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About Andy Mycock

Dr Andrew Mycock is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Huddersfield. He is co-founder of the Academy for the Study of Britishness based in Huddersfield and a member of the Ministry of Justice Youth Citizenship Commission

Articles by Andy Mycock

This week’s front page editor

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Cameron’s approach to “British values” is outdated and divisive

David Cameron's speech in Munich on the failure of multiculturalism emphasised the muddled thinking within the coalition on this sensitive issue. The Prime Minister's attempts to draw on British values in order to encourage Muslim communities to integrate were misguided, outdated and have the potential to stir up inter-community tension.

The Coalition needs to be honest about the Big Society

The Big Society must articulate its vision and define its expected outcomes, or face fading from the political landscape.

Student protests give voice to the ‘disconnected’ generation

Students and young people protesting against the education cuts are representative of a generation who have been consistently overlooked by politicians who have little regard for their democratic voice. The Liberal Democrats' abandonment of their policy pledge will help to further entrench the political isolation of young people and encourage their disengagement from mainstream politics.

More English questions than answers at the Labour conference

A plenary session organised by the Fabian Society as part of the Labour conference fringe in Manchester provided a further opportunity for leading figures within the party to address pressing ‘English Questions’

Young People and the "Big Society"

The inability of large numbers of young people in the UK to get on a University course provides some early evidence of how the Coalition government might seek to cater for young people during a time of austerity.

Lacking Cohesion? Cameron's National Citizen Service

The government's "Big Society" approach to citizenship endangers other successful community initiatives.

British Identity and the Legacy of Empire

The extent to which the British Empire influences contemporary politics and society has been overlooked by political parties in the UK

An opportunity missed? The government response to the Youth Citizenship Commission

Labour responds to a report on increasing young people's participation in politics

Towards a national civic service?

Andy Mycock on ideas for a British civic service programme

'Sorry seems to be an easier word': Brown and the politics of apology

Kevin Rudd’s apology to the 'Forgotten Australians' highlights the difficulties of dealing with Britain's imperial past while promoting a positive view of 'Britishness'

Hastening the end of the Union?

As delegates decanted from Manchester recently, many will have reflected on what they view as a successful conference. The gathering, the biggest seen for a long time, contributed to the on-going rebranding and definition of ‘modern Conservatism'. The conference also proved instructive for those who seek to understand how the Conservatives will approach issues of citizenship, identity and constitutional reform. And what the last five days has highlighted is that Conservatives, progressive or traditionalists alike, have little time for or comprehension of the complexities, dilemmas and subtleties of post-devolution politics in the UK. The conference instead revealed a party which remains Anglo-centric in its political outlook and language.

In his keynote address David Cameron again stated his commitment to the defence of the Union, claiming he would never do anything to put it at risk. However the view that emerged from the conference is one which is confused, often contradictory and likely to further undermine the cohesion of the UK. The Conservatives gave scant attention to issues linked to constitutional matters either in the main debating hall or at fringe events. The only session scheduled in the main conference hall which explicitly dealt with the Union had representatives from Scotland and Wales, plus Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. Empey's party is now again formally linked to the Conservatives, even though the memory of the previous connection, from the 1920s until the 1970s, is a bitter one for many Catholic nationalists.

The promotion of ‘Britishness' in Northern Ireland is set against a Good Friday Agreement which explicitly acknowledges the equal legitimacy of its two traditions. Owen Paterson, Shadow Secretary for Northern Ireland, claimed that the Conservatives were the only political party who campaigned in all four nations, yet it was instructive that the session was mis-titled ‘Great Britain' rather the ‘United Kingdom'. Although the Conservatives claimed to seek to build ‘a stronger union' and ‘a greater Britain', it was not felt necessary to provide representation for England, thus suggesting that the quasi-colonialist Thatcherite view of Anglo-Britishness still shapes the Conservative thinking.

During the conference, the Party avoided discussion of the central plank of their constitutional reform platform, namely English votes for English Laws. This is presented as solution to the vacuum created by New Labour radical constitutional programme, the West Lothian or English Question, whereby power has been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but not England. David Mundell, the Conservatives' only Scottish MP, described such reforms as ‘sensible proposals' to give English MPs equitable powers of decision-making as those afforded to the Scottish Parliament and the other devolved assemblies.

Cameron’s Conservatives might learn from their own history

In an article published on the Conservative Home website recently, David Cameron provided stinging criticism of Gordon Brown’s ‘artificial’ Britishness, defined by ‘grand top-down schemes’ that had little substance and were primarily aimed at securing media coverage. Cameron suggested that a future Conservative government would restore the nation’s pride and common endeavour, much as, he claims, Margaret Thatcher did after her election in 1979. The Conservatives were, according to Cameron, patriotic to the core; their Britishness reflects the broad, popular attitudes of the British people.

He identified three ways to further strengthen our national identity and give people reasons to feel pride in their country.  First, he suggested a move away from the ‘wrong-headed doctrine of state multiculturalism’. This would be achieved by promoting a single national community where new citizens should speak ‘our common language’. Second, the Conservatives would bring back the ‘proper teaching of British history in schools’ based on facts and dates to encourage feeling for Britain’s heritage. Third, a more emotional connection would be re-established with ‘forgotten’ institutions that define Britishness, such as the monarchy, armed forces and parliament. He argues that these institutions are vital to understanding Britishness but have been consistently undermined by the Labour government. Crucially, Cameron argued that Labour had not stood up to Brussels, thus compromising British sovereignty and identity.

This latest foray into the ‘politics of Britishness’ is instructive. Though Cameron claims the Conservatives are not about to enter a ‘my flag is bigger than yours’ contest, he follows a long tradition of party leaders who believe they are the natural patriotic party of the Union. However, it is clear that he is hindered by an enduring Anglo-Britishness which fails to acknowledge the complexity of debates across the UK concerning identity and citizenship. While Cameron derides Brown, it is striking how similar their constructions of Britishness are. Cameron draws on a narrative that is almost identical in its emphasis on British values, institutions and history.

But the ‘forgotten institutions’ that Cameron identifies are not ones that elicit universal patriotism. Though the monarchy is key to our constitution, it is not an institution that evokes an inclusive sense of citizenship. Poll data suggests at least a quarter of Britons would readily embrace a British republic. And, whilst the armed forces are certainly more popular in light of recent painful losses in Iraq and Afghanistan, their deployment and methods also divide opinion. Moreover, it is not clear after the recent expenses scandals why the general public would wish to shape a British identity around the Houses of Parliament. Cameron’s instinctive recourse to oppositional Euroscepticism fails to address broader issues concerning the need to enact major reforms of our democratic institutions.

The Challenges of a Dis-United Kingdom

For most public, high-profile relationships, when rumours of a rocky patch surface there is plenty of 'advice' around. So it is with that most celebrated political marriage: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Intense debate has raged about its imminent break-up or whether Britishness can be 're-forged'. The recent publication of the Calman Report has energised such debates in Scotland though with significantly less impact in England which would appear to be more concerned about on-going quandary of whether Andy Murray is British or Scottish. Those who suggest that the UK is in its death throes often draw attention to the decline of ascription to British identity and the institutions by which it is defined. They point to the concurrent growth in identification with the historical nations of the UK or other ethno-religious identities. Musician Billy Bragg recently suggested that England needs to be ‘freed from this unhappy Union’, thus appearing to agree with Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, that Scottish and English independence is the only way to solve the inequalities of the current devolution settlement.

Gordon Brown is seen by those who seek such a divorce as the ‘Bard’ of a Britishness that is a politically-motivated act of ‘terminal Britishry’. However, Brown has avoided reference to the ‘common ground of Britishness’ recently. Plans for future constitutional reform outlined in June focused on re-asserting the propriety of Westminster in the wake of the expenses scandals, this linked to further devolution of power, reform of the House of Lords, and encouraging youth participation in politics ‘to lift our politics to a higher standard’. This signalled a marked difference to previous constitutional statements which allied such reforms to developing ‘a stronger sense of shared national purpose’.

Brown has not been quiet on the issue though, and recently penned the introduction to the edited volume Being British. There are a number of critical voices within the volume, which highlights the refreshingly open ‘hands off’ approach to the project adopted by Brown. Contributions from the editor Mathhew D’Ancona and a host of others from the left and right treat Brown’s version of ‘Britishness-plus’ with justified scepticism and suspicion. He is rightly accused of drawing on a simplistic, uncritical Anglo-British historical narrative in defining a ‘golden thread’ of British values, such as liberty and tolerance, which overlooks many negative aspects of the imperial past. Such values remain abstract and ill-defined for most Britons, and are actually universal to most modern nation-states.

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