Friday, 17 November 2006

Not good enough for the New Statesman?

A bitter and twisted individual writes: I sent the article below to the New Stateman the beginning of September then sent it again a couple of weeks later. I've heard nothing, not even a cursory "this is rubbish, go away" reply. The NS revamped itself about the same time as I offered this, and as a subscriber (although I have cancelled my direct debit sub, and I will have to go to local libraries and bookshops to read it from the start of next year) I have to say that there is hardly anything which is "do not miss". Too many boring predictable columnists spout forth on the pages. If there is one thing that the Internet should sweep away in the next few years which will be an unqualified blessing, it will be boring, uninformed columnists in mainstream newspapers and magazines. Anyway, enough spite and bile. Some of this article you may have read before, as I lifted it from my essay on "New Britishness" which I submitted to the Fabian/Guardian competition earlier in the year. However, some of it is shiny new and original! However, for some unknown reason, when I write about Englishness/Britishness and all that, the phrase "A prophet is never recognised in his own country" comes to mind...

Notes on British History, “New Britishness” and New Labour.

If Thatcherism could be caricatured as believing that “there is no such thing as society”, for most of its existence New Labour could be caricatured as professing that “there is no such thing as history”. Tony Blair’s leadership can be seen as one extended denial of Labour’s history, good as well as bad, while his Premiership can be seen as one that either trivialises or ignores British history. For Blair, suggesting in the 1990s that “Britain is a young country” and being associated with the ideas of “Cool Britannia” and “Rebranding Britain” were rhetorical means to show that he was “modernising” both Labour and Britain. It seems Blair concurred with Francis Fukuyama’s claim that with the collapse of the Berlin Wall at the end of the 1980s, the 1990s were the first decade of the “end of history”. Blair invoked “history” only when he wanted to get rid of unwanted legacies of the past (most notably the “Hand Of History” sound bite at the time of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland).

History returned with a vengeance on Tuesday September 11th 2001, and since then Blair has tried to cope with history’s rebirth by drawing upon what is still the most potent historical event in modern British political discourse: World War Two. However, someone who stated in the Autumn of 2001 that the United States was the one country that stood by Britain during the 1940-1 Blitz (insulting both our intelligences and the Commonwealth at the same time) is perhaps not the best person in Britain to cope with the rebirth of history in the Twenty First Century.

Into the breach has come Gordon Brown, who even before the bombings on July 7th 2005 (which many think was the starting point for New Labour to ponder the question of history in a serious matter) was extolling the concept of “New Britishness” (see, for example, his speech to the British Council on July 7th 2004). Why has the Chancellor being so willing to give us his thoughts on “New Britishness”? There are a number of factors that can lay claim to having an effect upon Brown’s approach to “New Britishness”: economic “globalisation”, not least the effects of economic migration to Britain; Britain’s “Special Relationship” with the USA; Britain’s place, if any, within the EU; and the place of “multiculturalism”, cultural diversity and integration in British society, particularly in the aftermath of July 7th 2005.

However, it is plausible to say that Brown’s interest in helping to promote a “New Britishness” stems principally as a concept to legitimise New Labour’s constitutional reform programme. In particular, devolution for Scotland and Wales with no corresponding devolution of power to either England as a whole or its regions leaves open the question of whether a Scottish MP representing a Scottish constituency can become a British Prime Minister. A recent ICM poll found that 55% of English respondents thought it was no longer possible. Brown’s promotion of “New Britishness” can be seen as a means of making the idea of him becoming Prime Minister after Blair (and, even more importantly, staying Prime Minister after the next General Election) more palatable to English voters, many of whom now support the creation of an English Parliament (at least 27% of respondents in a recent Ipsos MORI poll).

However, anyone who has listened to, or read, Brown’s paeans to “New Britishness”, with his emphasis on “a golden thread of liberty” in British history connecting Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution, the end of slavery and the various Reform Acts to the present Constitutional set-up, may get a certain sense of deja-vu. That is, they could well be reminded of Herbert Butterfield’s famous 1931 treatise on The Whig Interpretation of History. Butterfield criticised teleological approaches to British history that saw “Our Island Story” being a inevitable progression towards our present constitutional settlement as the apex of human political development: “a tendency…[that] emphasise[d] certain principles of progress in the past to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.”

For anybody who considers him or herself to be politically progressive, the British state is hardly the font of liberty that Gordon Brown claims in his Whig-style extolling of “New Britishness”. Without even perusing the historical record, it is clear that at the moment Britain suffers a considerable “democratic deficit”, in spite of Labour’s programme of constitutional reform since 1997. We have an unelected, hereditary head of state; a totally unelected upper house; a lower house where seats are distributed in a totally arbitrary manner, with no relation to the distribution of votes whatsoever; no constitutional mechanism exists for allowing referenda from below; no constitutional role exists for petitioning Parliament; no constitutional provision exists for recall of MPs by their constituents; and there are no constitutional safeguards to protect the existence of sub-national levels of government.

Furthermore, as John Osmond has argued, British national identity is built around supporting institutions of the state (the Crown, the Church, the Law and Parliament) rather than upon the idea of sovereignty of The People. Quite frankly, Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution (an aristocratic carve-up and a bankers’ coup respectively) are pretty feeble events to celebrate compared to what the French or Americans have to celebrate. Where is our July 4th or July 14th? Where is our Declaration of Independence or the Rights of Man, celebrating the Rights of the People? When is our Independence Day?

Attempts to define or redefine “Britishness” as a popular project will fail because the whole concept of a British national identity has been, and still is, a “top-down” political project. Westminster is simply not an institution that encourages populist democratic impulses. “Write to your MP” is not a slogan to inspire; in fact, it is one of the most demobilising phrases in politics today. We are not encouraged to march or demonstrate as The People, and hence it is not surprising that so few people, however much they are attached to the idea of democracy, can be mobilised to either defend or reform Westminster.

Gordon Brown is also adamant that, when applied to the rest of the world, “New Britishness” must mean that Britain is a force to do good in the world. However, any progressive must ask when has the British state ever done good in the world except as a by-product of its own narrow interests? Except for World War Two there seems to be little historical evidence that this is so. Britain’s empire was the legacy of colonial wars and expansion, which have never historically been the results of purely altruistic “do-gooding” by any power.

Indeed, How can “Britishness”- “New” or not- be anything but totally imbued with the reflexes of an imperial past? Our foreign policy elites still seem to think that we are a great power. Possession of nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council help to maintain that illusion. Even though the United States was instrumental in helping to dissolve the Empire and in ending Britain’s ability to operate as an independent global power in the 1956 Suez Crisis, successive British governments seem to think having a common language helps constitute a “Special Relationship” with the USA, giving us a unique place on the international “top table”. British troops getting attacked on the streets of Basra is a direct consequence of where such great power delusions have lead. Similarly, for Britain’s elites the European Union mainly seems to be another vehicle to pursue the goal of being a great power, rather than being a means to “do good” in the world.
Quite simply, there is too large a gap between the rhetoric and the reality of the British state at home and abroad for a progressive “New Britishness” to plausibly flourish for long.

Consequently, with Gordon Brown, perhaps we are hearing the last trumpets of the Whig Interpretation of History in British political life. Can the triumphalism of his odes to “New Britishness” legitimise New Labour’s constitutional reform programme? Can such high flown rhetoric stifle English grumbling about a Scottish born and based politician becoming a British Prime Minister when Scotland has a Parliament (and First Minister) of its own? (For that matter, how many Scots want a Scottish Prime Minister for Britain?). It is hard to see how “New Britishness” will stop rumblings about the West Lothian Question, the Barnett Formula or calls for “English Votes For English Laws” if Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister. Each time legislation not applicable to Scotland is passed through the Commons during the next few years with the help of Scottish Labour MPs “New Britishness” will become just as tarnished concept in British political discourse as “New Labour”.

Furthermore, is not the concept of “New Britishness” merely a way to immobilise politically progressive thinking about the “English Question”? Is it not just another ideological outrider to prevent further Constitutional reform? At the moment “New Britishness” seems to be another means to reinforce an extreme reluctance on the part of progressive opinion in England to think seriously about the future of England as a whole. This reluctance is partly justified on the grounds that it is a political arena already “contaminated” by political forces of “the Right”; the sort of mentality that stigmatises anyone who flies a Saint George’s flag as being a de facto BNP supporter. Fear of something worse than the current United Kingdom appears to be the subconscious urge driving progressive opinion towards supporting “New Britishness” rather than a new “Progressive English” identity.

It is not as if there is no historical basis for a “Progressive Englishness” to exist. Surely there is the “English Radical” tradition? Drawing upon the folk-myth of the “Norman Yoke”, when the free-born Anglo-Saxons fought to take back those rights stolen from them by the Normans after 1066 (a conquest which, Peter Rex argues in his recently published The English Resistance: The Underground War Against The Normans, has strong parallels to the Nazi occupation of France) English Radicalism has inspired thinkers and movements such as the Levellers, Tom Paine, William Cobbett, the Chartists, the mutualist and co-operative movements, William Morris, the pre-1914 syndicalists and Guild Socialists such as GDH Cole. Surely a national identity built upon the “golden thread of liberty” running through English Radicalism is more “progressive” than the “golden thread” offered by Gordon Brown?

It might sound an academic exercise for progressives to choose between supporting “New Britishness” or “English Radicalism”. However, if “New Britishness” fails in its mission, Labour will be out of office, and Scottish (if not Welsh) independence could well become an unstoppable force in a Cameron-led Britain (does anyone seriously believe that if John Major had somehow won the 1997 General Election, Scotland would still be part of the United Kingdom today?). After all, if Scots perceived that the English had rejected a Scottish Prime Minister because he is Scottish, what would that do for the Union (or “New Britishness” for that matter)?

In such circumstances, progressive thought in England would have to deal with the “English Question”, whether it liked to or not. Perhaps it might be better to start pondering it now, instead of spending too much valuable time over the next few years trying to update the Whig Interpretation Of History.

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