‘former England’]’, as it’s been called. If Scotland were to break off from such a ‘Britain’, this could then be construed as a de facto region of Britain establishing itself as a separate nation. The continuing ‘British nation’ could then be named something like the ‘United Kingdom of Britain [not Great Britain any more with Scotland no longer in it], Wales and Northern Ireland’; or, hell, why not just go the whole hog and call it the ‘United Kingdom of Britain’ (‘Britain’ for short) – because if there’s no administrative difference between the regions of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (as they’re all run by devolved assemblies), there’s no reason to acknowledge any of them separately in the name of the state. Welsh and Northern Irish people could still informally refer to their countries as if they were nations; but well, England, you’ve always been proud of your history, and now that’s all you are!

Is this just a fantasy or, rather, nightmare scenario? Well, the total inability of GB to officially acknowledge the existence of an entity we like to call England isn’t reassuring at a time when he’s carrying out a constitutional reform process which – we learnt last week – will enshrine long-established British (yes, it’s that word again) principles of rights and responsibilities. And there’s a more well founded basis for these fears based on, yes, history again.

This is that England, like Great Britain, does not officially exist as a nation. It’s just that England ceased to exist from the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 (becoming Great Britain, as above); and Great Britain ceased to exist as a stand-alone entity (albeit it’s included in the name of the state) in 1800 with the union with Ireland. Scotland’s leaving [Great] Britain doesn’t of itself re-create an England: it would just leave a United Kingdom of Britain that – if England had not been granted devolution prior to Scotland’s independence – would in fact officially be more like the regionalised-England model: a United Kingdom defined and named officially as a Britain with certain powers devolved to two ‘countries’ and a number of regions.

In other words, the Britologists’ or British nationalists’ view would appear to boil down to the statement, ‘if England does not exist (as it doesn’t now, officially), why go to the trouble of creating a “new” nation called England – either prior to full Scottish independence or after it – if we can preserve a unitary state under its ‘existing’ (unofficial) banner of “Britain”?’ For these people, the Union / UK is synonymous with ‘Britain’; and so is England – for them – as England (sub)merged its identity, through the Union of Scotland, with that of Great Britain. From this perspective, any (re-)establishment of a separate entity called England would indeed represent the de-construction of the Union: its splitting into a separate England and Scotland.

But this is not true: the Union is greater than the Union between England and Scotland alone. As indicated above, it also incorporates a more long-standing union between England and Wales, and a union between a Great Britain including England and Wales with Northern Ireland. So the establishment of a distinct political and national identity for England – whether in the context of Scottish independence or not – in no way intrinsically subverts the Union / UK. It’s just that if Scotland but not the other nations broke off, it could be re-named, as I’ve suggested, the ‘United [and / or Federal] Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’; with the continuing participation of Scotland, this could be the ‘United [Federal] Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’. But both scenarios do indeed do away with a unitary ‘Great Britain’ or ‘Britain’, which hasn’t officially existed since 1800 in any case. So it’s not the Union that is threatened by English devolution and / or Scottish independence, but Britain.

So why do the supposed ‘Britological’ (Brit-illogical) defenders of the Union want to perpetuate the lie(s) that a) Britain is a nation (it’s not; the UK is); b) that the Union means Britain (which it doesn’t); and that c) ‘England’ doesn’t exist (i.e. that it’s – officially – only a nameless part of [Great] Britain)? To some extent, these myths could be characterised as a delusion as much as they are a deception. English people have historically, and until quite recent times, merged and conflated the English and British national identities: England did invest its identity and ambitions into ‘Great Britain’ through the Union and the Empire. The realisation that the days of a ‘great’ Britain – of a Britain as a major world power – are long gone is something that the leaders and people of England will have no escape from in a devolved or fully independent England. Tony Blair tried to stoke up this truly megalomaniac delusion of Britain the World Power in order to keep the myth of Britain as the Union and Nation going for a bit longer after the body blow he dealt it through the uneven devolution settlement. But England’s greatness is based on more than the achievements of Great Britain, and England will find, and can only find, renewed confidence and purpose when it is able to forge a new direction in its own name.

That’s if the Britologists let her. Because the other side of the British coin is continuing Scottish engagement in – as opposed to English identification with – the Union that is mis-named Britain. The Scots have never truly bought into ‘Britain’ as the English did. For them, it was always a convenient name for a tie up with England, indeed a marriage of convenience with England; in which using the name ‘Great Britain’ is a way to pretend that it’s a marriage of equals and a true union (the creation of a new merged entity from two formerly separate entities), rather than what it effectively was: an English take-over of Scotland. Better for Scots’ pride – and what a reflection, it could be argued, on English diplomacy and self-effacement – to call it ‘Great Britain’ rather than ‘Greater England’! It could have been called something like that. After all, the expanded English kingdom incorporating Wales from 1284 had been simply called ‘England’.

Historically, Scots have been committed to ‘Great Britain’ essentially through perceived self-interest. Political union with England enabled the Scottish people and nation to benefit from, and share in creating, the wealth of the British Empire. But both before and after that flowering of English civilisation, the establishment of Great Britain has enabled Scots to participate, in a surrogate manner, in the public life of a greater nation than Scotland alone (if greatness is measured in terms of political and economic power, and cultural influence); indeed, it has enabled Scots to exercise political power over, and shape the whole body politic of, England-Britain. Until devolution (fair play), this was, after all, the only way Scots people could also have any political influence over their own nation, since Scotland was (and England still is) ruled by the UK parliament and executive.

So, to some extent, the Union of England and Scotland (one of the three unions from which the UK was created) has persisted so long because it enabled Scots to ‘punch above their weight’, both nationally and internationally. One wonders to what extent the Scot Tony Blair’s insistence that Britain should try to keep punching above its weight on the international stage had anything to do with the realisation of how little influence Scotland, as opposed to England, would have in the world as an independent country, compared with the as yet not entirely extinguished glamour of British imperial power.

An independent Scotland would indeed be a bit-part player: comparable, in economic scale and geo-political affinity, with the likes of Norway and the other Nordic states, and Ireland. The Republic of Scotland might well eventually become a wealthy country, as Alex Salmond was saying at the SNP conference over the weekend, just like these Northern European peers; but not a powerful one. By contrast, England would continue to belong at the European top table alongside the likes of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland; and most likely, it would still sit at the global top table that is the United Nations Security Council, next to its US friend and ally.

The economic wealth and political power enjoyed by ‘the country’ would therefore not be fundamentally compromised by a break up of ‘the Union’ (of Britain, that is, not the UK), which Britologists claim would be the consequence of Scottish independence or English devolution. Indeed, in many respects, greater separation and autonomy for England and Scotland (whether full independence for both countries, or a looser relationship as part of a federal UK; or a federal UK minus Scotland) might in fact be the trigger for a rejuvenation of both countries’ economic and cultural life, and international relations. Certainly, freeing England from the disproportionate tax burden it carries on behalf of Scotland and Wales under the Barnett Formula could provide a major kick-start to its economy.

But – and here’s the rub – a devolved or independent England would leave the Labour Party unable ever to regain absolute power over England: the truly ‘great’ and certainly greater part of the Great Britain over which that party stands zealous guard. And it would leave Scottish and Welsh MPs (a greater proportion of whom are Labour than in England) bereft of their traditional role in influencing English affairs. As these are now separated from Scottish and Welsh domestic matters, these MPs can participate in making decisions on English laws and policies with apparent legitimacy only if these are termed British matters, not English.

But beyond this present political anomaly, referred to as the West Lothian Question, there is a fundamental question of national identity. [Funny that GB should be so keen to press on with plans for a British identity card system!] If our national identities were defined as English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish – rather than British – and if there were devolved and / or independent parliamentary bodies answerable to the people who call themselves English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, then not only the justification but the reality of Scottish people exercising political power over England in the name of Great Britain disappears. If the nations of the UK separate (if only to re-group in a federation), you no longer have Britain: the Union between England and Scotland. If you no longer have that, you have no possibility for Scottish people to be at the centre of power of a greater nation than Scotland alone. GB would have to pack his bags and go home from a global capital city to little old Kirkcaldy.

Better to pretend, then, that Britain still exists. ‘Still’? It doesn’t and never did; at least, not since 1800. But at least the name Britain is included in the name of the nation. And in that name, it’s still possible to wield disproportionate power over an English electorate that have not voted for you.

What do I say ‘England’? England, too, does not officially exist and hasn’t done so for longer than Great Britain; of course, how silly of me to forget! (Scotland and Wales have been allowed to return to official existence; but that leaves British regions, not England, doesn’t it?) But better not even whisper the name of England; otherwise, you might summon up the sleeping giant into existence, and then the whisker-thin justification for your power will disappear into a puff of spin. What better way to continue with the myth of Britain and the disproportionate system of power it props up than to pretend that Britain does exist, and England doesn’t? And even to enshrine that pretence in a new constitutional settlement that, by regionalising it, will do away with England once and for all?

So GB can rule only in the name of GB. His whole political identity is defined in terms of that mythical entity known fallaciously as Britain. His political identity, that is; don’t worry, he’s not going to deny his national identity as a Scot. There are Brits and Scots (not English); and because he’s both, he can exercise power over England (correction: Britain).

GB might represent Britain; but he doesn’t and cannot represent, in the office of prime minister, an England whose very existence he does not and cannot acknowledge. And that is why he can neither speak for England nor of her.

24 October 2007

Immigration As Onshoring

Immigration, from an economic point of view, could be described as a form of ‘onshoring’. What is this? People are more familiar with the term ‘offshoring’, which is used to describe large enterprises’ practice of contracting out certain business functions to third-party providers in ‘offshore’ destinations: places like India, Singapore, Malaysia, Eastern Europe and, increasingly, China. I.e. when the phone call you make to your bank or insurance company is routed to a call centre in Bangalore or wherever, this means the bank or insurer in question has generally outsourced that particular customer-service function to an offshore provider.

‘Onshore’ is in fact a term that is used by offshoring providers (which include major household-name consulting and IT-services firms such as Accenture, Cap Gemini, IBM and many others) to refer to the siting of such outsourced facilities in the client’s own country, for reasons such as the practical need to be physically close to the client or because the client’s own customers (e.g. you and me as bank account holders) aren’t happy chatting about our intimate details to people located half the way round the globe (although that can make it easier for some people). ‘Nearshore’ is when the outsourcing provider is located in the same ‘region’ as the client; although the way some multinationals segment the globe into different regions, for a UK customer, that could just as easily mean Moscow or Dubrovnik as Dublin or Amsterdam.

What’s the purpose of offshoring? It’s fundamentally a means for businesses to cut costs. It’s cheaper to use the services of third-party specialists in developing economies because their labour costs are so much lower and because they can produce economies of scale in delivering the required function that an individual business would be unable to achieve if it maintained the function in house.

What kind of ‘onshoring’ is enabled by immigration? It’s basically the mirror image of offshoring: instead of sending work out to parts of the world where staff are cheap, hard-working but also well qualified, immigration / onshoring functions by importing the same types of staff from similar parts of the world to work in the UK. The reason why there is a need to import workers (rather than export the work) is that the jobs they are needed to do are physical in nature and can only be done in the UK; e.g. agricultural work, low-grade industrial jobs, cleaning, plumbing, building, waiting table – but also highly skilled jobs such as nursing, medical practice, teaching, etc.

The economic rationale for meeting this labour requirement through migrant workers / onshoring is essentially the same as that for offshoring: staff of this sort are cheaper, more hard-working and often more skilled than their British alternatives. So it’s easier for UK plc to simply access a ready-made pool of affordable, qualified staff from abroad rather than go to the trouble of training and maintaining a sufficient number and quality of personnel ‘in house’. The extra costs on the economy that would be required to train up British people to do all the jobs that are needed and to pay them acceptable wages are not merely analogous to the extra costs faced by businesses in maintaining certain functions in house rather than offshoring: in many instances, it would of course be businesses themselves that would be carrying out the training and paying the salaries of these additional British workers.

The fact that immigration serves the purposes of onshoring as described above dawned on me last week when the Home Office published details of a report it has produced for the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs on the economic ‘benefits’ of immigration. It was striking how these benefits were described in almost starkly economic terms. Not surprising, I suppose, given the economic remit for the report. All the same, though, no consideration was given (at least in the media reports on the Home Office’s paper) to how the social impact of mass migration might counteract some of the advantages measured in purely macro-economic terms.

For instance, the report said migration had had no significant impact on the unemployment rates of British citizens. In other words, it hasn’t increased unemployment; but had it not been for the migration, would there not have been a need to employ more British people instead? The counter-argument then goes that a) there is a shortage of the skills involved, and b) British people are often unwilling to do some of the more menial jobs concerned. But this of course comes down mostly to . . . economics again. There’s a skill shortage because we haven’t been prepared to invest in training up our own population to a sufficient standard (this would require higher taxes but would then lead to more well-paid British people in work paying tax). And British people are often not prepared to do certain types of physical work because it’s undervalued – in both an economic sense (humiliatingly and impractically low-paid) and a cultural sense: we look down on menial work of this sort rather than showing respect to the people who do it on our behalf. And because we undervalue this ‘low-grade’ work and the people who do it, we feel it’s fitting to outsource it (or should that be ‘insource’ it?) to immigrants for whom we needn’t have so much of a sense of responsibility.

Again, the Home Office report said that immigration has had a slightly positive effect on wage levels overall and only “very modest negative effects” on the lowest-paid unskilled workers, which has in turn been mitigated by the minimum wage (i.e. immigration ensures that more people get paid only the minimum wage and not more). Well, forgive me, but a ‘modest’ deterioration in the pay of an already low-paid worker is equivalent to a substantial pay cut for better-paid workers – and they’re already at the bottom of the food chain. And this is not even taking account of the impact of the black economy of illegal migrants who are paid well below the minimum wage and therefore limit the number of jobs in the legal economy that would be available at minimum-wage levels. But this, too, is economically ‘beneficial’ up to a certain point, in that it drives down costs in the economy as a whole, resulting in cheaper goods and services, and more personal wealth for those who exploit illegal immigrants in this way, and thereby promote illegal immigration.

One of the implications of all this is that it seems that government is now prepared to accept the existence of a permanent stratum of British society (sometimes derogatorily referred to as the ‘underclass’) consisting of under-qualified people who are either unable or unwilling to find employment, partly because wages have been driven down to the lowest legal level, and partly because they share society’s attitude that certain types of work are demeaning. Does this signify that we’ve abandoned altogether the aim of creating ‘full employment’ for all our citizens: a phrase belonging to the political vocabulary of the 1970s and 1980s?

Economists talk of the inevitability of a certain level of ‘structural unemployment’ in modern economies. What this means is that there will always be a proportion of the population of working age for whom ‘suitable’ employment will not be available as economies develop and the needs of business evolve. These people in theory then need to be re-trained and incentivised to seek and take up whatever work is on offer. Logically, however, if the needs of business are increasingly being met by migrant workers and the number of unemployed British citizens is remaining pretty much constant over time, this must mean there is a fairly substantial number of long-term unemployed and people for whom the creation of personally and financially rewarding employment has become a low priority, politically and economically.

These trends must be linked to the high levels of crime and social problems such as family break-downs, drug abuse and anti-social behaviour. This is not to say that the lack of opportunities in education, training and employment are simply the cause of social disintegration. It works both ways: people don’t take up the opportunities that are there because they can’t be bothered to work and would rather live on whatever benefits are available plus illicit sources of income, including the black economy and crime. But it seems obvious to me that many of these social ills result from people not feeling they have a stake in mainstream society and its much-vaunted prosperity. This is particularly clear in the case of young people, many of whom grow up in dysfunctional families without a responsible father figure (and often, what father figure there is will not be a model of a disciplined approach to working life), are inadequately educated and are exposed to all sorts of malign social influences that foster an antagonistic, aggressive attitude towards authority figures and social institutions – including providers of training and employment. In a sense, it’s no wonder that so many of these youngsters drift into a life of crime and delinquency. Even less surprising given that society and business seem to have abandoned the aim of creating opportunity and legitimate economic activity for them and take the easy option of filling the job vacancies with migrants.

Those same economists and politicians would argue that this sort of analysis is simplistic and that in a global economy, business must be free to access the best ‘human resources’ at the most affordable price on a truly global scale – whether that means offshoring or onshoring in my sense. And it is true that immigration can’t be viewed in isolation from globalisation, and Britain can’t sit on the beach head – Canute-like – and command the tide of ‘necessary’ migrant workers to turn away from our shores. Equally, however, this issue forces us to think about the social purpose of economic activity and growth. Ultimately, business and economic activity should be about meeting the basic needs of the society in which they take place: the need for employment, and the need for both essential and (where possible) luxury goods and services. Business and economic growth are not aims in themselves but are only of any real value if they contribute to meeting the needs of all, or as many as possible, in our society in a sustainable manner. But under Thatcher, Blair and now Brown, we’ve abandoned an economic model that puts the needs of society first in favour of one that prioritises the needs of the market.

I’m not saying we should revert to a discredited socialist socio-economic model, and I’m not a socialist. But there does need to be some re-balancing of our idolatry of the market: the market does not intrinsically meet, and is not in practice meeting, the needs of British society if we’re having to transform the country into a microcosm of the global economy by importing foreign workers to do the jobs that should preferably be intended for British people who could benefit from them.

And it is not just ‘British society’, and ‘the country’ as Britain or the UK, that I’m concerned about. As someone who cares passionately about England and would like to see England reaffirm itself officially as a distinct nation (not necessarily through complete independence), the impact of immigration is profoundly worrying. This issue was thrown into a disturbing light yesterday when the UK government’s Office for National Statistics released new forecasts for ‘the country’s’ population growth. These revise previous forecasts upwards and predict that the UK population (and that’s just the official number) will grow by 4.4 million to 65 million by 2016; and then to 70 million by 2028, reaching 71 million by 2031.

According to the ONS, just under half of the 4.4 million increase to 2016 will be accounted for by ‘net inward migration’: the difference between immigrants and emigrants. But as the number of people escaping the UK to live abroad last year was put in the region of around 200,000, I believe, potentially the number of immigrants settling in the UK by 2016 could be around four million. (And incidentally, how much of the ‘skills shortage’ adduced in support of immigration results from the fact that it is mainly skilled professionals and people with a trade that are emigrating?) In addition, the remaining portion of the population growth that is accounted for by increased fertility and longer life expectancy also includes a substantial contribution from the immigrant population. Immigrants tend to be younger and, accordingly, of child-rearing age; and they often come from cultures where families tend to be bigger than in the UK. The correspondent discussing the ONS report on the BBC One news last night suggested therefore that immigration, directly or indirectly, would account for around 70% of the overall projected population growth.

Of course, these are just forecasts, and all manner of environmental, economic, political or security events or crises could intervene to derail the UK’s economic growth that is fuelling the immigration. But one of the most disturbing aspects of the forecasts was the fact that most of the population growth will be concentrated in England. You could miss this fact from one of the ways in which the numbers are set out: population rise to 2016 of 8% for England, 7% for Northern Ireland, 5% for Wales and only 3% for Scotland – lower fertility and life expectancy being the reasons mentioned for that last statistic; but it also obviously means lower immigration.

But an 8% population rise for England (which accounts for around 85% of the UK population currently) is clearly massively more in absolute terms than 7% for Northern Ireland, 5% for Wales and 3% for Scotland. A graph on the BBC News web page discussing the ONS report makes this clearer (see above link). From this, you can tell that – should the predictions prove accurate – the population of England will rise from around 51.5 million now to over 60 million by 2031. In my estimation, that’s well over 80% of the overall population growth.

OK, you could say that this is proportionately less of a burden, relative to the current population, than will be shouldered by the rest of the UK. But England is already far more densely populated than the other countries of the UK; indeed (I think this is correct), England is the country with the highest population density in the world. In this context, to be reckoning with a population increase of such magnitude (8% by 2016 and over double that by 2031) seems total madness. There are all manner of huge implications in all of this in terms of environmental and economic impact and sustainability, town planning and housing, and the effect on English social cohesion and culture.

Apart from any of these broader complex issues, one has to ask whether we really need and want such a massive population growth. I think most English people would give a resounding ‘no’ to such a question. And that doesn’t mean their objections or fears can simply be written off as the expression of ignorance or nationalistic xenophobia. Clearly, some of the population growth is unavoidable and even desirable: we need more babies to be born, grow up and prosper in order to offset and maintain a population that is ageing owing to longer life expectancy. Equally, for the time being at least, there is not much that can be done to limit migration from other EU countries. But most immigration experts accept that EU immigration is not the main problem, as citizens of other EU countries come and go (just as UK citizens go to live and work in other EU countries, and then often return). The real issue is non-EU migrants whose aim is to stay permanently.

Personally speaking, I don’t object at all on principle to people coming to England from non-EU or non-European backgrounds, or indeed non-British-cultural backgrounds, in the broad sense of coming from non-Commonwealth / non-former-British-imperial countries. Other people sympathetic to the aim of greater autonomy and independence for England would be more opposed to such immigration on principle. But where I share common ground with those people is in the view that immigration needs to be set at a realistic, reasonable and sustainable level that puts the needs of the people who are already here – the needs of English people – first: those needs (indeed, rights) I talked about above. For employment, training, personal fulfilment and quality of life, the necessities of life and a bit of luxury, and a stake in the future of their own country.

What nation wouldn’t seek to look after its own people first before seeing what assistance it could offer to people from other countries who are seeking to make a life for themselves and can make a valuable contribution to the society and economy of the country into which they immigrate? Well, England, apparently. But no, it’s not a case of England not putting the needs of its own people first, but rather of the UK not serving and caring about England. Strategy and policy in these matters are decided and implemented by politicians and business people who are not properly accountable to the English people. Indeed, they often regard the very notion of England and the idea that England should weigh in the balance in considerations about immigration into the UK as irrelevant, even embarrassing. Business and the economy are going to need this extra population in order to sustain their current growth trajectory, so they reason; but do the people exist to feed the greed of growth-obsessed global markets, or are markets there to feed the people? Is UK plc just a growing pool of human resources drawn from all over the world that businesses operating here should be able to access at will (just as they can access human resources from all over the world for other purposes, via offshoring)? Or is the UK, rather, just a formerly convenient, but now increasingly oppressive, grouping of individual nations that wish to regain their freedom to decide for themselves about the demographic, economic and environmental changes that will be in the best interests of their people in the 21st century?

One thing’s for sure: if the kind of massive population growth that is projected, concentrated in England, is allowed to go ahead, this will crack to breaking point the current political system that allows Scottish and Welsh MPs to exercise a disproportionate influence on English social and economic policy; and which ensures that Scottish and Welsh people enjoy a greater per-capita share of the UK’s wealth than English people. If the English population is going to increase to such an extent, and that of other UK countries by so little by comparison, surely the system will crack.

But let’s hope it cracks sooner rather than later, before it’s too late, so that English people can start to decide for themselves how much immigration and population growth is acceptable and feasible for such a small, overcrowded but proud, independent-spirited and dynamic nation.

27 August 2007

Youth Crime and British Values

Whenever a terrorist outrage takes place, followed by the ritual response that it represents an assault on ‘our values’ that must be resisted, it’s not just the assumption that such acts of murder are primarily an attack on our values (as opposed to, say, a crime against humanity) that I find questionable. (See previous discussion on this point.) I also find it bemusing that there’s a presupposition that ‘our values’ are something wholly positive.

Of course, ‘our values’ should be defended, simply because they are our values. It’s our right to determine what those values should be, and we mustn’t be deterred from that by the men of violence. And it’s a natural reaction to want to rally round and reaffirm what we stand by. But implicit in this is also an idea that ‘our values’ are the right values: not just our right but the right – morally and philosophically superior to any other set of values.

These values of ours – which are also said to be intrinsically ‘British values’ – are usually defined in the most general of terms: liberty, democracy, tolerance, equality, progress, the rule of law, etc. Difficult to object against those on principle, although in practice, they often don’t mean what they say on the tin. But then do these somewhat abstract concepts truly encapsulate everything that we might mean by ‘our values’? You could say that they’re only the conceptual superstructure by which we justify and attempt to give a philosophical account of what is termed our ‘way of life’ – also said to be under threat from the terrorists. These values are as it were the ‘form’, or formal definition; while how we actually live, and what we live for and by, is the ‘content’ of British culture and society. And how should that content be described?

Another type of shocking event that puts ‘our values’ into question is apparently random acts of youth violence, such as that which claimed the life of young Rhys Jones last week. Incidents such as this do not easily fit the idea we’d like to hold of our society as living by the values of tolerance and the rule of law. That’s not to say that gang crime and youth violence are somehow the ‘truth’ of life in Britain today and fine-sounding generalities are a ‘lie’. One of the paradoxes of the whole thing is that while murders of this sort understandably lead to agonising discussions about ‘gun culture’, youth violence and anti-social behaviour, the crime statistics (or some of them) indicate that gun crime is decreasing.

Apart from our natural horror and outrage at the needless wasting of such a young life, society’s hand wringing stems from a fear that the violence this exemplifies represents another assault – like that of terrorism – on the tolerant, law-abiding society we like to think we are. This is not so much something that could realistically overwhelm society, bringing lawlessness and anarchy; rather, it is something that undermines society symbolically – impairing our self-image and the linkage we like to make between our liberties and social progress.

The vicar of the church situated behind the pub in whose car park poor Rhys was gunned down was interviewed on the BBC Radio Four Today programme on Friday morning. He stated his opinion that gang culture arises in part out of society’s ‘commoditisation’ of human life: that what you have is seen as more important than what and who you are. Whether that fits the motivation of the boy who killed Rhys Jones we may never know. But this does highlight an important issue. Our society has become more selfish and materialistic, and does set much more store by individual possessions and material assets than it did in the past. What’s involved in this is a sort of displacement of value: monetary value (wealth) comes to be seen as an intrinsic value; ‘our value’ to ourselves and others is seen in terms of ‘our value’ at the bank. Our values, as a society, are then inextricably linked with economic success.

These are not just philosophical or theological abstractions: they relate to the way politicians talk and ordinary people really think about British society and their own aspirations. One of the things that politicians like to point to as demonstrating the validity of our values and the ‘greatness’ of Britain is our economic success: the fact that we’re the ‘fourth-largest economy in the world’, or wherever we stand in the GDP rankings nowadays. And the conventional measures of individual success involve things like: getting a good education; progressing up whichever career ladder you’ve chosen; achieving a good standard of living; amassing possessions and properties; raising a family to enjoy even better material conditions and personal opportunities than you benefited from yourself, etc.

On one level, there’s nothing wrong about having such aspirations: better to have some goals in life, especially if they’re family-centred, than none. Equally, Britain does have an economic record over the last 20 years or so that we can feel proud about to some extent. But if these things are what truly define ‘our values’ – if there’s nothing beyond them – this does mean that terms that more adequately describe our way of life (what we live for and by) are things like individualism and materialism, rather than flattering abstractions such as liberty and progress, which could be viewed as referring to the underlying economic and social structures that enable our individual and material self-improvement. And if we define our worth in terms of our net worth – in a financial sense – this does mean that people who feel unable to enter into the path of personal progression described above feel worthless: devoid of respect from society and lacking in self-respect.

I find it ironic that Tony Blair chose the term ‘respect’ on which to hang his drive to reduce anti-social behaviour: the so-called ‘respect agenda’. ‘Respect’ is, of course, a concept central to the gang culture and has become almost a cliché in youth jargon as an expression of appreciation for a person or thing – one thinks of the Ali G parody of rapper language. People who’ve been members of gangs talk about how their membership, and the fact they were able to walk about carrying firearms or knives, made them feel empowered to demand respect from others; and that the one thing you absolutely couldn’t do was ‘disrespect’ / ‘dis’ gang members – another key term in the argot. I wouldn’t be surprised if the youngster who killed Rhys Jones hadn’t been put up to it by members of a gang as a means to show he was worthy of their respect and inclusion within their group.

The point of all this is to suggest that gang culture and the young people that get caught up in it are from being without any notion of respect for others; but their attraction for gangs is built on a sense of not being respected and regarded as having any worth by mainstream society. The formation of gangs is a way for such people to create an alternative society, in opposition to the mainstream culture, which they turn against violently in order to reinforce the cohesion and importance of their own group, to which they transfer their loyalty and sense of belonging – and from which they seek and obtain respect.

This then raises the question: to what extent does our society genuinely not show sufficient respect to some young people, so that they then reject its norms and notions of acceptable behaviour? I think it is true that British society does fail many of its young people in quite significant ways: inadequate education; family break up; the decline in the provision of constructive outlets for young people’s energies, for instance through membership of other types of youth organisation (sports and social clubs, Scouts, etc.) that offer that essential sense of belonging, the opportunity for energetic activities and the chance to develop feelings of self-worth from doing things for the community in which they live; and a false set of values that sets a higher store by career and financial success than by just being who you are and caring about others.

I think David Cameron is right when he says that the break down of family structures is key to all this. But I’m not convinced the Tories or any other political party have the ‘answers’. You can’t reinforce marriage, for instance, simply by a few tax incentives. The problem is not limited to particular deprived inner city areas or social classes but is common to society as a whole. One of the main reasons why marriages break down is because there is no social consensus about what marriage is and what purpose it should serve, resulting in a weakening of the commitment to marriage as an intrinsically good thing. And this is as much a phenomenon of the middle-to-upper classes as of the lower classes, although the social effects can be mitigated to some extent through the educational and financial opportunities that are still open to children in more well-off families affected by divorce.

Elsewhere, I’ve attempted to set out some new principles for civil marriage, which would require precisely such a new social consensus if they were ever to be implemented. In the present circumstances, it’s not really an option for us to try to go back to Christian concepts of marriage – even though I personally believe in them – because the majority of people (and, arguably, many Christians) no longer accept or live by Christian or any religion-based ethics, and there are sizeable portions of society that adhere to other faiths. But the main reason why we need to drastically improve our performance in the marriage area is children. Even if we adults find it difficult to agree about what marriage should mean, it’s unmistakably clear that children need stable parental relationships, and benefit from the sign and example of their parents commitment to them as children and to each other that marriage provides.

This is something that the faiths of our ethnic and religious minorities seem to have managed to hold on to better than the Christian or former-Christian majority. I was reminded of this last week by one of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries where two mothers change places with each other and go to live with each other’s families for a couple of weeks. One of the mothers in last week’s programme was a devout headscarf-wearing Muslim; while the other mother was a liberal-minded atheist who worked in a radical theatre company and whose daughter had recently come out as a Lesbian. One of the things that struck me most powerfully was the way in which her marriage, and duties to her husband and children, were so central to the Muslim woman. While this was linked with some social attitudes that we would find problematic in the West (prejudice towards homosexuals, ‘excessive’ deference towards the husband, limited freedom in lifestyle choices for the daughters), the Muslim family nonetheless provided an impressive example of family cohesion and togetherness of precisely the kind that is necessary to give children the best start in life and a sense of self-worth.

The importance of marriage and children are absolutely central to the ethics of Islam and of other minority faiths. And they need to become central to our own thinking about bringing about social cohesion and dealing with the problems of disaffected youth. The solution is in our own hands. We have to begin by reforming our own lives and relationships – otherwise, talk of reforming something as general and abstract as ‘society’ is meaningless. Adapting the aphorism, charity towards our children begins at home.

Of course, it’s not just about children and marriage; it’s about the principles and values that shape our whole lives. Are we fundamentally self-centred – focused on satisfying our own desires and aspirations, and on amassing ever more possessions and wealth? Or are we people-centred: concerned about the needs of those around us – our ‘neighbours’ in the traditional Christian sense – and doing what we can to help them? Most of us are probably a mixture of the two; but have we got the mix right – are our values truly the right values?

A society that is self-centred – individualistic and materialistic – is one that creates winners and losers. If we’re indifferent to the losers and they feel excluded from society’s rewards, we shouldn’t be too surprised if they band together and lash out against ‘our values’. A society that is people-centred, on the other hand, is one which by definition seeks to include and involve everyone, and which builds community and a system of mutual support and care based on true respect for others.

But it’s not really ‘our values’ that are impaired by the gun-wielding gang member or the terrorist suicide bomber; it’s our lives – those of the victims and those of the perpetrators. To what extent are the actions of the murderers in each case governed by the fact that ‘our values’ leave no place for them: for their lives, their values and their right to our respect? Which is not to justify their deeds but might help to explain them.

There must be something wrong with a society and world order that creates people who feel so alienated and hostile that they are driven to apparently indiscriminate acts of violence against it. Those people are not separate from our society and motivated by forces of which we can have no conception. Except, of course, we have separated them and factored them out of our values and our lives – which is the very source of the problem.

Next time a terrorist outrage reinforces our hostility towards Islam as a value system that radically challenges our own, perhaps we should remember the ways in which true Islam – not that of the terrorists – embodies good values that we no longer seem able to live by, such as those of permanent marriage and dedication to others. Perhaps our fear of Islam rests to some extent on our own lack of faith or even bad faith: a projection of our guilty consciences about the sacred values our lives no longer reflect.

And the next time a child is gunned down by another child, let’s not turn the child killer, in both senses, into a monster – the selfishness and indifference of our society and our values has already done that.

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