For sale: England’s towns and cities

An extract from Paul Kingsnorth’s new book, Real England: The Battle Against The Bland, which comes out next week:

Urban public space is at the heart of city and town life. It is the essence of public freedom: a place to rally, to protest, to sit and contemplate, to smoke or talk or watch the stars. No matter what happens in the shops and cafes, the offices and houses, the existence of public space means there is always somewhere to go to express yourself or simply to escape.

Yet this, too, is under assault. From parks to pedestrian streets, squares to market places, public spaces are being bought up and closed down, often with little consultation or publicity. In towns and cities all over England, what was once public is now private. It is effectively owned by corporations, which set the standards of behaviour. These standards are the standards that are most congenial to their aim – getting you to buy things. So there will be no begging, no being homeless, no wearing hoodies. There will be no busking, and often there will be no sitting either, except in designated areas. You will eat and drink where you are told to. You will not skateboard or cycle or behave “inappropriately”. And as for political demonstrations – don’t even think about it.

Throughout history, urban space has been a source of danger to those in authority, a place where dissidents gather. So, for a cash-strapped local authority, handing over control of public streets can seem like a boon. Private companies provide security guards to police them and keep them tidy. It saves money and time.

Paul also comments on the English Question today in a brilliant article at The Guardian’s Comment Is Free site:

In 2003, government proposals to create Foundation Hospitals were rejected by the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly. Only England remained, and Labour MPs were split. A parliamentary amendment removing Foundation Hospitals for England from the proposed Health and Social Care Bill was supported by most English MPs – but Welsh and Scottish MPs, drilled into the lobbies by the government, defeated them. The next year the same thing happened when university “top-up fees” were rejected in Scotland and Wales but imposed on the English by just five votes – the votes of Scottish MPs.

England today is the only British nation without any form of democratic devolution. It is the only nation in Europe without its own parliament or government. It has fewer MPs per head of population than the other British nations, and receives considerably less money per head from the treasury. Opinion polls show that the English are increasingly aware of this injustice – and increasingly unhappy (Alex Salmond enjoys reminding the English of the unfairness of the situation, for obvious reasons). This unhappiness, which is coalescing into resentment and anger, threatens not only the union, but the government’s power base. New Labour is a Scottish creation, and any devolution to England could destroy not only the (Scottish) prime minister but the legitimacy of his government – a government which, if you removed its Scottish and Welsh MPs from the equation, would be a minority administration in England.

In this context, it becomes clear why the government is so keen on “Britishness”: it is trying to hold the English at bay; trying to avoid having to finish the devolution project by ensuring that England, too, controls its own affairs. As a result, we are seeing a mirror-image of the UK’s pre-1997 constitutional injustices. Back then, the Scottish were resentful at being ruled from Westminster by a political party – the Tories – which did not represent their interests and which used their country as a testing ground for unpopular policies, most notoriously the poll tax. The Tories responded either by ignoring them and hoping they would go away or by issuing hysterical warnings about the breakup of the union.

Sounds familiar? Today England has the illegitimate government, and the English are the guinea pigs for its unpopular ideas. It responds by simply denying the legitimacy of their claims (“separatist nationalism must be taken on”, squeaks Michael Wills) or by feebly grasping at a fading British mythology. Some Scottish or Welsh nationalists may be enjoying the schadenfreude of seeing the English get a taste of their own medicine – but they shouldn’t. This is not about setting the English up against the Scots or the Welsh. It is, at root, about democracy and about justice. It is about all of us – Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English – getting Britain off our backs.