Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

23 September 2010

Is it time to reclaim the cross at the heart of England’s flag and identity?

Is England standing on the verge of a Catholic revival? Ludicrous question, many would say; longed-for reality, many others would echo. You have to know how to read the signs of the times. The trouble is the signs are pointing in too many contrary directions. Who is the one who would “prepare the way of the Lord” and make his paths straight?

The visit of Pope Benedict last week would be viewed by some as at least a sign of hope that England was being pointed back in the right direction. I say ‘England’ advisedly, as the Pope was visiting two countries with respect to the pastoral mission of his visit; even though, when in England, he diplomatically tended to refer to “Britain” and the “United Kingdom” as the name of ‘this country’.

‘Pastoral’ is perhaps not quite the right word and doesn’t fully capture the ultimate significance of the pope’s unprecedented visit. This was a case of prophetic witness: the spiritual successor to Saint Peter drawing ‘the nation”s attention to the centrality of Catholic-Christian faith, ethics and tradition in the history and identity of England, and hence to the vital role it should continue to play in informing our leaders’ efforts to deal with the social, moral and environmental challenges of the present age. As the pope said toward the end of his speech to assembled dignitaries and former prime ministers in Westminster Hall: “The angels looking down on us from the magnificent ceiling of this ancient Hall remind us of the long tradition from which British Parliamentary democracy has evolved. They remind us that God is constantly watching over us to guide and protect us. And they summon us to acknowledge the vital contribution that religious belief has made and can continue to make to the life of the nation”.

Alongside the angels, one Englishman who bore witness to the primacy of faith-informed conscience over state power might well have been gazing down from heaven at the proceedings last Friday: Saint Thomas More, as he’s known by Catholics, who was condemned to death on the very spot where the pope delivered his speech for refusing to repudiate the authority of the pope as the supreme governor of the Church in England. Indeed, the present pope’s reference to Thomas More was the sole explicit mention of ‘England’ in his speech in Westminster Hall: “I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first”.

In a way, More’s stand was just one in a long line of English acts of rebellion against the absolute authority of monarchical rule from Westminster, stretching from Magna Carta through to the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. The narrative of British history has not tended to view it as such, because More was defending the Catholic faith of his fellow Englishmen against the absolutist imposition of the Protestant religion, whereas the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution involved the defence of different versions of reformed Christianity against the absolutist re-imposition of Catholicism. Indeed, through the wars of resistance to Catholic pretenders during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot under James I, the cause of English independence and freedom came to be associated with suspicion and hostility toward Catholic Europe. By ensuring that a Catholic could never again ascend to the English throne, the Act of Succession, and the Acts of Union between England and Scotland, finally consolidated this transfer of authority in matters of faith from the pope in Rome to the monarch in Westminster at the same time as they ironically consigned the separate kingdom of England to the history books.

You could argue, therefore, that Henry VIII’s expropriation of the role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England was the beginning of the end not only of Catholicism as the national religion of England but of England itself as a distinct nation state. Far from liberating the English people from the absolute power of a corrupt and oppressive Church, Henry reassigned the moral authority for the exercise of absolute power to himself as temporal ruler, an authority that was subsequently transferred to the soon-to-be British Parliament during the Glorious Revolution, and which has remained with Parliament to this day. The unaccountable rule that Westminster exercises over English affairs in the present is a direct consequence of the establishment of the new state religion and religious state of Great Britain over three hundred years ago, given that Parliament still wields the absolute authority of the queen as head of the British state and earthly head of the Church of England.

But does England have to return to its ancestral Catholicism in order to rediscover its distinct identity and reassert itself as a sovereign nation in its own right? Let’s put this question another way: if the people of England did undergo a collective spiritual conversion to and renewal of its erstwhile national faith, would this of necessity also entail the unravelling of the British state as we know it and the re-establishment of England as a sovereign nation? The answer to that question is almost certainly ‘yes’. The rule of the British state over England is perpetuated by the profound identification of the people of England – as historically symbolised and embodied by the Church of England – with the institutions and symbols of British statehood, an identification that is personified in the figure of the monarch: British ruler and defender of the English faith. If, on the other hand, the English people no longer literally invested their faith in the British state but began believing in a higher authority than Parliament and the monarch, then the old idolatry of British-parliamentary sovereignty would no longer hold sway.

But surely, I hear you say, such a re-conversion to a form of dogmatic Christianity in which even its followers are losing their faith is both unlikely and undesirable. The ongoing erosion of English people’s faith in the British settlement is far more likely to be accompanied by the continuing unravelling of the old Anglican verities without being replaced by new Catholic certainties. Well, maybe; but would the state that resulted from the break-up of Great Britain in such circumstances really be the great English nation we all long for, or would it end up as just some multi-cultural, faithless and rootless Rump Britain? Is not the very identity of England inherently bound up with its great Catholic-Christian history and tradition? Do away with the Church of England without reviving the Church in England and you run the risk of finally bringing about the ‘end of the end’ of England.

Clearly, though, it’s impossible to artificially resurrect a medieval faith destroyed by the earthly ambitions of British monarchs, imperialists and republicans, combined with the philosophical assaults of science and Enlightenment secular humanism, simply in order to provide a touchstone for a new English-national identity. In the first instance, such a revival could only be the work of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, it has to arise from our hearts and not our ideological blueprints for a new England. England can be a Christian democracy only if the sovereign English people desire to be Christian.

But we are, at root and at heart, a Christian people. Our very national flag holds aloft the Cross of Christ washed in the blood of our redeemer. There are perhaps troubled times ahead: spiritual and, who knows, perhaps physical warfare in which competing creeds and centres of power will struggle for control over our lives and our land. Perhaps Britain as we know it must die; but will England be reborn in its place?

We are approaching the 2,000th anniversary of the crucifixion of Christ – perhaps that’s another ambiguous sign for us in this time of uncertainty for ourselves and for England. I for one, though, am content to gaze upon the cross of Christ and the Flag of England as a sign of hope that, through it all, Christian England will endure.

9 June 2010

Downing Street flies the English flag: why they’ll be praying for English World Cup success in Whitehall

If they pray at all, that is – David Cameron having gone on record as saying that he does not seek guidance from God in prayer whenever he is confronted by a difficult decision, and Nick Clegg being an out and out atheist. But did David Cameron seek guidance from the Almighty, or even solicit the intercession of St. George, when deciding to break with tradition and fly the English flag at 10 Downing Street during the World Cup?

To be fair, he didn’t strictly need to: the decision pretty much made itself. The coalition government desperately needs England to have a successful run in the World Cup, for two main reasons. First, there is the boost to the economy it will provide. On the one hand, this is a short-term phenomenon as people shell out for overpriced England-branded clothes and general tat (including flags), buy HD-TVs and Sky subscriptions, and visit pubs and bars to watch the games and celebrate England’s victories. But in the longer term, if England are really successful (i.e. reach the semis, final or even win), this will bring about a feel-good factor that could be the difference between the UK going back into recession or not. If English people feel good about themselves and about England, this extra confidence will spill over into the economic domain, and people will be prepared to spend more on themselves, invest in English and British goods and services, and take more holidays in England.

This boost to English self-confidence and pride, along with the shot in the arm it would deliver to the British economy as a whole, will be especially critical as the government shapes up to deliver its swingeing cuts to English public services. This is the second reason why the government needs the England team to be successful. If English people are feeling generally good about themselves throughout the summer, they’ll be less resentful at England once again bearing the brunt of the autumn cuts compared with their Barnett-protected Scottish and Welsh cousins.

In fact, the World Cup feel-good factor may be just the tonic that’s needed to encourage English people to rally round, Dunkirk-style, and play the part of socially responsible, civic-minded citizens that the government wants them to take on – stepping into the breach left by the contracting public sector to ensure that the most vulnerable members of our communities are protected and looked after. World Cup success could be the thing to kick-start the Big Society – a vision that applies only to England – as English people, filled with renewed national self-esteem, also take pride in looking after their own and adopting a new collective sense of responsibility towards one another.

Think I’m embroidering? A bit, maybe. But think of the opposite scenario: England performs dismally and is knocked out at the group stage or in the round of 16. Think how miserable and depressed people will be if that happens. The temporary boost to the economy will fizzle out and will be only a fraction of what it could have been if England reach the semis or the final, as spending increases at each round. And people will be desperate to jet away on their continental holidays to escape the World Cup gloom and the ash cloud of looming budget cuts. And how much more resentful and unco-operative will English people be towards the cuts, and to the greater burden placed on England’s shoulders, when they eventually come?

A poor performance by England in the World Cup will lead to a diminution of national pride, which will make English people more diffident about the uncertain economic and fiscal outlook, resulting in them spending less and thinking of No. 1 more: looking after self-interest rather than being carried on an enthusiastic wave of civic responsibility towards others less fortunate than oneself, whose disproportionate suffering from the cuts will be regarded as an unfortunate necessity.

On reflection, if Cameron wants the people of England to be wafted on a Cloud Nine of feeling big about social responsibility, perhaps he really should direct a few more supplications in the direction of heaven! Personally, I will be sending the Almighty a few prayers for English victory – but out of belief rather than political desperation!

25 July 2008

The Re-branded Saltire, And the Football Kits Of Scotland and England

I didn’t realise, till I looked into it, that the blue background colour of the Saltire – Scotland’s national flag – had been officially changed in 2003 by the Scottish Executive, as it was then. Well, not changed, exactly; more, standardised.

I’d noticed in pictures of the flag at football matches, SNP photo opportunities, and on car badges that a lighter blue colour seemed to be being adopted than what I had always regarded as the proper blue for the flag: a dark navy, as seen on the Scottish football and rugby team shirts. I assumed this was simply because this is a more popular shade of blue nowadays than traditional navy or royal blues. In this, it was akin to examples of corporate re-branding where companies adopt more universally appealing colours for their logo for marketing purposes. An example of this was a re-branding exercise carried out by the electronics firm Philips a few years ago, where they replaced the traditional royal blue colour of their logo with a lighter, brighter tint that is, in fact, rather similar to the new official colour for the saltire. (See Philips’ website to have a look at their logo.)

In some respects, the change in colour for the Saltire could indeed be described as a marketing exercise, the primary beneficiary of which was the SNP. The blue colour concerned – technically called ‘pantone 300’, which you can see here – is thought to have more universal appeal than traditional navy or royal blues, which are perceived as too masculine and (by that token?) dull. Lighter, brighter and softer blues are said to be more attractive to women (while not being perceived by men as ‘too’ feminine and therefore putting them off), which means that products marketed or packaged with these colours can be aimed at women as well as men, or at women exclusively.

Now, far be it from me to impugn the masculinity of the Scottish male by implying that Scotland has traded in a properly masculine blue for an ‘effeminate’ shade on its national flag. But – and you knew that was coming! – would Scottish football and rugby fans be happy to see their national teams wearing pantone 300 instead of their traditional deep, dark blue, which you can see in the background colour on the Scottish FA’s website.

Well, maybe some fans would have no qualms about a kit change – not just the women fans! After all, colours similar to pantone 300 are used for many football teams, such as Chelsea and Everton in the English Premier League. I guess a decisive factor would be how nationalistically minded the fans in question were, with more pro-Union Scots being perhaps less willing to make the change; although it has to be said that Glasgow Rangers (traditionally associated with the unionist ‘demographic’) seems to have thrown themselves unreservedly into pantone 300 territory, to judge from their latest squad photo. But then maybe, in this case, the marketing imperative was the overriding factor!

The reason why the adoption of the new colour for the national flag (and its possible adoption by the football and rugby teams) was such a coup for Scottish nationalists is that it clearly differentiates the Scottish flag from the traditional version of it that was incorporated into the Union Flag (which uses a darker blue, between royal and navy: pantone 280 if you’re interested). This means that my previous idea of creating country-specific versions of the Union Flag that have the national flags as ‘inserts’ in the top-left-hand quadrant wouldn’t really work very well in the case of Scotland: you’d be using two different shades of blue, and the visual impression would be a bit of a mess.

Does this mean that we should change the blue colour used in the Union Flag to pantone 300 in order to demonstrate a will to keep Scotland in the Union? Well, I haven’t seen Gordon Brown rushing to suggest this, thereby proving his alleged Scottish patriotism at the same time as sticking up for the Union, by ensuring that Scotland’s colours remained nailed to the UK mast. Maybe pantone 300 would look just a bit, well, effeminate combined with the red and white of the Union Jack! But really, suggesting that we should amend the Union Flag to better incorporate the re-branded Saltire is just as daft as the notion that the UK’s flag should include an explicit symbol for Wales, such as the red dragon or the yellow-cross-on-black-background of St. David. The whole point of the Union Flag, supposedly, is that it is the emblem of a unitary state and therefore is a self-sufficient symbol, showing the incorporation at a given moment of history of three nations (Wales being at that time part of the Kingdom of England) into a United Kingdom. Wanting to change things now to better bring out the individual symbols of the four nations is in fact to demonstrate that that Union is breaking down.

Which shouldn’t really, and doesn’t, bother an English nationalist such as me. But this is only to bring out the point that it really was quite a clever marketing ploy on the part of nationalist backers of the Saltire’s colour change to make sure that it was in fact clearly differentiated – separated out from – the blue of the Union Flag.

But what are the implications for England? Well, from a nationalist perspective, it would be satisfying to see the Scots adopting the lighter blue now used on their flag for their sporting kits. I’m assuming that the Scots are more likely to take the lead in this matter, as they did in ‘unilaterally’ differentiating their flag colour without considering (or while very much considering) the implications for the Union Flag. If the Scots made this change, then it would give us English the licence, as it were, to get rid of the Union blue we’ve so far retained for our football kit: the blue shorts of the home colours, which pick up the blue in the Union Flag and, hence, the blue of Scotland. If Scotland were to adopt a new kit colour that was unambiguously that of their national flag, not that of the Union Flag, then we English can do the same without any pangs of misplaced guilt.

The England football team could then play in all white with red trim as its home colours, just as the rugby team does: properly reflecting the white and red of the Flag of St. George. These would be colours our overpaid and jaded players could hopefully wear with renewed pride, as they’d be representing a nation that was clearly marking itself out as a nation distinct from the UK, whose colours England has played under hitherto.

Throw in Jerusalem as the national anthem, and we’d be half-way to self-rule!

24 April 2008

Saint George: Patron Saint Of Suppressed Nations

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.

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