How would you react if you saw a St George’s Cross erected outside a house on your street? Would you be overcome with pride, apathy, or would you perhaps feel a little bit anxious?
Tuesday is St George’s Day, an annual “celebration” in the national consciousness that is uniquely ignored, despite incessant and often fruitless attempts by organisations, brands and politicians to whip up a collective English spirit.
Last weekend, London mayor Boris Johnson hosted an event in Trafalgar Square to commemorate England’s patron saint, telling the crowd it was a “fantastic opportunity to celebrate the very best of what England has to offer, from music to theatre to film”.
A St George’s Day event it may have been, but the pageant was more a publicity exercise for the city of London (and its mayor), leaving celebrations on the actual day muted or absent.
But why has England’s saint been so ignored?
Reasons abound, from the island’s religious history to the more recent appropriation of national iconography by members of the far right. Certainly, for many the English flag represents a facet of the national character that is best hidden away. It’s a chauvinism and a narrowness that, outside major sporting events, has come to be identified with the English Defence League (EDL), the British National Party (BNP) and mobs of travelling football fans.
As an inter-faith group bemoaned on Monday, the saint has been “hijacked” by the extreme right as a “symbol of triumphalism and division”.
England is, after all, a country in which national outpouring is rare.
Every two years, the population watches the country’s best 23 football players get on a plane, returning shortly after the quarterfinals of either the World Cup or the European Championships.
For the brief interlude in between, flags are hung from windows, colours are worn and England becomes united in an acceptable display of national pride. Then the shirts, the silly hats and the flags are promptly put away… apart from the few left draped over balconies of inner city estates. Similar displays were seen for the golden Jubilee, though this was a more British celebration represented by the Union flag. Likewise the London Olympics.
But why are displays of English national identity limited to only a handful of prescribed sporting events? One reason could sit within the decline of faith. The St George’s Cross is, after all, a religious symbol and a Christian symbol. As Greg Jennerhas argued blogging for the HuffPost UK: “If I am going to have to live in a modern England, I believe it should not be reflexively branded with medieval, Christian iconography”.
Historian Diarmaid Macculloch goes even further, arguing that the apathy towards St George’s Day is less to do with secularisation or modern politics and more a consequence of the reformation.
He told the Huff Post UK: “The English, being Protestants for nearly five centuries, have never had much time for saints’ days – same with the Scots,” adding: “Neither really need their patron saints to celebrate nationhood.”
The Welsh, he suggested, despite being Protestants, retain St David’s day to “keep their end up against the English”.
Nationalism too is often borne out of oppression. Scotland, Wales and Ireland have historically been the oppressed members of the Union, giving them a cohesion or national unity against the English. It’s a notion that Robert Ford, a lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester and a specialist in far-right politics supports. “Very often, national identities are expressed in opposition to something,” he told the HuffPost UK.
“So St Andrew’s and St Patrick’s Day celebrations reflect the assertion of an identity distinct from the dominant English identity. It is not clear whom the English define themselves against, or in comparison to. Once upon a time it would have been Catholic Europe, while more recently on parts of the right it has been against immigrants with a different culture.”
According to Ford, smaller, non-dominant nations who may be threatened by neighbours have strong reasons to promote and protect their own sense of identity. What’s more, England has no “great political event to focus identity debate and provide the symbolic furniture – as the Revolution did in France, Garibaldi in Italy, or unification in Germany.” As such, when identity promotion has occurred, for example over immigration, Ford argues the debate often turns “negative, defensive and exclusionary rather than positive and celebratory”.
In contrast, the US, despite being the dominant actor in the region, has created a strong national identity – a form of “civil religion”, as sociologist Robert Bellah outlined – focused on the flag, the national anthem, the military and days of national celebration, such as the Super bowl and the presidential inauguration. Every morning, school children across the States are made to recite the pledge of allegiance. In England, there’s no anthem, no pledge and little reference in school to what it means to be English.
Still, this unpatriotic nation may be on the turn. A poll for the IPPR think tank out on Tuesday revealed that more than seven out of 10 backed making St George’s Day a public holiday. Of course it did, the public want another day off. Despite the failure of a recent attempt by MPs to have St George’s Day and St David’s Day declared a bank holiday (the bill was withdrawn despite support from across Tory and Labour ranks), the director of IPPR responsible for the research believes the poll shows “an emergence of an English identity that British political parties ignore at their peril.”
David Cameron duly obliged on Tuesday morning sending his best wishes “to everyone celebrating St George’s Day”, adding: “I think it is important that people in England can celebrate St George’s Day, just as other nations of the United Kingdom celebrate their patron saint’s days.”
For Andrew Rosindell, a Tory MP who has campaigned for more than a decade to have St George’s Day celebrated as a National Holiday, attitudes are changing. He told HuffPost UK: “St. Patrick’s Day, St. Andrew’s Day and St. David’s Day are celebrated so widely now that people in England also want to share in celebrating their unique English traditions and heritage. Of course, it is also proud to celebrate the unifying values that make us British and I am proud of being both British and English, which is a view that I am sure many others up and down the country share.”
That may be so, but English identity remains a difficult question. Richard Wyn Jones, professor of politics at Cardiff University and co-author of the IPPR report, strikes a more nuanced tone: “A cocktail of deepening cultural anxiety, rising economic insecurity and a growing disillusion with the political system has made the English Question something far more complex than simply a response to Scottish devolution and European integration.”