What about the military heroes, Mr Blunkett?

Without Wellington and Churchill, Europe would not have had such long periods of calm civilisation

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David Blunkett returned to public life the other day with a speech on an unexpected topic. Speaking at the Institute of Public Policy Research, he chose as his subject English nationalism. Now, some years ago, a speech by a socialist on this subject could only have had one underlying theme; the necessity of strangling Englishness at birth.

David Blunkett returned to public life the other day with a speech on an unexpected topic. Speaking at the Institute of Public Policy Research, he chose as his subject English nationalism. Now, some years ago, a speech by a socialist on this subject could only have had one underlying theme; the necessity of strangling Englishness at birth.

Such speeches, from such a "bien pensant" source, would have surely consisted of a series of apologies. Not any more. Mr Blunkett, looking forward to St George's Day, made the point that most nations celebrate their national days unselfconsciously, and generally. The other countries of these islands have St Patrick's Day, St Andrew's Day and St David's Day, and no one thinks it at all surprising that they are celebrated across society.

In England, St George's Day is now marked much more widely than it used to be: the sight of red roses in buttonholes, recently unheard of, is now a common one. All the same, the idea of, say, a St George's Day parade remains an unthinkable one; and, moreover, it seems very odd indeed that a former Cabinet minister should choose this inevitably embarrassing topic for his return to public debate.

Quite how embarrassing it is was apparent from a list of reasons to be proud of one's Englishness which Mr Blunkett added. One of them, indeed, is an absolutely incredible one for Blunkett to cite. If, for the obvious reason of his blindness, he could not mention great English painters, such as Hogarth, Gainsborough and Stubbs, it seems very odd that one of his reasons was cited as "the skyline of Sheffield". Well, my parents live in Sheffield, and I quite agree; it is, indeed, a wonderfully dramatic skyline set against what must once have been wild hills and moors. But how does Mr Blunkett know that?

Such lists of Englishness are almost always rather embarrassing; I'm relieved that I can no longer remember anything of the awful list John Major came up with, apart from the ridiculous line he borrowed from Orwell, about "old maids cycling to Holy Communion in the morning mists". Mr Blunkett's reasons tried a little harder; a list of great English composers; English poetry, which was doing all right until it got to Wendy Cope, who is not, really, the heir of Milton; and the founders of all those political and cultural freedoms, from Magna Carta to the National Trust, which this government would do away with if we stopped paying attention.

Mr Blunkett's is a personal list, so it doesn't have to include everything - it's not his fault if he doesn't like Spenser, Pope, Wordsworth and Tennyson, after all - though it's odd of him not to remember the Tolpuddle Martyrs. All the same, there are a couple of glaring omissions of entire categories, which suggest something of the embarrassment of drawing up such surveys. First, I think it's completely extraordinary only to praise English poets, and not novelists. The whole world knows Jane Austen, the Bröntes and Dickens. Perhaps it wasn't an oversight; Dickens, generally, seems often to be of the opinion that the disabled are quite incredibly funny, and dwarves and amputees in his novels are treated with appalling levity. There is something heartless about the great English novels which, I can well see and understand, might not be at all to Mr Blunkett's taste.

But the omission which tells us a great deal about the new Englishness is that Mr Blunkett could think of no military hero, no great politician, no imperialist and, really, no leader that he could recommend for our admiration. Is this not absolutely extraordinary? Given the military and political distinction of England, are we to feel self-conscious about expressing admiration for Nelson, Queen Elizabeth I, or Disraeli? What Churchill did in the summer of 1940 really is something to be proud of.

One sees Mr Blunkett's point, in a way. English nationalism doesn't have to be raucously jingoistic, or based on a history of military successes. We can all agree that one of the chief reasons to be proud of our country is its unexampled history of creativity, thought and science - something else Blunkett omits. A patriotism that focused on William Blake would be less divisive than one that celebrated Cecil Rhodes, say. And the truly important history of politics in this country rests as much with the dissidents, such as the Chartists, which Blunkett celebrates, as with the great generals he ignores.

And yet the triumphant history of empire and of military engagement has formed us, and we ought to be confident about celebrating that aspect of our identity, too. Without the Empire, we would not have such strong ties to the outside world; without Wellington and Churchill, Europe would not have had such extended periods of calm civilisation.

I quite agree that there are reasons to feel proud of our nationality that we take for granted, because they don't seem like nationalist causes; Shakespeare belongs to the world, as the English language does. But those older, more tub-thumping causes were not entirely wrong, either. For me, the most fascinating English person who ever lived was Queen Victoria; and, irresponsible as it may seem, I would rather celebrate her through my Englishness than any number of striking match-girls.

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