Rik Worth 23rd April 2019
Today is St George’s Day. The day, in theory, when English-folk celebrate a Syrian/Greek soldier fighting for the Italians, who we venerate for killing a fictional beast in Israel.
Perhaps it’s this bizarre and remote backstory that means that the English have a complicated relationship with patriotism, nationalism and celebrating St George. We asked our readers what they thought about the whole thing, and more than 50 of you gave us some thoughtful and reasoned responses. One of you just answered “poo” to everything, but that’s all good.
Does England have a national identity?
People were very split on this subject but for different reasons. Regional identities played a stronger role than a national one for some of you, while others claimed our identity is defined by those outside of England — essentially there isn’t one English identity, but foreigners lump us together because we sound English. That isn’t to say we have no national identity at all. A lot of you believe we have a larger identity of being a part of Great Britain, not just little England.
In the middle ground, some of you observed: “There many [indentities] that qualify, from the acceptable to the unsavoury,” and, “It’s intrinsically nebulous and incredibly difficult to define.” There was certainly discussion of a national feeling of us wanting and identity but being unsure of what that should be scared that it would be dominated by the far-right.
For the large part, those who said we had an identity worried that, whether they participated in it or not it, we have an international identity as “racist drunks” and ” in recent years, the concept of national identity and patriotism has become conflated with xenophobia and exclusionary attitudes, which has presented new challenges with discussion”.
Do you do anything to celebrate St George’s Day?
One person said they have a roast, but nobody else replied in the positive save a few coincidental celebrations like birthdays. One person wrote they would celebrate if there was “something happening worth attending (eg, street market/entertainment)”, so the potential new bank holidays that Labour have promised could see a rise in patriotic partying.
The English flag would make me avoid a place
But by large we’re simply too cynical a nation –“It’s traditional the day after to say, ‘Oh, was yesterday St. George’s Day, then?’, ‘Talk about him being the patron saint of syphilis and Palestine'” — to get behind it in the same way that other members of the United Kingdom get behind their saints.
Plus that creeping feeling that indulging English identity specifically can’t be escaped. Just seeing that red cross on the white background was enough for some people to get weary, making them “feel the flag doesn’t signify pride in England as it’s been hijacked. The Union Jack is a great symbol but the English flag would make me avoid a place”.
Are you proud to be English?
Cecil Rhodes once said: “You are an Englishman and have subsequently drawn the greatest prize in the lottery of life.” Essentially, it’s great to be English, and it’s all luck.
This is a theme that came out a lot in your answers. Of course, Rhodes was saying this late 19th century when he was colonising Africa and exploiting its natural resources for his own gain. You were aware of this too.
I feel British and being from Yorkshire, I feel a particularly strong regional identity, but my ‘Englishness’ isn’t something I feel or think about
Perhaps it was English modesty or good manners but a lot of people said something along the lines of: “Nope. It’s just dumb luck/bad luck to be born where you’re born.” On top of which there was a general understanding that England specifically has historically been a set of bastards.
You guys did have pride in some identities, but again this came out as pride in oneself, being British (a lot of you have Irish, Scots and Welsh heritage, or at least think you have: “Heartbroken when I found out I wasn’t really half Welsh”) and being from a specific part of England.
You wrote: “I feel British and being from Yorkshire, I feel a particularly strong regional identity, but my ‘Englishness’ isn’t something I feel or think about.” And: “I’m amazed by some of the culture England has created, and that can create a sense of pride, but being English is not part of my personality. Being from Lancashire more.”
But regional pride wasn’t for everyone. “It’s been hijacked by a narrow south-east identity that deliberately drowns out and belittles regional English identities.” In other words: “That bloody London!”
The Brexit Effect
Some people were proud to be English up until Brexit. It turns out that being English somehow means being European too. You guys put it best.
“I used to be quite proud, almost on the verge of a little nationalistic. That tempered as I got older, but it all disappeared on the day of the Brexit result. I completely lost any pride I had in my country that day (both England and Britain) and it has gotten worse since then. I even feel embarrassed when meeting those from other countries, feeling like I have to apologise for where my country has gone in the last couple of years.”
“More proud before Brexit — but yes, proud (but not nationalistic).”
“No. I’m embarrassed with Brexit and how insular and far-right our country has become.”
I think English ‘patriotism’ has done great harm to us
“The lack of tolerance and the suicidal wish to return to a fantasy version of England that never existed is baffling and frankly offensive.”
“I think English ‘patriotism’ has done great harm to us, not just through the oozing boil that is Brexit but generalised racism and other such horrors.”
It seems like English patriotism is like everything else since the referendum, it’s split itself in two. It’s not only contributed to Brexit, Brexit then made it less appealing. Kinda like Jeremy Corbyn. Satire. Don’t @ me.
There were a lot of things we were proud of though — multiculturalism, scones, the NHS, sense of humour, when we’re able to work together, our contributions to science, our literature, our countryside, our history (so long as we acknowledge the bad parts, cryptic crosswords, steamed puddings, the fact on a global scale we have it pretty good and our self-depreciation) — probably the thing that makes it hard for us to be patriotic in the first place.
Should England be more patriotic?
That’s not fair. Mostly, everyone said no. Everyone thought that patriotism was a little creepy and “exclusionary, racist, classist and generally negative” and something odd the Americans do.
If they said yes, it was with the warning to avoid nationalism or that we should first build something we could be proud of, rather than be an obsession with the past, war and old games of football the Germans never think about.
What would you like to become part of the English identity?
That’s the one word that most frequently came up. Y’all just want England to be a kinder, more tolerant, more accepting more gentle place. That is pretty fucking lovely, guys. Nice one.
Some of you had more specific ideas though, such an “investment in the arts, musical excellence, a strong public health system, & world-class education” and a re-addressing of our history — in particular, an understanding of the devastation of our colonial heritage and a more nuanced look at World War II over lazy hero worship.
Cornish pasties for all
Some of you got political, wanting us to sink into the ocean, remain in the EU or just adopting socialism and focus on being “placed on the English tradition of radicalism and labour struggle. From the civil war to Chartists to suffragettes, right up to the miner’s strikes and anti-austerity movements”.
Some of you wanted more celebration of our regional differences — one of you out there is very annoyed with London. In that spirit, you suggested “Cornish pasties for all”. That is an election-winning policy.
It takes a lot to change an entire culture and logistically get everyone in the country a free pasty. So maybe the best suggestion was the last one. It certainly seems like it could be on the cards. “A day off for St. George’s Day.”
Rik Worth 23rd April 2019