Something has changed in the English national landscape and it became clearer than ever to me during last year's football World Cup. The flag of St George, for centuries confined largely to the spires of rural parish churches, flew from cars, pubs and shops. It could be seen on flagpoles in the front gardens of middle-class homes. Most of the flags were imported from China - a telling commentary on the state of British manufacturing - and the poles were made of DIY dowling, of the sort the Lord Chancellor looks down his nose at, but they echoed the Stars and Stripes that stand permanently outside countless American homes. On council estates, the flags were stuck to windows or hung from balconies next to the family washing. There were sometimes so many that the scene recalled the patriotic street parties held on VE Day, except that the flag now being flown was a different one.
The Union Jack, indeed, was hardly to be seen, and its rare appearances prompted derision. One afternoon, I noticed a middle-aged woman in a car at some traffic lights, her windows decked out with Union Jacks. Within seconds came a reminder of how much the nation has changed. A lorry pulled up next to her, its young driver leaned out of his cab and, pointing to the flags, shouted with a friendly grin: "Oi, love! Wrong country!"
On my way to watch England play Argentina, something happened that was perhaps even more significant. I was walking down a busy road in south London carrying a large George flag. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry was being held not far away at the Elephant and Castle, and black newspapers were full of letters lamenting the virulent racism that still exists in England. Yet, when a dozen West Indian mothers outside a school saw my flag, they smiled and waved while their children broke into a chant of "Eng-er-land"; an Asian man in a car honked his horn and gave me the thumbs up. Finally, a Nigerian woman grabbed my arm and told me that she'd be cheering for England because, although she'd only been here 15 years, this was her home now and England was her second team.
I doubt the Union Jack would have got the same response even if a British team had existed because, for most blacks and Asians, it retains echoes of empire and the National Front. The cross of St George is a more neutral, inclusive symbol which lacks the historical baggage of the Union Jack and more clearly offers a right to belong to this country.
The phenomenon I am describing is not confined to football. St George's Day is beginning to be properly celebrated for the first time since the Elizabethan era. Salisbury is one of several local authorities that organise a week of festivities. They culminate with a torchlit procession through the town to the Market Square where, to the sound of Elgar and the delight of children, a "knight" slays a Chinese dragon (presumably supplied by the same company that makes the flags).
One of the many pubs I saw advertising a St George's night in London last year, complete with "Britpop disco" and "Yorkshire pud" eating contest, implored customers to "give the Celts a run for their money, and show them how it's done". The pub was packed on the night. Even St George's Day greetings cards are beginning to be sold by retailers in some towns. Most revealing of all is that George flags took noticeably longer to come down after World Cup '98 than they did after Euro '96, as if people were waiting for a reason to continue flying them. Truly, the past - our past as a United Kingdom - is becoming a foreign country.
Devolution is responsible for this change. England's political classes want an answer to the West Lothian Question, while those uninterested in the niceties of democratic representation simply resent what appears to be a nation of ingrates - happy to take English subsidies while heaping scorn, and often sheer hatred, on their fellow citizens. For years, the English invited this treatment because of their thoughtlessly arrogant habit of regarding England and Britain as the same country. Now, they are gaining a deeper awareness of their own nationhood.
In the 1990 World Cup and Euro '96, most Scots rooted for England's opponents. The 1998 World Cup was no different, with 90 per cent of those polled saying they would not support England (40 per cent said they would rather anyone other than England won it). However, the English reaction to such reports was dramatically different last year. Previously, news of the Scottish "betrayal" was greeted with wounded disbelief and a naive hope that people north of the border were just having a laugh. In 1998, the attitude of the Scots was not only accepted as the natural state of things; it also provoked a corresponding refusal to support them in their matches. Every goal scored against Scotland was cheered and sometimes accompanied by the popular terrace refrain "You're shit and you know you are!" (Repeat four times.) At half-time, men and women could be heard proclaiming their Englishness in a range of songs from "Jerusalem" to Oasis's "D'You Know What I Mean?" (Chorus: "All my people right here, right now, d'you know what I mean?")
Opinion polls show that the revival of English patriotism is strongest among the younger generation. A survey of teenagers conducted shortly after the Scottish referendum in September 1997 revealed that 66 per cent thought themselves to be English rather than British, where previously the figure had rarely moved above 25 per cent.
Part of the reason for this change is that the decline in popular respect for British institutions is more marked among the young. The monarchy, on which the Union was forged, has suffered the sharpest decline, despite the miracle cure offered by the cult of Diana and the more recent attempt to make a pubescent pin-up of her elder son. Questioned on what defined their nationality, 36 per cent mentioned the English football team, 17 per cent EastEnders and Coronation Street, but only 14 per cent the monarchy. Parliament came bottom of the list with 1 per cent - a figure that reflects perennial cynicism about politicians rather than disillusionment with democracy as a whole.
Other focal points of identity, according to this poll, were fish and chips and Britpop. Morris dancing, long the butt of jokes about the whimsical nature of Englishness, did not get a mention at all. Nor did stately homes or the countryside in general. For all the concern in the 1980s about the reactionary effect of the heritage industry, it seems the English are not that obsessed with the countryside. They may enjoy the odd day trip to the Lakes, but they actually possess a predominantly modern, urban national identity. Hence the popular reaction to the "Countryside Alliance" march: when the squirearchy came to town, posing as keepers of the nation's soul, they were greeted with indifference or mocked as Tory buffoons.
The fading memory of the second world war is accelerating the decline of Britishness. The legend of the "finest hour" is iconically English - presented in films of the 1950s as a tale of "chaps" in Spitfires thrashing Jerry over the fields of Kent while humming the "White Cliffs of Dover". But however much the war reinforced Englishness, it did so within a British context because people were aware of defending an island under siege which could ill afford national divisions. The wartime generation - both English and Scots - therefore feel most attached to the Union, and as that generation dies out sentimental loyalty to Britain is dying with them.
Liberals and socialists are uneasy about this new English patriotism. Football hooliganism revives old caricatures of the patriot as a shaven-headed xenophobic racist - by Mosley out of Thatcher, with Nick Hornby as a naive midwife slapping the lad into life. But most English people do not want to fight foreigners on the beaches, or anywhere else for that matter. The recent survey of English teenagers showed that, for all their new sense of Englishness, only 7 per cent would unconditionally fight for queen and country.
Were they to look up, liberals and socialists might see that the development of a radical patriotism is still possible in England. The most cursory glance at English history - Shakespeare, parliamentary democracy, the NHS, the Beatles and, yes, football - shows that there is a heritage to be proud of. And, as the Guardian commentator Jonathan Freedland has recently argued, it is a heritage that all radicals can build on if they belatedly learnt something from the libertarian patriotic ideals of the American revolution as well as from the more statist European tradition of the 19th and 20th centuries.
In any case, attempting to repress patriotic feelings by demonising them is bad for a nation's health. It deprives people of one of the most natural expressions of fellowship and therefore achieves precisely the opposite of what most on the left set out to achieve.
How, then, can we address the sense of dislocation felt by the English people and make it part of a radical agenda? The answer is for England to become an independent nation-state once again. England was the driving force behind the British Empire and, as a result, the English, more than any other inhabitants of these islands, find it hard to discover a post-imperial identity. So they should take the initiative in the dismantling of the Union on which the empire was founded. If the English grasped independence within Europe now, it would be the making of modern England, a chance to rediscover and re-imagine themselves within a progressive framework.
There are lessons to be learnt from Britain's recent past. In the 1950s, the British stood arrogantly by while the European Union was founded, only to be forced towards the continent by the national humiliation of the Suez affair of 1956 and the realisation that the empire was finished and America was now top dog. This cost us all dearly, both in money and prestige, when the country finally did join the Common Market in 1973. Now the English, or at least their political leaders, are displaying similar arrogance towards Scotland. If, as looks likely, the Scots vote for independence in two years' time, the English will have regained their nationhood, but only by default and in the same spirit in which they and the rest of Britain entered Europe.
The left's concern that English independence would deliver the country permanently to the Tories is misplaced. It underestimates the historic English dislike of one-party states and over-mighty leaders, and the protection that could be offered by proportional representation and a tranche of human rights guaranteed by Brussels. The English left has a great opportunity: to become, for the first time in half a century, the party of patriotism.
Instead of grappling with the possibility of English independence, the left and centre propose the creation of English regional assemblies. Eurosceptics believe that these will be a Trojan horse of European federalism, cutting England up into chunks to make it easier for Germany to digest - just as the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy was picked off by the Danes and Normans between the 9th and 11th centuries. Their fear is typical of the paranoia that characterises so much Eurosceptic argument. There are important cultural differences within England and, in time, they should be allowed greater political expression. However, regional assemblies would not solve the English Question. You cannot turn a nation into a collection of regions until you have first allowed it to become a nation again.
There is no popular demand for the assemblies; indeed the idea is not even supported by a majority in Yorkshire, which has one of the strongest regional identities in England. Far from "preparing the people for power" as an article in the New Statesman recently put it, "the people" fear that regional assemblies would simply be more jobs for the boys, paid for by the taxpayer. They also suspect that while the Scots, Welsh and Irish are being allowed to express their identity on a greater scale than ever before, they, the English, are being stifled by a government that simply wants to prevent the break-up of the Union because it is afraid of losing its electoral majority.
The only people who seem really excited about English regional assemblies are the Celtic elite. Is it because they care passionately about the democratic needs of the people of Essex? Or is it because they cannot accept that England, by its sheer size and proximity to Europe, will almost always be the dominant force in the British Isles? Linford Christie, discussing St George's Day with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight recently, summed up the popular response to this fatuous solution to England's future. Why, he demanded, should England be dismembered? "We're a nation too, you know, not just a load of regions."
It is not certain where this new English patriotism will lead over the next 20 years. We may continue to drift in our post-imperial twilight zone, trying to patch up ever more constitutional anomalies and despised by large numbers of our fellow citizens for doing so. Eventually, we may tire of the struggle and, like Alec Guinness as Admiral d'Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets, stand stoically on the bridge of the ship while she goes down - in this case watching the vice-admiral being piped ashore to the tune of "Flower of Scotland". Or we may, as 59 per cent of our teenagers believe, find the courage to be one of five separate states in the British Isles. If needs must, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could be linked symbolically by the crown, and (with the Republic of Ireland) by a non-executive Council of the Isles. But they would be politically bound only by common membership of the European Union.
That would not be the end of our problems. Even if negotiations were handled with the care that brought about the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Irish and the Welsh would remain hostile to the dismantling of the Union. The Scots present a different problem. As the Daily Record recently observed, it is uncertain whether the inferiority complex which torments many Scots will be cured by their gaining independence, and the English may have to endure further abuse in the post-Union era, even if they no longer have to bankroll it.
What is certain, however, is that the new English patriotism is here to stay. If Britain's elites continue to sneer at it, or if they fob it off with regional assemblies, they will come to regret their myopia. G K Chesterton famously wrote, "smile at us, pay us, pass us, but do not quite forget, for we are the people of England who have not spoken yet". At last, the English people are speaking. But unless someone starts to listen very soon, the historic chance to channel that patriotism into a radical modernisation of England will be lost.
It is not simply that the English will be left behind by their former partners in the Union. There is also a danger that the initiative will pass to the right. In January 1997 Teresa Gorman placed a bill for an English parliament before the Commons, offering "Home Rule for the English" under the Union, with all four British parliamentary assemblies operating in conjunction with a slightly reformed, but still supreme, Westminster. William Hague is now seriously examining the idea with a view to winning back Middle England. If the right succeeds in claiming English patriotism as they did British patriotism in the late 19th century, it will take generations to wrest it away again. By then, we may not even have a flag to fly. Georgia, whose patron saint is also St George, is about to lay formal claim to the George Cross as its national flag. There is no time to lose.
Richard Weight is currently writing a history of national identity in Britain since 1940, to be published by Macmillan in December1999