St. George’s Day

National FrontIn their London election manifestos, both the English Democrats and the BNP include material about the denigration of St. George’s Day. The BNP include a quote from some London punter;

“I vote BNP because I’m proud of my country and our heritage. We should celebrate things like St. George’s Day and other Christian festivals like St Patrick’s Day instead of other festivals such as Ramadan and Eid.”

The English Democrats, on the other hand, have a direct statement from their Mayoral candidate, Matt O’Connor. He says;

“We all remember a country we called home. A green and pleasant land that gave the world the English language, Democracy, the Mother of Parliaments and the Magna Carta. But some people don’t want us to remember – currently £100,000 is spent on a festival such as St Patrick’s Day whereas St George’s Day is mocked with a screening of ‘The Life of Brian’ in Trafalgar Square.”

I have always thought it to the credit of the English that the flag of St. George was never as important to them as the Flag of St Andrew seems to be to the Scottish, or the (suitably modified) Ulster banner is to the Orange part of Northern Ireland. This, it seems, is rapidly declining and the reasons behind it aren’t all good.

The majority of flags flown, at the 1966 World Cup Final, for example, were Union Jacks. At the last world cup, some 27% of English adults purchased a St. George’s Cross.

As is evidenced above, however, the brash and unreasoning ‘patriotism’ displayed as a result of international sports competitions is just one of the effects of the shift. Very clearly, the deployment of St. George is a reaction to the perceived encroachment of other cultures on “Englishness.”

Perhaps I am wrong in my perceptions of history, but the last time the far right seemed so strong was in the 1970’s. At that time, there were concerns over immigration; Enoch Powell had given his “Rivers of Blood” speech not terribly long before, in 1968. Similarly in the 1970’s, Scottish nationalism was at its last high tide mark.

Analysing the currents and eddies in society is a difficult task – but there is something to be gained from comparing the two situations I think. Are the situations of the 1970’s and today qualitatively different? The far right faded away in the late 1970’s and very early 1980’s. Questions need to be asked about why.

Far right ideologies are inherently reactionary. In the 1970’s, their popularity, particularly among those more commonly thought of as part of Britain’s ruling class, was potentially a result of a ‘weak’ Conservative Party. The 1970-74 Conservative government took Britain into Europe and Heath acted strongly against “racialism” in his own party.

Today perhaps there are analogies in that David Cameron’s Conservatives have been less willing than previous generations of Tories to voice the very sentiments we know many of them are thinking. The electoral alliance between certain parts of the Tory Party and UKIP doesn’t do anything to dispel that perception either.

Following Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, the National Front split and faded away. They stood the most candidates for a fascist organisation in Britain at the 1979 elections, then the strain of it tore them apart. In any case, elements of society which might formerly have backed them had no use of them anymore.

Lest we forget, it was Thatcher’s government which moved to place Christianity right at the centre of British education with the 1988 Education Act. From 1978, Thatcher took a tough stance on immigration into Britain and followed through with several grotesque laws when she was in power. A tough Conservative stance obviated the need for mainstream elements to seek out a far right party.

Today, we’re confronted daily with sensationalist attitudes to Islam bordering on the racist. Newspapers and even the BBC distort the focus of public debate to the point where scare-mongering about Muslims can easily have an effect. The most recent example I can think of is the BBC on the NUT proposals. One article on the site is entitled “Imams, Soldiers, Schools and the NUT” – and in my own previous articles I’ve highlighted others with a similarly distended focus.

The NUT proposals dealt with the six major religions that British educationalists are legally obliged to contend with. It did not just deal with Islam – yet immediately afterwards, there were headlines threatening Imams in the schools. Newspaper editors evidently believe this will sell, but at what point does this approach verge on conditioning people to worry about such things?

It’s no wonder that some people feel that English traditions and culture are under attack when in no way can that be substantiated.

Is there a solution? I can certainly say what is not a solution. Pandering to “Englishness” by pointless symbolic acts as flying the St. George’s Cross above Downing St. is not it. If we take the “tough on immigration” promises which the government and opposition parties make as an example, promising to get tough simply creates a negative feedback loop. Pandering to “Englishness” likewise will just create a greater demand for more “Englishness” and that’s something we should not welcome.

What might be a solution is challenging some of the premises of this “Englishness.” For example, one of my aunts continually contends that Britain should regard itself as a “Christian” country. I’ve heard plenty of people say that the emphasis should be upon immigrants to conform to our ways. Out for dinner last night, I even heard one immigrant (Spanish) demanding that immigrants conform. So long as they want to live here, they should act like us.

That’s not so strange as it appears; faced with an onslaught of immigrants from Islamic countries, there is a tendency for the right wing all across Europe to take a softer line on other Western Europeans which possess a greater homogeneity. In the BNP example, above, this is manifested in acknowledgment that all the Irish who live in England are at least Christian, compared to the invading Muslim hordes. Thirty years ago, the demand would have been “Send the Paddies home!”

Perhaps instead of teaching “conflict resolution through the medium of dance” in Citizenship class, we should be challenging the view that immigrants should act like us. All preconceived standards surrounding how immigrants should act are arbitrary. Even the minimalist standard, that they should obey the law, cannot be absolute. Sometimes the law should be broken, whether through civil disobedience or armed insurrection. The state is not the final home of justice, particularly for immigrants.

Education can only ever be one answer. The other solution is one the far left already pursues with all alacrity: uniting immigrants and other workers together in their common struggle for better wages, better terms and conditions and a better political future. With the continuing rise of the far right, particularly if we seek to stave off an equal and opposite cultural-nationalist reaction among ethnic minorities, we should go to this task with a will.

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  1. April 24, 2008 at 1:27 am

    Or consider this metanarrative: unlike Scotland and Wales whidh were given referenda on self-governance, England has had no such debate – hence, the development of an inclusive Englishness has been held back somewhat.

    As the Scottish and Welsh have reached the point where their own civic national identities are hegemonic as opposed to the reactionary “Britishness” supported by Brown and the Tories, the English have gained a greater degree of self awareness.

    I’ve written something on What England means to me, as has Noel Currid and Andy Newman. It’s another view of the whole thing, I suppose.

  2. April 24, 2008 at 8:53 am

    I’ve edited your comment Charlie, so that it appears behind text.

    Why would England be given a referendum on self-governance Charlie? I am no friend of devolution to the home nations, I’m really not – but English MPs form the vast majority of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. What need have England to have an additional assembly? That hasn’t mentioned the 8 million people governed by the London Assembly.

    If, as you say, this is happening because Scottish and Welsh national identities have reached their local hegemony, that doesn’t explain how or why that process has occurred. That the English have gained a greater degree of ‘self-awareness’ as a result is a pretty preposterous assertion. I mean, England itself divides easily into pronounced ethno-cultural areas.

  3. Gordon Crawford
    April 24, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    Parts of England were given a referendum in 2004, and they rejected the proposals overwhelmingly (77.9%). It was this defeat that led to the planned referendums elsewhere in England being called off.

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