Sunday, 19 November 2006

The EU is no alternative to the USA: a reminder

This from the Democracy Movement:

Auditors refuse to approve EU's accounts for 12th year running
24th October 2006

The EU Court of Auditors has today published the results of
their audit of the EU's 2005 accounts and has once again
refused to certify the accounts as legal and reliable.

For the 12th year in a row, the Court has qualified the EU's
accounts having found "weak internal controls for the
majority of EU expenditure, both within Member States and at
the Commission". The Court also reported a "high incidence
of errors in the underlying transactions" and that
"Overdeclarations and ineligible expenditure continue to go
undetected within the majority of EU expenditure areas".

Contrary to EU spin, the problems were not limited to the
areas where the EU member countries have a role in managing
funds. The report also found "deficiences in internal
control" in expenditure
on "internal policies" and "external
action" which are both multi-billion pound funds directly
managed by the EU Commission.

The Commission yesterday launched a pre-emptive attack
against both the Court of Auditors and EU member countries
in an attempt to deflect blame for this situation. Yet the
EU treaty, of which the Commission is supposed to be the
'guardian', says in Article 274 that the Commission is
responsible for implementing the EU budget. Further, Article
53 of the Financial Regulation applicable to the EU budget
confirms that the Commission has "final responsibility"
where funds are subject to "shared management".

As the Court's president Hubert Weber also confirmed in his
comments on this year's report, "it is the responsibility of
the Commission to administer the budget in a way that
reduces the risk of irregularities."

Reacting to the Court of Auditors' latest report, DM
campaign director Marc Glendening said:

"The key question for our government is just how many years
of the EU's failure to properly account for public money do
they intend to tolerate before calling a halt to the vast
sums we are sending the EU?

"According to the EU budget deal Tony Blair did last
December, this will increase to an astonishing £115 million
a week from next year - even taking account of EU grants and
subsidies we receive back.

"No benefit whatsoever can be claimed for handing over this
cash while not even the EU's auditors can reliably confirm
how public money is being spent.

"Instead of rewarding the EU's failure year after year the
government should immediately stop the cheques to the EU and
put the large sums saved to the many better uses evident in
even just recent media reports of NHS cuts and post office

Read the EU Court of Auditors press release here:

Only joking!

Sorry, this is no time to gloat...

Now he's got time on his hands, it did occur to me that Deadly Don Rumsfeld could appear as a character witness for Saddam when his appeal goes to court.

As for Bush and Blair, they have enough problems of their own in Iraq at the moment. Let them stew in their own juices. Although is it really juice they're wading around in?

Brugge: Twin towned with Hobbiton

I sent the letter below to the Tolkien Society magazine Amon Hen a couple of months back. Hopefully, it will get published in the next edition, but I thought I'd share my thoughts on Brugge for the Tolkien-head anyway.

During a holiday in Brugge (Bruges) in Flanders earlier this summer, I was struck how much it felt like a place where Professor Tolkien could have found inspiration. To begin with, the Medieval/Renaissance architecture of Brugge’s centre makes it feel like somewhere built in the distant past (the Belfry Tower in the Central Markt looks like something the Numenoreans would have built to demonstrate their presence in Middle Earth). Furthermore, the way that the locals appreciate good food and drink would be heartily appreciated by the inhabitants of The Shire .

In addition, the names of various buildings in Brugge demonstrate clearly that, at the cultural level, the people there have been affected quite profoundly by Professor Tolkien’s writings on Middle Earth. To begin with, Brugge boasts a decent music store called Bilbo ( there are also branches in Antwerp and Gent) on Kuiperstraat, which is very popular with local people and tourists alike. Then there is the Khazad-Dum bar on Sint-Jaansstraat, which is dark and noisy with good beer: a place pre-Balrog Dwarves in Moria would have felt at home. There is also a very late night weekend snackery on Kuiperstraat called Baggins, which offers sandwiches by the names of Aragorn (ham and cheese), Boromir (Italian ham) and Frodo (salami), amongst others, until six in the morning!

Two other eateries worth finding out on Kemelstraat are the Hobbit and Bistro Tolkien ( run by three sisters: Valerie (at the Hobbit), Dominique and Laurence (at Bistro Tolkien).The Hobbit specialises in ribs, which is not exactly my cup of tea (but it was always crowded when I went past: a good sign!), but I ate regularly at Bistro Tolkien, which offers lots of good stuff, such as Prawns Middle Earth, Pasta Tolkien (chicken, prawn, curry), Pasta Frodo (bolognaise with bacon) and an aperitif called Hobbitief. There are also some excellent murals on the walls depicting the fun side of Shire life. Kemelstraat also has a pub called ‘t Brugs Beertje with over 300 different Belgian beers, which would impress even the most thirsty Hobbit.

In short, I would recommend Brugge as a place to visit for any Tolkien Society members fancying a break where people appreciate the works of the good Professor!

Some punk stuff

The Clash looking dapper.

I think that without punk there would be very little decent guitar-based rock music around today. When I hear overrated prog rock rubbish like Radiohead I thank my lucky stars for people like The Sex Pistols and The Clash.

Pistols' bass guitarist Glen Matlock has just published an updated edition of his autobiography I Was A Teenage Sex Pistol (Reynolds & Hearn). I thoroughly recommend it, if only to discover that Wimbledon Common was the natural habitat of more than just the Wombles back in the mid-1970s(you'll have to read the book!).

Glen Matlock looking dapper, 1976

The Clash have a singles collection out at the moment. As I have most of their important stuff on tape and CD (hark the non-iPod wearing techno-sceptic!)I don't think I will be buying it, but don't let me stop you! There also seems to be a couple of new biographies of the late Joe Strummer/The Clash around. However, the article below is from the horse's mouth ie Clash members Paul Simonon and Mick Jones.
I just hope I can dress as well as those pair when I hit my 50s!

Paul S (L), Mick J (R).

'We were the soundtrack to a punch-up': The Clash burst on to the scene 30 years ago and, as Alexis Petridis discovers, Paul Simonon and Mick Jones are still keen to stir things up
The Guardian, Friday November 3, 2006

On the sumptuous new Clash Singles box set, there is a track recorded in 1977 and prosaically titled Interview With The Clash on the Circle Line. Nestled as it is among (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, Bankrobber, Should I Stay or Should I Go and their equally remarkable B-sides, the sound of a youthful Tony Parsons quizzing the band, over the noise of the Underground, is likely to be overlooked.

Nevertheless, if you manage to stick it out, you eventually hear something rather striking. "We don't agree on hardly anything," says guitarist Mick Jones. "Basically we 'ate each other." "I don't think enough of you to 'ate you," counters Joe Strummer. "I 'ate the fuckin' both of you," says bassist Paul Simonon. There's laughter, but there's also a definite hint of tension: this, you think, could turn nasty any moment.

Three decades after the event, Simonon agrees. "It was there from day one, there was always verbals going on, there was always competition." He breaks into a grin. He has a gap in his front teeth. "At one time, I used to watch the others on stage and think, look how high he's jumped. I'm going to jump higher than that. Right, I'll get on the drum riser and jump off that."

Sitting in a west London private member's bar 29 years on, Simonon and Jones are enormously affable company. "We soon made up after the band split," says Jones. "We were back to where we were before, close friends." But, you occasionally catch a glimpse of the tension that first fuelled, then destroyed, the Clash. They both look fantastic - rather thrillingly, in their 50s, they still look like members of the self-styled Last Gang In Town - but their characters are poles apart.

Jones is sentimental and emotional about the band and its demise. He jumps from his seat to illustrate wild moments from the band's history, imitating the producer Guy Stevens throwing chairs around during the making of London Calling, or Joe Strummer tripping up a roadie on stage, or how the band went out of their way to provoke the makers of Rude Boy, the ill-fated 1980 attempt to turn the Clash into film stars ("Did we run 'em ragged? Not 'arf!"). He mentions the cosmic significance of the fact that he got on stage and played with Strummer one last time, a couple of weeks before the latter died from a congenital heart defect in December 2002. When the conversation reaches the records the band made after he was fired in 1983, he excuses himself from the table: he makes a joke about it on his return, but there's no mistaking he's still upset. It's pretty clear Jones would have loved the band to reform to play at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York, a plan that was being mooted around the time of Strummer's death. "I wish we'd done more," he says. "I wish we'd done another record around about that time. When the Sex Pistols reformed, I know they thought about writing some new material, but nobody wanted to hear it, they just wanted the old stuff, but I think if we'd have got back together again, we'd have made a new record and it would have been where we were at now. We could have done something."

Simonon, by contrast, is more laconic and pragmatic. He has a tendency to cap Jones's eager reminiscences with a single, deadpan, softly spoken line. When Jones incredulously relates how the Clash's errant manager Bernie Rhodes refused to pay bail money when Simonon and drummer Topper Headon were arrested for shooting pigeons - "I think he thought being in Brixton nick would do you good!" - Simonon quietly responds: "Well, it did. I knew I didn't want to go there again." When asked how he feels about the Clash now, he says: "It was a memorable time that probably shaped me in my outlook today," like someone dimly recalling national service. He says he spent years working to escape the shadow of the Clash and become accepted as an oil painter: indeed, he's only recently been inspired to pick up a bass guitar again, and join Damon Albarn's latest project, The Good, the Bad and the Queen. Mention of the band reforming for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame brings on a shudder, and that most punk of put downs: "Poxy." "I wanted nothing to do with that Hall of Fame thing. What I wanted to tell Joe was that even if the Clash was to reform, the last place it needs to happen is at the Hall of Fame. First of all, it's three grand for a seat. And also, all that business thing, it's a load of shit. I didn't even want to go to the fuckin' Hall of Fame. It's nice to be given a slap on the back, but, y'know, woo-hah. I'm more interested in tomorrow really."

When the pair talk about the early days of the Clash, it's hard not to be struck by how alien they make Britain of 30 years ago seem, an arcane-sounding lost world, where the cut of your trousers could lead to physical violence: "The fact that you had straight-legged trousers was enough that people wanted to come up and give you some," remembers Simonon. Everything seems different, from the psychogeography of London - "You always knew that if you found yourself in Hammersmith, you had to be careful, because it was known teddy boy country" - to the nature of rock concerts, which in their recollection amounted to little more than a handy opportunity to stage a mass brawl. "We had concerts where the minute we started playing, the room would immediately divide into two sort of groups of louts and they'd just go crunch, bash," says Simonon. "We were just the soundtrack to a punch-up."

"We'd go to a gig in Derby and it would be Preston North End fans and Derby County fans, and it would be exactly the same thing," adds Jones. "The music would start and that was a sort of signal for them to go at it. We'd be on stage, thinking, 'What are we doing?'"

What they were doing was embarking on one of the most extraordinary musical trajectories in rock history. It's been said before, but listening to their singles, what registers most is the Clash's fearlessness and willingness to take on pretty much any musical genre. "I always looked at the Ramones," says Jones. "I really admired them, but I wished they'd do something different after a couple of albums." They mastered reggae so completely that they ended up playing in Jamaica at the Bob Marley festival alongside Peter Tosh - "We gave a good account of ourselves," says Jones - which seems remarkable given that, according to Simonon, they initially didn't want to. "We even wrote a song about it," he says, "called Dig a Hole: 'Dig a hole, bury your guitars, dig some reggae but don't play any.'"

Talk turns to 1977, the B-side of their debut single White Riot. As statements of cocky intent go, it still sounds startling, matching a musical scorched-earth policy - "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones!" - to what sounds like a call to immediate armed revolution. Jones claims the lyrics have been misinterpreted, and the song is a little more altrusistic than it seems ("the 'Sten guns in Knightsbridge' thing wasn't like we had Sten guns in Knightsbridge, it was like, we're concerned about that kind of thing, it was around the time of the Spaghetti House siege"), but yes, he concedes, it would be nice if someone wrote something as iconoclastic as that today. "They could say, no U2, Jay-Z or Beyoncé in 2007," he chuckles, then suddenly looks a bit folorn. "But it's never going to happen, is it? I don't think things mean as much now. It's been so reduced now to the sliver of the end of a boiled sweet. They've done such a job on us, no one's ever going to be able to think like that any more. But you can't wait around, you've gotta do something. But the thing is" - his voice takes on a slightly conspiratorial tone - "if you have lunch, you can't do it. You've got to do it instead of having lunch. If you say, let's have lunch, you'll talk about it and you'll never do it." He takes a slurp of his bloody mary. "We used to just do it."

A brief silence is broken by a laconic voice. "Mick," says Simonon softly, "we couldn't afford lunch."

PS Things to say down the pub when the conversation reaches a hiatus: "Oasis went downhill when they started to think they were the new Beatles rather than the new Pistols..."

Saturday, 18 November 2006

New Readers Start Here

Yours' truly at this very moment as you read this...

Need to stop a minute. Moving up to Beta Blogger is something I'm still getting used to. I've been on the Mark 1 Blogger for almost two years, but I kept getting asked whether I wanted to move up to Beta, so I thought why not. Anyone who ends up first time around on NoelNatter will get linked through to the new improved Anglonoelnatter.

There are various bits and pieces which make this Mark 2 version of my blog a bit better, as far as I can see. As well as the Dilbert cartoon towards the top (which demonstrates what a techno-sceptic I am) there are various links to blogs and websites I like visiting and are well worth gawping at. I hope to add some more in the not too distant future. They're right down the bottom of the page if you can't see them.

Also I'm finding it takes next to no time to save posts and I seem to have few problems with posting pictures. With Mark 1 I had some real problems sometimes with posting pictures ie I was being told they had been saved and there was nothing on screen. BTW the problem where there was a gap between the top of the blog and the most recent post has disappeared, even before I went onto Mark 2. Touch wood these technical problems will remain in the distant past.

On blogging in general: I did fall out of love with it in the last couple of months. I read on another blog somewhere a few weeks ago that if a hobby like blogging becomes a chore it is time to give up on the hobby. It wasn't quite as bad as that for me, but I realise that I can't compete with the hardcore of political bloggers, who seem to be able to blog about anything under the sun at a few moments notice. Perhaps WW3 will start on my doorstep in the next few days and I can give a blow by blow account of it every two minutes I can become a "star" blogger and even a media personality (spot the oxymoron), but I doubt it. I will blog when I can and when I feel like it. I just hope that what I post is interesting and makes people think and/or laugh. If you don't like it, go elsewhere for your kicks or, even better, start your own blog.

On the subject of interest, I hope to do a lot more non-political posts. I don't think a lot of my stuff is partisan party political anyway. Political posts I put up tend not be concerned with what the MSM (Mainstream Media, to use a blogging term) think of as "political" issues. Nonetheless, a lot of my posts can get a bit heavy. I hope to post a bit more about books, films, music, living in London, famous women I fancy etc etc etc from now on.

ie Fashion Guide, Number 1: How to look incredibly good but also incredibly bad for the beach at the same time (it's my avatar- have I spelt that right?- courtesy of Yahoo, apparently).

Banks Are For Your Money- Not For Drinking With

Are you sick of corporations trying to come across as some sort of charitable service to the community? (I know most corporations would like to have charitable tax status ie pay no tax, but that's another matter entirely.) The piece below is for you.

The banks are coming over all chummy. It's nauseating
Charlie Brooker, The Guardian, Monday November 6, 2006

So the other day I'm using an ATM, and while I'm tapping IN my PIN number, trying to perform an obfuscating contemporary dance with my fingers so it looks like I'm typing different numbers to the ones I'm actually using, my eyes momentarily alight on the top of the cashpoint and I notice it isn't a cashpoint at all. Not officially, anyway.

It's been renamed The Hole in the Wall. Right there on the machine itself. Barclays has taken the unofficial, slang name for the ATM, and legitimised it. It is co-opting the language of the people. It is trying to pretend it is "one of us". It can piss off.

It gets worse. Next to the door, there's a sign reading "Through these doors walk the nicest people in the world" - which strikes you as monumentally nauseating, until you realise it's a little gag: beneath, in smaller lettering, it says something along the lines of " . . . as voted by their mums". Tee hee, Barclays! Tee hee!

When I get home, I do a bit of Googling and discover this japery has been going on for a while; I just hadn't noticed until now. Apparently, it's all part of a re-branding exercise.

Barclays felt it was perceived as being too stuffy, too formal, so it decided to replace traditional banking jargon with chummy, colloquial language. The ATM became The Hole in the Wall the customer service desk has a sign saying Can I Help? over it, and the Bureau de Change has been rechristened Travel Money.

Why leave it at that? If you're hell-bent on making your bank look and sound like a simpleton, a desk labelled Travel Money is still a bit too formal. Why not call it Oooh! Look at the Funny Foreign Banknotes! instead? And accompany it with a doodle of a French onion-seller riding a bike, with a little black beret on his head and a baguette up his arse and a speech bubble saying, "Zut Alors! Here is where you gettez les Francs!"

Actually, why still call yourself a bank at all? "Bank" sounds boring. Call yourself "Barclays Money Circus" instead.

Don't know about you, but I feel like vomiting myself inside out whenever big businesses try to cute themselves up this way - all lower case brand names and twee little jokes and overuse of the words "you" and "my" and "we" and "us" as though we're a bunch of cuddly-wuddly pals and hey, we're all in this crazy world together, so let's have some fun with it, right guys?

It's the modern equivalent of someone who uses multiple exclamation marks to denote how ZANY!!!!! they are. It's desperate. Anyway, one solution is to come up with new colloquial terminology they can't co-opt. Sod The Hole in the Wall. They've absorbed that one. Let's start calling ATMs Coinshitters instead. See how long it takes Barclays to start using that. My guess is quite a while.

Frankly, Wetherspoons has the best idea- turn banks into pubs...

More stuff not good enough for the New Statesman

Go to your local library, magazine/bookstore or visit the NS website and say that the piece below is worse than a lot of the stuff published in the current "New Statesman"...

The Break-Up of Britain Revisited.

Next year will see the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of perhaps the most important study of “the national question” in British politics; Tom Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism. This Autumn is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the Second Edition, which contained a Postscript called “Into Political Emergency.” (all page references are from the 1981 Verso Second Edition).

When the first edition of the book was published, the Break-Up of the United Kingdom seemed a plausible scenario in the near future. The Scottish National Party had up to 36% support in the opinion polls, bolstered by the existence of North Sea oil off the Scottish coast. Although by the Second Edition’s appearance in 1981 the SNP’s support had collapsed after the failure of the 1979 Referendum on devolution to reach the required threshold of the Scottish electorate to vote “Yes”, it seemed that events were vindicating Nairn’s gloomy prognosis for the UK. It was a country suffering the worst economic depression since the 1930s, three million unemployed, inner-city riots, de facto civil war in Ulster, a Labour Party with a programme epater le bourgeois and an unpopular, dogmatic Prime Minister. Seeing the unprecedented popularity of the newly-formed Social Democratic Party in the face of the “extremist” alternatives offered by the Conservative and Labour Parties at the time, Nairn argued that the post-Thatcher regime would be a de facto “National Government” centred around the SDP, its Liberal allies and those remaining in the two main parties hankering after “sensible” economic policies.

Nairn argued that a post-Thatcher ”National Government” regime would offer a programme which would offer stability- “a better yesterday”- while rejecting any attempt at “reindustrialising” Britain through using its North Sea oil revenues or forcing the City of London to invest in the domestic economy. Instead it would see foreign investment as the way to bring life back to Britain’s deindustrialised areas. At the level of foreign policy, the new regime would continue to be pro-EEC (as the European Union then was) and pro-US in its foreign policy, in contrast to the anti-nuclear, anti-Common Market postures of most of the Labour Party in the early 1980s. However, to show that it was offering a fresh beginning, in contrast to previous post-1945 “new starts” Nairn believed that the new order would offer constitutional reform, particularly political devolution and decentralisation: a “Revolution-From-Upon-High” that would appease all while simultaneously strengthening central power (pp.399-401).

Writing in the original edition of Break-Up Nairn said, “England needs another war” (p.274) to rally the populace in the face of relative national decline. Less than six months after Nairn wrote his “Postscript”, Argentina’s military junta gave “England” the war it needed. Victory combined with economic recovery helped to ensure Margaret Thatcher stayed in office until 1990, the SDP never took office and Nairn’s vision of a “National Government” offering constitutional reform to protect the status quo from “something worse” (whether it be “Celtic Nationalism”, Labour Left “Bennery” or an anti-EEC, anti-US populist of “the Right”, such as Enoch Powell) was forgotten. The Break-Up seemed to have been postponed, if not cancelled altogether.

However, although it came to office in a socio-economic and political climate much changed from that in which Nairn wrote, New Labour can be seen as offering most people the de facto “National Government” Nairn thought the SDP would offer in the early 1980s. New Labour took office in 1997 offering both (fundamental) stability and (superficial) change. To use Marxian terminology, Blair’s government offered no major change to Britain’s economic base, but it did offer major changes to its social, constitutional and cultural superstructure (anyone owning up to remembering the toe-curling awfulness of “Rebranding Britain” and “Cool Britannia”?).

State-led reindustrialisation (as opposed to bribing overseas corporations to set up branches in Britain’s ex-industrial heartlands) was dismissed as “old thinking”, while the City of London was left very much alone by the new regime. It hardly goes without saying that the Blair government continued to pursue what Nairn described contemptuously as Britain’s “good boy” function in the Atlantic Alliance. As for the European Union, there is no chance the current regime will ever withdraw, however much it may grumble about the effects of particular EU policies.

Of course, the main “innovations” of the Blair Government have come in the sphere of constitutional reform. There has been devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales. Many would see Government policy towards Northern Ireland since 1997 (if not before under Major) as fulfilling Nairn’s 1981 prediction that “it might even be contrived to get rid of Ulster.” (p.402) There has been a limited reform of the Lords (which by virtually eliminating the hereditary element without replacing it with a democratic one, has actually increased the power of the executive) while a referendum on Proportional Representation for General Elections is still theoretically possible. As Nairn predicted in 1981, however, these various moves towards changing Britain’s constitutional set-up have been very “Revolution-From-Upon-High”.

Are the spectres of a “Break-Up of Britain” and a “Political Emergency” that Nairn spotted over quarter of a century ago still to be feared? Well, there appears to be more pro-independence sentiment in Scotland than in the 1970s, although the Scottish Parliament so far has satiated most pangs for separation amongst Scots (and the only political “Break-Up” in Scotland at the moment seems to centre upon the unfortunate Scottish Socialist Party.) The same goes for Wales with its Assembly, while Northern Ireland appears more semi-detached from the rest of the United Kingdom than ever.

The biggest change seems to have come in England, where there seems to be increasing support for an English Parliament. The post-1997 constitutional arrangements are widely perceived as being unfair to the English compared to the rest of the UK (particularly Scotland). Perhaps “The English Enigma”, as Nairn called his chapter on England (pp.291-305), is about to stop puzzling curious observers. However, as Nairn wrote in his 1981 “Postscript”, “The revolution is longer, more precarious and more circuitous in operation than we could understand.” (p.393)

Friday, 17 November 2006

Dilbert on Net debating

More stuff will appear in the next few days (tomorrow night to be exact, all other things being equal) but I found the above Dilbert strips sum up most so-called "debate" on the Internet perfectly.

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.