What did you do today to celebrate St. George’s Day?
If you’re like most people, quite understandably, you probably did nothing at all – after juggling work and the stress of daily life, there simply isn’t much time left in the day to celebrate the overlooked and unexciting Feast of St. George.
But of those people who did mark the day, a small but vocal minority were determined to use St. George’s Day not as a day to celebrate Englishness, England and her patron saint, but rather as an opportunity to mock and belittle those people who do try to celebrate our national heritage, and those who are proud (and brave enough) to be openly patriotic in modern Britain.
UKIP, virtually the only British political party that doesn’t view patriotism as something embarrassing or gauche (sometimes, on a good day, some Tories can still make a decent effort), called for all Britons to mark St. George’s Day by wearing a red rose, and lobbied for the day to be made into a public holiday.
From the Daily Express:
Ukip deputy leader Paul Nuttall said the gesture was needed as a way of registering protest against attempts by local councils and quangos to ignore or obliterate English identity.
“It saddens and angers me that this day marking Englishness is so low key compared to how days for the other three countries of the union are publicly celebrated,” Mr Nuttall said.
“The situation has improved over recent years but it passes by unrecognised by many English people. I have long argued that it should be a declared a Bank Holiday and I have not lost my passion for that idea.”
Ukip yesterday released a dossier of examples of public authorities attempting to ban or denigrate the England flag in recent years. They included supermarket staff and taxi drivers being ordered not to display England flags and pennants on their vehicles.
The response from the establishment was predictably scornful, sometimes verging on outright hostility.
First came a sneering article in the Telegraph, facetiously pondering whether or not St. George would even have been allowed to settle in Britain under UKIP’s supposedly draconian immigration rules (so draconian that plenty of other western liberal democracies like the United States and Australia use similar schemes).
While the Telegraph’s Rupert Myers was right to criticise the left’s “cringing avoidance of our national identity“, to include UKIP among the “far right” groups who have hijacked England’s flag was supremely ignorant at best, and certainly insulting to millions of decent, patriotic people who were ignored and derided by the other political parties for too long, before eventually finding a home in Nigel Farage’s party:
Yet the Englishman’s curse is to be forever trapped between two overreactions to our national identity. On the Left there is a collective Thornberryish cringe, the dismal shame with which some English men and women shrug off the mantle of national identity, history and myth. These are people who would lap up the quaint religious and cultural practices encountered while on their summer holidays, but who recoil awkwardly at their own. They abandon the saint and the flag to a species found beyond the reaches of the London Underground, with whom they have little to no affinity.
Just as awful as Labour’s cringing avoidance of our national identity, however, is its hungry embrace by some on the far Right. Today Nigel Farage has combined cynical nationalism with an attention-seeking scrabble for relevance by calling for St George’s Day to become a national holiday. It is a desperate prod at the open wound of our constitutional settlement – less a tribute to England than an antagonistic poke at Wales, Northern Ireland, and, most significantly, Scotland.
On the left’s instinctive recoil when confronted with any opportunity to show pride in Britain, or England, Myers is absolutely correct. While this blog believes that Labour MP Emily Thornberry’s sacking for the mere act of tweeting a picture was unduly harsh, its happening at all is evidence that even Labour high command realise that their party comes across as scornful and derisive toward those who are simply proud to call these islands home.
But by linking UKIP’s campaign to make St George’s Day a national holiday to the “hungry embrace” of English patriotic symbols by “some on the far Right”, Myers goes too far. You can disagree with UKIP all you want on matters of policy – though it should be pointed out that even at this late stage in the 2015 general election cycle, Nigel Farage’s party is the only one whose tax and spending manifesto pledges have been reviewed by an outside authority and declared sane – but to equate robust and good-hearted patriotism with the dark, ugly nationalism of Britain First or the BNP is wrong, and de-legitimises the perfectly mainstream views of a good segment of the population.
Meanwhile, The Spectator pondered whether UKIP was trying to establish itself as a sectarian party of the south, though Sebastian Payne’s suggestion was rather undermined by the fact that UKIP also want to make St. David’s Day national holidays:
The party’s cultural spokesman Peter Whittle said they wanted to tackle the ‘cultural self-loathing’ Ukip believes has developed over Englishness. It was pointed out to Whittle that St George was an immigrant himself — from Turkey — but Ukip apparently wouldn’t have a problem with him entering Britain because he would be a ‘skilled migrant’, being able to slay dragons and all.
It’s telling that many London-based journalists are able to laugh about UKIP distinguishing between skilled and unskilled migration. As respected and talented professionals, their skills are non-transferable and non-outsourceable, and it is very difficult for anyone to displace or undercut them in the job market – other than the ambitious children of rich, upper-middle class parents who can subsidise their unpaid internships and freelancing experience as they establish their own toehold in a difficult industry.
Many other Britons are not so lucky. Some are not academic, some were victims of redundancy during the decline of heavy industry in the 1980s and never retrained, but most were simply failed by Britain’s mediocre (excluding the top) education system. So while Sebastian Payne and many of his readers can laugh about St. George being a “skilled migrant”, it is an altogether less amusing topic for the millions of unskilled and low-paid British workers whose pay and prospects have stagnated or declined in part because of unlimited immigration from the poorer countries of the European Union.
Naturally, the Guardian sneered at UKIP’s St. George’s Day press conference, with columnist Marina Hyde furiously ignoring the fact that UKIP’s is the only independently costed manifesto to focus on the cost of observing another public holiday:
Asked whether its manifesto pledge to make St George’s Day a bank holiday would lose UK Plc money, O’Flynn answered in the negative, deploying the old swings-and-roundabouts principle. He said: “Flag makers will get a boost to productivity.”
Good news for the workers of Guangdong province, certainly. I’m kidding – this is all copper-bottomed, gold-plated economics. The party’s vision of our past-effect future is all exactly as detailed in Adam Smith’s lesser known work, the Wealth of Nationalism, which looks forward to the day when the trade in polyester flags and Ukip tie pins will be the primary driver of economic growth.
The BBC, striving to remain above the fray, simply reported that “St. George’s Day Gets Political Online“, though many of the messages on social media wore the fashionable detached amusement which often now greets any talk of patriotism or British values:
As it happens, rather than elevating St. George’s Day (and using the mythical accomplishments of an early Christian martyr as a proxy for national pride) this blog would prefer the establishment of an entirely new UK-wide national holiday, one that people from all four home nations can rally around as a celebration of who we are and what we have accomplished together as a United Kingdom.
In fact, last summer I found myself arguing this very point last year when I was invited to participate in a London Live television debate on the question of whether the religious festivals of Eid and Diwali should be made UK public holidays as a nod to Muslim, Hindu and Sikh Britons:
As I pointed out in this debate, with last year’s Scottish independence referendum, the resurgence of the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties and the public scorning of St. George’s Day while thoughts of making even minority religious festivals into public holidays are seriously discussed, Britain is starting to fracture into a disjointed and unharmonious collection of competing special interest groups and subcultures which do not recognise any of the bonds or values which have traditionally held us together as a country.
This is dangerous. It’s great that the United Kingdom is a welcoming, reasonably meritocratic place where people from anywhere in the world can come and settle and flourish, and where we can all enjoy and learn from one another’s cultures and traditions in relative peace. That’s quite a rare thing – very few countries can seriously claim that they are both as attractive to immigrants and as welcoming of them when they arrive as we are in Britain. We may not quite have the American melting pot on this side of the Atlantic, but we do pretty well.
But if we continue to allow high levels of net immigration and the very multicultural society that results from it, it is hugely important that we also take time to celebrate and nurture the things that make us all British, no matter our ethnicity, the colour of our skin, whether we are first generation immigrants or if we can trace our family’s history in Britain back hundreds of years. For as long as the world is organised around the basic building block of the nation state, we all have a duty to keep our own country strong, prosperous and at ease with itself.
Symbols are an important part of that effort, whether it is allegiance to our flag or the observance of public holidays which mean something more than just a day off work and a long weekend in the country. UKIP’s proposal to make St. George’s Day a bank holiday may be imperfect – it focuses too much on addressing the imbalance between the English and Scottish saints days, while failing to unite us all around our common Britishness – but it deserves serious discussion and due respect, not the sniggering scorn shown by some people who either consider it beneath them to be patriotic, or who are simply unable to distinguish between healthy patriotism and jingoistic nationalism.
This Thursday, the twenty-third day of April, was a great day for some on the British political left to have a good laugh and flaunt their progressive credentials by mocking UKIP supporters and other British patriots. Perhaps next St. George’s Day will be one which more of us take time to be quietly grateful to the great country which gives us life and liberty.
St George’s Day is a holiday for England, rather than the United Kingdom. In your vision for a federal union of home nations (with or without a constitution), do you think we should show our patriotism for our home nation or the UK? Your suggestion, I believe, was for a new holiday to celebrate the UK, but that’s like Hallmark inventing a new day to buy cards, it’s manufactured. Most people in this country don’t buy Fathers’ Day cards because there is no tradition. St George’s Day has tradition, albeit low key these days, which is important for patriotic pride. Tradition provides continuity. Do you think we need a UK holiday in addition to St George’s Day? How would we avoid it seeming fake?
Good questions! The problem I keep encountering is the apparent desire find some kind of homogenous, one-size-fits-all definition of Britishness, instead of celebrating the gloriously mongrelish mix of different cultures and traditions that the UK really is. This is one of the reasons why I think progressive nationalism might prove to be a good thing for England as well as for the other UK regions.
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I think that if the UK is to survive, we need to be able to show our patriotism for both our home nation and the United Kingdom as a whole. Just as my wife is a proud Texan, she is also very much American – in our house we actually have a “swear jar” that requires a monetary contribution every time she digresses into an “X or Y is bigger/better in Texas/America” monologue.
I take your point about the artificiality of many Hallmark holidays, but when the alternative is no day at all and a fraying sense of national identity, I think we need to act. We should absolutely keep St. George’s Day as a day to celebrate England, and with enough popular support and local/national government encouragement it can hopefully become a more meaningful and widely-observed day.
But I also strongly feel that we need to inaugurate a new UK-wide holiday. Be it Trafalgar Day, Britannia Day, VE Day, World Wide Web Day, Jet Engine Day, it should be something that celebrates Britain’s enormous contribution to the world. In fact, one of the better ideas came from Channel 4’s awful hit piece “UKIP: The First 100 Days”, where a Farage-led government inaugurated a new Festival of Britain:
Done properly, a Festival of Britain style national holiday could work really well.
Doubts about artificiality aside, what are your thoughts on the creation of a UK-wide public holiday, in addition to St. George’s Day?
Union Day would remind us what it’s for. There’s a possible issue with trade unions missing the point, but then that situation already exists with May Day being confused with the socialist Labour Day, also known as May Day.
The situation with Scotland is worrisome. Do the Scottish nationalist hate England (not just Tories) so much that they don’t even want to be a home nation, just a completely separate country? Another referendum seems inevitable at some point in time. Would they join us to celebrate Union Day?
When I hear Nicola Sturgeon promising to spend other peoples’ money, meaning to a large extent English money, on Scottish people, my reaction is that we should cut them off and make them pay their own way. In fact, if there were a referendum held in England about Scottish independence, I’m not even sure what the result would be. I think I would vote Yes myself.
Away from the national press, the view was considerably different: my lovely left-wing echo chamber is full of folklore enthusiasts, musicians and storytellers, and St George’s Day is a great excuse to celebrate. Yet every year I encounter English people who complain that they’re not “allowed” to celebrate or show their patriotism, even while I am happily celebrating the country where I have chosen to live. I don’t think the media are necessarily the cause; in this case, I suspect they just reflect (a more elitist aspect of) the same problem. There are plenty of things I like about England, but England doesn’t seem to like much about itself.
Thanks as always for your considered comment! I think you make a really important point here. There are certainly pockets and communities of people within Britain where St. George’s Day is seen and celebrated in this warm, positive way, which is great – it sounds as though you are lucky to have just such a network of like-minded people where this is the case.
Other examples of where St. George’s Day is observed without reservation might be the far-right groups who use the day to spread hate and play the victim card, or the normal, decent people supposedly mocked by Labour MP Emily Thornberry when she sent that infamous tweet of a white van and Cross of St. George.
When I look at London and my social circle though, this would most certainly not be the case. I don’t know anyone here who celebrated St. George’s Day, and I would have gotten a fair few odd looks had I suggested doing something to mark the occasion. I’m grasping here, but I wonder if this isn’t the product of the same environment which sometimes makes me hesitate before telling people that I’m a conservative voter with some UKIP sympathies. It’s not because London is more liberal – there are strongly left-wing cities where patriotism still seems to be alive and well – so there must be some other reason.
In part, I think this is because London is so cosmopolitan and multicultural, and unlike the Americans we in Britain have not yet found a way of celebrating our shared Britishness without feeling that we must be alienating people. In America, their melting pot dissolves a little bit of people’s past/other identities to make room for a shared “American-ness”. And then they reinforce it through symbols – some of them corny but some quite moving – like the pledge of allegiance, playing the national anthem before sports events, honouring the people who serve in the uniformed services, national holidays that actually *mean* something (Veterans Day, Presidents Day, Thanksgiving). I would like to see a lot more of this here, in order to maintain a cohesive society.
Head down to Borough Market next time you feel in need of a dose of patriotism 🙂 It’s a massively multicultural mix, but Britishness – and Englishness – is always celebrated there. I can’t help wondering whether this has something to do with the land: London might as well be an abstract city floating far above the actual soil of England. Farmers’ markets, like folk traditions, tend to be rooted in the land, and that relationship with the land is, I think, the purest form of patriotism. The cities that celebrate Englishness tend to have a much stronger sense of place; something newcomers can identify with and join in celebrating, if they want to.
Multiculturalism is a thorny issue; identity and a sense of belonging are created partly through opposition, so it is relatively easy for example to celebrate your Scottishness as a Sikh, because your Scottishness is defined in opposition to Englishness. But the fact that Scotland finds it easier to celebrate its national identity means that there is a positive Scottishness with which to identify. In England, this becomes problematic, because the lack of celebration means there is no positive sense of Englishness with which newcomers can identify, and Englishness can therefore fall into the slightly bigoted territory of being identified in opposition to ‘foreign-ness’ (which, incidentally, is where the Anglo-Saxon word for the native Britons, ‘Welsh’, comes from!).
I would suggest that perhaps transience is a bigger problem for London than multiculturalism – people from all over the UK, and the world, tend to move there for work, but still think of elsewhere as their home.
I do love Borough Market, and you make a good point that many of the folk traditions that form one of the bedrocks of patriotism are rooted in the land.
Transience is certainly part of it – I had not thought of it, but it seems obvious now that you mention it. Many people working in London are indeed just “passing though” as one stop of many on a global career, and probably consider themselves global citizens first and foremost. I can understand this, I have travelled a lot on business and worked in different countries. However, I seem to have retained my Britishness to a large degree, whereas many highly mobile, global workers perhaps do not see this sense of national identity and patriotism as the good thing that it can be.
The American perspective is really interesting and, I have to admit, not something that I ever really give much thought. I seem to remember Salman Rushdie had a lot of interesting things to say about that shared sense of American-ness…
I’ll have to look that up! I’m a bit rusty on Rushdie 😉