Brit-Englishness

Is there another country in the entire world that generates such confusion over what you’re supposed to call it? Which of these names should we use: the United Kingdom, the British Isles, Britain, Great Britain? Even people who live here struggle to understand the geographical differences these names signify.

Then, when you try to attribute qualities to this country as a whole, are they to do with ‘Britishness’ or is that just nonsense? Scottishness, Welshness, Northern Irishness – where do they come in?

sum of exclamations equals a q

Perhaps it’s easier to understand the parts than the whole?

We hear the British don’t mind being thought of as quirky or idiosyncratic. On 5.5.5 & Counting, we don’t fully accept this. We believe the real quirkiness and idiosyncrasy arises from Englishness. The English share of the population is, of course, in a massive majority – more than 50 million out of about 65. Trying to understand what Englishness is and what Englishness means may therefore shed light on resistance to changing the voting system of the UK to a fair one that would actually count the votes of its citizens at general elections. One journalist writing in “I” newspaper on 24 October 2015 says that there is no desire to go through the upheaval of writing a constitution in England and, just as worryingly for us, ‘Most English voters are quite happy with their parliament.’

Admittedly, the UK has had its share of Scots in high government positions. Also, we see all the home countries represented quite prominently in politics and in the media. But wherever in the UK they come from, once they are immersed in the dynamic of that zone of South-east England where the power lies, they are in grave danger of succumbing to Englishness. Many would agree with us that when we think of the Establishment, ‘Englishness’ is pretty near the front of our minds.

So we think the dominant cultural force and national identity must be not pure ‘Britishness’ but something we could call more accurately ‘Brit-Englishness’.

The culture of Brit-Englishness seems to flourish on creating distractions from its own problems. The projection of attention or blame onto ‘others’ is known as displacement.

english and union flags

Can we grasp what Britishness means without understanding Englishness?

Never does this get better demonstrated than when someone calls for a definition of Britishness – quite a common occurrence, in fact. This often descends into race and faith issues. For example, paragraph one in an article on Britishness by Rafael Behr (Guardian, 7 July 2015) mentions the infiltration of radical Islamist ideas. This shows how inclined we are to move without hesitation and label Britishness as the antidote to overseas political systems and religions whose values appear to us to be less desirable. Fine, some space for those comparisons is necessary when trying to find a meaning to Britishness. But to fill up the whole room with them, shut the door and walk away like that’s it done and dusted – is that really our best shot?

We need to dive in and take a much harder look at mainstream Britain itself – inside rather than outside. Everyday experience of Britishness is what you find when you are interacting with society. Would it not make more sense to judge it with questions like:

  • How do we all treat each other socially, in public or at work?
  • How do we see ourselves reflected in the media?
  • How do our political and financial institutions behave?

We ought to be comparing ourselves in these respects to countries that we have much more in common with. We take it for granted that we count ourselves in ‘the premiership’ with the Nordic, West-Central European, the other English-speaking economies and Japan.

But when British people are asked what it means to be British the idea of making comparisons at this level doesn’t seem to enter their heads. The far more common responses are:

  • First, as if they’re being faced with an implied threat to the concept of Britishness. Because it is not easy to define in itself, we perhaps don’t want to paint ourselves into a corner with anything too specific. It has a special quality that we ought not to try and define too closely. It can be better defined in relation to any external threats to it, real or perceived.
  • The second follows almost inevitably from the first. We know in our hearts what it is to be British in a core, domestic sense and the last thing we want is anyone to question that and tell us what we should be doing or thinking differently.
Bill of Rights letter to i September 2015

Someone from Norfolk, writing to “I” newspaper, evidently believes that a country that has no constitutional rights for its citizens doesn’t need advice on human rights from European countries that do have. Furthermore, compatriots who feel we might need to get a bit of help must be even further beyond the pale.

So it’s not surprising that the argument is often put forward saying that we appear to lack a sense of Britishness. Definition of the national identity, Baer continues in his article, risks straying into awkward historical and religious terrain – church and empire!  The definition of Britishness may therefore not just be nebulous and remote but highly sensitive.  Englishness, of course, has its massive presence in British culture and of all the country’s peoples, what it means to be English is by far the trickiest to grasp. Is it possible that all that idiosyncrasy we pride ourselves on is a smokescreen?

Nobody is trying to pretend the other home nations are blessed with perfect national identity. The recent Scottish independence referendum almost divided their country in half. Northern Ireland is especially difficult because of its complicated and troubled recent history. But when you listen to the Scots and the Welsh they do seem to be underpinned by a view of the world that gives them a more solid sense of who and what they are. They seem often to come across as more forthright and natural.

Here’s a bet. When groping to find a direct answer of substance to the question of what is Britishness, most of the things that start coming to the forefront of our minds are either English or strongly tinged with it. The Queen and her current entourage, royalty past and present; Churchill, the Houses of Parliament, Shakespeare, Dickens, the bobby on the beat, our valiant troops, Oxbridge, the boat race, the Grand National, the Proms, the Lake District, the special relationship with the US, the London taxi, the Bank of England…to name several. Indisputable evidence of this cultural bias has now come out with the announcement of a revised British passport design (November 2015). There are twelve pages of British ‘creatives’. On one of those pages the Edinburgh Festival gets a short paragraph. On another, three iconic buildings, one each in Wales, Scotland and N Ireland get a paragraph each. Absolutely everything else on the twelve ‘creatives’ pages is on locations in England or about English people.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crash, we should at least be starting to question the reverence we afford the nation’s cultural mascots. They imply some great store of exemplary values – achievement, competence, excellence and so on. But the reality gap is now painfully obvious. The performance of so many of our institutions has not matched reputations. Some might say there has been complacency. On competence, trust and inequality we’ve always liked to talk as if Britishness ticks all the boxes but the reality is a growing column of X’s. It is in the balance whether we may soon have to add another one because of the allegations that have come to light of organised child abuse – or worse – in the highest political circles of the land. Establishment interests may feel the pressure is off now because at late October 2015  there have been significant developments taking the heat out of some of the allegations. Let’s hope that’s the last of it or, frankly, where would we be?

Even so, maybe the people would still like to see some of our institutions getting a good shake-up and Westminster hasn’t exactly gone out of its way to keep a clean sheet in the last few years. In our view, changing the way we elect our governments by ending safe seats and moving to a fair voting system would be a very constructive project to start planning.

Media and FPTP

The mainstream media community, to use a term we hope it can identify with, gives the impression that the attitudes, manners, values and beliefs of the people you tune in to watch or listen to are the same as yours. We are meant to think these personalities – the Faces of the Media – are just like us.

Clarkson Punch

Join the team, Jeremy. We need big hitters in the electoral reform movement.

Yet most of the stream of media presenters and entertainers broadcasting to you are different in one very important respect. Compared to us Average Joes, they are high earners. It might knock you back a bit if you didn’t know the figure Jeremy Clarkson is said to be worth annually is £14m! (in his pre-punch career, anyway; it’s probably more now).

But what about the everyday presenters, reporters, commentators, pundits, soap actors, TV chefs and so on…? We talk about the 1% in this country as holding extraordinary personal wealth. A decent number of high-profile Face of the Media personalities, including Clarkson of course, will fall comfortably into the 1% bracket. And those who don’t are still going to be well up there near the top and probably in the 2-5% wealthiest people in the country.

We are only stating facts. If that’s the rate for a media job and you can land one, whether on merit or, as often seems to be the case, through being a well connected name who’s developed an interest in something, so be it. So what should this matter to a site like 5.5.5 & Counting which wants electoral reform?

Well, day by day, we get our dose of media personalities who are trained well and paid well to do jobs that put over news, entertainment and information in an organised, prepared and choreographed way. They work to production agendas. And when it comes round every five years, there is a well tried and tested production agenda for the general election too. Continue reading

New Voters

This chart tells us something very significant.  Look at the first two segments. The number of people registered to vote  (black) has increased between 2001 and 2015 and the number of non-voters (grey) has decreased. So who are these extra people voting for?

Look at the third and fourth segments (Change m and Change %). There has been only a very small increase in the number of new votes for Labour and Tory (brown) whereas the much bigger share of the increase has gone to other parties (green). In fact, Change % shows us that other parties have increased their vote share by 38%.

You might be able to spot straightaway what the bad news is for our democracy. With the current electoral system, other parties do not get a corresponding increase in the number of seats in parliament. Nearly all new voters have therefore ended up being unrepresented in parliament.

Despite how the politicians, the media and all society’s general do-gooders encouraged stay-at-homes to get out and vote, it’s hard to see what good has been done. Millions have gone to polling booths to support new or alternative parties only to go through the motions of participating in a voting procedure that brought them no measurable benefit.

The only positive is that we can at least identify and count them in the vast numbers of spurned voters and with that evidence step up the case for electoral reform without delay.

 

The national dynamic

An author of this site writes:

“I am a white, Caucasian, English man. But this unalterable fact of my birth and history is not about politics or pride. My view of nationality is like the ironic one taken by Tom Paine when writing more than two centuries ago. A pregnant Englishwoman could have sailed on the ferry to France or walked across Offa’s Dyke to Wales, delivered her baby and immediately returned home to raise the child in England. Would we have any problem identifying the child’s nationality when it grew up?  Would we listen to any objection to a claim of nationality simply because at birth the mother was passingly on foreign soil? Believe it or not, many people thought that it was the soil of the place of birth that gave real meaning to nationality and hence imposed a duty of patriotism.

man with pen and q mark

Does anyone really care?

Next, as for race, I recognise that no supernatural power selected me to be born into the relatively comfortable life of Western Europe to white parents. It was pure chance. I could just as well have been born in Asia, Africa or South America to Chinese, black or Hispanic ones. Or have been a child mortality. Or not have been born at all. So I don’t believe in anything fundamental to my life and maturation to an age which gives me the capacity to understand concepts like ‘nationality’ being down to where or into which race I was born.

I’ve lived in different parts of the country and arrived in late middle age without ever feeling very English. What really affects a person’s life are the cultural and social dynamics of the country or countries they’ve been raised in and live in. So those of England have dominated my life. Unfortunately, ‘Englishness’ has some quality or other that has always jarred with my outlook on the world. I seem not to have been able to find a very harmonious fit with the English perspective.

When you find yourself in a minority you look inward fearing the problem is something to do with you. My feeling of being semi-detached lacked any explanation until I read “I’m okay, you’re okay. Games People Play” by Eric Berne. I was well into my forties, encountering the subject of relationship dynamics for the first time. The book proved an extremely useful tool, helping me ‘deconstruct’ foggy confusion about not fitting in that had built up over long decades.

Berne breaks relationship dynamics down into three main actors or modes: Adult, Parent and Child. As you mature you need your parent less and less, your child slips into the past and the sort of dynamic you look for in your relationships is Adult:Adult. Parent:Child relationships are appropriate for parents and children but if adult relationships become contaminated, inappropriate Parent:Child dynamics can emerge between adults (as can Child:Child, Child:Adult and others).

Light started to dawn when I applied this Parent:Child model to the dynamics I was seeing in work, social, political and media contexts. Suddenly it started to make sense that the English find something very meaningful in Parent:Child dynamics. I now have the distinct feeling they even get a buzz out of being in or witnessing people or groups in Parent:Child mode.”

If there is some truth in what this author has written, we can turn it round and look from the other direction. In terms of sustaining the more mature Adult:Adult dynamic, we have a national weakness. Why should this be a matter that concerns 5.5.5 & Counting?

Unfortunately, it may be that our electoral system, first past the post (FPTP), contains very strong elements of Parent:Child dynamic. Anyone who analyses the statistics of our four elections between 2001 and 2015 can see within minutes that it’s unfair to voters. It can’t be right that a political party can get between 20 and 25% support of the electorate and then take power to govern the country outright. This could never happen in other Western European democracies because that party would only get its proportional share of power. It would then have to form agreements to work with other parties to get its policies passed. It would have to negotiate. In 2017, in the unusual circumstances of the snap ‘Brexit’ election, this has become the reality for the moment. The pattern was broken and the two parties got big increases in support. But ironically, neither got an overall majority and the largest party, Tory, is having to try and negotiate a working arrangement with a smaller party in true PR fashion.

There are two problems here though as far as the English dynamic we have been talking about is concerned. First, if the dominant dynamic is Parent:Child, FPTP fits very well with that. Parent:Child relationships aren’t meant to be fair. They’re based on the one telling the other what’s best for it and the other having to accept, fair or not. Second, if you haven’t earned an outright majority fairly and have to work with others to get your policies through, you need to be prepared for plenty of Adult:Adult dynamic. As has been argued above, there’s evidence that the English aren’t good at Adult:Adult.

To get round this, the biggest party could try adopting the powerful ‘Parent’ position and enforce the last word on everything. But either it won’t work because actually that power is not real or it could work sometimes but cause resentment among the partners. None of that is particularly good for trust, respect and relationship building.

Political parties in coalitions or working arrangements are never expected or required to negotiate away red-line policies. These are policies in their manifestos ranked high priority and they represent party principles and promises or can even be inseparable from the movement’s ‘raison d’etre’.

We saw how the Liberal-Democrats made a hash of this in the 2010-15 Coalition by breaking their promise on student tuition fees and throwing away their negotiating advantage on electoral reform with an ill-advised AV referendum. Their virtual wipe-out followed immediately in the 2015 election.

It is not difficult to predict the response of FPTP advocates. They will trot out all the familiar arguments about FPTP producing a decisive result, proportional representation being indecisive, leading to weak government, breaking the close link between the MP and the constituency and so on. Although it is easy to show with statistics or the design of proportional systems why such fears can be dealt with, the problem is that FPTP advocates hold all the aces. They are, by definition, going to be on the side of those who at any given time are in power virtue of being elected by the FPTP system. The familiar cliché is ‘Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas’.

Let’s put it a little differently: ‘We have the decision. You can’t do anything about it. You’ll have to accept you’re not getting electoral reform.’ In other words, classic Parent:Child! How can we – and anyone else who feels the time has come for reform – get over this enormous hurdle? A national Adult:Adult perspective on the issue still seems a long way off. If you wanted to wrestle with the challenge of an almost intractable problem, look no further. We need you to stop and contribute your ideas, ingenuity and determination to the blog. We don’t have all the answers. Please help.

About the Coalition

Between 2010 and 2015 the UK experienced political life under the Coalition. It was an unusual coalition, though, with the smaller party – the Liberal Democrats – promising from the start to toe the line no matter what.

tory

They and the Tories seemed never to have shared much common ground in the past. The prospect of those two parties joining up even making it onto the agenda was a jaw-dropper. But the Lib-Dems argued they had actual moral duties to support:lib-dem

  •  the party that gained the most votes or seats (the Tories)
  •  policies to prioritise reducing the deficit in the national interest (in the wake of the financial crisis)

In a way they seemed to be thinking more about queen and country than their own electoral supporters and party members. In their moral fervour the Lib-Dems even committed themselves to a guaranteed five-year term for the Coalition! In other words, no matter how the Tories behaved, the Coalition would stay intact.

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18 March 2003

We want to remember a date that must go down as an extremely disappointing one for a UK democracy worth its name. It was just two years before the May 2005 election when Labour got back into power with the lowest level of electoral support ever recorded. Were the two events connected?

Blair

We know your wife’s Dad was an actor but, honestly mate!

18 March 2003 was the day Tony Blair, prime minister of the UK, used his position of leadership to manipulate the House of Commons into his preference for an invasion of Iraq. He delivered a long, heavy and urgent demand for support from the amassed rows of MPs sitting in this country’s elected chamber.

A widespread view has been forming ever since that, for the UK and USA political leaderships, this was a conflict of choice spun as one of necessity.

Would-be orators looking in would have received the mother of lessons in the use of body language to win over an audience. Mr Blair never stopped bristling, gesticulating and quivering with passion and conviction. Nobody had seen him display any such animation on domestic issues (at least, not for the six or seven years since his days in opposition when hungry for power).

With the help of a predictably gung-ho approach from the Tories he won the day. The House surrendered, knowing in its heart it had sided against the apparent will of the country’s people – who had been turning out in millions to demonstrate against the idea. MPs probably went to bed that night with an uncomfortable feeling they had voted against their own instincts too. Most of us, the people, had massive doubts. Few had ever been more than half persuaded that an invasion of Iraq would be right.

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5 May 2005

The date shorthand 5.5.5 would have tripped off the tongue just as readily as 9/11 or 7/7. But the one good thing about 5 May 2005 was that no real blood was let. So, many people did not regard what happened on 5 May 2005 as anything very disastrous for a democracy. ‘5.5.5’ never caught on. Probably only a minority of people who read New Labour under Tony Blair was returned to power with a splendid 66 seat majority were horrified when they saw it was achieved with only 21% of those entitled to vote. That something so unrepresentative could occur right at the crucial point of electing a democratic western government for a period up to five years leaves some of us very baffled. May 2005 calendar alt 3And this feeling is compounded when many, after being made aware of the facts, seem willing to accept them with barely a shrug. It gets worse still when people argue we have to keep our distorted electoral system because it has, according to them, a number of exceptional qualities. Besides, we’re British and it’s the way we have always done it. But if the deep unfairness of 5.5.5 strikes a chord with you, please contribute to the blog on this website. The 5 May 2005 election is our main theme and our headline topic but note you can link to a number of other key issues. Continue reading