Patriotism and the EU

Boris Johnson in his calculated, buffoonish way (BBC) managed to hit upon a key issue about the EU that I’ve been pondering for the best part of five years and this referendum has brought to the fore.

“[…] fundamentally what is lacking is the eternal problem, which is that there is no underlying loyalty to the idea of Europe. There is no single authority that anybody respects or understands. That is causing this massive democratic void.” 

Boris Johnson, May 2016

I’ve yet to hear a single argument from Remain that actually contradicts this argument.

Respect and loyalty are fundamental to the the functioning of nation states. When there is an absence of these the state cannot function: the police, legal system, tax system, educational system, military, all rely fundamentally on the tacit consent of the populace – if overwhelming force is not to be used.

All democratic nation states rely upon this ‘daily plebiscite’ of the people; the tacit giving of consent to governing institutions – paying taxes, playing by ‘the rules’ and, when push comes to shove, fighting to protect the ‘nation’.

Boris Johnson has therefore gone straight to the heart of the EU question by highlighting the notable absence of pan-European loyalty and respect for the EU state.

If the EU model was an organisation of individual nation states co-operating and sacrificing their self-interest in a spirit of free, open decision making then there would be no debate and the lack of popular loyalty to a pan-European identity would be as irrelevant as the lack of committed one-world humanists is to the functioning of the UN.

However, the clear direction of travel (from the ECB, European Commission and European Parliament) is towards a more unified, centralised, sovereign EU state that coerces democratic nation states to comply with EU institutions that actually have a weaker democratic mandate and less accountability. As time goes by this can only lead to an unbridgeable gap between the people who govern in the EU state structure and the people who live in European countries, the vast majority of whom are not pan-European socialists or pan-European capitalists. Most people’s loyalties when push comes to shove are firmly with their nation state or failing that their region/aspiring nation state (Catalonia, Scotland, the People’s Republic of Yorkshire, etc.)

Pan-European identity under the EU as a democratic supra-national state has never been ‘sold’ effectively to the people of Europe. The EU is always couched in the language of being good for individual nations whilst the EU state has been built up via secretive treaties and directives and more and more power has been abrogated by EU institutions that few have voted for.

The democratic deficit

Recognition of the danger of this democratic deficit and direction of travel was at the heart of David Cameron’s negotiations in early 2016 as he secured an apparent opt out of the European ‘project’ of ‘ever-closer union.’

It is recognised that the United Kingdom, in the light of the specific situation it has under the Treaties, is not committed to further political integration into the European Union. The substance of this will be incorporated into the Treaties at the time of their next revision in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Treaties and the respective constitutional requirements of the Member States, so as to make it clear that the references to ever closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom.”1

And yet the problem remains that the EU, despite this UK opt out, has aspirations to full nation statehood in the long run whilst the people, emphatically, do not (‘Understanding Cameron’s negotations’).

The response to any popular demonstration of this Euro-scepticism has not been to make a clear demonstration of the benefits of membership, to put in place a clear vision of democratic reform, to admit the flaws and corruption of the existing state structure, or to try and forge lasting bonds of loyalty and respect between EU institutions and European people. On the contrary, since 2008 the EU has been systematically trashing what little respect and loyalty it had built up by terrifying smaller nations into submission (IrelandGreece) and alienating the public of Germany, France, Italy and the UK in the process.

There is no evidence – and the optimist in me really wants to find it – to suggest that the EU is becoming more democratic, more open, more deserving of trust and respect.

On the other hand, evidence for a widening democratic deficit is easily found. Turnout for elections to the European parliament across Europe has dropped from 62% to 42% in the last 30 years (turnout, 1979-2014). Only Belgium and Luxembourg, the countries for whom the EU has achieved the status of surrogate national government maintain high turnout. Nowhere else is this the case. In the UK participation has never risen above 40% – electing MEPs is treated with about the same level of enthusiasm as the election of a local councillor.

The 40% of people who do manage to summon the enthusiasm to vote for MEPs, overwhelmingly vote for representatives of national parties who claim to represent their national interests clearly emphasising the hierarchy at work. Only the Greens campaign on an explicitly pan-European platform and even when taken together with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats they have struggled to win more than a fifth of the voters who show up (c.8% of the total UK voting population).

The only possible conclusion from this is that most people want power to be held at a national level (or by ‘none of the above’). It is certainly not a ringing endorsement for more integration, more centralisation, more top-down institution building.

Not once have I heard a European MEP, or member or the ECB or European Commission talk honestly about the democratic deficit as a major hurdle to the plans to form a trusted and respected EU state. The consistent attitude of the entire edifice, of every speaker who purports to represent the EU is that elections and representative democracy are inconvenient, national identities are xenophobic and reactionary, and populism is fundamentally dangerous to all that is progressive and successful in Europe.

In defence of radicalism

Now I can understand, historically, why many EU officials and politicians might try to distance themselves from all forms of patriotic political enthusiasm. Populist, nationalist leaders, be they pro-Russian authoritarians (Hungary), Christian proto-fascists (Poland) or radical leftists (Greece) appear to presage a descent into the dark days before the EU project, when Right and Left engaged in pitched ideological battles that brought the continent to its knees and led to the deaths of millions.

However, from the British (or perhaps more accurately English) perspective this attitude does not sit well because the historical narrative is of the steady growth of representative democracy with bouts of democratic radicalism acting as a positive force for good. There are few examples from 20thC British history of democratic elections delivering genuinely dangerous individuals and regimes into power.

On the Left the touchpoint for radical democracy remains the 1945 election of Atlee’s Labour government that built the welfare state. For those on the Right, democratic radicalism is associated with the Thatcher governments who freed British society from economic stagnation. Both have been incorporated into British political narratives and neither are regarded (by their supporters at least) as reasons to fundamentally fear the democratic will of the people.

There is a very real danger, especially after the Scottish Referendum and 2015 General Election, that if the Remain campaign is successful, the British public become accustomed to viewing any and all suggestions of radical change with fear and this fear becomes embedded as a permanent feature of our politics. For me this would be more permanently damaging than voting Leave and the period of inevitable turbulence it would bring.

Radical change in Britain has frequently been divisive and transformative but it has always been our change, driven broadly by what the voters voted for, delivering leaders into power who, for all their faults, were accountable to us. At no point can the same be said of the EU government and at no point can I envisage that changing.

Historical precedents

To clarify my thoughts, I have recently returned to two political essays that explicitly tackled the question of national identity and its relationship to radical, democratic change: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) and George Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941). Both were written at pivotal moments in the political history of this nation.

Paine on the eve of the American Revolution when ‘American’ colonists were organising against the British government advocated independence as an opportunity to become master of one’s own radical destiny:

“I have heard it asserted by some, that as America hath flourished under her former connexion with Great-Britain, that the same connexion is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty.”

Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776

Orwell when continental Europe was under effective Nazi control and the British Empire ‘stood alone’ advocated a policy of radicalism at all costs, against all odds:

“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. It is the bridge between the future and the past. No real revolutionary has ever been an internationalist.”

George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941

Under incredibly difficult circumstances (much more difficult than we face today) Paine and Orwell crafted patriotic appeals in defence of the radical potential of more democracy, not less; more freedom, not less. In both cases it is clear what the easiest path forward would have been in the short term: capitulation and compromise. Yet, both backed the potential of democratic radicalism to re-invigorate society; to encourage nations to strive towards something greater than what they had been previously.

It is a shame that the closest thing the Leave campaign has to this kind of thinking is Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. If some on the Left could channel the liberal optimism of Paine and the patriotic socialism of Orwell then the democratic deficit of the EU would be brought into sharper focus for a lot more people and the politics of fear could be replaced by the policy of radical optimism.

Therefore, I am likely to vote Leave because I believe we need an honest rethinking of what kind of society and people we are in Britain and I am finding it hard to envisage that happening within an EU that proactively spurns democratic structures and radical visions of the future. A state that has no trust in its people can expect little loyalty in return.


1EU reform deal: What Cameron wanted and what he got’, BBC News (20 February 2016):


Revolution Girl Style…Eventually

I discovered Riot Grrrl a decade too late.

I love music. Music has always been a part of who I am and how I define myself. And yet I would never speak about it; I would avoid discussing it, writing about it, cringe at being asked ‘what kind of stuff do you listen to?’ and certainly never, ever read music journalism. It is only very recently that I’ve begun to step out of this self-made fortress and question why. Why is it that something I’ve always been so passionate about, so interested in and dedicated so much time to, been so private and shuttered? Why is it so utterly removed from how I talk openly and keenly about my other interests, even those in which I have controversial opinions? What I am going to say is not particularly novel, not ground-breaking, not revolutionary. But this is my experience of music as a gendered space.

I went to school in the mid-nineties. I didn’t fit in and I didn’t like the musical genres of my peers, whether it was Britpop, hardcore or 90s dance. Even the friendlier folk who found solace in grunge as it moved from Nirvana to Greenday didn’t seem to offer me a home. My brother was musical and from him I cherry-picked influences, from Guns ‘n’ Roses to black metal. My parents’ folk sensibilities, the splashes of Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones clung on in the background for a while. Black metal offered a reaction against my peers and a veiling fashion to hide behind. With hindsight, it offered nothing positive or constructive for an awkward, angry girl.

Eventually, through luck and a library card I picked up Sonic Youth, the Cure, Pavement at 70p a CD and began to build a small and secretive collection of neatly-labelled copied tapes. I later shook off the grotesque misjudgements of One Hot Minute, Placebo and Silverchair but too easily rejected the Beastie Boys and Debaser. I held a very personal and obsessive relationship with Blind Melon for some years and the chords of No Rain still have the power to sting my eyes with nostalgic teenage angst.

In my second year at college I made two friends. Music stopped being a solitary pursuit. We swapped intricately-constructed mixtapes, inflated phone bills downloading one song at a time from Napster, discovered the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Hives. Danced in public. Even to Debaser. One evening, listening to John Peel, I heard the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I have a very clear memory of the following day. Walking down the corridor between the cool arts side of college back towards our A Level block, cocooned inside the metal-framed windows and that functionary, comforting public-building smell, asking my two friends if they’d heard the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They hadn’t. This was my discovery, my value. I was on equal footing with my small, select, eye-liner obsessive, single-gender friendship group.

But our social lives were not a vacuum. There were bars, parties. There was dancing, drinking, smoking, boys. The boys knew we liked music. And they liked to tell us that they liked music too.

Boys liked to tell us what sort of guitar Jonny Greenwood played (‘Who’s Jonny Greenwood?’ ‘Who’s Johnny Greenwood? How can you dance to that song and not know who Jonny Greenwood is?’). Boys liked to tell us the intricate histories of musicians as though they were football players switching clubs (knowing Bobby Gillespie’s involvement with illegal stimulants and the Jesus and Mary Chain didn’t change my favourable opinion of either of these despite my disinterest in Primal Scream, much to the chagrin of one young man). Boys liked to tell us what music we liked and what music we didn’t like (‘Aren’t you going to dance with your friends?’ ‘I don’t really like The Smiths.’ ‘Of course you like the Smiths; you just said you liked the Cure. You can’t like the Cure and not the Smiths. And anyway, the Smiths are better.’1)

Boys talked about music as though it were a purely technical, scientific and academic subject with obvious and infallible family trees as sectarian and inflexible as Northern Irish politics. To like this, you had to like that, know him, recognise that riff, remember the acrimonious split with the other guy and thus not like his new band and understand all of this to be fact which must be memorised and repeated twelve times before you could even dare fight through the cellophane and play their new record. To like a band you had to know its members, its back catalogue, its record label and their musical relatives. Only then could you argue that they were good. To dislike a band would require similar knowledge but defamation could be further shored up by knowledge of a ‘Yoko factor’; for example, any band with the exception of Nirvana which had any link to Courtney Love was obviously awful because of her.

There were the grunge boys, the indie boys, the heavy metal boys, the hip-hop boys, the nu-metal boys, the goths. And ne’er the twain should meet. In some ways we had the better deal; we could and did commune with all groups (with the exception of the goths; both my own history with black metal and their particular defensive insularity meant that no one approached their corner of the bar without a suitable amount of dark lace and lipstick). But my musical opinions were of no interest or consequence beyond being corrected on the sidelines of a constant game of one-upmanship. I learnt to just stay quiet.

The music press was written in the same vein. It was uninteresting, intentionally obscure and impenetrable for beginners, and fundamentally misogynist. Boys in bands could talk about their effects pedals and their personal journeys. Girls in bands were often downplayed, frequently photographed but only given agency when involved in a ‘cat fight’ or a band’s demise. I stopped reading.

But still I loved music. I collected up people’s suggestions, spent significant parts of my student loan in Fopp, went to gigs in bars, in clubs, in made-to-measure gig venues. My interest and passion for live music grew. Even now there are times when I can go to upwards of three gigs a week. But I stopped offering my suggestions, I stopped asserting my passions.

I can’t think of a single occasion when I’ve gone to a gig with just another woman.

For a long time I would stand back at gigs. Partly to avoid being trodden on. But also because of a sense of inferiority; that I didn’t deserve to be up front, that I wasn’t a true fan, I didn’t know all the words, I might mis-tap my foot or nod my head out of time. There was frequently an atmosphere that reiterated this feeling. Even now, particularly at heavier gigs where the male:female ratio resembles indie pop gigs of old, there’s an identifiable masculine atmosphere of aggression and superiority.

(I want to take a quick sideline here. I am now assertive at gigs. I will happily go alone, at least if I am familiar with the venue and safe ways home. I frequently go with friends who are taller and hang back so I split off and make my way forwards. I like watching drummers so will move to get them in my sightline. I find the most annoying character at any gig is the over-protective boyfriend who sees everyone as a threat to his delicate lady who must keep being reassured with protective holds and unnecessary PDA. I also smile a lot at gigs. This may be a strange and unnatural reaction to enjoying myself which I think can be disarming.)

I discovered Riot Grrrl a decade too late.

I love music. I didn’t like talking about music. I didn’t like reading about music. I thought my views and tastes were invalid. I couldn’t make music because I didn’t have the technical know-how. And anyway, who’d want a potential Yoko in their band?

It’s frustrating because I have loved Sonic Youth since my teens and had picked up Fugazi. I was politically and socially aware and active. Yet I never knew I was that one step away from the music and ethos of Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, Huggy Bear and Sleater-Kinney. That small step in that blindingly obvious direction was blocked by louder voices and disinterested music journalists.

(Another aside. I eventually found a couple of these bands through a male friend. I actually owe a lot to him in terms of finding music and feeling happy to say when I did or didn’t like something. He even gave me Sara Marcus’s book on Riot Grrrl. We jointly and unconsciously created a small space for music which was not gendered. It was small because, until recently, never involved more than the two of us.)

Yesterday I attended an immersive event based around the screening of The Punk Singer, organised by an amazing collective of young women.2 It involved stalls, crafting, workshops, performances and a gig as well as the film. Assertively open to everyone, its primary audience was young women. Late in the evening, between bands, a male friend, intelligent and self-aware, commented that he had felt less welcome in the space than he was used to, almost an intruder; that the event wasn’t for him. I think he probably felt like I have done for years at gigs and music events without ever understanding or questioning why.

I wish I’d found the music and ethos of Riot Grrrl in my late teens, not my late twenties. Maybe it would have given me more confidence. Maybe I would have found more music. Maybe I would have shared more with my friends. Maybe I would have written about music. Perhaps I would have been more confident in my own creativity. Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt like I should be apologising for taking up space.


There’ll be a woman in her 30s there, smiling disarmingly.


1The use of the semi-colon here is purely for my own pleasure; I am confident that this young man’s grammar was not up to such flourishes of beauty. Also, the Smiths aren’t better and I don’t need to know the name of the bassist to assert that point.

2Girl Gang Sheffield. They do amazing things.