David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.
Every St George’s Day, I have a bit of a ritual, which goes beyond the celebratory pint. I try to read Orwell’s ‘Lion and the Unicorn’, possibly one of the finest essays in the English language and almost certainly the finest essay ever written about England.
For Orwell, Englishness was a profoundly positive force and something to be celebrated. He argued that, “there is something distinctive and recognisable about English civilisation… it has a flavour of its own… it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past… And above all, it is your civilisation, it is you… The suet puddings and the red pillar boxes have entered into your soul.”
His Englishness was very much of the left. The essay is, after all, subtitled “Socialism and the English Genius”, but he was very much aware that elements of the left were deeply hostile to Englishness and deeply antagonistic to patriotism.
For him, the English intelligentsia represented an “island of dissident thought”, with England being the “only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.” In some left-wing circles, there was “a duty to snigger at every English institution”, bemoaning the fact that throughout “the critical years” many left-wingers “were chipping away at English morale”, trying to “spread an outlook that was sometimes squashily pacifist… but always anti-British.”
That brings me to another annual St George’s Day ritual. Each year, without fail, various elements of the smug left-wing Twitterati remind us that “St George wasn’t actually English” and expect this information to act as a blinding revelation. Other elements of left wing social media either snigger at any mention of St George’s Day or seem appalled at any kind of patriotism.
We’ve all seen the Twitter accounts that treat the English or the British flag as something to be ashamed about and complain about “flag waving” and “jingoism”. These are often the same people who merrily waved Palestinian flags at the Labour Party conference and have European, Palestinian (and almost every flag other than their own) festooned across their Twitter account. They’re often sensitive souls too. One, with the inevitable EU flag on their social media profile, complained that Morrison’s use of the Union Flag on their porridge was “unpleasant and intimidating.”
The problem for Sir Keir Starmer is that such hostility to Englishness and patriotism isn’t just a fringe element in the modern left. In many ways it is the modern left. Despite the good work of the likes of Jon Cruddas and John Denham, a snobbery that looks down on working class patriotism has become the norm.
Little wonder that so many patriotic former Labour heartlands fell to the Conservatives in 2019. As Maurice Glasman argued, Labour became out of touch “with its history, traditions and the communities that cherished and created it. So out of touch that it couldn’t see the rejection coming.”
The new snobs of the left are completely wrong when they argue that Englishness and St George’s Day are somehow divisive. The truth is that Englishness is very much an inclusive identity, and that many of the recent events that brought us together as a country were based around Englishness. Who could forget the incredible feeling throughout the country when Gareth Southgate’s multi-racial England team made it to the World Cup semi finals in 2018? The only people who weren’t surfing the wave of patriotism seemed to be the Guardian columnists who were seemingly happy to support anyone but England.
Polls show that people from every background see Englishness as an inclusive and unifying concept. A poll for British Future showed that 61 per cent of people think that the St George’s flag should be flown more often and a majority of ethic minority voters think St George’s Day parties should be held; 54 per cent of voters believe that paying more attention to Englishness would unite communities. Nor is celebrating Englishness something that should detract from our precious union: 70 per cent of people in England regard themselves as both British and English.
The vast majority of people see England, its complex history and traditions with a sense of real pride. Centuries of freedom, expressed through our Parliament, is a central part of this pride. Today also marks Shakespeare’s birthday and it’s a reminder of the power of the English language, from the Authorised Version through to Byron and Blake. It has helped to define a culture that has made such a profound difference to the world. A uniquely English use of language is still very clear in the lyrics of people like Alex Turner, Ray Davies, Joe Strummer and Pete Doherty.
There’s so much to celebrate in English music, architecture and culture, which has spread English identity globally; and more locally, in the English pub, English humour, the beauty of the English countryside, and the great games of football and cricket.
Celebrating Englishness is something that will help to strengthen a sense of community. We have all seen local communities come together during lockdown and we should do what we can to maintain these new bonds.
Strengthening community is, of course, a key goal of the Government and Danny Kruger set out a number of sensible proposals in his excellent Levelling Up Our Communities report. Many of the ‘Red Wall’ towns that drove Brexit are also towns that have seen community facilities and “social infrastructure” damaged by deindustrialisation, austerity and economic decline. Marking important occasions, like St George’s Day, isn’t going to revive community spirit single-handedly (that needs genuine empowerment of local people and renewal of local facilities), but it will be a step in helping restore community spirit.
Community will not be strengthened by an identity-obsessed left or by economically reductionist libertarians. As conservatives, we instinctively understand the importance of place, community and continuity and doing more to mark St George’s Day will strengthen all three. We should make a much bigger deal of St George’s Day and make it a day for everyone to share our pride in England and Englishness. Why not make St George’s Day a bank holiday in England as St Andrew’s Day is in Scotland or St Patrick’s Day in Northern Ireland?
As James Frayne argued on these pages a few months ago, bringing back local events is an important way of restoring local pride and a sense of community and the revival of St George’s Day events in 2022 and beyond would be a great way of bringing communities together.
When he was Mayor of London, Boris Johnson was right to push back against the lunacy of London spending millions on St Patrick’s Day parades but doing nothing for St George’s Day. He introduced free events and celebrations so that the day was no longer ignored in London and correctly argued that “St George’s Day is a time to celebrate the best of everything English.”
Just as London started to celebrate St George’s Day properly when Boris was Mayor, hopefully from next year onwards the rest of England can be encouraged to mark the day as well. This year, we can mark the occasion in a beer garden, in a socially distanced way. Next year, when the nightmare of Covid is behind us, hopefully people in villages, towns and cities around England will be able to come together to celebrate our Englishness and raise a glass to St George.