Patriots and Republicans

You’ll have seen the news from Britain, that a number of ‘Republicans’ intending to peacefully demonstrate at King Charles’s coronation procession were arrested by the police before even getting their placards up, on the grounds that they ‘might’ cause trouble; and this after the leaders’ having squared their intended actions with the police weeks before the day. Rishi Sunak thinks this was OK. Coronations – and monarchy itself – are of course very British. (If you don’t like them, said the vice-chair of the Conservative Party a few days ago, then you should ‘emigrate’.) It follows that trying to protest or disrupt them in any way is ‘unpatriotic’.

Now: I don’t know what parts of Britain’s history our self-styled ‘patriots’ are particularly proud of; but if it doesn’t include popular protest then their list is seriously deficient. Of course our tradition of protesting is not nearly as impressive as France’s – a fact which was a cause of xenophobic pride in the 19th century (it showed how giddy the French were) – but there has certainly been a great deal of it over the years, on behalf of a number of causes, not all of them what we might regard as ‘progressive’, and most of them failing to achieve anything much; but many of them helping to speed things up in a way that leaving these issues to Parliament probably wouldn’t have done. Votes for men and for women are the obvious examples. Decolonisation may be another. Not that I want to claim that popular opposition to colonial misdeeds was the – or even ‘a’ – major factor behind the fall of the British Empire in the middle of the last century; but it was there, albeit unnoticed by many left-wingers today. As well as an ‘imperial’ Britain there was always an anti-imperial – or at least a deeply critical – one, which certainly contributed to her retreat from her colonies from the 1940s – or even earlier – on.

Anti-imperialism was of course the subject of my first book, Critics of Empire, published in 1968; and in subsequent books I’ve argued that indeed anti-imperialism, as a general philosophy, was invented in Britain, in a way that imperialism itself certainly wasn’t. (See British Imperial. What the Empire Wasn’t, 2016; and Britain’s Contested History. Lessons for Patriots, 2022). If we’re into ‘national pride’, and all the other ‘patriotic’ stuff, isn’t that something we Brits could be ‘proud’ of’? Even Charlie boy, in his purple robes and golden carriage; if he thought about it a bit. (He seems a thoughtful fellow.) In this sense, arresting republicans in the Mall for just being republicans, is almost the most unpatriotic thing one could imagine. We Brits are surely better than that; at least in patches.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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1 Response to Patriots and Republicans

  1. AbsentMindedCriticofEmpire says:

    Dear Bernard, I think “Critics of Empire” remains an important book which has stood the test of time well. I guess one of the main historiographical shifts has been to emphasise the role of imperial networks more, but that doesn’t diminish its value.

    Being a fan of Billy Bragg and EP Thompson, I appreciate your desire to see the British radical tradition given prominence (warts and all, I should add). This raises a curious feature of the current vogue for defending the British Empire: it is based not so much on celebrating critics, secular or missionary, who challenged imperial misrule, as on exculpating its leading protagonists such as Rhodes and Milner. This, I think, stems from its Conservative (big C) roots and its typically catch-all dismissal of any critique of the British Empire as anti-Western and Marxist, as though the Cold War had never ended. Of course, I know you were criticised, most unfairly in my view, by one postcolonial historian, but I think the current crop of defenders of empire (Biggar, Sumption et al) have little in common with your own outlook. At least I hope so!


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