January’s issue of BBC History Magazine includes an interview with Professor Linda Colley, described by Wikipedia as “a historian of Britain, empire and nationalism”. It’s a very revealing article, to the extent that Colley articulates what are the common, unconscious prejudices of the metropolitan chattering classes – the MCCs – towards the past, present and future of these islands. In 1999, when she held a post at the London School of Economics, Colley was one of several speakers invited by the Blairs to deliver a Millennium Lecture at 10 Downing Street. This talk, Britishness in the 21st Century, was subsequently widely referenced by the British Council and other mouthpieces of the regime.
If we believe her latest piece, “London has been influential in lots of different ways, some of which have been benign: it does continue to pump a lot of money into the economy, for instance”. It’s astonishing that someone as ignorant of the facts as Colley can achieve the influential position she holds. London is habitually presented as the UK’s cornucopia, through comparing its contribution to tax revenues against a highly selective reckoning of money spent there specifically for its benefit. Money spent there that is deemed, however questionably, to be for the benefit of the whole UK is excluded from the calculation.
A historian of empire ought, one would think, to be more inquiring about how London’s wealth is amassed and at whose expense, since it mostly doesn’t come from growing or making things locally. In double-entry terms, most of the money pumped into the economy is made up to correspond to an equivalent amount of misery inflicted, here or elsewhere. The systematic eradication of the City of London would undoubtedly be the greatest advance in human freedom since the abolition of the slave trade.
While Colley refuses to be drawn on the outcome of next year’s Scottish referendum, her contribution does outline some ways in which Britishness might mount a recovery. The three-headed hydra we shall need to slay comprises federalism, a written constitution, and a charter of UK rights. Expect to hear all three argued to death by the MCCs over the coming years as a means of keeping real change well off the agenda.
We have explained before why federalism cannot work to turn an unequal union into an equal one. There’s no point in labouring the numbers. The word has a deceptively gentle ring to it, an air of fairness drawn from other contexts where federalism does work because the facts of geography are favourable to it. It can’t make a silk purse out of the pig’s ear that the UK has always been.
How about a written constitution? For England, it might work, as might a federal union of English regions (though better still a confederal one). So it might too for the other nations of these islands, individually, as sovereign states. What good could it do the UK? To demand a written constitution in advance of sorting out the territorial power relationships is profoundly reactionary.
An unwritten constitution is fluid, allowing devolution to be expanded relatively easily as compared to getting a constitutional amendment passed. The purpose of a written constitution – in the UK context – is to make constitutional change more difficult, especially through requiring the consent of the whole UK to any change. So Scotland wants devo-max? Fine, but only if the UK’s English majority agrees. A written constitution, just like federalism, is more likely to fan the fires of separatism than leaving well alone. It will make what could be an amicable dissolution into a bitter and even violent break-up if one part of the UK seeks to thwart the ambitions of another for self-government. Those who advocate it have learnt nothing from Irish Home Rule save how to repeat the process in as horrible a manner as possible.
A charter of UK rights? Yawn. Just like a written constitution, this is a device to kick the debate into the long grass. Who, honestly, is going to spend years sifting through all the citizens’ tweets of what they’d like included? We can be sure that community rights to self-government won’t be allowed through. The London regime is obsessed with individual rights and nothing else because it is local communities, united in indignation, that pose a threat to its dominance. Individuals are no threat at all. They can be repeatedly assured of how valued they are, even as everything they value around them is torn apart for profit. (And, in law, private corporations, remember, are people too, with the same inhuman rights as everyone else but with bigger legal teams to enforce them.) Eliminating every intermediate identity between the State and the individual is the essence of the still-dominant Jacobin worldview. But there is more to the project even than that. It isn’t just a device to avoid discussing the realities of property and power in a London-dominated island, and maybe entrench them further. It’s also a device to avoid questioning what’s so special about the UK that it has to be the fundamental focus of that project.
The Coalition has wasted considerable resources on setting up a commission to look into a UK Bill of Rights and has received some interesting rebuffs. One is to ask why the devolved areas can’t have their own. Scotland has its own legal system, one very different from English common law. Wales has its language issue. Northern Ireland lives with sectarian nuances that may suggest different requirements from a charter that will succeed in keeping the peace there. And if the UK is too big to be meaningful as the maker of rights, might it also be too small? If we must have rights above the level of the basic nation, why not have rights that are European or universal? What is it that the UK dimension adds? What is it that we are supposed to all have in common that separates us from the rest of humanity? What is the tradition appealed to in defining a ‘UK right’, ‘British values’, or whatever other piece of chauvinistic nonsense happens to be doing the rounds?
One such tradition could be that stodgy constitutionalism that is forever looking around for ways to make the ruling class do what is theoretically their job instead of ways to abolish them. England, in particular, is awash with wannabe Wat Tylers waving Magna Carta and demanding the redress of grievances instead of questioning the basis of central authority itself. Constitutional rights are the enemy of democratic choice. In placing certain things beyond normal debate they fossilise into a dictatorship of the dead. Though all dressed up as ‘de-politicising’ the issue, it’s actually all about de-democratising it. Labour seem particularly keen on this as a means of retaining power even when out of power. We don’t need ‘rights’, by definition limited. We need freedom, bounded only by the freedom of others. Should we respect the accumulated mess that is the constitutional status quo and further sanctify it, simply because we are assured that where we are is broadly speaking a good place to be? Do we not know that starting from where we are assured that we are (even when we are not) is the surest way of being persuaded essentially to stay put?
Professor Colley offers no immediate answers to any of these questions. Nor can anyone among the MCCs. For all their accumulated qualifications, they simply cannot see that the London-based system of decision-making is not benign, never has been and cannot be made to be. Their belief in the self-evident goodness of the UK, of the micro-management of Wessex towns and villages from London, is so entrenched that they will do everything in their power to suffocate any other way of debating the issues. Instead, we must discuss how to make everyone British again, deferential to London, respectful of the wisdom and thankful for the gifts coming to Wessex from the mighty east. Sorry to spoil your dinner party, chaps and chapettes, but that record is well and truly broken.