st george's day

No One Cares About St George's Day Because No One Cares About England

National pride is dying out. Here's why.
April 23, 2019, 1:41pm
an illustration of the St George's flag surrounded by the Queen, Robin Hood, and a carton of Ribena
Illustration: Esme Blegvad

DISCLAIMER: This article was written by a Welsh person.

England is a sad little country. Sure, it's made some remarkable contributions to pop culture in its time, and the landscape is occasionally capable of moistening the eyes of even the most emotionally-repressed dad. But by and large, it's crap. There seems to be very little understanding among its people of the extent to which it is seen by its neighbouring kingdoms as the Gary Barlow of the group – the one with the most inflated ego, yet the least justification for it.

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For a long time now, England has been suffering from a mass Napoleon complex: an entire country jacked up on invading half the countries on Earth was rightly forced to return them, and has been attempting to overcompensate for its perceived shortcomings ever since by, quite simply, being a massive bellend.

Never is this complex more apparent than on the patron saint's days of Wales, Ireland and Scotland, when every MP who fires off an obligatory tweet gets @'d by a legion of constipated men with "husband, Brexiteer, speak my mind" in their bios, reading: "LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING THE SAME ENTHUSIASM ON ST GEORGE'S DAY." Which begs the question: why even celebrate St George's Day? Patron saints' days are meant to be expressions of national identity – and what does "English" even mean anymore?

As far as I have observed, "English" is a raging blend of entitlement and underdog-ism. It's calling yourself 'part-Irish' because a distant relative was born in Cork, but not being able to draw the border. It's referring to athletes as "Scottish/Welsh/Irish" when they're performing badly and "British" when they win an international tournament. It's raging against immigration in a tabloid newspaper from a holiday home in Pembrokeshire, or flying home from Benidorm to support Nigel Farage's Brexit Party.

England is that kid in class who bullies everyone, then asks to borrow a pen off you because they can't do the work without one. Who gets their mam to phone the school when they don't get invited to parties.

st george tattoo

Photo: Paul Baldesare / Alamy Stock Photo

Welsh politician Gwynfor Evans once described "Britishness" as "a political synonym for Englishness which extends English culture over the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish", but the reverse is also true. In terms of collective identity, "English" is now a series of customs and behaviours that act as common denominators between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Grab-bag crisps; rail replacement buses; meal deals; Peperami; football; four cans of lager in a carrier bag; carveries; toast as a treat; expressing love for something – a pet, a person – by pretending it in some way annoys you. All that stuff, plus the usual "apologising when someone bumps into you" and "shags queuing" jokes you find in gift shops that only sell Union Jack coasters and those parody Enid Blyton books.

While Wales, Scotland and Ireland very much have their own identities beyond all that, England's main thing is a rich history of suppressing others. Some of the best contributions to Englishness are those that have been brought to it through immigration, or those that England stole and brought back for itself. Tea; Arthurian legend; curry shops; the contents of the British Museum; Bhangra; water; the infrastructure of the country as we know it.

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Like anywhere, England is at its best when it celebrates its multiculturalism, but it's impossible to properly do that without confronting its full history – not just the bits when Hitler was worse. To this day there's a finger-in-ears mentality that can only lead to bigotry: an insistence on a legacy of bravery that overrides a history of genocide; a pastoral image of tranquility and romance that struggles to sit alongside continued violence. As a result, you get an image of "English pride" that looks like 80-year-old war propaganda and MPs who casually announce in the House of Commons that killings carried out by members of the British security forces during the Troubles were "dignified and appropriate".

When I canvassed the VICE UK team (the vast majority of whom are English) about what defines Englishness, this is what they came up with: bunting, Robin Hood, Morris dancing, panto, "that thing about being really uptight", Ribena, The Queen and this video of the Extinction Rebellion protest. More broadly, the much discussed tweet below offered some alternative examples to England's current associations with "hooliganism, antagonism, militancy, fascism" and "foodbanks" – things that have always been there, but unsurprisingly bubbled even closer to the surface under austerity.

The replies to the question posed are a short list of the country's wrongdoings, from "complaining vociferously about minority faiths opening places of worship" to ethnic cleansing.

Of course, if you list any country's historical wrongdoings you'll end up with a shopping list of heinous war crimes, so is it fair to pick on England? The short answer is: yes. Not only is England’s list long, it's also more insufferable, because when confronted with any section of it, the response is always some version of, "Well, if it weren't for us you’d all be speaking GERMAN." Internationally, you'd be hard pressed to find a smaller country with more enemies.

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The concept of "Englishness" is also complicated by white nationalists with a very specific idea of the country that's usually weaponised in defence of an England that has never existed. It was only towards the end of the 1990s that St George experienced a cultural revival as a patron saint in England, partly in reaction to Scottish and Welsh devolution, which led the English to default to their natural state of joylessness towards other cultures and instantly think: 'What about us?' The St George's Cross, largely reserved as a signifier of nationalism in the 1980s, began to filter into popular consciousness, especially through football, to the point that it's now commonplace.

Alongside the rise of the flag, we've seen a modest amount of support for a day commemorating its namesake: in 2009, Boris Johnson led a campaign encouraging the celebration of St George's Day; an e-petition to make it a public holiday in England arrived in 2011, to the modest parp of 4,266 signatures; and Jeremy Corbyn's 2017 Manifesto proposed four new bank holidays, including St George's Day. All in all, though, there doesn't seem much demand for it, because, all in all, English pride is experiencing a low ebb. Last year, a YouGov survey of over 20,000 people found that 72 percent of over-65s are proud to be English, compared with 45 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds.

At this point, if St George's Day is going to continue, it really should just be a national day of apology.

Alternatively, England could just be real with itself. Instead of doubling down and churning out characters like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Fabricant, who pride themselves on standing for everything even the English hate about the English, it could just accept that it's the pariah of the UK, not the centre of it, and has been for a long time – which is why watching England lose at sporting events remains one of life's sweetest pleasures for my Welsh, Scottish and Irish friends.

The sun has set on an England that comes with inherent national pride. In that same YouGov survey mentioned above, those over-65 tended to believe that England was better in the past, while the younger bracket believed the country's best years lie ahead – so perhaps in the future a new era of humility could rise from the ashes of collective embarrassment. But for now, any traditional celebration of English culture is as knackered as that photo of Pete Doherty smashing a "megga breakfast" in Margate.

@emmaggarland