Cry: God for Harry! England and Saint Who?

Another St George's Day, and how moved are you by that? Does the idea of a defiant beef-on-the-bone dinner, with Elgar soaring and crashing in the background, seem like a fitting way to mark the national day? Or perhaps a splash of red-and-white face-painting, a la Euro '96? For the less flamboyantly inclined, a red rose buttonhole is also an option. Or maybe, in fact almost definitely maybe, you will do nothing at all about it.

For all the attempts to arouse feelings of concerted pride in the breasts of Englishmen and women, most of Albion remains stubbornly unmoved by the feast The only truly enthusiastic groups appear to be right-wing newspaper columnists, doggedly prophesying a backlash to Scottish devolution, and publicans seeking an excuse to shift some more real ale.

Perhaps the problem lies with St George, a patron saint who has never made the grade. For a start, he is a mythologically vague figure even by the loose accuracy standards of hagiography. The English historian Gibbon identified him erroneously as George of Cappadocia. Hence the rumour that he was really Turkish. Father Andrew Burnham, a member of the Anglican committee which seeks to raise the profile of St George's Day, has joked that the English patron saint is really "a gentleman from Asia Minor".

This George was a fourth-century quartermaster-general with an eye for the main chance, who became Bishop of Alexandria, had a reputation for living high on the hog at the taxpayers' expense, and was torn to pieces by ungrateful members of his diocese in AD360.

But the St George adopted by the English church owes less to this engaging rogue than to a third-century martyr in Palestine, commemorated in the cults of the Greeks and the Coptic and Syrian Churches and still held in great reverence by the Orthodox Church of the East. A favoured tribune under the Emperor Diocletian, he was slain, the legend has it, on the Emperor's personal orders after converting to Christianity, as a warning to others who might be similarly tempted.

A council of the 14th-century English Church elected him national saint in the hope that his militancy would inspire Crusaders. The slaying of the dragon was probably an allegorical representation of the triumph of Christianity over its foes.

Not having a patron saint with roots on one's home territory is a distinct drawback in sustaining national identity with a saint. St David has his monastery. St Patrick was part-Roman, a conqueror, rather than a son of Ireland - a fact compensated for by the seductive myth that he charmed snakes out of Ireland with his music.

Poor St George is far less firmly anchored in the national imagination. An acquaintance who teaches junior schoolchildren reports that an essay she sets at this time of year entitled "Who was St George?" often produces the answer: "He was King George, the Queen's father."

The lack of public engagement in St George's Day has other cultural explanations. Events have conspired over centuries to make us less attached to national festivities. After the Reformation, the Church of England sought to eclipse the appeal of Catholic saints with its own canon of Protestant martyrs, and largely succeeded. Saints' days, with their Roman Catholic connotations, were struck from the secular calendar. The old English rituals of May Day and morris dancing were cut back during the Civil War. As Britain rose, a military and naval power to command an Empire, it took some pride in distancing itself from excitable Continental nationalisms. The radical leaders of the failed 1848 revolutions who streamed to London found the English to be wholly lacking in the romantic nationalist sentiment that was their natural mode of discourse. The throb of commerce, the materialism of middle-class Victorians and the emphasis on industrial prowess seemed to them to show a temperament lacking in passionate belief in one's country as much more than a delivery system for power and prosperity.The German poet Heinrich Heine bemoaned "the mere seriousness of everything, the colossal uniformity, the machine-like movement". HG Wells looked at the Bavarians in their Lederhosen and professed himself relieved that the English had no national dress.

The Victorians were patriotic about the Empire, but were not given to the kind of poetic extravagance about identity that marked out Italian, French and German nationalism in the 19th century. The attempt to revive a kind of nationalism of the soul, as well as of the map, is a post-First World War phenomenon. Indeed, it could be argued that mystical English nationalism grew as Imperial might decreased. In recent times its chief exponent, Enoch Powell, was aware that he played on the power of inexact but evocative archaic sentiments when he pitched his stirring speech to the Royal Society of St George in April 1922 in the language of pagan reverence:

"Tell us what it is that holds us together; show us the clue that leads through a thousand years; whisper to us the secret of this charmed life of England, that we in our time may know how to hold it fast." The speech is a brilliant example of the power of irrationalism. On certain Tory souls, this rhetoric has the effect of an emotional drug. For those who pine today for an English identity free of the encumbrances of Britishness, it offers a return to a pure national continuum.

Powell is the great poet of political Englishness. But his emphasis of continuity and instinct, and his tendency to downplay the benefits of heterogeneity, make him a rallying-point for those whose definitions of Englishness are racially exclusive, or seek to suppress the impact of other cultures on English sensibilities: "The unbroken life of the English nation over a thousand years and more is unique in history," writes Powell, "the product of a specific set of circumstances like those which in biology are supposed to start by chance a new line of evolution."

Or maybe not. Like all unmoderated nationalisms, Powell's teeters on the brink of absurdity. It is too close to self-parody to be widely shared. The robust English yeoman of Powell's imagining is quite likely to respond "Come off it" to these outpourings. But his intellectual legacy remains strong. We glimpse it, albeit in far cruder form, in the sales manager Alan Ford, who sent the BBC into a tizzy with his forthright Counterblast, complaining that the only identity not allowed free rein within the United Kingdom was that of the white Anglo-Saxon.

"I want my country back and that is the bottom line," says Mr Ford. He thinks that people cannot be black and English, or Indian and English at the same time, but is prepared to make an exception for Jews, "as my wife's partly it and they've suffered enough already".

The aggrieved tone of those who wish to promote an English identity free of ungrateful Scots or the treacherous Europeans is its least edifying side. "We are becoming an un-people, fit only to play the villains in Hollywood movies," moaned a Sun leader on St George's Day last year. The stiff upper lip threatens to give way to the blubbering howl of angry resentment. The most depressing aspect of this populist variant of nationalism is that it is wholly negative. It sets out to unite people, not in common understanding, but in resentment. Merrie England this is not.

One of Mr Ford's crusades, besides the lack of teaching about the Empire and the proliferation of Irish, Scots and ethnic minority newsreaders, is that the police in Essex refused to grant a licence extension to a pub to celebrate St George's Day, whereas it allowed an hour's extra drinking for St Patrick's Day. Here he really has touched a nerve. Reports of similar perfidies have proliferated in the year and a half since the devolution votes. To judge by the volume of letters on this matter to The Sun, The Times and The Daily Telegraph, there is no surer way to an Englishman's ire than by failing to grant his local a licence.

In the absence of any other great English cause to cling to, the right to drink is taken seriously. One national continuum Powell fastidiously does not mention in his paean is that the English have always been great drinkers and - not unconnected - great fighters, too. So it is unsurprising that the one place you might find St George's Day impinging on your consciousness is down the pub tonight, as more landlords recognise the potential of the national day as an Olde English Bacchanal.

But the saint himself is unlikely to provide a compelling focus of English qualities. Perhaps it is time to think the unthinkable and simply change our patron saint. I would plead for the Venerable Bede, the gentle, Northern scholar and father of fetching Bible design - perfect for creative New Britain. St Francis would appeal to both the Green and the anti-war lobbies, and his mystical consort St Clare might appeal to New Age feminists. St Augustine converted Britain to a new faith and so would surely get the empathy vote from Tony Blair.

But perhaps we should reflect a more secular society with a non-religious choice. The front-runner must surely be Shakespeare, the sublime and accessible poet of the English language, and still one of our best exports. Since Shakespeare in Love, even brazen Hollywood venerates him. As he died on St George's Day, we wouldn't even have to move the feast.

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