Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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.

3 July 2011

The Demography and Economics of England and London: Time for a separation?

This week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) produced its estimates for the UK’s population for the year to June 2010. This revealed that the number of people living in the UK rose by a staggering 470,000 over this period, to 62,262,000. Net migration (the difference between the number of people immigrating into the UK and the number of those emigrating) in fact accounted for less than half of the population growth: 230,000. (Well, that’s OK then.) The majority of the growth resulted from increased birth rates (797,000) – including from more inward migration of women of child-bearing age – and a reduced death rate.

What the headline figures and the media headlines didn’t comment on was the distribution of the population growth across the different countries and regions of the UK. However, these figures are available from the ONS, and they paint an interesting picture. According to the ONS, the estimated resident population of England rose by 424,300 (or 0.8%) to 52,234,000 in the 12 months to June 2010. This means that 90% of the UK’s estimated population growth in the year to June 2010 occurred in England, whereas England’s population as a whole constituted 83.8% of the UK’s population at June 2009. In other words, England is bearing a disproportionate share of the UK’s massive rise in population. The ONS does not break down England’s population growth by ‘natural’ causes (i.e. births vs. deaths) and net migration. But it’s a fair bet that as 90% of the UK total relates to England, around half or just under half of England’s population growth resulted from net migration.

This has clearly been a long-term trend as another set of data from the ONS suggests (this set looks at permanent residents and excludes those who are here only temporarily). Here, the English population at September 2010 is put at 51,363,000. Of this total, 6,472,000 people were not born in the UK: 12.6%. By comparison, only around 6.4% of the population of Scotland is estimated to have been born outside of the UK, while only 5.7% of the N. Irish population (much of whom presumably come from the Republic) and 5% of Welsh residents were born outside of the UK.

In terms of UK citizenship, of the 51.36 million English residents, around 4.02 million (7.8%) are estimated to be foreign nationals. (The difference, obviously, is that the remaining 4.8% of the English population that were not born in the UK have subsequently become UK citizens.) By comparison, 4.9% of the Scottish population comprises foreign nationals, versus 3.9% of Northern Irish residents and 3.2% of Wales’ inhabitants.

These figures clearly demonstrate that England has been impacted by population growth and net migration to a much greater extent than the UK’s other nations, and over a long time span. People will draw their own conclusions from these figures and use them at the service of their own agendas. But they at least put English people’s concerns about immigration into a clearer context: we actually have more grounds for concern than our neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. (Having said that, these perceptions are distorted by the situation in London – of which, more below.)

England is already one of the most densely populated countries in the world. I make it that England’s resident population of 52.2 million gives it a population density of 1,038 people per square mile. According to Wikipedia’s list of countries by population density (which curiously does not break down the UK figure by its four main nations but does include separate figures for Jersey and Guernsey, for instance), that would put England in 31st place. However, most of the countries or dependent territories with greater population densities are either small islands or territories that mainly comprise a single dense urban conglomeration, such as Macau, Monaco or Singapore, to name the top three. The only countries with any significant land mass ahead of England are Bangladesh (2,919 people per square mile), South Korea (1,261) and the Netherlands (1,041). And the Netherlands has only 32% of England’s land mass: so we’re as densely populated as the Netherlands but on more than triple the scale.

By contrast, according to the same Wikipedia, Scotland‘s population density is a mere 171 people per square mile, Wales‘ is 361, and even little Northern Ireland‘s is only 315 – which would make them (if you add them in as separate countries to Wikipedia’s list), the equal-142nd-, 80th- and 94th-most populous countries / territories in the world respectively. (Just for inclusiveness, Cornwall‘s population density, according to Wikipedia, is 390 per square mile: 79th.)

Population density is all well and good, but it’s not in itself harmful, at least not to economic prosperity, as the territories towards the top of the Wikipedia list are generally among the most wealthy and fast-growing in the world (Bangladesh excepted). The same might have been said about England a few years ago. Perhaps it’s not so bad, after all, to be a densely populated small island dominated by a single urban conglomeration. But it would probably be more accurate to say that even in the ill-fated ‘boom-without-bust’ New Labour years, it wasn’t so much England that was the prosperous small-island territory overshadowed by a single metropolis, but that London, the South-East and the M4 corridor on their own were the ‘island of prosperity’ that should be compared with the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong. Indeed, the economy of ‘Londengland’, should we call it, was and still is rather similar to those of Singapore, Hong Kong and indeed Monaco: dominated by international finance and global trading links; a playground of the mega-rich; and a local economy fuelled by property speculation, and propped up by easy access to tax havens (which are also, strangely, among the most densely populated territories in the Wikipedia list) and other tax-avoidance scams.

According to the ONS, the permanently resident population of Greater London at September 2010 was 7.76 million. Of these, a staggering 34.4%
were not born in the UK, while 21.7% were non-UK nationals. And bear in mind, these figures relate to longer-term residents (i.e. people living in London for a year or more) and therefore exclude London’s transient population, much of which is also non-British. No wonder that whenever I go to London, which is quite frequently, I feel as though I’m in a foreign country: to a great extent, I am.

If we use the 7.76 million population figure, I calculate that Greater London has a population density of 12,792 per square mile, which would put London as a stand-alone entity in fifth place in the global league table, behind Hong Kong but ahead of Gibraltar. [Funny how so many of the most densely populated territories are present or former British colonies – including, arguably, England itself.] Conversely, if you exclude the population data for London from the English totals, you find that the proportion of the population not born in the UK declines to 8.7% (versus 6.4% in Scotland). Similarly, excluding London, the proportion of England’s population that are not UK citizens drops to only 5.4% (versus 4.9% in Scotland). And in terms of population density, without London, England’s total drops to 877 per square mile. This is still relatively high (it’s on a par with Japan) but a lot lower than the total including London. But bear in mind that this latter figure excludes shorter-term, very often non-UK-national, residents.

To summarise, if you look at England without London, the share of the population that is either non-UK-born or non-UK-national is much lower than the overall England totals, and is nearer to the levels in the other UK nations. Similarly, population density is also a lot lower: still high but not at the crisis level it appears to have reached if you include London. Looking at this the other way round, London is quite exceptional for England, and for the UK as a whole, in terms of the level of immigration it has absorbed and its population density.

In the light of the demographic and economic differences between London and the rest of the UK, it is not really surprising that the idea of London becoming ‘independent’, or at least more fully devolved, from the rest of the UK has recently been voiced (see here and here). Would it in fact make sense to make London a sort of semi-autonomous city state whose relationship with the rest of the UK would be akin to that of Hong Kong with China, or Monaco with France? We could let London do what it does best and be what it wants to be: a global city and magnet to finance, creative industries and people from all over the world, with a unique international culture – and a haven for super-rich tycoons seeking to avoid taxation in their countries of origin?

One of the articles outlining the case for London’s ‘independence’ even suggested that the rest of England could keep the royal family while London became a republic. On the contrary, I think it would be much more to London’s advantage to retain the monarchy and the Palace of Westminster as the seat of its government, while the rest of England could opt to become a republic if it wished to. Those old trappings of empire are a massive draw for the global travelling classes; and it would be fitting as a symbol of London’s transition to a fully ‘non-English’ British territory, inhabited by people from across the world, if the city retained at its heart some reminders of the former Empire that had first conquered the world in order subsequently to be taken over by it. London would become just another of those small but super-rich territories to whose confines the former riches of Empire had shrunk – leaving England free from British-imperial and Westminster rule to pursue its own destiny. The British royal family would then be one of those cardboard cut-out monarchies from diminutive European principalities and duchies such as Monaco and Liechtenstein. Indeed, London could even become the ‘British Kingdom of London’: the one territory in the former UK that retained Britishness as its national identity – leaving England to be England at last.

Of course, this is all a bit of a flight of fantasy, but there’s a serious point behind it: the economy and demographics of London and the South-East do distort those of the rest of England, which is a very different country from London. And London not only distorts the economic and demographic realities but also the perception of them, which is shaped by a London-centric politics and media. London is multicultural, international ‘Britain’ in a way that no other part of England or the UK is. And because London thinks of itself as the capital and centre of a continuing, and indeed continuous, British realm and historic legacy, it cannot get its head round the idea that, beyond London’s confines, there is in fact a diverse land of several nations that do not always look towards London as the template for their society, as the embodiment of their values or as the legitimate seat of power.

As a node of international trade, travel, culture and finance, it is inevitable that London sees itself as the capital of a country called ‘Britain’, because ‘Britain’ is the UK’s international brand: it’s the way ‘this country’ packages and markets itself across the world. And the UK state fosters a ‘British’-national identity for its – and even more so London’s – ethnic minorities in part because of the internationality associated with the British tag. This means that ‘British’ can serve as the label for the civic national identity of UK citizens, while ‘English’ (and ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ and ‘Northern Irish’) is relegated to the status of ‘ethnic Britishness’. In this way, London is the capital of a civic, multi-ethnic Britain of which the ‘English’ or the ‘ethnic British’ are only one ethnic group among others – admittedly still the majority population in London, but for how long?

My point is that London, at least in official parlance, does not see itself as the capital of a country called England: it may be a part of England but it is also apart from England. And if the capital city that rules England increasingly neither sees itself, nor is seen, as ‘English’, how does this affect the way England is governed? Shouldn’t London’s rule over England be severed? And is that a condition for England to be free to govern itself?

I do seriously think that England will not be able to break free from the British political and cultural establishment’s stranglehold on government, the economy, values and perceptions of national identity until the ties between London and the rest of England are radically loosened. Quite what form this separation would take is hard to predict; plus it is up to the English people, not the British government, to decide what should happen to its historic capital. One possible solution is a London devolved from within England, which in turn would be part of a UK of federal nations, if not an independent state. Alternatively, London could become to all intents and purposes a separate federal UK nation (the site of the continuing ‘British nation’, as I suggested above), generating wealth and commerce that would contribute income to the UK’s coffers for reserved matters such as defence and macro-economics, but with most of its tax revenues retained for its own public services and investment. In short, London could become England’s, and the UK’s, Hong Kong.

I’m not sure that many Londoners would particularly like their city’s transformation into a capital for global trade and business – but that’s the way it’s going, and that’s the way many in the City, the media and the corridors of power would like it to go. But should England continue to be dragged along in London’s wake and thrall? Can we define a different path for England if the agenda is for ever dictated by London’s perceived and vested interests?

England is a different country from London. Is it time for London to be a different country from England?

29 September 2010

Ed Miliband addresses the country – only not by name

The BBC website provides a useful word cloud for Ed Miliband’s keynote address to the Labour Party conference yesterday. Here it is:

Two things immediately stand out: 1) after ‘generation’ (frequent references to a ‘new generation’ of Labour politics), the most frequently occurring word is ‘country’ (37 instances); 2) there is absolutely no reference to ‘England’ – not one.

On the one hand, this lack of engagement on the part of the new Labour leader with the idea or reality of England should and does not surprise us. It would be more surprising if Ed Miliband had talked at any length at all about ‘England’ and the need for the party to address the concerns of ordinary English people. On the other hand, the total absence of ‘England’ from the speech belies the new leader’s attempt to differentiate himself from New Labour, as the lack of an English dimension to Labour’s vision of and for ‘the country’ represents a strong thread of continuity with New Labour days. Instead of ‘England’, Miliband resorted to the stock term, ‘country’, that politicians and those in the media employ to avoid being specific about whether they are talking about Britain as a whole or England only, or both.

Nonetheless, Miliband’s speech does represent a break with New Labour practice in that ‘Britain’, too, appears to have lapsed into disuse: ‘British’ and ‘Britain’ garnered only 16 mentions. At least, we’re now not getting ‘Britain’ thrust in our faces at every turn when a Labour politician is talking about purely English policy areas; but that’s partly because there was very little on policy as such in Miliband’s speech, nor was there expected to be. So ‘country’ has come to replace ‘Britain’ as well as ‘England’, probably for the same reason: it allows you to avoid being specific about which country you’re referring to in different contexts, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of having to say ‘Britain’ when everyone knows that what you’re referring to is relevant to England only, but you can’t say so because ‘England’ is the ultimate taboo word.

This lack of references to the name(s) of the country or countries being evoked, and even to particular regions or parts of the country (such as the North or the South), creates a strange impression of non-specificity: a vision for the ‘country’ that is not grounded in any geographical, indeed geopolitical, reality. This is Labour’s, or Ed Miliband’s, vision for ‘society’, ‘the economy’, ‘government’ and ‘politics’ (all among the most commonly used words, as the word cloud illustrates) where the national collectivity and context that are implied and invoked in these terms remain completely nameless during large parts of the speech: as it were abstracted out of the vision. ‘We’ and ‘our’ (as in the endlessly intoned ‘our country’, ‘our society’, ‘our economy’) are among the most frequently occurring words in the speech (not shown in the word cloud, which is limited to nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives). But it’s never spelled out who are the ‘we’ thus addressed. In the end, the inescapable impression is that ‘we’ is above all the collective consciousness of the Labour Party in its aspiration to re-take ownership of ‘the country’:

“The optimism of Tony and Gordon who took on the established thinking and reshaped our country. We are the optimists in politics today. So, let’s be humble about our past. Let’s understand the need to change. Let’s inspire people with our vision of the good society. Let the message go out, a new generation has taken charge of Labour. Optimistic about our country. Optimistic about our world.”

Far from reaching out to the British people, let alone the English people, this is Labour talking to itself about Labour’s vision of ‘the country’ – as it were the ‘Labour nation’, which can be set out in its pure form, untainted by the all-too recent realities of Labour in government, only because it abstracts itself from any real national context.

But if you don’t name the country you’re talking about, can you really espouse and re-connect with the aspirations and priorities of ordinary people, who want their leaders to set out believable visions for their country – England – and, perhaps more importantly, want them to acknowledge ways in which they’ve let down their country in the past. Ed Miliband had a little go at this when he owned up to the failings of the outgoing Labour government in areas such as tuition fees and immigration policy:

“I understand why you felt that we were stuck in old thinking about higher and higher levels of personal debt, including tuition fees”

“this new generation recognises that we did not do enough to address concerns about globalisation, including migration. All of us heard it on the doorsteps about immigration. Like the man I met in my constituency who told me he had seen his mates’ wages driven down by the consequences of migration. If we don’t understand why he would feel angry – and it wasn’t about prejudice – then we are failing to serve those who we are in politics to represent. I am the son of immigrants. I believe that Britain has benefited economically, culturally, socially from those who came to this country. I don’t believe either that we can turn back the clock on free movement of labour in Europe. But we should never have pretended it would not have consequences. Consequences we should have dealt with.”

Note the tic of referring to the sensitive issue in each case almost as an afterthought introduced by ‘including’: including tuition fees (just another personal debt issue); including migration (just another fraught consequence of necessary globalisation). In fact, this is not really apologising for old New Labour’s policies in these areas at all. He’s not actually saying Labour was wrong to introduce tuition fees, just that these were an unfortunate extra debt burden on people. And then his expression of ‘understanding’ about migration turns into a defence of it – including his own personal background – as being overwhelmingly of benefit for Britain and in part a consequence of something regarded as essentially positive: the “free movement of labour in Europe”.

But it’s England and Wales specifically that were burdened by tuition fees and then top-up fees, thanks to the votes of Labour’s Scottish MPs, whose own constituents were exempt from both. It’s English voters who were mainly affected and concerned by immigration, as England has borne the brunt of it. Immigration may have enhanced the stock of Britain, in every sense, including that of the Miliband family, but what has it done for England? Answer me that, Ed. (And that’s an open question, but not one Ed Miliband is really prepared to address.)

In fact, Miliband – at least as exemplified in this speech – is not prepared to ask the English question itself, let alone suggest an answer to it, as this passage amply demonstrates:

“The old thinking told us that for 300 years, the choice was either the break up of the United Kingdom or Scotland and Wales run from London. We should be proud that Labour established the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. And we should make sure that after next May’s elections we re-elect Carwyn Jones as the First Minister in Wales and we elect Iain Gray as the new First Minister in Scotland. And I am so so proud that, against all the odds, we helped deliver peace in Northern Ireland. And it will be one of Tony Blair’s great legacies to this country and we owe our gratitude to him.”

So devolution as enacted by New Labour is something to be proud of. No hint of a suggestion that it might have left England just a tad short-changed and that it raises questions about the governance of England. Here above all, Ed Miliband is keeping faith with the old New Labour certainties and with the former Labour Lord Chancellor Derry Irving’s assertion that the best answer to the West Lothian Question is not to ask it! He can’t even bring himself to mention the ‘E’ word in the one passage throughout the whole speech where the English question is absolutely begging. But that’s precisely it: it’s begging a question he isn’t prepared to even engage in.

So England might as well just not exist at all in Ed Miliband’s vision of ‘the country’: ‘our country’, Labour’s country. And the unwillingness to even pronounce the dirty ‘E’ word signals a failure to acknowledge the ways in which New Labour profoundly let down England specifically – indeed, as we have seen, Miliband actually defends and justifies the outgoing government’s record in English matters even as he appears to acknowledge its failings.

So perhaps we should give the last word to the new leader himself. Nothing changes, really: new generation, same old new Labour and same old new Britain. For ‘the country’, you can in fact read ‘Britain’, or at least Labour’s fictitious, rose-tinted vision or version of it that air-brushes England out of the picture. Yes, you’ve guessed what the last word in the speech, and the last word of the speech, is:

“We are the optimists in politics today. So, let’s be humble about our past. Let’s understand the need to change. Let’s inspire people with our vision of the good society. Let the message go out, a new generation has taken charge of Labour. Optimistic about our country. Optimistic about our world. Optimistic about the power of politics. We are the optimists and together we will change Britain.”

23 December 2009

Email to Newswatch on the proposed party leaders’ debates

Below is an email I wrote to the BBC’s Newswatch programme on the proposed party leaders’ debates at the forthcoming election:

I am writing to comment on the proposed televised party leaders’ debates at the general election. Currently, the plans are that there will be three ‘national’ (i.e. UK-wide) debates on Sky, ITV and the BBC, and separate debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. What about a separate debate for England?

In fact, the ‘UK’ debates will be largely about matters exclusively affecting England, or England and Wales in some instances. This is of course because of devolution, meaning the UK government’s responsibilities in education, health, communities and local government, housing, planning, much of transport, much of environmental policy, etc. relate to England only; and UK-government policies on justice and policing relate to England and Wales only. For these reasons, any national / UK debates should be limited to genuinely reserved UK-government areas of responsibility, such as defence, immigration, security, benefits and pensions, and foreign policy. It would be wholly misleading to air national-UK debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland dealing with devolved matters, which are irrelevant to the election in those countries. For the same reason, it would be tantamount to misleading the public if the separate debates in those countries dealt with devolved matters, as the MPs from those countries will not have responsibility for those matters as they affect their constituents: they are dealt with by the devolved parliaments / assemblies.

So by all means have separate debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – but restrict them to what MPs from those countries can actually do for their constituents: reserved UK matters. And by all means have national-UK debates – but restrict them to genuinely national-UK matters: reserved matters. Which means that the debates relating to devolved matters in England – currently dealt with by the UK parliament – should be billed as English, not UK, debates, and should be broadcast in England only. Otherwise, the public in Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland could be misled into thinking the discussions on education, health, local government, policing, etc. relate to them – which they usually won’t. And the public in England could be misled into thinking the discussions on the same policy areas relate to the whole of the UK – which they don’t.

So we need: national-UK debates on genuinely national-UK matters; and separate debates in each of the UK countries on the matters that the UK parliament deals with on behalf of voters in those countries. So no discussion on devolved matters in Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland.

This comment relates to a complaint I have made on several occasions to the BBC about English matters being misleadingly presented as if they were UK-wide; and to an email reply received from Paul Hunter of BBC Complaints on 25 October 2009.

19 November 2009

Labour’s vision is the Britain of the past, not the England of the present

I’ve been trying to work out why the Queen’s Speech detailing the Labour Party’s so-called programme for government up until the general election is so vacuous. Apart from the obvious things, that is: no mention of unemployment or immigration; no indication of precisely how the government – and which government – will fulfil its new statutory obligation to halve the UK’s fiscal deficit in four years at the same time as meet its pledges on public services; referring to all of the proposed bills as if they applied to the whole of the UK in a blanket fashion, whereas many of the key measures relate to England only; the complete lack of the word ‘England’ from the Queen’s speech, indeed, whereas Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were promised increased devolution; the total absence of references to reforming parliamentary expenses, let alone the thoroughgoing political and constitutional reform that all the parties paid lip service to back in May and June of this year; and the reality that virtually none of the legislative programme will actually make it onto the statute books before the election, and that what does become law may well be reversed by an incoming Conservative administration. What a pointless exercise, which illustrates how irrelevant and remote from people’s lives Westminster has become.

And I suppose that, in essence, is why it is all so vacuous: a process of British governance merely going through the motions and becoming almost self-referential rather than engaging dynamically and honestly with the people on whose behalf the work of government is supposed to be carried out. British law rather than government of, for and by the people of England. I guess that’s why the government feels it needs to legislate – or at least put forward legislation – for its commitments on public services and fiscal policy rather than just make those commitments and engage in debate about them. It’s as if the reputation and legitimacy of Parliament and this government have fallen so low that it’s no longer enough simply to promise to do something: you have to make those promises binding in law. But legislating for something doesn’t make it legitimate. This is British-parliamentary law making instead of real government and leadership, which involves engaging with people’s real lives, concerns and needs. In this sense, the absence of any verbal reference to England is the symptom of an unwillingness and lack of competency – in both meanings of the term – to be a government for England, even though that is what the British government is supposed to be in so many areas.

Look at the actual commitments the government is making to England (without saying so) in the form of statutory obligations that mostly won’t become statute anyway, and so aren’t worth the parliamentary Order Book paper they’re written on: binding commitments for suspected cancer sufferers to see a specialist within two weeks of a referral, and that no one should have to wait more than 18 weeks between a GP referral and a hospital appointment for other conditions; a commitment to provide one-to-one tuition to schoolchildren who need extra help; free personal care at home for the 280,000 most needy individuals plus other measures to help those already receiving free care or for those entering care homes. All very worthy commitments in themselves, but they come across as rather random. Why the priority on cancer referrals, as cancer is already comparatively well funded, rather than other aspects of health care that urgently need attention, such as strokes, the standard of personal care health professionals are able to provide patients in hospital, hospital hygiene, mental health, etc. etc.)? And what is the vision for the school system and for education as a whole in England, and, in particular, how is the government going to address the problem of failing schools, let alone that of failing pupils? The truth of the matter is the government doesn’t have a vision for English schools, in part because it can’t even acknowledge the name of the country for whose education system it is responsible. No vision of England means no vision for England’s NHS or health-care system.

And don’t even get me on to the subject of personal care, where the government still isn’t doing anything like what the Scottish government has been doing for years thanks to its generous funding via the Barnett Formula: free personal care at home for all who need it, irrespective of their financial means. Now, I’m not saying that we could afford such a level of provision in England, especially in these straitened financial times; but then, can we afford it in Scotland, either? How about drawing up a ‘Fairness In Government Bill’ specifying the minimum and maximum levels of public-service provision across the whole of the UK that are appropriate to different degrees of fiscal deficit – free personal care needing to be capped at a certain level, for all UK citizens, once the national debt reaches a specified amount? Oh, but I forgot: despite giving the impression that it could do something like that, the government can’t because of devolution. Well then, better still, give us an English Parliament, and then the fairly elected representatives of England could decide the level of taxation, borrowing and social-care provision that England can afford for its own people.

Because that’s what’s lacking in all of this: any kind of attempt to formulate policy for England that reflects English people’s priorities and preferences. Do we actually want the government’s nebulous ‘National Care System’, affiliated to the NHS, to be the centrally managed channel for government funding for and provision of social care? Wouldn’t we in England rather have a system that was managed and funded closer to the people it was aiming to help: through local authorities, communities, private providers, voluntary organisations, and direct financial and practical support to individual carers, rather than through some Whitehall-managed bureaucratic machine? But we’re not having this discussion because the government has given up, or perhaps has never wanted to be, this sort of genuine government for England.

But the Labour Party does have a vision for Britain. Except it’s a Britain of the past, not the Britain of the present, or a Britain and England of the future. On the same day as this most inconsequential of Queen’s Speeches, the Labour Party aired an extraordinary party-political broadcast:

In this embarrassing act of self-praise, the Labour Party identifies with Britain itself and with every major progressive movement of the 20th century, of which Britain is portrayed as having been in the vanguard. Well, perhaps not every movement: I’m sure there’s a brief flash of a CND march accompanying the commentary on the anti-apartheid movement – an intentional subliminal reference, perhaps, to give heart to socialist idealists that the Labour Party still represents them; but better not refer to this explicitly. And, needless to say, there is absolutely no reference to England even in the bits of the broadcast that refer to the England-only policies: the commitments about NHS treatment times; “free personal care for those who need it” (what, all of them?); the creation of a National Care Service (for ‘Britain’? no, it’s England only). Oh, of course, and no reference to the ‘achievement’ of devolution or to any of the actual policies the Labour government has carried out in England only: NHS prescription charges, parking fees, and life-prolonging drugs withheld, where these either do not apply or are provided respectively elsewhere in the UK (healthcare apartheid, in short); a target- and performance-driven education system that still has not demonstrably improved standards or focused on the needs of the economically and educationally disadvantaged – compared with a radical reform of the educational philosophy and system in Wales; free personal care in Scotland only.

Instead, Labour’s vision is a misty-eyed view of a past in which people did genuinely believe that Labour could deliver real change, and greater social equality and opportunity, for everyone across Britain; and in which it possessed the tools to deliver much of that agenda when it was in government. But Labour has in reality given away and abandoned that holistic vision of a united ‘British nation’, of social solidarity across the whole of the UK, and of concern for the needs of working people and those who cannot work, for one reason or another. And it’s also given away the levers of government to realise that vision. And so it retreats into a sterile sham of UK-wide law making underpinned by a dreamy re-writing of British history that places it at the centre of all meaningful social reform over the last 100 years: as much as to say that if it is elected into government again, it will continue the fight for progress in Britain.

But what will it actually do for England? And is it even bothered to ask the people of England what they want? Until it does, all its British law making and myth making will just be so many hollow words and fantasies.

11 November 2009

Complaint about BBC coverage of Britain’s new nuclear power stations; and reply regarding the One Show

Below is the text of an email of complaint I sent to the BBC yesterday:

I am complaining about the fact that the BBC’s reporting on the government’s plans for ten new nuclear power stations, announced yesterday, failed to explain why almost all of them (nine) are to be built in England and none in Scotland. This is because the new ‘streamlined’ planning regime, brought about by legislation passed in 2008, relates mainly to England, and to Wales only with respect to energy installations and harbours. The same applies to the quango, the Infrastructure Planning Commission, set up to oversee the new planning system.While the reports on BBC radio, TV and online news did indicate that none of the new nuclear plants were to be built in Scotland, they failed completely to explain why. Instead, government spokespersons (e.g. Ed Miliband) were quoted referring to the energy needs of ‘the nation’; and references were made to the IPC and its framework guidance on ‘nationally significant infrastructure’ projects, in such a way as to imply that policy in such matters is being formulated and applied on a consistent UK-wide basis. This is, however, not the case, and the vast majority of the planning framework documents that the IPC is currently formulating will apply to England only; and the one regarding nuclear power under which planning applications for the new plants will be handled relates to England and Wales only.So whereas the UK government does have responsibility for energy strategy across the UK, the system under which it is attempting to drive through controversial developments is largely restricted to England. This is a critical fact that should have been mentioned given the concerns over the environmental impact and safety of nuclear power. Indeed, some of the proposed plants are situated close to major population centres, such as Bradwell in Essex (very close to London) and Oldbury in Gloucestershire (near Bristol). By contrast, Scotland would really have been a much more suitable location for some of these plants given the remoteness of some of its coastline and its greatly inferior population density.

The reason why Scotland is excluded is of course devolution: planning in Scotland is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, which is refusing to authorise any new nuclear plants. So the BBC’s lack of rigour in reporting on this issue is another example of its failure to be critical and explicit in making clear whenever UK-government policy applies to England only or mainly, as in this instance. This relates to previous complaints I have made about this more general failing on the part of BBC news coverage, and to a reply I received from Paul Hunter dated 25 October 2009.

By the way, while I’m on the subject, the website for the Infrastructure Planning Commission is a classic example of the way many websites for England-specific government departments or quangos contain very few up-front references to the actual name of the ‘nation’ they’re supposed to be serving. If all you look at are the home page and the general ‘about’ pages, often the only way you could be sure these are UK organisations of any sort is by looking at the web address or by other indications such as language and web-site design. Other classic examples of the genre include the (English) Department of Health and the Department for (English) Children, Schools and Families, whose website proclaims: “The purpose of the Department for Children, Schools and Families is to make this the best place in the world for children and young people to grow up” – ‘this’ being the way they refer to England. I wonder what cyber visitors from other countries make of this shame-faced way of suppressing references to your own country, whereas their government websites plaster the name and symbols of their nations all over the place; contrast the French Health Ministry or the German Environment Ministry. I suppose at least they have the decency not to stick the Union Jack on all the pages and refer to ‘the country’ as Britain on these websites; instead, they avoid explicitly naming the country at all.

Yesterday, I also received a reply to my earlier complaint about an episode of BBC1’s ‘One Show’:

Dear Mr RickardThank you for your e-mail regarding ‘The One Show’ on 28 October and for your comments on the report about proposals to begin giving children career advice at the age of seven..

 

While a Government proposal, limited to England, may have been the topical trigger for this report its focus was the general idea of giving children careers advice at this young age; something which although perhaps not a reality for any part of the UK at the moment the programme felt was an interesting idea to explore.

Ruby Wax set out to look at the wider issues and to gauge reaction to such an idea. This encompassed looking at some of the concerns about children’s aspirations in life which prompted the proposal, as well as the likelihood of people growing up to do the jobs they wanted to do when they were seven years old.

I note however that you would have appreciated some mention of the fact that the Governments proposal is limited to England at the moment and would like to assure you that we’ve registered your comments on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback we compile daily for the programme and senior management within the BBC. This ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the Corporation.

Thanks again for contacting us.

Regards

Stuart Webb
BBC Complaints
__________________________________________
http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints

In essence, this response amounts to dismissing my complaint about the programme’s failure to clarify that the government’s proposal related to England only as a personal preference rather than a substantive criticism that the lack of such an indication was fundamentally misleading: in this instance, perpetuating the ignorance of English viewers that the government’s education policies apply to England only; and, in the case of non-English viewers who are not especially well versed on the effects of devolution, potentially alarming them about something that in fact does not affect them. Note the sheer ignorance and complacency of the sentence, “some mention of the fact that the Governments proposal is limited to England at the moment”: no, it’s not ‘at the moment’, you utter ignoramus – any UK government proposal on these matters can only ever relate to England only, unless there are plans to reverse devolution. Trouble is you can’t reply to these BBC emails, but you have to do a whole new complaint. So this is effectively my response.

I also note that Ruby Wax talked only to people on English streets and English education specialists. Why not go and talk to people in Glasgow or Cardiff if the programme was merely mooting a general idea? Well, that’s because this would make the (intended?) implication that the government’s ideas were relevant to the whole of the UK far more explicit; and hence would make the programme more vulnerable to accusations of misleading inaccuracy when reporting on England-specific affairs.

Clearly, the item was relevant to Britain only in one of the modern meanings of the word ‘Britain’, which is ‘England’. But the One Show is predicated on the lie that there is still just One Nation in political terms.

Oh well, we’ll keep chipping away.

9 June 2009

Labour election and government disaster – in England (and Cornwall)

It’s interesting how comment on Labour’s disastrous (for it) performance at the polls in the European elections has tended to focus on the story in Scotland and Wales: coming a poor second to the SNP and losing to the Tories for the first time since 1918 respectively. The truth of the matter is that Labour’s results in those countries were relatively good: 20.8% of the vote in Scotland and 20.3% in Wales. In reality, Labour’s abysmally low watermark of 15.7% across Great Britain (i.e. excluding Northern Ireland) was due mainly to its rejection by voters in England, where Labour polled only 15.1% by my calculations (I had to calculate it myself, as the BBC website didn’t give any separate figures for England as a whole).

In some of the English Euro-regions, Labour’s performance amounted almost to a complete wipe-out. In my own region of the East of England (not much discussed in media analysis), the party finished in fourth place with only 10.5% of votes: down 5.8% on 2005. In the South West, Labour came fifth with a mere 7.7% (down 6.8%). I note that, in Cornwall, the UK’s governing party landed up in sixth place behind the Cornish nationalist party Mebyon Kernow – congratulations to you guys! I note also that the Lib Dems, who performed relatively poorly in Scotland and Wales, gained a 14.1% share of the vote in England: just 1% behind Labour, compared with the 2% margin separating the parties across Great Britain as a whole. This lends some credence to the idea that the Liberal Democrats could overtake Labour as the second-largest party at a general election: in England, that is.

This makes the ‘performance’ of the Parliamentary Labour Party this evening in giving Gordon Brown their ringing endorsement all the more farcical and galling. Look at some of the ridiculously unconvincing expressions of support they came out with after their meeting tonight where they once again bottled it and failed to mount a campaign to get rid of Brown, despite the fact that it’s well known that many of them just wish he would disappear! The choicest passage in the BBC report is the following: “Loyalist Lord Foulkes said there had been ‘great support for Gordon’ and when Mr Clarke spoke ‘no-one even put their hands together'”. Hmm, no one applauded the accused men in the Stalinist show trials, either!

Do they never learn? Don’t they understand that no one believes such blandishments and these expressions of ‘strong support’ for the PM any more, if they ever did: that it’s all about a party the voters have rejected rallying round and yielding to a forcible manifestation of party discipline in a context in which, if MPs are not voted out in constituencies across England, they risk being booted out by the party apparatus under the pretext of expenses-related sanctions? But this unrepresentative body that has appointed itself as entitled to choose England’s and Britain’s political leader doesn’t care about what the voters in England actually think about them and what they want, which is Brown out and a proper, accountable government for England. But hey, guys, don’t you think there’s a lesson for you, there: the lesson from the European and local elections – that you’ve got to start paying attention to the concerns and wishes of the English people? And the same applies to the analysis of why the BNP won two seats and improved its share of the vote in England: this is down to traditional Labour supporters turning away from the party because it has not taken heed of their concerns about housing, jobs and immigration.

Earlier in the day, these issues, together with public services, were signalled by the Labour backbencher Jon Cruddas as areas where Labour was lacking in clear vision and distinct policies. In the BBC article referred to above, Cruddas is further reported as saying that Labour’s problem is not so much one of leadership as policies. I agree with him on one level: there is a vacuum in what Brown himself, after his cabinet reshuffle last Friday, described as the ‘domestic’ policy area – one of three main focuses of his remaining premiership, the others being the economy and so-called constitutional reform. But this vacuum is also a leadership issue: Brown cannot display, and has not displayed, leadership on domestic issues because so many of them relate to England only, not the ‘better Britain’ that Brown invoked last week as the goal he aimed to begin to achieve before the next election.

Why can’t Brown display leadership in domestic English matters? Because he knows, viscerally perhaps, that his leadership is simply not accepted by the English people; that he has no mandate in England: even less of a mandate than in Britain as a whole, that is; and because he can’t even bring himself to acknowledge the name and identity of the country – England – that is crying out for leadership, vision and strong policy direction from a prime minister or first minister that is actually answerable to it. As opposed to being answerable only to the morally bankrupt and politically moribund Parliamentary Labour Party.

So bully for Brown tonight. But it’s simply delaying the inevitable demise of the undemocratic Labour government. And continuing to deny the people of England the right to choose their own leader.

31 March 2009

Britain: The Self-Undermining Nation-State

Britain: the English Empire

While other countries formed nation-states, the English built an Empire. If all we English had been bothered about back then in the 18th and 19th centuries had been nation building, then I’ve no doubt we’d have had a unitary Nation of Britain long since: our little island fortress, with our sights and ambitions set merely on looking to our own affairs and keeping our European neighbours out of them.

But that sort of thing was for them, not us. So many of the European nations that emerged from smaller and larger entities alike during the 18th and particularly 19th centuries were landlocked or hemmed in by bigger powers. Not so we English. The open seas stretched out before us, and after we’d seen off first the Spanish Armada and then Napoleon’s navy, we ruled the waves as far as the Americas, Africa, India and Australia.

I’m not justifying all that our world-conquering ancestors did back then in a different world; but let’s not pretend either that our European rivals would not have done the same given half the chance. Indeed, the fact that they had to break out of a land lock helps to explain why the mid-20th-century Germans needed to fight for European domination first as stage one of their plan to rule the world.

The English Empire – what an achievement! Totally un-PC, of course, to speak in such terms – but our modern globalised world and, indeed, our multi-cultural Britain would simply not exist had our mercenary and missionary forebears not sailed off to drag half the world into the modern era. Un-PC, perhaps above all, to dub it the English Empire, not British. But it was the English that were the driving force and the power behind the imperial throne – albeit that many Scots, too, were happy to seize the opportunities for wealth, power and self-advancement that the Empire afforded them, for good or ill.

Should we English be proud of the Empire? To say simply ‘no’ is to conspire with the Britologists that would have everything that is great about ‘this country’ reflect back on ‘Britain’ and lay the blame for all that is bad on England and the English. For them, the English are essentially individualistic, aggressive, even violent; hostile and arrogantly contemptuous towards other cultures, which we supposedly blithely trampled over in the Empire; conservative, narrow-minded and insular. Yet in almost the same breath, they’d have us believe that the Empire in its British essence (as opposed to the ‘English’ aggression and opportunism that drove it) embodied the values that are still true, relevant and British for us today: tolerance, liberty, democracy, fairness and the rule of law. Values, in fact, which – according to Gordon Brown – could and should define a contemporary British ‘Nation’.

Well, I say ‘no’ to that British version of our history: that all-too simplistic dividing of the past into the English ‘black’ and the British ‘white’. You don’t get ‘greatness’ without it containing a little ‘grey’. The Roman Empire was great; its civilisation and technology were prodigies of its time; its law, literature and language, and later its conversion to Christianity, left an enduring legacy throughout Europe and the whole of Christendom. And yet, Rome was built on the back of military conquest, slavery and dictatorship. In the same way, our Empire spread English civilisation, industry, law, language, democracy and Christian faith throughout the world. And yes, it did so on the back of military conquest, slavery and imperial – though not dictatorial – rule. You can’t have one without the other; be proud of one without the other; have your British Empire without your England. You can’t say the ‘good’ values were and are all British but the ‘bad’ actions were all those of the English – because it was the actions and beliefs of the English that created the world in which those values stand today as our enduring legacy: our English legacy. And of that I am truly proud.

Others created nations; we English created the modern world. But as we rightly and democratically surrendered our imperial dominions to their own people, and as other global powers entered the stage, our horizons narrowed to our British island. Without the rationale of overwhelming mutual interest, and without the common enterprise of Empire, the marriage of convenience between England and Scotland that forms the bedrock of the United Kingdom finally looks set to be breaking down. Those who still cherish the ideal image of ‘Britain’s’ imperial greatness – conveniently forgetting the hard realities of domination and exploitation that were an integral part of that story, or ascribing them to England – now seek to build that Britain into a nation; rather than let it slide inexorably into the history books – the books telling the history of England, that is.

Britain never was, still is not and pray God never will be a ‘nation’ in its own right. For some of the Britologists, this is what it should have been from the beginning: from the time of the Acts of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. If this had happened – say, for instance, if Nelson had been defeated at Trafalgar and our energies had subsequently been turned in on ourselves instead of Empire – Britain would now be a European nation-state comparable to those of a similar scale, such as Germany and Italy, that were put together from a collection of kingdoms and principalities during the 19th century. This is how Brown and his ilk would like Britain to be today, fearful that a break-up of Britain into its constituent nations would diminish ‘this country’s’ standing among its European neighbours and weaken its ability to defend its interests within Europe and the international community – albeit peacefully in the present era, thank God.

Of course, logically, such a break-up would by definition diminish this country’s standing if ‘this country’ is defined as Britain: Britain – as a would-be nation-state – simply would be no more. But this would not lessen England’s standing. On the contrary, England would re-emerge from Britain’s shadows as the great nation it always has been, both before and through the period of Union with Scotland: comparable but superior in its past achievements to those other empire-building nations and former rivals France and Spain. England did not need to build a nation of Britain. It already was a great nation at the time of the Union, and the uncomfortable truth is that, from day one, ‘Great Britain’ was more the name of England’s Empire than that of a nation subsuming England. The Union with Scotland was in reality more of an annexation of Scotland – followed one century later by Ireland – into the English Empire, which was already beginning to expand across the globe by the beginning of the 18th century.

In fact, one way of thinking about it would be to say that ‘Britain’ itself was England’s ‘home Empire’ (hence, ‘Great Britain’) as opposed to the Empire ‘abroad’. Scotland and Ireland would then be described as having been originally English colonies, subsequently absorbed into the same political state as England: union within a common state (the English state, renamed ‘Britain’ / the UK to reflect its enlarged geographical extent) but not a common nation. Commonwealth of nations, not British Nation. Unlike a power such as France, whose colonies were all assimilated into France itself, each of the ‘British nations’ (both the other nations of the British Isles and those of the broader Empire) retained or developed distinct identities as nations: distinct from England, that is.

British ‘nationhood’: nothing if not England

So the ‘British’ designation of the other British nations in fact signifies their difference from England – in the past and in the present – as well as England’s enduring difference from Britain. At the same time, however, the British nations’ Britishness mediates a continuing union with England – politically, culturally, socially: a state (in both senses) that can persist so long as England, too, continues to see and describe itself as British. England is the central point of reference and underlying national identity of Britain. This latter term also denotes the commonality and ‘sameness’ of Britain, as well as the place of the ‘properly British’: where Britain is thought of as present to itself and in possession of itself, providing a centre of original and authentic Britishness that can be imagined as remaining present through its dispersion across multiple different British nations. But, because it serves this purpose, England cannot define itself as distinct from Britain; it cannot set itself apart from Britain, and / or see itself as superior to the ‘other’ British nations, because this would mean that it was not ‘one’ with – an equal partner to and the means for the unity of – the other nations: the guarantor and foundation of a common Britishness.

These mutually dependent pulls of shared identity / union and continuing difference help to explain why it is over against a distinct, ‘superior’ England that the ‘British nations’ both define their own difference and assert a shared Britishness: a Britishness shared with England, that is, but which is predicated on the suppression of an England that is itself distinct from Britain, since England has to serve as the place (literally) of a continuing Britain and ‘proper’ Britishness that those other nations can then both share and differentiate themselves from.

‘We are Scottish and British but not English’. This is still a view, I think, held by the majority of Scots. But it’s ironically connected with another common Scottish perception, which is that English people simply see themselves as ‘British’; that when they refer to England, they tend to mean Britain – and when they say Britain, they generally mean England. (For the moment, forget about the whole British government thing of saying ‘Britain’ rather than ‘England’ even when England is meant; I’m talking about the traditional Scottish assumptions, which are of course related to present British-government practice.) This is ironic because it exemplifies the conflicting pulls and ties of shared identity and difference with and from England that are mediated through ‘Britain’: Scotland is ‘one’ with England but only through Britain; but then again, an identification of England with Britain is asserted (which is what would in fact make that Union with England through Britain truly a union) but is itself framed as an ‘error’, and as the expression of ‘English’ arrogance, imperialism and will to dominate. So, through and as ‘Britain’, England is seen as both one with Scotland and different from it: an identification of England with Britain (and hence, a fundamental union between Scotland and England) is at once asserted and denied. Or putting it another way: Scotland sees itself as both ‘a part of’ Britain and ‘apart from England’ – but only if England and Britain are seen as both the same as each other and different from one another.

I think the same line of reasoning could be applied to the relationship between England and Wales; perhaps more so given the two countries’ much longer and deeper ties of shared and differentiated nationhood within ‘Britain’, which arguably go back to Roman times (or even earlier), when the actual colony of Britannia comprised roughly the territory of England and Wales today. The relationships are more complicated and painful in Northern Ireland. Here, I think the pulls are not so much between Ireland and England within Britain – on the analogy with Scotland and Wales – but between Ireland and Britain ‘as a whole’; although this structure still depends on England providing the ground and basis on which Britain can be viewed as a proper nation, as opposed to a collection of three or four nations. And hence, alongside the Union Jack, the Northern Irish Loyalists fly a flag that is essentially the Cross of St. George with the red hand of Ulster in the centre: as if to say that Ulster’s British centre is England.

So, in order for the other nations of Britain to be seen as nations that are distinct from England, on the one hand, and which are still fundamentally and authentically united with – one with – England in the Union, England itself has to be seen as (and see itself as) one with – identified with – Britain. This provides a core and foundation of ‘proper’ Britishness (British national identity) that the other British nations can then both share and ‘own’ (rather than having to share and own Englishness) at the same time as they can differentiate themselves from and within that Britishness insofar as it is also seen as a self-attributed (and self-defining) ‘property’ and national characteristic of England.

The denial of a distinct England (and England’s self-abnegation) is in this way the precondition for a ‘proper’ British nation to exist: England must be Britain for Britain to be – and for the other nations to be semi-detached parts of Britain not annexes of England. I have to say that I think it is this fundamental structure that allows a phrase such as ‘a Britain of nations and regions’ to make any sense at all. Analysed from a purely logical perspective, this is a complete non-sequitur if you presuppose a logical hierarchy whereby regions are smaller dependent subsets of nations. If Scotland and Wales are the ‘nations’ here, and the ‘regions’ are the sub-national territories formerly known as England, what does that make Britain? A nation or a ‘supra-nation’? Well, yes, perhaps the latter – another word for ‘supra-nation’ being ’empire’, which is what – in my contention – Britain always was: the core of England’s Empire. Or alternatively, if Britain is a / the nation in this phrase, then shouldn’t Scotland and Wales be described rather as regions on the same basis as the [formerly] English regions? Yes, of course they should. But the structure isn’t logical in this way, or rather it obeys a different logic: it is the identification of England with Britain that enables the ‘other’ nations of Britain to affirm a distinct national identity while remaining organic parts of Britain; while, if England has become Britain, the smaller sub-national units into which it has been divided are then aptly described as regions of a British nation.

This paradoxical structure results from the two conflicting pulls within New Labour’s attempt to fashion a new British Nation – integral Britishness, on the one hand, along with devolution for some of its parts, on the other. This leads to the need to assert a strong core of British national identity at the centre, allowing the smaller countries at the periphery to be both distinct nations and partakers of a shared British identity: the British identity of England, that is – turning the whole edifice into an integral British Nation. This is in contrast to what I describe as the original and historic character of Britain as essentially the core and name of England’s Empire, with the other British nations as dominions or ‘possessions’ of England. The two structures could be illustrated as follows:

 

Imperial Britain


 

Nation of Britain


 

Comparing the two diagrams, it is noteworthy that a former hierarchy of nations (England as the central sovereign national power within the United Kingdom both governing and ‘owning’ the other British nations) has been replaced by a hierarchy of governance: the central UK government exercising governance / sovereignty over the ‘nations and regions’ in some matters but devolving power in other areas. Or at least, that was the blueprint for the [English] regions until the electorate in the proposed North-East region scuppered the idea. But, as we know, the present government has continued with its regionalising agenda, although the Regional Authorities now are little more than unelected arms of central government. So a more accurate rendition of the present situation would perhaps have been to draw the above diagram with a thick arrow going one-way from the centre down to the regions.

This replacement of inter-national UK governance by inter-tier UK governance reflects the fact that devolution as implemented by New Labour did double duty as a process of delegating to the ‘nations’ certain aspects of governance previously handled by the England-dominated UK government alongside a process of developing a new regional tier and structure of governance. That’s to say, this is regional governance effectively within the context of a new integral Nation of Britain. To complete this structural transformation, ‘Britain’ is promoted from its position as England’s ‘dominion’ within the imperial set up (the territory over which England exercised sovereignty and which England ‘possessed’) to the position as the sovereign national power in its own right. Accordingly, England is demoted to the status of a mere territory over which the central British government exercises sovereignty and which it ‘possesses’ as its own; to the extent that it feels entitled to dispose over – indeed, dispose of – the English territory as it chooses by parcelling it up into smaller administrative units.

But this also means that ‘Britain’ governs the UK in England’s place. In other words, Britain both takes England’s place as the sovereign and central power within the structure, and represents (indeed, re-presents) England within the continuing inter-national aspects of the system. Or, putting it another way, ‘Britain’ in the new structure continues to also be effectively England: it rests on the British national identity of the English, or the identification of England with Britain; and it exercises and takes forward England’s historic role and responsibility of governance over itself (i.e., in this instance, over the ‘regions’) and over the other British nations. This is still effectively governance from the English centre, albeit that this cannot be acknowledged, as it is supposed to be a unitary system of British governance, with British nations and British regions standing in a relation of equality towards one another within an all-embracing Britishness.

Conclusion

So the Britishness is really just an overlay over a much more long-standing structure, with Britain taking over and taking forward England’s historic role as the power in the land. This system, as it stands, is dependent on ‘Britain’ both being and not being England. Firstly, for Britain to have a ‘national identity’ in its right requires that the people of England (continue to) identify as British / identify with Britain, providing a[n English] core of Britishness that the other nations of Britain can both see themselves as sharing and uniting with in a profound way (as it and they are both British), while differentiating themselves from it in a manner that defines their own national identities as being distinct from that of England / English Britishness.

This is the core problem with Brown’s Britishness agenda: the non-existence, precisely, of a core Britishness. ‘Britain’ is incapable of grounding its identity as a ‘nation’ within itself because it has always been, and continues to be, essentially a system of governance unifying a collection of distinct nations – now even more than ever, in fact, as the second of my above two diagrams illustrates: ‘Britain’ / the UK is just a hierarchical system of governance and a set of relationships between its constituent parts, not an integral nation in itself. This is why Brown and New Labour can define ‘core Britishness’ only in terms of a set of general moral and political values that themselves relate to the processes of governance and civic society: liberty, tolerance, democracy, justice, the rule of law, etc.

The reality is that the ‘core identity’ of Britain is the [only in part British] national identity of the English. And this is made up of a much deeper, broader, more concrete and personal set of characteristics, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that can ever be encapsulated by a mere set of philosophical and political abstractions. It is of these things – the character, culture, society, history and traditions of a whole national community – that real ‘national identity’ is made. England has and is all of these things; Britain ‘of itself’ does and is not. So in order to be a nation, ‘Britain’ has to appropriate the national identity of England to itself (another way of saying it has to ensure that English people [continue to] see all of their English characteristics and values as essentially British). But Brown cannot engage with the question at this level, because if he did, he’d be forced to acknowledge that his British national identity is, at its core, none other than England’s by another name. And so, because he cannot acknowledge the concrete reality of the English people and identity as the real core of, and dominant culture and nation within, the UK (as it always has been), his Britishness can be articulated only at the level of abstract ‘shared British values’.

And secondly – and this is perhaps even more determining for the future of a continuing Britain – the other British nations also need this core Britishness and centre of Britain to be Britain-but-not-England and to still be England all the same. On the one hand, they need this, as I described above, to feel connected to a common Britishness (of which ‘England’ is the guarantor and foundation) that is the place of an authentic and equal Union between the nations of the UK, rather than being in fact just another name for a separate England of which they have historically been subordinate British-imperial ‘possessions’. And, on the other hand, the fact that this ‘British centre’ is also still England is necessary for them to define their own national identity as distinct [from England] through devolution.

In other words, the other British nations define themselves as nations through differentiation from the English centre of Britain; but they need that English centre to be British first and foremost in order to continue to feel anchored in a common Britishness. If, on the other hand, that Englishness of the British centre were somehow to be effaced altogether, then the other British nations would ironically lose the basis for their own distinct national identities, at least as contained within the British framework. They need England to exist in order not to be English; and they need England to be Britain in order to be British. Pull England out of the whole system – create a Britain ‘without England’ at its centre – and the national identities of the other British nations, and their sense of belonging to a ‘national-British’ community of any description, would be completely stripped of their present anchoring, and the constituent parts of what we now know as Britain would spin off into a chaotic existential abyss.

All of which doesn’t exactly make it easy to see what the way forward might be. But although the present system does shore up some sort of unitary structure for UK governance within the context of devolution – and while it does create a British anchor for the diverging and increasingly autonomous identities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – it is hardly a sustainable, rational or fair set up for England, which is condemned to a limbo land of being and not being a nation, and being the prop upon which the whole UK edifice and its other nations depend for their present existence.

And the point is, if this is not sustainable for England, then it cannot be a sustainable basis for a continuing United Kingdom, either. That is because England is the core national identity of the UK; but a UK that seeks both to deny that fact and yet relies on it is an edifice built on a foundation that undermines itself.

11 March 2009

Shorts (4): Football Team GB – I’ve got a better idea

One of the things that’s truly ‘great’ about football in Britain (by which I actually mean all four nations of the UK, not just England) is the strength of the game at the grassroots. The literally thousands of amateur clubs that are kept going by the dedication of their coaches, the support of family members and the passions of their players; the vast structure of leagues and cup competitions at every level of the game, and for every age and, increasingly, gender. It’s these clubs that keep alive the true spirit of football, which provides a generally friendly way to fight out local rivalries, and a chance for young people to take out their aggression, keep fit and achieve a bit of glory.

The Olympics, too, was originally supposed to embody this spirit of amateur sport. It was supposed to be – and still is to some extent, even in Britain – about individuals who have a dream, and strive through sheer perseverance, skill and hard work to achieve it or at least give their all in the attempt. And it’s about friendly rivalry between nations – pointing the way to a world of peace in the more serious and vital affairs of life as well as in mere play.

All this trouble about a British Olympics football team is essentially because it’s got caught up in the turbulent national-identity politics of the present. Why not just cut through all of that and organise a mammoth all-UK amateur cup competition for the right to compete at the Olympics as ‘Team GB’ – pitching teams from all four corners of the UK against each other: little village sides from Kent journeying up to farthest John O’Groats, if necessary, in order to progress to the next round; with a team from County Antrim slugging it out in Merthyr Tydfil. If the clubs need help with their travelling and other expenses, then they could get support from the same Lotto fund that is being ploughed into the Olympic facilities – given that it’s going towards the same event.

This could be a real amateur sporting affair, in keeping with the original spirit of both football and the Olympics as I’ve described it. This means the top amateur clubs like those in the English Blue Square League, which are in reality semi-professional, would be excluded.

This would give a chance for talented amateur sportsmen and -women from across the UK to go in pursuit of an amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to represent not just ‘Great Britain’ but their community, village, town and, yes, nation (whether England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) at the greatest sporting tournament on earth – well, the second after the Football World Cup! This wouldn’t in fact be the British Olympic football team but merely a British football team. I say ‘merely’; but in reality, this would be more truly and profoundly a British team than any meaningless Team GB packed with overpaid professional players for whom the Olympics did not mean much compared with tournaments like the Premier or Champions’ Leagues. This would be something that passionate football enthusiasts from across Britain would have had to fight for.

A team comprising the ‘best’ amateur club (or clubs, including the women’s team) in Britain (or at least the winner of the All-UK Challenge Cup) wouldn’t in any way compromise the status of the four separate national Football Associations. This is precisely because it wouldn’t be a / the ‘national-British’ team, and because the separate national associations would all be engaged in organising the tournament and administering the participation of all ‘their’ affiliated amateur clubs that were interested in taking part. Indeed, the clubs themselves would doubtless regard their clashes with clubs from other national associations as their own small-scale version of full international matches. So this would be an international amateur contest to select one lucky (or two including the women) representative team(s): a team of Britain and not the Britain Team.

And the point of all this is that it would mobilise a huge amount of support and goodwill from what is known as the ‘British public’ – by which is meant the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The level of interest and enthusiasm would potentially be immense as local communities got behind their teams and the English / British love of the underdog was played out to the max. This really would be great and would truly bring to the fore the ‘best of British’ – if not the best British Team. And above all, it would exhibit the long-lost idea of sport: that it’s not about the winning but the taking part.

But the powers that be are interested only in winning: winning medals, winning prestige for ‘Britain’, and winning the fight for a Football Team GB as they see it, whether the people want it or not. But contrast the enthusiastic backing that a ‘Team GB’ selected the way I am proposing would generate to the devastation that could be wrought on the precious game of football by imposing a professional Team GB on us.

Football is, and could be even more, something that unites the different nations of the UK. If the government and the BOA get their way, it could become something that divides us, even to the extent of contributing to the eventual break-up of the UK if that is what is necessary to preserve our national teams and associations – because the demand for separation would surely grow enormously if the footballing heart of our four nations was ripped out and stuck to the badge of Britain, instead of being worn with pride on the shirtsleeves of amateur FCs from throughout our islands.

If you think this is a good idea, let me know – and I’ll suggest it to those said ‘powers that be’. How about the BOA, the (English) FA and 10 Downing Street for starters!

3 January 2009

Channel 4 Friday: What a load of (anti-English) rubbish!

Channel 4 used to be edgy and innovative; now it just seems to churn out the same old formula programming and anti-English bias as all the other terrestrial channels.

Witness last night’s offerings. I caught a snippet of the Channel 4 News report on what I am henceforth calling the ‘English government’s’ [= the UK government in its capacity as the unelected government for England] new public-information campaign to combat obesity, ‘Change4Life’. Of course, if you didn’t already know that the Department of Health deals with health matters in England only, there’s no way you would have guessed from the Channel 4 report that this initiative is limited to England. They never once mentioned this fact, and referred to ‘national’ this and ‘Britain’ that, as if England and Britain were one and the same thing – which, with respect to health policy and this campaign at least, they manifestly are not.

For once, by contrast, the BBC got it right. The report on their news website correctly identified that the campaign related to England only, although it misleadingly suggested that the 2007 Foresight report on obesity related to the UK as a whole, describing it as “the largest UK study into obesity, backed by the government”. In fact, the report dealt with England only, as you can see for yourself here. The article also mentioned explicitly that Scotland already has a similar campaign of its own. The BBC 1 Ten O’Clock News did even better, making it clear on two or three occasions in its report that the Change4Life campaign and related statistics it referred to concerned England only. One of the illustrations even had a caption that read ‘Department of Health England’: a very pleasing, and accurate, juxtaposition of the official name of the government department and its territorial jurisdiction. Perhaps the BBC is finally getting the message; which is more than can be said for Channel 4, clearly.

Incidentally, the Change4Life website also goes extremely softly softly when it comes to broadcasting its England-only remit. On the home page, it does invite the visitor to: “Join the people across England who are already making a Change4Life”. This sort of wording is also typical of news reports that refer explicitly to England, including the above-mentioned BBC one: they say ‘in England’ at some point; but they don’t flag up in lights the fact that it’s an England-specific initiative on the part of the [de facto English] government. So much so, in fact, that visitors to the Change4Life website – attracted to it, perhaps, by the TV news reports that gave the impression it related to the whole of the UK – have to be informed at the bottom of a page about activities in ‘my local area’ that “Are you in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland? This resource only covers England”.

What a contrast if you do follow the links to the campaigns in the other nations of the UK! The website for the Scottish campaign, ‘Take life on’, literally flags up the fact that it’s a Scotland-only initiative, funded by the Scottish Government: it is decked in the colours of the Saltire, with the flag itself in evidence in the top-right-hand corner of every page. Similarly, the Welsh campaign, ‘Health Challenge Wales’, couldn’t be more explicit about its Wales-only character, indicated – in addition to its actual name – by the mention on the home page that it is “brought to you by the Welsh Assembly Government”. And as for Northern Ireland, the opening paragraph reads: “Welcome to the get a life, get active website. We all need to be active, and most of us in Northern Ireland aren’t nearly active enough”. And the website is peppered with links subtly conveying its ‘national-Irish’ character through the colours of orange and green.

One wonders whether the people of England would be more responsive to this sort of government information drive if the powers that be paid them the courtesy of informing them that this was an initiative specially designed for England, addressing issues that are of concern to everyone in England. Better still, if the afore-mentioned powers were those of a properly elected English government. If they did this, perhaps there would be less of the instinctive reaction against the ‘nanny state’ condescending to us about our bad habits; because it wouldn’t be the UK state talking down to us from on high in Westminster, but a truly English government that we the English people had actually elected and which we might accept was genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of England – just as the campaigns in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have no qualms about emphasising the fact that they have been put together for their nations by their national governments.

And, incidentally, we should not be surprised by the irony that the English anti-obesity initiative is the last one to be launched, despite the fact that we make up around 85% of the UK population. Undoubtedly, this is linked with funding issues. Change4Life is relying on sponsorship from food producers and retailers, including brands that you would not necessarily associate with healthy eating but which will be able to make use of the campaign’s logo and branding on their products and in their stores: Cadbury, Kelloggs, Pepsi, Tesco, etc. Even so, there are concerns that Change4Life will still not be adequately funded. By contrast, the partners for the Scottish and Welsh campaigns include no commercial organisations but only publicly funded bodies and charities. Clearly, government funding for such initiatives is not an issue in those countries compared with England.

Later in the evening, I had the misfortune to watch most of ‘A Place In the Sun Down Under’, which followed the eventually successful efforts to find a new home for a family desperate to quit these shores for brighter horizons in Australia. I’m not sure that this sort of fayre is really what we need in England right now in the midst of a miserable midwinter and an even more gloomy economic climate. The programme extolled the virtues of the sunny Australian lifestyle and economic opportunities, which it contrasted favourably to the bleakness of life back in ‘Blighty’; and it gleefully reeled off the statistics about the thousands of ‘Brits’ that are flocking to a ‘better life’ down under. It’s enough to make you comfort-eat and build up those weather-defying fat reserves! (My excuse.)

I suppose many of my readers can relate to this couple’s wish to escape from dreary, misgoverned Britain, if only they had £265k mortgage-free to throw around! The programme went on about Brits getting out of Britain to such an extent that I completely missed the fact, garnered only from the Channel 4 website, that the couple were actually from Wrexham (in North Wales). So they weren’t so much desperate to escape Britain as to quit Wales! During the programme, I did in fact think that the wife sounded Welsh, although the husband definitely came across as English. In fact, the repetitive references to ‘Britain’ and ‘Brits’ naturally led me to think that the couple lived in England, as – I thought – it would probably explicitly say ‘Scotland’ and ‘Wales’ if that was where they actually lived: ‘Britain’ equalling England in Channel 4 speak. But then I didn’t think about the aspect that Scottish and Welsh people might ring or write in to complain about the negative impression that was being given about their countries. Better to just say Britain and let people think the derogatory portrayal related to England only!

Am I being paranoid? Maybe, a little. But the programme did gloss over the fact that the emigrating couple were from Wales and created the impression they lived in England. And there was so much negativity about ‘Britain’ (generally, a synonym or overlapping term for England) that it seemed to partake of the usual tendency to do England down. At the same time the programme constituted such a promo for Australia, you felt it must be receiving funding or other support from the Australian government. It’s as if it were saying to all us English folk seeking a healthier lifestyle: don’t bother with the English government’s half-hearted anti-obesity campaign, just de-camp to Australia, where you’ll get plenty of opportunity to ‘eat better, move more and live longer’!

Or you could check out Channel 4’s forthcoming serving of ‘The Great British Food Fight’, previewed after ‘A Place In the Sun’. Oh Gawd, I said inwardly; why can’t they just give all this ‘Great Britain’ malarkey a rest! Not content simply with the title ‘The Big Food Fight’ they used last year, they feel they have to stick the words ‘Great British’ in there to beef it up still further. Or should that be ‘pork’ and ‘chicken’ it up, as two of the episodes – presented by Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittenstall respectively – will be focusing on the ‘British’ pork and chicken industries. Not that I am an expert, but I would be pretty confident that most pork or chicken labelled in the shops as ‘British’ (and therefore, by definition, almost all ‘British pork’ and ‘British chicken’ per se) is in fact produced and processed in England. ‘British’ is just a brand for these meats, as one pork-industry website explicitly states. That is, it’s the brand used for English meat, as the practice of supermarkets such as Tesco – which is the subject of Fearnley-Whittenstall’s programme – is to label anything produced in England (including, in my area, local East Anglian pork and milk) as ‘British’, while anything from Scotland or Wales carries the names and flags of those countries. So when Oliver and Fearnley-Whittenstall take British pork and chicken producers and retailers to task, remember that the objects of their criticisms are English producers that have to keep their costs down to a minimum to remain afloat against a tide of cheaper imports.

In fact, there’s not much about the content or the celebrity-chef presenters of the ‘Great British Food Fight’ that is properly British, as opposed to English only, unless you count Gordon Ramsay as Scottish because he was born there. And that includes the ‘Little Chef’ chain of restaurants (described by Channel 4 as a ‘British institution’) that are going to get the Heston Blumenthal treatment, only nine out of 185 of which are located in Scotland. Intriguingly, 15 Little Chefs are also to be found in Wales (including one in Wrexham, I note); so, based on the proportion of Little Chefs per head of population, you should really call them a Welsh institution – but then again, safer to imply they’re English (which they mainly are, to be fair) by calling them British! In short, the Little Chefs are another fat-filled reason to leave Wales
the country England – or at least to upbraid it for its supposedly low-quality and unhealthy food.

And what is ‘British food’, anyway? It always used to be called ‘English food’ or ‘English cooking’, which used to be negatively compared with French or Italian cuisine. I suppose the sub-text is ‘English food used to be rubbish until it was transformed by numerous multi-cultural influences and the healthy-eating fad, and became “great British” food’. But note: no one is suggesting that the recently elevated status of British food is down to traditional Scottish and Welsh influences, which would be a justifiable reason to call it British. So even in its ‘new improved’, healthy, multi-cultural Britishness, British food is still largely English in origin.

Which, fortunately, cannot be said of the ‘Big Brother’ concept: the TV one, that is (which is Dutch), as opposed to the original inspiration – George Orwell’s 1984 – which is English. How very apt that this evening of British nanny-state doing down of the English lifestyle and diet – combined with the lauding of celebrity ‘British’ chefs campaigning to make our food healthier, more natural and more original – should culminate with ‘Celebrity Big Brother’: a veritable fusion, as they say, of the ethos of the Surveillance State and our supposed obsession with celebrity. It is indeed fitting that a channel that can serve up such a sustained diet of anti-English tripe should also produce a programme that reduces the real intrusion of the UK state into our English liberties and privacy to the status of a game show, and to prurient tabloid-style curiosity into the private lives of the rich and famous.

In so doing, they debase a medium that could and should be dealing with the real reasons why English people distrust their unrepresentative and paranoid politicians (who in turn distrust them), why they live so unhealthily, and why they are flocking out of the country in droves – such as: inadequate disposable income to spend on healthier food; the power of the big brands and supermarkets that sell the processed and mass-produced ‘British’ foods (and drive down the prices to English producers) in superstores to which we increasingly have few alternatives, as the big chains plus the recession are driving the small retailers out of business; our money tied up in over-priced, under-sized housing that we can’t sell; dead-end jobs (if we’re lucky), excessive working hours, a high cost of living and intense stress levels; and a growing gulf between the richest and the poorest resulting in envy of, and lust for, wealth and fame.

Oh yes, and the rubbish fayre and trashing of England served up by the likes of Channel 4.

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