Monday 27 April 2009

We can celebrate St George's Day

Last Thursday was St George’s Day, and I’ve noticed over the last few years a real attempt to raise the profile and significance of England’s Patron Saint day. The main event I witnessed in celebrating the day, was a convoy of White Van men driving along Kennington Park Road, South London, with various St George’s flags flying! How typical some people may argue.

The common argument goes something like this; the English aren’t allowed to celebrate their national saints day in the same way that other countries do.

It isn’t seen to be politically correct for the English to start flag waving and telling anyone who’ll listen how proud they are to be English. To do so they’re being xenophobic, racist, and excluding the country’s ethnic minority communities. It’s all so totally unfair!

I don’t agree with this idea at all! I think the reality is that for many years the English have rarely shown any great interest in asserting their English identity or have given any serious thought to what being English is all about.

I’ve always been really interested and fascinated about the culture of England. What is Englishness? What does it mean to be English? One of the reasons for saying that the English haven't always shown an interest in Englishness, is that for so long Englishness was tied in with the idea of Britishness.

Britishness not only included the English but also the Scots, Welsh and Irish. The difference was that in this political union of Britain, the Celtic nations knew that they were junior partners so to speak, they could never be seen as the dominate political force within the union.

They were the ones being dominated politically. It’s only to be expected that nations of people that have been politically and socially dominated by another group use their culture, language and history as a way of asserting themselves, of building up a sense of pride and creating some form of identity.

This is something that the English have rarely had to do in their history. The last time England was invaded and controlled by a foreign power was back in 1066 and the Norman Conquest. The Second World War probably provided the last great example of this country exerting its identity, ideas and values in the face of a foreign enemy, which threatened the country's sovereignty.

During the age of Empire the Brits went around conquering much of the world spreading their ideas and beliefs, Britain became the most powerful and richest nation on earth through the industrial revolution, the slave trade, and its navy.

In doing so they went about laying down the foundations of much of what we know of the modern world. Whichever way you want to look at it, during the age of Empire the English as part of Britain were always on the ‘winning side’ conquering and dominating others! Was there any real need for soul searching as to who the English really were?

This is an important to remember, because I think that with the end of Empire, the end of the War, Post War immigration and the Celtic nations asserting their own cultural and political independence. It has left the English all by themselves thinking ‘Who or What are we?’ There’s a certain confusion about who the English think they are.

I always remember when I was younger and started watching football, during the World Cups of 1986, and 1990, England fans routinely flew Union Jack flags at matches, then around the time of Euro 96 it suddenly became important to fly the St George’s Cross. As trivial as this may seem, I think it represents the confusion of what being English was all about.

It's right and important that England celebrates St George's Day, but we need to find a more diverse way of celebrating England's culture and history.

Instead of always focussing on Two World Wars and a World Cup, we should make more of an effort to have a more rounded view of Englishness by celebrating our language, the political and cultural institutions that have evolved over the last 1000 years. We should focus on all the great writers, artists, musicians and inventors the country has produced. Our sense of fashion, style, and youth culture.

There’s loads of English culture out there, but to acknowledge it, it doesn’t have to involve people marching down a street flag waving or having a clichéd group of middle aged men morris dancing in a local town centre.

The English can't have the exact equivalent of St Patrick’s Day, we cant do national pride in the same way that Americans do, as we don’t have their history of setting up a new country and constitution in order to escape the influence of a foreign power (in their case the British).

We just need to find a way celebrating Englishness in our own unique and specific way. How about making St George’s Day a national holiday, so that it immediately elevates the importance of the day.

What about teaching kids at school who St George actually was. I hardly know anything about the bloke! There’s loads of stuff that could be done, but we just need to be creative and imaginative about things.

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