One of Labour’s new ideas is to institute St George’s Day (April 23) as a National holiday – or ‘bank holiday’, as we curiously call them – to celebrate ‘Englishness’. The Scots, Welsh and Irish all have their National days, as do most other countries of the world. The English never have.
In the early 1900s British Conservatives tried to fill this lacuna with an ‘Empire Day’ (on the same date), in order to encourage imperial patriotism, which they thought ran pretty thin among the working classes: rightly, in my view. There were two major problems with that. One was that it expressed a (greater) British patriotism, rather than an English one, which is the kind that is being sought now. The second was that it was not widely respected by the working classes, except children who were given a half-day off school, ostensibly to indulge in all kinds of empire-related activities, but in reality just to lark around. This was largely because Empire Day was imposed on them from above (a chap called Lord Meath), and didn’t express their own loyalties, which were far narrower. In the self-governing (‘white’) Empire, incidentally, it was different. ‘Empire Day’ caught on much faster in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. That’s one of my arguments, in The Absent-Minded Imperialists, for claiming that imperial sentiment was much stronger there.
There are of course other problems with celebrating ‘Englishness’ on our new National Day. ‘Patriotism’ is a dangerous idea, which can lead to untold evils if taken to excess. I think that’s probably what the French President was getting at on Armistice Day, when he tried to distinguish it from the ‘nationalism’ that he detected in Donald Trump. I also – as I’ve written before – regard it as an illogical concept, if it’s used to instil ‘pride’ in us for something, especially past historical events, we were not responsible for. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2017/05/07/patriotism/.) It’s also associated in Britain today, and exploited, mainly by the political Right, with its appeal to deeply reactionary institutions like the monarchy, the military, and the old Empire.
But – as I pointed out in that earlier blog – it wasn’t always that way. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries ‘patriotism’ was more associated with the common people, and with their liberties, as against the oppression they were suffering at the hands of the monarchical-military-imperial complex. It was something they shared with struggling patriots and liberators abroad, especially in France and America. It was literally patriotic because it was rooted in the truly British or English – sometimes Anglo-Saxon or Scottish – freedoms which had been stolen from us by our fundamentally ‘foreign’ – Norman – aristocracy. This is why Dr Johnson famously described it as ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’. He was thinking of a people’s patriotism, expressed in the radical mass-movements of the time, liberating and democratic; like the people massacred at Peterloo; many of them carrying – as Mike Leigh correctly registered in his wonderful new film of that name – St George’s and Union flags. It was only in Disraeli’s time that ‘patriotism’ became expropriated by Conservatives.
This morning I attended a meeting of our local constituency Labour Party called by our local MP, Diana Johnson, and John Denham, to discuss what a St George’s Day celebration, instituted in this more radical spirit, should look like. There were many excellent ideas, most of them relating to England’s social, intellectual and other distinctions and achievements. I suggested that Danny Boyle could be called in to choreograph it, after his splendid opening ceremony for the London Olympics a few years ago. (The Tories, incidentally, hated that.) Others suggested multiculturalism. That really would avoid the ‘nationalist’ trap. And they wouldn’t need to exclude either wider ‘British’ or ‘international’ loyalties.
Despite having always personally been a non-patriot – a ‘citizen of nowhere’ as Theresa May notoriously dubbed my kind a couple of years ago – I have to say I can see some virtue in this. John Denham persuaded us that one of the things that militated against the working classes voting Labour in the last two or three elections was its perceived lack of ‘patriotism’. Perhaps we should try to turn that around, and seize the idea of ‘patriotism’ back. After all, why should the devil have all the best prejudices?