“The Progressive Patriot” by Billy Bragg: a book review.

 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”.

  • sliabhluachra

    When Brendan Behan was asked the message in one of his writings, he said he was a writer, not a telegram boy. Bragg is a good writer of leftist ditties, Lennon (John) could turn a tune even though he failed his O levels (did a quick check lest the Provo botnets…). Horses for courses.
    Thanks for the 2 up. I have some BB songs, must get more, like now.

  • sliabhluachra


    Bragg sings this well. His version of The Internationale does not really cut it at all as it needs a lot more than a solitary voice with dodgy backing.
    I might check out the book in time. A good post.

  • sliabhluachra

    On the Protest album, which Billy Bragg shares with Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, amongst others, Bruce Springsteen sings Mrs McGrath (emphasis on the th) which, though being an anti war song, is much better done by the indomitable Ronnie Drew with whom older folk associate it. Pete Seeger and Springsteen do it because of Drew’s success.
    Seeger in turn does a much better rendition of We Shall Overcome than Joan Baez and that was a staple of the early NICRA marches before the counter gang was let loose.
    Has anyone any recordings of “Our Own Democracy” which was another great pre PIRA NICRA staple?
    When the USA’s troops massed in Saudi Arabia to attack Iraq, they watched Apocalypse Now, the anti war movie.
    In these things, wires get crossed.Billy Bragg wil be remembered for songs, not books.
    Still, thanks again for the 2 up.

  • sliabhluachra,

    You should have a listen to him on the Imaginary Village collaboration:

    Along with the likes of Paul Weller, Sheila Chandra and the Transglobal Underground he continues on the theme of the book (ie there isn’t one unitary English or British identity, more a mish-mash of influences).

    His “Hard times of Old England” is really one of his best recent efforts.

  • sliabhluachra

    I have been listening to some of it and, sociogicaly, it is interesting as as its contrasts with the ouvres of such as the Dubliners, Christy Moore marks 1,2,3 etc

    A little bit of the Wigan Pier about it. The Irish stuff has the ancient enmity to give it bite and the various base sounds (bodhran mostly) as well as pipes and flutes.

    Of course, much of the Dubliners’ stuff is garrison offerings, sticking women up the duff and so on and the English influence is undeniable,

    I listened on youtube to some of the stuff you suggested and they ended with an acoustic and bongo come all ye bash, whih reminded me, quite properly, of the modern rent a mobs which would be into Billy Bragg a bit.
    I guess the English cutting edge would be the likes of the Clash and the Sex Pistols as well as Shane McGowan before he lost himself in the abyss.
    My Son John, for example, about a squaddie getting his tuppence in Iraq/Helmand has been done much better in the past
    .Whereas Willie McBride and Gallipoli might continue to resonate amongst the Irish, Bragg is a little off key with his mayfair Olde English stuff whih is out of line with modern English “resistance” music, ie raw punk.
    I would imagine this misalignment goes over into his history.

    Take Flower of Scotland for example. Nice song but no heart and no modern resonance in it.
    Still, it is an avenue worth pursuing.
    Bottom line though: I guess singers should mostly sing a good song trumps a mediocre tome.

    Thanks again for the heads up.

  • fordprefect

    Bragg went down in my estimation, when he met the queen. He was/is singing and talking about anti-establishment topics and the need to change them, then he meets and greets the biggest leech of them all. Shame on him.

  • antoinmaccomhain

    @I guess the English cutting edge would be the likes of the Clash and the Sex Pistols as well as Shane McGowan before he lost himself in the abyss.

    Punk reflects the discontent that existed in ‘Industrial England’.The ‘English “resistance” music, ie raw punk’….
    doesn’t resonate in Éire because we’ve no ‘Industrial Ireland’ to ‘Lament’.(Sheffield/Welsh miners)Hence the reason why ‘Willie McBride’,’Gallipolli’ and ‘The Fogey Dew’ are more popular than the ‘Boom Town Rats.’Take u2 for example.They’re the nearest thing you’ll get in the ‘south’ to ‘punk’ music.But you’ll never hear a bono song in ‘the Real Dublin’…….no heart and no modern resonance in it.

    I don’t tink anyone quite captured the Hatred that the people in the south have for their Political Masters,as much as Dominic Behan did when he sung Barrys Column,’Oh but isn’t it great to see the Tommies and the R.I.C.,the Black and Tans and the ‘Staters Flee’,away from Barrys Column.’