THE PROGRESSIVE PATRIOT feedback on a talk by Billy Bragg – by John Pateman


Review by John Pateman

I have been a fan of Billy Bragg’s music for many years and have seen him play live several times. I am also aware of his politics and so I was not surprised when he wrote this book about progressive patriotism and a search for belonging. I also went to a talk on this subject by Billy as part of the Lincoln Book Festival and was very impressed by the strength of his political argument for a new Bill of Rights which all classes and races in England can unite under.

What does it mean to be English? What does it mean to be British? Does the rise in popularity of the St George’s flag represent a new beginning or symbolise the return of the far right? Is the Union Jack too soaked in the blood of empire to be the emblem of a modern multicultural state? In a country in which all of us are born under two flags, what does it mean to be a patriot?

In 2006, Billy saw his home town Barking in the front line of the debate over who does and does not belong in 21 st century Britain, when the BNP became the official opposition group on Barking and Dagenham Council. Billy links this to the attacks on London of 7 July 2005, when 52 people were killed and many more injured during attacks on the public transport system.

This book is an urgent, eloquent and passionate response to these events. Reflecting on the history of his home town and family (many of whom came from dissenting traditions and trade unions) and revisiting the music that inspired him (especially the Clash), Billy pits his own values against those of traditional Britishness in a search for a sense of belonging that is accessible to all and in so doing, offers positive hope to a nation no longer sure of its own identity.

The issues which Billy raises will not go away any time soon as we continue to come to terms with an increasingly multicultural society, which many people are far from comfortable with because in some ways this seems to threaten what England stands for. But Billy proves that England has stood traditionally for fairness, justice and tolerance and we must reassert these collectivist values and turn back the tide of consumerism and individualism.

As Billy says, the real enemy is not Capitalism or Conservatism but Cynicism – the people of England must wake up politically and be active in creating a new kind of society, building on the work of the Levellers, the Chartists, the Suffragettes and the Trade Unions. In the absence of a written constitution we need a Bill of Rights which protects the citizens of this country – no matter what their background – from arbitrary power.

As I write this review one of the MPs for Barking, Government Minister Margaret Hodge, has called for local indigenous people to be given preference over newly arrived immigrants in the allocation of social housing. The other Barking MP and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party contender John Cruddas has argued that it is a question of supply rather than demand. As the public arguments over the future and extent of Multicultural England continue to rage, Billy Bragg’s book makes an important contribution to that debate.