England’s national story is more than cod medieval pageants and fake chain mail.
St George is making a comeback. He may be obscure, semi-mythological (at least), and most certainly not English, but celebrations of St George’s Day seem to be breaking out in more and more communities. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party – not known for its focus on England – is promising to make it a bank holiday, a policy with widespread public support. English residents have mixed and multiple identities, and for the foreseeable future English, British, and the two together, will all be relevant. But the increased interest in England’s national day reflects the fact that Englishness too is a national identity.
Reinventing St George’s Day as a mainstream, family, event has to be a good thing. Most English people have always taken their national identity for granted, in an understated, mustn’t make a fuss, rather English sort of way. Along the way, ideas of English identity have evolved, in line with changing attitudes across society. Most people no longer think you have to white to be English. For most it is a national, not an ethnic, identity. Flags like St George’s have perhaps surprising resonance across different communities.
But that view is still contested. A minority (about 25 per cent) do see Englishness as white. Ironically, that’s a view that is often argued most strongly – in the face of the evidence – by parts of the liberal left and the metropolitan media. The left’s disdain plays into the hands of far right groups like the English Defence League who exploit this residual ethnic identity; Ukip blatantly tried to capitalise on similar sentiments.
Public celebrations of St George, drawing in thousands of people and promoted by public and voluntary bodies, help to marginalise those who want to stir England for divisive motives. That is, if they are done properly. St George’s Day celebrations cannot simply acknowledge English identity; they need play a role in promoting a positive, inclusive Englishness. Last year, when London Mayor Sadiq Khan declared himself “proud to be a Londoner, proud to be England” it sent powerful messages not only to London’s millions of English identifiers but also to those with a migrant heritage who wanted to be sure that Englishness was open to them.
But such symbolic moments are too few and far between. A quick search of English Heritage’s St George’s Day programme reveals not a single non-white face. English Heritage’s strapline is “step into England’s story”. Surely 20 years of Black History Month – to say nothing of the current Windrush generation scandal – have illustrated that England’s story is not exclusively white. Nor did it begin and end with cod medieval pageants that owe as much to Disney as to history. The same weakness is apparent in of many celebrations promoted by local authorities across the country. Of course festivals have to be fun, but England’s national story has been made by all the people who have made their homes here; they cannot be left out.
Local celebrations can bring out that history. For four years I helped organise Southampton’s festival. By telling the story of a great English city, shaped by all the people who have made their lives there, we could acknowledge the contribution of oldest and the newest communities over hundreds of years (from families rooted in the city for as long as anyone can remember to the 16th century Huguenots, the Polish pilots who flew Southampton’s Spitfire and more recent migrants whose families also fought for Britain in the Second World War). Indeed, St George’s ill-determined international origins were part of his appeal to Edward III and his successors who needed unite soldiers from every part of the British Isles and beyond in the English cause.
Done well, St George can mean a lot more than dragons and fake chain mail – indeed, 23 April is also Shakespeare’s birthday and a global, UN backed day of celebration of the English language. England’s history has left the English speaking the world’s language, as part of a population with family connections to every nation. That is well worth celebrating today, and is certainly part of England’s future.