Billy Bragg's quest for a "new England" may well be a waste of time, says Martin Smith. Review of 'The Progressive Patriot', Billy Bragg, Bantham Press £17.99
Musician and political activist Billy Bragg has just brought out his first book, The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging. His family history and the politically honest account of the Anti Nazi League (ANL) and Rock Against Racism's (RAR) fight against the Nazis in the 1970s makes interesting reading. But The Progressive Patriot is not a biography - it's a polemic, one which aims to reconcile patriotism with a radical left tradition.
Billy is not alone. It is very fashionable to talk about being an Englishman in today's world - both Jeremy Paxman and Roger Scruton have written books on the subject, and Tony Blair and David Blunkett constantly wrap themselves in the St George's flag.
Of course Billy's notion of Englishness differs radically from those above - he does not feel threatened by immigration and he celebrates working class struggle. He is not the first socialist to try and fuse radicalism and patriotism - Billy's musical hero Woody Guthrie and George Orwell both made similar attempts and failed. Despite Billy's assertion that the punk band The Clash fundamentally shaped his world view, it is the ideas put forward in Orwell's book The Lion And The Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius that really influence this book.
The Lion and the Unicorn was written at the height of the Blitz during the Second World War. Orwell attempted to fuse a revolutionary spirit with patriotism. His conclusion was that England is "a family with the wrong members in control". Orwell hoped that in the fight against Hitler the right members of the family would take control. But his surrender to patriotism was a turn away from the idea of change from below.
Billy's ideals are nowhere near as lofty - his book is more a search for a sense of belonging. In doing so he reinforces all the stereotypes and falsehoods written by right wing historians. In one passage about the Second World War he writes, "Unlike the unemployment of the thirties, the bombs on Britain fell upon rich and poor alike." Every serious study of London during the Blitz shows that the so-called shared common wartime experience linking the Queen Mother to the working class cockney and all those in between is a myth. The rich still dined at the Ritz and any gains made by the working class had to be fought for.
Sadly the rest of the book follows in the same vein. He throws together a number of disconnected historical events, myths and anecdotes and tries to make a case for an English national identity. He argues that he wants to reclaim English culture from the skinheads and the Tories. But what values do skinheads and Tories have that we want to reclaim?
Class is removed from Billy's view of Britain. He writes, "It is a broadly accepted fact that, over the past 50 years Britain has become a classless society." Come off it, Billy, the gap between rich and poor in Blair's Britain is at an all time high. What inspired the unemployed marchers of the 1930s and the miners during the 1984-85 strike was not patriotism, but the ideas of collective organisation and solidarity. These notions have nothing to do with being English, but everything to do with socialism and the spirit of internationalism.
Far from strengthening progressive movements, Billy's ideas, if put into practice, would blunt them. In one section of the book Billy describes a 200-strong demonstration against the BNP in the village of Shaftesbury. He describes how the only opposition to the protest came from a single Nazi waving a couple of plastic English flags at the marchers. He writes, "What would that lonely demonstrator have done if he had seen 200 people coming towards him carrying their English flags? Would he still have been able to express his opposition by waving his own English flag or would we have forced him to find some other method to display his racist beliefs? A Nazi salute perhaps?"
Would anti-Nazis marching with the St George's flag really weaken the BNP? I don't think so. Not only would it alienate many on our side, but trying to "out-patriot" the BNP is our weakest weapon. Funnily enough the solution to combating the Nazis today is contained in Billy's book, but sadly it is not applied. Describing the famous ANL carnival in Victoria Park in 1978, he recalls, "While the National Front marched beneath their ranks of Union Jacks, we gathered amid union banners, yellow Anti Nazi League roundels and punk pink RAR stars." What destroyed the Nazis in the 1970s was not an accommodation to patriotism but working class people - black, white and Asian - creating their own movement, culture and symbols. This is what we have to do today.
In the 1980s Billy was an internationalist and a man who seemed to want to change the world - sadly today it looks like he would settle for some constitutional reform and the ability to support the English football team without feeling embarrassed.