Book Reviews

Bragging rights

The Progressive Patriot by Billy Bragg, Black Swan, £7.99

Singer and songwriter Billy Bragg has produced an engaging and enjoyable read, in an attempt to search for a meaning to his working class upbringing and his relationship to the place he was born, Barking in Essex.

This is a romp through political and economic history as well as a look at popular music and culture as Bragg experienced it growing up in the 60s and 70s. The chapters that work best are those where Bragg examines his family origins in East London, analysing key historical events from a family perspective and using the historical artefacts they left behind to do it, from pictures of dockland trade union struggles to wartime diaries and gas masks. As might be expected, the chapters focusing on Bragg’s formative musical influences are good too, and he has an ability to set them in a social and political setting in a way that links his personal development to wider developments: most notably the vestiges of the hippy era, punk rock and ‘Rock Against Racism’.

His ultimate aim though is to ‘reclaim the flag’, finding a meaning and purpose in Englishness that transcends and even nullifies the Little Englander nationalism of the Euro-sceptics and the outright racism of the BNP. This is a more difficult task and one that is inherently problematic. For while having pride in tangible places that have meaning to those who live there (in Bragg’s case, Barking) is one thing, having patriotic pride in entirely artificial constructs such as nations is another thing altogether.

In effect Bragg tries to create a left-wing English nationalism that rivals the leftism of the nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland, as if Welsh and Scottish nationalism had somehow been a force for radical politics (rather than another nationalist dead-end) that England can emulate in some way. He writes intelligently about England and the Empire, and the methods through which it came about, yet can still find time to bemoan the fact that England was the only country in the last World Cup without its own parliament, passport and national anthem.

If Bragg’s anti-racism and pride in his class is highly commendable, then this experimental flirting with nationalism (whether English, British, or any other) is as dangerous and misplaced as his long-documented support for the Labour Party. While the book is entertaining and worth reading, it suggests that his ‘search for belonging’ that is the book’s subtitle, still has some way to go.


A History of Modern Britain. Bt Andrew Marr. Macmillan, 2007, £25.

Some readers will find much to like about this book, written by the ubiquitous teleMarr, radioMarr and Daily Marr and based on his recent TV series on BBC2. It is entertaining, witty, good-humoured – and never boring. Others will be less keen, seeing its 630 pages as obese and garrulous, stuffed with descriptive detail but light on discussion of ideas (do we really want to pay good money to learn about Churchill “sitting in his hospital bed wearing pale blue pyjamas with a silk shirt and cardigan?”)

The book has five parts, each covering about a decade from the end of the World War II to the present time. Marr sums up the 1945-51 period: “Labour had made Britain a little more civilized and certainly fairer. But it had accomplished nothing like a revolution.” He write of “a certain vision of British socialism” and the word socialist (as noun or adjective) is used dozens of times in the book. But always it refers to Old Labour people or policies like nationalisation.

Part Two, titled “The Land of Lost Content” (meaning happiness) is about the 13 years of Tory government, (1951-64). Marr drops a few top political names (Macmillan, Home), rakes some sexual muck (Profumo, Vassall) and celebrates miscellaneous celebrities of the time (Ernest Marples, the Beatles, Sir Bernard Docker). Domestically, manufacturing industry and shipbuilding were in decline and “the growth of car mania” was under way. Internationally, Suez was a disaster, and British Empire was reducing to Commonwealth of nations.

Part Three takes us on to he years 1964-79. Andy calls this part “Harold, Ted and Jim”, meaning Heath’s Conservative government was sandwiched between the Labour governments of Wilson and Callaghan. Economics is one theme: the balance of payments crises, the pre-Thatcher rise of the free market, the overflowing rubbish winter of discontent (1979). Internationally, Rhodesia broke away from British rule, and the “troubles” in Ireland got worse. But Marr seems most enthused by cultural issues: legalising homosexuality, reducing censorship, the growth of the pop music and celebrity industries.

The author calls Part Four “The British Revolution” (1979-90). He means Thatcherism. It “heralded an age of unparalleled consumption, credit, show-off wealth, quick bucks and sexual libertinism.” Marr believes that Thatcher was “extremely lucky. Had Labour not been disembowelling itself and had a corrupt, desperate dictatorship in South America not taken a materialistic gamble with some island sheep-farmers, her government would probably have been destroyed after a single term.” Maybe – probably not. It’s idle speculation. More solid is Marr’s account of why Labour lost power after and took 18 years to regain it: briefly, failure to deliver on promises.

Marr lingers for six crocodile-tear splashed pages over Thatcher’s political death. The poll tax was a disaster for her. “One by one the inner core of true Thatcherism fell back.” She eventually resigned, but not before fixing John Major as her successor.

Part Five, oddly called “Nippy Metro People”, brings us up to date. First there are seven Major years and then a Blair decade. The blurb for the book talks of “the victory of shopping over politics… a culture of consumerism, celebrity and self-gratification.” Marr reviews recent economic and political events: the pound not going in with the euro, the modernisers of Labour who moved it away from the “unelectable” left. But
again he gives prominence to cultural matters: the Diana cult, New Age spiritualism, celebrity glossy magazines, the costly Dome.

On the last page Marr shows his inegalitarian hand on leadership. “[We] need those optimistic politicians, the next leaders, the ones whom we’ll laugh at and abuse. And we need them more than ever now.” Speak for yourself, Andy – only sheep need shepherds!


Brave Community. The Digger Movement in the English Revolution. By John Gurney. Manchester University Press £55.

Gerrard Winstanley has a prominent place in the socialist tradition. In advocating, in 1648-1652 in the course of the English bourgeois revolution, a new social order where there would be no buying and selling, no fairs nor markets, but the whole Earth shall be a common treasury for every man, for the Earth is the Lords’”, he was clearly just as much a forerunner of modern socialism as was Thomas More and his Utopia of 1516. In fact, he went one better than More and tried to put his theories into practice when on 1 April 1649 he and others started tilling and planting crops on (St) Georges Hill, near Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, on a communistic basis as a first step towards spreading such moneyless communities throughout England.

Gurneys book is a detailed examination of the social, economic and political situation in the area that led to this as well as of the other individuals apart from Winstanley who were involved. The driving force of the English Revolution has been analysed as the middling sort, i.e. those who were neither big landowners nor landless labourers. In the countryside these were mainly tenant farmers; they had their conflicts with the lords of the manor which radicalised some of them in and around Cobham in Surrey. But it wasnt them who became the Diggers, even if Winstanley himself was a middling sort.

The year 1649, as the year in which the King had been executed, was a year when to many people anything seemed possible. The previous year had seen a bad harvest and many poor people were in desperate straits. It was to them that Winstanley – whose clothing business in London had failed – preached (and this is the right word, as his motivation was both religious and practical) that God had given the Earth to everyone to be used as a common storehouse from which to feed and clothe themselves and that they should use it to produce what they needed without working for wages and without any buying and selling.

According to Gurney, Winstanley wavered between seeing this as the result of the Second Coming (in peoples hearts) that would restore the original situation of no ownership and seeing it as a practical solution of the landless poor in post-civil-war England.

The occupation of Georges Hill did not last long, only a few months till August, when local opposition from tenant farmers who wanted the land for grazing forced the Diggers to move to another site at Cobham. This lasted a little longer, but it too was over by April 1650 as a result of both legal and direct action initiated by two local landlords.

This prompted Winstanley to publish his Law of Freedom in a Platform which is a classic of socialist literature. According to Gurney, Winstanley stayed on in Cobham for the next twenty or so years as a respectable member of the local community, but by 1675 had moved back to London, apparently relatively well off and a Quaker sympathiser. He died in 1676.


Being Ernest

William Hart: Operation Supergoose. Timberline Press $15.
(Available from Amazon)

A satirical novel that pokes fun at America’s rulers and makes some good political points in a humourous way — that sums up this book. The hero is Lieutenant Ernest Candide and his military superior is General Pangloss, both references to Voltaire’s eighteenth-century novel Candide.

Candide starts out as an all-American hero (sorry, Plunderian hero, as he’s a citizen of Plunderland). But Plunderland’s president is Buzz Twofer II, and the vice-president is Chain Dickey, so you get the idea of where the satire is aimed. The factory which makes official Plunderland flags is burnt down, and Candide is ordered to track down and kill the leader of the terrorists. The Committee for a World Ascendant Plunderland get the war they want, together with tax cuts.

Like his namesake, Candide is initially completely naive, accepting a rosy-coloured view of Plunderland’s history (for instance, the native Plunderians had poor hygiene, hence they contracted smallpox). But after various adventures, including a stay in Guantanamo, he comes to see things differently. Just thinking for himself, rather than accepting what he’s been taught, is the big step in his political development. As General Pangloss says when a prosecution witness at one of Candide’s trials, ‘When a soldier thinks, the whole military raison d’etre trembles and threatens to collapse… not thinking has made me the man I am today.’

A book by Chomsky is among those that help Candide see what has been going on, and his new view of his country’s history includes: ‘Cubaland, Isle of Haiti, Puerta Rita, Panamaland and others were conquered by U.S. Marines and forced to pay tribute as little colonies, with fruit, sugar, cigars, naval bases and nubile women.’ He turns down a request to run for governor on behalf of a new political party and prefers to live quietly with his family (cultivating his garden, as Voltaire had it).

Operation Supergoose is mostly great fun, with some nice swipes at Twofer and other politicians, and good exposes of Plunderian/American actions. Occasionally the satire is dropped in favour of more straightforward presentation, for instance on Zionia/Shrinkistan (Israel/Palestine), and this is less effective. And as Hart says at the end, imagine there really were a Plunderland and how people might act to change it. Or, indeed, to change not just one country but the whole world.


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