BBC Online has some regional coverage of St George (patron saint of England, feast-day today) this year, including this BBC London item, which garnered a huge and overwhelmingly positive response to the question “should London have a major St. George’s Day celebration ?”. We seem to be getting less coverage these days which suggests that celebrating Englishness is reserved for knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.
Not so only a few years back. Here’s a piece I wrote in 2002.
‘Twas the feast of St George, 2001, 10.30 at night, and in my country hovel life was good. Some red wine and garlic bread (traditional English fayre), a good book, Radio 4 murmuring gently.
“And for St George’s Day, a special guest talks about England and what it means to be English”.
Who could it be, I wondered – Peter Hitchens perhaps, or Simon Heffer of the Daily Mail who has advocated English self-rule – maybe Sir Patrick Moore, whose knighthood was long delayed because of his English nationalism (he was I believe a member of the English National Party during the 1970s/80s).
“And here in the studio we have Billy Bragg !”
I almost fell off my chair (may have been the wine) as the Bard of Barking held forth, turning out to be so proud of his Englishness that he felt English about once every three days, otherwise feeling European or a citizen of the world.
(For foreign surfers, Billy Bragg is a singer and poet of far-left views – not perhaps the first name that would spring to mind when the words ‘English patriot’ are pronounced. Some of his songs are quite memorable but George Brassens or Jacques Brel he ain’t – nor Tom Waits or Randy Newman neither. He is a strong anti-racist who has left the multicultural city and chosen to live in a leafy, white and conservative area – Dorset).
I did wonder as this year’s St George’s approached how the BBC could top that this year. Tariq Ali perhaps, or Peter Tatchell ? And as the day approaches, a sighting shot on St George – the BBC News site announces “St George comes under fire”. A Simon Pipe recorded that ‘some critics say St George’s Day is best ignored.’ Well, one critic to be precise – the historian Professor Ronald Hutton, who believes that “It would be a sure sign of a loss of nerve” if we celebrated St George’s day.
An alternative voice (you know how keen the BBC are on diversity) comes from Chris Doyle, of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, who says toasting St George is “deeply insensitive” – after all, the Crusades were only seven hundred years ago. (note : why is it that ‘harking back to the past’ is obnoxious when we praise the glories and great deeds of the English, but such a good thing when we berate ourselves for (perceived) past sins ?)
And this year ? He’s back ! The voice of England has an essay on the BBC website, looking to a future ‘where anyone, of any race, will be happy to call themselves English’. What, even passing tourists ? Even the French ? The Scots ? Martin McGuinness ? If everyone can be English, then why should anyone wish to be ?
The site says “Billy Bragg is proud to be English, but not everyone who lives in England feels the same way. For millions of his fellow countrymen and women, English patriotism reeks of racism.”
That’s bad news – the BBCs chief political correspondent Andrew Marr helped draw up the notorious “British=racist” Runnymede Trust report a couple of years ago, now English=racist as well !
And what does Billy Bragg think are the defining characteristics of Englishness ? He thinks we need a debate, and only then can we see “the common elements that give us, the English, a sense of belonging“. This contradicts his earlier assertion that “everyone has their own, personal definition“. His definition includes the writing of William Blake and George Orwell.
In 1941, when my parents generation – the last heroic generation of Britons, the generation described by Peter Mandelson and Clive Soley in a Labour Party document as ‘racist and xenophobic‘ – while this generation was fighting Hitler prior to electing Labour in the 1945 landslide, George Orwell wrote his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn”.
In it he wrote of the English left-wing intelligentsia as follows : “In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman, and that it is a duty to sneer at every English institution ….It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God Save The King’ than of stealing from a poor-box.”
Times have moved on, and the ideas of this ‘island of dissident thought’ are now those of our ruling elite. And the BBCs negative, carping coverage of the feast of St George, patron Saint of England, shows only too well that Orwell spoke truth.
(For a full fisking of Mr Bragg’s essay go here.)