It's not racism that makes me feel uncomfortable celebrating St George's Day

England is a great place to be, but unlike our neighbours we have enjoyed centuries of independence

Max Benwell
Friday 25 April 2014 15:02
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Nationalism - from the separatists in Scotland to the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, everyone seems to be at it. But what about England? Here, public displays of affection towards our mother country only ever crop up around football matches and diamond jubilees.

Today David Cameron marked St George's day with a speech reminiscent of Hugh Grant's patriotic flourish at the end of Love Actually. According to the PM, it's great to be English because Newcastle Brown Ale is big in America, everyone cheers for Arsenal in China, and South Koreans love a bit of Downton Abbey. Oh, and don't forget The Beatles.

However, despite all its crowning glories, Cameron also said that St George's day has been overlooked for too long. Whatever your politics may be, it's hard to disagree with him.

The Irish all take to the streets to celebrate St Patrick's day, yet in England we don't even get the day off work. Looking at the programme of events for today, it seems like the best the English can do is organise an asparagus run in Worcestershire.

Most of us don't even know when St George's day is. In 2012, a survey by the think tank British Future (BF) found that only 40 per cent of English people placed it on April 23.

According to BF, the English are "too nervous" to celebrate their patron saint, as they think that flying their flag could come across as racist.

Unsurprisingly, the St George's cross has always been the symbol of choice for far-right English nationalists. My guess would be because it's the national flag.

In the last several years, however, the cross has become increasingly more associated with far-right groups such as the EDL. It's not surprising - whenever you see a EDL march on TV it's hard to even spot a bald head against the sea of white and red.

And in a society where appearances are everything, why would anyone want to risk the association? Although it's nothing to do with the flag itself - if the EDL started waving copies of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, I'd probably think twice before getting out my copy in public.

But waving a flag doesn't make you a racist, just like shaving your head doesn't make you Edward Norton in American History X. What makes you racist is when you say or do something racist.

My reluctance towards displays of national pride goes beyond today's bigots. I can understand why the Irish go for it on St Patrick's Day, and the Scots get a bank holiday for St Andrew's.

But Ireland only saw some form of independence in 1922, whereas the Scots are still fighting for theirs. In comparison, England has been free to do as it pleases for centuries, and often at a heavy cost to its neighbours (or as it used to call them, "subjects").

So when it comes to celebrating St George's Day, I don't think I'll ever be waving the flag and blasting out the National Anthem. But not because I don't enjoy being English, or hate The Beatles. I just don't think we have as much reason to shout.

Correction: This article has been amended, as it originally stated that Ireland became independent in 1937. In fact, this was when the current constitution was introduced; the country became a republic in 1922.

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