In March I went along to a one day conference held at Staffs University held to combat the rise of the far right organised, I think, by Norscarf. I have to admit to feeling queasy about one of the decisions which was to leaflet an area where the BNP were strong. I felt nothing could be more counter productive than for essentially middle class professionals in secure jobs turning up to some council estate to lecture the locals on the error of their ways.
But this is not the main point of this contribution.
I made a contribution about the way in which the far right had been allowed to hijack symbols. Take the flag as I said at the time the multi racial French team posed before the tricolour after they won the World Cup in 1998 and yet “Britishness” and symbols of Britishness cause all sorts of a problem for people on the left.
One of the delegates went so far as to call the Union Flag the “butcher’s apron”.
As a starting point it is interesting to reflect that being labelled a patriot would have something that many late 18th and early 19th century radicals would have been comfortable with. Patriotism was defined as devotion to humanity and rationalism. For example, providing charity, criticising slavery, denouncing excessive penal laws supporting the notion of liberty and individual rights whilst attacking privilege were all considered patriotic.
I wondered if it was possible to construct a narrative in which progressive people could feel comfortable with being “British” or “English”
Within this context I feel that it is quite easy especially seen in the accomplishments of people of North Staffordshire down the ages.
I feel it is time to praise our famous men.
The Victorians also liked their heroes. The Leek based pioneer canal builder and engineer James Brindley (1716-1772) was certainly one of them. He was admired because he represented the self made, practical “sleeves rolled up” strong type of Englishman. He was the Scottish writer and social commentator Thomas Carlyle wrote “wonderfully equipped to the fight dragons, be they natural obstacles or human”
So inspiring was Brindley to the writer that he felt him to be the personification of John Bull
There is a tradition of engineering and scientific endeavour that continues into the 20th century and includes Oliver Lodge the pioneer physicist and the aircraft designer RJ Mitchell whose Spitfire played a pivotal role in the war helping the RAF win the Battle of Britain during 1940 which prevented a Nazi invasion.
On the subject of war the contribution of North Staffordshire men in a significant battle that spelled the beginning of the end for the Kaiser’s Army has never been acknowledged.
September 29th 2008 saw the 90th anniversary of a First World battle which involved many local men. The storming of the canal at Saint Quentin on that early autumn day lead to a breaching of the redoubtable defence the Hindenburg line a series of fortifications that were meant to hold up the British Army advance for months and to expend the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. The 5th and 6th battalions of the North Staffordshire Regiment- part of the 46th North Midland Division- overcame the obstacles such as a deep sided canal in the course of a few hours and with few casualties. This battle was not the typical one of bloody stalemate, but to use the words of the regimental war diary, an advance carried out with dash and enterprise using lessons learnt in the 4 years of war. Although no one realised it at the time, that morning Germany lost the war and under accumulated strain the German commander Field Marshall Ludendorff’s nerve cracked and overtures toward peace began.
This heroic deed has been considered by some military historians as one of the great feats of British arms comparable with Agincourt and Waterloo and it was accomplished by Staffordshire men as a journalist from the Observer newspaper commented at the time.
The Midlanders- boot makers ,miners, lace workers, potters who had never pretended in their lives to heroism or poetry, or the traditions of a crack regiment went at the canal at San Quentin with mats, rafts, lifebelts, wading, swimming, floating, they crossed the water and stormed over the astonished enemy and clean through the Hindenburg defences. Their days work was the immortal epic of the ordinary man.
Why should we recall this event? This was, as the Observer reported, an incident of heroic proportions carried out by ordinary men from this part of the country, an incident that had a major bearing on the outcome of the war and the history of Europe subsequently through the century. Today North Staffordshire has had its detractors, but I believe that we should pay tribute to these unassuming men, the descendents of which still live in the area and are probably unaware of the great deed of valour carried out by their ancestors. It is especially worthy of remembering given the negative press coverage usually visited on this area. The spirit of comradeship, dash and courage shown by those soldiers nearly a century ago still lives on in their descendents all that is required that it is fully utilised and directed positively.
And finally I mentioned that in the context of the 18th century the notion of patriotism would have embraced opposition to slavery.
In April 2004 I wrote to the Sentinel criticising an exhibit in the City Museum called “Slave ship” which depicted a St George’s flag on which was superimposed images of slavery and slave ships representing British involvement in the trade.
“No doubt we have done terrible things, but which nation has not? Many countries and nations were involved in the trade. 12 million Africans over 300 years were enslaved by Western countries such as Britain, France and Spain which by macabre arithmetic is approximately the same number of Africans enslaved by Arab Slave traders operating on the continent for over a millennium. However their remains a difference, which I as an Englishman am inordinately proud. The crime of slavery in England in the 18th century produced its own antidote- the great abolition movement lead by Wilberforce and our very own Josiah Wedgwood. It was a movement driven by liberating ideas of human rights, awareness of injustice, compassion and reform finally carried out through a parliamentary system in 1807. These ideas represent our greatest legacy to the world. The commitment to human rights may over time have been imperfectly applied, but they remain part of our tradition.
It was Britain that continued to press for the end of slavery in Africa often against fierce local opposition. Even today Arab slave traders sustain slavery in Mauritania and the Sudan.
I therefore ask the question to the Museum Authorities why do we have to have another example of self lacerating guilt about the English and Englishness. Why not display the plaque that Wedgwood designed for the Abolitionist movement alongside the St George’s Flag to place the matter within a historical context?
As I said at the beginning flags are powerful symbols and it is the responsibility of authority not to forget the past but to see it within a perspective. All too often people of the left have allowed the far right to drape themselves in the national flag. But for me it is the same flag that flew above Royal Navy ships during the 19th century in their fight with slave traders in the West African sea-lanes enforcing the abolition of slavery and it is the same flag that flew on British tanks that liberated Bergen- Belsen Concentration camp in 1945.”