Monday, 21 April 2008

What England Means To Me

The Battle of Hastings, October 13th 1066: A bad day at the office for England.

It's up there in its full glory in cyberspace at What England Means To Me.

Here's what I said:

I think of myself as an old-style English Radical in my politics, somewhere on the Left. I see the English people, whatever their origins, as having struggled for centuries to reverse the effects of the “Norman Yoke”. When I was about eight, living in a Labour-voting (or, more accurately, Tory-hating) household in the West Midlands, I remember learning at school about the Roman and Viking invasions of England and how they left eventually. Then when learning about the Normans, the obvious question to me was “when did the Normans leave?” I never got a decent answer at the time. As I got older the obvious answer was “never”, but l knew from the callous destruction of much of the West Midlands’ industrial base under the Thatcher regime that we were a nation of lions led by donkeys. When I was 19 I came across the Levellers in the English Civil Wars and their idea of the “Norman Yoke” which deprived the “free-born” Anglo-Saxons of their liberties after 1066. Ever since, I have basically held onto the idea that England is still under the thrall of a much-modified “Norman Yoke”. The faces and names may change (and if your ancestors came over in 1066 I don’t hold you personally responsible for anything!) but “the Thing”, to quote William Cobbett, has persisted for centuries. Its “golden thread”, to coin a phrase, runs from the “Harrying of the North”, Magna Carta (a baron’s carve-up), the Glorious Revolution (a banker’s coup d’etat) all the way up to New Labour’s paeans to “New Britishness”.

Why does anyone on the Left have hang-ups about the idea of being English? It sure beats the idea of Britishness. For about two decades I’ve thought the whole concept of Britishness (for which my spellchecker suggests “Brutishness”) as an idea whose time has gone. The only question is how we give the United Kingdom a decent burial. However, too many on the Left hold onto the idea of Britishness, fearing Englishness. However, how on Earth can holding onto the ideology of a big business dominated imperial state, which is in its death throes, be progressive? There is simply no “Britishness”, new or otherwise, that political progressives can subscribe to and be true to their ideals. It is a concept too weighed down by the gap between its democratic, enlightened rhetoric and the sordid reality that the British state has presided over for centuries.

Instead the Left should embrace English Radicalism, which 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. It was driven underground politically by the triumph of “top-down” socialism, in both its Fabian and Leninist forms, after 1918. Now that global “top-down” models of organising society, whether by states or corporations, are under attack from decentralising, democratic tendencies, it is time for the English Left to embrace a national identity that accords with the spirit of the age.

It also means we need a national identity that draws upon one of the most abused phrases in modern politics: “Little Englander”. The original “Little Englanders” were patriotic radicals who were opposed to the Empire building that underlay Britain’s participation in the 1899-1902 Boer War. Our nation can only be at ease with itself when we abandon imperial adventures, whether our own or on behalf of the USA or EU, and realise that our real gifts to the world are our language, our culture and our sense of humour, none of which the Normans gave us! (“Taking the piss” is something that William the Conqueror, Oliver Cromwell, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair would never appreciate!). We should become a country where, to quote Orwell, we “hate to see England either humiliated or humiliating anyone else.”

Biographical note: I was born in Walsall in the Black Country two weeks before the end of 1969. My mother was also born in the Black Country. My father was born in County Sligo. He came over in 1948 at the age of six after his dad served in the British Army during WW2 (and was to again in Korea in the early 1950s). However, I think of myself as English rather than British, and have done for 30 odd years.


How Monty Python Made Me A Socialist

I would have probably become a socialist of some sort anyhow. I was brought up in a working-class Labour-voting family (my dad did join the Labour Party for a while, but found out, like Oscar Wilde had claimed, the problem with socialism was "too many meetings"). I am also left-handed, so when I was a sprog and people said Labour was on the left, I sort of automatically identified with Labour!

Then came the Python connection. When I was about 9 my parents gave me "Monty Python Live At Drury Lane" on tape as a Xmas present. It had the Communist Quiz sketch in which Karl Marx, Lenin, Chairman Mao and Che Guevara are asked questions about English football and pop music that they had next to no clue about. However, in the second part of the sketch Karl was asked questions about "workers' control of factories" to win a beautiful lounge suite (though he flunks it when asked about who won the 1949 FA Cup Final). It was there I fell for the idea of direct workers' control of their work places! After that I got out the "Great Lives" volume of a massive set of encyclopedias my mum had and looked up Karl Marx and it spoke about his support for workers' control of the economy. Being a mid-1950s mainstream sort of publication, "Great Lives" slagged Marx off, but he seemed a decent sort to me. So I have always been quite pro-Marx from quite a young age.

To Be Continued...

Sunday, 20 April 2008

London Election latest and stuff

I spent yesterday morning leafleting a housing estate up in Highgate (next to the cemetery with Karl Marx in it)for the Greens. There is a Camden Council bye-election on May 1st, the same day as the London-wide elections, and as the Greens have two out of the three councillors in the ward, they are hoping to take the third off the Tories.

I think the Greens have a reasonable chance of taking the ward. On the estate (I managed 275 or so letter boxes in 90 mins) the only political posters in windows were Green ones. I think there was someone else delivering stuff (or it could have been just someone delivering leaflets for pizza). It could well have been the Lib Dems as I saw someone delivering Lib Dem Focus leaflets on my way back to Gospel Oak train station. It was a cold, grey, damp morning so there weren't many people about but those I did say morning to were friendly, so that it is a good sign. All other things being equal, I should be able to get up Highgate again the day before the election for one more leafletting blitz.

Two Tuesdays ago I did turn up at the Friends Meeting House over in Euston for a meeting organised by NO2ID. It was about the surveillance state in London. Ken Livingstone didn't turn up (he was represented by a full-size cardboard cut-out!), but Boris Johnson, Brian Paddick, Jenny Jones (for the Greens), Lindsey German for Left Luggage (sorry, Left List) and Gerard Batten for UKIP were there. The BNP candidate for Mayor Richard "one suit" Barnbrook turned up, but as the BNP aren't represented in Westminster, the European Parliament or the GLA (yet) he wasn't invited onto the platform and was given a ticking off by security. (You might ask, why was Lindsey G allowed on the platform when Left List have no electoral representation in London? Apparently she was asked to speak when she was still Respect's Mayoral candidate...).

There was quite a consensus amongst the platform speakers: opposition to ID cards and fears about where surveillance of London and Londoners is heading. The big arguments were between Jenny Jones and Brian Paddick (over whether crime in London was going up or down) and Lindsey German and Gerard Batten (over immigration). I must say Boris Johnson was quite impressive, but the format of the meeting (I left 8.30ish as I was nodding off and I had a night of work ahead of me)aided him. Each of the 5 speakers was given 3 mins to do their spiel, then the chairwoman (apols, I didn't catch her name) read out 4 issues NO2ID wanted the speakers to address. Each of the speakers were given 3 mins (or so) to give their view. Then it was questions from the audience (you had to fill a piece of paper in- I split before that started). I have been reading that Boris Johnson has been taught to stick to the point, otherwise his minders think he'll go off topic and alienate audiences. So three mins to reel his spiel off was ideal for him, and to his credit he is genuinely anti-ID cards, so he was reasonably impressive.

I still think I'll force myself to vote for Ken as my 2nd choice for Mayor, but I have no enthusiasm for him at all. Having said that, a few Conservative contacts of mine are not too keen on Boris either. I suppose it will all depend on where the Lib Dem votes go after Brian Paddick is eliminated. At the hustings he was very pro- civil liberties and vehemently anti-racist. However, I have been reading that he is quite pro-City of London and has accused Ken of wanting to make London "a socialist republic" (do me a favour!).

Anyway, before I started dropping off into the land of nod, I wrote down a few facts and figures mentioned in the meeting:

Later this year non-European Economic Area foreign nationals (that is, anyone who desn't come from the EU, Iceland, Norway or Lietchenstein)in the UK will be compelled to register for an ID card and be fingerprinted in the process. I can't see this going down well with people from outside the EEA living in London, including all those non-doms...

Those who have ID cards will have to give the authorities information about 50 categories (not just 50 items) of personal information. These can be added to via Government regulation (ie sod Parliamentary scrutiny).

In London there are around 10,000 CCTV cameras on the roads and 8,000 on the Tube. I feel safer already... There are 4.2m CCTV cameras in the UK as a whole.

There are 700,000 DNA samples on the Metropolitan Police database, with around 90,000 new samples being added to every year. I feel safer than ever...

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Sort of update...

Hat-tip : A Very Public Sociologist

Really I should be typing lots. Lots in my mind's eye (as per usual) but I have a strong "manana" tendency in my outlook, which means I put off a lot of stuff I could really do now. I'm not proud of this. I wish I could flush this annoying habit of mine down the toilet of history.

My article on "what England means to me" has got bogged down with two other possible pieces. One on socialism and another on "radicalism, conservatism and populism" (working title). All three pieces wander into the other two. However, with April 23rd coming up (St. George's Day and Shakespeare's birthday) I have a deadline in my head for getting this stuff down on paper (or up on hyper-text). This is my final night of freedom out of 10 before a week back at work. So it'll be a week's time when I start grappling and slaying my article demons.

In the meantime I will leave you with a quote I quite like...

"The mere fact that communism didn't work doesn't mean that capitalism does. In many parts of the globe it's a wrecking, terrible force, displacing people, ruining lifstyles, traditions, ecologies and stable systems with the same ruthlessness as communism."- John Le Carre, Times Higher Educational Supplement, 20/6/97, p.11.