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Saturday, April 23, 2005


Cry God for Harry, England and who?

Today is St George's Day, the national day of England, and the English will celebrate it with... well, not a lot.

To find out what is happening, I put the phrase "St George's Day" into Google and the first website to come up in my search was
St.George's Day Events, "a 'not for profit' organisation, dedicated to promoting and celebrating St. George's Day".

It looked promising. I clicked on 'news and events'. If I tell you that fourth on this nationwide list of events is a scouts' parade in Luton, you will get a flavour. Further down the list, however, we discover that not all English folk traditions are dead. The Heather Pub in Wembley is indulging in that traditional English pastime of Karaoke, while in nearby Harlesden, the Ace Cafe is hosting a Ska Night.

Gore Vidal once remarked how every ethnic group in the USA had its day and its big parade, apart from the English (he didn't mention the German-Americans, but that's another story). He speculated what such a celebration might look like and concluded that it would consist of a parade through New York by men in bowler hats, singing sea shanties.

The current election controversy about immigration suggests a deeply nationalistic race, yet the English are curiously reticent about their nationality. Following the Union with Scotland, the English subsumed their identity within 'Britishness'. If you look at archive film of the 1966 World Cup final, for example, you'll notice that the England fans were waving Union Jacks, not the Cross of St George. It was not until the 1996 European Cup, held in England ("football's coming home..."), that English soccer fans began to wave the English rather than the British flag.

Except at soccer matches, however, the English assume that anyone who displays a flag - British or English - must be a racist or a nutter. Most English people still prefer to regard nationalism as a matter for consenting adults in private.

While the English tend to avoid overt displays of nationalism, they still need a sense of identity. Now that the Scots and the Welsh have walked away from the concept of Britishness, the English have been left wondering who they are. The debate about Englishness really got going when John Major, during his term as prime minister in the early 90s, made this famous remark:

"Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county [cricket] grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist."
This image was instantly repudiated by a variety of other people with an assortment of rival visions. It turned out that no-one in England could agree what Englishness was. The one point on which the English agreed was that they did not conform to foreigners' stereotypes of the English.

The truth is that, whether you are English or not, if you have a particular image of England, you will be able to find evidence somewhere in England to confirm your prejudices.

The paradox of trying to impose a uniform identity on the English is that England's chief characteristic is probably its variety. Indeed, the English have traditionally celebrated their individualism and eccentricity. So why should anyone be anxious to create a more homogeneous image?

The present English identity crisis is not simply a function of UK devolution but mirrors similar crises all over the world, as people struggle to come to terms with the effects of globalisation.

The English who are most comfortable in their own skins are precisely those who make the least song-and-dance about their nationality. They are educated and cosmopolitan people with transferable skills, who are best able to benefit from a globalised world.

The English with the biggest chips on their shoulders are the older, white and mostly working class people who have been left behind by globalisation. This is the group most likely to retreat behind a stockade of caricature Englishness, blaming foreigners for their insecurity.

This, more than anything else, explains the vote swap that has been going on over the past ten years, with the Labour Party attracting the affluent middle classes while losing its traditional working class support to the Tories, UKIP or abstention.

It is becoming increasingly clear that these underlying social changes are fuelling the arguments in this general election campaign, in so far as there is any real debate at all. Immigration has a potent value because, more than any other election issue, it is able to symbolise and channel some much deeper feelings.

The political argument should not be about whether hostility to immigration is racist - it obviously is and there's no point denying it. The argument should instead be about the underlying insecurities that provide fertile ground for racism.

No policy to combat racism can work unless it is based on a strategy of restoring a sense of inclusiveness and giving people power over their own lives. The right-wing response of pandering to racism deals with symptoms rather than causes, while the traditional left-wing response of 'multiculturalism' - particularly when it tells white people they must live in a perpetual state of guilt - merely aggravates the situation.

It is a perfectly legitimate aspiration for everyone to want a sense of belonging, in the sense of both community and economic usefulness. Neither New Labour nor the Tories are prepared to address the basic problem of people's insecurities, consequently their political argument about immigration and asylum-seekers is entirely beside the point.

These questions of identity and insecurity boil down to the most basic political question of all - how you distribute power and wealth. Popular insecurity is a product of a sense of powerlessness - Liberals above all should understand this.

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