Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

18 January 2011

David Cameron on public services: Where’s England, you wally?

Reading or listening to the speeches of Britain’s great and good is a bit like a linguistic version of the Where’s Wally? books, with the word ‘England’ playing the role of Wally. Thank heavens for the word-finding function of web browsers, that’s all I can say, which can immediately pinpoint Wally’s presence or absence, as the case may be, sparing one the agony of scouring the speeches for their central protagonist, unless one masochistically wishes to read them for their own sake.

Such was the case with David Cameron’s speech yesterday on the Coalition’s plans for public services. All about England, of course, with the possible exception of occasional references to policing and prisons, which also relate to Wales – Wally’s junior partner, also hard to track down on such occasions! But where was Wally? Not there, it appeared, unless one is meant to read between the lines in a verbal equivalent of those horrendous graphic puzzles where, if you deliberately blur your focus, you’re supposed to make out the shape of a ghost or phantasm. Was the phantasm of England to be glimpsed in the ten references to ‘the [or our] country’ or the four mentions of ‘Britain’? Or was he perhaps to be apprehended in “that space in between” [and I quote] markets and the state that DC calls “society”?

No – I never could get the hang of those visual puzzles: obviously too literal-minded and verbal. And I’m afraid to have to report that Wally wasn’t there! Everything pointed towards him, and everything was about him, but if you wanted to actually see him in black and white, you’d have been disappointed, as was I (but not too much: my expectations were low to begin with). Well if there’s one thing England and its public services have in common, it’s the fact that they’ve been cut.

But does it actually matter whether Wally’s there or not? After all, if he doesn’t even feature in his eponymous book, perhaps it’s more the fault of the author, who should never have raised such false hopes in our hearts. Perhaps, if the world of Wally hadn’t been named after him in the first place, we wouldn’t feel cheated that he isn’t there but would instead have blithely admired the skill of the landscape artist and his vision of ‘the country’, which we’d have been happy to call ‘Britain’ or some such.

Come on then – let’s dim our focus. Perhaps there never was a character called Wally, after all. He’s disappeared, if he was ever there to begin with; and in his place is a profusion of people, enterprise and commerce called ‘society’. Let’s grow up and forget such childish things: we’d never have found him in all that crowd anyway!

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