Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Arthur Aughey on 'progressive patriots'

Perhaps as a reaction to Brown’s appropriation of the idea of Britishness, and perhaps because leftist politics have, since the disintegration of the USSR, turned increasingly away from internationalism to embrace localism, those who presumptuously term themselves ‘progressives’ have become increasingly inclined to raise the English nationalist banner. In a review of a new book entitling itself ‘Imagined Nation – England After Britain’, Arthur Aughey offers a critique of the conceptual knots which these ‘progressive patriots’ tie themselves in, and challenges the false assumptions about Britishness which inform the narrative these people are advancing.

In order to rationalise attempts to break up the United Kingdom, and in order to cleave their new found nationalism to an identity which they adjudge convivial, it has become de rigueur to write naval gazing tomes in which the English national identity is offered a set of civic, multi-ethnic, liberal clothes. Aughey notes the incoherency between this vision and actual patriotic English sentiment as it is displayed more popularly.

“ It is an idea that, in the past, it has struggled to reconcile with native populism. There has always been the suspicion, best expressed in the past by Paul Gilroy, of the ‘two World Wars and one World Cup’ beer-fuelled nativism lurking beneath the traditionally conceived civilities of Englishness.”


He identifies an elitist particularism which informs the naïve vision of English nationalism which these people would like to engender,

“because in England's case the future will not be one of chauvinistic flag waving. English nationalism will not be a dangerous nationalism (it will be exceptional) and it might become the model for others to copy (it will be exemplary). It will be civic, liberal, multi-ethnic, hybrid, mongrel (continue and repeat).”


The separatist impulse from which this outlook is formed springs from a central misconception about the United Kingdom. This is an assumption that the Union was forged in order to enable the pursuit of empire and when the Empire disintegrated so did the necessity for Union. Aughey explains the double-think behind this rendering of the UK,

“ to understand the United Kingdom exclusively as a project, that is a polity united by a common purpose externally defined, is not only to exclude its civic character but also to subscribe to the lure of separatist logic.”


He continues,

“to hold this view is, I would argue, one-eyed and it does less than justice to the civic character of Britishness, found in those procedures and relationships which specify the conditions of belonging, ones which continue to secure the allegiance of the majority in all parts of the United Kingdom.”


Aughey then turns to the wildly assumptive title which presupposes that even if Britishness has not yet died its final death, there is inevitability to its demise. The pretext is to suggest that the structures which define an old identity are rapidly disintegrating and there is therefore an urgent need to redefine English identity because the redefinition will soon be required to cleave to a new political dispensation. Aughey is dismissive of these ‘certainties’.

“Despite these certainties, the United Kingdom is not fated to break up. It is certainly fated to change but that is an entirely different matter. Of course, the existence of the Union has always been contingent but it is probably wise for those interested in a new England to stop trying to jump over Rhodes.”


The paradox that these so-called ‘progressive patriots’ face is that they have a destructive impulse when it comes to the United Kingdom, yet that same Kingdom is the structure which embodies values of liberalism, civic politics, multi-ethnicity, mongrelism and so on which they claim to cherish. They are tying themselves in knots attempting to rationalise why they wish to destroy those values and advance parochial separatist nationalism instead.

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