- The End of a Local Nation?
‘One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty’, wrote George Orwell in 1941. For, no matter how extensive, diverse, fragmentary and even maddening the experiences of the country that he persisted in calling ‘England’ might be, ‘it is yours, you belong to it, and this side of the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you’. As so often in writing of this kind, the essence of the patria is exemplified through a detailed and seemingly unbounded inventory: ‘suet puddings’, ‘red pillarboxes’, ‘mild knobby faces’, ‘the rattle of pintables in the Soho pubs’ and innumerable other traces of Englishness are ready to hand. Yet rhetorical appeals to cultural ordinariness beg the most crucial questions: if your country ‘is you’ (the echo of Lord Kitchener is unmistakeable), then how does this identification come about? In what ways does patriotism begin at home?1
Orwell’s influential book The Lion and the Unicorn narrowly falls outside the compass of Brad Beaven’s Visions of Empire: Patriotism, Popular Culture and the City, 1870–1939. Nevertheless, indirectly Beaven’s work shows why patriotism was such a problematic, yet indispensable concept for Orwell and why it remains so for us today. What makes Beaven’s book particularly welcome is his emphasis upon the local, popular roots of patriotic fervour, the specific sites out of which ‘national loyalty’ was forged and reproduced. In making this case for a shift in focus, Beaven is seeking to [End Page 283] provide a corrective to what he sees as two longstanding sources of bias in recent accounts of national discourse. On the one hand, his study attempts to break with the tendency to draw too heavily upon London-based evidence in examining popular social phenomena such as jingoism, a trend which can be traced back to nineteenth-century fears of the perceived recalcitrance and degeneracy of East End working-class communities. On the other, Beaven positions himself against those historians who have either overlooked, or have sought to deny, the all-pervasive presence of the British Empire in everyday life from the late eighteenth century onwards. In Beaven’s view these two weaknesses are mutually reinforcing and have resulted in a failure to develop a well-documented ‘empirical base’ from which to show ‘how empire and imperial hegemony were constructed in British culture’ across a variety of regional and sub-regional settings (p. 4). However, when Beaven draws together the local and the imperial in his opening pages, there is a telling and unintended elision as the taken-for-granted concept of ‘patriotism’ is silently displaced by a new term, ‘popular imperialism’. While Beaven recognizes that local patriotism and devotion to empire are quite distinct, he does sometimes blur the differences between them. But to make this conflation is to risk ignoring some of the major divisions that the struggle for political hegemony is necessarily concerned to overcome, as some of the most interesting parts of his book suggests.
Beaven gives us a tale of three cities. Portsmouth, Coventry and Leeds are artfully chosen to bring out cultural geographical variation and to highlight industrial, political and commercial differences, with Portsmouth as a late arrival, only gaining city status in 1928. Yet Portsmouth is especially important for Beaven precisely because of its role in underwriting British sea-power and also the prominence of its Royal Dockyard, which employed over half of the town’s male industrial workers at the turn of the century. Indeed the port’s pre-eminence as a naval base provided it with a unique imperial identity. Fittingly, Visions of Empire begins in Portsmouth, some six months after the Relief of Mafeking (May 1900), with a speech to an audience of working-class men by a local vicar applauding the emergence of ‘a new force’, an ‘Imperial instinct’ that had slowly been gathering momentum since the days of the Spanish Armada (p. 1...