Wishful Feeling: Christianity and Emancipation

Many Christians maintain that their religion “set them free”, or liberated them. Whatever do they mean? I received a Catholic “education” and my descriptives would be far and away from glowing terms employed by the born again. In theory and practice that religion’s representatives meant to stupify the mind.

In keeping with Catholic tradition, separation by gender was implemented as far as was legally acceptable. Girls were expected and then praised to high Heaven for their deference and natural grace. (Tomboyishness – as in: personality – was actively persecuted.) As a reward, they were alloted extra “play time” and allowed to leave for home earlier. Boys were damned with the assumed tautology that we were too “boisterous” (yes, the staff were really that dense), and instructed that sports and a little mathematics were to be the extent of our purview.

John Erskine told students they had a moral, and attainable, obligation to be intelligent. Nothing so affirming here. We were informed regularly which of us was useless, which of us stupid and irreparably so, who was smart – not in the Erskine sense, but that pointed, accusatory way, as in, “oh, Mr Clark, I had no idea you were an expert in ark construction”. We soon learned that harsh words (usually with reference to Hell) and consequences were reserved for any who questioned The Doctrine.

On one occasion, I was told by a bucktoothed shag-weasel named Mrs Smith – her poor, browbeaten and well-meaning husband worked for the same institution – that no one in our class would amount to anything much: no successful businessperson or university scholar would escape the ragged crowd. We were working class and had to accept our lot. This sort of thing will, even at a young age, trigger an overwhelming sense of dejection. Children, we somehow forget, or pretend to not know, have a remarkable capacity for foreboding. It complemented what we were taught as a matter of course; we recited weekly:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And o
rdered their estate

This among a tsunami of verses in All Things Bright and Beautiful, an awful hymn that still retains the ability to sneak attack my consciousness. England has a long history of Christian moralists, working in service to power, excusing hideous societal failings by claiming that eternal bliss awaited their victims in death. That hypocrite Wilberforce arrogantly claimed to be doing God’s work, all the while stamping on the worker and hacking away at the Liberty Tree. Besides chattel slavery*, every terrible excess of the British capitalist class was justified: workhouses, the banning of workplace organisation, and government massacres, including Peterloo. Because, oddly, class distinctions were Heavenly ordained, and by extension contained, even if the racial weren’t.

While he went on to preach about the perfectibility of the British State, with its damnable constitution — has anyone seen it? — and its heroic resistance to reform, starved bodies were being discovered in the Home Counties, half-digested daffodils in their stomachs. Hazlitt, perceptive and brilliant, put it tersely, “[he, Wilberforce,] who preaches vital Christianity to untutored savages, and tolerates its worst abuses in civilised states.”

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William Cobbett satirised this type of Christian. The type who thinks suffering a holy virtue, and considers envy the very worst a pauper can experience.

Come, little children list to me
Whilst I describe your duty
And kindly lead your eyes to see
Of lowliness the beauty

‘Tis true your busy backs are bare
Your lips too dry for spittle
Your eyes as dead as whitings are
Your bellies growl for Vict’al

But, dearest children, oh! Believe
Believe not treach’rous senses!
‘Tis they your infant hearts deceive
And lead into offences

When frost assails your joints by day
And lice by night torment you
‘Tis to remind you oft to pray
And of your sins repent ye

Let dungeons, gags and hangman’s noose
Make you content and humble
Your Heavenly crown you’ll surely lose
Of here on earth you grumble.

Liberation Theology

But, as I’ve alluded to, this isn’t Christianity in toto, and I mustn’t allow the personal make me think so. Cobbett himself was a dedicated believer (he could never reconcile that his hero Thomas Paine was a deist), and despised those clergy that he felt were twisting the Good Word. And hasn’t it been the case that, just as there have been men citing the Old Testament when committing their terrible deeds, they have had their opposite, quoting from the Gospels? There are Bible verses that glory in the freeing of slaves, and there are those that revel in the taking of them – and indeed both sides of the 18th and 19th century debates on the question of owning of Africans made good use of them. There are other verses that teach followers to resist change and new ideas, and others still that seem to instruct believers that they should defiantly question, and if found lacking, overthrow the status quo.

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Does this mean that there’s enough in the Judeo-Christian canon to make any condensing of it arbitrary? While the US-backed juntas of Central and South America paraded Family, Order and the Cross, independent priests and nuns were forming the vanguard of liberation theology. This movement which, until School of the Americas trained thugs put bullets into its leading figures, led with Jesus and made common cause with the socialists. The lies about unending joy following death were put to the wayside. They demanded salvation, in the form of land reform, democracy, adequate healthcare, and the pursuit of happiness, in the material here and now.

But the poor person does not existing as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.

So said Gustavo Gutierrez.

Well meaning as they no doubt were, there was – and will always be – a trap door awaiting all those wishing to employ Christianity for progressive means. It’s got a vindictive and selfish god, scriptural defenses of murder and plunder, it’s got heroes like Lot, and a historical connection to Rome that opens up an entirely new (and terrifying) avenue of dismay. It, in other words, it has baggage.

Cut out the bullshit and get right to the liberation. Real emancipation requires a radical change in the material realm, and to Hell with the spiritual (whatever that is anyway). If something requires an illusion – or is it delusion? – to sustain itself, surely there’s something amiss, the impartial must admit. Can’t people take the socialist pill without the sweet – and deadly – sugar coating of Christianity?

Reason, Slave

The great Richard Carlile, jailed for six years for fighting for an English free press, made the mistake of thinking that all that was required to revolutionise the masses was the propagation of radical literature. Once people read that there was an alternative to superstition and submission, then surely they would reach for the last priest’s entrails and strangle the world’s last king with them. The reasons why this wasn’t so are numerous, although principally it’s thus, people aren’t rational. To expect Man to be led by Reason alone, as he did, is like expecting a flower to be sustained entirely by starlight. It can’t, and we can’t – or at least, we had better not: John Stuart Mill was brought up to experience the world solely in terms of the rationalist utilitarian calculus, and by the age of twenty he found life weary and stale and was ready to die. His relief came chiefly from the poetry of the Romantics.

(And it was to the poetry of William Blake that Clement Attlee’s reforming Labour government turned to in 1951. Even this had its Biblical allusions:

I will not cease from mental strife,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.)

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That’s not to say that Christianity must therefore be the vessel containing the germ of change. Only that appeals to reason alone will not suffice. Marx himself recognised this when, just before he wrote his famous line about the “opium of the people” (one of the best known quotes on the internet and one of the least understood), he described religion as, “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”. This leaves non-religious narratives at a disadvantage, because they haven’t the same recognition – in part because religious regimes have actively cracked down on them – and neither can they promise so much.

A Political Alternative

Yet attempts at an unifying, non-religious and emotive narrative have been made. These efforts (mostly communes), it could be said, have seen success by satisfying itches in those zones of the cortex usually reserved for the religious. Sin becomes alienation and oppression, the saviour figure of Moses, Jesus or Muhammad is replaced by the Collective or class, the moment of salvation and/or rebirth is The Revolution. Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, suggests that were his lead character – a devout and pious man of the cloth – to answer “do you believe in God?” with the negative, he would be a fervent socialist. He sees the overlap as significant, drawing particular attention to utopianism.

In the same way, if he had decided that God and immortality did not exist, he would at once have become an atheist and a socialist. For socialism is not merely the labor question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism to-day, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to heaven from earth but to set up heaven on earth.

But we have to be careful here. Socialist and Christian groups share similarities exactly because they are groups, and all groups have their common objectives, vices and taboos. And it’s no surprise that a dedicated God botherer might make a committed politico – indeed, American politics is awash with those who manage to make an identity of both. More importantly, the socialist project is no illusion. It promises, rather than “spiritual improvement”, implementable solutions rooted in the world we can fairly assume exists. And in its quasi- forms it’s given us such boons as the welfare state, nationalised heathcare, subsidised arts, industries held in common, and trade unions.

What a socialist future can’t guarantee is vicarious redemption, or, for that matter, quick fixes. It won’t free you from the troublesome tendrils of reality. It’s unlikely to answer all of your prayers (yet what does?), and it certainly won’t grant you a personal Jesus.

What it may do is erode the binds of economic exploitation, eliminating what Oscar Wilde called the sordid nessessity of living for others. Allowing individuals to fully realise their innate talents, and the dreams that the pressures of work and capital, at present, suppress. It won’t be perfect, but it promises people a new, higher and more meaningful form of consolation: self-expression. (And if you insist on having concepts like “soul”, you might dedicate your freshly unmanacled mind and body to discovering or defining it. Perhaps without resorting to folk stories and clergymen.)

However, whatever the future brings – socialism or no – it’s unlikely to be “heaven on earth”. For this reason and others, Christianity will endure as source of false hope and sham freedom. Irrevocable as it and all religion may be though, can we at least begin to make them a little less necessary?

 

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*Slavery existed in the colonies, and continued under a different name following “Wilberforce’s” abolition.

Same for sex. On women agitating for the abolition of slavery, “[F]or ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions – these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture“.

 

Paddy

The Strange Resurrection of Liberal England

The Strange Rebirth of Liberal England

The established ideology is on its way out*. Going with it, for citizens of the United Kingdom (a compromise that may also be witnessing its twilight), is not just EU membership and long-inflated global status, but the very political foundation on which we depended. The old antithesis of Left and Right, socialism and Toryism, worker and capitalist, somehow survived 1989 and Blair, but not, it seems, Brexit.

The new political division that will shape this Banana Monarchy is, at present, lob-sided. The traditional Right wasted no time in adjusting. As the “Left” faltered (we will likely never completely shed ourselves of the shorthand gained from the French Revolution), the forces of reaction, authoritarianism and tribalism built up what is invariably described as alt-, new-, or populist-right. And who constitutes the bulk of this movement? The group progressives have often taken for granted: the poor. For working class supporters of the Leave EU campaign (as too, Le Pen and Trump), socio-economic loyalties are secondary to those of race and nation, if considered at all.

This urge to, as Kipling termed it, “think with the blood” is, for roughly 52% of the population, a strong one. But traditions matter, especially in a nation that holds them in place of rights. None more so than liberty.

Refreshing the Tree

I am aware of the pitfalls involved in defining national “traits”. I cannot in all honesty stand by the claim, inspired by Oscar Wilde, that liberty is to the English what scepticism is to the Jews. After all, a Tory government recently passed the horribly draconian, invasive “Snooper’s Charter”. And this, as if to make the literal-minded cringe, to the voiced dismay of the highest court of that supposedly authoritarian institution, the European Union (and their manifesto promises more, more, more!). Too, the so-called Jewish State has been spewing up governments which have been taking the decidedly uncritical, self-damning policy of annexing the West Bank1.

But the country that jailed Richard Carlile and William Cobbett for the crime of voicing unpleasant facts, and Milton for republican polemic, also provided a safe haven and a stage for Pax Britannia’s greatest critics – from Karl Marx and Ernest Jones to Gandhi – and that, without a Bill of Rights.

It was the Whigs, faced with radicals who would force reform violently if need be, that manned the green trenches against the ferocious assaults to free expression directed from Tory Front Benches. They kept up this up, to varying degrees, throughout the post-Napoleon I era, up until the transition to the Liberal Party. During the Victorian era – or, better yet, the age of empire (Eric Hobsbawm’s descriptive has the benefit of being both republican and expository) – it became capital L Liberals which came to fly the flag for free-trade, free-speech and, in the form of unions, free-association. Sometimes these causes had their roots in Bentham utilitarian thinking; but, more often than not, an American-like suspicion of government overreach.

In the excellent Strange Death of Liberal England, George Dangerfield charts how this Liberalism eventually fell victim to the chain reaction of Tory, Women’s, and Worker’s rebellion. The Liberal Party proved too moderate and, at base too conciliatory, to survive the ruptures of the modern age, much like the hereditary principle it had in part neutered2. He wrote,

When codes, when religions, when ideas cease to move forward, it is always in some shining illusion that an alarmed humanity attempts to take refuge

The shining illusions in the early twentieth century were grand ideologies which promised humanity a New Man. Those gleaming trapdoors, fascism and Stalinism. Now, aggressive nationalism is the illusion competing for the imaginations of little men everywhere. (In Britain that’s all we have – what is called “the Opposition” has swayed between ignoring the new political reality, and chasing working class jingoisms. Corbyn’s Labour Party has managed to lose everything, including, somehow, the moral high ground.)

The Importance of Being Liberal

The liberalism required to counter the alt-right will bear some similarity to the tradition Dangerfield chronicled the death of. Though to best represent contemporary progressives, anti-authoriatrians and internationalists – and it must – this new liberalism must learn to be more muscular and self-aware (read: critical) than what went before. It could also benefit from some pointers offered by Bertrand Russell. It’s worth quoting him at length:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

The liberal order Russell envisaged bears considerable similarity to Polanyi’s republic of Science. That self-regulating and ever-expanding community – both in number and purview – that sets out to solve the puzzles of physics, chemistry and biology. In these fields authority isn’t inherited, and it isn’t derived from being the oldest in the room. It’s gained by being proven right and right again – and even then, as the best science educators will tell you, it’s to be scrutinised.

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Admittedly, there would be difficulties transplanting the science republic framework to politics. The “science community” has proven to be remarkably egalitarian and dynamic, while most of the planet lives under despots with special rooms with tongs and electrodes reserved for those citizens feeling particularly sceptical.

(But what are liberals but triers: they try to be vegan, they try to be responsible consumers, they try to be good people – and, as fellow dinner guests will attest, they at least succeed in trying patience.)

Implicit in Russell’s list is the suggestion that “good” liberalism is more of a disposition than an ideology, and indeed that’s how it should be read (Goethe made a similar suggestion before). Liberal policies – freedom of speech and of movement, the right to privacy and debate, etc. – can exist in a variety of economic and political models.

It, as a tradition, must form the bedrock of a citizen’s outlook. Progressives take note: You only have to consider its nationalistic iterations to realise what humbug socialism would be without liberty.

Evolving

Conor Cruise O’Brien noted the occasion, following a biting accusation by an African leader, he had the realisation that he was a liberal and not a socialist. This was a serious charge: at the advent of the postcolonial era, Western liberals had proven themselves to be false friends at best, and not much different from their conservative​ adversaries on the important questions of self-determination and justice.

He was in the Congo where the new government was attempting socialist reform. The odds were stacked against them – as it was for the great swath of post-colonised societies – and to achieve success certain liberties were being taken in the courts, and press freedom had been curtailed. The ends were noble and promised great things, but, nevertheless, O’Brien felt an instinctual unpleasantness toward the means,

Whatever I might argue, I was more profoundly attached to liberal concepts of freedom – freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom, independent judgement and independent judges – than I was to the idea of a disciplined party mobilising all the forces of society for the creation of a social order guaranteeing more real freedom for all instead of just the few. The revolutionary idea both impressed me and struck me as more immediately relevant for most of humanity than were liberal concepts. But it was the liberal concepts and their long-term importance… that held my allegiance

He goes on to draw an important distinction between truth and utility in politics. There are those for whom the former would, ideally, be the means as well as ends. For them objectivity rests outside of politics, and stands as a guide. For those which seek utility, what’s “best” is what best leads to some perfect end. Trotskyists, neo-conservatives and fascists will consider the objective an obstacle if it is percieved to halt or defer that end.

In this “post-truth” age, it is of vital of importance that the “new” Left (or whatever we will come to call the organised opposition to the alt-right) should regain the highground, and declare truth’s primacy over utility. The signals aren’t good: “progressives” were only too eager to jump into bed with the Central Intelligence Agency simply because it appeared to be working contra Trump. (It hadn’t mattered they provided no proof of his wrongdoing, and that all avaliable evidence suggests that shady Agency is no friend of progress.)

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But it is only with the penetrating spotlight of Truth that we’ll be able to show those shining illusions for what they really are: the fossilized turds of monsters that have had their day.

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*This ideology is often described as the “liberal” or “metropolitan” elite or establishment. This is a misnomer. There is very little that was liberal – classically at least – about the Thatcherite consensus.

1 How tragic that, just when the European Christians laid down the torch of imperialism, the Jews went to pick it up.

2 Resulting from Liberal MP’s ultimately successful battle to limit the powers of the House of Lords. Before then, the Lords – born, seldom earned – had veto power over Bills brought by the Commons.

British Truisms

This post is dedicated to those pearls of wisdom Brits can’t help splurting out when mistakenly given the vaguest encouragement. They will cover a multitude of subjects: politics, culture, and, of course, the weather.

I wouldn’t want the Queen’s job

Stephen Fry – a national treasure

This country’s gone to the dogs

The Tories fix the economy and Labour break it

Whatever else you say about ‘im, that Enoch Powell ‘ad a point

We’re just an island – there’s no more room!

I like snow, I just can’t stand the slushy stuff

Diana was the People’s Princess

‘R’ Diana was knocked off by Charles

Poor Diana

While alive: she’ll open ‘er legs for just about anything

This wouldn’t ‘ave ‘appened under Thatcher

We’re a nation of animal lovers [Has no one actually seen a battery farm?]

We ‘ave TV so who needs books?

No one ‘as any respect from the old anymore

Bloody French

On buses and similar things: there’s nuffin and then fifteen come at once

I’m not racist but…

On rain: it’s about to piss it down

That London’s too big for me

A Englishman’s house is his castle

That restaurant/wine/degree of personal cleanliness is too posh for my liking

I ain’t being funny but…

The Face of Capitalism

Sir Philip Green has been described by the good Frank Field (chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee) as the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. Strong words to be sure – and the added comparison to Robert Maxwell surely stung – but, c’mon now, let’s get serious…

This is the face of capitalism.

What did Green do?

  1. He sold his retail company to a mate, Dominic Joseph-Andrew Chappell – a man with three bankruptcies to his (incredibly cunty) name and no prior experience of retail management – for £1
  2. Guarantors to the sale were given “unrealistic” figures, with the Goldman Sachs’ stamp of approval
  3. Chappell brought in his mates to fill directorships (what’s the betting that one of them wasn’t called Horatio-Bonky-Gunterballs?)
  4. Chappell and his mates stripped what they could – including the employees’ pension pot – from the rapidly deceasing BHS (describing one withdrawal of over £1 million as “a drop in the ocean”, so what are the employees moaning about?)
  5. Most of this money ends up in off-shore accounts, one of which is in the name of a certain Tina Green
  6. Company sinks and the state is left to pick up the pieces – in this case, the pieces are former low-paid workers who suddenly don’t have money left aside for a rainy day

 

Is it also worth mentioning that, as Chappell and co.’s accounts are offshore, they’re not contributing tax to the very state that is now obliged to fix this mess?

But I ask you: what part of this is illegal? What makes it unacceptable exactly? It’s all some jolly good free enterprise – the market showing its supremacy over state interference.

 

If you wish to read the Select Committee’s conclusions, you may find them here. Here’s a quote from the report:

 

Goldman Sachs provided free advice to Sir Philip on the transaction, having turned down the opportunity to be formally engaged. In doing so, they hoped to maintain a longstanding and lucrative relationship with a wealthy client. Goldman Sachs told us that their role was limited to providing some “preliminary observations” on the proposals. It is clear that their subsequent involvement went considerably beyond that. They enabled their prestigious name to be cited as that of “gatekeeper” to the transaction. This added lustre to an otherwise questionable process. Lack of clarity about their role evidently caused confusion for some parties to the transaction. Goldman Sachs should have been either “in” or “out” of the deal, and demonstrably so. As it was, they had authority without accountability

 

 

Authority without accountability. Ah, there’s the wonderful Third Way Blair promised us.

 

Paddy

“Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain”: Thoughts on Patriotism Today

The “name” above was given by Tommy Mair, the man who murdered Jo Cox MP.

This piece of news came to me as I was brooding about the current state of State: we may be in one of the richest and developed countries in the world but the foundations of our civil society – formal and informal – are under threat. Insurgent working class populism of a far-right bent has coalesced with
reactionary Establishment elements. This joining is not to be sniffed at, it is shaping a new (old) political paradigm that doesn’t look to be expiring any time soon. Buh-bye liberalism.

This was finally allowed to happen through the bullish activism of the Leave campaign – a joining of unremarkable capitalists, politicians from the 19th century and the nation’s dark, dank underbelly. A synthesis of vulgarity and snobbery that the Brits always seem to do so well.

It would be unfair to say Mair is somehow representative of British patriotism, but he does kind of look like misplaced nostalgia personified.

Mair

Orwell was rather harsh toward the rejection of the patriotism instinct, chiding leftist commentators (or, as he derisively called them “intellectuals”) for finding nothing good to say about Blighty.

I grew up in an atmosphere tinged with militarism, and afterwards I spent five boring years within the sound of bugles. To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during ‘God save the King’. That is childish, of course, but I would sooner have had that kind of upbringing than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions. It is exactly the people whose hearts have never leapt at the sight of a Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the moment comes. Let anyone compare the poem John Cornford wrote not long before he was killed (‘Before the Storming of Huesca’) with Sir Henry Newbolt’s ‘There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight’. Put aside the technical differences, which are merely a matter of period, and it will be seen that the emotional content of the two poems is almost exactly the same. The young Communist who died heroically in the International Brigade was public school to the core. He had changed his allegiance but not his emotions. What does that prove? Merely the possibility of building a Socialist on the bones of a Blimp, the power of one kind of loyalty to transmute itself into another, the spiritual need for patriotism and the military virtues, for which, however little the boiled rabbits of the Left may like them, no substitute has yet been found.

Orwell, My Country Left or Right

I, alas, am a boiled rabbit.

Perhaps if I were around when the Luftwaffe posed a real danger to red post boxes, black cabs, picnics and Pimms, I might’ve seen things the way of the “Tory anarchist”. But now? Sorry George, the Muslamic hoards don’t quite blacken the skies yet, nor would a world absent of those tourist flick-baits bother me greatly.

(And, conversely, I really do gag at the sight of that red cross upon a white field. During football “season”, when you can’t lose sight of the blighted thing, I have to brush my teeth upwards of three times a day.)

Urghhh…

 

There’s values, principles, I hold dear – much the same as Orwell’s: equality, internationalism, democracy, freedom of expression. But it’ll be an act of double-think to associate them strongly with “Britain” – or more accurately Queen and Country – historically or presently. For one, the (mostly European-imposed) institutions meant to give force to these lofty ambitions are flailing. Only a common will can keep them truly alive. Because, after-all, what is a country without its people?

And like it or not, the lead up to this EU referendum has shown us just how most of them think. We’ll soon find that the “silent majority” we were relying on to give the New Old Left some steam is in fact a loud herd, clambering to derail the whole fucking lot.

 

Paddy