Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

25 May 2016

European Union: A latter-day Unholy Roman Empire

Boris Johnson was right the other week when he somewhat haplessly linked the European Union to previous attempts to bring about a Europe-wide polity, stretching back to the Roman Empire via Napoleon and Hitler.

Napoleon’s and Hitler’s attempts to ‘unify’ the Continent through conquest did harp back, quite consciously, to the Roman Empire, many of whose symbols, iconography and self-descriptions they associated with their own political projects: Napoleon’s ‘Empire’ and cult of the Emperor’s personality, and the idea of France as the modern embodiment of a superior, rational, ‘classical’, pan-European civilisation; Hitler’s ‘thousand-year empire’ that passed the flame of imperial Rome on – or back – to a ‘pure’ European race (the Aryans or Teutons) that were supposed ultimately to have originated it.

Of course, the project that is the EU (founded, significantly, by the Treaty of Rome) does not seek its realisation through conquest (although the EU does have aspirations to being a military superpower), nor does it embody ideas of European racial superiority (although it does see itself as the flag bearer for a distinct, essential, and inherently valuable European culture).

But the idea of Europe that the EU seeks to bring about is inspired by Ancient Rome; that is, the pre-Christian and anti-Christian (one might almost say ‘Antechristian’) Rome: the ‘Unholy Roman Empire’, as opposed to the subsequent unification of Western Europe around Roman Catholic Christendom and the various incarnations of the Holy Roman Empire.

Ancient Rome provides the template for the idea of a European polity that underlies the EU – one based on the humanist ideals and achievements of the Greco-Roman world (as viewed through the modern lens), including qualities such as: rationality; Enlightenment; arts and culture; technological advancement; republicanism and democracy; human and citizen rights; engineering excellence; military prowess; social progress; and law.

Never mind that the Roman Empire extended its reach through military conquest, not consent. Or that imperial rule was autocratic and bureaucratic, not democratic. Or that the rights of Roman citizens applied only to citizens, and to some extent freemen and -women, while creating an underclass of slaves with no such rights or dignity. Or that imperial Rome, up until the 4th century AD, persecuted Christians and fed them to the lions.

Roman Law, while one of the finest achievements of Ancient Rome, relied on the workings of an elite class of legislators and legal experts. In its turn, EU law – much reviled by supporters of Brexit – draws heavily upon Roman Law via the Civil Law tradition that informs many of continental Europe’s legal codes. In accordance with this long tradition, EU laws are elaborated and executed by an elite civil service (the European Commission), along with the EU’s Supreme Court, the European Court of Justice. This is in stark contrast to the traditions of English Law, built on the pillars of statute (laws initiated and passed by the democratically elected Parliament) and Common Law (laws shaped and modified by precedent established through judgements in court at every tier of the judicial system, and not just handed down by the supreme authority).

It is not only national traditions of parliamentary democracy, judicial independence and Common Law that are overridden by EU law making and giving, but also the Christian foundations of EU member nations and, in particular, those of England. Throughout most of the Christian era, the nations of Europe were founded on the ‘divine right of kings’: the belief that the absolute rule that monarchs exercised was a duty entrusted to them by God, which needed to be fulfilled in obedience to the divine law and will. While few if anybody now advocate absolute monarchy, this belief in the Christian foundations of political power (meaning literally that power should be exercised in obedience to Christ) lives on in the British monarch’s status as temporal head of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith throughout the realm.

Similarly, the other surviving monarchies of northern Europe reserve a religious, if somewhat ceremonial, role for the king or queen as representatives of their countries’ traditional Christian values and as reigning by the grace of God. By contrast, the Catholic countries of Europe have largely got rid of their monarchs, and enforce a separation of church and state. And often, those that have confined the church most forcibly to the margins of political life are those that have styled themselves at some point along the lines of imperial Rome, conquering all of Europe and North Africa before them: the above-mentioned Napoleon and Hitler, to which one could add Generalissimo Mussolini.

The equation here is irresistible: if you reject a Europe of many nations united by a shared Christian faith, under the custodianship of the Catholic Church or of national-Protestant monarchs, the model for a united European polity you look to is inevitably that of pre- or non-Christian Rome. Accordingly, the EU aspiration to end the division of Europe into many, historically frequently warring, nations by uniting them in a new pan-European polity goes hand in hand with the desire to terminate the historic role (admittedly, at times more aspirational than actual) of the Church and of Christian faith as the focus for unity and the foundation of political authority. If you no longer have Christianity as the unifying force, there is only the force of political union.

And so the EU does belong in the line of post-Enlightenment political projects that, like the Rome they mimicked, sought to banish Christianity from the public square in the name of a secular-humanist order harking back to Europe’s would-be ancient roots and core identity. The EU is both anti-national and anti-Christian in its fundamental mission and philosophical underpinnings. And that means specifically that EU membership runs counter to any sort of project to reassert England as a self-governing and (I would say) Christian nation. Christianity and ‘little’ nations no longer belong in the EU’s pan-European-universal-humanist new order.

At root, I believe any true supporter of – one might even say true believer in – the EU project (as opposed to lukewarm, pragmatic supporters) wants to bring about pan-European political union and a secularised society; or, if they are Christians, they are either naïve about the extent to which the EU is counter-Christian or are prepared to accept the marginalisation of Christian faith from political discourse and institutions for the sake of the ‘greater good’ of European unification.

But if you do not want this, and if you want there to be an England in future (whether with a Christian head of state and established church, or not), there is only one option: to vote to leave the EU. The EU is indeed a latter-day Unholy Roman Empire that has set its sight on being the power in our land.


22 May 2014

Why I’m voting UKIP

I’ll be voting UKIP in the European-Parliament elections later today. This is despite the fact that I don’t like the party all that much. To me, UKIP seems to represent much that is least generous and large-minded in the English spirit: suspicion toward foreigners; a narrow-minded pragmatism and individualism, as opposed to idealistic engagement toward the European continent and the broader international community; neo-liberal economics; British nationalism; a failure to articulate a discrete English identity and politics; and a social conservatism that is inadequate in responding to the complexity and diversity of modern English society.

So why vote for them? Mainly because they are the only party with a chance of winning any seats that is opposed to the UK’s EU membership and can be trusted to deliver a straightforward in / out referendum.

Why do I support the UK’s withdrawal from the EU? Wouldn’t that precisely be an example of the sort of narrow-minded Englishness I have just decried? My answer would be that, while I oppose the EU, I am still very much in favour of an England that engages positively and constructively with the European continent of which it is a part. I just don’t believe the EU provides the means and the forum for achieving that. The EU is undemocratic, non-transparent, bureaucratic and corrupt; it is the vehicle for a political project for the creation of a federal European super-state; and – most critically for me – the EU does not recognise England as a nation and would absorb it into a set of anonymous British ‘regions’.

What about the argument that only the Conservatives can deliver an in / out referendum, if they’re elected in the general election in one year’s time? Well, that’s a potential reason for voting Conservative at the general election, not at the European election. For now, it seems to me more important to send a message to the establishment parties that their policies and behaviour in relation to the EU have been unacceptable, and that the only way forward is to let us have our referendum. In any case, it’s quite conceivable that there could be a Conservative / UKIP coalition after the general election. If that happened, the Conservatives couldn’t wriggle out of their commitment to hold a referendum, as they did previously after the Lisbon Treaty was signed.

Another important reason for voting UKIP is to send a message to the Westminster parties that they have failed England on the immigration issue. The level of net migration and overall population growth in England in recent years (in the order of several millions) is unsustainable, and this has had a massive, and I would say largely negative, impact on working-class English people’s prospects for employment and pay, on communities, and on housing, public services and schools. Withdrawal from the EU would enable the UK to control the flow of immigration from EU states; and we should also greatly reduce the numbers coming in from the rest of the world.

Of course, we must continue to be generous and open to those who seek refuge in England and the UK as a whole from political or religious persecution in other parts of the world; and we should welcome those who can make a significant contribution to areas such as scientific research, technology and advanced manufacturing. But ultimately, I believe the role of governments is to look to the needs of their own people first. If we can stem the flow of immigrants, we can concentrate on creating jobs, training, education, improved health and decent life prospects for the millions of underemployed, inadequately educated, poor and disadvantaged English people that have been let down and left behind by the UK’s laissez-faire neo-liberalism and reliance on cheap foreign labour.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a ‘racial’ or racist stance: by ‘English people’, I am not referring to the so-called ‘white-English’ but to all who live in England and genuinely consider themselves to be English – at least in part – of whatever ethnic background. I do not accept the view that opposition to unfettered immigration in itself makes one a racist, because it’s immigration from all countries and parts of the world that I would like to restrict. Nor do I accept that seeking to defend and celebrate one’s own national identity, culture and traditions – in my case, English – is racist in itself. Of course, racism is often associated with such concerns if, for instance, a person has a narrowly ethnic concept of their nation or believes that their culture is superior to others. Conversely, celebrating ‘Britain’’s ethnic diversity and the cultures of all who have come to live here, while denigrating Englishness and castigating English patriotism as racist, is itself a form of (inverted) racism.

So, whereas there are undoubtedly some racists in UKIP, the Anglo-British patriotism the party espouses and its opposition to uncontrolled immigration are by no means intrinsically racist. UKIP’s inflammatory rhetoric on immigration is one of the things I precisely don’t like about the party, and this does undoubtedly play on people’s more irrational fears toward the foreigner and the ‘other’, which are a basic characteristic of racism. But focusing on this or that debatably ‘racist’ utterance by UKIP spokespersons is a smokescreen by which the other parties have tried to avoid engaging with the immigration question. And this does need to be tackled.

So it’s UKIP for me on 22 May 2014: to demand an in / out referendum on the UK’s EU membership; to send out a strong message on immigration; and to back a party that’s not ashamed of England and Englishness, even if it largely fails to differentiate these from Britain and the UK.

There are two other elections today where I live: district and parish councils. Just to demonstrate that I am an issues-based voter rather than a party loyalist, I intend to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate for the district council. That’s because the Liberal Democrats are the strongest voice against a massive New Town that is proposed to be built right on the doorstep of the village where I live, and which is supported by the Conservative-controlled council. The Lib Dem has a realistic chance of defeating the Conservative candidate, as the Tories are divided: one of the previous Conservative incumbents is now standing as an independent, so the Tory vote will be split, and the Lib Dems finished a close second last time.

The parish council has seen intrigue, cliques and scandal worthy of Midsomer Murders – although we haven’t had our first murder yet (thank goodness). I’ll be voting for all of the candidates opposed to the current ruling Clique. This could be the most intriguing and unpredictable contest of the lot!

9 January 2013

Coalition Mid-Term Review: Sidelining England in the British-national interest

The UK coalition government published its mid-term review on Monday of this week. It is not the intention of this article to carry out a detailed analysis: I am interested mainly in the way England is treated, or rather is not, in the document.

At first sight, for a document produced by the UK government, it is remarkable how many times the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ actually appear: 15 and six respectively. However, most of the references to ‘England’ are of two related types: 1) where it is necessary to spell out that certain facts or policy proposals relate to England only in order to avoid misunderstanding, and to prevent people living in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland from thinking they are affected by them; and 2) to make sure that credit can be claimed for England-specific achievements for which the coalition parties hope to be rewarded by English voters at the next election.

Examples of the first type of reference occur on page 26, where the document refers to a number of policy proposals in the area of personal care as being specific to England, such as rules regarding eligibility for care and the introduction of a Deferred Payment Scheme designed to prevent people from having to sell their homes in order to pay for care. Clearly, these are important statutory and financial matters, and it is necessary to make it clear to non-English readers that they affect only people living in England.

Examples of the second type of reference are:

  • “We have provided the resources to help local authorities in England freeze their council tax for three years in a row” (page 14): Tory policy – please vote for us, England. (What are these ‘resources’, though? I thought local-authority funding in England was being cut, and the council-tax freeze was just a statutory, central government-imposed diktat. Do they mean local-authority funding is being cut by less than it would otherwise have been if authorities had been allowed to increase council tax willy nilly?)
  • “We have brought in the Protection of Freedoms Act to limit the retention of DNA samples in England and Wales in line with practice in Scotland” (page 37): Lib Dem policy – look, we actually do care about you, England, at least in the lofty area of British civil liberties if nothing else.

The first type of reference to England described above has the character of a legal declaration of ‘territorial extent’, along the lines of when cereal packets make it clear that a competition is limited to Great Britain and does not include Northern Ireland. And indeed, the whole document is circumscribed by a legal disclaimer of this sort covering territorial extent, which appears right at the end:

“As a result of devolution, many decisions made by UK Ministers or in the Westminster Parliament now apply to England only. The Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government make their own policy on these devolved issues. This document therefore sets out the agreed priorities for the Coalition Government in Westminster.”

No clarification as to which policies “now apply to England only”, of course! Is the general public just supposed to know what they are, as the document certainly doesn’t make this clear to the reader as it goes through the different policy areas, apart from the few exceptions I have already mentioned? But throwing in a disclaimer like this means the government can essentially cop out of providing a detailed break-down and say: ‘look, we’ve acknowledged that some policies are England-only, and anyone interested in those particular policies will know whether they’re England-specific or not’.

This is simply not good enough, although it is par for the course. We’ve come to expect from Westminster politicians and the UK government that they will avoid referring explicitly to ‘England’ as much as they possibly can, and will do so only when it is necessary to avoid factual misunderstanding and harmful political consequences, in the ways outlined above. But their unwillingness to acknowledge a country called ‘England’ to which so many of their policies relate means that Westminster politicians cannot and do not hold themselves properly accountable to the ‘nation’ and people affected by those policies.

This fact is evident in the evasive manner in which many of the policy ‘achievements’ and remaining objectives of the coalition are described; and in many instances, the evasiveness relates directly to the suppression of references to ‘England’. For example, the document never makes it explicitly clear that when it discusses ‘the NHS’, it means only the NHS in England. This helps it gloss over the fact that the coalition has legislated for a massive reform to the NHS that will alter it – in England only – quite radically from the institution created by the post-war Labour government. And yet, the government still has the gall to refer to it as “one of our great national institutions”, as if the NHS it presides over is still fundamentally the same old British NHS, which it no longer is (at least not in England).

So suppression of the England-specific nature of the NHS reforms goes hand in hand with evasiveness about the scope and nature of those reforms. For example, the document says: “We have improved the NHS by . . . starting to devolve commissioning of most health services to GP-led clinical commissioning groups”. But what it doesn’t say is that these changes are limited to England and that the said commissioning groups are statutorily obliged to consider bids from private health-care providers even if the services they provide are initially more expensive than those of existing, public-sector NHS providers.

A more honest account of the government’s measures would be explicit about both their England-specific character and their ultimate guiding principles, and would be expressed something like this: “We have reformed the NHS in England in such a way as to create a competitive health-care market in which private companies will increasingly take over the provision of publicly funded services”. This is actually intended to be an ideologically neutral statement of what the government has done: it has marketised the health-care sector in England, whether you believe that’s the most effective way to deliver health care or not. So why should a Tory-led government not trumpet that achievement? Well, because it suspects, probably correctly, that if English people knew what had been done to ‘their NHS’ (but not to the NHS’s in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), involving changes that were not set out in any manifesto or in the Coalition Agreement, they’d probably violently object. So instead, the coalition pretends that ‘the NHS’ remains fundamentally the same – a primarily public-sector and ‘British’ institution – neither of which is true any more: in England, that is.

The same analysis could be made of many, many other parts of the document that discuss England-specific policies and legislation while avoiding clarifying either that they relate to England only or that they are driven by an ideological bias in favour of private enterprise and markets at the expense of the public sector and, arguably, the public interest – in England. Another brief example – one among many – is where the document says: “We have introduced a presumption of sustainable development in the National Planning Policy Framework, which includes protection of the Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest”. How disingenuous can they be? What this really means is: “We have prepared legislation to make it easier to obtain planning permission for major developments in England’s countryside, with only Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest retaining the previous level of protection”. So England’s green and pleasant land can be concreted over under the pretext of driving economic growth, in the British national interest, regardless of the very passionate interest the English public has in protecting its countryside and natural heritage.

The identity of the ‘nation’ on which this concept of the ‘national interest’ is predicated is quite nebulous in the Mid-Term Review, as indeed it was in the original Coalition Agreement. This is quite simply because, in so many instances, the nation concerned is in reality England, but the government will not and cannot acknowledge this fact. This is rather damaging, as the very raison d’être of the coalition, then as now, is to govern in the ‘national interest’, as the title of the Mid-Term Review makes clear: “The Coalition: together in the national interest”. But whereas the phrase ‘national interest’ is adduced as justification for the coalition’s existence or for certain key decisions on five occasions in the document, the word ‘nation’ is used only once: “In 2012, the nation came together to celebrate the success of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Diamond Jubilee”.

Three of the references to ‘national interest’ relate to the formation and continuance of the coalition, based on pulling the UK round from a dangerous financial and economic crisis; one to supporting the work of the Airports Commission, which could lead to controversial approval for, say, a new terminal at Heathrow or a new runway at Stansted (i.e. more environmental degradation in England “in the national interest”); and the other reference deals with the decision to opt out of, or in to, various EU police and criminal-justice measures. In other words, ‘national interest’ is very narrowly defined in terms of a small number of strategically important reserved policy areas – the economy, air transport, foreign policy and security – whereas large parts of the document deal with devolved policy areas, i.e. with those affecting England only or mainly.

Are these English measures also being introduced in the ‘national interest’? It’s hard to believe they are given the unwillingness of the government to connect the phrase ‘national interest’ with the specific nation, England, concerned? And if they’re not being carried out in the English-national interest, in whose interest are they being done? The interest of the government’s ideological, commercial and financial bedfellows (its corporate sponsors and partners, and its financial creditors)? The interests of the UK state and establishment, and their preservation from an economic meltdown that could have accelerated the centrifugal, nationalist forces challenging their  continuing existence? Or the interests of the coalition parties themselves, who want to come out of the five-year relationship claiming they have fought their corner and followed through on their manifesto pledges – irrespective of the fact that many of the measures they’ve introduced were never outlined in detail and in some instances were flatly contradicted by their manifestos and by the Coalition Agreement, such as the [English] NHS reforms or the Higher Education policies (especially the massive hike in tuition fees for English students)?

But these questions, as indeed the English Question itself, are completely sidelined by the Mid-Term Review. After all, the Coalition can hardly be expected to hold itself accountable to an entity such as ‘the English people’, can it, if its remit is to govern in the British national interest?

2 July 2009

Gordon Brown makes the case for an English parliament

In what is, on one level, an astonishingly insulting and complacent article in the Daily Record yesterday, commemorating the tenth anniversary of Scottish devolution, our hapless unelected First Minister unwittingly demonstrates the case for an English parliament. He achieves this feat not only by extolling, as successes of the Scottish parliament, the very things that most embitter the English about their democratic deficit and fiscal inequality compared with the Scots (“free personal care for the elderly, tuition fees, free travel for the elderly and prescription charges”) but by advancing arguments in favour of the Scottish parliament that undermine the very integrity of the Union and can logically be applied to England in just the same way as to Scotland.

For a start, though, the above list of benefits that devolution has secured for Scotland really is rubbing English noses in it – does he not realise that these are the very stuff of English grievances about the Barnett Formula and the lack of an English government accountable to the English people? If he does realise this, then this can only be described as indulging in Anglophobic schadenfreude. Brown has the gall to imply that the absence of such benefits in England reflects a different political culture and national priorities: he calls these policies “Scottish solutions to Scottish issues”, as if they weren’t issues in England and the different policies that apply to England were somehow the expression of England’s democratic choices – whereas we know that top-up fees for English students in particular were passed into law only with the support of Scottish MPs whose constituents are not affected by them.

This law, and the equally unjust fact that elderly persons in England have to meet the cost of their personal care, which is provided free of charge in Scotland (only yesterday the government was proposing a new system where English people only will have to pay into an insurance scheme – effectively, a top-up tax – or else pay a lump sum on retirement to cover the costs of their care in old age), are perfect examples of the kind of “unpopular decisions [that] were made on health, education and policing”, which Brown brings forward as justification for a Scottish parliament.

Well, just because a government’s policies are unpopular, that doesn’t make them illegitimate if the government is properly democratic and accountable. But Brown implies that the policies for Scotland of successive Westminster governments were insufficiently democratic and responsive to the wishes of the Scottish people, and that they were not only bad policies but bad government: “people now often forget . . . how poorly Scotland had been dealt with in the past. People rightly felt frustrated in recent decades as unpopular decisions were made on health, education and policing. Scotland could be governed better. People deserved better”. Well, if this is the case for Scotland, then it is equally valid for England: New Labour’s policies for England only on health, education and policing are not only unpopular with the people they affect but are an instance of deficiently democratic, unaccountable government, with decisions being made for England by Westminster politicians that are not answerable to the English people.

In fact, the situation now is even more unjust than that which applied to the Scots before devolution. At least then, the legislative activity of non-Scottish MPs affecting Scotland was democratically legitimate, as Britain was a fully unitary state at that time; so there was in principle no distinction between Scottish and non-Scottish MPs, as there was just one national government accountable to all the people in the Kingdom. Ironically, though, the fact that Brown singles out these policy areas is indicative of the fact that, in his thinking, Scotland was not an integral part of a unitary kingdom even before devolution.

Ever since the Acts of Union in 1707, Scotland has maintained distinct policies and systems in education and justice; or rather, the Union state has seen fit to allow Scotland to hold on to its different approaches and traditions in these areas. And this in essence is why Brown views the pre-devolution settlement as unfair to Scotland: the differences between Scotland and England in these regards, and with respect to the Kirk (an aspect of Scottish culture that is highly familiar to Brown), are seen as constitutive of a Scottish national identity that is distinct from that of ‘mainstream Britain’ (aka England). Consequently, the Scottish parliament, when it started its work in 1999, was truly Scotland’s ‘own’ parliament precisely because it handed back to the Scots the responsibility for legislating about those aspects of Scottish life that had always remained distinctive and defining of Scottish identity. So it wasn’t so much that devolution opened up a breach in the unitary British state but rather it acknowledged the pre-existing fact of the difference between Scotland and Britain. As Brown says: “For the first time in 300 years, Scotland once again had its own parliament”.

Well, I’m sorry, no: for 300 years (i.e. ever since the Acts of Union), Scotland did have its own parliament – the Union Parliament. If Scotland and England are parts of a genuine Union – two nations merging into one state – then the parliament for that state is the only legitimate parliament for each of those nations. You can’t have it both ways: either Scotland, before devolution, was part of an integral Union, so that devolution brought about something fundamentally new (a distinct Scottish-national polity); or it was never truly integrated into the United Kingdom state, so that Holyrood was in fact the restoration of something that had been lost for 300 years: a properly Scottish parliament. This is clearly how Brown sees it. But if this is the case, it undermines the legitimacy of the Westminster parliament to act as a parliament for England and, indeed, it undermines the foundations of the Union itself. If the Union Parliament’s jurisdiction in properly Scottish domestic matters has never been legitimate – if it has never been ‘Scotland’s own parliament’ – then how can we accept its legitimacy in English domestic policy and legislation? But, more fundamentally, the assertion of a distinct Scottish polity that is said to have continued in a suppressed form throughout the duration of the Union implies that the Union has never been authentic or complete: not the two nations merging to form one but remaining two separate entities merely governed through a common system that did not really belong to either of them – a common-law (indeed, Commons-law) partnership and marriage of convenience, rather than a true marriage of equals on the basis of which there is no longer any distinction between the spouses, who hold everything in common after they are married.

Either that, or the model is that the Westminster parliament – despite being avowedly the parliament for a unitary state – remained fundamentally the English parliament it had historically been, to which Scotland was effectively subordinated through the Union: a situation that the present Scottish parliament remedied. This indeed seems to be the model that Brown adopts with all of his talk about “how poorly Scotland had been dealt with in the past”: as if Scotland were something that the Westminster parliament merely ‘dealt with’ as an object of policy, rather than being a nation that governed its own affairs through the parliament of a Union of which it was an integral part. This model undermines the assumptions of the Union just as much as the idea of Scotland and England remaining separate entities while governed by a common system: in this instance, the Union is merely the political instrument of an English nation that ruled Scotland essentially in its own interests; as opposed to a common structure of government that belonged to neither of the distinct nations.

Well, if the Westminster parliament has always in essence remained the English parliament, let it become an authentic English parliament once more, just as Holyrood, in Brown’s view, is an authentic Scottish parliament: English-elected MPs only making the laws that apply to England; rather than England being ruled, as now, in the interests of the ‘Union’ (i.e. of the devolved nations) by a parliament that is not accountable to the English people. This is a direct reversal of the historical situation that Brown adduces as the justification for creating the present Scottish parliament: a Union parliament (effectively, the proxy of England) ruling Scotland undemocratically in a way that placed the needs of the ‘Union’ above the wishes of the people of Scotland.

But, in such a restored English parliament, there would be no place for unelected (non-English-elected) prime ministers such as Gordon Brown: there would be no opportunity for gravy train-riding Scottish politicians to have their Westminster cake and eat devolved government or, as I would put it, have their own Scottish cake and eat England’s, too. The way Brown puts it, in his article, is: “devolution gives Scotland the best of both worlds”. Well, yes. That statement comes after Brown has reeled off a list of ways in which the fact of being part of a ‘Union’ works to the advantage of Scotland (and very often to the corresponding disadvantage of England), such as: the bail-out of “Scotland’s two main banks” (I thought they were financial institutions vital for the British economy), which “saved thousands of Scottish jobs and protected Scots’ hard-earned savings” (what about the HBOS jobs in Halifax? Well, you see, as the Scots are so hard-working and thrifty, they deserved it more than us spendthrift English); and preferential treatment of Scottish shipyards in defence contracts building two “state-of-the-art aircraft carriers” whose actual benefit for the Armed Forces, in terms of providing capabilities that are needed (as opposed to offering subsidies to Scottish industry), is highly questionable.

And that’s to say nothing of “the [Scottish] parliament’s £35billion annual budget” that enables Scottish people – good luck to them – to enjoy 20% higher levels of per-capita public expenditure than the English: those free university and personal-care places being subsidised by the lack of them in England. No wonder that Brown affirms, towards the end of this homily to Scottish self-interest, that “I’m proud that this Government [i.e. the UK government] has never stopped focusing on delivering for the Scottish people”.

Well, perhaps it’s time we had an English government that would focus a bit more on delivering for the English people. And we know who wouldn’t be in charge of it.

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?”

12 June 2007

Manifesto: New Englishness: Re-expressing the Relationship Between England and the UK

2 June 2006

All campaigns need a manifesto! So I’ve trawled up this piece written a year ago, which pretty much gives you an idea where I’m coming from. Some of my views have evolved a little since then; but if you check back to this blog every now and then, you should get an idea of how. So, here it is:

The ambiguous overlaps and interrelationships between the national identities referred to as ‘English’ and ‘British’ are familiar to us all – to say nothing of the extra layer of confusion concerning the use of the terms ‘Great Britain’ and ‘United Kingdom’. Generalising a bit, we could say there has been a tendency – on the part of the English, at least – to merge the meanings of the terms ‘English’ and ‘British’. When referring to British values and culture, the English have often viewed these as an extension to the whole of the UK of what are essentially cherished English characteristics. Similarly, naïve usage has often involved substituting the word ‘English’ for ‘British’ when referring to all the peoples of the UK. Children and foreigners frequently ignore the distinction to this day – getting muddled up, for instance, between English and British sporting teams; or referring, as do the French, to the culture of the British Isles and North America as ‘Anglo-Saxon’. (A parallel and, in fact, even more anachronistic mislabelling sees us referring to French culture as ‘Gallic’.)

This identification of the English with the whole of Britain has now been largely repudiated: by the politically correct classes, which view it as exhibiting the kind of cultural and political imperialism which did, in the past, lead to the projection of the English-British identity across a worldwide empire; by the Scottish and Welsh who, with their own national parliamentary bodies, are reaffirming their identities as distinct from the English-British; and by ethnic and religious minorities, some of whom define themselves as ‘British + ethnicity/religion’ (e.g. British Asian, black British, British Muslim) rather than English – even if they live and work in England, and enjoy (to some extent, at least) social and economic opportunities that the English of whatever race have struggled to achieve and uphold over the centuries.

Partly in reaction to this rejection of shared English-British values, there has been a popular attempt to reclaim a distinct English identity, one of whose manifestations is the mass display of flags of St. George and of patriotism around major sporting events such as the football World Cup. Interestingly, in the 1970s and 1980s, English football supporters tended to demonstrate their patriotism by parading the Union Jack (while Scottish fans – even at that time, it has to be said – mostly carried the St. Andrews Cross and the Royal Standard of Scotland (red lion on yellow background)). Nowadays, hardly a Union Flag is to be seen, as the sporting competition concerned is taken as a relatively harmless opportunity to celebrate the English identity and nation, as distinct from that of the British as a whole.

There is always a risk that this sort of patriotism could cross over into a more aggressive nationalism, characterised by racism and xenophobia, and indeed Islamophobia. This is partly because, in some people, it involves an element of hurt pride and anxiety about the perceived threats to the integrity of the English identity and the country’s prosperity and security. But just because of those concerns, the aspiration to affirm and be proud about what it is to be English should not be dismissed out of hand. Few countries, in fact, have been less nationalistic and given over to pompous displays of national pride than the English – at least as the English and not via their alias as the British. And it is arguably necessary to the cultural and political health of any nation to take pride in being a nation, with the caveat that that pride must be prevented from spilling over into contempt towards other cultures and peoples.

And this is the point: the English have historically defined their national identity – in a formal, political and institutional, sense – as British; while their sentimental national identity has remained English. This is one explanation for the emotional infusion of Britishness with all things English, on the one hand, and the technical misnomer of referring to officially British entities as ‘English’, to which I referred above. Now that the sentimental projection of Englishness on a Britain-wide scale is rejected by many of those upon whom that proxy-Englishness has been foisted, perhaps it is time also to change the official, public discourse: to actually allow the English to develop a language to express their Englishness that is neither culturally insensitive to the Scots, Welsh and other British minority peoples; nor is formally inaccurate, in that it uses the ‘wrong’ term – ‘English’ – to refer to what is technically British. But to enable this to happen fully, it would almost certainly be necessary to change some of the highest institutions in the land, so that an English nation as such could come into being.

At this stage, it is worth taking a step back in time to consider the origins of some of these terms. Originally, ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ referred to the pre-/non-Anglo-Saxon island and its peoples. The Latin ‘Britannia’ – precursor to our ‘Britain’ – derived from a Celtic word that is seen to this day in the Welsh ‘Prydain’. In a sense, then, it is ironic that ‘England’ has projected itself historically into an identification with the whole of Britain – an entity that originally did not have England as its centre – and that the non-Anglo-Saxon Britain has increasingly withdrawn from the project, leaving Englishness with, almost literally, nowhere to go.

One of the purposes served by the assimilation of England to ‘Britain’ was to find a way of not actually calling the English-dominated state ‘England’ – as, for instance, the centrist state of France originally drew its name from that country’s own Germanic invaders, the Franks. Calling the nation ‘Britain’ or ‘Great Britain’, from the 17th century onwards, was a way to invoke a ‘united kingdom’ through reference to the unified geographical territory that that kingdom encompassed – neatly eliding the fact that this was a nation ruled by the Kings, Queens and Parliament of England, albeit with a grafting on of Scottishness through the Stuarts. (The name ‘Great Britain’, by the way, was not originally a reference to some idea of a Greater Britain – a greater political union of all the nations and islands of the state – but merely a term distinguishing our Britain from the ‘Little Britain’ that is Brittany: in French, ‘Grande Bretagne’ versus ‘Bretagne’.)

But has there ever really been a unified British nation as such? Even Roman Britannia did not encompass the whole of this island but was more a forced political union of foreign invaders with the Celts of what are now England and Wales, in which the vigorously independent, non-Celtic Picts of Caledonia declined to participate.

‘Britain’, as a political concept, has always been more of an idea than a reality: the idea of a political, national and – in the post-Reformation context – religious union encompassing all the British Isles that has been driven and to some extent imposed by peoples coming originally from outside the actual island of Britain – the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans. In a similar way, the very identity and existence of the nation of England has for centuries been parasitic on the British project: the raison d’être of ‘England’ has been to bring about, uphold and embody the union of Britain. Perhaps this mission is the particular way England has striven to reconcile the tensions from which it was born: the pull between an identification with the authoritarian centre of power in the land, on the one hand, and an identification with the people of the land on whom that rule – coming from the outside – has been imposed.

The shift in our thinking and language about English nationality I am advocating essentially involves re-centring our current concepts of Britishness on the English. It involves accepting that the British project was always primarily an English undertaking and, to the extent that they have shared and participated in it, the Welsh, Scots and Irish have identified with a Britain and with a cultural and political entity that was essentially ‘made in England’. We should then start to use ‘England’ and ‘English’ to refer to all of these ultimately ‘anglo-centric’ aspects of our history, culture and political life, i.e. those aspects that reflect the strategic interests, values and socio-cultural characteristics of the inhabitants of England in previous centuries and today. We could, for instance, refer to the British Empire as having been really an English empire (an extension of the English dominion of Britain across a vast geographical expanse). Our democracy could be thought of as a mainly English – rather than British – creation; ‘British values’ should be viewed as synonymous with ‘English values’, where those values clearly reflect characteristics, conventions and a historical heritage that are generally accepted as rooted in England.

We could then perhaps develop a language about Britain that is differentiated to some extent from the idea of Britain, i.e. from the English-British political project that I have described. ‘Britain/British’ could be used to refer – historically – to the pre-English peoples of the land (the Celts, Picts, etc.) and – in the present – to all the ‘indigenous’ peoples of these islands: the continuing nations, cultures, ethnicities, and Christian and liberal-humanist traditions that have inhabited the geographical territories of Britain over a long historical period. Insofar as the Welsh and the Scots wish to define themselves as culturally and ethnically distinct from the English – as well as being merely geographically demarcated from England – they could define that ethnicity, perhaps, as ‘British’ in the first of those senses. Of course, they would have to work out in their own way how to resolve the problem of defining their national identity in any kind of ethnic way, with respect to integrating the minorities in their lands.

The English, on the other hand, could now turn the unworkability of defining their own identity in ethnic terms into a considerable virtue. By this, I mean that the English should now be free to appropriate to themselves the ‘British’ values they have previously sought to extend to the whole of Britain. One could therefore consider oneself to be English almost by virtue of a conscious identification with, and espousal of, English culture and civilisation seen as something that embraces and holds together the very diversity of the national and cultural influences that have shaped us over the centuries. Not an England as an island-nation Britain but as an inter-national civilisation that we took to the world in the past and to which the whole world now contributes. Is English who lives or is born in England (or considers England to be their home while dwelling abroad) and identifies both with English personal and social characteristics, and with English civic and cultural values, as the ground on which their rights and responsibilities within the nation are based. So we could now easily talk of ‘English black’ and ‘English Muslim’ (indeed, ‘English Indian’ or ‘English Irish’) people because, in fact, we now see it as being the English civilisation that has given these groups their hybrid cultural identity – their cultural home as part of England, as much as their physical one. ‘England’, in this acception, can be viewed in relation to a core ‘mission’ as a ‘bringer together’ of nations and cultures, not the byword for an ethnically homogenising, dominating civilisation.

So in a sense, we are talking about a reversal of conventional values: ‘Britain’ becomes associated more with a narrow, insular and possibly ethnically restrictive focus; while ‘England’ is articulated as the place of an international, cosmopolitan culture – open to the global culture which it arguably has done more than any other nation to create. This does not mean that we forget or disown the mistakes and misdeeds of the past by, for instance, attributing all the negative aspects of our imperialist past to a domineering and racist Britishness that is somehow opposed to Englishness (whereas, I’ve argued, it is an intrinsic and ambiguous part of the English historical heritage). By the same token, we should not pillory ourselves pruriently about our past imperialism. This is because the internationalist values and culture we wish to own as an important part of our ‘new Englishness’ – and which are expressed in the post-imperialist context in terms of freedom, democracy and cultural openness – would be unthinkable without the English and other European empires that largely created the modern world and our ‘multi-cultural’ societies.

And just as the new English identity can positively affirm its international outlook, there is an opportunity to give greater voice to the regional identities and communities of England, now that Englishness in all its guises is no longer a dirty word and need no longer hide behind the supposed inclusiveness of Britishness. This would involve, on the one hand, reaffirming traditional, rural English identities, lifestyles and economies, insofar as they actually survive in the present. These should be viewed not as the domain of socially anti-progressive, economically backward and racially exclusive communities, as some with a more urban outlook might have it. On the contrary, they must be affirmed as absolutely vital in preserving traditions reaching far back into the precious history of our land, and in maintaining a connection to that land – through labour, cultivation and mutual dependency – that is more than merely economic and industrial, but ecologically and spiritually vital. But equally, the various vibrant urban regional identities and cultures of England should be affirmed and valued. Gone for ever should be the contempt of the political, social and economic elites – concentrated around the capital and the richer regions of the south – for the diversity of other English voices and cultures they have often sought to exclude: the contempt, in other words, of the very class that has driven the British project for an English diversity it sought to suppress. And, by the same token, even the oft-dismissed middle- and upper-class culture of the wealthy home counties can surely also find a cherished place, somewhat like an Agatha Christie novel, in the newfound pride we take in Englishness.

The English language in all its diversity should of course take pride of place in the articulation of the new Englishness – a language with so many rich regional, international and class variations that encapsulate the history and contradictions of English expansiveness in Britain and throughout the world. It often seems that as the English language becomes ever more the global lingua franca – a term which, when applied to our tongue, must really irk some people in France! – it belongs less and less to us in England. But now, if we reclaim that history of passionate engagement with a new world (albeit a world which seemed to the English of our past to be ‘there to be conquered’) as English history, we can also reclaim the multiple global forms of English as our language – to be embraced, loved, understood and cultivated in all its rich variety. My word-processing package’s spell checker gives me 18 varieties of English to choose from, ranging from Australian to Zimbabwean: they are all mine, they are all English.

As I suggested above, it would almost certainly be necessary to modify the constitutional relationships between England and the rest of the UK in order to give full expression to this new sense of England and the English as a distinct nation. This would not necessarily entail the break up of the UK but it might involve finally differentiating the UK from Britain: the UK would become a political alliance of distinct nations and not a merging of them into a nebulous synthesis – a ‘Britain’ that has never been a true nation as such in the people’s hearts, other than when it was effectively another name for England. The implications of a change such as this are potentially vast; but moving towards a legally and politically distinct England might at last bring some clarity into the constitutional titivations and partial devolutions of the past decade. And it could potentially revitalise English civic and political life in some unexpected ways because it would be a process of restoring the nation to the people: giving the English a sense of ownership over their nation, political institutions and democracy that appears for the present to be in ever greater decline – and arguably has been since the sense that the destiny of English people was inseparable from a Britain that was Great began to be eroded.

I am no constitutional or legislative expert. But let’s take a moment to imagine what forms the new English constitutional settlement could take.

· Separate parliaments or assemblies could be instituted, complementary to the current bodies in Scotland and Wales, for a number of English regions grouping together counties with shared historical links and economic interests, e.g. the North-East, the North-West, the Midlands, East Anglia (including Essex, Herts and possibly additional counties), London, the ‘Home Counties’ and the South, and the South-West. These could be essentially federal assemblies with responsibilities for managing the public-sector purse, social policy, and law and order in those regions (while the Scottish Parliament would preserve its legislative role). The UK parliament would retain its responsibility for economic, security, and (excluding Scotland) fiscal and legislative issues affecting the UK as a whole. The upper house of the UK parliament (perhaps a new proportionally elected body) could exercise oversight over the actions and decisions of the regional parliaments, examining their implications for the whole of the UK.

· An alternative arrangement would be to allow the House of Commons to act as a second house in relation to decisions from the regional/national parliaments affecting the UK as a whole; while the regional/national parliaments could exercise second-house-type scrutiny of the national parliament’s legislation. Indeed, a new second house could be drawn from the regional/national assemblies, with members elected by those assemblies or voted for by the electorate using a proportional system as part of the elections for the regional/national assemblies

· Alternatively again, if the people of England did not wish to have separate regional parliamentary bodies, arrangements similar to the ones above could be put in place with just a single national English parliament, rather than multiple regional parliaments. This would probably do better justice to a revitalised sense of England as a distinct nation. In this case, full legislative – as well as merely administrative – powers could possibly be transferred to each of the three (or four, if Northern Ireland were added) national parliaments. The Union would then be preserved and protected by a proportionally elected ‘upper’ house with responsibility for safeguarding the economy, integrity, legal rights and responsibilities, international relations, and security of the UK as a whole. This body would be something half-way between the current House of Commons and House of Lords, with the difference that, together with the national parliaments, it would more accurately reflect public opinion. It would have to have real power to refer or veto legislation and decisions from the national parliaments in order to truly function as a guarantee of the Union.

The role of the prime minister would become more akin to that of an elected president: heading up the Executive, and driving forward policy and legislation through the national bodies – but with more limited direct power to dictate policy and legislation, which would be dependent on greater democratic consensus, and checks and balances. The prime minister could be chosen on a slightly modified basis from the present arrangements: (s)he would be the leader of the party with the greatest representation across all the national parliaments or, alternatively, the leader of the party best able to form a coalition of support across the parliaments. The Cabinet would become more like a company Board of Directors, while executive management of ‘UK plc’ would be delegated to the individual national administrations.

These are just a few bare outlines intended to suggest how our political and cultural life could be radically transformed and reinvigorated by allowing the peoples of the UK – English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh – to take renewed pride in their nations and retrieve a sense of ownership over the institutions and political processes that are supposed to give voice to their wishes and fears, their values and ambitions.

Given its ineluctably ‘multi-cultural’, multi-ethnic and multi-faith character, England in particular has an enormous opportunity – one could even consider it a duty – to redefine and revalorise its identity: to affirm what is distinctively English, including the very openness to cultural, ethnic and national diversity within its territory and beyond. This is particularly essential in the light of some of the major challenges facing us today: the need to absorb large waves of new immigrants, and the need to present a strong alternative set of national and civic values with which alienated minorities (particularly, Muslim youth) can identify. This new English identity would be one that seeks at once to accept and understand Muslims’ faith background, but which sets that inclusion within a broader context of common English values, both traditional and modern. ‘Britain’ and Britishness are now too abstract and disputed to provide a set of shared values and aspirations, and too tainted in the eyes of many minorities with associations with our imperial past. Indeed, one could go further and say that encouraging minorities to define their identity in relation to supposedly common British values actually offers them a ‘cop out’: it allows them to limit their commitment to this country to the level of formal legal nationality (to consider themselves legally British but, in their hearts, Asian, Muslim, Polish, etc.) – rather than to a strong tradition and civilisation that is concretely grounded in the places where they live, i.e. in England. But while ‘England’ remains too timid to assert itself as a nation freed from the shackles of an idea of Britain that is no longer relevant or meaningful to possibly the majority of the inhabitants of these islands, it also cannot serve as a sufficiently attractive focus for people’s identity, ambition, pride and respect.

England has indeed much to reproach herself for, in the past and the present. But the country has in many ways been as much of a victim of the attempt to impose the domination of ‘Britain’ as have the other nations of our islands and former empire. It is time for the flawed but also vibrant and diverse civilisation and identities of England to find their voice and become a nation.

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