Ninety-nine years ago today the British Parliament passed the Parliament Act. It limited the powers of the House of Lords and set up as official the idea that the chamber should be democratized. The Parliament Act 1911 also changed the way the House of Commons operated by reducing the maximum term of that chamber from seven to five years and introducing MP’s salaries (then at £400 p.a.). These Commons measures were along the lines of what the Chartists and others had long been campaigning for: shorter terms to give the electorate greater voice (because we can vote more often), and wages for MPs so that a private income is not needed to take up the political ‘hobby’.
Greg Mulholland, Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West, has been watching the footie, and he wants a debate on an English national anthem. It seems he’s got a little annoyed at the use of ‘God Save the Queen’ for the England football team at the World Cup in South Africa.
First off, anthems are rather silly things. Their lyrics are often little more than a admixture of jingoism and romanticist nonsense. However, the things of anthems and flags are important symbols of belonging, as long as we recognise they are the symbols and window-dressing of our identity and not its substance.
Second off, I abhor our current paean to Mrs Windsor because she doesn’t even begin to represent what this country means to most of us. The tune and lyrics are both bad: scrap it along with the monarchy! It also has the problem of having some official status in most Commonwealth realms (those countries that inexplicably keep Mrs Windsor as head of state). New Zealanders, for instance, would have the right to complain that the use of ‘God Save the Queen’ by British or English sporting teams that the anthem is just as much theirs — ‘God Save the Queen’ is the national anthem of New Zealand, alongside the more common ‘God Defend New Zealand’. In spite of my being a Christian, I recognise that ‘God Save the Queen’ bears a certain theological element that is either inappropriate or questionable to a significant number of citizens — being addressed to God, it is a prayer, and can, historically, be said to be a Christian, even Church of England, prayer.
Last night there were hustings of parliamentary candidates for our two local constituencies. I wasn’t able to go, but a friend showed me the programme afterwards. Alongside candidates from the three major parties were two UKIP candidates. It seemed normal to everyone that there were UKIP candidates on the platform, not arousing the controversy that having BNP candidates there would have created.
It seems UKIP’s main electoral tool is elector ignorance, with a bit of media fearmongering to boot. When I ask people what UKIP stands for, everyone says they are against the EU, and when pressed add that they’re probably anti-immigration too. For those who would never dream of voting for the fascist BNP, UKIP seems to them an attractive alternative to the major parties, but I’m sure they are not aware of what UKIP stands for.
UKIP’s immigration policy is against the UN Convention on Refugees, and so both UKIP and the BNP state that they would withdraw the UK from it. They would also repeal the Human Rights Act in order to deliver the harsher forms of ‘justice’ they relish. Any lover of liberty should start to hear alarm bells when a political group advocates the rolling back of our human rights.
Essay warning: this is a long article in three parts.
Recently, I wrote an article here on POWER2010 and the People’s Charter. In passing I mentioned how I didn’t support the proposed policy for POWER2010 of ‘English votes on English laws’, something I now realise is a bit of a mantra among English nationalists, with its own camel-case acronym EVoEL (deliver us from…?)!
There were a lot of important ideas in that post, but was surprised by the complete focus on English nationalism in the comments. I was even more surprised by the poor quality of their argument, much of which was ad hominem (‘you are trash’ said one, another found me a traitor, another suggested that I was being anti-English and thus racist!). Then there was the misquoting and misrepresentation of my thoughts. For instance, I had written ‘In general, the promotion of English nationalism by a few fringe groups is very dodgy’. I should have been clearer about what I meant: that English identity and the nationalism based on it, promoted by a few fringe groups, is a minefield of problems that should be treated with care rather than emotional flag waving. However, the nationalists tweeted this as my saying ‘the English are dodgy’ (hmm, nice misquote there)! Aside from this there was demonstrable lack of understanding of our political constitution (I had to direct a commenter to read the 1911 Parliament Act). However, overall, I was shocked by the need to depict the English as persecuted, restricted and disempowered within a UK in which we make up around 83% of the population. If nationalism is about national liberation, nationalists feel the obvious need to conjure up an imagined captivity from which to liberate us.
I am English and proud to be English. I own an English football shirt (somewhere), but I’m not the flag waving type. Many of my friends are not English, and I find their perspective on Englishness very useful. I believe that it’s important to approach the issue dispassionately and practically, against the surging romanticism that can leave one delusional.
Thomas Paine was born this day in 1737. He virtually invented the idea that the power of a nation should ultimately rest with the commonality of its people, and that elected politicians should be answerable to the people. Tom Paine is the father of rational values as the basis of a political constitution: that our government, legal system and political engagement should all make sense to average citizens so that they might fully participate. Naturally, Paine had no time for monarchs and monarchy: he wanted values at the heart of a nation rather than a dodgy personality cult. Neither did he think much of the British ‘compromise’ of parliamentary sovereignty, in which we elect politicians using an outdated electoral system who, once elected, are not accountable to the electorate and may do whatsoever they will. The MPs expenses are just the tip of the iceberg of a political system that creates a political class separate and above the people.
From the first page of Thomas Paine’s famous pamphlet Common Sense, I take the following quote
A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom.
I just came across this little video of Noam Chomsky speaking on the trend in US politics throughout its history to keep the people somewhat removed from their democracy. I can’t embed it here, so you’ll have to follow the link to watch it.
There are two things that come to mind watching this. The first is that the US has a greater quantity and quality of democracy than the UK. The US has a directly elected executive and clear checks on it by the legislature, unlike the mush of monarch, prime minister and parliament in the UK. The US has subnational entities, the states, which have a large degree of independence from central government, unlike the mostly powerless UK councils. The US at least starts from the idea of popular sovereignty (“We, the people”), where the UK has the useless compromise of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’. Therefore, any sense in which the US has consistently denied the right of the people to engage in their own government over the history is amplified in the UK context. Continue reading