Patriotism and the left

My post on the English question has made it into the Britblog Roundup over at The Devil’s Kitchen. Thanks for the nominations, folks.

The round-up also picked up a debate on The Sharpener on the British left’s discomfort with patriotism. The classic statement onthis subject is by that spiritual father of post-war Britain, George Orwell:

England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there isomething disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to Suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.(The Lion and the Unicorn)

I have always thought that the reasons for this were bound up with the empire. Not so much because the empire is an embarassment to the left, but because a cosmopolitan outlook is actually quite functional for a multi-national state. Orwell himself makes a related point in his essay:

The stagnation of the empire in the between-war years affected everyone in England, but it had an especially direct effect upon two important sub-sections of the middle-class. One was the military and imperialist middle class, generally nicknamed the Blimps, and the other the left-wing intelligentsia. These two seemingly hostile types, symbolic opposites – the half-pay colonel with his bull-neck and diminutive brain, like a dinosaur, the highbrow with his domed forehead aqnd stalk-like neck – are mentally linked together and constantly interact upon one another; in any case they are born to a considerable extent into the same families.

It is strange that many on the left seem more comfortable with a British identity that is inevitably bound up with the empire, than with English identity.

Perhaps this is related to the economism of much of the British left, the faith in economic progress that led Marx to praise British India, which is not all that far removed from the utilitarianism of that great British Indian administrator, John Stuart Mill.

Bound up with this is the tendency to see the state, the key sponsor of British identity, as a neutral machinery which it can be used to bring about social change without looking to closely at the values it embodies.

One of the problems of New Labour as a vehicle for the liberal-left is that it has strayed further and further away from the rights-based radicalism of the Levellers and Tom Paine, and towards Benthamite utilitarianism. This is essentially bureaucratic pragmatism elevated to a philosophy.

The City of London may no longer be the capital of a formal empire, Basra notwithstanding, but it’s still a key centre of an ethnically-based division of labour.

For those who want to administer that power structure, Britishness is an ideal vehicle, but those who want to challenge it would be better off turning to England’s rich radical tradition.






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