The very idea of English nationalism sounds oxymoronic. Until recently, a distaste for displays of nationhood was one of the few indisputable constituents of the English national character. Flag-waving was for lesser breeds; Englishness was at once too impregnable to need expression and too ineffable to allow it. Well, no longer.
You’ll have noticed the eruption of the Cross of St George at sporting internationals – not just waved from the stands, but painted on to faces and dyed in to hair. Perhaps you’ve tracked its progress from the bumpers of London taxis to the antennae of Cheshire millionaires’ Rolls-Royces. By now, you may expect to see it flying from the flagstaffs of parish churches as a matter of course. You might be a little more surprised to find it, as you could, fluttering above a newsagent’s in Watford.
Meanwhile, the bawdy folksongs of a forgotten culture seem to have found an unexpected new following in the less reputable of the nation’s pubs. Upmarket restaurants are finding English cuisine, of all things, a premium draw. Opinion polls suggest that more and more of the people of England, especially the young, now consider themselves English rather than British. A new magazine (called Steadfast) debates issues of Englishness, a publisher (called Athelney) now specialises in volumes on English nationalism, and the web is awash with sites urging England’s independence.
What’s changed? Paradoxically, current fads that conflict with traditional English values, such as multiculturalism and expressionism, have weakened inhibitions about acknowledging nationhood. This doesn’t, however, mean the English have been reborn as mindless jingoists. There’s an inescapable element of self-mockery in the current wave of nationalist fervour. Most English people still find chauvinism a bore; yet they have noticed that, nowadays, nationalist whingeing seems to pay off. Reluctantly, they’ve decided that they’d better join the party. Certainly, aloof disdain for fighting their national corner was starting to cost them dear.
Never mind the entombment of their ancient weights and measures in Euro- porridge; the English were being suckered within the UK. It’s one thing for Scottish MPs to interfere in England’s domestic affairs while their English counterparts have no say in Scotland’s. But Scots also have more MPs at Westminster than their mere numbers merit. Public spending per head has been 23 per cent higher in Scotland than in England, 18 per cent higher in Wales, and 39 per cent higher in Northern Ireland. Hospital waiting lists and oversized classes are thus in effect English problems. While English commuters are crammed into trains from hell, empty ferries cruise the Western Isles, courtesy of English subsidy. The Scottish Parliament is empowered to raise income tax; it chooses not to. Why should it, when it can featherbed Scottish students and old people out of its surplus bounty from England?
The justification for England’s enforced generosity to its neighbours used to be that they needed it. Now, however, we know that Britain’s poorest areas are in London. The real reason for the Great Celtic Comfort Blanket can no longer be disguised: it’s simply a bribe to buy quiescence. For the English, the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have become the UK’s whining children, forever threatening to wet their knickers in public unless they’re given a lolly. They’ll go independent unless they can have their own parliament which, by the way, will need a £400m building. They’ll starve themselves to death unless they can have their own TV channel. They’ll protract their dreary, sectarian squabble unless English politicians organise them a peace process. They repay the English for conceding these demands by blowing them up, burning down their homes and, even worse, supporting their opponents on the football field.
Betrayal by their own leaders has further tried the patience of the English. England’s left-wing elite wishes it was Irish; it hates its fellow countrymen for their stubborn refusal to embrace ideological correctness. Thus, Ken Livingstone ordered London to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, but has forbidden it to celebrate St George’s. Meanwhile, the Blairite elite wishes it was Italian; it despises its countrymen for their vulgarity and stroppiness. Thus, Tony Blair hopes to break England into pieces and to scatter them to the wind for ever in a Europe of the regions. As a first step, he would like to dismember the country administratively, by setting up regional assemblies which few of the English want.
The English, it seems, will no longer put up with all this. Far from being expunged from the calendar, St George’s Day (on 23 April) is becoming the rallying point of a nation the more irrepressible for being so thoroughly repressed. This year, the newly minted tradition of sending cards to mark the England patron’s festival is expected to go mainstream. English people such as Scilla Cullen of North Hertfordshire, who are fed up with the authorities’ refusal to declare a public holiday, will take the day off anyway (though, being English, they will use their annual holiday allocation, rather than go on strike or throw a sickie).
For the first time, the Campaign for an English Parliament will take its struggle to the streets, with a march to Trafalgar Square. Livingstone’s ban is to be defied by rebel members of the Greater London Authority, who will hold their own event. You might expect Chesham All Girls’ Band to parade in Marlow, but the St George’s Day Feast at that bikers’ Mecca, the Ace Cafe on London’s north circular, comes as more of a surprise.
Even in advance of such doings, the resurgent English have drawn blood. By the next general election, boundaries will have been redrawn to end Scotland’s over-representation at Westminster. The Tories are demanding that remaining Scottish MPs should quit the chamber when “English” issues are under discussion. Lord Barnett, who devised the formula enshrining the Celtic Fringe’s budgetary privileges, now urges its abolition. John Prescott, whose friends in the north are outraged by Scotland’s fiscal advantages, has boldly gone off-message in support of this idea. The regional dismemberment scheme has been unexpectedly and perhaps terminally delayed, after protests on behalf of the ancient English counties that it would wipe out. To be English is now considered an advantage at Westminster, and Gordon Brown is said to fear that his nationality could cost him his life’s ambition.
So what should we expect from this oldest of new nations? Will St George’s reborn people become a beacon of tolerance, fair-mindedness and decency? Maybe. Of bellicosity and brutishness? At times, almost certainly: England doesn’t top the league of football hooligans for nothing. Of racism? Less likely, perhaps. It is, after all, in mongrel England rather than in the culturally preening Celtic Fringe that our ethnic minorities choose to base themselves; English people of Asian and Caribbean origin are also the most enthusiastic adherents of the country’s arcane national summer game. Anyway, we shall have to put up with whatever we get. A century ago, G K Chesterton wrote ominously: “For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.” Now the day of the English, reticent no longer, seems at last about to dawn.