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A different strand of socialism

An interesting article below from Billy Bragg on the English Question with much in it that rings true for Cornwall. I wonder if he is aware of the Cornish question?

It's time to stop denying that the English identity exists, and learn to distinguish between xenophobia and progressive patriotism

Nearly 70 years after George Orwell first pointed it out in The Lion and the Unicorn, his observation that the English are the only people whose intellectuals hate their own country still seems to hold true. Following my St George's day article in which I argued that we should combat racism by articulating an inclusive sense of what it means to be English, the Guardian printed several letters from readers, all of them outraged by my suggestion. The concept of Englishness was variously dismissed as an "artificial identity", a "futile idea", "at best irrelevant, at worse dangerous".

"I do wish Billy Bragg would stop banging on about Englishness" wrote one correspondent, before going on to suggest that "as a socialist, Bragg should be celebrating the internationally minded South African trade unions who refused to unload arms destined for Mugabe's regime - rather than some highly dubious notion of Englishness". The implication that, as socialists, we should disavow all notions of Englishness plays into the hands of the far-right, leaving them free to define who does and who doesn't belong on their own terms. Our folly would be compounded if we were to go around taking down St George's day bunting and ordering those celebrating to replace it with slogans of solidarity with the South African Congress of Trade Unions. Such behaviour would only serve to give credence to the lies that the BNP spout on the doorstep.

I doubt it will come as a surprise to learn that this is not the first time that I have been shouted down for putting forward challenging ideas about what it means to be English. Hoping to provoke debate by styling myself a progressive patriot, I seem more often to provoke kneejerk reactions from fellow leftists. Last week was no different. "The idea of the 'progressive patriot' is worthy but misguided," argued one letter. "The prospect of watching an England game with bellicose fans belting out 10 German Bombers or Dambusters doesn't appeal." Unsurprisingly, that doesn't appeal to me either, but we are never going to escape from that mentality unless we make the effort to counter it.

As socialists, we are all too familiar with the tactic of opponents who are quick to portray those who question the free-market system as supporters of the worse excesses of Stalinism. It's a blinkered mindset that refuses to accept that there are different strands within socialism, preferring instead to dismiss as a commie anyone who argues for a more compassionate society. Such simplistic attempts at stifling debate are mirrored by those on the left who fail to recognise that there are different types of patriotism, some adamantly opposed to that voiced by the xenophobic minority.

The SNP has managed to unashamedly be both proud of their country and progressive. Their 2007 manifesto for the Scottish election was available in Polish, Urdu and Cantonese, yet they are a nationalist party. Their patriotism has driven them to ensure that old people get free care, students don't have to pay tuition fees and prescriptions get cheaper in Scotland, even as they become more expensive in England. This is nationalism as a positive social force, uniting people around the implementation of progressive policies in the name of Scottish self-determination. Yet the same sense of pride that the Scots have used to move their national agenda to the left of New Labour, we in England are only too eager to surrender to the far-right. Unable or unwilling to distinguish between xenophobia and progressive patriotism, some on the left are destined to fight old wars in which class is the single defining characteristic. In the post-ideological period in which we live, national identity has become more significant than class or religion. For the English, this process has been exacerbated by a programme of devolution that many believe has treated them unfairly.

During the next election, there is a strong possibility that the issue of England will be a prominent feature on the agenda, if only because the Tories hope to use it to embarrass our Scottish prime minister. If a Conservative government hostile to Scotland's social spending is elected, the momentum for Scottish independence will increase. Should the Scots decide to break with the union, there is every likelihood that the English will suddenly find themselves independent too.

If that prospect fills you with dread thoughts of Little Englanders ruling our country and replacing multiculturalism with insularity, then perhaps it's time we on the left stopped denying that the English identity exists, reconnected with our radical tradition of levellers, abolitionists, chartists and suffragettes and began to engage positively in the debate about what it means to be English.

Taken from the Guardian: A different strand of soclialism

1 comment:

Charlie Marks said...

Yes, I can confirm I've heard Billy discuss the Cornish question though I can't recall his position exactly - though given his support for regional government I expect that he's in favour of a Cornish assembly.