Like many writers, I presume, my head and my filing cabinet are filled with opening chapters, paragraphs or just lines of books I thought of writing at one time, but never got round to. These began with an erotic novel I started on at the age of about 17, inspired I remember by Keats’s The Eve of St Agnes, but abandoned after I’d got the girl’s dress off, because Keats had given me no precise guidance as to what was supposed to follow. (Remember that 17-year olds were still virgins then.) After that I remember aborted works on the histories of anti-communism and anti-intellectualism; a full-length history of British travellers and residents in 19th-century Europe (in the end I managed to get a couple of articles out of this); a detective story set in the 1890s based on the pleasant fiction that Karl Marx hadn’t really died but was playing cricket for Gloucestershire (don’t ask); a biography of a Victorian indigo-farmer, cod philosopher and writer on Indian architecture called James Fergusson; a history of Sweden for Brits; a book on an early 19th-century Radical I discovered who had written Elementary school textbooks on dozens of subjects under the nom de plume of a fictional clergyman; a history of West Ham United football club; several autobiographies, left aside because I thought I was too boring; and probably some more projects I’ve thankfully forgotten.
The following is the start of a book proposal that I only thought of this morning. The title is intended to mislead Rightists into buying it. It’s for a short radical history of Britain, provoked by current events and a particular Tweet – mentioned at the beginning – that irritated me. Whether irritation is the best mood to write a serious work of history in is rather doubtful; as is my strength to undertake another substantial writing project at the age of 80. So this will probably go into the filing cabinet with all the other abortions. But in the meantime…
A Patriot’s History of Britain
‘Patriotism’ in Britain is usually associated with the political Right, and with allegiance to the Monarchy and the Flag. Recently a Conservative MP by the name of Lia Nici, representing the fishing port of Grimsby, tweeted that ‘if people are not proud to be British, or of our flag or Queen, they don’t have to live in the UK. Perhaps they should move to another country they prefer.’ My response to that, which will give an early clue as to the point of view to be taken in this book, is that I have indeed ‘moved to another country’ – Sweden, as it happens – but that I still desperately miss the old tolerant Britain we used to have before Brexit turned it into something I can no longer feel loyal towards. I think that could be said to make me at any rate a sort of ‘patriot’, if you don’t assume that Queen- and flag-loyalty are necessary for that. My allegiance is to another sort of Britain; not the entire essence of that country – I’m not claiming that this is the only way ‘Britishness’ can be conceived – but one of a collection of essences that together make up that complex multi-national entity.
Patriotism wasn’t always a conservative or reactionary thing. When Dr Johnson in 1775 famously called it ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’, it was at a time when the term was more often used by democrats than by Tories, to describe their solidarity with peoples rather than with governments; and by the American revolutionaries of that day in particular. For much of the nineteenth century in Britain it was still seen as a radical or what today we would call a left-wing sentiment, probably until Disraeli appropriated it for his Conservative Party in the 1870s. It was then that ‘imperialism’ became associated with it too. Thereafter ‘patriotism’ never lost its right-wing connotations; which were, however, often disputed by radicals keen to emphasise the ‘British’ or ‘English’ historical origins of the anti-establishment causes they espoused. Usually those were placed in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ times, supposedly the fount of all Englishmen’s ‘liberties’, before they were taken from them by the Norman invaders (or imperialists) who still formed the basis of the British aristocracy. In the nineteenth century that was still being called ‘the Norman Yoke’. Anti-aristocracy, therefore, and by extension anti-monarchism, was – as in America – a ‘patriotic’ cause. It was the same in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Lia Nici’s association of patriotism with royalism then would have seemed perverse.
Britain’s history in modern times (I’ll be beginning around 1800) can be regarded as a competition, or conflict, between these two kinds of ‘patriotism’. Sometimes they cohered together, as in the twentieth century’s two World Wars where ordinary soldiers’ loyalties towards their ‘mates’ fighting alongside them turned out to be perfectly compatible with their upper-class officers’ loyalties to King, country and Empire, so that the two kinds of patriotism could work effectively (or fairly effectively) in tandem: until they uncoupled, very obviously, once the wars were over. At other times they stood against each other, with Lia Nici’s ‘higher’ loyalties jarring with those of ordinary folk who were not persuaded that the Queen and the Union Jack represented their interests too. Of course there were many who were so persuaded, just as there were a few at the ‘higher’ level whose patriotism was more democratic; which will complicate the narrative that will be spelled out below. But the tension was always there, running through the whole of Britain’s history over the past two hundred years and more.
Although I’ve chosen it as my main theme, I don’t want to claim that it was necessarily the dominant one in this period. Nor were what one might call the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Norman’ perceptions of patriotism the only ones on offer at any time. ‘Patriotic’ appeals were often used and manipulated by other forces in British society, on both ‘sides’, to cover other intentions and interests, especially material ones; and to obscure a more potent dynamic that may have lain – and I shall argue did indeed lie – behind everything. But I thought it might be useful, or at least enlightening, if I gave a new account of Britain’s modern political and social history which emphasises the democratic-patriotic side of it as much as the other, and highlighting the radical and liberal aspects. One example – just as a taster – is the strong anti-imperialist thread that is – I would say – one of Britain’s main intellectual and political traditions; which might possibly surprise the many people, and not only the unlettered, who dismiss modern Britain as ‘imperialist’ tout court. Others are republicanism; various forms of socialism; pacifism and internationalism; feminism; and maybe – I won’t know until I’ve written the book – a dozen others.
Some of these trends are the ones that explain my affection for the land of my birth, and my loyalty to it insofar as that goes; which is as far as it conforms, at least in part, to the particular – though not exclusively – ‘British’ ideals that I so admire in its history. You could call it a conditional patriotism. Today (this is being written in March 2021) Britain appears to have strayed too far from those ideals to deserve my allegiance, let alone my ‘pride’ – which in any case is a nonsense with regard to a nationality one was born into; but I live in hopes that it may return. This explains my desire to bring those ideals, if not to the forefront of this account – that would be a falsification – at least to their proper places in Britain’s contested history.
[Added the next day.] Of course this is not at all an original approach. There are already several Histories of Britain focussing on the working classes, for example; and it could be said that the main tradition of British history writing since Hume, JR Greene and Trevelyan has been a ‘liberal’ one: concentrating on ‘progress’ and ‘improvement’, and glossing over the darker aspects – emphasising slavery abolition, for instance, rather than slavery itself. When I wrote the above I hadn’t given it enough thought – the penalty, perhaps, of writing whilst irritated. I’ll cogitate more, and either abandon the whole project – most likely – or get back to you.
And I stand by what I’ve written about the history of ‘patriotism’. Apart from ‘mine is the only religion’, ‘my country right or wrong’ is perhaps the most dangerous idea in the world today.
I think the most recent example of that popular patriotism – and its entanglement with patriotism from above – is World War II. The fact that that war enlisted ordinary people to fight Fascism made patriotic sentiment available in quite a deep, emotional way – look at Went the Day Well? or A Canterbury Tale, or – much more recently – at Chris Wood’s song Spitfires. There were a few years – in between wars of aggression – when I wore a poppy in November, and it was always in remembrance of that great international popular struggle against Fascism. I think for the British ruling class WWII is still a bit too hot to handle for precisely this reason; the obsessive, day-by-day commemoration of the centenary of the First World War we lived through recently was accompanied by near radio silence as the 75th anniversaries of the Second went past.
Another stone that would be worth turning over is “little England”, whose original connotations (as Patrick Wright points out in the piece I link to) were not particularly shameful.
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Oooo, the WC Grace idea crossed my mind as well. Luckily for the world of literature I abandoned it an hour later. I might still do the affair between Enoch Powell and Bob Marley idea tho’. Someday.
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Yup. The chronology is wrong (Marx/Grace).