A place of politics, culture (!!) & random subjects from Airstrip One. Noel hopes it will be of interest and/or use to all sorts of voyagers in cyberspace!

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Location: London, England, United Kingdom

The Voice Of 40-Something Cynical Optimism!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Away for a while

I'm off to Bruges/Brugge tomorrow for 11 nights (back in London May 30th). It is good to get away sometimes from the hurly burly of modern life. Once I'm back I've a few days off work, so I hope to add shedloads of posts to my blog. Getting to the 200th post would be a milestone (millstone?!)...

Saturday, May 06, 2006

It's coming some time maybe...

I think mainstream British politics has hit the same point as mainstream British popular music hit around the mid-1970s. Surely we need the political equivalent of these chaps to appear?

"There ain't no future in England's dreaming..."

Monday, May 01, 2006

God Squadding Nutters With Nukes

God does indeed move in mysterious ways....

President Bush: "I base a lot of my foreign policy decisions on some things that I think are true. One, I believe there's an Almighty. And, secondly, I believe one of the great gifts of the Almighty is the desire in everybody's soul, regardless of what you look like or where you live, to be free." (

"Yeah, these are my babe pulling threads..."

In November, the country was startled by a video showing Mr Ahmadinejad telling a cleric that he had felt the hand of God entrancing world leaders as he delivered a speech to the UN General Assembly last September.

When an aircraft crashed in Teheran last month [December 2005], killing 108 people, Mr Ahmadinejad promised an investigation. But he also thanked the dead, saying: "What is important is that they have shown the way to martyrdom which we must follow."


Mayday Greetings and all that

I didn't get anywhere with my essay to the Fabians/Guardian. So here it is. My mum liked it, so you'd better do too!

Confessions of an English Radical

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” James Joyce.

It is not often that you hear someone on the “progressive” wing of politics say that they are pro-English. I think I have been, however much I might persuade myself otherwise, since about the age of eight. I remember at school in history learning about the Romans and Vikings and their occupations of England. However, in time they both left the country, at least in military terms. Then came the Normans. I asked myself, “When did they leave England?” The more I came back to answering the question as I got older the simple answer was “never”. That is, the Normans introduced a class system, a centralised state and a foreign policy based upon interfering in other countries that, to me, still defines “Britishness”. When I was about nineteen I came across the political thought of the Levellers during the English Civil Wars and their idea of “the Norman Yoke”, when the Anglo-Saxons lost their “freeborn” liberties. Although I have been through phases of other forms of politics, I have come back to the idea that England is still under a much-modified Norman Yoke as a good an explanation of our problems as any other. (Margaret Thatcher has “bloody Norman” written all over her; a modern “Harrying of the North” took place under her rule.)

However, despite seeing an independent England as a quite respectable goal for any political radical to support it is hard to find progressives ready to support such a goal. Partly this is because those “pro-English” organisations and publications that exist tend to be on “the right”, and some have some extremely dodgy, if not outright racist, attitudes. Some sound like people still getting over the results of the last three general elections; and some come across as “little Normans”, with England unchanged except for those pesky “Celtic fringe” parts chopped off (few “pro-English” groups ever talk about making an anti-UK alliance with the likes of the SNP or Plaid Cymru.)

However, most opposition from progressives to “pro-Englishness” seems to stem from a fear of something worse than the United Kingdom emerging. This not particularly optimistic view of the world, which seems to inspire much of the “New Britishness” talk now emerging is, I believe, based on two questionable assumptions. One, “Britishness” is a “progressive” issue. Two, “Englishness” is an inherently “reactionary” one. I will argue briefly here that neither is the case.

Simply, it appears to me that there is too much historical baggage associated with the British state at home and abroad for a progressive “New Britishness” to thrive. Instead I would argue that political progressives throughout the existing United Kingdom need to embrace new national identities, in England’s case English Radicalism, as alternatives to Britishness; alternatives able to draw upon our progressive pasts to deal effectively with the challenges of the Twenty First Century.

Britishness and Democracy

Being able to write such a piece and being able to vote for a political party of my choice suggests that there is a lot to be said for living in Britain and any attempt to restrict such freedoms, whether from home or abroad, should be resisted. However, how democratic is the British state? The historical record suggests that the democratic features of the British state came gradually, to say the least. Furthermore, the British state still suffers from a “democratic deficit.” These defects of the British state, and of a “Britishness” based upon unashamedly promoting Britain’s democratic traditions, can be traced back to the real origins of the modern British state. That is, although the Treaty of Union of England and Scotland created the modern British state in 1707, the template for the modern British state was imported to England in 1066. The Normans were an elite that gained their sense of self through monopolising political power over those below them and by the projection of state power abroad. Although over the centuries the Norman elite has been joined by others seeking to take the reins of state power – “the Norman Yoke”- our society is still imbued by a strong sense of “us” and “them”, a class society divided between those who give orders to others and those who are expected to obey those orders. The Normans have given us a legacy where “bottom-up” initiative and the decentralisation of political power are distrusted.

Ever since 1066 England, and in time the rest of the United Kingdom, has been dominated by a “top-down” state project. Although we are supposed to believe that the carve-up between King John and the Barons in 1215 and the bankers’ coup of 1688 are great moments in our march towards a democratic society, they are pretty feeble events to celebrate compared to what the French or Americans have to celebrate. Where is our July 4th or July 14th? Where is our Declaration of Independence or the Rights of Man, celebrating the Rights of the People? When is our Independence Day?

Frankly, “Britishness” is not built on very democratic grounds. We have an unelected, hereditary head of state; a totally unelected upper house; a lower house where seats are distributed in a totally arbitrary manner, with no relation to the distribution of votes whatsoever; there is no constitutional mechanism for referenda from below; no constitutional role for petitioning Parliament; no provision for recall of MPs by their constituents; and there are no constitutional safeguards to protect the existence of sub-national levels of government.

Consequently attempting to define or redefine “Britishness” as a popular project will fail because the whole concept of a British national identity is historically a “top-down” political project. Westminster is not an institution that encourages populist democratic impulses. “Write to your MP” is not a slogan to inspire; in fact, it is one of the most demobilising phrases in politics today. We are not encouraged to march or demonstrate as The People, and hence it is not surprising that so few people can be mobilised to either defend or reform Westminster.

Political progressives are almost a much to blame for this political demobilisation as conservatives. Prior to universal suffrage, political radicals denounced the “Old Corruption” of the British state. However, this changed in the Twentieth Century. Since at least 1918, British progressives have identified overwhelmingly with the British state. Piecemeal reforms by the state to improve the lives of those whom progressives claimed to help and represent had the effect of encouraging progressives that they only needed to take hold of the reins of the “Norman Yoke” in order to build a society in their own image. Consequently it was not surprising that this adoption of a “top-down” view of political change saw the hegemony of Labourist and Leninist political theory and practice over progressive politics from 1918 onwards. Both tendencies saw socialism being imposed by “top-down” methods (“the gentleman in Whitehall really does know best”- Douglas Jay) with their supporters having a mere walk-on role to legitimise the new elites’ rule through either a General Election or a revolution. [Really, when using the phrase "Labourist" I wanted to use the phrase "Fabian" but that would have shot my chances of winning the competition right out the water. For all the bloody good it did me!]

With Labourism and Leninism seeing a strong central state as the means to an end, attempts to reform the British state whether through more democracy or decentralisation throughout much of the Twentieth Century were seen as reactionary diversions from the creation of a British “New Jerusalem”.

Consequently, the current Government’s claim to be devolving power in the UK since 1997 can be seen as part of a long line of essentially top-down initiatives to mollify grumbling from below, similar to the extensions of the election franchise in 1832 and 1867. The referenda on devolution, and the indefinitely postponed referenda on the euro, EU Constitution and PR have all being top-down initiatives; there is simply no constitutional mechanism that anybody from, for example, the anti-war or pro-hunting lobbies can force Westminster or the Executive to heed their demands one iota. Petitions to Number 10 or Buckingham Palace may give their signatories a vehicle for letting out their frustrations, but they have no practical democratic effect. The Royal Prerogative still exists to give the Executive the power to declare war and sign treaties without having to answer to anyone.

In short, any attempt to build a “New Britishness” on the grounds that the British state is impeccably democratic will fail as the deficit between rhetoric and reality is too difficult to bridge; a deficit that increasing numbers turning away from the political process in Britain recognise.

Britishness and the imperial legacy

When “New Britishness” is applied to the rest of the world, it seems to promote the idea that Britain is a force to do good in the world. However, has the British state ever done good in the world except as a by-product of its own narrow interests? Except for World War Two there seems to be little historical evidence that this is so. Britain’s empire was the legacy of colonial wars and expansion, which have never historically been the results of purely altruistic “do-gooding” by any power.

Indeed, ever since the Normans invaded, the state elites in first England, and then the rest of Britain, got much of their sense of worth from the idea that they were presiding over a great power, able to project its power abroad. Before Britain acquired a formal Empire the Normans and their direct descendants, the Plantagenets, were involved in almost four centuries of wars in France, in the ultimately futile goal of making France a colony of theirs.

The British Empire itself was created in the face of hostility from various European powers, most notably France, the Netherlands and Spain. As Linda Colley argues in her seminal work on Britain’s imperial identity Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, Anglo-Scottish unity following the Treaty of Union was based on shared anti-Catholic and anti-French attitudes and the benefits of Empire to the whole of Britain. Colley argues that these were historically contingent circumstances and without them the basis for a United Kingdom would be undermined.

Outside of Northern Ireland there is little strident anti-Catholicism left in Britain; there is little sign of anyone wanting to start a war with France (except possibly to secure more holiday homes in Provence); and apart from a few spots painted red across the globe, there is no Empire. Consequently, by Colley’s criteria surely there is a need for a “New Britishness”, one that does not hark to our imperial past?

However, how can “Britishness” be anything but something that is totally imbued with the reflexes of an imperial past? This is still the case with foreign policy. Our elites who deal with foreign relations still seem to think that we are a great power, which is quite simply the legacy of nine hundred and forty years of history. Possession of nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council help to give Britain’s elites the illusion that they still preside over a great power. Even though the United States was instrumental in helping to dissolve the Empire and in ending Britain’s ability to operate as an independent global power at the time of the 1956 Suez Crisis, successive British governments seem to think having a common language helps constitute a “Special Relationship” with the USA, which gives us a unique place on the international “top table”. British troops getting attacked on the streets of Basra is a direct consequence of where our elites’ great power delusions can lead.

Furthermore, the European Union has often being presented by both sides of the “European debate” as a litmus test of whether or not Britain is still a great power. Those who are opposed to membership, or further integration, see the EU as a harbinger of, to use Hugh Gaitskell’s phrase, “the end of a thousand years of history”. On the other hand, “pro-Europeans” talk about the EU as a vehicle for Britain to “lead Europe” and become a great power once again. Why Britain should be a great power is never discussed seriously by Britain’s elites.

In short, “New Britishness” and associated professions of faith about “doing good” in the world are merely expressions of the imperial legacy with a grin, a comfort blanket for elites who can only overcome the psychological blows from the retreat from Empire by subsuming themselves in the global pretensions of two new imperial powers- the US and EU- and illustrate neatly Trotsky’s comment that “All through history, mind limps after reality.”

Then there is the domestic legacy of the imperial project. Trying to claim that the British Empire as one aspect of a “New Britishness” we can all be proud of will fail.
This is far from just being the result of the Empire’s legacy upon Britain’s so-called ethnic minorities, although I find it difficult to understand why groups labelled “ethnic-British” should identify with a national identity built around an Empire that oppressed them. In fact, “Britishness” will fail on this score principally because it fails to address questions of identity relating to the so-called indigenous population.

To be unfashionable and to use the c-word, “class”, it seems that much of the guilt and angst about the Empire comes from those of middle class backgrounds, who when it existed would have been those who benefited directly from its existence. That particularly goes for those who would have been members of the overseas civil service bureaucracy. “New Britishness” and its credo of Britain doing good in the world seems in many ways a form of national identity for those whose ancestors benefited directly from Empire can feel comfortable with; a form of mass therapy to assuage their feelings of collective guilt.

In contrast, a “New Britishness” which stresses the need to atone for the guilt of all Britons will alienate many who have no such feelings. That is, people from working class backgrounds that did not benefit directly from the Empire. When I ask myself about the benefits of Empire (“Would you have been able to visit Vancouver without it?”; “Would England be able to play India at cricket?”) the simple answer arises “IT WAS NOT MY EMPIRE!” It had nothing to do with me, and my ancestors did not gain much, if anything, from being a part of it. My father’s side of the family were hit by the Irish potato famine and saw the Black and Tans shooting civilians on the streets of Sligo (which did not stop my grandfather serving in the British army in World War Two); my mother’s ancestors were forced off the land and forced to work in appalling conditions in factories during the Industrial Revolution. How can the British Empire be said to be “theirs”? The same goes for those whose forebears were driven off the land by the Highland clearances and the Enclosure Acts or were cannon fodder for the endless and mostly futile wars (World War Two being the one obvious exception) that our rulers have presided over generation after generation. Thinking like this, it makes one realise that by discussing the Empire, and trying to make the vast majority of people in Britain feel guilty about the excesses and crimes associated with it, is a totally hopeless task.

Just looking for a New England?

There is no “New Britishness” that political progressives can subscribe to. It is a concept too weighed down by the gap between its democratic, enlightened pretensions and the sordid reality that the British state has presided over for centuries.

Is there an alternative that progressives, at least in England, can subscribe to? Is there a historical tradition that is democratic, decentralist, encourages “bottom-up” initiatives and when it comes to the rest of the world, is consistent with George Orwell’s declaration that “I hate to see England either humiliated or humiliating anyone else”?

The simple answer is a national identity built upon “English Radicalism”. English Radicalism draws upon the folk-myth of the “Norman Yoke”, when freeborn Anglo-Saxons were deprived of their freedoms by the Normans, to inspire the English, whatever their origins or background, to create a better society for all. English Radicalism, which inspired thinkers and movements such as the Levellers, Tom Paine, William Cobbett, the Chartists, the mutualist and co-operative movements, William Morris, the pre-1914 syndicalists and Guild Socialists such as GDH Cole, was driven underground politically by the triumph of “top-down” socialism after 1918. Now that global “top-down” models of organising society, whether by states or corporations, are under attack from decentralising, democratic tendencies, it is time for English progressives, and their counterparts throughout this not so United Kingdom, to embrace a national identity which accords with the spirit of the age.

It also means a national identity that draws upon one of the most abused phrases in modern politics: “Little Englander”. The original “Little Englanders” were patriotic radicals who were opposed to the Empire building that underlay Britain’s participation in the 1899-1902 Boer War. As our nation can only be at ease with itself when we abandon imperial adventures, whether our own or on behalf of the USA or EU, and realise that our real gifts to the world are our language, our culture and our sense of humour, none of which the Normans gave us!

In conclusion, I think political progressives are wasting their time hoping that the “New Britishness” will lead to a country they can be proud of. I think English Radicalism, and its counterparts in the other nations of the British Isles, will deliver the independent, democratic, decentralist and “bottom-up” country most of us desire to live in. I believe that if we want to, the “Norman Yoke” will disappear quicker than we can imagine, and like the Thane of Cawdor in Macbeth “Nothing in his life/Became him like the leaving it.”

I hope you thought was a worthy read. I have been thinking a lot over the past few weeks wondering where to go in life and all that. Like Hamlet I spend too much time thinking and not doing. Tolkien in one of his letters said that the true English vice is sloth and I suffer from it a lot. I also realise that procrastination is the id to the ego of perfectionism and I have during my life suffered genuine fears about what do next with myself too much. Well, I am to stop worrying. I want to be a writer of non-fiction (much, much more interesting than non-fiction on the whole) and if possible do something worthwhile politically. I didn't become a Green candidate for West Hampstead. In fact I didn't even sign any nomination papers and have decided that my attempts at political "substitutionism" (to use a good phrase of Lenin's) are futile. (although I will vote Green on Thursday!) I am to stop joining political organisations that I don't honestly believe in hoping that I can change them. If I am to be part of a political party it needs to be one that I can wholeheartedly support. I hope that my writing can bring such a party into existence. That is, an English Mutualist Party. I will go on (ad nauseum!) about it in further blogs.

I am away in Brugge/Bruges in Flanders from May 19th to the 30th. I won't have much time to take things forward before then. However, I will make the following plea.

Living in North West London I thought it would be extremely simple to find fellow writers as the area has such a deep literary tradition. However, visits around libraries and bookshops in recent days have proved fruitless: where are the writers circles and groups in this part of the world (West Hampstead, Swiss Cottage, Primrose Hill, Maida Vale, Little Venice, Kilburn, Queen's Park etc)? If anyone knows, please e-mail me! The same goes for bloggers around here: it would be great to meet fellow bloggers. I know writing/blogging have their solitary tendencies, but it would be nice to know that we are not all totally isolated.

PS The spellcheck for this is superb: it suggested changing "Fabians" to "baboons"...