Wednesday, April 23, 2003

St George And The BBC

this was sent to BBC online in 2002 in response to the essay by the BBC's Voice Of England - Billy Bragg. I wonder how they will celebrate today ?)

'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. Like many anti-racists who've made some money, he has left the multicultural city and chosen to live in a leafy, white and conservative area - in his case 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 to liberals when we praise the glories and great deeds of the British, 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.

The Essay

St George in the 21st Century

The death of the Queen Mother marks the beginning of the end of the British monarchy as we have known it all our lives. Crowned Queen Empress in 1937, she was our last surviving link with imperial Britain and her death heralds the passing of the generation that fought valiantly and suffered greatly during the Second World War.

What she and the King represented in those dark years was a sense of Britishness born out of the stark reality that, in the face of Nazi invasion, the fates of England, Scotland and Wales were the same.

What ? So there was no sense of Britishness before 1940 ? When was "Rule Britannia" written ? Where did Victorian imperialism come from ? Linda Colley asserted in her book "Britons" that the idea of Britishness was an eighteenth century invention, now BB moves its genesis to 1940. A ridiculous assertion.

It's no coincidence that the arch Euro-sceptic Margaret Thatcher is so fond of harking back to the 1940s (is she ? I thought she liked the Victorians), for it was then that the contemporary British identity was forged (Does he really believe this ?). We emerged a mono-cultural people who identified strongly with the monarchy, the Union Jack and the Empire. See above - what nonsense ! We 'emerged' monocultural, did we ? What did we enter WWII as ?

However, the notion of three countries with one united destiny no longer rings true. The Scots, in voting recently for their own parliament, made a psychological break with the British Empire and set their sights on the future (why the future ? Scots and Welsh independence is looking to the past), daring the Welsh to follow and leaving the English to scratch their heads in puzzlement.

Have you ever wondered what will happen if Scotland decides to become independent someday? Well, England will be independent too. How true. Specialist subject - the bleeding obvious.

Like it or not, these issues of identity will come to the fore in the inevitable euro referendum. Those in England who believe that there are votes to be won in stirring up xenophobia (ah ! the evil forces of the Right) will exploit the ambiguity that exists between being British and being English in the hope of generating a mood of English nationalism that can be converted into votes at the following general election. I'm not sure what this sentence means. But presumably English nationalist votes are a Bad Thing - unlike Scottish, Welsh and (especially) Irish nationalist votes.

For those of us on the progressive side of the political spectrum, this will present a new challenge. In the past we have favoured an internationalist, multi-cultural approach to identity. In other words, we have continually denigrated the idea of Englishness. Yet, by refusing to put forward any alternative notions of what it can mean to be English, we have made it easy for the racists to claim Englishness as their own. A bit of a travesty of truth, this. How about 'hitherto, we on the left have considered all manifestations of Englishness to be racist - now that Englishness shows signs of revival, we wish to get back on (and be in control of) the bandwagon. Hence this essay.'

Consequently, when the subject of English identity comes up, it is the violent, swaggering football hooligan who first comes to mind and the flag of St George, most often seen, not flying from a flag pole but stuck to the back of a white mini-van, becomes a symbol of intimidation.

The death of the Queen Mum, Scotland's new aspirations and the debate over the euro all give us the opportunity to ask who we are, now, rather than continually hark back to who we were.

The England that most of us live in is a diverse society that cannot simply be shoe-horned into one mono-cultural pigeonhole. Furthermore, jumping to a conclusion on the definition of Englishness is pointless as inevitably it will be narrow and many will feel excluded.

Surely what we need to do is each re-evaluate what it is to be English in the 21st Century and so establish the foundations of a collective sense of Englishness. Only then can we take a step back from this big picture and see the common elements that give us, the English, a sense of belonging. The second true statement in the 'essay'.

However, this cannot be achieved simply by promoting multi-culturalism at the expense of the host culture (what perception ! Who exactly thought it could ? Mr Bragg seems to be having a private argument with some other far-left group here). Multi-culturalism can be used as a get-out clause by politicians who are only prepared to pay lip service to notions such as equality and diversity. If chicken tikka marsala really is the most popular dish in the country then multi-culturalism is Englishness and vice versa. A remarkable theory - and marsala is a heavy Sicilian wine. The polka was all the rage in the early nineteenth century but I'm not sure that made us particularly Polish.

This is not to say that England is a country without racial prejudices (don't worry, I'm sure none of us could ever get that idea from your writings). Black football players still have to suffer shameful abuse from racist fans. But ask yourself this - does Emile Heskey only become an Englishman when he pulls on his England shirt or is he still an Englishman when he goes home to his family after the game?

If you believe the latter, then the implication is that Englishness is less about ethnicity and more to do with the space we occupy together today; that where you are is more important than were you are from. So anyone physically situated in England is English ! Tell that to a Scot ! No more St Patrick's celebrations for Ken Livingstone to subsidise, no more India Day ceremony, no Burns Night or St. David's south or east of the border.

This doesn't mean that we all have to celebrate St George's Day with a rose in our lapel (I understand that, but could you tell us what it DOES mean ?), but at a time when the sun is setting on the mono-cultural British identity, it does offer us a basis on which to construct an inclusive English identity for the third millennium.