Is it really racist to celebrate being English? Some St George's Day reflections...

An interesting article by Dan Hodges in today's telegraph basically saying St George's Day means absolutely zilch, and current attempts to make it into England's national day are absurd. See the article here. It raises a not unimportant issue which is basically what does it mean to be English, and is there anything to celebrate? And what on earth has St George got to do with it?

A couple of days ago, while keeping Easter in Jordan, one of the locals asked me what the English national dance was. I feebly mentioned Morris Dancing, but then flatly denied it. Truth is we don't have a national dance, a national outfit, a national anything. The Scots have their kilts and their bagpipes and the Gay Gordons, the Welsh daffodils and the eisteddfod and those funny hats, and the Irish are in another league of their own be that nationalist or unionists. And they all have saints to hang it all on. But the English...
St George is on the right, without the beard. This is one of the very earliest icons in existence, from the 6th century, and shows how the power of St George was experienced across the Christian world from the earliest times.
No national dress, no national music, no national song; the national flower of the rose seems very limp and St George isn't even in the official (Roman Catholic) universal calendar. Our capital city is so cosmopolitan as to be an international city first, a British city second, and very poorly English third. Of course there is the Church of England, but thats changed beyond recognition since its founding under Henry VIII and historically represents more the Britishness of the Empire than the enduring spirit of English religion, and more recently the spiritually moribund state of England where religion is about being 'nice', 'inclusive' and 'affirming'.

We don't even have our own Parliament! The English make up 9/10ths of the UK yet the Welsh, Scots and Irish get to decide their own affairs, in varying measures, while the English simply have to put up with being dictated to. English cities are increasingly being dominated by immigrant communities with their own agendas, such as we have seen in the report on the infiltration of Birmingham schools by dedicated Islamists. This is a perhaps more sinister and unusual example, but on a more mundane level,  in a recent discussion with a friend of mine who had been a senior member of a cooperation project project in Tower Hamlets between the local community and an educational institute, the institute had to withdraw its involvement and return the cheque to the government because the whole approach of the local community was rooted in the way things were done 'back home' in Bangladesh, which essentially meant appointing family members. I am not saying that we shouldn't have such diverse communities, but I am saying that they are indicators of the lack of self-confidence of Englishness to assert itself and its way of doing things.

The truth of the matter is that England, more than any other part of Great Britain, crumpled under the demise of Empire. It had scoffed so much at the imperial table that it had lost all notion of being in some way distinct. In contrast, Scots, Welsh and Irish had to hold onto their 'difference', even to the point of inventing tartan kilts and the like under a wave of romanticism, in order to avoid being completely subsumed by the 'Englishness' which was in fact Imperial Britishness. So long as there was a glorious empire, spreading pink across the globe, the English were more than happy to be identified with it, but come its loss, the cultural bankruptcy of what it has sold out on came home to roost.

Englishness has thus become associated, especially but not exclusively by the left, with something we should be ashamed of, because it is really about British Imperial arrogance. Its final fling is to be found with the likes of white racists such as inhabit the BNP, or previously the football terraces. Hoisting the England flag has increasingly become something perceived as sinister in a way that raising the flag of St Patrick or the Union Jack has never been.

I have seen another aspect of this in discussions with younger friends of mine whose families originated abroad, be that Ireland, Nigeria, India or the Philippines. All call themselves British, but balk at calling themselves English. But English is what they are: they were born in England, speak English with an English accent, were educated in the English education system, live by and believe in English laws. Yet, being English is something about being a white racist and it takes some convincing to get them to concede there is even a point in saying they are English. Ironically, the title of British speaks more about Empire yet stripped of its colonial overtones. The British Empire was something good and aspirational perhaps for their immigrant grandparents and parents, while Englishness spoke about the racist attitudes that riddled the colonial system and which describes the treatment they often met when first arriving on our shores.

We the English are also riddled with guilt and self doubt, burdened as we are by the socialist guilt trip that is spewed out about the Tories, southerners, the English. We are supposedly selfish, reactionary, out of touch. We are elitist, with Oxbridge and our public schools. Everything that socialists rage about carries an imputed racist slur that this is 'English'. Working class people don't have any of these things of course, but then they are the football hooligans, the supporters of the BNP etc etc. So again, being English is something snidely sneered at, denigrated and subliminally associated with nastiness.

The fact is that English people do tend to be more conservative than their celtic neighbours. I am sorry about that, but really, honestly, that doesn't make us nasty or selfish. We have a different way of thinking and doing things, and being conservative in our approach is one of them. We have a right to be if we want to, and to shape our lives in ways that reflect that. The sadness is, that because of the parodies and the sneering its been left to such rather peculiar bodies such as UKIP to take up the torch. There approach, like that of much of the Tory right, is to wallow in a bit of nostalgia for the imperial Englishness, the gentleman's club, the cricket pitch, the public school tie etc. when what is needed is to dig much deeper, and to go further back to the time when England was still England, before the birth of a nation state and its imperial ambitions under Elizabeth I and her successor James VI of Scotland.

In other words to the world described by Eamon Duffy in his magnificent book, the Voices of Morebath. This should be standard reading in every school! It describes a society before it was split into squire and peasant, when gilds bonded villages and towns alike into equitable and enjoyable societies. It wasn't quite the mythical world of Bilbo Baggins, but there was something in what Tolkien was getting at in his creation of Middle Earth that his contemporary Britishness was wiping away. The Voices of Morebath charts the death of Englishness as it had existed and evolved since the time of Alfred the Great, and as such it gives us a glimpse of what being English without the colonialist tag is about.

And of course the church was at the very centre of that Englishness, not the church of fem priests and food bank protests, important as those might be, but the church of awe, mystery, enchantment;
the church of saints and relics and martyrs, of stone walls, stained glass and that special tranquility that we still catch when lifting the latch on some of the ancient parish churches that litter our countryside. It is an ecological world where heaven and earth strive to be a peace, where the seasons move and are respected, where your peers and traditions matter. St George was part of that world, very much so, not because he was an Englishman, but because he was a saint of reputed great powers who belonged to the wider world of Christendom, and which Englishmen were not afraid to belong. St. George didn't represent the narrow Englishness that the Tudors came to impose but an Englishness that saw itself as distinctive within a wider world to which it belonged.

St. George is the last vestige of that ancient Englishness which colonial arrogance and subsequent guilt has almost erased. Yet it is the only Englishness worth having, and St George is its champion. So, please, lets embrace him and have the courage to seek a new form of that Englishness which long endured and which still offers so much to all of use who are born in England's pretty green and rather pleasant land.


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