Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

16 August 2010

‘Racist’ English nationalism: an alibi for Britain’s anglophobia and Islamophobia

It’s become something of a cliché in the discourse of the progressive wing of so-called British politics to refer to a supposed association between English nationalism and the racist far right. The key illustration of this link that is usually brought forward nowadays is the English Defence League: the protest organisation set up to resist the alleged spread of Shariah Law, and the ‘Islamification’ of England and the UK as a whole.

The EDL itself refutes the charge of racism; and as a general point, the question of the connection between ‘anti-Islamism’ / Islamophobia and racism is an interesting and complex one, which I’ll discuss quite a bit during the course of this post. While it’s true that hostility or wariness towards Islam, or some of its manifestations, by no means intrinsically involve racism, they are often a cover for it. This is certainly the case with the British National Party (BNP), which uses opposition to ‘Islamism’ (radical, political, militant Islam) as a displaced channel for racial hatred and phobia – the Muslims in question being invariably Pakistanis, Turks, North Africans, Arabs and other ethnic communities the BNP would like to expel from Britain.

Russian girl leads a recent EDL protest march in Dudley, bearing the Russian flag (from the EDL website)

And herein lies a problem: it’s the British-nationalist parties such as the BNP and UKIP that tend to exploit Islamophobia more systematically in pursuit of anti-immigration and racist political agendas, not ‘English-nationalist’ movements such as the EDL or the English Democrats. (And for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not suggesting there is an intrinsic link between racism and opposition to mass immigration – any more than I’m arguing there’s an intrinsic association between Islamophobia and racism – but the two do often go hand in hand: racist sentiment is exploited in pursuit of anti-immigration policies, while anti-immigration politics often serve as a displaced, legitimised channel for racism.)

In addition, it’s questionable to what extent the EDL really qualifies as an English-nationalist movement as such, i.e. one that believes that England is a sovereign nation that is entitled to determine for itself how it should be governed, whether as an independent state or as part of a continuing United Kingdom of some sort. On its website, the EDL talks just as much about defending Britain, the United Kingdom and ‘our country’ (the usual term for avoiding being explicit about whether you are referring to England or Britain) as it talks about England. If anything, the EDL appeals to what you could call the British nationalism of English patriots: that traditional English pride in Great Britain that sees no fundamental contradiction or difference between Britain and England, and sees defending the English way of life and the sovereign British state as one and the same thing.

It’s a mark perhaps of the extent to which all things England have been marginalised and repudiated by the liberal British establishment that this English pride in Great Britain now expresses itself primarily in terms of English-national symbols as opposed to British ones, even as the traditional ambiguities regarding the distinction between England and Britain persist: the British symbols have become so tainted with both racism of the BNP variety and the anglophobic bias of the British government that the only way that non-racist English pride in Britain can be asserted is through the symbols of England that traditionally were not viewed as contrary to an inclusive British patriotism.

And let’s not forget the catalyst that sparked the creation of the EDL: the insults that were directed at British troops returning from Iraq by a handful of Muslim hotheads in Luton, in March 2009. The said troops are of course part of the British Army, sent out to that Muslim country for the alleged purpose of defending Britain and British interests, not England as such. The EDL are in a sense, and perhaps even see themselves, rather like a latter-day Home Guard, set up to defend the ‘home front’ (England) in support of our boys on the eastern front in Iraq and Afghanistan. And let’s not forget that the theme tune for the TV sitcom Dads’ Army proclaimed, ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler, If you think old England‘s done!’, even as the arrows representing the retreating western front on the map of Britain and France displayed the Union Flag: the defence of Britain and the defence of England seen as one and the same thing.

The difference now is that the enemy is not Nazi Germany but ‘Islamism’, which, despite its radically different philosophical basis and political agenda, is viewed by its opponents in a similar light to Nazism. Note the pejorative impact of adding an ‘ism’ to the end of a word: Nazism, Islamism, racism, nationalism indeed; the word ‘Nazi’ itself being a shortened form for ‘national socialism’ – the effect of the ‘ism’ being to imply the existence of doctrinaire extremism, thereby foreclosing a more open and enquiring discussion about the phenomena at issue, whether Islam or nationalism.

Indeed, it’s in their opposition to ‘Islamism’ that the EDL and the British government find common cause: the avowed purpose of the EDL being to resist the influence of Islamists at home, while the mission of the British Armed Forces was often presented as that of destroying Islamist terror movements in their home base in Iraq and Afghanistan. I say ‘was’, as the rhetoric around the concept of Islamism, on the part of the British government at least, seems to have died down a bit since the demise of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. And indeed, it’s perhaps mainly in reaction to the perception that the British government’s determination to vanquish Jihadist Islam was slacking (troops returning from Iraq, with the police allowing Muslims to jeer at them; the soldiers in Afghanistan not being adequately equipped for the task; etc.) that the EDL was formed. So the EDL is not in fact primarily an English-nationalist movement at all, but an English movement for the defence of Britain whose motivations are remarkably similar to those of the British government itself during the last decade: a reaction to Islamist ‘Terror’ and the fear of Islam.

Picture and caption from the BNP website

By contrast, the overtly racist BNP rejects what it terms Britain’s illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems to me that this is partly, ironically, because the BNP does not wish to be seen to be condoning violence against Muslims, which – whatever justificatory gloss you put on it – Britain’s military adventures in those countries have undoubtedly involved. But this position on the part of the BNP also allows it to whip up hysteria against ‘the enemy within’ (Islamism) in pursuit of its racism-fuelled anti-immigration agenda: “Mass immigration has created a large pool of Muslims in Britain from which the Islamists — who have been waging war against the infidel khufars of Europe for over 1,300 years — can actively recruit. Britain’s biased foreign policy has given these Islamists, who are already not short of hatred for all things Western, a gift horse with which they can justify attacks inside Britain” (quote from the BNP website).

So to summarise the discussion so far: the EDL, which sees itself as anti-Islamist but not racist, defends Britain’s military campaigns in Muslim countries; whereas the BNP, which also sees itself as anti-Islamist and anti-immigration, and is racist whether it accepts the accusation or not, rejects the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the better to refocus attention on the ‘war’ against Islamism within Britain, which it hopes will eventually result in the mass expulsion of Asian Muslims from the UK. Neither of these movements, however, can accurately be described as English-nationalist.

The main political force that is avowedly English-nationalist, the English Democrats Party (EDP), seems at first sight to be altogether unconcerned by the supposed Islamist threat: I could not find a single reference on the party’s website to either ‘Islamism’ / ‘Islamist’ (or indeed ‘Islam’), ‘Shariah’ or ‘Muslim’. The one mention of ‘burka’ was a link to a Daily Telegraph article reporting the words of that doyen of secular-liberal, anti-religious respectability, Richard Dawkins, comparing the burka to a “full bin-liner thing” – thereby perhaps making a comical, unconscious association between ‘bin liner’ and ‘Bin Laden’. Dawkins did go on to clarify that, “as a liberal”, he did not support a ban on women wearing the burka in public – although his words were reportedly condemned as Islamophobic by a representative of the Muslim Association of Britain.

By contrast, a ban on the burka is one of the pet causes of the UK Independence Party, whose website mentions the word on no fewer than 179 occasions (according to my Yahoo! search restricted to the UKIP site). UKIP would reject the charge that its proposed ban on the burka is an expression of Islamophobia. Such justification that is brought forward for it centres around security concerns and an opposition to divisive forms of multiculturalism. However, UKIP’s advocacy of bans on face and head coverings (including the niqab, or full veil, but not, I assume, the Islamic head scarf, or hijab) is expressed in terms that link legitimate security concerns to the more irrational element of fear that is the very essence of Islamophobia: “one of the 21/7 bombers escaped wearing the burka; the hidden face can also hide a terrorist. When we talk of terrorism, we usually refer to a problem coming from within Islam. Of all the religions, Islam is the only one whose leaders do not wish their followers to integrate into our society, and Sharia, which can alas [also?] be described as gender apartheid, holds growing sway in too many parts of our country. So the burka is a symbol of separation, discrimination and fear”.

These words from the pen of UKIP’s leader Lord Pearson could easily have slipped from the mouth of BNP chief Nick Griffin, and illustrate how wariness towards Islam, or certain aspects of it, that could be seen as based on legitimate, indeed liberal, concerns around security, women’s rights and cultural integration is often also informed by more irrational motivations such as pure fear, and cultural, racial and (anti-)religious prejudice: the real threat of terrorism sliding over into the spectre of the Islamist Terror, and the burka being not so much an objective symbol of fear but the object of the viewer’s fear.

The same concerns inform but do not exhaustively explain UKIP’s anti-immigration policy: “A significant proportion of immigrants and their descendents are neither assimilating nor integrating into British society. This problem is encouraged by the official promotion of multiculturalism which threatens social cohesion”. Many ordinary conservative- and indeed liberal-minded English folk [deliberate small ‘c’ and ‘l’] would agree with this proposition. In fact, I myself would agree with it, to the extent that I believe that multiculturalism has been used to promote a new form of multi-ethnic Britishness that is opposed to the supposedly mono-ethnic culture at the heart of traditional Britishness, which I would call the English culture: multiculturalism and anglophobia united in an unholy alliance to create a new Britain in which ‘the English’ (viewed by the liberals as an ethnic term, i.e. the white English) are just one ethnic group among many, and no longer the core culture.

This is a more nuanced position on multiculturalism and the role of Islam, which argues that it is not so much the existence of a multiplicity of cultures, races and religious practices in England that is marginalising the English culture and identity in its own country, although there have to be limits on the number of people from whatever cultural background that come into England, which is arguably already overcrowded. The problem, rather, is the way that cultural diversity has become another ‘ism’ (multiculturalism): a key plank of a progressive ‘British’ political agenda that styles itself as anti-(English) nationalist by virtue of being anti the very concept of the / an English nation.

Having defended the English Democrats against the charge of Islamophobia, I have to admit, however, that the English Democrats’ policies on immigration and multiculturalism are expressed in terms remarkably similar to those of UKIP and the BNP, except the primary reference for the ‘nation’ allegedly threatened by mass immigration is England, not Britain, and there is no explicit singling out of Muslims: “Many English cities are being colonised by immigrant communities who do not want to be part of English society, who want their own language and laws and reject English ‘Western’ values. Which begs the question: why did they come here in the first place? And leads to the second question: why not go back to wherever they feel they actually belong and give us back our cities? . . . Mass immigration must be ended. We would deport illegal immigrants and all those immigrants who are extremists, terrorists and criminals. We would regain control of our immigration systems by leaving the European Union”.

There’s no explicit reference to Islam here, but it’s clear what is mainly meant by “immigrant communities who do not want to be part of English society, who want their own language and laws and reject English ‘Western’ values” and by “immigrants who are extremists, terrorists and criminals”: it’s the same suspicion and fear of the Islamist Terror – the fear of radical Islam because it symbolises the radically Other – exacerbated, in the case of English nationalists, by the genuine onslaught against English identity that has been carried out by the British establishment in tandem with the ideology of multiculturalism.

So how can we unpick this tangled web of complex cross-overs between racism, anti-Islamism / Islamophobia, opposition to mass immigration, nationalism and British-establishment liberalism (by which I mean the British political and cultural establishment, and its broad liberal consensus around fundamental values, under New Labour and now the ConDem coalition)? One way to try to make sense of it all is to set out the different positions of the movements and ideologies I’ve discussed in relation to these issues in a table, as follows:

Party / Ideology Is racist and, if so, towards which groups? Is anti-Islamist / Islamophobic? Viewpoint on mass immigration Backs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Sees itself as defending which (concept of) the nation?
EDL Strongly denies it Yes Against Yes England and Britain without distinction
BNP Yes: towards any ‘non-white-British’ groups Yes Against No Britain (with England seen as an integral but subordinate part of Britain)
UKIP Not overtly Yes Against Yes, but in a qualified way Britain / the UK
EDP Not overtly Yes, but implicitly Against Yes, but in a qualified way England
British-establishment liberalism Yes: towards the ‘white-English’ Yes, but implicitly Has encouraged it Yes Britain / the UK

All of these movements and ideologies could be described as nationalisms of one sort or another; and they’re mostly in fact variants of British nationalism, even the EDL, as I argued above. The only properly English-nationalist movement here is the EDP. And what in fact all of these nationalisms share in common is Islamophobia to varying degrees of intensity and explicitness.

Some readers will no doubt reject my characterisation of British-establishment liberalism as a form of nationalism, along with the charge that it is marked by Islamophobia. But as I’ve tried to bring out in the argument and quotations above, there is really only a sliding scale separating more liberal justifications for suspiciousness towards Islam, and for war in Muslim countries, and more irrational fears about the intentions of Muslims and the effects of (mainly Muslim) mass immigration on the culture, identity and even survival of the ‘nation’.

In addition, the British government under New Labour, and now, it seems, under the ConDems, have indeed ruthlessly pursued what can adequately be described only as a nationalist agenda to articulate, maintain and impose the idea of an integral British nation over and against the internal and external threats to its existence, both real and imagined: (English) nationalism, mass immigration and multiculturalism and the hostility towards them, Islamism, and terrorism. Furthermore, this has involved the most aggressive foreign policy that Britain has seen in decades – arguably, not since the botched Suez War – involving an apparent readiness to sanction dubiously legal pre-emptive military action against Muslim countries, supposedly in the national interest.

In all of these forms of nationalism, I’m arguing that there’s a more or less narrow scale leading from anti-Islamism via Islamophobia to racism. In the case of UKIP and the EDP, the specific racial make-up of the Muslims / Islamists that are the object of anti-immigration resentment and general suspicion is not usually referred to explicitly. We need to read the pronouncements of the BNP and, to a lesser extent, the EDL to get explicit references to what is only implied by UKIP and the EDP: these are ‘Asians’, used in a more or less restrictive sense – sometimes mainly meaning the Pakistani community, sometimes covering pretty much the whole extended Islamic community and faith seen as the expression of an alien (Asian) culture that is radically different from our European and Christian civilisation. The word ‘culture’ is, after all, so often used as a politically correct euphemism for ‘ethnicity’ or ‘race’; so that, by extension, the much despised multiculturalism also implies multi-racialism, and the immigrants who are viewed as wishing only to retain their own culture and law are Muslims of another race who are perceived as preferring to keep up a sort of apartheid separating them from the (white) English than integrate with the English community at large.

In addition, British-establishment liberalism, rather than being merely anti-Islamist and anti-Asian-racist to a greater or lesser degree, is anti-Islamist-racist and anti-English-racist: both Islamophobic and anglophobic. How does that compute? This is a case of denied and inverted racism: the English as such are the ‘acceptable’ object of liberal-establishment racism, in part because they are the projection of the anti-Muslim racism the establishment won’t admit to but which it expresses violently outside of Britain, in its wars in Muslim lands. In other words, the establishment denies the Islamophobic racism at its heart by projecting it outwards: physically outside of Britain, by taking it out on Muslim countries; and symbolically, by ascribing it to the English, thereby evincing inverted racism – the English becoming the symbol of the British establishment’s own racism, in its very heart, which it used to be proud to call ‘England’. In this way, the supposedly racist ‘English nationalists’ represent Britain’s ‘alibi’: the group it can point to in order to exonerate itself of racial crimes abroad by saying, ‘no, that’s where the racism was at the time of the alleged incident: at home in England, whereas I was just out doing my work and my duty defending Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan!’

My view that the establishment is both anti-Muslim-racist (and by implication, anti-Asian-racist) and racist towards the English is based on how I view Islamophobia and anti-Islamism. Let me clear about this: I’m not saying that some of the forces of militant Islam don’t pose a threat to the security of Western countries. The events of 9/11 and 7/7 provided ample proof of that. But where concerns about this threat cross over into frankly hysterical fears about the imminent imposition of Shariah and the Islamification of England and Britain, this is where Islamophobia (the irrational fear and loathing of Islam) is at work; and Islamophobia, in my view, always involves a racial element, which some people (e.g. the BNP) try to exploit for their own political purposes.

With regard to the Islamophobia at play within establishment liberalism, you could say of it what used to be said of anti-Catholicism: that anti-Catholicism [replace with ‘anti-Islamism’] is the anti-semitism of the liberal. Anti-Islamism is indeed in many respects the new anti-semitism: like the Jews before the war (the Second World War, that is) and in Nazi Germany, today’s Muslims are a combined racial-religious minority, some of whom insist – how dare they? – on continuing to adhere to their religious Law and in not mixing, socially and racially, with the surrounding population, call them Gentiles or kuffar.

In the liberal context, the suspicion and anxiety provoked by this racial-religious minority that appears to reject Western liberal values articulates itself in relation to typical liberal concerns around women’s rights (e.g. the burka issue), the desired goal of racial-cultural integration, and the supposedly irrational and archaic nature of the Muslim faith and religious practices. The words of Richard Dawkins, in the article referred to above where he’s reported as describing the burka as a ‘bin liner’, are perhaps instructive here: “I do feel visceral revulsion at the burka because for me it is a symbol of the oppression of women. . . . As a liberal I would hesitate to propose a blanket ban [unfortunate choice of words] on any style of dress because of the implications for individual liberty and freedom of choice”.

Picture from the Daily Telegraph article

The phrase ‘visceral revulsion’ conveys a highly emotional reaction – suggesting that Dawkins is almost sick to his gut at the sight of burka-wearing women – and responses to seeing the burka and niqab are often expressed in such emotive terms, as if an instinctive abhorrence or fear is more natural and spontaneous, and therefore not dependent on cultural (and racial) assumptions and prejudices. But these are what Dawkins then immediately adduces to justify his reaction: the burka being, for him, a symbol of the oppression of women; and no doubt, his Western liberal-secular and atheistic beliefs also make him recoil at such an apparently ‘primitive’, religiously motivated, ‘irrational’ and distasteful cultural practice, so alien to those of the ‘civilised’ West.

At least, Dawkins does have the rather English decency not to advocate banning the burka, as is urged by some of the British nationalists I’ve discussed plus their associates in far-right parties on the European continent. But not only by the far right, as legislators in both France and Belgium have voted to ban people from wearing the burka and all face coverings. And they’ve done so precisely out of the same ‘liberal’ considerations that motivate both Dawkins’ gut reaction and his reluctance to propose a burka prohibition: to eliminate a supposed means to oppress women and to oblige Muslims to integrate more with the mainstream culture.

But did the legislators in question bother to ask the women themselves whether they wore the burka out of allegedly religiously justified but ‘in fact’ cultural oppression by their North African, Turkish and Arab menfolk? Perhaps they could have tried to take those women aside and use the services of trained counsellors to try and elicit whether emotional and physical abuse was going on, in much the same manner as they would deal with presumed victims of domestic violence and rape – but not by insisting, as Jack Straw infamously did, that the women strip off their veils so the emotions written on their naked faces could be read.

According to some of the reports I’ve read, the number of women wearing the burka in France is absolutely minimal: around 200 or so. You’d think the lawmakers could find a better use of their time and of taxpayers’ resources rather than bothering themselves with such a minor social issue! Except, of course, the issue isn’t important primarily by virtue of its physical impact on actual women’s lives but as a symbolic matter: it’s a question of banning the burka as a ‘symbol’ of women’s oppression or, as Lord Pearson similarly put it, a “symbol of discrimination, separation and fear” – never mind how much real oppression, fear, and forced gender and racial apartheid are involved. Ultimately, then, laws proscribing Islamic face coverings are about symbolically and bullyingly asserting the primacy of Western values, laws and culture over the values, laws and culture of the Muslim ethnic minorities living in our midst. But the effect of such proscriptive legislation is not to achieve greater integration and acceptance of Western values on the part of the Muslim communities targeted in this way, but to drive further divisions between them and mainstream society, and in fact to ghettoise those communities still further, so they can express their culture and religious practices safely on their own territory without fear of persecution backed by the might of the law.

But, as I say, in England and Britain, we’ve stopped short of banning the burka. But that doesn’t make Britain any less Islamophobic than mainland Europe: whereas their expression of Islamophobia is to ban the hijab from schools (in France), and now ban face coverings in public buildings and transport, the British expression of it has been our military forays in Iraq and Afghanistan; and whereas some in the British establishment might lament the intolerance they see in the French and Belgian laws, politicians in those nations have vehemently criticised what they portray as Britain’s ‘brutal’, indeed unlawful, actions in those Muslim countries, in stooge-like support of our American allies.

We might say that, whereas continental Europeans have directed their anti-Islamist fears inwards, against their own Muslim populations, we’ve directed it outwards against the Muslim populations of other lands. In this sense, the actions of the French secular-liberal state could be compared with BNP policy: focusing the aggression on the enemy within rather than without. I guess the urge to commit acts of violence against Muslims, whether ‘symbolic’ or physical, in revenge for the violence we have suffered at the hands of self-styled Jihadists, has to go somewhere; so it goes where it can. And joining the US anti-Islamist / anti-‘Terror’ bandwagon was the perfect opportunity for Britain to direct this violence outwards, rather than inwards towards its own substantial Muslim minorities, which could have dangerously exacerbated racial tensions in England and would have gone against the hallowed doctrine of multiculturalism.

Ultimately, what I’m implying about the British military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they could not have been justified by the establishment if the countries in question had not been Muslim and non-European (racially and culturally), and if the establishment had not drawn on, shall we call it, the popular or populist Islamophobia at work in the nationalist movements I’ve discussed, and also in the liberal and conservative English and British population at large. It’s this Islamophobia that made the propaganda around WMD credible to so many in the run up to the Iraq War; and it’s the same Terror of Islam that has been used to argue that Britain’s presence in Afghanistan is about wiping out Islamist-terrorist infrastructure. Whereas, in fact, there were no WMD in Iraq, and Al Qaeda disappeared like a puff of smoke in Afghanistan, leaving our brave troops – for whom I have nothing but admiration – shadow-boxing against the hardline-Muslim Taliban in a sterile conflict they cannot win, and without any evidence this has helped reduce the real terrorist threat – if anything, the contrary.

But at least, sending our boys out to bash the Muslims provided an outlet for anti-Islam sentiment. However, as these military escapades have been unsuccessful at realising their declared aims (and how could they have been successful, as those aims were themselves phantasms conjured up by fear?), this has created more of a potential for the Islamophobia to seek expression domestically, through organisations such as the EDL, whose formation, as I discussed above, was in part a reaction to a frustration of the desire to see fanatical Muslims defeated abroad and the terror threat – both real and imagined – lifted.

As the example of the EDL suggests, the relationship between British-establishment Islamophobia and that of nationalist groups is to an extent organic: the military forays in Muslim lands represent in part an attempt to channel anti-Islam sentiment outside of Britain, away from its potential to generate inter-community and inter-racial violence, such as that which has indeed been seen in the past in places such as Oldham. But the very act of doing so partakes of the very same Islamophobia, which is present in a more subtle form in liberal repugnance at, and preconceptions about, Islam, including that religion’s treatment of women, which is of course also one of the retrospective justifications brought forward for Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan.

It is this channelling of anti-Muslim aggression into an overtly more reasonable and liberal outlet that enables the establishment to dissociate itself from populist Islamophobia by claiming that this domestic anti-Islamism is a characterstic of English nationalism rather than of the British nationalism that it itself represents. But, as we’ve seen, there’s only really a sliding scale between liberal Islamophobia and the more overtly racist expressions of it; and both of these are far more typically associated with the symbols and discourse of the ‘British nation’ than with those of England.

England is therefore, as I’ve said, Britain’s alibi. But ascribing racism to English nationalism also provides a convenient extra weapon in the armoury of the British establishment’s assault on any idea or expression of English nationhood – a powerful tool to fallaciously persuade the great liberal and conservative English majority that any assertion of English nationhood will inevitably stir up the mythical demons of an allegedly racist English past.

I say the liberals and conservatives (small ‘l’ and ‘c’) because the progressives don’t need convincing: they’re already sold on the myth that English nationalism is inherently tied up with the assertion of white-racial supremacy, and that only ‘Britain’ can serve as a vessel for multiculturalism and multi-racialism. And it is this hooking of the ‘Britain’ brand to the ideals of multiculturalism that creates such an imperative for the British establishment to disown the Islamophobia at the very heart of its own liberalism, given that racially underpinned prejudice towards one of the many cultures that are meant to be accommodated within the multicultural framework is apparently so radically at odds with that multiculturalism itself.

Hence, it is so convenient to point the finger of blame for racist Islamophobia on the English nationalists, and to ascribe it to those – mostly British nationalists, but also some English nationalists – who would rather have a mono-racial, mono-cultural England and Britain, rather than to English and British society at large and a more all-pervading suspiciousness towards Islam.

But is multiculturalism really a counter-racist, inclusive ideal? On the contrary, it seems to me, the so-called British model of multiculturalism is quite profoundly racist in a rather subtle way, which in turn reveals what British anglophobia and British Islamophobia have in common. This is because British multiculturalism involves the idea that the different cultures in Britain should remain different, multiple and separate; and the state and the public sector provides support for the different communities to preserve and express their distinct cultures. But it’s this that reinforces cultural and racial apartheid: each ethnic group in their separate compartments, not overlapping, intermingling and being transformed in the mutual exchange of values, customs and shared humanity. It’s the apartheid of the ethnic-racial tick box, as per the profoundly racist Census of England and Wales: ‘British-Pakistani’ and ‘White-English’ in radically separate categories because the whole population has been broken up into a thousand and one distinct racial-cultural ethnic groups, the ‘English’ being just one, and a white-only one to boot.

The deeply racist reaction of the British establishment in the face of the fracturing of (the idea of) a monolithic British nation through the combined impact of nationalisms (including, and perhaps primarily (if the truth be told), the Scottish and Welsh variety) and mass immigration has been to redefine the unity and integrity of Britain in terms of its very diversity and multiplicity, and to celebrate and reinforce that rather than truly trying to integrate it within the core culture and tradition of the realm. And that’s because the core culture and identity are those of England, not Britain as such.

The British establishment has carried on a sort of racial divide and rule: divide the population into apparently irreconcilable units, racially and culturally, the better to promulgate the idea of Britain and the authority of the British state as the only things that can hold it all together. By contrast, the only way true cultural cohesion could be fostered in England would be by celebrating England itself as the nation into which immigrants have come to make their home, and Englishness as the culture they should aspire to embrace – rather than a multicultural Britishness that exempts them and the English from coming together. For it has to be a mutual process: the English sharing of their culture in a spirit of welcome and generosity, and migrants sharing the riches of their cultures in a way that is respectful of but not subservient to the host culture – and both being transformed in the process.

This is the only way forward for English nationalists and for Muslims that seek genuine dialogue and integration within English society, without having to give up the aspects of their culture and faith they hold most dear. The ‘enemy’ for the English is not the Muslims, nor should we English allow ourselves to become enemies to the Muslims. The true enemy is the racism in all our hearts, which the British establishment would rather we directed against each other instead of transcending it to create a new England, freed from the prejudices and divisions that are Britain’s stock in trade and only hope.

Advertisements

15 September 2008

England Nation Petition: Let’s Put GB On the Spot!

Not often I do a direct plug; but here goes. I invite UK readers of this blog to sign a new petition that has appeared on the 10 Downing Street website. This reads as follows:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to state whether he recognises that England is a nation.”

The background to this is the conclusion I’ve come to – which I know is shared by many – that England presently has no official or constitutional status as a nation whatsoever: effectively, England does not exist in any meaningful legal, political or constitutional sense. So, for instance, when people complain – as I have done frequently on this blog – that GB [Gordon Brown], Westminster politicians in general and the national media always talk about England and English matters as if they were the UK and British (and that they never say England when they mean England), this actually ‘correctly’ reflects the legal position: there is no such thing as England (other than as the name for a territory); only the UK (aka ‘Britain’) and UK governance exist. Further background to my thinking on this can be found here and here.

It’s time the government is called to account on this and forced to state, one way or another, whether it views England as a nation or not (as I think is the case). If, however, the answer to the petition is ‘yes, England is a nation’, this presents the English-nationalist cause with a major boost: at last, an official acknowledgement that England is to be regarded and celebrated as a nation. Such an admission would then enable the case for popular English sovereignty (the basis on which we might actually be consulted about our constitutional future, as well as the basis for any future English parliament) to be pressed much more powerfully: ‘as England is a nation’, we could say, ‘it is her right under human-rights legislation, to which the UK government has signed up, to demand to be able to govern herself in the manner of her own choosing’.

If, however, the government says ‘no, England is not a nation’, then this could become a major focus for protest. Again, an official statement; but this time an explicit government acknowledgement that England is no more as a nation, as opposed to the term the government prefers – ‘country’ – which carries no political or constitutional weight, as it’s just a territorial jurisdiction.

The further details of the petition tie acknowledgement of England’s nation status in to that of Scotland and Wales; i.e. if England is a nation, then Scotland and Wales are to be recognised as nations, too; but if England is not a nation, neither should Scotland nor Wales be accepted as such. This means that any rejection of the petition effectively also denies nationhood to Scotland and Wales; hence, the protests against it could be greatly magnified – media in those countries will be alerted . . .. However, if the response to the petition provides any latitude to the present impression that Scotland and Wales are being allowed to reaffirm their nationhood (through devolved government etc.) while England is merely (what is left of) Britain, that, too, could help to amplify the protests in England.

I suspect the response – if we manage to get up to the requisite total of 500 signatures – will be equivocal and ambiguous. But anything less than an explicit answer to this question will be treated as a rejection of the proposition that England is a nation. But let’s watch the government try to wriggle out of this one!

However, as I’ve just said, we need those 500 signatures. So please, if you treasure the truth that England is a nation, please sign up to this, and let’s force the government to say what it regards as the answer to the English question.

5 July 2008

The Ethnic Marginalisation Of England

England, as we know, is a nation but not a state. Such a statement can imply different things, however. I was struck by this the other day when I was researching a post on the campaigns being mounted in support of Internet Top Level Domains (TLDs) for ‘sub-national’ territories such as cities (e.g. .ldn for London) or ‘regions’ with a distinct national cultural-ethnic identity (such as Catalonia, Brittany or Cornwall). Another blog I looked at in connection with this research referred to these regions as ‘stateless nations’; and Scotland (.sco) and Wales (.cym) were viewed as being in the same category. Well, I thought, if Scotland and Wales are described as ‘stateless nations’, then England (.eng) – which the blog did not refer to – must be the stateless nation par excellence, as it is larger than all of the above-mentioned ‘nations’ put together but has even less official status as a nation than either Scotland or Wales, and less political autonomy than Catalonia.

But in another way, is it appropriate to place England in the same category as Catalonia or Cornwall; or even to assert that Scotland and Wales are stateless nations in quite the same way as these other entities? There is a difference between the ‘constituent countries’ of the UK, as they’re officially known, and these ‘regions’. The difference, precisely, is that England, Scotland and Wales have always preserved official recognition as nations even within the British state; whereas, for centuries, territories such as Catalonia, Brittany or Cornwall have not enjoyed such a formal status, at least not without dispute.

In other words, Catalonia and Cornwall are ‘nations’ primarily in the cultural-ethnic sense: the people, or a significant proportion of them, in those ‘regions’ feel and believe they are a distinct nation. That nationhood is identified most closely with their distinctive languages, cultural traditions, ethnicity and common history, which can include a history of struggle to resist total assimilation into the state of which they are a part.

By contrast, England, Scotland and Wales – while being also nations in the cultural-ethnic sense I’ve just defined – are nations in a different, formal sense. Even prior to devolution, England and Wales, on the one hand, and Scotland, on the other, retained separate legal and education systems. One consequence was that they continued to be recognised as distinct national entities, even though the political system and state institutions through which they were governed were indistinct. And whereas they had the same legal and educational systems, England and Wales were also officially acknowledged as distinct nations in a political and administrative sense, and not merely as culturally-ethnically distinct ‘regional’ entities within a larger nation that encompassed them.

So England may well be a nation but not a state; but it is also a nation within a state – one that enjoyed and, to an extent, still enjoys official nation status, if not nation-statehood. We’re familiar with the history: England (which at that time subsumed Wales) was a nation-state or, in the terms of the day, a distinct, united and independent kingdom. After the Union with Scotland in 1707, England essentially retained the same apparatus of statehood and, in this sense, Great Britain represented the continuing English state. The difference, of course, was that this state was shared with, and extended to encompass, Scotland. Accordingly, the name of the state was changed to Great Britain in recognition of its territorial extent and the fact that, nominally, England and Scotland were equal partners in a shared polity; and that therefore the new state could not simply be referred to as ‘England’, which would imply that England had merely taken over Scotland. While the political reality may well have been a take-over of this sort, the choice of the name Great Britain did in fact also correspond to a truth: that England and Scotland had in fact not been integrated into a single nation through the Union but remained distinct nations in both the cultural-ethnic and legal-institutional senses described above. Great Britain, and the United Kingdom that succeeded it as a result of the Union with Ireland in 1801, was never anything more than a political union; and the nations of Britain remained as such.

What began to happen with the devolution of Scotland and Wales in 1998 was the unravelling of that political union. As so often happens, the politicians responsible got it all upside down. They thought that the changes they were introducing were merely political and would not in themselves undermine the Union, because – as they thought – the ‘common bonds’ of nationhood uniting the peoples of England, Scotland and Wales were so strong that a separation into three distinct nation states would be unthinkable to all but a fanatical nationalist minority. On the contrary, it was the political union between the three nations – the unitary institutions of the UK – that held the whole thing together: it was this union that meant that the distinct national identities and ambitions of England, Scotland and Wales were set aside because the system of governance they shared was perceived as having worked over centuries, and was basically fair, democratic and free. In other words, the political union held national(ist) ambitions in check; but once separate national political institutions were accorded to Scotland and Wales, they became the focus and instrument for expressing those distinct national identities, aspirations and political goals.

In a sense, though I disagree with the analysis, there is a simple logic behind the claim that is often made by establishment politicians that once England is granted its own parliament, this would mean the end of the United Kingdom. So long as England doesn’t jump the sinking British ship, there is a chance of keeping Scotland and Wales on board, i.e. committed to a common political undertaking and project: the British state. However, if England refocuses its politics around itself as a nation – as opposed to focusing it on Britain – then instead of three nations with unitary political institutions, you have three nations with their own national political institutions. And the ultimate logic, so the argument goes, is three separate nation states. (I disagree because it’s possible to imagine a federal system in which each nation would govern its own internal affairs but pool their sovereignty to deal with matters of common strategic, international interest.)

But the irony of such a conception of the situation is that it makes Britain re-emerge overtly as the English state that it has always been in all but name. This is because it’s England – its commitment and its willingness to put the perpetuation of the Union above its own ‘self-interest’, if necessary – that holds the whole thing together: no England, no Union. As Scotland and Wales separate themselves off both politically and emotionally from the Union (i.e. in terms of their own commitment to the Union that they were previously willing to regard as more important than ‘selfish’ national goals), what is left of the United Kingdom, as a unitary polity, is increasingly only England. This emerged in a rather telling way in the government’s Draft Legislative Programme for 2008/9, presented to Parliament in May 2008, which formed the basis for a previous post. The document gamely attempts to clarify the ‘territorial extent’ of the bills proposed. Indeed, different parts of some bills apply to a bewildering combination of the UK nations: England and Wales; England, Wales and N. Ireland; all of the UK, etc. This is of course because government responsibilities in the areas covered by the bills have been devolved in varying degrees to Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland. However, the one common denominator is that every part of every bill applies to England. In other words, England is now the only UK nation to which UK governance applies in a fully unitary fashion; the other nations having disengaged themselves to a varying extent from that unitary system. As much as to say that England is the United Kingdom; and the other nations are now only semi-united politically with England in that kingdom.

So England was a united kingdom before the 1707 Act of Union; and now it is the United Kingdom: the only truly united and unifying part of a state that the countries with which it was formerly united are increasingly walking away from. So it’s not so much a case of England deciding to turn its back on the Union and create its own new, separate English institutions; but rather that, as the other nations turn their back on the Union, the UK institutions re-emerge as what they always were at heart: those of England. Which is not to say that, if Scotland votes for independence in 2010, say, we should simply carry on with the same old political institutions and constitutional settlement that we have now in a rump-UK minus Scotland. Indeed not: this would be the opportunity for England to recast its fundamental national institutions anew and re-invent a proud, English democracy serving English needs and priorities in this challenging period of world history.

But the point is, whether a new English parliament in name as well as deed emerges as a result of Scottish secession from the Union (most likely), or through an equalisation of the present asymmetrical devolution settlement such as through a federation (unlikely but the only way to save common British institutions and statehood of any sort), this parliament will be the expression of a nation – England – that has always maintained its existence as a formal, political and juridical, nation, and not just a nation defined in cultural and ethnic terms. In fact, those who would seek to limit their definition and understanding of England and the English to such cultural and / or ethnic terms are actually contributing to the marginalisation of England within the British state and are making the possibility of English self-governance more, not less, remote. This is because, if the English are a nation only or primarily in the cultural-ethnic sense, then it can be argued that they have no special claim to be marked out from any other cultural or ethnic group within the British state by having their own parliament and institutions. England will secure recognition for itself as a nation with democratic rights only if it claims for itself the status of a formal – political and juridical – nation; and if it forces the British state to accept it as such. So, in a sense, in order to be acknowledged in the future as a nation with official status as a state or part of a state, England must be accepted as having always been such a nation – a polity, kingdom, and civic nation, in short – and that the British phase of its history was one where its civic identity was subsumed into Britain; but its national identity was unchanged.

England is indeed a nation with a culture, traditions, history and ethnic mix that is all its own, and of which it can be proud. But it is so much more than that: it’s a political and legal entity with a proud past, submerged present, and promising future. We’re England – not Catalonia or Brittany. And not Britain.

11 May 2008

The UK After Britain: Who Decides?

All of a sudden, the landscape seems to have shifted. Within the space of a month, two at most maybe, England appears to have come back into fashion. It now seems acceptable, in ‘progressive’ political commentary in the official press and on the blogosphere, to talk about what kind of England ‘we’ wish to create after the demise of the Union. It’s taken the realisation that the Conservatives will probably win outright at the next general election – a conclusion formed by many, including myself, after Labour’s disastrous local-election performance last week – to finally take on board the fact that the days of the Union are numbered and we’ll have to start talking and thinking about a separate England whether we like it or not. Welcome to the fold of sanity, one is tempted to say in greeting of the new converts!

Why is the break up of the Union so likely under Cameron? Well, it would only be hastening the inevitable, in any case. The reason, of course, is that if the Tories do win a comfortable parliamentary majority (albeit on a minority of the popular vote), this will be almost entirely on the basis of votes cast and seats won in England, while they have practically disappeared as an electoral force in Scotland and aren’t doing that much better in Wales. The prospect of living under a hated ‘English’ Conservative UK government, opposed to granting more powers to Holyrood, and perhaps reducing the influence, number and hence relevance of Scottish MPs in the UK parliament while forcing down the public-expenditure budget for Scotland, would almost certainly provide the final push and persuade a majority of the Scottish people to vote for independence – a referendum on which the SNP plans to hold in 2010. And if a referendum at that time were blocked by the other parties at Holyrood, then the next Scottish general election in 2011 would effectively be turned into a referendum in all but name.

In any case, it’s hard to see Scotland surviving in the Union till the end of a Cameron government unless the Tories come to their senses and realise that if they want to preserve any sort of Union, they’ll have to grant equal nation status and representation to each of the nations of the UK under a federal system, including England. As I’ve suggested before, maybe Cameron will do a deal with the SNP to hold a referendum after the 2012 Olympics – giving him two years to concoct a plan to save the Union.

However, rather than trying in vain to save the Union, would it not be far more sensible and show more foresight to start planning now for the future for all the countries of the UK after the end of the Union? The federal option is one such possible future. If, on the other hand, Scotland decides to go it alone, as now appears more likely, what then for England – and for Wales and Northern Ireland? Shouldn’t we start thinking and talking about the future for these countries (and also for Cornwall) – whether we stay together under new constitutional arrangements or whether we, too, go down the road of independence? Such ‘national conversations’ in each of our countries – mirroring the national conversation the SNP government has got going in Scotland – would provide an opportunity for ordinary citizens to have an input and try to get their voice heard, offering a chance to prevent the process being run by Westminster politicians seeking to preserve their privileges and their power.

The window of opportunity to hold these conversations is the period running up to a Scottish referendum on independence. Indeed, if we do not start working out what sort of future we want as nations after the Union, we could end up having that future dictated to us by the outcome of the Scottish vote. There’s a strong argument for saying that the people of Scotland alone do not have the right, at least morally, to determine the future of a union that involves many more people than just the Scots. (Last week, the Scottish Labour Party may already have conceded the constitutional principle that Holyrood has the ‘sovereign right’ to call such a referendum on its own initiative, as Anthony Barnett observed.) We’ve already seen the destructive effects of letting the Scots and Welsh vote on devolution without giving the people of England a say on whether they wanted the same constitutional arrangements for England; so we should not wander carelessly into a repeat of the same sort of mistake, but this time one with potentially even more drastic consequences.

In a comment on the OurKingdom blog last week, I argued that it would be illogical to extend a referendum on Scotland’s independence to all the citizens of the UK, in that only the Scottish people could be said to have a moral or constitutional right to vote on their nation’s status. The only way to give the other nations a say on the matter of independence at the same time as the Scottish vote would be ask the same question of voters in those countries; i.e. to ask the English whether they want an independent England, and the same for Wales and Northern Ireland (and possibly Cornwall).

In other words, a Scottish referendum on independence is asking voters there to answer essentially two questions rolled into one: 1) do you want the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as presently constituted to come to an end? 2) do you want this end to come in the form of independence for Scotland? If Scottish voters are entitled to determine whether the UK breaks up, then it should be self-evident that people in the other nations of the UK are entitled to the same choice. That’s the first of the two questions. In relation to the second, it’s unworkable and inequitable to ask the Scots if they want independence while asking the rest of the UK if they want something else, such as a federal UK, or a re-design of the devolution settlement creating English and Welsh parliaments, for instance. We should be asked the same question, and be given the same choice, as it relates to each nation in turn. And if the Scots voted for independence, this could simply invalidate referendums in England and Wales asking a different question, as the whole constitutional set up would have be re-evaluated and renegotiated as part of Scotland’s secession.

So if an independence referendum in Scotland now appears inevitable – whether it comes in 2010, 2011, 2012 or whenever – the people should demand equivalent referendums in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (and maybe also Cornwall). It’s not just up to the Scots to strike the final nail into the Union coffin; and if they get the option of voting for independence, so should the other nations of the UK.

And in the meantime – in the two to four years running up to a likely Scottish vote – it’s time for the people of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall to take charge of their future by starting to really reflect and debate what they want that future to be: a federal UK whose constitutional framework and institutional structures could be the same whether Scotland were included or not? Independence for each country? A new state of England and Wales, with devolved parliaments for Wales and Cornwall, and Northern Ireland becoming part of a united Ireland with strong guarantees for the rights of the Protestant community? A separate England with the ‘Celtic’ nations of the British Isles joined together into a new confederation?

It’s time to get those ‘national conversations’ going in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall. The future is ours, and the people – not the politicians – should decide.

Subsequent to this post, I’ve started a new blogsite intended to kick off just such a national conversation for England.

3 May 2008

Cameron will win: it’s a generation game

I’ve been privately participating in the fever of speculation there’s been over the past few days – particularly since Labour’s local election debacle on Thursday – as to whether the tide of political fortunes has now turned back in the Tories’ favour, meaning they’ll win the next general election. Initially, I was sceptical about David Cameron’s prospects, as the Tories’ resurgence seems to be dependent more on people rejecting New Labour and Gordon Brown [GB] than on support for the Conservatives’ programme – whatever that might turn out to be. However, after the local election results, which saw Labour drop to third position on share of the votes behind the Liberal Democrats, and a consistent nationwide swing towards the Tories, I feel that, maybe, Cameron could just pull it off at the general election, which will take place probably in 2010.

Thinking about it further, there’s another reason why I think Cameron will win. This is my theory of generational evolution of society, or, putting it more simply, the way social changes are influenced by successive generations. I’m sure professional sociologists have developed a more scientific version of this idea, presumably with a technical name to boot; so I’m pretty sure this is not an ‘original’ theory, if such a thing exists in any absolute sense. However, if it is, I hereby dub it the ‘political generation game theory’, on the analogy of the amateur contestants of the immortal Bruce’s show who had to imitate the dazzling skills of professionals of one sort or another.

What the idea is, in essence, is that particular periods of a nation’s history – often defined or named in relation to the dominant political personality associated with it – have a character that is determined to a large extent as a function of the periods that immediately preceded them and the period before that. More precisely, each period is a reaction to the one before, which draws its inspiration in large part from the period before that. And it does this because the people who are most influential in shaping the character of any given age – the political, business and media opinion formers and decision makers – spent their most formative years (say, between the ages of about 10 and 19) in the period preceding the period in relation to which they are defining themselves.

An example: ‘the Blair years’ and New Labour were clearly in part a reaction to / against ‘Thatcherism’ and the period of ruthless market economics that is denoted by that term. And it was a reaction that represented in part a reprise of the social-democratic Labour that had been in power for much of the 1960s and 1970s, which was precisely the period in which the leaders in society during the Blair years spent their formative years. With the difference that the New Labour period was also a continuation of Thatcherism, which had in a sense laid the economic and political foundations for Blair’s social-democratic ‘redistributive capitalism’ to actually work – whereas the economic stagnation and political / union antagonisms of the 1970s had thwarted Labour’s ambitions to create a successful, prosperous welfare state. So what we got under Blair was a new blend of social democracy and market economics: social-market economics; equality of opportunity mutating into ‘equality of market opportunity’: the goal of government being to free up people to participate more fully in, and reap the rewards from, the market society (society as a market).

Similarly, you could say that Thatcherism itself was a reaction against the whole political and social model of the Wilson and Callaghan years: initially, the idealistic 1960s, with the vision of a socially and morally freer and more equal world, underpinned by economic prosperity and technological developments that enabled people to have a bloody good time, and enjoy hitherto only dreamt-of material and physical pleasures; later, collapsing into the cynicism and recriminations of the 1970s as the downward economic cycle and spiralling inflation caused industries to collapse, and engendered strife in the workplace, on the football terraces and in the inner cities as people sought scapegoats for the fact that living the good life was increasingly unrealistic.

The Thatcherite reaction to all that was indeed a reinstatement of the Tory values from the 1950s, when many of the leaders of the 1980s were in their ‘tens’ (aged 10 to 19): the individual standing on their own two feet and creating prosperity through their own hard work and enterprise – rather than just expecting a good standard of living to be handed to them effortlessly on a plate by their employer or the state. And yet, Thatcherism also carried forward much of the ethos and attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s: the anti-union and anti-industrial-working-class antagonisms on the part of the Thatcher government were in a sense the continuation of the 1970s industrial unrest, with the difference that Thatcher took on and saw off the unions, whereas Callaghan tried to instil reason in them through comradely beer and sandwiches at No. 10. Similarly, the materialistic individualism and hedonism of the ‘I’ve-got-money’ 1980s was a continuation, in the selfish-capitalist Thatcherite mode, of the increasingly cynical, materialistic direction that originally idealistic 1960s explorations of self-fulfilment and sexual freedom had followed in the 1970s.

So what of David Cameron, then? Are we about to enter into the ‘Cameronite’ reaction against Blairism and its feeble successor / continuation that is GB; just as the ineffectual Major saw out the dying phase of the Thatcherite period, and Callaghan stood watch over the waning of the initially optimistic Wilson Labour years – all prime ministers that took over mid-term from leaders that had really set the political tone for a whole period, but whose increasing unpopularity was a sign, perhaps, that one period was on its way out and the new epoch was about to begin?

If so, then a putative Cameron era, following my theory, should be both a continuation of some aspects of the preceding period (the Blair / Brown epoch), and a harking back to and blend of some aspects of the period before that, during which the leaders of the new age were growing up – which, in the case of Cameron’s relatively youthful team, was mainly the Thatcher years. Incidentally, the fact that it is now being said that people are no longer ‘scared’ of the Tories, for all Cameron’s charm, probably owes more to the fact that the people in the worlds of politics, business and the media who are, as it were, ‘of the same age’ as Cameron (or younger, as are many in his team) and are preparing his coronation grew up under Thatcher and would have regarded her attitudes and politics as normal, not as a grim assault on so much that my generation (growing up in the 1970s: the latter end of the ‘Blair generation’) held dear.

But we’ve already had the Thatcher ‘revival’: that was Tony Blair – Thatcherism with a socially caring face. And that’s part of the problem faced by David Cameron’s Conservatives (the ‘New Tories’ in all but name): they want to be ‘Conservatism with a caring face’ but Blair has already done that. So perhaps they’ll just have to reverse the paradigm and become ‘a caring society with a Thatcherite face’, perhaps?

The difference between these two terms can perhaps best be illustrated by the ambiguity of the ‘tag line’ – as the marketing bods might put it – for Cameron’s party philosophy: ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’. ‘Modern’ and ‘compassionate’: here are two words that could have been plucked straight from Blair’s vocabulary; and they sit comfortably – naturally almost – alongside ‘Conservatism’. Indeed, Conservatism has always been associated with the idea of compassion (of the wealthy) for the poor, and with social, philanthropic responsibility towards them. So this conveys the idea of classic, one-nation Conservatism (the Conservatism before Thatcher) – which in one sense was the space in the political spectrum that Blairism inhabited – but modernised in keeping with the challenges of today.

On the other hand, if you just insert a comma into the phrase, as follows – ‘modern, compassionate Conservatism’ – it changes the whole meaning. Syntactically, ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’ suggests a ‘compassionate Conservatism – single concept: one-nation conservatism – that is modern’. ‘Modern, compassionate Conservatism’, on the other hand, implies a ‘modern Conservatism, one of whose distinguishing features is that it is also compassionate’; in contradistinction to a previous form of Conservatism – Thatcherism – that is perceived as having lacked compassion. But by implication, this could suggest that the modern, compassionate Conservatism is also an updated, more compassionate version of Thatcherism itself. So this tag line is appealing to all three strands: modern, ‘Blairite’ care and compassion for the poor and disadvantaged in society (in keeping with the traditions of one-nation Conservatism) that also draws on all that was ‘good’ about Thatcherite Conservatism – its effectiveness, leadership qualities, appeal to English-British people’s distrust of state interference and ‘nannying’, and their wish to provide the best for themselves and their families, using their own skills and hard work, whether in material comforts, housing, health or education.

This in essence is the appeal of Cameron. On the one hand, he’s Blair Plus: embodying all that’s ‘good’ about Blair (the concern to alleviate society’s ills), but if anything pushed even further. Instead of Blair’s reform agenda, which in essence was economic reform (instilling market principles into the public services), we have a social reform policy. Instead of merely tinkering with the benefits system, attempting to provide more efficient public services and carrying out a bit of inner-city regeneration, Cameron’s Conservatives have set out their stall as a party that’s really trying to get to the bottom of what has caused the collapse of stable, responsible society in so many of our cities, and have so far come up with a rather traditional Conservative answer: that it’s about the break-down of the two-parent family, the absence of father figures, and the lack of discipline at school and in the home. And what is seen as being absent in such social contexts are the very values that Cameron is trying, in more neo-Thatcherite mode, to invoke as being at the heart of his political programme: individual and collective responsibility for making things better, rather than relying on central targets and the nanny state to deliver the improvements.

The initial outline of the vision that we were given at the Tory party conference last autumn suggested that one of the forms this new affirmation of the Thatcherite principles of personal moral responsibility for improving the things that matter to you in life could take was that of ‘local privatisation’: rolling back the frontiers of government and public-sector ownership and control not just at a national level but at the local level where people are users – ‘consumers’ – of services. So, for instance, rather than the Blairite approach of setting out a single blueprint for introducing market principles into schools and hospitals, which often meant putting them directly or indirectly in the hands of major corporate enterprises, the Cameron policy could well involve local people themselves taking managerial responsibility for their schools and hospitals – whether in the form of continuing public ownership of some sort (for instance, through trusts), or by actually establishing new schools (or taking over existing ones?) as businesses in which local people could take out shares and which would genuinely have to compete for private and public funding – while service levels were guaranteed, perhaps, through some form of charter and contractual agreement with local authorities.

To some extent, the finer details of this are just speculation, as the Conservatives have yet to outline their specific policies. But it’s informed speculation based on Tory statements, and reports into things like the family and the problems of the inner cities they’ve already produced; but also based on this generational theory of mine: that the Tories have this dual motivation to carry out the social-market agenda of Tony Blair more effectively and profoundly, and to do so in a way that resurrects the best principles of the Thatcherism they grew up under. This involves the idea of empowering and motivating ordinary individuals and communities to take responsibility for improving their lives by giving them a stake and a real say in the things that are most important to them. I think that however these fundamentals of ‘Cameronism’ are translated into tangible policy, they will help the Tories to win the next election because the people who are most influential in shaping public opinion were formed under Thatcher and want to see a return to her values of self-reliance and of the public taking private ownership of, literally, their own public services.

Looking at the massive nationwide swing to the Tories in this week’s local elections, the psephologists have come out with their usual meaningless predictions about how a general election would turn out on the same shares of the vote: a Tory landslide, with a possible 150-seat majority. What if this did happen, though? Would this mean, as Anthony Barnett of the OurKingdom blog put it, that “any democratic reform agenda is now in jeopardy”? The point is, if Cameron did win a comfortable outright parliamentary majority, he could – and probably would – ignore all the widespread support and calls for constitutional and institutional reform, such as a more accountable parliament (better still an English parliament), reform of the House of Lords, PR, a genuine bill of rights that protects civil liberties, and even an English Grand Committee to discuss England-only bills (why bother if the Tories have a majority both of English and UK-wide MPs?). Cameron might be a social and economic reformer at local level, but at national political level, it would not be in the perceived interests of his government or his party to do a single thing.

Cameron is no more interested in addressing the English Question, nor even in uttering the word ‘England’, than is GB. When Cameron talks of ‘our nation’, he means ‘Britain’ not England, even if the policies that are being discussed relate to England alone. Indeed, he has gone on record, in a Telegraph interview a few months back, as saying he’s not interested in being a PM for England – even though that’s what he effectively will be in most of his domestic agenda. And there seems little difference in the Tories’ description of their ‘responsibility agenda’ below from Brown’s emphasis on Britishness and his bringing together of the formulation of citizens’ rights with prescriptions about, and enforcement of, their responsibilities: “To make the most of the new world of freedom, we need to strengthen the structures which bring stability and a sense of belonging: home, neighbourhood and nation. Our Responsibility Agenda will therefore include Green Papers on welfare reform, health, marriage and relationships, addiction and debt, responsible business, social care, cohesion, and National Citizenship Service” (my emphases).

Like I said, the Cameron era will in many respects be a continuation of the Blair / Brown period. And it seems that the efforts to articulate, formalise and impose prescriptive definitions of (British) national identity and citizenship / responsibilities will be part of the baggage that is carried forward. I suppose that that’s also part of the Conservative unionist tradition and the British-nationalist Thatcherite legacy that the Cameron era will reaffirm; so there’s a ‘natural fit’ there between Brown’s wrapping of himself in the Union Flag and the New Conservatives.

There’s no doubt that the Conservative values, and the generational swing back to them, that Cameron appeals to are also in many respects English values: self-reliance, freedom from government interference, private ownership and enterprise, social responsibility and neighbourliness, and fairness towards the ‘poorest’ in society – as the Conservatives’ website continually refers, somewhat patronisingly, to the working class. And, in this respect, if English voters are largely responsible for electing a Conservative government with a large majority next time, then they can hardly complain when that government ignores the demand for an English parliament – except, of course, that government won’t have been elected by a majority of English voters; and if none of the major parties are even vaguely talking about the possibility of an English parliament, then the English people aren’t being offered the chance of voting for one.

This raises the possibility that the best hope for representative democratic English governance, accountable to the people of England, could again come from Scotland. Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales are unlikely to swing towards Cameron’s Conservatives to the same extent as the English. This could mean an increasing polarisation between ‘Tory England’, and nationalist and Labour Scotland and Wales, potentially resulting in growing antagonism and political divergence between England and the rest of the UK. Together with pressure in England to reduce the Barnett differentials (the formula guaranteeing Scotland and Wales a higher per capita level of public expenditure than the English), this could really give the Scottish-nationalist cause a massive shot in the arm. And, who knows, there might yet be a Scottish referendum that would say ‘yes’ to independence.

Cameron’s Conservatives, by continuing Brown’s Britishness crusade, might well yet set the seal on the Union’s demise. In which case perhaps, in ten years’ time, we might all be saying, along with Bruce (the English one, that is), “didn’t they do well?”

22 April 2008

Regional governance and the English parliament

It is often assumed by opponents of an English parliament that such a body would merely replicate the centralist pattern of governance that is characteristic of the present UK regime. One of the reasons for this is a simple equation that is made between the concept of ‘nationalism’ and support for a strong, unitary and by extension centrally organised nation state.

But there are many different possible blueprints for an English parliament and self-rule; and these involve a variety of relationships between all the different layers of government, ranging from the ‘local’ to the European and international. My personal preference hitherto has been a federal UK: a UK initially of four or five (including Cornwall) ‘nations’, with parliaments that have the same level of governmental responsibility in each of their respective territories. This would eliminate the imbalance of the present devolution settlement, whereby the people of Scotland and Wales are entitled to elect parliamentary bodies to deal with areas such as education, health and planning for their own countries exclusively, while policy and laws for England in these matters are made by the UK parliament elected by all the people of the UK.

I put the word ‘nation’ into inverted commas above because the parts of a federal UK as thus described are presently not formally defined as nations; nor would it be necessary for devolved federal parliaments to be limited to nations as such. Technically, as I say, none of the UK territories that we like to know as nations are nations in law: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are officially referred to as ‘constituent parts’ or ‘constituent countries’ of the UK. So ‘national’ devolution for each of these territories need not actually be described as such, but could be referred to as a form of regional devolution – with England obviously being a significantly larger ‘UK region’ than all the others.

Clearly, however, this sort of nomenclature would not be acceptable to the majority of the people in any of the UK’s ‘constituent countries’ (nor is this something I would subscribe to), as citizens are profoundly attached to their countries and are proud to call them ‘nations’ – as unofficially as you like! I do, however, think that a variation (and rather a significant variation) of the model I’ve just described is how GB [Gordon Brown] would like to see devolution eventually pan out. I think he sees Scotland, Wales and (to an indeterminate degree) Northern Ireland both as nations – in the informal, emotional sense – and as British regions. This dual identity is in some respects no different from the double status these countries have always had as distinct ‘nations’ within a unitary British state. The only difference – in theory – about devolved governance is that certain powers were delegated to the Scots and the Welsh themselves. A transfer of power does not in itself equate to a shift in national identity.

In other words, Brown’s original concept for devolution was probably that the Scots and Welsh would be content simply to have more of a say over devolved matters while still seeing themselves as primarily British, and viewing their devolved institutions effectively as just a layer of regional governance in all but name. In the event, of course, devolution has set in train a momentum whereby many people in Scotland and Wales increasingly see their devolved bodies as national institutions, and would like to see them take more nation-type powers away from Westminster; with the endgame for many obviously being full independence.

GB’s ideal template, then, is regional devolution. I think maybe that when New Labour was planning to introduce democratically elected devolved regional government throughout England, and when GB mooted that now (in)famous concept that Britain ‘as it should be’ was a “Britain of nations and regions”, they genuinely didn’t fully realise that this would be perceived as expressing an intention to dismember England into a set of regions of equivalent size, and with equivalent political powers, to Scotland: effectively abolishing England as an entity with any constitutional or legal status as a nation within the UK. I think Brown at least just had his own blueprint in mind for what I’ve called elsewhere a unitary ‘state-nation of Britain’, with certain areas of government devolved effectively to the regions, three of which coincided with the smaller ‘nations’ of the UK, and the remaining nine of which were English regions.

I’m being generous here; but I do genuinely think Brown still thinks of ‘England’ as a nation, in the same way that he thinks of Scotland as a nation: as a cultural, emotional, personal thing for which one can have a profound affection; but which is secondary, in political terms, to the state-as-nation – England coexisting with / subsumed under Britain in the same way that Scotland exists as a nation within a nation, or a country within a country. It’s just that he neglected to explicitly associate England as such with his regional model of devolution (by, for instance, referring to the ‘regions’ as the ‘regions of England’) or even to refer to England at all as a nation – avoiding the ‘E’ word as much as he possibly can, so as not to evoke the spectre of English devolution that threatens to break up his British Banquo’s feast. (A metaphor that makes Brown a Macbeth figure – something that is perhaps both over-flattering and unjustly condemnatory; but is pleasing all the same!)

I would not have said that Brown still thinks of England as a nation had I not stumbled across the following statement from the great man following FIFA’s decision last October to drop its continental rotation policy for the Football World Cup, enabling England to bid to hold the tournament in 2018: “I am delighted that FIFA have opened the door for the World Cup to come back to England. By 2018, it will be 52 years since England hosted the World Cup. The nation which gave football to the world deserves to have the greatest tournament back on these shores”. Yes, you’re not delusional: he said England twice in three sentences and explicitly called her a ‘nation’. You could call this just consummate politics: GB playing to the English patriotic audience, whose sentiments are always to the fore when it’s a question of the ‘national game’ and the national team. But I don’t think GB would have risked making such a statement – quite the most explicit statement that England is a nation I have ever come across from him – if he didn’t at one level hold it to be true. And that’s the point: for GB, ‘England’ signifies a nation in a cultural and emotional sense only; in the same way (but without the emotion) as Scotland does. And this is a sense that is closely connected with, and evoked by, national sports events and teams. 

By the way, I don’t have empirical evidence for my assertion that this is how GB experiences his Scottish national identity: he and his minions declined to answer the question in my email to Downing Street, “Does the PM consider himself to be Scottish or British in the first instance, and why?” I sent this question (with ‘England’ replacing ‘Scotland’ where appropriate) to a number of top politicians. Interestingly, the only answer I got back was from David Cameron’s office: “David was born in England so, if you are asking whether he is Scottish, English or Welsh – he is English. However, he likes to think of himself as British”. Well, there you have it: a consummate ambiguous, non-committal politician’s answer! But actually, for me, that vindicates what I’ve always asserted about David Cameron: that he’s English in the way that really matters, which is emotional and personal identification with a place, people and culture that have moulded you; whereas ‘British’ is merely his formal, public, passport national identity – the one that emotionally-anally retentive Brown thinks should be uppermost.

But I digress. What I wanted to say is that Brown’s regional model for devolution needn’t be construed as implying a malevolent will to abolish England as such. What it would achieve, if implemented, would be to deny the possibility of an English parliament, and English national political and civic institutions in general. And that’s the nub of the problem: Brown might wish the devolved Scottish and Welsh institutions to be merely a regional layer of governance; but they’re perceived by the Scottish, Welsh and English alike as national bodies. Therefore, the mooted regionalisation of England denies England the national representation and status that appears to have been accorded to Scotland and Wales, which Brown would have wished was merely regional – and may still wish to recast as such.

This state of affairs can perhaps be illuminated by looking at what aspects of governmental ‘competence’ (areas of responsibility) could be most typically classified as national or regional (or, indeed, international and local); how these competences have been distributed under New Labour between the various layers of governance; and different models for how they could be redistributed in the context of an English parliament. This categorisation would doubtless be disputed by many; however, it’s not meant to be absolute but merely to illustrate how Scotland and Wales have been accorded ‘national’ powers that have been denied to England; and how things could be very different.

Competences typically associated with different tiers of governance

  • International (EU): co-ordination of matters affecting peaceful relations between nations / states, and where multi-lateral action is more effective than unilateral; e.g. trade, human rights, employment regulations, international environmental policy and action against climate change, product and safety standards, defence in its international dimension, market liberalisation, etc.
  • National: areas of policy and legislation primarily affecting the social and economic development and well-being of the whole nation or state; e.g. economic and fiscal policy, defence and security, justice and policing, social security and benefits system; national aspects of environmental regulation; strategic aspects of education, health, transport and planning; the ‘culture’ industries, etc.
  • Regional: co-ordination of national social, economic and environmental policies at a sub-national level, including region-specific variations in non-strategic aspects of education, health and culture (for instance, where a specific ‘regional’ language or other cultural traditions need to be taken into consideration); and also, formulation and execution of regional development plans for things such as infrastructure, housing, business and transport
  • Local: administration and delivery of the major public services as they impinge on individuals and communities, including education, health, public transport, waste collection and recycling, small-scale planning decisions, etc.

Bearing the above categories in mind, the table below illustrates the current distribution of these competences across the various tiers of UK government in the wake of the EU constitutional treaty, and devolution for Scotland and Wales; along with a series of possible re-configurations of these layers of governance in the context of a federal UK or of complete independence for each of its current constituent countries. Crosses signify the actual or potential existence of a competence in the respective area

No.

Governmental Body

International competences

National competences

Regional competences

Local competences

1

EU post-Lisbon Treaty

X

X

2

UK post-Lisbon Treaty

X

Both UK-wide and England-only

England only

3

England post-devolution

4

Scotland and Wales post-devolution

X

X

5

English regional government as rejected in North-East referendum

X

6

Unelected English regional assemblies and quangos

X

X

7

English local authorities

X

 

 

 

 

 

 

8

Federal UK parliament and government inside the EU

Optional

UK-wide only

9

National parliaments and governments within a federal UK inside the EU

X

X

10

Elected English regional assemblies and administrations within a federal UK

X

X

11

Regionally extended English local government within a federal UK

X

X

12

English county and district authorities within a federal UK

X

X

13

Independent England, Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland (and Cornwall)

Optional

X

X

14

English regions within an independent England

 

X

X

Rows 1 and 2 in the above table illustrate how some national competences as I have defined them have been transferred to the EU under the Lisbon Treaty; while the UK – in part through the government’s ‘red lines’ – has, for the time being, retained certain powers that you could view as more properly international within the context of an integrated economic market, e.g. human rights and employment regulation.

Rows 2 to 4 illustrate how the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly have acquired some but not all of the powers that I would categorise as ‘national’ (e.g. justice (in the case of Scotland), strategic aspects of education and planning, culture, etc.), as well as others that are ‘regional’. Meanwhile, those same areas of governance for England are handled by the UK parliament and government, and there is absolutely no layer of exclusive England-wide governance.

Lines 6 and 7 show how the unelected regional bodies that have been introduced without a democratic mandate have also encroached on the powers of elected local authorities in England.

Lines 8 to 14 are intended to show a wide range of possibilities for international, national, regional and local governance that could all be accommodated with the existence of national parliaments and governments for each of the countries of the UK. For example, a federal UK government could decide to transfer its powers in ‘international’ matters to the EU, or not – depending on the will of the people as expressed in a referendum. Similarly, the balance of powers between the remaining UK-wide government and the governments of each of the UK nations would need to be determined. My own preference would be for quite a minimal layer of UK-wide governance limited, say, to areas where close UK-wide co-ordination would make the most sense, such as: defence and security; border and immigration control; fiscal and monetary policy (restricted to the minimum necessary required by the fact that each country would continue to use the pound as its currency); the environment; and ‘cross-border’ transport and infrastructure planning.

In reality, the level of co-operation that would be required in these areas between England, Scotland and Wales if they became fully independent nations would be virtually the same as that between the same nations within a federal UK. The principal difference would be that a federal UK / British government would maintain a distinct legal personality and provide a single voice (and therefore might be more effective) in international affairs – acting on behalf of the nations of the UK within international bodies and strategic relationships such as the EU, the UN, NATO, and bilateral dealings with major international partners. But there would have to be a new humility on the part of this federal UK, as it would not be acting at its own behest and playing the old power games inherited from our imperial and militarily triumphant past. On the contrary, it would essentially be delegated by the separate nations of these islands to defend our interests as nations in our own right; and if Mr UK failed to act in this spirit, then his legitimacy would be seriously in question.

Similarly, there is no reason why various new forms of regional and local governance should not spring up and prosper alongside an English parliament and government, whether federal or independent. The problem that English nationalists currently have with proposals for regional governance in England isn’t necessarily based on a centralist rejection of regional government per se, but is mainly a disagreement with the model as proposed by New Labour, which completely bypasses any England-wide layer of governance. But if English regions (however defined) genuinely want to take on more areas of governmental competence – including some of those I’ve categorised as ‘national’ – then a new English government should not in theory feel undermined by that because it would not be perceived as a threat to the identity, indeed the existence, of England as a nation, or to its territorial integrity.

It could be the case that such an increasingly powerful English region might eventually wish to become a UK-federal or independent nation. However, in the foreseeable future, this seems rather unlikely, unless you count Cornwall as an ‘English region’. But Cornwall is a completely unique case, and ‘regional government’ for Cornwall within England would already be perceived by many in Cornwall as effectively national devolution – generating the same sort of momentum for ultimate separation as we currently witness in Scotland and Wales vis-a-vis the UK. In any case, perhaps as part of the establishment of a federal UK, Cornwall could acquire equal status as a UK nation to the other four countries right from the start.

English ‘regions’ could also emerge and develop organically out of existing English counties, which – unlike the regions proposed by New Labour at the start of the present decade – comprise traditional territories that people relate to and identify with. So, for instance, new regions could be formed from a number of contiguous counties joining together if they felt that this was in the best interests of the people they represent (and subject to referendum): row 11 in the above table. In this case, the new regions would acquire additional regional competences alongside their existing local ones. Eventually, when they had really established themselves as sustainable, cohesive entities, such regions could also take on some ‘national’ competences (e.g. by developing completely separate education and health systems) – but you’re looking a long way down the road to the future at that point.

In a similar way, existing counties might take on regional responsibilities (row 12 above) or (which is another way of expressing the same thing) take on additional responsibilities for formulating and delivering policy in areas such as education, healthcare and planning – something that might make sense if those counties had a large population, a distinct cultural identity and also county-specific environmental, planning or infrastructure challenges. Examples could be Cornwall again (only disputably an English ‘county’); Yorkshire (traditionally a single county, though currently split up into four, including Humberside); or Essex (with a distinct culture and infrastructure demands in the vicinity of London).

There is therefore absolutely no intrinsic reason why an English parliament should adopt the same sort of centralising mentality and control freakery as the present-day Westminster government. If anything, it would create a natural momentum towards the break up of power at the centre; and it would be rather hypocritical and hard to justify for an English parliament to block the democratic will of English people if they did want increasing powers for regional and local government.

The respective international, national, regional and local tiers of government should ideally rest naturally on the shoulders of the people thus governed: the institutions exercising the responsibilities of national governance, as I have defined them, should really also symbolise and defend the common identity and culture of the people as a nation. In this respect, the present British state has failed in its proper mission, as it can perpetuate itself only by denying the English people any such official identity and voice as a nation. Whether a federal UK government could resist the temptation to try to claw back the powers it would have ceded to the respective national UK parliaments is a matter for mere speculation. I personally increasingly feel that nothing short of virtual or actual independence for England would guarantee that it could be sufficiently free from central UK control.

As I argued above, there would be very little practical difference between a federal UK with only a thin layer of strategic UK-wide governance, and a number of separate, independent British nation states co-operating closely on matters of mutual interest for these small islands that we inhabit. In any case, England may gain such an independent status more quickly than it realises if Scotland opts to go down that route in a few years time.

Those who cherish the United Kingdom and wish to see it continuing in the long term had better soon start rolling out genuine federal-style devolution to the nations and regions of Britain, including the English nation and regions. Otherwise, Scotland’s independence will be greeted by English people as our deliverance as much as Scotland’s.

10 December 2007

Flying the Flag: Union or Nation?

Is it my imagination or are more national flags being flown on public buildings and at private homes across the four countries of the United Kingdom? I was struck by this, again, when I went down to London a couple of times last week. There were certainly more flags – mostly Union Jacks – than I’d noticed before atop flagpoles next to large hotels, or billowing out above shop entrances in the place where you’d expect to see the shop sign. I can’t speak for government buildings, as I didn’t pass any.

But the appearance of Union Jacks in commercial settings was perhaps of even greater symbolic significance. It was as if they were proclaiming, “This is London you’re in now – the capital of a great, vibrant, commercial nation: the United Kingdom”. For all the controversy that now surrounds it, the Union Jack can still carry the weight of such national pride. It’s a great symbol, really: a global icon that ranks in ‘brand recognition’ right alongside the Stars and Stripes or the Communist Red Flag. No wonder that our London-centric, power-obsessed politicians are so loathe to give it up!

Nor should they, or we, really. There is no reason why the Union Jack should not continue to serve as the visual symbol for the United Kingdom in whatever form in which that state survives. This is despite the recent suggestion of Welsh Labour MP Ian Lucas that the Red Dragon from the Welsh national flag should be incorporated in the Union Flag’s design. For non-initiates, the reasoning behind this is that the three-cross design of the flag makes reference only to England (upright red Cross of St. George on white background), Scotland (diagonal white Cross of St. Andrew on dark blue background) and Ireland (diagonal red Cross of St. Patrick on white background) – but not to Wales. If I had to choose between the two options, rather than messing up the neatness and cleverness of the Union Jack’s design by sticking a red dragon on it, I’d try to incorporate into it the Cross of St. David, Wales’s patron saint, which would be consistent with the conception behind the existing flag. This is a yellow cross on a black background. One rendition of how this might look is pictured below:

New_Union_Flag_proposal_by_Liam_Roberts

For all its politically correct and historically sensitive efforts to be inclusive, however, this ‘Inclusion Jack’ is a bit of a dog’s dinner visually, and it does rather ruin a powerful national and international emblem. I am in fact quite sympathetic to the objective of adding some explicit Welsh element to the Union Flag. As the son of a Welsh mother and English father growing up in England, I myself went through a phase of feeling indignant that the Union Jack made no overt reference to Wales. That said, the need to be inclusive in this way should be less acutely felt nowadays than then. As Wales has now acquired a substantial measure of self-government and official recognition as a distinct nation, the Red Dragon can be hoisted above official buildings across that land; whereas before, if any flag had been used, it would usually have been the Union Jack. And indeed, when I travelled to rural West Wales for the funeral of a family friend a couple of months ago, I did notice that the Welsh flag was being displayed more proudly and prominently than I’m sure was the case before.

I haven’t been to Scotland for many years, but I’m certain that in these days of devolved government, the Cross of St. Andrew must also be cropping up in all sorts of places where hitherto either the Union Flag or none would have been preferred. In England, too, as is well known, the Cross of St. George has largely superseded the Union Jack in popular affection and usage. I say that, but when I spent a couple of weeks in rural Lancashire towards the start of this year, it was the Union Flag that swung from poles in pubs or country gardens, not the Cross of St. George. Whether there’s some particularly strong unionist connection in that county, or whether this preference for the Union Jack is linked to local support for the BNP (related to ethnic tensions in Lancastrian cities such as Blackburn or Burnley), I don’t know. But generally, it is the red cross on a white background that is now viewed and used as the national flag by most English people.

By the people, that is, not the state. The irony of Ian Lucas’s intervention is that he should be pushing for more inclusion of the Welsh flag within that of the Union at the very time when the official use of the Union Flag in England is perceived by many as excluding, or precluding, the use of the Cross of St. George and, with it, the affirmation of English national identity. From this perspective, it is as if calls to add the Red Dragon on to the Union Jack – however fair in one respect – are adding insult to injury: not only can English people not expect to see ‘their’ national flag flying from public buildings, but also the Red Dragon is stuck onto the British flag as a permanent reminder of a historical injustice perpetrated by the English towards the Welsh: denial of recognition as a distinct nation, rather than as just a principality subsumed into England.

For, in fact, this historical situation is now reversed: it is England that is denied any official, constitutional status as a distinct nation within the UK; while the other three countries of the Union do now enjoy semi-separate nation status. And flying the Union Jack rather than the Cross of St. George on English public and government buildings is increasingly becoming a symbol of the denial of nationhood to the English.

How can these two not unreasonable but conflicting demands be reconciled: the Welsh wish to add some overt symbol of their country to the Union Flag; and the English desire to fly the Cross of St. George rather than the Union Flag? There is a simple solution that would obviate the need to ruin the design principles or ‘brand impact’ of the Union Jack. Separate versions of the Union Flag could be authorised for each nation in the UK that would incorporate their own national flags in miniature into the top-left corner of the flag in a similar way that the Australian and New Zealand flags or the Royal Navy Ensign insert the Union Flag. Specifically, each national flag could fill the quarter of the Union Jack demarcated by the lateral left-hand and vertical top bars of the red cross, i.e. they would go over the white surround to the red cross on that part of the flag. (This is simply because it would make the English and Northern Irish flags appear neater when inserted in this way, rather than having extra bits of white around their border deriving from the Union Flag.)

This solution would mean that the Welsh could have their Union Jack plus Red Dragon. It could be made explicit in the legislation or regulations establishing these flags that each country-specific version of the Union Flag was not exclusively for use in that country alone: that each version was a fully authorised variation on the Union Jack that could be flown in any part of the Union whenever and wherever it was felt appropriate. For example, the Welsh version could be flown by Welsh Guards regiments, even those based in England, or on ceremonies or visits involving the Prince of Wales – or wherever, really.

Similarly, the English version of the Union Jack – same flag as now but with the Cross of St. George flag inserted into the top-left corner – would enable national- and local-government and other public-sector organisations to fly both the Union Flag and the English flag at the same time. Some purists and English nationalists (among whom I count myself, by the way) might object to this compromise solution, feeling that only the Cross of St. George will do. But at least my suggestion would enable both sides of the argument to be assuaged to a limited extent: the new English version of the Union Flag would be both a fully authorised UK flag, of equivalent status to the unadulterated Union Jack, and it would prominently display the English national symbol. Better to have some recognition of England’s existence as a nation within the UK – which such a country-specific version of the Union Flag neatly symbolises – than none. If nothing else, this enables cost-conscious local authorities or hospitals, for instance, to be able to display both the UK and the English flag, if they were minded to, without having to invest in a second flag pole and incurring the extra costs of maintaining two sets of flags!

I’m assuming that the Northern Irish version of the flag would use the red upright cross, red hand and crown of the Ulster flag, rather than the Cross of St. Patrick. But that could well be somewhat controversial, to say the least, and the politicians there might have to compromise on the Flag of St. Patrick, which after all is used in the Union Jack now. I could see the thing getting rather party-political in Scotland, too, with SNP-led authorities tending to prefer to fly the Scottish flag alone, while unionist party-controlled authorities might choose the Scotland-specific version of the Union Flag.

However, that would be their affair, just as it should really be England’s choice whether to fly the Union Flag or the Cross of St. George on government buildings. But until we’re free to make that choice, having a version of the Union Jack that also includes the red cross of England seems like a satisfying and, dare I say it, sensible English compromise.

18 October 2007

Who doesn’t want a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty, and why?

OK, so I’m being politically and legally correct, and am referring to the treaty that the EU Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) today is going to attempt to reach agreement on as a reform treaty, not a constitution. My aim here is not to re-hash the debate as to whether the treaty is substantially the same or not as the EU Constitution that was rejected in referendums (technically, referenda if you know your Latin) in France and the Netherlands. This is a semantic distinction: whether or not you call the proposed treaty constitutional or not, it certainly relates to matters that are constitutional in nature, i.e. which affect the sovereignty, and legislative and executive powers, of the UK.

If the UK did have a written constitution, a referendum on the Treaty might well be mandatory, as it is in Ireland. It is only the Labour government’s so-called ‘red lines’, which (disputedly) guarantee the UK’s right to opt out of EU legislation and control in four fundamental areas, that enable the government to claim that the new treaty is not the same as the rejected Constitution and that therefore it is not to be held to its 2005 election-manifesto promise to hold a referendum on it. Clearly, the politics is paramount: if Mr Brown did refer to it as a constitutional treaty, he’d be forced to concede a referendum; therefore, because he doesn’t want a referendum, it’s ‘not a constitutional treaty’.

So why doesn’t Prime Minister Gordon Brown (or GB as I insist on calling him) want a referendum? If we can discount his alleged reason for ‘opting out’ of one – as indicated above – the main reasons appear to be as follows:

  1. He’s afraid of losing. GB has already demonstrated his aversion to losing votes by ducking out of an autumn general election when the polls started to suggest he might not win an outright majority. (See previous post.)
  2. It would turn into a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in general. The former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Menzies (Ming) Campbell, correctly identified the fact that a referendum on the Treaty would be rolled up into a more general debate about the direction in which the EU is heading and Britain’s aims in remaining, or not remaining, a member. The secret fear of the centre-left parties (Labour and the Lib Dems) is doubtless that a ‘no’ vote (a not unlikely outcome) would be seen by many as a vote to leave the EU. This would once again open up an argument that these parties would like to view as definitively settled; hence, Ming Campbell’s honesty in wanting to use a referendum to in fact settle it once and for all. Perhaps he calculated that, if the British people were confronted by the bigger choice of whether to keep the UK in the EU or to leave the EU, they would be swayed in favour of the former option and would then back the ongoing process of further integration with the EU.

David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, who is now calling for a referendum, is doubtless doing so also on the basis of a political calculation. He has clearly worked out that the government will resist these calls and that the Treaty will probably be voted through in parliament. If this happens, Cameron can claim that the Tories are the one party that has held the Labour Party to account over its manifesto pledge and called for a referendum specifically on the Treaty, and can therefore reap the dividend in terms of electoral support. If parliament were to reject the Treaty (highly unlikely, as this would require a sizeable Labour rebellion, the abstention – at the very least – of the Lib Dems, and the support of the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists: highly problematic, as we shall see), this would also provide an enormous boost to Cameron’s standing in the political media and the opinion polls.

On either outcome, Cameron is obviously calculating that the Tories will reap the benefits of popular support for a referendum. However, if they were subsequently elected into power at the next election, they might not be obliged to hold a referendum on the Treaty because, by that stage, it could already have been operating for two years, and a) the need for a referendum might no longer be perceived to be that great (if, in fact, no significant conflicts between EU decisions and the interests of the UK as interpreted by the government had arisen); and b) it could be presented as no longer practical; for instance, if it required a complicated process of re-negotiating Britain’s participation in the Treaty and its red lines. The Tories could then say that we just had to make the best of a bad job and that they would unflinchingly defend ‘British interests’ (you can hear the language already) within the previously agreed framework. And if they were pressured into holding a referendum, they could limit it to the Treaty rather than generalising it to EU membership per se. Which brings me to another benefit this whole affair has had for Cameron: it has enabled him to finally put to bed the damaging disputes between Europhiles and Eurosceptics within his party.

3) A referendum would open out a new front in the so-called English Question: the disproportionate role of Scottish and Welsh electors and political representatives in deciding matters affecting England. This is because the voters in Scotland and Wales are much more likely to support the Treaty, whereas the most probable result in England is a rejection. The additional ‘yes’ votes in Scotland and Wales (and in Northern Ireland, let’s not forget) could easily sway the result in favour of the Treaty. The main political parties – especially GB and the Labour Party – want to keep this dimension of the debate under wraps because of the huge issues that are at stake: they can’t concede that any referendum might in effect be two referenda [sorry, I’m a pedant] – one in England and one for the countries enjoying devolved government. If they conceded this fact, or if it was even aired in the media without their acknowledging it, this would make the existence of this post-devolution electoral anomaly in the House of Commons (where it is of course known as the West Lothian Question) even more glaring. And let’s not forget that in a House of Commons vote on the Treaty, it could well be the more Europhile Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs who would ensure that the Treaty is ratified. So we are once again confronted with a political debate carried out in GB Double-speak: where defence of perceived English concerns and interests cannot be acknowledged as such but can be articulated only in terms of ‘British interests’ and ‘Britain’s red lines’. Because in reality, this is only an English debate. Support for the Treaty and for greater integration with the EU is virtually a given in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and is certainly backed by the nationalist parties (see below). People in those countries aren’t nearly as bothered about the government’s red lines. People in England would like a vote on them all the same, thank you very much.

4) The government has its own domestic constitutional agenda, which it doesn’t want to be disrupted. Lest we forget, there is an ongoing UK constitutional-reform review headed up by Justice Minister Jack Straw. The government doesn’t want this to be rolled up into a broader constitutional debate by acknowledging that the EU Treaty has any constitutional implications. Given that a referendum would be bound to stir up this debate, and particularly the thorny English Question, best not admit that the Treaty is constitutional in its effects. The aim is clearly to get the discussion on the Treaty out of the way with a neat, quick parliamentary process of debate, review and whipped vote. Then the UK constitutional issues can be dealt with entirely separately. Not that any of us can or should pre-judge the proposals that Jack Straw and GB will come out with; but all the signs from what they’ve said and, more especially, not said, are that they are not going to offer any solution to the English or West Lothian Questions that is at all satisfactory to the majority of English people who take an active interest in democracy.

So much for GB’s objections to a referendum. Who else opposes it? The Scottish and Welsh nationalists, of course. At first sight, this could seem counter-intuitive in that some of the powers that could be transferred to the EU (and at least one of the government’s red lines that relate to those powers) are devolved ones: justice and home affairs (JHA) (to some extent, also, tax and benefits, as these are linked to the level set in England). The two other red lines involve retained powers: foreign affairs and security, and human rights. One might think, then, that on principle the Scottish and Welsh nationalists would back a referendum, as it would give the people of Scotland and Wales the chance to express their views on areas over which they currently have a direct democratic say (the devolved matters) as well as to make their opinions known on the retained, UK-wide matters.

This would in fact be the more principled position but is not one the nationalists have adopted. Why is this? In the short term, there could be two negative consequences for them if a referendum were held:

  1. They make a similar calculation to GB: they fear they could lose a referendum. What is more, having endorsed a referendum and then lost it primarily because of English votes, this would be a huge loss of prestige and could lead to an erosion of their support.

  2. This would involve them supporting and abiding by a UK-wide political process and democratic decision, which also affects devolved powers. This runs counter to the devolved power they have already achieved and their objective of gaining even more independence from Westminster.

In the long-term, the nationalist parties also have a strategy of supporting further integration of the UK with the EU, and further transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels, because this weakens the dependency of Scotland and Wales on UK institutions and government, and makes it more possible for Scotland and Wales to negotiate their own arrangements and status within the EU independently of Westminster. The nationalists clearly believe that this strategy is best served in the present by supporting the proposed Reform Treaty – preferably without but if necessary with the red lines – and, in exchange for their co-operation, trying to leverage the best deal possible for their countries in pursuit of their ultimate objective of full independence.

In this way, and not for the first time, the Labour government, while claiming to support legislation that is in the interests of the whole of the UK (i.e. the Treaty) and avoiding an argument that could destabilise the Union (the one between England, Scotland and Wales, that is), is in fact furthering the objectives of those who want to see the complete break up of the Union. In the first instance, this is the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. But this could also advance the cause of English nationalism (a cause to which I am sympathetic, by the way), because if England is denied a referendum on a Treaty that it might well have rejected, this will only stir up further resentment at the disproportionate influence of Scottish and Welsh politicians in pushing through the Treaty.

So now we have the unedifying spectacle of Scottish and Welsh nationalists lending their support to the detested UK government over a Treaty entered into by that government on their behalf, and which could diminish some of the devolved powers they’ve only just secured, because their support promotes their pursuit of perceived national self-interest.

Here’s what the SNP’s press release about the first IGC conference in July stated:

“Alyn Smith today welcomed the launch of the Inter-Governmental Conference on the proposed EU reform treaty. . . .

“Commenting on the launch Mr Smith said:

‘While welcoming the re-launch of this EU reform process as a way of making an EU of 27 member states work more efficiently and effectively, it is essential that those involved in the negotiations recognise that they must come forward with a text that truly reflects the aspirations and concerns of all of the EU’s peoples, including Scotland'”.

Very supportive of the UK government, I thought.

And here’s the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru’s statement of their Europe policy:

“Plaid Cymru strongly supports the creation of a more democratic European Union with a written constitution and a Charter of Fundamental Rights incorporated in the Treaty. . . .

“Plaid Cymru will:

  • Push for the right of direct appeal to the European Court, for example, as this could be highly relevant in challenging the United Kingdom’s refusal to apply the additionality principle to European funding.
  • Campaign for Wales to achieve full membership as a member-state of the EU.
  • Review the work of the Assembly’s European Committee with a view to improving its capacity to predict the effects of EU legislation and to scrutinise Assembly legislation arising from it.
  • Develop a multifunctional centre to act for Wales in Brussels. The Government of Wales Representation would be housed within this ‘embassy’, as would representatives of other relevant organisations”.

No wonder Plaid Cymru backs the (strictly non-constitutional, you understand) Treaty! And by the way, the technical-sounding ‘additionality’ principle, which appears so harmless, is the one whereby the government doesn’t use money from the EU Structural Funds spent in Wales to merely replace funding it would otherwise have taken from UK resources: that money should be additional to earmarked UK funding. So this is a sort of Barnett Formula+: the Barnett Formula being the one whereby the people of Scotland and Wales are already guaranteed a higher proportion of public expenditure per capita than the people of England. Sounds like the extra powers the European Court may get under the Treaty could come in handy, then!

What an alliance of the Great and the Not-So-Good is lined up against a referendum, then – and even those who back it (the Tories) are making a cynical calculation that there probably won’t be one! But England (yes, England, not Britain) should be allowed a referendum. It’s our democratic right. The UK parliament doesn’t adequately represent the interests of England in this matter, and a parliamentary vote in favour of the Treaty will not reflect the will of the English people. More damage to the Union can be the only consequence.

We deserve better. And who knows, England might even vote in favour of the Treaty – just as England might even have given GB the benefit of the doubt in a general election before he chickened out.

Let the Scottish and Welsh forge self-interested closer ties with the EU if they want to. But it’s also our right in England to decide our own future within Europe.

Blog at WordPress.com.