Today is April 23rd, St. George’s Day.
Saint George is the patron saint of England, and so by all rights I should be lounging in the sun in a pub’s beer garden, drinking a pint of proper English ale and celebrating all that is great and good about my country.
I am, of course, doing none of those things, and not just because I have to work today.
Ed West, writing in The Telegraph, has an interesting perspective on why he is unenthused about our national day of identity celebrating and enforced cheerfulness:
In summary, the whole national day was invented to sell tat, just as Irish national identity was created to sell beer and expensive woollen fabrics to Americans. I have no interest in celebrating St George’s Day, not because I’m ashamed of our national identity, but because I’m secure in it. After all, I don’t need to ask myself what being a West “means” or what my family identity is; it’s just my family. English people never used to ask what Englishness meant, because there was no need to; it was one of those things. You knew it when you saw it.
The idea of what a national identity should mean has only arisen in the age of mass movement, in response to intellectuals who have denied the idea of the nation as a family as too exclusive or discriminatory. New Labour came up with all sorts of strange notions about what Britishness “meant”, such as “tolerance” and “respect for other cultures”, when it means nothing except coming from Britain, being descended from British people, or adopting Britain as your home (a nation is a family, and just like any family it adopts and marries out).
He goes on to conclude:
As a result we’re having to reinvent tradition, but it all feels a bit pained and unnatural, when this is a day best left to the church. A far better national day would be June 15, Magna Carta Day: a day to celebrate the rule of law and individual freedom, concepts that, contrary to what people believe, do not just spring from nowhere but are intimately linked to the concept of England as a political entity. That’s what makes me feel proud, but most of all grateful, to be English.
On this concluding point, West and I are in total agreement.
I cannot bring myself to excitedly celebrate St George’s Day, because of all the many great, awe-inspiring things that my country has done (and I honestly feel more British than English – or at least both identities cohabit comfortably in my mind in just the same way that one can be both a proud Texan and an American), St George had nothing to do with any of them.
St. George didn’t write or sign the Magna Carta.
St. George didn’t defeat the Spanish Armada, or win the battle of Trafalgar.
St. George didn’t invent the telephone, television, jet engine or the world wide web.
St. George didn’t grant womens suffrage, abolish slavery, establish the NHS (of which I’m no particular fan, but which is viewed as an almost religious national symbol by many in this country).
St. George didn’t stand alone against the threat of Nazi Germany, and then go on to win the cause of freedom.
Any of these accomplishments offer tangible historic feats that could be used as the basis for a national patriotic day that could truly bind us all together as a nation – English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish together – and which could properly be used to reflect and celebrate our nation, just as Independence Day is rightly used in the United States.
But St. George’s Day – no thank you.