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It's Time to Slay St George's Day

Posted: 19/04/2012 00:00

You always know something is going to be controversial when the introductory sentence is an arse-covering caveat. Well, here's mine. This piece represents my personal opinion, not that of the BBC or any of my colleagues. So, without further ado, let's get straight to the fury-inducing, scandalous bit...

Hi, my name's Greg, and I'm embarrassed to be English...

Now, before you say anything, it's not just because of Piers Morgan. I know that is a very common reason, but my reservations lie elsewhere. Indeed, despite having lived in England my whole life, I vehemently self-identify as being half-British and half-French. Why British? Well, I know it's not very cool to admit this, but I admire the values Britain tries to embody - tolerance, mutual co-operation, multiculturalism, and the constitutional right to insult our leaders to their face. I say I'm French because my mother gets a bit pouty otherwise... and also because France goes through enjoyable phases of being brilliant at football, or bypassing mediocrity straight into operatic absurdity, with the players channelling the spirit of revolutionary heroes, and simply refusing to play. Such a blend of technical wizardry and psychological truculence is utterly riveting.

France, thankfully, is in rude health and is in the midst of an intriguingly tight election race. Whoever wins will be safe in the knowledge that the nation is not about to implode as a political construct. Alas, Britain is a union under threat, and if Scotland withdraws in 2014 then that union will likely collapse. Under such circumstances, I will be forced to call myself English. This will cause me acute concern, partially because Americans will confuse me Hugh Grant, but mostly because of this...

...I am ashamed of the St George's Cross flag.

I'll pause there, so you can fetch the kindling for my pyre...

Look, I know this is controversial, but if I am going to have to live in a modern England, I believe it should not be reflexively branded with medieval, Christian iconography. For one thing, I take umbrage at the singular, religious imagery on a political symbol intended to represent each and every citizen in this country. To be brutally frank, England simply isn't a predominantly Christian nation anymore. While we may still have an official religion - one founded 500 years ago by a misogynist hypocrite looking to weasel his way out of marriage - Anglicanism itself has been dwindling in popularity for over 150 years. Even in Victorian times, England and Wales were peopled by more non-conformists than members of the Church of England. At least that, however, was still an age of profound faith.

Today, censuses show Christianity is hovering at around 53% in Wales and England, yet a YouGov poll in 2011 showed that only half of the people who described themselves as Christians actually believed in Jesus! Despite their own protestations, I am reliably informed that believing in Christ is a basic requirement for being a Christian - the clue's in the name. These people might be better termed Humanists instead, and there's no shame in that. In fact, the YouGov sample group revealed less than a quarter of the population meets the actual criteria for being a practising Christian. It seems, therefore, that while Christianity is indeed the most common religion in this country, the vast majority of us are not Christians. Some of us are even Jedis, apparently... this logically means there are also Sith, so be on the lookout for any Death Stars in your vicinity.

Okay, so some of you will argue the English flag is part of our traditional cultural heritage. Well, so is the Union Flag (it is only called a Union Jack on a ship's mast), yet this may also be consigned to history in a couple of years. Things change, and nations evolve. South Africa created a new flag in 1994 to symbolise the end of apartheid, and other novel designs were used for the flags of Croatia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece and many, many other countries. In fact, England's flag is weird in its particular antiquity, being only a few decades younger than Denmark's, which is the oldest flag in the world. Obviously, as an historian, I do like a good bit of tradition, and I am not advocating we chuck out everything pre-dating 1945. However, I am not talking about some quaint ceremony like the changing of the guard, or judges wearing wigs. What concerns me is how we choose to advertise ourselves to the world. It is time we redesigned our national flag to reflect England as it is, not as it was.

Admittedly, this does fill me with some trepidation - recently we've been a bit crap at national branding. The London 2012 Olympics logo appears to have been the work of a robot in a jigsaw factory that developed its own artificial consciousness, suffered an existential crisis and slumped into ketamine addiction. Rather than pay some overpriced design agency, we should probably just get a Blue Peter viewer to draw a new flag with crayons and some glitter glue... Imagine our athletes proudly standing atop the podium, with a portrait of a shimmering turquoise hamster fluttering elegantly on the nearest flagpole... Okay, that's ridiculous. None of our athletes will be on top of the podium.

I jest, of course - but I am serious about the need for a new flag. Consider the flags of America and France, two nations with many more Christian citizens than us, but deliberately secular political systems - the separation of church and state are enshrined in law, and their flags were carefully designed to be emblematic of moral ideals, not religious predilection. The colours blue, white and red symbolise the virtues they wish their citizens to strive towards, while the American flag has 13 stripes to signify the original colonies, and 50 stars to represent the current states. While it is true that Americans seem to confuse a bit of fluttering fabric with a sentient being, when pledging allegiance to the star spangled banner, at least to the outside world it is a neutral statement of values. In comparison, what does our current flag say about us?

England's flag, at best, is symbolic of Christian charity and nobility - Saint George was said to have given his money to the poor, and died with admirable dignity - but at worst our flag is synonymous with the barbaric atrocities of the Holy Crusades. Have you ever wondered why England's patron saint is in fact a long dead Roman soldier who never set foot in this nation?

You can blame King Richard I, famously dubbed the Lionheart by propagandising Victorians, who adopted the red cross of St George as his official logo during the Third Crusade in the 1190s. Already, by this point, St George had been dead for 900 years, having been born in what is now Israel and executed in Turkey by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the year 303 AD.

The execution was a particularly bloody one, and St George's martyrdom was undoubtedly brave, but his role as Roman soldier made him venerable to subsequent generations of soldiers, no matter the morality of their cause. King Richard's adoption of the cult of St George went hand in hand with his zealous butchery of innocent civilians in the Holy Land. It seems a rather cruel and insensitive gesture for us to fly the same motif from our flagpoles as Richard did while he waded through Muslim blood.

You may argue that a lot has changed since then. Well, I wish that were true. Our military personnel have thrice been recently deployed in culturally Islamic regions (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya), where the weight of history is felt far more profoundly than we might realise. It didn't help that our ally, President George Bush, made a cringe-inducing reference to a "Crusade" against Al Qaeda, in a speech after September 11 2001. With our troops ensconced in areas of Islamic faith, even international cricket and football matches are rendered politically inflammatory by clueless English fans donning chainmail coats and St George tabards while they chug beer and chant songs.

They see it as just a bit of fun, but this mindless perpetuation of crusading references does nothing to quell genuine anger in parts of the Middle East. If we are genuinely concerned about the safety and security of our armed forces, then it might be wise to avoid dredging up the controversies of our past. Our soldiers are trained to win over hearts and minds - that job is made harder by a tactless reminder of centuries of ideological war between Western Christianity and Eastern Islam. At present, we are the national equivalent of Basil Fawlty, reminding everyone not to mention the war, before goose-stepping through the dining room...

Of course, it is not only foreign Muslims who are wary of the St George's Cross. As a typical bleeding- heart leftie, I get skittish around the national flag because it has been appropriated by right-wing nationalists, such as the English Defence League. Confused by multiculturalism, and lost amidst the jumbo bedspread of Britishness, this political underclass is desperately trying to reassert their ethnic vision of Englishness, and they are using the national flag as a symbol of their cause. So, not only is the St George's Cross redolent of medieval war crimes, it is now synonymous with ideological groups promoting racial intolerance. How has this come about?

For me, England's complicated past is part of the problem. Historians who study this conundrum, like Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, know full well that England's history is defined by contrarian moments of peaceful toleration and violent vitriol towards other races, religions and nationalities. England welcomed the Protestant Huguenots from France, yet treated Catholics like terrorists. We lynch-mobbed the Jews and banished them in the 12th century, only to harmoniously readmit them in the 1650s. In times of panic, we have been all too quick to single out the strangers among us, blaming sinister fifth columnists for our own ills.

Both as an independent England, and as part of a larger Britain, in the past we have cast ourselves in a mythologised role as island fortress, cut off from Europe and dedicated to championing common liberty. We have viewed ourselves as Christian warriors, there to kick evil in the knackers and punch tyranny in the face - Winston Churchill even named his personal aeroplane after St George's dragon-slaying sword, Ascalon. Unlike modern, multi-cultural England, our national pride was fostered through oppositional comparison, pointing at Johnny Foreigners and making disparaging remarks about their lack of hygiene or cowardly nature (hello, France...) This is an oft-tried technique - in order to distinguish yourselves from those around you, you have to highlight and exaggerate your differences, thereby creating their 'Otherness'. Football fans are brilliant at it. Arsenal and Spurs fans share so much in common, yet would have you believe the other is a different species altogether. Today, the right-wing nationalists like the EDL are tapping into this powerful, aggressive psychology to target British Muslims, and they have co-opted our national flag to do so. Not even Oswald Mosley went that far...

As for the EDL, the startling irony is that St George is venerated by many of those foreigners they want to boot out of the country. I was in Bulgaria a few years ago, and was surprised to witness a St George's Day parade in Sofia. It turns out, St George of Lydda is the Patron Saint of seven sovereign countries, several regions, and countless cities. He is nationally revered in places as far away as Brazil, Palestine, Greece, Ethiopia and, obviously, Georgia. While I cheerfully applaud the ironic fact our national saint is in fact a foreigner, I'm not entirely convinced the right-wing nationalists actually realise this. I get the feeling they believe St George was a plumber from Essex, who went around slaying dragons in Epping Forest at the weekends. Alas, the later medieval story of the dragon slaying is set in Libya, and it is highly unlikely that St George of Lydda shopped at Lidl.

You will, by this point, have realised that I am not simply advocating the flag be changed - I would also like to do away with St George's Day. That is not to say I want to banish all mention of the man. While I find it slightly odd that he has been elevated above indigenously English martyr saints, such as St Alphege, St Edmund, Charles I and St Alban, that is the Church's prerogative. If they want to venerate him as England's leading saint, it's fine by me.

My argument, however, is with national civic veneration of St George. We hold a national Bank Holiday in his name on 23 April, which for many years has suffered increasingly meek shrugging of shoulders. As a country, England assigns more credence to Jedward's choice of hair gel than our official Saint's day. Say what you will about the cynical marketing of St Patrick's Day, but at least the Irish give a damn. St George's Day is an arthritic tradition plugged into an iron lung - it is being artificially kept alive by a weary band of romantics, fearful of a faceless, anodyne England. Many of those who take part in the muted celebrations do so out of an obligated sense of tradition, while the rest of us are just grateful for the day off so we can ceremonially wheel out the barbecue and eat undercooked burgers in the April drizzle. As a national hero, St George simply doesn't mean enough to us anymore.

The Americans take a day to celebrate Christopher Columbus and their many Presidents, while this year the French are dedicating all sorts of festivities to the 600th birthday of Joan of Arc, who freed them from English rule. Columbus, Lincoln, Joan of Arc - these were real people, whose actions shaped the development of their respective nations. St George may have existed, but the English can hardly pound the streets of Slough, united in joyous song at the slaying of local dragons by our borrowed knight in shining armour. Not even the The Sunday Sport believes in dragons, these days...

Personally, I am not a great advocate of overt patriotism, because it does tend to lurch towards jingoism in times of uncertainty - all that flag-waving has a propensity to suddenly become feral xenophobia. It is hard not to recall the bizarre ostracism of French fries in America, when the invasion of Iraq failed to win Gallic approval. When Britain did the same to German products in WW1 (including rebranding the royal family as The Windsors), at least we were actually at war with them. However, it seems clear to me that England does need a hero, of sorts, and a national day of unity is a healthy notion if it can be made truly inclusive for all our citizens. St George has clearly lost his razzamatazz, and I think that may be because England is not once what it was.

As a society, we have matured in our self-perception. St George is a martial saint, whose name was once proclaimed by heroic medieval kings before the commencement of battles. God was an Englishman, they opined, and St George would lead the charge. But we have shrugged off our jingoistic faith in the almighty's love for Albion, and our sense of military romance has long since evaporated. The glory days of Waterloo, Trafalgar, and Agincourt have lost their patriotic patina in these pan-European times. Today, war is cruel - robbing soldiers of life and limb as they patrol dusty roads, destined only to see fleeting glimpses of their enemy before a bomb tears off their legs. There are no thin red lines or valiant sieges anymore. Our soldiers are esteemed professionals, and their heroism is undoubted, but England has lost its taste for war. The Falklands was the last hurrah - now, we soberly honour the fallen far more than we boisterously rejoice in military victory.

For this reason, I suspect the time for soldier saints is over. However, there are many great other English men and women in the tea-drinking, warm-beer pantheon that could replace St George. In my opinion, there is one who stands tall above the rest. St George's Day shares its date with the death (and possible birth) of the world's finest dramatist, William Shakespeare. If ever there were a man who positively represented England, then surely it is the bard? He came from common stock, rose to acclaim through talent and graft, gifted our language with 1700 new words, and summarised the human condition in all its glorious and absurd facets. In his writings, there are traits recognisable to every one of us, no matter our age, race, gender, religion or politics. He is known and admired around the world, and he is quintessentially and unquestionably English.

I don't know about you, but I'll be celebrating Shakespeare Day on 23 April... unless you really have built a funeral pyre for me.

 

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