PATRIOT GAMES: Patriotism Tommy Robinson and The English Working Class


‘True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else.’
Clarence Darrow

I
On the council estate on which I grew up I can never remember anyone flying the union flag, let alone the cross of St George. Though having been born in Northern Ireland I was very familiar with those who claimed exclusive rights to the union flag and the virtues associated with patriotism. This was a direct consequence of the reality that the qualities that people equated with the flag and patriotism were under siege. This was not the case on a small council estate in Shropshire.
Dr Johnson’s statement that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,’ is much quoted because it is funny and contains within it a truth that many recognise, though it is not the truth; what is the case however is that those who shout how patriotic they are often concealing something rather unpleasant. We are right to have a instinctive distrust of the flag wavers and Land of Hope and Glory merchants who, for all there claims to love their country, by their actions are seeking to exclude and abrogate anybody else’s rights to membership of the club.
I have always found the Conservative Party’s claimed ownership of the flag as dishonest as it was nauseating. Unfortunately the Labour Party has now started to wave the union flag in our face as well. Though in the formers case declared attachment to the red white and blue, with its explicit statement that ‘we are all patriots here,’may be designed to reassure voters that a party that has sold off most of the 'family silver', including the countries key energy sector, to foreign companies, does not have other loyalties. 

II

Those working class estates in which the union flag and increasingly the flag of St George are flying from multiple windows are sending out a very different message, these are communities that now feel themselves, like the ‘loyalist’ communities in Belfast, under siege. The white working class on these estates feel themselves, correctly, to be despised.
There interests, concerns and loyalties are all derided by the liberal elite, when they complain that their town centres and communities have been changed beyond recognition by mass immigration they are accused of racism. Marginalised and despised they fall back on old symbols of common identity and loyalty and arrogate to themselves the flag of St George; it is the patriotism of the dispossessed.
Tommy Robinson Founder of the English
Defence League

Tommy Robinson and the English Defence League EDL emerged out of this culture. Those who quickly attacked the EDL as being a neo fascist outfit, which it soon became, obscured the real sense of pain and insult out of which it was born; they too could be offended. This offence was  generated by Islamacist groups like Muslims Against Crusades, whose actions such as the burning of poppies were designed to provoke just such a reaction.

The ‘anti fascist’ warriors of the left quickly mobilised against the EDL whilst completely ignoring the theocratic fascism of Islamism; the result was predictable, street confrontation between the tattooed braying thugs of the EDL and the braying incoherence of a variety of SWP front organisations.

I always felt, and it is to my discredit that I have not said so openly before, that I never found Tommy Robinson credible as a demagogue and do not believe he is a racist.[1] I believe he was blinded by a loathing for Islamism that led him to conflate issues of culture and religion and much of what he said was framed in bigoted terminology, though I do think he was speaking for many in those same working class communities, marginalised and despised by the liberal elite. Triggered by a confident, bullying, bragging branch of Islam the response was the solidarity of the football terraces.

Robinson is bigoted, naïve and ill informed but he is not a fascist, which could not be said for all of those attracted to the standard he raised. Hanging out with thuggish louts wearing union jack shorts was guaranteed to invite the full venom of the liberal elite, uninterested in what he was seeking to articulate, whilst the street fighting morons who sided with him had no time for more nuanced argument.
Tommy Robinson paid a heavy price for voicing the mix of prejudice and legitimate grievance. He has been arrested several times, once on clearly trumped up charges, his bank account has been frozen as his tax affairs are examined in detail. He has been assaulted on numerous occasions and he and his family face credible death threats; he served his prison time in solitary confinement, lest he be attacked by Muslim gangs within the prison.  
Now he emerges from the wreckage, having sought to distance him self from the monster he helped create,[2] and there is a veritable queue of commentators from the liberal left waiting to stick the boot in now that he is down on the floor were they always wanted him, - few of whom have ever faced physical threat themselves and have never taken on anyone who might pose a real physical threat.[3]
It is not my purpose here to defend Robinson; I am merely seeking to draw attention to the fact that he has been voicing the concerns felt in many working class communities about the direction in which they feel the country is taking, a country in which their concerns no longer count. You can take issue with some of the ideas expressed, but the concerns are real. Robinson truly believed he was standing up for his community, that he was being patriotic.[4]

III

Working class patriotism has always been despised by the Marxist left, who traditionally brushed it away with the dismissive concept ‘false consciousness.’ Whilst the right have learned how to play upon working class sensibilities for their own ends; the classic example being the John Bull phenomenon. Though as George Orwell contested:-

 “Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same.”

He also sought to differentiate between patriotism and nationalism the former he saw as being simply ‘a devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but does not wish to force upon other people.’[5] Every nationalist on the other hand aims ‘… to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or any other unit in which he seeks to sink his own individuality.’ [6]

One can instantly see some problems with Orwell’s distinction, since the kind of patriotism found within the working class communities which I am talking about here can be both bombastic and aggressive. That said I believe that he identifies something very important that lies at the heart of patriotism, which is its parochialism; in truth patriotic feeling of this kind it is not much concerned with other countries.

“The English, the English, the English are best,
I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.”

And it is now primarily the English, the Scottish, or Welsh with which people identify themselves; the death of a distinctly British identity possibly being one of the casualties of ever greater devolution.

If you want to see this kind of patriotism on display the best place is, what used to be called, the football terraces. Go to Wembley when England are playing a key game and you will witness the reality of patriotism in action, which is of course a form of solidarity, a feeling of belonging to the national tribe. It is worth mentioning that this sort of feeling is no longer just confined to the white working class but many young black men of Afro-Caribbean, and fewer of Asian descent can be found identifying themselves with the English tribe.
Ask your average liberal leftie whether they are patriotic or not and they will start to feel definitely queasy, some will rubbish the whole concept as a con trick performed upon the masses. That there is some truth in this latter point fails to address the real feelings that many English people experience. I would argue that a strong element in this feeling is a sense of solidarity and common identity without which any notion of community simply isn't possible. This English working class culture, as David Edgar points out ‘is what survived a largely English government's assault on its workplaces, its institutions and its communities.’[7] The ‘patriotic solidarity expressed in such communities is not an identification with government or nation state but is as often a reaction to it. The mood being “fuck the government and Guardian reading tossers, we are English and proud and we don’t care!”
This patriotic feeling is also very much part of a hierarchy of loyalties, loyalty often being much greater to district, town, region or even football club. One interesting phenomenon about London is the numbers of people who have settled here from overseas who might struggle in identifying themselves as British or English but feel completely at ease in identifying as being ‘a Londoner.’

IV

In this country we are witnessing a decline in the macro patriotism of Britishness, which is being replaced by more local loyalties, to community, city before component country of the UK. Regardless of its outcome the referendum on Scottish independence seems like to accelerate this process.

As for those working class communities over which the flag of St George flutters, those who live in houses cluttered with tacky royal memorabilia and who drink in pubs festooned with bunting and balloons during the seemingly endless parade of royal weddings and jubilee celebrations, one does not have to share their passions to understand if their concerns continue to be derided, belittled and ignored they will turn they will turn to others to voice their concerns. UKIP[8] or even more ominously the BNP[9] are waiting in the wings only to eager to play patriot games, belt out the national anthem and wave the flag.

V.

Patriotism is a complex phenomenon, rooted I believe in group and tribal solidarity. When it simply becomes an excuse for bombast and flag waving it disconnects from that root. At its best it is about belonging and caring about other members of your tribe.

For my self I can feel the allure of this solidarity from time to time, am pleased for example when England win at football or cricket.[10] Though my greater loyalty lies with ideas like free speech, democratic accountability and civil liberties; I am lifted when my country upholds these values, ashamed when it tramples upon them.



[1] To witness a display of the failure to engage with Robinson and  level of verbal incontinence on a playground scale see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtA21eiSmT8 One of the panel seems to think screaming endless repetitions of you’re a racist at Robinson constitutes debate.
[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/19/my-journey-with-edl-tommy-robinson One must read Answar piece with care, it is cleverly crafted to present him in the best possible light, the master to Robinsons seeker after truth. The truth about all such encounters is far more complex.
[3] It is precisely this type of  ‘liberal’ journalist who bent over backwards to explain away the braying mobs calling for the fatwa against Salmon Rushdie to be carried out..
[4] One doesn’t have to me a member of UKIP, or share its xenophobic world view to draw attention to the fact that mass immigration into this country occurred without the communities who would have to cope with the consequences being consulted. A case can be made for the free movement of peoples, and as an internationalist I have made it on a number of occasions; this case was never made to the British people. The ruling elite made policy decisions and anyone who raised concerns was quickly branded a racist.
[5] Notes on Nationalism The Decline of the English Murder and other Essays, Penguin books 1968, p156.
[6] Ibid. It is also worth noting how well this definition fits the current phenomenon of Islamism.
[8] Right wing, free market, anti European and anti  immigration party
[9] British National Party, an extreme right wing Fascist party.
[10] Though I must admit to feeling similarly delighted when Bulgaria wins.


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