Tuesday 23 April 2013

Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George – if that’s alright with you

Today is St George’s Day, the national day of England. It is worth asking why the English do not celebrate it the way other countries celebrate their national days. Two Liberal Democrat MPs, John Leech and Greg Mulholland, have asked the same question.

Most countries have a national day, which usually commemorates a key date in the birth of the nation (for example, Bastille Day in France or Independence Day in the USA – indeed, independence day in any country that was formerly a colony).

England cannot do that because it has no ‘birthday’. What event would we commemorate? The unification of England by King Æthelstan in 927? The Norman Conquest in 1066? The signing of the Magna Carta in 1215? The Glorious Revolution of 1688? All of these were important events in the evolution of England but none stands out as a definitive founding date.

The alternative is a saint’s day, which for example the Irish (and the Irish diaspora) commemorate with St Patrick’s Day. One can see the point of St Patrick, the missionary who brought Christianity to Ireland. But St George? A Greek born in Palestine who served in the Roman army and did not slay any dragons? A saint whose flag was adopted by the English in 1190 during the crusades, as a means of earning Genoese protection of their ships entering the Mediterranean? St George may have been a successful rallying cry during the crusades but it is hard to see him as a cause to get excited about now.

The lack of any local associations with the national saint is not the main reason for such little jubilation on 23rd April. There is the more fundamental question of English identity. Nation states, in the way we understand them today, are essentially a nineteenth-century invention. Before then in 1707, England and Scotland unified to create the United Kingdom, and there was a subsequent tendency for the English to subsume their identity in Britishness.

One can see this during the 1966 World Cup final. It was a great moment of English (as opposed to British) celebration, yet look at the archive film and the flags being waved by English supporters. They are Union Jacks, not flags of St George.

It was only after the revival of Scottish and Welsh nationalism in the 1970s that the English were forced to re-examine their own identity. It has been a slow process. It was not until the 1996 European Football Championship, hosted by England, that English supporters waved English flags in any great numbers. Since then, these flags have been a permanent fixture on every white van.

Two factors deterred a revival of English identity during that period. One was the insistence during the 1980s by the right-on PC brigade that white English people, as the only humans on the planet who had never been colonised or occupied, were uniquely denied the coveted status of victimhood and should therefore live in a permanently abject state to atone for their past sins. The other was the appropriation of the English flag and other national symbols by the far right. Faced with these pressures, most middle class English people kept their heads down.

Both pressures have thankfully receded, so that today John Leech and Greg Mulholland have no qualms about urging us to be more forthright in our commemoration of St George’s Day. Neither MP offers any compelling method for how this could be achieved, probably because a celebration would be the consequence of a clear, shared national identity rather than the cause of it. Mulholland’s remedy seems to consist largely of urging on English teams in international football and rugby events, which is unlikely to enthuse the majority of people who aren’t interested in these sports.

Sceptics will argue that a national identity cannot be invented but must evolve, which ignores the fact that most European national identities are not natural at all but were consciously contrived by romantic nationalists during the nineteenth century. As the sad experience of Tony Blair and ‘Cool Britannia’ shows, it is not so easy to pull off that trick today.

Meanwhile, it has been suggested that St George’s Day should be made a public holiday, not just as a national day but also to commemorate the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth and death. This ignores the practical problem that 23rd April often clashes with Easter and is close to the May Day bank holiday. We already have more than enough public holidays at this time of year.

What is the solution? It is the traditional English method, which will happen regardless of what any MPs say. We will muddle through. 23rd April will remain an annual whinge-fest, when a few politicians and commentators look wistfully at St Patrick’s Day and wonder why the English cannot enjoy a similar national celebration.

But do we need a solution? Is there actually a problem? Perhaps the real reason we do not celebrate St George’s Day is a rather good one. The English have become almost post-nationalist. As the one nation that has never been colonised or occupied in recent centuries, we have no victimhood in which to wallow or ancient enemy to blame for everything. Any discomfort we feel is a slight guilt at being comfortable in our own skins. It is a sentiment related to the fact that we are the one country with no need to put its name on its coins or postage stamps. We usually prefer quiet understatement to gross displays of national fervour, and that is how it should be.

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