Different and better, or same old New Labour

The Labour List blog is currently running a series of articles, produced by party worthies, on the ‘One Nation Labour’ theme recently introduced by Ed Miliband. I submitted a comment on one of the articles yesterday, but it was not published, probably because it rubbished the whole One Nation concept, albeit in – for me – relatively moderate terms, I thought.

The article, by Labour ideologue Lord Glasman, was entitled, ‘Different and Better: How One Nation can work for Labour‘. I reproduce it in full below for convenience, along with my moderate and moderated-out comment:

In order to generate energy and to succeed in opposition it is necessary to have a narrative, a strategy and an organising concept that can give plausibility and coherence to the swelter of initiatives, policies and programmes that swirl around the Westminster Village.

The narrative must tell a story of how we, as a nation got into this mess and how we as a party are an important part of how we will get out of it.

The strategy, both electoral and governmental, concerns the coalition of interests that can champion the change that is required and generate value, the people and the things that will make things different and better.  A plan of action that can grow in time to deliver electoral success and a compelling programme of government.

The organising concept is the idea that selects and shapes the policy and turns it into politics.  An idea that applies to all areas of policy and defines the identity of the party and of the offer they make to the electorate.  This is what Ed Miliband achieved at the last Party Conference with One Nation Labour.

In comparison, the idea of productive and predatory capital is an excellent and a true analytical distinction but it could not organise policy across the range, it gave no guidance concerning welfare reform, or education, constitutional reform or defence policy.  There was a real danger that we would get trapped in the dominant framework inherited from New Labour and intensified by the Coalition Government and engage in an endless and antagonistic exchange concerning faster or slower, higher or lower, more or less, without disputing the direction of travel.

With the emergence of One Nation however, the organising concept has been established.  It commits Labour to a politics of the Common Good.  In all areas of policy, estranged and divided part of our Nation: capital and labour, north and south, immigrants and locals, men and women, secular and religious need to be brought together in order to generate greater value.  It is different from what went before because no one interest dominates civic, political or economic life but all of these require people to come together and make things better.

Labour was founded in order to demand recognition by those who worked, as part of one nation.  There was no wish to dominate but to remind the rich and the powerful that workers were part of the nation, that they had interests and considered themselves a necessary part of the common good.  That argument needs to be made again for one of the things that is different about the One Nation position is its recognition of labour as a source of value, the Labour theory of value.  Innovation is generated by people with experience and expertise who understand the new technology and can work within it.

This in itself is a radical breakthrough because now we need to have a real conversation with the Unions not about what the Party can do for them, or even what they can do for the party, but what they can do to make things better.  How are Unions to be partners in generating value, honouring good work, defending labour as a necessary partner to capital and technology in the production process?  Do they champion changes in corporate governance so that the workforce is represented on boards?  That should be an important part of One Nation agenda, and one that Disraeli and Burke could not ever accept.  Anyone and anything other than Labour constituted the diverse ecology of the Nation.  We are here to correct that mistake and One Nation Labour does that.

But it is not limited to corporate governance reform on the private sector.  The same applies to the public sector.  How is the workforce, along with funders and users going to make the way we care and look after each other better.  It suggests a move from the contractual to the Covenantal.  We trust each other with the care of our children and our parents and we need to honour those who do that well, but we also need a way of dealing with those that don’t.  One Nation is a demanding category.  Vocational renewal is a double edged sword, it requires quality and equality and we need to be resolute in the pursuit of both.

It goes into making capital available to regions and to break the grip on internal investment by the same failed banking institutions.  Regional banks which serve local markets and businesses draw attention to our reliance on the financial sector and the need for an economy that works on dry land.  The lack of private sector growth in the regional economies outside finance and property is a great concern and One Nation makes the people of those regions part of the nation once more.

It enables us to talk about Land Reform and Community Land Trusts as a way of including people in the property owning democracy by transferring the freehold asset to communities.  In housing that means that the price is halved and there can be a genuine and affordable house building programme.  It is also applicable to Dover Port for example and offers an alternative to privatisation and nationalisation that works in the interests of all the people of Dover and brings capital, labour and the town together in a common concern for its flourishing.

One Nation is both a radical and a conservative idea and that is why it works.  It retrieves a tradition from within our nation history and through it generate greater solidarity and inclusion. Labour, in recent years, has shown a tremendous respect for diversity and pluralism.  This is greatly to our benefit and it was right to do so.  What was missing was a balance, an account of how that diversity can generate better forms of the common life, of how it could nourish and sustain the common good.  One Nation Labour corrects that imbalance.

Ed Miliband has retrieved, from what his Dad might have called the ‘dustbin of history’ a great gift to his party.  In order to live and grow it must be supported and cared for by many hands.  It offers the possibility of great years ahead.

And my comment:

‘One Nation’ will be an incoherent and useless slogan for Labour so long as the party fails to develop a narrative of that nation’s identity. Britain is increasingly not one nation, but three nations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) plus another nation (England) that the party and the political establishment in general refuse to acknowledge: England.

‘One Nation’ Labour, and indeed Britain, will be deliverable and feasible only if Labour does articulate a narrative for the whole of the UK: what is the relationship between the devolved nations and England; what can Labour do for and in each; what is the relationship between reserved and devolved – and hence English – policy areas? Can Labour bring itself to articulate a vision for England? If not, what will reform of health, education, housing and social-care policy actually mean, as a Labour UK government’s powers in these areas will in fact be restricted to England, even if Labour refuses to acknowledge and articulate that fact.

One Nation is meaningless so long as the one nation to which it applies in full – England – is the one nation Labour cannot bring itself to value and envision. Simply balkanising England into a series of economic-development regions, as Lord Glasman is proposing here, will not do it.

Fair comment, I thought. The One Nation concept is completely bonkers as applied to the UK as a whole, because no UK government of any hue can any longer develop a fully joined-up agenda for the whole UK that unites social and economic policy, as social policy has been devolved whereas economic and fiscal policy, in the main, remains reserved. In fact, the only nation for which Labour or any party could develop an all-embracing policy vision is England, because it’s only for England that the UK government has maintained control over all of the policy levers.

In essence, the One Nation concept involves an outmoded idea of Britain as a unified nation and polity that Labour itself gave away via the Scottish and Welsh devolution settlements in 1998. But Labour won’t acknowledge that reality, and they steadfastly refuse to acknowledge England as the only nation they could now fully mould in Labour’s image if they were minded to do so. There are many reasons for this, such as political expediency and left-wing anglophobia. But the consequence of this wilful blindness on Labour’s part is that their concept of One Nation is ultimately a sheer fantasy Britain that has absolutely no credibility whatsoever as a vision for the ‘nation’ because it doesn’t even correctly articulate and take account of the actual identity of the nation – England – for which it could be implemented.

Ultimately, One Nation Labour, just like New Labour before it, washes its hands of the social realities of the only nation, England, to which the One Nation vision could ever apply. It’s a mere blueprint for a more economically vibrant and prosperous ‘Britain’, which involves balkanising England into unwanted British economic-development regions, and refuses to articulate any coherent, comprehensive model for a new English civic society: for the way in which we in England can best organise ourselves to deliver the best education, health care, public services and environment for our country that we can. Labour can’t answer those questions, because it’s not even asking them in realistic terms that can be engaged with. In the end, One Nation Britain is meaningless as a vision for England because nothing valuable can ever be done for England by a party that doesn’t love England, and doesn’t value her and her people in themselves. The one nation that has no place in One Nation Labour Britain is England.

AV referendum: for the sake of England, don’t vote!

Do you think the First Past the Post voting system used for electing UK MPs should be changed to the Alternative Vote? Do you even care?

Firstly, should anyone who supports the idea of an English parliament give a monkeys about the voting system used to elect the UK parliament? On one level, no: the fact that this AV referendum is being held on the same day as the elections for the Scottish parliament, and Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, but that the English have never been consulted about a parliament of their own; and the fact that we’re being offered only the disproportional AV system, whereas those very devolved elections use a different, proportional system, is a downright insult. So not only is there no representation for England as a nation on offer, but there is to be no proportional representation for England even within the UK parliament. So I know where I’d tell them to stick their AV.

On the other hand, a ‘better’ electoral system for electing English MPs would surely be a gain for the nation even while we’re being governed by an unrepresentative UK executive and parliament. Does AV constitute such a gain? Well, in my view, AV is marginally – very marginally – better than FPTP. It does ensure that parliamentary candidates have to secure the explicit support of a larger proportion of their local electorate in order to win – though it doesn’t guarantee that MPs must obtain the support of a majority of voters: that depends on how many voters don’t express a preference for either / any of the candidates remaining after the less popular candidates have been eliminated.

However, in reality, this greater share of the vote MPs have to win, which includes the second and subsequent preferences of voters whose first-choice candidates have been unsuccessful, already exists in latent form under the FPTP system. The only difference that AV makes is that it allows voters to explicitly express that support with their preference votes, so that – for example – a winning plurality of, say, 40% is turned into a winning ‘majority’ of 52%. That extra 12% of voters who are broadly content for a candidate to win on 40% of the vote are still there under FPTP; so AV in a sense just legitimises what happens under FPTP: the election to parliament of MPs who fail to be the first choice of a majority of voters.

AV is, therefore, mainly a means to secure buy-in to an unfair system that has ill-served England. That’s what FPTP has been: over the past few decades, it’s given us Tory and Labour governments that have never commanded the support of a majority of English men and women. It gave us the divisive, confrontational and egomaniacal Thatcher regime; and it was responsible for Blair’s New Labour, with its legacy of asymmetric devolution, British-establishment Anglophobia, public-spending discrimination against England, and the overseas follies of Iraq and Afghanistan, with so many brave young English people exploited as cannon fodder in unwinnable, unjustifiable wars.

FPTP has failed England. AV is only a very slightly mitigated version of FPTP. Both will lead to more disproportional, unrepresentative UK parliaments that will continue to ignore not only the just demands for an English parliament but England’s very existence. Under the present UK political settlement, England as such is completely discounted and passed over in silence. The pro-AV campaign says that, under AV, your vote really counts. But England will still count for nothing, whether we have AV or FPTP.

So make your vote really count this Thursday in the AV referendum by greeting it with the silent contempt with which the political establishment treats England. England’s voice is not being consulted; so respond with sullen, stern silence in your turn. Don’t vote for a system – the UK parliament itself – that disenfranchises you. And let the result – whether a win for AV or FPTP – be rendered as meaningless as it really is through a derisory turn-out across England.

England will have its say one day in a meaningful referendum: on an English parliament. And I bet neither AV nor FPTP will be on offer as the voting system for a parliament that truly represents the English people.

The ‘association’ of the Cross of St. George with the far-right

I’m fed up of reading and hearing people saying that the Cross of St. George is associated with the far right, as so many of the articles about the displays of English patriotism around the World Cup keep on parroting (see here and here, for instance).

This is largely a myth, in support of which its proponents provide virtually no evidence. Who associates the English flag with the far right and ethnic nationalism? Certainly not the millions of ordinary people up and down the land who wear England shirts, and display England flags from their cars and homes. They’re just supporting their country in the greatest sporting tournament on earth. It is in fact only the liberal middle class that makes this association, and that has much to do with their unacknowledged, inverted-racist anglophobia and classism as any racism on the part of those parading the English flag.

No, let’s put the record straight: it’s the Union Flag that is the symbol of choice for the far-right racists in England and Britain as a whole. The BNP and the National Front (and with the latter, the skinhead, racist football hooligans of the 70’s and 80’s) have always used the British Flag as their main national symbol, not the Cross of St. George. It’s true that the English Defence League uses the Cross of St. George. But that organisation claims, rightly or wrongly, not to be racially based but to be open to English people of any race or religion, apart from Islam.

In any case, English ethnic nationalism represents a truly tiny fringe of English opinion compared to civic nationalism or the plain-old English patriotism of the England football team’s supporters. And, in fact, it’s those supporters that began the re-claiming of the English flag as a positive symbol of pride in England as an inclusive, multi-racial country by using it at Euro 96 instead of the British flag, which was the one that had in fact become tainted – and still is – by associations with racism and British imperialism.

So when liberals go on about the need to re-claim the English flag from the far right with which it is associated, it is only they who do associate it as an extremist symbol; and it is they who need to rehabilitate the Cross of St. George in their own minds as a positive symbol, because it is only they who regard it as a negative. Every one else is 15 years ahead of them.

Update (15 June): Another example here in an article on the BBC website that is generally sympathetic to English patriotism and to flying the England flag during the World Cup: “On Friday, a friend joked that he didn’t realise I was a BNP supporter when he saw an England flag on my car. It was a joke but also a reminder of how our national emblem was appropriated by racists during the 1970s and ’80s.”

No, Mr Easton, it wasn’t the Cross of St. George that was appropriated by racists during the 70s and 80s, it was the Union Flag; and England supporters always used the Union Flag up until the 1990s. Indeed, the reproach during the 1970s was that they did use the flag for the United Kingdom and not the England flag. You’d see that if you actually looked at the old TV footage. For instance, in the 1966 World Cup, “the English scene was less decked than today”, as you put it, but that was partly because the decking that was used at that time was in the Union colours: during the ’66 final, it’s the Union Jack you see in the stadium, not the Flag of St. George.

I find this collective amnesia to our recent iconic past fascinating as well as frustrating. One of the things it demonstrates is the extent to which attitudes towards English nationalism, or even just the celebration of England as a nation, have become shaped by prejudice rather than fact – hence, even the facts from the recent past get distorted and are viewed through the prism of present-day biases.

The article ConservativeHome rejected: To be a party of the Union, the Conservatives must also be a party for England

On the day after the Conservatives published a draft manifesto for the English NHS that failed to mention ‘England’ a single time, I thought it would be fitting to publish an article of mine that was originally accepted for inclusion in the ‘Platform’ section of the ConservativeHome blog back in November of last year. However, they subsequently got cold feet and decided not to publish.

The rejection of the article, coupled with the Conservatives’ refusal to accurately present their English-NHS policies as limited to England, doesn’t make me optimistic that the election campaign will be marked by honesty over English matters. Here’s the article:

It has been said by some – and I would tend to agree – that the biggest threat to the continuation of the Union is likely to come from England, not Scotland. There is a groundswell of feeling and opinion throughout England that our present constitutional and political arrangements have left England in both a democratic and financial deficit; and it is arguable that the wave of disaffection with Parliament and our political system that broke in May and June of this year was primarily an expression of English alienation and disenchantment with the status quo. At the very least, the UK-wide eruption of disgust at MPs’ perceived corruption was more acute in England, which does not have a parliament of its own, thereby exacerbating the feeling that the political class has become unaccountable to the public.

There are now many people in England who secretly or not so secretly wish that the Scots will get their independence referendum and will vote to leave the UK. Indeed, if the English were offered a referendum on independence for England, it would not be surprising if the percentage in favour exceeded the 29% of Scots who reportedly back independence for Scotland at present. Arguably, in any case, all UK citizens should be allowed to participate in any definitive independence referendum for Scotland, as opposed to the SNP’s proposed consultative referendum asking for a mandate for the Scottish government to negotiate an independence settlement with the UK government. This is because Scotland cannot technically vote to ‘leave’ the Union. The effect of a vote in favour of Scottish independence would actually be to dissolve the Union: Great Britain would cease to exist, as this entity is the product of a union between two nations (Wales being subsumed within England at the time); and if one of those nations decides to go, that breaks up the union. In other words, Great Britain is the name of a marriage; and when a divorce arises, there is no more Great Britain – just separate entities known as England (and Wales) and Scotland.

So part of any deal for Scottish independence would have to be a new constitutional settlement for the residual nations of the UK to form, for instance, a new ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’. And it would only be right and proper that the prospective citizens of the new state should be asked whether they wanted to be part of it. So perhaps you’d need two referendums, in fact: one for the Scots about their national future; and one for the rest of the UK.

This is, of course, a scenario that traditional unionist Conservatives would like to avoid at all costs. But you can’t deal with English disaffection with asymmetric devolution and with the lack of a representative parliament for England by denying English-national feeling and identity, as the Labour government has tried to do. New Labour has tried to manipulate English people’s traditional patriotic identification of England with Great Britain – the two often being interchangeable in English people’s hearts and minds – to engineer a ‘New Britain’ that denies the existence of a distinct English nation altogether: a Britain / UK that no longer comprises England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but is viewed as Britain + the devolved nations – Gordon Brown’s ‘Britain of nations and regions [formerly known as England]’.

Whilst this new British-nation building has arguably mediated a profound Anglophobia at the heart of the liberal establishment, it has also been a reaction by the Westminster establishment as a whole to the traumatic shock to the 300-year-old Union that was delivered by an ill-thought-through devolution settlement. The fear was that a new English nationalism would build up in parallel to the growing national consciousness and self-confidence of the Scots and the Welsh; and that the English would start to demand their own parliament and national institutions that could rip open the Union from within. But instead of acknowledging that it was an inevitable consequence of devolution that the English would start to become more aware of themselves as a distinct nation, and would consequently start to demand English civic institutions like those of the other British nations, the approach has been virtually to deny that England even exists, which – politically and constitutionally speaking – it in fact doesn’t. In this way, the Union parliament can be presented as a perfectly adequate representative democratic body for England because there is no England, only the UK. As Tony Blair’s first Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine memorably put it, “The way to deal with the West Lothian Question is not to ask it”.

Given the Conservative Party’s profound attachment to the Union, it would be understandable if a Tory government were to continue along this path of denying any distinctly English dimension to national politics and constitutional affairs. Clearly, this is the case not only because of the perceived threat of a growing English nationalism but because the Conservatives are desperate, for electoral purposes, not to be perceived by Scots as an English party – which they mainly in fact are. But to replicate New Labour’s actions and attitudes in relation to England would not only be unjust but would also be alien to Conservative tradition and counter-productive to the aim of preserving the Union. Traditionally, that is, the Conservatives have been adept at balancing the competing English and British identities and patriotisms of the English people: channelling English national pride into a One Nation Britishness that yet did not deny Englishness. If, on the other hand, the response of a forthcoming Conservative government to the contrary challenges of English and Scottish nationalism is, like New Labour, to make it unacceptable to publicly articulate pride in Englishness, then this will in turn be unacceptable to the English public in the long run. The Union cannot be sustainable if its largest constituent part has to deny its own identity and democratic aspirations indefinitely while allowing its other parts to affirm their own – indeed, in order to allow the other nations to affirm their distinct identities, requiring England in a sense to become the Union by itself: the place of Britishness from which only the other nations are allowed to differentiate themselves; whereas if England becomes merely England, not Britain, then there is no more Union, just four distinct nations.

So what are the alternatives? Well, Ken Clarke’s answer to the West Lothian Question, which has been dubbed ‘English pauses for English clauses’, manages to avoid really asking the question, too. While it makes it possible for English MPs to amend England-only clauses of bills at the committee stage, Clarke’s recommendation still leaves the structural West Lothian anomaly in place: bills affecting England only or mainly can still be put forward by an executive comprising MPs from across the UK’s nations, and still need to be passed by a parliamentary majority made up of MPs from all four countries. In any case, such a procedural titivation is hardly likely to stem the growing tide of public dissatisfaction with the workings and representative character of Parliament in general, let alone the aspirations towards English self-government.

It seems to me, then, that if the Conservative Party genuinely seeks to preserve the Union as a true, undivided Union of equal nations, then it will have to seek a way to allow a distinct and healthy English-national politics and civic life to develop and prosper, even if this is within the broad confines of the existing Union structures. This may in fact be a last-ditch chance to save the Union as we know it from the alternatives of a federal UK of four nations or a total break-up of the UK into its component parts. Quite what shape the new English politics would take once the English genius is let out of the asphyxiating British lamp is not something that can easily be foreseen. But it seems to me that the Conservative Party is the natural party to guide and steer this process, precisely because of its deep roots in English society and traditions, and the naturally conservative (small ‘c’) character of the English people.

To begin with, the Party could start honestly referring to its England-specific policies and, in government, laws as English, rather than maintaining the present pretence that its policies in areas such as education, health or policing relate to the whole of the UK. In their manifesto at the general election, the Conservatives should reserve a dedicated section to their policies for England, which in fact will make up the majority of their legislative activity in government, given the very many policy areas in which UK governments now have competency for England only. This would be a hugely refreshing change and would demonstrate to people in England, including those that might otherwise be tempted to vote for more nationalist alternatives, that the Conservative Party is mindful of the specific social and economic concerns and needs of English people alongside its responsibilities to the whole of the UK in areas such as the economy or national security.

Such a degree of honesty about England-specific policies need not provoke a cry of indignation from the nationalists and Labour alike that the Conservatives are putting the needs and priorities of English people above those of Scotland and Wales. On the contrary, many people in those countries would also find it refreshing that national-UK politicians were finally accepting the post-devolution realities and not talking about England-specific matters as if they were relevant to them, too. This sort of honesty would be in stark contrast to the behaviour of Labour, in particular, which is clearly seeking to bolster its traditional support in Scotland and Wales based on an appeal to its traditional policies on the NHS and education for which Westminster governments are no longer responsible in those countries. The Tory response to Labour’s gerrymandering manipulation of the West Lothian Question should not be to deny the validity of the question but to show up Labour’s deceit for what it is. The Conservatives can present themselves as a government for Scotland and Wales; but they can’t do so by denying that, in many ways, Westminster administrations are now governments for England alone. There are English matters and there are UK matters, and the way to restore the trust of the public is to recognise the difference and present strong policies in both departments.

The Union is presently under a greater threat than at any previous time in its history, other than in times of war. But the way to respond to this threat is not to deny the identity and democratic aspirations of the largest nation within the Union. New Labour has tried to craft a soulless Britain without England. The challenge for the incoming Conservative government will be to shape a great Britain that still has England at, and in, its heart.

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.

Caerphilly has moved to England: Tesco’s deceitful product labelling

It would be easy to dismiss UK supermarket giant Tesco’s recently reaffirmed policy of labelling all produce originating from England as ‘British’ (while accurately referring to the country of origin of Scottish and Welsh goods as Scotland and Wales respectively) as just another example of the attempt by the British establishment to re-brand England in general as ‘Britain’: denying England’s status as a nation equivalent to Scotland and Wales.

But there’s more to it than that, as I realised yesterday when I noticed that Tesco Caerphilly cheese is also labelled as ‘British’, with a little Union Jack in the top-right corner of the packet. On closer inspection, I read the words “Caerphilly was traditionally made in Wales” and instantly smelled a rat: ‘in other words’, I thought, ‘this Caerphilly isn’t made in Wales; and as it’s labelled “British”, it must have been made in England’. On the label, it also stated that the product came from the Joseph Heler Creamery. When I got home, I looked that company up on the web, and yes, it’s based near Nantwich in Cheshire!

So here’s proof that the ‘British’ label on English produce sold in Tesco is not just an insulting and discriminatory repackaging of England as Britain but is designed to cover up the fact that such produce is made or grown in England. Clearly, Tesco doesn’t want its Welsh customers to be aware that one of its ‘Welsh’ cheeses is actually made in England. Equally, it doesn’t want its English customers to work out that what they might think is a Welsh cheese is made in England.

Presumably, the same hard-nosed, commercial explanation can be extended to the ‘Caerphilly”s neighbours on Tesco’s shelves – the ‘British’ Lancashire, Cheshire, Gloucester and Leicester cheeses: advertising their English origin too blatantly might put some Welsh and Scottish customers off from buying them. What is more, labelling these cheeses as ‘British’ enables Tesco to ‘source’ them from anywhere in the UK: in theory, there’s no reason why cheeses carrying the name of English counties alongside the British flag shouldn’t be made in Wales; or even why either ‘English’ or ‘Welsh’ ones couldn’t be made in Scotland. In both cases, they could still be described on the packets as ‘British’. But Tesco sure as heck wouldn’t get away with labelling a cheese named after a Scottish county (if such a thing existed) as British, let alone with making it anywhere other than Scotland.

Tesco’s labelling of these traditionally Welsh and English cheeses as British ironically strips those cheeses of any authentic British character or meaning. That character comes from the fact that they are made in the Welsh and English places and counties that give them their name; and that they are made to a traditional recipe, preferably using traditional methods and locally produced milk, which give them their typical flavour. The ‘British’ tag as used by Tesco denies that rooted, localised, and proudly Welsh and English (and hence, properly British) character. Moreover, it enables those cheeses to be made in theory anywhere throughout the UK without violating trades-description legislation or EU rules that prevent producers from using names associated with regional products for ‘similar’ products deriving from elsewhere – e.g. you can’t call sparkling wine or Elderflower ‘champagne’, but only the traditionally produced wine from the Champagne region. Tesco’s resort to the British tag, on the other hand, reduces the names ‘Caerphilly’ or ‘Lancashire’ to mere brand names for products that are notionally ‘similar’ to the real Welsh or English articles but in fact can be made anywhere in Britain to a different recipe, using different methods, to arrive at an altogether different, and inferior, product. In other words, the more they use the ‘British’ label in this deceitful way, the more they actually devalue it.

The ultimate extension of this business logic is to source typically ‘British’ cheeses from anywhere, including outside of Britain. One example of this is McLelland’s ‘Seriously Strong’ cheddar. On the packet, it does not say where this product is made, only stating that it is ‘packed in the UK’. What does that mean? The Surrey address of the UK HQ of McLelland’s parent company Lactalis (a French firm) is indicated on the packet, which could lend the impression that the cheese is at least packaged in England – and, true to form, this is not explicitly stated even though no Union Flag is in evidence. However, when I looked up McLelland on the web, their actual cheese-producing operations in the UK are based in Scotland, in keeping with the name. But they make a distinction between the Seriously Strong ‘brand’ (their term) and other cheddars made from ‘Scottish Milk’ that do proudly carry the Scottish flag on the packet. Which leads me to conclude, rightly or wrongly, that Seriously Strong must be made and packaged in McLelland’s Stranraer creamery from relatively inexpensive bulk-imported French or other continental milk; in contrast to their other cheddars that are genuinely Scottish and labelled as such. But of course, they don’t brand Seriously Strong as Scottish for similar reasons to why Tesco doesn’t brand its English or some Welsh cheeses as English or Welsh: that they’re not genuinely or entirely from the places of origin associated with the brands (e.g. Caerphilly, Lancashire or Scotland); and, in theory, they could effectively be regarded as being of foreign origin if all the milk used is imported (which it isn’t, apparently, for the cheeses produced by the Joseph Heler Creamery in Cheshire). McLelland push the boat even further in that they refuse to label their ambiguously part-Scottish and part-continental cheese even as British (albeit that they say it’s packaged in the UK): demonstrating the non-acceptance in Scotland of the ‘British’ re-labelling of Scottish produce, in contrast to the meek compliance with this practice in England and Wales.

I say this because I noticed that Joseph Heler’s own-branded Cheshire, Gloucester and Leicester cheeses are proudly marketed as their ‘Traditional English Cheese Range’; and they even have a ‘Continental Cheese Range’ that sports the English flag on the packet alongside several continental European flags, by virtue of the fact that the range includes an ‘English Gruyere’ cheese: referred to as ‘English’ not only because it is made in Cheshire but also, presumably, because there is now an established English variety of Gruyere – with a distinctive flavour because of the local English ingredients and methods used – distinct from, but related to, Swiss and French Gruyeres.

So what does all of this tell us? The ‘British’ label used by Tesco means that the cheese or other produce in question was probably but not always made in England, although not necessarily from either English or even British ingredients – like the ambiguous McLelland Seriously Strong that conceals both its Scottish manufacture and the (assumed) continental provenance of its milk with the ambiguous ‘packed in the UK’ designation. It also means that there is no guarantee that the products involved are genuine in any meaningful sense: they could be, and are, made in geographical locations throughout the UK (using milk from anywhere) that are far from the areas referred to on the label, which are reduced to the status of mere brands.

In contrast, if you want to make sure that your English, Welsh or Scottish cheese is genuinely from England, Wales and Scotland, you can be pretty sure that anything carrying the Welsh or Scottish flags will genuinely be made in those countries, albeit not necessarily in the traditional way or using traditional ingredients. However, you can’t be sure that seemingly ‘English’ or ‘Welsh’ goods carrying the Union Flag are either English or Welsh. If you want a proper English cheese, you can trust only those items that carry the English flag, where the cheeses in question generally constitute a traditional English variety made in a more traditional way.

In this way, by refusing to purchase Tesco-branded ‘British’ cheeses and seeking out only the genuine English article, you are both resisting the ‘Briticisation’ of England, and ensuring that genuine English producers, methods and cheeses are supported. And ditto for Wales. At the very least, the British badge on its own is far from an indication of authenticity; although you might be lucky to have an indication of the name of the dairy, so that with a bit of investigation, you can at least find out which UK country it was made in and where the milk came from – all of which the British label is designed to conceal.

After all, there’s no such thing as ‘English Caerphilly’ or ‘British Cheddar’. But the fact that there is in Tesco is a lie made in Britain.