Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Small Island with Big Influence

The island of Great Britain (which is actually the ninth largest island in the world).
Image Credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

     Two years ago during the G-20 Summit, a spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin reportedly said that Britain was a “small island no one listens to.” British Prime Minister David Cameron accepted the official line from the Russians that such remarks were not made, but nevertheless responded with a robust defense of the United Kingdom.

     “Britain may be a small island”, he said, “but I would challenge anyone to find a country with a prouder history, a bigger heart, or greater resilience.” He focused on this small island doing its bit in being resolute throughout World War II in the effort to “clear the European continent of fascism”, as well as the island that helped to abolish slavery, invented “most of the things worth inventing, including every sport currently played around the world”, and being responsible for much of the “art, literature and music that delights the entire world” as well as for the world’s language of trade and commerce – English.

     He added that the UK was actually a collection of islands with places such as Northern Ireland, Shetland, and Orkney, and that despite their overall size, these islands could boast of “having the sixth-largest economy, the fourth best-funded military, some of the most effective diplomats, the proudest history, one of the best records for art and literature and contribution to philosophy and world civilisation”, and that this was something to be proud of. 

     At the time, there were skeptical voices in response to Cameron’s statements. Some people on the political left poured cold water on the remarks – saying among other things that Britain was involved in slavery and the slave trade before ending it, that the Soviets were bigger players in defeating Hitler, and the many British “inventions” were in fact only created in their modern form by Britons. On the other side, there were conservative stiffs on the right who thought that it was out of British character to be so boastful about the UK’s achievements – saying that it made more sense just to pay no attention to the Russians. Keep calm and carry on, they said.

     However, the Prime Minister was right to give that defense of the United Kingdom in light of remarks that were designed to belittle a country that has been considered (at least in some circles) to be on the decline ever since the end of World War II. With the United States in the role of a superpower and the rise of countries such as China, India, and Brazil, there are those – including many Britons, it seems – who make it an industry to talk of Britain being a broken-down and washed-up former imperial power with wilting influence and a place in which there is little or no civic or patriotic pride. 

     Of course, it is true that Britain no longer wields the sort of power it once had when it could command the resources of a global empire – the largest in human history – and can no longer expect people to bend to its will. However, Britain does remain a world power of paramount significance through the exercise of soft power.

     Soft power – as defined by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye – is the “ability to affect others to obtain preferred outcomes by the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuasion and positive attraction”, and it works by “using networks, developing and communicating compelling narratives, establishing international norms, building coalitions, and drawing on the key resources that endear one country to another.” This is in contrast to hard power, which involves the use of military and economic might to coerce others through methods such as military interventions, economic sanctions, and monetary payments. In short, as Professor Nye has said, “hard power is push; soft power is pull.”

     Nye coined the term “soft power” in 1990, but admits that it is not a new concept. As an American, Jazz Diplomacy comes to mind as a method the US government used to woo other countries and develop friendly relationships, but the idea has roots going back farther than that, and Nye mentions Lao-tsu’s comment that it is better for people to barely know that a leader exists, rather than for the people to obey his commands.

     As the world becomes more complex, multi-polar, and defined by interconnected relationships which create limits on the effectiveness of hard power, the use of soft power becomes increasingly paramount.

     Here, the United Kingdom is in an excellent position to make a difference as it tops the rankings of a report by Jonathan McClory of Portland Communications in conjunction with Facebook and ComRes, called The Soft Power 30. It ranks countries based on six objective areas: business attractiveness (Enterprise), cultural influence and outreach (Culture), digital footprint (Digital), government structure, public institutions, and public policy (Government), engagement with other countries and diplomatic outreach (Engagement), and the equality of education and the attraction of foreign students (Education).

     The UK came in second place in the Digital, Cultural, Engagement, and Education sub-indices, and was in the top twenty with regard to Government (13) and Enterprise (17). There was also a subjective component which featured international polling data regarding how international audiences viewed particular aspects of a country, such as trust in conduct in foreign affairs, perceptions of contributions to global culture, desire to visit for work or study, and perceptions of cuisine. On these and four other metrics, the UK scored at 7th place in the view of people from outside the country. 

     Altogether, and when compared to other countries, the UK emerged in front with a score of 75.61, well clear of the runner-up Germany (73.89), which edged out the US (73.68) and France (73.64) before the top five rounded out with Canada at 71.71.

     According to the report, the UK’s strong performance across all sub-indices that make up the soft power index was the result of “publicly funded and state controlled” resources, such as the BBC World Service, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Department for International Development, and other critical institutions. It also cited the work of the British Council, the UK’s higher education system, and “publicly funded cultural institutions” – referring to them as “world class” and providing a “tremendous source of attraction and admiration around the world.”

     Aside from these government-backed and government-funded resources, there are also private sector resources which help to exert soft power in more subtle ways, such as Britain’s creative industries (art, film, music, architecture, design, and fashion), renowned and respected British businesses (Rolls Royce, Burberry, and British Airways), and British sports culture with institutions such as the Premier League which “have a positive impact on perceptions of the UK.” In addition, a further explanation on this point cited how soft power is exercised through popular examples of British culture, including Harry Potter, David Beckham, and the Royal Family.

     Soft power from the United Kingdom is also exercised via a “very strong civil society” which includes a diverse range of organizations “from charities, NGOs and the religious community, through to cultural institutions and even trade unions.” Furthermore, Britain is home to various international organizations (Amnesty International, Save the Children, and Oxfam) which are focused on issues and concerns such as development, disaster relief, and human rights, and therefore “form an integral part of British soft power.” In this sense, soft power is exercised on a voluntary basis by the people themselves, including those who are ordinary and often unrecognized for their efforts. 

     Such efforts are undoubtedly made easier by Britain’s significant international clout, which is derived from its “enviable position” in the G7, NATO, the European Union, the UN Security Council, and “at the epicenter of the Commonwealth.” With a seat at the top table of virtually every organization of “international consequence”, Britain takes its role as an outward-looking country, and it may very well be for this reason (on top of all the others) why Britain attracts more foreign direct investment than Germany, Spain, or France, and why it claims the top spot in the soft power index.

     However, the report did note areas of potential concern, such as the possibility of Britain leaving the EU, and on this matter, the report noted that the extent of Britain’s influence will be tested during the negotiations for EU reform and that David Cameron must bring something home from such negotiations, lest he lose credibility as a world leader and deal a blow to confidence in Britain. 

     This comes at a time when, as the report noted, Britain is moving a “more inward looking politics” and no longer committing itself as much to international outreach due to budget cuts to critically important institutions such as the FCO, the British Council, and the BBC World Service. Such cuts in funding, claims the report, “will prove a false economy in the future” because the driving force in global affairs will be large networks forged over decades. Without them, Britain’s influence is seriously undermined, and Professor Nye has said, once soft power is lost, it is costly to re-establish.

     Overall however, this report displayed to a large extent the reason Britain – far from being the broken clap-trap portrayed by nationalists and some newspaper columnists – is a great country with the potential for a brighter future, and also justifies Prime Minister Cameron’s defense of it in response to the alleged Russian comments two years ago.

     That the report states that most British people may be surprised to learn that Britain is number one in a significant global ranking is in indication of how many Britons no longer believe in themselves or their country, when in fact there is much to be proud of throughout these sceptered isles. Indeed, the report remarks that the “success of the 2012 Olympics was a coup for a country struggling to rediscover its confidence in the wake of two recent wars and a major recession.” Watching those Games myself, I was certainly happy for Team GB in winning as many medals as it did and glad to see the British people enjoying themselves as their country exceeded expectations.

     Hopefully, this report can be of some assistance in helping the people of the United Kingdom to realize what they have in their country, and how they take it for granted. This means taking some satisfaction in the capital city London, which the report counts as “the jewel in the crown” among the UK’s soft power resources with its “unrivalled…global outlook, position, and connectivity” which results in it attracting more visitors than any other city in the world.

     London – for all that it has been much-maligned (and for some good reasons) – is a strong resource in the hands of the UK that ought to be embraced, especially as a place that can serve as a springboard for people to visit the UK beyond the capital city.

     The same applies to the BBC, which via the World Service, helps to project Britain around the globe, and I can personally testify to this as a regular listener who values the service and believes that it does so much to help foster positive views about Britain and make it great. For that reason, I am concerned about the potential for the government to make short-sighted changes to the BBC and its funding mechanism, as well as the threat from the SNP, who want control over broadcasting and the BBC to be devolved to Holyrood. The result either way will be to shrink the BBC to a shell of itself and to strike a devastating blow to Britain’s very identity.

     For all of its faults, the BBC is a recognizable and very visible symbol of Britain, and efforts must be made to reform it for all the right reasons, but not for party political reasons or for reasons that are deliberately meant to weaken the UK.

     Indeed, I wish the people of the United Kingdom – from Inverness to Southampton, from Belfast to Kent, from Anglesey to Shetland, and everywhere in between – would just take a moment to pause and take stock in the country they call home and see the things that ought to be treasured, including the Union itself.

     After all, there must be a reason why people from overseas (including yours truly) wanted Britain to stay together and not be broken up. There must also be reasons why they like the Royal Family, why they watch the BBC, why they read Shakespeare, Burns, and Rowling, and among other things. Partly, it is because all of these help to make Britain what it is, shape how we view Britain, make us admire and respect Britain, and most significantly, draw us to Britain. Without them, the country – divided and utterly broken – would become unrecognizable at best and dystopian at worst, and the world would be poorer for it.

     We need a strong and robust United Kingdom that deftly, efficiently, and effectively deploys its soft power, while also keeping its hard power on hand. We need a United Kingdom that is at the heart of helping to resolve world issues. We need a United Kingdom that preserves its institutions while also looking to the future and being confident in everything it does.

     But in order for that to happen and continue, we need the British people to come together as one and value themselves and their country as people on the outside do. To that end, there ought to a designated day for people to celebrate the United Kingdom – its people, achievements, institutions, history, and culture – so that there can be a sense of civic pride in the country and make the bonds that bind even stronger going forward, and I urge everyone reading this (who lives in the UK) to sign this petition to help make it a reality.

     However, a new national day will only go so far, for there must be substance behind it. In time, I hope that more people throughout the UK (from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) will take some time to get out and see their country to appreciate it, and work with one another in a great British civic effort to make it a better and more prosperous place for all at home, and to project it positively across the world.

     This will be the basis upon which the country – these small islands in the Atlantic which punch above their weight – will survive for the ages in the spirit of Burns: “Be Britain still to Britain true, Amang ourselves united!”

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Union on Edge

Home Nation flags of the United Kingdom.
(Image Credit: Setanta747 via Wikimedia Commons cc)

     In light of the recent row over fox hunting, there appears to be bubbling angst in England with regard to Scotland and its place in the United Kingdom, and they are not good for future of the country.

     Just before the SNP’s decision to have its 56 MP’s vote on the fox hunting legislation which only affects England and Wales (and breaking the party’s “principled” stance on not voting on such issues unless they were related to Scotland), Leo McKinstry of The Express was fuming over the prospect of Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon “bossing England” with her insistence on having a say in the crafting of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) – a process which would see English (or English and Welsh) MP’s having a greater say, if not outright veto, on bills going through the British Parliament at Westminster that are applicable only to England (or England and Wales).

     He went on to claim that because of devolution, “English people are treated as second-class citizens in their own country” because Scottish MP’s still retain full voting rights at Westminster, resulting in a “gross constitutional injustice” (the West Lothian Question) in which Scottish MP’s have a say on all matters south of the Tweed, while MP’s from England and Wales have no reciprocating influence on matters that have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.

     McKinstry also banged on about the “huge funds that English taxpayers have to provide for Scotland”, and believes that Home Rule ought to be given to Scotland, along with Full Fiscal Autonomy (FFA), and that England should have its own Parliament in the spirit of the Scottish Constitutional Convention’s declaration of “the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs.”

     On Sunday after David Cameron withdrew the government’s fox hunting legislation that appeared doomed to failure with the SNP’s announcement of voting against it, Simon Heffer wrote for The Telegraph in terms that were similar to McKinstry last week.

     He spoke of a “Scots insurgency” that if not stopped, would result is rising anger and resentment amongst the English, and believes that the original government plans for EVEL were too weak against the “insurgency” because while English MP’s can block amendments during the committee stage, MP’s from throughout the whole UK can vote on the final bill. This, he claims, “amounts to denying the English (and in some cases the Welsh) people democratic rights now enjoyed, at their expense, by the Scots”, with their “quasi-imperial right to interfere as they wish in English affairs while excluding English MPs from theirs.”

     Further, he wants to see a “federal parliament” in which the whole House of Commons sits and decides on issues that affect the whole UK – which he described as “defence policy, foreign policy, security policy, the national lottery, and possibly some parts of the Budget (depending on the extent to which fiscal policy is devolved to the Edinburgh parliament).” However, where issues have been devolved to the representative institutions in Edinburgh, Belfast, and Cardiff, they ought to be decided at Westminster only by the MP’s whose constituents are affected. This, he believes, will mean that “the English question is decisively solved, and the Scots are put on an even footing with everyone else.”

     Both of these opinion articles by McKinstry and Heffer are expressions of frustration by what they as an aggressive Scottish nationalism that is trying to break up the UK, but now has 56 MP’s in the Commons and is trying to “interfere” in the running of Britain, and in particular, England. The fox hunting issue as become just the most recent and highest profile case of the SNP making its mark known throughout the UK, and it has not – at least so far – gone down well with many voters in the rest of the UK.

     These frustrations are understandable, but I am concerned that these views may be indicative of a rise in English nationalism in response to the rise of the SNP and what some people see as the near-constant whining and complaining that seems to have enveloped vast swaths of Scotland, resulting in a culture of grievance and resentment against the rest of the UK and blaming it for Scotland’s problems.

     It is particularly concerning how Scots are increasingly being viewed as though they are foreigners in their own country – the United Kingdom. Simon Heffer’s use of the term “Scots insurgency” is an indication of this, for it appears to describe all Scots as though they are an alien force imposing their will on the rest of the UK. Perhaps he meant to say “SNP insurgency”, and if so, that would have been a more accurate term to describe the situation. However, the fact that he did not use that term speaks to the erroneous conflation of the SNP and Scotland, as if the two are one and the same, when in fact, they are not (though the SNP like perpetuating this myth).

     These days, there are times whenever I hear or see someone use the term “the Scots”, and it is becoming unfortunately synonymous with the SNP (both north and south of the Tweed) and used in a way almost as if to say that Scots are a problem a troublesome annoyance who need to be dealt with, and this is reflected in Heffer’s piece, when he said of “the Scots”:

“They have also voted for a Nationalist government committed to separatism. They managed not to win the argument last September, and so remain part of the Union. However, they have chosen to conduct their membership of the Union by means of aggression and constitutional offensiveness, like the bullies they were during the referendum campaign, and like the sore losers they have been ever since.”

     At some level, it is not clear if and where he is making a distinction between all Scots and the SNP, but it certainly comes off as describing all Scots as having “chosen to conduct their membership of the Union by means of aggression and constitutional offensiveness.”

     However, the fact remains that despite the SNP winning 56 out of 59 Scottish seats in the Commons, half of Scotland did not vote for it (which makes a case for some sort of proportional representation), and there are many Scots who are just as fed up with the SNP and their antics as people in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Not all Scots approve of the SNP and their separatist agenda, and just wish that the SNP would stop with the constitutional obsessions, saber-rattling, and constant displays of grievance, while there are real issues in Scotland that need addressing, which the SNP can do something about (without banging on for more powers).

     Nevertheless, there are some voices that believe having Scots being full participants of parliamentary processes is tantamount to some form undemocratic tyranny, or in McKinstry’s words, a “gross constitutional injustice” which allows for Nicola Sturgeon to claim a “self-appointed role of trying to dictate how Britain (and particularly England) should be governed.”

     Such emotive language is almost in line with the language used by some people in Scotland to argue for devolution in the 1990's and separation in 2014, with the talk of democratic deficits and the English imposing their will on Scotland, with laws passed by the British Parliament with a majority of English MP’s, though not Scottish MP’s, who have – as always since the beginning of the Union – full parliamentary representation like everyone else.

     All this talk of whether English MP’s voted for this, or Scottish MP’s voted for that is irrelevant to the fact that the Palace of Westminster houses the British Parliament, the representative body of all of the people throughout the United Kingdom from Shetland to Land’s End, and whatever is decided by those MP’s is the result of elections by the people throughout the land, and – quite often – the votes break down based on party affiliation, and not on the basis of which part of the UK from which the MP’s came.

     Devolution created an imbalance, but pushing for EVEL creates another imbalance at the heart of British governance by which the MP’s from certain parts of the UK are excluded from some parliamentary processes and votes simply because of their location.

     Yes, there needs to be solution to the West Lothian Question, but there needs to be another way than EVEL. A person who truly believes in the Union – the very concept of Britain, and doesn’t view it in purely transactional terms – would strain every sinew to find and promote a solution to the West Lothian Question without resorting to the crudity of the short-term political – not long-term constitutional – solution of EVEL and telling non-English MP’s when they can and cannot participate in the parliamentary processes and votes at Westminster.

     A more coherent and proper solution will be to create new legislative institutions in England, just as has been done in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

     There could be a separate English Parliament, but there is a legitimate concern that it would rival the UK Parliament and that an English First Minister would be as powerful, if not more powerful than a British Prime Minister. Such an arraignment would prove detrimental to the foundations of the Union, whose whole point was to bring the peoples of Britain together into one country – a stronger one which would allow for the merging and sharing of resources, talents, and energies for the benefit and general welfare of all.

     This is why there must be an end to the ad hoc political processes that have brought us to this point, and it is time instead for a constitutional convention for all of the United Kingdom, in order to forge a lasting settlement that everyone can find acceptable, if not entirely satisfactory – in the tradition of the signers of the US Constitution in 1787, all of whom were not 100% happy with the document they had created during the heated constitutional convention that year, but nevertheless came to the conclusion that they could not come to an agreement on something better.

     Such a process, I hope, will retain Westminster as the sovereign body that is representative of the people throughout the entire UK at all times, while confirming or creating new bodies that take on powers similar to those of US or Australian states, Canadian provinces, or the German Länder.

     The outcome would mean that Westminster becomes a true representative federal parliament in an overall federal system, unlike the bastardized form of federalism (EVEL) which was called for by Simon Heffer, with Scottish MP’s active for some things at Westminster, but not others (which is just as bad as the bastardized federalism advocated by some people in the SNP and their supporters).

     Indeed, it appears that some people want easy short-term political answers, rather than hard long-term constitutional solutions befitting the complex nature of the UK. The honest truth is that at this point, there are no easy answers, but a convention where a diverse range of views can lead to a solution to the issues of British governance (including the West Lothian Question) is preferable to just about everything else.

     The United Kingdom does need constitutional convulsions, and have one thing one day, and another thing the next. Piecemeal constitutional tinkering must be replaced by a singular effort to establish a reformed constitutional order (out of the chaos and passions of recent years) that is beneficial to all.

     And if the SNP really wants to foster better relations with the people of the rest of the United Kingdom – as they claim they wish to do by focusing on affairs south of the Tweed – it would participate at such a convention and have the interests of the rest of the UK in mind while also being focused on Scotland, as opposed to the saber-rattling and complaining which will only hasten the introduction of EVEL.

     But despite their protestations about EVEL (which a new study says will be detrimental to Scotland), some will actually welcome it, since they can complain about Westminster treating Scottish MP’s as second-class citizens. They would certainly like to portray it that way, and this will probably give Nicola Sturgeon the “material change” necessary to call for another referendum.

     The issue therefore, is not about Scots, but about the SNP, and instead of biting on the SNP’s bait and dropping the nuke that is EVEL, people such as Heffer, McKinstry, and several others should call for convention in the hope settling these constitutional matters.

     But aside from that, there needs to be a better and more fundamental understanding between everyone throughout the UK. Eye-grabbing headlines and emotive articles from some newspapers, as well as inflammatory speeches and comments don’t help the cause of the Union; rather, they inflame and harden attitudes against it by pitting the people of Britain against each other, such as referring to Scots as “subsidy junkies” and England being portrayed as land of greedy neo-liberal (Thatcher-loving) sociopaths.

     To be quite frank, there needs to be a cooling down of emotions and rhetoric, and with the end of the referendum, I believed that this would happen. Unfortunately, this did not occur, and it sometimes feel as though one errant, insensitive, or ill-thought out comment or action will blow up the Union and end Britain as we know it. (Indeed, when writing my blog posts, I feel as though I have to keep various sensitivities in mind.)

     Instead of coming to the inaccurate conclusion that Scots may have had a change of heart since last September, and dismissing the SNP and its 56 MP’s as a Scottish problem that neither the “English or the Government should be cowed by” as Simon Heffer says, columnists, journalists, politicians, and ordinary people from throughout the UK should actually get out and spend time in Scotland – perhaps on and off for several weeks or months, if not longer.

     They should go to the leafy areas of East Lothian and Renfrewshire, as well as the housing estates in Glasgow and Dundee. Spend time in the Borders and Highlands, as well as the island communities. They should not see Scots as an alien and foreign people, but as their fellow British citizens who have many of the same concerns, fears, anxieties, and aspirations as they do. The problems that they face are the same ones faced by people throughout the UK as a whole, and it would be productive to actually meet with them in their homes and communities, and get to understand and know them better – beyond the preconceived notions and unhelpful stereotypes perpetuated by some corners of the media.

     David Cameron, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, in particular needs to spend more time in the country of his ancestry, as well as the new Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron and whoever will emerge from the Labour leadership election to replace Ed Miliband.

     They should not go up there for one-day stops to “show the flag”, but stay there for days at a time, and become more engaged and focused on what’s going in Scotland, especially with regard to matters that affect the UK as a whole. They should hold meetings in Scotland, and find that there are still volumes of Scots who are supportive of the Union, who do not want to feel like foreigners, and who will appreciate the reaching out by their fellow British citizens from the Prime Minister on down.

     Such people – some of whom are my friends – are trying cope with a deeply divided society, and they need support, especially from their fellow Brits. They want their voices to be heard above and apart from the SNP noise machine, and do not wish to be viewed as troublesome and annoying nuisances, but as beloved countrymen and women.

     But of course, reaching out to those who voted Yes in 2014 and the SNP in 2015 will also be instrumental attempting to lowering the political temperature and smoothing relations throughout the UK and Scotland itself. David Cameron in particular may not be particularly liked in Scotland, but him being there for extended periods of time, meeting people, immersing himself into life up there (and possibly take some heat) – whilst still attending to his duties as Prime Minister – will at least be respected by many Scots.

     Meanwhile, the SNP plans on getting out more into the rest of UK and expanding their scope to matters in places such as Leeds and Manchester, in the hope of championing for – among other things – increased transport links between Scotland and the North of England, as well as increased economic investment, which will be beneficial to Scotland. If this is what they intend to do, it is indeed high time for UK political leaders to spend more time up in Scotland for similar reasons of outreach and fostering better relations.

     This outreach in both directions may even have the effect of fostering better feelings toward maintaining the Union, and rediscovering a common sense of Britishness. This may not be what the SNP wants, but it is certainly a possibility if they are good on their word of taking a more keen interest in matters that affect their fellow citizens in the UK outside of Scotland, which will require them to climb down a bit from their sanctimonious rhetoric about “standing up for Scotland” – as if to say that generations of MP’s from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives didn’t do so, while also working with their colleagues in the rest of the UK and not working toward dissolving the Union.

     Indeed, there is a conceit about the SNP – a smugness, self-satisfaction, and arrogance that uses emotion and a sense of moral superiority that is used in elections and the recent referendum to beat down its opponents, especially pro-Union ones. That conceit has become more apparent following the row over fox hunting, and even some pro-SNP figures are starting to realize it as the party preaches from a moral high ground without actually following up with substantial action – especially at Holyrood, where the SNP has held the reins of government for eight years, and there are real substantive issues on health, education, and policing which need urgent addressing.

     And for all of their preaching on social justice, they are certainly not taking or proposing the sort of radical action (i.e., substantial tax increases) that could scare off the middle class voters that the SNP – like all other parties – needs for victory. In the end, the only real aim they have is independence.

     Will they really be willing to put their money where their mouth is, and actually constructively engage with people in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland – knowing full well that this may prove beneficial to the existence of the Union? Only time will tell. Perhaps greater cross-border interactions and mixing people up throughout the UK to break down preconceived notions about one another can lead to a better and greater understanding between them.

     If nothing else, the rhetoric being used in the current political discourse – with talk of insurgencies, junkies, andinjustices – needs to be toned down for everyone's sake.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Doing the Foxtrot

Grateful English Fox
(Image Credit: Malene Thyssen via
Wikimedia Commons
cc; Modified by Wesley Hutchins)

     Political opportunism. Every politician or political figure denies that they engage in it, and the public claims that it is among the things that disgusts them about politics, which in some respects, amounts to messing with people's lives. Yet, almost every politician does engage in it, and – so often – the public laps up to it.

     However, many highly skilled politicians are adept at covering their tracks to disguise U-turns and climb-downs as “changes of heart”, “political evolutions”, and other emollient terms, so as not to be accused of seizing something for political advantage.

     But in the recent case of the SNP with regard to fox hunting in England and Wales, the opportunism was out for all to see, and in some respect, they were bragging about it.

     Back in February as it became increasingly clear that the SNP were on course to do very well in the UK General Election, SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrote in The Observer that with regard to legislation at the UK Parliament in Westminster:

“The SNP have a longstanding position of not voting on matters that purely affect England – such as foxhunting south of the border, for example – and we stand by that. Where any issue is genuinely “English-only”, with no impact on Scotland, the case for Evel [English Votes for English Laws] can be made.”

     Suddenly this week, the party made a dramatic U-turn and announced that its 56 MP's (out of 59 in Scotland) would be voting against the legislation to repeal the 2004 Hunting Act, which applies to England and Wales. This forced David Cameron – who has a wafer-thin majority in the Commons and gave his Conservative (Tory) MP’s a free vote on the issue – to delay a vote on the matter, lest it be humiliatingly defeated by a coalition of MP’s from Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Tory backbench rebels, as well as others.

     The ostensible reason for the change of heart, according to Sturgeon, was that a “progressive alliance” in England called on her party to do so, and because the party believes it is wrong for hunters to use more than two dogs to flush out foxes during pest control hunts.

     First of all, to what extent if at all was this English “progressive alliance” a barometer of English political opinion which compelled the Sturgeon to break her own promise of not having her MP’s taking a vote on the issue? In a Channel 4 News interview, Sturgeon claims that during and after the General Election, her party has been lauded by many people in England as well as Scotland for taking the position of thinking about issues outside the “Scottish interest”, and to have a voice on matters affecting only England in the British Parliament at Westminster.

     Effectively, Sturgeon is saying that people in England and Wales wanted her 56 SNP MP’s to vote on the hunting issue because they feared that the Tory government would get the bill through on the basis of English and Welsh-only votes, where the Tories have a bigger majority than throughout the overall UK, and in face of polling which shows that a majority of the British public is opposed to relaxing the law.

     This is fair enough because MP’s from Scotland (including the SNP MP’s) are British MP’s like everyone else, and as such, are equal in being allowed to vote on all matters that come before Parliament – despite the fact that some matters, like fox hunting, are effectively English-only in scope because of devolution to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.

     For that matter – and more crucially – if the SNP really cared about fox hunting, they should be doing something about it at Holyrood – where there is a separate law from that of the one that applies to England and Wales. Ironically, the fox hunting law in Scotland is more lenient than the English and Welsh one (since it allows the use of more than two dogs), and even more interesting is that the legislation before Westminster is designed to bring the rest of the UK in line with – you guessed it – Scotland!

     This makes the SNP’s hypocrisy more evident – so rank that even the angels in Heaven cannot have refuge from the stench of it all. Indeed, since the SNP have been in power for eight years (and having had an absolute majority for half of that time), they could have done something about this practice that they find so offensive to the cause of animal rights in general and to foxes in particular. If it was an issue of burning importance to the collective conscience of the party leadership, they should have brought Scotland in line with the more “humane” law in England and Wales.

     This is a further example of how the SNP will sanctimoniously criticize the policies in other parts of the United Kingdom and blame Westminster for such policies, while failing to attend to matters in its own house. Perhaps this is because the fox hunting issue in Scotland is a) not important to folks in the big urban areas, and b) may prove to be problematic amongst some of the SNP voters in the rural constituencies who once voted Tory.

     The SNP’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson said that his party was opposed to fox hunting, and “when there are moves in the Scottish Parliament to review whether the existing Scottish ban is strong enough, it is in the Scottish interest to maintain the existing ban in England and Wales for Holyrood to consider.”

     What is there to consider? If this is an issue the SNP feels so strongly about as much as their supposed principle of not voting on matters relating only to England, then this issue of supposed great importance demands action, and where the SNP could really make a difference for their constituents, they are failing to do so.

     And why is that? Because the issue really is not about fox hunting at all. This – as with virtually everything about the SNP – is about achieving their goal of breaking up Britain. If the party had any principles, it would a) have abstained from voting on the matter, and b) have taken action at Holyrood where the matter is devolved (unless they feared losing English and Welsh hunters seeking relief from the law down south).

     But aside from secession, the SNP is party with no principles – only platitudes and high-flowing rhetoric. It has demonstrated time and time again that it will shape-shift into any form necessary, so that it can gain votes from just about anywhere and win elections.

     Such a lack of ideological consistency is perhaps not that unusual, for all political parties will say and do what it takes to win, but the SNP is the party that has beaten Labour over the head for its supposed “betrayal” of left wing values and for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the “whicked” Tories, and has conflated all UK-wide parties as being “Westminster”, a place that does ghastly and unspeakably horrible things to Scotland.

     However as Simon Jenkins of The Guardian has pointed out, by engaging in this cynical U-turn on fox hunting, the SNP has joined the “Westminster club” it claims to despise – quite literally since Nicola Sturgeon personally met with her 56 MP’s at Westminster to discuss how the party would vote on the issue.

     Some Nationalists will say that this a form of payback for all the times when English MP’s “overruled” the will of the Scottish people before devolution in 1999. But that was a different time when one parliament represented all of the British people in full and laws were made on the behalf of and for the British people from Shetland to Land’s End.

     Devolution has created an imbalance whereby several matters facing the British Parliament now only apply to England. Some of them have knock-on effects in Scotland, and so it is therefore sensible for all British MP’s to vote on them, but fox hunting is hardly one of them.

     This was simply a way for the Nationalists to give David Cameron and the Tories a bloody nose for attempting to introduce EVEL and for not considering their amendments to the Scotland Bill (which would have rendered Scottish MP’s even more irrelevant by transferring more powers to Edinburgh). Angus Robertson admitted to the political posturing when he said that in light of the aforementioned issues, it was “right and proper” to “assert the Scottish interest on fox hunting” so as to “remind the arrogant UK government of just how slender their majority is.”

     This spectacle over fox hunting has shown that the SNP – despite its lofty and sanctimonious claims of being above the “Westminster game” – is no different than any other political party, and that it will play the Westminster game when it suits it. They have shown themselves to be nothing more than slick opportunists who have no principles on which they stand, because for the cause of independence, ideological consistency takes a back seat to whatever the party feels can bring it closer to its principle aim.

     When will the SNP’s flock realize that they and their votes are being used as pawns in a potentially dangerous game of political chess, and that their party may have walked into a trap potentially set by the Conservatives in order to ensure that EVEL becomes a reality?

     Of course, for the SNP leadership, this really isn’t an issue. After all, the implementation of EVEL at Westminster will give them another grievance to whine about – claiming that that Scottish MP’s are being relegated to second-class membership, and this will give Sturgeon the “material change” she needs for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

     Now, as many of you may know, I am not a fan of EVEL. I believe that it is a crude idea that at best is a short-term political answer, rather than a long-term constitutional solution for the United Kingdom. However, it is understandable that after devolution thus far (and more on the way and in the works), the people of England may wonder why MP’s from other parts of the UK are voting and having influence on legislation that only applies to England, with no known knock-on effects for the rest of the UK.

     The reality of course is that this is a matter for the British Parliament, and as a matter of principle, all British MP’s have a right to vote on whatever matter comes before them.

     On that note, there are many Scots who are opposed to more powers at Holyrood and what they see as the hollowing out of the United Kingdom, and are appreciative of those dastardly MP’s from England who have been voting down the SNP amendments, just as there may be English people who have expressed their appreciation for the SNP forcing the Tory government to back down – at least for now – on the hunting legislation. (But like the SNP supporters, they are merely being used as pawns in a larger and nakedly political game.)

     Perhaps there will be a letter-writing campaign by some Scots to appeal to Westminster to stop the implementation of SNP initiatives at Holyrood, such as the controversial “Named Person” scheme. After all, if there has been, as Sturgeon said, “overwhelming demand from people in England for the SNP to vote” on fox hunting, and that “overwhelming demand” was enough to cause a U-turn on their previous statements, should there be reciprocating action on the part of Scots who oppose the SNP’s agenda?

      Quite clearly and seriously though, something needs to be done to restore balance and fairness to the constitution, and I have been consistent in my advocacy for a constitutional convention to discuss these matters on a UK-wide basis to forge a UK-wide solution, for I believe in the integrity and stability of the United Kingdom, and believe that excessive and short-sighted devolution combined with similarly short-sighted EVEL only serve to weaken and destabilize it. Indeed, it would be optimal to go back to the way things were before 1999, and start over with such a convention, and alas, we have to work with the current circumstances.

     In the long view of things, the fox hunting issue itself is insignificant, but it is a symbol of how a political party obsessed with breaking up Britain will use any issue – however small – to manufacture grievance and animosity on both sides of the border to drive the country apart.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

American Indepedence and Britain Today

The Declaration of Independence

     Today marks the 239th anniversary marking the founding of the United States of America – the date when we formally adopted a Declaration of Independence which stated our national creed in the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

     It was indeed, a momentous day when a group of men representing of thirteen colonies on the edge of a far-flung empire came together in Philadelphia to take a stand and act with boldness and courage to give birth to a new country, which has gone on to rise as one of the greatest, most powerful, and influential countries in the world – a symbol of freedom, hope, modernity, democracy, and opportunity.

     Today, I am proud to call myself an American and to call the United States my country, and on this day, I remember why we became independent and the values for which we fought in the process.

     Those values and ideals – representative government arguably the most important of them – were in part born from the Enlightenment and political traditions of the country from which we became independent: Great Britain.

     British democracy had by this time developed into a balanced relationship between monarchy, aristocracy, and the commons in which the monarch was still sovereign but Parliament (the aristocracy and commons) represented the supreme representative authority of the British people and had since the Glorious Revolution circumscribed the powers of the monarch so that on several issues such as taxation, the monarch could not act without the consent of Parliament.

     This principle, that the representatives of the people should work with the monarch, and not be overruled by him or her, had its roots in Britain’s constitutional heritage going back over hundreds of years – including Magna Carta, the Declaration of Arbroath, the Petition of Right, and the English Bill of Rights. More recently, it was rooted in the Whig Party which believed that the monarch – at least at some level – was answerable to the people, and could not claim absolute authority from God.

     The Whig ideal of representative government traveled across the Atlantic, where the Thirteen Colonies had established their own assemblies based on the British Parliament at Westminster in London. There, the colonists could elect their own representatives to debate matters of concern to them and make decisions for the general benefit of the population. This was especially true during the period of Salutary Neglect, when Parliament made little to no effort to enforce laws made in London on the colonists, and the colonies were largely able to do their own thing within the imperial system.

     It was only after 1763 when laws started be enforced with renewed vigor. This was in response to the fact that the British military had fought to defend American interests in the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War, known as the French and Indian War. Britain emerged victorious and with the defeat of the French, had gained new territory to become the foremost economic and military power on Earth.

British North America following the Seven Years' (French and Indian) War.

     Yet this prize did not come cheaply. The new imperial dominions needed maintaining and administering, and the American establishment alone – now including about half of the North American continent – became quite expensive to maintain, indeed. In the process of the war itself, Britain had gone into debt to pay for it, and now the new costs of the expanded empire were also being almost entirely shouldered by the British population in Britain itself.

     From here, Parliament enacted a series of laws designed to increase tax revenue from the colonies and to enforce parliamentary authority – most notably the Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend Acts of 1767, and the Tea Act of 1773 – and it did so in the belief that it was only fair that colonists start sharing a greater deal of the costs of maintaining the Empire and the benefits it conferred. It also did so in the belief that Parliament was not just the supreme authority in Great Britain itself, but also throughout the whole British Empire, and that as such, it had the constitutional right to levy taxes and make laws anywhere throughout the Empire without impediments.

     This unlimited view of parliamentary authority without representation was not shared by the colonists, who saw the acts as being imposed from on high by a distant legislature across the Pond, where the colonies lacked representation and the ability to speak and act on the behalf of their own interests – hence the sentiment of having “taxation without representation.”

     Without parliamentary representation at Westminster, the colonists nevertheless believed that the British Constitution recognized fundamental rights – such as representative self-government – which Parliament could not ignore, even if it was the supreme authority throughout the Empire. The fact remained that it did not have representatives from the colonies on which it was imposing laws and was now in some cases riding roughshod over the assemblies and laws established by the colonists – going so far as to abolish them without the consent of people living there.

     In light of this, writers such as Thomas Jefferson, James Wilson, and Samuel Adams argued that without American representatives, Parliament was merely the legislature of Great Britain and that with legislatures of their own, the only thing connecting the colonies to the rest of the Empire was common allegiance to the Crown. Jefferson himself wrote in 1775 that: 

“there is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do. But, by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America” 

     Those terms were the insistence on accepting parliamentary authority without representation in it, and the unwillingness to view colonial assemblies as having a legitimacy worthy of the constitutional and political traditions that led to their creation. 

     This was in short, Whig language being used against the British Parliament, which had first invented it.

     Many Americans wished to retain the links with the mother country, and certainly did not want a disruptive conflict, but the attempt at coercion by military force and occupation was in many ways, the last straw, and the rest is history.

     Since the outcome of the conflict which followed the battles of Lexington and Concord, America and Britain gradually become close friends and allies as America rose to global prominence alongside Britain, and both countries forged a Special Relationship rooted in the common bonds of language, history, culture, heritage, the rule of law, and democratic principles. Together, we have made mistakes, but when I think of us liberating the world from the forces of evil in Japan, Germany, and Italy – was well as the efforts to bring down the Soviets, and generally trying to help others, I believe we have done more good. 

Uncle Sam with his eagle and Britannia with her lion.
     On a personal level, Britain – now officially known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – is my favorite country in the world outside of my own. 

     It started with an interest in the great ocean liners of the 19th and 20th centuries, and a great many of them happened to be British, such as the Queen Elizabeth 2, which was built at John Brown’s on the Clyde and remains a prime example of Britain at its best.

     From there, I immersed myself into learning about the monarchy, British history, the people of Britain, what the country is like today, British politics, and etc. All the while, I never thought of the United Kingdom as being divided according to the English, Welsh, Scots, and Northern Irish. For me, it has been one country made of different peoples with much in common, with the borders between then virtually meaningless.

     Indeed, what we think of today as Britishness has been brought about by the full and joint political, economic, and social union of these four nations into a single country, known as the United Kingdom. With the melding of these places, the idea of Britishness and Britain took hold, and each part has greatly contributed to that. Take any part out, and an essential part of the UK goes missing.

     When I hear songs like I Vow to Thee My Country, I think of the nation by which we have stood beside through decades of peace and war. When I listen to Heart of Oak, I think of great British ships that exported Britain around the world and helped to connect it. With Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope of Glory, I also think about the country that did so well at the 2012 Olympic Games by being united and which also celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of its storied Queen.

     I look at the vast expanse of Britain – from the Welsh valleys, to the green and pleasant land of England, to the Scottish Highlands, and Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway and take wonder in the beauty of one land – indivisible. I look at the radiance of the UK’s great cities – from Glasgow to Manchester, Belfast to Inverness, from Aberdeen to Cardiff, Liverpool to Southampton, and from Birmingham to Edinburgh to London, and remain in awe of these places that are the engines of Britain’s prosperity.

     Yet for all of these great things, I am not at all blinded by visions of the United Kingdom as perfect country.

     There is poverty and economic suffering currently going on throughout the entire United Kingdom, for the downturn of recent years has caused pain for many people. I know that it is not entirely a land of hope and glory, but that does not mean that it cannot be.

     Britain has been – and is – a great country, and much of that greatness stems from the fact that it once governed the largest empire in human history. The British Empire is long gone, but positive influences from Britain around the world live on to the present day, and the UK is still a leader in world affairs. This is something in which the people ought to take some pride.

     It should also take pride in its cultural exports, such as James Bond, the Beatles, and Harry Potter – all of which hail from the land of Shakespeare and Burns. There are other contributions, like developing democracy and social welfare and leading the world in the industrial revolution, and still more, its venerable institutions such as the NHS, the monarchy, the BBC, Parliament, and the Armed Forces, all of which – in spite of their shortcomings – provide the glue that underpin British society and bind the British people together.

     I see all of these things, and I think to myself: what a wonderful country, this sceptered isle, or rather isles – these Isles of Wonder, which were so beautifully portrayed by Danny Boyle at the Olympics nearly three years ago.

The present-day United Kingdom.

     I cannot help but to have admiration for what Britain has done in the past, and – as the 2012 Olympic Games themselves displayed – have hope for what Britain can do in the future, both at home and abroad.

     There are issues with Britain – many of them, and I sometimes wonder if the country is capable of solving them and surviving them. Among the issues are that of the drive by nationalists in Scotland attempting to break up Britain and end its very existence.

     Some of them will use the American example of independence as reason for their efforts. They talk of self-determination and need to be from under the yoke of Westminster, as though Scotland was an oppressed colony with absolutely no say in how Britain is governed, and in my time defending the UK, I have come across nationalists who are incredulous at the idea of Americans believing in keeping the UK together. Upon President Barack Obama’s comments in support of the UK last year, one newspaper columnist said that he could “remind an American president of what self-determination means in his tradition.”

     Well, an American president (and this American citizen) can say that we were inspired by self-determination coming from the British tradition of deciding their own affairs via sending representatives to Parliament to govern the country. In the present day, people in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, and Wales exercise self-determination as British citizens at national, regional, and local levels of government, and the British government (with Scottish representation) affirmed this principle of self-determination when it gave the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh the power to hold a referendum on secession. 

     So no, we have not forgotten the meaning of self-determination. Scots already have it as British citizens. The secessionists just want to change it to self-determination as Scottish (but not British) citizens.

     It is also worth making a distinction between Scotland today and the American colonies of 1776, in addition to what has already been said in this post.

     Scotland is part of the country known as the United Kingdom, the country from which America declared independence. America was administratively part of Britain within a colonial context; it was part of Britain the empire, not Britain the country. If America had been sending representatives to Westminster to have a say on issues affecting the peoples living there, you could make the argument that America was part of Britain the country.

     But that was not the case. We were colonies of Britain, with no parliamentary representation, and that is why we fought under the banner of “no taxation without representation.” Scotland by contrast is not, and has never been a colony. It has been part of Britain the country, with parliamentary representation and a say at the top table, including Scots taking leading positions in government such as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister for all of Britain.

     Today it seems as though Britain is fighting for its very existence. However, it has seen and been through worse times (i.e., World War II and the Blitz), and I believe it – and its people – will survive these trying times.

     From a solid foundation of hundreds of years, this country has much potential for a more dynamic, hopeful, and united future together.

     There is nothing wrong with Britain that cannot be righted by what’s good about Britain – nothing wrong with Britain that cannot be fixed by the British people as a whole from Shetland to Lands End.

     It is my hope as an American celebrating Independence Day that Britain remains together (and can celebrate a Union or Britain Day), just as we remained together after our bloody Civil War, and have remained ever since, and that the Special Relationship between us shall endure.
My performance of My Country, Tis of Thee/God Save the Queen in celebration of America and Britain.