Must Our Modern Liberty Be English Liberty?

I’ve been thinking and reading quite a bit recently on the subject of liberty and the national question. This was the topic of a debate at the Convention On Modern Liberty event in London at the weekend. I wasn’t there but I’ve read the interestingly divergent accounts by Gareth Young (who was speaking on behalf of the Campaign For an English Parliament) and Ros Taylor of The Guardian.

The essential question, it seems to me, is as follows: is it necessary for the present-day campaigns in defence of fundamental freedoms in England to define their struggle as a fight for English freedoms? In which case, is the effort to secure ‘modern liberty’ indissociably bound up with the struggle for English self-government?

These questions could seem quite abstract. But it’s important to ask them and seek to answer them if we want to get to the heart of what we’re actually trying to achieve; and who is the ‘we’ that is trying to achieve it. First of all, many of the supporters of the Convention On Modern Liberty would not see themselves as fighting for freedoms in England as such but for British freedoms and their protection from a British state that seems intent on eroding them piece by piece. Whether or not the freedoms in question (things like habeas corpus, trial by jury, innocence till proven guilty, etc. etc.) are seen as English or British (historically, many of them were originally English) is a matter for discussion elsewhere. The Convention is forward-looking (‘modern liberty’) and is engaged in a political struggle in the context of ‘national-UK’ governance in the present. For that reason, it would be tempting to agree that the Convention is a British cause and should not be of particular interest to English nationalists, and should certainly not concern itself with English-national issues.

But such a view presupposes that there is a unified national, political community called Britain, or the UK, whose liberty it is a question of defending; doing so in the name of its people: the British ‘nation’ or ‘people’. While liberty itself is a universal concept, its practical interpretation and implementation take the form of the fundamental laws and constitution of particular nations or states. You could say that the liberty of a free nation is expressed and protected through the particular freedoms and rights that are constitutive of that nation’s state: free nation and state perfectly mirrored in each other; the values and consent of the former articulated in the legal and constitutional principles, and the political institutions, of the latter.

Such a balance between nation and state no longer exists in Britain, if it ever truly did. The asymmetric devolution carried out by New Labour in 1999 introduced, or perhaps rather gave political expression to, a divergence between the nations of Scotland and Wales, on the one hand, and the British state; and between the national identities of Scottish and Welsh people, and their state identity as British citizens. More fundamentally still, it introduced a split at the very heart of the British identity itself between the English nation and the British state: entities which had by and large previously been viewed by most English people as indissolubly fused; the one mirroring the other in the manner of a free nation-state, as described in the previous paragraph.

What this means is that conversations about ‘British liberty’ inevitably become fractured, both as to their object (the way fundamental freedoms are or are not protected by the laws and governance of the British state) and to the ‘subject’ of liberty: the ‘British’ people whose liberty is at stake. Nowadays, when people in England engage in a discussion on liberty in Britain, they’re almost always really referring to the situation in England (or England and Wales), rather than Britain as a whole, in two ways: 1) the legal situation in Scotland is already quite different from that in England and Wales on some issues, such as CCTV surveillance, the keeping of the DNA records of innocent adults and children, and the maintenance of a national database of children, as Gareth Young points out in the article linked to above; 2) more pervasively, when English people (particularly, the liberal middle class) talk about ‘Britain’, they tend to mean ‘England’; but they may continue to say ‘Britain’ rather than ‘England’ even if they’re semi- or fully conscious that the situation and the remedies they’re discussing relate to England only – because ‘Britain’ is the way one refers to England in relation to official matters, the UK state and national governance.

This phenomenon is partly the reflection of the adage that old habits die hard (England may be the nation but Britain is and always has been the state and the ‘country’). But partly, this is also a symptom of the splitting of the old unified English-British identity, one effect of which is that – depending on which side of the debate you align yourself with – either ‘Britain’ or ‘England’ are construed as negative, irrelevant, antiquated and even unreal, while ‘England’ or ‘Britain’ respectively are seen as more positive, inclusive, authentic and modern. Witness Ros Taylor in the Guardian article linked to above attempting to deride appeals to a distinct English identity and tradition as backward-looking, petty (“‘You just have to Google “England” and look at the rubbish out there'”), racist (“Was the presence of another audience member anxious to assert that . . . 100 white women were raped by black men in the United States every day, a clue?”) and irrelevant to a serious, inclusive discussion on modern liberty: “But these [national questions] are a distraction from the convention’s main purpose: to thrash out how much power the state should have over the individual”.

Such views, while being intensely anglophobic and embodying considerable class prejudice, are also predicated on the assumption that discussions centred on the relationship between the [British] state and the [English] individual, by very virtue of their universal and UK-wide purport, do well to bypass the “red herring” of Englishness, as Taylor calls it. But it’s only in England that a debate on national governance and liberty could actually draw a virtual square bracket around the name of the nation whose people is most seriously affected by the encroachments of the state and which is being denied democratic equality with the other nations of the UK. And it’s only in England that one could pretend to have a conversation on civil liberties that could appear to have no ‘national’ character at all, even though – or rather because – it centred on Britain and the British state. The fact that Britain is a state and not really a nation allows the Britologists, as I call them, to have their cake and eat it: to build a new nation of Britain while denying that it really is a nation (because Britain isn’t a nation) but is in fact something ‘above’ mere nationhood: supra-national, multi-cultural, inclusive and universal, like liberty itself.

But this is an illusion and a lie: you can’t have liberty in practice without a political and legal (national-state) context that embodies it in laws, rights and institutions. And that context, for the Britologist (whether campaigner for modern liberty or member of the political establishment), is the UK-Britain. Listen to the way the government describes its own ambitions to conduct a ‘national conversation’ on Britishness, which was its British-sledgehammer-to-crack-an-English-nut response to a petition to set up St. George’s Day as a national holiday in England:

“The ‘Governance of Britain’ Green Paper set out the Government’s commitment to lead an inclusive debate to develop a Statement of Values to help identify what binds us together as a nation.  We will begin an inclusive process of discussion and deliberation across the country, involving roundtable events and online engagement. Central to this will be a Citizens’ Summit – a broadly representative group of around 500 people from across the UK – who will be asked to deliberate and decide the framework for the Statement of Values and make recommendations on its uses” [my emphases].

The government’s approach explicitly links the setting out of a formal and modern statement of British values (including that of liberty, no doubt) with the idea of Britain ‘as a nation’. Now I’m not saying that this approach is in all respects similar to that of the Convention On Modern Liberty, which is setting out a serious critique of the government’s actual performance against those very British values it lays claim to. But these two would-be focuses of a national conversation on civic values do rest on common ground in one very fundamental respect: they centre their objectives around an idea of a ‘modern Britain’, which is somehow more inclusive, more progressive, and a more adequate interpretation of contemporary aspirations to freedom and universal human rights than an approach centred on one particular nation and people: the ‘English’ people. But, of course, the one people whose aspirations to give expression to its own values, identity and commitment to the ideals of liberty that is excluded by all this supra-national inclusiveness is England. And this is carried out in the name of a renewal of fundamental British ideals whose full realisation would effectively involve a re-founding of Britain as a nation. The government’s statement here makes this explicit; but it’s also implicit in the approach of the Britologist campaigners for modern liberty: a new inclusive, liberal Britishness and [virtual] nation-state of Britain is preferred to an antiquated, narrow Englishness. As Ros Taylor writes: “many first- and second-generation immigrants to Britain, like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, find Britishness a more comfortable concept than Englishness. . . . It is the right to opt out and reject a given identity that many of the campaigners at the convention today prize most. Could English citizenship really bestow that? On current evidence, I doubt it.”

Well, clearly, in Taylor’s view, British citizenship does or should bestow the right and ability to ‘reject a given identity’: rejecting one national identity (Englishness), that is, in favour of another (non-)national identity (Britishness). But the real existential reason why Britishness both is and is not a national identity is precisely that it is the state identity – the citizenship – of English people; a citizenship whose national core (Englishness) has been sucked out of it but which aspires to the cachet and effective status of a nation, even as it despises the idea of nationhood and the very name (England) of that nation itself. You can’t get away from the idea of nationhood and national identity even when – precisely when – discussing universal freedoms and human rights; because those rights are enshrined in national laws and statutes, whether English or British. And it is those national laws and statutes that provide the whole context for the conversation and for the fight for freedom.

Whether those freedoms to which both the liberal intelligentsia and, I would argue, the broader mass of the English population aspire will end up being English or British freedoms (regardless of whether they’re acknowledged as in fact English-only or not) may well be decided by the national conversations on liberty and governance taking place elsewhere in Britain (or, more accurately perhaps, somewhere else than England-Britain): in Scotland and Wales. To return to my theme of a fractured national debate on these matters as they relate to the subject of liberty (the nation or people whose liberty is at issue), there is no reticence or repugnance in Scotland about acknowledging and foregrounding the national dimensions of the tensions between the liberty of the Scottish citizen versus the power of the British state. Look at the programme for the Convention On Modern Liberty event in Glasgow, where all the discussions actually taking place in Glasgow (as opposed to the video feeds from London) were on “aspects of surveillance that are distinctive to Scotland”. Precisely: there are many aspects that are distinctive to Scotland, in contrast to the Britain-centric view from England, which delusionally imagines that everything it describes as British (but is in fact English-only) applies to the whole of Britain. And look at the logo for the Scottish Convention (below), which clearly builds the Saltire into its design – in contrast to the non-nation-specific logo for the English events, with anonymous yellow and purple slashes replacing the Scottish blue shown here:

Of course, the Scottish Convention took / takes place in the context of a more general ‘National Conversation’ on the future of Scotland as a nation: the one organised by the SNP government alongside a broader discussion the people of Scotland themselves are having about their future as a nation, whether inside or outside the Union. In Scotland, it makes absolutely no sense to have a discussion about individual freedom versus state power that leaves out the national dimension. It is, after all, the free, sovereign nation that legitimises the power of the state as the formal expression of the nation’s freedoms (and lawful limits to those freedoms), values and identity. If the British state is perceived as infringing on those freedoms and that national identity – including their expression in the formal institutions of the Scottish government – then this will doubtless increase support in Scotland for a complete break-away from the UK. So these civil-liberties issues are inherently also national questions: the nation – the people – freely confers power to the state, and inherently has the freedom (formalised as a right in foundational statements such as the Scottish Claim of Right) to govern itself as it chooses and not as the state dictates.

And what applies to Scotland – if indeed these principles are to be considered in line with the universal requirements of liberty – must also apply to England. And it does apply to England, as England, in the discussion on these matters that is taking place in England. This is because, as the contrast with the Scotland-centred debate in Scotland demonstrates, the would-be Britain-only debate on liberty that is being carried on in England is one that could happen and is happening only in England. Only in England do we try to obscure and obfuscate the national-English character of the debate about the English individual and nation as (mis)governed by the British state. Only in England do we fail to recognise our future liberty as inherently the liberty of our [English] nation; just as no liberty is possible without a national character.

A failure to acknowledge the necessarily and distinctively English character of our conversation about ‘British’ liberties vitiates the objective of liberty we seek to secure in two fundamental respects: it involves a failure to recognise the inherently national character and expression of any statement on the principles of liberty, equality, justice and democracy that serve as the foundation for a state. And it fails to recognise that in England – a nation that exists and is cherished, still, by the vast majority of its people of all races – that national character of liberty (past, present and future) must be English.

Or else it is nothing. Or else it plays right into the hands of the British government that seeks to control, dictate and impose an ‘official’ state version of our values and national identity (as British), just as it seeks to control and monitor our activities in a host of ways that violate our traditional, English freedoms.

But not just English freedoms, but also universal liberty: because ‘English freedoms’ are the distinctively and, of necessity, national English expression of universal liberty for and in England. If you deny the Englishness of liberty in England, you conspire with the British government’s denial of liberty itself. Along with its denial of England.

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3 Responses

  1. […] response to A National Conversation for England I thought I had better clarify my […]

  2. […] indeed? And maybe we need a new English parliament to make sure our fundamental English liberty is defined and reaffirmed anew for the 21st century. And maybe the way to uphold the Tory principle […]

  3. […] England as a nation, many of the other examples of Parliament’s assaults on our traditional English liberties can be seen as an expression of the fact that, post-devolution, Parliament has effectively […]

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