The depressing rise of English nationalism and the decline of British patriotism

Happy St George’s Day, everyone! I love all the old St George’s Day traditions – newspaper articles asking what Englishness means, stories about councils banning St George’s Day celebrations, ultra-tedious Guardian pieces about how the “real” St George was Turkish or Palestinian and this only shows how vibrant and diverse English identity has always been and can we get Mary Seacole in there?

Another recent tradition we’ve come to love is Labour politicians saying we should “reclaim” our flag from the far-Right. This began with the debate over the Union Jack during the late 1980s, when people on the Left began lamenting that the flag had connotations of fascism and racism (which they had created) and that it should be detoxified. Today Hilary Benn is making the same argument about the St George’s Cross.

The problem with “reclaiming” the national flag is that those making the argument don’t actually know what patriotism is. When politicians talk about Britishness or Englishness they usually talk about values; David Cameron did so at his Munich speech last year when he defined Britishness as a devotion to “equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality … It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things”; Gordon Brown has spoken about “fairness” and “tolerance”, as if other countries define themselves by their unfairness and intolerance. That is not patriotism, that’s a sort of fluffy universalism which by its very nature becomes intolerant; after all, what if a British person doesn’t define themselves by equal rights as it is currently understood? What if they just want to be left alone in their shed?

The modern Left doesn’t get patriotism because patriotism has to be exclusive, and involve parochial altruism – caring more about people like yourself. This tendency is innate in all of us, but the followers of current ideological fads are convinced it can somehow be eliminated, despite all available evidence to the contrary.

Being English doesn’t mean conforming to a world-view set by a few people living in an arc from Shepherd’s Bush to Haringey; it just means being English, whether by blood or adoption (although the extent to which any nationality can be elective is limited).

And the problem with Englishness is not that it has become colonised by the far-Right but that it’s been proletarianised, which is why its modern symbols are mostly associated with football (which is ironic, because on the pitch football exemplifies globalism, with global elites quick to move to whichever locale favours their bank balance, and vast inequalities between both players and fans and between clubs).

For 300-odd years English and British have been psychologically interchangeable in English people’s minds, largely because there has never been a need for a separate English identity. However, a combination of factors have recently altered this: unfairly slanted devolution settlements, an unpopular professional political class, mass immigration, and the question of Europe. And Englishness is a reaction to British identity becoming too inclusive and, therefore, meaningless (which is why whites apply the label far more often than minorities).

I can see the attraction of an independent England, but as someone with Irish ancestry I can also see the similarities with Irish nationalism, which is often chippy. Because the Irish ruling class tended to be either English, Protestant or attached to Britain in some way (“West Brits”), Irish nationalism became the preserve of the downtrodden (which is why in Ireland the nationalist ie anti-British parties tend to be Left-wing). This happens in many postcolonial states, but you can see the same thing happening in England, where the new ruling class despise English patriotism and feel attached instead to Brussels, Geneva and the brotherhood of (rich and powerful) man.

The more I see of English nationalism, the more depressing I find it; the more it makes me appreciate Great Britain and the understated patriotism that didn’t need either to shout or wallow. I rather miss that.

And this debate will lead nowhere while people continue to talk about a patriotism based on values rather than belonging. The nadir of this problem is the dreadful citizenship classes that schools impose upon children, half-silly and half-sinister. A strong, benign national identity would be far better imparted on the young by teaching them about this birthday boy and the love he felt for his homeland.

This article was published at Telegraph Blogs

What do you think?