Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

6 May 2015

Vote UKIP: the English national party in British-nationalist clothes

Let me put one thing straight: I don’t think UKIP is an English-nationalist party, by any stretch of the imagination.

Page 61 of the party’s 2015 general election manifesto, for instance, makes it abundantly clear that it is British-nationalist. This page talks of Britain as a “strong, proud, independent, sovereign nation” – in its own right, that is, rather than as a union of nations. It commits the party to promoting a “unifying British culture, open to anyone who wishes to identify with Britain and British values”, which in practice always tends to mean denigrating Englishness and subordinating it to Britishness. And it states support for “a chronological understanding of British history and achievements in the National Curriculum, which should place due emphasis on the unique influence Britain has had in shaping the modern world” – not caring to mention that this curriculum and Britain-centric version of history would apply to English schools alone.

That said, I would still maintain that UKIP should be viewed as an ‘English national’ party and as the default choice for English nationalists at this election. By this, I mean that UKIP speaks to a culturally English, British patriotism: an England-centric imagining of ‘Britain’ that is virtually indistinguishable to the great majority of English people from what is understood by ‘England’ itself. Most ordinary English people, I would say, are still stuck in this traditional Anglo-British mindset, and would talk of ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ as fully interchangeable terms. To put it in fancy psycho-babble, the ‘Symbolic’ (formal discourse or language) used by UKIP might be British, but its ‘Imaginary’ (imaginative and emotional associations) is English: UKIP talks British but speaks to the English.

Indeed, I would argue that the explanation for UKIP’s rise to the level of support it enjoys today (consistently polling around 12% or 13% UK-wide – higher in England) is that it has tapped in to the groundswell of English nationalism and the increasing identification as English of those living in England. UKIP is the default English national party, in the same way that the SNP is the Scottish national party and Plaid Cymru is the party of Wales. That is to say, it places the concerns of those who wish to preserve the integrity of England as a nation and defend the interests of English people at the heart of its policies, even if they are couched in British terms.

There are many examples of pro-English policies in their manifesto, which most actual English nationalists would readily agree with, such as:

• the demand for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership, and support for withdrawal, or ‘BREXIT’

• insistence on much tougher limits on immigration, including via proper border controls (made possible by BREXIT) and an Australian-style points system; reducing the access of foreign nationals to public services and social housing

• reduction of the UK’s overseas aid budget – reinvesting the money in English public services

• focus on building houses in brownfield sites, as opposed to concreting over England’s green and pleasant land with unsuitable and unwanted development

• scrapping the Barnett Formula and allocating spending on a genuine needs basis, which in reality means less money for Scotland and more for deprived English areas

• scrapping HS2, which is a vanity project driven by EU dreams of a pan-European high-speed rail network, and which threatens to devastate vast swathes of precious English countryside

• resisting the Labour and Lib Dem push for various forms of unwanted local or regional devolution in England

• improving social care provision in England

• preserving the English NHS as a publicly funded service, free at the point of use; using the redistributed Barnett funds to abolish parking charges in English hospitals

• reintroducing grammar and technical schools in England to improve the prospects of bright students from poorer areas, and to enhance vocational training.

However, one area where the UKIP manifesto is seriously deficient is the question of an English parliament: the manifesto doesn’t raise this at all. The only commitment that is made towards enhancing English-national democracy is that of English votes on English laws, despite the fact that this is an unworkable policy. For instance, after the election, it’s quite possible that there could be completely different English and UK parliamentary majorities: the Tories winning a majority in England, while the only workable UK-wide majority would be formed by Labour in partnership – formal or informal – with the Lib Dems and the other ‘progressive’ parties, including the SNP.

The answer, obviously, is separate UK and English parliaments; but UKIP are unwilling or unable to acknowledge this elephant in the room. This may be because they are still intent on positioning themselves as a party for the whole UK, rather than an overtly England-centric party or – heaven forbid – and English-nationalist one. But England-centric they undoubtedly are: addressing priorities and grievances that are either solely or primarily those of the English.

It is for this reason that I am recommending that all English nationalists vote UKIP at the election tomorrow. Sadly, owing to our First Past the Post voting system, a vote for the English Democrats is a wasted vote – assuming they’re standing in your constituency at all: they’re not in mine. Many would say that voting for UKIP is also a waste; and indeed, because of the electoral system UKIP are generally not expected to win any extra seats at the election, despite being the third-largest party in terms of share of the vote.

However, in reality, there is only a minority of seats where people’s votes make any difference at all, i.e. the marginal seats that might actually change hands. The constituency where I live is a very safe Conservative seat, so voting UKIP won’t make any difference in terms of the overall election result. The point of doing so is merely to register support for the types of English national policies I’ve outlined above.

If, on the other hand, you live in a constituency where your vote could help swing the result, I would argue that you should vote in such a way as to minimise the chance of a Labour-controlled government. This is because Labour, of all the parties, is most committed to local / city / regional devolution in England – whether or not the people affected have voted for it. Labour’s manifesto avoids almost any reference to ‘England’ other than in the sections where it discusses its wish to see devolution to so-called ‘county regions’ (whatever they are) and a Senate of the Nations and Regions (and you know what that means) to replace the present House of Lords. Labour is also, of course, obsessed with avoiding a referendum on the EU and can be relied upon to do nothing whatsoever about immigration, other than perhaps to increase it.

Accordingly, if you live in a Tory-Labour marginal, I’d say vote Tory. If you live in a Labour-Lib Dem marginal (like the Cambridge constituency near my home), I’d say gird your loins and vote Lib Dem, to prevent Labour from amassing the seats it may need to form a government.

But ultimately, if your vote, like mine, will make very little difference – or if you have no truck with the sort of tactical voting scenarios I’ve just described – vote UKIP: the English national party in British-nationalist clothes.

15 January 2015

The leaders’ debates and the failure to imagine England

In the row about what format if any the party leaders’ debates in the upcoming general election should take, one factor that has consistently been ignored is the England-specific framing of the discussion. By this, I mean not just that the possibility of an England-specific debate – focusing on the type of ‘English matters’ on which many have recently advocated that only English MPs should have the right to vote – has simply not been considered; whereas separate Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish debates have been offered. But also, the fact that the whole frame of reference for defining what constitutes ‘major UK parties’ is effectively English – or at least Anglo-British – has failed to be acknowledged.

Take the statement yesterday by the Green Party’s Australian-born leader Natalie Bennett claiming that the Green Party (of England and Wales) was one of the five major parties “in Britain”. Well, no, it’s one of the five largest parties in England. If you really mean ‘Britain’, or the UK, then you’d probably have to rank the Greens as sixth, with the SNP clearly in third place, both in terms of party membership and likely parliamentary representation after the general election.

Then you get into meaningless semantics about what constitutes a ‘national’ party: whether it means standing candidates in every single British, as opposed to UK, seat – leaving aside the fact that the Greens, Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems all have separate ‘Scottish’ parties, so that, technically, UKIP is the only major UK-wide party that qualifies. Unless, of course, by ‘national’ you mean every English seat. Because that is what, in this debate about the debates, ‘national’ effectively does mean: it’s whether parties are standing everywhere in England that counts, and hence whether their leaders’ performance in the debates are of relevance and interest to an English TV audience.

Of course, this is not being acknowledged, and cannot be acknowledged, as politicians and media would then have to admit that, in this supposedly UK election, involving UK-wide issues, there are really multiple elections: those in the devolved nations, where the issues properly concern only policy areas reserved to the UK government, and where nation-specific parties need to make their respective pitches about how they intend to look after the interests of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people within the London parliament; and then, in contrast, there is the election in England, where both reserved matters of great importance such as the economy, the EU, security and immigration are at stake, along with England-only matters such as the NHS, education, social care and cuts to local government – among many others.

Instead, politicians and the media are seeking to maintain the pretence that there is a single UK electorate, and single set of policy issues of equivalent importance and relevance to that ‘national’ audience: the NHS alongside the economy; education alongside immigration; social care and housing alongside welfare. There is of course a single national audience affected by the parties’ positions in all of these areas – but it’s the English audience, not the British one. And the ‘English’ parties – in my sense – certainly shouldn’t make a pitch to viewers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the (English) NHS, education system and local government, as if they were of equal relevance to viewers in those countries as those parties’ policies on the economy, defence and immigration. In fact, to do so is tantamount to fraud, as those parties wouldn’t be able to do anything in devolved policy areas if people in those countries voted them into power in Westminster.

The only way to be fair and proportionate about this is to split the debates into reserved and devolved matters; to have separate debates in all four of the UK’s nations on the latter; and have one or more debate on reserved policy areas involving, in some way, all the major parties of each nation. Then, by all means, the Green Party of England and Wales should be included, at least in the separate English and Welsh debates; and the Scottish Greens should be included in the Scottish debate.

The way I’d split it, to keep it manageable and useful to voters, is as follows:

• A first debate, aired UK-wide, featuring just David Cameron and Ed Miliband: as the PMs in waiting. This would deal only with reserved matters, given its UK-wide transmission

• A second debate, aired UK-wide, featuring the leaders of all the parties that could end up as coalition partners to the Conservatives or Labour, or as holding the balance of power, i.e. the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the DUP. This debate should also be on reserved matters only and should exclude the Tories and Labour in order to counterbalance the potential bias from limiting the first debate to them. Although only UKIP and the Greens are ‘national’ (i.e. English) parties, it would be relevant to English voters to have the leaders of the main nation-specific parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland appearing on the platform, as these parties may form part of UK governments legislating for England. The debates would therefore give voters in England a chance to find out whether these parties would ally themselves with Labour or the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament; and what their stance on matters such as English votes for English laws, constitutional reform for England, and other issues of concern to English people such as immigration and EU membership would be. That might make a real difference to voting intentions

• Four further nation-specific debates should also then happen, including UKIP and the Greens in England, and the single nation-specific parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In England, the debate should reasonably deal with both England-specific and reserved matters, but with a greater emphasis on English issues, as reserved issues would have formed the focus of the previous two debates. Devoting a limited amount of time to reserved matters would enable, say, Nigel Farage to debate the EU and immigration with David Cameron, and Natalie Bennett to debate energy policy alongside the environment (England-only) with the other leaders.

But I strongly doubt that a truly equitable solution such as this will be adopted: equitable to the people of England, that is, rather than to the purported national-UK parties that are in fact no such thing.

29 October 2014

National parliaments with a regionally elected federal parliament: a new constitutional model for the UK

The following is the outline for a new federal UK: a modest contribution to the ongoing debate about options for the governance of England and the UK as a whole. I offer this despite thinking that the ‘federal moment’ has perhaps already passed, primarily because Scotland has embarked on its own journey of reinvigorated democracy, and is growing into an independent-minded polity, even though the cause of full independence has been lost, for the time being at least.

For this reason, any new federal model for the UK constitution would need to offer a considerable measure of autonomy to Scotland – and, similarly, to all of the UK’s nations, as all must be treated equally – in order to satisfy the powerful aspirations towards real self-government to the north of the border with England and, indeed, to its south.

My model can be stated succinctly: four national parliaments (preferably elected using the AMS proportional system presently used in Scotland and Wales) to deal with devolved matters, and a UK-wide, federal parliament, elected on a ‘regional’ basis, to deal with reserved matters. As observed above, the policy areas devolved to each national parliament would be substantial and could include – in addition to the types of matter that are already devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – the majority of income tax, corporation tax and some other taxes; most of welfare and social security; all of transport policy; national infrastructure and major planning projects; energy; considerable primary-legislative powers; and all of justice and policing. Some of these powers are already enjoyed by Scotland (e.g. a separate justice system and major planning projects), so these responsibilities should be devolved consistently to all four nations.

Accordingly, the reserved policy areas would be narrowed down to: macro-economics (i.e. overall fiscal policy co-ordination and monetary policy); residual taxation and welfare responsibilities (e.g. a UK-wide state retirement pension); defence and security; immigration and citizenship; foreign policy; and possibly, science, research and development.

I imagine the regionally based federal parliament (which would also replace the House of Lords as a revising chamber for legislation passed by the national parliaments) as being elected via a similar PR system to the present European Parliament elections, with each ‘region’ forming an electoral college. However, the UK federal parliament would not necessarily adopt the Euro regions, many of which have no basis in English history or local identity. Instead, my concept is one of ‘elective regions’, which could be built up from the bottom upwards from counties, cities and unitary authorities.

In other words, individual counties, cities, etc. could decide to group together to form ‘regions’ based around shared economic, social and environmental challenges. It would be up to the people in each prospective region to approve its formation in a referendum. These regions could straddle national boundaries, e.g. there could be a ‘Borders’ region to the north and south of the Anglo-Scottish border, or a ‘South Wales and Avon’ region encompassing, say, the area including Cardiff, Newport and Bristol (just for argument’s sake). In reality, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be more likely to constitute ‘regions’ in their own right for the purposes of the new federal parliament – although something like a Highlands, Islands and Lowlands split in Scotland is easily conceivable, just as is a split between South Wales and Welsh-speaking West and North Wales. Similarly, the formation of a Cornwall region would be highly likely.

This is not devolution to the regions. Indeed, any intra-national devolution down to ‘regional’ or local level would be a devolved responsibility of each of the national parliaments, in keeping with subsidiarity principles. In fact, my proposal is partly intended as a means to channel and fend off the potentially centrifugal and divisive drive towards regional devolution in England in the form of Euro regions or new ‘city regions’, as typically supported by Liberal Democrat federalists and Labourites respectively.

The new regions would have a powerful voice in the federal parliament, and would be able to forge alliances – including across borders – to help co-ordinate the economic-development plans produced by the national parliaments and, if necessary, to block legislation they felt was contrary to their interests or to those of the UK as a whole. And electing the federal parliament on a regional, rather than national, basis provides a counterbalance to the individual nations and a means to prevent England in particular from assuming a dominant position across the new federal polity – a fear which is routinely adduced to counter demands for an English parliament, i.e. that it would be too big and powerful, and would destabilise any UK federation.

The new regions could also push for more devolved powers – but as stated above, decisions about whether to grant them should be the responsibility of the national parliaments, combined with referendums in the regions concerned.

So this is my draft blueprint. I think this could be an effective way to satisfy aspirations for national self-government, and decentralisation to regions and local authorities, while preserving a strong UK-wide government. But as I say, it may already be too late, as the Scottish genie is already out of the bottle – and England, too, increasingly demands a say on its own government.

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!

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!

3 February 2013

Why I’m opposed to the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill

The British government’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales – the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill – received its first reading (a formality) in the House of Commons the week before last and is due to receive its second, more significant, reading this coming Tuesday. The bill is likely to be passed into law during the course of the year, as the great majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs are thought to support it, and enough Conservative MPs appear to be in favour. Indeed, one article identified only 118 Tory MPs that were on record as opposing the measure, one of whom has said he will abstain. Nonetheless, this is a sizeable Conservative backbench rebellion and may wipe out any temporary kudos Mr Cameron may have gained from his recent speech promising a referendum on the EU.

I’m opposed to the Bill on two main grounds. Firstly, I believe it’s morally and ontologically wrong: there is, and can never be, any such thing as true same-sex marriage. The basis for this belief in my case is Christian faith, which teaches us that marriage is by definition the lifelong union of a man and a woman, a union which both symbolises and enacts the union between God and humanity in Christ. One of the intrinsic purposes – but not the exclusive purpose – of this union is the raising of children. It’s something both sacred – transcendent – and natural, in the way that Christ himself is both divine and human, and that all humanity is called to share in the divine love in Christ.

Therefore, on this basis, marriage actually is something: it’s a real state or condition, ordained by God, and not a mere socio-cultural convention or legal contract that we are free to modify as society and its mores change. One could as it were no longer have same-sex marriage as two persons of the same sex could naturally procreate.

Well, why not then introduce a form of secular, civic gay marriage that is legally distinct from religious or Christian marriage? That would in theory be a way round the religious objections. But the trouble is that English Law, owing to the establishment of the Church of England, makes no distinction between civic and religious marriage. This is in contrast to other jurisdictions on the Continent, such as France, where the legal form of marriage is civic, and anyone requiring a religious marriage has to have a separate religious ceremony additional to the civic wedding.

The stupid thing is that we could have had effectively a form of civic same-sex marriage simply by making a modest tweak to the law on civil partnerships: by enabling them to be referred to as ‘same-sex marriages’ as an alternative name to ‘civil partnerships’ in official and legal documents and contexts. Indeed, this seems to have been the intention of the Conservative Party in its ‘Contract for Equalities’ published just before the 2010 election as an annex to its manifesto. This stated: “We will also consider the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage”.

The government’s somewhat preposterous ‘myth buster’ about same-sex marriage tries to make out that this equates to a ‘mandate’ to introduce same-sex marriage. But there is no such pledge in the Contract for Equalities. On the contrary, that particular document talks about supporting civil partnerships and recognising them in the tax system as the way in which a Conservative government would advance the equality of gay people. The plan was to ensure that civil partners had the same rights as married partners, and that civil partnerships could formally be called ‘marriages’ while remaining legally civil partnerships. By contrast, the present Bill extends the existing institution of heterosexual marriage to same-sex couples while preserving civil partnerships for gay people only. This is not the same as was stated in the Contract for Equalities, nor is it especially egalitarian! And besides, only the manifesto is generally taken as setting out the commitments for which a party considers it has a mandate if elected into power, not a subsidiary annex that receives hardly any publicity during the dying days of an election campaign.

Now, ironically, the government has just announced that it will not give married couples a special tax break during the forthcoming financial year. This was a manifesto pledge, as was the commitment to recognise civil partnerships in the tax system. The obvious inference is that the government is delaying or reneging on this commitment because it knows it will be legally, or at least politically, obliged to extend any married-couples tax allowance to gay married partners as soon as the same-sex marriage passes into law. A pledge that was initially intended as a means to reward married couples and parents who stick together in adversity, and who thereby help reduce the huge social and financial costs of family break-up, would then be diverted into providing what most Tory voters would probably see as a completely unmerited tax break to gay couples, the great majority of whom are without the responsibilities of children.

This gives the lie to claims, including in the afore-mentioned ‘myth-buster’, that “the principles of long-term commitment and responsibility which underpin [marriage,] bind society together and make it stronger” are exactly the same in the case of straight and gay marriage. The life-long commitments to family – to each other’s families and to raising a family of their own – that a husband and wife make as part of traditional marriage are in no way equivalent to the merely long-term mutual commitment of a gay couple to one another, however much in love they may be at the time.

And this brings me to the second main reason why I oppose the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill: it depreciates and further undermines traditional, straight marriage, whether you see this institution as predominantly a religious thing, or as a universal phenomenon of human civilisation and cultures. True marriage – involving a lifelong commitment of a man and a woman to one another – is about so much more than the mutual commitment of two persons of the same gender, however beautiful and loving this can be in its own way. Marriage speaks to the nature of human beings as male and female: the two sexes as complementary to one another, and as having differing as well as mutual responsibilities towards one another. It involves the whole mystery and beauty of procreation and parenthood, and is what encapsulates and channels the primordial reproductive instinct into a cohesive social structure – the family – and gives it meaningful, ritualised and standardised forms of cultural expression: making it and us human in the process. It is about the rich, cultural meanings that have built up around the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, and ‘father’ and ‘mother’, and which are bound up with what I have just described.

And it is family that marriage is above all about. Marriage is the cornerstone and foundation of family, and not just in the purely causal sense of children deriving from exercising the conjugal rights. Marriage is essentially the glue that seals the family together at each generational link in the chain: it is what turns us into members of a family, and by extension of the human family and of society, as opposed to being mere random assemblages of competing genes. But there is absolutely nothing in the present draft of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill about the family. Indeed, the word occurs only once in the whole document in a legalistic point regarding the parental rights of a married or civil partner over his/her own children or those of his/her partner.

Apart from the fact the complete absence of any discussion of family from a bill that seeks to extend marriage to gay couples completely destroys any confidence that the bill has anything to do with authentic marriage, what message is this sending out to existing or aspiring straight married couples and their families? If the government will not recognise in law the interdependence of marriage and the family – as it has just refused to recognise it in the tax system – how is this going to encourage the sort of responsible, sustainable relationships between mature men and women that are needed to produce cohesive, caring families and communities?

And don’t even get me on to the fact that the bill completely evades any question of what constitutes the consummation of a gay marriage, for the obvious reason that gay unions cannot conform to the traditional definition of consummation as genital-penetrative sexual intercourse open to the possibility of conception. So are we to assume that there is no consummation test for marriage per se now, even for straight couples? I don’t think this is the case, although this is open to interpretation, it seems to me. The reason I don’t think it’s the case is that adultery within a same-sex union is defined by the bill as involving sexual relations only with someone of the opposite sex, not someone of the same sex. In other words, if there is no same-sex adultery because there can be no same-sex consummation in the first place (nothing officially being defined as gay ‘intercourse’ for the purpose of the bill), the fact that there is still heterosexual adultery implies that there is still such a thing as consummation of a straight union.

But not only is this not equal, and not fair in different ways to either gay or straight married couples; but it also gives the lie to the claim that gay marriage can also be equivalent to – the same as – straight marriage, existentially and socio-culturally. Same-sex marriage will not have the same meanings or the same role in society; and it will not have the same forms of expression or the same impact on gay married partners as marriage has traditionally had on straight couples.

The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill is therefore wrong on a number of levels. Same-sex marriage is a contradiction in terms: inauthentic as well as incoherently and inconsistently defined, if indeed it is at all, in the bill. It also involves an impoverishment of our understanding of the core meaning and importance of marriage, reducing it merely to a mutual, loving commitment by two persons, rather than as the cornerstone of the family and by extension of society as a whole.

And there is one last reason why this Bill, if it becomes law, may need to continue being opposed. This is that it relates to England and Wales only; and yet it is the UK parliament as a whole, including the 77 MPs from Scotland and Northern Ireland, that will be voting on it. The Bill may end up being another instance whereby a law relating only to England, or in this case England and Wales, relies on the votes of MPs representing constituents not affected by the legislation to be passed. This is all the more likely in this instance, in that 52 out of Scotland’s 59 MPs represent either the Labour Party or the Lib Dems. And these MPs will mostly vote in favour of the Bill, despite the fact that it does not relate to Scotland, and that a draft bill to legalise same-sex marriage has separately been presented to the Scottish parliament. Indeed, I’m tempted to think that one of the main reasons this particular shoddy Bill is being rushed through Parliament is that David Cameron wants to ensure that the UK parliament gets gay marriage on the statute book first, ahead of Scotland, in part to demonstrate to the people of Scotland that the Union can embody the so-called progressive values that supporters of Scottish independence feel could best be realised in a stand-alone Scotland.

Whatever the reasons the prime minister does have for cutting off his backbenchers to save his liberal-unionist face, you can rest assured that if this misplaced and ill-devised Bill does become law through the votes of MPs representing countries not addressed by it, this writer will not remain silent.

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?

13 August 2012

Great Britain is merely an Olympic nation

It is often said of England that it is just a football nation. By that, it is meant that England comes together as a nation, and has national institutions of its own, only when it comes to football competitions and to other sports where England has its own team or league, such as rugby union or cricket. There is some justification for this, in that England clearly is not a civic nation – either a sovereign state or a self-governing part of a larger state – but nonetheless has the footballing status of one. Indeed, it has superior status to other nation states’ football associations, in that the FA still has a veto on any rule changes to the beautiful game. England is a football nation, then, in part because it is the home of football.

The same could be said of Great Britain and the Olympics. The Olympics are now arguably the only occasion when ‘Great Britain’ unites as a nation. For a little while, albeit imperfectly, we forget that we are in fact three nations (or four, or five, if you include Northern Ireland and / or Cornwall – but that’s a different story) and get together behind ‘Team GB’, with the mandatory Union Flags being draped around the shoulders of our Olympic heroes (whether they want it or not – and how could they refuse?): all differences cloaked in the colours of a rediscovered British patriotism.

And just like England, Great Britain is not a civic nation. The civic nation, the sovereign state, is the United Kingdom (informally known as ‘Britain’, rather than Great Britain). But we choose to compete as Great Britain. Why? In part, this is so that Northern Irish athletes have the freedom to choose whether to represent Britain or the Republic of Ireland. In part, also, this is because ‘Great Britain’ can arguably claim to have originated the present Olympic movement, in that the first modern Olympic Games of any sort were held in England (in the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock from 1850 onwards), while Great Britain was an inaugural participant in the first international Games in 1896, and has taken part – as Great Britain – in every summer and winter Olympics since. The IOC president Jacques Rogge paid tribute to Great Britain’s Olympic heritage in his speech at the 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony, when he referred to the fact that Great Britain had in effect originated modern sport as such by codifying its rules: just as England is the home of football, the Olympics were in effect coming home by taking place in Great Britain in 2012.

So football and the Olympics are two global sporting institutions with which our nationhood – whether as England or Great Britain – is bound up as originator and ‘owner’. It’s almost as if those particular games – football and Olympic – are not just an incidental part of our national heritage and of our contribution to global culture, but are an integral part of what constitutes us as nations: we are not so much nations that rediscover our sense of nationhood through international sports competitions, but are nations who experience ourselves truly as nations only when playing the games that properly speaking are ours to begin with, and which we have given to the world. Temporarily, the existential void that exists where a secure sense of nationhood should be is filled with the passion of the game and the excitement of ‘representing’ the nation under the colours of the flag – be they red and white, or red, white and blue.

But who in fact are the ‘we’ who lack the grounded experience of nationhood that comes from national civic institutions, and from sovereign, national self-rule? Who are the ‘we’ who so lack ‘internal’ recognition as a nation, and the ability to feel pride about ourselves as a nation, that we feel validated only when we are able to stand as the first among equals amid the international community of nations which, in a sense, we have brought into existence in the particular form in which that community has come together, e.g. through football or the Olympics? Our fragile national egos stand poised perilously between non-existence – non-particularity – and internationality: perfectly reflected in the international world that England or Great Britain can claim to have created, insofar as our very internationality is said by some commentators to be the quintessence of our ‘British nationhood’ and of the new, confident Britishness that Team GB’s successes is helping to cement. Hence, ‘we’ see ourselves as a nation – and see ourselves only when – perfectly mirrored and validated by the admiring international community of nations: as being a ‘nation of nations’ – effectively, an international community of nations ourselves; Great Britain.

The ‘we’ who escape in this way from our everyday nationless state to the ludic, spectacular, imaginary and international nationhood of the Games that seem to define us as a nation are the English people. Whether the sporting team concerned is England or Great Britain, it is we the English people that lose ourselves in the short-lived high of imagining ourselves as a great nation, once more, on the international stage – reasserting our ownership of and identification with the global community by beating them at, literally, our own game, so that the international community has no choice other than to recognise us as truly a unique nation in their midst.

Looking only at the surface of things, it would be easy to conclude that the English patriotic fervour that accompanied the nation’s football team’s progress through international competitions, up until its dismal performance in the 2010 World Cup, was a radically different phenomenon from the outbreak of British patriotic fervour that has accompanied Team GB’s glittering successes at London 2012. But they are fundamentally the same: they are expressions of English people’s need to have a proud sense of nationhood, which is ‘fulfilled’ temporarily through sport. This is the case, not only because those sports ‘belong to us’ but because those feelings are denied in day-to-day life, where we live in a nationless state in the other sense: a state – the UK – that is not a nation and denies nationhood to the English. The blossoming of the Union Flag, sprouting in bunting and branding over shops, pubs and homes across England, is a continuation not a break from the similar sprouting of the Cross of St. George that has accompanied football tournaments in the past. The England team has let us down and dashed our pride; but now Team GB seems to be restoring it. Great Britain is an Olympic nation just as England is a football nation; and fundamentally, this is because the nation, the people, who identify with and rave about those countries’ respective sporting feats are in both cases the English.

Of course, on another level, England and Great Britain are completely different entities. But they are also non-entities – non-civic nations – and so are ironically perfect, interchangeable channels for our unfulfilled desire for replete nationhood. ‘Team UK’ or ‘Team Britain’ wouldn’t do the job, a) because they’re names for the state, not ‘the nation’, and b) because they are too difficult for English people to identify with – too neutral and un-English. ‘Great Britain’ can function as ‘the nation’ only because English people identify with it as their nation: as effectively a proxy for, and a more grandiose way of saying, ‘England’. This may seem counter-intuitive, because the outbreak of unionflagitis across England would tend to suggest the opposite: that English people are espousing a British-not-English identity. But in fact, it’s a British-because-English identity, and ordinary people across the land are, once again, failing to make the kind of categorical distinction between Britishness and Englishness that the promoters of those two brands might wish they did.

Take the woman in my local corner shop, who said “the whole of England” would have been cheering on Mo Farah to win the 5000m race on Saturday night; or my partner – a university-educated woman who’s just turned 50 – who persists unself-consciously in referring to ‘Team GB’ as ‘England’, to the extent that I’ve given up correcting her. This sort of attitude, and habit of thought and speech, is replicated up and down the land: Team GB is simply viewed as an ‘English’ team, and all distinction between England and Britain is swept away in a tide of Union Flags.

This is the opposite effect from that which the political and media establishment, along with the liberal promoters of a self-sufficient Britishness, believe has been achieved. For them, saying ‘Great Britain’ is a way to avoid saying ‘England’ and invoking English nationhood; but for the English people, supporting Team GB is just another way of being patriotically English. This has been obvious from the extent to which the BBC, in its Olympics coverage, has been desperate to prevent any mention of Team GB athletes’ English identity, and to correct them whenever they referred to ‘England’ or ‘English’ competitors. Ironically, of course, the sheer fact of imposing an exclusively British identity on English sportsmen and -women only – while allowing ‘non-English’ British athletes to celebrate a dual identity (Scottish and British, or Somali and British) – reinforces the very Englishness of Britishness: the fact that Britishness, and the British patriotism of the Games, is at root just an expression of Englishness. English athletes who carelessly let the word ‘England’ slip from their mouths are in effect giving the Game away, in both senses: the Olympic Games being by definition an opportunity to celebrate a supposedly inclusive Britishness.

Liberal commentators have played along with this establishment game, observing how Team GB’s supposedly multicultural (by which is really meant multi-ethnic) composition, and the support the Team received across the social spectrum, illustrate and consolidate a new inclusive, civic Britishness. It achieves this, however, only if all reference to England and Englishness is systematically eliminated. Britishness is an inclusive identity only on the basis of England’s exclusion. The inclusive, civic Britishness is predicated on the idea that no nationality has any claim to being a pre-eminent or core element of British identity or culture. England is that core, and so it must be eradicated; and English people are only allowed to be British – or, as I said above, only English people must be British-only.

And this illustrates what the Olympic nation that is Great Britain – Team GB – actually is at root: it’s a flight from English nationhood, mostly by English people themselves, into the idealised, international nationhood that is ‘Britain’. But it needs to tap into English patriotism to gain the loyalty and support of the masses. So rather than succeeding in cancelling out English nationality, ‘Great Britain’ is nothing without it.

Great Britain, in other words, is merely an Olympic nation; but the real nation that underlies it, and will outlive the four-yearly enthusiasm for Team GB, is England.

10 June 2012

Is it wrong to be proud to be British?

With polling evidence today suggesting that the Jubilee celebrations have made 33% of people across England, Scotland and Wales ‘more proud to be British’ – and only 1% less proud – it is perhaps time to ask what if anything is wrong about being proud to be British. Am I proud to be British?

The question was prompted in my mind this morning by my brief walk across the village green to buy my Sunday paper from the village store run by a well-established Asian family. So well-established in fact that the two large England flags draped from the first-floor windows above the shop were the only England flags I saw on my admittedly unrepresentative perambulation. And I don’t think this was just commercial opportunism on their part: the guy who manages the shop is active in the village football club, speaks with an English accent and is a genuine England football fan.

I did, however, see plenty of Union Flags hanging down and over from the Jubilee festivities, in the form of bunting, an advertising banner attached to the railings in front of one of the two mercifully still trading pubs looking out upon the green, and even a discreet but moderately large flag posted on the corner of a front-garden wall. ‘Discreet’ perhaps best sums it up. It’s as if loads of patriotically ‘British’ – and mostly middle-class? – people have seized the opportunity presented by the Jubilee to take their turn to run up their allegiance on a flag pole, having for years suffered in silence as white vans, semi-detached houses and family estate cars up and down the land have proclaimed their loud and garish support for the England team in what have been destined to be but short-lived flowerings of English footballing glory. But this is done discreetly, as I say: nice streams of bunting – not in your face all over houses and cars. Very English, indeed.

In fact, I’ve seen only two cars – and perhaps even just the one car, seen on two occasions – sporting the Union Flag atop their car door frames. It simply isn’t ‘British’ to make a display of one’s patriotism in such a ‘common’ fashion – or not so common as it turns out. (Leaving aside the fact that it is British, apparently, to spend three days literally parading the British flag, and celebrating the British state, all the way down the Thames, in front of the Palace and in the City of London.) Mind you, I’ve seen only two vehicles similarly displaying the Flag of St. George, and England’s first Euro 2012 game is only a day away.

I remarked on this fact to my partner last night as we went on a ludicrous late-night shopping foray to our nearest Tesco. As we were leaving the store, we saw one of the offending cars displaying the Union Flag above the driver’s and front passenger’s doors, and my partner said to me: “There you are, somebody’s flying the flag”. Of course, I had to point out to her that it was the ‘wrong’ flag, if indeed this display of patriotism had been prompted by the football, not the Jubilee. I managed, just, to avoid the potential for a blazing row, but not without a comment to the effect that I was judging the person responsible for the Union Flag display on appearances rather than the sentiment in the heart, which would have been the same whether it was a Union or England flag. Is that right?

What I would say in reply – but didn’t, as I really didn’t want that blazing row at 11.15 pm on a Saturday night – is that this is like saying that someone wearing an Arsenal shirt is going to support Spurs (my team) in tomorrow’s FA Cup final because their sentiment and loyalties are basically the same, and, after all, both teams come from North London. Err, no, it really doesn’t work that way. While the footballing example is perhaps somewhat crass and trivial, the point I’m making is that the meanings and values associated with (middle-class) English people discreetly proclaiming their pride in being British, on the one hand, and (working-class) English people loudly broadcasting their pride in being English are widely divergent and profound.

For those English people who are prouder to be British today than they were ten days ago, the objects of their pride are things like: the Queen; the monarchy; the system and traditions of British government; perhaps even, a little bit, Britain’s ‘proud’ imperial past; London as a ‘world city’; the British ability to organise and execute things like the river pageant, rock concert, cathedral service, carriage procession and fly-past with such dignity, order and precision; British ‘culture’, both high and low; and the British ‘nation’ as a great player on the world stage – supposedly – on, and up to, whom the eyes of all the world were looking. By contrast, for those English people who have been wont, in the past, to festoon English flags all over their property during international football tournaments, their pride in England relates to more ‘basic’ things – some might say simpler and more fundamental things: physical and sporting prowess; generally peaceful, but essentially ‘tribal’, competition and ‘battle’; England’s great footballing traditions and passion; and a rare occasion to come together and celebrate our common belonging as a nation, while taking advantage of a perfect excuse for a piss-up.

Which of these things are ‘better’? Who can say? I know, however, which of these things I’m more proud of. I greatly respect the Queen, who is in fact as much the Queen of England, in the popular imagination, as the Queen of Britain. Indeed, when did you ever hear the phrase, ‘the Queen of the UK’? I also do respect and, in some ways, reverence the UK traditions of government, which have evolved from centuries of English history, and from the constitutional settlement reached in the wake of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. Nonetheless, the system is in dire need of a radical overhaul, including recognising England’s right to self-determination and self-government. And all the pomp and circumstance? Well, yes, it’s highly impressive and entertaining. But I’d rather that ‘Britain at its best’ were defined less in terms of pageantry and more in terms of government working to improve the social and economic conditions of ordinary English folk, so they can access good education and decent, sustainable employment based on an economy that uses England’s talents and resources for the good of its people, not primarily for the profit of big business, the City and global corporations. At least English people gathering to watch the football in boozy bars, or on the terraces in the Ukraine and Poland, are only going to start a bit of a brawl and not a war – unlike those canons firing off their 60-gun salutes or those jet fighters brazenly displaying Britain’s fading military might.

Oh yes, and while I think of it, it is mostly English people who are more proud to be British as a result of the Jubilee – or at least they’re prouder to be British to twice a degree as Scottish people. The YouGov poll linked to above found that the proportion of English people that was prouder of being British post-Jubilee ranged ‘region’ by ‘region’ between 34% and 36%. In Scotland, however, the proportion was only 19%. This is still quite high, especially as only 3% of Scots were less proud as a consequence of the Jubilee. Nonetheless, it’s a telling indicator that Britishness is a proposition that appeals to English people significantly more than to Scots; and that’s because, really, it is a largely English phenomenon.

So how do you want your patriotism flavoured, England? Do you want it British-styly, or down-to-earth, common-or-garden English? Well, we’ll see how people’s newly re-found pride in Britishness fares when things do indeed come crashing down to earth and back to reality after the temporary escapism of the Jubilee – or after England come crashing out of Euro 2012!

4 April 2012

England Uncut: From words to action?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.