Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

28 November 2013

Launch of the Blueprint for ‘Scotland’s Future’: A Red-Letter Day for England?

Cross-posted with thanks from English Commonwealth.

Yesterday saw the launch of ‘Scotland’s Future’: the Scottish Government’s white paper on Scottish independence, billed as the blueprint for the country’s future. English Commonwealth looks forward to the publication of the UK government’s blueprint for the future of the United Kingdom, and particularly England’s place within it.

We could be waiting for a very long time. The sad truth is that the British government appears to have no coherent long-term vision for the Union, for the relations between its constituent countries and for its systems of government – let alone any vision for England.

In the specific context of the Scottish-independence referendum, this presents the No campaign – Better Together – with something of a quandary: they have no positive vision for the future of the Union, and of Scotland within it, to set against the blueprint for an independent Scotland set out in the white paper. There simply is no such positive plan for the Union. Any alternative ideas they might come up with would be pure ‘fiction’, as the Better Together leader Alastair Darling described ‘Scotland’s Future’ yesterday.

Better Together can’t even outline a detailed set of proposals about how devolution might be extended in Scotland in the event of a No vote, for instance by giving the Scottish government control over most of the taxes raised in Scotland. They can’t do this because no commitment to ‘devo more’ or ‘devo max’ exists on the part of the Westminster government, let alone any overall policy framework setting out the maximum degree to which devolution could be rolled out to all of the constituent nations of the UK – including England – and the constitutional ramifications of so doing.

Better Together can’t even speak with any authority about what the stance of the UK government would be on a whole range of issues were it to find itself in the position of negotiating an independence settlement with Scotland following a Yes vote in the referendum. These issues include things like the currency; Scotland’s EU and NATO membership; the UK’s nuclear deterrent, currently based in the Scottish port of Faslane; and other security issues such as naval shipbuilding, dividing up the armed forces and border controls.

On the face of it, there appears to be no contingency planning for this eventuality on the part of the UK government, which is perhaps over-confident that the No’s will win. If there is any contingency planning, then it certainly hasn’t been revealed to the pro-Union campaigners, because free and fair election rules preclude the government from disclosing valuable inside information to only one side in the referendum, and because this information would in any case no doubt be classified as a state secret.

But over and above contingency planning, there appears to be no plan at all for what the constitutional and governance framework of the ‘rest of the UK’ (rUK) would look like if Scotland departs from or breaks up the Union. So Better Together simply cannot predict anything sensible or coherent about what the eventual Scottish-independence settlement would look like, because nobody in the UK government has articulated any ideas whatsoever about what rUK would look like: about which elements of the present UK it would insist on retaining and what it would be willing to share with Scotland in a continuing social and economic union. Following a Yes vote, we’d be in a completely different political and constitutional ball game, and no one has yet proposed let alone established what the rules of the game would be.

This leaves England potentially in a massive constitutional limbo. Let’s put it this way: there’s no plan for a continuing Union including Scotland, even less of a plan for rUK, and even less for the status and governance of England within rUK.

Never mind Scotland: England needs a plan B. That’s why, more than ever, we need a Constitutional Convention for England. If the government won’t direct its thoughts to the shape of a continuing UK with or without Scottish independence, and England’s place within it, then the people of England must do so in its place. English Commonwealth urges its readers to support our petition for just such a constitutional convention. So far, as I write, our petition has generated a mere 37 online signatures out of a target of 1 million.

Come on, men and women of England: don’t let England’s future and very existence be decided by default by the people of Scotland and by a UK government that couldn’t care less about our country. Let’s make the day the blueprint for Scotland’s future was published a red-letter day for England!

12 September 2011

The BBC’s supposedly ‘English’ bias

Apparently, the Scots have been whingeing about the BBC having too much of an ‘English bias‘. For those of us who are aware of the extent to which the BBC, other news media and Union politicians in fact go out of their way to avoid referring to ‘England’, this appears a bit of a sick joke.

But I suppose the Scots’ complaint is the reverse side of the same devalued Union coin that we English complain about: events and stories that are in fact limited to England are referred to as if they related to the whole Union, usually by means of the avoidance phrase ‘this country’ or its synonyms. For English viewers and listeners, this creates, and is intended to create, the impression that the story in question does pertain to the whole Union, when it doesn’t. And for the Scottish audience, this whips up the old irritation about ‘English’ people arrogantly assuming that England-specific stories are applicable, and hence of interest, to the whole UK.

This is another instance of what I wrote about in my previous post. In many ways, the BBC is the mouthpiece of the Union state and hence is a prime agent in perpetuating the discourse of ‘Britain’: the (mis-)representation of ‘the nation’ as a unified, British polity. Hence, many news stories are presented as ‘British’ – or at least as relating to ‘this country’ – because they are a matter of and for the established British order, of which the BBC itself is an integral part. Scots and English alike are rightly annoyed, from different perspectives, that such English stories are portrayed as having UK-wide relevance; and yet, they are also a UK matter in that, for the present, English matters are dealt with by and through the Union establishment: British parliament, British Broadcasting Corporation, British press, etc.

So to all you Scots out there, I say don’t blame us English for the BBC’s ‘English’ bias: blame the Union establishment that deliberately suppresses the distinction between ‘Britain’ and ‘England’ in order to hold on to its power over English affairs and English minds. Rather like the Union government itself, the BBC doesn’t want to be an English Broadcasting Corporation even though that is what it has de facto become in so many ways.

8 September 2011

If they won’t say ‘England’, we shouldn’t say ‘Britain’

It’s a familiar gripe: most England-based politicians, journalists, bloggers, etc. simply refuse to say ‘England’ even when it is English facts they’re talking about. If they speak the name of any country at all – rather than simply saying ‘our country’, or even just ‘our’ and ‘we’ – it’ll invariably be ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’.

I was struck by another example of the phenomenon last week when I listened to an otherwise perceptive and thought-provoking talk on BBC Radio Four’s ‘Four Thought‘ programme given by Ed Howker, co-author of the book ‘Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth’. Perhaps the clue was in the name, or perhaps it was because the speaker was recorded at the Edinburgh Festival, but I heard the word ‘England’ only once in Ed Howker’s talk, whereas the rest of his presentation was peppered with references to ‘Britain’, including – if not mainly – in contexts that were exclusively English: particularly last month’s riots.

Why this persistent, obdurate will not to name English social phenomena, facts and policies as English but refer to them indiscriminately as ‘British’ – even on the part of someone who clearly has some insights and is genuinely concerned about the viewpoint and experiences of the young English people involved in the riots? Clearly, part of the problem is that some of the issues discussed were genuinely UK-wide, such as the blight of youth unemployment, social attitudes towards young people and cuts to benefits that many young people depend on. But this was interspersed with discussion of topics that were undeniably England-specific.

On one level, Howker was merely trying to be inclusive for his Edinburgh audience by generalising to ‘Britain’ matters that mainly related to England: a device that ‘English’ Britishers employ all the time. But saying ‘Britain’ when talking about England is inclusive in a more general sense: one where it is necessary to speak to Britain as well as of Britain if you wish to be included within public life and take part in the national conversation that defines Britain itself. That is to say, ‘Britain’ increasingly manifests and articulates itself, and asserts its claim to power and authority, primarily through discourse itself.

One definition of ‘Britain’ is that it is the name for the sovereign power and authority – the established order – that holds sway over the geographical territory also known loosely as ‘Britain’ (i.e. the United Kingdom and its crown dependencies). In this sense, Britain is the ‘nation’ as defined in terms of its system of (self-)government: the nation as polity – sovereign parliament and people, rulers and ruled, as one. Prior to devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, that sovereign power used to be co-terminous – or was more readily imagined as co-terminous – with the whole territory of the UK / Britain and with all its peoples: there was no distinction made between Britain the great power (that rules the waves and the empire beyond), Britain the territory (the realm) and Britain the nation (that never shall be slaves because it rules itself). As a consequence of devolution, however, there has been a profound tearing asunder of Britain the polity from Britain as territory and as people: the first Britain’s writ no longer holds over the whole of the second Britain – the territory and its peoples. (Technically, its writ does still apply across the UK, as Britain retains full sovereignty over the devolved nations and can take back the devolved powers at any time – but in practice, or at least in popular imagination, those powers and that sovereignty have been transferred and not merely delegated.)

So when people such as myself rail against the fact that politicians refer to English matters as ‘British’, or as simply pertaining to ‘this country’ without any reference to the country’s name, we are pointing to this split whereby ‘British’ governance now in practice applies in many matters only to the geographical territory of England rather than the whole territory of the UK: the Britain of government no longer literally and metaphorically ‘maps on to’ the territory of Britain, but often extends to England alone. For this reason, these should more properly be called English matters, rather than British. Yet, on another level, these remain British matters and are ‘appropriately’ described as such, insofar as they remain matters of ‘British’ governance: pertaining to Britain as the name of the sovereign power. In this sense, even England itself is correctly designated as ‘Britain’ on the basis that it is a British territory, which falls under the sovereign power that is Britain – indeed, it is now the only territory that remains wholly within the British orbit.

The point I’m trying to make is that when people ‘talk Britain’, and apply the name of Britain to England, what they are primarily doing is asserting the sovereign authority of Britain over England rather than mis-describing England as ‘Britain’. Asserting that sovereignty involves assimilating England to Britain. A failure to impose this assimilation would mean that Britain would no longer be itself – a nation defined in its very self-government – but would be seen increasingly as a sort of arbitrary imposition of extraneous, undemocratic, oppressive control denying England the self-government that it – Britain – claims as its own prerogative. This is indeed how those who assert England’s right to self-government see Britain, and I’ll return to the implications of this below.

But before I do this, I’d like to comment on the fact that this use of ‘Britain’ as the name for the nation is something perpetrated not only by establishment figures such as politicians but also by those who challenge government’s policies in quite fundamental ways – without challenging the British system of government itself through which those policies have been implemented. This observation would apply to Ed Howker above and, in general, to the various movements and social analyses that have sprung up in this era of government cuts to challenge the assumptions behind the cuts and demand a change of course, such as the UK Uncut protest movement or the ‘Fight Back’ account of the (mostly English) student protests at the end of last year. These analyses all uncritically refer to the nation as ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’ despite the fact that many of the cuts and public-sector reforms that are being protested about apply to England only. And that’s because the rhetoric of ‘Britain’ is the discourse through which power articulates itself. This means that if you want to be heard by the powers that be – if you want your analysis to be not only insightful and accurate but effective in instigating political change – you have to formulate your arguments in the terms that the British establishment imposes and dictates: through the language of ‘Britain’, which is the language of the established polity.

By contrast, if you decide to air your grievances as ‘English’ and frame your social analysis as applying to a country called ‘England’, you can be virtually guaranteed that your arguments will be dismissed out of hand and not even listened to, or else misrepresented and wilfully misunderstood as being merely narrowly nationalistic, chippy or even racist. To be included in the national debate, you must say ‘Britain’ because ‘Britain’ is as much the name and discourse in and through which that debate is conducted as it is the name of the ‘nation’ being debated. But if you try to articulate a different sense of identity, nationhood and political focus – an English one – you can be sure that you and your opinions will be excluded from any conversation of influence or power. To speak to and of ‘Britain’ is therefore a means to be inclusive, not only because it opens out English issues to all UK citizens (whether accurately or inaccurately), but because to be or feel included in any position to wield political, social or economic power, that power play must be directed to, and be articulated in terms of, ‘Britain’.

But there’s a problem for the Britologists: the propagandists for Britain who would propagate Britain through discourse itself. While saying ‘England’ is absolutely excluded from any discourse of power, the Britishers are aware that they can no longer get away with referring to the nation as ‘Britain’ in contexts where it is completely obvious that only England is really being talked about. In the Howker talk I mentioned above, for instance, it did become necessary at one point for the speaker to be geographically specific and refer to ‘England’ – if I remember correctly, referring to the fact that the devastation caused by the riots took place in English cities only.

Similarly, British politicians can no longer really get away with talking about policies as applying to ‘Britain’ in cases where people have become aware that they apply to England alone. Paradoxically, to describe them in this way would involve particularising Britain: making the term ‘Britain’ apply only to a limited geographical part of Britain (England), rather than to the whole of the territory and to the sovereign power of government in general. This is what Gordon Brown effectively did, setting up a bizarre UK comprising Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Britain, with Britain meaning both the UK and England: the two Britains I discussed above – the British polity and the territory over which it has retained full sovereignty, which has been reduced to England only.

So instead of acknowledging the shrinking of Britain down to England, the present tactic of the establishment is generally to avoid using any specific name for ‘this country’, and thereby avoid both the odd and confusing use of ‘Britain’ where ‘England’ is obviously meant, and the ‘inappropriate’ acknowledgement of England by name where British sovereign governance is being asserted and exercised. Above all, you mustn’t create the impression that government policies are British policies for England, which would invoke that post-devolution separation between Britain and its constituent parts, and would lead people to think that maybe we would be better off with English policies for England, with English-national politicians acting in the English-national interest, rather than British politicians governing England in the British interest, including in the interest of perpetuating the very system of power and governance that Britain itself is.

By using the expression ‘this country’ – and still more by personalising it as ‘our country’, and even just as ‘we’ and ‘our’ – the establishment tries to re-invoke that pre-devolution sense that we are just ‘one nation’: government and people united in shared self-government, mutual acknowledgement and respect, and common Britishness. Ironically, then, the unity and cohesion of Britain – and the adhesion of England to Britain – can be assured only by acknowledging ‘this country’ neither as Britain nor as England wherever facts and policies are being referred to in their exclusivity to England.

Using the language of ‘this country’, and of ‘society’ in general, helps to de-particularise the matters being discussed: it abstracts them from their particularity to England and naturalises them. That is, it’s a strategy that makes ‘this country’ seem a self-evident, natural, absolute concept whose meaning ‘we’ understand when we use it. Clearly, it’s a way of saying Britain, evoking Britain, without actually saying the word ‘Britain’: it’s a way of implying that there is still a shared national-British conversation and polity – one that in fact defines ‘us’ as a nation – that is as timeless and unchanging as the geology of the British Isles. This is not just the immutable order of British society but the order of things, the way things are; and it’s what makes ‘us’ British.

But this is a fabrication and a chimera: not so much a lie as a self-justifying, rationalising fiction. Britain isn’t the natural order of things and an immovable edifice solid in its immemorial foundations, but a political construct and project: it’s a system of sovereign government that the citizens of the UK used to identify with and think of as their own; but now that unity between the polity, the territory and the people of Britain has broken. This is the true meaning of ‘broken Britain’: don’t ascribe this concept to dysfunctional English communities and rioting English youth. It’s the politicians that have broken Britain, and no amount of endless invocations of ‘our country’ will bring it back.

In short, the breaking up of Britain into its component territories and nations means that the British government increasingly appears more like a Union government than a national government: it’s a government that seeks to hold together a union of multiple nations, and indeed whose continued existence as a system of governance depends on its ability to do so. As English nationalists who by definition support the idea of England as a self-governing nation (rather than a province of a self-styled British nation), we must do everything in our power to oppose the British establishment’s attempts to suppress the idea of England as a nation in its own right and with its own rights, including those of self-government. And that also means opposing and subverting the rhetorical tricks through which ‘Britain’ seeks to impose itself on our minds and hearts as the, and indeed ‘our’, nation.

What I’m suggesting is that, just as the defenders of the British order refuse to say ‘England’, we in turn should refuse to say ‘Britain’ or ‘this country’. Instead, when we’re referring to Britain as the sovereign power and established order in the land, we should wherever possible call it ‘the Union’; ‘the Union government’ instead of ‘British government’; ‘the Union’ instead of ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’; ‘Unionists’ for anyone who identifies as British, and supports the present disenfranchisement and suppression of England. Doing this helps to objectify and politicise ‘Britain’, making it clear that we view it as a political system and construct (a Union of nations) rather than as a self-evident, self-governing ‘country’ that we are all supposed to identify with and accept as our own, despite the realities on the ground and in our own sense of distinct English nationhood. And suppressing ‘Britain’ from our language also replicates and pays back the humiliating and insulting suppression of ‘England’ from the discourse through which ‘Britain’ imposes its power and identity over England.

I’m not saying that we should refuse to say ‘Britain’ altogether. We should retain the word in its two other common meanings: the geographical land mass, and principally the island of Britain itself; and ‘British’ in the cultural sense, referring to the shared history and traditions of people throughout the nations of Britain. This is Britain as a historic national identity whose days are numbered in terms of the politically enforced unity of the Union state, but which we can continue to celebrate as a historic achievement and as an expression of solidarity between the British peoples, who share so much in common. But we should refuse to say ‘Britain’ as the name of the ‘nation’-as-polity: the sovereign political power. This is to deny ‘Britain’ the power that it would assert over England, not just physically in terms of laws we must obey but psychologically by imposing Britain as ‘our country’. Our country is England, not Britain; and Britain is a Union state that seeks to run England for its own benefit, not that of England’s people. And we must express this fact in our language.

And of course, it doesn’t go without saying that we should always call ‘our country’ ‘England’ wherever it is really England we are talking about. Let’s not worry about being inclusive to non-English Britons by pretending we’re talking about the whole Union when we’re really discussing English matters. And above all, let’s not try to be inclusive in the broader sense: replicating a discourse of ‘Britain’ by which the Union seeks to impose itself as the power in the land and the power over our minds, and whose linguistic norms we must conform to if we are to feel included in the national conversation and life of the ‘nation’. We seek in fact to establish a new English nation, and it must first exist in the truth of our language if it is to truly challenge the terms and realities of Union rule.

30 April 2011

Royal wedding – ‘what Britain does best’ or what Britain is: a union of unequals?

I’m beginning to write this an hour before the service commences: the royal wedding. So I’m starting blind, before the start of the spectacle that I’ll be going round to a neighbour’s to watch – which will provide the necessary flesh to this cultural commentary.

Apart from being a ceremony in which a man and a woman commit their lives to one another, we are told that the royal wedding is an example of ‘what Britain does best’. More precisely, it is the ceremony and the celebration themselves that are ‘what Britain does best’: ceremonial performed with military precision, coupled with joyful but dignified, restrained popular celebration. In other words, the wedding symbolises Britain itself: a hierarchical, orderly society to which the people – like the commoner Kate Middleton – give their joyous but equally solemn assent.

Britain, like a traditional Christian marriage, is indeed a union. And as this particular wedding solemnises the union of the future head of the British state (who in that sense personifies the state and the established order) with a ‘girl of the people’, it symbolises in a particularly apt and condensed way the organic union that is meant to turn a kingdom into a nation: rulers and subjects united, like the married couple, in one flesh.

But is this union – Britain, that is – truly a marriage of equals, or does this wedding in fact symbolise the unequal nature of society and power across the Union, including in the relationship between the different nations (plural) of the kingdom? After all, the wedding takes place in the sacred burial place of the English kings, at the heart of the historic capital of England and centre of English government. It is conducted in a Church of England abbey, with some of the service being led by the pastoral head of the Anglican Communion (its future temporal head being Prince William himself, of course) using the hallowed English rite that is the Book of Common Prayer. This marriage and the union it symbolises are English in all but name, or English but not in name: the United Kingdom of whose perpetuation this wedding is a celebration being in essence a continuation of the ancient English kingdom, with William and Catherine being the future King and Queen of England. No one calls the British monarch the ‘King of Britain’ or the ‘King of the UK’: they’re the King of England – though not explicitly referred to as such in politically correct society – and at the same time head of the United Kingdom state.

This dual function and nomenclature reveals the fact that the UK is not a true and full union whereby the two – England and Scotland – could be said to have come together to form a new entity (Britain); the English crown united with the people (English and non-English) of the realm in an organic, integral British nation. Instead, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall remain as semi-distinct adjuncts to the English crown: like jewels within it but not integral to its English design and manufacture. And a great divide continues to separate the exalted class of the rulers from the people: the crown is not in fact one with the people; and England is not one with Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall in a united British nation.

Perhaps this is where a distinct identity for the English people was lost, along with any concept of popular English sovereignty; and where, instead of seeing each other as being oppressed by the same social inequalities and absence of true democracy, the non-English people of these isles have viewed ‘the English’, rather than the British state, as the oppressors. And this is because the English have never divorced their identity as a people and as a nation from the ancient English kingdom that has been subsumed within the British state, which has inherited its powers, prerogatives and mystique. As a consequence, the English have been identified by others with the British oppressor because they have identified themselves as subjects of the English kingdom / British state: not just willingly subjecting themselves to English-monarchical rule as it is continued within the British state, but framing their own subjectivity (their consciousness of themselves as a people) as British subjects: loyal servants and agents of the now British realm.

This is what, for me, is symbolised by the royal wedding: not the true union of a people with its rulers in an integral British nation but the identification of the English with their oppressor, the British state – a ‘commoner’ being ‘elevated’ to royal status, but not in a way that expresses or brings about the equality of the two, but rather in a way that confirms and perpetuates the separate status of those two worlds. But it’s not so much the future king or the present queen that is responsible for this continuing and only exceptionally bridgeable gap between the ruler and the subject. It is the British state – represented by those insipid ministerial faces seated in the row behind the glorious Westminster Abbey choir during the wedding service – that has inherited the privileges and aura of monarchical rule and exercises a power over the English (and non-English) people that is as much subjective as objectively subjecting: a power over our minds – leading us to willingly embrace, indeed celebrate, our subservient Britishness in fawning adoration – as much as it is objective, practical disempowerment and absence of democratic self-determination.

Today, ‘the nation’ may have celebrated a union that in turn symbolised the nation. But this unity of the ‘British nation’ is defined quintessentially in this very act of celebration and of marriage through which the English subject – as personified by Kate Middleton – is subsumed within and identified with the personification of the British state. So this is not a real, mature nation at all but merely a powerful, eloquent enactment of subjection to Britain. And until we break the spell through which the British state charms us into submitting to its ‘majesty’, the English nation will continue to be absent from the party.

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