St George’s Day surprises

Yes, for the first time the St George’s Cross is flying from the roof of 10 Downing Street – but alas it will take second place to the Union flag. Said a spokesperson for the PM:

“The prime minister’s view is that of course we should celebrate our Britishness, but celebrating our Britishness does not mean we cannot also celebrate our Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness or Northern Irishness.”

Hmm, who on Earth celebrates their “Northern Irishness”? Northern Ireland doesn’t even have an official flag!

It’s a tribute to the artifice of Britain that there exists no patron saint for a day of celebration. It is at this time of the year that you see Union flags flying – reflecting the confusion between Britain and England in the minds of many English people, a misunderstanding which is encouraged, the better to diminish calls for devolution.

By the way, Mark Perryman has an article in today’s Guardian entitled “A nation for the building“:

England can usually be relied on to thrash Europe’s microstates on the football pitch. But Andorra, San Marino and Montenegro are all able to claim more of the trappings of a nation state than England. There may be a flag to wave and teams to cheer, but as another St George’s Day rolls around, the English don’t even have an anthem to call their own. Like it or not, however, the imagined community of England after Britain is in the process of construction. If those of us who are English fail to engage with this process, we risk seeing it dominated by the nationalist right.

Confusion is what typifies the state of the English. Eleven years of Blair and Brown have produced a constitutional jumble. In the face of increasingly independently minded Scotland and Wales, Gordon Brown’s big idea has amounted to little more than Britishness this, Britishness that. He wraps himself in the union flag in vain: we increasingly live in a land of St George, Welsh dragon, Scots saltire. No amount of flag-waving for the old union is going to change that.

The English lack the tools for a national democratic politics and make do with emotion and imagination, even if that takes the form of the new national dress – a nylon football shirt – and the expectation of a quarter-final penalty shoot-out failure. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm said of England: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people.” But is football really all we’ve got?

It is no accident that English identity politics has largely been expressed in terms of fandom, rather than any party political movement for an independent England. In reaction to this popular, cultural patriotism, a do-nothing determinism has led the left-of-centre to write off its country as a Conservative nation, or worse. This is nonsense, however: Labour’s three consecutive election victories have been based on a bedrock of English votes.

A soft patriotism would celebrate a nationalist politics for three states on one island, mostly speaking the same language and with significant chunks of culture and history in common. We can learn from each other at the same time as we entrench our separation. The two are not contradictory. The contradictions that do exist are, after all, the product of unionism. This is neither Greater Britain nor a Little England in its place.

The St George’s Cross today has the potential to represent a new England – a nation that is almost impossible to imagine without black and Asian people as an integral part. The black experience is now interwoven into the fabric of English daily life in a way that is not so obviously the case in Scotland or Wales.

A new England will take shape out of a modern separation as well as ancient origins. We would do well to incorporate Blake’s vision of a green and pleasant land. Blake’s Jerusalem was both unmistakably English and universal in the ambition of its values – and if we’re searching around for an England anthem it’s not a bad tune, either.

My imagined nation I found in a real place: a Saturday at Wembley last autumn for an England game with my friends Nahid and Hajra in hijabs beside me in my bobble hat. Granted, not all would share in my dream of an England for all. But there is a space in which we can establish some kind of common purpose as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland take their leave – a purpose that combines our yesterdays with some of our tomorrows, and depends on popular identification. The process of imagining all this as a nation has begun. It is an irreversible process but with uncertain outcomes. Welcome to England.

· Mark Perryman, the editor of Imagined Nation: England after Britain, is convener of the London England Fans supporters’ group


2 Responses to “St George’s Day surprises”

  1. Wyrdtimes Says:

    Happy St George’s Charlie – all the best to you and yours :)

  2. charliemarks Says:

    A belated Happy St George’s Day to you and yours, too!

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