Thursday, 23 April 2009

Put out more flags!

Happy St George's Day to you all.

What better way could there be to celebrate it than this morning's St George's Day seminar at the ippr, bringing together pointy-heads, academics and campaigners to mull over Englishness. The ippr are conducting a major project, and will publish in the Summer.

The short walk back from ippr towers near Covent Garden to the Fabian office by St James Park was a chance to get a sense of whether St George's Day was taking root more than in the past. (Whatever Mayor Boris' efforts, it was surely disappointing that there was not a single mention of St George's Day that I could see in the Daily Mail).

There had been some entrepreneurial flogging of the flag of St George near Covent Garden. But well over fifty cabs went past me - probably 100 or more - and only four were flying the flag. (One, though, had at least eight). Only one 'civilian' non-taxi parked vehicle had the flag of St George.

There were two large St George's Flags over a restaurant next to the Haymarket Theatre, but at least fifty enormous Union Flags along the Mall down to Buckingham Palace.

Looking across the Whitehall rooftops from the park behind Horseguard's parade, one could see about eight Union Flags and three or four of St George, and the Saltire next to the Union Flag over the Scottish office.

There wasn't anything happening in Trafalgar Square yet, but there was some chanting outside the Porcupine Pub outside Leicester Square Tube.

At the seminar, Mark Perryman of EnglandFans had discussed his practical efforts to contest the national identity expressed through football, and how this had been important because of the tight connections between violence, racism and the far right expressed through football.

But this was more in the style of old style English fans, with lagers being raised to 'With St George in My Heart Keep Me English', which as you may know, ends in a chorus of 'No Surrender! No Surrender! No Surrender to the IRA'. I have long felt that the geopolitics of the terraces may need a little updating. I was further down the road by the time that turned into a chorus of 'Rule Brittania'.

So the confusion between English and British identity goes on. Unfortunately, I was by then too far away to go back and 'contest' it.

But I much prefer the St George of Billy Bragg, expressed in English, Half-English which Bragg sang during the Fabian Britishness conference lunchbreak a few years back.

One of the most interesting things is that greater space for the expression of English identity is now both a anti-Union project to forge a post-British English identity, but also surely a pro-Union project to show that Englishness is not suppressed as one of the varieties of Britishness (even if nobody is quite clear - constitutionally or culturally - at this stage quite what it might be that the English want, beyond the chance to talk about it).

For some this was a '90 minute patriotism', but it seems to me a positive advance if the flag now has a positive meaning during football tournaments, and the question remains how to defuse the sense of exclusivity or menace it can have at other times. Making more of St George's Day is one of the ways we might normalise that sense of national and civic pride.

So let's put out more flags. Whatever else we think of the English question, on that we should all be able to agree.


Stuart White said...

I wonder if St. George isn't too 'Tory England' to be the focus of a modern conception of Englishness. How about William Blake day as an alternative?

Robert said...

You English!, in Wales children especially girls dress up in Welsh costumes boys wear the welsh Rugby shirts and the BBC in wales look around at schools, the local papers carry a welsh day and pictures of the kids wearing the welsh dress. we all have the flags and its a fun day.