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Manufacturing Britishness

Getting school leavers to
swear allegiance to the Queen,
what’s it all about?

Gordon Brown now appears to believe that, like Candyman, if you say “Britishness, Britishness, Britishness” in a mirror, it will come to get you.  At least, that’s how it seems with the outpourings of his government.  Of course, in his report, Lord Goodman was merely suggesting that all school leavers get to have a citizenship ceremony, in which they might swear true and lasting allegiance to Queen and country – it isn’t policy (yet).  Even if that small part of the report was spun to make the headlines, all that team Brown are doing is floating an idea, to see if it has legs.

Brown would say that he is just trying to promote and shape a sense of collective identity; to improve social cohesion and welfare; to provide a platform for the different identity communities in Britain to overcome their antagonisms.  Brown simply wants us to celebrate those British values of tolerance and fairness (which, of course, no other polity on Earth espouses).

As Goodman explains:

“…analysis also shows that [patriotic] feelings have fallen over time; they are less prevalent among younger people; and there is disaffection in parts of our communities.

So the challenge is to renew our shared sense of belonging and take steps to engage those who do not share it. Especially in the light of social changes, we need a narrative of what we stand for together; and we may need to set out that narrative in more explicit terms than we have had to use before and using frameworks that are created for this purpose.”

It is not, you understand, a “crisis”, but, like the spouse in a failing marriage, feeling the romance start to ebb away, Goodman recommends we cry out our love of country ever more arduously.  We should, he opines, have a national day, given over to being British.

Since “British” is what we in who happen to live on the outlying archipelago just off the northern coast of Europe are supposed to be anyway, that seems to make as much sense as a day celebrating carbon.

Unless, such national identities are not as natural as we are led to believe, and they only work by continually shoring up the fragments of their highly artificial walls.  If they are a part of manufacturing consensus that would mean that all those traditions and values were invented; and only as “natural” as the needs of the inventors.

Quite how those needs are served was nicely illustrated in March this year.  Brown let it be known that he wanted to raise the profile of the British military by encouraging troops to wear their uniforms on the streets.  We were to be encouraged to feel pride in the presence of their resplendent attire, and be continually reminded of the marvellous service these boys and girls do for us, putting their lives on the line for their country,  being the rough men who let us sleep quietly in our beds.  The political purpose of such a subtle reminder would be to assist the morale of troops fighting in the various foreign adventures (Iraq and Afghanistan in particular) that the Labour government has seen fit to commit itself to.

It also was a way to spike the guns of the Conservative Party and the natural Tories in the military establishment who have suddenly discovered something called “the military covenant” – some process by which the state assumes a duty of care to look after soldiers.  This is of recent invention, and forms the basis of all bleating about soldiers not being properly cared for or protected.   It is a claim for special treatment and a useful establishment manifesto.  Doubtless, were the Tories in charge, we’d never hear of it again.

Beyond that, is the hope that getting the folks back home to empathise with the military will iron out any political fallout that from launching an unpopular war in pursuit of loot and profits.  Getting people to think of themselves as being against the war but for the troops is an excellent means of quelling practical opposition to the wars – turning the troops into the political and symbolic hostages of their masters.

All this was given a fillip by the highly orchestrated (as revealed by Private Eye) outing of Prince Henry Charles Albert David Windsor’s tour in Afghanistan.  He became, in a blaze of publicity, an ordinary hero, so committed to his comrades in arms and his duty, that he put his Royal life on the line and go and fight.

Pictures of the smiling princeling playing sport in the desert sent out a message of the equality of service, how all the boys are equal under the badge – and added that air of glamour to proceedings that comes with a Royal personage and their saturation coverage in the media.  That it simultaneously improved the image of the Royal Family was, surely, just a coincidence.

He even, it was reported, killed over thirty Taliban “militants”.  Or, that is, rather, he co-ordinated the attack so that air strikes could be brought down on those dreadful fanatics.  He bravely got someone else to do his killing.

Alas (it seemed) this wave of propaganda was punctured.  On 6 March it was reported that personnel at RAF Wittering, near Peterborough, had been instructed not to wear their uniforms in public, despite the wishes of the great leader, because there had been incidents of verbal harassment of troops by a “cross section of the community.”  This follows similar complaints of harassment of troops “forced” to share regular NHS hospitals with members of the public.

Once upon a time, such incidents would not likely be reported, and the wall of propaganda would hide the divisions in society.  This time, though, the press latched onto this story, and began bemoaning the abuse of “our boys” who “put their lives on the line.”  Soldiers began to be clapped in the street.  Newspapers broadcast their support for the troops.  Politicians said that we should all get behind these brave lads.  Suddenly, a story about how the unpopularity of the war was turning into abuse of the troops, turned, into yet another exercise to achieve the politicians aim of binding us together in love and respect for the lethal arm of the state.

Herein is the rub. These people are doing a dirty job.  Skills, talent, energy and resources are being directed from creative productive work, and instead being dedicated to death and destruction. 

Even, were we, for one moment, to accept the unfortunate necessity of having to keep a standing force for murder, we could still question why they should be lauded so.  Tax collecting and being a bailiff is an unfortunate necessity of our current society, but no-one asks us to celebrate bailiffs.

What of, though, putting their lives on the line?  Well, from accident reports we know that thousands of builders are putting their lives on the line every day.  Train track engineers are risking life and limb.  At least, those workers could point to some accomplishment, an addition to the wealth and wellth of society from the risks they are putting themselves to.

It was once a commonplace of radical politics, never mind socialist politics, that a standing peacetime army is a sign of tyranny.  The option to resort to lethal force remains in place, and implicitly backs up any decision of the state and its agents.  When Tony Blair said it was in the interests of Britain to go to war, he was saying, perhaps without the actual thought crossing his mind, that some stakes are so high that they are worth more than a human life.  That they are worth killing for.  The logic of the mafia don.

As socialists we consider that this international system of perpetual warfare stems entirely from the division of the world into units of property, and that it can be replaced by the common ownership of the world by the human race, co-operatively and democratically running their own lives.  The “unfortunate necessity” for the dirty work of slaying can be eliminated, and no-one need suffer to wear a military uniform again.

We understand that, much like those supposed Taliban militants, who are usually boys fighting for a pittance and a rifle at the behest of well-heeled leaders, the military is made up of workers in uniform, proletarians on parade, hired killers plying their trade.  Their work is dirty and despicable, but they, as human beings are no more worth spitting on nor abusing than any other person.  What they deserve, and need, is for their political masters who are using them to be removed, so that all that skill and energy can be redirected into useful work, and not used against us. 

This could build the practical unity of living, working and sharing together, so that we need neither patriotic parades nor oaths of allegiance to bind us together, and we can put the spectre of the dismal time where murderers were heroes far behind us.

PIK SMEET