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Nationalism and national pride: should we celebrate St. George’s Day?

St. George's Day passes most of us by without much event each year, and the St George Cross has become near-synonymous with zealous nationalism. But Jon Petre argues that it doesn't have to be like that

National pride is something that many people find deeply divisive in the UK, especially when it comes to England. You’d think it divides quite neatly down the middle of the political spectrum. You expect it from UKIP and the right, all the painting faces red-and-white and draping a St George’s flag in the front room window – while for a long time on the left it’s been almost fashionable to be vaguely ashamed or squeamish about displays of Englishness. But it’s not that simple.

Yes, I know that we’ve missed St George’s Day by at least a week. But in any case, I think it’s quite uncomfortable for a lot of people that there’s very little agreement on how we should celebrate St George’s Day, and England. It’s not easy to feel like you’re doing something wrong by celebrating St George’s Day, nor is it very nice to feel unhappy in being surrounded by images of a crusading knight. For good or bad, nationalism is something that we definitely don’t talk about enough in Britain.

“there is much that we can celebrate about who we are as a people without acting as though we’re better than everyone else”

My first port of call in this area (and many others) is George Orwell, and if you’re interested I’d recommend his essay England, your England (1941). In it, Orwell discusses what characteristics we associate with England and what our relationship is with our national identity, by looking at the iconography and symbols we use to represent ourselves. He talks about green pastures, red post-boxes, and the fanfare of the Royals – but also the legacy of Empire, the vast economic injustices still felt in England today, and the unwillingness of the Establishment to change the status quo. I think Orwell’s assessment of England is a very good one, and it still holds water today:

“England is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family…a family with the wrong members in control.”

Orwell’s quote recognises that there’s a lot wrong with our country, but it also remembers that there’s a lot good about it as well – even if things need to change. We probably have more in common as a country than not, and there is much that we can celebrate about who we are as a people without acting as though we’re better than everyone else.

“in the minds of most ordinary, decent people, the George Cross has become associated with horrible nationalism”

The main problem with the St George Cross is that it has been largely co-opted by the far-right. Decades of the National Front, the BNP and Britain First, raging about ‘England for the English’ and slurring the words of racist chants has meant that, in the minds of most ordinary, decent people, the George Cross has become associated with horrible nationalism. How extremists have been allowed to claim time and time again that they speak as an embodiment of what England is baffles me, and it’s entirely understandable that all kinds of ordinary people would want to distance themselves from symbols that are so often connected to extremism by the media.

Perhaps the most humiliating way that we could fight fascism (let’s call it what it is) would be to stand up and make it clear that these groups do not speak for a majority of English people. Even so – I don’t think it would be a good thing if there were little white-and-red flags in every window, either.

We seem to agree that one of our best qualities as a nation is a commitment that most people feel towards a sense of common decency, and politeness. This is probably why we apologise too much and don’t talk to our neighbours. You see it all the time in polls – our ‘favourite’ national quality is something like fairness. It’s not in our nature to be nationalists (nor should it be), and we don’t shout about freedom or go on about how great it is to be English, because it’s boorish and we teach our children modesty as a virtue.

“surely national pride is good for something”

You probably didn’t celebrate St George’s Day, and neither did I. That is probably for the better. It will be a long time before we’ll be able to fully separate national pride from nationalism, and if we’re not careful about how we come across then we risk it going the other way for good.I realise that I’m generalising here but I do genuinely believe that there are more good people than bad in the world, and in England. If we could take a day of national celebration and use it to emphasise a commitment to tolerance, and to making ourselves the best version of us that we can be, then surely national pride is good for something.

Many people rightly do not feel pride in some of England’s more shameful qualities – the treatment of the Windrush generation (show me a more patriotic bunch) that’s recently come to light has disgusted people across the political spectrum. But it’s important to remember that national symbols belong to everyone that lives in the nation, not just the people who shout about them the loudest. If we are able to reclaim the image of Englishness from the extremists, then maybe we really would have something to be proud about on the next St George’s Day.

Jon Petre

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Image courtesy of Tamworth Council on Flickr. Image licence found here.

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