‘We English are Very Proud of our
Constitution, Sir. It was Bestowed Upon
Us By Providence. No Other Country is
so Favoured as This Country.’
Mr Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend
Between 1969 and 1994, Britain was engaged in a war in Ireland. Opinions differ about whether it was a counter-insurgency operation against terrorists operating within Britain’s borders or another stage in the long struggle to end British colonialism in Ireland. But few would disagree that it was one of the region’s outstanding political problems of our time. Numerous indicators—lives lost, state censorship and media manipulation, suppression of civil liberties, damage to Britain’s economy and international reputation—demonstrate the importance of the war in Ireland.
Yet if we take concern by parts of the British Left as our indicator, the conflict appears much less important. For example, between November 1970 (just a year into the hostilities) and October 1994 (a month after the ira cease-fire) the New Left Review did not publish a single article on Ireland.footnote1 It is difficult to overstate the significance of this fact. For a quarter of a century the British government conducted a nasty war on its own doorstep (which frequently spilled into the house). Yet throughout that war, the leading theoretical journal of the British Left either failed or refused to engage the issue.
Nor is this a new thing. British Left attitudes toward Ireland have long troubled Irish socialist republicans, not to mention German socialist republicans. Marx made this clear in his repeated acerbic comments on the superior and dismissive attitudes of English workers to Irish workers and
When an article on Ireland finally found its way into nlr after the cessation of armed conflict, its authors did little to encourage critical reflection. Instead, as we shall see, they simply reinforced the perception that Irish republicans (even Irish politicians in general) were shackled by archaic beliefs which could be contrasted to the modern and sophisticated values that animate the British polity. In doing so, despite writing from Ireland, they provided succour to the disdain of some on the British left. We believe such Podsnappery should not go unchallenged. Therefore, the first part of this essay critiques Ellen Hazelkorn and Henry Patterson’s (hereafter h&p) ‘New Politics of the Irish Republic’.footnote3
But we are not simply taking issue with one paper. Our broader target is a continuing (if nebulous) attitude of superiority on the part of many British socialists. To illustrate this point, we also deconstruct a recent nlr article by that doyen of the British Left, Eric Hobsbawm,footnote4 who argues that the influence of barbarism has been increasing during the twentieth century. While his thesis is a general one, on several occasions he illustrates his arguments with the example of the Irish and their relationship with Britain. In doing so, he ascribes to the British state an unwarranted civility, and to the Irish people an equally unwarranted barbarity.
In deconstructing these papers, our argument is inevitably a critical one. We believe this is necessary because the current consensus must be challenged before a positive agenda can be adequately addressed. However, implicit in our critique is the assumption that it is not an end in itself. There is much positive work to be done and it is our hope that an opening up of the pages of nlr to the Irish problem will herald a sustained engagement by socialists and republicans from Britain, Ireland, and elsewhere, on how the values to which they adhere can be promoted in the context of Ireland.