Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How Fiery is the St George's Cross

How fiery is St George's cross?

The attempts to make St George's day a parade of Englishness betray a lack of self-confidence that is, well, un-English and un-British.
Ian Williams

Some of us are born into identities, some grow into them, and others have them thrust upon us. I will happily raise a tot today in memory of Shakespeare the poet, but will pass on St George's Day. The attempts to make St George's day a parade of Englishness betray a lack of self-confidence that is, well, un-English and un-British.

St David's, St Andrew's and St Patrick's days can be seen as attempts to reassert local identities against a dominant threat - the English. And of course, it is true that constant reminders are necessary to counter the assumption that England continues from Hadrian's Wall to John O' Groats. But whatever allegedly threatens any English identity, it is not from the Celtic Fringe that surrounds and permeates the bits south of Hadrian's Wall and East of Offa's Dyke. One cannot help but detect a subtext in this St George's Day stuff that there is a threat to "Englishness" from British citizens whose origins lie farther afield who may not necessarily see Morris Dancing and the maypole as big things in their cultural life. But how many little Englanders ever clomped their clogs around a maypole anyway?

The dangerous thing about identity is how it can be manipulated by unscrupulous politicians, whether Boris Yeltsin, who split the Soviet Union so he could be number one in its Russian core, or Václav Havel, who supervised the referendum-free velvet divorce between Czechs and Slovaks, even though neither of them especially wanted it. In the conservative press, you can read pundits who want the Scots to secede: this is not because they especially wish their northern neighbours well. On the contrary, they wish them gone in the hope that they will take their collectivist social democratic votes with them - away from Westminster. Actual feelings are more complex than this.

I remember during a union conference in Scotland standing at a bar the night before the England/Scotland match when a hairy Glaswegian giant who looked like an escaped extra from Braveheart heard me order and loomed belligerently into my face. "See you... ye're Inglish!" I demurred and told him I was from Liverpool. "Give the mon a drink, he's no Inglish!" he told the barman - and indeed the bar. And he was right.

I always considered myself British. A majority of my ancestors were Welsh in origin, with some Scots and Swedish, and we have been for three or four generations living in Liverpool, which is geographically in England, but functioned as the capital of North Wales, while being under heavy cultural influences (hence the dialect) from both parts and traditions of Ireland. For the cognoscenti, I've always thought that the Manx connection has been understated as well, although the nearby island of notorious smugglers clearly had some strong influences on the city. Over the years, I've added extra identities. When I came to the US, it made me feel European, and I acquired US citizenship as well. None of these are mutually exclusive.

Last week I almost had tears in my eyes at the New York launch of Liverpool as the European City of Culture for next year. Irish bartenders from the West of Ireland regard Scousers as every bit as Irish as Dubliners. In New York I have washed down haggis with a single malt at Burn's Day suppers, the best arranged by the St Andrews Society. I have toasted Trafalgar Day - in rum of course, at the St George's Society, and eaten strange ancestral Welsh dishes with the St David's society.

There is an interesting division of responsibilities in these New York charitable societies. They were founded some two hundred and fifty years ago to tend for Scots and Welsh down on their luck in New York. The St George's Society tends to any citizens of the commonwealth down on their luck - which is the kind of non-assertive subsumation of cultural identities I can live with. Which brings us to what unites most former citizens of the British Empire: a mild to middling resentment of the Home Counties public school types who presume to speak on our behalf and - I cannot tell a lie - a somewhat condescending attitude to natives of the colonies that broke away in 1776 - in the name of ancient English liberties by the way.

Those who only know of England in the home counties and the St George's cross should remember as they try to nudge out the Scots and Welsh that many parts of Northern England feel closer politically and socially to their Celtic neighbours than they do to either New Labour or even Cameron's new Conservatives. I could quite understand the Scots being miffed at London. But for the sake of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester, I hope they stick around and think of the Red Cross as something you put on ambulances, not bumper stickers.


Bunc said...

Hi Ian, I am a Liverpudlian who has been living in Scotland for many years. I very much agree with your sentiments in this post. I think most scousers wear their Englishness very lightly - if at all.
My experience in Scotland has also been similar. Scots tend to excuse me being English because I am from Liverpool. Like you I tend to think of myself as a Liverpudlian and then as British.

However seeing oneself as British is a much rarer form of identity up here in Scotland these days. It was a pleasant surprise stumbling on your blog. Less pleaasant was having to bear Chelsea beating Liverpool 1 - 0 this evening!

Deadline Pundit said...

Thanks Bunc
as you will notice if you check the Guardian, my comments were not universally welcomed. But one of the whole points of the column is to piss people off and make them think!