Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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!

21 June 2008

National Identity: Ancient Frontiers And the Football Test

Watching the Euro 2008 football tournament has provided another occasion for me to ruminate on questions of national identity. I find myself being envious of the players and supporters of our European neighbours, whose countries are also their nations – injecting just that little bit of extra national pride into the efforts of the teams as they struggle not just for football glory but the (self-)esteem of their whole nation.

It’s hard to imagine the same sort of sentiments surrounding the England team, had they qualified; although, undoubtedly, the same passions would have been invoked in their respective countries by the participation of Scotland or Ireland. It’s not that a great many English people, including myself, would not be filled with jubilation if an England team won a tournament such as the European Nations Championship or the World Cup; nor that those who represent England in team sports don’t do so without a huge amount of pride. It’s just that it doesn’t mean quite as much as if your nation is also reflected and represented in every aspect of the public life of your country: politics, institutions, culture, the media, language, national traditions, a coherent sense of national identity, and a passionate attachment to a specific territory and its peoples. This is the case, in different ways, for all the nations participating in Euro 2008. But if England were competing, it would not be the case, in the same way, for her: we do not have an English Parliament or government; our national institutions are those of the UK, or else of England and Wales; there is widespread diffidence about, if not contempt towards, English culture; our media are officially ‘British’ (although in reality often English in all but name); our language is the global language and the official language of UEFA, even though no English-speaking nation is taking part in Euro 2008; many of our national traditions are ‘British’; English people still wrestle uncomfortably with their dual English-British national identity, and even with the very notion of national identity as such; and our territory and peoples – are they England and the English, or Britain and the British?

One imagines that the minds of players representing the likes of France, Spain, Germany or Croatia become filled with the historical facts and lore of their nations; and they see themselves handed the opportunity to symbolically defend and uphold the dignity, values and even territorial integrity of their nations as they represent everything their countries stand for and their nations’ entire histories, which have led to the existence of the national teams they themselves are a part of. By contrast, the great national achievements and struggles that an England player can call to mind are those of Britain, not – nominally, at least – of England: the British Empire; the democratic principles, rule of law and language that we have spread throughout the world; the victorious fight for freedom and justice in the Battle of Britain and the Second World War. The nation and the territory that were at the heart of these great convulsions of history were those of Britain. And this Britain is now falling apart and provokes considerable ambivalence in the minds and hearts of most English people and particularly, perhaps, in members of a sporting team for England, a country whose separateness from Britain / the UK only further calls to mind the break up of a once-proud Britain and the absence of an English nation state. Needless to say, this ambivalence can only be stirred up all the more as the strains of ‘God Save the Queen’ boom out throughout the stadium before the match begins; while French hearts, by contrast, are filled with national pride by the tones of the Marseillaise.

This idea of the national football team symbolically enacting a defence of the nation’s territory is quite an important one, it seems to me. Anthropologists of the Desmond Morris school would say that national team sport is a peaceful way to act out aggression and rivalry between countries. Games between England and Scotland, or between Germany and the Netherlands, always have something of this character of re-playing ancient enmities and settling old scores.

This is, as it were, the football test of national identity, which is probably a more valid and universal indicator than Norman Tebbit’s famous cricket test, given the greater passions provoked by football internationals than cricket test matches, and given the fact that football – like so many other things – is something that England has given to the whole world. The reality of national identity, as an emotional and cultural thing, is for me demonstrated by football allegiances more than by any other phenomenon. It’s in connection with football that you immediately realise that England and Scotland are indeed different nations and that they’ll never be merged into a unitary British sense of national identity. Indeed, it’s because of this incontrovertible evidence of nationhood that no other countries seem to have any difficulty accepting that England and Scotland should have separate national football teams and football associations, despite the fact that their nations (plus Wales and Northern Ireland) are not also states – unlike every other nation with a football team.

And, as I indicated above, the England and Scotland that are represented by their respective football teams are, among other things, territorial entities. When we think of England or Scotland, or indeed any other nation, one of the things we always picture in our minds are the outlines of those nations’ territories as they appear on maps. These are boundaries hard won by the battles of the past, re-played in the football contests of the present. But they are in many cases also ancient frontiers stretching back through history to Roman times and beyond. France – occupying pretty much the same land as ancient Gaul; Spain – España – Roman Hispania, minus Portugal; Germany – the Barbarian peoples of Germania; and Catholic Croatia, whose historic rivalry with its ethnic twin, Orthodox Serbia, reflects their location right on the divide between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, and the Western and Eastern Christian Church.

It is the same with England and Scotland: a territorial divide so ancient that the landscape of Northumberland still carries its traces in the Roman emperor Hadrian’s Wall. With one difference: Roman Britannia did not extend to the whole island of Britain; so the territory we now know as Britain (unlike in the cases referred to above) is an extension beyond the original Roman and pre-Roman territorial boundaries. Ancient Britannia referred pretty much to the territory now known as England and Wales; while Caledonia – Scotland – was a separate territorial and political entity.

These ancient divisions run deep. ‘Divisions’ is not the right word: ‘distinctions’ is perhaps better. These differences in culture, history, traditions and institutions – linked to an attachment to a specific land, and to a way of life which, in the past, was very much more dependent on the land – are what gives us our national characteristics, and defines us as a distinct national community. In this way, the nations of England and Scotland can trace their differences – their distinctions – along a continuous historical and folkloric thread that leads back to pre-Roman, indeed pre-historic, times; such as when the Celtic Britons were distinct from the Caledonian, non-Celtic Picts.

There was no integral, Celtic Britain that was somehow broken up by the Anglo-Saxon invasion – unless, of course, by ‘Britain’ you mean the territory of England and Wales (Roman Britannia). And that division between Celtic Britain and non-Celtic Caledonia has been carried over to this day in the division within the Celtic linguistic domain between ‘Brythonic’ Celtic (Welsh, Cornish and Breton) and ‘Goidelic’ (Gaelic in both its Irish form and its imported offshoot that is Scots). And these ancient divisions and distinctions within the island of Britain have been very much carried forward from history through to the present in the much closer institutional and national links that still exist between England and Wales, compared with the historically more recent and looser – and ever more loosening – ties between England and Scotland.

These ancient historic distinctions – demarcators of national territory and identity – suggest an illuminating perspective on the conflicting English and British identities of the English people. Beyond more transient considerations of 18th-century political union, ideology and imperial ambitions, the formation of a United Kingdom of Great Britain by the 1707 Act of Union expressed a more primordial, territorial logic. As people inhabiting a comparatively small island, it was natural that the instinct of the English to defend their national territory should extend beyond the border with Scotland to the whole of Britain, especially as trade and technology led to both many more dealings and rivalries with our continental neighbours – and consequently, many more dangers of assault and invasion by sea and later by air. This thinking is still very much alive in one of the key rationales that is brought forward for preserving the United Kingdom today: that we share a single territory, whose defence and security is best assured by preserving a political union.

For these expedient, but also vital, reasons, the political dominion of England was extended beyond England and Wales to encompass Scotland, and thereafter Ireland. Or, putting this another way, the national and political entity (England, incorporating Wales) that was the inheritor of the ancient Roman / pre-Roman Britannia was extended to Caledonia, i.e. to the whole island of Britannia. This has led to the two Britains that we have today: the political Britain, the UK state, that in so many ways is in practice the English state in all but name, even to this day; and the territory of Britain, where the distinctions between England, Scotland and Wales are increasingly being marked by separate institutional and cultural expressions of national identity. One Britain that really is England: the product of English history, difference, and the defence of her independence and territorial integrity that extended to the whole of Britain. And another geographical Britain that encompasses the two nations of England and Scotland (if you include Wales and Cornwall – historically, Brythonic Celtic entities – within England / Britannia); or four nations if you regard Wales and Cornwall as nations that are seceding more from England than from a Britain which, politically, was always already only England.

But what we have, and what we have ever had, is certainly not one Britain. We do, or at least did, have a United – English – Kingdom of Great Britain, maybe; but this has never been a single, united nation in the territorial sense, and hence in all the other senses that really matter to a people that identify with a land.

And when England can once again celebrate and affirm its distinction from Britain, and take pride in all that it has achieved both under the guise of Britain and in its own name, then maybe the English football team, too, will see itself as the defender and inheritor of a great English nation: of its history and its future.

11 April 2008

English Nationalism and Christianity: The Case of ‘Jerusalem’

It was reported yesterday that the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, the Very Rev. Colin Slee, has banned the singing of the hymn Jerusalem in the cathedral on the grounds that ‘the words do not praise God and are too nationalistic’, according to ‘senior clergy’. The words of a spokesman for the Diocese of Southwark, as quoted by the article, were: “The Dean of Southwark does not believe that [the hymn] is to the glory of God and it is not therefore used in private memorial services”. Well, I once had a young work colleague who died in a tragic climbing accident, and Jerusalem was sung at his funeral service; and it was a highly moving and appropriate choice for someone who loved the open country and whose life on earth was snuffed out at about the same age as that of Christ.

Before I proceed, let us remind ourselves of those disputed words:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

The question I would want to ask of the Dean is what is the link, in his mind, between this hymn being supposedly un-Christian (or ‘not to the glory of God’) and its (English) nationalism? Are the two things separate, or is there an implied link: it’s not Christian because it’s an expression of nationalism?

Firstly, I’d have to say, as a Christian myself, that I have had doubts in the past about whether this anthem was truly Christian in spirit. The defence of Jerusalem that has been made against the Dean’s prohibition of it – that it is a hugely popular hymn and the English people’s choice as national anthem (and mine, by the way) – doesn’t of itself make it, or at least the original Blake poem, a celebration of Christian faith. I’ve tended to think of Blake’s vision as being that of a utopian, socialistic ‘New Jerusalem’ built by human effort and a more humane application of technology rather than the New Jerusalem of faith, which for Christians is consummated at the end of time, even though we do have a duty to begin to build it in this life.

But like any great poem, the words are capable of multiple interpretations, and Jerusalem can be seen as a sort of prophetic, genuinely Christian-inspired vision. The metaphor of the ‘Holy Lamb of God’ (authentic Christian reverence there) literally gracing the green mountains and pleasant pastures of England can be viewed as perfectly consistent with the Christian belief that the risen Christ is with us here and now, and that we have a calling to work in the present day for the establishment of his kingdom on earth. That is a truly inspiring vision relevant as much for Blake’s time (fighting against the grim conditions of life for industrial workers) as for the present day when there is still so much horrific exploitation of the poor and of children throughout the world by big business and greed. So while the poem’s concluding call to build “Jerusalem / In England’s green and pleasant land” can indeed be judged as utopian and philosophically materialist (expressing an essentially secular vision of human progress), it can also be seen as a summons to Christians not to ignore the suffering of their brothers and sisters, and to translate their principles into action in defence of the poor and exploited.

So much for the charge that Jerusalem does not glorify God. If this view rests on very shaky foundations, is the poem’s nationalism the real problem – nationalism in general (and English nationalism in particular?) being construed as inconsistent with true Christian faith and worship? There certainly are ways in which the nationalistic tenor of the poem could be seen as problematic from a Christian perspective. The poem and the hymn have been associated with British imperialism. Although, in the present-day context, it is possible and in my view legitimate to dissociate English nationalism from the British imperialism of the past, there’s no doubt that at the time Blake was writing, and for much of the history since then, it’s been impossible to separate these two strands in the English popular imagination and sentiment. The Victorians thought of the Empire as England’s historic mission: to bring essentially English civilisation and English (‘Protestant’) Christian faith to the supposedly heathen and ‘savage’ millions that had not yet heard the Word or sampled the refined joys of the English way of life.

It surely must be these historical associations with imperialism and prejudice that make the ‘English nationalism’ of the hymn questionable in Dean Slee’s eyes. But on the one hand, even though we (the English, British, Christians, the West) no longer view the culture, religions and races of the former colonies of the Empire as inferior, and requiring conversion and elevation to our superior level, these associations of the poem are still the mark of a past when Christian faith and a sense of mission inspired thousands of English men and women to travel the world with a genuine ambition to spread the Gospel and witness to the Christian way of life – however misguided we now think some of their presuppositions and attitudes were.

Similarly, it is this linkage of English nationalism with the worst expressions of British imperialism, bigotry, racism and indeed nationalism, in the distant and more recent past, that makes many liberals – whether Christian or not – shy away from any idea that celebrating Englishness and the English nation as such could possibly be a good thing. But there’s a form of duplicity or, indeed, ‘bad faith’ that is often at work here: England is used as the scapegoat and as the projection for all that is now thought of as bad and unacceptable in historical Britishness. This then strips ‘modern’ Britishness of all the negative associations with the Empire and xenophobic nationalism so that it can become the symbol of all that is now considered to be good and acceptable about . . . about what exactly? Well, about England, Englishness and the legacy of the British Empire, in actual fact: its internationalist, multi-cultural inclusiveness (like the Empire, including peoples from all over the world in the tolerant, law-abiding English British civilisation); its Christian-derived liberal progressivism and egalitarianism; and its continuing sense of itself as a great nation that stands for true values and the vision of a better world that still looks very much like Blake’s Jerusalem.

So, ‘Englishness = bad’ and ‘Britishness = good’. I doubt very much whether Dean Slee would regard the nationalist connotations of the hymn as nearly so objectionable if one substituted the word ‘Britain’ for ‘England’ in the text of the poem: ‘Britain’s pleasant pastures’ and ‘Britain’s green and pleasant land’. Who could object to those words (well, millions of English people who love the hymn, for a start – but it’s a rhetorical question!)? Suddenly, from a celebration of England’s (don’t you mean Britain’s?) nationalist-imperialist past, it becomes something that can evoke an inclusive, ecological Britain where all are equal, including those of ‘lesser’ social classes, religions or races once ruthlessly exploited by the . . . English.

Well, as I say, the poem is capable of multiple interpretations. And even though I’ve put words into Dean Slee’s mouth in attempting to understand his objections to Jerusalem, it does appear to conform to the liberal and, as I would call it, Britological logic whereby Britishness is viewed as inclusive and universal, while Englishness is thought of as exclusive (xenophobic and elitist) and ‘narrow’. Britishness is inclusive, yes; but only on condition that it excludes from itself any association with Englishness – something that is symbolised perfectly by the Dean’s literal exclusion of this archetypally English hymn from his cathedral.

Of course, this is nonsense; but it’s the way the champions of Britishness think. This view of the world involves a completely fallacious splitting up of the previously indissociable English and British identity whereby, as I’ve said, England is made the projection of all that is bad about our history and culture, and Britain is transformed into the natural inheritor of all the best bits of that history and civilisation. Our history, our culture; our Englishness. We English nationalists must resist this systematic denial of the very English history, traditions and collective endeavour that have created the Britain that the Britologists seek to dissociate from England, and from which they wish to evacuate English self-awareness and identity. And while not denying the mistakes and wrongs that English people have perpetrated on other nations and races through imperialism and an overweaning sense of superiority, we must hold on to and espouse as English those values and virtues that we cherish, and which the Britologists would have us believe are exclusively those of modern Britain: exclusive of England and Englishness, that is.

And for me, at least, those values include Christian faith, and a respect for religious faith in general. It seems to me that what is at stake ultimately in the Dean’s banning of a hymn that is at once very Christian in much of its inspiration (as I argued above) and very English is a quite mistaken dissociation of Christian faith from the English national identity. Does it really matter whether Blake’s poem conforms to either Biblical, Catholic or modern liberal-Christian orthodoxy if the great majority of English people experience it as a hymn of Christian hope for a better future for their country and as a celebration of the blessings that God (or simply good fortune) have bestowed on their beautiful land? National sentiment and traditions are inextricably linked with Christian faith in Christian cultures, precisely; and Jerusalem is an expression of just such a national, English Christian culture.

In an era when the survival of England as both a civic nation and as a Christian country is under severe threat, this Church of England Dean’s condemnation of Jerusalem as a non-Christian hymn is one of the most stupid acts of shooting oneself in the foot imaginable! I for one, as an English patriot and as a Christian, will continue to sing it – with greater gusto than ever.

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