The Great Repeal Bill Irony; Not only Dangerous but Deeply Unpatriotic

L0019663 Burke and Hare suffocating Mrs Docherty for sale to Dr. Knox
Burking Poor Old Mrs Constitution by Wm Heath

But they who subvert free states, and reduce them to the power of a few, are to be deemed the common enemies of all the zealous friends of liberty.

Demosthenes: The Oration for the Rhodians

In previous posts (here and here) I considered the idea of patriotism as a vibrant sense of community along with the idea of patriotism as making your country a home for liberty.   In both cases I emphasised a clear distinction between patriotism and nationalism, pointing to a strong international and inclusive idea which patriotism emgemders. But while the ideas sound great, are they enough to support a robust sense of patriotism?

The Poet Shelley Laid Down the Principles of Patriotism……..

In my first post I showed how some lines from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley cut through to the central issues of patriotism. I want to do so again but flesh out the ideas a little more fully and apply them to our situation today. Here is Shelley, once again from Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things:

Patriot, dissolve the frightful charm,
Awake thy loudest thunder, dash the brand
Of stern Oppression from the Tyrant’s hand

What is Shelley saying?  He is pointing out that citizens often need to be proactive in protecting their liberty. What is more, with the phrase dissolve the frightful charm he is alerting us to the fact that oppression can arise unseen until it is too late, something very relevant to our current situation. Now compare the above quote with the one from Mask of Anarchy which I used in my earlier blog post. Here is what Shelley wrote:

And shall no patriot tear the veil away
Which hides these vices from the face of day?

I argued that this version of patriotism views citizens as committed to a principle of openness and justice which requires strong accountable institutions to assist them. Further, this concept is inclusive because ethnicity is irrelevant while still anchoring us to a particular community with no prejudice to other communities. Note that in Shelley’s time two hundred years ago ethnic diversity was only a tiny fraction of what it is today and ethnicity issues were less prominent. So if anything this line has grown in significance. Citizens can join us as immigrants from other regions or countries and instantly be regarded as patriotic as long as they share our ideals of justice and liberty.

…..But Was it Enough?

Such a commitment to our freedom is essential but does it have sufficient motivation for citizens to act if their liberty is threatened? If it cannot stir the emotions then maybe something more is needed. To be fair to Shelley the second passage is prescriptive of what a committed patriot should do, but inspiring a spirit of patriotism in the first place is a different issue.  This is why the first extract is so important. Having revealed the vices by tearing the veil away then the second step is to take action.  It is a political imperative dashing the brand of stern oppression from the tyrants hand’.

Continue reading “The Great Repeal Bill Irony; Not only Dangerous but Deeply Unpatriotic”

The Last Night of the Proms; A Dash of Ancient Feet, Religious Dissent and Republicanism

Opinion over the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms becomes ever more polarised. Increasingly, you either revel the naive jingoism of the second half of the event or it repels you. But I wonder how many of those lauding it as a ‘major cultural treasure’ really know the background of one of its centerpieces, Hubert Parry’s setting of Jerusalem.

The lyrics are from a poem by William Blake, one of the most controversial artists in British history.   He was a religious dissenter and no lover of the established Church of England.  Like many dissenters he held radical political views and was a republican.

A few weeks ago I blogged about the appalling treatment of Eighteenth and Nineteenth religious dissenters such as the scientist Joseph Priestly by the establishment backed ‘King and Church’ faction. Interestingly, despite religion playing a prominent part in most of his works, Blake was a firm friend of revolutionary thinker Tom Paine.

So what about Jerusalem? The symbolism behind the words is shrouded in considerable mystery and the dark satanic mills are a particular point of contest.  They are popularly taken to refer to the oppressive conditions of factories endured by the lower classes during rapid industrialisation. But another interpretation suggests the satanic mills are the Anglican churches and cathedrals, yet another insisting that they represent the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

The published setting for Jerusalem, more correctly known as And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times is an issue rooted in republican history.  Written in 1804 the poem is part of a preface to a two volume poetic work called Milton: A Poem in Two Books.  The Milton in question is none other than the great republican poet John Milton who was at the height of his powers during the Commonwealth and Protectorate of the 1650s following the English Civil Wars.

So when the Prommers are bursting their lungs to Jerusalem they are indulging in a work with its roots deep in religious dissent and republicanism.  Personally, Blake is not the radical I warm to most, with his firebrand advocacy of religion I am more at home with the secular sympathies of Paine.

I would like to think that including the piece in the Proms is an acknowledgement of the importance of dissent to British society. Alas that would be self-delusion and it is likely that the majority of revelers couldn’t care less about the words and are genuinely ignorant of our radical or dissenting past. But they are hardly to blame, living in a culture which promotes a historical narrative of monarchy, privilege and empire and marginalizes the story of the long struggle for rights and freedoms for us all.

Ethical Patriotism: Making a Home for Liberty

‘wherever they enjoyed liberty, there they thought themselves at home’

John Toland

In pursuit of radical politics and UK republicanism I hate ceding ground to the opposition. But it seems that all too often we avoid certain issues in a misplaced idea that they are ‘bad territory’ for us. History and tradition is one such issue.  The establishment controls the historical narrative to the extent that most popular history is about monarchs, empires and generals. So a huge area is left uncontested, leaving people ignorant of the great deeds of Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes to name but a few.

It would be churlish not to recognise that things are changing. For example, we now have an English Civil War Centre at Newark (so Republicans can at last start talking about it!) and an increasing number of excellent books on radical and people’s history. But, alas, the media is largely silent and education is often woeful. Similarly with art and literature. I am happy to join with others to promote the great work of the poet Shelley, but even so the Chartist poets remain largely forgotten and there are excellent contemporary poets such as Spike the Poet from Corby struggling for recognition.. Their work is inspirational.

Another subject is patriotism.  I have blogged previously about an alternative, and I consider correct, view of patriotism to the popular one which owes too much to nationalism and jingoism. But I want think about extending that concept of patriotism to involve a love of your country as a home for liberty.  Patriotism in this sense strives not only for a just and free society at home, but seeks to make sure we act justly beyond our borders (what price arms sales to Saudi!), Writing about the ideas of Marcia Baron (more here) who worked on this ethical patriotism, Igor Primoratz said:

A patriot of this, distinctively ethical type, would want to see justice done, rights respected, human solidarity at work at any time and in any place….She would be proud of the country’s moral record, when it inspires pride.

But thee are other aspects to this view of patriotism. Now, obviously, you can only enjoy liberty at the place where you are currently and not where you were born, assuming they are different. This feature makes it ideally suitable for a world where so many people are moving around, both within and between nations and continents. Maurizio Viroli put it another way. Writing about the author of my opening quote, John Toland,  he pointed out that in his conception:

As long as the fundamental value that inspires love of country is liberty, one can find this country elsewhere. 

Am I a patriot? Yes. I believe that we in these islands can develop a genuinely free and just society, but we have a long way to go. I am a patriot because I am prepared to work towards that day and not give up.  I guess that places me in the ‘ethical patriotism’ camp. But here is the thing.  I believe that there are Irish people, French people and people in every nation who wish the same thing. I encourage, support and applaud them   Tom Paine also believed this kind of internationalism and I think he was correct.

Lastly, if Martin Luther King can have a dream, so can I. My dream is that one day the the current international race based on resources and war is replaced by a new one.  This new race will be to extend ever greater liberty to their citizens. One of the criteria for winning the race will be to assist other nations with their goals of liberty, to free citizens from domination by hunger, debt and violence. To free them from religious persecution, homophobia, sexism or any number of other prejudices That this race is endless and cannot be won but must be run.…

OK, so MLK had a better dream than me.  I can handle that!

Reclaiming a Positive Idea of Patriotism

Some time ago I came across a wonderful definition of patriotism which defined it as a vibrant celebration of community.  I must confess that I cannot recall just who said it; I’m pretty sure he was a poet and if anyone out there is reading this post and can remind ne I’d be very grateful.!  I like this definition for many reasons.  Firstly it is scalable.  Your community can be a tower block or a village, a town, city, region, nation, continent or even conceivably the whole world. Furthermore, this idea of celebrating your community is not exceptional and does not prevent an understanding that other people have a right to celebrate their community. Strong confident communities are less prey to the fears and inadequacies which breeds intolerance  These features also make it an inclusive concept as opposed to many ideas of nationalism which so often cast it in an exclusive light, where by necessity a clear distinction is made between one group and another.

But this definition also implies a measure of responsibility, a fact pointed out by one of our great poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley (no surprise for my blog followers!). In his Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things (for more details see my OpenDemocracy article) Shelley uses the words “patriot” and “patriotism” three times. Each time he makes it clear that the duty of a patriot is to attempt to shine a light on the corruption and secrecy that bedevils parts of our society. For example, speaking of Government he says:

 And shall no patriot tear the veil away
Which hides these vices from the face of day?

This idea of patriotism is closely related to the idea of English lexicographer and author Julian Barnes who adds a dash of justice and wisdom to Shelley’s sense of virtue.

 The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.

This harks back to the first definition since strong communities are open and just communities.  As a republican I am used to being labelled unpatriotic, as someone who hates Britain or is at best naïve and idiotic. But my sense of patriotism makes me deeply  concerned about growing inequality  which may fatally weaken our society, along with a ramshackle constitution which endangers all of us whether we realise it or not.

Definitions of patriotism have changed over the centuries, most being evolutions of its root as the middle French word for a countryman. On very many occasions it has been used as a synonyms for nationalism or, worse, jingoism. But I think the spirit is very different and expresses something valuable.