David Skelton is the director of Renewal, an organisation dedicated to broadening the appeal of the Conservative Party
It’s St George’s Day today. I, for one, will be celebrating it. Probably with a pint of ale – one of the great traditional drinks of England that has experienced a welcome resurgence. We should use every St George’s Day to celebrate our sense of shared identity and what brings us together.
I can imagine the sniggers from liberals, on both left and right, at this concept. For them, the idea of Englishness or even national identity is an alien one. Little has changed from when Orwell talked about, “the really important fact about so many of the English intelligentsia – their severance from the common culture of the country”. But to the vast majority of people living in England, Englishness is both real and a sense of genuine pride. We shouldn’t have to wait for royal weddings, World Cups or jubilees for shared national occasions that bring us together.
A poll for British Future showed that 61 per cent of people think that the St George’s flag should be flown more often, but 67 per cent think that St Patrick’s Day is celebrated more than St George’s Day at the moment. Those who think that Englishness is somehow ‘exclusive’ should reflect on that fact that only 12 per cent of BME voters don’t agree that St George’s Day should be a bank holiday, and 54 per cent of voters believe that paying more attention to Englishness would unite communities.
Celebrating Englishness is entirely consistent with a strong belief in the Union and the United Kingdom. As Conservatives, we should be proud of the United Kingdom and passionate about the Union that we should fight to preserve. But that shouldn’t stop the English celebrating our Englishness as well. A recent poll showed that 70 per cent of people in England regard themselves as both English and British.
To most people in England, Englishness exists; it’s a positive force and being English is something to be proud of. What does this clear sense of Englishness really mean? Orwell called it an “unconscious patriotism,” less vocal than other patriotisms. In The Lion and the Unicorn, probably the greatest essay written in the English language, he said that “there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization… It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature… And above all, it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul.”
English identity, of course, has more to it than suet puddings, pillar boxes or even tea. But there’s so much that we have to be proud of – so many elements of this shared identity that we have to celebrate. For me, fundamental to this is the concept of the “freeborn Englishman” – an idea popularised by the Levellers, with its roots in the Magna Carta. It’s a romantic but important conception that Englishness is rooted in freedom and liberty, something ingrained in the soil and the people, given voice by Levellers, Chartists, suffragettes.
These liberties are expressed through Parliament and institutions. Michael Foot argued that, “no comparable institution… has shaped so continuously the life and society of any Western European state.” John Lilburne, the great Leveller, talked of “the free Commons of England—the real and essential body politic.”
The English language, from Shakespeare, whose birthday is also celebrated today, and the Authorised Version through to Byron and Blake is also a source of enormous pride. 89 per cent of English people told YouGov that they felt proud of the English language, and think it plays an important part in their sense of Englishness. And this uniquely English use of language is still very clear in the lyrics of people like Alex Turner or Ray Davies, as it is in English music, architecture and culture, which has spread English identity globally; and more locally, in the English pub, English humour, the unique beauty of the English countryside and the great games of football and cricket that England has given the world (even though we aren’t always good at playing them).
A sense of pride in this positive sense of Englishness is still missing from politics. Too many, wrongly, regard national identity as divisive, where it is actually unifying and important. The infamous Emily Thornberry tweet summed up that many of today’s Left simply have no real understanding of the instinctive patriotism of working people. The metropolitan Left think that the St George’s flag is somehow a divisive symbol and some seem to feel a sense of shame in the flag, giving the impression that they must choose to leave the country during major football tournaments.
The Left has retreated into an unthinking belief in the state rather than in civic institutions or instinctive patriotism and, in too many cases, represent Orwell’s intelligentsia severed from the common culture of the country. However, there are still some figures on the left who understand. Jon Cruddas, for example, has spoken about the importance of Englishness and tradition: “a respect for settled ways of life; a sense of local place and belonging; a desire for home and rootedness; the continuity of relationships at work and in one’s neighbourhood. England once had this kind of conservative, common culture; it acted as a counter to the commodification of labour and to social isolation.”
As Conservatives, though, we also need to speak more proudly of the common bonds and shared values. Some on the Right have retreated into a libertarian individualism, and others have reduced politics to little more than an extension of market liberalism. It’s important that we start talking again about shared values that go beyond economics and aren’t defined purely by those institutions, such as the Brussels bureaucracy, that we’re against. Conservatives are right to argue that there should be fairness for England in the constitutional settlement, but we should move beyond that and consider what brings us together, speaking positively about Englishness.
Some people in the Westminster bubble may not like the concept of Englishness. Too many politicians have ceased to speak the language of the people, retreating instead to technocratic language and running from concepts like community, belonging, sense of place and shared values. It’s time ignore the naysayers and properly celebrate St George’s Day. We shouldn’t be ashamed of our flag, we should be proud of it and the values it stands for. Those who denigrate Englishness are in a small, but sadly powerful, minority. Englishness can be honoured as part of a wider United Kingdom. It’s a hugely positive, inclusive force and we should use this day to celebrate it.