The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

January 15th, 2006

England is waking up to the patriot game

Last week was another Big Concept week for new Labour. First we had the prime minister touting respect, yet again, in his exciting recycled Respect Action Plan, and then we had Gordon Brown, not to be outdone, touting Britishness in an exciting new policy agenda, yet again. None of us particularly objects to respect or to Britishness, but it is slightly irritating to have Blair and Brown trying so hard to flog them to us, rather as if they were trying to sell us our own grandmothers. And one does wonder why.

After Blair’s efforts earlier in the week to persuade us that the all-purpose panacea for social breakdown is respect, and that delinquents and problem families should start showing a bit of respect, or else, Brown made a grandiloquent speech to the Fabian Society, arguing that the only way forward in this competitive global world is Britishness, or — in a word — patriotism. We need, he said, “a clear view of what being British means and how you define national identity for the modern world”.

So he called, in his dour way, for a “British Day” on which the country can unite to celebrate its uniquely British values, which are apparently liberty, tolerance, inclusion and fair play. He demanded that the Union Jack should be reclaimed from the far right and, ideally, flown in every garden just as Americans fly the Stars and Stripes, to show how united and British we all are.

How I laughed when I read his speech and heard the solemn discussion of all this tendentious tosh on the radio, as if there were actually some content in it. The idea that Britishness lies in values that everyone on the planet believes in, apart from a few cannibals, is just verbiage. There is something truly comic about two grown-up, well-educated men like Tony and Gordon imagining that the public will be bamboozled by this meaningless posturing. And there is something distinctly comic about the crude statist assumption behind both men’s manipulations, as if the state could, or should, interfere in such subtle matters of feeling and attitude.

Like the feeling of respect, the feeling of Britishness is not something that can be whipped up in the great British public by meddling politicians, least of all when what they are trying to whip up is not for the good of the country, but for themselves.

In Blair’s case he feels a worrying lack of respect for himself, well corroborated in opinion polls, and so he is trying to associate himself publicly with the idea of respect, in an unsophisticated kind of adman dog-whistling. In Brown’s case, he feels a worrying excess of Scottishness, well corroborated in opinion polls, which might well stand between him and No 10, so he is trying equally crudely to make us associate him with Britishness. He is fooling around with our national sense of identity to support his own personal crisis.

Scottishness is a nail-biting problem for Brown. Generally speaking most people in England quite like the Scots, even though they seem to hate us. Surveys show we find their accents suggest intelligence and reliability. Politically speaking, however, this easy affection is disappearing fast, as Brown is well aware. Devolution in Scotland and Wales — fought for and introduced by new Labour — has much undermined our common sense of Britishness and fostered instead a new and rather irritable sense of Englishness in the South. Meanwhile Scots feel more Scottish and less British than at any time since 1707, according to some surveys, led astray, possibly, by films such as Braveheart.

More importantly the English public is at last beginning to sit up and take notice of the famous West Lothian question — the problem first identified by the then MP for West Lothian, that Scottish MPs at Westminster can vote and carry the Commons on domestic policies such as education and health that don’t affect them or their constituencies. The government has increasingly relied on the Scottish vote to push through purely English legislation, against English votes, and yet the reverse is not true; English MPs have no say over comparable Scottish affairs.

This is obviously unfair, as is the fact that more taxpayers’ money goes to Scotland, per head, for public services than in England, following the old Barnett formula. Devolution has only made this long-standing injustice feel worse.

In response, a feeling of English separatism is growing; the English hardly need Scotland and Wales and would be much freer and richer without them. It is not only those on the far right, now, who complain of the number of Scots at Westminster and their undue influence. Devolution as of now is plainly unjust. Scottish MPs are overmighty and a Scottish prime minister at Westminster, post-devolution, would find himself in a false position.

Remarkably slowly England’s voters are beginning to wake up to all this. The higher their perception of it becomes, the lower will be Brown’s chances of arriving at long last at the summit of his smouldering ambition. So he has to persuade us somehow that he is not all that Scottish at all. No, he’s British. We’re all British (though this leaves out the awkward position of the Northern Irish, who aren’t exactly British.) He might even fly the Union Jack. But these questions are not going to go away.

There are ways of resolving them, of course. Why not try genuine devolution? Why not make the Commons English and only English? Why not create a new upper chamber to deal with matters British? But there is no personal incentive for Brown to promote any of that.

Trying to promote a vacuous Britishness as a way out of this problem is unlikely to succeed. That is partly, by a rich irony, because our national sense of identity, our Britishness, has been undermined by Labour party policies, both before and after Blair — by (among other things) the traditional left-wing contempt for patriotism; by the resulting suppression of national history; by the suppression of national traditions for fear of giving offence to newcomers; by aggressive multiculturalism and by fast mass immigration.

The big ideas of Britishness and national identity are now much too fragile to serve the purposes of an ambitious socialist like Brown. There is some justice in that.