Billy Bragg,
The Progressive Patriot
(Bantam, 2006)

In this important, readable book, English musician Billy Bragg promises to take on the question of what it means to be an English patriot on the left in the era of multiculturalism, devolution and other harrowing change.

I first saw Bragg perform at a massive outdoor rally in Toronto in 1996, and he got me thinking about these issues. Specifically, he got me thinking about flags.

"You've got to get that Thatcherite flag out of your state flag," he told the crowd, referring to the small Union Jack in the corner of Ontario's provincial flag (and forgetting that Ontario is a province, not a state).

In this book, he considers the issue of flags, and more. English history (and who owns it), the fight against fascism, the history of popular and rock music and his own family's story are all a part of it.

It starts in his home town of Barking, Essex, now an eastern suburb of Greater London. It seems Barking has an illustrious history of its own, from Celtic and Roman times, through the Industrial Revolution and the World Wars. From this standpoint, Bragg sets out to reclaim "Englishness" from conservatives, traditionalists and fascists who claim this history as theirs alone. Working people have their own version of history, and it doesn't run exactly as claimed by those who wrote history texts over the past few centuries.

Bragg is perhaps given to a bit of overstatement in making his arguments: like those he criticizes he is guilty of inflating England/Britain's and perhaps even Barking's importance in the history of the world (and in the history of popular music). For instance, the Magna Carta was a truly defining moment for English speakers, but the Catalans, for one, had the Utsages, arguably a more democratic document, 100 years earlier.

My other comment: while sensitive and respectful of the Scots and Welsh, Bragg does conflate the English and British nationalities, even while trying to disentangle them. He never deals with the idea of a needed English Parliament (without which the "federal" Parliament of Westminster today seems bizarrely asymmetrical, with a Scottish PM who cannot make laws in many areas for Scotland itself).

I found this book unputdownable, glazing over only a few of his more rapturous passages about the liberties won by the English people. Even his family history, bound up as it is by the struggles of the working classes in England, the winning of the eight-hour day and the struggle against Nazi Germany, is all well written and researched and fascinating.

Among the best passages are Billy's notes on the history of folk and folk-rock, and how it emerged out of a search for authenticity and a sense of place, not unlike the search in this book. Who would have guessed the young Bragg was such an avid admirer of not just Paul Simonon (of the Clash) but also Paul Simon? And that his sense of place could have been awakened by performers such as Simon and Bob Dylan, based in New York!

It is satisfying to read a leftwing internationalist figure pleading for the importance of a sense of place. Many leftwing and liberal thinkers mistakenly confuse that need with the exclusion of all others not from that place. But, as Bragg points out, Wales's Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party, both nationalist political parties, are both to the left of British New Labour.

Indeed, small (stateless) nations have well-known, leftwing internationalists who love their country unashamedly, as leading figures in the music scene. Dafydd Iwan in Wales and Fermin Muguruza in the Basque Country are two shining examples (mine). But Bragg is the first prominent leftwing musician from a large, majority culture that I know of to take such a stand.

But back to flags: Since the Welsh and Scots aren't embarrassed to fly their national flags, he argues, why should the English leave the cross of St. George to the extreme right wing and football thugs?

In that 1996 concert, Bragg sang a tune called "Thatcherites" based on an old English folksong. One of the lines was "We'll take it back some day, mark my words," and this "taking back" applies in this book to the whole concept of Englishness. Nationhood isn't just for Celts.

At just under 300 pages -- a bit rambling at times -- this is a landmark book. Above all it argues the importance of being a patriot -- a progressive patriot. Not an easy thing to be.

review by
David Cox

2 February 2008

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