Eliot Wilson

Why are the English embarrassed about St George’s Day?

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How should the English celebrate St George’s Day? England is a country with plenty to boast about, but doing so is somehow not particularly English. The result is that 23 April is usually a day that passes most of us by. It’s a pity.

The centuries-old flag of St George was for too long the preserve of the far right

Embarrassed, we often seek expressions of Englishness in the sheepish and the mimsy. Egg and chips, rain coming on, mustn’t grumble, you’ve got to laugh, fancy a cuppa, watching the footy, how we love queueing. Thirty years ago, John Major was mocked for speaking of ‘the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers’. His invocation of George Orwell’s ‘Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’ was thought more outdated still. So now we parody ourselves rather than be beaten to the punch.

That, in itself, is very English, redolent of the country of the reflexive ‘sorry’. But we can do better than that on this St George’s Day.

Look at the great cathedrals dotting the English countryside, from solid Romanesque Durham to the soaring vaulted nave of Westminster Abbey. Listen to English poetry, from Geoffrey Chaucer to Simon Armitage. Listen to the cadences of the King James Bible. Above all, take in William Shakespeare, drown in him. If a nation left his body of work and no other trace, it would be counted among the greatest.

Take the common law and jury trials, standing before our peers knowing that the king’s justice is being exercised as it has so long been, imperfectly but again and again. Magna Carta was not a pristine expression of equality, but think about what it said, 800 years ago. It is extraordinary:

‘No free-man shall be taken, or imprisoned, or dispossessed, of his free tenement, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed; nor will we condemn him, nor will we commit him to prison, excepting by the legal judgement of his peers, or by the laws of the land. To none will we sell, to none will we deny, to none will we delay right or justice.’

Look at English humour, from the scatalogical ribaldry of James Gillray to the dainty verbal gymnastics of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

‘The English, the English, the English are best: I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest!’ Flanders and Swann were satirists and they knew that the English hug self-satire closer than anything. But we needn’t be ‘best’ still to reflect on the good things about us. I say this as a man born and raised in England, but from countless generations of Scots and educated partly in Scotland. If I’m forced to choose, I will always say Scottish, but part of me remains an Englishman.

In 1965, the historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote that ‘a generation ago, ‘England’ was still an all-embracing word. It meant indiscriminately England and Wales; Great Britain; the United Kingdom; and even the British Empire.’ We are, rightly, more particular now, speaking of the United Kingdom, of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (even ‘Ulster’ is no longer a simple descriptor), but along the way England has stood back, uncertain of her role and place. The centuries-old flag of St George was, for too long, the preserve of the bone-headed far right, and it was only in the 1990s that it began to crawl back to respectability. A taint still lingers for some.

Yet it should be perfectly possible to acknowledge historical wrongs and to respect our neighbours, allies and former foes and their identities, without utterly suppressing our own. To do so is mad. To say there is no such thing as ‘the English character’ or ‘English values’ is as good as saying there is no England at all. These values, characteristics and virtues need not be unique, nor always and everywhere exhibited, but they can still be real. Every nation has them, because they form the basis of a common narrative, a shared sense of self, the foundation of the nation itself.

We are at our most English when we squirm at affirming our identity in a way that hardly any other nation in the world would understand. In the words of the greatest Englishman of all, Sir Winston Churchill, let us go forward together.

Written by
Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson was a clerk in the House of Commons 2005-16, including on the Defence Committee. He is a member of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

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