The flags of St. George were out in force in England yesterday: our patron saint’s day – England Day. The red cross on a white background was even to be seen flying outside 10 Downing Street alongside the Union Flag, as 23 April is now officially the one day of the year when the Cross of St. George may be flown outside UK government buildings that are endowed with two flagpoles (see the recent Constitutional Renewal white paper, p. 57). Where there is only one flagpole, the Union Flag takes precedence – surprise, surprise. Perhaps they would have done well to consider my previous suggestion about new country-specific versions of the Union Flag incorporating the national flags as an ‘insert’ into the Union Flag – then they could effectively fly both the Union Jack and the England flag simultaneously all year round without having to invest in a second flagpole! But they wouldn’t want to convey the impression that England is a distinct part of the UK – which is what such a flag might do – as this would challenge the way they govern England as if it were Britain.
Oh well, I suppose one shouldn’t grumble: so long as the Flag of St. George is allowed to be flown beside and atop UK government buildings, this at least represents some sort of official recognition that England exists as a nation – and, what is more, a nation with a continuing Christian tradition. Significantly, Britain, which is not a nation, has neither a ‘Britain Day’ nor a patron saint – although if the Britologists get their way, the first of these facts may soon change; if not the second.
But who was this St. George who, along with his flag, is supposed to serve as a symbol for England? According to the more realistic legend of his life (the non-dragon-slaying version), he was an ethnic Greek soldier in the Roman army, who refused to participate in a persecution of the Christians towards the beginning of the fourth century and was martyred as a consequence. As such, he could be seen as a natural symbol for a once proud but subjugated people – the Greeks – rising up against an oppressive empire (Rome). And this is one of the reasons why St. George is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church and is also the patron saint of Greece.
Indeed, when I looked into it, I was struck by the list of countries of which St. George is the patron saint or where St. George’s Day is celebrated, or both. These include: Bulgaria, Catalonia, England, Georgia, Greece, Palestine, Russia and Serbia (and also Serb-populated areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro). These countries all have one, in some cases two, things in common: their nation status, indeed their very survival as a nation, has been under severe threat from an oppressive state or empire – Bulgaria and Georgia from the Soviet Union / Empire; Catalonia from Spain; Greece from the Roman Empire and later the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which also persecuted Serbia and took over the Serbian heartland of Kosovo; Palestine from Israel; Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro from a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, and subsequently from the Serbian-nationalist dream of a Greater Serbia; and England . . . from Britain.
I said that some of these countries had two things in common: Russia / the Soviet Union, Serbia / Yugoslavia and England / Britain have been as much agents of subjugation and aggression towards other nations as victims of such a form of suppression. It’s hard for us in the West to think of Russia as anything other than an aggressive, distrustful state that seeks to control and manipulate all the nations around it in a cynical, self-serving manner. However, Russia has in the past been the victim of terrible wars and persecutions that have come close to eradicating it as a nation, from the Mongol invasion of the 13th century to Hitler’s assault in World War II. Arguably, Russia – and certainly its Christian ‘soul’ – was as much a victim of Soviet totalitarianism as any of the other countries that lost their distinctive national identities when they became mere Soviet republics. Similarly, the resurgence of Serbian nationalism in the 1980s and 1990s, suffused with a heady mix of previously suppressed Orthodox Christianity, owed much to the fact that, although the Serbs were the dominant ethnic group in Communist Yugoslavia, they had to submerge and deny many of their national traditions for the sake of the cohesion of a monolithic, ethnically neutral, ideological state.
And what of England and Britain? Surely, I’m not suggesting that the subordination of England to Britain (symbolised, for instance, by the Union Flag taking precedence over the St. George’s Cross) is on a par with the suppression of Serbian national identity under Yugoslavia; or indeed, that the control previously exercised effectively by England over other nations in the British Empire and British Isles is akin to the ruthless Soviet subjugation of the nations surrounding Russia, or Serbian persecution of ethnic Albanians, Croats and Muslims in the terrible Balkan Wars of the 1990s?
Well, obviously, these things are different; but arguably, different only in degree not in kind. The convulsions in Former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union both involved nations that had been the centre of powerful multi-national states losing their grip on that power and attempting to reassert it in their own name rather than in the name, and for the ideals, of the former state: as Serbia in the 1990s, and in the shape of the resurgent Russia of the present decade. Similarly, the English were once the driving force behind the British Empire and the political heart of the United Kingdom. That Empire and – since devolution – England’s control over the other nations of the UK through the British state have gradually slipped away. The main difference is that, rather than reasserting itself in its own name – as England – England has tried to hold on to the illusion that the old Britain still exists as before; or rather, it has attempted to affirm and define a ‘new Britain’ that is very much just a 21st-century update of the old – but which is a denial of the changed realities of this century. What is this New Britain? A Britain that supposedly embodies only the positive ideals and ‘greatness’ of the British Empire – a world power standing for civilised, humane values – and none of its violent lust for power and for control over the world’s precious resources; and which, by denying its aggression and its racism (characteristics which it likes to think of as ‘English’ and ‘nationalistic’, not British), actually gives that aggression power over itself, rather than taming it. Or a Britain that is still what it was – a cohesive unitary state, identified with England in all but name – and not a Britain that now cannot even acknowledge England by name in case this blows open the reality that Britain has already been broken up through devolution into four differentially governed nations, and that what is known as Britain is really now only England.
Why is the British establishment – political and intellectual – so afraid of this emerging separate consciousness of England as a nation in its own right, no longer indissociable from the Britain with which it merged its identity for so long? Perhaps they are indeed afraid that a resurgent England, rather like Serbia and Russia, will assert itself in the shape of an ugly right-wing, racist nationalism: rejecting the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lateral liberal consensus; taking England out of the EU; and even trying to reassert its former prerogatives over Scotland and Wales. Such an England would indeed seem to represent the suppressed dark side of the British imperial and national project, just as Serbian and Russian nationalism were a re-expression of the darker aspects of Yugoslav and Soviet Communism. Better, on this view, for England to continue to try to uphold an image of itself as a ‘benign’ Britain than to let its own unacknowledged demons of malignant, narrow, ‘English’ nationalism escape.
Except, of course, the two things are inseparable parts of the same process: one nation, whether you refer to it as England or Britain, seeking a new identity and purpose in the light of the collapse of former imperial grandeur and of national unity back home; and trying to come to terms with and ‘own’ both the admirable and the dark aspects of a great past. England will have to emerge from this process of re-examination as a distinct national entity because the old Britain with which it was identified is no more – just as Serbia and Russia need to come to terms with being merely Serbia and Russia now that their great multi-national states and dreams of empire are over. And really, we British have so much less to fear from English nationalism than Serbia, Russia and their former compatriots had to fear from Serbian and Russian nationalism. Why? Because those values that the political and cultural elite so desperately seek to uphold as British-not-English really are English values all along that we the English previously invested in the British Empire and state, and which we must now redefine and reapply as part of a more realistic, modest and internationally collaborative existence as the nation of England.
English nationalism and Britishness: two sides of the same coin through which the English are striving towards a new currency of distinct nationhood. But for those values to be constructively reinvested in the real world of today, and not to be a dangerous fantasy recreation and re-enactment of the past, the coin must land on the English side: for too long the flipside of the British ‘heads’, but now having no choice, for our own sanity and survival, than to be the vanquisher of the mythical, delusional British dragon’s ‘tails’.
The Britain that has suppressed and submerged our English identity is increasingly in retreat, despite the best efforts of the establishment to reinvigorate it. Soon, the dragon must be slain and will not needlessly fight again; and under the banner of St. George – the patron saint of suppressed nations – England will reclaim its freedoms and its good faith for the future.