Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

10 October 2011

Don’t treat England differently! The Health and Social Care Bill, and the denial of England

It’s a fitting irony that we’re relying on the unelected second chamber of the Union parliament – the House of Lords – to radically revise or throw out the government’s [English] Health and Social Care Bill this week. England has no democratically elected parliament of its own, so it’s up to a non-democratic part of the Union parliament to reject an English bill for which there is no democratic mandate.

In this sense, the Bill neatly symbolises England’s invidious constitutional position. England is ‘treated differently’ from the UK’s other nations, both politically (by not having a national parliament or assembly to stand up for its people and its rights), and – as a consequence of its disempowerment – medically, because the government can get away with a health-care bill that English people have not voted for.

It’s this basic connection between the political limbo status of England and the Union government’s radical privatisation of health-care delivery in England that the UK Uncut group that blocked Westminster Bridge yesterday afternoon simply don’t, or won’t, get. In my previous post, I discussed my futile efforts to get UK Uncut to acknowledge the England-specific nature of the Health and Social Care Bill, and to refer to ‘England’ in their campaign material; so I won’t go over that ground in detail again. But ‘Don’t treat England differently!’ would have been an excellent slogan for the demonstrators to use yesterday, as it sums up the link between the political and health-care discrimination against England.

Another good slogan would have been: ‘Don’t let the British government RIP off the English NHS!’ In fact, I suggested some England-focused slogans to UK Uncut on Twitter but, unsurprisingly, got no response: not a dicky bird. In fact, I got no response of any sort – not even offensive – to my countless tweets and email pointing out their ignoring / ignorance of the England-specific dimension of the Bill and the fact that this considerably lessens the political impact of their campaign.

But perhaps ‘Don’t treat England differently!’ does in fact sum up another aspect of UK Uncut’s position that blunts their effectiveness, so to speak: they resolutely refuse to treat England differently from the UK / Britain in media and communications terms. In other words, like the Union establishment itself, UK Uncut resolutely refuses to separate English matters out from UK matters, and to differentiate between England and Britain. But if you don’t treat England differently, in this sense, you affirm the legitimacy of the British state and parliament to legislate for England in the way it does: with scant regard for public and professional opinion about the health service, and absolutely no regard for the / an English nation as such whose health service it might actually be.

So by refusing to ‘treat England differently’ from the UK, UK Uncut validates the right of the Union parliament to ride rough-shod over genuine democracy for England and the English public interest. And what a respectable, restrained, middle-class and, indeed, establishment protest it was in the end! Merely 3,000-maximum protesters blocking the bridge in front of Parliament for three hours on a Sunday afternoon, when the potential to cause any serious disruption to the life of the capital city was virtually at its lowest! Almost a Sunday afternoon walk in the park. In fact, it feels more like an act of homage and prostration before the all-powerful British parliament. Indeed, the protesters did prostrate themselves at the start of the demo, by lying down and acting dead – symbolically conceding defeat before they’d even started.

To be honest, although I don’t in any way endorse their methods, I feel the English rioters in August made more of a point politically, and a more powerful comment on the state of English society, than did UK Uncut yesterday. I’m not suggesting the Undivided-Unionites (UK Uncutters) should have rioted, but they could have done something more dramatic and forceful, even if not actually violent. How about setting up a tent hospital on Parliament Green, like the protest tent community in Madrid, and making the point that this is what basic English health care would be like if the Union government got its way? But UK Uncut clearly wanted to minimise the risk of confrontation with the police, and of other less peaceful-minded groups getting involved and causing damage. After all, they didn’t want to be associated in the public’s mind with those squalid rioters from the English underclass, now did they? The UK may be uncut (not divided by devolution) in their aspirations, but they certainly don’t feel they have anything in common with those common people from the sink estates –whom, incidentally, the NHS is there to serve.

But just as yesterday’s UK Uncut protest is today’s fish and chip paper, even the English riots have now been forgotten, and the chasm between the British governing class and the English underclass, and working class, has been papered over – for a time. But one thing’s for sure: the UK Uncutters share more in common with that governing class than with the common people of England. The riots were a manifestation of the fact that England does not have a political voice: that the British political class is interested only in the British economy, and in pursuing their own ideological agenda and business interests, not in those who get left behind. And UK Uncut, which speaks only in the name of the UK, not England, stands solidly – or should that be limply? – among those who deny England that voice.

English parliament

9 June 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 September 2008

In case you hadn’t heard, Mr Brown; Fife’s in Scotland

Gordon Brown (or GB, as I like to call him) puts me in mind of that old Anglo-American music-hall routine: “I say tomato [tom-ah-to] and you say tomato [tom-eight-o]”, and so on. Except, in his case, it’s “I say Britain and you say England”. He’s referring to the same thing but could almost be talking a different language. And while we’re on the subject of language, mention of the English language accounted for two out of GB’s four uses of the words ‘England’ or ‘English’ in his 6,700 word-long speech to the Labour Party conference yesterday; compared with 38 of ‘Britain’ or ‘British’, 29 of ‘country’ (as in the phrases ‘our country’, ‘the country’ or ‘this country’), and only one each of ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Northern Ireland’ (sorry, guys; also, none for Cornwall – just to be inclusive).

I say the English language, but Gordon described it as “one of Britain’s great assets”, the list of which was as follows: “our stability, our openness, our scientific genius, our creative industries, and yes our English language”. Yes, Gordon, it is the English language – no need to be embarrassed to call it by its name. But it isn’t the property of Britain: it isn’t ‘our (i.e. Britain’s) English language’ or even the ‘British language’, although I somehow suspect you’d prefer it to be known as such. The English language is something that shows how the contribution to world culture of what is sometimes called ‘Anglo-Saxon’ civilisation – in a non-ethnic sense – is far greater than that of Britain alone: a language formed over centuries from a blend of Germanic, Norman-French and classical influences that has spread worldwide (initially, through the power of the English-British Empire) to become the means through which so many different nations and peoples express themselves and their stories in their own words – in ‘their English language’ – and find a voice that resonates with ours.

But GB has to go and bring the stature of this great world language down to the level of his own little Britain, as the second reference to English reads as follows: “the other side of welcoming newcomers who can help Britain is being tough about excluding those adults who won’t and can’t. That’s why we have introduced the Australian-style points-based system, the citizenship test, the English language test and we will introduce a migrant charge for public services”. So the English language here is just another hoop through which migrants have to jump to prove they are worthy of becoming British citizens, along with the much-derided citizenship test and a mean-spirited poll tax-like charge pending the elevation to British taxpayer status. OK; it shouldn’t and can’t be an automatic right for just anyone to become a British citizen without knowing anything about ‘the country’ they’ll be living in or speaking the language (which should possibly also include Welsh in parts of Wales). But these ‘Brownie points’, as we’ll call them, that migrants have to earn are clearly indeed the ‘other side’ of the openness and the globally orientated Britain that the PM extols in other parts of the speech.

Indeed, there’s always another side to Gordon Brown: welcoming migrants to Britain who are prepared (and only those who are prepared) to contribute to the country’s economy and society in specified ways thought to be in the national interest, at the same time as making contradictory and unfulfillable commitments to ensure that “British firms and British workers can reap the rewards of a world economy set to double in size”. Going on about ‘fairness’ to all at the same time as making it clear that this fairness is qualified – it has to be earned by playing by the rules and being prepared to contribute to society in highly prescribed ways: “Our aim is a something for something, nothing for nothing Britain. A Britain of fair chances for all, and fair rules applied to all. So our policy is that everyone who can work, must work. That’s why James Purnell has introduced reforms so that apart from genuine cases of illness, the dole is only for those looking for work or actively preparing for it. That’s only fair to the people pulling their weight [my emphases]”. Fair do’s: we can’t have people scrounging off the dole; but everyone who can work must work? What is this: Stalinist Russia? So there’s now a social (and legal?) obligation for everyone to work, is there? So what, is the British state going to create artificial jobs, as they used to in the Soviet Union, to ensure that every citizen has a job that they are compelled to do, even in an economic downturn? Including, presumably, the mothers of those two-year-olds for whom the British state is now going to make free nursery places available so that they’ll have to work rather than staying at home during their children’s earliest years? And doubtless, this also includes those ‘British workers’ who’ll have to jolly well work to be worthy of the name, even if there are no jobs worthy of the name ‘British worker’ for them to do: a crap, unsuitable and unskilled job paying the New Labour minimum wage that Brown is so proud of is, after all, better than no job – except, of course, for the successful hoop-jumping new migrants filling quotas of more skilled positions for which ‘British’ people, let down by the state education system, are inadequately trained.

Or should that be ‘English’ people and the English education system? Because the unspoken ‘other side’ of Brown’s fairer Britain is unfairness to England. Most of the ways in which Brown promises to deliver greater fairness to ‘Britain’ in fact relate to policy areas where Brown’s government’s competence applies to England only. But of course, he doesn’t ‘say England’ because that would involve acknowledging that the English people have had a bloody raw deal under New Labour and the devolution ‘settlement’ (another word Brown nauseatingly peddles in the speech) that is another of the ‘achievements’ of New Labour GB boasts about. So, for instance, as part of “our commitment to a fair NHS in a fair society. . . . over the next few years the NHS generates cash savings in its drugs budget we will plough savings back into abolishing charges for all patients with long-term conditions. That’s the fairness patients want and the fairness every Labour party member will go out and fight for”. Sorry, do I understand this double-speak correctly? Point one: this applies to the NHS in England only, as the NHS in the other UK nations is the responsibility of their devolved governments. So, the NHS in England will be making cash savings in its drugs budget: what, by not licensing the kind of live-saving and life-prolonging drugs for chronic conditions such as cancer and Alzheimers that are funded by the public purse in Scotland? So, by saving money in these areas, the government will finally be able to abolish prescription charges in England; but only for those with long-term or chronic conditions, not for everyone, as in Scotland. So when Brown, immediately before the passage I’ve just quoted, says “I can announce today for those in our nation battling cancer from next year you will not pay prescription charges” [my emphasis]; what he’s actually saying is: ‘because in England – as opposed to Scotland – we won’t fund the more expensive but effective drug treatments for certain cancers, cancer patients will at least get free prescriptions for more standard, cheaper drugs’ – next year that is: let’s hope those patients survive till then! What a bloody disgrace!

And the same can be said for Brown’s ‘prescriptions’ for education and social care – in England only that is: making up, but only partially, for New Labour’s underfunding and undervaluing of English children and elderly persons compared with the investment that devolution and the Barnett Formula have made possible for them in Scotland and Wales. What of the “fairness [which] demands nothing less than excellence in every school, for every child” – in England, you understand? This boils down to two commitments: 1) ensuring that no child leaves primary school unable to read, write and count – big deal, that was probably done better in the 19th century than the disgraceful situation of today; and 2) ensuring that schools that don’t fulfil their targets for GCSE passes are closed down or brought under new management – reinforcing the obsessive New Labour targets culture and narrow focus on academic achievement, as opposed to vocational training that might actually create the skilled English workers capable of carrying out the jobs in the new British industries and services that Brown goes on about.

And what of the “fairness older people deserve”? Well, dear, that nice Mr Brown says he’s going to look after us: “The generation that rebuilt Britain from the ashes of the war deserves better and so I can tell you today that Alan Johnson and I will also bring forward new plans to help people to stay longer in their own homes and provide greater protection against the costs of care – dignity and hope for everyone in their later years”. Not free personal care, you understand, as in Scotland; just greater ‘protection against the costs of care’, whatever that means. And enabling people to at least stay in their homes for longer (which new technology will be able to make cheaper than institutionalising them), even if they may still have to release their equity in those homes to (part-)fund their own care.

Bloody h***! At least, Mr Brown’s constituents don’t get treated like that! And that really is the ‘other side’ of the picture of a ‘fairer Britain’ that Brown paints in his speech. GB certainly has fulfilled the commitment he made to the people of Fife whom “25 years ago I asked . . . to send me to parliament to serve the country I love”. Except, which country is that, Gordon? In case you hadn’t heard, Fife’s in Scotland; but almost everything you talk about relates to England. We don’t hear about all that you, as a Scottish Labour constituency MP, have done for your electorate and for Scotland. Why not? This is a) because most of the measures that exemplify your fairer Britain have already been surpassed by policies introduced by the Scottish government; b) because you can’t claim direct responsibility for those achievements, as they’ve been brought about by MSPs rather than Scottish Westminster MPs such as yourself; and c) this would show up the unfairness towards England that has been perpetrated by devolution and the Barnett Formula, whereby those English people who still won’t be getting the cancer drugs they need on the NHS nor free personal care are helping fund those provisions for all who need them north of the border.

And yet, in another way, GB can claim some credit for these ‘achievements’. After all, he did back asymmetric devolution and, as Chancellor, was in an excellent position to ensure the continuance of the Barnett Formula and protect that higher per-capita public-expenditure budget for Scotland. As is his Scottish successor in the post, Alistair Darling. So he has been a good Scottish constituency MP, after all: putting the interests of ‘his country’ first.

But he won’t tell us this country is Scotland; just as he won’t tell us that the flipside of the British coin is unfairness to England dressed up as a belated programme for a fairer Britain. Because there’s always a flipside to Gordon. He says New Labour is building a fair Britain; but we know this is at the expense of England and to the advantage of the smaller nations of the UK. He says – in the only actual reference to those four nations (sorry Cornwall, you don’t get a look in) – “stronger together as England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland we can make our United Kingdom even better”; we know he means ‘forget it, England; there’s no way you’re governing yourself like Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland because they need your money too much’. He says, at the end of his speech, “This is our country, Britain. We are building it together, together we are making it greater”; we know he’s pretending to be a democratically elected PM for a country called ‘Britain’, whereas in reality he’s the unelected First Minister for England and his real loyalties lie with his Scottish constituents. He says, “Together we are building the fair society in this place”; we know this place certainly isn’t England, and it isn’t English fair play.

He says Britain; I say England.

PS. Ed Lowther from BBC Parliament appears to have been reading this post and has taken up the charge. Nice to see someone from the BBC finally cottoning on to the deliberate and deceitful suppression of mentions of England by politicians when they’re talking about England. Perhaps the Beeb will begin to apply the same analysis to their own output, too!

And finally, another plug: sign the ‘England Nation’ petition, and get GB to call England a nation.

7 July 2008

BOGOF, Gordon Brown!

Gordon Brown has been dispensing some of his home-spun Scottish wisdom again! Apparently, according to the BBC website news report, he thinks we Britons should “stop wasting food in an effort to help combat rising living costs” and that “‘unnecessary’ purchases were contributing to price hikes, and . . . people [should] plan meals in advance and store food properly”. On BBC Radio Four this morning, they also mentioned that GB thinks supermarkets should stop running ‘buy three for the price of two’-type offers, encouraging consumers to buy more food than they need, which they end up throwing away.

OK, I know where he’s coming from. There is a serious point that people do tend to over-provision and throw away an obscene amount of food; and this does have serious consequences for the environment and global food prices, as demand from western economies is higher than it needs to be. GB’s intervention comes on the same day as a Cabinet Office report on the issue is being published; and this will look into the complex issues in some depth.

However, it’s a bit rich coming from the PM to lecture English consumers on their buying and eating habits. Thanks to his exhortations, the supermarkets will offer fewer multi-saver deals to cash-strapped families that need them! It’s one thing to buy food you don’t need; but it’s altogether another thing to take advantage of temporary price reductions and stock up with things that you know you will use. This is how many people on what used to be called the bread line get by. Of course, the New Labour government, being so remote from the concerns of working people it used to represent, has become insensitive to these realities. Oh well, I’m sure the much-vaunted mechanisms of the market will find a way round this obstacle; and if they can’t offer buy-one-get-one-free (BOGOF) deals, the supermarkets will find other ways to reduce the prices on essentials to keep the punters coming through the door.

But what I’d like to say to GB is – on the same principle as doing away with BOGOF promotions – can we do away with a system whereby English political consumers voters have no choice other than to buy one government and get another vote-free! We have one election in which we vote for both the UK government and a government for England; whereas punters in Scotland and Wales can vote once for their own devolved governments, and a second time for a British (oh yes, and an English) government. Come to think of it, that means Scottish and Welsh voters get three for the price of two; whereas, really, we in England pay double for just one!

The consequence is, we get a Scottish-elected PM whose jurisdiction on food matters is limited to England: a country he’s not elected to serve. Which entitles him, in his own eyes, to lecture us on food economy. So my response to GB is: BOGOF, Mr Brown!

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