After I had submitted my two previous book reviews to him (here and here), Mick suggested I also try one on “my favourite book”. Well, probably one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking political reads I’ve had over the last couple of years is Billy Bragg’s “The Progressive Patriot”.
For those readers not of a certain vintage, Billy Bragg is a singer-songwriter who has delivered his own “back-to-basics”, “Stripped down” style of polemical leftish tunes for near enough 30 years. He’s also now an author and fortunately his writing is bit easier to digest ( for me anyway) than his vocals.
“The Progressive Patriot” is a deeply personal examination of national identity, Englishness/Britishness, with Bragg trying to answer the question:
“Is it possible to love your country without passing over the border into nationalist xenophobia?”
In an attempt to answer he delves into the history of the United Kingdom, explaining how certain events (e.g. the World Wars, the fight for the right to vote and the setting-up of the Welfare State) influenced his family’s story and brings it all up to date with his own experiences of fighting racism and being brought up, living in and enjoying a multi-cultural society.
There’s a lot of varied material covered in a very short space and that leads to probably the book’s main weakness, its lack of cohesion and context; one minute Grandfather Bragg is giving his thoughts on the 1911 London dock strike, next minute The Clash are fighting the White Riot in Notting Hill 1977. But, having said that, there’s never a dull moment- even the story of Barking’s (from personal experience one of the simultaneously most boring and frightening of London’s suburbs) development through the years is fascinating. However, most of the time I was baffled with Billy’s train of thought. He also never really achieves any kind of recognisable answer to the question I mentioned earlier.
Maybe that simply reflects Bragg’s own uncertainty about the subject, maybe it reflects the present confused constitutional juncture we find ourselves at in our common history. Whatever the reason, he certainly does pose many open and at times, uncomfortable questions for those of us who love the United Kingdom and would consider ourselves to be British patriots.
As someone who was, according to the Rangers song, “Born under a Union Jack”, the chapter “Born under two flags?” was the one I found most personally challenging. I feel an identity which is inconveniently more mosaic than unitary- a mixture of all my family, cultural, historical, social and political influences: that is to say European, British, Irish, East Belfast.
I spend too much of my money and spare time watching an English (Utd) and Irish (the N.Ireland international) football side.
If the Ballyhackamore Bourgeois’s favourites, the Ulster and Ireland rugby teams were to disappear tomorrow, I wouldn’t shed too many tears.
I hate with a vengeance Liverpool, City, Rangers, Celtic, Linfield.
My partner doesn’t tick three of those four identity boxes I previously claimed ownership to .
And? Am I less British than you? Any less Irish?
My mixed identity is the one I am the most comfortable with, yet it’s one which the NILT survey and our one dimensional political system can’t and doesn’t want to deal with.
Bragg’s message here would be that we need to be continually working on the definition of what it means to belong- identity is in a constant state of flux and not written in stone:
Establishing space rather than race as our foundation, we can imagine a Britishness which is the sum of every building, field, road, path; every food, custom, belief, culture; every person- in fcat everything that is in Britain today, a Britishness that can only be truly appreciated by understanding how and why these things came to be here.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, despite the occasional weaknesses in logical or analytical thinking, Bragg’s style is engaging and he has succeeded in making me think more deeply about my nation’s past, present and future. Whatever side of the political spectrum you may find yourself on, I recommend you buy the book.
Keep your mind open and you will definitely pull something from reading “The Progressive Patriot”.