English Democrats: Are the BBC taking the monkeys; or do they just not give a monkeys?

Watched the TV interview with the English Democrat chairman Robin Tilbrook on the Daily Politics yesterday. Effectively, he was given about half of the five minutes allotted to the item, with the remaining half being given over to a couple of panellists. I thought he held his own quite well against some fairly tough questioning. He explained the party’s core aims calmly and clearly – an English parliament and greater fairness towards England in the allocation of public expenditure – and was just about allowed enough time to state that the EDP did have policies on ‘non-devolved’ matters before the panellists were brought in. Incidentally, the interviewer Anita Anand displayed her ignorance by referring to ‘crime’ as such a reserved matter. On the contrary, criminal law, justice and policing are devolved matters in Scotland, if not in Wales.

Tilbrook also talked effectively about the EDP mayor in Doncaster, describing the area as “the largest metropolitan borough council in England”, over which the EDP were now “effectively in power”, making the party a credible alternative to Labour at the general election.

By contrast to Tilbrook’s restrained, if somewhat wary and uncomfortable, dignity, one of the panellists (Gaby Hinsmith, I think it was: never seen her before) duly resorted to insinuations and mockery, implicitly comparing the EDP with the BNP (she also referred to it, in a Freudian slip, as the “English National Democrats”) and comparing the EDP mayor in Doncaster with the monkey that was re-elected mayor of Hartlepool, which “didn’t translate to a simian victory worldwide”. (What a p**t!) All of which is ‘taking the monkeys’ out of the people of Doncaster, to say nothing of the people of Hartlepool who, as Robin Tilbrook subsequently pointed out, voted for the man in the monkey suit (a local independent and Hartlepool FC mascot), not ‘the monkey’ as such.

In any case, this had nothing to do with the question of an English parliament; and Gaby was effectively dismissing the EDP as just one among several ‘fringe’ parties that worried the mainstream parties enough for them to occasionally tailor their policies to reflect people’s concerns, citing the example of tough talking on immigration whenever the BNP appears to be doing well. Well, I haven’t heard Labour talking tough on immigration recently, let alone mentioning the English democratic deficit.

The presenter then brought in one of the other panellists, the Scottish editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson. He seems to be something of a darling of BBC TV and radio producers these days, having appeared on BBC1’s Question Time only the previous night where he was evidently riled by the failure of his co-panellists to remember his name correctly, calling him ‘Nelson Fraser’! Nelson – surname – recently wrote a somewhat ridiculous article in his own rag claiming that Tory support for the Union is draining, evidently in an attempt to goad David Cameron into making more of a stand in defence of the Union. So I was expecting a dollop of unionist tripe served up with a dash of Nelson’s usual sneering and self-satisfied ridicule. However, he was surprisingly sympathetic, merely referring to the unfair electoral system that makes it impossible for smaller parties to achieve a break-through in general elections.

Then it was quickly back to Tilbrook who, after dealing with the monkey point, claimed that it was a reasonable objective for the English Democrats to win one parliamentary seat at the election, which was where the SNP were at in the mid-1970s; and once they were elected, they became “established”.

All in all, quite a creditable performance against a backdrop of ignorance, sarcasm and thinly veiled contempt on the part of two of the other participants. But absolutely no discussion about the merits of the case for an English parliament. Could it be that, as well as taking the monkeys, the Corporation doesn’t give a monkeys about democratic fairness to the people of England? (Incidentally, I also caught Tilbrook on Radio 4’s six o’clock news, which – to my astonishment – carried a brief article on the EDP conference, indicating that they’d obtained the seventh-largest share of the vote in England at the European elections. Tilbrook was given the opportunity to explain the party’s two different models for an EP: either a separate, devolved parliament à la Holyrood, or a restructuring of the present British parliament, with the House of Commons becoming the English parliament and the House of Lords being transformed into a UK-wide upper house or senate.)

So again, sympathy in unexpected places; this time on the 6.00 o’clock news. Maybe the lunchtime and evening crews at Radio 4 are a bit more professional and conscientious than the lot at the Today programme. It was an email dialogue with a ‘duty editor’ at Today called Dominic Groves that prompted me to make the above statement about the BBC not giving a monkeys about democratic fairness towards England, as well as being downright, wilfully ignorant about devolution.

I say that because, yesterday, I received a reply to an email of complaint I had re-sent the programme back on 6 September, having received an inadequate reply when I first sent it on 4 September:

“Dear Sirs,

Please find below the text of a complaint I sent to the programme on Friday 4 September regarding your programme of the previous morning. I received an automated reply from you. However, given the nature of the complaint, and the fact I previously sent you a complaint on the same subject that was neither acknowledged nor addressed, I feel a more personal response is required. Here is the text of my original complaint:

Dear Sir or Madam,
I am writing to complain about the article on the NHS on yesterday morning’s programme immediately after the 8.00 news.

The entire discussion and interview made absolutely no mention of the fact that the NHS in question was the English one, as it is only the English NHS that Westminster politicians have anything to do with; and it is only the English NHS that will be debated about at the next general election.

To discuss options for reducing expenditure and cutting jobs in the NHS without mentioning that it is only the NHS in England that is being talked about represents a regrettable lack of editorial rigour and journalistic accuracy. Surely the options for the English NHS cannot and should not be discussed in isolation from the various solutions and priorities, and the funding, for the NHS’s in the countries with devolved governments. For example, do we in England actually want more privatisation and market mechanisms in the health service, along the lines already introduced by New Labour, while the NHS’s in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continue along more traditional public-sector lines, thanks in part to the greater per-capita expenditure their systems enjoy by virtue of the Barnett Formula?

And what will the impact of the proposed real-terms increases in NHS funding in England be for the other UK countries? Could it be that they may result in or require decreases in spending elsewhere? And how will the devolved administrations continue to maintain the generous funding they have received to date? This would be a discussion about the NHS in Britain as a whole. If we’re talking about England, on the other hand, we should say so. Then the English people might realise they have a choice for what they want in England and should not feel beholden to a spurious notion of what the UK as a whole can afford or to a misleading idea that the NHS is a single cross-UK organisation where only one model of health-care delivery can be implemented. Once people in England are adequately informed about the diversity of current approaches to health care, not only between the UK and other comparable countries, but within the UK, they can then begin to make informed decisions about which party’s policies for the English NHS they wish to back.

I recently complained to the Today programme on this same issue but have received no reply or acknowledgement. The substance of this complaint is related to an ‘Open letter to the BBC on reporting policy debates at the next general election’ I have posted on the ‘English Parliament Online’ website, and which I forwarded to the BBC Trust. I also copied the present complaint to the Trust, from whom I subsequently received a response inviting me to re-submit my complaint via the standard online complaint forms, which I have done.

This is an issue that the BBC must address. Its reporting of English political affairs and policy discussions is woefully incomplete and misleading at present. The English people deserve to be better informed on the policy issues that affect them.

Yours faithfully,

David Rickard”

Below is the text of the reply I received yesterday [my comments in square brackets.]:

“Dear Mr Rickard,

Thank you for your email. You raise a number of interesting questions about the relationship between spending in England and those [that] in other devolved administrations [what does ‘other devolved administrations’ mean?]. However I would take issue with your suggestion that our discussion on September 3rd related only to one part of the United Kingdom [he means England]. Devolution has given Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland limited – or no – tax raising powers [nor does England have tax-raising powers; so in fact, the ability of Scotland to vary the income-tax rate by 3p relative to the rest of the UK represents greater tax-raising powers than England]. That means the budget deficits at the heart of the debate over NHS spending will affect those areas as much as they will affect England. It would therefore have been misleading to have suggested that the debate was confined only to England. [See his trick: the debate about health-care funding as such isn’t confined to England; but the policies debated at the general election will be confined to England. All the politicians on the programme were Westminster ones.] That said, I would acknowledge that there are issues over the way central money is distributed (the so called Barnett formula) [so-called Barnett Formula?].We have looked at this subject before and will no doubt return to it in the future.

Yours sincerely

Dominic Groves

Duty Editor”.

Obviously, I wasn’t content to let the matter rest there; so I replied to Mr Groves in the following terms – rather restrained in the manner of Mr Tilbrook, I thought:

“Dear Mr Groves,

Thank you for your reply to my complaint. I appreciate your taking the time and trouble to look into the matter and respond.

I suppose it will not be surprising to you that I disagree with most of what you say, however. My main grievance was that the whole roughly five-minute article made no mention of England, whose NHS is the only one that Westminster politicians can make decisions about. Many listeners, not necessarily all of whom are politically uninformed persons, will have come away from the discussion with the impression that it related to the whole of Britain, which it did not.

I take your point that budget cuts will also affect Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; but they will do so only indirectly: Westminster politicians will not have the power to decide in which areas of public expenditure the cuts will be made in those countries, even if the overall level of expenditure will need to fall. For instance, the Scottish government could decide that it will not cut spending on what they call NHS Scotland. It would be able to do that by making greater cuts or savings elsewhere; or by increasing income tax via the 3p variable rate (or 10p if the Calman Commission recommendations are implemented).

Therefore, at the next election, it will be necessary for the media to make clear that when the parties are debating how they are going to cut costs and reallocate spending on public services, they are not talking about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Otherwise, people in those countries might get the impression that if the party they vote for wins the general election, then the policies discussed before the election for things such as education, health, local government, etc. will be implemented in their countries, which they won’t. They will therefore be voting on a false prospectus.

It’s as simple as that: some policy proposals relate to England only, and some relate to all or other parts of the UK. The people of the UK deserve to be informed about which is which.

Yours sincerely,

David Rickard”

It seems somewhat ridiculous to have to be having dialogues of this sort with news editors at the BBC, or to watch reputable political shows in which the presenters and contributors display such ignorance and contempt for important issues of fairness and democracy in the UK. Ten years into devolution, they ought to be more aware about which matters are devolved (and hence relate to England only in the context of Westminster politics) and which are genuinely relevant to the whole of the UK.

Apart from the political reasons for this (i.e. defence of the British establishment, of which the BBC is a major part and symbol), this blindness towards English nationhood and England-specific policy areas is another illustration of what I describe in an OurKingdom article as the establishment’s would-be assimilation of England and Englishness to ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’ in the wake of devolution. This is done in the attempt to suppress the emergence of a distinct English national identity that would then demand separate political and civic institutions (too late; the cat is already out of the bag). If everything that is really English is called and thought of as ‘British’, then the powers that be can pretend that there is no distinction between English and British matters (which is a total denial of the facts), and hence no need for a separate ‘English’ parliament. But it’s not only the case that the BBC, media commentators and politicians are deliberately deceiving the English people in glossing over the differences between what relates to England and what relates to the UK; but also the politicians and journalists concerned are in part taken in by their own fiction and their own fabrication of a homogeneous, unitary Britain that does not exist in practice. It’s like Orwellian Newspeak (or, as we should perhaps put it, ‘news speak’), as in the novel 1984: if you tell yourself a conscious, deliberate lie often enough – e.g. calling England ‘Britain’ – eventually, you will come to believe it

Hence, in the case of Dominic Groves from the Today programme, I think on one level he genuinely believes that when politicians are talking about painful spending and job cuts in the ‘British’ NHS, they actually mean ‘Britain’; but in reality, ‘Britain’ is Newspeak for England. However, Grove and his like are so taken in that they think ‘Britain’ means ‘the whole of Britain’. Hence, when he says – and I paraphrase – ‘because Britain faces a budget deficit, spending on the British NHS will have to be reduced, and that will affect all parts of Britain’, what he really means is: ‘because the UK faces a budget deficit, spending on the English NHS [England having been re-named ‘Britain’] will have to be reduced; and, concurrently but separately, spending on the NHS’s in the “British nations” will / may also have to be reduced’. In short, ‘Britain’ is being used fallaciously to refer to three quite distinct entities (the British state (the UK), England and the devolved nations) as if they were a single, homogeneous nation to whose governance Westminster politicians and London-based parties somehow have an input in a unitary fashion; and Groves believes his own fiction.

A similar point could be made about Gaby What’s-her-name off the Daily Politics. Her inability to engage with the English Democrats’ actual agenda (English self-government) was connected with an inability to perceive ‘England’ as in any way distinct from ‘Britain’. Hence her mental confusion regarding the distinction between the EDP and the BNP, as if to be an English civic nationalist was not polls apart (pun intended) from – in fact, diametrically opposed to – being an ethnic British nationalist.

So we’ve got quite a mountain to climb to even get people to consider the possibility that English political affairs could be governed separately from UK ones: because even many politicians and media have become blind to the difference between them. But we have to keep pushing them to see that when they say ‘Britain’, that can mean either the UK, England or the devolved nations; and it’s rather crucial to bring out the distinction if we’re going to have any sort of meaningful political conversation.

Otherwise, those three Britains will be like the three wise monkeys: seeing no evil, hearing no evil, doing no evil – or rather, blinding themselves to their woeful governance of England because they’re incapable of seeing England itself and hearing the English demands for fairness and democracy. But if they think they can carry on making monkeys out of us indefinitely, they might find they’re dealing with a species made of sterner stuff.

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4 Responses

  1. The phenomenon you are describing is known as metropolitan provincialism or metropolitan parochialism.

  2. Gaby Hinsliff political editor of the Observer.No friends on that panel I’m afraid.

  3. The Observer Political Editor was a great advert for the Great Unwashed ,the monkee comment gave Mr Tillbrook a chance to score points in other directions
    the viewers, will not be impressed with the negativity of the Panal
    The Presenter came over as unattached to the conversation(proberly listening to her producer in her ear plug )

  4. […] about who should be the prime minister of Britain”. But this is only true in the case of one of the three main meanings of the word ‘Britain’ in contemporary political discourse: when it means ‘England’. It would indeed be […]

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