Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

4 April 2012

England Uncut: From words to action?

In some respects, I quite admire UK Uncut: the protest movement that has put tax evasion and avoidance by wealthy corporations and individuals back on the UK political agenda, and has suggested there is an alternative to the coalition government’s remorseless cuts agenda.

But there’s one big problem about UK Uncut: they can’t bring themselves to say ‘England’ and engage with the England-specific aspects of the cuts. Many, but not all, of the cuts in public spending and services they’ve protested about relate exclusively to England; e.g. the effective abolition of the [English] NHS, the withdrawal of funding for arts degrees at [English] universities, and the closure of public libraries in towns and cities up and down the country [England].

For the use of ‘[England]‘ – in red font and square brackets – please see my previous post. Essentially, this could be read as meaning ‘England-cut’, or ‘England-denied’: cut off not only from public spending, and increasingly privatised, but cut out and denied from language, consciousness and the political conversation. The two processes are closely connected. If you don’t believe, to begin with, that there is such a thing as an English nation that has a right to determine for itself what sort of health service or higher-education system it wants, and how the money it raises through taxation is spent for the good of its people, then it makes it a lot easier for the UK government to simply impose these measures without consulting the [English] people they affect.

None of the above actions of the coalition government were spelled out in any of the main parties’ manifestos in the 2010 election. In fact, no policies at all were spelled out as being ‘English policies’, as the main parties steadfastly avoided referring to ‘England’ in the sections of their manifestos that dealt with England-only or England-mainly policy areas. If you don’t say the name of the country affected by your policies, then it’s easier to make out, to yourself and to the [English] public, that those policies are just ‘necessary reforms’ and ways to allocate scarce resources as effectively as possible, rather than an act of taking major public services out of national [English] ownership and control, and of stripping away vital elements of our national patrimony.

These measures become just ‘cuts’, not the ‘cutting of England’. And the more that cultural institutions and public services that make up England’s national civic life are removed or privatised, the more the unreality of England that was your starting point becomes the new reality: England-cut. It’s easy to deny England her rights as an economic, social and institutional entity – a nation – when you were denying her existence and validity as a nation to begin with. And the best way to fool the [English] public that its nation is being robbed from under its feet is to systematically avoid all reference to [England]: to censor it from discourse as a condition of abolishing it in reality.

UK Uncut’s silence on the England-specific dimension of the cuts effectively conspires with them: it’s part of the ‘conspiracy of silence’ the UK government relies on to pursue its programme of de-nationalising and ‘de-nationing’ England. And if that sounds over the top and paranoid, think of what UK Uncut could have achieved if they’d chosen to foreground the English dimension to these issues. They could have tapped into a much more powerful vein of anger and resentment at the raw deal England is getting from UK plc, which is pursuing, in [England], a far deeper and more radical programme, not just of cuts, but of public asset stripping than in the other parts of the UK – for the very good reason that it is not responsible for most public services in the other UK nations. So by not explicitly standing up in defence of English people’s services and rights, which are being denied in ways not faced by other British citizens, UK Uncut has indeed conspired in letting the UK government get away with it.

Well, that’s UK Uncut’s loss, and perhaps ours. I’m now setting up ‘England Uncut’ as a vehicle to tap into some of the creativity and power of social networking that UK Uncut has successfully used to organise its protests to see if we can’t do a bit of the same for England, as England. So far, it’s just a Twitter account, which I invite you to follow: https://twitter.com/#!/EnglandUncut. Maybe that’s all it will ever be. But it’s up to its followers to decide what it should become and whether it can indeed become a vehicle for protesting against England’s raw deal.

We think the first action that’s required is some sort of demo against the BBC, and its systemic failure to adequately represent English affairs as English, which can be redressed only by establishing a BBC England. An England Politics page on the BBC News website would be a start, rather than the derisory regionalisation of English politics we have to put up with now. More on this theme anon: watch this space.

So, England Uncut it is then. Enough talking (well, perhaps I’ll continue with that as well . . .). Time for action!

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10 October 2011

Don’t treat England differently! The Health and Social Care Bill, and the denial of England

It’s a fitting irony that we’re relying on the unelected second chamber of the Union parliament – the House of Lords – to radically revise or throw out the government’s [English] Health and Social Care Bill this week. England has no democratically elected parliament of its own, so it’s up to a non-democratic part of the Union parliament to reject an English bill for which there is no democratic mandate.

In this sense, the Bill neatly symbolises England’s invidious constitutional position. England is ‘treated differently’ from the UK’s other nations, both politically (by not having a national parliament or assembly to stand up for its people and its rights), and – as a consequence of its disempowerment – medically, because the government can get away with a health-care bill that English people have not voted for.

It’s this basic connection between the political limbo status of England and the Union government’s radical privatisation of health-care delivery in England that the UK Uncut group that blocked Westminster Bridge yesterday afternoon simply don’t, or won’t, get. In my previous post, I discussed my futile efforts to get UK Uncut to acknowledge the England-specific nature of the Health and Social Care Bill, and to refer to ‘England’ in their campaign material; so I won’t go over that ground in detail again. But ‘Don’t treat England differently!’ would have been an excellent slogan for the demonstrators to use yesterday, as it sums up the link between the political and health-care discrimination against England.

Another good slogan would have been: ‘Don’t let the British government RIP off the English NHS!’ In fact, I suggested some England-focused slogans to UK Uncut on Twitter but, unsurprisingly, got no response: not a dicky bird. In fact, I got no response of any sort – not even offensive – to my countless tweets and email pointing out their ignoring / ignorance of the England-specific dimension of the Bill and the fact that this considerably lessens the political impact of their campaign.

But perhaps ‘Don’t treat England differently!’ does in fact sum up another aspect of UK Uncut’s position that blunts their effectiveness, so to speak: they resolutely refuse to treat England differently from the UK / Britain in media and communications terms. In other words, like the Union establishment itself, UK Uncut resolutely refuses to separate English matters out from UK matters, and to differentiate between England and Britain. But if you don’t treat England differently, in this sense, you affirm the legitimacy of the British state and parliament to legislate for England in the way it does: with scant regard for public and professional opinion about the health service, and absolutely no regard for the / an English nation as such whose health service it might actually be.

So by refusing to ‘treat England differently’ from the UK, UK Uncut validates the right of the Union parliament to ride rough-shod over genuine democracy for England and the English public interest. And what a respectable, restrained, middle-class and, indeed, establishment protest it was in the end! Merely 3,000-maximum protesters blocking the bridge in front of Parliament for three hours on a Sunday afternoon, when the potential to cause any serious disruption to the life of the capital city was virtually at its lowest! Almost a Sunday afternoon walk in the park. In fact, it feels more like an act of homage and prostration before the all-powerful British parliament. Indeed, the protesters did prostrate themselves at the start of the demo, by lying down and acting dead – symbolically conceding defeat before they’d even started.

To be honest, although I don’t in any way endorse their methods, I feel the English rioters in August made more of a point politically, and a more powerful comment on the state of English society, than did UK Uncut yesterday. I’m not suggesting the Undivided-Unionites (UK Uncutters) should have rioted, but they could have done something more dramatic and forceful, even if not actually violent. How about setting up a tent hospital on Parliament Green, like the protest tent community in Madrid, and making the point that this is what basic English health care would be like if the Union government got its way? But UK Uncut clearly wanted to minimise the risk of confrontation with the police, and of other less peaceful-minded groups getting involved and causing damage. After all, they didn’t want to be associated in the public’s mind with those squalid rioters from the English underclass, now did they? The UK may be uncut (not divided by devolution) in their aspirations, but they certainly don’t feel they have anything in common with those common people from the sink estates –whom, incidentally, the NHS is there to serve.

But just as yesterday’s UK Uncut protest is today’s fish and chip paper, even the English riots have now been forgotten, and the chasm between the British governing class and the English underclass, and working class, has been papered over – for a time. But one thing’s for sure: the UK Uncutters share more in common with that governing class than with the common people of England. The riots were a manifestation of the fact that England does not have a political voice: that the British political class is interested only in the British economy, and in pursuing their own ideological agenda and business interests, not in those who get left behind. And UK Uncut, which speaks only in the name of the UK, not England, stands solidly – or should that be limply? – among those who deny England that voice.

English parliament

7 October 2011

National Health Service or national myth? Why UK Uncut’s ‘Block the Bridge’ protest is an empty gesture

In Norway, after the horrendous massacres carried out by Anders Breivik in July of this year, acts of remembrance were organised throughout the country in which people held aloft red roses: the symbol of Norway’s governing Labour Party, and once the symbol of Britain’s. By contrast, no red roses will be carried by the followers of UK Uncut, which is organising a ‘Block the Bridge’ protest this coming Sunday: a blockade of Westminster Bridge, just opposite the Houses of Parliament, to urge the Lords to throw out the government’s NHS Bill – the last chance of its being defeated or modified.

No, the red rose – international symbol of socialism, and incidentally also an iconic symbol for England in the form of the Tudor Rose – will not be in evidence. This is despite the fact that the protesters ostensibly wish to defend the socialist principles and legacy of the ‘British’ NHS, founded in the wake of the Second World War by Attlee’s Labour government. Instead, the plan is apparently to deck the bridge out in the blue and white colours of the NHS brand, or at least the NHS brand in England, which uses a lighter blue colour than the logos for NHS Scotland and NHS Wales, and a darker blue than the branding for Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland – the equivalent of the NHS in the Province.


The NHS (the one in England)

Darker blue for Scotland

Nice Celtic image and dark-blue font for GIG Cymru

‘NHS’ vanished altogether in this sky-blue logo for Northern Ireland

As these logos neatly illustrate, the ‘British’ NHS that UK Uncut’s valiant brigades will be standing up for is not the British NHS at all but the English NHS; and the Union government’s NHS Bill does not constitute a dismantling of the British NHS but a reorganisation of the English NHS along market principles. The British NHS as such was in fact dismantled by the last Labour government’s lop-sided implementation of devolution, which created four separate health services for each of the UK’s established nations (for the purposes of this discussion, Cornwall being assimilated to England). And it was that same Labour government that began the further dismantling of the English NHS that UK Uncut and its supporters are demonstrating against, as it was Labour that began the marketisation of the NHS that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition is finishing off. And of course, Labour’s marketisation was based on the support of its Scottish and Welsh MPs, with whose help the introduction of Foundation Hospitals – in England only – would not have been passed.

So it is perhaps no wonder that those Blocking the Bridge on Sunday will not be sporting socialist red roses. Maybe the protesters realise deep down that it was Labour that first sold out the founding principles of the NHS: that it was to be both a state-run and -owned service, and a national service, available free at the point of use to all in Britain in a uniform, consistent way. And perhaps they realise that the NHS is already neither of those things and will be even less so – in England, that is – if the Bill goes through.

But try telling UK Uncut that the NHS Bill relates only to the NHS in England – and believe me, I have tried this week, via tweets and email – and you might as well be threatening to try and march the massed ranks of the English Defence League across Westminster Bridge on Sunday: stunning silence and a complete lack of engagement with the critique of UK Uncut’s discourse, which refers constantly to ‘Britain’ and the ‘UK’ in relation to this and many other England-specific issues, and never to ‘England’. Nothing. In fact, one imagines that UK Uncut would view demonstrators bringing banners displaying the Tudor Red Rose and flags of St. George on to the Bridge on Sunday more as potential reincarnations of Anders Breivik himself – whose somewhat tenuous Facebook links with some EDL members were joyfully paraded about in some parts of the media and blogosphere in the wake of July’s massacres – rather than as being like the noble Norwegian public standing up for a national institution and values that are under threat, and mourning its young.

Indeed, Sunday’s demonstration really has more of the character of an act of mourning for an NHS that no longer exists than a political campaign that stands a realistic chance of influencing the government and bringing about meaningful change. In this sense, the absence of socialist and English symbols betrays the lack of any coherent blueprint – to continue the logo theme – for how a truly nationally owned and accountable NHS might be organised and funded in England now that it is no longer possible to go back to the Bevanite British NHS. Because that’s what the protesters will be defending on Sunday: the founding principles of the British NHS, not the actual one in England that the NHS Bill relates to, or the potential for a better English NHS, run by an English government, that puts the needs of English people first.

In this sense, it seems to me that the UK Uncut protesters are more interested in engaging in political myth than practical reality. The NHS – the idea of a unified, UK-wide health service free at the point of use to all UK citizens – is still widely proclaimed as one of Britain’s great national institutions. Indeed, it is one of the things, alongside the BBC, that symbolises Britain itself: its national unity and values. But if people finally wake up to the truth that the British NHS no longer exists, it might also dawn on them that a unitary Britain no longer exists. UK Uncut’s failure to engage with these realities is therefore an expression of its, and many other people’s, profound inability to emotionally separate themselves from a British nation that is no more.

For my part, UK Uncut doesn’t cut it. Maybe the almost inevitable passing of the NHS Bill, for all the doubtless harm it will do to universal health-care provision in England, will finally convince people that the old Britain is dead and only an English politics, accountable to the English people, will put their interests before those of UK plc. I won’t be helping to Block the Bridge on Sunday, because I’d rather stand up for an English future than be stuck in futile mourning for the British past.

31 March 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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