What David Bowie's 2000 Glastonbury set reveals about modern England

A sea of England flags is not something you'd expect to see in a music festival audience today.

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This year’s Young Fabians Political Writing Competition was judged by the New Statesman’s editor-in-chief, Jason Cowley. The below article is one of three runners-up in the competition.

This year, with life’s usual rhythms interrupted by lockdowns, I found myself with time to contemplate places, people and landmarks from the old normal. Such an opportunity came with the BBC’s repeat of David Bowie’s iconic Glastonbury 2000 set. Though I had anticipated the mesmeric nature of Bowie's performance, I was surprised to see so many St George’s flags flying in the audience. Perhaps they reflected the Uefa Euro Championship held that year, but the juxtaposition between the English flag and Glastonbury's gregarious celebration of the avant-garde seemed to suggest something about how far we have travelled in our perceptions of England over the past 20 years.

Across the nation, including in the south-west, where I grew up, the St George's flag is often flown to express national pride. Yet in recent years it has also become associated with anti-immigration sentiment. The flag today is rarely associated with the demographics many assume Glastonbury Festival to represent – young, liberal, middle class. It is not an emblem of the English nation’s collective psyche, as could be said of the flags of Scotland and Wales.

It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that, in 2019, the artist Stormzy evoked a powerfully different image of national identity at Glastonbury. In his headline act he wore a stab-proof vest, designed by the street artist Banksy and emblazoned with a dark, scuffed Union flag. This “banner of a divided and frightened nation”, as Jonathan Jones wrote in the Guardian at the time, “helped Stormzy speak for England”.

So what has changed since Bowie's crowd called in that first summer of the new millennium? Why has the England flag not been adopted so readily by the next generation?

A 2018 YouGov poll of more than 20,000 adults in England found that while 72 per cent of people aged 65 and over who identified as English were proud of that identity, this number fell to 45 per cent among 18-24 year olds. Nine per cent of the latter category were actively embarrassed by their English identity. This was despite more than three quarters of 18-24 year olds identifying very or fairly strongly as English. Crucially, young people were more likely to see England as a place of diversity, whereas older people were more likely to see it as a place where history, tradition and pageantry are important. This suggests two completely different flavours of England.

There are many reasons behind the Union's current and palpable instability (not least, the rich and unique histories of each of its constituent nations), but the continuing dominance of England, and the divides within England itself over darker aspects of the UK’s history, are high among them.

The sense of urgency that led so many to march against racism in the Black Lives Matter protests, and to pull down the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, was met by accusations that history was being rewritten. Yet historian David Olusoga has highlighted that a statue is not intended to preserve history, but rather, “adoration”: to project an overtly positive image of its subject. While many argue, reasonably, that the Colston statue should have been taken down by democratic means, the years in which local campaigns sought its removal to no avail should not be discounted.

With the fall of Labour's “Red Wall” in the 2019 election, the challenge for progressive leaders is to acknowledge the wrongs of Britain’s past, enact structural change, and be electorally successful in England. To do this, an understanding of and new vision for English patriotism, divorced from nationalism, will be essential. While pride in Englishness is divisive, an English identity remains. To begin to heal the wounds of the past, England will need both the flags in the crowd and Stormzy’s Union-flag vest centre stage.

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